Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 4 Nov 2020

Vol. 1000 No. 2

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Mother and Baby Homes Inquiries

Less than two weeks ago, we sat here in the middle of an incredibly difficult week for survivors of mother and baby homes. Based on the advice of survivors and human rights lawyers, I and other Deputies opposed aspects of the Bill and proposed changes to help those affected access their personal information. I welcome the change in approach taken but it is unfortunate that this did not happen at the outset. The delay caused immeasurable unnecessary distress for so many.

Three main things, among others, were being sought - first, that the Minister retained a copy of the mother and baby homes commission archive, to which he agreed; second, that an explicit guarantee that GDPR requests would be permitted, and the Minister has in essence confirmed this since the Bill was passed; and, third, the publication of an extensive index to the archive as this finding aid is necessary for people to access their personal information.

The Minister has yet to confirm the latter part, however. The Minister still has questions to answer on this. I had requested time to discuss this in the Dáil this week but, unfortunately, instead we had to spend hours talking about the Tánaiste’s misunderstanding of what the word “confidential” means. The day after the Dáil passed this Bill, we learned that the Government went against the advice of the Data Protection Commission’s assessment. Yesterday, we learned that the Minister was depending on legal advice from Department officials and not the Attorney General until the week of the Bill. These are serious questions that remain unanswered. I am asking for time to be secured in next week’s schedule to address these matters. It is the least people deserve and the Attorney General needs to meet with the collaborative forum to advise it as to how this happened.

Nonetheless, in response to incredible public pressure and the #RepealTheSeal campaign, there has finally been acknowledgement of the right of survivors to access their information under GDPR, which I very welcome. I also welcome the Taoiseach’s confirmation to me earlier today that all survivors of institutional abuse will be able to access their personal data, not just relating to the mother and baby homes commission but also the Ryan report and the McAleese archives.

However, I think I am justified in treating these announcements with a degree of caution. The Government’s record on dealing with this over the past few weeks and, indeed, decades has been incredibly damaging. People will understandably find it hard to trust that these promises will be kept. Even with the Minister’s recent announcements, people are already worried about what information will be redacted from documents and other bureaucratic barriers.

It is absolutely essential that the Minister ensures the proactive and full compliance with GDPR for survivors and all relevant persons. This process has to be underpinned by person-centred legislation and a nuanced understanding of the legitimate rights of so-called “third parties”. The Minister must define this in terms of duties of proactive disclosure and protection of identity rights.

Last week, the Minister promised extra resources to ensure GDPR is implemented, for which we are all grateful. It is crucial he engages experienced data protection law experts, preferably, including international expertise, to assist his Department and the Government in giving people their information.

The Department needs to be prepared to provide individuals with access to its copy of the commission's archive, assist Tusla in remediating its practice, and instruct all other holders of historical abuse information. It is urgent that the Minister brings in independent experts because trust in the Department's legal knowledge in this field is understandably very low. These experts would be able to work with the Minister and the Data Protection Commission to create the necessary systems.

The Minister has promised extra resources to ensure the general data protection regulation, GDPR, is implemented. Will he outline what steps he has taken or will take to recruit independent expert advisers on data protection law to deal with personal data access requests?

I thank the Deputy for her query. I acknowledge the importance of the issue of access to the commission's archive, which is due to be deposited with my Department at the end of February 2021. I am committed to implementing fully the right of access under the GDPR for those who wish to access their personal information from that date. I can confirm that my Department will provide appropriate guidance for individuals in good time to assist persons wishing to access personal information from this archive when it transfers to my Department. I have committed to continued engagement with the Data Protection Commission to ensure that the rights of all citizens to access personal information about themselves under data protection legislation and the GDPR are fully respected and implemented. The recent clarity provided by the Attorney General is very helpful in this regard.

The Commission of Investigation (Mother and Baby Homes and certain related Matters) Records, and another Matter Bill 2020 was brought forward by the Government to provide urgent and critical legal clarity on the protection and future use of a database compiled by the mother and baby homes commission during the course of its five-year investigation. The Bill was brought forward to preserve invaluable information, not to put it beyond reach. Of critical importance in this debate is the development of future legislation on rights of access to birth information. Future information and tracing legislation yet to be developed will provide a statutory basis for access to these records and will reduce the necessity to apply for the information in the form of subject access requests. I have committed to introducing legislation to the Oireachtas on this point in 2021. I have discussed the proposals for legislation on this with the Oireachtas Committee on Children, Disability, Equality and Integration yesterday.

It is important to state that the records of the commission will not transfer to my Department until the end of February 2021. This is to allow the commission time to consult all those who gave their stories to the confidential committee to ensure their wishes in respect of the inclusion of their names in the record are respected. That was another amendment which I introduced in the context of this legislation. I understand that the commission has compiled an extensive archive for which it will provide an index, which will be most helpful in providing access to the material. Copies of records that were provided to the commission will be returned to the Department, along with many other records from a multitude of sources, when the commission deposits its records with me in February 2021.

The Department digitised and captured a significant number of these records in the course of making its discovery to the commission. Not all contain personal information, but there is an immediate and resource-intensive task ahead in cataloguing and indexing all relevant records to assist in the effective management of subject access requests and related records management responsibilities. This is a significant issue which requires dedicated resources and expertise to develop a workable and GDPR-compliant corporate solution. As I have indicated, it is my intention to prioritise additional resources to this issue and it is anticipated that significant additional resources will be needed to manage current demands and those that will be made once the full archive has been deposited with the Department.

I thank the Minister. I am sure he appreciates that there is considerable distrust among survivors and their representatives on this issue. Years of secrecy and denial, compounded by an adversarial system, have rightly left people sceptical about any Government announcement. That is understandable. I have to believe that the Minister was doing what he thought was right. However, it also seems that he was let down by his Department, or as the Irish Examiner put it, "left holding the bag". While the Minister is the public face of this affair, behind all of this is a Department that is unable to deal properly with these matters. The challenge is in how we respond to the situation now.

The Government needs to engage with survivors and earn their trust. It must recognise the deficiencies in the Department, even if the Minister cannot acknowledge them publicly. The Minister must immediately bring in experienced data protection law experts, including international expertise, to report to him as the data controller. This is an opportunity to start a new chapter in how the State treats survivors of mother and baby homes and of other forms of institutional abuse in Ireland. The mother and baby homes commission report will be published shortly. That will be a difficult time for everyone affected and a time for self-reflection as a society. It is so important that we get it right. I would like the Minister to respond in writing on the potential for the Attorney General to meet with the collaborative forum to discuss goings-on in recent weeks. The experts the Minister appoints must be experts in the GDPR specifically to help the Minister as the data controller to issue personal data access requests from the mother and baby homes commission and from other commissions concerned with institutional abuse.

The Deputy is absolutely right to say that survivors are essential to all of this. That is the key concern. As I acknowledged in my earlier contributions, I did not do enough to reach out to survivors prior to the introduction of this legislation. I am in the process of rectifying this. I have engaged with survivors this week, including today, and I will continue to do so.

There will be a range of new responsibilities on my Department in light of the clarification the Attorney General has provided. I welcome these responsibilities but we must provide resources for them, which we are in the process of doing. We must also understand how we as a Department can fulfil those responsibilities in a way that is fully compliant with the GDPR. My first port of call in that regard will be the Data Protection Commission, which is the official advisory body on this and had flagged issues which helped to advance this matter dramatically. I am very happy to engage with international experts as well. Several names were suggested to me by the Adoption Rights Alliance when the Taoiseach and I met with that body on Friday of last week. I am very happy to engage, but the Data Protection Commission is this State's statutory body for overseeing the enforcement of data rights in general, including under the GDPR. That office will be my first port of call, but I am happy to engage further.

It is important to state that the GDPR will not address all of the issues around access to information. That is why it is important that we bring in information and tracing legislation as quickly as possible. It is also important to understand that my Department will be addressing issues to do with the commission's archive. The Ryan and McAleese reports are under the remit of other Departments. That is why the wider issue of access to information and the archiving issue, to which the Government made a very significant commitment last week, will be fundamental in addressing the wider landscape of information and records on institutional abuse in Ireland in the 20th century. My Department looks forward to co-operating with other Departments on that matter.

School Accommodation

I thank the Minister for being here today to answer my questions on a long-running and unacceptable situation which is affecting students, parents and teachers in Greystones Community College in my constituency. I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the tremendous effort and hard work of teachers throughout this country as well as that of school staff, principals, secretaries and everyone in the Department of Education who is involved in getting our schools up and running and creating some sort of normality for our children. Keeping them in school is a huge service and we appreciate the effort of everybody involved. As a parent of young children I can really appreciate how important it is that our children are back at school and that we maintain a safe system that will allow them to stay there.

The Minister will be aware of the issue I am raising because I have written to her about it several times. In fairness, she has corresponded with me on it several times.

It concerns Greystones Community College. The Minister will know it is a brand new secondary school which had its first intake in August of this year. It had been planned that the secondary school would share accommodation with Greystones Community National School on a temporary basis in a new primary school building, but that building failed to open in September, as the Minister is aware. The school was built by Western Building Systems. I am sure the Minister can imagine the disappointment of children cycling or walking past a school every morning but not being able to go into it and not understanding why.

When the school building failed to open, the primary school stayed in its temporary accommodation at Greystones Rugby Club, where it has been for the past five years. At least it had a place to which it could return when it experienced the disappointment of not being able to move to the new school. However, Greystones Community College, which is a brand new school, did not have anywhere to fall back on. The management of the school did what it could. The students have been housed in Greystones Lawn Tennis Club, which is totally unsuitable accommodation. The students are in changing rooms and tennis club meeting rooms. It is totally unacceptable.

The Minister will know that all Deputies representing Wicklow have contacted her on this issue. To be fair, I credit all of those Deputies because we are trying to work together to seek a resolution on this issue. I appreciate the efforts made by the Department so far, but the school needs clarity. It is not acceptable for the school to be in its current accommodation week to week and not know where it is going. It is a very difficult time for children at the moment and we need to create as much of a sense of normality around school as possible, rather than their being in a situation such as this whereby they do not know where they will be after Christmas. The students, parents and management need a clear understanding of where the school will be after Christmas. Where will it be after Christmas? What steps will be taken by the Minister's Department to resolve the issue around the school building? When are the children of the schools likely to end up in the building? The building looks fine to me. There may be some difficulty with it, but I am not aware of that. If the Minister were to come back to me on that, I would appreciate it.

I thank the Minister for being here and Deputy Matthews for sharing his time. The central issue in this situation is the fact that there is a brand new school building in Charlesland in Greystones that is unable to open. The building was to be a rapid build programme that was meant to take ten months and open in 2019. It was delayed until 2020 and now the building is sitting there empty. The parents and school staff have no real understanding as to what is happening with the school. Public representatives for the area received a letter from Western Building Systems, which built the school. The letter stated that the company was not sure what was going on with the school either. As Deputy Matthews outlined, there are two schools waiting to find out what is happening with that brand new build. The schools are in limbo until that happens. When will a decision be made as to when the new school will open? When was the Department last on site to review the school? Has the Department, the Minister or an official recently met Western Building Systems to discuss this issue ?

I thank the Deputies for raising this matter as it allows me the opportunity to update the House on the current position in respect of the provision of accommodation for Greystones Community College in the first instance and also for Greystones Community National School. It was the intention to open the community college in the newly constructed community national school building in September 2020 but, unfortunately, that has not proved possible.

Greystones Community College opened its doors to 64 first year students on Friday, 28 August 2020 in Greystones Lawn Tennis Club. The school, Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board, KWETB and my Department are grateful to Greystones Lawn Tennis Club for facilitating Greystones Community College. I wish to acknowledge the efforts of the entire school community in preparing the accommodation for the school's opening in these particularly difficult and trying circumstances. A licence agreement is in place for this interim accommodation with a commencement date of 17 August 2020 until the end of December 2020.

Senior Department officials met KWETB and Greystones Community College on Wednesday, 23 September to discuss the school's current arrangements and the immediate and future accommodation requirements of the school. My Department has agreed to look at all potential options in the area in the short and medium term ahead of the school's move to its designated permanent site in Charlesland, Greystones. This will include the provision of appropriate temporary accommodation, including specialist rooms, as quickly as possible as the current school year progresses. Officials of my Department will continue to work closely with KWETB and the school to ensure the needs of the school community will be met. Department officials, along with the school and KWETB, met Greystones Lawn Tennis Club on Monday, 28 September 2020 to discuss and request an extension to the existing arrangements. The tennis club has agreed to extend the current licence agreement until the end of December 2020 and is willing to consider extending beyond that if so required. The school and KWETB are aware of this development.

In the meantime, my Department continues to work on exploring options for further interim specialist accommodation for the school. Department officials have been in discussion with Greystones Rugby Club and the club has agreed to allow for further temporary accommodation on its site to meet additional needs for either of the schools should this be required. The Department will progress this as necessary over the coming weeks in consultation with the schools and the ETB.

The building project to deliver a permanent new 1,000 pupil school for Greystones Community College is planned for the designated post-primary site at Charlesland, as was referenced. My Department is committed to delivering this site for the new post-primary school for the Greystones and Kilcoole area of County Wicklow and work is ongoing to achieve that as soon as possible. Discussions are ongoing with the landowner with a view to acquiring the site. As the Deputies will appreciate, any site acquisition process may be lengthy and there may be complex issues which need to be addressed during negotiations, technical assessments or conveyancing. At all times, my Department must strive to obtain best value for the Exchequer while seeking to complete the acquisition as quickly and efficiently as possible. The project to deliver permanent accommodation for the school is to be delivered under my Department's design and build programme. As soon as there is sufficient certainty in respect of completion of the site acquisition, the architectural planning and design stage will be completed and, following grant of planning permission, the project will be expedited to tender and construction stages.

On the letter referenced by Deputy Whitmore, that letter was not forwarded to my Department by the contractor. However, the Department has had sight of the letter. There are several inaccuracies in that communication. Notwithstanding that, there has been ongoing communication between my Department and the contractor. Certain information was provided by the contractor at the end of September. In October, the Department informed the contractor that further information was required. That was provided at the end of October and is currently being adjudicated on.

I thank the Minister for her response, but it did not give me much information beyond what I have received already from her Department or others who have received communications from her Department. At the heart of this issue is the fact that the children are being taught in a tennis club which is totally unacceptable and unsuitable as classroom accommodation. I acknowledge that the Department is doing what it can and that it and the Minister are dealing with a range of difficulties across the educational system at the moment. However, my focus is on the children, teachers and parents in Greystones who were meant to go into a new school.

I have received several communications from the Department and addressed several questions to it. I have received communications from the construction team, the project management team on the site. I do not know whether the Department and the construction team are communicating with each other. The Minister stated that her Department had not received a notification that Deputy Whitmore and I received. We should not have to act as referees and arbitrators in this situation. The communication should be between the Department and the construction team. I ask that senior officials in the Minister's Department open a line of communication with the construction team to put whatever difficulties exist right such that the children can go into the school.

The Minister stated that she is grateful to the tennis club. We are all grateful to the tennis club for stepping in in this emergency situation, but it is not a resolution. The children are guaranteed to be there until December 2020.

We would be looking at potential options. Temporary accommodation in Charlesland would be fantastic, but they need the permanent school in Charlesland. We have no indication or confirmation that the tennis club is willing to extend. Temporary accommodation in Charlesland would be better than the tennis club. Considering acquisition of land, planning and design, it could take at least three years before moving into that school. I would like clarification on that and assurance on where the school will be after Christmas 2020. The children, their parents and the teachers need to hear that.

Unfortunately, the Minister gave a non-answer following a litany of non-answers from the Department on the issue. The children, their parents and the staff are getting frustrated. Everyone needs to plan. Two schools are waiting to hear what is happening with that new build. They are putting off enrolment. A number of children will not get places next week when admissions are confirmed. It is not fair to the staff that they cannot plan. Far too many children are reliant on this building. I ask the Minister to get her Department to focus on the issue and ensure a solution is provided.

I thank both Deputies for their observations. I reiterate my Department's commitment to the delivery of these projects. That commitment has been ongoing in trying to resolve outstanding issues. Both Deputies will appreciate the strong determination on the part of the Department to ensure the duty of care that we hold is fulfilled. I imagine both Deputies would expect that would be the Department's priority. That is exactly what is happening in this instance.

On the specific matters that have impacted the handover of the building, the Department is taking the appropriate steps to ensure it is completely satisfied that the building is fit for handover prior to accepting it. The Department is engaging with the contractor in this regard under the appropriate terms of the public works contract. As I have already outlined, some communication was received from the contractor on 30 September and was reviewed and assessed. That communication was deemed inadequate and a further notice issued to the contractor in October. A response was received at the end of October and this is being considered. While this process is under way, my Department will not make any further comment other than to say that we are expediting this as quickly as possible.

National Broadband Plan

I thank the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, for taking the debate. As I have discussed these issues with him before, I ask him to be sympathetic and to focus on solutions to the matter I am about to raise. We are all aware of how critical high-speed quality broadband is to our daily lives. That has been exacerbated during the pandemic and the recent lockdowns, which have now run for the best part of the year. Following Government advice - it is absolutely the right thing to do - people are working from home en masse. Certainly, through level 5 and the hard lockdowns, people are encouraged, advised and mandated to work from their homes. They are doing so.

People are attending courses of study online. Almost all third level courses are being conducted remotely and for a large period of the year second level was also being delivered as an online service. With social contacts, household visits etc. banned, people are interacting with family members at the weekends or at other times through Zoom meetings and other online interactions, keeping in touch with the family and extended family.

Various cultural, heritage and information events have all gone online. Any kind of conference, seminar or activity has gone online as well as essential Government services, including Revenue, healthcare, social welfare advice, online planning etc. Pretty much everything a citizen wants to do or has to do for their daily life is now online.

In many ways this is a good thing. It provides an opportunity to move to a different way of living and perhaps post-pandemic we will embrace that, cut out commuting etc. and begin to move to this. That is a medium-term consideration for which this is even more essential. Right now, there is an immediate need to address these matters. To do all those things we need high-speed quality connection.

I represent north Kildare and I have no doubt this issue is replicated across the country. I make no apologies for representing my constituency and the people I serve. I am speaking today on behalf of the people in rural east Kildare - places like Rathmore, Kilteel, Eadestown, down to Tipperkevin, right along that west Wicklow-east Kildare belt, nestling in the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains, 17 miles from Leinster House, straddling the County Dublin border. A place called the Four Roads is one step from Dublin and yet signal speeds are less than 1 to 2 Mbps download and virtually non-existent for upload.

This community is a very resourceful one. It had 320 residents when it was last surveyed by the residents themselves. They are used to solving their own problems in the way that rural communities do. They are a highly capable educated professional community, including many engineers and IT people who have done their own analysis and investigation and tried to solve this problem. They have been very proactive and have managed to an extent in the past.

However, with copper cables getting speeds of 1 to 2 Mbps, they are struggling as they try to run businesses from home, log in from home or do professional services from home where they need to upload and download files of significant sizes. Students are trying to study. I mentioned other services a moment ago. It also is a black spot to get a 4G signal and in parts they cannot get a mobile signal. This is not in the back of beyond; it is 17 miles from Leinster House straddling the Dublin border with a very high density of professional persons, people trying to solve these problems for themselves. At this stage they cannot solve it for themselves. They need urgent Government intervention.

I believe the solution is tantalisingly close. The Blessington exchange runs up one side and the Naas exchange runs up the other side. It would not be so difficult to connect them to one or the other. I prevail upon the Minister to attempt to move this forward as a matter of urgency.

I share the Deputy's interest in the importance of this area. The national broadband plan, NBP, contract was signed with National Broadband Ireland, NBI, in November last to roll out a high-speed and future-proofed broadband network within the intervention area which covers 1.1 million people living and working in over 544,000 premises, including almost 100,000 businesses and farms along with 695 schools.

The national broadband plan will ensure that citizens throughout the entire country have access to high-speed broadband services and nobody is left without this vital service. The NBP network will offer users a high-speed broadband service with a minimum download speed of 500 Mbps from the outset, which represents an increase from the 150 Mbps committed to under the contract.

The current deployment plan forecasts premises passed in all counties within the first two years and over 90% of premises in the State having access to high-speed broadband within the next four years. The high-speed broadband map, which is available at www.broadband.gov.ie, shows the areas which will be included in the national broadband plan State-led intervention as well as areas targeted by commercial operators.

There are 95,188 premises in Kildare, 15% of which, 13,859 premises, will be provided with high-speed broadband through the State-led intervention. The remaining 81,329 premises are in areas where commercial providers are either delivering or have plans to deliver broadband services. Investment in County Kildare under the national broadband plan will amount to €53 million.

I am advised by NBI that, as of 4 November 2020, almost 122,000 premises across 25 counties have been surveyed. Of these, 2,818 premises have been surveyed in County Kildare, with approximately 1,500 in east Kildare. For this purpose, east Kildare has been interpreted as from Kilcock to Naas to the border with Wicklow.

Surveys have been completed in Killashee, Oughterard, Naas rural, Rathmore, Kill, Kilteel, Carnalway, Gilltown, Ballymore Eustace, Bodenstown, Naas urban, Newtown and Donaghcumper. NBI is now developing network designs to deliver the new fibre-to-the-home network to these premises. Surveys are due to start in Leixlip, Maynooth and Celbridge in the first quarter of 2021. NBI crews have started initial works for the network build in Cork, Galway, Limerick and Cavan, with the first fibre-to-the-home connection expected around December 2020 in Carrigaline.

Further details on specific areas within rural east Kildare are available through the NBI website which provides a facility for any premises within the intervention area to register their interest in being provided with deployment updates.

Broadband connection points, BCPs, are a key element of the national broadband plan, providing high-speed broadband in every county in advance of the roll-out of the fibre-to-the-home network.

As of 4 November, 187 sites have been installed by NBI and the high-speed broadband service will be switched on in these locations through service provider contracts managed by the Department of Rural and Community Development for publicly available sites and by the Department of Education for schools. Sixty BCPs around Ireland have now been connected with high-speed broadband. Although no current locations are in east Kildare, new locations are being sourced and can be progressed through the broadband officer in Kildare County Council and the Department of Rural and Community Development.

Rathmore National School and St David's National School will be connected for educational access as part of this initiative by the end of the year. My Department continues to work with the Department of Education and Skills to prioritise other schools with no high-speed broadband for connection over the term of the NBP.

While substantial progress has been made to date, the Covid 19 pandemic has had an impact on the delivery of the fibre network. The extent of this impact is currently being assessed and NBI has committed to putting in place measures to mitigate the impact in as far as possible.

The Covid 19 pandemic has also highlighted the importance of good reliable broadband to ensure that citizens throughout Ireland can avail of remote working, education and other essential online facilities. This is reflected in the commitments in the programme for Government where delivery of the national broadband plan will be a key enabler to many of the policies envisaged, particularly around increased levels of remote working.

I know the Minister is a person of integrity and he will get his head down on the matter, but his response is somewhat generic, albeit with some references to Kildare at the end. I do not expect him to know every townland in Kildare but to include places such as Kilcock and Donaghcumper in the provision for east Kildare will be news to anyone in the county, and a bit of a shock. It highlights the issue we face here.

The NBI has tried to engage with the Department and the team. This is not a group of people trying to figure out plan A or B, but a highly competent organised and well-resourced community including many engineers and IT professionals. I have worked with them as a public representative for more than a decade, trying to advance various initiatives and bringing private sector providers, looking to expand the exchanges. They know what they are doing. They wrote to the Department, possibly before the Minister took office, and got no response. They also contacted the utility companies, including Eir, and got no response. That is very disappointing.

I am not looking for preferential treatment or a favour. These people just want an objective analysis of their needs. It alarmed them that when they engaged, worked on the detail and did the due diligence that they are well capable of, they found that the demographics, housing density, area profile and network topography were all out of date. The NBI appears to be making assumptions and roll-out projections based on figures which are outdated and on an old map of the area. That is not good enough. The need is urgent. They cannot wait four years for a roll-out. They need it now. They are working and studying from home now. This must be tackled. I have faith that the Minister will engage on this. I ask that he engage with the residents and instruct his team to do so, most of all, that those figures be re-examined, and that the Minister take on board the residents' submissions regarding the actual composition of their area, rather than the obsolete figures that are currently being used which may lead to further delays which are unacceptable and which cannot be tolerated.

I accept the urgency of this, especially during the Covid pandemic. I accept that the use of broadband is critical, particularly among those working from home or those who cannot contact relatives in person but who can online. Covid has also affected the national broadband plan. The contractors who were due to arrive from the UK have been unable to come. We ourselves and National Broadband Ireland are looking to see how it can catch up and whether the programme can be accelerated, which would be to the advantage of the company and the State. That will not be easy, especially with the ongoing Covid restrictions and the ability to get people to work. People are also out of work because of Covid. This is creating constraints. I am confident that we will be able to catch up from that and accelerate the programme.

On contact with individuals, it would be good if they could go onto the national broadband plan website which I mentioned. They can register there. Only about 16,000 people have done so to date. The more people who do so, the better. They will be able to get updates on timelines. It does take time. The reason I listed all the areas which are being surveyed is because that work of assessing how to get to each house is critical. That will help the national broadband plan be very specific and up to date on mapping the particular houses, areas and so on. The key project is to take that survey and turn it into a works delivery plan. I cannot give false promise that all that will be completed this year or next. More than 100,000 houses will be done next year. In the subsequent four years, I hope that at least 90% of houses should be complete, and we will accelerate that further if we can.

On communications, perhaps it would be best for the Department to examine its links with county councils by way of updating and briefing local communities rather than the Department or national broadband team engaging with every community. Working through the councils might prove the best way of providing updates and receiving feedback on the project. I commit to the Deputy that the Department will approach Kildare County Council on that.

LEADER Programmes

The work carried out through the LEADER programme and the contribution it makes to the rural Ireland cannot be overemphasised. My county has North Tipperary and South Tipperary Development Company. Together they provide a community-led approach that contributes to the social and economic life of our county. I do not know where we would be without either of them.

Rural Ireland faces challenges all of its own. The LEADER programme aims to address these issues, and it does a brilliant job, but the recent budget let them down. The current LEADER programme for 2014 to 2020 ends on 31 December and it is expected the next LEADER programme will not begin until 2023, leaving a two-year gap. The Irish Local Development Network and the South Tipperary Development Company tell me that this remains unaddressed. Their three central concerns about budget 2021 were that it provided no funding for a new LEADER project in 2021, that no funding had been identified for the delivery and administration of the LEADER programme for 2021, and that no interim national rural development plan had been announced for the period between 2021 to 2023, in line with the commitment in the programme for Government.

A total of €44 million was allocated for LEADER in the budget. However, the Irish Local Development Network and South Tipperary Development Company contend that nearly all of this provides for payment on allocations up to the end of December with no funding for new allocations in 2021. There is concern about the ability to pay staff as no funding has been identified for the delivery and administration of the LEADER programme for 2021.

What happens to the LEADER programme in 2021 and 2022? The programme for Government states that the government will "prioritise a state-led rural development programme to bridge the gap between the wind-up of the existing LEADER programme and the implementation of the new programme". If the Minister argues that the overhang from current programme means there is no need for a new interim programme until later in 2021, he is effectively saying that there is no clear provision for LEADER programme providers or staff engaged in the delivery and administration of the LEADER programme. He may say that as the transitionary phase of the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, has not been determined, that prevents him from acting now. However, budget 2021 provides for the delivery of schemes under the Common Agricultural Policy through the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine, notwithstanding the absence of EU regulations in this regard.

Will the Minister confirm the delivery of an interim national rural development plan for 2021 to 2023? Will he confirm funding for new projects for 2021, which are critical for the sustainable development of rural areas? Will he outline the shape of the LEADER programme for 2023 and beyond?

I am taking this Topical Issue matter on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, who is unavailable and sends her apologies. The LEADER programme is an EU-funded programme that has been in operation since 1991. It has supported thousands of community-led projects in Ireland and throughout the EU since it was introduced.

The current LEADER programme 2014-20 will come to an end this year.  Under that seven-year programme, €168.7 million was allocated for project approvals to the local action groups, LAGs, that deliver the programme at local level. This was in addition to the programme preparation and administration costs of the LAGs.  As of 1 November, 3,530 projects with a value of more than €139 million have been approved for LEADER funding by the LAGs. A further 341 projects requesting more than €21 million in funding are at various stages in the approval process.

Due to delays at EU level, the next LEADER programme will not commence until 2022 at the earliest.  The programme for Government includes a commitment to prioritise a State-led programme to bridge the gap between the current LEADER programme and the next.  The objective of this transitional programme is to allow locally led rural development projects to continue to be delivered using the LEADER model until the new EU programme commences. The duration of the transitional period at EU level has not yet been agreed. Therefore, we are planning for the transitional programme to run for an initial period of 12 months, with scope to extend it if necessary, to align with the outcome of the discussions at EU level between the Commission and the Parliament. 

The total allocation for the LEADER programme next year is €44 million. This allocation will be used to fund existing projects as they come to completion and submit payment claims. It will also fund new projects to be approved under the transitional programme and support the administration costs of the LAGs in closing out the existing programme and delivering the transitional programme.

It is important to recognise that LEADER is a multi-annual programme and that payments in respect of projects that are approved in any given year are generally not drawn down until subsequent years, as the projects are completed. Therefore, costs related to projects under the transitional programme are likely to be met from the provision in the Department's Vote in 2022 and 2023, as well as in 2021. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, hopes to be in a position shortly to announce details of the transitional programme, which will come into effect in 2021.

I know this is not the Minister of State's brief and that he is working off the information provided to him by the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, but I would like clarification regarding the €44 million that he indicated was allocated for projects for 2021. The Irish Local Development Network and South Tipperary Development Company contend that nearly all of that €44 million will be used up on projects before the end of this year. In other words, there will not be €44 million available for projects into 2021. Can the Minister of State confirm whether that is the case?

These are times when protecting jobs is a concern for people throughout the country, and local development companies are no different. In many cases, their staff have been with them for years. I know this because I have worked on some of those schemes. Relationships and trust have been built up over many years, but the uncertainties to which I referred are worrying for many staff. Will the Department commit to an administration and animation budget for the 35 local development companies in order to ensure jobs are secured and the LEADER programme overhang from 2020 can be delivered, as well as new projects for rural communities?

I have a number of questions which I ask the Minister of State to pass on to the Minister. Will the Department immediately engage with local development companies to provide clarity on the delivery of an interim national rural development plan for 2021-23 and on the shape of the new LEADER programme for 2023 onwards? Will the Minister commit to funding the 35 local development companies to deliver directly a two-year national rural development programme across rural Ireland, as set out in the programme for Government? Finally, will she confirm funding for new projects under the LEADER programme for 2021 as a critical stimulus for promoting sustainable development in rural areas, including in County Tipperary?

I thank the Deputy again for raising this important issue. I join him in recognising the value of the work LEADER companies and their staff have done over the years. That work has made a huge difference to rural and urban life in our country. The LEADER programme continues to play an important role in the development and enhancement of rural areas by providing critical funding to rural economies and supporting rural communities to continue to develop their own local-led, bottom-up, tailored and place-based approach to development. I compliment the LAGs and implementation partners on their ongoing work in delivering the LEADER programme, helping communities to develop projects and supporting businesses to set up and expand.

The LEADER programme has remained operational throughout the Covid-19 crisis and payments have continued to be made to the LAGs, their implementation partners and project promoters. At the outset of the pandemic, a number of administrative flexibilities were introduced to support them. As I said, the total allocation for the programme next year is €44 million. This allocation will be used to fund existing projects as they come to completion and submit payment claims. It will also fund new projects that are reapproved under the transitional programme and support the administrative costs of LAGs in closing out the existing programme and delivering the transitional programme. The Minister hopes to be in a position shortly to announce the details of this programme, which will come into effect in 2021.

I am happy to convey the Deputy's views and questions on this very important issue to the Minister.