Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

State Examinations

I thank the Minister of State for attending. Anybody watching will be disappointed that the Minister for Education is not here but I understand this is because she is participating in the talks to try to finalise arrangements for the leaving certificate examinations.

From the start of the pandemic, which was almost a year ago, until now, 15 February, the Government has prioritised protecting lives and livelihoods. The allocation of €9 billion in the budget for education indicated that investment in both children and their education is a strong priority of the Government. For young people, this has been a really stressful year. We have had 12 months of a pandemic but young people have been living with it in a different way from adults. Young people, within their own families, have had to deal with the impact of infection. More than 200,000 people have been infected. Young people have had to live with the impact of their parents' loss of income and employment, and they have had to live with changed circumstances whereby they are trying to be educated remotely. I accept that there has been an improvement in this lockdown by comparison with the previous one in terms of the delivery of remote teaching but remote teaching is no substitute for classroom learning. The Minister of State would agree with that. He did very well from the point of view of education. He is a graduate of Trinity College and he also holds degrees from overseas. Therefore, he understands the value of education and how important the leaving certificate is for young people.

The members of the class of 2021 have lost five months of their senior cycle and have been denied the emotional and social supports that come with being in a classroom or in their school. They have been struggling to connect with broadband. Broadband is oversubscribed in many households because it is being used by siblings and parents who are trying to work. Many leaving certificate subjects have a practical component. Students in the class of 2021 have been denied the opportunity to have a practical learning experience. It is not just formal teaching they are missing out on; they are also missing out on informal learning from their peers, on the exchange of information, on sharing their struggles and on the identification of interesting parts of the curriculum or things that excite them.

The mocks have gone, the orals are uncertain and it was devastating for these students to see adults and unions withdraw from talks. I am glad the talks have resumed and I appreciate they are confidential but I hope the Minister will update the House and the leaving cert students who I am sure are watching today and who are anxious for three things: clarity, certainty and choice. They are not unreasonable demands for the leaving cert students of the class of 2021 to be making.

I ask the Minister of State to talk when he is replying, if he can, about how the applied leaving cert will be managed. If he is in a position to give it, I would also appreciate some comment on the junior cert.

Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh, agus go raibh maith agaibh, a Sheanadóirí, as an ábhar tábhachtach seo a chur faoi bhráid an tSeanaid inniu. Tá áthas orm freagra a thabhairt in ionad an Aire Oideachais atá gnóthach faoi láthair agus gabhann sí a leithscéal. Bhí mé ag caint léi roinnt noiméad ó shin.

I thank the Senator for raising what is obviously an important matter, of interest not only to Senators, Members of the Dáil and all of us, but particularly to the 60,000 young people across the country who are due to sit the leaving cert this year and who are continuing their education. The leaving cert is not an end point; it is a part of their lifelong journey of education. I spoke to the Minister for Education and she sent her apologies. She is otherwise engaged but would like to have been here and has asked me to do this.

The Government is acutely aware of the challenges the pandemic has brought to the education system this year and last, particularly the unique challenges it poses to those preparing to sit State examinations. For leaving cert students, the continued closure of schools for in-school learning results in these students missing out on significant in-person class contact time. I pay tribute to those students and their teachers, in particular, who are continuing education despite the difficulties. There has been a huge amount of development in the provision of education, as I see with my own children, between the first stage of this pandemic and now. It will never be perfect, of course, and that is why we are having this discussion but there have been dramatic changes. That is to everybody's credit and that of the education system.

Planning for the 2021 leaving cert is under way by the Department and the State Examinations Commission. It is recognised that a flexible and agile approach is necessary in light of the fast-moving changes linked to Covid-19 but the welfare of students and their families is front and centre in all decision-making. The planning work under way is being helped by an advisory group of key stakeholders. This includes students, most importantly, as well as parents, teachers, school leadership management bodies, the State Examinations Commission, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, the Higher Education Authority and obviously the Department of Education, including the National Educational Psychological Service. The advisory group has met on a number of occasions and a subgroup has formed to consider in depth the issues towards planning the 2021 exams, including those identified by the Irish Second-Level Students' Union, ISSU, in its recently published report on the 2021 State examinations and the return to school. I pay tribute to the ISSU for its key and central role in planning and its strength of voice on behalf of its members.

The Department of Education has indicated to the education partners that any corresponding process will need to include a number of features. The State Examinations Commission has to run the examinations and corresponding processes. This was an issue last year and the Department wants to address that. There needs to be better provision for out-of-school learners in the corresponding process, which we also saw last year. There must be some cognisance of performance and additional component elements of exams, such as course work, orals, practicals, etc., and timely progression to higher and further education using either exams or the outcome of any corresponding process.

Bilateral meetings began and continued last week and the weekend gone by and discussions continue today. In other jurisdictions where State exams have been cancelled, I understand there is further work to be done to clarify what is intended. This is natural because we are in an unprecedented situation. In England, for example, a consultation process on possible arrangements closed on 29 January and feedback from that is being considered. Ofqual in England has stated there are no straightforward options for how exams are to be replaced and we can all agree on that.

The best we can do is to work together and all of us talk to ensure we get the best possible solution for our students. The Government, of course, is focused on identifying a solution for the students who are due to sit the leaving certificate this year, including the applied leaving certificate. The priority afforded to education by the Government has been clear throughout, with the Minister and officials working with the partners to reopen schools safely and identify the best way forward for the leaving certificate class of 2021.

As Senators will be aware, one of the partners withdrew from the process last week. Following engagements with the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland, ASTI, however, the Minister for Education is very happy that it returned to discussions over the weekend. I believe everybody will welcome that. The Minister publicly welcomed it and the ASTI has returned now to confidential discussions with everybody else regarding the 2021 exams. We note its willingness to engage on the agenda that has already been set out on this process.

The Minister has also thanked the Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI, parent bodies, the student body represented by the ISSU, as I have said already, and the managerial bodies that help run our schools for their constructive engagement. That continued over the weekend and is resuming this morning as the issues continue to be worked out. Intensive engagement is therefore continuing with the education stakeholders to advance progress and provide certainty and clarity at the earliest possible time. I understand from the Minister that it is hoped students will receive this clarity in the coming days. That, however, is subject to ongoing engagement with all the education stakeholders. I note the comments made by the Senator about the junior certificate. I believe the Minister will address that issue in due course but I do not have an answer for the Senator on it today. I believe that, clearly, we all agree the leaving certificate is the critical issue today.

I thank the Minister of State. I thank Senators for allowing a longer reply but I believe it is an important issue.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply and for coming into the Chamber. A flexible and agile approach that puts the welfare of students as a priority is obviously welcome and we all support it. I must say, though, it is disappointing that the Department did not provide more information to this House and that the Sunday newspapers seem to carry more detail than this House is being informed by the Department. I do not believe that is appropriate either for the students - it is not fair on them - or for this House to be treated in that way. I thank the Minister of State for coming in today. I ask when he goes back to Cabinet and to the Department of Education from this House, however, that he please tell them we want clarity, certainty and choice for the students of the class of 2021. We would appreciate if the Minister could make time to come to the House at the earliest opportunity, accepting that it is not fair or appropriate to put an arbitrary timeline on it, and update Members in detail on the arrangements that are being put in place.

I have no difficulty in passing that message on to the Minister. In terms of what was in the Sunday newspapers, I know that talks still continue today. Clearly, I do not know the provenance of what was in the newspapers at the weekend, but it certainly cannot be the final answer because talks continue and that work has not been completed.

The Senator attached the sobriquet "young" to me, and I am glad she did so, even though it is a few years since I did the leaving certificate. Certainly, the big difference now from then, and probably more recently, is that the voice of the student is at the table. It is not just at the table but also in the public realm and in the media and it is taken seriously. That is a major change. I compliment the ISSU on the work it is doing because up until now, when there was an education issue, the teachers' trade unions rightly took centre stage. I have no doubt that will always be the case because they are key partners in education. Now, however, more and more, and we saw it last year and this year, the voice of the student through the ISSU is prominent in the public media and private discussions and, ultimately, in what will be the solution to this. I compliment it and encourage all students to support that organisation and get involved. It is important and is a huge and welcome change to the debate.

I thank the Minister of State for the reply and Senator Fitzpatrick for tabling the question. I believe all Members will be interested in the response and I know it will change as the hours evolve.

Before moving on to the next matter, I ask Senator Fintan Warfield to take the Chair. It is the first time he has taken a Chair since he was 22 years of age. He chaired South Dublin County Council between 2014 and 2015. He will take the Chair for the remainder of the Commencement matters.

Human Rights

I thank the Cathaoirleach for the opportunity to chair the proceedings. I call Senator Byrne who has two minutes.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach Gníomhach. I welcome him to the Chair. I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House. I agree with his comments on the previous Commencement matter recognising the role of the ISSU. I also agree with the comments of Senator Fitzpatrick.

I am jointly raising an issue with Senator Ward because, as legislators in a democracy, we should stand up for legislators in other democracies when they are faced with unfair threats. I wish the Minister of State a happy Chinese new year and want to stress that in bringing forward this joint Commencement matter, we want to see greater trade, cultural and educational links with China. However, we have serious concerns about the aggressive and repressive manner in which the Chinese Communist Party is currently expressing its economic and political ambition. We have talked in this House previously about the Uyghur people, Tibet, the Falun Gong and other minorities.

What we are seeing in Hong Kong is a suppression of the protests. However, the introduction of the national security law is a very draconian measure that completely undermines the rule of law that we would expect to see in any democracy. It engages in media censorship and does not allow dissenting views. It represents a major threat to democratic principles. We have seen the arrest and imprisonment of legislators, business people, journalists and of university and school students. Many of them are either living in fear in Hong Kong or are forced to seek exile.

I ask the Minister of State for a clear statement on this. I ask also that the Government adopts a welcoming approach to those who, for a variety of reasons, may have to come here to seek asylum and who may require visas and that it takes the issue up with the Chinese Ambassador.

Gabhaim comhghairdeas leis an gCathaoirleach Gníomhach as ucht a bheith sa Chathaoir inniu. I echo what Senator Byrne said. It is very important that we differentiate between the people of China and the Government of China.

What has been outlined in the matter is, in many ways, anathema to us in Ireland. We benefit from a very democratic society, one where people have free speech, the right to raise issues and to criticise their Government. They certainly avail of that opportunity as they should. When we look to China, and to Hong Kong in recent times, people simply do not have that opportunity. They are suppressed, oppressed and prevented from exercising their democratic rights and their right to free speech. This is a major problem.

This is not being done by Chinese people but by their Government which does not necessarily act in their name the way our Government acts in ours. However, as we look at this situation now, Ireland is in a unique position, diplomatically and internationally, both as a member of the Security Council and as a State that does not directly compete with China in terms of military issues or industry. We are not a threat to China. There is an opportunity for the Minister of State and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Simon Coveney, and for other members of the Government to speak to China at a certain level and as friends, but also to be very clear about what cannot be tolerated on the international stage.

If China wants to continue to be part of the international community, it must respect the norms of human rights and democracy that it claims to have but simply does not exercise on a day-to-day basis. That is a message that we need to send very clearly as a country and as a Government to the Chinese Government and particularly the authorities in Hong Kong as regards the manner in which they approach their own citizenry and the rights of those citizens. Like Senator Byrne, I would like a very clear statement from the Government that we cannot accept this, we do not accept this and we will not stand by.

Gabhaim buíochas leis na Seanadóirí a chur an t-ábhar seo faoinár mbráid ar maidin. Ireland has very long-standing connections with Hong Kong and a strong Irish community there. The Department of Foreign Affairs has been closely monitoring political developments, in particular the implementation of the national security law adopted in June of last year.

These measures have led to the detention of a number of pro-democracy and human rights activists over the past few months. We are particularly concerned following the mass arrest of 55 pro-democracy law makers and activists on 6 January this year. These charges were made in relation to the holding of primary elections to select pro-democracy candidates for the next legislative council elections.

In response, the EU made a statement on 7 January calling for the immediate release of those arrested and urged the authorities to respect Hong Kong's rule of law, human rights, democratic principles and its high degree of autonomy under the one country two systems principle, as enshrined in the Hong Kong basic law and in line with domestic and international obligations. All but three of those detained have since been released.

Ireland and the EU have been active in raising concerns about the law and have issued a number of statements which outlined our concern regarding the situation. We call on China to respect its international commitments and the high degree of autonomy granted to Hong Kong under the one country, two systems principle. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, made a statement on 1 July last year to express concern at the adoption of the law and to reiterate Ireland's full support for fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong, such as freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly.

On 28 July, the EU adopted Council conclusions expressing grave concern over the national security legislation for Hong Kong. These conclusions restated the EU's support for Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy. We expressed our solidarity with the people of Hong Kong and set out a package of measures in various fields, including asylum, migration, visa and residence policy, controls on the exports of specific sensitive equipment and technologies for end-use in Hong Kong, the operation of member states' extradition arrangements and other relevant agreements with Hong Kong.

In line with these conclusions, the Government agreed, on 13 October 2020, to suspend Ireland's extradition agreement with Hong Kong. This decision, taken in concert with a number of other EU member states, clearly signalled Ireland's concern for the rule of law in Hong Kong. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, also raised his concerns for Hong Kong directly with the Chinese Ambassador to Ireland. The EU continues to raise its concern with the Chinese authority, particularly at the most recent EU-China summit and the EU-China leaders' meeting.

Through our consulate general in Hong Kong, our embassy in Beijing and our EU partners, the Government will continue to monitor and assess the situation and will respond to these developments appropriately.

I am aware the Government and the EU are raising continuous concerns, but this is something we will have to take very seriously. It is about a democracy being repressed. If the current policy continues, people may flee to Ireland. I ask that consideration be given to granting them the right to remain here, if they have to do so for political reasons. I ask the Minister of State to comment on this is in his response.

Go raibh maith agat as ucht an ráitis shoiléir sin. It is very important we make that statement which I hope will be followed by actions. As Senator Byrne, I hope we take concrete actions to send the message to the authorities in Hong Kong that we will not stand by and will take actions, such as those the Minister of State mentioned in his reply, to address the issues raised.

I thank the Senators for their comments. Ireland and the EU are deeply concerned about the situation in Hong Kong and the implementation of national security legislation. Given our engagement with the region and our responsibility to our citizens there, it is correct that we do so. We continue to raise these concerns directly and consistently when engaging with Chinese and Hong Kong authorities, bilaterally and in multilateral fora. The protection of the one country, two systems principle in Hong Kong, as well as the fundamental freedoms granted under Hong Kong's basic law, are of the utmost importance to Ireland and the EU.

The adoption of EU Council conclusions on Hong Kong and the accompanying package of response measures highlight how seriously we are taking this situation. The suspension of our extradition treaty with Hong Kong shows the Government is willing to take action in response to the adoption of this law. We will continue to engage on the matter through continued implementation of agreed EU response measures, further measures that may be agreed and continued engagement with the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities.

Rural Regeneration and Development Fund

The next Commencement matter is from Senator Carrigy.

I thank the Acting Chairperson, Senator Warfield, and congratulate him on taking the Chair. I thank Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, for taking on my Commencement matter on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys. This matter is about the provision of funding under the rural regeneration and development fund for the Drumlish go green centre application in Longford.

First, I acknowledge that it was Fine Gael in government that introduced this fund during the last term to help stimulate rural economies. There have been three successful applications in County Longford over the last couple of years. Project Ireland 2040 aims to make cities, towns and villages more attractive and liveable and offer a quality of life, which more people will be willing to choose in the years ahead. It references reversing town-village and rural population decline by encouraging new roles and functions for buildings, streets and sites supporting the sustainable growth of rural economies and communities. This project aims to address these and numerous other objectives by ensuring the reimagining of the existing community centre to deliver an expanded role within the community of Drumlish, allowing the local people to live and work locally while encouraging climate adaption. The core objective of this is to create a flagship project by developing Drumlish into a competitive, low-carbon climate resilient and environmentally sustainable town through the redevelopment of the centre as a flagship green-energy building. The building will also be used to showcase low-energy technologies and act as a training centre, which will be open to communities throughout the midlands, on reducing energy consumption in association with Longford warmer homes, among others.

Significant consultation took place over the last number of years, which started with the establishment of the town team by my colleague, Councillor Paraic Brady, which led to the formation of the area development group. The redevelopment of the centre emerged as a key priority along with the need to create economic opportunities for the local community, such as providing a remote working space and opportunities for innovation and collaboration. The town has experienced significant population increases in recent years. There was a 58% increase between 2006 and 2016. However, the supporting infrastructure to facilitating the retention of employment in the area has not followed. This project is expected to bring five direct jobs in the development and management of the centre, as well as space for five dedicated remote working places, additional meeting and training facilities and increased usability for music, dance and art. The centre is located next door to the local national school, St. Mary's, which utilises its facilities. Mulleady's waste and recycling centre is located two miles from the town and will collaborate with promoters, which include Longford County Council, Drumlish Community Centre Group, the Drumlish-Ballinamuck Area Development Group, and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, to deliver greater sustainable community goals. This will be done by working together to develop school education programmes, information awareness, workshops and practical demonstrations.

This project plans to support the community's transition to a low-carbon society by creating a new vision for Drumlish. This application aligns with national, regional and local policy, and fully delivers on the policy priorities of the current funding call of economic development and addressing climate change. It will be transformational, not only for Drumlish, but for the wider county of Longford and, indeed, parts of Cavan and Leitrim. I ask the Minister of State to ensure that this project is made a priority for Government funding.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, to the House.

The rural regeneration and development fund was established under the National Development Plan 2018-2027 to provide investment for ambitious projects in towns and villages, and outlying areas, with a population of less than 10,000, which will deliver on the national strategic objective of strengthening rural economies and communities, and which achieve sustainable economic and social development in these areas. To date, the fund has provided €166 million for 139 projects across Ireland, worth a total of €237 million.

Projects that have been allocated funding to date include town and village regeneration; enterprise and development; tourism and development; digital and co-working initiatives; libraries; and community facilities. Many projects are delivering across a number of sectors, for instance, providing libraries, co-working facilities or much-needed community facilities in repurposed town centre sites or previously unused heritage buildings. To date, over half of the projects supported have had a strong focus on regeneration, ensuring that our rural towns and villages, and the communities and businesses within them, will benefit from returning footfall.

In that regard, the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and I believe the projects completed with the assistance of the fund will deliver significant impacts across rural Ireland, supporting sustainable communities, economic development and job creation that will help to deliver on the long-standing goal of rebalancing growth throughout the regions. In addition, the investment provided will support rural Ireland in addressing the challenges arising from Covid-19. It will provide a much-needed stimulus for the economy in rural areas, while also putting in place the necessary facilities to ensure rural towns, villages and communities can have the opportunity to recover and prosper over the months and years ahead.

As Senators will be aware, the third call for category 1 applications to the fund closed on 1 December. Category 1 relates to large-scale ambitious capital projects with all necessary planning and other consents in place and ready to proceed. Considering the circumstances prevailing, this category 1 call had a strong economic focus, with one of the main goals being to ensure the investment provided can act as a key driver for economic recovery in the post Covid-19 environment. Another key focus was, once again, regeneration in towns and villages, with a view to driving greater economic activity and footfall, addressing dereliction and ensuring the reuse of buildings.

The response from rural Ireland was excellent. Some 66 applications were received in response to this call from communities throughout the country, including Drumlish, as Senator Carrigy noted. All the proposals have been planned and developed to meet the key needs, opportunities and expectations of their respective communities. As Senator Carrigy will also be aware, the application process for the fund is competitive in nature. The applications submitted in December are being assessed by the project advisory board, comprised of independent experts and representatives from key Departments. I understand that arising from this process, the Minister will be furnished with a report detailing the projects which are recommended for funding. She will make the final decisions in that regard at that juncture. The Minister hopes to make an announcement to this effect at the end of March or the beginning of April. I will convey the Senator's views on Drumlish to her. I know it is a good project and Councillor Paraic Brady and Senator Carrigy are doing huge work in articulating its merits for the community. As the Senator has pointed out, it knits into St. Mary's Mixed National School and the wider area. It will be a major driver in the area and I expect and hope for a positive outcome.

The Minister of State is well aware of this issue. As he said, his colleague, Councillor Brady, started work on it a number of years ago. He has been driving a large number of projects in the area. As I said, I am aware that the process of assessing this project is ongoing. I point out, however, that it aligns with national, regional and local policy and fully delivers on the policy priorities of the current funding calls in terms of economic development and addressing climate change. That is what makes the project unique. It is also linked in to the local national school, St. Mary's Mixed National School, as the Minister of State mentioned, and Mulleady's recycling centre, one of the largest recycling facilities in the midlands. This centre will work to promote climate change action by bringing other schools in the midlands to the centre when it is fully operational and functioning as a complete green energy building.

I thank the Minister of State for his support. We are hopeful that this application will be successful. Longford County Council has been a proactive local authority and it is keen to deliver this project for the community.

This Commencement matter highlights the merits of this project and how it will unlock the potential of Drumlish. I acknowledge the work of Senator Carrigy, Councillor Brady and the wider community. As the Senator pointed out, the members and executive of Longford County Council have a great relationship and the council has a strong track record of delivery for the county, which is very important. That is why projects such as this will stand up to scrutiny.

I hope that we will be able to deliver it within a short time. As the Senator pointed out, this project in line with the investment plan for the area and the national planning framework, which ensures that rural areas are given a chance to realise their potential and we get key funding into them. I hope that we will have a positive outcome in due course.

Local Authority Members

It is good to see Senator Warfield in the Chair. I am sure that the Minister of State is in no doubt as to the frustration among councillors regarding their pay and conditions and that he does not need reminding of the clear and unambiguous commitment in the programme for Government on the implementation of the Moorhead report within one year of the Government's formation. We find ourselves just under 18 weeks out from the first anniversary of that formation but we still have zero inkling as to what the Government intends. We have word that there is a report, produced by the Minister of State, sitting on the desk of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, but we have not seen it and we have no idea what the Cabinet intends to do with it. That is not good enough because this is not just about the pay and conditions of councillors, who have had to put up with lip-service being paid in respect of this issue for many years. Rather, it is not good enough because this is about respect for the important role that councillors undertake in policy making, advocacy and representation in their communities. It is about affording dignity to those who serve their communities. As a newly elected councillor, something that made an impression on me was a former lord mayor of Dublin racing out at the end of a meeting to go to a job in an An Post sorting office over Christmas because of a need to supplement that person's income as a councillor.

This is about ensuring that we attract those who want to serve their communities and, importantly, retain them when they become elected. We know that, if we are to improve the gender balance in local authorities and the Oireachtas, we must crack the nut of attracting more women to contest local elections. We can then ensure a greater gender balance. This is also about recognising that local government is the backbone of services across our communities.

The Moorhead report makes ten recommendations. All of them are important, but there are four that are within the Government's remit to enact. These relate to salary, travel and subsistence expenses in the course of a councillor's work, travel and subsistence expenses in the course of attendance at external meetings, and retirement benefits. With respect, I do not want to hear from the Minister of State about the work that is being done on the six other recommendations, which relate to flexibility in holding meetings, administrative support and other supports to councillors. At this point, that work should be undertaken within local authorities anyway. If we do not resolve the issue of pay and conditions, we will not resolve the six other conditions. If we do resolve it, though, we will ensure that councillors can pay for childcare, are not racing out the door to try to attend other meetings and can actually depend on their incomes as councillors.

I am conscious that there is not unanimity on the precise recommendations in the Moorhead report, particularly the recommended income level, but that is no reason to delay what the Government intends to do. The Government has a mandate in the programme for Government. I look forward to the Minister of State's reply.

I thank the Senator for raising the important matter of the role and remuneration of elected local authority members. She gave the example of a councillor who was working while also trying to hold down a council role. I, too, was that councillor. In 2009, I was elected to a council alongside Senator Davitt, who has also been active in the issue of reforming local government. I went through the pressures and experiences of trying to attend to my council duties while also holding down a full-time job. That was difficult.

I assure the House and all Senators who have spoken that I understand the pressures they are under. Councillors are responsible for a wide range of important functions, particularly with regard to statutory policymaking, strategic development, governance of local authorities, leadership and local advocacy, which is key.

As Senators are aware, Ms Sarah Moorhead, senior counsel, was appointed in June 2018 to carry out an independent review to examine the remuneration of councillors. During the course of her review, Ms Moorhead consulted widely with local authority elected members and their representative organisations, political parties, local authority chief executives and other stakeholders. Local authority members were also surveyed and detailed financial information regarding councillors' remuneration and role was sourced from all local authorities. Ms Moorhead's final report was submitted to the Government and then published on Friday, 19 June 2020. It was also circulated to all councillors and Members of both Houses of the Oireachtas. As the Senator mentioned, the programme for Government, Our Shared Future, has a commitment to implement the Moorhead report on the role and remuneration of local authority members within 12 months. Meeting this commitment is a priority for me and the Department.

Further engagement and input from elected members and their representative associations are taking place during the implementation process. In this context, I have met local authority and elected members' representative associations over the months since my appointment. On more than one occasion, I have listened to their viewpoints on the report. They have welcomed some aspects of the report and rejected others, offering alternative proposals. Implementing the Moorhead report can mean many things to many people. It is important their concerns are given proper consideration. This important engagement was very welcome and I appreciate the role of elected members in it.

Any changes to elected members' remuneration will require regulations under section 142 of the Local Government Act 2001, as amended, which must be given effect with consent by my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath. Proposals in this regard have been provided to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform for his consideration and will be brought to the Government thereafter.

In addition to this, a working group has been established to examine the important non-pay recommendations contained in the Moorhead report and how these will be progressed in consultation with key stakeholders over a number of meetings through the working group. These stakeholders include representatives from the County and City Management Association, the Association of Irish Local Government, the Local Authority Members Association and a number of Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage officials. If needed, throughout the process other stakeholders or officials will be invited to contribute to the working group. The objective of the working group is to examine these recommendations and explore options to allow for their implementation at the earliest opportunity. The first meeting of the working group took place recently and the outcome of the group will devise a plan of action setting the key and valuable outcomes we need in this area. The proposed completion date for the said action plan is the second quarter of 2021.

It is believed that addressing pay and non-pay issues of extreme importance, such as examining possible efficiencies, meetings, training supports and technological developments, would provide for a better balance between the role of councillors and their personal lives, thus facilitating the retention of existing councillors while maximising the accessibility of local government and future candidates. This is key and one of my strong views is that a council chamber should be reflective of society and a microcosm of society at large. We want to try to work to achieve this. I thank all Senators for their help in this regard.

I thank the Minister of State. I also understand the pressures as I worked full-time while I was a councillor. There is a four-page response, for which I thank the Minister of State. Two pages of it are dedicated to what is being done on the non-pay recommendations. One paragraph is on pay. This is the issue agitating and distressing councillors the most. This paragraph notes a report is with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform for his consideration and will be brought thereafter to the Government. Is the Minister of State saying the issue is being held up by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and that there is a failure to progress the pay issue, as set out in the Moorhead report, because the Minister is sitting on the report and failing to bring it to the Cabinet? We need clarity on this in the House today.

To be honest, councillors want to hear about all of the recommendations but the recommendation on pay is the single most important recommendation in this report, and they deserve to hear answers.

First, there is no report. The time for reports is over. There has been enough talking done on this. There is a proposal to be signed by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform because it requires his consent. I have completed the work on that. I believe I have a proposal that is fair, balanced and reflects the needs of councillors and, indeed, the reforms that we need in this area, which is key.

I cannot tell the House before the Government approves anything. I think we know that is the form of course. I am not going to announce that here today. I thank all of government for their work. Their work has been very engaging. The one thing I wanted to do when I came into this Department was to move this matter along because I know it has existed for too long, there has been way too much talk about it and we need action. I have done my work on this. I assure the House that there is a fair proposal.

Just one paragraph is required to reform the pay and expenditure aspects. The non-pay issues are more complex. One could even bring in the key issue of maternity leave. We need to examine in a wider context all the key issues that councillors are facing.

Covid-19 Pandemic

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I want the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media to report on what stipulations have been made on the Airbnb website regarding the regulations that pertain to level 5 restrictions. This is a very serious issue. Obviously the Covid-19 crisis has afflicted this country for the last 11 months. It is a very significant issue that has had a major impact on many parts of society. We are now in the middle of level 5 restrictions that have meant a complete lockdown of society, including schools and the construction sector. Every part of society has been grossly affected.

On my way here from Cork today I was stopped twice by members of An Garda Síochána, which I view as very positive. I complimented both of them on the courtesy and kindness they showed to me. The big issue in my part of the world is the blatant breaches of the level 5 restrictions. There is a phenomenon of weekend house parties where houses are being rented in scenic parts of rural Ireland and people have drinking parties for two nights. A few weeks ago, the Garda Síochána discovered seven people from seven different households in one house in Kinsale. That is the kind of scenario that is happening in rural Ireland and society.

When I looked up the Airbnb website this morning, I saw that there are over 200 properties available to rent tonight in Cork and thousands of properties available to rent throughout Ireland. Such properties are not for essential workers or people who have to go to work. They are for leisure only. The restrictions that are applied to other operators are not being enforced by the Airbnb website and we have a major issue with the lack of enforcement. The Garda Síochána cannot go door to door and it is unfeasible to think that would be an appropriate way to deal with this. We need real regulation to be put in place so that this job can be done. Unfortunately, such regulation is not there at the moment.

When I contacted my local authority, which is supposed to be the regulator for Airbnb properties inside a rent pressure zone, it informed me that it does not have a complete list of all such properties in the county because such a list has not been furnished to it by Airbnb. This is what we are dealing with. It is totally appalling that we have an unregulated market that flies in the face of what we are all doing in level 5. We need to know exactly what the Government proposes to do about this blatant breach of level 5 restrictions. The general public have done so much in the last few weeks and have worked so hard to bring this virus under control. It is the minority, and only the minority, who breach the restrictions but we need strong regulations to be enforced to ensure the minority do not breach the restrictions.

I need to know the following. What does the Government propose to do about Airbnb?

How can the Government control Airbnb, which, at present, appears to be running amok in society?

I thank Senator Lombard for his well-structured contribution. Undoubtedly, he has raised an important issue.

On level 5 restrictions, under Resilience and Recovery 2020-2021: Plan for Living with COVID-19, the Government has agreed that the current public health restrictions will remain in place until 5 March 2021. This decision has been informed by the latest public health advice applying in the context of the current prevalence and the projected trajectory of the virus. Level 5 essentially means a complete halt to tourism. Paid accommodation services are only allowed to take guests travelling for permitted purposes, but not for social, recreational, cultural or tourism purposes, as the Senator said. In addition, the Garda Commissioner was very clear on last Friday's "The Late, Late Show" that anybody in breach of many of the restrictions is running the risk of acquiring a criminal record. That is how serious this is and how seriously we must take this pandemic.

Airbnb is one of a number of online accommodation sales platforms and contains a variety of accommodation types, including not only self-catering properties but also bed and breakfast accommodation, hotels, guest-houses and more. While neither the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media nor Fåilte Ireland has any role in the regulation of these online sales platforms, accommodation providers offering services, online and otherwise, must abide by the Covid-19 regulations in place. The regulations set out the legal requirements, including provisions, prohibitions and restrictions, for businesses operating in this jurisdiction, whether in the tourism or any other sector, and the rules in regard to travel from place of residence. Neither the Department nor Fáilte Ireland imposes any additional requirements over and above these regulations. However, to assist tourism businesses reopen and operate safely in the current climate, Fåilte Ireland has published a suite of sectoral guidelines for various strands of the overall tourism sector. These guidelines are designed to assist tourism businesses meet requirements in line with the plan for living with Covid-19, the working safely protocol and the latest Government public health advice. For the types of accommodation businesses using the Airbnb platform, the most relevant of these guidelines are probably those for self-catering properties, bed and breakfast accommodation, hotels and guest-houses.

In terms of monitoring and enforcing compliance with Covid-19 related regulations, I am aware that all relevant agencies with industry oversight and a relevant regulatory role are playing a part. In this regard, the regulators forum, chaired by the Department of the Taoiseach and including representatives from all key Departments, agencies and other bodies such as An Garda Síochána, is proving to be effective in dealing with any reports of non-compliant events and activities, through the relevant authorities. Although we have seen a welcome reduction in Covid-19 cases recently, the overall number of cases and, significantly, the numbers of those in hospital and ICU are still too high. For this reason, we must continue with all efforts to bring the virus under control by limiting mobility, social contacts and congregation as much as possible. I acknowledge that maintaining level 5 restrictions will place continued demands on society and business. Nonetheless, it is essential that we continue to hold firm and reduce cases in order to protect the vulnerable, protect our healthcare services, including maintaining non-Covid healthcare, and reopen schools at the earliest opportunity, which is a high priority.

I thank Senator Lombard for his contribution. We are under no illusions about the scale of the challenge and the many competing priorities facing the Government. However, I believe we can agree that it is right and proper that the primary focus of Government is on addressing the public health challenges as we battle this third wave. In tandem with this, through a variety of State supports in place we will be able to weather the current challenges and assist our economy to recover in due course.

I note the Minister of State's response. It is important that we deal with this issue, but there is not enough clarity in the response and I am not happy with the clarity that has been provided. The time has come to take down this platform. Within level 5 restrictions, Airbnb must be asked to restrain advertising on its platform. As far as I can see, there is no logic or sense in a platform that is advertising accommodation throughout this country, mainly for tourism purposes, to be operating under level 5 restrictions.

The time has come for Airbnb use to be restricted during level 5 and it is important that we propose that the platform be taken down.

I thank the Senator. I note the points he makes but I want to be clear. There are stringent regulations in place. If someone embarks on a trip that is recreational or social, that is against the law. It is enforceable and punishable through An Garda Síochána. If someone partakes in such activities he or she may end up with a criminal record for putting public health and vulnerable people in society at risk. The staff in intensive care units are exhausted. They have gone through so much in the past couple of months it is incomprehensible that people would partake in these activities but these regulations are enforceable. Also, we brought Airbnb within the remit of the planning code. Local authorities will have to give planning permission for all Airbnb accommodation and they will have records of that but the message is clear. The level 5 restrictions are strict. They are enforceable and one runs the risk of getting a criminal conviction if one does not abide by them.

Pyrite Incidence

I thank the Minister of State for his attendance to discuss this matter. It is the second time I have brought it up in the Seanad. It concerns the need for the expansion of the supports for homeowners whose dwellings are affected by pyrite. The Minister of State is well aware that the pyrite remediation scheme eligibility conditions, specifically the construction date, limits the remediations to dwellings built after 1997 and before 2014. I have been corresponding recently with the Pyrite Resolution Board over a particular couple and it told me that the reason for these dates was because the earliest identified cases related to 1997, hence a reference to the dwellings constructed thereafter when the eligibility for the pyrite scheme was first established. While that might have been the case during the development of the pyrite panel in 2012, homeowners of dwellings built prior to 1997 are now noticing serious pyritic heave, and the associated damages that go along with it, to their homes. While they fit nearly all the other eligibility criteria the construction date restriction is making sure that they cannot get access to this scheme.

I recently moved to the constituency of Dublin Fingal. I have had a number of families from Lusk and Rush contact me, including one particular family. There should not be a hierarchy but the situation for this family is heartbreaking because they are an elderly retired couple. They are deeply frustrated and upset. I would go so far as to tell the Minister of State that their mental health is being seriously damaged because they see no resolution or way out and that the entire process is affecting them in a serious way. They became so concerned that their house, which was constructed in 1990, was beginning to crumble around them that they commissioned their own chartered engineer's report to do a full investigation. It included all block testing and analysis. The findings noted that the blockwork used in the construction of the house contained the deleterious material pyrite and it caused an eventual gradual breakdown and a total loss to their structural integrity.

I note the Department last year launched the new defective concrete blocks grant scheme for Mayo and Donegal. That scheme might be relevant now in north County Dublin and the houses in Fingal because if a home is so badly affected by either pyrite or defective blocks the construction date should not be the limiting factor. I understand and respect why that was the case in 2012 when we were in the onslaught of what was brand new to us at that stage and for this particular generation but as the Minister of State is well aware, as politicians we have all seen the deep distress people living with pyrite are under. In the area where I live I have been lucky enough to see the relief when a house is finally remediated. It is life-changing. It is a moment when one finally gets one's keys back and can return to being a happy homeowner as opposed to the shadow of the people who are living under mental stress every day. As far as they are concerned the only hope for them is if the State steps in because at this stage of their lives they certainly could not afford to remediate or even take out a loan to remediate their own homes.

I do not know whether the solution is to amend the pyrite remediation scheme or to include these in the other scheme. This issue is not unique to north County Dublin. There are probably houses in every county that have the same issue. Hundreds of people are excluded from both these schemes that have made such an impact and a difference to the lives of those who have benefited from them. I ask the Minister of State to request the extension of either the pyrite remediation scheme or the defective concrete blocks grant scheme.

This will allow those people with houses built prior to 1997 to access the supports they need to fix their homes and continue to live in them without the fear of them collapsing around them.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter on behalf of her constituents and I fully understand how stressful this can be for families caught up in it.

Budget 2021 provides funding of €40 million for the operation of the pyrite remediation scheme and the defective concrete blocks grant scheme. As set out in the Programme for Government: Our Shared Future, the remediation of dwellings affected by reactive pyrite in hardcore and defective concrete blocks is a priority to ensure people can remain living in their homes. The Pyrite Resolution Act 2013 provides the statutory framework for the establishment of the pyrite resolution board and for the making of a pyrite remediation scheme to be implemented by the board with support from the Housing Agency. The provisions of the Act apply only to dwellings affected by significant damage attributable to pyritic heave consequent on the presence of reactive pyrite in the subfloor hardcore material and not to damage arising in any other circumstance, such as pyrite in concrete blocks.

The pyrite remediation scheme is a scheme of "last resort" for affected homeowners who have no other practical option to obtain redress and is limited in its application and scope. The full conditions for eligibility under the scheme are set out in the scheme, which is available on the board's website, www.pyriteboard.ie. The scheme is applicable to dwellings that are subject to significant damage attributable to pyritic heave, established in accordance with SI 398-1:2017 reactive pyrite in subfloor hardcore material, part 1: testing and categorisation protocol. In this regard, it is a condition of eligibility under the scheme that an application to the board must be accompanied by a building condition assessment with a damage condition rating of 2. Dwellings which do not have a damage condition rating of 2 are not eligible to apply under the scheme. This ensures that, having regard to the available resources, the focus of the scheme is on dwellings most severely damaged by pyritic heave.

As matters currently stand, the owners of dwellings located within the counties of Kildare, Meath or Offaly or the administrative areas of Fingal County Council, Dublin City Council, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, South Dublin County Council or Limerick City and County Council are eligible to apply for remediation works under the scheme. The scheme is primarily based on the information that was available to the board at the time of its adoption in February 2014 and having regard to the detail set out in the report of the pyrite panel from July 2012. The panel undertook a desktop study in conjunction with a stakeholder consultation to establish certain facts relating to the potential exposure of pyrite in dwellings. The information was gathered from a number of sources, including local authorities, structural guarantee providers, representatives of homeowners, private builders, construction professionals and public representatives and was cross-referenced to verify, as far as practicable, its validity.

There is no time limit on when cases must present but the scheme stipulates that the dwelling must have been constructed and completed between 1 January 1997 and 12 December 2013. This is consistent with the pyrite panel's findings in regard to the years of dwelling registration for which pyrite-related claims were made. It is important to note that any proposal to amend the scheme is, in the first instance, a matter for the pyrite resolution board and any such proposal would require detailed consideration of the evidence.

In addition, the board may also make such further inquiries as it considers necessary in order to assist it in considering the matter. The board may be contacted directly by telephone or email about this, including through the Oireachtas information line. The Minister will consider any amendments or extensions which the pyrite resolution board considers are required to the scheme once submitted in accordance with the requirements of the Act. The Minister fully intends to engage with all eligible homeowners of dwellings affected by significant damage attributable to pyritic heave who can have their homes remediated under the scheme. The Senator has articulated the points very well and it is a matter the Minister is prepared to look at.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply and I have much hope from the fact that the necessary amendments will be considered.

The defective concrete blocks grant scheme must be extended, beyond the two counties for which it was established, to Dublin Fingal and indeed probably other areas. The reason I am so invested in this issue is because the couple in question are retired. They are pensioners. They have absolutely no other way, without the intervention of State aid, to fix the home that they have raised their family in and in which they want to spend the autumn of their lives. They do not even have the ability to borrow money because of their age. We must step in as a State to recognise that there are families who are living in extreme distress because of this issue. I understand that when the criteria were established, a major catastrophe had occurred in Westmeath, Meath and Dublin, and in areas where there had been an onslaught of development in the early 2000s and where that development was being affected by pyrite heave in the product from certain quarries at that time. These are the people who are being left behind. Huge distress is being caused by this issue, in particular to the couple to whom I have referred.

I will send the report to the Minister of State. I have already communicated directly with the Pyrite Resolution Board. It has told me that the Act defines the date, so unless, by instruction of the Minister, the dates in the Act are relaxed, we will be in a difficult position. An easy way to spread that valuable funding allocated in this year's budget to help these people, to which the Minister of State referred, is to extend the defective concrete blocks grant scheme to Dublin.

Senator Doherty has made a strong case on this issue. I will raise the matter with the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, as the Pyrite Resolution Board is within his portfolio. I know that he has done a lot of work on the issue to date. It is an important issue. The Senator has raised a valid point that it was a different time economically when the proposals were drafted and approved. I empathise with all families affected, especially those in the autumn of their lives when they should be taking some time for themselves and enjoying a better quality of life. They should not have to grapple and deal with issues such as this. It is not acceptable. I will raise the matter with the Minister and will revert back to the Senator in due course.

Sitting suspended at 11.42 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.