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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 17 Feb 2009

Vol. 675 No. 1

Adjournment Debate.

Hospital Accommodation.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me raise this important matter, namely, the need for the Minister for Health and Children, to ensure that after a wait of 12 years, a full complement of appropriate services for secondary care facilities is provided under phase 2B of Longford-Westmeath hospital, Mullingar, County Westmeath, and to ensure patient safety and best possible outcomes.

We have heard many times that the Government is committed to ensuring the delivery of best quality health services in an effective and efficient manner. The Minister for Community, Gaeltacht and Rural Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, said those very words when speaking in the House last December on behalf of the Minister for Health and Children. How efficient is it to string along a hospital such as Longford-Westmeath hospital for more than 12 years with phases and sub-phases of the development being delivered piecemeal? With an ever-extending deadline, it is open to debate.

As a former Member of the other House and as a Member of this House I have repeatedly raised the issue of this hospital but the bottom line is that the people of the midlands and myself are being ignored regarding the provision of essential health facilities. In common with the rest of the BMW region, Longford-Westmeath has been consistently overlooked by this Government in terms of health and infrastructural development. Despite the setbacks, Longford-Westmeath hospital has been deemed one of the best performing hospitals in the country and the doctors, nurses and staff provide a very fine service under difficult circumstances. However, if the facilities are not available, patients' lives are put at risk and preventable fatalities can occur.

At the risk of boring the Minister of State, I will once again set out the key moments in what has been a 12-year struggle to see phase 2B of Longford-Westmeath hospital completed in the interests of patient care, safety and best possible outcomes. More than 12 years ago, €57 million was ring-fenced for new facilities at the hospital and a shell of the new building was opened in 1997 by the then Minister for Health, Deputy Michael Noonan. In 2003, despite the completion of the development control plan, the project was threatened by recommendations of the Hanly report and assurances from the current Minister that facilities would not be withdrawn fell on stony ground. In 2005, the Minister instructed the HSE to delay the development of the new facilities at the hospital, thereby threatening the safety of every man, woman and child in Longford-Westmeath. In 2006, €14 million was announced under phase 2B stage one but we should not lose sight of the fact that this was just one quarter of the original €57 million ring-fenced for the project over six years earlier.

In a supposedly new initiative, this was nothing more than the original amount being drip-fed but it was being heralded as a major boost for the hospital instead of being seen for what it was, a catch-up exercise to provide 45 beds in an already constructed unit. This was a long way from the initial promise which is on the record of this House and of the other House and on the record of the health board. The promise was to provide an operating theatre, an intensive care unit, a cardiac care unit, an acute psychiatric unit, an adolescent psychiatric unit, pathology department, occupational therapy unit, dermatology unit, an on-call accommodation and staff changing facilities and an optician unit.

Another delaying tactic was decreed by the Taoiseach, Deputy Cowen, under the value for money analysis that any project in the health sector costing more than €30 million could not proceed without a cost-benefit analysis being carried out. This was another stalling measure by the Minister and by this Government. Once again they are putting the health of the people of Longford-Westmeath under threat. Cancer services were withdrawn from Longford-Westmeath hospital last year in what was a major blow for the area and this left 600 patients forced to travel long distances to access treatment that should be available locally. I know of patients who leave their homes at 6 a.m. and do not return until 7.30 p.m.

The bottom line is that much has been promised but bar the drip-feeding of a small amount of the costing of the original project, nothing has come of the commitments. It is now more than time for the delivery of the full €57 million plus ring-fenced for this project to ensure safe and efficient delivery of services and best outcomes for the people of Longford-Westmeath and the midlands. I want a positive answer tonight and not another broken promise from the Minister.

I am replying to this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney.

The Midland Regional Hospital at Mullingar forms part of the Dublin-midlands hospital group and provides an extensive range of acute services to the population of Dublin-midlands and in particular the Longford-Westmeath area. Stage 1 of the phase 2B capital development at Mullingar commenced in 2006 and is scheduled for completion shortly at a cost of €23 million. This phase of the project includes fit-out of the existing ward shells to provide a new paediatric ward; a new day surgery-gynaecology ward, a new obstetric ward and a new medical ward, incorporating an acute stroke unit; refurbishment of the existing paediatric and obstetric wards to provide surgical and medical wards and a palliative care unit; and an extension of the existing facilities to accommodate an interim special care baby unit adjacent to the new paediatric ward.

I understand these works are completed and that the ward areas are now fully occupied. In addition, approval was granted for the refurbishment of two further wards in the existing hospital — a medical-surgical and a delivery-gynaecology ward. This work is due to be completed at the end of the month. Completion of this phase of the project will see the bed complement increase from 215 to 244 and will enhance the range and level of services provided.

With regard to stage 2, phase 2B of the project, the HSE is required, in drawing up its capital programme, to prioritise the capital infrastructure projects to be progressed within its overall capital funding allocation under the national development plan, taking account of the NDP targets for division of capital investment between the acute and primary, community and continuing care programmes. The executive is finalising its capital proposals and consultation is ongoing between the HSE and the Department of Health and Children. Details on individual projects will become clear when the capital plan for 2009 has been finalised and approved.

Have we assurances?

Agricultural Colleges.

I wish to preface my remarks by saying that I was elected as a Fianna Fáil Deputy and I am supporting the Government. I do not wish to sound hypocritical tonight and say that I have supported cuts in the current economic world recession and that I will not support them in my own constituency. It is important to put this on the record of the House.

I wish to raise the issue of the Salesian College in Pallaskenry, County Limerick. This college was established in 1919 and it has played a significant role in educating young farmers since then. There are six agricultural colleges in the country and Teagasc is recommending that the number of colleges should be reduced from six to two, leaving one in Kilkenny and one in Cavan. I refer to the geographical location of Pallaskenry. As well as having excellent education and training facilities, the college attracts young farmers from many counties throughout Munster. Driving, most of the young farmers can get home to south County Galway, County Clare, north County Cork or north County Tipperary within one and a half hours. As well as furthering their education, many of them are committed to working on their families' farms. It is important that we maintain the presence of a college in Pallaskenry in the heart of the Golden Vale where one third of this country's milk is produced.

I want to be fair to Teagasc, which I admire for its work, and its officials in my county in particular. They have a job to do and, in the current economic climate, their budget has been reduced by €10 million. While I accept this fact, there is room for compromise and the retention of a third college, which should be the Pallaskenry Agricultural College. The cost of the subsidy to Teagasc is approximately €400,000. However, it is vital that, alongside Teagasc, every effort be made to save the college. It has operated for many years and played a considerable role in the education of thousands of young farmers, both boarders and those who attended on a day to day basis. It has stood the farming community throughout County Limerick and adjoining counties well.

We will not always be in this economic situation and I am sure that it will improve. When it does, it will be important to have given the young people in question a solid education. Many of them have an opportunity to diversify within the various courses on offer in colleges such as that at Pallaskenry, but they will not be in a position to travel to the two remaining colleges. With the greatest respect to Teagasc, the outreach centres throughout the country that it has suggested will not replace our fine colleges.

I appeal to the Minister of State, the Department and Teagasc for a review of the situation in favour of a more sensible one. Teagasc might not be able to provide the full subsidy required, but I appeal to it. Closing the Pallaskenry college would be a backwards step. It is a fine facility and is not falling down or does not need a significant capital injection. It has excellent staff who have been tried and tested for many years. The college would be a considerable loss to those we are trying to encourage to take up farming. Many of the young people in question have the foresight to want to attend college, better themselves and get diplomas. I appeal for a review of the situation.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta Cregan as ucht an deis a thabhairt dom an cheist tábhachtach seo a fhreagairt. The Government fully recognises the importance of agricultural education and training for the development of the agriculture and food industries. This is reflected in the programme for Government's commitment to invest in our agricultural colleges and to restructure the environment through which they are supported.

Responsibility for the provision of agricultural education and training, including decisions on investment in training facilities, rests with Teagasc. Due to its important role in supporting the Government's strategy for the agrifood sector, it receives substantial Exchequer resources each year to enable it to provide first class training, research and advisory services. The total funding provided by the Department for non-capital purposes has increased significantly in recent years, from €82 million in 2000 to an average of €137 million in the years 2007-09. While this year's allocation to Teagasc of €135 million is inevitably somewhat less than the previous two years due to the necessary curtailment of public finances, it is nevertheless a substantial amount and an indication of the Government's continuing commitment to supporting the agrifood sector and recognition of the important role of Teagasc in that regard.

I am glad to say that, in recent years, we have also been able to provide substantial extra funding to Teagasc for capital development purposes. In the period from 2000 to 2005, a cumulative total of almost €50 million was allocated, comprising €27 million from the Exchequer and €23 million from retained proceeds from the sale of assets, to enable Teagasc to implement major capital development programmes in upgrading training, research and advisory facilities. Since 2006, Teagasc has commenced a further major capital investment programme with a particular focus on the development of research centres of excellence.

Currently, Teagasc delivers its education and training programme through a network of eight colleges, 80 local Teagasc centres and the Teagasc e-college. It is entirely a matter for Teagasc and its board to prioritise its activities and to allocate its resources accordingly. In this regard, a review of college infrastructure undertaken for Teagasc by an outside consultancy body was finalised last year and agreed by the Teagasc authority. Arising from this review, the authority will be making decisions on priorities in terms of future capital expenditure. A €4 million investment has already been undertaken in an extension to student facilities at Teagasc's Kildalton College, which is due for completion in May. Furthermore, Teagasc intends to upgrade student facilities at the College of Amenity Horticulture in the National Botanic Gardens later this year. This will facilitate the accommodation of students from Warrenstown Horticultural College following the decision of the Salesian order to discontinue the provision of horticultural education at Warrenstown from June 2009.

Within the various colleges and at a local level, Teagasc provides a wide range of education and training courses targeted at young people planning to embark on careers in farming, horticulture, the equine industry or forestry and adult farmers wishing to acquire a skills set or training in a particular area. Further education and training courses are available in agriculture, horticulture, forestry and horses at the agricultural and horticultural colleges. In addition, higher level education courses in agriculture, horticulture, agribusiness, agricultural mechanisation and equine studies are provided jointly with institutes of technology.

All of Teagasc's education and training programmes are accredited within the national framework under the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland. I was pleased to see that there was a significant increase in college enrolments in the current academic year, which augurs well for the future of the Irish agrifood sector. Teagasc will ensure that education and training are provided in the most effective and efficient manner in the years ahead.

I am satisfied that Teagasc, with the major capital investment programme it has undertaken in recent years and the ongoing support of the Department, is in good shape and well positioned to provide the innovation and technology transfer necessary for the sustainable development of agriculture, the food industry and rural communities through their integrated research, advisory and education and training programmes.

Special Educational Needs.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for the opportunity to raise this matter. I was shocked by the content of the announcement early last week and the way in which it was made. It was wheeled out in the midst of the hot debate on the economic climate, almost as if it were being buried beneath it. It would have escaped under the radar were it not for the teachers, parents and pupils who will be most seriously affected by the unilateral decision. There was no debate, consultation or reference.

Approximately 120 classes throughout the country will be affected. When I analysed the figures more closely, I found that 20 of the 77 classes in the greater Dublin area are in my constituency of Dublin South-Central. It is a considerable depletion of resources in an area that badly needs all of the resources and educational supports that it can get. Most significantly, nine of the 20 classes are in Ballyfermot. As far as I can see, only one primary school in Ballyfermot has not been affected by the decision.

Other schools in the Dublin 8, 10 and 12 areas will also lose classes, including Crumlin, Inchicore, Drimnagh and the south inner city. Overall, the total area has been disproportionately hit by the Minister's decision. That there was no consultation or discussion with teachers or parents prior to the announcement is unforgivable. Given that no reference was made to an appeals procedure, there seems to be no way back, no moratorium and no possibility of combining classes with other schools that might be located within the area.

Having spoken to some teachers both last week and today, it appears as though the magic figure of nine was dreamed up from somewhere. Perhaps it was known to a select few but clearly not to the teachers in the aforementioned schools, who are now losing these classes. As far as I can ascertain, they were never officially informed of the necessity to have nine pupils to justify retention of such a class.

I wish to mention St. Catherine's national school, Donore Avenue, which is an atypical example. Its position differs slightly from the other schools because it is a Church of Ireland school. It is the only such school in the area and a child who is in a special class at that school and who wishes to stay within the Church of Ireland ethos for his or her education has no choice. However, I believe choices were available in the area. Mater Dei national school, Basin Lane, James's Street primary school, Scoil Treasa Naofa and Francis Street CBS are all in a catchment area with St Catherine's. Moreover, there are two schools on Mourne Road and two Loreto schools in Crumlin, the Oblate primary school, Inchicore, and a school in Goldenbridge. There are three Dominican schools in Ballyfermot, two De La Salle schools, two Mary Queen of Angels schools and one St. Louise school. Such schools could be bracketed together in subgroups and one could put some effort into ascertaining how they could be co-ordinated and perhaps the classes could be spread around. While this is a matter for the Minister, it is something of which account must be taken.

According to the 2006 census, the last year for which there are data, Dublin South-Central is one of the areas of lowest educational attainment in Ireland, historically. The resources that were in place to help to address this situation are now being pulled from under their feet without explanation, alternatives or consultation. I urge the Minister of State, together with the Minister for Education and Science, to reverse this unfair decision. The service should be restored to the schools for the benefit of those students who so badly need it. I believe this was a very shortsighted decision. While there may be a short-term gain of a small amount of money, this is not about money. The €7 million in question is a drop in the ocean relative to the impact it will have on the educational achievement of these children.

I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue as it gives me an opportunity to clarify the position. It is of great concern to me that there has been so much misinformation and misrepresentation of the notification to a number of schools by my Department that they were no longer entitled to retain teachers in classes for pupils with mild general learning disabilities. The first and most important point to make is that all pupils with a mild general learning disability have, and will continue to have, additional teaching resources to support their education. I also assure the Deputy that schools in Ballyfermot were not specifically targeted.

All primary schools have been allocated additional teaching resources to enable them to support pupils with high incidence special educational needs, including mild general learning disability. Each school was given such additional teaching resources under the general allocation model of learning support and resource teaching introduced in 2005. I emphasise that such additional teaching resources have not been withdrawn from any school. Schools can decide how best to use this allocation based on the needs of the pupils. Most pupils with a mild general learning disability are included in ordinary classes with their peers and are supported by their class teacher. The curriculum is flexible in order that teachers can cater for the needs of pupils of different abilities. This policy of inclusion has widespread support within the educational community. This approach is in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Schools can use their resource and learning support allocation to give pupils special help it they need it. This might be done with a teacher working with a group of pupils or on a one-to-one basis for a few hours each week.

Before the general allocation model was introduced, some schools grouped pupils with a mild general learning disability into special classes. Deputies are aware that allocations to schools typically increase or decrease depending on pupil enrolment. In the case of classes for mild general learning disability, the normal pupil-teacher ratio that applies is 11:1. My Department, however, allows for a small reduction in this number and permits a school to retain a teaching post where it has a minimum of nine pupils in the class. The rules also provide that a teacher would no longer be allocated where the number of pupils fell below nine. In the schools in question, the number of pupils dropped below this minimum and the schools no longer qualify for the teaching posts in these classes. This was the sole criterion for selection of schools in this regard.

In 2005, when the general allocation model was introduced, schools with additional teachers in classes for mild general learning disability were allowed to retain the teachers for these classes. Effectively, such schools received a double allocation. The number of these special classes has decreased over the years and schools have integrated the pupils into age-appropriate mainstream classes.

All the other primary schools in the country that do not have classes for pupils with mild general learning disability cater for these pupils from within the general allocation model. Surely, commentators do not suggest that three or four pupils with a mild general learning disability should be kept in a class of their own, when they could benefit from the interaction of other peers with support from their teacher?

There has been unprecedented investment in providing supports for pupils with special needs in recent years. There are now approximately 19,000 adults in our schools working solely with pupils with special needs. There are more than 8,000 resource and learning support teachers in our schools, compared with just 2,000 in 1998. More than 1,000 other teachers support pupils in our special schools. A total of 76 classes for pupils with mild general learning disability are being retained where there are nine pupils or more in these classes.

I wish to take this opportunity to emphasise that priority will continue to be given to provision for pupils with special educational needs. The establishment of mild general learning disability classes pre-date many of the developments in special education policy in recent years and we now have a system for providing schools with supports for pupils with high incidence special needs through the general allocation model.

The natural sympathy we all have for pupils with special needs and their parents makes it all the more important that we do not cloud facts with emotion. The parents of all children with mild general learning disability need to know that their children in mainstream classes are getting a quality education delivered by committed class teachers and supplemented by additional support from the resource and learning support teacher. This happens every day in schools nationwide.

I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to clarify the position regarding this matter.

Schools Building Projects.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this matter for the Adjournment debate. On 7 March 2008, together with other public representatives, I visited St. Joseph's national school, Bonniconlon, County Mayo, to meet the board of management and its chairman, as well as the teachers, parents and pupils, regarding the school's condition. It is not right that parents are obliged to bring their children to such a substandard school, in which a health and safety issue exists. Moreover, it is not right to have teachers trying each day to teach children in a professional manner in such poor conditions. I was highly disappointed that no announcement was made in recent weeks in respect of this school, which has been waiting for a long time for funding from the Department of Education and Science. As long ago as 2000, the school was obliged to raise funds for itself. Although the Department has spent more than €54,000 on architects' fees, to date there is no sign of either the funding or the approval for a new school.

In recent years, the Government had an opportunity to provide such funding when money was plentiful. If the Department does not have the requisite funding and is not prepared to undertake this project, it should try to attract investors who would be prepared to build a school and to do a deal with the Department by selling the school back to it. It is not right to have children, parents or teachers operating in such conditions. I have visited the school. I call on officials from the Department of Education and Science and the Minister to inspect the school. It is not right to have parents and children in such conditions. Given the current economic climate, it is important to stimulate employment in County Mayo and throughout the State. We need this type of investment in our education facilities. As well as providing badly needed school educational facilities, it would help the local community by creating employment. St. Joseph's national school is part of the delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, programme. Its pupils and teachers are further disadvantaged by the conditions in which they are obliged to learn and work.

I hope the Minister of State will not merely deliver the standard reply from the Department of Education and Science. Instead, I hope there will be an announcement, if not tonight then in the coming weeks, that the construction of this school will be put to tender and the necessary funding provided so that the area will receive the school it has sought for years. It is unacceptable that an area that has suffered disadvantage for many years should not receive its share of the national cake. This community is entitled to a new school.

I ask the Minister of State to present this case to the Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe. It is not the largest school in the State but it is of great importance for the pupils, teachers and local community. The working conditions are unacceptable, the building being rat infested at one time. There is a health and safety issue to be addressed. I call on the Minister and the Government to provide the necessary funding for a new school in Bonniconlon.

I am replying to this matter on behalf of the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe. I thank the Deputy for raising this issues as it allows me to outline the Government's strategy for capital investment in education projects and to explain the current position in regard to the school to which the Deputy refers.

The modernisation of facilities in existing building stock and the need to respond to emerging needs in areas of rapid population growth represent a significant challenge. The Government has shown a consistent determination to improve the condition of school buildings and to ensure the appropriate facilities are in place to enable the implementation of a broad and balanced curriculum. The emphasis, however, will continue to be on new schools and extensions to provide additionality in rapidly developing areas.

All applications for capital funding are assessed in the planning and building unit of my 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 and so on, 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 schools 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, of which band one is the highest and band four the lowest. Band one projects, for example, include the provision of buildings where none currently exists but there is a high demand for pupil places, while a band four project makes provision for desirable but not necessarily urgent or essential facilities, such as a library or new sports hall.

In the case of St. Joseph's national school, Bonniconlon, the brief is to provide accommodation for a long-term projected staffing of a principal and two mainstream class teachers plus ancillary accommodation. The project, which was assigned a band rating of 2.2, is at an advanced stage of architectural planning and planning permission has been received. However, given the competing demands on my Department's capital budget, it is not possible at this stage to be precise about when this project will go to construction.

The progression of all large-scale building projects, including this project, from initial design stage through to construction is dependent on the prioritisation of competing demands on the funding available under my Department's capital budget. These projects will be considered in the context of the Department's multi-annual schools building and modernisation programme. The allocation for school buildings in 2009 is €581 million. This represents a significant investment in the schools building and modernisation programme. This level of funding, at a time of great pressure on public finances, is a sign of the Government's commitment to investing in school infrastructure and will permit the continuation of progress in the overall improvement of school accommodation. Under the recovery plan announced recently by the Taoiseach, a further €75 million has been allocated to the schools building programme for 2009.

I thank the Deputy again for affording me the opportunity to outline the current position regarding the school building project for St. Joseph's national school.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.05 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 18 February 2009.