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Seanad Éireann debate -
Monday, 1 Feb 2021

Vol. 274 No. 3

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

School Enrolments

I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this Commencement matter. He selected it before Christmas but I got my days mixed up. I apologise to him for that.

The Haynestown and Blackrock area, just south of Dundalk, is one of the fastest growing areas in County Louth in respect of population. Some 1,650 planning applications have been submitted for housing and more than 500 houses have been built in the area in the past three years. In Blackrock, which is beside Haynestown, the two primary schools are completely full, as is the primary school in Haggardstown. The reason I am raising this Commencement matter is to acknowledge the huge increase in the population of the area, which will only continue to grow as it is one of the most popular places to live in County Louth. We must plan appropriately for education in the area.

The Louth and Meath Education and Training Board, ETB, has identified a suitable site for a primary school in the Haynestown area. It has also obtained a valuation for the site which provides good value for money and has submitted a request to the Department of Education in that regard. It is important that the Department makes the identification of a suitable school location a priority. It is about planning ahead. We have seen substantial housing development in the area, one of the fastest growing parts in County Louth. Louth County Council is doing a wonderful job in that regard.

I am raising this issue today because, rather than me telling the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, why it needs to be addressed, I want to hear her views in order to determine how we can move forward with this important issue.

I thank the Senator for raising the matter as it provides me with the opportunity to clarify the current position on the provision of additional primary school places in Dundalk, County Louth.

As mentioned by the Senator, in order to plan for school provision and to analyse the relevant demographic data, my Department divides the country into 314 school planning areas. It uses a geographical information system, GIS, which uses data from a range of sources, including child benefit data from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the Department of Education's school enrolment databases, to identify where the pressure for school places will arise across the country, as alluded to by the Senator. I note what he has said about the fast-growing demographic in Dundalk. The Department has strengthened this process this year through specific initiatives such as enhanced engagement with local authorities in respect of the information on residential development incorporated into the analysis process. There has also been additional engagement with patron bodies in relation to their local knowledge on school place requirements. ETBs, Diocesan offices and national patron bodies, such as Educate Together and An Foras Pátrúnachta, which looks at Gaelscoileanna, can also be an important source of local knowledge. This will add to information also provided to the Department by local authorities or individual schools. The Department has also utilised the information gleaned from schools under the national inventory of school capacity completed by individual schools last year as part of the primary online database.

In a regular year, addressing the increased demands for school places, while challenging, is manageable - generally through utilisation of existing spare capacity within schools, rental and temporary accommodation or other short-term measures pending the delivery of permanent accommodation. The Dundalk primary school planning area is made up of 29 primary schools. In relation to the provision of additional primary school places for Dundalk, my Department has recently approved the expansion of St. Francis National School, Blackrock to a two-stream, 16-classroom school. The project approved will provide an additional eight permanent classrooms and includes a two-classroom special education needs base.

As Minister of State with responsibility for special education, I am particularly pleased about that. A design team has been appointed for the project and it is currently at an early architectural planning stage. The project has been devolved to the Louth and Meath Education and Training Board, ETB, for delivery. Pending the completion of this project and in order to meet the accommodation needs of St. Francis National School, my Department has improved the temporary accommodation of two mainstream classrooms for the current school year, as well as a further mainstream classroom and one special education needs classroom for the 2021-2022 school year. It is envisaged this accommodation will be in place for the start of the next school year. This additionality is expected to cater for the future needs of the Dundalk area. My Department understands there is further capacity with existing primary schools in the school planning area.

I wish to advise the Senator that updates on all building projects are provided on my Department's website and that this is updated regularly. I thank the Senator for his particular interest in this area and I hope I have outlined to him in a satisfactory way the position on primary school provision in Dundalk.

I thank the Minister of State for her comprehensive reply. It is very much appreciated. I would like to make two points about it. It may be too late for this debate but we need to treat the Haynestown and Blackrock area separately from the Dundalk planning area, which is utilised by the Department. Dundalk is a town of approximately 40,000 people. The Blackrock-Haynestown area, which started off as small villages on the outskirts of Dundalk, needs to be treated as two distinct areas. The needs in that area are completely different from the education needs in north Dundalk. The Department has a difficulty encompassing Blackrock-Haynestown in the wider Dundalk area and they should be treated separately.

I welcome the points the Minister of State has made about St. Francis National School in Blackrock. However, the area I am talking about is a distinct area. It is the Haynestown-Haggardstown area. That is where the majority of housing is going to be built over the next couple years. That is where we need to look to when providing a new primary school and that is what the Louth and Meath ETB is trying to do. It is welcomed in Blackrock but it is a totally separate issue. We need to cater for the children in the Haynestown-Blackrock area and that is why I raise this matter today.

The building and planning unit within the Department has its own way of dealing with and forecasting future school places and schools. I mentioned the 314 school planning areas earlier on. However, I will bring what the Senator said today to the attention of the Minister for Education, whose remit is over the building and planning of schools. There are 29 primary schools in existence in the Dundalk primary school planning area. That is not to say that there is not a case to be made for Haynestown and Blackrock. It may be worth the Senator's while to put in a submission in writing to the Department other than just tabling a Commencement matter. This could perhaps set out the reasons he has articulated, particularly if there are 40,000 additional people and an increasing demographic, which he has alluded to. It may be worthwhile putting something in writing to the Department.

I thank the Minister of State for explaining the situation prior to Christmas. I know she was double-booked on that day and had a constituency issue to deal with.

National Strategy for Women and Girls

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Troy. Has the consultation process begun for the new national women and girls strategy? Has a committee been put in place and what are the proposed timelines for putting the new strategy in place? As the Minister of State is aware, the national women and girls strategy 2017-2020 was launched by the then Minister, Frances Fitzgerald.

It was considered at the time a crucial framework of actions to address issues regarding women in the workplace and women in society. Last year, the chairperson of the Citizens' Assembly, Dr. Catherine Day, was quoted in The Irish Times, in a very pronounced statement, as saying there is a feeling among the citizens involved in the assembly that gender equality was going backwards, not forwards, even though more than 50 years of legislation is in place regarding equal pay. That statement was probably the most frightening of all in that the chairperson of the Citizens' Assembly felt that the citizens involved in that forum felt we were going backwards after 50 years of legislation.

When we take into consideration that a strategy was put in place in 2017, the issues seem to be within society itself in terms of how we deal with this. The overall gender balance issue in the Civil Service has been addressed to some degree but there are still huge issues. Unfortunately, men are twice as likely as women to be involved in senior roles, even where women have the same level of qualifications and length of service. A similar position is found across both the public and private sectors when it comes to employment. Women are losing out on both income and the ability to achieve in their employment, which is a huge issue, and our society is losing in not picking up on that ability of women in society. Women have such potential, and if this is utilised, we will have a greater society.

Much work needs to be done. Among the 139 actions that were put in place in this four-year strategy - more were to be added afterwards which were not then added - there were supposed to be two reviews. I note that the 2018 review is on the website and the Minister of State might confirm whether the 2019 review actually happened and was posted on the website. If it has been, I apologise, but I cannot find it. The final review of the strategy was to be published by the end of 2020 and it is a very important review for this living document. We need to take from that review what we have achieved in the past four years and build on that going forward. That will probably be the biggest body of work we need to look at.

We have been talking about this issue for 50 years and we have made major inroads, but unfortunately there is much to do. This is a living document, as the former Minister and spokesperson, Frances Fitzgerald, said. How can we progress this living document? What are the timescales? What reviews are going to happen? When will a new strategy be put in place?

I am here on behalf of the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, who sends his apologies.

The National Strategy for Women and Girls 2017-2020 is the main framework through which the Government pursues actions to advance the rights of women and girls and to enable their full participation in society. The national strategy was adopted by the previous Government and launched in May 2017 to provide a whole-of-government framework through which women's empowerment can continue to be advanced. It reflects a key theme running through the programme for Government and the Government's commitments under the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action 1995 and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The strategy is led by the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth.

The overall goal for the strategy in the period to 2021 is to change attitudes and practices preventing women's and girls' full participation in education, employment and public life at all levels, and to improve services for women and girls, with priority given to the needs of those experiencing, or at risk of experiencing, the poorest outcomes. Six high-level objectives are set out with which to advance socioeconomic equality for women and girls, to promote their physical and mental well-being, to increase their visibility in society and equal and active citizenship, to promote women's participation in leadership, to combat gender-based violence and to embed gender inequality in decision-making. These objectives are advanced through 139 actions undertaken by Departments and State agencies in co-operation with social partners and civil society, as appropriate.

The first progress report under the national strategy for women and girls was submitted to the Government and published in May 2019. As of December 2020, work had begun on 133 of the initial 139 actions, of which 42 have been completed.

Covid-19 has significantly affected the strategy's implementation. With this in mind, the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, has decided that the term of the current strategy should be extended to the end of 2021. This will enable the strategy's actions to continue to be implemented and facilitate the preparation of a new strategy policy approach in this area. The strategy committee will continue meeting during 2021, allowing the work of the current strategy to continue while also giving space to the committee to examine how to develop further strategic policies in a new working environment. Covid-19 has caused major upheaval to the way we work and the work we do. A multi-annual strategy will always end in a different environment than that in which it began, but we could not have imagined the effect of this pandemic. The decision to extend the strategy for a further year is a reflection of the changes that have occurred over the past year but does not prevent the committee from beginning work on future policies on gender equality.

The Minister's Department will continue with existing plans to have an independent evaluation of the strategy in 2021. This will form part of the planning for the future. It is the Department's hope to go to tender in quarter 2 of 2021. The strategy committee is due to meet this spring, with a focus over its coming meetings on the conclusion and evaluation of the current strategy and looking forward to the next strategy.

The programme for Government has a commitment to develop and implement a new strategy for women and girls. Work needs to be undertaken to examine how best to develop a successor strategy that can be aligned effectively with the other equality strategies that are in place and the successor to Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures.

The Government has taken a series of measures to promote equality for women and girls. Under proposals approved by the Government in December, each parent will be given an additional three weeks of paid parental leave and the period in which it can be taken will be extended to the first two years after the birth or adoptive placement of a child. It is anticipated that the legislation will be introduced early this year. The Minister will shortly table amendments to the Gender Pay Gap Information Bill. He is committed to the early enactment of this legislation, which will require companies to report on gender pay differentials. He will shortly launch new consultations on flexible working and domestic violence leave. The objective is to get a better understanding of the needs of employees and employers in terms of such leave.

The Government remains committed to promoting equality between women and men and advancing the important goals set out in the national strategy for women and girls.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive response. He stated that the 2017-20 strategy would be extended by 12 months and work would be done this year on putting a new strategy in place from 2021 onwards. I welcome that as we were unsure of what was happening with the current strategy. I do not have the Minister of State's script, but did he say that more than 130 actions had been examined? Will he provide written details on those actions and how far they have been progressed? I do not expect him to have the information with him now, but we need clarity on how much work has been done.

I note that the first review was published on the website, but it was proposed in the original strategy that two reviews should be published. Will the Minister of State clarify when the second will be published?

To confirm, 133 of the initial 139 actions have begun, with 42 completed. I do not know where the remaining actions stand, but I will ask the Minister's office to revert to the Senator and clarify.

The strategy committee is due to meet this spring. Its focus over the coming meetings will be on the conclusion and evaluation of the current strategy and looking forward to the next strategy.

It is very important to have a continuation of the good work that has been done already. We must identify what remains outstanding and put a clear pathway in place for a future strategy. I will certainly bring back the points raised to my colleague, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy Roderic O'Gorman, and ask his office to provide a detailed reply to the Senator.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the Seanad today. I raise a crucial matter relating to Ireland's efforts to combat climate change, particularly the absolute necessity to ensure significant and tangible reductions in the emissions of greenhouse gases for the protection of our natural environment, the health and well-being of our citizens and the prevention of catastrophic climate and biodiversity collapse.

As the Minister of State is aware, the Environmental Protection Agency released a report last week analysing Irish greenhouse gas emissions for 2020. Somewhat unbelievably, the report indicates that even with the dramatic decline in economic activity and travel arising from the Covid-19 pandemic, Ireland still only reduced its carbon emissions by less than 6%, falling short of the flagship commitment in the programme for Government to achieve a 7% reduction every year. In this context, it is clear that radical action is needed across all Departments and sectors of our economy to make the fundamental shift in both policy and mindset needed to decarbonise the economy, especially as economic activity picks up again after Covid-19. I raise, therefore, one specific part of the suite of measures needed to revolutionise Ireland’s climate response today, the introduction of legislation requiring private companies operating in Ireland to make mandatory public disclosures on the greenhouse gas emissions arising from their activities in the State. Such a measure is built on the principles of transparency and accountability, the idea being that if companies are required to publish their emissions every year, public scrutiny, pressure and environmental considerations will cause them to adopt policies that will reduce their emissions.

Commercial, industrial and public services accounted for almost 15% of Irish emissions in 2020. In 2017, the Carbon Majors report found that just 100 companies had been responsible for 71% of global emissions since 1988. Corporations make significant contributions to global emissions and must be held to account. Climate justice is not possible if State responses only focus on targeting individual consumption through carbon taxes, impacting low-income communities with low carbon footprints the most and without also tackling the big polluters on the other end of the scale, which create the most carbon emissions.

Legal requirements in this area have been adopted elsewhere, notably in the UK. I am currently drafting legislation in a similar vein that would require companies to make annual disclosures of their greenhouse gas emissions to the Minister, crucially including emissions not just from directly owned sources but indirect emissions arising from business activities and their supply chains, known as scope 3 emissions. The requirements would be phased in for large companies first, similar to the requirements under the Government's proposed gender pay legislation. There would also be a system of graduated fines for companies acting in bad faith in respect of inadequate emissions reductions. I would also like to see these same requirements made of public bodies in the spirit of fairness and also to allow Departments and State bodies to demonstrate real climate leadership. However, ideally I would like to see these proposals come from the Government, which is why I have tabled this matter. Will the Minister commit to introducing such legislation, particularly that which includes so-called scope 3 emissions?

Ireland has so many large multinational companies headquartered here that by introducing strong requirements, we could feasibly create a global shift in corporate environmental accountability. Considering Ireland’s reputation internationally as a global climate laggard, this would be an incredible legacy for the Department. Many of our larger companies are already participating in such a scheme voluntarily through the extremely worthwhile work of Business in the Community Ireland and its low carbon pledge for businesses. What I am proposing is that we simply make such a scheme statutory. I thank the Minister of State and look forward to his response.

I am very pleased that this matter has been selected for discussion today as it is an area in which I have a particular interest. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has demonstrated that global emissions must be reduced to net zero within the next few decades to avoid a dangerous increase in global temperatures. The programme for Government sets out how important the next ten years will be in addressing the climate change and biodiversity crisis.

I am determined, through my delegated functions, to play my role. One of the first actions upon my appointment was to seek how we could make company law fit for purpose and address the need for more robust environmental reporting measures. It was at this stage I was informed that the work was under way in the European Commission and I believe it would be premature to pre-empt this work. However, preparatory work has begun.

Last year, Senator Ruane and I met to discuss the company requirements with regard to reporting on greenhouse gas emissions. The current system of environmental reporting has been in place since 2017. Large companies in Ireland with more than 500 employees are required under company law to report on their impact on the environment such as their greenhouse gas emissions or to explain if they do not.

The current rules derive from EU law and encompass approximately 6,000 large global companies operating across the EU. Reporting is not limited to greenhouse gas emissions and can include anything material in terms of a company's impact on the environment. The information allows investors, consumers, policymakers and other stakeholders to make choices based on the environmental performances of the companies. It encourages companies to develop an environment-focused approach to their business but, to be clear and honest, as it stands what we have is not fit for purpose. The process of comply or explain will not lead to the necessary or effective change in decarbonisation in this country. This needs to be improved and it is my intention that it will be improved.

I am committed to seeing reform in company law in this space. I have written to key stakeholders signalling what is happening and that I will seek their views when the draft legislative proposal is published at the end of quarter 1 this year. This will also be an important opportunity to reflect on what has been done and, given the extraordinary global upheaval, forge an effective approach to raise the transparency of the environmental information provided by undertakings in all sectors and result in lasting change for the better.

Many companies are keen to develop their reporting in this area and to differentiate themselves on the basis of their responsibility in regard to the environment and climate change. As legislators, there is an onus on us to require this in a clear and a consistent way, give the maximum relevant information possible to consumers and other stakeholders and minimise any unnecessary burden on companies.

To complement the consultation process, I will convene a forum to build on feedback. I will work with stakeholders across the different sectors, inviting their feedback and experience, ensuring that measures introduced are proportionate to the size of the respective companies and developing workable solutions that will ensure businesses are working towards reducing their environmental footprint and thus greater transparency for all. This will need cross-party co-operation and political leadership to ensure real and effective change is carried through, particularly as we navigate the pandemic recovery. It is my intention that decarbonisation is part of that recovery.

I look forward to working with the Senator. We can work together on the Bill she proposes and across all the different political parties because this is not just an interest unique to me or to her. Many Members of this House, and the Dáil, have a similar interest. I look forward to working with all Deputies who have an interest in this issue and ensuring that we bring forward legislation later this year that is fit for purpose.

I thank the Minister of State. I welcome his contribution, especially the reference to working together. I know there will be differences in the way we view this moving forward but it would be good to find common ground and work from that point. I have one question. If needs be, can he commit to going further than the EU legislation? We have been operating under an EU directive on non-financial disclosures on companies since 2017, which has been inadequate. The Minister of State cannot pre-empt what the Commission will bring forward but can he commit to taking it further if the EU legislation does not go far enough?

I welcome this discussion.

There is passion and enthusiasm in the House in respect of this matter. The current requirements are not fit for purpose when it comes to the process of comply or explain. We want to change that. However, I cannot commit to going further on something that I have not even seen yet. I am awaiting whatever directive comes from the EU. I have already written to the various stakeholders seeking their inputs and views.

We will work together but let us wait to see what the EU publishes. If it is not good enough, we can certainly improve it. That does not have to be what we aspire to achieve. That might be the base but we have to wait and see what is published. When it is published, we will get together and have stakeholder engagement. I look forward to Senator Ruane playing a leading role in that regard. As stated, we will bring forward new legislation that is fit for purpose and robust and that will serve both companies and the environment well. Many companies are already publishing a great deal of data on a voluntary basis. Some companies are ahead of us on this and realise that they have an important role to play.

Illegal Dumping

I wish everyone a happy St. Brigid's Day. I thank the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, for coming to the House to discuss this important matter.

Notwithstanding the dreadful pandemic that our country continues to face, one issue continues to dominate the work of public representatives from every corner of our country, namely, illegal dumping. The problem is not confined to our remote beautiful countryside, although the problem there is at its worst. This problem can be found on the main streets of our cities, the main roads through our towns, as well as every secondary road and laneway in our country.

One positive outcome of this lockdown has been the number of our citizens who are out walking and exercising within the 5 km limit that is in place. However, this increase in those walking our streets and country roads has led to realisation of what we, as a nation, are doing to our environment. What people are seeing in greater numbers is simply environmental vandalism. Our main roads resemble advertising dumping grounds, as discarded packets, cups and boxes fight with one another for the little spots available on these roads and are constantly blown about in the wind. Our country lanes are now extensions of our landfill sites such is the amount of rubbish being illegally deposited there. Our farming community is constantly having to remove piled up rubbish from headlands, entrances and fields. Rubbish is just flung over ditches by those passing in vans or cars.

We try to sell this country as a beautiful unspoilt island with 40 shades of green and landscapes to die for. We have to intervene, however, as those green fields, those important city streets, our beautiful hills, those quaint country lanes, not to mention our precious bogland, will disappear under mountains of discarded fridges, sofas, tyres and household rubbish. These are all illegally dumped by those who consider themselves above the law and, for some bizarre reason, untouchable because they gave a person driving a van or a car a few bob to get rid of it.

My local authority, Kildare County Council, is now dealing with 40 to 50 incidents each week and is spending more than €3 million per year on mitigating matters. If this is replicated across our 31 local authorities, it means that approximately €90 million will be spent on this problem. This does not include the additional moneys the Department may have allocated and does not include the time and effort of the many volunteers who do their best to clean up after this unacceptable behaviour.

I am aware, from parliamentary replies from the Minister to Labour Party colleagues, of an anti-dumping awareness communication campaign entitled Your Country, Your Waste. With respect, this is not working, however. I deal with the magnificent community wardens every single week which, thankfully, the Department's money has provided to local authorities to employ. They do a great job but in one case of which I am aware the wardens are on their fourth clean-up of an area within the last year. This location is not a rural backwater.

Local authorities need the Department's help. They need to know what is contained in the Minister's so-called anti-dumping toolkit for local authorities. The national campaign that I, along with many other public representatives, am looking for must include enforcement. I am aware of a person with a van being caught red-handed with illegal rubbish, heading out to our countryside to dump it. Three years later, there still has not been a prosecution. It is no wonder that those who give these people a few bob are not scared by the consequences. I have spoken to a large number of public representatives on this matter over the past number of weeks and months. They are all in agreement that a national campaign must come with enforcement. We have all read recent articles in which local authorities have been effectively warned not to use CCTV or other surveillance methods because of data protection issues.

This problem is now so serious that I and others are looking at these data protection issues, and if legislation is needed, we will bring it forward.

I urge the Minister to address this issue. There should be no comfort in giving one's rubbish to a person who is obviously not registered. There must be no escape from prosecution for taking it upon oneself to get rid of rubbish in what one thinks is an isolated spot or for tossing an empty packet out the window or throwing it away as one walks along our streets. We live in the best country in the world. We have the best scenery, the best tourist destinations and the best locations to exercise even within a restricted 5 km.

On behalf of so many, I urge the Minister to launch a national campaign that includes effective enforcement and surveillance as well as proper guidelines for our local authorities that allow them to employ surveillance without the fear that they will never be able to use it. It is time to name those who deliberately set out to ruin our environment and to ensure the legislation is there in a timely manner to prosecute those who commit environmental vandalism. The clock is ticking.

I thank Senator Wall for raising this matter. It is very appropriate on Lá Fhéile Bríde, when, as he says, we have to look after our beautiful island within the wider world.

As noted in Ireland's Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy published last September, the national trend in illegal dumping has been generally positive in recent years. Certainly, the level of large-scale illegal dumping has been significantly reduced in Ireland relative to that seen in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In my view, most of the improvements can be attributed to structural changes in the co-ordination of enforcement activities and to increased investment in supporting local authority enforcement.

Since 2015, local authorities have been assisted by three waste enforcement regional lead authorities, WERLAs, covering the south, east, midlands and Connacht-Ulster regions. The WERLA structure helps to facilitate a co-ordinated approach to waste enforcement. This is done by setting common priorities and objectives for waste enforcement and ensuring consistent enforcement of waste legislation while still leaving local authority personnel as first responders on the ground. Last year, my Department provided €1.1 million to support WERLA office work.

Also in 2020, €7.6 million was allocated by our Department to local authorities under the annual local authority waste enforcement measures grant scheme. This supports the recruitment and retention of more than 150 local authority waste enforcement personnel. Some €3 million was allocated to local authorities in support of the 2020 anti-dumping initiative. A sum of €1 million of this allocation was ring-fenced to combat illegal dumping activities arising from the Covid-19 crisis. Anti-dumping initiative funding supported in excess of 300 projects nationwide in 2020. Since the introduction of the anti-dumping initiative in 2017, total funding of €9.3 million has been provided in support of more than 1,000 projects. This has resulted in the removal of more than 10,000 tonnes of illegally dumped waste from our landscape.

My Department officials continue to liaise with enforcement staff in the WERLAs, local authorities and other agencies with a view to obtaining information on 2020 out-turns and indicative trends. This information will help to decide on priorities for 2021 funding and enforcement activities. We cannot be complacent in this area.

The Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy contained a range of additional actions designed to enhance waste enforcement, to protect human health and the environment and to provide a strong deterrent effect. Inter alia, these include an enhanced role for the WERLAs, an anti-dumping toolkit for local authorities, an illegal and unauthorised sites action plan to assist authorities, greater use of fixed penalty notices, and the data-proofing of waste legislation to facilitate the use of available and emerging technologies in a manner which is GDPR-compliant.

The Senator mentioned the need for a nationwide campaign, so I note that my Department launched a national anti-dumping awareness communications campaign, Your Country, Your Waste, in November last year. This campaign was developed as part of the 2020 anti-dumping initiative and includes a tailored suite of information and awareness messaging for use by local authorities and community and voluntary groups. In providing 2021 funding, my Department will remind the sector to continue to utilise this messaging. Allocations for 2021 have not yet been finalised but my Department will continue to invest significantly in the local authority network to ensure there is a robust sustainable waste enforcement system in place to combat all illegal waste activity.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. Unfortunately, according to the evidence I have received, illegal dumping is on the increase. I am sure he too is hearing that from all local representatives. I have spoken to many of them in recent weeks. I would appreciate if the Minister's Department could liaise with local authorities. In Kildare, for example, we face 40 or 50 incidents per week.

I also wish to raise the issue of data protection. It seems to be a problem for local authorities, and it has been mentioned in a number of publications in recent weeks that local authorities are under pressure in respect of the use of data, CCTV cameras and so on. Cameras are a deterrent. I met representatives of my local authority during the week at one particularly bad spot and they raised the issue of using CCTV cameras to combat this practice. The Minister might comment on that.

I fully agree with the Senator that this is an issue. I have seen it in my constituency and I am involved in groups that carry out clean-ups of the River Dodder. One of the most frustrating aspects we see upriver is where significant illegal dumping is happening. The councils often install CCTV cameras but the frustration is that it has proven difficult for them to apply punitive measures, partly because of the difficulties they have with CCTV and how the courts and others view those data.

This is something we have to get right. There is a balance to be struck and we do not want to go down the route where our every action is monitored and traced using CCTV. There is a right to privacy and anonymity but that right cannot protect against blatantly illegal activity. I do not have the direct answer to how we should apply the GDPR. We have to apply it, but the Senator is correct that this is an issue. I will ask my officials to examine in further detail how we can get it right as part of the range of measures we need.

Arts Policy

I thank the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, for coming to the House and acknowledge that she is personally invested in this issue. We have seen during the course of the pandemic that the arts, music and creative industries have in many ways helped us all through this period. They have fed our cultural soul. As we recover, the role of the arts and creative industries, and our artists and musicians, must be supported to help to rebuild our communities.

The Minister will know that this sector has been among the hardest hit. It is not just that there has been a blow to their income; in many ways, for artists and musicians, work is part of their identity and they are suffering. I very much welcome the clear Government commitments in respect of the additional €50 million for the Arts Council and the support for the live events industry. It is important that all those measures continue as restrictions remain in place, along with supports for arts venues.

When the proposed universal basic income scheme is introduced, it should be seen not simply as a handout but as a way to support artists and musicians when they are between gigs or other work and as a means of helping in their career development. There is a welcome commitment in the programme for Government to a pilot scheme in this area. I am conscious it was the first recommendation of the task force the Minister set up, Life Worth Living, on recovery in the sector. Internationally, universal basic income schemes have had mixed success, and I will not get too hung up on the name. We are talking about providing an essential support net for artists. I am quite supportive of the French intermittents du spectacle scheme, which supports creatives during the intermittent, fallow periods of work between gigs. There is a requirement that 507 hours be worked over a 12-month period. A model like that could be explored.

I would be grateful if the Minister could let us know whether there is a timetable for the introduction of the scheme, what the criteria for qualification will be, which might relate to the number of hours worked or an income threshold, and who will determine who qualifies for the new scheme. We talk about it as a pilot, but how broad will the pilot be?

The group will have to be large enough to determine whether the pilot works. It will also have to be cross-sectoral because the arts, music and creative industry is quite broad. The pilot should cover as much of the sector as possible.

The commitment is for a three-year scheme. How can we measure success? What will be the measure? I hope we will see something more permanent, such as in France. Who will manage the scheme? There has been some concern regarding the social welfare scheme for artists in that there is a lack of awareness on the ground in some of the social protection offices. It will be important to have the scheme explained in detail. There should be consultation with the various representative groups on how the scheme is to be introduced.

Ultimately, this is about the possibility of sustaining our artists. When we come out of this pandemic, there will be a genuine opportunity to build further on Ireland's wonderful reputation for the arts and creativity. I am aware that the Minister is personally committed to doing this. The scheme could provide an opportunity to provide the necessary supports.

I thank the Senator for raising this important matter in a period when Covid-19 has effectively closed down the arts and culture sector. The restrictions have severely affected the livelihoods of many artists and creative workers. The limitations on indoor and outdoor events, social distancing and travel restrictions have had a severe impact on the arts, culture, live entertainment and events, with grave consequences for those working in these sectors. Many careers that have taken decades to build are now threatened and in serious jeopardy.

At a broad level, the Government has already responded to the challenges facing the sector through a number of recent measures, which the Senator mentioned. Considerable additional funding was secured for the sector in the context of the July stimulus, culminating in such events as the stunning performance this weekend of Happy Days by Landmark Productions at the Olympia Theatre. I do not know whether the Senator saw it. Further significant additional funding was announced in budget 2021, with €130 million added to the Arts Council budget for 2021 and €50 million made available for supports for live performance. Tens of millions of euro in support has been provided to those impacted in the arts, culture, performance and events sector through the pandemic unemployment scheme and various wage subsidy schemes.

The arts and culture recovery task force report to which the Senator referred, entitled Life Worth Living, outlines ten recommendations for the sector. These include a proposed mechanism for the rolling out of the universal basic income, UBI, through the establishment of a pilot project that would last three years.

In addition to the recommendation of the task force, there is, as the Senator said, a prior commitment in the programme for Government to assess a pilot UBI — one that is informed by a review of previous international models. This matter is now being considered in the context of the national economic plan being developed by the Department of the Taoiseach, and it will ultimately be a matter for consideration by the Low Pay Commission.

The rationale behind the recommendation to introduce a basic income pilot is to create a more stable social protection mechanism to allow artists and events workers to sustain themselves during the pandemic and to take up work when it arises without losing existing social protection supports. Many creative practitioners and allied workers are freelance, moving frequently between self-employment, PAYE employment and periods of no employment at all. The pattern of low-paid and insecure employment has been exacerbated by the inevitable changes and uncertainties arising from the implementation of the recommendations in Resilience and Recovery 2020-2021: Plan for Living with COVID-19.

The pilot UBI could act to keep the sector intact, minimising the loss of skills and contributing to its gradual regrowth, with ongoing benefits, social, economic, local and national. UBI encourages entrepreneurship as people who are in receipt of it can take on work and earn additional taxable income on top of it.

The arts sector represents an appropriate area for a UBI pilot scheme for the following reasons. It is characterised by low and precarious income. It involves significant positive externalities. It includes a broad mix of employment types, and it has been chosen for UBI pilots in other jurisdictions, allowing international comparisons to be drawn, just as the Senator referred to what happens in France.

The task force also recommended an interim extension of the professional artists on jobseeker's allowance scheme. The current scheme acknowledges the status of self-employed artists as professionals, giving them a 12-month window to focus on building up their work before becoming subject to labour market activation.

They are exempted for a year from the activation process which is mandatory for most jobseeker's allowance recipients. This scheme gives important support to professional artists who lose their employment and serves a different purpose from the UBI.

On a personal level, after a considerable amount of time and energy from the Green Party's negotiating team, I was delighted to secure a commitment in the programme for Government to a pilot UBI initiative. UBI has been a core policy of the Green Party since the party's foundation. The Government obviously involves three political parties. Needless to say, the Senator is very much pushing an open door with me when it comes to the introduction of UBI in Ireland. Perhaps he could assist to ensure his focused enthusiasm for the UBI is replicated across the other parties in government, and delivery of this programme for Government commitment is not only realised but strengthened.

I thank the Minister. I can certainly assure her of my support. I believe she will receive cross-party support on the issue at the Joint Committee on Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht. As I said, this is an opportunity to be innovative and a universal basic income is something new. It should not be seen as a handout. Its purpose is to allow artists to develop their careers during the intervening period. I am conscious of the series of reports about which the Minister spoke. It would be useful, however, if we could have an indicative timeframe of the consultation process that may take place with the sector and a commitment that it will be cross-sectoral. Obviously, the arts and creative industries are broad so it will be open to them. Who will determine who will qualify for a universal basic income and who will manage it? Will it be the Minister's Department or the Department of Social Protection? I appreciate these are still relatively early days but it would be helpful if we could get some indicative responses on those issues.

While I would love to be able to pursue this issue, it will not come from my Department. My role is to advocate for it strongly. I know the sector and the arts community are aware I am doing that.

The recommendation for a pilot universal basic income is a very exciting proposal. UBI was never to be seen as a handout and I definitely do not see it as such. That goes against the very nature of a UBI. As I said, this pilot UBI reflects the commitment in the programme for Government. I want to see it thoroughly examined. That will happen in the context of the national economic plan. The proposal is now being considered in that context. It is being developed by the Department of the Taoiseach and will ultimately be a matter for consideration by the Low Pay Commission. There are, however, clear reasons that the arts and culture sector would be the right sector for such a pilot. Financial stress can impede creativity. The unconditional nature of a universal basic income is one of the key features that supports creativity and innovation. As the Senator knows, the scheme has been well received and has been the subject of much positive commentary both nationally and internationally. We are working now to see how it can be enhanced. I will also shortly establish the oversight group for the implementation of the recommendations of the task force. It, too, can have a role to play.

Health Services Provision

Beannachtaí Lá Fhéile Bríde oraibh go léir. I will be quick as I am sharing time with Senator Fiona O'Loughlin, who has a long track record of advocating in the Dáil for a publicly funded IVF system.

As we know, the statistics show that infertility affects one in six couples and affects men and women equally. Having lived through the highs and lows of five IVF cycles, with the worry, waiting, failures and pain involved, I strongly believe the State does not do enough to support couples facing this challenge. I was one of the lucky ones. I could afford cycles and eventually we hit the jackpot. So many people cannot even afford one cycle, let alone several. Many spend every single penny they have on IVF, sometimes unsuccessfully. The cost of IVF in Ireland can start at €4,500 but, realistically, with blood tests and consultations, it can end up costing close to €10,000.

In 2019, the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, set out an ambitious roadmap for IVF services. The first step involved GP visits, while the second was the establishment of regional IVF fertility hubs and the third was to be the provision of IVF.

The problem with the scheme was that the then Minister allocated only €2 million. Clearly, €2 million does not go far enough so what we are looking for today is a properly funded public health IVF scheme.

The assisted human reproduction Bill goes some way in providing safeguards to patients in the form of regulation. Fertility clinics in Ireland are regulated by the Health Products Regulatory Authority but there is still no body that oversees the fertility industry generally. The Bill needs massive improvement due to the changes in genetics and modern medicine. People who are desperate to have a child are the most vulnerable and open to exploitation. They face mental, physical and relational challenges and on top of it all, huge financial barriers.

I thank my colleague, Senator Ardagh, for introducing this matter and we intend to work together on a Bill to address the present failings.

I wish everybody a very happy St. Brigid's Day. It is very fitting that today is her day because she was the saint of fertility. In her time she helped women who could not conceive and that is almost 1,500 years ago.

The World Health Organization is very clear that infertility is a disease and should be treated as such with absolute support. We all know people who have gone through the grief and heartbreak of trying but being unable to start their own family. In Ireland, people who cannot conceive naturally get very little or no support within the public health system. Those in need of IVF and other fertility programmes find themselves having to pay between €6,000 and €10,000 per cycle. At the moment, fertility drugs are only covered by the drugs payment scheme or a medical card and private patients can claim tax relief but that is it, and it is just for fertility drugs. The State absolutely needs to help with costs and medically in order that there is a continuity of care.

As my colleague has said, in 2017 the then Government approved a Bill that laid out regulations and a need for the establishment of a regulatory body. Then, in 2019, more details on a model of care were given but nothing has happened since. I acknowledge that the Minister for Health confirmed additional funding, supports and the opening of fertility hubs in budget 2021. We need a functional and fair State-sponsored system that supports infertility and to be able to determine criteria and eligibility. I hope that he can achieve what his predecessor did not.

I thank Senators Ardagh and O'Loughlin for raising this matter and giving us the opportunity to discuss it this morning. I agree entirely with the comments of both Senators. We have an ambitious plan to progress this. It is moving. It is a very important commitment in the programme for Government. It is critical that couples who seek help for fertility, including IVF, are supported. We want to see them supported in the public health system. We want to move away from a situation in which for many people, it is not something that is affordable because of the huge costs. We want everybody to have the same chances regardless of income and that really is the goal in this regard.

As the Senators are aware, the programme for Government commitment introduces the model for care that was developed by my Department and the HSE. The model ensures that infertility issues will be addressed through the public system at the lowest level of clinical intervention necessary, which is an important principle. As Senator Ardagh has said, the model is comprised of three stages starting with primary care with a GP, extending it to secondary care through the setting up of regional fertility hubs and then, where necessary, tertiary care, IVF and other advanced human reproduction or assisted human reproduction treatments as well. Structured referral pathways will be put in place and patients referred onwards for further investigation or treatment as required and, of course, as clinically appropriate. I am glad to say that the roll-out of the model has commenced and involves the establishment at the secondary care level of regional fertility hubs in maternity networks. The hubs will facilitate the management of a significant proportion of patients presenting with infertility issues without the need to undergo invasive IVF or other advanced assisted human reproduction, AHR, treatments. They will accept direct referrals from GPs and will provide patients with more direct and faster access to teams who specialise in infertility, which is really important.

The focus last year was on commencing the development of the first four of these regional fertility hubs. As Senator O’Loughlin has said, we now have additional funding to set up the final two hubs this year to continue with this roll-out. The final phase of the model of care roll-out will see the introduction of the tertiary infertility services, including IVF. I think this addresses a lot of what the Senators are saying today. Critically, this will be in the public health system, which is just so important. This phase will commence when the infertility services at second level have been developed across the country. This is what we are working hard on, that is, a clearer picture of the specific level of demand for tertiary treatment and the required resources allocated, as has been raised by both Senators.

The AHR legislation is commenced and the regulatory authority for AHR is operational so those are the steps we have put in place. There are a lot of steps to do this but we have got to really push it very hard. Drafting of the legislation is ongoing by officials in my Department, who are working closely with the Office of the Attorney General. The publication of the AHR Bill is a priority for this Government and its enactment is included in the programme for Government. It is really important that we do this.

It should be noted that while AHR treatment is not currently funded by the Irish public health service there is support available, as Senator O’Loughlin has said, for patients who access such treatment privately, for instance tax reliefs on the costs, but that cannot be the model. The model must be access through the public system and affordability cannot be one of the factors. Given the cost associated with certain fertility medicines there can be a material impact on the total cost of AHR treatment for those individuals who are eligible for, and avail of, the medical card or drugs payment scheme through their use of medicines covered under the high-tech scheme, which is administered by the HSE. Overall, the implementation of the model of care will help to ensure the provision of safe, effective and accessible fertility services at all levels of the public health system as part of a full range of services in obstetrics and gynaecology.

The provision of a third stage of free IVF is what we are really looking for as it is the cost-prohibitive factor for couples. When the Minister is bringing the AHR Bill forward he must accept that many couples in Ireland travel to other jurisdictions to escape the restrictions in their own country on egg donation and surrogacy. I would really like a debate, both generally and in the House, on how we can deliver these practices in this jurisdiction.

I am really pleased that this is a priority for the Government and have no doubt that many others are as well. I agree with the Minister 100%: this is about equality and equity of access to the support which some need to start their own families. Money should not dictate whether people have access to this treatment or not, as it currently does. We all know many who have remortgaged homes or indeed put off buying their own homes because they need to pay costs related to IVF. The Minister rightly said the service should be safe, accessible and effective. I have one question for the Minister. I appreciate that he has given us the chronological order but does he have a timeline for the third phase and the State helping support IVF? This is done, for example, in Scotland where three cycles are paid for by the State once a person has met the relevant criteria.

I again thank Senators Ardagh and O'Loughlin for raising the issue and allowing us to debate it. I should state that the drafting of the AHR Bill and the roll-out of the model of care really are a priority for the Government, for me and obviously for the Senators who have advocated long and very well on this issue, which I thank them for. The drafting and roll-out have been subject to delays due to Covid. Obviously, dealing with Covid has pulled the HSE and the Department every which way. It has impacted the normal work streams and this has been one of them. However, I reiterate to the House that I am committed, as is the Government, to the roll-out of this model of care for infertility in line with the available resources. The end goal is to achieve full implementation of the model of care; that is what really matters and what we must focus on. That means patients always receiving care at the appropriate level of clinical intervention and those who require and are eligible for advanced treatment being able to get it through the public health system, which is so important. I hope this has been of assistance today.

Sitting suspended at 12.15 p.m. and resumed at 12.30 p.m.