Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Victim Support Services

I thank the Minister for coming to the House and I appreciate it is a particularly busy time for him at present.

A number of weeks ago, I was contacted by a woman who is a victim of rape. She went through a traumatic trial and, to her horror, realised afterwards that all victim supports had dried up. She was effectively left to fend for herself and cope with the implications of the trial with no offer of counselling. Another woman, Shaneda Daly, who went public with her similar experience, stated:

You come out of the court and you’ve had your day in court, and he’s gone to prison, and you’re kind of high at the sentencing ... You’re living your life a little bit and then [that] bubble just bursts. There’s no one around you any more ... No one ever contacts you again ... any support [that was there is gone].

In some ways, these issues are just the tip of the iceberg. I have no doubt the Minister saw the report published last week by the Rape Crisis Network Ireland, which stated there was an "exponential increase" in demand for its services and it does not use that term lightly. It described how, over a period of time, there has been a doubling in the number of calls to its helpline, in addition to a 63% increase in appointments and, crucially, there is now a waiting list time in excess of a year for survivors or victims being assigned a counsellor. We know these issues existed pre-Covid and, therefore, have not sprung up during the last year. The annual report of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, published at the beginning of September, told a similar story. What is the Government doing to properly support and resource these rape crisis centres, which provide a crucial service, to ensure no survivor is left waiting for an unacceptable length of time?

I looked at the detail in the budget to see if the Government responded to the calls made by the various rape crisis centres throughout the country and I note the budget's expenditure report states the Government will maintain supports for domestic, sexual and gender based violence services. To be frank, that is not good enough. We need to see an increase in funding, not a maintenance of existing funds. There are two primary issues involved. There is a recruitment and retention crisis in regard to psychotherapists, who provide sexual assault and rape counselling services in rape crisis centres. The present situation is that such section 56 organisations have not been recognised as organisation that need to pay decent wages to retain their staff. Many of these services had to reduce salaries in line with public service wage agreements ten years ago. While there has been pay restoration and pay progress for many public sector workers, including section 39 organisations, the same cannot be said of section 56 organisations. Therefore, they have difficulty retaining staff. The second issue is the dramatic increase in demand for services, which is a good thing because people who suffered trauma in the past are, only now, willing to come forward. We need to respond to them in a timely manner.

In my remaining time, I will relay the story of Siobhan in Limerick. I am grateful to her for allowing me to share her story here today. She is a survivor of multiple sexual assaults and abuse in her younger years. Two and a half years ago, she decided to seek help. It took her a whole year to establish that she could access help from the Rape Crisis Centre, One in Four or HSE adult counselling services.

It is telling that it took a whole year to even establish that for her. When she went to them and realised that she would be waiting a whole year she described how she felt retraumatised and the toll that this waiting has inflicted on her. Of course, this is a story that is told by many others.

We are looking to hear from the Minister what supports the Government is putting in place for services within the rape crisis centres. We cannot afford to have women, and men, waiting any longer than is absolutely necessary.

I thank the Senator for raising this very important matter. I am aware that this has received significant media attention recently, and that the statistics are very sobering. There has been a 100% increase in calls to helplines, a 63% increase in appointments and a 30% increase in the number of survivors attending centres. The Senator has outlined, beyond the statistics, the real-life impact of those waits on victims.

The response to domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, DSGBV, is across government and is a multiagency issue, and policy is co-ordinated by the Department of Justice. I will outline what my Department is doing and then speak a little on what the Department of Justice is doing also.

Tusla has statutory responsibility under the Child and Family Agency Act for the care and protection of victims of DSGBV. Tusla funding is available for DSGBV services such as refuges, other domestic violence services and the rape crisis centres. This is €30 million for 2021, which includes €28 million of core spending and €2 million on Covid spending. In the budget yesterday I announced an additional €40 million for Tusla, which is very significant funding. There will be additional funding for DSGBV services within that. The breakdown of Tusla's funding for next year will not come out for a number of weeks. This is how it always happens. We do not tell Tusla exactly how to allocate its departmental allocation. That will be decided in the next weeks.

Tusla has advised that funding specific to sexual violence and rape crisis services has increased by 32% since 2016. It supports the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre to operate the national 24-7 free phone sexual violence helpline which is a round-the-clock accessible point of contact for anyone seeking support. Tusla provided an additional €275,000 to the two national 24-7 DSGBV helplines. This was an additional 50% on their annual core funding. That extra money came in 2021 to add capacity in the context of the Covid crisis.

The rape crisis centres have assured Tusla that their waiting lists are actively managed. People who are in acute crisis are prioritised. The contact remains open for anyone on a waiting list, and especially if there are concerns around safety. Tusla also supports general counselling in local communities via the family resource centres. There is an absolute acknowledgement that there is great demand for mental health professionals, and there are challenges in recruiting and retaining staff. Costs for support, supervision and professional development are included when the funding for sexual violence and rape crisis services is received from Tusla.

On the actions being taken by the Department of Justice, it has created an implementation plan entitled Supporting a Victim's Journey, for the review of protections for vulnerable witnesses in the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences. The Senator has outlined the struggles that survivors have had following a prosecution. A subgroup on the work of this plan commissioned an expert consultant to analyse and categorise the supports provided with grant funding made by the Department of Justice in 2021 under the victims of crime grant scheme. The consultant identified geographical areas and categories of victims, which represent gaps or unmet need in the current provision of these supports services within the criminal justice system. The Department of Justice is now in the process of contacting identified NGOs to arrange to distribute funding to provide additional services and extend geographical scope.

Another subgroup is focused on developing specialist training for legal professionals, counsellors and psychotherapists working in front-line services. Building on the mapping exercise, the subgroup will design a framework for the provision of a range of training and awareness-raising measures for those engaged with victims of sexual crime and vulnerable witnesses. Tusla is contributing to those actions also.

I do not know exactly the full package announced by the Department of Justice from yesterday, I believe it is holding a more detailed press conference today. I am aware the Department is putting in place a specific funding package for the victim's journey in implementing the Department's response to that.

I thank the Minister. I welcome a lot of the detail that the Minister has provided. It is certainly positive that the gaps are being identified and that the subgroup focusing on developing specialist training is being put in place, and that there will be funding announced over the coming weeks under the DSGBV heading. What worries me slightly is the sentence "The rape crisis centres have assured Tusla that their waiting lists are actively managed". Of course they are actively managing their lists but the lists are too long. We need to see that detail now, notwithstanding everything the Minister has said that we will see the detail. We need to see it as soon as possible. We are coming into the winter period now and into what is considered a more normalisation of society. People are no longer willing to put up with excuses of Covid or anything else. We need to see that this funding is in place so the rape crisis centres can step up their response to victims as soon as possible.

This Government has a strong track record on funding DSGBV services, including the increases that were provided in last year's budget to Tusla for funding the services, and with regard to the Department of Justice funding other supports, especially around the victims of domestic and sexual violence. That has been continued in this year's budget with a very substantial increase for Tusla. In my engagement with Tusla on the funding of existing domestic violence services, the funding of new services was also identified as a priority. The Senator will be aware that the accommodation review of refuges will be published shortly and we will be looking to support that in conjunction with my Department, the Department of Justice and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage in the context of the capital acquisitions scheme which is the capital funding. It is about bringing those elements together. That is what we are doing with the overall audit of the provision of DSGBV services. There is ongoing engagement with the sector in learning the positive lessons from Covid around how agencies, Departments and NGOs can work together.

Children in Care

I thank the Minister for being in the Chamber today during what is a very busy week for the Government. I was pleased to note in yesterday's budget an increase in the funding to be made available to the Child and Family Agency. I look forward to hearing more from the Minister's Department as to where these additional resources will be specifically allocated.

Last week I spoke in the Seanad on the challenges faced by Irish care leavers in the transition into further education. It is very important that we speak about children in care and the issues faced by our care-experienced young people on a regular basis. We often hear that this vulnerable group does not feel seen or heard.

The issue I will speak about today is one that, if acted on, will ensure that care-experienced young people are seen, heard and adequately supported. In the 2009 Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, widely known as the Ryan report, a wide range of recommendations were made to ensure that the tragedies inflicted on young people in the care of the State were never repeated. Most of these recommendations have, thankfully, been acted on in the intervening 11 years, but a number remain on hold for one reason or another. One such recommendation relates to the commencement of a longitudinal study of children in care and aftercare, to measure and evaluate their outcomes versus the majority of young people that are cared for in home. This was a very important recommendation from the Ryan report and it is a great shame that it has not yet been advanced given the insights we stand to take from the study and the impact this learning could have on the future service provision for children and families.

As the Minister will be aware, care-experienced young people and young adults face challenges in their lives that many of us struggle to even comprehend. These challenges affect the young person throughout the course of his or her life, and do not simply disappear when the young person first comes into care and later transitions to after-care or returns to the family of origin. These challenges affect many young people's ability to develop in line with expectation, and to learn to sustain healthy relationships in childhood and adulthood. We know this because of anecdotal accounts provided by care-experienced young people, social workers, and social care professionals, and by advocacy groups like Empowering People in Care, EPIC, and the Irish Foster Care Association. We should not have to rely on evidence like this from people. Instead, we should undertake a comprehensive longitudinal study of children in care and aftercare, and explore how the data gathered over the course of the study can improve the future provision of services to children and families in the State.

Previous Governments committed to this study being undertaken, but, unfortunately, it remains on the back-burner. To date, we have had recommendations from the Ryan report and agreed to their implementation and undertaken scoping exercises and feasibility studies, but the proposed study has still not commenced. There are barriers to undertaking a study of this nature but, as demonstrated by the feasibility study undertaken in 2018, they are not insurmountable. As I know the Minister of State will agree, our care-experienced young people are deserving of that effort.

Similar studies have been undertaken in other jurisdictions. We even have a precedent for longitudinal study of young people in this country in the form of Growing up in Ireland. Given the specificities the experiences of young people in care, however, we require a study which focuses on the specific experiences of many challenges faced by young people in care and aftercare and on the unique needs of a vulnerable group in Irish society. Without it, care-experienced young people will continue to feel unseen and unheard in comparison with their majority peers. Young people who cannot be cared for at home deserve better. By committing to the commencement of the longitudinal study, which was first proposed in the Ryan report, we can demonstrate to young people with care experience that we see them, hear them and are working hard to ensure that they achieve the best outcomes and the brightest futures that they so deserve.

I thank Senator Ruane for raising this important matter. I am aware of the vulnerability of people leaving care. I met with representatives from the Irish Aftercare Network on Monday, and we had a good discussion. It is not the first time I met with them. I have met groups such as Empowering People in Care, EPIC, so I am engaged with people, both dealing with children in care, and those supporting children in aftercare. I listen carefully to what they have to say.

As the Senator is aware, the Ryan report implementation plan recommended that a longitudinal survey will be carried out to follow young people for ten years after they left care, with the agreement of the young people involved. At various times over subsequent years, consideration has been given by my Department to how to best implement this recommendation. Tusla and my Department commissioned a feasibility report, of which the Senator spoke, which was authored by Dr. Carmel Devaney and Dr. Clíona Rooney of the UNESCO child and family research centre at the National University of Ireland Galway and which was published in 2019. The report provided evidence and learning from longitudinal studies in other countries and, importantly, it also recommended extending any consideration of longitudinal research to include children in care, as well as those who are leaving care. The report highlighted the need for more information regarding the experiences of and outcomes for children in care and leaving care in Ireland, which could then be used to inform policy and service development.

There is an agreement between my Department and Tusla that greater knowledge of the lives of children in care, as well as those leaving care, is needed. It is accepted that the Ryan report recommendations should be extended to include both cohorts. However, the scale and cost of longitudinal research is substantial. As a result, careful consideration needs to be given to whether and in what format a longitudinal study on children in care and leaving care should be carried out. There have been significant developments the collection and analysis of administrative data on children in care since the publication of the Ryan report. These also need to be considered and incorporated in any decision that is made on how to proceed.

We established a working group between my Department of Tusla in November 2020. The purpose of the working group is to inform me of the ways in which the Ryan report recommendation for longitudinal research into the lives and experiences of children in care and those living care can best be met. This will include consideration of the feasibility of conducting longitudinal research with these children and young people. The working group has met six times to date. There are two more meetings planned for October and November. It is my expectation that the working group will produce a high-level report in which it will outline the findings and conclusions of its work. I will consider this when making a decision on how best to proceed.

The working group was originally meant to report in quarter 3 of this year. As has been the case with so many aspects of Tusla's operations, the cyberattack has delayed that. I am now expecting the report by the end of 2021. That will allow me, hopefully in early 2022, to make a decision on how we provide the best available research for children in care at the moment and those leaving who are leaving care.

I thank the Minister for his encouraging response about the working group and the report he expects it to provide by the end of the year. I always see things in the flip-reverse. We sometimes put cost forward as a barrier because we look at the cost involved in the short term. It is always good to keep in our frame of thinking about what would the cost be of not taking a particular action. When one begins to measure the latter, then the cost of taking an action always seems so much smaller than the cost of not taking the action. I am glad that the working group commenced its work last year. I look forward to the Minster coming back to the Chamber after he has seen that report in order that he can give an update on what happens next.

Every Minister has to consider cost as one of the factors in any decision-making process. However, it is not the driving factor. It is worth noting that the amount of data available since the Ryan report was published - which as the Senator pointed out is a long time ago – is now much greater. We have data from the national childcare information system, the Central Statistics Office and many other sources in respect of a range of areas. While longitudinal surveys are fantastic in identifying long-term trends, there is data already available on day-to-day and yearly trends right now. It is important that whatever recommendation we get will give us the best up-to-date data that my Department, Tusla and other State agencies can use. That is why we are giving wide consideration to all sources of data in this working group. Again, I am looking forward to getting its recommendations. Of course, I will be happy to discuss them further with Members of this House once I get them.

Architectural Heritage

I call Senator Victor Boyhan. The Senator has four minutes.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this important matter and I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke. I know this is a busy week for him in the context of the budget and his other ministerial commitments.

I will preface my remarks by saying that this matter relates to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. I engaged in the council's county development public consultation process as a citizen. While I am here today as a politician talking about legislation and potential anomalies in the legislation, I want to share my experience as a citizen who engaged with a public consultation relating to the city and county development plan process. The latter is an important process for which the Minister of State has ultimate responsibility. I put on record my admiration for the professional way in which Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council’s chief executive and elected members conduct their business. They take it seriously. One of the most important functions of elected city or county councils is the reserved function relating to mapping out the proper planning and sustainable development of their administrative areas for a period of five years. We know that work is ongoing on development plans across the country. We are talking about development plans that will come into operation in 2022.

The background to this is that I have been in touch with the Minster of State’s Department in respect of this matter before. I am somewhat surprised that it has become an issue at this stage and I am somewhat disappointed that it has not been resolved. Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council has stated that there is a conflict between two interrelated sections of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended. The sections are section 12(3), which sets out statutory timeframes for the addition of and-or deletion from the record of protected structures, and section 12(7), which sets out statutory timeframes associated with the material alteration stage of the county development plan-making process. That is the advice being given by the professionals to the elected members of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council in respect of the current stage of the development plan process, namely, the stage to which I am referring.

I served as a member of the council for many years. As a citizen and as a someone who has a particular interest in architectural conservation and protected structures, I chose one building to focus on. The council described it as a Gothic, red-bricked, granite chapel in Tivoli Terrace in south County Dublin to be added to the record of protected structures.

It fitted all the criteria, as the Minister of State will be aware, of which there are five or six including heritage, architectural, scientific significance, and the chief executive, in her report to the elected members, suggested that it might very well cover some of the criteria. That is not in dispute.

I am only one person and I am doing this on behalf of many other citizens. Yesterday I received a print off of all people who made submissions to this county development plan process. This is about what members of the public, who engaged in a public consultation process, are being told by the manager. She says that there is a conflict in the legislation and she will not be in a position to allow the elected members of this local authority to consider them further. She says the only way of doing this is by varying the plan. They have not even agreed this plan and they are being told five more years. Where does that leave Johnny the citizen - me, a member of the public who submitted in good faith and engaged in the public consultation process - for a building to be added to the record of protected structures? There is either an anomaly or there is a misunderstanding but there needs to be greater clarity on this issue and I would welcome the Minister of State's response.

I thank Senator Boyhan for raising the matter. With regard to the safeguarding of protected structures, Part IV of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, gives primary responsibility to local authorities to identify and protect architectural heritage by including particular structures on their respective record of protected structures, RPS.

The making of a statutory development plan of a planning authority is set out in the Act and provides for the identification and protection of structures of heritage through their inclusion in the RPS. Inclusion on the RPS places a duty of care on the owners and occupiers of protected structures. Section 11 of the Act sets out the procedures and processes for the preparation of the draft development plan, including any buildings or structures to be included in the RPS.

Section 12 of the Act then stipulates the public consultation exercise to be undertaken for the draft development plan including a public display period, of minimum 10-week duration, within which period members of the public and others may make submissions to the planning authority. There is then a further 12-week period in which the chief executive of the planning authority must prepare a report, and a further 12 weeks during which time the members of the authority must consider the report on the draft plan – a maximum of 34 weeks in total. Following the planning authority’s consideration of the report on the draft development plan, the elected members may then propose that material alterations be made under section 12(6) of the Act. There is a corresponding four week period of public consultation be held for the receipt of submissions on same; a further four week period in which the chief executive of the Planning Authority must prepare a report; and, a further six weeks during which time the members of the authority must consider the report – a maximum of 14 weeks in total.

The legislation governing this stage, that is the material alterations stage, of the development plan preparation process is not explicit in specifying that a planning authority may, or may not, add to or delete from the RPS. However, it is clear that any material alteration may be made to the draft plan, which enables scope to make material alteration changes to the RPS. In this regard it is noteworthy that after public display of the proposed material alterations, when they are being considered by the elected members of the planning authority, the possibility for any further modifications to the RPS to be introduced is specifically excluded as per section 12 (10)(c)(ii) of the Planning and Development Act. There is no such specific exclusion on changes to the RPS at the material alterations stage.

Finally, it is noted that it is also possible for the planning authority to propose additions or amendments to the RPS at any time, that is, outside of the development plan making process. Section 55 of the Act sets out the procedure for doing so. In such cases there is a six week period for public consultation, with a decision to be made within 12 weeks. This is therefore the shortest of the three possible procedures, at 12 weeks in total.

I am aware of all of that. I was asking about the position where a member of the public who submits a building for the record of protected structures. It is a reserved function of the elected members and not for the executive as the Minister of State well knows. A number of these were submitted and I submitted one. The elected members are being told in writing, and I have the report on my desk, that they will not be able to bring it forward. I understand they will be bringing it forward, despite all the manager's legal advice and there might be some sort of set-to in Dún Laoghaire. Where is that envisaged? Is the Minister of State telling me there is no anomaly in the legislation? That is really what I want to hear. Clearly I have options open to me and I am going to exercise them after considering all the facts. Is there an anomaly in the legislation, as the chief executive is telling elected members including Fine Gael councillors in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown?

It is very clear there are differences in timeframes to reflect both the stages of the development plan process and the different nature of the development plan as opposed to a process solely focused on the listing of protected structures. These difference do not mean, however, that there is a conflict between them. They simply mean that there are different contexts in which the important function is to be undertaken. When considering the draft development plan, there are multiple matters to be considered, reported on and determined. This requires 34 weeks. The timeframe narrows considerably at the material alterations stage, which requires 14 weeks. Clearly a separate listing process is a single focus exercise, and requires just 12 weeks. These differences are appropriate and justified. All of these processes integrate the protection and safeguarding of our built heritage.

The Senator is talking about the capacity of the elected members to bring forward amendments to the list as opposed to the conflict in the timeframes under the Act. I ask that he would send me on the advice. He might have done so already but I did not see it yet. We will definitely take a look at it. Having been a local authority member myself, I know there has been frustrations where some buildings were included in the protected structure list, and sometimes getting an assurance etc. has been difficult. Some amendments have been justified. There is potential concern about the capacity of members to bring forward additions, and to get it on the table so that a decision can be made. I can look at that aspect of it for the Senator.

School Accommodation

I welcome my colleague, the Minister of State, to the Chamber. This morning I am asking for an update from the Minister of Education on timelines associated with the employment of a design team and the preparation of plans for the proposed new build for Summercove NS in Kinsale. The last decade or more has seen significant development of how we fund our education infrastructure. The days of prefabs in every school has moved on. Many schools in my part of the country have seen really significant development and that should be acknowledged. In Kinsale, in particular, there have been extensions to the community school, and the Gaelscoil, after a long debacle, has got a site. However, there is one anomaly in Kinsale, namely Summercover NS. It is a busy, thriving national school and a significant part of our community. In recent decades it has been striving to secure redevelopment. There was a range of issues including one with a site and with planning. I am pleased to see a site has been purchased and the trustees of the diocese have moved into the space and completed the transfer of the site. Now we need the Department of Education to step up and allocate the resources to provide a design team that can lodge planning permission. That design team needs to look at the new site being proposed and lodge planning permission as soon as we can for the pupils, teachers, the board of management and principal who is leaving on 22 October. They have done so much to make sure this site was available. Now we need to progress with the Department to make sure we build this new school in Summercove.

Kinsale is a thriving town and the population figures from the census of 2016 are totally out of date because the development we have seen there in the past five to six years has been amazing. Therefore, the need for educational infrastructure on the ground is much warranted. I hope we can prioritise this project and put a design team in place and then move forward with the planning because we need to provide this school for this industrious part of Cork. The students, parents and board of management have done so much in recent decades to bring this site to fruition.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter and I will specifically raise it with the Minister for Education. Summercove National School is a Catholic co-educational primary school under the patronage of the Bishop of Cork and Ross. In September 2020, the school had an enrolment of 223 pupils with a staffing of a principal, eight mainstream class teachers and three special education teaching posts. It is the Department’s intention to progress the construction of a new school building for the school as part of the school building programme and to underwrite the community of Kinsale, which the Senator mentioned.

The Department has a large-scale and ambitious roll-out of school building projects under the national development plan, NDP, and as part of Project Ireland 2040. The continuation of construction work on school building projects during the lockdown period in early 2021 was an important enabler to facilitate the delivery of our school building programme. During the NDP period of 2018 to 2020, there were 526 projects completed under the large-scale capital programme and the additional school accommodation scheme. These projects delivered in excess of 48,000 school places, including permanent accommodation for 229 special classes and additional capacity for 67 classrooms in 14 special schools throughout the country. There are also some 250 school building projects on-site, many of which will be completed in 2022.

The patron of Summercove National School has recently acquired a 1 ha greenfield site for the construction of the school, subject to planning permission being obtained. It is intended that the school building will provide capacity for eight classrooms, ancillary accommodation and a two-classroom special education needs base. The Department is finalising the accommodation brief for the project, which is part of the preparatory work associated with the architectural planning process. This includes the procurement of a design team. The Department will be in further contact with the school authorities as the project progresses to the next stage. Once the design team has been appointed, there are standard procedures to be followed in the progression of the project through preliminary design, detailed design, planning permission and then ultimately proceeding to tender and construction.

The Senator has alluded to the work he is doing with the community and I know he has been raising this within the Department of Education. I will also raise that community aspect because it is an exciting project to get on the road from the point of view of the principal, board of management, students and wider community. There is a strong commitment from the Department, as the Senator can see, but there are processes that have to be embarked on, right through to the planning permission stage and hopefully we will get on-site in due course.

I thank the Minister of State for his acknowledgement in the debate. The amount of work being done locally to secure the site has been amazing. This is an issue that has been going on for decades and the acquisition of this site is a major step forward. I am delighted that the Department will prioritise this and make sure it will work with the board of management and the people on the ground to make sure we can deliver the site and school for Summercove National School. It is a community project and that is what I want to emphasise. I thank the Minister of State for his contribution and I will be raising this again to make sure the timelines do not have any slippage.

I thank the Senator again for raising this important issue on behalf of the community in Kinsale. I will raise it with the Minister for Education and outline to her the key priorities the community has in order to try to get this school progressed as quickly as possible. The Senator has put forward a strong case in connection with it and we need to ensure we have a good, strong and new school to underwrite the community there and support it into the future. We will do our best to unlock that for the Senator.

Sitting suspended at 11.15 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.