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Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 18 May 2022

Vol. 1022 No. 3

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Disability Services

I thank the Office of the Ceann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to raise this important issue on the floor of the House. I want to raise with the Minister of State the lack of school places for children with autism, which is now forcing students from south Roscommon to travel up to 100 km each day to avail of an education. I know of two children in south Roscommon who are travelling up to 100 km. Another two children I am aware of, in County Westmeath, must also travel such a distance. The children in County Roscommon will have to make a daily journey over to Glenamaddy from next September to access second level education in an autism-specific class.

I have spoken to a local campaigner, Claire Earley, and Senator Carrigy, who raised this issue in the Seanad last week. Between us, we have figured out that there will be 11 children leaving primary school in the catchment of Athlone and south Roscommon next month who have no local autism-specific school place. We all know that children with autism require routine, and their parents know the transition from primary school to secondary school is going to be challenging. What are those parents to say to their children as the latter say goodbye to their classmates? What answer are the children to give to the other sixth-class children when they talk about where they are going to school next September? Securing an appropriate school placement for a child is an anxious time for every single parent, particularly those with a child with additional needs. It makes the experience extremely stressful. The children, if they are lucky enough to get a placement in a school, will have to travel up to 100 km daily. The children I have mentioned are the ones who have been lucky enough to secure a school placement. On average, the 11 children are facing a combined weekly journey of over 4,500 km to go to school because of the failure to provide autism classes in local schools, despite the fact that this has been known to the Department for the past eight years. This is just not good enough.

We are now coming to the end of the school term and parents need certainty. Pupils themselves deserve it. Several parents of children already in the local post-primary school system believe their children would make better progress in an autism-specific class, if available. Senator Carrigy and I believe there is a need to accommodate in the region of 15 to 18 post-primary pupils within the Athlone catchment area. We in Athlone pride ourselves on the comprehensive range and standards of the schools and colleges we have.

However, our own children, who should be entitled to an education in their town, along with their schoolmates and brothers and sisters, will not be able to avail of that. I do not think it is too much to ask that we provide that to them.

The Minister of State tweeted last night that she is going to invoke section 37 of the Education Act 1998 to direct schools to make places available in areas which desperately require additional special education needs places. One of locations is Athlone, which needs places at post-primary school level. I ask the Minister of State to give a commitment that she will invoke section 37 within the catchment area of Athlone to ensure these children are not travelling 4,500 km every single week to try to access an education.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. Senator Micheál Carrigy has an interest in this area and has discussed it with the Deputy at length. I am the first Minister of State with responsibility for special education. There are a number of different measures that we have put in place over the last year in terms of ensuring we have sufficient capacity to meet the growing demand in particular areas, not just in Dublin and Cork, but in Athlone, Roscommon and other areas.

I will be meeting the National Council for Special Education tomorrow and I will bring up Athlone and Roscommon. The National Council for Special Education is saying to me that, at present, it is confident it will meet the demands for special class places and special school places for September for both Roscommon and Athlone. In Athlone, Moate and Roscommon, there are currently 42 special class places for autism students in post-primary and, although the Deputy might not be aware of the fact, there will be the opening of two new post-primary special classes from September of this year in Scoil Mhuire gan Smál in Roscommon and Scoil Mhuire in Strokestown, which will mean an additional 12 places there as well. For any of those children in Athlone - the Deputy may have mentioned there are eight children there - the National Council for Special Education is also telling me, through its special educational needs organisers, that it will have sufficient capacity for those children for September of this year.

In direct response to the Deputy’s questions, if it is the case that there are not sufficient places for children with additional needs in the areas he has mentioned, then I will have no hesitation in instigating section 37A, particularly in post-primary schools. From the demographics I have seen and from the geographical information system, it seems to me there is this gap between primary and post-primary in particular, not just in the Deputy’s area but in other areas throughout the country, and that is not satisfactory. The Deputy will be aware that the majority of special classes and places in special schools are created via collaboration and ongoing engagement with schools in a cordial and constructive way. I am reluctant to use section 37A because it is a blunt instrument but, nevertheless, it is there for a reason. It is a statutory mechanism that is specifically tasked to me, as the Minister of State with responsibility for special education, and I will use it where I need to do so.

The forecasting model we have in place since last year has already borne fruit in certain areas and the planning and building unit is now working directly with the National Council for Special Education, in a way that it was not before, on an integrated planning and forecasting process. It shares its geographical system with the National Council for Special Education so we can see building projects in real-time in each geographical area, which is critical. That is on top of the fact that we already had a commitment for the very first time from the Department of Education that all new schools from last year will automatically provide special class facilities and sensory rooms going forward, so we do not have this perennial problem year after year.

I thank the Minister for her commitment to invoke section 37 if required. While the National Council for Special Education has told the Minister of State that it is confident it will meet the needs, it has not told the parents that. The parents I have spoken to, the parents Claire Earley has spoken to and the parents Senator Carrigy has spoken to have been offered places either in Longford town or in Glenamaddy in north-east Galway. They are local parents in Athlone but that is what they have been offered.

Although this is outside the Minister of State's remit, the reality is the Department had 93 months to get this right but we are now three months away from those children going into second level and it has not got it right to date. We are one month away from those children leaving primary school and they have not got any indication that they will be provided with a service in their own local catchment along with their brothers and sisters, their neighbours and their classmates.

At present, there are just three primary schools and one second level school providing autism-specific classes in the wider Athlone area, which is insufficient to meet the current needs. This must be urgently addressed. The primary schools with autism spectrum disorder classes are St. Paul’s in Lyster Street, St. Joseph’s in Summerhill on the Connacht side of the town and at Coosan on the Leinster side of the town. At second level, we have just one school, Coláiste Chiaráin in Summerhill, that has autism-specific classes. There are 57 primary school pupils in local autism classes in Athlone, Ballinasloe and south Roscommon, and despite the demand for more places, no new classes are being planned for this September. As I said, the situation at second level is even more stark, with just 23 students with autism being accommodated at present between the schools in Athlone and Ballinasloe, and children facing a 100 km daily return trip. That is unacceptable.

I know the Deputy’s commitment to this area, along with Senator Carrigy. As we know. children have a right to an education under the Constitution and it is my job to vindicate that right for them. The first thing we have to do is to find them a special class place, or should I say an appropriate placement, whether a special class place in mainstream or a special school. The second thing that is looked at is the location. Obviously, in an ideal scenario, a child with additional needs, or any child for that matter, would attend a school in their locality. As has happened in the past and as continues to happen, however, that has not been possible for practical reasons, for capacity reasons and for other legitimate reasons that have been offered to us. Nevertheless, we are endeavouring to make sure that children have a place in their area.

Although parents may not have been told as yet by the National Council for Special Education, there is a reason for that, and it is that there is still ongoing engagement with some of the schools. They are sensitive, confidential discussions and we do not want to do something that would upset that in any way. It sometimes takes a radical shift for a school to make that jump and we want to try to nurture that relationship and bring the school with us. Again, to go back to section 37, I will use it where I have to, but in circumstances where the schools are collaborating and will open the special classes, we should give them the space to do that. I hope the parents will be told in early course when their child has a place because, obviously, they need to plan for September and to make sure they have those places in good time.

The short, medium and long-term planning is undertaken at a national and regional level. It is based on projected future population demographics and the average percentage of the schoolgoing population requiring special education places. That is a sort of general rule for how this is looked at but there will always be children who, for whatever reason, may have moved from a special class to mainstream, moved from mainstream to a special school or moved to a completely different locality, and it can be difficult to anticipate those sorts of circumstances. We need to allow some room for those types of situations.

One is okay in isolation but there are 18 in this case.

Disability Services

We are in trouble with time. We could perhaps gain a little time with Deputy Niamh Smyth. That is no reflection on anyone, but it would be good to gain a little time. I call Deputy Niamh Smyth.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for her latitude. I want to talk to the Minister of State about the hydrotherapy pool in Enable Ireland in Cavan, which I was very privileged to bring her to see. I want to thank her publicly for the time she spent in Cavan-Monaghan to visit many of our disability services.

I am sure she was as shocked as I was to see a wonderful facility lying closed when so many children and adults in our disability services could desperately do with such a facility in order to improve their care. The facility cost in the region of €500,000 to build and was opened four years ago. To my dismay, it lies empty and unused four years on. It has to be acknowledged that the cost of the building was not covered by the HSE alone; local people believed in the facility, got behind it and fundraised to see it built. When the building work was completed by Enable Ireland, it went about a recruitment process and put in place a part-time pool attendant in late 2018. Unfortunately, the post holder only remained in place for about six months. The pool has lain empty and the facility has been closed since then.

The Minister of State was, as I said, as gobsmacked as I was to see the facility lying empty, the paint peeling off the walls, and the good staff at Enable Ireland being left with an empty and unattended hydrotherapy pool for the past four years. It is nothing short of disgraceful. I got a real sense from the staff during the visit that strong intervention is needed on our part to ensure that the facility is opened, it has the money required to put an attendant in place, put water into the pool, get the service up and running as quickly as possible and bring this integral part of the facility back into play as part of the services required. Enable Ireland recently submitted a business case to the HSE for funding to cover the running costs, including employing a full-time pool attendant at the centre, and that the figure is in the region of €60,000 per annum. Money will need to be spent on remedial works at the facility. This should be doable, considering the overall budget for health care and disability services.

The Minister of State has a passion for this area, and her visit on that day meant so much to the staff, parents and service users. To see a facility like a hydrotherapy pool which could be used as part of rehabilitation programmes for the area lying idle is disappointing. It is a magnificent facility to have. I understand it is the only one in community health organisation, CHO, 1. For the information of anybody listening to the debate, that includes Donegal, Cavan, Monaghan, Leitrim and Sligo.

I would welcome anything the Minister of State can do. As I said, she has been very passionate about all things to do with disability services. However, if it had not been for her visit on the day I would not be as aware as I am that a magnificent building and facility is not being used. The Minister of State had great ideas on the day of her visit about how we could go outside of service users if funding is an issue. Hard work has been done and €500,000 has been spent to put the facility in place. To say that we need money to paint the walls, put water in the pool and provide a pool attendant seems a very shallow answer as to why a pool has lain empty for four years. Perhaps the Minister of State can throw some light on the situation. I appeal her to do all she can to ensure that this is up and running as soon as possible.

I thank the Deputy for raising the matter. On a broader level, it provides me with an opportunity to restate the Government's commitment to children and young people with disabilities, as well as their families.

In the first instance, I wish to state that I visited the facility in April, to which the Deputy alluded. I saw first-hand the hydrotherapy pool lying idle. The service covers the Cavan-Monaghan area. Following inquiries by my officials, the HSE has advised that Enable Ireland commissioned completion of the hydrotherapy pool in 2018. At that time, it secured some funding for a pool attendant. The pool attendant was there for about six months, and after that we ran into the debacle with Covid. The pool lay idle in 2019, 2020, 2021 and into 2022.

The Deputy used the term "gobsmacked". I was equally as gobsmacked because I see the value of the hydrotherapy pool in Holy Angels in Carlow, which is used continuously. It is not just used for young people who are listed as having disabilities; it is also open to the wider public in the evenings and at weekends. On another level, it is available for players recovering from various injuries. We do not need to rely on the National Rehabilitation Hospital when facilities are available in local areas.

With regard to the opening of the facility, Enable Ireland has submitted a business case to the HSE, which is currently going through the assessment process. It is seeking pay costs for a full pool attendant and non-pay running costs. I understand the figures break down to approximately €50,000 to pay a pool attendant and €10,000 for running costs. In terms of the overall health budget, in particular that part relating to disability, given the value of hydrotherapy for young people and older persons, a figure of €50,000 seems to be very good value for money. We also need to look outside the box in how we deliver therapies. It is not just about going into a room and doing one-to-one work. There are other ways of delivering therapies. As a passionate swimmer, I believe in the role of hydrotherapy. I also believe in the role of rehabilitation.

At local management level, the HSE has advised that it will seek funding in 2023. In terms of cost related savings, it should look to see what is available at this moment in time. We should not wait until 2023 to paint walls or put water back into the pool. We should do work on a trial basis to get the facility up running, determine the appetite for the service and create awareness. If there are other hydrotherapy pools and facilities used by the HSE, I ask the wider public to make me aware of that. A pool lying idle is not serving the people of Cavan-Monaghan or the rest of CHO 1.. We walked into the room by accident. It was not part of the visit; I just happened to ask about a wing in the facility. To have the pool lying idle is wilful neglect of the people of the area.

I thank the Minister of State for her positive response. There are questions to be answered as to why a pool has lain idle for the past four years. I know there is no point in going back and we need to be positive and look forward, but it is not good enough to say that Covid is the reason why a hydrotherapy pool has lain idle for the past four years. Covid has been going on for two years, but the Minister of State and I know that disability services have been up and running as much as possible, even through Covid. I do not buy that, and I think it is an excuse that can be used. There are questions to be answered when a facility has lain idle for four years.

On the positive side, I want the money to be invested and do not want any more delays in getting the facility up and running. The Minister of State is absolutely right. We need to think about the service beyond 4.30 p.m. or 5 p.m. It is a facility that could be used until 10 p.m. each day of the week and at weekends. Breffni county grounds are located beside the facility. If the area outside the service cannot be used, people could use it. I encourage the Minister of State to do whatever it takes to get this open.

I take on board what the Deputy has said. This is a priority for me. I am delighted that Enable Ireland has submitted its business case. I am equally delighted that the HSE is looking over it. I do not think we need to ponder to long on this because funding was awarded in the past and should be awarded again.

Scéimeanna Tuaithe

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit as an cheist seo a thógáil. Táimid ag iarraidh ceist LEADER ar na hoileáin a ardú leis. Bhíodh sé á thaifeadadh i ngrúpaí do na hoileáin ar fad ach athraíodh é seo roinnt blianta ó shin nuair a socraíodh é a dháileadh ag aon ghrúpa amháin in aghaidh an chontae. Is í an fhadhb atá againn ná nach bhfuil na hoileáin aitheanta mar áit faoi leith ach go bhfuil siad clúdaithe i bpleananna contae. Is minic a bhíonn na hoileáin i gcoimhlint le pobail na mórthíre agus tá deacrachtaí mar gheall air sin.

Tuigim, ar ndóigh, go bhfuil athbhreithniú ar siúl faoi láthair agus is é sin an fáth go bhfuilimid ag ardú na ceiste seo faoi láthair agus tuigim go raibh grúpaí i dteagmháil leis an Aire sinsearach mar gheall air seo. Impím ar an Aire Stáit an cheist seo a chur san áireamh ag an bpointe seo.

Déanfaidh mé cur síos ar na fadhbanna mar gheall air seo. Is é ceann de na fadhbanna is mó ná an cistiú meaitseála 50% atá ag teastáil i gcomhair na ndeontas fiontraíochta. Tuigim gur 75% atá ann faoi láthair ach de ghnáth is 50% atá i gceist leis. Tá a fhios againn go bhfuil níos lú deiseanna oibre ar na hoileáin agus gur beag fostaíochta lánaimseartha atá i gceist mar gheall go bhfuil go leor fostaíochta séasúraí i gceist ann. Chomh maith leis sin, tá go leor den fhostaíocht ag brath ar chúrsaí turasóireachta, rud nach raibh mórán de ann i rith 2020.

Is rud eile a bhféadfaí a chur san áireamh ná go bhfuil sé i bhfad níos deacra an t-airgead a fháil ar iasacht chomh maith. Ní hé amháin go gcaithfí an t-airgead a bheith á mheaitseáil ach, chomh maith leis sin, caithfear a chinntiú go bhfuil an t-airgead ann roimh réidh agus ansin faightear an t-airgead ar ais. Tá deacrachtaí ar leith mar gheall air sin sna hoileáin.

Aithnítear na deacrachtaí seo nuair a bhreathnaítear ar dheontais an Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, áit a thugtar níos mó airgid do mhuintir na n-oileán. De bharr go n-aithníonn an Rialtas é seo, impím ar an Aire Stáit anseo agus ar an Rialtas breathnú air seo agus déileáil leis nuair atá athbhreithniú ag tarlú.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Cheann Comhairle. Mar a dúirt mo chomhghleacaí anseo, tá fadhb ann ó thaobh na n-oileán de agus an dóigh atáimid ag déileáil leis an gclár LEADER agus tá deis ann é a cheartú anois. Má fheictear ar LEADER amach sa todhchaí ón mbliain seo chugainn amach romhainn, tá fadhbanna faoi leith ag na hoileáin ach níl an Rialtas dírithe air seo mar go bhfuil áiseanna nach gcúitítear níos mó á dtabhairt do na hoileáin i scéimeanna difriúla. Tá deacrachtaí ann nuair atáimid ag déileáil leis na hoileáin i nDún na nGall, mar shampla, mar nach bhfuil an clár seo á riaradh ag grúpaí na n-oileáin iad féin. Má fhéachtar ar na hoileáin ar fud na tíre, tá siad ag déileáil le ceithre ghrúpa agus straitéis dhifriúla agus fadhbanna móra acu mar sin.

Nuair a bhristear síos é ó thaobh airgid de atá ag dul isteach go dtí na ceantair seo, airgead atá de dhíth, agus má amharcaimid ar an gclár a bhí ann roimhe seo, cífimid go raibh €1 milliún á chaitheamh ar oileáin amach ar chósta Dhún na nGall. Ón mbliain 2014 go dtí 2020, ní raibh ach leath den airgead sin, half the amount of money was spent on the island community in the last LEADER programme by comparison. There is a need to change the way we administer LEADER on the island. It has to be island-specific and administered by those who know the needs of the island and there are many other complications that have arisen.

Comhar na nOileán have put forward a very serious amount of proposals that should be taken up by the Government to ensure that our island communities have the best start and chance of availing of this necessary funding in the future funding stream. Gabhaim buíochas.

Gabhaim buíochas le Teachtaí Dála Ó Fearail, Ó Cearáin agus Ó Dochartaigh as an gceist thábhachtach seo a chur chugam.

An bhliain seo caite, bhí clár LEADER ag ceiliúradh 30 bliain ar an bhfód in Éirinn. Bhí tionchar ollmhór ag an gclár seo ar fhorbairt tuaithe in Éirinn, sna hoileáin ar chósta na hÉireann ina measc. Tá clár LEADER ar cheann de na hidirghabháil faoi Bheartas Forbartha Tuaithe 2021-2025 - Todhchaí Cheantair Thuaithe na hÉireann, an beartas Rialtais um fhorbairt tuaithe, a foilsíodh an bhliain so caite. Is iad na Grúpaí Áitiúla Gníomhaíochta, na local action groups nó LAG-anna, a bhíonn ag reáchtáil an clár LEADER in Éirinn. Déanann na grúpaí seo measúnú ar iarratais LEADER i gcomhair cistithe ina gceantair fo-réigiúnacha féin. Faoin scéim mar atá sí anois, tá Comhar na nOiIeán, CTR, ina chomhpháirtí chomhfheidhmithe le ciste faoi chlár LEADER a chur ar fáil do na hoileáin do na LAG-anna i nDún na nGall, Maigh Eo agus iarthar Chorcaí. Is é Fóram Chonamara CLG an LAG do na hoileáin ar chósta na Gaillimhe.

The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, has announced an indicative budget of €180 million for the LEADER programme for the period 2023 to 2027. Taken together with the €70 million already provided for 2021 and 2022 under the transitional LEADER programme, a total of €250 million will be made available for the 2021 to 2027 period, thus maintaining the level of funding provided for the 2014 to 2020 programming period.

The maintenance of the €250 million funding allocation will underpin the continued contribution of the LEADER approach in delivering on the Government’s vision for rural Ireland.

Tá socruithe á ndéanamh faoi láthair maidir le plean agus seachadadh clár LEADER 2023 go dtí 2027 agus tá plé leanúnach ar siúl idir oifigigh na Roinne Forbartha Tuaithe agus Pobail agus páirtithe leasmhara i dtaca leis seo.

Cuirfear cinneadh a bhaineann le ceantair faoi chúram na LAG-anna san áireamh mar chuid den fheidhmchlár deartha leanúnaigh. Tá sé beartaithe go mbeidh an Straitéis Forbartha Áitiúla, an próiseas roghnúcháin LAG, thar dá chéim. Ni féidir tús a chur le roghnú na LAG-anna go dtí do bhfuil an plean straitéiseach an Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, faofa ag an gCoimisiún Eorpach.

Táimid thar am agus faoi bhrú, a Aire Stáit. Beidh an tAire Stáit in ann teacht ar ais níos déanaí.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit maidir leis an gceist a fhreagairt. Dhíreoinn ar rud eile atá ag cur as dó seo agus ar na deacrachtaí faoi leith atá ag na hoileáin, is iad sin na costais riaracháin freisin. Má táimid ag iarraidh go n-úsáideann daoine LEADER agus gur féidir le daoine cur isteach air, teastaíonn an t-eolas freisin ón bpobal áitiúil. Mar a bhfuil a fhios againn ar fad, tá costas faoi leith i gceist chun dul amach go dtí na hoileáin. De bharr go bhfuil an costas nó an méid airgid riaracháin a fhaigheann iad siúd a théann amach chuig na hoileáin mar an gcéanna leo siúd a théann chuig ceantar tuaithe nach ar oileáin iad, níl na deiseanna céanna acu an t-eolas sin a scaipeadh. Is fadhb agus deacracht eile í sin.

Tuigim ag an bpointe seo nach féidir leis an Aire Stáit a rá go cinnte gur féidir é seo a dhéanamh ach molaim dó smaoineamh air seo ar fad agus an cinneadh á dhéanamh aige.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit as an méid atá ráite aige. The priority here is to ensure that the next LEADER programme is shaped in the way that best fits the communities that need to be served by it. The Minister of State mentioned the amount of funding that is going to be made available. The key issue here for us is not the size of the pot, which in itself is very important when we look at it from a global point of view, but when we look at it from an island point of view, we need to ensure that we are able to spend that money on the islands. There was only one successful application for an enterprise grant on the islands off the coast of Donegal. The Minister of State knows the islands off the coast of Donegal, namely, Arranmore, Tory, Inis Bó Finne and Gola where many people could do with LEADER funding to help them start up businesses in an area that has been ravaged with high unemployment. The co-funding is not fit for purpose and makes it impossible for many people. This is a challenge because we do not have an island-specific LEADER programme. We are asking the Minister of State to implore the senior Minister and his Cabinet colleagues to ensure that when this is shaped, going forward, there is an understanding and a unique position for the islands for co-funding, ring-fenced funding and the administration of same.

Táim ag éisteacht leis na Teachtaí agus tuigim go bhfuil deacrachtaí faoi leith ag na hoileáin. I understand that this is mixed up with other funding under the LAGs. I am stating here that there will be a two-step process now. It is possible for eligible groups to apply for approval and to form an LAG before the CAP strategic plan it decided. After this strategic plan has been approved, that is the point at which the different local action groups will be named. I know that the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, understands this. I will also say this to her. As Deputy Doherty has said, I am familiar with the islands and we have connected some of them to fibre broadband off the coast and we will be putting particular interest into ensuring that the islands get what they need. These are particular areas which can benefit from renewable energy and need special attention.

Passport Services

Gabhaim buíochas, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

If the Deputy could help us gain a minute or two, I would appreciate that.

Gabh mo leithscéal?

We are finishing at 10 a.m. so I ask that the Deputy might help us gain a little time which I would appreciate.

Déanfaidh mé mo dhícheall, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, just for you.

First, to welcome the Minister and I want to acknowledge the very dedicated team in the Passport Office which is producing on average 20,000 passports per week and the Minister of State’s updated figures may indicate even more than that.

I also wish to acknowledge the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, and his team. They work exceptionally hard to try to put in systems that work for citizens. Before I get into the substance of my motivation in raising this issue, in the past five working days I have had 30 phone calls and six emails on this subject. Overall, my constituency office has received approximately 250 to 260 queries about passport applications in the past few months. This is not just a matter in my constituency. The good citizens of Tyrone and Derry have also been in touch with me through their public representatives. I put that context on the record before turning to the substance motivating my request.

I am arguing for a passport office in the north west. I obviously use this as an opportunity to push for it to be located in Letterkenny because of its city status and previous gateway status. I ask that the new office be located somewhere in the north west. It would not be for online applications, because that is going to be the normal process for the renewal of passports and it is working well. I have spoken to the Minister, Deputy Coveney, about this issue. People living in Britain or in the North have the opportunity of going to Glasgow, Durham, Liverpool, Peterborough, Birmingham or Belfast if they wish to apply for a British passport. In this jurisdiction, the options are Dublin and Cork. or London or any of our other embassies round the world. Therefore, citizens living in the north west seeking an emergency passport appointment, perhaps for tomorrow morning, may find there are no emergency passport appointments available tomorrow morning in Dublin. The only option available then to somebody living in the north west is to go to London or Cork. If somebody in the north west is to go to an appointment that may be available tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. in Cork, that means there will be a need to travel to that city and to stay overnight. There is something distinctly wrong about this scenario.

I want to put on record today the idea of opening a passport office in the north west. It is worth pursuing because there is a massive gap here in respect of providing equal services to everybody on this island. The emergency passport application costs €150. People from Finglas, Kildare, Meath and Wicklow will find that €150 is still a lot of money, but that is all it will cost them and they may be able to travel by public transport or perhaps be able to nip into the passport office for a few minutes. For people living anywhere up in the north west, however, we are talking about them having to travel the night before and stay in hotel accommodation in the city. This travel will be undertaken on roads that are not motorways and from a region that does not have a train service. Therefore, a massive gap exists in this regard. The answer from the Minister of State will say everything is working well with respect to the online passport renewal service, which it is. Some of the turnaround times achieved are unbelievable. What I am looking for, however, is for the Department to keep an open mind on this issue. I will talk a bit more about the details later.

The Passport Service is a unified service composed of three constituent offices located in Lower Mount Street in Dublin 2, in Balbriggan and on the South Mall in Cork. Passport applications from all citizens, whether at home or abroad, are distributed for processing across these three passport offices based on the type of application rather than on the place of residence of the applicant. The Passport Service provides a range of channels to Irish citizens wishing to apply for a passport. These include a postal application service, an online application service and an in-person, counter appointment facility in Dublin and Cork.

Some 90% of all passport applications, including first-time applications, are now being made online. The Passport Service is committed to continuing to offer a range of application channels, including a mail-in, paper-based service for citizens who are not eligible or do not wish to use online passport services. Passport Online is the priority channel for applications as there are many efficiencies built into the system for the applicant and the Passport Service. The Passport Online service can be accessed by all first-time applicants, including children and adults, in over 50 countries worldwide. All Irish citizens, including children, can use the online system to renew their passports from anywhere in the world. Passport Online offers Irish citizens the ability to apply online for their passport 24-7. It is a user-friendly, efficient service that consistently offers processing times up to four times faster than the paper-based passport renewal application system.

The paper-based, mail-in Passport Express service is available to citizens at almost 1,000 An Post post offices and at over 70 post office locations in Northern Ireland. With the availability of both Passport Online and the paper-based service, very few applicants are required to travel a significant distance to apply for their passports. In the relatively small number of cases where citizens need to travel urgently and do not have a valid passport, the passport offices in Dublin and Cork offer an urgent appointment service for passport renewal, with a one-day turnaround time. The Passport Service offices in Dublin and Cork have processed 5,000 urgent appointments to date in 2022. These urgent appointment applications represent less than 1% of the total number of applications received by the Passport Service since January 2022.

For applicants who have questions about their applications, the Passport Service customer service hub can be contacted by phone or by web chat. While I know it can be challenging to get through at busy times, the customer service hub has handled 95,000 queries to date this year. In April, customer service representatives handled an average of 1,000 queries daily. The Department has also recently updated its website, including the addition of a new Passport Service section where applicants can easily find out which documents are required for their type of application.

Overall, the current range of service options meets the needs of passport applicants and the service improvements, including those recently introduced and those planned, allow the Passport Service to provide this essential citizen service in an efficient and effective manner. While there are no plans to open additional passport offices, the Passport Service will continue to consider ways in which to enhance the customer experience for citizens. The Deputy has asked that an open mind be kept in this regard, and of course we will do so.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. That last paragraph is important, because it emphasises that "the Passport Service will continue to consider ways in which to enhance the customer experience for citizens". I reiterate and re-emphasise that someone in the north west will have to travel the night before an appointment and pay substantial costs for hotel accommodation. Those people will be out a lot of money in that regard, in addition to the €150 cost of the emergency passport itself. I spoke to the Minister, Deputy Coveney, this morning before I came in. I really do hope a meeting with officials and the Minister will happen quickly.

Turning to some general points about the current system, communication is key. We need a better early warning system. I refer to situations where people might be applying for passports for their children in January or February, perhaps. This could be similar to the case of a gentleman who rang me yesterday. He has got back passports for three of his children, but he has not got any information on whether there is going to be a problem. The flights in question are on 6 June and the due date is 8 June. That man wishes to know if there is something he can be doing in this regard. Therefore, we need better communication. We need better messaging as well. I know the Department and the Passport Office are trying to get people to access the online system rather than the paper-based one. They are trying to get away from that latter approach, but we still advertise the availability of paper-based applications as "Passport Express". Using that label straightaway gives the message that the response will happen quickly, but that might not prove to be the case.

We talk about the peace dividend as well. Equally, we talk about the protocol and its benefits to citizens. Talk is talk, though, and action is action. People will have to start seeing more things happening on the ground. An example would be those people who have travelled down last week, this week and every week on the A5, which is still not a dual carriageway. If we are going to be saying to the citizens of Donegal, Tyrone, Derry, or even further afield into Fermanagh and Sligo and all these surrounding counties, that we are going to provide a service equal to the service that people in Kerry, Limerick, Cork or Dublin and its wider environs get, then they must see action on this dividend. Iarraim ar an Aire Stáit a shúile agus a intinn a choinneáil oscailte.

The Deputy made several points. He suggested there should be a better early warning system if there are errors with a passport application and the date is not going to be met. I will communicate this point to the Passport Office. Deputy McHugh also pointed out that "Passport Express" might be the wrong name if the other method is in fact the express method and that perhaps we should examine this aspect. It was, however, the faster method of securing a passport when it was introduced, but we may look at the branding of that now, given we have the online system in place. There is clearly a difference. All of us in the House are very familiar with queries about passport applications, and especially since the onset of the pandemic. We have all done a great deal of that kind of work and a lot of representing our constituents in such cases. We understand, for example, that new passport applications take much longer than renewals. People have told me they have applied to renew their passport at lunchtime and then received it the next morning. They are delighted with that outcome. On the other hand, an application for a new passport can take a long time to deliver. The Deputy is especially emphasising the need for good communication and that we ensure that when an issue does occur that we let people know about it. We have clearly got a large cohort of new passport holders from Northern Ireland. We are distributing passports to them through post offices in the North.

We are getting many new citizens from both sides of the community, who are welcome. The system is under massive pressure because there were two years in which people did not renew their passports. That constitutes 20% of the population that did not renew their passports, meaning 1 million passports are required. That backlog is being worked through with a large number of people being hired.

I used to be in the Minister of State's position and got in trouble all the time for giving my opinion, but what is the Minister of State's opinion on somebody from the north west having the same access?

We are the Government for all citizens of Ireland and have to make sure the services we provide to the public are equitable and fair, no matter where one lives, in so far as possible.

Go raibh maith agaibh. The interactive session is over and we have kept to time. I thank Deputies for their co-operation.

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