Nithe i dtosach suíonna (Atógáil) - Commencement Matters (Resumed)

Free Travel Scheme

I thank the Minister of State for taking this matter, which deals with a very important point. It is not her area but I ask her to ensure my concerns over the need for clarification will be passed on to the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty. I was approached by a free travel pass holder in the past couple of weeks who was pre-booking a seat on the Dublin to Castlebar train. In order to do so, the individual in question had to pay €21, the price of a one-way ticket. It was not free travel so I want to know if something has changed in the free travel scheme. The latest figures I can get, which are for 2017, show that €77 million was given to various companies by the Government for the scheme. This is serious discrimination because it is not free travel when one has to pay the full price of a ticket. People who have travel passes are either elderly or have a disability and they are the people who most need a seat when travelling. I ask for clarification. If there has been a change, it needs to be reviewed forthwith.

I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty.

As Senators will be aware, the free-travel scheme is available for all people aged over 66 years, carers and people in receipt of certain disability-type payments. Currently, 944,000 customers are in receipt of the scheme, with an annual allocation of €95 million, and it covers CIÉ transport, Luas and some 80 private operators.

The scheme was introduced to promote social inclusion and prevent the isolation of elderly and disabled people by taking advantage of free space on public transport services. As previously stated, it permits free travel on services provided by operators which accept the pass; it does not guarantee a seat on every service. It is at the discretion of companies participating in the free travel scheme if they wish to offer seat-reservation services to their customers on certain services. There is no requirement on Irish Rail or any other participating transport provider to provide the facility to free travel pass holders, nor to any other customer.

The Department has been informed Irish Rail provides an option to a range of ticket holders, including free travel pass holders, to book a seat-only reservation to ensure a seat on heavily loaded Irish Rail services. Customers with a free travel pass who wish to reserve seats can avail of the offer by logging on to the Irish Rail website and entering their travel requirements. I understand that Irish Rail has set the cost for booking a seat from €2.50 per person per leg of journey where such a facility is available. Wheelchair users who wish to reserve a seat on Irish Rail services can do so by emailing or telephoning Irish Rail at no charge. The provision of such a facility as pre-booking is outside the remit of the Department. Any queries about the advance booking of seats on public transport services and the cost of such bookings should be addressed to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport.

The information the Minister of State has been given is that the minimum cost of booking a seat is €2.50, but I was given an example of a person who had to pay the full fare of €20.99, or the price of a one-way ticket. That is not free travel. Other problems were raised, such as the screens often not showing which seats have been pre-booked. The issue for the Department is whether the full price must be paid by a free travel pass holder, or whether it means that travel is no longer free in this case. I would like that to be clarified and would appreciate if the Minister of State would seek the answer from the Minister. I, too, will contact her on the matter.

I will raise the matter again with the Minister but we should also raise it with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. While I will undertake to do so, I am sure the Senator will do the same.

Homelessness Strategy

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, and thank him for appearing in the House, although I acknowledge he is not the Minister of State with responsibility for the matter. I ask that the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government consider the establishment of a statutory independent inspectorate for emergency housing accommodation. That is not something unique or special I have thought up. I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government. Yesterday morning, representatives of Focus Ireland, the Mercy Law Resource Centre, the National Children's Alliance and the Ombudsman for Children addressed us. Central to all their presentations was the desire and need for statutory legislation to provide for an independent inspectorate for what we call emergency accommodation or family hubs. It is reasonable and fair.

I will not reiterate everything stated at the meeting because it has been published on the Oireachtas website. We heard harrowing personal stories of families and children. The Minister of State will be aware that Dr. Niall Muldoon is the Ombudsman for Children. He has two principal statutory functions, namely, to promote the rights and welfare of those under 18 years of age and to examine and investigate complaints made by or on behalf of children about the administration or actions of public bodies, schools and voluntary organisations in respect of the adverse effect there may be on children. In his statement to the committee, he strongly argued for a statutory independent review and inspectorate for family hubs and emergency accommodation. I have always taken a keen interest in the rights and welfare of children and their experiences interfacing with homelessness agencies, and I will continue to do so. It is right, proper and reasonable for the State to have an independent inspectorate to administer such matters.

The No Place Like Home document, drafted by the ombudsman, gives an account of children's personal experiences through graphics, art, drawings and script. The other witnesses before the committee echoed the need for some sort of independent inspectorate, because there are major issues. I would like to hear the Government's proposals. Is it the intention to give the matter serious consideration? As I said, the agencies I outlined, all of which are involved in the welfare and protection of children, and especially the Ombudsman for Children, have made the call. I would like the Government to give serious consideration to the proposal and to indicate a timeframe to give it the necessary legal and statutory effect.

I apologise for the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, on whose behalf I am taking the question. The Minister and his Department consider all the issues raised in the Seanad.

Statutory responsibility for the provision of accommodation and related services for homeless households rests with individual housing authorities. The responsibility of housing authorities includes that of ensuring that contracted services are delivered in a professional manner, in line with any service level agreement in place. Supporting individuals and families experiencing homelessness is a priority for the Government. To promote high standards of service delivery, the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, DRHE, has developed a national quality standards framework on behalf of the Department to ensure a more consistent approach in how local authorities and service providers respond to the needs of those experiencing homelessness, about which the Senator asked. The objective of the framework is to ensure that services for people experiencing hornlessness are well organised, co-ordinated, integrated and focused on moving people out of homelessness, as quickly as possible, into long-term sustainable housing, which we all want. This will be done by promoting safe and effective service provision to households experiencing homelessness, supporting the objectives of the national homelessness policy and establishing consistency in how households experiencing homelessness are responded to in different regions and models of service delivery, which addresses another of the Senator's points. The framework was implemented on a phased basis in Dublin, with site visits commencing in February this year. The experience gained from the recent completion of the roll-out in Dublin and the commencement of site visits has allowed the DRHE to evaluate how the framework should be implemented nationally and to advise the Department accordingly. Last month, the Department wrote to all local authorities to instruct them on the process for the implementation of the framework on a nationwide basis over 12 months, commencing on 1 July 2019. Upon completion of the implementation phase, local authorities will commence site visits to ensure compliance with the framework.

Management of these site visits will be a matter for each of the local authorities. The implementation of the national quality standards framework will ensure the State provides safe and effective services to households experiencing homelessness. It will ensure that services are delivered consistently across all regions of the State, with a focus on ensuring that households experiencing homelessness are enabled to access and sustain housing with appropriate levels of support. The implementation of the framework will also promote stronger governance and monitoring of third party delivery through the integration of the standards contained in the framework. While the Department has no plans at present to introduce an alternative inspection regime the implementation of the framework will be kept under ongoing review by the Department.

I thank the Minister of State for the report but it is exceptionally disappointing. The Minister of State confirmed to me that the Government has no intention of bringing in an independent inspector to monitor vulnerable children and their welfare in these State hubs. I have in my hand the written submission of Dr. Niall Muldoon, the Ombudsman for Children, from yesterday's committee meeting in which he clearly sets out the rationale and the reasoning for it. Dr. Muldoon was very complimentary of the Minister and said he has an ongoing, positive working relationship with him and that he plans to meet him in the next few weeks. It is, however, disappointing that we are here today despite Focus Ireland, the Mercy Law Resource Centre, the National Children's Alliance and now Dr. Niall Muldoon, the Ombudsman for Children, all calling specifically for an independent inspectorate of State run, administered, backed and supported hubs. One has to ask why the Minister is running away from an independent inspectorate. I have not even discussed direct and indirect provision. I am only referring to hubs the Government put in place as a substitute to ending the scandal of housing people in bed and breakfast accommodation, which continues despite it being two years ago since-----

I will make the point. Hang on, I have a few minutes.

The Senator is allowed a few minutes for a rebuttal.

I am making the point that it is disappointing. Clearly, the Minister of State does not have the time to respond and I do not want to use his time to respond because-----

I am afraid Senator Boyhan is out of time now.

Okay. That is grand.

I did not reject anything. I did not-----

This report says it.

The Senator should let me finish. I am not a Minister in the Department-----

I will hold this report up.

I ask that Senator Boyhan allows the Minister of State to answer.

There is no point in the Senator raising a point if he is not going to listen to the response.

Senator Boyhan said Dr. Muldoon will be meeting the Minister. It is appropriate that the Minister consider proposals put forward at an Oireachtas committee. I am not a Minister in the Department so it is not appropriate for me to announce something the Minister probably has not had sight of, in the context of the committee proceedings yesterday. Considering what Senator Boyhan already said in regard to how Dr. Muldoon feels about the Minister, and the Minister's dealings in this regard, it would be appropriate to listen to what the Minister with responsibility has to say, rather than getting a bit heated here today.

At the outset I apologised for the Minister's unavailability but if the Senator communicates directly with him on what was said at the committee yesterday - Dr. Muldoon will do that also - then I am sure it will be considered. The Senator has said that I have in some way rubbished the suggestion but I have not. I am acting on behalf of the Minister from a different Department and it should be taken in that context.

I take on board-----

I will be brief. I take on board what the Minister of State said-----

The Senator knows how the system works here-----

I am only reading his script.

I ask that Senator Boyhan resume his seat, please.