I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Malcolm Noonan, to the House once again.
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I thank the Minister of State for coming to address this matter relating to secondary school places in south Kildare. I appreciate and respect the fact that he does not represent the Department of Education but I certainly hope that he has some positive messages for us. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this issue today and it is certainly not for the first time. I have raised this issue a number of times in this House and, indeed, during my time in the Dáil. The key issue is that it is imperative that we have a more co-ordinated approach in allocating secondary school places, particularly in Newbridge and Kildare town.
Towns such as Newbridge and Kildare and other smaller villages in south Kildare - and I have no doubt throughout the country - are continuing to grow and prosper. We are seeing people moving into our towns. We see record numbers of homes being constructed and that is all bringing a very welcome boost to accommodation and to our local economies. However, I have been raising a red flag within the Oireachtas for the past seven years. The rate of growth is far outpacing our infrastructural advances. We are seeing the resources of our towns being maxed out. They continue to grow. The infrastructural deficits are becoming more burdensome for residents, be they issues with traffic and congestion, school places, accessing GPs and road infrastructure. We need issues such as these addressed in building sustainable communities that have adequate resources.
In this particular instance, I am talking about schools and secondary schools. I am pleased that the Department of Education and the Minister have listened to my calls. They are responding to the perennial school place shortages in Newbridge and Kildare town. I have spoken to the Minister a number of times to communicate the hurt, the fear, the anger and the stress that has been experienced by students and parents on the ground who were not successful in securing a second-level place in their own communities. I have done my best to represent the people of my community on this really important issue.
It is welcome that after years of waiting and fighting for a new site, a site has been procured at the new Curragh post-primary school at Magee Barracks. I also want to thank the principal, Ms Patricia O'Brien, and the whole school community at St. Conleth’s Community College in Newbridge, for agreeing to take in an additional 30 students next September. However, I understand that when local principals met in late February of this year, it was indicated that at least 80 places were needed for students who need to access places in the area. At a meeting that was held online with principals in the area a number of months ago, the Minister committed that the Department of Education would engage in a process to assess the needs for next September and the following September, in the short term. She committed that everything would be done to ensure that every student who will be leaving sixth class and in primary school this year would have a place in September.
I want to acknowledge the work that has been done to date, as well as the positive engagements. However, I want to know now from the Minister of State, what the process is. Can we expect that every child who is seeking a secondary school place in south Kildare will receive an offer? When will they receive that offer? At this point, and even as late as yesterday, parents have contacted me who do not have a place for their child. It is a really important issue. I look forward to the Minister of State’s response.
As the Leas-Chathaoirleach correctly said, I am taking this Commencement matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley. She sends her apologies for her inability to attend this morning.
I thank the Senator for raising the matter, which provides me with an opportunity to clarify the current position in relation to secondary school places in Kildare. In order to plan for school provision and to analyse the relevant demographic data, the Department of Education divides the country into 314 school planning areas and it uses a geographical information system, using data from a range of sources, including child benefit and school enrolment data. This is to identify where the pressures for school places across the country will arise, as well as where additional school accommodation is needed at primary and post-primary level. Where data indicate that additional provision is required at primary or post-primary level, the delivery of such additional provision is dependent on the particular circumstances of each case. It may be provided through either one or a combination of the following: utilisation of existing unused capacity within a school or schools; extending the capacity of a school or schools; and the provision of a new school or schools.
As the Senator is aware, the Department is progressing a number of building projects in south Kildare under the national development plan. The most significant project in terms of planned additional capacity is a new 1,000-pupil school building for the Curragh post-primary school, which will also provide four classrooms for pupils with special educational needs. Agreement in principle has been reached on a permanent site for the school. The Department, in conjunction with the Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board as school patron, is working to put modular accommodation in place on the site in 2023, which is welcome news. This will provide for significant additional capacity in the area. There are additional projects at Cross and Passion College, Kilcullen, Patrician Secondary School, Newbridge, and Ard Scoil Rath Iomgháin, Rathangan. The Department is additionally considering the accommodation needs of Holy Family Secondary School in Newbridge and St. Conleth’s Community College in Newbridge.
Nevertheless, I wish to advise the Senator that the Department of Education is aware of increasing pressures and demand for additional post-primary school places in a number of school planning areas, including in south Kildare. However, it is important to note that where enrolment pressures arise, it may not be as a result of lack of accommodation, but may be driven by the following factors. The issue of duplication of applications arises when people have applied for a place in a number of schools in the area, as often happens. The issue of school of choice arises whereby pupils cannot get a place in a preferred school while there are places in other schools in the town or area. Some towns or areas have single-sex schools and, while places are available in the school, they are not available to all pupils. There is also the issue of external draw, which refers to pupils coming from outside the local area. The Department has frequent engagement with the patrons and principals of all the schools in the area, with a view to achieving a clarity on the position in respect of post-primary schools space requirements.
At the Department’s request, and with the support of patrons, schools compared enrolments and waiting lists in order to identify duplication and local requirements. This engagement identified a significant number of schools and waiting lists at a number of schools in the area. However, the Department is aware of available places at St. Conleth’s Community College. The Department is additionally being engaged with Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board in respect to potential solutions. Additional provision should be there for those places to be filled. I can assure the Senator that the Department of Education will continue to work closely with the relevant patrons in respect of the post-primary school enrolment position in south Kildare. This is focused on ensuring the start of the 2022-23 school year operates as smoothly as possible for all the school students.
In conclusion, I want to thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity. I recognise the challenges that are there consistently across the country. The Department takes a proactive stance in trying to address these needs at a local level, in partnership with the schools.
I thank the Minister of State for coming to take this Commencement matter. I would like to emphasise that my question was particularly related to the academic year 2022-23. While I appreciate that the long-term solution is in relation to this new school, as well as in the additional projects at Cross and Passion College and the Patrician Secondary School and Ard Scoil Rath Iomgháin, I am most concerned about this September.
I hope that the Department, while considering the accommodation needs of the Holy Family Secondary School, Newbridge, and St. Conleth’s Community College, will ensure that they happen. At the same time, there is a big concern about this September. I have in my hand a letter that I received on 24 February from the secretary to the Minister for Education, which talks about the fact that the principals met the previous week. It provides clarity on the number of pupils seeking places in the area. The figure was indicated to be over 80. We have a situation where St. Conleth’s Community College and the education and training board have thankfully offered places for 30 children. However, by these figures, it would seem that 50 children will not have a place in September. That is simply not good enough. I would like for the Minister of State to take this message back strongly. I will contact the Minister again.
As I outlined in the statement, it is important that we look at those areas of duplication where, for a number of reasons, parents might be applying to a number of schools. The Department is working pro-actively with the schools involved to try and address those issues. The figure may not be as high as the Senator proposes here. However, the Minister will take on board the comments the Senator made here this morning and she will try to address these issues. It is critically important, because it can be stressful on parents and on pupils when they do not receive notification from the school of preferred choice. This is something the Department is cognisant of and it will work proactively with the schools involved to try and address these issues.
Special Educational Needs
I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. It is great to have him here. I am raising the issue of mandatory training for teachers of children who are dyslexic. It is probably the most common learning difficulty that we have in our schools at the moment. It affects one in ten children, from a mild to an extreme degree. This equates to an amazing 100,000 children in primary and secondary school education today. The figure is an average of three per classroom. These children and young people have the right to receive a proper education. They have the right to receive reasonable accommodations when it comes to this issue. It is an issue that is very close to my heart. We need to see movement on it. In 2022 we have a scenario where teachers are going through training, and dyslexia as a module is not a mandatory part of the process. I am really concerned about that.
The Dyslexia Association of Ireland has done a survey regarding this over the last few years.
A total of 90% of respondents indicated they had received minimal or no training relating to dyslexia when in teacher training college. It is unbelievable that in respect of 100,000 kids, most teachers have received minimal or no specialised training. In the case of those who had received training, they believed it was inadequate.
This issue relates to how we can decode the English language. If this was French, Italian or anything else, we would be able to teach our children how to learn it. Because it is English, however, and because that is processed in a slightly different way by dyslexic students, children are not being taught the appropriate way to learn it. The knock-on effect is that, unfortunately, people turn in on themselves and experience mental health issues and confidence issues throughout life.
Nevertheless, I must acknowledge that a cohort of teachers have done something special in this regard. They have thought outside the box and worked with organisations such as the Dyslexia Association of Ireland to undergo their own upskilling and training. That is a testament to how some teachers have engaged in this process. Even so, that teacher training colleges have no mandatory module dedicated to the matter is a big issue for the cohort of society that needs the support.
Dyslexia is recognised as a disability and reasonable accommodations need to be made for children who have it. This relates to a fundamental right. Without this core skill, not only reading but engaging in other subjects will be a greater challenge and the student will be set back in society. Article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities provides that persons have a right to be educated irrespective of whether they have a disability. We are again ignoring that by not giving these children the opportunity to reach their full potential.
We need a few things to happen. The module in respect of dyslexia in the initial teacher training courses has to be made mandatory. Imagine that in 2022, a student teacher in college will learn everything about how to teach a primary or secondary student, yet a module that affects 10% of any given class is not mandatory. It is unbelievable in many ways. Second, there needs to be in-service training for teachers who are in post. They need to be brought up to spec in the same way that some of them have worked so hard to be in order that they will understand the decoding required by someone who is dyslexic. Third, there needs to be a specified role for a teacher with special responsibility for dyslexic pupils in every school.
This affects 10% of the population, not only the schoolgoing population. We need there to be mandatory teacher training in this context or we will continue to face this big issue.
I am also taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Education. I thank the Senator for making his points so well. I pay tribute to all schools that are adapting and consistently implementing best practice in teaching and integrating children with additional needs in school. Some very impressive work in that regard is going on throughout the country.
This year, the Department of Education will spend in excess of €2 billion, or more than 25% of its budget, on providing a wide range of schemes and supports for children with special educational needs. Through the initial teacher education programmes, providing inclusive education to children with special educational needs, including those with dyslexia, is a fundamental principle of the Department's education and training system. Under section 38 of the Teaching Council Act 2001, all initial teacher education programmes must be accredited by the Teaching Council for registration purposes. The first cycle of the review and accreditation of the programmes was completed by the council in 2015. In preparation for the next cycle of the review and accreditation process, the council reviewed its policy on standards for programmes of initial teacher education and published updated standards in November 2020. Inclusive education has been strengthened in the revised standards, which recognise the diverse range of needs teachers encounter in the course of their teaching, regardless of setting, and refer specifically to additional learning needs such as autism, dyslexia and dyspraxia in this context. As part of the review and accreditation process, all programmes of initial teacher education will have to provide evidence of how the core elements are explored and examined with student teachers during their programme, which should offer some promise in respect of what the Senator raised.
In the context of continuing professional development, the Department provides a range of placement options and supports for schools that have enrolled pupils with special educational needs, including pupils with a specific leaming disability, such as dyslexia, to ensure that wherever a child is enrolled, he or she will have access to an appropriate education. The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, a separate statutory agency, is responsible, through its network of local special educational needs organisers, for the provision of special educational needs supports to schools. The NCSE supports schools to build their capacity to support the inclusion of all children through a suite of professional learning opportunities. Each of the seminars and resources, designed within the council, has been aligned with Cosán, the national framework for teacher learning. This year, for example, the NCSE is offering the following seminars and workshops for teachers in the area of dyslexia: supporting dyslexia through the use of apps for primary teachers; teaching students with literacy difficulties, including dyslexia, for primary and post-primary teachers; assistive technology freeware for dyslexia; and literacy for students with autism. The Professional Development Service for Teachers, through its primary language, literacy, reading recovery and Gaeilge supports for teachers, promotes inclusive pedagogies and approaches that benefit all learners, including early literacy intervention models. The new primary language curriculum and support materials are based on best practice grounded in research for language and literacy for all learners in all contexts.
This is about ensuring not only that teachers who are going through teacher training college will be able to undertake this module but that they will be required to do so. At the moment, it is not mandatory. Given this affects 100,000 kids in the system and the teaching of dyslexic children is so significant a responsibility, the module needs to be mandatory. We need to get together the management groups of the teacher training colleges before September next and make it mandatory. Otherwise, yet another cohort of society will be left behind. We need to change fundamentally our approach regarding education and dyslexia. We have forgotten about it and it has been left continually on the hind teat. As for those teachers who are in post in schools, we need to encourage them to get involved to a greater degree. A cohort of them have got involved but others have not. Unless we get everyone into the circle, 100,000 kids in each generation, or 10% of our society, will be left behind.
The module is, in effect, mandatory. The Céim standards, the standards for initial teacher education published by the Teaching Council in November 2020, have strengthened the definition of “inclusive education” to include “any aspect of teachers’ learning aimed at improving their capacity to address and respond to the diversity of learners’ needs; to enable their participation in learning; and remove barriers to education through the accommodation and provision of appropriate structures and arrangements to enable each learner to achieve the maximum benefit from his/her attendance at school.” They go on to state, “The Council’s view of a truly inclusive approach to professional practice recognises that teachers encounter a diverse range of needs in the course of their teaching, regardless of setting.”
The module is not mandatory.
If I could just finish quoting from the passage, it states:
This will include additional learning needs (e.g. autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia) ...
[In addition, and in accordance with the stated standards] During every module of school placement and as appropriate to the student teacher’s stage of development, the student teacher shall, through the use of their Taisce: Demonstrate an understanding of inclusive education as applicable to that context ...
In my view, that reflects a strong approach by the Department to that continuing professional development.
The module is not mandatory.
We will take on board the points the Senator made, although there is a strong approach on the part of the Department.
I thank the Minister of State, and the Senator for raising the matter. This is a really important subject and I fully support the Senator's efforts to make the module mandatory. That is very important, from both a teaching point of view and, of course, that of the students and their families.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting what I think is a really important Commencement matter, which relates to the Land Development Agency, LDA, its commitments, and the Government's commitments to it. I am conscious that city and county councillors were very concerned about the power to transfer land outside of the section 183 process. It is something I raised many times in this House. The issue surfaced again when discussing matters with members at the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, conference in Buncrana and that prompted me to raise this issue again.
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. The issue relates to his Department. I know he personally has a significant commitment to developing housing, as has the Government, as I and others have. I do not really mind where housing comes from or who builds it. I have no ideological position on whether it is the private sector, the public sector or whoever else. I have a lot of time for synergies by the approved housing bodies, AHBs, and the local authorities. We have all put our shoulder to the wheel to deliver homes. This is about building homes for people that they can manage and which are reasonable in terms of rent, purchase or whatever else.
The issue I raise today is the commitment to the transfer of these lands that will see the Land Development Agency take ownership of significant pieces of land. We are talking about Inchicore in Dublin. These lands were formerly in the ownership of CIÉ, the ESB and the OPW. We are talking about substantial lands at the Cork docklands, formerly connected to the ESB and Bord na Móna, which owned or in some way had leverage on the site. We are also talking about Limerick's Colbert Station, where CIÉ again has a connection, as does the HSE on neighbouring lands. I would like to hear about progress on the sites and to acknowledge the excitement they potentially have in terms of realising new homes for us. It is important that we also understand the timelines for the transfer of these sites. I am familiar with Limerick and I went to see the site recently. I see great plans on the LDA website regarding a consultation on the housing there.
I understand what the LDA wants to do. It wants to improve the way the housing market functions. That is welcome and it is positive. I acknowledge that the LDA wants to work with State bodies and local authorities and their elected members to make more effective use of State lands and to provide a sustainable supply of new homes and new houses. What is most important is that the LDA now accepts that it wants to acquire and develop lands in a selective and targeted way that boosts housing supply. This is not to be in competition with anybody else.
One of the points that we discussed at the meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage with the approved housing bodies and the County and City Management Association, CCMA, was that we do not want State agencies, be it the Land Development Agency, the health authorities, other State agencies, harbour companies and transport agencies all competing for the same piece of land. The only people who will gain from that are the private property owners. We need a much more co-ordinated management structure for State lands. We must set out our target to get them and we must not compete with each other within the public sector and hike up the prices because ultimately that impacts on the property prices.
I acknowledge the amazing work of the LDA. I put my hand up and say I was somewhat sceptical about it, but what it has done with the State land bank database is phenomenal. At last, we are now seeing a database with a master mapping system of State lands, be it owned by An Garda Síochána, the Defence Forces, the HSE and transport and marine agencies. That is important in order that we will get good land use. I know the Minister of State is fiercely committed to that. It would be most helpful if he could share some details on those three promised land transfers and projects.
I followed quite a bit of that session yesterday at the joint committee. It was really interesting, including Senator Boyhan's contribution. As he stated, there is something very strategic and big happening right across the housing sphere and we see that with the increase in the number of commencements. In my own county, the social housing provision is up by more than 60%, which will reduce the social housing waiting list. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and officials have been incredibly proactive across the Department to try and address the housing crisis through as many measures as possible.
The enactment of the Land Development Agency Act 2021, providing for the establishment of the LDA as a commercial State agency, marked an historic move to use all lands available to the State to provide for housing supply and affordability needs. The Act provided for the establishment of a new LDA designated activity company, DAC, and the initial capitalisation of the LDA DAC by the National Treasury Management Agency, NTMA, from the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF. The LDA DAC was incorporated by the Companies Registration Office on 20 December 2021 and, following a direction issued by the Minister for Finance and the establishment of a bank account by the LDA DAC, the initial €100 million of the LDA's €1.25 billion ISIF capital allocation to the LDA DAC has now been transferred from ISIF by the NTMA.
The LDA will work with local authorities, State agencies and the private sector to deliver housing and to identify public and private lands for development purposes. Prior to Housing for All, the LDA already had access to an initial tranche of eight sites and it is currently developing those sites, which include Castlelands in Balbriggan and the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum. It is also working collaboratively with a number of local authorities to bring forward other State lands, such as the developments at St. Teresa's Gardens and at Shanganagh. Under Housing for All, the State committed to transferring a further tranche of 20 sites to the LDA, with the potential to deliver up to 15,000 homes, including lands at the Digital Hub in Dublin and Colbert Station in Limerick, which Senator Boyhan referred to.
A list of those additional State lands is available in Housing for All and the LDA is actively progressing the transfer of those sites with the relevant State owners. It should be noted that these site transfers are at an early stage and more work is needed to enable transfer of the sites. Officials at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage are working with the LDA to progress site transfers and any issues are being actively considered by a State lands subgroup of the overall Housing for All delivery group, on which the LDA is represented. The LDA is already working on baseline assessments and feasibility assessments for many of these sites. Senator Boyhan will be glad to know there will be no delay in their development.
The LDA is currently developing a register of all relevant public lands owned by local authorities and other bodies listed under Schedules 1 and 2 to the LDA Act. The focus of the register is on sites in urban population areas greater than 10,000. An initial prototype mapping tool has already been completed by the LDA and is available on its website. On commencement of section 50 of the LDA Act, this register will be put on a statutory footing.
I note the points raised by Senator Boyhan about the number of competing interests for these land banks. The criteria for the delivery of housing must include the sustainability of transport corridors and public transport in urban centres. There is a very strong, cohesive approach from a housing perspective to achieve critical mass in terms of housing delivery in the coming years.
I thank the Minister of State for the very detailed response. As the LDA is settling down, there is not as much suspicion among the local authorities about it any more. The key is its focus on acquiring and developing lands in a selective and targeted way to boost housing supply. That is great. I have just one question on foot of the Minister of State's response, which says it all. I acknowledge the enormous work in terms of the tool for the mapping and the database of State lands. That is really important work that will stand us in good stead going forward. The Minister of State outlined that on commencement of section 50 of the LDA Act, the register will be put on a statutory basis. I do not want a response now, but perhaps he could take my question away with him and have a chat with his officials. Is it possible to have some sort of timeline? I accept there is a lot more work to do, but it is important that as soon as we can we get the Minister to sign off on section 50 of the LDA Act, which concerns the register, because it was clearly identified as an issue. Perhaps the Minister of State would bring the point back to his officials in the Department. I thank him. This is a really good news story and it is good housekeeping in terms of our land bank management and land-use policy.
Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh na páistí, na daltaí anseo, go dtí an Seanad. They are very welcome to the Seanad.
I fully agree with Senator Boyhan. I appreciate the comments he makes about the LDA and the general thrust of Government policy on the critical importance of the delivery of housing through Housing for All.
Senator Boyhan mentioned a number of other sites, including those at Cork docklands and Inchicore in Dublin, but I am not sure if they are on that particular list.
It is important that we try to pursue all avenues. The LDA is but one mechanism for the delivery of housing under Housing for All. Month on month, the targets are reaching and exceeding our expectations, but we are also seeing increasing challenges around homelessness. The challenges remain. The intake of refugees and families from Ukraine will add to the additional requirements, but I assure Senator Boyhan that the Government and the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, are deeply committed to trying to address all of these issues.
I thank the Minister of State.
I also thank the Minister of State.
I wish to welcome students from Loretto College, St. Stephen's Green, our near neighbours. They are very welcome, as is Ms Carroll, who is accompanying them. It is lovely to see them. They are the first school group I have seen in the Seanad Chamber since we opened up after Covid-19. They are very welcome. I hope they have a very enjoyable day and they learn a lot about the decisions that are made and the different types of debate that happen in Seanad and Dáil Éireann. Those decisions and debates make a difference to their lives and to the lives of people in their community. I thank them for joining us.
The final commencement matter this morning is from Senator Marie Sherlock.
Irish Blood Transfusion Service
I am also delighted to see school children in the Seanad today.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, for coming to the House to deal with this matter. As he knows, there is a real crisis in blood stocks in our health service and there has been throughout the pandemic. Ireland has had to import blood stocks on three separate occasions over the past 12 months from the NHS blood transfusion service in the UK. It has been reported that blood supplies are so low that the Irish Blood Transfusion Service, IBTS, may have to trigger an amber alert. This is having a negative impact on planned surgeries and hospital activity. The Irish hospital system has enough problems at the moment dealing with reduced capacity because of the need to isolate patients due to Covid-19. A scarcity of blood products is the last thing it needs. As of last night, there was only a five-day supply of O negative blood in stock and last week there was only a two-day supply. As someone whose dad was a very diligent and proud donator of blood because he had a rare blood type, I must say that news of these shortages is terrifying. Indeed, it is terrifying for anyone who takes blood donation seriously. It is in that context that I am asking about the policy changes that were instigated this week by the IBTS.
In the first instance, I am very heartened that there has been a change in eligibility. It is important to say that in the past, gay and bisexual men who had sex with other men were banned for life from donating. That was changed in 2017. At that time, a wait period of 12 months was introduced before gay or bisexual men could donate blood. As of Monday of this week, that wait period has been reduced to four months. Given that we have such huge shortages in blood donations, what is the Department doing to advertise this? It is crazy that there seems to have been no active attempt to get the word out there. There is, of course, a wider issue around encouraging young people and people of all ages up to a certain point, to donate blood. The pandemic contributed greatly to a fall-off in the number of blood donors. Given this fact and the recent changes to eligibility, we need to see the Department advertising more.
While I very much welcome the aforementioned changes, I am concerned about the scientific basis for some of them. While neither I nor anyone else in this House has the scientific knowledge to be able to question the specific scientific evidence that was provided by the social behaviours review group within the IBTS, it is important that its advice is published. Concern has been expressed that some of the ideas and philosophical, scientific and health biases that were at work and which underpinned the ban on donation for many years are still at play. The question must be asked about the basis for the four-month wait period, given that the UK has moved to a three-month wait period. Why is it that a woman who has sex with a bisexual man is made to wait four months but that same bisexual man may be able to donate immediately if he had sex with a man more than four months ago? I must apologise to the children and the teacher in the Public Gallery but these are important matters. What is the basis for the type of sex as grounds for the wait period? There have been conflicting reports around public statements made last December with regard to oral sex and so on.
The fundamental issue is that there appears to be inconsistencies here. We are happy to import blood from Britain that is subject to rules that are different to the rules in operation here. Will the Minister for Health publish the advice of the social behaviours review group to inform us of the basis for the decisions of the IBTS?
I thank Senator Sherlock for raising this issue and giving me the opportunity to speak on it on behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly.
I agree that it is great to see school children in here today after a two year absence. They give the House a great sense of vitality. I am delighted to see them here today and I hope they enjoy their tour of Leinster House.
The remit of the IBTS is to provide a safe, reliable and robust blood service to the Irish health system. A major objective of the IBTS is to ensure that it always has the necessary programmes and procedures in place to protect both the recipients and the donors of blood and blood products. As Senator Sherlock is aware, following a review of existing donor deferral policy by an independent expert group last year, called the social behaviours review group, the IBTS announced a range of changes to its existing deferral policies, including those concerning gay and bisexual men who have sex with men. The objective of these policy changes is to move towards an individual assessment process for donors, making blood donation more inclusive, and to welcome additional donors.
The IBTS has committed to a phased approach to the introduction of these policy changes. Phase one involves reducing the 12-month deferral period for gay and bisexual men who have sex with men to 4 months. This was introduced by the IBTS last Monday 28 March. This first phase is an interim measure for lowering barriers to donation while extensive technical system upgrades are made. These upgrades will replace the existing paper-based health and lifestyle questionnaire with an electronic self-assessment health history questionnaire. This will present donors with a series of questions which they will answer on a "Yes" or "No" basis, with specific responses triggering secondary questions, facilitating the process of individual assessment. Phase two is the introduction of the individual risk assessment system similar to system introduced by the UK Blood Services in June 2021, known as FAIR, or for the assessment of individualised risk. This individualised risk assessment will include several aspects of sexual behaviour and will apply to all blood donors. The IBTS is working towards introducing this second phase later this year.
The aim of these changes is to make blood donation more inclusive and to welcome additional donors from the LGBT+ community. It is therefore essential that this progress is communicated clearly and concisely to the public. In that regard, the donor eligibility criteria changes effective from last Monday, 28 March received widespread coverage across traditional and social media. Indeed, I heard a discussion on it on the radio yesterday on my way up to Dublin. The IBTS also issued a press release and highlighted the changes across its various social media platforms. The IBTS advised that it has made changes to its website to reflect the new criteria and confirmed that all donor information documentation has been updated to reflect these changes. The Minister welcomes the decision of the board of the IBTS to introduce these changes and commends it on its progress in making blood donation more inclusive while ensuring the safe supply of blood in Ireland.
Senator Sherlock compared the four-month waiting list with the three-month waiting list in the UK. I will raise that matter with the Minister.
I have found in various Departments that we sometimes put things up on social media and do not follow up on them with a robust measurement of how many followers we have or anything like that. I sometimes wonder, even when information is put up on social media, whether we try to get that information to the groups that matter. Departments need to be able to sell that a bit better.
I thank the Minister of State. To pick up on his last point, the Department of Health has learned a lot about communication strategy over the past two years because it had to. It should be within the Department's wherewithal to deliver that message to the population that needs to hear it. I did not see any of the messages on social media or in the traditional media. That is not to say they were not there but the effectiveness in getting that message out leaves a lot to be desired.
I spoke about the inconsistencies and questions remain for women. We are happy to import blood from the UK and yet it is subject to a different set of rules there.
I look forward to phase 2 and the individualised risk assessment. However, I would like to see the report of the review group published by the Irish Blood Transfusion Service as soon as possible.
I thank the Senator for raising the important issue of the policy changes introduced by the Irish Blood Transfusion Service. Those changes make blood donation more inclusive and welcome additional donors from the LGBT+ community. We must ensure a safe supply of blood. This is a positive development. However, the Senator is right. I did not realise we had to import blood.
I give blood. There are many times when people, because of a hectic lifestyle, are unable to donate in their own towns. I make time to go down to D'Olier Street and make a donation. I will ring them today and see can they fit me in because I might have a bit of time. It is a great honour and privilege to give blood. It is a life-saving gift to a person in their time of need.
The Senator called for the prompt communication of these policies through a press release from the Irish Blood Transfusion Service. Perhaps we can do more in that regard. I am glad the Senator raised that point.
I welcome the decision of the Irish Blood Transfusion Service to introduce these changes. These positive changes make blood donation more inclusive and welcome additional donors. In this difficult time, that is to be welcomed.