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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 22 Jun 2021

Vol. 277 No. 5

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Direct Provision System

I thank the Minister of State for being in the Seanad.

I am raising an important issue relating to direct provision and the Government's commitment to ending the current system for the reception and integration of people seeking refuge here in Ireland from conflict and persecution. I commend the Minister of State for the work undertaken in this area to date, specifically in the preparation of the White Paper on ending direct provision, which was published in February of this year. We are all aware of the inadequacy of the current direct provision system which has, as the Government has acknowledged, failed to respect the dignity and human rights of individuals and families within the system. Any new system for reception and integration must address those deficiencies and ensure that the human rights and dignity of those seeking protection from conflict and persecution are upheld.

The Irish State has relied too heavily on the private sector for the provision of direct provision accommodation over the last 21 years and this overreliance has failed people who so desperately need our care and support. The White Paper is ambitious in many areas and it goes some distance in terms of addressing the inadequacy of the direct provision system. I welcome many of its contributions, including those relating to women's health and period poverty, providing access to financial support equivalent to child benefit for families, and ensuring greater protection for unaccompanied minors. I also welcome the White Paper’s commitment to ending shared intimate living for families and to providing greater privacy for individuals within the system of accommodation.

My concern relates to the tendering process for the provision of accommodation for individuals and families seeking protection and refuge in Ireland. The White Paper emphasises the role to be played by the not-for-profit sector in the provision of accommodation. However, it does not explicitly state how or when this will be achieved. We presently do not have a timetable for the implementation of the new tendering process, nor are we aware of the steps which will be involved in the process for interested parties. My fear is that without a clear timeline and roadmap as to how this process will be implemented, not-for-profit organisations and social enterprises will be placed at a disadvantage in the tendering process.

Entering a submission for a tender is an expensive, time-consuming and risky process and not-for-profits and social enterprises are, by nature, less well-resourced than for-profit entities and more risk averse. As a result, my concern is that the new multistrand system for the provision of accommodation will ultimately favour for-profit enterprises, leaving us in a situation where the dignity and human rights of vulnerable people continue to be disrespected for the sake of profit.

I ask that the Minister of State provides an update regarding the timeline for implementation of the multistrand system for the provision of accommodation, and clarifies which strands are likely to be available at different stages throughout the implementation of the White Paper. I ask the Minister of State to outline the progress made in terms of the new procurement process and the steps involved for interested parties, if possible, at this stage. Traditionally competitive tendering processes are best suited to the private sector and in other instances, non-profit organisations have entered into service-level agreements with State bodies, such as the HSE and Tusla, to facilitate their involvement in provision of services. Has the Minister of State explored a service level agreement, SLA, process, rather than a tendering process? Additionally, I ask if the Department has considered the possibility of piloting a not-for-profit-owned or accommodation scheme while the implementation of the White Paper is under way? In implementing a pilot model, a not-for-profit or social enterprise could demonstrate the immediate viability of a better standard of care for those seeking refuge here in Ireland. We do not have to wait until 2024 to demonstrate that an alternative to the current model exists. I would encourage the Minister of State to consider this, if the Department has not already done so. While the promised winding down of the current system for reception and integration by 2024 is a welcome commitment, it is too far away for those individuals and families whose dignity and human rights are being pushed to their limits in direct provision today.

I apologise on behalf of the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O’Gorman, who cannot be here. I thank the Senator for raising the issue.

Officials at the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth are currently developing a tender process to secure additional accommodation for families with children, couples and single people seeking international protection. That process is still at a relatively early stage. There are a number of issues around the precise tender design and specifications that still need to be worked through. Nonetheless, all is going well. It is expected that a call for tender will be issued before the end of the summer. It would not be appropriate for me to anticipate the precise details of the tender specifications at this stage. However, a number of points are worth making by way of context. A key element of the work for 2021, that is set out in the White Paper to end direct provision, is to undertake a systematic programme to move away from reliance on emergency accommodation. As the Senator will know, the Department currently has 24 emergency accommodation centres, at various locations around the country, providing accommodation for 1,187 people. A successful tender process will enable the Department to move away from this reliance on emergency accommodation.

The provision of accommodation for applicants seeking international protection is a demand-led process, with the vast majority of applicants arriving in the State spontaneously. While the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in a decrease in the number of applicants seeking international protection, demand for accommodation is expected to increase significantly once the current travel restrictions ease. Under the recast asylum reception conditions directive, which Ireland opted into in 2018, the State is legally obliged to provide accommodation to international protection applicants who need it while their claim is being determined. It will be necessary to put in place a process which allows the Department to respond flexibly to increases in demand as they arise. The new tender process aims to put in place a flexible approach to enable the Department to meet its accommodation needs on an ongoing basis, pending the full implementation of the White Paper. It is intended that, as far as possible, any new accommodation that is secured during the interim period will be broadly aligned with the approach set out in the White Paper. The aim is to improve the quality of accommodation and services offered to international protection applicants. The current tender process is aimed at securing additional accommodation for international protection applicants to ensure that the Department moves away from reliance on emergency accommodation and to ensure that it has adequate capacity and can respond flexibly to increases in demand as they arise.

There is no degree of urgency to this. As a consequence, the Department has no plans to run any pilot projects as part of the process.

The Senator referred to the not-for-profit sector and I understand non-governmental organisations and the not-for-profit sector are being looked at. The Senator asked about the criteria to be used and I will bring those concerns to the Minister.

I note the Minister of State indicates the Department does not plan to look at a pilot project. I am a little concerned that we are at the early stage of the tendering process, and such processes can take a long time. I am aware that the Minister of State has said the senior Minister plans to release that tender before the end of the summer. It sounds like there is a tight turnaround on the tendering process. I am aware of a number of different not-for-profit organisations that are ready to go with own-door accommodation and it feels like an awful shame when so many people are living in such cramped, unsuitable conditions while there is an option or alternative in the interim. I ask that the Minister of State communicates this to the Department so it could consider some of those options if there are further delays in the tendering process.

The current public procurement process is aimed at securing additional accommodation for international protection applicants to enable the Department to move away from the use of emergency accommodation. As I have said, there is an urgency to this exercise; while demand remains relatively low, it is likely to increase once the current travel restrictions are eased. The State has a legal as well as a moral duty to provide accommodation to any applicant for international protection who needs accommodation; a claim is being determined but it would not be appropriate for me to speculate about the precise details of the procurement process, who might bid or about what tender submissions might be successful. The Department will run its tender process in compliance with public procurement law and it will be open to all eligible parties to bid, in the normal way, when the time comes.

I will bring the comments made by the Senator on the not-for-profit organisations, which are interesting, back to the Minister.

Defibrillators Provision

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. We all looked in shock last Saturday week at the distressing scenes at the soccer match between Finland and Denmark when a young and fit international footballer dropped to the ground, suffering a cardiac arrest. The medical team on-site jumped into action and with the aid of an automated external defibrillator, AED, the player was stabilised and a life was saved.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time we have seen or heard of this happening on our playing pitches, whether it is in an international soccer stadium or local sports club grounds, or even in the many great communities we have on this island. The key to the survival of Mr. Christian Eriksen and so many before him was the availability of an AED and, just as important, the training of people in knowing how to use it. The Irish Red Cross estimates there are between 8,000 and 10,000 publicly accessible defibrillators in Ireland but the emergency services may only know approximately 25% of these locations. The key word is "estimates" and hence my reason for raising this on the Commencement today.

What we need in the country is a national central register of all available defibrillators and, like in other countries, an app to help in the speed and convenience in finding them. We must include and expand the terrific Community First Responders we have in this country. They are embedded in their communities and committed to saving lives. In my home town of Athy they respond to approximately one cardiac event each month and in our bigger towns, that number could be doubled or even trebled. These volunteers still have to fundraise by holding annual table quizzes, for example, to ensure there is continuous training for members. We need to fund this community organisation so it can provide training within their communities and so these community-based groups can ensure AEDs in their areas are working and particularly that batteries and pads are in working order.

As a public representative in south Kildare I hold fundraisers and been delighted to launch AEDs in every community there. However, it is vital that all these AEDs be registered and checked regularly to ensure they are in working order. There are examples of community groups using an app to register AEDs and this could be used on a national basis. One of those is the Enniscorthy defibrillator initiative, called PulsePoint, and it seeks to register all defibrillators in the town. Another is the work of Dr. Peter Naughton in County Laois mapping the location of all AEDs in the county so the emergency services could advise frantic callers in their hour of need of the nearest device. My colleague, Councillor Paul O'Brien in Wicklow, has proposed that a provision for AEDs should be included in all new major housing builds, which is an excellent idea and another way of providing safer communities in all our counties.

I have been made aware that in 2019, according to the out-of-hospital cardiac arrest register, there were 2,564 out-of-hospital cardiac arrests, or 54 per 100,000 of our population. The report also indicates that defibrillation was attempted in 25% of these cases before the arrival of the emergency services.

Of course, there is the great work done by the National Ambulance Service and its staff, who take those emergency calls in the first place, assisting even those not trained in the use of an AED. Where one is available, a call to the emergency services should always be made. We need investment in a national register and app by the HSE. We need investment in our Community First Responders to assist in their training and the training and assisting of people in clubs, shops and schools that hold an AED in the community. Such a register would save lives and ensure that a life-saving machine is working when it is needed most. It will continue to build support for a community-based initiative that is already making a difference and saving lives in the State.

This is a very important matter.

I welcome the opportunity to address this House on behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, about the work under way in developing a national register for AEDs and to echo the comment on the good work already carried out by community first responder groups under the auspices of our National Ambulance Service.

As the Senator may be aware, the HSE is currently in the implementation phase of the out-of-hospital cardiac arrest strategy for Ireland. This strategy was developed by an interdisciplinary steering group, led by the Department of Health, which had the aim of increasing the number of people who survive an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest in Ireland, using national and international experience to address all the elements in the chain of survival.

The HSE has since established an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest strategy implementation group to progress this work. The group is led by the National Ambulance Service and actions are being progressed by partner organisations, including Dublin Fire Brigade, the pre-hospital emergency care council, the Irish Heart Foundation and An Garda Síochána.

In line with the Senator's question, one of the projects currently under way is a work stream to develop a national AED register. Currently, the National Ambulance Service has a list of locations for over 2,000 AEDs on its national computer-aided dispatch system, which it can use to advise emergency callers in AED retrieval and use, if appropriate, while the emergency response is en route.

Currently, the implementation group is examining how a national AED register would better support existing emergency response systems in an integrated way. This includes the development of advice and support that may be required in the community setting on maintenance requirements and other practical concerns, for example.

I am happy to confirm to the House that the out-of-hospital cardiac arrest implementation group has received funding of €650,000 in budget 2021 to progress this important work as part of the overall implementation of the strategy. In addition, it is important to again stress the services already provided at community level in the area of cardiac response, and the Senator has rightly cited the work carried out by the National Ambulance Service and Community First Responder groups in that regard. Community First Responders are trained volunteers who are co-ordinated and dispatched by the National Ambulance Service to attend actual or potentially life-threatening emergencies. As these volunteers are professionally trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and the use of defibrillators, they can respond to certain medical emergency calls in the community in that important first few minutes prior to the arrival of an emergency ambulance.

As highlighted by the Senator, our National Ambulance Service actively works with Community First Responders to advise and support on the importance of maintenance for their AEDs to ensure that they are operational at all times. The additional funding provided in 2021 in support of the work of the implementation group will facilitate progress on the AED register and other initiatives aimed at reducing cardiac arrest response times and improved survival rates for out-of-hospital cardiac arrest.

I note what the Senator said about how these have been mapped in Wicklow, Enniscorthy and County Laois. I saw it after that the awful incident last week in Sligo. People were putting on Twitter and Facebook where AEDs were. It is the same in Boyle and I have seen it there. I am sure that is happening around the country. We cannot have enough of that information because when one is in an emergency it is great to have it. Even I have looked to find out the nearest one to me and I am sure that has happened in many households around the country. I thank the Senator for raising this.

I thank the Minister of State for his positive reply. The sum of €650,000 allocated to the OHCA is a positive step forward in this regard. As the Minister of State said, there are a number of initiatives. I referred to one in Enniscorthy in Wexford, what happened in Laois and the initiative by my colleague, Councillor Paul O'Brien, in Wicklow. I ask the Minister of State to take those on board. Every minute makes a difference, and the Minister of State has acknowledged that. We must ensure there is a national register. These AEDs are located in schools, shops and sports clubs. However, as every minute makes a difference, when people and, most importantly, the National Ambulance Service receive a frantic call, they need to know where the AEDs are located. I welcome the fact that work is being carried out on formulating a national register. I ask that it be expedited given what has happened and the fact that people are talking about it at present. Now is the time to ensure that everybody knows where there is an AED, and I call on everybody to share that information as much as possible. I welcome the information given today.

I again thank Senator Wall for raising this timely issue. It has given me the chance to speak about the continued implementation of the out-of-hospital cardiac arrest strategy by the HSE, and some of the community services in place. It is my expectation that the funding provided by the Government in 2021 will result in real progress in the development of an AED register, and the HSE is already making progress on some of the practical elements that need to be considered in that regard.

In addition to this element of the strategy, I highlight the broader implementation work under way by the HSE and other agencies, as this will also support the dedicated work of the network of community first responders and the National Ambulance Service. Out-of-hospital cardiac arrest is a significant source of mortality and morbidity, with a wide variation in reported incidence and outcomes. Research shows that "it takes a whole system to save a life" and this is why a planned, strategic, whole-nation approach to improving OHCA survival is essential. On that basis, I am confident that the investment in the work of the OHCA strategy implementation group will achieve real and continued progress in survival rates for out-of-hospital cardiac arrest in Ireland.

Official Engagements

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. On Sunday, 30 May, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, visited China for a bilateral meeting with the Chinese Foreign Minister, Mr. Wang Yi. It did not surprise me that the Minister, Deputy Coveney, did not exactly bang the tables or lay down the law with the Chinese about human rights, the Uyghurs and so forth. Given the nature of the Government’s attitude and behaviour to China for the last decade, this was never likely.

However, a couple of things did surprise me. For example, for some reason the Department of Foreign Affairs waited for two days after the meeting before issuing a press release about the fact that it had taken place. Needless to say, the propaganda arm of the Chinese Communist Party, CCP, did not wait for two days to comment. It immediately stepped into the breach to spin its line on the nature of the meeting with the Minister, Deputy Coveney. The Minister was quoted by the CCP, and this is a direct quote in the Chinese media, as follows: "He praised China’s firm stance on multilateralism and spoke highly of China’s role as rotating president in the UN Security Council. Ireland is an honest friend of China in the EU and is ready to be a reliable partner, Coveney assured them". That is a direct quote attributed to our Minister for Foreign Affairs. Indeed, it is of a piece with what I quoted here last week from the book, Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World. In May 2019, Deputy Coveney said that the deepening relationship between the two countries would help Ireland to reach out to the European Union to advance China's interests in the EU. That was at the launch of a pro-Chinese Government think-tank, Asia Matters. The former Fine Gael Party leader, Mr. Alan Dukes, was closely involved in that, if I am not mistaken.

The Chinese state media continued: "Wang stressed the importance of mutual respect for the differences in the two countries' histories, cultures, stages of development and social systems." The phrase with regard to respect for the differences in history, culture and social systems is the Chinese Communist Party’s standard euphemism and doublespeak used to spin and excuse its violent suppression of democracy and basic human rights. It genuinely believes that the fact it has a different culture and history from the West somehow gives it a free pass. This phraseology is now used in a summary of a meeting involving an Irish Minister. The Department of Foreign Affairs eventually released its account of the meeting, in the usual emollient tone to which we have become accustomed. In fairness, the Minister raised the case of Richard O’Halloran, the Irish man being detained in China, as well as the treatment of the Uyghur minority. The statement said: "Minister Coveney outlined Ireland’s position on the treatment of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang". That is not exactly strong stuff. Tellingly, the statement mentioned Ireland’s beef exports to China before it mentioned the Uyghurs, showing the priorities.

I ask the Minister of State to address the following questions. What was the background to this meeting? When was it arranged? At whose instigation did it take place? What other countries were invited, and why that choice? Were they the countries that China perceives as most friendly to its interests, including Serbia and Hungary if I am not mistaken? Why did it take two days for the Department of Foreign Affairs to issue a press release about the discussions that took place, allowing the Chinese propaganda arm effectively to put words in the mouth of an Irish Minister? Was this timeline of statements agreed or choreographed in advance? Finally, was Taiwan discussed at the meeting? It certainly was not mentioned in the Department’s press release and, needless to say, it was not mentioned in the Chinese Communist Party’s puff-piece. I wonder if the Chinese insisted that it could not be discussed.

As the Senator noted, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, travelled to China last month to meet with his Chinese counterpart, Minister Wang Yi, on Sunday, 30 May. The meeting took place in the context of Ireland's membership of the UN Security Council and had an extensive agenda covering bilateral relations and EU-China relations, as well as issues on the agenda of the UN Security Council. As a permanent member of the Security Council and as a major partner for both Europe and Ireland at a bilateral level, engagement with China is necessary for progress to be made on a wide range of key issues.

In the context of Ireland's membership of the UN Security' Council, the Ministers, Mr. Wang Yi and Deputy Coveney, discussed a number of topics facing the council, including the situations in Syria, Ethiopia and Myanmar. We must engage with all members of the Security Council, especially permanent members, if we wish to see an effective response to these issues, and China is an important partner in this regard.

In terms of bilateral issues, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, again pressed the case of Mr. Richard O'Halloran with his Chinese counterpart with a view to achieving an early resolution of the matter. As I am sure Senator Mullen will understand, it would be inappropriate to comment further on the details of an ongoing consular case. Additionally, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, also discussed restoring access to the Chinese market for Irish beef.

EU-China relations were covered at length, with both Ministers expressing a wish to have stronger co-operation in areas of mutual interest. However, it was also recognised that there are several areas where Ireland and China disagree. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, outlined Ireland's position on the treatment of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang and raised concerns at the introduction of the national security law in Hong Kong and the implications it has for the "one country, two systems" principle. Ireland has consistently made its voice known on these issues, both bilaterally and in multilateral fora. Indeed, we have supported a joint statement at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, outlining our grave concerns regarding the situation in Xinjiang and in Hong Kong.

On Taiwan, as the Senator already knows, in common with all EU member states, Ireland maintains a One China policy. Although Ireland does not have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, it is free to engage with Taiwan on an economic and cultural basis. To this end, we recognise the benefits, for all parties concerned, of a peaceful and stable situation across the Taiwan Strait.

The Minister, Deputy Coveney, discussed the value of co-operation between the EU and China, and the need to develop a common approach on global issues, such as responding to the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change. Increasingly, problems that have a global impact demand a global response, and China remains an important partner in this regard.

I do not think anybody disputes the fact that, from time to time, Ireland raises concerns and even expresses great concerns, but it does not go beyond that. I spoke in this Chamber last week about the mounting evidence that our foreign policy lacks any moral core, because there is so much evidence of that recently. Days after returning from China, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, correctly said that the Belarusian President lacked democratic legitimacy. However, with him having recently returned home from a friendly meeting with a totalitarian communist dictatorship, it makes you wonder. The Minister then had a friendly meeting with the foreign minister of Iran, a country that supplies the rockets which Hamas were firing at civilians in Israel.

In 2019, the foreign minister in question, Mr. Mohammad Javad Zarif, supported and defended the executions of gay people in Iran, and thousands of gay people have been executed there since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Last week, pride flags were ripped down in Waterford, and Fine Gael MEPs and councillors were up in arms, took to the airwaves and, of course, got great support from the media. However, there was not a peep out of any of them when the deputy leader of their own party met with an Iranian minister who has publicly supported and defended the execution of thousands of gay people, which is a real abuse, a real injustice and a real outrage. Deputy John Paul Phelan was the only person to protest about it and, as far as I can tell, he got no support from his party colleagues. This tells us something about the attitude in Government. Do human rights mean something or are they just a pretext for virtue signalling here at home, the better to allow us to cower and doff the cap abroad in the interests of trade, primarily.

It is particularly important that we are aware of, and restate, our membership of the UN Security Council and the importance of that. It is in light of that membership that the engagements take place, which the Minister, Deputy Coveney, has been engaging in. It is through constructive engagement that we find solutions to many of the problems that face us. Senator Mullen seems to be advocating that you should never talk to anyone with whom you disagree. Such opportunities are of equal importance in allowing the frank discussion around issues of disagreement and for sincerely held views to be directly raised and pursued.

The Ministers agreed on many things, but there were several questions which Ireland and China did not agree on, as I said in my opening contribution, such as on a whole host of global issues, including climate change, the pandemic, and humanitarian challenges in Syria, Ethiopia and Yemen. It is not possible to develop effective responses without including the government that represents nearly one fifth of humanity, that has the second largest economy in the world and is a permanent member of the Security Council, which we currently have the privilege of being a member of. To that end, engagement with China is now, and will remain, necessary if we are to make meaningful progress on these issues.

Teaching Council of Ireland

The issue I bring to the attention of the Minister of State relates to the Teaching Council. A friend of mine contacted me about a month ago because of issues she was having registering with the Teaching Council. We had an interesting conversation. She then reached out to her peers and asked them to contact me about their experiences. To say that I was inundated with correspondence from teachers throughout the country is putting it mildly. They contacted me with problems, issues and challenges they have had with the Teaching Council in relation to their registration. It is clear to me, from the stories I have heard and the experiences of those I have listened to, that the Teaching Council needs to be reviewed and reformed. The stories and anecdotes about ongoing problems when trying to register include a general lack of support and shifting of the goalposts. One teacher said that is took her longer to register with the Teaching Council than it took her to become a teacher.

As we all know, it is vital to retain and attract high-quality teachers from home and abroad. I am concerned that many people’s experience with the Teaching Council is deterring them from choosing to come to or return to Ireland for teaching. One person who contacted my office spoke of his experience in trying to return to Ireland from the UK to take up a teaching post. The registration process took 270 days from start to finish. He was met with nothing but roadblocks, was not offered support or guidance, and spent many months chasing and following up with the Teaching Council, to no avail. He was out of pocket to the tune of €7,428.07. The problem was that because he was not registered as a teacher with the Teaching Council, he could not be paid as a teacher and was on a non-qualified substitute rate for that period. This gentleman had a postgraduate education from the University of Edinburgh, one of the top universities in the world. He is highly qualified and is a passionate advocate for education. He is exactly the type of person we should be supporting and welcoming with open arms into our education system. His experience is not an isolated occurrence. Many teachers, young and old, are being met with roadblock after roadblock. In situations where candidates do not get approved to teach a particular subject, there is no support and no guidance. Many teachers feel the Teaching Council is not fit for purpose.

We need to review the Teaching Council and its processes. Of course, while maintaining teaching standards is of vital importance, we need to ensure teacher who are qualified are not deterred from choosing to come back to Ireland to teach. Bureaucracy is a roadblock to people coming back to teach in Ireland. We cannot afford to sacrifice talent for bureaucracy and that is what is happening at the moment. There is a particular problem with overseas teachers relocating to Ireland, because of the registration issues. There is a requirement for vast amounts of documentation on every individual course taken. No flexibility is afforded. There is a lack of empathy and feedback, and a lack of timelines in responding to emails and phone calls. I rest my case. I hope the Minister of State takes what I have said about the Teaching Council on board.

I thank Senator O’Loughlin and I know this is a major issue in education, there is no doubt about that.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter, which gives me an opportunity to outline the role of the Teaching Council and its current structures and to highlight the role played by the Teaching Council to support teacher supply during Covid-19.

The Teaching Council was established in 2006 on a statutory basis through the Teaching Council Acts 2001 to 2015, to promote teaching as a profession; to promote the professional development of teachers; to maintain and improve the quality of teaching in the State; to provide for the establishment of standards, policies and procedures for the education and training of teachers; and to provide for the registration and regulation of teachers to enhance professional standards and competence. The Teaching Council Acts govern membership of the council, funding, accountability and the council's relationship with the Minister for Education. The council consists of 37 members.

The council has responsibility to operationalise the provisions of the Acts, including the development of organised structures and collaborative strategies for the regulation of the teaching profession, and it is responsible for the conduct of its affairs. Under section 55 of the Teaching Council Act 2001, the council prepares and publishes an annual report detailing its activities and proceedings. The council provides the Department of Education with a copy of the report and the report is laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. The annual report documents how the Teaching Council has implemented the Teaching Council Acts and progress of the council's strategic objectives.

Responsibility for the development and implementation of policy on education, including the performance of teachers, rests with the Minister under the education Acts 1878 to 2015. The Minister may seek advice from the Teaching Council under its enabling Act. As a body under the Department of Education, the Teaching Council adheres to the code of practice for the governance of State bodies. The agency governance framework is in place between the Department and the Teaching Council. This agency governance framework was established in 2018 in accordance with applicable statutory provisions, relevant national strategies, Government policies and the code of practice for State bodies.

The agency's governance framework is due for review and renewal in 2021.

I acknowledge the important role the Teaching Council has played to support the supply of teachers over the past year during Covid-19. Following engagement with the council, the higher education institutes, HEIs, providing post-primary professional master of education programmes introduced flexibility in their course delivery to increase the amount of time which student teachers on school placement could provide for supervision and substitution, outside of their placement hours. In addition, the council has communicated with professional master of education students, through the HEIs, encouraging them to register with the council and to register also their availability with Sub Seeker, the recruitment portal which matches teachers with substitutable vacancies. The council has reassigned resources to this task to ensure applications for registration arising from this measure are processed as quickly as possible.

As an additional measure for 2020 and 2021, the council made a regulation allowing teachers who had qualified outside of Ireland to complete their induction here. This measure will again be put in place for the coming school year on a time-bound and exceptional basis. There are almost 109,000 teachers on the Teaching Council register. During the peak period of applications for registration between May and September 2020, almost 5,000 new registrations were processed.

I understand the reason for the Teaching Council and it is important it is efficient and effective. For the 109,000 teachers who are registered, there is a €65 fee, so there is quite a substantial amount of money going into the Teaching Council every year. However, the Teaching Council is not serving the teachers. I have a full file on those who have contacted me and that is just the tip of the iceberg in the issues they have had. I am sending that to the Minister for Education and I have also asked the Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science to take up this issue of a review because it is very important. The significant delays I have outlined have caused a lot of problems and challenges for teachers, from a financial perspective as well as the possibility of them getting and keeping a job. Once they start, if teachers do not have their Teaching Council number, they are not allowed to apply for that job again, which puts them back in the jobs market. There is a lot of work to be done in reviewing the Teaching Council's function.

I thank the Senator for the views she has outlined, which I will pass on to the Minister for Education. It is an important issue which she raises, and in my constituency office over the years I have been a Deputy, many of the points the Senator has raised about the Teaching Council have also been raised with me. I will make sure the Senator's views are heard by the Minister.

Road Projects

I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. It is always nice when you try to bring up a local issue that there is a Minister of State present who knows the area quite well and who knows the road I will be discussing.

The N24, as most people would know, is the main road from Limerick to Waterford. It is the one road in the country connecting two cities which is in real need of upgrade. It has had a history of getting to a certain stage in design, development and consultation but not in delivery. Anyone who lives in the area will remember that in 2004 and 2005, we went through the consultation process but in the end it was not delivered. We have seen huge developments in infrastructure in other areas since then.

We are at a key juncture where the road is divided into two sections. There is the section from Limerick to Cahir, which is slightly ahead of the section from Cahir to Waterford. This is a critical point because we have a public consultation at 3 p.m. on Friday and I would encourage anyone to go and see what route options there will be and to see what the development of this project will be.

This is part of the national development plan, NDP, which the Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan, is reviewing. This project is a key part of the NDP and the worry for us in Tipperary is that the project will not continue. There are a number of elements to the project that are a real concern. This is a priority route between Limerick and Waterford. It is a major connection between the two cities. It goes on to Rosslare Europort and it has a connection to Europe from there, which is very significant post Brexit. However, 80% of this road goes through Tipperary and it has a knock-on effect for the economy of the county.

Later today, the chief executive of Tipperary County Council, Joe McGrath, the vice chairperson of Tipperary County Council, Mary Hanna Hourigan and I are meeting the Tánaiste to discuss the development of Tipperary from an economic point of view and to discuss where it can go from the point of view of his role as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. This is a significant part of that development. The people in Tipperary want that commitment from the Government and from the Minister for Transport. In fairness, he has been good at meeting groups and councillors to discuss this but we need to make sure that project stays on the NDP.

It is a major project for the region but for Tipperary in particular. There is an element to it which is significant for the people of Tipperary town, which is for the town to be bypassed. Anyone who knows the area knows about the amount of traffic that goes through Tipperary town every day. They have been sent up the hill before with a promise of a bypass and the congestion in the town centre being solved. We need to make sure we deliver on it this time and that part of this project includes a special arrangement to facilitate the bypass for Tipperary town. When the review of the NDP happens next month, it is important the Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan, specifies that the bypass of Tipperary town will be a priority, in conjunction with the full N24 project.

We can all identify with the phrase about the road to Tipperary, and according to the Senator the Minister of State knows his roads in Tipperary as well.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter and I know the road in question very well. I would like to explain that once funding arrangements have been put in place through the Department of Transport under the Roads Act 1993, the planning, design and construction of an individual national road is a matter for Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, in conjunction with the local authorities. Overall, TII is responsible for the delivery of the national roads programme in accordance with Project Ireland 2040 and the NDP. In that context, TII provides the Department with regular updates on its delivery of the national roads programme. Within the timeframe given in the lead-up to this debate, the following information is the most up-to-date information available to me.

Within the overall context of Project Ireland 2040, the NDP was developed to underpin the successful implementation of the national planning framework, NPF. This provides the strategic and financial framework for the national roads programme for the period from 2018 to 2027. The focus of TII's activities is, accordingly, being directed towards the development of the major national road improvement schemes that are included in the NDP, along with the maintenance of the existing national road network. The programme for Government includes a commitment to bring forward the review of the NDP from 2022 and to use that review to set out an updated NDP for the period out as far as 2030. The review of the NDP will be aligned with the NPF and Project Ireland 2040 and work is under way within the Department of Transport to contribute to this review. I would also like to take this opportunity to highlight that all projects, including those listed in the NDP or any revision to the NDP, require statutory approval and compliance with the public spending code.

As the Senator said, the N24 is a national primary road connecting Limerick to Waterford, running through Tipperary town, Cahir, Carrick-on-Suir and Clonmel. The proposed N24 Cahir to Limerick junction project would consist of approximately 35 km of road improvement works between Cahir in Tipperary and Limerick Junction. The study area associated with the project would include bypasses of Tipperary town and Bansha. As someone with an uncle who ran a business in Tipperary town for many years and who is familiar with the congestion in the town, I fully understand the Senator's concerns. The proposed N24 Waterford to Cahir project would consist of approximately 60 km of road improvement works. The strategic value of these projects would address a core priority under the NPF, which is to enhance and upgrade accessibility between urban centres of population and their regions.

The project benefits include the provision of more reliable and safer journeys. Both projects would aim to enhance regional accessibility and improve connectivity between Limerick and Waterford. The N24 Cahir to Limerick Junction project would also provide better connectivity with public transport through direct access to the train stations in Cahir and Limerick Junction, which would encourage the use of public transport in the area. Improved journey time certainty would act as an enabler of economic growth and urban environment improvements would have positive social benefits. In addition, the proposed N24 Waterford to Cahir project would improve the quality of life of commuters and local residents, through improved journey times and would connect to the Kilkenny greenway, which would run from New Ross to Waterford city.

On the proposed N24 Cahir to Limerick project, technical advisers were appointed by Tipperary County Council and are undertaking early planning and design work. A public consultation on the project’s constraints was carried out by Tipperary County Council in the first quarter of 2021, informing the options. The selection stage with the shortlisted transport corridors is expected to be unveiled in mid-2021. Tipperary County Council has advised that it will be going to public consultation on the project on 25 June until 6 August. On the proposed N24 Waterford to Cahir project, Arup was appointed by Kilkenny County Council as technical advisers. Option selection has commenced and a virtual public consultation on constraints commenced on 4 May 2021, running until 1 June 2021.

The Minister of State is correct that public consultation ended on 1 June. The second public consultation is starting this Friday on routes for the first section between Limerick and Cahir, which is hugely important. I welcome what the Minister of State said about public transport and rail routes. The route from Clonmel to Waterford is hugely significant and the Minister can play a key role in that project. I ask the Minister of State to get the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to reply to me on this matter.

The Taoiseach spoke a number of weeks ago about the bypass in Tipperary town and he created a certain level of confusion because he spoke about a separate bypass south of the town. That goes against the overall plan for the N24 because the routes would have to be north of Tipperary town, due to the layout of the region. I ask the Minister of State to go back to the Department of Transport or speak to the Minister and provide some clarity on whether the bypass of Tipperary town will be part of the N24 and not a separate bypass. It has to be done in conjunction with the full layout of the road. That is critically important. The people of Tipperary town have been waiting almost 20 years to get congestion off their roads and this is the opportunity to do it. It is key that we get it done. It is important for the people of the area and I urge the Minister for Transport to commit to it next month.

The Senator has made excellent points on this matter in a very strong way, as he always does. I will be delighted to convey to the Minister the Senator's views, and those of the people of Tipperary, on this very important project.

Defective Building Materials

I am joining my colleagues, Senators Blaney and Dooley, to represent the people of Mayo, Donegal and Clare on the ongoing issue of pyrite and mica, which has affected the homes of thousands of people in the west and north west. I am here specifically representing the people of County Mayo. This issue mainly affects north Mayo, specifically Belmullet, Killala, Ballina and areas in between. To say people are experiencing significant mental anguish is probably an understatement.

I understand the Government has committed to putting in place a task force or working group comprising stakeholders from across all the counties affected. I welcome this action.

I reiterate how important it is that we get 100% redress for the homeowners affected by this issue. I have visited homes in Mayo and seen the cracks in walls. I could put my hand through them. I cannot imagine how difficult it is for people to sit in their homes and wonder when the wall will crumble, whether it is safe, if their kids are going to be okay and what they will do to rebuild their homes and lives.

The Minister of State will be aware that there were schemes elsewhere in the country in which 100% aid was granted to homeowners. We expect parity and equality for the people of the west and north west. We want this Government to deliver 100% redress for the people affected.

I will put on record how we can get the current scheme up to 100% redress. There are seven issues involved. The first relates to insurance companies. In the past, insurance companies have been asked by the Government to give lump sums towards redress in the area of health. We are asking the Government to contact the insurance companies and ask them to give a lump sum over the next ten to 20 years, or whatever is necessary, towards making up that 10%. Similarly, Home Bond could make that contribution over the next ten to 20 years, as could Banking and Payments Federation Ireland, with which I, Deputy Calleary and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, met a few weeks ago. It is much easier to do that over a ten or 20-year period than pay a lump sum.

The fourth issue is VAT. The Minister could look at a VAT exemption for the necessary materials, which would not cost the Government anything. Fifth, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland should give out grants towards insulation. Sixth, the Government should provide a ten-year bond or guarantee. I would like to talk to the Minister more about that.

Senator Dooley will have no time left if Senator Blaney continues.

Finally, there are issues with engineers that must be looked at.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate because there is a real issue with defective blocks in County Clare. It is not mica but pyrite and we too want to be included in the scheme. We will not accept anything less than 100% redress. I have visited the homes affected and to say the homeowners are devastated by what is happening is an understatement. Their walls are crumbling and their lives are decimated. The State needs to stand behind them. I understand that a working group has been established with representatives from the mica action group in the north west. I ask that the Department also appoint somebody from the Clare action group to join that committee, in order to give an insight into a similar problem that is different in nature.

I join colleagues in recognising that others need to participate in this redress scheme. There is evidence that the defective blocks used in Clare came from a Roadstone quarry. That company is part of a very large multinational organisation and it is right and fitting that an organisation like CRH would contribute to redress. That should not be for the homeowners to deal with. That is an issue for Government. The Government now needs to come forward and set out a clear plan to provide 100% redress. If others have to participate in funding that plan, such as Roadstone or CRH, that can be dealt with by the Government, not the homeowners.

I apologise for cutting across the Senator but there are three speakers and I want to give them each equal time. I understand that this is a pressing issue but I have to stick to the time limits. I ask the Minister of State to respond.

I thank the Senators for raising what they are quite right to say is a very important issue. I acknowledge that they had very limited time in which to make their contributions. I know they would have liked to make more substantial contributions on this but could not do so on foot of the rules governing Commencement matters.

The issue of defective concrete blocks, DCBs, is particularly emotive for households and I sympathise fully with all those caught up in this very distressing situation. The goal of the grant scheme is to help a restricted group of homeowners who have no other practicable options to access redress. It is not a compensation scheme but a mechanism for the State to help ordinary homeowners with no other way out of a situation that is not their fault. Homeowners are engaging with the scheme and already 448 have applied for grant assistance, 296 of whom have received stage 1 confirmation of eligibility.

Rigorous analysis was carried out in respect of the circumstances that led to the DCB issue. The grant scheme was informed by the work of an expert panel and finalised in consultation with the Office of the Attorney General, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, the relevant local authorities and homeowners. The aim of the scheme is to remediate the issue of the DCBs and return buildings to the condition they would have been in had they not been affected by the use of such blocks. The scheme does not prevent homeowners upgrading their homes to 2021 building standards but it does require that homeowners pay for the marginal cost of those upgrades. The decision to go with a grant scheme, as opposed to the type of scheme provided by the Pyrite Remediation Board, was intended to give homeowners the flexibility to manage their own projects and allow them to deal directly with their appointed contractors. The Department is engaging with the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, to explore whether the owners of homes built using DCBs are eligible for SEAI grants. In addition Government has committed to exempting these homeowners from local property tax, LPT, liability. Currently, the grant scheme only applies to the counties of Donegal and Mayo but additional counties are seeking admittance to it. Any extension to the scheme will require the same rigorous analysis as that carried out prior its roll-out in Donegal and Mayo. It would also have to be the subject of budgetary discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

On the issues being raised by homeowners, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, has proposed a time-bound working group, involving representatives from his Department, the local authorities and homeowner groups, to review and address any outstanding issues regarding the operation of the grant scheme, including issues such as grant caps, homeowner contributions, engineering and allowable costs, etc. It is intended that the review will be completed by 31 July and that it will inform any changes or improvements to the scheme as may be required. Following receipt of the report of the working group and the ensuing collaboration with ministerial colleagues and, in particular, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Attorney General, proposals will be brought to Government.

The scale of this problem is shocking and the impact on people unimaginable. I want the affected homeowners to know that Government is committed to supporting them as much as possible in the remediation of their homes.

The three Senators have approximately 30 seconds each. I ask them to desist from mentioning any companies at this stage. I cannot allow that. They can have about 40 seconds each, I will let them run over a bit. Senator Blaney is first.

Go raibh maith agat. I will be taking the full-time as Senator Dooley has left to attend a committee meeting. I thank the Minister of State for his reply. We really welcome the moves by the Minister regarding the SEAI. Over and above the issues I mentioned, I wish to discuss the ten-year Government bond I mentioned. There is a fear among homeowners that if they do some remedial works on the outside of their houses, the problems with pyrite or mica will return. The ten-year Government bond is about addressing that. If the Department has a look at the matter, the bond will ensure that people do not simply push and drive; instead they may need to step over the advice of engineers who seek to have their houses demolished when there is no need for that. It brings the assurance that they need. I thank the Minister of State very much for his contribution. We look forward to engaging much more with the Department on this matter.

I thank the Senator for his co-operation. Senator Chambers has 50 seconds if she needs to use it.

I thank the Acting Chairperson. I concur with what Senator Blaney said. We welcome that some progress is being made and that all avenues are being explored. Contributions from industry are crucial because, ultimately, it has a role to play. I urge the Minister of State to ensure that the process is concluded as quickly as possible. Homeowners have been fighting for many years and people are extremely distressed and upset at what has happened. Urgency is the order of the day. There must be a resolution to this in the short term.

The Minister of State has a minute to reply.

I will be conveying the remarks the Senators have made to the Minister, as well as the feeling of urgency about this situation that Senator Chambers mentioned.

That concludes Commencement matters for this morning. I thank all the Senators, the Ministers of State, Deputies Feighan and Brophy, the ushers and the officials who are, as always, helpful to me when I am in the Chair.

Sitting suspended at 10.05 a.m. and resumed at 10.30 a.m.