Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Direct Provision System

Direct provision is one of the greatest shames of our time. There are currently thousands of people in the prison-like conditions of direct provision, powerless to change their circumstances. There is a public outcry about this, yet the Minister and his Department continue to line the pockets of private interests while people suffer.

As of this year, the position of those seeking international protection has gotten even worse. The Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, is now accommodating 872 people in 28 emergency accommodation centres, two of which are in my constituency in Wicklow. The website thejournal.ie reported last week that, according to a spokesperson for the Department of Justice and Equality, a cultural liaison service is now required to help people living in emergency accommodation and it is has issued a tender for non-governmental organisation, NGO, services to provide social services such as access to medical cards. The Department has stated it needs this service in place as soon as possible. I have heard from many constituents and have had contact with community groups such as Bray Refugee Solidarity and the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland, who argue that these temporary centres are falling completely below any acceptable standards. The lack of social welfare support is glaring and totally unacceptable.

With respect to healthcare, in response to a parliamentary question I tabled, the Minister's Department indicated that the RIA is liaising closely with the Health Service Executive, HSE, to facilitate appropriate service provision to these people while in emergency accommodation. However, I have heard reports that residents in Wicklow were given insufficient information on medical card entitlements and how to access same. Some of the residents in temporary accommodation received medical cards only after members of community groups sourced forms, approached GP clinics, received refusal letters and found GPs willing to take on some residents. What has the Minister's Department done to ensure medical care is provided as soon as these asylum seekers landed in temporary accommodation in County Wicklow?

There is also the question of looking after the most vulnerable children in temporary accommodation centres. In response to another parliamentary question I tabled, the Department indicated that children of international protection applicants residing in emergency accommodation can access school places in local primary and post-primary schools in the same manner as the general population. It was indicated that they can avail of the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance, which is administered by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. However, many reports indicate that this has not happened in the temporary centre in Bray. What steps did the Minister's Department take for the temporary accommodation in Ashford and Bray to ensure children in these centres were registered and supported in getting into local schools? What contact did the Minister's Department or the Department of Education and Skills have with the local schools to ensure school places were available? Every day a child is out of school in a community is a disgraceful failure. I would appreciate the Minister answering some of those questions.

Under European Union and international law, as the Deputy will be aware, Ireland is obliged to examine the claim of any person who comes here and claims international protection under strictly defined grounds. While an international protection claim is being examined, the State offers accommodation and related services to anyone who requests it. This includes all meals, medical care and utilities. A weekly personal allowance is paid to each person and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection covers exceptional needs. The Department of Education and Skills provides school places for children resident in the centres and children also have access to the free preschool scheme and the early childhood care and education programme. The HSE provides mainstreamed health services to residents. It is a whole-of-Government approach to supports and services for applicants.

As of 7 July, the RIA of my Department was accommodating 6,082 people in its 39 accommodation centres and a further 988 people were in emergency accommodation. The use of emergency accommodation is suboptimal as it does not allow for the full range of services to applicants that the traditional centres provide. However, the State must ensure each person arriving in Ireland today to claim protection has shelter, food and any urgent medical care required.

The RIA has arranged the provision of emergency accommodation for international protection applicants since September 2018 due to the increasing numbers of people arriving in the State seeking international protection. The RIA had reached full capacity in its centres at that time but is committed to using emergency accommodation for as short a time as possible. It is actively working on securing additional capacity, both in existing centres and through sourcing new centres via a national procurement process. The use of such accommodation naturally incurs additional costs to the State, with expenditure this year likely to reach or exceed €120 million.

Residents in emergency accommodation are offered medical screening funded and managed by the HSE located at the Balseskin reception facility for the purpose of assessing recipients who have just arrived in the State.

In addition, arrangements are in place in various parts of the country to offer the service to those who do not avail of it in Dublin. The RIA is also seeking to contract a visiting support and cultural liaison service from the NGO community to assist those residents during their time in emergency accommodation. Residents in emergency accommodation can address any issues directly to the RIA. They may also contact the Ombudsman or the Ombudsman for Children if any issue is not resolved to their satisfaction.

Additionally, the RIA has facilitated visits by the Office of the Ombudsman to a number of emergency accommodation locations to meet residents and discuss any issues that may be a source of concern or that may arise.

Unfortunately, the Minister did not answer any of the questions I put to him. I note that, in his response, the number of people in emergency accommodation has jumped to 988 from 872, which was the last information I had. There are countless more issues that I could bring up that are affecting people in emergency accommodation, everything from packed lunches to the way that residents are moved without adequate warning from temporary centres to direct provision, but I am conscious I am short of time.

The urgent point that I want to hammer home to the Minister today is that direct provision is unacceptable and temporary centres are an unbelievable extension of the horrific nature of that system. We did not think that direct provision could get worse but temporary centres have proven that it can. I urge the Minister to prioritise addressing this. It seems there is a complete absence of basic social welfare provision to asylum seekers in temporary centres in Wicklow. That goes against what the Minister's Department states should happen. I again urge him to review it and intervene in those situations because only through the likes of the refugee group in Bray and other organisations are the most vulnerable people to whom the State is giving protection getting what they are supposed to. Such advocates are going out and speaking directly to GPs, and it is only by those means that these people are accessing medical cards and GPs. There are serious problems and the Minister cannot stick his head in the sand and say we are looking at expanding the direct provision system. The whole system of substandard emergency accommodation is failing these people. The Minister knows that and needs to address it immediately.

I acknowledge the fact that there is significant demand, and to meet that demand my Department has sought to identify additional accommodation by publishing expressions of interest in the national press as the current portfolio will not meet the demand. The Deputy is right that the numbers are increasing and that has put pressure on the current arrangements. The RIA will continue working to identify additional accommodation centres and emergency accommodation.

The need to resolve the issue of suitable, mainstream housing for more than 700 people who are currently residing in accommodation centres who have been granted status and have permission to remain in the State is a key part of the process. Helping those people transition into mainstream housing will free up capacity to ensure that people remain in emergency accommodation for as short a period of time as possible.

These people are being assisted by agencies, and I acknowledge the work of Depaul and the Peter McVerry Trust, to move into mainstream, longer term accommodation. The RIA's regional procurement process is advancing and will be continuing throughout the year. Following the assessment process, as the RIA identifies new centres to be opened, co-ordinated communications will be initiated with all the relevant local authorities and state partners.

I note what Deputy Brady has said about the health services, the HSE, GPs and education. I am happy to assist in seeking to achieve early resolutions to these issues involving agencies, the Department of Education and Skills, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, and the HSE.

Road Projects Status

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this matter. I am looking for an update on the proposed works at Ballymaquirk junction, which is on the N72 Mallow-Killarney road and intersects with the Kanturk-Banteer road. It is a very dangerous junction. It is one of the most important junctions in my constituency, in the heart of the Duhallow region. Most people and families from that region travel through this junction, many of them several times a day, getting to work or going to Banteer, Nad and Cork city.

There were some near misses this year. This is an issue that Bernard Moynihan has been raising continually at Cork County Council level. It is of vital importance that we get an update on it and that the Department and Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, take seriously the proposals that are being put by Cork County Council. I understand some remedial works are being done in the short term, but there are issues over the Part 8 planning application to acquire the lands around the junction for the proposal from Cork County Council to put in a roundabout. This is a major piece of infrastructure at the junction and it will take a considerable time, but the Department, TII and Cork County Council must be as one on this project.

Some 4,000 people signed a petition to have work done here. Earlier in the summer, before the grass was cut, the junction was dangerous and it remains so. People are crossing that road, travelling west and east. There is a main line that runs from Kanturk to Newmarket and Rockchapel. People are travelling daily from as far west as Abbeyfeale, through Rockchapel, Newmarket, Kanturk and into Cork city. There is a throughput of people at this junction.

The problems with the junction were made obvious when there was a football match in Kanturk on a workday evening. The amount of traffic coming through the town from the Banteer and Ballymaquirk junction left it chock-a-block. I cannot emphasise enough to the Minister the importance of funding this project and ensuring a roundabout is put there as soon as possible and that all the necessary work, and paperwork in the first instance is moved through the Department and TII as soon as possible because we must ensure the safety of people at this junction.

The most recent incident there involved trucks. The volume of traffic passing through that junction is quite alarming. It is a feed road right into Duhallow, so the entire region will be using it, including western and northern Duhallow, Kanturk and Dromtarriff. I raised this issue in a debate previously, on 18 December, and that shows how serious I am. I want an update on what the Department and TII are doing. How quickly can we get proper remedial works done and a roundabout placed at Ballymaquirk to ensure the safety of all those who are using the road?

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue. First, I must explain that, as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I have responsibility for overall policy and funding of the national roads programme. Under the Roads Acts 1993-2015, however, the planning, design and operation of individual local and regional roads is a matter for the relevant road authority, or for TII in conjunction with the local authorities concerned when it comes to national roads.

Within the overall context of Project Ireland 2040, the national development plan, NDP, has been developed by Government to underpin the successful implementation of the new national planning framework, NPF. This provides the strategic and financial framework for TII’s national roads programme for the period from 2018 to 2027. In the ten years covered by the plan, more than €11 billion will be invested in the overall road network. Following the economic downturn and the subsequent reduction in the availability of Exchequer funding, Project Ireland 2040 provides for the gradual build-up in funding for the road network, but it will take time to restore funding to the levels needed to maintain the road network in a steady state condition and allow for investment in new road improvement schemes.

Within its capital budget, the assessment and prioritisation of individual projects is a matter in the first instance for TII in accordance with section 19 of the Roads Acts. The N72 road is a national secondary road that runs east-west from its junction with the N25 near Dungarvan in County Waterford to the N70 in Killorglin in County Kerry. The N72 Ballymaquirk junction improvement scheme has been identified through TII’s HD15 programme as requiring safety intervention. The HD15 process involves the recording of accident clusters and the identification of locations where accident statistics are above average.

Because of the scope of intervention required, the scheme has been upgraded to TII’s minor works programme, which provides for more substantial safety measures. TII has advised that this scheme is likely to require the compulsory purchase of some lands and, because of this, the scheme may take a number of years to get to construction. However, Cork County Council has concluded the appointment of technical advisers to progress the project. Accordingly funding provision is being made available this year to Cork County Council by TII to pay for the services of the appointed technical advisers.

The proposed scheme, which is located near the River Blackwater, is in a special area of conservation. Mitigation measures will undoubtedly be required as part of this development. This will have to be factored into the entire works programme along with planning and acquiring lands for the development and installation of a new roundabout. The timeframe for the proposed works has not been identified at this stage in the process. I fully support the efforts of TII and Cork County Council to put in place road improvement works to remedy the safety issues which have been identified at this location.

I note that consultants or people have been appointed. While I recognise what the Minister said at the outset, he does have influence. This is a very serious junction in my constituency which has serious implications. He has noted the above average incidents and the need for safety measures, including a roundabout. I am asking that the Minister go back to TII to request that it work very closely with Cork County Council to give the project the urgency it deserves. I am sure it will be supported at local authority level and I do not doubt that Councillor Bernard Moynihan will do all he can to ensure that all that needs to be done at that level is done. I note the Minister's reference to the River Blackwater, planning, and the acquiring of land, but that takes time. It will not happen, however, unless there is serious input from and an urgency given by the Minister, his office and the Department to TII in their regular meetings to seek updates and explain the great significance of the project. It is an issue of health and safety.

I hope that the Minister will impress on the Department and TII the urgent need for these road safety measures at the Ballymaquirk junction and seek regular progress reports on the matter so that the project can be completed as soon as possible.

I fully accept what the Deputy says about the dangers of this road, which the Department and the TII accepts. This is apparent from its upgrading to the minor works programme and it is passing through some of the necessary hoops. I cannot interfere in the planning process in any way, nor would the Deputy expect me to, and I will not do so. I accept, however, the seriousness of the details of the road crashes he has outlined.

There will likely be compulsory purchase orders as a result of what is happening here and it might take some time. It would be wrong if we did not accept the need for the planning process to go ahead in a meaningful and correct manner. It may be frustrating but it is necessary. As I said in my opening remarks, the appointment of technical advisers has been provided for with funding from TII but there may be conservation mitigation measures which will also take time. I accept the Deputy's pleadings, but unfortunately he will have to be patient to see the necessary processes go ahead. Nonetheless, we fully support the need for what he is looking for. The time may be frustrating but I will convey the urgency he has expressed in the House to the TII.

Bord na Móna

Some 24 days ago the Government published the climate action plan which referred to a just transition. That seems to have been ignored today as 148 employees from counties Roscommon and Longford, 72 of them permanent staff, are to be laid off by Bord na Móna. The justification for these lay-offs just does not add up. There have been long shut downs of Lanesborough and Shannonbridge power stations in the past, but these never resulted in the laying off of all seasonal and permanent staff.

The very least those 148 staff and their families deserve now is honesty and answers to the following questions. Has Bord na Móna delivered its contracted tonnage to the ESB under the public service obligation agreement? This lay-off comes after the lay-off of 100 staff by the ESB in Moneypoint due to the price of carbon emissions. Peat has a higher level of carbon emissions than coal. Is this the real reason peat production is to cease in Mountdillon? What is the opening stock of saleable peat on the Mountdillon bogs at the start of this season and what is that figure today? Why is production ceasing when only 62% of the harvest target has been achieved to date?

The justification that has been given for the closure of the plant is the Environmental Protection Agency's change of regulation relating to licensing. That change took place in 2013. It took the ESB five years to set out alternative options and five years to seek an alteration to that licence. That excuse does not stand up. The employees deserve answers to the questions I have raised.

In addition to the 75 full-time workers and 48 seasonal workers, 50 other subcontract workers are affected by this, such as lorry drivers and people not employed by Bord na Móna who now have no job either as a result of this announcement.

For about 30 years this hot water has been going into the river. As has been pointed out, this licensing debacle has been ongoing since 2013. Why, all of sudden, have we decided to shut it down and create more unemployment when it is because of the Government, through Bord na Móna, that 400 jobs have already gone and there will be 200 more now. The vision was supposed to be to 2027 and that it would then take two more years to use up the peat held in stock. Unfortunately, there is something that does not look right about this. Yesterday we listened to Deputy Dooley speak about the closure of the Moneypoint plant and now we have the closure of the power station in Lanesborough. What will be next? Is there an underlying trend or desire on the part of the Government and semi-State bodies to get rid of the power stations in the likes of Lanesborough, Shannonbridge and Moneypoint? We understand, as rightly pointed out, that there is a need for a just transition, but there is nothing about the 200 workers who had jobs a few days ago in an area that has not been focused on to ensure other employment will be created. Bord na Móna brought people to meetings who spoke about different ideas. They are five and seven years away, but to put food on the table the families in question need work. They deserve answers and want them now.

A total of 150 jobs are gone and it is a total shock. None of the Oireachtas Members or councillors knew anything about this until the news started to filter out this morning. It is deplorable and unacceptable. We might be talking about the hot water coming from the power station in Lanesborough, but by God, the Government is in hot water over this decision. As Deputies Fitzmaurice and Naughten pointed out, it is all very strange. Certain questions have been asked of the Government by the previous speakers and we have more. Before I get into them, I want the Minister to realise this is not just about 150 people. Today I was calculating with my brother who is a councillor and we estimated that 600 or 700 people would be affected by this decision. Think of the poor students who are trying to raise a few bob to go back to college. Think of the part-time farmers and others in part-time work who for years have relied on Bord na Móna and were taken on, as they thought in good faith, this year, but all of sudden - bang - they have been taken out of the equation. That is not acceptable in anybody's terms and it will not be accepted by the people of the region or their representatives. As Deputy Naughten pointed out, the decision affects counties Longford and Roscommon. What is the status of the planning application submitted to Longford County Council to extend the life of the plant for a period of years? We all know that there has to be change, but change can only come over a period of years with co-operation and assistance and everyone working together. Like Deputy Fitzmaurice, I have grave doubts about this story and how it is being developed. Honest and direct answers are needed without delay.

The decision this morning to lay off 148 people will have a devastating impact on those to be laid off, their families, the community of Lanesborough and much further afield. To my mind, the State bodies, comprising the ESB, the EPA and Bord na Móna, have been negligent in their attitude in dealing with these employees. They have failed them. They have failed loyal employees who have worked hard for the State; many of their families have done so for generations.

The ESB was first made aware of the change to the regulations on water discharges back in 2013. Why did it only recently submit an application to the planning authority? Will the Minister confirm whether it was withdrawn and had to be resubmitted because the first was not of good enough quality? We know that there has to be change, but the employees were promised, as some of the previous speakers said, a just transition to 2027. This is far from a just transition. There is a fear that there is a sinister attempt to use the EPA to close down the plant. The people want the truth which they deserve it. What is the bigger picture for the plant and the employees? When was the Minister made aware of this decision? What has he done to date to try to prevent the decision from becoming a reality? This morning he Minister was asked by two of my colleagues to bring the three organisations together to see whether the matter could be resolved in a timely fashion. Has he done so and, if not, why not? When will he bring the three organisations together? What supports are being put in place today for the affected families?

I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. I understand the concern expressed locally. It is an appalling shock for workers to receive notice that they have been put on protective notice as a result of decisions made. As the Deputies know, last month the ESB shut down the Lough Ree power generating station to carry out planned maintenance. The generating station was due to return to service last weekend, but the decision was taken on Friday, 5 July, to defer this for up to a three-month period in order to address environmental and legal issues. As a result, Lough Ree power generating station does not require peat supplies from Bord na Móna. This has had an immediate and adverse knock-on effect on Bord na Móna which has been left with no choice but to cease all operations at the Mount Dillon bog and place the 72 permanent fuIl-time employees and 76 seasonal employees on protective notice. The 148 impacted on staff will remain on a temporary unpaid lay-off from Thursday, 18 July, until Bord na Móna is informed by the ESB that Lough Ree power generating station will return to normal operations. This is expected to take a period of between four and 12 weeks

Bord na Móna fully acknowledges the impact the deicison will have on employees, their families and the wider community. The company has arranged a meeting tomorrow morning with the group of unions to work through the process and review all options. I am sure some of the questions raised about stocks will be answered at that meeting. Bord na Móna has committed to ensuring a range of supports will be available for the affected employees. All relevant State supports will also be made available to the workers impacted on by the announcement.

The situation has arisen from an issue with the integrated pollution control licence issued to Lough Ree power generating station. In 2018 the ESB applied to the EPA for a licence review for the station. A key facet of the application relates to amending the conditions imposed by the EPA in 2013 on the cooling water discharged by the station. The ESB has sought the amendment as monitoring of the river profile has shown that the station cannot comply with the new conditions during the summer months when river levels are lower. I understand that because it is a full licence review the EPA has had to have full consultations, which has meant that the application has taken some time to process. The EPA is considering the application and has requested a time extension of a further three months for its deliberations. I understand that last year, on foot of emissions in the summer of 2018, legal proceedings were issued against ESB in respect of the operation of the plant. It is in that context that the ESB has made the decision to keep Lough Ree power generating station shut down to avoid leaving the company open to the risk of further prosecutions over the operation of the plant. The ESB has its responsibilities, but I am nonetheless monitoring the situation closely. The EPA is an independent body that must make its decisions based on the processes set out in law.

It has conducted the necessary consultations and will, I understand, bring this to their board in due course for a decision in as timely a manner as possible. It has undoubtedly come as a major blow to have this occur when we are seeing a difficult transition from brown to green, as Bord na Móna describes it. It is acknowledged that the company is undertaking significant efforts to diversify and find new opportunities. As recently as last week, I was pleased to open one of those operations. Regarding the PSO, I have been advised that it has time to run and will continue to the end of 2019.

The stories from the ESB, Bord na Móna and the EPA do not add up. My understanding is that the contracted tonnage has already been achieved. I ask the Minister to get answers to the questions I have raised and I would like a copy of those replies as well. Some 400 families are directly dependent on Lough Ree power station. Hundreds more are indirectly reliant on those jobs. We need an immediate transition fund of €125 million to be established. That is 5% of the climate action, rural regeneration and urban regeneration funds ring-fenced to provide alternative jobs for employees of Bord na Móna, the ESB and the communities dependent on those jobs. That must be approved by the Cabinet before the end of this month. We can then leverage that fund to get EU and European Investment Bank, EIB, funding to make a real difference to the local economy right throughout the midland counties.

The Minister should acknowledge that there are more than 150 jobs affected. Do people who are subcontractors not matter? It is always the case that no one thinks about the people in the lorries, the people who supply the lorries, the mechanics and the people in the shops who will be affected by this in the surrounding areas. Bord na Móna was left in an awkward position. I agree with Deputy Naughten on a transitional fund. We need to get to the root of this situation, however. Why, when planning was pending, could the power station not continue working? This has been going on since 2013. Is there a hidden agenda to wipe out the peat stations in Lanesborough and Shannonbridge and then take out Moneypoint as well? I want a straight answer to that.

The Minister can be in no doubt now after hearing the words of Deputies Naughten, Fitzmaurice, Troy and myself. This really is not good enough. The Minister spoke in his reply about the station being closed for up to three months. This issue must be acted on now. I call on the Minister, and his colleague, the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, to intervene in this situation. We cannot keep treating human beings in this manner. If this is the way that we are going to try and achieve our green agenda, it is not on. As I said earlier, that must be done by co-operation and people working together and not by sacrificing people's livelihoods. Many people in our region are going to be struggling because of this situation. Will the Minister become involved directly? Will the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, become involved directly as well? I challenge the Minister in regard to the situation of seasonal workers such as students, part-time farmers and part-time employees in other jobs. Will he ask the ESB, the EPA and Bord na Móna to try and place some of those seasonal workers in other jobs? Let us try to do that for them at least. It can be done if the will is there to do it.

As has been said, contradicting stories have come from the three different agencies. That is why they need to be brought into one room so that they cannot contradict the stories. The Minister is the person to do that. Since this issue was made known in 2013, why has it taken five years for the ESB to make an application? Where does that application stand now? When will we have a decision on that application? My understanding, and the Minster mentioned this in his reply, is that it will be as soon as possible. There are no statutory limits that the EPA must meet to make a decision within a specified time, in the same way as there are on the county councils and An Bord Pleanála. We need to have something like that. There is a need for transition and we must diversify. No one is arguing with that. It cannot be done overnight, however. What is the long-term plan for this plant? Is there a sinister attempt here to close it down in order to meet our climate targets? That simply cannot happen and we cannot play with people's lives. That is what is happening now. What supports are going to be put in place here and now for the families affected by this closure?

I assure Deputy Troy that the EPA has independent powers and, in the context of a full licence review of this nature, it is required to conduct a full environmental impact assessment, EIA. That is required. It is also required to have public consultation. The EPA, therefore, is meeting the obligations of its governing legislation. It is not for me to interfere in how it conducts that business. I will convey to all of the parties involved the urgency concerning this issue to which Deputies have referred. It is, however, a responsibility of each body to meet its obligations. That includes the obligations to meet the conditions of an integrated pollution control licence. I am conscious that the ESB is being prosecuted for its failures in that respect. This issue arose last summer. That is the backdrop to this issue.

I will seek some more information for the Deputies regarding the tonnages involved. Turning to the just transition, I recognise that is going to be a challenge for some time. We have to ensure that we support workers who are facing change. That means supporting them in retraining and in making an exit if they decide to cease work in this area. We must also develop new opportunities. To be fair to Bord na Móna, it has been exemplary in seeking to develop opportunities in a decarbonising world. It has sought to open up new generation capacity in the renewables' sector and it is also examining the waste management and resource recovery sectors. That sector is one where the company can develop opportunities. It is also looking at aquaculture and various horticultural projects.

It is clear that the regional enterprise strategies are also targeting supports to those very opportunities because there is a recognition of the need to develop those opportunities. There will also be support from the urban, rural, regional enterprise and climate action funds in response to proposals coming forward from regions adversely affected in respect of assisting with viable projects. That is the correct way to proceed. As the Deputies know, I have sought at EU level to have peat included in the same category as coal. The EU has set up technical support for regions seeking to transit out of coal and that are impacted by that transition. I am proceeding on all of those fronts to develop effective polices to support workers affected by the impact of the change that is coming. I assure the Deputies that there is no sinister agenda on my part. We have to make changes, as the Deputies have recognised. We are seeking to do that in an orderly way and to support people where they are particularly exposed to the impact of the changes that are coming.