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Seanad Éireann debate -
Monday, 14 Jun 2021

Vol. 277 No. 1

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Social Welfare Benefits

I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing this matter. I also thank the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, for taking it on behalf of the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys.

My ask today seems very reasonable to me. Those with epilepsy should have an entitlement to the free travel scheme. Up to 40,000 people in Ireland live with epilepsy with approximately 1,200 of them in Louth. I fully support Epilepsy Ireland's call to have the free travel scheme automatically extended to those who lose their driver licence due to a breakthrough seizure or where they automatically lose their licence for at least one year until they become one-year seizure free. There is also a need to see the free travel scheme established in such a way whereby people can apply to receive the benefit directly. The scheme is currently exclusively linked to other payments such as disability allowance and invalidity pension. This would allow people who will never be able to drive and who do not qualify for the disability allowance or invalidity pension to apply directly for the scheme.

I must be clear that we are not proposing that all 40,000 people with epilepsy be automatically given access to free travel. Epilepsy Ireland loosely estimates that these proposals would benefit between 5,000 and 6,000 people with epilepsy as 70% of those living with the condition will go on to be seizure free. For the remaining 30%, some will qualify for the State schemes such as disability allowance or invalidity pension. The direct cost of bringing this number of people into the free travel scheme would be approximately €500,000.

There is no doubt that there will be an argument from the Department of potential flood gates of claims and the high costs involved. However, we have a real obligation, in particular when we have accepted and signed up to the UN convention on persons with disabilities.

Under that convention we have an obligation to enable people with disabilities to live independently and to participate fully in all parts of life. There is an onus on us to reduce barriers. If a person who has a driving licence, and is partaking normally like all the rest of us in society in education and work, has a seizure, he or she is put off the road for 12 months. I have heard awful stories about people who are now unemployed or who had to give up education because they could not afford public transport or they did not have access to public transport. I hope we get a positive reply from the Minister of State this morning.

I thank Senator McGreehan for raising this issue. First and foremost, it is important to say that my answer is coming from the perspective of the Department of Social Protection, which administers the free travel scheme. The free travel scheme provides free travel on public transport services for those eligible under the scheme. There are two broad categories of people who can qualify for the free travel scheme. The first group is those aged 66 and over who are resident in Ireland. This wide category covers a significant number of the people to whom the Senator refers. Second, those who qualify for certain social welfare payments may be eligible. This second category of people includes those who are entitled to the blind pension, disability allowance, invalidity pension and carer's allowance, or an equivalent social security payment from a country covered by EC regulations or one with which Ireland has a bilateral social security agreement.

Overall, there are approximately 999,000 people with direct eligibility, with an annual allocation of €95 million provided to fund the scheme. The majority of supports provided by the Department are provided via an income support approach. While medical evidence is required to determine eligibility for certain social welfare schemes, medical evidence alone does not generally determine eligibility directly for the free travel scheme. Generally, eligibility for a particular social welfare payment must also be confirmed.

Every decision is based on consideration of the individual circumstances, taking account of the nature and extent of the need and of the resources of the person concerned. Figures available to me for 2019 show that there were 17,214 emergency needs payments made in respect of travel needs, with payments totalling €1.2 million. It is important that people are made aware of the SWA and the availability of the emergency needs payment for costs, including travel costs, that cannot be reasonably met from their own resources.

I thank the Minister of State. In part, I pre-empted his response. We have an obligation to open up the world for every single citizen. Under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, we have an obligation to reduce and eliminate obstacles and barriers to accessibility. I hope the Minister of State will go back to the Department and say that we must look again at the scheme. We can see how much has changed on a range of issues since the arrival of Covid. We should not do something just because it has been done in the same way for so long. Let us look at the situation and see how we can provide free travel or more opportunity for people and make their lives easier. We all agree that there are hidden costs attached to disability. This is another hidden cost. I thank the Minister of State for the information on the SWA scheme. I am sure that has helped and will help, but it will not help everybody.

I understand the frustrations and difficulties of anyone who suffers increased travel costs because of a disability. I understand the situation personally because my father faced this issue in that any time he had an epileptic episode he was off the road for 12 months. Any extensions to the eligibility criteria to the free travel scheme can only be considered while taking account of the objectives of the scheme as well as funding. Any decision that could result in significant extra funding requirements and additional administrative measures for a scheme could only be considered in the wider context of overall budgetary negotiations. I remind Senator McGreehan about the SWA option as well. I will bring the issue to the attention of the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, when I speak to her later this morning.

Social Welfare Benefits

Thank you for accepting my Commencement matter, a Chathaoirligh. The Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, is very welcome. I raise the issue of the costs faced by the over-70s and ask the Government to consider increasing the help provided to them. In 2018, a €2.50 weekly increase was introduced to assist those aged over 70 with their telephone line costs. This works out at €130 a year, but the cost of renting a landline is €504 a year. That is a significant amount for somebody over 70 who is on a very low income. Many such people are living alone and the telephone is their only means of communication with their family and friends. In these Covid times many people have been spending a lot of time at home. What highlighted the issue for me was when I received a letter from an 89-year-old man to say that because he is on the basic pension he does not have a television. While his TV licence would be free the cost of the different stations is prohibitive. He also found it was too expensive for him to have a telephone. His letter highlighted for me the difficulties of people who are on a low income. During these Covid times, when people have gone through so much, they have relied more on the television for company and on the telephone to make calls. It is time that we looked at the allowances that are paid to the over-70s to see if there is any way we can give them a helping hand. People are living longer but the situation is very difficult on people aged over 70.

While much has been done to increase the pension in recent years, for some time there were no increases or even partial cuts. It is very welcome that the pension was increased by €5 in the last budget, but there are other issues that we need to examine. People can only get the telephone allowance if they are in receipt of certain social welfare payments such as the living alone allowance and the fuel allowance. An older person who is living with a family member likes to pay his or her own bills and to have his or her independence. I would appreciate if the Government could examine the situation. I know it is early, in that the budget will take place in October, but I am sure many Departments are looking at their budgets, so for that reason it is an opportune time to highlight the issue.

I thank Senator Maria Byrne for raising this matter. The telephone support allowance, TSA, which was announced in budget 2018 is a weekly payment of €2.50 equating to €130 per year. Approximately 136,000 customers are currently in receipt of the TSA payment. The estimated full-year cost of the scheme is more than €18 million. The primary objective of the TSA is to support the most vulnerable people at risk of isolation, including the elderly and those with disabilities, with access to personal alarms or phones for security.

Therefore, the criteria for the allowance were framed in order to direct the limited resources available to the Department in as targeted a manner as possible. People who live alone are considered among those most at risk of social isolation. This payment, along with the living alone allowance, is also in part a recognition of the greater challenges facing those living alone in avoiding poverty. The deprivation rate of couples over 65 is less than half that recorded among those over that age who live alone.

To receive the TSA, a person must be in receipt of a qualifying payment, the living alone allowance and the means-tested fuel allowance. Qualifying core payments for the TSA include payments such as the contributory or non-contributory State pension and the widow's, widower's or surviving civil partner's contributory pension. Many of the people who are in receipt of qualifying payments for the TSA would already be over the age of 70.

The living alone allowance is paid to pensioners aged 66 and over who live alone and are in receipt of the State pension or certain other social welfare payments. It is also paid to people under 66 who live alone and are in receipt of a qualifying social welfare payment. The estimated number of recipients of the living alone allowance in 2021 is over 220,000 and the estimated full year cost of the scheme in 2021 is over €217 million.

I am very aware that the living alone allowance is a very important support for vulnerable customers who live alone. CSO surveys on income and living conditions consistently show that those aged 65 and over who live alone are more likely to be at risk of poverty than people living in multiperson households. Recent ESRI research from July 2020 supports these findings by highlighting the crucial importance of the living alone allowance in minimising the risk of poverty for this group of people. That is why in budget 2021 we increased the living alone allowance by €5, bringing the payment up from €14 to €19 per week, at a cost of over €57 million. Together with the increase provided in budget 2020, the living alone allowance has almost doubled in the last two years.

All schemes operated by the Department are constantly reviewed and any decision to change their qualifying criteria would have to be considered in the context of overall budgetary negotiations.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I am trying to highlight the fact that the cost of everything is increasing and we need to review the schemes in that context. People are finding it difficult to pay their bills, especially those on lower incomes. Many pensioners are solely reliant on the State pension of approximately €258 per week. I ask that the Department would review the allowances in the context of costs going up. Many people are cutting costs to try to cover other things and this needs to be looked at in that context. I acknowledge that the TSA provides €130 towards the cost of a telephone but it is €504 for a landline. I also acknowledge that the living alone allowance was increased to €19 per week, which is great, but there are still people in very difficult circumstances.

I thank Senator Byrne. I accept that the situation is as she describes but would reiterate that the primary objective of the TSA is to support vulnerable people most at risk of social isolation, including the elderly and those with disabilities, by providing them with access to personal alarms or phones for security. Therefore, the criteria for the allowance are framed in order to direct the limited resources available to the Department in as targeted a manner as possible. As can be seen from recent budget measures supported by evidence-based research, the Government is targeting increases in relevant payments to support the most vulnerable customers. The increase provided for in budget 2021 means that in 2021, living alone allowance recipients now receive €19 per week in addition to their primary social welfare payment, or a total of €988 over the course of this year. This budget measure represents a 36% increase in the value of this payment.

This increase is particularly important in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. Since March 2020 the pandemic has changed our lives profoundly. These are difficult times for many people, especially the vulnerable and the elderly, particularly those who are living alone. Therefore, the increase in the living alone allowance payment was an appropriate policy response. Together with the increase provided for in budget 2020, the living alone allowance has almost doubled in the last two years. Like all other schemes operated by the Department, this will be kept under review to ensure it is achieving its objective.

Common Agricultural Policy

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I tabled this Commencement matter following a lot of engagement with small farmers. I visited a number of farms in the last few days in County Laois. The farms I am talking about are small, traditional land holdings with Land Commission houses. Such farms are common in counties Cavan and Kerry. I was in Cavan last week and was also in Kerry, Clare, Galway and Wicklow. On all occasions I was there by appointment and visited small land holdings. The Minister of State will be very familiar with such farms which are generally no bigger than 30 to 50 acres.

To be fair to these farmers, they run holistic, sustainable little farms. They are farms that have been successful at outdoor rearing of cattle all year round. It is possible to successfully out-winter cattle in certain places where the ground is firm. They have tailored their farming husbandry and methods to the tight constraints of their farms and are successful.

I spoke to a farmer in County Clare who has had no vet visit his farm in three years and whose animals have not been injected with any veterinary products. He has approximately 15 head of cattle and runs a very small but concentrated operation, with some off-farm supplementary income. His farm is sustainable, holistic and can be loosely described as organic in that there is no use of fertiliser and luckily, no veterinary interventions.

I acknowledge the success of the three green low-carbon agri-environment schemes, GLAS. They are good for farmers, farming and the environment. I also acknowledge the extension of GLAS, which some farmers availed of successfully. In the early stages of GLAS in 2017, ring feeders were in operation but their use was stopped. Under GLAS, a lot of farmers converted to low-input permanent pasture, LIPP, but the knock-on effect of LIPP was to reduce holdings in terms of grazing. That was a scheme for which funding was available.

Farmers want to continue the practice of out-wintering where possible. It is not always possible and very much depends on ground conditions and many other issues. They believe they can do it but want some assurances in the context of CAP. Who will represent the interests of the small farmers who operate in this way in the context of CAP? These farmers are engaged in safe farming practices. They are not spreading slurry at any time or using other fertilisers. They have a rotation grazing system in place and are careful not to overgraze. They are conscious that it is in their own interests to have a sustainable farm operation. Profitability is important to them but so is their land. They are the custodians of the land, which is important.

How can we support these farmers and who will do so? Can they continue to use ring-feeders, albeit moving them around the farm? Can they continue to use them in order to feed silage to their animals?

I thank Senator Boyhan for raising this matter. It is good to hear that he was in County Laois at the weekend.

Government Departments and their agencies work collaboratively to collectively protect water quality in Ireland. The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage is the lead authority for the nitrates regulations and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine implements and operates the nitrates derogation. The current nitrates action programme and nitrates derogation are in place from 2018 to 2021, inclusive. Ireland has commenced the process of reviewing the nitrates regulations. Initial consultation closed on 15 January this year but a second consultation is planned to commence shortly. I invite Senator Boyhan and any other interested parties to contribute to that consultation. In parallel, Ireland is meeting the European Commission and presenting at the EU's nitrates committee with a view to renewing a nitrates action programme for 2022.

Unlike other EU member states, Ireland has both nitrogen and phosphorous measures within the regulatory framework.

This contributes to additional protection of waters and the environment. However, every farmer has a role to play in protection of the environment whether they are extensive or intensive farmers. While there are concessions within the current regulations, SI No. 605 of 2017, for the out-wintering of livestock, additional conditions are included such as: out-wintered livestock have free access at all times to the required land; the amount of manure produced on the holdings does not exceed an amount containing 140 kg of nitrogen per ha per annum; and severe damage to the surface of the land by poaching does not occur.

Small amounts of phosphorous, even from extensive systems of farming, can cause ecological issues to water quality and management of the landscape is critical to minimise any potential losses, especially sediment and phosphorous losses from mismanagement of ring feeders. Detailed research in the agricultural catchments programme has highlighted that soils, weather and farming practices have a significant influence on the nutrient concentrations at the local scale. This has important implications for selecting the right measures while also managing farm practices. Ireland's heterogenous landscape means that measures need to be targeted to achieve the best environmental outcomes.

The next CAP can influence interventions at farm level. The development of the CAP strategic plan involves a number of stages including strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, SWOT, analysis, needs assessment, intervention design, financial allocations, target setting and governance systems. The draft CAP strategic plan will also be subject to an ex-ante evaluation, strategic environmental assessment and appropriate assessment, including a public consultation on the draft CAP strategic plan and draft environmental report.

The Minister and Ministers of State have, with our officials, continued to engage extensively with stakeholders on the future of CAP. Consultations on the development of the CAP strategic plan will continue via the CAP consultative committee, which comprises representatives of the main stakeholders, including farm bodies, non-government organisations, NGOs, industry representatives and academic representation. It also includes representatives from many Departments and Government agencies, including Bord Bia, Teagasc and the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. The committee has met on 18 occasions with further meetings planned throughout 2021. Details of the discussions to date are available on the Government website.

The negotiations on CAP are continuing at EU level with intensive negotiations between the European Parliament, Presidency and Commission continuing with a view to reaching agreement at the Council of Ministers meeting on 28 and 29 June. The Department is continuing to develop the CAP strategic plan in consultation with stakeholders through the CAP consultative committee and other forums. Consideration is currently being given to measures that will be supported under the new CAP strategic plan and stakeholders will be further consulted on this shortly. Following the consultation, the draft plan will then be subject to strategic environmental assessment, the ex-ante evaluation and further public consultation processes before submission to the Commission by the deadline of 1 January 2022.

That was quite complex. I appreciate the Minister of State had to cover a lot of ground. However, the real focus I am attempting in my question is on small farmers throughout this country who are sustaining rural communities with a maximum of 40 acres and cannot be given permission to build for in-house cattle. That is why they are out-wintering in the first place. We have cut stone in beautiful parts of the world in the west of Ireland. These farms are small and sustainable. Their principal income does not derive from farming. Out-wintering is an essential part of farming that sustains these rural communities. They want to be able to keep small numbers of stock outside with no fertiliser or spreading of slurry. They are using their facilities. We want to keep these people on the land and in their communities in a sustainable way. I ask the Minister of State to look at some future guidelines that perhaps focus on this small cohort of farmers who wish to continue to be successful in farming in their rural communities up and down this country. I again thank the Minister of State for her comprehensive response.

I reassure the Senator that the Department and I are committed to supporting those small farmers. They are indeed vital to rural areas. Whether they are full time or part time does not matter much to me at all. It is about how the land is managed and the water protected. If we can do that through supporting small farmers to maintain livestock, it is even better. At the end of the day, it comes down to how the land is managed and the water protected. We will absolutely do everything we can to support farmers to keep farming in these areas. It is a part of Ireland we still have that is very unique and we need to cling to it. I am happy to engage further on this offline if the Senator wishes. It is a good plan and certainly something I support.

As someone who comes from one of those farms, I am very glad to hear that Commencement matter.

Tax Collection

I raise the issue of professional withholding tax, which is a matter many will not know about because the only people affected are those who collect it and those who pay it. It affects many thousands of workers in this country who provide professional services to the State through local authorities, the HSE, Departments or whatever it might be. They include engineers, medical staff, lawyers and anybody providing professional services to the State. In those circumstances, 20% is deducted from their earnings at the end of the year to cover their tax liability because these people are self-assessed taxpayers.

Most people are pay as you earn, PAYE, workers and their income tax is deducted at source, which is very convenient, but for self-assessed, and very often self-employed, taxpayers the State takes a 20% chunk at source. This taxpayer only gets paid €800 on a fee of €1,000. That might sound harsh but can in fact be a major advantage to the individual because it means that person has a 20% tax credit at the end of the year. It is of significant benefit to the State's cash flow because it means the money is available to it from the word go, as opposed to waiting a year until a tax return is filed and paid, etc.

I raise the issue today to suggest it might be worth the Department's time to consider allowing those people who fall into the professional services withholding tax bracket, to opt to pay at the 40% rather than 20% rate. Any of them likely to fall into that marginal rate may choose to pay the tax at 40%. To be absolutely clear, I am not suggesting that would be a tax increase on any of them. I am suggesting the professional services withholding tax would be collected in a different way. Rather than taking a 20% chunk at source, we would take 40%. The idea is the person has a 40% rather than 20% tax credit at the end of year.

Why is that useful for individuals? In the first instance, if it is not I suggest they do not opt for it. The idea is this would be available to them so they can choose to go down this road if they want. Second, as a self-employed person who has been in this situation, it is tremendously helpful, at the end of the year when so many bills are due and there are many other things that need to be paid, to be able to say that the bulk, or all, of my tax is already paid. It means not having to worry about that extra bill at the end of the year.

From the State's perspective, there is clearly an advantage. From a cash-flow and certainty of receipts position, the State knows exactly how much it has taken from those people providing professional services. It has that 40% in the bank, as it were, without creating cash-flow difficulties for the Exchequer. Obviously, if the person who opted to pay 40% does not make it into the top rate of tax then he or she is entitled to a rebate. However, there is still an advantage, both to the taxpayer who is better able to manage his or her tax affairs as the end of the year approaches, and to the State, which resolves a potential cash-flow issue. We constantly monitor Exchequer returns throughout the year to see what level they are coming in at. This creates a much greater level of certainty for the Exchequer regarding people who fall into this category.

I ask the Minister of State if the Department will consider creating this option for mostly self-employed, professional service providers to the State when they are paying tax at source. Much like PAYE workers, they will be able to opt to pay it at the higher rate to reduce the liability that might fall on them at the end of the year. This will help their cash-flow management and will also provide for greater cash-flow management for the Exchequer.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. When I saw this particular Commencement matter, I felt it was extraordinary that someone would want to opt to pay tax at 40%, but I knew straightaway what was behind it.

Professional services withholding tax, PSWT, is a deduction at the standard rate of income tax at 20% from relevant payments made by accountable persons to specified persons. They are the service providers in respect of certain professional services. The tax deducted is a payment on account. I stress that. It is not, and was never intended to be, a payment to cover the tax liability for the year. It was always only a payment on account. That is the key point I want to make. It is against a person's specified final liability for the year with the amount of PSWT deducted credit against the tax liability for the full year. "Specified person" can include businesses undertaken via a company, sole trade or a partnership.

"Accountable persons" include Government Departments, State agencies and bodies, local authorities, colleges and authorised medical insurance providers. The definition of "professional services" covers a wide range of services such as medical, architectural, engineering, financial, legal and geological services. Upon making a relevant payment, an accountable person will issue a certificate, known as an F45 form, to the specified person showing details of the payment and the tax deducted. The legislation provides that a specified person may, in certain circumstances, make a claim for a refund of PSWT in the year in which it is deducted, referred to as an interim refund. Among the requirements for the making of an interim refund claim is the requirement that the specified person's profits for the previous period have been finalised and that the tax due for that period has been paid. All claims must be accompanied by the relevant F45s. Any refund due will be processed and made by Revenue. That is the people at the other end of the scale, who are looking for a refund. They might feel the 20% was excessive in their particular case when the costs of running their particular service are taken into account. It is proposed to introduce electronic professional services withholding tax, EPSWT, from 1 July 2021, which is in the next fortnight or so. Section 13 of the Finance Act 2020 provides for an electronic payment notification via Revenue Online Service, ROS, and the ending of the paper P45 form. I am sorry, I meant F45 form. I should not have mentioned the P45 in this context.

As an accountable person applies a deduction to a relevant payment it is not possible for a specified person to choose the tax rate which is applied to this relevant payment. As the query relates to PSWT being withheld at 40% as opposed to 20%, I will focus my following comments on self-employed individuals, because it is all about the persons concerned. For the income tax year 2021, an individual is subject to tax at 20% on income up to €35,300 and 40% thereafter. An individual will also qualify for a personal tax credit and an earned income tax credit totalling €3,300. The result of this is a lower effective income tax rate than 40% on an individual's income. It is also important to note that an individual is subject to PSWT on his or her gross income, that is, before any deductions incurred wholly and exclusively in the trade such as insurance, rent, salaries, etc. A self-assessed individual must pay preliminary tax for the year equal to, or more than, the lowest amount of the following: 90% of the tax due for that tax year; 100% of the tax due for the immediately previous tax year; or 105% of the tax due for the tax year preceding the immediately previous tax year. This option only applies where a person pays by direct debit.

An individual can choose to pay additional preliminary tax throughout the year should he or she believe his or her current year tax liability will be higher than the previous tax year. Revenue has advised that there are a number of options available to self-employed individuals to make payments on account in respect of their income tax liability throughout the year on the Revenue Online Service using a ROS debit instruction, or via MyAccount using a debit instruction. These systems will accept bank account details or debit or credit cards. A third option exists where an individual can apply for a direct debit instruction. There is, therefore, an option for persons to pay the additional tax as the year goes on, depending on how they expect their own situation to evolve.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I welcome the electronic element of this that is coming. It is absolutely welcome and Revenue is generally very good at putting these things online. I am delighted to hear the Minister of State saying this is all about the individual because that is exactly where I am coming from. The question I am asking is whether this is something Revenue will do or will consider doing. Of course we can make voluntary tax payments during the year but that does not reflect the reality of how people work with respect to their tax affairs.

The Minister of State has mentioned this is a payment. My proposal would be an option for individual taxpayers. It would allow them to choose to pay at the 40% initially, on account, as it were, and to have that money banked with respect to their liability at the end of the year. I recognise it is not to pay their liability but it helps to pay their liability and gives them a huge advantage when it comes to the end of the year. I am wondering if the Government will give people the option to do that, to recognise the reality of tax flow problems, particularly for self-employed professional services providers.

The idea of having an option of which withholding tax to pay is not part of the system. The 20% withholding tax applies to vast areas, including ones people will have seen much discussion of, such as some investment funds. There was an exception made there and it was brought up to 25% for some particular categories but right across the board there is a 20% withholding tax rate and Revenue has said that by and large - I do not have the statistics to hand - that covers the liability for most people. There are many people who, when all the expenses of their businesses are taken into account, fall into the category where their maximum top tax rate is 20%. I understand some people will certainly be paying at 40% but I am told the vast majority of those receiving this would not be in that category when the expenses of the business are taken into account. I will say that should an individual believe his or her current tax liability will be higher than it was the previous year, he or she can choose to pay additional preliminary tax through the year. I know the Senator said that is not the normal way but many people run their lives by ordering only so much heating oil per month and pay it that way rather than a bill every time the lorry comes to fill the oil tank. People pay their electricity bill and many people pay their bills on a monthly basis, and there is provision there for circumstances where a person feels he or she has a requirement to do so. However, I am not in a position to say there can be that option for the 40%.

Direct Provision System

I thank the Minister of State for taking this Commencement matter on behalf of the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman. I am raising the question of the Courtown Hotel emergency direct provision centre, which was opened just over two years ago, to try to get clarity on its future, particularly for the residents there, of whom there are about 36. The International Protection Service, IPAS, indicated in March that it would be informing residents they would be moved on in the coming months. That was the extent of the clarity we got. The communication with residents has been far from ideal. Indeed, it seems IPAS has only been communicating with certain residents. In some cases the residents have been told they must move with less than two weeks' notice, and in some cases, only two days' notice. Very limited information is given to the families as to where they may have to move to. I must say I can empathise because emails I have sent to IPAS seeking clarity have gone either unacknowledged or unanswered.

Some of the residents there are students of Riverchapel National School or Creagh College, a secondary school, and obviously the schools would like to see those students being able to finish out the school year. There have been some assurances sought on that but it has not yet happened. There are six families with children due to go into third year this September; they have started on the junior certificate process but they do not have certainty. The Minister of State will appreciate the difficulty of students moving into an exam year being told they are being uprooted and a different school will have to be found for them. Some of the residents have secured employment in the County Wexford area, or indeed in Dublin and are now being told they must move. In the case of one family, even though they made clear they had a hospital appointment in Kilkenny for 10 June, IPAS told them they would be moving on 8 June. IPAS said it would arrange a transfer by taxi from County Monaghan to Kilkenny for the family concerned.

I am aware that on 10 June the Minister met with the Wexford Sanctuary Ambassadors. Among the ambassadors were Sufyan and Mariam, two of the residents in Courtown. They had been ambassadors talking about the importance of Ireland as a place of sanctuary. They sought clarity from the Minister not just for the residents of Courtown but more generally, that there be greater communication from IPAS to residents of direct provision centres.

I know what some of those families have experienced. From speaking with them, I know they have experienced war, political oppression and hardship. They have been waiting a long period and we have many problems with direct provision and the speed with which the cases of these families are being addressed. In north Wexford these families have been welcomed and I pay tribute in particular to Mr. John Kelly in Wexford Local Development, Ms Mandi Tighe with Gorey Youth Needs, Ms Tiffy Allen of Places of Sanctuary Ireland, as well as the wider community, which has made these families feel welcome within the community. They took part in community activities. Mariam, one of the women I mentioned, was a tailor by profession and she manufactured 4,000 face masks in the early days of the pandemic and when we were under pressure sourcing personal protective equipment.

These are families who want to contribute, who have got involved and who have made the north Wexford area their home over the past two years. Their kids are in the local school and they have helped local community organisations. At the very least they are entitled to have some information about what is going on but IPAS has not provided it. I am hoping the Minister of State can provide the answers.

I apologise on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Roderic O'Gorman, who cannot be here. This response has been drafted by departmental officials and perhaps we can get further into the more human side of what the Senator has raised afterwards.

In arranging the moves, the international protection accommodation service, or IPAS, of the Department has sought to take account of families' individual needs. For example, families with children sitting State exams will not be moved until after the exams have been completed. I hope that brings clarity for the families mentioned by the Senator. All of the families that are moving will be accommodated in centres that provide for independent living where they can choose and prepare their own meals. Some are moving to own-door accommodation and all families and single people will be accommodated in centres with staff who are trained to assist their residents to find the supports they need in their locality.

All dedicated accommodation centres also have a "friends of the centre" group, comprising residents, staff and local volunteers to assist with the integration of residents into the community and to promote relationships with local groups, such as Tidy Towns committees, sports clubs, Men's Sheds and mother and baby clubs.

IPAS officials visited Courtown on 12 March and subsequently held an online clinic with residents on 25 March. They also attended the centre on Tuesday and Friday last to assist residents with their move. IPAS has engaged fully with local services, including Tusla, Wexford Local Development and an NGO, Places of Sanctuary, in dealing with the centre and its residents. It is great that we are talking to all these organisations but the most important group to speak with are the families. Listening to the Senator's contribution, it seems that was missing. The officials will continue to assist families to settle into their new accommodation and ensure they are linked with all of the services they need in their new locations, such as school places and access to health services.

The Minister, Deputy Roderic O'Gorman, met residents of a number of centres, including several residents of the Courtown emergency centre, at an online meeting with Places of Sanctuary on Thursday, 10 June. That meeting involved a wide-ranging discussion about all aspects of direct provision and the international protection process with people who are at different stages. This included people living in direct provision whose applications have still to be determined; people who have been granted international protection and have moved out of direct provision accommodation; and people who have been granted status but are still living in direct provision accommodation.

I thank the Minister of State for the response. I appreciate there is a broader issue around case processing times as it will provide greater clarity on the broader question of direct provision. It is completely unjust that families must wait so long to get an answer to their case, although I know it is a Government priority to address that.

I am sorry but I strongly dispute the argument where IPAS claims it has fully engaged with the local community and residents. If it had fully engaged, I would not be standing here today and local schools would not have contacted me to express concern. The local representatives of voluntary organisations and the NGO, Places of Sanctuary, would not have contacted me to express that concern. Major concerns clearly remain about the lack of communication from IPAS. Frankly, as I know from past experience, I do not have confidence in the ability of IPAS to communicate its message. It does not matter if it communicates it to me or anybody else, as the most important people here are the residents. It is clear that IPAS has failed to communicate to those residents.

I ask for a very clear commitment after today's debate that IPAS would set out a clear programme of communication with residents and local organisations that are involved with this. If I have specific questions, it should finally, after all the emails I have sent, get back to me.

I thank the Senator for again articulating the lack of communication between IPAS and the residents, including a lack of response to his emails. I will take all of this to the Minister, as I am deputising for him today. I will ask the Minister to engage directly with the Senator and have the conversation about what systems are being put in place for that direct communication.

I have also heard about the six families with young people heading to do their junior certificate and they have made bonds of friendship in the school. It is a broader element that must be considered and a conversation must take place on that as well. I will tell the Minister about this exactly. I have no doubt I understand precisely why the schools have contacted the Senator. I apologise to the families for the lack of communication and when I take this to the Minister, perhaps we will rectify the position because of today's discussion.

Departmental Buildings

I thank the Cathaoirleach for facilitating this Commencement debate and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, for attending. The building belonging to the Technological University, TU, of Dublin on the Lower Rathmines Road has been vacated because of the university's relocation to the Grangegorman campus. Space is now available to the Department of Education in the substantial buildings and prefabs on the former TU Dublin site.

A proposal to temporarily accommodate the Harcourt Terrace Educate Together school within the main building vacated by the Technological University Dublin, TU Dublin, has been made by the Department, with a site visit undertaken by the Educate Together school principal last week. Rathmines College of Further Education, which is located in Rathmines Town Hall directly across the road, has been experiencing a severe shortage of classroom space for some time, and has requested that space be allocated on a long-term basis within the main building, which has been designed for third level education and was originally part of the College of Commerce there. Facilities in that main building include steep staircases and limited basement toilets, making the building less suitable for the needs of primary school children, in terms of health and safety requirements, and make it more suitable for third level students. A number of prefab buildings, including a kitchen and staff area and a general purpose room, and access to outdoor yard areas, indicate that the prefabs may be a more suitable temporary location for the Educate Together school community while it awaits the completion of its new Harcourt Terrace school in two years' time. Rathmines College of Further Education is in need of classroom space for its more than 700 students who are cramped in the current facilities in the Rathmines Town Hall.

A move would allow for the restoration of the stunning but disused 19th century Rathmines concert hall inside the town hall building. That amenity could be brought back into use as a civic, cultural and educational amenity for the whole community. I and other representatives in the area have formed a group called the Friends of Rathmines Town Hall, and we have been working on the possibility of the restoration of the concert hall there. The town hall and the former DIT conservatory of music buildings were visited by the Minister of State with responsibility for heritage, Deputy Malcolm Noonan, and his officials in the last two weeks. The Minister of State's Department seems enthusiastic that the project be realised with co-operation between his Department, the Department of Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, and in the first instance the Department of Education. I fully appreciate that there is a short-term need for accommodation at the Rathmines campus, and I fully appreciate that restoration of the concert hall in the Rathmines Town Hall building will take time, but I ask that the Departments in question, and especially the Minister of State's Department and the Department of the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Simon Harris, would look at the needs of Rathmines College of Further Education and facilitate the sharing of the space, which has now been vacated by the Technological University Dublin, and that all interests can be progressed in parallel so the Rathmines College of Further Education can have the classrooms and other facilities it so vitally needs at this stage. I am interested to hear what the Minister of State has to say about this.

I thank Senator McDowell for the question. The Senator will be aware that in April 2018, a 600 pupil post-primary school that will act as a regional solution for the Dublin 2 and Dublin 4 school planning area was announced. In 2019, my Department acquired the former Dublin Institute of Technology Rathmines building to accommodate this post-primary school. This post-primary school was originally to open in 2021 but for various reasons, including that the additional residential development has not yet materialised, the opening has been deferred. Nevertheless, the future requirement for the school remains and the Department is currently planning for the provision of the required accommodation at this location. When the Department acquired the property, it was leased back to TU Dublin, which originally owned the building. TU Dublin vacated the building in February 2020 on its move to its new campus at Grangegorman. In February 2021, the Department entered a short-term lease with City of Dublin Education and Training Board, CDETB, for it to lease the building from February 2021 to the end of June 2021. At the time, the Department advised the CDETB that it could not commit to a longer lease as it was unclear if the building would be required to meet school needs for the 2021-2022 school year. The Department indicated that should the building not be required for use as a school for that year the Department would be open to extension of the lease for a further 12 months.

The Senator will be aware that each year my Department has to make arrangements for temporary accommodation for schools where delivery of the permanent solution for the school may not be available for the upcoming school year. A number of schools are being looked at in this regard across the south Dublin area. Following a review of school requirements for the 2021-2022 school year and the development schedule for the Harold's Cross site it was concluded that there would be insufficient room for the Harcourt Terrace school to remain on the site for the 2021-2022 school year. The Rathmines building was identified as a temporary location for the Harcourt Terrace Educate Together national school for the next number of years pending the development of their permanent at school at Harcourt Terrace. Unfortunately, no alternative suitable facilities could be identified in the area for the Harcourt Terrace Educate Together national school.

The Department reviewed the facilities in the Rathmines building to identify how best it could be used and whether it could support the co-location of a number of entities. Following this assessment, however, it was identified that the building had a number of severe limitations, in particular the limited number of toilets and the location of toilets within the building. Unfortunately, the layout of the building does not support the subdividing of the building for use by different users where there would be a need to separate those users, as would be the case if primary school-aged pupils were to share the building with adult students who would attend a college of further education. While there are a number of modular units located in a yard attached to the building, the primary school pupils would be using this yard as a play area. Again, it would not appropriate to have primary-aged pupils and adult students sharing the one area.

I note what the Senator has said about the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, visiting the building recently, and I note the Senator's proposals to the Ministers, Deputies Catherine Martin and Simon Harris. I appreciate the difficult circumstances faced by the Rathmines College of Further Education around the space available to it and the capacity it has. The Senator referred to the cramped facilities and I will bring this to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Foley, as well as the other Ministers.

I am grateful to the Minister of State for explaining the present situation. I am not suggesting that anything permanent be done in the short term. What is not generally known among the citizens of Dublin is that in the old Rathmines Town Hall there was an auditorium that could accommodate some 2,000 people, which was before fire safety. It was a big concert hall that was used as a cinema and as a public meeting space and the like. Due to constraints in the past 20 years the College of Commerce in Rathmines, or its predecessor, put in a series of what are effectively prefab subdivisions on the ground floor of this substantial auditorium. If one can imagine the area of the auditorium, please consider the area of this Chamber where we now sit. Imagine where the Acting Chairperson is now sitting and this ground floor being covered in prefab internal structures, and the space above just left as a void. That is the situation that exists in Rathmines Town Hall. It is a real tragedy that it ever happened. I have looked at the former DIT technical institute building in Rathmines. There are serious limitations around toilet accommodation no matter who uses it, because it is in a basement and so on. I fully appreciate that the Minister has plans to build a second level school in the area. The interests of all these educational institutions and the local community can be looked at together and in the round. It would be a huge advantage for a school such as the one proposed to be built on this site, to have a major performing space for its purposes also. I ask that the Minister of State would keep an open mind on the matter and that irreversible decisions should not be made on silo thinking. There is a broader local interest to be taken into account between a number of very valuable educational institutions.

I thank Senator McDowell for his comments. It is important that there is no silo thinking, especially when we are talking about education. The Senator appreciates the fact that an Educate Together national school will go into the old Rathmines DIT site from August, and that eventually a post-primary school will go in there also. There is no other place to put these particular schools, and this is the plan from the Department of Education's perspective.

A collaborative aspect that would involve all the different Departments, including those overseen by the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, who the Senator said is enthusiastic about the performance space aspect, can be considered. It also applies to the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin. It is a real shame when an establishment such as the Rathmines College of Further Education does not have sufficient capacity and is limited. There must be a way to work towards a solution and if everybody puts their minds together, something fruitful could come out of it.

Sitting suspended at 11.41 a.m. and resumed at 12.04 p.m.