Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 28 Jun 2022

Vol. 286 No. 8

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Dental Services

It is my pleasure to welcome my colleague and somebody I was proud to serve with in the Seanad, the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Frankie Feighan. Appropriately enough, the first matter for the Minister of State is from Senator Eugene Murphy.

Go raibh maith agat, a Leas-Chathaoirleach agus céad míle fáilte roimh na múinteoirí agus na daltaí. I hope they have a wonderful day here. I acknowledge the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, who is a Rossie like myself. I know he has been dealing with this issue and that people have been coming to him in relation to the dental treatment service scheme. I am getting a lot of representations about it as well.

We all have to acknowledge the importance of oral health and dental care. Dental and oral health is an essential part of one's overall health and well-being. Poor oral hygiene can lead to dental cavities and gum disease and other diseases as well. It is, therefore, important that we have an excellent dental service.

It really is important that we have an excellent dental service. Unfortunately, at the moment, we have many difficulties under the medical card scheme that applies to 16-year-olds and over. Like many Oireachtas Members, this representation is made to me an ongoing basis by people not able to get the service.

In fairness to the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, and the other Ministers of State in the Department, an additional €10 million in budget 2022 was put in place. I understand €16 million that was not spent in 2021 is also being used to try to improve the situation.

One of the big problems we have is a lack of dentists to do the work. I am afraid that if we cannot bring those people back into the system, we will have an ongoing problem. This is not just unique to Ireland. I read that thousands of dentists have left the free dental scheme under the National Health Service, NHS, in England. It is happening here. Many dentists do not want that work and do not want to do that business anymore. They are not buying into the scheme. It is time for new ideas and new ways forward. I do not have any magic solution. I do not know whether the Minister of State has any magic solution this morning. We must realise and understand that dental healthcare is extremely important, particularly for young people.

It is not good enough that people have to wait and suffer. As we all know, some of those dental healthcare problems can become lifelong problems for people if they are not handled at an early age. Most politicians, irrespective of what side of the House they are on, whether they are in government or in opposition, know we have a massive problem here. It is not really a political problem as such but we must try to try to solve it. It is up to us to solve it. We have a problem within the system of getting dentists to serve all over the country and to do that work.

I will not detain the Minister of State any longer on this. I await his reply. It is not going to be a simple problem to solve. I am very concerned about people having to wait long periods for dental care, however. As I said, it is something that really needs to be looked after from an early age for people and it is a problem that the political system will have to tackle.

I thank the Senator for the opportunity to address the issue of dental services for medical card holders. I am taking this debate on behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly.

Dental services for children up to 16 years of age are provided by the public dental service of the HSE through its dental clinics. These services are provided to eligible children and do not depend on medical card status. HSE dental clinics provide a screening and fissure sealant programme for children at key stages of development, that is, children aged six to eight, children aged 11 to 16, and, where resources are available, children aged nine to 11. The service includes referral for further treatment, including orthodontic treatment, where necessary. Emergency care for children up to 16 years of age is also provided.

The Minister is aware that since the emergence of Covid-19, there has been a significant increase in delays accessing dental care for those in target school classes. This has resulted in backlogs emerging in the targeted schools programme. The Minister has been assured by the HSE that it is continuing to restore dental screening and treatment to children up to 16 years of age through recruitment initiatives to fill vacancies that have arisen or may arise, prioritising clinical treatment and patient groups and reallocating clinical resources according to greatest need.

Dental treatment for medical card holders aged 16 and over is provided under the dental treatment services scheme. Services available annually have included an examination, two fillings and emergency extractions. More complex care and a broader range of treatments for patients with special needs and high-risk patients is also provided, some of which requires prior approval.

Both the Minister and the Government have been concerned for some time that medical card patients in some parts of the country have been experiencing problems in accessing dental services. To help address this issue, the Minister secured an additional €10 million in budget 2022 to provide for expanded dental health care for medical card holders, including the reintroduction of scale and polish.

To address the concerns of contractors about the sustainability of the scheme, the Minister is using an estimated €16 million of an underspend in this year's Estimate allocation of €56 million to award fee increases across a number of items, including fillings and restorations. The combination of these two measures represents an estimated total additional investment of €26 million in the scheme this year over and above what was spent on the scheme in 2021, which was €40 million.

Following consultation with the Irish Dental Association, these new measures came into effect on 1 May. The Minister hopes that this significant additional investment in the scheme will attract more dentists to treat medical card patients. The Minister has been assured by the HSE that its local services on the ground will assist any persons who are still experiencing problems in accessing a service.

These measures are designed to address immediate concerns with the scheme, pending a more substantive reform of dental services to align with the national oral health policy. As part of this work, the Minister has given a commitment that there will be a substantive review of dental services, and work on this has already commenced.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an múinteoir agus na daltaí. They are very welcome to Seanad Éireann. I say that on behalf of the Leas-Chathaoirleach, the Minister of State and on my own behalf. It is great to see people here.

I acknowledge that the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and the other Ministers of State in the Department are trying to sort out this matter. As the Minister of State has pointed out, extra money has been invested to try to deal with the service in parts of the country where dentists are not available to carry out this work. I know that the HSE is doing its best as well. It has advised that it is doing everything it can to expedite the processing of applications from dentists who wish to be reinstated on the DTSS. I hope those dentists who have left the system can now come back into it and assist people who need assistance.

To return to the point I made initially, oral healthcare is so important to the population, in particular at a young age, but also as people progress through life. Dental care is important. I hope that by highlighting the matter here and following some of the changes made by the Department and the HSE, that we can get more people back into the system and solve some of the problems that exist.

I have listened to Senator Murphy and his colleagues across the Chamber, and I assure him that the Minister appreciates the difficulties experienced by people accessing healthcare and is providing solutions.

As mentioned, additional funding has been provided to resolve current problems with access to the dental treatment services scheme. The HSE has also been taking action to resolve the problems in children's dental services. However, the Minister and the Government recognise that the current model of provision of oral healthcare is in need of fundamental reform. Smile agus Sláinte, the national oral health policy, provides the guiding principles aligned with Sláintecare to transform the current oral healthcare service over the next eight years. It will support provision of all levels of care by appropriate healthcare professional and in the most suitable settings. It will also support patient choice and access, and will replace the current service, which is based on the dental health action plan 1994, which was informed by data from the 1980s.

Hospital Services

In the film, "A Few Good Men", there is a famous courtroom scene at the end where Tom Cruise questions Jack Nicholson, who plays the character, Colonel Jessup. He tells him that he ordered Lieutenant Kendrick to make sure that Private Santiago was not to be touched, but then Santiago is transferred off the base. He asked why there were two orders. Jack Nicholson replied that sometimes men take things into their own hands, to which Cruise retorted with the famous line: "No, Sir…[you said] Your men follow orders or people die".

Two weeks ago, an order was given after Oireachtas Members from Meath sat in the Department of Health with 18 of the lead figures within the HSE and top clinicians in Ireland. They painted a stark vista of clinical concerns regarding the operation of the emergency department in Navan. We all listened intently. A stark vista was also painted of the emergency department situation in Drogheda, where it is proposed to transfer patients from Navan to sit in a queue for 12 hours waiting to be seen. The leading clinical director in the room claimed he would rather see people in that queue in Drogheda than in Navan. That is hardly a sales pitch for the people of Navan. We heard that clearly, as did the Minister for Health. Consequently, that day he put a hold on the plans by the HSE to reconfigure the emergency department in Navan. Last Sunday, Paul Reid, the CEO of the HSE, adopted the role of Lieutenant Kendrick while on radio and decided he was going to ignore the order and do his own thing.

My question is very straightforward. Who is in control of our health system? I do not want the stuff the Department will have prepared in advance. I want Deputy Feighan, as a Minister of State in the Department of Health, to answer that question. Who is in control of our health system? The senior Minister halted plans. That was not done for parish pump political reasons, as Fionnán Sheahan claimed yesterday in the Irish Independent. Not only could the clinicians not answer our questions about capacity, they also admitted they would be sending patients to an already overcrowded emergency department. They blatantly said that.

The HSE has given the two fingers to the Minister for Health. We have been warned by consultants, and by Paul Reid, that politicians holding out against this could result in the deaths of people in Navan emergency department. That works both ways. Nobody in that room was able to answer the tough questions on what would happen to people from Navan when they got to an overcrowded emergency department in Drogheda, where they would have to wait for 12 or 13 hours to be seen. That is not an adequate health service. It is a stain on the country.

The HSE is proposing to handle people like cattle. It is a goddamn disgrace. It is operating on a wing and a prayer. It wants to build up capacity later and recreate Limerick and Navan. Not on my watch. The claim that people will die works both ways. The HSE cannot threaten me or other politicians. Why can it not do its job to provide the services people need? It is given the budget so it should go and do it. Men follow orders or people die. Lots of lads are playing God here. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.

I thank Senator Cassells for raising the matter of the plans to reconfigure services at Navan hospital’s emergency department. Navan is one of nine hospitals that were designated as model 2 hospitals under the smaller hospitals framework, which was approved by the Government in 2013. Navan is the last of these nine hospitals to undergo transition to a model 2 hospital. Currently, Navan is a model 3 acute general hospital with a 24-hour emergency department service to which patients may self-present or be brought by ambulance. It also provides a range of inpatient and outpatient general medical, elective surgical and orthopaedic services. Ambulances currently bypass the emergency department for certain conditions that cannot be catered for at Navan. These are STEMI heart attacks, strokes and traumas, as well as paediatrics and obstetrics. Patients who present to the emergency department who require surgery are transferred to Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda. The HSE has advised that the current acute model of care at Navan holds significant risks from a governance and clinical care perspective.

In 2013, the smaller hospitals framework described the evolution of healthcare delivery, including the shift to day surgery and ambulatory care, and the consolidation of complex care in larger volume centres. There is a recognition that there is a link between volume and outcomes. This in no way means we must only provide care in larger hospitals. Less complex care, which is the majority of hospital care, can be and is provided safely in smaller hospitals.

Other hospitals in the smaller hospitals framework that have already transitioned to becoming model 2 hospitals provide excellent examples of how these hospitals can be even busier than before.

As the Senator mentioned, elected representatives from the Navan area met the HSE operational and clinical leads on 13 June. At that meeting, the HSE described clearly the patient safety rationale for the proposed change to a model 2 hospital so that critically ill and unstable patients could have the best chance of survival. Let us ensure that these issues of survival and patient safety are at the forefront of discussions on this matter.

There would be a 24-7 medical assessment unit, which would continue to cater for the vast majority of medically unwell patients who currently come into Navan hospital through its emergency department. There has been considerable capital investment in Navan hospital, with the opening of a new second general theatre, a new day ward, an expanded recovery room, a new laboratory, a new rehab unit and a new psychiatric day ward. There are other future development plans. The future vision for Navan hospital is that, with the expansion and development of services, it will be busier.

It is important to note that Navan hospital is not closing or being downsized. However, while recognising the real clinical concerns, the Government is clear that several important issues, including additional capacity in other hospitals impacted and the continued ability of people in the Navan area to access emergency and urgent care, would need to be fully addressed before any proposed transition by the HSE could be considered.

We are told by the HSE that medical safety issues dictate its policies and that clinicians know best. No one questions that, but what we are being asked to accept from an agency whenever it fails people in emergency departments across the country like it did in Limerick is a one-word statement from its PR department telling us, "Sorry". I do not want the HSE's "Sorry". It proved in that room two weeks ago in front of us that it did not have its homework done and that, just as happened in Limerick, it was trying to implement something before having capacity built up. It has admitted this, yet after bulldozing its way onwards, it has the brass neck to threaten politicians that we will have blood on our hands because people will die. That works both ways. Transferring people from Navan to an overcrowded emergency department in Drogheda is not a health policy. It is dangerous.

I thank the Senator for his contribution. There is a shared concern to ensure that patients in Meath, the north east or any other part of the country can access the services they need. That is a core element of the planning for the reconfiguration at Navan. These concerns must be addressed. More widely, access and quality are core to the Government's unprecedented investment in the health system.

I will bring the Senator's concerns to the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly.

Greenways Provision

The word "opportunity" is often overused in politics, but not when it comes to the impact that greenways have had on our tourism market and on recreation. In Dublin, the Royal Canal and Grand Canal urban greenways are being progressed. In Dublin 15, we have seen rounds of non-statutory consultation and we await the next planning stage. I believe that an application in respect of the Royal Canal greenway will be submitted in autumn. Environmental surveys are being conducted currently and there will be a report on the latest public consultation in June. The sooner there is progress with this greenway, the better.

The Royal Canal and Grand Canal greenways will provide significant recreational benefits, but they are also major transport infrastructure.

There are plans to connect the two greenways via Lucan and Westmanstown and to make Lucan into a destination town for tourism, which is great news. South Dublin County Council is heading for its second round of public consultation and Fingal County Council is tendering for preliminary designs and perhaps going into a public consultation on that next year. The National Transport Authority, NTA, is a key stakeholder and it is funding this canal loop.

Why stop there? Why limit Dublin to only urban greenways and transport-led greenways when we have, on our doorstep, the Liffey Valley. The Liffey Valley could easily be a spur to this Dublin canal loop greenway, a spur that would be a world-class and sustainable amenity. It could criss-cross the Liffey Valley, which was recognised as a special amenity area in the 1990s, although nothing has happened in conservation or in enhancing it since. It is recognised by Fingal County Council, South Dublin County Council and the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications as an area of outstanding beauty and special recreational value. If we can make greenways work in geographically sensitive areas in other parts of the country, why not do so here? It has hidden weirs, the St. Edmundsbury lands, the Strawberry Beds and Shackleton Mill, a water-powered flour mill from the 1770s. It can also be connected to some of Dublin’s most stunning parks, like St. Catherine's Park, Porterstown Park, Waterstown Park in Palmerston, the Phoenix Park and the Irish National War Memorial Gardens. There is the Farmleigh Bridge, which we should do a feasibility study of to see if it can be opened up to connect from Palmerston Park and Waterstown Park through to the Phoenix Park.

We are talking about connectivity to the Phoenix Park and here is an example of a greenway that would connect to the Strawberry Beds and Palmerston via a bridge that is not being utilised. Then there is a spur to the Dunsink Observatory, which needs to take its place in our heritage and in our cultural and scientific history. We should open it up as an asset and that can connect to the Phoenix Park and Ashtown via the Hamilton Way. It is great that the canal loop greenway is on the table but where is the progress and can we please include a Liffey Valley greenway within that as well?

I would like to thank Senator Currie for the opportunity to address the Seanad to talk about the Dublin canal loop greenway. The programme for Government sets out an ambitious and wide-ranging set of commitments on walking and cycling and has committed that over €360 million in cross-government funding will be spent on walking and cycling per annum over the lifetime of the Government, equivalent to 20% of the 2020 transport capital budget. This investment will help support the planned delivery of almost 1,000 km of improved walking and cycling infrastructure by 2025, as well as additional investment in greenways.

The Minister for Transport announced an allocation earlier this year of €289 million for active travel in 2022, in addition to an investment of €60 million for greenways. This year’s allocation builds on significant progress in recent years. Expenditure on and delivery of active travel, as funded by the Department, has increased substantially, quadrupling from circa €45 million in 2019 to €184 million in 2021. The Department has also recently published its sustainable mobility strategy with a list of actions that will guide public investment in the coming years, promoting and creating an environment that encourages more walking and wheeling, with a great use of public transport supported by services such as increased bike parking and shared bike schemes and by bringing in reduced fares on public transport.

Not only should walking and cycling infrastructure be safe and accessible for all, it should also form part of a wider sustainable mobility network which will allow people to travel in and around our cities using the sustainable modes of transport of their choice. This must be taken into consideration by the Department, the NTA and the relevant local authorities when allocating funding to new active travel or greenway infrastructure projects. The Department of Transport is working with Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, and the NTA to develop a national cycle network which will ensure that investments are focused in an efficient manner and which should outline the cycling routes that are currently available across the country, identify gaps in the network and ascertain the improvements that are likely to be required.

With regard to the canal loop urban greenway, substantial sections of the loop are already completed, including Portobello to Grand Canal Dock, Guild Street to the Royal Canal, Royal Canal phase 2, which is Sheriff Street to North Strand Road, and Royal Canal Ashtown to Castleknock. There are also a number of sections of the canal loop urban greenway on the NTA's active travel capital programme which are in development, including Royal Canal phase 3, which is North Strand Road to Phibsborough, Royal Canal phase 4, which is Phibsborough to Ashtown, Royal Canal Castleknock to Kildare border and the canal loop greenway from Lucan to the Grand Canal. Any sections of the loop not completed or in planning are included on the latest greater Dublin area cycle network and will thus be considered to be added to the capital programme in the coming years.

To conclude, a lot of work has already taken place on sections of this route, a lot of work is ongoing and where work has not commenced it will commence in the coming years. The completion of this work will see a connected, continuous route that will benefit commuters, leisure cyclists and tourists in the coming years and provide safe, segregated cycling infrastructure that will attract even more people out of their cars and onto bicycles for journeys to work, to school and just for the pleasure of cycling.

Senator Currie has raised an important issue. It is an issue on which a great deal of work has taken place. I see it in my area with the Sligo greenway and the many greenways we want to connect villages and towns. I hope we can be like Germany or Holland and just see this as a normal way of travelling into the city. There are big opportunities here. It has already started and that the Senator is anxious to see it progressed as quickly as possible. It is a very commendable view, and a view that this Government is committed to delivering.

Yes, we are making great progress in this area and the level of investment reflects that. The recruitment of active travel personnel in county councils reflects it as well. I am here because I see an opportunity for Dublin 15 and I want to put every effort into seeing it happen. The Minister of State spoke about the greater Dublin area cycle network. There were errors in it, actually, as part of the greater Dublin area transport strategy and the Liffey Valley greenway was dropped. There were still routes on the map but there were fewer routes than there were in the previous one in 2013. I am very keen that this remains a strategic priority. It does not have to be a separate greenway but should be a spur of this project. It would open up a section of Dublin that is hidden and it could be a world-class, sustainable recreational amenity.

I again thank the Senator for her contribution to this discussion. With regard to the wider active travel measures being promoted by the Government, this year has seen another increase in the Department of Transport's overall funding for cycling and walking, in line with the Government’s prioritisation of active travel and greenways. We saw the increasing number of people opting to make journeys by walking or cycling during the Covid-19 restrictions. That shows the potential to make real strides in the modal shift towards more sustainable modes of transport. The money is there and, as politicians, we have to be vigilant to ensure the funding remains.

There are major opportunities in this area. We have come of age in the past number of years regarding what the Senator talked about, such as spurs and linking all the various greenways. I am not saying there was any blockage but the funding is there. Many people in the local authorities are now aware that this is what needs to be done. The Government is fully committed to this. I thank the Senator for raising the matter.

School Accommodation

I thank the Minister of State for being here. I am disappointed that we do not have the Minister for Education or her Minister of State. I appreciate that the Minister of State may not have the level of detail I need and require, apart from the briefing he has been given.

As we all know, education is the passport to the future because tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it. I am not suggesting that education only happens in schools. We obviously have informal education, which is very important, at home and within society, but schools are the fundamental building blocks because they provide education in communities and towns. It is vital that we have sufficient schools to provide education and to provide children with the opportunity to socialise, learn how to make friends and interact with one another, as well as learning the academic subjects they need for life.

I welcome the opportunity this matter affords me to comment again on this subject. I appreciate the fact it was chosen. It is a very important issue for families and students in Newbridge and Kildare. This is not the first time I have raised it. I have done so a number of times. While preparing for this, I was a little struck by the lack of progress since I last raised the matter. I certainly hope we will receive a level of reassurance from the Minister of State that the Department is working proactively in the background to ensure that every child within our community of Newbridge and Kildare will have a school place in the coming months and beyond.

I have called for a more co-ordinated approach to the allocation of secondary school places a number of times in this House and when I was in the Dáil. Towns such as Newbridge, Kildare and others throughout south Kildare continue to grow and prosper. We see thousands of new houses being built and people moving into homes in our area. All of this is bringing a welcome boost to our local economies. However, I have raised a red flag in the Houses over the past seven years regarding the growth rate of houses far outpacing our infrastructural advancements. We see towns whose resources are already maxed out continuing to grow. These infrastructural deficits include the areas of transport and congestion, accessing GPs and school places.

One particular area is that of school places. The long-term vision for the provision of additional school places in our area hinges on the acquisition of an eight-acre site at Magee Barracks in Kildare town to facilitate the relocation of the Curragh Post Primary School, which is very welcome. The acquisition is at an advanced stage, but a commitment has been given that there will be modular buildings in place by September of next year to facilitate this. From speaking to the principal and those in the education and training board, ETB, they have not been provided with a site map or any notion of where the entrance and exit to the school will be.

I believe we are now at a critical point as regards preparation. In essence, I want to know if the Minister of State can give an assurance that every young person who needs a secondary school place in south Kildare will have that in September.

I also ask for an assurance from the Minister of State that the project to provide modular accommodation on the site and the other projects around the area are progressing at a sufficient rate to cater for the enhanced demand in the 2023-24 school year and beyond.

I am taking this Commencement matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education, Deputy Norma Foley, who is regrettably unavailable.

I thank the Senator for raising the matter as it provides the Minister with the opportunity to clarify the current position in relation to school places in the Kildare and Newbridge area for the school year 2022-23. The Senator mentioned the lack of progress on the issue. In order to plan for school provision and analyse the relevant demographic data, the Department of Education divides the country into 314 school planning areas and uses a geographical information system. It collates data from a range of sources, including child benefit and school enrolment data, to identify where the pressure for school places across the country will arise and where additional school accommodation is needed at primary and post-primary levels.

Where data indicate that additional provision is required at primary or post-primary level, the delivery of such additional provision is dependent on the particular circumstances of each case and may be provided through either one, or a combination of, the following: utilising existing unused capacity within a school or schools; extending the capacity of a school or schools; and the provision of a new school or schools.

Nevertheless, I wish to advise the Senator that the Department of Education is aware of increasing pressures and demand for additional post-primary school places in a number of school planning areas, including south Kildare. However, it is important to note that where enrolment pressures arise, it may not be as a result of lack of accommodation but may be driven by the following factors. There may be a duplication of applications, where pupils have applied for a place to a number of schools in the area. There can be issues around the school of choice, where pupils cannot get a place in their preferred school but there are places in other schools in the town or area. Some towns and areas have single-sex schools, and while places are available in the school they are not available to all pupils. External draw is another relevant factor, with pupils coming from outside the local area.

The Department is working to establish the true extent of any capacity issues through ongoing discussions with the relevant school authorities and patrons. In that context, similar to the process adopted in advance of the current academic year, the Department is engaging with school patron bodies and school authorities to identify particular capacity requirements for the forthcoming years which may necessitate action including, where required, the provision of modular accommodation solutions.

As the Senator is aware, the Department is progressing a number of building projects in south Kildare under the national development plan. The most significant project in terms of planned additional capacity is a new 1,000-pupil school building for Curragh Post Primary School. Following an extensive site identification, assessment and negotiation process, agreement in principle, subject to contract, has been reached for the acquisition by the Department of a permanent school site in Kildare town to provide a replacement school for the Curragh Post Primary School. The site will accommodate 1,000 pupils and will include a four-classroom special education needs unit. The new school will cater for the increased demographic growth at post-primary level due to occur in the Kildare south region over the coming years, the majority of which is projected to occur in Kildare town.

The location of this 8-acre greenfield site is next to two existing primary schools, Kildare Town Educate Together National School and Gaelscoil Mhic Aodha, within the grounds of the former Magee Barracks, Kildare town. The development of the post-primary school on this site will enhance the education facilities available to the Curragh Post Primary School and the existing primary schools in a new educational campus arrangement. Due to commercial sensitivities, it is not possible to provide further information at this time. This will provide for significant additional capacity in the area.

There is nothing in the Department's response that I did not hear six months ago, when I last raised the issue. I had hoped that there would have been some update on the proposed new school.

I note the Minister of State mentioned data from a range of sources, including child benefit and school enrolment data. Of course that is important but 1,500 new homes are being built in Newbridge and I think there is close to 1,000 new houses in Kildare town, so a new school is hugely important to both towns as well as to the Curragh. The principal of the existing school has not had any contact from the Department in the last six months nor a map, which I mentioned earlier, that shows where the proposed first modular buildings and then the permanent building would be. Obviously planning permission must be sought from Kildare County Council for the modular buildings. Also, there is no notice about the location of the entrance, exits, etc. That information is hugely important for transport that must go in and out of the school. I ask the Minister of State to ask the Minister for Education to ensure the principal and patron of the school receive the information as soon as possible.

Beidh an focal scoir ag an Aire Stáit le do thoil.

I will convey the Senator O'Loughlin's request that the Minister ensures engagement between the Minister, her Department, and the relevant patron and principal of the school will continue or is enhanced. This engagement is focused on ensuring that the start of the 2022-2023 school year operates as smoothly as possible for all students, their families and staff.

The Department seems to be satisfied with the additional places proposed with these buildings and-or projects that have been outlined, and that the projected enrolment, as outlined, can be catered for within the capacity that will be delivered within the schools in the school planning areas of south Kildare.

Again, I will convey the concerns of the Senator to the Minister. I will ask the Minister to ensure the lines of communication between her Department and the principal and the relevant patrons are kept open.

We will debate Senator McGahon's Commencement matter after the next matter. Is that okay?

Energy Infrastructure

It is my pleasure to welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, to the House.

I, too, welcome the Minister of State.

Next September, An Bord Pleanála is due to make a decision on the planning application submitted by Shannon LNG Limited for a proposed liquefied natural gas terminal on the Tarbert-Ballylongford land bank. The company behind the proposed plant has stated that the Shannon LNG terminal could be built in 12 months, and could even be built to accommodate a gradual transition to green hydrogen production in the future, thus aid Ireland in reaching its climate targets as well as bolster our energy security. Indeed, a spokesperson for the Tánaiste said earlier this month that he is particularly keen to assess the proposed plant's capabilities with regard to green hydrogen production and that he believes there is real potential for this in the Shannon Estuary.

The Minister, Deputy Ryan, also spoke in favour of green hydrogen when the House debated my motion on energy back in May. The question was asked whether Shannon Estuary would be used for green hydrogen and, if not, whether it would be used for green fossil fuels. What if it could do both? During the debate in May, when speaking about hydrogen, the Minister spoke about liquefied natural gas in the medium term and hydrogen in the long term. He said that is where the investment will be in ten years' time. What of those ten years, however? Are families to accept that energy prices will continue to climb while scientists and engineers work to make hydrogen economically viable and attractive to investors or should we take up an offer to increase the national supply of electricity with a new plant that could green itself over its lifetime?

Obviously, we await the decision of An Bord Pleanála and, in addition, the programme for Government explicitly states that the project does not have the support of the Government, which had it withdrawn from the EU list of projects of common interest last year. This month, the Taoiseach said that the concept of a terminal which could transition to hydrogen production was interesting but that, given the time it would take to construct the terminal, it would not solve the current energy crisis.

However, I am not sure that anyone is positing that such a terminal could be a total fix. Rather, it could be a useful measure to help in building up the country's energy security and lowering the cost of living. What kind of approach is it to refuse a partial solution or a step towards one in favour of waiting until a perfect one comes along and to fail to implement successive suggestions over the course of months and years and, when people point out that the problem persists, to respond with, "Oh well, it is very complicated. We cannot possibly fix it overnight. There is no silver bullet here."? There will never be a silver bullet for energy, housing, economic downturns or for viruses. We need to take what help we can get to make things better for the people on the ground.

There is a reason that climate activism is a priority solely for the first world. Basic needs must be met first, in the here and now, before people can have the luxury of engaging in it. I guarantee that, if we polled the people of Ireland and asked if they preferred slashed energy bills or meeting climate targets, we would see the truth of that statement. It might not be the fault of the Government that this energy crisis happened and that it did not see it coming but fault will lie with the Government if it fails to react to it. A hybrid LNG-hydrogen terminal at the Shannon Estuary might be just the reaction we need. I ask the Government to consider its position on the plan in this light. It would benefit us in the medium and long term.

I thank Senator Keogan for raising this important matter. The national energy security framework published in April 2022 provided a single overarching and initial response to address Ireland’s energy security needs in the context of the war in Ukraine. It co-ordinates work connected to energy security across the electricity, gas and oil sectors and sets out a whole-of-government response to the challenges posed to energy security and energy affordability.

As set out in this framework, my Department is carrying out a review of the energy security of Ireland’s electricity and gas networks. This review is focused on the period to 2030 in the context of net zero emissions by 2050. It is considering the risks to both natural gas and electricity supplies, and a range of potential measures including the need for additional capacity of indigenous renewable energy but also the need for the importation of energy such as liquefied natural gas, energy storage, fuel diversification and renewable gases such as hydrogen.

The underlying technical analysis is being updated to take into account the war in Ukraine. The completion of the review as set out in the national energy security framework is scheduled for delivery in the third quarter of this year. Following this, the results will be brought to Government. The Government policy statement on importing fracked gas was approved by Government and published in May 2021. This policy statement provides that, pending the outcome of this review, it would not be appropriate for the development of any LNG terminals in Ireland to be permitted or proceeded with. As of now, the review is ongoing and the results have yet to be submitted to Government.

Hydrogen can be produced through a number of processes powered by a wide range of sources including fossil fuels, nuclear energy, biomass and renewable energy.

The energy source, the production process and the by-products influence how carbon intensive hydrogen is. Different colours are used to indicate how the hydrogen is produced, the energy sources used and the carbon intensity of the hydrogen. Green hydrogen is sustainably produced from renewable electricity and has a zero-carbon intensity, while other types of hydrogen produced from fossil fuels are not of a zero-carbon intensity and can be classified as either grey or blue hydrogen, depending on the technology used to produce them. For example, grey hydrogen is produced using natural gas and a reformer, while blue hydrogen is produced using natural gas, a reformer and carbon capture and storage. Hydrogen produced from LNG is not classified as green hydrogen.

Ireland’s policy is such that hydrogen ought to be produced and deployed in the Irish energy system in a way that is coherent with our decarbonisation goals, in particular to avoid any potential locking in of non-green or non-renewable hydrogen use that fails to align with Ireland’s target of achieving net zero by 2050. Ireland has significant offshore wind potential and the production of green hydrogen from variable renewable electricity could help Ireland fully utilise its renewable resources to decarbonise, reducing significant levels of curtailed renewables and improving energy security. Therefore, our priority is for green hydrogen sustainably produced from renewable sources.

I thank Senator Keogan again for raising the issue and look forward to hearing her views and those of any other Senators.

I appreciate the Minister of State’s reply. We are not just waking up to the fact Ireland has significant offshore wind potential. We have always known this. The wind has been blowing there for donkey's years; it did not start just now. That we are talking about it only now is just not good enough. We are in a very serious energy crisis. This LNG proposal could help us, as a nation, get out of that crisis. We have the deepest water in Europe for cargo shipping, a floating storage and re-gasification unit that, as a ship, will have LNG storage capacity of up to eight days' demand for Ireland, something we need to take into account.

The planning is now bogged down with An Bord Pleanála. I understand that the issue of concern relating to the application for the people arose because some of that source gas was going to come from fracking in the United States. If the company gave a commitment that natural gas would be sourced from the Middle East, would that allay the concerns the Minister of State might have? People are at the pin of their collar putting petrol in their car and their energy costs are growing daily. We have to react to that and we need to do something. The buck stops with the Green Party.

I fully agree that we need to accelerate our deployment of renewable energy, and with the Ukraine war, suddenly there has been a new focus whereby other countries in Europe have said they need to accelerate theirs as well. The Council of the European Union sat down and decided we needed to bring in a new package, known as RePower EU, that will involve greater ambition on the level of renewables that can be deployed. Part of that plan will involve sourcing fossil fuel energy from countries other than Russia and to find other means to do that, and also to reduce the period in which it takes to obtain planning permission for renewable energy, to between one and two years. The Council wants EU countries to designate special areas as faster areas for renewable energy and we are going to take part in that. I am sorry it did not happen sooner. If I had been involved, it would have, as the Senator can imagine.

The Senator mentioned the possibility of reusing an LNG terminal for the export of hydrogen. There are two basic types of terminals, namely, import and export terminals. We are looking at developing an export terminal in the form of liquid ammonia, which could be used by other countries that might need it. Ammonia is more energy dense than hydrogen and presents a more feasible solution.

There is no silver bullet for energy, as the Senator noted. We need a combination rather than having all our eggs in one energy basket. We need the diversity, strength and resilience that comes from using multiple sources of energy in order that if one of them is unavailable or very expensive or if it fails for some reason related to the weather, we will have a back-up of these different systems. Combined with that, we need good grid connections interconnecting us with other countries. We are developing the Celtic interconnector to connect our grid to France, we have multiple connections to the UK and we are looking at other countries as well.

Special Educational Needs

I thank the Minister of State for coming in today to discuss this issue. It is certainly an important issue for me and more important, for the community of the Cooley Peninsula in north Louth. This issue was brought to my attention a week and a half ago by Ms Síle Murnaghan who is the principal of Monksland National School. It was brought to my attention because of the inability, perhaps, of Ms Murnaghan to successfully engage with the Department over a number of months after the Department approached representatives from Monksland National School in January of this year to ask whether they would like two special classrooms to care for pupils with autism. Naturally enough, Ms Murnaghan and the board of management jumped at such a proposal and were delighted to have been asked. They thought this could be September 2023 and that they would be able to have children ready by then. The Department came back and said it actually wants them in September 2022, which is excellent. That shows the ambitiousness of the Department in being able to provide special classrooms for children with autism.

On the back of that, the local community and pupils who would avail of this were identified. We pretty much have ten children, which covers nine families, enrolled for September 2022. This week, we approach 1 July, which means 1 September will be roughly eight weeks away by the end of the week. As of yet, we are still waiting for the final confirmation from the Department that the money will be made available. I have all the information for the Minister of State in terms of the timeline from when the Department first got in touch on 26 January. This is without seeking to cast aspersions or apportion blame because that stuff is in the past. I am speaking on the floor of the Seanad today on behalf of the parents, pupils and teachers of Monksland National School to get this project over the line. I am not trying whatsoever to apportion blame to anyone within the Department. The current state of play, however, is that a submission was sent in a number of weeks ago in terms of the costs that would be needed to go ahead with this. That was supplied by the planner. Only last week after I raised this in the Seanad did the Department get back in touch to say it needs a further breakdown of those costs. That breakdown is now going back into the Department. Hopefully, once that breakdown goes back in, the Department will be able to approve it straightaway.

We only have eight weeks left to make sure these two classrooms are built and ready to welcome new students in September. I think we can do it within those eight weeks. Let us be very clear about it, however. Eight weeks is an incredibly short timeframe to get the level of infrastructure and facilities needed into a small rural national school in north Louth. I firmly believe there was quite a delay through administrative errors on the Department's side. As I said, however, I did not come to floor of the Seanad to try to find a scapegoat. I came here to try to find a solution. I really hope that through the offices of the Minister, Deputy Foley and Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, when the final bit of paperwork is submitted - which is a further, more detailed breakdown of the costs - there will be absolutely no delay in the decision from the Department and that it will be approved. Then, we can get on with having this school for the community and students that dramatically need it come September.

I am taking this Commencement matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, who is regrettably unavailable.

I thank Senator McGahon for raising that matter as it provides the Minister with the opportunity to outline the current position regarding the accommodation needs of Monksland National School in Carlingford, County Louth, and the Government's firm commitment to enabling students with additional needs to receive an education appropriate to those needs.

As the Senator will be aware, Monksland National School is a co-educational national school that caters for pupils from junior infants to sixth class. The school had an enrolment of 132 pupils in the year 2021-22, with a mainstream staffing complement of a principal plus four mainstream teachers for the current academic year.

In addition, the school has two special education support teaching posts.

This year, the Department of Education will invest in excess of €2 billion, or more than 25% of the Department's budget, in the area of special educational needs support. As a result, the number of special education teachers, special needs assistants and special classes and places are at unprecedented levels.

In this academic year, there are 2,148 special classes in schools across the country. Of these, almost 1,900 special classes cater for students with autism. The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, has responsibility for co-ordinating and advising on the education provision for children with special educational needs nationwide. A range of strategic initiatives has been put in place with the NCSE in recent years to support and expand special educational needs provision in schools throughout the country. These initiatives include enhanced arrangements for the planning and co-ordination of SEN provision requirements involving the Department, the NCSE and key stakeholders such as patrons and management bodies.

Our planning utilises the Department of Education's geographic information management system, GIS, to support a strategic and co-ordinated approach to the delivery of SEN provision. This includes real-time data on capacity across the school system. This has resulted in a more streamlined and joined-up planning process, which has ensured a targeted approach to meeting demand for special education placements ahead of each new school year. The Department of Education is satisfied that this approach is delivering. This intensive intervention has seen more than 300 special classes already opened nationwide for the 2021-22 school year, as well as the establishment of two new special schools in Cork and Dublin last September. This targeted approach will continue to identify and meet demand for special education placements throughout the country.

The NCSE, through its network of SENOs, special educational needs organisers, is currently engaging in a process of establishing two new ASD classes in Monksland National School for the 2022-23 school year. Two ASD special classes were sanctioned by the NCSE on 9 February 2022 to meet expected demand in the area. When the NCSE sanctions a special class in a school - primary or post-primary - it is open to the school authority to apply to the Department for capital funding to reconfigure any existing spaces within the school building to accommodate the class or to construct additional accommodation under the Department's additional school accommodation scheme, ASA. ASA application forms are available on the Department's website, www.education.ie.

I thank the Senator emeritus and Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, for being with us for a long morning. I also thank Senator McGahon for raising the matter in the first instance. I welcome the visitor in the Gallery. It is good to have her here. I am sure she will have noticed that all politics is local.

I have one minute to reply to the Minister of State. It is my absolute pleasure to have Nicola here today. She is from Dundalk and has just finished her leaving certificate. She is going on to become a nurse in September but I hope we will have her interested in politics by the end of this week following her internship in my office.

I appreciate the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, coming to the House to respond to the issue I raised. In his response, he indicated that there is a very significant school building programme happening right across the State. That is correct, but I have the timeline here in black and white. The Department took 38 days to reply with an update to an email from a school principal. To me, that does not indicate that we are able to embark on a significant building programme when a principal like Síle Murnaghan in Monksland National School has to consistently chase the Department and sections within it to see if she can get the classrooms across the line. It is there in black and white, but I will not go into it because I do not want to focus on the mistakes of the past.

What I want is a solution for the Cooley Peninsula, Monksland National School, Síle and the board of management, but most important, what I want is a solution for the pupils who will start in the school on 1 September.

I know the Minister of State, through his good offices, will bring that point back to the Minister for Education and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan. I hope when the final bit of information goes in, the Department will approve this without any further delay.

My apologies for cutting the Senator short. I was trying to give the Minister of State a break.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. Monksland National School submitted an ASA application in March 2022 requesting funding for refurbishment of rooms to accommodate an SEN class sanctioned by the NCSE. Further information was requested from the school by officials in the Department of Education in relation to this application and was received in April 2022. The school's application has been assessed and a decision issued directly to the school authorities with regard to the proposed permanent accommodation. The school has also been approved for two 100 sq. m buildings of temporary accommodation to cater for its immediate needs in the interim. This was approved and notified to the school authorities in March 2022.

There are some issues with communication. I will bring the issues the Senator raised to the Minister and ask the Department and the Minister to work directly with the school and, indeed, with the Senator. I again thank him for raising this matter.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 1.16 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 1.30 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 1.16 p.m. and resumed at 1.30 p.m.