Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Beef Industry

I welcome the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this Commencement matter, which deals with the appointment by the Minister of new agricultural attachés in the Irish embassy network, and I welcome the Minister. It has been a difficult time for agriculture and for the Minister, given the current Brexit situation. More than 50% of Irish beef is exported to the UK. Irrespective of the outcome of Brexit and its impact, we will have to develop new markets for beef, as well as for other meat and the wider agricultural sector. Reductions in the volume of beef exports are inevitable as a result of Brexit. While it is great to have a market in the United Kingdom, there is an over-reliance on it. Any reduction in the size of the market and the sale of beef will affect the farm gate, that is, family farm income and the people involved directly or indirectly in the beef sector, as all Senators will agree.

Rural communities and farmers in recent times have felt threatened and vulnerable as a result of the beef crisis, which was demonstrated when they picketed. We hope the action is now permanently suspended and I thank all the people who were involved. I welcome the establishment of a producers' organisation, which is important, and I acknowledge the role of the Minister, his officials and his Department. It has not been an easy time for anyone working in agriculture. It is important for everyone involved in the industry to move on, but to do so on the basis that we recognise there must be a fair distribution, and value for the family farm and the primary producers of beef.

It is important that wherever beef is sold, whether in Beijing or Ireland, the product of Irish beef has a great reputation. We have traceability, as the Minister knows. The integrity of Bord Bia is critical to the overall strategy for marketing beef internationally. The number of people who contacted me during the dispute about the repackaging of beef in England was disturbing. We must never compromise the Bord Bia brand. The breaking of seals, or repackaging or rebranding, poses questions. I do not suggest that it is the only issue but people want to maintain the integrity of the Bord Bia brand. We know about the traceability of Irish beef, the integrity of the brand of Bord Bia, and that the animals are primarily grass fed, which is critical. I welcome any initiative that brings together the North and South. The island of Ireland can work pragmatically together to promote agriculture and, primarily, the beef sector because it is so important. As we move forward in our political maturity, we need to wake up to the fact we have a unique selling point on the island of Ireland in marketing Irish produce and beef.

That brings me to my question for the Minister. What is his vision for the attachés and their role? I am aware he intends to reappoint people but that he will also expand the presence of such attachés in places as far away as Mexico.

That is all positive news, but it is really important that we remain focused. We need to develop new markets for agricultural products so that ultimately we can improve the income of family farms. When responding, the Minister might set out who is going to be appointed and the countries in which they will be based and also his strategy for the expansion and development of new markets for Irish agriculture, particularly beef.

The pursuit and development of new markets for Irish agrifood exports continues to be an ongoing and central component of the strategic development of our agrifood sector. This is evidenced by its placement at the centre of Food Wise 2025, the industry’s strategy for development over the coming decade. The need to diversify our markets and to reduce our reliance on traditional destinations has been an ongoing objective of my Department and this strategy has received further impetus and focus since the United Kingdom's decision to leave the European Union.

Food Wise 2025 outlines the potential for growth in agrifood exports to new and emerging markets, particularly Asia, Africa, the Americas and the Gulf region. Our efforts will be focused here for the foreseeable future. This is not in any way to diminish our commitment to existing traditional and long established markets. Accordingly, my Department is currently implementing ambitious plans to expand its presence globally by appointing agricultural attachés to new key market locations. These are informed primarily by Bord Bia's market prioritisation research and the appointments are taking place against the backdrop of the wider expansion of Ireland's global footprint, which is planned under the Government's Global Ireland 2025 initiative. The latter represents the most ambitious renewal and expansion of Ireland's international presence ever undertaken in terms of diplomacy, culture, business, overseas aid, tourism and trade.

In 2019, three new attaché posts have been added to the Irish embassy network in Berlin, Tokyo and Mexico City. This brings to 11 the number of locations in which agriculture attachés are stationed. In addition to these new posts, we are in the process of recruiting local hires in various locations where local knowledge and specialist expertise can support our market access and trade development initiatives. Trade promotion and negotiations, together with market access development, will make up the bulk of the activities in these new roles. Their activities will be carried out in close co-operation with Bord Bia and Enterprise Ireland, operating in accordance with the well-established team Ireland template.

The development of key relationships at political and official levels, as appropriate, will also be an important part of their remit. My experience over the past number of years on trade missions to emerging markets has been that such contacts are crucial to Ireland's efforts to gain new market access and to widen and broaden our existing levels of trade, both in value and volume terms. These new appointments will complement and build on the outstanding work being done by our attachés in Brussels, London, Paris, Rome, Geneva, Washington, Beijing and Abu Dhabi. The remit across these locations varies, with the balance between trade and policy work being struck in accordance with the priorities in each location. These appointments will be augmented by further expansion over the next few years as we refine and develop our market diversification strategy and make a further contribution to Global Ireland 2025. Plans are being advanced to appoint a new attaché to the embassy in Seoul and other locations are at an early stage of consideration.

I thank the Minister for his reply and I welcome his commentary regarding the diversification of the market, which is really important. In light of the ongoing debate in respect of Brexit and our over-concentration on the UK market, with, as already stated, over 50% of our beef being exported to that jurisdiction, we have to diversify. This point was echoed by the Minister. He also outlined his strategy in that regard. I particularly welcome that it is proposed to appoint an attaché with agriculture responsibility to our embassy in Seoul, Korea. That is good news. It is important that the Minister's officials get that news into the public domain. In all the debate and confusion, we sometimes we lose sight of the strategic message which the Minister elaborated today in terms of the plans to diversify and seek new markets beyond Europe. That, too, is really positive news. I thank the Minister for coming to the House and giving us that news. We need to get that message into publications and on websites, such as The Farmers' Journal, AgriLand.ie, etc., in order that people will know that new markets are being pursued. I do not doubt that this is happening but sometimes the message gets lost among the farming community. Nonetheless, I welcome the news and I thank the Minister for attending.

I will give the Senator an interesting statistic, which I think neatly summaries the distance we have travelled. In 2010, the value of Irish agrifood exports outside of the European Union was €1.8 billion. In 2018, this value was closer to €3.5 billion such that in a relatively short time there has been substantial progress made in terms of gaining a foothold in these emerging markets. In regard to Food Wise 2025 and the regions referred to earlier, the Asian market in particular was identified as one where there is a growing middle-class population with increasing levels of disposable income and westernised dietary habits. This presents opportunities for us.

In the context of the success we are having and the impetus that is necessary in this area in light of the UK's decision to leave the European Union, I am conscious of the concerns of the primary producers in terms of where they gain in all of this. The challenge is to ensure we sustain the edifice that has become the export value and volume of Irish agrifood in 180 different countries worldwide. It is critical that we maintain the supply base. We can only do that by ensuring that those involved in primary production are getting a just shake-out. That is challenging. We have had issues in recent days and weeks regarding the challenges in the beef sector. I would like to think that was a watershed moment. Business as usual will not cut it in that context. We need to remain conscious of that as we set about creating a new framework for a partnership approach that is very different to what we have had up to now.

Targeted Agricultural Modernisation Scheme

I welcome the Minister. This matter relates to the inclusion of underpasses in the targeted agriculture modernisation scheme, TAMS. The latter, which was launched in June 2015, is a unique scheme with a budget of over €400 million to fund farm investment. There are six priorities attached to the scheme and all have been very successful. However, the priorities at farm gate have changed. When the scheme was launched, one of the priorities was low emissions spreading, which at the time was not an issue for farmers but is now a key driver in terms of the changes being made on farms. There have been major changes to agricultural schemes, including a reduction in the size of dairy herds.

I raise this issue because underpasses are a key aspect of infrastructure. Many dairy farmers and fragmented holdings need to invest in underpasses to ensure they can develop their farm enterprises. This is a significant investment of a six figure sum and requires planning permission. TAMS will expire in 18 months. I am interested in hearing from the Minister if work is underway in the Department on a new scheme and, if so, if consideration will be given making provision in it for underpasses. I am not asking the Minister to change the current scheme because it is due to expire in 18 months. Rather, I am asking that the new scheme that will follow in 2020 when the current scheme expires would provide for underpasses in light of the changes in terms of farm development and the scale of farms, in particular dairy farms, since 2015. The benefits of this measure include savings in labour, increased health and safety on the roads and fragmented farms being able to reach their potential, which are key drivers of the Food Wise 2025 policy mentioned by the Minister.

I hope that a new scheme will be introduced post 2020 and that it will include provision for underpasses, which are key items of agricultural infrastructure that will save time.

It would be safer for drivers and pedestrians and would increase dairy farmers' profitability.

Where does the Minister believe the targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, TAMS, will go? Will there be a TAMS III and, if so, could these underpasses be considered in that proposal?

I thank Senator Lombard for raising this matter and welcome the opportunity to outline the current position regarding the targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, TAMS II.

TAMS II is made up of a suite of seven measures. These measures were launched under the Rural Development Programme 2014-20 and are co-funded under the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development, EAFRD. The measures provide grants for capital investment in physical assets to assist the Irish agriculture sector to respond to a range of policy challenges. The six measures initially launched in 2015 were the young farmers capital investment scheme; the dairy equipment scheme; the organic capital investment scheme; the animal welfare, safety and nutrient storage scheme; the low emission slurry spreading scheme and the pig and poultry investment scheme; and the tillage capital investment scheme launched in 2016. Among the objectives of the scheme are to enable growth and competitiveness in the sector, addressing environmental and climate change issues, supporting the increased efficiency on holdings and improving animal health and welfare.

In addition to these objectives, the young farmers capital investment scheme aims to address one of the key structural issues in the sector by specifically targeting support at young trained farmers by offering them a higher rate of grant aid of 60% compared to the standard rate of 40%. There is a huge variety of items available under the suite of seven TAMS measures. Under all measures, applications and payment claims must be made online, either by the farmer or by an adviser authorised to act on their behalf.

The financial allocation in respect of TAMS for the full rural development programme period will be in the region of €395 million. To date total expenditure, including transitional expenditure, has reached €169 million and we continue to pay approximately €1.5 million every week. I am delighted that the scheme has proved to be so popular with Irish farmers with over 29,000 applications submitted to date. Of these more than 22,000 or over 75% have been approved to commence work.

It is open to approved applicants to submit an online payment claim as soon as they are in a position to do so. The timing of the submission of a payment claim, within the approved deadline, is entirely a matter for the individual farmer and it is up to them when they complete their approved works. To date, 11,500 payment claims have been submitted and over 92% have been paid. I would urge all approved applicants who have completed their works to submit a payment claim as soon as they are in a position to do so. The position is that all outstanding approvals issued represent potential outstanding liabilities for my Department and we must have a budget in place to pay these claims. Until these approvals mature to payment stage, or the timefrarne of the approval expires, a budgetary provision must be available to make payments. In order to ensure the annual budget for TAMS can cover all potential outstanding liabilities it has been necessary to roll some 20% of approvals forward from tranche 13 into tranche 14 and from tranche 14 into tranche 15. I recognise that this may be disappointing for the farmers concerned who wish to commence works to improve their holdings.

Due to the tight annual budgetary position on TAMS, it is not possible to consider adding items, including cattle underpasses, to the comprehensive list of investment items already available under the suite of seven TAMS II measures. I acknowledge that particularly in the dairy sector there is an issue with regard to the daily management of dairy farms which are fragmented and particularly where the cattle are crossing busy national primary roads.

There is intense consideration of the next Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, and what schemes might be considered within that. Whether underpasses will be considered there has been very significant commitment to the dairy sector under TAMS. Of the six pillars of TAMS II dairy has probably resulted in the highest number of applications and the highest level of payments. Through successive provisions in annual budgets there has been an incentive in the tax code for consolidation of farm holdings. That does not always arise as an opportunity for those managing those holdings, particularly on the dairy side but it is a recognition that there is a problem. I do not wish at this stage to say what will or could be part of a future CAP or rural development programme. Whereas this is a niche issue for a few it is significant for them.

I thank the Minister for his very comprehensive response. It is probably not an issue for TAMS II but it is one that we have to consider in the future. When TAMS was announced in 2015 the low emissions spreading was not taken up by farmers but it is the biggest issue they talk about at the farm gate now. It is amazing how priorities change over the lifetime of a scheme. I am sure the new scheme will have different priorities and maybe when they are being considered there might be an opportunity to consider this.

I do not wish to be prescriptive or to tie the hands of whoever might ultimately decide these matters but there will be a consultation process. There are other parties and authorities who have a role in respect of cattle underpasses. Apart from the farmers there are the local authorities where it might be regarded as a public safety issue for road users. We are aware of this but there has been very substantial support available under TAMS for the dairy sector. I am conscious of the competing interests such as the pig and poultry sector and that the next iteration of CAP will be on climate action measures. That will be the challenge in getting an adequate budget because there can be all the wish lists we may have and there is no shortage of requests, for example even the sport horse sector provides an opportunity for farmers to diversify because we are internationally recognised as a successful producer of sport horses. These issues will be considered when a new rural development is put together.

Health and Safety

Health and safety in the workplace training has traditionally focused on physical safety but we need to develop a more robust training system for employees to help protect mental health in the workplace. Mental health care costs approximately €8.2 billion annually. The Mental Health Foundation's survey shows that more than 40% of employees are neglecting other aspects of their life because of work and this may increase their vulnerability to mental health problems. Using Maslow's hierarchy of need going from the physical to self-actualisation, it makes absolute sense to prioritise mental health in the workplace. Many people are working longer and commuting more.

They are balancing various life issues, including family, leisure, recreation, work and so on. It is extraordinary that the mental health survey found that more than one quarter of employees feel under pressure or depressed, one third feel anxious, and half feel irritable. We might all feel irritable but we can put in place measures to help improve that.

It is important that as we deal with various competing issues in our lives, we work with the World Health Organization and organisations here to promote and protect mental health in the workplace from the perspective of raising awareness and putting in place mechanisms and measures within the workplace to inform employees of supports available and to involve them in a variety of ways, whether it is decision-making, career development or recognising and rewarding their performance in the workplace.

As a former Chairman of the health committee, it is important that I continue to advocate for the proper development and management of mental health training for all employees. The Cathaoirleach has been involved in the farming community, and the issue of farm safety is one we have highlighted. This body had an important report done by Senator Conway on farm safety.

Mandatory mental health training in the workplace is vital to promoting the health of employees. It will help to create a more positive workplace and better outcomes for employees in the working environment but also in terms of family life and the home environment. It is critical that people are provided with information and training in the workplace. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.

I thank Senator Buttimer for raising this matter. I am taking it on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, who could not be here but who welcomes the discussion on this important area.

We continue to discuss issues of mental health in the workplace and training for people involved in that area. It is an area of high priority for the Government for many reasons, including those put forward by Senator Buttimer. It is important not just for work and economic reasons, which I will deal with today, but for all the other reasons. The benefits of looking after our mental health are vitally important. It is important that we have that conversation regularly, no matter where we work, but in particular on behalf of employees. The issue is rightly getting much more attention now than it got in the past, which is important.

Mental health is a priority concern for the Government, with funding increasing from €711 million in 2012 to nearly €1 billion in 2019, an increase of 39%. Training and education for employees in the mental health sector are provided by colleges through undergraduate and postgraduate courses.

There is no obligation on employers in the wider workplace to provide mental health training to their employees. Such training, however, can be beneficial to employees, employers and the overall economy. A 2017 World Health Organization report found that, at 6.3%, Ireland is in the top ten countries worldwide for the percentage of the population affected by anxiety disorders. A 2018 OECD report found that mental health difficulties cost the Irish economy €8.2 billion every year, a figure to which Senator Buttimer referred. The report states also that conditions like anxiety and depression are causing a 3% reduction in the country's GDP through stress-related absenteeism, for example.

To address this issue, the HSE mental health division funds various partner organisations, such as Mental Health First Aid Ireland, to provide courses that teach awareness of the signs and symptoms of mental health problems and how to provide help. These courses teach employees to recognise the signs and symptoms of mental health problems and to help colleagues and friends who might be developing a mental health problem.

Similarly, the HSE National Office for Suicide Prevention, NOSP, is involved in a range of training initiatives around suicide prevention and mental health promotion. The safeTALK and ASIST suicide prevention programmes are available free of charge to all members of the community, and courses are run throughout the country. While these courses are not specific to workplaces, under the whole-of-Government national strategy to reduce suicide, Connecting for Life, Departments and agencies have agreed to implement the action on training of staff across the civil and public service in suicide awareness, particularly those who are public facing.

NOSP also funds NGOs, including Shine and Suicide or Survive, to provide work-based mental health-suicide prevention programmes. SeeChange is the national mental health stigma reduction partnership that provides training to workplaces. Its goal is to help facilitate a cultural shift in workplaces around Ireland so that employers and employees can begin to feel supported and secure in starting a discussion about the mental health problems that can affect each one of us.

A Vision For Change, the national mental health policy, is being refreshed. The revised policy has identified early intervention and training as a main priority. The revised policy will include recommendations to improve online training initiatives that seek to support young people in schools and medical teams in training, and that seek to target access by individuals in the workplace to individual and corporate mental health training. In addition, the revised policy recommends training to be made available to service users, families and peer workers to support resilience building and promote prevention strategies. All training will be augmented by Healthy Ireland promotion strategies where national health and well-being campaigns and initiatives will be rolled out locally, regionally and nationally.

I thank Senator Buttimer for raising this important issue, which is one we have a duty to debate while encouraging the same to happen in all workplaces.

This issue does not come under the Minister of State's Department but I thank him for being here. I commend the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, on his work and productivity on the matter.

The Minister of State's statement that there is no obligation on employers in the wider workplace to provide mental health training to their employees is a worry, notwithstanding the large amount of work we have done, and are doing, and the improvements we have brought about.

Next week is Mental Health Awareness Week. I ask, notwithstanding the work that has been done, that we would consider legislation to encourage employers to ensure that all employees receive mental health training as part of their employment. It is something we should consider as a Government, and as the Minister of State said, it would benefit employees. We have done a large amount of work through a variety of schemes and programmes ,but I am concerned that we are not making them mandatory. Given the need for a work-life balance and other pressures, proper training in mental health for their employees should be mandatory on the part of employers.

On behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, I thank Senator Buttimer for raising this important matter. I will bring back to the Minister of State the points the Senator has made on considering more ways to encourage best practice by employers and the need for training and discussion on this issue. I am not sure that legislation is the way forward, but I will mention that to the Minister of State to see what is the best way to proceed. There has been a cultural change in Ireland. It is important that, as a Government, we are part of that movement and that we fund initiatives to help with that.

Positive mental health is essential to fostering an open, collaborative, positive and healthy atmosphere in the workplace. The formal training I mentioned earlier, such as the programmes offered through the HSE's National Office for Suicide Prevention and those offered through NGO partners are effective tools in ensuring that employees are conscious of their mental health and that of their colleagues. It is of great benefit to employers as well as employees and will help create a healthier workplace environment. We should encourage employers to take up these programmes wherever they can do so. That is something we can work on in conjunction with Senator Buttimer.

Autism Support Services

I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House this morning. He is very welcome. This issue is not his direct area of responsibility but I would appreciate it if he would give us a response and convey concerns to the Minister.

The issue at stake is State supports for those with special educational needs. In particular, I raise the issue of the lack of supports for those students with autism and the pressure the State has put on their parents. This is an issue of major national concern at this critical time in the school year. The Government is failing our children.

The most pressing issue facing children with autism spectrum disorder, ASD, is the lack of special class spaces at secondary level. Teachers encounter students every year who should be in needs-appropriate learning environments but who instead are forced into mainstream schools which cannot accommodate their needs. I met a number of teachers over the course of the summer who have expressed real concern about the stress this causes for parents, children and teachers.

This is an issue that comes up every year and, unfortunately, the Government has failed to meet the challenge every year. Government policy forces hundreds of children with autism and other special educational needs to go without needs-appropriate learning environments. Instead of receiving a needs-appropriate education, they are treated as problematic students. They are put on reduced timetables and left with no option but to spend much of the time they should be in school at home. On Monday, I met a parent whose child is given only one hour of schooling per day.

This position is further undermined by the lack of sufficient funding for home tuition, which is an issue that has been raised for weeks ahead of the return to school and continued to be raised weeks after the return to school. I hope the Minister of State can clarify for us this morning if appropriate home tuition hours have been approved.

The Minister for Education and Skills has in his power since the enactment of the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 to ensure that every school across this State has the appropriate level of classes for children with special educational needs. I am puzzled as to why this power has not been used more often. These children are locked out of their constitutionally guaranteed right to education by the simple fact that this Government is not willing to pay for their education. There is a chronic lack of autism spectrum disorder special classes at post-primary level and an unacceptable level of geographic inequity in this provision of special classes. For example, in Cavan there are seven special classes at primary level to every one at post-primary level and in Laois the numbers are similar. In Dublin, this ratio is 3:1 and it is similar in Clare, Kildare, Monaghan, Offaly, Roscommon, Waterford and Wicklow. Only one county, Leitrim, has a ratio of 1:1 and it is the least-populated county in the State. The rest of the country faces deficits of 50%. These numbers are not coming down and the progress that the Government claims is mostly at primary level. This begs the question of whether Fine Gael envisages a society where half or more of our children with autism just do not continue to second level education?

This issue is symptomatic of a Government negligent in its duties. Not only that but this is an obstructive Government that is impeding the advancement of equality enshrined in our Constitution. Education is the keystone in the bridge to opportunity. We have removed that bridge for too many children, unduly burdening too many parents. This must be remedied and the solution is obvious. There must be more classes. The current reality unfortunately represents a total failure of the Government's constitutional obligations to these children and their parents.

I thank Senator Gavan for providing this opportunity to have this debate on a very important area. I apologise on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, as he could not make it here to take part in the debate.

The Government is determined to ensure every child is allocated a school place, including through the use of the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 to direct schools to make a provision. We are trying to set new targets and provide new treatments but the aim is to provide school places and there is no lack of desire on our side to achieve it. We stand for equality of opportunity as a party and as the party leading the Government, we will carry that through.

Every child must have the opportunity to avail of his or her right to education pursuant to constitutional and legal rights and in accordance with identified needs. To this end, the Government will invest €1.9 billion this year on supporting students with special educational needs in schools. This includes an allocation of over €300 million towards providing additional resources specifically to support students with autism. The numbers of special education teachers, special needs assistants and specialised places are at unprecedented levels and so too is the number of children receiving support across the continuum that includes mainstream classes, special classes and schools. The greater proportion of children with autism attend mainstream class, where they may access additional supports if required. Some students may find it difficult to manage full-time placement in mainstream classes and so placement in a special class or special school setting is sometimes deemed more appropriate.

The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, has a statutory function to plan and co-ordinate the provision of education and support services to children with special educational needs. This includes the establishment of special class and special school places in areas with identified need. Since 2011, the Government has increased the number of special classes from 548 to 1,621 across the country now, of which 1,355 are autism spectrum disorder special classes. It is an important increase and although some may argue it is still not enough, it is a serious commitment to increasing the offering that has been there over the past seven or eight difficult years. We ensured we could prioritise education during those years, which were difficult because of financial reasons, and we also looked to prioritise special needs education in that time. There are 124 special schools that provide specialist education for students with complex special educational needs. These schools now provide over 8,000 places, compared with 6,848 in 2011.

The NCSE has well-established structures to ensure advance planning is in place to ensure that there is sufficient specialist places to meet need as it arises. Normally, places are established with the full co-operation of the schools. There is legislative provision in place where schools refuse to make the necessary provision for children in their areas or try to avoid it. The legislation was invoked already by the NCSE back in April when the council formally advised of the need for eight primary autism classes and 40 special school places for children in the Dublin 15 area. This followed an intensive series of engagements by the NCSE with schools in the area. We have since worked hard with the schools and patron bodies concerned. We have made progress with the opening of a new special school that will ultimately provide 40 places and seven primary schools have also agreed to open autism classes. One further class is required and work is ongoing in this regard.

The experience in Dublin 15 demonstrates the legislation is an effective tool to vindicate a child's constitutional right to education where all reasonable efforts have failed and it may need to be used again. However, we would naturally prefer not to use legislation and there should be a willingness from all involved in the provision of education to carry out duties in that space. The Minister's preference is for schools to engage with this challenge on a voluntary basis because it is right for the children in these communities. The Department of Education and Skills, together with the NCSE, will continue to work with schools, patron bodies and teachers so they can establish special classes where required with confidence. In that way, we will continue to seek to meet the education needs of children in their local school in so far as possible.

I note the Senator mentioned the difference between primary and secondary levels and there is a concentration on trying to meet those additional needs at the secondary level. There are still many primary schools that are not providing the required spaces so we will continue to work on that as a Government. As I noted, the Minister wants this done in a voluntary capacity, with people recognising their responsibilities, but if that does not happen, the legislation allows us to step in and make changes. That is what has happened.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. He referred to what has happened since the passing of the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018. Interestingly, the Government opposed the part of the Bill that gave the Minister those powers, and it was a combination of Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party and others that had it included in the legislation. I understand the Minister of State may not be able to answer my question and I want to be fair. I am puzzled as to why the powers in the Act have been used so little to date. We know there is a dearth of classes, with a particular problem at secondary level, as the Minister of State acknowledged, in fairness. Nevertheless, the Minister has chosen not to use the legislation that may force schools to provide classes where they are needed. I mentioned counties like Cavan, Laois, Dublin, Clare, Kildare, Monaghan, Offaly, Roscommon, Waterford and Wicklow, which have a drastic shortage of these classes. I am puzzled as to why the Minister has not used that power.

I should be clear that the Government is determined to ensure every child is allocated a school place and to use the legislation when it must, when it is appropriate and when it is advised to do so by the NCSE. I forget the history of the various amendments to the legislation but it is great if this House contributed to making the necessary changes and that Act is now working. It is what the House is for. We try to take on board amendments from everybody when we can and they are right.

This part of the legislation was formally used for the first time on 18 April by the NCSE in informing the Minister of a shortage of school places in Dublin 15. The NCSE had to make the case to the Minister that this legislation had to be used, and that is what happened in April. The NCSE is aware of a number of children still seeking specialist places and it continues to work with schools and patrons to establish this educational provision. The council takes the approach of trying to work with schools and parents to make this happen without the need for the provisions in the legislation. We are not afraid to use it when the need is there, as we have proven. The NCSE is actively engaging at a local level with schools, patron bodies and the families concerned to resolve the issues involved as soon as possible. If, following completion of the work, the NCSE establishes there is still a shortage of places in either area, it may inform the Minister by activating the provisions contained in the Education Act 1998. Funding for provision of home tuition is available to parents as a short-term intervention until school placement is available.

I understand the funding is there to match need. There are often issues but these are not always related to money. The provisions of the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 are used when required but there is a process in getting to that. It is not for a Minister to decide that he or she will intervene on a specific day. It must come through the NCSE in the process that has been working well in this country for a number of years.

Sitting suspended at 11.20 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.