Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Hospital Funding

I call Senator Aisling Dolan who has four minutes.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Anne Rabbitte. I look forward to working with her in her new portfolio. It is great to see a woman from the west because she will be well aware of the Commencement matter I will raise today. It relates to Portiuncula University Hospital, in Ballinasloe, and investment under the HSE capital plan for 2021 and also the HSE winter plan for 2020. As the Minister of State would know very well, Portiuncula is a level 3, 24-7 hospital. It operates 365 days a year. It never stops. It handles casualty, maternity and surgical services and is part of the Saolta network. It is one of the seven hospitals that are part of the network in the west and we so need our hospitals in the west to be hospitals fit for the 21st century.

What surprised me when I was involved in fighting for the 50-bed unit last year was that the hospital handles a catchment area of more than 500,000 people. It is amazing. It covers five counties including east Galway, Roscommon, parts of Westmeath, Offaly, north Tipperary and, as the Minister of State would know, Portumna. It even covers Athlone, with a population of more than 21,000 people. If one lives in Athlone one was more than likely born in Portiuncula hospital.

For people in Ballinasloe, the hospital is an integral part of our identity and a vital service. Close to 800 people work in the hospital. We have excellent healthcare teams. We recently won funding awards with Sláintecare. However, the hospital infrastructure dates back to the 1940s. There is a dire lack of shower and toilet facilities and for an area of 400,000 people, Portiuncula hospital has only 13 single rooms. I am not talking about ICU beds; I am talking about single rooms to keep people safe from infection. It is made up of six- and eight-bed wards. In the face of this crisis, a special ward was designated for Covid-19 patients within the hospital. The general manager and the teams in the hospital have taken the initiative. They have moved the outpatient department to a modular unit in the car park. They have funding for that modular unit but funds are now required for the next step to develop the outpatients unit into 13 en suite single rooms.

Can the Minister confirm that sufficient funds are listed in the HSE 2021 capital plan for the redesign and repurposing of the outpatients’ area in Portiuncula hospital as a matter of urgency? We need those 13 rooms now and even if the work is started in January it will be February before it will be set up. When I was a county councillor in 2019, the Minister of State, Deputy Anne Rabbitte, and I were at a meeting here with the then Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, and commitments were given on the 50-bed unit. A 50-single-bed unit was committed to and the enabling works have started. The investment for that is crucial for the hospital to ensure adequate facilities. These are just single rooms to avoid basic overcrowding, infection and to ensure that there is dignity for end-of-life for patients. As I mentioned we need a hospital that is fit for the 21st century.

Can the Minister confirm if follow-on funding is available for stage two construction of this 50-bed single unit and if the tender process is to commence in January, with HSE estates? We looked for and were given a date last year with a construction start date of July 2021.

Finally, the CT scanner is not currently fully operational in the hospital. The Minister of State may be aware of this. It is due for equipment replacement in 2022. Can the Minister of State consider within the Department of Health if a replacement CT scanner could be an urgent request for the 2021 equipment budget to allow for early diagnosis and to assist teams handling of waiting lists?

I thank the Minister of State for her time. I know that of all Ministers, and being a woman from the west, she is aware of the crucial importance of that hospital and of the lack of investment over the past number of decades. I look forward to hearing more from the Minister of State now about the great budget we have achieved with an extra €4 billion, and the commitment to bed capacity.

I now call on the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte. It is my first opportunity in a public session to congratulate her on her appointment as a Minister of State and, equally, to thank her for her work in the recent budget in securing €100 million for disability.

I thank Senator Dolan for placing this matter today. Before I go to the script it gives me great pleasure to discuss Portiuncula Hospital given that my youngest child was born there. It is 24 miles down the road from me so I know it intimately. Many of my constituents work in Portiuncula Hospital and it is embedded in the fabric not just of Ballinasloe but in the wider spread of the area. It provides a great service. I will read the script and then I will focus on the two main questions the Senator has asked.

Portiuncula hospital, Ballinasloe is one our acute general and maternity hospitals that delivers a patient-centred, quality-driven focused service and provides a wide range of diagnostic and support services. The hospital catchment area, as the Senator has referred, includes east Galway, Roscommon, the midlands and the mid-western areas.

The construction of the 50-bed ward block is an important project for this hospital. A contractor was appointed for the enabling works commenced on the 11 August 2020 and due for completion by 25 May 2021. It intended to advertise for contractors for construction of the 50-bed ward block in the second quarter of 2020. That should be about to progress as we speak now. This is with a view to commencing works on-site in mid-2021, subject to the availability of funding. This project is on the capital plan and the Senator was given commitments by the previous Minister. I have been speaking to the current Minister on this project and it is a focus to keep this project live and to ensure there is funding following for it.

As the Senator knows this winter is expected to be particularly challenging due to the presence of Covid-19 and the Government's determination to meet the challenge is demonstrated by its decision to invest the additional €600 million in the health services this winter: €200 million in 2020 ands €400 million in 2021, to support the roll-out of the winter-specific measures.

For Portiuncula Hospital, it is proposed to provide the additional space addressed by the Senator with a prefab-modular building for segregation which will provide an immediate solution for emergency department streaming for winter 2020 at the hospital. The modular building proposed will facilitate 14 temporary Covid-19 emergency department and minor injuries treatment and assessment rooms with associated support facilities. The unit will also have a residual value for the displacement of outpatient accommodation after the Covid-19 emergency. It states here that it is expected that the building will be ready for occupation by March 2021 but I have a slight concern that it will be ready for occupation by that date because that is at the end of our winter period.

The staff and management of Portiuncula University Hospital would like to have a commitment that they could actually start. We all know that the accident and emergency department in the hospital is head-to-toe when it gets really busy. Due to Covid and social distancing it does not have the facility, hence the request that it needs to be prioritised. Other hospitals around the country are in the same position. That is the nature of the question.

I have spoken to the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, about the matter and I am trying to get it prioritised. Deputy Denis Naughten has also raised this issue. It is an issue of priority for constituents in the area. The staff and patients are at risk. The demographics of the area usually show that there is an older population. There is a fear on the part of GPs in terms of referring people to the hospital because it does not have adequate space for their patients.

I thank the Minister of State. It is great to hear that commitment. The commitment to Portiuncula University Hospital and the Saolta group mean that our healthcare teams in the west will be able to cope when faced with the worst public health crisis ever. It means that patients in our hospital will receive the care that they deserve.

I ask the Minister of State to accelerate the project if at all possible. We need it now. As far as I know, the modular unit is up and running. Funding was received for that and the hospital authorities moved things out of the outpatient unit. If we could get a move on that quickly the beds would be available. There could be single rooms to handle isolation. The hospital is dealing with infectious patients, be they potential Covid cases or the normal flu, and there is no place to isolate them.

I appreciate the commitment of the Minister of State on this. As she will be aware, all public representatives very much support the hospital and hope that, at a national level, the HSE will give that commitment as soon as possible to the Saolta healthcare group. I appreciate the time of the Minister of State.

I thank Senator Dolan. I did not answer the question on the CT scanner. The HSE advised that the replacement of the CT scanner in Portiuncula is scheduled for 2021 or 2022, through the HSE equipment replacement programme. Priority for replacement is based on risk categorisation covering age dependability and service history, with capacity for replacement depending on availability of funding.

If there is an issue in anything I have said that could support the management of the hospital in terms of risk categorisation, perhaps it can be reviewed. The Senator should be assured from the Department and the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, that we want to work with all local public and elected representatives to ensure that the 14-bed modular unit and isolation rooms are made available, not just for isolation but the protection of everybody coming into the hospital. I look forward to working with the Senator on that.

Disability Services Provision

I warmly welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, to the Seanad. I am raising the issue of St. John of God Community Services in response to a letter I received from Councillor Paddy McQuillan in Louth County Council. He is involved with the service and is a local representative. He circulated to me a letter he received from the chief executive, as did all of the staff and their colleagues, a copy of which I have passed to the Minister of State, dated 30 September 2020.

The substance of this correspondence is that the St. John of God Community Services is to end its involvement in disability and mental health services and transfer all of that responsibility to the HSE. St. John of God services stated that the reason this is happening is because there is an issue with funding. There is a funding crisis that cannot be sustained, in its view. Services have been subsidised by it from other resources, both its personal resources and those of the order which were never collected or intended to be used to subsidise the community services they operate.

As we know, St. John of God provides services for more than 8,000 children, adolescents and adults with intellectual disabilities across Dublin, Kildare, Kerry, Wicklow, Meath and Louth. It employs 3,000 staff and has volunteers in excess of that number. It has 300 locations. More than 2,500 people in receipt of day, residential and respite services will be affected. This is really critical.

The order has told me that there is a €27 million annual funding gap and an accumulated deficit of €27.7 million. These are staggering figures. I have spoken to the chief executive of St. John of God Community Services yesterday, Claire Dempsey. I updated myself. I was convinced by my short conversation that there was a genuine willingness on the part of the organisation and the brothers to engage with the Minister of State and the HSE to get a resolution. The Hospitaller Order of St. John of God has a strong track record while having diminishing religious vocations. The order has a rich legacy that has served the State exceptionally well in a wide variety of supports and services.

My concern is firstly for the clients and service users. I am also concerned for the employees who work in these services throughout the country as well as their families and the families of the service users. This is critical.

Funding is an issue and it has to be resolved. It is not a question of a blame game with the HSE versus the Department of Health versus the Hospitaller Order of St. John of God. It is simply that there has to be a sustainable agreement to ensure these services are provided.

There is also an impact because we know the Government policy with regard to congregated settings and breaking up large institutions. We have had enough talk about institutions in recent days to keep us going for years. There are new models and policies of care but they do not come cheap.

There are difficulties and they need to be bridged. I appeal to the Minister of State for her response. People really need to know what is going on, whether we can get these talks back on track and whether we can get an arrangement whereby St. John of God Community Services will consider options with the Minister of State in a constructive way on how to fund these essential services. This is not for the order, the Minister of State or the HSE but for the people who avail of these important care services.

I thank Senator Boyhan for putting down this question. It gives me the opportunity to bring the Senator through my engagement since becoming Minister of State with responsibility for disability matters.

Before I continue, I wish to say this is not a blame game. I could not agree more with Senator Boyhan on that. This is about the service users, their families, the employees and delivering services to the most vulnerable in our society who require these services.

While St. John of God Community Services is in this particular situation regarding funding, we know the disability sector was underfunded for many years. We also know that we have a sustainability issue within the disability sector, where service providers provide a great deal of care. They are not unique in this regard. When we talk to the service providers or anyone within the HSE or the Department, that is exactly what we hear. It is the clear message coming out.

St. John of God Community Services currently provide services to over 2,400 children and adults with intellectual disabilities in community healthcare organisation areas 4,6, 7 and 8. They also provide mental health services and supports to over 5,600 children, adolescents and adults in CHO areas 6 and 7. The HSE has worked closely with the St. John of God organisation over several years to support it in its role and assist it in addressing the financial and governance challenges.

Against this background I held a meeting on 24 September 2020 with representatives of St. John of God which included Department of Health and HSE officials. I outlined my position and plans for the disability sector and encouraged St. John of God to engage with the HSE and address the issues facing the organisation. Nevertheless, following a board meeting of the organisation on the same day, St. John of God formally served the HSE with 12 months' notice of its intention to terminate the provision of services under its section 38 arrangement with the HSE, with a view to transferring responsibility for delivering disability and mental health services to the State by October 2021.

I am keenly aware that the decision of St. John of God may cause anxiety for many of the service users concerned and their families as well as the staff working in the organisation.

However, I assure them that there are processes in place to ensure continuity of service provision, which are underpinned by service arrangements between the HSE and St. John of God. St. John of God will continue to be responsible for providing disability and mental health services over the next 12 months. During this period, the HSE will work with St. John of God to put in place suitable arrangements to transfer provision of these services to another appropriate organisation.

St. John of God is required to continue providing services from the effective date of termination or expiry of the 12-month notice period until such time as any new service arrangements become effective. If the 12-month notice period ends and the transfer of services has not yet been finalised, St. John of God is obliged to continue providing the services for up to another six months to allow the transfer to be completed. In effect, the whole process could take up to 18 months. I understand that the HSE also purchases some mental health services from St. John of God on a private basis, which are not governed by the section 38 service arrangement. The HSE is already making provision for community mental health services in Loughlinstown and Dún Laoghaire primary care centres.

The primary concern of this Government is to ensure the continuity of the vital services provided by St. John of God in the interests of service users, families and staff.

I thank the Minister of State for her written reply because it is helpful and we can share it. These are difficult times for all of us in terms of our physical and mental well-being. They are particularly difficult for people with disabilities and the type of people being supported by the St. John of God Community Services. I am encouraged by what the Minister of State said. I will write to the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, today to ask him if we can see a speeding up of the engagement. We have a timeframe which the Minister of State outlined but it ticks away quite quickly. These are complex issues and big issues in terms of finance.

I welcome the Minister of State's comprehensive and frank layout of what is at stake and I encourage all sides to engage early to ultimately create a better service for users, employees and the communities in which they operate.

I thank the Deputy again for raising this matter. I acknowledge and recognise his concerns. It is the first time I have been given the opportunity to put on the record my engagement with St. John of God and my plea to it on that day to not serve notice on us, to work with me, as a Minister of State with responsibility for disabilities, and to give me the opportunity to understand their concerns and to work with the HSE and the Department. It was its prerogative on that day to take the decision it took. I regret it and I do not wish any anxiety or stress to be placed on service users, their families or staff. Over the coming months I will ensure that nobody is left languishing and waiting for answers or responses. Everyone will be left clear and communication will be crystal clear. I will work with the HSE and the Department to ensure there is communication and service users understand exactly what is going on.

Disability Services Provision

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, to this House. It is the first time I have had the chance to publicly congratulate her on her appointment as Minister of State. I have no doubt that with her work ethic and compassion, she will make a big difference to the lives of people with a disability. I also want to say well done to the Minister of State on securing a significant disability budget, the highest in the history of the State, in budget 2021. Now we have to make sure that makes a difference on the ground to the people who matter because it is about implementation and improving lives.

I will talk about the issue of children with disabilities, particularly in Kildare. I was contacted at the beginning of this month by a mother, Samantha Kenny, about her daughter, Ava, who I had dealt with before. She was distraught to receive a letter saying that three therapists and one part-time therapist would be taken away from the network disability team, NDT, in Kildare in order to deal with early assessments.

We all know how important early assessments are but it should not be a competition between assessments and early intervention. Since I spoke about this issue I have been contacted by a number of parents in Kildare. It is not a lie to say they are absolutely distraught. It has been months since March, when their therapists were taken away from them to do contact tracing. In that time, these children did not have the opportunity to be in school so they further regressed. Now, when things had been getting back to some level of normality, the fact these vital services will be removed again is simply shocking.

I understand that therapists, by which I mean physiotherapists, speech therapists and occupational therapists, are being taken away to work on contact tracing. We all know how important contact tracing is during this crisis but to create a backlog of dire situations and consequences for children is absolutely not the way to do it. All of the research on children with disabilities shows the importance of community-based early intervention and the importance of interdisciplinary team work. The fact that Ava and her peers are not getting this at present in Kildare is absolutely wrong. We cannot allow this situation to go on.

We are not speaking about luxuries. We are speaking about a passport to life for these children. We are talking about a situation where children are being denied access to speech therapy to help their communication. The right to be able to communicate is a basic human right. It is something that all of us in the Chamber take for granted. Not having a system in place whereby we ensure children have the right to communicate is absolutely wrong.

We all know that early intervention as well as assessment is key to ensuring children with disabilities can live the best lives they can and can take their places within the community and society. It is absolutely wrong that after assessments are carried out, there is no programme of supports and services to enable these children and support their families. What is happening is completely and utterly unacceptable and I hope the Minister of State can put this right.

I thank Senator O'Loughlin for giving me the opportunity to address this specific matter. I want to go back to the question she submitted, which was on redeployment to address assessments of need. We are speaking about speech and language therapists, occupational therapists and physical therapists. This is the question the Senator laid before me to address today. My answer does not comprehensively address this but I would like to address it and bring the Senator up to speed on it.

The reason €7.8 million was provided from Sláintecare funding was to address the backlog in assessments of needs for in excess of 6,500 children. This is why, in conjunction with the Department and the HSE, I put in place a plan to address it and get everybody on the one page where the assessments of needs are done and, at the same time, put in place a plan for the delivery of services through our clinicians at the other end.

The deployment piece is what the Senator has raised this morning. It is something that is becoming a more alarming concern to me because it is not just in the Senator's community healthcare organisation area but throughout the country. I spoke to Paul Reid and Anne O'Connor on 5 October and I raised it as a huge concern for me. Only this week, I spoke to Fergal Goodman in the Department and other principal officers to portray my fears and anxieties about the families and the children such as Ava throughout the country.

I can say that while I have an investment, parents are not feeling that they are getting the calls, we cannot support them and are not in a position to deliver. Not only is the HSE sending the kinds of letters to which the Senator referred but I am also aware that other providers under sections 38 and 39 that have been commissioned to do the work are also now part of the redeployment. It is important for us to understand the need for contact tracing, the value of which was demonstrated by the report that one person who did not restrict his movement led to the infection of 56 others.

The are two things here, the first of which is the early intervention piece which applies to children from nought to six years of age. If we do not get it then, we lose that piece because the child goes onto another list when he or she turns six and there is another backlog there. This is a priority within my Department, hence the €7.8 million allocated in August. I can only say that the HSE and the Department of Health are working closely with me. Contact tracers have been recruited through the HSE. That is going on and they are being trained in as we speak. The whole purpose is to let the staff, the trained clinicians, come back. It is not happening quickly enough if parents are receiving those letters. It is causing extra anxiety.

I received good news this week to the effect that, as part of essential services, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and physiotherapy will continue during level 5 restrictions. They will not cease. Those services did not continue during the previous lockdown but they will this time. We should not find ourselves with mounting lists. We should find ourselves addressing those issues through level 5. I welcome that and thank the HSE and the Department for getting us to that position.

The National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, will meet later today and I look forward to the outcomes of that as they apply to clinicians, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists and physiotherapists. I hope that network disability teams will be repopulated to support young people with assessments of need. The Senator can tell Ava's mum that is what has happened through my Department this week. I say that to any other mothers in similar situations who are listening. I am on top of it and across it and will stay that way until I know that everybody who was redeployed returns to fulfil the functions of their jobs.

I thank the Minister of State for that response. It is certainly good news that therapy can continue through level 5. I had asked the Minister of State to Kildare to meet representatives of KARE and the Muiríosa Foundation. She had committed to doing that during October but the restrictions mean that cannot happen.

When we talk about redeployment, there are two different kinds. We are talking about therapists who are going to, or have gone to, contact tracing and those who went from intervention therapy to assessment therapy. We need to battle this. I want to know when children like Ava will receive the therapies that they absolutely need.

I am still awaiting figures from the HSE to show where we are on assessments and early intervention. I asked a similar question last year and 78% of children in Ireland were waiting more than three months for an initial assessment. That was an absolute disgrace and bad indictment of the system.

I thank the Minister of State for her support but I wish to know when these children, who absolutely need these therapies, will be given the opportunity to recommence them.

I thank Senator O'Loughlin. As I said, the €7.8 million was to address the backlog. I am on top of the redeployment piece. There was a successful budget last week, out of which money was circled for the recruitment of additional staff, including another 100 therapist posts. Some 100 therapists were secured under the most recent programme for Government. It is sad to think that the last of those staff members to come on board, in early March, went straight into contact tracing. They did not get to hit the ground running. I want them brought back into the profession for which they were hired. I also want the new posts that we were going to advertise to be filled in order that when the proper assessments of needs are completed for the backlog of cases, we will have therapists in place to carry out the interventions.

Three items of work are being done, that is, recruitment, early intervention and assessment of need. I have made it my priority within the Department that those children and parents will be looked after every step of the way and not be left waiting.

I thank the Minister of State and take the opportunity to welcome and congratulate her on her appointment.

Middle East

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit agus gabhaim buíochas leis as an am a thabhairt dom ar an ábhar seo.

I raise the issue of demolitions in the West Bank, which have been ongoing for years, by Israeli authorities of Palestinian facilities such as homes and businesses. These matters have continued unabated. It is estimated that in 2019, some 624 Palestinian-owned structures were demolished. That is the number of structures but, of course, the number of people displaced by that is very significant. It is probably between 700 and 1,000 people, families and children who were displaced. It has continued this year during which, it is estimated, there have been 554 demolitions. On 31 August, 107 homes and 46 retail units were demolished in east Jerusalem, while at the end of last month, four homes in the West Bank were demolished, so this is continuing.

As to why this happens, there are a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is just a feature of occupation and, undoubtedly, this kind of intervention has been a feature of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. Sometimes it is punitive and involves military installations or military activity, but more often than not, it involves the failure of a Palestinian business, family or community to get a permit for the building. That is kind of a nonsense because, as I understand it, in the period 2016 to 2018, there were 1,485 applications for such permits, 21 of which were granted, and that refers only to Area C in the West Bank, which is controlled by the Palestinian authorities alone. As has been acknowledged, it should be for the Palestinian authorities only to grant those permits.

There is no doubt this activity by the Israeli authorities is illegal under international law and the Geneva Convention. It is recognised as such not just by Palestinian organisations and non-governmental human rights organisations but by transnational organisations such as the European Union and by the Government, yet it continues unabated. In the same time that those 21 permits were granted, between 2016 and 2018, 6,000 Israeli settlement houses were built in the same area, Area C. That is what we are dealing with.

The reason I have raised this matter with the Minister of State is that many of these structures are built with the aid of the Irish taxpayer and the European taxpayer. The European Union funds it, as does Irish Aid. It is estimated that since May 2016, according to a statement by Federica Mogherini, the foreign policy chief of the European Union, €329,000 worth of European taxpayers' money has been demolished by Israeli authorities, while another €2.4 million of property is subject to demolition. This is a major problem. Irish Aid gave €15 million to Palestine in 2008 and we contributed €9 million to the UN Relief and Works Agency. As a group of taxpayers, therefore, we are contributing to this. We are doing the right thing, yet a national organisation is doing the wrong thing. It is doing something illegal and what everyone recognises is against international law and its obligations.

I would like the Minister of State to tell the House what the Government is doing about it. What steps have we taken, diplomatically or otherwise, to ensure that Israel understands our chagrin at this kind of behaviour and our dissatisfaction with its behaviour? What are we doing to stop it? What are we doing to send a message to Israel that we will not tolerate this waste of our taxpayers' money and of European taxpayers' money and, most of all, this gross violation of basic humanitarian behaviour?

Tá áthas orm a bheith anseo chun an t-ábhar tábhachtach seo a phlé sa Seanad. Senator Ward raises extremely serious concerns that are being raised by many other colleagues, and I am delighted he has taken the opportunity this morning to raise them again.

The demolition of Palestinian homes and the demolition or seizure of structures, including schools, is cruel and unjust. These practices cause suffering to ordinary Palestinians and impinge on the right of children to an education. Demolitions and seizures of Palestinian property and humanitarian aid, including Palestinian homes, have continued despite previous commitments from Israeli authorities not to target Palestinian residential structures during this pandemic. The only conclusion we can draw from the systematic nature of these policies, especially in areas where illegal Israeli settlements have already been constructed, is that they are aimed at forcing Palestinians off their land. In addition to its human impact, this activity undermines the feasibility of a two-state solution.

Ireland has conveyed our views on these actions to the Israeli authorities. In a statement last Friday the Minister for Foreign Affairs called on Israel to halt demolitions and to allow for legal construction for Palestinian residents. Our ambassador in Tel Aviv has raised the issue of demolitions with the Israeli authorities in recent weeks along with a group of EU and non-EU colleagues. Our representative in Ramallah remains engaged on this issue and regularly undertakes visits to sites affected by demolitions. I understand that today the representative is due to take part in a visit by EU and other like-minded countries to a West Bank area threatened by demolitions. Ireland is committed to reducing the vulnerability of Palestinian communities living in Area C of the West Bank. Ireland is a member of the West Bank Protection Consortium, which plays a leading role in supporting threatened communities and co-ordinating the provision of essential services to them, including material assistance and legal aid.

It is of additional concern - and the Senator rightly highlights this - when the structures confiscated or demolished are donor-funded. The practice of demolition and confiscation of humanitarian assets, including education and schools infrastructure, is contrary to Israel's obligations under international law, including the provisions of international humanitarian law, in particular the Fourth Geneva Convention. Our principal concern is the hardship and injustice that demolitions and confiscations cause for Palestinian families. It is important also, however, that the question of recompense for humanitarian relief funded by our taxpayers, as Senator Ward rightly said, should be pursued. Ireland, together with a group of EU member states, pursues this issue consistently through the West Bank Protection Consortium. It is the practice of the consortium to raise this directly with the Israeli authorities. To date, the consortium has sought compensation of more than €625,000 in respect of confiscated or demolished assets. Ireland will continue to engage on these matters and will continue our support for a peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a negotiated two-state solution.

I am glad to hear the terms the Minister of State used in his response. I know he and the Minister, Deputy Coveney, have a strong record of calling out this kind of behaviour. I am also particularly glad to hear him use the word "recompense" because, as I said, while there is a massive humanitarian issue here, there is also a simple breach of international law. There is also the fact that we are giving money to Palestine and it is being essentially destroyed or wasted by Israel. I hope the Minister of State can also give us a commitment that Israel's behaviour will not interfere with the Irish policy, including aid policy, to continue to support Palestinian communities and the Palestinians in the West Bank who are suffering as a result of this Israeli behaviour.

It is worth noting that this year marks the 40th anniversary of the former Minister, Brian Lenihan Snr., being the first foreign minister of a western state to recognise the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination. Ireland has a really strong record on this, including among Members of the Oireachtas, who constantly raise the issues faced by the Palestinian people.

We express our deep concern at recent demolition and confiscation of properties, including in Hebron. Our clear position on the settlements and our concern at the recent announcement by Israeli authorities for nearly 5,000 additional housing units bears restating. Settlements are illegal and in contravention of international law. Our position is underpinned by a long series of UN Security Council Resolutions. Ireland has been forthright on these matters, publicly and privately, and indeed over many years. That sentiment is shared right across the Houses of the Oireachtas. Ireland's long-standing support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, annunciated 40 years ago this year by former Minister for Foreign Affairs, the late Brian Lenihan Snr., remains an integral aspect of our foreign policy. We remain steadfast in our support for a comprehensive two-state solution, which protects the future of the Palestinian and Israeli people.

Ireland is a strong and consistent voice on these issues in EU discussions. We will continue to prioritise the Middle East peace process, particularly when we take up our seat on the UN Security Council, and we will do whatever we can in that role to advance efforts towards and just and lasting peace. We will continue to support all credible efforts to resume negotiations and to advance the Middle East peace process.

School Curriculum

As the Minister of State knows, Ireland has one of the poorest rates of modern European language take-up in Europe. While much of this might be explained by the fact that we use English, that, in itself, does not excuse the fact we have not been able to embed a knowledge of European languages. Employers regularly cite the lack of language skills as a major problem in the Irish workforce.

In a post-Brexit scenario, having a greater knowledge of languages will be an opportunity for Ireland. In addition to that, it is not just about languages, but understanding other cultures. As the Minister of State is aware, the problem is that there has been a shortage of language teachers at second level for quite a while. Second level school principals regularly cite one of their biggest fears as being a language teacher being ill or on maternity leave as it is practically impossible to get a substitute language teacher. I welcome the commitment in the budget to significantly increase the number of Spanish teachers. That is positive, but much more needs to be done.

Some concern has been expressed that some of the exam questions are based much more around philosophical ideas rather than students' linguistic abilities. This is something that needs to be examined by the State Examination Commission. We also have to look at an active campaign, whereby we can encourage second level students to take up languages right to leaving certificate level and beyond. Tied into that has to be a reinvigoration of the primary school languages initiative, which was announced more than a decade ago, but slowly but surely began not to have the same level of emphasis as it had in the past.

The Languages Connect Strategy, which was the foreign languages strategy launched by the Government in December 2017, was very ambitious. It set out that it believed that Ireland should be among the top ten countries in Europe for the teaching and learning of modern European languages. It set out 100 actions, but three years on, very little progress has been made on those actions. That is certainly the case with the targets of increasing the number of post-primary schools offering two or more languages by 25%, and increasing the number of students taking two languages by 25%. That has not happened. We are talking about improving attitudes to foreign language learning, and I have not seen any campaign which is able to do that.

Languages are important, and I am certain the Minister of State is aware of that, given his responsibility for European affairs. It is not good enough for us or for employers to say every so often that we need to improve our language skills.

We need real programmes and real actions to be able to do that.

In terms of addressing the shortage of language teachers, a number of years ago when there was a shortage of teachers for honours maths, there was a very successful higher diploma programme that operated in UL that allowed teachers of other subjects to upskill in that area. A similar approach needs to be taken. There has to be a question as well around the registration of native speakers who happen to be teachers with the Teaching Council, and the council needs to be more open to that.

There is an enormous opportunity for Ireland here. We have a very good strategy in place, but I put it to the Minister of State that there has been very little action since the strategy was published.

Gabhaim buíochas don Seanadóir Ó Broin os rud é gur ardaigh sé an ábhar tábhachtach seo ag tús an tSeanaid. Is ábhar an-thábhactach é agus ceann a bhfuil i bhfad níos tábhtachtaí anois i gcomhthéacs an Bhreatimeacht.

This debate gives me an opportunity to outline some of the measures that the Government has taken and is taking to support the supply of foreign language teachers, which is a really critical issue, as the Senator rightly identified, and to provide an update on the implementation of the language strategy.

In recent years everyone in the education sector has reported difficulties being experienced by some schools in recruiting post-primary teachers in certain subject areas, including teachers of foreign languages. The Senator might be aware that I wrote a policy document on this very issue on behalf of our party a number of years ago. I am glad that he shares my own concerns about this issue.

As far as I know, the second language that was spoken on the first day of the Dáil was not English but French, when George Gavan Duffy read out the Declaration of Independence. English was spoken after that.

In response to these issues, there was, as the Senator has mentioned, a teacher supply action plan published by the Department that contained a range of actions to address teacher supply and which focused on four policy areas, including higher education. A number of those measures were aimed at supporting the supply of teachers of foreign languages.

As the Senator will undoubtedly know, the Higher Education Authority, HEA, engaged with the higher education institutions to encourage the development of undergraduate initial teacher training programmes in targeted subjects, including foreign languages. This has resulted in new programmes, but obviously it takes time to feed into the system. Nonetheless, it is important to get the foundations right. Since 2019, students can select an undergraduate programme to become a foreign language teacher. This reduces costs they would incur by going on to do a masters in education. These programmes are offered in DCU, UCC, with combinations including Irish, and Limerick, where two foreign languages can be taken on the programme. There were 100 places available on these programmes in 2020, which represents significant additional capacity for foreign language teacher education in the system over the past two years.

It is worth noting that the number of students due to graduate in foreign languages in 2020 from what I referred to as the traditional professional masters in education has also significantly increased. Based on information from our higher education institutions, the graduates on these programmes have increased the potential teacher registrations of foreign languages by more than 130 this year compared with 70 last year. That is starting to make a bit of progress. Obviously we have to make sure that all of these people join and stay in our education system when they get the qualifications.

In addition, the Higher Education Authority issued a call for proposals to upskill existing teachers to meet the Teaching Council's subject criteria in targeted subjects, including Spanish, as mentioned by the Senator. The programmes are two years in duration, open to already registered post-primary teachers, and they will not have to pay fees. It is intended that the details of these programmes will be announced in the coming weeks, and I am delighted that this is happening.

With regard to Languages Connect, which is Ireland's strategy for foreign languages in education and which was published in November 2018, I am pleased to say that significant work has taken place at increasing and diversifying the range of foreign languages taught. A key element of this work has been the development of four new leaving certificate curricular language specifications, which have been rolled out in 15 schools in September of this year, including Mandarin, Chinese, Lithuanian, Polish and Portuguese.

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, has also published the national primary curriculum framework for public consultation, which recommends the reintroduction of foreign languages in senior classes at primary level. That issue is a particular personal priority for the Taoiseach. I look forward to seeing that rolled out and giving our kids the skills that, as the Senator rightly points out, they need. It is not just a question of wanting it at this stage.

I thank the Minister of State. Merci beaucoup.

I welcome the fact that there has been some progress made but many of these, as the Minister says, are in the pipeline. The difficulty is it represents a challenge for schools. In terms of addressing some of the issues around native speakers who may be able to assist, that is something that will be important.

I understand what the Minister of State is saying about the NCCA and the primary school curriculum, but he will remember we in the past had a programme around modern European languages at primary school.

We are bringing it back.

I appreciate that.

New Government.

This is not only about languages. It is about understanding cultures. This is a way of breaking down barriers, and also tackling racism which these Houses have a particular concern about.

I welcome the Minister of State's personal commitment on this. The Government is committed to addressing these concerns. While I note that there is some progress, we have to be far more ambitious. In all languages, we have paid lip-service. In this case, we had a good strategy. We are being slow in implementing it.


As I have said in the Dáil, we have a national hang-up about languages in this country. Quite frankly, we will have to get over it. I do not know what the reason is. I do not know whether it is because of the historical connotations of the Irish language of poverty. We have our own national language here that, let us be honest, very few speak and that then leads to difficulties.

The challenges are considerable. When I go to European meetings, I am surprised at the amount of English that is not spoken. People are using English but many countries are using their own languages. In fact, I spoke Irish at the General Affairs Council last week. I was pleased to do so. The French certainly do not use English at European meetings and they would probably prefer if we were speaking French to them as well.

We must upskill. The Government is absolutely committed to this. I am bringing forward a policy on recruitment into the European institutions where our biggest problem is the lack of languages. It is not only so that we can all say "Bonjour", "Danke", or whatever. We need a deep level of understanding and a high level of language capability among our graduates if we want to have people working in the European institutions.

We must change the national attitude around this. At our disposal on every phone and television, we have Netflix where all of these television programmes are available in all sorts of languages. Our young people, particularly, have a considerable opportunity now if they decide that languages are the thing for them. When I was doing the leaving certificate, I went around in my father's car with a tape listening to conversations to practise for the oral examination. Now one can watch every programme. We need to grasp these opportunities to become fluent in other languages and go out there to other countries, particularly to the European Union, and be confident about it. We need to put our case there, as our forefathers and foremothers in the Dáil and Seanad did, for instance, in 1919, when, as I stated, George Gavan Duffy read the Declaration of Independence in French to speak that language of diplomacy.

I thank the Senator for raising the issue. It is a priority for the Government. I will certainly bring the points that the Senator raises to the attention of the Minister for Education and Skills, who is dealing with Covid-related matters in schools this morning. The Minister is supporting Covid teams that will be giving help to schools in the next few weeks. That is why Deputy Foley is not here and she asked me to convey her apologies to the House.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit arís. The Minister of State is implying there that our level of linguistic competence in the foreign languages could increase a bit.

In these Houses as well.

Child Abuse

I welcome the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman. Cuirim fáilte roimhe.

I thank the Minister for being here this morning.

It is never an easy topic to talk about and I am aware that the Minister is probably well briefed on the issue that I am talking about this morning.

I will begin by saying that when I speak this morning to the subject, I am speaking about historic abuse in terms of St. John Ambulance. I am not speaking to any particular cases that are currently ongoing, any particular civil case or any other prosecution.

A Tusla report, however, has indicated that the allegations are well founded, and an independent appeals panel upheld the findings of the report. The acknowledgement of the allegations of historical child abuse and rape within St. John Ambulance makes me very concerned that, over the decades, more people may have been sexually abused than those who have come forward or who are proceeding with a civil case against a perpetrator.

I have a request to make of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. Before bringing the Minister in here today, we did our work to see who would be responsible for a scoping exercise. We looked at the Department of Justice and Equality. In the past, there was a reference to the Charities Regulator. We are quite confident that the Department of Children and Youth Affairs is responsible for holding a scoping inquiry given that it was child sexual abuse in St. John Ambulance over the last 30 to 40 years, which is the length of the career of an individual who has worked in the organisation. It is safe to assume there are more cases than the number currently known about. Usually with these matters, we are only ever scratching the surface in terms of knowing how many have been abused. We owe it to all the young people who signed up in good faith and wanted to volunteer with St. John Ambulance to uncover what was done to them. I refer not only to our being able to support victims of sexual abuse within St. John Ambulance but also to ensuring that we reach a point where we can hold people to account for the abuse the young teenagers endured.

Since allegations of the kind in question have come to light, St. John Ambulance has implemented child protection measures. I have been told there was some resistance in the beginning to measures such as Garda vetting. All these issues have been sorted but, regardless of child protection measures within an organisation, the law still applies to any organisation in which there is child sexual abuse. The law should protect individuals, including young people, who have been victims of child sexual abuse.

I hope the Minister can determine the capacity of his Department to carry out a scoping inquiry so we can create the necessary space, facilitate a conversation and encourage others who are affected by abuse carried out within St. John Ambulance while they volunteered there as teenagers. I hope we can work together to establish an inquiry.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter, which is incredibly important and sensitive. I am aware of the specific issue she alluded to, and I have been in correspondence with an individual in that regard. As the Senator knows, our country has in the past failed to protect its children, and that failure weighs heavily on all of us. Abuse is not consigned to the past, though, and it is my role, in collaboration with Tusla and An Garda Síochána, to protect children where there is a clear existing threat. Tusla's role in considering historical abuse allegations is to try to establish if the person against whom an allegation has been made could currently pose a risk to children. The role of An Garda Síochána is to investigate a crime and, where appropriate, instigate a prosecution.

Let me refer to Tusla's role in protection first. The Children First Act 2015 commenced in December 2017 and it defines relevant organisations and mandated persons and what is required of them. Relevant organisations must have a child safeguarding statement. The following is the definition of some of the categories of relevant organisations covered under the 2015 Act:

1. Any work or activity which is carried out by a person, a necessary and regular part of which consists mainly of the person having access to, or contact with, children in—


4. Any work or activity which consists of treatment (including assessment which may lead to treatment), therapy or counselling provided to a child.

5. Any work or activity which consists of the provision of—

(a) educational, research, training, cultural, recreational, leisure, social or physical activities to children,

Both of these definitions apply to St. John Ambulance. I commend the bravery and fortitude of the individuals who have come forward and shared their experiences that led to correspondence with my Department. I can only imagine how recounting their stories and reliving that difficult time in their lives must be incredibly traumatic for them. It was that bravery that led to Tusla's child safeguarding statement compliance unit engaging with St. John Ambulance Ireland. The unit has reviewed the child safeguarding statement of St. John Ambulance and is satisfied that it meets current criteria. Safeguarding statements are an important tool to clarify the potential risks to children in any organisation, and to inform the volunteers, staff and service users of the actions taken to mitigate those risks.

In order to inform my response to the Senator's specific request, I am liaising with the Departments of Justice and Equality and of Health to see if they have knowledge of any further pertinent information. Following concerns that had previously been made known to my Department, Tusla conducted a review in the region in question of available records and indicated it did not find any concerns. Today, my Department has requested Tusla to perform a similar review of St. John Ambulance in all regions of the country. This review will cover cases that may relate to the matter and any retrospective cases that have come to the attention of Tusla. On foot of findings from this review and the engagement with the Departments of Health and of Justice and Equality, all due consideration will be given to the Senator's request.

Where abuse happened in the past, Tusla and An Garda Síochána can only rely on and make assessments on the information available. I strongly urge anyone who at any time has information related to the endangerment or abuse of children, now or in the past, to immediately bring it to the attention of An Garda Síochána and Tusla. It can be extremely difficult to take such action but I say to anyone who has been the victim of abuse that they are not alone. I fully appreciate that while instances may be historic and may be in the past, the impact is felt every day by these individuals.

I thank the Senator for bringing this matter to my attention. I have outlined steps the Department is taking. We will continue to work on this.

I appreciate the Minister's response. It is comforting to know that conversations are happening in the background on how we can move forward and pursue this, even in terms of answering my request about an inquiry. I would like to put on the record why I mentioned a scoping inquiry. I looked at the Scally report, which I know related to CervicalCheck and which is a different issue, and it was a really good way to take a transparent and victim-led approach to reporting. As the Minister said, the incident is historical but the effects are lifelong. Over the past few months, in looking at how we can move forward in terms of an inquiry, I have had many conversations. This was much wider than the people who have been most impacted, such as those who contacted the Minister. It would seem abuse within St. John Ambulance was tolerated at the highest level of that organisation. Therefore, even though a particular individual is not there any more, we need to look at the structures which supported and facilitated that individual for such a long period of time. According to one account, which was given to me, it was an open secret. It was like everybody knew, but nobody knew. That was a very strong statement to hear from somebody. That is why, even with the current risk being mitigated with the particular individual being gone, we need to look at why it was allowed persist for so many generations and at how many others have, I am sure, been impacted.

I spent some time speaking about what Tusla is doing to mitigate current risk because that is Tusla's primary role. I am not taking away from anything the Senator said but that is the job of Tusla, namely, to deal with current risk.

The role of dealing with historic abuse - "past abuse" is probably a better term in many ways - lies with An Garda Síochána through prosecution.

We are aware of the concerns that have been raised. As to the degree of significance the Senator outlined, I had not heard that expression regarding prevalence before. We are taking steps. We are not just examining the region where the initial issue was flagged and the victim, whom we both have been in contact with, was from. Rather, we are examining the organisation nationally. That will help us to establish whether there are more causes for concern and further action.

I am happy to continue engaging with the Senator. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, has done a great deal of work on this matter.

Sitting suspended at 11.51 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.