I welcome the Minister of State.
A Programme for a Partnership Government, we are told, contains the statement:
We will reform the judicial appointments process to ensure it is transparent, fair and credible. We will reduce the number of suitable candidates proposed by the Judicial Appointments Commission for each vacancy to the lowest number advised as constitutionally and legally permissible by the Attorney General, but in any event not more than three candidates to be shortlisted by the Judicial Appointments Commission for any vacancy.
The scheme of the Bill recently published by the Government also states:
It is a requirement that Government is in a position to retain a substantive choice as part of the exercise of the executive discretion under Article 35 of the Constitution. The choice that Government must have given its role under the Constitution is satisfied by the provision whereby the Commission recommends three names.
The Constitution gives to the Government and it alone the right to select from eligible persons people to be appointed to the Judiciary. That is simple. The Government has, for instance, the right, among High Court or Court of Appeal judges, to appoint any of them to the Supreme Court as it considers right. That right cannot be taken away from it. It cannot be subject to a process, which seems, on the face of it, to deprive the Government of that discretion. There is nothing in law that this or the other House can do. No Bill or Act can change the situation that if one is eligible to be appointed to the Supreme Court, as a matter of law, the Government is entitled to make the appointment. There is a huge attempt being made to suggest that somehow, by changing the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board, which was to give advice to the Government on the suitability of candidates, to a judicial appointments commission with a small shortlist, the Government will be constrained to appointing from the shortlist. It will not and cannot be.
The other great illusion that has been put forward to the people of Ireland is that it is somehow wrong for the Attorney General, the Minister for Justice and Equality or the Taoiseach of the day to say, for instance, to an eminent solicitor or barrister, "We believe you should be appointed to the Bench." The procedure has generally been that those people who apply to the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board, if they are approved by the board, are subsequently appointed. On occasion it has happened that people have been appointed without any involvement of the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board, from the position of a lay practitioner, to the superior courts. That is the first thing I wanted to say.
The second thing I want to say relates to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, who has been championing the cause of a lay majority on a judicial appointments commission. According to The Irish Times of Monday, 21 November 2016, "Mr Ross said the programme for Government sets out a commitment to reform the way judges are selected which would take the process out of the hands of politicians." That is untrue and constitutionally infirm and impermissible. I will not use a term that would involve going further than that, but I will say it is untrue as a proposition of law.
I remind the House that we are talking about a common law system and a common law Judiciary. Ireland is the only state in the common law world in which a government has ever proposed having a lay majority on an advisory board. It is of some significance that such a change has not been proposed in America or anywhere else with a common law system. Under the proposed new scheme which has not applied heretofore, a judge of the High Court who is willing to become a Supreme Court or a Court of Appeal judge is supposed to submit to being interviewed by seven lay people who, in turn, are supposed to look at everybody else and select three people, thereby possibly excluding that judge from first consideration by the Cabinet. That is an attack on a system that has worked extremely well. I do not want to push it any further than to say this proposal will not produce better candidates for the Judiciary. It will politicise promotions within it. This process will discourage many people who would be good judges or good candidates for promotion to a higher court from applying for such positions. The Bill is misconceived.
I remind the House that before he became a Minister, Deputy Shane Ross introduced the Thirty-fourth Amendment of the Constitution (Judicial Appointments) Bill 2013 which proposed that the Government have no role in the selection of judges. He suggested this would be done by a committee of the Houses of the Oireachtas. Believe it or not, he proposed from the Opposition benches that Government supporters would have to be in a minority on that committee. He introduced his Bill in 2013 in an effort to depoliticise the appointment of judges, but the Bill in question proposed to hand that responsibility to elected politicians. When he spoke in the Dáil in support of the Bill, he said the Oireachtas committee could debate the merits of individual candidates for the Judiciary. He is now saying as Minister that he wants to take responsibility for the appointment of judges out of the hands of politicians. I suggest the Government reconsider carefully whether the scheme of the Bill that has now been published will disimprove the quality of the Judiciary, inhibit people from seeking selection and remove the perfectly reasonable faculty of the Government of the day to select people from among serving High Court judges for appointment to the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court and without having to go through any process.
I thank the Senator for raising this matter which I am pleased to address on behalf of the Tánaiste who apologises for not being here. The Government's general scheme of a judicial appointments commission Bill was the subject of pre-legislative scrutiny, in conjunction with Deputy Jim O’Callaghan’s Bill, at last week's meeting of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality. The Tánaiste intends to take account of the feedback from that meeting when she introduces improved and elaborated proposals in a Bill that is to be published at an early stage for further discussion and examination by both Houses. The Government's proposals arise, in the first instance, from policy consideration of the responses to a 2014 public consultation and call for submissions on the need for the existing provisions for eligibility for judicial appointment to be reformed.
A commitment to the establishment of a new judicial appointments commission was made in the 2016 programme for Government and as part of the confidence and supply arrangement between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The design of the Government proposals which allow for a lay majority of one and a lay chairperson will provide for a much-needed critical mass of non-judicial and non-legal people in the selection process and ensure there is a wider set of expertise and experience among the lay people who will be represented on the commission. It seems that there are no difficulties with the lay chairperson and lay majority concepts in the jurisdictions of England and Wales and Scotland, where judicial procedures have been fully reformed in recent times. In line with a commitment in the programme for Government, the Chief Justice will be a member of the commission. As the most senior member of the Judiciary, the Chief Justice will make a critical and highly influential input into determinations on the suitability of candidates for judicial office. I believe the overall balance proposed by the Government is correct.
No one will disagree that the Judiciary can play an important role and make a hugely significant input in the judicial selection process on the basis of its unique knowledge, skills and experience. The Tánaiste acknowledged this specifically at last week's joint committee discussion. The Government's proposals which deliver on the commitment in the programme for Government will reduce from seven to three the minimum number of names the commission will recommend to the Government for appointment. There will be two additional names to correspond with each additional vacancy. As the Senator may have noticed, the Tánaiste said last week that she intended to include in the legislation a prohibition on canvassing, which will prevent any person, candidate, applicant or otherwise from seeking to interfere with or compromise in any way the selection procedures.
It needs to be emphasised that judicial selection is an administrative or non-judicial function, as opposed to a judicial function. The formal function of appointing judges by the President is not one of Presidential discretion but is to be performed only on the advice of the Government in conformity with Article 13.9 of the Constitution. The current proposal to replace the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board with a modernised commission will not change anything from a constitutional point of view. It is now a standard international model to have judicial appointments commissions in place to select and recommend candidates, while executives remain responsible for the formal act of appointing judges. Building on the enactment of the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board legislation in 1995, it is clearly a matter for these Houses to consider what should go into legislation to reform the appointments system. It is a matter for the Government and any Member of this or the other House, as the case may be, to propose to the Houses what should be in such legislation.
Nothing in the reforms proposed by the Government impinges on the independence of the Judiciary. Equally, nothing in the proposals could impinge on the constitutional prerogative of the Government to advise the President on appointments. The proposed legislation enhances the independence of the Judiciary in a number of ways, for example, by establishing a body to design and conduct independent and professional selection processes leading to the recommendation to the Government of the names of proposed appointees to judicial office. Engagement with key stakeholders is continuing. Senators will be aware that the establishment or amendment of a judicial selection system through legislation is a matter for the Oireachtas alone. There is no authority other than the Oireachtas on what the new legislative arrangements may be. It is the Government’s prerogative to bring proposals to the Oireachtas for enactment. That is an objective we are determined to realise. We should always acknowledge and value the enduring independence of the Judiciary which has provided a constitutional structure that has enabled the State to withstand enormous political and economic threats to its existence and stability.
While I thank the Minister of State for what he has said, I am increasingly alarmed by the Government's inability to admit that it has a constitutional right to appoint any person who is eligible to be a judge and that this right cannot be compromised by legislation. The words read by the Minister of State skirt around that issue. At least he has indicated some willingness on the part of the Tánaiste to consider refining the scheme of the Bill, as published. That is good, whereas the suggestion in the words the Minister of State has given us that there should be "a prohibition on canvassing" for judicial appointment is an alarming proposition. If somebody wants to be considered by the Government for appointment to the courts, he or she has an entitlement to indicate that to it. These Houses have absolutely no right to prevent people from informing the Government of their desire to be appointed to a position. It cannot be criminalised, made unlawful or made an offence. The Government should go back to the drawing board with these proposals. The fundamental question it should ask itself is whether we will have a better or a far worse Judiciary if the new proposals are enacted.
We are well over time on this issue. We normally allow eight minutes. We have already taken 12. I am sure the Senator will have more to say on it - he will have his day in court, so to speak - when the Tánaiste's Bill is brought before this House. I ask the Minister of State to speak briefly in conclusion.
The scheme of the new Bill takes full account of the essential constitutional tenet that the appointment of judges is a decision of the Government in the exercise of its executive role, albeit that the actual appointment is undertaken by the President on the advice of the Government. I am aware that the judicial appointments review committee which is a committee of senior judges submitted its views on the scheme recently. I understand the Tánaiste intends to meet representatives of the committee soon to discuss the matter further. That might help.
I again thank the Senator for bringing this very important matter to the floor of the House today.
In view of Senator Michael McDowell's CV and past prowess, I do not doubt that the Tánaiste will take on board the very salient points he has made.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy David Stanton, for coming to the House to discuss the investment of taxpayers' money in the tobacco industry by two publicly funded organisations within the remit of the Department of Justice and Equality, namely, the Charities Regulatory Authority and the Courts Service.
In response to a parliamentary question submitted by Deputy Jack Chambers, the Minister confirmed that the common investment fund, CIF, held a small proportion of tobacco-related stocks as part of a dividend reinvestment scheme that afforded charities the choice of receiving dividend income in cash or reinvesting it back into the fund. According to the Minister's response, the Courts Service also invests in a small proportion of tobacco stocks on a passive basis. It is extremely frustrating to have to bring such a Commencement matter before the House, given the knowledge we have of the harmful effects of tobacco is not new. We are all too aware of how lethal tobacco is and it is worth remembering that tobacco-related illness is the leading cause of preventable deaths in Ireland, with more than 6,000 people dying annually. That is equivalent to the population of the entire town of Bandon, County Cork or Westport, County Mayo. It is also worth remembering that the estimated cost of health care as a result of smoking is more than €506 million per annum. That sum is made up of direct costs in three areas, namely, hospital-based costs of €211 million, primary care costs of a whopping €256 million and domiciliary care costs of €40 million. That should be considered in the context of the recent accident and emergency crisis which resulted in the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, investing €40 million in the winter initiative. These direct costs do not include lost productivity from ill health and other huge drains on public health services. Data from the Department of Health show an average cost of €5,400 every time a smoker is admitted to hospital with a tobacco-related illness. The most recent data available which date from 2013 show that there were 31,000 such admissions at €5,400 per admission, which equates to €164 million per year. As can be seen from these figures, tobacco is an enormous drain on the health system. For the paltry amount made on returns, the cost, both literally and figuratively, is too high.
Following the recent commercial decision by the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF, to exit from its legacy tobacco investments, it is now, more than ever, untenable for a Department or Government agency to have investments in the industry. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, and the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy, have each acknowledged and shared my concerns about the investment of taxpayer's funds in the tobacco industry. It must not be forgotten that the companies in which the Department of Justice and Equality has investments are the same companies that threatened to sue the former Minister for Health and current Fine Gael Senator James Reilly and his successor, Deputy Leo Varadkar, for doing their job in dealing with cigarette packaging and advertising.
In response to Deputy Jack Chambers, the Minister acknowledged that no guidelines were in place in the Department on such investments. The Minister further acknowledged that she was not aware of all of the investments made by organisations in receipt of grant funding from the Department. There must be a commitment to divest from such investments and guidelines must be put in place to ensure no future investments in tobacco stocks will be made. The guidelines should be Department-wide and prohibit any investment in tobacco companies.
On behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, I thank the Senator for raising this matter. The Tánaiste appreciates his interest in the subject.
As the Senator will be aware, the Courts Service, in accordance with the Courts Service Act 1998, is responsible for the management and administration of the courts and the provision of support services for judges. It is in this capacity that the Courts Services has a role in the management and investment of court funds which are held in trust by the courts on behalf of wards of court, minors and other beneficiaries. The Office of the Accountant of the Courts of Justice has responsibility for the management and investment of funds. The funds managed by that office are those that are held under the control of the courts and managed in a fiduciary capacity on behalf of the beneficiaries who include various categories of litigant, persons who are wards of court and minors who have been awarded damages by the courts. The investment committee oversees the implementation of investment strategies. It comprises members of the Judiciary, county registrars, court officers, Courts Service officials and independent external members. The committee is chaired by the President of the High Court. The funds are invested in line with the provisions of the Trustee (Authorised Investments) Act 1958 and subsequent orders. In accordance with the Act and based on independent investment advice, the Courts Service invests a proportion of the funds in equities and shares on a passive basis, which means that the funds are invested, in line with FTSE All-World index, across a very wide range of diversified funds in the best interests of the beneficiaries. As of 12 November 2016, the percentage allocation within the FTSE All-World index to tobacco stocks was 1.51%. The Senator will appreciate that the fund is operated independently of the Department of Justice and Equality and in the best interests of the beneficiaries. The Department has no role in managing or directing investments. It should be noted that court funds are not public funds and not under the control of the Government.
The Department of Justice and Equality understands ISIF management and the National Treasury Management Agency board’s investment committee are reviewing the sustainability and responsible investment policy to examine the potential of adding to the list of excluded investment categories so as to consider excluding investment in tobacco companies. This process is expected to be completed by the end of the first quarter of 2017.
In regard to the common investment fund, CIF, the Tánaiste has been informed it holds a small proportion of tobacco-related stocks as part of a dividend reinvestment scheme which gives unit holders, namely, charities, the choice of receiving dividend income in cash or reinvesting back into the fund. The Charities Regulatory Authority has oversight of the CIF which is independently managed. The Tánaiste has been informed that it is reviewing all legacy matters, including those relating to the CIF and ethical indices will form part of the review process. It is also worth noting that in December 2016 the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, announced that the ISIF had completed the sale of its remaining investments in tobacco manufacturing as part of a wider process of selling its legacy investments over time. All ISIF investments since its establishment in December 2014 comply with its sustainability and responsible investment policy which sets out key principles for responsible investment.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. I believe the 1.51% allocation for stocks in tobacco companies is too much. I am aware of the NTMA's willingness to divest of its tobacco stocks, but my question is related to the CIF. While I appreciate what the Minister of State has said, I will continue to pursue this issue and work with others to bring a motion or resolution before the Seanad to seek full divestment and the implementation of guidelines to ensure no further investments in tobacco companies will form part of any portfolio within the State.
As I said, the Courts Service and the Accountant of the Courts of Justice and the investment committee are all independent in their duties in managing court funds. As of 12 December 2016, only a very small part of the funds were invested in tobacco stocks. It should be noted that court funds are not public funds and not controlled by the Government. As the Senator will appreciate, the funds are operated independently of the Department of Justice and Equality in the best interests of the beneficiaries. The Department has no role in managing or directing investments. However, the review under way by ISIF management and the National Treasury Management Agency board’s investment committee, in excluding certain investment categories, including tobacco companies, will be of interest. The Tánaiste has arranged for its findings to be brought to the attention of the Courts Service and the Charities Regulatory Authority. Similarly, the review by the Charities Regulatory Authority of the CIF will also be relevant. The Courts Service will be kept informed of developments.
I congratulate the new Clerk of the Seanad, Mr. Martin Groves, on his appointment.
Mental Health Services
I welcome the Minister of State to discuss an issue that affects families and individuals from all walks of life. While mental health is an issue that affects all of us at one time or another, I want to talk about two groups that have specific mental health needs, namely, young people and persons who are homeless. According to a 2013 report on the mental health of young people in Ireland, one in five young adults aged between 19 and 24 years and one in six young people aged between 11 and 13 experiences serious mental health problems. The report also found that when a young person experienced health problems, he or she was at significantly increased risk of suffering further episodes of mental ill health in adulthood. The factors young people identified as the causes of difficulties included stress, isolation, lack of support and, of course, bullying. On the other hand, what they found helpful were hobbies, exercise and keeping busy. I strongly welcome the establishment by the Minister of the task force on youth mental health which will consider how best to introduce and teach resilience and coping mechanisms, increase mental health awareness among children and young people and teach them how to access support services voluntarily at a young age.
I recently came across a situation involving a 12 year old boy who was suffering from panic attacks. He has not attended school for the past 18 months because of his anxiety and is unable to leave his home. He had been on a waiting list for months to see a psychologist, but by the time an appointment was made, he was unable to make the journey to Mullingar, which is 30 miles from his home. Months later, after several failed appointments, he still has not received the intervention he and his family so desperately need.
If that intervention had arrived in a timely fashion, I have no doubt that the child would be in school today. Instead, there is now a risk that his life opportunities have been thwarted. There are many similar situations in which young people have difficulty accessing mental health services in Athlone and throughout the country.
Accessible and informal mental health services play an essential role in preventing mental health problems in vulnerable young people. The economic benefit of local rapid response mental health services has been proved. The personal benefit is incalculable. Services such as those provided by Jigsaw which are free and do not require GP referral are informal and, therefore, attractive to young people. I urge the Minister of State to make Athlone a priority for the development of the next Jigsaw service since the town is the largest in the midlands.
Another group of people who suffer disproportionately are the homeless. Up to 47% of homeless persons have been diagnosed with at least one mental health problem. Recently I have been in discussions with the Midlands Simon Community. Those running the service have explained to me that it is not uncommon for homeless persons to face two, three or even four such challenges. For example, they may have a mental health diagnosis, an addiction, a history of abuse and a brain injury. Each time the Midlands Simon Community attempts to access services on behalf of a client, the service provider states it cannot accept the client because of an addiction issue that needs to be resolved. The service provider also states it cannot accept someone who has a brain injury or someone who is actively suicidal. It seems there is no joined-up thinking and no appreciation of how hard life is for people. There is little appreciation that some people have multiple hardships and simply do not fit neatly into one box or another.
We need more accessible services, but we also need special tertiary services for people with complex needs in order that someone who has fallen into addiction as a way of coping with trauma can be helped. Every community in Ireland has been afflicted by suicide or self-harm and the emotional turmoil associated with such ideation does not confine itself to business hours. My concern is that someone who is suicidal and turns up outside normal hours often has nowhere to go. No one who is suicidal should be turned away. I am aware of a number of cases in which people have sought help or tried to get a place in a psychiatric hospital only to be told that they would have to have the underlying addiction treated first. For some, the place on an addiction service has come too late.
I am passionate about this issue. Not a single parish in the country has avoided the devastation of suicide. The tragedy is that all those deaths were avoidable. Were Ireland to take mental health as seriously as we have taken road deaths, for example, this would be a healthier and safer country in which to live.
I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. I agree that people who are suicidal or who have mental health problems should never be turned away, whether it is morning, noon or night.
Improving access to mental health services is a key priority of the Minister. In many cases, mental health issues are ongoing and may require immediate treatment at any time, day or night. Significant work is under way in this area. It is important that I outline what is in place in order that we can identify what we need to do in the future.
The current provision of out-of hours mental health care involves various interlinked components, for example, access via community mental health teams during normal working hours, that is, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday and Friday. During this period, access is also available through emergency departments. If necessary, this involves the existing liaison psychiatric services for hospitals or alternative arrangements at local level. There is psychiatric-consultant-led cover in place in hospital emergency departments both during normal working hours and the weekend period.
The national clinical programme for the assessment and management of self-harm was initiated by the HSE in 2014 and is being developed on an ongoing basis. We have already seen the positive effects because while we discuss suicide, self-harm is probably more prevalent overall. The HSE has indicated that weekend access is provided in nine of the 17 mental health areas, with a further seven areas having partial cover. The HSE has prioritised the provision of improved out-of-hours liaison and seven-day responses for all people with mental health issues as a key priority under the national service plan this year. Services for all adults and those under 18 years of age are being developed in the light of significant new investment for mental health services. This is balanced against an acknowledged difficulty for the executive in securing suitably qualified and experienced staff for the care programme.
My objective and that of the HSE is to improve all aspects of mental health care nationally for all children and adults, including better access outside of normal working hours via emergency departments. The HSE is keen to ensure each region provides access to a weekend service for people currently attending the service. In recognition of this, a service improvement project with a dedicated project manager was set up in November last year. Data for timely access to services are collected for each team on a monthly basis. Thus far, the data indicate that 68% of children referred are seen within 12 weeks. Obviously, we need to see this number reduced further. In addition, a total of 74% of working age adults and 97% of older adults are seen within one week. This illustrates the improved response times for those with mental health problems.
Work is under way by the HSE to determine the existing level of service provision and examine international models of best practice on the most appropriate model of service delivery for use in the Irish context in order to enhance the seven-day services. In addition, the HSE is progressing a detailed plan for provision of seven-day services throughout all HSE mental health service areas. We are keen to avoid a situation where some services in certain areas provide a fantastic service and provide 24/7 cover, while other areas do not even have a seven-day service. For now, the priority is to identify the gaps. I referred to the nine areas that have full cover and the seven areas that have partial cover. We are working on identifying and providing a plan to fill in the gaps in these areas. In tandem, we are working to deliver a detailed plan for provision of 24/7 care, but it is important that we walk before we can run.
The Senator referred to specific people and areas. An additional €2 million in ongoing funding was made available in 2016 to address the specific mental health needs of homeless persons in Dublin. This is part of the response to and recognition of difficult cases. To identify service needs of people suffering from substance misuse, including alcohol and drugs, alongside mental illness, a clinical programme for dual diagnosis was initiated last year. To date, a programme manager has been appointed to oversee the clinical programme. In addition, a clinical lead has been identified at interview and will be seconded pending discussions with the local addiction services. I will continue to work with the HSE on this issue, taking account of agreed policy and evolving service priorities and resource availability overall.
I wish to specifically touch on the area of young people, which is a key priority. The Senator referred to the task force. All of the work under way will benefit all people and all of society. The four key objectives of the task force are to improve awareness of services; to improve the accessibility of services such as the development of the seven-day week and 24/7 services; to align services in order that public, private, community, voluntary and online services are all working together and all aligned; and to work towards supporting younger people to build up their resilience in order that they can deal with the many stresses and pressures they face. I hope the young people in question will be able to take these skills with them into later life.
I again thank the Senator for raising this important matter.
I accept that significant work is ongoing. While I also accept and acknowledge the commitment of the Minister of State to deal with the issue, there is a serious need for 24/7 emergency care for persons with mental health issues.
The Midlands Simon Community is obviously based in the midlands and recently it had a client in emergency accommodation who was taken to a psychiatric service because he was suicidal. He was sent home or back to the emergency accommodation. The Midlands Simon Community then had to monitor him all night to ensure he did not self-harm.
Simon Communities and other similar organisations do not have the facilities or money to put staff in place. It is not appropriate to have one member of staff in emergency accommodation to monitor someone with a mental health issue. That person cannot be expected to do that job and also look out for others in the service.
Another issue that needs to be examined is funding and training for staff in organisations such as the Midlands Simon Community and other organisations. It is also important that no one is turned away from a psychiatric service. A lady who visited my clinic last year had gone thrice to St. Loman's Hospital, Mullingar to state she was suicidal, but each time she had been sent away and told that she was not.
If someone is trying to commit a person, that is one matter, but if a person turns up, stating he or she is suicidal, he or she should never be turned away.
I agree wholeheartedly with the Senator. Nobody should ever be turned away, day or night. Whether the person has a substance abuse problem or whatever the issue is, he or she should always receive support.
This year we will spend €853 million on mental health services. A total of €15 million was allocated in the budget which will develop into €35 million worth of spending next year. Every year we are developing new services. Every year we are hiring new staff.
A total of 1,550 positions have been approved in recent years. While not all have been filled and we have a difficulty in that area, a lot of work is under way to try to fill them. If we do not have the staff, we cannot provide 24/7 services. The priority is to ensure we can hire staff.
The National Office for Suicide Prevention has a budget in excess of €11 million. The funding goes to support many of the organisations provided they can show where their funding is going and they provide the service they say they do. Training forms part of what that funding is provided for, if the Senators wants clarity on that issue.
On the Jigsaw network, this year we will develop a further five new Jigsaw projects in Cork, Limerick and Dublin. The HSE is actively engaging with Jigsaw to develop a new programme whereby other counties and areas can actively engage with the organisation. I encourage the Senator to engage with her local organisations and the local HSE to get as much groundwork done as possible because when the conversation has finished between the HSE and Jigsaw, that will be the time to put her case forward. I am sure the Senator has a strong case.
I welcome the Minister and thank him for dealing with this Commencement matter on what is an important and welcome consultation process.
On 16 January the Minister stated he would commence a short ten to 12 week process of consultation. It is disappointing, therefore, that the Minister has reduced this consultation period to only four weeks. In my experience as a county councillor, I have never seen such a short consultation period, be it for a planning permission or statutory consultation. A recent consultation process in my home area of Stepaside for a new park had a pre-consultation period of six weeks, with a statutory consultation period of at least eight weeks still to follow.
I must ask the Minister what is the rush. It is often said bad decisions are made in haste and I am sure the Minister, like me, is keen that the new proposals agreed on for school admissions are the correct ones, ones that will stand the test of time. Schools, parents, prospective parents, churches and teachers' groups need proper time to discuss the proposals and draft submissions that accurately reflect their preferences or possible concerns. Such submissions may also have to be made following internal consultations, including the carrying out of surveys of parents or other groups. The shortened four-week period which clashes with the February mid-term break puts many people and groups in a position where they are under pressure to complete a submission, especially given that many of those who hope to make a submission are doing so voluntarily in their own time.
Needless to say, my office has been inundated with representations on this shortened consultation period, with particular concern being expressed by those involved in education involving minority faiths - the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church, as well as the Jewish and Muslim faiths, not to mention those from a Roman Catholic or secular background who do not believe they have been given sufficient time to make a meaningful contribution. As the role of religion in admissions raises legal and constitutional issues, stakeholders may need to obtain legal advice to inform their submissions. The shortened period will prevent stakeholders from obtaining this advice in sufficient time to formulate their submissions.
The implications of the measures proposed by the Minister are extremely serious for all faith-based schools, especially minority faith-based schools. The current proposals represent a fundamental shift in education policy which merits careful and serious consideration by all the stakeholders in education. It is important that the Minister hear from the widest possible range of stakeholders who will be impacted on by the proposals.
I am broadly supportive of the Minister's efforts. I come from the generation that is possibly most affected by the current policies. Among my friends and peers in Dublin, the topic of securing a school place for a child now dominates conversation, even more so than possible house purchases, wedding plans and other such grown-up topics. However, the short period permitted for consultation prevents the various stakeholders from engaging in a meaningful and genuine consultation with the Minister, suggesting, perhaps, that the matter has been pre-determined. In the interests of proper consultation, I appeal one last time to the Minister to extend the consultation period.
I thank the Senator for raising this important issue which has been considerably debated. As the Senator will be aware, the Labour Party's Bill was introduced last year, involving a deadline of 12 months which is coming up in June this year, where one particular proposal was outlined by the Labour Party. It was agreed by the Dáil that we would have parallel tracks, one track being the admissions policy, for which we have the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016, and the other being continuing consultation which has been under way since June, in terms of the Oireachtas committee, on the Labour Party's Bill which deals with only one option. I was keen to broaden that consideration in order that when the Dáil and the Seanad came to consider the Bills, we would have the benefit of a broad consultation and I would have the opportunity to hear the views of stakeholders within the education system and bring them to bear on the various Committee Stage and Report Stage discussions.
As the Senator will be aware, this is only concerned with primary schools. It concerns the admission policies to more than 3,000 primary schools. It comes from the growing sense of frustration for parents that at times they cannot gain access to their local school, they may find children coming from a very far distance receiving preference over a child who lives beside the school or they may be under pressure, as they see it, to baptise their child when that is not their preference.
To try to resolve this issue, I have set out four separate options. The first, much along the lines of the Labour Party's Bill, is a catchment approach where one could only have preference exercised by a denominational school within that catchment area. The second is similar in that it would look at the nearest school of that denomination and one could only exercise preference for a child in that denomination if it was the closest school of that denomination. The third is a quota system where there would be a limited quota over which preference could be given. The fourth is an outright prohibition on religion as a criterion for admission but making sure there could still be a capacity to allow religious schools to require parents or students to indicate support or respect for the ethos of the school.
The reason I have had a consultation process is I am mindful of the possible pitfalls and unintended consequences and it has been clear that some other parties in the House have expressed the intention to put forward amendments, not only to the Labour Party's Bill but also to the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016 which is on a tight schedule because many want to see it implemented for the coming school year, which is a correct ambition. I am keen to see the twin-track approach respected and hope it can be done.
To clarify, the ten to 12 week consultation period was the entire consultation period. I envisaged a period during which written submissions could be made and that we could assess them. That would be followed by the internal assessment. There could then be the necessity to have meetings with individual groups which raise particular issues. My ambition was that, in setting a ten to 12 week period, we would be in a position by the end of April to deal with the issues if they came up under the Labour Party's Bill, which I believe is the correct approach. If the issues were to arise earlier, with some party seeking to have them dealt with in the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016, we would be in a position to present a properly evaluated position by the Department on the issue. It is timely that we are bringing them forward.
I am conscious of the points made by the Senator. I will consider the issue he has raised of extending the period, but I emphasise that there is a certain sense of urgency.
There are two Bills before the House that will be progressing to Committee Stage. The Labour Party's Bill is expected to proceed to Committee Stage some time after June, while the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill will be dealt with before then. There is a strong sense of the need to get views into the Department. I know that when deadlines are set for submissions, there is often a tendency for people to leave it to the very end of the period before they make a submission. I will bear in mind what the Senator has said and his expression of genuine concern because we do want to give people the opportunity to make submissions. I will consider what he has said, but I ask that all those interested in making a submission to make a strong effort now to get views together, carry out assessments and be in a position to submit them before the deadline. That said, I will consider the possibility of extending it.
Is Senator Neale Richmond happy with that response? Before he responds, I have two observations to make. At this stage of my life, this affects my grandchildren, but is it primarily a Dublin issue? The Minister referred to a Labour Party Bill. Has it been adopted by the Government?
I should not be intruding on Senator Neale Richmond's time.
Just to clarify, the Labour Party Bill has passed Second Stage, but on the basis that its further passage will occur in June this year, giving the time to the Oireachtas committee on education to evaluate the potential issues with it in the meantime. The committee is in the process of evaluating that Bill. Clearly, it is appropriate that my Department and the stakeholders that report to it be in a position to collate views also in order that I, as Minister, can bring the wisdom of the education stakeholders and the Department to bear on the debate under way.
This issue is not just confined to one area. It reflects the fact that at primary level, 96% of schools are denominational, but at this stage, one third of marriages are occurring outside any denominational religion. It signals that there are people of no religion who want different educational options. There are also many Catholics who would prefer to see other options being made available. We are responding to change, but we need to do it in a way that is sensitive to traditions and the respect, constitutional and otherwise, for religious, denominational schools and the rights of these schools. That is the importance of the issue.
I apologise for intruding and invite Senator Neale Richmond to respond briefly.
I thank the Minister for his response, which is very welcome. The initial ten to 12 week consultation period displayed a considerable level of understanding, but I appreciate that the Minister has clarified the position in that regard. Many of the groups concerned are not leaving things until the last minute. I outlined earlier the reason for the delays, namely, that it takes a lot of effort, time, people and moving parts to have a proper submission prepared. As the Minister said, this is a very complicated issue. I am supportive of the general idea and do not want my contribution to be interpreted otherwise. However, a four-week period for the making of written submissions is too short, especially in the context of the obstacles I have outlined. I appreciate that the Minister will take this into consideration and appeal to him to consider extending the deadline by a week or two to accommodate the mid-term break.
I am sure the Minister will take the Senator's observations on board.
I will. I will revert to the Senator on the matter.