Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Childcare Services Funding

I welcome the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, to the House and back to her old alma mater.

I appreciate the Minister coming to the Upper House to discuss this matter with me.

A new national childcare scheme will be rolled out from this October which will replace previous childcare support programmes. The aim of this, as I understand it, is that parents of children aged from two to 15 years attending any Tusla-registered childcare service will be entitled to some level of financial support. However, one service provider in Carlow has flagged an issue with me, on which I seek clarification from the Minister today. Carlow Regional Youth Services, CRYS, is a local voluntary service in my own town which is affiliated with Youth Work Ireland. The service began more than 30 years ago in 1988 with one part-time worker and has grown year on year to provide direct programmes and services to young people at risk. It provides a substantial number of services and opportunities through community-based youth work programmes, including drop-in supports, specialised services for young people at risk, and leadership training. This great service with terrific volunteers and staff works with young people aged between eight and 23 years. While offering a comprehensive service to young people in the Carlow area with community-based projects in Graiguecullen, John Sweeney Park, and the youth café on Burren Street, there is also a strong focus on surrounding areas such as Tullow, Bagenalstown, Hacketstown, and Borris. It is a countywide support service that many families rely on. It works with a range of other agencies, including the HSE, the regional drug and alcohol task force, Carlow County Council, Carlow County Childcare Committee, the school completion programme and many others I would never be able to list completely. Its work is primarily divided into three age groups. It provides after-school services, homework support, a junior youth programme, and summer camps for eight to 12 year olds; a drop-in facility, planned youth work programmes, youth participation programmes, youth leadership training, and specialist support and services for 12 to 18 year olds; and volunteer training, youth work, accredited training, and some services for vulnerable young adults in their social time for 18 to 23 year olds.

The service has been in receipt of funding under the community childcare subvention, CCS, scheme for the three after-school projects. This scheme will, according to the Department's plan, be replaced by the national childcare scheme on 11 October 2019. The concern of this service and, I am sure, of many others like it, is that there is no provision in the new funding scheme for parents who are not working, for example, those on jobseeker's allowance, disability payments or the one-parent family payment. In fact, CRYS has highlighted to me that the children who require extra support have been completely forgotten about in the new scheme. If the scheme goes ahead as intended it would not be inclusive to all. Some 59 eight to 12 year olds attend the Carlow Regional Youth Service's after-school service daily. Their parents pay €5 per child per week to avail of this service. Under the new scheme parents will be required to pay €40 per child per week if they are successful in securing hours. The after-school service's main aim is to provide additional supports to children who need extra help to complete primary school successfully, which is huge. It accepts referrals from local primary schools, social workers, parents, the child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, and the school completion programme.

For the after-school services this is huge. This is an essential service that is well-respected by parents, children, and the wider community, and plays a crucial role in supporting vulnerable children and families. If the national childcare scheme is implemented in its current format, the CRYS after-school service will be forced to close and vulnerable children and families will be denied this valuable support because the users will not be able to afford it.

Will the Minister ensure robust provisions in the scheme in order that vulnerable children and families in Carlow can continue to avail of this service and can be given the support they need to thrive and enjoy their lives?

I thank the Senator and I hear the issues she is putting forward. I am going to answer the question as she put it to us last evening.

The national childcare scheme, when introduced, will represent a major landmark for all children and families in Ireland, especially for lower-income families and lone parents. It can be accessed by all families and not only those working or studying full-time. The new scheme will replace the existing targeted childcare schemes with a single streamlined and user-friendly scheme.

The scheme entails a fundamental shift away from subsidies grounded in medical card and social protection entitlements towards a comprehensive and progressive system of universal and income-based subsidies. By making this shift, and by tangibly reducing the cost of quality childcare for thousands of families across Ireland, the scheme aims to improve outcomes for children, support lifelong learning, make work pay and reduce child poverty. It is also designed to have a positive impact on gender equality in labour market participation and employment opportunities.

Under the current targeted schemes many families with low income levels are not currently able to access subsidised childcare, either because they are in low-paid employment or because they are rotating between short periods of employment, unemployment and training. The national childcare scheme will change this. The universal subsidy will be available to all families with children under three years of age, as well as those with children over the age of three years who have not yet qualified for the free preschool programme. The universal subsidy provides 50 cent per hour towards the cost of a registered childcare place for up to a maximum of 40 hours per week. It is not means tested. With regard to income-based subsidies awarded under the scheme, parents who are working, studying or who meet certain other conditions will qualify for an enhanced-hours subsidy up to a maximum of 40 hours per week. The definitions of "work" and "study" will be set out in regulations made under the Childcare Support Act 2018. They will be comprehensive and cover differing types of work and study arrangements, such as part-time work, week-on, week-off work and zero-hour contract arrangements. The legislation will also provide for bridging periods when a parent is moving between work and study. Where a parent is not engaging in work or study, the child will still be eligible for the standard hours subsidy of 15 hours per week. These 15 hours will wrap around school and preschool provisions. This means that when the child is in school or preschool no subsidy will be payable during term time. This approach reflects policy objectives of encouraging labour market activation and reducing child poverty and persistent poverty traps. It is consistent with the evidence of the strong benefits of early leaning and care for young children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, as well as evidence that these benefits are, in most cases, realised with part-time participation.

For older children, the approach recognises that during term time, child development needs will be met through school and preschool, while still providing part-time early learning and care and school age childcare outside of those times. Arrangements will be in place to ensure that no one loses out in the initial transition to the new scheme. Families will be able to continue to access their current targeted supports until August 2020.

The new national childcare scheme has been designed to be flexible with income thresholds, maximum hours and subsidy rates that can be adjusted in line with Government decisions and as more investment becomes available. As such, any adjustments deemed necessary by Government can be carried out in a quick and responsive manner.

I am disappointed with the answer because years ago when all these groups were set up, the after-school services were always in what would have been called disadvantaged areas but now these parents are going to lose out. They will not be able to afford to send their children to after-school services. We are talking about the most vulnerable in our society. I beg the Minister to re-examine the scheme. There are good parts in the scheme. We need to make it work across the board so that it suits everyone. I can understand that but I believe that, as it stands, the most vulnerable will suffer. I estimate that 1,000 children or more throughout the country are using this scheme. This really needs to be addressed and I have major concerns about it.

I have received requests to meet the Minister, in particular from Kathryn Wall, who oversees this area. She is excellent, as are her six part-time staff. We are seeking a meeting with the Minister to go through facts and figures. I call on the Minister to meet us and to ensure that before the scheme is implemented, some help would be given in this regard. We cannot lose this area. It is for children who are the most vulnerable in our society. I would appreciate if the Minister could do that for me.

As I said at the beginning, I attempted to answer the question as Senator Murnane O'Connor put it to me. It did not specify the service outlined by the Senator in her commentary to me now. Having said that, I appreciate the arguments she has made.

I will say a couple of things. International reports have stated that the national childcare scheme will significantly address affordability for low-income families. For example, OECD research has found that Ireland will change from being the most expensive country in the OECD for childcare for lone parents to 11th position by that measure. However, I hear the issues Senator Murnane O'Connor is raising in the Seanad and I share her concerns in this regard. That is why last year I commissioned an independent sustainability review. The review is analysing several services in highly disadvantaged communities to explore any potential financial sustainability issues, as highlighted by Senator Murnane O'Connor, and the potential impact of the work-study rules within the national childcare scheme. That analysis will be completed shortly. It will inform any refinements required for the national childcare scheme. While overseeing the completion of that independent sustainability review, my officials will be happy to meet Senator Murnane O'Connor and those who were involved in the pilot impact study identified this morning by the Senator to learn more about their work and findings as a way of taking on board what the Senator has raised before we make decisions in that regard.

Family Reunification Policy

I am going to the third Commencement matter before the second. I will ask Senator Colette Kelleher to outline her case. You have four minutes, Senator.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House today. Today I am raising the tragic situation faced by Lilav Mohamed and her family. Lilav fled Syria eight years ago having spent some years in Greece and, before that, in Turkey. Eventually, the family settled in Clones in Ireland. However, Lilav and her family remain separated from her sister, Jihan, Jihan's husband and their two baby daughters. They remain in war-torn Syria.

Due to the overly rigid parameters of the International Protection Act, Lilav and her family have no entitlement to apply to bring her sister and family to Ireland to safety. This is not an isolated case. Other vulnerable people and their families have struggled unnecessarily with our recently-changed system of family reunification. Only last month the Sido family's terrible situation was highlighted in the media and that of lzzeddeen Alkarajeh, who gave a statement to the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality when the committee was undertaking detailed scrutiny on the International Protection (Family Reunification) (Amendment) Bill last February. I have mentioned three personal cases - there are many more - where our more restrictive recent approach to family reunification is causing undue hurt and unnecessary hardship. This is undermining the benefits of refugee status here making it more difficult for people to settle after trauma that we can only imagine.

When the Taoiseach addressed the House recently he said he was open to considering the recommendations of the soon-to-be-published report of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality on the family reunification Bill. He said that, once properly considered, it is something he would like to support and definitely had an open mind on. I was encouraged by that. More recently, on 19 May, the Taoiseach spoke movingly at the National Famine Commemoration memorial in Sligo. He stated:

I believe the best way we can honour those who suffered and died during the Great Famine is by showing empathy with those who are experiencing similar problems today [like Lilav's family], whether through natural disaster[, war] or oppression. ... We were refugees once and we recall the great compassion and the open doors shown around the world. It is seared on our collective memories as we work to assist today’s refugees.

Humane family reunification processes are part of what we can do to assist today's refugees. It represents real tangible assistance and is consistent with the Irish understanding of family being broad not narrow. The demonstration of empathy to refugees that the Taoiseach commended on 19 May is exactly what Lilav's classmates in Largy College, Clones, have told us about at first hand in Leinster House two weeks ago. The compassion that An Taoiseach commended on 19 May is also demonstrated by the more than 1,000 people in Clones who signed a petition. I hope the Minister will take notice of it.

The International Protection (Family Reunification) (Amendment) Bill 2017 passed its final stages in the Seanad in March 2018 with a large majority and passed through Second Stage in the Dáil with an overwhelming majority - 78 to 39. In February, the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality received the Bill for detailed scrutiny and we are expecting a favourable report in the coming weeks. What avenues are available to Lilav Mohamed and her family to apply for family reunification for her sister and her young family? I implore the Minster to consider this particular case and the cases of the Sido and Al Karajah families and to take account of the Taoiseach's own words on refugees fleeing war and oppression and of the International Protection (Family Reunification) (Amendment) Bill 2017. I am eager to engage with him and his Department. I look forward to hearing his response.

I thank the Senator for agreeing to the timing of this Commencement matter. I know that she was anxious to raise this issue at a time mutually convenient to both of us and I acknowledge her co-operation in that regard. I am pleased to engage with the Upper House on overall policy but Senators will be aware and will appreciate that it is not appropriate for me to discuss individual cases or personal cases as described by Senator Kelleher. I have listened to what she had to say and I have taken careful note of her commentary.

As set out in the non-EEA family reunification policy document published by the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS, the immigration permission granted to successful applicants under the policy takes into account both the status of their sponsor and the relationship of the applicant to the sponsor. Family reunification is facilitated as much as possible for persons who meet the criteria set out under the policy, all other things being equal. We recognise the importance of family reunification for the individuals who benefit from it and also for the community as a whole as family reunification helps integration, which is important for broader society. However, it goes without saying that there is a balance to be struck and there are limits within which the family reunification policy may apply. Generally speaking, decisions on family reunification will depend on both the immigration status of the person with an entitlement to reside in Ireland, usually called the sponsor, and the closeness of the relationship with the family member. The policy also draws a distinction between sponsors who are Irish nationals and those who are not with the aim of facilitating family reunification as much as possible. For non-EEA sponsors, realistic criteria are set out, such as higher income thresholds that reflect the need for the family to support themselves and not to become a burden on the State in any way.

Like most states, when considering inward migration, Ireland considers the implications for various services including education, housing, healthcare, welfare and so forth. The sponsor must show evidence that they can provide for the basic need of the family members if they are permitted to come to Ireland.

For the reasons set out, the requirements for Irish nationals sponsoring family members and the requirements for non-EEA national sponsors seeking family reunification often differ. The criteria also differ depending on the closeness of the relationship of the sponsor, that is, whether a spouse, child, parent, or other relative. Separate from the criteria set out for persons under the policy document, there are other categories of non-EEA nationals who are eligible by legal entitlement to be a sponsor for family reunification. This includes, in particular, persons granted international protection and those with entitlements under the EU free movement directive.

It is important to retain and use ministerial discretion in the area of policy. From time to time I have used my discretion to introduce new schemes under humanitarian admission programmes or as part of wider immigration polices. For example, Senators will be aware I introduced the Irish refugee protection programme humanitarian admission programme 2 last year to provide humanitarian admission to Ireland for 530 eligible family members of Irish citizens and those with protection status in Ireland. The first open calls for proposals ran from 14 May to 30 June 2018. The second call for proposals ran from 20 December to 8 February this year. I expect all 530 places under the programme to be filled.

Discretionary measures in the wider immigration context tend to relate to those coming to Ireland for a particular purpose who may wish to bring immediate family members with them, for example researchers, approved scholarship programme students, intra-corporate transferees, PhD students, full-time non-Iocum doctors in employment, critical skills employment permit holders, investors, and entrepreneurs.

In summary, the procedures and rules for family reunification are set out in some detail by INIS. They aim to strike an appropriate balance between the rights and expectations of the sponsor and the obligations of the State to manage immigration. I thank the Senator for raising the issue. I note what she said about the Taoiseach's speech and about a joint committee report.

I thank the Minister. I have listened to his response and I commend the Irish refugee protection policy and programme. It is really good. I am part of a community sponsorship programme in St. Luke's myself. I am not sure, however, that the avenues the Minister has outlined will address the desperate situation faced by Lilav's family or that they will satisfy the 1,000 people in Clones who signed this petition. Part of my job today is to hand this petition to the Minister. Neither will these avenues help the Sido or Al Karajah families, which I mentioned. Jwan and Khalil Sido applied to have their family reunited with them in the safety of Ireland. They are entitled to be here. Their parents and two young brothers, both of whom are under 18, were accepted, but their sister Nermin, with whom they could not be closer, was refused because she was over the age of 18. Nermin Sido now remains separated from her family, languishing in Greece. The measures we have do not address that family's situation. Izzadeen Al Karajah, a Palestinian, is living with his wife and children in Cork, having been awarded protected status. He is, however, unable to bring his mother, who is ill, from Palestine. They have housing and he has recently opened a little café called Izz Café. His mother would not be a burden on the State. I ask the Minister to let the International Protection (Family Reunification) (Amendment) Bill 2017 pass. It provides for nothing more than the right to apply for family reunification. It is a modest measure which puts matters on a clearer and firmer footing. I welcome any opportunity to meet the Minister on this matter, noting the Taoiseach's words and the Minister's own bona fides in this regard. This has not been properly heard by the Minister or the Department. I would like him to consider this and to think about the families whose cases I have raised today.

I stress that a number of factors mus be taken into account when an application for family reunification is being considered. These factors may include, for example, whether the sponsor is an Irish citizen, the immigration status of the person with an entitlement to reside in Ireland, and the closeness of the relationship with the family member. All of these factors are considered, in addition to the sponsor's ability to demonstrate a certain minimum level of earnings. In this way, it is important that family reunification is understood in the wider context of Government policy. Government sets out immigration policy. Everybody accepts that we need to balance the interests of the individual and of the community. As I have stated, economic considerations are an important factor when assessing family reunification cases. The economic benefits that may accrue from migration must be balanced with the costs to the State in terms of education, housing, healthcare and welfare that may arise from family migration. For example, the financial thresholds for those seeking family reunification with an elderly dependant relative will be higher due to the potential burden on State services. What we do in Ireland in respect of policy is in line with the general approach to immigration taken by European countries. In addition to the policy document criteria and legal entitlements for specific categories such as persons granted international protection and those availing of EU free movement, I have also introduced targeted schemes such as the Irish refugee protection humanitarian admission programme and have built family reunification into certain types of immigration commissions I have outlined.

I have also introduced targeted schemes such as the Irish refugee protection humanitarian admission programme, as well as building family reunification into certain types of immigration commissions.

I thank the Senator for raising the issue. I am sure we will have the opportunity to return to this at a future date.

Crime Prevention

I appreciate the Minister being here in person to discuss this. I have raised issues of crime, criminality and anti-social behaviour in Dublin’s northside for at least a year. The responses from the Minister and his office have been disappointing.

There has been a shooting, a pipe bomb incident, and a shooting incident outside Donaghmede Shopping Centre. There is currently great media interest and focus on the area because of three murders in the past week. What will the Government’s response to this be? To be fair to the Government, when a similar situation arose in the north inner city, there was a very high-level response from the Government. There were high-level meetings with stakeholders in St. Lawrence O’Toole school then, and a very hands-on approach, including the commission of the Mulvey report, which is still being implemented. The discussions were not merely on a policing response but also took place with various agencies involved in youth empowerment and there were anti-poverty measures.

What is the Government’s response to this situation? Will the Minister and the Government engage a Mulvey-style report for Dublin 17 and the wider area? Is the Minister aware that a neighbouring community is due to expand its population to 50,000 and that community is campaigning for a Garda station as part of its infrastructure? Will the Minister sit down with Sphere 17 youth services and the Preparing for Life group in Darndale which are making fantastic inroads into parental empowerment in that area, with great success? There are other agencies such as RASP drugs services, Doras Buí, and Northside Partnership, all of which have things to say. I spoke to two school principals in recent days. They are worried about the long-term impact this will have on children in the immediate area if this becomes normalised. They walk past Garda tape and dead bodies, or they hear gunshots. This is not normal and it cannot be seen to be normal. We have a responsibility to the future of these children that they feel that the hand of the State is lifting them up, so that when something like this happens, the State will intervene and shoulder their cares and there is political and governmental leadership.

Will the Government please recognise that there is a problem in this area of the city which is spiralling out of control, and that it is the responsibility of the Taoiseach and the Government to show the leadership and be in these communities, talking to the people who care passionately about those communities, because we are losing the battle? Why is it that young men are only too willing to take the place of those who have just been murdered? We must change our drug policy and the policing policy on that side of the city. We need the resources but we must also talk about youth empowerment. I ask the Minister, the Taoiseach, and all others who have influence in this area to commission a Mulvey-style report for Dublin 17 and wider communities so that investment can start flowing, policing can be enhanced, and we do not see a return to the type of bloodshed we have seen over the past week.

I thank Senator Ó Ríordáin for raising this very important issue. I am pleased to have the opportunity to address the matter from a criminal justice perspective.

I repeat my total condemnation of the appalling violence that has been perpetrated in recent days. I have spoken to the Commissioner and I am satisfied that vigorous Garda investigations are under way. Furthermore, local patrols are being supplemented by armed support units and there is ongoing liaison and support being provided by relevant sections within other specialist divisions of An Garda Síochána. Gardaí have put specific operations in place to deal with the serious incidents that have occurred in Dublin recently, and they continue to work directly with communities to keep our citizens safe. In relation to the killing that occurred on Tuesday afternoon, an incident room has been established in Santry Garda station, and I appeal to anyone who may have any information, no matter how seemingly incidental, to come forward to An Garda Síochána. This morning, the deputy Garda commissioner for policing and security will convene a high-level meeting to discuss further policing plans to address the shootings in this area. I have requested that I be kept apprised of all developments in this matter and I will visit the area in the coming days.

On the Senator’s proposals, I emphasise that An Garda Síochána's approach and response to the presence of a relatively small number of violent criminals in some communities include a strong focus on quality of life issues and collaboration with local authorities, joint policing committees, JPCs, and local drug task forces. However, as we all acknowledge, a more sustainable, co-ordinated and comprehensive approach is needed. That was a clear message delivered to the expert members of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland and it is clear from its report that the message was understood and responded to in the recommendations. In particular, the commission examined the incidents in the north-east inner city and subsequent citizen engagement in recent years, and it looked at how that approach could be mainstreamed and embedded.

We all recognise that the reasons an individual turns toward a life of crime are complex, with a substantial, unacceptable negative impact on communities. It is an appalling vista for any community to witness violence or criminality in their midst because of the actions of a small number of people. However small, we need to do everything possible to ensure that to the greatest extent possible we divert people away from a possible life of crime. Putting in place suitable interventions to prevent this requires a joined-up approach by a number of stakeholders, including An Garda Síochána, various Departments, agencies, NGOs, families and, of course, members of the wider public. The Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland recognised that reality. A very significant proportion of police time, in Ireland and in other jurisdictions, is spent on harm prevention and providing, service to citizens at risk, including those with addiction issues, and I know that the Senator has been a strong advocate for such persons in recent years.

The new model of policing put forward by the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland envisages a new district approach to policing with significant community engagement, including the creation of multi-agency crisis intervention teams in all Garda divisions. These teams, and the broader concept of community safety, will be embedded in legislation in the new policing and community safety Bill which is being progressed by my Department as a matter of urgent priority. I look forward to the Senator’s, and all Senators', input into that legislation in due course. I will be very happy to engage with them and receive their observations, comments or submissions. The critical aspect of the Commission on the Future of Policing is that it has designed a model for policing excellence for the future. This is an approach that will make a real difference to communities. That is the sustainable solution for the future for all communities.

I again assure the Senator of the active Garda investigations under way and that An Garda Síochána is taking all necessary steps to bring the perpetrators of the recent shootings in Dublin to justice. The Government will continue to support the Garda through the allocation of unprecedented resources in terms of personnel, technology and everything else, so that its members can continue to carry out their duties and protect the public.

I thank the Minister for his response. Will he commit to extra Garda resources for this area and to a commission along the lines I have suggested and similar to what took place in the north inner city? The Minister touched on it in his reply but did not go as far as it. I suggest a Mulvey-style report which will deal with all the agencies which the Minister outlined. He has suggested that the Commission on the Future of Policing is the answer.

I am suggesting something different. The Government is already engaged in such a process in Dublin's north inner city. I am asking the Minister to initiate that process in the Dublin 17 and wider areas. Is the Minister making more Garda resources available to this area? Along with other Ministers will he lead the process to commission a report into the need for resources and a long-term response to what has happened in the Dublin 17 area? I ask the Minister to commit to those two things on behalf of those who are suffering and feel not just uneasy but scared living in those communities.

I assure the Senator that I will continue to engage with my Government colleagues. This particular issue was raised at a recent Government meeting. I have spoken directly to the Minister, Deputy Bruton, and the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, who like the Senator have a considerable knowledge of the area, its people and the community. I would be happy to continue to engage with other Departments to progress the type of collaborative approach the Senator has proposed, taking a note of the issues the Senator has raised.

My Department is actively working on drafting new policing legislation to ensure the broader concept of community safety will be embedded in statute. Key to this is policing in partnership with communities along with other Departments and agencies, not solely those under the remit of the Department of Justice and Equality, to provide essential services and supports to communities. I am thinking of agencies under the Departments of Health, Employment Affairs and Social Protection, and Housing, Planning and Local Government. I am anxious to have a collaborative approach across agencies, involving in particular those who provide essential services and essential supports to communities and individuals at risk. In that regard I acknowledge what the Senator has said.

As well as the Government accepting all 157 key recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland in December, I also published a four-year high-level plan, Policing Service for the Future. This sets out the approach to the implementation which will be overseen and is currently overseen by a dedicated programme office in the Department of the Taoiseach, which is a key recommendation in the commission's report.

Another key element of the implementation is to ensure that local front-line policing will be placed at the core of the police service. This brings me to the Senator's second point about garda numbers and Garda resources, the object of the exercise being that gardaí are more visible in communities and therefore more active in communities. I remain committed to achieving an increase in the overall Garda workforce of 21,000 personnel by 2021, which will involve 15,000 sworn Garda members. I look forward to attending the Garda College in Templemore next week where we will see a further 200 young, ambitious, energetic gardaí engaged in active duties within two weeks of their graduation. I would be happy to continue to engage with Garda management on the particular issue the Senator raised. I trust he will do so also through such bodies as the joint policing committee in the area.

I assure the Senator and all Members of this House that the State will continue to relentlessly pursue those who engage in criminality and threaten the safety of communities. The full force of the law will be brought to bear on those behind this violence and related gangland activities. I would be happy to engage further with the Senator on the specific proposal he has made this morning.

Local Government Reform

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House this morning for this debate. Now that we have voted to have a directly elected mayor in Limerick, it was my understanding it was to be in two years but I believe it may be three years. When does the Minister of State envisage us having the first directly elected mayor? As the Minister of State knows, I led the campaign on behalf of Fine Gael around both Limerick city and county. People were concerned about the powers the mayor will have. They also asked if transport will be included because transport is so relevant to both the city and county. The directly elected mayor in London has responsibility for things like the environment and driving business. Business is a really important opportunity for the mayor to drive forward. Having an economic driver for the city and county was one of the things I mentioned when I was going around asking people to vote for a directly elected mayor.

I also mentioned the mid-west region. While my colleagues in places like Clare may disagree with me, I believe a thriving region needs a thriving Limerick because it is right at the heart of the region. While the mayor needs enhanced powers, we also need to reform local government; they go hand-in-hand. We may also need to strengthen the councillors' powers.

Limerick will be the flagship for the other cities as it will be the first city to have this. In saying that, we need to get it right. I am anxious to work with the Minister of State. I will consult people in Limerick to hear their views. I know there will be an open door when I come back to the Minister of State and he will listen to those. It is important to get it right from day one especially as Limerick will be the first place with a directly elected mayor. I would like transport and the environment to come within the mayor's remit. I may also come back with one or two other requests.

I apologise for getting caught in traffic around Naas. I thank Senator Byrne for raising the issue. I would also like to thank her for her support and very active campaign in the recent plebiscite for the directly elected mayor in Limerick city and county. I have no doubt that her support and that of civil society in Limerick were instrumental in the positive vote there, as was the support of other politicians.

Most importantly, I want to thank the people of Limerick city and county for backing the Government’s proposal and opting for a radical leap forward in local government. This is a very exciting time in the history of local government in Limerick. It fits in with what has been a decade of renewal in Limerick city in particular, but also in the merged authority that is Limerick City and County Council.

The Government has been given a mandate by the people of Limerick to put in place the first directly elected mayor with executive functions. As Senator Byrne has said, Limerick will be the flagship for the country. I want to assure the people of Limerick that the Government plans to maximise this incredible opportunity to boost local government there.

In line with the legislation, I will now prepare and submit to the Houses of the Oireachtas a report with proposals for legislation providing for a directly elected mayor for Limerick. The legislative proposals must be submitted by 24 May 2021, two years after the vote, but I have asked my officials to prioritise this work. I want to bring the report and legislation forward as early as possible next year rather than in 2021.

We have a good basis for the legislation in the Government's policy paper and will take on board the feedback received during campaigns such as the one referred to by the Senator on transport, the environment and business. Some of the functions are already performed within the local authorities. I am thinking, in particular, of the LEOs and environment sections of the local authorities, but transport is certainly one issue that is topical and important at local level. We will consult stakeholders in Limerick and across the local government system.

The process will also involve a review of legislation underpinning the functions of local authorities and engagement across all Departments. With the establishment of the position of directly elected mayor comes an incredible opportunity for further ambitious local government modernisation. The directly elected mayor and the elected council must have scope and the capacity to create a vision for the future of Limerick and be empowered to take responsibility for delivering on that vision through having real budgetary and functional clout across as wide a range of areas as possible.

It is important to point out, as outlined in the Government's policy proposals, that the chief executive will still hold a critical role. The success of the directly elected mayor will crucially be dependent on a strong, committed and passionate chief executive and an effective mayor-chief executive working relationship to deliver on the vision and programme of the council and the mayor. Limerick City and County Council is very lucky to have an energetic and passionate chief executive in Conn Murray. I recognise the extraordinary work he has done in recent years, not least in leading the very successful merger of the two local authorities in the city and the county and developing the hugely ambitious Limerick 2030 programme. In terms of timelines and in the expectation the legislation will be prioritised in the Houses, the first election could take place to Limerick City and County Council in 2022 or beforehand.

I again thank the Senator for raising this important matter and her work on it, with that of others heretofore, as well as the officials in the Department who have been very active in promoting the idea of having directly elected mayors with executive functions.

I thank the Minister of State for his very informative response. There has been a learning curve. I pay tribute to the CEO and his staff who play a relevant role. It will be very important for the CEO and the mayor to work side by side. The CEO and his staff certainly have a very important role to play. The sooner the legislation can be brought forward the better. It will show the timeline and what we are trying to achieve and allow people to have an input. The sooner we can bring it forward to allow people to make submissions and have their voices heard the better. I also think of the people who voted "No", of whom there were a significant number. While the plebiscite was won by 3,000 votes, we must listen to the voices of the people in question and their concerns to see whether we can resolve them.

I reassure the Senator again that the legislation states the Minister must produce a report and legislation on a directly elected mayor within 24 months. I intend to do so within 12 months, if possible. It is the number one priority in drafting legislation in the local government section of the Department. As the Senator can appreciate, the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government has many other priorities, but from the local government angle, this is the number one priority. People in Limerick need to see evidence that their votes are being reflected in activity in the Custom House and the local authority. There will be extensive engagement with various stakeholders. The Senator mentioned the staff and management of the council, as well as the newly elected members of Limerick City and County Council. I mention those in wider civic society who engaged so well in the plebiscite and others who wish to make a contribution. I intend to expedite the process in order that we will have the legislation in the middle of next year to establish the position of directly elected mayor in Limerick. The same legislation will apply to other such posts in the future.

I commend the Minister of State for the work he has done in such a short timeframe. I know that he and his Department have put a lot of effort into it, with the former High Court judge Henry Abbott. Is there any update on councillors' pay and conditions which is part of the process?

That matter is not relevant.

The Minister of State might give us a brief line on it.

The Senator can raise the matter on the Order of Business. We are against the clock.

I have not yet received the report.

It is a different topic.

I should have mentioned Henry Abbott who chaired the committee that was responsible for gathering and disseminating information on the plebiscite. He is an eminent former judge.

A very eminent former judge.

Does the Minister of State expect to receive the report soon?

With respect, that is a different item which the Senator can raise on the Order of Business.

No more than the Leas-Chathaoirleach, we have to look after our flock.