Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Driver Test

I again thank the Minister for coming into the House.

I thank the Cathaoirleach and I appreciate that he has selected this matter today. I welcome the Minister to the House. I know he has a busy portfolio and is very active in it. I wish him well in all his endeavours. I am sure the Minister is aware that there is quite a large backlog in relation to the theory test. This has been flagged to me by several councillors nationwide. Councillors Arthur McDonald and Paul Taylor have recently contacted me about clients who are trying to book a theory test. Some spots available were as late as November of this year. Following further inquiries, I believe there are 54,000 people booked to do theory tests between the middle of March and November.

There was talk of a pilot scheme to bring the driver theory test online. There is no reasonable excuse not to conduct the theory test online, particularly as the Covid crisis is lasting much longer than anticipated. Every other facet of Irish life has moved to Zoom, Teams and other formats. There is no reasonable excuse for the theory test not to be carried out online safely, securely and, most of all, to the benefit to the Irish road user.

I know there a pilot scheme but we have had very little feedback on that. I ask the Minister, as the senior Minister in this Department, to think outside the box, come up with an answer and allow people who need transport for school, work and everyday life to take the test. If they do not have their theory test, they cannot progress to get their driver test. I am hopeful the Minister will have a positive response to this issue. It is not the first time I have flagged it with his office.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. The driver theory test service is the statutory responsibility of the Road Safety Authority. My Department has been in constant contact with the authority since the start of the pandemic regarding all of its services. The impact of Covid-19 on these services and how they can best be maintained in the current circumstances is a critical issue for us.

The driver theory test has not been deemed an essential service under level 5. As a consequence, the service is closed while level 5 restrictions remain in place. Candidates who have a theory test scheduled up to 5 March will be contacted via email with a rescheduled appointment.

Theory tests were first suspended due to Covid-19 in March last year. The service resumed on a gradual basis in mid-June. This was possible due to detailed work undertaken by the Road Safety Authority and its contractor, in conjunction with expert medical advice, to examine each aspect of the testing process and to ensure, to the maximum possible extent, the resumed test would be safe for the public.

When operations resumed there was, inevitably, an increased level of demand due to the consequent backlog. Unfortunately, due to social distancing and other public health and hygiene needs, service capacity was considerably reduced and customers experienced longer waiting times. Level 5 restrictions took effect again for six weeks from 22 October 2020 to 1 December last and were reinstated from the end of December. The service will remain closed until at least 5 March. While I fully appreciated the inconvenience this causes, I am sure the Senator will agree that limiting the spread of the virus and safeguarding public health takes priority.

The Road Safety Authority has advised it is engaging with the service provider to examine ways of increasing the number of tests, within in the current health constraints, when services resume. In this regard, the aim is to double capacity over a three-month period. Subject to decisions on future Covid-19 restrictions, additional capacity would be made available in April, May and June 2021.

Given that normal capacity was approximately 25,000 tests per month, this initiative will provide an estimated 75,000 extra testing appointments over the three-month period, making substantial inroads into numbers waiting. My Department has requested that the Road Safety Authority, as a body legally responsible for the driver theory test, examine whether theory tests can be taken remotely online, and what is needed to do so.

I am pleased to inform Senator Davitt the driver theory test service has launched a pilot phase of a new initiative, which offers a remote testing service for specific categories of theory test. During the pilot phase, remote testing will be available on a limited basis. Extra capacity will be added as it is rolled out to allow more customers to sit their bus or truck certificate of professional competency or advanced driver instruction theory test online.

Remote testing allows candidates to test from their homes or another suitable environment, once the minimum requirements for the service have been met. Following a review of the private phase, the RSA expects the initiative to be extended to cars and motorcycles. The RSA is keen to extend the service to all categories of driver theory test. However, scaling up operations to facilitate higher numbers will take time to achieve. As remote testing facilitates additional capacity while also enabling the service to continue in the event of future lockdowns, it is expected to greatly reduce the service to normal waiting times.

The Department has been in discussions with the Road Safety Authority on how to return to the normal target for the maximum waiting time. It will not be possible to arrive at this quickly, given the restraints which must be put in place due to Covid-19. It is important to recognise there are no quick fixes and the continuing build-up of applications as the pandemic goes on means it will take time to return to normal waiting times. It is important to emphasise that an extension of the level 5 restrictions, currently in place until 5 March, will impact on how quickly the backlog plan can be delivered.

I am delighted to hear the scheme the Minister had introduced on a pilot basis has been a success. However, we are more than a year into this pandemic. There will probably be changes for another year. It would be a step forward to have the theory test online and to have an adequate system so that people could do it online. It would make more sense going forward.

I question the preparation the Road Safety Authority, RSA, has put into this. How did it not see this staring it in the face a year ago and why did it not work on this a bit harder? How can the system not be rolled out when every other facet of Irish society has managed to move on? It is a necessity. I ask the Minister to stress to the RSA that this be made a priority.

Driving examiners are at home. Why can they not look at the theory end? We have the manpower. If these examiners are only carrying out tests on a very limited basis, or not at all, at present, they could be used to help get the theory end out of the way.

I agree with the Senator. The Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, is the line Minister in this regard but I will work with her. I have a meeting coming up with the RSA and I will impress on it the imperative to get the remote system working not only for bus and truck drivers, but also for car drivers. We had a meeting of the Covid subcommittee last night. Unfortunately, the advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, which is good advice, is that we will probably have to continue with level 5 restrictions past 5 March. Everyone is aware of that. This remote testing system was introduced in December and has worked well. It will take some time to set it up more widely but the Senator is right, there is an imperative to do so. I will make sure we do everything we can within the Department to help the RSA to deliver.

Just Transition Fund

This House is well aware of the significance of the power generation facility at Moneypoint in west Clare and of the impact it has had on the economy of the country and on the growth and strengthening of the economy of County Clare. It has now been in operation for 34 years. It was commissioned in 1987, construction having started in 1979. It has had a very significant impact over those 42 years. There is no doubt that it secured the State's electricity supply, helping in no small way with the growth of the Irish economy out of the doldrums of the late 1980s. As I have said, it also strengthened the economy of County Clare. From the start of construction in 1979, hundreds of people were employed. Hundreds more were employed by the fledgling station. The number employed in the operation of the electricity generating facility grew to approximately 300 at its peak. All the while, contractors and external companies also provided labour to the facility. Approximately 600 people worked in the facility at its peak. People moved to the area from other parts of the country and locals were spared the outlet of emigration. Communities such as those in the major town in the west of Clare, Kilrush, in Milltown Malbay and in villages such as Kilmihil, Kilkee, Cooraclare and Lissycasey all grew and were strengthened. People settled in these areas and those communities were protected. There is scarcely a village in County Clare in which there is not someone who worked in Moneypoint at some point. It was a real driver of the local economy.

The Minister, given his expertise, will certainly know how climate change has changed everything, as do we all. Our recognition of the harmful effects of the CO2 emissions from the burning of coal has changed our outlook and the way we live our lives. It has, however, been a key plank of the Minister's policies and those of Fianna Fáil that the communities that have invested a great deal in infrastructure that is now not climate-friendly must be assisted. Nowhere needs this assistance more than Moneypoint and the west Clare area. I ask the Minister to extend just transition funding to meet the needs of those communities that, at the direction of the State, built their lives, had their families, built their homes and set their dreams and aspirations in the villages and towns in this area. We cannot allow the area to become a parked-up rust belt. We know what happens when policies like that are allowed to prevail. We saw what happened in the United States when states moved away from coal extraction and steel working. We saw the impact that had on the democracy of that country when some sought to play with it. I do not want to see the same thing happen here. I want these people to be provided with the real supports they now need.

The communities need just transition funding. The Minister will know that €77 million has been provided by the European Union for the period between 2021 and 2027.

I want the money extended to that area. I also want to see the ESB play a greater role. The reality is that it has shrouded its plans in mystery and secrecy. The plant was supposed to close in 2025, but that has been brought forward because of the way electricity is now priced and the emergence of much more wind energy. The numbers have reduced dramatically. There are probably fewer than 100 people working there from a peak of 600 combined workers. We need to act now. The ESB needs to have an action plan to look to the potential of the plant to capture wind energy off the western seaboard and to see if there is potential to have a gas generation system for electricity with carbon capture and storage. As a State, we need to provide the appropriate funding to help those communities to transition from the burning of coal to finding more opportunities in the green energy sector in particular.

I welcome the opportunity to set out the actions being taken by the Government in response to the announcement of the downsizing of the Moneypoint power station in west Clare. The programme for Government committed to achieving an average reduction of 7% per annum in overall greenhouse gas emissions from 2021 to 2030. This remains a key objective for the Government, and the changes to electricity generation within Moneypoint form part of the steps required to meet this goal.

The 2019 climate action plan also committed to ending the burning of coal at Moneypoint by 2025 at the latest and to the replacement of coal-fired generation with low-carbon and renewable technologies. This remains the objective of the updated climate action plan, due to be released later this year.

The national just transition fund was established in mid-2020 to respond to the immediate closure of the ESB-owned power stations in Lanesborough, County Longford, and Shannonbridge, County Offaly, and to support affected communities in the region with the transition from employment in peat harvesting. As a result of this direct focus, eight of the most affected counties were eligible to submit funding applications to the 2020 just transition fund.

The Government has announced provisional funding offers totalling almost €30 million under the just transition fund to more than 60 projects throughout the region for projects from the private sector, local authorities and communities in the midlands that are committed to creating a green and sustainable economy for the region. This will contribute to making the midlands an attractive and sustainable place to live and work, including by funding training and reskilling so local businesses and communities can adjust to a low-carbon transition.

Looking ahead to future just transition supports, the European green deal has led to the establishment of a new EU just transition fund whose objective will be to alleviate the socioeconomic impacts of the low-carbon transition in the most affected regions across the EU. This fund may be used to support the reskilling of workers, help SMEs to create new economic opportunities, and promote the diversification of economic activity towards low-carbon sectors and progress towards achieving the EU's 2030 climate targets and a climate neutral economy by 2050.

Ireland must prepare a territorial just transition plan, for approval by the European Commission, in order to secure access to supports from this new EU fund. The territorial plan will set out our investment priorities and will identify the sectors and regions to be supported. Part of my Department's work to prepare this territorial plan will include identification of the most affected regions based on the requirements and criteria of the relevant EU regulations. I envisage that this work will be completed this summer.

Separately, as part of the renewable electricity support scheme, RESS, it is a requirement that renewable electricity generation projects that gain support establish a community benefit fund for the distribution of benefits to local communities. Under the first RESS auction it is expected that these funds could amount to more than €4 million per year for local communities across the country. These benefit funds will give local communities the ability to fund worthy sustainable development initiatives as well as fund local clubs and societies that the community deems worthy of support. These funds will be vital in ensuring that communities that host the electricity generation projects of the future retain the benefits locally.

I am aware of a number of projects in counties Clare and Limerick that were successful in the first RESS auction last September and communities in the vicinity of those projects will begin to see the benefits of that funding in the coming years. With the abundant natural renewable resources in west Clare, and offshore, I expect to see further projects coming through later RESS auctions with a resulting increase in funding through local community benefit funds throughout the mid-west region. In the longer term, the Government is planning major investment in offshore wind resources in the Atlantic Ocean, bringing economic benefits to the mid-western region including through development of ports and re-using existing grid infrastructure.

My Department is carrying out a review of the security of energy supply of Ireland's electricity and natural gas systems, focusing on the period to 2030 in the context of a sustainable pathway to 2050. This review will consider a range of options to enhance the security of supply, including sources of electricity generation for use in the event of a shortage of natural gas.

I welcome the clarification that, at least, the ESB is looking at the classification of the plant. The reality is that will probably require approximately 30 employees. However, compared with the height of having 600 employees at the plant, it is no compensation for the wider community. Yet again, it protects the State's requirement to have a back-up electricity supply. What we need is targeted investment under the just transition fund and a portion of the €77 million that has been provided by the EU to support the communities that have already lost very significant amounts of income as a result of the way in which the ESB had to downsize its operations at Moneypoint. It is important that funding is put in place to ensure there is gainful employment. I look forward to proposals and plans for developing offshore wind energy projects, but the experts have indicated that such projects are probably ten years away. We need to protect these communities and bridge the gap between now and ten years hence when there is expected to be potential employment in that area.

I referred to the 2019 climate action plan. In truth, we will have to be more ambitious in many different areas such as agriculture and transport, but also in energy. One of the areas where things will probably advance more quickly than was set out in the plan is that of power generation. While preparing my response to the Senator, I noted that the price of carbon today is almost €40 per tonne. At that price, Moneypoint does not operate. It is outside the merit order. It does not make economic sense. As such, the 2025 deadline is increasingly irrelevant in the context of what the reality is.

The Deputy was partly correct with regard to offshore development being ten years away. Later this year or early next year, we will start auctions for offshore wind on the east coast, but we will not have to wait ten years to start in deeper waters elsewhere and to look at the prospects of floating wind turbines and so on. It will take a long time. These projects are huge. The turbines we will be putting out from the Shannon Estuary into the Atlantic will be far higher than the chimneys at Moneypoint. People in the area know how dominant those chimneys are. The jobs to which the Senator referred, which were created in the late 1970s and 1980s during the construction of the Moneypoint station, will be a fraction of the jobs that will be available not only in the deployment, maintenance and management of that new energy system, but also the jobs that will be created in the context of the use of the power as it comes back in. The real prospect here is not just building energy generation in Moneypoint and elsewhere in County Clare, but bringing the industry to where the power is. That is the prospect that holds out real opportunity and it is why we should be quicker and more ambitious, rather than just accept existing plans.

An Bord Pleanála

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, to the House. He will not be a stranger to this topic. I am endeavouring to again raise the issue of two e-planning or online planning systems. One of those systems, entitled Plean-IT, is being championed and is supposed to be promoted by An Bord Pleanála. Let us deal with a few facts with regard to the 2016 programme for Government and the current programme for Government. All present are aware that, in spite of a few sceptics, Rebuilding Ireland remains Government policy. When it was published in 2016, it contained an absolute commitment that the Plean-IT project would be rolled out.

I had a look at the subsequent Estimates in Dáil Éireann relating to successive budgets, and I see that substantial moneys have been given to An Bord Pleanála. I also saw that money was invested in capital projects, almost €1 million in the past two years. However, the slow progress on the part of An Bord Pleanála in the context of information technology is exceptionally disappointing.

I also wish to raise the issue of e-planning across the 31 local authorities. I believe in checking out these systems myself, so I rang An Bord Pleanála yesterday. I asked whether if I wanted to inspect the report of a chief executive of a planning authority online, I could do so. I was not referring to a current report, but one in respect of which a decision had been determined. I made that inquiry because, as the Minister of State knows, transparency is very important in the planning process. I was informed, quite frankly, that the information is not available online because An Bord Pleanála does not have the capacity to do that yet. I then posed a question as to how a person in Claremorris, County Clare, with an issue in respect of a strategic housing development would be able to see the relevant information. I was told that the person would first have to make an appointment with An Bord Pleanála. Given the situation with Covid-19, and I fully appreciate all the restrictions in place because of concern for public health, I was told that it would be necessary to make an appointment, come up on a bus and then look at a hard copy of the information. The information required is available, so it is not an issue of retaining or shutting down the documentation.

Those of us in Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann who represent rural constituencies and areas should really be starting to wake up. We have a legislative duty. A programme for Government was drawn up some time ago, and the Rebuilding Ireland policy refers to an absolute commitment regarding the rolling out of the Plean-IT system. The system as it stands is lacking. The impact of Covid-19 is a restriction and the difficulty in this regard. I rang several planning authorities and I was told that they are shut but that, in limited circumstances, they could arrange for people to come in by appointment. Those planning authorities are open but are operating under very tight restrictions.

The nature of our planning process means that it is vital that people should be able to see draft county development plans, new plans and local area plans. All such plans should be available and this is an important point. I want to inject a new impetus into getting An Bord Pleanála fully online. If the onset of Covid-19 has taught us one thing, it is that when we are put under pressure and are forced to engage with technology, then we embrace it. I have travelled a long way in IT in the past six months as a result of Covid-19. I resisted all sorts of measures and initiatives previously, but I am now doing Zoom calls and all of the other online bits and pieces. When the pressure is on and when we have the hunger and desire to get information, we go after it and we use whatever means and mediums are open to us.

For the Minister of State's benefit, I have sent him some of the details I have not been able to cover here. There is a commitment in Rebuilding Ireland to roll out An Bord Pleanála's Plean-IT system. We should have a compatible e-planning system around the country, because we want to engage and encourage rather than frustrate people involved in this process. There have been particular concerns regarding the strategic housing development scheme, but hopefully that is going to end soon anyway. We must open up the planning process, however, and allow people to engage with technology.

I thank Senator Boyhan for raising this important issue, which is also close to my heart, and for giving me the opportunity to update the Seanad on progress in the roll-out of the Plean-IT project upgrading the IT system operated by An Bord Pleanála and the Local Government Management Agency's e-planning project.

The operation of an efficient, up-to-date and fit-for-purpose planning system which facilitates easier public engagement and participation in the planning process is a key priority for my Department. The development and roll-out of An Bord Pleanála's major IT transformation project, Plean-IT, is a significant initiative aimed at facilitating applications, appeals and submissions to be made on-line and it is moving into its next phase of development, linking in with the separate e-planning initiative to be operated by the local planning authorities.

In this regard, the An Bord Pleanála introduced an on-line facility to accept public observations relating to strategic housing development applications, together with the required fee, in November. The online facility is currently in operation, but for those cases only. An Bord Pleanála intends to use its experience with this initial pilot project to inform its development of similar facilities and arrangements for other case types, including other strategic infrastructure development cases and planning appeals and it is intended to advance these in 2021. Details of the pilot project arrangements are available on An Bord Pleanála's website, www.pleanala.ie.

An Bord Pleanála is also in the process of finalising the development of a new, upgraded website which will be more user-friendly and informative than the current one.

The new website will make it easier for members of the public to view and monitor the progress of files and is scheduled to go live before the end of the first quarter of 2021. This will further help to improve communications and interaction between An Bord Pleanála and the public.

The Local Government Management Agency is managing and co-ordinating the development of the e-planning project, on behalf of my Department, to which the Department is providing significant funding towards the start-up costs. The e-planning project, which is currently being developed, seeks to integrate the information technology, IT, systems of the 31 planning authorities using a single online portal that allows for the online submission of planning applications, appeals, submissions and associated fees. Once it has been fully rolled out, e-planning will provide an online option for the public to engage with the planning system, in addition to the paper-based system.

The experience of operating the planning system during the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of having the most up-to-date and modern technology in place. It has also highlighted the role that online technology will make to the more effective and efficient operation of the planning system in the future, as has been alluded to by Senator Boyhan.

Arising from the experience over the last 11 months, the e-planning project board has been requested by my Department to accelerate the development and roll-out of the new e-planning system nationwide with a view to bringing the system on stream as speedily as possible. The proposed system is now in its final stages of development and testing, further to which it is envisaged that e-planning will be launched in a number of planning authorities during the next quarter and, subsequently, rolled out to all other local authorities on a phased basis by the end of the second quarter of 2022.

It is important that this issue has been raised by Senator Boyhan. Both of us have spoken at length about public engagement in the planning system. In the spirit of the Aarhus Convention, the public participation directive, we have a great opportunity now to give those who probably would not ordinarily have a voice, or an input, into the planning system the option to do so by facilitating increased and enhanced access to online portals. I welcome this Commencement matter being brought forward.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply. On 29 October 2020, the policy document entitled the Programme for Government: Our Shared Future was published. It talked about planning reform, supporting the planning regulator and IT technologies, which is important. We need to push it on and Covid has brought technology more to the fore.

Last week, I made a trip to the office of An Bord Pleanála to deliver two objections for two people because I could not do them online. I went to the post office on Merrion Row and with my own money took out two €50 postal orders for observations. Then I walked to Marlborough Street where I pressed a doorbell of an office and was told to stick them in the cardboard box as they could not validate them. I said that it was a shame that the people for whom I delivered the objections could not do this online. We do not have the facility, which is a poor show in 2021.

Before I came in here, I conducted a word search on the national planning framework and discovered that neither the term "Plean-IT", which is the big An Bord Pleanála portal that the Minister of State talked about, or the term "e-planning" was mentioned once. Perhaps when we are talking about that document we could incorporate those two objectives and ambitions in the document.

The Senator has made useful suggestions. I will take on board the useful note that he provided to me. We know our city and county development plans are now aligned and moving in the same trajectory. I attended an open session on Kilkenny County Council's heritage plan, which was really fantastic. Members of the public have been drawn into an online portal, consult.kilkenny.ie, which is well worth a look. It is a good exemplar of what can be done in these times, particularly with regard to the level of engagement. Previously, we would have had public meetings that might have had a trickle of people into them but at that particular event there were over 70 participants. The initiative is a fantastic opportunity. It is an opportunity that we need to take out of Covid and bring to us. We need to keep using it as a default way to enhance transparency, accessibility and participation in the planning system.

I thank the Minister of State for joining us today.

Special Educational Needs

I thank the Minister of State for coming before the House so quickly again. I very much appreciate that she was only here last week listening to us speak about exactly the same topics. As she will be aware, a group of parents have mounted a valiant campaign in Dublin 12 to see the opening of a school locally for the provision of autism-specific classes and supports. Very early in the Minister of State's tenure she met with them, and I know a considerable amount of work went into ensuring that the Scoil Colm that was there, which was ready to go, could be opened and equipped. This situation arose because the enrolment policies surrounding ASD classes are not community-specific or specific to the local community and, as a consequence, there were exceptionally long waiting lists in Dublin 12 because the surrounding areas of Dublin 6W and so on do not have classes. The Minister of State is always patient and tolerant in listening to me go on and on about this. I am passionate about it because I will never get over the meeting last year with Involve Autism and the sheer sadness of the parents that evening.

The Minister of State made a fantastic announcement at Christmas and I know it came on foot of an awful lot of background work on her part and on the part of her officials. We now know that the school opening is due for September of this year. I acknowledge fully the engagement of the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, and the Minister of State's most recent update that enrolment, staffing and so on are being contemplated. However, those parents who have advocated most for this are very anxious to know the specific details of the opening. Some are very anxious to get in and have a look at the facility and to see whether there is anything to be done, anything that can be done in the interim and anything that can be done to assist, to hurry this up and to ensure they will have places for their children in the coming school year, if not beforehand. As we know, autism is not limited to a specific demographic. It is really important to say that if we have this in Dublin 12, it will take the pressure from other areas and then, it is to be hoped, we will be able to concentrate and work on other areas, as I know the Minister of State has been doing. We have had great strides forward, and I very much appreciate her work on that. Anything she can tell us or update us in detail on regarding the opening of Scoil Colm will be very much appreciated.

I thank Senator Seery Kearney for raising this important matter. She raises it consistently with me. She raised it last week and I did not answer because there were so many other questions that there was not enough time. I am delighted to have the opportunity today.

Enabling children with special educational needs to receive an education appropriate to their needs is a priority for this Government and always has been. I was very pleased to have secured agreement on a new special school on the site of Scoil Colm. This is a much-needed development which will help to meet the demand for special school places in the area, as the Senator said. Since my appointment I have met with a wide range of representative associations and advocates for the special education sector. All these groups, including Involve Autism, have raised very important issues as to how they consider that improvements can be made to special education services. Among these groups were local campaigners for a special school in Dublin 12 such as Involve Autism, whom I met along with Senator Seery Kearney and other public representatives. I pay tribute to the work of these campaigners for their dedication to this project and the educational welfare of young people in the area. We know there has been a need, as the Senator pointed out, for an additional special school in the area, and I was determined to take action to rectify this. By working closely with school authorities, the patron body, officials, public representatives and the NCSE, we secured agreement on the use of the site, and I was delighted to approve the establishment of the new school just before Christmas of last year.

The NCSE has identified that appropriate provision is currently required for approximately 40 special school places for students with autism and general learning disabilities in the south Dublin area. This provision is required to be made available from the beginning of this year, that is, the 2021-22 school year.

While the initial provision of 40 placements is intended to provide for those students identified by the NCSE, it is also intended that the available places will be used to meet the needs of other children with complex needs in the area. The Senator's particular question was around what is happening at the moment. The arrangements for the establishment of the new school are in train in consultation with the school patron, the Archbishop of Dublin, and the NCSE, and further information will be provided in advance of the opening. The NCSE will determine the staffing level for the school in line with normal procedures. My Department will also consider whatever other supports, including funding and training, are necessary to ensure the school is in a position to cater for the needs of these students upon enrolment. I assure the Senator that the necessary arrangements are being progressed as speedily as possible.

This new school will be a positive addition to the local area and we will ensure it is fully supported. We hope to open the school in September. If there is any possibility of doing so prior to that, we will certainly try but it will be open by September. The building does need to be prepared and teachers recruited. As I said, there is ongoing work with the NCSE around that. I am struck by what the Senator said about autism not being limited to a demographic. Indeed it is not and there are other areas around the country where special schools are required, and we always try to collaborate with existing schools to see if there is a way of expanding those schools. If not, we will always build special schools. I was very pleased that one of the first commitments I secured as a dedicated Minister of State for this area was a commitment from the building and planning area that from this year all new schools will automatically provide SEN facilities and classrooms. That is going to be important into the future so we do not have this issue happening perennially.

I very much appreciate the Minister of State's response. From the moment she took office, nobody could doubt the priority she placed on this issue or her passion. I recall that within a couple of weeks she had facilitated a number of meetings for me. I really appreciate it. I acknowledge the considerable work done, particularly by Ms Margaret Lowndes of the D12 autism-specific school campaign, because she beat that drum very loudly for a long time. I join her in excitement at seeing this come to fruition.

It is important for us to hear about the breakdown of classes. Are those 40 places in that specific school? Is it going to be across different classes? Covid is a difficulty here but they are anxious to have a look at how the parents are being selected. Will the children of those who campaigned secure places?

As the Senator will appreciate, it is a co-located shared campus with Scoil Eoin which already has 132 pupils. Scoil Colm is envisaged as catering for 40 students at the outset and it is hoped more thereafter. The intricacies and the finer details are being discussed at present, but I assure the Senator it is ongoing. There is quite a lot of work to do. We have been straitjacketed by Covid to a certain extent, not just with Scoil Colm and Scoil Eoin but in other areas of education, and it has been extremely difficult even to get on-site inspections done around the country. However, work on this is ongoing and should be done in a timely basis and definitely by September at the latest. As I said, if we can possibly do it before that we will. There are always increases in population as well as an exponential growth in autism around the country. I am determined we cater for these needs wherever they are situated. I thank the Senator again for her passion and interest in this particular area.

Covid-19 Pandemic

It is good to see the Minister of State here, we all very much appreciate her time. I asked for this Commencement matter because of the frustration and worry of parents of children with special needs and those of children with additional needs. The Minister of State is well aware they are at their wits' end.

Parents are seeing their children's development regress. The ability of these children to behave socially has been affected and they are struggling to cope. The stories I have heard are devastating.

We were all very glad to hear the announcement that special needs classes and schools would be reopening and I wholeheartedly commend the Minister of State's incredibly hard work and dedication on this matter. However, the phased method, with one day on and one day off and two days in school one week and three the following week, is not sustainable for many students. It is causing havoc for some children. Some do not have the same understanding of time and it is difficult for them to understand why their bus comes one day and not the next when they are used to going to school on a five-day basis. I know that it is the goal of the Government to get these children back into full-time education but what is troubling for many is that they do not know when so-called normality will resume.

I appreciate the Government is working hard to reopen schools sooner. These schools are deemed an essential service. These classes and schools provide much more than education and only time and retrospection will inform us of the full damage these closures have caused. There has already been compelling research on the damage caused to our children and particularly our special needs children.

One parent of a child with special educational needs has said that the child cannot cope with attending school for one day, followed by a long mid-term break and possible disruption in routine. Another parent is facing the issue of her child being totally confused and upset by the starting and stopping. Another parent has found her son very upset on his days off and feels that online learning is making him worse. A child with special needs has been put on medication to help with anxiety levels and behaviour because of the lockdowns and not being able to go to school. Since returning to school this year, his medication had to be increased as returning to school one day a week was completely out of his routine. Another parent is dealing with a child who is very settled on the days he is in school but very disruptive on days off. I have also heard from parents of children attending special needs classes in schools that are being asked to do a phased reopening. Has this been permitted in the guidance and is it up to each school to decide?

Issues are coming up for parents whose children are to return to school next week. One child will return to his autism spectrum disorder, ASD, unit on Monday but only from 9 a.m. to 10.40 a.m., even though the child usually attends from 9 a.m. until 2.40 p.m. Many parents are being offered shorter days, which is not a full return to education. Are there guidelines or medical evidence that state this is best practice? It goes without saying that the situation is strained for parents, children and teachers. I understand and appreciate that.

Where do children with additional needs feature in the scheme of returning to education? What extra resources will be put in place for them when they return to school?

In summary, I want to know when special needs schools and classes will return to full capacity. I worry for many families, particularly children who have been out of school and society and have not been reaching their potential for a long time. They have not been comfortable in their own skins and abilities because of the school closures. Parents are tired, as the Minister of State knows well because she has been at the front line. I would like to give these families and children some answers.

I thank the Senator for her question. My Department and I are very conscious of the fact that closing schools has hugely adverse consequences at individual, family and societal level and that the effect on children with special educational needs can be even greater, as we all know. It is my and the Minister, Deputy Foley's strong preference that all students would return to school at the earliest opportunity in March in line with public health advice.

Under the framework recently agreed with teacher unions and school management, an initial phased return of children in special schools and special classes is already under way, with children in special schools returning on a 50% basis, as the Senator spoke about, from 11 February and children in special classes in mainstream primary and post-primary schools making a full return from next Monday, 22 February.

Dialogue is continuing with education partners at primary and post-primary levels about a full reopening of schools. This has been informed by engagement with the Department of Health, whose analysis of the current disease levels has advised that a cautious phased approach should continue to be developed, which is what has happened thus far.

The Department has reaffirmed its view that schools in and of themselves are low-risk environments. We also know this from NPHET's advice, from Dr. Abigail Collins and Dr. Kevin Kelleher and, indeed, from Dr. Philip Nolan, who has always maintained that schools are safe environments once they put in place their own infection control measures, which needs to be done. This approach will see schools reopening in line with public health advice and will ensure that all schools can reopen safely at the earliest opportunity in March.

We recognise that remote learning is particularly challenging for students with complex needs and because of this, the Department of Education has also put in place a supplementary programme to support the education and-or care needs of students with complex needs at primary and post primary level. This programme of in-person support is intended to supplement the teaching and learning provided by the student’s school and alleviate the impact of this period of school closure through the provision of five hours per week of in-person teaching or care support, to be delivered in homes for up to four weeks. There is support available. We recognise that it is not sufficient but it is something to try to help tackle this regression.

I am struck by what the Senator said about anxiety and behaviour, and the fact that some children have had to increase their medication, which is not what anybody wants. She spoke of families being at their wits' end and being devastated. I am equally devastated that we cannot do this. If I had a magic wand I would have all children back in school from today or tomorrow but that is simply not possible. We are dealing with many constituent parts within the education sector and we also have to take public health advice into account. Everybody is working towards this continued phased reopening. As I said, we have already had some success in the special schools, even if they are at 50% capacity. We hope to get them to 100% as soon as is practical and possible. It is important that all children get their education in-person and in a school environment because this situation is extremely difficult for everybody. The Senator can rest assured that I and the Government are determined to reopen schools for students once it is fully safe to do so and once we have the agreement of all our education partners.

I know that if the Minister of State could click her fingers we would have all our children back to school. Part of my thought process on this issue is about special classes. There is a very individual, school-level approach to the reduction of the hours being provided. What do parents do if they are told they are supposed to get their child back to full-time education when they are not getting that? One hour and 40 minutes, which is what they will have next week, is certainly not full time for special classes. I ask the Minister of State to work on that and see if there is a way to get around it. If there is a school issue can the school contact the Department to see what it should do? Is there extra help to make sure there are full classes back at school next week?

It is important to note that guidance has gone out to all schools on how they should be catering for children with special educational needs. Some of the requirements set out are: regular engagement with pupils and students; a blend of guided and independent learning tasks; appropriate and engaging learning opportunities; and two-way feedback between home and school. There are supports in place, as well as supports from the National Council For Special Education. It is clearly a relationship between all parties. It is up to the schools to decide how they administer the 50% capacity. We cannot be too prescriptive and schools and their principals, teachers and SNAs know best how they can work out a 50% phased approach. We ask for fairness in that regard. The guidance is set out very clearly until we can get back to 100% reopening and, indeed, until we get special educational needs classes in mainstream, regular education back, which we intend to do as soon as possible.

Qualifications Recognition

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach Gníomhach agus leis an Aire Stáit fosta as an gceist seo a ghlacadh. Tá a fhios agam go mbeidh mórán eolais aige agus aitheantais tugtha aige freisin don ábhar seo agus ar na fadhbanna atá ann fós maidir leis. The Minister of State will know that mutual recognition of professional qualifications is a live issue. I appreciate that and also that the matter is still being negotiated and discussed at committee level. The Minister of State will also appreciate and understand the uncertainty that prevails about this issue and the need to get it resolved.

Brexit has taken many rights and entitlements away from us. One area on which we were steadfast, sure and assertive was the need to protect the common travel area, CTA. Mutual recognition of professional qualifications is part and parcel of that. One of the Irish Government’s key commitments, supported right across political, civic and business life here, was the very clear and firm need to defend and uphold the Good Friday Agreement, protect citizens' rights and, crucially in this instance, protect the all-Ireland economy. If qualifications are not being mutually recognised, North and South and between these islands, it has the potential to cause harm to our economy and could have a real impact on workers and businesses and those who hope to plan a better professional future for themselves. The matter, as the Minister of State will see, is straightforward. I appreciate him coming to the House to take this Commencement matter. It is important and timely to get an update from the Government on the status of this issue and, more important, how it sees it developing.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach Gníomhach agus leis an Seanadóir Ó Donnghaile as an ábhar tábhachtach seo a ardú ag tús imeachtaí an tSeanaid.

North-South co-operation, as we all agree, is an integral part of the Good Friday Agreement and a priority for the Government. It is protected under the protocol on Ireland-Northern Ireland. The protocol’s recognition of the role of North-South co-operation is important. It is also a recognition of the importance of strand two of the Good Friday Agreement and of the way lives are led and business is conducted on the island of Ireland. The mapping exercise of North-South co-operation undertaken by the UK and EU provided valuable information on its breadth and depth. It confirmed that many areas have either expressly relied upon or been significantly enabled by the overarching EU legal and policy framework.

The context for North-South co-operation has unfortunately now changed. We will continue to work hard to find new ways of working in the areas where the underlying EU law no longer applies in Northern Ireland. The recognition of professional qualifications is one of a number of cross-cutting issues that impact on North-South co-operation. Unfortunately, it has been affected by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, as the Senator acknowledged, and is also important in the context of the common travel area. The Government is fully committed to the CTA and remains in close contact with UK authorities to ensure its smooth operation.

As of 1 January 2021, mutual recognition of professional qualifications, as laid down in EU Directive 2013/55/EU, no longer applies with regard to the UK. The recognition of qualifications has formed a key part of the Government’s Brexit preparations, with a view to mitigating the challenges, where possible, and has been led by the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. The Department, in collaboration with the British Government, has encouraged regulatory authorities in Ireland, a small number of which operate on an all-island basis, to engage with their UK counterparts to manage the process of continued recognition of UK qualifications in national law in Ireland. Departments, together with their regulators, have confirmed that in the majority of cases arrangements are in place to ensure continued recognition of professional qualifications. Individuals who have already had their qualifications recognised by the relevant EU regulator before the end of the transition period will experience no change and can continue to practise in Ireland or elsewhere in the EU.

Those who attain their qualifications after the end of the transition period will need to take the necessary steps to get their qualifications recognised in the other jurisdiction, as per the agreed regulator-to-regulator approach.

We recommend that anyone with a question about the process should contact the regulator. There certainly are a small number of sectors in respect of which further work is required or where primary EU law regarding certain regulated professions requires establishment or residence in the EU member state. The EU-UK trade and co-operation agreement also foresees a mechanism whereby the EU and the UK may later agree, on a case-by-case basis and for specific professions, on additional arrangements for the mutual recognition of certain professional qualifications. We look forward to and will work towards further progress on this important work.

Go raibh maith agat as an eolas cuimsitheach sin. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, I appreciate that this is a movable feast at the minute, and that the Minister of State is in the midst of it. What is crucial and important for the people affected is that they hear an update from the Government. However, going forward, beyond the details of what the Minister of State is suggesting, as welcome as that is, it is vital that the Government assures people it is doing everything in its power to mitigate the worst excesses of Brexit, and this is one of those excesses of Brexit. I know there is an EU-UK meeting next Wednesday. I ask the Minister of State to commit, on behalf of the Government, to a comprehensive effort to establish bilateral agreements, where necessary, to ensure that issues like this around the mutual recognition of professional qualifications are maintained, recognised and upheld, and that we do not heap even further injustice, unnecessary denial and removal of rights onto people where it does not need to be.

I have taken strong note of what the Senator has said on what is a really important issue. There are huge challenges for citizens across a number of sectors, North and South, with regard to the all-island economy. We all agree that those problems caused by Brexit require solutions. We have solutions to some problems, such as the CTA, and we have a trade agreement with Britain which resolves some problems but does not resolve every problem. The protocol is the solution to the problem of Brexit. Brexit is a problem for us - there is no two ways about it - and it is a problem for a number of professionals. This is a priority for the Government, however, and it will work to support ongoing work between the European Union and the UK in this context.

Individuals concerned can take note of the current measures for the recognition of professional qualifications and they can contact the regulatory bodies as issues arise. Regulatory bodies have been asked to do this work, and I know they are co-operating and doing as much as they can. The co-operation between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland on an all-island basis remains an important priority, including the new transition context. It is a central part of the Good Friday Agreement and it is essential for achieving reconciliation, social development and economic progress on the island of Ireland.

Sitting suspended at 11.38 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.