Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 12 Oct 2017

Vol. 253 No. 11

Commencement Matters

Criminal Injuries Compensation Tribunal

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, to the House.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I raise the issue of the delay in the processing of claims before the Criminal Injuries Compensation Tribunal which was set up to deal with claims by people who have suffered injury as a result of an assault or a crime committed against them. It came to my attention as a result of a number of colleagues in the legal profession in Cork writing to me, one of whom wrote to inform me that his client suffered major injuries. A claim was lodged in 2012. All the documentation was completed and lodged more than two years ago and he has still not received a date for when the matter will be dealt with. The person who perpetrated the injury has been sentenced to more than ten years in prison, so it was a very serious assault. A number of judicial proceedings were held in the High Court as a result of the delays. The most recent case involved a lady who suffered injury more than 13 years ago. There was an eight-year delay in dealing with her claim. To force the claim to be dealt with, she took judicial review proceedings to the High Court over that delay.

This is about victims of crime. These people have suffered serious injury. The Minister of State is aware that they are not entitled to lump sum compensation. They are entitled to recover the cost of medical care but also the cost of loss of earnings into the future on which actuarial evidence has to be produced. These claims are not the same as medical negligence claims because a person is not entitled to get the same level of compensation. It is to put the person back into the position they were in prior to the assault taking place.

It is not good enough that victims of crime should have to go through this process for up to eight years before a decision is taken. This matter needs to be addressed and the additional resources provided to ensure that all outstanding claims can be dealt with in a timely manner. It is in that context that I raise the issue.

On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, who, unfortunately, cannot be here, I thank Senator Burke for raising this very important issue. The Criminal Injuries Compensation Tribunal administers the scheme of compensation for personal injuries criminally inflicted. The scheme was established on a non-statutory basis in 1974. The tribunal consists of a chairperson and six members. Tribunal members are practising barristers and solicitors who provide their services on a part-time basis.

The average number of applications received annually by the tribunal in the past five years was approximately 220. To date in 2017, it has received 153 applications. The length of time taken to process an application can vary widely from case to case. Each case is addressed on the basis of its individual circumstances. While applications are processed with the minimum of formality compared with court proceedings, in making their decisions tribunal members must be satisfied that all supporting documentation submitted is in order. In some cases there can be delays pending the availability of all required documentation, and some cases are complex in terms of medical conditions. For example, I understand that in cases of serious injury to the victim, it can take a considerable amount of time, and in some cases a number of years, before their treating consultant is in a position to give a final prognosis. It is also often necessary to await Garda reports arising from the related criminal investigation before a final decision can be made in a case. By their nature, such investigations can be lengthy and complex.

As a result of these factors, which are outside of the control of the tribunal, waiting times can vary significantly. The majority of applications are assessed by an individual tribunal member. A smaller number of these cases are subject to an appeal process. Appeal hearings must be conducted by three tribunal members, and the member who gave the initial decision is not present at the appeal hearing. Dates for appeal hearings are dependent on the availability of tribunal members, appellants and-or their legal representatives. The tribunal has focused in 2017 on processing a backlog of appeals cases.

The tribunal is independent in considering applications and neither the Minister nor the Department has any role in the processing of applications. The Minister has ensured that the tribunal has a full membership complement to enable it to process cases. The operational budget has been maintained over the course of the scheme. The tribunal budget for 2017 is €4.016 million, compared with £545,000 when it was established. I have been advised that while it is a matter for claimants, under the terms of the scheme, to provide the tribunal with all the necessary documentation to support their claim, the tribunal deals daily with queries from members of the public in this regard and offers assistance to them.

Not much light at the end of the tunnel, Senator.

I do not think the reply is good enough. I have been talking to legal colleagues who are frustrated at this. In the case to which I refer, the perpetrator was sentenced in 2012 and is now in comfortable accommodation while the victim is still waiting, not for compensation but to be put back into the position they were in prior to suffering the assault. This person suffered brain injury and it has been five years since the perpetrator was sentenced. There are a number of judicial review cases and I cited one in Cavan where the person was waiting 13 years. This has to be dealt with somehow. We say we are on the side of victims of crime but we are not, and this delay is not justified. If all the documentation has been filed the assessments should be done within six months, not six years.

I ask the Minister to look at why these delays are arising, what we need to do to deal with the huge backlog and how we can deal with them in a timely manner.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. The tribunal is independent in considering applications and neither the Minister nor the Department has any role in the processing of applications. The length of time taken to process applications can vary widely from case to case. We would like all cases to be progressed to a conclusion quickly but in some cases it is simply not possible. Delays can arise where supporting documentation has been sought and-or the tribunal has queries, which must be satisfied if it is to properly discharge its duties. I am informed that applications to the tribunal are processed as quickly as possible and the tribunal offers assistance on a daily basis to members of the public.

The scheme was last reviewed in 1986 and the Department of Justice and Equality has, therefore, written to the Law Reform Commission requesting that it consider a review of the scheme in its forthcoming programme of law reform with a view to identifying improvements that could be made in the future. A response to the request is expected in the near future. I will ensure that the Senator's comments are brought to the attention of the Minister for Justice and Equality at the earliest possible opportunity.

Mental Health Services Funding

I will start by being frank. I want to be nice, positive and upbeat but there is very little to be nice, positive or upbeat about. I am absolutely shocked and appalled by the mental health budget for 2018 and groups in the sector are shocked and appalled, as are the mental health warriors. Not only has the Government fallen way short of the mark, it is attempting to cover up the failings by announcing old moneys as new spend.

I ask the Minister to explain how this inadequate budget will help our children and our most vulnerable because we owe them an explanation. I sat in this Chamber for many hours as part of the Seanad Public Consultation Committee and listened to brave parents tell their stories about their utter dismay and heartbreak while trying to access mental health services for their children in distress. I tried to help those in my area of Dublin South-Central and, last week, another child was admitted to St. James's Hospital. This budget is a slap in the face for such people. In July, over the summer recess when preparatory work started for this budget, the staffing levels in CAMHS were at 53% of the recommended levels and 11 beds remained closed in an inpatient unit in Linn Dara in Cherry Orchard. There are suggestions that a Dublin hospital will close down in its entirety because it is missing 40 staff to cover its acute high-dependency beds. I am sure this is replicated elsewhere and perhaps the Minister can say what he knows of this situation.

In Waterford on Tuesday, two patients were admitted and left on plastic chairs in high-dependency units and a 16-year-old was admitted in August. This goes on and on and it is no wonder I cannot be nice, upbeat and positive. There are over 2,500 children on waiting lists but in this budget they are only worth a few pennies. It is an absolute disgrace and the strategic communications unit of the Taoiseach, Deputy Leo Varadkar, seems to be getting more attention than mental health.

I ask the Minister of State to explain the budget to people on the waiting list, to their parents and to psychiatric nurses who are desperately trying to find a bed to calm the nerves of distraught parents. He should tell the young people who were given false hope that the Government might actually do something. I thought that, given the enormity of the problem, the Government would do something but €15 million is an insult, a slap in the face. I ask the Minister for a detailed breakdown of where the moneys are going but to spare me the details of what the budget will do to keep things as they are. We need at least €65 million now, not promised for the future. There was €15 million last year and there is €15 million this year. What will it be in 2019? There is a promise of €40 million somewhere but I do not have any confidence in that and nor do the people out there looking for services.

Can the Minister explain the expenditure report from last year and the HSE service level report on CAMHS? Can he also explain how €15 million is going to help our children in distress?

I thank Senator Devine for the opportunity to clarify some of the misinformation she is continuing to peddle with gusto. In 2018, we will see an increase of €35 million in development spending for mental health, part of which will pay for development commenced this year while part will pay for further new developments to be commenced in 2018. There will also be additional funding of €24 million for pay-related costs. This will result in a mental health budget of €912 million, which reflects an increase of around €200 million, or approximately 28%, since 2012. I challenge the Senator to identify any other area of the budget that has seen an increase of 28% since 2012.

Mental health is also guaranteed a further €55 million in 2019. The additional €35 million for this year will help build on the work commenced in 2017 on the enhancement of community teams for children, adults, psychiatry of later life and mental health intellectual disability services. It will also help to continue our move towards a full 24-7 service, with an initial focus on increasing the provision of services on a seven day a week basis. The HSE has been asked to prioritise this in 2018. Developing a service response which is as seamless as possible for every service user is also a priority of the HSE. It is the policy of the HSE, as reflected in its annual service plans, to provide an age-appropriate mental health service for those aged under 18.

Mental health remains a key care programme priority for this Government, underscored by the fact that the HSE mental health budget increased from around €826 million in 2016 to approximately €851 million this year, and will further increase to €912 million next year, an increase of €63 million.

There will also be an additional €55 million for 2019.

Taken together with €35 million in 2018 and €15 million allocation in 2017, this will bring the total allocation over the period 2017-2019, inclusive, to €105 million. This will deliver on the commitment to the full implementation of A Vision For Change. Planning for the effective use of these additional resources will commence immediately to ensure new developments are introduced speedily. The HSE service plan 2017 commits to the further development of various aspects of child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, to which the Senator referred, including more acute bed provision, better out-of-hours liaison and reduced waiting times, especially for those waiting over 12 months.

CAMHS is a strategic priority action for the HSE, and will remains so against a background where the population of children increased by around 8,500 over the last two years which inevitably created additional demand on CAMHS. Around 18,500 referrals are expected to the service this year. Additional resources and facilities means there are now 67 CAMHS teams and three paediatric liaison teams, supported by 60 operational CAMHS beds nationally, with further beds planned to come on-stream as approved staffing posts materialise at local level.

It is envisaged that the increased funding for CAMHS will go to areas such as: day hospital provision, thus improving responses to cases, avoiding inpatient stay and providing more appropriate support than that available from community teams; the development of CAMHS eating disorder specialist community teams in line with A Vision for Change; improving the physical health of those under 18 years known to mental health services or who co-present or are treated in primary care services; the expansion of liaison teams to work with CAMHS governance and ensure appropriate assessments for children including sessional capacity; and the promotion of prevention and early intervention services for positive youth mental health, including enhancing partnerships with non-statutory agencies.

The Senator can rest assured that CAMHS will continue to receive priority from me, the Department of Health and the HSE. One aspect in particular which I wish to develop includes improved cross-referral within the HSE and better inter-agency links between the HSE and the education, disability, and child care sectors. I will ensure that, in light of the significant funding provided in budget 2018 for mental health, CAMHS will continue to be prioritised by the HSE in formulating its service plan for next year.

I thank the Minister of State. He referred to the significant funding provided in budget 2018 for mental health and a figure of €15 million. I do not believe that figure. There has been an increase of 1.7% and Minister of State said over several years the figure will be 28%. The increase for this year is a measly 1.7%.

To clarify, €15 million was allocated last year and the same has been allocated for this year. We need to prioritise community services. I do not feel confident in our mental health services or in the response of the Government. I thank the Minister of State for being here today.

I thank the Minister of State for his response.

School Admissions

I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. He is becoming a regular visitor.

I thank the Cathaoirleach and Minister. I would like to raise the issue of what has become known as the "baptism barrier" and the religious-based discrimination currently practised in admissions policies in State-funded schools in this country. As Ireland continues to become a more secular and pluralist nation, it is vitally important that the State acknowledges and vindicates the fundamental equality of every child, irrespective of race, socio-economic status and, in this case, religion. Equality cannot be fully realised while we allow State schools to discriminate in their admissions policies based on religious denomination. Therefore, the baptism barrier needs to go.

The Minister is aware of this issue and is keen to see reform. I would like to acknowledge his announcement earlier this year of the ending of this discriminatory practice. My key demand today is, therefore, that this issue be dealt with by way of an amendment to the Education (Admission to School) Bill, which is on Fourth Stage in Dáil Éireann.

As the Minister will be aware, the Joint Committee on Education and Skills, of which I am a member, recently conducted stakeholder engagement and scrutiny on the Bill. Our report was published in June and one of our recommendations was that it is imperative that the relevant legislation is, the very least, amended so that no child is denied admission to a State-funded school on the basis of his or her religion or beliefs. The relevant legislation is section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act 2000.

This is not provided for in the Bill as currently drafted. Can the Minister indicate today whether he is considering amending the Bill to reflect the recommendations of the committee? I would also like clarification on the three limited circumstances cited by the Minister as to when a school can use religion as a criteria for admission. The Minister stated that these circumstances were in order to protect minority faith schools and we would need to see the detail so that we can ensure there are no unintended consequences.

It does not make sense to me that we would pass a major admissions policy reform Bill when it does not comprehensively address what I believe to be the most fundamental equality issue in national school admissions today. The Minister has previously stated that this issue could perhaps be dealt with by a separate piece of legislation. However, this approach should be reconsidered.

The creation of a new bespoke piece of legislation could take years, whereas the 2016 admissions Bill could become law by Christmas. I understand there is concern that constitutional issues could be at play, but Equate Ireland commissioned legal advice in this respect and if the Minister has not seen it I would be happy to share it with him.

Ultimately, the baptism barrier has no place in a modern and pluralist education system. In a recent poll 84% of Irish people called for an end to religious-based school exclusion. We have a responsibility to move quickly and decisively to end it. Let us commit to ending discrimination before the next academic year.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. It gives me a chance to update the position. The Senator is correct in that the admissions Bill I introduced to the House dealt with a number of issues around which there was a fair degree of consensus.

There remains a desire to put positive changes in place quickly. The Bill deals with banning discrimination and waiting lists, requiring written admissions policies and empowering the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, and Tusla to require a school to take a child with special needs. There are positive things in the Bill.

There was a broad belief that we need to address the issue of admissions policies in respect of the use of religion in schools. While proceeding with the Bill I established a consultation process and outline for four different options. The consultation process took place earlier this year, at the end of March. There were many submissions and there was no consensus. No one approach of those outlined had a consensus approach.

As I indicated on Committee Stage in the Dáil, the way to deal with this was to remove religion as a general criterion in admissions policies and, as the Senator said, provide three exceptions. The exceptions were outlined at the time and largely concerned allowing schools to protect their ethos if it was threatened and allowing children of minority religions to get into a school of their choice. This is based on the idea that it is right and welcome that people should have the desire to bring up children in their faith if they want to.

In our Constitution we endow schools with the right to have religions to run schools and, therefore, we should try to facilitate that to the best extent possible.

It is wrong that children cannot get access to a local school, and preference is given on religious grounds to children living a considerable distance away. It is also wrong that people should feel obliged to have their children baptised to gain admission to a school.

The position in terms of the approach I outlined is that I have been dealing with the Attorney General to develop those proposals and to ensure that I am in a position to come to the House with legally and constitutionally robust proposals. As the Senator knows, there can be a lot of legal opinions, but ultimately the Government must be guided by the Attorney General who is the legal adviser to the Government. That work is ongoing, but at this stage I believe that it may be possible to introduce this by way of an amendment to the existing Education (Admission to Schools) Bill rather than requiring a separate Bill. Obviously, I do not want to make a commitment that is irrevocable because clearly that depends on the proposal we have made being found to be robust. I am working with the Attorney General and will get back to the Houses as soon as I am in a position to do so.

It is timely that we deal with this issue. If we take the route that I have set out, effectively religion would not be used as a criterion in 95% of the schools that are in place. As the Senator knows, 80% of schools do not now use religion, and that will become law under the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill. It will no longer be legal, where a school is not oversubscribed, to exclude a child on the basis of religion. That will be outlawed. What we are now doing for the remaining 20% is providing that religion would not be used as a bar but for two exceptions, namely, to protect minority churches and to ensure that the ethos of the school would not be threatened. That is already provided for under equal status legislation.

I hope that I will be in a position to come back to the House in due course with a set of proposals.

I thank the Minister for his very optimistic response.

I welcome the Minister's response and thank him for it. Before the relevant legislation comes before the Seanad, it would make sense either to meet the Minister or be given some notice beforehand. I do not want to waste my time coming up with amendments, given that the legislation will be based on the advice of the Attorney General and on the consultation process. I would welcome an update on it before it comes to the Seanad.

Legally, my understanding is that I have to go back through Report Stage in the Dáil, but I will publish our proposals at that stage and give the Senator an opportunity to examine them before they come before this House formally.

Schools Site Acquisitions

I wish to raise the issue of Stepaside Educate Together secondary school. Stepaside has been in the news quite a lot recently in the context of its Garda station. As a local resident, I can confirm that it is an ever-growing area, with many issues causing concern to the local population, not just the Garda station but also education facilities, community facilities, housing and so forth.

The Minister will be aware that the secondary school to which I refer opened in August 2016. I had the pleasure, along with Councillor Emma Blain, of attending the opening. The school opened in prefabricated classrooms in the car park of a local rugby club in Kiltiernan. The school has moved for this academic year to prefabricated buildings on a site being shared by Stepaside Educate Together national school in the Belarmine development. It is on the building list of the Department for 2018. The question that the school community and the wider Stepaside community are asking is where the permanent, 1,000 pupil school will actually be located.

This is an excellent school which I have had the pleasure of visiting many times to meet pupils, the principal, teachers, parents and others who are involved in it. It is a leading school in terms of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, education, with its revolutionary Bridge21 programme. It has embraced, in its short life, a healthy school ethos, has established a football team, organised many extracurricular activities as well as winning both an amber and green flag in its first year of operation. There is a massive demand for places in this school. It already has a huge school population, with strong enrolment and a waiting list. My own niece is one of many children who has already received a response to a letter of query. There are three Educate Together national schools in the immediate area feeding into this secondary school, as well as a number of other schools, including a significant number of minority faith national schools.

I must stress that this is a rapidly growing area. Indeed, it is one of the fastest growing local electoral areas in the country. I had the privilege of representing it for just under seven years on Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council and I must say that for the entire time that I served on the council up until today, discussion centred around the question of when the area would get a secondary school. During my second year on the council, we agreed the relocation of a fee-paying secondary school from Blackrock to Sandyford. That school is now open in a fabulous new building and is thriving. Other than that, however, the only other two secondary schools are just outside the local electoral area. The local electoral area has a population equivalent to that of County Leitrim but has only one small, private, all-girls secondary school.

Sites have been identified under the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown county development plan for school use but I fear that an opportunity has been missed because the Department has still not identified a permanent site. The cost of land is rising rapidly, especially in this part of south Dublin. The school itself is growing and demand for places is also growing. Many of the pupils currently enrolled in the school may go through all six years of secondary level education without ever getting into a permanent school building. This must be a priority for the Department. I am hopeful that an announcement will be made soon because the current accommodation is unsuitable for even medium-term, not to mention long-term, use. I ask the Minister to provide an update on the future location of this school.

I thank Senator Richmond for raising this matter. I am fully aware of the concerns to which he refers. As the Senator has outlined, the school opened in September 2016 on the grounds of De La Salle Rugby Club in Kiltiernan. It then relocated to temporary accommodation on the site of an Educate Together primary school at Belarmine in Stepaside.

A major project to provide permanent accommodation for this school is included on my Department’s capital programme. Pending delivery of the permanent post-primary school building, it is planned that this school will, on an interim basis, share the new school building which is being provided for the Stepaside Educate Together national school when it is delivered. The permanent 24-classroom building for the Stepaside Educate Together national school is under construction. When the building is complete and ready for occupation, there will be sufficient space to accommodate the primary school as well as provide interim accommodation for the secondary school for up to two years, that is, for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years. When both schools move into the permanent Stepaside Educate Together national school building, the temporary accommodation on the site will be removed. There is a little bit of headroom before the national school reaches full occupation of the building which will allow for the provision of temporary accommodation for the secondary school.

As the Senator may be aware, my Department has been working closely with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council under the memorandum of understanding towards the acquisition of a permanent site. Engagement with the council in this respect commenced as far back as 2012. However, as the Senator will appreciate, in this highly urban area there is very limited availability of suitable sites and this, coupled with the high demand for land generally in the area, has led to a protracted site acquisition process.

In respect of the permanent site, I am pleased to inform the Senator that a suitable site option has been identified and a formal offer has been made to the landowner to acquire the site. My Department is awaiting confirmation from the landowner with regard to formal acceptance of this offer. Due to commercial sensitivities, it is unfortunately not possible to disclose the location of the site at this time until formal confirmation of the Department’s offer is received. However the school patron, Educate Together, will be informed of the proposed location as soon as it is possible to do so. The acquisition of the site will be subject to agreement on some technical design issues and satisfactory completion of the conveyancing process, but if agreement in principle is confirmed, it is envisaged that preliminary design work in respect of the school building project can commence while the site acquisition is being completed.

I wish to assure the Senator that every effort is being made to progress the permanent accommodation for the school as expeditiously as possible. In the meantime, my Department will continue to liaise with the school on accommodation needs.

That is positive news.

Extremely positive. I offer my extreme gratitude to the Minister for such an excellent contribution. I am very grateful. I would appreciate it if he could keep me and the school community up to date as soon as it is feasible, from a commercial point of view.

I thank the Minister and Senator Richmond. I propose that we suspend the sitting until 11.30 a.m.

Sitting suspended at 11.10 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.