Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Domestic Violence

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. She has pressing matters to deal with so I thank her for taking my Commencement matter. She is probably as shocked as me at the revelations from the internal Garda investigation into the cancellation of domestic violence 999 calls. When I got wind of it, I got really upset because I sit on the joint policing committee in Clare and we have seen domestic violence figures greatly increase during the Covid pandemic. We all know that existing supports badly need extra infrastructure and funding. According to the internal investigation, calls are being treated with a lack of empathy or are not being responded to. Calls that are responded to are not properly documented or followed up on and the cancellations have had an effect on the collection of important data and statistics on domestic violence, which is a huge issue on every level of our society. Some 3,120 domestic violence calls were marked as cancelled. There were valid reasons for cancelling one third of those, but that was not the case with the other two thirds. It is just not good enough.

We need to look at why this happened in the first place and what is needed to ensure that it does not happen again. Are additional resources needed? Do members of the Garda need extra training so they know how to show empathy? A person in a domestic violence situation is very disempowered because he or she has put up with it in the first place. It takes a lot of courage to pick up the phone to lodge a complaint. Often, that happens at the very tail end of a long history of emotional and physical violence. Much mental anguish, disempowerment and lack of self-value comes with domestic abuse, so when someone is making that call the last thing he or she needs is somebody who is flippant, does not show empathy or does not follow up. It is great the Garda held the internal investigation but it has highlighted some serious issues. Those issues need to be rectified. I hope the Minister of State can answer some of the questions that have arisen. What do we need to do about this issue and about the greater issue of increasing levels of domestic violence?

I thank Senator Garvey for raising this important issue. I am acutely aware of the vulnerable and often frightening position that callers suffering domestic abuse, and indeed anyone in a vulnerable position, are in. Any inappropriate cancellation of 999 calls is a very serious concern and falls significantly below the high standards the public expects of the Garda as well as the standards An Garda Síochána should set for itself.

I acknowledge the concerns voiced by victims and those who advocate for them in response to this recent news. I am particularly concerned that anyone experiencing domestic abuse or whose personal safety was otherwise at risk and who sought assistance via a 999 call may not have received it. The Senator will be aware that the Garda Commissioner has publicly apologised for this, and was correct to do so. An Garda Síochána fell short of the high standards the public expects of the Garda. The Garda Commissioner has assured me and the Minister for Justice, Deputy Humphreys, that when someone calls 999 now, he or she can expect and trust that An Garda Síochána will help. This must always be the case. I can confirm that the Garda Commissioner has put new processes in place, strengthening supervision and providing training to ensure this never happens again. I welcome these steps.

As the Senator is aware, this issue was initially identified in An Garda Síochána last October as part of its internal processes. The Department was informed by An Garda Síochána in December that it had commenced an internal examination of the cancellation of 999 calls. An Garda Síochána also informed the Policing Authority. Following discussions with An Garda Síochána, the Minister, Deputy McEntee, requested the Policing Authority to oversee the investigation by An Garda Síochána in February this year, and there has been ongoing engagement on this issue between the authority and the Garda Commissioner at both their public and private meetings. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, has been briefed by the Garda Commissioner and the authority chairman, Mr. Bob Collins, on the progress of the ongoing internal investigation over the past number of weeks. The importance of having independent, robust policing oversight to respond constructively to public policing service concerns such as this is evident, and the authority will provide a report to me when its consideration of this matter is concluded.

The Garda Commissioner has also confirmed that gardaí are now contacting people whose 999 calls were cancelled to apologise and to ask if they require help from An Garda Síochána. It is vital that the best interests of victims of domestic abuse and those of anyone else whose calls were cancelled inappropriately are the priority focus throughout this process. I will continue to remain in close contact with the Garda Commissioner and the chair of the authority over the coming weeks on this matter. On the conclusion of their investigations, the Garda and the authority will make recommendations and take appropriate actions to ensure that this vital emergency service responds in a consistent, compassionate and timely way to those who call upon it in times of danger and vulnerability.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. It is good that action is taking place. The Garda Commissioner had to apologise on behalf of the Garda Síochána. He was not personally responsible, but he is responsible for ensuring this never happens again. I hope we can retrieve the lost data to help to show the need for increased funding for the victims of domestic violence. I look forward to hearing with clarity about the training gardaí will be getting. It is not easy for a garda to deal with those situations and we cannot expect gardaí, just because they are gardaí, to understand even the language around it and how to listen to somebody. If one works for the Samaritans, one gets serious training for that, so we have to examine that and ensure it is done very well and as soon as possible.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. I wish to reassure victims of domestic abuse and other callers who have experienced concerns about their personal safety or the safety of others in their care that this issue is being taken extremely seriously, and that the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, will maintain regular communications with the Garda Commissioner and the Policing Authority chairman on the matter.

In acknowledging and welcoming the Garda Commissioner's apology, it is important also to acknowledge the effectiveness of Operation Faoiseamh which the Garda established in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic to proactively support and protect victims of domestic abuse and to ensure that domestic abuse incidents received the highest priority response. Operation Faoiseamh has resulted in a 24% increase in criminal charges brought against perpetrators of domestic violence in 2020 versus 2019. This is an ongoing Garda operation and, despite the concerns which victims will understandably have following the revelations, I urge any member of the public who is experiencing domestic abuse and who has yet to contact the Garda for support to do so. I am assured by the Garda Commissioner that when the person does, he or she will be provided with the utmost support.

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to give that response to that important issue.

Fishing Industry

The next item relates to the landing of fish at Dunmore East by trawlers from Northern Ireland and Britain. It is being raised by Senator Cummins. The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, is responding on behalf of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and I thank her for coming to the House. Senator Cummins has four minutes.

I welcome the Minister of State. It is unique to have a Senator responding to Commencement matters.

At the outset, I acknowledge the recent announcement of €3.1 million for Dunmore East Harbour and other marine amenities in Waterford, including piers at Helvick, Tramore, Cheekpoint, Ballinacourty and the slipway at Bunmahon. This level of investment in our marine amenities is greatly welcome and the coastal communities across Waterford will benefit massively from it.

I will proceed to the main premise of my Commencement matter, which is the designation of Dunmore East as an official landing port for UK-registered fishing vessels post Brexit. Following Britain leaving the European Union, only two fishing ports were designated for landings, but last January five ports were added to the list. However, there is no designated landing port from Howth in Dublin to Castletownbere in Cork for UK-registered fishing vessels . This leaves the entire south east coastline without a designated port, which is an anomaly that must be addressed without delay.

This is a matter which I and my Waterford Government colleagues, the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Butler, and Deputy Ó Cathasaigh have taken up directly with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, and he is on record as saying that this will be kept under review. While I appreciate that technical and regulatory protocols must be put in place to ensure that third country fishing vessels properly count and document what is landed at Irish ports, I believe this can easily be done as there are fisheries protection officers and facilities already in place at Dunmore East Harbour. I understand that there were only 24 landings over the 2018 and 2019 period but this amounted to 318 tonnes of fish, which had a positive impact on the port and secondary processors in the area.

Given the clear geographic gap between Howth and Castletownbere that I mentioned, I believe Dunmore East would become a popular location for UK-registered fishing vessels to land their catches. One must also consider the environmental impact of fishermen travelling from the south east to Howth and Castletownbere to offload their catches. The strategic location of Dunmore East cannot and should not be ignored. There is no question that opportunities are created and expanded by every fishing vessel that lands at a harbour. I implore the Minister of State to convey what I have said to the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, and to ask for urgent action on this matter.

Before I conclude, I will briefly mention the farcical situation that now exists at Irish ports across the State following the decision of the European Commission to remove the derogation that existed heretofore on the weighing of fish at factories, due to a three-year-old report which stated that manipulation of the weighing system was taking place. This is a very serious matter which has far-reaching consequences for the fishing sector and calls into question the integrity of every fisherman. That is unacceptable. To my knowledge, no evidence of this practice has been provided, yet the entire industry will suffer as a result. Asking fishermen to take fish out of ice boxes to weigh them at harbour walls in what can often be warm temperatures is nonsensical and will have an impact on costs, time and the freshness of fish. I ask that this is taken up directly with the Commission and the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, and that the appropriate reassurances are given to them to reinstate this derogation without delay.

I thank Senator Cummins for bringing this matter to our attention. It is an important issue. I appreciate the Senator's recognition of the €3.1 million investment in marine amenities in his area.

The possible designation of Dunmore East as a landing port for UK-registered Northern Ireland fishing vessels is an important matter.

As the House will be aware, in January 2021, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, designated five additional ports for landings by UK-registered Northern Ireland vessels, having given regard to the level of landing activity by these vessels at these ports in the recent past. Dunmore East was not designated at this point as there has been a low number of landings by these vessels in the past two to three years.

To elaborate, in 2018, there were 15 landings by UK-registered Northern Ireland vessels into Dunmore East. This reduced to nine landings in 2019 and reduced again further in 2020. Over 2018 and 2019, the total volume of landings into Dunmore East by these vessels amounted to 318 tonnes, as Senator Cummins indicated. The Minister understands that these were landings of nephrops, mainly from the Smalls fishing grounds off the south-east coast. The Minister included Howth as a designated port at the beginning of the year because there were 26 landings by UK-registered vessels into Howth in 2018, increasing to 28 landings in 2019. In comparison with Dunmore East, over 2018 and 2019, the total volume of landings into Howth by UK-registered vessels amounted to almost 1,050 tonnes, over three times the volume of landings into Dunmore East. The designation of Howth provides a landing option for UK-registered Northern Ireland vessels fishing for nephrops in the large fishing grounds in the north Irish Sea and may also provide an option for vessels fishing in the Smalls or Labidine fishing grounds.

The Sea Fisheries Protection Agency, SFPA, has already undertaken significant work in putting in place the arrangements necessary to provide for the five additional port designations. As the Minister has previously stated in the Dáil, there are significant practical and cost implications for the State in the designation of EU ports for third country landings as, under EU regulations, such designations represent an entry point to the European Union, following which food is free to circulate within the full EU Common Market. On this basis, for any ports designated, Ireland is obliged to ensure that it has in place a meaningful control presence. I assure Senator Cummins that the designation of ports for landings does not preclude vessels from coming into ports for force majeure reasons such as the need to reach a safe harbour.

When the Minister made the designations in January, this was done in immediate response to the Brexit situation and in consideration of the various pressures on the SFPA, as well as the various landing patterns in different ports. The Minister is fully aware that Dunmore East's location is strategically appropriate for any additional designation and that there is SFPA infrastructure and offices in the port. He will consider these and all other factors during any future review of the designation of additional ports. Finally, I assure Senator Cummins that the Minister will continue to engage with stakeholders on all issues, including designation of ports, relating to the fishing sector.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. I acknowledge what she stated, that Dunmore East is a location of strategic appropriateness and that it will be considered in the context of the ongoing review. I accept the lower volume of landings there compared with Howth, but given the fact that there is such a geographic gap between Howth and Castletownbere, in particular in terms of environmental impact, notwithstanding vessels being able to land at Dunmore East for reasons of force majeure, I ask that the review would be expedited without delay and that Dunmore East would be designated as an official landing port.

I also ask the Minister of State to raise the weighing of fish with the Minister. It is of the utmost importance and affects the fishing industry right across the State.

I again thank Senator Cummins. He acknowledged the reasons behind the designation. There is quite a difference in the landing figures between Howth and Dunmore East, notwithstanding the geographically strategic importance of Dunmore East. As the Minister has indicated, the designation is open for consideration.

Regarding the weighing of fish at ports, although it is unfortunate, I am sure the EU had good reason to remove the derogation. I am not sure whether this can be examined further but I will speak to the senior Minister and see what can be done. In the meantime, the derogation has been removed.

Environmental Policy

I wish to share time with Senator Martin.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

The Minister of State is very welcome. I suppose one could say that Senator Martin and I have serious bees in our bonnets about this issue. We want a ban on the importation of non-native bees into this country. As the Minister of State well knows, it is not only us but many Irish beekeepers, bee enthusiasts and those of us who care deeply about our native biodiversity. I have spoken to the wonderful Martin O'Rourke from the County Louth Beekeepers Association which was established in 1910 and has more than a century of collected knowledge on how best to protect native bee stocks, biodiversity and what is in the best interests of our island's natural and native environment. We should listen to the people who know their bees.

It is time for some true ecological nationalism. A growing body of scientific research is proving what beekeepers have known for generations. A Limerick Institute of Technology scientist has proven beyond any doubt that the pure native Irish honey bee is not extinct as previously feared, but still exists on the island of Ireland. An applied science postgraduate student, Jack Hassett, has discovered that millions of the pure native species are living in at least 300 hives throughout the country. His study shows that while the black bee should be considered endangered, there are enough of the pure native honeybee in Ireland to not only ensure its survival with the proper support, but also enough Irish bees to repopulate northern Europe, where the majority of Apis mellifera mellifera has died out or been hybridised. It is too late to act once the horse has bolted. It is time for action.

I would be grateful if the Minister of State could provide an update on studies undertaken with the aid of the genetic research grant she spoke about previously. Where there is a will there is a way to find out how we can work within the current legal structures to ban the importation of the non-native bee.

I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. Ireland is the last stronghold in the world of the native black honey bee, which as Senator McGreehan says, comes from northern Europe. This bee is under major threat. Beekeepers are not going to stand idly by. They are in negotiations with the Department for the past 50 years. Luckily, we now have a Minister who understands and is sympathetic. They want action not words. This is not a criticism of the EU, because the EU has the mechanism and the provisions under Article 36 to take measures which, in essence, would have the effect of restricting and prohibiting the importation of non-native honey bees to Ireland.

The EU has in its treaty the precautionary principle, which allows for a higher level of environmental protection through preventive decision taking in the case of risk. There is the well-established habitats directive and there is significant regulation dealing with the prevention and spread of alien species. This is not new. This was challenged in the court about 20 years ago. The Danish decision to prohibit the importation of non-native honey bees was upheld. They wanted to retain the brown bee. The decision stated there was a high threshold and it must be justified and proportionate. We are convinced that we have the expert compelling evidence to make this move and we should do so sooner rather than later. I thank the Minister of State for her engagement to date with the beekeepers and I welcome the fact that she is going to engage further with them.

I thank the Senators for bringing this important Commencement matter to the House. As they both know, I fully acknowledge the important contribution bees make not only to agriculture and biodiversity but also as an important activity for people. Indeed, beekeepers are very passionate about what they do. In this regard, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine provides a range of supports and initiatives to encourage and assist beekeepers and the national beekeeping associations. These supports include funding to carry out applied research through the national apiculture programme, grants to national beekeeping associations and grant aid to fund capital investments for beekeepers. The Department is also a partner in the all-Ireland pollinator plan, which will run until 2025. The Department is supporting a farmland pollinator officer and a successful European innovation partnership project running in County Kildare. The Department is a member of the all-Ireland honeybee strategy steering group so we are very much fully aware of the concerns that exist. We have, as Senator McGreehan outlined, funded a number of studies under the genetic research grant aid scheme looking at various aspects of this honeybee species and specifically apis mellifera mellifera. In 2021, funding has been allocated for an innovative queen rearing project. The Department also supports the work of the Native Irish Honey Bee Society, NIHBS.

The importation of honeybees into Ireland is facilitated under regulations governing intra-community trade with other EU member states. The specific health requirements for trading in bees are laid out in Regulation 2016/429. All imports of bees must be accompanied by a health certificate issued by the country of export. The reason for this is to ensure that imported bees are healthy and do not harbour pathogens or parasites that may be harmful to our native bee stock. The health certificate also outlines the import restrictions that apply on regions that have confirmed cases of the small hive beetle. It is therefore very much built around protecting our own bee species from disease and ill health rather than safeguarding the genetic strength.

Regarding the protection of the native Irish honeybee, I recently met with the NIHBS. I thank Senator Martin for organising that. Following this meeting, officials in the Department are progressing avenues and have vowed to engage with the society as they do this. We are also engaging with the European Commission on the feasibility of the various options related to protecting our own species of bee. To this end, discussions are taking place with officials in the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS. There are certain elements in place for native wild bees whereas native honeybees are more domesticated varieties so they fall under a different Department. The NPWS will look into elements such as invasive species that fall within its remit. In tandem, Department officials and bee associations in conjunction with the NPWS are investigating and progressing options in relation to the query at hand. They are also working on matters related to education aimed at new beekeepers because there has been quite a bit of interest in beekeeping over the last while. It is important that beekeepers know the type of bee they are getting and what is the best bee for them. If that is the native Irish honeybee, all the better.

I was told there was told there was a great buzz about this today. The best bee for this country is the native Irish bee. The European Commission has stated, in a question about the protection of our native bee species, "Ireland can, however, decide at national level whether or not to give legal protection to this sub-species and to take the necessary conservation measures to protect it, for example in order to contribute to the attainment of the objectives of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan." This has therefore been addressed in a Commission report already.

I have written to the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission to see if we can get our bees here in Leinster House. If they are in the grounds of Leinster House we must ensure we use the native honeybee which is less aggressive, so it stings less, and is also less prone to swarming. We do not want swarming or hybridisation. In a nutshell, every beekeeper organisation, North and South, east and west, wants this to happen. The organisations want it now as 15 years is too long. They will give this their best shot but this is their last stand. They do not want to go further with this but they will feel compelled to take the case further. They will no longer stand idly by and let the native Irish honeybee disappear off the face of the Earth.

I thank both Senators once more for bringing this to the House. Joking aside, this is a serious issue. We have had bees on the roof of Agriculture House. They are not there at the moment because we are getting the roof fixed but I understand they will be back next season. I look forward to it.

Will they be native ones?

They absolutely better be. I will certainly make sure of that. We have made progress on this in the last couple of months, more so than what happened previously. As Senator Martin said, the beekeepers are a long time waiting for this. Hopefully the work between Department officials, the associations, the NPWS and whoever else needs to be involved will progress this. We just have to ensure that if we are going to do this, we get it right and do not leave ourselves up for challenge and have to backtrack. I wish the Senators good luck and hope they keep up the good work.

Horticulture Sector

It will not be easy to follow the buzz my two colleagues to my left have created in the Chamber this morning but I will do my best.

I thank the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, for taking time out of her busy schedule to be here this morning for this very important debate on the imminent crisis facing the horticultural sector due to the restrictions on agricultural peat harvesting. The mushroom industry is the largest horticultural sector in Ireland with a farm gate value of €119 million, of which approximately 85% is exported to the UK. It employs over 3,500 people. County Monaghan is well known for its indigenous industry. One of the most successful of these local industries is the mushroom sector, which employs hundreds and hundreds of people and supports local farms and businesses and by extension, many local communities. The sector is crucial to the economy, particularly in the north of County Monaghan. However, the industry now faces a significant, and in my opinion unneeded, challenge at a time when it faces the consequences of both Brexit and Covid. A ban on peat harvesting will have a very serious impact on the mushroom industry in County Monaghan. The industry is heavily reliant on high-grade peat and there is currently no viable alternative to horticultural peat. If peat is not available here in Ireland, the mushroom industry will be forced to import it from the Baltic states or from northern Europe at a huge cost both in financial terms to the industry and in the form of the higher carbon footprint of transporting that peat into the country.

What sense is there in damaging a successful local industry for little or no environmental gain? It seems to be a case of cutting off our environmental noses to spite our face. To put things in perspective, there are 1.5 million ha of peatland in Ireland of which only 5,500 ha, approximately, are used for horticultural peat. That is less than 0.35%. Mushroom-casing peat represents a small fraction of this and probably as little as 10 ha to 15 ha annually. The Minister must introduce measures to ensure the resumption of the harvesting of horticultural peat for the mushroom industry to avoid a shortage this year, as well as a measures to financially incentivise the use of spent mushroom compost. We need a fair and efficient system which can allow horticultural peat harvesting to continue while the environmental alternatives to peat are researched and scaled up. I acknowledge the great work done by Monaghan Mushrooms on this, which is ongoing. All the sector is looking for is a just transition structure. The door is not closed to this but the sector needs time to assess the environmental, economic and employment benefits of such a measure. I urge the Minister of State to take these issues on board because the mushroom industry is hugely important to County Monaghan. If anything was to happen to it, or if it was to be damaged in any way, it would have serious consequences for the whole north Monaghan economy.

I thank the Senator for bringing this very important issue to the House. I appreciate the importance of the mushroom sector in Ireland, particularly in the Senator's own area of Monaghan. My Department has no involvement in the regulation of peat extraction. This is a planning process under the remit of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and an integrated pollution control, IPC, licence process under the remit of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. It is important to point out that there is no harvesting ban on peat. Rather there is a requirement for compliance with regulatory frameworks for the abstraction, which requires both planning and IPC licensing depending on circumstances.

Regarding the future use of peat moss in the horticulture sector, last September, the Minister of State with responsibility for heritage and electoral reform, Deputy Noonan, published a report on the review of the use of peat moss in the horticultural industry. The review report was prepared by an inter-agency working group following on from the submissions from stakeholders. After the publication of this report, the Minister of State proposed the establishment of a working group to include representatives from relevant Departments and State agencies, environmental NGOs and industry stakeholders under an independent chairperson to examine the issues identified during the review. The working group has been set up and has met many times. It has addressed the key issues raised in the report itself, including future use of peat by the horticulture sector. The first meeting of the independent working group took place on 4 March. The group has met several times since then and has submitted an interim report to the Minister of State for his consideration. The Minister of State and his officials are currently examining the report. I understand the Minister of State wrote to the working group in the past week or so.

In addition to these developments, my Department is actively looking at alternatives to peat and has funded two research projects to date. It has also recently sought further research be conducted here to explore alternatives to peat-based growing media for horticultural production in this area in its latest research call for 2021. These must be available, affordable and sustainable and meet quality as well as increasing environmental requirements.

My Department also provides a support to the horticulture industry through the scheme of investment aid for the development of the horticulture sector. Financial support is available to assist growers and businesses through grant aid for capital investments in specialised plant and equipment, including renewable energy, as well as technology adoption specific to commercial horticulture production. The budget has increased to €9 million, which is a 50% increase, for 2021. This particular budget is always oversubscribed. It is really successfully. This scheme is 100% funded by the Irish Government.

In addition, my Department administers the EU producer organisation scheme for fruit and vegetables, which allows growers to jointly market their production in order to strengthen the position of producers in the marketplace. This scheme is a significant support to the mushroom sector in Ireland.

I thank the Minister of State for her comprehensive response. Again, I emphasise the importance of this industry to County Monaghan and the people involved in it. I have spoken to many people working in this sector and they are concerned about their livelihoods. I welcome the fact that there is dialogue, everyone is keen to the best they can, everyone is promoting a commonsense attitude to this and a realistic timeframe will be implemented so that businesses can get up to speed with what they must do. Basically, all they are looking for is a commonsense approach to tackling this problem.

I agree with the Senator. There is a strong understanding in the mushroom sector and the wider horticulture sector that in the future, peat will not play a major role in their production but we need that just transition. We need to be able to support the sector and move to that place where it is not so reliant on peat. Within the mushroom sector, the research has looked at spent mushroom casings, blending that with other substrates, reducing the amount of peat in casing and looking at possibilities such as coir. This is from coconut husk and would have to be imported but the environmental damage would have to be measured up. We could look at wood fibre while biochar is another option. The research needs to be done but at the end of the day, we all know that peat harvesting will stop. We must support the horticulture sector.

Schools Building Projects

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, for coming to the House. My question aims to get answers about the unacceptable and intolerable delay to the school building project for Gaelscoil Cholaiste Mhuire. Seacht mbliana déag ó shin, thosaigh an Roinn Oideachas ag caint faoi scoil nua do bhunscoil Choláiste Mhuire. Ag an am seo, ní raibh aon fhéidearthacht ag an scoil ach dul go dtí foirgneamh sealadach i gCearnóg Parnell toisc nach raibh a foirgneamh féin oiriúnach a thuilleadh. Bliain tar éis bliain, tá páistí, múinteoirí agus pobal na scoile ag feitheamh ar fhoirgneamh nua. Rinneadh gealltanas tar éis gealltanas ach tá siad fós ag feitheamh. Is léir anois go bhfuil fearg dhocht agus fíordhíomá ar na tuismitheoirí, ar na múinteoirí agus ar phobal na scoile nach bhfuil aon dul chun cinn déanta dá scoil.

For almost two decades, this school has been getting assurances from Departments and representatives about a new building. Despite the amazing efforts of the board of management, the principal, the parents, all the school staff and the pupils, children are being educated in a building comprising four storeys over a basement. There are serious concerns about the plaster work in some of the classrooms, the car park has to function as a playground and there is no lift so any child with a mobility impairment finds it incredibly difficult to access the upper floors. Despite all that and the thriving and diverse school community, we have no progress on the long-promised school building for this school. What is really galling about this situation is that year after year the Department of Education is forking out €300,000 in rent for what is essentially a substandard building.

I want to raise two key issues. The first is the delay in progressing the new building and the second is the shameful manner in which the Department has treated the school. After a campaign late last year, the Minister for Finance gave a clear-cut commitment to the parents and school management that stage 2(b) would be completed within a matter of weeks at the end of 2020 and the start of 2021 as opposed to months and that construction would commence some time between July and September 2021. This was followed up by a reply to Deputy Ó Ríordáin that the stage 2(b) process would be completed and submitted to the Department no later than November 2020. It is six months on with no sign of stage 2(b) and no prospect of construction taking place next month. The children will get their school holidays tomorrow and we are facing into another September of the school having to operate in this building with no clarity as to when it will get its new school building. I can tell the Minister of State that the frustration within the school community is palpable.

As already stated, the second key issue relates to how the school has been treated.

We have had to resort to submitting freedom of information requests to understand the engagement between the Department and the owners of the building adjacent to the proposed school building with regard to right of way, a flue vent and other matters. It is disgraceful that the Department has been less than forthcoming with school management. We need to hear four key things in the Minister of State's reply today. When is the stage 2B process going to be completed and submitted? Have all of the issues with the adjoining building be resolved? Will clarity be provided to the board of management as soon as possible? What commitments can now be made to the children, parents, school management and staff with regard to the date of construction? I understand that there are 357 schools on the list of prioritised school projects. Will the Minister of State give a personal commitment today that she, as Minister of State at the Department, and the Minister, Deputy Foley, will prioritise this school project? We cannot have this torturous process go on any longer.

I thank Senator Sherlock. Yes, I am a Minister of State at the Department of Education but my responsibility is for special education so this matter does not fall under my remit. I will, however, take the Senator's concerns back to the Minister, Deputy Foley. I hope I will be able to give the Senator a comprehensive response which will address some of the issues she has raised.

As the Senator knows, this project is included in the Department's construction programme, which is being delivered under the national development plan. The brief is to provide a new 16-classroom school on a site being purchased by the Department from Dublin City Council. This new school building will abut and be directly connected to the listed building on the neighbouring site. Planning permission was secured for this project on 28 May 2020 on the basis of a proposed amended right of way. Discussions have been ongoing with the owner of the neighbouring property with a view to finalising an agreement in respect of the proposed amended right of way and matters arising from the abuttal of the two buildings.

The major building project for this school is currently at an advanced stage of architectural planning. As the Senator mentioned, this is stage 2B which involves the detailed design work. This includes the applications for planning permission, a fire certificate and a disability access certificate as well as the preparation of tender documents. All statutory approvals have been secured but amendment to these approvals may be needed if there are changes agreed in relation to the right of way which impact on them. The design team is currently working to complete the stage 2B report which, upon completion, will be submitted to the Department for review. However, it is not possible for the design team to complete drawings and costings relating to the final design until such time as final agreement between all parties in relation to an amended right of way has been agreed. In parallel with this work, any consequent statutory approvals or compliance issues will need to be addressed and the legal position relating to the right of way will be addressed.

In order to expedite the progression of this project, in January of this year the Department authorised the design team to commence the pre-qualification process to select a shortlist of contractors for this project in parallel with the completion of the stage 2B report. The design team is in the process of completing the pre-qualification process. Upon receipt, review and approval of the stage 2B report and completion of the pre-qualification process the project will progress to tender and construction stages.

I understand the Department has met with representatives of the school on a number of occasions in recent months and I have confirmed the Department's commitment to the delivery of this project. The Department and the design team will continue to keep the school fully informed regarding the further progression of this project. I understand that a progress review meeting with the school authorities, the patron body, the Edmund Rice Schools Trust, and the design team leader is scheduled for today. The current position and next steps will be discussed at this meeting.

The Department has told me that it is committed to the progression of this project and will endeavour to assist the school in every way possible. I have heard what the Senator has said with regard to the rent being paid, the delay, communications from the Department of Education, the building of four storeys over a basement in which the school is situated, the plasterwork, the lack of a lift and the lack of clarity and progress. She can rest assured that the Department will be aware that she has raised these matters in the House today. All of her concerns will be brought back to the Minister, Deputy Foley. I will personally let her know about them.

I thank the Minister of State. I am conscious that she is a Minister of State in the Department, that her responsibility is for another area and that she has had to be provided with the detail of this today. However, a clear message must go out. The answer I have got in this Chamber today shows that the project has taken a step backwards. How is it that last December assurances were given that construction would commence between July and September of this year when, in the response I have got today, we have been told that the final design is awaiting final agreement between all parties, that the process is ongoing and that meetings have yet to take place with regard to the completion of stage 2B? That is a very sorry state of affairs. It is most regrettable that this school, which is just over 200 m from where the Department of Education is located, is not being prioritised by this Government and the Department.

Planning permission for the 16-classroom building, which is to be built on the site procured by the Department of Education from Dublin City Council, was secured on 28 May on the basis of a proposed amended right of way. The right of way has been the subject of much discussion with the owner of the neighbouring property, discussion which is ongoing. That two-pronged process with regard to the pre-qualification stage and the stage 2B report being carried out in parallel will expedite matters. There is a meeting with the school today. The issue of communication about this project needs to be sorted out. The meeting today with the school authorities, the Edmund Rice Schools Trust and the design team leader will help the school to understand the processes involved, why there have been delays and, more importantly, what work can be done to expedite the project to get the school up and running as soon as possible.

Thalidomide Victims Compensation

The Minister of State will be aware of the situation with regard to thalidomide. I ran in Dún Laoghaire in the general election of last year and I was surprised to find that the issue of thalidomide was raised at three or four doors as I went about campaigning. I was further surprised to find, when canvassing for James Geoghegan, the Fine Gael by-election candidate, in Sandymount last week, that one whole road of people raised this issue with me as well. When I speak to colleagues, people ask whether thalidomide is still a thing. It is important to realise that it is very much still a thing.

The Minister of State will be aware that thalidomide was a drug issued by a German company which was available in Ireland in the early 1960s and late 1950s as an antidote to morning sickness for women who particularly suffered with it. In 1961, the manufacturer became aware of concerns about the effect the drug had on the unborn child. In November 1961, it made that clear and, in January 1962, warnings were sent out to pharmacies and doctors in Ireland. However, the Department of Health did not issue a public warning until June 1962. This means there was a period of approximately six months in which women continued to take thalidomide without being aware of these effects.

The effect of this is still to be seen today. It is difficult to estimate the exact number of thalidomide survivors in this country. Officially, the Department says there are 29 because there are 29 people involved in litigation. Depending on how the effect of the drug is categorised, there are either 36 or 37 people in this country who survived the effects thalidomide had on them before they were born. The associated disabilities, the effects this drug had on them, range from a missing or disabled limb to substantial incapacitation. Some of these people require 24-hour care. They are in their early 60s, they have borne these problems and disabilities throughout their lives and they and their families continue to bear them.

What is, perhaps, most striking about this whole process, based on the conversations I have had with people involved with the survivors of thalidomide, is that the mothers of those people, the women who took that drug, bore guilt notwithstanding that they were not at fault and made no mistake because they were not told. Many of those mothers are no longer with us but they bore a great burden of guilt right up to the moment of their death for what happened to their children before they were born. This is an appalling situation.

The Irish Thalidomide Society and the survivors of thalidomide in Ireland are looking for three simple things. First and foremost, an apology. There is no doubt to my mind, reading the documentation and looking at media reports, that the Irish Government failed in its duty to its citizens by not issuing a warning in advance of June 1962. I am aware that there is litigation in place and that the Minister of State may be hamstrung, to a certain extent, by that. It is not about apportioning blame; it is about accepting responsibility. In modern times, one of the things that the State has actually done is to confess to its crimes and failings of the past. I have seen that in this Chamber since I have become a Senator, as well as over the last number of years. It is appropriate. The very least that these people could expect from the Department of Health is that they would get a heartfelt and sincere apology.

Second, they are looking for compensation. In the course of the litigation to which I have referred, I understand the State has asserted that the discovery process alone will cost €24 million. I do not know how that figure is arrived at. I cannot conceive of how much documentation must be involved. If we are dealing with about 30 people, €24 million cannot be far off what they would be getting in compensation anyway, if successful. We need to set aside the bureaucracy and look at a fair and equitable compensation scheme for these people.

Third, we need to look at a medical scheme for them. Yes, they have received a medical card and that is right and proper. However, we are dealing with people, some of whom have significant incapacitation,and many of whom do not know how bad their condition is going to get in the coming 20, 30 or 40 years. What is the effect going to be on them? How are they going to support their medical needs? The State needs to step in. I am looking forward to hearing the Minister of State's response.

I thank Senator Ward for raising this most important issue. I would also like to assure the Senator of the Government's commitment to the ongoing support of Irish thalidomide survivors.

The Senator will appreciate that as there are a number of cases concerning thalidomide before the High Court at present, as he has stated, it is not possible to comment on matters that are sub judice. However, I am glad to take this opportunity to set out the supports currently provided by the Government to Irish thalidomide survivors.

Following an Irish Government decision in January 1975, the Government granted an ex gratia sum, equivalent to four times the German lump sum and an ex gratia monthly allowance for life, equal to the German monthly allowance, to each of the Irish children found to have thalidomide-related injuries. There are currently 29 Irish people in receipt of ex gratia monthly payments from the Department of Health. The annual figure for the Irish monthly payments ranges from €6,175 to €13,313 for each individual. The rate of payment is related to each survivor's level of thalidomide-related injury. The German monthly payments are made by the Contergan Foundation, which is established under the foundation Act. All thalidomide survivors entitled to benefits are entitled to a lifelong monthly pension ranging from €8,928 to €100,765 annually, annual special payments since 2009 of between €460 and €3,600, and annual specific needs payments since 2017 of between €5,676 and €14,700. I am aware that I have listed a lot of figures, but the information is available in the note that has been circulated to Senators.

Both the German payments and the Irish ex gratia monthly payments made to survivors are exempt from tax, including deposit interest retention tax, and are not reckonable, or in other words, assessable, as means for the purpose of Department of Social Protection payments. In addition, each Irish survivor is provided with health supports, including a medical card on an administrative basis, regardless of means, in addition to appliances, artificial limbs, equipment, housing adaptations and access to a full range of primary care, hospital and personal social services.

In April 2010, the Government decided to provide additional financial assistance and other supports for Irish thalidomide survivors to meet their needs into the future. The measures included an offer of an additional one-off ex gratia individual payment of €62,500. This offer was subsequently accepted by a number of the survivors. A senior manager in the HSE was also designated to liaise with survivors in relation to meeting their ongoing health and personal social service needs. I wish to inform the House that work is under way in the Department of Health to bring forward legislative proposals on health and personal social services for Irish survivors of thalidomide on a statutory basis.

It is important to note that the German Contergan Foundation has confirmed that since 2013, it is accepting applications from individuals for compensation for thalidomide-related injury. It is open to any Irish person to apply to the foundation for assessment of his or her disability as being attributable to thalidomide. Any Irish person who establishes that his or her injury is attributable to thalidomide will be offered appropriate supports by the Irish Government, commensurate with those currently provided to Irish thalidomide survivors.

I trust this clarifies the issues raised by the Senator.

I understand where the Minister of State is coming from and the restrictions of the sub judice rule, but there is not very much new in the document provided by the Minister of State. It has been the subject of questions and discussions in the other House. For example, the document does not address the need for an apology. I have discussed this with Councillor Geoghegan. We cannot see why we are not settling this case. There is a real danger, as we have seen in other cases, that the Department of Health will understandably defend the taxpayers' perspective, because that is what is involved here, and fight these cases. However, it seems to me that the type of fighting that is going on is unnecessary. These people are in their early 60s. Many of their parents are now deceased. The time has surely come for us to take a step.

I want to know, first, can we give them an apology? It is the least they can expect. Second, there was a meeting arranged with the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, last January. I understand why it was postponed. God knows, the pressure on the Department of Health is huge. Can there be another meeting? It is the least these people could expect. It would be a fair thing to do.

I would like to assure the House that the Government is committed to the continued support of the health and personal social service needs of Irish thalidomide survivors. The supports currently provided by the Government to survivors, including the monthly payment for life, the medical card and access to the full range of health and personal social services, are ongoing. I would also like to reiterate that work is under way in the Department of Health to bring forward legislative proposals on health and personal social services for Irish survivors of thalidomide on a statutory basis.

In relation to the two issues raised by the Senator, specifically the apology and the meeting with the Minister that had to be cancelled in January, I will raise both issues directly with the Minister.

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. It is always great to see Ministers taking the time to come to the House to answer questions directly.

Sitting suspended at 11.37 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.