I welcome Deputy Richmond, who wishes to discuss the status of hate crime legislation as committed to in the programme for Government, and the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy James Browne, who is having his first outing as Minister of State.
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for taking this Topical Issue matter and holding it over from before the summer recess. I sincerely congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, on his deserved appointment. I wish him well and hope he has a fruitful time in the Department.
As the Minister of State will be aware, hate crime legislation was promised in the first 12 months of this Government. It is needed to hold people to account for their actions, and more important, their words. It is prohibited to incite hatred against an individual or a group based on age, race, religion, sexual orientation or nationality. However, the law does not cover hatred based on gender, disability, civil status, family status or age. These characteristics must be included in the forthcoming legislation, which is set to ensure that those who target someone based on his or her identity are classified as perpetrators of hate crime.
Worryingly, we have seen a rise in the number of hate crimes reported in Ireland in five of the previous six years, with 250 crimes recorded last year alone. However, we all know the actual figure is most likely significantly higher, as many of these offences simply go unreported. We must take firm actions against hate crimes and the use of hate speech in order to make Ireland a safer place for everyone. In recent years, we have seen words of hatred and fearmongering creep into our public discourse. We have all seen individuals on social media inciting hatred and encouraging the spread of misinformation. In recent months, protests have been organised outside our Parliament at which individuals held pictures of nooses to threaten our colleagues. To even name the people who perpetrate this would do a great disservice to society but we have all seen the videos at this stage. With over half of politicians reporting that they have experienced online abuse, it is clear that there is a group of people in society who feel comfortable sending off a nasty social media message or email to someone they have never met, simply for the sake of causing hurt and upset. This is incredibly worrying. The reposting of hateful material should also be addressed in the legislation. It can cause just as much hurt as the original post.
In my constituency of Dublin Rathdown, there have been worrying incidents, including one where a man was verbally abused by a group of teenagers and told he did not belong here because he is originally from another country. A teenage girl was assaulted, egged and had her hijab removed in Dundrum in recent months. Houses have been daubed with sectarian images, swastikas and phrases I would not feel comfortable repeating in this House, let alone in any forum. There must be clear punishments for these horrific actions. A hate crime can have a long-lasting impact on the victim and it can lead to far more worrying events. Hate crimes may start as words but sometimes they lead to actions. We need only look at the events in the UK over four years ago, when what started with hate speech sadly led to the assassination of a Member of Parliament outside her office as she was leaving a constituency clinic, something everyone in this House does weekly, if not daily.
Ireland is known as the land of one hundred thousand welcomes. If we want to live up to this mantra, we need to take action and ensure everyone who is in this country feels comfortable, regardless of his or her status or any of the other characteristics to which I referred.
On behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy McEntee, I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. I know it is one that concerns him deeply.
The mission of the Department of Justice and Equality is the delivery of a safe, fair and inclusive Ireland. The Minister is fully committed to the fight against racism and prejudice and to a fairer, safer Ireland for everyone who lives here. The programme for Government commits to introducing legislation within 12 months to address those who target victims because of their association with a particular identity characteristic and to revise and update the Incitement to Hatred Act 1989. The Department is already working as a priority to develop this new legislation, which will deal with both incitement to hatred and hate crime. The Minister hopes to bring forward and publish legislative proposals by the end of this year or at the latest by early 2021.
A public consultation was completed in January of this year on the issues involved. The Department received over 3,800 written responses, including around 175 detailed written submissions, which were welcome. This information will help to ensure the laws proposed are robust and effective within an Irish context. The Department has also completed comparative research on different approaches to hate crime legislation in other jurisdictions. Reports on the public consultation and the research will be published in the near future.
There is existing law in this area. The Incitement to Hatred Act 1989 prohibits certain forms of threatening, abusive or insulting conduct. In addition, in sentencing for criminal offences, a hate motive may be considered by the court to be an aggravating factor resulting in a stronger penalty. However, this has clearly not been sufficient to respond to crimes where a victim is targeted because of the perpetrator's hatred of a particular identity characteristic, such as religion, sexual orientation or ethnicity, for example.
Legislation alone is not sufficient to address the problems of hatred and bigotry. A key action in the fight against racism in Ireland has been the formation of the anti-racism committee. The committee, chaired by Professor Caroline Fennell of University College Cork, UCC, is tasked with reviewing current evidence and practice and making recommendations to the Government on how best to strengthen its approach to tackling racism in all its forms. The committee held its first meeting in June and met again at the end of August. It will provide an interim report by the end of November and I am sure we all look forward to seeing the results of its work in due course. With these and a range of other actions, concrete steps are being taken to tackle what are serious and long-standing concerns. I know the Minister hopes she can count on the Deputy's input and support when she brings forward legislative proposals on this important issue.
I thank the Minister of State for his full reply and I welcome his remarks, especially on the work that has been done, not just by the Minister, Deputy McEntee, but also by the former Minister, Deputy Flanagan. However, I would like to push for a more firm timeline. It is ambitious to say that proposals will hopefully be published by the end of the year or in early 2021. We have a commitment that it needs to be done within 12 months but work on this issue has been ongoing for so long that perhaps we can expect faster and more substantial progress.
I do not raise this issue because of what all of use have no doubt suffered through our work but because I genuinely have a serious fear about the level of uncivil discourse creeping into public debate. Before expressing a view, people must often consider first whether they are prepared to voice an opinion that not everyone agrees with because of the abuse they and members of their family will receive. Is this inhibiting people from entering politics? I thought the era of nasty politics had gone from Ireland. The best thing we can say about this Parliament is that we can strongly disagree in this Chamber and in the committee rooms but we can all be agreeable outside, have a cup of tea together, meet supporters at election time and have the craic outside the gates of the church or whatever it may be. I fear that if we look at the next debate that the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, is going to take, we can see the impact that nasty politics can have in honourable and respected countries such as that of our dear neighbour, the United Kingdom. We do not want to go down the pathway where worrying commentary is used in political campaigns, and scaremongering posters and blatant abuse of office become the norm. That is the huge fear I have for this country and I hope that, through the legislation that is promised, the Minister of State and the Minister can play their part in making sure we are as immune to that as possible.
I thank the Deputy again for raising this important and serious matter. On behalf of the Minister, I am pleased to hear support being expressed for the proposed new legislation. I understand the Deputy's desire to see the matter progressed as quickly as possible and I assure him that the Minister and I share his determination to get this legislation passed as quickly as possible and to ensure it is effective and addresses the key issues he has raised.
Ireland has become a more diverse and welcoming country in recent decades. Together with the Minister, I strongly condemn the actions of the small minority who subject others to abuse or attack, arising from personal prejudice. The priority work of the Department to legislate for hate crime and hate speech will make a real contribution to ensuring Ireland is a safe and secure place for all. There will be a further opportunity for experts, communities and the public to share views when these proposals are published. I know the Minister looks forward to further engagement with the Deputy and all other stakeholders as she moves this important work forward as quickly and effectively as possible.
The Financial Times reported yesterday that the British Government intended to introduce legislation that would have the effect of not only undermining but breaking the withdrawal agreement entered into by the European Union and the Government of the United Kingdom. It was stated then that this was merely sabre-rattling or gamesmanship. Today, however, the Secretary of State for Northern, Brandon Lewis, informed Members of Parliament in the House of Commons that the British Government does intend to introduce legislation tomorrow that will "break international law in a very specific and limited way."
I was astonished when I heard that. I thought that it must have been a typographical error by the newspaper that reported it. I checked it, however, and, alarmingly, those are the words that were used by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. We know now that this is not gamesmanship or sabre-rattling. It is, instead, clearly an effort by a rudderless and reckless British Government to try to undermine the European Union regarding agreements reached previously.
What is the policy of the European Union and of the Irish Government in responding to this statement by the British Government? What we cannot do is become appeasers of a government that is blatantly engaging in breaches of international law.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this Topical Issue matter. It does not shock me that several Deputies have decided to row in on this issue. Deputy O'Callaghan has already said that we are talking about a breach of "international law in a very specific and limited way". It is an utterly crazy term. Initially, we thought that this was sabre-rattling and the British Government setting out a negotiating stance. However, then we had the news that Jonathan Jones, the head of the British Government's legal team, had resigned in connection with this issue.
We need an answer concerning what the EU is going to do and what the Irish Government is going to do. We are incredibly worried about what the British Government intends to do. This is a British Government that has missed every deadline connected with Brexit. We are also worried, if the British Government is willing to circumvent the Irish protocol and the withdrawal agreement, that we will have difficulties in the future. People in Border areas like Dundalk are very worried about what the future will hold, not just from a business point of view but also from a societal perspective. We do not want to see the resumption of any kind of infrastructure, checks or anything like that on the Border, because that would be utterly unacceptable given the history we have in that area.
The Tánaiste and Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Varadkar, yesterday described what was emerging about the British Government's approach as "sabre-rattling". Today, however, we heard that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, has confirmed the intention of the British Government to introduce domestic legislation that would clearly breach international law and he stated that fact himself. That has major potential to impact on the Irish protocol.
Attempts by the EU's negotiators, over many months, to find compromises have not been reciprocated by the British Government. Indeed, the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, stated that he believes a no-deal Brexit would be a good outcome. That would certainly not be the case on this island.
We need to reiterate that a no-deal Brexit will not be a good outcome for this island and that the Irish protocol is not up for renegotiation and cannot be undermined. Will the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, assure this House that the Government has the capacity to add steel to the resolve of the EU as it confronts the egregious attempts by the Tory Bullingdon club to place itself beyond the pale of the international system?
I welcome the opportunity to address Members of the House on this important issue. As Members will be aware, negotiations on the future partnership between the EU and the UK are ongoing. The eighth round of talks is taking place this week in London.
In accordance with the EU negotiating mandate, as Michel Barnier has repeatedly underlined, and as the Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, stressed yesterday in her statement on the matter, progress on the future partnership is inextricably linked to the full implementation of the withdrawal agreement, a legally-binding international agreement between the EU and the UK, of which the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland is a central component.
I am aware of the briefings and comments regarding the UK Government's intentions concerning proposed legislation implementing the provisions of the withdrawal agreement. If those comments represent the considered view of the British Government, then I find them gravely concerning. While we still await publication of the legislation, earlier this week we raised the media reports and briefings on this issue with the UK through diplomatic and official channels to express our concerns, as would be expected. Rather than being reassured, however, my concerns have been exacerbated by the additional comments deliberately made in the House of Commons today, openly committing the UK Government to legislate to break international law regarding the withdrawal agreement. I have asked our ambassador in London to raise this issue directly with the UK Government this afternoon. Michel Barnier is also due to raise the issue with David Frost during their engagement today.
Clearly, any unilateral departure from the terms of the withdrawal agreement would be a matter of considerable concern and a very serious step. Our view is that such a departure could seriously erode and damage political trust, not only in the Brexit negotiations but also within Northern Ireland at a time of real sensitivity. Northern Ireland does not need this further uncertainty regarding Brexit. The UK has a long and proud tradition of upholding international law and advocating for the primacy of the rule of law. Any departure from this tradition, particularly on an issue as high profile as Brexit, would have serious implications, not least for the UK's international reputation. We and the EU will continue to take a calm and measured approach. Time is short and we are very much focused on trying to get a positive outcome in the future relationship negotiations. Together, we will carefully analyse the detail of the legislation in question once it is published and I remain in close contact, daily, with the EU task force on this critical issue.
It is worth recollecting where we are at this juncture. The withdrawal agreement was agreed by the EU and the UK in October of last year. It was approved by the heads of all EU governments and received the assent of the European Parliament. It was signed and ratified by the UK Government and legislation implementing it was passed by the UK Parliament at the beginning of this year. The withdrawal agreement is a legally-binding international agreement between the EU and the UK and it is not even 12 months old.
From the beginning, Ireland's approach has been guided by the principle of securing a deal that worked for Northern Ireland and the island as a whole. The protocol includes provisions that avoid a hard Border on the island of Ireland, that recognise the Common Travel Area, protect continued North-South co-operation and protect the integrity of the Single Market and Ireland's place in it. It maintains commitments to ensure no diminution of rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity, as set out in the Good Friday Agreement. It maintains the single electricity market and reaffirms the commitment of the EU and the UK to the PEACE PLUS programme.
Let me be very clear. The protocol agreed as part of the withdrawal agreement is designed and empowered to operate in all circumstances, including in the absence of an agreement on the future relationship between the EU and the UK. The protocol represents a fair and balanced outcome for all parties, with compromises on all sides. It is surely not too much to ask that the UK Government will implement it in full respect of its international obligations and have it in place in time for the end of this year, when the transition period ends. I look forward to comments from Deputies.
The Minister is correct to be gravely concerned. It is astonishing that a Minister of any government, in any part of the world, would attend before the parliament of that country and state that it is the intention of that government to break the law. What we need to learn, however, is that if we appease lawlessness we will end up only encouraging the lawbreaker.
It is absolutely imperative that the EU is straight in dealing with this issue. We should not tolerate any attempts by the British Government to break the law. The provisions in Article 12 of the protocol set out what should happen for the purpose of implementation and what arises when there is a breach. However, everyone involved in drafting and executing that agreement presumed that there would be no breaches prior to the conclusion of the trade deal between the EU and the UK. If it is the case that the UK Government goes ahead and publishes legislation that breaks international law, we should break off the talks and the Minister should tell the EU that we should do that. As I said previously, appeasing lawlessness only encourages the law-breaker.
It is absolutely unacceptable for the British Government to bandy about the idea that it is okay to breach international law. It is like playing poker with a guy who never keeps to the rules. It is an impossible and unacceptable position. It is almost a throwback to previous imperial times when British Governments did deals and reneged on them. Considering where we have come from, this situation is utterly unacceptable.
I welcome what the Minister said. There is mitigation involved in the withdrawal agreement and Northern Ireland-Ireland protocol relating to the Single Market and customs. Those measures apply to businesses but this is also about the island we inhabit and cross-Border operations. We need any transition to be as seamless as possible. We do not want any impact on people's lives and it must be pointed out to the EU that the UK position is absolutely unacceptable. The Irish Government must remain firm that we cannot accept this position in any way, shape or form. As has been said by many people, a circumvention of the Irish protocol and all that can come from that without the necessary protections in place, will be utterly unacceptable to the people. There must be no impositions, including Border checks and infrastructure.
I welcome some of the moves that the Government has made to get answers in response to what has unfolded over the past day or so. The Government is using diplomatic channels and going through the ambassador in London. That said, I was alarmed not to hear in the Minister's contribution that the Taoiseach has lifted the phone to talk to No. 10 Downing Street. I find it alarming that we are, essentially, sitting back and allowing this island to be used as some sort of political pawn in the game that Boris Johnson and the Tories are playing with the EU. It is astonishing. Why has the Taoiseach not lifted the phone to Boris Johnson to voice our serious concerns and objections to this attempt to rip up an internationally binding treaty? I appeal to the Minister to use his position to ask the Taoiseach to pick up the phone to Boris Johnson.
Has the phone been lifted to chief EU negotiator, Michel Barnier? Has a conversation been held at that level? If it has been, the Minister might give some details on it.
I reassure Deputies that there will be no appeasing of this approach. There will be no condoning a strategy that proposes to breach international law and undermine an agreement that the EU and UK signed together less than a year ago. That is why I, the Taoiseach, and others from various different political parties in this House, both in government and in opposition, have been saying similar things and expressing frustration and, quite frankly, surprise at the approach that it seems the British Government is proposing to adopt.
From my experience of Brexit negotiations, Ireland is empowered to influence final outcomes in its own interests by working as closely as possible with the EU task force. We speak to the task force on a daily basis and I regularly speak to Michel Barnier. On this issue, like so many others, I hope that we will have a significant input as to how the EU responds. We will be able to make a more informed choice as to how the collective EU, including Ireland, should respond to the course of action taken by the British Government when we see the legislation tomorrow.
Focus should not be taken away from the real prize, which is to get a deal that avoids tariffs and quotas being implemented on trade between Ireland, the UK and the EU next year. Despite the unwelcome distraction that this new problematic and illegal approach being taken by the British Government represents, we must focus on how to get an agreement between the EU and the UK that protects Ireland, both North and South, and ensure that, in January next year, we can continue to trade with our closest neighbour and friend in a way that minimises disruption and cost for businesses. Those are the issues on which Michel Barnier and I will focus. Despite the fact that the position that the UK has taken makes it more difficult to proceed on that basis, we need to remain calm, resolute and focused on the prize at hand in the coming weeks and months, although that will not be easily achieved.
Fishers all around our coast were shocked and outraged when they learned that the Taoiseach had signed off on the statutory instrument introducing regulations containing a penalty point system. Those fishers learned about this 11 days ago and I have spoken to many of them since. I was speaking to fishermen on Arranmore Island yesterday and they are absolutely shocked that the Taoiseach signed off on this when he voted against exactly the same statutory instrument in 2018. The Minister also voted against the proposal at that time. Both the Taoiseach and the Minister were right in how they voted on 29 May 2018.
The Minister will recall that, at that time, the then Fianna Fáil spokesperson on the marine, Pat The Cope Gallagher, introduced the motion. I have re-read what he had to say and he was spot on in his criticisms. Not only had he criticisms, he subsequently put forward amendments to the regulation that provided solutions to the problems he identified. The Dáil voted down a statutory instrument from a Minister for the first time on 29 May 2018 and it has not happened since, to my knowledge. The Dáil was right to do so because the contents of that statutory instrument and the one that has been passed in recent weeks were outrageous.
Imagine a scenario where a Garda issues penalty points to a driver. The driver says that he or she has done no wrong. The Garda then gets to select the judge who will hear the case and penalty points are still applied even though due process has not been exhausted. The driver then has no right to apply to a higher court. The same situation is happening here. The wording of the statutory instrument is incredible. It talks about decisions being made on the balance of probabilities. Under our common law system and Constitution, a person has a right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Those who are accusing a person, particularly when the State is the accuser, must prove his or her guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and yet the balance of probabilities is the standard under this statutory instrument.
There is also an issue around the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority. A review is being carried out into that organisation but it is yet to be published so we do not know what recommendations it contains. There are serious concerns about the lack of accountability of the organisation.
We are going to give them the right not just to detect but to adjudicate, something that is unheard of in the justice system.
The Minister will know we have tabled an annulment motion which is almost identical to that tabled by former Deputy Pat The Cope Gallagher in 2018. We have held back on it in good faith and I have been asked by fishing representative organisations to give them a chance to meet the Minister and put their case. We believe that fair play can prevail. I am aware that the Minister will meet fishing representative organisations soon. I ask him to resolve this issue because, as he said eloquently in 2018, he knows this is wrong.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta Mac Lochlainn for raising this issue today and giving me the opportunity to discuss it in the House. At the outset, I want to congratulate him on his appointment as marine spokesperson for Sinn Féin. Both of us come from the county of Donegal and will have fishing, the marine and aquaculture very much in our hearts and I look forward to working with him very constructively in that regard, as I know he does.
We are discussing the European Union Common Fisheries Policy points systems regulations which were signed into force on 26 August by the Taoiseach and acting Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Micheál Martin. The 2009 EU fisheries control regulation requires member states to establish points systems in respect of serious infringements of the rules of the European Common Fisheries Policy. These rules are designed to ensure that fishing in EU waters is sustainable and that the long-term interests of fishing and coastal communities are protected by ensuring that our precious fishing resource is protected.
The points system is intended to complement the normal sanctioning system in a member state for serious infringements and to promote a level playing field on control within the EU. These systems were due to be implemented, as the Deputy knows, by 2012. Ireland is responsible for the control of all fishing activity by Irish and foreign fishing vessels in our 200-mile zone. The points to be assigned under the new statutory instrument will be applied to Irish and foreign fishing vessel licenceholders held responsible for serious infringements committed in Ireland's 200-mile zone. These new regulations are a requirement of EU law and, as has been the case since 2012, all other coastal member states have now implemented this EU points system. Ireland has been found to be in breach of its EU legal obligations as a result of our failure to implement them before this point.
As a result, the EU Commission, under infringement proceedings, issued a reasoned opinion to Ireland in July 2020 and has given Ireland three months in which to respond. The implementation of these regulations were already overdue, but obviously the urgency has been amplified by that reasoned opinion. In addition, the European Commission has formally suspended payment to Ireland of EU co-funding payments under the European maritime fisheries fund, EMFF, operational programme. This suspension will continue indefinitely until Ireland puts in place the necessary legislation and administrative systems to comply with the EU points system. Unless the regulatory lacuna is addressed immediately, we face an increasing financial cost for taxpayers.
EU funds for control and enforcement available to Ireland under the EMFF are €37.2 million over the course of the programme. As of September 2020, €13.5 million of those payments have been withheld. A further recoupment claim due to be submitted later this year will result in the figure withheld rising to €24.5 million. A total of €37.2 million is at risk for the full period of the programme.
The new statutory instrument takes on board in full the findings of the related 2017 Supreme Court judgment that the procedures followed must be fair and in accordance with best practices. It involves a determination panel comprising three independent legal professionals who have been nominated by the Attorney General and offers a licenceholder the option of an oral hearing for the purposes of the determination. In addition, a decision may be appealed to an independent appeals officer nominated by the Attorney General and the licenceholder has the option of seeking an oral hearing at this stage.
Under the statutory instrument, the accumulation of points for persistent serious infringements of the rules of the Common Fisheries Policy will lead to a suspension of a sea fishing boat vessel for a period of anything from two months to one year. In extreme cases, persistent serious infringements could lead to the permanent withdrawal of a licence. It is important to note that the EU control regulation provides that if the licenceholder does not commit within three years from the date of the last serious infringement another serious one, all points on the licence will be deleted.
The new statutory instrument includes a number of, but not all, amendments sought as a result of consultations with industry. The new arrangements are the minimum required to meet the test of proportionality, effectiveness and dissuasiveness required under EU law. I am confident that the new enhanced points system will play an important role in delivering on our Common Fisheries Policy objective of ensuring proportionate, effective and dissuasive penalties for serious infringements and will contribute to a level playing field in fisheries control across member states.
The points system is necessary as an effective measure against the small number, either foreign or Irish, of those who break the rules. It is necessary to protect the vast majority of our law abiding fishermen from the few who might and would incur repeated serious infringements and put in jeopardy fish stocks for law-abiding fishermen for future generations. I am very aware of the concerns that have been raised by the sector, and will meet representatives to discuss them in due course to listen to and discuss the rationale behind the need for this statutory instrument.
I thank the Minister. I wish him well in his brief and look forward to working with him constructively. He is, like me, from a coastal county and knows well the concerns of fishermen and the sense that they have been criminalised. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has been focused on enforcing rather than facilitating and supporting our fishing community to take the maximum wealth possible from our seas in order to have sustainable communities all around the coast. I am really alarmed at the range of fishermen in every sector I have spoken to who have no confidence in those at senior levels in the Department. A huge gap of distrust has built up. That is the problem with this statutory instrument.
The Minister and his colleagues rightly challenged this two years ago and did something unprecedented in the history of the State, namely, voting down a statutory instrument and asking the Government and the then Minister, Deputy Creed, to go back to the drawing board. Over two years later they have still not listened to the concerns of fishermen.
I understand the Minister will meet representatives of fishing organisations early next week. It is imperative he addresses the real and genuine concerns of fishermen. I have yet to meet a fisherman who has said to me that he or she does not believe there should be penalty points. They all support the principle of penalty points but there has to be fair and natural justice and the right to appeal must be in place as it is for any other citizen who is accused of an offence. The High and Supreme Courts have rejected the propositions drafted by the Department on a number of occasions. The Dáil has rejected its proposition. When the Minister meets fishing representative organisations and listens to their constructive ideas, a solution can be found to meet everybody's concerns.
I look forward to his meeting with representatives. I am acting in good faith in not pushing our annulment motion but if we do not see a genuine attempt to address these concerns, we will have to put the motion before the Dáil eventually. I hope that will not happen.
As I said, I will meet the sector next week. The Deputy and I both value their voice, contribution and what they have to say on behalf of the fishermen they represent. They very much recognise the need for an statutory instrument. My party engaged thoroughly with them at the time in terms of their concerns and they were discussed thoroughly in the Dáil. The statutory instrument which has been signed takes on board some of the amendments proposed, including two in particular. Others which had been proposed were adjudicated as not being in compliance with ensuring that we can meet the requirements we are obliged to meet in order to comply with our obligations under the EU Common Fisheries Policy.
As I said, all other member states have already put a penalty points system in place. We are now being fined and in the past two months alone, that has escalated significantly following the reasoned opinion from the EU. It is important that we address this issue.
On the Supreme Court decision which found against the previous statutory instrument, the grounds on which it found against that statutory instrument have been addressed in this statutory instrument, which primarily focused on the need for the appeals part of the statutory instrument to be distinctly separate from the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, SFPA, and this statutory instrument achieves that.
It has been drafted very much in line with ensuring that it complied with the previous Supreme Court decision and to meet and address all of those issues. The Supreme Court was only concerned with the administrative penalty point system which has been proposed and this statutory instrument takes on board what the Supreme Court would have found to have been at fault and had adjudicated upon. It also needs to ensure that we meet the key tests under European law. These are to ensure that we meet the tests of proportionality, effectiveness, and dissuasiveness, as required under EU law which are the reasons it is drafted in this way. I look forward to discussing with the stakeholders, and with Deputy Christopher O’Sullivan, in particular, who has been liaising with me on this. I also value the role former Deputy Pat The Cope Gallagher would have played in respect of this issue in the past. It is essential that we have a good workable statutory instrument that meets our EU requirements and protects fishermen to ensure that we protect those who are complying with the law and that the system that oversees this is fair. I will be meeting these groups and will be listening to their concerns and working with the sector to meet the challenges of Brexit in the period ahead, which is a real risk indeed. Gabhaim buíochas.
I thank the Minister for coming into the Chamber to take this Topical Issue matter.
As the Minister is aware, there are two types of people who benefit from bus transport. There are those who are determined to be eligible and those determined not to be eligible and who receive a concessionary ticket. As restrictions have been introduced, a squeeze has come onto people with concessionary tickets. From correspondence I have received into my office, much of which I have relayed to the Minister’s Department, it appears that any and every excuse is being used not to grant people tickets or to determine that they are eligible.
In one example, I refer to a family that lives in Broadford, which if one looks at a map is more or less equidistant between Killaloe and Tulla. There are schools in Killaloe, and Tulla and indeed in Scariff, and this family is more or less equidistant between the three. In this particular family of seven members, four of the children went to Tulla with no problem whatsoever, leaving three children. Of the three children last year, two of whom were told that they were eligible to get a ticket to Tulla and one was told that the person was not eligible but could have a concessionary ticket. The child did not challenge this and got onto the bus and this child and siblings went off to school to Tulla. This year the family have been told that none of the children are eligible and that they all must get concessionary tickets. The reason they have been told this is that Tulla is 16 km away and Killaloe is 18 km away by the normal road that the bus takes. There is also however what is called or considered a gap road which is a very beautiful road, and if the Minister ever wants to come mountain biking in Clare I would highly recommend this as it has fantastic views. One would want to have very good control of one’s bike and to do this in summer because the road is exceptionally steep. Nobody and no school bus would drive that road. In fact there are parts of the winter when nobody can drive this road. I spoke to the council engineer, who generally does not exaggerate, and he told me this morning that when trees - because this road runs through forestry - fall on this road, the council tries to clear it as fast as possible. It is prone to flash flooding because it is very steep and is on the side of a mountain and the highest point in County Clare, which is the top of the Sliabh Bearnach mountains. When the road floods, as it does throughout the winter, the council tries to clear it as soon as possible. That road, which is simply not drivable by a school bus or indeed by a car for much of the winter, where one would need a 4x4 vehicle at best to traverse it, is the basis upon which Bus Éireann has said that these pupils are not eligible to go to Tulla but must go to Killaloe. This simply does not make sense. It may be in accordance with the terms and conditions from Bus Éireann which I have here, which state how distant eligibility is determined:
Distance eligibility is determined by Bus Éireann by measuring the shortest traversable route from the child's home to the relevant school/s. The shortest route is used for determining eligibility only, it may be either a pedestrian or vehicular route.
A pedestrian route is being used to determine which bus one should get. If children could go to school through the fields the parents would not be looking for a bus to bring them to school. It is simply ridiculous. I ask the Minister in her answer not to pawn this off on Bus Éireann because the school transport scheme is operated by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Minister’s Department. Her Department pays for it and is ultimately responsible for education. I commend the Minister again on getting the schools back but the way the buses have operated leaves much to be desired. These parents found out five days before the school was to open that their children were no longer entitled to a ticket to go to Tulla, as did a number of other families in Broadford. Instead they would have to make their own arrangements. Carpooling is what is happening now, which means that children from different families are sharing cars by necessity. That is hardly what the Department of Education and Skills desires to bring about in these times when all of these precautions are in place. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter today.
Before I address the specific issue raised, I would like to provide the House an outline of the extent of the school transport service.
School transport is a significant operation managed by Bus Éireann, as the Deputy has noted, on behalf of the Department. In the 2019-20 school year over 120,000 children, including over 14,200 children with special educational needs, were transported in over 5,000 vehicles on a daily basis to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country covering over 100 million km at a cost of over €219 million in 2019.
The purpose of the Department's school transport scheme is, having regard to available resources, to support transport to and from school of children who reside remote from their nearest school. Under the terms of the scheme, children are eligible for school transport if they satisfy the distance criteria, which are 3.2 km at primary level and 4.8 km at post-primary level, and are attending their nearest school as determined by my Department-Bus Éireann, having regard to ethos and language. All children who are eligible for school transport and who completed the application and payment process on time for the 2020-21 school year have been accommodated on school transport services where such services are in operation.
Children who are not eligible for school transport, but who completed the application process on time, are considered for spare seats that may exist after eligible children have been facilitated. Such seats are referred to, as the Deputy has previously stated, as concessionary seats. The provision of a seat on a concessionary basis in a given year does not confer any continuing entitlement for that user in following years as concessionary places are entirely contingent on there being spare seats once eligible users are provided for.
To date for the 2020-21 school year, Bus Éireann has issued or allocated tickets to over 97,000 children on the primary and post-primary school transport schemes, including tickets for over 26,200 concessionary applicants. The closing date for payment for the 2020-21 school year was Tuesday, 4 August 2020. The school transport scheme family portal was temporarily closed for applications and payments on 20 August 2020. This temporary closure was necessary to complete the work required to issue tickets to families who at that time remained due to be allocated a ticket for school transport services for the 2020-21 school year. The school transport scheme family portal has now re-opened. However, parents or guardians making an application or payment at this time for the 2020-21 year are reminded that while it is possible to submit a payment, payments made at this time are now considered late. Late applicants or families who pay late or both, both eligible and concessionary, are not guaranteed a seat and will only be allocated a seat if capacity is available once seats are allocated to those families who applied and paid on time for transport services for the 2020-21 school year.
In addition, applications and payments for post-primary seats completed or made after 4 August 2020 will be only considered when the 50% capacity required by new Covid-19 public health guidelines is achieved on each route. The timeframe for this will vary from route to route and may take a number of weeks to complete.
In the event of not securing a ticket where no capacity exists, or on cancellation, a full refund will be issued.
With regard to the review of the school transport scheme, as announced by my predecessor in October 2019, given the current evolving situation with Covid-19, the proposed review has been delayed.
However, I propose to convene the steering group in the short term and to agree and supplement revised terms of reference to reflect the programme for Government, including an examination of issues such as the nearest or next nearest school.
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter and for affording me the opportunity to provide an outline of the extent of the school transport scheme and to respond.
The way this is being dealt with is unsatisfactory. Parents have found out five days in advance that they were not entitled to a place. Furthermore, they are unable to contact anybody. They are told to ring a certain number and when they ring it nobody answers. In the unlikely event that somebody does answer, they are transferred to somebody else. The particular parent I cited, whose three children have been denied a place, showed up at the Bus Éireann office today and was told everyone was working from home. That is a common problem across the Civil Service. Given that the Minister sits at Cabinet, she might raise this issue at a Cabinet meeting.
I see the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, in the Chamber. Working from home is not really working for people who rely on public services. It may be working for civil servants but it is not working for people who rely on their services and cannot get through to someone at the end of a telephone line. These are ordinary members of the public who pay their taxes and hope to access services. That is a difficulty that has been encountered by me and my colleagues in my constituency office. We need to look at how working from home is actually working.
I want to go back to the specifics of this issue. This idea that the shortest route will be measured not necessarily by vehicular access but also by pedestrian access is ludicrous. The gap road, as it is called, is simply not passable by a school bus. It is not passable by a car either during much of the winter months, particularly if there is frost, a flash flood or if trees fall, as they do in Ireland. The Minister knows what mountain gaps are like; she lives in Kerry. I will send her video footage of this road during the week if she will agree to look at it and address this issue. It seems that every and any excuse is being adopted and used to deprive people of school transport. I appreciate that there are difficulties, and the Minister has difficulties, but I ask her to address that. I have agreed to give Deputy Danny Healy-Rae a couple of seconds of my time to raise an issue, if the Minster is agreeable.
I have almost 140 children who cannot access school transport tickets-----
That is a lot of children.
I would appreciate it if they could get them. All systems are closed down. Surely the Minister is not trying to achieve the 50% reduction on buses by denying children and parents the right to get their tickets as they always have done. Is that what is happening? Will the 50% reduction rule be achieved by not giving children the tickets they have always got? That is not fair or right. The Minister is from Kerry, as am I, and I am sure she must be inundated with calls about this matter. It is not fair to achieve the 50% reduction by not giving children bus tickets.
That is absolutely not correct. In the first instance, as I previously outlined, all those who were eligible and had paid on time were given their tickets. Where there was extra capacity, concessionary tickets were made available. We are now doing a review of bus routes to meet the new guidelines issued by NPHET just one week in advance of the return to school so as to reach the 50% capacity. Where there is additional capacity after that, the concessionary tickets will be made available to those who have paid on time.
In response to the issue Deputy McNamara raised, I am not in a position to comment on individual cases.
Will the Minister look at the case?
I most certainly will look at the cases the Deputy raised.
I thank everyone for their co-operation. That concludes the Topical Issue Debate.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating.