At the outset I welcome our old colleague and friend, the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, here to the Seanad who, thank God, has gone on to greener pastures.
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Climate Action Plan
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach very much indeed. The Minister of State is very welcome and I thank him for coming here to debate this all-important topic.
We are all concerned about climate but one thing that I am very concerned about and on which I am hearing from some farmers is that they are looking for a clear pathway as to what supports and grants are available to them in respect of climate resilience. Farmers have been through a turbulent time between Covid-19, Brexit prior to that, and now with the crisis and war between Russia and Ukraine. They have had to deal with a great deal in recent years.
My concern is to ask the Minister of State to outline, first, what supports are being put in place. On the different grants and supports, will there be a go-to person like a one-stop-shop, where farmers can go for support and to ask questions? One size does not fit all when it comes to farming because there are big and small firms. The grants and supports and any directives that are coming have to be tailored to meet the needs of the farm.
While I know that this cannot be done on an individual basis, there needs to be separate criteria for smaller farmers compared with the larger farmers. Sometimes the larger farmers may have the resources and it may be easier for them to carry out the necessary works whereas some of the smaller farmers are under a great deal of financial pressure. This is something that certainly needs to be highlighted.
I am interested then in hearing what supports and measures are being put in place to support farmers, be they small or large, and whether there will be a one-stop-shop. At this time, especially, they need our support more than ever. I know that Teagasc and the different farm advisory groups are carrying out very important work but there has to be an open door of communication with the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, and the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association, ICMSA, also. I thank the Minister of State and look forward to hearing his response.
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach and Senator Maria Byrne for raising this very important issue.
The Climate Action Plan 2021 commits the agriculture sector to reducing its emissions by between 21% and 30%, which is a doubling of commitment based on the Climate Action Plan 2019. This means agriculture emissions are to reduce to between 16 million to 18 million tonnes in 2030, which is an absolute reduction of between 5 million and 7 million tonnes. The sector will also contribute additionally through reducing land-based emissions, through better managing our soils and, in particular, peat soils.
The focus over the next decade will be on a significant cut in chemical nitrogen use, by making better use of organic manures and transitioning to clover and multispecies swards. The sector will also transition away from the use of use of calcium ammonium nitrate and will use protected urea as its main source of chemical fertiliser. This will help reduce absolute farm emissions. The beef sector will need to transition to a system that reduces the average finishing age from the current 27-month average to 24 months. This will reduce absolute methane emissions on farms.
While existing measures and technologies will bring agriculture very close to the upper end of its proposed agreed range, new technologies or some diversification will be needed. While the sector broadly will be able to maintain agricultural output in our beef and dairy sectors, it is clear that emissions from the dairy sector present a significant challenge. The objective of the recently convened Food Vision 2030 dairy group is to consider how best to stabilise and then reduce emissions from the dairy sector to ensure that the overall sector’s climate targets remain within reach.
The Common Agricultural Policy strategic plan, CSP, for 2023 to 2027 will be an important delivery mechanism to achieve our climate ambition. The environmental and climate ambition within the CSP will be aligned to the new green architecture of the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP. This will operate across both pillars of CAP expenditure to achieve a coherent overall approach. A huge increase in funding for a CAP strategic plan will support farm incomes, while significantly increasing environmental ambition. A total expenditure under the plan to €9.83 billion by the end of 2027 is planned. This is a clear example of our desire to support our farmers and the tremendous work that they do.
Critical to reducing the climate footprint of Irish agriculture is the role of research, innovation and knowledge exchange. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine funds research in this area through national and international competitive funding mechanisms that over the past six years have allocated up to €30 million on climate, greenhouse gas, GHG, emission mitigation and climate-related co-benefit research. Coupled to this is the grant-in-aid to Teagasc, such as the €147 million provided in 2021, which is directed towards research and farm advisory activities related to climate-smart and sustainable agriculture.
Examples of projects funded by the Department which will feed into knowledge and strategies to reduce farm carbon footprints include Farm-Carbon, which is exploring the contribution of on-farm hedgerows and non-forest woodland to carbon stocks in agricultural landscapes, or SmartGrass and SmartSward, which recently researched multispecies swards and also served to inform the recently announced multispecies sward measure as part of a support package to farmers worth €12 million.
The Senator also talked about having a go-to person or a one-stop shop. I will bring those views back to the Minister.
I know it is not the Minister of State’s Department and I appreciate the fact that there is grant aid being provided. However, I would like to see a greater variety of grant aid. Supports need to be put in place. The Minister of State spoke of the 2030 food strategy group that has been set up. Ireland is at a crisis in terms of our grain and feed suppliers. Farmers have been encouraged to actually plant grain, which is a thing they have not done in many years, certainly in large quantities. I would like to see supports being mentioned around that whole area because there will be a shortage to do with the food supply chain and it is a key area that needs to be looked at. Perhaps the Minister of State can bring that back as well because these are very important things.
There is a fear factor with the farmers. I understand that Teagasc is doing a great job and everything and the grant of €147 million provided in 2021 is to be welcomed, and I am sure there will be an even greater fund in 2022 with all that farmers are going through, but there probably needs to be more co-operation and reaching out to farmers of all sizes, from the small to larger farmers. While they want to work with us, the Minister of State and the Department, there is a fear factor. We need to allay those fears because they are part of our culture.
I thank the Senator for raising this very important issue again. She talked about the food supply chain and how farmers are concerned. We need to keep the lines of communication from all various Departments open. Our climate is changing and these changes are affecting our agricultural sector. The sector is committed to sustainable development and it fully recognises that to be sustainable, it must be climate-resilient. We must continue to adapt and plan. The Department is working with all the various stakeholders in these sectoral policies.
The Senator is right that in Food Vision 2030, the new forest strategy will also consider the important role forests play in climate change mitigation and adaption. There are many synergies between adaptation and mitigation actions, which is particularly true for the agricultural sector. Climate action is a two-sided coin, with mitigation on one side and adaptation on the other. To be resilient, both need to be integrated.
The Senator made a very important point that we probably need a go-to person. Teagasc and all the various organisations are working extremely hard, but perhaps a one-stop shop where one can deal with all these issues would be good. I thank the Senator again for raising this.
I thank the Minister of State for coming in. I know it is not exactly his role, but I suppose he is here to bring the message back. I will not attack him personally.
The recently-broadcast television programme highlighting the lack of transparency in local authorities was shocking. It must be frustrating for the people of Ireland, whose only say in local authorities is voting for their local county councillor, because there is this other tier in the council, removed from the public representatives, that has been put there by people who were not chosen by the people, yet who are there to run the county for the people of the county. We need to look at that and see what we can do to improve it to give people faith in their local civil servants and make sure there is a bridge between people on the ground in their communities who know what is needed and wanted and the people making the decisions on how money should be spent and what the priorities are in the county.
I would be interested to hear if, even if there was no “RTÉ Investigates” report, this is something perhaps that the Minister was looking at anyway. I know there has been work and discussions on looking at local authorities and how they operate and their decision-making. It is not clear from local authority to local authority what the decision-making process is. Who gets to decide the county's priority? Is it this one golden egg that will make the council a load of money in one place, is it coming from the communities themselves, saying what they need and want, is it just based on Fáilte Ireland giving local authorities money for a certain project so that is what they will do, or is it the case where there is money for something so that is what they will do?
We have public participation network, PPNs, that I would love seeing more of because they bring in people from communities into the council. I do not know how valued they are in their respective local authorities. I cannot criticise any or all local authorities because there is no consistency. If there is no consistency, that should be based on the fact that they represent the people of that county. That is only reason there should be inconsistencies, otherwise there should be good community development workers in each county who reach out to communities, listen to what is needed by them, and then bring that back into the local authority, with that then becoming a priority for the local authority.
Some counties have a climate, biodiversity, heritage or sustainable transport officers, and some have none of those. Some have them but do not really value them. The inconsistency across the State is quite worrying in some ways because, at the end of the day, local authorities have much responsibility. They are the closest to the people who live in our societies and have opinions and desires.
We need to look at the fact there is no participation in how the budget is spent because it is decided behind closed doors.
There is no democratic participation. Live streaming of council meetings is hit and miss - some do it and some will never do it. Why is that not par for the course? With live streaming, there is nothing to hide. We have to look at democratising local government a lot more.
Even with regard to the PPNs, with the best will in the world, they are not given much of a platform and many community groups are not engaged with them either. I would love to see community development workers going out to communities and holding public meetings. There is this fear of holding public meetings. We used to be great for public meetings long ago and it was the best thing. Yes, there was war and there were fights, but maybe it is okay to express ourselves. Sometimes all people want is to be listened to, and they can then accept that, for the community as a whole, this is a more important thing. However, we cannot be dictated to by where the funding is or what some random individual in one local authority has as a priority for themselves and their mission. We need to see consistency in representation.
It is hard for the councillors in some ways because they are picked by the people so it is all their fault if something is not happening. However, they are not the big decision-makers in the local authorities and we know that. It would be good to see us looking at how we can make people have more faith in local authority decision-making and at how the councillors themselves can be more involved. That would be more democratic and more inclusive and would mean communities are being listened to and are influencing the decisions made by local authorities.
I thank Senator Garvey for raising a very important issue and a very important point. I was a member of Roscommon County Council from 1999 to 2003, before the dual mandate ended. The dual mandate change had a purpose because we were in Dublin trying to be at all of the various meetings, from the county enterprise board to the vocational education committee, VEC, to the regional authorities, and it simply was not sustainable. However, the current system does lose that kind of work on the ground, which is where the local authority members are very important. They get elected by the community and they work with all of the various communities.
The Senator rightly referred to the PPN. I did not realise the nature of the responsibilities and the work schedule. If people are elected to the local authority, they have a responsibility and, while I will not call it power, they have a workload to deliver for their community but also for the county and the country. Senator Garvey also talked about the live streaming of council meetings, which some councils do, and it is open and transparent.
The “RTÉ Investigates” programme was critical of the level of accountability and transparency within the local government system, citing a number of specific cases in local authorities to back up its claims. It is somewhat ironic that, in doing so, RTÉ relied to a significant extent on the work and findings of the Local Government Audit Service, LGAS. In fact, the majority of the cases highlighted in the programme were taken from LGAS audit reports, which are published annually, and management letters issued to local authorities in the course of the annual audit. The reporting of these audit issues illustrates the positive impact the LGAS has on systems and procedures in local authorities.
The programme also highlighted instances where disciplinary proceedings were pursued by local authorities against members of staff and reports referred to An Garda Síochána for investigation. It is correct that details of such cases would not be put in the public domain for reasons of natural justice, but also in case doing so would prejudice the Garda investigation.
It is important to bear in mind that local authorities are entirely independent corporate entities. They have a constitutional basis, and Article 28A of the Constitution recognises the role of local government in providing a forum for the democratic representation of communities and in exercising and performing powers conferred by law. Like the board of directors of a public company, an elected council’s key role is the governance and oversight of their local authority, including in regard to audit practices and holding the chief executive and his or her officials to account. These functions are set down in law. Elected councils and councillors take this oversight and governance role very seriously. The Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, and local authorities work hard to ensure that councillors are equipped and trained to fulfil this vital role. Some of the cases highlighted by RTÉ were debated and agreed by majority resolution of the elected council. In those cases, this was the appropriate forum for those issues to be addressed.
We should recognise that the Local Government Reform Act 2014 introduced significant improvements in local government accountability arrangements and further strengthened governance in local authorities. The Act reinforced the operation of audit committees in local authorities and established the National Oversight and Audit Commission, NOAC. Audit committees review financial and budgetary reporting practices and procedures within the local authority. They also review any audited financial statement, auditor’s report or auditor’s special report in regard to the local authority and assess actions taken by the chief executive in response. The NOAC is the national independent oversight body for the local government sector. The NOAC’s functions cover all local authority activities and involve the scrutiny of performance generally and financial performance specifically, as well as supporting best practice. Both the NOAC and the Local Government Audit Service have had periodic attendance at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. It is great that he acknowledged the Local Government Audit Service but, first, who knew that was even there and, second, who has time to check it up? We do not want to create a way of keeping an eye on the local authority. It is not like that. What we need is for people to have trust in the local authority in order that they do not have to find time to check the auditing services to see what they are up to. For me, what is important is that we know what local authorities are doing. I am not criticising Clare County Council, which does a lot of good work, as do many local authorities, but we need people to feel that those working in the local authorities, especially the decision-makers at the top, are doing so with the will of the people. That is their job. They are civil servants and they are there to serve civil society. It is a matter of seeing how that is happening and how the decision-making is being done. This is to make sure they represent what people's needs and wants are in the locality, as opposed to them spending €7.8 million on this one thing they have decided will make them a load of money, while people are trying to campaign for one pedestrian crossing, one public seat or one playground. Surely that kind of stuff should be standard and expected of the local authorities.
As we look to the future, there are a number of important local government reforms and policy initiatives under way which will further enhance local democracy and accountability. During the summer session, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage expects to publish a Bill providing for a directly-elected mayor with executive functions for Limerick City and County Council. The Bill will also provide for the possibility of plebiscites on directly-elected mayors with executive functions in other local authorities. The Dublin Citizens’ Assembly, which is to consider the type of directly-elected mayor and local government structures best suited for Dublin, will begin its work in April. In 2021, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage commenced a review of Putting People First - Action Programme for Effective Local Government in order to assess the implementation of the 2014 reforms across the local government sector. An assessment of municipal districts to determine the improvements required to enhance their operation is also under way.
I thank Senator Garvey for raising this issue. Councils and councillors take oversight issues very seriously. I understand that, over the years, the Association of Irish Local Government has been working hard to ensure that councillors are equipped and trained to fulfil this vital role.
It is always good to see the Minister of State. I need to bring him back to the 1990s, when a number of what were known as regional orthodontic units were set up around the country to treat children who needed dental work on public waiting lists. At the time, waiting lists were very long but, within a few years, the regional units proved very successful at reducing waiting times. In fact, in Dublin and the mid-Leinster area, we understand waiting lists were more than halved from 18,000 children to approximately 6,000 children. All of that changed when, in the late 1990s, support for the regional orthodontic units was withdrawn. As a result, the units ran into trouble and, in effect, began to collapse.
The regional orthodontic units in Dublin and the mid-Leinster area were particularly affected and the knock-on effect was that up to 9,000 children were left stranded mid-treatment. Many of them were still wearing orthodontic appliances, meaning some suffered irreversible damage. The situation deteriorated so much that some parents staged sit-ins in dental clinics as they desperately tried to get treatment for their children. In particular, an orthodontist, Ted McNamara, expressed serious concern in regard to what was happening. The HSE appointed two people to investigate - Professor Richmond from Cardiff and Professor Bearn from Dundee – and they reported back to the HSE in 2015. However, four years later the report had still not been published.
In 2019, the issue was highlighted by an RTÉ "Prime Time" programme. We know the medical files of more than 7,500 children were reviewed as part of a large-scale audit by the HSE following these allegations.
When regional orthodontic units were practically abandoned back then, many children were left with orthodontic appliances in for far too long. They were left stranded and without care and, in some cases, were left with irreversible damage. Some of these children were left with pain, as well as distortion of the teeth much worse than they had before they started treatment.
However, the original damning report that was given to the HSE in 2015, seven years ago, has still not been published. We know the audit of these files has been completed but there is still no publication. Will the report be published soon, even in redacted form if necessary? In the seven years we have been awaiting publication of that report, what has changed to prevent further damage being done and to ensure the best standards of practice are being maintained by practitioners in the profession, particularly those in the public service? What changes to the orthodontic teaching, training and monitoring of practice are in place? Why might Ted McNamara and some of his orthodontist colleagues be feeling that they have been ignored and undermined?
Some orthodontists claimed the recruitment process was rife with nepotism and that some professionals lacked the proper postgraduate qualifications. It would be helpful to know what is being done to increase the availability of orthodontic treatment in the public sector for children who need these services, because it appears the system supports the private model of provision of orthodontic services rather than encouraging a better service for the public sector.
I cannot help but mention the crisis in wider dental care for children, especially those who rely on the public system. We need drastic changes to help stop dentists leaving the medical card scheme. I presume this has a direct effect on the orthodontist service as well. There has been a lot of concern for a long time in respect of the delivery of orthodontic services. Have lessons been learned from this scandal or is it just business as usual and let the report be buried?
I hope that when the Minister of State responds he will not try to defend the indefensible. This report should have been published. The public have a right to know. This was an outrageous scandal. It has been buried by the HSE for the past seven years. I look forward to a positive response.
I thank Senator Gavan for raising this issue and giving me the opportunity to address the orthodontic look-back review. As he stated, in 2015 a review report was commissioned by the HSE following receipt of a statement of concern relating to an orthodontic service serving the greater Dublin area between 1992 and 2002. This review was, in fact, a scoping report commissioned to advise the HSE on what action should be taken to determine if there was a risk of harm to patients in this case. The 2015 report did not include a review of patient records for the period and so, understandably, reliable conclusions could not be drawn at the time in respect of potential patient harm.
Following receipt of that report, the HSE initiated a comprehensive audit of more than 7,500 patient files available from that period. Due to the scale of the audit and the requirements for specialist staff and resources, the timeline was protracted. While the HSE regrets that this work has taken so long to progress, its priority all times has been for a robust audit on which to base any further action required. The audit and clinical review of relevant patient files from the period was completed in 2020.
As a result of this complex and large-scale audit, it was found that 16 of more than 7,500 records reviewed by clinicians did not include a documented endpoint to the patient's treatment with braces. The HSE has issued correspondence to all of the patients identified as requiring recall and the process of engagement with them is ongoing. The timeline for review prioritises affording patients time to engage with the HSE at their own pace and in the context of the overall Covid-19 restrictions. The HSE advises that a draft report has been submitted to the commissioner, the HSE national director of community operations. Once the commissioner has accepted the report and the patients have been engaged with and given a copy, the report will be made available to stakeholders.
The Senator referred to Ted McNamara in the context of the report. To me, seven years is far too long, Covid-19 notwithstanding. I hope the report will be made available to stakeholders as quickly as possible. I will follow this up within the Department but, to me, seven years is a simply unacceptable timeline.
I thank the Minister of State for putting on record that he will chase this up. That is very welcome because I understand that, as RTÉ confirmed in its report in 2019, the two UK experts who were engaged to do the report secured assurances that it would be published. Unfortunately, those assurances have been reneged on by the HSE. As the Minister of State noted, it is completely unacceptable. I am placing my faith in the Minister of State because the scripted response he was handed by his colleagues in the Department does not give me reassurance. I want to be clear on that. His scripted response states that the report will be made available to stakeholders. That is not the same as it being published. It does not give any timeline. As the Minister of State pointed out, a wait of seven years is outrageous. We are all accustomed to the fact that the HSE has a culture of burying bad news and not being open and transparent. That is what has led to so many problems within the health system. We need a commitment from the Minister of State that the report will be published, not at some distant point but in the coming months. I ask him to deliver on that.
I thank the Senator. I will raise the issue with the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and will look for assurances and a commitment to a timeline. Once again, I assure the House that the HSE has conducted a thorough audit that involved the use of specialist staff over a protracted period and a review of more than 7,500 patient files. The focus of the HSE has been on reviewing patient safety in line with its policy, including its incident management framework 2020 and predecessor frameworks, as well as international patient safety practice. While it is regrettable that this work has taken so long to progress, the priority of the HSE at all times has been for a robust audit on which to base any further action required. I look forward to the completion of the report, which will be provided to patients and stakeholders. It is regrettable that it has taken so long. To me, seven years is quite a long time for people to wait, particularly in the context of assurances to those who carried out the report that it would be finalised. I will raise the issue with the Minister and try to get a response for the Senator.
National Children's Hospital
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I am particularly glad he is here because I know he is a straight talker and will be clear in his answers. In many ways, the issue I raise today is a quite straightforward question but it is one about which the entire country has a concern. I ask him to outline the progress on the building of the national children's hospital, the costs to date, the anticipated costs and, most important, the planned opening date.
I noticed that in responding on the previous Commencement matter, he observed that seven years is a long time. As he is aware, the planning and development of the national children's hospital has been going on for more than two decades. Planning permission for the site at St. James's Hospital was secured in 2016. From an initial budget of €983 million in 2017, the budget has grown to €1.7 billion. How much has been spent? What do the Minister of State, the Department and the HSE anticipate will be the final budget before the hospital is open? The most recent opening date we have been given is the second half of 2024.
As I am sure the Minister of State is aware, there are significant concerns in respect of inflation of construction costs and the shortage of labour, the impact that will have and if it has been factored in. This is something the entire country wants. We need a national children's hospital with core specialties and the best possible staff in the world to look after sick children.
Everybody wants to see it happen. The Minister of State will appreciate that there is real frustration on the part of the public around some of the capital projects and this one, which is almost a signature capital project, has seen costs appearing to rise and rise again. There does not seem to be a sufficient level of accountability around those rising costs and we, as taxpayers, are picking them up. It is not even certain when the hospital will finally be completed.
It is important, not just today but on a regular basis, that the public be informed about what is happening with this really important capital project. The Minister of State should be able to provide assurances that there are sufficient levels of project and capital management to ensure the budgets are being kept on as tight a rein as possible. The Minister of States knows that one of the difficulties when it comes to major capital projects is that there is often a suspicion that the Government is not controlling expenditure and these costs spiral as a result. Everybody expects that the €1.7 billion will be exceeded, but I would be particularly grateful if the Minister of State could provide some clarity on the matter.
I thank the Senator for raising this matter and giving me the opportunity to provide an update on progress to date on the new children's hospital. The hospital project includes the main hospital on a shared campus at St. James's Hospital, the outpatient and urgent care centre at Connolly Hospital Blanchardstown and the outpatient and emergency care centre at Tallaght University Hospital. In November 2021, the Minister opened the paediatric outpatient and emergency care centre in Tallaght, which will accommodate up to 17,000 outpatients and 25,000 emergency care patients per year. It is the second major milestone delivered on the national children's hospital project after the facility at Connolly Hospital opened in July 2019. In 2021, over 13,000 outpatients attended at Connolly and over 11,000 patients attended for urgent care. More than 95% of those presenting for urgent care could go home after treatment and waiting lists for general paediatric procedures reduced significantly within a year of the facility's opening.
I acknowledge that the national children's hospital project has had its difficulties and delays. It is important to acknowledge the great progress also being made at the main building at the St. James's campus. In 2021 the building was topped out to its highest level and the final significant concrete pours were made. The stone and glazed facade is now largely complete and sections of external scaffolding are now being taken down to reveal the fantastic structure. Internal fitting out of all clinical areas is now under way. The building was also recently connected to the ESB network, which is another important project milestone.
Nevertheless, this remains a complex project with more than 40,000 activities detailed in the contractor's programme to complete the over 6,000 room spaces in the new hospital. The capital budget approved by the Government for the new children's hospital is €1.433 billion. There are a number of items not included in this investment figure as there was no price certainty for them, and these include construction inflation greater than 4% and the impact of Covid-19. The capital budget has not been depleted, with just over €960 million drawn down to date. In addition to the capital project, there is a broader programme of activity, including new information and communications technology and electronic health record development and integration and transfer of the services of the three children's hospitals to the new sites. That will bring about a total overall programme cost of €1.73 billion.
The contractor's schedule suggests substantial completion can be achieved by December 2023. This could allow the hospital to open in the second half of 2024 after the necessary commissioning period. The development board and contractor are working to do everything they can to ensure this new substantial completion date and opening can be met. However, there remains external risks to this project, as with many other construction projects, arising from Brexit, the pandemic and global supply chain difficulties. The invasion of Ukraine will undoubtedly have compounded such issues. As delays are the biggest contributors to cost, everything possible is being done to ensure the project can be completed as soon as possible.
I thank the Minister of State. I appreciate that there will always be external factors that will have an impact but many of the factors contributing to the cost spiral happened prior to Covid-19 and the invasion of Ukraine. I am assured by the Minister of State's comments that the building will be substantially completed by the end of 2023 and that we will have an opening date in 2024. He indicated to me that the overall and final cost should be of the order of €1.73 billion. I assume some of the costs mentioned relating to construction inflation and so on have been factored in. Is the Minister of State confident in saying that the final cost will not exceed that €1.73 billion and that we will definitely have the building open in 2024?
Again, I thank the Senator for raising this matter. It is a great opportunity to provide an update on the new children's hospital, progress on site and the positive impact the new facilities are already having on our young people, their families and our healthcare professionals.
I acknowledge that the national children's hospital project has had its difficulties and delays. It is an extremely ambitious and complex project, and it is important to acknowledge the great progress that has been made. It is very apparent from the outside but internally we have discernible rooms at various stages of progression and over 26 km of internal walls were installed in 2021. I know the development board is once again facilitating site visits and I strongly encourage Senators and other politicians to take the opportunity to visit the site if they have not already done so.
We have a timeline for substantial completion by the contractor of December 2023, to open in 2024 following a commissioning period. The development board will continue to work to ensure that the contractor meets its own commitments.
I thank the Minister of State for his time. He was in the hot seat today. He is great and is always coming to the Seanad. Fair play to him. We really appreciate that because it can be hard to get Ministers to spare the time to come here.