Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Public Sector Pay

I thank the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform for coming to the House this morning.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House to take this matter. He clearly regards it as important. When I first took my seat in 2014, I was immediately aware of the job of Seanad secretarial assistant, SA, and that it bore little resemblance to the work that SAs actually do. That was confirmed in a survey in 2017, which showed that Seanad SAs do the same work as parliamentary assistants in the Dáil. They undertake research, speech-writing, preparing newsletters and briefing papers and preparing material for committees, among other things. Not only is the job of an SA a misnomer, the pay does not compensate for the work they undertake. SAs currently earn €24,423 per year or €11.75 per hour. That would qualify an SA with one child to avail of working family payment from social welfare to supplement their income.

To add insult to injury, it currently takes 18 years to reach the maximum point on the SA scale on contracts that are fixed purpose and that do not exceed five years in duration. We are bringing all these passionate, highly educated and incredibly loyal people to assist us as legislators on temporary contracts with long working hours and we are paying them well below the living wage. In any other sector, we would be accused of gross exploitation and rightly vilified for this as a result.

What is even worse is that we, the employers of SAs, have no control over their terms and conditions. The Minister is the only person who can successfully address the issue. In 2018, SIPTU lodged a pay claim on behalf of SAs which called for the introduction of the parliamentary assistant scale for the Seanad and compensation for the SA scale so that staff in the Dáil are rewarded for the essential work they do in the Oireachtas. In 2019, I and other colleagues from across the House passed a motion calling on the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to meet with the staff union representing this group as a matter of urgency. It is now 2021 and no meeting has ever taken place. I appreciate there have been many emergency issues in the meantime.

This year, assistants in both the Dáil and Seanad were offered a pay increase of 1% in October, 1% in February 2022 and 1% in October 2022. That would bring their salaries to €25,162 per year or €12.09 per hour, which is still below the living wage. This was not acceptable and was rejected totally by the staff and their union, SIPTU. More importantly, it failed to address the fundamental issue that the role of an SA has evolved to the level of a parliamentary assistant and that the Dáil and Seanad have completely different roles. If a Seanad SA loses his or her job after an election, having the job of SA on a CV completely misrepresents the work they have done.

Earlier this year, the Ceann Comhairle relaunched the form on a family friendly and inclusive Parliament, which is an excellent initiative. However, we know that it is impossible to attract a diverse workforce and create truly inclusive workplaces without considering the factors that will encourage retention. I strongly believe salary transparency, pay equity and equal pay for equal work are the fundamental cornerstones in building an inclusive culture in the Oireachtas. SAs acquire a vast amount of proprietary knowledge very quickly and we should be doing everything we can to retain them. Instead, we are exploiting them while they are here.

I know that the Cabinet agreed to publish the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission (Amendment) Bill 2021, which will provide €462.5 million to run the Dáil and Seanad for the next three years. It would be shameful if every aspect of the running of the Parliament was adequately funded except for the people on whom so many of us depend, who are the powerhouses in our offices and whose loyalty is beyond question.

As a former leader of a trade union, I could never stand over people being paid different rates for the same work. When I came here, the terms for a Senator had changed as a result of a statutory instrument. As a result, I was not able to avail of the traditional part-time work in the Seanad and part-time work in a traditional occupation. It became a full-time job for me and, as such, I am entitled to the same supports as any full-time Member of the Oireachtas. Without my SA, Jean Webster, my office would not run. I would simply be neutered and unable to do anything. From that point of view I am asking the Minister today to reverse our current position.

I again thank the Minister for coming into the House this morning to discuss this issue.

I thank Senator Craughwell for raising this issue and I thank the Cathaoirleach for giving me the opportunity to address it in the House.

As a Member of the Oireachtas for more than 14 years, I am deeply conscious and appreciative of the extraordinary work carried out by all of our support staff. I see this work up close day in, day out, and know that I, for one, could not do the job I do without the selfless dedication and commitment I get from my own staff. I have no doubt the same is true for every Member of this House, as Senator Craughwell has noted in his own case. I also acknowledge that the nature of the work carried out by our staff, which in the case of Senators means their SAs is unique. They have to deal with a multifaceted set of issues every day and their role extends far beyond providing what might be generally termed secretarial support.

The role of an SA is very different now to what it was even a decade ago in light of the rapid changes in the way we communicate and interact with the people we represent. I am also deeply aware that they do not enjoy job security and, in many instances, they will no longer have work once the Member they work for is not re-elected or retires. Being a politician or working for a politician has many benefits, principally the enjoyment and satisfaction we get from helping people and making a difference, but job security is not one of them.

To deal with the specific issue at hand, the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Act 2003 provides a limited role for the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform in determining pay and superannuation arrangements for secretarial and parliamentary assistants employed under the scheme of secretarial assistance. Under the Act, the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission has the power to regulate the provision of secretarial facilities to Members and qualifying parties. This function transferred from the Minister for Finance on the establishment of the commission on 1 January 2004. The term "secretarial facilities" is not defined in legislation but is generally taken to be a wide term encompassing the staff employed under the scheme for secretarial assistance, as well as ICT equipment, office equipment, printing facilities and graphic design services. SAs, parliamentary assistants, administrative assistants, administrators and chefs de cabinet are employed by Members and by qualifying parties but are paid by the commission. The commission also regulates the number of staff employed under the scheme and has oversight of the operation of the scheme.

Under the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Act 2003, the commission must obtain the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform before reaching an agreement with any person in respect of rates of pay, conditions of employment or superannuation rights. In practice, this means that the commission advises on matters relating to resourcing, grading and terms and conditions of employment and submits proposals for the Minister's consideration and agreement. In other words, the commission makes a proposal to me, as Minister, on issues such as grading, salary rates and so on, and I then make a decision on that proposal, having consulted with my officials. In that regard, I am aware that there is a process under way at the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, dealing with various issues, including alignment with the current public service pay agreement Building Momentum, between the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission and SIPTU. This is an issue I would like to see resolved and that is an important political signal for me as Minister to give in this House this morning. I look forward to a successful resolution of the matter and early presentation of proposals for my agreement, in line with my role under the legislation.

I thank the Minister for outlining many of the issues relating to this matter. As Senator Craughwell noted, we, as Senators, would not be able to do our jobs without our SAs. Grace Coyle in my office has been involved in drafting legislation and in negotiating with Ministers and special advisers to make sure the work we wanted done in relation to policy and the Irish Sign Language Act got done. It is a misnomer to describe someone as a secretarial assistant in this day and age because the job has evolved so much.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for his input. SAs will be aware of the fact that I am here and that this matter is before the House morning. If I am not misinterpreting what the Minister said, once the commission makes up its mind and comes to him with a proposal he will be willing to look at it and is anxious to have this matter resolved as quickly as possible. Going back to my time as a teacher, a union activist and the president of a union, it always annoyed me terribly that the State was the most difficult body of all to deal with when it came to resolving matters before the WRC or the Labour Court. I recall on one occasion having to go to the courts against an education authority in order to get enforcement. The Cathaoirleach is a member of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. I hope that this matter will go before the commission at its next meeting, that a proposal will go to the Minister before Christmas and that we will have this matter resolved once and for all. Failing that, I will try my damnedest in the new year to ensure that no legislation is dealt with in this House until this matter is addressed. It is more than three years since I discussed this at the commission. It is absolutely ridiculous that, three years later, we have to invite the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform into the House to try to resolve the matter. That said, I appreciate him coming here this morning and I think what he has said is positive. I look forward to the commission acting on his input.

I thank the Senator. I also acknowledge the Cathaoirleach's comments. I should have said that this issue has been raised with me by him and many of his colleagues from across the floor of the Seanad in recent times. My understanding is that both parties, that is, the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission and SIPTU, have written to the WRC and want to go back to the WRC for negotiations. That is what now needs to happen. I welcome that and look forward to that happening.

The Senator mentioned the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission (Amendment) Bill 2021. I will be here in the next week or two to deal with that. It provides for a significant increase in the resources of the Oireachtas of more than €40 million across the next three years. That is an increase of almost 10%, which is needed and which will be used for a variety of different purposes.

What I want to do this morning is clearly set out what my role is under the legislation. My role is to give consent to a proposal that is put to me by the commission. The commission is the entity that is directly involved in the negotiations. I have given a clear political signal and that is significant. I have looked at the proposal that was put on the table in September and there is a lot of merit in it. The realignment with public sector norms is important. Even under the existing terms of Building Momentum, while the increases on 1 October 2021 and 1 October 2022 are 1% in headline terms, they also involve a minimum of €500 each time. For somebody at the bottom of the pay scale, that is 2% each time. There is also the 1% from the sectoral bargaining fund on 1 February.

An element from the previous agreement is also on the table. It relates to the issue of incremental credits in order that people can start further up the pay scale and so on. There is a lot in that but it is not for me to get into the detail of it. I have given a signal for the commission to engage intensively with SIPTU in the normal industrial relations channels at the WRC and I stand ready with my officials to consider any proposal that is put to us. I hope that will happen sooner rather than later.

Antisocial Behaviour

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Deputy James Browne, to the House.

I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. When is it expected the report from the export forum on antisocial behaviour will be received, in light of the increasing incidence of antisocial behaviour throughout the country, including Galway, my home city, but also other cities such as Dublin, Cork, Waterford and Limerick? There have been issues with antisocial behaviour, which has certainly increased in the inner cities since the pandemic began more than 18 months ago. There are a number of reasons for that. I can speak about Eyre Square at first hand, having been born and raised 200 yards from it. The square has suffered from a spate of antisocial behaviour in recent times, including a tragic incident where a young woman lost sight in one eye when a firework was let off. This has become such an issue that the chief superintendent of Mill Street Garda station in Galway city has even suggested the square may have to be closed at a certain hour. As a Member of the Oireachtas, I certainly would not be in agreement with that suggestion, which is not a solution.

As the Minister of State is aware, Eyre Square is in the heart of Galway city, very close to the train and bus stations and is often the first impression of our city for visitors and tourists alike. Galway has always been a largely safe and happy place to live and visit. We cannot allow the actions of a tiny minority to alter that. A Christmas market with a large number of stalls is open in Eyre Square. The market has activities for kids and adults, across the divide. It will run right up to Christmas and offers an opportunity because there is full-time security in the square now. However, the Garda presence in Eyre Square will need to be enhanced immediately after the market closes. That issue must be dealt with. The visibility of gardaí is vital in reducing crimes. We are currently seeing that, with the success of Operation Citizen in Dublin, with which the Minister of State will be familiar. As highlighted last week, that operation has reduced crime statistics, which is very welcome.

As I said, a number of issues are causing this problem. Hospitality businesses are closing earlier and people have no place to go. This is a major concern. I am fully aware that Garda operations are a matter for the Garda. Is the Department in a position to highlight the importance of locations such as Eyre Square being properly policed? Seeing gardaí on the ground gives certainty to businesses and residents in the inner city in Galway. It is paramount that residents are safe and secure in their homes. I will await the Minister of State's response.

I thank Senator Crowe for raising this very important matter relating to antisocial behaviour throughout Ireland but specifically in Eyre Square. Senator Crowe has been raising concerns not only here in the Chamber but also behind the scenes with the Department of Justice and An Garda Síochána. I understand how important it is to him to ensure members of the public and his local community are safe in his city. I have been to Eyre Square many times and the warm welcome received by domestic and international tourists in the city is renowned. We have to ensure our public spaces are kept open for the public and communities. That is their purpose and under no circumstances should they be lost to antisocial behaviour.

The Government is determined to tackle antisocial behaviour and is very conscious of the effect it can have on the quality of life for local communities. We are clear that incidents of assault or intimidation are completely unacceptable and that people must be safe and feel safe within their communities. The programme for Government and the Justice Plan 2021 contain a number of commitments with regard to tackling antisocial behaviour and I will touch on a number of these important commitments.

As Senators will be aware, the expert forum on antisocial behaviour was established by this Government in line with the programme for Government. I chair the forum, which is charged with considering the effectiveness of existing legislation and propose new ways forward, including new powers for An Garda Síochána and additional interventions to support parenting of offenders. We were determined when this Government was formed that we would set up the antisocial behaviour forum in which, at a high level, representative groups could come together to address the issues around antisocial behaviour. Rural and urban groups are represented on the forum and we work closely with the road safety forum, which I also sit on, to look at tackling issues around antisocial behaviour and other issues affecting both rural and urban Ireland.

The forum has already produced a report regarding the misuse of scramblers, which I believe was very well received. It is expected that a report on knife crime will be available early next year. Future reporting will be produced on specific issues as and when they arise. That is very much what we focus on in the forum. Rather than trying to duplicate what other forums, such as the road safety forum, are doing, we target individual issues and try to come up with both community and legislative responses to those issues.

Earlier this year, I launched the youth justice strategy for the period 2021 to 2027. The strategy was published in April last. I thank the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, for his significant support in providing additional funding of €6.7 million in this year's budget to help kick-start that new youth justice strategy and recruit youth workers. The strategy includes consideration of the full range of issues connected to children and young people at risk of coming into contact with the criminal justice system, including early intervention and preventative work, family support and diversion from crime, through to court process and facilities, supervision of offenders, detention and reintegration and support post release.

The immediate priority is to enhance engagement with children and young people who are most at risk of involvement in criminal activity, principally by strengthening the services available through the existing network of youth diversion projects. As I said, the Minister, Deputy McGrath, contributed an additional €6.7 million this year, an increase of approximately 40% in the budget for youth justice, which is very significant.

An unprecedented €2 billion funding for An Garda Síochána allocated in budget 2022 also reflects the commitment of the Government to ensuring communities are safe and An Garda Síochána has the resources to be effective. This funding will include provision for the recruitment of 800 new Garda recruits and 400 Garda staff. We have the process of civilianisation of An Garda Síochána whereby we use civilian staff to release gardaí from administrative duties back on to the front line to help ensure our communities are being kept safe.

I thank the Minister of State for his very positive comments in regard to public spaces. They are for the enjoyment of all our people. I welcome his comments on Eyre Square in particular. It is very positive that nearly €7 million has been set aside and that the Minister of State is working with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.

The biggest issue is the visibility of gardaí on the ground. That has never been more important. I very much welcome the recruitment of an additional 800 gardaí and 400 civilian staff.

Is it the case that over the next 12 months there will be an extra 1,200 gardaí? If it is, that is very welcome, and if Galway, as the capital of the west and a leading area, could be prioritised, I would greatly appreciate it.

Community safety is a core priority of the Department of Justice and for the Government in terms of the different programmes it is bringing forward. The deployment of gardaí throughout the country is an operational matter for the Garda Commissioner. Once gardaí are deployed to the various divisions, it is a matter for the chief superintendents whether they are deployed as community gardaí, in high visibility situations or in other settings within An Garda Síochána as needed. I agree that with the additional recruitment of 800 gardaí next year, the recruitment that is ongoing this year and the increase in civilian staff within An Garda Síochána we will be able to release gardaí for operational matters and, thus, an increase in the level of visibility. Visibility is important. We have already seen an increase in visibility but within our communities and public areas we need to see a further increase in visibility. The new Garda operating model, which will be focused on the community aspect of An Garda Síochána, will be important as well in getting that visibility.

It is also important for us all to work together to create a situation where antisocial behaviour is not just a matter for An Garda Síochána. While gardaí can present, knock heads and move people on, where antisocial behaviour is occurring it requires engagement with the local authorities, the HSE, Tusla and many other bodies to ensure that, at an early age, people are being diverted from this activity into more positive behaviour and, also, that they confront the consequences of their actions, as is currently happening through the Department of Justice in terms of restorative justice and people being made to face that what they are doing is not consequence free or a bit of fun but it has serious impacts on people's quality of life.

Agriculture Schemes

I welcome the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, to the House.

I welcome the Minister to the Chamber and thank him for taking this Commencement matter. The straw incorporation measure is a payment for chopping straw and incorporating it into the soil. There are certain crops that can be used such as winter or spring oats, rye, winter or spring wheat, winter or spring barley and winter or spring oilseed rape. You can get paid on, at least, 5 ha but for no more than 40 ha. If you apply for more than 40 ha you can carry it out but there is no payment above 40 ha. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has approved a budget of €10 million for this scheme, with a payment rate per ha for the oat, rye, wheat and barley of €250 and for oilseed rape €150.

Since its establishment, this has been a really good scheme. Many tillage farmers in Tipperary speak very positively about it and they are very happy with it. A question regularly asked of me by tillage farmers is if this scheme can be made permanent. The Minister will be aware that for most schemes introduced by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine the first question is always on how it can be made easier to apply for. This is a scheme that people are really happy with in terms of applying for it, but they are looking for it to be made permanent. In fairness to the Irish Grain Growers group, it has been requesting this. I know that the group has been in contact with the Minister and the Department in regard to the scheme being made permanent for tillage farmers. This year has been a good year for tillage farming but that is not always the case. A scheme like this gives a level of certainty to farmers.

Another question often put to me by farmers is on why the payment for oilseed rape is set at a different level and if, at any point into the future, it is proposed to increase it to the €250 payment for the other crops. A number of farmers chop the oilseed rape, but from a financial point of view and with a difference of €100 per ha, it makes more sense to chop the straw of the wheat barley rather than the oilseed rape. Will the Minister consider raising the budget for this over the next number of years as well because of the interest in it?

One of the main requests is for an increase in the ceiling per individual. At the moment, as the Minister will be aware, a farmer can apply for 40 ha, or almost 100 acres, under this scheme, which is excellent and people are really happy with that. Last year, we fell below the overall amount allowed to be used nationally. I know farmers in Tipperary who wanted to use more of their land for this because they know it is a benefit to the environment. Over the next number of months - this has started already - we will face issues with regard to fertiliser and the cost of fertiliser. Cutting up straw and incorporating it into the soil helps in terms of encouraging farmers to use less fertiliser and it reduces the dependency for tillage farmers to use fertiliser. There is an environmental aspect to this and they know that.

While it is welcome that you can have up to 100 acres per farmer, can the Department do something for tillage farmers in Tipperary who have more than 100 acres, such as set a percentage of their land that they can use? For example, a farmer who has 150 acres can use 100 acres for this scheme, which means that farmer can use two-thirds of his or her land, but for the farmer who has 400 acres or 500 acres, 100 acres is only 20%. Could we, perhaps, allow for say, 25% or 30% of land to be used under this scheme? There are farmers who feel they would benefit a lot more if they could use more than 100 acres or, use the first 100 acres and beyond that a percentage of, say, 20% or 25%. This would give farmers with greater amounts of land more to work it.

I thank Senator Ahearn for raising the straw incorporation measure, SIM. Having secured funding in budget 2021, I introduced the measure as a pilot to support Irish tillage farmers who decide to chop and incorporate straw into the soil after harvest. As pointed out by the Senator, the measure has been a success in terms of the environment and as a financial support to tillage farmers. In 2021, it will pay out approximately €8.5 million, with very strong support for the measure from applicants. Eligible crops include: wheat, barley, oats, rye and oilseed rape. The measure increases organic matter in soils, which will increase carbon sequestration, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but with added advantages of increasing water holding capacity and soil workability, while also returning nutrients to the soil.

Payments are made at the rate of €250 per hectare for those applicants who chop and incorporate oats, rye, wheat or barley, and oilseed rape is paid at the rate of €150 per hectare. The minimum application is 5 ha, with a maximum of 40 ha. I believe in the long-term success of the straw incorporation measure and for that reason I have incorporated it into the CAP strategic plan as a permanent measure. This will ensure that it will be available for at least the duration 2023-2027. In the meantime, it will continue as a pilot measure in 2022. The general feedback from advisers and farmers who participated in the pilot in 2021 is that they are very happy with it and most plan to reapply in 2022. Tillage is a relatively low greenhouse gas emissions sector but, nonetheless, there is an increased awareness among tillage farmers of the need to improve soil and to play their part in reducing emissions overall.

The measure also supports tillage farmers in making a change in their farm practice, which is positive in terms of greenhouse gas and soil improvement. Therefore, it is imperative that farmers chop and incorporate the straw to achieve the numerous benefits and goals of the measure. The ceiling of 40 ha was decided on to ensure that the measure is available to as many farmers as possible. A farmer could earn up to €10,000 under the measure. Following on from the success of the scheme this year, I expect an increase in the number of applicants next year and I consider that an increase in the eligible hectare at this time is not warranted as data from applications indicates that the average farm size was less than 20 ha. Furthermore, I believe any increase in the eligible maximum area per farm would limit the possibility for all applicants availing of the measure. I need to remain conscious of that as well. I want as many farmers as possible to have the opportunity to avail of this measure, without the need to impose rank and selection criteria if it is over-subscribed.

The straw incorporation measure is an agri-environment and climate support targeted specifically at supporting tillage farmers in undertaking actions which will increase soil organic carbon levels and deliver reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

It is not possible to open the measure to farmers who decide not to chop straw because one of the main purposes of the measure, which is to increase soil organic carbon levels, will not be achieved. It is a condition of the measure that participants chop and incorporate straw into the soil after the harvest.

I welcome that this will be available for the duration of the next CAP. I acknowledge the excellent work that the Minister has done on CAP over the past weeks and months, and his engagement with farmers throughout the country. No one would want to limit the possibility of farmers coming onto the scheme, especially when, as the Minister said, it is a positive one. He said that there has been a pay-out of approximately €8.5 million. There will be €10 million for this scheme in the budget. Particular farmers in Tipperary are full-time tillage farmers who have quite sizable farms and see the opportunity, from an environmental point of view, and also certainty of payment relating to this scheme. As the Minister knows, the past six or seven years have been challenging for tillage farmers. Although this year has been good, that will not always be the case. This scheme has been widely welcomed by the industry and by grain growers across the country. The more people who can use it, the better. I understand about making sure that farmers across the country are not limited from getting into it.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. I take the point he makes about wanting to ensure that all farmers who want to avail of the scheme can do so. This is a reflection of how well it has been received and the value of it to farmers as well as the value from an environmental and emissions perspective. It is a good initiative. I am glad to be able to put the funding back in for 2022. I will keep it under review. I want to ensure that it is available to everyone, which is why the thresholds are there. The average so far is 20 ha, but people who apply for 40 ha will get €10,000, which is significant support to income. It also puts a floor on the straw market to ensure that income is available. We need to support tillage sector incomes.

We need to have a safety valve too. Last year, people could withdraw at any stage. The safety valve was there to ensure that if straw started to get expensive, we expected to see farmers being able to sell it in order to keep the market right and to not see the price increase unnecessarily. This is a type of scheme that makes sense in a year when yields are high and when there is a good supply of straw that can be used. In years when things are tighter, it cab be used for other purposes. The scheme needs to be flexible in order that it can be used to address any excess.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. I note his support for the scheme and the points he made.

Hospice Services

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. Senator O'Loughlin has four minutes.

It is lovely to be greeted by the Acting Chairperson's smile when we stand up to speak. I welcome the Minister of State. I know how passionate and compassionate she is regarding services for older people. In this instance, we are talking about a specific service that is sad but needed. Dame Cicely Saunders, who founded the hospice movement, said, "You matter because you are you, and you matter to the end of your life." Those words are important. The hospice movement has given great dignity, respect and comfort to many at the ends of their lives, as well as to family members around them.

In 2001, the national advisory committee on palliative care stressed the importance of every region having a hospice. Sadly, there is one region that still does not have a hospice, namely, the midlands region of Laois, Offaly, Longford and Westmeath. It has been described as a black spot. In 2013, a joint study recommended that the hospice be on the campus of the hospital in Tullamore.

There has been some movement. Professor Humphrey O'Connor is the chair of the committee. I have had a number of meetings with him and facilitated a meeting with the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, last April. Since then, plans have been drawn up and a feasibility study was formally assessed. These all agreed that Tullamore is the correct place for a hospice. Planning, funding and so on need to be put in place.

I referred to the Minister of State's passion and compassion at the start. We need urgent action and intervention. It is not acceptable to have a black spot for end-of-life and palliative care anywhere in our country. While the region is fortunate to have a well-developed palliative care service in the community, with an aim to care appropriately for people at home for as long as possible, the provision of specialist palliative care and patient beds will facilitate hospital avoidance and support families in end-of-life care for their loved ones. I know the tremendous service that St. Brigid's Hospice in the Curragh gives. A friend and neighbour of mine, Paddy Curran, passed away a month ago. I know the solace and support that the hospice gave to his wife and to all of his extended family and friends.

Hospices are places that any of us ever wants to be in or see our loved ones in, but they are vital. When the time comes and families in the midlands need to rely on these services in order to ensure that their loved ones are cared for with grace and dignity in the final period of their lives, this service is simply not there. We need to ensure that we are providing patients and their loved ones with adequately funded and resourced end-of-life and palliative services. These are already incredibly difficult and traumatic times for people. It is not acceptable that we add to that suffering by not providing hospice care in the midlands.

I hope that the update that the Minister of State is bringing us today will be a positive one from the Department and its officials. I hope that we will be able to provide some certainty to those in the midland counties I mentioned.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue about an update for the plans for a midlands hospice. I thank her for the compassionate way in which she has dealt with it. Her statement at the start, "You matter because you are you, and you matter to the end of your life.", reflects exactly what a hospice does. The Government is strongly committed to the development of end-of-life services, which ensure the care and dignity of the dying person and the family are the focus. The Government is working to guarantee equitable access to specialist palliative care services in every region of the country and to ensure that we meet the palliative care needs of all who require it, as our population grows and ages.

In recent years there has been a significant increase in investment in palliative care services, with recent openings of new hospices in Mayo, Waterford and Wicklow. Along with the extension of St. Brigid's Hospice in the Curragh, there will soon be 276 specialist inpatient palliative care beds available for those who need them. Budget 2022 will provide for increased investment in palliative care services. An additional €2.4 million will be allocated for new service developments and €10 million has been allocated as once-off funding for palliative and end-of-life services to progress national priorities. As the Senator knows, there was another €10 million at the end of last year to support hospices and palliative care.

The Department is also updating the palliative care strategy from 2001. The update will reflect the changes in end-of-life care and best practice over the last 20 years. The updated policy will aim to ensure the provision of high-quality, integrated and accessible palliative care services for all patients. It will also reflect increased demand for adult palliative care, the shift towards care in the community, the emphasis in Sláintecare on addressing geographic variations in the provision of both community and hospital palliative care services and developments in international best practice. It is expected to have the policy update published in 2022.

It is a commitment in the programme for Government to increase the number of specialist palliative care beds countrywide to ensure a hospice is serving every region of the country. That was the Senator's exact point. The Department of Health is actively engaging with the HSE to progress plans for the development of hospices planned for Drogheda, Cavan and the midlands. The development of these three units will mean specialist palliative care services will be available in every region of the country. It is recognised that the midlands is one of the three remaining regions without this specialist palliative care inpatient service in place. However, there is continuing progress to develop a new specialist palliative care facility, co-located to the Midland Regional Hospital, Tullamore. I noted the Senator said she met the Minister earlier in the year.

The HSE's palliative care services three-year development framework includes the development of a 15-bed specialist palliative care inpatient unit, or hospice, which will provide support to patients from across the four counties in the midlands. Fundraising from Offaly Hospice Group has recently allowed for architects to carry out initial plans and a feasibility study at the co-located site. The HSE has recently engaged with five hospice groups in the area, the Irish Hospice Foundation and Hooves 4 Hospice, to provide an update on progress regarding the midlands inpatient unit. The development will require collective working towards a specialist inpatient palliative care service in the midlands. HSE estates is developing a costed, timelined plan for the development to be ready by end of 2021, which is very short. In line with the vision of palliative care in the programme for Government, Sláintecare and HSE development framework for palliative care, this development aims to prioritise and protect the most vulnerable.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. I am pleased to see this issue is progressing. I point out that the HSE's palliative care service three-year development framework she mentioned, including the development of the 15-bed inpatient unit, was for 2017 to 2019. It is already two years out of date. I would have thought we would have proceeded with it. However, it is really good news that HSE estates is developing the costed, timelined plan for the development, which is to be ready for the end of this year. I assume that is going to be ready in about two weeks' time. I acknowledge it was fundraising by the Offaly Hospice Group that allowed the plans and the feasibility study to be in place. When we have the costed, timelined plan for the development I ask that the Minister of State have a meeting with me, the board and of course representatives for the area. I obviously do not expect that meeting to be in 2021 but it would be great if she could commit to facilitating it in 2022.

I again thank the Senator. She is quite right that HSE estates is developing a costed, timelined plan for the development, to be ready by the end of 2021. The Department of Health is actively engaging with the HSE and representative groups on this matter to improve equity of access to an inpatient unit for the midlands. We had this battle in Waterford for many years. The friends of Waterford Hospice did phenomenal work and raised a significant amount of money over so many years. We would not have seen the Dunmore wing built if not for that. As of the last month or so, and very quietly, the first service users are now in the hospital in Waterford. We were lucky to have that building for the last 18 months for Covid-related issues but it is up and running now and very welcome.

On the Senator's query, I have no problem with meeting her and others but this falls under the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly's brief. Under the delegation orders palliative care falls to him. However, I have no issue whatsoever supporting the Senator's ask here. It is long recognised the midlands area does not have that support and families need it. End of life is a very traumatic time for so many families and having to travel to an area that might be an hour or 90 minutes away is not feasible at all. I am happy to liaise with the Senator on this. I thank her once again for raising this really important issue.

I thank the Minister of State for coming in to address the matter and Senator O'Loughlin for raising it.

Sitting suspended at 11.26 a.m. and resumed at 11.33 a.m.