Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Culture Policy

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, for his patience and him for coming to the House.

I thank the Minister of State for taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin. We are all looking forward to seeing our museums and galleries opening next week, but I am hoping that it will not be too long before we see our other centres of culture, such as music, drama and entertainment venues, throughout the country opening as well. The pandemic has made us realise, far more than we ever did before, how important music, the arts, drama and entertainment are to our lives. During this period, there have been many wonderful online initiatives by the artistic and musical communities. The Minister of State might agree, however, that nothing beats a live performance. Unfortunately, we have not seen too many of those.

There were periods last summer where we were lucky enough to see live performances. I was lucky to see the first outdoor live play by the Coolgreany drama group last summer. St. Michael's Theatre in New Ross also moved many of its performances outdoors. During the period of the most intense recent lockdown when the Garda performed "Jerusalema", which brought a smile to all our faces, communities all around the country also did their own versions. This shows the importance of live performance. Last summer we also saw controlled indoor performances. I am involved with the Gorey Little Theatre. It operated in a controlled environment, with limited numbers coming in. It was very safe and patrons felt safe. This was replicated in other areas such as the Wexford Arts Centre and right around the country. There was no evidence, where is was safely operated, that this contributed in any way to the spread of Covid, and the arts community has been playing its part in the fight against it.

The Minister of State will know that the Minister launched pilots at the Abbey Theatre and the National Concert Hall in December. My understanding is that those pilots went well and we learned from them. Many theatres and live events were reopened in Israel following its vaccination programme. Again, the evidence is that this has been done successfully. People may be aware of a very successful large-scale outdoor event in Barcelona where up to 5,000 people attended a rock concert, but with the requirement that testing take place beforehand. The arts community is happy to look at engaging with this.

I am looking for some sort of vision from the Government to be set out for our theatres, music and arts venues so they are able to open safely. What kinds of measures will all these venues need to put in place when they open to ensure it can be done safely and with the confidence of those attending? Can the Minister of State give a general timeframe? Will we see larger outdoor events over the summer? We have heard talk that we will see some of this happening in sport; will we also see it in arts and music? It will probably be a while before we see big on-stage indoor performances, but what about small performances? Can we give some assurances to the likes of the New Ross Piano Festival, Dublin Theatre Festival, Wexford Festival Opera and Cork Jazz Festival about what they look like when we come to the autumn? It is important to set out that kind of vision.

Everybody realises that this will not be a very rapid reopening. The arts community has played its part in keeping us entertained and informed over this period. There is now an obligation on the Government to set out a very clear vision as to how we can reopen our theatres and arts venues.

I thank the Senator for the opportunity to discuss this matter. I share his optimism and hope that, eventually, the country will open up and we will go back to enjoying all these festivals and theatres over the summer. He is absolutely right that the pandemic has taught us a few lessons, one of which is that the simple things in life are free. We are looking forward to opening up.

The arts and culture recovery task force in its report, Life Worth Living, recommended that the treatment of cultural activities and venues under the various levels of the Resilience and Recovery 2020-2021: Plan for Living with Covid-19 be reviewed. The task force noted that many cultural centres, venues, galleries and cinemas offer large areas with ample circulation and controlled auditoria and spaces, as the Senator rightly said, capable of facilitating large numbers of people in accordance with public health guidelines.

On 13 December, the Department announced a series of performance test events comprising a performance of the Irish Chamber Orchestra at the National Concert Hall on Saturday, 19 December, and a production of Landmark Productions and Octopus Theatricals' innovative, Theatre for One, at the Abbey Theatre for a limited run from Friday, 18 December. These test events inform further assessments of the potential for a wider range of locations to accommodate live performance in 2021.

The test events were subject to the following requirements: each event was ticketed with assigned seating; only the named person assigned a ticket could attend; all attendees were asked to have their smartphone switched on and HSE Covid app installed for contact tracing purposes; the arrangements were supervised by an occupational health and safety professional who engaged with public health; and venues adhered to best practice on ventilation.

SLUA safety consultants reviewed the safety plans for each venue prior to Departmental approval. Covid-19 safety measures were in place and implemented by both venues and included separate supervised points of entry-exit for attendees and performers. Conditions of ticket issue were clearly communicated to attendees in advance of each event regarding face coverings, temperature taking, contact tracing information, social distancing and what to expect on arrival.

At the National Concert Hall, a special Christmas celebration with the Irish Chamber Orchestra took place on 19 December. The concert ran for 45 minutes without an interval. As part of their Covid-19 safety measures, Code Blue first aid responders completed temperature checks for all attendees on arrival before entering the auditorium.

The entrance foyer was supervised to prevent congregation and all attendees were escorted to the their seats. Mask wearing was obligatory for the duration of the concert and tickets were restricted to 100 attendees. The Abbey Theatre hosted "Theatre for One" for one adult.

Hopefully in the coming weeks and months we can get back to the enjoyment of all of those wonderful festivals around the country, some which will offer a different level of participation from others. All of the various agencies are working together to address this issue.

It is important when the Department of Health makes announcements around the reopening that the arts and culture are not forgotten. It is right and important when one talks about what is happening in sport that the sporting organisations have clarity. Unfortunately, when many of the national announcements are made, those in the artistic and music community do not seem to receive the same level of detail. In any future announcements there must be much more clarity around that.

As those pilots have operated safely, we are able to say to venues around the country that they can now open safely under those conditions. It is important that is outlined as quickly as possible. I can think of no greater vaccine bonus than to be able to give to those who have been given their vaccines to be told that they can go to a concert or to a play or to listen to a piece of music in a safe environment. We need to get that message out.

It is important also to remember that artists and musicians have helped us through this pandemic. Many of them have lost their employment and jobs. We must remember that this is about more than just employment for them; it is part of their own identity. As part of our recovery, we must support those venues, artists and musicians. In any future announcements, therefore, can it be made very clear what is to happen? We must set out a timeframe for the safe reopening of our theatres and venues as soon as possible.

As the Senator is aware, the Government announced last week that the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media will work with the Departments of Health and the Taoiseach to progress arrangements to hold a further limited number of pilot live events for sport and live entertainment, both indoor and outdoor. In the meantime, the Department will work with sporting and cultural bodies and will make practical preparations for these test events. The Senator is completely correct that the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, recently established a live entertainment working group in order to facilitate stakeholder consultation. This group will produce a high level set of guidance that all venue promoters can adopt for their specific purposes. It is hoped to begin hosting these events in July, depending on the situation at the time and subject to the roll-out of the vaccination programme. Effectively, all options for the safe holding of these events are currently being considered and I thank the Senator for his interest in this subject and for his advice.

Health Services Staff

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach Gníomhach. I am very grateful to the Minister of State for attending today.

To put this very simply, we need more psychologists in Ireland. Why, if we are in chronic need of more psychologists, do we put so many barriers in the way of getting them? It is not because we do not have the talent, commitment and ambition. I am aware the Minister of State is familiar with and cares about this information. Just to recap, staff in the child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, are overwhelmed, and one told me that is the worst they have ever experienced. The delivering specialist mental health services 2019 report states that the percentage of new development posts being filled went from 69% in 2017 to 17% in 2018, and 32% in 2019. We know of the waiting lists across community mental health teams, early intervention and school-age teams. I understand that is being changed, and is progressing to disability teams at the moment.

Despite these backlogs and the acute personal pain and social problems that persist, there are systemic barriers to getting qualified psychologists onto the front line to deal with them and to build what we require, which is a diverse workforce of psychologists. We are overseeing a deeply inequitable and unhealthy system in which only a very small number of psychologists eventually qualify, and many who do are in dire financial straits for pursuing their calling.

It is an incredibly competitive system and not many people make it onto the doctorates, and I say that as a female politician. Their commitment and resilience are something else. They undergo and pay for their undergraduate course, which is four years, and then a masters, which is two years, followed by work experience which could be another two years. They try to obtain an assistant psychologist post which, as we have seen recently, can be unfunded or voluntary. That work experience is required to secure a doctorate. Incidentally, assistant psychologists are not replacements for fully qualified psychologists. Then, if they are lucky, they might secure one of the coveted places on the island for their doctorate, where they could pay €15,000 per year to do it over three years and during which they work a minimum of 300 hours, and it could be 450 hours, unpaid throughout the duration of their studies. That is 11 years, mainly self-funded, even though the health service is in critical need of their care, commitment and expertise. However, if one gets a place on a clinical trainee doctorate, one gets 60% of one's fees paid and receives a student salary starting at €33,000 for one's work experience. However, if one takes the route of counselling in education one gets nothing when doing the doctorate, even though all three strands - clinical, counselling and educational - are eligible for the same posts when people are qualified.

I believe in equality of opportunity, as does the Minister of State. We need a fully functional health service that places the citizen at the centre of care. Where we see solutions before us in terms of educational and professional attainment, addressing our mental health crisis and helping people who need it most, we have an obligation to execute those solutions. A very small step that would cost the Exchequer only €1.5 million per year is to make access to funding for doctorates equitable. That is what I hope the Minister for State will commit to today. There are other things we can do to break down the barriers, but this is one small step. To break the backlogs we must break down the barriers.

I thank Senator Currie for giving me the opportunity to update the House on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, on this important matter and to acknowledge the enormous contribution made by psychologists in Irish hospitals, especially in these challenging times in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Department engages on an ongoing basis with the HSE with regard to improving the position of all healthcare workers and trainees, but it must be noted that it is the Psychological Society of Ireland, not the Department of Health, which currently sets the academic and professional requirements to attain the status of professionally qualified psychologist in clinical, counselling and educational psychology.

In February 2019, HSE community operations convened a project team, chaired by Dr. Cathal Morgan, to consider the preparation of a workforce plan for psychological services in the HSE, including an examination of the current framework for training psychologists for the health service and the type and skill mix required for the future. The project team was tasked with, inter alia, considering the preparation of a workforce plan for psychological services in the HSE, including an examination of the current framework for training psychologists for the health service and the type and skill mix required for the future. The work of the project team has been informed by a thorough stakeholder consultation process but, unfortunately, due to the recent public health emergency the work of the project team was paused in March 2020 and reconvened in early August 2020. It is expected that the report of the project team will be finalised in the coming weeks for presentation to HSE community operations for consideration.

The HSE has indicated that the report will set out the significance of establishing governance and oversight structures; developing a formal and robust system to manage and co-ordinate placements for staff that wish to complete additional placements, either as part of professional development and-or to meet the identified eligibility criteria for employment in the HSE; building communications and engagement processes with cross-sectoral stakeholders; and a review of the current funding model to ensure the appropriate supply of the future psychologist workforce. The Senator will be happy to note that a review of the current funding model to ensure the appropriate supply of the future psychologist workforce is envisaged by the project team.

Underlining the Government's commitment to mental health, budget 2021 saw an increase of €50 million, bringing the total budget to over €1.1 billion, of which €23 million is for implementation of many of the short-term recommendations of Sharing the Vision. This will fund 153 new staff in community mental health services, including 29 posts for child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, and telehealth hubs, bereavement counselling, employment supports, crisis resolution teams and development of the national clinical programmes. Some €15 million in once-off funding will address the additional challenges posed by Covid-19.

In 2018, 114 new assistant psychologists and 20 psychologists were recruited to HSE primary care and this has helped relieve pressures and inappropriate referrals to the specialist CAMHS service. There is currently significant health workforce recruitment under way in the HSE. At the end of March 2021, health service employment levels stood at 128,283 whole-time equivalents.

While it is a matter for the HSE at operational level to determine the level of recruitment required across staff categories, given the level of workforce expansion required it is likely there will be additional posts available for professionally trained psychologists.

I thank the Minister for that response. He correctly mentioned the Psychological Society of Ireland, a fantastic organisation in setting out good standards and best practice. I have worked with it regarding a charity called Social Anxiety Ireland. If it is setting out the academic and professional requirements, it will be done with best practice and standards at its core. I am glad to hear that the project team has been reconvened and that a review of the current funding model to ensure the appropriate supply of future psychologist workforce is envisaged by the project team. I emphasise that this is a small measure that will go a long way.

In the North, they have increased the number of places in training and we need to look to that. Overall, we have to ensure there is a pipeline of qualified, trained, exceptional psychologists, which I know we have, making it through to the front line to help us.

I thank the Senator for the information, especially relating to the North. It is an interesting recommendation. Significant health workforce recruitment is under way in the HSE and more is planned. This is a challenging time for the health sector but there are opportunities for reform and new ways of working. The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, is looking forward to receiving the report of the project team convened to consider preparation of a workforce plan for psychological services in the HSE. The Minister of State and I consider this an encouraging development in healthcare.

Our Department is committed to supporting all healthcare workers having training opportunities and appropriate supervision while training. A lot is happening and I hope we will be in a better space in a few weeks or months time.

Abortion Services

It is good to see the Minister of State and I thank him for coming in. He will be aware we are coming up on the third anniversary of the historic vote to repeal the eighth amendment to the Constitution.

I was proud to campaign alongside my party for repeal. Unfortunately, I am old enough to remember the first referendum in 1983. I campaigned against that referendum.

After the 2018 referendum, the Minister of State will be aware that the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, promised legislation to establish safe access zones outside hospitals. He will also be aware of the commitment given in the programme for Government to establish exclusion zones around medical facilities. However, three years on from the original promise, there is still no sign of that legislation. I wish to ask about the status of and plans for advancing the safe access zones Bill.

The Minister of State will be aware that, every week, there are gatherings outside maternity hospitals by anti-choice protestors. The previous Government promised safe access zone legislation to ensure that these protests would not take place outside those hospitals. There are people monitoring, marching, praying and watching women going in and out of maternity hospitals. Every day over Lent, there were protestors outside the maternity hospital in my home city of Limerick.

I hope the Minister of State will agree with me that women have fundamental rights to privacy and dignity, especially so when they are visiting a hospital. I want him to think about the impact of these protestors on women as they access healthcare across the State. I ask him to listen to the following quotes from women who have encountered these protestors. I am grateful to my colleagues in Together for Safety for supplying them. The first quote is:

She asked me if I had an appointment across the road. I presumed she was making small talk as she also had one so I said yes I did. She told me she and her friends were praying that no babies were murdered in the hospital that day.

A second quote is:

They were sprinkling holy water and saying prayers outside our hospital setting while there is women having miscarriages, or having stillbirths each week or carrying their babies out in white coffins.

A third quote is:

We were attending the hospital because our baby had decreased foetal movements in the third trimester. Thankfully everything was fine, but the experience was pretty terrifying none the less. We are a same sex couple and this made me feel even more self conscious. My wife was heavily pregnant and in pain, I was holding her hand as we approached the hospital, and the all male group of protesters were really intimidating.

These protests, which are happening outside many hospitals throughout the State, are attempting to intimidate and cause upset. They are invading women and pregnant people's privacy and bodily autonomy at a profoundly vulnerable and sensitive time. People should not have to access healthcare like this.

Legislation is promised. Can the Minister of State give me a timeline as to when it will be delivered? I appreciate that the working out of this legislation is complex and that there are competing constitutional rights, but the Department has had three years to do that work, so it should be ready to produce the legislation by now. There are examples of best practice legislation from, for example, a number of states in Australia and a number of provinces in Canada. There is no end of good examples. An excellent research paper has been produced on this topic.

In a previous answer to my colleague, Deputy Cullinane, last year, the Minister assured him that women and healthcare staff "should be assured that there is existing legislation in place to protect them and to protect patients." That statement was not correct. The protesters to whom I am referring are in violation of lockdown rules, but according to the Garda, not of public order rules. We need to see and pass the legislation. I look forward to a response.

I assure the Senator that ensuring access to termination of pregnancy services remains an ongoing priority for the Minister and the Department of Health. The Senator outlined the proposal to draft the legislation to provide for safe access to termination of pregnancy services. It arose from concerns about demonstrations against abortion that took place during and after the campaign for the referendum on the eighth amendment to the Constitution in 2018. At that time, it was feared that protests against abortion, targeting service providers and inhibiting access, would occur once services began to operate. For this reason, it was suggested that safe access to services would be provided for in the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018.

Since services commenced in January 2019, however, there has been a limited number of reports of protests or other actions relating to termination of pregnancy.

This is an extremely positive development, suggesting that termination of pregnancy services have bedded in relatively smoothly to date and are becoming a normal part of the healthcare system in line with Government policy. It is likely that the settings in which services are being offered - general practice and hospitals - have contributed to ensuring safe access to services as attending general services means patient privacy is protected.

In cases where protests have taken place outside healthcare services, I assure the Senator that there is public order legislation in place to protect people accessing services, service providers and local residents. Ireland has a considerable body of relevant public order legislation in force, including the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994, the Criminal Justice Act 2006 and the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997. These statutes balance Ireland's constitutional and European obligations to protect people's rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of expression and freedom to express their convictions and opinions, with the prevention of disorder or crime, the protection of health and the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

The Department of Health has provided information on existing public order legislation to the HSE. It has also liaised with An Garda Síochána on safe access to termination of pregnancy services and the Garda National Protective Services Bureau has issued a notice to all Garda stations raising awareness about the issue. The notice directed that any protests be monitored and breaches of existing law dealt with. The Department has informed the HSE that An Garda Síochána advised that service providers should contact their local superintendent to initiate a local solution, tailored to the circumstances and needs of each individual case. This will also establish contacts for the service provider to call upon should the need arise. An Garda Síochána also advised that any protests or actions giving rise to a concern should be brought to its notice.

It is important that women accessing this service can do so with certainty of the quality and safety of the care they will receive. In that regard, the Department continues to work with the HSE to ensure that all women in Ireland can access this service quickly and easily, without bias or judgment and that we continue to provide a compassionate and dignified termination of pregnancy service.

I am concerned by the Minister of State's response. It seems the Government is walking away from its commitment in the programme for Government to introduce safe access zone legislation. This will be truly disturbing to an awful lot of people in this country given the struggles for many years to overturn that appalling constitutional Act. The Minister of State does not appear to be aware that there are ongoing protests outside maternity hospitals. The response he has given suggests the Government does not believe there is a problem here. The Government committed in the programme for Government to legislate for this issue. The Minister of State's response gives no such commitment. It basically says that things are fine and there is existing legislation in place, if needed. The existing legislation is not working or applicable.

Is the Government walking away from this commitment? If so, it is a disgrace and it will not be forgiven.

Implementing the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018 and ensuring safe access to services under the Act remains a priority for the Department of Health. It is important that we remain aware that the majority of people in this country voted in 2018 to change our laws to allow greater access to termination of pregnancy services for those who need them. I take on board what the Senator said, but all indications are that these service are operating and available and are being delivered in hospitals and in community settings.

The HSE has advised that feedback from a wide variety of stakeholders, including the Irish College of General Practitioners is that the service has bedded down well. The Minister, Deputy Donnelly, has asked me to assure the Senator and the House that the Department is continuing to closely monitor service provision. There is regular ongoing engagement between the Department and the HSE to facilitate the smooth running of termination of pregnancy services and to resolve any issues that may arise.

Renewable Energy Generation

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to take this Commencement matter. I raise it because the idea and commitments on this issue in the programme for Government are excellent. If we can imagine it in layman's terms, it is the concept of people being able to put solar panels on their homes and businesses and farmers being able to diversify into this area by using some of their land for solar power. They would then be able to take the energy generated and sell it back to the national grid. A middle of the road type of person who is environmentally conscious but might be not into climate action or energy as much as other people could look at this and see how he or she could play a part and make some money on the side at the same time. People can do this by applying for a grant, putting a solar panel on their roof and selling the energy back into the grid. It is a great idea and it is good that we will do this.

What are the timelines for the Government introducing this proposal? The problem with the renewable electricity support scheme, RESS, 1 projects being pushed by this is that they are not being delivered at the rate needed if we are to achieve some of our targets. We have not seen any proper work programmes from EirGrid or ESB Networks. Every delay of a day is a day longer. I am hoping to get the Government's view on where its timelines are, what it wants to do about this and how quickly we can deliver these projects. When can we get this set up in such a way that we get the ball moving quickly? I believe we are getting bogged down in the technicalities.

I said earlier that the clock is ticking on this, which means a loss of revenue. It is harming the financial model and the underpinning of the RESS 1 projects. The delivery of the projects is being slightly delayed by this inflexible and rigid process. What pressure is the Government putting on EirGrid and ESB Networks to deliver this network in the first instance in order that people can sell electricity back into the grid?

When I looked at some of the grid integration barriers in a European context, I wondered whether we face the same problems here. For example, solar PV project developers report a general issue with the availability of grid capacity across the Continent. That is something we need to consider here. One of the key reasons for that problem is the insufficient level of investment in grids. What level of investment will the Government introduce? Where investment happens, it is not always targeted at the most optimised technologies. The Government needs to be concerned about that as well.

Another issue is the limited development of the flexibility of resources. Where we can address the need for grid reinforcement and optimise investment levels, solar technology such as batteries and girders has the potential to provide new energy to grid - flexible feed-in reactive power. These services can do a lot to support grid stability in the first instance. I am getting into the technical side. These are a couple of points I looked up in respect of the European Continent.

What I am seeking today is the Government's overall plan on this project, its timelines and what it hopes to achieve. This is an excellent project and I am right behind it, as is everyone else, but I would appreciate some clarification from the Minister of State.

It is always a pleasure and an honour to be here in the Seanad. I thank the Senator for raising this important issue, which I am very happy to address on behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, who cannot be here.

Under the programme for Government and the Climate Action Plan 2019, Ireland has adopted a target of at least 70% renewable share in electricity production by 2030, including up to 1.5 GW of solar.

This will contribute to meeting the Government target of reducing Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions by 51% by 2030 and meeting the long-term target of climate neutrality by 2050. The higher level of ambition set in the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill will be reflected through a new set of policies and measures in the 2021 climate action plan. A public consultation is currently under way and we are looking for expert evidence from scientists, and input from householders, citizens and communities to help chart that journey to carbon neutrality.

The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications is supporting the rapid deployment of renewable energy projects and the efficient connection of onshore wind, solar and offshore projects through regular competitive auctions under the renewable electricity support scheme, RESS, as well as through enhanced regulatory rules for connecting projects to the grid and modernisation of our offshore planning system. Solar energy projects were a key part of the success of the first RESS auction held last year, accounting for more than 60% of the successful capacity. The programme for Government commits to building on this success by ensuring that greater shares of our electricity needs are met through solar power through the development of a solar energy strategy for rooftop and ground-based photovoltaics. Detailed work is under way in the Department on the planning and design of the second RESS onshore auction and it is anticipated that a large volume of solar projects will be eligible to compete in it. A timetable will be published in the coming months, which will set out the key milestones in the competition, including consultation on the terms and conditions, the qualification process and the auction bidding window. Those are major projects that will come through auction.

Regarding solar community energy projects, two significant challenges to the development of community energy in Ireland have traditionally been the route to market and access to grid. I am pleased to reflect now on the substantive progress on both issues. A new route to market has been provided for communities within the RESS, in which the first auction included a dedicated community projects category. Seven projects were selected for support. It is the Minister, Deputy Ryan's, intention that communities all over the country should be able to generate electricity and reap the benefits in their own localities from the sale of that electricity. He aims to ensure the delivery of 100 community electricity generation projects by 2030. To ensure an adequate pipeline of such projects, the Minister has allocated an additional €3 million in capital funding this year for the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, to stimulate locally-owned community energy projects. This funding will enable the SEAI to deploy a range of capacity-building supports, including information dissemination, trusted intermediary and adviser services and financial supports such as enabling grants. The initial elements of this service are up and running, such as a dedicated phone line and an appointed trusted intermediary.

Grid connection policy, administered by the independent energy regulator, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, has recently opened up a simplified process for communities seeking connection to the national grid for community projects. This is known as the enduring connection policy. It provides for a separate strand within the framework process, facilitating 15 community projects a year. Both the grid process and the RESS route to market will facilitate more community solar projects in the coming years.

The programme for Government commits to expanding and incentivising microgeneration, including roof-top solar energy to help citizens generate their own renewable electricity and to sell it back to the grid in 2021. A microgeneration working group, chaired by the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, is developing an enabling framework for microgeneration that tackles existing barriers and establishes suitable supports within relevant market segments. The proposed support mechanism was outlined in a public consultation, which closed for submissions on 18 February, and the submissions received are being reviewed. While the primary aim of a microgeneration scheme is to enable a household to meet its own electricity needs, it is envisaged that a suitable payment for excess electricity generated on-site and exported to the grid will be available to all microgenerators in the second half of 2021, subject to regulatory arrangements, in line with Articles 21 and 22 of the recast renewable energy directive.

The CRU published an updated roadmap for the clean energy package's electricity and renewables directives in February, which provides for a public consultation on the regulatory framework for consumer development later this year. The document is available on the commission's website. The commission is also reviewing the connection policy for microgeneration in the 12 kW to 50 kW range under the existing provisions of its enduring connection policy to assess how to facilitate greater numbers and ease of connections.

That is an excellent, detailed response, which I was hoping the Minister of State would bring to the House. I thank him. It is good to see that the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage is going to review the existing planning exemptions for rooftop solar panels and that it will be brought before the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage in the next couple of months. That is exactly what I hoped to hear because that is what I am talking about.

I want to know how can Joe Soap or the average person be able to do that. It is important that we review the planning side and that the Department is able to look at it.

Finally, it is great to see that the timeline will be published in the next couple of months about the consultation period and the terms and conditions. It is really great to see that the Department has already got the RESS 2 side working towards it too. I thank the Minister of State for the response and it is exactly what I hoped for.

I thank the Senator. Yes, and we need all three elements. We need large-scale renewables connected to the grid. We need community renewables. We need people to have a sense of ownership and a sense that their community owns the local generation capacity. We also need a situation where people, when they are not at home, can sell their electricity back to the grid when they feel that it makes more sense.

I want to state that the Government is committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050 and an annual reduction of 7% in overall greenhouse gas emissions to 2030, including through maximising the amount of renewable energy on the grid. Future advances in system flexibility, technology, diversity, including solar, onshore and offshore wind, hydro and ocean, microgeneration and storage technologies, as well as regional and international connection, will enable very high levels of renewable electricity on our grid. This is a challenge and at the same time an opportunity for Government agencies, industry and stakeholders to work together to deliver a net zero economy and meet the ambitions set out in the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill. The forthcoming climate action Bill later this year will further step up our ambitions with the necessary actions to ensure that the cross-Government effort that is required is being implemented and monitored effectively.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply and I am sorry for having to cut him short earlier.

Schools Building Projects

I welcome the Minister to the House and thank her for her commitment to the Seanad. It is appreciated.

It is good to see Senator Casey in the Chair today. I thank the Minister for Education for coming in to the Seanad today and it is very much appreciated.

I wish to refer to the Galway Educate Together Secondary School and Cuan na Gaillimhe Community National School, which is a Steiner school. I have spoken to the Minister about them before and I mentioned one of them on the floor of the Seanad during the Order of Business. It took many years of activism and parents really pushing for the Galway Educate Together Secondary School to get the go-ahead in Galway. There are a number of Educate Together national schools in Galway and now we have the first Educate Together secondary school for the whole county so it covers a couple of catchment areas. At the moment the secondary school has 87 pupils between first and second year. Next year, there will be a new intake but that has been capped at 48 students purely on the basis that there is not enough space. This should be a school that can take up to 1,000 pupils but it has such a small footprint and prefabs are stacked on top of each other. I know the school staff and they are wonderful. I am very proud that we have this school in Galway. I am very proud of the work of the teachers and they have been really patient. I know that the Department has helped them in lots of other ways because of the space problem. The need is urgent now because come September 2022, the school will be unable to take anyone else. We all know and understand that there is a period between planning and things progressing to the next stage. However, a signal needs to be sent to the teachers because they have waited patiently for so long and I would hate that we could not give them some good news.

I was involved in the setting up of Cuan na Gaillimhe, in putting in the application a number of years ago, and we got the go-ahead in 2016 along with an Educate Together school. It started for two years in a building with an insurance company on the first floor. The school has now moved into prefabs located at the back of the Knocknacarra Educate Together school and Cuan na Gaillimhe has been there since 2018, waiting to hear.

The Minister will know that the patronage was transferred from Lifeways Irelands to Galway and Roscommon Education and Training Board, GRETB, in 2019. Regardless of this, those children are children wherever they are. They and their parents need some certainty that they will be able to move on. I understand that it may be as long as 48 months before the school will be able to move and that there is still no concrete indication as to whether space will be available on the grounds of another school, one of the sites being considered. However, the school will have an enrolment of 94 by September, comprising new students and those already there, and there is no space to expand further. The school has applied for a grant for emergency works. I understand this was turned down but that it is being appealed. It is important to realise that, even if this grant was given, the works would not be completed by September so we are talking about preparations for the following year. In addition, there is no space for students with special needs. Neither school has an autism spectrum disorder, ASD, unit. I ask the Minister to expedite this matter and to see what she is able to do.

I thank the Senator. I know these two cases are of particular interest to her. I acknowledge that she has raised these issues consistently. To give the background as to where we are within the Department, following a demographic exercise carried out by the Department into the future need for primary and post-primary schools across the county for the period from 2019 to 2022, the requirement for a new 1000-pupil post-primary school to be established in 2019 to serve the east side of Galway city and Oranmore school planning areas as a regional solution was announced by Government, as the Senator has alluded to. In October 2018, the patronage of the new post-primary school was awarded to Educate Together. The Department has identified the eastern environs of Galway city and Oranmore as the location for the school to best serve the demographic demands of these school planning areas.

The Educate Together secondary school opened in September 2019, as the Senator outlined, in interim accommodation at Grianach House, Merlin Park, Galway city, pending delivery of its permanent accommodation. Departmental officials are working closely with officials of Galway County Council and Galway City Council under the memorandum of understanding regarding the identification and acquisition of a suitable permanent location for the school. The potential requirement for the permanent site to accommodate a temporary school while construction of the permanent building is ongoing is also being taken into consideration. A number of site options have been identified and are under active consideration. These include a zoned site. Discussions with relevant stakeholders with regard to the provision of access and services to this particular site are ongoing. Due to commercial sensitivities, it is not possible to provide further information on these options at this point. However, as soon as it is possible to do so, I will make that information available.

With regard to Cuan na Gaillimhe Community National School, the requirement for a new site for the provision of an eight-classroom primary school, extendable to 16 classrooms, with a special educational needs space for the school was established in September 2015 when it opened in temporary accommodation on a site shared with Knocknacarra Educate Together National School, which is accommodated in a permanent structure. Cuan na Gaillimhe is a multi-denominational co-educational school located in the Galway school planning area. The school opened in September 2015 under the patronage of Lifeways Ireland with an enrolment of ten pupils, which has since increased to 66. In August 2019, the patronage changed to GRETB.

A project for a new school building for Cuan na Gaillimhe is on the Department's six-year capital programme. In line with the policy on the use of State assets, the Department is seeking to maximise the use of sites in the Minister's ownership and other available properties in the ownership of State bodies. The Department also consults with local authorities, in line with the memorandum of understanding for the acquisition of school sites, to assist the Department to identify suitable sites and to seek the views of the local authority with regard to any potential site options. As the school is a community national school, of which the ETB is the patron, the site acquisition has been devolved to the ETB, which is currently working closely with the council. Discussions between the ETB and the council in respect of the acquisition of the preferred site are at an extremely advanced stage. That is the up-to-date situation from the Department's perspective.

I appreciate that update and I thank the Minister for putting this high on her list of priorities. We recognise that that multidenominational aspect is in the programme for Government, which contains a commitment around having 400 multidenominational schools. We need to make sure they also have the school buildings and that we are not just allocating patronage. I know the Minister understands this and she has made that commitment.

One of the issues is that, given many new schools are multidenominational, it means many of the children in those schools are faced with temporary accommodation, so we need to do what we can to expedite this. Planning is obviously an ongoing issue in many areas across local government, and schools are no different.

As it is on the east of the city and it has such a wide remit, school transport is also an issue. Given the small number it can now take in and the fact there have to be ten pupils from an area, it becomes very difficult and it means no school buses are coming from the east of the city, and none from Oranmore or beyond. That also needs to be addressed if it is to truly cater for the demographics. Ethos is not really fully taken into account either and, again, this means it becomes more and more difficult.

I thank the Senator. I again acknowledge her personal engagement on an ongoing basis in regard to these two schools. I commit that we will expedite them as quickly as we possibly can. As the Senator will appreciate, there is a considerable body of work when a number of different sites have to be technically assessed, but we will do all we can to expedite this as quickly as possible.

In regard to the emergency works at Cuan na Gaillimhe, again, we will take a look at that and see what the situation is. With regard to school transport, the Senator makes the point on the requirement to have ten pupils. Given the current situation, we will also take a look at that.

I am very conscious of the role of staff in the school community and the imposition that is placed on them when they are in temporary accommodation. I do not for one minute underestimate the difficulty, particularly given that the challenges are all the more heightened and enhanced in the current climate. I acknowledge the very high standard of work and the generosity that comes from school communities that are in situations such as has been highlighted by the Senator for these two schools. I give the Senator the assurance that we will expedite and move forward as quickly as we possibly can.

Departmental Records

Before I move on to my main topic, I want to take this opportunity to commend the Minister for all her work in education. A lot of it is done early in the morning and late at night, and I often text the Minister with a problem and she always gets back to me. It is generally recognised that, through the most difficult period many of us have seen in our lives, she has acted in a fantastic manner and given great leadership. Having somebody doing the leaving certificate in our own home, I know that the moves she made to help are very much appreciated by students and parents throughout the country.

I want to deal with the issue of the records of the Land Commission. The Land Commission was created in 1881, originally as a rent fixing commission. Of course, it was then given responsibility for the distribution of farm land in most of Ireland. It was a 32-county organisation but, after independence, the records of Northern Ireland were separated and the records in the Republic are now held in Portlaoise. In 1885, the Ashbourne land Act allowed the commission to break up estates and facilitate tenant purchase. The Land Commission oversaw the transfer of 13.5 million acres of land, an extraordinary amount of land.

I believe a pathway could be found to perhaps get access to some of those records, for good reasons. All history records, wherever they are, will contain good stories and bad stories.

This is an untapped resource. If there were greater access to the records, which are very limited in the Republic, it would generate great interest in our culture and history and promote tourism. Not only would the opening of some of the records for each county give us great insight into how things were done but there would also be a massive benefit, even in terms of employment. It would really show us how population movement occurred during the times in question and how getting Irish Land Commission land led to the formation of villages and towns.

My information is that there are in excess of 50,000 boxes of records held at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine buildings in Portlaoise. As the Minister probably knows, there are two components, namely a records branch and an administrative branch. Based on the research I have done, there could be up to 100,000 maps and 50,000 boxes in the records branch. There are more than 70,000 items in the administrative branch.

I am interested in how the breaking up of the big estates happened and the difference it made. It would be really fantastic if we could consider a pathway towards opening up the records further. I understand there are GDPR issues and that there are probably controversial issues also but I believe much of the information would be very good to have available and would be of great benefit to society.

It is important to point out that there is greater access to the records in Northern Ireland and that there has not been any great difficulty there. We could consider making some changes in this regard. There is a lot of work to be done on the archives by historians. I would like the Minister to take this on board, raise the matter with her Government colleagues and see whether some progress can be made on it. I thank her for being present to deal with this query.

I thank the Senator. I am commenting on behalf of my colleague the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, who, due to a prior commitment, is unable to be here. For the record, I will read his response.

He has made inquiries into the matter. The position is that there are no immediate plans to make the 8 million or so records of the former Irish Land Commission generally available to the public for research purposes or otherwise as they are still working documents. While the question specifically refers to records from the period 1870 to 1921, it is not feasible to separate out those records as they were lodged by reference to the estate to which they relate and not by date. Any given estate file could hold records covering the entire period of operation of the Irish Land Commission.

When the commission ceased functioning in 1992, its work was unfinished. The Department was charged with completing the work of the commission and, as such, the commission's records are still working documents, accessed by departmental staff daily. While officials in the Department are aware of the interest of the public, historians and genealogists in obtaining access to the vast depository of documents relating to the former Irish Land Commission, opening up access to these files cannot be considered until appropriate measures are undertaken to minimise potential damage from routine handling. The records, which are stored as a departmental facility in Portlaoise, exist in paper format only and are fragile. Some date back as far as the late 1800s and comprise a resource that would be irreplaceable if damaged. To maintain them, it is essential that they be handled and stored appropriately.

While limited access has been granted to researchers on application, on a case-by-case basis, the office does not provide a research facility as the provision of such a service would require much greater resources than those currently available. Wider access will be a matter for consideration when the completion of the work of the former Irish Land Commission is at a more advanced stage. However, the Department is examining the possibility of digitising certain key search aids, which will enable electronic searches to be carried out by members of the public to ascertain whether specific records exist. This work is at an early stage and a process of internal consultation between legal services, IT and the procurement division is taking place.

Furthermore, the Department has signed a memorandum of understanding with Trinity College Dublin on the Beyond 2022 project, which has undertaken an initial scoping of the pre-1922 Irish Land Commission records. That project is working to recreate the records lost in the destruction of the Public Records Office of Ireland at the Four Courts in 1922.

My thanks to the Minister for bringing that reply to the House. It is an acknowledgement that something is happening, and that is to be welcomed. I have to accept there are some working documents in place that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine cannot release, but I imagine we could consider releasing some of the material in some areas.

I am talking about the records in the context of a fantastic tourism, history and heritage building in our area, the National Famine Museum in Strokestown. When things get back to some normality I intend to invite the Minister there. A local businessman, Mr. Callery, bought it some years back and he saved so many records. It is amazing how it has led to a tourism product that, before Covid-19, was bringing in 70,000 people to our town and area. There is a major beneficial effect from this. I would like to see the matter developed further. I appreciate there are difficulties, as I mentioned earlier, but it is good to get an answer that something is happening.

My thanks to the Senator for his kind remarks at the outset. I acknowledge and appreciate that this is a matter close to his heart. I acknowledge the bona fides with which he brings such a proposal. As he outlined, it has particular scope and benefit by reference to local historians, genealogy, researchers, diaspora tourism and so on.

As he will appreciate from the relevant Minister's notes, it is a work in progress. As he said, there are positive indications that there is forward planning, including in the digitisation of records. In itself this would be a considerable advancement. Steps are being taken, in the longer term rather than the shorter term, to advance this, as the Senator indicated.

Thank you again Minister for your commitment in the House.

Sitting suspended at 11.40 a.m. and resumed at 12.05 p.m.