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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 15 Feb 2022

Vol. 282 No. 12

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Defence Forces

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach, and I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Brophy, to the Seanad to discuss this very important issue.

I welcome the report of the Commission on the Defence Forces. There is no doubt that this will foster real debate and, indeed, has started to do that around the defence Ireland needs as a modern European country. This is very welcome. It is a substantial report running to 224 pages and making 69 recommendations. I commend all of those involved in this very comprehensive report.

There are many noteworthy recommendations within the report such as: a meaningful transformation in the military hierarchy; an increased focus on cybersecurity; new armed personnel carriers; a larger and more robust naval capacity; a larger aircraft fleet; and many others. Of course, there was a huge emphasis on the people within the Defence Forces. That is absolutely the greatest strength we have.

The recommendations for the regeneration plan for the Reserve are critical. The proposal of regular potential officer courses, what we call the commissioning of the ranks, enables experienced non-commissioned officers to train to join the commissioned ranks. They are recommendations that the former Minister for Defence, Deputy O'Dea, made in 2006. In 2022 it is still a recommendation but nothing has happened in between, which is regrettable. We have to recognise there has been a lost decade for the Defence Forces and that defence needs an increase in current funding and investment to undo the damage caused by neglect and return Defence Forces modernisation to the path originally charted in the 2000 White Paper.

I hail from Kildare and represented that area in the last Dáil, where I advocated strongly on behalf of the defence community not just in Kildare but across the country. I have continued to advocate strongly for it in this House. While I am pleased to see the comprehensive report, I am concerned and slightly sceptical about the implementation process. We need to see action now. We have broken the trust of the defence community before by failing to act and this cannot be allowed happen again. For far too long the Defence Forces have been under-resourced, ignored and not shown the respect they deserve. This has to be a turning-point for the defence community in my area of south Kildare and across the country. The days of reports and talking about reports must come to an end. We need to come to the next phase if we are to revitalise our Defence Forces and if we are serious about attracting people to a career in our forces, which is hugely important.

In this House last week, I asked the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, to prioritise the immediate establishment of a permanent pay review body in tandem with my party colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath. Pay and conditions for Defence Forces personnel must improve and the establishment of this pay review body must be a priority. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Brophy, to outline when we will see a comprehensive implementation plan. How long does the Minister of State estimate full implementation will take? Will he on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Coveney, commit to prioritising the establishment of a permanent pay review body as a matter of urgency?

I welcome to the Visitors Gallery, Ms Nina O'Connor, who is a transition year student. It is great to see young people interested in our proceedings. She is the guest of our esteemed colleague and temporary Chair, Senator Horkan. I invite the Minister of State to respond to the matter.

I am taking this Commencement matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney. The Minister welcomes the publication of the report of the Commission on the Defence Forces. The establishment of the Commission on the Defence Forces was set out in the programme for Government and was a key priority for the Minister for Defence. The publication of the report represents the culmination of the work carried out over the past 13 months and is testament to the considerable efforts of all who contributed to its completion.

The report is wide-ranging and comprehensive. As Senator O'Loughlin mentioned, it contains 69 main recommendations and, together with sub-recommendations, there are 133 recommendations in total. The report proposes significant changes for the Defence Forces, including to high-level command and control structures, and for the level of defence provision in Ireland. It challenges the status quo across a range of areas and is forthright about the requirement for cultural change in the Defence Forces. It proposes a range of measures to make the Defence Forces a more inclusive, diverse, equal and attractive workplace. The importance of the Reserve is also clearly stated.

The report poses serious questions regarding defence provision that we as a society must carefully consider. This includes the type of defence capabilities we should retain and the level of resourcing we are willing to commit to in order to equip and train our Defence Forces for the roles we require them to undertake.

The Minister hopes that this report will foster real debate about the defence that we need as a modern neutral European country.

The report sets out three indicative levels of ambition, LOAs. LOA 1 would encompass the current capability; LOA 2 would enhance our current capabilities and seek to address specific priority areas; and LOA 3 would look to develop full spectrum defence capabilities to protect Ireland and its people to an extent comparable to similar-sized countries in Europe.

The commission recommended a step to LOA 2 in the short term, pending more detailed policy debate and decision required for higher levels of ambition. This step up to LOA 2 would require an additional €500 million per annum. LOA three would require expenditure of €3 billion per annum.

Clearly, there are matters that require careful consideration and, in some critical aspects, interdepartmental discussion and agreement. This includes the level of resourcing that may be allocated to defence and the governance framework that will be required to underpin the changes that the commission has recommended. The Minister is also anxious to engage with key stakeholders in the Oireachtas.

There have been calls, obviously, for quick movement on the recommendations in the report and I understand that there may be an impatience to move on certain aspects of the report. The Minister believes that a four- to five-month timeframe is necessary to bring a considered and comprehensive proposal back to Government to address the fundamental issues that the commission has set out. The Minister intends to engage with key stakeholders in the intervening period.

Significant work is currently ongoing, which the commission has referred to in its report. This includes key issues such as the development of a capability development planning process, the work of the independent review into dignity and equality issues, the ongoing procurement of equipment and infrastructure and direct entry competitions and the amendment of legislation relating to the working time directive.

I thank the Senator for raising this important matter.

I thank the Minister of State for his response on behalf of the Minister for Defence. While I note the points that he made, to be perfectly honest, I cannot understand how the Minister needs five months to prepare his response. Nothing in the commission's report can be a surprise to him or, indeed, to his officials because for the past ten years we have been listening to the issues, challenges and problems, particularly around recruitment and retention.

While much of the public commentary has unsurprisingly been focused on the big ticket items, the real meat of the commission's recommendations relate to structural and system reforms that will go a long way to tackle the twin problems of poor morale and personnel retention. These are the two biggest issues that we have.

I participated in a meeting of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence along with the Leas-Cathaoirleach two weeks ago in the Curragh where we heard all of this first-hand. It used be a situation where those who went into the Army certainly took great pride in their role and in their position. While they still take great pride, there is certainly a huge lack of morale and that needs to be addressed.

As the Senator will be aware, I have outlined some of the key matters in the commission's report. I will certainly take on board what she has said and the important points that she has raised and bring them to the Minister, in terms of following on from this.

I reiterate that given the significant recommendations in the report, that period of consideration is required. The report will require detailed consideration and interdepartmental consideration. It is important that having done the work the commission has done, the Minister would get those views clearly from all the stakeholders. In that context, four to five months is a reasonable timeframe. The process will proceed from the engagement. I thank the Senator again for raising the matter.

Road Projects

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

I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this Commencement matter and welcome the Minister of State to the House. The purpose of this Commencement matter is to highlight the concerns raised by councillors in counties Cork, Monaghan, Longford, Westmeath, Tipperary, Waterford, Offaly and Galway, from whom I have received representations. I am asking the Minister for Transport to explain the rationale behind the decision to shelve certain major road projects scheduled for this year; and to make a statement on the matter. The roads that I wish to single out for attention are the N25 from Carrigtwohill to Midleton in County Cork; the N2 from Clontibret to the Border in County Monaghan; the N4 from Mullingar to Longford in counties Westmeath and Longford; the N24 from Waterford to Cahir, County Tipperary; the N25 from Waterford to Glenmore, County Kilkenny; the N52 from Tullamore to Kilbeggan in counties Offaly and Westmeath; and the N59 from Clifden to Maam Cross.

The councillors who raised the matter with me said that they were somewhat concerned by the official statement issued by the Department and the Minister, in which the Department of Transport confirmed that the projects had been stalled and would be considered for funding next year or possibly the year after. An explanation of the rationale for the decision is required. What is the logic for it? There may be other valid reasons for the decision that people are simply not aware of. Perhaps they have been missed. However, I think there is, and was, an expectation among the Oireachtas Members in these areas and indeed, the citizens and people who travel on these roads and their local councillors, that these works would be done. The projects are not new; they have long been thought-out. They were part of the plan and the programme of national roads projects. I know that the Minister of State is very familiar with these roads. When people hear and read that local, and particularly important, road projects are shelved for an indefinite period, there is some concern. It is happening at a time when I thought there was a substantial amount of money around for critical infrastructure, which these roads are. We cannot argue with that. It is important to have critical infrastructure for the travelling public but also for the commercial life and the economy of the country. These are significant and important routes. I would appreciate it if the Minister of State could shine a light on the issue and perhaps outline some of the rationale behind the decision and a possible timeline for the new dates on which these projects might commence.

I thank Senator Boyhan for raising this important issue. I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Transport, who has responsibility for the overall policy and Exchequer funding for the national roads programme, which includes the motorway network along with national primary and secondary roads.

As the Senator may be aware, once funding arrangements have been put in place with Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, under the Roads Acts 1993 to 2015, and in line with the national development plan, NDP, the planning, design, improvement and upgrading of individual national roads is a matter for TII, in conjunction with the local authorities concerned. TII ultimately delivers the national roads programme in line with Project Ireland 2040, the national planning framework and the NDP. In the new NDP, which was launched in October 2021, approximately €5.1 billion is earmarked for new national road projects up to 2030. This funding will enable improved regional accessibility across the country, as well as compact growth in our towns and villages, which are key national strategic outcomes. The funding will provide for the development of numerous national road projects, including the completion of projects which are already at construction stage and those close to it, as well as the development of a number of others.

This year, approximately €615 million of that €5.1 billion of Exchequer capital funding has been provided for national road projects through TII to local authorities. These allocations were announced on 17 December 2021 and details are available on the website. Funding for regional and local roads was announced earlier today.

I agree wholeheartedly with what Senator Boyhan said regarding the importance of the road projects he outlined. I thank him for raising this issue on behalf of councillors in several counties. My colleagues, Senators Paul Daly and Carrigy and Deputy Flaherty have also raised this issue, as I have, with the Minister for Transport. When the roads projects office is undertaking its planning, it is important for it to have certainty regarding when these projects can progress.

As I said, €5.1 billion is earmarked in this regard up to 2030. We need greater certainty, however, concerning when these roads projects, as outlined by Senator Boyhan, will be progressed. I know the roads from Mullingar to Longford and Tullamore to Kilbeggan especially well. In some cases, these projects only require a small amount of money to progress to the next stage. As the Senator rightly said, the landowners on the routes also need certainty and clarification. I have been consulting with the Minister for Transport in this regard. He has assured me that he has brought my concerns to the attention of TII. I assure the Senator that on foot of his strong contribution on behalf of the councillors in the respective counties that I will now go back to the Minister to ask him to engage with TII to bring certainty and clarity in respect of the road projects highlighted in the Senator's Commencement matter.

I thank the Minister of State for that comprehensive response. The disappointing aspect is that these road projects were announced, there was great excitement and press releases were issued. Local politicians promoted and welcomed these projects, as did the Minister of State. He travels these roads and two of them relate directly to his constituency. Therefore, I have every confidence that he will make these projects happen and that he will pursue this matter.

We need some sort of indication now that these projects will be back under way in 2023. I say that because there is some disappointment in this regard and a suggestion that certain elements of the Government are not pro-roads to the same extent. These projects, however, are critically important. They concern rural connectivity, communities and the economy. I thank the Minister of State again for his comprehensive response, and I will come back to him if I need further information.

The Senator is right. There has been disappointment. Nobody likes to see a road project on schedule moving backwards. We want to see these projects continue to move forwards. Funding of €5.1 billion has been allocated to the roads programme up to 2030, and in that context the bare minimum required is certainty regarding when these projects can move to the next stage. The local authorities need to know, as do the impacted landowners and road users.

Some of these roads are very dangerous. They have a high frequency of accidents and require upgrading. I have undertaken already, and I do so again now, to bring the Senator's concerns back to the Minister for Transport and to try to ascertain a clear timeframe for these projects. I would like to see a clear timeframe for work to be undertaken on the road from Mullingar to Longford. It is a busy road and one with a high frequency of accidents. It went through various stages of work to 2010, and was then paused. I do not want to see this project paused again. I undertake to raise Senator Boyhan's concerns with the Minister for Transport and to ask him to respond directly to the Senator.

Childcare Services

I thank the Minister of State for taking this Commencement matter and the Cathaoirleach for choosing it. In the Programme for Government: Our Shared Future, we stated we would support the establishment of a joint labour committee, JLC, in the childcare sector and the drawing up of an employment regulation order, ERO, which would determine minimum rates of pay for childcare workers, as well as their terms and conditions of employment. This subject has been particularly close to my heart.

I lobbied hard for this to be in the programme for Government because I have represented the childcare sector. I have worked with childcare providers during the past ten years prior to becoming a Member of the Seanad and seen first-hand the difficulties they experience in retaining and recruiting staff from the point of view that, in many cases, highly qualified women with experience working in child care could not work in the sector because the cost of living was such that they lost too much by being in full-time employment in the sector and the rates of pay were not sufficient, and that was prior to more recent escalation in the cost of living

I want to say a big "Thank you" to those involved in the Big Start campaign. They talked about pay and conditions in childcare. For example, 66% of early years educators earn less than the living wage and 42% of managers stated they earned less than €15 per hour. These are the group of people who care for our children, who enable predominantly women to access the workforce and who are dedicated professionals in the creation of care of our children. It is important they have a career in this sector and that money is red-circled for this sector to support childcare providers in meeting whatever pay and terms and conditions can be put in place by an ERO. As a Government, we have red-circled money in the budget for later this year. I am anxious we achieve a timeline on that, that the momentum continues and that by September this year we are in a place where we can be sure the people who are recruited into childcare will stay in the industry, will be able to build careers and grow in the industry, and will be encouraged to pursue higher level education in order that we have that level of expertise for children prior to their going to school.

I am anxious that we would know we have a constant momentum with respect to this sector. At what time will we have a report and be in a position where we have an ERO that will apply to this industry?

I am responding on behalf of the Minister of State with responsibility for business, employment and retail, Deputy English, who sends his apologies for not being able to be here. I thank the Senator for raising this important matter. Everybody knows she is s a very strong advocate for this sector and has worked tirelessly in this area. This debate gives us an opportunity to reaffirm to those working in early learning and childcare services the recognition they deserve for the very important work they do and the benefits their work brings for children, families and society. The programme for Government makes extensive commitments to improve access and quality of childcare, and, crucially, we have begun work delivering on those commitments.

In recognition of the importance of this sector and the Government’s commitment to ensuring high-quality, affordable and accessible services, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth,, Deputy O’Gorman, announced major reform of funding for early learning and childcare following the report of an expert group last year. Budget 2022 committed to a transformative and groundbreaking package of measures to begin to implement the vision set out in the report. Some €78 million is being made available to enable this in 2022, including €69 million for a core funding stream, equivalent to €207 million in a full year. Furthermore, throughout the pandemic, substantial State supports, including the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS, and other sectoral specific supports such as the reopening funding package for childcare services have been provided to the sector, which have enabled services to operate safely and ensured the increased costs associated with public health requirements and with lower demand were not passed on to parents.

However, on the topic for discussion today, I would like to clarify the Minister of State, Deputy English’s, role regarding the ERO for childcare. As the Senator will be aware, in line with his statutory obligations as set out in the Industrial Relations Act, he approved a recommendation of the Labour Court to establish a joint labour committee, JLC, for the early learning care and school age childcare sector in June 2021.

However, policy responsibility for this sector sits outside his remit and is a matter for my colleague, Deputy O’Gorman, as the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. I understand that the joint labour committee, JLC, for the early learning care and school age childcare sector, which is independently chaired, has met on a number of occasions to date and is progressing its work.

Proposals for an employment regulation order are formulated in the first instance by a JLC where it is satisfied that such proposals would promote harmonious relations between workers and employers. The Labour Court then considers whether or not to adopt the proposals of a JLC. If the Labour Court is satisfied that the proposals are in a suitable form for adoption, the Labour Court adopts the proposals and submits the issue to the Minister of State with responsibility for business, employment and retail. If the Minister of State is satisfied that the relevant legislative requirements have been met and it is appropriate to make an order, he will give effect to the proposals through the making of an employment regulation order. I am informed that the Minister of State, Deputy English, has not yet received any proposals from the Labour Court regarding an employment regulation order for the early learning care and school age childcare sector.

I appreciate that we are still in February and there is still much time. My request is that the Minister of State is poised and ready to respond as soon as he receives that report, so that it can be implemented urgently. Many contracts in this area run on a fixed-term basis. It would be lovely to issue long-term contracts from September this year and for them to be at the new rates, which are appropriate for the retention of staff in this area. This area is predominantly staffed by women. The high cost of living has seen a loss of staff from this sector. There is consequently a knock-on effect on the sustainability of services and the ability of parents who rely on those services to get back into the workplace as we return to a more normal, though hopefully hybrid, society. I urge that we be ready for that report whenever it comes in. If it is listening, the Labour Court should urgently move to ensure that we have this report as quickly as possible.

As the Senator knows, the establishment of the JLC for the sector is fulfilling a programme for Government commitment. It is a significant and welcome development. It is an independent process and I encourage bodies representing both employers and employees to engage with the JLC process because it can yield significant positive benefits for both parties.

An agreement on a new set of terms and conditions for employment will help to maintain and grow the talented pool of people working in the sector, as well as providing security and opportunity for career development in the early learning care and school age childcare sector, as the Senator alluded to. I have no doubt that when a recommendation comes before our colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy English, he will not be found wanting. The Government is committed. We have proven through our actions and support for the sector in the last years that we want to support it, since it is crucial for our economy and society.

Disability Services

I welcome the Minister of State. I thank her for taking time from her busy schedule to be here.

I would like to discuss the Bóthar Oirialla group home in Carrickmacross. I hope that with the arrival of the Minister of State to the House, she will have some good news for us regarding the opening of the facility which will provide a home and cater for up to five people in the Carrickmacross area who have physical and sensory disabilities. The building has been lying idle for many years and families have been waiting for far too long for the facility to be opened.

I was delighted that with the change in Government some 18 months ago came a change in attitude and a sense of urgency that the project needed funding to get the facility open. I thank the Minister of State because I know she took her portfolio, grasped this issue by the scruff of the neck and secured funding. I am delighted things have moved on as far as they have. They would not have without the work of the Minister of State. It has been an issue for the people of Carrickmacross since the building was first initiated. Local councillor P.J. O'Hanlon has worked tirelessly to try to open the facility.

The last time the Minister of State and I spoke, we were given a projected date of the last quarter of 2021. She told me she had allocated some funding so that works could be done to the building. Due to the fact it had lain idle for so long, some small remedial works were required so that the building could be opened. I understand the works have been completed. Now all we await is the good news I hope the Minister of State will have for us. Families have been waiting a long time to get their local ones housed in the facility. I hope we will finally have an opening date.

I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to address this matter. He has long advocated for the opening of the group home in Carrickmacross, and I thank him for the raising this important matter again today.

As the Senator knows, there have been protracted negotiation between HSE community healthcare organisation, CHO, 1 disability services and the Respond housing agency regarding the lease agreement for the Bóthar Oirialla group home in Carrickmacross. I can inform the Senator that HSE estates confirmed it has received and has now forwarded the full suite of executed lease documentation to the HSE solicitors to support the final handover of the premises to HSE CHO 1 disability services. The HSE solicitors will forward these documents to Resilience, the contracted service provider, once documentation is fully reviewed.

HSE CHO 1 is awaiting contact from the approved housing body, Respond, to arrange handover of the premises and will then immediately complete the local licence arrangement with the service provider, Resilience. Resilience met all residents at meetings during quarter 4 of 2021. While the residential service is awaited, various supports and interventions are in place for residents, determined by the individuals’ needs. The HSE advises that the full staffing complement has been recruited by the care provider and a person in charge of the unit has been identified.

As the Senator will be aware, all designated centres for people with disabilities are required to register with the office of the chief inspector of HIQA. Once the HSE is in receipt of the keys to hand over the premises to the contracted service provider, Resilience can lodge its registration application to HIQA.

In some positive news for the Senator, the HSE has advised me today that the Carrickmacross group home should be open for residents to move in by the end of March. I know the Senator and others in the community have been waiting a long time for this home to become a reality. I am acutely aware there have been a number of delays over recent years, but I have kept a close eye on developments in Carrickmacross and it is welcome that we are now so close to this becoming a new home for five residents. I am sure this will be a huge relief and an exciting update for families who need reassurance the facility will be open and running.

My Department has provided the money and worked closely with the HSE to ensure that whatever obstacles were in the way since the matter was brought to my attention were addressed.

This has been done in conjunction with the requirements to ensure the building will meet inspection once the handover is complete.

We are not talking about having more of a protracted process. This house is now available for residents to move into. It did not open at the end of the fourth quarter of 2021 because it was around Christmas and a period of transition. Some people did not want to make that full move; there was only one resident who was interested in the move at the time. We are now doing it at the end of the first quarter of 2022.

That is certainly very welcome news. I have no doubt Senator Gallagher will have a positive response.

Absolutely. I thank the Minister of State most sincerely for giving us this excellent news. People have waited years to hear that sentence and I am delighted, as the Minister of State has mentioned, that the facility will open in March. On behalf of the community in Monaghan and particularly in Carrickmacross, I thank the Minister of State for her work and sense of urgency in securing the initial funding but also for driving this on so that today we have a date for the official opening, which is the end of March. I am delighted with that. It would give me great pleasure and it would only be right and fitting that someone who has done so much work in securing this facility would visit it and perhaps do an official opening, if that is in order. I would be grateful if the Minister would do that and I look forward to her response.

The Minister of State has the final word on it.

We are just between friends here and I do not mind sharing that in order for me to expedite this, I named the date I was coming to Carrickmacross, which was 28 March. There is a little bit of pressure on everybody, whether it is HIQA, the HSE or the Department, to ensure the building is opening and fully functioning for those five residents. I am coming that day to ensure it happens. It is money I wanted spent in 2021 but it dragged into 2022. I am nonetheless delighted the providers - the HSE and Resilience - have worked really hard for me to ensure we can have delivery. I look forward to coming down on 28 March to see our new facility opened.

I thank the Minister of State.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ag 3.20 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ag 3.30 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 3.20 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.