Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Family Support Services

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Zappone. I call Senator Pádraig Mac Lochlainn.

Gabhaim buíochas leis An Leas-Chathaoirleach.

ParentStop in Donegal, an organisation that has operated since 2007 but evolved from a meeting in 2005, is an organic community-led charity. It is a tremendous organisation. In the most recent year, it has supported over 400 families across Donegal. Most of those families are self-referred by word-of-mouth. It is a safe space for parents who are struggling and parents who are separated but still have responsibilities to be parents to their children. A range of professionals, including judges, teachers, social workers, counsellors and healthcare professionals, refer people to this service. I know the Minister is passionate about this kind of community-led approach. That is why I appeal to her today. I appreciate that Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, has corresponded with my colleague, Councillor Albert Doherty, and it has made it clear that it has tried to increase the supports within limited resources. Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, tried its best to support ParentStop, but what is missing here is a multi-agency or a cross-departmental approach. Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures is the framework to do this.

The board of ParentStop has put together a really powerful statement with testimonies from families who have used the service. It is hugely respected across the spectrum in Donegal. It is passionate, but unfortunately it has had to put its team of workers on protective notice every year because of insecure funding from different sources. It is never multi-annual or guaranteed for a defined period. ParentStop is always vulnerable and always under threat. These are really passionate and committed people, but they cannot be financially reckless. This is a charity and it has responsibilities.

I understand the Minister has made a commitment but I urge her to meet with the board of ParentStop. She will be hugely impressed by them as they are her kind of people in terms of being community-led, empowering communities, professional and diligent. I also call for a cross-departmental approach.

In fairness, the Ministers for Justice and Equality, Education and Skills, and Health, together with senior officials in those Departments, could work with the Minister's officials to share the financial burden. A proposal has been submitted by the board of ParentStop, which refers to a pilot project in Donegal, based on the learning of ParentStop, which will hopefully result in the continuation of the work of this organisation on a three-year, multi-agency, cross-departmental basis. This has been submitted to the Minister for Education and Skills. This is a tremendous initiative, which has been in place for almost 13 years now. Some 400 families have been supported this year and I have heard nothing but good reports back. It is a very private, safe and healing place for families to be good parents and to look after their children. I appeal to the Minister to meet the board of ParentStop and try to work towards a solution on a cross-departmental basis to try and get this organisation back on the road again.

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach. It is wonderful to be back in the beautiful Seanad Chamber.

The Minister is welcome from the Lower House.

I congratulate all the great craftsmen and craftswomen as it is absolutely stunning.

I thank the Senator, my friend and former colleague, for the opportunity to discuss the planned closure of ParentStop in Donegal. ParentStop is one of many voluntary and community organisations across the country, funded by Tusla and other State agencies, which provide valuable supports to parents and children. Over the past 15 years, as the Senator outlined, ParentStop has supported families in Donegal in a complex range of situations and across the continuum of care.

Services offered by the organisation include one-to-one sessions for families with complex needs, intensive supports for children and brief intervention supports for children and families. ParentStop has assisted families dealing with range of issues, including separation, addiction, financial worries, online safety, obesity, mental health concerns, bullying, stress, and peer pressure. The contribution of ParentStop to supporting parents and their children in Donegal over the past 15 years has been immense. Thousands of families have benefitted from the services provided by the organisation and the growth in the number of families availing of its services over the past number of years reflects how much its services are valued by families themselves and people working closely with children and families in Donegal.

As one of ParentStop's core funders, Tusla has been aware of the organisation's financial difficulties, particularly those arising from the decision of the north-west regional drug and alcohol task force to withdraw funding in 2018. Under Part 8 of the Child and Family Agency Act 2013, Tusla funds a range of organisations that provide services to vulnerable children and families, including those providing parenting supports. Tusla must assign its resources to the areas which it perceives to be in greatest need, ensuring the best outcomes for children and families. The agency seeks to fund those services in the most beneficial, effective, efficient, proportionate and sustainable manner to improve the outcomes for vulnerable children and their families. Recognising the value of the supports provided by ParentStop to parents and families in Donegal, Tusla has taken a number of steps in recent years to assist the organisation reach a sustainable financial position. Between 2016 and 2019, annual funding provided by Tusla to ParentStop increased from €31,000 to €68,625. In 2018, Tusla provided an additional €7,000 to ParentStop to address its recurring annual deficit. The agency provided a further exceptional annual increase of €24,000 to ParentStop in 2018 following withdrawal of funding by the north-west regional drug and alcohol task force. In 2019, the agency provided further once-off funding of €18,640 to assist the organisation to invest time and resources to develop a sustainable funding model.

Unfortunately, despite the support in recent years, ParentStop has decided that it cannot continue to operate within the funding allocations available from its core funders. Tusla and the HSE have been working together in recent weeks to develop a joint proposal for the continuation of the organisation in Donegal. This includes a commitment by all parties Tusla, HSE primary care and HSE health promotion and improvement that funding for ParentStop would be maintained at the existing level for 2020, together with a review of services with a view to developing a strategic plan for the organisation's future, and an exploration of potential additional funding streams.

Tusla will continue this engagement with the HSE to see if the closure of ParentStop can be prevented. I will also be meeting Tusla and ParentStop later this month to discuss the matter.

I welcome the confirmation that the Minister is working with the HSE to find a funding solution and that she is going to meet the board of ParentStop later this month. I acknowledge that Tusla and the Department have tried their best to sustain the services but I feel other agencies and Departments have failed ParentStop.

Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures is a very good framework. ParentStop is an example where, clearly, its responsibilities in working with over 400 families across Donegal, from one end of the county to the other, are cross-departmental and cover all spectrums, particularly in regard to education, health and the Minister's own area of responsibility, namely, children and youth affairs. The problem has been that other agencies and Departments have not stepped up, despite the forbearance of the Minister, the Department and Tusla, and they have not matched the funding. My concern is that the Minister's statement refers to maintaining the existing level of funding which, at €68,000, would not be enough for this organisation in 2020. I have corresponded with the HSE in Donegal and asked whether it can put some money on the table to make it sustainable in 2020. Does the Minister agree we need more money from the HSE on the table, with the funding from the Department, to give ParentStop a budget it can work with and then, hopefully, build the service?

It would be unimaginable to lose this service. We are talking about hundreds of families and about the social fabric of society. These families have given testimonies that they are in a very bad place and, through the help and support provided, these adults and, more importantly, these children are getting the environments they need, which is better for all of society. This is one we have to win. I appreciate the statement, which is positive and encouraging, but I would like to see more on the table from the HSE.

I thank the Senator. I know a little about the centre and I answered a question on this in the Dáil recently. As I said in my statement, I have been very impressed by its work and that has been represented, at least initially, by the stepping up to the plate, not only in terms of what Tusla has contributed over the last couple of years, but also the willingness to bring together the HSE and the different forums that are currently ongoing. That is certainly a demonstration of our desire to ensure ParentStop sustains itself. I understand how important this is, I really do, and the Senator speaks eloquently about what it has done for the community, the children and the families.

The second point is that what is going on now is the putting together of plans for a sustainable funding model. As the Senator would appreciate, every community and voluntary organisation is responsible to do that for itself. However, because of the work ParentStop has done and the particular issues it is faced with now, Tusla and the HSE are stepping in to try to support it, and they are very happy to do so.

I have spoken with the Minister, Deputy McHugh, in regard to the pilot project which the Deputy referenced. I do not know what the figures are and I would have to check before I commit, but I will certainly go to the HSE on this matter. However, we are aware of the challenge that is facing the organisation and the great contribution it has made. We are in planning mode. I look forward to meeting the representatives of ParentStop towards the end of the month. I hope that, ultimately, this will put them on the sustainable path that it sounds as if they deserve.

Insurance Coverage

I thank the Minister of State for being available for this debate. The House is well aware the traders in Douglas Village Shopping Centre have had a tumultuous time over recent years. There was a flood and then a fire that affected more than 30 independent traders in Douglas Village Shopping Centre.

I think I visited with Senator Buttimer.

I think the Leas-Chathaoirleach did. Engagement with the insurance companies has been complex and requires a solution from the point of view that not all of them have paid out. As the Minister of State knows quite well, the majority of the people have coverage to protect them from unexpected events. This fire was an unexpected event. To say the least, there has been obfuscation, foot dragging and a less than complete outcome in terms of payment to the traders. It has been piecemeal and laborious. This is a very complex matter because the shopping centre owner is dealing with his issues and the individual traders are dealing with theirs. There is also the issue of the insurance companies telling the traders many different things. The important point is there is a need for the insurance companies to pay out to the individual traders under the business interruption charge so if a business is closed for a period of time a mechanism is available. Cork City Council has waived the fees and rates for those businesses that have shut down. The business interruption charge is about the traders being able to have that money paid out to them through their insurance.

Something that has been very vexing for the traders is that the insurance companies are telling them to go to the owner of the shopping centre to get a letter of comfort stating it will open on, for example, 1 July 2020, which is just a date I have picked. As we all know, the owner of the shopping centre cannot give an exact date because there is a myriad issues. It is just in the past week and a half that we have seen the last remaining cars removed from the roof. This has been kicked down the road. There is a sense that everyone is waiting for someone else to make the first move. I hope that through his good offices the Minister of State will be able to call in the insurance industry to ask it to ensure these traders, who were vulnerable before the fire and are even more vulnerable now, are able to find a solution to their issue. In fairness, some of them received an initial down payment of 10%, 8% or 15% but payments need to be made and we need to give certainty to the traders.

I thank the Senator for providing me with an opportunity to discuss this issue. I extend my sympathy to all those affected by the fire and the fact the shopping centre remains closed. However, it is a relief that nobody was injured during the fire. Of course, it is less than ideal to have a shopping centre such as Douglas Village Shopping Centre closed for an indefinite period of time, particularly for businesses and employees coming up to the Christmas season.

I understand there are a number of issues relevant to the centre remaining closed, including establishing the cause of the fire, the structural soundness of the building itself and other matters. While there are active insurance claims involved, it is clear there are other issues that may need to be resolved.

The Senator will appreciate that the Minister for Finance and I are not responsible for issues arising in individual cases. Rather, we are responsible for the legal framework for insurance. That said, a public interest arises in this situation and I am happy to speak to Insurance Ireland and seek further information about the matter. However, some of the insurers in question might not be members of Insurance Ireland.

I rarely get involved in individual claims, but I am sufficiently satisfied to try to help on this occasion. I am not certain what level of help that will be, but I will speak to Insurance Ireland and try to reach a position that will expedite the matter.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. This is a matter of public interest and needs to be resolved. I welcome the Minister of State's commitment to speak to Insurance Ireland. This is a question of ensuring that the small to medium-sized shopkeeper or business owner is looked after. I look forward to the engagement of the Minister of State and Insurance Ireland in what is a matter of public interest. The Leas-Chathaoirleach saw the aftermath of the devastation in Douglas.

In that light, I welcome Cork City Council's parking initiative around Douglas for the Christmas season.

The matter I have raised is of extreme public importance. I thank the Minister of State for his commitment.

Insurance exists to put people back into the positions they were in before the event. I have been stringent with insurance companies. People have heard me say that insurance companies sometimes do not treat their clients properly and do not move quickly enough. While it is important that we not get caught underestimating the complexity of this individual matter, it is important that companies act in the interests of their clients, who are their customers, as quickly as possible to try to ensure that people can get back to trading and making a living, and their employees can get back in situ. I am open to trying to do what I can. I am not certain how much or little that will be, but I am here to help if possible.

Disability Support Services Provision

The Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, is on time as ever. He is welcome.

Good afternoon. This important issue involves several Departments, but it should most be heard by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, which I hope will resolve it using joined-up thinking.

In my county of Carlow, a number of services provide day and residential supports for those living with disabilities. Many offer supports to people in local authority or private homes who need day services. All of those using day services in some way qualify for free travel, but they cannot access it. If they lived in Dublin, Galway, Cork or Limerick there would be no problem. In rural Carlow, however, they fall victim to the postcode disadvantage. The free travel scheme, which was introduced by the former Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, in 1967, has been a lifeline for many in urban areas but is increasingly not of benefit to those in rural Ireland who must travel just to avail of it, meaning it is not free at all. There is no public transport link around County Carlow. There are public bus and train services to major cities, but there is nothing internal. A new public scheme has not even been put out to tender yet, and it may well be 2021 before there is any movement in that regard.

In the meantime, and due to the limited amount of residential places available, individuals are being allocated local authority homes via social housing agencies in partnership with service providers and the HSE on the understanding that they can receive day care services. Despite this, no provision has been made to get them to those services. Many living in their own homes or supported living residential settings require support to travel to the services on a daily basis.

All of the main organisations in the Carlow area delivering day services provide limited transport to families from within existing resources, which is an ongoing struggle for them and all agree it is not sustainable and fails to meet the needs of all of the individuals who require transport support. While these providers sometimes receive partial funding from the HSE, it is not enough and they have to stretch budgets elsewhere in to provide dignity and services to these very vulnerable people.

All of the service providers in the Carlow area that offer services to people with disabilities strive to do so in line with the national policy, New Directions, so that a standardised, person-centred, quality approach to service provision to individuals with disabilities can be delivered throughout the county. Access to transport to day services is an ongoing challenge for service users, parents and service providers and is far from a standardised and appropriate response to individual needs.

In the absence of a national policy to support individuals to travel to their chosen day service, we have an inadequate and unfair system in terms of how people are supported to travel to their respective day services throughout the country. A clear direction nationally regarding how people with disabilities can be supported to access services, particularly in rural areas, is required and a mechanism to fund such a policy needs to be agreed and implemented as soon as possible. This is vital to those with disabilities. A future policy decision could consider the option of a service that is providing transport to an individual entitled to free travel being able to reclaim that cost from the appropriate Department. People on the Aran Islands and Tory Island can use their free travel pass, yet people living on the hills of Carlow cannot.

This Government refuses to replace the mobility allowance, a payment previously made to people with severe disabilities in respect of public transport costs for taxis and so on to enable them to get around for social and health reasons. A memorandum on proposals for a new transport support scheme was brought to Cabinet but was later withdrawn in favour of revised proposals. I was disappointed to hear this. I would like to know what is happening in this regard and what the Department is doing to ensure those people who need to access transport to a therapy service can get that access. These people have free travel passes issued by the Department. This is incredibly unfair. It is unfair of this Government to expect service providers to lose out in respect of service provision that is essential to persons living with a disability. Many of our local stations are not wheelchair accessible and they have no toilet facilities. When will people living with disabilities be treated with the respect they need and deserve?

I acknowledge that this is a matter for the HSE and the Departments of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Someone somewhere in the system needs to examine it with a view to identifying what can be done to get these people the service to which they are entitled. The ethos of these service providers is equality, dignity, privacy, safety and respect for their service users. We need to find a way to support them in whatever way we can so that users can enjoy the opportunity to be the very best.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue, in respect of which she has put forward many valid arguments.

Before dealing with the specific issue in Carlow, I would like to point out that the free travel scheme is available to all people aged over 66, including carers and people in receipt of certain disability payments. There are currently 952,000 customers in the scheme, with an annual allocation of €95 million. The scheme permits travel for free on most CIÉ and public transport services, the Luas and some 80 private operators. Free travel is also available on cross-Border journeys and within Northern Ireland if the person is aged over 66.

As rightly stated by the Senator, the scheme was introduced to promote social inclusion and to prevent isolation of our elderly and disabled people by taking advantage of the free space on public transport services. In general, access to a free travel pass for those aged under 66 is linked to a person being in receipt of certain primary social protection payments such as disability allowance, invalidity pension, carer's allowance, blind pension and partial capacity benefit. In 1997, the scheme was extended to all registered blind people, regardless of whether they qualified for the blind person's pension or any other social protection payment.

The Senator should note that under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection may separately award a travel supplement if this is warranted by the circumstances of the case. This supplement is intended to assist with ongoing or recurring travel costs that cannot be met from the client's own resources and are deemed to be necessary. Every decision is based on consideration of the particular circumstances of the case, taking account of the nature and extent of the need and resources of the person concerned. I can bring the valid point the Senator has raised about specific issues relating to Carlow to the attention of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. Transport is an important part of the national disability inclusion strategy, which I chair. If places like Carlow are not getting an adequate service, and if Senators from other counties feel that people with disabilities are similarly excluded, this is something that I will personally drive.

I welcome the Minister of State's response. It is so important. We have great service providers in Carlow, but people cannot access them. It is huge. It is a matter for all the different Departments. It is all about everyone working together from the same pot to ensure this happens. I will follow this up with the Minister of State.

The Senator is absolutely right when she says we must all work together. That is the whole idea behind the national disability inclusion strategy. I agree with the Senator's earlier comment that a clear direction is needed. It is important to ensure all Departments work together. In this case, the Departments of Transport, Tourism and Sport and Employment Affairs and Social Protection must work with the HSE and the Department of Health. The Senator also mentioned the transport support Bill. I have two drafts of two Bills on the issue of transport for people with disabilities. The Senator also mentioned accessibility in train stations in County Carlow, which I will raise with the authorities.

This is a serious issue in Bagenalstown.

Absolutely. These issues are very important. Having ratified the UN convention, we must make it meaningful for people with disabilities. I will follow up on the issues that have been raised by the Senator and I will come back to her with a response.

I thank the Minister of State.

Wool Forum

I welcome the Minister to the House. He will be familiar with the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association, ICSA, with which he and his Department work closely. It has raised the issue of capacity to expand and develop the wool industry. Sheep wool is natural, renewable and biodegradable and has many uses. There is a strong case for its usage in the greening and insulation of houses and, in particular, industrial properties, etc., to be examined. As a material, it has enormous potential. Work is ongoing on how we can expand the use and demand for wool, particularly Irish wool. There are opportunities to develop the wool industry that need to be explored.

The national sheep chairman of the ICSA, Mr. John Brooks, contacted me and provided me with various press releases and statements he has issued seeking the establishment of a dedicated Irish wool forum. He sees such a forum as of particular importance in addressing some of the issues relating to the wool industry and makes a strong case for its establishment. The Minister will point out that there have been many groups, subgroups and subdivisions of subgroups in the agriculture industry, but this is a particular market and should be given favourable consideration. All indications point to an impending total price collapse for wool. The market in Britain has totally collapsed. We want to encourage the shearing of sheep. In terms of animal welfare and husbandry, it is unacceptable for them not to be sheared. There is a requirement for sheep in the meat industry, but there is also a market for wool. Irish wool is a particularly good product.

I ask the Minister to give serious consideration to the establishment of such a forum, to include representation of interested groups, particularly the ICSA. Wool is an abundant natural resource, which is renewable and biodegradable. It has many benefits. Traditionally, we have had a wonderful industry engaged in the manufacturing of wool and wool-related cloth. There is scope to develop it. It needs a new focus and, as such, I am asking, as Mr. Brooks requested, that the Minister and his Department give serious consideration to the establishment of this forum or explore other options for the protection and, more important, the expansion of this industry.

I thank the Senator for his question. I apologise to the House for being late. I was engaged on the Order of Business in the Dáil.

Wool production is an important component of the Irish agri-industry. There are approximately 45,500 sheep flock-keepers registered on my Department's database. The 2018 census returns indicate that a total of 3.73 million sheep were kept in the country at the end of December 2018, representing a decrease of 142,000 or 4% on the total number recorded in December 2017. Approximately 2.99 million sheep were slaughtered in 2018. On producing wool for sale, in general, the farmer outsources the shearing of the sheep and sells the wool to agents. Officials of my Department oversee and inspect 50 approved and registered wool stores where wool is held while awaiting sale.

Ireland produces excellent quality wool. The factors contributing to this include Irish genetic breeding standards, sheep welfare standards and the availability of quality Irish grass, water and nutritional supplementation on sheep farms. Irish sheep have a high animal health status, being free from sheep exotic diseases, including sheep pox, that, when present, downgrade wool quality. In addition, Irish sheep farms adhere to high biosecurity and quality assurance standards. The animal husbandry on sheep farms ensures that programmes are in place to control ectoparasites such as sheep scab that can downgrade wool quality if not controlled. All of these factors contribute to the excellent quality of Irish wool.

In addition, while national policies such as the clean livestock policy and the Bord Bia assurance scheme for lamb focus on food policy, they impact directly on the quality and cleanliness of the wool. The cleanliness of a fleece is related to farming practices where the sheep originates, as well as being influenced by the stakeholders along the supply chain. All stakeholders can influence the cleanliness of the sheep fleece.

In an industry such as the wool industry, where prices tend to move in cycles, it is imperative the industry players ensure and promote a diversity of options for the product in the marketplace. Wool is used in fabrics, carpeting, bedding and insulation. It can also be used in gardening and makes an excellent compost. Another possibility for the use of wool is wool pellet production, which is an excellent organic fertiliser. The current market uncertainties should provide an impetus for the industry players to come together to see what business opportunities are out there and to try to promote the excellent product in as many markets as possible. Based on my contacts with the industry, I am aware of huge possibilities in developing the Japanese wool trade market and to that end, I provided the wool industry with a letter of support for its Japanese contacts confirming the excellent quality of Irish-produced wool. Market forces and market demand, as the Senator is aware, dictate price and while I understand there are issues with price at the moment, I wish to inform the Senator that at present I am not considering the establishment of a dedicated Irish wool forum as requested by him. However, my officials and I will of course consider any proposal the industry wishes to submit in this regard.

I thank the Minister. He was honest and frank and I always like to hear that from a Minister. He tells it as it is and I acknowledge that. It is encouraging that the Minister has shared with us the possibility for developing the Japanese wool trade market. That is something I never knew that I have learned today so I will take that away with me. I note the Minister is not prepared at this stage to consider the establishment of a wool producers' forum, and he has set out the rationale and reasons for same, which I accept. I will convey that message to the ICSA in following up on this. I also note the Minister has said he will keep the door open and he will consider other proposals from the industry if they are forthcoming. I thank the Minister for that.

I thank the Senator for raising the matter. It is an extraordinary resource and it is regrettable, given the way markets have evolved, that a product of this quality, which is a natural fabric, has been displaced in many of its traditional markets over many years. We were probably all reared in households where there was always a ball of wool over the mantlepiece. That day is long gone. Synthetic fibres have displaced a lot of the traditional uses of wool. There are niche markets there, which we can support, and there is some activity in that area. I engaged with some people from Japan in my Department who are interested, in conjunction with Irish partners, in developing that market as an opportunity. It is a sign of the rapidly changing times that traditional uses are being displaced and we need to look at the other uses. As I outlined today, some of those uses may not be mainstream, such as pelleting for organic fertiliser and insulation. We have a huge job of work to do in this country to retrofit buildings for climate change purposes. Here is a natural product that could assist with that. There are opportunities. It is a question of the players working collaboratively to find out what the best market returns are, because sheep farming is a low-margin enterprise, and for many, shearing is a cost with little gain from the product shorn. It behoves all of us to work collaboratively to try to find new opportunities for that product.

I welcome our guests to the Gallery this afternoon. Tá fáilte romhaibh go léir.