Wednesday, 29 September 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 12 together.
The Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality oversees implementation of programme for Government commitments in the areas of social policy, including sport, arts and culture; equality, including children and youth affairs; and public services, including matters relating to justice, policing reform and community safety. This Cabinet committee last met on 30 November and will meet again shortly. I have regular engagement with Ministers at Cabinet and individually to discuss priority issues relating to their Departments. In addition, a number of meetings have been held between my officials and officials from relevant Departments since the establishment of the Cabinet committee in July 2020.
Survivors of Ireland's mother and baby homes are considering taking legal action to enable them to gain access to their medical records. Survivors have submitted subject to access requests under the general data protection regulation, GDPR, to the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth as the relevant data collector, and they have been told that their records have been withheld from them until they nominate a GP to receive the records first. Then it is the GP who will decide if it is appropriate to pass on survivors' own medical records to them.
The Department is withholding access to the records on the basis of a 1989 data protection regulation. The Department's position is not alone in breach of European law but it falls foul of the Court of Justice of the European Union judgment. The fact is this 30-year old regulation has been superseded by the directive. There is no requirement for survivors to nominate a GP for these records. Under Article 15 of the GDPR, a data controller can and should process this request in the same way as any other. Article 23 of the GDPR states that restricting access to data by way of a legislative measure can only be done where the directive's fundamental rights and freedoms are upheld and where the restriction is necessary and proportionate.
Has advice been provided by the current Attorney General on this matter and does the Taoiseach stand by it? If not, what action will he take to ensure survivors' fundamental rights are upheld?
Has there been any discussion at the Cabinet committee on social affairs about the future of our local employment services? Their representatives were in front of the Oireachtas committee on social protection this morning. The current model, which is very holistic and supportive of jobseekers, is under threat not just because of a new tendering process but a new financial model that is being put in place, post tender. These are predominantly not-for-profit companies but they are being asked to tender on the basis of a profit model.
I welcome the Taoiseach's commitment to a review of the fuel allowance. To give an example of some of its anomalies, I know of the case of an 81-year-old lady who minds her adult daughter who has additional needs and early stage dementia. She could not find a residential place for her daughter and has taken her home again, for which she is getting carer's allowance. Because she is getting carer's allowance, she is now losing her fuel allowance at the age of 81 after a lifetime of care and commitment to the community. There are so many anomalies that a Cabinet committee is the perfect place to address them. In the context of fuel prices at the moment, I ask that urgency is given to that.
When I first raised the issue of the abuse of power by retired judge James O'Connor, the Taoiseach replied to me saying, "It is clear to me that there are avenues for people to deal with the abuse[s] of power". What is precisely demonstrated by this case, however, is that those avenues did not work.
The first woman went to the Garda and was told there was nothing to investigate and it was a normal situation of boy meets girl. It was anything but a normal situation. It was a judge in court who met a vulnerable woman in front of him as a result of a family law issue. He got her number in the context of that meeting in court and then used it to pursue her completely inappropriately and persistently in a way that made her scared about a sexual relationship. She went to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, but also got no joy. She contacted and wrote two letters to the Taoiseach's office. I sent two emails to him, which had no response. We understand from freedom of information, FOI, requests that the Chief Justice and the Minister for Justice were aware of this case.
Unless that woman had very bravely decided to speak out, which she should not have to do, and I pay tribute to her and to the other women who did so, absolutely nothing would be happening in this case. We need action and change to ensure people in these circumstances are not subjected to the kind of abuse and imbalance of power situations that exist between judges and people in front of them.
West Cork currently has no athletics track. This is despite the fact west Cork has produced some of the most talented athletes in Ireland. Bandon Athletic Club is right at the top of that, which continues to produce some incredibly talented athletes despite only having a grass running track and no proper infield facilities. It has produced some incredible athletes such as Phil Healy, who I do have to tell the Taoiseach about and who did us so proud in the Olympics, decathlete Diarmuid O'Connor, hammer thrower Nicola Tuthill and distance runner Fionn Harrington. Bandon Athletic Club has a very ambitious proposal to create a state-of-the-art track and field facility. I urge the Government to get behind that proposal.
Is the Government still entertaining the idea of hosting a €150 million international yacht race? There are sports clubs in my constituency whose members need to fundraise for kit and changing rooms, as no doubt there are in the Taoiseach's constituency. Does he agree that if his Government decides to spend €150 million on the America's Cup, there can be no excuse whatsoever for the continued failure to fund grassroots sports? Will he give the House an update on where things stand on the issue of the America's Cup at the moment?
I wish to raise an urgent, disturbing and upsetting case which has wider ramifications for the State's responsibility to vulnerable children. A mother of a 17-year-old boy in my constituency - I will not mention names, obviously, because it is a sensitive matter - has asked me to raise this issue with the Taoiseach and anyone who will listen. The boy is on the very severe end of the autism spectrum and, as a result, his family were not able to manage him at home. He got a placement out of Dublin, away from where he lives, which broke down through nobody's real fault and he now finds himself in emergency homeless accommodation. This is completely inappropriate and his mother is distraught and seriously worried for his life, such is the nature of his intellectual disability. His autism behaviour is the sort of thing that requires specialised, residential supports, which we completely lack in this country. There are autism spectrum disorder, ASD, residential specialised units in the UK but we have none here and this is a young man who is on the streets and whose life is potentially in danger.
This case has much wider implications in terms of Tusla's responsibility to young and vulnerable children. I would like to email the Taoiseach the details of this case in the context of the wider issue of our responsibility to young children with disabilities.
The ancient festival of Hallowe'en has become an excuse for wanton vandalism and lawlessness throughout Dublin and other cities. Every year, Hallowe'en starts earlier and earlier. I am referring to illegal fireworks and bonfires being lit on our public open spaces. People and animals are being terrorised and public open spaces are being destroyed. It is the same every year and it has to stop.
I note the Minister for Justice has launched the fireworks awareness-raising campaign for 2021 in association with the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Dublin Fire Brigade and the Garda Síochána. Fireworks are dangerous and can cause serious injury. Last year, Dublin was awash with fireworks. From what I hear, I am sure it is the same this year. I welcome the launch by the Garda of Operation Tombola. Gardaí in the Dublin metropolitan region need to get behind this. They need to be visible and plan to prevent public disorder and antisocial behaviour. Local authorities also need to get behind this campaign and start to collect illegal bonfire material. I also welcome the fact that divisional public order units will be deployed on Hallowe'en night.
I ask the Cabinet subcommittee on justice, if it is going to meet very shortly, to please deal with this issue to stop Hallowe'en turning into a frightening night for so many people.
I thank all the Deputies for raising important issues. Deputy McDonald raised the issue of access to records, which I will follow through on. In my view, it should not be necessary to seek the permission of a GP to get access to your own medical records; they should be available. It relates ultimately to the information and tracing legislation published in May this year and which is currently before the House. Pre-legislative scrutiny is taking place and the Minister went before the Oireachtas joint committee yesterday. This is priority legislation that will deal with all the issues the Deputy raised. In the interim, I will engage with the Minister for clarification of some of the points raised.
Deputy Calleary raised the important issue of employment services. Fundamentally, these are services we must ensure are of the highest quality for those who use them in the first instance. It is 90% about engagement. This is not similar to JobPath. These services relate to engagement and 90% of the transactions have to be ones of engagement with, and guidance to, the service user. Parallel with that, advice from the Office of the Chief State Solicitor, the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Attorney General is that the Department of Social Protection is in breach of EU procurement rules and there has to be a competitive procurement process for these contracts. The Minister has met with the services involved and officials have visited every local employment service, LES, in the country over recent years. Phase 1 has commenced and that will inform phase 2.
We are looking at an expansion of services across seven counties where currently there is no LES-type service. It is about providing quality employment services in Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim, Longford, Westmeath, Laois and Offaly. We will need those additional services to help people navigate their route back to work. It is around the quality of service and experience. More than 75% of the marks in the request for tender were based on the quality of the service, the experience and track record of the tenderers in providing supports to those furthest from the labour market. As I said, 90% of the fees are based on engagement with the service and agreeing a personal progression plan. It is all about working and engaging with people. I am conscious of the issues the Deputy has raised in terms of the local context and dimension. There is a journey to travel yet in that regard.
On the fuel allowance, the Deputy raised a sad case. There will be an examination of these issues prior to the budget to see what can be done to alleviate the problems faced by people facing fuel poverty.
Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan raised the issue that there are no athletic tracks in west Cork. I fully take his point in terms of the extraordinary success of Bandon Athletic Club. Phil Healy is the iconic representative of the club, among others. We will give that application active consideration. We want to improve sports facilities.
Deputy Barry raised the issue of the Americas Cup in a sporting context. We want to support grassroots sport and clubs that find difficulty in applying for grants. The application system for certain sectors of sport has become very difficult. We need to ease access for clubs that are in disadvantaged situations in terms of their wherewithal to apply for grants. On the Americas Cup, the organisers have written to the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. There must be due diligence and due process before any decisions are made. There is a unit within the Department that deals with the hosting of big events such as the Ryder Cup and the teams from American colleges that come to Ireland. Those events have proven to give significant ratios of return to the economy and to create jobs. It is in that context the issue will be looked at. There is now a longer timeframe of up to six months for consideration of that matter.
Deputy Paul Murphy raised the issue of Judge O'Connor. The members of the Garda on the ground must assess and prosecute cases. When people are concerned about how that duty is carried out, complaints are made to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC. I regularly make the point that we need to reflect on the fact that the first port of call has to work. Our existing agencies have to work and do their jobs diligently and properly. It is a fact that we have a range of inquiries. The House will recall that some years ago, arising out of a big case, a whole range of cases were submitted to the then Minister for Justice for review. The Oireachtas and the Executive can never replace the operational agencies and institutions that have been established by the Oireachtas to deal with these issues. There is a real dilemma here in terms of how we can individually pursue every single case. This raises fundamental issues and I do not dispute that. I will give the matter consideration to see how we can proceed.
In response to Deputy Boyd Barrett, there are residential locations or accommodations for young adults with severe autism but there are not enough. The situation the Deputy described is shocking and the young boy involved should not be in emergency homeless accommodation. Every effort should be made by the HSE and others to make provision for that young man.
Deputy Haughey raised an issue around Hallowe'en and I agree with him entirely. We should be encouraging the elimination of bonfires. They are polluting. I participated in bonfires myself. I was in my local primary school last Monday and was shown photographs of a bonfire up the road from where I lived. We thought bonfires were the bee's knees at that time but I think of all those black tyres that we burned. We sat around thinking it was great fun. I would like to think we have moved on from that era because bonfires are pollutants. They are dangerous as well, when one considers what is thrown into them today. Anti-social behaviour should be stamped out. We will work with the Garda and the authorities on the matter of illegal fireworks. That is a fair point. We want that time of year for children to enjoy.