Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Agriculture Schemes

I welcome the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, to the House to discuss the issue of the calf investment scheme. Last January, a calf investment scheme was announced, initially for €1.5 million. It was expanded to €4 million. Some 2,500 farmers have applied for the scheme. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the Minister's detailed report because I want to know how many farmers received a payment under the scheme. It is a worthy scheme. It gave the opportunity for on-farm investment to farmers when it came to calf rearing. This has been a deficit in the system over the past few years. We have seen a major expansion in dairy and beef herds, particularly on the dairy side. A total of 1.5 million dairy cows will calve in January, February and March and investment in calf-rearing equipment on those farms will be welcomed.

The one drawback of the scheme, which I have mentioned, is that it was announced on 7 January this year. For a three-week period between 7 January and 28 January, farmers had an opportunity to apply for this scheme at the start of the calving season. It was illogical in that sense. It is akin to announcing the Christmas bonus on St. Stephen's Day. If we are to have a new calf-rearing scheme, it needs to be announced in the next few days. Announcing it in January is too late for the industry. The preparatory work that goes into spring calving has begun. Sheds are being cleaned out and washed and equipment is being readied. From 7 January, 1.5 million dairy cows will calve, particularly in my part of the world. That preparation is in full swing at the moment. I hope we have a new scheme and that it is announced shortly in order that dairy farmers who need this equipment will have the opportunity to apply in a timely manner. That has to be in the month of December, allowing an opportunity to have the equipment in place for when the calving season starts in full.

This was a new scheme. It is important to acknowledge it was the first of this nature. Because it was a new scheme, we had to learn from the pitfalls. There were positive aspects but the opportunity is there for a new scheme. However, it has to be rolled out in December to give farmers the opportunity to apply and get the equipment in place so when they have the busy spring period, which is only eight weeks away, they can have the equipment to work through the calf rearing, which has been an important part of the animal welfare issues we have been trying to work through in the past few years.

Covid is another issue. There has been a reduction in labour in farms. This scheme allows for a major reduction in labour. The labour required in calf rearing is immense. By investing in this equipment, labour is reduced. Labour is not there at the moment anyway, but it reduces the opportunity for being caught offside regarding the availability of labour.

I welcome the Minister's report and look forward to responding to him. Will we get a copy of the written statement?

I welcome the opportunity to provide an update on the calf investment scheme for farmers. I thank the Senator for raising this matter, which he has raised on many occasions before on the agriculture committee and which he has a strong commitment to developing.

This on-farm investment scheme supporting investments in calf-related items opened to farmers last January. The scheme was one of a series of measures put in place in advance of the spring calving season last year with a view to ensuring the best possible calf welfare outcomes. The scheme is fully funded by the Exchequer. A total of €4 million was secured to fund the scheme, which was open for applications between 7 January and 28 January this year. The minimum investment required for the scheme was €1,000, while the maximum investment was €7,500, with both figures excluding VAT. A 40% grant aid applied to applications meeting the terms and conditions of the scheme. This means the maximum grant payment per holding was €3,000.

I am pleased to report that there was a great deal of interest in the scheme with 2,414 applications received. Approvals to proceed with the investments issued to 2,338 applicants. Applications for payment could be submitted as soon as the investment was complete. The final date for the submission of payment claims was extended to 30 September 2020 in light of Covid-19 restrictions. More than 1,500 payment claims were submitted by this date, which is a substantial number. Payments under the calf investment scheme commenced in August 2020 and are issuing on an ongoing basis as cases are cleared by the Department for payment. Any applicant who has been contacted by the Department with a query regarding their payment claim is urged to respond as soon as possible to provide for the earliest possible issue of payment.

With regard to calf welfare, I recently attended a meeting of the calf stakeholder group, which is an ongoing group hosted by my Department, to hear the activities that various stakeholders are taking to support and ensure the welfare of calves born in Ireland each year. It was good to hear the positive contribution of the various participants, including the farm organisations, and that Ireland's position with regard to calf health and welfare compares favourably internationally.

I was pleased to note the ongoing research initiative by the Department and Teagasc on the issue of the transport of calves and the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation-Teagasc projects on enhancing dairy/beef integration efforts.

It is also important to point out that the Department continues to operate a large on-farm investment scheme, namely, the targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, TAMS. TAMS comprises a suite of seven measures and was launched under the Rural Development Programme 2014-2020, with a budget of €395 million over the full period of that programme. To date, expenditure under TAMS II has exceeded €242 million. Under the young farmer capital investment scheme, additional support is available for young trained farmers and they are offered a higher rate of grant aid of 60%, compared to the standard rate of 40%. Payments under the TAMS II scheme continue to issue on an ongoing basis.

I encourage all approved participants who have completed their investments to submit their payment claims. I also urge any calf investment scheme applicants with any outstanding query from my Department to respond as soon as they are able to do so to allow for the early issue of payments under the scheme.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive response. I take it that 838 applicants still have not responded to the issue. In fact, it is more. Does he know how much money is left in the budget pot? How much is unclaimed? Is there a proposal in the Department to have a new scheme? Does the Minister think a new calf investment scheme will be announced in 2021? Does he think it will be announced at an earlier date than this year? Will there be any calf investment scheme? The uptake of this scheme has been amazing. The interest from the agricultural community in my part of the world is very much there. I am worried that we will not have a scheme this year. It is important that we do. Will the Minister clarify if he is proposing to have a scheme for 2021? If so, when will he announce the dates?

I do not have the figure to hand but there is sufficient funding in place to cater for the number of applications that were approved. There is not funding in next year's budget for a new calf welfare scheme. In the budget, I secured an 11% increase in funding for the Department compared to the funding for the outgoing year. That is significant and is targeted at ensuring we can continue all the schemes in place at the high level they are at. There is not specific follow-on funding in place for this.

I take the Deputy's point on the timing of this year's scheme but almost 2,500 farmers applied. That has made a significant benefit, which will be there this year for those farmers too. I will monitor it. It was a successful scheme, which contributed significantly to calf welfare and management on farms.

I will continue to monitor its success and the need for any further investment. I thank the Senator for raising the issue.

School Accommodation

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. In 2019, the then Department of Education and Skills entered into an agreement with Limerick and Clare Education and Training Board to provide seven classrooms and ancillary accommodation at Gaelscoil Mhíchíl Cíosóg in Ennis at an estimated cost of €3 million. The project had been agreed, a design team was put in place and plans were drawn up, the normal procedures for the development of such a school.

I express my appreciation for the work the team in Gaelscoil Mhíchíl Cíosóg in Ennis has achieved over the years. In 2006, the school was the fastest growing Gaelscoil outside of Dublin with an enrolment of 190 pupils. In 2020, a total of 481 pupils are on the roll. It is a fast developing school and has played into the development of the Irish language in County Clare and the wider area. That has been well recognised with further investment in the Gaelcholáiste in Ennis Community College. The school has provided a seed for the rebirth of the Irish language in the area.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that the plans have been drawn up and an agreement is in place, there is no provision for an adequate sports hall and assembly area. That is a major deficit from the perspective of the Department. It would make sense to include a sports hall and assembly area as part of the overall investment. The Minister knows that the economy of scale achieved in doing this type of work when builders are on site far outstrips trying to do work at a later date. A two-stream school needs those kinds of facilities. There is inclement weather in the west of Ireland, similar to the weather in Dublin today. That is a regular feature of life in the west and it would be inappropriate for children not to have the necessary facilities. I appeal to the Minister, notwithstanding the protestations from the Department, to have another look at this project and try to provide the appropriate infrastructure to a school like this. It educates our children and develops the Irish language.

There is a wonderful team in the school, under the principal, Mr. Dónal Ó hAiniféin, and a fantastic board of management which has put a lot of work into this project. Let them get on with their job of running the school, rather than having to continuously deal with the Department and argue over whether a sports hall and general purpose area should be included in the project. They have done so much to get the school to this point. I appeal to the Minister of State to put in place, or add to the agreement that is already in place, provision for a sports hall. It is needed and is important. I hope the Minister of State can advance the case as soon as possible.

I congratulate Senator Dooley on his appointment to the Seanad and thank him for raising this matter. It allows me to clarify the current position on Gaelscoil Mhíchíl Cíosóg which, as the Senator said, is a Catholic co-educational school with an emphasis on the Irish language. I understand it has 471 pupils; the Senator said there are 481. Either way, it has a large school population.

I will outline some of the background to this matter. In 2014, the school authority applied to my Department for capital funding under the additional school accommodation scheme. The Department subsequently approved an extension to the existing school building comprising five mainstream classrooms and two special education tuition rooms, on which I commend the school. Delivery of the project was devolved to Limerick and Clare Education and Training Board.

At that time, the school authority was requested to manage its enrolment and not grow beyond the principal and 18 mainstream teachers in line with the approved accommodation. Following the appointment of the design team to the project in 2015, a master plan for the project was submitted to the Department for consideration. It outlined accommodation for a principal and 20 teachers and included a substantial new physical education, PE, and general purpose area, along with ancillary and administrative areas which were not approved as part of the project brief and would not qualify for funding under the terms of the additional school accommodation scheme.

At a meeting with officials from the Department that year, the school authority signalled its intention to reject the devolved funding offer. However, in 2018 a further meeting between officials and the school authority was held and agreement was reached to increase the scope of the project to include two additional mainstream classrooms, in effect raising the long-term projected staffing for the school to one principal and 20 teachers. At that meeting, the matter of a new PE and general purpose area, to which the Senator referred, was also discussed.

My officials once again informed the school authority that the provision of a PE hall did not form part of the additional school accommodation scheme and could not be considered for inclusion in the accommodation brief for the proposed extension. The school authority was advised at that meeting that it was open to it to apply for this accommodation under the major capital programme to be considered in future years. The approved building project is, as the Senator knows, currently in the early stage of the architectural design process.

A stage 1 submission was approved by the Department in April 2020. The school authority had again requested that the brief be amended to include a sports hall and had submitted drawings showing a sports hall included. The position of the Department, from my instructions, remains unchanged and it is not possible to fund a PE hall or general purpose room under the additional school accommodation scheme.

As the Senator will be aware, capital planning and budgeting are undertaken on a multi-annual basis. Under Project Ireland 2040, the education sector will receive approximately €12 billion between 2018 and 2027. This includes €8.8 billion for the school sector and €2.2 billion for higher education infrastructure. The specific allocations in each area are closely monitored and may be adjusted from year to year to take account of project progress and other factors. Since 2018, in excess of €1.2 billion has been invested in capital infrastructure under the school building programme. A further €725 million has been allocated for investment in 2020.

As the Senator knows, the Department has a large pipeline of projects for delivery under the school building programme. The main elements of the pipeline currently include 372 large-scale projects and approximately 800 projects for delivery under the Department's additional school accommodation scheme, which includes the additional accommodation project for Gaelscoil Mhíchíl Cíosóg.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. The effort made by the board and principal of the school at the time to get the development that was needed was substantial. The school was working out of temporary accommodation. The only option available to the school was the additional school accommodation scheme, which is what the authority was told. Regardless of what scheme the project fell under, there will be 20 teachers, associated classes and a two-stream school when the structure has been completed.

I know full well what goes on in the Department from having dealt with this issue year after year in respect of other schools. It has a rigid silo approach. That will have to be dismantled a little bit. I know the Minister of State is committed to that kind of work. We will have to tear down some of the silos. Schools have been told that they can only get X if they are in scheme Y. If the project proceeds, there will be 20 teachers and 16 mainstream classes, but no sports hall. That will have a negative impact on the education of the children in the school.

We all recognise that a sports hall will have to be built under some scheme at some stage, which will cost a lot more money. I am hopeful that some of the people in the bowels of the Department can start to think more broadly and outside of the box on schemes they have developed. With the political leadership of the Minister of State, I have no doubt that some consideration will be brought to bear in due course.

I thank the Senator. I will bring his comments and contribution to the attention of the MinisteR. We would be ad idem about having a sports hall in a gaelscoil. We want children to be able to partake in physical exercise but there is certain criteria for certain schemes. In this context, the application for Gaelscoil Mhíchíl Chíosóg for a PE room will be considered under Project Ireland 2040 funding and that is open.

While good progress continues to be made with the roll-out of projects, the enhanced funding levels envisaged under the national development plan, NDP, will be key to ensuring the successful delivery of the remaining elements of the pipeline of projects, for the period 2018 to 2027. I can assure the Senator that it is very important to the Department of Education that all children will be in a position to avail of sports and exercise within school buildings as opposed to just outside.

Special Educational Needs

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Education, Deputy Madigan, to the House, and I congratulate her on her new role. It is a pleasure to have her here.

My Commencement matter is a very straightforward issue. We are all aware that the number of people diagnosed with autism every year is on the increase in this country. We have done quite well in recent years with regard to the autism spectrum disorder, ASD, units in the primary school sector. I tabled my Commencement matter because we are not doing so well at secondary school level. I want to find out from the Minister of State whether there are specific plans in place to build more ASD units in County Clare and all over the country. All across the country there is only one place for every three pupils who need a secondary school ASD unit. The children who have come from ASD units at primary school have grown accustomed to the structure and routine with great results. Now we have parents who supported each other all the way as their children spent eight years in primary school now almost having to compete with each other for the one place that is available in the secondary school system. I would like to know what will remedy the situation.

For some reason, three quarter of the ASD units are attached to DEIS schools. Not in any scientific paper anywhere ever has it been shown that there is a socio-economic link with having autism. Why have units mainly been attached to DEIS schools? Why is it not allowed to attach ASD units to private schools that are funded by the State and that taxpayers help subsidise?

Can the Minister of State specifically tell me what will be done in the immediate and short term to increase the number of ASD units in secondary schools in County Clare? Why have 75% of all ASD units been attached to DEIS schools? That seems completely wrong. We want equity in education and we want the same choices for everybody so ASD units should be attached to all types of schools. Why is it not allowed to attach ASD units to private schools?

I thank the Senator for raising this important matter. May I also take the opportunity to congratulate her on her election to the Seanad?

Enabling children with special educational needs to receive an education appropriate to their needs is a priority for this Government and for me, as the first dedicated Minister with responsibility for this area. Next year, over 20% of the total education budget or €2 billion will be invested in supporting children with special educational needs. As a result, the numbers of special education teachers, special needs assistants, SNAs, and special class and school places are at unprecedented levels. As many as 197 new special classes have been established nationally for the 2020-21 school year. Of these, approximately 189 will be new ASD special classes with 64 of these in post-primary schools. Budget 2021 provided for an additional 235 special class teachers in 2021. We hope this investment will provide 1,200 additional special class places.

My Department's policy is that all children with special educational needs, including those with autism, can have access to an education appropriate to their needs and preferably in school settings through the primary and post-primary school network. This policy has been informed by published research, including the Report of the Task Force on Autism, entitled An Evaluation of Educational Provision for Children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders 2006, and the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, policy advice outlined in Supporting Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools. This policy ensures that the majority of children with SEN attend mainstream classes with their peers. Such placements facilitate access to individualised education programmes that may draw from a range of appropriate educational interventions. These are delivered by fully qualified teachers, with the support of SNAs, special education teachers and the appropriate school curriculum.

Some students may find it difficult to manage full-time placement in a mainstream setting. For these students, placement in a special class or special school setting, where lower pupil-teacher ratios apply and other supports are available, may be appropriate.

The National Council for Special Education is responsible for planning and co-ordinating local education provision and school placements for children with SEN. The NCSE has advised that there are currently nine special classes that support students with autism in post-primary schools in County Clare. One of these classes is an additional one for the 2020-21 school year.

The NCSE recognises that there is a requirement for additional special class provision at post-primary level, as mentioned by the Senator, in Shannon and Ennis over the next few years. This is based on local information regarding projected demand for future specialist places for students with autism. It is open to any school to make an application to the NCSE to open a special class, which will be approved where it is considered that there is a sustainable demand into the future. The active collaboration of school communities is vital to the effective inclusion of students with special educational needs. Planning for the future takes into consideration the current availability of such places and focuses on those locations where additional provision is required.

The NCSE is currently consulting with local schools, patrons, other education partners and my Department in order to ensure that additional post-primary special classes can be established, which is what was alluded to by the Senator. Where a school is not in a position to expand its specialist provision within its existing accommodation, the school can submit an application to my Department for capital funding to reconfigure existing spaces to accommodate the expansion or construct additional accommodation. The NCSE, through its network of local special educational needs organiser, SENOs, will continue to engage with the local schools to support the establishment of additional classes as required.

I thank Senator Garvey for giving me the opportunity to address this issue. My Department will continue to support the NCSE and schools through the provision of the necessary funding, and capital investment, to ensure all children are successful in accessing an education.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. One new class for 2020-21 means just six more places for the entire county of Clare. That will not even meet the needs of the eight pupils coming from Sixmilebridge to Shannon so the process needs to be sped up.

I heard the Minister of State's clear statement that it is up to schools to apply. That probably answers why private schools and non-DEIS schools do not seem to have any ASD units. Obviously they are do not want or are unwilling to supply the service to pupils with autism in their school communities, which is something that should be analysed by the Department if we want equity in education. Having 75% of all ASD units attached to DEIS schools is not good enough in this day and age. The service should be equally provided to all schools and I suggest that the Department conduct more research on the issue.

My question asking why private schools do not have ASD units was not answered. The situation with private schools, especially as they are State funded, is interesting and I shall raise the matter another time. I appreciate the Minister of State's response and I will continue to work with her on this issue.

The Senator mentioned joined-up thinking so I wish to reassure her that the Department meets the NCSE on a weekly basis. I am the very first Minister with dedicated responsibility for this area and there is a huge body of work to be done.

There is a forecasting model that is being developed with the NCSE so that we can work with existing schools and know, from a demographic perspective, how many children and people with special needs will need accommodation.

One of the announcements I made this week was that all new school buildings - I got this commitment from the Department - will be able to open and have space for special classes and sensory rooms in the future. The difficulty is with existing schools. We have the legislative mechanism under section 37A of the Education Act, which we have used occasionally. We used it in south and west Dublin and we are still in that process with some schools. We want to work with schools and we want them to work with us. The door of the NCSE is always open to engage with SENOs. I do not want any child with special needs ever to be in position that he or she would not obtain that access. There is equity in education and we want to ensure we reflect that adequately and provide for those children. I will do all I can to achieve that and I hope to work with the Senator on this in the future.

I understand now that it is also important for schools to apply for such units and that are not simply provided arising from a departmental stipulation.

Care of the Elderly

I thank the Acting Chairman and welcome the Minister of State to the House. It is good to see her back here again and I thank her for all of her work on the areas within her brief. I am aware that the Seanad recently discussed day care services for persons with disabilities. My Commencement matter has a specific focus in asking the Minister of State to outline when community social day care facilities for older persons and respite facilities for older persons and their families are expected to reopen. It is a more specific issue.

To give some context, we know that many families are struggling to cope because community day care facilities for older people have remained closed. Day care centres are used by approximately 14,200 people. Their closure means many carers are lacking a crucial support mechanism that enables them to take respite breaks. Sage Advocacy, a support and advocacy service for vulnerable and older adults that has been in communication with me, has been undertaking extensive research into a phenomenon known as carer burnout. The Minister of State will be well aware that this is seriously affecting those carers for whom services have not resumed. We await publication of the research findings but we are well aware of the issue.

Many people have contacted us because they are exhausted. Yesterday, in an article in The Irish Times, Professor Suzanne Cahill reported that 70% of spouse carers for people with dementia had at least two chronic health problems, one third had clinical depression and most had visited a health service professional in the previous month. This is clearly a wider public health issue as well as an issue of empathy, compassion and rights for older persons. Many facilities remain closed, meaning many older people may become increasingly socially isolated from their peer group and others. The lack of social interaction will have a negative effect on their mental and physical health and the health of their carers.

While I am conscious that we have had extensive discussion of this issue in the Oireachtas, without a timeframe there is a lack of certainty. I am aware that the HSE is undertaking risk assessments in respect of local services, which is very welcome, and that huge efforts are being made by those working in this area to ensure that services will be provided. However, the Government’s position remains that some services may not be suitable for reopening. Again, I understand that with current Covid-19 restrictions, the usual dynamic of social interaction has changed. Some facilities may simply not be suitable. The positive news on vaccines gives us hope that services will return to normal in due course. For many people and their families, an issue arises due to the absence of a timeframe and clarity on when all services will be able to reopen. The Minister of State, in answer to a parliamentary question on this matter last month, stated she would ask the HSE to continue to assess the risks and benefits of reopening and would explore alternative methods of service delivery for older people. Has she received an update on this? What arrangements will be made for those for whom reopening is simply not a viable possibility in the short term?

We have found ways to ensure our childcare facilities, schools, universities and colleges could reopen, at least in some form, within the parameters set out to protect public health. We are discussing plans for reopening the hospitality sector, including restaurants, as well as other sectors of society. This is clearly a vitally important part of a broader discussion around quality of life, especially as we have seen other healthcare facilities opening. Very important issues around the provision of healthcare for people in a non-Covid-19 environment are being recognised. I ask that the reopening of all day care services for older people be prioritised.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach Gníomhach and I congratulate her on taking the Chair. I also thank Senator Bacik for the constructive way in which she always raises these particular issues as they are very close to all of our hearts. I have just spent the last hour on a webinar with Irish Rural Link and a significant part of the conversation was spent discussing care of the elderly, meals on wheels, day care centres and active retirement groups which are hoping to restart. This is, therefore, a very timely Commencement matter.

As we are all aware, community services such as day care and respite play an important role in enabling older people to continue living in their communities and maintain their social connections. However, the introduction of physical distancing, isolation and restricted contact with loved ones has changed the usual dynamic of social interaction.

The HSE is working closely with providers and community staff to identify where service is most required and has been undertaking risk assessments of local services. This is to ensure, insofar as possible, that day care and respite services can resume in the context of Covid-19, having regard for public health advice. Services will resume when it is safe and all infection prevention and control measures and the requirements of physical distancing can be maintained to protect service users and staff and prevent any further spread of the virus. Unfortunately, I am not in a position to give a definitive timeline. When I was appointed to this role on 1 July our aim was to open these services in September and that is what we were working towards. The risk assessments were being undertaken in every community healthcare organisation, CHO. I was very hopeful at the time that we would be able to open them, even at a restricted level. Unfortunately, as we all know, the virus knows no boundaries and with the escalation again in the figures from the end of September into October, it has not been possible to do so.

Some day centres may not be suitable for reopening due to the constraints of their physical environment. It will be necessary to continue or expand alternative service delivery models. Some of the issues identified by the HSE include the sharing of facilities with other groups or clients and transportation of clients to day care centres where family members cannot assist. This has proven to be hugely problematic where some day care centres use small minibuses to move perhaps ten or 12 service users. The availability of isolation areas should a client or a member of staff become unwell is also an issue that has been identified.

The HSE has established a focus group to ensure day care centres continue to be prioritised and to develop a plan to assist service providers in having a suite of options available for the provision of day care and supports. This plan will be developed in line with the current Covid-19 roadmap.

Additional or new home support packages are being put in place for the most vulnerable clients, with the focus on both the carers and the persons who attend the day care services. A model of day care in the home is being finalised. Focused on individuals with dementia especially, this model is being reviewed with a view to transferring it to regular day care centres. The model will continue to develop even when day care centres reopen and will be based on the needs assessment and benefits for client and carers.

At present, the HSE is only allocating respite provision to clients most at risk of carer breakdown or an inappropriate admission to hospital. As the Senator will be aware, the whole premise of the winter plan is to try to keep older people at home as much as possible and avoid having to transfer them to acute hospitals. We are very conscious of those who are most at risk of inappropriate admission and respite occurs in such circumstances.

I thank the Minister of State. As always, she gave a comprehensive response and I note more detail is provided in the written response. I always endeavour to be constructive.

This is clearly a vitally important issue. The Minister of State frankly acknowledged that while the plan was to reopen in September, unfortunately that has not been possible. It is still very disappointing and frustrating for persons in need of these services and their families not to have any sense of a timeline. It gives hope to hear that a focus group has been established in the HSE to ensure services are being prioritised. It is also very helpful to hear about alternative service delivery models within those proposals. However, it would be great to be given a better indication of the sort of timeframe that might be envisaged by the HSE's focus group.

Clearly, planning is ongoing and, as the Minister of State noted, within that plan there is a recognition that some services will not be able to reopen and that alternative methods of delivery should be available. Perhaps she will elaborate a little more on the timeframe. Are we talking months or some time in the spring, for example? That would be helpful.

I fully understand the impact that the continued delays in reopening recreational respite services is having on older people and the important role this service plays. My mum attended a day-care centre near to where we live. She misses going there, the friends, the chat and the conversation. It is very important for people. All I can say is services will resume when it is safe to do so, but I cannot see that happening before Christmas. I am very hopeful that when we come out of lockdown, we will be able to open services, even at a reduced level, in the spring. That is what I am aiming for and I am working closely with the Department and the HSE to ensure that will become a reality. It will be difficult and not all services will be able to reopen. If we could, however, open some services at a reduced capacity, it would give hope to many and I will continue to work towards that.

Transport Infrastructure Provision

I thank the Minister of State for his time. All three Government parties gave commitments in their manifestos to carrying out a feasibility study of metro south west. This was given on the back of considerable campaigning by the Metro South West group. As the Minister of State might imagine, the campaign group was delighted when it heard that the study was going ahead but when it sought the terms of reference, it found that the study was confined to a stand-alone metro to Knocklyon. The group was informed by officials in the Department of Transport that it refers to a stand-alone line to the city rather than being a continuation of the MetroLink to south-west Dublin. It makes no reference to that preferred option of continuation and does not take into account Firhouse as an area of growing population. The lack of this continuation of the link was the very basis on which the campaign over recent years was mounted. There was a lack of consultation with the group, which is a matter of regret because taxpayers' money is now being spent on a feasibility study where there is a perception that it has been designed to fail.

The group that is campaigning is not a fly-by-night group; it represents 35 residents' associations in that south-west triangle between the two Luas lines. They have gone to considerable effort to demonstrate that buses alone cannot deliver sufficient capacity to fulfil the public transport needs in south-west Dublin. The contrast between south-west and south-east Dublin is quite stark. South-east Dublin has the DART, the Luas and the long-established high-quality bus corridor along the Stillorgan Road, whereas south-west Dublin connectivity is based on buses alone. A deep analysis has gone into BusConnects, taking it at its height with all that it proposes. There still will be only an additional three buses and an additional capacity of 240 seats and passengers for that huge area of population and an even larger projected population. Developers are actively building houses, South Dublin County Council is developing land and 480 ha has been zoned for residential development. The bus capacity does not meet the population need, as it stands, let alone the future capacity. It is crucial, therefore, that buses will not be the only answer. We needed another solution and, as a result, an awful lot of work went into the south-west metro proposals, with an earnest analysis of the population and public transport capacity. It is deeply disappointing that the terms of reference of the feasibility study, as they stand, are so incredibly narrow.

The feasibility study should stand on a number of pillars. First, it should be independent and objective but, with due respect, the National Transport Authority, NTA, has stated that buses alone will meet the need. It has rejected the Metro South West group's proposals several times based on a significantly outdated study that has no relevance to the proposal as put forward by this campaigning group. It is not independent and does not seem objective, and so prescribing the terms of reference in this instance, I venture to say, is not appropriate on its part. The designation of the terminus for the continuation of the MetroLink should be left open. Prescribing it as Knocklyon greatly limits its capacity and its scope for being a really productive feasibility study. Lastly, it should be timely and co-ordinated so that the outcome of the feasibility study is in line with the rail order next year, and independent consultants need to be involved. The cost-benefit analysis of extending the MetroLink to south-west Dublin and using the boring machine there stands on its merits and makes sense.

I urge the Minister of State to have meaningful discussions with the campaign group and to include its views in the terms of reference.

I thank the House for inviting me to speak here for the first time. I am impressed by the passion and coherence of the question the Senator put forward. The Government is committed to a fundamental change in the nature of transport in Ireland. We believe that to deliver on this commitment, we need a whole-of-system perspective for all modes of transport, whether active travel, bus or rail. That means developing evidence-based multimodal transport strategies that will guide development over the medium and long terms, and transport strategies that are integrated with land use plans and enable local authorities to locate houses, jobs and other demand factors along high-capacity transport corridors. This is the type of framework that many of our EU and international peers use and it is the one that can deliver fundamental change.

In Ireland, we are beginning to see the emergence of that type of framework. In the greater Dublin area, there is a statutory 20-year transport strategy, developed by the NTA and approved by the Minister for Transport. It is a transport strategy that covers all modes and all counties in the greater Dublin area, namely, Dublin, Meath, Kildare and Wicklow. It must be reflected in all land use plans and is subject to extensive and statutory consultation during its development. The current strategy was published in 2016 and referred to two metro lines, effectively a metro north and a metro south. Those projects were initially considered for development as one project known as MetroLink but, in response to issues raised during the non-statutory consultation process, the preferred route for MetroLink is now proposed to link the estuary in north County Dublin with Charlemont on the Grand Canal and future-proof for a later connection to the Luas green line. That project will be taken forward for Government approval next year and, if approved, will be submitted to An Bord Pleanála.

That does not mean we are not open to new ideas or the potential for other metro options. The NTA is preparing to launch a review of the transport strategy to ensure that it is kept up to date and informed by latest developments. This need to review and refresh is both common sense and a requirement of the legislation, which states that the strategy must be reviewed by the NTA every six years. As part of that review, the NTA will consider the potential for future metro options in the greater Dublin area, including the potential for one in the south west of the city. The first step in considering that potential is to conduct a feasibility study, a process the NTA is seeking to start. The study will consider whether a metro-type solution should be pursued further for this part of the city. The study area will be similar to that considered in the original transport strategy and will examine the south-west corridor in general. This is just one analysis being conducted as part of the NTA's broader review of the transport strategy. The intention is that all these various strands of analysis will be published by the NTA next year as part of the public consultation on the review of the strategy. Everyone will then have an opportunity to consider the information and to put forward their views on how the revised transport strategy should look.

The transport strategy is a very important framework for the future development of transport infrastructure in the greater Dublin area and I expect that many people will have interesting ideas on what any revised strategy should contain. I look forward to hearing the Senator's views on the matter.

I note and fully respect the openness to modality changes for our entire population. There is no question that we are trying to encourage that. The Minister of State outlined an evidence-based framework that goes along with work patterns, residential capacity and predicted development.

However, the terms of reference for the Knocklyon feasibility study with Knocklyon being a stand-alone link, suddenly removes whole sections of the population who are currently only being served by buses. Therefore, having the metro terminate at Knocklyon does not make sense. With due respect to everything the National Transport Authority, NTA, does, it did a study previously where it also confined the population, whereas the population proposed by Metro South West group and everything it has based that proposal on is a population that is exactly the same as that which would justify the building of the green line. It really needs to be broadened and to consider the population of Firhouse.

As I said, it is whole-of-system approach. The route in the south west is not fixed. It is not decided yet. It is not even decided whether it will go south west. The south east is also being considered in a feasibility study as are other sections around the city. All the different proposals that are made for where we should expand our rail network will have to be prioritised according to each other. It is not yet fixed. I am happy to bring the Senator’s comments to the Minister. I absolutely recognise the south west of the city has a particular problem in terms of transport constraint due to the layout of the narrow streets. This came up during the BusConnects consultation in that it was a very difficult to put in public transport in that area. I am also aware that since 1975 there have been proposals for rail connections towards the south west of the city and beyond where the M50 is now.

I thank the Minister of State.

Public Procurement Contracts

Ar dtús by mhaith liom fáilte mhór a chur roimh an Aire Stáit chuig on Teach inniu. At the outset I welcome the Minister of State to the House and wish him every success in his role and portfolio.

I have been contacted by many people in County Monaghan and elsewhere who have voiced their annoyance, concern and anger at the number of substantial State contracts being awarded to contractors outside the State at the expense of local contractors. For example, from 2017 to 2020, Monaghan County Council awarded 22 State contracts of which ten were awarded to contractors outside the State. Upon further examination of the period 2019 to 2020, 13 contracts were awarded and eight of those were awarded to contractors outside the State. The total value of those eight contracts was €23,000,700. That is a substantial amount of money and a major potential loss to the local economy.

It is frustrating for a local contractor who tenders for such contracts to see businesses lose out and to see the business going outside the State. It is also frustrating when those same local contractors employ local people. Those same local contractors buy their materials from local suppliers and pay rates and taxes in this State. We all understand the State tendering process. However, local people in County Monaghan are asking questions about a tendering process that more often than not results in contracts being awarded to firms outside the State as opposed to contractors inside the State.

Many people are asking questions about the State tendering process that consistently results in local firms losing out. They seek some form of investigation into the awarding of substantial State contracts. All the contracts I mentioned are in excess of €1 million. We seek clarity that the process the State is currently undertaking is fair to everyone, that it is a level playing field and that there are no hidden areas that some people can take advantage of, especially from outside the State as opposed to contractors inside the State. I would like the State to carry out inspections before a contract is awarded, during the contract and at the end of the contract to ensure all areas of employment law and other areas are fully compliant and above board. Local contractors would like, where possible, to get work within their own county. It is extremely frustrating for them to see contracts being awarded to firms outside the State whose employees have to travel to the county in the first instance before they even start work and who also have that added expense.

I look forward to hearing the Minister of State's comments. In addition, what effect, if any, will Brexit have with respect to State contracts, particularly for people from outside the State?

The Senator acknowledged there are legal and regulatory hurdles to what we are trying to do here but I share his enthusiasm for what he is trying to achieve.

Public procurement in Ireland is governed by EU and national law, and national guidelines. The EU treaty principles of equal treatment and non-discrimination, transparency, mutual recognition, proportionality, free movement of goods and services and the right of establishment must be observed on all tenders. Public procurement procedures require all applicants to meet the standards set out in the tender documentation when applying for public contracts. The assessment of a tenderer's financial and economic standing, and professional and technical capacity is a key part of the procurement process. This is because the contracting authority must be satisfied that a tenderer has the necessary capacity to carry out a contract if awarded it.

Establishing the appropriate certifiable criteria that are relevant and appropriate to a particular contract is a matter for the contracting authority concerned. In this case it would be Monaghan County Council. This is because the contracting authority is in the best position to gauge the criteria that are appropriate to the needs of a proposed contract to ensure value for money and minimise risk to the Exchequer. The qualification criteria that are required by the contracting authority should be proportionate to the subject matter of the contract. Verification of compliance with the non-exclusionary grounds for selection is sought before the awarding of any contract and to ensure they meet the award criteria, whether they are inside or outside the State. A contracting authority should also ensure it has appropriate contract management mechanisms in place post award to ensure compliance by the contractor of its obligations under the contract.

The Office of Government Procurement, OGP, supports compliance by providing procurement solutions, advice, guidance and systems for public bodies promoting good practice and proactive engagement with our sourcing partners in health education, defence and local government sectors through the procurement executive. Furthermore, the OGP’s key account managers are in regular contact with the procurement officers in Departments and public bodies to help, support and remind them of their obligations regarding public procurement. It should be noted that it is the responsibility of each contracting authority to ensure it adheres to the policy framework and associated guidelines which have been developed to facilitate compliance with the public procurement rules. Public procurement practices are subject to audit and scrutiny under the Comptroller and Auditor General and Local Government Reform Acts.

There is a section in our programme for Government about procurement and several references to it. We refer to the fact we want to see green public procurement brought in and social considerations taken into account when bids are awarded. We are working on that and that must be done within three years, which is our commitment in the programme for Government. A local supplier may be bidding against an organisation on the other side of the world and that distant company would have a much larger carbon footprint in the delivery of its service and labour practices, and the amount of money it would be investing in employment and training may be much lower than is being done in the local firm. If we can find a mechanism to operate in that respect, that is certainly one of my objectives in this Ministry.

The Deputy asked about Brexit. The year 2020 has been the year of the pandemic and 2021 looks like it will be the year of Brexit. We do not know yet whether we will have a deal. The budget was formed on the assumption that we will not have a deal. I will come back to that issue in my response to follow-up questions.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I am heartened by the fact that he is going to have a look at this whole area. As I said, it is deeply frustrating for local contractors, and indeed the local community, to see substantial contracts in excess of €1 million being awarded on such a frequent basis to contractors from outside the State and the huge loss that is to the local economy. All I am looking for here is a level playing field. I wish the contractors who are successful good luck and as long as we are all on the pitch at the same level, then I do not have a problem with that. I welcome the Minister of State's comments and look forward to more checks perhaps being carried out on successful companies to ensure that fairness and transparency exist at all times for everyone.

In 2017 the Office of Government Procurement, OGP, prepared an information note about how to deal with Brexit and what was ahead. It has updated that every year since then and is about to produce the latest version. Obviously events are changing very quickly and it is a huge challenge. We also have the Brexit funds coming in from Europe and there will be more news about that shortly.

On the awarding of tenders to foreign companies, the Senator may or may not be aware that 94% of public procurement spend is awarded to companies that are within Ireland and that a majority of public procurement spend goes to SMEs. That has been the case for a number of years, according to the latest data we have. I understand that has not been the Senator's experience in his particular area and absolutely accept that. I meet SMEs on a quarterly basis at the SME advisory group and ask them for any ways in which they want me to change public procurement policy; we have regular engagement with them. If there is anything else the Senator wants to talk to me about I am always available.

Sitting suspended at 11.42 a.m. and resumed at 12.04 p.m.