Adjournment Debate.

Voluntary Health Insurance.

This issue relates to health insurance, the VHI in particular, but not solely. At the beginning of the week one of the national newspapers reported there was a plan to increase fees and private health insurance by 62% for the elderly population. This comes hot on the Government decision to remove medical cards from the over 70s. I would like some clarity on the situation.

The country is well aware that a High Court challenge was made against the Minister's interpretation of risk equalisation. The Minister lost that challenge and risk equalisation is now out of the equation. However, the principle of community rating is still with us. I want to ascertain today what plans or legislation are proposed to allow for community rating to continue. Failing that, what plans are in train to deal with the situation if private health insurers increase their insurance premia?

People are already suffering the shock of the loss of their medical cards. Over 280,000 people over the age of 60 are insured with the VHI alone. The proposed increases have huge ramifications for them. The figure of 62% of an increase is in the media, but from where did this figure come? Many older people have had their premia paid by their children, as an adjunct to their medical card. Any increase will hurt them hugely. With regard to those who left the VHI and who now want to rejoin it, what criteria will be put in place for them? Will they have to pay the premia for the years they lost? That would amount to a sum most people could not afford.

On top of all this, there has been a rumour circulating that the Government will reduce the tax rebate from the higher rate to the lower rate for medical expenses and that instead of being able to claim back 41% of the VHI insurance premium, people will only be able to claim 20%. Many of the people concerned are just over 60 and many are still working, like many 60 to 69 year olds. Many of these people also tend to use the public transport system. These people will also be hit by the €200 per person per car, a sum that before tax is the equivalent of €800 a year. People are being hit on every side. They want certainty with regard to their health insurance.

I wish to ascertain if the Minister for Health and Children will make a statement on the Supreme Court ruling with regard to the risk equalisation and its implications for health insurers.

I want to know the Government's view on reports that health insurance companies are preparing to increase the premium for the older population by up to 60% and its plans to relieve this burden.

I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney. I thank the Deputy for raising the matter.

Community rating is a fundamental principle of the health insurance market in Ireland. Following the liberalisation of the market in 1994, political parties and successive Governments have supported the maintenance of community rating. It is an inescapable fact supported by international evidence that community rating cannot be sustained without schemes to support the higher costs of claims of older or sicker people, in other words, a risk equalisation mechanism. There may be differences of opinion on how such a mechanism will work but few dispute its need.

A primary objective of Government policy on health insurance is that it should be affordable to the broadest possible cross section of the community, including older people and those who suffer ill-health. This policy objective has been implemented through a substantial body of primary and secondary legislation providing for open enrolment, community rating and lifetime cover.

Although the Supreme Court found our risk equalisation scheme to beultra vires, it did not strike down the principle of risk equalisation and other important elements of the regulatory framework for private health insurance. However, the decision gives rise to complex issues which need to be addressed. The Minister is at present assessing all available options. Since the judgment was delivered, she has engaged in consultations with officials, the Attorney General and the Health Insurance Authority. She has also received submissions from insurers. Complex financial, legal and policy matters are involved, however.

It is the Minister's intention to bring forward measures at the earliest opportunity to ensure health insurance remains affordable for older and sicker people. Deputy Reilly will appreciate that it would not be appropriate for me to discuss the details of such proposals at this time.

I would love to let Deputy Reilly speak again but Standing Orders do not provide for it.

I just want to make a quick comment.

I ask him to be quick because he is out of order.

I am sure the Acting Chairman will forgive me on this occasion, given the understanding nature of people who come from Tallaght.

The Deputy should not worry about me.

The Finance Bill 2008 is being brought before us on 28 November, which gives us a short window of opportunity. The work would need to be completed by 25 November.

I will bring the Deputy's comments to the attention of the Minister.

Fire Safety Standards.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me the opportunity to raise this serious issue. Inspections of apartment complexes should be made on a regular basis to ensure they meet fire safety standards.

At 4.30 a.m. last Saturday, a fire broke out in an apartment block on Main Street, Clongriffin, Dublin 13, in my constituency. The fire is believed to have been started by mindless thugs who threw bangers into an industrial bin in the apartment's car park. It is shocking that no fire alarm went off in the apartment complex. If it was not for the fact that several residents returning home at the time noticed smoke and alerted the other occupants of the complex, the outcome could have been far worse. The fire brigade encountered difficulties in entering the complex because a code was required to unlock the gate. It is unacceptable that the fire brigade is not given codes to enter apartment complexes.

I have been informed that the complex contains no fire extinguishers or fire fighting equipment and that the fire alarms were not working properly at the time of the fire. Having visited the location to see the damage first-hand, I can confirm the incident was a near miss. The outcome could have been tragic and I would be failing in my responsibilities as a Deputy if I did not raise this serious issue. In the aftermath of the fire, I wrote to the manager of Dublin City Council to inquire into the circumstances surrounding the fire.

I call on the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to instruct local authorities to send fire inspectors to apartment complexes on a quarterly basis, at the minimum, to ensure the law is not being breached. Heavy fines should be imposed on rogue management companies and agents which neglect their duties regarding fire safety. Inspectors must ensure that all apartment complexes have adequate fire safety procedures in place and that fire drills take place on a regular basis. Residents of the Clongriffin complex report that they never went through a fire drill in the two years they have lived there.

I ask that legislation be drafted to set out the responsibilities of management companies in respect of fire safety. It should be a legal requirement that apartments cannot be occupied until a fire officer has inspected the premises. Exactly one year ago, Dublin City Council produced a report entitled Successful Apartment Living. One of the most damning findings of this report was that 75% of private apartment complexes did not have proper fire safety provisions. This is a frightening revelation given the number of people who live in apartment complexes. What action has been taken by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on the findings of this report? Have other local authorities carried out inspections to reassure public representatives that fire safety standards are not being breached?

The fire that occurred in Clongriffin is a wake up call to the Government. Approximately 500,000 people reside in apartments managed by approximately 4,600 management companies in Ireland, yet there is no legislation governing them. We want the Government to make these companies responsible for fire safety. The legislation is too loose at present and nobody is taking responsibility for this issue. I want an assurance that local authorities will take the issue more seriously by assigning sufficient staff so that regular inspections can be conducted.

I thank Deputy Terence Flanagan for raising this matter. He gave us a timely reminder, as winter approaches, of the need to increase vigilance of fire safety and prevention.

The provision of a fire service, including giving advice regarding fire safety, is a matter in the first instance for fire authorities under the Fire Services Act 1981. My Department's role is one of supporting and assisting fire authorities in delivering fire services through the provision of funding under the fire service capital programme and by setting general policy. My Department has issued guidance to fire authorities and property owners and occupiers with a view to reducing fire risks in apartments and hostels. The relevant publications are A Guide to Fire Safety in Flats, Bedsitters and Apartments and Fire Safety in Hostels — A Guide to Fire Safety in Existing Hostels. In this regard, the 1981 Act provides that it is the duty of every person on a premises to conduct him or herself in such a way as to ensure that, as far as is reasonably practical, no person on the premises is exposed to danger from fire as a consequence of his or her actions.

Under the Fire Services Acts, fire authorities can pursue enforcement of fire safety matters, including the management of fire safety. Fire authorities can serve fire safety notices requiring certain works to be carried out and they also have the ultimate sanction of closing premises. They are conscious of their functions under the Fire Services Acts. While they do not require a specific instruction from the Minister in this matter, I agree it is necessary to maintain a constant focus on fire prevention. Deputies may be aware of the annual fire safety week which was organised by my Department last month. Television and other media campaigns will continue until the end of the year. I am sure they also noticed in the media a highly visible campaign entitled "Smoke Kills". It is critical to get the fire safety message across to the most vulnerable groups. Unfortunately, on average 46 people die in Ireland each year from fire. House fires account for the vast majority of fire fatalities. In most of these incidents, a basic level of fire safety education and awareness may have prevented the fire or limited the consequences.

I suggest that the community might assist elderly relatives or neighbours by visiting them regularly to help them carry out a very simple fire safety check on their homes. Overloaded sockets, candles burning unattended, smoking in bed or smoking while taking medication are potential hazards to watch out for. Other potential hazards include faulty electric blankets, frayed electrical leads and clothes or combustible materials kept too close to a fire or heater. If carried out on a regular basis, such checks will help prevent the devastation caused to people and property by fire.

It is important to get the correct balance between enforcement, engineering and education in tackling the danger posed by fire and I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I know the House will join me in recognising the commitment of members of the fire service throughout the country. I commend the service, in particular, on its professional approach in dealing with the challenges posed by increased activity over the recent Hallowe'en period.

School Accommodation.

The next item is the provision of additional accommodation at Bishop Ahern national school, Leamlara, County Cork. I hope my Cork pronunciation is okay.

The Acting Chairman's pronunciation is excellent as always. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this matter. While I have great respect for the Minister of State, Deputy Kitt, I am disappointed that one of the many Ministers of State at the Department of Education and Science could not be present. I am sure Deputy Kitt will do an adequate job of reading out a reply.

I speak on behalf of the people in the community around Leamlara national school. It is a small community in east Cork that had a public meeting this week. Oireachtas Members were invited to attend and I gave a commitment to bring this matter to the attention of the Minister. The school has an urgent accommodation need. It is a close-knit, model community but there is a problem with the school. There are six permanent teachers, four mainstream and two full-time, but there are only three mainstream classrooms. They must use a general purpose room, which was used for physical education but that can no longer be taught in the entire school. This is contrary to the Department of Education and Science curriculum guidelines. There are no toilets in that room and children must go unsupervised down a corridor to go to the toilet. This is contrary to the board of management safety policy. There is no water in the general purpose room.

The frightening aspect is the amount of building in the area in the past few years. Just behind the school, a new housing estate was built. The number of children appearing in the estate has increased by quite an amount. The current enrolment in junior infants is 11 this year but in a few years' time it will be 25 and is due to grow further. Already the school is under ferocious pressure. The school has said that its accommodation needs are current, urgent and merit a significantly higher band rating than 2.4. I cannot understand why it is rated as 2.4 but the Minister of State might tell me. Significant goodwill exists locally and the community is willing to provide voluntary skilled labour to build the school if the Department will supply the material. The school wants a meeting with the Department officials to see what can be worked out.

The school representatives are willing to meet the Department more than halfway in order to provide accommodation for the children. One parent told me that her child looks out the window every day to see if it is fine. This is the only way they can go out to play or have physical education because the physical education room is gone. This situation is replicated all over the country but I am here on behalf of these children, parents and this community. I am anxious that the Minister of State relays this request to the Department of Education and Science and arranges a meeting between officials and the local community and the board of management to see what can be done urgently.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to outline to the House the current position regarding the proposed building project for Bishop Ahern national school, Leamlara, County Cork. All applications for capital funding are assessed in the modernisation and policy unit of the Department of Education and Science. The assessment process determines the extent and type of need presenting based on the demographics of an area, proposed housing developments, condition of buildings and site capacity etc. leading ultimately to an appropriate accommodation solution. As part of this process, a project is assigned a band rating under published prioritisation criteria for large-scale building projects. These criteria were devised following consultation with the education partners.

Projects are selected for inclusion in the school building and modernisation programme on the basis of priority of need. This is reflected in the band rating assigned to a project. In other words, a proposed building project moves through the system commensurate with the band rating assigned to it. There are four band ratings overall, of which band 1 is the highest and band 4 the lowest. Band 1 projects, for example, include the provision of buildings where none currently exist but there is a high demand for school places, while a band 4 project makes provision for desirable but not necessarily urgent or essential facilities. Each band rating has a number of sub-categories which more specifically describes the type of works needed and the urgency attaching to them.

Bishop Ahern national school is a fully vertical co-educational primary school with a current enrolment of 84 pupils. The staffing level is a principal, three mainstream assistants and two learning support teachers. The school authority has applied to the Department of Education and Science for large-scale capital funding for an extension project.

Consistent with the approach outlined by the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, the application was assessed in accordance with the published prioritisation criteria for large-scale building projects and it has been assigned a band 2.4 rating. This reflects the fact that, while there is a deficit of accommodation, this does not represent a substantial or significant proportion of the school's overall accommodation needs. It also reflects the fact that moderate refurbishment is needed. The next step for the project is the appointment of a design team.

Due to the scale of the demand on the Department of Education and Science's capital budget, it is not possible to provide an indicative timeframe for the progression of the project at this time. Earlier this year, the school applied for the provision of temporary accommodation for a mainstream teacher and a resource teacher. Due to the level of demand on the budget for temporary accommodation, it is not possible to approve all applications received and only those with no scope whatsoever to accommodate extra teaching resources can be approved.

In the case of Bishop Ahern national school, it has a 92 sq. m general purpose room. With a teaching staff of four teachers and an enrolment of 85 pupils, a pupil-teacher ratio of 21:1 will apply. A smaller classroom than that normally provided by the Department of Education and Science would suffice. The Department holds the view that part of the general purpose room can be cordoned off for use by the extra mainstream teacher on an interim basis until the Department is in a position to make funding available for an extra classroom. The school already has a 37 sq. m prefab for its two resource teachers, which is almost the size of what is usually provided and this should be sufficient. The school has, however, appealed the Department's decision in this matter and this is currently under review.

While the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, accepts that it is far from ideal for any children to be taught in non-customised accommodation, he hopes the school authority will realise that the Department does not refuse demonstrably necessary funding applications unless it is not in a position to do otherwise and that, unfortunately, the situation with regard to its temporary accommodation application is unlikely to change this year, particularly given the availability of a short-term solution to the issue within the school itself.

The allocation for school buildings in 2009 is €581 million. This represents a significant investment in the school building and modernisation programme. This level of funding for the building programme at a time of great pressure on the public finances is a sign of the very real commitment of the Government to investing in school infrastructure. This is already firmly evidenced, however, by our achievements under the last national development plan when an aggregate total of well over €2.6 billion was invested in upgrading the existing school infrastructure and providing new school accommodation at both first level and second level.

This programme delivered over 7,800 building projects in addition to investment in site purchases, the annual minor works grant to all primary schools, the asbestos and radon remediation programmes, science and technology initiatives, emergency works and grants for the purchase of furniture and equipment. An unprecedented €4.5 billion has been allocated for educational infrastructure under the current national development plan. This will permit the continuation of the enormous progress we have made in the overall provision and improvement of school accommodation.

Schools Building Projects.

I want to raise the need for permanent accommodation for Gaelscoil Eiscir Riada in Leamhcán or Lucan in the Dublin Mid-West constituency. As the Minister of State and, I hope, the Minister for Education and Science, should be aware, the school opened and received formal recognition from the Department of Education and Science in 2005. It is currently located on a site owned by County Dublin Vocational Education Committee. It is operating in prefabs on that site that are rented from the VEC. That site has been identified as a suitable one for the permanent school building and was surveyed for its suitability to provide a two-stream primary school. The survey report is with the Department of Education and Science since August 2007.

The parents, teachers, pupils and board of management of the school are concerned about the lack of progress since that survey was forwarded to the Department. From inquiries they have made there have not been any discussions between the Department and the VEC on progressing the development of the site.

I reiterate that a site is available for the school, which is located in a rapidly developing area. Four new primary schools were opened subsequent to the opening of Gaelscoil Eiscir Riada in 2006-07. Two of those were opened as emergency measures to cope with the demand, three of them have permanent accommodation and one of them operates from temporary accommodation.

There is a waiting list for enrolment in Gaelscoil Eiscir Riada up to 2013. The space available in the school is all nearly used. The school anticipates that it will not be able to enrol a new intake of pupils in 2010 unless permanent accommodation is provided. There is not space in the school to accommodate more pupils. I visited the school and had a look around the building recently and I can confirm that. If young people who had hoped to go to that Gaelscoil from 2010 onwards still cannot secure a place there, that will be even more pressure on the Department to open further schools as an emergency measure to cope with increased demand. If the Department provided permanent accommodation for Gaelscoil Eiscir Riada, that would help meet the demand for future school places in Lucan.

The conditions in the Gaelscoil are not satisfactory for the pupils and teachers. By September 2009 the school accommodation will be utilised to the maximum. All the rooms will be used as classrooms and there will no additional rooms available such as an assembly hall or other such rooms. As the Minister of State will be aware, it is difficult to educate children in prefabs and they are costly to run. They are inefficient in terms of energy costs. That is important, given the Government's commitment to provide energy efficient school buildings and the issue of reducing costs through such energy efficiency.

There is a lack of support for Gaelscoileanna in the country despite the Government's commitment to support the Irish language. The patron body of Gaelscoileanna, An Foras Patrunachta, which was established 15 years ago, only got funding of €50,000 from the Department this year while Educate Together, which is the patron body of fewer schools, got funding of €140,000 and the CPSMA also got considerably more funding. More than half of Gaelscoileanna operate in temporary accommodation. That has been the case for Gaelscoil na Comóige in Clondalkin for some 14 years or so.

The Labour Party has made the case that given our economic circumstances, now is the time to invest in permanent school buildings and build the badly needed primary school buildings such as the one needed for Gaelscoil Eiscir Riada. That would provide jobs for people who would otherwise be on the dole, which incurs a cost for the State. Investment in permanent school accommodation is an investment for the future and it is more energy efficient than temporary accommodation. It is wrong for primary school children to be educated in the conditions to be found in this Gaelscoil. The primary sector is falling behind in terms of the quality of school accommodation. I accept the Department has overseen the building of some new primary schools at a much faster pace in recent years. However, the pupils in many primary schools have been left behind in the Dark Ages in terms of accommodation in a way that second level students have not been. In a country that supposedly prides itself on how it treats its children, the temporary accommodation provided for them is unacceptable. Money spent on rented prefabs is money wasted while money invested in permanent accommodation is an investment in the future. The Gaelscoil would like to know the up to date position.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to outline the Government's strategy for capital investment in education projects and also to outline the current position in relation to the need for permanent accommodation for Gaelscoil Eiscir Riada, Lucan, County Dublin.

The Minister, Deputy O'Keeffe, would like to clarify that modernising facilities in the existing building stock as well as the need to respond to emerging needs in areas of rapid population growth is a significant challenge and one which Minister, Deputy O'Keeffe, intends to be one of his priorities as Minister for Education and Science.

This Government has dramatically increased investment in the school building programme to almost €600 million this year. Within the lifetime of the national development plan almost €4.5 billion will be invested in schools. This is an unprecedented level of capital investment which reflects the commitment of the Government to continue its programme of sustained investment in primary and post-primary schools. It will underpin a particular emphasis on the delivery of additional school places in rapidly developing areas while continuing to develop on the Government's commitment to delivering improvements in the quality of existing primary and post-primary accommodation throughout the country. It will also enable the purchase of sites to facilitate the smooth delivery of the school building programme, again with the focus being on site requirements in rapidly developing areas.

In regard to Gaelscoil Eiscir Riada, the school is currently operating in temporary accommodation on a site that is in the ownership of County Dublin VEC. The Department is in consultation with County Dublin VEC on the possibility of using this site, together with an additional portion of VEC lands to cater for the school's long-term accommodation needs. Once the site has been acquired, the building project required to address the school's accommodation needs will be considered in the context of the multi-annual school building and modernisation programme.

A study has been conducted to determine the feasibility of this proposal. It is currently under consideration within the Department and the acquisition of the site will be considered in the context of the capital budget available to the Department for school buildings generally. In light of many competing demands on the capital budget of the Department, it is not possible to give an indicative timeframe for the acquisition of the school site at this time.

Projects are selected for inclusion in the school building and modernisation programme on the basis of priority of need. This is reflected in the band rating assigned to a project which indicates the urgency, type and extent of work required at a school. The band rating system involves all applications for capital funding being assessed in the planning and building unit of the Department. The assessment process determines the extent and type of need presenting, based on the demographics of an area, proposed housing developments, condition of buildings, site capacity, etc., leading ultimately to an appropriate accommodation solution. As part of this process, a project is assigned a band rating under published prioritisation criteria for large-scale building projects. These criteria were devised following consultation with the education partners. This project has a band rating of 1.1.

I again thank the Deputy for affording me the opportunity to outline the current position in regard to the provision of permanent accommodation for Gaelscoil Eiscir Riada, Lucan, County Dublin.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.20 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 11 November 2008.