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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 10 Feb 2022

Vol. 282 No. 11

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Work Permits

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy English.

A Chathaoirligh, I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to raise this matter. I know from listening to all the requests that have been made to you that it is hard to include everybody. We all understand that you have to make these decisions.

I welcome the Minister of State. I am sorry I missed meeting him at the battle in Navan last Sunday when the Rossies, Roscommon, took down the Royals, Meath. I only realised when I was talking to the Minister of State earlier that he was there, but I am sure there will be further battles. It was all good and friendly in the end despite the little bit of ruaile buaile.

Before I outline an example of the serious situation I am raising, I wish to acknowledge that the Minister of State is working hard on this matter. We will have a friendly discussion about it and I am sure the Minister of State knows where I am coming from on this issue, which is the serious delay in processing work permits through the employment permits online system, EPOS. It should take six to eight weeks to process work permits online. Employers are encouraged to use online systems, and there is a trusted partner status for business which is supposed to make it faster. I will give the Minister of State an example of a local business. I am sure the Minister of State has such examples in his county and that he is aware of them throughout the country.

This company has trusted partner status. It applied for permits last October. It desperately needs workers. It is a huge firm and it is expanding nationwide all the time.

It looked for permits last October. The good news is that two of the permits came through in recent days but 18 weeks later it is still waiting for a number of others to come.

The online system states it is processing applications from 29 September. This is at a time of unprecedented difficulty for business in accessing staff. We would think that we should really be speeding up the process. I note the Minister of State announced some decisions last autumn. As he knows, business is crying out for staff. The latest CIF survey found that 83% stated there had been a year-on-year increase in the cost of labour in the past quarter. A similar proportion expects this trend to continue. Almost three quarters of those surveyed in the CIF report stated they had difficulties in accessing staff. The one thing that strikes me, whether in a small town, Dublin city or a major regional town, is the number of notices that can be seen in windows of small and not so small companies crying out for staff. It is very noticeable.

In the current circumstances we need to speed up the processing times for standard and trusted partner applications. The Minister of State knows as well as I do, and perhaps better, that between 30,000 and 40,000 jobs are needed in hospitality. We have issues with carers. The money is there and the Government has provided significant money but we cannot get carers. Haulage companies cannot get drivers. In virtually every area of Irish business life today the jobs are not there. We desperately need these jobs as quickly as possible to fill the vacancies. Our economy will be very strong. All the indicators are that over the coming three to four years we will be in an extremely strong position. It would be a pity if it were to be destroyed by a lack of jobs in a number of sectors at present. I know it is a challenge for the Government. I know it is not easy. I appreciate the Minister of State is doing his best. I look forward to hearing his reply.

I am more sorry for the result in Meath then missing Eugene at the match. I hope we will get a chance for revenge. I am also sorry I was not able to meet Senator Murphy on the day he was in Navan. I was supporting Meath against Roscommon and supporting Trim in Dublin. We lost on both occasions. We will recover and get back.

We have discussed this issue quite a lot in the House. Most Senators were on the ball and raised it last autumn before others knew it would be a big issue. At the time we tried to respond and I gave commitments that we would make changes to staffing levels and put a plan in place to deal with it. Those plans are in place but we cannot see the results just yet. To be very clear and honest, we are not happy with the time limits. Nobody could stand over timelines of up to 16 to 18 weeks, and 20 weeks in some cases, to deal with a permit. It is a complicated system. We are trying to improve that situation. The sheer volume of applications is part of the difficulty.

We are not happy with it. I am not happy with it, the Tánaiste is not happy with it and neither is the Department. We are putting in place plans to fix this once and for all. I am not trying to defend it but I will give the background to what is behind it. Staff have been working extremely hard. They have been working overtime and at weekends to try to get these applications processed. We will get there but it will take a few more months for the timelines to reduce. There will be improvements from this month on.

I thank Senator Murphy for raising the matter. Ireland's employment permit system continued to operate throughout the pandemic. The Department made a Covid-19 contingency plan in March 2020, moving the employment permit operations seamlessly to a totally remote working environment. It adjusted operations to accept all documents and applications electronically. This in itself was a major change and we handled it at the time. Ireland is one of the few countries that has managed to keep the employment permit system fully operational throughout the crisis. The Department agreed with the immigration service delivery in the Department of Justice soft-copy arrangements for issuing employment permits as a temporary measure. We tried to respond immediately to the challenges that Covid brought to us.

From the outset of the crisis in order to assist the HSE and all other medical providers in the State to respond to and assist with the public health response to the threat of Covid-19, all doctor and nurse employment permit applications were expedited. This is ongoing and it is a priority. Last year, there were close to 5,000 permit applications for medical personnel.

The Department has seen unprecedented increases in the volume of applications for employment permits over the course of 2021. In total last year, 27,666 applications were received. This represented a 69% increase over the same period in 2020 and a 47% increase on 2019, which in itself represented an 11-year high. The Department issued 16,275 employment permits last year and also processed a total of close to 18,000 applications. There has been a serious ramp up of activity and volume. Quite a high number of applications are still being processed. This reflects that there is a strong employment market out there and we are correct to say there will be a jobs-led recovery. This brings with it complications such as these that have to be teased out.

In addition, the extension of categories of employment permits following the latest review of the occupation list has increased availability of employment permits for these roles. This was in response to wishes raised here with regard to horticulture, food production, meat processing plants and other areas highlighted in the Seanad. I gave a commitment we would respond to this and we did so last October. This has resulted in thousands more applications. Processing times have been impacted by this increase in demand and because of the HSE cyberattack. As a result of the cyberattack, employment permit applications associated with doctors' rotation, which occurs twice yearly in January and July, had to be submitted manually or through other non-standard methods. This resulted in a significant additional administrative burden dealing with these applications requiring staff to be temporarily reassigned to assist in the process. This had a direct impact on wider processing times for other permit applications. This had a knock-on effect throughout 2021.

I and officials in the Department recognise the impact delays in processing times for employment permits have for businesses and their workers. A plan of action is being developed to meet the challenges and reduce the backlog built up in recent months. The plan includes additional staffing and systematic changes. The staffing actions being taken include the recruitment of additional permanent and temporary staff. This is an increase of 69% of our permanent capacity and 125% including temporary staff to deal with the backlog.

On 2 February additional approval was granted to increase permanent capacity by 125% and to increase overall capacity by 225% from the original yearly base of early November. This means the processing team will have more than tripled in size by late March compared with last November. The temporary reassignment of staff from other areas in the Department with relevant skills is also something we are implementing. We also have maximum hours of overtime for the existing team and former processors. We are trying everything to deal with these applications. There is a backlog now and we predict there will be ongoing demand for these permits. Many sectors are under pressure to find the staff they need.

We will review the sectors again in the coming weeks. We will start that process. We have tried to respond to genuine proven needs where the evidence is there. Senator Murphy mentioned carers and they are dear to the heart of everyone here, particularly carers in the home. There is an issue with gathering all of the evidence we need to prove we need to use the permit system to solve it. At present they are not within the permit structure. We are willing to look at this. We have engaged over the past year but evidence has not been gathered. I ask any sector or employer having difficulty to engage with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the sector's parent Department. Employers should also engage with the Department of Social Protection, which can identify through the high numbers of people on the pandemic unemployment payment or jobseeker's payments whether people are available to do some of these jobs. Training is taking place. Anybody who is short of staff should look at the Pathways to Work document that sets out the policy. It brings together all of the Departments in an approach to assist employers and employees to fill some of these jobs, if at all possible.

I thank the Minister of State. He has given a very honest assessment of the situation that exists. I should, of course, have mentioned the whole area of construction and retrofitting. When the one-stop shop gets up and running many people will see they will be able to carry out this work. I hope there will be low-cost loans. We will need extra workers in this regard. I accept we have a massive apprenticeship programme that will mean more trained people coming on line before too long. I accept the Minister of State and the Government appreciate the difficulty in this situation. It is very important for the economy that we get these workers. I look to progress in the future.

This year, the Government has provided a lot of money for mental health support. In my county one of the problems is that where, for example, seven consultants and special nurses are required, four of the positions can be filled but the other three positions cannot be filled because there is nobody to backfill the jobs of those who take them. This means the service cannot get up and running. This is another area in which we should be making every effort to try to get people into the sector. I appreciate the reply of the Minister of State.

I will keep it short this time. The Senator has identified another area of concern. We made changes in the list last year to reflect demand. The Senator identified the area of construction. We made changes to the scheme last year whereby the majority of jobs in the construction sector are eligible for permits or do not need them at all. The Senator also flagged the retrofitting plan. We know we need to go from having 4,000 people in that sector to 17,000 people. We have the potential to achieve this from within the country and within the EU through training programmes that are in place through the education and training boards, the further education and training sector and throughout the education system.

Employers and potential employees have to engage in that system and work together. We have responded by doubling the number of potential areas in which people can achieve an apprenticeship over the past couple of years. The number of apprentices has increased from 1,000 to nearly 8,000 per year, and we want to increase that figure to 10,000. This is all achievable, if the system and employer organisations work with us and use the education system which is there to be used.

I stress again that there are supports available for people who are out of work and want to retrain and take up a new career. There are supports for employees and employers. The pathways to work that are in place are not being fully utilised. If any sector asks me to make changes in departments, I will ask them whether they have engaged with the systems and departments that try to solve these problems which are of a more local nature.

Driver Licences

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. The issue I raise relates to driver licensing. Until 2006, it was standard in this country that the B category licence people hold, that is, an ordinary car licence, also included other categories, namely, the W category for work vehicles and the AM category for mopeds. On the back of the driving licence the categories people are qualified to drive in are listed, and AM and W were automatically added when people passed a driving test and received their licence to drive a car.

That stopped from 2006 onwards. There was no fanfare or publicity about it. The change meant that people who did their car test still received a W licence, but no longer received an AM licence for mopeds. These categories are important because they allow people living on family farms to drive tractors and so on without having to do a separate test. It means that young people, in particular, especially those in urban areas, cannot now use mopeds.

Mopeds are a very effective means of transport, in particular in urban areas and for people in younger age categories who may not have the means to go through the process of getting a licence to drive or to buy a motorbike. The cost involved is not insubstantial. People who want to drive a moped, or any kind of motorbike, which is the A category, must go through the process of having 18 hours of lessons, doing a theory test, passing a driving test and getting a licence. The costs involved for lessons alone, even at €50 an hour, are nearly €1,000. On top of that, it costs €85 to do a test, €35 for a learner permit, €55 for a licence and €45 for a theory test. That imposes additional costs of over €1,200 on people, which they would not have to pay if the AM category was automatically included on their licences to allow them to drive mopeds.

At a time when we are saying we want to take cars off the road and reduce emissions, mopeds are a very effective tool for people to do exactly that. They are much more fuel efficient than cars and create far fewer emissions. They also take cars off the road. They are an opportunity for younger people from the age of 17 upwards to avail of a private transport model that does not involve the expense, pollution and traffic congestion caused by cars.

The only reason I have ever been given for the change is that there may be a road safety element, in that people need special training to drive a motorbike. I do not dispute that. However, the reality is that anybody who has passed a driving test for a B licence, that is, the ordinary licence we all think of as a driving licence, has already done a theory test, undergone 12 hours of driver training and taken the test. That person has a level of expertise in terms of road safety, understanding other road users and the importance of behaving in a responsible manner on the road.

I do not think there were a large number of accidents involving those who hold B licences driving mopeds without the road safety expertise required to drive a motorbike. While I accept that there might be a case in terms of road safety, I do not think the decision has been properly thought out. Nobody has ever shown me evidence to suggest that people with full driver licences are not capable of driving a moped. I do not necessarily accept that is the case. There is no evidence that I am aware of to suggest there has been a certain number of accidents in this regard.

The major problem is that this change specifically targeted particular groups in society, namely, younger people, people without means and people who cannot afford to run a car. It was a retrograde step but, perhaps most important, it is out of step with our European neighbours. Most countries in Europe provide an AM licence with other licences automatically. We do not, and I do not know why that is the case. I hope the Minister of State will consider changing that.

I thank the Senator for raising awareness of this issue. I was not aware of the change made in 2006. It was not up in flashing lights, but it has certainly had an impact. It has affected people, mainly of the younger generation, as the Senator said. It is worth examining the matter and the Senator has made a very compelling case for doing so.

I will provide some background on this matter. Prior to October 2016, as the Senator said, full category B licence holders, on passing a driving test, were permitted to drive category M moped vehicles. This practice ceased for new category B licence holders with the implementation of the third EU driving licence directive. As it stands officially, the Minister has no plans to change this policy, but the Senator has made a strong case for doing so, which I will feed back to the Minister and Department of Transport. It is an issue that can and should be considered.

The provisions of the third driving licence directive state that licences granted for any category shall be valid for vehicles in category AM. However, for driving licences issued on its territory, a member state may limit equivalences for category AM to categories A1, A2 and A, if that member state imposes a practical test as a condition for obtaining category AM. Prior to the directive, the category AM for mopeds, that is, a motorcycle with an engine of less than 50 cm³ capacity, was not recognised across the EU and may not have been issued as a category of licence in many countries. In Ireland, category AM could always be obtained by obtaining passing a driving test in the category B up to October 2006.

Before October 2006, the driver theory test was confined to cars and motorcycles. Since then, it has been split into two examinations covering motorcycles and cars separately. Initial basic training, IBT, was introduced for motorcyclists from 6 December 2010 for first-time learner permit holders. This is part of the national policy following the recommendations made and accepted by the Department of Transport and the then Minister prior to its introduction.

IBT recognises the vulnerability of motorcyclists as road users who need additional training to keep them safe on our roads. A driver must complete a programme of IBT with an improved IBT instructor before taking a motorcycle out on a road. The IBT programme is a minimum of 16 hours' duration and a certificate of satisfactory completion is issued to each learner after completing the training. There are situations where a learner can do what is known as a conversion module, which is a modified version of the IBT programme. This is available for people who have completed the IBT on a smaller motorcycle and then take out a separate permit for a larger motorcycle.

While motorcycles in the heavier category are clearly more powerful and capable of much higher speeds than category AM motorcycles, the Road Safety Authority, RSA, considers the risk associated with riding any type of motorcycle to be similar and the deaths and serious injuries to be disproportionate to those related to category B. The IBT modules that relate to motorcycles encompass all aspects relevant to higher powered machines and category AM. There is no doubt that the learnings from the IBT course are relevant and beneficial to riders of category AM motorcycles and contribute effectively to the goal of having a fuller learning experience and greater understanding of the risks and dangers associated with this vulnerable road group.

Although those who have category B licences have road experience which, undoubtedly, is of significant benefit to the driving of a category AM motorcycle, such drivers will not have had the learning specific to riding a two-wheel vehicle. The Minister for Transport is confident that the position that exists now is the correct one and that a person must be tested specifically on the moped before being granted a full licence.

The Senator, in raising this issue, accepts there needs to be some extra training, but there are difficulties in terms of costs and requirements. It is something that could be pursued in conjunction with the RSA and the Department of Transport. I will bring back to the Minister the points the Senator has raised, which are valid and feed into this argument. It may be a matter that can be looked at again.

I thank the Minister of State and appreciate his remarks. I am sorry the Minister does not have plans to change this rule. I hope we will be able to convince him otherwise. There are still inconsistencies. I acknowledge the road safety imperative involved and that being on two or three wheels is different from being cocooned in a car, and we can see that in the way the respective drivers behave.

However, the W category for work vehicles and tractors is still included in category B licences. We know there are frequent accidents on farms involving these vehicles, yet people who passed their driving test in a car do not have to do any extra or separate training to reinforce safety protocols for work vehicles. We have excluded the category of moped.

The Minister of State is correct that the position is not consistent across the European Union. In Denmark, for example, there is an LK category for smaller mopeds. We could have something like that, or we could include something in the driving or theory test or require some other theory test to be done. We have an unnecessary penalisation of certain categories, in particular young people.

I again thank Senator Ward for raising this issue. I will certainly talk to the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, who is sorry she could not be here today, and to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, about it. I might not be in a position to convince her but I have no doubt that, with the arguments he has just put to me, the Senator will be able to if he gets a chance. I will encourage her to take some time to listen to this debate and perhaps to meet the Senator to tease the issue out. It is certainly worth looking at.

The Senator flagged an issue in the area of agriculture. We are making changes with regard to aspects of farm safety, particularly in respect of off-road vehicles on farms. There are concerns in that area. We are working with the farm partnerships, through the Health and Safety Authority, to make changes and bring in extra training, mainly in the area of quad bikes. There will be lead-in time for this over the next year or two. This is an area in which we can prevent unnecessary loss of life. We need an ongoing conversation about safety. From the Senator's contribution, I know he totally buys into the safety aspect. It is a matter of how to achieve it. I will urge the Minister of State to engage with him on this matter.

Departmental Strategies

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, for being in the Chamber. I wanted to speak with the Minister today about the Youth Justice Strategy 2021-2027 and the progress made so far in addressing the serious delays in processing times for young people interacting with the courts and youth justice systems. For context, an article was published in The Irish Times a number of weeks ago which highlighted the stark reality for many young people engaging with the criminal justice system. It spoke of an "endless series of delays" that pose a serious barrier which can negatively impact a young person's mental health and which breaks the temporal connection between an offence and a concluding outcome. In some of the cases referenced in the article, young people have been waiting up to seven years for their cases to come to a conclusion. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children facing criminal charges have a right to have the matter determined without delay but our youth justice system does not currently facilitate this. I know the Department is aware of the issue and that there are various actions within the latest youth justice strategy targeting the minimisation of these delays but the young people and young adults at present interacting with the youth justice system cannot wait until 2027.

I ask for an update on the impact of the youth justice strategy on waiting times. I know that we are only in year 2 of the strategy but we need to provide reassurance to those impacted by delays. The strategy promised to establish a national governance and strategy group to guide its implementation but I am unclear as to whether this has been achieved. If it has, what is the make-up of the group's membership? A mid-term review is promised in the third year of the strategy's lifetime but, without the ongoing oversight of a governance and strategy group, the strategy risks repeating the same mistakes.

Community representatives have tentatively welcomed the 2021 youth strategy but they are not without concerns because history has shown that many of our young people have not received the investment and attention they require. In budget 2021, €6.2 million was allocated to interventions under the youth justice strategy. I notice the same figure has been referenced in respect of funding for youth diversion projects. While greater investment in youth justice is welcome, there needs to be a clear delineation between the work of youth diversion projects, which are overseen by An Garda Síochána, and the work of the community-based youth organisations. The solutions to the problems at the heart of youth justice lie within the communities affected by them.

There are a number of specific areas covered by the youth justice strategy that I would like to get some clarification on today. The first is the issue of the offence committed as a minor being dealt with as an adult. If young people turn 18 while awaiting the conclusion a particular charge, they lose the protections offered by the Children Act 2001, including the right to anonymity. In addition, if handed down a custodial sentence, they will be detained in an adult prison for a crime they committed as a child. The youth justice strategy suggests that an amendment to the Children Act could be considered so that its provisions could apply to the processing of an offence with reference to age at time it is committed irrespective of the age of the young person when the case actually comes to court. Has this suggested amendment been advanced at all?

I have heard some anecdotal reports from youth workers that some young people committing first-time offences involving the possession of small amounts of drugs are being charged as a first port of call rather than being referred to a juvenile liaison officer, JLO. This completely contradicts the Government's commitment to a health-led approach on drug use. The youth justice strategy advises that the Department should prioritise research, discussion papers and pilot initiatives on the prevalence and impacts of trends on issues such as drug use. Will the Minister of State clarify where we are in that process? I strongly believe that we need to view and respond to drug use in a very different way than we currently do. We cannot right all the wrongs of the past but we can chart a very different path for our children and young people. I would welcome clarification from the Minister of State as to how the youth justice strategy will support this journey. I thank the Minister of State again for her time. I look forward to her response.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue today. I am taking this debate on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, who sends his apologies. I hope his office contacted the Senator's before this debate.

As the Senator will be aware, the courts are independent in their functions under the Constitution and the law. The matter of scheduling court cases is administered by the Courts Service in consultation with the Judiciary. With the exception of more serious offences, criminal prosecutions involving children are generally heard in the District Court, which operates as the Children Court, with procedures specified in the Children Act 2001. The Minister for Justice plays no role in these independent functions.

The Youth Justice Strategy 2021-2027, published by the Minister, Deputy McEntee, and the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, last year, contains a range of actions that aim to improve the interaction between the justice system and those young people who come into contact with it. As the Senator has noted, the strategy contains a strategic objective, objective 3.4, to prioritise processing of children and young adult cases to minimise delays, including with regard to the role of Garda case managers. This will include specific actions on how the case manager role and other mechanisms can be used to reduce delays in bringing cases to court, to minimise the number of court appearances for each child or young person, to ensure effective practice so that young persons are fully informed and aware of what is involved in the court process and to provide appropriate review mechanisms. I assure the Senator that these actions will be taken forward as part of the implementation of the strategy.

More broadly, the Government is committed to ensuring the courts are adequately resourced to ensure the efficient administration of justice and continues to commit substantial resources to enable this. There is a total gross allocation of €164 million for the courts Vote, which includes an allocation of a further €1 million for the new courts modernisation programme, building on the €8 million already provided in the Estimates for 2021 and retained for 2022.

Significant and sustained efforts have been made to minimise disruption to courts due to Covid-19, with priority continuing to be given to urgent matters such as domestic violence applications. Throughout the pandemic, the Judiciary and the Courts Service have worked closely and innovated through the use of technology to maintain the highest level of court activity possible. Addressing the waiting times built up in some areas during the pandemic while at the same time meeting the goals set out in the Courts Service modernisation programme will be a significant challenge for the courts. The Courts Service management, both nationally and locally, continues to work closely with the Judiciary to deal with the consequences of the pandemic and to look to schedule extra sittings to deal with delays within the system. However, it is likely the pressure on the courts system will remain a feature for the short to medium term.

I take on board the Senator's suggestions regarding the amendment of the Children Act and offences committed as a minor being dealt with when the person in question is a young adult. I will also bring what the Senator raised regarding juvenile liaison officers to the attention of the Minister.

I thank the Minister of State. Even though I am always happy to see her here in the Chamber, I was unaware that the Minister would not be here today. It is not the Minister of State's fault but, historically, I have always looked to withdraw my Commencement matters in such instances in order to ensure that nuanced questions, such as those around the JLO and timing out of the system, can be answered on the spot by the Minister. I just want to put that on the record. That is not a criticism directed at the Minister of State.

Timing out of childhood is obviously a significant issue and Covid has not necessarily been the thing to delay these cases. Some children have faced delays of six or seven years. That is a long delay in dealing with a charge in anybody's life. If anything, not having the matter dealt with encourages the continuation of criminal behaviour because you are just waiting on something, you are not really sure and your life is on hold. Has the governance and strategy group been set up and what is its make-up? I have one more suggestion for the Minister.

It involves my spent convictions legislation that will, hopefully, make its way through the Dáil. The youth work strategies and legislation acknowledge a young person up to the age of 24. This is what we need to do when we are looking at youth strategies. A person does not just become an adult when he or she turns 18. We should be extending this up to the age of 24.

Yet again, I thank the Senator. The Minister of State, Deputy Browne, says he welcomes the additional €6.7 million provided for in budget 2022, representing an increase over one third in support for the youth justice service. This budget funding provides the resources to kick-start delivery of key objectives in the youth justice strategy and, in particular, the programme to expand and deepen the range of supports made available through local youth diversion project services.

The potential expansion of youth diversion projects to young adults aged 18 to 24 is designed to reduce the time a young person spends within the system and to improve the positive outcome for that young person. These actions will also have an impact on the number of cases brought before the courts, further helping to reduce the delays currently being experienced.

Dedicated cross-agency structures have been established to guide the implementation of the youth justice strategy, including the matter raised by the Senator, as well as expert research support to assist in developing enhanced policies, programmes and practice. In addition, the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, chairs a youth justice advisory group, which includes a broad range of community and expert stakeholders, that provides advice and expert insights to help pursue the wide range of objectives contained in the strategy.

General Practitioner Services

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to discuss the very important issue of GP visit cards for six and seven year-olds. As she knows, GP visit cards for those aged under six were introduced a number of years ago and have been a very helpful mechanism for parents to access free GP healthcare for their children.

Children can get very sick very frequently when they are young. Having free GP visits ensures that no family has to work out how sick a child is before it must bring him or her to the doctor and pay a significant fee of €60. This might happen twice or three times in one week. Children can get very sick very rapidly. If a parent is making a judgment call that the child is not sick enough to warrant the spending of an extra €60 from a family budget, the child could get very sick very rapidly. It is a position no family wants to find itself in. No family should have to go without fuel, food, heating or petrol to get to work or school. Those are the decisions families make every day.

In June 2020, legislation extending GP visit cards to all children under 12 was passed. It was announced in budget 2022 last October that free GP visit cards for six and seven year-olds would be introduced this year. This has not yet happened. Given the severe pressures on families and the rising price of electricity, gas, motor fuel and food, I am appealing to the Minister of State to announce today that the commencement of GP visit cards for six and seven year-olds will take place imminently. Parents cannot wait any longer. There is a significant squeeze on families. I know the Minister of State is very aware of what families up and down the country are facing and the real impact of introducing a measure like this on families and health provision for children. It would be a very welcome measure if it was announced today.

I spoke with the Minister for Health this morning about this issue. He understands the urgent need to relieve costs for families. I believe talks with the Irish Medical Organisation, IMO, are ongoing but I think we should prioritise this matter. Things happened overnight during Covid because it was a crisis. The cost of living for families all around the country is also a crisis and needs to be prioritised. I also believe we need to move beyond those aged six and seven quite urgently but given that the commitment regarding six and seven year-olds was in the budget, that needs to happen this year without any further delay. I look forward to hearing the Minister of State's response.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter, which I am taking on behalf of the Minister for Health. As the House will know, the Government is committed to increasing access to GP care for more children. Following the provision of GP care without charges for all children under six years of age, the Government plans to expand GP care without charges to all children up to and including the age of 12 on a phased basis, beginning with all children aged six and seven.

Having a healthy childhood can provide the basis for having good health in adult life. Removing cost as a potential barrier for more children will reduce the financial burden on young families in accessing GP care. Improved access to GP services can help build the relationship between the GP and the patient and help increase the likelihood that conditions requiring ongoing care are identified at an earlier stage. The Senator made a valid point. A normal temperature in a child can spike rapidly so it should not be cost-prohibitive for families to access GP care. I reared three children. All three could get sick in one week and I could have three visits very quickly, not to mention 12.

Currently all children aged under six years have automatic eligibility to a GP visit card and therefore have access to GP services without charges. Legislation enacted in 2020 provides for the phased expansion of GP care without fees to all children aged 12 years and under in three phases - children aged six and seven, children aged eight and nine and children aged ten, 11 and 12.

It was previously intended to commence the first phase of the expansion - the provision of GP care without charges to all children aged six and seven - from September 2020. However, it was necessary to reconsider the commencement date due to the emergence of Covid-19 and in recognition of the increased pressure that this expansion could place on GPs. General practice continues to play a vital role in combating the Covid-19 pandemic. There has been an increased demand for GP services during this time and the provision of those services has been made more difficult. In addition, GPs have been called upon to provide additional services, including referring patients for Covid-19 testing, as appropriate, and helping to administer Covid-19 vaccinations, largely to older and more vulnerable persons. It is important to ensure that additional pressures placed on general practice do not limit its capacity to meet the needs of all patients in the community.

Notwithstanding that, I am pleased to say that budget 2022 has provided for the expansion this year of GP care without charges to children aged six and seven. The Department of Health and the HSE are now working on the roll-out of the expansion. This will, of course, require consultations with the IMO to agree the contractual terms. When commenced, it is estimated that this first phase of the expansion will provide GP care without charges for up to approximately 80,000 additional children aged six and seven.

More generally, the Government has taken numerous steps to increase capacity in general practice to allow for the expanding of GP care without charges over time and on a phased basis, as proposed by Sláintecare. In particular, expenditure on general practice has been significantly increased under the 2019 GP agreement and measures have been introduced to make general practice more sustainable. It is also worth noting that the number of entrants to GP training increased from 120 in 2009 to 233 in 2021, with further increases planned. That is the answer the Minister gave to me. I am conscious the Senator had conversations with him since I received my script and I hope he had positive news for her.

I know the Minister of State would be very much aware of the pressures on families and how important free GP visits have been for families to date. I am disappointed that no date has been given for this expansion. It is very welcome that it is acknowledged that it needs to happen urgently. I know negotiations can be sensitive and I am also aware of the pressures faced by our GPs over the past 12 months but these children are patients of those practices and will be accessing the service in any event. All we are doing is providing relief for families. It is not as if families will suddenly start flooding into GP practices if they get the card. They are deciding between putting food on the table or bringing a sick child to the GP. When they do not access primary care, they end up in accident and emergency, which costs the State even more, so we really need to prioritise this measure.

I will be back in contact with the Minister about it. I want to get a date for this. The families are waiting for this and need it urgently. I have been in contact with many families about the matter. They have been asking about it specifically. They are very conscious of this. There are children who timed out when they turned six and are now in a lacuna. Those children are eight years old now and have been without free GP visits. This matter is very important, and I will be back in contact in respect of it. This is a very practical measure that can relieve the rising costs for families.

I thank the Minister of State for attending. I hope she will have a word with the Minister about this matter.

The Minister of State has the last word.

I thank the Senator. She is being very rational in the context of her proposals. If we do not do that early intervention piece, it has a knock-on effect whereby it is more costly in the long run to our health system. I urge the Department of Health and those with whom it is having consultations , be it the HSE or GP practices, to talk about the same cohort of people who need that care. Now is a timely opportunity, especially when all the other talks are taking place in the context of how we can support families. Now is the time to have that conversation in the round and to look at GP care for children aged six and seven.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ag 11.21 a.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ag 12.02 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 11.21 a.m. and resumed at 12.02 p.m.
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