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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 4 May 2022

Vol. 284 No. 10

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Office of Public Works Staff

I wish to raise the continued use of non-established industrial grade employment contracts within the OPW. It does not just affect the OPW but I am specifically concerned with reports I have heard about worker morale in the OPW. These contracts continue to be used despite the fact that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has acknowledged that it is an issue. SIPTU has repeatedly raised its concerns at the national joint industrial council for State employees about the use of non-established grades. Skilled guides are being denied access to opportunities and the current contract system limits their access to lifetime personal and financial improvements.

The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the OPW are fully aware that employees have attended interviews and achieved competitive markings at those interviews but are then denied panel placement purely on the basis of their non-established status. It is not good enough for the Department to hide behind the archaic Civil Service Regulation Act 1956 because it is within the gift of the Minister as a legislator to fix the legal basis and is also within the Department's gift to engage constructively with the trade unions and workers they represent to get this resolved. SIPTU has requested that the matter be referred to the WRC. My understanding is that the Department requested a two-month delay to that process in May 2021 yet it continued to advertise and recruit more guides on non-established contracts as recently as September 2021.

The inability to access opportunities and the failure of the OPW to provide upskilling while simultaneously refusing to remunerate those who choose to upskill themselves are having a significant impact on the morale of those working in the OPW. One employee with whom I spoke told me of the hostile environment in which they currently work while another spoke of how, despite their contract stating that their place of work was in one site, they are now being instructed to make a daily 80-km round trip to another site with no financial compensation - something we all understand would be very difficult but which is simply impossible now given the current cost of living crisis.

The failure to properly recognise the skills of these workers and to offer lifelong progression in their careers is also leading to employee attrition. Perhaps this is the aim because according to other reports coming out of the OPW, senior OPW figures have told guides that they would love to replace them with machines. Perhaps this is because machines would then free up even more money to carry out some of the vanity projects that have been undertaken, including ones that have flouted laws such as those requiring a legally mandated bat disturbance licence at Emo Court.

Why is the OPW continuing to advertise and hire people under non-established employee contracts despite the Department acknowledging that there are issues with these contracts? Why are guides being relocated against their wishes to sites more than 40 km from their contracted place of work and why are successful interviewees being prevented from taking up posts in other public service jobs?

I am taking this Commencement matter on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan. The OPW employs approximately 2,500 staff across a wide range of craft, technical, administrative and management disciplines, and all OPW staff have essential roles to play that bring great value to those availing of OPW services across a number of work programmes. The OPW manages in excess of 2,400 properties on behalf of the State through the estate management programme, which includes some of Ireland's most significant heritage properties, monuments, gardens and arboretums.

Under its flood risk management brief, the OPW continues to co-ordinate Ireland's whole-of-government approach to managing Ireland's flood risk to reduce to the greatest extent possible the impact of flooding on families and businesses in communities known to be at risk from flooding. This work is largely carried out by State industrial employees and makes a significant contribution to the health, enjoyment and well-being of the public, particularly in recent times. The Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, pays tribute to these staff, who maintained a full service for client Departments and the general public during the pandemic.

Parks and heritage sites provided much-needed relief from the restrictions, and essential building and engineering services allowed Departments and local authorities to continue to deliver critical functions throughout the pandemic.

At peak season, the OPW employs approximately 1,400 full-time and seasonal State industrial staff in drainage, maintenance, visitor services, flood relief, hydrometrics, national historic properties, national monuments and the President's household staff. State industrial staff are employed in essential roles at many sites including the Houses of the Oireachtas, Farmleigh House, the Phoenix Park and Dublin Castle. They work various shifts. Some shifts are five days over seven and some sites are manned over 24 hours.

The non-established grade employment contracts, which the Senator mentioned, in the OPW are technically classified as industrial employees and are recruited to the OPW in a non-established capacity. I understand that they enjoy the same terms and conditions as industrial employees in other areas of the civil service. A non-established State employee or industrial employee is a person employed in a whole-time capacity by a Department or office who is not an established civil servant.

Non-established State employees are not covered by the Civil Service Regulation Act 1956. State industrial employees are regarded as those grades designated under section 23(3) of the Industrial Relations Act 1990. State industrial employees are excluded from the Civil Service conciliation and arbitration scheme but are covered by the range of general employment laws and have access to the Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Court on matters of pay and conditions.

The OPW continues to follow Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, DPER, guidelines on the employment classification of non-established industrial staff. The policy is a matter for the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and is not something the OPW has any authority to change. This also applies to all other public service bodies with State industrial staff. The Senator mentioned a delay with regard to DPER. This is a matter for DPER. The OPW does not have authority to change it. I suggest it may be worthwhile for the Senator to correspond directly with DPER or the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform who may be able to give her further detail on her queries.

The issue is that while the response has outlined the contractual arrangements for the non-established offices, the reality is that DPER has acknowledged this is an issue. It is in the minutes of the national joint industrial council for State employees. It has acknowledged it is a complex issue and said it would engage with the WRC conciliatory process. We need progress on that because we have people who have 30 years' experience working as guides within the OPW and have no path of progression within the job they have chosen to do. Many of them have taken on masters courses in heritage and history for which they are not compensated. There is no facility for training within the OPW other than first aid courses. Some employees are multilingual. They have taken on extra languages at their own expense and yet there is no acknowledgement of this in their pay and conditions. I encourage DPER to engage with the unions since it has acknowledged there are issues but we need to resolve the issues. Acknowledging them is just the first step.

I assure the Senator that the OPW strives to value its staff equally, regardless of their grade or recruitment methodology, primarily through ongoing communication and engagement. While there are many different grades and classifications of employees, the OPW will continue to work hard to minimise the impact of the historical differences in terms and conditions that apply between various employment categories through engagement mechanisms such as the partnership and joint industrial council in order that the organisation works as one team, one OPW. However, I note what the Senator has said around morale within the OPW's work environment around lifelong progression, senior OPW staff in terms of technology and all of those matters. I will bring these comments back to the Minister.

Special Educational Needs

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. I raised the issue of summer provision last week on the Order of Business and I tabled the Commencement matter on Friday. Thankfully, however, the Department released details of the summer provision programme yesterday. It is a great programme. In 2021, the budget doubled to €40 million, which shows the seriousness of the Minister of State's commitment to the programme. Unfortunately, there was a delay this year in announcing the programme and that delay meant 26 out of 126 special schools have said they will not be running the programme due to the delay. Last year, the programme was announced on 11 May and only €15 million of the budget was actually used.

What effort is the Department making to ensure that schools are incentivised to run these programmes? They mean so much to families and the children who participate in them. For families, it is some respite. The summer is a daunting time for the families of children with additional needs because they do not have the extra childcare, and for some children who do not have other friends it is their only social outlet. It is very important to incentivise schools to open these programmes. Perhaps the Minister of State will contact the 26 schools that have decided they will not be able to run the programme. Next year, perhaps the Department might be able to announce details of the programme before Easter just to give schools a chance to get their logistics in order. Schools are outlining to us the difficulties they have with regard to staffing, the pay rates and the late communication from the Department in respect of the programme.

There is a major commitment from the Department, which is very welcome, but we have to do a little more to ensure that these programmes happen. It might be the case that the Minister of State will have to mandate schools to run these programmes for children with additional needs because they do not stop having additional needs during the summer months. The barriers and obstacles before families do not go away for the summer. Having all this time off creates a huge amount of anxiety for families. Something could be done about it.

I note the Senator's particular interest in the area of special education in general. We were very pleased to announce this programme yesterday. There is a new package for the summer programme for this year. We have matched the funding from last year of €40 million for children with additional needs. It will also help Ukrainian children in terms of the inclusion programme.

First, there is the inclusion programme in primary school. It is a two-week to three-week programme for mainstream pupils with complex needs and those at greatest risk of educational disadvantage. There is also a special classes and special schools programme in primary schools, which is a two-week to five-week programme. Then we have delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, numeracy and literacy camps, or campaí samhraidh, in DEIS primary schools, which will be for one week, and inclusive programmes for all post-primary schools, which is two weeks for students with complex needs and those at risk of disadvantage. There is also home-based provision where there is no school-based programme available.

The aim of the summer programme is to enhance well-being for children with additional needs. There are arts-based programmes, sports activities, music, drama and language development. Curricular subjects are looked at and there is obviously vocational support as well, particularly for post-primary children who may be at risk of leaving school so they can future plan for what they need to do.

I understand the Senator's point about encouraging and incentivising schools to participate in this programme. There are 4,000 schools, since the first time last year, that are eligible to apply. We listened to their feedback and concerns from last year and we are confident that there will be more of an increase in participation this year. Some of the concerns that were addressed were about funding. Schools were looking for funding for a programme overseer so we have dealt with that. Regarding preparation time, it is 4 May today which is the earliest the programme has ever been announced. We believe there is sufficient time for schools now to plan for it. There are faster payments for staff. If the staff in a school are not available to participate in the summer programme the school can hire staff outside, which should help.

There is also an easing of the administrative burden on schools and greater guidance materials are also given in that context.

There are obviously enhanced measures to encourage participation by the schools, including the recruiting of final year students, which can be done for the first time, and they should be able to help, as well as the centralised application process. There is an online registration which is open from today for schools to apply to register their interest. There is also flexibility for the schools so they can run the programmes at whatever time suits them or split the weeks during the summer which, again, is feedback we received. This year, we had advocacy groups which were involved in the development of the summer programme so they could give us the feedback from their members as to what exactly they wanted. There is also school transport for children, and grant funding will be available if transport services are not available.

It is great to hear all of the details. I especially welcome the online application process.

Around the Ukrainian children, I want to mention that, for this year, schools will be supporting children to be included in the inclusion programmes. They are very focused on the individual needs of children as schools identify them. Language tuition will be offered to these children. The 16 ETBs are organising the English as a second language panels, which will assist these children. It will be of great assistance to Ukrainian children coming into this jurisdiction over the next number of months and, indeed, to children who are here already.

Defence Forces

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. We are all looking forward to debating the report of the Commission on the Future of the Defence Forces. I welcome the indications by the Minister for Defence, Deputy Simon Coveney, that there will be an increase in defence spending of the order of about €500 million, although, on the basis of the recommendations within the commission report, this could be viewed as somewhat conservative, even though it is about a 50% increase. The commission set out very clearly that it believes we should be looking at being ambitious to bring Ireland in line in our spending on defence with similar-sized EU countries. If we take the example of Finland, one of our fellow non-aligned countries and of similar size, it currently has a budget of €2.8 billion, almost three times that of Ireland, and recently announced an increase of €2 billion in spending.

The Minister of State may be aware of the comments yesterday by the Chief of Staff, Lieutenant-General Seán Clancy, around the adequacy of the Defence Forces. This Commencement matter had been tabled in advance of his address but he did make the point that if we are to ensure that we can protect our sovereignty, particularly in light of what has happened in Ukraine, then we must have adequate investment in our Defence Forces.

My question today is around Ireland's defence capabilities in the event of an attack. People traditionally think about attacks as soldiers on the ground, marching over a border and invading a country, as we have seen in Ukraine, but that is not the nature of modern warfare. What we see increasingly is incursions into airspace, into our maritime area and, more and more, in cyberspace. I do not believe that Ireland is sufficiently well defended, nor do I believe we can defend our sovereignty in the event of an attack from an alien power.

If we look at some of the specific areas, for example, in terms of a potential air incursion, we have inadequate radar to be able to pick that up. Where we have had incidents in the past of Russian aircraft illegally operating in Irish space, we rely on the Royal Air Force to defend us in those circumstances.

Not so long ago we had a maritime incursion. In this hybrid attack by Russia, which was an invasion of our sovereignty, we saw Russian warships based off the south-west coast of Ireland. Had they done anything to the transatlantic cables, the damage to our country, economically and socially, would have been enormous. Last year we saw what I would regard as a terrorist attack, the cyberattack on the HSE. We will see more and more of those. It is not unreasonable to expect that if Ireland votes in a particular way at the UN Security Council, all the traffic lights in Dublin will go down.

This is not the world of science fiction; it is the reality of what we are facing. As we are now having debates on food security and energy security, we need our debates on defence capability to be broader than those simply focused on the Department of Defence. We should co-operate with Sweden, Finland, Austria and the other non-aligned countries. I hope the Minister of State will answer my questions on behalf of the Department today. What are our defence capabilities at present in these areas? What measures will we take to address them?

I thank the Senator for his important question. I am happy to respond on behalf of the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney. The priority for the Minister for Defence is to ensure that the operational capability of the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service is maintained and developed to enable the Defence Forces to carry out their roles as assigned by the Government, including overseas deployments.

The White Paper on Defence of 2015 set out an ambitious programme of capital investment for the Naval Service, including for the mid-life refitting and upgrading of the P50 class of vessels and the replacement of the flagship LE Eithne with a multi-role vessel. It is the Government's intention that the new vessel will provide flexible and adaptable capability for a wide range of maritime tasks.

The White Paper, in addressing Air Corps capability, provided for the replacement of the Cessna and Casa 235 fleets. The Cessnas have now been replaced by three Pilatus PC-12 aircraft in the intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance, ISTAR, role, providing a substantially increased capability with their state-of-the-art surveillance technology. A further Pilatus PC-12 was procured arising from the demands of Covid. A contract for the supply of two C295 maritime patrol aircraft to replace the two Casa 235s was signed with Airbus in 2019, with delivery of the aircraft expected in 2023. The C295s are larger and more capable than those they replace and will enable the Air Corps to conduct maritime patrols and surveillance across Ireland's area of maritime interest, with enhanced capabilities.

While the primary role of the Defence Forces with regard to cybersecurity, which the Senator mentioned, relates to the defence and security of their own networks and systems, the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces are committed to participating, under the leadership of the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, in the delivery of measures to improve the cybersecurity of the State. The Department of Defence has received a capital allocation under the national development plan of €566 million over the 2022-25 timeframe. Within that capital allocation, the Defence annual capital budget for 2022 is €141 million. This will enable continued investment in defence equipment, including major platforms and barracks infrastructure.

The report of the Commission on the Defence Forces, which the Senator mentioned, and the current events in Ukraine are prompting an open debate and consideration of our defence requirements. I fully accept there is an ongoing requirement to consider whether the capabilities we maintain are appropriate, having regard to the security environment, the roles that we wish the Defence Forces to undertake and the likely risks. The report of the commission was published on 9 February 2022, as the Senator knows. The commission's terms of reference included the consideration of appropriate capability, structures and staffing for the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service. I understand the commission's report is being fully considered in consultation with other Ministers and stakeholders. The intent is for the Minister for Defence to revert to the Government with a proposed response and a high-level action plan in advance of the summer recess.

The establishment of an independent commission on the Defence Forces underpins the Government's commitment to ensuring the Defence Forces are fit for purpose, both in terms of meeting immediate requirements and in terms of seeking to develop a longer term vision beyond 2030.

I thank the Minister of State for the response, and while I appreciate she is answering on behalf of the Department of Defence, I am concerned by it. My question is on our defence capability. If we faced an air or sea incursion or a serious cyberattack on critical infrastructure in the State, can we be confident we would be able to address those attacks? As an independent, sovereign State, one of the marks of sovereignty is being able to defend and protect that sovereignty, but on the basis of the response and the evidence presented, it is very clear Ireland cannot defend its sovereignty in the event of an air incursion, an incident in the maritime space or a cyberattack. I appreciate that significantly more investment is happening, but if such attacks now happen, it is very clear from the response given here that we do not have the capability to deal with them. In terms of the role of the State, the defence of our sovereignty is one of the most important responsibilities. This has to be treated as a priority.

The Senator is correct in saying that we need to treat this as a priority, and the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, is doing so. He very much welcomes the open discussion and debate around whether we can defend our sovereignty. That is the pertinent question that needs to be teased out. The Irish people need to be reassured we have adequate defence mechanisms. The Senator mentioned the prospect of Russia invading our space, so to speak, and the British Royal Air Force having to come into our waters. He also spoke about the risks to the transatlantic cables and about cybersecurity. I have noted all of those points and will raise them with the Minister for Defence.

On the issue of threat assessments and the two White Papers I mentioned earlier, my understanding is the assessments have indicated a low probability of a conventional military attack on the State. However, they also point to the fact that security channels are such that no single country can deal with these threats alone. That is important in terms of context. I can assure the Senator that the Minister Defence is committed to this work and has said so on numerous occasions. As Senator Byrne mentioned, the Minister is increasing the budget for the Defence Forces. I also note what the Senator said about Finland, a similar-sized country, and the amount of money it is spending. I do not think any conversation should be off the table on this particular issue.

Mother and Baby Homes Inquiries

I welcome the Minister to the House. This Commencement Matter relates to the Government's mother and baby institutions payment scheme. I acknowledge the Minister's commitment since coming into office. This has not been an easy issue to deal with as it is complex and diverse, with many strands to it. There are many stakeholders involved, with the lives of many individuals and those of their children, families and guardians affected, and there are a range of dynamics at play relating to this very sensitive and difficult issue.

I also acknowledge the work of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth - what a mouthful - in seeking written submissions from individuals or groups on the general scheme of the mother and baby institutions payment scheme Bill. I looked at the Oireachtas website before coming in here this afternoon and was reminded that the closing date for receipt of submissions is 1 p.m. on Friday, 6 May 2022. It is important that submissions are made and that they are concise, clear and to the point.

That helps everyone, including the people who are making the submissions and those who are ultimately processing these at the committee. I thank the committee for its continuing work in this area.

My understanding is the Department is currently establishing a scheme to be known as the mother and baby institutions payment scheme. It is proposed the scheme will provide for financial payments and-or an enhanced medical card to defined groups in acknowledgement of the suffering experienced while resident in mother and baby home institutions. I also understand the scheme will be administered by an independent executive office within the Department.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House. What are the timelines in respect of the scheme? When does he think the first supports, such as the enhanced medical card, which is important, will be available? It is not all about money, and I sometimes think that message is lost. People who experienced various issues around this subject need ongoing supports, to which the Government has strongly committed. My focus today is on the enhanced medical card.

There are people who need supports. I meet people who have issues with accessing mental health supports. They are being turned away from counselling services. They may choose not to go to certain counselling services because of previous experience with them, or they feel they do not have trust in a service, or they want some sort of independent counselling service, or they want to avail of a service that is somewhat impartial and away from other members of their family or a spouse. There are many good reasons that may be the case.

Will the Minister outline the current position regarding the enhanced medical card, how quickly we can get that up and running, and when the scheme will be rolled out? Perhaps he might also make any other comments he might have on matter. I again thank him for coming to the House to address this issue.

I thank the Senator for his kind comments, for raising this important issue, and for giving me the opportunity to come to the House today to provide an update on the mother and baby institutions payment scheme. The provision of a form of enhanced medical card to survivors through the mother and baby institutions payments scheme will require the establishment of legislative and administrative structures to provide statutory access to the relevant health services, assess eligibility and carefully manage and share the relevant personal data with the HSE in respect of the issuing of these cards.

Given the scale and significance of the approved proposals for the mother and baby institutions payment scheme, an integrated piece of legislation is being prepared to encompass both aspects of the scheme, that is, the financial payments and the enhanced medical cards of which the Senator spoke. This approach will make the scheme much more user-friendly as survivors will only have to make one application to be considered for both aspects of the scheme. Last month, I secured Government approval for the heads of a Bill for the mother and baby institutional payments scheme and the referral of the heads of the Bill to the Office of Parliamentary Counsel for drafting. I sought priority drafting for the Bill to ensure it can be introduced to the Houses of the Oireachtas as soon as possible.

I have also referred the draft heads of the Bill to the Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth for pre-legislative scrutiny. I have requested its assistance in meeting the urgent need to deliver the scheme for survivors as soon as possible. Like the Senator, I thank the committee for its speedy response in that regard as it quickly launched a public consultation on the general scheme of the Bill. As the Senator mentioned, the deadline for that is Friday, 6 May. My officials and I look forward to engaging with the committee during the pre-legislative scrutiny process.

Once the legislation has been passed by the Oireachtas and the administrative infrastructure required to deliver the scheme has been established, the scheme will open for applications for financial awards and enhanced medical cards. It is my hope we can get this Bill passed in the autumn term and open the scheme for initial applications in late 2022. That is the timeline I am operating towards.

A person will be eligible for an enhanced medical card if he or she was resident in a relevant institution for six months or more. The card will provide access to the same suite of services offered to those who hold the Magdalen restorative justice ex gratia scheme medical card. For those eligible applicants who live outside of Ireland, they will have the choice of accepting a once-off health support payment of €3,000 instead of the medical card, if they wish. This will be a recognition of, and a contribution towards, their individual health needs.

While acknowledging that healthcare costs can vary significantly between different people and jurisdictions, a payment of €3,000 would represent a practical measure of acknowledgement for those living overseas who choose not to avail of the enhanced medical card. If eligible people prefer to take the medical card instead of the once-off health support payment, this would mean that when they are visiting Ireland, or if they were ever to move back here, they would be able to avail of our health services using this enhanced medical card.

The Senator spoke about other supports and it is important to note that beyond the institutional payments scheme, and as part of the broader action plan in response to the report of the commission, counselling support has been made available to all survivors since before the publication of the commission’s final report. It is being provided through the national counselling service which has been strengthened with additional investment and an expanded out-of-hours service. It is important to say as well that counselling is available free of charge and survivors of institutions are entitled to priority access to that free counselling service.

Additionally, the Department of Health, in partnership with the HSE, is working on establishing a patient liaison advocacy service. When up and running, that service will have a dedicated team that can provide bespoke information and supports to survivors to assist them in accessing the health services they may need. The Department of Health is also working with the Health Research Board on a research project to identify the further health needs of survivors. This research will help to further inform future health policy and service responses.

I thank the Minister for that informative response. I will comment on three elements. Regarding the eligibility of those applicants who are overseas and outside the State, it is likely that many of them may be living in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool and places like that. It is critically important that this message regarding eligibility is disseminated and that to do so we tap into our connections with the diaspora, as well as making contact through our embassy. We have an amazing network of Irish support groups across the UK and it is also critically important this message is got out to them.

There may also be issues regarding the conditionality of the €3,000 payment. The Minister does not have time to talk this through with us now, but I will be interested to hear more about this aspect at some stage. My request now, however, is that we reach out to the Irish who have gone abroad and are now living in other communities across the UK, Europe, America and Australia. I thank the Minister for his response again, which was informative and brought us up to date.

I reiterate that the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth is seeking submissions regarding the general scheme of the mother and baby institutions payment scheme Bill. The deadline stated for submissions is 1 p.m., and not 5 p.m. strangely, on Friday, 6 May 2022. This is extremely important. Email submissions should be made to I again thank the Minister for coming to the House and for his ongoing work in this important area.

Senator Boyhan is right regarding the importance of survivors living overseas being informed of their ability to make claims under this legislation. Once it is passed, we will have a dedicated information campaign. We will co-ordinate that with the Department of Foreign Affairs and our embassies around the world and also link in with Irish diaspora groups. When I was in the US as part of the week of festivities celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, I met with a group of survivors. It ended up being online, but I met with that group from the US. I had hoped to meet them in person, but that did not work out. It was just good to meet them and hear from them directly, although it was not the first time I met with that group. Therefore, we are seeking to have these kinds of engagements with diaspora groups. It is an important facet.

Regarding wider work under way in this context, and as the Senator will be aware, the commission's report set out 22 actions. Some involve significant items of legislation. Next week, I will be back in this House in the context of Second Stage of the Birth Information and Tracing Bill 2022. It is important legislation that will provide survivors with full access to all information. Yesterday, we completed Committee Stage of the Institutional Burials Bill 2022, which will allow us to deal with Tuam and similar burial sites. That legislation will be coming to this House in due course. Additionally, about a month ago we announced approval for a national centre for research and remembrance and the identification of Sean McDermott Street as its location. We will also begin work on the legislation needed to provide protection for records and allow access to them. This project will also represent significant regeneration of the north inner city. Therefore, work is under way on all elements of the State’s response.

Health Services

I thank the Cathaoirleach's office for choosing this Commencement matter for debate. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, to the Chamber.

I have raised this topic on a number of occasions with the Minister of State’s colleagues, the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, who has been in the House a number of times, and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins. Unfortunately, the senior Minister has not been to the Chamber as I would like to raise directly with him the ongoing and long-running saga of the new emergency department for University Hospital Galway, UHG. We been talking for a long number of years about the need for a new emergency department. When the Taoiseach, the Minister of State’s party leader, appeared before us before Christmas, I reminded him that he raised this matter with the former Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, in 2015. The then Taoiseach responded at the time that the emergency department in Galway was not fit for purpose. It had not been fit for purpose for a long time before or since and it is not fit for purpose now.

There are plans for a new emergency department, including a paediatrics and maternity ward beside the existing emergency department. Works are ongoing on a new temporary emergency department to allow for decanting and the construction of a new emergency department. I have said in respect of many construction projects that nothing can be built without planning permission. We have not even reached the stage in Galway where a planning application has been lodged for a new emergency department.

When the former Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, visited Galway in September 2018 he was told by the Saolta University Health Care Group that a planning application would be lodged before Christmas 2018. The project specification has changed somewhat since then, which I appreciate. However, considering that the project was so advanced at that stage, with so much work having been done on finalising the design, I still cannot get my head around the fact that all of these years later, and accepting Covid-19 and all that goes with it, we have not yet got to the stage where we can give a concrete date for lodging the planning application. That is without mentioning all the other phases - I hope of course that planning permission will be granted - of detailed design, tender documents, contractors and construction.

There is a long way to go in this process and I understand from engagement with the Saolta group that this project still has to go to the HSE board, the Department of Health, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and Cabinet for signing off before a planning application can be lodged. If she has been provided with the information, I ask the Minister of State to set out some timelines for those stages, the current position in relation to them, whether they can be completed in a short period and whether it is just a case of rubber-stamping them.

The Minister of State will appreciate the frustration in Galway, particularly among hospital staff and those who have received excellent care in the hospital but have endured conditions that are less than ideal and which, in the words of Enda Kenny, are not fit for purpose. She will understand the frustration among staff, management and members of the public in Galway. As I said, people have received excellent healthcare but the facilities are not what they should be for a centre of excellence in a regional capital of the west covering an area that extends from Donegal to Galway. I hope the Minister of State will provide some better news than I have received heretofore. There needs to be some concrete dates on the delivery of this project, the lodging of the planning application and the various stages to allow it to proceed to construction.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. As he said, he has raised it several times before, which I acknowledge. I welcome the opportunity to provide an update on the status of the new emergency department at University Hospital Galway. I also take this opportunity to acknowledge the very difficult and unacceptable conditions for patients, families and healthcare staff working in University Hospital Galway.

I am pleased to say that a €13 million capital investment was approved for an interim emergency department, including additional resuscitation spaces, support accommodation and improved infection prevention and control measures. This facility is under construction using a rapid-build solution.

These critical services are expected to be completed by the end of June 2022, about eight weeks away. Further reconfiguration works to the existing emergency department will also be completed as part of the project. I expect that these new facilities will be available for patients and staff during August. While improving service delivery capability, the interim emergency department and associated works will also serve as enabling works for the larger project the Senator spoke about, freeing up the site required for a proposed new block.

I am aware that this project has been discussed for the past ten years and I share the frustration of the team in Galway and the patients there. One of the reasons the project is still in the development phase is that there has been a significant increase in the scale and ambition for the solution on the Galway site. Originally the proposal was for a new multistorey emergency department block, but now the proposals, driven by local requirements and the need to better utilise a constricted site, mean the Department of Health will shortly receive proposals costed in the hundreds of millions. The estimated cost is likely to be in the region of €275 million to €300 million, significantly higher than the €65 million to €120 million cost for the original proposal.

As the Senator will be aware, all projects proposed in excess of €100 million must be subject to the full scrutiny of the public spending code process. The public spending code is designed to ensure that investment decisions are underpinned by a clear policy rationale and costs are well understood. This ensures that maximum value for money for the taxpayer, through disciplined project evaluation, preparation and implementation, can be achieved. The HSE is drafting a strategic assessment report to ensure full compliance with public spending code requirements. I expect this to be submitted to the Department later this month. If granted approval in principle, the preliminary business case, which is at an advanced stage of drafting, will be subject to the external assurance process prior to the submission of the final business case to Government for decision.

I am pleased to say that following the €13 million capital investment, the interim emergency department, which will provide critical services, is expected to be completed by end of June 2022. This will increase service delivery capability.

I thank the Minister of State for the response. The only concrete date there is for the opening of the interim emergency department at the end of June 2022. Other than that, there are a lot of words I have heard before. Some are new, such as the phrases "strategic assessment report" and "external assurance process". They do not fill me with hope about the delivery of the project. I am afraid, as I said last time, that the project is going backwards.

The costs were originally less because the project was on a smaller scale. I welcome the admission of the Department in relation to the HSE to ramp it up to include maternity services and paediatrics. Before this, it was a shell and core project. A detailed design of the project was then carried out which pushed the figure into the €275 million to €300 million category. I appreciate there are processes but this does not fill me with hope about when we will get a solution, when a planning application will be lodged and when the process can go towards the long, complicated process of tender documents, contractors being appointed and construction. It is still years away. I wish I could say, as we start the month of May, that a planning application will be lodged before the end of the summer or in the autumn, but I am not getting that from the Minister of State's response.

I thank the Senator and will convey his concerns to the Minister, the Department and the HSE. The proposed new emergency department and the women and children's project is a large and complex project and is in the early stages of design progression. The original proposal was for a new multistorey emergency department block. However, as a result of service-led demands, there has been a significant increase in scale and ambition for the constricted Galway site and the proposal is now for much more than an emergency department.

The strategic assessment report is being drafted by the HSE to ensure full compliance with the public spending code. I hope we will get project board approval and submission as quickly as possible. If granted approval in principle, the preliminary business case, which is at an advanced stage of development, can be updated by the HSE and brought forward for review to progress proposals.

This project is part of a larger development that incorporates maternity and paediatric services. It is a complex project that is in the early stages of design progression. In advance of the more permanent arrangements, the interim extension to the emergency department is expected to be completed by the end of June. While there is no date yet for the planning application for the main building, and I know this is the core of what the Senator is saying, the HSE is actively engaging with the local authority as the project proceeds through the initial stages of the public spending code. The Senator has spoken here many times to push this project. I hope progress can be made as quickly as possible if the strategic assessment report stacks up and I have no doubt it will.

Fire Service

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, to the Chamber. This Commencement matter is on the provision of a new fire station in Ballymahon, County Longford, an area with which the Minister of State is very familiar. It is an issue I raised on the Order of Business in February. At present the fire station in Ballymahon is located in a hired out industrial estate in the middle of a housing estate. It is not suitable for a town of its size. It is more than two and a half years since Longford County Council submitted a request for a new fire station for the town. Since then Center Parcs has opened in Ballymahon. It is the biggest tourism infrastructure project in the country. The park attracts between 2,000 and 2,500 visitors to the town each week.

The fire station has nine retained staff. In 2021, there were 53 call outs and there have been more than 30 call outs so far this year. These consist of fires, road traffic collisions, ambulance assists and special services. The firefighters there are trained as cardiac first responders and emergency fire responders. The population of the town has increased yearly since the 2011 census when it was 1,563. In the 2016 census the population was 1,877. It is expected to rise to more than 2,000 in the most recent census. Along with this increase in population there is Center Parcs, Thomond Lodge nursing home and retirement village, a large daycare centre in the town, the Kepak processing plant, which is a large employer in the town, and numerous other units. The town is also home to St. Matthew's Primary School, one of the biggest primary schools in the county. There are also two post-primary schools in the town with Ballymahon Vocational School and the Mercy Secondary School. Ballymahon fire service also covers areas in the boundary of County Westmeath

Longford County Council has identified a site. It is simply incredible to think that a town of this size does not have an up-to-date, up-to-standard fire station. I ask that priority is given to the provision of a fire station for Ballymahon now that a site has been identified. It is in the ownership of Longford County Council.

I thank Senator Carrigy for raising this very important matter. I join him in acknowledging the great work our firefighters do. He has articulated how they are first responders and keep our communities safe. They do exceptional work. Last year I asked departmental officials to liaise with Longford County Council on this matter. The provision of a fire service in its functional area, including the establishment and maintenance of a fire brigade, the assessment of fire cover needs and the provision of fire station premises, is a statutory function of individual fire authorities under the Fire Services Acts 1981 and 2003. The Department supports the fire authorities through setting general policy, providing a central training programme, issuing guidance on operational and other related matters, and providing capital funding for equipment and priority infrastructural projects.

In December 2020, a new fire services capital programme was announced for the period 2021-25, with a funding allocation of €61 million. The Department's fire services capital programme for the period 2021-25 allows for continued investment at an appropriate level in our fire services. The new programme will see six replacement fire stations built, continued support for the construction of a further 12 new fire stations, nine fire station refurbishments, as well as the allocation of 35 new fire engines.

Following extensive engagement with fire authorities, a number of proposals for fire station works have been received. The proposals were evaluated and prioritised on the basis of the area risk categorisation of the fire station, established health and safety needs, the state of development of the project, and the value for money offered by the proposal.

In recognition of the current economic situation faced by the State because of Covid-19, the speed and extent to which proposed expenditure can stimulate local economies will also be a key consideration in the first few years of the new programme. Longford County Council has indicated that the replacement of Ballymahon fire station, at an estimated cost of €1.7 million, and that was in August 2021, is its priority. The council has submitted a preliminary appraisal and outline plans to the Department, and I understand a site has been identified, as the Senator quite rightly pointed out in his opening contribution.

The project consideration stages in my Department include the submission of preliminary and detailed appraisals, submission of a design brief, selection of a site, which was already spoken about, an application for approval in principle, the appointment of design consultants, submission of a preliminary design, planning application, submission of a preliminary cost plan, detailed design and cost plans, and the tender process and construction stages.

While a new fire station at Ballymahon is not currently included in the Department's 2021-2025 capital programme, it has now been included on the list for review. Projects in the capital programme are soon to be reassessed to maximise the available capital programme funding. This includes consideration of additional fire station projects from fire authorities which fit the normal fire station project criteria and where an appropriate business case is presented. Priority may be adjusted to bring forward projects that offer best value for money and take into account the state of readiness of the projects.

I have asked the Department to keep me and the Senator updated on this very important matter. I expect the reassessment to be scheduled and concluded for quarter 3 of this year.

I thank the Minister of State. Like him, I compliment all the staff of the fire services, not just in Longford but throughout the country, on all the good work they do and, in particular, the extra work they did in communities during the Covid pandemic.

I thank the Minister of State for ensuring Ballymahon fire station has been included in the list for review. That is extremely positive from a County Longford point of view and I thank him for supporting the move. I would be very hopeful this would be positive when it comes to quarter 3. Longford County Council has a good track record in delivering quality work, not just in our stations but also in libraries etc. I look forward to a positive answer in quarter 3 of 2022.

Along with the Senator, we will work hard to ensure the fire station is present on the capital plan because Ballymahon is a growing town. The Senator has cited its growing population and services such as the nursing home as well as the other businesses that have opened recently. We look forward to working to ensure the project is kept under review.

I wish to be associated with and agree with the comments of the Senator about the leadership team of Longford County Council, which does excellent work.

I thank the Minister of State for his attendance and responses.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 3.04 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 3.32 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 3.04 p.m. and resumed at 3.32 p.m.