Adjournment Debate.

Illegal Fireworks.

The Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, is probably aware of the young student of the Dominican College Cabra, who is from Finglas in his constituency, who had a terrifying experience during the week when a banger was thrown at her, damaging her hand and neck to the extent that it is thought she will require plastic surgery.

Similar incidents of this nature occur every year. Fireworks, as he will be aware, are illegally imported into this jurisdiction and they are in the control and possession of young, irresponsible people for a period of up to two months in the run-up to Hallowe'en.

Explosions occur at all times of the day and night. The elderly are frightened of the loud bangs as well as the possibility of having an incendiary device put through their letter boxes. Pallets and tyres are collected for vast bonfires, again with no adult control.

In response, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, has spent the past four and a half years trumpeting various proposals he intended to introduce in his new Bill, the Criminal Justice Act 2006 — which at last has seen the light of day — and said that he would deal with the illegal importation, possession, sale and use of fireworks in it. His proposals involve nothing more than inserting a provision in the Criminal Justice Act which increases penalties for existing offences — possession, igniting, propelling and intent to sell or supply illegal fireworks without a licence.

There are no proposals whatsoever to synchronise the legislation in this jurisdiction with that in Northern Ireland and Great Britain, from whence almost all the illegal fireworks emanate. Neither has the Minister any plans to deal with the issue on the ground. He has no proposals for protecting the young and the elderly from injury like that experienced by the young schoolgirl to whom I referred. It is left to the local authority to organise meetings with the Fire Brigade, the Civil Defence and the Garda, who are under the Minister's control, to endeavour to put some co-ordinated approach together to address the issues of illegal activities and anti-social behaviour at this time.

It is high time the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform began to realise that there are serious problems in the community and that they require more than the passage of legislation and a few ministerial soundbites. They require strong leadership from the Minister, which is not forthcoming, and a multi-agency co-ordinated plan of action on the ground that should be led by the Garda Síochána.

The Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, is fully aware of the difficulties which the illegal use of fireworks present each year around this time, the dangers they pose and the distress they cause to people, particularly the elderly. In recent days we have been reminded of the serious danger fireworks pose with the injury of a young girl in Finglas. The Tánaiste and I take this opportunity to extend our sympathy to the young girl and her family and wish her a speedy and full recovery.

Conscious of the dangers which fireworks present, the Tánaiste introduced a number of amendments to the Explosives Act 1875, which governs fireworks, in the Criminal Justice Act 2006. These amendments provide for new offences governing the misuse of fireworks in public places and an offence of possession of illegally imported fireworks with intent to supply. They also provide for significantly increased penalties governing the illegal importation, sale and use of fireworks. It is an offence for a person to possess a firework with intent to sell or supply without a licence, to throw an ignited firework at a person or property and to light unlicensed fireworks in a public place. The penalty for such offences is a fine of up to €10,000 or five years imprisonment, or both. The simple possession of fireworks without a licence is also an offence for which a person may be liable to a fine of up to €10,000.

The 1875 Act provides for the control of the importation, manufacture, storage and sale of fireworks. While current legislation on fireworks does not specifically ban the importation, manufacture, sale or use of fireworks, it is Government policy, in the interests of safety and security, to restrict, to the greatest extent possible, the availability of any category of firework to the public. Effect is given to this policy through the use of the licensing powers, conferred on the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform by the Act, which provides that fireworks may only be imported into Ireland on foot of an importation licence granted by the Minister. It is current policy only to issue licenses for the importation of fireworks used in organised displays conducted by "professional-competent operators". This policy means that the only fireworks imported into the State and "legally held" are those used in professional displays. All other fireworks imported, held, sold or used in this country are illegal and a person in possession of fireworks without a valid licence is liable to prosecution.

Last year the Minister commissioned research into the public's attitude to the control of fireworks and his proposals to strengthen significantly the penalties for their illegal use. The general conclusion of the research was that the public generally favours the current policy of prohibiting importation of fireworks for sale and strongly supports the proposals for increased fines and penalties. The Minister is about to embark on a nationwide advertising campaign aimed at highlighting the dangers of fireworks and the new increased penalties for their illegal use.

Halloween will be over before he starts.

This advertising campaign will commence next week and will run up to Halloween.

Every effort is made by the Garda to identify persons involved in the illegal importation and sale of fireworks. Where necessary, specific policing plans are put in place in areas where problems arise. These plans include intelligence gathering on known dealers and suppliers and, once identified, putting plans in place to arrest them and seize their stocks of illegal fireworks. Each year leading up to Halloween, special efforts are made by the Garda to combat the illegal importation, sale and use of fireworks. This year an intelligence-led operation entitled Operation Tombola, which aims to prevent and detect the organised importation, for sale, of fireworks, has been put in place by the Garda Commissioner.

Where did he get that name?

Chief superintendents throughout the country have been instructed to introduce measures appropriate to their respective areas of responsibility, with particular emphasis on Garda divisions in the Dublin metropolitan region and in the Border region. The operation, while intelligence driven, is also coupled with sporadic high visibility policing activities. Operation Tombola commenced on 25 September 2006 and in the past week there have been 15 seizures of fireworks with an estimated value of €87,000. Over the past five years such operations have resulted in significant seizures of illegally imported fireworks with an estimated value of more than €2 million. All fireworks seized are forfeited by the person importing them and destroyed in accordance with the provisions of the Explosives Act 1875. The Minister is confident that this year, following the introduction of the new offences and penalties, the Garda operations will be even more successful in combating the illegal importation, sale and use of fireworks.

The Minister will dream on as usual.

I refer to the question of the draft EU directive on fireworks, which is being discussed by the European Commission. The objective of the directive is to establish rules designed to achieve the free movement of pyrotechnic articles-fireworks throughout EU member states while, at the same time, ensuring a high degree of protection for the consumer.

The Minister is opposed to the directive.

He is a pyrotechnic article himself.

Institutes of Technology.

I thank the Chair for the opportunity to raise this most important issue for Waterford and the south-east region. While I have the utmost respect for the Minister of State, I lament the absence of the Minister for Education and Science to address the issue.

In February 2006 Waterford Institute of Technology confirmed that it had made a formal application to the Department of Education and Science in pursuit of university designation. The submission embraces constituent campuses throughout the south east. At the time a spokesperson for WIT stated: "The expectation is that a national and international panel of respected higher educationalists will adjudicate on the merits of the Institute's case and their report will be submitted to the Higher Education Authority". Section 9(1) of the Education Act 1997 states: "The Government may at any time appoint a body, the membership of which shall be recommended by An tÚdarás [An tÚdarás in this case meaning the Higher Education Authority] and shall include international experts, including employees of Universities to which the Act applies to advise An tÚdarás having regard to the objects and functions of a University under sections 12 and 13, under which an Education Institution should be established as a University."

It is early October and this national and international panel of respected higher educationalists has not been set up. Last week I tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister for Education and Science regarding when it is proposed to refer the submission of Waterford Institute of Technology on upgrading to university status to the independent group for appraisal. The Minister, in her reply, completely evaded the question. The reply was nothing other than a fob-off regarding this vital issue for the future development and prosperity of Waterford and the south-east region.

My fears and suspicions that the Minister has no intention of setting up the panel, which is the next urgent necessary step in the provision of a university in the south east have, unfortunately, been realised. The Minister stated in February 2005: "It should be noted that last September's OECD Review of Higher Education in Ireland recommends that the differentiation of mission between the University and the Institute of Technology Sector be preserved and that for the foreseeable future there be no further institutional transfers into the Universities Sector." This is Government policy. However, a strategy is in place to conceal the reality and give the impression of progress in the upgrading of WIT to university status because nothing is happening.

In her reply to my parliamentary question, the Minister referred to a very detailed statutory review process and said significant wider issues need to be considered in progressing the case. She also alluded to the Institutes of Technology Act 2006, which brings institutes of technology under the remit of the HEA, and to new managerial and governance freedoms that will allow the institutes to develop their roles. This is a load of waffle. While these issues arise, the central issue is whether the body of international and national experts agrees WIT should be established as a university. That is the basic issue and everything else follows from that.

There are major concerns regarding the economic performance of the south east. According to data from the Central Statistics Office, per capita income in the region is only 89.5% of the national average. The region is also overly reliant on poorly paid self-employment. According to a report commissioned by Waterford Chamber of Commerce and carried out by Goodbody Economic Consultants, more than 2,000 jobs would be created directly or indirectly by the upgrading of WIT to university status and, in addition, a further €100 million would be generated for the local economy. There is no more important addition to the infrastructure of the region than a university. There is a significant need to grow the research and development capacity and knowledge base of the region, the traditional industrial base of which is being eroded. The crying need is for capability building with regard to industry based on the best of modern technology. I demand that the Minister immediately announce when she will establish the body of national and international experts to advise the HEA in regard to the Waterford Institute of Technology submission to be upgraded to university status. If the Government prevaricates and delays, it will pay a very dear price come the next general election.

In February 2006 the governing body of Waterford Institute of Technology wrote to the Department of Education and Science requesting a review of its status under section 9 of the Universities Act 1997. The provisions of section 9 state that the Government may appoint a body, which will include international experts, to advise the Higher Education Authority on whether, having regard to the objects and functions of a university, an educational institution should be established as a university. On the advice of the body and the recommendation of the authority, the Government may, by order, provide that the institution shall be a university for the purposes of this Act.

The submission from Waterford Institute of Technology seeking university status remains under consideration by the Department. Aside from the very detailed statutory review process that is required in progressing an application, there are also significant wider issues that need to be considered in advance of any statutory review. For example, there have been important wider policy developments in the overall higher education sector that are relevant in this context. In particular, it is important that account is taken of the very significant recent changes in the overall legislative framework governing higher education, with the passage of the new Institutes of Technology Act 2006 at the end of the last Dáil term, as well as wider Government policy on foot of the review of Irish higher education carried out by the OECD in 2004, the broad thrust of which was endorsed by the Government.

A central purpose of the OECD review was to support Ireland's strategic ambition of placing our higher education system at the front rank of the OECD in the context of the wider national objective of developing as a world-leading knowledge economy and society. A key recommendation made in the OECD report to the Government was that Ireland should retain the differentiation in mission of the university and institute of technology sectors, which it identified as a key strength of our system, and that there should be no institutional transfers into the university system for the foreseeable future. The report also recommended that the universities and institutes of technology should be brought together under the remit of a single authority for the purpose of achieving a unified higher education strategy. It further recommended that the extent of external regulation of the institutes of technology should be lightened, giving them greater managerial freedom in responding to the opportunities and challenges of supporting regional and national social and economic development.

The new Act addresses significant elements of these recommendations and marks a major milestone for the sector and for the development of higher education. The Act provides for greater autonomy for the institutes to fulfil their missions. By bringing them within the remit of the Higher Education Authority, it will support an integrated and cohesive strategic approach to the development of higher education in line with national priorities. The Act means that, in practice, the HEA and the institutes of technology will engage and relate in a way that is very similar to the way the HEA and the universities engage.

There are a number of areas where the current operation of the institutes will alter as a consequence of the role of the HEA, such as on budgets and finances, where the HEA will determine an institute's budget in line with the funding relationship that exists between the HEA and the universities. The HEA will assume a role in establishing formal arrangements to permit institutes to borrow or to underwrite borrowings, again in a manner similar to that prevailing in the university sector, allowing a greater level of institutional flexibility and responsiveness. The Department's role in regard to the approval of research, consultancy or development work or the acquisition of land will devolve to the HEA. Similarly, specific approval from the Department to run individual courses or programmes will no longer be required.

The new arrangements will provide for a more autonomous and strategic relationship with Government, through the HEA, reflecting the dynamic and competitive nature of the environment in which the institutes are now operating. The Minister for Education and Science is cognisant of the strong support that has been built in the south-east region around the application from Waterford Institute of Technology for university status. However, the relevant wider policy developments I have outlined are also fundamental to her consideration of the appropriate next steps in regard to the application. The Waterford application is currently being carefully assessed in that broad context.

School Enrolments.

Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle, as ucht cead a thabhairt dom an cheist thábhachtach seo a ardú. Tá brón orm nach bhfuil an tAire i láthair, ach cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit, ar a laghad. This issue is one which will be repeated to the Minister of State by many living in my constituency of Dublin North and the wider area, including east Meath and many other areas regarded as being in the commuter belt for Dublin, which stretches far. When we met the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, on 20 July and signed an agreement between Fingal County Council and the Department of Education and Science, I thought we would see renewed vigour and delivery of results in the burgeoning towns and villages of my constituency.

I note with interest Deputy O'Shea's case, with which I agree wholeheartedly, on the need to upgrade Waterford Institute of Technology to university status. However, in Dublin North, the town of Swords has a population roughly equal to Waterford city. The people of the area seek decent secondary and primary school places. If we were to get university status for an institute of technology, we would not know what hit us we would be so delighted.

Can we deal with the basics and get them right? There is a real crisis in Dublin North and the wider area. In spite of the United Nations Charter on the Rights of the Child stating at Article 59 that governments should ensure budgetary allocations are also directed at improving and upgrading school buildings, recreational equipment and facilities, and sanitary conditions in schools, the UN Charter is sadly neglected in Dublin North. In Laytown, just north of the Meath border, the population in the school catchment area has quadrupled since 1996, as it has in my constituency, but no permanent classroom has been provided since 1979. Some 150 junior infants from Laytown are bused to Bellewstown.

The Minister of State will know of that issue from the media but similar issues exist in Dublin North. For example, the Balbriggan Educate Together national school accommodates many students from different social backgrounds. However, the poorer parents are discriminated against by Government policy because there is a requirement to pay 25% of the school's rent on the temporary buildings in that school. Therefore, €3,275 per annum must be raised by the school families and the children themselves, and that amount of money is not available to go towards necessary equipment and the maintenance of the school.

The Minister must take account of the needs of Balbriggan Educate Together national school. The school inspector published a report in April this year indicating its viability and the enrolments up to 2010 also indicate strong viability and, indeed, chronic overcrowding for the future. Despite this, the Government will not give the school the permanent status it needs. As a result, it is not able to get a minor works grant, which is only available for a permanent school, or have the rent paid on the six-room school. Therefore, not alone does the school have only a temporary building, which is very unsatisfactory, but it must pay through the nose, as if it was some kind of private operation instead of providing the most basic fundamental human right, namely, that children can expect primary education. Moreover, the school has no resource room.

When I see the reality, I have to believe there is no joined-up thinking in Government. I ask that it be addressed immediately. The school has been coming under pressure to expand to a 32-room facility. Why would the school take the Department on trust that this would not be an albatross around its neck, being left to try to provide when the Department is so slow in providing the basics for a smaller school? That could be a six-room or a 16-teacher school, as it was originally intended to be.

The Deputy's time is concluded.

I ask for the Department to prove itself with action. The gaelscoil in Balbriggan is another of many schools which have 200 children on the waiting list and is looking for a permanent site. The school is not confident the Department will deliver. It is a similar case for the Loreto schools in Balbriggan and Swords, Skerries Community College, Balbriggan Community College——

I ask the Deputy to give way, it is unfair to other Deputies to go way over the time.

——Coláiste Colm, St. Finian's, Fingal Community College, Scoil Íosa, Portmarnock Community School and all the national schools. They are all in the same situation.

They are not being served by this Government.

I assure the Deputy that the Government is acutely aware that the Fingal area of Dublin is the fastest-growing area in the country and that the Minister for Education and Science is working hard to ensure that extra school places are provided in line with or ahead of demand.

New schools are being built while the capacity of existing schools is being increased. All building projects in areas of rapid population growth are awarded a band 1 priority rating under the Department's prioritisation criteria for large scale building projects. This means they will be delivered in the fastest timeframe possible.

With regard to the 2006 to 2007 school year, a number of measures were implemented to ensure that significant extra classroom accommodation would be available at schools in Fingal to cater for demand. A total of 62 extra classrooms were approved and the majority of these were in place on 1 September 2006.

With regard to the provision of whole new schools, the Deputy will be aware that a major construction programme is under way in the Fingal area. A new school building has recently been completed at Mary Mother of Hope national school in the Littlepace Castaheany area, with an additional project under way. The delivery date for this project is September 2007. A new primary school campus is planned for a school site in Ongar. This campus will permanently accommodate Castaheany Educate Together national school and St. Benedict Ongar national school.

Other developments in the Dublin 15 area include the planned expansion of St. Brigid's national school in Castleknock and extensions to St. Brigid's boys' and girls' national schools in Blanchardstown. At post-primary level, a new 1,000-pupil post-primary school is being provided in the Phibblestown area of Dublin 15. It is intended that this site will also be developed to cater for a 16-classroom primary school. The provision of a further post-primary school in the area is currently under consideration.

New schools will also be provided in the Hansfield and Adamstown strategic development zones. Further north in the Fingal area, closer to the Deputy, a new 1,000-pupil post-primary school is being provided to cater for the needs of Portrane and Donabate. The school will be a community college under the aegis of the vocational education committee. The Minister is acutely aware of the needs of the Portrane and Donabate area and is determined to progress this as quickly as possible.

Is there a date?

It will be as quickly as possible.

That has been said for years.

The Deputy already went over time. He should listen to the reply.

I have quite a long speech that I will not get to the end of. Balbriggan Educate Together national school is mentioned.

The increase in enrolments at Balbriggan Educate Together national school is a vindication of the decision taken by the Department to give recognition to this school and include it on the capital building programme in the first year of the school's existence. The Department is cognisant of the rapid increase in demand for school places in the Balbriggan area. Further expansion of the primary school provision is under consideration, both in terms of expanding existing schools where site capacity will allow, and the provision of new schools on greenfield sites.

Educate Together was not on the March list.

With regard to the Fingal school model, on top of the interventions outlined, the Department has also entered into a cross-Government agreement with Fingal County Council to provide much-needed community facilities in tandem with schools.

Under the terms of the agreement and based on school planning projections of the Department, Fingal will identify and acquire appropriate sites where schools with enhanced sporting, community and arts facilities will be built to the benefit of both the school and the wider community. In practice, the local authority will identify the sites when adopting the local authority plans. The council will go on to acquire sufficient land as recommended by the Department, on which an appropriate sized school or schools for that local area can then be built.

With regard to staffing, at the beginning of the current year there were no fewer than 4,000 extra teachers in primary schools compared with four years ago. The average class size in primary schools is 24, and there is now one teacher for every 17 pupils at primary level.

The Minister of State's time is concluded.

I do not know if there is anything specific to Swords mentioned in this document. Swords does not appear to be mentioned.

That proves my point, does it not?

I hope the Deputy——

It is the size of Waterford city, it should be addressed.

It is a rather long speech and Swords may be mentioned. I am sure the Deputy has a copy.

School Transport.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this matter. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern. As three of the four matters selected for the Adjournment were related to education, it is disappointing that none of the Ministers from the relevant Department is here. It takes away from the spontaneity. I wish to put forward a case, but the Minister of State present has no connection with the Department of Education and Science, and he will read a script that was written before any case was made. That undermines the importance for individual Members of putting forward a case.

I wish to outline a very important case to the House. It is the ongoing saga of the denial of transport to schools in Wexford for pupils in the Blackwater area of County Wexford. I last raised this matter on the Adjournment in January. I raised it by way of parliamentary question this week. It is a significant bone of contention in Wexford, where pupils with a legitimate expectation for transportation to the school that traditionally serviced the pupils and children of Blackwater are being denied that service.

A new and most serious issue has arisen. There is now more than one map of County Wexford catchment boundaries for schools. The original map used to be on the wall of the transport liaison officer, and it was pointed out to all Wexford Deputies at the outset of this controversy. That is no longer regarded as the official catchment boundary map. The so-called official catchment boundary map is now published on the VEC website.

Unfortunately, the official catchment boundary map is made up of a number of maps, snapshots of parts of the county that do not fit together. These snapshots overlap. Some areas are in two different catchment boundaries. I believe this anomaly was shown to the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, at a meeting with local Fianna Fáil cumann members from the Blackwater area. They reported that she was at least surprised, and that she undertook to have the matter reviewed.

The issue was also addressed at a meeting of Wexford Deputies. Four of the five attended, and the Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Browne, was unavailable. I know he supports the unanimous conclusion of that meeting. The meeting on 15 September was attended by myself, along with Deputies Tony Dempsey, Kehoe, Twomey and the transport liaison officer for County Wexford, Ms Clare McMahon.

We accepted, across the political divide, with the transport liaison officer, that there was an anomaly. A statement was agreed in all our names. It reads:

The existing catchment maps available to the transport liaison officer in County Wexford are inadequate and need clarification. We call on the Minister for Education and Science to appoint a senior inspector as a matter of urgency to review the sub-county maps that now exist and certify the full county map setting out the catchment boundaries of each post-primary school in County Wexford. Thirdly, we ask that the inspector take such submissions from interested groups before finalising this process.

Unfortunately, in a written reply to me yesterday, the Minister for Education and Science refused to review the current, inadequate maps. She leaves the transport liaison officer in a totally invidious position. How can she determine eligibility from inadequate maps? There will be legal action on this matter and there will also be certain political action on it. I call on the Minister of State to go back to his colleagues in the Department of Education and Science as a matter of urgency and point out to them the degree of anger and frustration that has built up, not only in Blackwater, because this will have resonances across the county. He should ask that the unanimous call from the Deputies of County Wexford and the transport liaison officer, that an inspector reinvestigate the catchment boundaries, be investigated as a matter of urgency. That process should be put in place at once.

I am afraid that I can only give the Deputy the script that is here.

That is what I am afraid of.

I was landed with this at the last moment but perhaps it will clarify the matter. Under the terms of the Department of Education and Science school transport scheme a pupil is eligible for transport if he or she resides 4.8 km or more from his or her local post-primary education centre, that is, the centre serving the catchment area in which he or she lives. The scheme is not designed to facilitate parents who choose to send their children to a post-primary centre outside the catchment in which they reside. However, children who are fully eligible for transport to the post-primary centre in the catchment in which they reside may apply for transport on a concessionary basis to a post-primary centre outside their own catchment area, otherwise known as catchment boundary transport. These children can only be facilitated if spare seats are available on the bus after all other eligible children travelling——

This has nothing to do with the maps or the issue I have raised.

I will move on to what I hope may be the relevant point.

Please do so.

Catchment boundaries have provided and continue to provide a useful tool in facilitating the orderly planning of school provision and accommodation needs and the operation of the national school transport service. Last year, a problem arose regarding a catchment boundary line on a map retained in the office of the transport liaison officer for County Wexford. The matter concerned was addressed and acted upon promptly. The Department of Education and Science has been assured by the transport liaison officer that she is satisfied that the catchment boundary maps displayed on the Wexford VEC website are the same as the Department's maps and those utilised by Bus Éireann.

They do not add up, that is the problem. They are both wrong.

In his question, the Deputy seems to suggest that the transport liaison officer for County Wexford, who administers the post-primary school transport scheme on behalf of the Department, is a party to a recommendation to appoint a senior inspector to review and certify the school transport catchment boundary areas in County Wexford. The transport liaison officer has confirmed to the Department of Education and Science that she is not a party to such a recommendation.

She attended the meeting and agreed the statement I have just read out. She might have been bullied afterwards, but that was the fact on 15 September.

I am only trying to pick out what I think might seem to be the relevant points.

Will the Minister of State go back and ask the Department to look at it again?

I certainly will.

I thank the Minister of State.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.25 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 10 October 2006.