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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 19 Jan 2022

Vol. 282 No. 1

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence

It is vitally important that at the first opportunity in this Chamber we rise to our feet and raise with the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Deputy Browne, the recent horrific and tragic killing of Ashling Murphy. Our hearts go out to her family, her partner, her friends and her community who are all grieving this loss. As a nation we are heartbroken for the life stolen from Ashling, but as women we are furious that we are not safe in our communities. That anger must now turn to action. As a country we never want to see again something like this happen. We must put an end to violence against women in this country and all forms of it.

My question for the Minister of State is what is our Government's plan? Will he outline to us in this Chamber what specific actions he, his Department, and our Government will take in the coming weeks and months to put an end to violence against women in this country?

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. In the few moments I have him, I wish to ask him what he is going to do. Is he going to listen to women? Is he going to listen to expert groups like Safe Ireland which has endlessly written reports such as No Going Back.

It would be great for the Minister of State, and for all the women of Ireland, if he would listen to organisations like Safe Ireland. Before the Minister of State answers our questions, I ask him to think of the girls, the vulnerable women, the girls and the women we have lost in this country and the women and girls who are afraid to go out on the streets today, to go home or to go on public transport. We do not need fancy words or plámás, or to be told that we will make things better. We need action and tough action very quickly.

We gather here today with a sadder and number sense of public representation since the last day that we spoke due to the horrific murder of Ashling Murphy. We cannot and will not ignore what happened. The women and men of Ireland came together in solidarity with the Murphy family and many of us attended vigils outside of Leinster House and all around the country last week. All of those vigils were very moving. The hurt, anger and sorrow was palpable. Thousands of people had gathered but one could hear a pin drop.

As a person, I am horrified; as an aunt and friend to young women, I am frightened; as a woman, I am furious, but as a legislator, I am determined to respond. We are privileged to be elected to this House to serve the people of this country and to act on their behalf. What was so clear from the vigils around the country was the silent determination of the Irish people to no longer allow this to continue. This must be our Veronica Guerin moment and must mark a distinct turning point in our history where we must ensure that the death of Ashling Murphy does not fade into the history books unanswered. We have a duty in this House today to make it clear that we will act.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach. I stand today with colleagues and a nation in expressing my deep sympathy to the family and friends of Ashling Murphy. As a nation we joined in the grief that the family, her friends and community suffered and I hope that that grief and the loss of her life will not go to waste. As legislators in this House and as a House, we need to ensure we are at the very forefront of the discourse to ensure there is a cultural change in our society. We need to discuss topics like consent, access to pornography, looking at our model of education and whether same-sex schools are appropriate, ensuring domestic violence refuges are properly funded, and looking at a dedicated Ministry and Department to end gender-based violence. There are so many things that we can do in this House, not just purely from a legislative perspective but from commencing the discourse and leading civic society along to ensure we see a cultural change towards gender-based violence, as the Taoiseach said in the Dáil earlier. It is incumbent on us as mothers, parents, aunties and uncles to ensure that our daughters and sons know how to treat each other equally and that it transpires down the road that we see this cultural change. I join again with the family in expressing our deep sympathies to them. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam dílis.

Glaoim anois ar an Aire Stáit.

On behalf of the Minister, Deputy McEntee, who unfortunately cannot attend today, I thank the Senators for raising this very serious topic. I know that the Minister has offered to come into this House as early as possible and at a date that can be agreed to make statements.

I want to begin by offering my sincere condolences to the family and friends of Ashling Murphy and her community as they mourn and grieve the loss of a much-loved and talented young woman. Her funeral mass yesterday heard that her death had taken the life of a talented, loved and admired teacher and musician, but had since united the entire country in grief and support.

There is a real determination now that we must come together to demand zero tolerance of violence against women. Along with her Cabinet colleagues, the Minister, Deputy McEntee, has been working on our new national strategy to tackle domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, and it will be published within weeks. The goal of zero tolerance of violence against women is clear. The new strategy recognises, however, that this is a problem that can only be solved by all of society and the Government working together and it is not simply a criminal justice issue. The new strategy will be structured around four pillars or goals: prevention, protection, prosecution and co-ordination of policies.

The prevention goal, for example, involves working towards the eradication of the social and cultural norms - yes, among men - that underpin and contribute to gender-based violence.

That means appropriate education from primary school up on healthy relationships, gender equality and consent. It also means calling out inappropriate behaviour when we see it in work, out socialising or in WhatsApp groups.

To protect victims, the new strategy will ensure the right supports are available, such as a refuge space for anyone who needs one. Reforms are under way to ensure victims are treated with professionalism and sensitivity in every interaction with the criminal justice system. We must also prosecute and punish the perpetrators who inflict suffering on so many women; again, our zero-tolerance approach to violence against women will be reflected in the law. This new strategy is being developed in partnership with the sector to ensure it is targeted, comprehensive and effective in achieving all of the goals set out.

There is real determination across the Government, across the sector and, as we have seen in recent days, across society to bring about the change that we need to see. The Minister, Deputy McEntee, welcomes the views, inputs and ideas of all members as we move to finalise the third national strategy, which will have zero tolerance at its centre and which will be the most ambitious national strategy we have seen to date.

On behalf of my colleagues, I thank the Minister of State for his response. We join him in supporting a zero-tolerance approach but we must get a definition for that. What does it mean or what would it look like? We welcome the imminent publication of the national strategy but, again, the devil will be in the detail. What does it suggest, will money be put behind it and how will it be implemented? Let it not be another report or strategy gathering dust somewhere on a shelf. We must see concrete action in the weeks and months ahead, not just in the years ahead.

The Minister of State mentioned women's refuges. There are parts of this country where there is no women's refuge for women to access. We know prevention is key, and that will mean working closely with the Department of Education on a whole-of-government response to put in place a programme of education right across our schools. That is something we can put on the table in the coming months and we look forward to seeing that proposal before this House at the earliest opportunity.

On behalf of all colleagues in the House, I extend our deepest sympathies and condolences to the Murphy family, her partner, her friends and her community. It is an horrific loss. We hope they can, in time, heal as a community.

On behalf of the Minister, I thank Senators for raising this very serious matter. We all know there is no single solution to ending violence against women and tackling it requires a multifaceted approach, with genuine engagement and partnership across all sectors of our society. We need sufficient supports and services available throughout the country, appropriate legislation, an effective policing response and a cultural shift within our society, as I referenced earlier.

I assure Senators that the Government is working to achieve these goals and when the strategy is published, it will come with an implementation plan and the necessary supports to ensure it can be implemented as quickly as possible. The recent budget for 2022 provides more than €2 billion in funding for An Garda Síochána, including the provision for recruitment of an additional 800 new gardaí and 400 Garda staff this year. There is an additional €41 million for Tusla that the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy Roderic O'Gorman, has also secured.

The appalling and tragic death of Ashling Murphy has produced a groundswell of support to bring about change in this area but I must emphasise that while the Government will lead, all members of society have a role in creating a society free from all forms of violence against women. There can be no excuses.

I thank the Senators for raising that important matter.

Data Protection

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to speak to this matter. He might recall we discussed it in September 2020, when I raised concerns around the capacity of the office of the Data Protection Commissioner, its resourcing and its powers in being able to deal with some of the challenges it continues to face.

First, I compliment the staff of the Data Protection Commissioner, who have been working under difficult circumstances and faced much criticism. Some of that has been unfair but some of it should also be taken on board. The Minister of State will be aware that there has been criticism from other European jurisdictions and data protection authorities across Europe. I note, however, that Commissioner Reynders is responsible for the data protection area and he recently came to the defence of the Data Protection Commissioner.

What is clear is that there are major challenges in the area of data protection. We know that this is just going to continue to grow. A recent survey by McCann FitzGerald and Mazars found that businesses here were increasingly concerned about having to deal with issues of data protection and data privacy. However, William Fry conducted a survey of international businesses recently in which 89% of respondents recognised that the regulatory climate in Ireland would be regarded as good to excellent.

However, there are problems. The Minister of State acknowledged at the time that there were not sufficient staff in the Data Protection Commission. In an interview in the Business Post on 5 December, the commissioner stated that the office is currently unsustainable and unfit for purpose. We have the DPC already saying that the office is not sustainable in its current form. There were commitments by Government which have not been sufficient to meet the scale of the challenge.

Given the importance of data privacy and data protection, particularly following the Schrems II judgment, it is of increasing importance that we take action against companies engaged in data breaches. We must have a properly resourced and, more importantly, properly structured DPC. The time is long overdue. The Oireachtas justice committee recommended the following: that the Government appoint three data protection commissioners, as is provided for in legislation; that there be an independent review of the operation of the DPC to take on board criticisms and address concerns; and that we be in a position to give confidence that Ireland has an excellent data protection regime.

One of the largest fines set down by the DPC was against WhatsApp. Clearly the DPC is taking the issues very seriously. On the other side, however, last year there were nearly 7,000 Irish citizens and individuals who made complaints to the DPC. One of the complaints was about the length of time it is taking for the DPC to deal with some of those complaints. I ask the Minister of State to set out the Government's position with regard to the commission.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue which he has consistently raised in the House. The programme for Government commits to recognise the domestic and international importance of data protection in Ireland and states that the Government will ensure that Ireland delivers on its responsibilities under the general data protection regulation. The Government is very conscious of the commitment to deliver effective data protection regulation and protection of the data privacy rights of EU citizens, which is critical to the development and growth of our digital economy. In dialogue with the Data Protection Commission and with other relevant Departments, the role of my Department is to ensure that the commission continues to have the resources required to fulfil its important statutory obligations.

GDPR obliges member states to ensure that each supervisory authority is necessarily resourced to perform its tasks and exercise its powers. To that effect, the DPC is one of the largest EU data protection authorities in terms of budget and staffing. The DPC is funded under its own Vote as of 1 January 2020, with the commissioner being Accounting Officer. It has received an allocation of €23.2 million under budget 2022, a 22% increase on the €19.1 million that was allocated for 2021. This equates to a €4.1 million increase in pay of €3.2 million and non-pay of €900,000. Furthermore, the 2022 allocation marks a sixfold increase on its 2015 allocation.

There have been significant increases over recent years. Resources awarded to the DPC have risen steadily. Staffing numbers increased from 110 at the end of 2018 to 191 in December 2021.

Recognising the expanding breadth of the commission's regulatory role, its mission to safeguard data protection rights and the increasing demands, this increased allocation in 2022 will enable the recruitment of additional specialist and technical staff and address the increasing case load and complexity of cases being faced by the commission.

Under the Data Protection Act 2018, provision is made that the Government may determine that the commission could consist of up to three members. Section 15 states that "the Commission shall consist of such and so many members (not being more than 3) as the Government determines". Section 16 provides that in the event of there being more than one commissioner, the Minister shall appoint one to be chairperson with a casting vote. In keeping with the Government's commitments, and as conveyed to the Dáil in a written reply in October 2021, Deputy Humphreys, then acting as Minister for Justice, requested officials of the Department to consider the matter of appointing additional commissioners to the DPC. This was done on the basis that if such a recommendation were to be made, it would require the Minister to bring a recommendation to the Government for decision. Department officials are continuing to review this issue and it is expected that a recommendation will be made to the Minister shortly.

I welcome the fact that there are discussions around a move towards three commissioners. I am certainly interested in hearing the Minister of State's personal view on whether this will happen, and happen quickly. In terms of addressing some of the concerns, including those raised by the DPC around its functioning, this may be a step forward. If the Minister of State cannot give a direct answer, I ask him to clarify what he means when he says a decision will be made by the Minister "shortly". I always wonder what exactly "shortly" or "imminently" means. I ask the Minister of State to provide a specific timeframe. I am sure will appreciate the urgency of the issue.

The question is not just about the commissioner and the number of commissioners. There is a broader issue around the functioning of the office. This is about ensuring we have an office that can cope effectively, given the huge challenges we are going to face over the next number of years around data protection. The Leas-Chathaoirleach and I sit on the Special Seanad Committee on the Withdrawal of the UK from the EU. One of the issues that the committee has addressed is the question of the UK's data protection regime diverging from the EU regime post Brexit. According to the DPC, such divergence could entail €1 billion in extra costs for Irish business. We must ensure the DPC is going to be in a position to be able to advise on all of those issues. I still believe there should be an independent review. I certainly believe there should be three commissioners. Perhaps the Minister of State can give us an indication of the timeframe involved.

I thank the Senator for raising the matter. I cannot give a direct answer to his specific question. I would be loath to anticipate, in any way, what this independent review is going to propose. The Department has carried out recent reviews quite quickly where necessary. I expect the answer will come in a short time.

The Department of Justice continues to monitor the impact of the GDPR implementation, of any possible future regulatory changes and of any changes within industry, and to liaise with the DPC to ensure it continues to have the resources required to fulfil its statutory obligations. As I stated, the Minister for Justice is happy that by the end of 2022, the funding for the DPC will have increased sixfold from its 2015 allocation. The staffing numbers increased from 110 in 2018 to 191 in December 2021, with the additional budget for 2022 expected to bring the staffing target up to 260 by the end of this year. That is a substantial increase in staffing, recognising the need for and the increasing breadth of the DPC.

In keeping with the Government's commitment, and as conveyed to the Dáil in that written reply, the review requested by the then acting Minister for Justice, Deputy Humphreys, to the Department will be carried out as quickly as possible. This is on the basis that if such a recommendation were made, it would require the Minister to bring that recommendation to the Government for a decision on it.

Brexit Issues

I welcome the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, to the House.

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for selecting this most important matter. I would also like to welcome the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to the House and thank him for his presence. It indicates his absolute commitment to agriculture, horticulture and the potato sector that he has come here to respond to this Commencement matter.

Part of the context for raising this question is that I am a member of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, as the Minister is aware. We have had some discussion about this issue, if not a great deal. I have also received a substantial amount of correspondence from growers and farmers, and especially from Donegal. As the Minister will be aware, it is an important county for the production of potatoes, and specifically of seed potatoes. In the next few weeks, I intend to travel to Raphoe to see such an operation. I am sure the Minister is fully aware of it.

I also speak about this issue in the context of the national agrifood sector and the strategy in that regard, including the horticulture strategy, as well as rural development, rural communities and the rural economy. I refer to all those issues together because I do not think they can be separated. The Minister and I know the potato industry is facing a potential crisis. If we do not resolve the issues concerning seed potatoes, then we are going to have problems. To give some background information, and the Minister will know this, approximately 9,000 ha of seed potatoes are planted in Ireland every year, requiring approximately 20,000 tonnes of seed potatoes. These are sourced from certified home-grown, imported and farm-saved seeds. The main varieties of potatoes produced here are Roosters, followed by Kerrs Pinks, Maris Pipers, Queens, Records and Golden Wonders, to name just a few.

It is a significant industry, and one that we should be ambitious about and endeavouring to grow. My focus in asking the Minister about this matter today is on the fallout from Brexit. As a result of the UK's decision to leave the EU and to end the Brexit transition period from 1 January 2021, the import of seed potatoes from Great Britain into the EU is now prohibited. That is a fact. The UK applied to the EU for third-party equivalence for the export of certified seed potatoes, but the EU refused the application because the UK's plant health regulations are "not dynamically aligned with the EU’s legislation". This means that the main concern for potato growers now centres on the supply of seed potatoes.

Having gleaned information from correspondence that I have seen from the Secretary General of the Minister's Department, I understand that the Department will actively and significantly support the production of the mini-tubers through the Tops potato propagation centre in Raphoe in County Donegal and others. I also understand that all necessary resources will be supplied by the Minister's Department to ensure that an adequate supply of mini-tubers is made available to the industry. I would like to hear a little bit about that aspect.

Returning to the key issue, there is a question about the supply of seed potatoes. What do farmers want? They want certainty, and they want it now. This is the time when they are planning their sowing schedules. This concerns the agrifood sector, and involves supporting the horticultural sector, the Irish brand potato and rural communities. Ultimately, in the broader perspective, we need a bigger strategy for the coming years to enable us to develop our own seed potential and our own seed production industry and to grow it. I am not happy enough, and neither I think is the Minister, for us to just sustain our current level of growth and investment in this area. We want to grow this industry as a part of the food sector on this green island of Ireland. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. He is a strong proponent of the seed potato sector. It is one with great potential, and I am committed to seeing it growing again and being restored to its heyday. This endeavour must be led by the industry, with support from my Department. As a result of the UK's decision to leave the EU and following the end of the Brexit transition period on 1 January 2021, the import of seed potatoes from Britain into the EU has been prohibited under EU plant health regulations. These regulations apply to all EU member states, where it is now illegal to import seed potatoes from Great Britain for seed propagation purposes.

The UK applied to the EU for recognition of equivalence under Article 44 of the EU plant health regulations to allow for the export of certified seed potatoes from Great Britain to the EU to continue post-transition. The EU, however, refused this application because the UK's plant health regulations are "not dynamically aligned to EU's [phytosanitary] legislation". Traditionally, there has been a strong demand and requirement in Ireland for high-grade seed potatoes from Great Britain.

In recognition of this, my Department has actively engaged with the European Commission and other member states at various EU meetings on exports of seed potatoes from Britain, including at the EU chief officer of plant health meetings and the EU standing committee meetings on plant health, among others. At these meetings my Department has continually outlined to the Commission our view that there should be continued free movement of seed potatoes between Great Britain and Ireland. We have urged the European Commission to engage to find a solution to the resumption of this trade and have suggested that this could be achieved either by discussing equivalence under Article 44 of the plant health regulation or by way of a derogation. Exports of seed potatoes from Britain to Northern Ireland and the EU have also been discussed at the first meeting of the Trade Specialised Committee on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures under the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement and at the European Parliament environment committee. In all forums the Commission has maintained its position that the UK's plant health regulations must be dynamically aligned to that of the EU for any resumption of trade to take place.

I am keen to highlight to the Senator that the ending of high-grade seed imports from Britain provides a real opportunity for the revival of domestic seed production, a point he dwelled on in his contribution. An all-island plant health status, seed growing tradition and the potential to form producer organisations by potato growers are all positives. There is an increased interest from major seed potato contractors in placing contracts for seed with Irish growers in the wake of Brexit. My Department will offer as much support as possible in developing the seed potato sector. However, further expansion of the seed area must be industry led. This expansion should be assisted in the coming years by the availability of seed of our main variety, Rooster, whose plant breeder's rights expired at the end of 2021.

My Department actively supports the production of mini-tubers through the Tops Potato Centre, in Raphoe, in my county, whose good work Senator Boyhan referred to in strong terms. To ensure that the Tops Potato Centre can cater for future demand, I am looking at how to improve our investment there.

In addition, my Department operates the seed certification scheme for the production of certified seed and will make available all necessary resources to ensure that all seed crops entered for the scheme are certified to the highest of standards.

I assure the Senator that my Department will continue to support the seed potato sector in building capacity to increase domestic seed supply and to maximise our natural advantage in this regard.

I thank the Minister for that comprehensive reply and look forward to considering it in great detail. He is right that there is enormous potential. In any crisis there are opportunities and, therefore, we must focus in on them. I hear what he says clearly about the strict plant health regulation requirements, and that is very important. I also hear what he says about exports. The industry has to lead here.

My final call to the Minister is that, conscious of the area involved and its importance and significance to the horticultural and agricultural food chain and systems, we need to look at and keep the focus at all times on the Brexit adjustment reserve fund. There may be something in that for us. Surely, if there is, the Minister will go after it. It is good that we highlight this issue, identify the issues and try to address them and stand in solidarity with these growers. I note that the Minister referred to Raphoe and the work going on up there in the Tops centre. That is really important.

I thank the Minister for his engagement and his very positive response. He might in wrapping up touch on our potential for the Brexit adjustment reserve fund in respect of this specific problem.

Alongside the tremendous work that goes on at the Tops facility in Raphoe, my Department also provides funding to the Teagasc potato breeding programme at Oak Park and to growers for specialist equipment under the TAMS investment scheme.

As a further support to the seed potato industry, my Department is currently examining a capital investment scheme for seed potatoes to facilitate the development of the domestic seed potato production sector and capacity. There are state aid considerations in the development of such a scheme, and approval is also required from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, but my Department is engaged in this process.

I and the Department will, in all of the ways we can, work with the sector to support it in restoring what used to be a tremendous domestic seed production sector. The sector has diminished somewhat in recent years, but we have the necessary natural resources, advantages, land and climate to do that. It is important that this is industry led, and that those who need to purchase seed for growing ware potato engage with growers that are willing to grow more seed potato and provide certainty to them that if they produce a quality seed potato product that they will be purchased. That is within our grasp and that of the industry, and I will work closely with industry. I will meet the IFA potato committee in the next number of days, following the meetings I had with it last year to try to further advocate that we grasp this potential. Alongside that, I will continue to advocate at European level for free movement. We have to grasp this opportunity for the restoration of the domestic sector.

Housing Provision

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. As he knows, there is an ongoing housing emergency throughout the State. I want to focus in particular on Limerick city and county. I will set the scene with a few factual statistics. We currently have 2,342 approved applications for housing. In addition, we have 335 transfer applications, 2,479 people on housing assistance payments and 735 on the rental assistance scheme. That gives us a total of 5,891 people on the housing list as of last September, a truly shocking total that does not fully demonstrate the extent of the housing crisis in Limerick because, as I hope the Minister of State will acknowledge, thousands more are excluded from qualifying for public housing because of the ridiculously low income threshold still in place under this Government.

As of November last, there were 246 homeless people in Limerick and 46 families homeless in the mid-west, comprising 56 adults and 77 children. The Minister of State will know that hubs in Limerick have been full for the majority of the past 12 months. There were no temporary emergency provision beds available in Limerick in November and, as far as I am aware, none have come online since. There has been no major turnaround in the number of people using temporary emergency provision services, which is contrary to the meaning of the word "temporary". The majority of those who are homeless are aged between 25 and 44 years. There are two issues. In most cases, they are not seen as a priority because they do not have children. Second, they are being priced out of the market by excessive rents. The average price for a one-bedroom apartment in Limerick city is now €999 per month. The average price for a three-bedroom house is now €1,277, an increase of 8% over the past year. The average cost of renting a single room in Limerick city centre is now €464, up a shocking 21% on a year ago.

It is against the backdrop of this crisis, insecurity and desperation that I have to ask the Minister of State how, according to the figures available which were highlighted by a Sunday newspaper at the weekend, there are 207 vacant council properties in Limerick? Is that the correct figure? I would appreciate clarification, because the last official figures I have state that there were 297 vacant properties in April this year. According to Limerick City and County Council, of those 73 required minor fixes, 102 required major fixes and 72 were considered derelict. How can the Government's priorities be so skewed as to have this many empty council properties at a time when we have an emergency crisis of the most unprecedented kind?

I understand that Limerick City and County Council is currently leasing 164 properties from vulture funds that, thanks to this Government, will collect rent tax free for the next 25 years. At the end of that period, not one single property will transfer into local authority ownership. Again, I have to ask the Minister of State about the Government's priorities. Why is it choosing to fund the leasing of homes from vulture funds rather than repairing and restoring council-owned houses?

This means that right now more money is being pumped into an overheated private sector housing market rather than pumping it into council-owned properties that could provide rental income for Limerick City and County Council. The people of Limerick are genuinely wondering why we have so many vacant council properties in the midst of the worst housing crisis in the record of the State. I hope the Minister of State will be able to provide some answers.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Chathaoirleach agus leis an Seanadóir, agus athbhliain faoi mhaise daoibh go léir. I might not be able to answer all of the questions the Senator has put to me. I have taken a note of them and I will try to get to him with some of the responses. I will address the overall issue of vacancy in Limerick, which is the core issue. Addressing vacancy and maximising the use of existing housing stock is a primary objective of the Government, as demonstrated by one of the four pathways dedicated solely to this priority area in the new Housing for All strategy.

Housing for All outlines a suite of measures aimed at addressing vacancy in a co-ordinated and robust manner. These include a new local authority-led programme to help local authorities buy or compulsory purchase 2,500 vacant homes in their areas. The Croí Cónaithe towns initiative will attract people to build their own homes and to support the refurbishment of vacant properties in small towns and villages. A new town centre first policy, which will be launched in a number of weeks, will include approaches to utilising existing stock. These measures are in addition to the vacant property tax consideration being pursued by the Department of Finance as a replacement for the vacant site levy.

With regard to voids, the management and maintenance of local authority housing stock, including pre-letting repairs to vacant properties, the implementation of a planned maintenance programme and carrying out responsive repairs, are matters for each individual local authority under section 28 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provision) Act 2009. Since 2014, Exchequer funding has been provided through the Department's voids programme to support local authorities in preparing vacant units for re-letting. This funding was introduced to tackle long-term vacant units and is now targeting local authorities to ensure minimal turnaround and re-let times for vacant stock. Limerick City and County Council received €7.6 million in funding from 2014 to 2021, supporting the return of 505 properties to use. This might explain the disparity in figures the Senator provided. Local authorities will always have a level of vacancy in their housing stock. This will fluctuate over time, as tenancy surrender and re-letting of stock is an ongoing process.

The Department has been providing support for an ambitious regeneration project in Limerick city since 2007, with a cumulative investment of more than €417 million to date. The Limerick regeneration framework implementation plan adopted by the council in 2014 provided a roadmap for the physical, social and economic regeneration of the target areas. It proposed the refurbishment of more than 1,400 existing social and private houses. More than 1,100 refurbishments have been completed to date under the thermal upgrade programme. These actions, along with investment in social, economic and physical regeneration being implemented under the Limerick regeneration framework implementation plan are making a real difference to the communities in the regeneration area. The buy and renew scheme along with the repair and leasing scheme are also valuable tools available to local authorities to tackle vacancy and provide social housing.

With regard to leasing, as the Senator will be aware, Housing for All sets out the Government’s plan to increase the supply of housing to an average of 33,000 per year over the next decade. The annual targets include the delivery of 88,400 new social homes and 53,800 new affordable homes between 2022 and 2030. Thankfully, we have seen construction activity ramping up over the course of 2021 and this will continue this year. The strategy will focus strongly on new builds, and in particular local authority-led new build activity. It will see a managed phasing out of long-term leasing by 2025. The Senator addressed this issue. Limerick has no long-term leasing target under Housing for All but it was recently allocated a 2022 target of 21 short-term rental availability agreements.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. Again, I have to be direct with him. I did not receive a clear answer from him. I am very concerned because what he has shared with us tells me that over eight years Limerick City and County Council returned 505 properties to use. This is just over 60 properties a year. In the midst of the worst housing crisis in the history of the State, with shocking figures of almost 6,000 people waiting for public housing and 246 people homeless, how is this anywhere near good enough? Who will take responsibility for this?

The Minister of State seems to be blaming the Limerick local authority, which, I hasten to add, has been a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael led local authority for the past ten years. That seems to be like an abandonment of Government responsibility because the fact of the matter is that the figures just are not good enough.

The Minister of State mentioned regeneration. The facts of regeneration are that more than 1,100 houses have been demolished and only 279 new houses have been built. That is a huge deficit and, again, shows a failure to deliver housing in Limerick.

Finally, the Minister of State did not give me any answers about leasing, yet he will acknowledge that 2,600 of the planned social houses next year are actually leasing houses. Again, I cannot understand why the Limerick City and County Council seems to prioritise leasing over restoring its own council houses. It is not good enough.

As I have said, I am unable to give a response to all of the supplementary questions that the Senator has asked during this Commencement debate.

In terms of regeneration, I visited the project in Limerick and it is one of the most ambitious projects in the country. The Senator has made an important point about young single people aged 25 to 45, and trying to get them into sustainable housing is critically important. There are solutions, and we can look at Limerick city centre as we are looking throughout the country, around above shop premises and bringing some shop premises back to full occupancy. These premises offer great opportunities to young people in that category. We can advance that through the town centres first initiative and the Limerick regeneration project.

In terms of 60 properties per year, it does take a considerable amount of time to bring voids back into productive use if you specifically consider the requirements under building regulations and trying to bring houses up to a B2 rating, which is soon to be a much higher energy efficiency standard. I think that is critically important because it addresses fuel poverty as well.

Our Department has provided record funding. We certainly are not putting the blame on Limerick City and County Council. We are giving increased responsibility and financial supports. What the Minister has done consistently since taking up office is providing the financial resources but also the responsibility to local authorities to deliver on housing and a targeted delivery of housing. Another critical point I will leave on is the fact we have put in additional staff in housing sections in every local authority to deliver on the design and delivery of housing throughout the country.

Flood Risk Management

I thank the Minister of State for being here to take my Commencement debate. The fact that he, as the Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works, is here shows his commitment to this flooding project in my part of the world. I also thank him for engaging with Louth County Council, particularly last summer when he came to see the projects directly, to sign off on them, and to make sure they were kept on track.

We have seen a number of notable flooding events, especially in the Dundalk and Blackrock areas in 2008, 2014, 2016 and two years ago in 2020. These areas are at very significant risk of coastal flooding. We have seen that future risks of flooding have increased because of a whole variety of things, with climate change being just one of them. Dundalk and Blackrock are areas of natural low lying topography. Such areas are an issue because they call for a much more sensitive approach to be adopted in flood relief schemes and the type of construction necessary. For example, the proposed flood relief scheme for both Dundalk and Blackrock south consists of the construction of a series of hard defences, including flood embankments, walls, rock armour, coastal protection, barriers, road raising and the tanking of two properties. When such work goes ahead, it will protect more than 1,800 residential properties.

I wish to raise another important point. There is huge ambition to create a greenway that stretches from Carlingford to Dundalk to Blackrock and onwards.

However, I wish to refer to the Bellurgan to Dundalk to Blackrock greenway. It cannot go ahead or we cannot do anything about it until this project has reached a certain stage. Once it has reached a certain area, we can then start applying to the Government for funding for greenways. A greenway along this area would be very important for tourism, but it will not happen until this project is brought to a certain level. It would be good to know at what stage in this process the Minister of State believes Louth County Council can start applying for funding for a greenway and where it can do that when it comes to the flood defences.

The other thing that interests me is the Minister of State's overall view of what the timelines are. I realise these are long-term projects and that they are not done overnight. It is now 2022 so if all goes well, what does the Minister of State envision as the completion date? Is it 2025 or as far as 2026? A very detailed public consultation took place last October, which is very important as well.

Substantial funding has been allocated for these areas. This project is worth between €80 million and €90 million. The Blackrock south one is included with the Ardee project, and there is substantial funding from the Government and the Department. It is an important project that we must ensure gets over the line. I am interested to hear the Minister of State's views on the timelines.

I welcome the opportunity to provide an update to the House on the progress being made on the Dundalk, Blackrock south and Ardee flood relief scheme. As the Senator knows, I visited County Louth to learn more about the flooding in the county and the plans the Office of Public Works has to manage the risk. I am aware of the impact of flooding on homeowners, businesses and communities in the area.

Through the catchment flood risk assessment and management, CFRAM, flood programme, a detailed engineering analysis assessment and extensive public consultation were undertaken for over 300 communities throughout the country, including 90 coastal areas which include the eastern part of County Louth. One key output of the CFRAM programme was the flood risk management plans that contain proposed flood relief measures informed by costs, benefits and environmental factors to address the flood risk in each at-risk community nationwide. The evidence provided by the CFRAM programme was launched in 2018 and supports the Government's €1.3 billion investment programme. It is delivered through the national development plan. A total of 118 flood relief projects were identified to protect the main flood risk areas throughout the country. These include the proposed schemes for County Louth, which are Dundalk, Blackrock south, Drogheda, Carlingford, Greenore, Baltray and Ardee. Louth County Council, working with the Office of Public Works, has agreed to be the lead authority in the delivery of these schemes. The council chairs each project steering group, which includes the Office of Public Works and local authority representatives.

The Dundalk, Blackrock south and Ardee projects that are being progressed simultaneously were chosen by the council as the first projects to be advanced in County Louth. The CFRAM proposed flood relief scheme for Dundalk-Blackrock south would consist of the construction of a series of hard defences, including embankments and walls, rock armour coastal protection, demountable barriers, raising the road, a sluice gate and tanking of two properties. The proposed measure for Ardee consists of flood embankments and walls at an average height of 0.8 m and a total length of approximately 600 m. Both schemes will provide the protection required by the insurance industry and will be adaptable for future climate change scenarios.

The development of the flood relief schemes involve five distinct sequential and related stages. The stages involve assessing the flood risk and identifying options, planning, detailed design, construction and maintenance. Where it is possible, the project management of scheme delivery involves running some of the stages in parallel to expedite delivery, such as detailed design when planning permission is being sought. The cost for the Dundalk and Ardee schemes is approximately €80.9 million. The tender for the engineering consultancy services for the project was awarded to Binnies, formerly Black and Veatch, and Nicholas O'Dwyer as a joint venture in 2020. The proposed flood relief schemes for these areas will protect 1,880 properties when completed, 1,705 residential and 175 commercial. These are enormous schemes.

Currently, the Dundalk-Blackrock south and Ardee schemes project is at stage 1. This includes the collation of hydrology and hydraulics, the development of an options report for the preferred and viable scheme, and the preparation of associated environmental considerations as set out in the environmental impact assessment report.

The steering group for the project meets monthly and the scheme development is ongoing, with work progressing on surveys on hydrology and hydraulics report schemes options and environmental assessments. The detailed programme for the scheme schedules that stage 1 will be completed in quarter 1 of 2023. The following stage will be to complete the necessary planning for the preferred scheme through the planning and development Acts. The programme for the scheme estimates that, subject to there being no challenges or delays, which is important, the post-planning stage and construction of the works will commence in 2024 and take three years to complete.

I thank the Minister of State. It is important to get that update on where we are with the project. I appreciate him coming to the House to provide it. An important point in his remarks is that this is a medium- to long-term project, providing that it is not subject to delays or challenges. It is important that we all put that on the record of the House. This is a development that needs to happen to protect more than 1,800 homes from flooding. If there were to be any delays or challenges to the scheme, that would significantly impact our ability to deliver it on time.

It is important to point out that as part of the scheme, Louth County Council intends to integrate in a comprehensive and planned manner to consider the construction of a greenway that will form part of the proposed greenway link from Belfast to Dublin that is often referred to as the great eastern greenway. It will enable walkers and cyclists to travel off-road between Belfast and Dublin. As Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works, I have been keen to progress the usage of embankments for purposes other than flood relief. They are now very much being incorporated into local amenities.

I take this opportunity to reiterate that all of this is predicated on the project moving through the planning process without interruption. I say that in the context of good news today from Cork city, where we have finally jumped a huge hurdle in the context of Morrison's Island. I wish Louth County Council, which is the lead agency, the very best of luck in the delivery of this project without interruption. Let us hope there will not be unnecessary interruption, particularly at planning stag. The people of Dundalk, Blackrock south, Ardee, Drogheda, Greenore, Baltray and many other places in County Louth are waiting for flood relief that is very important in that part of the country because sea levels are rising. This is a big threat. As I have stated previously in the House, the greatest threat to this country in the short and medium term is not from any kind of invading force; it is actually from the sea. We need to take that seriously. Unfortunately, there are people in the political sphere who do not wish to take it seriously and think we can just row our boat along and everything will be fine, and we will all go up to the High Court for judicial reviews and challenges and everything like that. In the meantime, the flood waters continue to rise and people's houses, businesses and lives continue to be destroyed. They cannot get insurance. It is a hamster wheel, with the same thing happening repeatedly. I keep coming in here with the same reports and answers. These people deserve better and the Oireachtas needs to do more for them than we are doing.

State Examinations

I thank the Minister, Deputy Foley, for coming to the Seanad to listen to my request that the same compassionate model be afforded to students who will undertake the leaving certificate this year as was given to students in 2021 and 2020. These students have been severely impacted by the Covid pandemic. There is no doubt that the continuous negative strain Covid has had on so many students is too significant to ignore. In the past week and a half, since we came back after Christmas, my office has been inundated with students who tell me about their lives as a result of Covid and how their mental health has been severely impacted by the strain of the past 22 months and, in particular, the unpredictability of the current climate.

They have described to me how hard the past 22 months have been and how new restrictions, new cases and being identified as a close contact have increased the burden they all feel. They have missed so much work in class and so many social experiences. Even the peer support they receive from each other has not been available to them because we have been asking them to stay away from each other. They have very much adhered to that and to the request to stay at home. Their social lives have been entirely disrupted, whether they involve school breaks and lunches or activities outside school. They have undoubtedly suffered. While we say that schooldays are the best days of our lives - as an older lady, I can now probably look back with nostalgia - the doom and gloom of the past couple of years have certainly overshadowed our young students' lives.

I acknowledge and appreciate that allowances were made last August to reflect the changes and the challenges faced by the students. I am absolutely sure students acknowledge them also, but we really do not believe they are anywhere near enough. A decision was made to grant last year's students the hybrid model to give them the option of sitting the exams. I absolutely believe they should sit them and hope it will be safe for them to do so. The option of receiving accredited grades came as such a relief to most students last year. It is absolutely the safety valve that we need to provide students with this year. To me, the hybrid model is a really compassionate one. Compassion is what our students absolutely need now.

We will continue to talk about the reform of an outdated education system, involving the sitting a series of rigid and seemingly future-defining exams, because I really do believe there are more lenient models we can put in place, but the immediate focus has to be on the well-being of the young people outside Leinster House today. I say this not just because I have spoken to them, their parents and teachers for the past couple of weeks but because I have a student living in my house. This is the second person in my house who will have done the leaving certificate under Covid. I can genuinely tell the Minister that the man I have at home has gone through a far more stressful experience than his older sister. It is incumbent on us to recognise the unprecedented crisis and the consequences for students every single day, in addition to the stress they are currently experiencing.

I acknowledge that the Minister is having a stakeholders' meeting tomorrow. I welcome that because the decisions arising from it will give the students certainty. I ask her to consider the stress experienced by students and their well-being and allow them to have the stress-release valve of sitting the exams this year while also having accredited grades. Thus, they can commit and focus for the next couple of months knowing that a safety valve exists.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue and allowing me the opportunity to address it. I extend my best wishes to all in the House for the year ahead.

I am very conscious of the disruption experienced by students who are due to do their leaving certificate examinations this year - the class of 2022. It is welcome that schools reopened at the normal time after the Christmas holidays. I am very much aware that schools are working tirelessly to deliver the best possible educational experience for their students.

Revised arrangements for leaving certificate oral examinations in Irish and modern foreign languages, and the practical performance tests in leaving certificate music, were announced last month. These examinations will now take place outside of school time over the first week of the school Easter holidays. By moving these examinations to the Easter holidays, the State Examinations Commission, SEC, aims to minimise disruption to teaching and learning, especially for those candidates preparing for their examinations, as this change will limit teacher absence from schools.

The SEC also recently provided some further information to schools regarding aspects of the 2022 State examinations. This included postponing commencement of assessment of what are known as the leaving certificate applied February tasks, from 31 January to 14 February. Schools were also reminded of the flexibility that is available regarding the dates for completion and authentication of course work for leaving certificate candidates.

I also announced that an alternative set of leaving certificate examinations will be run in 2022, shortly after the conclusion of the main set of examinations. This will be for students who are unable to sit the main set of examinations for various reasons, including Covid-19 illness, bereavement or serious illness.

Finally, the Department has also provided a suite of guidance materials, agreed with the education partners, to enable schools to mediate the curriculum safely for all pupils in a Covid-19 context. My Department will continue to engage with all partners in education on all matters relating to leaving certificate 2022 examinations. It is important to note the advisory group has been involved at every step of the way. The next advisory group meeting for State examinations in 2022 has been planned for tomorrow, Thursday. As previously outlined, this is a large and widely representative group of all the voices in education, including students, parents, teachers and managerial bodies.

I thank the Minister for setting out the timelines, and that she has accepted the recommendations for changes to date. As the Minister said, however, they were made last August and I believe what has happened to our young students in the past four to five months is unprecedented. My son comes home telling me he has literally sat and shivered throughout the whole day with hands numb because the schools are so cold. I do not say this to be critical, because obviously every decision we make as a State, and indeed the decisions all our teachers make in this regard, are to try to provide the safest and best environment where children can continue to learn and so as not to learn remotely as we had to do the previous year.

Only before Christmas the Teachers' Union of Ireland, TUI, called for a delay in the return to school of our students and teachers until a short week-and-a-half ago. It seems alien now, given we are talking about lifting restrictions this weekend. The TUI was so concerned about staff absences and the environment in which the children, students and staff are working that it made that call over our Christmas holidays. This jars with the fact the TUI is now saying we should carry on as normal and do the exams, as if the past 22 months had not happened for the students. Of students surveyed by the Irish Second-level Students' Union, ISSU, last week, 68% said they wanted the hybrid model. They spoke about their stress levels, their well-being and their fears. We talk about the stress students are under during normal circumstances of a leaving certificate year, which is why we talk about reform, but this past 22 months has been anything but normal. Therefore, the leaving certificate this year cannot carry on as if we were living in normal times.

I thank Senator Doherty for the opportunity to come to the House today and to hear her views. As I outlined earlier, it is very important we are conscious of what has been experienced by the class of 2022. I am extremely conscious of that. As previously outlined and as reiterated by the Senator, accommodations were made with the exam papers in August. Equally, there have been recent changes to the operation, including the orals taking place over Easter time and the musical practical exams. Notwithstanding that, it is important that all voices are afforded the opportunity to be heard with regard to how we progress.

I am pleased to say we had a number of engagements with the advisory group, the last of which was on 20 December. The next engagement with the advisory group, which includes parents, students, teachers, and managerial bodies, will take place tomorrow to consider their views and advice on the State exams for 2022.

I look forward to that engagement. It has been a very productive and useful forum for us, right throughout Covid, which has worked very well and co-operatively in the best interests of the education sector and, of course, the students we serve. I look forward to those deliberations and discussions tomorrow. As always, it will be most helpful.

Sitting suspended at 3.46 p.m. and resumed at 4 p.m.
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