I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, and call Senator O'Loughlin.
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach. I am, of course, happy to share my time. The very first Commencement matter I raised in this House was on this exact issue. Here we are a year and a half later and the situation is only getting worse. I am speaking on behalf of tens, if not hundreds, of families who are at a complete loss due to their children not being offered any secondary school place for next September. We had this situation last year and it was only alleviated by an extra class being taken by Newbridge community school. We had it the year before and the year before that. Schools are trying to do their best to accommodate the students who want to attend but it is proving to be an impossible situation. There is a huge need for a new school. That has long been agreed but there is an inordinate amount of delay in the acquisition and provision of a site.
I appreciate the Minister of State is here to take this. I had a conversation with the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, this morning. She has a meeting at this time but I had asked for an urgent meeting. She assures me that site is almost at a closing stage. However, that is still not going to solve the problem for those who need a place next September. I have reached out both to the primary schools which the sixth class pupils are leaving and to the secondary schools to get their views, input and experiences. There is a huge amount of anxiety on the ground. I am hearing it from parents, students and teachers. The teachers are very concerned about the young people they are teaching. The young people feel isolated because they do not have places. One principal was talking about a child who is 44th on the waiting list in one school, 67th on another and 88th in a third. It is unacceptable. Young people have enough to cope with, given the challenges of life, without adding to it the worry of not having a school place or being able to be in school with their friends.
I welcome the Minister of State. I am also glad to be sharing time on this very important matter for families in south County Kildare. I, like my colleague, have raised this continually since becoming a Member of the Seanad. Indeed, I think this is the third time I have raised it on the Commencement.
We need a temporary three- to four-year plan. We have just heard we may have a school that was promised and announced in 2018 but we still do not know that with any certainty. There is no certainty for the families ringing my office and others and crying down the phone. That is what is happening at the moment. This school was promised in 2018. It was to be a new 1,000-pupil school, yet we do not even have a site for it. That is not acceptable.
I wanted to bring some of the parents' worries and concerns to the Minister of State this morning. As he can see, I have received much correspondence. I will mention some of it:
From day one, the application process put huge amounts of stress on the children. The school spoke directly to the children, asking them to relay the message to parents. This caused panic, a feeling of being overwhelmed and my 11-year-old couldn't understand why she had been told she had less chance of getting a place because she is the eldest. She was so distraught in school that a teacher had to take her aside to assure her it would work out. It hasn't worked out. She is number 35 on the waiting list.
Another parent wrote:
My son is 11 years old. Last Friday he received an unsuccessful application for his secondary school place in Kildare Town. Since then he won't go out playing with his friends.
Here is one more example for the Minister of State:
As a parent in Monasterevin we selected our local school because we were told there was a new school in Monasterevin. To say we were shocked when we got no offer for a place for our daughter is an understatement. Our daughter is worried about this. She would rather attend the same school as her friends.
And so it goes on and on. In addition, I received a call this morning from a principal of a rural school in south Kildare who said that parents are now choosing urban centres to send their children to primary school, and bypassing her school, because they think they will have a greater chance of getting a place in a secondary school in Kildare South. This is a crisis. I am glad the Minister of State is in the Chamber and I look forward to what he has to say.
I am taking this Commencement matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education, Deputy Norma Foley, who has another commitment and regrets that she cannot be here. I thank both Senators for raising this matter, which provides me with an opportunity to clarify the current position, which I suspect the Senators are well aware of. It is important to bring it to the attention of the Seanad to keep the pressure on everyone involved in the matter.
To plan for school provision and analyse the relevant demographic data, the Department divides the country into 314 school planning areas and various data is collected as part of this process. Where data indicates that additional provision is required at primary or post-primary level, the delivery of such provision is dependent on the particular circumstances of each case and may be provided through either one, or a combination of, the following: utilising existing unused capacity within a school; extensions to existing schools; or the provision of a new school, which the Senators raised.
As they will be aware, since April 2018, the Government has announced that 47 new schools will be established over a four-year period between 2019 and 2022, some of which will be in the Kildare area, including two new post-primary schools to serve school planning areas Kilcock and Maynooth, which I note is in north Kildare.
I advise the Senators that the Department of Education is aware of the increasing pressure on south Kildare. Where capacity issues arise, it may not be due to a lack of accommodation but may be driven by a number of factors, which the Senators have mentioned. They include duplication of applications, whereby people put their names down for a number of schools based on geographic grounds, where the family has gone to, or the school they feel they have the best chance to get into; the school of choice, whereby people want to get a place in their preferred school rather than the nearest school; some towns have single-sex schools and while places are available in the school, they are not available to all pupils; and external draw, whereby people might want to travel into an area that has a good reputation. All these issues need to be discussed.
Similar to the process adopted in advance of the current academic year, the Department is engaging with patron bodies, including in the Kildare area, to identify particular capacity requirements for the forthcoming years. A number of building projects are planned for south Kildare, including the Curragh Post Primary School. It is intended that significant additional capacity to address post-primary demand will be provided through a new 1,000-pupil school building that will replace and expand the existing Curragh Post Primary School. In this regard, a site is required to construct the new school. The project is also intended to address the issues in the Kildare-Curragh-Newbridge school planning areas. Departmental officials are currently in negotiation with a landowner regarding the acquisition of a suitable site for the building project. The Department will continue to work closely with officials from Kildare County Council with a view to progressing this. I assure Senators that, having raised this matter today, this project will be given enhanced priority by the Minister. The Department is attempting to bring the matter to a close, as soon as possible, with a view to commencing the architectural planning process to deliver the project.
From my experience in dealing with the situation in Monasterevin, it is essential that there must be a clear understanding on the part of the local authority that the site being purchased is suitable from road traffic and water services point of view. There is no point acquiring a site, as occurred in Monasterevin, that has difficulties with road access and subsequent difficulties. All those aspects must be confirmed before the deal is done, because years could be added to a project if Irish Water were to highlight an issue down the road. I stress to all involved that they need to deal with that issue. My advice from my dealings with these issues is to get a site and make sure it is the absolute right site, and the council must be involved in the process to give a little comfort to that before the site is purchased.
I assure the Minister of State that Kildare County Council has been involved in looking at all the proposed sites with the Department. I agree with him about having the site located in an appropriate place.
I accept the statement he has given us but there is nothing new in it that will give either of us comfort regarding the provision the school places that are needed for next September. That is where the pinch point is. We need provisions in place to make sure that every child in south Kildare has a secondary school place next September. We need to know what the long-term plans are to ensure our school infrastructure keeps pace with the rapid expansion of the area, because a number of housing estates are being built in Newbridge, Kildare, Rathangan and Monasterevin. We do not see the school infrastructure keeping pace with this.
This school was announced in December 2018. That was three years ago, which is enough time for anyone to ensure that everything is in place. I, too, was involved in St. Paul's school, as the Minister of State will be aware, and that took so long. Three years is long enough for anybody. We are tired waiting on this. It has to happen.
I wish to draw his attention to something he did not say in the final paragraph of his reply. It states: "for the forthcoming year(s) which may necessitate action." I assure the Minister of State and the Minister of Education that we need action now. We cannot afford to have children staying in their bedrooms and not going out to play with their friends because they do not have a place in their secondary school in Kildare South. We need action now, not promises. I could have written the Minister of State's script. It is exactly the same response, as Senator O'Loughlin said, as what we got in May this year. It is simply no good enough. Let us see the plan. I hope he brings that message back to the Minister for Education.
I thank both Senators for strongly driving home the point. I had a similar experience in Portlaoise. It is an expanding area and school places is always an issue. I am providing practical experiences and not the official script. It will take a couple of years to build a new school, even if the contract is signed tomorrow. Architectural design, planning, tendering and construction is required. There will be a few years during which there will be a problem and one of the key solutions is that some schools will have to agree to take on temporary accommodation in the area if children are to be accommodated. There is no point saying otherwise. If it takes a two-, three- or four-year period for all that to be done, the schools in the area will have to come together and collectively agree who will help out in this situation on the basis of it being temporary accommodation. That is the practical advice I have to offer. I have a long script to hand, all of which I did not get to read in the time available. A lot of work has been done in this area. On a temporary basis, there must be a coming together between the various school principals and boards of management to see what solution can be put in place. Otherwise, there will be problems and people will leave the area to go somewhere else, and may never come back, to finish their secondary schooling. It is important that this happens.
National Asset Management Agency
I thank the Minister of State for being in the Chamber. We need to talk about the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, and, more specifically, what the agency is doing to fulfil its mandate to contribute to the economic and social development of Ireland. While the agency may be fulfilling its economic mandate, it has dropped the ball regarding its contribution to the social development of the State. We often hear about NAMA's duty to achieve the best financial return on the lands and properties it controls. In doing so, the agency cannot but neglect its social mandate. The Department of Finance has provided some clarification in recent weeks in the Dáil Chamber. I welcome the data provided that detailed the agency's housing delivery pipeline and the extent and spread of land for development that it controls.
According to its annual statement for 2022, NAMA fulfils its social objective mainly through the provision of social housing in existing housing stock controlled by the agency. The 2022 report further advises that up to July 2021, NAMA had identified more than 7,000 units as suitable for social housing, but almost 5,000 of these subsequently were not required at the time, deemed unsuitable or became unavailable. While NAMA has provided 629 more units for social housing than its initial target of 2,000, the agency could, and should, be much more ambitious. As NAMA has achieved the delivery of 2,000 units for social housing, it is now time to revisit its targets for social housing delivery and develop a more ambitious strategy for the remaining life cycle of the agency, taking into account the agency's position as a debt-free State-owned entity with €1.2 billion in cash reserves and vast parcels of land in its control.
In the context of the worst housing crisis that this country has ever seen, I struggle to accept the arguments against doing so. As I mentioned, more than 5,000 NAMA-controlled units were ear-marked for social housing, but later deemed unsuitable, unavailable or unrequired. Given the significant impact that these units could have had on housing lists around the country, I am of the view that we require a more detailed breakdown of the specific criteria by which these homes were deemed unsuitable, unavailable or unrequired. If it is the case that local authorities or housing associations are not purchasing housing stock that has been offered to them through NAMA, we need to know and hear why.
The National Asset Management Agency Act 2009 states that: "In the exercise of its functions NAMA shall have regard to the need to avoid undue concentrations or distortions in the market for development land." At the same time, NAMA is engaging in practice which can be viewed as distorting the property and development markets. It does so by sitting on vacant housing units and swathes of vacant land, and selling land and developments en bloc to multinational property funds, often at prices that are inaccessible to domestic finance. At the Committee of Public Accounts in September, the chairman of NAMA advised that only 8.4% of the development potential of sites sold by the agency had been realised as of March 2021. While I understand that NAMA has certain obligations under the EU state aid rules, the European Commission has advised of the potential for Government intervention to preserve a well-functioning and equitable economy. In dialogue with my colleagues in the Dáil, I note that the Minister has advised that it is not the Government's intention to amend the legislation which provides for NAMA at this late stage in its lifecycle. However, the NAMA Act contains a provision enabling the Minister of Finance to confer "additional functions connected with the functions for the time being of NAMA as he or she thinks necessary for the achievement of its purposes..." Has any consideration been given, or can any consideration be given, to conferring additional functions on NAMA to support it in achieving its purpose, namely, to contribute to the social development of the State, in addition to its economic mandate?
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue in relation to NAMA, which has been ongoing for a number of years. NAMA was given a difficult job to do when it was established as an independent commercial body with a very specific legal and commercial mandate, which was approved not just by the Dáil and the Seanad, but specifically by the European Commission, in 2010. It is following its legislative mandate, as established by this House, the Dáil and the European Commission.
NAMA has, to date, made considerable progress toward the achievement of its objectives. Subject to its commercial mandate, but often complementing it, NAMA continues to seek to make a positive social and economic contribution to the State across its remaining activities. In line with this, a key part of NAMA's remaining mandate will be to continue to make a significant contribution to the supply of housing within the State where it is in a position to do so.
NAMA has already made a significant contribution to social housing, including establishing a special vehicle, National Asset Residential Property Services, NARPS, to expedite delivery. NARPS has leased 1,370 units to local authorities and approved housing bodies, AHBs. In total, to date, NAMA has delivered over 2,640 homes for social housing. These figures exclude social housing delivered on NAMA-funded residential developments in compliance with Part V planning obligations. NAMA has directly facilitated the delivery of 13,000 residential units on secured sites and a further 8,900 units have been built on sites which benefitted from NAMA funding but which were subsequently sold by current and former NAMA debtors and receivers. NAMA has also played a key role in the resolution of unfinished housing estates within the State. While NAMA is delivering houses directly, it is also leasing them to local authorities and AHBs. Houses are also being delivered through the Part V planning process. NAMA has directly facilitated the delivery of 13,000 residential units and 8,900 units have been built on sites which NAMA helped to co-fund. I wish to point out that there has recently been some uninformed commentary on the amount of residential units that NAMA can, and has, delivered. It is important, in that context, to set out the factual situation, which I have set out briefly. On this basis, NAMA expects to deliver a further 2,000 units from its secured portfolio.
In addition to that, NAMA has a broader role in relation to other social aspects of Irish life, including employment, which is very important. In terms of its contribution to urban regeneration, NAMA has been critical in driving and supporting the delivery of new grade A office space in the Dublin Docklands area strategic development zone, SDZ. This development has had the supplementary benefit of encouraging foreign direct investment and bringing much-needed employment to the area. When fully complete, the sites in which NAMA originally had an interest will provide 4.2 million sq. ft of commercial space and over 2,000 residential units. It was directly involved in that area. It is not just working on delivering housing, but on bringing employment into key areas, as part of urban renewal and regeneration.
An important part of NAMA's work is to facilitate the sale of properties for social purposes. NAMA has worked closely with Government Departments, State agencies and local authorities. We all know that a number of years ago, NAMA offered many properties to local authorities around the country. Many local authorities felt that they were not suitable for their purposes. I suspect that if they were offered those properties today, they might take a different view. The properties offered were not always taken up by the local authorities. NAMA has delivered a number of properties to State bodies across Ireland for a variety of purposes, including 25 sites for schools and other education facilities; 18 sites for public amenities, such as parks, sports clubs, community centres and historic sites; 15 sites for essential transport and infrastructure projects, such as roads, flood defences and water treatment; ten sites for urban regeneration and housing projects; six sites for civic offices, Garda stations or healthcare facilities; and various sites for Industrial Development Authority, IDA, projects. Therefore, it has been very active within its commercial mandate, helping so many sectors of the economy and delivering housing.
As the Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, in 2019 the Minister of State himself commented on the unacceptable delay in terms of what NAMA should be doing, yet, according to his presentation today, NAMA is doing all that it can. I am wondering what has changed since 2019. One of the key points is that NAMA states that it will not build the 10,000 units that it could, because they are not viable. I wonder according to whose analysis they are not viable. Could NAMA not work with agencies, such as Ó Cualann, which are saying that they can build viably, to build on those sites? Of the units that the Minister of State mentioned, how many are sold on to private investors?
I am not saying the Senator is unaware of this, but it is important to note that NAMA does not own the development sites in its portfolio. The public does not necessarily know that. NAMA owns the loans; it does not own the land or the properties. The properties are owned by developers who owe money to NAMA. If the developers can clear their debts with NAMA, they are gone. If they clear their debts to the State, they are gone. NAMA does not own the sites over which it has mortgages. It has a financial interest, but it cannot direct issues on those matters.
As I mentioned, NAMA has helped with unfinished housing estates. NAMA expects to transfer a total lifetime surplus of €4.25 billion to the State as a result of its work. To date, €2.75 billion of this surplus has already been transferred to the State. Ultimately, one of NAMA's contributions to the social and economic development of the State will be the full redemption of the €32 billion in debt, thus eliminating any further contingent liabilities to the State. This comprises €30.2 billion of Government-guaranteed senior debt and €1.6 billion of subordinate debt, as well as the payment of €2.7 billion surplus to the Exchequer, with another €1.5 billion planned. The best job that NAMA can do is to get all that money back for the State so that the State has the value of it to do all the things that I have just spoken about.
NAMA has done a lot of good work. When it winds down, I think its main achievement will be to have returned over €4 billion to the State, together with delivering the full list of projects that I mentioned earlier.
General Practitioner Services
I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. I raise the issue of medical cover required on Saturday mornings in the towns of Clonakilty, Skibbereen, Rosscarbery, Enniskeane and Kinsale. Unfortunately, there is a dispute between the GPs and the HSE about who covers what and when. As a result, there is the potential there will be no such GP cover across the entire west Cork. There has been a breakdown in communication and trust. Particularly now when we all need to pull together to deal with the Covid crisis, it does not make any logical sense for the HSE, without consultation, to have pulled payments for Saturday morning cover since last July for a cohort of GPs across west Cork. Since last July, the GPs who cover those Saturday morning clinics have not received payment for those clinics. Effectively, they are working for free. They are providing a service to the community for which they are not receiving payment. That is a change in practice by the primary care reimbursement service without any consultation with the GPs. There has always been a lag in payments and those GPs were expecting to receive payment six to eight weeks later but since July payments were stopped without consultation. There is a fear that an apartheid system could develop with those GPs only covering private patients and not public patients whom they are also obliged to cover. This is a major issue. As the Minister of State is aware, there is a crisis with respect to the shortage of GPs going into GP practice. There is a lack of confidence among GPs about the sustainability of GP practices. As a result of this dispute more and more GPs will walk away from this service. With the Covid crisis, there could be a limit on cover for these Saturday morning clinics in west Cork, which would result in increased activity, particularly in accident and emergency departments, which we would not want to see happen. We want patients to be provided with the medical cover they need in those towns. We do not want them to have to go the Cork University Hospital for it.
I raise this issue because it is of major concern to the people of west Cork. What will happen to Saturday morning medical cover across these towns is part of a major debate. Consultation has failed and there has been a complete breakdown in communication. The HSE needs to actively engage with that cohort of GPs to make sure there is a service on Saturday mornings across those west Cork towns. If not, the outcome will be disastrous. That is the dilemma we face due to a lack of communication, consultation and pre-planning for what should be a key service. Primary health care is a key service and we need to make sure it is maintained. Unfortunately, it is not being maintained at the moment.
I thank the Senator for raising this important issue and one which, I know from my discussions with him, is of major concern to him and his constituents in Cork.
Under the general medical services, GMS, contract, GPs must be available to provide services in their practice premises or by way of domiciliary visits, as appropriate, for their medical card and GP visit card patients for 40 hours each week. They must also make arrangements to enable contact to be made with them, or a locum-deputy, for urgent cases outside these hours.
While there is no obligation on GPs to participate in GP out-of-hours co-operatives as a means of meeting the contractual requirement, such services have been developed and expanded over time and are now an essential and positive part of primary care services. This helps to ensure that, to the greatest extent possible, urgent care needs are met in the primary care setting.
SouthDoc provides a Saturday morning service in most areas in the Cork-Kerry region. This service has been advanced incrementally in recent years in response to requests from various local out-of-hours cells. The majority of areas are now included in the Saturday morning service. However, there are a number of areas where the Saturday morning service is being provided by individual practices, as opposed to being operated by SouthDoc.
Following engagement with the Irish Medical Organisation, a grant-based system of funding for GP out-of-hours co-operatives has been in place since March 2020 to support out-of-hours services during the pandemic. In accordance with the agreed system, no out-of-hours or other claims for consultations during a co-operative's hours of operation are claimable by the co-operative or its members from the HSE primary care reimbursement service, PCRS. The PCRS has a legal obligation to ensure resources are used for the purpose for which they are intended and is obliged to verify the reasonableness and accuracy of all claims submitted for payment. A validation mechanism exists for claims made by co-operative members during the hours of operation of grant-aided co-operatives.
The PCRS has provided a specific email address and a contact point for GPs who may have any queries or concerns regarding the validation mechanism or their GMS remuneration. If GPs who are not co-operative members, or who do not have co-operative cover available to them, are inadvertently captured by the PCRS validation process, they should notify the PCRS straightaway. Where a GP can provide information that clarifies that any claim held under the validation mechanism is in line with the GP's contract, then the PCRS will ensure that the claim is paid.
I have been informed that Cork Kerry Community Healthcare has recently learned of the decision by the PCRS to cease payments to GPs who are running their Saturday morning service outside the SouthDoc co-operative. Cork Kerry Community Healthcare is currently determining the specifics and will be engaging with the GPs who have notified it of this issue, as well as the other stakeholders as a matter or priority. Cork Kerry Community Healthcare is working locally with all stakeholders to ensure appropriate and safe service levels are maintained. This involves a level of detail regarding contracts and State processes. As the Senator knows, with regard to the systems, the PCRS and others need to make sure that funds are dedicated to where they should go. I completely take on board the concern this issue is causing locally with healthcare providers on the ground and their patients, the Senator's constituents, who are concerned about medical cover into the future. I will be working with ministerial colleagues to ensure the concerns the Senator raised are highlighted and that there is detailed ongoing negotiation and contact with all the relevant parties to make sure this issue and the potential impasse are resolved.
I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive response. The stopping of the payments for these GPs since July has left some GP practices with potential financial issues. That is unfortunate. Confidence among GPs in practices is a major issue. Engagement is needed to address this issue. I raised this issue at the health board forum last Friday. We need to make sure the HSE deals directly with those GPs to find a solution. What is happening currently cannot continue. We could have up to 5,000 or 6,000 Covid cases in a few weeks' time and it makes no sense for GPs not to be paid for their work. It makes a laugh of the suggestion that we are all in this together. The Minister of State's involvement is welcome. It is important those GPs and the HSE have meaningful engagement to sort out this major issue for those communities.
It is important to state the Government acknowledges the vital role GPs have played, particularly during the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic and, more generally, in providing essential healthcare in the community. We, as a Government, are committed to ensuring that patients across the country continue to have access to GP services, including out-of-hours services such as those the Senator has raised.
A package of measures to support general practice was introduced in March 2020 in order to take account of the impact of Covid on general practice and to ensure that GPs were in a position to provide essential Covid and non-Covid services, which they have done. In addition, in recognition of the need for the continuance of GP out-of-hours services, the HSE is providing grants to support the out-of-hours co-operatives.
The HSE's PCRS is responsible for making payments to primary care contractors, including GPs. Payments totalling in excess of €780 million were made to GPs by the PCRS in 2020. As I stated, the PCRS is responsible for verifying the reasonableness and accuracy of all claims submitted for payment.
I would encourage any GPs in the Senator's area who have concerns or issues to engage directly with the PCRS. It has provided a dedicated email address for GPs, which I will furnish to the Senator.
Claims that can be validated by the primary care reimbursement service as being in line with the GP contract will be paid. In the meantime, Cork Kerry Community Healthcare has recently been made aware of the non-payment of claims to GPs who are providing a Saturday morning service outside the SouthDoc group. It is looking into this issue and will be engaging with GPs, the PCRS and other stakeholders as a matter of priority to resolve it. I will ensure engagement happens as swiftly as possible to try to get a resolution to what is a very concerning issue for the people of the Senator's area.
I thank the Minister of State.
I wish to take this opportunity to put before the House the significant concerns of many people regarding the proposed reforms to the equality Acts. I understand the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, has set a deadline of 29 November for the consultation on the Acts and I wish to identify for the record a very important issue that has been identified with the proposed changes.
One of the proposals put forward by the Minister is to review the grounds covered by the Act, including the proposal that gender identity be added as a protected ground. Let me be clear that, of course, transgender people and any persons struggling with gender-related issues deserve full protection from harassment and discrimination. The issue that needs to be carefully considered in the context of any amendment to the law is that gender and sex are not the same. A lack of clarity in respect of the definition of those terms has led to a position whereby persons who obtain a gender recognition certificate to change gender, even men who have not had surgery or hormones and do not intend to have any, being able to access all female-only spaces as if they were a woman. If gender identity is included in the Act, obtaining a gender recognition certificate will no longer be necessary to access these spaces.
We have already seen the impact of conflating sex and gender in our laws following the introduction of the Gender Recognition Act 2015. We now have a situation whereby male-born prisoners who have not transitioned but who are granted a gender recognition certificate, even those who have committed serious sexual offences, are placed in prison facilities for women. If gender identity is included as a ground in the equality Act without including safeguards and legal clarity as to the distinction between gender and biological sex, we will be unable to protect single-sex spaces such as toilets and changing rooms from male incursion. This will only serve to enable the two most common sexual offences, namely, voyeurism and exhibitionism.
Let me clear that this is not an attempt to paint trans people as predators - far from it. It is simply a recognition that 98.8% of sex offenders are male and 80% of victims are female. We cannot, in a noble attempt to be inclusive, worsen the position of women and children as they use intimate spaces. It would be naive indeed if we did not recognise that predators will use the complete lack of safeguards to access their victims. If we have learned anything, we have surely learned that. When self-identification was passed into law, we did not realise it conflated sex and gender, which leads to a situation whereby any man, even a fully intact sex offender, simply has to fill out a form and he can access female-only spaces. This has serious implications for women, women's rights and children's safeguarding. We cannot make the same mistake of rushing through legislative changes without considering their actual impact. The Government has not undertaken an impact assessment on this very important legislative measure. Surely, given all I have outlined, the Government would not be so reckless as to go ahead without a thorough impact assessment that addresses all the outcomes of such a change in the law, including on the other protected grounds, not least that of sex.
The Countess, a new women's and children's rights advocacy group, has repeatedly highlighted the issue and concerns caused by the confusion between sex and gender in our laws. Its recently commissioned poll shows that Irish people are tolerant of gender expression and identity in a social setting, and that it is to be applauded. However, many people want single-sex spaces and sports to be protected and believe people should be able to request intimate care and accommodation in healthcare settings based on biological sex, not gender. It would be a dereliction of our duty to protect all vulnerable groups in the population if we were to introduce such profound changes in legislation without full consideration of all the impacts. We must ensure that in protecting one group in clear need of such measures, we do not do so at the expense of another.
I was relieved at the start of the Senator's contribution to hear she was not in any way questioning protection for trans people in society, but I ask her in future contributions to consider her framing because to bring reference on at least two occasions to sex offenders straight into the debate and to speak about voyeurism and exhibitionism in a way that suggested these are linked to a person being trans is really problematic. There are people watching the proceedings in this Upper House of our national Parliament, such as young people or people who, as the Senator stated, may be struggling with their gender identity, and I have deep concerns with the way in which she linked some of the concepts she put together in her contribution. The rights of trans people are not up for question, as far as I am concerned. We have to put in place protections for trans people and that is what we are seeking to do in initiating this consultation on the amending of equality legislation.
It is important to state we are at the start of this process. We are undertaking a public consultation that will inform proposals that will come forward which will then go to a pre-legislative scrutiny process and then come before these Houses. I want to push back very strongly against suggestions there is some sort of jump or something is being done secretly. We have extended the consultation period on the equality legislation.
The Government is committed to building a fair and equal society where no person faces discrimination. Part of the work of creating an equal society is developing whole-of-government strategies that include actions aimed at addressing particular inequalities, such as the national strategy for women and girls and the national Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy. Another key element is putting in place legislation that prohibits discrimination and provides access to redress for those who have been discriminated against.
We have the Equal Status Acts and the Employment Equality Acts, which consider discrimination on a range of statuses, including marital status, family status, sexual orientation, gender and membership of the Traveller community. I began the review of the equality Acts to examine the scope and operation of the legislation to ensure it offers effective protections and accessible remedies to those who experience discrimination. Among the issues committed to in the programme for Government is the consideration of widening the grounds of gender and the introduction of a ground of discrimination on the basis of socioeconomic status.
The Senator will see that the national LGBTI+ inclusion strategy recognises the need to ensure adequate protection against discrimination for transgendered, non-conforming and intersex people. That is one of the issues at which we will be looking in this review. We will undertake the review. Everyone is entitled to participate in it. There will be a pre-legislative process.
However, it is very important that we recognise that transpeople in our society are deeply vulnerable. The suicide rates among transpeople are much higher than those for other parts of society. It is incumbent on all of us to be very careful with the language and concepts we use and to ensure that nobody who is transgender in this country feels that his or her rights or existence in our society are in any way up for debate in this House.
I thank the Minister for his comments. I understand the difficulties that youth and transpeople have with regard to their sexuality. I have had many children in my care who may have been even thrown out of their homes because of their sexuality. I have had a number of transchildren in my care as a foster parent. Obviously, I have raised some issues this morning that have caused deep offence to the Minister and to the transcommunity, which I certainly do not wish to do. However, I look forward to receiving that report when it is due to be published.
I am not offended. I am just saying that we have to be very careful with the language we use in this area. From her experience as a foster parent, the Senator acknowledges and knows better than me the sensitivities of children and the pressures they face, particularly where a child may be struggling with gender identity. That is why the language we use here is extremely important when we talk about these issues and the concerns people have. Referencing and bringing the debate straight to the worst-case scenario is problematic and not the way to go. I accept this is an issue and debate we will be looking at when the legislation is brought for pre-legislative scrutiny. It will probably go through the Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, on which the Senator is represented. We will have an opportunity then to examine these issues in detail. However, it is important to reiterate in the House that the rights and existence of transpeople in our country are not matters for debate.
My point this morning is all about the safeguarding of women and children here.