Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Bord na Móna

It is a pleasure to be back in the convention centre, where we had our first Seanad meeting of this mandate. I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this Commencement matter, which is important to the people of Kildare, Offaly, Roscommon, Longford and Westmeath and all those impacted by job losses because of Bord na Móna.

I cannot overstate the importance of Bord na Móna and the employment it gave in my county of Kildare. I grew up just outside Rathangan, close to Allenwood and Coill Dubh, where Bord na Móna has since its inception in 1946 created huge employment. The bog is important not just because of employment, but also because of heritage, the ecological system and horticulture. The families that came to our part of the country from all over Ireland because of the employment Bord na Móna offered settled in and have become part of the area. It is a strong legacy. Over the last number of years, Bord na Móna has been operating in a challenging environment as we have been preparing for the transition to a more climate change-friendly environment. There has been much discussion about the company's long-term viability, particularly in relation to the power stations in the midlands. As a result of that, the just transition scheme was introduced to provide a solution to the problems we would have in terms of job losses and lack of employment going forward. The just transition fund's mission was to create economic opportunity for the front-line communities and workers hardest hit by the transition away from peat. It was to be part grant-maker and part catalyst, to provide investments to help communities create 21st-century jobs and technical assistance, to empower local leaders and communities to act, to advance economic solutions that are equitable, inclusive and low-carbon, to strengthen local economies and to build the resilience of low-income workers.

Many of the workers we are talking about traditionally have been low-income workers. I have attended a number of meetings of the just transition group and I commend the work the commissioner, Kieran Mulvey, has done in this area.

My colleague, Deputy Cowen, raised in the Dáil last week the slow pace of transition. Originally, there was talk of the Government offering help, hope, assistance, initiatives, incentives and rewards, but unfortunately that has not come to fruition to date. While we hoped to have innovation championed at this point, that has not happened. Deputy Cowen found out in response to replies to parliamentary questions he tabled that not one job has yet been created by just transition funding and only €166,000 has been drawn down to date. In my area, Allenwood has received significant funding, but again not one cent has been received to date. Funding has also been awarded to the Umeras peatlands project but nothing has yet been received.

I welcome the fact the Minister of State, Deputy Smyth, is here to give us an update and I invite him to visit the Lullymore heritage park in my area of Kildare to see the wonderful bog heritage we have. I look forward to hearing his response.

On behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Ryan, and the Government, I welcome the opportunity to set out the actions which are being taken by the Government in response to the announcement of the closure of the peat-fuelled power stations and the end of peat harvesting by Bord na Móna.

The Government is committed to a just transition in the midlands region and has dedicated significant funding to supporting workers, companies and communities affected by the closure of the two power stations at Lanesborough and Shannonbridge. The Government appointed Kieran Mulvey as just transition commissioner in November 2019 to assist the midlands region in the transition process. The commissioner has made a series of recommendations to the Government on taking forward the Government's just transition response in the midlands. A significant package of supports has been put in place in the midlands to ensure the transition away from peat-fuelled power is indeed just. This includes the midlands retrofitting project at a cost of €20 million, €108 million for the Bord na Móna peatlands restoration project, €30 million being made available through the just transition fund for approved projects, and €19 million for the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, peatlands restoration scheme.

The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications approved funding of €108 million for Bord na Móna's large-scale peatlands restoration project on 24 November 2020. The plan will protect the storage of 100 million tonnes of carbon, sequester 3.2 million tonnes of carbon out to 2050, enhance biodiversity, deliver significant benefits and contribute to Ireland's target of being carbon neutral by 2050. The scheme will encompass 33,000 ha of Bord na Móna peatlands previously harvested for peat extraction for electricity generation. The Government funding, which will come from the climate action fund, will be bolstered by an €18 million investment from Bord na Móna, which is committed to a brown-to-green transition.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service's peatlands scheme received funding of €5 million in 2020, supported by the carbon tax fund, which enabled the commencement of peatland restoration measures on almost 1,900 ha of raised bog on up to nine raised bog designated sites in the midlands region, along with the development of drainage management plans and other peatland management and conservation measures. Bord na Móna has been contracted to manage this programme. Work has commenced on this project, and an additional €14 million has been allocated to the programme in 2021 for the restoration of a further 2,500 ha of protected raised bog, together with other peatlands conservation measures.

Through the NPWS's peatland scheme and Bord Na Móna's peatlands restoration programme, Bord na Móna will over time engage 350 employees, some of these on the same seasonal basis that has underpinned Bord na Móna's support of the local economies to date. Taking seasonality into account, this equates to 230 full-time equivalent roles. These projects will support a just transition by not only avoiding job losses based in the Offaly works and across the midlands but also creating opportunities for skilled employment in these areas into the future. The Government's just transition fund was established in mid-2020 to respond to the closures and to support the transition away from employment in peat harvesting in the most affected communities in the region. Eight of the most affected counties were eligible to submit funding applications to the 2020 just transition fund.

The Government announced provisional funding offers totalling almost €30 million to more than 60 projects throughout the region for projects from the private sector, local authorities and communities to create a strong, green and sustainable economy. These projects will contribute to making the midlands a more attractive and sustainable place to live and work. Sixteen projects are already up and running in the midlands with support from the just transition fund. These projects have created 28 full-time jobs and will support a further 175 indirect jobs. A further five projects, worth €2.5 million, have now received a grant offer letter from the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications and will create nine jobs and 18 indirect jobs. The Department is assisting the remaining projects to prepare them to the grant offer stage and expects to finalise grant agreements in the coming weeks. The Department envisages a significant ramping up in expenditure in the second half of this year once grant agreements are in place and projects begin to draw down funding.

The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage is supporting retrofitting activities in the midland counties. A total of €20 million was allocated from carbon tax revenues to retrofit homes to a building energy rating, BER, of B2. This project was established as a pilot programme to provide economic stimulus to the counties most affected by the cessation of peat harvesting for electricity generation, and it centres on upgrading larger batches of homes in distinct, compact geographical areas. Offaly, Laois, Kildare, Westmeath and Longford will receive €3.33 million each and Roscommon, Galway and Tipperary are to receive €1.11 million each for retrofitting. There is also an allowance for administration costs, for example, surveying, project management and BER certificate registration, as it is recognised the ramping up of this programme will bring increased administration and implementation costs to local authorities. A total of €428,902 has been recouped to local authorities to 30 April 2020 in respect of management and administration fees. The Department is on course to finish this project in 2021, with at least 750 homes benefiting from the programme.

Looking ahead to future just transition supports, the EU just transition fund, part of the European Green Deal, will allocate €77 million to Ireland to alleviate the socioeconomic impacts of the low-carbon transition in the most affected regions. This fund may be used to support the reskilling of workers, help SMEs to create new economic opportunities, and promote the diversification of economic activity towards low-carbon sectors and progress towards achieving the EU's 2030 climate targets and a climate-neutral economy by 2050.

The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communication is preparing a territorial just transition plan, for approval by the European Commission, to access this funding. This plan will set out Ireland's investment priorities and will identify the sectors and regions to be supported. The Department envisages that the work will be completed this summer.

The Minister of State has outlined some figures. Timelines are very important in terms of the outcomes we expect to see and I would appreciate if they were put in place.

I wish to make three brief points. Retrofitting is very welcome and I am pleased the pilot scheme is being rolled out. I am aware the pilot scheme is just dealing with houses within local authority housing stock, but it is important that as we move forward we would look at the opportunity for private homeowners to be able to avail of retrofitting also.

Bord na Móna's headquarters is in Newbridge and, as it is looking at making changes, buildings will be available there. It would be wonderful to see an educational facility such as a third level college there along the lines of An Foras Talúntais, which we used to have in Lullymore, that would be involved in education and research on horticulture and bogs.

The final point I wish to make relates to horticultural peat. It is appalling that those who are involved in the nursery industry, employing 6,000 people directly and providing 11,000 ancillary positions, still have no option at this point but to bring in peat from Lithuania and Holland, which obviously has a significant carbon footprint and is three times the price. The Government has provided no viable alternative solution or some type of scenario whereby nursery owners could use Irish horticultural peat. The issue must be addressed.

It is valuable to hear directly the reality on the ground from people who are living in the midlands area where the work is going on. I am delighted to accept the Senator's invitation to visit Kildare and see for myself because there is no point in making rules in isolation of the reality.

Second, the Senator mentioned the retrofit of private homes. There are two major schemes. Approximately €65 million is being spent this year on retrofitting council houses and €220 million is available to retrofit private homes. That private retrofitting will require an element of grant and another portion of credit to make it happen. These are huge schemes and they become much larger each year. However, one needs to make sure that people have the money to do it and have confidence in their economic situation.

I find the third level college idea very interesting, on a horticultural basis, and retraining will be key. I am happy to talk about it with the Senator when we meet in the future.

The importation of peat products from abroad has been mentioned. Clearly, carbon leakage always is a concern. In any policy that we implement to limit the production of high-carbon materials, carbon leakage must be considered. Bord na Móna will continue to manufacture peat products until 2024. I wish to put it on record that it is not the case that Bord na Móna has ceased production altogether.

Tax Code

I thank the Cathaoirleach for giving time to the House to debate my Commencement matter that calls for action by the Minister for Finance to increase the affordability and supply of housing for our citizens by introducing tax measures that will address the activities of private investment funds in the housing market. I specifically call for the Minister for Finance to end tax incentives for investment funds to facilitate the wholesale purchase of first-time buyer's homes, and ask him to apply a financial penalty to properties that are left vacant for more than six months in areas of significant housing need.

As the Cathaoirleach will know, I have raised this issue in the Seanad previously. I have discussed it with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Minister for Finance. What is required is an all-of-government response. Since this Government was formed there has been an historic housing budget approved of €3.3 billion. There is also historic legislation that will have the State take the lead in the provision of affordable housing on State-owned lands. There is affordable housing both to purchase and rent that will provide affordability and security of tenure for our citizens. This is all very welcome along with the banning of co-living and the commitment to end the strategic housing development, SHD, process and review the build-to-rent model.

At the same time as the Government is taking all of this action to increase the supply of affordable homes, and improve the affordability and security of tenure for citizens, we and the State are being undermined by the activity of private investment funds that spend tens of millions of euro a week outbidding, outspending and gazumping first-time buyers, families, single people, approved housing bodies and, indeed, the State. The private investment funds have very deep pockets. Of course there is room for private investment in every market but we have a housing crisis, of which the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, and the Government are aware. All of the efforts that we are making are being undermined when private investment firms purchase wholesale new-build homes that were designed and intended for home owners. As the private investment funds follow the money, so too must the Government and I urge the Minister for Finance to take action. I urge him to place a significant tax on the bulk purchase of new-build homes and introduce a tax on homes that have been left vacant for more than six months in areas that have a high demand for housing. We need to go further. Some of these measures can be dealt with in planning and I know that the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage has committed to do that but planning changes will only affect new developments. We also need to improve security of tenure for renters, review the rent pressure zones, which I know that the Minister and Government have agreed to do, strengthen rent pressure zones and leverage the State's ability to fund the provision of affordable homes, to purchase or rent, on State-owned lands. As a Government, we must prioritise the provision of affordable homes for citizens. We must also take action to stop the undermining of all of that investment by private investment funds that can outbid, outspend and gazump the State and would-be homeowners.

I thank Senator Fitzpatrick for raising this issue. It is a matter that everybody will understand and appreciate, especially in light of activities in the marketplace that we have seen in recent times. The Government is committed to improving the supply of housing and affordability for first-time buyers. It has already brought forward significant measures in the Affordable Housing Bill 2020 and the Land Development Agency Bill 2021. These measures stand as part of an overall housing strategy that provides the highest ever budget for housing in the history of the State of €3.3 billion to support the social housing needs of 28,500 additional households.

I am aware of the recent purchase of two housing estates by an institutional investor in an area that would normally have been appropriate to first-time or second-time individual purchasers. In the context of an unprecedented low-interest-rate environment globally, international investment in property is increasing. While this increased investment may benefit tenants through improved choice and price moderation, it is not intended that institutional purchasers should be in competition with ordinary households to purchase completed turnkey properties. This situation illustrates the complexity of the property market. Housing policy must balance the needs of all tenures - private ownership, affordable or cost-rental, social housing and the private rental sector.

Investment funds are a long-term presence in the Irish market as in all other property markets, which has been acknowledged by the Senator. In recent Finance Acts, the Minister for Finance has made significant changes to the taxation of institutional investors in Irish property to ensure that appropriate tax is collected. As with investment funds generally, tax occurs primarily at the level of the investor rather than in the fund. In the case of both Irish real estate funds, IREFs, and real estate investment trust companies, REITs, withholding taxes apply on distributions to investors to ensure collection of tax revenues. The tax treatment of these investment vehicles is kept under review, most recently in a 2019 analysis produced for the tax strategy group. This led to the introduction of additional anti-avoidance measures in Finance Act 2019, aimed at ensuring the regimes operate as intended and preventing the avoidance of tax on property profits.

The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, and the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, are currently working together to assess the role of institutional investors in the market and to identify targeted solutions to ensure such investment is directed at increasing overall supply within the housing market and reducing price pressures for tenants and owner-occupiers. As the Senator and most people will be aware, this topic is a major item for discussion at the Government meeting today. Both of the Ministers will have a discussion with all of their Cabinet colleagues with a view to making sure we come forward with proposals to deal with this matter in the immediate future.

As regards a vacant property tax, in 2018 an independent report was commissioned by the Department of Finance and laid before the Dáil to investigate vacancy levels in further detail. The report found that the vacancy rate within rent pressure zones, excluding holiday homes, was approximately 6% but that most of these were short-term and medium-term vacancies with a low level of long-term vacancies, which is normally under 3% for Dublin, for example. In addition, many of these properties are vacant in the long term for reason of dilapidation or because the owner is in a nursing home. The report estimated that habitable properties that are vacant in the long term account for approximately 1% of properties in rent pressure zones. On that basis, the consultants did not recommend the introduction of a residential vacant property tax as they did not believe it would be an effective response to deal with housing shortages.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit for his response. I acknowledge that Cabinet is meeting today and that this item is on the agenda and will be addressed. We all must remind ourselves, however, of what the purpose of tax is. The purpose of tax is to raise income to invest in essential community services and supports. In this instance, the tax system is undermining the State's investment. It is encouraging activity that undermines the State's investment in the provision of secure and affordable homes. I urge the Minister of State to urge all members of the Government to review the tax arrangements for private investment firms which are encouraging them to purchase wholesale new-build homes that should have been intended for homeowners.

With regard to the tax on vacancies, I accept the Minister of State's response and that a review took place but what I am calling for specifically is a tax on new-build properties left vacant in high-pressure zones. I am not suggesting we tax families and elderly people in nursing homes. There is a significant issue in this regard, particularly here in Dublin city and actually right here in the docklands. New-build properties are lying vacant when they should be available to people who are desperately in need of housing. I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House today to address this issue but urgent action is required. People younger than 35 have been impacted most by the pandemic from a financial perspective and they are also those oppressed most by the housing crisis. They deserve a home, just as the Minister of State and I did. They deserve an opportunity and they need to believe the Government is committed to tackling this challenge and to supporting them in getting a secure and affordable home.

I will deal very briefly with the taxation situation because it has been mentioned. Real estate investment trusts, REITs, which I mentioned earlier, are companies and are obliged under the legislation to distribute 85% of their earnings every year. A standard 25% withholding tax is levied on that. That is twice the rate of corporation tax which companies pay. Some people believe these companies should be paying corporation tax but, in fact, the investor pays tax at a rate of 25%, which is twice that of corporation tax.

Irish real estate funds, IREFs, are funds rather than limited companies. We changed the rules regarding their tax situation in 2019. As a result, in the 2020 findings of the Revenue Commissioners, it was shown that tax was collected at a rate of 18.5%, which is very close to the standard rate of withholding tax, 25%.

I take on board everything the Senator has said with regard to vacant properties and organisations which have no role in funding projects coming in at the end of the day, when the development is fully built, and gazumping families who wish to purchase the houses they need.

Passport Services

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit arís. Bhí sé linn aréir don phlé ar an tairiscint Comhaltaí Príobháideacha. Tá sé go maith go bhfuil sé linn arís. I will preface my remarks by stressing the obvious. I understand we are in exceptional times with regard to international travel. While we are all positive about and encouraged by the easing of restrictions North and South, there persists clear and coherent guidance with regard to safety and international travel. In no way do I seek to take away from or compete with that guidance with my Commencement matter. Now that the Government has taken the very welcome decision to deem the Passport Office an essential service, which was a belated decision but nonetheless welcome, it is important that people have an understanding of the process for the resumption of services. In addition to being a document needed for travel, a passport is also a very important document for people personally. It is also an important form of identification. It is the right time to hear from Government as to the mechanics of the resumption of services.

We will also potentially be facing a backlog. I heard the Minister, Deputy Coveney, make reference to this on the radio. He was quite confident the Passport Office would be able to clear this backlog with reasonable speed. I hope that is the case because I and, I am sure, colleagues here in the Seanad and across the elected political spectrum have been contacted by people who are still awaiting the passports they need for a whole range of reasons.

I will raise a final issue which I raise consistently with Government, so I am sure it came as no surprise to officials to see it in my Commencement matter. The trajectory of passport applications has been consistently upwards. The staff of the Passport Office do a first-class job. They are very effective in what they do but they deserve more investment and support to lift the burden on them, which must be very great. I reflect on the remarks of the Secretary General of the Department who said the staff are under huge pressure as a result of the volume of passport applications being made. It makes real practical sense for the Government to invest in additional infrastructure and in additional service provision. This would allow for the processing of this tremendous volume of applications for passport renewals and first-time online applications in a much less stressful way.

One of the very obvious ways in which to do this would be to open a new office in the North of Ireland. There is a clear, demonstrable and identifiable need in that geographical area of our country. In an emergency situation in which people have to travel, it is not always an easy process for people living in the north east, the north west or the west, whether in Ballycastle or Bundoran. It can be quite arduous. We need to put in the infrastructure and to provide services in those areas where they are needed and where people can most easily interface with our efficient first-class Passport Office. When this service is so successful and so good, we should build on it and share that resource right across the island for the benefit of everyone.

I thank the Senator for the opportunity to update the House on the current operational status of the Passport Service, which has significantly scaled up operations since 4 May 2021. As an essential service, attendance levels are now increasing and I am sure the Seanad will support me in commending the staff of the Passport Service on the emergency services they operated throughout the pandemic and for their commitment to returning to the Passport Office issuing sites as restrictions have eased.

At the end of April, there were approximately 89,000 online passport applications in the system. Taking into account measures to ensure a safe workplace, I am confident these applications can be processed in six to eight weeks. We are working to process all applications and to return to more reliable turnaround times for our customers by the end of June.

Since we began to increase service levels on 4 May 2021, the Passport Service has issued more than 12,200 passports. There are currently approximately 4,000 more at the final stages of processing. The Passport Service's goal is to process all passport applications on hand by the end of June 2021 and to ensure we would have the capacity for high levels of anticipated demand for passport applications were current travel restrictions to ease.

The Senator correctly notes the Passport Service has seen an annual increase in the number of passports applied for, peaking in 2019 when approximately 935,000 passports were issued. Our investment in the passport reform programme has focused on ensuring the system is robust enough to support that continuously growing global demand for passports. It is not intended to open a dedicated passport office in Northern Ireland as we are satisfied we currently have the capacity to meet that demand. I and my colleagues in Government very much look forward to a return to normal levels of service and to there being shorter turnaround times for our citizens applying from Northern Ireland.

I underline that no matter where in the world our citizens are living and applying from, all applications receive the same priority. We achieve this by processing based on date of receipt and type of application. For example, the passport online system operates from a central pool of applications which can be processed by staff in any of our three locations.

This allows us to react quickly to daily demand, by distributing the work to where we have capacity and also to match the skill set of our resources to the work that needs to be done. This has dramatically improved the processing times for adult renewals, where the information is the same as the customer's previous passport. During the highest level of restrictions, Passport Office staff processed approximately 40,000 of these applications. Where a customer is required to submit supporting documentation, such as when changing his or her name, applying on behalf of a child or as a first-time applicant, the supporting documents are sent to a dedicated location where highly skilled staff verify the documents and prepare them for processing for all three offices.

I know that for some customers the use of online services is challenging, but it is important to highlight that the online service is extremely easy to use. Passport Online has won awards for its user-friendly process, including a National Adult Literacy Agency, NALA, award for the use of plain English. Many customers find that it is very quick, taking only ten minutes to complete, and I would encourage everyone to try it. Where a customer does not wish to use the passport online system, they will be able to use the paper based Passport Express, or Northern Ireland Passport Express, system later in the year, but the turnaround times for this service will continue to be much longer than Passport Online because of the differences in the efficiencies in processing applications. It is important to point out that in the event that an applicant has urgent or emergency reasons for requiring a passport, he or she should contact the Passport Office, customer service hub by webchat to make it aware of the situation.

I thank the Minister of State for the update on the safe return of the passport service. I wish staff well and every success in getting back to work safely and clearing the backlog.

He referenced the three offices. There are three offices in specific locations on this island, but there is a large geographical deficit and infrastructural void in terms of this important and much utilised service. I do not question the bona fides of the Passport Office staff and their dedication, but there are competing narratives here. We are told of a first-class service, but we are also hearing from the Secretary General of the Department of Foreign Affairs that staff are under huge stress. If this first-class service is being delivered because workers are under significant stress, we can do much better than that. There is a clear, coherent and justifiable case for an expansion of the Passport Office. I again thank the Minister of State for coming here today to address the matter, but it is not one I will be letting go.

It is important to note that the passport reform programme continues to deliver major upgrades for the passport services technology platform and business process as well as for the customer service experience. It is also worth noting that the development of the online service is the future direction of improvements within the passport system. The appropriate way to speed up delivery and the provision of a better service to people wishing to obtain passports is through that process. It also has tremendous benefits for people working within the system because it enables them to process more passports for people in a better and quicker way.

The passport online system was expanded in April 2021 to include first-time applicants in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US. This means that 98% of Irish citizens worldwide can avail of this service. This improved delivery and resilience in 2022 will continue when we expect a substantial increase in applications. As indicated, there was a drop in the overall number of applications this year as a result of the pandemic. Over the next month, improvements, including the integration of passport online with MyGovID, and further enhancements will continue, particularly to assist parents of young children to use passport online.

Special Educational Needs

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, to the House to take this important issue on the provision of a timeline for the opening of autism spectrum disorder, ASD, units and ASD outreach classes in schools in Dublin 2, 4, 6 and 6W. In these areas in Dublin Bay South, there is a serious shortage of places in autism units and ASD outreach classes for children. This is a matter of intense frustration for the many parents, families and children affected. I know that the Minister of State is well aware of this. The Labour Party has been working on this matter for some years now. Along with my colleague, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, I have met the representative groups involved. I thank Autism Equality Dublin Bay, the AsIAm organisation and the parents group, Involve Autism:D6/D6W and Surrounds, who have been advocating on behalf of children in the area and putting forward important points.

Currently, every day, nearly 2,000 children from these areas are bused to schools in other areas at a cost, I am told, of approximately €63,000 per annum and at how detriment to the children involved and to their families. This is the result of poor planning and a lack of local provision. This must be tackled. I know that progress is being made. We need a timeframe so that we can see what progress is being made and identify where places will be available. I am conscious that there are schools that have stepped up, but these, I am told, are predominantly Educate Together and DEIS schools. There are large areas in Dublin Bay South where there is no provision of ASD classes or autism units. Many well established schools in affluent areas, despite being mandated to do so under the section 37A process, have not stepped up and made provision in their schools for children with autism or autistic children. We need stricter enforcement of the rule such that schools must provide such placements. We are all conscious of the demand for places and of the fact that children are currently being bussed out of the areas. That is not acceptable. It is important to reiterate the immense frustration that parents and children in the areas are experiencing.

I have been asked by the groups involved to seek information from the Minister of State on the new forecasting model, which she has spoken about previously. I have been asked to inquire if she can share details of that model, the prevalence rates and what the Department of Education and the NCSE propose to do about future planning for the area. This is not just about children who need these placements today, although that is the pressing need, it is also about ensuring that planning for the future is conducted in a well thought out and evidence-based manner such that we do not see children in future also caught in this trap and again having to be bussed out of the areas.

I eagerly await the Minister of State's response.

I thank the Senator for raising this important matter. It is important to say that enabling children with special educational needs to receive an education appropriate to their needs is a priority for this Government and for me as the first ever Minister of State with responsibility special educational needs. As the Senator will know, this year, in excess of 20% of the total education budget, or €2 billion, will be invested in supporting children with special educational needs. As a result, the numbers of special education teachers, SNAs and special class and school places are at unprecedented levels. My Department aims to ensure, always, that there are sufficient school places available to meet the needs of all children throughout the State. I am using every level available to me to do that.

As the Senator will be aware, the departmental policy is that student's with special educational needs should be included where possible and appropriate in mainstream placements with additional supports provided.

In circumstances where children require more specialised interventions, some of which the Senator outlined, special classes or places are provided. The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, is responsible for planning and co-ordinating provision at local and national levels and for advising my Department in that regard. It is open to any school to make an application to the NCSE for the establishment of specialised provision. Where sanctioned, a range of supports, including capital funding, are made available to the school. Every school that opens a special class gets support in terms of grants - start-up grants, furniture grants and IT grants. There is always an incentive for the school to open a special class.

Irish mainstream schools have a tradition of providing places that respond to the needs of families in their areas. This is evidenced by the growth in special classes in recent years. In 2011, there were 548 special classes. We are now at 1,836, 1,567 of which are autism spectrum disorder, ASD, classes.

The Senator correctly pointed out that issues had arisen, particularly in recent years, with a shortage of suitable school places for students with special educational needs. This has primarily been driven by the significant increase in demand and the shortage of suitable school accommodation in which to open special classes and expand special school provision. Areas of Dublin such as those referenced by the Senator have featured in that regard. It is the issue of better planning at national and local levels that she spoke about that I have been endeavouring to tackle. It is my objective for special education places to come on stream to meet emerging demand in a timely manner. Aside from the section 37A process to which the Senator alluded, it goes without saying the active collaboration by school communities in this regard is pivotal. The NCSE engages on an ongoing basis and most special classes are set up outside the section 37A process.

A number of schools in the areas to which the Senator referred have agreed to open special classes. Some schools have genuine reasons for not being in a position to do so, be it capacity issues or extenuating circumstances. However, the majority that have been written to are in a position to open such classes.

We want to ensure no child with special educational needs will be without a place this September. From September, we will be opening 1,200 special class places throughout the country.

I thank the Minister of State for her response and I welcome her comments about being committed to better planning. I also welcome that, from September, there will be 1,200 additional places. However, I did not hear from her any commitment as regards places in Dublin 2, 4, 6 or 6W. These are the areas where there is a pressing need for local places. Children are being bussed out of their areas. That is not acceptable and a source of immense frustration. It is to the detriment of those children and their families. There is no provision on the east side of Dublin Bay South around Ringsend and Sandymount, and well-established schools are not stepping up and providing the places that should be there for children in their local catchment areas. Despite the incentives that have been provided, there remains a serious issue of a shortage of places for children in these areas. Will the Minister of State provide a timeframe as to when more places will become available for children in Dublin 2, 4, 6 and 6W?

The Senator may be aware that I have met Autism Equality Dublin Bay, Involve Autism and AsIAm. I commend them on the work they do in this regard. It is important I hear from parents and families on the ground. One of the things I have tried to do since assuming my role has been to take the sting out of trying to find a place in a special class or special school. City Quay National School and Star of the Sea Boys National School will be opening in the areas the Senator mentioned, as will St. Christopher's, Shellybanks, Ringsend and other schools.

Planning using the forecasting model is a departure for the Department. We are working with the building and planning unit on setting out the five-year forecasting model. There was never a reason we could not do this, given that an information geographical system for planning into the future is used in respect of other schools. An important measure I have from the Department is that, from this year on, all new schools will automatically provide for special educational needs. This will help a significant cohort in the years to come.

Housing Policy

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Brophy, for taking this Commencement matter. I congratulate him on his role. I have not to date had the opportunity to do so in the House, which says much about our curtailed schedule.

I will not take my full time. This straightforward issue has been brought to my attention and warrants a second look by the Department. I am referring to the new household means assessment policy for local authority housing which was circulated to councils throughout the country and came into force last month. Section 4 of the new household means policy relates to deductions made. While it says tax, USC, PRSI and so on are deducted, no deductions are allowable for the likes of rent or travel expenses, which is consistent with the previous 2011 policy. However, the new policy specifically states there should be no deduction from assessable income for maintenance paid by an applicant or joint applicant. This seems fundamentally unfair. If we are honest about it, it will predominantly affect males who have children with a former partner and who are making maintenance payments. While it is appropriate that maintenance be paid, that these payments are not being deducted from assessable income is a fundamental flaw in the household means policy, especially when one considers that maintenance payments received are counted as income for the purposes of consideration for inclusion on the social housing list under the exact same policy.

I will provide a real example of how this policy is having an impact on those who are close to the income threshold for social housing. I am dealing with the case of a male constituent who applied to Waterford City and County Council for inclusion on its social housing list following the break-up of his relationship with his child's mother. Prior to the introduction of the new household means policy, this gentleman could have been below the threshold of €30,750 for an adult and a child when his maintenance payments were taken into account. Now that his maintenance payments are not deducted from his income, he is adjudged to be over the income threshold for social housing and, therefore, he does not qualify to go on the list, which has the impact of him not qualifying to receive the housing assistance payment.

This policy will continue to have an impact on males predominantly but not solely. It does not make sense that maintenance payments received are counted as assessable income whereas maintenance payments paid out are not deducted from assessable income. This policy needs to be reviewed and maintenance payments should be considered as deductibles. I would appreciate it if the Minister of State raised this matter with the line Minister and reverted to me, if possible.

I thank the Senator for tabling this Commencement matter and for his remarks at the start. Unfortunately, the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, is not available to attend today. He has asked me to take this matter on his behalf.

Applications for social housing support are assessed by the relevant local authority in accordance with the eligibility and need criteria set down in section 20 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009 and the associated Social Housing Assessment Regulations 2011, as amended.

The 2011 regulations prescribe maximum net income limits for each local authority, in different bands according to the area concerned, with income being defined and assessed according to a standard household means policy.

The household means policy is a document that issued to all local authorities in 2011, and it was reviewed and updated in 2021. It sets out the manner by which local authorities should assess the means of an applicant for social housing support, for the purpose of determining that household's ability to provide accommodation from their own resources. The policy sets out what income should be assessed as part of net income, what deductions can be made and what income is not assessable for the purpose of a social housing needs assessment. The policy also provides for a range of income disregards, and local authorities have discretion to decide to disregard income that is temporary, short-term or once-off in nature. Under the policy, net income for social housing assessment is defined as gross household income less income tax, PRSI, additional superannuation contribution, ASC, and the universal social charge, USC.

Furthermore, there is no provision in the policy to deduct any other regular outgoings, such as maintenance paid in respect of family members, from gross household income for the purposes of the income threshold. When somebody makes a maintenance payment, it is to cover the cost of living for their children, which is the same cost incurred by a couple with children that are still living together as a family unit. There are no deductions from assessable income for the costs associated with the raising of children for a family unit, so it is reasonable that there are no deductions for these costs for the individual of a separated couple who is paying maintenance.

I thank the Minister of State. While I appreciate his response, I still feel there is a fundamental flaw in the system. Income that is received for maintenance payments is factored into the consideration of assessable income for the individual that receives it yet, on the other hand, it is not taken into account in policy terms for the person who pays it out. While I appreciate what the Minister of State said in regard to couples, the issue I am raising is particularly associated with separated couples where maintenance is paid as a result of a court order. In such circumstances, I believe the maintenance payment should be factored into the consideration of deductible income for the purposes of inclusion on the social housing list in the exact same way it is factored into the consideration for the person who receives it at the other end.

I would appreciate it if the Minister of State would bring this back to the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, to have a second look at it. There have been some changes in the new policy as to what is permitted. This is specifically mentioned in the 2021 policy, over and above what had been the case. Perhaps there was flexibility in the previous 2011 policy that is not there in the 2021 policy.

I thank the Senator and I will convey his remarks back to the Minister. The review of the household means policy has taken place and the position remains that there should be no deduction from assessable income in regard to the maintenance paid. However, I clearly understand the points the Senator is making and the situation he is describing. I thank him and I will bring this to the attention of the Minister.

Health Services Staff

I want to raise the very important issue of the appointment of eye care liaison officers, ECLOs, to the hospital groups throughout the country. When somebody is diagnosed for the first time with sight loss, the consultant will have a one-stop-shop person to whom to refer the individual. This is a person who will advise them on the various step-down services, peer counselling and supports, from the National Council for the Blind and guide dogs to peer counselling. That officer will also assist with follow-up medical interventions, appointments, advice and so on.

This has been piloted in Dublin between Temple Street Children's Hospital and Crumlin Children's Hospital. At a very early stage, the number of referrals to the step-down support services has increased dramatically and the result that people go on to live independent lives has been demonstrated in recent years. Quick diagnosis, early intervention and fast engagement with services has proven to be invaluable. This has worked very well in the UK and, as I said, it is working in Dublin.

I tabled a Private Members’ motion on this during the previous Seanad in 2019 and it was accepted unanimously that this would be rolled out to all hospital groups. Following my re-election to the Seanad, I have continued advocating on this specific issue. The various consultants involved are stressed and are working to the limit. Some have a very strong knowledge of the aftercare and support services, while others have just a working knowledge. To bring continuity to everybody in this country, irrespective of where they live, I want ECLOs rolled out in Waterford, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Sligo, and an additional ECLO in Dublin.

A meeting took place prior to Christmas between Liam Woods of the HSE and his team and the National Council for the Blind of Ireland, NCBI, which is in charge of the pilot taking place in Dublin. This was committed to very clearly at that meeting and the HSE agreed with and saw the benefit of the policy, and was happy to commit that the seven additional ECLOs would be rolled out in 2021. I completely understand that we are in the midst of a global pandemic and I know that things are stressed and stretched. However, I also know that other healthcare is progressing and there are developments in other areas of healthcare. That is why I believe we need immediate action on this issue. It has been committed to, including in this House. Equally as important, it was committed to by the HSE at that meeting before Christmas. It is now May so if the commitment to see ECLOs rolled out throughout the country is to be delivered in 2021, we need action.

That is the ask and it is a very reasonable ask. It is a project and an intervention that has worked enormously well abroad, and where it was piloted here in Dublin city, it has been proven to work extremely well. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.

I thank the Senator for the opportunity, on behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, to address the issue of appointing eye care liaison officers, ECLOs. The ECLO service provides practical and emotional support to patients and their families to meet their needs when a diagnosis of sight loss is made. The officer works closely with clinical teams and provides a link between acute and community-based services. The service helps to ensure that patients and families are well informed and understand the condition and the supports available to them. This service is currently available in the Mater University Hospital, the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital, Temple Street Children's Hospital and Crumlin children's hospital.

I understand that the HSE met with the NCBI in December 2020 to discuss the issue of expanding the service. The NCBI identified the potential benefits associated with the introduction of ECLO posts and experience from the introduction of such posts in hospitals. I regret that the HSE was not in a position to allocate specific resources to support this development in 2021.

However, the HSE is examining the potential to support NCBI in 2021 with the current resources. The HSE will engage directly with NCBI in this regard. The HSE primary care eye services review group report, published in June 2017, sets out the way forward for a significant amount of eye services to be delivered in a primary care setting. Supported by the clinical programme in ophthalmology and its model of care, the report recommends integrated care provision with hospital ophthalmic services. This will ensure that hospital ophthalmic departments are focused on patients who require more specialised diagnostics or treatments. The recommendations of the report are being implemented on a phased basis as resources allow. This includes primary care revenue funding and the Sláintecare integration funding for 2019.

Implementation to date has focused on establishing and expanding primary care eye teams in Dublin, Kildare and Wicklow. The initial priority is to address backlogs in waiting lists for paediatric eye care services. Waiting list numbers show significant progress has been made in this regard by the primary care eye teams in these areas. The HSE plans to redirect some adult outpatient care from acute services to these teams too. When this is rolled out, the teams will focus on pre- and post-operative cataract care and the management of stable glaucoma patients. I expect that the roll out of integrated eye care teams will make a significant contribution to reducing waiting lists and ensuring that hospital ophthalmic departments can focus on surgical activities and more complex referrals.

I sincerely thank the Minister of State for his reply and note the good work that has been done by various ophthalmologists and teams around the country. This is specific. It is about having eye care liaison officers appointed who can advise on the step-down services and how people can emotionally come to terms with the fact that they have been diagnosed with sight loss. It is an extraordinarily traumatic experience for people who have never experienced sight loss before. The cost of rolling out these seven eye care liaison officers is €560,000. In the overall scheme of a budget of €24 billion, it is not a huge amount. Can the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, arrange for Liam Woods and his team to meet the National Council for the Blind to discuss this matter further as a matter of urgency in the next couple of weeks? We are in the middle of the year and a further engagement to recalibrate, establish where we are and come up with a timeframe in which this service can be delivered is critical.

I thank Senator Conway for his interest in the situation. I will talk to the Minister to organise a meeting between Liam Woods and his team and the NCBI as quickly as possible. I know that the eye care liaison officer provides an important and worthwhile service by providing non-clinical support for patients and their families and allowing clinicians to focus on diagnosis, treatment and medical follow up. This approach of allowing clinicians to focus on their specific clinical work is also in line with the integrated eye care teams approach. Eye care liaison officers are and would be a valuable resource in all hospital ophthalmic departments. The Minister has asked the HSE to continue to examine how it can best support the appointment of additional eye care liaison officers and to keep me informed of progress in this regard. We will set up that meeting between the teams and the NCBI.

Sitting suspended at 10.14 a.m. and resumed at 10.30 a.m.