Topical Issue Debate

Mental Health Commission Reports

I wish to discuss the implementation of regulation of community-based mental health care services. Last week the Mental Health Commission, MHC, published reports on 24-hour nurse supervised residences after inspecting 43 of these units. This is the first publication of inspection reports in this area. It is part of a three-year programme that will see the inspection of all 24-hour residences. The findings were both illuminating and disturbing. The Mental Health Commission found serious deficiencies in many of the residences. Residents were not free to leave in six residences, which had locked doors. There was no access to a kitchen to make tea, coffee or snacks in 19 residences. Residents were unable to lock their bedroom doors in 33 residences. More than half - 25 residences - had more than ten beds although ten is the maximum number of beds recommended in A Vision for Change. Only 19 of the 43 residences were in good physical condition. Eight required urgent maintenance and refurbishment. Only 25 residences offered all residents single-room accommodation. Furthermore, two residences had bedrooms which catered for four people. In residences with shared rooms, 58% had no privacy between beds or within the bedrooms. A rehabilitation team provided services for only 51% of these residences.

There is no reason to believe that the residences not yet inspected are any better. Dr. Susan Finnerty, inspector of mental health services, was clear in her unease at the findings, saying that it is concerning that some of our most vulnerable citizens, many of whom have spent decades in psychiatric hospitals, are now being accommodated in unregulated, poorly maintained residences that are too big, are institutionalised, restrictive and are not respectful of the privacy, dignity and autonomy of residents. The chairman of the Mental Health Commission, Mr. John Saunders, stated that ideally, there should be a care pathway where people move from hospital to highly supported accommodation, graduating to more independent settings as they gain skills and confidence. However, at present there is a serious lack of suitable accommodation options and rehabilitation and recovery staff to enable service users to move through the different stages of recovery and progress towards the goal of independent, community-based living. Many people have to remain in highly supported accommodation.

The Mental Health Commission justifiably used very strong language in its conclusion. It highlighted how a lack of regulation means people in 24-hour residences are at risk of abuse and substandard living conditions and treatment. Does the Minister of State agree with the findings of the report and its conclusions, and how does he intend on acting on the issues raised in the report?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue, which has come under the spotlight again recently. I appreciate the opportunity to address some of the concerns that were raised as a result of this issue being highlighted recently.

Under the Mental Health Act 2001, the Mental Health Commission has the power to inspect, regulate and enforce standards in all approved centres. Approved centres are hospitals or other inpatient facilities for the care and treatment of people experiencing a mental illness or mental disorder and which are registered with the Mental Health Commission. Such inspections are carried out annually. The commission also has the power to visit and inspect any other premises where mental health services are being delivered under the direction of a consultant psychiatrist. There is no requirement to carry out such inspections in a particular timeframe and currently, the commission does not by law have the power to enforce its recommendations.

Last week, as the Deputy noted, the Mental Health Commission published inspection reports into 43 of the country’s 24-hour nurse supervised residences for persons with mental illness. The commission highlighted some concerns it has regarding some of these residences. The commission has called on the Government to introduce legislation to provide the commission with the powers to regulate and inspect these residences. The Mental Health Commission fulfils a very important role in ensuring our mental health services are of a high standard. The Government agrees with the commission that all mental health residences should be subject to regulated inspection. The expert group review of the Mental Health Act 2001, which was published in 2015, recommends extending the existing regulation and inspection powers of the commission to such residences at regular periods.

My officials are working on a comprehensive set of amendments to the Mental Health Act 2001 at present and this important recommendation will be included in the heads of a Bill, which I expect to be significantly advanced by the end of the year. I accept the importance of advancing this work as quickly as possible. It is a comprehensive legislative undertaking, which must now also take account of the provisions of the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act 2015 which was enacted after completion of the expert group report. Once the draft general scheme of the Bill has been prepared, my officials will undertake consultations with the Mental Health Commission on refining the draft text. Once the general scheme is completed, it will be forwarded to Government for approval before publication. In the meantime, it is important to point out that while the commission cannot enforce the findings of the reports issued last week, service providers must take account of the concerns raised.

In conclusion, I can reaffirm to the Deputy that my Department is taking due account of the recommendations laid out in the report of the expert group review of the Mental Health Act 2001 and is progressing these amendments to the Act as quickly as possible. These and other changes, when included in revised mental health legislation, will further improve the protections available to vulnerable people who need care and treatment, ensuring that they can avail of mental health services in the most appropriate environment.

The Mental Health Commission has consistently called for the regulation of 24-hour supervised residences to protect vulnerable people and has called on the Government to take action in this regard. The report of the expert group on the review of the Mental Health Act 2001 was published in 2015. It made 165 key recommendations to make mental health laws fit for purpose. It is now three years since it was published. We have had three Ministers with responsibility for mental health in that time and three years of broken promises from those Ministers to the effect that these recommendations would be implemented. Alarmingly, only one of these recommendations has been implemented. We do not even have a draft Bill addressing the other recommendations. Two of these recommendations, Nos. 124 and 125, specifically recommend giving the Mental Health Commission the powers it seeks in its report to empower it to take action to ensure people in 24-hour residences are at risk of abuse and substandard living conditions. Most people were shocked at the content of the report but were equally disturbed to learn that the Mental Health Commission does not have these basic powers to protect vulnerable people availing of mental health services.

I have raised this issue before but there seems to have been little progress since. When is the Government going to act on these specific recommendations to empower the Mental Health Commission to protect these vulnerable people under the care of mental health services? Is the Minister of State engaging at all stages of the implementation of these recommendations with the relevant stakeholders. In particular, is he fully engaged with the Mental Health Commission and keeping it aware and updated on any steps being taken? I listened to the comment about engaging with the Mental Health Commission on refining the draft text. It would be far more important and relevant to engage with the Mental Health Commission at this stage of the drafting of the text, rather than refining it later. Ultimately, if the recommendations are to be implemented and the powers given to the Mental Health Commission, it has to be engaged at the early stage of the drafting and not just come in at the end when the Bill has been drafted. At that stage it might be sent back to stage one again if it is not fit for purpose. The Mental Health Commission is the key stakeholder on this issue. It will be implementing the recommendations and must be involved from the very start of this process.

I share the Deputy's concerns. Politicians on all sides of the House are anxious to try and bring about a situation where the Mental Health Commission will have its powers enhanced. It is free to make inspections and we expect that recommendations made by the Mental Health Commission on foot of any visit to any facility with 24-hour care of some of our most vulnerable patients would be implemented and adhered to. That is a realistic expectation and I believe it will be delivered on.

One recommendation of the review of the Mental Health Act 2001 was that all high, medium and low-support hostels, crisis, respite houses and other residential services, such as day hospitals, day centres and other facilities, in which mental health services are provided would be registered, and to introduce inspection on a phased basis. It was also recommended that the standard should be made by way of regulation, and that regulation should be underpinned by way of primary legislation. The Deputy has commented on the slow pace of the process, but he will appreciate that it is a huge amount of work to enforce all 165 recommendations, most of which require legislative changes to the Mental Health Act 2001, which is a substantive body of work. The challenge is to do that all in one go rather than tampering with the Act on a bit-by-bit basis. The preference is that we would make the changes required in one item of legislation, and that is why it is taking a bit longer. Patience is required on this particular endeavour but I assure the Deputy that I will continue to monitor the progress of the officials in the Department and ensure that priority is afforded to publishing the heads of that Bill before the end of the year.

Social Welfare Offices

I welcome the Minister. I have brought this issue of the closure of the social protection office in Dunleer to the floor of the Chamber in order to seek definitive information in respect of the future of the Dunleer clinic. We have heard the words "no ambiguity" and "no misinformation" and, in that context, I want to put forward my understanding of the situation and ask the Minister to respond.

I and other Deputies received correspondence on 26 March from the Intreo office in Drogheda indicating to us, as a matter of courtesy, that the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection wished to advise that, due to accommodation issues, the Dunleer community welfare service clinic would cease with immediate effect. I understood from the letter what the problems were, I inquired about them, and I have to accept and respect there had been difficulties with regard to health and safety in what is a HSE office, in addition to the need for it to be refurbished. The information that was relayed to us in the letter was that the community welfare officer "will be available to carry out a home visit", and that this element of the service was always available and would continue to be. The letter stated that the community welfare officer would be available and flexible in the event of an emergency and that customers would be facilitated. The letter further stated that, to ensure a smooth transition, the Department was communicating with all customers concerned regarding the operational changes and that there would be no changes to current payment arrangements.

Everybody accepted that in good faith. The issue is that the HSE is of the opinion that it needs an outreach service there, despite the fact it has an excellent facility at Clogherhead and plans for the expansion of the facility at Castlebellingham, although that is not the Minister's brief. I am reliably informed that for a small investment between the HSE and the Department, the existing building that has a problem could be turned into a proper one-stop shop or, if that is not possible, other issues could be explored. The reality is that the people of Dundalk, Drogheda and Ardee have this type of office facility. I am sure the Minister will point out, as she indicated in her response to me yesterday, that there were only five people availing of this service and the numbers were small. That is fine for a snapshot in time. However, I am informed that due to the seasonality of work and other issues particular to the mid-Louth area, that figure could swell to 15 or 20. While I respect the view of the Minister and the Department in regard to providing outreach services and constant contact, we all know that when a service is minimised or closed, the commitment to that service wanes over time. I firmly believe there is a strong need for the provision of an office in Dunleer.

My main reason for raising the issue is that I want no ambiguity and I want nobody to be misinformed. I have the transcript of what the Minister said on this issue and I will read it out in my response if she does not adequately answer the question, given she indicated this was a temporary arrangement.

I hate to start off by addressing the tone of the insinuations the Deputy has just made. I hope he clarifies them and, when he does-----

-----I would advise him to be exceptionally careful. That is all I will say to him at first.

This is the fourth time we are having this conversation. To put it on the record of the House, just in case the Deputy missed it the three other times we have had the conversation, my Department operated an outreach community welfare service clinic from the HSE premises in Dunleer every Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 12 noon. On average, there are seven customers who look for those services in that area. The condition of the premises was very poor and the HSE withdrew its staff last year. Thereafter, the community welfare service was the only public service delivered from the centre.

On 21 March this year the HSE informed the Department that the condition of the building had rapidly deteriorated and now posed a serious health and safety risk to customers and staff. Local management had no option but to suspend the outreach service immediately. As the Deputy will be well aware, given my parliamentary question response to him on Wednesday of last week and in correspondence sent to him by my office on 26 March, my Department has taken immediate steps to minimise any inconvenience to customers who after all are the people at the centre of the service we deliver.

Other social protection services, such as jobseeker payments, are dealt with by the Drogheda Intreo centre and the Ardee branch office. Notices were posted directing the seven customers to the Drogheda Intreo centre, which is 15 km away on a main bus route. The community welfare service there is available on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday each week, and from Ardee health centre on Tuesday and Friday, so it is a good complement for people who require the services of those centres. Customers have also been provided with a phone service staffed by experienced community welfare service personnel in Drogheda and Ardee. The phone service is available to our seven clients every day, while the clinic is only open for two hours on a Wednesday morning. If a customer is unable to visit either of the centres, for example, due to illness, arrangements can be and have been made by Department staff to conduct a home visit.

The Department is closely monitoring the impact of the closure. While it is early days, the new arrangements appear to be working quite well. Feedback on the telephone service has been overwhelmingly positive from customers, if not from local Deputies, which is good to hear. I will repeat for the third time to the Deputy that the majority of queries have been resolved over the phone and most customers have been very happy to have avoided otherwise unnecessary visits to the old clinic in Dunleer. For example, on 28 March, of the six calls received, four were for information purposes, with only two customers requiring a meeting with the designated person; on 4 April, of the six calls received, five were for information purposes and one was for a meeting; during the week ending 13 April, seven calls were received, six of which were for information purposes and one from a person who required a meeting; during the week ending 20 April, 12 calls were received, of which ten were for general information purposes and two required a meeting with the Department, and both people attended the Ardee community welfare service on that occasion.

The HSE does not intend to renovate the premises in Dunleer but my Department is currently examining the feasibility of providing the community welfare service from alternative premises in Dunleer, as I originally stated to the Deputy in the letter I sent to him by post on 26 March. Following representations from local public representatives, including Deputies Fergus O'Dowd and Peter Fitzpatrick, I and my Department received an offer to host the community welfare service in a local community hall. An architect from the OPW has visited the premises to ascertain its suitability to deliver a public service and the measures that would need to be put in place to facilitate this, as well as indicative timelines and associated cost. Local management is also exploring other options to enhance the provision of the community welfare service across the county.

In the meantime, any of the seven existing customers and any people who may in future require the service in the area should contact the dedicated phone lines at 041-9815278 or 086-7953253. I trust this clarifies the matter for the Deputy without any ambiguity.

The Minister referred to the tone I am using. I am using that tone because there is frustration out there in regard to the massaging of closures, not just in this instance but, as I noted earlier, in regard to the closure of other offices, with the suggestion that this is due to shortage of staff. The reality is that I and other Deputies sought clarification from the Minister. The Minister told me to be careful so I will read the transcript of her remarks. I am delighted she said she is looking at alternatives because that is not what she told me in the Dáil yesterday and not what she indicated in her conversations, nor is it what was indicated in the Department's conversations and Intreo's conversations with the Deputies in regard to what was happening. On LMFM, the Minister said:

The service hasn't been closed down. We were in a position where we were operating our weekly community welfare service to the people in the Dunleer office in a HSE-owned building and we received notification from the HSE that the building was no longer fit for purpose and we couldn't use it any more. The service will continue. There is a very small number of people accessing the service and they are being redirected temporarily to their nearest local office. If they are not in a position to go to that local office, and some people are not, our community welfare staff will go out to them and we will continue to provide the service until we find another, more suitable premises.

That was the clarification I sought. I sought it again yesterday, and I am delighted that the Minister has indicated what she is doing. It gives clarity to the people with whom she has been miscommunicating, namely, the Deputies. The information that was communicated to all the Deputies in Louth by Intreo, not by the Minister, told us that the facilities were not being continued. The people in mid-Louth will be delighted with the Minister's response.

I am at pains to conclude because I am not sure what allegations the Deputy is actually making. In the first instance, he tried to claim that I am misleading people; and now he is saying that it is not me but the Intreo staff.

It is one or the other. They are the Minister's staff.

Let us be really clear. The services were never closed. The office was not fit for staff to work in and it had to be closed down, but the service continues. Moreover, that was on a temporary basis. We have no intention of closing down the service. The insinuation at the beginning of Deputy Breathnach's second speech-----

I am holding the Minister to account.

-----is that this is closing the service by stealth. I ask him to take that off the record of this House, because he has absolutely no basis in fact to make that statement. We were exceptionally clear when we made our first statement. We were removed from this building only because it was not safe to be in, either for the clients or my staff. We told Deputy Breathnach at the time that we would continue the service for the seven clients, which we have done. I have detailed to Deputy Breathnach exactly what has happened week-on-week. We told the Deputy at the time that we would start to look for alternative premises, which is exactly what we did do and are doing. I am really not sure what part of that is not clear, but I do not expect Deputy Breathnach, an elected representative from the constituency of Louth, to make erroneous allegations just so that he can put this exchange on Facebook for his constituents. He is better than that. He really is.

So is the Minister.

Brexit Issues

Yesterday, on the Order of Business, I called for statements on Brexit, given reports which have been published, and in some cases leaked, in recent times. I was told that was not possible, but if I tabled a Topical Issue matter, the issue would be heard. However, there is no sign of the Minister with responsibility for this area. That is an absolute disgrace. The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney, should be here to hear the concerns of the three Sinn Féin Deputies on this issue. For whatever reason, he has not bothered to turn up. If we was not in a position to be here, we should have been informed, which is the rule under Standing Orders. I want to protest in the strongest possible terms, given the gravity of these issues, that the Minister is not here. I mean no disrespect to the Minister of State who is sitting across from me.

Yesterday, when I raised this issue following a leaked report from European officials which cast doubt on the viability of the backstop arrangement agreed last December, I got a very flippant response from the Taoiseach. He said that it was just a leaked report. That is the case, but it still a report, and it still raises serious doubt. Back in December, the backstop arrangement was called a "cast-iron guarantee". It quickly went from cast iron to a political agreement and then to a gentleman's agreement. When the European Union published what it saw as a legal text that would translate the political agreement into an actual protocol, it was dismissed out of hand by the British Government. Then we had the draft withdrawal agreement, huge swathes of which have not been delivered.

I was not looking for a response from the Minister of State across from me, but rather one from the Minister with responsibility for this issue, who is in constant contact with European officials. I wanted him to update this House and he is not in a position to do so. I think that is bad faith on behalf of the Minister. My party has given full support to the Government on Brexit so that we can get the best possible result for Ireland. We need information to be given and if the Minister is not in a position to attend to give us that information, it is bad faith on his behalf.

The Deputy is out of time. He is taking up his colleagues' time. I have been very flexible.

The Acting Chairman has indeed been flexible.

I live in a Border county. My constituency stretches from Belturbet in County Cavan right around to Pettigo in County Donegal and it takes up almost a third of the Border. It is ironic that today, Mrs. Theresa Villiers, MP, is introducing a Bill in the House of Commons to prevent live imports from outside the UK after Brexit. If a person from County Leitrim or County Cavan bought a couple of sheep in Fermanagh, they would not be able to bring them back across the Border. Trade that has gone on for centuries will be halted in these circumstances. It is a reflection of the concern that all of us have about where the Tory Government is in regard to all of this issue. On the one hand, they talk the talk but, on the other, the reality is that most people who live in Border areas are very fearful that there is going to be a border. We often hear about soft borders. We do not care if it is soft or hard; we do not want a border. That is the result we need.

As my colleague has said, we have been forthcoming with assistance to the Minister and the Government in every way possible so that we can get solutions. We need to get a response. We need to understand what is happening, and we expect to get decent communication. In this instance particularly, there needs to be a clear communication from the Irish Government to Mrs. Theresa Villiers, MP, and the Tory party that it is totally outrageous for her to suggest a ban on the export of live animals on the island of Ireland, which would be the outcome.

We are coming to a crunch time on Brexit. The back stop does not have legal standing, and nor did it. It was a statement.

I wish to raise the issue of energy, which is of major concern. We are dependent on Norway and Britain for much of our gas, with a pipeline coming through Britain. Some 40% of our electricity is generated from gas, and if this line is cut or tariffs are put on it, there would be huge implications. We have very little energy security as a result. The east-west interconnector connecting to Britain is another issue. That must be tied down. I am not sure that this has been getting enough attention. The single electricity market for the whole of Ireland, which was due to go live next month, is now delayed until October. What is the future of that project? That is of major concern. It is supposed to save consumers and businesses €200 million. What is the future of the overall all-Ireland electricity market, which has been there for a decade, if this goes ahead?

Regarding oil reserves, the State has oil in storage facilities in Britain. We also have oil stored in one facility in the North. Do we have a replacement for those stocks in the event of a hard border? I do not want to see any border.

I apologise for the Tánaiste. As the Deputies may be aware, he is in Derry today, meeting community politicians and business leaders in relation to Northern Ireland, the peace process, events in Derry and Brexit. The Tánaiste is certainly working hard on the Brexit situation and to ensure that the institutions in Northern Ireland can get back on track again.

I thank the three Deputies for raising this issue. I assure Deputy Kenny that both the Irish embassies in London and Brussels, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, all Government Departments and the Taoiseach are monitoring the situation in the UK and Brussels very closely. It is not as if we are not dealing with these issues. We are doing so.

Regarding the Topical Issue itself, the EU's position is quite clear on this. The backstop solution, as proposed in the draft protocol in Ireland and Northern Ireland, is fully workable. It aims to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland and to protect both North-South co-operation and the integrity of the customs union and the Single Market. Some progress has been made on the draft protocol in the negotiations that immediately proceeded the European Council meeting in March. This was recorded in an annotated, colour-coded version of the draft withdrawal agreement published by the European Commission task force on 19 March. This reflects the agreement on some articles of the draft text, including the common travel area and other areas of North-South co-operation.

During the negotiations, the United Kingdom also accepted that a legally-operative version of the backstop for the Border will be included in the withdrawal agreement in line with paragraph 49 of the joint progress report agreed last December and that all the issues identified in the draft protocol reflect those that must be addressed. These were important steps forward.

Since the March European Council, intensive negotiations have been continuing between the EU and UK teams with a view to narrowing the remaining gaps in respect of the draft protocol and other withdrawal issues. Irish officials have been involved in some of these meetings where the task force believes this would be helpful. We will continue to work closely with the task force.

The European Council is continuing to follow the negotiations closely and will return at its next meeting in June to the remaining withdrawal issues, including the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland and the framework for the future relationship. The European Union has also made clear that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed and that negotiations can only progress as long as all commitments undertaken are respected in full. The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade has met several of his EU counterparts in recent weeks and received a strong message of their commitment to this principle and their continuing solidarity with Ireland. The Tánaiste will also make clear the position of the Government and the European Union to Mr. David Lidington when he meets him tomorrow.

I am delighted that the European Union's chief negotiator on Brexit, Mr. Michel Barnier, will visit Ireland next week. This is a further indication of the commitment of Mr. Barnier and his team to taking account of Ireland's concerns. Mr. Barnier will meet the Taoiseach and Tánaiste and engage with a wide range of stakeholders at the all-island civic dialogue in Dundalk.

The EU has been clear that there must be significant progress on agreeing the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland by June and that the backstop on avoiding a hard border set out in the protocol is a legally workable solution.

To respond to the specific query raised by the Deputies concerning the leak of the so-called EU memorandum, I have no intention of commenting on press articles based on leaks. I assure the House, however, that the so-called memo or note alluded to is not a European Commission document, nor does it reflect the position of the European Union in any way. We cannot comment on every newspaper article. Our focus is on Brexit and on ensuring we secure the best solution for Ireland.

While I do not have any difficulty with the Tánaiste carrying out business in the North, when a Deputy requests statements and is asked to submit a Topical Issue instead, he or she expects the Minister to be available. We could have had this discussion with the Minister tomorrow or next week. Notwithstanding that, the Minister of State is correct that the backstop is workable. Sinn Féin called for special status for the North in order to keep it in the customs union and the Single Market and to protect the Good Friday Agreement.

It is important that the Government does not overstate or hype the position set out by the British Government. The British Prime Minister stated that the legal text produced by the European Union is out as no British Prime Minister could sign up to it because it would mean a border in the Irish Sea. The agreement also states that the goods covered by full alignment will be listed, which means some good will not be covered, for example, all services. Only areas connected with North-South co-operation and those that fall under the Good Friday Agreement will be covered by full alignment. The goods and services that will not be covered must be subject to checks, which will mean a hardening of the Border. A backstop is the bare minimum required and, even at that, it will create difficulties. Despite this, there is still no agreement on it.

With respect, the British Prime Minister stated that "a" protocol, as opposed to "the" protocol, would be agreed. As the Minister of State knows, there is a significant difference between the words "the" and "a".

Sinn Féin appreciates the that Government is doing its best in its dealings with the Tory Government in the UK. My party had the same experience and we understand how difficult it can be to deal with a Tory Government. What is needed is a flow of information and the application of maximum pressure in the interests of Irish citizens, both those living on this island and the millions living in Britain.

The Minister of State may have attended the presentation on Irish passports in the audiovisual room earlier. We are conscious of the large numbers of people applying for passports because ordinary citizens are fearful of the potential consequences of Brexit. The Government has a job to do and we must raise the bar in this regard in order to reassure people that their rights will be protected.

We spoke about the issue of agriculture and cross-Border trade. We must also bear in mind the trade in agricultural produce across the Irish Sea. Substantial amounts of agricultural produce are exported to our nearest neighbour, which is our largest market. Despite this, we have not secured any assurances about what will happen in respect of this trade. Many exporters are extremely concerned about the possible outcome of Brexit. Many companies that export to continental Europe transport goods across Britain and we have not been given any assurances on this trade.

The State relies on oil it stores in Britain and the North. Joined-up thinking will be required in respect of this issue and I ask that it be given special attention. Given his brief, the Minister of State will understand that without energy, we will not have industry, jobs and many other things. It is crucial, therefore, that we are able to turn on the lights and have power, including gas and oil, in order to drive industry until we develop alternative sources of energy. Realistically, we do not have a replacement for the gas we currently import and on which the economy relies. If Britain opts out of the customs union and Single Market, tariffs will be imposed on gas and our trade with Britain will acquire third-country status. According to the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, the Corrib gas field will supply gas for a little more than ten years. We must develop renewable energy sources and copperfasten the all-Ireland electricity and gas markets, including the wholesale markets. I ask the Minister of State to address the specific issue of oil.

Maximum pressure is being applied at European Union level regarding Ireland's relationship with the United Kingdom. Our colleagues in the EU have an excellent understanding of Ireland's special relationship with the UK, particularly in the area of trade, but also in other areas, including those to which the Deputies refer. The Government wants clear progress to be made on the protocol before the June Council meeting. Neither the Government nor the EU task force wants to put this matter on the long finger.

Last week, at a meeting in Iveagh House, which I am sure Sinn Féin representatives attended, the Tánaiste updated members of the political parties on the Brexit talks. The EU has made clear that the backstop, as set out in the protocol, is a viable solution for avoiding a hard border. It will mean that there will be no physical infrastructure or associated checks and controls in place. It is vital to have this legal certainty in the withdrawal agreement to ensure that regardless of what happens in terms of the agreement between the European Union and the UK on their future relationship, there is no prospect of a return to a hard border The Tánaiste and Taoiseach will have an opportunity to take stock next week when Mr. Barnier visits County Louth. Tomorrow evening, Mr. Barnier will make his views clear to Mr. David Lidington, as he did last week when he met the deputy Prime Minister in Westminster. We are very much on top of the matter. The period leading up to June 2019 will be critical and sensitive negotiations are ongoing. Time is of the essence.

I thank all the political parties for their co-operation to date. We must take this journey together because Ireland's interests are in all our interests. As the UK exit date edges closer, we must make progress in the negotiations.

As I stated, the Irish issue has been identified as a key element of the negotiations. It is important that our EU partners understand where we are coming from. The issue of Ireland remains high on the agenda of all Ministers when they travel abroad. The next couple of months will be crucial in the context of ensuring that we get the protocol in place.

Charities Regulation

It is a sad day for artistic and political freedom in Ireland when a simple mural on the wall of the Project Arts Centre in the centre of Dublin has had to be painted over. I am sorry the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht is not present herself as this is very much an attack on artistic freedom. It is a very wrong decision by the Charities Regulator. As I travel to work in the middle of the referendum campaign to repeal the eighth amendment, I pass churches which have posters on their railings. I am told by many that they find an amount of material from different publications on the tables at the backs of churches, all of which is consciously and strongly anti-repeal. Many Catholics find this deeply offensive and upsetting and some of the suggestions in them around what happens are deeply upsetting. It is a very sad day regarding a simple, attractive mural using the word "repeal" and the image of a heart. The referendum is about things that are close to all our hearts and which are difficult.

The Charities Regulator has written to the Project Arts Centre threatening its charitable status for engaging in political activity which is not in line with the charitable purposes of the organisation. It is worth looking at this juncture at what the Act states and not just at the guidelines on political activity issued recently by the regulator. The 2009 Act excludes from being registered as a charity a political party or body which promotes a political party or candidate or a body which promotes a political cause unless the promotion of that cause relates directly to the advancement of the charitable purposes of the body. The Act does not exclude any charity from engaging in a collaboration with any of those bodies. Neither does the Act have an express ban on charities engaging in political activity. The Act also lays down the circumstances in which the authority, after consultation with An Garda Síochána, can exclude a body from the register. These are circumstances where something is either unlawful, contrary to public morality, contrary to public policy, in support of terrorism or terrorist activities or for the benefit of an organisation membership of which is unlawful. None of these, as far as I am aware, applies to the Project Arts Centre and its collaboration whereby the mural was painted on the wall of the centre in public view.

I was involved in the development of charities legislation some time ago. The last time I checked, most religious bodies in Ireland were charities, which is rightly so. I do not object to that. I do not object to churches having huge amounts of material from posters to leaflets, sermons and events relating to their view in respect of the referendum. That is as it ought to be in a civic society. I object very much to the interference with the artistic and political freedom of the artist, which is essential, in this decision by the Charities Regulator which has forced the mural to be removed.

I thank Deputy Burton for raising this issue. The Charities Regulatory Authority was established in October 2014 pursuant to the Charities Act 2009. The authority is the State organisation responsible for registering and regulating all of Ireland's charities. Its role is to provide effective and robust regulation in accordance with the 2009 Act. Responsibility for the regulator, which is fully independent in the performance of its statutory functions, has been assigned to the Department of Rural and Community Development. The general function of the authority is to regulate charitable organisations operating in Ireland in order to increase public trust and confidence in their management and administration. Section 39 of the Charities Act 2009 sets out the regulatory basis on which organisations register with the regulator. If anyone has concerns that a charitable organisation is in breach of the 2009 Act, he or she may forward details of those concerns to the regulator directly. I am advised that all concerns received are actively reviewed.

On receipt by the authority of an expression of concern relating to a mural on the Project Art Centre's property, the authority indicated to the trustees of the centre that the continued display of the mural would, in the authority's opinion, constitute a political advertisement in respect of a matter for which the charity was not set up. I understand that all complaints are handled by the complaints committee within the Charities Regulatory Authority. The net effect was stated to be that if the display was to continue, the charity ran the risk of being deregistered from the authority's register. The authority has the power under the 2009 Act to consider matters of concern in relation to the running of a charity and action such as deregistering a charity may be taken if deemed necessary. I emphasise that the authority is completely independent in carrying out its functions and in making any decision in relation to enforcement. The authority took the view in this case that the charity was engaged in making a political statement for a purpose for which it was not set up and, thus, fell outside the remit of the 2009 Act. I am advised that the Project Arts Centre itself indicated during its interaction with the authority that it was relying on an exemption under the planning code in relation to political advertisements. In the authority's view, this was a de facto concession that the centre was engaged in a political activity outside the scope of its established purposes.

The Charities Regulatory Authority is independent of Government in its deliberations and my Department has no function in its day-to-day operational activities. As Minister of State, I had no hand, act or part in this decision. I am advised that the trustees of the centre indicated to the authority on 20 April that they would arrange for the removal of the mural and it was subsequently removed on 23 April as we saw on television.

I am taken aback by the content of the Minister of State's reply. There are two sides in a referendum, namely, those who are for the referendum proposal and people who are opposed to it. Voters are free to go to the polls and decide which way they want to vote. We have a situation in which a very one-sided interpretation of the powers and guidelines of the regulator has been effected with the result that a very simple image had to be taken down. One can walk past this House any day. I was with some people as I came in yesterday morning and they practically got sick when they saw the large-scale posters of foetuses in various states on display outside. I pass churches regularly. For the most part, the posters outside churches are simple "No" posters but I am regularly told about some of the material that is available inside churches.

Can the Minister of State confirm that churches are, by and large, charitable organisations? If the Charities Regulator is going to take action against a simple poster which contains nothing offensive and deem it to be political, is the Minister of State telling me, as holder of his office, that the same regulator will go into churches and check out the material there? I am not suggesting the regulator should do that, rather I am suggesting it is not being even handed. There is an interpretation of the law there. The Act lays down the circumstances in which the authority can, after consultation with gardaí, exclude a body from the register. That was the threat against the Project Arts Centre. That is where something is unlawful, contrary to public morality, contrary to public policy, or in support of terrorism or terrorist activities. Does the Minister of State think the Project Arts Centre, which has operated in Dublin for 50 years, does any of those things?

I had no hand, act or part in the decision. It was a matter for the Charities Regulator and its complaints committee. I am not privy to the detailed discussions which took place on that, whether there was a vote, whether it was contentious or whether it was unanimous.

The chief executive officer has the ultimate say in accepting, or not, the recommendation of the complaints committee.

Can the Minister of State repeat that?

The chief executive officer has the ultimate say in terms of the decision that was made following the recommendation from the complaints committee.

I asked about the Charities Regulator. I did not ask about the chief executive officer.

I meant the chief executive officer of the regulator.

Is the Minister of State saying that the regulator has responsibility for the ultimate decision? I think we need a copy of the Act.

That is what I have been told in respect of this matter. The Deputy said there are two sides to the story and I agree with her. I would hope that if any mural which had a slogan “Love Both”, “Save the Eighth” or “Do not Prohibit Abortion” was similarly covered over, the Deputy would take the same stance, like Deputy Coppinger when she raised the matter yesterday on Leaders’ Questions. Complaints were made to the Charities Regulator. If there are complaints about a specific church or churches - I think all churches, not just the Catholic Church, are against abortion - to the Charities Regulator, I am sure it would investigate them and make recommendations. I cannot say what it would do. The publicity and television coverage generated by the actions of the regulator have done more for the repeal cause than if the mural had been left there. I did not see it and would not be in that area. However, it has reached a wider audience because of these actions.

The Charities Regulator is independent in its functions. People can make complaints to it about any other organisation if they so wish.