Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar
Gnáthamharc

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 17 May 2022

Vol. 1022 No. 2

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Energy Prices

Last Tuesday, the Irish Independent carried a story by Charlie Weston on a EUROSTAT report that shows that Irish electricity prices are 25% above the European average. Last year, I highlighted concerns about the State's inability to provide adequate competition in the energy market, resulting in excessive prices for consumers, both household and business. I highlighted the fact that despite the assertion that renewables have their place in energy provision in this country, mainly from onshore wind, there is no mention of the fact that there is little capacity for storage when excess wind power is generated so that power could be stored and then redistributed when there is no wind. There is also inadequate infrastructure in many of our regions to contribute to the grid through onshore wind projects. I refer, in particular, to the north west. Furthermore when the wind does not blow, the wholesale energy market is distorted by virtue of the fact that we have a dominant provider in the ESB, which is in a position to charge in excess.

Information provided to me at the time from an independent assessment show that there were prices in excess of international pressures on our market.

I also highlighted that the competition over the last number of years for the provision of renewables by the State was compromised, for example by the likes of ESB winning contracts for renewable placement or auctions back in 2016, but four years later withdrawing from the same contracts and paying penalties for having done so. That in itself ensured that the grid remained challenged, that competition remained compromised and, most important, that prices remained in excess of European averages.

We then had a situation where the State saw fit to initiate competition for emergency provision of energy, which we saw in June 2020 when the Minister amended the Planning and Development Act 2009 by statutory instrument whereby State authorities, in the effort to respond to such competitions, were not obliged to provide planning permission. It was not fair competition for those who sought to compete for the same projects if they had to provide relevant planning permission for their facilities. That, of course, is more unfair competition.

I have relayed this to Dáil Éireann previously, to the Minister in the Dáil and to his Department, to the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, and to the Commission for Regulation of Utilities. I have had, to say the least, inadequate responses that forced me to have to raise the same issues with the EU Commissioners for both energy and competition. They have indicated to me their intention to investigate the challenge and analyse the information that has been provided to them in this area.

I ask the Minister with responsibility in this area, be it the Minister, Deputy Ryan, or whoever is representing him here this evening, to indicate to the Dáil - having failed to respond to the charges, the information and inferences that I have raised by virtue of the information I presented previously and now that new information is out there from an independent source which is EUROSTAT, which indicates the same issue of Ireland being 25% above the European average and fourth in the European bloc in relation to our prices - what manner of investigation or review-----

-----will be initiated to challenge and investigate these issues and to find out why is it that the authorities and those regulators and a body such as Eirgrid-----

The Deputy will have a chance to come back in. Allow the Minister of State to respond.

-----charged with the responsibility to ensure competition, have not done so to date?

I am taking this Topical Issue matter on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Ryan. I thank the Deputy for raising this important topic. Having read the Topical Issue matter before I came into the Chamber I do not know if it will address all of the questions the Deputy has raised.

The most immediate factor affecting electricity prices in Ireland is the continuing upward trend in international gas prices where we are a price taker. Gas prices have been rising steadily since March 2020 and were further exacerbated following the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Gas prices are at historic highs and are volatile. This feeds directly through to retail electricity prices as the wholesale price of electricity correlates strongly with the price of gas. This is affecting not just Ireland but all EU member states.

EUROSTAT recently published statistics on household electricity prices in the EU for 2021. These statistics show that electricity prices increased in the second half of 2021 in all but two member states when compared to 2020. The largest increases were seen in Estonia with 50.2 %, followed by Sweden at 49.3 %, and Cyprus with 35.7 %. Energy and supply costs mainly drove the increase. For the same period, records indicate that prices in Ireland rose by around 13%.

I will now turn to the Government's response. The Government is very aware of the impact on households of increasing electricity costs. In addition to measures taken in budget 2022, in February the Government announced a €505 million suite of measures to mitigate the cost-of-living increases. This includes a credit payment to all domestic electricity accounts of €176.22 excluding VAT and a fuel allowance lump sum of €125, among other measures. On 13 April, in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Government published the national energy security framework, which details consumer supports and protections that are already in place and that are being enhanced including an additional €100 fuel allowance payment; a new targeted €20 million scheme for the installation of photovoltaic, PV, panels for households; and the reduction in VAT from 13.5% to 9% on gas and electricity bills from May. In addition, response No. 6 of the framework charges the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, with implementing a package of measures to enhance protections for financially vulnerable customers and customers in debt by quarter 3, ahead of the next heating season. This fuel allowance year recipients received a total of €1,139, compared to €735 in 2021.

I will now turn to the drivers of electricity costs more broadly. As the Deputy will be aware from the EUROSTAT figures, Ireland has higher electricity prices than the EU average. In addition to Ireland's fossil fuel dependency, this is due to a number of factors, including geographical isolation and market scale, population dispersion, and taxes and levies. The best long-term approach for Ireland to reduce consumer exposure to the volatility on international wholesale energy markets is to invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy and via further interconnection with the UK and the EU to deepen the internal energy market.

From the questions raised by Deputy Cowen, I note that unfortunately this does not address the storage facility for wind energy in off-peak times and does not address the competition, which I will take up with the Minister, Deputy Ryan. I also note that the Deputy has raised this more than once, and that now he has statistics from EUROSTAT.

I think the Minister of State and I appreciate her position here this evening in seeking to respond on behalf of the Minister. I appreciate that the Minister of State wishes to relay to the House just the information she has, which emanates from the Minister and his Department. I do not doubt the impact of international price pressures on our ability to provide electricity at the price it is today. I do not doubt the impact of war on that ability to provide energy at the prices we are charged today. However, international pressures or war had no impact whatsoever when the likes of ESB won contracts for renewable provision in 2016. International price pressures or war had no impact on the ESB when it withdrew from those commitments in 2020 and paid the penalty, and allowed our grid to remain unchallenged and allowed our price to be challenged and compromised also. I doubt that the international pressures or war had any influence on the Minister when he amended the Planning and Development Act in June 2020, when he initiated the procedure that allowed impending competition not to be fair for all of those who wished to apply for the same auctions that ensued. The State authority had an undue advantage by virtue of the fact that it did not have to have planning permission when others had. That is not fair or competitive. Perhaps the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, will relay to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, that it is high time he and his Department initiated a review or an investigation into our inability to provide adequate competition, which in turn would provide adequate price, over and above international average prices, which in this instance is 25% over and above. That needs to be addressed. There needs to be an independent assessment carried out to ascertain whether the accusations or assertions, or the information I have provided-----

We are over time. The Deputy is way over time and is eating into the Minister of State's time. The Minister of State to conclude please.

-----point towards manipulation by a provider or point towards state aid not being fair on competitors.

I again thank the Deputy for raising this issue. For me to actually answer the Deputy's Topical Issue matter here tonight, I do not believe I have the skill set to be able to engage with the Deputy at that level. I know the amount of work and detail that the Deputy has put into this over the past months and years.

The answer I have scripted in front of me from the Department to discuss the recent EUROSTAT findings on electricity prices is perhaps not in response to the Deputy's question. I will take that on board yet again, however, and ask the Minister to review exactly that independent competition the Deputy asked for. That is my take from this evening and that is what I will relay to the Department.

Emergency Services

I thank the Minister of State for discussing this matter with me today. I am talking about the funding needs of the great service that is provided by the Irish Community Air Ambulance. As the Minister of State will be acutely aware, the service provided by the Irish Community Air Ambulance has saved many lives and prevented injuries sustained by people from becoming life changing. Whenever one speaks to people who have been involved in accidents or who have been seriously ill and were assisted by the air ambulance service, they cannot speak highly enough of it. Similar sentiments have also been expressed by workers in the emergency services. In particular, I was approached by the stationmaster of the Cashel fire service, who appealed to me to raise the matter with the Minister.

First, I acknowledge the value of the air ambulance service. I will take as an example an incident in Cashel not too long ago when a person needed urgent intervention. We hear much about the golden hour when it comes to the response given to a person with a traumatic injury. It is a period of time immediately after a traumatic injury during which there is the highest likelihood that prompt medical and surgical treatment will prevent death or life-changing complications. During the incident of which I am speaking, the individual concerned was airlifted to University Hospital Limerick, UHL, which took just 17 minutes from Cashel. If one were to go instead by road, it would take 50 to 60 minutes. I have also spoken to representatives of the Irish Community Air Ambulance service about this and they gave an example of how it can take more than two hours to travel from Waterville to Cork University Hospital, CUH, by road. From my own town in Cashel, it will take more than an hour to get to Cork. The air ambulance cuts that timeframe down to 26 or 27 minutes, so I see where the golden hour comes in.

The service has encountered challenges in recent years, however. Covid-19 had a severe impact on its ability to fundraise, and this is before the issue of added fuel costs comes into it, which I will address shortly. The Irish Community Air Ambulance service approached the Minister about getting some short-term funding in light of the Covid restrictions on fundraising. I understand there was a delay in the Minister acknowledging and responding to a request for a meeting. The delay experience is a matter on which I would like some clarity. I do not expect the Minister of State to give it to me this evening.

It is not the only issue I want to address today, however. The service sought short-term funding for two years at €700,000 per year, which would reduce once fundraising could take place again. It had a plan drawn up. It was well informed about what it needed and how it could progress. After eventually having the meeting with the Minister, the service was more or less told to compete for a tender for the helicopter emergency medical service, HEMS, in the west if it wanted to survive. This is no way to treat such a valuable service. It also raised the question about what happens if it is not successful and is outbid by a commercially minded competitor. What happens to the ground-based doctors' service when they know it would likely not be able to survive? While I do not want to say too much about the tender process, what commitment will the Minister of State give to ensuring the future of the highly valuable service provided by the Irish Community Air Ambulance?

To reinforce my point, as I referred to earlier, I want to touch on and raise the issue of fuel costs. The Irish Community Air Ambulance service was called out more than 500 times last year, which was considerably up on the previous year. Now it has the soaring cost of fuel, which it told me has increased from 70 cent per litre to €1.47, resulting in annual costs soaring from €80,000 per annum to between €140,000 and €150,000 per year. Yet it appears that it is being forced to engage in a tender process because, for some reason, there appears to be an approach within the Department that effectively tells it to sink or swim.

We cannot allow this kind of attitude to be adopted by Government. The service needs to be funded whatever the outcome. Lives should not be put at risk for the sake of such small sums as we are talking about here, at €150,000 for more than two years. The importance of the Irish Community Air Ambulance service cannot be overemphasised, nor can the challenging situation in which it finds itself. I understand some funding has been given through the Department but sustainability is what we are talking about here. We are also talking about the Government not throwing such a valuable service to the lions of commercial activity and letting it sink or swim in the process. I need to hear the Government is committed to the continuation of the Irish Community Air Ambulance service and similarly that the Minister of State is committed to playing her role in saving the lives and well-being of the thousands of people who owe everything to this service.

I am taking this Topical Issue matter on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, in response to the need for additional funding to sustain the Irish Community Air Ambulance service. I welcome the opportunity to address the House on behalf of the Minister in this regard.

The National Ambulance Service, encompassing the emergency aeromedical service, operates the helicopter emergency medical service, HEMS, in Ireland. The service operates in conjunction with the Irish Air Corps from Custume Barracks, Athlone, and the charitably funded HEMS operated by the Irish Community Air Ambulance, ICAA. The Irish Coast Guard provides additional support on an as-available basis under a service level agreement with the HSE.

The Irish Community Air Ambulance is a charity-funded HEMS that has operated since July 2019 under a service level agreement with the HSE. Under the terms of this agreement, the ICAA committed to fund all maintenance, repairs, fuel and other expenses incurred in the provision of the transportation element of the HEMS, while the National Ambulance Service committed to providing the clinical staff and all medical consumables.

In early March of this year, the ICAA advised of serious financial difficulties. To provide funding to ensure the continued operation of the ICAA, it was necessary that the issue of state aid was addressed with the European Commission and that a procurement process to procure the long-term service was commenced as a matter of urgency. To ensure state aid rules were complied with, the Government gave approval to notify the European Commission of an intention to establish a scheme to safeguard the provision of charity-funded HEMS under the European Commission's Covid-19 temporary framework for state aid. This framework provides that temporary limited amounts of aid may be allocated to undertakings experiencing liquidity difficulties due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Commission gave approval last week to the establishment of this scheme, and in line with direction from the Department of Health, the National Ambulance Service will now establish and administer the scheme. The National Ambulance Service is engaging with the ICAA regarding the ongoing provision of funding under the scheme. The HSE has also begun a procurement process to ensure the ongoing provision of HEMS in the south west on a sustainable basis. A recent request for tender went live last month and the tendering process is currently progressing. As such, it would be inappropriate for me to comment further at this time.

I reassure the House that the Government is strongly committed to supporting the strengthening and reform of the National Ambulance Service, including in the area of aeromedical services. The allocation of an unprecedented €200 million to the National Ambulance Service in 2022, which includes €8.23 million for new service developments, is clear evidence of this commitment. This funding will help the National Ambulance Service to continue its transformation from an emergency medical service into a highly adaptable and responsive mobile medical service.

I appreciate that the Minister of State is taking this matter on behalf of the Minister. The reply written for the Minister stated, "I reassure the House that the Government is strongly committed to supporting the strengthening and reform". We are being told the Minister did not even respond to the service for a couple of months when it asked him first, although he did eventually come back to it.

The importance of the Irish Community Air Ambulance service cannot be overemphasised. Out of 500 calls last year, consider the lives it would have saved. Like I said, it looked for €750,000 per year over a two-year period, which is only €150,000 over two years for 500 calls and the number of lives it saves. It is not just me. The fire brigade and ambulance crews will tell the Minister of State that, daily when they go to serious incidents, they are able to call on the ambulance service and the ambulance lands. Like I said, it can have a patient from Cashel to Cork or Limerick within the space of 17 to 25 minutes. All of them, even the doctors, will tell the Minister of State that golden hour is vital to saving lives and making sure someone is not seriously injured for the rest of his or her life.

Like I said, we have heard it here. To be honest, and I am not blaming the Minister of State, I am kind of sick of listening to Covid-19 being given as an example of why we cannot do anything. One of the biggest costs, which we have said, is the price of fuel. We all understand the service has not been able and that it is community based and fundraises every year. It is only the past two years with Covid-19 that it has been caught. It has looked for that kind of funding for two years to cover the cost of fuel for its helicopters. Surely, with all the money we are talking about for running the country and running services, that kind of small money should be a priority to make sure we try to save lives or give anybody who is involved in a serious accident or incident as good a chance as anybody of getting there within that golden hour.

I too acknowledge the wonderful work done by community air ambulance services, of which there is no doubt. I fully understand the challenges they have faced trying to fundraise over recent times. That is why the commission last week approved the establishment of the scheme. In line with a direction of the Department of Health, the NAS will establish and administer the scheme. I hope I have outlined the commitment of the Government and its agencies, including the HSE and the National Ambulance Service, to ensuring the continued provision of air ambulance services to respond to trauma and clinical emergencies in the south west. The effort made by all parties to ensure this service has been able to continue in the face of the charity’s financial difficulties is to be commended.

The temporary framework scheme, as approved by the commission, while time-limited, is still very much designed to ensure the vital services secured under the HSE's ongoing procurement process will be completed and that a successful tenderer will be identified. I again emphasise the Government’s commitment to supporting the development of pre-hospital emergency care services, including aeromedical services. This can be seen in the unprecedented levels of funding allocated, which has increased by 17% since 2016. Through continuous strategic reform, the NAS is continuing its evolution from being an emergency medical service to an agile and responsive medical service that will improve care and outcomes for patients, as the Deputy outlined.

I will convey everything he raised to the Minister of Health.

Disabilities Assessments

The Minister of State knows well the struggle experienced by many parents of children with disabilities in regard to assessment of need. We have spent a long time in the Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and in the Chamber debating what the Ombudsman for Children referred to as the "unmet needs" of these families. They are dealing with significant pain, misery, grief and loss, and it is very difficult for them.

I acknowledge the work the Minister of State is doing. She has been touring the country, listening to these families at first hand and doing her best to engage with the HSE, even if it does not always engage with her. Nevertheless, we have to do more and highlight these issues. When families struggle with the assessment of need process, they are driven to private psychologists and private assessment services, which are obscenely expensive for families, not least vulnerable families who are already struggling with the additional cost of supporting a child with a disability and the impact that has on family income and their ability to work.

The challenge does not just relate to the cost; many of these private assessments are, to be blunt, substandard. They are just not good enough. Many people have paid good money for a private assessment and been told it is invalid and will not be accepted by the HSE. They may have been told the person carrying out the assessment does not have the required qualifications, has not made an accurate diagnosis or has not done the assessment in the right way. This is a struggle especially where families have waited for a long time, scrimped and saved and then sought an assessor in the private market.

In my constituency in particular, numerous families have reached out to me to complain about one person, Caroline Goldsmith, is conducting assessments that are just not suitable-----

I remind the Deputy about the rules relating to naming persons in the House. He might wish to reflect on them.

If the Leas-Cheann Comhairle had seen the look on these families' faces as they cried in front of me-----

I am not taking issue with that-----

-----about their vulnerable children not receiving-----

I am just reminding the Deputy about procedure regarding naming persons.

These families stood in front of me with tears in their eyes as they spoke about how they had tried the best for their children, and how they had saved money they did not have and tried to spend it on getting an assessment and having the needs of their children met, and they did not get it.

We need to fix the assessment of need service. We need to ensure families will get the assessments they need, and on time, in order that they will not be driven into the hands of private providers. We need to ensure any private providers that provide assessments conduct them correctly, and that any assessment that is carried out will open the door to services and get these families the supports they are crying out for, which their children need. This is an emotional topic for me because I listened to the pain these families are suffering, but it is much more difficult for them. We need to address both the assessment of need issue and how we can tackle the issue of private assessments that are just not up to standard.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue and giving me the opportunity to respond to it. I am very aware of the case of Caroline Goldsmith, whom he mentioned. On my ministerial visits throughout the country, I was horrified to hear about the experience parents had whereby they had got their diagnoses but were not allowed to use them, given they were not accepted by the HSE and so on.

It is important for me to set out what is in place. I am sure the House will be aware children’s disability services are provided based on the presenting needs of the child rather than his or her diagnosis or the actual type of disability or service required. Services are provided following individual assessment according to the child's individual requirements and support needs. The national policy on access to services for children and young people with disability and developmental delay ensures children will be directed to the appropriate service based on the complexity of their presenting needs rather than their diagnosis. This policy provides a single point of entry signposting parents and referrers to the most appropriate service. That may be primary care for non-complex functional difficulties, or children's disability network teams for complex functional difficulties.

Psychologists are not yet subject to CORU registration, something I was not aware of until recently, but the HSE and its funded service providers ensure all psychologists employed in their services are appropriately qualified. Psychologists' qualifications are validated as part of the recruitment processes. The Psychological Society of Ireland, PSI, recently published professional practice guidelines for the assessment of autism. The HSE has advised it is aware of these guidelines and they will be considered by the HSE in due course. I fully concurred with the society's president when he stated at the launch of the guidelines that autistic children and adolescents deserve the same chances in life as their peers, and that improving the diagnosis process is the first important step on that journey.

I am pleased to inform the Deputy I attended a day-long workshop last Friday that began the process of developing new interim guidelines to support the assessment of need process and guide front-line staff. The workshop was attended by key stakeholders, including senior HSE officials, Department of Health officials and professional body representatives. Children and young people were represented in the form of a number of parents who attended. In the interim, the standard operating procedure as part of the assessment of need process has reverted to the previous model and practitioners will use their clinical judgment in ongoing assessments.

Following the commissioning and publication of the review of the Irish health services for individuals with autism spectrum disorder, the HSE commenced the implementation of a service improvement programme for the autistic community based on its recommendations, and a national autism programme board was established with responsibility for leading the implementation of the review report recommendations. The board comprises senior operational and clinical decision-makers as well as independent professional and academic support. Importantly, the programme board includes representation from persons with lived experience of autism.

In Crumlin, when I listened to parents stand up to describe their experiences, everyone was aghast at the cost.

At the back of the room, there was another woman who was not aware of the fraud she felt had been perpetrated upon her. We had three people in the one room. I went to Dunshaughlin the following week and another woman declared the same thing. I thank the Deputy for using the floor to raise this issue.

I welcome the Minister of State's response regarding the need to register psychologists with CORU. As a social worker, I spent a lot of time registering with CORU. I found the process painless. It provides reassurance and support to the families social workers engage with. CORU has said that there is no regulation of psychologists but that it will be coming soon but, as happens in this country, it has been saying that for quite some time. Is this a matter of resources? Do more resources need to be put into CORU to make this happen? Ultimately, the business of private assessment in the area of autism spectrum disorder, ASD, and the field of disability is thriving because of the struggles in the assessment of need process. There is a need to take on the HSE and to address those unmet needs and those failings. That is the ultimate protection as it would ensure a quality State service that is open to all and that does not cost people an arm and a leg they cannot afford. Again, people are doing this because they want the best for their children. At the end of the day, this is about protecting those young people who are in desperate need of assessment and the services that come with it. I thank the Minister of State for her previous fights with the HSE. I ask her to keep fighting because the assessment of need process is still not working. The services that should follow such assessments are not being provided, even to those who have a diagnosis. There is still an absolute lack of services and that needs to be fixed. If these issues can be fixed, vulnerable families can be protected from private providers.

I again thank the Deputy for his contribution on this issue. If a parent provides reports, whether diagnostic or otherwise, that have been completed by another service, the relevant HSE service will consider those reports. I have used the name Caroline Goldsmith already. It is important to say that if parents have got a diagnosis but have not been able to access services, that is, parents who procured these services because they were not able to access the waiting list, they should contact my office. It is not fair or right for any parent who has spent hard-earned money not to get a fair and accurate assessment as to their child's diagnosis. I certainly do not want to again see the upset I have seen on parents' faces in Crumlin and Ashbourne in the past three weeks. It is only right that I engage with CORU. I am thankful for the support I have received from the HSE in recent days in ensuring a proper pathway is put in place to make sure people are protected. We have put a timeline on this measure. We need to protect families and, most importantly, the young people because the vulnerability that arises from not being able to get a timely assessment of need is driving people to despair. These assessments are needed to ensure access to education and whatever else these children need access to. Nobody seems to want to let you access anything in this country if you do not have a preliminary diagnosis. We all know that healthcare is based on need but other parts of society are based on diagnosis. The HSE and I need to crack that particular nut with the support of all of the Members in here over the coming weeks. There are other ways of doing it. We need to bring in more people and clinicians such as family support workers, behavioural therapists and play therapists. It is not all about just one or two fields.

Courts Service

It was a bit of a shock to learn that the Courts Service office in Youghal is to close. I was disappointed that we were not briefed on this by the service. We have had a number of items of correspondence on this matter. One has to do with women who use the Courts Service to get protection orders. I got an email from one particular lady on this recently which I would like to mention for the record. She asked what the woman who cannot afford petrol because her husband controls all of the money is to do. If the Courts Service office in Youghal is closed, the nearest office will be in Cork city, which is an hour away. What about the woman whose husband tracks the kilometres on her car, the woman who has three small kids and no transport, the woman who simply cannot get away for that long without her partner being suspicious, the woman who has no childcare but whose children are old enough to understand what they might hear, the woman who is destroyed with bruises and is ashamed that other people might see, the woman who cannot go home because her partner is there busting up the place, the woman who works Monday to Friday and so on? The woman who sent me this email begs us to keep this service in Youghal open.

There are other reasons as well. This lady says that taking away our clerk's office is taking away the only thing that makes women feel safe in this situation and that there is comfort in knowing that you can go straight to the office and apply for a protection order if you need to. She asks whether these women have not suffered enough and says that not enough noise is being made about this.

There are other issues of concerns in respect of this decision. Gardaí can lodge charge sheets in the court office. If the expected closure goes ahead, this will have to be done in Anglesea Street in Cork city, taking gardaí away from their duties. People who do not have access to online banking pay fines at the court office. Some kind of a temporary arrangement is being talked about. Do the people in Youghal and the surrounding areas have to check for a notice on the door as to whether a court office is available? The current court office allows people to attend with dignity and allows staff to deal with people's issues in a confidential way. If these new proposed plans come into force, people will have to queue up to wait for an opportunity to meet Courts Service staff. We ask that this decision be reversed.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise this issue. The people of Youghal are very exercised about the decision of the Courts Service to close a service that is vital to people and to the administration of justice in Youghal, particularly as it relates to the victims of domestic violence. As my colleague, Deputy Stanton, said, this is about ensuring that we do not force women who are subject to domestic violence and who are seeking protection orders to go from Youghal to Cork. This decision takes a service further away from the people who are most vulnerable and most in need of it. I ask the Government to please intervene with the Courts Service to reverse this absolutely disgraceful decision. It is disgraceful given the fact that the Courts Service invested approximately €1.2 million in creating this facility in the first instance back in 2008. We have testimonials from three notable solicitors - David Keane, John Brosnan and Karen O'Shea - who are legal representatives in the town of Youghal. They are on the public record as saying that this is a Trojan horse for getting rid of the court in Youghal itself. We ask the Government to please reconsider this decision and to use its good offices to intervene with the Courts Service to ensure that the services people are entitled to as of right are provided. People must have good administration of justice without impediment. You cannot create a situation where vulnerable women who are subject to domestic violence will have to get on buses to go to Anglesea Street in Cork. It is absolutely disgraceful.

I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee. I will keep to the script. I thank the Deputies for raising this important matter and for the opportunity to provide clarity on some issues.

As both of them will be aware, management of the courts, operational matters and logistical functions are the responsibility of the Judiciary and Courts Service, which are independent in exercising their functions under the Courts Service Act 1998 and, given the separation of powers in the Constitution, the Minister has no role in the exercise of Courts Service functions. It is the Minister's understanding that the Courts Service senior management team and board have recently decided to close the court office in Youghal before the end of this year, mainly for health and safety and administrative reasons. The property at Quay Lane in Youghal where Courts Service staff are based is leased rather than owned by the Courts Service.

Youghal District Court and Circuit Court sittings will continue as scheduled in the town hall. The District Court sits on the first and third Friday of the month and the Circuit Court sits each January and July. The Minister is advised that the staff in the Youghal court office will be involved in informing the new arrangements that will be put in place. The local judge, legal practitioners, support and representative groups and court office users will also be involved over the coming months to ensure the service continues to be supported.

In consultation with the Youghal court office, the work in Youghal will be transitioned to the two court offices in Cork city, which are the closest court offices to Youghal. All criminal matters will be managed by the court office in Anglesea Street and all family and civil matters will be managed by the court office in Washington Street. Following a health and safety risk assessment, the Courts Service has identified a space in Youghal Town Council from which a member of staff could provide a local customer service in the town every Friday, particularly in respect of family law services. This arrangement would also provide support to the District Court sittings scheduled for the first and third Friday of each month. Once implemented, this arrangement will be monitored by the Courts Service and reviewed after a six-month period.

Access to domestic violence services will be provided through three different options that will be available to service users. They may choose to contact the family law office in Washington Street courthouse by telephone, attend the courthouse in Washington Street in person, or attend Youghal Town Council on any Friday. Many family law court users prefer not to have their issues dealt with locally and to go instead to main centres to file their forms and have the matters dealt with in a secure and private setting.

On a broader note, family justice is a priority for the Minister and a major element in Justice Plan 2022. The programme for Government contains a commitment to enact a family court Bill to create a new dedicated family court within the existing court structure and provide for court procedures that support a faster and less adversarial resolution of disputes in specialised centres. Work is ongoing on the drafting of the Bill with a view to its publication as soon as possible in 2022.

Alongside the family court Bill, the Department of Justice is in the process of finalising a family justice strategy, which will set out a high-level vision and key medium- and more long-term objectives for the development of a national family justice system. The establishment of a dedicated family court structure as envisaged by the forthcoming family court Bill will form a core part of the strategy.

The Minister of State referred to the Courts Service identifying a space in Youghal Town Council to which people can go on any Friday if they need assistance. Reference was made to court users preferring to have their issues dealt with at a main centre rather than locally. However, people are being asked to go to a very public place to deal with a most intimate matter. The woman who contacted me said she was in no fit state to get a bus and try to navigate around the city. When her relationship ended, she was in so much debt because of her partner's behaviour, she did not have the money for a bus fare. Even if it was only €5, she did not have it.

This is an issue on which the Minister really must engage with the Courts Service. I was Minister of State in the Department of Justice and Equality long enough to know about the separation of powers and all of that. The Minister should have a chat with people in the Courts Service. Perhaps they will meet with the Deputies from the constituency and explain the rationale for the decisions made. That has not happened in this instance. It has happened in the past when this kind of thing went on, which was very useful. People are concerned and worried about this, as are the practitioners who are using the service, as Deputy Sherlock noted. This is taking away a very important service from people, especially vulnerable people. Very little notice was given and very little rationale was offered. An ad hoc service has been put in place that requires people to check whether there is somebody there to help them and to line up with other people on a Friday to access the service, or else to attend the family law office in Washington Street. It is just not on.

I respect the Minister of State and the fact she does not have policy responsibility for this area. The response by the Government is not adequate for the purposes of ensuring the administration of justice, as articulated by the concerns outlined by the law officers in Youghal, by the users of the service and by the citizens. We are in a situation where a service is being taken away, even though more than €1 million has been invested. To throw the health and safety argument back at women who have suffered the indignity and hurt of domestic violence is a weak response. I do not personalise that comment in any way.

I have received the same email as my colleague, Deputy Stanton. It states:

When we seek these protection orders, we are utterly broken. We have been gaslighted, manipulated, intimidated, financially abused, sexually abused, physically abused, lied to, cheated on, isolated from our friends and families - the list goes on. We're left questioning our sanity, asking ourselves, "What is wrong with me?"

Thank you, Deputy. We are way over time and I have given extra time.

We have to protect those women and those services.

I agree we must protect those women. Regarding Deputy Stanton's request that the Minister meet with all the local Deputies to discuss the concerns, I do not think that would breach any powers. It is about ensuring there is an informed opinion on the matter. I believe in the good work the Deputy and the previous Government did in regard to the understanding and knowledge of coercive control. The more information we have, the better. When it comes to removing services, I speak for myself, not for the Minister, in saying we need to have the conversation and we need to have that understanding. People are being empowered to know their rights and we must support them in an environment which they know they can have access at any time. We should not be diluting that access. I will ask the Minister for assurance in this regard.

Cuireadh an Dáil ar athló ar 9.37 p.m. go dtí 9.12 a.m., Dé Céadaoin, an 18 Bealtaine 2022.
The Dáil adjourned at 9.37 p.m. until 9.12 a.m. on Wednesday, 18 May 2022.
Barr
Roinn