Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Monday, 5 Jul 2021

Vol. 277 No. 10

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Planning Issues

I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this really important Commencement matter related to planning. I welcome my colleague and friend the Minister of State. It is good to see him in particular, as he has a strong record on planning and environmental considerations and is a major champion of the Aarhus Convention. It is important this Commencement matter is dealt with in this way. It is very timely we are dealing with this item today because there is a very substantial piece in this morning's edition of The Irish Times by Mr. Colm Keena, the legal affairs correspondent, on new proposals around judicial review. I have a copy of the edition to hand, which I can give to the Minister of State later when we leave the Chamber. The article suggests new proposals would see an individual having to pay up to €5,000 and a legal entity €10,000 towards a notice party’s costs when a notice party successfully defends a judicial review. That is outrageous and a disgrace and I hope it will not happen on the watch of the Green Party in government. I do not think it will. I am confident enough in the Green Party to know it will resist it and I again call for this to not happen. The fact that this has even got life and been published in this morning's edition of The Irish Times must be of concern to environmentalists and to the Green Party. I opened the newspaper this morning in my office and read of these proposals.

I return to the kernel of the matter. We know the housing planning system is in crisis over judicial reviews; the Minister of State knows it, I know it and we all know it. However, it is not the objectors who are the problem but the fact that there are major concerns about strategic housing developments, SHDs. Submissions were made in an interim report on SHDs and all of them were ignored. I have engaged exhaustively with An Bord Pleanála and its documentation and correspondence and have also gleaned knowledge from my active involvement in the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage. I will state three things: An Bord Pleanála has lost 90% of completed judicial reviews lodged against its decisions on SHDs; An Bord Pleanála has been the subject of 33 completed judicial reviews since the SHD fast-track process was launched in 2017; and An Bord Pleanála has lost 29 judicial reviews, 14 of which it conceded without a hearing and 15 which it conceded following the full court hearings and judgments. That is the reality I want to put on the record of the House.

There is a problem with the SHDs and we need to address it. There are concerns about development, industry, jobs and homes, and I share them. The process is flawed; it is a disgrace and should never have been put into the programme for Government but the Green Party had to compromise. I engaged with the Green Party and it told me it had to compromise, which I recognise, but let us see the end to the SHD process. Let us not take it out on environmentalists or citizens. Let us empower city and county councillors and citizens to engage on an SHD application or any other. The current SHD plan process excludes individuals from a third-party appeal in their local planning authority. It excludes environmentalist groups, such as Friends of the Earth and An Taisce, which have a view. It might not always be the right view but it should be aired. I acknowledge I am talking to a Minister of State who is fiercely committed to all the engagement to which I refer so let us have that engagement. If we have to have reform, let us have it on the timelines but let us not penalise or punish people for engaging. Let us adhere to the principles of the Aarhus Convention, to which the Green Party, including the Minister of State, is committed.

I thank Senator Boyhan for raising this issue. I share his concerns and his interest in the Aarhus Convention and public participation in general. I am glad of the opportunity to update Senators on the reform of the judicial review provisions in the Planning and Development Act and the related matter of the proposed establishment of the environmental and planning court, both of which are important commitments in Programme for Government: Our Shared Future.

The general scheme of the Housing and Planning and Development Bill 2019, which was published in late 2019 and has since been the subject of a public consultation process, sets out an initial outline of the revisions to the judicial review provisions in sections 50 to 50B of the Planning and Developments Acts. The general scheme was incorporated in the Government's legislation programme for the autumn session of 2020 among the list of the general schemes to undergo pre-legislative scrutiny. However, given the range of other legislative measures proposed by my Department for scrutiny by the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage in the earlier period of the current Government's tenure, it was not possible to progress the general scheme as envisaged.

My Department is currently engaging with the joint Oireachtas committee on the arrangements in this regard and I hope the process can be facilitated at the earliest opportunity. However, I assure the House that it is intended that the reforms of the judicial review provisions would be in line with our EU law obligations on public participation under the Aarhus Convention.

I support Senator Boyhan on the points raised. Public participation is and should be a cornerstone of our democracy. I was involved in cases to test the early provisions of the Aarhus Convention when it came into effect in Irish law. It is critical that community groups and NGOs have the right to participate fully in our judicial system when it comes to planning. I support that. There is a commitment within the programme for Government to move away from token consultation towards a more participative and inclusive planning system. That is something we would all more than welcome.

I thank the Minister of State for that response. I am happy with it. It was a coincidence that today's The Irish Times carried the story. However, on 15 June 2021, the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, wrote to the committee, of which I am a member, and referred to Programme for Government: Our Shared Vision and his requirement to examine again the general scheme of the Housing and Planning and Development Bill 2019, to which the Minister of State, Deputy Malcolm Noonan, referred. I am fully supportive of the request of the Minister of State, Deputy Burke. I proposed that this request be accepted by the committee and that we would engage in pre-legislative scrutiny. The Minister of State expressed his concern and said he hoped the committee would consider the matter. I thank the Ministers of State, particularly Deputy Peter Burke, because he has been proactive in this area. That is where we can do a lot of the lifting. Let us not take our eye off the ball, however. Let us not punish or disadvantage good environmentalist citizens who want to engage in our process. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Malcolm Noonan, for coming to the House to deal with this Commencement matter.

I have just been handed a copy of the article in question. In the early stages of the Aarhus Convention being brought into effect in Irish law, I was one of several people who took a case seeking a not prohibitively expensive order to protect us from legal costs given that we were community activists at the time. It is important that communities, individuals and environmental organisations have the right to take legal proceedings without being unduly affected. That is what the Aarhus Convention is about. It is about access to environmental justice, access in a way that is timely and access to environmental information. It is vital that we have fair and transparent judicial and planning systems. Again, I thank the Senator for raising this important issue.

Before proceeding to the next Commencement matter, I am appointing Senator Flynn as a Cathaoirleach Sealadach to Seanad Éireann. This is the first morning on which she is going to chair a session of Seanad Éireann. As Members know, her appointment by the Taoiseach as the first member of the Traveller community to serve in the Oireachtas was hailed by Pavee Point and the National Women's Council as historic. The father of the House, Senator Norris, talked about it as being a huge advance for Seanad Éireann and the Oireachtas as a whole. I now ask Senator Flynn to chair a session of Seanad Éireann.

Cross-Border Co-operation

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Thomas Byrne, to the House. I call on Senator McGreehan, who has four minutes.

I thank the Acting Chairperson. It is very nice to see her in the Chair today. The Minister of State is very welcome to the House. I am grateful he is taking this Commencement matter.

The shared island unit is one of the many commitments in the programme for Government that has interested and excited me. The historical significance of the unit is underestimated. For the first time in the State's history, we have a dedicated unit whose sole responsibility is to examine policy, infrastructure and the future of this island on an all-island basis. We see from the recent announcement on Narrow Water bridge and the Ulster Canal a belief in the importance of the shared island and what it can do. These projects symbolise a belief in the people of the Border region and what it can achieve. It is right, as we enter a new century, that we look forward progressively and inclusively, harnessing all the talent and resources that this beautiful island holds. That is why I ask the Department of the Taoiseach's shared island unit to allocate funds to commence inclusive engagement with schools all across the island. This would symbolise the belief among our young people and their ability to shape the future. It is necessary that we seek to encourage our young people to dream, imagine and then create the impossible. Young people look at things without the many barriers we oldies face. They are the future. Helping them now to create the future they dream of is our responsibility.

I absolutely commend the work done to date by the thousands of people who have come together in civic engagement sessions. It is very welcome. The Acting Chair, Senator Flynn, has been part of this civic engagement also. My proposal is possibly a model similar to the BT Young Scientist, whereby we create a space for young people to share their views, create projects and challenge themselves on how we move forward together over the next 100 years. People on the island have worked together for many centuries. Let us work together, no matter what the constitutional status of the two jurisdictions. Get young people talking and tackling the issues of unionism and republicanism, how to improve on the status quo or how to reunite the island. It is not us who have to live with the consequences of our decisions, it is our children who must do so. I want them to create the narrative that we can help to implement.

We are in agreement. From his previous portfolio as education spokesperson, the Minister of State knows, that education creates changes. It is through education that changes will be made, challenges will be overcome and friendships will be developed. As a consequence, we will have a positive shared future. Under this, there will be no doubt this positive future will grow. Prejudices, mistrust and fear of the unknown will disappear only through this dialogue and increased co-operation. Education is something in which we all partake and we must educate everyone on the island on our history and our shared history to appreciate one's identity as British or Irish and to encourage a space where one's identity is not threatened by someone else's belief and we can all be confident in ourselves. This is why I hope the school projects challenging our wonderful young people are a positive step. I acknowledge the announcement this morning of €40 million for all-Ireland higher education research projects. It shows the shared island unit has a real emphasis on education and bringing the work of the unit to our secondary schools would be very progressive.

My best wishes to the Acting Chair, Senator Flynn, not just in the role this morning, which is significant, but I hope for her and her community that it will become routine and part of the normal fabric of our society. This is very important. I thank the Acting Chair for all the work she is doing.

I thank Senator McGreehan for taking a patriotic approach to the island rather than an ultra-nationalistic approach of division. Senator McGreehan has taken a unifying approach on the issue of this island, and this is especially relevant given where she comes from on the Border. I thank her for raising the important role of schools and education. The Taoiseach has asked me to respond to the points that she has raised.

The shared island initiative aims to harness the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement to enhance co-operation, connection and mutual understanding on the island, engaging with all communities and traditions to build consensus around a shared future. The Taoiseach established the shared island unit in his Department to act as a driver and co-ordinator of this whole-of-government approach. In the budget, the Government established a shared island fund, committing €500 million in capital funding out to 2025, ring-fenced for investment in North-South projects. The Taoiseach has already announced substantial investments in long-standing all-Ireland projects that, quite frankly, were hanging around for too long, including the Ulster Canal and Narrow Water bridge. I thank Senator McGreehan for her work in pursuing the Narrow Water bridge project. It will be not just nationally important infrastructure but also a crucial piece of local infrastructure on the Cooley Peninsula and in south County Down. As mentioned, research collaboration on the island is also a priority for the fund. The Government is working with the Northern Ireland Executive, the British Government and other partners to deliver cross-Border capital investments that meet our objectives to enhance our shared island.

The programme for Government also includes a shared island commitment to expand the North-South school exchange programme. This affirms the Government's commitment under the New Decade, New Approach agreement to build on the success of the first pilot programme of bringing young people together from schools, North and South, with a target of achieving 100 cross-Border engagements per annum within a five-year period. This objective is being taken into account as part of the development of the EU PEACE PLUS programme from 2022 onwards, under the theme of empowering and investing in young people. The PEACE PLUS programme is unique because it is funding by the EU, the Irish Government and the British Government. With all the talk of division and a lack of a joint approach, the PEACE PLUS programme is a practical example of everybody working together and it is very important.

A second pilot North-South school exchange programme has received support under the reconciliation fund of the Department of Foreign Affairs. This programme and funding commitment by the Government makes an important contribution to the objective the Senator has raised, of bringing young people in schools throughout the island together, as they look to the future.

In launching the shared island initiative last October, the Taoiseach initiated the shared island dialogue, to which Senator McGreehan referred, to foster inclusive civic dialogue on key issues for our shared future. He highlighted the vital role that young people have to play in shaping the future of this island. The Taoiseach also addressed the first shared island dialogue with young people in November on the theme of new generations and new voices on the Good Friday Agreement. The participation and contribution of younger generations has been actively sought in the series of shared island dialogues that have been held so far this year. This will continue to be a priority in the Government's approach to fostering inclusive civic dialogue as part of the shared island initiative.

I thank the Minister of State. We are all on the same page. I thank the Minister of State for delivering the message from An Taoiseach and I thank An Taoiseach for all his work. He has been dedicated and he is a huge driver of an all-Ireland conversation. I very much welcome the North-South school exchange programme. It is very positive and good news. I hope it will be expanded into something similar to the BT Young Scientist. It is an example of how we can create the dialogue, friendships and future we want on this island. I thank the Minister of State for his time.

I will bring the exact proposal to the attention of the Taoiseach and he will be watching this closely today. I will also bring it to the shared island unit in the Department of the Taoiseach. Expanding the North-South school exchange programme is a crucial part of the programme for government commitments on a shared island. We need to bring young people together.

The Senator mentioned that I was an education spokesperson. Quite frankly, the number of educational movements North and South is not as high as we would think. Half of my class in college was from the North, as was the case in two other classes in Trinity College Dublin at that time. I was always of the impression that the number was huge because it was in my direct experience but then I found out when I was education spokesperson that it was not. We do have to address this and get more movement North and South, particularly in higher and further education. This would lead to significant benefits for everybody, for young people, for reconciliation and for the island.

Radon Gas Levels

I thank the Acting Chair, Senator Flynn. It is lovely to see her in the Chair today. I thank the Minister of State for joining us today. I hope he will provide a pathway to dealing with this very serious issue. The absence of the Minister in charge is noted.

I have several questions. What action is the Government taking to deal with the high levels of radon gas which affect more than 500,000 homes? Does the Minister intend to provide assistance towards grants for testing for radon gas? Last week, I spoke about radon, which is a radioactive gas linked to 300 lung cancer cases each year. I spoke about the lethal gas, which is the second largest cause of lung cancer in this country. I spoke about it creating 14% of the lung cancer cases which present in our hospitals each year. I also spoke about the fact that one third of this country is classified as a high radon area by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. What I did not mention last week is the fact that we have particular geology in Ireland which means that this radioactive gas is emitted by igneous rocks. As a result, radon is trapped by our homes at a higher rate than in other countries. There are 500,000 homes at risk here. I was shocked to read in an article in The Irish Times that the members of a household in Sligo were exposed to radiation levels equivalent to having 15 chest X-rays every day because of radon gas in the ground beneath their home. This dose is 22 times higher than the level regarded as acceptable and left the people in the property at increased risk of lung cancer. The article to which I refer is a year old. What has been done about the matter?

Radon gas is odourless, colourless and tasteless. It seeps through the soil and enters buildings through small cracks, holes or imperfections that may exist in floor areas or gaps around pipes or cables.

There is nothing that a household or an employer can do about it. There is nothing that a family in County Sligo can do about it. However, there is something that the Government can do about it. Radon can be tested in homes with a testing kit that costs €50. If radon is found to be above certain levels, it is recommended that the home undergoes radon remediation works. An employer that finds radon levels in the workplace that are too high is required, under the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005, to have radon remediation works carried out to control and eliminate the risks. Such works may include the installation of a fan-assisted sump. These sumps can reduce radon levels by up to 90% and cost €1,500. The costs of €50 and €1,500 may sound like a small sum for such important prevention measures but to homeowners, businesses and employers across the nation who are already stretched with the Covid-19 pandemic, it is no small sum. The only solution is Government support.

Lung cancer is the fifth most common cancer in the Republic. To eliminate 300 radon-induced incidences of lung cancer, this cost is significantly less than €100,000 per case. In the interest of our citizens and taxpayers as human beings, I urge the Government to provide grants to support the cost of preventative measures. Aside from the grant that I am urging the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications to consider providing, is he taking any action regarding the risks radon poses to the citizens of Ireland?

In 2014, a joint position statement was issued by the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland and the HSE on radon gas and its dangers. How many Irish people know of the dangers, understand the risk and know how to protect themselves from the risk? I dare say it is very few. The people have been left in the dark about the unusually high levels of exposure to this deadly gas. There would be shock if more people knew of the risks. It is a gross injustice that no national awareness campaign has been commissioned by the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications.

I am raising this matter because the people of Ireland need to be aware of the risk, the danger and the associated cost. The Government needs to the ready to help, inform and act.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I must say that it is an issue about which I am most concerned. We often hear scaremongering when new technologies or particular products are developed that they may pose a health risk. While that always is debatable, in this case, it is not. Radon poses a clear risk to health, as the Senator has mentioned. It is something of which we all need to become more aware. It is there and can be dealt with.

The first phase of the strategy had tangible outcomes including the provision of extensive information and the inclusion of a question on radon testing in the conveyancing process for house sales. That is most significant and will add to general public awareness, aside from being a practically important measure.

I thank the Senator for raising the issue.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I am not going to give out to him but very little has been done on this issue since 2014. That is the reality. The Government aims to retrofit 5,000 homes. The NUIG study mentioned by the Minister of State, which was carried out by Dr. James McGrath and Dr. Miriam Byrne, found that if the proper ventilation is not installed as part of the retrofitting programme, people could end up being exposed to more than double the levels of radon at home as a result of the retrofitting process that is going to take place. Therefore, it is a very serious issue. The retrofitting of homes may not be the answer. It will not deal with the radon issue. Unless the ventilation and radon issues are addressed, the retrofitting of 5,000 homes by 2030 will not fix the problem.

The only way forward is to roll out the pilot project undertaken in Wexford to make available monitors so that people can check radon levels in their homes and provide grants for sumps if they find that radon levels are over 20%.

I thank the Senator for raising the matter. There is information available and there are things going on. I will bring the Senator's concerns to the attention of the Minister. Progress on the implementation of the radon strategy is reported to Government regularly. This discussion has been very useful and I have a strong interest in the issue as well. I will bring the Senator's concerns back to the Government. I look forward to further actions that will come from the strategy.

Cycling Facilities

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, to the House.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am not going to ask him about anything that the Government does not already agree with in principle. The Liffey valley is recognised as a special amenity area. It is an area of outstanding beauty and special recreational value.

The Minister of State will be aware it is recognised by Fingal County Council, South Dublin County Council and the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications. Time has stood still, however. Nothing of note has happened regarding conservation or to enhance the Strawberry Beds as an amenity area since the early 1990s. My father was a Deputy then, and time has stood still since. This is despite the wonderful assets in the area and the stunning natural environment, including Shackleton Mills, which has been described as the jewel in the crown of heritage assets in Fingal. It has not been developed, but it has been obtained. It was a water-powered flour mill from the 1770s. There is also the Silver Bridge, also known as the Farmleigh Bridge, which was built by the Guinness family in the 19th century to supply electricity and water from the Liffey Valley as well as to cater for workers coming from Palmerstown. Waterstown Park, to which the bridge connects, is another beautiful park in the area, with 300 species of plants, animals and birds, a 5 km track and a natural playground. Weirs are dotted along the Strawberry Beds which people do not know about. The best way to enjoy that area is by kayak, because the roads are used as a rat run for the M50.

I have recently been successful in having the area designated as being for cycling. Eighteen signs have gone up and lining is going onto the tarmacadam over the summer. However, I was not successful in getting advisory cycle lanes because that would necessitate having lighting on the road. All these changes are not enough, however. Until Covid-19, this area had fallen between two metropolitan stools, namely, Blanchardstown on one side and Fonthill and Lucan on the other. It has an underutilised strategic purpose. Opportunities have been missed over the years in this regard, including the 260 acres at St. Edmundsbury which were sold by the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, ten years ago. There were calls at that time to purchase the land to create a Liffey Valley national park and to join up the lands from Islandbridge to St. Catherine’s Park in Leixlip and including Lucan Demesne, which was secured under the auspices of the rainbow Government many years ago.

During Covid-19, businesses sprouted up in the area as well. These include the Strawberry Hall, which has evolved with Goats Gruff. The Wren’s Nest is also evolving its businesses now, and the Angler’s Rest has been there for many years. There is also a market at St. Catherine’s Park, while Lucan village itself is being marked as a destination town, with €2 million going into the public realm and tourism in that regard. The Liffey Valley Trail is something I steered, along with Councillor Howard Mahony, when I was on Fingal County Council. We started a tourism working group, and Councillor Siobhan Shovlin is working on that aspect now as well. We have launched the trail as a tourism proposition and €140,000 has been secured from the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media to restore the Silver Bridge.

In addition, the canal loop is going to join the future greenways on the Royal and Grand canals. We need to do more in this regard, however. All these changes are coming because of the beauty and value of this area, yet it is behind and at the periphery. We would not hide away the history and beauty of the Mona Lisa, yet we are not establishing this area and taking advantage of its potential. The localism we have witnessed because of the impact of Covid-19 has highlighted the potential more. Therefore, a feasibility study by the Department of Transport is needed to examine cycling and walking along a route between the Phoenix Park and St. Catherine’s Park via the Strawberry Beds. It is not the busiest commuter route, but it could be of more recreational value. We must think bigger about this project. It must encompass Fingal County Council and South Dublin County Council and establish and develop the area as an official park and, potentially, as a recreational amenity.

I thank Senator Currie for giving me the opportunity to address the Seanad today, on behalf of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan, to talk about the important issue of investment in cycling infrastructure, which will ultimately make our cities, towns, and villages more accessible for everyone.

As Senators will be aware, the programme for Government sets out an ambitious and wide-ranging set of commitments concerning walking and cycling and states that €360 million in cross-Government funding will be spent yearly on walking and cycling over the lifetime of the Government, which is equivalent to 20% of the 2020 transport capital budget. This investment will help support the planned delivery of almost 1,000 km of improved walking and cycling infrastructure by 2025, as well as additional investment in greenways.

The Minister was delighted to announce earlier this year an allocation of €240 million to active travel projects in the greater Dublin area and the four regional cities. This funding will support the addition of 233 new sustainable transport projects to the investment programme of the National Transport Authority, NTA, in 2021. The NTA will be tasked with overseeing and supporting the development of the high-quality mobility infrastructure across all projects and will also ensure projects are accessible and age-friendly. Fingal County Council, which is the lead local authority for the Strawberry Beds area, received an allocation of €14.87 million under this funding programme, which is a sizeable allocation and will facilitate progress on numerous projects this year across the Fingal County area.

The Minister fully understands that to deliver these projects local authorities require adequate resources to enable them to do so. As the Senator is also likely aware, the Department of Transport has therefore agreed to fund 218 active travel posts in local authorities throughout the country to ensure delivery of the increased programme of active travel infrastructure. In January, the Minister wrote to the County and City Management Association, CCMA, to advise that Fingal County Council has been allocated up to 18 additional staff through this funding, and I understand the necessary recruitment processes are under way. The Department of Transport is also working with Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, and the NTA to develop a national cycle network which will ensure investments are focused efficiently, which should outline the cycling routes currently available, identify gaps in the network, and ascertain improvements likely to be required.

Regarding the specific matter raised by Senator Currie, the Senator is likely aware that the transport strategy for the greater Dublin area, GDA, was approved by the Government in 2016. Under the Dublin Transport Authority Act 2008, the NTA must review the transport strategy every six years. This review assesses the implementation of the current plan and looks to produce an updated strategy which will set out the framework for investment in transport infrastructure and services to take us to 2042. The scope of the transport strategy encompasses all land transport modes and services in the greater Dublin area, including cycling. As part of the broad range of inputs into the preparation of the transport strategy, the NTA is updating the 2013 greater Dublin area cycle network plan. The need for cycling infrastructure and the appropriateness of the road network at and in the vicinity of the Strawberry Beds is being examined as part of that update. This updated plan will be published for consultation as a background paper for the transport strategy in September 2021.

The step change in funding for investment in sustainable transport projects committed to in budget 2021 is proof of the Government's commitment to active travel, and I and the Minister look forward to the delivery of the numerous projects throughout the country over the course of this year.

I thank the Minister of State for the update. It is encouraging to hear the cycling infrastructure and the appropriateness of the road network at the Strawberry Beds are on the radar, but I want them to be on the radar in the right way. This area cannot be a rat run for the M50. It should not just be there to accommodate people travelling from one side of the city to the other. The potential of the area to act as a recreational amenity, connected to the local communities, must be placed on the agenda. This Government is doing much great work in the area of cycling and walking infrastructure and valuing it, so this is an opportunity which cannot be overlooked.

I will note the points made by the Senator and relay them to the Minister when I see him later this week. I will also mention some smaller scale initiatives being progressed by the Department of Transport to support and promote efforts to increase active travel. These include the recently launched safe routes to school programme, which will provide funding to accelerate the delivery of walking and cycling infrastructure on key access routes to schools. That initiative has already had a great response, with applications from more than 900 schools nationally. The €15 million additional outdoor infrastructure fund to support local authorities in enhancing outdoor urban space and improving walking and cycling infrastructure through short-term measures will assist with the safe outdoor reopening of society as Ireland gradually emerges from the pandemic. Finally, a joint initiative with my Department of Rural and Community Development will see the provision of high-quality upcycled bikes and e-bikes for those on low incomes and those most marginalised and disadvantaged.

Social Welfare Payments

I am delighted to see Senator Flynn in the Chair and wish her all the best in her role. I thank the Minister of State for coming this morning. I call for an examination of the earnings of carers, whether family carers, informal carers or carers in general, and social protection for them. Carers have prevailed in the most difficult circumstances during the Covid-19 pandemic. We all have to compliment and acknowledge the work they have done during the pandemic. The Government has referred to carers as the backbone of care provision. The national carers strategy from 2012 states that we must consider carers as key care partners.

Social protection payments for carers fall into five categories. The carer's allowance is means-tested and is for people on low incomes who are caring for an incapacitated person. Half-rate carer's allowance is payable with other social welfare payments. Carer's benefit is a social insurance payment made to someone who gives up work to care for somebody who needs it. The carer's support grant is a cash payment to carers. It used to be called the respite grant. Domiciliary care allowance is a monthly payment.

I pay tribute to Family Carers Ireland, which is based in Limerick, where I am from, because it has provided so much support for carers' health, well-being and quality of life over the years. One of its findings was that 70% of carers find it hard to make ends meet. It found that 21% of carers struggle financially and have cut back on essentials such as groceries and heating to make ends meet; 29% of carers live in households with a total income of less than €20,000 per year; 57% of carers have experienced or are likely to experience debt as a result of caring; and 39% of the respondents said their financial situation had deteriorated over the last year. Compared with the general population, family carers were more likely to report themselves as living in households with a gross income of less than €20,000. The highest rate of carer's allowance for an individual is €385. That applies where someone caring for two people, which equates to a rate of €9.64 per hour. There are various other rates. They are all below the national minimum wage, which is €10.20 per hour. Carer's benefit for caring for more than one person is €330 which, in a 44.6-hour week, equates to €8.25 per hour.

The reality is that carers, especially home carers, provide 24-7 care for 365 days of the year. It is believed they help to keep people out of hospital. There are approximately 500,000 carers in Ireland. It is reckoned that, including home carers, the State saves €20 billion, which is a huge amount of money. In addition, 19 million unpaid hours a week are provided to people who need care. Before Covid, thousands of family carers across Ireland were experiencing financial difficulty. The pandemic has made an already difficult situation much worse. We must begin to give carers the respect and recognition they deserve. We must examine their rates of pay and the benefits they are entitled to, because they are providing the State with substantial savings. The fact that they are caring for loved ones at home is beneficial and helps the longevity of people who are being cared for. Carers must be paid for the work they do.

I thank Senator Byrne for raising this important issue. The Government acknowledges and I personally acknowledge the important role that family carers play. We are fully committed to supporting carers in that role. This commitment is recognised in both the programme for Government and the national carers strategy. My Department provides a range of income supports to financially assist family carers whose caring responsibilities limit their ability to work. The main income supports provided include carer's allowance, carer's benefit, domiciliary care allowance and the carer's support grant. Over 135,000 carers benefit from regular income supports and spending on these payments in 2021 is expected to be in the region of €1.5 billion.

The value of income transfers to family carers has increased by over 50% since 2015. Carer's allowance is the main scheme by which the Department provides income support to carers in the community. Carer's allowance is a means-tested social assistance payment awarded to those carers who are caring for certain people who need full-time care and attention. Carer's allowance is intended to provide an income support for the carer and does not depend on individual care requirements. Where carers are providing care to more than one person, an increase of 50% is applicable. Carers may also, subject to certain conditions, qualify for the household benefits package and the free travel scheme. In some circumstances, carer's allowance can also be paid at a half rate with other social welfare payments such as pensions and disability payments.

The number of hours that a carer can work while still being considered to be providing full-time care and attention was increased from 15 to 18.5 per week in January 2020. As the Senator is aware, in responding to Covid-19, my Department has made special provisions for those who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. A carer whose work ceases as a result of Covid-19 and whose situation qualifies him or her for the pandemic unemployment payment will get the payment along with their current carer income support, whether carer's allowance or carer's benefit. The means test for carer's allowance is one of the most generous in the social protection system. Currently, €332.50 of gross weekly income is disregarded in the calculation of means for a single person. The equivalent for someone who is married, in a civil partnership or cohabiting is €665 of combined gross weekly income. In comparison, the income disregard applied to disability allowance is €140 per week. It is €20 per day for jobseeker's allowance up to a maximum of €60 and the balance is assessed at 60%. The weekly income disregard for jobseeker's transitional payment with 50% of the balance assessed as means.

Changes to schemes are considered in an overall expenditure and policy context and from an evidence-based perspective. Increases to the disregard would result in the provision of additional payments to people who may have significant sources of income while reducing the scope to provide income supports to lower income households. Those existing carers whose sole income is the carer's allowance would not benefit in this circumstance. Any further improvements or additions to the current income supports, including the earnings threshold for carer's allowance, can only be considered in a budgetary context, taking into account other pressures in the Department of Social Protection and other Departments and the available financial resources.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. He has to acknowledge that carers work many hours that are not accounted for. Many of the people who provide care at home for a loved one never apply for carer's allowance. They save the State so much money. This needs to be reviewed. People need to be asked to work with the Department by informing it of how many hours they provide care for. The payments sound great but when one works out how many hours people provide care for, it is below the minimum wage. I would like this issue to be reviewed. Will the Department consider it in the budget in October?

The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, met with organisations representing carers and listened to them outline the scenarios the Senator described. We have the pre-budget forum next week, which I will attend with the Minister. I expect we will hear more about the organisations' views on this area. It is worth noting that despite the substantial extra financial demands due to the pandemic, and in recognition of the vital role that carers provide in our society, my Department announced that the carer's support grant, which the Senator described as the respite grant, would be increased by €150 to a rate of €1,850. The estimated cost of the carer's support grant in 2021 is over €265 million. The new rate is the highest ever rate of the payment since its introduction. I look forward to hearing the views of the carers' organisations next week at the pre-budget forum.

I will bring the Senator's point to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys.

I thank the Minister of State.

Special Educational Needs

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, to the House.

It is lovely to see Senator Flynn in the Chair. As we are approaching the recess, I wish her the very best of luck with her impending arrival in September.

I, too, welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, to the House. When she was last here to address another Commencement matter I tabled on this issue, I was delighted. I noted at the time that July provision was to become summer provision and that the budget for summer provision had been increased. That is important. This provision is not a luxury for families who have a child with complex additional needs; it is a necessity. Many of us have heard the stories of the struggles of parents and their children who lost out so profoundly during the Covid lockdowns. There is no doubt that their development was very much hindered. Many children regressed in the home-schooling environment and their parents were at their wits' end trying to support them, but they were powerless to help. I welcome that besides special needs schools, DEIS schools were invited to participate in this programme.

We need to ensure that children who need this vital service can access it. We need to ensure that every child and family is supported and that those who lost out most during the lockdowns are now given the support they so desperately need. Having welcomed the announcement that July provision was moving to summer provision and that the funding was to increase from €20 million to €40 million, I was dismayed when a number of parents from south Kildare contacted me to say their school was not running a programme and they could not access places in any other school. I was disturbed to hear that the DEIS school and the two special schools in Kildare were not running programmes. I contacted each school and I received feedback from some schools, but not all. I have spoken to some principals in regard to this matter, but generally the take-up of the programme has been very low. This is disappointing. This is not about the funding that has been provided by the Department, but about the outcomes. It is about ensuring that every child has the opportunity to participate.

Last Friday, I was contacted by the group, Special Needs Schools and Classes, in relation to a survey it had conducted, which found that 60% of the schools their children attend do not offer any in-school programme for the summer. That is unacceptable. As a State, we have a duty to care and support the most vulnerable in our society. I note that only 26% of DEIS schools are running numeracy and literacy camps this summer. This is not right. We have more than 4,000 schools in the State, made up of 3,038 primary, 729 post-primary and 140 special schools. Every school that is eligible to participate should be running a programme.

I ask the Minister of State to detail the current state of play in counties Kildare and Laois as regards this year's summer provision programme and to outline the provision that will be made for those children who cannot access the service through their own school.

Before I respond to Senator O'Loughlin, I congratulate Senator Flynn on the passage of Second Stage of the Traveller Culture and History in Education Bill 2018 in the Dáil last week. It is important Traveller culture and history is embedded within the education sector.

I thank Senator O'Loughlin for raising this important matter. The needs of children with special educational needs and children at most risk of educational disadvantage are a huge priority for the Government. As correctly pointed out by the Senator, these children were adversely impacted by Covid-19 and the closure of schools. The Government provided guidance and support for schools throughout this period and put in place a supplementary tuition programme for these children in March this year.

The programme was developed following extensive engagement with education stakeholders, parents and advocacy groups. It was important to me that any impediments or barriers to schools participating this year would be removed because we wanted to increase the uptake from last year. We wanted to maintain children's connection with education, build their confidence, increase their motivation and promote well-being for those who are at key transition stages. We also wanted to help to ensure that they continue their education journey in September, either in school or in further and higher education or training.

In regard to Senator O'Loughlin's local area, there are 35 schools in Kildare, 29 of which are primary, five are post-primary and one is a special school. In Laois, there are 24 primary schools taking part. The summer programme is important this year. As I mentioned earlier, Covid has had an adverse impact on these students. We are concerned about regression and the loss of key skills. That these students can avail of a summer programme is very important.

It is important to note that 34,000 children will benefit. That is a 161% increase on 2020. The programme is voluntary, not mandatory. As I said, we have removed the impediments to allow schools to volunteer to participate in the programme for all children.

I thank the Minister of State for the response. As I said, I was delighted to note the increase in funding. I agree with the Minister of State on the need to remove barriers to encourage schools to take part and also in regard to the need for children to maintain connectivity with their places of education. However, at this point we need to move from the opt-in, opt-out model of summer provision. This is a vital community service and no State body, be that a school or otherwise, should be able to opt out of supporting vulnerable children.

This would have to be negotiated with boards of management and trade unions but the children who need this have to be a priority.

More work needs to be put into the home-based summer programme. For every child who needs that programme, their homes may not be the best places to deliver it. Overcrowding or anything like that has to be taken into consideration when that programme is being offered. We need to progress this programme and ensure that every child who needs this gets it.

I understand what the Senator is saying. However, it is important to note that the summer provision is an additional service provided by schools. Teachers, special needs assistants, SNAs, and support staff work hard all year so it is not something we can mandate. All we can do is ask and encourage schools and, as I said, remove those barriers. This year we allowed flexibility in the time so that it is no longer the July provision and the service can also be provided in August. They are paid in advance, there is a centralised application process, there are arrangements to have greater guidance and there is also a provision to recruit final year and professional master of education, PME, students so that we can have more of a staff base in place to assist schools. There is also a home-based programme for those children who do not participate in school. On the DEIS supports, a hot school meals programme will be provided for the summer provision as well as school transport.

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