I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy James Browne, to answer his constituency colleague's question. I wish to advise that five minutes are allocated, comprising first of four minutes and then one minute after the Minister of State has given his response.
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Data Protection Commission
I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting my matter. Being in this Chamber feels like one's first day in school. Obviously, I am very happy to pose the first matter here to my Wexford colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Browne. My matter focuses on data and data protection.
I am a strong advocate for the effective use of data in terms of how it can inform public policy, but it also has the potential to grow into being a multi-billion euro industry in Ireland.
There are serious concerns however, about the potential misuse of data or the abuse of social media. These range from cyberbullying - a number of Senators here are aware of the so-called "Coco's law" which I hope will pass through the Oireachtas quite soon - to economic damage that can be caused by the misuse of data, such as the problems around surveillance capitalism and, as we have seen with the likes of Cambridge Analytica, a threat to democracy itself. As we are quite fortunate in Ireland to have so many of the social media giants located here and because we have so many data centres located here and we want data centres to continue to locate here, Ireland and our Data Protection Commissioner are right at the heart of all of the decisions that have to be made around these issues.
Last year, the Data Protection Commission, DPC, dealt with 10,000 individual cases. Some of these were quite small, but when it comes to data breaches, it can have a significant impact on the individuals concerned. In the past year, the number of breaches of data protection regulations trebled. Clearly, there remains a big problem in terms of the number of data breaches.
In addition to all those individual cases, the DPC here is now dealing with considerable global issues that are featuring on national and international news media. We are looking at, for instance, the fallout of the Schrems II judgment. We are also now seeing the face-off with Facebook. Obviously, I do not want the Minister of State to talk about the looming High Court case, but those kinds of cases will arise more frequently. We are looking at issues around micro-targeting by some of these companies and the lack of transparency in that area. There is the question as to whether or not the DPC will now have to regulate TikTok, if TikTok is based here. I have significant problems around TikTok. I do not propose to start to use it in this Chamber, but TikTok uses facial recognition and machine learning and it is owned by a company in which the Chinese Government has a significant share, and we have to ask what is purpose of the data that will be harvested by that company.
There are responsibilities on the DPC with regard to children's data and the specific category around children's rights and the harvesting of children's data, and around digital literacy which is about making all of us aware as citizens about what is happening in the area of artificial intelligence, AI, algorithmic decision-making and data privacy.
In the context of all that, the DPC has 150 staff. This is not a criticism of the staff but there is a serious shortage, given the scale of what it had to address, of the necessary legal investigators and technologies. It is not only about getting data protection lawyers. There is a need increasingly for administrative lawyers, corporate lawyers and competition lawyers. It is the range of skills that are available to the DPC.
There has to be, and there is, an obligation on the DPC to uphold the effectiveness of the data protection provisions. That means that the DPC has to be properly resourced. It is my view - the EU and the Government may need to start considering this - we need to look at limiting the market dominance in the area of data harvesting by a smaller number of global players. There is a role around digital literacy for all of us but that is also as important for us as legislators, and for others within the public service, because many people do not understand the challenges we face in this area.
I want it noted on the record that we have 150 staff in the DPC's office who are responsible effectively for overseeing the regulation of the data of half a billion European citizens. As I said, data represents a considerable opportunity for Ireland, but if we do not handle this properly and if we do not properly resource the DPC, over the next decade this will represent the biggest risk to Ireland's reputation.
The Minister would like me to thank the Senator for raising these important matters. The Government position is reflected in our ongoing commitment in the programme for Government to "recognise the domestic and international importance of data protection in Ireland". Moreover, it is stated: "We will ... ensure that Ireland delivers on its responsibilities under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)."
Under the general data protection regulation and the Data Protection Act 2018, the Data Protection Commission is completely independent in the performance of its tasks and the exercise of its powers. It does not report to the Department of Justice and Equality nor has the Department any oversight or enforcement powers in regard to the commission. The Department of Justice and Equality and the Government have shown their commitment by providing significant additional resources in terms of funding and staff resources to the DPC in recent years. The Department continues to engage with the DPC on an ongoing basis to service current sanctioned staffing requirements. A request for sanction for two additional director posts has been made to Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, with the support of the Department, based on the funding that the office of the DPC has available in its 2020 budget allocation.
This funding has been provided from the Exchequer each year in response to those needs identified by the DPC, including by way of meeting its staffing and expertise requirements. The budget of €16.9 million in 2020 is a 61% increase on the actual expenditure by the office of €10.5 million in 2019. While there have been some delays and underspends in completing the necessary public recruitment processes for reasons beyond the commission's control or that of my Department, the necessary funding to achieve this has been allocated.
The Minister is aware of the increased pressure the DPC finds itself under as a result of issues arising from the Covid-19 pandemic. The Minister would like me to convey her appreciation of the commitment of the Data Protection Commissioner and of all of the staff involved to continuing to deliver effective data protection regulation and protection of the data privacy rights of EU citizens during this challenging time. The Minister, Deputy McEntee, has every confidence in their ability to continue to do so, as do I.
The DPC operates an extensive social media strategy that includes disseminating information through social, national and international media. In addition, the DPC frequently updates its website with guidance, blogs and other publications for both organisations and individuals. The DPC also participates widely in events, nationally and internationally, as panellists or keynote speakers, including 180 such events in 2019. In addition to raising awareness at such events, the DPC emphasises the obligations of controllers to be accountable to the public in how they process personal data. The DPC has also undertaken a comprehensive consultation and actions on children's data protection rights with a wide range of adult and child stakeholders.
In regard to data privacy and algorithmic decision making, my Department is currently engaged in the Department of Business, Employment and Innovation-led process of developing a national artificial intelligence, AI, strategy. This work is at a very early stage, and the latest draft from the senior officials group on economic recovery and investment is due to be presented for further discussion. The DPC was consulted on the latest draft of this document, which addresses the areas of data privacy and the area of algorithmic accountability. The areas of "Trustworthy Data Governance for Al", "Ethical and Human Rights Frameworks for Al", and consideration of "high-risk" applications of Al, in line with the February 2020 EU White Paper on Al, figure prominently in this draft strategy document, as they did in the Government's submission to the public consultation on the EU Al White Paper. The public consultation stage concluded over the summer and the results of this are expected to be published in due course. Given the early stage of this work, the Department would be happy to engage with Senator Byrne or any Senator in developing this strategy further.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. I appreciate that the Data Protection Commission is a separate agency. My point is that this is about the potential threat to Ireland's reputation, and part of the issue is around the adequate resourcing of the Data Protection Commission, for which the Government is responsible. This will require a whole-of-government response around issues of artificial intelligence and algorithmic decision-making so there is a clear, consistent policy across the whole of Government but also a responsibility to ensure that our citizens are digitally literate. While I am not criticising the work the Data Protection Commission has done in this area, I do not think it is enough and it should not just fall within the Data Protection Commission's remit. I am particularly concerned, and would like an assurance, that the Government realises the potential reputational risk to Ireland if we are not able to oversee data regulation effectively, which we have an obligation to do, especially given the number of social media giants that are here.
These will be huge issues to face over the coming decade and we need the Data Protection Commission to be properly resourced if we are to address them. How we respond, with regard to both the economic perspective and the protection of our citizens' data rights, needs to be central to Government thinking.
I assure the Senator that the Government takes this issue very seriously. As I informed him, the Government has shown its commitment by providing significant additional funding and staff resources to the Data Protection Commission over recent years. This was in recognition of the additional scope of responsibilities of the office. Its budget has increased from €3.6 million in 2015 to €16.9 million in 2020, which represents an almost five-fold increase. This is a very significant increase which will be put to use. That increase in budgetary provision further demonstrates the Government's continuing commitment to meeting the funding requirements of the Irish data protection authority and the importance of a strong regulatory data protection framework to underpin the continuing growth and expansion of Ireland's digital economy. The Data Protection Commission currently has 147 staff but this will increase to 180 by the end of this year, which is another significant increase in the number of staff provided to the Data Protection Commission.
The commission has underspent its budget by approximately €2.7 million as of the end of 2020. The full amount of any underspend to the end of the year will only be determined when the office carries out a full review of its non-pay expenditure for the remaining months of the year. While it is likely the underspend on payroll will exceed €2 million by the end of the year, this is mainly due to delays in recruitment and the full payroll budget will be required in 2021 in order to meet staffing targets, which should be fully met. I again assure Senators that the Government takes this issue extremely seriously.
I thank the Minister of State for his response and for his offer to have the Department engage with Senator Byrne and other Senators on this important issue.
Wage Subsidy Scheme
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to take this debate. I wish him every success in his new role. I know what an honour it is.
I ask that the Minister, the Department for Finance and, more specifically, the Revenue Commissioners conduct a full review into how Aer Lingus operated the wage subsidy scheme from March 2020 up to September 2020, when the replacement employee wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, was introduced. The Minister of State may be aware that I had a small part in the establishment of the wage subsidy scheme in March. It was established to maintain a connection between employees and their employers during what we believed to be temporary difficult times, which we now know will last a lot longer. Staff needed to be temporarily laid off, not working or on reduced hours. In order to apply the wage subsidy scheme, companies needed to be able to show a 25% reduction in their overall turnover, which Aer Lingus could certainly have done given that international travel crashed overnight. It is particularly pertinent that an employee receiving the wage subsidy payment whose work was reduced to three days or fewer a week could also apply for the short-time working scheme, one of the other income supports available from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection.
The detail of the operation of the wage subsidy scheme was tailored around the cohorts we knew would lose their work. Up to a maximum of €410 per week could be reclaimed for each qualifying person and a flat rate of €350, which matched the rate of the equally important pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, which was introduced at the same time, could be claimed by the employer for each employee.
Aer Lingus is a blue chip company in this country and, although it is no longer owned by Irish interests, it is an organisation for which we have great respect and grá. Every single Irish person connects and identifies with that shamrock on the end of each of its planes. We expect a certain level of interaction with employees from such a blue chip company and for it to treat its employees a certain way. The representations I have got from those employees over recent weeks regarding how they were dealt with and, particularly, how the wage subsidy scheme was operated are absolutely heartbreaking to read. People tell me their earnings dropped to as little as €317 per fortnight, which beggars belief when the minimum payment was €350 per week.
They tell me that it is by far the most stressful and time-consuming battle that they have ever experienced with their employer. I have been told that what is failing to be mentioned is the amount of hurt and damage it is having and the effect it is having on employees. Never before has people's mental health been so heavily affected by the sheer lack of empathy and professionalism of a company towards its employees. A man said that to say it has been difficult is an understatement, and it has been for everybody. Employees should have been entitled to claim the part-time payment from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection since the end of March, as was clearly stated and continues to be so by the Revenue Commissioners. A lady who works in ground operations told me that she has never received the full Covid payment, as the company has been deducting her parental leave from her payment. She asked if Aer Lingus was claiming the full Covid payment for her.
That is why I am asking the Minister of State for a full review to be conducted by the Revenue Commissioners and for the publication of the compliance reports that the Revenue Commissioners would have completed on Aer Lingus over recent months. One of two things has happened. One is that the allocation of the J9 PRSI classification, which was part of the wage subsidy scheme at the beginning, forced Aer Lingus into a position of not being able to sign the documents required for all of those people who were earning only 50% or 30% of their pre-Covid payment wages to be able to access the short-time working scheme. If that is the case, then it was an error in the application of the short-time working scheme in co-operation with the wage subsidy scheme. It is incumbent upon Revenue to reflect on the operations, and maybe not just for Aer Lingus but for many other companies. The other thing that may have happened, which is more sinister but is as is felt, and it is unfortunate that employees would feel this about their own organisation, is that the full balance that was reclaimable by Aer Lingus for and on behalf of the individual employees was claimed but just was not passed on to the employees.
It is as important for Aer Lingus to prove that that is not the case as it is to have a look at the J9 PRSI classification to ensure that the company's employees would able to access the short-time working scheme. Therefore, I am asking for a full review to be conducted by the Department of Finance and the Revenue Commissioners into the operation of the short-time working scheme and the wage subsidy scheme on behalf of Aer Lingus from March to September 2020.
I thank Senator Doherty for raising this very important issue. It is clear from listening to the Senator that she has immense knowledge on this particular issue and first-hand experience of same. I, too, in my constituency clinic have had employees of Aer Lingus bringing precisely the issues that the Senator has raised. The travel industry was very seriously affected by the Covid-19 situation and continues to be so. Aer Lingus has also been very seriously affected, as has all its staff.
The temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS, was in place for the 22 weeks between 26 March and 31 August 2020. It was introduced only as an emergency income support for employees of vulnerable firms where turnover had declined by at least 25%, which was the case with Aer Lingus. Under the TWSS, income support was paid via the employer, as Senator Doherty stated, to maintain the link between the employee and the employer insofar as was possible, and the amounts were refunded to the employer by the Revenue Commissioners, who administered the scheme on behalf of the State. I know, generally, once a claim was submitted to Revenue, within 48 hours a refund tended to be paid.
I want to advise the Senator that under section 851(a) of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997, Revenue is precluded, by reason of its taxpayer confidentiality obligations, from providing any details on individual taxpayers, including the company in question. I will return to that matter specifically, because the Senator has asked for a review to be published on that matter. I will, therefore, be speaking generally on the issues that relate to workers who were paid via the TWSS
. It is my understanding that concerns have been raised that employers may not have passed on to their workers the full value of the subsidy that they claimed. I assure the Senator that, by design, it is not possible for an employer to claim more of the subsidy than was paid to the employees. That is the nature of the actual scheme, and it is because the system that was used to make the payment was built using the employer payroll returns to Revenue from earlier in the year. It is not possible, therefore, that an employer could have withheld the subsidy from their workers. The employer was required to include the amount of the subsidy on the employees' payslips. I will return to the question of whether that issue did arise, but that is the general rule that Revenue will clearly look at. Employers were required to download the information provided by Revenue.
It is important to state that there was no obligation on any employer in the country, under the TWSS, to claim the maximum amount of the subsidy for an individual employee.
It is important that they would all be encouraged to do so but an employer could have a particular reason not to claim the entire allowable amount. That would be a difficult issue for the employees concerned but there is not a legal obligation to claim the maximum subsidy. Under section 28 of the emergency measures legislation, the employer was expected to make the best effort to maintain the employee's net income. We will come to the issue of deductions from net income separately. This could have an impingement in respect of employment rights and entitlements. If an employee has a particular issue, such matters are more appropriate for the Workplace Relations Commission. It is important that where there are issues between an employer and an employee, Revenue is not a substitute for the Workplace Relations Commission. The Revenue Commissioners cannot be expected to adjudicate on those issues. They do a great job and have a big job to do. The issue of employees' rights is a matter between the employer, the employee and the Workplace Relations Commission. I am advised by Revenue that where a business was clearly not eligible for the scheme or failed to pay the correct level of subsidy, that amount can be fully reclaimed from that employer. While I am not specifically referring to this company, Revenue is carrying out an in-depth review of all companies for a more in-depth examination. If there is abuse of the system there will be very serious consequences for the employer concerned.
I thank the Minister of State and welcome his assurances that in the way it is designed, the wage subsidy scheme could not allow somebody to claim more than they would pass on to an individual employee. That is really welcome. It would be reassuring for the employees of Aer Lingus to know that whatever was claimed in their name was given to them. However, while I know the Minister of State is saying there is no legal obligation that they would have to claim more, it absolutely beggars belief when free money was available to an organisation that was specifically put in place to help support people through a difficult time, it would not be claimed on the behalf of their employees. The employer took the route of putting them down to 50% of their pre-Covid salary, and then in June down to 30% of it, when the money was being made available by the State to keep these people on a minimum standard of living. They actually would have been better off letting all of those people go who were earning under €39,000, which is the vast majority of the people in Aer Lingus, and allowing them claim the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. It is no reflection on the Minister of State or the Department but it really calls into question whether we should be thinking about Aer Lingus as a blue-chip employer.
Going back to the wage subsidy scheme, when employers denoted their employees as J9, this was the classification we made up so that they would not be paying USC, PRSI or any of the other social insurance taxes. We specifically said that J9 PRSI claimants were working seven days, which means they will never be able to claim the short-time working scheme from March until September. There would have to be a review or some help from the Revenue Commissioners to allow these people to go back and claim access to a support system that is based on demand. I ask the Minister of State to go back to the Revenue Commissioners and the Minister to see if there is any way we can help these employees. Leaving aside Aer Lingus and whatever it did or did not do for and on behalf of its employees, the State has a responsibility to recognise that people cannot live on €317 a fortnight. It is just not possible. We as legislators would not expect them to do so which is why the PUP was introduced at €350 and now reduced to €300 a week. I ask the Minister of State to bring that request back to the Revenue Commissioners and the Minister.
I take on board everything the Senator has said. I hope the Revenue Commissioners and especially the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection are listening. I get what the Senator says about how the scheme was designed. My comments are general comments. I am not saying they are specific to Aer Lingus but I am sure the people in Aer Lingus will be listening closely to what I have to say. There may be confusion on the part of some employers. They may have mistakenly assumed that they cannot claim the TWSS and the PUP alongside any other social protection payment. In many cases, employees would have been entitled to the short-term social welfare payment but maybe the employer was not sufficiently au fait with the social welfare legislation. I understand that it has led to a lot of confusion for some companies. Some employers have given letters to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection saying they now understand that there would have been an entitlement under the short-term social welfare payment but not under the PUP. Those claims are in the system and I believe once the claims are in the system they should be effective from the date the TWSS was introduced.
All that is in the system and is mainly with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. That has yet to be teased out and I hope it will deal with it properly.
The scheme was designed to maintain people's net pay. Some employers looked at the net pay, whatever particular payment they were given under TWSS, and may have incorrectly deducted some moneys from the net payment such as trade union dues or payments to a credit union thus reducing the payment received. The employers were not entitled to do so. Some employers have made mistakes and they will have to correct same. It is important that the employees are on top of the situation concerning non-statutory deductions.
The Senator asked for a full review. There might be a reason a particular company in financial difficulty may choose not to pay the maximum payment during the period and I speculate as to the reason. First, if a company maintains pay at a particular level and then must deal with redundancy payments for those employees down the road, perhaps it would use this as a mechanism not to have their average net pay in the run up to a period of anticipated change or redundancy that could happen to reduce the redundancy payment that employer might have to pay down the road. I would call that financial engineering.
The Minister of State hit the nail on the head.
I assume the Senator understands what I mean.
I am not talking about Aer Lingus but I hope the people there are listening closely. That could be a situation.
The Senator also mentioned other payments. Some employers might have had their own reasons in terms of staffing. Those issues will, more appropriately, be dealt with by the Workplace Relations Commission and not by Revenue. I stress that the Revenue Commissioners will not be involved in these types of issues but whatever the adjudications are they will implement them financially from the Revenue point of view.
The Senator requested that a Revenue's compliance report into Aer Lingus be published. She knows that we cannot publish details. However, the points raised in this debate need to be examined by Revenue, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, and the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation because this could affect redundancy payments down the road. I ask all Departments to take close note of the points made here today.
I thank the Minister of State for coming here, for his reply and for his suggestions.
Shared Island Unit
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Teachta Chambers. Déanaim comhghairdeas leis an Aire Stáit as a cheapachán. Táim ag dúil go mór le bheith ag obair leis as seo amach, go háirithe i dtaca le cúrsaí Gaeilge agus cúrsaí Gaeltachta de. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, Deputy Jack Chambers, and thank him for coming here this morning.
The questions, as laid out in this Commencement matter, are very clear and succinct in terms of what they ask. They reflect a sense of urgency and anticipation most acutely, but not exclusively, felt by Irish citizens and, more broadly, by people in the North given the very live political climate. Members of this institution and, indeed, other institutions are very keen and anxious to see this unit begin its work, to help enable and assist in that work and to see what the shared island unit is about and what it can do to help assist people within this very difficult and fraught political climate.
How will the shared island unit give effect to Article 2 of the Constitution? Article 2 refers to the birthright and entitlement of everyone born on this island to be part of the Irish nation. In welcoming the shared island unit and understanding some of its work remit, as laid out thus far, my party and I have argued for more, of which the Minister of State will be aware. There is a very real need to plan for constitutional change, demographic change and the change in political realities across this island.
It is important that when we talk about a shared island sometimes people understand that in terms of a great historical divide in the North and that is it.
However, this State needs to tell people how it plans to share this island, that is, how it will give effect to that Article 2 of the Constitution. For example, will the shared island unit talk about how this institution can give effect to speaking rights for MPs in the North which has been a long-standing promise of Fianna Fáil? That would be a great way to show people that we are also serious in this institution about sharing the island.
Will we engage the media about the more recent phenomenon of amputating the Six Counties off maps and of placing bars on audiences in the North from entering competitions, some of which, ironically enough, are for tickets to the all-Ireland final? Will we look at the full-frontal assault on the Good Friday Agreement and Article 2 of the Constitution that is manifest in cases, such as the Emma De Souza case, where people who seek to simply assert their constitutional and Good Friday Agreement, GFA, right to be accepted as Irish citizens are being taken through the courts.
I want to work with colleagues right across Government and the Seanad and the Dáil, on how we plan for constitutional change in a positive, inclusive, informed and engaged way. In the interim I am keen to hear from the Government what it can do in the here and now, that it does not need to wait a long period of time and it need not exhaust all kinds of fora, assemblies and dialogues. There are merely three or four that I have outlined. There are many more that are within the gift of the Government to resolve. Through the shared island unit beginning its work urgently and actively, I hope we can resolve some of those issues.
I thank the Senator for his question on the shared island unit. I call on the Government Chief Whip.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chathaoirleach, agus leis an Seanadóir Ó Donnghaile freisin.
I thank the Senator for raising the Government's commitments on a shared island. The Taoiseach has asked me to respond to the points that the Senator has raised.
As the Senator will be aware, the programme for Government sets out the Government's commitment to working with all communities and traditions on this island to build a consensus around a shared future. This work will be underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement and the absolute respect for the principle of consent. The Taoiseach has also stated that there should be a renewed push to use the potential of the Good Friday Agreement to deliver sustained progress for all communities on the island.
A shared island unit has been established in the Department of the Taoiseach in support of these commitments and priorities for the Government, and its work is now under way. The unit is led by an assistant secretary, with two staff already appointed and further assignments in train.
The work programme for the unit is currently being further developed. The terms of reference for the unit's work are to examine the political, social, economic and cultural considerations underpinning a future in which all traditions on the island are mutually respected. Strengthening social, economic and political links North and South, and the promotion of all-island approaches to the strategic challenges facing Ireland and Northern Ireland are also key objectives.
Research and dialogue will be key to the unit's work. It will work collaboratively across Government and with research, civil society, sectoral, business and community organisations on the island.
The Government recognises the indispensable role of the Oireachtas and the Northern Ireland Assembly in representing people's views on relevant issues for the future of the island, North and South. The Government looks forward to engaging in the Dáil and Seanad and through Oireachtas committees as we implement our commitments in respect of a shared island, as set out in the programme for Government. The work of the committee on the Good Friday Agreement will be particularly relevant for the unit to follow, and other Oireachtas committees may also have contributions to make on a shared island, as may elected representatives in Northern Ireland.
In undertaking its work, the shared island unit will engage with political and civil society representatives and all communities on the island on an inclusive basis. In conducting its work, the unit will seek a broad base of contributions from across civil society on the island, including from groups that have been proportionally under-represented in the peace process, including women and new communities on the island. The Government will work to support and contribute to an inclusive, holistic and constructive discourse that can build consensus on a shared future in which all traditions are mutually respected. The Government's approach will at all times be founded on harnessing the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement to sustain progress, mutual understanding and reconciliation for all communities on the island.
On Tuesday, 20 July, in a response to a written question, the Taoiseach stated, "Work on its [the shared island unit's] structure, staffing and work programme is under way and I hope the unit will start this work in the coming weeks." In all of that, we have not been provided with an actual start date. We are all very familiar with the sentiment and the objectives of the Good Friday Agreement and that is why we have an existing committee on the Good Friday Agreement. The Good Friday Agreement, of course, among many other things, did not and does not settle the constitutional question; it actually asks us the constitutional question. When we couple that with our own constitutional obligations in this State to prepare for constitutional change, I do not see any evidence of this in either the very vague and opaque responses we have received in regard to this mysterious unit or the answer provided to me this morning.
As I said, I support this unit and it is very important that we all support this unit. However, we cannot just continue to support the sentiment of a unit and we need to see the Government come forward with tangible plans. The Good Friday Agreement, which was rightly lauded again this morning and is something we all cherish and hold very dear, is now, live and imminently, under assault. It is being torn up, across many of its stages, in the British Houses of Parliament and in No. 10, Downing Street. Never before has the need for the work as outlined by the Chief Whip been so necessary but there is a huge expectation, and a great deal of concern out there among people, that the Irish Government needs to be doing more.
One way to do that is to actually begin the work of this unit. The Government has the consensus and it has the support. There are very few things the Government can talk about which garner such universal, cross-party support. In thanking the Minister of State for coming to the House, and in reasserting my party's and other parties' support for this unit, it is crucial, particularly given the dynamic we are in at the moment, that we start to hear tangible, practical timelines. We need to get this right, and I appreciate there is much work involved. However, this was a Government commitment, not a Sinn Féin promise. This was in the programme for Government. In July, the Taoiseach told us he expected the work to begin within a few weeks. We will debate a very important Fianna Fáil motion tonight on the internal market Bill and the threat being posed to the Good Friday Agreement, and so much more on this island, as a result of what is happening in Britain. Everyone will accept there needs to be a clear, concise timeline so we can get an understanding of when this unit will begin its work and what its work will actually mean, and then we, as Oireachtas Members, can start the process of assisting and being involved and engaged with that work.
I acknowledge and note, on behalf of the Government, the Senator's contribution and views. In my initial statement, I set out that the unit has been established. The Government was formed at the end of June. It was a key priority in the programme for Government and it has been established with an assistant secretary general in the Department of the Taoiseach, and the work is now under way. There is no opaqueness about the definitive position, about its structure or about the fact its work programme is actually commencing, and that is clear and important for the record.
A co-operative cross-party approach in the Oireachtas on the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement has always been sought and the Government will continue to work in that spirit. The Government respects and affirms everyone's right on the island to make the case for the constitutional future for Northern Ireland they wish to see, whether they are nationalist, unionist or neither. The Government is committed to working with all communities and traditions on the island to build consensus around a shared future underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement. Consistent with that, the Government will work to harness the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement to deliver sustained progress for all communities on the island, implementing our commitments as set out in the programme for Government.
It is also important to note the cross-Border infrastructure projects which are very important in that context, such as the A5, the Narrow Water bridge, the Ulster Canal and the Sligo-Enniskillen greenway, as well as looking at broader strategic approaches to healthcare and other matters that are cross-Border on the island.
I have set out that the shared island unit has been established in the Department of the Taoiseach. The Government wants to see this unit harness the best ideas, evidence and partners to realise the potential of the Good Friday Agreement, which has been transformative for relations and reconciliation between communities on the island. The Government looks forward to continued engagement with the Senator and all in the Oireachtas with regard to its priorities and commitments in respect of a shared island.
Special Educational Needs
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, to the House and congratulate her on her appointment. I wish her the very best in this important post. I am glad to be speaking in my capacity as Labour Party spokesperson on children, disability, equality and integration and, in that regard, to ask the Minister for Health or the Minister of State to make a statement to the House on the provision of nursing care plans for children with complex needs to enable them to participate in education and to commit to the provision of nursing care for a child whose plan has already been prepared and who is due to attend a particular primary school in Dublin in the coming weeks.
My starting premise, which I know is also that of the Minister of State and her Department, is that children have a right to education. This is one of the most important rights children have as bearers of rights. Whatever the needs of a child, we must always strive to ensure he or she can exercise that right to an education. I am, of course, conscious that children who have complex needs need particular care. I have just come from a briefing with Inclusion Ireland on the needs of children and adults with intellectual disabilities, but my question relates to children with complex physical needs. These children have a right to an education in mainstream schools and require care packages to enable them to participate.
We all acknowledge that this issue cuts across the roles and responsibilities of both the Department of Health and the Department of Education and Skills. I also acknowledge the immense work of the HSE and the HSE co-ordinator for children with complex needs, who has a very important role. I also acknowledge the role played by special needs assistant, SNA, provision through the Department of Education and Skills and nursing care provision through the Department of Health. Enable Ireland has been working very hard on this issue and has run a pilot access and inclusion programme which aims to steer a path and navigate between health and education.
The particular case which has been brought to my attention by a parent and a school principal, and which I have also brought to the attention of the Minister of State's office, illustrates the difficulties experienced when children with complex needs seek to exercise their right to participate in education. When I was contacted by the parent and principal in respect of this particular pupil, about whom the Minister of State has details and of whose case she is very well aware, I was told that the child had a very particular physical condition which required a care package. The child is due to start fifth class in October. The family and school have been through the process of obtaining an SNA and nursing support. This process was at a very advanced stage. The HSE co-ordinator had been working with the family, and I understand the package of supports was in place and lined up. At the very last minute, just weeks ago, the child's family and school were informed that funding was not available for the nursing package. I understand that is what happened.
Since then, the family and the school have been in contact with different officials. The child has written a letter to the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, whom I have also contacted. Her office told me that it was a matter for the Department of Health. I contacted the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, but have not yet received a response. I thank the Minister of State very much for the response I received directly from her, in which she said that she is looking into the issue. I really do thank her for that response, which I acknowledge. This matter clearly has a wider impact for children beyond this particular case. While I am today asking for the Minister of State to commit to provision for this particular child, I want to raise this matter as a broader issue for children more generally.
I thank Senator Bacik for raising this issue. Before I begin reading my script, the Deputy is right. There is a wider conversation to be had which goes further than the one case she has brought to my attention. As she will hear throughout my speech, there is a need for really good collaboration between the two Departments to ensure all children have the right of access and are supported.
I thank Senator Bacik for raising this issue. I begin by noting that the Senator's question relates in part to a particular child. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on that individual case and I have referred this to the HSE for more information and an update. I will share that information with the Senator as soon as it comes to hand.
As the Senator will hear, while there is some overlap with the Department of Health on this issue, as well as the fact that it relates to children with disabilities, the main policy issues involved fall under the remit of my colleague, Deputy Madigan, who is the Minister of State with responsibility for special education. Indeed, Deputy Madigan would probably have been the more appropriate Minister to attend this session today, although I will do my best to assist the Senator. I am also happy to pass on any further concerns to the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, who is more appropriately placed to deal with these issues, for which the Department of Education and Skills is responsible.
In recent years, there have been developments in interventions for young children with complex conditions which have led to greater numbers of children with disabilities participating in school. In the past, these children either did not attend school or were in special centres or special schools managed by voluntary bodies, where nurses and care assistants were on-site as part of the overall staffing complement. Children with higher levels of need now often attend special schools and a small number of children are supported to attend mainstream schools.
High levels of ongoing support are required to enable this participation. At present, there is no national standardised process for the allocation of nursing supports in schools for children with complex needs. Current provision of nursing supports to schools is provided by the HSE or, on behalf of the HSE, through its funded service providers. Some nurses are also employed directly by schools and report to the school board of management. The provision of nursing supports has sometimes been dependent on the ability of an individual community health organisation, CHO, to fund such supports, leading to inequity of access for children in some special schools.
In 2018, the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, published its comprehensive review of the SNA scheme. The report included a finding that SNAs, who are not required to have any clinical training or qualifications, may nevertheless be expected to support students who require complex medical procedures. Following on from the review and its recommendations, the Department of Education and Skills is reviewing how nursing supports can best be provided in the education setting as part of their wider school inclusion model. The school inclusion model is designed to test a support model for schools which does not rely only on SNA support but which also provides for a range of additional supports, including therapy supports and services in schools. Currently, the school inclusion model is in a pilot programme in HSE area CHO 7.
A nursing group, a sub-group of the school inclusion model working group, has been established to progress the issue of nursing support for children with complex needs. This is a cross-departmental group which includes representation from my own Department. A paper is currently being developed to identify and prioritise the implementation of nursing supports for those children with the most complex needs. The school inclusion model budget is €4.75 million and the nursing provision will be funded through this programme.
I thank the Minister of State for her response. I greatly appreciate her efforts on behalf of the child in the case I have raised with her and I look forward to engaging with her further on that individual case. I stress that the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, has clearly told me it is not within her brief, and that it is a matter for the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, or the Department of Health, so I will engage with Deputy Rabbitte on that.
The Minister of State's answer raises a much broader concern about the huge gap that exists for children. The one line that stood out for me in the response, and I am sure for the Minister of State, was, "At present, there is no national standardised process for the allocation of nursing supports in schools for children with complex needs." That is a serious gap in our provision for children. I am very concerned that movement between Departments and the crossing over of responsibilities may have left children, such as the child in this individual case, to fall through the gaps. It is particularly sad when it appears funding is available but nobody is quite sure which Department is responsible for allocating it. I understand many disability matters are moving to the new Department of Children, Disability, Equality and Integration, and that movement itself, as I understand it from briefings from that Department, means there will be a delay.
I am really concerned that children like the child in this particular case may fall between the gaps as different Departments assume different roles and responsibilities. I appeal to the Minister of State to raise with the Minister of State with responsibility for special education and inclusion, Deputy Madigan, and the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, the need to ensure a co-ordinated joined-up response and in particular to ensure a national standardised process is rolled out for children with complex needs. As the Minister of State said, it cannot be on the basis of the ability of an individual community healthcare organisation to fund such supports or on the fact that a person is in a particular pilot programme area. We all know that is what is happening in practice but it is not good enough for children like the child in this case, who was living in another country where the support was in place. The family were alarmed to discover that there is no standardised package of supports in place here. There really should be for children like this child.
The current programme for Government document, Our Shared Future, recognises the need to improve services for children with disability through better implementation by the working group across Government. I wish to reassure Senator Bacik and anyone who has a child with complex needs that myself and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, will be working closely together on this. We recognise that there are gaps. It is our responsibility to close the gaps and ensure that no child falls through the gaps. Deputy Bacik can be assured, on foot of the cases she has raised this morning, that what we have within our Departments, where we see the national standardised approach, is not standardised. We are going to work on that. We are going to sit down and put together a plan. My move and the moving of the functions from the Department of Health to the Department with responsibility for children should be welcome news, because we want to ensure that all children get the best access to intervention therapies and fair and equitable access to education at the earliest possible stage on the early intervention side.
My thanks to Senators for putting in matters and to the Ministers for their responses. If Members are unhappy with the responses, they might raise the matter directly with me. We need a sos to allow cleaning of the Chamber.