Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Data Protection

We need to start by acknowledging the important role that Ireland plays in the data sector. It is one that I hope will continue to grow. The question today is about how we manage those data and how we ensure citizens' data privacy. I hope that the Minister of State will express the Government's view about the recent judgment in the Schrems II case. Max Schrems and others would have argued that much of this litigation was unnecessary. Had the Data Protection Commissioner, DPC, made a decision based on the original case presented by Max Schrems and the responses provided by Facebook and others, it could then have been open to either party to challenge the decision of the DPC, but the DPC did not choose to go that route. Does the Minister of State believe that that was the correct approach by the Data Protection Commissioner? In general, does the Minister of State believe that moving to litigation is the correct approach?

When this case came before the European Court of Justice, the Data Protection Commissioner was alone in arguing that the standard contract clauses were invalid. The State and Max Schrems argued a contrary position. In light of that approach, I would be grateful, regardless of whether or the Government agrees with the Data Protection Commissioner's approach, to ask what are the total costs to the State of the Schrems II case. What are the total costs to the State in litigation since Max Schrems initially raised a number of privacy concerns with regard to Facebook?

I know have raised this issue before. Is the Data Protection Commission adequately resourced? Does it have a sufficient number of staff and sufficient expertise? The overall question of the architecture of the Data Protection Commission and its decision-making processes is also crucial. We have one Data Protection Commissioner. Is it the view of the Minister of State and Government that we should have one commission or a Data Protection Commission with three commissioners making decisions as is the case in other jurisdictions?

I am torn between the resources argument and the decision-making process when we compare Ireland's situation with data protection commissioners in other countries. The Spanish data protection commissioner issues fines almost weekly for data breaches. In the Irish case, only two fines have been issued for breaches of general data protection regulation, GDPR, since 2018, in the cases against Tusla. The Minister of State's colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, was here last week. We talked about one of the challenges with banks and financial institutions, the breaches that have happened there, and whether the DPC has acted strongly enough in that regard. My concern in all of this relates to the reputational risk to Ireland if we do not get this right. There are concerns for individual citizens, businesses and companies if there are data breaches. If we are at the heart of trying to regulate all of this, especially given the important role that the social media giants play in our economy, we have to ensure that we have it right. I question whether our approach in this case was correct.

What is the Minister of State's view on the future role of the DPC? I would be grateful if he commented on the litigation in question.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. It is important to note that the DPC is independent in the performance of its tasks and the exercise of its powers. Therefore, the Senator will appreciate that I cannot comment on legal proceedings in which the commission was or is involved. Nor can I comment on findings of the courts, given that they are also independent in the exercise of their duties.

The case referred to arose from a complaint referred to the DPC in June 2013 concerning the transfer of personal data to the US under the European Commission's safe harbour adequacy decision. In October 2015, the court struck down the safe harbour policy and the original case in the High Court was reformulated to challenge the transfer of EU citizens' personal data to the US via the use of standard contractual clauses, SCCs. It is a matter of public record that the DPC was involved in these proceedings and the court referred a number of questions to the European Court of Justice, ECJ. In its ruling in July, the ECJ upheld the use of SCCs to transfer data but struck down the EU-US privacy shield adequacy decision on the basis that the US did not provide adequate and enforceable safeguards and redress mechanisms where EU citizens' data were forwarded by US companies to US intelligence services that then processed them. Concerns about the lack of enforceable protections were raised about the use of SCCs to transfer data to the US.

More recently, Facebook and Mr. Schrems have instigated separate judicial review proceedings against the DPC in the High Court concerning mattes raised in both ECJ judgments. I will not comment any further. However, I will reiterate that the Government respects the judgment of the court and is fully supportive of the need to protect citizens' data through enforceable safeguards and proper redress mechanisms.

The Senator will appreciate that the GDPR provides for high data protection standards, imposes detailed obligations on bodies that process personal data and provides a range of possible sanctions, some of which are significant, for when those standards are breached. The GDPR specifies how bodies are to be regulated and all parties must adhere to these obligations.

Enforcement of the GDPR is a matter for the DPC - where it is the lead authority in the EU under the one-stop-shop mechanism - and other independent supervisory authorities across the EU in accordance with the processes set out by the GDPR. The Government has every confidence in the DPC in meeting its responsibilities to enforce and protect the data protection rights of EU citizens to the high standards required by the GDPR.

Unfortunately, I have a slight problem. While the DPC is independent, the language the Minister of State is using is pretty much the language we heard in the run up to the financial crash, when people were told that the Financial Regulator and the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement were independent agencies and the Oireachtas could not interfere. Ireland is potentially facing a significant reputational risk in terms of the misuse of data and in challenges such as the one brought by Mr. Schrems. The Government does not have its eye sufficiently on this industry. Senior levels of government face a challenge in understanding the importance of these issues. As the Minister of State knows, one of the major challenges that we will face in the coming years is the relationship between the State, the EU and other state actors and the social media giants. I respectfully suggest that the Government needs to examine how the DPC is functioning in dealing with these cases and ensure that Ireland is best positioned to protect the privacy of individual European citizens and the country's reputation.

I assure the Senator that the Government's position is reflected in our ongoing commitment under the programme for Government to recognise the domestic and international importance of data protection in Ireland. Moreover, we will ensure that Ireland delivers on its responsibilities under the general data protection regulation.

The DPC finds itself at the fore of many key data protection decisions in the EU due to the presence of many of the world's leading technology companies in Ireland. As the Senator is aware, the GDPR is fast becoming the internationally recognised data protection standard. I assure the House that the Government will continue to engage with the DPC to ensure that the latter has the tools, support and resources it needs to perform its important role.

The Government is committed to supporting the Data Protection Commission in its work. This is clearly shown in the increase in the commission's budget's from €3.6 million in 2015 to €16.9 million this year. More than €19 million has been secured for the commission in the 2021 budget, which is more than a fivefold increase on the 2015 allocation. I believe the Senator will agree that this reinforces the Government’s support in ensuring a robust regulatory framework as required by the GDPR and in protecting the State’s reputation in that regard.

Disability Support Services

Míle Buíochas a Aire Stáit agus a Sheanadóir Byrne. Anois beidh an dara ní i dTosach Suíonna againn leis an Seanadóir Martin Conway, which relates to the need for the Minister of State with responsibility for special education and inclusion to outline her plans to carry out a review of visiting teacher services for visually impaired students at second-level.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Chathaoirleach. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, to the House and it is good to have him here to put this Commencement matter in context. do not know what the visiting teacher for the visually impaired is. When I was a young boy back in County Clare with a visual impairment and attending mainstream schools, a visiting teacher used to come once a year. He was a very nice man by the name of Tim O’Connell from County Cork and he liaised with the family and the teaching staff to see what structures and services were needed to ensure that I would prosper in education at that time. Back then this involved arranging typing lessons, which might seem somewhat trivial but it was groundbreaking for me at the time. I had more or less forgotten about the visiting teacher programme until I received an email last April or May during lockdown from a parent who was very frustrated by the lack of contact from the visiting teacher with her regarding her adolescent child who was starting secondary school. I started probing then and discovered that the programme had evolved successfully since my days in school but, unfortunately, there has not been a great deal of consistency in the continuity, standardisation and updating of the service with the latest in ICT, various supports and so forth.

I discovered that the system was reviewed a number of years ago but this was done within the Department with the stakeholders and the National College of Art and Design, NCAD, at the time. Various bodies were involved in this review, which was effectively about delivering the management of the service. I am looking now for a fundamental review of this service. This service enables people who are blind and visually impaired to avail of mainstream education because for too long they have had to attend a special school for the blind and visually impaired people in Dublin. We are all trying to achieve and create fully integrated mainstream education. The visiting teacher from that perspective is very important. I want a review and evaluation of the visiting teacher programme. That needs to be independent of the Department and headed up by an academic to include, of course, representatives of the Department and the visiting teacher programme, but also representatives from organisations such as the National Council for the Blind and representatives of parents. This evaluation and review is important in trying to bring standardisation and the visiting teacher programme to a new level, where proper integration with the other support services that are available is fine-tuned and standard as opposed to being excellent in Cork, for instance, but not so good in Meath. I have discussed this with the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, in a conference call. I want the review to happen now with a tight timeline for it to come back with recommendations. I am very happy to engage with the Minister of State’s office regarding the structures of this review as it is important.

I thank the Senator for raising this very important matter. The visiting teacher service for children with hearing and visual impairments in Ireland provides support for the education of children who are deaf or hard of hearing and for children who are blind or who have significant visual impairment.

Support is provided for parents in schools at the preschool stage and at primary and post-primary school levels. An independent review of this service was concluded in 2013-14 by two UK-based specialists in hearing and visual impairment. Their report, "Review of the Role, Organisation and Management the Visiting Teacher for Children with Hearing and Visual Impairment (VTHVI) Service, Ireland", was completed and published in June 2014 and it is available on the Department's website.

The 2014 review of the service recommended that: an appropriate structural framework be developed with clear lines of governance and a new management and leadership structure be developed to ensure that the direct management of the sensory support service is undertaken by a person with a specialist qualification in the field of either visual or hearing impairment.

Following the publication of this review of the services, in February 2015, the then Minister for Education and Skills announced the establishment within the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, of a new support service to assist schools in supporting children with special educational needs. The visiting teacher service for children who are deaf, hard of hearing, blind or visually impaired was transferred to the NCSE with effect from that date, consistent with the recommendations of the review of the service.

Since that time the visiting teacher service has been managed by the council. This change was designed to ensure that schools can receive a better and more integrated service from the new support service. It also meant that the visiting teacher service could be incorporated into the overall support service provided through schools by the NCSE, including the services provided by special educational needs organisers, the special education support service and the national behavioural support service.

The service offers longitudinal support to students, their families and schools from the time of referral through to the end of post-primary education. Professional oversight is provided by the sensory specialist lead with specialist qualifications in the area of sensory disability. Operational oversight is provided by the sensory operational lead.

During the school closure period, the visiting teacher service continued to support parents and pupils remotely, while a range of additional resources have also been available online.

The NCSE is also continuing to improve the services. Continuous professional development is provided for visiting teachers, which includes access to the relevant postgraduate programmes for teachers of students who are blind or visually impaired. The NCSE is also seeking to further integrate the services within its regional teams to provide greater levels of support and training for schools. Accordingly, at this time there are no plans carry out a further review of the support service for the visually impaired. In conclusion, the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, thanks the Senator for giving her the opportunity to outline the important and sensitive work that the NCSE support service does for families with children who are visually impaired.

I thank the Minister of State for delivering the reply from Deputy Madigan, but it does not commit to a review or an evaluation. I accept the work that was done by the previous review and it was appropriate that the service was transferred to the NCSE, but we need to evaluate whether the taxpayer getting value for money from this particular service. The visiting teachers cannot be expected to be at the top of their game when it comes to ICT and the range of services that are there. Are there proper linkages and service level agreements with various other stakeholders that can help in that support structure? We need another review and evaluation - and not a review of the management of the programme, because I am quite happy that it is being managed in an appropriate way. However, I am not convinced at all that it is delivering the results that it could achieve and the benefits it could derive for young people. It is performing well, but it could perform much better. The Minister of State has committed to carrying out an evaluation and a review to me privately, but that is not contained in the reply, which is disappointing. I would like to know whether she is going to stand by the commitment that was given to me that a review and evaluation would happen.

I thank the Senator again for raising this important matter and I understand and appreciate his disappointment at the reply and a lack of commitment to a review of the delivery of the results. The Senator has expressed his view that there is good work being done, but it could be done better. I will certainly raise his concerns with the Minister of State after this Commencement matter has been completed.

I will endeavour to have her contact him on this very important matter.

The Minister of State might just-----

I cannot allow any further-----

-----request a timeframe of perhaps two weeks for a considered response.

School Enrolments

I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. I am delighted that my Commencement matter is being taken but it is interesting that I have come here from a meeting of the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, where both the Minister for Education and the Minister of State at the Department of Education are appearing. I asked whether this Commencement matter could be deferred but that was not possible. I appreciate that the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, is present on behalf of the Department of Education but we need to find a way to work out the issue better.

When I tabled this matter, it felt a little like Groundhog Day because I spent almost four years in the Dáil talking about the severe shortage of places at secondary level for primary school children in Newbridge and Kildare town. The South Kildare Educate Together, SKET, campaign did incredible work during those four years. Its research and statistics suggest that at least 415 students will be without a place in Newbridge and Kildare by 2025. That research was conducted four years ago but things have accelerated since then. Much building is happening, and while new homes are always welcome for those who need them, the infrastructure has not been put in place. Parents have contacted me day after day, week after week, over the past five years, and already this year, that has started for next year. I contacted every primary school within the catchment area of Newbridge and Kildare town between yesterday and this morning. For the current sixth classes, in the case of every school, at least five children have not got a secondary school place for next September, while the numbers for fifth class are even worse.

Parents in Newbridge, for example, have come to me who work and live in the town, whose children attended primary school there and whose older children attended secondary school there, but they cannot get a place. In Nurney, a small village within the catchment of Kildare town, children cannot get a place in their local school in Kildare town. The whole issue became more difficult because of the problems with St. Paul's Secondary School in Monasterevin where, thankfully, classes have now started. Children in fourth class are now having to try to find a place in another school because they feel there might be a better chance of getting into secondary school two years later.

This is incredibly frustrating for everybody - parents and the school community - but it is not the schools' fault. More than two years ago, a commitment was given by the then Minister for Education and Skills that a new 1,000-pupil school given to this area would replace the Curragh education and training board school and serve the needs of people in Newbridge, Kildare and the Curragh but nothing has happened. The most recent update I got suggested that a particular site was being considered, but nothing happened in the year and a half between December 2018 and the present Government coming into place. It is now a crisis. School communities have been impacted so greatly by Covid-19 and young people, as we know, are feeling the negativity and stress. They and their parents are further stressed by the possibility that their child will not have a secondary school place. I would greatly appreciate the Minister of State taking this on board. I am looking forward to hearing his response. I will take the matter up with the Minister for Education when I return to the education committee meeting after this debate.

I thank Senator O'Loughlin for raising this extremely important matter in the county of Kildare and surrounding areas. As the Senator may be aware, in order to plan for school provision and analyse the relevant demographic data, the Department divides the country into 314 school planning areas and uses a geographical information system, using data from a range of sources to identify where the pressure for school places across the country will arise. Kildare, Newbridge and the Curragh are three of the designated school planning areas.

Where data indicate that additional provision is required at primary or post-primary level, the delivery of such additional provision is dependent on the particular circumstances of each case and may, depending on the circumstances, be provided through either one or a combination of the following, namely, utilising existing unused capacity with a school or schools; extending the capacity of a school or schools; or the provision of a new school or schools.

As a result of demographic analysis, 47 new schools have been announced to open between 2019 and 2022, including two new post-primary schools to serve school planning areas in County Kildare, in Kilcock and Maynooth. The requirement for additional school places is kept under ongoing review and a current exercise to examine updated data, taking cognisance of demographic trends and planned residential development in the school planning areas, is at an advanced stage. A significant number of other schools in Kildare have current capital projects and details of these are available on the Department's website,

Under Project Ireland 2040, the Department continues to make progress to increase the infrastructural capacity in the schools sector to meet demographic and other demands. The capital programme details the school projects that are being progressed under Project Ireland 2040. I wish to advise the Senator that the current status of large-scale projects being delivered under Project Ireland 2040, including projects in Kildare, the Curragh and Newbridge, may be viewed on the Department's website. That information is updated regularly. In addition, a list of large-scale projects completed from 2010 to date may also be viewed on the website.

The capital programme also provides for devolved funding for additional classrooms, including accommodation for pupils with special educational needs, if required, for schools where an immediate enrolment need has been identified or where an additional teacher has been appointed. Details of schools listed on this programme can also be found on the Department's website.

The existing Curragh Post Primary School is a multi-denominational community college under the patronage of Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board, KWETB.

The Department is aware that post-primary enrolments in the Kildare, Newbridge and Curragh school planning areas have been increasing in recent years and it is expected that this pattern will continue in the short to medium term.

It is intended that this demand will be addressed by the planned provision of a new 1,000-pupil school as a replacement for the existing Curragh Post Primary School. This new school will also provide capacity to cater for demand arising in the Curragh and adjoining Newbridge and Kildare school planning areas. There is capacity in the existing Curragh Post Primary School building pending delivery of the new school building.

As the Senator will be aware, the Department is also currently advancing or recently building projects in a number of post-primary schools in the Newbridge-Kildare-Curragh area school planning areas, which will provide additional capacity. The current status of each of these projects may be viewed on the Department's website, which is updated regularly. For the Senator's convenience, I will outline the current status of the major projects. In the case of St. Conleth's Community College, Newbridge, an extension project was completed in 2018 to provide for a capacity of 750 pupils. The school had an enrolment of 547 pupils in 2019-20. In the case of Patrician College, Newbridge, the project is at the early architectural planning stage to provide for 1,000 pupils and is being managed and delivered by the National Development Finance Agency. The school had an enrolment of 884 pupils in 2019-20. Similar to the process adopted for September 2020 readiness, the Department will be engaging further with patron bodies shortly in advance of identifying specific September 2020 capacity pressure point priorities, which will necessitate specific action.

In a normal year, addressing the increase in demands for school places, while challenging, is manageable, generally through utilisation of existing spare capacity within schools, rental, temporary accommodation or other short-term measures pending the delivery of permanent accommodation.

A new site will be required for the replacement post-primary school and the Department is currently at a very advanced stage in the process of identifying a suitable site for the new school building. This site acquisition process has been progressed in respect of the requirement in question and in line with standard acquisition protocols. The Department is liaising closely with Kildare County Council under the memorandum of understanding between the Department and local authorities for the acquisition of school sites with a view to securing a suitable site for this school. The Department has engaged the services of a site acquisition manager, a consultant, to shortlist potential sites, preferably in or around Kildare town and in Newbridge, in order to appraise same. The first stage of this appraisal has been completed with input from Kildare County Council and the Department is now in a position to carry out stage 2 assessments of a refined shortlist.

This stage 2 process is under way.

Arising out this exercise, the Department has opened preliminary discussion with landowners on short-listed sites and is hopeful of progress. The Senator will appreciate that commercial sensitivities attach to site acquisitions such as this and given that negotiations are at a critical point, I am not in a position to discuss further information and detail. Should agreement on the proposed acquisition be reached, a process will advance to the conveyancing stage when draft contracts are prepared and legal due diligence is undertaken in respect of the proposed transaction. It would be expected at that stage that the project to deliver the new school accommodation can simultaneously progress to architectural planning stage. I can assure the Senator that school authorities will be kept apprised of the situation and will be informed of a permanent location for the school as soon as possible.

I thank the Minister of State. At least I have the sense that this proposed new school has moved to stage 2 in respect of site assessment and that following that, it will be moving to architectural planning stage. I certainly welcome that. I again emphasise the significant issues relating to timelines to which we need to try to adhere. We could very well reach a situation where within two years' time, there could be between 250 to 300 children without a place at second level. I am talking about mainstream education. There is a significant shortage in terms of autism spectrum disorder, ASD, places and special education places for young people with intellectual disabilities in the Newbridge area. This is one of the most important things that this Government can deliver. Children must have access to school places. I welcome the update, particularly with regard to the PBS school. I spoke to the principal recently. He was very pleased to have that building progressed but we must look at what is happening in the interim and make sure we put in place places to ensure that young students have the opportunity to start second level education.

Once again, I thank Senator O'Loughlin for raising an important issue around school capacity in Kildare. I hear her genuine concerns about this matter and will certainly convey to the Minister that there is a real sense of a need for urgency to deliver the new school and to ensure that until the school is effectively built and opened, appropriate and necessary measures are put in place to ensure there is sufficient capacity for students in the Newbridge-Curragh area of County Kildare.

Hospital Services

With an Acting Chairman and Minister of State from County Roscommon, I am expecting a very good hearing. I join in welcoming the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, who now represents the people of Sligo-Leitrim but whose family origins are in Roscommon.

There is significant pride in Cavan, Monaghan and all that region in Cavan General Hospital. It has been part of the fabric of that area for the past 30 years. We must acknowledge the Herculean efforts of the staff during the pandemic and throughout the year. The hospital is tremendously well staffed. The case for a new accident and emergency department in the hospital has been highlighted by me and by other public representatives over a number of years. It is a case acknowledged in the 2040 plan and while that is encouraging, action is needed. Cavan and Monaghan are fast-growing counties and on occasion, the hospital also provides services to people from counties Meath, Louth and Longford. Outpatient attendance at the accident and emergency department is increasing and can be in excess of 100 per day.

In circumstances where there are ten beds available and more than 100 patients per day, the Minister of State will appreciate that ten turnarounds will be required. Attendance is very high and in recent months we have had two very big outbreaks of Covid in Cavan. Part of the difficulty is down to the overcrowding in the hospital and the lack of facilities there. There is no point in saying otherwise.

There has been only piecemeal investment, effectively, since the hospital was built. It needs a major investment now. The old accident and emergency department is not fit for purpose. There is a need for a second resuscitation room and for administrative facilities. There is a need for a complete upgrade, improved capacity for privacy, better spacing and more facilities. The accident and emergency department is cramped and this has an impact on privacy and in the context of the pandemic. There is an absolute need for something to be done about this immediately.

There are suggestions that the designs for a new accident and emergency department, endoscopy unit and isolation area are being examined. Is there a real commitment to the absolute need for an improved accident and emergency department? Where does the project stand at present What is the timeframe for it being put in train? This needs to be dealt with as a matter of urgency and the pandemic has emphasised that. The number of patients presenting each day - approximately 110 most days - is another example of the need for urgent action. Just ten beds in an old-style, cramped area are not enough. Cavan General Hospital is a teaching hospital. It is a very important regional hospital. We need to know the commitment and timeframe, how it will all evolve and when the new unit will be built. It is badly needed.

I thank the Senator for his good wishes. I come from the constituency comprising Sligo, Leitrim, north Roscommon and south Donegal and I understand that some of my constituents in Donegal are playing a big match against the Senator's county next Sunday in the Ulster final.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue and giving me the opportunity to outline the position on plans for the development of a new accident and emergency unit at Cavan General Hospital. Cavan and Monaghan hospitals are part of the RCSI hospitals group. Cavan General Hospital operates as a single hospital with Monaghan General Hospital and currently provides services to the population of both counties. Its catchment area extends to counties Meath, Longford and Leitrim. Together, they share an integrated managerial and clinical governance system, as well as integrated patient care pathways and support functions.

Cavan General Hospital is a teaching hospital, as the Senator rightly said, with links to the Royal College of Surgeons, the Royal College of Physicians and Dundalk Institute of Technology. All acute inpatient services are in Cavan General Hospital and in addition the hospital provides extensive outpatient, theatre and day services. Cavan General Hospital is a level 3 hospital and Monaghan General Hospital is a level 2 hospital. The smaller hospitals framework defines the role of smaller hospitals and outlines the need for smaller hospitals and larger hospitals to operate within hospital groups. The Cavan and Monaghan hospital emergency department is located in Cavan, with facilities in Monaghan focused on elective care and the appropriate streaming of patients to the minor injuries unit. These minor injury units help to provide valuable services to local communities and alleviate the pressures on emergency departments. The HSE intends to progress a project to extend the emergency department, which includes a second resuscitation room, additional clinical administration area and additional waiting area.

The HSE has advised it has received some proposed layouts for review. This project was approved by the HSE's national capital steering committee in November 2019, subject to the availability of funding.

The process of engaging a design team to progress this project was being initiated prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic has placed additional stresses on all areas of acute hospitals, including emergency departments, and a design team has now been selected to progress this emergency department project whilst taking account of the learnings presented by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Cavan and Monaghan Hospital, serving the people of counties Cavan and Monaghan and the wider RCSI Hospitals Group, has a reputation for the delivery of high quality, innovative and safe care to patients. Given the critical role of Cavan General Hospital within Cavan and Monaghan Hospital, I assure the Senator that this Government will continue to support the hospital to develop its valuable services into the future.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I apologise for inadvertently shrinking his constituency. He represents all of it with great heart, interest and commitment.

I appreciate his remarks. He said that we will get a new emergency unit with resuscitation rooms and a new administrative area. I welcome that commitment. I am also heartened to be informed by him that a design team is in place. That is all good, acknowledged and welcome. My request to him is that we get real action, and fast, and that we get over all sorts of bureaucratic hurdles as quickly as we can, get the money and get the job done. It badly needs to be done. I acknowledge it is in the capital programme but action is needed immediately and we need the job done. My final message is that the Minister of State should please treat this as an absolute priority because it is something the place is so badly in need of. It must be done eventually so why not get it done fast and meet the real need that is growing daily?

I again thank the Senator for his great interest in this project. As he knows, the Covid-19 pandemic has placed increased demands on emergency departments, particularly in respect of infection prevention and control. The Government is committed to developing the emergency department at Cavan General Hospital and the project under way intends to provide a second resuscitation room, additional clinical administration area and an additional waiting area at the hospital. The design team has been selected and some proposed layouts have been received by the HSE for review. The project is being progressed and this is good news for the population served by the hospital.

I thank the Minister of State. I have no doubt the Senator will be shouting for County Donegal next weekend.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, to deal with the final two Commencement matters.

Consumer Rights

I thank the Acting Chairman. I also thank the Cathaoirleach for eventually selecting this matter, which has been submitted every week since we resumed this term. I am glad to finally seek action on the issue of mobile home caravan parks and, in particular, the need for regulation and legislation that would ensure fit-for-purpose contracts between mobile home park operators and those who rent or lease pitches from them.

I was contacted by a constituent during the summer who faced issues with their contract. After 18 years, the mobile home caravan park stated that the caravan was no longer fit for purpose, despite being insured. That was just one of a number of issues raised by this constituent. To lift the lid on the issue, I launched a survey to get a better sense of it and I could not believe some of the stuff that came back. More than 200 people responded to the survey. Most heard of it through a Facebook advertisement I published. Some 89% of respondents have a contract, 42% have had a negative experience with the owner of the park regarding their contract, 95% have no residents' association in their park and 88% think regulations and legislation should be introduced.

I refer to some of the issues raised regarding contracts, which are so vague that ad hoc rules relating to noise, pets and curfew are sometimes used as an excuse to threaten eviction. Owners are forced to upgrade their mobile homes after X number of years, even though the home might be okay, but they must buy from the owner directly. Some contracts seem to ban formation or participation in residents' associations.

Regarding upkeep, no tenants' association is allowed. Each individual must approach the operator to discuss a problem regarding the individual contract. It is easy for the operator to say it fulfils everything written down in a short contract.

On fees, particularly in this Covid-19 year, respondents said full fees were charged for a much-shortened opening season, fees increased every year with no upgrade of site or facilities and some said fees should be tied to set out guaranteed opening times of the season. Some people called for a built-in buy-back clause and said it was so bad they ended up accepting almost anything in the contract.

On closer inspection of the issue, more broadly in the North, the Executive introduced a Caravans Act in 2011, which is a shared responsibility between the Department for Communities and the Department of Finance. It is a simple Act that ensures the particulars of the agreement. Under the agreement, for instance, the owner of the caravan site must give the proposed occupier a written contract which states various things. In addition, it must employ terms on consultation with occupiers' associations. The owner, therefore, shall consult a qualifying occupants' association, if there is one, on all matters that relate to the operational management of or improvements to the caravan site which may affect the occupants either directly or indirectly. That is my stad. I will wait for the Minister of State's reply.

The Senator, and indeed, any other Senator should feel free to contact me directly about any particular areas under my remit . If Senators have difficulty in raising a Commencement matter, I am always happy to assist any Member of this House or, indeed, the Dáil so feel free to contact me at any stage.

Covid-19 has, understandably, raised a number of issues for mobile homeowners. Current level 5 restrictions mean people generally cannot travel to their mobile home in the normal way and this has been the case for significant periods of 2020. The Senator has been active on this issue for a number of months and launched a survey to gather feedback. I thank him for sharing some of his findings. I am interested to know how many people contributed to his survey because having made inquiries with the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC, I can confirm that it has received 70 queries from consumers about caravan parks issues this year. Unsurprisingly, the majority of these were received during the spring and summer months. Due to the varied nature of these queries, the CCPC had to deal with the issues on a case-by-case basis and had key messages for consumers.

The contract or licence agreement which consumers have with their holiday park operators is very important and they should familiarise themselves with the terms and conditions. Where consumers require further information about their contractual arrangements, they should speak directly with the operator of the site. In the case of unilateral changes to a contract made by an operator or contractual arrangements which may contain unfair terms and conditions, the consumer should raise the matter directly with the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC, under the regulation on unfair terms in consumer contracts. In cases where a consumer and a holiday park operator cannot mutually resolve a dispute over contractual arrangements, it is up to the parties to seek a civil remedy to the case.

The application of charges for mobile homes during the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to be determined by the terms and conditions of the contract and reflected in a licence agreement which would be granted by the operator of a caravan park to the owners of mobile homes. Notwithstanding the unprecedented nature of the pandemic, consumer rights apply in full and they have not been weakened. Consumers are entitled to rely on what is provided for in the contract that they have with their operator. Where a written contract is drafted by a trader in advance and a consumer does not have the opportunity to review the terms of the contract before signing, those contract terms will be subject to the regulations. It is important to highlight that under these regulations, traders, including operators of mobile home parks, are obliged to adhere to the contractual terms previously agreed. A trader cannot unilaterally change the terms and conditions without the consumer's agreement.

The CCPC recommends that consumers check the terms and conditions of their agreement with their operators. If consumers think an operator is acting unfairly in relation to the contract, they can make a complaint to the CCPC. Following this process, if the issue is not resolved, it is open to them to commence legal action. If the claim is for less than €2,000, consumers can use the small claims procedure to try to resolve their complaint.

I thank the Minister of State. The issue here is that in many cases these are just one-year contracts. Some people have spent more than €30,000 for a pitch in a mobile home site and suddenly find themselves, in some examples I have seen, in one-year contracts. The system is broken.

The Minister of State asked how many people responded to my survey. It was just over 200 people. I have also reached out to the CCPC and it is aware of the issue because, as the Minister of State mentioned, many people have contacted it this year. The system itself needs to be looked at by the Department.

I ask the Minister to go back to Cabinet and suggest that a public consultation from the State is launched so that we are not just going on my survey. An official public consultation on the part of the Government could explore the need for legislation and further regulation.

I thank the Senator. I reiterate that where there is a complaint from a consumer that he or she was subject to unfair practices in the way that the terms and conditions of an agreement were reached, it is open to him or her to make a complaint to the CCPC under the regulations on unfair terms in consumer contracts. Despite the fact that 70 people have contacted the CCPC this year and despite the survey the Senator conducted whereby 200 people came back to him directly expressing dissatisfaction with their contracts, not one person has lodged a formal complaint to the CCPC. That could indicate that those people were able to arrive at a mutual agreement with the caravan park operator. A mutual agreement is always much better. Perhaps there are other reasons people did not decide to pursue their complaints further.

I am happy to go back to the CCPC on foot of the Senator's contribution today and see if we can look at reviewing what is there. I will reiterate the point that despite 70 people contacting the CCPC, not one made an official complaint.

It would be worth the Senator's while, although I am not telling him his business, to make the 200 people who contacted him aware that they can contact and make an official complaint to the CCPC.

Road Projects

I thank the Minister of State for being with us. I am sorry the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is not here but I am sure the Minister of State will bring some good news.

For over 40 years, the good people of Athy and its surrounds have waited in hope, expectation and often desperation for a new relief road. Over those 40 years, there have been many false dawns and promises but, finally, in October 2017, for the first time ever, the proposed road was granted planning permission. Since first being elected as a public representative, this has been the number one issue for me and the people I represent. At a special meeting for councillors in early 2018, following confirmation of the planning permission, we were informed by Kildare County Council that land acquisition would begin later that year with pre-evaluation of tenders in early 2019 and that the main tender would be awarded in quarter 3 of 2019. The main road was due to commence in quarter 1 of 2020, with the road due to open in quarter 1 of 2022, or so we were told.

During this time, I and all the public representatives in Athy continued to raise this matter at each council meeting. Indeed, it is a standing item each month on the agenda. Month after month we asked if there was any problem with funding, timelines or obstacles to the opening of this much-needed road and month after month we were told there were none. We are fully aware that we are in a pandemic which visited our shores in early 2020 and continues to dominate and affect everything we do. However, alarm bells have been going off every month since the beginning of this pandemic as I was told that there were Covid delays, but nothing major, and that the road was on target, albeit progress would be delayed by a number of months. The alarm bells grew louder in the past two months when I learned that the project has not advanced to the tender stage. We are now a full year behind schedule. I, along with colleagues, was hearing about Covid-enforced delays and, most alarmingly, new demands from the Department of Transport.

At yesterday's Athy municipal district meeting, my colleagues, Councillors Breslin and Lee, along with all the councillors present, were told by officials that the Department of Transport had recently informed the council of changes to the procedures with the Athy distributor road. The invitation to tender documents has now been referred to the Department, with no clear timelines in place for proceeding to the next stage of the project. That is not good enough and totally unacceptable.

The provision of this road has held up the progress of our town for years. It is currently holding up a €3 million redevelopment of Emily Square in the centre of the town because a one-way system cannot go ahead without the new road. It is also holding up the provision of a 3.4 km cycle lane and over 7 km of new footpaths, due to be provided as part of the road. It is potentially holding up community playing fields in the town, so badly needed by the town's sports clubs, and is holding up safer access to the town's train station for some of the over 40% of the population who leave the town each morning to go to work.

Most importantly, this is about the future of a great town, one which has faced great obstacles in trying to attract industry and commerce against traffic delays of more than an hour most days, as traffic snarls trying to travel just 2.5 km through the town and over its only bridge. It is about the quality of life for parents who have no option but to wait in traffic for over an hour each morning trying to get their loved ones to school or those trying to get to work, adding to the stress of all involved.

The road, experts tell us, would reduce traffic in the town by 50%, provide over 3.4 km of segregated cycle track and 7 km of footpath and give rise, the council estimates, to €6.1 million in safety benefits resulting from a reduced number of collisions. Stage 1 of the tender process has been completed with, I am told, six contractors qualified to tender for the main works contracts. A series of advanced works contracts has been completed and I am told a significant proportion of land compensation packages have been agreed.

When will Kildare County Council be given the go-ahead to proceed to stage 2 of the tender process and issue the main works contract? Most importantly, when will the people of Athy be able to travel along their new road, use the proposed cycle lanes and footpaths and when will the traffic that has held back this town for too long almost disappear? When can those interested in investing in this town expect to see completed the almost €50 million worth of works which are dependent on this road and which have been promised, modernising this great old town and allowing it to breath again? The people of Athy cannot wait any longer.

I thank the Senator for raising the issue. I am happy to have the opportunity to respond to his question on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Ryan, who, unfortunately, cannot join us. I am delighted to respond to the Senator. I served with his father between 2011 and 2016 and always found him an honourable public representative and a gentleman to deal with. I ask him to pass on my good wishes to him.

The improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads is a statutory responsibility of the relevant local authority in accordance with the provision of section 13 of the Roads Act 1993. State grants, where applicable, are intended to supplement the funding allocated to the maintenance and improvement of roads by local authorities from their own resources.

The national development plan, NDP, provides for the gradual build-up in funding for the road network, but funding is not yet at the level needed for the adequate maintenance and renewal of regional and local roads. For this reason, the primary focus for capital investment continues to be the maintenance and renewal of the network, with some limited investment in road improvement schemes. In this context, 12 regional and local road improvement projects were identified for development subject to the necessary approvals in the national development plan. The construction of a distributor route to the south of Athy connecting to the N78 is one of those schemes. That is positive.

The proposed Athy distributor road comprises an arterial link street incorporating footway and cycleway provisions of approximately 3.4 km in length and a new crossing of the River Barrow, the refurbishment of an existing railway bridge over the River Barrow and the provision of a new crossing on the Dublin-Waterford railway line.

The scheme objectives include a substantial reduction in traffic volume on the existing N78 through Athy, the provision of an alternative safer route in the vicinity of the town and improved accessibility. The proposed road development includes the provision of a dedicated pedestrian and cycle facility over its full length with connections to the Barrow Way and the train station. It is hoped that these facilities will encourage walking and cycling as a local means of transport and provide greater accessibility to public transport for people living in the surrounding housing estates.

As regards the current position, I am advised that the Department of Transport has provided significant financial support to Kildare County Council for the scheme to date and that this has facilitated the completion of the site and archaeological investigations and advanced contracts, including preliminary accommodation, culvert construction and utility relocation works. The land acquisition process is also underway.

I am also informed that the council submitted the contract documentation for the main scheme construction contract to the Department last week and is requesting approval to proceed to tender. The request will be considered once the contract documentation has been reviewed and I will bring back the points he raised today to the Minister on foot of this debate.

It seems Senator Wall is on the right road.

I thank the Minister of State for his kind words. We hope we are on the right road. The problem I have, which the Minister of State might convey to the Minister, is that, in respect of the stage he announced, namely, documentation going to the Department, I have been informed by officials in Kildare County Council that this is a new stage. The council had not contemplated this stage in the building of the road.

I encourage the Minister of State to, as he said, bring this matter back to the Minister as quickly as possible so that he can give the go-ahead to Kildare County Council. We have waited 40 years for this road. I am sure if the Minister of State ever travelled to Athy he would have unfortunately been caught in the traffic that snarls the town each day.

I ask him to ask the Minister to allow the council to issue the tender documents to the six preferred tenders. At least we can then fast-track this road in the quickest time for the people of the Athy. I thank the Minister of State for his contribution today. I ask that he speak to the Minister on behalf of Athy and the people that live there.

Without question, there is a commitment on behalf of the Government to make sure this project proceeds. The proof of the pudding is always in the eating. Despite the fact that available funding for strategic grants under the NDP was reduced in the 2021 budget, provision was still made to move the project in Athy forward. I am conscious that the overall scheme will cost €42 million. This Government and previous Governments have made an investment of €5.4 million in this project.

Some €3.5 million was allocated to the council for this project in 2020. I do not believe all of that is going to be drawn down. There is a commitment there. I accept what the Senator is saying. Perhaps there is an additional layer that was not originally envisaged. The key now is from the Senator promoting it here, and I am conscious my own colleague Senator O’Loughlin has raised this issue previously as well, is that we make sure that this new layer in the process is dealt with as quickly as possible because money has been allocated. It is important that councils are enabled to draw down money that is allocated, that they spend that money, move it forward, build the road and open up the land for development because that is what we all want to see in our respective communities. I will certainly bring back the points the Senator raised to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and hopefully we can push this forward at an earliest opportunity.

I thank the Minister of State. I also thank the Ministers of State, Deputies Browne and Feighan, for coming to the House today. I thank Senator Wall and the staff here beside me who are so helpful to the Acting Chairmen. I also thank the ushers. We would all agree that the cleaners are absolutely everywhere. They are here, they are in our offices doing a wonderful job and they always meet one with a smile.

I wish to be associated with your comments, Acting Chairman.

Sitting suspended at 2.42 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.