Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Covid-19 Pandemic

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I have two questions which require "Yes" or "No" answers.

There is an unfortunate tradition of verbiage being prepared for Ministers to read. It is not necessarily the fault of the Minister delivering the reply but, sadly, the answers given on Commencement matters are often not what would be expected.

Is it the position of the Government that there is a legal ban in place on public masses or other public religious worship taking place at the moment? I am looking for a "Yes" or "No" answer to that question in the context of people organising such worship, leaving churches open and of people attending. If there is no such ban in place, will the Minister of State and the Government now support a decision by churches to open for Easter or Holy Week services in light of the importance of those ceremonies for many people and in a limited and responsible fashion, as happened in a very cautious and responsible way at Christmas and, indeed, at other times throughout 2020? I tabled a Commencement matter on this issue on 25 November. The Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, was detailed to take it but, through no fault of his, I got no satisfactory answer to the question I asked.

As regards the question of whether there is a ban, Professor Oran Doyle and his colleagues at Trinity College Dublin have pointed out in a series of blog posts and a report prepared for the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, their belief that no such legal ban exists at present in the Covid regulations. Yet we had the bizarre situation during the week of the State lawyers getting an adjournment to allow them to go off and ascertain that basic question of whether there is a ban in place. It was a strange application and, it seems to me, it was a strange decision by the court to grant the adjournment in those circumstances.

Professor Doyle and others have correctly pointed out that from a legal perspective it would be a worse state of affairs if there is no ban because if that is the case, then, rather than the constitutional right to free practice of religion being completely restricted on the back of an unconstitutional law, it is being restricted on the back of no law at all and the Garda Síochána, the national police force, is handing out fines and threatening prosecutions on the basis of no law at all. I refer to Fr. P. J. Hughes, a priest in County Cavan, apparently being issued with a fine by the Garda. He will be cheered to the rafters and he will be in the right if he refuses to pay that fine. It is a bizarre, strange and disturbing state of affairs if the Garda is issuing fines with no legal basis to do so. I will be writing to Garda Commissioner Drew Harris on that very subject. Incredibly, when the Garda press office was asked yesterday to comment on this matter, it refused to say whether there was a law in place despite the fact that its own members are handing out fines. As I stated, that is what happened to a priest in County Cavan recently.

If the Governments of Hungary or Russia started handing out fines or threatening prosecutions on the basis of a law that did not exist, the Irish Government and many NGOs would be up in arms, but here we have almost absolute silence. Professor Doyle described this as frankly outrageous, stating that a country could not hold itself out as a country committed to the rule of law if its government is happy to allow the police to threaten prosecution for things that are not legally prohibited. In fact, in the excellent work he and others prepared, he uses the phrase "a masterpiece of misdirection". He is basically making the point that the Government is trying to impose the framework generally, which involves things that are not just legally restricted, but is giving the impression that they are so restricted. That is no way to treat a democratic electorate or, indeed, any other electorate or society. If the Government is trying to talk about guidelines on public health as though they all have legal force when it knows that, in fact, they do not, that is dishonest.

The Government needs to be much clearer about what is legally required and what it is, with entitlement, urging the public to do. Is there a legal ban in place in the view of the Government? If there is no such ban, will the Minister of State and the Government support a responsible and limited opening of churches for Holy Week and Easter?

I thank the Senator for raising this important point. As he is aware, the current public health restrictions at level 5 will remain in place until 5 April 2021, when a further review will be conducted. The decision took account of a variety of factors, including the views of the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, on the current epidemiological situation of Covid-19 and the need to take decisive action.

The Government remains united in its resolve to tackle the spread of Covid-19. The disease prevention and control strategy that we have adopted seeks to prevent, to the greatest extent possible, the virus spreading among the population. Based on the current situation and the public health restrictions that are in place, it will be necessary to celebrate Easter online and at home this year.

This is for the protection of our friends, families and wider communities. The basic public health advice and regulatory measures aimed at blocking the transmission of Covid-19 from person to person remain vital. From the beginning of the pandemic, we have emphasised the many simple measures that can be taken, including keeping a distance, washing hands, wearing a face covering where required and avoiding crowds. These measures work. The Covid-19 resilience and recovery plan provides an appropriate mechanism to guide decision making and will continue to be supplemented by more detailed sectoral guidance on measures applying at each level of the framework.

We continue to see good progress but it needs to be sustained. I assure the Senator I am extremely conscious of the burdens placed on all members of society as a result of the restrictions that have had to be imposed. Many have been unable to live their lives as normal or participate in the usual rhythms of their communities. For many people, going to their local church during Lent, Holy Week and Easter and attending mass with family and friends is a source of comfort and solace at a difficult time for our country and the world.

Unfortunately, as Members of this House are aware, Covid-19 spreads most easily indoors where a group of people are gathered. When we are doing our utmost to break the transmission of the virus, it means we, regrettably, must make every effort to reduce such gatherings.

I acknowledge the work by the Catholic church and other faiths to put in place comprehensive guidelines to protect their communities in compliance with HSE public health advice. These factors will assume greater importance as we will hopefully move back down from level 5 restrictions in the near future.

In consistence with level 5 restrictions, religious services have moved online and places of worship are open for private prayer only. There are exceptions for funerals where ten mourners may be in attendance and weddings where six guests may attend. Under the current public health regulations, ministers of religion are also permitted to travel to perform service online, to minister to the sick and to conduct a funeral or wedding ceremony.

While our situation presents significant challenges, the rollout of our national vaccination programme offers hope. We expect to have offered every adult in the country one dose by the end of September. In the meantime, the programme focuses on the most vulnerable in our society. As the vaccination programme evolves and scales up, we must continue to apply all necessary public health measures and restrictions. We must be careful not to fall at the final hurdle in our battle against Covid-19 and must hold firm for just a while longer.

Similar to the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, the Minister of State has given a personally generous answer, which I thank him for, but the statement he has delivered on behalf of the Government is typical of the evasion on this issue. The Minister of State has said that based on the current epidemiological situation, it will be necessary to celebrate Easter online and at home. He then went on to say what ministers of religion can do to celebrate funerals and so on.

The Government is continuing in misdirection by not answering the question I asked as to whether the ban the Minister of State has promulgated is legal. If the Minister of State gave this answer to a child in preschool or an elderly person in a nursing home, he would be accused of oppressive care, because he is not respecting people's intelligence by giving them a straight answer.

The recent High Court ruling on Ryanair DAC v. An Taoiseach & Ors, Mr. Justice Garrett Simons said the Executive branch of Government would not be entitled to short circuit the statutory regime put in place by the legislative branch by creating the false impression that legally enforceable restrictions were in effect. That is the nub of the problem. It is a disgraceful situation.

Services resumed in Northern Ireland today. Last Wednesday, a ban on church services was struck down by the courts in Scotland on the basis it was disproportionate and the supreme court in Chile has struck down a similar ban. However, the Government is persistent in representing to people there is a legally enforceable ban in place when it will not even give people a straight answer as to whether this is legally enforceable.

This is not the way to operate in a democratic society.

I again thank the Senator for raising this important matter today. The Government appreciates that individuals in society have been severely impacted by the pandemic and the necessary public health restrictions imposed over the last year. Ultimately, the Government remains united in its resolve to tackle the spread of Covid-19 and that is its priority. We continue to see good progress but this needs to be sustained. We have more than 232,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Ireland. The Government is concerned that, if left unchecked, our national case numbers will only increase further. We also know that it is the vulnerable in society who are most at risk from this virus and we must do everything we can, collectively, to protect the most vulnerable at this time.

The Government has met with representatives of the Catholic church to discuss the current level of Covid-19 restrictions and the church's desire to return to worship, particularly during the season of Lent and with the approach of Holy Week and Easter. The Taoiseach has advised the archbishops that due to the serious nature of the pandemic it is not possible to give guarantees on future levels of restrictions. However, dialogue is very welcome and will be maintained.

Community Development Projects

I thank the Cathaoirleach's office for choosing this Commencement matter and I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy O'Brien, to the Chamber. As everybody knows, community centres are important places for gatherings, sport, events, social occasions, fetes, sales of work and drama, to name but a few of the uses they have up and down the country. They range in size, depending on the size of a community. There are small community centres that are a gathering place for active retirement or old folks' groups in the morning and for children after school, and so on. There is a range of sizes, going all the way up to the big, spacious halls required for basketball and the likes.

In the past, particularly in rural areas, a community might have come together, in a kind of meitheal, gone through planning permission processes and started building a community centre over a number of years. As funds allowed, they completed a little more work and did work themselves through direct labour. In this day and age, that is more difficult with health and safety regulations, insurance issues, improved building standards, the Safe Pass required for building and the likes. There are a range of schemes across Government Departments for community projects, including the Leader programme in county areas, the CLÁR programme in certain parts of the country, the RAPID programme in certain areas of our cities and larger towns, sports capital grants, town and village schemes, the urban regeneration development fund, the rural regeneration development fund, local authority grants, An Roinn Turasóireachta, Cultúir, Ealaíon, Gaeltachta, Spóirt agus Meáin grants and Pobal grants.

However, for certain communities, like my own in Moycullen in County Galway, or Newcastle in Galway city, there is no one fund, of scale, that a community or, indeed, a local authority can apply to for a project that may cost in the order of €3 million to €5 million. For smaller projects, the Leader programme can step in to provide supports and one can build smaller centres. However, projects on the scale of €3 million to €5 million are of an insurmountable cost for a community to get involved with. It is vital that we develop a fund similar to the sports capital fund. It would make sense if local authorities could apply to such a fund for large-scale projects. The funding could be shared with the local authorities, or with the community providing a site or funds and so on, but it is absolutely vital.

There is a review of the national development plan, NDP, going on at the moment. I ask that the Minister of State brings this matter to the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Heather Humphreys. I will speak to her regarding it as well. I have spoken to the Tánaiste about the matter and raised it with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, during statements on the NDP last week.

I suggest that we develop a fund similar to the sports capital fund. Communities would engage with their local authorities, which would then make applications. The fund would be used for refurbishments and modernisations, as well as new builds, of community centres up and down the country. Since there are fewer opportunities to find funding for large urban areas that are facing rapid development, I ask that this suggestion be considered. Will the Minister of State engage with the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, on whether this can be developed as part of the NDP review?

I thank the Senator for raising this important matter. Facilities like community centres form the core of many communities around the country and help to bring people of all backgrounds and ages together for many different types of activity and event. During normal times, they regularly have a positive impact on our communities, as all Senators would agree.

The possibility of a community centre capital programme similar to the sports capital programme that is run by the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media has been mooted recently. The programme for Government includes a commitment to "the introduction of an annual small capital grants programme ... for the maintenance, improvement, and upkeep of community centres". I am committed to supporting the upkeep and development of community facilities and my Department has commenced the process of scoping the need for such an additional fund in the context of the funding that is already available for many of these centres.

The development and maintenance of community facilities, whether they are in State or community ownership, is currently funded from a range of sources across various Departments and Government agencies. For example, funding for community centres can be provided through the LEADER transitional programme. This programme, covering 2021 to 2022, will come into effect next week on 1 April for new project applications and will be delivered through local action groups around the country. The rural regeneration and development fund, RRDF, is also available within my Department and provides investment for ambitious projects in towns and villages with a population of less than 10,000 and their outlying areas. To date, the fund has provided €166 million to 139 projects across a range of projects nationwide, including community facilities. The urban regeneration and development fund, URDF, covering areas with larger populations, is available within the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, and further details are available from that Department. The town and village renewal scheme can also provide funding, and improvements to community centres have been funded through this scheme. Separately, the community enhancement programme provides capital grants, usually for minor works. Funding of €7 million was available through two rounds of this programme in 2020, with €5 million of this coming from the July stimulus package. All of this was targeted towards enhancing community facilities, including community centres and it is intended to run it again later in 2021.

I am conscious that we need to continue providing adequate support to important community facilities such as community centres, especially as we cope with the impacts of Covid-19, to ensure that new community centres can be developed where needed and that existing ones can be refurbished or upgraded where required.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. While I agree that a number of schemes provide relatively small amounts of funding for certain community centres, a large cohort of communities that are outside the remit of RAPID, CLÁR and local authorities have requirements for large community centres. There might be some crossover between community activities and sports, but there is no fund to which they can apply, and has been none in my time. Certain local authorities may be able to provide funding through their rates bases, as Galway City Council did in Cappagh and Ballinfoyle, but Galway County Council does not have the wherewithal to provide funding in the county. Applications in respect of Moycullen and Newcastle were made to the URDF and the RRDF but got nowhere. A specific fund for large community centre projects that cost €3 million to €5 million is needed. Will the Minister of State engage with the Minister on providing for same through the review of the NDP?

The Senator has my commitment that I will engage with the Minister on this matter.

The Senator outlined the situation around community centres in general very well in his opening statement in that every community centre in the country probably has a different story behind how it came about, often with communities actually building them, and more recently communities themselves directly contributing, along with local authorities and sometimes central government. They are often anchored in a school, GAA club or local church. We will do a scoping exercise to see what is falling between the cracks because there are situations where pieces of infrastructure or concentrations of settlement may not have enough momentum to lever a proper community centre in its own right. It should also be noted that when new developments are planned and are being built, they should and generally do, but not always, include provision for a community centre. I accept the Senator's point that in many areas there are gaps.

Special Educational Needs

The Minister of State is welcome. I begin by mentioning the "Prime Time Investigates" programme broadcast last night which has touched many of us. I am here to speak on special needs and because of the matters I raise from AsIAm. People from that organisation spoke on the radio this morning on how disappointed they are the Department of Health has decided to take this approach. It is very hard to understand how people's personal details from their own private GPs being given to the Department of Health without the individuals' consent can have a legal footing. What is the Minister of State's view on this? It is important we as a Government take this matter seriously. The Department of Health will speak to the committee today and that is welcome. I will follow up on that.

Today I raise the topic of individual education plans. In Ireland, unlike the US and Britain, individual education plans are not on a legislative footing. They are on a statutory footing in the sense that the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 has quite detailed provisions around the need to provide individual education plans for all pupils and students with special needs. That has not been enacted. That is the problem which AsIAm has identified, as have I.

I refer to the letter from the Department to the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, dated 24 November 2020, which stated "whereas there is not currently a statutory requirement to provide individual education plans for children with special needs at present, all schools are encouraged to use education plans". Either we are using them or we are not using them. Parents tell me, and I am not hearing from the students but I am sure their voices would be just as strong, that some parents do not even know this exists. There is also a problem with getting assessments. Many schools say they get two or three days a year for assessments and the lack of assessments makes it difficult for schools to put in place individual education plans. That is not to say many are not fantastic and there are not guidelines available, but this shows the importance of legislation. That is what we are in this House to do. The Seanad in particular is supposed to value legislation and not just policy guidelines. The Department may feel it has gone in a different direction but it is still very much saying individual education plans are important.

In such circumstances, it is hard to see why it would not commence all of the provisions within the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act. I simply do not understand that. The Minister of State will know that part of this would include obligations on her and the Department to follow up and ensure that funding is available. I would hate to think that is a part of the reason this legislation is not being commenced.

I would love an update as to where matters stand. I know that the Minister of State wrote in November but I would like to think that things have moved on at this stage. From 2004 to now is a long time to wait for this. We either think that students with special educational needs are important or we are just going to put them on the back-burner.

This is a Commencement matter. The Senator mentioned the RTÉ documentary but we cannot go into that today. The Minister of State is here to deal specifically with the individual education plans for students with special needs. I call on the Minister of State to reply.

I am happy to address the specific concerns raised by Senator Pauline O'Reilly about the Department of Education, in which I am a Minister of State. The Department is not aware of any instance of inappropriate sharing of information, nor does it take lightly any decision to defend cases concerning children with special educational needs and the rights of the child to an appropriate education under the Constitution. The needs of the child and a desire to act in the child's best interests are always to the fore in the making of any such decision. The Senator may know that in defence of any legal proceedings, it is appropriate for the Department to engage with relevant State bodies and the school or educational establishment in which the litigant is a pupil to understand fully and appreciate the education provision on offer. This is to ensure that any alleged deficiencies in provision can be appropriately considered and, in many cases, to look at what further supports might need to be provided. The statement that we issued to "RTÉ Investigates" outlined comprehensively the Department of Education's position on defending litigation on the sharing of data lawfully in this context. It is also noted that the matters raised in the query from RTÉ were of a general and unspecific nature and, as a result, the Department was only in a position to respond on that basis. The Department of Education, since the Senator has raised the issue, would like to reassure all parents, families and interested parties that the Department has never unlawfully collected or passed on the sensitive educational information of children involving court cases. I thank the Acting Chairperson for his indulgence in that regard.

I thank the Senator for bringing to my attention the other important issues she raised. Under the Education Act, we know that schools have a legal duty to provide an appropriate education to all students, including young people with special educational needs and, obviously, they need to plan to ensure that happens. Planning is an integral, normal part of a teacher's work and planning tools, such as the student support file, have been created as a resource to help schools provide for their students. Some parents may not be aware of the student support file and the schools should let them now about it if they are not aware of it. The Government, as the Senator knows, has invested heavily in education. In this year alone, €2 billion is dedicated to special education. We have greatly increased the number of special education teachers. There are now 16,500, an increase of 39% since 2011. The Senator might be familiar with Department circulars 0013/2017 and 0014/2017. They set out the basis for the allocation of special education teachers to schools and note the importance of educational planning in them. That is to ensure that children with the greatest levels of need receive the greatest levels of support. Those circulars are clear that educational planning is an essential element of a whole-of-school approach to meeting pupil's needs.

It is also noted that planning for the provision of additional teaching support for pupils of schools is an important part of the process and that co-ordination and planning time for this has been acknowledged in the allocation. Schools are, therefore, resourced to carry out planning and support and guidance for these schools on how best to carry out the educational planning and to prepare student support plans is also available from the National Council for Special Education service and from the National Educational Psychological Service.

I thank the Minister of State for responding on both of those issues. When talking about education, we have to be very careful that we do not make it sound like it involves doing something to somebody; it is a collaborative practice. In the responses on both issues, I really hope the Department of Education is taking into account the fact that this is not about defending ourselves but about our obligations in offering a service to society and the children in the schools. Education is a service; it is not about defence or about checking boxes. It may be that there is planning in schools for every student, because every student needs to have his or her needs met, but it is very clear that some students need more than others. Otherwise we would not have a Minister of State with responsibility for special needs. Some of the research, specifically that of Dr. Emer Ring, indicates that one of the key aspects of individualised planning is the promotion of collaborative practice with parental and pupil involvement. That is not always evident. The Minister of State's response is that the school should try to let people know but, with all due respect, that is not good enough.

I assure the Senator that, as the first dedicated Minister of State with responsibility for special education, I am doing everything I can to ensure the rights and best interests of children with special needs are at the forefront of everything we do. The unprecedented funding of €2 billion is an acknowledgement of that. My list of action priorities includes a review of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act. That review will take into account not only the reforms in recent times but also all aspects of developments regarding new allocation models and other matters.

As the Senator and I may have discussed before, the Department's policy of supporting children with special needs has changed from a diagnosis-led model to one driven by the needs of the child. My Department's advice is that the majority of schools do carry out some form of educational planning for pupils with special educational needs.

Citizenship Applications

I warmly welcome the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, to the House.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I really appreciate that she is here to discuss the important issue of the fast-tracking of citizenship for non-national healthcare workers. It is an issue that I have raised in the House before. As we know, migrants currently make up 26% of essential workers in Ireland. Our hospitals have been very active in seeking work permits for non-EU staff since the beginning of the Covid crisis. There is no doubt but that without their work, the country's efforts to combat Covid-19 might well have collapsed. They have been the absolute backbone of the Irish healthcare system, whether it was in hospitals or nursing homes or whether it was caring for individuals in their own homes.

I am going to address the circumstances of essential workers who are asylum seekers, many of whom are living in direct provision and often forgotten about. Elsewhere in Europe, the contribution made by foreign healthcare workers has been recognised with a commitment to fast-tracking their citizenship. Numerous countries, including Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and Canada, have recognised the contribution made by migrant healthcare workers and asylum seekers working on the front line during the Covid 19 pandemic by granting them full citizenship rights and permission to remain in recognition of their selfless efforts to care for the vulnerable. It is time that the same recognition was given here by the Irish Government. Delays in the current system are causing frustration and desperation. Healthcare workers and their families who meet citizenship requirements should have their applications expedited.

At an unstable time, we need to provide stability for our essential front-line workers. Dr. Liqa ur Rehman tells us that most foreign doctors end up waiting eight years for Irish citizenship. It is not enough to pay tribute to people such as Ms Mariter Tarugo , Dr. Syed Waqqar Ali, Mr. Solson Saviour and others who have passed away fighting our war. The contribution made by these hard-working people should be reflected in the processing of their citizenship applications. An online petition was launched by Dr. Mohsin Kamal of Crumlin hospital calling on the Department of Justice follow suit on other countries and expedite the citizenship process. I feel strongly that this must be looked at.

I have been working with and listening to our asylum seeker community who are working in essential services. I want, for them, to read part of a letter into the record:

We are requesting favourable consideration in granting us, the essential workers among the asylum seeker community, leave to remain in Ireland, in recognition of the contributions made to the Irish economy and society during the pandemic.

[...]

[The journey we have made] is not an exciting journey or a comfortable option ... We live without our families, we left them for their safety and benefit. Asylum seekers generally live in direct provision accommodation centres around the country, meaning they are provided with accommodation and food, but with little privacy and independence.

[...]

We have had to find our way to work, come rain, snow or sunshine ... denied the basic right to drive, so we find ourselves walking or cycling for hours to get to our place of work.

[...]

There are between 500-800 essential working asylum seekers currently risking their lives every day during this pandemic.

[...]

[We are looking for] leave to remain for our front-line essential workers, freedom for our children, Ireland's future adults, to be treated as citizens of this country with dignity, grace and respect.

I rest my case.

I thank Senator O'Loughlin for raising this extremely important issue.

First, let me stress that I recognise the crucial role all healthcare workers, including those who are non-EEA nationals, continue to play in this ongoing pandemic in responding to the threat of Covid-19. Their exceptional commitment has been particularly clear throughout the pandemic, during which they have in no small way played a part in preventing the spread of Covid-19. First and foremost, I want to acknowledge the significant, vital and important role they continue to play and they no doubt will play in the future, because this is something that will not end today or tomorrow.

I can Senator O'Loughlin that humanitarian factors, employment records and other factors are considered by my officials in the immigration service as part of the permission to remain and leave to remain processes. Each case is examined in detail on its individual merits, taking all factors into account, as I have outlined.

For people who have applied for international protection, our overall objective, whether they be front-line workers or not, is to have this process on their protection applications and permission to remain considerations decided upon as quickly as possible. This ensures those who are in need of our protection, including applicants who are working on the front line who are working in healthcare services and many other parts of the community who are protecting us daily, can receive this response as quickly as possible and begin rebuilding their lives and starting to set out a new life here with a sense of safety and security.

I am committed to making further efficiencies in the international protection process. As Senators will be aware, with the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, we launched the White Paper where there are clear commitments given by my Department to reduce processing times of both first instance decisions and appeals to six months in both cases. That in itself will have a huge impact and make a huge difference to those who are currently in the system.

Work is under way in my Department to identify mechanisms which will assist in that overall process, working towards improving those times. Additional ICT resources have been secured for this year. Detailed work, including an end-to-end review of processes to guide enhanced processing times, is also under way.

When this first phase of work has been carried out, it will enable a more detailed set of milestones to be put in place.

Regarding the current backlog of international protection cases, my Department intends, in the first instance, to prioritise processing of all cases using improved processes and the planned ICT investment in the system. My Department will, by October 2022 at the latest, commence a review of progress made in reducing and improving processing times and based on the outcome of that review, decide by the end of 2022, whether additional measures are required in order to ensure that the new system can come into operation without the overhang of any significant number of legacy cases. Furthermore, to ensure that people do not fall out of permission during this time, I have provided six automatic extensions of immigration and international protection permissions since last March. The most recent extension is to 20 April, and I expect to announce a further extension shortly, giving people the reassurance they need.

Healthcare workers are also benefiting from the temporary citizenship process that we opened in January. As a result of Covid-19 restrictions, the face-to-face citizenship ceremonies have not happened and a backlog has built up. We put in place a new temporary system and I am pleased to say that we are on track to meet our target of communicating with 4,000 people by the end of this month with a further 2,500 people by the end of June. A significant number of those are working on the front line in the vital services that have been supporting us through the Covid-19 pandemic. They will benefit from this enhanced system. I believe we will be able to clear the backlog by the end of this year as we had targeted to do.

I thank the Minister for her work on the White Paper, which is very welcome. I impress on her and the Department the need to prioritise these essential healthcare workers, both those who are immigrants and those who are asylum seekers. We are not talking about many people. Asylum seekers represent a maximum of 800 people. These workers make a significant difference to the everyday lives of Irish people. They are contributing and paying taxes. They are a vital part of the effort to make Ireland a healthier and safer place.

The Minister said that the Department will commence a review of progress by October 2022 at the latest, but that is a full 18 months away. In line with what is happening in other European countries and Canada, the Minister should make an exception for our front-line emergency healthcare workers.

Irrespective of whether we are assessing asylum applications or citizen applications, it is important that we have a fair system that acknowledges that everybody who has applied is making some contribution, be it working in healthcare are in other settings. The most important thing is to have a system that goes through the application process as quickly as possible and that nobody is waiting for years on end. I know that a backlog has emerged, particularly over the last year which has meant that waiting times are much longer. Many of the people the Senator spoke about are waiting because of that. With the new mechanism for conferring citizenship in place, it is my intention to get rid of those backlogs this year.

While we have a review of the international protection process set up for 2022, should something arise and should there be some difficulty between now and then, we have a commitment to invest in our ICT this year. I anticipate we will address all those backlogs and hopefully the review will show that that is the case and that no changes will need to be made.

I again thank everyone who has been working on the front line throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Everything is being done to ensure that those who are in the system can be processed as quickly as possible.

Citizenship Applications

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a bheith linn agus as an cheist seo a ghlacadh. What I am asking for is very straightforward. People have been in touch with me and many of my MLA and MP colleagues. Their main issues relate to the cost involved in applying for naturalisation and the complexity of the process.

I appreciate and fully understand that citizenship is very precious, that we need to guard it and ensure that we are not lacklustre in our approach. However, it is important to state that we also need to understand that citizenship should not be the preserve of people who have the financial means or, indeed, the skills to complete what has often been described to me as being a very bureaucratic and complex process. We cannot price people out of citizenship, particularly as Senator O'Loughlin said in her previous Commencement matter, those who are working hard at citizenship. What citizenship brings to our lives is much more than simply a monetary value. It is what people do daily in their communities, families and in all of our lives.

I am sure that the Minister can appreciate that the following are two big problem for applicants. While this is an issue across the entirety of Ireland, the vast bulk of the cases that have been referred to me came from applicants from the Six Counties. One of the issues is the need for a personal public service number, PPSN, which people do not have in the North. One also needs a tax certificate from this jurisdiction, which people in the North do not have. Again, that adds a further layer of complexity and difficulty. It is another way to put people off, in some instances, applying for Irish citizenship, which we should not seek to do.

The thrust of my Commencement matter is to ask the Minister to consider the current scale of the costs. One applicant has told me that the virtual ceremony, to which the Minister referred, cost over £900 and that was just to sit at home for a virtual ceremony. That is a significant sum of money for someone who works in a low-paid job, not least in the context of Covid but at any time.

I ask the Minister to consider reviewing the current application process and to take note of the difficulties people have cited. Within that, I ask her to consider a bespoke arrangement that would pertain to applicants from the Six Counties for similar important forms. Again, I am not being green. I realise that we need to be protective and do things right. I would appreciate if people who are resident in the North could have much easier and quicker access to forms of equal importance than, for example, a PPSN and tax certificate from this State.

Finally, the Minister referenced in response to the earlier Commencement matter the movement towards the new ceremony process, which is welcome with the current restrictions due to Covid. I ask her to reduce the cost to reduce the financial burden on people who already are facing a very difficult time. I thank the Minister for coming in and thank the Acting Chairperson.

I thank Senator Ó Donnghaile for raising this issue.

First, let me start with the payments and fees, as outlined by the Senator. These are governed by the provisions of the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Regulations 2011. The fees are paid in two parts. The current application fee is €175, which is payable when an application for naturalisation is lodged. A certification fee is payable when a certificate of naturalisation is issued, that is, only when a certificate is issued and not prior to that or where a certificate is not issued. The standard certification fee is set at €950. A reduced fee of €200 applies in the case of an application made on behalf of a minor or in certain cases where the application is made by a widow, widower or surviving civil partner of an Irish citizen. In the case of recognised refugees and stateless persons, there is no certification fee. Consequently, there are instances where there is a significantly reduced fee.

The standard fees payable by an applicant are designed to reflect the effort that goes into the entire process and the costs involved in processing applications for a certificate of naturalisation, which gives benefit to everybody involved. It is quite a detailed process. This is not about making money or about the Department or anybody else. This is about making sure that the huge amount of work required to process is covered.

There is no provision for the discretionary waiver or reduction of fees or for different fees to be applied, except in the situations I have just outlined and other exceptional circumstances. I mentioned earlier that all of these fees are payable under the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act 1956, as amended. This matter is constantly reviewed by my Department. If we feel that fees can be reduced, while acknowledging the significant work involved in processing these applications, we will certainly do so. This area is, however, constantly monitored and, as I have said, no profit is being made. The fees are in place simply to make sure that the process can continue.

The Senator mentioned the new process that has come into play. This is quite significant because it means we will be able to address the sizeable backlog. This backlog is a very significant problem as it has affected some people for many years. To date, 3,615 communications have issued and 1,600 declarations have been returned. At the end of this month, a further 500 will be issued. I have received many messages, texts and emails from people who have received their certificates of naturalisation. Some 887 of these have already issued and more will issue in the coming weeks. On top of that, we aim to communicate with an additional 2,500 applicants in the system by the end of June. By the end of June, 6,000 people will have been communicated with and will be able to return their declarations before, it is to be hoped, receiving their letters of naturalisation within a few short weeks. We are moving through the existing backlog.

Obviously, I would like to return to person-to-person citizenship ceremonies. It is a wonderful way to welcome our new citizens, to acknowledge the significant role they play in our communities and to celebrate with them but, until we are in a position to hold such ceremonies, we will continue with the new process which is in place.

The Senator asked whether we could change the system itself. It is kept under consistent review. I take his points on board but the process is in place and the requirements are there for a reason. It is important that anybody who becomes an Irish citizen can adhere to that process and apply it to their own situation. We do, however, need to keep everything under constant review. I acknowledge and take on board the points the Senator has made, particularly in respect of those coming from the Six Counties.

The fee is there to cover the costs of the work being done. If one looks at what is happening at the moment, one will see that we are working through the backlog. We want to make sure that people who have been in the system for a long time receive their citizenship as soon as possible and that the process is not delayed in any way, shape or form for those coming down the line because of the current backlog. I am confident that we will be able to meet all of those targets and timelines we have set, particularly for this year.

I thank the Minister for her comprehensive answer. There is quite a lot to get through there. I am very keen to work with her and her Department in terms of offering positive suggestions as to how this could be reviewed and how we could look at a more bespoke arrangement for people. The Minister will know from her previous life in another Department that, given the consequences of Brexit, there is a heightened interest in Irish citizenship among people living in the North who are entitled to avail of it. It is important that we accept and acknowledge that and work to make the process as streamlined, good and effective as it can be.

I am encouraged by the statistics in respect of the backlog and by the intention to clear it. This has been to the fore when people have raised this issue with me. It is something on which we will keep a watching brief. I am sure those who are still waiting will also do so.

Is it possible to consider those low-paid workers who want to avail of citizenship in any review or consideration of this matter? While I appreciate the reasons the Minister has given as to why the fees are warranted, perhaps there is an opportunity to allow these fees to be paid in instalments over a period, rather than in one big sum of money, in order to lighten the burden on applicants.

I will certainly take that recommendation on board. This is about making sure we have a streamlined process. To refer to a previous Commencement matter I addressed today, we are investing in ICT to move systems in these structures and in the Department of Justice away from what are, unfortunately, mainly paper-based systems towards an online system which would make it much easier for people to apply and which would be much easier to navigate. That will help speed up all of these processing times. A great deal of investment is being made in ICT within the Department of Justice and this will be to the benefit of those applying.

It is not straightforward to apply for citizenship in any country. It is a special status that is conferred on somebody, so we need to ensure that the system is robust and anyone who applies can adhere to the guidelines, rules and regulations.

The way in which the funding is administered is kept under constant review. I will take the Senator's suggestions on board.

Garda Stations

I thank the Acting Chairman, Senator Boyhan, and acknowledge that he has connections to the wonderful county of Tipperary. I welcome the Minister to the House and thank her for taking this Commencement matter. I am aware that she attaches importance not only to this matter but to all Garda stations.

Built in 1870, Clonmel Garda station has been operating for 150 years. It is located in Emmet Street beside the county council office and in the heart of the town. Its 107 staff, including civilian staff, are headed up by Superintendent Willie Leahy. They do incredible work and, as with staff in all Garda stations, they focus heavily on community involvement and community work. The building at which gardaí have been based throughout this time is no longer fit for purpose, certainly not for a new, modern Garda division. Clonmel is seen as a difficult division in which to work, with many challenges in the area, but the people who work in it are devoted to the area and committed to working in it on behalf of the State. To be honest, morale is quite low, and one of the main reasons for that relates to the building.

There has been talk of a new building for some time. Previous Ministers, including Charlie Flanagan and Frances Fitzgerald, have visited the station, as has the Garda Commissioner, Drew Harris. They all supported and recognised the importance of having a new building for the Garda station. I acknowledge the role of the Commissioner, in particular, and his recognition that Clonmel needs to be supported. Designs for the new building have gone out to the public and there has been great engagement within the town and the adjoining area in support of the building. It will be built on the site of Kickham Barracks which, as most people in the area will know, was closed in 2012.

This project will be undertaken in conjunction with further development of Clonmel and the wider region under the Clonmel 2030 regeneration plan. This is to commence next month and the first phase will be a civic plaza area off Dillon Street, which is beside Kickham Barracks. There was positive news this week when Part 9 planning approval was granted for the construction of the Garda station. The development will involve the construction of a two, three or four-storey building, with a separate single-storey building to the rear. It will have parking spaces at the back, a separate entrance for gardaí and an entrance from the civic plaza. This development will revitalise an entire region of Clonmel around Kickham Barracks.

When the Garda station is being built along with the new civic plaza, a second phase will involve bringing Limerick Institute of Technology, LIT, from the outer area of Clonmel into Kickham Barracks. The civic plaza area, LIT, the education and training board, ETB, and the Garda station will form a significant area that will connect the Showgrounds shopping centre with the main town. The project is being brought forward with agreement on all sides but there is worry about the Garda station because it has been delayed a number of times. Everyone is on board and wants the project to be developed and brought forward. This week's announcement that planning permission has been granted means a significant hurdle has been overcome. Will the Minister outline her Department's continued support for the new Garda station?

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. In response to his last point, as Minister I can inform him that the Department of Justice is working with the Garda Commissioner and the OPW, which has responsibility for rolling out many of these projects. I reassure him that we are committed to ensuring that An Garda Síochána is supported in the work it does by providing the resources it needs. That includes the development of new Garda stations and the refurbishment of older Garda stations. That is a clear commitment and it is something on which I engage continuously with the Garda Commissioner.

The Commissioner has assured me that Garda management keeps the distribution of resources, including the provision of new stations or the upgrading of existing stations, under continual review in the context of overall policing priorities and crime trends, to ensure their optimum use. Following a review of the accommodation requirements of the Garda station in Clonmel, the Garda Commissioner and his management team decided that a public private partnership, PPP, should proceed to deliver new Garda stations in Macroom and Clonmel. I am advised by the Garda authorities that the PPP process is being managed by the National Development Finance Agency and that these two stations, one of which is in Clonmel, are priorities for the Commissioner. The previous Government and this Government have given a commitment in that regard.

As Senator Ahearn outlined, I am pleased to confirm that planning permission has been agreed this week for the site of the new station in Clonmel. As he and others will appreciate, this is a significant positive step in the overall progress of the project. I am also informed that while it is not possible to give a completion date for the project at this time, a working group is advancing the PPP process in its totality, including this Garda station. The Commissioner and I are very keen to see the new stations developed as quickly as possible. I again emphasise that while I have no direct role in these matters, it is a priority for me as Minister to make sure that the Garda is supported in the work it does and that it is provided with the resources it needs, which includes this type of investment.

The Garda Síochána has been allocated an unprecedented budget of €1.952 billion in its Vote for 2021. This level of funding is enabling sustained ongoing investment and recruitment of Garda members and staff. In addition, €34 million has been allocated for the capital building and refurbishment programme, so there is significant financial investment as well as the commitment at a Government level and within An Garda Síochána to develop these projects, one of which is the Garda station at Clonmel. The Garda station there is one of the projects where the commitment is very clear. While we do not have a timeline, the fact is that planning has been granted and the next stages will progress in terms of funding. While this project was not included within the current capital programme, because of the commitment at a Government level and within An Garda Síochána, as we develop the new capital plan which will begin next year, it will be very much part of that. Funding will not delay projects as they go through the various stages. We know that these projects are lengthy, as they take a period to go through the various processes. I am confident that given the progress that has been made this week and the clear commitment from the Government, my Department and the Commissioner, this project will progress as planned. The work that is being done by An Garda Síochána in Clonmel and the surrounding areas will benefit from the project.

I thank the Minister for her response and her commitment to the Garda station, in particular that it will be part of the capital plan next year. That is really important. Like every project we as a Government put forward, it is not until people see the diggers and something happening on the ground that they fully believe it will go ahead. There is excitement among the staff. The work they do is phenomenal. They believe that if the station is built it will bring new life into the workforce and also into the community.

The Minister indicated that Part 9 planning approval was granted this week. I take it that nothing else is holding up the project and that we are ready to move forward with it. There had been complications at the start between the OPW, Tipperary County Council and An Garda Síochána but we are over the main hurdle now. Is it the case that there are no obstacles in the way and the Garda Síochána has the funding ring-fenced for the project?

It is extremely important that we provide the resources and capital infrastructure for An Garda Síochána to do its work. I am particularly pleased to note the increase in Garda resources in Tipperary in recent years. There are now 411 gardaí assigned to that division, which represents an increase of 16% since 2015 when there were 354. They are also supported by 84 civilian staff, which represents an increase of 162% since 2015.

I am also informed that since the reopening of the Garda Training College in 2014, a total of 90 probationer gardaí have been assigned to the Tipperary division. This is not just about capital infrastructure; it is also about making sure we have the manpower on the ground. A Policing Service for the Future, which is a significant plan, is very much focused on improving the overall structures, making sure that we have the right number of civilian staff and the right number of gardaí coming through the training college, working on the ground and supported by the resources they require. I refer again to the significant budget that has been allocated for this year, which will support them in doing that work.

I again thank the Senator for raising this matter and I reaffirm our commitment to Clonmel Garda station in the years ahead.

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