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Seanad Éireann debate -
Monday, 19 Apr 2021

Vol. 275 No. 7

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Pension Provisions

I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House to take this matter. When I tabled this Commencement matter prior to Easter, I was reflecting a frustration as I have been continuously raising this issue about the pension scheme for community employment supervisors and assistant supervisors, along with others, for quite some time but I am glad that we now see that we have had progress over this weekend. I hope that a deal will be in place. I understand that SIPTU will be considering the matter today.

I thank my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath. I have been plaguing him about this issue for quite a while. I commend Deputy McGrath on his work to try to get a deal over the line, along with the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, and the Minister, Deputy Humphreys.

Also, SIPTU needs to be thanked for all of its work on behalf of the workers concerned. This was a long-running campaign and, hopefully, it will reach fruition. Most importantly, the community employment supervisors and assistant supervisors themselves need to be thanked.

In Wexford, I am thinking of Colette, Rita, Helen, Margot and many others who have battled for a long time on this issue. We have to acknowledge the enormously valuable service that community employment, CE, schemes provide within our communities, particularly the training and support they provide to participants who are, in many cases, long-term unemployed, as well as the fact the schemes represent enormous value for money. As we come out of this pandemic, these schemes will be more important than ever. We will need an economic recovery but we will also need a community and social recovery, and in that context, CE schemes must be part of any Government strategy.

This deal has been a long time coming. As the Minister of State knows, the Labour Court recommendation dates from 2008. The reason we have industrial relations machinery in this country is to try to avoid disputes, and while I accept there can be problems with implementing recommendations, it is not acceptable that it has taken 13 years, effectively, to get to a stage where we now have a deal. In 2008 the Labour Court found against the funding agency, namely, the State, rather than any of the nominal employers, that is, the voluntary organisations concerned. It does not make sense that where the State 100% determines the terms and conditions of CE supervisors and expects them to act effectively as case officers on behalf of scheme participants, it would then seek to deny it is the employer. The approach that was taken on this until recently was wrong.

I have a number of questions about the deal that was announced at the weekend and I hope clarity can be provided. Clarity is certainly needed if we are looking at a gratuity lump sum. What are the tax implications of that? That issue must be considered. Will it be possible for those who are still employed as CE supervisors or assistant supervisors to roll the redress lump sum into an existing pension fund? Current supervisors will get the lump sum, but will that be used in future as part of the pension fund? It is important we have clarity on this but I am very happy it now seems we have a deal on the table. After 13 long years, we have finally seen progress and for that I am grateful.

I thank the Senator for consistently raising this matter.

Community employment, CE, is the largest employment activation and training programme administered by the Department of Social Protection. One of its main objectives is to provide work experience and targeted training interventions for long-term unemployed people to assist them to find new jobs. The CE programme is delivered by independent CE sponsoring authorities that receive public funding. The total expenditure for CE in 2020 was €341 million, while the budget for CE in 2021 is €362 million. There are currently 865 CE schemes in operation with 19,315 participants and 1,291 supervisors. CE schemes provide a range of services, including meals on wheels, social care and healthcare. All schemes provide valuable services to local communities and many have been particularly important over the past year in particular. CE scheme participants and supervisors are employees of the independent CE sponsoring authorities and the Department provides funding for participants and supervisors payroll. The Department is not the employer of CE participants or supervisors.

For several years CE supervisors and assistant supervisors have been seeking, through their union representatives, the allocation of Exchequer funding to implement the 2008 Labour Court recommendation relating to the provision of a pension scheme for CE supervisors who are employed by CE schemes. The issue of CE supervisors' pension provision was considered by a community sector high-level group chaired by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in 2017. A detailed scoping exercise was carried out with input from the Irish Government Economic and Evaluation Service, IGEES, on the potential costs of providing Exchequer support for the establishment of such a pension scheme for employees across the community and voluntary sector and not just for CE supervisors. This exercise estimated a significant potential cost to the State, depending on the numbers involved, if it covered all employees in this sector.

This explains the complex and difficult context in which we are seeking to resolve the specific CE supervisor pension issue and accounts for the time taken to get to where we are today. In particular, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform had to have regard to any potential Exchequer exposure associated with dealing with the specific issue relating solely to CE supervisors arising from the Labour Court recommendation. Any proposal to resolve this specific issue can and will only apply to CE supervisors and assistant supervisors. In this context, officials from the Department and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform held discussions on proposals to progress and resolve this issue over the recent months while having regard to the wider budgetary framework. Officials from the Department also held discussions with unions representing CE supervisors and assistant supervisors during the same period.

I am very pleased to report there was a successful outcome to discussions between both Departments late last week. On Friday last, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, and my colleague, the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, reached agreement in principle on proposals to resolve this issue. This includes a financial package. This is a significant step forward and I thank all those involved in getting us to this stage.

The next step is for these proposals to be put to the trade unions representing CE supervisors and assistant supervisors. This will be done today. It would be premature to go into further details of what is proposed in advance of these plans being put to the unions but the Senator may rest assured the matter will be progressed without delay in order to bring this long-standing issue to a satisfactory conclusion.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I appreciate that agreement must be reached with the trade unions, which will consider the matter today. It will be important that there is, as I said, clarity around the tax implications and what will happen for those who continue to be in place. I am happy that this looks like the end of a very long journey for nearly 1,300 supervisors and assistant supervisors who are impacted by this. I ask - I know the Minister of State is personally committed to this - that as part of our recovery, we seek to rebuild our communities. We must look at ways of strengthening CE schemes around the country and rebuilding communities. This has been a very difficult period for everyone, as the Minister of State acknowledges. CE schemes play a vital role and supervisors and assistant supervisors provide leadership roles within them.

I absolutely agree with the Senator on the role CE schemes will hopefully play going forward. Last year, 3,000 additional CE places were announced in the July stimulus. We have been putting out feelers about the levels of interest in them and the levels are good. Schemes such as community employment will play a central part in bringing communities back from where we have been over the last 12 months.

I formally acknowledge the valuable and dedicated service of CE supervisors provide in running CE schemes and delivering locally based community service, while providing a valuable training and development opportunity to the long-term unemployed, often to those who are furthest removed from the labour market.

It should be noted that, where possible and in compliance with public health guidelines, a significant number of CE schemes have continued to operate throughout the various levels of Covid-19 public health restrictions. I am aware that schemes have been delivering essential services in their local communities throughout the current public health restrictions and that other schemes have been involved in delivering health and social care services as well. I sincerely thank those involved for what they have been doing over the last 12 to 14 months.

I thank the Minister of State for coming in to respond to this matter. I also thank Senator Byrne. The CE scheme in my home town of Kenmare is vital. I have been involved in the running of the scheme for many years. Prior to that, the great Fr. Michael Murphy ran the scheme in Kenmare and did it so efficiently that we won the Tidy Towns gold medal in 2001. We were delighted with that but it was only achievable because of the CE scheme and the great work of those involved. Mr. Noel Crowley is currently running the scheme as a supervisor and finding it very difficult. Nonetheless, he and all the other supervisors around the country greatly appreciate the implementation of the report by the Labour Court.

Disability Services Provision

The next matter has been raised by Senator Wall. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Butler, to the House and thank her for taking time out of her busy schedule to respond to this issue. This issue relates to professional therapists' waiting times and the list for children in south Kildare. The Member submitted it prior to the break and we are delighted the Minister of State is able to come in today to take this matter.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this Commencement matter. I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank her for coming in. Over the recent months, I have received many representations from parents in south Kildare who are exhausted trying to get any level of assessment and help for their children. Their loved ones are being put on waiting lists that are getting out of control while the development and needs of these same children are not being addressed. It would seem that, on the back of prolonged delays in assessments of need for families in the area, the HSE decided to redeploy a number of staff to this much-needed resource but this has resulted in unacceptable delays for families whose children were dependent on seeing these specialists or, in the case of some families with whom I am dealing, whose children have moved along the age groups and are now waiting on specialist therapy. The result of these moves seems to be only heartache for families, forcing them to borrow money, if they can, and turn to private practices for assessments, if they can get them, given the importance of early intervention for their children, which everyone tells them about. Many families have turned to online support groups where families in similar situations share their experiences and support one another as best they can. All the families I have spoken to do not blame the staff they deal with at the end of the phone or, if they are lucky enough, meet at a clinic. They recognise those still working in the system are doing their very best but cannot cover the gaps in the service that are all too evident for so many families in Kildare.

It is also important, as I think the Minister of State will agree, to allow these families to tell their story. I will take time to outline some of the heartache these families are facing as it is important to put their stories on the record of this House. Last week, I outlined the worries Samantha had for her daughter but today I will tell the House about Aileen. She tells me that at a young age they noticed things were a little different with their youngest daughter. Over time and after many attempts and calls, she received a phone call from a primary care doctor who said her daughter's needs could not be met by them and that the network disability team, NDT, would be needed as her loved one was non-verbal and showing signs that could indicate autism. She filled in and sent off every form required and still has not even been given an assessment officer. Her application was received on 16 November 2020. From the few people who have answered Aileen, she has heard she is facing a wait of 12 to 14 months, probably longer due to the impact of Covid-19. Meanwhile, she says, all her family can do is fumble along blindly, not knowing how to help her youngest child. She asked me if I had any idea how heartbreaking it is to watch one's young child struggle so much and not know how to help, not be able to communicate her needs and have a system that leaves her in the dark with no support or guidance. Aileen says she and her husband are sleep-deprived, heartbroken for their little one and seriously struggling to figure out ways to make her world adapt to her child. She said they need help, support and guidance.

Another lady I am dealing with, Nicola, says the HSE diagnosis for her daughter is that she needs intervention for occupational therapy, speech and language, psychology and physiotherapy. Her daughter has now been discharged from the early years team onto the school age team but she is still waiting for her custom and fitted shoes. The day her moulds were taken for them she received a phone call in the car park outside as she was strapping her daughter in to say they were discharging her to the school age team. She asked who would be her point of contact and was told there was none. She asked if she would receive a letter about the transition from one team to the other and was told they do not do that and that she would not hear from the school age team unless she contacted it to tell it her daughter needed something. Her email to me read:

When your child has significant needs you think that being accepted by the likes of the NDT will be the turning point, you think it will be the beginning of the intervention your child needs so desperately and absolutely deserves. Well, I thought wrong, we are in this alone. We pay €80 for under an hour of Occupational Therapy as there's no choice but to do this.

She finished by saying that she did not have any fight left in her.

I am sure the Minister of State has been made aware of similar cases. I could give her many other examples of what families are facing and how they are desperate for answers for their loved ones. Solutions must be found. There is a generation of young children not getting early intervention. I hope the Minister of State can bring something to them that will make a difference and allow their families to breathe once again.

I wish to thank Senator Wall for raising these important issues today and for sharing the heartfelt pleas of Aileen and Nicola for support.

Both the Government and the HSE recognise the challenges in meeting the demand for children's disability services and are acutely conscious of how this impacts children and their families in these most difficult and challenging times. Nationally, children's disability services are undergoing significant change as the HSE progresses towards the reconfiguration of services into children's disability network teams under the national programme, Progressing Disability Services for Children and Young People, for those aged up to 18 years. The key mission for this programme is to provide a clear pathway and fairer access to services for each child with a disability and his or her family based on his or her need and not on his or her diagnosis or where he or she lives or goes to school.

South Kildare, in conjunction with the rest of County Kildare and west Wicklow, was reconfigured under this programme in 2014. Consideration is now being given to realigning the Kildare-west Wicklow children's disability network teams with the community healthcare networks which were not in place at the time of the reconfiguration in 2014. The remainder of CHO 7, where south Kildare is based, should be reconfigured by the end of June 2021. This reconfiguration will improve access to services and waiting times for intervention.

The vision for children's disability services going forward is to have easy access to the services children require, fairness in providing services, and families, health services and schools working together to support children in developing their potential. This will result in consistency and equity in delivering disability services for children and young people.

Significant additional resources have already been redirected to the assessment of need process in CHO 7 to work through the backlog of applications. This project is addressing the backlog to deliver assessments to each child as quickly as possible. There are a number of disciplines working on the backlog, including psychology, speech and language therapy and occupational therapy, enabling assessments to be fully completed as quickly as possible. It is expected that all diagnostic assessments will be completed by the teams by the end of May 2021. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, has put a huge amount of time and effort into trying to deal with the waiting list for the assessments of need. Huge progress has been made. It is expected that all diagnostic assessments will have been completed by the teams by the end of May 2021.

Clearing the assessment of need backlog is important because it will ensure that resources can be targeted to provide the appropriate therapeutic interventions children and young people need. Funding for an additional 100 new therapy posts was allocated as part of budget 2021. Some of these posts are allocated to CHO 7 and it is expected that a number of them will be in place by the end of quarter 2. This will also help to strengthen service provision in the region.

I trust that this clarifies the issue raised by the Senator. I know that my colleague has also raised the same issue with the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte. It is an issue about which we are all concerned and we all hear about it in our constituency offices. I hope this has given the Senator some clarity.

I thank the Minister of State for outlining that. However, the issue at hand is the length of waiting times. The Minister of State said that investment has been made, and that is most welcome. She mentioned colleagues. I am sure her colleagues in this House today and throughout County Kildare and the State will be aware of the issues being raised in our offices and the problems people are facing. People are at the end of their tether. Aileen and her family have mentioned sleep deprivation. That issue is replicated in the cases of many others I am aware of at the moment.

The Minister of State mentioned the assessments of need and the reduction of waiting times for them. I received an email over the weekend from a person in Dublin, who told me they had received a letter in January telling them that the waiting time for such an assessment is 36 months. If the Minister of State is telling us today that waiting times for these assessments are to be reduced, I would appreciate it if the HSE could send new letters out to those affected. They received letters in January telling them there was a 36-month waiting list. The Minister of State has told us today that waiting list will be reduced over the next few months. If new letters were issued to the families affected, it would help them and, most importantly, the children.

As I outlined in my opening statement, the challenges in meeting the demand for children's disability services are well recognised, in addition to the impact of these challenges on children and their families.

I hope the Senators are reassured by what I said on the commitment of the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, and the Government to improving access for children with special needs to specialist therapies, such as occupational therapy and speech and language therapy. These service improvements, which I referred to in my earlier contribution, will ensure better access to services for all children who need supports. I know from working closely with the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, in the Department of Health that she meets each area lead on disability services in each CHO regularly. Two CHOs have already met their target of seeing all children who are waiting for an assessment of needs. The Minister of State expects, notwithstanding the difficulties with Covid and face-to-face interactions, that all should be met by the end of May. I have no doubt that with the 100 extra therapists put in place, this should happen.

The critical need for and importance of disability supports for people and their families at this unique time in our history are acknowledged. The impact of Covid on people's lives continues to be significant. The primary objectives of the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, and the Government as a whole are to restore face-to-face services and ensure continuity of services in a safe way for children and adults. The common goal of families, health services, schools, public representatives and society is to work together to support and empower children in developing their full potential. It is also important to point out, because the issue has got a lot of traction in the news in recent weeks, that the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, has agreed with the HSE to pause the removal of therapists from all special schools who deliver on-site therapy while further engagement takes place. I should note, on behalf of the Minister of State, that this work has been done. I will bring the Senators' comments on the letters back to the Minister and I thank them for their time.

Nursing Homes Support Scheme

I thank the Minister of State for being in the House to take this very important Commencement debate on the fair deal scheme. It is a good scheme when it works, but for farm families and the families of small business owners the system is anything but fair. I welcome the support the Minister of State has given on ensuring that elderly people can stay at home and access extra home care hours. It is very important to do everything we can to avoid older people having to go into nursing homes. Some people will still need to have extra care that cannot be provided at home. It is very traumatic for any family when someone has to go into a nursing home to receive that level of care. It is made even worse when the family runs the risk of losing a family farm or business to pay for necessary care. We can imagine the anxiety it causes to older people and their families.

While fair deal is a lifeline for many, farmers and small business owners have been treated very harshly under the current conditions of the scheme. As we know, under the scheme an annual levy of 7.5% on farmland applies to all elderly farmers for every year they avail of long-term nursing care. For most people, this 7.5% per annum levy is limited to the first three years of the nursing home care but farmers and business owners face indefinite contributions on their assets, which in some cases threatens the very viability of their farm or business. This clearly discriminates against the agricultural community and causes terrible hardship for young farmers who hope to inherit farmland. It renders non-viable many farm holdings in rural Ireland. This needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. A review was done in 2015 but the previous Government did not do anything in respond to it. The matter is now under the watch of the Minister of State and I hope she will be able to do something about it.

The fair deal scheme at its heart should be fair. We know from speaking to small business owners and farming families that the scheme is not fair to them.

Whereas the contribution by the private dwelling house towards nursing home care is capped at three years, the charge put against the family farm or small business continues for the entirety of the person's stay in a nursing home. The 7% is deducted annually, meaning that someone who is in nursing home care for up to 14 years will lose the farm completely. That is not something that anyone wants to see.

The scheme's true impact is that older people are not going into nursing home care when they need to. This is not because of greed or a desire to hold on. Rather, it is because they fear they will lose everything that they have worked to build and put together over their lives - the family farms and small businesses that are their legacies – and that they want to hand on to the next generation. The fear of losing their legacies is putting pressure on elderly people at a stage in their lives when they must make a choice and should not have such stress. They are choosing not to go into nursing home care because of their fear that their farms or small businesses will not be there to hand on to the next generation. That is the crux of the issue.

A promise has been given to make changes. There is a proposal on the table to cap the contribution made by the family farm or small business to nursing home care at three years. That would be a fair outcome. The Minister of State has committed to delivering on this promise and many farming families and small business owners across the country are waiting and hoping to see its delivery in the near future. I hope that the Minister of State will be the one to give the good news.

I thank the Senators for raising this important issue and giving me the opportunity to update the House on the proposed reform of the nursing home support scheme, commonly known as the fair deal scheme. As they will know from working with me over recent years, this matter is close to my heart.

The House will be aware that the fair deal scheme is a system of financial support for those in need of long-term nursing home care. It aims to ensure that such care is accessible to and affordable by everyone and that people are cared for in the most appropriate settings. The scheme was introduced in 2009 and is built on the premise of fairness and equity, but there are always some unintended consequences. Unfortunately, those have affected farmers and small business owners whose loved ones have been in nursing homes for in excess of three years.

Participants in the scheme contribute to the cost of their care according to their means while the State pays the balance of the cost. The less one has, the less one pays and the more one has, the more one pays. That is fair. Under the scheme, the capital value of an individual's principal private residence is only included in the financial assessment for the first three years of his or her time in care. During my work on the legislation, it was interesting to note that, as of November 2020, the average length of stay was 3.3 years but that 37% of all persons in the scheme left it within six months of entry. That said, we want to make the scheme as fair as possible for those who are in nursing homes for in excess of three years so that they can afford to stay there.

It is recognised that the scheme in its current form does not place caps on the financial assessment of family-owned and family-operated farms or businesses when calculating the means to pay for nursing home care. Under existing provisions, caps apply only in cases of sudden illness or disability. I well appreciate that this may place a potentially onerous burden on family successors and could challenge the future viability of these productive assets. The imminent legislative amendment to the scheme seeks to address this issue by introducing additional safeguards in the scheme to protect further the viability and sustainability of family farms and businesses that will be passed down to the next generation of the family.

The change to the scheme proposed by the Department of Health is to cap financial contributions based on farm and business assets at three years where a family successor commits to working the productive asset. This change was approved by the Government and underwent pre-legislative scrutiny in the previous Dáil. Unfortunately, progress on the development of the Bill was negatively impacted by the dissolution of that Dáil and the Covid-19 pandemic. The response to the pandemic has been and continues to be a national and public health priority. When I was appointed last July, though, this matter was one of the priorities that I wanted to progress as quickly as possible. I thank the Attorney General for all his support in that regard. A team was put in place in my office last November or December to work on this issue. We have finally come to a conclusion, which is welcome. Officials in my Department and draftspersons in the Office of the Attorney General have been working intensively.

I am pleased to say a finalised draft of the Bill has now been signed by the Attorney General. I am sure Senators will appreciate several steps must be completed before the Bill is laid before the House, including its approval by the Government. I expect to bring the Bill to the Cabinet in the next two weeks. It has now been circulated to the Departments and it must be with them for ten working days. It was circulated last Thursday. I intend to have it before the Cabinet in two weeks and I hope it will be approved. It will then come before the Houses very quickly. I have spoken to the Government Chief Whip to ensure it can be facilitated and I hope everybody will support it and encourage everybody to do so. I believe there will be great cross-party support and it is very badly needed.

It is a great start to the week to hear that really welcome news. Senator Chambers and I can attest to the work and focus the Minister of State put into this when she was part of the Opposition. I am really delighted to see she has prioritised it. It is really important that this is imminent. It will make the scheme fair and equitable for everybody, which is all we want. It is much appreciated.

I am thrilled and this is fantastic news. It is exactly the start to the week we needed to know that in the next two weeks this will go before the Cabinet. I have no doubt it will get approval right across both Houses. It is great to be able to inform farming families and small business owners that this battle and campaign will finally come to an end. It is really important for a Government to acknowledge that a scheme put in place has been reviewed and assessed. We have acknowledged there are deficiencies and the hardship from unintended consequences, as the Minister of State called it, and we are now seeking to address those through legislation. We will make those changes and it is a fantastic delivery by the Minister of State and her Department. It will be one of the best legacies she could leave in this term.

I thank the Senators for their words of encouragement. This is quite a technical Bill, although people might think it is not. There are 26 sections in it. The Attorney General went back to the drafters in the Department of Health seeking 136 clarifications, so there is quite a bit of work on the question of a successor, who is working a farm and all the details that have to be put in place. That is also the case with small businesses. In some cases there are operations that function with small businesses and farmers. There was quite a bit of technical work.

Strategic reform of the model of delivery of care for older people is currently under way in pursuit of the policy goal of supporting older people to remain living independently in their own homes and communities for as long as possible, as I have always sought, with the correct wrap-around supports. This will involve a demonstrable shift in the provision of care from hospitals to community settings and significant investment has been made in intermediate care and home supports in 2021 to advance this goal. Nevertheless, long-term residential care is part of an overall continuum of care and will, at a certain point, be a necessary option for many older people in order to meet their healthcare needs.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus the vulnerabilities of many older people, especially those living in long-term residential care. It is therefore absolutely critical that public investment in long-term services is maintained and such care remains accessible and affordable, including for those with farm or business assets. I am very pleased to inform the House today that the Bill has been finalised, pending approval by the Government. It will be presented to the Houses for discussion and debate in the next few weeks.

Well done. We all look forward to seeing the Bill. I thank both Senators for bringing up the matter today. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Education, Deputy Josepha Madigan, to the House.

Special Educational Needs

I will bring the Minister of State back to October 2018, when I first met representatives of the Autism School Dublin 15 committee, which campaigns for a dedicated special school. They spoke about how autism spectrum disorder units would not meet the complex needs of all their children, many of whom are non-verbal, have behavioural challenges and might be flight risks or suffer from violent outbursts or self-harm. They can also experience sensory overloads, which can be overwhelming.

Mainstream schools and their curriculum were not the appropriate environment for these children. The result is that they were often on reduced hours or, tragically, expelled through no fault of their own.

By very young ages these children or their families had been through so much and got so little because the system did not support them and did not see them a lot of the time. This group of parents, principals and professionals, through surveys and questionnaires, helped everyone, including the NCSE, to see all these children, whether they were in the wrong environments, on reduced hours, had home tuition grants or travel long distances outside Dublin 15 and Dublin 7 to access education. This group still knows better than anyone what the children need.

In February 2019, Dublin and Dún Laoghaire Education and Training Board, DDLETB, came on board and offered a site for a special school at Riversdale Community College as a patron. In April 2019, the official letter went to the then Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, outlining the insufficient special school and special class capacity in Dublin 15 for September 2019 and beyond. In September 2019, Danu was opened. It welcomed its first student on 28 November in temporary accommodation on the site of Hansfield Educate Together Secondary School. Danu has worked incredibly hard to look after these children, even through Covid, caring for them and teaching them skills in an environment and a building that is not purpose-built for vulnerable children with complex needs while sharing a site with a secondary school. Hansfield Educate Together Secondary School was only ever to be temporary accommodation, and the plan was to move to Riversdale Community College, also in temporary accommodation that would require appropriate work to make it suitable and safe while a new school building was constructed on a site beside it. We were told that that new school building would take approximately five years. Everyone was on board, even though the temporary accommodation would never be ideal, even though Danu is sharing a car park and vehicle access with a mainstream secondary school and even though many of these children are flight risks and require safety procedures and protections all the time. However, it now seems that the temporary plans at Riversdale are to become permanent, to include six classrooms, a staff room, a principal's office, a secretary's office, toilets and other rooms, and that the classrooms will be smaller than they are currently because they are dealing with existing rooms. They currently accommodate four children but that will increase to six, and the plan is for more work on the site. They will have a separate door. The buildings will be divided but the schools will continue to share the same site, even though the adoption of older buildings is not necessarily ideal for children with complex needs. From a basic perspective, I am thinking about safety and windows that need to be high up. There is a site behind the school that could accommodate a purpose-built, dedicated school building and school grounds for children with specific and complex needs.

I would welcome a statement on this. The school communities feel they really need an appropriate site, staffing, supports and a school.

I thank the Senator for her very important contribution regarding this matter. Danu Community Special School was established, as she said, in September 2019 in Dublin 15. There is a large volume of work still to be done, but I think she will accept that from her initial meeting with the parents in 2018 there has been substantial progress. It was necessary progress and, as I said, there is still more to do. The Senator correctly pointed out that Danu was under the patronage of DDLETB and was originally to cater for 40 students. The school now, I understand, has an enrolment of 23 students. As the Senator said, it took the first students on 28 November 2019. The school is temporarily co-located in Hansfield Educate Together Secondary School and will relocate to its permanent location on the site of Riversdale Community College for the forthcoming school year. I know the Senator is aware of that. I am pleased to inform her that a design team has been appointed to oversee the works required to facilitate the school's occupancy of a section of the Riversdale building in phase 1 of the relevant works.

It is intended that a phase 2 development will be undertaken subsequently. The Department understands that the ETB is committed to the development of both schools, now and into the future. The Riversdale site is in the ownership of Dublin and Dún Laoghaire ETB and relocating the Danu Community Special School to the Riversdale site, first, is consistent with the public spending code in the context of maximising value for money, which also includes maximising the use of State assets. Second, it is consistent with the use of a shared educational campus, which is the preferred model of the future development of educational infrastructure, where feasible. Third, the building project is being funded under the Department's additional accommodation scheme 2021.

The Senator is aware that approval was granted only in February of this year for the refurbishment of 1,150 sq. m of existing permanent accommodation in Riversdale Community College for the benefit of Danu Community Special School. She correctly outlined the various accommodation that will be included, including six general classrooms, staffroom, principal's office, general office, meeting room, multisensory room and general purpose area. It also includes the relocation of an existing home economics room and a science laboratory, and also upgrade work to internal doors and the alarm system. It is important to note that the project is currently at stage 2A of the architectural planning process, which is the detailed design. Planning permission is not required for this either, and both the fire safety certificate and the disability access certificate have already been secured. It is anticipated by Dublin and Dún Laoghaire ETB that this project will advance to tender stage in the coming weeks.

I understand from the Senator's contribution that this is not ideal for the community but it is a lot of progress from where we were originally. The project was approved with a view to securing the long-term needs referred to by the Senator. I am very conscious of the constraints faced by the school in recent years. I assure the House that Dublin and Dún Laoghaire ETB is fully committed to providing sufficient and suitable school accommodation for Danu Community Special School. Even if a new build were to happen, it would take a number of years and, in that situation, we need to have interim accommodation. I assure the House this is being fully supported and facilitated by the Department of Education.

I thank the Minister of State. I am very appreciative of the work that has been done to date and the action that has been taken. However, there is a strong feeling that a separate site is what is needed for this school and, in fact, that is what parents were led to expect. When we look at the numbers for the area, they are only going in one direction. I know how difficult it is to get a school site in Dublin 15 but here is a site that we have, where we could potentially build a dedicated state-of-the-art school that did not just cater to 40 students but up to 100 students in future. When we think of the money that has been spent on home tuition and bus transport, it would be great value for money, as well as being good for the safety of the children. It would mean staff could spend more time working on their independent life skills, rather than thinking about safety or sharing a car park with the secondary school, and the complex issues involved in that. While I appreciate there is a lot of work going on behind the scenes, I request that this be looked at again.

I assure the Senator I will bring her comments to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Foley, and the Department. I will set out the work we have done in regard to special education. It is a priority for this Government and we are putting in the investment to ensure supports and school places are there for every single child. We are spending over €2 billion on special education this year. I have already announced the opening of two new special schools for next September. We have an additional 1,000 special needs assistants in the system this year, we are providing an extra 1,500 special class places for September and the number of special classes has increased by 235% since 2011. We reopened in-school special education first as a priority after Covid school closures.

There is a major commitment that from this year all new school buildings will include special educational needs facilities into the future. We cannot underestimate the impact of that. We are also preparing for an expanded summer provision programme for students with additional needs. We have made good progress and the work goes on. Ar aghaidh leis an obair.

Airline Vouchers

I welcome the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee.

The Minister is very welcome. I raise the issue of travel vouchers for customers of airlines. At the outset, I commend the Irish Travel Agents Association on its advocacy, work and representation on behalf of people. In the context of the next phase of the Covid-19 recovery plan, it is important that we have a national aviation restart plan and a comprehensive plan for the hospitality, retail, tourism and travel sectors.

A number of people have raised with me the issuing and honouring of vouchers by airlines. When vouchers were first issued for cancelled flights, if the person did not use the voucher by the expiry date, which is after one year, a refund would be issued. Airlines then issued vouchers for a period of five years so that they would not have to pay out on them. That was not an issue for most people because they knew they would use the voucher within that period. Customers who have accepted vouchers from airlines under EU Regulation 261/2004 can reject the voucher and receive cash at any point.

I ask for clarity and certainty to be given to the travelling public and also to travel agents who are receiving calls and emails from people. The issue relates to travel agents and members of the travelling public who have been dealing with airlines in terms of the honouring of vouchers when the 12 months are up. As many of us know, this time last year we thought we would not be in this position with travel curtailed. People are now looking to travel in May, June, July and August of this year and they cannot. I ask that certainty and clarity be given to members of the travelling public regarding EU law and its relationship to the people here in Ireland in terms of the five-year expiry date. Clarity should also be given to travel agents whose clients have been given a one-year extension. Could that be extended to five years? The customer, under EU Regulation 261/2004, retains the right to a cash refund.

I am calling on the airlines to be fair and honest with people in terms of the honouring of vouchers. I ask them to be flexible and work with the IATA and its customers regarding the matter. The website is where people can find their entitlements and what can and cannot be done. I appeal to the airlines and the Government to ensure that the rights of the travelling public are upheld.

I also make an appeal for the expiry dates for airline vouchers to be extended and for a flexible approach to be taken in this regard. I understand it is a very pressurised and difficult time for many in the travel industry, especially for the airlines. I hope the Minister's reply will show the policy being flexible on behalf of the travelling public.

The Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, gives her apologies that she cannot be here.

The Covid crisis has seen an unprecedented impact on international travel and, as a result, civil aviation globally is currently experiencing its most challenging crisis ever. Many analysts are predicting that it will take several years for the sector to return to 2019 levels.

The Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, has met all key aviation stakeholders and her officials continue to engage with airports and airlines. She remains concerned that the current uncertainty around international travel, as well as the less positive prospects for summer 2021 than all of us would have hoped for, are leaving Irish consumers exposed to financial loss as a result of complying with public health guidelines. The impact and strain of the current trading environment on airlines and their staff are fully acknowledged. The financial and commercial pressures that persist for so long as international travel is restricted are fully understood.

The Government has responded to the crisis impacting businesses, including airlines, through varied supports such as the wage subsidy scheme, grants, low-cost loans, the commercial rates waiver, which has been extended into 2021, and deferred tax liabilities. In addition to the economy-wide measures, on 10 November 2020, the Government announced an €80 million funding package for Irish aviation. This provided an extra €48 million in supports for 2021, in addition to those announced in budget 2021 of €31.3 million.

In the EU, travel and transport service consumers, not just those using airlines, are protected by law, particularly in the instance of cancellations of services by the travel provider. In the case of cancelled flights, the rules under the air passenger rights regulation, known as EU 261/2004, are clear. The passenger must be given the choice of a refund or alternative flights later at no extra cost. The EU rules allow for passengers to accept a refund ordinarily by cash or bank transfer but also by way of a voucher. The passenger must give their consent to accept a voucher rather than cash. Once that voucher is issued by the airline, it has fulfilled its lawful obligation.

The EU's passenger rights regulations do not cover situations where passengers cannot travel or want to cancel or postpone a trip on their own initiative, for example, by following Government advice not to travel. However, the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, has taken many opportunities to impress on the main Irish airlines that their treatment of passengers who choose not to travel, for example in following Government advice, needs to be fair and reasonable.

The Minister of State recently sought clarification from both Aer Lingus and Ryanair on their current rebooking policies. She has specifically requested the airlines to set out their respective policies on their voucher and rebooking options for passengers who choose not to travel under the current rules governing international air travel; how they propose to provide for future bookings by passengers should travel restrictions persist; and how they propose to handle customers who previously rebooked 2020 travel, likely at an extra cost, for travel in 2021 or beyond or those who previously accepted a time-limited voucher but have not yet rebooked their flight.

Aer Lingus has indicated that its book-with-confidence policy, covering all flights scheduled to run until the end of 2021, as well as being available to passengers up to the end of September at least, including those who may have already rebooked for a future travel date, allows customers to change their travel date free of charge, as many times as they wish, up to two hours before their flight. It also indicated that passengers may swap their booking for a voucher and that their vouchers are valid for five years.

Ryanair has clarified that the expiry dates for vouchers that were issued for flight cancellations last year are being extended to enable passengers to make bookings when travel is open again. The Minister understands from Ryanair's response that rebooking can be made with no flight change fee for travel before 31 October 2021. Ryanair has also informed the Minister that vouchers that were offered to customers whose flights were cancelled can be converted to cash at any time or can be redeemed for future bookings.

While it is recognised that airlines will keep such policies under review, it is incumbent on them to ensure that they deliver on these policies in a way that is easy to access by their consumers. In continuing dialogue with the airlines, the Minister of State will ensure that the passenger experience is kept in focus in order that the passengers can have confidence to travel with their preferred airline when the conditions allow.

I welcome the Minister's response, as well as the commitment from both Ryanair and Aer Lingus to honour the arrangements put in place for the travelling public. As the Minister said, the situation is a very difficult one and must be kept under constant review.

The Government has given huge support to the aviation sector.

The impact of this matter has been profound. I hope that as a follow-up to today and into the future an aviation restart plan can be put in place. It is important that we instil confidence in the travelling public and that we support our hospitality and tourism sectors. It is also critical that we put in place supports and measures that the Government has for the aviation sector. I thank the Minister for her reply. It is good that a flexible approach is being taken by the airlines. It is about giving the travelling public confidence to travel when we can - as the Minister has said, the Government advice is that we cannot travel now - and that when we restart, these arrangements are honoured.

I wish the Minister well and every success in her personal life. These are probably some of her last few days in the House. Beir bua leat.

The objective with regard to the aviation sector, not just for the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, but also for the Government over the past year, was to make sure that those who were travelling abroad for holidays or for whatever other reason were not negatively affected. A huge amount of work has been done to ensure that, where possible, refunds have been given and, where they were not given, that vouchers were provided and that the terms and conditions were as flexible as possible. We have also tried to ensure, in allowing refunds or vouchers, that the aviation sector has been able to remain in operation so that when we open up and travel is allowed, people will actually have an industry to avail of and be able to travel. It is about supporting consumers and the sector to make sure that when people are able to travel and, hopefully, when we navigate our way through Covid-19, we will have a sector that is fit for purpose. The Minister of State is working with colleagues across Government but also with stakeholders within the sector to ensure that we can continue to meet those overall objectives. I will be sure to pass on the Senator's comments to the Minister of State.

Domestic Violence Policy

I warmly welcome the Minister. As she will be aware, one of the many repercussions of the lockdown policies has been the dramatic increase in the incidence of domestic violence, with vulnerable women and children bearing the brunt of it. In light of this, I will put a few issues and questions to the Minister for her consideration.

I have heard reports that the family law system further endangers women and children experiencing domestic violence. Abusive parents can be granted unsupervised access to children. Victims' concerns about child abuse are minimised. Custody arrangements that escalate domestic violence can be ordered by the courts.

Are there any responses from the family justice oversight group with regard to regulation and the establishment of the database of court-appointed child welfare assessors? I understand that these assessors are unregulated currently and that the Courts Service of Ireland does not maintain any database of them. Simultaneously, the involvement in proceedings of the criminal courts or the family law courts in the child protection system is not unusual in families affected by domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, DSGBV, services. This can lead to considerable difficulties. A mother, for example, may be required by Tusla to leave an abusive partner to protect her children, while in family law proceedings the parental rights of the abusive partner may supersede the child's right to safety, sometimes giving rise to unsupervised access to abusive partners. This re-traumatises the affected child or the abused mother and places them in direct conflict with welfare conditions arising from involvement with Tusla. A conviction for violent abuse of the victimised parent, frequently the mother, may be deemed irrelevant in a custody or access case because the offence was not against the child.

Can a fit-for-purpose and joined-up legal and welfare mechanism ensure that these matters are fully considered in terms of the emotional abuse element with regard to the child's welfare? Has An Garda Síochána started training officers in domestic violence refuge services to facilitate and encourage victims to report crimes? What are the statistics on the breaching of domestic court orders under the Domestic Violence Act 2018? How are repeat offenders being dealt with? How many DSGBV prosecutions have there been since the pandemic began in March 2020? How does this compare with other years?

Can the Minister update the House on the legislative proposal for domestic violence leave, which aims to give workers who experience domestic violence the stability they need to leave a violent relationship or to ensure the victims or their families are safe? Professionals who provide the vital supports and services needed by women and children in their communities must be adequately resourced. They are very much front-line workers.

The third national strategy for DSGBV is due at the end of 2021. Do we have the luxury of waiting until then for these findings, knowing that this problem is escalating, under-resourced and under-reported? Can preliminary findings be published? An audit of accommodation by Tusla is due at the end of April. Why is it taking so long when we know escalating violence is emerging? It is clear we do not have enough refuge places. Hundreds of women and children in dire need are being turned away. What other accommodation measures are being put in place for fleeing victims? Is a multi-annual funding model being developed at departmental level to ensure and enable proper planning and development of DSGBV services?

A new feature of DSGBV has emerged during the pandemic, namely, the deliberate breaching of Covid public health advice and restrictions. This places children and adults, particularly those with underlying medical conditions and disabilities, in danger. These offences are difficult to prove to a criminal threshold and it is equally difficult for victims to protect themselves or their children from them. How are those allegations and complaints being dealt with? Finally, I repeat the call for more funding for services for victims and for an increase in the number of refuge places. What is the Government's response?

I thank the Senator for raising such an important issue. Unfortunately, Covid-19 has highlighted this as an issue, although it existed long before now. I have said many times that while we have been asked to stay at home and home is a sanctuary for us, it is anything but that for others. It has placed additional pressure on individuals and, in particular, victims of domestic sexual violence.

This is a priority for me. Covid-19 has created unprecedented challenges, particularly for those experiencing domestic abuse and the front-line organisations that provide the support and services. At the outset, my Department developed an inter-agency plan to address and prioritise tackling domestic abuse during the pandemic. It is now leading efforts to try to identify lessons that can be learned. While the work is ongoing, we are trying to ensure we can learn lessons from everything we are doing. Domestic abuse cases continue to be prioritised by the Garda, the Courts Service and the Legal Aid Board. The courts continue to deal with applications to renew domestic violence orders that are due to expire and to put in place arrangements to deal with matters remotely. Under Operation Faoiseamh in the Garda Síochána, gardaí are working to ensure victims of domestic abuse are supported and protected at this time. The Senator will be aware of the work being done in County Meath by Garda Stacey Looby and others to highlight domestic violence and to raise funds for vital organisations locally. In this area, I welcome recent convictions for coercive control. This is something we have seen for the first time in the past few months. I hope that as more convictions follow, others will feel confident to come forward and tell their story.

Through the Still Here campaign, my Department is working with front-line service providers, continuing to tell them that services are still available regardless of the level of restrictions and, in particular, that restrictions on movement do not apply to people seeking help as a result of domestic abuse. We will continue to convey that message, and I stress it today. We are also providing Covid-specific funding to organisations working in the area of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence to help during this difficult time. That is separate from funding that would normally be provided for these organisations.

How we best provide for the physical and emotional needs of victims into the future is an absolute priority. The Justice Plan 2021, which I launched a few months ago, is a detailed action plan for delivering our five high-level goals. One of these goals is to strengthen community safety, reduce reoffending, support victims and combat domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. One of the key actions being undertaken is an audit, which the Senator mentioned, of how domestic, sexual and gender-based violence policy and services are organised under the Government. This work, together with the audit of accommodation, is being undertaken by Tusla and work is being done to implement the Supporting A Victim's Journey plan. All three of these will provide the analysis that is necessary to ensure that we address any gaps in our national approach and that it is effective and, most importantly, victim-centred. The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, and I met the auditors last week and we look forward to receiving the report shortly.

I will refer to a few points the Senator mentioned. Under the Supporting A Victim's Journey plan, I met the implementation group and the community and voluntary sector last week.

The Senator raised a point regarding family courts, namely, that civil and criminal proceedings often take place at the same time when there is no connection between them. We are very conscious of that and would like to address it but it is difficult. For the reasons outlined by the Senator, we need to ensure that those two elements of the courts speak to each other and that there is engagement between the group implementing the Supporting a Victim's Journey report and the family justice oversight group, which is doing substantial work to try to overhaul the family justice structure.

With regard to An Garda Síochána training, the gardaí involved in the divisional service protective units, all of which have been rolled out, have all received their training. Work is under way to ensure all members of An Garda Síochána receive updated training on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.

We are working on a model that would see organisations receive funding multi-annually. This is part of the task of mapping a victim's journey, where we identified what supports are available, how they are being provided, where there are gaps and how we can provide further funding and support for these organisations to increase funding. This will obviously require a commitment of longer than one year, which is why we are looking at multi-annual funding. I will come back on this.

I thank the Minister and extend every good wish to her and her husband, Paul. I wish them a safe and healthy birth of their child.

I thank Dr. Evelyn Parsons in Ballinasloe for highlighting this issue to me. She was instrumental in my decision to raise the matter today.

Local authorities are very much involved in sourcing funds for women who are suffering to move out of dangerous situations in the home. Housing officers in County Meath have looked after a number of families and women who were experiencing domestic abuse by arranging funding to enable them to leave their homes and these dangerous situations. Much more work needs to be done on this matter. I am sure the Minister recognises the crossover between the Department of Justice and the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. It is great that services are still operating but an awful lot more needs to be done, as the Minister recognises. She has not answered my questions about numbers. I will forward them to her Department and perhaps an official will answer them.

Absolutely. While I do not have the exact figures, we know there has been a significant increase in the number of reports of domestic violence and in Garda engagement with victims of domestic violence over the past year. The numbers increased between 2019 and 2020 and have increased even further since the pandemic commenced. I am very conscious of that. The work we are doing to support victims through Covid-19 will continue as long as it is needed. We will ensure lessons that need to be learned from that will be fed into Supporting a Victim's Journey, which is about improving the criminal justice system and encouraging and supporting more people to come forward, and the third national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. We are doing an audit of the second strategy to ensure we identify what has and has not been implemented and where we need to go next.

The Senator asked about refuges and the audit that is taking place. The audit, which Tusla is due to finalise shortly, will identify exactly where the gaps are in the system and where further support is needed. As the Senator outlined, the Departments of the Environment, Climate and Communications, Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Health, Education, and Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and my Department, as well as many others, have a part to play in this. They are very much engaged and involved.

I thank Senator Keogan for placing this very important matter on the agenda today. We all wish the Minister the very best in the coming weeks.

Sitting suspended at 11.50 a.m. and resumed at 12.05 p.m.