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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 15 Sep 2022

Vol. 288 No. 2

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

School Accommodation

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

I thank the Minister of State for being here to take this matter, which is important in the Newbridge and Kildare area. I have used time here over the past two years and, prior to that, as a Member in the Dáil to raise the urgent issue of school accommodation for secondary school students in Kildare South and, in particular, in Newbridge and Kildare. I appreciate the opportunity to return to this matter again.

Some progress has been made in the provision of accommodation in that a site at the Magee Barracks in Kildare town was acquired and contracts were signed in July. I appreciate the action taken by the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, in acquiring that. However, there was a 100% commitment that modular accommodation would be available this time next year, which is next September 2023, in order to have an intake into first year. I want 100% reassurance that this remains the case. We need to have a better co-ordinated approach to allocating secondary school places.

I am dealing currently with two families whose children still do not have places. This is the third week of secondary school and they still do not have places. I have been speaking to the educational welfare officer attached to Tusla and, despite all help and co-operation on that level, they are at a complete loss as to what to do. Only at this point, which is three weeks in, are they at the stage of being able to offer nine hours of home tuition, until a place comes up. That is simply not good enough because young people lose out so much. We talk about all the extra things that we need to do within the education system, but if a young person does not have a place in a school, that is a crisis. That is what we are looking at now. In the next few weeks, primary schools and secondary schools in the Newbridge-Kildare area will be addressing enrolments starting September 2023. They are at a complete loss because there are rumours abounding that the modular accommodation will not be in place by next September. I, therefore, want absolute clarity and commitment in reply to this. It is difficult enough for the feeder schools within Newbridge and Kildare but there are outlying, smaller primary schools, for example, Scoil Bhríde Milltown, which is not a feeder school for any secondary school. That is a further complication for them. The population in both towns and in the smaller towns nearby is growing. We have housing estates but we do not have the infrastructure to deal with them. We have an issue in relation to school places.

It is bad enough this year but it will get worse next year, so we have to be able to match that. As I mentioned, we see a record number of houses being constructed and that will bring a very welcome boost to our local economies. We want to see homes for people, but I have been raising this red flag for about seven years now. The rate of growth is far outpacing our infrastructural advancement since then. Resources are maxed out. We have to be able to give a 100% guarantee to parents that their children will have a place in September next year. We must be able to give a guarantee that those who are without a place now will be able to get it very soon. I look forward to the Minister of State's response and her commitment that we will be able to move forward.

I thank Senator O'Loughlin for raising this issue. I am taking this Commencement matter on behalf of my colleague the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, who is regrettably unavailable. I thank the Senator for giving me an opportunity to provide an update on the current status of the construction of a new school building for Curragh Community College and the provision of interim accommodation for the 2023-24 academic year. Curragh Community College is a multidenominational, co-educational school under the patronage of Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board, ETB, with an enrolment of 159 pupils for the 2021-22 school year. A new site is required to construct the replacement school building. Following an extensive site identification, assessment and negotiation process, the Department of Education has acquired a new site at Magee Barracks in Kildare town, subject to planning permission, to provide a replacement and expanded school for Curragh Community College. The new school will have capacity for 1,000 pupils as well as accommodation for special classes. The new school will cater for the increased demographic growth at post-primary level due to occur in the Kildare South region over the coming years, the majority of which is projected to occur in Kildare town.

The location of an 8 acre greenfield site is next to two existing primary schools - Kildare Town Educate Together National School and Gaelscoil Mhic Aodha, within the grounds of the former Magee Barracks in Kildare town. The development of the post-primary school on this site will enhance the education facilities available to Curragh Community College and the existing primary schools in a new educational campus arrangement. The project brief for this major building project is currently being developed. It is intended that the project will be delivered under the Department of Education's accelerated delivery of architectural planning and tender, ADAPT, programme, which uses the services of a professional external project manager to co-ordinate and drive the design team to achieve the best possible timeframe to progress this project through the stages of architectural planning.

The tender process to appoint a project manager has been completed. The project manager is currently arranging site visits arid the procurement of site surveys for all projects on this ADAPT programme, including for this site in Kildare. The tender competition for the appointment of design teams for the first tranche of school building projects on the ADAPT programme will shortly be commenced by the project manager. The Department of Education will keep the patron, Kildare and Wicklow ETB, informed in relation to the ADAPT programme and the appointment of the design team and further progression through the stages of architectural planning for this major school building project. The Department of Education is also currently in discussion with the patron with regard to the school's interim accommodation needs for the 2023-24 academic year.

I reassure the Senator that I will raise the issues she has raised here this morning directly with the Minister, Deputy Foley. I completely understand how important it is for students and families that they have certainty around their placement and the new building that is required.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. I appreciate that she will raise the matter directly with the Minister, Deputy Foley. I have raised it directly with her myself, and with staff in her office. Nevertheless, I am still hugely concerned. I understand that the long-term vision for the provision of additional school places is the relocation of Curragh Community College, where the principal, Nessa Doyle, is second to none, but she cannot magic places out of nowhere for next year. As it currently stands, she will only have 26 available places next year if modular buildings are not on site. There was no response in regard to the modular buildings that have been 100% committed to for September 2023. That is why I have a great concern in that regard. I appreciate that the project will be under the ADAPT programme. It is realised that it is a priority, but it is the short-term situation that I am hugely concerned about. I feel I will have no option but to bring this up again in a Commencement debate in the not-too-distant future, and to request a meeting with the Minister, Deputy Foley, and principals in the area, because it is simply not good enough that a few weeks away from the enrolment process beginning, we are still in limbo land. I still believe that is the case in spite of the response that we are there.

I hear Senator O'Loughlin's concerns, which I will be relaying to the Minister. I again thank the Senator for raising this matter and giving me an opportunity to outline the Department of Education's proposals to address a permanent and interim solution for the accommodation needs of Curragh Community School. As I said, plans are well advanced to initiate the architectural planning process for the permanent school building with the appointment of the project manager. Proposals are also being explored to address any interim accommodation requirements for September 2023. The Department of Education will continue to liaise with the patron, the Kildare and Wicklow ETB, in this regard. I will relay the concerns Senator O'Loughlin has outlined here this morning.

Building Regulations

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, for taking this Commencement matter at very short notice this morning. I appreciate that. He is well aware of the issues arising for homeowners in particular due to apartment defects. I applaud the work of the report of the working group examining defects in purpose-built apartments and duplexes between 1991 and 2013, which was published on 28 July. The report points to a number of factors as having created the situations where homes have been left with fire defects, water ingress, structural issues and a myriad of other issues. They defined the defects in question as being attributable to defective design, defective or faulty workmanship, defective materials, and any combination of these at the time of construction, and as being in contravention of the relevant part of the building regulations. One thing that is clear from that definition and all of the findings in the report is that the owners of these properties are not at fault. It is not a situation of their creation, yet those homeowners are now faced with enormous, and in many instances, life-changing bills. While they have to continue living, in some cases in dangerous and unsafe properties that they cannot sell, one of the issues I raise this morning is that they cannot insure them. The hardship to owners is obvious. Extreme stress is being caused by the enormous financial demands on these families and now at a time of a cost-of-living crisis and uncertainty about our economic stability and all that is facing us in the coming months, they have no way out of this nightmare. They cannot sell. They cannot escape it in any way, shape or form. They are locked into these homes, knowing that in some instances they can be death traps, in particular in the case of a fire defect.

I have well over 100 emails from people and I have received phone calls from people who were crying because they do not know how to face the demands that have been made of them. In the area of Dublin South-Central, which is my home constituency, there is a particularly large number of apartment complexes. People have been given demands, even in recent months, for anywhere between €32,000 and €84,000. Most people cannot raise the amount of money that is being demanded of them in the short term.

The report was published. Owner management companies now have to respond in respect of the defects. We know the situation and we know where the fault lies. We also know where the fault absolutely does not lie, and yet it has been placed on the people affected. A woman who appeared before the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, almost two years ago now, described putting her child to sleep at night in an apartment where she knew there were fire defects. We need an urgent response to that. Insurers are refusing to insure premises. In response to the Grenfell tragedy, they are now introducing additional requirements in respect of cladding that have nothing to do with this. There are insurance requirements involved. These homeowners are being caught in every possible way.

There are also owner management companies that are reluctant to start the works because they are waiting for the Government response. They want to know when they will receive money from the Government to support them in going through the process. There is a delay and, with that, we have a potential disaster on our hands. We will act very fast on the morning after a fire. We need to act now before there is one. Thank God, thus far there have been no deaths and injuries arising from this situation, but we must act. What is the Government's response to this issue? Is there a sense of urgency? There is certainly a clear sense of urgency in the community and in Dublin South-Central in particular.

I thank the Senator for raising the matter. I am aware that she has consistently raised it with my colleagues, the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, and the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien. The Senator has described the trauma experienced by the residents. It is critically important that they have certainty. That is what we are attempting to provide.

My colleague, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, and I acknowledge the difficulties that homeowners and residents of many apartments and duplexes are facing, and the stress that is caused when the defects arise in their buildings. We are both aware that there have been many incidences of failures and non-compliance concerns coming to light in apartment buildings built during the building boom. The Minister has repeatedly said that this is a nettle that the Government must and will grasp. The Government is committed to helping affected homeowners.

One of the Minister's first tasks following the formation of the Government was to establish an independent working group to examine defects in housing under the chairmanship of Mr. Seamus Neely, a former chief executive of Donegal County Council. This followed on from a commitment in the programme for Government to examine the issue and bring forward reforms. This commitment was further supported by actions contained in Housing for All. The group's terms of reference were focused on fire safety, structural safety and water ingress defects in purpose-built apartment buildings, including duplexes, constructed between 1991 and 2013. The Minister received and published the report of the working group at the end of July this year. The level of consultation and engagement the working group undertook with stakeholders and interested parties, both here and abroad, was extensive. As a result, the report is rich in data regarding the nature and scale of defects, as well as the cost of addressing the defects. The working group estimates that of apartments and duplexes or associated common areas constructed between 1991 and 2013, the number that may be affected by one or more fire safety, structural safety and water ingress defects is likely to range between 50% and 80%. This equates to between 62,500 and 100,000 apartments and duplexes. The scale is quite incredible. In addition, the working group estimates that the average cost of undertaking the remediation of defects is likely to be approximately €25,000 per apartment or duplex. This translates into a potential overall total remediation cost ranging from approximately €1.56 billion to €2.5 billion.

The working group's recommendations, along with the evidence gathered on options for potential supports contained in the report, will be of considerable assistance in informing this Government's next steps. Taking into account the learning gained through the development and operation of other schemes, such as the pyrite remediation scheme and the defective concrete blocks scheme, the Minister will now, in consultation with Government colleagues, develop a plan to address the situation that many homeowners find themselves in through no fault of their own, as the Senator said.

I thank the Minister of State. With respect, what I have heard is a description of the working group and its work and report. I have not heard an answer. From the Minister of State's reply, I note that the Government is planning to respond and accepts that this issue is not the fault of the homeowners. However, there are homeowners today who are living in apartments with bills sitting on their kitchen tables that they are expected to meet. They cannot draw down finance or borrow. There is no back-up or support. In many instances, the work is not being done, so these people are living in a very precarious situation from day to day.

We need the Government to underwrite advance loans until such time as a grant scheme is put in place in response to the report. An urgent interim response is required. The Government should tell people to go borrow the money and that it will underwrite the loan. In that way, while the response and the scheme is being designed people will have the funds required for the work to continue to be carried out in order that they will be safe in their homes with their children. We need that as a matter of urgency.

I thank the Senator again for raising this important issue. The content of this report confirms what we already know, namely, that there is a significant and widespread issue with defects in a large number of apartments and duplexes built during the Celtic tiger years.

On behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, I assure the Seanad of this Government's commitment to deal with the issue of defects in housing and to assist homeowners who may find themselves in difficult financial circumstances. The Government will also continue to drive regulation in the construction sector and more sustainable methods of construction to ensure the mistakes of the past are not repeated.

I will take the Senator's assertion that we must take urgent action back to the Minister. It is important. I have reiterated the Government's commitment to resolving this issue in as timely a manner as possible and also to ensure equity and fairness for all of the families concerned. As the Senator said, it is no fault of the homeowners that they ended up in these circumstances. Some of the management companies are ready to move on the issue. It is important, therefore, that we act with a sense of urgency. I will convey that point to the Minister on the Senator's behalf.

I wish Mr. Seamus Neely, chairman of the working group, well. I worked alongside him in Cavan County Council and he is a brilliant individual. Please God, he will do a good job.

Energy Policy

I welcome the Minister of State. This Commencement matter concerns the need to reopen Lough Ree power station. That is the issues I wish to discuss. Lough Ree power station in Lanesborough, County Longford, closed nearly two years ago, seven years ahead of what was to be a just transition from brown to green in 2027. The plant has the capacity to generate 100 MW per hour. We are in the midst of an energy crisis. We hear talk in the media of blackouts. I understand the ESB has a drawn up a list of towns that will face blackouts should this need to happen. There are businesses that are high energy users, which will be asked to go off grid, possibly putting people out of work. We know that was agreed in the most recent auction, which I believe took place in 2019, with regard to input into our grid. The reality is that those targets are not going to be reached by certain companies, including the ESB.

People are in fear about this issue but there is no need for that fear. If we had the capacity within our network, we would not have that fear. We have the facilities that are capable of producing the energy required, whether it is through Shannonbridge power station or Lough Ree power station in my local area, which has the capacity to produce 100 MW per hour. It can be done. The equipment is still there; it has not been sold off. If there is a will in the Government to do it, it can be done, and it can be done in the short term. We need to look seriously at that idea, even if it is only for the winter months, in order to alleviate the fear out there.

People are dealing with high energy costs at the minute but the stark reality is that there is a possibility they might not have energy. If we have an extremely cold winter, we will be in serious trouble. If we have low winds, we are going to be in trouble. If the UK decides to shut off the interconnector we rely on between the UK and Ireland, we will be in major trouble. What will have to happen then is that businesses will shut down, and ultimately there is the possibility of a blackout in towns. Fuel can be sourced from peat that is on-site. There is 45 loads of it being drawn off the site every day. We have sawmills in the facility for chipping. We have an issue with ash dieback with which the Minister will be aware. A serious number of forests throughout the country have been affected. These trees could be cut down, transported, chipped on-site and burned. We would be alleviating another problem and contributing to the energy network in the country. We cannot have a situation where there are towns without energy, businesses shutting down and the possibility of knock-on effects on other facilities and hospital appointments being cancelled when there is no need for it. We need to bite the bullet, make a decision and put these plants back to work, for the winter months at least, to make sure we do not have a situation where we have energy cut off or any town facing a blackout.

I have a personal interest in this as I have a lot of friends in the Lanesborough area.

I thank Senator Carrigy for raising this matter, which is very timely.

The management of the ESB-owned facilities is an operational matter for the board and management of the ESB. The ESB ceased electricity generation at Shannonbridge and Lanesborough power stations in December 2020 because their planning permission had expired. The just transition commissioner made a recommendation in his first progress report published in May 2020 that a study be undertaken regarding the future potential at both ESB power stations for the establishment of a dedicated energy hub in the midlands. This was subsequently included as a commitment in the programme for Government.

The ESB has been participating in a number of working groups established under the just transition programme which looked at the future of the midlands area following the closure of the ESB midlands stations and the ending of the harvesting of peat by Bord na Móna. One of the working groups, which included representatives of the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, relevant local authorities and the just transition commissioner, looked specifically at how the existing infrastructure on the station sites might form part of a future renewable energy hub. To that end, the ESB commissioned an internal engineering report to examine how the power plants might be reused in the future. The options reviewed included the possibility of using other types of fuel. The report was subsequently reviewed by Fichtner, an external international consultancy firm with acknowledged expertise in these areas. These reports have not identified any viable alternative use for the existing power plants. However, based on the recommendations and the conclusions drawn from the review, the ESB decided to seek planning permission for both remediation and redevelopment works at both sites which would involve the construction of electrical grid systems support technology hubs that can facilitate greater levels of renewable energy generation at the grid, in line with ESB's Brighter Future strategy.

In terms of securing our electricity supplies for the coming winter, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, currently has a programme of actions under way to ensure the security of our electricity supply over the coming winters. The security of supply programme of actions contains a number of both demand-side and supply-side mitigation measures to address the forecasted shortfall. These actions include: procurement of new enduring capacity through a number of capacity auctions; procuring additional temporary generation; extending the availability of existing generators; additional use of grid scale batteries; and improved demand-side measures.

Two words the Minister of State used near the end of his statement were "expected shortfall". He is admitting or stating here what we know will happen, that is, there will be a shortfall in energy. The alternatives we are talking about and a lot of the proposals that are being mentioned are all years down the line. The just transition was due to happen in 2027. We have a situation where the power plants were closed at the end of 2020. We have a facility there that can produce 100 MW per hour of energy for the network and, therefore, we would not have an anticipated shortfall. We are willing to take that risk of having a shortfall and closing down businesses and the possibility of towns facing a blackout, rather than making the right decision, even if only for a number of years, over the winter months or whenever it may be, to re-power up that plant. We have energy that can be used on-site. We can alleviate another issue I mentioned in that the large amount of trees with ash dieback that have been affected can be burned and chipped to produce energy. This is only a temporary measure to make sure we do not have the anticipated shortfall we are saying we will have. I request the Minister of State to take this message back to the Department. We need to be realistic about decisions we make and not face an anticipated shortfall with nothing put in place while there is an option on the ground. The infrastructure is there, the equipment is there and it would not be a major cost to fire that generator up and make sure we have energy in the country this winter and next.

I should clarify that the phrase "anticipated shortfall" refers to an anticipated shortfall in the buffer of the surplus energy we have, on top of what is needed to power the country. I do not expect there will be power cuts this winter or next winter, although it is always possible. It is always possible every year. There is always a possibility of power cuts happening and it is the job of the CRU and EirGrid together to work out how to minimise that possibility. It is for that reason we passed emergency legislation to provide for extra generators next winter. The Senator mentioned as a possibility using wood affected by ash dieback. That is an inventive and creative idea. I know the Department of agriculture is working on ash dieback schemes and will be thinking about it before the upcoming budget. I will bring that suggestion back to that Department for consideration.

Regarding the renovation and re-use of the existing facilities at Lanesborough and Shannonbridge, that has been looked at, examined and externally reviewed. It really has been considered if there is any possibility of re-using them using either existing or alternative fuels. If there was a possibility and if it could help, and is something we need to do, that door is open. I will come back to the Senator on the idea of using wood affected by ash dieback.

Thank you. Will the Minister of State oblige, given that we did not circulate copies of his speech, by emailing it to the Seanad Office? Senator Carrigy would possibly like a copy too.

Absolutely, yes.

Health Services

I welcome the students from Denmark in the Visitors Gallery. It is wonderful to have them here. They are from a very beautiful country that is a great friend of Ireland. There are great connections between Ireland and Demark and we have similar industry and agriculture etc.

I also welcome our friends from Denmark. They are very welcome to Ireland even though they keep beating us in soccer and Christian Eriksen scores brilliant goals against us. We wanted to go to that World Cup but the Danish team beat us.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, for taking this important debate. I cannot think of anything more distressing or upsetting, other than a family member passing away, than a mother or a couple finding out they cannot have children. One of the most distressing parts after finding this out is that there are no supports available from the Government which recognise the challenges the couple then faces. I have spoken to a number of people who went through the process of initially finding this out and then on the journey through IVF treatment.

Sometimes it is successful, which is brilliant, but sometimes it is not. Even if you are successful after one or two goes, the cost is significant. On average, it takes three goes. These are people who are predominantly in their late 20s, 30s and early 40s. They are working and are facing all of the bills and other costs of living that we are facing at the moment, but they want to have families. We are one of only two countries in the EU - the other is Lithuania - that does not provide any funding whatsoever. It is sometimes so frustrating that it feels like we are waiting for Lithuania to do this before we do so that we can be last. The State was founded on the basis of supporting families and the family network. If there is an example of how the State should be supporting families, it is supporting women and couples to have kids.

The National Infertility Support and Information Group, NISIG, has been operating for 25 years and supporting people going through this process. It has done a wonderful job in giving people information and preparing them for the journey ahead. It has essentially been doing this work itself; no one else is helping. It has made a proposal for the upcoming budget. I will go through some of its recommendations. These are simple recommendations that the Minister for Health committed to while in opposition and that are contained in the programme for Government. We just need to implement them quickly. The group recommends providing State IVF funding in line with the Health (Assisted Human Reproduction) Bill 2022 so that it comes into effect in 2023. That funding would include all other fertility treatments and blood tests undertaken by anyone within the WHO's definition of someone who is experiencing infertility. Importantly, a model should be introduced whereby private clinics can provide State-funded treatment until such time as publicly-funded treatment is provided. People should continue to be allowed to reclaim tax benefits on any privately undertaken fertility treatments in Ireland. The drug prescription medical card must be kept in place for the long term to help alleviate the cost of prescriptions associated with assisted human reproduction, AHR, treatment. Counselling support is also important for part of the fertility treatment journey. If someone who was going through anything else that was emotionally distressing attended a doctor, the doctor would give him or her advice on where to go for counselling. In the case of fertility services, though, it seems that the doctor is meant to provide the counselling. That is not credible. The NISIG is the only charity dealing with this issue. It does incredible work, but it needs to be financially supported next year and beyond.

Infertility is not normally spoken about. We need a campaign similar to the ongoing one on contraception. We need to open up a conversation about this matter. Few women and, in particular, men like to talk about this issue. One in six people or couples suffer from infertility, yet it is not talked about to that extent.

These recommendations need to be implemented as a matter of urgency. For obvious reasons, people only have a certain time in which to have children. Most people only find out that they have infertility issues later than expected, that is, when they are trying to have children. No one goes into a clinic at 21 or 22 years of age to find out whether he or she has infertility issues. That happens in someone's mid-30s. People's time to have a child is limited from then on. The cost element is significant. People have to make decisions about whether to pay their mortgages and bills or whether to try to start a family, and it always comes around to the question of whether it will even work. We need to show that, as a Government, we care about and want to support these people and that we want them to have the opportunity to start a family and make that journey in life. It is a difficult journey, but let us try to make it a little easier for them.

I thank the Senator for giving me, on behalf of the Minister for Health, the opportunity to inform the House of the progress made to date regarding the provision of fertility-related treatment through the public health system.

As the Senator will be aware, a commitment to introduce a model of care for infertility is in the programme for Government. The model of care was developed by officials in the Department of Health in conjunction with the HSE's national women and infants health programme and approved by the Government. It will ensure that infertility issues affecting both men and women will be addressed through the public health system at the lowest level of clinical intervention necessary as part of the full range of services available in obstetrics and gynaecology.

The model of care comprises three stages, starting in primary care - GPs - and extending into secondary care, that being, regional fertility hubs, and then, where necessary tertiary care, for example, IVF and other advanced AHR treatments, with patients being referred onwards through structured pathways.

Phase 1 of the roll-out of the model of care has involved the establishment at secondary care level of regional fertility hubs in maternity networks to facilitate the management of a significant proportion of patients presenting with infertility issues without the need to undergo invasive IVF or other advanced AHR treatments. Utilising funding of approximately €63 million in total, five regional fertility hubs have been established and are operational. The sixth and final hub is due to open before the end of this year. The completion of phase 1 of the roll-out of the model of care will therefore result in fully operational regional fertility hubs in each of the six current hospital groups across the country.

Phase 2 of the roll-out will see the introduction of tertiary infertility services, including IVF, in the public health system. Substantial planning, development and policy work has been required in respect of this phase. At this juncture, the design and scope of this aspect of the model of care have not been finalised, as detailed consideration of a range of issues, including service and treatment design, eligibility and access criteria, and associated resource implications needs to be completed. This work will also need to be informed by the final Health (Assisted Human Reproduction) Bill 2022, the progress of that Bill, which has passed Second Stage in the Dáil, and associated regulations that will be developed following the enactment of the legislation. Departmental officials are continuing their engagement with the HSE on the programmes of work required to advance consideration of the issues arising for commencing phase 2.

Overall, the underlying aim of the policy to provide a model of funding for AHR, within the broader AHR regulatory framework, is to improve accessibility to AHR treatments while embedding safe and appropriate clinical practice and ensuring the cost-effective use of public resources.

I thank the Minister of State for her response, but it is frustrating. She stated: "At this juncture, the design and scope of this aspect of the model of care have not been finalised". For what are we waiting? The Minister for Health was incredibly vocal on this issue while in opposition. He made a commitment. People cannot wait too long. Sometimes, this is spoken about as if it is some sort of entitlement, but it is not. It is an equality issue. I ask the Minister of State, who sits at Cabinet, to use her role to ensure that these women and couples are heard and supported.

I do not know whether the Minister of State got to hear it, but at lunchtime yesterday, Newstalk devoted more than half an hour to this issue. It had people on, including a girl called Grace and others, who spoke about their personal journeys. If people just listened to such stories, much of this would be done faster. In her role at Cabinet, I ask the Minister of State to influence the Cabinet to make a decision as quickly as possible.

I realise the importance of having these services in place. I will raise the Senator's concerns directly with the Minister. While it is not possible to give a definitive timeline for the passage of the AHR Bill through the Houses, this matter is a priority for the Government.

Regarding current supports for those undertaking AHR treatment, a defined list of fertility medicines needed for such treatment is covered under the high-tech arrangement administered by the HSE. I am aware that such schemes can have a material impact on the cost of AHR treatment for individuals who avail of them. In addition, other supports are available to patients who access treatment privately. They may claim tax relief on the costs involved under the tax relief for medical expenses scheme. Nevertheless, the Department is committed to establishing a proper regulatory framework for AHR and then to completing the roll-out of the model of care for infertility.

Ultimately, we have two main end goals. First, in respect of the legislation, we aim to ensure that assisted human reproduction practices and related areas of research are conducted in a more consistent and standardised way and with the necessary oversight. Second, through the full implementation of model of care for infertility, our aim is make certain patients receive care at the appropriate level of clinical intervention and that those requiring, and eligible for, advanced treatment are able to access this through the public health system.

I thank Senator Ahearn for raising this really important issue and assure him that I will raise it directly with the Minister.

Covid-19 Pandemic

The Minister of State is very welcome to the House. I know she has a very busy day ahead of her.

Covid-19 has dominated our lives for the last two and a half to three years and has cost billions of euro but much more tragically, it has cost lives. While we have had a significant number of fatalities and families grieving as a result of Covid-19, what we also have are lots of people who got Covid-19 and are still suffering from it. I refer to those with what is termed long Covid, whereby people still have symptoms many months, and in some cases more than a year, after contracting the disease. There are people out there who are fatigued, who have lost their sense of taste permanently and who have lost their sense of smell. Some people have had to retire early from work while others are only working short days. There are young people who have been in hospital for lengthy periods as a result of long Covid and who have aged dramatically since they were diagnosed with Covid-19. There are young people out there who were perfectly healthy and fit, who were out running, swimming and doing all of the normal things that young people do who are now fatigued and can hardly move. They are just about able to dress themselves, have lost their sense of smell and taste and many are depressed, in some cases seriously depressed.

Last summer, it was not clear whether the long Covid clinic operated by Dr. Jack Lambert in the Mater Hospital would get the funding needed to continue, which is an unacceptable situation. Just because the pandemic has subsided, Covid is not the health priority it once was and because the country has fully reopened and everything is restored, it does not mean we should forget about the people who have long Covid and are still suffering as a result of it.

There are no figures available on the number of people who are suffering from long Covid. It would be very helpful for us, as policymakers, to have that information. I would also like to know the Government's intentions with regard to long Covid clinics. Are the people who are now running these clinics going to have the certainty of a commitment of funding going forward, in 2023 and beyond? How many long Covid clinics is it proposed to open in other parts of the country? People suffering from long Covid in Cork or Donegal should not have to travel to Dublin to receive treatment. What supports are being provided to GPs in the context of long Covid? Is there a strategy in place of working with GPs so that they can provide the necessary supports to people in their communities who are suffering from long Covid? While I have no doubt there is a strategy and the intention is there, the delivery is what matters. I want to know the figures, the plans in terms of resources and the timelines for delivery of care to support those citizens who are suffering from long Covid.

Well done Senator on an excellent exposition within the allocated time.

I thank Senator Conway for raising this really important matter which I am responding to on behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. I assure the Senator that services to support those in need of care due to long Covid are being put in place and expanded. Anyone who is concerned about long Covid should engage with their GP in the first instance for advice and referral, where needed.

We know that both Covid and long Covid affect people in a range of different ways with varied symptoms, as Senator Conway has highlighted. As this is still a new disease, information on its features and course is still emerging. The Department of Health and the HSE continue to analyse national and international evidence as it emerges to ensure a comprehensive approach to service development.

The HSE has developed and is implementing an interim model of care to provide long Covid services nationally. This interim model of care builds on existing service provision in addition to establishing new services across a number of healthcare settings. including GP services, community services and acute hospitals, to ensure a comprehensive national service is in place for all those who need to access it. The first priority of the HSE is to ensure there are both long Covid and post-acute Covid clinics operating within each hospital group so that a national service is provided for all who need it.

The Minister for Health is advised by the HSE that the long Covid clinics that have been established as part of the new model of care and are currently operational include those in St. Vincent"s University Hospital, Beaumont Hospital and University Hospital Galway. The post-acute Covid clinics that are operational as part of the new model of care include those at University Hospital Galway and Connolly Hospital Blanchardstown. Both Tallaght University Hospital and St. James's Hospital are operating combined post-acute and long Covid clinics. There is also a tertiary neurocognitive clinic in St. James's Hospital, led by a consultant neurologist with a background in neurocognitive disorders, which is accepting referrals from long Covid clinics around the country. The HSE is working closely with each of the long Covid and post-acute hospital sites to expand the existing clinics to provide a full scope of care. As clinics become fully operational, the HSE will be collating metrics, including waiting lists, numbers of patients treated and numbers of clinics operating. This information will be crucial in ensuring the service meets the needs of patients and it will inform service development.

It is planned that the interim model of care will be expanded to put in place eight post-acute Covid clinics and six long Covid clinics within hospital groups nationwide. Additional aspects of the service are being developed, including supports within the GP and community settings and online supports. The HSE is working with all the sites identified within the model of care to ensure they can become fully operational as soon as possible. As well as these clinics operating within the new model of care, there are clinics operating at HSE sites which were established prior to the model of care being rolled out. It is intended that these clinics would be aligned with the implementation of the model of care.

A sum of €2.2 million has been allocated to the development of long Covid services in 2022 and funding is currently under consideration for next year. The Minister's priority will continue to ensure that all those who are in need of care due to long Covid are able to access a comprehensive national service and get the care they need.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. She has provided a lot more detail than I had heretofore, which is very welcome. However, the sum of €2.2 million equates to less than €50,000 per week and I certainly hope that in the budget of 2023, that figure will be substantially increased. I welcome the fact that we will have six long Covid clinics in the various hospital groups but I am disappointed that the figures have not been collated to date or that we have not been given, at the very least, preliminary figures for the number of people suffering from long Covid. We were one of the best countries in the world in responding to Covid-19 and we must now be one of the best in the world in responding to long Covid. I hope we are gleaning information internationally on how long Covid is being dealt with in other countries, especially those that performed as well as we did during the pandemic. This is a disease that citizens in our country did not have five or ten years ago. As a new phenomenon, it requires a comprehensive response. While we have made a good start, there is much more work to be done.

Again, I thank Senator Conway for raising this very important matter. We all know that long Covid can be a very disruptive and challenging illness. The most common symptoms, as the Senator outlined, are fatigue, weakness, breathlessness, anxiety, difficulties with memory and concentration and musculoskeletal pain.

However, more than 50 different signs and symptoms have been identified. I understand that these symptoms can be unpredictable in nature and can fluctuate over time, which can make it challenging for patients and healthcare professionals to understand and manage them.

To ensure patients’ needs are met, a service is being put in place to serve them. We will need to remain agile and responsive, based on learnings from the clinics, from new and emerging evidence and the current and future demand for the service. As part of this learning and evidence-based approach, I am advised that the HSE has recently commissioned the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, to conduct a review of clinical guidelines and of models of care for long Covid. This work is under way and will further inform the development of the service. Further service development will happen this year, including further recruitment to ensure all designated clinics within the model of care are fully staffed. Recruitment to date includes a programme manager and clinical leads representing the fields of respiratory medicine, infectious diseases, neurology, mental health and allied health, and appointments have also been made in community services and general practice. I want to reaffirm the Government’s commitment to ensuring that-----

I thank the Minister of State and I thank Senator Conway for raising the issue.

Wage-setting Mechanisms

I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House. On 3 August the Minister of State promised to sign the employment regulation order, ERO, for the security sector into law by the end of the month. The Minister of State will know that this ERO is the culmination of three torturous years of trying to get a pay increase for security workers in this country. It was 2019 when they last saw a pay increase. These are the security workers who we lauded as vital front-line workers during the pandemic. They are the workers who maintained safety and order among people going into shops, construction sites, testing centres, vaccination clinics and anywhere else that people had to go to do their business and maintain a social distance. They work around the clock, 12 months of the year on a 24-hour basis of operations to keep people and places safe and secure.

However, when three employers went to court on 24 August to secure an ex parte injunction to prevent the Minister of State from signing the workers' hard-won pay increase into law, it seems the Minister of State and this Government have sat on their hands. In the weeks since then the Government has done nothing to defend what the Minister of State knows is a legally and constitutionally sound wage agreement entered into between employers and employees in the security sector. The Government has not even made an appearance in the court, let alone mounting a defence on the matter. Is this what happens when a tiny number of employers choose to block and delay a collectively bargained wage agreement? Does the Government roll over and do nothing? All the while the Government professes to want to support workers but in private it is cowering to two or three employers.

I have no doubt that the Minister of State will tell me today he will be constrained because of legal proceedings but we need to tease that out for a moment because the judicial review challenging the constitutionality of the security ERO was initiated on 22 August. It is back for mention on 15 November. It is not back for a hearing on that date, only for mention, and with any luck it will be well into next year at the earliest before that judicial review takes place. All the while, security workers going out doing an honest day's work will have no pay increase for the foreseeable future. Is the Minister of State prepared to stand over that? These professionally trained and licensed workers will be earning just 35 cent more than the national minimum wage next January. That is outrageous and it is all the more outrageous that it is within the Minister of State's power to do something about this and he has done nothing.

This was supposed to be a good news story for workers. This is a story of trade unions and employers coming together to negotiate a collectively bargained wage agreement, which we have in the contract cleaning sector and which we are about to have in the childcare sector. We should have it in the security sector as well. However, we have a situation where the Government is doing nothing. I am speaking today and we had the workers in here on Tuesday expressing their frustration. Ian, Tony and Christy told us that they received 90 cent of a pay increase in the last 12 years, with nothing coming in the last three years. Now they have a wage deal on the table on behalf of the vast majority of employees in the sector, including 16,000 workers, and yet three small employers with a small number of workers are holding up this pay deal. There is an irony in that some of these companies have Government contracts for security in the Chief State Solicitor's office.

There are serious questions about what this Government will do about a pay agreement for low-paid workers and ensuring they get their pay increase as soon as possible. The Minister of State knows about the cost of living increases and this is about dignity for the workers and ensuring that collective bargaining works in this country. We need to hear answers from the Minister of State on what he will do about signing this pay agreement into law. In the first instance the Government must go into court to challenge that ex parte injunction.

From the outset I would like to inform the House that I am restricted on what I can say on this particular matter at this moment. This is because on 24 August I received notification that the High Court had granted a stay and an injunction expressly prohibiting me from signing the statutory instrument on 29 August, as announced. This injunction has not been lifted.

Proposals for an ERO are formulated in the first instance by a joint labour committee, JLC, where it is satisfied that such proposals would promote harmonious relations between workers and employers. The Labour Court then considers whether or not to adopt the proposals of a JLC. In doing so it also invites submissions from the public. If the court, having complied with its statutory functions, is satisfied that the proposals are in a suitable form for adoption, the Labour Court will adopt the proposals and submit them to me as Minister of State with responsibility for this area. My role then is to consider the recommendations against the statutory process. If I am satisfied that the process has been complied with and if I am satisfied that it is appropriate to make an order, I will give effect to an ERO.

In July 2022 I received proposals for an ERO for the security sector from the Labour Court. Having considered and accepted these proposals, my officials began drafting the order to give effect to the proposed minimum pay rate increases for the security sector, an extremely important sector as has been mentioned. This order was to come into effect on 29 August 2022 and was to replace the ERO that was signed in 2017 for the security sector. On 24 August 2022 my Department received notification that the High Court had granted an injunction prohibiting me from commencing the proposed statutory instrument giving effect to a new ERO. The court has issued that the notice of motion in respect of the application is returnable for 15 November 2022. My officials and I are in the process of seeking legal advice on the matter and I will update this House at the first opportunity.

I thank the Minister of State for that reply. It is still not clear why the Government has not gone in to try to lift that injunction placed on 24 August. To be frank, it is telling that there has been nothing from the Government to lift that injunction in the weeks since then. This is about a modest pay increase of 40 cent-----

With respect to the Senator, does that involve the separation of powers?

I appreciate that and that the court's role is to adjudicate but it is the State's role to go out and challenge an injunction that has been placed on it and the State has done nothing. It has lain down and done nothing and that is unacceptable for those workers because what is in question here are three modest pay increases: 40 cent in phase 1; 45 cent in phase 2; an allowance for unsociable hours; and 40 cent in phase 3. At a time when workers are crying out for pay increases the Government has not even bothered to go in to try to lift that injunction. These workers cannot wait until 15 November, and as I already said, the judicial review is only for mention on that date; it is not even the hearing date. It will be well into next year before this is decided, therefore.

Again I will make it clear to this House when I am in a position to do so and I have no problem with returning here for a second part to this debate at a later date. I re-emphasise that in our view the JLC process sits within the context of Ireland's volunteerism system of industrial relations and has worked extremely well for very important sectors.

The advantage of the JLCs is that they see fair terms and conditions, such as wage rates and sick pay, agreed and given effect by an employment regulation order. For some employers, the advantage of the system, based as it is on the principle of self-governance, means that they can agree and set minimum pay and conditions and agree on work practices which are custom-made to their industry. This flexibility cannot be achieved by primary legislation. It is a system that I thoroughly support. I look forward to updating the House in the very near future.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 11.40 a.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 12.02 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 11.40 a.m. and resumed at 12.02 p.m.