Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Road Projects

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, to the House.

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for selecting this Commencement Matter for discussion. I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to deal with it. As he will be aware, Rosslare Europort has expanded quite rapidly as a result of Brexit. Continental ferry traffic year on year increased by 447% in January. There are far more direct shipping routes and it is obvious that Rosslare Europort is continuing to expand. In a post-Brexit environment, the port will grow in importance. I sincerely hope that, in the long run, it will be classified as a tier 1 port. In addition, Rosslare Europort will play a critical role in the development of offshore wind infrastructure in the Irish Sea and the Celtic Sea. I believe it will become Ireland's offshore hub.

The Minister of State will be aware that the M11 motorway runs from the M50 and down through Wicklow and Wexford. It is a great road. However, those travelling south along the road suddenly come to a shuddering halt in the very pretty village of Oylegate. The problem is that there are tailbacks in the village. It is a great inconvenience to have lorries stalled in the village and it is also environmentally damaging. The lack of an extension to the motorway is also a major concern in Oylegate and Rosslare itself from a road safety point of view. The delays of approximately 20 minutes which are being experienced have a serious impact on logistics for those in the haulage business.

The Minister of State is aware that successive Governments have long promised to complete the M11. We have been waiting for a long time for that to be done. For some reason, there now seem to be delays in selecting the preferred route to complete the motorway. This process was undertaken in the past but it has had to be done again recently. Residents have been left in limbo regarding exactly what is happening. It is completely unfair to the landowners and property owners whose land or property may be on the possible routes that a preferred route has still not been indicated.

The Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the UK from the EU has written to the Government to indicate strongly its view that the M11 must be completed. The Irish Road Haulage Association has said this initiative is key if we are to ensure the long-term development of Rosslare Europort, especially regarding easy access for vehicles using the port and ensuring there is no stalling of those vehicles in Oylegate. Rosslare Europort has stated that this is an essential development not only for vehicles now travelling to and from the port, but also for its long-term development. The completion of the M11 is also very important for the quality of life enjoyed by the people who live in Oylegate and Rosslare.

In the context of the review of the national development plan, NDP, and the critical importance of Rosslare Europort in a post-Brexit environment, I ask the Minister of State to provide us with an update regarding the plan in this regard. I also ask for an assurance that this project is a top priority for the Government because it is essential not only for Wexford and the south east but also for this country's long-term development. I would appreciate it if the Minister of State could provide us with as much detail as possible.

I thank Senator Byrne for raising this important issue, which I am taking on behalf of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan.

Once funding arrangements have been put in place through the Department of Transport, under the Roads Acts 1993 to 2015, the planning, design and construction of individual national roads is a matter for Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, in conjunction with the local authorities concerned. Overall, TII is responsible for the delivery of the national roads programme in accordance with Project Ireland 2040 and the NDP. In that context, TII provides the Department with regular updates on its delivery of the national roads programme.

I will provide the most up-to-date information available to the Minister in the timeframe up to this debate. Within the overall context of Project Ireland 2040, the NDP was developed to underpin the successful implementation of the national planning framework. This provides the strategic and financial framework for the national roads programme from 2018 to 2027. The focus of the activities of TII is accordingly being directed towards the development of the major national road improvement schemes aligned with and included in the NDP, along with the maintenance of the existing national road network.

The N11-N25 Oylegate to Rosslare Harbour project focuses on improvements to both the N11 and N25. The project commences south of the M11 Gorey to Enniscorthy motorway, which opened in 2019. The existing route runs through Oylegate village and on to Wexford, where it connects with the N25 road from Wexford to Rosslare Europort through the villages of Tagoat, Kilrane and Rosslare Harbour. This project consists of approximately 33 km of high-quality route which will form a strategic link between Rosslare Europort, Dublin and the rest of Ireland. The project will form part of two strategic links - between Rosslare Europort-Wexford and Dublin via the M11 and N11, and between Rosslare Europort-Wexford and Cork-Waterford via the N25.

The proposed scheme has been subject to pre-appraisal to establish compliance with the requirements of the public spending code and the common appraisal framework for transport projects and programmes. Approval was given by TII to Wexford County Council, as the sponsoring agency, to proceed with the appointment of technical advisers for phases 1 to 4, inclusive, of the TII project management guidelines in respect of progressing the planning, design and appraisal for the project. Phase 1, concept and feasibility, has been completed, while phase 2, option selection, has commenced. The virtual public consultation process on project constraints and option selections commenced on 6 July 2020 and concluded on 10 August. All feedback has now been considered by the project team and the detailed assessment of the scheme options and different combinations of scheme options is progressing to identify the option that best meets the project objectives.

The progression of this scheme is dependent on the availability of funding. The timeframe for delivery of any major or minor work projects requiring statutory approval, whether an environmental impact assessment report or compulsory purchase order, or both, is between eight to 13 years.

As this project is in the early stage of planning it is not yet possible to provide an accurate estimate of the total cost of the project. The estimated cost cannot be finalised until the project reaches the business case stage process.

This project will increase the safety and capacity of the N11-N25 corridor. In addition to providing and improving the connectivity between Wexford and the surrounding areas of international markets, this proposed project will also provide journey time reliability for road users which will improve the quality of life for local residents. It will strengthen Ireland's international links, having a positive economic benefit to the region. A major benefit provided by the proposed project is improvement in road safety and the provision of infrastructure that can accommodate a larger volume of road users. In addition, improved journey time reliability may encourage an increased usage of road-based public transport.

Rosslare Europort is a key strategic transport link between Ireland and both the European mainland and the United Kingdom. In addition to the N11-N25 Oylegate to Rosslare Harbour project, the N25 Rosslare to Europort access road project is proposing to provide improved access to Rosslare Europort from the N25 national primary road to ensure and secure the sustainability and competitiveness of our key transport link.

I think the Minister of State realises the importance of this road and its completion. Again, I am concerned about the timeframe we are talking about. There is an ideal opportunity now in the context of the review of the national development plan, because obviously we are in a very different world from when the NDP was drawn up, and a number of submissions have been made about the importance of this. I ask that the Minister of State conveys to the Minister for Transport that this project is not just important to County Wexford; this is a critical piece of infrastructure for the country. Yes, it will improve road safety within the area but access and egress from Rosslare Europort is essential for this country's future economic development not just in terms of freight but, as I mentioned, the development of the offshore hub. Again, my concern relates to the timeframe we are talking about. I ask, in the context of the NDP review, that this would be given priority.

I thank Senator Byrne for raising this very important issue and I will convey his concerns to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan. Without doubt, this is a national project. Its importance is critical to unlock infrastructure and potential, and, especially in a post-Brexit era, it is compounded in terms of its importance. I understand how important it is that this project is included in the review of the capital plan. I will bring the Senator's views to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, in connection with that and thank the Senator for giving me the time to outline the merits of the project.

Taxi Licences

I thank the Minister of State for being here. The essence of this issue relates to the fact that at present holders of hackney or minibus licences cannot during their lifetimes pass on the business and licence to their children. On death, they can pass it to one of their children but in life they cannot so. It is a huge anomaly and makes no sense. Obviously the personnel to whom they would be passing it on would have to reach the relevant criteria - that is not an issue - but they cannot pass it on in any circumstances.

This is best illustrated, if the Minister of State and the Acting Chairman bear with me, by reading a letter from the child of one of these licenceholders. I will not name them on the record of the House. I think it might be best not to, although the person seems not to care. The letter reads as follows:

Dear Joe,

Mr. ... [X] has operated a minibus and hackney business in ... [X location] for almost 30 years, having gained a reputation for being reliable and caring, the majority of his passengers are patients travelling to Dublin for treatment or hospital appointments.

The Family Business has employed 2 of his sons up until the impact of COVID, which effectively closed his business as he didn't qualify for ... [the supports contingent on rateable properties]. [The gentleman] ... is heading for 70 years of age and would now like to retire and will also be unable to secure insurance on his vehicles when he turns 70. His sons would be proud to carry on the family business [In fact, very much so and they are qualified] but because of 2 issues they are unable to take over. Firstly, ... [the dad's] hackney licence can only be transferred to one of his sons after his death. Secondly, ... [his] sons have explored the option of putting their own hackney cars on the road independently, however in order to secure a new hackney licence, this vehicle must be wheelchair accessible.

The issue here is that the two sons cannot both acquire wheelchair-accessible vehicles at an extra cost of €30,000 in a place where the volume of business is very small. Of course, they have no objection in principle and would be aspiring to that but it would not be a starting point for two of them. It would not be on financially and no financial institution would back them. The letter goes on:

In a rural area with limited business available, most work is sporadic and services are part-time, it is an unviable proposition for a new entrant to have 100% of their fleet wheelchair accessible. They have pointed out that the existing larger operators with lucrative state contracts are being encouraged to reach 15% wheelchair accessibility. Most existing wheelchair operators do not work nights or weekends which the brothers have done and wish to continue doing. Due to this regulation and cost, most towns and villages now have people operating illegally without proper insurance and garda vetting.

Most businesses affected by Covid have been offered financial support ... [and that is not relevant here].

The real issue is that the sons cannot inherit their father's business and they cannot do it in his lifetime, yet when he reaches 70, he cannot continue either. It is, therefore, a total anomaly. I am delighted the Minister of State is here because he, above all, would have an appreciation of this issue because of where he comes from. In a small town like, for example, Castlepollard, a taxi driver could not have a couple of wheelchair-accessible cars at €30,000 extra. It just would not be viable. The banks would not support him or her in it. That is the issue in essence.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter I will bring the contents of his speech to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, because it is a very important issue.

At present the transfer of small public service vehicle, SPSV, licences is prohibited under section 14(1) of the Taxi Regulation Act 2013. All SPSV vehicle licences are unique to the person to whom the licence has been issued and cannot be transferred or sold to any other person. This took account of a review of the taxi industry conducted in 2011. Action 14 of the published report recommended the introduction of a general prohibition on the transferability of taxi licences. The rationale for this position is that the licence should determine a person's suitability to carry out a function and it should not have monetary value or be traded on the open market. There is also one exemption to this non-transferability restriction. As the Senator alluded to, section 15 of the same Act does provide for an SPSV licence to continue to be operated by a person who was nominated by the licenceholder in advance of his or her death. In the event of the death of the holder of a licence, his or her nominated representative may, within three months of the death of the holder, make an application to the National Transport Authority, NTA, to continue to operate the licence. The person nominated by the licenceholder can be any adult or company chosen by the licenceholder. The nomination process is free of charge and the person nominated can be changed at any time prior to the licenceholder's death.

Prior to the removal of the quantitative restrictions that had existed up to 2000, taxi licences were bought and sold for considerable sums of money. Thereafter, the value of vehicle licences plummeted as the size of the taxi fleet increased from under 3,000 to a total fleet size, including hackneys and limousines, of 21,315 as of 31 January 2020. Since 2010, it has been regulatory policy to issue new small public service vehicle licences for taxis and hackneys only in respect of a wheelchair accessible vehicle, WAV. However, for several years this policy was effectively undermined by the availability of standard taxi and hackney vehicle licences - for saloon type vehicles - by means of transfer.

The purchase cost of these licences by transfer was much lower than the additional cost of purchasing a WAV. This meant that it was much more commercially attractive for a new operator to purchase a transferred licence rather than a new WAV licence. The introduction of the transferability restriction in 2014 has addressed this issue. The number of WAV taxis at the end of 2013 was 898 while the total number as of 31 December 2020 was 3,015.

There are no plans to amend this legislation at this time. As mentioned, the rationale for the measure was that a licence should indicate a person’s suitability to carry out a function and should not have, by association, a monetary value or be traded on the open market. As quantitative restrictions have been removed from the taxi market and there are no barriers to entry to this industry other than the obligation to use a wheelchair accessible vehicle, it is not clear how the transferring of licences would deliver benefits to the industry or members of the public who use these services, especially those who require access to WAVs. Under the current SPSV regulations, the holder of a taxi licence may rent or lease a licence to another person. Further information on rules for such arrangements can be obtained directly from the National Transport Authority, which is the statutory regulator for the sector.

The Minister of State's response is disappointing and I would like him to convey that to the Minister for Transport. He did not address this anomaly, which could easily be legislated for without damaging the Department's overall objectives. There is no issue with the person's suitability to carry out the function. The Minister of State said that the rationale is that the person must be suitable. That is not a problem and no one is suggesting otherwise. The licence can only be transferred on the person's death but the issue in this case is that there are a couple of sons and the onus is on both of them to have two wheelchair accessible vehicles in a small community to qualify for licences. That is just not a viable option or an economic proposition. There is an anomaly and an injustice in the legislation, as in the case of the letter I read out, and it is also replicated elsewhere. All I am asking is for a modification of the legislation to cover that injustice and not to get rid of the spirit of the legislation.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. He set out well the issue about which he is concerned and I will raise it with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan, on foot of this debate. The Minister has pointed out that he wants to protect the integrity of those wheelchair accessible vehicles as regards the licence being traded on the open market. One can see where he is coming from but one can also see the merits of the case of the poor family the Senator has raised, who I am sure are going through a significant amount of stress at this time. I will bring what the Senator has said to the attention of the Minister and request that he revert back at the earliest possible opportunity.

Tenant Purchase Scheme

Three years ago I sat with the Minister of State's predecessor, Deputy English, discussing this very issue. It is important that we try to get a solution to it.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit chuig an Teach ar maidin. The Minister is very welcome to the House and I thank him for taking time out of his busy schedule to discuss this important matter. Most people and most families would like, where possible, to own their own homes. That is a credible and laudable ambition for most people. Not everyone will want to do so, but for those who do, it is important that the Government does all it can to encourage home ownership. Unfortunately, for people who currently live in Part V social housing, the option of purchasing their own home does not exist. That is very disappointing and clearly discriminates against those who wish to purchase their own home. I have been contacted by many people, as I am sure the Minister of State has, who would like to purchase their own home.

Apparently 4,000 people throughout the country are affected by this. In my own county of Monaghan and in Cavan, there are approximately 160 families who invested money in their homes and properties, doing them up and looking after them. They are heartbroken at the news that they cannot buy out their own house. They are stuck in an awful position.

I have raised this issue, as have many others, including the Cathaoirleach Gníomhach, over the past number of years and have been told that this particular tenant purchase scheme has been under review since 2016. The Minister of State does not need me to tell him that this is now 2021 and we still await the findings of that review. The programme for Government contains a rejig of the social housing scheme in general and that is very much welcome. Can a number of issues be addressed for people within that scheme? One is the Part 5 situation, where people can buy out their homes.

Another cohort of people who are looked after by social housing bodies is also affected. These social housing bodies have been a vehicle that the Government has used to supply much-needed housing, which is very welcome. However, the those families who are in those homes and who wish to buy them out are precluded from doing so.

The other issue which one would hope would form part of the review and which needs to be addressed is the income limits for people to initially qualify for social housing. Currently, in the part of the world I come from, and I am sure it is somewhat similar in the Minister of State's area, the threshold for a single person is something in the region of €25,000 while for a young couple, the ceiling is only €26,250. That is an income of approximately €13,000 each, which is totally out of kilter with where the real world is at.

Those are a couple of issues on which I hope the Minister of State may have some positive news for us and which will be addressed as part of this review. I look forward to his comments in that regard.

I thank Senator Gallagher for raising these issues. Unfortunately, the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, sends his apologies, as these issues are directly under his area of responsibility.

The tenant (incremental) purchase scheme 2016 for local authority housing is underpinned by Part 3 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014 and the associated Housing (Sale of Local Authority Houses) Regulations 2015. The scheme is open to eligible tenants, including joint tenants, of local authority houses that are available for sale under the scheme. To be eligible, tenants must meet certain criteria, including having a minimum reckonable income of €15,000 per annum and having been in receipt of social housing support for at least one year.

The 2015 regulations governing the scheme provide for a number of specified classes of houses to be excluded from sale under the scheme, including houses provided to local authorities, as rightly pointed out by the Senator, under Part 5 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended. In addition, it excludes houses specifically designed for older persons, group Traveller housing, and houses provided to facilitate people with disabilities transferring from institutional care to community-based living.

The provisions of Part 5 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, are designed to enable the development of mixed tenure sustainable communities. Under the terms of the tenant purchase scheme 2016, Part 5 homes, regardless of when they were tenanted, are excluded to ensure that homes delivered under this mechanism will remain available for people in need of social housing support and that the original policy goals of the legislation are not eroded over time.

The continued development of mixed tenure communities remains very important in promoting social integration. Local authorities may also, within the provisions of the regulations,

exclude certain houses which, in the opinion of the authority, should not be sold for reasons such as proper stock or estate management. It is a matter for each individual local authority to administer the scheme in its operational area in line with the over-arching provisions of the governing legislation for the scheme, and in a manner appropriate to its

housing requirements.

A review of the first 12 months of the scheme's operation has been undertaken. The specific issue raised in respect of Part 5 properties has come to the Department's attention as part of the review. The programme for government commits to maintaining the right of social housing tenants to purchase their own home with reforms envisaged to the current scheme including a requirement that the tenant has been in situ in the home for at least ten years, a reduction in the discount to a maximum of 25% and to ensure that local authorities have the first call on the purchase.

The programme for Government also contains a commitment to putting affordability at the heart of the housing system, prioritising the increased supply of public, social and affordable homes and increasing the social housing stock by more than 50,000, with an emphasis on new builds. These, and the many other housing-related commitments, are the areas the Department is focusing on right now and they will be the subject of a fresh plan for housing that the Minister intends to publish later this year.

The review of the tenant (incremental) purchase scheme 2016 and the commitments in the programme for Government are being examined as part of the work on the broader social housing reform agenda. The Minister expects to be in a position to finalise changes to the scheme once the work on these reform measures is complete.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. Until the last few lines, it was disappointing but I am heartened by the fact the Minister may publish the reviews later this year. I certainly hope the reform, which is much needed, will address the three issues that I raised, in particular so those who want to buy out their homes will have the opportunity to do so, whether they are in Part V housing or housing provided by a social housing body, and so the income limits, another issue that is in need of reform, will be addressed to reflect where people are at financially in their lives.

I thank Senator Gallagher for raising these important issues. As Minister of State, I have also been pressing for the conclusion of both of these reviews within the Department. The Senator raises a very important matter on the income limits review for social housing in regard to the proposal that some income may be disregarded. We have the potential to work on that issue and I think we should. I will continue to raise it. The reform of the tenant purchase scheme is also very important. As the Acting Chairman rightly pointed out, this review has been under way for a long time. The Minister has taken a fresh look at it. I answered a parliamentary question in the Dáil recently and stated that it was in its final stages. We will press hard to try to get a conclusion shortly.

Covid-19 Pandemic

I want to raise the issue of the revision of construction activity due to be announced in the coming days. It was welcome that, since January, essential construction such as social housing has been allowed to continue. If the indications from the Taoiseach are to be believed, however, we are looking at another half a year during which other non-essential construction activity will be restricted. That is fine when it comes to things like people adding extensions to their houses or something that is considered non-essential, but the restrictions on non-essential work are affecting projects of critical importance that fall under the definition.

I want to raise the issue of the Safari Childcare crèche on Clancy Quay, Dublin 8. The renovation works to convert the building to a suitable space have been deemed non-essential. The crèche was due to open in early 2021 but the works were delayed due to Covid-19 restrictions. The date of the reopening was then postponed to May 2021 and it has now been delayed again, with no certainty or timeframe as to when we can expect that crèche to be open.

I have been contacted by an essential worker who is on maternity leave and who will have no childcare in order for her to be able to return to work. She has no family in Ireland and cannot rely on extended family to help. Childcare is essential for women to be able to return to the workplace after maternity leave or to be able to continue in their jobs. We know the majority of care workers, for example, are women. This area has the largest medical campus in the country, at St. James’s, and childcare is even more essential as many people in the locality are essential medical workers. When it opens, the Safari Childcare facility on Clancy Quay will also be providing free early childhood care and education scheme pre-school places. It is essential for many people who live in the area or who work in hospitals like St James's or Crumlin children's hospital to be able to work.

I ask that, in considering the construction restrictions, the Government expands its definition of essential projects so it covers those that are socially essential, including things like schools and childcare. I ask the Minister of State to bring those concerns back to Government in order that we can ensure that half a year will not be wiped out and that work on really essential, including socially essential, facilities will be completed.

On 6 January 2020, the Government announced that additional public health restrictions would apply under level 5 of the plan for living with Covid-19. The decisions relating to the enhanced restrictions followed advice from the national public health emergency team that the situation with the virus had deteriorated to the point where there was an absolute need to reduce the level of mobility and congregation to reduce all opportunities for transmission. People have been urged to stay at home except for absolutely essential reasons.

The construction sector has responded effectively to the challenges presented by Covid-19 during 2020. Effective protocols were put in place and few outbreaks occurred among construction workers. However, the trajectory of the disease was such that the Government took the decision that most construction should cease with effect from 6 p.m. on Friday, 8 January.

The restrictions were addressed in the regulations made under the Health Act 1947 and provided for certain exemptions to allow the continuation of certain essential construction activity. The exemptions were based on decisions taken by the Government and extended beyond the remit of my Department. The exemptions included the construction or development of essential health and related projects, including those relevant to preventing, limiting, minimising or slowing the spread of Covid-19; the construction or development of essential educational facilities at primary and post-primary levels, including school building projects; certain essential projects relating to the construction and development of the Technological University Dublin campus, Grangegorman; the construction or development of social housing by a local authority where the project is scheduled for completion by 30 April; essential work on vacant residential properties that is necessary to allow the property to be allocated to a household on the social housing waiting list and which is scheduled to be completed by 28 February; construction work relating to housing adaptation grants, subject to the homeowner consenting to the work continuing; pyrite remediation works scheduled for completion by 31 January; the repair and maintenance of construction of critical transport and utility infrastructure; the supply and delivery of essential emergency maintenance and repair services to businesses and places of residence on an emergency callout basis; housing construction and completion works ongoing on 8 January where such works were scheduled to be completed by 31 January; construction and development projects that relate to the direct supply of medical products for Covid-19; and construction related to maintaining certain supply chains.

Work is under way to prepare a revised Covid-19 strategy to take into account learnings to date to enable us to best navigate the period ahead. This is expected to be considered by Government tomorrow. A return to education for our young people and full-time resumption of non-urgent, non-covid health and social care are key priorities. In these vital areas progress will be on a phased basis and at a gradual pace. This is to protect and further advance the recent downward trend of the disease trajectory we have seen through the collective adherence to public health measures by the public. This will be carefully monitored over the coming weeks, especially in light of the variant B117, which is now the dominant variant in Ireland. The health and social care system remain under significant pressure during the current wave. While there has been significant reduction in the demand on the system due to the reduction in hospitalisation, the level of hospitalisation at present has only recently fallen below the previous peak of the first wave. However, the wider construction sector has operated safety since restrictions were first eased in early summer 2020 and I am confident that it will continue to do so as restrictions are eased in the weeks and months ahead.

Senator Moynihan may wish to bring the case she has raised to my attention. She makes a valid case. As a father who needs childcare, I can absolutely see how important it is for families to be given that service and the Senator has outlined the case well. We would be delighted to bring it to the attention of the Department to see if we can get something resolved.

My thanks to the Minister of State for a comprehensive reply. I understand the need and the reasons for the restrictions. I believe in expanding the definition to more social projects, for example, those relating to schools or childcare facilities. Anyway, that is a comprehensive and open answer from the Minister of State. I will forward the details to him.

We will revert to the Senator as soon as we can because she makes a valid case for an essential service. Childcare is one of those services that society needs to be able to work and respond.

Housing Assistance Payment

I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House today to address what I see as a very urgent issue. It has come to my attention that under the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995 housing assistance payments, HAP, including homeless HAP, are being taken into account as a means or an income when a person applies for civil legal aid. I am sure the Minister of State, in his role in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, knows that HAP and homeless HAP are never paid to the tenant; they are paid directly to the landlord. How can they possibly be taken into account as an income? This is a deeply unfair interpretation of the law and it is denying many people who are already in precarious situations access to justice.

In order to qualify for HAP, one must be eligible for social housing. Eligibility for social housing is already means-tested and predicated on a person being on a low income. In a private rental system where a tenant is in receipt of HAP, the tenant pays their portion of the rent and HAP is then paid directly to the landlord to meet the shortfall. Calculating this subsidy, which never passes the hands of tenants, as an income is deeply cruel and has a disproportionate impact on women. The majority of people in receipt of HAP are women, as are the majority of single-parent households.

I will outline a hypothetical situation in order that the Minister of State can hear the impact this interpretation of the law is having. A mother with two children, who we will call Ms A, has procured a barring order against an abusive partner. He is ordered to leave the family home. She then changes the rental agreement pertaining to that home to exclude her ex-partner and does the same with her HAP agreement. She initiates proceedings for maintenance and her ex-partner does likewise for access to the children. Her only sources of income are the lone-parent family payment of €275 per week and child benefit. From the €275 she pays a portion of the market rent to her landlord and the balance of the rent is paid as a HAP payment directly to her landlord. However, when she applies for legal aid she is refused because the HAP payment, which she does not receive directly, is being classed as her income. This takes her above the €18,000 threshold and as a result she is effectively denied access to the courts. Without legal aid, and on a lone-parent income, she cannot seek legal advice privately because, as we know, the cost of a one-hour consultation can be anything up to €350 per hour. In these circumstances, Ms A, who is already in a precarious situation, cannot proceed with her application for maintenance and her children will not have their voice heard in respect of the access proceedings brought by their father in a situation of domestic violence.

That is just one example of how the policy of including HAP as income is deeply discriminatory. It is punishing people, most of whom are women, because they are not able to meet the cost of their rent. This is taking place in a situation where there is a housing crisis with some of the highest rents in the European Union. I urge the Minister of State to commit to addressing this issue as a matter of urgency.

I thank Senator Boylan for this Commencement matter. I am responding on behalf of the Minister for Justice. The Legal Aid Board provides legal advice under the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995 and the Civil Legal Aid Regulations 1996 to 2017. Section 3(3) of the 1995 Act provides, "The Board shall, subject to the provisions of this Act, be independent in the exercise of its functions." The matter raised by Senator Boylan regarding the housing assistance payment and the civil legal aid scheme is currently subject to judicial review proceedings in which the Minister for Justice is a notice party. As such, the matter is sub judice.

In the circumstances where the courts are the subject of legal proceedings which are currently before the High Court, I hope the Senator will appreciate it would be inappropriate for the Minister to comment on this matter at this time. The Minister, Deputy McEntee, is happy to engage further with Senator Boylan on this matter, on the issues raised by her which she is very concerned about, and on the important and distressing example she has put before the House.

Given that it is subject to regulations, I hope the Minister will change the regulations to ensure that interpretation is not taken in terms of HAP. How is it legal that the State in one case is treating tenants in local authority housing or that of housing bodies differently from those tenants, eligible for social housing, but who due to the chronic shortage of social housing are forced into the private rental market with a top-up HAP? This is clearly discriminatory.

I also suspect that this is in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, particularly in respect of Article 6 and right to access the courts. I remind the Minister of State of the European Court of Human Rights ruling in the case of Airey v. Ireland where it found that it would be unreasonable for anybody to be expected to represent themselves in court but because HAP is seen as income, we are forcing people to do just that.

I acknowledge the frustration because the case is sub judice.

More generally, while it is recognised that significant and competing demands are being made on the legal aid system, in budget 2021, the Minister, Deputy McEntee, secured an increased provision of more than €2 million for the Legal Aid Board bringing its total funding to €44.6 million for this year, representing a 6% increase. At the same time, the Minister has asked her Department to conduct a comprehensive review into the current civil legal aid scheme which will report shortly.

I thank the Minister of State for attending the House. I think he is here more often than I am.

Disability Services Provision

I welcome back the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, to the House. She is also in the House more often than I am.

I thank the Minister of State for taking this matter, which I have had tabled for consideration for several weeks. I am glad to finally have the opportunity to raise it.

Notwithstanding the response given to a parliamentary question last week indicating positive news regarding a new multidisciplinary early intervention and respite care centre for children with complex additional needs on the grounds of St. Otteran's Hospital in Waterford City, it is important to put some information on the record with regard to the inadequate nature of the existing Sacred Heart centre and associated disability services that operate from Johnstown industrial estate.

While the commitment and dedication of the staff that work at the existing Sacred Heart centre cannot be faulted, the facility is simply no longer fit for purpose. It was built more than 44 years ago and has numerous disadvantages. The HSE has identified that it does not conform to Tusla requirements. There is a lack of ceiling track hoisting and appropriate storage facilities, which are health and safety risk; there is poor ventilation contrary to building conditions; it is poorly lit with a lack of natural light; there are narrow corridors, which do not meet current standards; there are inadequate parking and set-down facilities and inadequate space or quiet areas to support children with sensory processing disorders. There is a requirement to hire external venues when offering training to parents and staff.

Some of the other disability services, such as physiotherapy, occupational therapy, psychology, nursing and social work, currently operate out of a building on Johnstown industrial estate, which was leased by the HSE in 2003 for 20 years. This building is also highly unsuitable for children with complex needs due to capacity and building issues. The waiting area is too small for children and families with buggies or wheelchairs. Clients have to stand in the hall when they are waiting. The rooms are not of an appropriate size. In winter, the building is prone to flooding and there is a lack of storage phase for occupational therapy and physical therapy equipment. One clinical room is dedicated for storage, which reduces clinical capacity. Soundproofing is non-existent, which means that speech and language therapy services are delivered from University Hospital Waterford.

The latest census for Waterford showed that the number of children with complex disabilities stood at 1,125.

The need for an integrated and multidisciplinary centre to deliver for young children and families cannot, therefore, be underestimated.

This brings me to the response issued by the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, to a parliamentary question on this matter which indicates that this much-needed project will be included in the capital plan for this year. The same response, however, says that it will not go to tender until late 2022, with a view to completion in 2025. That is just not good enough. I am sure the Minister of State will agree that these children, their families and the staff have waited long enough. This project must be fast-tracked. I see no reason it could not go out to tender and be commenced next year. I appeal to the Minister of State, her officials and the Minister to clarify and expedite the timelines for this project.

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention the fantastic charity, Touching Hearts, which has been raising funds for this project since 2017. I know the Minister of State has engaged extensively with the group, as has the former Senator, Paudie Coffey. I had the pleasure of nominating the group as one of the charities for my mayor's ball in 2017. Since then, it has raised €415,000 towards this project. It is committed to raising €1 million towards the cost, which is estimated to be between €11 million and €15 million. I thank Ann Marie Queally, Dermot Dooley and all of the committee members, staff and parents for their drive, determination and commitment to this project, which will be life-changing for this generation, and future generations, of our most vulnerable young citizens.

The Minister of State has four minutes. I am sure she is well aware of this project.

I am very well aware of it. I thank Senator Cummins for raising this issue and giving me the opportunity to outline to the House the position. He is quite right in everything he has said and I thank him for the very comprehensive overview of the situation pertaining in the Sacred Heart Centre, which provides services for children with complex additional needs.

As the Senator will be aware, the early intervention services provided by the Sacred Heart Centre on Lady Lane, Waterford, empower children with a broad range of intellectual and physical disabilities and challenges, many of which are profound, and their families to develop their full potential in a safe and nurturing environment. Referral to this specialist centre for a child nearing two years of age or younger, if deemed necessary, can be a lifeline for families. Children attending the centre access a range of personal, social, cognitive, communicative and fine and gross motor skills programmes. Family members and staff work as a team to plan, implement and evaluate services tailored to the families' unique concerns, priorities and resilience. The centre also provides training and support to families, communities, preschools and schools, as appropriate. In speaking about referral to this vital service, we have to compliment the staff because the current service is absolutely fantastic, as the Senator has outlined. Any service is only as good as its staff. Having visited the site, I can say that this centre's staff are spectacular.

The Senator mentioned the charity set up to support the building of the new Sacred Heart Centre, Touching Hearts. The current facilities are completely inadequate as they are too small and too old and are not fit for purpose, as the Senator has outlined. The benefits of a new building for children and parents availing of this service include that it will greatly improve morale and on-site facilities and that it will result in improved and increased access for parents to training and education. As the Senator quite rightly said, Touching Hearts has been raising awareness for many years. It has also been raising funds and supporting families and staff. The group must be commended for its tireless work to reach this stage.

The HSE has advised that the development of children's disability services at St. Otteran's Hospital, Waterford, has been approved for inclusion in the HSE's capital plan. If approved, a design team will be procured this year. It is expected that the plans will go to tender in late 2022, with construction due to commence in 2023. The programme of construction should last for a period of 18 to 24 months, but I will come back to this point in my supplementary reply. It is important to recognise that the delivery of capital projects is a dynamic process and is subject to the successful completion of the various approval stages, in line with the public spending code, which can impact on the timeline for delivery.

This is welcome news, especially for children who have significant developmental delay in a number of areas and require a considerable amount of individual attention and who are only able to participate in small group situations for short periods of time.

I thank the Minister of State for her confirmation again this morning that the project is to advance as part of the capital plan. As she rightly stated, this is a facility for our most vulnerable young citizens and the timelines that are set down are not adequate, given that this project is to only go out to tender at the end of 2022. It is February 2021 now. I see no reason not to proceed more quickly and for the project to go out to tender and construction in 2022. The families, individuals, staff and parents have waited too long for this facility already. Since 2017, the commitment, drive and determination of those involved has raised almost half of their €1 million target and it is important that we as a Government now show our commitment to the project and expedite it as quickly as is humanly possible.

The development of a multidisciplinary, early intervention and respite care centre for children with complex additional needs on the grounds of St. Otteran's Hospital in Waterford is an important and significant project and it has been long fought for by many. Many people in both the Dáil and Seanad have advocated for this to happen. I agree with Senator Cummins that the announcement is very welcome and positive. I look forward to working with him to progress the timelines in a positive manner. Timelines are key, but I do not believe the service users and staff can wait for completion until 2025. It is unusual for me to say that as a Minister of State, but I am acutely aware of the premises the children and staff are accommodated in. I visited the hospital approximately 12 months ago before the election and I saw exactly what the Senator has outlined about storage space, capacity, hoisting, hydrotherapy and other such facilities that these vulnerable children need. They need every opportunity so that no child is left behind.

I look forward to working with the Senator on this project. The timeline is as I outlined, that it will go to tender in late 2022, but I believe that should be expedited. Construction is due to commence in 2023. There is a period of 18 to 24 months for completion. These children and families have waited long enough. I will work closely with the Senator to try to expedite the project as quickly as possible. I will also speak to the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, about the timelines.

Sitting suspended at 11.40 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.