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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 3 Feb 2022

Vol. 282 No. 8

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Pigmeat Sector

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

Just as an aside at the outset, my good friend Senator Boyhan is actively listening. We have many people who are listening, but not actively listening, so that is good.

I welcome the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, and thank him for personally taking this matter. By coming in here as a senior Minister to take the issue, it is an indication that he is taking it seriously and not attempting to fob it off. This is a very serious matter.

I will try to give some figures because there has to be a factual basis. There is an income crisis in the pig sector in agriculture at the moment. It is a chronic income crisis. It is well known but I wish to give it chapter and verse, if you like. Factory prices, at the moment, are €1.42 per kg deadweight. The production cost is €1.75 deadweight. One can see the bind already. The average loss on a pig is €33. Feedstuff has increased by €120 per tonne. There is every prospect that raw materials will not get cheaper. The average sow unit is 500 sows, and it is currently losing €8,000 per week.

There are welfare issues on farms because they are not able to pay for feed. Factories are struggling to clear the backlog of slaughter from Christmas. Northern plants have reduced kill from the South because Covid has taken away workers and some have not returned from abroad, which has resulted in staffing issues. I presume there is also a market issue as the market has contracted.

There are between 8,500 to 9,000 people employed in the pig sector nationally. They are employed in places where jobs cannot be readily replaced. I note the Minister is nodding and he understands this point as a Donegal man. People work in places where we cannot ask the IDA to develop a factory in the morning. This is a very serious matter. The people have to be sustained. There are nearly 2,000 workers in Cavan-Monaghan and the next big centre is Cork. Cavan has a significant concentration of the pig sector, comprising small and large units. There are huge losses pro rata.

There are Brexit loans for SMEs, but there is a slowness in the response from the banks. The Minister had a conference with the banks, but farmers are not getting definite word back. Some farmers refurbished their sheds with cash flow and are not able to show good cash flow from olden times as a result, which creates an issue with banks. The Minister might bear that in mind. Some 10% will not benefit.

I am sure the Minister is aware that the French and Polish have been successful in getting approval from Europe for packages of support for their pig farmers. I have great respect for the Minister, who is very effective. He is meeting pig farmers today in Naas, which is an important meeting. I know enough about politics to know the Minister will not announce everything to me here, but I appeal to him to go to the meeting with options and money for those farmers. They need a support package.

There have been emergency supports for everyone over recent years, which was right in the context of Covid. I now appeal to the Minister to come up to the plate for pig farmers. This is about the jobs of up to 9,000 people and individual families who run large farms in places where people could not get other jobs. These people have done a lot in their local communities. I could go through chapter and verse on that for another ten minutes, but I will finish. This needs an emergency response and people in the sector need hard cash.

I thank Senator O'Reilly for raising this very important issue, and for having raised it with me since it has emerged and become more acute. The continued development of the pigmeat sector, as the Senator knows, is a priority for me, given the pivotal role the industry plays in the national economic context, which he clearly outlined in his contribution. It is one of the largest agrifood sectors and has shown remarkable growth in recent years. The sector supports approximately 8,000 jobs, as the Senator pointed out, spanning production, slaughter, processing, feed manufacturing and services. It is an intense, focused and commercially driven sector.

Our pig farmers have always been remarkably resilient and I am acutely aware of the challenges they face. The pigmeat sector across the EU has faced significant challenges in 2021, including the impact of African swine fever in a number of member states and, as a consequence, the loss of third country markets. This has had a knock-on effect on supply and prices within the Single Market. The average price paid for pigs in Ireland has fallen as a result in recent months, in line with trends across the EU. The 2021 average price was over 8% lower than that of 2020. As of 30 January, the average grade E pig price came in at €141 per 100 kg, just under 7% lower than the same week last year. However, this is still above the EU average price.

At the recent European Council of agriculture ministers, I clearly expressed my concerns regarding the difficulties facing our Irish pigmeat sector, including the ongoing impact of increases in fuel, fertiliser, feed and energy prices over recent times, which are putting real pressure on margins, and the sustained nature of the difficulties being experienced on the pigmeat market. I sought a rapid deployment from the European Commission of appropriate solutions on both issues. I also met members of the IFA national pig committee last week to discuss concerns.

Following this, the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, and I met the banks to discuss the current challenges in the pigmeat sector and the importance of their ongoing financial support. At this meeting the importance of the sector was emphasised as well as its overall resilience and the importance of the banks' supports for their customers through the current downturn in the business cycle. The key message was that farmers experiencing cash flow difficulties should engage with banks as soon as possible to discuss options and that the banks remain committed to supporting their customers in the period ahead. I am also engaging with the feed industry to determine what it can do for farmers and customers.

Separately, the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, and I met the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland, SBCI, to discuss the Brexit impact loan scheme and Covid-19 credit guarantee scheme, both of which are financed by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, in partnership with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. These finance schemes can be used for working capital and include features that address the current financial challenges facing pig farmers.

We are all aware of the cyclical nature of the commodity markets which, for the pig sector at this time, is very much compounded by the rising input cost of feed and energy. During this period, maximum flexibility of financial matters is needed to ensure the ongoing viability of those in the sector.

The Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, last week chaired the round table on the pigmeat sector and had a further detailed discussion with stakeholders, including farming representatives and the processing and feed industries on the current difficulties. In terms of State supports, at the round table Bord Bia outlined the significant efforts being made to promote quality assured Irish pigmeat in the domestic and export markets - 50% of our pigmeat goes to the domestic market. Teagasc also outlined the dedicated advisory supports available.

I and my Department continue to monitor the market situation closely and are examining possible measures to assist in supporting farmers through what is a very challenging time. It is a truly unprecedented time for the pig sector and I very much stand with farmers at this time, as does the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, and we are working hard to find workable solutions. We will meet many pig farmers from throughout the country later this afternoon.

I thank the Minister for his positive response. I appreciate that, refreshingly, he did not attempt any evasive nonsense and did not say there was not a problem. He has accepted there is a real problem and is on top of and dealing with it. I also pay tribute to my party colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, for his role in this, as cited by the Minister.

I am glad the Minister is meeting farmers again today. My final word to him is to ask him to please present them with a package. At the end of his contribution, he said he is working on efforts to do that. If he does not intervene with hard cash, there will be devastation. I thank the Minister for his positive response, but I would like to think that in a day or two we will be talking figures.

I again thank Senator O'Reilly for putting this issue on the agenda. The sector is very strong in his home county of Cavan and the constituency of Cavan-Monaghan, as is the poultry sector. Those two counties are shining lights in terms of driving forward the opportunities in the agrifood sector and are leaders regarding poultry and pigs. I am very much aware of the pressures farmers in his county are under, as well as in my county and throughout the country. We will monitor the situation closely and seek to support farmers through this period. I look forward to continuing to discuss the challenges in the sector with the Senator offline, as he has engaged with me since the issue began to emerge.

Defence Forces

The Minister is very welcome to the Chamber and I appreciate that he is here given the importance of this Commencement matter. I rise to seek absolute clarity on the future of Cathal Brugha Barracks and the Irish Defence Forces. We are all aware of the outrageous tweet from the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, which came from left field and shocked all of us. Not only did it shock all of us in this House, it shocked the defence community throughout the country and none more so than in my native Kildare.

I come from a very strong Defence Forces area and we are honoured to be home to many phenomenal Defence Forces personnel and their families. We have the headquarters in Newbridge and a very fine military camp in the Curragh. They have added an immeasurable amount to our local communities over the years. I was fortunate to be there yesterday, as was the Acting Chairperson, Senator Wall, with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence which is undertaking a tour of military barracks and naval bases, which is good. We had the opportunity to engage with the General Officer Commanding, GOC, and other personnel on issues such as recruitment and retention.

While I accept that he represents the constituency in which Cathal Brugha Barracks is situated, for a Minister who has no military or defence portfolio to take to Twitter and essentially announce the closure of the barracks with no forewarning or forward planning was an insult to the personnel that serve and the families that live there, and to the entire Defence Forces. There is no doubt we have a significant issue with housing which is a priority for the Government. I absolutely accept that and that is how it should be, but we also need to have Defence Forces that are up to full capacity and capability. A balance has to be struck.

I have no doubt there could be negotiation and if the idea was presented to those in Cathal Brugha Barracks of an alternative functioning, state-of-the-art barracks, it possibly would be considered. However, the notion that we would close down such a significant military structure as the city of Dublin's finest barracks, especially in the year of the centenary of Michael Collins and the treaty, beggars belief.

A Minister having such disregard for our defence families is unacceptable and I hope we get a response from the Minister, Deputy Coveney, that will go some way towards healing the wound and give us clarity and hope for the way forward. What is the future of Cathal Brugha Barracks? Will it remain fully operational? Are there plans for the closure of the barracks? Are there plans for a new barracks? Will there be an apology to the defence community throughout the country for the disrespect shown by the haphazard attempt at this announcement?

I briefly mentioned recruitment and retention. Over the past two years, the way the defence community has responded to needs throughout the pandemic has been top class. That has increased the morale among the Defence Forces where morale had been extremely low for a number of years. The geopolitical area we are in with regard to Russia has again brought the Defence Forces right to the heart and forefront of all we do in this country.

They deserve our support. It is a wonderful career, as was pointed out to us yesterday. However, the fact that men and women are not going forward and are leaving, and that the Defence Forces are very short of trainers to be able to recruit, leads to the suggestion that not enough supports are put in place to make it an attractive career in which to stay or to recruit. The Minister needs to address that.

I thank Senator O'Loughlin for raising this matter. I am mindful of the significant media attention this matter has attracted over the past week and the impact such coverage has had on the personnel and their families who serve in Cathal Brugha Barracks. In that context, I want to make it very clear that no decision has been taken by the Government on the relocation of Defence Forces operations at Cathal Brugha Barracks.

Cathal Brugha Barracks is the only operational barracks in the capital. McKee Barracks is an administrative centre for the Defence Forces and certainly does not have the capacity to house the 1,000 personnel currently serving in Cathal Brugha Barracks. It is recognised as holding a pivotal location. The Government's senior military advisers in the Defence Forces have made it very clear that its location is vital for a range of reasons, some of which I cannot go into explicit details on for operational and security reasons.

That being said, some should be self-evident to all, such as the strategic location regarding key Government buildings and national critical infrastructure, and the ability to respond and assist other civil authorities in the event of terrorist attacks or other security-related emergencies. In addition, as an operational barracks, 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, an ordnance disposals team operates from there, as does the permanent armed response unit which is on immediate notice to deploy if required. I will not dwell on the historical importance of Cathal Brugha Barracks which Members of the House will be fully aware of.

Of course, and understandably from a non-military or security perspective, the barracks occupies a significant land bank which could be used for other purposes strategic to the State. In recognition of the fact that this has become an issue that arises every couple of years, the Department of Defence has secured funding from the Department of the Taoiseach, under the Housing for All fund, to engage consultants to undertake a cost benefit analysis and feasibility study on the possible relocation of Cathal Brugha Barracks.

This is an exploratory exercise which will allow an informed debate to take place on the implications and practicalities of responding to calls to relocate from the current location. My Department, together with the Defence Forces, is developing a tender proposal for a feasibility study and will go to the market in the coming weeks.

I will be very clear, because significant doubt has been raised in recent days, that there is no decision to relocate, rather it is intended to fully assess over the course of the coming months the implications, feasibility and practicalities of such a move. The representative associations and other stakeholders who have been very vocal in recent days, including civilian employees, will be kept appraised of progress as their interest is central to this, as indeed is mine as Minister for Defence. I thank the Senator for raising this important matter. I will give more detail when I get the chance to respond a second time.

I thank the Minister for his response and for bringing clarity to the debate. At the very least, we can say the tweet sent out by the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, was disingenuous and ill-informed.

I thank the Minister for making it clear that no decision has been made by Government in terms of relocation and for acknowledging the very strategic location of Cathal Brugha Barracks and the 1,000 personnel who serve. They must be central in this debate.

I accept what the Minister is saying regarding a feasibility study and look forward to him keeping all of us informed and having the opportunity to debate that feasibility study in the Seanad. I would appreciate it if the Minister could give us a few comments in his final response about recruitment and retention of personnel and the fact we need to address the 20% of Defence Forces personnel who need to apply for family income supplement to be able to pay their household bills.

Regarding comments about the Minister, Deputy Ryan, I do not believe this was disingenuous. I believe that when he made the statement on social media, it was on the basis of a case he has been making for many years, namely, that this is a very strategic site that could be used for housing. I do not believe anything was meant by that. He also recognised the Defence Forces need to be accommodated. What I would say as Minister for Defence is that no decision has been made to move out of Cathal Brugha Barracks or to relocate that barracks. We are not at that stage. We are going through a tendering process to put a feasibility study in place that will take some time so that we can weigh up all the pros and cons. We will work with the Defence Forces and representative bodies and seek security advice to make the right decision for Defence Forces personnel, their families and Dublin. I thank the Senator for her additional comments.

For the avoidance of doubt, I reiterate that no decision to relocate Cathal Brugha Barracks has been made. I was very clear on this point in the Dáil. The only decision made to date has been to undertake an independent and externally conducted cost-benefit analysis and feasibility study on the implications of considering such a move. This study will comprise three fundamental aspects. One involves the consideration of whole life cycle costs and benefits, including new land acquisition costs and provision of a new barracks, which undoubtedly would be necessary should this move take place. The second involves assessment of the operational and security implications and risks associated with relocation, because they are very real. The third involves determination as to the feasibility of relocating incorporating internal comparators as to how other states manage the threats and risks to their capital infrastructure in their capital cities. This project should take between nine to 12 months to complete and all relevant stakeholders will be briefed as the project progresses. It is expected the aim of the project will be achieved, namely, to allow for an informed and holistic debate on the merits of the current location at Cathal Brugha Barracks, which has served Ireland well for a long time.

Regarding the Senator's last question, I hope to be in a position next week to launch the outcome of the work of the Commission on the Future of the Defence Forces. I believe this report is probably the most important piece of work done strategically in terms of the future of the defence debate in Ireland and the Defence Forces, how they are resourced and capability issues we have seen in many decades. I hope it will be an opportunity for us to debate in some detail in this House, which I suspect the Acting Chairman would appreciate, what the future of the Defence Forces looks like and the resourcing implications of those recommendations. I look forward as Minister for Defence to leading that debate. This is a commission set up by the Government. It is a commission I put together in terms of its chair and members. It has extraordinary experience contributing to the recommendations it is hoped we will publish at some point next week. This is in some ways a watershed moment for a future reflection and commitment from Government on the Defence Forces of the future and how we resource, structure and support them in the context of creating a very exciting opportunity for many young people to choose a career in the Defence Forces for the future.

I hope I have clarified the situation concerning Cathal Brugha Barracks, primarily for Defence Forces personnel and their families but also for the broader public and this House. I look forward to bringing forward the details, recommendations and work of the commission, which has been working on this issue for more than 12 months. It is a watershed moment in the defence debate and the Government has very serious responsibility in terms of how we respond to that.

Mental Health Services

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, for coming to the House to address this critical issue, namely, the need to reinstate a director of mental health services. I know the Department of Health has competing demands from cancer care to cardio to treatments across the board, but the need for us to grasp in a definitive way the issue of mental health is one I see as a pressing emergency in this country. Nobody knows that more than the Minister of State because, since her appointment, she has been a champion of kicking down doors, changing attitudes and creating new ways of doing business. There is a commitment in the programme for Government to reinstate this role, which existed from 2013 to 2017 and was then merged into another aspect.

Why do we need a director of mental health services in this country? We have a new mental health strategy in Sharing the Vision but there is no point in the Minister of State doing so much good work in crafting new policy unless there is someone there driving that strategy for her and making sure we are getting the results we need. One man I have spoken about here previously, who is a champion of positive mental health and who has used his national profile to campaign on the issue is Rory O'Connor, a fellow Meath man who runs Rory's Stories on Facebook and has a huge following not just in terms of his humorous take on Irish life but because he uses his profile to speak about mental health with a series of thought-provoking pieces. He has battled his own demons in the past and chronicled them in a top-selling book. I spoke to him before coming to this Chamber and he said, "Shane, a big storm is coming and we need to put up the umbrellas as best we can."

He told me how through his engagement with schoolchildren - he conducts talks in schools throughout Ireland every week - he can see in the faces of 17 and 18-year-olds how they have suffered immensely. It will take them years to come to terms with the impact on their mental health and development as young men and women from the isolation they experienced during lockdown and to deal with the fallout from that prolonged period of isolation away from normal life. He also spoke quite extensively about the impact on men in their 60s from his work with men's sheds. These are people who would not normally be well able to express their emotions and how they are feeling. He said he can see from that that there is a significant problem in that regard as well from going around and meeting men in these men's sheds. Those were his words to me: "Shane, a big storm is coming and we need to put up the umbrellas as best we can."

I am calling for the reinstatement of this role of director of mental health services.

I know that the Minister of State has done a huge amount of work even in the last week. I know that she has introduced a new scheme and has allocated €1 million for 16,500 talk therapy sessions, which are free of charge for those who have been impacted by the isolation of Covid-19. That is the kind of work that the Minister of State has been doing and I praise her for that. However, as I said, the call here is to ensure that we reinstate the directive for mental services so that we drive that strategy that the Minister of State wants to see happen.

I thank Senator Cassells so much for raising this issue in the Seanad. It is a hugely importantly issue. I have consistently sought the reinstatement of a national director for mental health post in the HSE since coming into my post a year and a half ago. The previous mental health strategy, A Vision for Change, recommended that a national mental health director be established under the leadership of a national director to prioritise the mental health agenda and to drive it centrally within the HSE. The important line was to drive it centrally.

This was achieved with the appointment of the first HSE national director in 2013. The programme for Government commits to examining the reinstatement of the national directorate for mental health. I am confident that I have the full support of colleagues in this matter. Given the importance of mental health, we now have an Oireachtas sub-committee on mental health. The sub-committee is chaired by Senator Black who is here in the Seanad. Senator Black could stand here and talk about what I am talking about today, which is the importance of being able to drive the vision in relation to mental health. As part of the HSE structural changes, the post of national director for mental health was disbanded and a new national director of community health service operations subsumed the operational role of the existing national directors for primary care, social care, health and wellbeing, and mental health. The previous national director post for mental health was split into two separate dedicated leads at assistant national director level, one within community operations and one within community strategy. An additional three new senior roles were introduced. These were a chief operations officer, a chief strategy and planning officer, and a chief clinical officer.

Standing here today, I am not trying to take anything from these fantastic people who are doing phenomenal work every day of the week and who are driving on the challenges we have in mental health. However, let us stop and think of the two years we have come through with Covid-19, as well the fact that we do not know what we will see in the next year or two regarding people with long Covid and, especially, older people who are trying to reconnect with society, young people who have been really challenged regarding their junior certificate and leaving certificate examinations, hybrid education, moving onto college, as well as the ordinary cut and thrust of every day life. It has been challenging for people. Now, more than ever, I strongly believe that we need a national director for mental health within the HSE to drive our new mental health policy, Sharing the Vision. It is an excellent policy. However, policies are fine, but implementation is key.

It would be remiss of me not to speak about the situation that has occurred in Kerry in the last two weeks. To update the House, I am taking a three-pronged approach to how we rebuild confidence in CAMHS throughout the country. First, there will be an independent audit on compliance, structure and process. We will look at team composition, we will look at the skill mix, we will look at the clinical operation in governance and we will look at access to services, which are important.

The second part of the three-pronged approach is that we will do a full research piece. We will speak to service users and to young people about their experience nationally. This will be done from an academic focus. However, it is important to speak to young people from all over Ireland about how they got on when they were referred to CAMHS.

The third part, and an important part, is an audit of the prescribing practice. This will be a full audit of the 73 CAMHS teams through the country regarding their prescribing practice. The whole purpose is to design the audit, to collect, to collate and to report.

A non-adversarial approach will be adopted in compensation. Details will be worked out in consultation with my Department and the Office of the Attorney General.

I thank Minister of State for that response. I want to pay tribute to the Minister of State for stating that she is driving this. She wants to see the reinstatement happen. This is because she knows that this will drive the change in policy that she wants to achieve in the whole area of mental health in Ireland. As the Minister of State said, there has been much discussion, in particular about youth mental health, in the last few weeks.

As we exit Covid-19, we now see that people, and young people in particular, are reconnecting with society. Some are embracing that fulsomely, while others are not so much. They are finding that tough. They are the people who we need to make sure that we protect. As the Minister of State said, there are a huge number of good people working in her Department and in agencies right throughout the country in the area of mental health. However, there are gaps in the service. As the Minister of State said, we do not know what we are facing in the years ahead as a result of the fallout from this. Life is challenging in normal times. It has become even more challenging because of this prolonged period of isolation and withdrawal from normal life. We need to make sure, because we do not know what we are facing as a result of this prolonged period of isolation, that we have a director of mental health services to face that storm and to make sure that we achieve what we need to achieve in protecting our people.

The rationale provided at the time for the restructuring of these posts was to enhance integration. I have no problem with enhanced integration across care groups, which is of course required. We want to take the stigma away from mental health. I can understand the rationale. However, because of where we are today in 2022, there is an ongoing need for a dedicated focus on mental health strategy with national-level leadership within the HSE. It is vital to have this important post of HSE national director of mental health reinstated to give strategic direction to the development and improvement of mental health services.

I assure the House that I will continue to engage with the HSE on this important matter. I know that the Minister of Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, will be speaking to the HSE this weekend. I have also discussed this with the Taoiseach. All are supportive. I can stand here today and say that I know that I have the support of everyone in both Houses to have this post reinstated. I thank the Senator again for raising this issue which is important and timely.

Mental Health Services

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, for joining us in the Chamber. Earlier this week, the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, advised that it had decided not to press charges against officials or agencies who were responsible for the care of the intellectually disabled young woman at the heart of the Grace case. I am absolutely appalled and confused by this decision. It is my hope that the Minister of State might be able to provide some much-needed clarification.

What was allowed to happen to Grace, as well as to the other young people who suffered abuse in the same foster home, is truly shameful. The fact that the systems which perpetuated and subsequently covered up the abuse have not been held to account to date is completely indefensible. When the file was brought to the DPP in 2020, An Garda Síochána recommended that criminal charges be brought against those who were responsible. However, the DPP did not follow the recommendations of An Garda Síochána and we do not know why. To my mind, this does not serve the victims of the abuse, nor does it serve the wider public interest. I ask the Minister of State today whether his Department will consider making public the DPP’s decision in respect of the abuse perpetrated in the Grace case. Additionally, it would be helpful to get some clarity as to which legislation the charges were recommended under by An Garda Síochána. Legislation created in 2012 to combat institutional cover-ups seems to have been ignored, because there does not seem to be any evidence of it being enforced.

Can the Minister of State, or his Department, provide information and statistics on the enforcement of the Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons Act 2012? The national independent review panel, NIRP, was set up in 2017, but it is not presently clear whether other instances exist, potentially those that are just as serious as those in the Brandon or Grace cases that are currently being reviewed by the panel.

The national independent review panel, NIRP, was set up in 2017 but it is not presently clear whether other incidents exist that are potentially just as serious as those in the Brandon or Grace cases currently being reviewed by the panel. It is not possible to access information about the incidents under review, even through freedom of information. Will incidents reviewed by the NIRP ever see the light of day or do we have to wait until another whistle-blower raises alarm bells? What processes are in place to actually allow public scrutiny of how those incidents are handled by the panel? If we consider the incidents within the remit of the Farrelly commission and those investigated by the NIRP in preparing the Brandon report, we can see a pattern being established of tragic incidents occurring under the watch of the State with little accountability. It is clear that front-line staff are reporting incidents of abuse but appropriate action does not always follow. Clearly the issue instead lies with senior staff management and officials who failed to act on reports of abuse and in some cases even work to cover up the abuse which is being reported. It is essential that future legislation creates accountability for these managers and officials, potentially even through criminal sanctions. Is legislative reform planned in this respect?

I am conscious of time but I think we also need to consider what legislation is required to prevent both the abuse of individuals in State care and the abuse of power within State institutions that have been exposed in the likes of the Grace case and the Brandon report. Will the Minister of State provide clarity on how he will seek reform on this issue and how he will create accountability?

I know the Minister of State cares deeply about this issue. I know he and the Department officials are working hard to ensure that individuals who suffered abuse while in the care of the State receive the support they require and that future abuse under the purview of State agencies or bodies is prevented. My concern, however, is that we do not hold the systems themselves to account. Then it is only a matter of time before the next failure, the next incident and the next tragedy. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.

I thank the Senator for raising this important matter today. I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly.

The House will be fully aware of the historical abuse allegations which have been raised about a foster care home in the south east and in particular as they relate to a young woman known as Grace. It is absolutely incumbent on the State to ensure the safety and protection of all vulnerable people in its care. We owe it to Grace and all vulnerable people in the State to ensure that cases of this nature do not happen again. It is important to note that Grace is now in receipt of both residential and multidisciplinary supports based on assessed needs. This support is provided via a section 39 provider organisation but with the support of HSE services in CHO 5.

The Senator has raised the issue of what is being done to address the systemic failures identified in this case. I want to acknowledge a number of structures and governance mechanisms that the HSE now has in place to ensure safeguarding of vulnerable people in receipt of disability support services. Nationally, the HSE has implemented a number of measures to protect vulnerable people including a revised national safeguarding policy. At local level, safeguarding teams have been introduced in each CHO to protect and support the welfare of service users. The HSE board has established functions which provide oversight structures through which the executive is held to account in respect of quality and patient safety matters. A subcommittee, the quality and patient safety committee, provides oversight with regard to safeguarding policy.

The national safeguarding office has been established by the HSE. It supports the operation of Safeguarding Ireland and provides support and guidance to the CHO safeguarding teams. The HSE has also revised its national safety incident management policy. The HSE national disability operations team is implementing a national quality improvement plan to support compliance with HIQA regulatory standards through a resourced team led by a national disability specialist.

The HSE has established a post of confidential recipient, an independent postholder who reports directly to the CEO of the HSE. This important role provides a channel for any concerned individual, and indeed service users themselves, to confidentially report concerns of abuse, negligence, mistreatment or poor care practices at any HSE-funded day service, residential care service or home support. This post provides a vital voice for vulnerable older people and people with a disability.

The Dignam report recommended that the HSE and the Garda put in place a memorandum of understanding to support publication of reports by the HSE where there is a live Garda investigation. The HSE and the Garda have developed a draft memorandum of understanding, and I understand it is awaiting final sign-off.

The Garda submitted a file to the Director of Public Prosecutions in 2020 recommending prosecution and last week the DPP directed that no criminal charges will take place. The House will be aware that the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions is independent in its decision-making process and no other person or body, such as the Department of Health, can be involved in the process of deciding whether to prosecute.

I thank the Minister of State. While I welcome the implementation of a number of measures to protect vulnerable people, including the revised national safeguarding policy, what happened to Grace, and what was allowed to happen to Grace and other young people who suffered abuse in the same foster home, is shameful. The fact that the DPP did not follow the recommendations of the Garda is scandalous, as is the fact that we do not know why that happened. It is, however, good to hear that Grace is receiving support now. It is also good to hear about the new governance mechanisms within the HSE.

The confidential recipients in the HSE are an important channel for confidential concerns and disclosures, and that is welcome. However, it is clear there is a legislative gap here. There is no primary legislation that specifically holds officials and managers to account for covering up abuse and for failing to act on abuse. There is no doubt that we need clarity on whether legislative reform is planned in that respect.

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House but I still feel there are questions that need to be answered.

I thank the Senator, who has raised some interesting, thoughtful and welcome suggestions. I agree with her that every person who uses disability services in this country is entitled to receive care of the highest standard and to live in dignity and safety. It is their right and it is our obligation to ensure their safety and care are paramount.

Like the Senator, I welcome the actions taken by the HSE to date to strengthen the governance of safeguarding of vulnerable people in the care of the State, as I set out in my opening statement. As I stated earlier, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions is independent in its decision-making process. No other person or body, such as the Government, can be involved in the process of deciding whether to prosecute. There has been no engagement between the DPP and the Minister's office or the Department regarding the DPP's decision.

We all recognise that phase 1 of the commission of investigation has taken longer than anticipated. The large number of interviewees, agencies and correspondence to be considered by the commission is recognised. Phase 2 will commence following consideration of the phase 1 final report and the commission's written statement on the scope of its further investigations. The Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and the Minister of State with responsibility for disability, Deputy Rabbitte, continue to keep the work of the commission under review.

I again thank the Senator raising this important issue for discussion today.

Sitting suspended at 11.29 a.m. and resumed at 12.04 p.m.
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