Tuesday, 11 May 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 to 11, inclusive, 43 and 44 together.
The role of the social and public service reform division is to assist me, as Taoiseach, and the Government in delivering programme for Government objectives on public policies and services which help create a socially inclusive and fair society. Specifically, the division assists the work of the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality and the associated senior officials' group established to oversee implementation of programme for Government commitments in the areas of social policy, equality and public services, including matters relating to arts and culture, children, justice, policing reform and community safety, disability, social inclusion, gender equality, direct provision, the Irish language and sport; the Cabinet committee on education and the associated senior officials' group established to oversee implementation of programme for Government commitments in the area of education and further and higher education; the Cabinet committee on health and the associated senior officials' group established to oversee programme for Government commitments in the area of health, including implementation of health reforms, including Sláintecare and the development of mental health services; and the Cabinet committee on Covid-19 and the associated senior officials' group established to assess the social and economic impacts of the potential spread of Covid-19 and to oversee the cross-government response.
A policing reform implementation programme office forms part of the division. This office drives the implementation of A Policing Service for our Future, the Government's plan to implement the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. The division also assists the work of the Civil Service management board which oversees Civil Service renewal; has departmental oversight of the National Economic and Social Council; advances Dublin's north-east inner city initiative, including through supporting the work of a programme office, programme implementation board and oversight group; assists the delivery of public service reform through membership of the public service leadership board and public service management group; provides me with briefing and speech material on social policy and public service reform issues; and participates in relevant interdepartmental committees and other groups.
Earlier this year, the Taoiseach committed to doing all he could to bring closure to the families of those who died in the Stardust fire. That commitment has not been fulfilled and I urge him to act swiftly to rectify that. In order to access legal advice, the families must apply for legal aid for the inquest into the deaths of their loved ones. The process is intrusive for all families due to the volume and breadth of documentation and personal information they are required to submit. A number of families have been refused access to legal aid as they own their own homes. It is unimaginable, having had to battle the State for four decades to secure this inquest, for the State to now block their access to legal advice.
The Minister for Justice could resolve this matter quickly. Section 29(2) of the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995 provides for a discretion to waive the requirement of the financial eligibility test. Section 37 of the same Act states that the Minister may make such regulations. The Legal Aid Board has confirmed that, in the absence of the Minister's regulations, it cannot and will not waive the financial eligibility test. When my colleague, Deputy Doherty, raised this matter with him in committee two weeks ago, the Taoiseach committed to pursuing the matter on behalf of the families. Can he confirm what action he has taken? Has the Minister for Justice drawn up the necessary statutory instrument to provide for this regulation, as advised by the Legal Aid Board? This is a matter of great importance and urgency.
There is a considerable amount of international evidence about the importance of hot nutritious meals for pupils in school. Pupils who receive such meals are healthier, less likely to be tired in class and more likely to be attentive. The younger they get access to those meals, the better. That is why I welcome the hot school meal programme. However, the programme is drastically underfunded given that almost 100 schools that applied have been unable to access it. One particularly unjust example of a school that has missed out is Knockmore Junior School in Killinarden, a DEIS - Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools - school with 149 young pupils. The situation is particularly unjust because many of the other schools in the area have access to hot school meals, which is great, but means that the brothers and sisters of some Knockmore pupils will be getting the hot school meals they need while their younger brothers and sisters will not be getting that access. I ask the Taoiseach to intervene with the Minister and the Department to ensure those children are able to access the hot school meals they need and that all the schools that need access to this programme are able to get it.
I also think it is beyond despicable that the Stardust families are not being given legal aid. The Taoiseach should address that as a matter of absolute urgency because the families have been through enough and do not need further obstacles put in the way of their pursuit of justice.
I wish to raise a matter I have raised with the Taoiseach a number of times, that is, the plight of people training to be psychologists. We have unacceptable waiting lists in this country for mental health services. Thousands of children, teenagers and adults are on waiting lists for mental health services and they are often urgently in need of counselling and psychological treatment. I have met three times with psychology students, most of whom are young but some of whom are older and have gone into psychology later in life. The most extraordinary barriers are being put in front of those students attempting to get doctorates in psychology. They must work as assistant psychologists without pay. Posts have been advertised recently to that effect and those are not isolated examples because the practice is going on all the time. People are paying extortionate fees for an education and counselling psychology doctorate and receive no funding whatsoever. There are a tiny number of places available. Students are working on placement without pay. There are extraordinary barriers that mean large numbers of people cannot get through the system. When we have all these waiting lists and a mental health crisis that needs to be addressed, why is the Government not making it easy and supporting people who want to become psychologists in order to address the mental health crisis and waiting lists in this area?
I wish to deal with the issue of the policing reform implementation and whether it is the role of the Garda Commissioner to allocate the necessary resources. One cannot have policing reform without some changes. Obviously, the previous Government endorsed the report, A Policing Service for the Future, and an implementation group, which is chaired by Ms Helen Ryan, is dedicated to the implementation of the programme. Associated with the report are ideas such as the sixth principle, which states, "An Garda Síochána should be structured and managed to support front line policing." Much of that is community policing. I previously published a report on policing resource across the State, which I have updated for 2021. There is no real evidence that there has been a change in the allocation of resources. There are very big differences between some parts of the country. Areas which are growing rapidly in population tend to be left behind, for example. It is a big bone of contention for certain areas where many new developments are only a disadvantage in terms of public services. Will the Taoiseach look at this issue and talk the Garda Commissioner? To be honest, there will not be reform unless the resource allocations are also reformed. I, too, speak in support of the Stardust families and the assistance they require for the inquests.
I had intended to ask the Taoiseach about the fact that more than 50% of Covid-19 fines have been handed out to people between the ages of 18 and 24. There has been an increase in Garda harassment of young people, who are also suffering disproportionately as a result of unemployment at present. I will ask the Taoiseach about that matter another day, however,
Last night, or more correctly, in the early hours of this morning, we saw workers lifted off picket lines outside the Debenhams store in Waterford. They were physically removed from sitting positions by gardaí in order to clear the way for trucks driven by non-union labour to remove disputed stock from the store. The intervention of those gardaí came after a five-hour stand-off between midnight and 5 a.m. Members of the public order unit from Waterfront were there in big numbers, the area around the store was sealed off by gardaí and traffic was diverted. Some 40 gardaí were involved in this operation. In other words, more gardaí were present than there were Debenhams workers and their supporters. Those officers were backed up by six big police vans.
There is an issue here for the media to get its teeth into. I find it incredible that this is not one of the top news stories in the national media today. That says something about how sharp the media is on these issues, or not, as the case may be. We are talking here about policing reform, however.
Workers are not criminals and should not be treated this way by gardaí. In fact, the role of gardaí should be connected to dealing with crime and antisocial behaviour. They should not be involved in industrial disputes full stop. I will end this contribution with a statement. As part of the policing reform being considered, the removal of the Garda Síochána from involvement of the kind we saw last night in respect of industrial disputes should be on the agenda. It would be interesting to hear a comment on that from the Taoiseach.
In the first instance, Deputy McDonald raised the issue - it has been commented on by others - of the Stardust inquest and related legal fees. The Stardust fire was a most traumatic national tragedy that has left a terrible and particular legacy of pain for many people in north Dublin. I greatly sympathise with all the families of the 48 young people who were tragically killed in that fire 40 years ago for the awful loss they suffered. I also recognise the terrible impact it had on everyone who attended the Stardust that night.
The Minister for Justice is absolutely committed to ensuring that all the families of the victims of the Stardust fire tragedy receive the supports they need in terms of legal aid at the new inquests. Extensive work has already been undertaken towards this end. Government funding of up to €8 million has been allocated for the new inquests to cover a number of areas, including legal aid for the families. The last remaining issue regarding legal aid for the families was the Courts and Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2013, which 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 conditions. Officials working for the Minister for Justice reviewed alternative arrangements for funding legal professionals, which were not considered to be the best option in terms of meeting the needs of the families compared to the facility provided by the Legal Aid Board. Section 60 of the Coroners Act 1962, as amended, provides a procedure whereby a family member of the deceased may apply to the coroner for a request to be submitted to the board with regard to the granting of legal aid. Applications for legal aid have been certified by the coroner and these applications are with the Legal Aid Board.
Ordinarily, applicants through the legal aid system would pay an initial fee and support would be provided on the basis of a means test. This is how the legal aid scheme works for all the individuals who seek its help and it is a widely respected system. All of the Stardust families who meet the criteria of the Legal Aid Board, including the means test, will receive support. The usual fee for legal aid applications has been waived and the legal professionals will receive refunds of their costs one month in arrears instead of after the inquests. This goes beyond the provisions of the legislation in order to try to allay any concerns people may have.
The Legal Aid Board notified the Department of Justice that a very small number of the Stardust victims’ families would not qualify for legal aid because they exceed the income limits currently enforced by the Legal Aid Board, as required under the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995. The Minister for Justice has assured me that she is actively investigating the position and engaging with the Attorney General's office to explore possible mechanisms to provide for legal aid to those families who do not meet the financial eligibility requirements under the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995. This will require new arrangements to be put in place, such as new regulations. This matter has been actively worked on since the issue was identified to ensure that an appropriate solution is found. The Minister for Justice intends that the families and their legal professionals will have a response shortly and that the Stardust inquest should commence a few weeks after that. I will engage with the Minister again after today's session to make sure that can be expedited.
Significant progress has been made in respect of policing reform and A Policing Service for the Future. The Government's plan to implement the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland is a living document, which is reviewed and updated as required to maintain ambitious but realistic commitments, timeframes and milestones. The policing reform implementation office, which is based in the Department of the Taoiseach, monitors progress and supports the work of the implementation group as well as keeping the high level steering board of policing reform and Government apprised of progress being made.
The first two phases of A Policing Service for the Future, that is, the building-block phase of six months' duration and the launching phase of four to six months, have been completed and much has already been achieved, for example, the roll-out of a new operating model for An Garda Síochána designed to streamline administration and provide a more visible response from localised policing service to communities nationwide.
An Garda Síochána has established and strengthened resourcing of a human rights unit and re-established the strategic human rights advisory committee. The National Security Analysis Centre, NSAC, has been established and the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act 2019 has been enacted, which gives gardaí access to the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, for the first time and provides for a modern industrial relations framework within An Garda Síochána.
There has also been progress on legislative reform. As Deputies will be aware, the Government recently published a general scheme of the landmark policing, security and community safety Bill. I am not aware of the issues raised by Deputy Barry in terms of Waterford but I will have that checked out.
I will raise Deputy Paul Murphy's issue of hot meals for the specific school in Killinarden with the Minister for Social Protection.
Deputy Boyd Barrett raised, as he did last week, the issue of postgraduate psychological programmes and the costs associated. The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science is looking at a variety of supports which can be made available to postgraduate students more generally, not just in one specific area.