Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

DEIS Scheme

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, for coming here this morning to deal with this matter. No schools have been assessed to be included for extra supports under the DEIS scheme since 2015 and only a small number were added in 2017. Schools are not currently being assessed. I would like an update on the DEIS resource allocation system and the timeline for its completion, publication and implementation.

DEIS encompasses a number of different types of supports, including: reduced class size; additional funding to provide access to literacy and numeracy programmes, which is important; the home school community liaison, HSCL, co-ordinator; school completion programmes, SCPs, which mean that students will stay in school longer and achieve results in final year exams; and access to the school meals programme. To clarify, the HSCL and the SCP both fall under Túsla educational and welfare services so there is a link there and a partnership with the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. There is also a link with the Department of Social Protection on the school meals programme. However, neither of those Departments can allocate schools access to the programmes unless designation has been given by the Department of Education. The Minister for Education has noted that this is dependent on an Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, in 2015 to bring forward a new methodology of assessment. That is great but, unfortunately, we do not have a methodology for assessing any of these schools now. A Department of Education publication, DEIS Identification Process, noted, "The model also identified a number of schools in disadvantaged areas, no currently within DEIS, whose level of disadvantage is significantly higher than many schools already in DEIS."

A Social Justice Ireland report published last week and based on a 2019 survey pointed to a decrease in people living below the poverty line. However, 20% of children still live in poverty. All across this country, especially in the past year, more families than were dealt with in that survey are dealing with disadvantage and loss of income, all of which impacts on child poverty. If children are going to school hungry, we need to act. If children are falling behind in reading and maths, we need to act. We need to ensure that every child has the same opportunity in the classroom, the ability to focus attention, the reserves to sit in school for the full day and the supports to avoid dropping out at secondary school level.

The Minister for Education has already noted that this review has to be completed before any supports are made available. I do not accept that. There must be a possibility of having a tiered level of support available for the schools most in need, particularly when this crisis affects those most vulnerable, namely, women, single parents and children.

In the 2016 Pobal deprivation index, Ballinasloe was listed as having areas that are extremely and very disadvantaged, the highest levels on the scale. The area also has a DEIS band 1 primary school. However, there is no support for any post-primary DEIS facility in our area. How is this possible in a large urban area? I will quote a school principal on the matter:

We struggle to support our most vulnerable families in the absence of an allocation for a Home School Community Liaison teacher. We try our best but it is an impossible task to ask full time teachers/assistant principals and senior leadership personnel to provide the level of family support that is necessary to these families. We have a large number (20-25%) of enrolment coming from [the DEIS band 1 primary school]. We meet students on a daily basis with no lunch. As a result, the school frequently has to buy food and distribute it without any support ...

I also spoke to a home school community liaison officer, a co-ordinator, in our area. She stated the retention of pupils following transfer to secondary school in Ballinasloe is really low, particularly among children who have had to leave school after having had considerable support at primary school level through DEIS at band level 1.

I want to put a programme in place that supports children from different backgrounds to have a fighting chance. The State has a role in providing hope and supports to children and students so they will have a fighting chance of an education. I call on the Minister of State, in the absence of the review, which has been happening since 2015, to set up immediately tiered supports for schools in crisis, partnering with the Department of Social Protection regarding access to the hot school meals programme and the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth regarding access to the home school community liaison scheme and school completion programme. I also call on the Minister to address the matter of the school completion co-ordinator in the Ballinasloe area. I acknowledge the wonderful supports in place at primary school level in our urban town area but how does disadvantage disappear at age 11?

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. DEIS is the main policy initiative of my Department to tackle educational disadvantage at any level. The DEIS plan sets out the vision for interventions in the critical area of educational disadvantage policy and is based on the findings of an extensive review of the programme, which involved consultation with all relevant stakeholders.

The programme for Government commits to completing the new DEIS identification model and ensuring the extension of status to schools identified as suitable. A key part of the DEIS plan was the introduction of a new DEIS identification process based on an objective statistic-based model to determine which schools merit inclusion in the programme. As the Senator may be aware, following the application of this model in 2017, a further 79 schools were included in the programme and 30 were upgraded from band 2 to band 1 status.

On the further extension of the DEIS programme to more schools, an extensive body of work has been undertaken to refine the model based on the latest school enrolment data and data available from census 2016 under the HP deprivation index. A detailed quality analysis of the data has been carried out by members of the DEIS technical group, which includes representatives of the Department's statistics and social inclusion units, the inspectorate and the Educational Research Centre. My Department has commenced a consultation process with education stakeholder representatives on the technical aspects and the implementation of this model. Work is now ongoing on the final elements of the model. It is envisaged that this will provide the basis for the development and application of a refined DEIS resource-allocation model ultimately to match resources to identified need. Until this work is complete, it is not intended to extend the DEIS programme to any further schools.

I note the Senator’s concerns, however, and reassure her that the Department is working to ensure those most in need of support can be provided with the necessary resources to ensure they have every opportunity to benefit from education to help them fulfil their potential in life. For example, the Department will spend approximately €2 billion on making additional provision for children with special educational needs, which is an area of particular interest to her. The investment means the numbers of special classes, special education teachers and special needs assistants are now at unprecedented levels. Budget 2021 allowed for a further reduction in the primary staffing schedule, bringing the pupil-teacher ratio to an historic low of 25:1. Overall, 1,065 new teaching posts will be created this year.

My Department spends approximately €215 million on general capitation for schools, which represented an increase of 5% in 2019 and a further 2.5% increase for the 2020-21 school term. A further €18 million is allocated to schools under the free education scheme to provide assistance regarding books, including book rental schemes. All these supports should ensure that every student receives every opportunity to fulfil his or her potential in the education system. There are schools in Ballinasloe, including Scoil Uí Cheithearnaigh, Ardscoil Mhuire and Garbally College, that are non-DEIS schools. There is obviously a rationale for including a school based on concentrated disadvantage.

It is based on the existence of a multiplier effect whereby pupils attending a school with a high concentration of students from disadvantaged backgrounds have poorer academic outcomes, even taking account of people's social backgrounds. The social mix of a school matters and provides a rationale for prioritising supports for schools which cater for those with a lower socioeconomic background. International evidence supports that also.

I thank the Minister of State for the update and the acknowledgement of funding in the area. The DEIS identification process and the inclusion of schools with children who are at risk is urgently required to ensure that all schools are appropriately equipped to tackle educational disadvantage. We need that at primary and post-primary level across the country. Is there a possibility for tiered supports? I understand that the review still has to be completed. I am not clear on the timeline associated with that but is it possible that we could look at the hot school meals programme under the Department of Social Protection or the allocation of a HSCL co-ordinator where principals are struggling, particularly this year, with Covid-19? That would come from the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth under Tusla. Could we consider looking at tiered supports in advance of the review programme coming out for schools in crisis?

I thank the Senator. I understand her concerns in the context of supports. It is important to stress that there is a range of resources available from the Department to support schools in dealing with their needs. Those are schools outside of DEIS and they can still avail of supports including special education resource teachers, special needs assistants, SNAs, and supports from the National Educational Psychological Service also.

With regard to hot school meals, I will bring that to the attention of the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, to see if there is scope around that. There may well be resources available of which I am unaware but I will certainly speak to the Minister about the matter.

I do not yet have a timeline for the end of the consultation from the DEIS technical group. I do not see any expansion in respect of any other school being eligible for DEIS until that is refined and completed. The Department has commenced the consultation with educational stakeholder representatives on the technical aspects and the implementation of this model. Work is ongoing on the final elements of the model.

School Staff

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, for coming to the House to discuss this issue. Clooney National School is a small school in a rural setting outside Ennis, in the greater east Clare area. It is currently a four-teacher school. As a result of a drop in student numbers to 73 this year, there is a threat to its four-teacher status. As the Minister of State knows, the retention number is 79. I appeal to the Minister and the Department to give special consideration in this particular year for a number of reasons. First, an effort is being made to rejuvenate rural Ireland and if we do anything that reduces the level of teaching in smaller rural schools it impacts on that policy. Second, if this school is reduced to a three-teacher school effectively it will be teaching 73 pupils in three rooms rather than four. At a time when we are trying to keep children apart we are cramming them into three rooms as opposed to four, which does not make sense. It is a small school. The rooms are small. It has been built for a very considerable period and therefore it does not lend itself well to cram that number of students into three rooms when it was formally four. From a public health point of view, it would make sense to keep it a four-teacher school and retain that fourth teacher.

Across the board, children have suffered so much in the past year and half. They were out of education settings for a prolong period. While I am making a particular request on behalf of Clooney National School, the Department should look wider. The retention figure of 79 should be completely cast aside this year. Teachers should be kept in place because of the issues that have arisen with children effectively being out of school for the past year and a half. We should leave teachers in place for one more year and examine it again next year. In the context of Clooney National School, the numbers will be back up next year on the basis of what is expected in terms of young students coming to the school. In other words, it will be back to that retention level next year. I suspect other schools would benefit from the same consideration.

In the light of everything that this happened with Covid-19 and of trying to ensure children remain apart in school insofar as they can, and recognising their education has been truncated and disrupted very significantly and that we are only placing a greater burden on schools that will lose a teacher where the class size and pupil-teacher teacher ratio will increase at a time when the children concerned can least afford this, on this occasion I appeal to the Minister of State to look favourably on Clooney National School and wider afield to schools throughout the country. There is a recognition that because of everything that kids have suffered, we should try to ensure there is some kind of a stable environment now for the next 12 months to help them to catch up on what is an important part of their formation in education.

I thank Senator Dooley for asking this question pertaining to Clooney National School. The key factor for determining the level of staffing resources provided at individual school level is the staffing schedule for the relevant school year and indeed the pupil enrolment on the previous 30 September. The previous budgets of 2016 and 2018 improved the staffing schedule by one point on both occasions to its historically lowest level ever of one teacher to 26 pupils. Budget 2021 has implemented a further one point reduction for the 2021-2022 school year, so that primary schools will be allocated teaching posts on an average basis of one classroom for every 25 pupils. In addition, there has been a three point reduction in the retention schedule which will assist schools which would otherwise be at risk of losing teaching posts. This measure will help ensure better teacher retention in primary schools while also ensuring fewer pupils are required to retain or recruit a teacher.

As to staffing in small schools, while budget 2012 increased the appointment and retention ratios for small schools, that is, schools with up to four classroom teachers, improvements to the staffing of these school has been made in recent years. Improved retention thresholds for the second, third and fourth classroom teacher and the improved appointment and retention thresholds for two-teacher schools situated 8 km or more from the nearest school of the same type of patronage and-or language of instruction were introduced for the 2015-2016 school year. Budget 2017 announced two adjustments to one-teacher schools. Where the school is the sole primary school on an island, the school will be able to appoint a second teacher. An additional appeal option was introduced for single teacher schools with pupils across six or more class groups allowing them to apply for appointment or retention of a second teacher on reduced enrolment thresholds. Small schools have also benefited from the improvements to the staffing schedule introduced in 2016, 2018 and again in 2021, which has brought the teacher allocation ratio in all primary schools to the most favourable ever seen at primary level.

As to the Senator's specific question around Clooney National School, this school, as the Senator has mentioned, currently has four classroom teachers. The enrolment required to retain the fourth teacher, as the Senator is correctly pointed out, is 79 pupils. As the school’s enrolment fell from 81 in September 2019 to 73 in September 2020, the school is due to have its teaching staff reduced by one in September. I understand it is six pupils short of the requisite eligibility criteria. The staffing process includes an appeals mechanism for schools to submit a staffing appeal under certain published criteria. The primary staffing appeals board will consider staffing appeals in respect of staffing for the 2021-2022 school year from schools later this month. The board will meet again in June and in October. The staffing schedule operates in a very clear and transparent manner and treats all similar types of schools equally, irrespective of location. A blanket freeze on the normal arrangements for allocations for one cohort of schools would introduce a significant difficulty. The rationale of the Department is that all schools are treated the same. It would be of value to Clooney National School, based on the comments the Senator has made that the school is only six pupils short, to note that next year there will be sufficient numbers to bring it up to the 79-pupil level.

I hear the Senator's concerns about the rooms being small and that there might be public health issues. I will bring those concerns to the Minister for Education.

I thank the Minister of State. I appreciate her being here and, hopefully, taking those comments back to the Minister. In addition to the general appeals system, I ask that special consideration be given this year, in a blanket way, to all schools. Clouna National School, close to Ennistymon, is going from three teachers to two under the staffing schedule. The children in Clouna and many other schools dotted around the country have suffered so much. I appeal to the Minister of State and the Government to give serious attention to the retention of the status quo with regard to number of teachers, notwithstanding the fact that some schools have dropped below the retention level, as a special measure in response to the Covid crisis and due to the fact children have been out of school for so long. They need every possible intervention to catch up and that is more difficult in smaller rural schools. I thank the Minister of State for her consideration and I hope that is something the Government can consider in time.

One of the difficulties is that all schools have to be treated the same, otherwise there would be inequity in the system and it would disadvantage all other schools of a similar size which have lost teachers in recent years. It is an important feature of the staffing schedule that all schools are treated equally and fairly. The primary staffing appeals board operates independently of the Department and its decision is final. I will raise the Senator's concerns with the Minister, Deputy Foley. This school is only short six staff and will revert next year to the requisite retention number of 79. I understand the concerns the Senator has in relation to the school. The school can appeal, like any school. The appeals process is the only mechanism open and available to it at the moment.

Housing Issues

I thank the Minister of State for taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien. North Wexford is one of the fastest growing areas in the country outside of the main urban centres. Gorey town grew from about 4,500 to 11,000 in the 1996-2016 intercensus period. We have continued to see rapid growth since. Many people from Dublin know Courtown as a small seaside village but the Courtown-Riverchapel area has exploded to become the fifth largest urban centre in the county. In the education field, I was glad that, in spite of the fact that we got a 1,000-pupil school a decade ago, an additional second level school for the area was approved by the Government earlier this year. Part of that is due to the Dublin commuter effect, but it is also because of the quality of life we offer in north Wexford.

The challenge, which is no different from the rest of the country, has been around housing. Gorey was declared a rent pressure zone in 2019, which reflected much of the pressures with regard to housing. Even though the Gorey-Kilmuckridge municipal area represents almost one third of the population of County Wexford, less than a sixth of the council's housing stock is in that geographic area. Over the last decade, less than one fifth of new housing acquisition or build overseen by Wexford County Council was in the Gorey-Kilmuckridge area.

This has been a big problem but two years ago Wexford County Council acquired a 73-acre site at St. Waleran's in Gorey. It is north of Gorey town. The council trumpeted it as Gorey's future urban quarter. The problem is that in the two years since, we have not seen progress. In October last year I arranged a meeting of senior council officials with the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and the council committed to fast-tracking this, that we would see a master plan and there would be development by the end of the year but nothing happened. Then we were told it would be quarter 1 of this year but again nothing has happened. We still have not seen a master plan. Wexford County Council is sitting on 73 acres while there is a housing crisis.

This frustration is shared cross-party by councillors in north Wexford, where people are crying out for social, and in particular affordable, housing, and we have not seen action. I ask that the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage apply pressure on Wexford County Council regarding this site. If the council is unable or unwilling to provide a masterplan for the site, it may be possible for the Land Development Agency, provided there is clear input from local councillors, to provide the masterplan for the site.

There are other developments, such as the former St. Joseph's School site in Gorey town, which is also being held up by the Department. We all know that when we emerge from this pandemic, housing will continue to be one of the greatest challenges. Delivery on housing is crucial for the Government. Will the Department call Wexford County Council to account and ask why the masterplan for the development of the St. Waleran's House site has not been developed, and why the development of social and affordable housing in Gorey and north Wexford has not been prioritised by the council?

The planning and delivery of social and affordable housing at a local level is led by the relevant local authority. The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage has made record funding available to support the delivery of social and affordable housing by local authorities. Thanks to budget 2021, total funding provision of €3.3 billion was secured by the Minister for delivery of housing programmes.

As for affordable housing in particular, a total of €50 million will be made available to local authorities in 2021 for serviced sites infrastructure funding for new homes that will be made available for affordable purchase or cost rental, depending on the site and local requirements. This is part of a €310 million multi-annual fund. The Minister has submitted ambitious proposals for the expansion of affordable housing funding in the context of the review of the national development plan that is under way. One of the 38 serviced sites fund projects that has received approval in principle is situated in Ramsfort Park, Gorey. This funding of just over €250,000 will go towards the construction of a 150 m access road and associated development works and services and assist in the delivery of 23 affordable homes. As the Senator can appreciate, Covid-19 has had an adverse impact on the projected delivery of these homes, which Wexford County Council has advised will now be delivered in mid-2022. The Minister's Department keeps in close contact with the council on this important local project.

St. Waleran's is an adjacent 72 acre site where the council is proposing significant development for housing and other uses. It will also benefit from the aforementioned road. Wexford County Council has indicated there are other infrastructural requirements for the area including a bridge, so significant pre-planning is involved. The council has engaged the services of a consultant and the masterplan the Senator mentioned is being drafted. It is hoped to complete this within the next two months. At this point, the council has not settled on the precise number of housing units that will be delivered, including the tenure and mix, but the Minister is keen to see the fruits of the council's planning and to move as quickly as possible to housing and other developments for the area. Departmental funding for social and affordable housing is available. I ask all public representatives for the area to do what they can to ensure that the planning is completed and that the proposals emerge as soon as possible.

The St. Joseph's School site in Wexford Street, Gorey, a 20-unit social housing project, received funding approval in principle from the Department in March 2019, with an allocated budget of €4.8 million. Site surveys were due to commence early last year but had to be put on hold as a result of the Covid-19 restrictions. Wexford County Council has advised that these survey works have recommenced, a design team is in place and the local authority is working on its pre-planning proposal. I reiterate that the Minister is anxious for this important local housing project to be advanced and hopes that all local public representatives will support its advancement.

I note the Senator's comments that housing will be a very big issue post Covid. Given the Government’s level of ambition on housing delivery, all local authorities, including Wexford County Council, need to come forward with as many strong new proposals as possible.

The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage continues to engage actively with all local authorities, including Wexford County Council, on the delivery of social and affordable housing wherever it is needed through all available avenues and with particular emphasis on new construction projects. These projects are badly needed by the people of Wexford and the Government wants to see them delivered without further delay.

I am glad that the Minister of State has reasserted that this is not a case of the Government failing to deliver resources. The Government is committing money towards these projects. However, I am disappointed that even though we have a commitment that by mid-2022 Wexford County Council will provide houses at Ramsfort Park, we are still awaiting the master plan for St. Waleran's. This is something we have been sitting on for two years. There is strong support from the elected representatives locally, but I ask the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to keep an eye on how quickly the council progresses these plans.

Ultimately, we want to see social and, in particular, affordable housing built in our communities. Individuals in Gorey, whether they be workers in Stafford's bakery, teachers, nurses, gardaí or local authority staff, should be able to aspire to own their own home. The Government is providing the resources. Wexford County Council should now finally prioritise the development of plans for those houses to be built.

I know the Senator has concerns about the master plan for St. Waleran's. As I said, it will be completed in two months. It has taken quite a significant amount of time, but it is good news that it will be completed in two months' time. Ramsfort Park will take until the middle of 2022 because of Covid. Funding of €4.8 million for a 20-unit social housing project at St. Joseph's has been approved in principle. It is important to bear in mind that €3.3 billion has been allocated for delivery of housing programmes this year. As the Senator mentioned earlier, the delivery of housing is crucial, and I sincerely echo those comments. We also want local authorities themselves to come forward with as many strong new proposals as possible. Some €50 million has been given to local authorities for serviced site infrastructure, which is part of the €310 million multi-annual funding. I thank the Senator for bringing his concerns to the Seanad today.

Covid-19 Pandemic

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House today. Some 20,000 people in Ireland have type 1 diabetes. The latest data from across the globe show and the HSE advice states that people with diabetes face much worse outcomes if they contract Covid-19. The HSE has advised diabetes patients at all stages to try to avoid GP practices and avoid hospitals where they can. However, despite these warnings at times over the past 12 months there has been little joined-up thinking in order to put those patients first and ensure that we have first-class care for them.

Six months ago, at the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response, representatives of Diabetes Ireland specifically recommended that the HSE should develop a clinical consultation service for type 1 diabetes patients and extend flash glucose monitoring devices to all people with type 1 diabetes who have complex needs.

However, officials have spent approximately two years, 24 months in total, reviewing the addition of flash glucose monitoring to the long-term illness scheme for people over the age of 21 years. Notwithstanding the risks, the risks continue to grow. While one million people have been vaccinated as of the weekend, we must be mindful that the virus is still with us and in our communities. Even though we are far through the cohort in the vaccination process, those vulnerable patients, including those with diabetes, are still at risk, so the health arguments are clear as well.

Aside from the health arguments being clear, the arguments relating to value for money are even clearer. There are other products on the market which many patients with diabetes have advised me are at least €1,000 per year cheaper. It makes no sense to exclude them in the first instance from the long-term illness scheme. This is why I am here today to say this. It is especially the case when we see the HSE budget is growing and growing. I have spoken to many people in my home county who have type 1 diabetes. They have said it would make total sense to have flash glucose monitoring on the long-term illness scheme for them in the first instance. They have a very clear thought process about this, that it makes sense and is the way forward. I am here today to encourage the Government to add that to the long-term illness scheme in the first instance.

Last weekend, after the Cabinet meeting, we heard the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, say, "Right across Government, we need to see an emphasis on reforms and ensuring that we are getting good value for the people's money we are spending." The message is clear about this. It is good value for people's money. If we add it to the long-term illness scheme, it will go a long way towards doing that. I appreciate the help and assistance the Minister of State has given me on this issue. He and his Department and special advisers have always kept the door open to me on this particular issue over recent months. I am happy to take this opportunity to thank him in the House today.

I thank the Senator for raising this very important issue. The Covid-19 vaccine allocation strategy sets out a provisional list of groups for vaccination. The strategy was developed by the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, and the Department of Health, endorsed by the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, and approved by Government on 8 December 2020.

Vaccine allocation is a matter for my Department and the roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccination programme is a responsibility of the HSE. As the Senator is aware, on 23 February, an update to the Ireland's Covid-19 vaccine allocation strategy was announced. In comprising the initial vaccine allocation strategy, NIAC listed several conditions associated with increased risk of severe disease and death. In the intervening period, national and international evidence has become available which has enabled a more detailed analysis of underlying conditions that may increase the risk of developing severe disease or death. NIAC has now been able to identify more comprehensively those medical conditions and to distinguish between those which place a person at very high risk or high risk of severe disease if he or she contract the virus. Medical conditions and the magnitude of the risk they pose will continue to be monitored and periodically reviewed.

On 30 March, the Government approved a further update to the Covid-19 vaccination allocation strategy. Based on clinical, scientific and ethical frameworks produced by the national immunisation advisory committee, and my Department, following the vaccination of those most at risk, future groups will be vaccinated by age in cohorts of ten years. The move to an aged-based model better supports the programme objectives by protecting those at higher risk of severe disease first, which benefits everyone most; facilitating, planning and execution of the programme throughout the country; and improving transparency and fairness.

People with diabetes are included in three different groups in the vaccine allocation strategy: group 4, which comprises of people aged 16 to 69 with a medical condition that puts them at very high risk of severe disease and death, including those with diabetes who have a HbA1c level of greater than or equal to 58 mmol/mol; group 5, which comprises people aged 65 to 69 whose underlying condition puts them at high risk of severe disease and death, including all other diabetes, types 1 and 2; and group 7, which comprises people aged 16 to 64 who have an underlying condition that puts them at high risk severe disease and death, including all other diabetes, types 1 and 2.

It is important to note that vaccination of group 4 began in March and vaccination registration for group 5 began on 15 April. In addition, vaccine registration for those aged 60 to 64 commenced on 23 April. The national immunisation advisory council, NIAC, continues to monitor on a rolling basis data around Covid-19 and emerging data on the effectiveness of vaccines.

The Senator raised one or two issues not addressed in my statement. I will try to get him answers on them as well.

I thank the Minister of State. I have a couple of asks which I would like the Minister of State to come back to me on in his written response. The first ask is the development of a virtual consultation service. We have seen from the Covid-19 crisis that virtual and online services make sense. Prior to Covid-19 it was more difficult to make that happen, but it makes sense now and we should look at doing that.

The second ask is that the flash glucose monitoring devices be added to the long-term illness scheme. It is really important we do that. It is €1,000 per annum cheaper, the health arguments are clear and the financial arguments are clear. For those basic reasons, we should consider doing this sooner rather than later.

On the flash glucose monitoring devices, I will raise the matter within the Department, where I am sure it will be considered. The Senator will know that vaccination is recognised as one of most the cost-effective and successful public interventions. The WHO estimates that 2.3 million deaths per annum are prevented by vaccination and a further 1.5 million could be avoided if global coverage of vaccinations improved.

The Covid-19 pandemic has served to underscore the importance of the vaccination programme for the protection of public health on a global scale. It is important to emphasise that vaccination is only one part of our response to the prevention of Covid-19 infection. People who are vaccinated need to continue with all public health measures that have been proven to reduce the risk of infection, namely, limiting social contacts, physical distancing, wearing a mask, hand hygiene, cough etiquette and avoiding non-essential travel until a sufficiently large proportion of the population is immune.

Healthcare Infrastructure Provision

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan. I am delighted to see somebody from the west here as this topic relates to hospital services in the west, in particular the Galway region. The Minister of State will be aware that Galway University Hospitals comprises University Hospital Galway, UHG, and Merlin Park Hospital, which provide a range of emergency elective services for the people of Galway and the western region. UHG is a model 4 hospital.

I am sure the Minister of State was invited to participate in the presentations from the Saolta University Health Care Group regarding ambitious plans for the future of healthcare in Galway and the west. The group commissioned an options appraisal, published in 2019, which gave a range of indicative costs for a new hospital in Merlin Park, the refurbishment of University Hospital Galway, the creation of acute services in Merlin Park and elective services in UGH or vice versa. These costs ranged from €2.9 billion and €3.4 billion, which the Minister of State will agree is a considerable amount of money.

Saolta is right to have a vision for the future of healthcare. I acknowledge and commend the group in that regard. The options appraisal acknowledged that an emergency department should be built on the existing site at UGH and that consideration would be given to a range of services and the possibility of an elective hospital in the Merlin Park unit. We were awaiting plans. There were frustrating delays with regard to planning applications for an emergency department and a lot of talk and discussion about what would or would not be included as part of the facilities in Merlin Park.

Lo and behold, the Department of Health, through the Sláintecare team, made a presentation to the South/South West Hospital Group that referred to the plans for Galway, Cork and Dublin, and there was a lot of similarity and information that was relevant to all three sites. This presentation showed that the facilities will provide high value, low complexity procedures on a day and outpatient basis, together with a range of ambulatory diagnostic services. The chosen model for the Merlin Park facility, according to the presentation by the Sláintecare team, was for selective day surgery plus a minor see and treat service, which was one place above a minor procedures unit and three places below a full elective hospital. There was no mention of any inpatient beds and, in fact, there was no mention of anything except day facilities, six days a week, 50 weeks of the year.

There is absolute confusion in Galway at the moment in terms of what Saolta, the Department of Health, the Sláintecare team and, dare I say, the Government have in mind in regard to the competing demands of Merlin Park and UHG. The planning application for an emergency department has still not been lodged despite the then Minister, Deputy Harris, being told in 2018 that it would be lodged before Christmas of that year. We have talk but no concrete plans in respect of Merlin Park. We are at sixes and sevens and are falling between two stools. We have a grand vision and we have immediate needs in regard to an emergency department and extra elective beds. Thank God we delivered a 75-bed unit in new, modern facilities in UHG, which the then Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, opened. Thank God we got that delivery at UHG. Perhaps the Minister of State will be able to shed some light on what the Department of Health has in mind for healthcare in Galway.

I thank Senator Kyne for raising this important issue. I attended those presentations of the Saolta Group, which were quite interesting. As the Senator is aware, the national development plan states:

New dedicated ambulatory elective only hospital facilities will be introduced in Dublin Galway and Cork. These facilities will provide high volume, low complexity procedures on a day and outpatient basis, together with a range of ambulatory diagnostic services. The high volume of demand for such services in these major urban centres is sufficient to justify the construction of dedicated ambulatory centres.

I note that the introduction of these dedicated elective sites is also in line with the recommendations of the 2018 health service capacity review. These high-volume, low-complexity facilities will play a crucial role in developing the elective hospital capacity with a ten-year horizon of need, looking to current and future population demographics, which facilitates the separation of scheduled and unscheduled care and provides quicker, higher quality, safer care for selected elective patients. The new elective hospitals will also create capacity for acute hospital sites and reduce or eliminate outlier boarding - effectively trolleys - assist in reducing cancellations and acute hospital footfall, and drive down waiting lists, both outpatient and inpatient or day case.

An elective hospitals oversight group, chaired by Professor Frank Keane, is following the process outlined in the public spending code in bringing forward this project for the Government's consideration. As required under the code, a strategic assessment report has been completed. This sets out the rationale for investment, the alignment of the programme with strategic requirements of Government, some initial options and potential costs and the governance of the programme. Work is ongoing on a draft preliminary business case, which will recommend a single site option in each of Galway, Cork and Dublin. A site identification exercise to identify possible suitable sites in the three locations will begin in the near future. In accordance with the public spending code, sites short-listed following this exercise will be appraised on a qualitative and quantitative basis, with a view to recommending a single preferred option in each location. Once completed, the draft preliminary business case will go to Government for consideration and decision.

Department of Health officials have engaged in consultations with the management of the hospital groups around the country, including, in recent days, the Saolta University Health Care Group. The Minister is conscious that the elective hospitals programme is only part of the solution for deficiencies in existing healthcare facilities highlighted by Covid-19, including issues such as privacy, single bedrooms, space, light, air ventilation and ICUs. The review of the national development plan under way may provide an opportunity to address some of these infrastructural and other issues. In the meantime, the Minister has committed to exploring synergies between the electives programmes and plans for the development of other services drawn up by the hospital groups in Galway and elsewhere. Under the current site identification exercise, for example, it is a requirement that sites must be sufficiently large so as to be capable of expansion and have the potential, in a later phase, to accommodate possible other services on-site.

The Minister looks forward to continued discussions with the Senator and keeping the Seanad informed of developments on the programme.

That would be a first if we were kept informed as we are not being kept informed. In fact, the information that we got came through a colleague in Cork. There seems to be some surprise that I was given access to this information and that I am now raising these concerns, which I have raised locally as well.

The Minister of State referred to a draft preliminary business case, site specificity and choosing the site. That is going backwards because it seemed to have been acknowledged that the site would be at Merlin Park if there were to be an elective hospital built or perhaps we are talking about the Galway Airport site but who knows. We seem to be going backwards if that is the case.

We need to keep the pressure on. Galway University Hospitals are for the west. They cover Sligo, Leitrim and Donegal as well. The west and Galway deserve the best and as good as anywhere else in the country. I ask the Minister of State to keep the pressure on in his Department to provide some certainty on healthcare plans for Galway. We have heard rumours and speculation; we need certainty about the Department of Health's future healthcare plans.

I thank the Senator for his contribution. He must keep the pressure on and we hope that the Seanad will be kept informed. This issue is not part of my area in the Department but I am keen to ensure that we are kept informed.

As I noted in my opening statement, the newly elective-ambulatory facilities in Galway, Cork and Dublin are expressly designed to deal with the high volume and low complexity procedures on the basis of day patients and outpatients. The site identification, validation and selection process that will begin in the near future will be detailed and thorough, as will the appraisal of the sites identified under the process.

When the key criteria for capacity, expansion and development for additional facilities, and I take on board what the Senator said about various sites, and once a preferred option in each location has been identified, the draft preliminary business case can be concluded. I hope that it can be submitted to the Government before the summer. In this regard, the Sláintecare Programme Implementation Office will continue to engage with the local hospital groups.

Stardust Fire

I mean no disrespect to the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, but I am deeply disappointed that no Minister from the Department of Justice is here today, given the seriousness of the matter that I am raising.

Last week, Professor Phil Scraton released a damning report of the inquest system. He referred to how the original inquest into the 48 deaths in the Stardust fire was an abject failure. One does not need to tell the families of the victims that their treatment at the hands of the State has been one of systemic abuse from the manner in which the original inquest was rushed to the way there was a finding of probable arson, the compensation scheme where survivors were told to pull their clothes up and show their injuries, and the threats that they came under of losing their homes if they tried to pursue the owners of the nightclub in the courts.

Despite all of this, the families never gave up in their quest for justice. In November 2018, 48,000 signed postcards were handed in to the Office of the Attorney General - 1,000 cards for each young person who lost his or her life that night. This was a bid to show that the public is 100% behind the families on this issue. Ten months later, the Attorney General granted a fresh inquest. It seemed that, finally, justice would be forthcoming.

Two Ministers of Justice have since gone on the record saying that funding would be provided to ensure the inquests would be carried out appropriately and in a way that is compliant with human rights. The Taoiseach stood in the Dáil on budget day and announced €8 million in funding for the inquest. It gives me no pleasure, therefore, to stand here today and tell the Minister of state that the families are in despair. I encourage him to go outside and talk to them. They are outside Leinster House today. They have waited 40 years for justice and now they are being asked for PPS numbers, bank statements and payslips. They are being asked what kind of cars they drive. I know this is not the responsibility of the Minister of State's Department, but does he honestly think this is an appropriate way to treat these families after they have waited 40 years?

The Department was repeatedly warned that the legal aid route was the wrong route to go down in respect of an inquest of this significance. A special purpose vehicle was required to ensure that no family would be denied access to justice and that the inquest would be human rights compliant. All the Government had to do was look to the inquests undertaken in respect of Hillsborough and Ballymurphy and follow the mechanisms used in these cases in respect of the Stardust inquest. Instead, in its wisdom, the Department insisted on ploughing ahead down the legal aid route and now we are in this situation with families being means tested, which is causing them great hurt and which runs the risk of causing division among the families.

The Civil Legal Aid Act 1995 allows for a financial waiver but there has never been a statutory instrument to give effect to this provision. Will the Minister of State give a commitment as to when the families can expect this issue to be resolved? Emergency statutory instruments were possible when it came to mandatory hotel quarantine but it seems that the families of the Stardust victims are always at the back of the queue in their dealings with the State. All we hear is that the Attorney General is looking at the issue. That is not good enough. We need a timeframe. Can the Minister of State provide that today? Can I go out to those families and tell them when they can expect a statutory instrument or when they can expect this issue to be resolved? Will it be days, weeks or months? How much longer will they have to wait?

I thank the Senator and apologise for the confusion. We had the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, down to speak. I apologise again and thank the Senator for her commitment with regard to this very sensitive issue.

I convey the apologies of my colleague, the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, who regrets that she cannot be here to deal with this matter due to another commitment. I also apologise on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne. On behalf of the Minister and the Government, I thank the Senator for raising this matter.

The Government is committed to ensuring that the Stardust inquest proceeds as soon as it is safe to do so, having regard to the public health guidelines. Extensive work has already been undertaken to this end. Government funding of up to €8 million has been allocated for the new inquest, which will cover a number of areas including legal aid for families. A bespoke courtroom has been built at the Royal Dublin Society, RDS, for the purposes of the inquest and information technology facilities have been developed to ensure that family members will also be able to follow the events remotely when not in the courtroom. A number of pre-inquest hearings have been held remotely and the courtroom is ready for the Stardust inquest, as soon as it is safe to begin.

The last remaining issue relates to legal aid to the families. The Courts and Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2013, made a set of amendments to the Coroners Act 1962 and the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995 that enabled legal aid at inquests in certain circumstances. Section 60 of the Coroners Act 1962, as amended, provides for a procedure whereby a family member of a deceased person may apply to the coroner for a request to be submitted to the board in respect of the granting of legal aid. Applications for legal aid have been certified by Dr. Cullinane.

These applications are with the Legal Aid Board.

Officials of the Department reviewed alternative arrangements for funding legal professionals which were not considered to be the best options in terms of meeting the needs of the families compared with the facility provided by the Legal Aid Board. Ordinary applicants through the legal aid system pay an initial fee and support is provided on the basis of the means test. This is how the legal aid scheme works for all individuals who seek its help. It is a widely respected system. The Legal Aid Board notified my Department that some of the families of Stardust victims would not qualify for legal aid as they exceed income limits currently in force for the Legal Aid Board as required by the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995. The Department of Justice is actively investigating the position and engaging with the Office of the Attorney General to explore possible mechanisms to provide for legal aid for the very small number of families who do not meet the financial eligibility requirements under the Act.

As the intention is to provide the maximum support possible to the families, it is necessary to consider how to make this possible, which will require a new arrangement to be put in place, such as new regulations. This is being and has been actively worked on by officials in various Departments since the issue was identified to ensure an appropriate solution is found. The Department has gone further than the legislation by committing to making payments to legal professionals secured by the families one month in arrears, rather than after the tribunal, to minimise any concerns the professionals may have. The families and their legal professionals will have a response on this issue shortly and the Stardust inquest should commence a few weeks thereafter.

I thank the Minister of State but his reply still leaves two matters unresolved. First, there is still no clarity on the timeframe. What does "shortly" mean in this context? Is it days, weeks or months? Several relatives of the Stardust victims have been lost in the past year. They have been waiting 40 years. What does "shortly" mean in this context?

Second, his reply did not address the issue of families of victims of the Stardust fire being asked for their financial details. I do not think it is appropriate, in light of the significance of the inquest and the 40 years they have had to wait, that they are now being asked for all of these details when they were promised that, finally, this inquest would have no barriers to them accessing justice and that it would cater for all of the families, not just some of them. That is the message the families have asked me to deliver here today. All of the families need to be treated equally and they should not be means tested.

I again thank the Senator for raising this matter. I assure her the Government, the Minister, Deputy McEntee, and I are committed to ensuring the Stardust inquest will proceed as soon as it is safe to do so, having regard to public health guidelines. As I outlined, the Department of Justice is actively investigating the position and is engaging with the Office of the Attorney General to explore possible mechanisms to provide for legal aid for the very small number of families who do not meet the financial eligibility requirements under the Act. This is being and has been actively worked on by officials in various Departments since the issue was identified to ensure an appropriate solution is found. The families and their legal representatives will have a response shortly. I hope we can determine what "shortly" means. I will try to get that information from the Department.

The Senator outlined that some of the families are being asked for their financial details, which is causing a lot of hurt. I will try to get an answer for the Senator on that issue.

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