Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 26 Apr 2022

Vol. 284 No. 7

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Community Development Projects

I welcome the Minister of State to the House.

I also welcome the Minister of State to the House. My Commencement matter relates to the rural community development scheme in terms of supports for town and village renewal. I note at the outset that it was a highly successful scheme, particularly around Covid-19 and post Covid, in terms of the challenges for rural communities and bringing them on. Supports for the town and village renewal schemes were very welcome indeed. The town and village renewal scheme was funded by the Department of Rural and Community Development as part of a package of the Government's national and local support measures to rejuvenate towns and villages.

As I said at the outset, it has been a very successful scheme. While I acknowledge the Government would like to give more money, it is not always possible. In recent times, however, the scheme has placed great emphasis on projects that support and encourage remote working and enhance town living. That is a really important part of all of that.

When we look back at the funding over the past two years, I am quite impressed by the fact that it links into Ireland's policy document, Our Rural Future: Rural Development Policy 2021-2025, which is also critically important. That is Government policy and I wish to acknowledge that it is really progressive Government policy. It is about the sustainable development of our communities and supporting our community stakeholders in enhancing their rural and urban communities. The maximum grants were increased to €500,000 to allow for bigger projects, as well as early buy-in for those projects.

This is the real key issue I will ask the Minister of State about today. This scheme is advertised on the Department's website, which suggests that it will be open for submissions at the end of April - this is timely because we are now heading towards the end of April - and that the scheme will close June. While that may have changed since, that is what was on the website in the last few minutes before I came into the Chamber. It is timely that I should ask the Minister of State about the Government's intentions for the scheme and how we can engage and encourage people. I do not think we need to encourage too many people. We know many people in the communities want to avail of this scheme. We know the importance of people needing the support to stay and work in their own communities. We have seen the enormous benefit, particularly post Covid, for people who want to co-work or work part-time in their offices. We have seen the benefits of community hubs and there need to be more of them. People do not want to work in isolation; they want to work with some support and with some connectivity but they also want to be involved in meaningful childcare and community participation.

This scheme, therefore, has many benefits but particularly in terms of urban rejuvenation and the structures within communities. I would be very interested if the Minister of State could provide a rough outline of the vision and plan for the scheme going forward this year and of the timelines for the opening for applications.

I thank Senator Boyhan for his remarks and for raising this issue. I also congratulate Senator Clonan on his recent election to this House. I wish him well.

On behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, I thank the Senator for raising the matter. The town and village renewal scheme aims to assist with the rejuvenation of rural towns and villages throughout Ireland, making them more attractive places to live, work and visit. It is one of a range of schemes implemented by the Minister for Rural and Community Development as part of her Department's rural development investment programme in line with the commitment contained in the Government's five-year rural development policy, Our Rural Future: Rural Development Policy 2021-2025. The 2021 town and village renewal scheme was refocused with provision for the purchase of vacant properties. Priority was given to projects that bring vacant and derelict buildings and sites back to use as multipurpose spaces or remote working hubs or for residential occupancy or both.

The Minister recently announced funding of almost €18.5 million for 99 projects under the 2021 scheme. This includes 28 remote working projects, the majority of which seek to bring vacant and derelict buildings and sites back into use. For the 2021 scheme, the Minister also announced an additional measure, namely, the project development measure, which provides funding of up to €50,000 to local authorities to assist them by contributing to a pipeline of significant, well-developed projects that might progress to construction stage, subject to the availability of further funding. The Minister also increased the scale of projects eligible under the 2021 scheme, with funding of up to €500,000 made available. I am happy to confirm she has secured increased funding for a range of rural development schemes implemented by her Department in 2022, including an additional €2 million for the town and village renewal scheme. Officials are working to finalise the town and village renewal scheme for 2022. While the details are still being finalised, there is no doubt that the scheme will again prioritise projects that bring vacant and derelict buildings back into use and promote residential occupancy in town centres. The Minister will announce details of the 2022 scheme shortly, with a view to announcing successful applications by the end of the year.

In addition to these developments regarding the town and village renewal scheme, the town centre first policy framework was launched by the Minister and the Ministers of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputies Peter Burke and Noonan, earlier this year. This policy is a major new cross-governmental strategy that aims to breathe new life into towns and villages and make them better places to live, work and raise a family. It contains a range of targeted actions and is underpinned by a number of funding schemes such as the town and village renewal scheme to ensure it will help deliver on the Government's future vision for rural Ireland, as outlined in Our Rural Future. I am confident the forthcoming opening of the 2022 town and village renewal scheme will continue its track record of delivering benefits in towns and villages throughout Ireland.

I thank the Minister of State for his response, which was hunky-dory and nice, but I reiterate the departmental website today indicates this scheme is to be launched at the end of April, so he might ask the relevant Minister or officials to change that. It states it will close in June, but clearly there will be a later start and a later close. People plan and wish to get on with these important pieces of work.

I reiterate that I am very supportive of the scheme and acknowledge the Government would like to give it more money than it has. It is an impetus and an important source of funding, so I thank the Minister of State for his response. Perhaps he might give some more details in his concluding remarks.

The Minister of State referred to the local authorities and the new and additional project development measure in the scheme. He talked about providing €50,000 to local authorities but, as he will be aware, there are 31 local authorities. Was he referring to all 31 local authorities? I ask the Minister of State to revert in the coming days with some details on the exact sum. Will it be paid equally to each of the 31 local authorities or are certain local authorities being selected over other ones? We need greater clarity in the ministerial response to that matter.

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House and for providing this important information.

I can clarify that the €50,000 is allocated per project and can be spread across any number of local authorities. One project, therefore, can avail of up to €50,000. As an example, in my constituency, Limerick County, a proposal to refurbish the de Valera museum in Bruree received €50,000 to allow it to appoint a design team to take the project forward. Local authorities can apply under that scheme for sums of up to €50,000 per project.

I will convey the Senator's comments regarding the website to the Minister and her Department. I agree we should get these schemes opened as soon as possible and afford local authorities and stakeholders the opportunity to apply as soon as possible. They are great schemes, as we have all seen. I have a list of them to hand. We all know, from our constituencies and counties, that they have contributed a great deal to regenerating rural Ireland.

Further and Higher Education

I thank the Minister of State for coming in to address this issue. We are coming up to the seventh anniversary of the publication of the Cassells report, which outlined the crisis facing higher education funding at that time. A number of options were presented in that report. Three options were presented very clearly to the Government, namely, that there be a dramatic increase in public funding, that the fee model be retained, or that we look at the model of income-contingent loans. It is fair to say the Government continued to kick the can down the road, referring the report to an Oireachtas committee and then to the European Commission for its observations. Commitments were given that the European Commission report would be published by now but that has not happened. The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, committed that 2021 would be the year higher education funding would finally be resolved. Clearly, that has not happened. This Government realises the potential of higher education. That is why a new Department was created. It must be acknowledged that some additional funding, on both the capital and current side, has been put into higher education. However, these are sticking plaster solutions. The system is in crisis. Time and again we have heard from the universities and the new technological universities - the former institutes of technology - about the problems they are facing and the impact these things can have on the quality of teaching and research and, in particular, support services for students. There has been a continuous and rapid expansion in higher education over the last number of years. That is the right thing to do because this country's future will be based on talent and investing in talent. We are short-changing the higher education system because we are failing to address the funding issue.

I note with concern that the Minister has been talking about cutting student fees. In an ideal world we would all like student fees to be cut, but my worry is that the commensurate amount of money that will be necessary as a result of the cut to student fees will not be made available to the higher education institutions. Whenever any of the representative groups come before the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, I ask them where priority funding should be invested. They talk about investment in core funding and the SUSI grant scheme, as well as radical reform of the SUSI grant scheme.

We cannot wait any longer. This can has been continually kicked down the road. This country's reputation is now at stake. In fact, Tony Donohoe of IBEC told the education committee that we have already gone beyond the tipping point. I do not necessarily expect the report from the European Commission on the recommendations of the Cassells report to tell us much more than we already know. We know higher education is in a state of crisis. We know there has been an expectation on the institutions to continue to do more without the necessary additional resources. Respectfully, I am worried the Government does not appreciate the full scale of the crisis. I ask for clear dates for the publication of the European Commission's report and an answer with regard to the Government's strategy for the future funding of higher education.

We should thank the Deputy for raising this matter. The 2016 expert group report, Investing in National Ambition: A Strategy for Funding Higher Education, confirmed that higher education made a significant positive contribution to the development of individuals, employers, society and the State. It concluded that the approach to funding at the time was unsustainable and that substantial increases in investment in higher education needed to be made to ensure that the sector could remain viable and provide capacity to meet the major increase in student demand that was projected up to 2030.

Since 2015, my Department has been working hard to deliver a significant programme of reinvestment in higher education. In that period, current public expenditure allocated to the higher education sector has increased by more than €500 million, or almost 40%. In 2022, this allocation will be in excess of €2 billion, including capital investment in the order of €2.4 billion. Funding and policy developments in recent budgets have taken significant steps to address the funding needs of the sector. Most notably, and in line with a recommendation of the Cassells report, a new stream of employer funding was introduced upon review of the National Training Fund. This level of investment responded to demographic pressures and underpinned a range of initiatives in the sector, including a substantial investment in the evolution of technological universities and significant skill-enhancing opportunities for individuals, sectors and regions. My Department is also continuing to address the demographic pressures on the sector through the provision of additional places in further and higher education, and in budget 2022, we secured additional funding for sectoral pensions. This significant allocation of public resources is a clear demonstration of the Government's commitment to meeting the funding needs of the higher education sector in order to realise more fully its potential to contribute to economy and societal priorities that are central to the country's long-term sustainability.

Regarding the ongoing work on implementing the recommendation of the Cassells report, the development of a sustainable funding model for higher education is essential, in light of the credibility of higher education and of our progress as a country. My Department's statement of strategy, published in March 2021, contained a commitment to putting in place a sustainable funding model for higher education. In this context, I was encouraged by the completion of a comprehensive economic evaluation of the funding options presented in the report of the Expert Group on Future Funding of Higher Education, as supported under the European Commission's Directorate-General for Structural Reform Support, DG REFORM, programme. The aim of this review was to investigate methods of increasing the sustainability of higher and further education provision, including an examination on the funding options.

On 9 December, a Cabinet committee on economic recovery approved sending the Commission's review to the Cabinet and recommended that the Government note: the contents of the comprehensive independent economic evaluation of the funding options originally presented in the 2016 report and now detailed in a report on increasing the sustainability of higher and further education provision in Ireland, which was funded through the DG REFORM programme; the confirmation by the detailed analysis undertaken in the report of the existence of a significant shortfall in funding for higher education necessary for a high-performing, high-quality higher education system to underpin the achievement of Ireland's economic and social objectives and ambition; and the key recommendations contained in the evaluation report, including that a sustainable model of financing for the higher education system should be prioritised to support the future development of the higher education and further education and training systems in meeting the economy's human capital and skills needs. There were a number of other points to note but since I am running out of time, I will skip them.

I am pleased to inform the Senator that the Cabinet is today considering both the DG REFORM review and my Department's response to it. The Senator is on the money today.

I appreciate the Minister of State's comments. The timing of this matter is opportune but, with respect, this has been a seven-year process. As the Minister of State mentioned, the urgency of this situation was realised when the Cassells report was published, yet nothing has really happened bar kicking it to a committee and DG REFORM and a series of statements. I welcome that the Cabinet is considering the matter, but what is the Cabinet going to do about it? If we are serious about investing in higher education and research, we need a sustainable model of funding.

We cannot continue to talk about it in the way that we have been talking about it. We need to set out a very clear strategy. I do not believe that we need any more reports. We have had loads of reports on the crisis facing higher education and research funding. We now need to get answers. On foot of the Cabinet discussions earlier, when can we hear what actions the Government is going to take?

The Senator will appreciate that I am not in Cabinet and, therefore, I cannot specifically speak to when that will happen but it is fair to say that it is a key priority of the Department I am assigned to. He will be aware of that. It is a key commitment within the programme for Government. It is a priority for the Fianna Fáil Party, the Fine Gael Party and the Green Party. Its journey is taking longer than we all expected and wanted it to take. However, today it has moved on significantly. There is, to borrow a phrase that the Senator and I will understand, a lot done but more to do.

I thank the Minister of State and Senator Byrne. We will move on to Senator Ahearn's Commencement matter, which relates to human rights defenders. We are expecting the Minister to come to the House shortly so we will suspend until then.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 2.58 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 3.10 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 2.58 p.m. and resumed at 3.10 p.m.

Human Rights

I welcome the Minister of State and apologise for the delay. I know that he had to go to the Lower House. I appreciate him coming back to the Seanad to deal with this matter, which relates to human rights defenders.

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the Chamber to take this matter. This is an important issue and the fact that the Minister of State is here is evidence of that. This matter arose on foot of the publication of a directive from the European Commission on mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence. Most people across Europe would welcome that document but there is one aspect of it that is of concern, namely, the absence of a specific clause on the protection and empowerment of human rights defenders. The reason that is surprising and alarming is because, on the basis of Article 21 of the Treaty on European Union, support for human rights defenders is an EU priority. When a mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence directive is put forward and there is a priority for human rights defenders in an EU treaty, one would think that would be included in it.

I met Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders. We had an interesting meeting and she had a number of concerns that she wanted to get across. She believes that Ireland can play a key role in the following ways. First, the Commission should include a specific obligation on companies to take steps to prevent retaliation against human rights defenders across the world because they are subject to serious acts of retaliation when raising concerns. In 2020, there were just in excess of 600 attacks on human rights defenders in countries in South America, Africa and Asia and this happens with European companies. Some of those acts of violence resulted in the killing of individuals who have spoken up. All EU member states will be obliged to introduce some form of human rights and environmental due diligence for businesses as a result of this EU directive on corporate sustainable government. The protection of human rights defenders is a key priority in the context of our foreign policy, and we can lead on a number of human rights defender initiatives at the UN. Environmental and indigenous people's rights defenders face particular risks, often for raising human rights violations in the context of business practices.

The recommendations contained in the implementation review of the first national action plan on business and human rights stated that Ireland should be a global leader in this policy area and that it should consider moving ahead of the EU in the context of legislation. Could the Government commit to ensuring that human rights defenders will be named as stakeholders in our human rights and environmental due diligence legislation when we publish it? Can they further ensure that companies will be required to publish zero-tolerance policies regarding attacks on human rights defenders? We have a great record as a country in defending free speech, human rights and whistleblowers, and we can play a leading role from a European perspective in defending those rights across the world. These situations have happened with big European companies, particularly in South America. Unless we put this legislation in place, we will not fully protect those individuals. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.

I apologise to the House. Strangely enough, I was not able to arrange a pair so I had to go to vote in the Dáil.

I thank Senator Ahearn for raising this important issue and for giving us the opportunity to discuss it. A proposal for a directive on corporate sustainability due diligence was published by the European Commission on 23 February 2022. The proposal aims to address the adverse environmental and human rights impacts arising from the operations of companies and those of their subsidiaries and value chains.

Such companies will be required to conduct human rights and environmental due diligence to identify actual or potential adverse impacts and prevent, mitigate or minimise the extent of such impacts within their own operations, their subsidiaries and their value chains. The effectiveness of the due diligence measures must be assessed at least annually. Company directors will be required to take into account the consequences of their decisions in areas such as human rights, climate change and environmental impacts.

Companies will be required to establish procedures to handle complaints from those adversely affected by company operations and from other key stakeholders. The proposal also provides for the designation of supervisory authorities at national level and a civil liability regime in terms of companies who fail to meet their obligations.

The proposal contains a definition for "stakeholder" which is broadly defined and encompasses a company’s employees, the employees of its subsidiaries, and other individuals, groups, communities or entities whose rights or interests are, or could be, affected by the products, services and operations of the company, its subsidiaries or its business relationships. I remain committed to ensuring that the interests and rights of all stakeholders are appropriately protected under the proposal and, should it be warranted, consider whether it is necessary for specific stakeholders to be defined under the directive.

I want to reassure the Senator that the proposal is at a very early stage and is ongoing across EU member states. My Department is engaging at EU working party level to clarify the practical implications of what has been proposed. Given the complexity of the issues being addressed, negotiations at EU level may well continue through the remainder of this year and, in fact, go into 2023. Decisions on how the proposal will be legislated for in an Irish context will be taken once the directive has been finalised.

Recognising the importance of this directive, my Department has begun a process of engagement with key stakeholders and intends conducting a public consultation on the proposal in the next number of months to help inform the Government's position. Ultimately, in informing the Government's position, it can ensure that we have our ethical values and, indeed, as mentioned by the Senator, our strong track record on human rights enshrined in this directive when it is published later this year or early next year.

I thank the Minister of State for his detailed response. He is right that the proposal is at a very early stage and the most important aspect to take into account is his openness. He has said that he is "committed to ensuring that the interests and rights of all stakeholders are appropriately protected under the proposal and should it be warranted consider whether it is necessary for specific stakeholders to be defined under the directive", which is a fair reply and I thank him.

Ms Mary Lawlor, the UN's special rapporteur for human rights defenders, has requested a meeting with the Minister of State and his Department. I hope that he is willing to meet her because she can give a very good insight, from her perspective, on her work around the globe to protect human rights defenders. Her insight will give us a good insight into the role that we can play as Members, the Government and the Department. I would be grateful to the Minister of State if he meets Ms Lawlor.

I thank the Minister of State for his very comprehensive reply and written response. It is one of the most comprehensive responses that I have ever seen here for which I thank him and his officials.

I wish to reassure Senators that we, as a country and a Government, are very supportive of the objective of the proposed directive, which will promote responsible business conduct. I am aware that some stakeholders have expressed concerns about the perceived shortcomings of the proposal. I recently met representatives of the Irish Coalition for Business and Human Rights and I look forward to hearing the views of all those with an interest in this proposal.

I believe that it is important that we do hear all views on this important matter.

I confirm that I intend to host an event in the coming months to open a public consultation with stakeholders in order to ensure that we have a robust discussion on the obligations and responsibilities of the companies regarding the environment and human rights. In doing that, we will inform the Irish position on this directive and ensure that our values can be enshrined in it.

I have no difficulty in facilitating the Senator's request to meet Mary Lawlor. My office may already have offered a date to her. If not, we will certainly offer a date to her before the end of the week. It is an important directive and it is important to have broad consultation and engagement in order to inform the Government's position. I look forward to leading on that.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 3.20 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 3.35 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 3.20 p.m. and resumed at 3.35 p.m.