Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 6 Jul 2022

Vol. 287 No. 2

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Apprenticeship Programmes

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, to the House.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this matter. It focuses not exclusively on general apprenticeships but on cross-Border apprenticeships. This follows on from someone in Queen’s University Belfast, QUB, sending me a copy of a speech delivered in that university by the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris. It was an impressive speech, which I acknowledge. The speech was given in the context of the one island approach, which is something the Government has promoted. The policy is being driven by the Taoiseach and he is very committed to it.

This issue centres on how we can use cross-Border connectivity and synergies and relationships in respect of developing an apprenticeship programme that spans the two jurisdictions. I acknowledge the enormous work that went into the apprenticeship action plan drawn up by the Minister. When he puts his mind to anything, he is driven, committed and determined. I acknowledge that as well. In all his announcements in this context since, and particularly in his speech in QUB, he has talked about his ambition to create an additional 10,000 new apprenticeship places every year up to 2025.

I was particularly interested in his reference, and I am particularly interested in hearing more about this detail if it is not available today, to a new funding call under the PEACE PLUS programme to do with collaboration for cross-Border apprenticeships. He is committed to doing this and to sourcing the funding for this programme. There is great potential for this type of programme. We must work together and encourage apprenticeships. I am old enough to remember when people left the tech with a group certificate and other people laughed at them. Those people with the group certificate went on, walked around and met construction workers, tilers, electricians, plasterers and stonemasons to beg for an apprenticeship, or to serve their time with them, as it was then called. Indeed, apprentices then did not get very much money. Most of them, however, went on to be successful entrepreneurs and businesspeople in the construction sector. Therefore, I value and respect apprenticeships. We learn at different levels. We are not all academic and we can also learn through a hands-on approach on-site, be that in stonemasonry, construction, glazing or whatever. A noble way to learn a trade and a profession is to serve time with a master of a craft. It enables people to have a craft and a skill that they can use to bring in an income for themselves and their family. Equally, it allows people to contribute to meeting a need.

In that regard, we are aware that we have a real issue with a shortage of construction workers and, therefore, I wish to examine the issues relating to work-based learning on-site. We all acknowledge its importance. I also wish to have a greater focus placed on supporting apprenticeships, as well as on providing greater support for employers in this context and on how we can match apprenticeships with employers. More important, however, is the question of how we can address the current shortage of skills, particularly in the construction sector and, specifically, in retrofitting. We need apprenticeships in these areas now. It is all good news in respect of the apprenticeship programme for the Government. The PEACE PLUS initiative for cross-Border collaboration on apprenticeships, North and South, is exciting. This is how we have to build relationships between the North and South. We must find common needs and common issues and work with them. I do not doubt the Minister’s commitment in this regard.

I ask that the Minister of State bring back to the Minister an issue to be reviewed in the context of apprenticeships, which is the green certificate in the context of agricultural training. There is a great shortage of people in the agricultural sector. I spoke about Teagasc and agricultural training here some months ago. I received an email from a woman who had major concerns regarding her apprenticeship with Teagasc, where she was serving her green certificate time. We have issues in this regard, and we must continuously evaluate apprenticeship programmes. I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House, and if he could shed some light on these issues, or perhaps send on some follow-up information, that would be very helpful.

I thank the Senator for his question on these important issues for the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. He mentioned two important words in this contribution, namely that he "values" and "respects" apprentices. I could not agree more. We are moving into a space now where we need to value and respect them much more.

The Senator's analogy with growing up was very appropriate and I share his view on it.

As part of the Action Plan for Apprenticeship 2021 to 2025, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, committed to cross-Border apprenticeship programmes to enhance Ireland's ability to respond to skills needs with an all-island ability in an all-island economy. Ireland operates as a small, open economy and the ability of our graduate apprentices to operate on an international stage is to be encouraged. The opportunity for international mobility as a component of apprenticeships programmes will be piloted during the lifetime of this plan, either in the workplace or in education and training institutions. The Government's commitment to cross-Border apprenticeships is reaffirmed in the revised National Development Plan, NDP, 2021 to 2030, which sets out an enhanced level of ambition for collaborative cross-Border public investment to build a more connected, prosperous and sustainable island for all the communities and traditions that share the island.

Under the NDP, the Government, through the Department, will work with our Northern Ireland and UK counterparts and other education and research stakeholders to support more strategic co-operation, realise more opportunities and shape further and higher education and research sectors that will meet the needs and capacity of this shared island into the future. This will include enhanced co-operation on higher and further education through collaborative approaches to programmes such as developing cross-Border apprenticeships.

A programme area skills development strategy is being developed as part of the PEACE PLUS programme strategy. This is aimed at delivering economic regeneration and transformation and identifying areas for investment. It will help to address evident skills gaps and result in increased productivity and employment as well as cross-Border labour mobility. It will also enable cross-Border collaboration between education and training-based providers to address existing and emerging skills gaps and opportunities for reskilling in key disciplines such as ICT and digital, science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics, or STEAM, the green economy, entrepreneurship, leadership and management, among other key areas, and promote uptake of apprentices in key areas such as ICT.

We will shortly launch a new funding call for PEACE PLUS, with collaboration on cross-Border apprenticeships as part of that. Working together, we have already identified one area, construction, where we can look to collaborate. We will explore this in detail in 2023.

Apprenticeships are a demand-driven, employer-led offering based on a contract of employment between the apprentice and the employer. The number of apprenticeships in any specific sector is, therefore, determined directly by employer provision. The Department is working with SOLAS examining the demand for construction workers between now and 2030.

The Senator spoke about difficulties with green certificates for agricultural training days. I will raise that matter with the Minister.

In recent years, the annual intake in construction-related apprenticeships has been steadily increasing. In 2020, there was a total of 3,370 construction apprenticeship registrations. This rose by 60% to 5,400 construction apprenticeship registrations in 2021 and to date in 2022, there have been 2,137 such registrations. As I said, when I visit community training centres they have useful trades. I hope they make plenty of money because they are providing a great resource to an ever-growing Irish economy.

I thank the Minister of State for his detailed response. The takeaway from that is that the funding call for PEACE PLUS is about to be announced. I welcome that. The PEACE PLUS cross-Border initiative is amazing and fantastic and we need to tap into it. We can mutually benefit from that cross-Border relationship. I also acknowledge the ongoing work with SOLAS. That is important and I am delighted to hear it.

The Minister of State also mentioned healthcare assistant practitioners, of which we have a shortage. That is a noble profession with skills and we need to acknowledge and support them with respect to training and pay.

Before coming to the House, I had a call from a person in the construction education sector who told me there were now approximately 9,000 students doing leaving certificate construction studies. I do not want to hold the individual in question to that exact number. These students chose to do construction studies at secondary level, which indicates there is an interest. I ask that we ascertain whether students leaving secondary school having taken construction studies are being matched up to apprenticeships. It is not a question of it being a job. We want people who are motivated and keen. I ask that synergy or connectivity between the Department and the secondary school sector be explored further.

I thank the Senator. I take on board his views on those leaving secondary school. He said there were up to 9,000 students taking construction studies and it is great that they are considering the trades. The Senator also noted how hospitality and healthcare are.

Education and training relevant to the skills needed in the construction sector and the green economy is delivered across the full remit of the tertiary system and through mainstream education and training, as well through specific programmes such as Springboard, the human capital initiative and Skillnet.

In the area of healthcare, the advanced assistant practitioner is managed by an apprenticeship consortium, which includes representatives from the private, home and community care sectors and currently has an active population of 45. There are also discussions between officials at the Department and counterparts in the Department of Health, the HSE and Tusla on the development of other apprenticeship programmes in the healthcare sector. Among the 65 apprenticeships currently available, 25 are craft-related and, more specifically, include housing, retrofitting-related programmes, green skills activities relating to a range of construction and engineering-related programmes, including plumbing, carpentry and joinery, and the recently launched wind turbine maintenance technician programme. There are, therefore, many different apprenticeships and that is very much to be welcomed.

Disability Services

I thank the Minister of State for attending take this Commencement matter. I have always been a passionate advocate for people with disabilities. I firmly believe that society has a responsibility to ensure every person is supported to reach his or her full potential. As legislators, we have even more of responsibility in that regard.

The Fianna Fáil Party stood before the people at the previous two general elections on a manifesto of An Ireland for All. People with disabilities deserve the same opportunities and have absolutely the same right to reach their full potential as any other member of society. We need to deliver for them and we are failing them badly. Access to adequate and appropriate medical and therapeutic supports is a vital necessity for many people living with disabilities. Without adequate access many people will simply not achieve their potential. We all know the importance of all early intervention in helping children learn the very basic skills many take for granted, such as crawling, walking and speaking. The first four years of life are so important and when children do not automatically develop those skills, they need help and support through State intervention to ensure they do. There is nothing more heartwarming than a parent or a sibling seeing a child taking a step or putting a few words together for the first time. In my experience families will go to the ends of the earth to do what they can but they cannot do it alone. They need help and support and they must be provided by the State.

I am regularly contacted by people in my area of south Kildare who have been waiting up to 18 months to gain access to the Kildare and West Wicklow children's disability network team, CDNT. These delays are detrimental to the development of children in our area and often cause serious stress and strain for families. We talk about a postcode lottery.

The CDNT of area 11, which takes in Kildare, is the Cinderella in this regard.

I am dealing with one case of a local child due to start primary school in September. Let us call the child John. John's mother noticed as early as his first birthday that he was missing milestones, was concerned about this and raised the matter with her doctor. Due to Covid-19, nothing was done. She continued to monitor him and raised the red flag periodically. It was only when she was in with her doctor for a routine pregnancy check-up on her next child that she mentioned it again. At that point John was referred to a new paediatric doctor. The child was accepted by the CDNT but there is currently an 18-month waiting list. In subsequent conversations with the staff on the CDNT, however, who bear no fault in this scenario and are going over and above their duties in supporting families, the mother was informed there is no guarantee the child would be accepted.

To this day, at more than four years old, John is still non-verbal. He has had no proper assessment or help. He is to enter his second year of preschool in September and his family will need to begin the process of primary school applications from October 2022. His mother has been informed he will not be accepted in mainstream classes if he is non-verbal and she cannot apply for a school place in an autism spectrum disorder, ASD, class without a full report to state he requires it.

What is John or his mother meant to do? This is not an isolated case and I have plenty of other examples. We must tackle the problem and I ask the Minister of State what he can do to help ease this pressure and support people with disabilities.

I thank the Senator for raising this important matter for discussion. I am taking this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for disability matters, Deputy Anne Rabbitte.

The Government remains firmly committed to ensuring the provision of the best possible health and social care services for both children and adults with special needs, whether they are therapy supports, respite, residential care or day services. The Government recognises that children's disability services face significant challenges to provide services in a timely and effective manner. The Minister of State is fully committed to the development and enhancement of children's disability services through the implementation of the progressing disability services, PDS, programme. She recognises this change programme has been challenging for many stakeholders and, in particular, the families of children who require these services urgently. As the Senator will be aware, the Minister of State has met many families and listened to their concerns first-hand to ascertain the issues and drive solutions.

I assure the Senator significant efforts are being made by the HSE to reduce waiting times for children who require all therapy supports, and that objective is a key component of the PDS programme. The full reconfiguration of children's disability services in the children's disability network teams, with a total of 91 CDNTs across nine community healthcare organisations, CHOs, is a positive step. It allows CDNTs to move towards the family-centred practice at the heart of phase 2.

It must be acknowledged that there have been significant challenges in certain parts of the country with the implementation of the PDS programme. There is a challenging environment related to recruitment and retention of staff working in CDNTs, which is affecting the level of service provided in a significant number of teams across the country. However, this is not a resource issue and the Government has provided funding since 2019 to allow the HSE to employ an additional 475 whole-time equivalent posts to increase the capacity of all 91 CDNTs.

The HSE is proactively pursuing a range of options regarding the recruitment of additional staff for the CDNTs and in the first instance this comprised national and international recruitment campaigns to attract those health professionals currently in short supply. In addition, the HSE is exploring options such as sponsorship and expanded use of assistant grades.

I assure the Senator that both the Government and the HSE remains committed to the delivery of appropriate services for children with disabilities and they will work with families and staff to develop services that meet their needs. Having regard to the issue she raised, the HSE has advised that local disability services have allocated development posts for this year to each of the three Kildare CDNTs. In addition, in conjunction with lead agencies, it has commenced a consortium-based recruitment initiative to explore UK and overseas recruitment, if necessary, to fill all development, vacant and maternity posts that it has until now been unsuccessful in filling from recent domestic recruitment campaigns.

The Senator spoke about parents waiting for 18 months and this is seemingly far too long. I will bring those views to the Minister of State.

I thank the Minister of State and welcome the fact that three development posts have been allocated. I have spoken about a postcode lottery and there is even a stark difference within the county of Kildare. I spoke recently to a mum whose family relocated from north Kildare to south Kildare. In north Kildare, her daughter was receiving all the different therapies she needed but following the move to south Kildare, she has not received anything in the space of 12 months. That is simply not good enough. Of course, these are not isolated cases.

In CHO 7, which covers south Kildare, there are 752 children waiting six to 12 months for initial contact. According to the statistics, 1,484 children are waiting more than 12 months, which is shocking. These are damning statistics. These are children with complex additional needs in their formative years and they and their parents will never get that time back. We must deal with this and ease the pressure on services so we can support these children and their families.

I thank the Senator for outlining her heartfelt and genuine concerns regarding delays in children with special needs accessing much-needed therapy supports in a timely fashion. It is a concern shared by all Members. It is imperative we work together to tackle the recruitment challenge and, in that regard, the HSE has continued to make every effort to support the recruitment of essential staff to expand the capacity of CDNTs. It is imperative teams are staffed to their maximum capacity if we are to provide the best possible service for all children with complex needs, regardless of the county in which they live, or as the Senator mentioned, what part of a county they live in.

It is understood that delays in accessing health services of any kind can have a devastating effect, and this is all the more so when it involves a child who cannot access services. I assure the House that the Government and the HSE remains fully committed to the delivery of high-quality child and family-centred services for children with disabilities. We will work with families and staff to develop services to meet those needs.

Aquaculture Industry

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Martin Heydon, to the House.

I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber and the opportunity to debate this important matter. The aquaculture legislation, as amended, goes back to the 1997 Act, and I would like to discern where we are in the process of examining the legislation and putting more definitive timelines in place to help applicants and communities affected by proposals.

This is a significant issue. Aquaculture licences are controversial in some locations because a body of water is taken for industrial use. It can have a major impact on a community and because of this, a public consultation period and many reports, particularly environmental reports, are required for the licences.

I will refer to a particular application to give a sense of where we are. In 2019, an application was made for an aquaculture licence in the heart of Kinsale Harbour, just off Charles Fort. It is a significant part of Kinsale Harbour. The application has been going through the process for the past three and a half years. It was necessary to re-advertise in May 2021 due to a mistake in the wording of the first advertisement in 2019. Three and a half years later, the vacuum of information is a significant issue for the community.

We are trying to make sure that communities can be informed of what is happening in the process, the stage it is at and when a decision will be made. That is necessary in order that objectors and applicants have a more definitive timeline so that they can move on with their lives and the proposals for the harbour. We are very much aware that these are significant developments but the 1997 Act - I spent the weekend reading it and it is exceptionally boring legislation - never put a definitive timeline on when a decision on these applications would be made. I am aware of cases where it was seven, eight or nine years after the application was first made that a decision was issued. There is a need to review the Act in order to put more definitive timelines in place and to strengthen the line of communications between the community and the Department so that everyone can be part of the process and we can have a strong aquaculture network. We need to make sure that the impacted communities can access the information in respect of how the process works.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I know it is of great importance to those in coastal regions. As he will be aware, the Department considers applications for aquaculture licences in accordance with the provisions of the Fisheries (Amendment) Act 1997, to which he referred, the Foreshore Act 1933 and applicable national and EU legislation. There are a number of statutory timeframes set out in the legislation in respect of aquaculture. The licensing process involves consultations with a wide range of scientific and technical advisers as well as various statutory consultees. The legislation also provides for a period of public consultation.

The statutory timeframes in respect of the public and statutory consultation processes are set out in SI 236/1998, as amended. In the case of shellfish or seaweed licensing, the legislation provides for a period of 30 days in which the public may make written submissions on the application, and for a six-week period in which the statutory consultees may make written submissions. In the case of fin fish, the timeframe for public and statutory consultation is eight weeks. Following the closing date of the public and statutory consultations, all submissions are sent to the applicant, who has the opportunity to submit written comments in respect of the submissions within three weeks of the date of issue.

The average time for processing an aquaculture licence varies, depending on location, species, scale and intensity of production, statutory status of sites, potential visual impact, etc. The Department takes full account of all scientific and technical advice, as well as all issues identified during the public and statutory consultation phases. Further factors that can impact the time taken to process an application include the requirement for an appropriate assessment if the application is within a Natura 2000 area; whether the application is required to be accompanied by an environmental impact statement or environmental impact assessment report; consideration of any submissions or observations raised during the public consultation period; and the need for additional underwater or archaeological assessments and the likes.

Once the Minister has made a determination in respect of an application, the legislation requires that the decision be published within 28 days. The Department places the reasons for the determination on the website of the Department and places a notice in the newspaper in which the applicant placed the application notice. Notice of the foreshore licensing determination is also placed in Iris Oifigiúil.

The legislation provides for an appeals mechanism. Within one month of the date of publication of the decision, interested parties can lodge an appeal to the aquaculture licences appeals board, ALAB, which is an independent statutory body. The timelines relating to the appeals process are a matter for ALAB. Foreshore licenses may also be appealed by way of judicial review.

It is important that the Senator is aware of the complex nature of the licensing process and the various statutory steps that must be adhered to. The Minister, Deputy McConalogue, recently launched phase 1 of the new state-of-the-art aquaculture information management system. The online viewer was developed in collaboration with the Marine Institute as part of phase 1 of this project which will develop an overall aquaculture management information system for aquaculture licences in Ireland. This delivers on the Government's commitment to the further implementation of the recommendations of the aquaculture licence review group. It is the first step in digitising the aquaculture licensing application process. The Department continually monitors all its services, including the licensing of aquaculture activities, to ensure we provide an efficient service to our customers while ensuring our environmental and legal obligations are adhered to.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive response in respect of the developments in the licensing system. It is important that it has moved to a more digital age and documents can be uploaded online. That is a positive step forward because, previously, those making submissions had to post them to Clonakilty. The digitisation of the system is very important.

The core of the problem, however, is that there is no definitive timeline for when applications will be adjudicated on. In the case of an application in respect of an industrial or housing development, for example, the local authority has to go through the same issues but there are definitive timelines in place in respect of making a decision. For example, the local authority is obliged to have corresponded with the public and the applicant within six months of the application. There is not the same type of timeline tied into these aquaculture applications. If anything, they are so open-ended that the general public may forget about them because so many years have passed since the application was made. The public may be of the view that the applicants have withdrawn the application or moved on to other things. The 1997 Act needs to be considered in the context of tightening the timelines so that communities can have a definitive timeline in respect of when these applications will be adjudicated upon.

I thank the Senator for highlighting those specific points. He makes a valid point. Notwithstanding all the timelines I outlined, he pointed to an understandable concern among local communities. If a process is taking as long to come through as the one in Kinsale to which he referred, the community would be justified in feeling frustrated. As he stated, it is important to keep the focus on that. It is a complex process. I outlined clearly in my initial response the challenges that are involved. As a State and a State body, we have to ensure we do that right. I take on board the points raised by the Senator and I will bring them back to the Department.

As regards the review group, it identified as a key priority the backlog that existed in aquaculture licence applications at the time. That backlog fed into some of the time delays referred to by the Senator. The backlog in shellfish aquaculture licence applications has effectively been eliminated as an issue affecting the industry and work is being prioritised to address outstanding renewal applications in fin fish aquaculture. The further implementation of the licensing review group report forms an important part of the programme for Government.

With the indulgence of the Acting Chairperson, I will refer to phase 2. Our focus and attention is now on phase 2, which has been developed in 24 months. It involved the development of a fully online system through which applicants for licences can submit all documents and supporting data electronically. The system will be fully integrated with other systems. Its delivery will create a one-stop shop for aquaculture licence applications, a process that will significantly reduce the administrative burden. That is at the nub of the problem raised by the Senator. Phase 2 can deliver a much more streamlined process. It is a key step in delivering on our commitments under the programme for Government to further implement the recommendations of the independent aquaculture licensing review group.

Employment Schemes

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, to the House. I am pleased to share my time this morning with Senator Burke. The issue we are raising is the ongoing campaign by Tús and the rural social scheme to make changes to how they operate. On Monday night, Senator Burke and I attended a meeting in the TF Royal Hotel in Castlebar. It was attended by more than 450 members of schemes from throughout County Mayo, local councillors and Oireachtas Members from the county. The changes announced in recent weeks, in particular the abolition of the six-year rule, have been very much welcomed by scheme operators and those on the schemes. There is still some way to go. We are looking for an expansion of or flexibility in the eligibility criteria. I will give an example. Only one person can access a scheme under a herd number. If a niece or nephew is working with a farmer he or she cannot access the scheme. This does not make sense. We need to get people onto these schemes.

Another key issue is the top-up payment. It may come as a shock to many people that they only receive €22.50 as a top-up to their social welfare payment. By any standard this is a very low level of pay for the work that is done. What has been requested by Tús and the rural social scheme is that the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, engage with and meet them to discuss the outstanding issues and matters to be resolved. This includes increasing the top-up payment, particularly as we head towards budget 2023. There is extra money in the budget package to cater for requests such as this. We ask that the eligibility criteria be expanded and that greater flexibility be allowed in the operation of the schemes.

The Minister of State is from a rural area and knows these schemes are vital. They are part of the fabric of rural Ireland. There are jobs in communities that simply would not get done were it not for these schemes. As the saying goes, we do not know what we have until it is gone. If people were not operating on these schemes many jobs would not get done. They mow the local GAA pitches. They keep them ready for the under-fives teams up to the senior teams. They keep the local community halls open. They look after the graveyards. These are all jobs that local authorities do not have the resources or the manpower and womanpower to do. The local schemes pick up the slack and bridge the gap the State does not fill. It is vital that we ensure the long-term sustainability and viability of the schemes.

I thank Senator Chambers for sharing her time. I welcome the Minister of State to the House. Senator Chambers has outlined in detail the case and what took place at the very large meeting in Castlebar last Monday. There is no need to go over the case that Senator Chambers made. The Minister of State is only too well aware of the work carried out by the schemes on football, hurling and soccer fields and graveyards. Even at funerals we can see that participants in the schemes regulate traffic. It is great when we go to a funeral and we can see it is taking place in an orderly fashion and drivers are told where to park. They also assist Tidy Towns to keep towns and villages clean.

At the meeting we were presented with a leaflet on what was being sought. In particular, people want to engage with the Minister and the Department on what they need. I will give the Minister of State a copy of what they gave us on the night. The top-up payment of €22.50 for the rural social scheme is very little for 19.5 hours work and the great work people do in the community. Who would go out to work for €22.50 for 19.5 hours other than those who love what they do and love helping the community? That is what these people do and it is what they are about. I ask the Minister of State consider their demands and engage with the Department and the Minister.

I acknowledge the excellent work done on the full range of community employment, Tús and rural social schemes, supported by the Department of Social Protection, and the contributions these schemes and their workers make to communities throughout the country. At present there are some 27,000 people and 1,649 supervisors employed on the three main schemes. Overall, these schemes have a budget allocation of €540 million in 2022.

Work schemes such as Tús and community employment are positive initiatives that enable the long-term unemployed to make a contribution to their communities while upskilling for prospective future employment. The rural social scheme provides farmers and fishers with income support while they also make a contribution to their community. At present, there are more than 10,000 places supported on Tús and rural social schemes, with a budget of more than €160 million available to support the schemes in 2022.

I agree with the Senators and we are all hugely impressed with the range and value of the work undertaken by the participants on these schemes, whether with Tidy Towns or the GAA or in childcare. We would all notice a sizeable difference to our communities were these schemes and their participants not working. Recognising the work and acknowledging the challenges that face these schemes, on 21 December, the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, announced reforms to the rural social scheme and the community employment scheme to improve the operation and further support these schemes that maintain vital services to communities. These changes included a provision to allow community employment and rural social scheme participants who reach 60 years of age to remain on both schemes until they reach State pension age, along with a number of other changes to reduce the numbers exiting schemes while improving the referral process.

While these changes have helped, recruitment to schemes to fill all vacancies remains a challenge with vacancies in schemes at present. Recent positive employment trends, with the reduction in unemployment and in the number of long-term unemployed, are having an impact on recruitment to these schemes. It means there is a smaller pool of candidates to fill available places. These challenges are similar to those facing employers in the open labour market. To further assist schemes to maintain services in this tight labour market, last week the Minister and Minister of State announced additional measures. These will improve recruitment and remove the six-year time limit on the rural social scheme for all participants, while continuing the practice whereby placements can be extended until suitable replacements are available to fill vacancies. These reforms will ensure that schemes have sufficient participants to continue to deliver services throughout the county in urban and rural areas.

The Department recently reviewed the means assessment disregards for farm assist, which is the main qualifying payment for the rural social scheme. As part of this review process, it was recommended to provide for extensive expansion of the list of agri-environmental schemes that qualify towards income disregards. These measures have been implemented from June 2022.

I understand that last year, the Minister and Minister of State introduced the employment support services operation forum where they, along with departmental officials, meet representatives from community employment, the job initiative scheme, the rural social scheme and Tús. This forum now meets three to four times a year, with the next meeting due to be held very shortly. The operational forum provides a valuable opportunity to discuss operational issues that arise on the schemes and impact on service delivery in the communities. The Minister and Minister of State find the meetings to be extremely informative and a very worthwhile opportunity for constructive exchanges of views and ideas. They also interact regularly with schemes at ground level by visiting and engaging with them throughout the country.

The funding of any potential payment increases for rural social scheme and Tús participants is a matter for the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and will need to be considered in the wider economic and budgetary context. I assure both Senators that I will ensure the points raised this morning will be relayed to the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, and, with regard to the top-up payment, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath.

I thank the Minister of State. It might be of assistance to the two Ministers and Minister of State concerned if he were to let them know there is a briefing in the audiovisual room today at 12.30 p.m. They would be most welcome to attend and meet directly with rural social scheme and Tús supervisors and hear directly from those affected.

When these schemes were first set up they were seen as job activation measures that dealt with income support and rural isolation. They have evolved over time to become essential services in rural areas. This was not factored in at the outset. There needs to be a change of mindset in the Department as regards how we view these schemes. We must recognise that it suits many people to be on a scheme while doing some work on their farms or in the fishing community.

It just works well for the local community. We want to acknowledge that and not to try to force people off these schemes when there is really no need to do that.

The second point relates to the eligibility criteria. The pool of people who qualify to get on these schemes is getting smaller. When we match that with the way the economy is currently, the jobs market and the fact we are close to full employment, it is becoming next to impossible to get people onto the schemes as they just are not available. We need to expand the eligibility criteria or we will see these schemes getting smaller and closing down eventually. Those are my two points.

These jobs are vital to communities and the Minister of State will be aware of the benefits that accrue to the community due to the work people do. We again ask him to seriously consider what we are looking for. They are not big demands in the great scheme of events. The money that is involved is in the region of €2.5 million, which is very little in the overall budget of the Department of Social Protection. I again thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to hear our views. We hope he will take them on board.

I thank both Senators. The success of Government policies is a challenge to the schemes, given we now have 2.5 million people in employment. When we have so many people in employment, fewer people are available to work on the schemes. To be fair to both the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, they have been listening and responding, and they have made a number of changes. However, as Senator Chambers said, they could go a little further. I undertake to ensure the points raised by both Senators will be relayed to the Minister. These schemes are an integral part of our communities, which would not function as well as they do if the schemes were not in operation. However, it is becoming more and more challenging to retain people on the schemes. No one wants to see the schemes disappear. I do not believe the Minister or the Minister of State want the schemes to disappear; on the contrary, they are supportive of them. I will relay the points raised this morning to them.

Social Welfare Offices

I welcome Deputy Troy and commend him on his role as Minister of State with responsibility for trade. He has been doing tremendous work since taking office in building trade relations and expanding Ireland's trade opportunities, which bring employment. I want to discuss the Intreo office on the Navan Road, which served people in the Dublin 7 area who find themselves without employment. While I welcome the Minister of State's presence, it is disappointing that neither the Minister for Social Protection nor the Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works found time to come to the House to address this issue.

The Intreo office for Dublin 7 was an important office for those who need it, for those who find themselves having to turn to the State in a time of need. That office was closed unannounced and unceremoniously back in April. There were 40 or 50 people working there, which reflects how busy the office was, and there were no fewer than ten community welfare officers. That shows the type of need for that office in that area. The staff have been relocated to Parnell Street in the centre of town.

The clients who went to that office on a daily and weekly basis have been left with the option of going into town, dealing with queries online or dialling a phone number that just goes unanswered. We have a large elderly community in Dublin 7 and many of them are not online. It is not reasonable for them to be expected to either hang on a phone all day for no answer, to be told to go online as they do not have access and they are not digitally literate, or to truck into town to Parnell Street. There is very little parking on Parnell Street. The Dublin 7 Intreo office on the Navan Road had parking and could accommodate people who have limited mobility and who depend on a car or on a loved one to bring them to the office.

What I am hoping to get today for the people of Dublin 7 is an answer from either the Minister for Social Protection or the Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works, which manages the building, on a date for a reopening of that office. I hope they have sent the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, with some good news for the people of the area. I know from hearing from people on a daily basis that it is creating great inconvenience for them. On top of the great inconvenience and upset, it is also a huge waste of State resources. That office is in a brand new building and it is lying vacant. I do not understand why any Department would leave an office like that lying vacant, with no date for putting it back into productive use. I hope they have sent the Minister of State with some good news for the people of Dublin 7 and I look forward to his reply.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. The Minister for Social Protection sends her apologies as she could not be here today.

Significant maintenance and upgrade work to the Intreo centre on the Navan Road, Cabra, Dublin 7, had been scheduled for 2022. Plans were put in place for staff to transfer to other Intreo centres for the duration of the work, with arrangements made for customers to be served by King’s Inns Intreo centre, Parnell Street. The work originally planned was premised on no significant changes being made to the services being provided by the Navan Road Intreo centre, the way those services are delivered and the layout of the building. The Senator, like all of us, will be aware of the significant increase in construction and maintenance costs in recent months, including in building supplies. It was decided, therefore, before finalising the works contract, to review the future use of the building at Navan Road to ensure efficient and effective use of resources.

As has been the case with other organisations and services, many customers of the Department of Social Protection have moved to accessing departmental services online over the past two years. This has largely been in response to the social distancing implications brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, despite the fact Intreo centres remained open to the public throughout the pandemic. This had reduced the footfall into the Navan Road centre, including a significant decrease in the attendance of casual customers.

A comprehensive review was undertaken in 2021 of all services and activities delivered by the Department's network of local offices with the purpose of determining the best future operating models for delivering these services and activities. The review identified that significant portions of work that had previously taken place in Intreo centres had been moved to alternative work streams, with the most significant being the processing of payments by the national processing team and the handling of phone and electronic contacts by the national Intreo contact centre. The review also identified substantial benefits for standardising and streamlining work previously replicated across the different local divisions.

As a result of this review, dedicated work streams have been created for control operations, the community welfare service and the employment operations, which includes activation, community employment, Tús and employer engagement. The impact of these changes and the new redistribution of work has given an opportunity for the division of staff working in Intreo offices to focus on vital customer-facing services, front-office services, information services, client identity services, claims maintenance, front-office control, day-to-day branch office interactions and facilities management. With regard to the layout of the Department’s Intreo centres, this means that instead of large waiting areas with rows of seats and multiple hatches, the Department will be providing self-service zones with interactive touchscreens, child-friendly spaces and autism-supportive sensory rooms. The layout will reflect the fact many customers will be there by appointment and, therefore, will not need to queue. The work in the Navan Road Intreo centre had been planned some time ago and it was considered appropriate to pause the works while further consideration was given to the optimal use of the building.

That is the reply I have been asked to share with the Senator today. I understand her frustration regarding the ten community welfare officers who had been working in the area and to phones not being answered.

I assure the Senator I will bring back to the Minister and Minister of State the points she has forcefully raised on behalf of the members of her community who depend on Intreo offices. When anything is paused it creates a level of uncertainty which is not good. We need to get certainty for the community in Dublin 7.

Gabhaim buíochas. I appreciate what the Minister of State has said and I am not going to shoot the messenger in this instance. I must say, however, that his reply is revealing. It reveals that this had been in planning for a long time and that planning did not include any form of consultation with the clients of the Dublin 7 Intreo office. In fact, it demonstrates a complete disregard for those clients and the area.

The reply referred to a review. Will that review be published and can we have sight of it? Who does it benefit? I do not see any benefit for people who are in need and require some human understanding. That is what people who are in need require. They do not need online self-service portals. They need a bit of human compassion and that is what they go to their community welfare officer for. The day the State forgets what its role is for people in need is the day it is finished.

I ask that the Minister of State to go back to the Minister for Social Protection and ask her to meet me and a delegation from the Dublin 7 area to address this issue. I also ask that he go back to the Minister of State with responsibility for the Office Public Works and suggest that he stop wasting public infrastructure and money by having perfectly good and functioning buildings mothballed. It is a disgrace.

I know from my dealings with my local Intreo offices and community welfare officers that they do invaluable work. With face-to-face interaction, they are often there to reassure people when they are in a state of despair and in need. It is important that the service is maintained.

It is also fair to recognise that more and more people are moving away towards interacting with State services online. That is just a matter of fact. For those who are unable to interact online, it is important that they should be able to access the services when they need them, a point which the Senator has made very forcefully. I will, as the Senator requested, raise with the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and the Minister of State, Deputy O’Donovan, the points she has raised.

Scientific Research

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach Gníomhach and I thank the Minister of State for coming into the Chamber to speak on this issue in which I know he has a deep personal interest and passion. As we know, artificial intelligence and machine learning are transformative technologies and are about solving very complex issues. We are already seeing it happening in everything from legal contracts being checked to identifying pieces of music or of birdsong, and it is being used in drone and machine delivery of food. Even yesterday, the most recent announcement about the Dublin MetroLink referred to it being an automated train system with trains driven by artificial intelligence, AI, machine learning.

I have no doubt we will see robots using AI machine learning and 3-D printers to deliver homes. It is interesting that while some of this new world fills us with fear, the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs reported two weeks ago that the deployment of AI will not result in any job losses but that we need to adapt and change as a society to avail of the opportunities it presents.

I was very happy to see the publication in July last year of the strategy, AI - Here for Good: A National Artificial Intelligence Strategy for Ireland. The concern when a strategy is published is that it will be left on a shelf and no progress will be made. I am aware, however, that the Minister of State has appointed a national AI ambassador and set up the enterprise digital advisory forum. In addition, in a very welcome step, he set up the digital transition fund which will support business in adapting and using AI. I know that there also are plans to engage with young people.

Key in terms of Government strategy, and this was signalled in the AI strategy, has to be the building of trust among people. We have seen in recent years fears, unfounded in many cases, being built up by small groups around science and technology. I am speaking here about anti-vaxxers and anti-5G groups. It is essential, therefore, that the Government take an active role in ensuring that people understand the potential of AI and the opportunities it presents. That is not just a challenge for Government. Business, higher education and others also have a responsibility to inform the public debate on this.

I note the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs recommended two weeks ago that we should have a new AI apprenticeship. I would certainly like to see that. The expert group also recommended that a free AI course be made available for all citizens so that they can learn how to more effectively use and deploy AI and also simply understand how it operates.

The Government approach in the AI strategy, which I welcome, is very much based on human rights and ethics. This has to be a whole-of-government approach. We can deploy AI in a clever way, for instance, in meeting some of our climate change targets in agriculture. If we use AI effectively, we could ensure the effective use of agricultural resources and monitor soil and animals.

I am concerned about moves to introduce facial recognition technology, even in these Houses. Facial recognition technology can be used for good. For instance, in India up to 10,000 children who were missing were identified using facial recognition technology. In contrast, however, we have China, which has effectively become a surveillance society through the use of facial recognition technology. It is important that if we deploy this technology, it is done with full public consultation and informed by human rights and ethics.

I am a little concerned that the Department of Justice intends to roll out its own AI strategy. The use of AI or facial recognition technology could be welcome in fighting crime but it is essential that it adhere to the terms of the Government strategy, with a particular emphasis, obviously, on ethics and the protection of human rights.

I thank Senator Malcolm Byrne for raising this issue. I know he has a great interest in this area and all new and emerging technologies. As alluded to by the Senator, in July last year, the Taoiseach and I launched AI - Here for Good: A National Artificial Intelligence Strategy for Ireland. The strategy sets out how Ireland can be an international leader in using Al to benefit our economy and society, through a people-centred, ethical approach to its development, adoption and use, as the Senator said. It presents an integrated framework to manage the expected beneficial socioeconomic opportunities that Al presents. We have paid particular attention to the ethical and societal aspects of Al, highlighting both the benefits and possible risks of Al technologies.

The national strategy is aligned with the evolving EU and OECD policy direction of ensuring both an ecosystem of excellence and an ecosystem of trust. The strategy is in favour of a governance and regulatory framework that avoids setting unnecessary barriers to responsible innovation. At the same time, the governance and regulatory framework needs to be robust enough that it can build trust in the ethical use of Al.

On a regulatory front, work is under way at European level on an Al Act, which will set harmonised rules for the development, placement on the market and use of Al systems. Crucial to this is a proportionate risk-based approach. Certain particularly harmful Al practices are prohibited as contravening European Union values, while specific restrictions and safeguards are proposed on certain uses in areas such as recruitment, health, welfare and law enforcement, including remote biometric identification systems.

Al applications, such as facial recognition technology, may have a role to play, for example, in some specific cases of law enforcement.

However, it is my firm belief we need to have regulatory structures in place to ensure its safe deployment.

As the transformative potential of artificial intelligence, AI, becomes clearer, so too do the risks posed by the use of unethical, unsafe or insecure AI systems. That is why we need to have clear direction with safeguards and ethical governance in place to make sure AI is used and deployed securely and in a manner that is fair, transparent and builds public trust.

My Department and I continue to engage across Government, including with the Department of Justice and with our European counterparts, to ensure a risk-based approach is adopted for the adoption, deployment and use of AI and to ensure the commitment of ethical and trustworthy AI is upheld.

From my Department's perspective, I would like to highlight some of the deliverables in the strategy that have been implemented since the launch. As AI becomes more and more part of our daily lives, it is important public trust, knowledge and engagement with AI is built and maintained. To that end, I appointed an AI ambassador who will lead a national conversation to ensure we demystify AI but also to make sure everybody is aware and understands the great opportunities and benefits AI can bring to society and to the economy.

I also appointed an Enterprise Digital Advisory Forum, which will support and advise Government in driving the digitalisation of enterprise across Ireland, including the uptake of AI by businesses. The Senator mentioned the digital fund we announced a few weeks ago. Officials in my Department are working with the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Inclusion and Youth and planning a national youth assembly on AI to ensure our youth have an input in the future direction of AI.

Last month CeADAR, the centre for AI and applied data analytics, took another step closer to becoming a designated European digital innovation hub, which will serve as the national first-stop shop for AI transformation in SMEs and public organisations. Last month, the Minister of State, Deputy Collins, and I welcomed the publication of the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs, to which the Senator alluded. Much good work is being done to ensure the strategy does not stay on the shelf, that we implement it and take the full benefits of the opportunities this transformative technology presents.

I thank the Minister of State for that comprehensive answer. I certainly welcome many of the moves. The engagement with Comhairle na nÓg and with young people will be particularly welcomed. It is important it would be as inclusive as possible to ensure young people understand AI and avail of its opportunities. This is a challenge for wider society. It will transform all of our lives. For anybody involved in driving or delivery of goods or persons, there is a risk a significant element of their tasks will be replaced over the next decade. We must consider how we can upskill all those individuals.

It is important some of the suggestions of the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs on specific apprenticeships and for an online course to be made available for all citizens would be implemented. We need to build public trust in this technology. The Minister of State’s approach has been correct to date but I worry that this, as is the case with many technologies, is frequently discussed within a bubble. I suggest that in the roll-out of new technologies perhaps briefings for Members of the Oireachtas could be useful. It is a challenge for Deputies, Senators and others to understand the scope and opportunity of what is coming down the line. It would be of benefit for us to be able to understand the full detail of how AI operates and the potential challenges and opportunities it presents.

I fully concur with the Senator on the need to build public confidence in this technology. We have to build trust. One of the ways to do that is to ensure we have the proportionate regulatory framework in place. That is why Ireland, from our perspective, is working at a European level and feeding into the work being done there on the AI Act, which will set a harmonised set of rules for the development, placement on the market and use of AI systems, which will be proportionate and risk-based. As a small open economy, there are no boundaries to the use of technology. It is in that context it is right and proper for us to engage in the regulatory framework from a European perspective.

Regarding having wider engagement, that is why we appointed Dr. Patricia Scanlon who is an expert in this field. She will lead a national conversation in this area and regarding the whole area of skills. That report of the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs was published only two weeks ago. We will be implementing its recommendations. There will be job displacement but there will also be new job opportunities because of the use of AI. It is important we provide the necessary training in order that people can avail of the new opportunities this will present.

On that hopeful and interesting note, we will conclude.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 11.16 a.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 11.30 a.m.
Sitting suspended at 11.16 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.