Header Item Prelude
 Header Item Gnó an tSeanaid - Business of Seanad
 Header Item Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
 Header Item DEIS Scheme
 Header Item School Staff
 Header Item Housing Issues
 Header Item Covid-19 Pandemic
 Header Item Healthcare Infrastructure Provision
 Header Item Stardust Fire
 Header Item An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
 Header Item National Lottery (Amendment) Bill 2021: First Stage
 Header Item Sitting Arrangements: Motion
 Header Item EU Regulations (Europol): Motion
 Header Item Criminal Procedure Bill 2021: Committee Stage
 Header Item Post Office Network: Motion

Monday, 26 April 2021

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 275 No. 9

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Chuaigh an Cathaoirleach i gceannas ar 10:30:00

Machnamh agus Paidir.

Reflection and Prayer.

Gnó an tSeanaid - Business of Seanad

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I have received notice from Senator Aisling Dolan that, on the motion for the Commencement of the House today, she proposes to raise the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Education to provide an update on the delivery of the equality of opportunity on schools, DEIS, resource allocation system and the timeline for its completion, publication and implementation.

  I have also received notice from Senator Timmy Dooley of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Education to ensure that Clooney National School, Ennis, County Clare, retains its four-teacher status.

  I have also received notice from Senator Malcolm Byrne of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to provide an update on the development of an overall plan for social and affordable housing in Gorey and the wider north Wexford area.

 I have also received notice from Senator John McGahon of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Health to make a statement on the supports being put in place to protect diabetes patients in light of the risk to them of serious health complications from Covid-19.

I have also received notice from Senator Seán Kyne of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Health to make a statement on the Sláintecare proposals regarding elective and ambulatory hospital plans for counties Galway, Cork and Dublin.

I have also received notice from Senator Lynn Boylan of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Justice to make a statement on the failure to waive financial eligibility criteria when providing legal aid to the families of the Stardust fire victims in the ongoing inquest.

I have also received notice from Senator Tim Lombard of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to provide clarification on the statutory timeframes pertaining to the aquacultural licensing system.

I have also received notice from Senator Paul Gavan of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Health to legislate to create safe access zones for hospitals.

I have also received notice from Senator Sharon Keogan of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Education to provide an update on the remedial works required to Duleek boys' and girls' national schools, County Meath.

I have also received notice from Senator Emer Currie of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Health to make a statement on the provision of funding for trainee psychologists.

  The matters raised by the Senators are suitable for discussion and I have selected Senators Dolan, Dooley, Byrne, McGahon, Kyne and Boylan and they will be taken now. The other Senators may give notice on another day of the matters that they wish to raise.

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

DEIS Scheme

Senator Aisling Dolan: Information on Aisling Dolan Zoom on Aisling Dolan I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, for coming here this morning to deal with this matter. No schools have been assessed to be included for extra supports under the DEIS scheme since 2015 and only a small number were added in 2017. Schools are not currently being assessed. I would like an update on the DEIS resource allocation system and the timeline for its completion, publication and implementation.

  DEIS encompasses a number of different types of supports, including: reduced class size; additional funding to provide access to literacy and numeracy programmes, which is important; the home school community liaison, HSCL, co-ordinator; school completion programmes, SCPs, which mean that students will stay in school longer and achieve results in final year exams; and access to the school meals programme. To clarify, the HSCL and the SCP both fall under Túsla educational and welfare services so there is a link there and a partnership with the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. There is also a link with the Department of Social Protection on the school meals programme. However, neither of those Departments can allocate schools access to the programmes unless designation has been given by the Department of Education.   The Minister for Education has noted that this is dependent on an Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, in 2015 to bring forward a new methodology of assessment. That is great but, unfortunately, we do not have a methodology for assessing any of these schools now. A Department of Education publication, DEIS Identification Process, noted, "The model also identified a number of schools in disadvantaged areas, no currently within DEIS, whose level of disadvantage is significantly higher than many schools already in DEIS."

  A Social Justice Ireland report published last week and based on a 2019 survey pointed to a decrease in people living below the poverty line. However, 20% of children still live in poverty. All across this country, especially in the past year, more families than were dealt with in that survey are dealing with disadvantage and loss of income, all of which impacts on child poverty. If children are going to school hungry, we need to act. If children are falling behind in reading and maths, we need to act. We need to ensure that every child has the same opportunity in the classroom, the ability to focus attention, the reserves to sit in school for the full day and the supports to avoid dropping out at secondary school level.

  The Minister for Education has already noted that this review has to be completed before any supports are made available. I do not accept that. There must be a possibility of having a tiered level of support available for the schools most in need, particularly when this crisis affects those most vulnerable, namely, women, single parents and children.

  In the 2016 Pobal deprivation index, Ballinasloe was listed as having areas that are extremely and very disadvantaged, the highest levels on the scale. The area also has a DEIS band 1 primary school. However, there is no support for any post-primary DEIS facility in our area. How is this possible in a large urban area? I will quote a school principal on the matter:

We struggle to support our most vulnerable families in the absence of an allocation for a Home School Community Liaison teacher. We try our best but it is an impossible task to ask full time teachers/assistant principals and senior leadership personnel to provide the level of family support that is necessary to these families. We have a large number (20-25%) of enrolment coming from [the DEIS band 1 primary school]. We meet students on a daily basis with no lunch. As a result, the school frequently has to buy food and distribute it without any support ...

 I also spoke to a home school community liaison officer, a co-ordinator, in our area. She stated the retention of pupils following transfer to secondary school in Ballinasloe is really low, particularly among children who have had to leave school after having had considerable support at primary school level through DEIS at band level 1.

  I want to put a programme in place that supports children from different backgrounds to have a fighting chance. The State has a role in providing hope and supports to children and students so they will have a fighting chance of an education. I call on the Minister of State, in the absence of the review, which has been happening since 2015, to set up immediately tiered supports for schools in crisis, partnering with the Department of Social Protection regarding access to the hot school meals programme and the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth regarding access to the home school community liaison scheme and school completion programme. I also call on the Minister to address the matter of the school completion co-ordinator in the Ballinasloe area. I acknowledge the wonderful supports in place at primary school level in our urban town area but how does disadvantage disappear at age 11?

Minister of State at the Department of Education (Deputy Josepha Madigan): Information on Josepha Madigan Zoom on Josepha Madigan I thank the Senator for raising this issue. DEIS is the main policy initiative of my Department to tackle educational disadvantage at any level. The DEIS plan sets out the vision for interventions in the critical area of educational disadvantage policy and is based on the findings of an extensive review of the programme, which involved consultation with all relevant stakeholders.

  The programme for Government commits to completing the new DEIS identification model and ensuring the extension of status to schools identified as suitable. A key part of the DEIS plan was the introduction of a new DEIS identification process based on an objective statistic-based model to determine which schools merit inclusion in the programme. As the Senator may be aware, following the application of this model in 2017, a further 79 schools were included in the programme and 30 were upgraded from band 2 to band 1 status.

  On the further extension of the DEIS programme to more schools, an extensive body of work has been undertaken to refine the model based on the latest school enrolment data and data available from census 2016 under the HP deprivation index. A detailed quality analysis of the data has been carried out by members of the DEIS technical group, which includes representatives of the Department's statistics and social inclusion units, the inspectorate and the Educational Research Centre. My Department has commenced a consultation process with education stakeholder representatives on the technical aspects and the implementation of this model. Work is now ongoing on the final elements of the model. It is envisaged that this will provide the basis for the development and application of a refined DEIS resource-allocation model ultimately to match resources to identified need. Until this work is complete, it is not intended to extend the DEIS programme to any further schools.

  I note the Senator’s concerns, however, and reassure her that the Department is working to ensure those most in need of support can be provided with the necessary resources to ensure they have every opportunity to benefit from education to help them fulfil their potential in life. For example, the Department will spend approximately €2 billion on making additional provision for children with special educational needs, which is an area of particular interest to her. The investment means the numbers of special classes, special education teachers and special needs assistants are now at unprecedented levels. Budget 2021 allowed for a further reduction in the primary staffing schedule, bringing the pupil-teacher ratio to an historic low of 25:1. Overall, 1,065 new teaching posts will be created this year.

  My Department spends approximately €215 million on general capitation for schools, which represented an increase of 5% in 2019 and a further 2.5% increase for the 2020-21 school term. A further €18 million is allocated to schools under the free education scheme to provide assistance regarding books, including book rental schemes. All these supports should ensure that every student receives every opportunity to fulfil his or her potential in the education system. There are schools in Ballinasloe, including Scoil Uí Cheithearnaigh, Ardscoil Mhuire and Garbally College, that are non-DEIS schools. There is obviously a rationale for including a school based on concentrated disadvantage.  It is based on the existence of a multiplier effect whereby pupils attending a school with a high concentration of students from disadvantaged backgrounds have poorer academic outcomes, even taking account of people's social backgrounds. The social mix of a school matters and provides a rationale for prioritising supports for schools which cater for those with a lower socioeconomic background. International evidence supports that also.

Senator Aisling Dolan: Information on Aisling Dolan Zoom on Aisling Dolan I thank the Minister of State for the update and the acknowledgement of funding in the area. The DEIS identification process and the inclusion of schools with children who are at risk is urgently required to ensure that all schools are appropriately equipped to tackle educational disadvantage. We need that at primary and post-primary level across the country. Is there a possibility for tiered supports? I understand that the review still has to be completed. I am not clear on the timeline associated with that but is it possible that we could look at the hot school meals programme under the Department of Social Protection or the allocation of a HSCL co-ordinator where principals are struggling, particularly this year, with Covid-19? That would come from the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth under Tusla. Could we consider looking at tiered supports in advance of the review programme coming out for schools in crisis?

Deputy Josepha Madigan: Information on Josepha Madigan Zoom on Josepha Madigan I thank the Senator. I understand her concerns in the context of supports. It is important to stress that there is a range of resources available from the Department to support schools in dealing with their needs. Those are schools outside of DEIS and they can still avail of supports including special education resource teachers, special needs assistants, SNAs, and supports from the National Educational Psychological Service also.

  With regard to hot school meals, I will bring that to the attention of the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, to see if there is scope around that. There may well be resources available of which I am unaware but I will certainly speak to the Minister about the matter.

  I do not yet have a timeline for the end of the consultation from the DEIS technical group. I do not see any expansion in respect of any other school being eligible for DEIS until that is refined and completed. The Department has commenced the consultation with educational stakeholder representatives on the technical aspects and the implementation of this model. Work is ongoing on the final elements of the model.

School Staff

Senator Timmy Dooley: Information on Timmy Dooley Zoom on Timmy Dooley I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, for coming to the House to discuss this issue. Clooney National School is a small school in a rural setting outside Ennis, in the greater east Clare area. It is currently a four-teacher school. As a result of a drop in student numbers to 73 this year, there is a threat to its four-teacher status. As the Minister of State knows, the retention number is 79. I appeal to the Minister and the Department to give special consideration in this particular year for a number of reasons. First, an effort is being made to rejuvenate rural Ireland and if we do anything that reduces the level of teaching in smaller rural schools it impacts on that policy. Second, if this school is reduced to a three-teacher school effectively it will be teaching 73 pupils in three rooms rather than four. At a time when we are trying to keep children apart we are cramming them into three rooms as opposed to four, which does not make sense. It is a small school. The rooms are small. It has been built for a very considerable period and therefore it does not lend itself well to cram that number of students into three rooms when it was formally four. From a public health point of view, it would make sense to keep it a four-teacher school and retain that fourth teacher.

  Across the board, children have suffered so much in the past year and half. They were out of education settings for a prolong period. While I am making a particular request on behalf of Clooney National School, the Department should look wider. The retention figure of 79 should be completely cast aside this year. Teachers should be kept in place because of the issues that have arisen with children effectively being out of school for the past year and a half. We should leave teachers in place for one more year and examine it again next year. In the context of Clooney National School, the numbers will be back up next year on the basis of what is expected in terms of young students coming to the school. In other words, it will be back to that retention level next year. I suspect other schools would benefit from the same consideration.  In the light of everything that this happened with Covid-19 and of trying to ensure children remain apart in school insofar as they can, and recognising their education has been truncated and disrupted very significantly and that we are only placing a greater burden on schools that will lose a teacher where the class size and pupil-teacher teacher ratio will increase at a time when the children concerned can least afford this, on this occasion I appeal to the Minister of State to look favourably on Clooney National School and wider afield to schools throughout the country. There is a recognition that because of everything that kids have suffered, we should try to ensure there is some kind of a stable environment now for the next 12 months to help them to catch up on what is an important part of their formation in education.

Deputy Josepha Madigan: Information on Josepha Madigan Zoom on Josepha Madigan I thank Senator Dooley for asking this question pertaining to Clooney National School. The key factor for determining the level of staffing resources provided at individual school level is the staffing schedule for the relevant school year and indeed the pupil enrolment on the previous 30 September. The previous budgets of 2016 and 2018 improved the staffing schedule by one point on both occasions to its historically lowest level ever of one teacher to 26 pupils. Budget 2021 has implemented a further one point reduction for the 2021-2022 school year, so that primary schools will be allocated teaching posts on an average basis of one classroom for every 25 pupils. In addition, there has been a three point reduction in the retention schedule which will assist schools which would otherwise be at risk of losing teaching posts. This measure will help ensure better teacher retention in primary schools while also ensuring fewer pupils are required to retain or recruit a teacher.

  As to staffing in small schools, while budget 2012 increased the appointment and retention ratios for small schools, that is, schools with up to four classroom teachers, improvements to the staffing of these school has been made in recent years. Improved retention thresholds for the second, third and fourth classroom teacher and the improved appointment and retention thresholds for two-teacher schools situated 8 km or more from the nearest school of the same type of patronage and-or language of instruction were introduced for the 2015-2016 school year. Budget 2017 announced two adjustments to one-teacher schools. Where the school is the sole primary school on an island, the school will be able to appoint a second teacher. An additional appeal option was introduced for single teacher schools with pupils across six or more class groups allowing them to apply for appointment or retention of a second teacher on reduced enrolment thresholds. Small schools have also benefited from the improvements to the staffing schedule introduced in 2016, 2018 and again in 2021, which has brought the teacher allocation ratio in all primary schools to the most favourable ever seen at primary level.

  As to the Senator's specific question around Clooney National School, this school, as the Senator has mentioned, currently has four classroom teachers. The enrolment required to retain the fourth teacher, as the Senator is correctly pointed out, is 79 pupils. As the school’s enrolment fell from 81 in September 2019 to 73 in September 2020, the school is due to have its teaching staff reduced by one in September. I understand it is six pupils short of the requisite eligibility criteria. The staffing process includes an appeals mechanism for schools to submit a staffing appeal under certain published criteria. The primary staffing appeals board will consider staffing appeals in respect of staffing for the 2021-2022 school year from schools later this month. The board will meet again in June and in October. The staffing schedule operates in a very clear and transparent manner and treats all similar types of schools equally, irrespective of location. A blanket freeze on the normal arrangements for allocations for one cohort of schools would introduce a significant difficulty. The rationale of the Department is that all schools are treated the same. It would be of value to Clooney National School, based on the comments the Senator has made that the school is only six pupils short, to note that next year there will be sufficient numbers to bring it up to the 79-pupil level.  I hear the Senator's concerns about the rooms being small and that there might be public health issues. I will bring those concerns to the Minister for Education.

Senator Timmy Dooley: Information on Timmy Dooley Zoom on Timmy Dooley I thank the Minister of State. I appreciate her being here and, hopefully, taking those comments back to the Minister. In addition to the general appeals system, I ask that special consideration be given this year, in a blanket way, to all schools. Clouna National School, close to Ennistymon, is going from three teachers to two under the staffing schedule. The children in Clouna and many other schools dotted around the country have suffered so much. I appeal to the Minister of State and the Government to give serious attention to the retention of the status quo with regard to number of teachers, notwithstanding the fact that some schools have dropped below the retention level, as a special measure in response to the Covid crisis and due to the fact children have been out of school for so long. They need every possible intervention to catch up and that is more difficult in smaller rural schools. I thank the Minister of State for her consideration and I hope that is something the Government can consider in time.

Deputy Josepha Madigan: Information on Josepha Madigan Zoom on Josepha Madigan One of the difficulties is that all schools have to be treated the same, otherwise there would be inequity in the system and it would disadvantage all other schools of a similar size which have lost teachers in recent years. It is an important feature of the staffing schedule that all schools are treated equally and fairly. The primary staffing appeals board operates independently of the Department and its decision is final. I will raise the Senator's concerns with the Minister, Deputy Foley. This school is only short six staff and will revert next year to the requisite retention number of 79. I understand the concerns the Senator has in relation to the school. The school can appeal, like any school. The appeals process is the only mechanism open and available to it at the moment.

Housing Issues

Senator Malcolm Byrne: Information on Malcolm Byrne Zoom on Malcolm Byrne I thank the Minister of State for taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien. North Wexford is one of the fastest growing areas in the country outside of the main urban centres. Gorey town grew from about 4,500 to 11,000 in the 1996-2016 intercensus period. We have continued to see rapid growth since. Many people from Dublin know Courtown as a small seaside village but the Courtown-Riverchapel area has exploded to become the fifth largest urban centre in the county. In the education field, I was glad that, in spite of the fact that we got a 1,000-pupil school a decade ago, an additional second level school for the area was approved by the Government earlier this year. Part of that is due to the Dublin commuter effect, but it is also because of the quality of life we offer in north Wexford.

  The challenge, which is no different from the rest of the country, has been around housing. Gorey was declared a rent pressure zone in 2019, which reflected much of the pressures with regard to housing. Even though the Gorey-Kilmuckridge municipal area represents almost one third of the population of County Wexford, less than a sixth of the council's housing stock is in that geographic area. Over the last decade, less than one fifth of new housing acquisition or build overseen by Wexford County Council was in the Gorey-Kilmuckridge area.

  This has been a big problem but two years ago Wexford County Council acquired a 73-acre site at St. Waleran's in Gorey. It is north of Gorey town. The council trumpeted it as Gorey's future urban quarter. The problem is that in the two years since, we have not seen progress. In October last year I arranged a meeting of senior council officials with the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and the council committed to fast-tracking this, that we would see a master plan and there would be development by the end of the year but nothing happened. Then we were told it would be quarter 1 of this year but again nothing has happened. We still have not seen a master plan. Wexford County Council is sitting on 73 acres while there is a housing crisis.  This frustration is shared cross-party by councillors in north Wexford, where people are crying out for social, and in particular affordable, housing, and we have not seen action. I ask that the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage apply pressure on Wexford County Council regarding this site. If the council is unable or unwilling to provide a masterplan for the site, it may be possible for the Land Development Agency, provided there is clear input from local councillors, to provide the masterplan for the site.

  There are other developments, such as the former St. Joseph's School site in Gorey town, which is also being held up by the Department. We all know that when we emerge from this pandemic, housing will continue to be one of the greatest challenges. Delivery on housing is crucial for the Government. Will the Department call Wexford County Council to account and ask why the masterplan for the development of the St. Waleran's House site has not been developed, and why the development of social and affordable housing in Gorey and north Wexford has not been prioritised by the council?

Deputy Josepha Madigan: Information on Josepha Madigan Zoom on Josepha Madigan The planning and delivery of social and affordable housing at a local level is led by the relevant local authority. The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage has made record funding available to support the delivery of social and affordable housing by local authorities. Thanks to budget 2021, total funding provision of €3.3 billion was secured by the Minister for delivery of housing programmes.

  As for affordable housing in particular, a total of €50 million will be made available to local authorities in 2021 for serviced sites infrastructure funding for new homes that will be made available for affordable purchase or cost rental, depending on the site and local requirements. This is part of a €310 million multi-annual fund. The Minister has submitted ambitious proposals for the expansion of affordable housing funding in the context of the review of the national development plan that is under way. One of the 38 serviced sites fund projects that has received approval in principle is situated in Ramsfort Park, Gorey. This funding of just over €250,000 will go towards the construction of a 150 m access road and associated development works and services and assist in the delivery of 23 affordable homes. As the Senator can appreciate, Covid-19 has had an adverse impact on the projected delivery of these homes, which Wexford County Council has advised will now be delivered in mid-2022. The Minister's Department keeps in close contact with the council on this important local project.

  St. Waleran's is an adjacent 72 acre site where the council is proposing significant development for housing and other uses. It will also benefit from the aforementioned road. Wexford County Council has indicated there are other infrastructural requirements for the area including a bridge, so significant pre-planning is involved. The council has engaged the services of a consultant and the masterplan the Senator mentioned is being drafted. It is hoped to complete this within the next two months. At this point, the council has not settled on the precise number of housing units that will be delivered, including the tenure and mix, but the Minister is keen to see the fruits of the council's planning and to move as quickly as possible to housing and other developments for the area. Departmental funding for social and affordable housing is available. I ask all public representatives for the area to do what they can to ensure that the planning is completed and that the proposals emerge as soon as possible.

  The St. Joseph's School site in Wexford Street, Gorey, a 20-unit social housing project, received funding approval in principle from the Department in March 2019, with an allocated budget of €4.8 million. Site surveys were due to commence early last year but had to be put on hold as a result of the Covid-19 restrictions. Wexford County Council has advised that these survey works have recommenced, a design team is in place and the local authority is working on its pre-planning proposal. I reiterate that the Minister is anxious for this important local housing project to be advanced and hopes that all local public representatives will support its advancement.

  I note the Senator's comments that housing will be a very big issue post Covid. Given the Government’s level of ambition on housing delivery, all local authorities, including Wexford County Council, need to come forward with as many strong new proposals as possible.  The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage continues to engage actively with all local authorities, including Wexford County Council, on the delivery of social and affordable housing wherever it is needed through all available avenues and with particular emphasis on new construction projects. These projects are badly needed by the people of Wexford and the Government wants to see them delivered without further delay.

Senator Malcolm Byrne: Information on Malcolm Byrne Zoom on Malcolm Byrne I am glad that the Minister of State has reasserted that this is not a case of the Government failing to deliver resources. The Government is committing money towards these projects. However, I am disappointed that even though we have a commitment that by mid-2022 Wexford County Council will provide houses at Ramsfort Park, we are still awaiting the master plan for St. Waleran's. This is something we have been sitting on for two years. There is strong support from the elected representatives locally, but I ask the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to keep an eye on how quickly the council progresses these plans.

  Ultimately, we want to see social and, in particular, affordable housing built in our communities. Individuals in Gorey, whether they be workers in Stafford's bakery, teachers, nurses, gardaí or local authority staff, should be able to aspire to own their own home. The Government is providing the resources. Wexford County Council should now finally prioritise the development of plans for those houses to be built.

Deputy Josepha Madigan: Information on Josepha Madigan Zoom on Josepha Madigan I know the Senator has concerns about the master plan for St. Waleran's. As I said, it will be completed in two months. It has taken quite a significant amount of time, but it is good news that it will be completed in two months' time. Ramsfort Park will take until the middle of 2022 because of Covid. Funding of €4.8 million for a 20-unit social housing project at St. Joseph's has been approved in principle. It is important to bear in mind that €3.3 billion has been allocated for delivery of housing programmes this year. As the Senator mentioned earlier, the delivery of housing is crucial, and I sincerely echo those comments. We also want local authorities themselves to come forward with as many strong new proposals as possible. Some €50 million has been given to local authorities for serviced site infrastructure, which is part of the €310 million multi-annual funding. I thank the Senator for bringing his concerns to the Seanad today.

Covid-19 Pandemic

Senator John McGahon: Information on John McGahon  Zoom on John McGahon  I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House today. Some 20,000 people in Ireland have type 1 diabetes. The latest data from across the globe show and the HSE advice states that people with diabetes face much worse outcomes if they contract Covid-19. The HSE has advised diabetes patients at all stages to try to avoid GP practices and avoid hospitals where they can. However, despite these warnings at times over the past 12 months there has been little joined-up thinking in order to put those patients first and ensure that we have first-class care for them.

  Six months ago, at the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response, representatives of Diabetes Ireland specifically recommended that the HSE should develop a clinical consultation service for type 1 diabetes patients and extend flash glucose monitoring devices to all people with type 1 diabetes who have complex needs.  However, officials have spent approximately two years, 24 months in total, reviewing the addition of flash glucose monitoring to the long-term illness scheme for people over the age of 21 years. Notwithstanding the risks, the risks continue to grow. While one million people have been vaccinated as of the weekend, we must be mindful that the virus is still with us and in our communities. Even though we are far through the cohort in the vaccination process, those vulnerable patients, including those with diabetes, are still at risk, so the health arguments are clear as well.

  Aside from the health arguments being clear, the arguments relating to value for money are even clearer. There are other products on the market which many patients with diabetes have advised me are at least €1,000 per year cheaper. It makes no sense to exclude them in the first instance from the long-term illness scheme. This is why I am here today to say this. It is especially the case when we see the HSE budget is growing and growing. I have spoken to many people in my home county who have type 1 diabetes. They have said it would make total sense to have flash glucose monitoring on the long-term illness scheme for them in the first instance. They have a very clear thought process about this, that it makes sense and is the way forward. I am here today to encourage the Government to add that to the long-term illness scheme in the first instance.

  Last weekend, after the Cabinet meeting, we heard the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, say, "Right across Government, we need to see an emphasis on reforms and ensuring that we are getting good value for the people's money we are spending." The message is clear about this. It is good value for people's money. If we add it to the long-term illness scheme, it will go a long way towards doing that. I appreciate the help and assistance the Minister of State has given me on this issue. He and his Department and special advisers have always kept the door open to me on this particular issue over recent months. I am happy to take this opportunity to thank him in the House today.

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Frankie Feighan): Information on Frankie Feighan Zoom on Frankie Feighan I thank the Senator for raising this very important issue. The Covid-19 vaccine allocation strategy sets out a provisional list of groups for vaccination. The strategy was developed by the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, and the Department of Health, endorsed by the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, and approved by Government on 8 December 2020.

  Vaccine allocation is a matter for my Department and the roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccination programme is a responsibility of the HSE. As the Senator is aware, on 23 February, an update to the Ireland's Covid-19 vaccine allocation strategy was announced. In comprising the initial vaccine allocation strategy, NIAC listed several conditions associated with increased risk of severe disease and death. In the intervening period, national and international evidence has become available which has enabled a more detailed analysis of underlying conditions that may increase the risk of developing severe disease or death. NIAC has now been able to identify more comprehensively those medical conditions and to distinguish between those which place a person at very high risk or high risk of severe disease if he or she contract the virus. Medical conditions and the magnitude of the risk they pose will continue to be monitored and periodically reviewed.

  On 30 March, the Government approved a further update to the Covid-19 vaccination allocation strategy. Based on clinical, scientific and ethical frameworks produced by the national immunisation advisory committee, and my Department, following the vaccination of those most at risk, future groups will be vaccinated by age in cohorts of ten years. The move to an aged-based model better supports the programme objectives by protecting those at higher risk of severe disease first, which benefits everyone most; facilitating, planning and execution of the programme throughout the country; and improving transparency and fairness.

  People with diabetes are included in three different groups in the vaccine allocation strategy: group 4, which comprises of people aged 16 to 69 with a medical condition that puts them at very high risk of severe disease and death, including those with diabetes who have a HbA1c level of greater than or equal to 58 mmol/mol; group 5, which comprises people aged 65 to 69 whose underlying condition puts them at high risk of severe disease and death, including all other diabetes, types 1 and 2; and group 7, which comprises people aged 16 to 64 who have an underlying condition that puts them at high risk severe disease and death, including all other diabetes, types 1 and 2.  It is important to note that vaccination of group 4 began in March and vaccination registration for group 5 began on 15 April. In addition, vaccine registration for those aged 60 to 64 commenced on 23 April. The national immunisation advisory council, NIAC, continues to monitor on a rolling basis data around Covid-19 and emerging data on the effectiveness of vaccines.

  The Senator raised one or two issues not addressed in my statement. I will try to get him answers on them as well.

Senator John McGahon: Information on John McGahon  Zoom on John McGahon  I thank the Minister of State. I have a couple of asks which I would like the Minister of State to come back to me on in his written response. The first ask is the development of a virtual consultation service. We have seen from the Covid-19 crisis that virtual and online services make sense. Prior to Covid-19 it was more difficult to make that happen, but it makes sense now and we should look at doing that.

  The second ask is that the flash glucose monitoring devices be added to the long-term illness scheme. It is really important we do that. It is €1,000 per annum cheaper, the health arguments are clear and the financial arguments are clear. For those basic reasons, we should consider doing this sooner rather than later.

Deputy Frankie Feighan: Information on Frankie Feighan Zoom on Frankie Feighan On the flash glucose monitoring devices, I will raise the matter within the Department, where I am sure it will be considered. The Senator will know that vaccination is recognised as one of most the cost-effective and successful public interventions. The WHO estimates that 2.3 million deaths per annum are prevented by vaccination and a further 1.5 million could be avoided if global coverage of vaccinations improved.

  The Covid-19 pandemic has served to underscore the importance of the vaccination programme for the protection of public health on a global scale. It is important to emphasise that vaccination is only one part of our response to the prevention of Covid-19 infection. People who are vaccinated need to continue with all public health measures that have been proven to reduce the risk of infection, namely, limiting social contacts, physical distancing, wearing a mask, hand hygiene, cough etiquette and avoiding non-essential travel until a sufficiently large proportion of the population is immune.

Healthcare Infrastructure Provision

Senator Seán Kyne: Information on Seán Kyne Zoom on Seán Kyne I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan. I am delighted to see somebody from the west here as this topic relates to hospital services in the west, in particular the Galway region. The Minister of State will be aware that Galway University Hospitals comprises University Hospital Galway, UHG, and Merlin Park Hospital, which provide a range of emergency elective services for the people of Galway and the western region. UHG is a model 4 hospital.

  I am sure the Minister of State was invited to participate in the presentations from the Saolta University Health Care Group regarding ambitious plans for the future of healthcare in Galway and the west. The group commissioned an options appraisal, published in 2019, which gave a range of indicative costs for a new hospital in Merlin Park, the refurbishment of University Hospital Galway, the creation of acute services in Merlin Park and elective services in UGH or vice versa. These costs ranged from €2.9 billion and €3.4 billion, which the Minister of State will agree is a considerable amount of money.

  Saolta is right to have a vision for the future of healthcare. I acknowledge and commend the group in that regard. The options appraisal acknowledged that an emergency department should be built on the existing site at UGH and that consideration would be given to a range of services and the possibility of an elective hospital in the Merlin Park unit. We were awaiting plans. There were frustrating delays with regard to planning applications for an emergency department and a lot of talk and discussion about what would or would not be included as part of the facilities in Merlin Park.   Lo and behold, the Department of Health, through the Sláintecare team, made a presentation to the South/South West Hospital Group that referred to the plans for Galway, Cork and Dublin, and there was a lot of similarity and information that was relevant to all three sites. This presentation showed that the facilities will provide high value, low complexity procedures on a day and outpatient basis, together with a range of ambulatory diagnostic services. The chosen model for the Merlin Park facility, according to the presentation by the Sláintecare team, was for selective day surgery plus a minor see and treat service, which was one place above a minor procedures unit and three places below a full elective hospital. There was no mention of any inpatient beds and, in fact, there was no mention of anything except day facilities, six days a week, 50 weeks of the year.

  There is absolute confusion in Galway at the moment in terms of what Saolta, the Department of Health, the Sláintecare team and, dare I say, the Government have in mind in regard to the competing demands of Merlin Park and UHG. The planning application for an emergency department has still not been lodged despite the then Minister, Deputy Harris, being told in 2018 that it would be lodged before Christmas of that year. We have talk but no concrete plans in respect of Merlin Park. We are at sixes and sevens and are falling between two stools. We have a grand vision and we have immediate needs in regard to an emergency department and extra elective beds. Thank God we delivered a 75-bed unit in new, modern facilities in UHG, which the then Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, opened. Thank God we got that delivery at UHG. Perhaps the Minister of State will be able to shed some light on what the Department of Health has in mind for healthcare in Galway.

Deputy Frankie Feighan: Information on Frankie Feighan Zoom on Frankie Feighan I thank Senator Kyne for raising this important issue. I attended those presentations of the Saolta Group, which were quite interesting. As the Senator is aware, the national development plan states:

New dedicated ambulatory elective only hospital facilities will be introduced in Dublin Galway and Cork. These facilities will provide high volume, low complexity procedures on a day and outpatient basis, together with a range of ambulatory diagnostic services. The high volume of demand for such services in these major urban centres is sufficient to justify the construction of dedicated ambulatory centres.

I note that the introduction of these dedicated elective sites is also in line with the recommendations of the 2018 health service capacity review. These high-volume, low-complexity facilities will play a crucial role in developing the elective hospital capacity with a ten-year horizon of need, looking to current and future population demographics, which facilitates the separation of scheduled and unscheduled care and provides quicker, higher quality, safer care for selected elective patients. The new elective hospitals will also create capacity for acute hospital sites and reduce or eliminate outlier boarding - effectively trolleys - assist in reducing cancellations and acute hospital footfall, and drive down waiting lists, both outpatient and inpatient or day case.

  An elective hospitals oversight group, chaired by Professor Frank Keane, is following the process outlined in the public spending code in bringing forward this project for the Government's consideration. As required under the code, a strategic assessment report has been completed. This sets out the rationale for investment, the alignment of the programme with strategic requirements of Government, some initial options and potential costs and the governance of the programme. Work is ongoing on a draft preliminary business case, which will recommend a single site option in each of Galway, Cork and Dublin. A site identification exercise to identify possible suitable sites in the three locations will begin in the near future. In accordance with the public spending code, sites short-listed following this exercise will be appraised on a qualitative and quantitative basis, with a view to recommending a single preferred option in each location. Once completed, the draft preliminary business case will go to Government for consideration and decision.  Department of Health officials have engaged in consultations with the management of the hospital groups around the country, including, in recent days, the Saolta University Health Care Group. The Minister is conscious that the elective hospitals programme is only part of the solution for deficiencies in existing healthcare facilities highlighted by Covid-19, including issues such as privacy, single bedrooms, space, light, air ventilation and ICUs. The review of the national development plan under way may provide an opportunity to address some of these infrastructural and other issues. In the meantime, the Minister has committed to exploring synergies between the electives programmes and plans for the development of other services drawn up by the hospital groups in Galway and elsewhere. Under the current site identification exercise, for example, it is a requirement that sites must be sufficiently large so as to be capable of expansion and have the potential, in a later phase, to accommodate possible other services on-site.

  The Minister looks forward to continued discussions with the Senator and keeping the Seanad informed of developments on the programme.

Senator Seán Kyne: Information on Seán Kyne Zoom on Seán Kyne That would be a first if we were kept informed as we are not being kept informed. In fact, the information that we got came through a colleague in Cork. There seems to be some surprise that I was given access to this information and that I am now raising these concerns, which I have raised locally as well.

  The Minister of State referred to a draft preliminary business case, site specificity and choosing the site. That is going backwards because it seemed to have been acknowledged that the site would be at Merlin Park if there were to be an elective hospital built or perhaps we are talking about the Galway Airport site but who knows. We seem to be going backwards if that is the case.

  We need to keep the pressure on. Galway University Hospitals are for the west. They cover Sligo, Leitrim and Donegal as well. The west and Galway deserve the best and as good as anywhere else in the country. I ask the Minister of State to keep the pressure on in his Department to provide some certainty on healthcare plans for Galway. We have heard rumours and speculation; we need certainty about the Department of Health's future healthcare plans.

Deputy Frankie Feighan: Information on Frankie Feighan Zoom on Frankie Feighan I thank the Senator for his contribution. He must keep the pressure on and we hope that the Seanad will be kept informed. This issue is not part of my area in the Department but I am keen to ensure that we are kept informed.

  As I noted in my opening statement, the newly elective-ambulatory facilities in Galway, Cork and Dublin are expressly designed to deal with the high volume and low complexity procedures on the basis of day patients and outpatients. The site identification, validation and selection process that will begin in the near future will be detailed and thorough, as will the appraisal of the sites identified under the process.

  When the key criteria for capacity, expansion and development for additional facilities, and I take on board what the Senator said about various sites, and once a preferred option in each location has been identified, the draft preliminary business case can be concluded. I hope that it can be submitted to the Government before the summer. In this regard, the Sláintecare Programme Implementation Office will continue to engage with the local hospital groups.

Stardust Fire

Senator Lynn Boylan: Information on Lynn Boylan Zoom on Lynn Boylan I mean no disrespect to the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, but I am deeply disappointed that no Minister from the Department of Justice is here today, given the seriousness of the matter that I am raising.

  Last week, Professor Phil Scraton released a damning report of the inquest system. He referred to how the original inquest into the 48 deaths in the Stardust fire was an abject failure. One does not need to tell the families of the victims that their treatment at the hands of the State has been one of systemic abuse from the manner in which the original inquest was rushed to the way there was a finding of probable arson, the compensation scheme where survivors were told to pull their clothes up and show their injuries, and the threats that they came under of losing their homes if they tried to pursue the owners of the nightclub in the courts.  Despite all of this, the families never gave up in their quest for justice. In November 2018, 48,000 signed postcards were handed in to the Office of the Attorney General - 1,000 cards for each young person who lost his or her life that night. This was a bid to show that the public is 100% behind the families on this issue. Ten months later, the Attorney General granted a fresh inquest. It seemed that, finally, justice would be forthcoming.

  Two Ministers of Justice have since gone on the record saying that funding would be provided to ensure the inquests would be carried out appropriately and in a way that is compliant with human rights. The Taoiseach stood in the Dáil on budget day and announced €8 million in funding for the inquest. It gives me no pleasure, therefore, to stand here today and tell the Minister of state that the families are in despair. I encourage him to go outside and talk to them. They are outside Leinster House today. They have waited 40 years for justice and now they are being asked for PPS numbers, bank statements and payslips. They are being asked what kind of cars they drive. I know this is not the responsibility of the Minister of State's Department, but does he honestly think this is an appropriate way to treat these families after they have waited 40 years?

  The Department was repeatedly warned that the legal aid route was the wrong route to go down in respect of an inquest of this significance. A special purpose vehicle was required to ensure that no family would be denied access to justice and that the inquest would be human rights compliant. All the Government had to do was look to the inquests undertaken in respect of Hillsborough and Ballymurphy and follow the mechanisms used in these cases in respect of the Stardust inquest. Instead, in its wisdom, the Department insisted on ploughing ahead down the legal aid route and now we are in this situation with families being means tested, which is causing them great hurt and which runs the risk of causing division among the families.

  The Civil Legal Aid Act 1995 allows for a financial waiver but there has never been a statutory instrument to give effect to this provision. Will the Minister of State give a commitment as to when the families can expect this issue to be resolved? Emergency statutory instruments were possible when it came to mandatory hotel quarantine but it seems that the families of the Stardust victims are always at the back of the queue in their dealings with the State. All we hear is that the Attorney General is looking at the issue. That is not good enough. We need a timeframe. Can the Minister of State provide that today? Can I go out to those families and tell them when they can expect a statutory instrument or when they can expect this issue to be resolved? Will it be days, weeks or months? How much longer will they have to wait?

Acting Chairperson (Senator Emer Currie): Information on Emer Currie Zoom on Emer Currie I thank the Senator and apologise for the confusion. We had the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, down to speak. I apologise again and thank the Senator for her commitment with regard to this very sensitive issue.

Deputy Frankie Feighan: Information on Frankie Feighan Zoom on Frankie Feighan I convey the apologies of my colleague, the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, who regrets that she cannot be here to deal with this matter due to another commitment. I also apologise on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne. On behalf of the Minister and the Government, I thank the Senator for raising this matter.

  The Government is committed to ensuring that the Stardust inquest proceeds as soon as it is safe to do so, having regard to the public health guidelines. Extensive work has already been undertaken to this end. Government funding of up to €8 million has been allocated for the new inquest, which will cover a number of areas including legal aid for families. A bespoke courtroom has been built at the Royal Dublin Society, RDS, for the purposes of the inquest and information technology facilities have been developed to ensure that family members will also be able to follow the events remotely when not in the courtroom. A number of pre-inquest hearings have been held remotely and the courtroom is ready for the Stardust inquest, as soon as it is safe to begin.

  The last remaining issue relates to legal aid to the families. The Courts and Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2013, made a set of amendments to the Coroners Act 1962 and the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995 that enabled legal aid at inquests in certain circumstances. Section 60 of the Coroners Act 1962, as amended, provides for a procedure whereby a family member of a deceased person may apply to the coroner for a request to be submitted to the board in respect of the granting of legal aid. Applications for legal aid have been certified by Dr. Cullinane.  These applications are with the Legal Aid Board.

  Officials of the Department reviewed alternative arrangements for funding legal professionals which were not considered to be the best options in terms of meeting the needs of the families compared with the facility provided by the Legal Aid Board. Ordinary applicants through the legal aid system pay an initial fee and support is provided on the basis of the means test. This is how the legal aid scheme works for all individuals who seek its help. It is a widely respected system. The Legal Aid Board notified my Department that some of the families of Stardust victims would not qualify for legal aid as they exceed income limits currently in force for the Legal Aid Board as required by the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995. The Department of Justice is actively investigating the position and engaging with the Office of the Attorney General to explore possible mechanisms to provide for legal aid for the very small number of families who do not meet the financial eligibility requirements under the Act.

  As the intention is to provide the maximum support possible to the families, it is necessary to consider how to make this possible, which will require a new arrangement to be put in place, such as new regulations. This is being and has been actively worked on by officials in various Departments since the issue was identified to ensure an appropriate solution is found. The Department has gone further than the legislation by committing to making payments to legal professionals secured by the families one month in arrears, rather than after the tribunal, to minimise any concerns the professionals may have. The families and their legal professionals will have a response on this issue shortly and the Stardust inquest should commence a few weeks thereafter.

Senator Lynn Boylan: Information on Lynn Boylan Zoom on Lynn Boylan I thank the Minister of State but his reply still leaves two matters unresolved. First, there is still no clarity on the timeframe. What does "shortly" mean in this context? Is it days, weeks or months? Several relatives of the Stardust victims have been lost in the past year. They have been waiting 40 years. What does "shortly" mean in this context?

  Second, his reply did not address the issue of families of victims of the Stardust fire being asked for their financial details. I do not think it is appropriate, in light of the significance of the inquest and the 40 years they have had to wait, that they are now being asked for all of these details when they were promised that, finally, this inquest would have no barriers to them accessing justice and that it would cater for all of the families, not just some of them. That is the message the families have asked me to deliver here today. All of the families need to be treated equally and they should not be means tested.

Deputy Frankie Feighan: Information on Frankie Feighan Zoom on Frankie Feighan I again thank the Senator for raising this matter. I assure her the Government, the Minister, Deputy McEntee, and I are committed to ensuring the Stardust inquest will proceed as soon as it is safe to do so, having regard to public health guidelines. As I outlined, the Department of Justice is actively investigating the position and is engaging with the Office of the Attorney General to explore possible mechanisms to provide for legal aid for the very small number of families who do not meet the financial eligibility requirements under the Act. This is being and has been actively worked on by officials in various Departments since the issue was identified to ensure an appropriate solution is found. The families and their legal representatives will have a response shortly. I hope we can determine what "shortly" means. I will try to get that information from the Department.

  The Senator outlined that some of the families are being asked for their financial details, which is causing a lot of hurt. I will try to get an answer for the Senator on that issue.

  Sitting suspended at 11.40 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.

  12 o’clock

An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly Koningsdag, or King's Day, is the national holiday in the Netherlands, celebrating the birth of King Willem-Alexander. On Koningsdag the Dutch turn their country orange in the same way we turn the world green on our national day. The friendship between the Irish and the Dutch is long and enduring. Together we have worked closely to protect our citizens and our countries from the impact of Brexit.

  The Irish Embassy in The Hague was opened in 1950, with one of the first female ambassadors anywhere in the world, Josephine McNeill. The State visit by King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima in 2019 further strengthened and deepened the relationships between our two countries. King Willem-Alexander's relationship with Ireland goes a lot further back. As a young boy he would visit Kenmare and Sneem in County Kerry. We look forward to welcoming him back again soon, once travel restrictions are lifted.

  I wish His Excellency Dr. Adriaan Palm, the Netherlands Ambassador to Ireland, all the Dutch people living in the Kenmare area, of whom there are many, and all the Dutch people living in Ireland and in the Netherlands, a very happy King's Day, or fijne Koningsdag.

  I now invite the Leader for Order of Business.

Senator Regina Doherty: Information on Regina Doherty Zoom on Regina Doherty Happy Koningsdag also to your good self. I thank the Cathaoirleach for raising it this morning. Anyone who knows my part of the world will know there are fields and fields of beautiful tulips in Rush and the areas surrounding Rush. Once we get out of our 20 km zone and when inter-county travel convenes again, people might go to have a look. It is beautiful.

  The Order of Business No. 1, motion regarding the arrangements for the sitting of the House this Friday, 30 April, 2021, to be taken on conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; No. 2, motion regarding Ireland's opt into a Europol regulation, to be taken at 1.30 p.m. and to conclude at 2.15 p.m., if not previously concluded, with the opening contribution of the Minister not to exceed five minutes, group spokespersons not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be given no less than five minutes to reply to the debate; No. 3, Criminal Procedure Bill 2021 - Committee and Remaining Stages to be taken at 2.30 p.m. and adjourn at 4 p.m., if not previously concluded, and Private Members' business, No. 55, motion 9, re An Post, to be taken at 4.15 p.m., with the time allocated to this debate not to exceed two hours.

Senator Lisa Chambers: Information on Lisa Chambers Zoom on Lisa Chambers Today marks the next stage of the reopening of the country and economy. Listening to the radio as I drove up from Mayo this morning, I felt I was missing out on getting into golf. Between RTÉ and Newstalk, there were reports from across the country of membership increasing in every club, with people being encouraged to join their local golf club. I am definitely thinking about it as it seems to be the thing to do these days.

  It is also great to see kids' sports back in the smaller pods. They have lost out on a lot. Clubs will be delighted to get back to that too. I wish Dublin Zoo and similar facilities the best of luck today as they reopen for the first time this year. It is a massive step.

  As we look to the next stage and the much-anticipated announcement by the Taoiseach this Thursday on what will happen during May, we are all getting representations as to what people want to see. I sincerely hope that proper consideration will be given to gyms and, in particular, swimming pools. I have made the case that many people use swimming pools for rehabilitation and for exercise purposes as do older people who may not be able to get on their bikes or go running. It is a much-needed source of exercise and recreation for many and it is important to get them open. They are really safe spaces which are well maintained and looked after.

  Outdoor dining is one of the biggest things people are calling for. I hope we will see that. Our tourism and hospitality sector need that. Outdoor spaces appear to be quite safe. We need to trust our restaurants, hoteliers and hospitality sector that they will manage their spaces safely and give them the extra month they really need this season to get them back up and running.

  Last week the Minister for Health announced funding under the women's health task force, including funding for two ambulatory gynaecology clinics, one in Limerick and one in Tallaght, as well as for something close to my heart, an enhanced endometriosis service in Tallaght Hospital. I thank the Minister for having an open door and for listening.

  Advanced services for women and girls with endometriosis is a priority of mine, which I have raised many times. Some 10% of our female population suffer with this condition. It has taken until 2021 for us to have a specialist centre to deal with that. Imagine any condition where 10% of the male population were effected and it took until this year to get specialist services. I cannot and I do not think it would happen. This is only the start. It is a very small but welcome step. From talking to the Endometriosis Association of Ireland, I know it was delighted with the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly's announcement of the centre servicing the whole country, which will deal with advanced and complex cases of endometriosis. I want to see education advanced next. We cannot rely on the health system alone. We must educate our young girls as to what is a normal period, what is normal pain and what is not and equip and empower young girls to know what questions to ask about their menstrual health. It is important that happens at school level so that women are empowered as they head into their adult years and know how to look after their health as best they can.

Senator Sharon Keogan: Information on Sharon Keogan Zoom on Sharon Keogan I understand Brussels wants to see the introduction of vaccine passports or green digital certificates for travel across the EU by the end of June. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has expressed its opposition to the use of vaccine passports in Ireland as a condition for travel and for assessing goods and services. It has called for the Minister for Foreign Affairs to consider human rights implications before supporting the introduction of vaccine passports across the EU. The council's executive director Liam Herrick stated:

There are many reasons why people cannot or do not want to receive vaccines – including because of a medical condition or lack of access to the vaccine. In Ireland we have not gone down the route of mandatory vaccinations, but vaccine passports would effectively be mandatory vaccination by the back door. That has huge knock-on implications for our rights, creating a two-tier society.

 The council has pointed out that vaccine passports will exclude many people from society, restrict their freedom of movement and constitute indirect discrimination. If the pass is based in a digital application, it will discriminate against people living in digital poverty or those unable to use digital services. That is not even to mention the huge swathes of the population who simply cannot access the vaccine because there is not enough supply. Infrastructure put in place to manage the pass system will be difficult to roll back and could go on to form the basis of wider migration controls based on health status. Such invasion of our privacy should be considered with the worst authoritarian leaders in mind.

  I urge the Government to reflect on the impact that the introduction of a vaccine passport would have on some of our fundamental human rights, such as the right to equality and non-discrimination, freedom of movement, privacy and bodily integrity. I recognise that, of course, travel is important and we want people to be safe and to feel safe, but there are many countervailing reasons vaccine passports are not a good idea. Even the World Health Organization has voiced opposition to them. If vaccine passports are introduced, I believe it is important to ensure the uses for them should be limited as much as possible and that a sunset-type clause applies in order that they are only used as long as absolutely necessary.

  On another worrying note, I will speak about the abuse of power by An Garda in Athlone at the weekend. Members of the Garda entered a church where a handful of people were praying. I found it disturbing and do not believe An Garda should be used for that purpose.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik Like others, I welcome the news we will be seeing some careful reopening today not only of golf courses, although there has been a focus on golf, but also the restart of other outdoor sports, including tennis, and, in particularly welcome news, we will see the return of outdoor training for underage kids in pods of 15 or fewer. That is welcome because its absence has been a loss for many children and teenagers for more than four months. That has been a gap in the programmes for health and well-being of our young people and children and I really welcome that return. I also welcome the reopening of Dublin Zoo and other outdoor heritage sites.

  I agree that the reopening needs to be done carefully. We are all looking forward to further announcements later this week but all of us watching the awful and horrific news from India are conscious of the incredible risk and danger Covid-19 still poses worldwide. Everyone will share my concerns at the pictures and terrible stories from India. We must be mindful that many of our front-line healthcare workers are from India and must be suffering terribly as they watch family and friends back home in such dire straits. I urge the Government to do all it can to show solidarity with the people of India. I know there is a plan in place to send aid to support the extra supply of oxygen, the lack of which is a problem in India at the moment. We will support the Government in that from the Opposition benches and urge the Government to do as much as it can.

  I welcome the Citizens' Assembly recommendations on women's rights, gender equality and women's participation in politics. I commend the members of the assembly, particularly the chairperson, Catherine Day, for their sterling work in forensically examining what can best be done through amendment of the Constitution, legislation or other means to increase women's participation in politics. We should debate the matter in this House as women comprise 40% of this House. We currently have the highest proportion of women in the Oireachtas since independence. I would like us to be the leaders on this matter and to debate how best to implement the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly.

  I know the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission meets today. I have had a proposal for better facilities for bicycle parking in Leinster House, in particular shared bicycle parking, before the commission for many years now.

Senator Fintan Warfield: Information on Fintan Warfield Zoom on Fintan Warfield Hear, hear.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik I know colleagues on all sides of the House who cycle in daily will, like myself, be anxious to know why we are not seeing better provision for cyclists and cycling, especially during a pandemic and as we face a climate crisis.  It is long overdue. I cannot understand why it has taken the commission and the OPW so long to move on this. I urge those at the meeting today to let us have decent bicycle parking facilities and encourage more Members of the Oireachtas to cycle to work.

Senator Pauline O'Reilly: Information on Pauline O'Reilly Zoom on Pauline O'Reilly I, too, welcome some of the reopenings today. My 13-year-old starts back in Galwegians this evening. That is very exciting for our family in our small part of the world. A report from today shows it does not take that long for children to get back up to where they should be developmentally, physically and mentally. We really need to concentrate on that. It is really welcome that children are returning to outdoor pursuits.

  I welcome the findings of the Citizens' Assembly. It was very emotional at the event on Saturday where we were presented with the findings. Dr. Catherine Day has an article in The Irish Times today in which she states one of the major findings in the report is on caring. This has come as a surprise to many, but not me. Many Members will know that my position on the Labour panel is not as a result of a trade union association but because I started an organisation to advocate for stay-at-home parents. I am absolutely delighted that we are seeing a removal of the antiquated language concerning duty and women in the home. More broadly, we must continue to ensure that those who choose to care, be they men or women, or those of any gender, are supported. We must support individuals in meeting all their childcare needs. That is really important. Regarding older persons care, we must ensure people can be cared for at home as well as outside the home. The Government now has an obligation to examine all this and come forward with proposals. I would certainly welcome a debate here because, as Senator Bacik said, while we are 40% women, this also means we are 60% men. There is an impact on both so this is the appropriate place to talk about the matter.

  There is another point I would like to raise. Sex education has come up today. Members will have seen the recommendations on relationships and sex education for Catholic primary schools. After a weekend when the Citizens' Assembly recommended the insertion of a formula recognising all family types into Article 41 of the Constitution, it is important that this be reflected in our education system. Bearing in mind the current constitutional references to the special place of families with two genders, or a marital relationship based on a man and woman, we must be really clear in sex education that ours is a country that has moved to a different place, where we accept everyone and do not talk about religion and God in the same sentence in which we talk about relationships and sex, because it can be very confusing.

Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile: Information on Niall Ó Donnghaile Zoom on Niall Ó Donnghaile In the spirit of what was said by colleagues, I got my vaccine on Tuesday and I am delighted. I got my vaccine on Tuesday and my hair cut on Saturday.


Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik We are green with envy.

Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile: Information on Niall Ó Donnghaile Zoom on Niall Ó Donnghaile Members should not be too jealous. I wish the vaccination roll-out programme in the South every success and every best wish because it is crucial that there not be too much of a disparity between what is rolled out in the North and what is rolled out in the South. A disparity works against our joint efforts in trying to battle through this.

  On my main point this afternoon, I thank and express solidarity with all those in the emergency services and, indeed, the Air Corps, who have been battling the devastating fires we have seen in both counties Down and Kerry these past few days. The Government confirmed the establishment of the wildlife unit last year but it is crucial that it be given all the necessary resources. The last few days in counties Down and Kerry show us why. In parallel with the unit, we also need a proactive all-Ireland natural habitats management plan, similar in stature to the Irish Government's national planning framework. It would need major investment and resources.  Otherwise, we will continue to mismanage our most sensitive and precious natural habitats.

  The reality is that Brexit will starve Northern agencies of vital conservation and management funding. We need an all-Ireland approach to addressing this issue because our environment, ecosystems and biodiversity coexist as one. The same pressures caused by human behaviour in the kingdom of Kerry is affecting the land in the kingdom of Mourne. The prescribed period of burning in the South ends on 1 March, where in the North it is 14 April. That is very late, not least in the context of continued climate change. It is timely that we have an urgent reassessment of the applicability of burning. We should be investing in transitioning farmers and landowners away from such practices in an informed and collaborative way.

  These fires will have a devastating impact on wildlife when we are already in the midst of a biodiversity crisis. The National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, is currently under review. It is important that the future of the NPWS ensures that it is organised as an independent authority like the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, and that it has the resources and powers to investigate wildlife crime.

  I ask for the agreement of the House that the Leader and the Cathaoirleach would write on behalf of all of us to thank the men and women who have been on the front line tackling these fires in both County Down and County Kerry over the past few days. I urge people to remember them and what they have endured when next visiting our mountains and parks, to respect our environment and to follow all the responsible guidance in ensuring we protect our people, our wildlife, our environment and our communities.

Senator Frances Black: Information on Frances Black Zoom on Frances Black I want to highlight what I believe is a very important issue that is close to my heart. It is around adequate access to eating disorder treatment in Ireland. Over the past few months I have been aware of this issue both in my professional work as a therapist and as a Senator. I recently heard a very stressful radio programme about a young girl who rang in and talked about not having anywhere to go and who was literally on death's door. Shockingly, men and women struggling with eating disorders still have to leave the country and, in most cases, must travel to the UK to find adequate specialist mental health services that will ensure their recovery. Our mental health services have continuously failed those with eating disorders for decades and the problem is perpetuated by the lack of ring-fenced national funding.

  I commend Deputy Cairns on raising awareness of this issue in the Dáil last week. It is shocking that in 2020, no funding was allocated under the national eating disorder plan and in 2019 none of the €1.6 million allocated was spent. It is not even a huge amount of money. I know of three family members who have children of 13, 14 and 15 with severe eating disorders. I know one family whose daughter is currently being drip fed in a hospital. She is on death's door yet that €1.6 million was not spent. It is shocking.

  I will continue to raise this issue as the Chairman of the mental health committee. I am passionate about it. It is an area that deserves more conversation due to the stigmatised nature of the illness. We need to prioritise ease of access to adequate care for people struggling with eating disorders. The lack of conversation around eating disorders results in many people choosing to live with an eating disorder for far longer than they should. We have taken brave and bold steps in recent years to tackle the destigmatisation of eating disorders but it is our duty now to ensure access to health for those brave enough to seek it.

  I am shocked that there has been a pause in the implementation of the nationally planned eating disorder services due to operational rather than clinical reasons. As our colleague, Deputy Cairns, stated in the Dáil last week, we cannot allow erratic reasons to stand in the way of access to mental healthcare for those who are more vulnerable. I would love the Minister to come into the House and explain to us what is going on around that area.

  I want to welcome the groundbreaking recommendations from the Citizens' Assembly on gender equality. They are brilliant and it is important that the Government moves quickly on the recommendations. Together with others I, too, call for a debate on the Citizens' Assembly recommendations.

Senator Robbie Gallagher: Information on Robbie Gallagher Zoom on Robbie Gallagher Dr. Michael Ryan, the Irishman an executive director of the World Health Organization, WHO, said at the beginning of the pandemic when giving advice to world governments: "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." I thought about that statement many times in respect of our response to Covid-19. One example is that of rapid antigen testing, the pros and cons of which we seem to be discussing for an eternity. We eventually got around to doing a report on it and when this was compiled, it recommended that it be rolled out on a pilot basis across different sectors as we try to aid reopening. Meanwhile, other countries, including our closest neighbour the UK, have been using antigen testing for a long time now. Indeed, many businesses that I know in County Monaghan in the transport sector and meat plants were using antigen testing as far back as last August and found it to be a very useful tool in their fight against Covid-19 because businesses cannot hang around, wait and dilly-dally to keep their businesses going and have to try to keep the show on the road and move on. They have moved on and have found this test to be very useful tool. Even Professor Paddy Mallon recently said that we should be using rapid antigen testing immediately in our fight against Covid-19.

  We seem to be overcautious and too slow in making some decisions. We are a bit like the guy who wants to wear the belt and the braces. We need to roll out very significant antigen testing immediately across all sectors as we try to open up and get our country back to normality again. It is a useful tool, which we should use, and I would like us to get on with doing this as soon as possible.

Senator Micheál Carrigy: Information on Micheál Carrigy Zoom on Micheál Carrigy Like Senator Chambers, I was listening to the radio on the way up this morning and I heard Mr. Andrew Geary speaking. I am not acquainted with this man at all. He is from Cork and he was speaking about his son, Calum, who is deaf. and he made a statement that as a country he felt that Ireland does not cherish his child and that he had been a failure as a father. I want to say one thing to Andrew, which is coming from a father of a child with additional needs as well, that he is by no means a failure but that I honestly believe he has been an inspiration to all parents of children with additional needs in the way he spoke this morning on the national radio.

  As I was coming in the front door, which I am so proud to do every morning that I come here, I looked over to my left to see the copy of the 1916 Proclamation underneath the portrait of Michael Collins. I went over and read it and the reference to cherishing all of the children of the nation. It made me think. I asked myself whether we as a country cherish children. I honestly believe the answer is “No”. We are in the Decade of Centenaries celebrations, and we will celebrate 100 years since the signing of the Treaty next year. Can we honestly say as a country that we have followed up what was put up in the 1916 Proclamation that we cherish all of the children of the nation? The answer is “No” when he we are still fighting for services. I have always advocated here for services, especially for autism services as I have a young lad with special needs. I felt that this was a poignant moment on our national radio and I want to say to that gentleman that he has opened up a conversation that we need to expand on to ensure that as legislators, as a country and as a State, we can say that we cherish all of the children of the nation equally.

  On the issue of outdoor dining and the recently announced scheme, this needs to be expanded and I have sent correspondence to the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, in that all pubs and restaurants need to be part of this. I do not want there to be any distinction, as there has been in the past, between them as to eligibility to apply for this. Can the Minister, Deputy Martin, extend that scheme so that all are allowed to apply for inclusion in it? I also welcome the minimum price of alcohol Bill, which was mentioned in the national media yesterday. This is an issue that I have always pushed in the House as well. Moves are now afoot to introduce that, which will be very important for the health and well-being of our younger generations in the years to come.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly I thank the Senator and join with him in his kind words about Andrew Geary.  I know Andrew Geary quite well because he championed the Irish Sign Language recognition Bill on behalf of his son - and I mean championed it. It is not acceptable that, 100 years and more after the Proclamation referred to "cherishing all the children of the nation equally", the Senator, Andrew Geary and many others have to fight for their children to have equal access to education and services. I thank the Senator for his kind words about Andrew.

Senator Gerard P. Craughwell: Information on Gerard P. Craughwell Zoom on Gerard P. Craughwell After speaking about the vaccine and my concerns on Friday, I went and took the vaccine yesterday and I am still alive. Most of the people I spoke to in my age group felt hard done by insofar as they were offered AstraZeneca and nothing else. One person said it was as if they bought a load of this stuff and need to give it to someone, so they are giving it to us. I compliment the people in Citywest. My beloved Defence Forces were out there making sure everything was running smoothly, as were the volunteers. The nurse who administered the vaccine to me was absolutely wonderful. I expressed my concerns and fears and she took loads of time to explain things to me. However, she told me, at the end of the day, I had the right to say "No" but if I did I would join a waiting list and she had no idea how long that might take. It is great it is there. I have had it and I am still kicking this morning. We will see how the next couple of weeks go.

   Senator Ó Donnghaile spoke about front-line people in crisis and I want to remember the 53 crewmen of the Indonesian submarine, KRI Nanggala, which sank over the last couple of days. I cannot begin to imagine the death those 53 men had. It brings me on to our own front-line services and the fires in Killarney at the moment. The Air Corps once again was there, ready to do what was asked of it by the State. The Air Corps, Army and navy have been there time and time again but this morning I read something on Twitter - I cannot use a name because the Cathaoirleach will not allow me to do that. A former director of the Irish Coast Guard on secondment in Mogadishu put up on Twitter this morning that the Air Corps was responsible for the loss of Rescue 116. I have written to the Minister and to this man's boss in the European Commission and I have spoken about the way he has constantly tweeted this type of nonsense. I have not had a response from the Minister but this is an outrageous attack on our most loyal people.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly The rules of the House are clear and the Senator is aware of them. It is not the naming of a person; it is making him or her identifiable. The way the Senator approached that topic is making the person identifiable.

Senator Gerard P. Craughwell: Information on Gerard P. Craughwell Zoom on Gerard P. Craughwell He is on Twitter.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly I know that.

Senator Eugene Murphy: Information on Eugene Murphy Zoom on Eugene Murphy I raise the concerns I and others have about a family from my county of Roscommon whose husband and father is an Australian-born engineer. He is being held without charge in Iraq. This story appeared in The Sunday Times yesterday in an article by John Mooney. Even though it is only 10 km down the road from me, I was not aware of this story. I believe it is in the Irish Daily Mail today.

  I ask the Leader to approach the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, and the Department to help secure this man's release. The gentleman's name is Robert Pether and he has been living in Elphin in Roscommon for over two years. His wife and three children are there and to say they are distraught and upset would be an understatement. His wife and children are Irish citizens. He was arrested on 7 April in Baghdad with an Egyptian colleague in connection with a contractual dispute over the country's new central bank headquarters. He is being held in solitary confinement but the family pointed out to me that, as far as they can find out, he is being treated well by the Iraqi authorities. His arrest has stunned the engineering and construction community in that part of the world.  He is highly respected. He has carried out a great deal of work and was the main overseer of this major building, the new central bank headquarters in Iraq.

  A dispute seems to have arisen between the authorities and the company carrying out the work, and as far as I can establish, he has been caught in the middle. I acknowledge that a local councillor, Valerie Byrne, has also been working on this issue this morning. It is a very sad case. There was the Dublin case previously. Will the Leader do what I have requested? I am in contact with the Department of Foreign Affairs and am sure the Minister will do his best.

Senator Barry Ward: Information on Barry Ward Zoom on Barry Ward I seek leave to take No. 12 on the Order Paper, the introduction of the National Lottery (Amendment) Bill 2021 in my name and those of Senators Carrigy and Currie, before No. 1.

Senator Micheál Carrigy: Information on Micheál Carrigy Zoom on Micheál Carrigy I second that.

Senator Barry Ward: Information on Barry Ward Zoom on Barry Ward Marital breakdown and family separation is an unfortunate fact of life, particularly in a modern age when we facilitate it as we should. In the aftermath of that, there are often obligations on parents, where children are involved, and maintenance obligations on the parent who does not have custody of the children. Again, that is as it should be and often it has to be done through a court process, which is unfortunate. In cases where orders are made in respect of maintenance of children, it can often be very difficult for the parent who is to receive the maintenance to enforce that order. Sometimes one parent refuses to engage with the process or to pay what he or she - more often he - should pay. The process by which a parent who is looking after the children can pursue that is very cumbersome and expensive if they do not have access to legal aid.

  I wonder whether the time has come for us to have a debate on this. While it is open to parents to seek attachments and even committals, that is, taking the money automatically from the other parent's earnings or, in the worst-case scenario, committing him or her to jail for not following that order, has the time come for us to have a debate about this and to assess whether there should be an independent State agency to make this an administrative function? Such a body would take the matter out of the hands of the court once the order is made and ensure there is an automatic follow-up on the maintenance orders. It is unfortunate and demeaning for the parent who has custody of the children to have to pursue the other parent for money, and it is unfair to ask him or her to do it through the court process.

  Will the Leader accommodate a debate in the House to consider establishing an administrative agency or body that can do this as a matter of course to safeguard those families and help those parents who are in circumstances where they have to plead to a former partner for money to which they are entitled under a court order?

Senator Marie Sherlock: Information on Marie Sherlock Zoom on Marie Sherlock I express my delight at the outcome of the Citizens' Assembly on gender equality and at the recommendations it issued on Saturday last. The breadth of the recommendations reflects how large the job to be done with regard to gender equality remains. The focus of the assembly was women and work and the recommendations are seismic. Crucially, the assembly recognised that there are no silver bullets and that single gestures are not enough.

  As an example, there was an explicit acknowledgment that we will not fix the gender pay gap if we focus solely on pay transparency or lifting the minimum wage. I am conscious that my colleague, Senator Bacik, brought legislation on the issue to the House in 2018 and we are still waiting to see Government movement on that, although there is a bit more movement now. It is a very important part of trying to narrow the gender pay gap. We need all those things and to empower women and men to bargain collectively for their wages and conditions, and that was recognised by the assembly on Saturday. To me, that is an historic breakthrough in recognising and acknowledging that the State has a crucial role to play in regulating and protecting workers within the workplace, but there is a limit to what the State can do. It is an acknowledgment that workers also have to be able to push for themselves.

  There is a clear call from the Citizens' Assembly to have collective bargaining and tangible and concrete measures to try to address the gender pay gap. We call on the Government to make clear what actions it intends to carry out. It is a great credit to the National Women's Council of Ireland, the trade unions and many other groups that made submissions.  The ball is now in the Government's court and we need to hear how it will implement those recommendations.

Senator Niall Blaney: Information on Niall Blaney Zoom on Niall Blaney I am thoroughly enjoying the "GunPlot" podcast series dealing with the saga of the 1970 arms crisis. The third episode of the podcast was released this morning with five more to go and a documentary will air on television on Wednesday night. It is a pity we had to wait 50 years to have that level of investigative journalism, which has come in the wake of the release of Michael Heney's book last year. It is great that we are now getting to the truth of what happened then. It is heartening and enlightening. I look forward to the day when the names of people who worked for the State are cleared. I refer to people such as Captain James Kelly and Colonel Michael Hefferon.

  Like Senator Carrigy, I also listened to the Ryan Tubridy show this morning. I was struck by the garda sergeant's telling of the story of his son who along with 5,000 other deaf people struggle, getting through their childhood, getting through education in particular, and finding work and a purpose in life. He referred to the Proclamation and how our children should be cherished equally. With that in mind, I ask the Leader to invite the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, to the House to discuss this.

  Listening to that father this morning talking about his son and the fear of never being able to hold down a job was terribly upsetting. Things can be done for these people, as has been done in the past for children with special needs and their parents. Work is being done in different Departments and State agencies throughout the country. Some are being employed but we can do more, and I would like the opportunity to discuss that with the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte.

Senator Emer Currie: Information on Emer Currie Zoom on Emer Currie I wish to speak about litter and the preparation for what we hope will be an outdoor summer. I live in a small rural part of Dublin 15 which has looked a bit like a rubbish tip in recent months as people literally throw their rubbish out of their cars. It is now spreading to some of our public parks and other public spaces across the city and throughout the country. We are heading for a litter emergency during what we are branding as our outdoor summer. In Dublin alone, in the Phoenix Park, at the Royal Canal, in Portobello and in Monkstown, the bins were overflowing this weekend. I thank people from the area and councillors who have shared their photographs. I commend Councillor Colm O'Rourke and Councillor James Geoghegan in Dublin City Council and Councillor Lorraine Hall in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council and those who are already engaged in clean-ups.

  I also pay tribute to the firefighters in Killarney, in the Mourne Mountains and in other counties who continue to work so hard to put out devastating fires, the sources of which are yet to be confirmed.

  Right now, we are not ready for an outdoor summer. People need to remember we are in a biodiversity crisis. Officials in Fingal County Council have advised me that they have never seen anything like the rubbish they have had to deal with. Local authorities and the OPW need to provide extra bins, which need to be emptied more regularly. We need additional bin bags to be left at those spots. The Minister needs to review the resources available for bin-collection staff, park and wildlife rangers and litter wardens, and we should supplement them if necessary. We have asked so much of them recently and that will only increase during the summer. We need proper information and education for people about how to behave responsibly outdoors. The organisation, Leave No Trace Ireland, could help in that regard.

  Businesses want to be able to serve people outdoors but many of our casual trading by-laws are out of date. For instance, in Fingal people may only trade at graveyards and at beaches, and people are looking to change that.  One needs a licence to trade there but we should review the position. The Minister can issue guidelines in that regard. The latter would be very good in the context of waste management, segregation and designating areas for litter-picking. Things have changed a great deal since 1995, when the Casual Trading Act was implemented. We need an outdoor strategy if we are going to plan for an outdoor summer.

Senator Fintan Warfield: Information on Fintan Warfield Zoom on Fintan Warfield I welcome the gradual reopening. We need to include all industries in the plans that are due to be announced. We cannot ignore some industries, such as that relating to night-life, or exclude them from the plan. Thousands of workers and their families are relying on the plans for reopening. They deserve to get a sense from the Government of what is going to happen.

  There is much to unpack in the news that the Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference has developed what it refers to as a voluntary resource for primary schools. I do not profess to have all of the answers but this is not one of them. Ninety per cent of all national schools in this country are Catholic. According to The Irish Times, an introduction to the programme states that:

... when discussing LGBT issues the "Church's teaching in relation to marriage between a man and a woman cannot be omitted."

The programme for senior classes states that "puberty is a gift from God. We are perfectly designed by God to procreate with him"; while a lesson on safety and protection advises senior infant children to say the "Angel of God" prayer.

I prayed for years that I would not be gay. I did so because of shame, much of which I can place the blame for at the door of the Church. Prayer and religious ideology do nothing to protect children or young people. Prayer and ideology do nothing to protect kids against sexually transmitted infections or HIV. I raised this issue with the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, when she was here for a debate on the leaving certificate. We need a debate on sex education. We need politicians in both Chambers to stand up and be allies on this issue. I know that by making this statement alone, there will be abuse and I will be called a degenerate online. We need allies to stand up with LGBT people.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly Thank you, Senator Warfield, for your contribution.

Senator Malcolm Byrne: Information on Malcolm Byrne Zoom on Malcolm Byrne I echo the calls made by my colleague, Senator Warfield, for a debate on sex education. Such a debate would be useful.

  Equally, I echo the remarks made by Senators Carrigy and Blaney. It happens only occasionally that an interview comes on the radio and stops you in your tracks. Ryan Tubridy handled the interview with Andrew Geary, about his son Calum, this morning quite well. We should celebrate the contribution of deaf people and those with hearing difficulties to Irish society, but we need a broader debate around the supports from the education system. Crucially, part of the discussion was around the employment of those with disabilities. Having Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, in for a debate on that matter would be useful.

  I wish to raise the question of academic freedom, which is a fundamental principle of our higher education system. In recent times, we have seen a number of powerful countries and companies question our universities and their right to be able to make and disseminate their findings freely. I refer here to Dr. Richard Maher of University College Dublin, UCD, who raised questions which drew unfair criticism from Huawei and the Chinese embassy, and Dr. Donnacha Ó Beacháin of Dublin City University, who, because he brought in a particular speaker, drew criticism from the Georgian and Ukrainian embassies. These are respected academics who are open to hearing, and who have always allowed, a variety of points of view in their courses. A fundamental part of our higher education system involves academic freedom. In forthcoming legislation on higher education governance, it is essential that we include protections in that area.  I ask that in our debate on higher education we centre and focus on the question of academic freedom and that, as a Government, we indicate very clearly that no matter how powerful the company or country, we will protect academic freedom in our universities.

Senator Aisling Dolan: Information on Aisling Dolan Zoom on Aisling Dolan As co-founder, PRO and secretary of the community group, Ballinasloe says No, we have battled for more than four years against the inappropriate location of a waste transfer station in Ballinasloe town, fighting for the health and safety of families in the second largest town in County Galway, as well as the protection of the local environment. Despite that, and the fact that close to 3,000 objections were submitted by people and families over two campaigns against the granting of a permit for this type of station, two weeks ago Galway County Council granted this permit. What does this mean? It means hundreds of ten, 15 and 20 tonne trucks coming through the heart of Ballinasloe town, past residential urban streets, playgrounds, estates and the hospital, to reach this location. What about road safety? What about air pollution? As a community group, we are reviewing our options. In 2018, we won a case in the High Court on the potential adverse impact to waterways of this construction on low lying flood planes.

  How did this happen? Planning was granted in 2017 to allow this development. However, nobody in the town knew anything about it. There was no consultation with the local community. Under current planning regulations, the requirement for public notice is placement in a newspaper circulating in the area and a notice fixed to the proposed site. This is not sufficient or fit-for-purpose to ensure that local communities are aware of potentially devastating impacts to safety, health and the environment. The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the local authorities need to use current methods of communication such as sponsored advertising, using social media channels or feeds. This planning permission went through with no objections submitted and yet when we built a campaign and people were made aware of it, more than 3,000 people objected. How does this stack up? There is discrimination here against people who have not been able to be informed through a newspaper advertisement. How was such a development considered without public consultation?

  Today, on behalf of the people of Ballinasloe, I am calling on the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to review the outdated legislation for public notifications and to undertake an analysis of the impact of these waste facilities. The particular facility about which I am speaking today is within 2 km of built residential areas in the heart of Ballinasloe town. There is need for adequate resourcing within local authorities to review environmental impacts and a requirement for an environmental impact assessment for these types of proposed classes of development under planning, in particular waste management. This development is shocking to the town of Ballinasloe.

Senator Ollie Crowe: Information on Ollie Crowe Zoom on Ollie Crowe This morning, I want to address the reopening of the hospitality sector. With many pubs having been closed for more than 400 days, it is important this reopening is done in a fair and equitable manner. In particular, traditional pubs, which do not serve food, should be given the same opportunity as the rest of the hospitality sector.

  I also believe it is important to have an all-Ireland approach. In recent days, I spoke to Councillor Raymond Aughey, who runs a hospitality business in Monaghan. It is clear that if a separate approach is taken by this jurisdiction and Northern Ireland for any prolonged period of time, it will be extremely challenging for businesses in the Border counties. Northern Ireland has removed the substantial meal requirement and will allow all businesses to open for outdoor trading from this Friday. In three weeks' time, it will allow indoor trading to resume. We should follow a similar pattern, allowing outdoor services to resume at the end of May, without any substantial meal requirement, and indoor services to resume when we have reached the target of 80% of adults having received their first vaccination by the end of June.

  As with all people and businesses, the vast majority of those operating in the hospitality sector must follow all Government guidelines. I know people and businesses in Galway will adhere to those guidelines. The control setting of a hospitality business, where guidelines are being implemented and social distancing is in place, will be far safer options than most socialising forms that will be chosen this summer. Businesses within the hospitality sector have been hammered for well over a year.  The summer is always the busiest time of the year. It is essential that we ensure all who operate in this sector are given the chance to open, are given further supports to allow them to rebuild and are given an opportunity to survive a crisis which they had no part in making.

Senator Jerry Buttimer: Information on  Leas-Chathaoirleach Zoom on  Leas-Chathaoirleach I echo and support Senator Warfield's remarks on the need for a balanced debate on sex education, and I applaud him for his remarks in the House today.

  I join with Senator Carrigy and others on the remarks about Andrew Geary. I know Andrew Geary. He is a tremendous father, a tremendous public servant and a huge and profoundly important advocate for his son, Callum. I commend him for his work.

  The digital green certificate has been raised on the Order of Business today. I call on the Leader to facilitate a debate in the House on the absolute need for us, as a country and as an integral member of the European Union, to have the digital green certificate put in place. I am concerned that we do not have the preparatory work under way to ensure we can have access to the important benefit of the adaptation and implementation of the European Union digital green certificate. The vaccine passport and digital passport will enhance our country and facilitate the reopening of our country in a safe manner, not just for internal travel but for international travel, which is so pivotal to our country in the context of tourism.

  I ask that we would have this debate so we can show to the world that we are ready and prepared. It is very important we do so in tandem with the Government's planned remarks on Thursday in regard to the reopening of the country. The digital green passport is of critical importance. The need for action to have our country ready is of paramount importance to the hospitality sector, the retail market, external travel agents and airlines operating into and out of our country. I hope we will have that debate as a matter of urgency.

Senator Vincent P. Martin: Information on Vincent P. Martin Zoom on Vincent P. Martin The calls for the conducting of a border poll for Irish reunification have grown considerably in recent times. That has been amplified by the fact the majority in Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU. It is gathering momentum and probably more support unity now than ever before. However, surely the purpose of holding a poll is to have a prospect of success. If one is to put the question, one would like it to be successful. I am one of those who would love to see a united Ireland but now is not the time. I was struck recently by the interview given by the leader of Ulster unionism in one of the last interviews of that fine reporter, Tommie Gorman. The leader of Ulster unionism said:

There is a misunderstanding that I am, somehow, a misguided Irish person and actually all I have to do is realise that I'm Irish and not British at all. That is a fundamental misunderstanding that republicans and nationalists have.

If the leader of Ulster unionism believes that, and I believe that she believes it, now is not the time. Now is not the time because we must listen to our brothers and sisters in Northern Ireland and we must appreciate and celebrate diversity. I know we work hard on joint Oireachtas committees in the two Houses. I ask the Leader if there is a role for Seanad Éireann to try to appreciate and partake actively in a listening exercise whereby the leader of Ulster unionism can be convinced that, for many voices of Irish republicanism and nationalism, that is not the case and that we celebrate her diversity. However, she does not believe it, and that is what matters most. We have a job of work at hand before we put any border poll. Now is not the time.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly I thank the Senator for that contribution.

Senator Regina Doherty: Information on Regina Doherty Zoom on Regina Doherty I thank my colleagues. I agree with Senator Martin that now is not the time for a poll. However, what it absolutely is time for, and I do not think there has ever been a better time, is to start having the conversation with each other, those of us with opposing views, as to what we would like to see in a shared island and what the potential opportunities and, indeed, perhaps some of the downsides might be.  I do not think that there has ever been a better time for us to start the conversation and obviously any part of a conversation involves listening. The other day, we discussed at the meeting of the Committee on Parliamentary Privileges and Oversight the potential role that the Seanad might be able to play in that. Once a decision is made I will put it to all Members and let people know.

  Senators Buttimer and Keogan have raised the need for a debate on the proposed EU legislation on digital green certificates that, please God, will pass in June. There are opposing views and that is why it is important for us to have not just a debate in this House but a public debate. The most important thing that we can do as leaders is to determine and make clear what a digital certificate will actually do because it will not discriminate. I know that there are people who feel it will but it absolutely will not. The proposed legislation does allow those who are vaccinated to get a digital certificate but it also allows those who have contracted Covid-19 and still have antibodies and, equally, those who have a negative test who may never have a vaccination for either their own reasons, medical reasons, or, thankfully, did not contract Covid. The certificate will be a game changer that will ensure the Irish connectivity that has been developed by our airlines over the past 20 years and that is vital to the rebounding of the economy will be able to resume at some stage at the being of the second half of this year. A debate has been sought and as soon as I have scheduled date I will let both Senators know, and indeed all of the Members.

  Senators Crowe and Carrigy both have talked about the welcome announcement by the Minister on the grants that are available for outdoor dining for our outdoor summer this year. I hope, and I have made inquiries to the Department, that the current exclusion of the so-called wet pubs must be an oversight and an anomaly, because if it is not, then the matter needs to be rectified. I have written to the Minister and asked to be assured that it is an oversight and an anomaly. I will come back to Members of this House once she has written back to me.

  I am absolutely gutted and I was unaware that the hard work of Senator Dolan and the community of Ballinasloe has been somewhat overlooked by Galway County Council. I certainly will ask the Minister to revise and review the conditions around public notifications in terms of advertisements about planning permission. The community is not unique in not knowing even though there apparently were notifications, but once people were made aware of the proposal, there were objections. I will come back to the Senator once I write to the Minister.

  Senator Malcolm Byrne raised the absolute right to have free academic education and it should be enshrined.

  I was distraught when I listened to Senator Warfield speak about the years he prayed and he felt shame. It makes me feel shameful we had a society that allowed him to feel that way and I am really sorry. There is a need for a debate and a number of Members have raised the issue, including Senator Pauline O'Reilly. I have religious beliefs but they play no part in the conversations I ever had with any of my four children around sexual education. Beliefs have nothing to do with it and the same should apply for everybody in all walks of life. Senator Warfield is right that, given we are still having this conversation, there is definitely a need for a debate. I will arrange it and let all Members know.

  Senator Currie talked about an outdoor strategy for an outdoor summer. Like all those colleagues who have welcomed the easing of restrictions this morning, I too wish to put on record that it is lovely to see a little bit of life being injected into the population. Again, and I do not mean to be disrespectful, and I do not think it is rocket science, if we ask people to be outside, and we know human behaviour is that people do not always bring their rubbish home with them, let us just provide the bloody bins so they can put their rubbish in them. I pay tribute to all of the workers who are up at 5 o'clock in the morning cleaning up the Portobello area, the Phoenix Park and all of the other attractions people flocked to over the weekend because of the sunshine.

  Senator Blaney talked about the "GunPlot" podcast. I only started to listen to it this morning and I look forward to having a full view. The podcast is interesting for those of us of a certain age who probably do not know. I also thought it was interesting to hear on RTÉ this morning that the podcast is most popular on Spotify, which has a far younger cohort of listeners, so it is interesting to hear back.

  Many Members, including Senator Sherlock, have brought up the momentous recommendations made by the Citizens' Assembly on Sunday. On behalf of all of us here, I thank Dr. Catherine Day and the 99 other members for their tremendous input. I was privileged to be a member of a Citizens' Assembly many years ago.  We got together in Malahide once a month and they were very enjoyable occasions. These citizens had to do it online, which meant they had a very different experience. The recommendations show just how far we have to travel if we are to have equality for women, carers and children. It is incumbent on Cabinet to react to these recommendations as quickly as it can because we all know how long it takes for legislation to be drafted. Judging by the list of recommendations, a hell of a lot of legislation will need to be passed. We will play our part. I will ask for a debate in this House as soon as I can get access to the Minister.

  Senator Ward brought up an issue that is particularly close to my heart because of the dealings I had with a wide variety of people when I was Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection. At that stage, we in the Department set up a judge-led inquiry with a view to streamlining the process, especially given that the vast majority of these cases involve people fighting to move a social welfare payment from one side of the table to the other, to take that burden off the courts. That commission was delayed as a result of the Covid pandemic but I will welcome the recommendations to come from the lady judge this year. I expect those recommendations very soon. I will write to the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and ask her the status of the process and then come back to the Senator. This will not, however, address the situation of those who are not relying on social welfare payments in this period of their lives. We might look at the next steps involved in taking this administrative burden away from the courts.

  Senator Murphy talked very passionately about a family in Roscommon. I will ring the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and write to him later today to ask him to intervene and I will come back to the Senator with a response directly.

  Senator Craughwell talked about the vaccine he received this morning and he paid tribute to the wonderful staff we have in every single vaccination centre in the country. I acknowledge that.

  Senator Carrigy, among others, talked about the very emotional interview Andrew Geary gave on behalf of his son. It is absolutely abhorrent that any parent in this country would see himself or herself as a failure because of either the distribution of services or the lack of services for any child in this country. Again, we have a long way to go. It is interesting that, in listening to the concerns raised here every week, they are usually about the lack of services for women and children in this country. This should make us more mindful of how we spend our euros as a nation.

  Senator Gallagher gave his opinion, which I wholeheartedly share, that there is an immediate need for antigen testing in this country. We spent months compiling a report as to whether this is a good idea. Professor Ferguson came out with a report a number of weeks ago and recommended that pilot schemes be introduced. I have no idea why we are introducing pilot schemes. We know these tests work. They are not perfect but they are part of a suite of measures we could be using to ensure that teachers, special needs assistants and other staff in schools feel more confident going into their schools every day. Giving all staff in schools an antigen test five days a week would cost approximately €12 per person. When one considers the cost of a PCR test, tens of thousands of which the State is paying for every week, it makes no sense to fail to instil confidence in our teaching staff and all of the employees who will go back to work in the coming weeks, if it please God, when we reopen click and collect services or shopping by appointment or reopen in other ways. We all anticipate the announcements in this regard next Thursday. Why can we not instil confidence in all of those staff by making sure that their employers give them antigen tests before they begin work? It may also be of use for intercounty sportspeople. The list goes on and on. I have no idea why we are not doing this and at some point we are going to have to answer the question of why we are not using antigen testing to ensure a safer reopening for our outdoor summer.

  Senator Bacik welcomed the loosening of restrictions, as we all do, and the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly. I will come back with the date.

  Senator Chambers raised the very welcome announcement of the Department of Health last week regarding the establishment in 2021 of specialised medical services for women and the dysfunctions we go through at certain periods in our lives.

  Senator Ó Donnghaile made us all incredibly jealous - or at least he made me incredibly jealous - when he told us that he received his vaccine and, indeed, a haircut last week. I am not sure of which I am more jealous. I wait in anticipation of our hairdressers opening in the coming weeks and of when I can get on the list. We are looking forward to the days when life as normal, whatever the new normal will be, can resume and we can all enjoy it.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly Senator Barry Ward has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That No. 12 be taken before No. 1." This has been seconded by Senator Carrigy. The Leader has indicated that she is prepared to accept the amendment.

  Amendment agreed to.

  Order of Business, as amended, agreed to.

National Lottery (Amendment) Bill 2021: First Stage

Senator Barry Ward: Information on Barry Ward Zoom on Barry Ward I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to amend the National Lottery Act 2013 to prohibit the use of the National Lottery or its products in betting offers by entities other than the National Lottery.

  Question put and agreed to.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly When is it proposed to take Second Stage?

Senator Barry Ward: Information on Barry Ward Zoom on Barry Ward Next Friday.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly Is that agreed? Agreed.

  Second Stage ordered for Friday, 30 April 2021.

Sitting Arrangements: Motion

Senator Regina Doherty: Information on Regina Doherty Zoom on Regina Doherty I move:

That, notwithstanding anything in the Standing Orders relative to Public Business, the Seanad on its rising on Monday, 26th April, 2021, shall adjourn until 10 a.m. on Friday, 30th April, 2021, in the Dáil Chamber, and unless otherwise ordered, the following arrangements shall apply:
(a) Statements on Business and Covid-19.
Statements on Business and Covid-19 shall commence at 10 a.m., and shall adjourn at 12 noon, with the opening statement by the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment not to exceed 10 minutes, the contribution of all Senators not to exceed 5 minutes, and the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to be given no less than 10 minutes to reply to the statements made on that day and the statements shall be thereupon adjourned;
(b) Commencement matters shall be taken at 12.15 p.m.;

(c) Standing Order 30 shall stand suspended;

(d) the Order of Business shall be proposed at 1.45 p.m.

  Question put and agreed to.

  Sitting suspended at 1.11 p.m. and resumed at 1.33 p.m.

EU Regulations (Europol): Motion

Senator Robbie Gallagher: Information on Robbie Gallagher Zoom on Robbie Gallagher I move:

That Seanad Éireann approves the exercise by the State of the option or discretion under Protocol No. 21 on the position of the United Kingdom and Ireland in respect of the area of freedom, security and justice annexed to the Treaty on European Union and to the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, to take part in the adoption and application of the following proposed measure:
Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council amending Regulation (EU) 2016/794, as regards Europol’s cooperation with private parties, the processing of personal data by Europol in support of criminal investigations, and Europol’s role on research and innovation,
a copy of which was laid before Seanad Éireann on 11th January, 2021.

Minister of State at the Department of Justice (Deputy James Browne): Information on James Browne Zoom on James Browne I thank Senators for agreeing to take this motion at relatively short notice. The motion relates to a proposal to strengthen and develop Europol to increase the services it provides to European Union member states within the boundaries of the mission and tasks of the agency as laid down in Article 88 of Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. The deadline for opting in to the proposal under Article 3 of Protocol No. 21 is 3 May 2021.

  Opting in under Article 3 will allow Ireland to take part fully in the adoption and application of the proposed measure and to influence the content of the regulation that is to be agreed. Negotiations are well under way under the Portuguese Presidency of the European Council.  If the Houses support the opt-in, it is my intention to notify the institutions of our participation next Monday. I remind Senators that when Ireland signed up to the Lisbon treaty the Government of the day made a declaration, which is attached to the treaty, that we would participate to the maximum extent possible in the measures in the field of police co-operation, and I see no reason to deviate from that position.

  Before discussing the proposal in more detail, it might be appropriate to give the Senators some background information on Europol. It is the EU's law enforcement agency, assisting national enforcement authorities by exchanging information, intelligence, analysis and threat assessments. It is based in The Hague in the Netherlands and it has more than 1,000 staff members, including more than 100 crime analysts and 220 liaison officers working across the world.

  An Garda Síochána appreciates the central role that Europol has in supporting member states' law enforcement agencies and values its membership of the organisation. An Garda Síochána is represented on the management board at assistant commissioner level, and gardaí are seconded to the organisation on an ongoing basis. The Commissioner is of the view that An Garda Síochána's working relationship with Europol is invaluable in tackling serious cross-border crime.

  Europol provides essential communication links to ensure the strong relationships are established and maintained, not only with other members states but also with third-party countries such as the US and, more recently, the UK.

  This is very much a supplementary regulation. In 2016, the Oireachtas agreed to Ireland participating in a much broader regulation relating to Europol. The 2016 regulation reconstituted Europol as a European agency for law enforcement co-operation. It also created new governance structures and new relationships between Europol and the EU institutions, as required by the Lisbon treaty. The 2016 regulation will remain as the main Europol regulation, with the new regulation adding on specific powers and filling in any gaps that currently exist, which I will outline in more detail shortly.

  Ireland is broadly supporting the proposed amendments in this draft regulation that seek to strengthen the existing mandate of Europol over eight key areas, and I will outline each of these proposals. The regulation will enable Europol to co-operate effectively with private parties, addressing the lack of effective co-operation between private parties and law enforcement authorities to counter the use of cross-border services such as communication, banking or transport services by criminals. The regulation will also enable Europol to effectively support member states' investigations with the analysis of large and complex data sets, addressing the big data challenge for law enforcement authorities. The regulation will strengthen Europol's role in research and innovation and its co-operation with third counties, and will clarify the rules whereby Europol can request, in specific circumstances, a member state to initiate an investigation into a crime that affects the common interests of the EU. The regulation will also strengthen Europol 's co-operation with the European Public Prosecutor's Office, EPPO. It will further strengthen the data protection framework applicable to Europol and will further strengthen parliamentary oversight and accountability of Europol.

  I am conscious that in the past ten years, we have witnessed the Arab Spring and a major humanitarian crisis in Syria, both of which were followed by the migration crisis in the Mediterranean Sea. We have had the rise and fall of ISIS and experienced a number of devastating terrorist incidents on mainland Europe. Policing international crime increasingly gets more complicated. A decision by Ireland to opt-in to this measure would be seen as a demonstration of Ireland's continued commitment to the effective functioning of Europol and to the wider security of the EU. Our participation in Europol is vital to our national interest and we look forward to An Garda Síochána continuing to play an active role within this agency.

  I look forward to hearing the views of Senators and I urge them to support the motion.

Senator Robbie Gallagher: Information on Robbie Gallagher Zoom on Robbie Gallagher Ba mhaith liom fáilte ar ais a chur roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach seo tráthnóna. The Minister of State is very welcome back to the House this afternoon for this important debate. We in Fianna Fáil fully support Ireland's opt-in to the Europol regulation. The general objectives of this regulation, which the Minister of State outlined in his contribution, are to support and reinforce action by EU member states' law enforcement authorities and their mutual co-operation, preventing and combatting serious crime and terrorism affecting two or more member states. The EU Commission is of the view that due to the cross-border nature of serious crime and the need for a co-ordinated response to related security threats, member states cannot achieve their objectives by themselves and this support at Union level is absolutely vital. Europol needs to have the capabilities and the tools to support member states effectively in countering serious crime and terrorism.  Europe faces a security landscape in flux with evolving and increasingly complex security threats. Criminals exploit the advantages that digital transformation, new technologies, globalisation and mobility bring about. The Covid-19 crisis has added to it as criminals have quickly seized opportunities to exploit it by adapting their modes of operation or developing new criminal activities. Since Europol was first established in 1991 as a central European investigation office in the fight against drugs, organised crime and corruption, it has done serious work on behalf of the citizens of Europe. The Garda can be very proud of the role it has played in that too. It is desirable that Ireland opts into this new protocol now so that we can have our say in shaping the final document. We need full co-operation between member states in our ongoing fight against crime of all sorts including drug trafficking, corruption, and the ever-increasing area of cybercrime. We look forward to it passing through the House.

Senator Gerard P. Craughwell: Information on Gerard P. Craughwell Zoom on Gerard P. Craughwell I welcome the Minister of State to the House for this small but vital motion. Any blow against organised crime is welcome. Large-scale organised crime is not something that happens far away removed from the lives of ordinary people, it happens here and victimises people in a direct and painful way. The threat of terrorism is also something that must be answered. We are no strangers to terrorism on this island. We have seen at first hand the ugliness and devastation it brings about. The regulation we seek to opt into today mentions the stabbings outside the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris last September, the senseless shooting of four people in Vienna in November and the disgusting, barbaric beheading of a school teacher in October. All of this happened last year alone in Europe. Something has gone seriously wrong and something must be done.

  This proposal is a step in the right direction. Europol was set up to support and strengthen action by competent authorities, member states and their mutual co-operation in preventing and combating organised crime, terrorism and other forms of serious crime. Let us get all the help we can tackling these issues in our country and lend whatever hand we can to our European neighbours to help them do the same. I have spoken many times in the House on how the law needs to be updated to deal with the emerging technologies and practices of the time. The Commission's proposal puts this well when it notes that "Europeans today face a security landscape in flux", the criminals exploit the advantages that the digital transformation brings about. These threats stretch across borders and there is no reason the law should not be able to pursue them when they do so. One caveat to my welcome for the motion might be around data. Whenever we talk about individuals' personal data we must always ask who is watching the watchers. High-profile abuses of data hoarding and processing are never far from the front pages. We be sure not to open the door to future potential abuse with this proposal. What checks and balances will there be to prevent one or more people gathering and designating me as a suspect terrorist, who could then legally pull anything and everything about me for whatever purpose they see fit? Welcome as these efforts are to tackle crime and terrorism, we must always be aware of the right to privacy everyone enjoys and must protect this right. If those protections are in place and they work, then this is a motion that I am happy to support.

  Crime is always one step ahead of the solution, particularly in data crime. I have a friend who is extremely security conscious. When I meet him, the first thing he asks me to do is to put my mobile phone in the car and then come and have coffee with him. He is acutely aware that someone is always listening and when they are, it is not for the good of our health.  We need to support our European colleagues. We need the free transfer of information across the European Union and beyond. We need to be able to track and trace those who are living abroad and having crimes committed in their names in this country. We also need to be able to track and trace those in this country who are perpetrating crimes elsewhere in the world. We see how mobile and global criminals are now. Some of them are big as any multinational one would care to mention. This is a vital aspect of opting in on Ireland's part. It is a maturing of Ireland as it accepts its place on the platform with everybody else in order to tackle crime. I commend the Minister of State on bringing this motion, which I will be supporting, to the House.

Senator Barry Ward: Information on Barry Ward Zoom on Barry Ward Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit ar ais go dtí an Seanad. It is entirely appropriate that the Houses of the Oireachtas have a say in the Government's response to the regulation and that a motion be passed in both Chambers. On behalf of the Fine Gael Party, I say that we support the Government's motion and the regulation.

  When looking at the matter, and in the context of what the previous Senator said, I was considering the downsides and reasons we should be opposed to the regulation. The concerns that come to mind are things such as data protection, abuse of data by agencies within the EU, including Europol, and perhaps the loss or ceding of powers from An Garda Síochána to a Union-wide police force. The first thing to do in that regard is to ask An Garda if it is in favour of this. I know from my work that An Garda values the information and intelligence it gets from Europol and other international agencies. The connection between An Garda and Europol is considerable and valuable to policing in Ireland. I understand that the European extradition warrant and the new Schengen information system of which we are now a part both benefit the ability of An Garda to do its job here.

  Much of the crime or alleged crime, as the case may be, about which we are talking is not shoplifting or other small-time stuff that we associate with domestic crime, but is cross-border, international crime. It includes crime that falls into categories such as gangland, terrorism, drug and people trafficking. There are many areas involved. The reality is that a stand-alone island off the west coast of Europe simply has not the capacity to deal with these issues on its own. It is entirely appropriate that we should be involved in Europol to the greatest extent possible because our policing might benefits massively from that association because of the intelligence and information we get from it. That allows gardaí on the ground to do the job they do to the best of their ability. There is, of course, also a benefit to the wider European community in our sharing information, particularly as we are an island nation and, therefore, vulnerable from the point of view of drug and people trafficking. I think that is entirely appropriate.

  As other Members have mentioned, there are concerns. We have a different legal system to most other countries in Europe. We have a system where the principle of the presumption of innocence is foremost in our minds. That is tremendously important and does not exist in the same way under the Napoleonic code or civil law systems that exist across a lot of continental Europe. That does not mean that those protections do not still exist because they do. The situation is similar in the area of data and their sharing. The general data protection regulation, GDPR, still exists and holds sway over a European regulation. There are, of course, aspects of it which need to be modified for the purposes of sharing information with other European agencies and that is appropriate.

  A question that arises from what Senator Craughwell said regarding whether we should, for example, be concerned about the possible designation of me, him or anyone else as a particular category of individual? Does that then expose one to a load of other issues that may arise? It does, potentially, but protections are accounted for and built into Regulation 2016/794. As I said, the GDPR still exists. The people who should be afraid of the implementation of this regulation are the criminals, terrorists, money launderers, people traffickers and drug traffickers. Everything in this regulation is about strengthening the ability of An Garda and the Irish police and security aspects to react to and act effectively on the most serious crimes that affect our communities here and the people who might be brought here against their will. That is what it does and will do. It makes absolute sense that we support this motion and the Government's decision to row in with Europol and subscribe to the maximum possible extent to the frameworks and aspects of Europol that will allow it to deliver on security for the people living in this country and on this island.  I support the motion and thank the Minister of State for introducing it. It is tremendously important that the Seanad and Dáil have an opportunity to weigh in on this matter, have their say and pass the motion. I encourage Members to vote in favour of it.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am speaking for the Labour Party. We are not opposing this motion. Like other speakers, we recognise the great importance of transnational mechanisms to tackle the scourge of transnational and cross-border crime. The Minister of State spoke about the sort of crime that is so much at issue here, that is carried out on a cross-border basis and has had such a serious impact on so many victims.

  We are glad to see that, within the motion, there is further strengthening of the data protection framework applicable to Europol. All of us have major concerns about data protection, particularly in the very sensitive area of criminal justice and security. Addressing this is of importance. I very much welcome the fact that parliamentary oversight and accountability will also be strengthened. I am conscious that this proposal is very much an adjunct to the 2016 regulation but it is important that parliamentary scrutiny and data protection measures are to the fore in any further mechanisms under the original 2016 regulation.

  I want to refer to a couple of criminal justice issues that relate to the prosecution of cross-border and transnational crime. I was very struck at the weekend by two stories or reports of relevance. The first was on an audiobook by Claire McGowan called The Vanishing Triangle. It relates to cases that everybody is, very sadly, all too familiar with, namely, the cases of eight women who went missing in a triangle going from Louth in the north and down past Offaly to Wexford in the mid-1990s, between 1993 and 1998. The names of the eight women who disappeared are sadly all too familiar to us, yet their cases have never been solved. Cases include those of Annie McCarrick and Jo Jo Dollard. These cases have given rise over the years to several books and reports, yet they have never been resolved. I was struck by the commentary of the author, Ms McGowan, who has taken a new look at the cases. She speaks about the Border element. What struck her in examining these cases some decades on was how poor the co-operation was between the North and South in the investigation of disappearances such as those in question. All too sadly, this has been a real issue. Ms McGowan stated that it did not appear there was enough joined-up thinking in the investigation of disappearances that may well have had a cross-Border element. Some of the disappearances occurred close to the Border. It brought home to me the great importance for victims and their families of ensuring seamless transnational co-operation between police forces in investigations of very serious crimes such as those in question.

  In light of Brexit, I have a question. While this motion is about strengthening transnational mechanisms with Europol, what about the bilateral mechanisms we will need and that I am aware are built into and addressed through post-Brexit negotiation and so on? A genuine issue concerns ensuring that the sorts of strengthening mechanisms we see with Europol will be mirrored or reflected in mechanisms for the cross-border investigation and prosecution of transnational crime and, indeed, crimes that are being investigated between the two islands. That, to me, was an important issue.

  The other issue I want to raise on criminal prosecution, although it is not so much a transnational or cross-border issue, is that of prosecution for child sex abuse. There was a very disturbing report by Ms Sarah-Jane Murphy in Saturday’s The Irish Times on the case of a small child, one of the youngest complainants in a sex abuse case in the history of the State. Ms Murphy calls the child Zoe. Anyone who read the report will have been struck by the harrowing experience of a family when, despite a child having been a victim of some form of abuse, an allegation having been made and a prosecution having been initiated, a trial does not result in a conviction. I am referring to the fallout from that.  I ask the Minister of State to raise with the Minister for Justice the need to look again at the way we investigate and prosecute crimes of child sex abuse.

  I welcome an announcement made by the Minister earlier that she will be expunging criminal records for the sale of sex in line with the recommendations of the UCD sexual exploitation research programme and others and following our historic criminalisation of the purchase of sex in the 2017 Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act. Many recommendations have been made to seek to help those who wish to exit from the exploitation of prostitution and with that perspective in mind I believe the Minister is proposing to expunge just over 600 convictions arising from sections 7 and 8 offences under the 1993 Act relating to the sale of sex. I very much welcome the Minister's announcement on that. We support the measures in this proposal.

Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile: Information on Niall Ó Donnghaile Zoom on Niall Ó Donnghaile Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit chuig an Seanad arís. Sinn Féin will not be opposing the passage of this motion through the Seanad today. Other colleagues have outlined eloquently all the reasons such a motion is felt to be necessary in tackling cross-border and international crime. However, we are parliamentarians and we have an obligation to scrutinise and weigh up such significant legislation and how it might compete against issues of civil liberties and human rights. I therefore welcome the opportunity for the Seanad to debate this issue with the Minister of State, albeit in a very short timeframe.

  From our perspective, my colleague in the Lower House, Deputy Martin Kenny, will engage with the Minister of State further on our views on this particular motion. For my own information, however, he might provide clarification on his understanding of the definition of "private parties" and what they constitute in the context of this motion.

Minister of State at the Department of Justice (Deputy James Browne): Information on James Browne Zoom on James Browne I thank the Senators for their contributions and their broad support for this proposal. This legislative initiative is part of a package of measures presented by the Commission in December 2020 to reinforce the Union's response to the threat posed by terrorism. Since the 2016 regulation came into force the operational support provided by Europol's counterterrorism centre has increased fivefold. Although the full impact of the Covid-19 crisis on security is not yet apparent, it is expected to shape the landscape of serious and organised crime in the EU in the mid- to long-term future.

  With regard to this proposal, I should add that it is a negotiation process and it is not clear whether all of the issues raised in the draft regulation will be part of the final agreed instrument. There may be elements that would be of real value to Ireland and some elements with which we may have some issues. That is why it will be important for us to fully engage as an equal partner during the negotiation process. The benefits of Ireland's participation in Europol are and will remain critical to our national security and to tackling the most serious forms of organised crime in this country.

  I would like to make a few points on the proposal. In respect of the initiative for co-operation between Europol and private parties, this could potentially have huge implications for An Garda Síochána given that the European headquarters of many Internet service providers and social media companies are located here in Ireland. It is important that An Garda Síochána can influence any outcome in that regard. Currently, all communications between Ireland and Europol go through the Europol National Unit,, which is located in Garda headquarters.

  The proposed regulation aims to strengthen Europol's co-operation with third countries for preventing and countering serious and organised crime and terrorism. Serious crime does not stop at the European borders and co-operation with third countries will be of particular importance to Ireland given that our nearest neighbour, the United Kingdom, is now a third country. The 2016 regulation gave the power to the Commission to conclude agreements with third countries. Unfortunately, none has been agreed since and getting a more workable solution to this is in all of our interests.

  The draft regulation aims to strengthen Europol's co-operation with the European Public Prosecutor's Office, EPPO. The EPPO was established as a new EU body by regulation in 2017. It is responsible for conducting criminal investigations and prosecutions for crimes against the EU's financial interests and will begin its operations in 2021.  Ireland has not participated in the European Public Prosecutor's Office regulation and is not bound by it. I have been assured that the proposed regulation will not affect Ireland's position in that regard.

  Senators will also be aware that Ireland only recently joined the Schengen information system, SIS, which enables Europe's law enforcement authorities to check and share data on banned, missing and wanted individuals, as well as lost or stolen property. This is the largest law enforcement database in Europe. Connecting to it has already enhanced our national security and strengthened our co-operation at a European level. This draft regulation is linked to legislative proposals amending the regulation on the establishment, operation and use of the Schengen information system in the field of police and judicial co-operation in criminal matters to enable Europol to enter data into the SIS.

  If member states agree to this proposal Europol will be better able to enter data into the SIS on the suspected involvement of a third-country national in an offence in respect of which Europol has competence. Ireland is automatically bound by the SIS legislative proposal.

  The Minister, Deputy McEntee, and I support the Garda Síochána in having access to the international systems, tools and networks available that assist it in achieving its ultimate goal which is to solve crime and make our communities safe. International co-operation in tackling crime is essential in the modern world given the nature of serious organised crime and terrorism. Full and active membership of organisations like Europol is essential and I ask Senators to support this motion and Ireland’s continued engagement with Europol. I thank the Cathaoirleach Gníomhach.

Acting Chairperson (Senator Pat Casey): Information on Pat Casey Zoom on Pat Casey I thank the Minister of State for his statement and for his commitment to this House.

Question put and agreed to.

  Sitting suspended at 2.02 p.m and resumed at 2.30 p.m.

Criminal Procedure Bill 2021: Committee Stage


  Question proposed: "That section 1 stand part of the Bill."

Senator Michael McDowell: Information on Michael McDowell Zoom on Michael McDowell I welcome the Minister of State to the House and express my appreciation for the amendment made to the Order of Business today in respect of this Bill.

  I will make a few points in respect of the Bill. First, I think this Bill needs to be more carefully considered than perhaps it was in Dáil Éireann. They had a debate there and a number of amendments were put down by the Sinn Féin Party, in particular, and Deputy Pringle, but there are other things we have to think carefully about before we wave it through and say we have given it due consideration.

  Jury trial is hugely important and a point I made in the limited time I had when the very short Second Stage debate took place here was that we have over the last 30 years made the process of jury trial more and more lengthy. I was not exaggerating when I said I remember both prosecuting and defending criminal cases before juries in Dublin and around the country in which a jury would be empanelled at, say, 10.30 a.m. and deliver its verdict at, say, 7.30 p.m. that evening, very frequently in some cases. That was the way the world worked. Perhaps they would go to two or three cases. This is not so long ago. I am not speaking about the 18th century or something like that. I remember looking at the memoirs or a unionist judge called Day in the 18th century. He kept a diary of his trips out on assizes and it was extraordinary. Having noted what happened at lunch and what kind of food he was given, he would say there were three capital cases in the morning, of which two were convicted and one recommended to mercy. My God, this all took place before lunch in those days.

  I do not suggest we go back to a distant age. The spirit of this Bill is important, that is, once a jury trial starts, it comes to a fairly rapid conclusion. The scandal of having jurors sitting in a room wondering what the hell is happening down in a court for two and a half days while lawyers make lengthy submissions to a trial judge is completely wrong.  One has only to look at the George Floyd trial to see how even a murder trial in the US proceeded so fast, although I accept that was probably contributed to by the failure of the accused to give evidence.

  The Bill is very well intentioned, but I worry it will have the unexpected and unwanted effect of lengthening even further the process of getting cases on for trial. Legal aid lawyers - I am not saying anything bad about them - will think it is almost their bound and duty to have an outing before a trial judge to try to have bits of evidence excluded and the like. In the nature of things, that will take time.

  The next issue will be worth remembering when we debate later sections. Senator Ward has commented on this. The provision that juries should be supplied with transcripts of prosecuting counsel's opening and closing speeches seems to suggest there will never again be a case where a jury goes out, having just heard the judge's charge, and that is it. It seems to suggest we are floating down the river towards a situation where it will take a further three or four days to get together all the transcripts, and compare them to see whether they are correct and everyone is happy with them and whether the judge is happy with the transcript of his or her charge to the jury and so on. I am ringing an alarm bell that this process could become more complicated rather than more expeditious if we are not careful. Nobody ever suggests that a barrister, whether prosecuting or defending, making his or her opening case to the jury should have to provide a copy of that speech. That does not happen too often but it will happen if provision is made for it to be given to the jury. There will be long speeches, and who is going to say something? Will a trial judge say to Mr. Ward or Mr. McDowell, after two or three hours, that the jury has heard enough? That worries me. Once we start introducing documents of proceedings before a jury, we will make the process more complicated. That is a preliminary point on section 1.

  Section 11 will make provisions for the rules of court to accommodate all these new changes. Will the Minister of State indicate whether the rules of court are yet even in draft form? Has the rules of court committee for the Circuit Court and the Central Criminal Court been alerted and asked to get weaving about this, or will we pass this legislation rapidly and without giving it enough thought, and then find ourselves waiting for a rules committee, in the fullness of time, to come up with its views as to how it should be implemented? The Minister of State might comment on whether that has been done.

  In respect of the early commencement of this legislation, the Minister will be given extensive power among indictable offences to specify offences to which the legislation will or will not apply. Will the Minister of State indicate whether the Department has considered, even at this stage, what offences this will apply to? There is the concept of relevant offences, which is flexible and ultimately depends, in many respects, on ministerial orders being made.   I would like to have a notion as to the intended scope of this legislation and some indication as to what the Department has in mind for the extent of its application. I fully appreciate that the manner in which the legislation was drafted gives flexibility in this regard but, in the context of it starting early, it is a bit like when holding a referendum on something, it is a good idea to publish the ensuring legislation at the same time so that the people know what is likely to happen. Given how long it will be before this legislation is commenced by orders made by the Minister, I would like to have a clear idea at this stage of the extent to which the Bill is intended to apply to what are described as relevant offences and also whether the process for the rules of court being drafted has already commenced or whether that will be six, nine or 12 months after the legislation is drafted.

Senator Barry Ward: Information on Barry Ward Zoom on Barry Ward In response to what Senator McDowell said, I must point out that this is very important legislation which provides a vehicle for all practitioners but probably principally defence practitioners to explore evidential issues before getting to the trial stage. Many of these issues are now resolved at the beginning of a trial after the jury has been empanelled and very often while they are sitting in a windowless room in the Criminal Courts of Justice or in a courtroom somewhere throughout the country. The Bill envisages that instead of doing it then, the process would be refined so that when we get to trial, we actually know what the issues are.

  Contrary to what Senator McDowell said, the very last place I would look for guidance on how to properly exercise the criminal justice system is 19th century judges or the United States of America because I think we actually do this quite well in this country. We have a very fair and functional system.

  Concerns have been expressed about the commencement. I do not think the commencement provisions outlined in the section 1 are, in any way, extraordinary because they are the same kinds of provisions that we put into most Bills that go through these Houses. I do not know whether it was on Second Stage, but certainly the Minister has indicated publicly that she is already planning discussions with the Courts Service over how this will be implemented. It is anticipated it will be operational either by the end of this legal year or early in the next legal year, certainly by October at the latest.

  This legislation has been welcomed by practitioners, victims' groups and people who are engaging on a regular basis with the criminal justice system. It seems eminently sensible to me. I am surprised that, based on section 5(1), the legislation is essentially restricted to those offences that lie at the higher end of the spectrum of indictable offences being those which carry a sentence of imprisonment for life or a maximum term of imprisonment of years or more. That is where it is pitched. That would exclude, for example, common assault, which is the kind of offence where this preliminary trial procedure would be enormously beneficial. I welcome that the section allows the Minister to make regulations to expand that to include more indictable offences which would make sense. I hope and presume she will do that.

Senator Michael McDowell: Information on Michael McDowell Zoom on Michael McDowell I hope Senator Ward was not implying that I was asking that we go back to the times of Robert Day because I was not.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Information on Joe O'Reilly Zoom on Joe O'Reilly We would have had to rule him out of order.

Senator Michael McDowell: Information on Michael McDowell Zoom on Michael McDowell However, I am saying that the whole process of jury trial has become much more complicated. I agree with Senator Ward that many aspects of the current system are protective of the accused and the rights of the accused. In the context of what is the most liberal bail law of all the common law jurisdictions and the delays that exist, from the point of view of the victim of crime, the period between the commission of an alleged offence and it being tried before a jury has become very elongated.  Senator Ward referred to the George Floyd reference that I had made. I merely said that the process was very quick compared to what would happen here. On the last occasion, I pointed out that Bernie Madoff would still be on a second judicial review and nowhere near a criminal trial had he been arrested in Ireland.

  One does not have to be the victim of a sexual offence. One could be the victim of an ordinary mugging or a brutalised raid on one's house. The idea that a person has to live with the accused being out on bail while wondering at what stage in the future a criminal trial is likely to happen, and being told it could be anytime in the next two years, is very debilitating for victims of crime. Senator Ward said that we do not have to ape everything that goes on in America. Maybe not, but the British, who are much closer to home, manage to have trials much faster than we do. They also lock people up pending trial much more freely than we do, so I accept that it is a balance between those two things. Justice delayed is justice denied to victims substantially. It may suit the legal profession, of which I am a member, to have a reasonably relaxed pace of things and to prepare over time for a trial but there are other interests, such as victim interests, which must be taken into account.

  The other thing which must be mentioned is that in the case of many categories of crime, there are people who avail of delay to commit further crime. The law there in relation to sentencing and consecutive sentences does not seem to be imposed, or adequately imposed, so as to constitute a deterrent. I take what Senator Ward said about the Minister saying they were in touch with the Courts Service but these rules of court will have to be made. The Courts Service can indicate to the Department the existing delays we are dealing with. I am glad this Bill applies to cases pending before the courts, as well as cases which will come into existence after it is commenced.

Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile: Information on Niall Ó Donnghaile Zoom on Niall Ó Donnghaile I apologise to my colleagues, the Leas-Chathaoirleach and the Minister of State for arriving late to this Stage of the Bill. On a procedural point, am I correct in saying that Senators are speaking on section 1 of the Bill, as opposed to any of Senator Ward's specific amendments?

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Information on Joe O'Reilly Zoom on Joe O'Reilly We are discussing section 1.

Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile: Information on Niall Ó Donnghaile Zoom on Niall Ó Donnghaile Perfect. Thank you for that clarity.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik I welcome the Minister of State to the House. Given that we are speaking on section 1, and that I understand the timeframe within which the Bill is to be brought into effect, which is hugely important, I want to reiterate my support and that of my party for the principle of preliminary trial hearings. This mechanism will be very important in the interests justice and in the interests of victims. During my time in practice, I saw many trials in which the trial before the jury was delayed for hours some days, but often for consecutive days at a time, while legal argument went on in the absence of the jury. In many of those cases, the issues being discussed in the absence of the jury were issues that could have been dealt with by way of a preliminary trial hearing. That is the crucial principle of this Bill.

  Earlier today, I raised the case that was referred to in The Irish Times on Saturday. The article, by Sarah-Jane Murphy, was about a case which she described as Zoe's case concerning a child who had made an allegation of sexual abuse. What was particularly harrowing to read was the experience of the family of the victim going through that experience and the lack of regard to the rights and interest of the child.  A number of practical issues around delay, lack of communication and physical facilities for the hearing of trials were expressed in that article. It is timely that we are debating this Bill. The concept of a preliminary trial hearing is to try to resolve some of the issues that would otherwise delay the conduct of a trial once up and running and that is very much in the interests of justice and in the interest of victims.

Senator Vincent P. Martin: Information on Vincent P. Martin Zoom on Vincent P. Martin With the indulgence of the Leas-Chathaoirleach, I would like to mention a point that is not covered in the Bill. Audio recordings of counsel are a possibility now to be served up to juries. For the day that is in it, the voice of Seamus McKenna, SC, was played on the radio this morning as part of "GunPlot". I have always been an advocate for the recording of trials as vital nuggets of history that can be released 30 years later such that there is no playing up to juries or juries being engaged in any play-acting by counsel, although I am not suggesting that would happen. Perhaps the Minister of State would take that on board. If trials were audio recorded, with files stored safely, it would be a wonderful bank of information for students of law. We could replay some of the brilliant trials of yesteryear. Ideally, a visual recording should also be made. This is well within the ability of the Courts Service and it could release them at a later stage.

  In respect of section 1, I accept that anything that speeds up trials and stops a jury being sent out for a day and half or dismissed sporadically is to be welcomed. When a jury is sent home for a day and a half or a couple of days, jurors are told not to discuss the evidence with anyone and to not Google the case. This puts jurors under prolonged temptation. Expedited trials would be all well and good, but I would like to reflect on what Senator McDowell said. Last week, the Senator and I agreed to disagree on a suggestion he had put forward in respect of the personal insolvency legislation. He might recall that I said I was not convinced that works in practice or that it was necessary or practical, although it might work in theory in respect of it being a further hoop that lenders had to jump through. However, in respect of this Bill, it is the opposite in that Senator McDowell may have flagged something important. This Bill works in theory, but will it work in practice and what will be the reality in the courts? Might it be that a junior counsel is not regarded as being five-star if he or she does not have a need to go into court to tick this box in the interests of doing everything possible for, in particular, the accused, and or having these preliminary hearings before the trials? I am conscious of that. Despite Senator McDowell's concerns, I would still proceed with this, but with a health warning and very vigilant judges.

  I also have concerns in regard to documentation provision to juries. On Second Stage, it was agreed that this issue was a matter for another day. We need a fundamental overhaul of the jury selection service. My concern is that we have to be so circumspect with respect to what is given to juries. I recall being in court and a diligent jury foreman returned - in terms of the gender aspect, our legislative requirement to use of the word "foreman" has yet to be replaced by "foreperson" - with a special request to a very well-known trial judge, the late Mr. Justice Paul Carney, which was that the jury be sent 12 copies of a particular page related to the final interaction in a cross-examination of a witness. I am sure similar requests were made of other judges.  He was worried about that so, instead, he read out the exchange of dialogue they had requested rather than give them physical possession of it.

  In respect of sharing documentation with juries, there is also the question of timing. This might come down to the judge. However, should we not release the opening and the closing speeches at the exact same time if it is a long trial, or does the opening speech lie there permanently on a jury table for several weeks before they get sight of the closing speech?

  The Bill refers to audio recordings or written transcripts. There is a level of discretion here that might have to be narrowed down. If it is going to be audio for the opening, ought it not be audio for the closing? I want a radical overhaul of the courts, as I said, including video and audio recording for the purposes of student law research. Despite that, I would prefer the cold print to go to the jury rather than tape recordings of the voices of counsel, because the print stands up whereas different styles and tones may be used by barristers - I am thinking of Seán MacBride and how he might sound against someone else. I am conscious that it will all come down to the inherent jurisdiction of the trial judge. I just want to flag those issues.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Information on Joe O'Reilly Zoom on Joe O'Reilly I would gently draw the Senator back to section 1.

Senator Vincent P. Martin: Information on Vincent P. Martin Zoom on Vincent P. Martin I flagged at the outset that I would be taking liberties. I will quit while I am ahead, given the Leas-Chathaoirleach has brought me into order. I thank him for his indulgence. I have another point that I will leave for later in our consideration and examination of the Bill.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Information on Joe O'Reilly Zoom on Joe O'Reilly I appreciate that.

Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile: Information on Niall Ó Donnghaile Zoom on Niall Ó Donnghaile I am always conscious during debates like this that I am in a room full of legal practitioners or former legal practitioners. I am not nor have I ever been a legal practitioner, so I always listen with great interest and great intent to what colleagues have to say.

  In regard to section 1, I addressed this at the earlier Stage of the Bill in the House. I agree with colleagues around the importance of pre-trial hearings and making that as accessible, as convenient and as rigorous as can be for juries, taking into consideration all of what has been said. I want to reiterate my earlier points on this, without having to rehearse them again today. Nonetheless, I think it is a very important aspect of this legislation and I agree with colleagues in that regard.

Minister of State at the Department of Justice (Deputy James Browne): Information on James Browne Zoom on James Browne The issues around opening and closing will be revisited when the amendments to section 12 are discussed and I will address them at that point. It is similar with section 11 around court rules.

  In regard to the issue of the Minister being given powers to decide which offences are included, the Bill goes into detail on section 5 as to what the requirements are for the Minister to decide what will and will not be included. I expect there will be consistency in terms of approach when we look at the details under section 5. The Bill sets out in section 5 exactly what the Minister must consider when specifying what the offences will be for the purposes of the Bill and, under section 5(3), specifies other things that must be taken into account. Under section 5(4), such orders will be laid before the Houses and, of course, may be annulled within 21 days by either House, so there is that protection mechanism and it will be for the Houses to look at.

  In regard to the broader point on the Bill itself, this has been called for over numerous years by different working groups, practitioners, victims groups and all sorts of other groups, for understandable reasons. I practised as a criminal barrister for a while and was involved in a number of criminal trials, including some quite lengthy ones where there was significant and ongoing disruption. I was always conscious in those trials that not only is it a significant inconvenience for the jury to be brought in and brought out, but it can also be very difficult for either the prosecution or the defence to build up a narrative around that evidence when there are constant interruptions.  The jury should have an opportunity to focus on the evidence in a trial, so the overall point of this Bill is very worthy.

  I think the Bill will work. It is not going to solve every procedural aspect or issue. I hope and believe that there are enough protections within the Bill. The judges also have their own powers to ensure it is not abused by practitioners for delaying tactics or extensive applications for preliminary trial hearings. I would expect anybody taking a preliminary application would put their best foot forward and deal with as many contentious issues on an application for a preliminary trial hearing so that when the matter did come before trial, it would be ready to be considered by the jury without disruption in so far as possible, although there will always be things that pop up during a trial. I believe the Bill will work but we will keep it under review and serious consideration. There will always be criminal procedure legislation in the future and I understand there will be a criminal procedures (amendment) Bill next year as well. We will certainly keep a close eye on this legislation.

  In terms of commencement, the Minister has leeway. She will not commence the legislation until such time as she is satisfied the courts have all of the practicalities in place, including the Judges' rules. She will tick-tack with the Courts Service and the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, in that respect so that everything is ready to go when the legislation is commenced.

  Question put and agreed to.

  Sections 2 to 4, inclusive, agreed to.


  Question proposed: "That section 5 stand part of the Bill."

Senator Michael McDowell: Information on Michael McDowell Zoom on Michael McDowell Section 5 is a provision stating what a relevant offence is, and as is clearly provided for in subsection (1), it means:

(a) an offence specified in an order made under subsection (2),

(b) an offence for which a person of full capacity and not previously convicted may, under, or by virtue of, any enactment or the common law, be sentenced to—
(i) imprisonment for life, or

(ii) a maximum term of ... 10 years or more,
(c) an offence consisting of aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring the commission of an offence specified in an order made under subsection (2) or an offence to which paragraph (b) applies, or

(d) an offence consisting of conspiring to commit, or inciting the commission of, an offence specified in an order made under subsection (2) or an offence to which paragraph (b) applies.

I wanted to draw this matter to the attention of the Minister of State. Where do we stand with being an accessory after the fact to such an offence? It seems to me that aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring does not automatically include being an accessory after the fact. This may sound slightly arcane but there are cases now, especially when you are dealing with gangland criminality, murders and the like, where you would want to be very clear whether people who are accessories after the fact come within the ambit of subsection (1)(c). Should we consider tweaking the provision to make it clear it includes the offence of being an accessory after the fact?

Deputy James Browne: Information on James Browne Zoom on James Browne I will seek clarification. I suspect and understand that either aiding or abetting after the fact would cover it but I will get absolute clarification.

Senator Michael McDowell: Information on Michael McDowell Zoom on Michael McDowell I accept that it may be the case that abetting involves being an accessory, although I am not sure about it as it has been years since I have studied the law in that regard. I am not sure about it.

  The criteria set out in sections 5(2)(a), (b) and (c) seem perfectly reasonable. In respect of section 5(3), is it envisaged that the Minister will take a generous view of this and extend the provision as widely as possible or it thought that this will only be done in the case of particularly difficult or complicated offences? Senator Ward made the point that a simple assault can be tried on indictment. Even in cases of that nature, it might make sense to sort out the preliminaries. That is probably the lowest grade of trial for an indictable offence that could be imagined - somebody swinging a punch at somebody else or whatever. What is the intention of the Minister and the Department? Is this power to specify offences to applied liberally or will it be only used in cases of exceptional importance? Section 5(3)(b) refers to "any relevant complexities that generally arise in the prosecution of such an offence." I know that is only one of two factors, the other being the nature of the offence concerned. Is there to be an inclusive approach which involves extending this wherever possible or is it be applied narrowly and only in the case of offences which people might see as more difficult to prove?

Deputy James Browne: Information on James Browne Zoom on James Browne I am in something of a difficult position in that this is the Minister's Bill and I cannot step into her mind. I certainly cannot step into the mind of any future Minister. As I understand it, this is to be used only where there has been considerable consultation. I reiterate that if an order is to be made, it must be laid before the Houses under section 5(4). Any Minister, whether it is the current Minister or one of her successors, will have to lay any such order before the Houses, regardless of his or her intentions. It is to be expected that the Minister will have to explain the rationale behind the decision at that time. That is the protection measure that exists.

  Question put and agreed to.


Senator Barry Ward: Information on Barry Ward Zoom on Barry Ward I move amendment No. 1:

In page 8, to delete lines 1 to 7 and substitute the following:
“(2) Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1), the trial court shall, where—

(a) an accused is charged with a relevant offence, and

(b) the prosecution or the accused makes an application to the court for a preliminary trial hearing to be held,

hold such a preliminary trial hearing.”.

This amendment is essentially technical in nature. I do not know whether the Minister of State is minded to accept it. The question behind the amendment was, to a great extent, answered by the Minister on Second Stage. I was concerned that the provisions of section 6(2)(c) would prevent the holding of a second preliminary hearing. That was addressed by the Minister on Second Stage and I am happy to withdraw the amendment on that basis.

Senator Michael McDowell: Information on Michael McDowell Zoom on Michael McDowell I agree with Senator Ward. The Minister was correct. This is the only obligatory requirement for such a thing to happen. The way it is phrased is clever enough. It prevents repeat applications being made with a view to obstruction. It gives the court the discretion to navigate its way around that issue while, at the same, giving both the prosecution and the defence one bite of the cherry.  The judicial policy will be to put all one's cards on the table on day one and not to keep coming back with more objections in sequence.

Acting Chairperson (Senator Pauline O'Reilly): Information on Pauline O'Reilly Zoom on Pauline O'Reilly Do any Members wish to speak before I call the Minister of State? Does the Minister of State wish to come in on the amendment?

Deputy James Browne: Information on James Browne Zoom on James Browne I could not put it any better than Senator McDowell has put it. I think the amendment is going to be withdrawn.

  Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Senator Barry Ward: Information on Barry Ward Zoom on Barry Ward I move amendment No. 2:

In page 8, to delete lines 28 to 30.

The amendment relates to section 6(6), which states:

Where an accused has not been arraigned prior to a preliminary trial hearing in the proceedings concerned, the trial court may, where it considers it appropriate, direct that he or she shall be arraigned at the commencement of such a hearing.

The amendment proposes the deletion of that subsection. The simple reason for that is that it seems to me that a preliminary trial hearing should be allowed to take place before the accused person makes a decision on how to plead. That would be the form in respect of, for example, a section 4E application under the Criminal Evidence Act 1967. Although I note the subsection couches it very much within the power of the judge to make a decision in this regard, I have a small concern about giving the power to the court to essentially demand that an accused person nail his or her colours to the mast one way or the other before proceeding with the preliminary hearing. I wonder whether it is necessary to afford the court that opportunity or whether the subsection should be removed.

Senator Michael McDowell: Information on Michael McDowell Zoom on Michael McDowell I am in disagreement with Senator Ward. I think the accused should be required to nail his or her colours to the mast as early as possible in a criminal process and not have a kind of each-way bet on seeing how the process will go and then seeing whether it would be a good idea to plead guilty. I emphasise that I am not being opportunistic in using this example but in the case, for instance, of a sexual offence against a woman, surely before the accused is given the right to start making preliminary applications in respect of what will happen at a trial, he or she should be asked at the very outset whether he or she is pleading guilty to the offence. Senator Ward states that asking accused persons to do so at an early stage is asking them to make a decision, effectively, against a contingency that their situation might improve if certain evidence were to be excluded. However, the corollary to that is that, for example, an accused could decide to have a go at trying out an application relating to previous sexual history before a judge before deciding whether to plead guilty. The woman would be put through the process of defending her right not to be interrogated on this issue and her legal aid lawyer would make submissions on it and then the accused could decide whether to plead guilty. In my respectful submission, this would be a retrograde step. If accused persons come into court with a legal aid lawyer, have read the book of evidence and know the prosecution case at its height, it would be counterproductive to allow them to keep their powder dry and then get involved in preliminary litigation about the nature of that case without ever having to say whether they are, in fact, accepting their guilt. I am against the acceptance of the amendment.

Senator Barry Ward: Information on Barry Ward Zoom on Barry Ward To be clear, the reality as it stands is that a person is not required to indicate that he or she is pleading not guilty until he or she is put in charge of the jury at the beginning of the trial. While Senator McDowell has perhaps selected the example that would cause me to change my mind and I would not want a situation where a person was allowed to essentially pillory another person to ascertain what the evidence is, I also fall back on first principles in respect of our system, which state that a person is entitled to know the case against him or her before facing it.  There is something in saying that the accused should be entitled to know the entirety of the evidence that will be adduced at trial before making a decision about whether he or she wishes to plead guilty or not guilty. This is the basis of the amendment. Again, I would not push it very hard but it is unusual, given other aspects of certain pretrial measures. I have cited the example of section 4E of the 1967 Act. I say this in the context of other things that were said during the discussion on section 1. There might be a feeling with regard to legal aid lawyers - I balk somewhat at that term given that pretty much every criminal law practitioner in the State is a legal aid lawyer - that there would be a practice whereby they would automatically seek a preliminary hearing in order to prove their worth or to show they were committed to the defence or that they were doing everything they could. There are lots of other preliminary trial applications that can be made. In Dublin, for example, we already have pretrial hearings or there was, for a long number of years. It was a trial period or a probationary period as to whether pretrial periods would work. They did not. However, there are applications, for example under section 4E, that allow an accused person to challenge whether or not a prima faciecase has been made in the evidence that has been provided as part of the book of evidence, as supplied under section 4B of the 1967 Act. Those applications are unusual, even though there is the right for any defence practitioner to bring that application at any stage before the trial process. They do not do it because judges are not fools. Judges know when one is playing for time or putting on a show, or whatever it is. I would have no fear that this would happen in preliminary trial hearings either. Is there something to be said for allowing an accused person to have a full understanding of the evidence that will be called against him or her at trial, before declaring before the court whether he or she is pleading guilty or not guilty?

Senator Michael McDowell: Information on Michael McDowell Zoom on Michael McDowell Giving somebody a full understanding of the nature of the evidence that the prosecution intends to bring is one thing, and I fully agree with Senator Ward about that, but giving somebody the right to start testing the evidence on a preliminary basis goes one stage further. With regard to striking out the whole proceeding on the basis that there is not a prima facie case disclosed, the standard of proof is that one assumes that all the evidence in the book of evidence is heard. One does not start putting pencils through bits of it based on a different notion that it could be dodgy evidence. Perhaps if it was clearly hearsay then this would not apply. The courts try to give a discount to people who plead guilty at the earliest available opportunity. This is not simply to aid the victims, it is also an aid to the whole system. An acknowledgement of guilt and a sparing of the time of the court and of the court listing system by an early plea is generally given a judicial pat on the back when it comes to the imposition of any sentence.

  If we were to do what is proposed in amendment No. 1 we are certainly going to do what I warned against during the general discussion on section 1. We would introduce a new three-month or six-month delay, almost by definition in every case. People who do not want to go to Mountjoy Prison will say "Let us have a legal debate about the admissibility of my confession" or they may want a legal debate about the history of the injured parties, such as sexual history, and they may even go off to the Court of Appeal at the end of it all. I genuinely think it would be an error.

  If this is about shortening trials, they are trials that are already about to happen. It is not about shortening the whole process in respect of trials that may or may not be about to happen. The policy should be to put one's cards on the table and ask "Are you accepting guilt or innocence?", before we start debating tests to the evidence and matters such as what evidence might or might not be brought, or whether an alleged sexual crime victim could be cross-examined as to previous sexual history.  Those are the kinds of things you really do not want to bring forward to somebody who will not even acknowledge his or her guilt to start with.

Senator Vincent P. Martin: Information on Vincent P. Martin Zoom on Vincent P. Martin It is a well-intended amendment. Like the previous speaker, I would be concerned that the outcome of this would be fewer people entering pleas, thereby clogging up the system and victims suffering in a more prolonged way, all because they will not nail their colours. If this Bill is enacted with Senator Ward's amendment, why would many people not take their chances without nailing their colours? Until now and until this Bill is enacted, the only time you can do that is during the jury trial of the action. You would be giving the right to an accused which would only ever have been given heretofore, until this Bill is enacted, in the trial of an action. Instead, people could try to dismantle parts of a case. The bigger the challenge, cometh the hour, cometh the person. There would be huge issue around admissibility and the accused just hanging back to see how the ball breaks, so to speak. In the interest of public policy and the interests of the complainant or victims, and while I can understand the other argument as well that an accused should see all the documents and know exactly the case he must answer, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages and therefore I hope the Minister of State does not accede to Senator Ward's urgings.

Deputy James Browne: Information on James Browne Zoom on James Browne Senator McDowell gave a very good example of where I would expect a judge would require somebody to be arraigned when he or she is going to challenge that type of evidence in sexual cases. I made a section 4E application once in a manslaughter by omission case. At that time there was no precedent and there was a question as to whether it was even an offence here. Sometimes, there are challenges around the book of evidence and admissibility. There are occasions when a court will decide that somebody should be arraigned before getting into the preliminary hearing. Another example that I was involved in, and it might be argued it could fall either way, was an application to transfer a case because of adverse local publicity and whether someone should be arraigned before a preliminary hearing was heard.

  This section effectively leaves it up to the judge to make the call on when the preliminary hearing will be heard, the type of evidence that will be questioned, and the type of evidence that will have to be given as to whether somebody should be arraigned at that point. In those circumstances, we are putting our trust in the judges to make the right call. Therefore, unfortunately, I will not accept the amendment. I understand Senator Ward's intention but we will leave it up to the courts to make the call at the time.

Acting Chairperson (Senator Pauline O'Reilly): Information on Pauline O'Reilly Zoom on Pauline O'Reilly This is not a court but all the barristers have laid their cases out.

Senator Barry Ward: Information on Barry Ward Zoom on Barry Ward I will not press it.

  Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Acting Chairperson (Senator Pauline O'Reilly): Information on Pauline O'Reilly Zoom on Pauline O'Reilly Amendments Nos. 3 and 4 are related and may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Senator Barry Ward: Information on Barry Ward Zoom on Barry Ward I move amendment No. 3:

In page 8, line 31, after “matters” to insert “inter alia”.

The two amendments are linked in terms of the amending of section 2(7). This section sets down what the trial court may assess at a preliminary trial hearing. I have a small concern that it is unduly fettering the discretion of a judge. Amendment No. 3 inserts the words "inter alia" to show that the list provided for in section 2(7) is not exhaustive and to allow the judge to consider other factors he or she thinks might be appropriate.  I have taken a belt-and-braces view of matters in adding a paragraph to state that a judge in such a case might consider such other matters as he or she deems appropriate. I am saying that there is a whole range of issues that could be considered at a preliminary trial hearing. It does not seem to make sense in section 6(7) to reduce that to a definitive and exhaustive list of measures. We should, once again, be trusting in the Judiciary to identify what issues should and can be decided at a preliminary trial hearing and that is why I am suggesting this amendment to subsection (7).

Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile: Information on Niall Ó Donnghaile Zoom on Niall Ó Donnghaile Both amendments expand the number of matters that could be considered at pre-trial hearings. I want to speak briefly to the experience in the Six Counties where arraignment hearings have expanded in scope and have been used as a means to test witnesses, including in one high profile and well-known trial. The stated reasons for holding pre-trial hearings should be kept as they are in the view of Sinn Féin and it would be on that basis that we would be opposed to these amendments, depending on what Senator Ward intends to do.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik I did not agree with Senator Ward's previous amendment so I am glad he withdrew it. I do, however, think there is some merit in these two amendments, particularly as section 6(4) refers to the interests of the victim as one of the criteria that a trial court shall look at in determining whether a preliminary trial hearing should be held. It is interesting that particular consideration is not included in the range of issues set out in subsection (7) for the trial court to consider at a preliminary trial hearing. It seems to me there is some merit in this suggestion. I will, obviously, be interested to hear what the Minister of State has to say.

  It also strikes me, on a more general note, that Senator Ward has proposed a whole array of amendments to this Bill through which we will be going, although I know we are due to suspend at 4 o'clock. The Senator is a Government Senator and I wonder whether his Government colleagues will vote with him, should he choose to press any of his amendments, if the amendment is opposed by the Minister of State. I ask that rhetorically because some of us in the Opposition may seek to back some of those amendments and not to back others. It is, clearly, an unusual position that the only amendments to a Government Bill are being proposed by a Government Senator.

Senator Michael McDowell: Information on Michael McDowell Zoom on Michael McDowell It is, in fairness, helpful when Government Senators put down amendments, especially when the Government has a massive majority in this House, which was recently increased yet again. There is no harm at all in Government Senators with a point of a view on a Bill coming forward with proposals. If an amendment is moved, it is a matter of agreement that they are not put to a vote and if anybody wants them put to a vote, they can be. Amendments cannot be withdrawn without the agreement of the House.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik I am not disagreeing, I was merely asking a question.

Senator Michael McDowell: Information on Michael McDowell Zoom on Michael McDowell I am just making that point. The timing of this legislation was such as to preclude me from putting down amendments because I was getting jabbed and other things last week. I am happy that we are taking it at a pace which will allow us to look carefully at each section, rather than rushing the whole thing through.

  Senator Ó Donnghaile said that, in Northern Ireland, expanding the matters that can be dealt with at a preliminary trial has not been the happiest in effect. We should be careful because the whole idea is, in one sense, to keep the range of things that can be dealt with at a preliminary hearing reasonably under control so that mini-trials are not happening before a jury ever comes near the matter. However, I favour Senator Ward's amendment. Something like "inter alia" could be put in. I do not think one needs both amendments Nos. 3 and 4. It would be belt and braces to insert both. However, the matters a trial court should asses should not be absolutely limited to those listed at sections 7(a) to (d), inclusive.  It should be slightly more flexible than that. One does not want either the accused or the State saying the judge's order was made without statutory power or outside the judge's statutory power in every case. If we included wording like "inter alia" or "including the following", the Judiciary would probably interpret paragraphs (a) to (d) as indicating the likely scope of issues but would be given a little flexibility. If the matters in paragraphs (a) to (d) were the only grounds, some unintended consequence could follow such that a judge might say that while he or she would love to make the order, he or she could not. The proposal makes common sense. Everyone might want the order to be made in the trial, including the prosecution and accused, but it might not be possible, for whatever reason. Therefore, I favour this amendment.

Senator Barry Ward: Information on Barry Ward Zoom on Barry Ward In respect to what Senator Bacik said, I am not a Government Senator; I may be a member of a Government party but I have no more power over the Government in this House than Senator Bacik or any other Senator. Much is the pity, in my view, but that is the reality of the situation. It would be a real shame if we adopted the position that Government Senators should not table amendments. We are all legislators in this House and we all have a role in scrutinising legislation, raising issues and identifying them for the Government that runs the country as opposed to those of us who are Members of the Legislature. I see my role as doing exactly that, and that is why I have tabled amendments. As to whether I will press them, I will wait to hear what the Minister of State says on each one. I will not make a decision at the outset as to whether I am going to press them. It would be a real shame if a view were taken that Government Senators should not table amendments, which I realise is not what Senator Bacik was saying, and that if they did, they might find themselves embarrassing their party. That is not necessary at all. What we should be doing is stating what we think about the legislation, making proposals, listening to what people think about them and then deciding whether they should be accepted. That is the reason the amendments have been tabled.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik I am delighted to hear the response from Senator Ward. I should stress it is a great idea for Senators from Government parties — I apologise as I should have used that more accurate description — to table amendments. It is very good and emphasises the strength of the Seanad as a legislature, and it emphasises the role each of us plays as a legislator. I speak as someone whose party was in government and who was, to use shorthand, a "Government Senator", that is, a Senator from a Government party. Indeed, I was Deputy Leader of the House at one time. Tabling amendments as a Senator from a Government party is very positive. Seeing it is very welcome but it is unusual. Colleagues will agree that it is not usual, in considering a Bill, for all the amendments to have been tabled by a Senator in a Government party. That was my comment on the matter. I am glad to hear Senator Ward's response to the effect that he will wait to hear the Minister of State's response on each amendment, as he should, before making a decision one way or the other. That is very helpful for us in opposition to know. Those of us from Opposition parties or no party will also be making decisions on individual amendments, and I do not expect that the Opposition will be speaking with one voice on this either. Clearly, Senator Ó Donnghaile has a particular view. It is interesting to hear the experience from the North on the merits of this amendment and the sorts of matters that should be considered by a trial court during a preliminary trial hearing.

  This is an important Bill. It will make some significant changes to criminal procedures so it is very welcome that we are going to spend a bit of time debating it. I am glad. Again, it is perhaps a little unfortunate that we did not separate Committee and Report Stages but I believe I am correct that although the Bill is down for Committee and Remaining Stages, our consideration is only adjourning at 4 p.m. rather than concluding. Therefore, we can continue on another date.

Senator Michael McDowell: Information on Michael McDowell Zoom on Michael McDowell A point has occurred to me. Section 6(6) states: "Where an accused has not been arraigned prior to a preliminary trial hearing in the proceedings concerned, the trial court may, where it considers it appropriate, direct that he or she shall be arraigned at the commencement of such a hearing."  It occurred to me that it would be better to substitute the words "the accused" for "he or she", not because I am worried about gender fluidity but I am worried about bodies corporate which may or may not be prosecuted also. It would be better to use "the accused".

Senator Martin Conway: Information on Martin Conway Zoom on Martin Conway I, too, welcome the fact that Government Senators are tabling amendments more frequently than they would have done previously. I commend my colleague, Senator Ward, on tabling the amendments, going to the trouble of analysing the legislation and giving his views, which will better the legislation. By debating these matters we are doing what we are constitutionally supposed to do, which is enhance and improve legislation. Amendments need not necessarily always be right but it is healthy and good that when Senators have a viewpoint, they would feel free to table amendments, where appropriate. It is important that we would support Senators who do that because it is positive. Senator Ward has played his role in enhancing legislation.

  One worry I have is that because of the time constraints due to Covid-19 we are not debating legislation, on Committee Stage in particular, to the level we should be doing. That is an issue the House might examine because legislation is passing through the House which we need to spend more time teasing out.

Acting Chairperson (Senator Pauline O'Reilly): Information on Pauline O'Reilly Zoom on Pauline O'Reilly I should have said that we are supposed to be discussing the amendments and not the ability to table amendments.

Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile: Information on Niall Ó Donnghaile Zoom on Niall Ó Donnghaile That is what happens when we get the legal-----

Deputy James Browne: Information on James Browne Zoom on James Browne For my part I welcome amendments from both Government and non-Government Members. It helps to improve legislation, which is hugely welcome. It probably is a departure from times past but it is a welcome departure.

  I am not minded to accept the amendment for the reason that what the Senators, with the exception of Sinn Féin, are trying to do is already done in the Bill. I refer to section 6(8)(f), which provides that at a preliminary hearing the court may make "any other order relating to the conduct of the trial of the offence concerned as appears necessary to the court to ensure that due process and the interests of justice are observed". Section 2 clarifies further that ""order", in relation to a court, means a decision that the court is empowered to make under or pursuant to an enactment or the common law, or otherwise". I am satisfied that the court has all the powers it needs to deal with these matters already. Although I agree in principle with the flexibility Senator Ward is attempting to put into the Bill it is already provided for in this Bill.

  Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Senator Barry Ward: Information on Barry Ward Zoom on Barry Ward I move amendment No. 4:

In page 8, between lines 40 and 41, to insert the following:
“(e) such other matter as the trial judge shall deem appropriate.”.

  Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

  Question proposed: "That section 6 stand part of the Bill."

Senator Michael McDowell: Information on Michael McDowell Zoom on Michael McDowell On the section, I want to make a couple of brief points. The provision in section 6(5) that "The trial court may, on the application of the prosecution or the accused, where it considers it appropriate having regard to the orders the making of which are to be considered at a preliminary hearing and, in particular, where the making of a relevant order is sought, direct that the preliminary trial hearing concerned be held as close in time to the date for which the trial is set down for hearing as the court considers appropriate and just in the circumstances." I apprehend that may be that if one is bringing back a witness from, say, America one does not want to have it extended over two trips to Ireland or something like that.  In general terms, I would like the thinking behind that provision to be clarified to the House. Why would one want it as close "as the court considers appropriate and just in the circumstances"? Does that provision include the converse, that is, that the trial judge can have it as distant as he or she likes in order to separate the two issues fully? I am somewhat mystified as to why that particular subjection was included, what its intended purpose is, and why we are putting that particular provision there. As sure as night follows day, some lawyer is going to say that it means something to some judge and that it either supports some proposition or does not. I am left wondering what in fact is intended by it.

  I have a further point to make on subsection (8)(c), but we can come back to that later.

Acting Chairperson (Senator Pauline O'Reilly): Information on Pauline O'Reilly Zoom on Pauline O'Reilly Does the Minister of State wish to respond?

Deputy James Browne: Information on James Browne Zoom on James Browne I thank the Senator. This is probably just a matter of good practice. The Senator gives an example of the practical impact of a witness travelling a long distance. It may also be the case that there is an expert witness on the State's side of a case, perhaps a forensics expert, where he or she has appeared as a witness in a preliminary trial, and where if the trial was some distance away in time, that witness may be gone. One is then looking at getting somebody else to read back into the evidence. Generally, it would be a matter of good practice.

  My understanding also is that in dealing with anything to do with admissibility, which is similar to the point I have been just making, that where one has the preliminary trial, evidence is given, and perhaps experts are called, will all of those witnesses still be available for the actual trial itself? The longer that gap and distance is there, the greater the risk that a person may be out of employment, no longer available or, God forbid, may have passed away, as unfortunately sometimes happens in criminal trials. This then is just a matter of good practice as to admissibility of evidence and keeping things moving.

Senator Michael McDowell: Information on Michael McDowell Zoom on Michael McDowell On the other matter that I have just raised, subsection (8)(c) refers to "relevant order". When one goes back to the definition of that on page 6 of the Bill, it states: " "relevant order" means an order as to the admissibility of evidence, including an order under or pursuant to section 16 of the Act of 1992;". I understand that that reference to section 16 of the 1992 Act is to video evidence, in certain circumstances. This raises a question as to the admissibility of evidence which is a point I wanted to explore with the Minister of State. If, for example, a person's defence is as follows: that he or she made a confession but that it was made under duress, that the person was threatened that his or her spouse would be arrested, that the person's children would be taken into care, or that the person was threatened with physical violence or with this, that, or the other. Is it envisaged that that issue could properly go to the jury, where it is admitted that it is the person's signature at the bottom of the statement and that the person did in fact use those words but these were effectively cajoled out of the person who was forced or felt compelled to say that because of "X" or "Y"?  If that is decided at a preliminary stage by a judge having heard the accused person and, say, the interviewing garda who is supposed to have made these remarks in the corridor outside the interview room, as I understand our jurisprudence at present, the standard of proof to get such a statement in is that it be beyond reasonable doubt. If a trial judge was left in a state of reasonable doubt as to whether those words were uttered to the accused, that judge would normally say the standard of proof requires him or her to deem it inadmissible. The corollary of a finding that it is admissible is a rejection beyond reasonable doubt of the evidence tendered at the voir dire, as it is now, or the preliminary stage of the trial, that a judge is saying beyond reasonable doubt that it did not happen. Then there is the situation that a judge has said beyond reasonable doubt the evidence against the reception of this confession is false and he or she so finds it. The situation then is that the matter comes before the jury, which looks at it again and says it has a doubt about it. The judge has ruled it admissible on the basis he or she does not believe a word of what the accused is saying about the confession but then there is a trial before a jury on exactly the same point. In effect, the accused is given two bites of the cherry: one to convince the judge that there could be a reasonable doubt about it, and then to bring the same matter before the jury a second time and he or she signed the confession but only in the following circumstances.

Is it logical, in a case where it is perfectly clear that is the only defence, that it should be the subject of a trial before the judge alone? It would be a preliminary trial, effectively, in which the judge, in order to let it go to the jury to decide, has to effectively say, "I reject that evidence as untrue beyond reasonable doubt." It may be a philosophical question but it is one which troubles me about these preliminary trials. I can imagine myself as a trial judge saying to let the jury decide whether sergeant so-and-so uttered those words. The accused tells the judge it is his signature and he did use those words but only for the following reason. Is it right or reasonable in those circumstances that a judge, in order to let the jury decide that, has to determine beyond reasonable doubt that, in the accused's version of events given in evidence on a preliminary issue, he is lying through his teeth, that there is no truth whatsoever in it and there is no doubt that it is untrue? This raises a fundamental question about preliminary trials. If it is evident to a judge that the jury in the last analysis before going out to consider its verdict will have to consider whether sergeant so-and-so made that inducement or threat to the accused, why should there be as of right an application where, in order for the jury to consider that legitimate point, a trial judge has to throw out the version given by the accused on the criminal standard of proof beyond reasonable doubt?  I may be mistaking something but I ask the question.

Senator Barry Ward: Information on Barry Ward Zoom on Barry Ward I suggest that already happens. It is already the case that when an accused goes to trial, it is open to him or her to challenge the evidence before the judge, in voir dire - in the absence of the jury - and to invite the judge to assess whether the evidence is appropriate to go before the jury. That two-step process, or the two bites of the cherry that Senator McDowell described, is a fundamental part of our system. We do not put evidence before a jury that is inappropriate, unsustainable in some way or prejudicial to a certain extent, given that any evidence the prosecution presents is likely to be prejudicial against the accused. That system is already in place.

  We are trying to decouple the voir dire hearing during a trial, which delays the trial in no uncertain times and discommodes all the actors involved, in order that we can do it in a much more time-efficient way in advance of the trial. Whether it is a month or a year in advance, it will mean that all those loose ends will have been tied up before getting to the trial. When the jury is empanelled and the accused is put into the charge of the jury, matters can then run smoothly and there will be much less disruption to the trial process once it has begun, meaning it will be less inconvenient to the jurors, the accused, the witnesses and the alleged injured parties.

  I have no difficulty with that double bite at the cherry and the opportunity for the accused because that is exactly what happens already. We are just seeking to separate it in time.

Senator Michael McDowell: Information on Michael McDowell Zoom on Michael McDowell Senator Ward is totally correct that that is the current practice, but I wonder about its correctness. If we are trying to speed up proceedings, we should not have mini-trials in advance of major trials where the jury will be asked to consider that exact point. That the Constitution guarantees a trial "in due course of law" is one thing, but it also guarantees trial by jury. It is very difficult for a person charged with a serious criminal offence to be in effect branded a liar at a preliminary stage in the trial by the trial judge who is going to deal with the case, and then to expect the trial judge to sit there impartially and stare at the ceiling when the same evidence is presented to the jury.

  Furthermore, although this question may not be for resolution during this debate, how could a judge be satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that a Sergeant McDowell did not say to a Mr. Ward that if he does not make a confession, the sergeant will do X or Y to the man's spouse or have his children brought into care that evening? How could a judge state, beyond a reasonable doubt one way or the other, whether that remark was made on the way into an interview room? If one person says that is exactly what the sergeant said, and the sergeant says he would never do anything of the sort, that he is an honourable member of An Garda Síochána and that that is an outrageous suggestion, what is the judge to do? Is he or she to say it is beyond a reasonable doubt that what he or she is being told did not occur, that there is no reasonable doubt and that he or she is satisfied it is an invention? Is he or she to say, because one person has stated A and the other person has stated B, and because there is no corroboration either way, that he or she will hold against the person making the allegation and say that, beyond a reasonable doubt, the person has invented that evidence? That is the standard, effectively, of allowing a statement to go in.

  It may be that today is not the day to decide this, but perhaps the Bill should be amended to make clear that if a judge anticipates, on the basis of the evidence before him or her, that an issue is going to be decided by a jury one way or the other if the evidence is admitted, he or she may decide not to take that evidence away from the jury or put it before the jury by branding the accused a liar beyond a reasonable doubt.  My view of this matter is that it is one for the jury proper. That is the proposition that has been worrying me. This Bill does not create that worry and it cannot address that issue unless there is some deeper philosophical thought about it. It seems to me that if, for instance, a statement is produced, which is signed by the accused and in the words of the accused, and they see the video of it and the only issue will be whether it was induced by a circumstance of this kind, it is not entirely unfanciful. I think Senator Ó Donnghaile will agree with me that such inducements can and would be made. They have been alleged to have been made frequently in the past, although it may be an easy allegation to make. I am uncomfortable with the notion that the implication of such a statement going to the jury is that the trial judge has already disbelieved the accused on his or her oath and has rejected the evidence, not simply as unlikely to be true on the balance of probability, but incapable of being true to the standard required of a reasonable doubt that nobody hearing it could believe it to be true. That, to me, is the wrong standard to apply to that kind of situation.

Deputy James Browne: Information on James Browne Zoom on James Browne As Senator Ward rightly points out and Senator McDowell accepts, this already happens in court trials in regard to admissibility, probative value versus prejudicial value and a judge has to make those calls on the basis, sometimes, that if the evidence was allowed to go to the jury for it to decide, perhaps it may put the accused in a prejudicial position. Trial by jury is the cornerstone of our legal system. Its purpose is as a bulwark for the accused against a potential Government of tyranny. That is why we have a jury system. Senator McDowell speaks to a wider point that does merit discussion, although perhaps not in terms of this Bill, which is around whether we are trusting our juries less and less by getting into more technical preliminary hearings about what they should and should not hear. Nonetheless, the purpose of the preliminary hearings and allowing those applications is to ensure that the evidence that goes before the jury is the real evidence of the case and not evidence that may taint the jury in terms of its views and outlook. As the decades move on, we will get a better other understanding of psychology and how people think and the biases that people may.

  I understand the Senator's argument and where he is coming from, but such hearings already happen. All we are doing in this Bill is facilitating these types of applications that happen in trials to be made in a more timely fashion and to allow trials to proceed in a more efficient manner.

Senator Michael McDowell: Information on Michael McDowell Zoom on Michael McDowell I know it is almost 4 p.m. but I would like to make one point, if I may. Some people may think that the point I am making is a academic one; it is not. It is a fundamental point.

Deputy James Browne: Information on James Browne Zoom on James Browne It is an important point.

Senator Michael McDowell: Information on Michael McDowell Zoom on Michael McDowell The Special Criminal Court consists of three people. A member of that court - it may not be a member of the trial court, but that depends on the new rules of the Special Criminal Court - will have ruled a statement admissible. That judge is then going to sit with two other colleagues who are going to consider the same evidence, which is a starting position of one down. It is like an away goal in a soccer match. The court is one down before the trial starts if one judge has been the judge ruling in the preliminary hearing, especially in the case of a non-jury court.  There is substance in what I am saying. I know it applies at the moment but at least the whole court decides it at the moment. People are now going to be in a position where they know that Mr. Justice Bloggs in the middle, or Ms Justice Bloggs in the middle, already rejected this evidence as a complete fabrication, and the two people on either side are being asked to effectively reverse that decision. It is a strange thing.

  Progress reported; Committee to sit again.

  Sitting suspended at 4 p.m. and resumed at 4.19 p.m.

Post Office Network: Motion

Senator Timmy Dooley: Information on Timmy Dooley Zoom on Timmy Dooley I move:

That Seanad Éireann:
recognises that:
- post offices are at the heart of local communities, playing a unique and important role in both rural and urban areas;

- post offices provide crucial economic, administrative and social services to communities all around Ireland, especially to those in rural and isolated areas;

- post offices serve an important function as ‘a service provider of last resort’ in rural communities where other service providers have decided not to operate for commercial reasons;

- post offices create significant direct employment and supports further employment in some of the most disadvantaged areas;

- An Post’s retail network is one of the largest indigenous commercial enterprises in Ireland in terms of turnover and employment;

- An Post has a proven track record of service delivery;

- post offices act as a significant support network for individuals, businesses and Government during times of crisis, such as the current Covid-19 pandemic;

- many citizens depend on post offices in order to access basic State services, including social welfare payments and passport applications, as well as key financial services including insurance, banking and foreign exchange;

- rapid technological and societal changes have presented significant challenges to the existent post office business model;

- the financial viability and sustainability of An Post’s retail network is under serious threat;

- significant change is required in order to ensure the viability of An Post’s Retail Network;
believes that:
- the post office network continues to provide an enduring and essential social value and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future;

- a modernised post office network will provide a better range of financial services and e-commerce services for citizens and enterprise;

- An Post has untapped potential to do more and to make a further significant contribution across many areas of public, business and community life in Ireland; and

- with an evolving mandate, An Post can emerge as a central hub for a wide variety of valuable community-focused services;
acknowledges that:
- the Programme for Government ‘Our Shared Future’ commits to supporting a sustainable nationwide post office network;

- the Government has established an Inter-Departmental Group to examine the feasibility of directing more Government business to the post office network;

- An Post is continuing to undergo vital transformation as part of the delivery of its strategic plan;
and calls on the Government to:
- remain fully committed to a sustainable post office network as a key component of the economic and social infrastructure in both rural and urban areas;

- immediately roll out new services, as recommended by the Post Office Network Business Development Group and An Post’s own strategy, to ensure the financial viability of the entire An Post network.

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton.

  We are all are acutely aware of the role played by the post office in every community across the State. Often it is characterised as being the focal point of communities in rural Ireland. While that is very much the case, it is far from an urban-rural divide because to the people who live and work in urban and semi-urban areas, post offices are equally a part of their livelihoods and of the general business centres of those places.  The post office has proven itself as the bedrock of virtually every community across this State for generations. There is little doubt over the past 15 to 20 years that it has seen very significant changes in the profile of its customers, and the demands, requests and needs for its services. Like everything Irish, the post office has managed to change and adapt in so far as it can. Clearly, the State has been somewhat lethargic in changing the nature of the way it delivers services. I know, and I think we all accept, that with the movement to online activity, greater broadband roll-out and access to high-speed Internet, some of the services provided by the post office are no longer as relevant as they were in the past but we cannot and should not allow that to dictate whether a post office remains open. This is not a viability issue. We should not look at post offices as profit centres or in terms of profit and loss. We should see them as an integral part of service delivery by the State to those communities. If we were in any doubt about their importance then we would have seen the central role they played during the most recent pandemic. When some private services closed or were unable to deliver services in the face of a pandemic, post offices remained open, and postmen and postwomen continued to deliver the letters, which is a hugely important part of that connection with the communities they serve. For most people who found themselves housebound, and certainly for the first wave of the pandemic, the postperson was, in some cases, the only person they saw from one end of the week to the other. We should not lose sight of that aspect now just because the pandemic is, hopefully, reaching a conclusion or at least the end is in sight.

  It is well accepted that the post office network has been under financial constraints for some time because its viability was based on the transactions that generated the funds to pay postmasters or postmistresses. In my view, based on the reduced activity in post offices, that model is no longer an adequate way to remunerate. The model is based on profit and loss from which we must move away. In my view, we should place an annual subvention or a public service obligation on An Post to provide the service to the post offices that currently exist. We have seen enough post office closures. Most recently, a post office was closed in my own area of Broadford. The closure is a shame and should be reversed, if at all possible.

  There are 931 urban and rural post offices dotted throughout the country, 45 of which are company owned and the rest operate in a private capacity on licence or on contract from An Post. It is well recognised by a recent report that was prepared by or for the Irish Postmasters' Union that the financial shortfall is close to €17 million per year. The motion and the associated amendments look to having the State provide or fill that gap of €17 million on an annual basis to do a couple of things: to give confidence to the network of postmasters and postmistresses dotted around the country; show that the State is serious in its commitment to support the network; ensure that postmasters and postmistresses have a viable income; and ensure that the service remains in those communities.

  I have never believed that it was acceptable just because the demand for a service is reducing that it is taken away based on profit and loss. Quite frankly, the service should remain while there are still people in need of same. Let us be honest. Some of these people are in their older years and are not computer proficient, do not have access to the Internet, and even if they had they might not be in a position to utilise it.  In addition to being the point at which they get services, the post office and its postmaster or postmistress provide social interaction for people who live alone. I do not refer only to people who live alone and in isolation in rural areas. I am often taken by the number of people whom I bump into in this city, people who live in the midst of a large population, who feel very isolated and alone. Those of us from the country who happen to be here for a few days walk the streets and meet characters who are living alone and who want to talk to us because they recognise us from the television. They may recognise us more quickly than our constituents at home would. Notwithstanding that, we become acutely aware of the isolation some people suffer, even when living in a large city. They find that connection in their post offices.

  I know a review is under way and I know there are issues with Government making commitments but let us understand what has happened during the pandemic and let us get a clear picture of the enormous service the post office network and its associated postmasters and postmistresses have given to the people. During this debate, it is right and fitting to recognise the enormous amount of work done by post offices, postmasters and postmistresses during the pandemic. Those who work in post offices are the epitome of front-line workers. We all rush to congratulate front-line workers but in some cases people neglect the range of front-line workers who operated during this pandemic. It is a bit like being at a wedding and forgetting to mention somebody. We absolutely congratulate those in the health service but there were also front-line workers operating in retail, postal services and public transport. It is right and appropriate to recognise that.

  I appeal to the Minister of State to continue with her deliberations. Regardless of what comes back in that report, I want her to use her own experience, and that of Ministers, of the post office, which they understand and recognise as being the central bedrock of many communities. It is certain that Government can do much more with regard to delivering services through post offices. This would enhance and grow the business and be of benefit to it. Such services might underwrite, to some extent, other post office services.

  As I have said, however, it is not just about covering costs. It is about this really important service. The removal of post offices sends a signal to other business and activities in villages or in communities within the larger cities. It tends to give the impression that the State has effectively given up on that population mass or village setting. In many cases, the post office, with the harp over the door, is the one remaining State entity in an area. We have seen significant change to the delivery of policing. We have seen Garda stations close and, time without number, we have been told that it is a better model of policing to centralise police officers and then to send them out to communities in cars. We are told this makes them more dynamic and responsive. That may be the case but, when one takes the one last State service out of a community, one effectively says that, from a Government perspective, the lights are out. I refer to the closure of post offices. That is a real pity.

  In addition, there are many areas in which the post office can amalgamate with the local shop. We are all for that in communities so long as the service, the harp and the green livery remain and the identity of the post office is maintained as an individual unit. In commending the motion to the House, I thank my colleague, Senator Blaney, who is seconding it and with whom I am sharing time.

Senator Niall Blaney: Information on Niall Blaney Zoom on Niall Blaney I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank her for taking the motion, which I formally second. I thank my colleague, Senator Dooley, for raising this issue today. I remember, when I was a small boy growing up in north Donegal on the Fanad Peninsula, there were nine post offices in an area roughly the size of the part of Dublin that is within the M50. We are now down to one. As has been outlined by the previous speaker, generally what we are dealing with is how activity is not what it used to be.  The measly pay that postmasters get per transaction is not viable. It is not viable as recompense for the service provided to the community by post offices.

  As has rightly been said, there has not been enough brain drain or thinking outside the box in the context of post offices. They provide a critical service for the people of this island, in both rural and urban areas.

  As Senator Dooley noted, during the first lockdown when people were first grappling with Covid-19, the first people who were asked to step up to the plate were the postal delivery workers across the country. They started to visit the homes of those in rural Ireland who were isolated. Every one of those workers stepped up to the plate and they never looked for overtime or one extra cent in pay. They did it then and they have been doing it ever since. They are providing a massive service to communities across the nation. However, postmen and postwomen have not been given the acknowledgement they deserve for doing that service throughout the past year. They continue to do it week in, week out and do not say a word about it. Collectively, they, and the post office network as a whole, have played a vital role.

  When I was a young boy, our postman doubled up as a farmer. He delivered his milk in glass bottles at the same time as he delivered letters. Those days are gone but there are other ways in which post offices can evolve. Those who are running the service at a local level need to be given proper pay per transaction but there is also a need to think outside the box in terms of new and innovative ways to deal with the needs of customers. The delivery of letters is no longer necessarily what is needed. The country is crying out for more financial services. There are opportunities in financial services and banking. There is much more that we could and should explore. I ask the Minister of State, as part of the review, to take up that mantra and to deliver a service for people that goes above and beyond the call of duty. It behoves us to take up the mantra and to deliver for those working for An Post.

  Central to this is that An Post maintains its sustainability and viability to the fore, while remembering the important role that it plays not simply as a postal delivery provider, but as a provider of the services outlined by Senator Dooley. An Post fulfils many roles in providing vital supports to communities that allow their continued existence and ensure their connectivity to the rest of the country. It is important to recognise the value of An Post beyond the cash flow of each retail outlet.

  An Post has already tackled massive challenges. We must now take the next step to overcome the challenges that currently exist and provide proper solutions. The progress in digital technology has created a vast opportunity for An Post to provide more services and to work alongside people's habits, such as the shift towards online shopping. It is necessary to ensure efficiency and timeliness and credit must go to the staff of An Post who have done so while the service they provide has evolved to meet new needs.

  I urge all Members to keep in mind the thousands of people involved in the safe and efficient operation of An Post. Many of them should be considered to be front-line workers, as was outlined. Without the staff of An Post and their efforts, many businesses throughout Ireland would have struggled to operate through the pandemic.   We had our difficulties with Brexit. Thankfully, An Post managed to overcome those issues to the best of its ability and provide a very efficient service throughout all of that. I believe in the vision of An Post as outlined by Senator Dooley. It is a provider that is growing and that is resilient. It is always evolving when it comes to technological changes. It has already adapted to those changes and will do so again.

Senator Victor Boyhan: Information on Victor Boyhan Zoom on Victor Boyhan I move amendment No. 1:

To insert the following paragraphs after "and calls on the Government to:":
- introduce a Government financial support package within three months to secure the Post Office Network, in line with recommendations of the 2020 Grant Thornton Report, and finalise an action plan within that timeframe;

- establish a working group to identify the potential for local post offices to act as hubs to facilitate services relating to Government Departments and to act as a one-stop-shop for Government services;

I welcome the Minister of State. I thank Senators Dooley and Blaney and the Fianna Fáil Party for bringing forward the motion. Galway, north Donegal and Clare know the importance of An Post and the importance of sustaining rural communities. They also know the significance of the post office as a critical hub and a centre for communities, a place people feel that they can come to. No place has been more obviously local through the Covid pandemic. I expect, and do not doubt for one moment, that the Senators would be champions of post offices.

  Where does this all start and where does this motion come from? I must first acknowledge the work done on this by Senator Norris. We have had a similar motion on this matter on the Order Paper since November. Many of the parts of both motions are word for word. I believe everyone is on the same page with regard to rural post offices.

  It is important to make the point that postmasters and postmistresses are not employees of An Post. They are contracted to offer the various services. Postmasters must pay rent and their employees. They must also pay for light and security. One postmistress told me, "The only two things I got were a computer on loan and a safe on loan. I will be returning them to An Post. Everything else I pay for." Senators have spoken previously about the poor remuneration package that does not make it viable to run a post office.

  I will make a case for my local post office. It is not located in a rural area, it is in the urban area of Monkstown village. Monkstown is in the heart of the Dáil constituency of Dún Laoghaire, in which lives one of the largest groups of people over 80 years of age. They have no post office. The reason they have no post office is that the postmistress has retired and An Post cannot do a deal with anyone there because it is simply not prepared to pay enough to make matters sustainable. Monkstown lies in the heartland of Dún Laoghaire, out along the coast, and people might think it is full of money, full of IT systems and computers and full of people banking, but that is not the case. In a recent newspaper piece, Deputies and former Deputies wished the postmistress well and hoped that we would have a new post office. I give credit to David Andrews in respect of this matter also. Hopefully a campaign will start soon and we will get a post office. I wanted to make the point that this is an urban and a rural issue.

  An Post management pledge that every community with 500 people or more will have a post office. What does this say to Deputies and Senators who live in rural communities? The stipulation that there be 500 people would lead to a lot of post offices being closed. An Post management also states that everyone in rural Ireland will have an opportunity to avail of a post office located 15 km away. What does that say to rural communities? Not a lot. An Post has suggested that too many post offices are no longer viable. This highlights the issues relating to rural viability. This is a bigger issue for rural areas than it is for urban ones. The Government must introduce a public service obligation similar to that relating to public transport. We have such obligations in the areas of health, education and transport for schools. We do not say that those services are not viable or that we cannot afford them so we do not have them as a result. Some post offices are not viable but they need to be supported because they lie at the heart of our communities and provide an important service. This is very important.

  The Grant Thornton report warned of the need for a public service obligation. The report warned that if this did not happen then post offices would face unrestrained closures if action was not taken. We know that the public service obligation model works in the UK. It also works in France, Spain, Belgium, Italy, Finland and Poland. We know that this has the full approval of the European Commission. It is no longer a viable excuse to suggest there are issues with the European Commission. The public service obligation model operates in the countries to which I refer. I have taken the time to look at each of them but I do not have the time to tease the matter out too much now.

  The Grant Thornton report also states that post offices distribute more than €4.6 billion annually in social welfare payments.  Is that not really interesting? There are difficulties with Irish banks. Some of them are restructuring. The Government has shares in them but it cannot interfere in the banking model and their day-to-day operations but we know there is a difficulty there. We need to expand An Post's services and give it the option of community banking. Credit unions are consolidating, amalgamating and closing down. There might be potential to do something there.

I do not need to convince anyone in here and I do not doubt anyone's credentials. I believe we all are committed to supporting rural post offices - the issue is how are we going to do it and what is the commitment. In preparing for this debate, having the advantage of knowing who the speakers would be, I made a simple Google search of names of those who were to speak along with rural post offices. From that, I printed media stuff from The Connacht Tribune and other papers. I will not say much about that other than that I was fully satisfied that there was a lot of tension and cross-engagement in this House on the issue. There was much support for the idea of a post office being a post office hub. Nothing in these amendments is in conflict with the press reports mentioning a number of Deputies and Senators.

I support the amendments. The first, in the name of Sinn Féin, speaks of post offices providing "a crucial service, particularly in rural Ireland, and with major banks now closing hundreds of branches, people in rural Ireland will become even more reliant on their local post office". All the amendments are reasonable. Ours calls for a Government support package within three months and securing the post office network in line with the recommendations. I hope that the Government will find itself able to agree with what I think are very reasonable, fair, concise and achievable amendments.

Senator Lynn Boylan: Information on Lynn Boylan Zoom on Lynn Boylan I second the motion.

Senator Micheál Carrigy: Information on Micheál Carrigy Zoom on Micheál Carrigy I concur with Senator Dooley's comments on the staff throughout the network being classified as front-line workers during the pandemic. Sometimes that can be forgotten.

  I welcome the Minister of State here to discuss the sustainability of the post office network, which is very important. Why should we support the network? Because the network is at the heart of communities in rural and urban areas. It has a proven track record in the delivery of services and as a brand, it has one of the highest recognition levels in the country. In a 2020 Red C poll, 91% said it provided a valuable service, 86% supported the Government providing it with financial supports to maintain the network and 86% said that they wanted more State services available in their local post office.

  I should have said at the beginning that I am a postmaster myself and a member of the Irish Postmasters Union, IPU. My family took over the office in my local village in 1972, when my late mother took it on. I succeeded her in 2012. I will give a brief history of the cuts that I have taken myself after taking over in 2012. We lost the four postpersons attached to our office despite having been given assurances from An Post that that would not happen. With that came a 12.5% reduction in wages and no compensation for that. Last January there was a further 10% reduction in wages and I expect another 10% cut in July and a downward spiral in the coming years. We are contractors who bear all the expenses - rent, light and heat, rates etc. and we do not even get a pen - we provide everything for the business. The July reduction is due to expire because the 2018 agreement between An Post and IPU, which was supported by the Government, is coming to the end. I also have a small shop with my business which I purchased in 2007 to co-locate in an effort to maintain the business into the future.  I anticipated there would be difficulties ahead. I employ seven part-time staff, and if my office goes, will my business survive? It would be difficult to do so. It is not only the seven staff who would be affected because other businesses in my community would be affected by the lack of footfall. People would not be coming into the village. They would be more likely to head to Longford town, seven miles away.

The post office is not just a business. It is a vital cog in our community. We have been open throughout the pandemic and, along with the postal network, have played a major role in our community. Our value has been immense and recognised. Based on a model that was used in the UK to calculate the social value of the network, post offices in Ireland are estimated to be of a value of €550 million. The UK Government between 2010 and 2018 invested £2 billion in a network transformation programme and a network subsidiary payment, which was designed to cover the operating costs of rural offices that may not be profitable but are required for the system and to protect the local economy.

A Grant Thornton report of last year stated:

The Irish Post Office Network is at a critical juncture. The financial viability and sustainability of the Network is challenged like never before in its history.

The president of the Irish Postmasters' Union stated around the same time that:

A Post Office PSO needs to be sanctioned this year and implemented by mid-2021. We do not have time to delay and do not need any further evidence. The level of closures next year is potentially so significant as to mean a collapse of the Irish post office network as we know it.

That is where we are at. There has been talk in recent months of the closure of Bank of Ireland, Ulster Bank and AIB. I remind people that in 2009, when the financial crisis hit the country, we bailed out these financial institutions that are now closing down. The only bank that was not supported was Postbank, which was owned by An Post. It had no debt and 200,000 customers but was not supported and had to be closed down. We did not receive any help then but we need it now. As postmasters, we are not looking for money for nothing. We want to maintain levels for the next three to five years, allow those who wish to retire to do so, reduce the size of the network and try to bring it back to profitability.

  I welcome the recent Grant Thornton report being sent to NewERA. I also welcome the offline services report which recommended a coherent approach to the delivery of offline services which has led to the establishment of the interdepartmental group co-chaired by the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I am confident the Minister of State will present a strong case for a funding model to be put in place.

  I welcome that the Government remains committed to a sustainable network as a key component of the economic and social infrastructure in both rural and urban areas. Our programme for Government is committed to it. Our recently launched rural future initiative states the post office plays a central role in the delivery of public services. We have identified our town centre first approach as a key pillar to reinvigorate our urban centres throughout the country. I believe there is an opportunity here, and if we want to revitalise our towns and villages, we need to maintain the network. We need other services to survive, and if footfall is reduced, it will make it more difficult for ancillary services to survive. If we do not have those services available, will we get people to move back into town centres? I believe not. If the services are not there, people will not move back. I believe the post office network is key to the success of the urban and rural regeneration fund. It should be about not only upgrading derelict buildings but also building communities.

  We need immediate action to address the current and impending financial crisis. We need to follow through on the programme for Government which states the network has untapped potential to do more and to make a further, significant contribution across many areas of public, business and community life in Ireland. An Post can emerge as a central hub for a wide variety of valuable community services, but to fulfil that vision, we must not only put the services in place, we must financially support the network. I have spoken to the Minister of State and her officials on a number of occasions and I am confident she understands the issue and will work towards a viable solution.

Senator Mark Wall: Information on Mark Wall Zoom on Mark Wall I, too, welcome the Minister of State to the House today. I thank the Fianna Fáil Senators for introducing this important matter to the Seanad today. There is no doubt the post office network is vital to the future prosperity and social cohesion of this country. The numerous call by different parties and interested groups to support the post office network must be seriously considered but, more important, we must see immediate action.  The recent announcement of the closure of several bank branches has once again brought into focus the importance of the post office network to our regional towns and villages. The €17 million requested in the form of a PSO must be considered urgently. When this cost is weighed up against the potential of the network to sustain and grow towns and villages, the Government must surely act urgently. As mentioned, many countries, including France, Italy, Germany, Poland, Finland and Spain, operate, with approval from the European Commission, a post office network through a PSO. Of course, it was a feature of the recently departed network in the United Kingdom. The bottom line is that the cost of running the 900 or so post offices throughout the country is around €70 million and that the revenue generated is €53 million, creating the shortfall of the aforementioned €17 million and the need for a PSO.

  If the Government is serious about rebuilding rural Ireland, the cornerstone must be the post office for it is true that the post office is often the heartbeat of rural Ireland. I am aware from conversations with Ms Lily O'Mara, postmistress of Ballitore post office, that she has seen the knock-on effect of previous closures in nearby villages. She says that such is the regularity of her customers' visits, she can set her clock by them. This is a very important aspect of the rural post office. It is almost a health check for the village. For many who go to Ballitore post office now, their visit is their only social interaction. Rebuilding rural Ireland must ensure social interaction at that level. However, Ms O'Mara will state that, as with most well-run businesses, the post office must be about the transactions also. Since the very unfortunate closure of Moone and Narraghmore post offices, she has seen an increase in business, thankfully facilitated through a new rural village link. She outlines other opportunities to grow the business and provide further justification for assisting the network.

  I am sure many Members will mention the use of our post office network for such tasks as applying for a driving licence. While recent figures show 80% of applicants apply online, that still leaves 20% of the population queueing in our local authority offices. We should remember that applicants need to email to apply or reapply for a driver's licence, which raises additional concerns for those without computers or, dare we say it still, those without any reasonable broadband. With very little investment, we could consider passport applications and, of course, expanding the system of payments and applications for social welfare given the knowledge postmistresses and postmasters have of their community and who lives in it.

  A question that I am informed the Government and Department of Social Protection, in particular, have been considering since the pandemic and lockdown concerns how we can streamline the procedures for reporting and dealing with bereavements. Once again, given the knowledge postmistresses and postmasters have of their locality, this is a role post offices could expand into. Regarding the reporting of a bereavement, the facilitation of the bereaved and the provision of a link between the grieving family and various Departments, it is always much better in such sad circumstances to be dealing with somebody you know and somebody who knows you.

  Our Rural Future, the rural development policy recently announced by the Government, includes an aspiration to increase the number of people living in rural areas and the number living in rural areas in employment and self-employment. I suggest that we cannot have such an aspiration without maintaining an expanded rural post office network.

  I have been struck by conversations with several rural post office operators about the number of rural businesses they assist through the services they currently offer, be it through registered post or parcel services. It seems that rural jobs and their creation and sustainability go hand in hand with the maintenance of a rural network of post offices.

  Another important point to raise in this debate concerns the recently announced and proposed closure of various bank branches throughout the State. I am on record as having been critical of recent bank policy to direct customers to machines in the corner, to the embarrassment of bank staff who were always so helpful and excellent at their jobs but who now must operate according to a new regime. The opposite has always been the case in post offices, where the operators and staff recognise those who need assistance and go out of their way to help.

  In my area, we are to see two closures of bank branches, one in Monasterevin and another in Kilcullen. It has been said that the post office will take up any slack. The very future of the towns is dependent on having a financial outlet. Proposed additional services, to be operated by post offices that remain, must be made available.  The results of an online survey I carried out recently after the announcement indicated that it was our older population and the most vulnerable who were worried that they would be left behind because of closures. An expanded post office service will assist this sphere and plug the gap that such closures will bring to these towns should they proceed.

  The post office is a key component of and piece of infrastructure in all our villages and towns, both from an economic and a social point of view. The network needs and wants to survive. We should push more businesses through the post offices and expand the services their operators are keen to assist. Post mistresses like Lily O'Mara are the cornerstone of their communities. We must ensure that they not only survive but flourish and grow. They provide employment and community cohesion. With Government support of the network they can be the cornerstone of a new rural and urban town and village renewal.

Senator Pauline O'Reilly: Information on Pauline O'Reilly Zoom on Pauline O'Reilly I welcome the Minister of State. It is great to see another Galwegian in the House. I know she is very committed to and made a recent announcement on the post office in Eglington Street, which is to be welcomed. I will mention that again later.

  The establishment of an interdepartmental committee is to be welcomed, as are the commitments in the programme for Government. Now is the time to put those into action because many people across the country are living in fear that their local post office will close. Postmasters are living in fear also because they are reliant on the State to support them.

  At the start of the pandemic all of us were on Zoom and we thought it was great because we could connect with our families and friends, life could go on and we could still be sociable. However, it was not too long before the chats and the drinks we had dried up because it was not the same. We cannot do everything online. If we think back to that time we can put ourselves in the shoes of people who are reliant on things that are outside the digital world for their social lives and services. We need to remind ourselves that progress does not mean moving everything online and being digital. Progress means something else and well-being has to come into that.

  I visited post offices much more often during this pandemic because I was not living near family and I had things to post. We would write on postcards and send them to loved ones, particularly our older loved ones. We can continue doing that because we saw that has enriched our lives. Our mental health and well-being in general relies on post offices and other community places that are real locations as opposed to on the Internet and it is important that we keep them.

  From the point of view of sustainability, every time we close a post office people have to travel a little further to find one. It has not happened so far but we have seen many closures around County Galway and other counties. That has meant somebody has to travel a little further each time for those services. Looking at it in terms of climate and emissions, keeping post offices and other services open and developing our town centres first approach that we have advocated in the Green Party for a long time is about communities but it is also about the environment and is the reason we must invest in rural transport. We do not ask how much money it is bringing in. We may have been doing it but we should not ask how much money post offices are bringing in. As a State we need to say it is not about what is coming in but about the cost in terms of emissions and people's well-being when we close down these services.

  This year the Welsh Government announced a climate target to have 30% of its workforce working flexibly to ensure that they spend some time at home. For that reason it is investing in working hubs. It is taking a climate perspective but we also need to look at it from the point of view of building up our communities and town centres and not destroying them. Regional development would be the next step. We have seen that the north-west has moved back to being a region in transition. What is the reason for that?  If we fail to invest in some of our regions, that is what will happen. Investment does not mean: show me the companies or small businesses and SMEs that are already in these towns and now let me put in the infrastructure such as post offices, schools and transport. It means having a transport first and a town centre first approach and then developing around that. That is why I am supportive of the western rail network and post offices.

  We also need to consider that if people are not using post offices in the same was as they were, we need to use them and be more creative. I mentioned working hubs. We could put much more investment in and look at, perhaps, diverting some of our funding from activities that are damaging to the climate into something that will ensure that we bring life back into communities and protect the environment. That might be something for the committee to look at but it is certainly something for the Minister of State to look at as well. I know he also has that commitment to climate and transport so all those things go hand in hand.

  Finally, I will go back to the point I mentioned about the Eglinton Street post office in Galway, where we have these large spaces that are no longer needed in the same way as they were for post offices. They can still be used and developed for the community rather than sold off or, as we have seen in Galway, sitting idle for a really long time waiting. As the Minster of State will be aware, fantastic exhibitions have been held there as part of the Galway International Arts Festival. TULCA Festival of Visual Arts uses that space almost every year and it is used for an indoor market. Investment in that building is needed in order that it can be used all the time and also retain that post office. That is the way forward for small and large post offices.

Senator Lynn Boylan: Information on Lynn Boylan Zoom on Lynn Boylan On behalf of Sinn Féin, I welcome the motion. We are all in agreement about the crucial role the post offices provide in our local communities. It is not just rural communities; they are a vital service in urban communities as well.

  That said, the network has suffered from years of neglect by successive Governments with hundreds of closures and the loss of vital outlets right across the country. There are only so many cuts that the system can take. The postal service has been blighted by closures and hobbled by cutbacks. When an emergence like the pandemic hits, the staff are placed under a massive strain. We owe our postal workers a debt of gratitude for the way they rose to the challenge of Covid-19.

  Last year, the IPU commissioned a report that recommended a PSO levy of €17 million per annum to be introduced to secure the future of the network and allow post offices to continue to provide excellent services, which are particularly important in rural Ireland. Sinn Féin supported this call. In fact, we have been advocating for a PSO to secure the future of the network for more than a decade now.

  As far back as 2011, Sinn Féin highlighted that a PSO arrangement would be needed to save those post offices at risk of closure. Unfortunately, since then, successive Governments have done little to protect the network, allowing its further decline with hundreds of closures impacting rural Ireland the most.

  During a Dáil debate on a Sinn Féin motion relating to post offices in 2018, Fianna Fáil called for a PSO to be introduced. I welcome that Senator Dooley has reconfirmed the commitment and support for such a levy. The support for the PSO is conspicuously absent from this motion, however. I am sure, therefore, it was just an oversight on the Senator's part. We are all very busy. I have done him a favour and included it as an amendment.

Senator Rónán Mullen: Information on Rónán Mullen Zoom on Rónán Mullen Well done.

Senator Lynn Boylan: Information on Lynn Boylan Zoom on Lynn Boylan Given that Senator Dooley has expressed his support, I am sure he will facilitate that amendment passing.

  We know the post office network remains a highly valuable national asset, which contributes hugely to our economy and society. It must be protected. Unfortunately, however, we know that is not what is happening. Over the past number of decades, we have seen the encroachment of a business mentality into the provision of public services in this country. This approach demands that our public services constantly justify their existence by making a profit instead of serving the needs of the community. This mentality is visible in what is being allowed to happen to our post offices. There is a shortfall between the cost of running post offices and the revenue they generate. Such narrow metrics fail to capture the true benefit of the postal network, however.  The review of the economic contribution and financial sustainability of the Irish post office network by Grant Thornton highlights the true benefits of post offices very clearly, and that the social return they deliver for communities and, indeed, the economic return communities get from post offices, is enormous. Therefore, not only are the social and economic returns significant, they are far greater than the €17 million that would be required for the PSO.

  Undoubtedly, An Post faces funding challenges, but the answer is not to simply remove the vital infrastructure; the answer is to invest in it, and to do that urgently, and to offer new services. In addition to a PSO, Sinn Féin wants to see more services delivered through our local post offices. There is an opportunity to explore the role post offices could play in providing energy services, as highlighted by the 2016 Kerr report. There are massive challenges in retrofitting our housing stock which An Post could well be suited to addressing, in addition to banking. One example is supporting people through the process of applying for energy saving grants. The applications are often technical and daunting, and the post office could become the front-facing part of a one-stop shop in helping people access information and support for energy saving grants. This can be a win-win situation through increasing the uptake of these grants and providing our post offices with a new avenue of business.

  The Department of Environment, Climate and Communications is well suited to exploring the possibilities in this area. An Post has led by example in respect of its climate obligations. Most of its fleet is now electric, for example, so we have seen the company take a leadership role in this area and it is perfectly placed to do this. An Post can also have a role in bringing on stream the national database for microchipping of dogs, and linking that to the dog licensing system, which is also managed by An Post. It could therefore be the location as well for a national database on microchipping. Bringing those processes into one location would make it much easier for people to know where their pets are.

  I will leave it there. As I said, however, we have several amendments. I mention amendment No. 5, in particular, and we hope we will get the support for the PSO levy.

Senator Fiona O'Loughlin: Information on Fiona O'Loughlin Zoom on Fiona O'Loughlin As part of my party's commitment to rural Ireland, we decided to put forward this motion and it is an opportunity to acknowledge the vital importance of post offices to all our communities. Post offices are the fabric not just of rural Ireland but also of urban Ireland and they provide an important social as well as commercial service.

  When I was growing up in Rathangan, and I am sure we all had the same positive experience of the post office aligned to the area where we grew up, we had the most wonderful post mistress, Molly Forde, whom I have spoken about previously. She really was an influential person, not just in my life but in the lives of everybody in the community. Ms Forde dispensed advice and wisdom as much as she dispensed stamps when we went into the post office. There was an intergenerational connection with her and her team. Sadly, she is no longer with us, but I think of her fondly often and the influence she had.

  When I went to Carysfort College of Education in Blackrock as a young student leaving home for the first time, not knowing anyone else and being quite lonely, there was a small post office just at the back entrance to the college which was run by a lovely couple. They were the kindest of people. Students, particularly new students, would go into the post office to get stamps to send their letters home. This was well before emails, phone calls were expensive, nobody had mobiles and one had to queue up with coins. Letters were the way to go, which was a wonderful thing. The kindness that couple showed to many students was exemplary.

  Many years later, I was backpacking around the world and I think again of the kindness of a couple in the suburb of Fairlight in Sydney in Australia. A few months before I eventually came back to Ireland, I was sending items home to Rathangan.  They could not have been nicer. When I eventually arrived home, I found there was not one but two parcels, as well as a lovely letter from the couple saying that they had realised afterwards that the parcel was too heavy. They went to the trouble of getting two boxes and dividing everything between them. It was the kindest and nicest thing to do.

  All of the post offices in this country run an invaluable service in helping and supporting people. There is no doubt that we need a new form of public service obligation payment to post offices that are commercially non-viable but provide the important social function I have described. This will ensure that even the most isolated communities have access to a post office. Incredible service has been given by post offices during the pandemic. That is certainly true of the service I received from Brendan Kelly and his team in Newbridge in sending small parcels to siblings and friends who I was not able to meet. The postman often was the only person calling to the house. I heard about older people writing to themselves to ensure a visit from the postman to their home on an ongoing basis, or sending a letter to a family member purely to talk to the postmaster. That absolutely shows us the importance of the whole post office network.

  We must increase the array of financial services offered by post offices and develop a new community banking model. I come from a county in which the towns of Kilcullen and Monasterevin recently lost their Bank of Ireland branches. It is more important than ever that we build up post offices' existing financial services, such as currency exchange and bill payment, and ensure communities can access them. We should transform post offices into hubs for State services. It is incredible what Sean Fogarty, the postmaster in Ballymore Eustace, has done. He has set up a cycle café at his premises, the country's first online medical consultation service, VideoDoc, and an eGovernment service. There is a huge number of services that could be given to the post offices to deliver. We have lost four post offices in my area, in Moone, Narraghmore and Donadea, as well as in Ballybrittas in County Laois, which is part of the Kildare South constituency. I have spoken to those communities and seen the devastation they have undergone because of the lack of this vital service.

  We do not want to see any more post office closures. We must acknowledge that many of them cannot pay their own way. The extra €17.5 million a year that the postmasters have said is needed would be money well spent to ensure this vital service, which is the hub of many communities, is not lost.

Senator Garret Ahearn: Information on Garret Ahearn Zoom on Garret Ahearn I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, to the Chamber. I am trying to remember whether I have spoken in the House when she was here before. We have had a crazy year and it has been hard to get speaking slots. I am not sure whether I congratulated her on her appointment and wished her well. I would like to put that on the record today. I thank her for being here for this important debate.

  I come from a very rural area in County Tipperary. I would be surprised if anyone here lives in as rural an area as I do. My home is just outside a very small village that has a school, church and community hall, and that is it. We have no pub, shop or post office. Nonetheless, it is a wonderful and brilliant community and I am very proud of being from there. We used to have a shop and post office until 2017 or so. It was run by a man called Frank Hughes, who is now retired. Approximately two years ago, his grandchild, Michael Hughes, was in his final year in college as a film student, and a very talented one at that.  He is qualified now. For his final year project he did a short film on his own grandfather's shop and post office and what it meant to the community. The film was called "The Shop That Was". It was a look back at when Frank started in Grange, when he first came and bought the shop in the 1980s. I am not sure what year it was. I was very young and he was there for as long as I remember. In the late 1980s or early 1990s he developed a post office in the shop as well. The concept of the film was acknowledging what someone has done and their contribution to their community. There was almost a premiere in our village for the launch of the film. I was lucky enough to be near Clonmel at the time so I got to speak at it. It was in the community hall, which was jam-packed with people, which is totally alien to what we are used to nowadays. It had not been that way for years. It is a small village with a small community and very few services. The film was shown and there was chat and everything afterwards. Even though it was a celebration of the life of someone who is still alive and his contribution to the community, there was an essence of sadness in it because of what we have lost as a community in terms of the post office and shop and what they bring to a community as well as being able to post a letter or buy bread, milk and a newspaper. Almost everyone who was at the short film premiere in our village spoke about the sense of loss and what having a post office can do to a community. Previous speakers have spoken about how the only interaction a lot of people have in a week is going to the post office to meet the person there. What has happened in the past year is that it has changed to the postman delivering post being the only interaction people have. In the course of the debate today speakers refer to how numerous post offices around the country have been closed. There has been a realignment of how the post office network operates. We can all see in our own village what it does to a community to lose a post office.

  As a State, we have an obligation to make sure that when we restructure the post office network we support it in the way that we can. No one is under any illusion that how the post office worked five, ten or 20 years ago is the same way it should work now. Times are changing and everyone understands that, but it does not mean that we should end up in with a cliff scenario, as happened with my post office in Grange, where everything just goes under. The Government must support post offices to change the way they work and to have new services. Other speakers have referred to the ability to administer driving licences and motor tax. Many post offices have the capability to do that and we must allow them to do so or to bring an orderly end of life to some post offices. We must not have a situation where almost overnight we hear four post offices in Tipperary, three in Kerry and two in Galway are closed. We must give back to the people who have given an awful lot, and not alone by providing a service but by giving to the community. We must give them an opportunity to transition to either finish a service they have provided for many years or, in a bigger town, to give an opportunity to expand and grow. I commend the opportunity to discuss the Private Members' motion tabled. The sum of €17 million a year is not an awful lot of money given the scale of what we are spending at the moment to support an organisation that is hugely beneficial to areas right across the country.

Senator Rónán Mullen: Information on Rónán Mullen Zoom on Rónán Mullen Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit.  I support this motion, but it is unambitious and it needs the amendment proposed by Senators Boyhan, Craughwell, Norris, McDowell and I, and the Sinn Féin amendments as well. It seems there is little point in us debating the generalities of the problems facing post offices in our rural communities unless we are going to promote concrete action to assist them. If we do not, then motions such as this have all the hallmarks of being those regular inoffensive motions which the Government does not oppose, but does nothing to action either and there is no change of policy.

  In 2018, we had the announcement of a raft of post office closures, which was debated at length. At that time, my fellow east Galway native and the current Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Anne Rabbitte, described the closures in Galway as shocking and the death knell for rural Ireland. She said also that the Government was creating wastelands. I agree with those comments. It is a shame, therefore, that this sense of outrage is not reflected in the approach now being taken by the Government, of which the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is a member.

  The recent announcement of the withdrawal of KBC Bank Ireland and Ulster Bank from the Republic and the closure of more than 100 branches by Bank of Ireland should surely change our attitude to the post office network. Two hundred and twenty bank branches are set to close on foot of these announcements, which is roughly one third of all bank branches across the country. More rural and less populated areas will, of course, as usual, suffer disproportionate closures. It is interesting that as our political system and the number of political parties has increased and fragmented, our banking sector has consolidated and regressed. We have gone from being a country with two and a half political parties to a country with two and a half banks, none of which entities is viewed as bywords for public trust, probity and honesty. They are synonymous with incompetence, reckless lending, the gouging of consumers at every opportunity and, in some case, defrauding customers, as we saw in regard to the tracker mortgages.

  The number of credit unions has also halved in the past decade, down from 405 to 246, due to the Central Bank of Ireland pressurising many into mergers which in retrospect were not necessary, as evidenced by the large surplus in capital not used by the Credit Union Restructuring Board, which I raised in this House last November. All of this means that there has been a massive reduction in the number of options available to consumers in terms of savings, loans, mortgages and so on. Credit unions will, hopefully, have a greater role in the future. Is there room for a new State bank, which has been mooted many times? As a general rule, I do not think we should encourage State intervention in private enterprise except when private enterprise is failing the needs of ordinary citizens, as we found in 2008. Maybe we are approaching that point again, but from a different perspective and caused by different factors.

  There are approximately 950 post offices remaining. It is clear that these will have to form part of the solution as well. As the motion notes, post offices are the service provider of last resort. A large section of our population still do not have the means or know-how to access banking through online means and they will need physical branch networks for the remainder of their lives. Post offices are now the last resort for many to process bill, pension and social welfare payments and so on. Our amendment proposes the extension of this service, turning post offices into one-stop shops or hubs for the services of Departments. There is much untapped potential for the post office network which can strengthen their viability.

  I am a little surprised that the motion before us today makes no reference to the Grant Thornton report from late last year which found that nearly one third of the population attended a post office once a week, with 91% of people believing that they provide an important service to the community. Grant Thornton said that the only real way to preserve the network was through State investment of €17 million per annum through the public service obligation. Surely, that is justifiable. I have heard Senators from the Government side mention it, but why is it not in the motion? Why is the motion so meek? It reminds me of the saying, "the meek shall inherit the earth." If Government Senators believe it, they should say so and call on Government for it.

  We are currently spending €12 million per day on the pandemic unemployment payment. Is the Government seriously saying that post-Covid we would not be able to find €17 million per year for our post offices? This issue is symptomatic of a much wider problem that we have seen over successive Governments, namely, a contempt for people in rural Ireland and for working people, urban or rural. There is a Government in Dublin with a Dublin-based policy making elite that thinks it knows better than ordinary people and it is not shy about telling us so. We see this regularly, including yesterday with the revelation that the minimum unit pricing in regard to the sale of alcohol is to be implemented, which will do nothing to reduce drinking, but will penalise the poorest, particularly poorer people who abuse alcohol and who will end up spending more of their limited money on the habit.  We also saw contempt for people yesterday in Athlone when members of the Garda Síochána, and there is no blame on them because they are forced into this position, broke up a small group of people attending mass. That is a clear and blatant violation of the European Convention on Human Rights and, importantly, our Constitution. All this is presided over by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party, as Members of the Dáil and Seanad sit with their arms folded. If it had happened in Hungary, several Senators opposite would be jumping up and down about it. Against that background, it is a little difficult to accept the platitudes and, in particular, the weakness of the motion before the House because what rural communities need is concrete action, not well-meaning verbiage.

People describe being reactionary as wanting to go back to the status quo ante. Any of us familiar with the state of our larger and smaller towns knows about the physical decline and the problems in terms of drugs but, in particular, the pathetic look of so many of those towns. We need to invest in the appearance of our towns for the sake of public morale and our tourism product. I would rather drive through a Potemkin village that had been painted up than drive through a place that looks like a bomb site. In the context of post offices, maintaining one of the few remaining institutions that can be the lifeblood of some of those smaller towns to which I refer must become an important public priority.

Senator Lisa Chambers: Information on Lisa Chambers Zoom on Lisa Chambers I disagree with much of what Senator Mullen said. There is nothing meek about this motion. From the perspective of the Fianna Fáil Party, protecting and advocating for our post office network is something we have been doing for many years. That is the reason it is still on the agenda. There is a Government commitment to maintain and modernise the post office network and ensure that it is sustainable and that post offices can survive in the changing environment through which the country is moving. I take umbrage with what Senator Mullen said. He focused far more on the drafting of the motion than on the issue itself. That is regrettable.

  In terms of any suggestion that there is contempt on this side of the House for the people of rural Ireland, I, as a person who lives in rural Ireland, can assure the Senator that, from my party's perspective, there is no contempt. There is nothing but support for the people of rural Ireland. We know the importance of the post office network to the people of rural Ireland but also to the people of urban Ireland because they also use the post office network. This is not an urban versus rural issue. This is a national issue and there is Government support for the motion to make sure that we protect our post office network and ensure that it can survive. It is not about maintaining things exactly as they are all of the time. We want to modernise. An Post wants to modernise. It has been doing that without the Government pushing it to do so. It has been doing that anyway because it is being led by demand and by people. We have seen that with its Parcel Connect product. All the new products it is bringing online is being done because it is listening to its customers and responding to their demands.

  This motion is an opportunity. The inference is that this is just a general debate on the post office network. We debate many issues in this House and every debate has its merits and positive outcomes. It is important to be positive about this motion and to know that there is Government support to maintain the network is positive. That was not always the case heretofore but there is now a very strong commitment to that.

  Senator Mullen mentioned the Grant Thornton report. Just because it is not physically written into the motion does not mean we are not acknowledging it. In fact, there are references to it in my notes. We are well aware of that report and what it contains. It has formed the basis of the policies the Government has taken. It is a welcome report that contains many good elements. It certainly merits debate but the Senator understands that everything is not put into the wording of a motion. Its purpose is to promote debate but not every single digit must be expressed on the page.

  I commend Senator Dooley on bringing the motion to the groups and getting it drafted with the support of our members. It is welcome to have an opportunity, as a House of the Oireachtas, to debate the issue and what the post office network means to citizens. Very often we focus on the economic aspects to this issue but there is a social value to the post office network. Many members have discussed that. I refer to what it means to a local community to have that hub and that space that people can use.

  I think it was Senator O'Loughlin who spoke about the additional services and the post office networking going above and beyond in terms of assisting its customers and the local people because there is local knowledge. The postmaster or postmistress will know his or her community. He or she will know the people living in the area. That is an important relationship and connection and it would be foolish to dispense with a network that has been built up over generations. Nobody is suggesting we do that and nobody wants to see that. We are here to talk about how we can modernise, protect and make sure that the network survives and thrives into the future.

  Since this debate started a number of years ago, things have changed dramatically. We are coming through a pandemic and we have seen seismic shifts in the banking sector.  This lends itself to an even stronger argument for giving more to the post office network and empowering it to deliver additional banking services. Now we have Bank of Ireland pulling out of certain communities. We also have Ulster Bank and KBC pulling out of Ireland. The banking sector is in trouble. We have said this on the floor of the House on many occasions. Let us turn this negative into a positive for the post office network and empower the post office network, along with the credit unions, to assist us in delivering greater banking services to our citizens and ensure there is greater competition in the market, which we all want to see. There are a lot of positives to be taken out of this.

  We have to dispense with the rhetoric and popular suggestion that things will always stay the same. Nothing stays static. Things move and change and the public is well ahead of us on this. The public is demanding changes to the network and wants to see the network survive but the public does not expect it to stay exactly the same. I say this as somebody who lives in a small community where there used to be a post office a stone's throw from my family home. It is not there any more but there are bigger post offices a little bit closer by that are doing very well. People are supporting them and they want to see the Government support them.

  We hear on the floor of the House today that there is strong Government support to protect the network, and the public will be really happy with this. It is incumbent on us all to work towards finding solutions, new ideas and thinking outside the box. How can we modernise the network to make sure it survives because it is competing with private companies for certain products, be it banking products, financial services or parcel delivery? It is competing against private sector companies, and this will always be a challenge because we expect a different standard from An Post in its treatment of its workers and employees and those who avail of the services. We expect the highest standards and it always delivers the highest standards.

  It is important to commend An Post on having been an innovative organisation in recent years. In the face of significant adversity with all of the private providers coming on board to put it up to An Post in terms of competition, it has done a fantastic job of reimagining and reinventing its organisation, protecting its workers and employees and delivering a stellar service in the most difficult of times. Government support will not be found wanting and I am sure it will be the same on the Opposition benches because we are all working for the greater good. We are all working to make sure that, collectively as a House, we deliver for citizens, and this is the most important element in the debate rather than critiquing back and forth individually.

Senator Paddy Burke: Information on Paddy Burke Zoom on Paddy Burke I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I welcome this opportunity to say a few words on post offices and not for the first time. We have had quite a number of debates on post offices and post office closures over the years. I compliment Senator Dooley on tabling the motion, which is very important, as Senator Chambers has said. This issue needs quite a lot of debate because many post offices have closed, and in recent years there has been a big shift in how business is done in many ways and not just with regard to postal services.

  I remember quite a number of years ago I expressed concern that another financial institution was opening in my home town of Castlebar. It was the 14th institution in Castlebar where people could get credit, loans or money. Now we have gone full circle and Castlebar will have considerably fewer financial institutions. It is not all about competition. Competition is fine to a certain point but businesses have to make money and make a profit. They cannot survive otherwise. This is why there is such a big shift in banking infrastructure. The banking institutions have to make ends meet. With the reduction in interest rates, the basis for them to make money is not there and they have to find other ways of making it. We know what they are and we can see why they are closing and pulling out of Ireland.

  Perhaps not everybody here but many of us have witnessed how the post offices have worked over a long number of years, with regard to telegrams and parcels, as Senator O'Loughlin has said. It has provided great services, and not just postal services, to local communities.  My home county has seen quite a number of post offices over a vast area closed in recent years with the result that there is not one post office in a large chunk of central Mayo. They cannot survive because neither the population nor the business is there. The area I come from had two shops, a post office, two pubs and a Garda barracks. Now there is no shop, no Garda barracks, no post office and one pub. That is not uncommon in large areas throughout the length and breadth of the country.

  Many proposals have been made in respect of banking services but other services could be provided by the post office. I remember going to the then Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Mr. Ross, to ask him to let the post offices bid for the driver licence contract. He did not take much heed of anything I had to say in that respect. It was a golden opportunity at the time but one that was missed.

  I believe the post office network could provide social services. This should be looked at. We have all spoken in this Chamber, in other chambers and in the Dáil about social exclusion. This is an area where the post office could become involved. Post offices could provide a great service throughout the length and breadth of the country. They could co-ordinate many of the relevant services. Postmasters and postmistresses know their areas and the people in their areas. They know the vulnerable people. They know their areas inside out. I believe this area should be looked at. Social services could be co-ordinated by the post offices. It would be an ideal opportunity. This area should be looked at, especially in rural areas. We have seen over the years how social exclusion, loneliness and people living on their own in rural areas can be problematic. The person who knows all those people best is the postmaster or postmistress. I believe they could co-ordinate many of the social services. I believe it is an area the Minister of State could examine to see whether they could provide those services. This could be done.

  I compliment those in the post office network on the services they have delivered and co-ordinated over the years. The post office services provided were accountable and transparent. The service stacks up and is dependable. The people in charge, the postmasters and postmistresses, did a great service to the country over many years. I believe that with some ingenuity, with the structure in place and with the people involved much could be done and they could deliver the services that I have spoken about.

Senator Marie Sherlock: Information on Marie Sherlock Zoom on Marie Sherlock I thank Fianna Fáil for the motion, which sets out how this is about post offices in urban and rural areas. While there is, obviously and inevitably, much focus on the viability of rural post offices and their important place in rural communities, I can attest to the great importance of post offices in urban villages like my village of Phibsborough. I grew up in a small place called Carrignavar in Cork, where the post office was at the heart of the community. The post office in Phibsborough, which is an urban area, occupies the same important place in providing services to those of all ages in the locality. I am reminded of my first political campaign, which was to save Phibsborough post office from closing down in its current form. An Post was under financial pressure and was looking at the small number of branch post offices still within its network - the majority are run by independent contractors.  With the support of the local community, we managed to get An Post to change its mind. Of course, if it were to outsource the post office to an independent contractor, there was most likely going to be a loss of services and less money to sustain the functioning of the post office, which is not something that we, as a community, could countenance. An Post, to its credit, backed away and the venue remains a branch post office.

  There is a bigger issue at play and many Senators have spoken about the closure of post offices in their own areas. We have to ask why and consider the business model behind so many of the post offices in this country because An Post cannot stop a contractor, the postmaster or postmistress, from calling it a day because of financial pressures or a desire to retire. If we are to stop the flow of losses in communities, as a result post offices closing down, then we must consider how we financially support An Post to negotiate contracts that allow a contractor to make a living and provide all of the necessary services. We need to have this discussion and that is why we very much support the amendments in terms of the €17 million, having a discussion on the new public service obligation and the development of hubs. It is fine to have words on paper stating that we want the interdepartmental working group to consider directing more Government business to the post office network. Some of the aspirations are well founded and well meaning, and we very much support them, but this House must make a concrete call that expresses Senators' support for An Post.

  In terms of opportunities for post offices, Senators have mentioned the closure of 88 branches of Bank of Ireland, and the exit of Ulster Bank and KBC. It is positive to hear that there is some agreement in the works between An Post and Bank of Ireland but we need more details. For example, there are serious questions concerning instant access lodgements. Will the An Post network provide the service like we had within a Bank of Ireland branch? Are we going to have night safes for businesses so lodgements can be made? Are we going to have ATMs? If we can have ATMs in shops, we can surely have them on the walls of post offices. Bank of Ireland has ATMs on some walls of its branches and with closures, those ATMs will go, which will be a massive loss to many communities, in particular for anyone who wants to access their cash out of hours and outside of post office hours.

  To conclude, the Labour Party supports the motion and urges support for the amendments. I thank my colleagues on this side of the House for putting forward these important amendments. We need to put figures behind the support from this House for An Post.

Senator Erin McGreehan: Information on Erin McGreehan Zoom on Erin McGreehan I thank the Minister of State for being here to discuss the motion. A strong post office network is something Fianna Fáil, as a party, has advocated for and supported for many years, and I am very glad to have this opportunity to echo my support for the post office network. I also want to take this opportunity to thank all of the workers in An Post who worked tirelessly to keep this country going while people remained at home, particularly through the first lockdown. Almost the only thing that was consistent and normal for everyone during the first lockdown was An Post when its vans and bicycles travelled around the country to towns, villages, highways and byways. Mr. John Grogan is my local postman and he is always a welcome visitor to my door. Unfortunately, for some people living in communities and for those who were isolated or cocooning, the postman or post woman provide the only opportunity of a chat in the day. That situation highlights to me that the postal service is not just about delivering post or being a business. It is a social network. Post offices are an integral part of the social and economic fabric of this nation, in both urban and rural settings, so I very much believe a PSO levy is important and necessary.  The cost to the State is far outweighed by the social return for our communities.

  This motion rightly calls on the Government to support the roll-out of new services to ensure the financial viability of the entire An Post network. Banking, the paying of bills and all the services that An Post already provides are fantastic but there are so many opportunities for them to be expanded. We need to be flexible and one idea would not suit every post office. We must think outside the box, expand our scope and work with the community on what supports and services work best for the community.

  The programme for Government recognises that the modernised post office network will provide a better range of financial services, including e-commerce and services for citizens and enterprise as part of a commitment to a sustainable, nationwide post office network. There is a large need in this country for community banking and we must advocate for it. All across the House today the idea has been echoed and increasing financial services for credit unions and An Post is absolutely essential. They were there for us during the financial bust and have been there for us since. Families struggled. I know I struggled but An Post and credit unions were there for me when everything else collapsed. They should be rewarded for this. They have proven that they can be trusted and the State owes them the opportunity to expand their financial services.

  Fianna Fáil and its Government partners believe An Post has untapped potential to do so much more and make further significant contributions across many areas of public life, business and community. The Government believes An Post has untapped potential and it has already made a significant contribution to our communities and economic development. It can do so much more. I very much welcome the consensus across the House today. In terms of that consensus, we can show the Cabinet that we are all serious about looking after the rural and urban An Post network. We know it is as integral for our citizens in urban Ireland as it is for those in rural areas.

Senator Martin Conway: Information on Martin Conway Zoom on Martin Conway I will share time with Senator Lombard.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly Is that agreed? Agreed.

Senator Martin Conway: Information on Martin Conway Zoom on Martin Conway I commend my colleague, Senator Dooley, on tabling this very important motion. It is good to debate the future of An Post in the Seanad. An Post is intrinsically linked with practically every family in this country and that special relationship is amplified by the outstanding service of the postwomen and postmen in this country over many decades, particularly, as previous speakers noted, over the 12 months or so of this pandemic. In some cases, the only individual people saw in the course of a day was the postman or postwoman dropping a letter. We should always be very proud of our postal network and the fact that the vast majority of letters posted in this country get delivered the following day. It is exceptionally good when compared with international standards.

  The future of the post office has been debated in the Houses of the Oireachtas and within communities or the media in this country for a long time. Many post offices that had been open and served their communities with distinction are no longer open and were probably not viable. My goal today is to secure what remains of post office network, particularly as it is not really realistic to expect that post offices that have been closed will reopen, unfortunately. We can aim to deliver on the remaining post offices being retained. I take this opportunity to welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton. I know she fully understands and is committed to that principle.

  The post office service needs two key elements, which are politics and people. It needs politics to deliver. I am not against the idea of a public service obligation payment to An Post so as to retain the network of post offices. There is much untapped potential in that network.  A post office, essentially, should be a one-stop shop in which as much government, and other, business as possible can be done. Many forms are now downloaded online but many other things can be provided in post offices. The post office does not have to be a traditional, big building in a town. It can be a building within a supermarket or a shop. In many cases it is and can be in future. Technology is now very small; there is no need for big machines any more.

  The post office also needs people to support it. Post offices close because they are not viable as people are not going through their doors and there is no footfall. Unless, as a nation, we support the post office by using it, we will lose it.

Senator Tim Lombard: Information on Tim Lombard Zoom on Tim Lombard I thank Senator Conway for sharing time with me. The Minister of State is more than welcome to the House. I acknowledge her presence. Her portfolio is a very important one in terms of how we can address this issue. I acknowledge the motion put down by Senator Dooley. It is very important and well timed.

  The post office network provides social welfare payment services to roughly 1.3 million people, which is equivalent to an average of more than €4.6 billion a year going into the economy. It is a very significant driver in local communities and local economies. However, there has been a major change and Covid has proven that. How we do our business has changed dramatically. The online effect has been huge. The demographic now using online is not just a younger one; it is everyone really. That is how society has changed. How An Post management and the network deal with that will be a major issue.

  The next few months are critical for the An Post network. The major changes in society as regards the English, or UK, model saw the post office network there move into convenience stores and lose the ethos of a post office. That is something of which I am very fearful. I came across a scenario in Goleen in west Cork in which a convenience store, located right beside a post office, got a letter from An Post offering it the majority of its services. An Post subsequently offered an apology stating it was a mistake. That is what is happening on the ground. We could have our post office network pushed into the local Centra or Spar. That is not what we are looking for.

  We are looking for An Post to come up with a real model, a model with a scenario in which the post office network will be a real part of the community and society and will fit into their ethos and economic drivers. That will involve hubs and places like digital hubs. It will rethink how our post office will be in future. Whether An Post management has the imagination to come up with that plan is something we need to start talking about. That is where this debate needs to go. We need a real, post-Covid plan for the An Post network. I have not seen any talk of it so far. We need An Post management to produce that plan so we can push forward and, hopefully, have a profitable and capable post office network.

Senator Róisín Garvey: Information on Róisín Garvey Zoom on Róisín Garvey Well done to Senator Dooley for bringing this motion forward. We have all probably been inundated with communication from post office owners and postmasters. I certainly have been. There is much stress in that sector. It is good that we have this motion and that the Government is taking it seriously. It is important that people realise An Post is State-owned and, as a Government, it is our responsibility to try to do all we can for post offices.

  It is imperative that we save post offices. I will go so far as to say that I hope we could look into reopening some of the closed post offices. In some cases, people were willing to run some of the post offices which closed. If we do a good job, we should be able to make some of those that were closed viable again. For example, the post office in Broadford, in east Clare, is closed but that village will be a boom town. Once we get the water infrastructure, there will be many new houses and it will be busy place for people to live. We will see that post-Covid. People are moving to places and places are getting busy that never were before. I was in Labasheeda on Saturday and many old houses are being done up.  There is a new café opening and the post office is doing well. Things are going to change and it will not be the case that people will only go to one or two places. Staycationing is going to change everything and people are going to discover places they never knew existed. There are lots of hidden gems of small rural areas that are going to be discovered. We will not all want to go to the same places that are packed and busy, we will want to spread out a bit more.

  A programme should be put in place to encourage children and teenagers with confirmation or pocket money to open accounts in the post office rather than the bank. Last Saturday I met a lovely man called Mike Cassidy, who is heavily involved in the Tidy Towns group in Labasheeda, which, by the way, has the best public seating I have ever seen in any village or town. Mike was with the postmistress, Mary Hehir, and I had a good chat with them. I was on my bike. One always gets a chance to chat with people when one is not in a car. It was sunny, of course, and we were all going slow. They made a very good point to me. There is a lot of funding available at the moment and I completely disagree with Senator Mullen's argument that rural Ireland is not getting much. I would say that rural Ireland has received more since last July than ever before, although we will keep looking for more, of course. This Government is doing a lot for rural Ireland, I would argue. Just because a few loud independent representatives start shouting and roaring when it is not their turn does not mean we should feed into the rural versus urban narrative too much. The Government is not split in that way. Anyway, Mike and Mary made a very good point. We have been giving a great deal of funding to Tidy Towns and community groups, and more is coming down the line, but the money has to go into a bank account. Most people in Labasheeda have a post office account because there is a post office there and they can do their banking locally. However, any funding that comes from the State is channelled through banks. I would like to see that changed so that such moneys can be channelled through post office accounts. Money has to be transferred from bank accounts to post office accounts so people can access it. As we know, many bank branches are closing and there are fewer of them. They are disappearing more quickly than the post offices at this stage. This means that people have to travel to larger towns, which we should be discouraging in the context of climate change mitigation.

  In this day and age, everything seems to be going online. The post office is the last bastion of hope for older people. If we do not keep them open and thriving, it will be quite ageist. Older people need one-on-one interaction and many are stressed by trying to figure out how to do things online. It is so stressful for them. The post office can be the place to get help, where someone can talk them through how to do things and keep it simple. There is an opportunity for the post office to be that place for older people. Sometimes it is harder for older people to learn how to do things online. My father is great and he is able but I have shown him how to do certain things lots of times but he still cannot do it because it is just so abstract. The post office has a huge part to play in that regard.

  Post offices also play a huge role for people in a social and mental health context. I urge the Minister of State to work to make sure that the post offices we have remain open and viable by turning them into places to which people go for many different reasons, not just for financial services. Nowadays, one sees coffee shops with their own-brand merchandise. Maybe we could have the same for our villages and towns and it could be sold at a profit. I am thinking of things like an Ennistymon reusable water bottle, a Broadford reusable coffee cup and so on. There are ways in which post offices could sell things that are useful in the context of the new, green economy. The post office could be the one-stop shop in which to get such things. I thank the Minister of State for her work to date in this area.

  I do my best to cycle but three times now when cycling in Dublin I have come across An Post vans parked in cycle lanes. This is not good enough. On my way over here earlier, I was faced with being shoved out into traffic. I said to the driver that I did not want to be pushed out the in the traffic; there is a cycle lane and I want to use it. I said that it was not fair, he was shoving me out into the traffic. He said, "Life ain't fair love", laughed and hopped into the van. An Post is owned by the State. We have put in infrastructure and at least where we have cycle infrastructure, can we please be allowed to use it? I know this is not directly connected to the motion before us, which I strongly support. We must do all we can for post offices but I ask that An Post drivers would not park in cycle lanes.

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications (Deputy Hildegarde Naughton): Information on Hildegarde Naughton Zoom on Hildegarde Naughton I thank Senators for their contributions and for giving me the opportunity to address this important motion. I agree with many of the sentiments expressed and recognise many of the positive social and economic benefits provided by the post office network. I also agree that there is enormous potential for the network to provide a better range of financial and e-commerce services.  This is set out in the programme for Government, as many colleagues have noted, and it is part of our commitment to a sustainable nationwide post office network, for which I believe there is cross-party support in both Houses of the Oireachtas. I commend the work of Government party Senators who have been working consistently with me and the Government to highlight the challenges facing the network and are helping to inform policy decisions required in the coming weeks and months to ensure the viability of the network. I reiterate the commitment from An Post to have a post office in every community of more than 500 people and that 95% of the population will be within 15 km of at least one post office in rural areas and within 3 km in urban areas. This is very important, particularly for rural communities.

  The importance and resilience of the post office network has been clearly demonstrated. As most Senators who contributed to the debate highlighted, throughout the pandemic An Post has kept its network of more than 900 post offices open, ensuring the continued distribution of cash to the economy and playing an important commercial and societal role in the communities in which they operate. An Post has also played a key role in enabling SMEs to trade online during the lockdown periods. Over the past year or so, we have seen a range of initiatives through the post office network which have helped to support local communities, the elderly and the vulnerable. An Post is to be commended on these initiatives and I have no doubt all present share an appreciation of them, as well as a belief there is potential for An Post and the network to make a further contribution across many areas of public, business and community life. The motion before the House recognises this, as does the programme for Government.

  Although the financial position of An Post has been stabilised in recent years, underlying challenges remain as the postal sector is evolving rapidly. Mail volumes continue to decline. E-substitution and the move to online payments and online banking continue to have an impact. Similar challenges are being felt across Europe, with many postal operators seeking to diversify their business in recent years and to seek new business opportunities. During Covid-19 in particular, we have seen an acceleration in both e-commerce and the adoption of online banking and card payments. While letter volume decline has created challenges for the sector and continues to drive changes, the growing e-commerce industry creates new opportunities and demands for postal operators to respond to and minimise the negative impact of letter volume decline. These changes are impacting on the revenue being generated by the network and as a whole, with An Post and postmasters facing into their own particular challenges.

  There is broad acceptance that the environment in which the post office operates has irreversibly changed and that the network needs to change too if it is to thrive. Even before the pandemic, core mail volumes continued to decline by 6.3% in 2019, resulting in a €25 million decrease in revenue. An Post estimates that the pandemic has probably accelerated this process of volume decline by two to three years. A further difficulty in that regard is that once customer have adapted to digital alternatives, they rarely return to sending mail and, as such, the decline is likely to be permanent.

  There is no doubt the pandemic has accelerated and increased the challenges facing the post office network, hitting some of its key business lines. Social welfare payments have declined more quickly than expected, with knock-on effects on footfall and related product lines such as BillPay. Revenue from foreign exchange transactions has also been severely affected. Postmasters have seen an accelerated decline in key revenue and product lines as a direct result of the public health restrictions, which has been coupled with the need to focus on maintaining their day-to-day business in very challenging circumstances.

  As with any business, the post office needs to develop commercial strategies to enable it to grow and maintain its relevance for its users. We are working with An Post to investigate the scope to channel additional services through the network. All options are being considered fully and efforts will be redoubled to give effect to our commitment to ensuring a sustainable and viable post office network. The agreement reached between An Post and the Irish Postmasters Union, IPU, in 2018 underpinned significant change and investment to redefine the post office network, including reducing the number of post offices, modernising the postmaster contract and updating the brand.  The consolidation of the post office network has assured the widest possible distribution across the State, with an ever-improving network. The key focus continues to be on future-proofing the company and keeping it relevant to its customers with regard to the types of services it provides. This restructuring has seen the development of new areas of business, particularly in parcel delivery but also in new retail areas and in financial services, which has resulted in a return to annual profitability since implementation of the plan first began.

  An Post is transforming its retail network by delivering new products and new formats. This includes, among other things, diversifying and growing the financial services product it provides for individuals and SMEs to include loans, credit cards and more foreign exchange products, local banking in association with major banks, and a full range of State savings products. Two new dedicated sub-brands, An Post Money and a new business-to-business brand, An Post Commerce, have been launched. Investment by An Post of €50 million in the network is designed to encourage communities to use the enhanced services in their local post offices.

  While many people who use local post offices prefer to use cash for the purposes of weekly budgeting and money management, An Post is increasingly appealing to and attracting a new cohort of customers who transact in a cashless manner and who want what An Post is offering online. An Post aims to serve both these demographics and, in many ways, the pandemic has helped to accelerate An Post's response in driving forward investment in digital.

  An Post has also launched its Green Hub, a facility which provides end-to-end project management and money saving advice for all levels of home retrofitting, supported by competitive loan rates. The Green Hub is essentially a one-stop-shop which will cover loan-only or full retrofit services from initial home assessments to completed works and a Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, grant application and payment process. An Post has partnered with SSE Airtricity to give free home assessments and to fulfil works.

  An Post has also invested in the training of staff in all post offices in 2019 and 2020 to better equip postmasters to run their businesses, to manage profit and loss accounts and to promote their businesses locally. All new services and initiatives such as these are geared towards driving footfall through post offices and keeping the network vibrant and relevant to customers.

  Growing its financial services business has been a key part of An Post's business strategy, building on the significant savings business it has in partnership with the National Treasury Management Agency, its market leading position in foreign exchange and its existing current account, credit card and consumer lending customer base. In line with its commercial strategy to increase its banking services, An Post announced a new partnership with Bank of Ireland to offer personal and SME withdrawal and lodgement services to Bank of Ireland customers across the An Post network of more than 900 post offices nationwide. This builds on the agency banking service An Post already provides for a number of other leading banks including AIB and Ulster Bank, with more than 4.5 million transactions representing a cash value of almost €1.5 billion annually. This new agreement means that An Post can offer all Bank of Ireland personal and SME customers withdrawal and lodgement services in every one of its post offices nationwide. It is also in line with An Post's strategy to become a leading provider of financial services for personal customers and SMEs.

  Approximately 500 post offices are situated in parts of the country which do not have a bank within a 5 km radius. An Post will continue to work to build a sustainable and successful national post office network that is modernised and reinvigorated and which offers new and relevant products and services for the communities on the post offices' doorstep.

  It is important to note that An Post is a commercial State body with a mandate to act commercially. It has statutory responsibility for the State's postal service and the post office network. Decisions relating to the network, including those related to the size, distribution and future of that network, are operational matters for the board and management of the company. A lot of work has been done over recent years to develop and this has had a very positive effect for both postmasters and customers. The ongoing transformation in the company aims to ensure the financial viability of An Post and the continued fulfilment of its mandate to deliver a mails delivery service and a viable post office network. This momentum needs to be maintained and, if An Post, the postmasters and Government work together, we can ensure that the network can emerge as a central hub for a wide variety of valuable, community-focused services.  We want a sustainable post office network available to all of our citizens, both urban and rural, in the medium and long term. Government efforts have been focused on supporting An Post in the roll-out of new services and the delivery of its strategic plan. Some €30 million in State funding was made available, of which €15 million is to support the renewal of the post office network and a further €15 million is towards the continued fulfilment of a five day per week mail delivery service. This helps secure the future of mail and post office services for local communities in both rural and urban areas.

  The Government continues to provide significant business to An Post through the Department of Social Protection's social welfare contract and the National Treasury Management Agency business. The Minister also approved a capital expenditure programme which is part of the company's commitment to the sustainability of its network, designed to develop the newer elements of An Post's financial services business and mitigate decline core mail volumes and revenues on the retail side of the business. An Post has received an investment loan of €40 million from the European Investment Bank to finance innovation and modernisation as part of its strategic plan. The borrowing is being used to help fund capital costs associated with five investment programmes which are part of the transformation plan, including post office renewal.

  As Senators will appreciate, developments in information and communications technology have transformed how Government and citizens interact with each other in recent years and have radically reformed the way Government delivers its services. The Covid-19 pandemic has seen an increase in online engagement with Government, and online systems were key in the swift processing of applications for pandemic supports and other Government services. It is recognised, however, that a cohort of the population does not have access to or the capacity to avail of online services, and alternative access through traditional channels will be essential to them and will ensure public service delivery continues to be geared to customers, irrespective of how they wish to engage with Government. I acknowledge many Senators stated the importance of offline services.

  It was against this backdrop that the offline services report was recently brought to Government. The report notes the increase in digital service provision will see a corresponding reduction in footfall to offline services. It also recommends a collective and coherent approach to the delivery of offline services, whether through assisted digital or offline channels, should be considered. The report also notes some of the challenges to this approach and there are issues which require further consideration.

  In response, Government agreed to the establishment of an interdepartmental group, co-chaired by the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, to explore the potential of a one-stop shop approach, including the identification of suitable services based on the recommendations in the report. The group has now been established and held its first meeting on 20 April. As well as the co-chairing Departments, the Department of the Taoiseach, the Department of Transport, the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Rural and Community Development, the Department of Social Protection, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Revenue Commissioners are represented. These Departments are considered relevant in particular as they have significant operational areas and may also choose to nominate agencies operating under their aegis to attend.

  In conducting this work, the group will consider the increased use of the post office network for the delivery of Government services. In advance of the next meeting, scheduled for 11 May, Departments have been asked to provide information on their existing services which would have the potential to benefit from a one-stop shop approach. Three subsequent meetings have been scheduled and the group will report back to Government by the end of July.

  The Grant Thornton report, commissioned by the Irish Postmasters Union, is under consideration in my Department. We are looking at all mechanisms to ensure the viability of the network, including the offline services group, which will report back to Government in July. The Government is committed to delivering services using channels geared to the needs of the public and remains committed to a sustainable post office network as a key component of the economic and social infrastructure in both rural and urban areas. All options will be considered fully and every effort made to give effect to the Government commitment to ensuring a sustainable and viable post office network.

Senator Timmy Dooley: Information on Timmy Dooley Zoom on Timmy Dooley I thank all Members who have contributed in a positive way to the debate on this motion and I thank the Minister of State for her endurance in listening to all the points. It is now really up to the Minister of State and the Government to take on board all the points she has heard to ensure at long last we reach a point where post offices are seen as an integral part of their community and do not limp on month to month, year to year and change to change without really knowing whether they will survive. We must get away from the principle of a post office just being a profit-and-loss operation. It is about its integrated nature with regard to the community by providing services to meet the needs of the people.

  Of course, it is incumbent on An Post and the Government to identify more services to create better footfall through post offices, but as I have emphasised on many occasions and has been laid bare in the Grant Thornton report, post offices themselves cannot be seen as viable based on transactions. There must be State support that sits behind them. The view I have expressed on many occasions is the necessity for a public service obligation to exist and an annual funding stream from Government to An Post as a means of ensuring the long-term sustainability of the network. We must give that confidence and show that support to the postmasters and postmistresses so that we do not wear them down one by one until such time as they are capable no longer, physically or financially, of providing a service. Ultimately, this is what has been happening in recent years. The network has reached a point where we must say stop, and the only way this can be done is by providing appropriate funding to An Post to put it in a position to ring-fence the network as it is currently constituted and retain it from here on.

  I have no doubt there are opportunities. There are opportunities within An Post in terms of the mix of services it can offer and there are opportunities for the State where it can deliver more services through the post offices. We owe it to all those involved in the operation of the network, urban and rural communities and the communities of people who will, ultimately, change the face of this country. We have all recognised there is a much greater demand for people who want to move from the cities into rural villages and smaller communities because they have seen the benefits attached to working remotely. I spoke to people in the Grow Remote campaign two years ago. While they thought it would be a slow build and would happen over five to ten years, if there is anything positive we can say has come out of the pandemic, and there is little, one element is that we now recognise we do not have to be in the office every day. People do not have to commute for two hours or at least not everybody has to commute for that length of time and take those kind of journeys. We can start to rebuild communities because of the advent of remote working, interfacing in an electronic environment and doing our business differently.

  It will sustain our environment but we must sustain those economies and now is the time. As others have said, we can find money, as we have done in this pandemic, in massive quantums to meet a specific need. The Grant Thornton report identifies about €17 million. That may grow to some extent in the coming years but it is the right thing to do. It is the right investment in a social infrastructure to maintain communities in the way that so many people have outlined.

  I appeal to the Minister of State as our conduit to Government on this issue to give very serious consideration to all the viewpoints she has heard across the House. I know the work she is doing will come to fruition soon. Is a public service obligation the only way to do it? It is my favoured option and I have made that clear on many occasions, but if the Minister of State can find another way to put in place the entirely necessary funding supports, I am prepared to accept that. I look forward to the Minister of State's deliberations and her return to this House when she has reached those conclusions.

  Amendment agreed to.

Senator Lynn Boylan: Information on Lynn Boylan Zoom on Lynn Boylan I move amendment No. 2:

To insert the following paragraph after “recognises that:”:
“- post offices provide a crucial service, particularly in rural Ireland, and with major banks now closing hundreds of branches, people in rural Ireland will become even more reliant on their local post office;”

Senator Victor Boyhan: Information on Victor Boyhan Zoom on Victor Boyhan I second the amendment.

  Amendment agreed to.

Senator Lynn Boylan: Information on Lynn Boylan Zoom on Lynn Boylan I move amendment No. 3:

To insert the following paragraph before “believes that:”:

- the findings of the ‘Review of the economic contribution and financial sustainability of the Irish Post Office Network, 2020’;

Senator Victor Boyhan: Information on Victor Boyhan Zoom on Victor Boyhan I second the amendment.

  Amendment agreed to.

Senator Lynn Boylan: Information on Lynn Boylan Zoom on Lynn Boylan I move amendment No. 4:

To insert the following paragraph after “acknowledges that:”:
“- the Irish Postmasters’ Union have called for a public service obligation of €17 million per annum to be introduced to sustain the post office network;”

Senator Victor Boyhan: Information on Victor Boyhan Zoom on Victor Boyhan I second the amendment.

  Amendment agreed to.

Senator Lynn Boylan: Information on Lynn Boylan Zoom on Lynn Boylan I move amendment No. 5:

To insert the following paragraph after “and calls on the Government to:”:
“- introduce a public service obligation to secure the future of our post office network and prevent further post office closures;”

Senator Victor Boyhan: Information on Victor Boyhan Zoom on Victor Boyhan I second the amendment.

  Amendment agreed to.

  Motion, as amended, agreed to.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly We will adjourn until 10 a.m. on Friday in the Dáil Chamber in accordance with the order of the House of this day.

  The Seanad adjourned at 6.22 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Friday, 30 April 2021.

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