Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Special Educational Needs

I thank the Minister of State for taking the time to come into the Seanad this morning. Education is of critical importance to children and young people but education is about more than just schooling, as many perceive it to mean. Education is a foundation for healthy development throughout one's lifespan. It means the freedom to think, create, play and imagine. It is learning about difference and diversity, and recognising the value of the contribution made by each and everybody.

For many children, however, school can be difficult. That is especially true for children with special educational needs and disabilities, for whom education poses all sorts of additional challenges. On occasion, school can be so difficult for young people who require additional support that a school can struggle to appropriately meet their needs. In certain instances, this can lead to breakdown in school placements, leaving vulnerable children with additional needs without an educational placement.

I want to be clear that I am not singling out our teachers, special needs assistants and learning support teachers for criticism. I am attempting to highlight the fact that some of our schools do not currently have enough resources to meet the needs of each individual child or young person in Ireland. We often hear disability rights organisations and activists speak of people being disabled by their environment. That is also true of children with special educational needs and disability in our educational settings.

In 2018, Deputy Thomas Byrne sought data from the Department of Education regarding the number of children with special educational needs and disability who had been subject to the section 29 procedure under the Education Act which allows for a parent or guardian to appeal a school's refusal to enroll a child in an educational placement. The data demonstrated that children with special educational needs and disability are disproportionately represented within the appeals process.

Ultimately, this suggests that children with special educational needs and disabilities are disproportionately refused enrolments in schools and are subsequently expelled from schools in equally disproportionate numbers. What remains unclear, however, is the precise number of children with special educational needs and disabilities who have suffered a breakdown in their school placement, whether temporary or permanent.

Additionally, I am seeking clarity regarding the investigation processes into the breakdown of educational placement for children with special educational needs by the Minister of State’s Department or by the National Council for Special Education. I suspect the Minister of State may say there is a complaints process for schools which any family can use to make any complaint. This roughly goes that any such complaint can be raised with the teacher, the principal, the board and the Ombudsman. The Education Welfare Act creates section 29 procedures, etc., for suspensions and expulsions and there is forthcoming legislation in terms of the Education (Student and Parent Charter) Bill. Complaints procedures for schools give schools too much power. The schools control the pace of the processes which can take, at times, two full years to work through. As well as this boards do not have the adequate skills to meet the needs of special educational needs and disabilities students which they consistently demonstrate by allowing reduced timetables to persist and by refusing to open autism classes.

Furthermore, when a placement breaks down, the Ombudsman is seriously constrained because if the complaint becomes a legal one, his process has to stop and sometimes the courts will not allow the raising of an issue which the Ombudsman may have addressed. The biggest problem here is that it allows the child’s rights to be severely impacted before the State does anything. There is no proactive measure to stop discrimination or to uphold the Equal Status Act and the State is behaving negligently as a result.

Will the Minister of State recognise that it is morally unacceptable that what is on the Statute Book allows the same policy document which deals with a student who is bullying or harassing another student or teacher’s code of behaviour to also use the same process to deal with a student with additional needs who is not capable of being responsible for a melt-down which he or she cannot control or who sometimes cannot communicate using words? Despite the lack of statistics surrounding special educational needs and disabilities' students who were subjected to section 29 of the Education Welfare Act, it is clear that the Act as it stands is not fit for purpose.

I am calling on the Minister of State to provide us with the figures for the number of special educational needs and disabilities children who have experienced a breakdown in their school placement, either temporary or permanent, and that her Department begin the process of reviewing the Education Welfare Act in order to ensure that those children and families who go through the State system are owed the highest duty of care and are placed at the heart of the Act. I therefore urge the Minister of State to work compassionately, understandingly and exclusively with special educational needs and disabilities' children and their families to find out what they require in order for their needs to be met.

It is my belief that children with special educational needs should receive their education in placements which are appropriate to their needs alongside their peers, wherever possible unless such an approach would be inconsistent with the best interests of the individual child, or other children in the school. This approach is consistent with the provisions of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs, EPSEN, Act 2004. My Department's policy, therefore, is to provide for the inclusive education of children with special educational needs in mainstream schools. The majority of children with special needs attend mainstream education with additional supports.

In circumstances where children have more complex special educational needs requirements, then a special school or special class places should be provided. The policy of the Department, to touch on the question of resources which was mentioned by the Senator, is to continue to prioritise investment in special education. This year €2 billion is to be spent on special education. When one is talking about a figure, one needs to be able to demonstrate where that money goes. This year we have 13,600 special education teachers in the special education system, which is a 40% increase since 2011. We also have 18,000 special needs assistants, which is a 70% increase since 2011. Considerable work has also been undertaken this year to plan and provide for specialist places. We are also opening two new special school and 269 new special classes this year.

The National Council Special Education, NCSE, has primary responsibility for co-ordinating and advising on the education provision for children nationwide. It has well-established structures in place for engaging with schools and parents. The NCSE seeks to ensure that schools in an area can cater for all children who have been identified as having special education needs, including those children the Senator has specifically asked me about in respect of the breakdown of school placements or of those that are at risk. When the NCSE becomes aware of a school placement which is at risk, it will engage with the family and the school to agree a plan to support the placement. This plan may involve training and support being provided for the schools from NCSE staff.

It may also involves the NCSE engaging with the HSE and with the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, in order to establish what other supports or guidance may be provided to a school in order to support that child because the joint approach spoken about by the Senator is very important. In some circumstances, the NCSE may also arrange for additional supports and resources such as assistive technology, or additional special needs assistance support. Additional training programmes or guidance may also be provided for the school.

It is important also to point out, and I am not saying the Senator is saying this, that transfer between settings should not be considered or categorised as a placement breakdown because often there can be a child in mainstream who is moved to a special class or school and this is not a placement breakdown but it may be simply in the best interests of the child to move to that particular environment.

There is also the home tuition grant, which the Senator would also be aware of, which provides 20 hours of home tuition per week as an interim measure.

On section 29, it allows for appeals against the decision of a board of management of a school to suspend or permanently exclude a student. Where a parent feels that a school has unfairly suspended or expelled a child from school, then an appeal mechanism is provided for. Everything that is possible should be done to ensure that placements for children with special education needs do not break down.

I thank the Minister of State for her comprehensive response. There are parts of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs, EPSEN, Act that have not been commenced but there are also parts that need to be amended.

I obviously agree that the transfer from one school to another at the request of the parties does not fall into the idea of a breakdown. I refer to schools specifically set up for children with special needs who are then expelled because of their actual disability or special need for which they were admitted, for example, where a melt-down is being reframed as violent or as being an assault, when the entire reason they are in that special school and for the existence of that special school is because of those very behavioural issues. It makes no sense that we have a special school that cannot deal adequately with breakdowns or meltdowns of children. This is especially the case when it comes to the section 29 piece which relates to a completely different comparison.

I remember when working in the homeless sector a person was presenting with extreme mental health issues. Having raised these issues in the interview process and admitting to them, the person was excluded from the hostel because they displayed these mental health issues. I wondered was that not why the homeless services existed there in the first place.

I want to make the point strongly that when we reach the point where section 29 has to be used or there has to be an appeal, we should not be allowed to expel children for displaying the actual disability or special need for which they were enrolled in the school in the first place.

I thank the Senator for her comments. I reiterate something which she will be well aware of which is that the communication between schools and the Department of Education, and more particularly the NCSE, will be crucial to ensuring that the child is in the right place. No expulsion or suspension should be unwarranted. It is important to say that there is that appeal mechanism available.

From the data I have, there was only one expulsion case in 2021, by way of judicial review. That option is always available for parents to avail of where they need it. The Department is satisfied that there are enough resources in place to provide that all children are provided with an appropriate education. It is my job to ensure that is done and that no stone is left unturned in getting children the wraparound supports they require in the various placements they may find themselves in.

Road Safety

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, to the House and thank her for taking this Commencement matter.

I also thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise the matter this morning.

In an effort to enhance and strengthen road safety, I propose that it be a mandatory subject at second level. Some schools already do modules on road safety during transition year and this has proven very successful. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, has designed a very impressive module which is available to schools but, unfortunately, there has been a very low uptake.

I wish to bring the House's attention to certain aspects of the module which comes under the heading of personal achievement and local and global citizenship. The unit builds on existing curriculum links in junior cycle civic, social and political education, CSPE, and social, personal and health education, SPHE, through its emphasis on the values and skills that underpin responsible decision-making and in respect for the rights and safety of others. The unit was designed by teachers and includes a wide range of methodologies and activities. The programme is fully resourced with a step-by-step set of lesson plans and worksheets. Each lesson is clearly structured and includes a teacher note, worksheets and class activities. An interactive DVD also provides support and includes class activities, crash reconstructions and real-life stories. The unit also includes project work and input from agencies such as An Garda Síochána, the emergency services and those with responsibility for the national car test, NCT, which adds greatly to the effectiveness of the programme. It delivers an important message that all students need to hear.

The transition unit is supported by digital resources including access to international websites on road safety issues and the Road Safety Authority, RSA, website. The module develops and reinforces research, field work and project skills acquired at junior cycle, Streetwise road safety links, with the promotion of positive attitudes and behaviours associated with CSPE and SPHE, and links with ICT for research and project presentation. It links with the leaving certificate physics motion and English media reporting of news and the role of advertising in promoting road safety. The module has an introduction to road safety, what it means to the trainee, whose business is road safety. It deals with pedestrians and cyclists. It goes into safety precautions, seat belt wearing, child restraints, loose objects in cars and air bags. It is quite a comprehensive module and its aims are to enable students to explore their own attitudes and behaviour in respect of road safety, promote visual literacy, enable students explore their own attitudes and behaviour in the context of road safety and increase road safety awareness among the wider school community. It also seeks to identify the key causes of road accidents in Ireland explain the factors that contribute to road safety, identify the role of different stakeholders who have a remit for road safety, work collaboratively towards an agreed set of goals through a group project, practice basic first aid skills and so on. Furthermore, it helps student successfully complete the driver theory test which is very important and something we are having difficulties with now. This is a very important subject that should be mainstreamed in second-level schools and other areas of education, adult and otherwise.

I wish to confirm that there are curriculum supports educating young people about road safety from a young age. The Garda schools programme, at both primary and post-primary level includes modules on road safety and on cycle safety. The aim of this programme is to engage with young people in order to enhance their appreciation of the need to be caring, law-abiding citizens and to increase awareness of their personal safety . The programme also seeks to improve awareness of road safety and to reduce injuries and fatalities. My Department has engaged with colleagues in An Garda Síochána to ensure that this programme contains strong links to the curriculum at primary and post primary level.

The Senator mentioned SPHE at primary level, which offers particular opportunities, in an age-appropriate manner, to foster the personal development, health and well-being of individual children. One of the three strands within SPHE is "Myself" which includes units on safety and protection. Through the SPHE curriculum children learn to identify situations and places that may threaten personal safety, identify people who are responsible for safety in the community and learn and practice safety strategies for crossing the road, using the bus or being a pedestrian, develop and practice strategies for keeping safe when travelling, such as being familiar with the rules for travelling in car or bus or on a bicycle.

The NCCA is in the process of reviewing and redeveloping the primary school curriculum, including SPHE and well-being. Phase 1 of consultation on the draft framework closed in December 2020, with phase 2, focusing on learners, teachers, school leaders and parents, due take place in September.

At junior cycle, SPHE has a specific personal safety strand which provides a mechanism through which road safety issues can be best dealt with in an age-appropriate way. At transition year, which is currently taken by 70% of students, there is an optional road safety programme which has been developed by the RSA in collaboration with the Department, the NCCA and the development service for teachers.

While there are no plans to introduce mandatory driver education classes at post-primary level, it is important to point out that basic tuition to lay a foundation in driver education features on many school curricula already. The optional RSA programme for transition year is available in 24-hour or 45-hour units and features inputs from various agencies, which the Senator mentioned, such as the ambulance service, the fire service and An Garda Síochána, as well as providing for visiting speakers, trips out of school, projects and case studies. It also introduction to road safety for pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists and motorists, and covers such issues as seat belts and airbags, driver fatigue, drink- and drug-driving, enforcement, basic first aid at road crashes, emergency services and rehabilitation. The programme is also supported by digital resources, which the Senator also mentioned, including DVD support and access to international websites that deal with road safety. Relevant driver theory test learning is included at the end of each module. The programme does not include driving lessons. The latter would probably not be appropriate for young people that age.

I thank the Minister of State for her comprehensive reply. While I appreciate that driver theory testing is the responsibility of the RSA, there is a role for the Department and for second level schools in preparing young people for the driver theory test. I would go further and say that secondary schools should be designated centres to undertake the theory test under the supervision of the RSA. If that was in operation in our schools we would not have tens of thousands of mainly young people waiting to do a theory test before they can sit one of their 12 driving lessons. It would be beneficial to make road safety a compulsory subject at second level.

I will pass those comments on to the Minister. The updated Garda primary schools and post-primary schools programmes will be launched in the coming year.

I reiterate that basic tuition to lay foundation in driver education features in the school curricula.

I note what the Senator said. While the RSA is not under the remit of the Department of Education, it provides back-to-school advice for parents and children in regard to transport, travelling by car, walking to school, travelling by bus and cycle safety. A number of different measures and curricula, therefore, teach children about road safety issues and their own personal safety . There are basic guidelines and tuition in respect of a foundation in driver education and they should be of assistance.

I thank the Minister of State. She has a lot on her plate this morning.

Special Educational Needs

I am pleased the Minister of State has come to the House to deal with this matter because it is something she knows a great deal about and she has corresponded with parents in St. Mary's Boys' National School about it. She is welcome to the House and I am delighted that she has taken the time to speak to us.

St. Mary's Boys' National School is a national school on Grotto Avenue in Booterstown. There are about 300 boys in the school and it has demonstrated extraordinary inclusivity in regard to special educational needs, particularly autism. While many schools in the area cannot accommodate children with autism, St. Mary's has gone to great lengths - I pay tribute to Mr. Noel Scully and his team at the school - to include and accommodate those students and to allow them to continue to attend in an inclusive and full way that is not possible in other schools. Unfortunately, however, there is great demand in the area for autism services and autism inclusion facilities. Autism affects boys to a much greater extent than girls, by a factor of four. It is understandable, therefore, that there is much greater demand than there might be in a girls' school or even in a mixed school. There is significant demand and the Minister of State is aware of that too.

What is significant about the project is that there is very strong support in both the school and wider community and in the local parish for a solution that will facilitate the autism services unit, ASU, and there is a ready-made solution that will work. Located immediately next to St. Mary's Boys' National School is the Booterstown parish hall, at the end of Grotto Avenue where the school is located, facing Rock Road with a side entrance that the students have to pass on their way to and from school. It is an adjacent building owned by the Catholic parish of Booterstown. Fr. Gerry Kane has been in touch with the school and is supportive of this and the building is available. We - the students, parents and community - want the Department to purchase that building and to provide it to St. Mary's Boys' National School as a facility and location for an ASU for those who need it. There is room in that building to meet the existing demand.

The beauty of this project is that everybody is for it, as I think the Minister of State is too. The Department sees the reasonable nature of what has been proposed. It is a building right next to the school that is available and I understand the parish is willing to part with it to facilitate the ASU for St. Mary's Boys' National School. The question is whether we can do this in short order. The building is available now and will not interfere with, for example, adjacent community facilities there. With the goodwill of the school community, the local community and, one hopes, the Department, there is a ready-made solution to deal with this issue, which exists throughout the area. I do not believe there is an ASU anywhere in the area from Booterstown to Leopardstown. There is one in Monkstown but there is a serious dearth of facilities for young boys, in particular, in this area. St. Mary's Boys' National School has come forward with a ready-made solution that will be easy to effect. All it requires is a budgetary box-ticking from the Department. I hope that when the Minister of State responds, she will be able to tell us that progress is being made. Parents are frustrated that the matter has been in progress for a long time and want to know when this can happen. It is ready made and requires just a budgetary allocation from the Department to make it happen and create a solution, for both the Department and the school community in Booterstown.

I thank the Senator. He made a strong case.

The issues and challenges that pertain to children with educational needs are very close to the Senator's heart and he raises them in the Chamber regularly. One step I want to take in my position as the first Minister of State with responsibility for special education is to ensure we provide special class places and special school places for all children with additional needs, whether in south Dublin, south Cork or wherever it is in the country. That is something I am determined to do. To that end, in the budget last year, I secured €2 billion for special education for that very purpose, among other needs, for special education teachers, special needs assistants, SNAs, and other matters.

As the Senator will be acutely aware, the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, works, through its special educational needs organisers, SENOs, very closely with schools and parents to ensure we can provide all these class places. We use a five-year forecasting model, which has recently been enhanced, to determine the capacity of those schools and places throughout the country. We are aware that issues have arisen in recent years regarding a shortage of suitable school places in certain pockets of the country, driven primarily by the significant increase in the number of children with additional needs and in demand. I heard what the Senator said about boys in the context of autism, but there has also been exponential growth in the incidence of girls with autism too, and there are a number of reasons for that. Perhaps the enhanced method of diagnosis has resulted in that. It is important there is suitable school accommodation for all children and, through that more enhanced national and local-level planning, it is my objective that all special education places can come on stream in a timely manner.

Turning specifically to St. Mary's Boys' National School in Booterstown, I note that a Zoom meeting will be held on the matter tomorrow evening. The Department and the NCSE are grateful to schools that continue to respond positively in terms of trying to provide that education but we accept that there are circumstances in which there simply is not sufficient capacity, particularly in urban areas where there is high density and schools simply do not have room. I can confirm the Department has been in contact with the parish in regard to the potential acquisition of the Booterstown parish hall and the Senator and I are ad idem on that. It is something I very much agree with. Evaluation of the hall has been received and assessed by Department officials and the Department is negotiating with the owners for the potential acquisition of the site. The Senator will appreciate that due to commercial sensitivities, it is not possible to provide further information at this time. Nevertheless, the acquisition is a priority for the Department and my officials will keep the patron informed of any key developments regarding the acquisition. The site's acquisition is, obviously, complex and subject to the success of the negotiation and the conveyancing processes, and I would not like to say anything that would in any way jeopardise the outcome of that. In those circumstances, it is not possible to give a definitive timeframe but I am hopeful there will be a speedy conclusion and resolution. It is very important for the parents and the children with additional needs that we expedite this.

I appreciate the work the Minister of State has done on this under her special education brief and acknowledge that she has secured money for the issue. I welcome her statement that this is a priority for the Department. Talks are under way and she stated she hopes there will be a speedy resolution, but today is 12 July and we are one month and a half from the beginning of September.

I hope that "speedy" means that we can conclude this before the beginning of the new school year. This is a ready-made solution. It merely needs the Department to sign off on it at one level or another. I hope that the Minister of State, in her capacity with responsibility for special educational needs, can push it through and deliver a solution for the school, the community and, in particular, those students who need this service as soon as possible, hopefully in advance of the beginning of the school year.

I thank the Senator and the Minister of State. The next Commencement matter-----

I am sorry. The Minister of State has another minute.

The Acting Chairperson is sick of my voice already on a Monday morning.

I note the Senator’s comments about this school. When there is any site acquisition by the Department, we must consider best value for money. That is the reality of the situation. The site acquisition must be thoroughly interrogated by the Department.

I appreciate the Senator’s kind comments about my work. We have had a 286% increase in special class places over the past decade and there are 2,118 special classes this year, providing places to 12,700 children with additional needs. I would like to see this unit up and running at St. Mary’s Boys National School before September, but we have to let the negotiations take place and the Department to acquire the site and work with the school as closely as possible. I hope that there will be good news.

I apologise to the Minister of State for speeding up the process. I am always interested in what she has to say. I am particularly interested when it concerns Booterstown, an area that I represented for many years.

Rail Network

The delivery of the rail line to Navan has been debated for more than 20 years. Since the opening of phase 1 in 2010 by the then Minister for Transport, Mr. Noel Dempsey, the completion of the line from Dunboyne to Navan has fallen off the agenda, including the national development plan, NDP. However, there is reason to have great optimism at this very moment because we have the coming together of the review of the NDP and, critically, the review by the National Transport Authority, NTA, of the transport strategy for the greater Dublin area. Key to the NTA review is the fact that the Navan element was analysed on an evidence basis. This is important if it is to become part of the NDP. I am hopeful that, when presented to the Minister, the NTA's review of its many projects will be favourable and that we will then see him ensuring that this project is included in the plan, but time is key because the two reviews are beginning to align at this very moment.

We need a firm financial commitment towards the expediting of this infrastructure. When I raised this issue with the Minister in the Chamber, he spoke of the need for positive statements from Meath County Council as the lead planning authority. From a strategic planning point of view, the council's work to demonstrate the population growth in the urban centre of Navan and along the designated route has been exemplary. It has been the essence of good planning in terms of creating centralised growth centres with good public transport hubs to provide people with easy access to their work or education in Dublin city centre.

I am sure the Minister of State will refer to the Department's need to decarbonise and the sustainable mobility of people. In July 2017, its economic and financial evaluation unit published a report that estimated the cost of aggravated congestion across Ireland's transport system and how it would grow without intervention in the coming decades. Its analysis suggested that the cost of time lost due to aggravated congestion in the base year of 2012 was nearly €500 million and predicted an increase to €2 billion by 2033. That is happening in County Meath right now. Ours is the only county in the greater Dublin area without rail connectivity to its capital town. What has been missing over the past decade has been the political will to make this happen.

When the report lands on the Minister's desk, I am confident that the scoring matrix used by the NTA that would be required to recommend the line to Navan will stack up because of the critical analysis of population growth undertaken by Meath County Council. However, this Commencement matter is not just about the analytics; it is also about the human side. Significant research was done through interviewing people. Behaviour & Attitudes was engaged to conduct field research on more than 3,000 citizens and a further online poll of 8,000 citizens. Their testimonies about the detrimental effects on their family lives were harrowing.

I hope that the Minister of State will make a positive statement about ensuring this line is be included in the NDP review.

I can hear the passion for this project in the Senator's voice.

I am taking this Commencement matter on behalf of the Department of Transport. Under the review of the NDP, the Department is examining its investment plans in light of the programme for Government. The plan is based around outcomes. The Senator is correct, in that I will refer to the sustainable mobility of 1 million people. That is what we are discussing in the national development plan as opposed to specific projects. The Department's submission to the review examines the plan at a policy level and identifies revised strategic priorities instead of entering into a discussion of particular projects. However, I will discuss Navan in a moment. A draft national investment framework for transport in Ireland will underpin the Department's submission. It has four priorities: decarbonisation; protection and renewal; enhanced regional accessibility; and the sustainable mobility of people and goods in urban areas.

The issue of a rail connection to Navan is being re-examined as part of the NTA's review of the 20-year transport strategy for the greater Dublin area. The NTA is required to review and update the strategy every six years. That review is well under way. Initial public consultation has taken place and I am sure the Senator made a submission to it. The NTA has engaged external expertise to re-examine the feasibility of a Navan rail line. This assessment will be inputted into the overall review. The next step is a second round of public consultation on the draft revised strategy, which is expected to take place in the autumn. The Senator will be able to make a submission at that point as well.

I acknowledge what he said about an evidence-based scenario, a score-based metric and the fact that Navan is the only area without rail connectivity. I will pass his remarks on to the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton. The Dublin Transport Authority Act 2008 requires the preparation of a transport strategy for the greater Dublin area. The current strategy was published in 2016 and extends to 2035. The Act requires the strategy to be reviewed every six years. In line with this statutory framework, the NTA's transport strategy for the greater Dublin area is under review. The first stage of the consultation on the initial issues paper ended in January. In late 2020, the NTA appointed technical consultants to develop an assessment study incorporating a comprehensive analysis of the business case for a potential extension of the existing rail line from the M3 parkway close to Dunboyne to Navan. The outcome of the assessment is intended to inform an update of the transport strategy for the greater Dublin area.

The Senator mentioned Meath County Council. I understand the NTA is working closely with the council on undertaking a comprehensive assessment of the benefits of the project, encapsulating economic, environmental and societal benefits. A multi-criterion analysis of options in accordance with a common appraisal framework for transport projects and programmes is also due to commence shortly.

An appraisal framework for transport projects and programmes is also due to commence shortly. A second round of public consultation is expected to be conducted in early autumn, probably September, with the revised strategy ready for publication mid-2022.

I find it hugely disappointing and disrespectful that the speech provided to the Minister to read out is a word-for-word, copy-and-paste job of a parliamentary question from earlier this year. It is disrespectful to me, this House, the issue and the people of Meath.

I was specific in my Commencement matter. It related to something that is happening this week. The Minister of State said that no doubt I contributed to the public consultation. I did and I am blue in the face contributing to public consultations. I have held meetings with the NTA and with the Irish Rail CEO, who is hugely supportive of this project. The work the Minister of State referred to in her speech as under way is complete and on the desk of the CEO of the NTA, Anne Graham. This week it goes before the board for analysis and decision and going on the desk of the Minister.

I hope the Department, the Minister for Transport and the Government back it because the days of ignoring the people of Meath and Navan are over. The report is not under way but done and we need the cheque written for it now. I hope the Minister and the officials who send in statements of written parliamentary questions as a response hear that call. The people of Navan and Meath will not be disrespected.

That was not a speech I read out. It was my own summary. I took the pertinent points and summarised them. It was not word for word.

I have it here in front of me-----

Will the Senator let the Minister of State speak?

It is a different sheet I read from, compared to the opening statement I was given by the Department. I will take the points from the opening statement I was given. The Senator will appreciate I am not in the Department of Transport and am doing my best to try to disseminate the information to him.

As a ten-year plan, the NDP was scheduled for review in 2022. The Government has brought forward that review by a year and the NTA is working closely with Meath County Council to undertake a comprehensive assessment of the benefits of the product. There is a second round of public consultations in September and a revised strategy ready for approval and publication in mid-2022. I will bring the Senator's comments back to the Department of Transport.

I thank the Minister of State for coming in to deal with quite a few Commencement matters this morning. It is greatly appreciated by the Members. I thank Senator Cassells as well.

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Deputy James Browne, to the House.

Gambling Sector

I welcome the Minister of State to the House on this important matter. I thank him for his work to date.

When I spoke at Tiglin, I suggested that nobody can accept that the tokenistic ‘small print’ warnings and invitations to be ‘responsible’ are in any way in proportion to the possible damage being inflicted by the lure of sports gambling ads. There are serious questions, ones that are surely in the public interest to have answered, as to how such a high degree of saturation of the media landscape by sports betting advertisements has arisen, when the evidence of the damage being inflicted is so obvious and should be a concern to us all.

Those are the words of our President. It is the second time in the past two weeks he has raised what he describes as the dangerous gambling advertisements which, he has said, are causing damage to families and individuals.

Our President is once again speaking for so many of us in this country. Since introducing into the Seanad the Labour Party Gambling (Prohibition of Advertising) Bill 2021 and beginning a conversation about the number of gambling ads, I have been inundated with calls and emails from people all over the country who want to talk about their experiences or simply want to be able to watch their favourite sport without having to wade through advertisement after advertisement encouraging them to gamble. That is what is happening, as I am sure the Minister of State has noticed. In a recent online survey we carried out, 80% of respondents stated they have noticed an increase in gambling ads throughout their media.

Next Thursday, 5 July, will be the eighth anniversary of the Gambling Control Bill 2013. I note from recent press releases and the Minister of State's words when he last visited this House that he intends bringing a gambling control Bill through the Oireachtas by the end of the year. I respectfully state on behalf of so many that we cannot wait that long to ban gambling advertisements.

Estimates are that Ireland spends €9.8 billion per year, marking it as out as the world's seventh biggest spender on gambling per head. The industry needs urgent regulation due to the large increases in those reporting gambling addiction problems and those suffering in silence, afraid to reach out for help or, more worryingly, thinking they can gamble their way out of their problems. One of the most worrying results in the Labour Party survey was that almost 65% said they were more inclined to gamble after seeing these ads. That figure will please the gambling companies but should set off alarm bells for our public health system. From the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland to gambling addiction support advocates such as Oisin McConville, Niall McNamee and Davy Glennon and now our President, there has been a consistent recent message: we must get rid of the number of gambling ads in this country. A survey carried out by thejournal.ie over the weekend had more than 88% of respondents supporting a ban on gambling ads on TV. Action must be taken.

I have spoken to many citizens who have lost so much as a result of gambling from loving partnerships to family homes to jobs. It is important to remind ourselves that those most affected by the tsunami of gambling ads are real people who initially gamble for fun or take up one of the many offers from gambling companies to open a new account and, unfortunately, cannot control their habit. This highly addictive behaviour takes over and, in many cases, ruins their lives. We need to do more for the estimated 40,000 people in this country who have developed a gambling addiction and for those who may add to that figure because of the continuous and unrelenting advertising they face daily.

What disturbs me most is that there is no watershed on gambling in this country. Our children and young adults are being exposed to a highly addictive behaviour. We have many stories of children as young as six, especially when they were being homeschooled, asking parents what these ads were about. The normalisation of sporting gambling continues apace by the marketing departments of the gambling companies and we must break that association. We need to enact the Gambling (Prohibition of Advertising) Bill 2021. We have to stop the bombardment of gambling advertisements. The time for talking has long passed. We have had eight years of that.

I congratulate Deputy Bacik. I have had the pleasure of dealing with her in here over the past year on justice issues. She is a huge loss to the Seanad given her forensic analysis of justice legislation and ability to improve the legislation we have introduced. I look forward to engaging with her in the Dáil.

I thank Senator Wall for raising this important issue. He has made this a hugely important matter for himself since he came into the Seanad and is committed to seeking gambling reform.

The programme for Government gives a clear commitment to comprehensively reform the licensing and regulation of gambling activities. That reform will establish a gambling regulator focused on public safety and well-being. It is important to understand that this regulator will not only regulate the industry in general terms, but will have a public health remit as the primary focus in every decision or recommendation he or she makes.

When I was appointed last September, I had listened to proposals and promises around reforming gambling for 20 years. As far back as 2007, the appointment of a gambling regulator was an issue in the general election. It has not happened. I set out last September clear timelines and milestones to get this done comprehensively and we are on schedule for that. We will publish a new scheme in September and have a CEO-designate, in effect a regulator, appointed by the end of this year. There is a clear path towards the regulator being operational in early 2023.

The legislation will empower the independent gambling regulator to develop regulations, codes of conduct and codes of practice on various issues relating to gambling, including advertising. I expect a particular focus from the regulator on appropriate standards for advertising and customer protection by gambling operators. These codes will be part of a range of conditions that the operators will need to adhere to and to enjoy the benefits of.

The regulator will have the power to impose fines where codes of conducts and regulations are not being complied with and to remove a licence or block the various sites if in breach of the regulations and the guidelines. When appointed, the regular will be powerful and will be backed up with supports of comprehensive legislation.

As the Senator will be aware, under existing law, licensed gambling operators are entitled to advertise their products and currently advertising does not come with the remit of the Department of Justice but the intention is to bring gambling advertising under the remit of the Department and the regulator. Currently, it comes under the remit of the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications. The general regulation of advertising in the media is, as I say, currently a matter for the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland under the remit of the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications. There are no specific statutory requirements in regard to gambling activities, but all advertisements must meet the basic requirements of being truthful and to not mislead any potential customer. How the new gambling operator might operate specific advertising regulations for the gambling industry will be informed by the report of the interdepartmental working group on the future of licensing and regulation of gambling approved by the Government on 20 March 2019. The report noted that there are various issues involved in developing an effective approach to advertising on gambling products. There are challenges around banning advertising on gambling. A ban is certainly on the table but given much of the horse racing and other sports televised during daytime or at the weekend comes from other countries, finding a way to effectively ban advertising will be challenging. I am conscious of what the UK is doing in terms of a review, including in regard to sports sponsorship.

In developing the new legislation, my objective is to provide enhanced consumer protection for players and to limit harmful effects on young people and those susceptible to addiction. We must ensure that gambling will be safe, fair and crime-free. The legislation will be comprehensive. The regulator will be powerful and advertising will be a central plank in all of that work.

I thank the Minister of State for his kind comments in regard to Deputy Bacik. The Labour Party is very proud of her. I have no doubt that she will be a loss to the Seanad but a great asset in the Dáil when she takes up her seat.

On gambling, I welcome that the Minister of State said the gambling regulator will have a public health remit because it is public health that is most affected by the outcomes of gambling. I know he is very aware of that. We need to look at what is happening in the public health area. The Minister of State mentioned timelines. I ask him to confirm in his response that a regulator will be in place by the end of the year. It is important there is someone in situ. Previous reports mentioned 2022 and 2023. I ask the Minister of State to confirm when the regulator will be place.

I agree there will be challenges but we need to meet them face-on. The saturation and tokenistic approaches of gambling companies need to end. I am sure the Minister of State is as passionate about that as I am. We have to be passionate for those affected most.

I thank the Senator. The CEO-designate will be the gambling regulator and he or she will be appointed by the end of this year. The new scheme will be published in September. The regulator is expected to have up to 100 employees to support him or her and to implement the legislation. The legislation is making its way through the Houses. We want the regulator in place so that the necessary regulations to underpin that legislation can be developed. Following enactment of the legislation, the regulator will be up and running, fully staffed and with all the powers he or she feels are necessary. The regulations can be signed off within a matter of weeks such that we will not find ourselves in the situation whereby the legislation is enacted but we are waiting a number of years for regulations. The public health remit of the gambling regulator is critical. It will inform every decision to be made by the regulator. There will be a social fund as well. The gambling industry that is benefiting currently from certain practices from which people are suffering will now pay into a social fund that will pay for education, research and, critically, treatment. Those who are benefitting will pay as well for the supports that are necessary.

Healthcare Infrastructure Provision

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, to the House to discuss the issues at the emergency department at University Hospital Galway, UHG. The INMO figures for this morning show that there are 24 patients on trolleys in the hospital. This day last week, there were 30 patients on trolleys. I am sure the Minister of State will agree that as I have stated previously even one patient on a trolley in an emergency department for a significant period is one too many. I acknowledge and commend the front-line staff who are working in these difficult circumstances in overcrowded emergency departments, particularly in UHG

Enabling works on construction of a temporary extension to the emergency department at the hospital have commenced and are due to be completed in early 2022. This will provide additional accommodation, including segregated waiting and treatment areas, isolation rooms, additional resuscitation spaces and support accommodation to take account of new requirements to treat Covid-19 patients. I ask the Minister of State to clarify if a timeline has been set in respect of the lodgment of a planning application for the new emergency department and maternity and paediatric facilities at UHG. Has Saolta given a timeline for this project? Why are we still waiting? Is the project being stalled purposely or is genuine progress being made? Is the design 70%, 75%, 80%, 85%, 90%, 95% or 99% complete? Is Saolta ready to sign-off on this project? Is it awaiting national estates to give it the go ahead? Is it waiting for Department of Public Expenditure and Reform approval?

I have been through the history of this project previously. As far back as 2015, the then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, said that the emergency department at UHG was not fit for purpose. We have had ministerial visits to Galway, where we have been told that planning permission would be lodged prior to Christmas 2018. The specifications may have changed to a degree since then in the fit-out of the building, but I do not see the rationale for the planning permission not having been lodged. Where is the design at? Is it nearly complete and ready to go? What is the stumbling block? If I raise this issue with the Minister of State again in September, will progress have been made? Will the planning permission be lodged before the end of this year? Is there any certainty or a definitive timeline on this hugely important project for an emergency department and maternity and paediatric facilities for UHG?

We have heard all the talk of major plans elsewhere in Galway in Merlin Park yet a project that has stood up to the options appraisal carried out by Saolta with the consent of the Department has indicated that the existing site at UHG is the preferred site for an emergency department. This has been in every national plan for God knows how many years, yet no planning permission has yet been lodged. I have said previously, and I reiterate today, nothing can be built without valid planning permission and valid planning permission cannot be obtained without first lodging an application. I hope the Minister of State can shed some light on where this project is at.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue and giving me the opportunity to outline to the House on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, the position in regard to the new emergency department at UHG. This project is part of a larger development incorporating maternity and paediatric services and is included in the HSE capital programme for 2021.

Approval has been granted to complete a temporary extension to the emergency department to provide additional accommodation, in the first instance related to Covid requirements. The temporary ED project and associated works will also serve as an enabling works projects for the proposed permanent emergency department as it will help to free up the site required for the proposed new block. As rightly stated by the Senator, the accommodation includes segregated waiting and treatment areas, isolation rooms, additional resuscitation spaces, additional support accommodation to take account of new requirements to treat Covid-19 patients and improved infection control and prevention requirements for emergency departments. An external works in support of this temporary accommodation includes enabling works by way of roads and car parks reconfiguration, utilities and drainage diversions all to the east of the main block of UHG.

The temporary emergency department extension building will be a single storey with a rooftop plant room and will be connected to the main hospital block at the existing emergency department entrance. Site works have been under way for some time and it is expected the project will be completed by quarter 2 of 2022.

The main emergency department women's and children's development at University Hospital Galway is a complex project and is in the early stages of design progression. The project is of significant scale and must progress through the stages outlined in the public spending code. The full accommodation scope for the entire development has now been agreed following an internal HSE review and it is now proposed to progress the full block as one single project. The proposed project will accommodate a new permanent emergency department, including clinical areas, ancillary support services and acute surgical and medical assessment units. It will also accommodate the labour and delivery unit, operating theatres, a maternity day assessment unit and foetal assessment unit. Other proposed facilities will include a neonatal unit, ante-natal and post-natal inpatient departments, a paediatric day ward and an inpatient ward.

The Senator asked for a definitive timeline on this project but no date has been set yet for the planning application for the main building, as the project is still proceeding through the stages of the public spending code. There are several enabling works projects to be completed on site before the main building can go ahead. The design team has had preplanning meetings with the local authority on various elements of enabling works. Site enabling works will be ongoing in preparation for the main emergency department-women and children's block development, including further road and services realignment. All capital development proposals must progress through a number of approval stages in line with the public spending code. The delivery of capital projects is a dynamic process and is subject to the successful completion of the various approval stages, which can impact on the timeline for delivery. The Senator asked if the design was 70%, 80% or 90% complete but I am not in a position to state that.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply, which is much the same as one he delivered previously. It is depressing to see written down again that the project is in the early stages of design progression, considering we were told the planning application would be lodged before Christmas 2018, then it was to be February 2019, then May 2019 and then 2019. It is now July 2021 and the project is not progressing and there is no indication of when it will be progressing. I could not be confident from the Minister of State’s reply that a planning application would be ready this year. I hope I am proven wrong. I will certainly keep the pressure on the Minister of State and I ask him to keep pressure on his line Minister. This is an extremely important project. There is commitment to it but we need to get the planning application lodged, construction started and the project built.

The Senator has raised this matter on numerous occasions. It is no harm to keep the pressure on and I thank him for doing that. As he will be aware, the project, which is part of a larger development incorporating the maternity and paediatric services, is included in the HSE capital plan for 2021. I will convey the Senator's frustration and concern to the Minister. Unfortunately, there is no date yet set for the planning application for the main building. The project is still proceeding through the stages of the public spending code. The design team has had preplanning meetings with the local authority on various elements of enabling works. I will convey the Senator's concerns to the Minister and advise him this needs to be progressed as quickly as possible.

Health Service Staff Pay

I thank the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, for being in the House. I wish to address the failure of the Government to address the pay restoration issue for employees in health and social care sector who are employed by community and voluntary organisations. What has transpired during the past two years represents a blatant disregard for fairness and equality of treatment. To illustrate my point I will use an example of Clarecare, a professional social enterprise with charitable status providing a range of services to individuals and families in County Clare for the past 50 years. It has a workforce of approximately 420. Its services include family support services, elderly care services, counselling and addiction therapy in a residential facility. It has a wonderful ethos and staff who are truly amazing. They provide an enormous service to citizens across the county. They are highly treasured and really professional. They do an enormously good job.

Until 2014, the HSE provided all the funding to Clarecare, particularly for funding towards family support services as well as the elderly care services under what is known as a section 39 agreement. In April 2010 during the economic crash, the HSE reduced funding to Clarecare and other organisations for salaries to the tune of 4%. That had to be passed on by Clarecare to all staff. When Tusla was established in 2014 the funding of the family support services provided to Clarecare was transferred from the HSE to Tusla and since then that funding has been provided to the Clarecare under what is known as a section 56 service level agreement.

In January of this year, the HSE began pay restoration to those contracted under a section 39 agreement. However, as I understand it, no such restoration has been promised or provided to those under a section 56 agreement. In practical terms, we have a team of workers who are contracted by the State through Clarecare to provide health and social care services in County Clare. A pay cut was enforced on all of them in 2010. Pay restoration was recommenced in January of this year but only some of the workers qualify. That begs the obvious question: why? They have been told if the HSE is providing the funding they will get their pay restoration but for those who were funded by the HSE when the pay cuts were introduced in 2010 and since 2014 have been funded by Tusla, it is tough luck, they do not get restoration. That does not seem fair to me and it certainly is not seen as fair by the workers on the ground. Neither is seen as fair by the people who they work with, assist and help on a daily basis. In truth, as far as all those people are concerned, they are doing the same work they did when their funding came through the HSE stream, albeit their funding is now coming through a different route. They find it hard to understand why they are not getting pay restoration. The reality is it is State and taxpayer-funded. The fact that it is a section 39 or a section 56 service level agreement should not matter to the people on the ground.

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s views on this matter. It is blatant discrimination for a group of people who were treated in a fair and equitable way up to a certain point to now discover because their funding was transferred to a different Department they do not qualify for pay restoration of pay in terms of the pay cut they took in unison with everybody else at the time. I look forward to the Minister’s deliberations on that.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. As he said, section 39 of the Health Act 2004 relates to funding of bodies by the HSE and section 56 of the Child and Family Agency Act 2013 relates to funding by Tusla. When the Senator raised this issue with the Minister for Health, he acknowledged it would be inappropriate for him to comment in respect of the operation of section 56 as matters funded under it relate to Tusla and fall within the remit of my Department.

As Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, I highly value the work undertaken by the community and voluntary sector which provide services funded by Tusla under section 56 of the 2013 Act. I am very conscious and appreciative of the impact these organisations and their staff have on improving outcomes for children, young people and families all over Ireland.

The Minister for Health has advised me that under section 39 of the Health Act 2004, the HSE provides financial assistance to organisations by means of a grant. Section 39 legally underpins the provision of services similar or supplementary to a service the HSE may provide.

I understand that pay restoration was secured under a Workplace Relations Commission agreement between the Department of Health and the HSE on the one hand, and the unions representing the workers of section 39 organisations on the other. The section 39 organisations to which the agreement applied included those with service arrangements in place in 2013 which were still in place in 2019 and that received in excess of an agreed, specified amount from the HSE, which I understand was €250,000 per year. This was achieved through an agreed process on a phased basis.

Since the establishment of Tusla in 2014, the agency has funded many organisations, mostly in the community and voluntary sector, to deliver services on its behalf under sections 56 to 59 of the Child and Family Agency Act 2013. These commissioned services fulfil Tusla's statutory responsibilities and deliver on the agency's strategic objectives. Such organisations are important partners in the work of the agency and I value the unique position many of them are in that enable them to deliver services which can respond quickly to the needs of children and families in their local communities. I acknowledge that some of these organisations were funded by the HSE under section 39 of the Health Act 2004 prior to the establishment of Tusla in 2014. However, section 56(14) of the Act is clear that "an arrangement under this section shall not give rise to an employment relationship between a service provider, its employees or agents on the one hand and the Agency on the other". Therefore, these organisations operate independently of Tusla and are responsible for the recruitment of their employees and for the terms and conditions under which they are employed. Tusla is not the employer of the staff of such organisations and the remuneration of these staff is a matter for their own employers.

While Tusla is not the employer of the staff in organisations funded by section 56, the agency has raised the issue of the sustainability of the vital services provided by these organisations with me in the last year. They are a part of the essential infrastructure of services and supports we have in place for children and their families. At my most recent quarterly meeting with the board of Tusla, the chairman and I spoke about our intention to pursue additional resources for the sector as part of the Estimates process in 2022. I assure the Senator, therefore, that I am committed to working with my colleagues in Government, and especially the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, Tusla and other service delivery partners to address the sustainability of these services and ensure that we meet the needs of children, young people and their families across Ireland. I will be giving this issue my full consideration in the upcoming Estimates process.

I thank the Minister for his commitment to fighting the case on behalf of these workers with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I am conscious that departmental speak has always surrounded section 39 workers. I refer to their employment being the responsibility of the local voluntary organisations and, as such, no relationship existing between the State agency and the local organisations other than the provision of funding. However, the reality back in 2010 was that the State required these organisations to cut salaries by 4% by reducing the funding provided. It is all well documented. The State knows full well what the different grades and rates of pay are and funding is provided pro rata in that regard, on the basis of whole-time equivalents, etc.

Notwithstanding the lack of a direct contractual arrangement, therefore, it is important that there is a recognition that, in essence, the State is funding these individuals. It should not matter whether there is a section 39 or a section 56 service level agreement in place. These people are owed that money. If we are to stand for anything in this House and across the public service, it must be based on fairness. The situation as it is now in this regard is not fair, cannot be justified and must be addressed. In real terms, it must be addressed in this round of budgeting. Like the Minister, I will also take up this issue with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to ensure that, in so far as it is possible, we right the wrong perpetrated in respect of these people.

I appreciate the Senator's concerns regarding the sustainability of community and voluntary sector organisations. They provide vital services to children, to families and to young people. I share Senator Dooley's concerns about the sustainability of those organisations and that is why this year I asked Tusla to examine what additional resources it could provide for these organisations on a once-off basis. As the Senator is probably aware, Tusla was able to provide an additional €7 million in funding last month for the section 56 organisations. A once-off 5% increase in funding was provided to these organisations, which amounted to €6.2 million. Additional funding, beyond that 5%, was given to certain organisations where there were particular sustainability issues. We were also able to provide an additional €4.7 million in the budget to the domestic, sexual and gender-based violence services around the country.

My firm commitment is to continue to strengthen the infrastructure in place to support the protection, welfare and well-being of children, families and the wider community. We will work closely with Tusla and colleagues in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to ensure that the agency and the services it funds receive adequate levels of funding in the year to come. I will also be meeting with Clarecare in the next two weeks about a separate issue, but I am sure that will give me the opportunity to perhaps discuss this issue and to recognise the wider work of that organisation, as the Senator stated.

Vaccination Programme

I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House to address this issue concerning vaccines which have not been approved by the European Medicines Agency, EMA. I acknowledge the enormous success of the vaccination programme to date. We are jabbing more arms in Ireland now for the size of our population than anywhere else in the world. Everybody involved in that operation deserves our thanks and congratulations on that achievement.

The Minister of State will be aware that the European Medicines Agency has approved four vaccines. However, I am raising the question of Irish citizens outside the European Union who may have received a non-EMA-approved vaccine. This includes people who may have received the Sinovac or Sinopharm vaccines, as well as the AstraZeneca vaccine developed in India. This is particularly a problem for Irish citizens working, generally as teachers, engineers or other professionals, in the Middle East and other parts of the world. Those people’s employers arranged for them to get these vaccines very early during the global vaccination process and this situation now represents a difficulty for those people in returning home because Ireland only recognises the EMA-approved vaccines.

This situation will also present a challenge to the roll-out of the digital Covid-19 certificates. The EU is operating on the basis that only vaccines that have been approved by the EMA can be used for certificates. It is up to each of the individual countries in the EU or the European Economic Area, EEA, however, to determine who may enter each respective state. The difficulty which arises then is a discrepancy between the criteria in different European countries. Spain, for example, will accept all EMA-approved vaccines and those approved by the World Health Organization to meet the criteria for entry, which gives a total of eight vaccines overall. Greece and Estonia, then, will accept the vaccines which are recognised in the country of departure. Therefore, if somebody is leaving Dubai to travel to Greece, for instance, and he or she has been vaccinated with a vaccine recognised in Dubai, the Greek authorities will accept that as meeting their requirements for entry. In Iceland, the authorities will allow entry to someone who has been vaccinated with AstraZeneca in South Korea, as well as with the Sinovac vaccine. A similar situation exists in Cyprus and Hungary, because those countries have also administered other vaccines. In Slovenia, meanwhile, people will be permitted to enter once 21 days have elapsed, regardless of the vaccine received.

Across Europe, then, there is a divergence in the approaches which will be taken. Our concern regarding this matter is obviously for those Irish citizens seeking to return home, especially if they have spent much of the time during the Covid-19 pandemic away from Ireland but have now received a non-EMA-approved vaccine. We need clarity regarding what is going to happen concerning this situation, depending on how long it may take for the EMA to recognise those other vaccines. I also raise this matter in the context of a concern regarding international students coming to Ireland in the autumn.

It is a crucial issue for our higher education institutions and it is welcome that we will see on-campus activity resume in the autumn. It is essential that we start to see international students coming back. Obviously, many of these international students will have received vaccines. I am thinking in particular of students who may be coming here from China or other parts of Asia. They will have received other vaccines. It will be challenging if we, as an authority, do not provide clarity to them on the situation.

I thank the Senator for raising this question and providing me with the opportunity to update the House on this matter on behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly.

Covid-19 has created unprecedented challenges for Irish citizens at home and overseas who seek to travel. Public health requirements have been put in place for travellers arriving to Ireland from overseas in order to protect against the introduction of new cases of Covid-19 and newly developing variants across the world. Based on knowledge to date, the safest way to reopen society, including to international travel, is to continue to control disease incidence through a range of public health measures which are continuously reviewed, along with progressing the national vaccination programme to ensure as many people as possible within the population are protected through immunisation.

Under the current measures, travellers to Ireland who are fully vaccinated with European Medicines Agency approved vaccines are exempt from hotel quarantine but are still required to show a negative pre-departure RT-PCR test and to complete a period of self-quarantine at home. The accepted Covid-19 vaccines have received market authorisation from the EMA and, therefore, comply with all the requirements of quality, safety and efficacy set out in the EU pharmaceutical legislation. Authorised vaccines are also subject to ongoing monitoring in Ireland by the Health Products Regulatory Authority, HPRA.

The Government has announced that new travel policies will be introduced from 19 July, subject to the prevailing public health situation. While it is not intended to depart from recognition of EMA approved vaccinations, the measures that apply following travel overseas will be revised and the new travel measures will be publicised in advance of 19 July.

The Senator has raised some issues on which I have received correspondence and which I have passed up the line. In Spain, all eight EMA and WHO vaccines are recognised, as is the case in Greece and Estonia. They are able to bring back from Dubai people who have received vaccinations other than those approved by the EMA. We are conscious of these issues and they are being examined in the Department. I have no answer for the Senator today but it is appreciated that it is an issue that, hopefully, can be addressed.

I thank the Minister of State. There is an urgency to addressing this matter. We are speaking about potentially thousands of Irish citizens who, in good faith, took the vaccine their company or the country where they were working offered them. They received it and they want to be fully vaccinated. They want to follow the rules but they also want to be able to come home. It would be very unfair to force them into mandatory hotel quarantining. They may have received a WHO approved vaccine that has not yet been approved by the EMA. They are willing to take a PCR test. We have to create circumstances in which we can allow Irish people to come home. In advance of the autumn, we have to provide clarity for international students who are going to come here. It is an essential part of the higher education experience that we have international students in Ireland. I appreciate what the Minister is saying but with the digital Covid certificate coming into operation from next week, there is an urgency to this issue.

I restate the importance of decisions we have taken on international travel. Measures introduced in response to the risks posed by Covid-19 are in place to protect the progress we are making in suppressing transmission rates at home while the national vaccination programme progresses. Important developments are under way as we transition to a new travel policy. Ireland has begun to issue EU digital green certificates to vaccinated persons. In the coming weeks, the passenger locator form will be overhauled to provide for smoother boarding and checking of documents. From 19 July, quarantine requirements will be lifted for many travellers. Continuous consideration is being given by the Government to policy on international travel to ensure we strike the right balance between containment of the risks and facilitating safe international travel.

I thank the Senator for his remarks regarding the vaccination progress. It is very good to see we are probably top in the EU for vaccinations to date. I thank all of the front-line staff and everybody who has made this possible.

Housing Schemes

The issue I raise today is housing. Housing is very complex and we deal with it daily in this House and in the Dáil. A particular cohort of people have been forgotten about. I have raised this matter previously with the Minister but I want to have time devoted to it. The cohort in question is the tenants of approved housing bodies, colloquially known as co-operative schemes. A very good scheme was introduced approximately 25 years ago, whereby tenants who were on a housing list and qualified for social housing could come together, have input into the design of the housing scheme and fittings and be part of a co-operative to build their own scheme of houses. At the time, it was a visionary approach and I thank the civic and community leaders involved who ensured it happened.

In County Kildare we have 18 such schemes and they have housed 300 people. The tenants have been paying 18% of their gross income throughout the period in question. Many of them have children who are contributing. The loans, which were capital loans given by the Government through the local authorities, are almost paid off. I will give the example of Fen Grove in Newbridge, which has 18 houses. The loans will be fully paid in 2025. However, the tenants cannot buy their own homes. When people got together to plan for the future and plan the houses, a commitment was made that tenants would have an opportunity to buy their homes, as is the case in the local authority housing scheme. I have seen minutes of meetings of the Fen Grove housing co-operative in 1993 that clearly state tenants would be able to buy out their homes. As I mentioned, there are various housing schemes in Kildare, which fall under eight different organisations, some of which have responsibility for a number of schemes.

There has been poor corporate governance, which has been documented. This is completely wrong. The oversight has been incorrect. The key issue I want to speak about, and that I want the Minister of State to bring back to the Minister and Ministers of State with responsibility for housing, is the fact that people should be able to buy out their own homes. These residents entered an agreement with their housing associations in good faith. They held up their end of the bargain and are now being left out to dry. This debacle has tied these families to a life of renting. At present, they have no option of owning their own homes. Many will not qualify for a mortgage now due to their age. Many have retired. These residents chose Fen Grove precisely so they would have an option to own their own home. At that time, homes were out of reach to them. They have built their lives and reared their families in these homes on the understanding that eventually they would have the option to own them. For the tables to be turned on them 25 years later is totally unacceptable.

I am pleased to discuss this important issue and I thank the Senator for raising it. Approved housing bodies, AHBs, are independent, not-for-profit organisations and they are also known as housing associations of voluntary co-operative housing. It is important to be clear that AHBs are independent organisations and must operate in accordance with their own memorandum and articles of association. They are governed by their own board of directors and most are registered charities.

Under section 6 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1992, housing authorities may provide assistance to such bodies for revision and management of housing for people with a housing need. Accordingly, AHBs are key partners of local authorities and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage across the broad spectrum of housing delivery. AHBs are funded for delivery of housing units and related services by the Department through local authorities which have an administrative and oversight role under the relevant social housing funding schemes. If an AHB is in receipt of funding under such a scheme for the provision of social housing, it must comply with the terms and conditions of that scheme. The oversight of this rests with the local authority in whose functional area the scheme is located.

Under such schemes, the AHB is required to make the property available for social renting for the duration of the mortgage or, as the case may be, the availability agreement. On expiry of the mortgage period and subject to compliance with the terms of the funding agreement, the AHB becomes the owner of the property.

In accordance with departmental guidance, local authorities are requested to notify the Department of Housing, Heritage and Local Government on release of all mortgage charges to AHBs within their area. Should an AHB decide to sell a property that has been purchased using Exchequer funding, they must do so in accordance with any conditions attaching to the funding of that property. The funding implications relating to such a sale may vary depending on the funding mechanism under which the property was acquired. If a property is owned outright by an AHB and is not subject to public funding, the AHB may choose to sell that property, once this is allowed for in its constitution. AHBs must have as their primary objectives the relief of housing needs and the provision and management of housing included within their memorandum and articles of association or registered rules, as the case may be. The vast majority of AHBs are registered charities and, as such, must also comply with the provisions of the Charities Acts relating to the sale of charitable assets.

It is important to be clear that the tenant (incremental) purchase scheme for local authority owned dwelling does not extend to AHB properties and it is not open to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to direct AHBs in this regard.

I heard the Senator's concerns regarding the minutes of the 1993 local authority meetings and will bring them to the Minister.

I thank the Minister of State. The families and individuals I am talking about are being sent from pillar to post. They are not being given adequate responses from anyone. They are not being shown the respect they deserve. The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage has been in contact with residents and told them that the decision to sell homes to residents is one for individual housing associations. The individual housing associations say it is not up to them. It is clear that mechanisms should be put in place to fulfil the promise that housing associations can actually make that decision. The residents need to have a clear direction on how they can purchase houses under approved housing schemes and under what criteria that can happen. From what the Minister of State said, I gather that approved housing bodies can make that decision but I assume the Department has some role relating to the criteria and we need to work on that.

I will briefly raise another issue. Some tenants are being moved from permanent homes to leased homes without security of tenure although they remain members of a particular AHB. I thank the Minister of State for his answer. He has provided some clarity. I look forward to continuing to work with the Department, the council and the residents.

I note the concerns of the Senator. I cannot speak on behalf of any individual AHB but I must reiterate that the sale of property by an AHB to a tenant is a matter for the particular AHB. Should an AHB choose to sell these properties, it must ensure it complies with its own constitution and governing rules having regard to its primary objectives. The AHB must also comply with the provisions of the relevant legislation relating to the sale of charitable assets in accordance with any guidance issued by the Charities Regulator. That is an important point to be clear on. I will, of course, convey the Senator's concerns to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage.

Naval Service

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to take this Commencement matter which relates to the Naval Service's plans to acquire a flagship multirole vessel, MRV. This arises from a number of concerns relating to the Department and the navy. I thank Mr. Darragh Duncan, a UCD student working as an intern in my office, who has done considerable research on the issue. There are clearly many conflicting issues around these matters. I will take the Minister of State through some of those issues chronologically. On 15 February 2021, The Irish Times referred to a recent European Commission inquiry into Ireland's fisheries protection capabilities, deeming them unsatisfactory. That finding relates to this Commencement matter.

On 4 June 2021, The Irish Times reported that Ireland has had to outsource fisheries patrols to other EU vessels to control our fisheries. That is a challenge in itself. On 6 April 2021, the Irish Examiner reported that the Naval Service's plans to acquire a new flagship MRV at a reputed cost of €200 million had gone to tender. Further commentary has reported that the tender process is not going ahead. The 2015 White Paper on Defence stated that such a vessel was required. That vessel would need to be flexible and adaptive. It would need to be able to carry freight and to be capable of a wide range of maritime tasks, both at home and abroad. At this point, I acknowledge the amazing humanitarian work our Naval Service has carried out in the Mediterranean. That was important.

There are concerns around the issue of the European Commission's inquiry into Ireland's fisheries protection capabilities. We should be concerned about that. We must also address the issues of cost and morale within the Naval Service. I am reliably informed that membership is now below 1,000. It is, fact, approximately 900, when the Naval Service normally comprises the recommended level of approximately 1,200 members. Without being negative, there are concerns about the morale of our navy. There is a need to support it in terms of the infrastructure, machinery and expertise that are required.

There were suggestions that this MRV would be used as a hospital ship, would be capable of carrying troops and helicopters and would be amphibious, in addition to catering for airborne landings. It would be a multifaceted, mutifunctional, expensive and essential military resource. It is needed to provide humanitarian support and emergency services in Ireland. There are concerns here. I am asking that we have the necessary ships and specialist equipment, and the motivated staff to address issues around fisheries protection, which are critically important. We also need to find out where we are on this project. Is it on course as the draft tender documents set out? It is important infrastructure that is needed. It would give the Naval Service a boost and a sense that we are all on the one page. It is important that we have absolute clarity about where we are on this important project.

I am responding on behalf of the Minister for Defence and Foreign Affairs who cannot be present due to other commitments. On his behalf, I welcome the opportunity to respond to the Senator on the topic he has raised.

The Naval Service is the principal sea-going agency of the State and is charged with maritime defence, fishery protection, contraband interdiction duties, search and rescue, and enforcing Irish and EU legislation, as appropriate. The Irish economic zone currently extends to 132,000 square miles. This area is approximately five times the size of Ireland, and amounts to approximately 16% of all EU waters.

The Naval Service currently has a nine-ship fleet with two of those ships, the LÉ Eithne and LÉ Orla, in operational reserve. The Government has acknowledged the recruitment and retention issues that are currently impacting on Naval Service operations and the availability of operational ships and also the impact on fishery patrol days, which is a situation that is being managed carefully. The Minister's focus is on returning the Naval Service to its full capacity.

The White Paper on Defence sets out an ambitious programme of capital investment in the Naval Service, including the mid-life refit and upgrade of the P50 class of vessels, the LÉ Róisín and LÉ Niamh, as well as the replacement of the flagship Naval Service vessel, the LÉ Eithne, with a multirole vessel, and, subsequently, the LÉ Ciara and LÉ Orla. The P50 mid-life upgrade programme is well under way, with the recent return to operations of the LÉ Róisín and work is commencing on the LÉ Niamh project.

The multirole vessel project is an important developmental project and indicative of the Government's commitment to ongoing investment and development of defence capabilities. The project is included in the national development plan as a major capital project and is an important element of the defence equipment development plan. A joint civil-military project team has been appointed to manage this project. Work to date has focused on the pretender concept of operations stage and preparing a detailed specification of capability requirements for a tender competition. In addition, a competition is under way to appoint a marine adviser to support the procurement of a multirole vessel. This process should be finalised within the coming weeks. It is the intention that the new vessel will be able to contribute across a number of defence roles, with a design specification capable of providing a flexible and adaptive capacity for a wide range of tasks, both at home and overseas. It is planned that it will be enabled for helicopter operations and will have a freight-carrying capacity.

It is intended to hold a public tender competition in due course to cover the supply of the multirole vessel, subject to availability of funding within the overall defence capital funding envelope. As this project is at pretender stage, the Senator will appreciate that it would be inappropriate to comment further on the design and capabilities of the ship.

With regard to the European Commission's assessment that Ireland's fisheries protection capabilities are "unsatisfactory", while it is acknowledged that there is room for improvement in respect of Ireland's sea fisheries protection, the Minister is satisfied that the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority and Naval Service continue to actively engage with the Commission and EU partners on matters related to the Common Fisheries Policy. During 2020, the Naval Service carried out 781 fishery patrol days. Up to 31 May 2021, the Naval Service had carried out 338 fishery patrol days.

I am conscious that the Minister of State is taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney. I thank the Minister, through the Minister of State, for his very comprehensive response. That is his style and the way he operates. I like that he accepts there were shortcomings. He refers to the European Commission's audit and subsequent administration inquiry, which identified there were severe and significant weakness in the Irish control system. This is a Minister who is prepared to face up to the problems and challenges and to seek to address them.

I thank the Minister for the very comprehensive reply in which he has addressed a number of issues relating to the humanitarian work of the Naval Service, which is critically important. In the remaining time, I thank the Naval Service and the Minister for the work that has been done in the Mediterranean in the past and I hope it will be done again in the future. It is important that we are involved and support this service, which is critically important, both for fisheries and for the forces themselves.

The Government acknowledges the challenges in the Naval Service in terms of recruitment and retention and the impact this has on planned fishery protection patrol days at present. The Minister's focus is on returning the Naval Service to its full capacity. The acquisition of modern new vessels, combined with an ongoing maintenance regime for all vessels within the fleet and the continuous process of refurbishment, refit and repair will ensure that the operational capabilities of the Naval Service, as the State's principal sea-going agency, are maintained to the greatest extent. Projects for the replacement of other vessels will be considered over the lifetime of the White Paper in the context of overall capability development and funding along with the overall equipment planning process.

In addition, it should be noted that the programme for Government contains a commitment to an independent commission to undertake a comprehensive review of the Defence Forces. The commission commenced its work in December 2020 and is due to report in December 2021. As part of its terms of reference, the commission is looking at the structure and size of the Defence Forces, encompassing military capability structuring and staffing.

Sitting suspended at 11.26 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.