Friday, 1 July 2022
Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2022: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
In light of the omnibus nature of the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, I will share time with my colleagues, the Minister forChildren, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O’Gorman, and the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Naughton, who will speak to the Parts in the Bill under their remit. This a cross-government domestic response to the crisis in Ukraine, with legislation covering my Department and measures related to the work of the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and the Department of Transport. The Bill also addresses matters relating to the Stardust inquest. The urgency of this legislation is in light of the emergency domestic response required across government to the Ukraine crisis and the need to facilitate the progression of the Stardust inquest. I thank the Members of the House for facilitating this urgent Bill.
The Bill will provide for key supports to temporary protection beneficiaries who have fled the war in Ukraine. A whole-of-government response is being mobilised to implement the practical arrangements. These give effect to the commitments made following the extraordinary meeting of the Justice and Home Affairs Council on 4 March. A number of legislative gaps were identified and the Bill provides for appropriate legal underpinnings. The Government and communities throughout the country have been doing their utmost to facilitate the arrival and roll-out of services and assistance for people fleeing Ukraine. The Bill is one of the measures to help that effort.
I will outline the main provisions of the Bill on the Parts relating to the Department of Justice. Part 1, preliminary and general, is a technical Part with standard provisions for the Bill dealing with the Short Title and commencement.
Part 8 is titled, Stardust Inquest (Special Jury Provisions). I will address the provisions related to the Stardust inquest initially. I want to acknowledge the suffering of the families of all the victims of the Stardust tragedy and to reiterate my sincere sympathy to all those affected. The holding of fresh inquests into the Stardust fire tragedy represents an exceptional situation, having regard to the history of previous investigations and the large number of fatalities. The fresh inquests were directed by the then Attorney General in 2019 on the basis that the original inquests were an insufficient inquiry.
Concerns were raised with me by the legal representatives of the victims’ families and others that the current method of empanelling a jury for the inquests under section 43 of the Coroners Act 1962 is not sufficient to guarantee a representative jury. This matter was also the subject of a Seanad Private Members' Bill on 23 February of this year. Part 8 responds to those concerns with new provisions for the empanelling and summoning of the jury for the new Stardust inquest and to require that the wages of persons so selected are paid.
Essentially, Part 8 will provide for a bespoke approach for the empanelling and summoning of the jury for the new Stardust inquest; in section 48, for the disapplication of certain provisions of the Coroners Act 1962 and the Juries Act 1976, as necessary; in section 50, for the Dublin coroner to seek the assistance of the Courts Service and county registrar for Dublin in empanelling and summoning a jury by ballot drawn from the electoral register for Dáil elections in a manner broadly similar to that in civil or criminal proceedings under the Juries Act 1976, but with any necessary amendment; in sections 52 to 55, inclusive, the process of determining eligibility and selection or disqualification or excusal of potential jurors and service of summons, adapted from the Juries Act 1976; and in section 58, a requirement that employers should continue to pay the wages of persons summoned to serve on the Stardust inquests jury, a provision similar to that contained in the Juries Act.
Section 60 provides that if the jury at a Stardust inquest fails to agree on a verdict, a majority verdict shall be accepted by the Dublin coroner. In the event of a jury failing to reach a verdict, this section provides for the holding of a new inquest at the discretion of the coroner. This replaces a provision which would have required the automatic holding of a new inquest in such circumstances.
Jurors will not be directly remunerated by the State for service at a Stardust or any other inquest as it could undermine the concept of jury service as a civic duty and give rise to significant costs for all juries. I emphasise that the special jury provisions in Part 8 will apply only to the new Stardust inquests given the extraordinary circumstances involved.
I also emphasise that my proposals respect that the Stardust inquests, as with all inquests, must be conducted under the independent direction and control of the coroner. The proposals at Part 8 respect that independence to ensure, insofar as possible, that the process is not subject to challenge.
At Part 4, the other main provisions under the remit of my Department relate to accessing the immigration services. In light of the significant increase in persons engaging with the immigration system, greater efficiencies for registering and processing across the immigration and social welfare system, and in regional locations, are being facilitated. Part 4 provides for amendment of the Immigration Act 2004 and other enactments relating to the registration of non-nationals. These amendments will facilitate the operation of the registration function jointly by the immigration service delivery function of the Department of Justice, and An Garda Síochána, and will support online registration processes.
I will now outline the main provisions of Part 4. Section 30 amends section 9 of the Immigration Act 2004, which provides for registration of non-nationals. The main purpose of the amendments is to remove the references to registration districts. The effect will be that a person will not be required to register in the Garda district where he or she resides but can register with a registration officer anywhere in the State. The amendments will enable information required for registration to be provided by electronic means.
Section 31 inserts a new section 9B into the Immigration Act 2004 to provide for the appointment of registration officers. The new section will enable the Minister for Justice to appoint multiple registration officers, who may be either members of An Garda Síochána or officials of the Department of Justice.
Section 34 amends section 19 of the Immigration Act 2004, which provides for the charging of fees under the Act. The purpose of the amendment is to clearly provide that regulations may prescribe different fees to be paid for registration certificates in different circumstances.
Section 38 revokes the registration provisions of the Aliens Order 1946. While that order has not been used to register non-nationals since the Immigration Act 2004 came into operation, the registration provisions remain in place. Revoking those provisions means that there will no longer be two parallel systems of registration on the Statute Book. The other provisions of Part 4 that I have not already mentioned contain amendments to legislative provisions and transitional provisions consequential on the amendments to section 9 of the Immigration Act 2004 and the Aliens Order 1946.
The purpose of Part 5 on the processing of certain personal data is to allow for the establishment of a one-stop-shop service to persons fleeing Ukraine who are seeking temporary protection, a personal public service number, PPSN, and income support.
It is aimed to make the process more customer-friendly and easier to operate. To enable this, the Bill will allow relevant justice sector and social protection officials to gather relevant information on each other’s behalf. This co-operation between the Departments of Justice and Social Protection will ensure greater efficiency.
Section 41 is a standard provision, and contains definitions of several words and phrases used in this Part. Section 42 provides for a key element of this Part to allow for collection of personal data by a relevant officer for relevant immigration and social welfare enactment. Essentially, this allows for the Department of Justice to collect data for the Department of Social Welfare and vice versa. The purpose of this collection is also set out. The relevant officer will be acting in accordance with the general data protection regulation, GDPR, and the Data Protection Act of 2018 and subject to suitable and specific measures.
Section 43 provides for the processing of personal data collected in this Part. The processing can only be undertaken by the persons who have relevant functions to process the information under relevant enactments. Section 44 provides that the Minister for Justice may, by regulation, with the consent of the Minister for Social Protection, prescribe an immigration enactment to be a relevant immigration enactment for the purposes of this Part. This regulatory power is subject to a number of prescribed safeguards.
The provisions in Part 4 and 5 will enhance efficiencies in the immigration service throughout the country. I thank colleagues for their consideration of this Bill and look forward to hearing from Deputies.
I am pleased to address the House on Part 2 of the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2022 in this Second Stage debate. The purpose of this Part is to provide for a financial contribution of €400 per property for those providing accommodation to temporary protection beneficiaries from Ukraine. It is available whether the accommodation is pledged or provided by private arrangement and whether the accommodation is a vacant property or a room in a shared property. Since the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine, my Department has worked as part of the Government response with a particular focus on meeting the immediate temporary accommodation needs of those fleeing the conflict.
To date, almost 75% of the beneficiaries, more than 28,000 people, who have arrived in Ireland have been referred to my Department for accommodation. The majority of these have been accommodated in hotels and similar accommodation throughout the country. Officials in my Department are also working closely with the Irish Red Cross to utilise the accommodation that has been pledged. To date, almost 1,900 Ukrainians have been accommodated in pledged accommodation. We are also aware that accommodation is being provided to those fleeing the conflict in Ukraine by private arrangement. The financial contribution scheme recognises the value and generosity of those pledging their accommodation and providing it by private arrangement.
The Government is keenly aware that there are costs for people who make accommodation available to temporary protection beneficiaries. I want to be clear, however, that there is no link assumed between the payment under this scheme and actual costs incurred. This is simply not possible. It is essentially a recognition payment recognising the generosity and kindness of those offering up or opening their homes to others in their time of need.
I now turn to the main provisions in this Part. Section 4 sets out the qualifying period for the scheme, which essentially means that claims for the contribution can be made in respect of accommodation provided from March 2022, and provides an end date for the scheme of 31 March 2023. That end date will be subject to review.
Section 6 provides for the conditions to be satisfied by a person in order to be entitled to a financial contribution. This includes that he or she completes a declaration as part of the application process. Section 7 requires an application for a financial contribution in respect of an eligible dwelling to be made to the Minister for Social Protection. Applications will be made online and applicants will be required to self-declare regarding a number of matters set out in section 7, including that they have the authority or consent to provide the accommodation and are willing to offer the accommodation for a minimum period of six months.
Section 8 provides that where an applicant satisfies the conditions in respect of an eligible dwelling, a financial contribution in respect of the dwelling for the calendar month will be payable to the applicant by the Minister for Social Protection. Section 9 sets the monthly financial contribution at €400 and further provides the amount can be amended by order and the process for doing so.
Section 10 provides for the designation by the Minister for Social Protection of staff as appointed officers to make decisions in respect of applications. Section 11 provides for the notification of decisions to applicants. Section 12 provides for the appointment of appeals officers by the Minister for Social Protection. Section 13 provides for an appeals process. Section 14 requires an applicant to notify the Minister for Social Protection of a change in circumstances affecting his or her eligibility for a financial contribution. Section 15 provides for the recovery by the Minister for Social Protection of financial contributions where there was no entitlement to such contributions. Section 16 provides for the sharing of information between the relevant bodies in respect of the scheme. This includes my Department, the Department of Social Protection, the Department of Justice and the Revenue Commissioners.
Section 17 provides for offences and penalties, while section 18 provides for the prosecution of offences under Part 2. Section 19 provides that payments under the financial contribution scheme will be exempt for the purposes of means testing in respect of a benefit granted by a public body.
Section 20 provides for the process of notifications under Part 2 will be in writing. Section 21 creates a regulation-making power for the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, with the consent of the Minister for Social Protection, in relation to the application and appeals processes. Section 22 provides that the payment of a financial contribution will not create a landlord and tenant relationship. Section 23 clarifies that a financial contribution in respect of an eligible dwelling under this Act will be exempt from income tax.
Section 24 provides for an amendment to the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 to prevent the unintentional creation of a landlord and tenant relationship where accommodation is provided to a temporary protection beneficiary for six months or more. My Department is working with the Department of Social Protection on an early commencement of the scheme and the development of communications. My Department is also working with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage on accommodation standards for accommodation that is the subject of a claim under the scheme.
I acknowledge the work already under way to activate pledges for accommodation by the Department's implementing partners - the Irish Red Cross, local authorities, the International Organization for Migration and the Peter McVerry Trust - and the generosity shown by those who have offered up or opened their homes to those in need.
I will now move to Part 3. Section 25 is an amendment of the Childcare Support Act 2018 to ensure that families who are temporary protection beneficiaries in the State can receive financial support with the cost of early learning and childcare costs under the national childcare scheme, NCS. The NCS is the Government's key mechanism to reduce the cost of childcare to parents by subsiding childcare fees set by providers. The level of subsidy is based on parental income and the level of childcare required. Subsidies range from a universal subsidy of 50 cent per hour up to the maximum targeted subsidy, which can cover the full cost of childcare. Access to the NCS will help families who are temporary protection beneficiaries to access childcare, which will support parents and guardians to engage in work, study or training, while attendance at high-quality early learning and childcare services will give their children security, stability and a chance to play and learn with other children.
I thank the Minister for Justice for bringing this important Bill before the House. The Bill represents a comprehensive and co-ordinated Government response to address a number of important issues flowing from the Ukraine crisis. I will speak about Parts 6 and 7.
Part 6 puts the licensed haulage emergency support scheme on a legislative footing. This scheme provided emergency financial support to the licensed haulage sector following the sharp and sudden increase in fuel prices in March 2022 caused by the war in Ukraine and actions arising from it. Part 7 will provide the Minister for Transport with the power to issue an order that will allow people - not just Ukrainians - admitted to the State under a temporary protection directive, as per section 60 of the International Protection Act 2015, to drive here on their national driving licence without the need to exchange the licence for the period of temporary protection.
Brexit and Covid-19 have shown the importance of the Government taking appropriate and timely actions to safeguard our essential sectors from external shocks. While the Ukraine crisis is of an entirely different nature, the same principle is true. Our licensed haulage sector plays an invaluable role in facilitating our normal day-to-day lives. We rely on it for the delivery of foods and goods, including essential items, into and around the State. The sector is of national strategic importance. It is a critical enabler of a functioning supply chain, helping to support key infrastructure and enabling the maintenance of economic and social activity. Therefore, on 15 March 2022, in response to increasing fuel costs resulting from the Ukraine crisis, the Minister for Transport and I proposed to the Government an emergency support measure for the sector. The licensed haulage emergency support scheme provided a support of €100 per week for eight weeks for each eligible heavy goods vehicle authorised on the licence of a road haulage operator as of 11 March 2022. The scheme was administered by my Department and was open for applications between 5 April and 6 June 2022.
It is now closed. The scheme was an important and responsive measure that enabled the Government to act quickly to provide short-term financial support to the sector, helping to ensure the continued operation of the national haulage fleet by assisting eligible operators with cost pressures, ensuring liquidity for business and compensating operators for the additional costs incurred due to the increased fuel prices. Over €15 million in grants has been made available to eligible operators to date. Section 45 of the Bill now provides the necessary legal underpinning for the scheme.
Part 7 deals with the recognition of foreign driving licences held by people arriving in Ireland under the temporary protection directive. Visitors to Ireland can drive here on their national licences for up to a year. This is possible under the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic. Following recent case law, however, non-EU citizens granted temporary residence in Ireland may not drive here on their national licence and must obtain an Irish licence. Although a foreign licence can be recognised for exchange purposes in certain circumstances, there is currently no provision in the Road Traffic Acts to recognise a non-EU driving licence for use. Section 46 will introduce a new section 23B into the 1961 Road Traffic Act which will allow the Minister for Transport to respond immediately to large and sudden movements of people to Ireland under the temporary protection directive, following urgent humanitarian crises. This new provision will grant, by an order of the Minister, the immediate ability to drive in Ireland on a licence or permit issued by a non-EU state. The foreign licence will be recognised without the need to exchange it for an Irish licence and will be tied to the permission to reside granted under section 60 of the 2015 International Protection Act. Once the protection permission ceases or is revoked, the licence is no longer recognised.
The definition of a driving licence in sections 38 and 40 of the 1961 Act will be expanded to require that a driving licence recognised under the new section 23B must be accompanied by a permission to reside.
Section 47 amends sections 60 and 61 of the Road Traffic Act 2010. This amendment clarifies that if a driving licence recognised under the new section 23B is seized by a member of An Garda Síochána, only the driving licence is retained and not the permission to reside.
While Parts 6 and 7 are not big, they deal with important issues. The haulage scheme provided the agile response and much-needed temporary assistance to the licensed haulage sector when it was facing sudden, sharp increases in fuel costs.
Part 7 will provide the Minister for Transport with the necessary powers to react quickly in any future situations when people unfortunately need to come here under a temporary protection directive, by enabling them to use their national licence while in the State for the period of temporary protection. I hope the Bill will be progressed quickly.
I welcome this Bill and the moves to resolve many of the issues outlined.
I will deal first with the issue of the Stardust inquest and the coroner’s court. The Stardust tragedy happened 41 years ago when 48 people went for a night out and did not come home. It has influenced and impacted not just the people of Artane and that part of Dublin but the whole country. I remember that Saturday morning. A television programme was on, the exact name of which I forget but Aonghus McAnally used to be on it. I think it was called "Anything Goes". As children we used to get up early on a Saturday morning to watch television and there was then a newsflash in the middle of the programme. This terrible horror that had happened was reported. It had a huge effect on people because there is a sense of injustice surrounding it as it was never properly dealt with. There were several inquests and other things were done but there is a strong feeling throughout the nation that there was an injustice and the tragedy was never dealt with properly. I welcome the advances that have been proposed in the Bill.
The coroner's courts are a problem that needs to be dealt with in a broader way, particularly the issue of juries. While the best approach is probably taken in Dublin, it is dealt with in a more slipshod manner in many other areas. I know there are proposals to deal with the issue. The specific proposal in the Bill for selecting jurors for the Stardust inquest is progress and a way forward, and has been welcomed by the families. They feel, at last, that something is happening. It is vital that we all ensure the families do not feel at the end of this process, again, that it has not been done properly or there is anything they could question.
I will add one caveat related to the selection of the juries. In civil and criminal cases, there is an opportunity to reject a certain number of jurors. I ask that the Minister of State clarify whether that is the case in this particular inquest. It would be appropriate to provide for that. My colleagues will also speak on the Stardust issue.
Other issues have been raised regarding the thousands of people from Ukraine who have come here. In most cases, they have enhanced our communities and have been very welcomed. In my community, the local parochial house has been 14 years without a priest. We got a bit of inspiration and turned it into a family home. Last week, a family from Ukraine drove from near Kharkiv all the way across Europe to Rosslare and then up through the country. They arrived in the parochial house where they are being looked after. Relatives may join them later on. They have children in the house which is a great thing. We had a three-teacher school in the parish but it is now a two-teacher school. In another ten years, if we do not families, there will be no school. We were delighted to see children coming. That is the case in many rural areas. We need to see new people coming and we welcome that.
There are, however, pressures in other areas which have overcrowded schools and problems with healthcare. I raised this matter with the Minister previously and it needs to be dealt with, particularly where large numbers of Ukrainians are staying in hotels. Many of these people have medical issues and problems and there are no GPs in many parts of the country to deal with those kinds of issues.
The proposed €400 payment is welcome. I note it will be backdated to March. I assume there will be some process to backdate it and that people looking for this money will have to provide some evidence of when the family arrived and so on. The process involved in that regard needs to be made clear.
Many of the people from Ukraine staying in hotels are receiving social welfare and are being very well looked after. We have to avoid creating a different category of asylum seeker, refugee or person seeking international support and protection. We have people from Ukraine who have fled a war staying in hotels, receiving social welfare payments and being well looked after, while people coming from another part of the world who are in similar situations are not getting exactly the same treatment. That is an issue that needs to be dealt with.
I know there are moves afoot to sort out the whole issue of direct provision and the problems associated with it. The situation has improved but there is still a fair distance to go, as I am sure the Minister will acknowledge. The problems we need to address also involve ensuring there is no conflict and no sense among communities that people are getting things they do not deserve or receiving attention that others do not receive. All public representatives are being contacted people saying they cannot get a medical card, yet somebody from Ukraine can get one straightaway. This type of thing creates an issue. I know this is about entitlements and that people working here face certain income barriers, etc. That said, we need to be cautious that we do not create splits or divisions in our society and communities. That is important.
The vast majority of people who are coming are looking for work. Many of them want to drive trucks and I have come across some of them in my area. They have issues with licences and so forth. Our laws around that are strict because we must be conscious of road safety. We also need to ensure that when people come here, from whatever part of the world, and want to use their driving licence to drive articulated trucks and heavy goods vehicles, they are competent to do so. I am not sure if such a measure is in the Bill but the issue needs to be covered somewhere. Perhaps the regulations will include measures to ensure people the competency their driver licence suggests they have.
The availability of childcare is a problem for everyone in Ireland but particularly for people who come here as asylum seekers and refugees. We need to put in place provisions to provide for them and I am glad there is a move to do that in the Bill.
Overall, as I believe others will acknowledge, it is not good policy to bring forward Bills that have a little bit of everything in them. However, we understand this is an emergency and we are almost at the end of the Dáil term. In the long run, however, we need to see proper legislation laid down to deal with these issues as we move forward. This particular legislation does that and is beneficial in that respect.
The Stardust inquest is probably the issue in the Bill to which most people will pay attention. The clear reason for that is the injustice attached to the Stardust case.
The issues are clear. Sinn Féin supports the Bill and wants it to work but we need some assurance regarding the few small points I raised.
I welcome this Bill. I will speak specifically to Part 8, which addresses many of the issues raised by the families of the victims and survivors of the Stardust fire. I commend the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, and her Department officials on their efforts and on bringing forward this legislation in response to some major concerns that were raised. I mention also my Sinn Féin colleague, Senator Boylan, who pushed for change on behalf of the families and has been a fantastic advocate for them over many years.
I hope this Bill removes all the remaining stumbling blocks for the families. I hope the inquest will be thorough, human rights compliant and will set the standard for how inquests will be conducted in the future. I hope, too, that it will deliver the answers to the questions the families and survivors have sought for more than 41 years. I know they are happy that this legislation is now progressing. It is not before time, given that they have been deeply frustrated in the past by delay after delay. While it is welcome that we have movement now, it must be said that the manner in which some previous Ministers for Justice treated this issue was unacceptable and insulting at times. There have been many unnecessary delays in getting this inquest off the ground. That has to be acknowledged by the Government.
This inquest will draw eyes from all around the world and it is important that we get it right. Again, I commend the Minister, Deputy McEntee, on taking the lead on this. I know the families of the victims and survivors are grateful. It is difficult for any of us to imagine the trauma and experience of those who suffered and were in the Stardust fire on that tragic night. Many people will have very vivid memories of that night and the days and weeks that followed it. It was a night that completely rocked our community and, to this day, it leaves an emotional scar on so many people. We had 48 young people lose their lives and hundreds of others injured. There is no doubt that this process will be emotionally draining for all involved, with many having to relive a night that is etched in their minds for all the wrong reasons.
I will speak briefly to sections 51 and 61. The new proposals will see a change in how a jury is selected for this inquest by disapplying section 43 of the Coroners Act 1962. It will make this inquest all the more valid because of the jury and the independence of its selection. The jury members will also have their income protected for the duration of the inquest, meaning those who are selected will not be put in a precarious financial position, which will give them the time to properly consider the evidence and verdict without the pressures of strict deadlines.
I hope this Bill passes without delay. Some relatives of the 48 young people who were killed that night have passed away in recent months and years. They have gone to their graves with no peace or closure. Justice for the families and survivors has been a long time coming. I hope this is the beginning of a process that will deliver answers for so many people.
Believe it or not, I was head of Sinn Féin Youth in 1981. For a whole generation, particularly in Dublin, who at that time were teenagers or in our early 20s, the fire in the Stardust complex changed us forever. Forty-eight people died and 214 were injured on that fateful St. Valentine's night. Now, 41 years later, the families who fought tirelessly for answers have still not got the full truth about how their loved ones died.
The fire on St. Valentine's night 1981 changed many of us from that generation; an innocence was lost. We never felt quite the same or relaxed in crowded halls or rooms after that. I remember being in a club in Galway years later and becoming increasingly uncomfortable. A group of Dublin friends all agreed afterwards that they felt the same. Collectively, without any discussion, we left the place and on the way out we saw, again, a lock and chain on the fire exit door we had unconsciously passed on the way in.
The original inquest into the fire was held just a year after the blaze when very little was known about the events of that night. I remember some of the appalling coverage in the media and how it described young people who were trying to save people that night. For anyone who wants to look back on that period, the way they were described was absolutely appalling. They were described as robbers. They were young people who were desperately trying to save their friends and they were vilified in the official media. I got to know many of those young people.
Rather than providing rational answers, the original inquiry only raised more questions about the totally inadequate way in which the tragedy was investigated and dealt with by the institutions of the State. In the 41 years since, much more detail and new evidence have come to light. The Stardust victims and relatives deserve some semblance of truth and justice. The families of the 48 people who died in the Stardust fire in Artane and the hundreds who were injured, many of whom received life-changing injuries, including third-degree burns, never stopped campaigning for a proper and in-depth inquest into the tragedy. I met many of the families over the decades. I have seen their highs and experienced their lows. I have always been humbled by their relentlessness, determination, courage and passion for justice. Today, I am conscious that many of the parents and siblings of the young people who died have passed away without the necessary answers they fought for to their questions about what caused the fire and who was ultimately responsible for their loved ones being caught in that fire trap.
Like others, I commend my Sinn Féin colleague, Deputy Mitchell, and I also commend Senator Boylan on her tireless work and advocacy on behalf of the families, which included a very successful postcard campaign around the issue. Senator Boylan also brought a Bill to the Seanad earlier this year and sought to ensure that the jury would be selected in the same manner as a jury in a criminal case.
The original Keane inquiry into the Stardust fire claimed it was probable arson. That finding was overturned in 2009 as a result of the independent investigation. This led to a correction of the public record, which exonerated all those present in the Stardust nightclub from any blame. This was important but it was not and cannot be where the journey for truth into what happened that night ends.
Knowing that the Stardust inquest will be held before a jury which will be independently selected will be a huge relief to the families and their supporters. The families and friends of the 48 young people who never came home have a right to the full truth about what happened on that awful night. It was a tragedy that haunted a generation of teenagers who are now near pension age. It is said that justice delayed is justice denied, and I dearly hope this is an opportunity for the families to get some of the answers they seek. There have been too many false dawns for the Stardust families. Perhaps today we have a chance to start undoing the pain and to right the wrongs that official Ireland imposed on these families and their loved ones.
I thank the Minister for bringing forward this legislation, which the Labour Party welcomes. I will first deal with the Ukrainian situation. In fairness to the Ministers who are present, they have worked hard to listen about the fall gaps for those who are trying to live lives here and who are trying to get accommodation and employment here. They have picked through all those issues and come up with solutions. As has been said, this has been a massive effort across all Departments and across society.
We often criticise the political system and we are often very self-critical in Ireland, but we have to take a moment to realise we probably stand alone in Europe as being the only country that does not have immigration at the top of the political debate list. We do not discuss it. It is not a political debating point. It never comes up at elections. There is no political entity here that wants to score points over immigration. We should seize that, recognise it and not be complacent about it. It is something that gives us all credit. As far I know in my political time, there has been no voice here that has sought to limit numbers or sought to create division. That is outside of the referendum in 2004, which I considered a dark period. It is almost 20 years from that and it is to our credit in Ireland that when it comes to our moral and historical obligation to open our doors, our families and our communities, we step up and it is not a point of political debate.
However, the point has been made about ensuring we do this correctly and ensuring those who have come to Ireland seeking asylum do not feel there is an injustice in how they are being treated compared with the programme refugees we have from Ukraine. There have been suggestions that in the education system, for example, it is easier to access language supports for Ukrainians than for other children in the system. That is something we have to guard against. All the practical measures the Government has taken here, ranging from the €400 in respect of accommodation to drivers' licences and childcare provision, are absolutely necessary. The Government has responded to the issues and is producing legislation to give legislative underpinning for these things. That is to be commended and the Labour Party supports the Ministers on that.
Regarding the Stardust, I do not think anybody could imagine, and people still cannot get their heads around it 41 years later, the magnitude of what happened. If we woke up this morning and learned that 48 people had been burned to death last night, can you imagine how the country would feel? That is exactly what happened 41 years ago. It is a failure for all of us that this has not been resolved and the truth has not come out. What clings to this entire discussion is the sense that they did not get justice because of where they were from - working-class kids from working-class communities on the northside of Dublin. If that fire had happened anywhere else in Ireland, they would have known the truth by now.
That is the sense the communities and the families have. It is hard to shake that off when you read about it and when you talk to the parents, families and relatives who have gone through it, as I have done, and the local people who are concerned about it. The overriding sense of injustice is that they were just not powerful enough to get the answers at the time. Even the finding of probable arson stinks of saying it is their own fault and they probably set fire to it themselves. It is probable arson. Again, that just speaks to total social injustice, if the Minister understands what I mean. I know that finding was overturned, but that is the overriding sense. Families have been told to stop campaigning and to give it up so we can all move on, but I do not believe anybody could ever move on from 48 people being burned to death. The communities and families cannot move on from that, nor should they. None of us should move on from that until we have absolute truth and understanding of what happened.
The Minister has listened to the families, to their concerns, to their representatives and to their legal counsel and she has responded. That is to be commended and the Labour Party supports her on that. I ask that Deputies from the local area such as me, Deputy Mitchell and others be involved in this process and that we talk to each other as we go through it. We want to be helpful in this and to be consulted as much as is reasonable, because we want to be part of the solution as well. When it comes to other legislative measures that are required, I am sure a briefing for local Deputies would be beneficial because we are part of the solution here.
To conclude on these two matters, the Ministers are to be commended. They have listened to the fall gaps in terms of what Ukrainian individuals and families are going through in Ireland and they have put forward legislative underpinnings for certain requirements they have. They have also listened about the Stardust and have made the changes that are required. All any of us can hope, and both of these issues come from a very different but very real sense of injustice, is that those fleeing war will find comfort and love here and find their time here to have been empowering, loving and caring and that if they get the chance to go home at some point, they will have fond reflections on their time here in Ireland, and for the families of the Stardust victims, that they can look at their State and their legislative bodies and say that in the end they did listen and we did work together to find the truth.
I will focus the little time I have on the part of this Bill that attempts to deal with the Stardust tragedy. I was only six years old in 1981 and I do not remember the tragedy happening. What I remember is the lingering conversations over the years about how 48 young people went to a St. Valentine's eve disco and never came home. I remember how the adults in my life were upset not just by the fact that so many young lives had been lost but also that there was no justice for their families. I am from a similar working-class community to that of many who died in the Stardust, albeit on the opposite side of the city, and there has always been the question that families from working-class areas just did not count.
Since 1981, the families of the young people who died in the Stardust have had to face many obstacles to get justice. The first inquest focused solely on the medical cause of death and did not focus on any of the surrounding factors related to the fire. As I grew older, I remember the anniversaries of the Stardust and how the families marked them at ten years, 20 years, 30 years and 40 years. Forty years have passed without justice for these grieving families. A ruling from the Attorney General in 2020 noted that the original inquests amounted to an insufficient inquiry and called for a fresh inquest. We welcome the inclusion of provisions for the inquests, although there are some issues regarding jury selection that still have to be resolved.
I met with the families and campaigners for justice a number of times over the years. I remember a family fun day in my area, Bawnogue, on the other side of the city that I spoke about. The Stardust families were there making the next generation aware of their loss and their fight for justice. Let us hope the families do not have to inform any more generations about this quest for justice. Some family members I met that day, tragically, have passed away and are no longer here.
I commend the families of the 48 young people who never came home, and the communities they come from, on their tireless efforts over the past four decades. I also commend my colleague, Senator Boylan, on her consistent and insistent calls for justice and the support she has given the families over the years. I am often very critical of the Government, but I also acknowledge and commend the Minister on bringing this Bill forward. It is to be hoped the families will get an answer at the end of this process.
I assume the Minister appreciates it is quite difficult to know where to begin with this legislation because it is multifaceted. It is rushed but there is an emergency nature to it at the same time. I accept that is the case. We know mistakes will be made, even if we cannot identify them at this stage, because this legislation is being passed at breakneck speed. I am not referring to this specific Bill, but even in situations where there are issues with rushed legislation that can be identified at the time it is being debated, the Government is very often not disposed to accepting amendments. I have concerns. This time of the year, just before the recess, is always problematic when it comes to rushed legislation. If we were to go back and take a look, it is the time when most mistakes are made.
On housing, I am glad to see the €400 flat payment for host families. That support is welcome. It has been announced and I am glad to see it is backdated. Host families are showing an incredible level of generosity in taking refugees into their homes and should not be under financial strain. We all accept it is not just about the war environment but is a cost-of-living issue as well. I will highlight some concerns. The Bill is very explicit in laying out that the payment is not to establish a landlord-tenant relationship between host families and refugees. That is fine and it is right to do that, but we must be cautious about placing refugees in living situations where they have no rights. Where do they go if the arrangement does not continue? We all know there is a housing crisis at present. We have to ask what protections are in place on the other side for people who have been pledged accommodation. Are there clear avenues, for example, if things do not work out or if there are complaints? Are there procedures to remove people from poor living conditions, if they arise? Is the Minister satisfied that provisions are robust enough to ensure all the accommodation is of a certain standard?
While this legislation excludes access to this payment for hosts who have drawn up official rental agreements with refugees, I do not see an acknowledgement in the Bill regarding informal payment arrangements that are in place. Some host families have verbal agreements with refugees that include making a contribution to the family household. I am concerned we could be creating a situation where, between the Government subsidy and informal arrangements, some hosts could essentially be receiving a rental income. We have to be careful. There will always be a very small number of people who will take advantage of a situation. That is, in essence, what I am trying to draw attention to. If it exists at all, it will be a tiny number, but we should not exclude the possibility.
To date, approximately 1,500 families have been placed in pledged housing. The Government target was to reach 6,000 by the end of August. At the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine, the Red Cross was flooded with 25,000 pledges of accommodation. Of course, it is natural that when people think about it, there will be a fall-off, but we need to understand, should something similar happen in future, which I hope it does not, and I am not necessarily talking about a war situation, how we handle this at the beginning. Many people complained the contacts made with them were very slow. People then believed the accommodation they pledged was not required or wanted. We lost some opportunities as a consequence of that. At the beginning, a little more than 50 people made follow-up calls, 40 from the Defence Forces and 15 from call centres. Many homeowners complained they were never contacted or were not contacted for a considerable period.
An article by Mr. Jack Power in The Irish Timesearlier this month was very insightful in highlighting the issues facing us as regards housing Ukrainian refugees. It is clear that the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth was overwhelmed at the beginning of the war. The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage should have stepped in and played a much bigger role, given its close links with local authorities. Some very good things were learned at the early stages of the pandemic about very direct involvement at local government level. The Government probably should have learned from the mistakes made at the very beginning of the pandemic from that point of view because the Department of Health was landed with everything. In essence, it was exactly the same and we repeated that mistake. We need to recognise that and not do it again if we find ourselves in a situation where we need to have a whole-of-government approach early on.
Certain issues, such as hotel quarantining, would have been better handled by the Department of Transport, but in the pandemic crisis, as in this one, there seemed to have been an attitude in Government that shunted the vast majority onto the one Minister, namely, the Minister for Health. The Irish Times article I referenced reported overcrowding in hotels, which provided the bulk of the accommodation for refugees. One such example was 40 people being placed in an unused building with only one working toilet and no cooking facilities. We all understand the urgency of the crisis, and I do not doubt that people were doing their absolute best and scrambling to put roofs over people's heads, but we have to set a clear and acceptable standard for the accommodation we put people into, even if is very temporary accommodation. We cannot repeat the sins of direct provision in this system. Yes, we have a moral obligation to take in refugees. I do not dispute that at all, but we also have a moral and legal obligation to ensure they are treated with dignity and respect when they are here.
I will move on to the issue of driving licences. This Bill will allow the Minister to sign an order that will recognise Ukrainian driving licences. The current arrangements, which have been in place since April, are that Ukrainians have the ability to exchange their licences for Irish licences that will be valid for a year. What has happened since that was announced in April? Was there no legal underpinning? Have issues arisen as a consequence of that?
We have seen that access to driving licences is fundamental for direct provision residents. It allows people independence and freedom of movement throughout the country. Of course, many refugees have no say over where they are placed in Ireland. Many will live in rural areas without access to public transport or with limited public transport, at least. The difference, however, is that asylum seekers are asked to go through the Irish system to gain driving licences, unlike Ukrainian refugees. I understand the sheer number of Ukrainians entering the country would make that near impossible to do in a timely way on an administrative level. I accept that. However, it really is a contrast for people who have been asylum seekers compared with the people who are here as refugees from the war in Ukraine.
There are people who have had to fight battle after battle with the Government to achieve what is now rightly being granted automatically to Ukrainian refugees.
Aside from the importance of freedom of movement, road safety is another issue. There is a possible issue here. Was the Road Safety Authority consulted on this decision? Did it raise any issues with regard to road safety? The data I can find show there is three times the rate of fatalities in Ukraine in comparison with Ireland. Even if there is a temporary arrangement, there should be some other arrangement if there are road safety issues. The whole idea is to keep our roads safe for everybody who will use them. I accept there is an urgency about this, but it would be wrong not to flag it as requiring some consideration when we inevitably deal with some more permanent arrangements.
Of the nearly 39,000 Ukrainian refugees who have arrived so far, an estimated 25% are under the age of 13, with 50% being over the age of 20. As such, access to the national childcare scheme is vital and I welcome that element of the Bill. The difficulties Ukrainian women are having accessing childcare highlights the systemic issues in childcare provision for families throughout the country. Childcare costs are insurmountable for many in Ireland, let alone for refugees who are here without the family support systems they could have relied on at home and many of them will not have an income stream.
Lack of childcare is one of the biggest barriers between Ukrainian parents and access to work, education and training. Cost is a bigger issue for those who are not proficient in English. Regardless of their level of education or professional experience, without English, their access to well-paying employment will be limited. However, accessing English language classes is near impossible without access to childcare, which they cannot afford because they cannot get a well-paying job. The issue is kind of circular. Ukrainian women have been caught in the vicious catch-22 that is affecting many families in Ireland. Are particular supports being put in place to navigate the childcare system? If so, will the Minister outline them to us?
Cost is not the only barrier. There is an overall shortage of childcare spaces. It is difficult to navigate for those who have knowledge of the system, let alone those who do not. This is an urgent issue in the summer months when children are out of school. The Government needs to increase funding significantly into the early childhood care and education, ECCE, sector in the upcoming budget. I know there have been changes but there are also problems. A lack of access to childcare has an incredible knock-on effect on families throughout Ireland and, of course, it has a disproportionate impact on women.
With regard to Stardust, a section of the Bill makes provisions for the jury at the Stardust inquest. I welcome this long-awaited legislation and pay tribute to the families of the victims of the Stardust fire who have campaigned tirelessly for this inquest.
We also have to acknowledge that there are officials in some of the Departments who have had to do an incredible amount of work at a very challenging time, especially in the Department that has done the heavy lifting on this. While I will be drawing attention to some things that need to be done and shortcomings in the legislation, it is important to balance that with acknowledgment that there has been a considerable additional burden on staff in that Department. Lessons have to be learned about spreading that burden and about where there has to be the overall responsibility. The whole-of-government approach has to kick in at a much earlier stage than happened on this occasion.
I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to this very important debate. We have all accepted it is wide ranging. The expeditious nature and requirement of passing this legislation is not lost on anyone in this House, but there are a few points and questions I wish to put to the Minister and the Minister of State, and perhaps they could respond in due course. We should never let a difficulty be lost with regard to justice and the parts that allow for alterations and efficiency in terms of the registration of people coming to Ireland. This is an opportunity to look at the wider immigration system and how this could be applied, not just to those fleeing Russia's brutal war in Ukraine, but also to those fleeing other conflicts such as in Afghanistan or sub-Saharan Africa and our moral responsibility to them and, indeed more widely, to those who want to come here legally, who are not fleeing conflict but very much want to come to this country. Perhaps this is an opportunity to look at what is working in the emergency response to the conflict in Ukraine and see how that can be put into the wider immigration system.
I appreciate this is the legislative underpinning of vital responsibilities on the State, but it has to be said there is an element of fatigue across focus on this conflict. There is an element of fatigue in this Chamber. We have heard some comments from certain Members that were, frankly, downright nasty. Those Members are not in the Chamber or in the groups represented here at present, but those comments are unfortunately feeding an online narrative that was inevitable. It was going to come. We all have to push back against this especially nasty narrative. This is our absolute moral responsibility to the people who are being bombed out of their homes in Ukraine. We have not just that responsibility but that ability to cater for those needs. Therefore, this legislation is vitally important. We can truly be proud of the one-stop-shop initiative put in place by my the Minister, Deputy McEntee, in co-operation with the Minister, Deputy Humphreys. I have spoken to a number of colleagues, on a European basis, who are looking at the Irish example and seeking to replicate that in other EU member states in terms of how to approach this in a more efficient way.
I had queries with regard to the transport and children aspects of the legislation. I will ask the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, about the first area, transport, given that she is in the Chamber. In her opening address, she spoke at length about the difficulties the haulage sector has been facing in Ireland over the past 18 months. The Minister of State and I have discussed this a number of times. Of course, these difficulties are seen across the world, not just in the EU. We see them in America and many other places.
We must look at that opportunity, not just to support the haulage sector, but also to co-ordinate the opportunities presenting to attract more people into that sector. We talk about encouraging more people into the profession, the training and the apprenticeship scheme in the medium term through the Departments of the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Harris. We must also look at how we attract people from non-EU and non-EEA countries to come to Ireland to do those jobs, cognisant that many people from those countries have previously driven out of the United Kingdom but find that opportunity is no longer open to them.
The second area is with regard to driving licences. This is acutely important, given the fact so many people fleeing the conflict in Ukraine are finding themselves settled in more remote areas where there was a spare home or outside of the main urban or city centres. It is very important to ensure they have the ability to drive and to access transport by all the means possible. I had a query in terms of co-operation with the authorities in Northern Ireland to ensure licences will be valid there. There is an obvious reason. If a Ukrainian family have found themselves accommodated in Lifford and need to do their weekly shop in Strabane, they want to make sure, if they have access to a car, they continue to drive legally. I would appreciate clarification when summing up.
With regard to childcare provision and the area under the responsibility of the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, there are a couple of areas that are unique to this current situation. However, as was touched on by Deputy Catherine Murphy, they apply more generally to the pressures the early years sector is under at present. It is certainly something that comes up quite a bit in this Chamber as well as in all of our daily lives.
It is also about looking at making sure service providers are not just willing to take into their services children from the families of Ukrainian refugees but also about making sure they are able to do so, not just in terms of financial return or space but also that the language supports being given at primary school level are also being made available during early years. One mild anomaly that comes into the provision of childcare and education more generally is that language supports are provided in a unique scheme for Ukrainian refugees coming from the conflict. We must also bear in mind that, due to this conflict, there are a considerable number of Russian refugees who are finding their way into this country. They had either been resident in Ukraine for a considerable time or, understandably, they want to flee from Vladimir Putin's vicious dictatorship. They should be welcomed too and they should not be forgotten in this discussion.
The other concern that would come under the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, is the €400 grant. We acknowledge that so many people signed up to this scheme and the 1,900 Ukrainians who have been accommodated so far have been hosted by people who had no concern for a €400 grant. It is something people were wary of and concerned about but they did not necessarily want to raise it in case there was a perception of mean-spiritedness, where there is none. People want to ensure they have the ability to meet the costs and, more appropriately, ensure they can provide the level of accommodation that is required for people who are fleeing this unique conflict. I do not know if the Minister is returning or if any of the other Ministers of Ministers of State will be able to tell me if there is provision for the €400 grant to be backdated to people who have provided or offered accommodation prior to this announcement and prior to this legislation going through the vital Stages. It is not necessarily something people are looking for, but if people have gone out of their way to make rooms in their house available or to make second homes or holiday homes available and they are eligible for the grant, they should be entitled to draw it down. That is not only in their interests but it is also in the interests of the refugees who have come into their homes to ensure those homes are kept up to scratch.
This is a welcome Bill and there is a duty on all of us not just to see it pass quickly through this House but to see that it is truly implemented. We must ensure we play our role as public representatives, not just for the citizens of Ireland but for all those resident here, including our guests from Ukraine, to ensure they know exactly what their rights are.
This amendment Bill contains a number of changes to various laws on topics as varied as the Stardust inquest and the crisis in Ukraine. It contains provisions for the Department of Justice, the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, and the Department of Transport. I welcome the provision to empanel and summon a jury for the Stardust inquiry. Forty-eight young people went to a Valentine’s disco in 1981 and they never came home. For anyone who is of an age with me, I was also out that night and I came home. I would certainly think that if I did not come home, my family would be looking for answers, and the families of the Stardust victims deserve answers. It is almost three years since that inquest was announced and it needs to happen as soon as possible. Many of their parents are elderly and, sadly, some have died without those answers. We need to ensure this inquest is prioritised. The families have waited far too long already.
I welcome the provision to pay expenses to jurors in this inquest. It is something that should be extended to all jurors at inquests where they last for a number of days, which is not the case at the moment. Jurors are vital to our justice system and our coroners' courts, and they must be treated with respect.
The Bill also contains a number of provisions to make easier the lives of our Ukrainian brothers and sisters who have come to Ireland in search of refuge. In the domestic response to the Ukrainian crisis, a number of legislative gaps were identified relating to benefits under the national childcare scheme and in the recognition of driving licences, as previous speakers have mentioned. The legislation will allow for a more efficient process for the registering and processing of Ukrainians’ immigration and social protection needs. It will allow for people fleeing Ukraine to register with the immigration services at regional hubs, removing the need for people to travel to Dublin to register. It will also establish a one-stop-shop service, including at regional hubs, for people fleeing Ukraine who are seeking temporary protection, a PPSN and income support, which will make the process more customer-friendly and easier to operate. This Bill will also enable the payment of €400 per month to families who welcome refugees from Ukraine into their homes and it is right that these payments will not affect means-tested payments. The Government needs to go further and remove the means test for the likes of carers. Carers are saving the State millions of euro every day and they deserve to be treated with respect. That is something we need to be looking into down the road. The Government must also ensure any income that Ukrainian refugees may have is not included in differential rent calculations by local authorities.
I commend those who have already welcomed people from Ukraine into their homes, and the groups that are assisting them. These include people like Richard Daly, the principal of Athy College, who has done tremendous work. These people must be supported in their efforts. The Department has been slow on some occasions in coming forward with information. We need to identify the roadblocks in the way of those assisting refugees of all origins and remove them as soon as possible.
I wholeheartedly welcome the Bill and I would like to take time to speak on Part 8 of it, which deals with the tragic fire in the Stardust disco in Artane in 1981, 41 years ago. There have been 41 years of families seeking answers on the events of that tragic night and on the circumstances around the deaths of their loved ones. At every turn the families have met obstacles in trying to get justice for their loved ones who lost their lives on that fateful night. The owners of the property still avoid any responsibilities. It is widely known there were serious breaches of basic health and safety on the night, and the families and survivors need justice to allow them to rest after 41 years of campaigning and to give them the comfort of knowing they have got justice for their families.
Mixed into this Bill in some flowery language is the right for an inquest to be held before a jury. This is the right and proper course. For far too long laws have prevented the Stardust families from getting full disclosure and I welcome the legislation which implores a coroner's court to play its full part in any inquest. No persons or bodies that may have information that could bring about the closure the families deserve should be excluded from, or have any way to exclude themselves from, any inquiries. I call on all parties, including the Garda, the coroner's court, the owners of the property, and anyone who may have any information to step up and bring this overdue and heartbreaking inquest to a successful conclusion for those who lost their loved ones that night. I ask the Minister not to allow subsections in this Bill to provide any loophole for any parties not to play their full parts in the inquiry and to put the full weight of her office behind supporting the quest of the Stardust families for justice. I wish the Stardust families well and I send my condolences for the 48 children who never came home. As always, the families have our full support.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this Bill. Sometimes I wonder if we should be thankful for the opportunity to speak on it because it has been such a rushed job to get here. I condemn the way the Government has made a complete farce of the legislative process this week.
We had a committee meeting that was forced to suspend yesterday after discovering that the deadline for Opposition amendments had passed before the committee ended its pre-legislative scrutiny. In the Seanad, the Government guillotined Committee Stage of the circular economy Bill without giving Senators the opportunity to debate the amendments they had submitted. In the Dáil yesterday evening, we took Second Stage of the mica Bill, despite the fact that the deadline for amendments had been earlier that day. We were only made aware on Monday that we would sit today and discuss three Government Bills that had not yet even been published.
Not only does it put incredible stress on the Bills Office and Oireachtas staff, it makes a joke of the whole process when legislation is treated in this way and we do not properly and fully engage with all legislative Stages. It takes away the opportunity for proper scrutiny, which is a fundamental role of Opposition Deputies. Maybe that is the reason it is being rushed through and this deadline has been imposed. Opposition Deputies were willing to cancel constituency appointments and sit later or longer, but not giving us the opportunity to scrutinise all this legislation being rammed through is not acceptable and it happens every year. It shows complete contempt for the parliamentary process.
I am sorry to interrupt. I recognise what the Deputy is saying but it is important, from the point of view of the House, that the House does not always spend its time wisely. There are many delays. The message that goes out from here, which the Deputy is referring to at the moment, is not the fault of the House. The House provides the accommodation to move legislation forward when it should be moved forward in the interests of the State. The balance between debate and the movement of legislation, which may not always be one and the same thing, needs to be recognised. That is from my experience in this House. We can spend all the time we want wasting time and all the really urgent stuff can be pushed to one side. I do not think it is a good thing and I know the Government is aware of this. The Opposition needs to be aware of it as well.
That is an interesting intervention. I do not think I said it was the responsibility of the House for any of this; I clearly said it was the responsibility of the Government. The Government is treating the House contemptuously in this process.
The message that goes out from the House at all times is what prevails and what happens in the House. The public outside gets the message. I have to bring to the Deputy's attention that it is all very fine to blame Government or Opposition in the course of debates but the purpose of this discussion is not to blame Government or Opposition - either one; the purpose is to address the content of the Bills. There are three important Bills.
I am sorry. The Deputy may think that is funny but it is not. He knows that from his constituency work. Can we deal with the important Bills before the House? They have been spoken about by several Members and the Deputy very graciously was available to speak in the House on the Bill.
I am glad you are disappointed in me and that you do not see me as responsible because that is a good measure of it. Now we can get on to the Bill after that intervention.
I support that this Bill aims to give further support to those settled here under the temporary protection directive but one would have to ask why the Bill is urgently needed to come in the week before the adjournment during a Friday sitting. Is that okay to ask about?
Fair play to you. Thanks for giving me the direction. One would wonder why that is. None of these provisions is new or newly foisted on the Government. The issues addressed in this have been around for a long time, since the Ukrainian crisis arose. The Stardust issues, unfortunately, have been around for an awful lot longer. This Bill could have been introduced in a timely fashion and been discussed during the normal sittings, instead of us taking statements for weeks on end. Why has the Government waited for the jaws of the summer recess to foist it upon us and say it has to be rushed through?
It is great to see so many Ukrainian people settled within our communities and I know many communities, like mine in Killybegs, have done all they can to make them feel welcome and safe in their temporary home. That is vital. Fleeing war is an incredibly traumatic experience and we must do all we can to ensure these people are supported fully. To do this it is important that those living here under this temporary protection directive have all the tools and supports necessary to fully participate in our society. It is important to say that, unfortunately, Ukrainians are in some cases being taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers and stuff like that. What needs to be made available to them, and maybe they are looking at it, is access to the protections they require to ensure this does not happen. Unfortunately, in every situation we get, this is what we get in our societies.
I reiterate my call to extend this directive beyond Ukrainians to all those living in Ukraine. Citizenship should not matter when you are fleeing war and seeking protection. We should extend the directive even further and implement its provisions in response to various other humanitarian crises too. Everyone deserves safe and humane living conditions no matter what their citizenship or which country they are fleeing from. One of the most depressing things in the Ukrainian situation was that citizens of other countries living and working in Ukraine were refused entry to the European Union, including Ireland, because they were non-Ukrainian citizens. You would have to say sadly that it is because they were not white. They happened to be living in Ukraine, suffered the consequences of the war as much as any Ukrainian citizen did and had to leave. I had a case of someone whose brother was living and working in Ireland and would have been able to look after them and take them in, but they were refused entry because they were not Ukrainian. That is wrong. We have to look at and address that in the future.
I am heartened by the response of so many in this country who opened their homes to Ukrainians fleeing the war. They have demonstrated the kindness of Irish people and I know that, if given the opportunity, they would happily open their homes to others fleeing war. I am glad the Bill proposes to give them a monthly contribution of €400. We should do all we can to support Irish families in their effort to support Ukrainian families.
Although I am glad that Part 4 is taking the opportunity to do so now, I am disappointed that it has taken this crisis to address long-standing issues within our immigration system. Allowing for registration with immigration authorities throughout the country, rather than in Dublin only, will make a huge difference, particularly to immigrants in my constituency of Donegal, where this is a huge barrier. I hope this will be available to all immigrants, rather than just Ukrainian immigrants.
I also support the Bill's provisions for the appointment of more registration officers and the introduction of an online registration process.
Online registration for those engaging with the immigration process should have been introduced a long time ago. It would make registration much more accessible and would significantly help with the language barrier experienced by many when engaging with the immigration process. The explanatory memorandum states that in response to the Ukrainian crisis "a number of legislative gaps were identified". I do not believe that these gaps were only identified following the Ukrainian crisis. We have long known of gaps in the system but, sadly, there just has not been any will to address or close them before now.
I have concerns about data protection with regard to Part 5. I do not see why so much documentation is required. I also do not believe that seven days is sufficient to produce such documentation and I hope the Minister looks into extending this to 30 days instead.
I fully support this Bill's special provisions for the empanelling and summoning of a jury for the Stardust inquest. Like other speakers, I was approximately the same age, although slightly younger, as the people who died in the Stardust tragedy. It is shocking that it has taken this long to resolve the issues and to go through the process. Those families have suffered greatly and have had to wait a very long time for the issues to be dealt with. I hope that this will remove the last barrier and ensure that they can have the full process they deserve. This is something that impacted on everybody in the State. It is difficult to accept that it has taken so long to get it resolved. Some 14 pre-hearing meetings have been held but no jury hearings have yet taken place. I support the amendments to current legislation to ensure that a person empanelled to an inquest hearing will continue to be paid by their employer for the duration of the inquest since this is the standard procedure for jury trials in the court system. We must ensure that jury selection is completely transparent and that the inquest proceeds as planned in September to ensure no more pain is inflicted on the Stardust families, who have been fighting for the truth for more than four decades.
I am happy to be in a position to debate the merits or demerits of the timing of this legislation openly with anybody in the House. It is very important legislation that needed to have been brought forward long before this. For that reason, we should attribute to it the importance it deserves.
I will deal with the issues one after the other. I remember the Stardust fire well. I remember meeting the relatives and friends. The time it has taken for them to get to the position we are now in has resulted in people passing away in the meantime. It has been a long, long time and, during that time, there was no way to assuage their concerns, their loneliness and the loss they had to suffer. I thank the Minister for bringing forward this legislation, along with all those involved in lobbying over the years.
With regard to the refugee system, like everybody else in this House, I have dealt with a fair number of refugees over the years. There were gaps in the system. I am happy to congratulate the Minister for addressing those issues in recent times. The only thing I am a little concerned about is that some of the gaps may continue. I have discussed this with the Minister and she is investigating the matter. It is possible that some people who made decisions some years ago may make the same decisions again, which will not advance the cause at all. One of my most challenging, worrying and embarrassing moments ever was when an older woman of African origin got down on her knees begging not to be returned to her own country. It was upsetting and appalling to see a person in that situation but she was in it, as were many others. Some have long since been deported. I again emphasise the position on deportees to the Minister. This was long before her time but I ask that particular attention be paid to those who may be due for deportation on the basis of a decision made 20 years ago. It is so far out as to be unbelievable. That will have to suffice because I cannot go into it in any more detail in the time available to me.
The other issue I will refer to is the welfare of children. It is very important that this legislation is before the House now because the various Departments need to work together on this. They are doing so, which is good to see. We need to pay careful attention to issues regarding the welfare of children, both domestically and on the immigration side. Very often, children who come before the courts find themselves in a vulnerable position even after the courts have reached a decision. That is not supposed to happen but it does. As a result, small children may be left in a very vulnerable position. Even in the past week, I have dealt with the case of a child who was already in the care of the courts. The child, who is nine years of age, tried to run away. There should not be this silo mentality whereby different Departments do not come together to address these kinds of situation in a more elaborate way. All Ministers need to be alert to the issues running parallel to their own responsibilities at any particular time. The Acting Chairman has considerable experience of the courts himself. While I am sure he cannot really agree with me, this is something that needs to be watched. The individual situations and the consequences of decisions, or the lack of decisions, need to be borne in mind at all times.
My next point again relates to asylum seekers, refugees and non-EU workers operating in this State. It is ironic that we have a labour shortage and have had such a shortage for a good number of years despite the ups and downs of the economy. It is sad to see that, in many cases, industries that required employees offered, for humanitarian reasons, employment to people who were not legally resident in the country and that now, 20 years later, many of these people are of pension age and do not qualify for a full pension because they do not have sufficient contributions. They do have the contributions but were not eligible for residency in the State at the time. It is an issue the Departments need to bear in mind. It can cause a great deal of hardship to individual families. The fact of the matter is that those people paid their taxes and complied with everything but did not have a right to residency. I ask that this be borne in mind.
My very last point again relates to children. I am not satisfied that children, especially small children, and vulnerable families receive the required level of urgency in their care and attention at all times. I recall several occasions of seeing really small children, in what was a strange country to them, not knowing where they were going or if they were ever going to receive any official status. Some of these were as young as two or three. I am talking about toddlers walking around with their parents or, very often, with one parent in the hope that this free country might be in a position to give those parents the kind of status they wanted.
I again congratulate the Minister for bringing forward many of these provisions to deal with issues that need to be dealt with. I also congratulate her colleagues who were here at the beginning of the discussion. I issue the warning that we need to be vigilant where kids and their welfare are concerned, even where they may be coming through, or have gone through, the courts.
I thank all colleagues for their contributions and for their support for this Bill.
Without wading into a debate about timelines, while some might say what happened in Ukraine was predictable, a lot of us did not expect it to happen in the way it did. At a national level, a European level and internationally, we have responded in a quick manner. We have put measures in place as quickly as possible. In the Department of Justice, and in many other Departments, the priority was to put the structures in place, get the one-stop shops up and running, get the online process moving, engage with other Departments and get the process of putting people into accommodation in place. That was done on an administrative basis and we then had to then identify how to copper-fasten it in our legislation. We would have brought this Bill forward quicker if we could have. My officials and teams, and those in other Departments, have worked hard on this and have done things as quickly as they could. I appreciate the support from colleagues in making sure this Bill is passed and that it does not move on into September or October.
I thank colleagues for a thoughtful and considered discussion on Part 8. It is always difficult to recount what happened 41 years ago. I can only imagine what it is like for families when they do that on a daily basis. They want answers; we all do. We all want to get this right, including everyone who has been involved in this inquest from the outset. I hope these changes and provisions, in particular those relating to the empanelling of juries, will help that process along. This Part will allow the Dublin coroner to seek the assistance of the Courts Service and put a similar process in place to that which applies in civil and criminal proceedings. These provisions are bespoke to Stardust but that is an acknowledgement of the significance of what we are dealing with here. As the Deputy opposite has acknowledged, significant preparation is currently under way in my Department on a general review and reform of the coroner service. That will include juries and many other elements. I hope to be in a position to engage with Deputies on that after the summer recess. Regarding section 59(2) and whether someone can be disapplied from a jury or if there can be an objection, it is the role of the coroner to allow for that objection or to object to an individual. The coroner can take a request or an observation from either family members or the legal representatives of those family members, where there a reason is given, and will consider that. A decision can then be taken in that regard.
With regard to the Ukraine crisis, the Bill will put the provisions we have put in place around the one-stop shop, the online transfer of information and all the different resources that have been provided on a legislative footing. On Deputy Richmond's point, we are learning from the processes that have been put in place. We will improve our overall international protection system and process. That work was under way prior to this war coming to our doors. We will make sure the lessons are learnt and improve our overall system and process so it applies to as many people as possible.
Moving to the financial contribution for those hosting temporary protection beneficiaries, which is the responsibility of the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, this is a contribution to recognise the support people are providing. It will be backdated to 4 March to acknowledge that some people took people into their homes from the outset. The intention is to activate the accommodation pledges as quickly as possible. The process has amended slightly so we can move through that as quickly as possible. It provides for the appropriate data exchanges, making sure we can identify the individuals who are in homes so there is no abuse. It is important to make sure those who go into homes are not abused in any way. A regulation is currently being worked on to develop standards for the accommodation being provided to those who are in temporary protection. It is important that people are not living in substandard accommodation and that others are not benefiting financially from that.
The amendments to the Childcare Support Act are a pragmatic solution to make sure those who have come from Ukraine can avail of the childcare support scheme. It is about making sure they have access under the Act to universal and means-tested subsidies to help with the cost of childcare. The vast majority, perhaps two thirds, of those who have come from Ukraine are women and children. It is not easy for all of those women to find jobs and to access childcare, which many of them want to do. We need to be as practical as possible in this regard. One Deputy asked about the supports and the funding. This provision can provide subsidies to cover up to the full cost of childcare. That will ensure people in low-paid jobs can access and afford childcare but can also work. The national network of childcare communities will provide support to families who find childcare to apply for subsidies under the national childcare scheme. As much work as possible is being done to make sure this can be accessed by people under the temporary protection mechanism so they can get the financial supports to allow them to work.
The licensed haulage emergency support scheme was established to support the licensed haulage sector post Brexit, post Covid and following the invasion of Ukraine. It is about acknowledging the significant role hauliers play. I acknowledge, in particular, the role they played throughout Covid-19, when all our shops and shelves continued to be stocked. Without our farmers, those in the agricultural sector and our hauliers, that would not have been possible and, therefore, I pay tribute to them. This is an acknowledgement of how vital they are in the supply chain. We must support them as much as possible.
The section relating to the Road Traffic Act will allow for the recognition of certain non-EU driver's licences for use in Ireland. This is so we can respond to those who are here under the temporary protection directive, some of whom drove for days, weeks or months to get here. Non-EU citizens with permission to live in Ireland must have an Irish driver's licence to live here. This recognition will avoid the need to exchange foreign licences for an Irish licence. This provision will apply for the period of temporary protection only and will maintain the integrity of the Irish driver's licence process. A number of questions were asked about this. The RSA has been consulted on this matter. That is why it applies to cars and light vehicles, that is, category B licences, only. That change was made following consultation with the RSA. On Northern Ireland, my understanding is that if someone exchanges their licence for an Irish licence, he or she can drive in Northern Ireland, in the same way people can currently drive in Northern Ireland or any other country within the EU on an Irish licence. If the person lives in Northern Ireland they must have a UK licence and that would not be applicable here. In national law, we can only approve Ukrainian licences for driving in this jurisdiction. However, the EU Commission is currently considering EU-wide recognition during temporary protection. There is work ongoing to make this work as much as possible. These regulations were put in place on 22 April. Like so much of this Bill, we are just copper-fastening what has been in situ for a number of months and making sure it is legally underpinned.
Due to the nature of this Bill, a number of different Departments and issues are involved. Deputies will appreciate the importance of getting this passed before the summer recess, particularly with regard to the Stardust inquiry so that can continue as quickly as possible. I thank Deputies for their time and for the discussion today. I also thank my colleagues in the Departments of Justice, Transport and Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. A huge amount of work has gone into this legislation.