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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 15 Jun 2022

Vol. 286 No. 3

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Grant Payments

I thank the Minister, Deputy Harris, for coming into the House today to take this important Commencement matter, which has been raised by Senator Maria Byrne.

I thank the Minister for coming here today to discuss this all-important topic. I met recently with representatives from Young Carers Ireland. This is an issue that certainly impedes them. They are on social welfare and alongside their carer's payment, they are allowed to work 18.5 hours per week and study part-time. They are not entitled to the SUSI grant on the other side, however. They carry out very beneficial work in terms of caring, perhaps for vulnerable parents or siblings. To listen to them, it is certainly something that really impacts them.

Then, on the other hand, a widow with a young family got in touch with me. I know the same family spoke to the Minister when I hosted an online meeting to do with further education a couple of months ago. In this case, it is a young family in which the mother is widowed. The child in question is studying for a masters degree but because this person has mental health issues and autism, it has been suggested by the university that while this student is highly intelligent, a part-time course would suit them better. This student equally is not entitled to the SUSI grant. There is also the fact that, we will say, the student is not working either because all their time is given to study and achieving because this person is a very high achiever and wants to do well. This student is not working and yet cannot avail of the SUSI grant. The parent who is supporting this student is only working part-time. These are really just two examples as to what young people are facing in terms of SUSI.

I really believe that the SUSI grant should be reformed and I think it is something that maybe the Minister also supports in terms of changes that need to be made. If Covid-19 taught us anything, it is that so many people had to move to online. Speaking to both the young carers and this other family, certainly, they found it more difficult because they were online and then had no support with the pressure of having to pay their college fees. The young carers were literally using what they were getting in terms of caring to pay for their college course, and that is not right either. It is something about which I feel really strongly. There are many more people in this situation. I am just using these two examples to highlight the plight of what people are going through and the pressures they are under.

It is pressure enough when people are studying and have examinations coming up and especially if they are doing a masters degree or PhD. There is an awful lot of pressure and time commitment and then they have the pressure of knowing they must come up with their fees for college and different payments that are due at the other side. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response.

I thank my colleague, Senator Maria Byrne, very much for raising this important matter and, indeed, for her ongoing interest and work in the whole area of further and higher education.

I enjoyed our recent visit to County Limerick and we are going to make progress on many issues, including the library in Mary Immaculate College. I look forward to coming back on that. I also enjoyed attending her online meeting during which I had a chance to engage with students and parents, including the family she mentioned with regard to the need to reform SUSI.

We are going to reform SUSI because we commissioned under the programme for Government a full review of the SUSI student grants scheme. That review has now been published. That was done after I brought it to Government and on the same day we published the sustainable funding model for higher education, so the Senator's raising this important matter is timely.

I launched the review of the student grants scheme on 4 May. I am committed to implementing the recommendations in the context of the annual Estimates process. The review raised, as the Senator rightly said, the issue of flexible learning. It cited something we all know to be true but it is good to have it backed up by the report, namely, that many individuals, particularly perhaps those from lower-income backgrounds, disadvantaged groups, or those with a disability may find it more accessible to access their education in a part-time manner. This might also apply to a mature student or somebody looking to reskill or upskill while holding down a job. It is true that at the moment you cannot access the SUSI student grant scheme for part-time education. It is a finding of the review that we need to make it available for part-time students and this is something we will now work to progress. I need to be honest that there is a little bit of work to do around this. What defines part-time? We need to be quite clear on that in setting out the criteria. In addition to that, we will also be bringing the new national access plan to Government, probably at the end of this month. This plan will look at how we can ensure more students from a whole variety of backgrounds, including students with a disability, can access education. Again, that will be an opportunity for us to consider it in that context.

To be helpful, I want to refer to three things that might be of assistance because the Senator referenced the issue of young carers. If I can take that issue even more broadly, she mentioned that these people might be working for a period of time and perhaps because of that they do not qualify for SUSI. We had a debate in this House very recently on the need to increase the income disregard. A student is allowed earn €4,500 and have it not counted towards their income for the purpose of SUSI. That is too low. It is particularly so in the context of the cost-of-living crisis and inflation. I am happy to inform the Senator and the House that I intend to seek Government approval to increase that limit in the first instance. That will be step 1. Step 2 is that I would also like to see that limit be allowed apply during term time as well. That would definitely benefit the young carers she references.

The Senator mentioned a student with autism. While I am committed to ensuring we reform SUSI, I am conscious this is happening in real time for people and the supports available today are two schemes that provide financial assistance to part-time students. One is the fund for students with disability. This is open, as I said, to part-time students up to level 10, or doctoral level, and can provide funding to support and accommodate a student with assistive technology, personal assistance, academic or learning support or transport support. That is one fund available. The second is the student assistance fund. As a Government, we put €18.5 million into that. That is also available for students in part-time education, including masters students. That can be used to assist people with financial difficulties while attending third level. It can be used for rent, childcare costs, transport costs, books and class materials, food, etc. There is a list of criteria. I say that to outline what could be of immediate assistance, while fully accepting we need to reform SUSI, that we will do so and that part-time is a big part of this as is the income disregard.

I thank the Minster so much for his commitment. Since he came to the Department, it is an area he has a keen interest in. I thank him and his staff for the work they are doing in this area. I welcome the fact he is going to reform it. Returning to the situation with young carers, it is unfortunate. I am aware they will be able to increase their amount money or that the Minister will be bringing forward a proposal on the amount they can earn but the fact it is part-time is the key point here. Whether it is the student with a disability or a young carer it is about the fact it is part-time. That is where we need to put our focus. I believe the Minister will focus on that whole part-time aspect. I look forward to working with him on it and thank him for highlighting the two schemes currently available.

I thank the Senator and assure her I will work closely with her on this. I highlight the two schemes in existence not to suggest they are perfect or an alternative to reform but just to put that information out there for anyone following this debate as avenues that might be of assistance to a student with disability or students more generally in terms of the student assistance fund, because they are available to part-time students. However, I take the point. More and more, we are going to see people of all ages wanting to access education in a flexible, agile way. The Senator quite correctly referenced the Covid pandemic in the context of how we saw people then accessing education in hybrid manner online. Beyond students with a disability and young carers, there is going to be a huge need from mature students and people going back to education. We cannot on the one hand say go back and do part-time education as it is a great way to do it and on the other hand have Government schemes that do not support it. Thus, this is a huge body of work we are committed to doing. It is a policy priority for me and my Department. The pace at which we can introduce it is a matter for the normal Estimates process but I will keep in very close contact with the Senator on it.

An Garda Síochána

The next matter is in the name of Senator Crowe.

I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for taking this very important matter. Before I get on to it I acknowledge the Glendalough man who is in the Chair. It is a role that would be very suitable for him in the future but I am sure it is the Lower House he is interested in.

I will leave it between ye.

Moving on to a more serious matter, I refer to the need for the Minister for Justice to make a statement on the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland in respect of the review of structures within An Garda Síochána with particular reference to the proposed amalgamation of superintendent roles in Galway and west Galway and the extent to which this may impact negatively on the Government policy of providing increased funding to ensure the deployment of appropriate numbers of gardaí in all areas so communities are safe. To broaden it out, there are concerns in Galway city and west Galway and I ask if the Minister, Deputy Harris, could confirm that the introduction of the new Garda operating model in the Galway division will not result in the closure or downgrading of any Garda station in Galway city. The Minister will be aware that Mill Street, Salthill and Oranmore are in this region currently. The previous Minister for Justice, Deputy Flanagan, commented that the new operating model would result in significantly more sergeants and inspectors on the ground. Recently, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris said the new operating model "... will see us deliver a more responsive, more efficient and better service to local communities" and "will mean increased numbers of Gardaí working on the frontline". How will this be apparent as the new model is introduced in the Galway division? Under the new model, the Garda has committed to ensuring superintendents will be in locations throughout a division and not all located in divisional headquarters. Will the Minister provide clarity on which stations the superintendents will be located in within the Galway division?

Furthermore, as he will be aware, under the new operating model, each division is to have a number of superintendents in charge of community engagement. How many such superintendents will there be in the Galway division and can the Minister provide clarity on the geographic areas that will be covered by each of the community engagements teams? I am aware the Minister might not have all the detail with him this morning but I thank him for his time. If he could liaise with the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, and get back to me by email that would be appreciated.

Before the changes are made at divisional level, I understand a change will come in on 4 September. The change impact assessments were to be conducted at a local level to ascertain what needs to be done to enable implementation of the new Garda model. Has this been completed within the Galway division and can the impact of the assessment be made known? A number of questions have arisen in Galway and we are all well aware gardaí on the ground are vital. I await the Minister's response.

I thank the Senator. I interject to say we have already merged with Wexford and he is right to raise certain issues today because there is still a bit of work to be done on the amalgamations, specifically that of the divisions of Wicklow and Wexford.

The jury is still out on how that is working out on the ground so the Senator is right to raise the issue.

I thank the Acting Chairperson and it is great to see Wicklow so well represented here. I thank Senator Crowe for reminding all of us of that fact and for raising what is an important matter. My colleague, the Minister for Justice, sends her sincere apologies and asked me to provide the Senator with this update. I will also undertake to follow up and provide the Minister, Deputy McEntee, with the transcript of this debate and to provide the Senator with the detail that he has understandably sought. The Minister, Deputy McEntee, will come back to the Senator on that issue.

As Senator Crowe is aware, one of the core principles identified by the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland is that An Garda Síochána should be structured and managed to support front-line policing. As recommended by the commission and endorsed by the Government, An Garda Síochána is currently in the process of transitioning to a new and modern operating model. The new operating model structures require a change from the existing geographic model to a new functional-focused model. Specifically, this means the operating model will result in the enlargement of Garda divisions, reducing the existing number of divisions from 28 to 19. The Senator will be aware that Galway will remain as a stand-alone Garda division.

Each of the 19 divisions will be made up of four functional areas as follows: community engagement; crime; performance assurance; and business services. Each of the functional areas will be led by a superintendent, with the exception of business services, which is led by an assistant principal. An Garda Síochána is engaged in implementing the business services functional area across all of its divisions.

The Minister, Deputy McEntee, is advised that the Galway division is among the first Garda divisions selected to fully implement and align to the operating model. All services will be managed and co-ordinated at divisional level as opposed to district level. All Garda stations will be aligned to the community engagement functional areas. Garda members and staff will continue to be geographically dispersed across the division. The Minister, Deputy McEntee, is also informed that the Galway division has already fully established the business services functional area, led by an assistant principal. This has led to a reduction in the administration activities held by operational Garda members and superintendents as recommended by the commission, which can only be good news for policing. The following community engagement functional areas have been approved for the Galway division, each of which will be headed by a superintendent: Galway city; Galway county west; and Galway county east.

Each community engagement superintendent will be responsible for: community engagement; crime prevention; incident investigation; victim support; incident response; general visibility; engagement policing; and community policing activities. The continuing phased roll-out of the new Garda operating model will greatly benefit the Garda organisation, supporting the redeployment of gardaí from non-core duties to front-line policing across the country. It will create larger divisions with more resources, increased Garda visibility in communities, a wider range of locally delivered policing services, and a strong focus on community policing. The model will also facilitate more effective streamlining of administrative processes and reduce bureaucracy. On the specifics on Galway above and beyond what I have been provided with here, we will get that information in writing for Senator Crowe.

I thank the Minister for his detailed response. I welcome the information on the four different areas and that an assistant principal will be appointed to the business services area. I take it that will lead to more gardaí on the ground because there will be civilian staff across that section. That is welcome and it is a road we need to travel further down because, no more than any other city or county, there is a huge shortage of gardaí all over the country and particularly in Galway city, even though we have increased the numbers.

I am concerned about Galway county west and the geographical division therein. I say that because I understand that they will link Clifden and Oughterard with the Oranmore and Athenry district. As the Minister will know, it is 70 or 80 miles from Connemara over to Athenry and I would question the workings of that. That needs to be thought through and more detail is needed on it. I would be concerned about that and the message needs to be about visibility within the community and boots on the ground. I am concerned about Salthill Garda station and a superintendent not being there. What I mean by that is that over 35,000 people in the Connemara area would all be linked in to Galway county west as far as I understand the redivision, and the superintendent would be in the Oranmore region. That raises a concern for me.

I thank the Senator again for raising this important matter and I will pass on his comments and views to the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee. The Government, which we both support and are members of, continues to prioritise unprecedented resource allocation to An Garda Síochána. This is about making sure the operating model ensures that those resources deliver in the best possible way for communities. The Garda budget provided by the Government is over €2 billion for the current year, and as the Senator will be aware, An Garda Síochána registered strong interest in its latest recruitment competition earlier this year, with over 10,000 applications received. Additionally and importantly, over 800 Garda members have been redeployed in recent years from administrative duties to front-line policing roles, where their expertise can be utilised fully in line with the commission's recommendations.

The Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, is assured that Garda management keeps the distribution of resources under continual review in the context of policing priorities and crime trends to ensure their optimum use. The Minister has also informed me, so I can inform the Senator, that there are no plans to change the staffing or resource levels of Salthill Garda station or to change its opening hours from the current 24 hours.

Can I be emailed the response on that later from the Seanad Office?

Yes. That should be no problem.

Regional Development

I welcome the Minister of State again. It seems to be that he is always here answering and responding to me but I am delighted he is here. I understand that the Minister cannot be here and I wish him well.

This Commencement matter relates to nodes and in preparation for this commentary on nodes I decided to look at a number of county development plans this morning. Strange as it might seem and not knowing that the Minister of State was coming in, I pulled Kilkenny County Council so it is appropriate that the Minister of State is here as the Deputy for Kilkenny. I will quote the Kilkenny County Council development plan and I want to praise Kilkenny County Council as it is one of the leading councils on nodes. Section 4.7 of the Kilkenny county development plan on rural nodes policy talks about the potential for smaller towns and villages and the settlement hierarchy of rural nodes. It defines what a rural node is and talks about the key objectives for rural nodes in rural communities, particularly in Kilkenny, the Minister of State's constituency. Objective 4J is as follows: "To develop a programme for ‘new homes in small towns and villages’ in conjunction with, public infrastructure agencies such as Irish Water and local communities for the provision of serviced sites with appropriate infrastructure to attract people to build their own homes and live in small towns and villages". That is what we might like to call small nodes when it comes to the hierarchy and I quite like the word "node". It goes on to state: "It is an objective of the Council to facilitate and assist Irish Water" in this and it talks about examples of this work going on in Mullinavat, Paulstown, Bennettsbridge, Inistioge, Piltown, Fiddown and Kells. What a coincidence that we should be talking about Kilkenny and I acknowledge the enormous work the county council has done there.

This issue originally came about because it was suggested that the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, who cannot be with us today, made an announcement. The headline in The Meath Chronicle was: "The Minister says funds available for development of rural 'nodes' ". In response to that a number of councillors came out and asked where the money is. This article was published on Saturday, 21 May 2022, and the county manager for Meath said he knew nothing about it or about any money and that there were 50 rural nodes possibilities within the county but that the council had no funding.

I will not go on and talk about the further detail in the article where things were attributed as being said by the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, other than to say it raises a critical issue about rural housing and communities and how we can support local authorities to develop rural communities. We need to keep these areas alive. We have schools, infrastructure, churches and sports clubs in rural Ireland and people want to live in rural communities. We must provide homes for people in rural communities, especially where there is an older generation of people who are heavily relying on a son, daughter or member of family who may wish to build a new home close to them.

We have to move on. We have been waiting for a more detailed response to the Flemish decree which deals with rural housing.

Successive Governments have suggested they would introduce a rural housing policy in response to the findings of the Flemish decree and we are still awaiting them. The Minister of State might be able to advise the Seanad and myself where we are at regarding a follow-up in terms of rural housing policy, being particularly mindful of the Flemish decree and its recommendations, findings and deliberations. I would like to know where the money is. I accept and welcome the development of rural nodes. I look forward to encouraging and seeing the Government encourage more people to build new homes in rural parts of the country that are sustainable and appropriate to their setting. I would be more interested in hearing where funding is that has been committed to these rural nodes.

I welcome the pupils in the Gallery. I am not sure what school they are in but they all very welcome to the Seanad Chamber. It is fantastic to have schools visit these Houses.

I thank Senator Boyhan for his question and for citing the example of Kilkenny. He is correct. It is a very good example but we always do things well in Kilkenny, as he would know well. Rural nodes are the lowest tier in the settlement hierarchy and comprise a cluster of developments where public wastewater and-or public water infrastructure is currently not provided. These nodes contain important services, including schools and community facilities supporting the surrounding rural area. Rural nodes are designated for small-scale limited development at a sustainable scale for immediate local need, including one-off housing for persons who comply with the local need criteria, local services, small-scale employment and community facilities. The Senator may be aware the development of rural nodes is subject to proper planning considerations and the environmental carrying capacity of an area.

Consideration of planning applications for development within such nodes will have regard to the role and form of the node within the wider rural area with particular care being taken that these settlements do not compete with the designated larger and smaller serviced villages in the services they provide or the role and function they play within the rural area.

As part of Housing for all, the Government is committed to developing Croí Cónaithe, towns, which will provide funding for local authorities to provide serviced sites with appropriate infrastructure to attract people to build their own homes and live in small towns and villages. It is expected that this fund will be announced shortly. In tandem with this, Irish Water is providing funding for the servicing of many towns and villages, and further funding initiatives are available through the Department of Rural and Community Development. In particular, further rounds of funding under the rural regeneration and development fund are scheduled for later this year and early in 2023. Under this fund, applicants need to provide a comprehensive business case as part of any application. Any application relating to a rural node to be located in a town or village would need to provide clear evidence of the need and level of demand in an area and the growth potential which the project will meet. I am satisfied that through these range of schemes there are potential sources of funding for the sustainable development of rural locations.

I agree with what the Senator said. There are many across the country, particularly in the west, that are in rural decline. Very vibrant communities live in some of the rural locations he outlined in County Kilkenny. They are being allowed to expand in line with the carrying capacity of waterways, water infrastructure and local infrastructure. Our local authority has done very well in ensuring these communities can remain vibrant through funding schemes such as the town and village renewal scheme and other schemes to help support them and keep rural schools, rural post offices etc. open. The challenge is to strike a balance to ensure we get capacity in our towns for them to grow to a level where public transport and walking and cycling routes to school are viable for communities. However, we must also be strategic in addressing rural areas whose populations are is decline and that will be evident shortly from the census figures. Local authorities need to be strategic in trying to ensure we can repopulate those areas and keep those communities vibrant. We need people living in rural Ireland. That is something to which the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, has been deeply committed throughout his tenure as the Minister of State with responsibility for planning and local government.

In summary, there is no doubt it is a significant challenge. It is not always enticing for people to live in rural areas. It requires a significant level of commitment to be become part of a local community, part of a local GAA club or to send one's children to the local schools. That is important but it is also important we have a suite of policies at our level and at local government level to support rural communities to grow and to prosper.

I thank the Minister of State for his response, which was grand, but I asked for the details of the funds. The final paragraph of the reply, which was prepared on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, states " I am satisfied … through a range of schemes, there are potential sources of funding”. That is not an answer to my question. He is satisfied but I need to be satisfied, as do we all. I asked this question because rural councillors throughout the country have said there have been promises of financial support for rural nodes, but where is the funding? The reply indicates there will be other phases of funding from 2022 to 2023, but when will we have that? I respectfully ask the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, if possible, to request an official in the Department to forward a supplementary response indicating a timeline for these funding sources. Who is administering them? Can we inform the local authorities and planning authorities of what is happening? What is the plan? The Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, clearly knows something more, at least I hope he does, given the reply states he is satisfied in this regard. Perhaps he could furnish us with a schedule of the funding he has identified, secured, discussed and told people about in order that we can get that into the public domain. I sincerely thank the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, for coming to the house today.

There has been significant investment by the Government in Irish Water and much of that will, excuse the pun, trickle down into local rural communities. We see it as being vitally important that small-scale water and wastewater treatment plants are upgraded to meet the needs of local rural areas. The funding is directed through local authorities. They are responsible for the local road infrastructure, lighting etc. in these rural nodes we are discussing. That prioritisation falls back on to local elected members, who have an important role to play in ensuring funding is distributed equally in their urban areas and counties to enable rural areas to survive. From that perspective, the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, is saying he wants to enable this within development plans to ensure they reflect the rural node principles but also that we ensure we give capacity to our regional towns, smaller towns and villages such as some of the places the Senator mentioned in County Kilkenny. The funding streams come down to local level and how local authorities prioritise the funding and support for local infrastructure and services. These areas have to be serviced by many other agencies, as well as local authorities. We will come back to the Senator with a response if he is seeking more detail on those specific funding streams.

I thank the Minister of State.

Air Accident Investigations

The Minister of State is welcome to the House. I think this is the first time I addressed him since he was elevated to ministerial office. I am delighted he is here, and I understand the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is unwell with Covid-19 and I wish him well, but it is deeply regrettable the junior Minister at his Department is not here to take this issue.

The Minister of State will be aware of the fact that four brave crew members of the contracted helicopter search and rescue service lost their lives when Rescue 116 crashed at Black Rock, County Mayo, in 2017. He will no doubt be further aware that all four were flying with inaccurate charts, faulty satellite locators and must have been suffering from fatigue due to the demanding 24-hour shift work rosters under which they were operating. Among other things, the Air Accident Investigation Unit report pointed out dysfunctional oversight of search and rescue and alleged safety management failures by the Irish Coast Guard and CHC Ireland, the air crew's employer.

The Air Accident Investigation Unit, on its website, published on 5 November 2021 some 44 safety recommendations and it advised that in all 44 cases, it is still awaiting a response.

Like me, I am sure the Minister of State would want to ensure that those who put their lives in peril to serve in what must be the greatest calling, that is, to save human life, should have their safety and working conditions at the highest level of priority for Ministers and their Departments. Some 22 of the recommendations advert specifically to CHC Ireland, the operator. In addition to that, most worrying is the fact that the Air Accident Investigation Unit points out that neither the Irish Coast Guard nor the Department of Transport have any aviation expertise within their staff. The AAIU also points to the 24-hour shift cycle and refers to fatigue and risk management. I believe that the crew of Rescue 116 had been operating for some 16 or 17 hours before being called out. Again, the AAIU refers to the poor level of lighting in the cockpit.

It is no secret that for two and a half years I have been speaking on this issue and on the reckless behaviour that is taking place in search and rescue. I know that one of the helicopters is situated in the Minister of State's constituency and that he has a close affinity with the people who work in that area. It is great that we do. However, these people need more than our congratulations. We need to know that the Department has staff who are capable of overseeing the contract. Right now, the contract for search and rescue is being overseen by a company that is a single operator. It does not inspire confidence.

I brought with me today the recommendations of the Air Accident Investigation Unit. It is no secret that this report took years to get published. The report contains 44 recommendations and months later, the AAIU has said there has been no response to them. Some of the recommendations are simple, administrative matters that need to happen. If the operator is still operating a 24-hour shift roster, why is that the case? On 1 June an instruction came out from the Irish Aviation Authority restricting flying rosters to 12 hours. If a 24-hour roster is still in place, why is that the case? It needs to stop. I can see the Acting Chairman is about to hit the bell so I will take my seat for a moment.

The Minister for Transport thanks Senator Craughwell for raising this matter. As the Senator outlines, the final report by the Air Accident Investigation Unit into the Rescue 116 accident at Blackrock, County Mayo, on 14 March 2017 was published on 5 November 2021. The report contains 42 safety recommendations, of which 14 were addressed to the Minister for Transport, in the form of individual transmittal letters.

At the time of the publication of the report the Minister for Transport fully accepted the recommendations addressed to him. The Irish Aviation Authority also reviewed and fully accepted the recommendations addressed to it as the national aviation regulator, many of which have already been implemented or are proceeding to full implementation. It is a matter for the Irish Aviation Authority to respond independently to the findings addressed to it.

The Minister for Transport was required to acknowledge receipt of each transmittal letter and inform the AAIU of the actions taken or under consideration and, where appropriate, of the time necessary for their completion and where no action is taken, why this is so. The deadline for this was 3 February this year and the responses were sent to the AAIU on 1 February. The regulations require the AAIU to engage with the addressees of the safety recommendations and any requests for clarification from the AAIU to the Department have been received, considered and dealt with. The Department remains open to any further requests for clarification the AAIU may have.

The responses will be made public on the AAIU website via the associated published investigation report, and in the European safety recommendation information system. This is expected to happen shortly. It should be noted that the Department of Transport did not wait for the publication of the final report in order to implement changes on foot of lessons learned following the accident. Since March 2017, and specifically following receipt of the draft final report in September 2019, the Department, and in particular the Irish Coast Guard, have undertaken a significant programme of change across key areas to take account of issues raised and recommendations addressed to the Minister for Transport.

On foot of the interim report of the Air Accident Investigation Unit, the then Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport commissioned an independent review of oversight arrangements for search and rescue aviation operations in Ireland. Following publication of the independent review, known as the AQE report, in September 2018, the then Minister committed to implementing its 12 recommendations. As the Senator is aware, the Department of Transport is conducting a formal procurement process for a new Coast Guard aviation service following a detailed appraisal and business case prepared in accordance with the public spending code. The process began in December of last year with the release on eTenders of a pre-qualification questionnaire, PQQ, and response document for candidates to complete. The PQQ set out certain criteria to determine which operators would have the capacity to perform the contract.

Following this, an amendment was issued to the PQQ which specified the number and location of search and rescue, SAR, bases to reflect the existing configuration, namely, four bases at Dublin, Shannon, Sligo and Waterford. The amendment ensured the delivery of wider Government policies concerning balanced and even distribution of State services and investment, in particular the needs of island and rural communities. The PQQ stage of the procurement process concluded last month and both successful and unsuccessful candidates were notified of the outcome of the PQQ evaluation. The procurement process is now moving into the second stage, that is, the request for tenders.

I wonder how we are allowing a Department with no aviation expertise to have any hand, act or part in the next SAR tender services and how we are allowing the Department or the Irish Coast Guard to lead out on the next SAR. Within days of the PQQ to which the Minister of State adverted in his reply being issued, it had to be extended because of the change from three bases to four bases. We are about to move to the tender stage, yet the PQQ at the time did not take account of the new regulation set down by the Irish Aviation Authority, changing from 24-hour shifts to 12-hour shifts. This will significantly impact the payroll costs of the organisation that is contracted to the next SAR service.

The bottom line on this is that it fired out a 415 page submission by the Irish Air Corps to provide SAR with a three-page piece of junk that offers no technological, empirical or statistical evidence to support its conclusions. I am deeply concerned that we are moving to the next contract without any expertise within the Department that is leading out or its sub-unit, the Irish Coast Guard. This is recklessness. I have made my position clear in many emails that have been circulated to all Members of this House.

I do not want to hammer the Minister of State, as it is not his area of responsibility. I very much appreciate the fact that he came here to take this Commencement matter today, but I will not let this matter go. Lives are being put at risk. A total of €400 million of public money is about to be wasted.

I thank Senator Craughwell for his contribution today. The provision of an effective maritime search and rescue service is critical to Ireland as an island nation with a strong maritime sector, which depends on the reliability and professionalism of the Irish Coast Guard and all its component parts, including the Coast Guard aviation service, to offer a service which we all agree can deploy at a moment's notice to rescue people in distress and bring them to a place of safety.

As noted earlier, since receipt of the draft final report in September 2019, the Department of Transport has undertaken a significant programme of change across key sectors to take account of the issues raised and recommendations made at that time. As Senator Craughwell correctly says, the measures fall under six broad categories. The Minister for Transport assures me that he is confident these measures will strengthen the safe conduct of search and rescue operations. I will bring the observations raised by the Senator to the attention of the Minister.

Hospital Services

I am glad to share time with my good colleague, Senator Buttimer. I will outline the facts from letters I received. Cork University Hospital, CUH, is the south-west region's centre for neurology but is short of neurology nurse specialists. Patients are unnecessarily waiting longer for diagnosis and treatment. Based on the catchment area, national and international guidelines recommend that there should be 20 neurology nurse specialists, but there are only four in Cork. This is a disgrace.

I have already confessed that I suffer from a neurological ailment. God forbid if somebody in west Cork or south Kerry, a long way from the CUH, had a seizure or difficulty and got to CUH to find he or she is waiting on a trolley because of the lack of neurological specialist nurses. It is a disgrace. In Dublin, you have several hospitals you can fall back on, like St. James's, Beaumont, Mater private and others, but the south west is being neglected. It is a life-threatening situation when there is a neurological emergency.

I urge the Minister of State to reflect on this. If there were 16 neurological nurse specialists in the CUH for this region, I probably would not complain. However, four is one fifth or 20% of what national and international guidelines suggest. I will hand over to Senator Buttimer, who is far closer to CUH than I am and who is probably more knowledgeable than me about this issue.

I thank Senator O'Donovan for allowing me to share time with him. He is living the experience and has made two pertinent points about care and access to care. This is about quality of life for people and about access to service. There is a critical gap in the care of those with a neurological condition.

The theme of the campaign is "Patients Deserve Better", which highlights the need for 100 specialist neurologists in nursing and is also about the four we have in Cork and the 16 needed to provide, as Senator O'Donovan said, essential care to people with neurological conditions. One example involves a gentleman I know, Declan Groeger, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, MS, and who says:

There is one neurological nurse in CUH for epilepsy, one for stroke and there are two nurses for every other neurological patient. The two nurses I deal with are excellent but they are not MS specialists.

We need to ensure critical care is given for MS, Parkinson's disease, epilepsy and other rare neurological conditions. We are highlighting the gap in the provision of services. We accept that much work is being done, we commend all of those doing the work and we understand that there is an issue with recruitment. However, just four nurses in Cork University hospital is a shortfall that we hope will be addressed as part of the HSE development plan for the Cork-Kerry region.

We had a briefing on community care last Monday with the HSE. This matter does not fall under community care but under hospital services. I support the neurological association of Ireland. Deputy Colm Burke is having a briefing today in the audiovisual room on this matter and the issue of provision of neurological care. It is about making sure we put in place extra nurses.

I thank the Senators for the opportunity to address the House on this important matter on behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. I acknowledge the work and role played by neurological nurse specialists in the care of patients. They play an important role in triaging, assessing, and providing ongoing support to neurological patients. This in turn builds capacity within neurological services and allows for more timely access to efficient, equitable and quality care.

I am advised that the HSE's national clinical programme for neurology, in conjunction with the Neurological Alliance of Ireland, NAI, completed an all-Ireland survey of neurological services in 2020. This survey confirmed that all neurological centres have access to a designated clinical nurse specialist and-or advanced nurse practitioner, recognising the value that skilled and highly trained nursing staff add to neurological services. The HSE has advised that plans will be developed to incrementally increase the overall number of nurse specialists.

The national clinical programme for neurology continues to engage regularly with patient organisations and the NAI to establish ways to promote neurology nurse specialists. It is focusing its current work streams and initiatives around nurse-led clinics, nurse liaison services and outreach programs. Examples of this include the headache and epilepsy outreach programmes, both of which are funded under the Sláintecare innovation fund. These programmes reconfigure the management of these conditions, enabling clinical nurse specialists and advanced nurse practitioners to lead and co-ordinate the care of these conditions in the community. This reduces reliance on consultant neurologists and tertiary services, in turn allowing more timely access to services and improving the overall quality of care.

The HSE has advised that all funded neurology nurse specialist posts in CUH are filled. There are currently five specialist nurses working within neurology services at the hospital. In addition, a candidate advanced nurse practitioner for epilepsy is going through the HSE recruitment process.

In 2021, the South/South West Hospital Group sought and received approval for two additional consultant neurologist posts to improve services at CUH. The consultant applications advisory committee recently approved these posts and recruitment is progressing to fill them. A second consultant neurophysiologist was recently appointed in CUH. An initiative to convene after-hours outpatient department clinics to address the issue of those obliged to wait a long time is also under discussion.

The Government is committed to improving patient services and having patient-centred care in Cork and across the country. That commitment is reflected in the unprecedented level of funding that is being targeted across the health service in recent budgets and again in budget 2022. I am assured that the South/South West Hospital Group remains committed to the development of neurology services within the group, and to improving these services for patients of the south and south-west region.

I thank the Minister of State for coming in. He is basically the messenger. It reminds me of somebody in a football game who is 20 points to four down at half-time. I do not think we will win this match, but I stress that the situation is serious. In my view, what is happening is not tolerable. I hope the Minister of State will convey to the senior Minister that Senator Buttimer, I and others cannot stand for this. It is deplorable.

I concur with the remarks of Senator O'Donovan. I thank the Minister of State for his reply. It is inadequate in terms of the development of a tier 1 hospital that is the primary hospital for the southern region. The issue of neurology is gaining a cohort of people every day.

We need a joined-up approach. This is about continuum of care and allowing people to go out from hospital knowing that if they need someone, there will be someone there for them on their return. Senator O'Donovan and I will keep up the battle in respect of this matter.

I will bring the Senators' concerns back to the Minister for Health. The Government is committed to improving services in line with Sláintecare. The development of these services provides an opportunity to make significant changes to the quality of life of our citizens. The South/South West Hospital Group remains committed to the development of neurology services within the group. There are currently five specialist nurses working in neurology services at CUH, and two additional consultants are being recruited. The national clinical programme for neurology is focused on ways in which improvements can be made that will benefit patients. This includes the promotion of neurology nurse specialists through nurse-led clinics, nurse liaison services and outreach programmes.

In addition, the headache programme and epilepsy outreach programme, both funded under the Sláintecare innovation fund, aim to reconfigure the management of these conditions by enabling clinical nurse specialists and advanced nurse practitioners to lead and co-ordinate the care of these conditions in the community. This reduces reliance on consultant neurologists and tertiary services, in turn allowing more timely access to services and improving the overall quality of care. The work of the HSE, and of the national clinical programme in particular, will improve services for patients in the south and south-west region through more timely access to services and improving the overall quality of care.

Vaccination Programme

In December 2020, we had a moment of optimism when, following a massive global effort and up to €93 billion in public funding, we heard about vaccines that had been developed and were going to address and alleviate the devastating impact of Covid-19. There was also knowledge at that point about how we could work collectively to address this as a global health crisis. There was the C-TAP proposal, which was a technology pool to share not just vaccines but medicines, treatments, know-how and diagnostics in a practical way to ensure we got treatment and vaccines to everybody as quickly as possible. South Africa and India proposed that we should use the mechanisms that were there for exactly this kind of health emergency to waive the intellectual property, IP, on vaccines and their know-how and lift the TRIPS mechanisms. Despite that proposal being made, in the 18 months since then, there has been a succession of delays, disinegenuous arguments and WTO meeting after WTO meeting that have not addressed this issue. That is even though the public and parliamentarians know this is the way to go. The European Parliament, the committees and the Seanad have called for a TRIPS waiver but shamefully, our Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment went to the meeting between the African Union and the EU and said he did not want people to take advantage of this to damage innovation and intellectual property.

The Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment heard from Oxfam Ireland and Médecins Sans Frontières on this matter. The good news is that we wrote to the Tánaiste on an all-party basis and said he needed to come out in full support of a TRIPS waiver for Covid-19 vaccines. However, the disgraceful fact of the matter is that he has done quite the opposite. The EU is now supporting the so-called Quad proposal. I will briefly explain why that is not sufficient to deal with the crisis. Today, just 12% of people in Africa have received two vaccines, as opposed to 81% in Europe. There is still a very real crisis there. The Quad proposal applies primarily to patents and not other IP rights, such as trade secrets, which are also vital for vaccines. It falls far short of the broad package of measures envisaged by the TRIPS waiver. While often presented as a waiver, it does not waive IP rights. Instead, it primarily makes modifications to existing TRIPS compulsory licensing mechanisms. The Quad proposal also introduces various additional requirements for compulsory licences that TRIPS requires. For example, it requires a list of all patents relevant to the vaccine before a compulsory licence is issued. This could prove exceptionally difficult in practice. The proposal only applies to eligible members, which are defined narrowly, limiting who can use it. Put simply, the Quad proposal is not a workable or effective solution.

As my colleagues have said, the Quad proposal is inadequate. It is a step backwards. It is "not a workable or effective solution", according to Professor Aisling McMahon from Maynooth University. The people of the global south are the most affected by the vaccine apartheid. At the WTO ministerial conference, the Indian minister for commerce said:

... what we are getting is completely half-baked and it will not allow us to make any vaccines. They have no intentions of allowing therapeutics and diagnostics and if at all they try to say that we are the cause for its collapse, I think we should unanimously speak to the world and tell them that no, ideally we want a holistic solution including therapeutic and diagnostics...

It would be unacceptable for Ireland to be pushing an agreement that, amidst grave Covid vaccine inequities, has the potential to make the situation worse. Will the Tánaiste heed the call of the Irish public, the Seanad and the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the European Parliament and support a full TRIPS waiver?

I thank the Senators for raising this topic and affording me the opportunity to address the House about this important issue. I have listened carefully and agree with many of the points raised by the Senators. As they are aware, the WTO ministerial conference is ongoing and concludes today in Geneva. This is the major decision-making forum for the WTO and the intention is that the intellectual property aspects can be agreed as part of the broader WTO trade-related response to the pandemic. A draft ministerial decision on the TRIPS agreement is under intense discussion by ministers with the aim of finding a solution that will be acceptable to all WTO members. This draft decision offers the most promising path towards achieving a meaningful outcome that will contribute to ensuring access to safe and effective vaccines across the globe. The decision provides for a waiver and clarification of some of the flexibilities within the TRIPS agreement. If agreed, the proposal will address the concerns of South Africa and developing countries and will allow them to immediately authorise the manufacture, import and export of Covid-19 vaccines without the consent of the patent owners. At the same time, the solution maintains a functioning intellectual property framework, which is crucial to incentivise the investment and research that is necessary for the development of new vaccines and medicines.

The EU believes the proposal represents the most promising path toward achieving a meaningful outcome among all WTO members. As a member of the EU, Ireland will continue to engage constructively with the European Commission and other member states on the EU position on the discussions at the ministerial conference. It is also important to highlight that there are now sufficient vaccines for everybody in the world, including for booster campaigns. Vaccine supply currently exceeds demand. Vaccine producers have highlighted that the demand for vaccines has declined significantly. In late February, the African Centres for Disease Control and Prevention called for a pause in vaccine donations to Africa until the end of the year, noting that supply was no longer the main challenge. Rather, logistics, infrastructure, and vaccine hesitancy are the main barriers.

I reject the suggestion that vaccine hesitancy and distribution mechanisms are the main obstacles here. The fact that these countries have not been able to have public heath vaccine programmes has been a key obstacle and they have not been able to have public health programmes on an organised basis because they have not had a reliable supply of vaccines. I reject the Minister of State's suggestion profoundly. I note there is some progress being made but the problem is that we are still stalling for months. This time last year, we were hearing about an EU proposal that did not work, which just moved around the pieces in the existing TRIPS agreement. Flexibility is not the same as a waiver. I am very concerned that it looks like diagnostics and therapeutics, which are the crucial other part for those who have suffered from Covid-19 due to the neglect of the global north, are still being put on the long finger. We need to do more and better. Is Ireland taking the side of those seeking to strengthen these proposals in the negotiations, or is it joining the voices seeking to weaken them?

The fact of the matter is that the Government is siding with big pharma as opposed to with the people of the world, the World Health Organization and organisations like Oxfam. It is shameful. People in the Minister of State's own party voted against the stance the Tánaiste is taking. Please tell us the Government can and will do better.

I acknowledge that this is a critical issue and I believe it is morally right to ensure that, regardless of where people are in the world, they have access to vaccines. I firmly believe, as does the Government, that no one is safe until everybody is safe. As vaccine production is no longer the issue, the international community is now focused on the need to rapidly build capacity in low-income countries including with regard to healthcare workers, cold chain logistics, infrastructure to properly move and store vaccines and syringe supply, so the demand for vaccines will increase in line with supply and vaccines can be administered on the necessary scale to meet the World Health Organization's 70% vaccination target by mid-2022.

On the IP aspects of the trade-related responses to the pandemic, the compromise proposal on the table will facilitate the production of vaccines that are key for regions such as Africa and will allow those regions to create a self-sufficient pharmaceutical production base while preserving the incentives for innovation and investment that are key for responding to new diseases. I will bring the Senator's views and observations back to the Minister.

To frame this as a demand issue, after artificially delaying supply for 18 months, adds insult to injury.

I thank the Minister of State for his time. I also thank the Senators.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 11.31 a.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 12.02 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 11.31 a.m. and resumed at 12.02 p.m.
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