Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Regional Airports

The first matter will be Senator Chambers and Murphy on the issue of support for Ireland West Airport Knock. Before they arise to talk on the issue, it would be remiss of me not to mention the great Monsignor Horan for making sure that the dream became a reality, and all of the people who were involved in putting the airport together and making sure it continues. Brian O'Dwyer, who was on the first pilgrimage flight from the United States of America, is now the international chairman. He landed in the first pilgrimage flight that arrived and maybe he will arrive in another aeroplane that will be coming, which might be Air Force One.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for outlining just how special is Ireland West Airport Knock, known to us locally in Mayo as Knock Airport. It first opened its doors in 1985 with just three chartered flights to Rome. Since then it has grown to become Ireland's fourth busiest airport after Cork, Shannon and Dublin airports. In 2019 more than 800,000 passengers passed through its doors. The airport directly employs 100 people and indirectly employs 3,000 people across the region due to its impact in the tourism and hospitality sectors. It was stated in 1985 that it could not be done and that an airport could never be a realistic option on a hill in the foggy and boggy grasslands of Mayo. Monsignor James Horan proved them wrong and in five years he built that airport, opened its doors and there it stands today going from strength to strength.

It has not, however, been untouched by the pandemic and, like the aviation sector right across the country, has sustained massive losses this year. It is looking at losing approximately €4 million in 2020, a colossal loss the like of which the airport has never seen and which cannot be sustained. It has seen its passenger numbers drop by 90% and will close its doors for the second time on 14 November for four weeks. The airport will not survive if it does not receive the funding it needs from the Government, and that is why I raise this today. I am asking the Minister of State directly to provide to Ireland West Airport Knock the money it needs to cover its losses, just to break even and make sure it survives.

I cannot stress enough the importance of the airport not just to County Mayo but to the entire north-west region. It is our connection to the world and to the rest of this country. We need this airport. Its impact on jobs locally and right across the region cannot be overestimated. Will the Minister of State give a commitment that the Government will provide to Ireland West Airport Knock the money it needs to sustain itself and ensure it can survive post the pandemic?

I thank the Minister of State for being here to discuss what Senator Chambers has described as probably the most important issue for the west of Ireland. Connacht is often the Cinderella province. The most vital infrastructure in Connacht and the wider north west is Ireland West Airport. As Senator Chambers has outlined, it is vital we get as much Government support as we can for the airport. It is without question in crisis. I understand the Taoiseach is today meeting some of the staff from Knock Airport. I understand that representatives of the airport will be before the transport committee next week as well. We cannot state strongly enough how important this is. This was and is the people's airport. As Senator Chambers rightly said, Monsignor Horan drove this project. He was criticised for doing so, but there was enthusiasm in the west for the project, which, by the way, without being offensive to anybody, was criticised not alone by politicians in the east of the country but also many people in the media. It was described as a crazy project, but that point of view has been proven absolutely wrong.

Knock Airport is without question the most important piece of infrastructure in the west. We must maintain it. The local authorities in Galway, Mayo, Sligo, Leitrim and Roscommon have contributed €8 million towards the airport, so the CEOs and the local authority members in those counties are aware of its significance and importance. I hope we will get the proper support for the airport and I hope the Minister of State will bring back a strong message, as I have been giving to the Taoiseach, that it has to be supported, not alone for the jobs but for the future of the whole economy of the west.

I thank Senators Chambers and Murphy for providing an opportunity to speak about the Government's plans for the continuing support for Ireland West Airport Knock through the Covid crisis. I am happy to speak today on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton.

At this stage there can be no doubt about the impacts of Covid-19 on the aviation industry and the knock-on effects this drop in activity is having on domestic tourism and our regional economies, particularly in the west. It is of great concern to me that Ireland West Airport, like all our airports, has been fully exposed to the consequences of Covid.

The Government is also acutely aware that the situation in Ireland West Airport Knock has been further compounded by Ryanair's most recent decisions to cut its winter capacity at the airport and to cancel all services for a four-week period from the end of next week until mid-December. The airport is a strategic player in delivering high-quality international connectivity to the western region, so the devastating significance of this latest news on the airport is fully appreciated. The decision by Ryanair was a commercial one in light of poor forward bookings for the period in question and forms part of a wider move by the airline to cut its capacity on flights across Europe. This does not detract, however, from the disappointment being experienced by Ireland West Airport and other regional airports that have been impacted, namely, Cork, Kerry and Shannon airports.

As the situation unfolds, I know that the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, fully appreciates the growing concerns about the future survival of many airports, particularly enterprises such as Ireland West Airport. I assure the Senators that the continued viability of these airports is very important to the Government. This is why, at the outset of this crisis, the Government took strong and immediate action to assist business and protect employment. A comprehensive suite of generalised supports for all companies has been put in place. These include wage subsidy schemes, grants, low-cost loans, a waiver of commercial rates and deferred tax. In this way, a significant level of Exchequer support has been made available to the aviation sector, including Ireland West Airport.

That aside, I know that the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, is fully aware that Ireland West Airport is still experiencing an unprecedented strain on its financial resources and has taken very difficult and responsible decisions to manage those resources since the Covid crisis began. The airport's efforts in this respect are acknowledged. Where lay-offs have arisen, the Government has ensured that employees were supported through the pandemic unemployment payment.

I have also been informed and wish to remind the Senators that Ireland West Airport is one of a number of airports receiving ongoing Exchequer support as part of the Government's regional airports programme. Last year, for example, I understand the airport received €9.4 million in funding from the State. The majority of that funding went towards its runway overlay project. This year, Ireland West Airport has received capital support of over €1 million and is also eligible to apply for operational supports from an available budget of €3.5 million.

In keeping with the Government's priorities for regional development, I have been advised that the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, is finalising a new regional airports programme for 2021-25. This will give funding certainty to Ireland West Airport over a five-year timeframe, helping the airport to remain viable as it transitions through the various phases of recovery from the Covid pandemic. I am also pleased to advise Senators in that context that the Government has confirmed its commitment to the continuation of the programme in budget 2021 by securing more than €21 million for airports such as Ireland West Airport.

I am advised by the Minister of State that all support mechanisms tor the aviation sector will remain under active consideration. In the context of the forthcoming national economic plan, the Government will consider further measures to support the industry to ensure that its core capability is preserved in order that it can recover quickly and be in a good position to support wider national economic recovery when circumstances allow. I am confident that the range of supports that are in place, coupled with those in development, will help Ireland West Airport to weather this crisis in the short to medium term.

The funding that has been available to date is welcome but not sufficient. My concern is that while budgets are being made available to regional airports, we are all looking to get money from the same pot and that the pot is not infinite. There needs to be a direct commitment for Ireland West Airport Knock to meet the losses it has suffered this year. Let us be very clear, the airport is closing its doors for the second time on foot of a Government decision basically to close down the aviation sector and to stop flights in and out of the country. The Government has advised people not to fly. That Government decision has impacted the airport through no fault of its own. It has carried out aggressive cost-saving exercises. It has reduced its staff, made 43 people redundant and reduced its costs across the board. There is a limit to what it can do. As has been said, this is the people's airport. The people of Mayo will not countenance anything happening to it because it was directly funded and built not just by the State but by the people of Mayo. We will make sure the airport survives but we need the Government to step up to the plate and do its job as well.

I welcome what the Minister of State has said but, as Senator Chambers rightly said, we need special supports. Not alone will the people of Mayo not stand for this, the people of Roscommon are adamant that this airport must survive and be supported by the Government, as are the people of Leitrim, Sligo and Galway. It should be remembered that Galway lost its airport. It is vital that we support totally Ireland West Airport Knock.

I acknowledge the Senators' comments. We have listened carefully to them. To give further assurance, the Government understands absolutely the intrinsic value of airports such as Ireland West Airport Knock to our economy, particularly in facilitating tourism and economic activity. We acknowledge in particular the difficulties facing our airports and the wider aviation industry at present. Again, that understanding is reflected in the level of supports being provided by the Government throughout budget 2021.

This extensive suite of measures continues to be in place to help to mitigate the effects of the crisis. I know that there is a perception among the aviation industry that more needs to be done. I understand that companies - airports and airlines - have had to take very difficult commercial decisions to reduce costs. Such decisions, including temporary lay-offs and reduced working hours, have a devastating impact, particularly for close-knit enterprises and communities like Knock airport. I would like to take this opportunity to reassure the Senators that more is being done by the Government. The House will be aware that the Government recently agreed to develop a framework around the traffic light system for air travel which was adopted at EU level on 13 October. Under this system, different rules will apply to passengers arriving from regions designated as green, orange or red, depending on the prevalence of the virus there. Some of these changes have already been implemented. More are scheduled to commence as soon as this Sunday in respect of people. This is just one example of the ongoing efforts by the Government which will hopefully be a catalyst to restarting our aviation industry. I thank the House.

Recycling Policy

I support the points made by Senators Chambers and Murphy during the discussion on the previous Commencement matter. It is vital that the funding is provided to Knock Airport. I welcome Minister of State, Deputy Brophy, to the House and wish him well in his portfolio. I have not had an opportunity to do this previously. I will be sharing some time with Senator Buttimer.

The recycling of plastics is a very significant matter. We may not be able to do justice to it in the short time available to us today. There are many facets to the recycling of various types of plastic, including farm waste plastic, builders' plastic and plastic bottles. People tend to think there is just one type of plastic. It is hard to tell them that there are different types of plastic. We all think that plastic is just plastic. However, some plastics can be recycled and others cannot. What happens to the plastic that cannot be recycled? Where does it go? Does it go to landfill?

A number of representations have been made to me on the recycling of builders' plastic, such as that used to wrap pallets of cement or blocks. This type of plastic can also be seen at fuel depots, where materials like briquettes are bound in plastic. Those who use it have no place to send it to have it recycled. There is a difficulty there. What role does Repak play in the collection of this type of plastic industrial waste? Where does it go? Is there a levy? If so, who collects it? What happens the levy? How is it distributed?

A very significant levy for the collection of farm waste plastic is paid by every farmer who uses such plastic. Some of that levy is distributed, and more of it is not. I understand that there is €3.7 million somewhere that has not been distributed. Some collectors have difficulty in getting the farm plastic off to recycling. There was a big market in China at one stage, but that seems to have dried up. I ask the Minister of State to look into all of these matters. A factory in Littleton, County Tipperary, was going to carry out some of the processing of farm waste plastic.

The Government needs to rethink how it sees this matter going forward. There is a great need for fencing and garden products, all of which can be made out of recycled plastic. I hope the Minister of State will be able to shed some light on some of these issues. I refer particularly to section 60(3) of the Waste Management Act 1996, which relates to the export of plastics by local authorities.

I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Brophy, on his appointment as I have not seen him since then. I thank Senator Burke for sharing time with me.

Section 60 of the Waste Management Act 1996 is very important, but it urgently requires clarity. As Senator Burke has eloquently outlined, a myriad of plastics is used for business, commercial, building and farm purposes. A uniform approach on the part of the Government is required, but that has not happened. This is having profound implications for everybody. A regime change is required to assist the collection of plastic from a variety of holdings which is now deemed waste. I hope the local authorities and the Government will work with the waste farm plastic facilities that will be created, and the Irish Farm Films Producers Group will be able to achieve an outcome by having that plastic collected. This is important because we are all committed to recycling and reducing waste, but this waste is now being stored or housed. We need a facility, we need action and we need an amendment to section 60 of the 1996 Act.

I thank my party colleagues, Senators Buttimer and Burke, for raising this issue. I am delighted to have an opportunity to reply on behalf my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan.

In September, the Minister launched the Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy, which sets out an ambitious new roadmap for waste planning and management and seeks to shift the focus away from waste disposal to how we can preserve resources by creating a circular economy. The plan sets out a range of aims and targets for the State and the measures by which they will be achieved, including increased regulation and measures across various waste areas such as those that have been mentioned. It deals with plastics and packaging, municipal waste, construction and demolition, consumer protection and citizen engagement.

One of the functions of the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications with regard to waste management is to set the policy and legislative framework for the extended producer responsibility, EPR, model in Ireland, across various waste streams. Ireland uses the EPR model for dealing with a number of waste streams, including farm plastics, electrical equipment, tyres and batteries. These schemes have been developed on the basis of the producer pays principle. To date, they have operated very successfully and have enabled Ireland to reach its domestic and EU recycling targets. They have also successfully contributed to Ireland meeting its overall environmental goals and have diverted substantial amounts of waste from landfill.

The Department is not responsible for and has no role in the operational, day-to-day matters of any of the schemes. The primary role of the Department on farm plastics matters is to provide the legislative framework. Under the legislation, the Irish Farm Film Producers Group Limited, IFFPG, operates under an approval granted by the Department as the national farm plastics recycling scheme and has been doing so successfully since its establishment in 1998. The company is a not-for-profit body, which is owned by its members and the Irish Farmers Association.

Since its establishment, the IFFPG has been responsible for the recycling of over 350,000 tonnes of farm plastics waste and is currently recycling in excess of 30,000 tonnes of waste per annum. Under the approved scheme, producers pay an environmental protection levy to the IFFPG based on the quantity of product they place on the market. The environmental levy applies to all product placed on the Irish market. The levy, together with other sources of income, is used by the IFFPG to fund and provide for the collection, transportation and treatment of farm film plastics. The Department is not responsible for and has no role in the operational and day-to-day matters of the IFFPG, which include details regarding the levy. As required under its current ministerial approval, the IFFPG submits an annual operational report and audited accounts which are published on its website.

In 2018, the IFFPG's annual report outlined the impact of the then decision by the Chinese authorities to cease importing plastics waste. The European market was subsequently flooded with surplus material which precipitated a price collapse in the farm plastics market. The IFFPG therefore faced increased recycling costs which caused it to have to increase its levy and collection charges, albeit with a commitment to reverse those increases when the market recovered. The difficult market situation, characterised by reduced demand and the reintroduction of gate fees by European recyclers, continued to be a major challenge for the IFFPG in 2019, with approximately 12,000 tonnes of material carried over into the 2020 collections season. The IFFPG remains committed to managing farm plastic waste and meeting national targets as required under its approval.

The collected material is split between European recyclers and Irish recyclers. In the case of Irish recyclers, the majority is supplied to a pretreatment facility in Portlaoise where some contamination is removed before onward transport to European recyclers. The legal framework for the import and export of farm plastics is derived from EU law. The National TransFrontier Shipment Office, which oversees this work, has determined that used farm plastic intended for export falls into two main categories: green and amber waste. This classification between amber and green waste has consequences for where one can export to. This classification difference is a clearing mechanism to make sure that pure farm waste plastics are being exported. In late 2019, the IFFPG also began supplying material to a new recycling facility in Littleton, County Tipperary.

This facility, which is currently being commissioned, is expected to recycle 20,000 tonnes per annum. It will greatly assist farm plastics recycling in Ireland.

The IFFPG has committed to supporting a greater circularity in the farm plastics sector to ensure more sustainable use of resources. It has a number of initiatives under way in this regard, including an extensive farmer survey to be carried out in 2021. It has also begun working to act as a facilitator between the various stakeholders in the farm plastics sector supply chain, with a view to encouraging greater use of recycled content from farm plastic waste in new farm plastic products.

The Minister of State outlined some of the difficulties but did not address many others. The industry needs support and we should have a proper structure in place whereby we do not export our problems. We should be able to use this waste plastic to manufacture products that can be used throughout the country. The Minister of State did not address the issue of private contractors either, many of whom, along with other contractors, have a build-up of plastic. Where will it go and what will be done with it? Something needs urgently to be done and the Minister of State needs to reconsider the levy of €3.7 million, something he made no reference to. I ask him to relay this matter to the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications in view of the difficulties. I have no doubt he knows quite well what difficulties are involved in the industry.

I support Senator Burke and thank the Minister of State, although I acknowledge it is not a matter for the Department in which he has responsibility. The industry needs support. The collection, holding and recovery of this material urgently needs a new way of thinking and a new model that can assist private and public contractors in working together.

I acknowledge the contribution of both Senators and will relay their points to the Minister.

Election Monitoring Missions

I welcome the Minister of State. Election counts are to the fore of most of our minds at the moment as we watch the continuing drama in the United States, and we hope this will resolve itself sooner rather than later. There are many countries, however, in the Third World and the former Soviet bloc where, sadly, we can never be certain the democratic process will be carried out freely and fairly. Ireland plays its part in helping to ensure that elections are conducted properly by taking part in election monitoring conducted by, among others, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE. The Department of Foreign Affairs maintains a list of approved election observers for this purpose, as the Minister of State will be aware. I understand that Ireland generally sends between 12 and 18 observers abroad per year but that this practice has been curtailed due to the restrictions on international travel because of Covid-19.

I have a particular interest in the area because I have had the privilege of being involved in election monitoring during my time as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe as a parliamentarian. What is done under the auspices of the OSCE involving volunteers - non-parliamentarians - is an even more significant and worthwhile activity, and those involved are very much to be commended on what they do.

The Minister of State spoke previously about efforts that are made to refresh and replenish the list of volunteers through a periodic recruitment process. Is this enough and is it being done often enough? My understanding is that the existing Irish roster largely comprises retired persons who sometimes cannot be deployed for medical reasons. Observers require a GP to sign them off for duty and this will not happen in the current climate. Should more be done?

The Minister of State issued a reply to a parliamentary question from Deputy Connolly on 15 October, which was repeated in a reply to a question from Deputy Richmond earlier this week, on 3 November. The reply stated that OSCE missions for upcoming elections in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova "have been reconfigured as limited election observation missions not requiring volunteer observers due to the difficulty which OSCE members have in nominating volunteers given the extent of the pandemic." I have copies of two lists published by the OSCE that give the names and nationalities of what are called long-term observers being sent to each of these countries. A total of 117 long-term observers from 14 countries were sent to observe these recent or upcoming elections. Clearly, these countries have had no difficulty in nominating volunteers notwithstanding the pandemic. It is my understanding that all these long-term observers are volunteers.

In view of this, why did the Minister of State tell the Dáil twice in recent weeks that OSCE member states are not sending volunteers when it seems they are? I am not for a moment imputing dishonesty to him but it seems there is a crossed wire in respect of the issue somewhere in the Department and it is important that be clarified. If 14 other countries are sending observers even with the Covid pandemic ongoing, why is Ireland not taking part? I hope Covid is not being used to shirk or dodge our responsibilities in this area.

Should we not offer Irish volunteer observers the opportunity to travel if they wish to do so, even if this meant they would have to quarantine voluntarily as a result? The Department has travel insurance in place for observers it deploys, which should cover the costs.

As the Senator noted, the Department maintains an election observation roster comprising highly qualified volunteers who are competitively selected. The roster is a demonstration of Ireland's contribution to the promotion of democracy, human rights and the rule of law as a member of the EU and the OSCE. Roster members are expected to discharge their responsibilities to a high standard. There are currently 199 appropriately qualified and trained volunteers on Ireland's election observation roster. The number of observers on the roster is more than adequate as the numbers deployed do not usually exceed 60 in any year. The current roster will expire at the end of 2023.

As the Senator will be aware, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, public health advice is to avoid non-essential travel. This obliges the Department to pay particular attention to the risks to volunteer observers and to the many people they will be in contact with arising from overseas travel, compounded by the extensive interactions with local populations and observers from many other countries. Having said that, and taking account of his contribution, I presume the Senator, being fully aware of the various stages of risk we have gone through with Covid-19, would not advocate anything that would be necessarily damaging to public health or our efforts to tackle Covid-19. I, like the roster members, look forward to public health circumstances enabling the safe nomination of members from the Irish roster for consideration by the EU and the OSCE for participation in observer missions. When we can do that safely, we will keep it under active review to ensure it can be done. I commend to the Senator a detailed note on the operation and mustering of the roster, which the Department sent to the Oireachtas last year.

I will take this opportunity to set out for the House some important considerations regarding the effective operation of Ireland's roster. In 2013, the Department decided to professionalise the membership of the roster through introducing competitive mustering of rosters and limiting the lifespan of a given roster, which has greatly improved the quality of Irish election observation. One individual, however, and recently a second individual, who failed to be selected in an open competition for the roster have, through their actions, actively tried to undermine the credibility and smooth operation of the roster. Both individuals generate considerably more correspondence than that from actual members of the roster, taken together, with the Department. One of the individuals has sent 120 messages to the Department since the lockdown began in March, which averages at about one per working day during the pandemic. The burden this creates, by voluminous correspondence and transparency requests and appeals, has significant implications for operational efficiency. This has also substantially increased the cost to the State of the operation of the roster. An additional full-time staff official has been employed to deal with the workload generated by these individuals. The cost last year of dealing with the volume of work generated by individuals significantly exceeded the annual budget of €180,000 for Ireland's participation in international election observation.

Given that there have been so many parliamentary questions and freedom of information issues relating to this, it is important to state we owe enormous thanks to the volunteers whose membership of the roster does Ireland such honour. We will continue to work with them to ensure that when they can be safely deployed and we can take part in a way that is safe for the people taking part but also in a way that will not damage our policy of having no non-essential travel overseas to reduce our exposure to Covid-19, we will do so and return to that.

This is not only for the people taking part. We must ensure they can safely take part in a way that does nothing to damage our policy of having no non-essential travel outside the country. The reasons are obviously to do with lowering our exposure to Covid-19. We will of course do this and return to it.

The Minister of State has not addressed the contradiction between what has been said in the Dáil already about OSCE member states not sending volunteers and the fact that I have demonstrated that they have been sending volunteers. They are also facing the challenges of the pandemic.

It is to disrespect the important work of election monitoring to suggest that the pandemic would be a reason for putting a stop to Irish people going abroad on this important work. It amounts to colluding in a situation where, because many people are unable to do so for medical reasons, the Government would not expand it.

The next review of observers is in 2022, as I understand it. This issue needs to be prioritised. There needs to be a change of criteria and outlook. There is also potential for doing some of this work online. That has to be looked at.

There is something wrong here. I take the point of the Minister of State. If people are raising significant concerns and generating voluminous correspondence, it may be because something is wrong or something is rotten in what is going on. A further reply is needed to this because I do not believe the Minister of State has addressed the particular issue. Other countries are doing it. Other countries are facilitating volunteers and it is important.

I will start by putting something immediately on record. There is not something rotten going on. That is a regrettable choice of words by Senator Mullen.

It is a key cornerstone of the way in which we operate that we are conscious of ensuring the well-being and safety of members of the Irish roster when selected. We are also conscious of ensuring the safety and health of everyone in our country. People who engage in international monitoring have to engage with large numbers of people in the country they visit. They have to engage with many international people when they are there because there is an international set of monitors. They will then return to our country.

Like almost everything else in our country at the moment, we must consider the primacy of healthcare, which I presume Senator Mullen is supportive of, to ensure we tackle Covid-19. This is always at the heart of everything we do. I thank Senator Mullen for his comments.

I want to clarify one point. I have no wish to say something is rotten but I did mean to say something may be rotten. I am concerned because, as I said, other countries are doing it and they are facing the pandemic. There is something unexplained that needs to be dealt with.

Other countries have different ways of doing things. The Government in this country puts the health and safety of our citizens first.

Schools Building Projects

The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, is welcome and I thank her for being here. I rise to raise with her the important topic of St. Mary's Special School in Navan. It has a requirement for a new building. A promise was made to provide one. It has been in existence for 43 years in Johnstown in Navan. The school has had a long-running battle to acquire this purpose-built building to educate the near 100 children who attend there from all across Meath and different counties. These children face the greatest challenges in life and have to rise early in the morning to ensure they are transported to their place of education. They were overjoyed in 2011, nine years ago, when the school was at last sanctioned for a purpose-built building to meet the needs of the pupils. Nine long years later they are still in temporary accommodation.

What makes this worse is that St. Mary's Special School was to be part of a three-school educational campus in Johnstown. It was an ambitious plan by the Department and a welcome one. What is annoying is that the other two components of that educational campus, the primary school and the secondary school, accommodate 1,000 students each. They flew through the planning, approval and architectural processes in the Department in Tullamore. They are built and open, thank God. What does it say that, nine years later, the most urgent component of the campus, St. Mary's Special School, is nowhere on the radar of the Department? Those students are being left behind.

A year and a half ago in March 2019 I stood on this spot to raise this particular issue with the then Minister of State, Jim Daly. It is frustrating that, a year and a half on, we are no nearer completion. The Minister of State at the time, Mr. Daly, referred to how it was part of the Department's six-year capital programme from 2015-21. Even at that, we should be welcoming the opening of the school next year but we are nowhere near there.

Let us roll back two years ago to 2018. The then Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Richard Bruton, led a troop of Ministers to the site. He met students and there were colourful pictures on the front page of the newspaper - fair play to the Meath Chronicle - and calls to build the school immediately. They have been listening to this for nine years. Yet, two years on from that visit there is still no movement on this particular project.

The parents of the children there now know their children will never see or realise the dream of being educated in the new facility. Hundreds of children, unfortunately, have gone on during the past nine years. They have been unable to enjoy a proper educational facility. I think of the many children over 43 years of the existence of this school. They are angry. They do not believe what is said anymore. They are looking for hope. Their children might not get the opportunity to enjoy this facility.

I hope the Department will not toy with the emotions - I am directing this to the officials - of the people involved anymore. They have had enough of that. They are looking for a clear pathway with a timeframe on when this will be delivered.

I thank Senator Cassells for raising this issue. I understand his frustration. I have heard him raise this issues on many occasions previously. I hope I will be able to give a little clarity on behalf of the Minister for Education, Deputy Norma Foley, who is unavailable and unable to be here this morning. I thank the Senator for giving me an opportunity to outline to the Seanad the current position relating to the major building project for St. Mary's Special School in Navan, County Meath. The new school, when complete, will be part of a shared campus with Coláiste na Mí and the already completed St. Stephen's National School.

The project will deliver the phase 2 completion for Coláiste na Mí and a new 11-classroom special school building for St. Mary's with associated ancillary accommodation to cater for pupils with a range of learning disabilities. Senator Cassells referred to the almost 100 children we are talking about.

In December 2018, the project completed stage 2(a), developed design, and was subsequently authorised to proceed to stage 2(b), detailed design, which normally includes the applications for planning permission, a fire certificate and a disability access certificate as well as the preparation of tender documents. Planning permission for this particular project was sought earlier than usual in the architectural planning process during stage 2(a) as a means to identify any potential planning issues which might arise.

Earlier this year, the Department reviewed and approved a brief change request relating to traffic management and this has now been incorporated by the design team into the tender documentation. In June 2020 the Department received further brief change requests and the stage 2(b) submission for this project. The review of the stage 2(b) tender documentation is currently nearing completion. When this review is complete, the project will be progressed to tender and construction stages.

In order to expedite the progression of this major building project, the Department has authorised the school and its design team to commence the pre-qualification process to select a shortlist of contractors while the Department is reviewing the stage 2(b) submission. The design team submitted a draft pre-qualification report to the Department last week and the Department has this week authorised the design team to complete the pre-qualification process. Subject to the review of the stage 2(b) submission, no issues arising and completion of the pre-qualification process, the Department of Education, on behalf of the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, will contact Louth and Meath Education and Training Board and the board of management of St. Mary's Special School with regard to the further progression of the project to tender and construction stages.

I thank the Minister of State for the response. I am sure that she can understand my frustration when one looks at the detail in the reply from the Department and the painstakingly slow progress that it has taken in respect of this matter, including the referenced to the move to phase 2 of the secondary school that is on the campus for Coláiste na Mí. Meanwhile,43 years later these children are still in temporary school accommodation and many thousands of them have passed through.

I welcome the advancement whereby the design team submitted its report to the Department last week. However, I will not let up on my pressure on the Department. I will liaise with the Minister of State because through her portfolio she has a particular interest in this issue, and with the Minister for Education to make sure that this project receives priority, as promised, and is delivered in the coming year and that we are not back here in a year awaiting an update from officials.

The Senator has articulated the position clearly and passionately. I understand his frustration and that of the hundreds of children, their parents and guardians on a daily basis, especially as other schools on the campus have been completed. I will convey the Senator's concerns to the Minister and speak to her about it.

I reiterate that to expedite the progression of this major building project, the Department authorised the school and its design team to commence the pre-qualification process. Unfortunately, it is a slow process, which I know having been involved in many building projects. I have no doubt that the Senator's commitment and drive, and I am happy to meet him at any time. As the Minister of State with responsibility for mental health, I am aware that school accommodation has a knock-on effect on children and parents alike.

Local Improvement Scheme

I welcome the Minister of State back to the House. I thank her for taking time out of her busy schedule to attend.

I would like to talk about the local improvements scheme, LIS. LIS funding provides works for small roads and laneways in rural Ireland that do not come under the normal maintenance performed by local authorities. These lanes are used to access people's homes, farms and businesses. They also allow people to access local attractions such as lakes, rivers, parks and so on.

The previous Government allocated €10 million in both 2019 and 2020 for the LIS. Unfortunately, as the Minister of State will be well aware, the funding is totally inadequate. The funding for my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan means that each county got approximately €250,000, which I am disappointed to say that is totally inadequate based on the number of people who are waiting to get lanes done.

Previous Ministers have referred applicants to local authorities for discretionary funding but they do not have the luxury of discretionary funding because the road budgets for local and regional roads have been cut year-on-year. Discretionary funding simply does not arise. This has reached the stage where funds must be ring-fenced for the LIS. We need a decent amount that will go some way to addressing the long waiting lists in every county, and I am sure the Minister of State's county is no different in that regard.

These lanes are used to access at homes, business and local amenities. At the moment there is much talk of rural regeneration, which is positive, even more so now because of Covid-19 where people have been forced to work from home. Many businesses have discovered that people can work from home without having a negative effect on the business or, indeed, the employer. One basic right for anyone is to access one's home or business on a private laneway but access is a serious problem. I have heard of stories of emergency vehicles being unable to access their destinations because the local roads were in such bad condition.

I plead with the Minister of State to use her good offices to impress on Government the need for us to return to the way this scheme used to operate where X amount was allocated each year for the LIS. Unfortunately, due to a lack of funding down through the years, the lists have become very long and if one lives in counties Monaghan or Cavan one might have to wait up to 15 years to get a lane done, which is crazy. I ask her to send a positive signal to rural Ireland and inform us that the Government will take the LIS and the people who live along these roads seriously by allocating a decent amount to address the long waiting lists for the scheme.

I thank the Senator for raising this important scheme. We are all familiar with the scheme in our constituencies. I am responding to this matter on behalf of the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Heather Humphreys, as she is unable to attend.

As the Senator rightly said, the local improvement scheme is a programme for improvement works on small private or non-public roads in rural areas that are not under the normal maintenance of the local authorities. The scheme is funded by the Department of Rural and Community Development and is administered through the local authorities.

The statutory basis for the LIS is set out in section 81 of the Local Government Act 2001. Since the LIS was relaunched in its own right in 2017, which we all welcomed at the time, more than €58 million has been allocated to local authorities for improvements work on approximately 2,350 roads. The scheme is important to many people in rural areas as these roads provide access to agricultural lands, homes and amenities such as graveyards and beaches.

The Department of Rural and Community Development provides an allocation of funding each year to the local authorities for work on LIS roads. The selection of roads to be funded under the scheme is then a matter for each local authority based on the priority or condition of particular small private or non-public roads in their county. The local authority may rely on existing lists of eligible roads and-or advertise for new applicant roads.

As outlined in the legislation, eligible road projects are those that provide access to parcels of land involving two or more persons engaged in separate agricultural or harvesting activities, including turf or seaweed. Applicants should provide documentation to verify that they are engaged in agricultural or harvesting activities on the parcel of land. This can be a herd or flock number, documents from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine or any other equivalent documentation. The onus is on the individual applicants to submit to their local authority the required documentation in support of their eligibility.

As the Senator will be aware, individual applicants make a contribution towards the roads project. This can vary from 10% to 15% depending on how many beneficiaries are on the particular road. This contribution was capped at €1,200 for 2020 but the majority of beneficiary contributions were well below the figure. Works can also be carried out on amenity roads, which are non-public roads that lead to important community amenities such as graveyards, beaches, piers, mountain access points and other tourism or heritage sites.

To get to the nub of the Senator's question, an allocation of €10 million was made available for 2020 for the LIS. I understand that most works under the scheme have now been completed. The Minister expects a full drawdown of the 2020 allocation by year-end and that 345 roads will have had works completed.

Recognising the value of the scheme for people living in rural Ireland, the Minister is pleased to note that there will be an increase in the allocation for the LIS in budget 2021. Funding for the scheme next year will increase by 5% to €10.5 million. The distribution of this funding to each of the relevant local authorities will be announced early next year when the scheme is formally launched by my colleague.

I thank the Minister of State for her response on behalf of the relevant line Minister.

I welcome the additional funding because any day one gets additional funding is a good day. Nevertheless, I am disappointed because the amount of funding being talked about is totally inadequate. For example, in my own county of Monaghan, and in many others, it is not possible for people to put their lanes on a list because the local authority has closed the list because the list so long and it does not have funding to do the work.

Unless and until the Government changes its thinking on this issue, many people will be waiting 15 years or longer to get lanes done and this is not the situation to be in at present. I welcome the comments on behalf of the Minister but more funding is needed so the long lists of local authority lanes that need to be done are done.

I thank the Senator for his comments and for welcoming the additional funding. I agree that the scheme is well oversubscribed. I know from my local authority area that it is a hugely successful scheme and it is a great opportunity for people and landowners to work in co-operation with local authorities to improve poor access roads to amenities such as beaches and piers. I will speak to the Minister directly and I will raise the Senator's concerns. He acknowledged that the funding has been increased by 5%. This is a significant opportunity for all local authorities to improve very poor roads and road access for people, particularly those who are farming. I will certainly come back to the Senator on this.

Healthcare Policy

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, to the Chamber and I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this important matter. It is an issue that has grown in prominence on account of Covid-19, and it was raised with me by the family of a woman who spent more than six weeks in intensive care in a Dublin hospital battling Covid-19 and its significant after-effects.

The woman in question underwent a cancer operation, which, thankfully, was successful, but she contracted pneumonia in hospital and spent almost eight weeks on that occasion in ICU. Following the excellent care from the team in the hospital, she was transferred from ICU and was on the road to recovery when, unfortunately, Covid-19 struck. Like so many people, she contacted the virus in hospital and had to be moved back to ICU and placed on a ventilator again. I understand that in most cases a ventilated person has to be kept heavily sedated, including in paralysis, due to the body's natural tendency to reject the ventilator. One can only imagine the worry and concern the family experienced as their loved one made it through ICU and into recovery only to be rushed back to ICU on account of this new and unknown virus.

On this second occasion, the patient was in a weakened state and gravely ill. It was at this time a nurse in the ICU mentioned to the family there was a do not resuscitate, DNR, order on their relative's file. This came as a complete shock to the already anxious and worried family. It led to several days of attempting to establish what the DNR order meant in practice at a time all hospital visiting had ceased and all communication with families was conducted over the phone. Very often, the staff member assigned to liaise with a family was a retired person who worked not from the hospital but from home. The family was told the nurse should not have mentioned the DNR order in the manner in which it was done. The family received an apology and an explanation regarding the reasons for a DNR order.

The family was told that over the previous 18 months, the HSE had wanted to be very clear on how far treatment was to be taken. The family was told that in the event of cardiac arrest, the DNR order would come into effect because cardiac arrest in ICU represents a failure in terms of the treatment. In the event of a cardiac arrest the quality of life of the patient would be negligible. This may all seem rational as I stand here now but at a time when a relative is seriously ill in ICU on account of a new illness and all hospital visiting had been suspended, it is a difficult concept to understand or accept.

Thankfully, in this case the woman overcame Covid-19 and has made a strong recovery in spite of the odds, which were stacked very much against her, and she is at home now with her family. However, the family's experience raises serious questions over the use and practice regarding DNR or do not attempt resuscitation, DNAR, orders. From my limited knowledge of the issue, I understand there is no strict definition of what a DNR order constitutes, although it generally it is taken to mean an order that no intervention be made when a person suffers cardiac arrest. There are no written guidelines for hospitals, although I stand to be corrected. There is no specific legislation in operation to guide this sensitive area.

The Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act 2015 provides a legal framework for advanced healthcare directives but, to the best of my knowledge, the relevant section in Part 8 of the Act has not been commenced. In May, the Irish Hospice Foundation highlighted the need for the commencement of the legislation on account of Covid-19. I understand the national office for human rights and equality policy in the national quality improvement team of the HSE has oversight of guidance on DNAR orders and has been working to help prepare for the commencement of the legislation.

We need clarity in the use of DNR and DNAR orders in Irish hospitals and healthcare facilities. We need clarity on how patients' wishes are respected and we need clarity on the role of families and next of kin. We need an information campaign to raise awareness of DNR orders and the wider area of advanced healthcare directives. We need to spark a national conversation on these issues. It is never easy to discuss end-of-life matters because it forces us to confront our own mortality and the pain and loss caused by bereavement. The best time for such a conversation is before a pandemic. The second-best time is now. These issues are relevant at any time but particularly as we challenge and continue to grapple the unprecedented challenge of Covid-19.

I thank the Senator for raising this very important issue. He is definitely right that the conversation needs to be had. I am delighted to hear the person involved, who brought it to the his attention, has recovered.

The HSE's national quality improvement team in the office of the chief clinical officer prepared and published guidance on this important matter earlier this year, with specific reference to the Covid-19 pandemic. This guidance is for healthcare workers regarding advance care planning and cardiopulmonary resuscitation decision-making, including making DNR decisions. The guidance is applicable to all care environments where services are provided for and on behalf of the HSE, including acute hospitals, the ambulance service, community hospitals, residential care settings, general practice and home care.

Section 4 of the HSE national consent policy, which has been in place since 2013, on DNAR orders, and the HSE guidance regarding cardiopulmonary resuscitation and DNAR decision making during the Covid-19 pandemic, apply to all HSE and HSE funded agencies and give explicit guidance on when and how a DNAR decision can be made. Part 4 of the HSE's national consent policy has been in place since 2013. However, DNAR clinical decisions had been in place for many years before this, guided by the Irish Medical Council's code of professional conduct and ethics. The HSE guidance regarding cardiopulmonary resuscitation and DNAR decision-making during the Covid-19 pandemic was developed in May 2020. The purpose of the guidance is to affirm existing good clinical practice and guidelines regarding CPR and DNAR. The guidance did not change any of the principles addressed in the HSE's national consent policy of 2019.

The development of the HSE National Consent Policy 2013 included service user representation and there was wide consultation on this policy, which also included a large number of service user groups and individuals. The national consent policy states with respect to individual DNAR clinical decisions that where a person has capacity the clinical lead should discuss options with the person in the first instance. This is very important. If the person is unable to participate in discussions after being given appropriate supports to do so, discussions with those close to them can provide insight into their previously expressed goals and preferences. However, the role of those close to the person is not to make the final decision regarding CPR or to consent to a DNAR decision as this authority does not exist under current law. The purpose of these discussions is to help the senior clinical decision maker make the most appropriate decision, having regard to the goal and preference of the person.

Decisions about CPR must always be made on the basis of an individual assessment of each individual case and not, for example, solely on the basis of age or disability. Any distinction based solely on such criteria is discriminatory and contrary to human rights principles. DNAR decisions are made in the context of the person's overall goals and preferences for treatment and care as well as the likelihood of success and the potential risks and harms.

I thank the Minister of State for that comprehensive reply. The most important point is that the lady in question received excellent care in the hospital in question and there is no question about that. The second most important point is that the lady in question has made a full recovery. The issue at stake here is with regard to her making a decision, or the family being informed and consulted, which they were not in this case.

The nurse in question made the very welcome call to the family and stated that there was a do-not-resuscitate order, DNR, which came as news to the family. Subsequent calls from people said she should not have informed the family. That is worrying because the family have a right to know what is happening with their loved one in terms of a DNR. I will bring this information back to the family and if they need to follow up, I am sure the Minister of State will be happy to liaise with them. It is important that lessons are learned and better procedures are followed in life and death issues like this.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue and thereby providing the opportunity to discuss this matter in the House. The fundamental principles of good clinical practice in sensitive policy issues are non-discriminatory decision making, advanced care planning and assessment of the balance of benefit and harm. The Covid-19 pandemic presents new challenges in making advanced care plans and in cardiopulmonary resuscitation decision making.

The Senator has made two good points at the start. An information campaign would be hugely important. I will make a suggestion because this is an area that needs more discussion and we will not be able to solve it in eight minutes in this House. It might be worth writing to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health to suggest it takes a look at the issue. It is only when a family is in that situation that they realise there is something on a file they are not comfortable with. I welcome the fact the Senator has raised the issue and I will bring it back to the Minister for Health and raise the Senator's concerns.

Sitting suspended at 10.41 a.m. and resumed at 11 a.m.