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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 14 Sep 2022

Vol. 288 No. 1

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Energy Usage

I thank the Cathaoirleach and welcome the Minister of State.

I will speak today about energy. While many people are terrified at the thought of their energy bills landing on the doormat, families must also contend with the prospect of blackouts. It is a long time since we had blackouts in this country. I remember having them when I was a child but most people will not remember them because they have an expectation of a functioning energy system as part of the social contract they enter into with the State.

I will leave to another day the issue of how we got into this mess, which has been the subject of much debate, and focus instead on what the Minister will do to make sure we have enough gas and electricity for the winter and we do not face blackouts. The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, told an Oireachtas committee two weeks ago that Ireland would voluntarily reduce its demand by approximately 15%. We have had some announcements in the past week about reducing energy use in the public sector and we also had the relaunch of the "Reduce Your Use" campaign. Some of the measures being taken in public buildings, for example, the use of thermostats to reduce temperatures, beggar belief and raise the question as to why they were not being taken in the first place.

The Government's plan seems to leave much of the heavy lifting to households. One Minister quoted in the Irish Independent newspaper used the language of the warmonger, Donald Rumsfeld, in stating the Government would use a tactic of shock and awe in regard to households. For anyone who needs reminding, "shock and awe" is defined as a strategy based on the use of overwhelming power to force or paralyse one's enemy and destroy his or her will. If that is the approach the Government will take, it does not suggest it has citizens' best interests at heart.

If people are driven into energy poverty and further cuts in energy use, many households will go without basic necessities such as heat and light. Electricity is not a luxury for most people. Energy should be a right. As we are all aware, in many households people do not have any more lights to turn off or extra rooms they are not going to heat. They have already cut their energy use to the bone.

I will raise one example of where the Government should seek to reduce demand, namely, advertising billboards. According to the NGO, Adfree Cities, large billboards, particularly LED ones, use vast amounts of energy. Over a year of operation, the electricity used by a typical LED billboard screen equates to that of nine households. When running for a full year at maximum output, usage can be as high as that of 33 households.

One example that was highlighted yesterday on social media showed an LED screen illuminating the whole of a junction in Rathmines. I subsequently submitted a complaint to the council because I think the brightness of the billboard breaches its planning conditions.

The Government should look at this. The German Government has already identified billboards as part of its demand reduction because it recognises how frivolous and unnecessary their energy usage is in advertising consumer products by massive corporations. The German Government has passed a law called the short-term energy supply security measure. It restricts illumination of billboard advertisements to six hours a day. We know we have a different situation in Ireland in that we are not as reliant on gas as Germany is, but we do have crunch times. Surely the Government should look at turning off LED-lit billboards between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. and between 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. to help reduce the pressure on our grid.

EU Regulation No. 2022/1369 was adopted by the Council of the European Union on 5 August of this year with the aim of improving the co-ordination framework for national gas demand reduction measures in case of a severe disruption of gas supplies from Russia. As a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing war, there is a heightened risk of a complete cessation of supplies of natural gas from Russia to Europe. Gas supplies from Russia to Europe have been severely reduced over the past year and continue to be a cause of concern for Europe's energy security. This has resulted in natural gas prices that are approximately ten times the levels seen just two years ago.

The continued supply of natural gas to Ireland has not to date been reduced or interrupted as a result of this reduced supply. The UK, from where we get 75% of our gas, is at a strategic advantage compared with other European countries with a diverse source of gas supplies.

This regulation requires member states to use their best efforts to reduce their gas demand by 15% over the winter. The regulation provides member states with the freedom to choose the most appropriate measures to reduce their gas demand. The measures chosen, however, should be governed by criteria such as being clearly defined, transparent, proportionate, non-discriminatory and verifiable.

The regulation highlights that it is necessary to consider the interests of protected customers and also urges member states to think about measures that affect customers other than protected customers.

The regulation outlines certain measures that member states should consider such as reducing gas consumed in the electricity sector, encouraging fuel-switching in industry, national awareness-raising campaigns and targeted obligations to reduce heating and cooling in order to promote switching to other fuels and to reduce consumption by industry.

The regulation requires that the competent authority of each member state - in our case the Commission for Regulation of Utilities - takes the necessary steps to update its national emergency plan to reflect voluntary demand reduction measures by 31 October of this year.

My Department wrote to the Commission for Regulation of Utilities and Gas Networks Ireland to request that they develop proposals for gas demand reduction measures in response to the requirements set out in the regulation on co-ordinated demand reduction measures for gas. The Department has received these options and is working with the CRU and GNI to prepare proposals for the energy security emergency group to consider. It will be important that the measures will be able to have an impact on demand reduction for this winter and that they do not negatively impact protected customers. We must also be mindful that the majority of Ireland's natural gas is used in the power generation sector.

The Government has already taken actions that will reduce our gas use. Last week the Government approved a suite of energy efficiency measures across the public sector. We have also implemented national awareness-raising campaigns to encourage people to reduce their energy use.

Ireland has a derogation from having to comply with mandatory demand reductions because it is no longer directly connected to another EU member state. However, by having a voluntary demand reduction plan, Ireland is showing solidarity with other member states.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. The issue is not showing solidarity with other member states. What I think many households would like to see is the Government showing solidarity with households as well and asking businesses to do their part in reducing our demand on the electricity system. We know that we are buying in gas-powered generators and that we have a particular issue around the crunch times of 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. and the early morning.

The Minister of State said that the measures should be proportionate and transparent. It is not too much to ask that we would turn off LED billboards during those crunch times of pressure on the grid, especially given that we are shifting from backless advertisement billboards to these LED-type ones and the multiple and the hundreds of so-called phone kiosks that are popping up around the country. They are supposed to be telephones, but we all know that the legitimate reason for them is that they are free advertising for the phone company that had telephone boxes there previously.

That would be a proportionate measure and would show solidarity to households. These billboards are completely non-essential use of electricity. We are asking businesses to curtail their usage to reduce critical demand at those hours to help prevent blackouts for households. It would be a proportionate measure.

The Government has to lead by example on this and the public sector has been asked to turn down its thermostats to a maximum of 19°C and to turn off the power an hour or two before the end of the working day where that is feasible, reasonable and safe, which it would not be in a hospital, obviously. We have also asked that public sector buildings and bodies turn off display lighting at night, where it is not there for the purpose of safety. That should, of course, extend to the corporate sector. Just as the Government has a role to lead by example, the corporate sector has to do its share of the work and it can never be the case that we ask the public to do something that the Government would not do or the corporate sector would not be asked to do.

I agree that display advertising should be constrained and reduced. I will talk to the CRU about that. The regulator has come out with a set of proposed tariffs for the corporate sector that increase the cost for corporations. They are especially targeted at large energy users. There has been a public consultation on this, which is now closed. I am waiting to see what comes back from the CRU on this, but it will charge large energy users, such as data centres, more to use electricity during peak hours. It will also charge them more where there is any threat to the supply. It will increase the tariff when the wind drops and we are more dependent on gas than we usually are than on renewable energy. Large energy users are not happy about that. The corporate sector has to come to me in its pre-budget submissions. It is not happy about that, but it has to happen. There has to be solidarity between Government, the corporate sector and the public.

Education Policy

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. I know he was in the RDS earlier at the Worldskills event for apprenticeships, an area in which he is doing considerable work. I thank him for taking the time to take this Commencement matter.

I also acknowledge his interest and determination to ensure that Waterford and the south east achieved their long-held ambition to have a university in the region that could act as a catalyst for growth. However, I am sure he will also agree that while that milestone on 1 May was important, the real work only starts now to ensure that Ireland's newest university realises its vision of becoming an educational and research institution of international standing. That requires additional facilities and resources, the adjacent space to expand and a leadership team to achieve this vision.

With that latter point in mind, I compliment the Minister of State on his appointments thus far: Professor Veronica Campbell, as the new president; former Provost of Trinity College Dublin, Dr. Patrick Prendergast, as chairman; and Ms Jim Bergin of Glanbia and Ms Ruth Beadle of Sanofi, as board members. Nobody can question their suitability, expertise and determination to ensure that South East Technological University, SETU, becomes the driver that it needs to be for the south-east region.

As the Minister will be aware, I have engaged with both him, the Tánaiste and their respective teams, on the topic of the acquisition of the former Waterford Crystal site on numerous occasions over the past 12 months.

While the Minister and Tánaiste have both been categoric in their utterances on the Government's commitment to expanding the footprint of the SETU campus in Waterford city, unfortunately there are still some who wish to deny that progress is being made on the issue and who say that ring-fenced funding essentially equates to nothing and that if the Government wanted to, it could click its fingers and make it happen overnight. Any objective analyst will say that while the process is exceptionally frustrating, including for me as a politician and, I am sure, Deputy Harris as Minister, failure to follow the various steps could put the entire project in jeopardy, which would be in nobody's interest. It would, therefore, be helpful if the Minister could outline the process that has been undertaken to date and explain the process that is to take place and the attached timelines to secure this site, which will future-proof our new university and its growth in Waterford city.

I acknowledge the letter the Minister sent me last week that confirmed the Higher Education Authority, HEA, sent him a report on 1 September regarding the site. I know he has acted swiftly to seek the approval of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to enable SETU to commence formal negotiations with the owner of the site. It is urgent to give SETU the mandate to ensure it can conclude negotiations with the vendor. I understand there was a great deal of work and engagement at the front end of the process on the part of the then Waterford Institute of Technology. I am sure that banked work will come to fruition at the back end of the process, but of course it needs to be given the green light as soon as possible. I hope the Minister can give assurances in that regard.

I cannot overstate the importance of this site both from both practical and symbolic points of view. Not only will it future-proof the growth of the new university in Waterford, as I have said, but it will also give an enormous lift to the people of Waterford to know that a site that once employed thousands will be repurposed to educate and accommodate the next generation of young workers.

I thank my colleague for raising this important matter, not only today in Seanad Éireann but also almost daily. I am aware of his genuine, deep commitment to and understanding of the importance of a university for Waterford in the south east in terms of educational access, economic investment, balanced regional development and ensuring Waterford can harness and reach its incredible full potential. I thank him so much.

I really enjoyed being in what is now SETU with the Senator on designation day. I could sense genuine excitement and a genuine buzz from the staff and students after years of debate and discussion. Finally, we were moving forward, and finally the south east, including Waterford, was getting a university.

I thank the Senator for his comments on the appointments. I, too, think President Veronica Campbell brings an unquestionable and exceptional depth of experience to the role. I wish her well as the first president. I also wish well the governing authority, chaired by Dr. Paddy Prendergast, former Provost of Trinity College, and so many other excellent people, including the deputy chair, namely Mr. Jim Bergin, and Ms Ruth Beadle. I thank them for their work.

As the new academic year begins, students graduating from the SETU in Waterford do so with a university qualification. The institution has now taken its rightful place in a national network of five technological universities, serving all our regions and fulfilling a key commitment of the programme for Government. As the Senator rightly implied, there will be some who constantly wish to denigrate or talk down the process. It is making real, tangible progress. I believe the people of Waterford get and know that, but he is right that they want to know what is next. They are dead right to want to know that.

Since 2013, the Government has been providing significant financial support to technological universities, specifically the project in the south east, including Waterford, first through the higher education landscape fund and subsequently through the transformation fund. The establishment of the new technological university is a significant milestone for the region. I believe this new university will grow and thrive. A key part of the growth and thriving is the expansion of the footprint in Waterford. To be categoric, it is the Government's intention to physically expand the footprint of the technological university in Waterford. I am strongly committed to this, as are the Tánaiste, Taoiseach and all the other members of the Government. My Department is as well. We are doing this because we believe it will enable SETU to cater for and prepare for increased enrolments, with more students staying in and coming to Waterford, as well as delivering the infrastructural transformation that reflects its new university status and mandate. As the Senator said, we have set aside funding to ensure this capital expansion can be realised.

I am pleased to update him, as I did in my letter to him recently.

Earlier this year, SETU submitted a detailed preliminary business case for expanded capacity to the HEA in accordance with public spending code requirements. In other words, it sent in a business case looking to expand the footprint. This considered demand analysis, enrolment projections, current and future space requirements and an analysis of options for delivery of the additional capacity. The HEA has issued a report to my Department in recent weeks - on 1 September, as Senator Cummins said - and my Department is now engaging with colleagues in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on taking the next step. As Minister, I am limited in terms of commercial sensitivities but I can assure the Senator, as he has asked me to, that this is a very important issue for my Department. We are keen to move on this quickly but in doing so we have to get value for money and we have to make sure we fulfil the strategic objectives of SETU. I will certainly keep Senator Cummins and Government and Oireachtas colleagues in Waterford up to date in regard to this matter. I hope I can reassure him that the support for the expansion of the SETU Waterford campus remains a key priority for me, for my Department and for the Government. I look forward to updating him further on developments in due course.

I thank the Minister for restating the Government's commitment to expanding the footprint of the campus in Waterford which is obviously key to cementing the gains that have been made in terms of provision but also future-proofing the university and its provision of education and research within the region. It is important to lay out the timelines attaching to that process. I appreciate that the Minister is facing constraints with regard to commercial sensitivities while SETU negotiates with the owner of the site. I am trying to ascertain the expected timeline for it to be given a mandate to do so. I am relatively confident that the work that was done at the front end of this process by the then Waterford Institute of Technology will yield a positive result at the back end of the process, but SETU has to be enabled now to proceed to the next step in this regard. I appreciate that this is not solely within the remit of the Minister's Department, but I would appreciate it if he could provide an assurance on the timeline that he expects from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform for him ultimately to give SETU the sanction.

I thank Senator Cummins. It is worthwhile to outline the progress that has been made with the campus expansion because sometimes that can be overlooked. Five steps have had to be gone through. The first step involved a recognition by myself, by my Department and by the Government, in agreeing with the position of the Senator and other Oireachtas colleagues, that we needed to expand the footprint in Waterford. That step is in place. Setting aside funding to make that happen is in place. The second step was the business case. In other words, Waterford Institute of Technology, which is now SETU, put forward a very detailed comprehensive preliminary business case with projections, analysis and all of that. I thank them for that work. The third step was the carrying out of the report - an independent analysis of the situation from perspective of the taxpayer and the Department - which has gone to the HEA. The fourth step involved my Department receiving a submission from the HEA. We now have that. The fifth step, which is where we are now, involves my Department engaging with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on the report and on a potential mandate for negotiation. If anybody in Waterford wishes for whatever reason to suggest that there is any sort of lacuna or vacuum here, factually it does not stack up. Designation day was May. We are standing here in September having gone through five steps. I am saying that I want to see the engagement taking place as quickly as possible. Obviously the budget has to be the first, second and third priority for the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and my Department now. However, I would like to see intensive engagement between my Department and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform towards the end of this month to try to move this project forward as quickly as possible.

As there is a vote in the Dáil, I ask Senator Cummins to propose the suspension of the sitting.

I propose the suspension of the House.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 2.59 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 3.10 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 2.59 p.m. and resumed at 3.10 p.m.

Community Care

I appreciate the Minister of State taking this matter at short notice. CityWide Drugs Crisis Campaign has highlighted in advance of budget 2023 that drug and alcohol task force community projects are places where lives are changed and lives are saved. These organisations do extraordinary work. During the past year, in one drug task force area in which I have experience, alcohol and cocaine were the most common drug problems. There was an increase in cases treated for cocaine of 83%. Alcohol treatment also increased twofold with twice the numbers supported compared to 2020 and 2021. Benzodiazepine cases increased in the same period by 150%. The task force area also experienced an increase in drug debt intimidation.

These are exceptional projects and they have not had their funding restored since the savage cuts of the recession that was triggered by the banking crisis. There has been no increase in core funding since 2013. They are serving more people in the community with less money than they had prior to 2011. In the meantime, the cost of everything has increased, especially now we are facing an absolute crisis. I acknowledge there have been strands of ad hoc funding such as strand 2 in 2019, cocaine money in 2022 and the community enhancement fund in 2022. As much as they are welcome, they are normally for new initiatives and do not contribute to the sustainability of projects and core funding.

I want to paint a picture of a current situation faced by the St. John Bosco Youth Centre, an exceptionally well-run centre. They have taken great steps with their efficiency and prudent governance decisions to maximise their funding in the service of their community. I have their permission to share their experience. Their building is 1,500 sq. m. It was built at various stages by the community of Drimnagh between the 1950s and 1970s. The centre opens seven days a week, 51 weeks a year. It is open in excess of 90 hours a week. It is used by a wide variety of groups, including youth work projects, Youth Café, Montessori, Merchant's Quay Project, Solas youth justice project, addiction support groups and the Dublin 12 drug and alcohol task force. It is also utilised by different nationality groups as well as for community events. The centre sees 600 people in its services and activities daily. The Bosco has an exemplary record of managing its finances and has shown itself to be a really resilient organisation over its 70 years. It has a record of being extremely prudent and has demonstrated through the cuts in its energy bills that it has taken steps all along to make the most out of the money it has and to be as sensible as possible in the decisions it makes. However, on 22 September the centre will run out of contract with its gas supplier. That will bring it from 2.5 cent per kWh to possibly 17 cent per kWh, a sevenfold increase in the cost. To put this as an average monthly cost, it will go from €700 a month to €4,900 on average.

The current energy crisis represents a big threat to the community and voluntary sector. I would say it poses an even bigger threat than Covid did as it does to our whole society. Just as the development of vaccines and effective public health measures were the way to minimise the threat of Covid, there is an urgent need to put in place a plan to limit the cost impact on organisations within the community and particularly for those who are struggling with drug addiction. We hear all about business supports. We hear about the cost of living interventions. I have great faith in what is going to be in the budget. We hear about lots of other measures but it is really important that no one is left out. Community organisations, especially in the space of drug prevention, treatment and support must be sheltered from the storm of the cost of living. The most vulnerable must be protected. I am asking that there is advocacy and a strong voice in this place to make sure these organisations have their core funding increased to meet the cost-of-living crisis.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I welcome the opportunity to update the House on funding for community-based drug and alcohol services and acknowledge the role of Senator Seery Kearney as chairperson of the Dublin 12 drug and alcohol task force.

Senators may be aware that the Department of Health completed a mid-term review of the actions in the national drugs strategy, Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery, which, as Senators are aware, is a health-led response to drug and alcohol use. Based on the learning from the mid-term review, six strategic priorities for 2021-25 were identified. One such priority is to enhance access to and delivery of drug and alcohol services in the community. The priority seeks to enhance community care for people who use drugs by providing health and social care services at the community level to meet identified health needs. This will be supported through the development of a drugs services care plan formulated on the basis of the six new health regions agreed by the Government in 2019. A particular focus will be put on ensuring access to services for women, people in rural areas, ethnic minorities and the LGBTI+ community. This priority will consider models of care for people who use drugs and have comorbidities. It will also address the stigma linked to drug use and drug addiction and its impact on access and delivery of health services.

I am happy to inform the Seanad that, as the Senator outlined, in December 2021 I created a €2 million fund, namely, the community services enhancement fund, to enhance community-based drug and alcohol services. The fund supports the aforementioned strategic priority under the national drugs strategy for 2021-25. The Department also provides €28 million for 280 community-based drug and alcohol services annually.

Under section 39 of the Health Act 2004, the HSE provides financial assistance to organisations by means of a grant. Section 39 legally underpins the provision of services similar or supplementary to a service the HSE may provide. In October 2018, an agreement was reached by the parties at the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, in respect of a process of pay restoration for staff employed in section 39 organisations who met certain criteria, rather than the types of individual workers who are employed in them. Only organisations that received in excess of an agreed specified amount from the HSE by way of the service level agreement process were included. It must be acknowledged that section 39 organisations are privately owned and run and that their terms and conditions of employment, once in line with employment legislation, are strictly between the employer and the employee.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the Department developed a framework for the restoration and continuation of drug and alcohol services in a planned and appropriate manner in line with public health advice. To support the framework, the Department provided once-off funding of €480,000 in November 2020 for the restoration of drug and alcohol services, including the adaptation of services and premises, online meetings and personal protective equipment. The Department also provided an additional €2 million for residential drug and alcohol treatment services in 2021.

I thank the Minister of State but what we really need to know is that, when it comes to budget 2023, the cost-of-living hike and crisis that are facing these organisations is going to be met with increased core funding. While I appreciate the initiatives that have been taken - the community enhancement has certainly been valuable - it is the core funding that actually needs to be increased. Even if we did not have energy, cost-of-living and inflation crises, 2013 was an awfully long time ago. How can extraordinary organisations such as the St. John Bosco Youth Centre meet a jump from €700 to €4,900 in its average monthly energy cost?

The answer to that is they cannot do so without shaving either staff or services to the 600 people who attend their premises every day. While the prevalence of drug use is the same across all societies and sectors, the greatest impact of drug use is where there is greatest deprivation. Such communities are in a stranglehold. We must make sure community organisations are safeguarded and strongly supported.

I am very much aware of the increased financial pressures being exerted on community-based drug and alcohol services as a result of inflation and the increased cost of living. The Senator outlined the case of the St. John Bosco Youth Centre in Drimnagh. The fact that the gas contract price has gone up from 2.5 cent per kilowatt hour to possibly 17 cent per kilowatt hour or from €700 to €4,900 per month is unsustainable. My officials and the Government are very aware of the matter. The additional operating costs for community-based drug and alcohol services and other section 49 services will be considered as part of the 2023 Estimates process.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. It is a significant concern for these services and services across the board. My Department is taking this on board. The next two weeks will be interesting but we hope the matter will be addressed in the budget. I have brought this message very clearly to the Minister for Health and the Minister for Finance.

Abortion Services

Not for the first time I raise the issue of safe access zones with the Minister of State. It has been four years since the historic vote to repeal the eighth amendment to the Constitution. After that referendum, the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, promised legislation to establish safe access zones outside hospitals. The Minister of State knows that, unfortunately, that promise was not maintained. He also knows that a commitment was given in the programme for Government to establish exclusion zones around medical facilities. Unfortunately, in May 2021, the Minister of State told me in a Commencement matter debate that there was no need for this legislation. On the back of that, the Together for Safety campaign group drew up its own Bill and I was very proud to introduce it in the Seanad, with cross-party support. As the Minister of State knows, that Bill passed all Stages in the Seanad.

One of the frustrating aspects of the past couple of years has been a constant promise by the Government to introduce a Bill. The Minister gave me an assurance that the Bill would be introduced by March 2022 but, again, we did not see the Bill materialise. Thankfully, the heads of a Bill were published in August but I emphasise the crucial importance of moving swiftly with this legislation. The Minister of State will agree with me that everybody should have the right to access healthcare, including abortion services, in dignity, privacy and safety. People should have the right to go to work without having to worry about being observed, harassed or intimidated while doing their job. Additionally, there have recent reports from members of the general public that residents and businesses near these facilities as well as service users find their presence incredibly distressing.

What is the status of the plan to advance the Government's safe access zones Bill? The Minister asked me whether I would work with the Government when it introduced its Bill and I gave him a firm commitment that we would. I want the Minister of State to tell me the timeline for this Bill. As I am sure he will acknowledge, after four years, we have been left waiting for far too long. During the summer, the Minister said he expected the Bill to be fully passed through both Houses by Christmas. Will the Minister of State confirm that this is the timeline? If it is not the timeline, will he outline what the expected timeline for the Bill will be so that we can have a firm expectation as to when we will see these key issues addressed?

It is not a coincidence that only one in ten GPs is offering abortion services. One of the factors that has been acknowledged by the Department is that these protests are having a chilling effect in terms of the provision of services. That is why it is so important that we see action and swift action from this Government.

The Minister of State received an excellent submission from the Together for Safety group regarding the Bill. I will briefly highlight three key concerns regarding the content of the Bill the group has raised. The first involves ensuring that industrial action is protected in the Bill. The Minister of State knows that in our Bill, we made sure industrial action is fully protected.

I am a little surprised there is no reference to that in the heads of the Bill for the Government's proposed legislation. I again ask for a specific assurance that protection of industrial action will be included in that Bill.

The second issue is that of empowering gardaí. The language in head 4 of the proposed Bill needs to be changed from "may" to "shall", thereby empowering gardaí to take necessary action, should the circumstances call for it, and ensuring that action is taken in every instance.

I also ask the Minister of State for an assurance that the Bill will use inclusive language. It is important that it incorporates such inclusive language to recognise and acknowledge that transgender and non-binary people may become pregnant and require access to termination of pregnancy services. We request that the wording "women and pregnant people" be used throughout the legislation, where appropriate.

I would appreciate positive and clear responses on those points.

I thank Senator Gavan for giving me the opportunity to inform the House, on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, of the progress made to date on the safe access zones legislation. I believe the vast majority of us agree that nobody should be harassed, insulted, intimidated or interfered with in any way, or have their decision to access lawful healthcare services subject to attempted influence in an unsolicited way by strangers. The Government is committed to ensuring that anyone needing a termination of pregnancy can access services in safety and with privacy and dignity. This commitment is reflected in the programme for Government.

Progressing safe access zones legislation is a priority for the Minister, and he and his officials have placed a substantial focus on developing robust policy and legislative proposals, recognising the complexity of the issues involved. The Minister brought detailed legislative proposals to Government at the end of July, and he was delighted to secure Government approval for the general scheme of a Bill. The objective of this general scheme and its underlying policy is to protect the right of a woman to access a healthcare service safely, with privacy and dignity, and without facing unsolicited attempts to influence her decision to access it. It will also protect service providers and their staff in the course of their duties and responsibilities.

The proposals aim to establish a 100 m safe access zone around all healthcare facilities that can provide termination of pregnancy services, not just those that currently do, including, for example, all hospitals and GP practices. Within those zones, conduct which is intended to, or may reasonably have the effect of, influencing the decision of a person regarding availing of, or providing, services related to termination of pregnancy will be prohibited. Careful consideration has been given to developing proposals that balance a range of rights, including the right to protest, while ensuring that the legitimate aim to protect the right of a woman to access, and to access safely and with privacy and dignity, termination of pregnancy services is achieved.

For the general information of the House, the general scheme of the Bill for safe access zones was published by the Minister for Health in early August and it is available on the Department's website. The general scheme also provides further detailed explanatory notes on the proposed provisions. Following Government approval, the Department has engaged with the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, the Data Protection Commission and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties seeking any observations they may have.

The Department will continue to engage closely with the Office of the Attorney General, the Department of Justice, the HSE and An Garda Síochána in drafting the final Bill, recognising all the complexities involved. The Minister for Health will also seek the support of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health to undertake pre-legislative scrutiny of the legislative proposals as quickly as possible and he acknowledges the helpful public discussion on safe access zones in recent months. The Minister is committed to seeing the Bill drafted as quickly as possible so that it can be introduced to the Oireachtas, while ensuring the final legislation is as robust as possible. The Senator mentioned a Christmas timeline, and I will try to get information regarding the timeline from the Minister. He looks forward to the support of the Senator and, indeed, everyone in the Houses of the Oireachtas in progressing this important legislation.

I thank the Minister of State for the response. In one sense, it is positive. I agree with all the points made and sentiments expressed by the Minister of State in respect of why the Bill is necessary and why it needs to progress.

I am worried about the lack of detail around timelines. It is a worry because we have already been waiting four years. I understand the need for pre-legislative scrutiny by the health committee. Does the Minister of State have a date for when that could begin, for example? My worry is that, to be frank, we will not make the Christmas deadline as suggested by the Minister during the summer.

It would also be helpful for me if the Minister of State could confirm that protecting industrial action will be part of the Bill. It should be; there should not be anything controversial about that. Will he confirm that the Garda will be given the necessary powers? Equally important, will he commit to ensuring the Bill has inclusive language, for example, using phrases such as “women and pregnant people”? It is very important that the Bill uses inclusive language. Can the Minister of State give a positive response on those points today at the very least?

The Senator raised a few issues regarding the Christmas timeline. He welcomed pre-legislative scrutiny and raised issue relating to industrial action and inclusive language. I will bring them to the Minister.

Again, I think he will agree that those who wish to protest about termination of pregnancy may continue to exercise that right practically everywhere else, including outside of these Houses but such protest may not occur at the access point of healthcare services where the intention of protest activity is, or could reasonably have the effect of, influencing a woman's private healthcare decision. I understand departmental officials are working with the Office of the Attorney General to progress the drafting of the Bill. I will try to get the Senator as much information as I can.

Dental Services

I would like to thank the Cathaoirleach’s office for selecting this Commencement matter. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, to the Chamber.

On 5 August, Oranmore Orthodontics issued a text message to say that the practice was closing. I will not get into the ins and outs of why, but that was development for parents in the area. The practice informed parents that it is no longer practising. Hundreds of children were left high and dry in respect of their dental care. A small number were able to get an orthodontist appointment quickly, but now have to pay extra for this, having previously paid in full for the treatment to the other practice. They do not know whether they will be reimbursed for their full payments. The vast majority of parents have been unable to get anybody to see their children. It seems that everybody is washing their hands of this, including the Dental Council of Ireland, the Dental Complaints Resolution Service and the Department of Health.

As of today, there are still no practical solutions for parents or, more importantly, for children – minors – in Oranmore, Claregalway and the general area. A meeting was held with the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, online last week with some parent representatives and Oireachtas Members. It was described in an email by parent representatives who attended as “disappointing”. That is an understatement. The response that we received was extremely disappointing. All we heard at that meeting was that there is no legislation in place in the case of an orthodontist practice closing. There is a serious lack of specialist orthodontists in the country. There is no legislation in place to deal with any orthodontist practice where a nurse or an orthodontist could fall ill or where it could have to close for health reasons or where they pass away. The Minister has indicated that he is unwilling to put emergency legislation in place to support this unprecedented case, stating that legislation takes months to put in place. Yet, as I said, the text message went out on 4 August and here we are on 14 September. More than a month and a half has passed.

A departmental official who attended the meeting said it is acceptable for parents and patients to travel to Clonmel or Dublin every six weeks for a ten-minute appointment. They got no responses from the Dental Council, which said it contacted 30 orthodontists within a 1.5-hour radius of Oranmore. Parents cannot find those 30 orthodontists. They can find four, but they do not know where the other 26 are. The Dental Complaints Resolution Service is refusing to support parents.

The parents are in limbo not knowing how to claim for the additional expenses incurred to continue their children's care. More importantly, the majority of patients have not secured an orthodontist willing to take on their care and there is no sign of an orthodontist willing to take on these patients any time soon. The Dental Council has advised dentists, although we have to get this in writing, not to take on patients. Some orthodontists who were initially willing to take on patients have suddenly decided they cannot do so or they will not do so on the advice of the Dental Council.

The Minister, it seems, is unwilling or unable to come up with solutions to solve this problem. Officials in the Department have suggested that orthodontists are being sought in Kildare, Cork or Clonmel. Why can the Department not engage with the Dental Council to find a locum to cover this practice while we sort out this mess? This situation is having a major impact on parents and, more importantly, on youngsters and minors. Parents are being left in limbo. Many of them paid out full costs and cannot afford to pay again. They do not know whether they will be reimbursed for the money they have paid.

I thank the Senator for the opportunity to provide an update on the current situation regarding orthodontics in Oranmore. On 11 August, the Department was informed by the Dental Council that it had successfully applied to the High Court to suspend an orthodontist with a practice in Oranmore, County Galway, from the register of dentists and dental specialists. As the court proceedings are ongoing, the Dental Council is not able to discuss the details of the case due to the in camera court proceedings.

Since this matter was brought to the attention of the Minister, he has been very concerned about the situation and the consequences for patients and families. His primary focus has been the care of affected patients. Officials from the Department have been consulting relevant stakeholders in the dental profession to explore possible solutions, within the confines of the ongoing High Court process.

On 8 September, the Minister met patient representatives and local representatives to listen to their specific concerns and consider possible options. He has been given assurances that the Dental Council and the Orthodontic Society of Ireland are using their influence to encourage dental practitioners to support these patients. The Orthodontic Society of Ireland is advising the public that it is co-ordinating with its members and the appropriate bodies to seek ways to resolve this matter to ensure ongoing care is restored as soon as possible. To support patients in receiving continuity of care, the Dental Council has written to orthodontists located nearest to the practice to seek their co-operation if former patients of the Oranmore practice seek their help.

It is usual in cases where dentists are indisposed abruptly through death or illness that care is absorbed by other dental practices over time. Orthodontic practices are commonly wound down in an orderly fashion and patients continue to receive care in other practices. However, I appreciate that at present parents feel this transfer of care is taking time and are very concerned. In view of this, the officials and the Minister will continue to explore all options available to them to help secure continuity of care for the affected patients of Oranmore Orthodontics.

I thank the Minister of State. I appreciate he has been provided with the script. It is very brief and provides no answers. It contains statements I do not believe are factually correct. The Minister has been given assurances that the Dental Council and the Orthodontic Society of Ireland are using their influence to encourage dental practitioners to support the patients. Dentists have informed parents the Dental Council advised them not to take on patients from Oranmore Orthodontics. This directly contradicts what the Minister of State has said. The Minister of State said the Dental Council had written to orthodontists located near the practice to seek their co-operation. Parents are being told the exact opposite and that the Dental Council is telling practitioners not to do so. We do not know the reasons for this. It may be a power play. I do not know.

I will recount the story of one family.

The daughter's braces broke and she was in pain with the wires sticking into her jaw. Her parents said: "No-one would help them so we resorted to a pliers being used to cut the wire to give my daughter some relief." That is worth repeating and is not the only case I have heard where parents' only solution has been to go and find a pliers in emergencies in Galway. It is, therefore, time for the Dental Council, the Minister and the Department to step up and sort this out now. As I said, on 4 August, parents were texted that the practice was winding up and on 14 September no solution is coming from the Department.

I thank the Senator again. The Minister was given assurances that the Dental Council and the Orthodontic Society of Ireland were using their influence to encourage dental practitioners to support these patients. The Senator has said otherwise and I will bring those views back to the Minister. I assure the House that the Department is consulting stakeholders across the dental profession to support the continuity of care for the affected patients in Oranmore. As the case is before the High Court and is subject to in camera proceedings, there is a limit on the information I can provide on behalf of the Minister. The Senator has articulated that situation. It is very worrying and it is a situation we should not be in. Again, I will bring the Senator's views directly to the Minister and try to get this resolved. I again thank the Senator for raising this very difficult situation, which is one that should not occur. I hope all the stakeholders will redouble their efforts to resolve this.

I thank the Minister of State. While we are waiting for the Minister for Education to come in, I welcome Senator Ahearn's brother, Patrick, to the Gallery. Conall is our newest and youngest visitor to the Seanad Chamber and Patrick's wife, Laura, is here as well. They are most welcome to Seanad Éireann and I am sure Senator Ahearn will have a successor in Conall at some stage down the line. Not just today but maybe in the future, a long line of Ahearns will serve in the Oireachtas.

I welcome the Minister to the House for the next Commencement matter. Five Senators are offering on this. As a result of the division earlier, we have limited time for this. I am aware the Minister wants to give more time to this. Each Senator has a minute to outline his or her particular question. The Minister will respond and I will divide the remaining time among the Senators with the Minister to respond again. Senator Wall is first.

School Transport

The Minister is very welcome to the House this afternoon. This is one of the biggest issues, if not the biggest issue apart from housing, that I have received representations on in my office over the past couple of weeks. I am sure colleagues are in the same boat. The issue is parents are seeing their children left at the side of the road; that is the bottom line. Whether we like it or not, that is what is happening throughout south Kildare and its bordering counties of Laois and Offaly. I will relay two quick quotations from parents because they reflect what is happening. The first states: "I have been refused bus tickets that we have had over the last number of years, we now are left with no option but to pay €60 per week for taxis , other than that I will have to give up work". The second parent states:

I have been on to the bus provider last week and yesterday again. The bus goes by our gate everyday with 5 - 6 empty seats in the morning. [There are more in the afternoon because some parents go and drive to school to collect their children]. The bus holds 33 kids but the bus operator has not received any numbers or names from bus eireann, so cannot tell me if the bus is actually full or not [because he has not received that information].

This is what is going on. Nobody knows how many spaces are available. Nobody knows what is going on. Why can we not allow people aged over 70 to drive buses? We need solutions.

The school transport system is vital for tens of thousands of families across the country. This is especially so in rural areas and I am sure in the Minister's own constituency as well, where there is just no other choice. He will be very aware of that. In areas of east Galway and Roscommon around Ahascragh, Kilconnell, Ballyforan and Dysart, we do not have a myriad of transport options. There is no Luas or train line running through these towns. I have been at public meetings in Ballygar and Mountbellew and parents are in despair; it is a lifeline.

Making it free was a wonderful initiative. It has brought in 44,000 students and families who are benefiting and has reduced the cost of transport for families.

My understanding is that with 122,000 tickets issued out of 130,000 applications, there is a shortfall of 8,000 travel tickets. Based on an average journey of ten km - two return journeys a day means a 40 km daily total - I estimate that if we issued those 8,000 tickets, we could take 320,000 km per day of family journeys off country roads. I ask the Minister to imagine the amount of emissions reduction and the savings on fuels this would mean for these families. I put it to her that we need action now for these families.

It is unprecedented that five Senators are speaking about the same Commencement matter. I have never seen it before in my time in the Oireachtas. Realistically, I have 172 or 173 kids on to me from west Cork at the moment. The majority of them had school tickets last year but because of the change in the scheme, they have been effectively thrown off the bus. These are working families who are trying to live their daily lives and their routine has been taken away from them. To compound that, I have spoken to a parent whose child is availing of the school bus scheme this year for the first time. She is caught for the Wednesday afternoon collection, so the child uses the bus service once a week. This means that on the other nine journeys, the seats are empty. The system is broken. We need to put a budget in place to make sure we can cater for all kids and not leave thousands of children at the crossroads without school transportation. We need a new system in place because it is chaos at the moment.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Foley. Like other speakers, I look forward to the day when all schoolchildren will be collected and we will not be having questions about concessionary tickets. I welcome the initiative that the Minister introduced here as a first step along that journey. Unfortunately, the unprecedented take-up on this scheme has resulted in children who have school transport tickets every year not getting tickets. I know one particular family whose child is now doing the leaving certificate and has had a ticket for her six years in secondary school, and this is the first year that they have not been able to get a ticket for her. Many parents are working and are under stress to keep things going. The last thing they need at the moment is to have to deal with this problem. It is estimated that 1,800 children in counties Monaghan, Cavan and Louth do not have a school bus ticket at present. I know the Minister is working hard on this issue. I look forward to being told what the plans are to address it.

Everything we are talking about today is an unintended consequence of what was a good policy. The unintended consequence is that children who received concessionary tickets for the last number of years, and eligible tickets in some cases, now do not have a seat on the bus. I know of between 50 and 60 children in County Louth from villages such as Ravensdale, Castlebellingham, Annagassan, Collon and Ardee who are all trying to get into Dundalk, Drogheda and Dunleer, but do not have tickets for those buses. The buses are leaving each day half full because the people who have received tickets do not need them or are not using them. As the last speaker here, I ask the Minister on behalf of the parents of those students in County Louth to set out what the plan is to fix this.

I thank the Minister, Deputy Foley, for taking time out of her busy schedule to come before the Seanad.

I thank the Senators for raising these matters. Before I address the specific issues raised, I will provide an outline of the significant extent of the school transport scheme which provides transport on a daily basis for tens of thousands of children across the country to mainstream and special education settings. The purpose of the school transport scheme is, having regard to available resources, to support the transport to and from school of children who reside remote from their nearest school. In July 2022, the Government announced funding for the waiving of school transport scheme fees for the 2020-23 school year as part of an extraordinary package of cost-of-living measures. This measure has saved families up to €650 per year.

School transport ticket registration for the 2022-23 year closed on 29 July, by which time almost 130,000 applications or registrations were received for mainstream school transport. This figure includes 44,299 new applications, as well as rollovers from the previous school year. This indicates the very strong level of demand for tickets. Some 124,000 tickets for the mainstream scheme alone have already been issued to applicants. At the start of the last school year, approximately 103,000 children were carried on mainstream school transport services. Therefore, approximately 21,000 additional places have already been created free of charge. There has been an increase in tickets allocated across all counties. We are continuing to process applications and to issue tickets as soon as extra buses and drivers are sourced and become available to provide transport to the higher numbers qualifying for the service.

However, regrettably the unprecedented numbers of new applications for the upcoming school year have led to some delays in issuing tickets.

The normal eligibility criteria of the scheme still apply and tickets continue to be allocated in line with these criteria. Pupils at primary level are eligible where they live no less than 3.2 km from their nearest primary school. At post-primary level, students who live no less than 4.8 km from and are attending their nearest or next-nearest post-primary school are eligible. Any pupils who do not meet these criteria are deemed not eligible, or otherwise known as concessionary applicants, and are allocated a ticket, as has been previously the case, based on the availability of a seat when all eligible children have been catered for.

In line with normal practice, all eligible children who completed the application and ticket registration process on time for the 2022-23 school year will be accommodated on school transport services where such services are in operation.

In addition, pending completion of the outcome of the full review of the school transport scheme, temporary alleviation measures at post-primary level continue for the 2022-23 school year. As I previously outlined, these measures will provide transport for students who are attending their next-nearest post-primary school.

With regard to the review of the school transport scheme, the Department commenced a review in February 2021. The review is being conducted with a view to examining the current scheme and how it currently operates, its broader effectiveness and sustainability and that it adequately supports the provision of services to students and their families.

The review encompasses the school transport scheme for children with special educational needs also. The review of the primary and post-primary school transport schemes will examine each element of the schemes and includes eligibility criteria, trends, costs, cost drivers and overall effectiveness in meeting the objectives of the schemes. The review will also examine the potential for integration of different strands of the scheme and a more co-ordinated approach with other Departments that also use transport services.

Wider considerations relating to operation of the scheme are taking place in the current phase of the review. As part of the current phase of the review, the technical working group has undertaken extensive consultation, including running a public survey for parents, guardians and students who use the service and those who do not use the service but who would like to. These engagements have yielded extensive data for consideration. The group has also consulted a broad array of stakeholders, including schools, special education interest groups, industry representatives and other Departments.

While work on the review was impacted somewhat by the challenges of the pandemic and the impact of the current conflict in Ukraine, it is anticipated that the final phases of the review will be completed shortly, with recommendations on the future operation of the Department's school transport scheme. The steering group will continue to report to me on an interim basis as regards the progress of the review.

All previous eligibility criteria in normal years should go out the window because the floodgates have been opened. By allowing every child in the country to avail of free school transport, the Minister can no longer maintain the same eligibility criteria. We told every child in the country we will provide free school transport without even bothering to prepare by providing for extra buses.

The demand is not unprecedented. When the Cabinet decided in June or July to provide free school transport, the Government should have said we had better get more bus drivers and buses before proceeding to give free school transport. That is clear and obvious. We cannot apply the same rules and eligibility criteria. We cannot give free school transport to everyone in the country and then say we are sorry but we do not have enough buses. What is the plan?

I thank the Minister for her response.

I respectfully ask the Department officials to expedite the review as much as possible. It is important that it is comprehensive. I look forward to the outcome but there is a sense of urgency with it because we need to get our house in order for next year.

Some operators tell me there are issues with regard to solutions. There is a particular issue with the buses and another issue getting people to drive them. I could be working for a private operator taking schoolchildren to a football match and back to school again.

If I were to work for Bus Éireann, however, I would not be able to drive those same children home to their mums and dads in the evening or to collect them in the morning. That does not make sense.

I have spoken to operators who say of the tendering system that the quality of the buses in use needs to be taken into consideration and that it should not be the cheapest tender in this instance that wins the award because there are issues with payments for drivers. That needs to be reflected in the tenders if we are to have a bus service going forward.

I might be wrong, but I think the review was started in February 2021. This issue is not about the review of how the transportation system will work for schools. The issue is that there was a change and we had a mass of people come on board looking for the scheme. Because of that, people who were always on the bus have been thrown off the bus. That is my problem. I am aware of hundreds of kids in west Cork who have been eligible to ride the bus for four or five years and are now thrown off it because the criteria have changed. As a result, we need an urgent budget put in place to accommodate the people who have been left behind. We have left thousands behind, hundreds of them in west Cork. The distances involved are quite amazing. I am talking about places like Belgooly and Riverstick all the way to Rossmore. I had a meeting in Rossmore a few weeks ago at which we heard that 28 children were on the bus last year but are off it this year. That is because of the change that was made.

This is therefore not about the review. It is about the next ten days and about what we can do to make sure we have a budget to accommodate the children we left behind.

I know that the Minister is very much aware that there is pure frustration among families and parents about this issue. There is no space or capacity on the buses. Suddenly, everyone has learnt about the criteria in respect of full eligible tickets and concessionary tickets. There have been last minute notice emails. There is the communications side of things and the family portal. Children have been left on the side of the road. I heard from a mother working at Portiuncula Hospital who had to leave the hospital to come out and pick up a child left at the side of the road. Is this the fault of bus drivers? No. Is it the fault of inspectors? No. We need to be smarter about how we use the resources at hand. This is an issue because it is affecting rural Ireland more than city centres, where there are so many other choices. We do not have taxis to bring people from A to B. That does not exist. Yes, maybe if one is in the town centre, one can get a taxi, but one cannot do so out in rural areas. I know that this is a huge issue for the Minister as well. Let us be smarter about using our resources. Let us use the budget allocation for private contractors. Let us take into account their extra fuel costs. Let us take the individual travel off the road and reduce emissions. Let us make things safer and let us help rural Ireland.

I thank the Minister for her reply. We cannot wait for reviews. Colleagues have said that. As for the example I gave the Minister of the incident involving the child, she is a special needs child. I did not say that in my initial contribution. She is losing school days because she cannot get to school, but the school bus is going past her door with five to six empty seats on it. We need to contact those operators and ask them how many people are on their buses and how many spare spaces they have. We need to ensure that those over 70 years of age can drive our buses.

Local Link has a huge part to play in this as well. In my area a great Local Link service was announced and we asked if it could go at 4.15 p.m. to accommodate schools. The answer was "No" because it has to go at 4 p.m. Now those who could accommodate themselves on Local Link cannot do so. It is a matter of joined-up thinking but it has to happen now. Children are on the side of the road. Parents are handing in their notice. This is an urgent issue, and everyone in this House knows it. The Government needs to act.

I wish to be clear, and it is important to note, that when the announcement was made, it was made in respect of those who avail of the school transport system and are eligible for it. There was no change of criteria in that respect. It was made very clear that the announcement was for those who were eligible for the school transport scheme.

It is significant to note the numbers. This time last year we had 103,000 tickets issued and students availing of the system. At this point we have 124,000 availing of the school transport system, and availing of it free of charge, so it has been a considerable cost-of-living measure for many families, for many of them amounting to €650.

I referred to the review because it was specifically referred to in the questions put to me as part of the Commencement matter. The review is ongoing and is charged with looking at eligibility, so there may well be an opportunity going forward to change eligibility, but there was nothing about changed eligibility in the announcement.

I do not for one minute underestimate any of the difficulties for the families in accessing the school transport system. It is for that reason that I initiated the review in the first instance.

Where there are specific challenges, we continue to work through them. It is fair to say that there have been challenges in terms of additional buses and drivers, but excellent work is going on there and those who are eligible are being catered for. Where there is scope to do otherwise, as we have seen previously where there is additional capacity as a consequence of those eligible being catered for, which will continue going forward, then there will be provision made going forward.

I continue to look at every possible avenue that we have. I continue to look at resources, including in discussions with the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, with regard to it going forward. It is a significant achievement that 124,000 children are availing of free transport at this point.

I specifically wish to reference a question that was raised in terms of special education. There should be no issue there. I would appreciate if the Senator would share the details of that case with me because there should not be an issue when it comes to special education.