Tuesday, 9 November 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 10, inclusive, together.
Under the programme for Government, the Government aims to establish citizens' assemblies to consider the type of directly elected mayor and local government structures best suited for Dublin; biodiversity; matters relating to drugs use; and the future of education. Consideration is being given to the appropriate methodology for future citizens' assemblies, but any decisions in this regard will be guided by the experience of the gender equality citizens' assembly which completed earlier this year.
An independent researcher was appointed by the assembly to monitor and record, among other things, the perceived deliberative quality of the assembly. This report, published in July 2021, will assist in decisions on future assemblies' use of virtual meetings. Officials from my Department are engaging with officials from relevant Departments on the approach to be taken with regard to these assemblies. It is envisaged that they will be established after the Dublin mayor citizens' assembly has completed its work, but the specific timing of each assembly has yet to be confirmed. I am open to suggestions on prioritising the sequencing of these four assemblies. However, I believe the citizens' assembly on biodiversity is very important, as is the one on drugs. Deputies have asked me specifically about those two at different times in the Dáil.
By their nature, citizens' assemblies require large gatherings to be truly effective. There has, therefore, been an unavoidable delay in the establishment of the next citizens' assembly due to the public health situation.
If the Taoiseach is looking for suggestions on which citizens' assembly to prioritise, I will obviously plump for the one on education. The sector faces a number of issues, as the Taoiseach knows. Leaving certificate reform springs to mind and the joint committee on education is in the middle of discussions on that. The reform of July or summer provision also needs to be seriously addressed given that only 20% of eligible students had access to the programme in the past year. I welcome progress made on the school meals programme. Not every child has access to two or three meals per day and a school setting provides an opportunity in that regard.
I have to mention school transport. We speak about this issue in the House every summer and it is one that we dread as September approaches. It is another aspect of education we need to address. Autism spectrum disorder, ASD, designation for schools is a nettle that we need to firmly grasp by removing from principals and boards of management the discretion to determine whether a school has an ASD class. The Department needs to step in and allocate ASD provision in schools on the basis of demand. It should not be at a board's discretion.
The programme for Government commits to convening a citizens assembly to consider matters relating to drug use. The report published yesterday by the Tallaght Drug and Alcohol Task Force demonstrates the urgency of this commitment and starkly highlights the devastation addiction causes for family and communities. Demand for task force services in Tallaght has doubled over the past decade and this reality is replicated throughout this State. Despite this, task force funding remains at pre-2008 levels. The autonomy of task forces has also been radically reduced since the HSE took over funding them in 2015. This policy decision has stymied the ability of local task forces to respond effectively to localised challenges. The HSE does not understand the mission of the task force network. Accessing funding, which is limited, continues to be too difficult and slow and does not recognise local need. I am especially concerned for the North Inner City Drugs and Alcohol Task Force, as the Department of Health, with the assistance of the HSE, is actively pushing out community and voluntary members. I would like an engagement with the Taoiseach on this matter.
I am deeply disappointed and alarmed by the Taoiseach's continuing opposition to a citizens' assembly on Irish unity. A live and growing conversation is under way about reunification and there is an absolute need to start planning for constitutional change. It is my strong view that the onus is on government to prepare for a referendum and the prospect of reunification. I hope the Taoiseach will, eventually, in the time left to him as Taoiseach, choose to step up to this challenge and responsibility on this front.
A woman in her 50s was attacked on Sunday evening in Fermoy while out walking her dog. A man in his 20s or 30s approached her and struck her to the ground without warning and sexually assaulted her. He fled when two witnesses answered her cries. The Garda says it would have been far more serious had gardaí not arrived. The woman was taken to hospital. This is just one of the latest examples of Ireland's epidemic of gender-based violence. The latest evidence from Trinity College and Maynooth University shows 49% of women and 19% of men have experienced sexual assault or harassment. The Citizens' Assembly on gender equality is demanding action on these issues. It wants gender-based violence to be covered in schools, guidelines to be produced on specialist training for judges and lawyers and the appointment of a victims and survivors commissioner as an independent voice and advocate. I support these measures and others which go beyond them. I ask the Taoiseach whether he will support these recommendations and whether, on foot of them, he will now stop the blocking of the sex education Bill put forward by Solidarity in the previous Dáil.
When will the citizens' assembly on drug use be established?
There has been call for action on the tsunami of crack cocaine addiction in south-west Dublin. The issue has been all over the airwaves and it will become bigger and bigger in the years ahead. It is not isolated to Dublin. Ailbhe Conneely has covered the issue in depth for RTÉ, as the Taoiseach is probably aware, over the last two days. The Tallaght Drug and Alcohol Task Force found that one third of those seeking help for addiction are women. The task force is only meeting 25% of demand. There is a tsunami of cases and issues here. When will a citizens' assembly on drug use be established?
I think this is the sixth time I have raised this issue in this House. The Citizens' Assembly on gender equality has published its recommendations, one of which focuses on the definition of the family. I have raised a case in the House involving a gentleman who lost his partner. The couple made a number attempts to get married but she was very sick and subsequently passed away from Covid-19. We need a referendum to amend Article 41 of the Constitution. The way in which families come together has changed and family units are different in modern Ireland. When will the Citizens' Assembly that deals with this specific area conclude? When will we be able to put forward a referendum to change this article? This is necessary. There are over 150,000 cohabiting couples - the figure is 158,000, to be precise - affected by this. These couples pay tax on everything together, but when it comes to the State looking after them in their hour of need, they are discriminated against. The Citizens' Assembly has taken a view on this, which is good. However, we need to see action on a referendum on Article 41 and changing the position in the laws we bring in here. We should start with the social welfare Bill in the next couple of weeks.
The programme for Government includes a commitment to convene a citizens' assembly on drug use. I am sure the Taoiseach saw some of the harrowing coverage yesterday of what has been described as an epidemic of crack cocaine use in Tallaght. People’s lives and communities are being destroyed, yet the total figure allocated to address crack cocaine use in budget 2022 across the entire State was €500,000. Funding for the Tallaght Drug and Alcohol Task Force remains €100,000 a year lower than it was ten years ago. That funding still has not recovered from the cuts of more than 20% in mainstream and interim funding between 2009 and 2013. The people involved in the drugs projects are doing incredible work in extremely difficult circumstances but they are being let down by the State. They do not need words of sympathy or claps on the back. They need actual supports and resourcing. At a minimum, what is needed for the Tallaght Drug and Alcohol Task Force is an additional €1 million in funding. Will the Taoiseach agree to commit to that funding and to properly funding the task forces around the country?
I thank all the Deputies for the points they have raised in the context of this question. Deputy Pádraig O’Sullivan, who tabled one of the questions, called for a citizens' assembly on education. That would be useful. Other mechanisms have been used in the past, such as the National Education Convention where all the various partners in education convened for a general discussion in seeking out information on educational policy more generally.
Measures were taken in the budget to expand the schools meals programme. I accept that scheme can go further. There is a review under way on school transport. My view, in the context of the Government decision to halve the cost of public transport for younger people, is that in addition to all the other metrics that are used, we should look at school transport now through the prism of climate change. I have made this point to the Minister for Education, Deputy Norma Foley, as well as the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath. School transport is a complex scheme that has evolved over the years. It seems to me that having more kids on buses and fewer parents driving cars to schools, where that is feasible and possible, is part of the climate change agenda. I have asked that this be fed into the review of school transport that is under way in the Department of Education.
All schools should provide for children with special needs, as should all organisations, including those in the voluntary sector. Many schools are not State owned. As regards special schools and so on, the idea that schools will not accept a class or additional pupils has grown and that has to stop. The State will provide additional places and funding for them. Given that we have had mainstream special education over the last 25 years, it is important, particularly at post-primary level, that everybody is on board with inclusivity, as well as with facilitating access to schools for children with special needs. That needs to happen. The Government is working towards achieving that.
There are other issues with the examination review. There have been number of reviews of the leaving certificate. The leaving certificate of today is much different from what it was 25 years ago. There has been incremental change. The big challenge has always been to balance the anonymity of the process, whereby it is not who you are or who you are connected to but, rather, results that matter. That is a good thing. On the other hand, the leaving certificate facilitates rote learning to an excess. There needs to be reforms around the leaving certificate assessment model. The national qualifications framework, NFQ, provides opportunities for all students, irrespective of points and so on, to access their course or programme via different routes. That should ultimately be the optimal way forward.
Deputy Barry raised a sad and unacceptable incident that took place in Fermoy where a woman was attacked and sexually assaulted. I hope the person is brought to justice for that assault. The Deputy also raised the issue of gender-based violence. The recent Citizens' Assembly on gender equality produced recommendations on which the Government will follow through. We are not blocking any sex education Bill. However, there is an important exercise under way involving the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, and interested parties. It is a review of the sexuality in education programme in primary schools and second level schools. It is important that it be informed by experts and that we get a proper, up-to-date, modern programme for sexuality education in our schools.
On Deputy Kelly's point, we need a Citizens' Assembly on drugs. As I said earlier, I believe we need a broader response. I have asked officials to draw up a broader programme on areas of disadvantage, not only around drugs but deprivation more generally and creating pathways for people and progression within areas of disadvantage. Funding of about €6 million has been allocated to the national drug and alcohol strategy this year. A further €1 million will be allocated and we will look at whether we can do more. I understand that €1.2 million has been allocated to CHO area 4.
The report on crack cocaine use is very worrying-----
----but the whole drug epidemic across the country is worrying. We intend to pursue that. Deputy McDonald raised a similar issue.
On the constitutional issue, I happen to believe that citizens' assemblies are useful. However, there is a broader issue. First, we need an Oireachtas approach to Article 41.
On the future of the island and on unity, I was in government before the Good Friday Agreement and right through the process. I know what it takes to build up relationships and work with people. I do not need lectures on that. I do not need to be put into a corner via slogans. It suits one particular party to do that. That is not the way to go on this issue. I regret the tone that has entered into this debate of trying to pin people into a corner and saying “this person is opposed to this” and “this person is against that”. I have been for reconciliation of all the people and traditions in this island for all my political life. I intend to pursue that. I have my view on the best mechanisms to develop shared understandings and relationships. We should continue with that.
It was one of the great achievements of a Government that I was in along with other parties. The lessons about how we got there are still applicable today and should not be dismissed too easily.