Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Covid-19 Pandemic

I thank the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Mary Butler, for coming to the House. Half of the matters relate to health, as they would in the middle of a global pandemic.

I also welcome the Minister of State back to the House and thank her for her commitment to it. She has always made herself available to answer our queries and I know of her personal commitment to the role she has taken on as Minister of State.

My question is for the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and it is to ensure dialysis patients are given the same priority in the allocation of Covid-19 vaccine as nursing home residents and staff, given their similar mortality levels. Everyone in this House is conflicted because different cohorts are making representations to us that they should be ahead of others. Even in my small village of Laragh, we have different cohorts of people. I am reminded of an email I received from a very close friend last week putting the case for her brother, who has a neurological condition and is living in a residential care unit with three other clients and who has not seen his 82-year-old mother for nearly a year.

In addition, two very good friends in the same village are now on dialysis, one for three years and the other for two years. I had the pleasure of playing football with Thomas and Michael for nearly 15 years.

We have mixed emotions when trying to make these decisions. The decision has to be based on facts and evidence. That is the priority when the decisions have to be made. I am aware the issue of people who are going through dialysis or have been recipients of a kidney transplant was raised on a number of occasions yesterday in the Dáil. There is international evidence that backs up their case that they should be moved up to the same level as nursing homes. There is evidence that there is a 25% mortality rate among renal patients who become infected with Covid-19. I am not just saying this; it is backed up by science.

In the Dáil debate yesterday, the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, referred to a review of all people with disabilities and how we will administer the vaccine, and not just the cohort I am talking about but other cohorts. However, I am focusing on this today and there is evidence to prove the mortality rates. The second issue is the inconsistencies within the age groups. One is at seven if over 65 and 15 if under 65.

I ask the Minister of State for a reply on the review process. Does she know how the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, intends carrying it out? When will the review process be finished and published? Can the Minister of State see any way of getting this cohort of people up to the same level as nursing home residents?

I thank the Cathaoirleach for the warm welcome and Senator Casey for the very important issue he has raised.

He is quite right; it was raised several times yesterday in the Dáil when Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, and I were answering questions on the Covid-19 vaccine. The only limit to the vaccine is supply. That is where our main issue is. For example, we got 21,600 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine this week. Those are being distributed to front-line workers because a decision was taken that it was no suitable for those over 65. The issue we currently have is supply. We would love to have a huge supply of the vaccine. There are no vaccine supplies sitting in storage not being administered. I want to put it on the record.

The Covid-19 vaccine allocation strategy sets out a provisional list of groups for vaccination. The strategy was developed by the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, and the Department of Health, endorsed by the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, and approved by the Government on 8 December 2020. Vaccine allocation is a matter for the Department of Health. The roll out of the Covid-19 vaccination programme is the responsibility of the HSE. The aim of the Covid-19 vaccination programme is to ensure, over time, the vaccine becomes available to all individuals for whom it is indicated.

Given there are currently limited vaccines available, it will take some time for everyone to receive the vaccine, necessitating an allocation strategy. This will ensure that the most at risk of death and serious illness receive the vaccine first. The priority is to first vaccinate and protect the most vulnerable among us, that is, the most likely to have a poor outcome if they contract the virus. The priority is to use vaccines to save lives and reduce serious illness. Hence, the focus on the over 65 year cohort in long-term residential care facilities and health care workers in front-line services often caring for the most vulnerable.

As we have seen, the roll out has been to nursing homes. I am delighted to say the uptake from residents is close to 99%, which is absolutely phenomenal. Vaccine 2 is being rolled out to the nursing home settings. During the week commencing 8 February, the vaccination programme is continuing. It is entering its conclusion phase with a continued prioritisation of staff within disability and mental health settings who are managing the care of those over 65 in residential settings.

Residents over 65 in non-registered long-term residential care, LTRC, settings, such as religious orders, are also being prioritised for vaccination. I will be dealing with that issue in the next Commencement matter. In line with vaccine supply, each community healthcare organisation, CHO, commenced vaccination within these settings on 8 February, which was Monday of this week. The next group to be vaccinated is group 3, which will start next Monday. It includes those aged 70 and older in the following order: 85 and older; 80 to 84; 75 to 79; and 70 to 74. Vaccination of this group will commence on Monday, 15 February. People with chronic kidney disease are included in group 5 or group 7, which include people aged 65 to 69, with priority for certain medical conditions, and people aged 18 to 64 with certain medical conditions. Of course people with chronic kidney disease are not an homogenous group and may be included in other priority groups, such as groups 1 and 2.

In response to the Senator's direct question, the Minister for Health stated yesterday that he asked the HSE to examine the issue raised in relation to the various groups. I expect this review to conclude quickly.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply. I acknowledge that the limited amount of vaccine received is being rolled out and administered, and that the issue is about supply. That is why I put down the Commencement matter today. There is clear evidence in relation to the cohort I am referring to that there is a 25% mortality rate, and it should be at the same level as nursing home residents.

I know it is not within the remit of the Minister of State to tell me how quickly a review can be done. We would all love to know what "quickly" means. All I ask the Minister of State to do is to raise our concerns about this cohort with the Minister. It is not that they should receive preferential treatment but that they should receive a fair treatment based on science and fact, which the Department is aware of. We should try to get them up to whatever level we can. We should see if the distinction between age groups within that cohort can be removed.

I thank Senator Casey for advocating on behalf of kidney and dialysis patients, and highlighting the challenges they face. As he said quite rightly, this will be determined from a scientific, medical, and clinical point of view. That is the only way we can look at this issue. On the decision by the Government, the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, and the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, to immunise those in nursing home settings first, we must be conscious of the fact that in the first wave, 56% of all deaths were in nursing homes. As of early this week, unfortunately 1,739 of our beloved residents lost their lives in nursing homes, either with Covid or because of Covid, and I suppose that is something we will probably never know for sure. That is why the priority has been determined in this way. Those next in priority are patient-facing front-line workers who are doing an exceptional job on a daily basis. The next in priority are our most vulnerable cohort, those over 70 years.

I certainly take on board the point made by Senator Casey. It has been made to me several times. The priority is for those who are at most risk of death or serious illness to receive the vaccine first. As the Senator quite rightly pointed out, the Minister said yesterday this issue would be looked at. Different cohorts were mentioned. For example, the situation of many very ill people who are waiting for serious operations and who need to be vaccinated in advance was mentioned yesterday. The only thing preventing vaccination is supply. In quarter 2, starting in April, I hope we will receive 250,000 vaccines per week, whereas this week we only received 21,600 vaccines. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir and I will communicate his thoughts to the Minister.

I thank the Minister of State for her response and Senator Casey for raising this issue which is a concern of every public representative. The Irish Kidney Association has done much work advocating for its members, many of whom have no choice but to go into hospital every week. As they cannot delay their dialysis they need to be protected as much as they can be when going into hospital. I thank the Minister of State for coming in.

I know the Minister of State will welcome the Member who will take over as Acting Chairperson from me, Senator Hoey, who has chaired many meetings as president of the Union of Students in Ireland. That organisation represents hundreds of thousands of students and I have no doubt that Senator Hoey will do an excellent job in chairing the Seanad for the first time. I welcome Senator Hoey in taking over the Chair and I thank the Minister of State.

Covid-19 Pandemic

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I want to raise the issue of vaccinations for residents of care homes owned and operated by religious congregations and for those elderly members of religious orders who are living in congregated settings generally.

I wish to preface my remarks by saying how much I and others appreciate the hard work that is being done by the HSE and by people generally on the front line in the healthcare sector. I feel self-conscious raising issues but part of our role as politicians is to ask hard questions when we feel they need to be asked. It is not done in any way to minimise the stresses, strains and difficulties of the tasks that people face. My engagement with the HSE has been satisfactory and yet there are hard questions that I and others will feel the need to put.

I raised the issue of vaccinations for elderly members of religious orders living in congregated settings on the Order of Business on 19 January and during the statements on vaccinations on 26 January. I have had some private correspondence with the Minister and the task force in the intervening weeks. I have great concern that, despite reassurances I have received, the HSE has been behind the curve on this and that there is a risk of lives being lost as a result. The net issue here is that the care homes owned and operated by religious congregations were voluntary and private homes and were not monitored by HIQA. For a good while, there has been a great fear among residents, their families and staff that these care homes would fall through the cracks, as residents of other HIQA-regulated care homes were vaccinated. People who have been in touch with me have always been at pains to say they are not trying to jump any queue but that they want to make sure they do not fall through the cracks.

I have received helpful replies from Mr. David Walsh and Dr. Colm Henry on 2 February. The intention was expressed that vaccinations would begin in such facilities on or around 12 February and I believe that is happening. It was back in June 2020 that the issue of support to non-HIQA regulated settings where members of religious orders might reside was raised by Deputy Ó Cuív in the Dáil. It was clear at the time that Covid response teams were supporting all residential settings with issues such as specialist advice, personal protective equipment, PPE, oxygen and extra staff, including settings not obliged to register with HIQA, such as some religious congregated settings. I know there is great gratitude for the support that was received from the HSE in matters such as PPE and other such supports.

Yet, having learned the lessons of April and May of last year when the HSE was engaged directly with these non-HIQA regulated care homes, it was concerning to read on 5 February, last Friday, in The Irish Times, that the HSE stated it did not know how many retired clergy were living in congregated sittings. The chief operations officer said they had no line of sight outside what was registered with HIQA. She said the HSE was trying to capture them through different channels but there were channels it did not know about and it was making a list of them at that time. I have to ask why, 11 months into the pandemic, nine months after the scale of the loss of life in nursing homes had become clear and eight months after the HSE was putting procedures in place for such settings to be liaised with directly, that line of sight was not there right from the get-go? We are all deeply conscious that every day more lives are lost. That is why the question must be put.

I stressed at the outset that it is not a question of those in religious orders wanting to jump the queue but there is an issue of psychological reassurance. Even last night I was talking to the prior of a small elderly community who told me it would be helpful if they just knew when it would be. The prior also asked me who they should liaise with. There is no clarity or no sense that there is a go-to person who can give an answer and point out where they are on the list and when they will get the vaccine. That kind of thing is crucial and it brings tremendous psychological reassurance. There is also the concern about the associated staff who are supporting these people, even if they are not elderly themselves. However, if they have continuous contact then the question of cross-infection arises and the wisdom of vaccinating them as well comes into play.

I welcome the Acting Chairperson, Senator Hoey, to the Cathaoirleach's chair and congratulate her.

I thank Senator Mullen for his question. The Senator raised many valid points. It is an issue I have been working closely on for the past couple of weeks and it is great to get the opportunity to speak to it and provide an update.

We are now almost 50 days into the roll-out of the largest vaccination programme in the history of the State. Ireland is progressing well with our programme and our vaccination figures compare favourably with other EU member states. Our strategy is to distribute vaccines as we receive them while ensuring availability of the second dose. It is important that we accept that in terms of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine, we have given a commitment to administer the second dose between 22 and 28 days after the first dose. The intention is that the vaccination programme will only be limited by supply.

As of 8 February, a total of 243,000 vaccines have been administered. As of the same date, 91,500 vaccines were administered in long-term residential care facilities, of which 69,038 comprised the first dose of the vaccine and 22,510, the second dose. From Monday next, 15 February, an additional 42,500 vaccines will be delivered in long-term residential care facilities.

This week the vaccination programme is continuing with the prioritisation of staff within disability and mental health settings who are managing the care of those over 65 years. A total of 9,000 vaccines will be administered in residential care facilities this week, including to staff.

We are also focusing our efforts on residents over the age of 65 in non-registered long-term residential settings, such as religious orders and, as the Senator might be familiar with, the Sue Ryder homes or the Matthew Shea homes whose residents would have their own front doors but live in congregated settings. They are being prioritised for vaccination this week and in line with vaccine supply, each community healthcare organisation commenced these vaccinations. In order to answer the Senator's question, for local knowledge it is best to contact HSE within their community healthcare organisations, CHOs.

Anyone over 70 who may not have a GP needs to contact the HSE as a priority. There is a telephone number: 1850 24 1850. There is a small cohort of people who may not be registered with a GP for some reason and a GP close to them will be found.

In relation to the other questions the Senator raised, the Senator quite rightly stated that initially the 580 nursing homes, public, private and voluntary, which are know to and registered with HIQA, were the first to be put on the list. Then it became known quickly that there were many carer-led homes, which were mostly religious orders, and some community-led homes which were also carer-led not nurse-led, that were not known specifically to HIQA. I intend to change that because I have received the list of these homes this week.

Local knowledge was very important. I was contacted by so many Deputies and Senators throughout the country to ask when such-and-such a facility would get its vaccinations. It has started this week. Carers in these homes have also been vaccinated. A niece of mine was one of them and I know for a fact that the carers and the workers were vaccinated also.

When we have the roll-out of the vaccine complete to all of these orders, I intend to write to them. I met with the Department last week to discuss this because I believe we must have oversight going forward of all people who are living in residential settings. Whether care-led or nurse-led, or whether religious, it makes no difference. They are our people and they need to be cared for. Even from a safeguarding point of view, it is important that we know where our older people are living and who is caring for them.

I agree that it is a complex situation. I think of my own parents at home. There are many people living as individuals or couples who are elderly, for most of whom vaccination will happen through their GPs.

In addition to the carer-led setting the Minister of State referred to, there are quite a few religious houses in the country where everybody is elderly. There might be one 65-year-old living with three or four others who are well into their 70s. The point could be made that where three or more are gathered and there is a carer in their midst, the vaccine should be there as quickly as possible. I presume it is something we will have to do as we get queries from people to intervene and to contact the HSE on their behalf.

We hope it is understood that the intention is not to jump any queue, but there appears to have been a lack of joined-up thinking. That is the regret in this situation. This is a difficult time and such things happen in systems, but there is a concern that the HSE was on hand last summer and gave great support yet, in hindsight, information was not collated for the vaccines quickly enough in the way that it should have been. Is that not why we are playing catch-up?

It is not so much about playing catch-up. I looked into this situation to see why some religious orders were registered with HIQA and others were not. They took that decision themselves. My understanding is that this situation dates to 1992 when nursing homes were first regulated. I am open to correction on that but there was an opportunity then. Some religious orders that operate nursing homes are registered with HIQA and others chose not to be.

Regarding the supply of PPE supports, 23 Covid teams are on the ground to support anyone in nursing homes. The HSE has been to the fore. Regardless of whether a home is public, private or voluntary, the supports are there for whoever needs them.

The roll-out of the vaccination programme to religious orders and those living in communal settings has started this week and we hope to have it finished by the end of February. I must temper that statement by saying it is dependent on supply, but that is our aim. Twenty-eight days later, people will receive their second doses. They are not being forgotten about. Now that we have the list of all of these settings, we have complete oversight of them.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply and engagement on this issue, which I thank Senator Mullen for raising.

Health Services Staff

I welcome the Minister of State. The issue of public health doctors is an important one in our community, notwithstanding Senator Mullen's remarks. There have been numerous reports recommending a restructuring of the public health medicine scheme and specialists are awaiting consultant status. The Crowe Horwath report was the most recently commissioned and was published in January 2020. It was viewed as the roadmap by which progress could be made by the Department of Health towards parity of esteem and position for public health medicine specialists.

We all agree that a highly functioning health service must be underpinned by a strong investment in and commitment to public health. Our public health doctors are a pillar of that construction. They specialise in public health and, in many cases, have large swathes of the population as their patients. They investigate the health status of their patients using a bespoke health information system, evaluate the evidence for addressing poor health status, design the requisite improved services and evaluate the efficiency and effectiveness of those health services that are targeted at particular diseases in population groups. They are an important pillar of our public health model. A strong public health function has been identified as a key component of Sláintecare as an important enabler of the reorientation of the health service.

My Commencement matter is based on the talks that are taking place between public health doctors and the Department of Health. As a former Chairman of the then Joint Committee on Health and Children, I am aware of the work and role of our public health doctors. We all agree that we need a public health medical structure that is fit for purpose, especially in post-pandemic Ireland. Given that we are committed to the implementation and funding of Sláintecare, the tackling of health inequalities must begin with our public health doctors. The progress of the talks has been slow and I am concerned about what is happening there. We all recognise that if there is to be reform of our public health system, the new consultant position for public health doctors must be given parity with their colleagues. Many reports have been commissioned, all of which have recommended a restructuring of our public health system and the awarding of consultant status to public health medicine specialists.

As I have said, the Crowe Horwath report and, now, the talks are the next stepping stones.

I ask for an update on the talks and I ask that the Government commits to the parity that public health doctors deserve. I thank the Minister of State for being here. I would like to add something to Senator Mullen's contribution. What he has said is quite correct. There is a need for all of us to be very vigilant and very supportive of what he has raised as part of his report. We saw in the summer and in the first wave the fatalities and illnesses. The vaccination programme should take cognisance of what Senator Mullen has said.

I will respond to this on behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly. I welcome the opportunity to address the House on this issue and I thank Senator Buttimer for raising it. I express my sincere gratitude to our public health doctors, who have been at the forefront of our response to the pandemic and have made an enormous contribution to the protection of everyone living in Ireland. The Government has already shown it is committed to investment in our public health workforce. The Minister has already committed to significant investment in public health, with the announcement of plans to double the current workforce by recruiting an additional 255 permanent staff at an annual cost of more than €17 million. This includes public health doctors, nurses, scientists and support staff. This is not only a response to the current pandemic but is an investment in the future development of our public health function. Recruitment for these posts is a priority for the HSE.

A significant body of work was already under way but the pandemic has certainly highlighted to us all that public health medicine must be reformed and strengthened such that the skills and expertise unique to public health physicians can be leveraged to ensure maximum return for the Irish health service and ultimately benefit and improve the health of the population as a whole.

The Minister has been very clear and consistent on his commitment to delivering on the recommendations that were made for public health in the Crowe Horwath report, to which the Senator referred. The report recognised the very important role that public health medicine plays in the health of our population and in how our health service is managed and delivered.

Officials from the Department, in conjunction with the HSE, have completed a substantial amount of work on a detailed framework for the future public health model, which includes consultant level roles. A process of engagement has begun between health service management and the Irish Medical Organisation. The Department of Health and the HSE met the Irish Medical Organisation on Wednesday, 27 January and on 3 February. The Department hopes this engagement will continue over the coming weeks. Engagement with the Irish Medical Organisation is ongoing and the Minister has stated it would not be appropriate for him to discuss the specific details at this time. Just so the Senator knows, they have met twice and the appropriate levels of communication are ongoing.

My information is that the talks are at an impasse and the IMO has walked out. The Crowe Horwath report stipulated that the training of a cohort of specialists in public health medicine should be at a standard recognised internationally and equivalent to other medical specialties.

I appreciate the commitment of the Minister of State. Specialists in public health medicine and medical officers of health are responsible for the health of the population and we, as a Government and a Parliament, must afford them the same contracts as those of their colleagues in hospital consultant posts, who have the same level of qualification as they do, which enables them to have the requisite authority to do their job properly. We must empower and recognise them and give them status. We must also deliver the appropriate number of staff with a range of skills and competencies in multidisciplinary teams.

Yesterday, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, spoke about increasing the public sector pay bill. I hope the Minister of State will join, and I will work with her, to ensure we look after this group of people who are now so pivotal in a post-pandemic Ireland.

This is about specialists in public health medicine in our communities.

Deputy Mary Butler: I thank the Senator again for raising this issue. As I have said already, engagement with the IMO is ongoing. I am not privy to the details but I am sure he will join me in saying that when one gets various groups around the table, communication is essential. That is the best way forward for any discussion. The only way that any solution can be found, regardless of whether it is in education, health or business, is to sit down and talk.

I reiterate that the introduction of the consultant-led public health model, as recommended in the Crowe Horwath report, is an immediate priority for the Department. Our public health specialists, as we all know, have been to the forefront of the response to the pandemic. They have given tirelessly in response to this very dangerous virus. We want to make sure we work closely with the public health doctors and put in place the best public health structures going forward. We want this to happen because we want to ensure public health medicine is an attractive career choice for anybody who is considering medicine as a career.

To conclude, it is very important that all sides get together and try to move forward because that is the only way that can happen.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply and for being here this morning through three Commencement matters. I thank Senator Buttimer for raising this very important issue, which we have discussed at the Joint Committee on Health.

Cultural Objects

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Noonan, to the House.

I congratulate the Acting Chairman on her first sitting in the Chair.

This issue is the subject of a rolling or ongoing conversation in the museum sector and in the cultural space. It has often been discussed in wider society, particularly of late. I have followed these conversations as long as I have had an interest in the issue. I have raised it on a number of occasions in these Houses over the years. The Black Lives Matter movement and anti-racist protests have rightly shone a light on objects and artefacts that have imperialist origins and remain held in European museums.

I am not here to suggest that this is a simple process. It is a very complex area. As I have said before, the Government should offer resources to help institutions, and the National Museum of Ireland is not the only one, that hold artefacts which were acquired in a colonial context. The ethnographic collection held by the National Museum of Ireland consists of approximately 11,000 cultural objects and artefacts that are concrete examples of people's culture ranging from the Pacific to Asia, Africa and the Americas. A great deal of it comes from southern Africa and reflects the British colonial presence there. There is also material from the Zulu and Maori wars. Some of the material in the collection has its origin in the collection of the Royal Dublin Society, which acquired the objects following surveys of the Pacific by the HMS Herald in the 1850s.

It is public knowledge that the National Museum of Ireland is working to develop a strategy for dealing with objects that have a colonial past. Will the Government step up to the plate and provide the necessary resources and funding, if necessary, to help to support this work so it can be as effective as possible and so that it can be timely? Would the Government also consider developing a policy that will aid restitution and repatriation work by any institution in Ireland that holds objects with imperialist origins?

I wish to note comments made by President Higgins that I saw reported in The Guardian this week. He said: "A feigned amnesia around the uncomfortable aspects of our shared history [that is Britain and Ireland's shared history] will not help us to forge a better future together".

He went on to say that ignoring "the shadows cast by our shared past" is part of a wider reluctance to engage with imperial legacy.

That brings me to my second point regarding Irish manuscripts and objects in Britain. Many Irish manuscripts are housed in British libraries. These institutions have looked after them very well, including digitising them for the 21st century. Many of these manuscripts ended up in British institutions due to landowners bequeathing them. The Book of Lismore was taken in a raid of Kilbrittain Castle in the 17th century. The British Library holds the largest collection of manuscripts containing Irish language material outside Ireland, with over 200 items. These manuscripts date from the 12th to the 19th centuries and cover medicine, religion, law, grammar, history and poetry and prose literature. The key question is whether the optimum cultural and educational value is derived from these manuscripts sitting in libraries in Oxford or, rather, located in centres of learning in Ireland close to the key places mentioned in them. The Book of Lismore was recently donated to the library in University College Cork, UCC, and proves the value of transferring the physical manuscript.

We must have a general Government policy on repatriation. That includes objects held in Irish museums that have a colonial past and, indeed, Irish objects abroad.

I thank Senator Warfield for raising this important issue. I wish to point out at the outset that there is a crossover between the responsibility of my Department in terms of its oversight role in the Heritage Council, museum standards accreditation and so forth and the cultural heritage, which still falls under the remit of the Department of Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht.

As with cultural institutions around the world, the national cultural institutions in Ireland hold books, art, archaeological objects and other items which can range from newly-created objects to objects which are thousands of years old. Irish objects naturally hold a central place in the collections but, as is common throughout the world, our national cultural institutions hold items from cultures across the globe. This has allowed Irish people, and schoolchildren in particular, to experience something from other cultures around the world. It can offer valuable insights into the past and provide an appreciation of world cultures.

Nonetheless, the question of how objects are obtained is very complex. Some of our cultural institutions are up to 150 years old. Their founding collections were built on old collections from previously-established institutions, such as the Royal Dublin Society. The objects that are hundreds or thousands of years old may have changed hands many times, and objects from other countries may have passed through many countries on their journey to Ireland. The presence of ethnographic objects in museums and the existence of ethnographic museums are both issues which have involved much soul-searching and reflection in the last several decades. They are complex matters.

Like many museums that were opened in the 19th century, the National Museum of Ireland has a legacy of collections that it would not now seek to collect. As the National Museum of Ireland, it does not seek to collect non-Irish material but instead focuses on augmenting the Irish collections in its care. The museum is open to engagement with cultural institutions globally and with other interested parties on ethnographic objects in its collection, and is working towards a position of having a full understanding of the provenance of each piece. In this regard, the museum has established a collections provenance working group, along the lines outlined by the Senator, that has been set the task of developing this strategy.

The issue of repatriation of cultural objects is increasingly a matter of concern and discussion in the museum world and wider society. I agree that Ireland and those with responsibility for the care of collections of historical value must be aware of their responsibilities as custodians to understand more fully the provenance of such collections in their care. The international museum community has done considerable work at international level to develop policies and guidelines to support nation states and those charged with the care of collections to make decisions on repatriation. Each museum and collecting institution is unique in its history, scope, governance and mission, and establishing professional standards for historical holdings is essential for the sake of accountability and consistency. Developing guidelines to support the custodians of collections requires the input of curators, provenance research experts and those who claim associations with or ownership of such collections.

In Ireland, the museums standards programme is the national accreditation programme for both publicly- and privately-operated museums and custodians of collections.

The museums standards programme is run by the Heritage Council. It is a wonderful programme that supports all standards in small and large museums. To ensure continuity, consistency and accountability, the Heritage Council has agreed to establish a working group and co-ordinate with the museum community nationally and internationally, as well as with policymakers and collection owners to develop appropriate repatriation policies and best practice guidelines in line with the established professional practice in provenance research and museum practice.

The Heritage Council will co-ordinate with officials in the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, as well as the Irish Museums Association and the wider sector to lead on developing this much needed policy and best practice guidelines in cultural repatriation.

I welcome this initiative by the Heritage Council in a very sensitive area. It is a timely initiative that can build on the experience of international colleagues. I look forward to further developments in this area. I again thank Senator Warfield for bringing this important issue to the Seanad today.

I do not contest anything the Minister of State said. I would be delighted to know that the Government would offer any support needed by the National Museum of Ireland or any other museum to complete the work in this area in a timely manner. I do not suggest for one minute that this is a simple issue; it is a complex area. Our own Irish ethnographic material is situated in a dedicated space in the National Museum of Ireland - Country Life at Turlough Park, County Mayo. The non-European elements were quietly stored away after partition and the establishment of the Free State and therefore were never shared publicly. I would like to see them shared publicly and for it to be ascertained whether they should be returned to their places of origin.

There are structures in place now through the museums standards accreditation programme to try to oversee what both of us are aware is the very sensitive issue of repatriation. There have been precedents recently. The National Museum of Ireland permanently repatriated two tattooed Maori heads to the Te Papa museum of New Zealand. There is an ongoing programme but what is important in the issue the Senator has raised is that we have a standard and an accreditation process for our museums for the repatriation of what he rightly said are cultural items of significance to other countries and, similarly, cultural items that are of significance to this country also.

While we have the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, here I might suggest a slight change to the running order as proposed by the Cathaoirleach and call Senator Fiona O'Loughlin next and then move to the matter to be dealt with by the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien. I have been in the Chair 20 seconds and the power has gone to my head. I am causing chaos and changing things up and down. Is that agreed? Agreed. Whatever will I do next?

I am glad I am sitting in this chair and not running over to-----

I am causing chaos. As that has been agreed, I call Senator O'Loughlin to raise her Commencement matter.

Natural Heritage Areas

I thank the Acting Chairperson and I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, for being here to discuss the Curragh of Kildare, which is a unique and special place, both to those of us from Kildare who live close to the Curragh and people throughout the country. Many people pass it on a daily and a weekly basis and have the opportunity to see our lovely lands.

The Curragh needs very little introduction because it is very much part of our Irish psyche and is featured prominently in our history and culture. There are many aspects to the Curragh, including its distinct ecological habitat with the flora and the fauna. I have been privileged to go on many walks around the Curragh with experts such as Gay Brabazon and Karen Tyrell, who taught me a great deal about what I need to value in my own area. There is a very strong military history. We have a wonderful museum thanks to Mario Corrigan and James Durney.

I invite the Minister of State and anybody who is interested to come and see it when the Covid-19 pandemic is over. Of course there is the connection with St. Brigid, which I spoke about in the House last week, and there is a very important equestrian element in the area, with the Curragh racecourse and all the trainers and breeders located close to the Curragh. We should not forget about the sheep or the film "Braveheart", which was filmed there.

There are two aspects of the Curragh I will mention. One relates to the Department. Currently, we have a proposed natural heritage area for habitat and species. The site code is 000392. It is very important so when will we have the news that this will be announced as a natural heritage area? The Curragh is such an important site that we really should be aiming to having UNESCO protection for it. This is just one step we need to take. At present, the Curragh does not have the adequate or appropriate protection that it needs.

The other question relates to the management of the Curragh. There is quite a large movement of people around the Curragh at any given time with the equestrian, military and the very well-known golf club activities, as well as the movement of sheep. The Curragh has been a boon during Covid-19. It is wonderful to see so many people out enjoying the Curragh and its environs. However, this raises again issues that have always been there. There is no adequate parking, for example. Currently, there are problems arising from where cars are being parked and grass needs to be reseeded. There should be appropriate parking and signage in a discrete way. There is so much to learn about the Curragh.

I introduced a Curragh of Kildare Bill when I was in the Dáil relating to illegal encampment and dumping. The problem is that currently there are two caravans and one tent there. We are going from the military management to Kildare County Council to the Garda and each of them is passing the buck. We absolutely need to have strong management, which is not happening. We cannot have illegal encampments and illegal disposal of waste on the Curragh. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. To highlight my Curragh credentials, my mother is a Newbridge woman and she met my dad, who served in the Defence Forces for 37 years, at a dance in Suncroft many moons ago. I have a great affinity for the Curragh.

I will respond to the matter of the natural heritage area first. My Department has no role in the designation of national historic park sites, which are managed by the Office of Public Works, OPW. Any queries in respect to such a designation should be pursued with OPW. However, through its National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, my Department is responsible for natural heritage and designating a range of protected areas relating to conservation of habitats and species. The NPWS manages an extensive conservation and recreational property portfolio of some 87,000 ha, which includes six national parks. Our six existing national parks account for circa 65,000 ha, with another almost 22,000 ha of nature reserves and other heritage sites. The issue of the use of those parks during the Covid-19 pandemic has been mentioned and it is significant.

The existing national parks are managed from a conservation perspective while also providing a public amenity, and they attract in excess of 4 million visitors annually. Given the resources available for capital investment within our national parks and nature reserves, I am mindful of the need to focus on the core responsibilities relating to the management of the existing parks and reserves lands and have no plans at present to increase the number of national parks in the country. However, as part of my Department's continuing commitment and contribution to protecting our heritage and improving our tourism and recreation product, we have been exploring ways to optimise the sustainable potential of heritage sites under our control in a way that is compatible with conservation objectives.

My Department, in conjunction with Fáilte Ireland, launched a strategic partnership in 2017 with a view to increasing tourism revenues in the rural areas in which the parks are located and increasing Ireland's appeal as a recreation destination.

One of the outputs from the partnership was "Experiencing the Wild Heart of Ireland", an interpretative masterplan for the development of our national parks and reserves, which sets out a roadmap for investment at these important nature conservation, public amenity and tourism sites and underpins the objectives of Project 2040.

The ongoing investment in our national parks will create memorable and meaningful experiences of Ireland's natural heritage. This will be done through sensitive design and the development of authentic experiences, providing better access to nature and increased understanding of society's conservation responsibilities, as well as supporting significant investment in recreation facilities, including the upgrade and development of the trails network, increasing visitor facilities and improving signage and branding. These will be designed and delivered with strong emphasis on conservation, and will allow us to protect and preserve our most fragile environments.

The basic designation for wildlife under Irish legislation is the natural heritage area, NHA. These areas are considered important for the habitats present or for species of plants or animals whose habitat needs protection. There are currently 148 sites with NHA status - 75 raised bogs covering 23,000 ha, and a further 73 blanket bogs covering 37,000 ha. In addition, there are over 600 proposed NHAs, which were published on a non-statutory basis in 1995.

The Curragh was one of the original proposed NHAs and has fine examples of heathland and grassland habitats. It contains notable species of plant and fungi which depend on low-nutrient grassland, and are thus becoming increasingly rare. I understand the Geological Survey of Ireland also considers the Curragh as one of the best examples of a landscape produced by the retreating ice sheets at the end of the Ice Age.

I wish to note the points made in respect of the Curragh military camp. I have written to the Minister for Defence and the Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces, Mark Mellett, regarding a conservation plan for the Curragh military camp. I do believe that it is a complex of important built conservation and heritage significance.

I am glad to hear that there is a little bit of lily white in the Minister of State. I look forward to bringing him down and giving him a full tour of the Curragh when the Covid pandemic is over. I had thought that the Minister of State with responsibility for the OPW would be here today, but I accept that this matter crosses over between the Minister of State's Department, the OPW and the Department of Defence. It is disappointing that the Curragh is not being considered at this point for NHA designation. Given the fact that there are over 600 proposed NHAs, surely there should be a graduated process in respect of those that are more significant than others. I ask the Minister of State to look into that. There must be a qualitative vision in place for the future of the Curragh, yet there is not. The Curragh must be given appropriate adequate protection. This is not happening currently.

The current management of the site is of huge concern to me. As I mentioned, it is absolutely falling down. There are many problems. There is an opportunity here to really look at the Curragh and see how we can protect and preserve our natural and built heritage, as the Minister of State said, and also to ensure that it is there for people to use, both as a place of historical interest and also as a leisure and amenity facility. I note what the Minister of State said regarding the county development plan, which has just commenced. An issues paper has been drafted. I will certainly ensure that adequate recognition is given to it during that process.

I thank the Senator for raising this important matter. I am happy to work with the Senator and Kildare County Council to try and pursue our common set of objectives. The development plan process is a most important one. I have spoken to the heritage officer in Kildare County Council about this matter. While the Curragh has not progressed to legal designation, there is a proposed review of NHA networks. Within that, we could find some common ground, if one excuses the pun, in trying to pursue an objective that takes in the complex needs of the Curragh, given the interrelated elements of the usage of what, in my view, is a nationally important site. I thank the Senator for raising this issue. Our Department will be happy to work with all partners to try and pursue a broad vision statement for the Curragh Camp.

Disability Activation Projects

I thank the Minister of State for being here. I thank him, his Department and the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, for their engagement on this important issue. I know that the Minister met with groups involved in this programme in January to find a solution to this matter and that one is close to being arrived at. I thank them for the work they have put into this.

The Ability programme provides funding to 27 local regional and national projects that focus on bringing young people with disabilities between the ages of 15 and 29 closer to the labour market. The programme targets young people who are not currently work-ready by using a range of person-centred supports. This type of work assists young people to identify and follow progression routes based on their potential and their needs. As a result, the programme promotes positive pathways into education, training and employment for participants. The need for the programme is borne out by the 1,900 plus young people currently on their individual journey to further education, training and employment. There is a constant flow of young people with disabilities entering the pre-activation stage, a stage which is critical in ensuring access to mainstream services in the longer term. The in-person actions and supports that participants require in value are severely curtailed in light of the ongoing restrictions of Covid-19. Those successfully transitioning along a pathway towards employment before the pandemic will need continued ongoing support to realise their full potential after it.

The Ability programme is due to end on 1 July 2021. The 1,900 plus young people who registered and engaged across the 27 projects require ongoing support to continue their journey through education and training towards employment if they are to realise their full potential. For this support to continue, an emergency interim solution needs approval to ensure these young people avoid early school leaving and unemployment. To ensure equality for people with disabilities in assessing education, training and employment opportunities, a temporary interim solution on the grounds of reasonable accommodation should be introduced. This would consist of an 18-month ability transition period, similar to the extensions made to other labour market activation programmes such as Tús, community employment and community services programme in light of the current pandemic. The proposed ability transition period would allow Departments to review the quality matters evaluation. It would provide an interim solution that would facilitate participants across to supports between the Ability pilot and the Ability mainstream solution in the future, accordingly, preventing a stop-deactivation-reactivation approach. Equally, it would allow 27 projects to avail of the original 36-month timeframe as per the European Social Fund guidelines and grant agreements.

The programme for Government states that a new social contract will provide greater security for individuals and communities. It will be founded on the principle of equality and ensuring that every citizen can achieve his or her full potential. It will fine-tune and expand targeted employment schemes, such as the wage subsidy scheme and the Ability programme, to help more people with disabilities stay in the workforce. All other support programmes have been extended with reviews postponed except for the Ability programme.

People with disabilities are entitled, as part of their core human rights, to have access to appropriate education, training and employment pathways. Implementing a short-term transition period to facilitate the gap between the pilot programme and the future mainstream programme is the only way to ensure inclusion and equality for people with disabilities as a fundamental basic right. Not much money is involved. A request for €8 million has been made to keep the programme going over the next 18 months. I appreciate that the Department is working on this matter with those involved.

I thank Senator Ahearn for raising this important issue.

The Ability programme was introduced in June 2018 as pre-activation programme for young people with disabilities. Funding for this programme amounts to €16 million over a three-year period and it is being provided jointly under the European Social Fund employability inclusion and learning operational programme and the Exchequer with funding from the Dormant Accounts Fund, which falls under the remit of the Departments of Social Protection and Rural and Community Development.

The aim of the Ability programme is to bring young people with disabilities who are not work-ready closer to the employment market. The programme supports over 2,600 young people with disabilities aged between 15 to 29 years of age.

It is being delivered by 27 community and voluntary groups from all around the country, including three in Tipperary, some in Connemara and Fingal LEADER Partnership in my area.

Pobal has been contracted by my Department to manage the Ability programme. It was a condition of the current three-year funding arrangement that the programme would end at the end of June 2021. An ongoing evaluation of the programme is being undertaken. It will explore the effectiveness of the different approaches and actions applied in bringing young people with disabilities who are not work ready closer to the labour market, in addition to examining impacts on the participants. The evaluation is to be conducted over the duration of the programme, and it will conclude in June 2021. An interim evaluation report has been submitted to the Department. This evaluation will feed into future programmes in this area.

The Minister has taken a strong interest in this issue. In mid-January, she met a delegation of Ability providers to hear their concerns. She is very conscious that Ability providers are looking for some certainty with regard to the year ahead and reassurances regarding the Department's wider commitment to advance pre-employment supports for young people with disabilities so they will have the opportunities they need to progress into employment. Following on from the meeting in January, the Minister asked officials in the Department to examine this matter and revert to her with proposals. I am pleased to advise Senator Ahearn that, just this morning, the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, had a follow-up meeting with the Ability providers' subgroup. It was a very useful and informative exchange. Everybody on the call this morning was in agreement on the need to maximise a number of supports that will contribute to the development of these young people, their future economic independence, their standard of living and overall well-being.

The positive news is that we have found a way forward so that the good work being carried out by Ability projects across the country can continue. There will be a multi-faceted approach to this that will involve an extension of the current programme together with further short-term funding for Ability projects to allow them to continue. The Minister will be announcing full details in due course. The subgroup we met this morning supports this approach, which provides options for meeting the needs of participants in the Ability programme, and also progressing the various pre-employment supports for young people with disabilities so that they will have the opportunities they need to transition into employment.

I can give the Senator a little more detail. The approach we intend to pursue now includes a combination of an extension of the current programme to the end of August, an application process that is to open in April and that will allow successful applicants to continue uninterrupted from August into September and beyond as part of a new programme.

I had a list of points to make to keep pushing for a solution. The Minister of State announcing one this morning is really momentous. On behalf of the many people whom I know are watching online, I thank him and the Minister. As the Minister of State said, there are three organisations in Tipperary, including St. Cronans Association, Nenagh, where Mr. Paul Farrell is running the show, and Youth Work Ireland Tipperary, where Mr. Donal Kelly is working very hard. I know at first hand Knockanrawley Resource Centre, under Ms Emer Leahy, who does phenomenal work in Tipperary town. I have been at the centre numerous times and have noted the immense work done and its impact. It is phenomenal for the groups to get reassurance today that €8 million will be sourced to keep the services going for 18 months until the next EU round of funding. It also reassures 180 service users and their families in Tipperary and the 1,900 others across the country. On behalf of everyone, I thank the Minister of State and the Minister for their commitment and the understanding they have shown. It means an awful lot to different groups.

I thank the Senator again for raising the issue. As Minister of State with responsibility for the Roadmap for Social Inclusion 2020-2025, I am very committed to improving and extending supports to help more people with disabilities to enter employment and stay in the workforce. The work the providers have done in the context of the Ability programme has been innovative and has made a difference in the lives of the young people who have participated. We listened carefully to the Ability representatives last month and this morning when they described the experiences of the young participants and the positive impact of the programme on their lives. This is particularly relevant to my remit. I have oversight of the social inclusion and community activation programme nationally having regard to what we can do with the Ability programme in the long term but also with regard to the community employment schemes' aim to act as a bridge to the labour market.

Our planned approach entails a combination of measures. There is to be an extension of the current programme until the end of August. An application process opening in April of this year will allow successful applicants to continue uninterrupted from August into September and beyond as part of a new programme.

Sitting suspended at 11.47 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.