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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 25 Jan 2022

Vol. 283 No. 3

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Public Procurement Contracts

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, to the House.

I welcome the Minister of State. I also would like to acknowledge the office of the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, which made contact with my own office this morning about this Commencement matter. I tabled this Commencement matter to ask the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to make a statement on how the public spending code ensures that taxpayers get greater value for money from publicly funded projects. It is a real issue to make sure that we get bang for our buck when it comes to publicly-funded projects. These are very significant funds that the State is pumping into Government agencies. We need to make sure that Government agencies deliver on the ability to have these major projects delivered. We have huge sums of money given, in particular, to local authorities. How the public spending code deals with local authorities is a real issue of concern for many people.

I raise this issue on the back of a huge issue we have in my own part of the world where our only public pool, which is in Dunmanway, received €5.5 million four years ago. It has been running at half capacity ever since. To give an example, other public pools in the county will be open up to 60 or 70 hours every week. We have 25 hours every week in Dunmanway. This is a state-of-the-art complex that has a 25 m pool, a jacuzzi and a gym, all funded by the State coffers, and yet it is still running at half capacity. It runs five days a week, from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m., and not on Sundays. This is our money being spent on a public project and the public is not getting value for money.

We have swimming clubs that have not had lessons in two years. We have a huge issue in my part of the world. The Minister of State has visited west Cork and knows it is an area where we have access to water all the way along. For parents to not have access to swimming lessons for over two years is an absolute disgrace.

I am trying to work out where national government fits in. Where does the public spending code fit in to make sure that we get value for money when we give money to local authorities? The local authorities seem to be running around on this issue and have not done anything in the past four years regarding making sure the services that are required in the community are delivered.

We have often seen the call that we need more money for infrastructure and we need to have these projects delivered on. We have the money, we have had the infrastructure built and now we do not have access to it. That is a significant bugbear for so many people. Unless we have due accountability for the moneys that we give to local authorities, we will continue to have this mess. It is a significant issue.

Can the Minister of State elaborate on where the buck stops? Who controls it? Where is the auditor regarding making sure that the investment the State makes on behalf of the Irish people into these publicly-funded projects means they are actually open to the public? That is the crux of the matter. Many Deputies and Senators in west Cork have been going around in circles, trying to get this pool opened. We now need to make sure there is accountability regarding the money spent. Where is the line of command and who can give us that accountability?

I thank Senator Lombard for raising this Commencement matter. I am delighted to hear that the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, has made contact with him. I will read the script provided in response to the matter raised.

Delivering greater value for money in the expenditure of public funds is a key element of all public investment policy. Efficient public capital investment means quality investment decisions supported by robust evidence and analysis to maximise outcome for limited public resources. The management and delivery of investment projects and public services within allocation is a key responsibility of every Department and Minister. It is important to note that this is not a static space and public bodies are continually working to improve processes and frameworks to ensure value for money.

The public spending code is the tool used by Government to evaluate the consequences of the capital investment decisions it makes. The code was updated in December 2019 following an extensive consultation process involving engagement with over 150 public officials and a review of international best practice. The update code also incorporated lessons learned in Ireland on a wide range of projects such as those outlined in the PricewaterhouseCoopers, PwC, review of the national children's hospital, which recommended the following: the rules that govern public sector spending should be strengthened; the standards to which business cases are presented should be more clearly defined; and a central assurance and challenge function should provide a consistent challenge to and review of major projects throughout their lifecycle, which I think is the issue the Senator brings to the fore today.

As well as implementing these recommendations, the updated guidance better aligns with the realities of the project delivery, with a particular focus on improved appraisal, cost estimation and management. The public spending code is grounded in the principle of proportionality. The resources and time to be spent on project preparation must be commensurate with the nature, cost and complexity of the investment. All the evidence shows that the greatest impact on improving project outcome comes from the careful project preparation. The more work that is done on the earlier stages leads to more considered decisions on projects. At the same time, there is a need to balance project preparation with the imperative of delivering critical infrastructure. Accordingly, the update to the code streamlines the process for smaller projects. This can speed up project delivery. In addition, the code specifically refers to sectors such as housing and urban regeneration, whereby policy interventions can be appraised on a programme-wide basis without the need to assess every project on scheme individually.

The update of the code in 2019 highlighted the need for more structured scrutiny on major public investment projects, particularly in the areas of planned delivery, costings and risk. This is to ensure that the Government is making decisions with a full picture of the proposal, its costs, risks and benefits. The majority of public investment projects are delivered on budget and on time. There is a high level of professionalism across the various sectors. However, we have also recognised the higher risk profile of larger projects and introduced a new procedure for projects with an estimated cost of over €100 million in order to improve project outturns, avoid cost overruns and reduce the risk of delay in delivery.

The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has put in place an external assurance process to provide independent project scrutiny at key decision stages. This will involve independent expert review of two key points in the project lifecycle under the public spending code - approval in principle and prior to tender - focusing on issues such as cost, risk and ability to deliver. This process will improve value for money and support funding Departments and Government with expert insight relating to project risks, delivery feasibility and robustness of costings, governance and procurement.

To support the external assurance process a new major project advisory group has been established to further strengthen project management. As a prerequisite to seeking Government approval for projects at the relevant decision gates, project proposals and external reviews will be scrutinised by the advisory group in advance of the decision to proceed. The new arrangements bring Ireland into line with leading international best practice and meet a recommendation of the IMF's public investment management assessment of Ireland. It should be noted that timelines associated with public spending code compliance are a fraction of the times required for compliance with a range of statutory requirements.

I am not sure if that response has answered the Senator's question.

I thank the Minister of State for the response. The key issue is not if, following completion of the processes with regard to cost, analysis and so on, a project will be affordable, but whether it will be open to the public. That is the fall down in terms of the public spending code.

There is no follow-up. We do not know exactly how much activity has been created because of a project and how much availability is going to be there.

There is also a huge issue with who is accountable when it comes to local government. There are other members in this forum that have a view on it too. They do not come before the Committee of Public Accounts. They do not have a remit before it. Until we actually have local authorities brought before that committee we will not have true auditors ensuring we get value for money when it comes to these issues.

I again thank the Senator for raising an important issue for the successful delivery of State investment and ensuring maximum value for the taxpayer. It is important to have dialogue and engagement on something so key for Government delivery.

As I mentioned in my earlier remarks, this is not a static space and public bodies are continuously working to improve processes and frameworks to ensure value for money. The update of the code in 2019 was done in the context of many lessons learned here in Ireland, including the national children's hospital and also international guidance through a review of the investment framework by the International Monetary Fund. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform continues to work with colleagues from other Departments and agencies to refine the requirements of the overall public spending codes to produce sectoral guidance that is more applicable in specific areas. The appropriateness and proportionality that was adopted in the recent update of the public spending code means the process of projects of less than €100 million have been streamlined. It should lead to a speeding-up of project delivery.

I will bring this back to the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath. The crux of the Senator's Commencement matter today was about having the accountability and the cost-benefit analysis to know that the project has an impact on the general public when it is delivered.

Hospital Staff

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I have always said this Government will be very much judged on its track record and delivery in health and housing. I think we all know that.

I will focus on one simple measure concerning health. It is in response to an email every Deputy, Senator and Minister received from the Neurological Alliance of Ireland, NAI, campaign for 100 extra nurses in neurology. Patients are waiting too long for diagnosis and treatment and I think the Minister of State and I, and everyone, agrees on that. As an example, consider St. Vincent's University Hospital, which is one of the bigger focuses and the key aspect of this campaign, albeit a national campaign. Based on the catchment area of St. Vincent's, national and international guidelines recommend there should be 22 neurology nurse specialists there but there are only four. Patients deserve better. I believe that and the Minister of State does too.

Investing in more neurology nurses is a cost-efficient way of improving efficiencies and outpatient clinics, reducing waiting times and ensuring patients have access to specialist supports they need to manage their conditions. Patients with access to neurology nurses have reported improved psychological well-being, improved sense of involvement in their care and in their pathways for care, and the preparation for the tests and the investigations that are especially necessary for this specific area of medicine. More neurology nurses will also ensure patients get quicker access to outpatient appointments, thereby reducing waiting lists, and based on their deteriorating condition. I support the NAI's campaign for 100 extra nurses specialising in this area, including 17 extra nurses for St. Vincent's. I ask the Minster of State to do the same.

There was a chart published of nursing numbers per hospital which makes for very interesting reading. I will read it into the record. The recommended number of nurses for Beaumont Hospital is 15 whereas it currently has ten. The recommended number of nurses for Cork University Hospital is 20 whereas it currently has four. The recommended number of nurses for the Mater Hospital is 14 whereas it currently has six. The recommended number of nurses for Sligo University Hospital is seven whereas it currently has three. The recommended number of nurses for St. James's Hospital is 14 whereas it currently has only four. The recommended number of nurses for St. Vincent's Hospital is 22 whereas it currently has only four. The recommended number of nurses for Tallaght Hospital is 20 whereas it currently has only 15.

University Hospital Galway will be of particular interest to the Minister of State. The recommended number of nurses there is 13 but only four are in place. The recommended number of nurses for the University Hospital Limerick is 11 whereas it currently has three. University Hospital Waterford is really disappointing. The recommended number of nurses is six and there are none in place. Those are the facts.

I am happy to share that with the Minister of State.

We are all on board. It is a case of how we are going to achieve this and support them. I am only here today to shine a light on this issue on behalf of the Neurological Alliance of Ireland. I would be interested in the Minister of State's feedback.

I thank Senator Boyhan for raising this particularly important matter. I am taking it on behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly. The script I will read was prepared by his Department. I also take the opportunity to acknowledge the work and the role played by neurological nurse specialists. They play an important role in triaging, assessing, and providing ongoing support to neurological patients. This in turn builds capacity within neurological services and allows for more timely access to efficient, equitable and quality care.

I am advised that the HSE's national clinical programme for neurology, NCPN, in conjunction with the Neurological Alliance of Ireland, NAI, completed an all-Ireland survey of neurological services in 2020. This survey confirmed that all neurological centres have access to a designated clinical nurse specialist or advanced nurse practitioner, recognising the value that skilled and highly trained nursing staff add to neurological services. The HSE has advised that plans will be developed to incrementally increase the overall numbers of nurse specialists.

The NCPN continues to engage regularly with patient organisations and the NAI to establish ways to promote neurology nurse specialists. It is focusing its current work streams and initiatives around nurse-led clinics, nurse-liaison services and outreach programs. Examples of this include the headache programme and the epilepsy outreach programme, both of which are funded under the Sláintecare innovation fund. These programmes reconfigure the management of these conditions, enabling clinical nurse specialists and advanced nurse practitioners to lead and co-ordinate the care of these conditions in the community. This reduces reliance on consultant neurologists and tertiary services, which, in turn, reduces waiting lists and allows more timely access to services and improves the overall quality of care.

The HSE has advised that the neurology department in St. Vincent's University Hospital provides regional services in all aspects of general neurology including migraine and epilepsy services in addition to tertiary services for people with multiple sclerosis, cognitive disorders, dystonia and movement disorders and Parkinson's disease. The neurology Department offers an inpatient, outpatient and consultation service.

The HSE has further advised that there are currently ten specialist nursing positions in neurology in St. Vincent's, of which nine are in post. It is hoped that the post of advanced nurse practitioner in multiple sclerosis will be filled very soon. The Government, along with the Department of Health, is fully committed to improving patient services and having patient-centred care in St Vincent's and across the country. That commitment is, I strongly suggest, reflected in the unprecedented level of funding that is being targeted right across the health service in recent budgets and again in budget 2022. Since the end of 2019 the health sector has grown by a total of 12,506 whole-time equivalents, WTEs. The largest area of growth has been in nursing and midwifery, with an additional 3,372 WTE posts.

I am assured that the HSE remains committed to the progressive development of neurology services and, specifically, to improving this service for patients of St. Vincent's University Hospital and the surrounding areas.

With all due respect, I fully appreciate that the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is taking the matter for the Minister for Health. The reality is that we have to look at what is on the ground. Today, I have called out ten hospitals individually. We were told what was recommended and what is the current status. The reality is that currently there are 41.5 nurse specialists in those ten hospitals when the recommendation is that there would be 142. The simple ask by this association is for 100 nurses. We can have all the commitments, aspirations and hopes, and we can have lectures and history classes about what happened two years ago, but today in January 2022 I am standing here to make a strong case to the Government that we revisit this campaign and that we all take the time to engage. Everyone is being asked to sign up to the online petition in support of the campaign. The current status is that it is up there online.

I can only take what these practitioners and this association is telling me. There is a shortfall. They want 100 specialist nurses. They do not want the promise of them or the HSE talking about goodwill, commitment and aspiration. We want them on the ground and we want them treating our patients. I know the Minister of State is committed to that. I do not doubt that. However, we need to keep the pressure on and then, in two months' time, to come back in here and ask the Minister if he can say he is delivering. It is not about money in place or resources but about staff, specialist nurses, being in place. I thank the Minister of State for taking the question on behalf of the Minister for Health.

This is not a history lesson but I reiterate that the Department of Health is committed to improving services in line with Sláintecare. Covid-19 did bring a range of serious challenges to our health services and its workforce. The unprecedented level of investment in our health service in recent years is testament to the commitment of this Government.

I will go back to the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and ask him what is the commitment on the bespoke recruitment campaign in order to ensure that while funding is in place, the staff can be put into their allocated posts. The question here for the HSE is around the recruitment but I know the Government's commitment in respect of its funding. It is no different to the situation with Alzheimer nurses some years ago. There were only four but that has grown and grown because a bespoke campaign was put in place. I will bring the Senator's sentiments to the Minister.

First Aid Training

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and wish to pay tribute to her publicly for the great work she is doing in her portfolio. I knew when she was appointed that she would grasp it by the scruff of the neck and she is doing so. I commend her on her good work and wish her good health to keep it all going.

I wish to pay tribute to the many communities throughout the length and breadth of the country who have been fundraising for defibrillators, that is, automated external defibrillators, AEDs, and installing them in many community facilities such as GAA and soccer grounds, as well as schools and business premises. Their availability mean that more people need to be trained. To all the volunteers who have given up their time to become first responders I pay tribute. They are a credit to themselves, their families and their communities for their responsibility to and solidarity with their communities. I was particularly impressed by an initiative undertaken in the Buncrana Garda district recently where the National Ambulance Service provided cardiac first response training to members of that Garda district. All of the members took it up. As a result the National Ambulance Service installed a defibrillator in every single Garda vehicle, including a motorcycle, in that district. It is an initiative that I would like to see rolled out throughout the country. It makes perfect sense that those who are first tasked as emergency responders, that is, members of An Garda Síochána, who respond in emergency situations would have the equipment in their vehicles to be able to assist those in a cardiac arrest situation but also that they would have had adequate training to be able to use that device. It is a simple situation that could be life or death. Members of the Garda are on the ground 24-7 and in fairness to them, they respond as quickly as they possibly can. It is an excellent initiative that I would like to see rolled out. I believe that training in basic first aid and cardiac first response is something that should be universal and that we should begin it in schools. I introduced a Bill in the last Seanad on first aid and mental health first aid in order that individuals could be trained from the get-go and we would not have to do it retrospectively.

I not only commend members of the Garda in the Buncrana district but also the National Ambulance Service personnel in Donegal for taking this initiative. They have set an example which could and should be followed up by every Garda district in the country. I hope that the Minister of State will use her good offices and consult with the Minister for Health to see how, in conjunction with the Department of Justice, we could roll out this initiative.

It is a simple initiative but one that could prove a matter of life and death to some poor unfortunate individual.

I welcome the opportunity to address the House on behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, about the work under way as part of the out-of-hospital cardiac arrest strategy with regard to the training and deployment of automated external defibrillators, AEDs. I thank the Senator for using his time to raise this matter so we can have a conversation about it and make the wider public aware of the great work that is going on.

Community first responders are trained volunteers who are co-ordinated and dispatched by the National Ambulance Service to attend actual or potentially life-threatening emergencies. As these volunteers are professionally trained in CPR and the use of defibrillators, they can respond to certain medical emergency calls in the community in those important first few minutes prior to the arrival of an emergency ambulance. Community first responder groups, An Garda Síochána, emergency services personnel, fire services personnel, health services staff and other organisations all play a key role in saving lives and responding to out-of-hospital cardiac emergencies.

As the Senator may be aware, the HSE is currently in the implementation phase of the out-of-hospital cardiac arrest strategy for Ireland. This strategy was developed by an interdisciplinary steering group, which had the aim of increasing the number of people who survive an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest in Ireland, using national and international experience to address all the elements in the chain of survival. The HSE has since established an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest strategy implementation group to progress this work. The group is led by the National Ambulance Service and actions are being progressed by partner organisations, including Dublin Fire Brigade, the Pre-Hospital Emergency Care Council, the Irish Heart Foundation, and as the Senator noted, An Garda Síochána. At present, the National Ambulance Service has a list of locations for more than 2,000 AEDs on its national computer-aided dispatch system which it can use to advise emergency callers, although this is in its infancy.

The most important thing the Senator raised is that, following the pandemic, not everyone within the voluntary organisations has returned to the role of being a first responder. Therefore, the National Ambulance Service has been looking at other ways of equipping people to become first responders because time is critical in these situations. We have seen that in Donegal and in what the Senator said with regard to An Garda Síochána. There is a strategy and a very clear plan to roll it out but it is important that we roll it out at pace. That is for the simple reason that there is a deficit in the number of community first responders at this moment in time. It is important that, where we know there is a deficit, the National Ambulance Service works with the local fire brigade or An Garda Síochána to train and equip them, so there are no gaps left in any communities across the country.

I thank the Minister of State for her comprehensive response on behalf of the Minister for Health. I am delighted that there are moves afoot to roll this out at a national level. As the Minister of State said, the most important thing is to roll it out with pace. That is vitally important. We have great community volunteers who volunteer in cardiac arrest situations with defibrillators but for one reason or another the logistics of getting them out to a remote location might prove difficult. The Garda is on the scene 24-7 in an emergency situation and it makes perfect sense for every Garda vehicle to be equipped with a defibrillator or an AED and that every single member of the Garda would be trained to use it. I look forward to this initiative being rolled out throughout the country as soon as practically possible.

I again thank the Senator for raising this issue and giving us the chance to speak about the continued implementation of the out-of-hospital cardiac arrest strategy. Good progress was made during 2021 on the implementation of the strategy, supported by Government funding, and it is my expectation that progress will continue in 2022. In particular, the National Ambulance Service, via the out-of-hospital cardiac arrest strategy, continues to advance development of a national AED register, which will enable the service's national emergency operations centre to locate all publicly accessible defibrillators when it receives a 999 or 112 call.

Out-of-hospital cardiac arrest is a significant source of mortality and morbidity, with a wide variation in its reported incidence and outcomes globally. Research has shown us it takes an entire system to save a life, which is why a strategic whole-nation approach is planned. Improving out-of-hospital cardiac arrest survival is essential.

State Examinations

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins.

I welcome the Minister of State, who is here on behalf of the Minister for Education. I will share time with Senator Carrigy.

There is much concern and anxiety among parents and leaving certificate students, especially given the number of absences due to Covid-19 infection or close-contact status. It has been a big issue over recent months, particularly because of the Omicron variant, for both teachers and students alike. Meetings were held last week, on 20 January, with the advisory group on planning for State examinations for leaving certificate 2022 and further bilateral meetings with stakeholder groups are being held into this week. It is now 25 January, and clear guidance is required for parents, students and teaching staff. When will there be a decision on leaving certificate 2022?

An increase of more than fivefold in CAO maximum point scores has been reported over recent years and there is significant pressure on college places. There is a disparity between standard exams and accredited grades and this is putting courses out of reach for students as points increase. A lottery system faces students. What supports are in place for this year’s cohort of students, who more than most have been impacted since March 2020 when they were in their junior certificate year? They may not yet have completed any State exams.

Students and parent advisory groups have reached out regarding this stress and anxiety. The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science has brought forward changes to the CAO form, which now includes both further and higher education options and apprenticeship places, increasing young people’s options to reach their career of choice. There are also a further 6,000 places, intended to reduce pressure on the points system over the next two years. What are we going to do this year? We are reaching capacity in higher education.

Leaving certificate reform is well overdue and we need it now. When will the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA’s, final advisory report on senior cycle reform be published? Continuous assessment options apply only to 60% of subject choices but they should apply to all of them. Like my party colleague Senator Carrigy, I have received reports that the National Parents Council, which is represented on the advisory group for post-primary, does not represent all parents. He will develop this point.

I welcome the Minister of State. I concur with the comments made by Senator Dolan relating to the leaving certificate. As she said, the advisory group met recently to discuss proposals. One group that is represented on the advisory group is the National Parents Council Post Primary, which comprises the Catholic Secondary Schools Parent Associations, CSSPA, representing 342 schools, or 40% of the total; the Education and Training Board Schools National Parents Association, representing 271 schools; the National Association of Compass, which represents 22 schools that promote Protestant or minority religions; and the Parents Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools, which represents 91 schools.

The NPC does not represent all the smaller organisations within it, which means not all parents in all schools are represented. This issue has been raised with me in my home county of Longford by representatives and parents, who have stated they are not getting the opportunity to feed in their views to the discussions that are taking place. We need an organisation that represents all parents' views, and the people who are members of that organisation need to be parents themselves in order that they can understand the issues that exist for youngsters on the ground.

In a letter issued roughly 12 months ago, the executive of the CSSPA expressed a lack of confidence in the leadership of the National Parents Council. This issue has been ongoing for 12 months. I raised it about nine months ago and it seems to be persisting.

We need an organisation that represents all the parents in all of the schools throughout the country when these important discussions take place.

I thank Senators Aisling Dolan and Micheál Carrigy for raising this very important matter and allowing me the opportunity to address same.

The Department and the State Examinations Commission have been progressing and planning for the 2022 junior cycle and leaving certificate examinations. This has been done in consultation with the advisory group on planning for the State examinations and with public health.

Both the National Parents Council post-primary and primary are represented on the advisory group, and I will come back to the point that both Senators have made in terms of that aspect. Other members of the group include representatives of students, teachers and school leaders, and representatives of the State Examinations Commission, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, higher education and the Department.

The Department is aware that the leaving certificate experience for the class of 2022 has been disruptive. The State Examinations Commission, working with the Department, has sought through a range of measures to take account of the disruption to learning experienced by these students. These measures include the following: adjustments to the assessment arrangements for the 2022 State examinations that were announced in August 2021. These adjustments were designed to take account both of the disruption to learning experienced by students in the early part of 2021, as well as providing for some possible further disruption in 2021-2022; revised arrangements for leaving certificate oral language examinations, and the performance tests in leaving certificate music. These examinations will take place outside of school time over the first week of the school Easter holidays, and will minimise disruption to teaching and learning; and pushing out of the timeframe for certain assessment elements of the leaving certificate applied examinations. Schools were also reminded of the flexibility available regarding the dates for the completion and authentication of leaving certificate course work.

The Minister also announced that an alternative set of leaving certificate examinations will be run in 2022 and 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.

The Department has also made available guidance materials to enable schools to mediate the curriculum safely for all pupils or students in a Covid-19 context. This includes information on well-being supports for leaving certificate students. It includes a series of supports on managing well-being, coping with uncertainty and managing stress and anxiety, developed by the National Educational Psychological Service in the Department.

The Department continues to engage with all partners in education on all matters relating to leaving certificate 2022 examinations. The advisory group on State examinations, as both Senators know and stated, met on Thursday last, 20 January. A number of updates were received from group members, including reports of results from surveys of their members that were conducted by some bodies. The issue of grade inflation was also raised. The meeting was positive and collaborative with all parties committed to continued engagement in the short period ahead in order to provide clarity in relation to State examinations 2022. It was agreed that the members of the group would reflect on the contributions made at the meeting, and that engagement would continue between the Minister and the stakeholders on a bilateral basis. The bilateral engagement has been continuing since late last week and over the weekend. It is planned that a further meeting of the advisory group will be held in the coming days.

I thank the Minister of State. I will share my response time with Senator Carrigy.

When are we going to have a response in regard to the leaving certificate? As the Minister of State mentioned, the advisory group will meet in the next few days but when will we have a decision for these parents and students?

In terms of my comments and the issue raised by Senator Carrigy, the Catholic Secondary Schools Parents Association and the Education and Training Board Schools National Parents' Association are not represented within the National Parents Council post-primary. That means no parents of students in Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, are represented in the group making the decision around the leaving certificate 2022.

I concur with the comments made by Senator Dolan. We need a decision in the next week. Parents and children have contacted us as public representatives and I am sure they have contacted the Minister of State. We want a final decision to be made in the next two to three days as it would let everyone know where they stand.

I would prefer a hybrid model but that may not be attainable due the junior certificate having been sat, so we need to put an alternative leaving certificate in place for students. We have to take into account the fact they have not had two years of consecutive learning. It cannot go back to the old model.

The points the Senators have raised are very valid. The Taoiseach said in the Dáil today that he met the senior statistician in the Department of Education and the Minister for Education yesterday. It is a complex issue as the Senators know. There are two cohorts within this year’s leaving certificate; some who sat the junior certificate and some who did not sit it. That throws up a lot of complexities and the Senators understand that. That is part of what has to be worked through in arriving at a decision. I cannot say when we will have a decision. I have been asked that every day in recent weeks but it will be an early decision. We had a decision on this at the end of February last year and we are now coming towards the end of January of this year. We will have a decision far earlier this year than we had last year and that clarity will be forthcoming as soon as possible.

I refer to the good points the Senators made on representation for parents and I will bring that to the Minister after this session. I was not aware of that dynamic within the representative groups. I will bring what the Senators have highlighted and articulated to the Minister for her direct attention.

Sitting suspended at 3.16 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.