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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 18 Feb 2010

Vol. 702 No. 4

Adjournment Debate.

Hospital Accommodation.

The people of Erris are very disturbed by the rumours emanating from the HSE regarding the closure of 20 beds in the hospital in Belmullet. Erris is as big as County Louth. The people of the area depend on their hospital but the embargo on staff recruitment is creating problems. I understand Deputy Flynn stated today on local radio that the embargo would be lifted next week. I would not set too much store by her word, because she told us cancer services would be saved but they left the county as well. Therefore, I would not put much credence in what she has said about the embargo. Perhaps she has been talking to the Minister for Finance, and, if she has, I welcome that.

The hospital in Belmullet has 40 beds. There are 22 full-time nursing staff and 25 support staff. Emigrants from Erris who went to America, England and all over the world have raised funding to support the hospital, the building and equipment and their loved ones who require care. They wanted to be reassured that if their mothers, fathers, brothers or sisters got sick that they would be able to go to that hospital. That is why they supported the hospital over the years. I would be appalled if the HSE management in Mayo were to take away any of those beds because of a shortage of staff. That would be wrong. It would be an outrage. I believe the embargo has already been lifted for staff in Ballina and Castlebar.

Erris has been treated badly by all Governments since the foundation of the State. It would be outrageous if it was to be affected by the removal of 20 beds from the hospital. If 20 beds are removed, the next thing is that the hospital in Belmullet will be closed down. That would be fought every step of the way by me, Gerry Coyle, the local councillor, all elected representatives in the area and the people of Erris. The ongoing gas dispute in Erris might not have full community support but this issue would generate full community support. Any attempt to close beds in the hospital would be fought every step of the way. I say to the Minister, hands off the Belmullet Hospital. Support the people of Erris. Give them their dues and make sure that the embargo is lifted next week so that the staff that are needed can be employed.

The Government has let down Mayo in respect of cancer services. It has let down the women of Mayo in respect of cancer services. This will not happen. It will be fought every step of the way. I call on the Government, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney, the Minister of State, Deputy Dara Calleary, Deputy Beverley Flynn and all the elected representatives of Mayo to fight this every step of the way. It would be an outrage if Erris, which is the size of County Louth, was to lose its hospital. Patients would have to travel 70 miles to Castlebar, 150 miles to Galway and more than 250 miles if they have to go to a hospital in Dublin. That would be a shame on the Government and the HSE.

I have written to Professor Brendan Drumm. His wife is from Erris. He liked Erris when he was picking a wife. Shame on Brendan Drumm. He would be letting down his wife and her family if he takes the service out of Erris. I call on the real Minister for Health and Children, Brendan Drumm, to ensure that this does not happen. There is no point talking to the Minister, Deputy Harney, because she has washed her hands of the health service. She would only say that it is not her responsibility; it is the responsibility of the HSE. I say to the management of the hospital that it is not to touch Erris or the Belmullet Community Hospital. That will not be allowed. It will be fought every step of the way.

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

I thank Deputy Ring for raising this issue which provides me with an opportunity to update the House on this matter. The Government is committed to supporting people to live in dignity and independence in their own homes and communities for as long as possible. Where that is not feasible, the health service supports access to quality long-term residential care where that is appropriate. We continue to develop and improve health services in all regions of the country and to ensure quality and patient safety.

The Health Service Executive has operational responsibility for the delivery of health and social services, including those at facilities such as Belmullet Community Hospital. Belmullet Community Hospital is a single complex, consisting of 39 acute, step-down and respite beds together with the 37 bed long-stay residential care unit located at Áras Deirbhle on the same campus. It has an approved staff complement of 78, as measured in whole-time equivalents, which includes 33 nursing posts. The annual budget provided for the hospital in 2009 was just over €4 million. The centre is managed by a director of nursing under the line management of the manager for older people services.

The Deputy will appreciate that all developments have to be addressed in the light of the current economic and budgetary pressures. The executive has been asked to make a rigorous examination of how existing funding might be reconfigured or reallocated to ensure maximum service provision is achieved. In particular, we need to ensure that the highest standard of care will continue to be provided to all patients in a safe and secure environment. Any decisions, therefore, taken by the executive must have regard to the current budgetary position and the current moratorium on the recruitment of nursing and non-nursing staff.

The local health manager has a clear responsibility to deliver services within allocated budgets, consistent with human resource directives with a view to ensuring that the highest standard of care continues to be provided to all patients in a safe and secure environment. This includes any decision on prioritising resources and the impact any decision has on the integrity of the services provided. This requires a stringent ongoing review of the application of the resources available. In this context, senior management, in association with the director of nursing, is considering the options available to it.

In recent days Belmullet Community Hospital has been the subject of speculation that there will be bed closures at the facility. The Minister, Deputy Harney, wishes to confirm to the House that at this time no decision has been made by the HSE to close beds at Belmullet Community Hospital. It has further advised that there will be no closure of beds at Áras Deirbhle. As soon as any decision is made on Belmullet Community Hospital or Áras Deirbhle, the people directly affected will be the first to be informed.

Our primary focus must be on patients. Quality care and patient safety come first and all patients should receive the same high standard of quality-assured care. It is essential to ensure that resources are appropriately channelled and that the changing needs of older people are suitably addressed.

Local Authority Housing.

Currently, local authorities have an entitlement to dispose of their social housing, thereby allowing tenants to purchase their own homes, but local authority tenants of flats and apartments do not have the same entitlement to purchase their homes. I seek that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government sign the ministerial order permitting the sale of local authority apartments and flats. I understand that this must be done by the Minister and that the Minister of State with responsibility for housing does not have that power.

This proposal has been a long time in gestation. It has been discussed since I first became a member of a local authority. It was supposed to happen on numerous occasions but it did not happen. Finally, the proposal is near completion. There is not much sense in putting the legislation in place without the order being signed. That is necessary before we can get on with business. In a way it is unfortunate that we did not get around to introducing this legislation in the heyday of the Celtic tiger when people had money and could afford mortgages. The mortgage situation now is getting worse by the day. Nevertheless, it is important that the same entitlement would be given to those people who are tenants of local authority flats as well as local authority houses. I always felt that was discriminatory.

I hope the ministerial order is accompanied by a circular and a mechanism to generate information and awareness of the entitlement throughout the length and breadth of the country so as to encourage the take-up of the scheme, which is a right and entitlement. I would also welcome an incentive scheme. In 1998 we had the great housing sale, the millennium scheme. On that occasion, the State made a particularly generous contribution in terms of reducing the value of the houses to encourage people to purchase their own homes. People are still talking about the millennium scheme. An initiative of this nature regarding apartments and flats is unprecedented but it should be accompanied by a similar approach. It would be great if the local authority could be forthcoming on the matter and could provide funding to encourage people to avail of the units in their possession. I hope the Minister of State will outline a reasonable deadline for the operation of this new facility. There are many apartments and flats in my constituency. Given the difficulties with local authority maintenance, it would be beneficial if the tenants had the opportunity to take charge of their own homes and maintenance of same.

I thank the Deputy for raising the matter, which I am taking on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

The enactment of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009 is a milestone in the development of social housing policy in this country. The Act will improve housing services and their delivery by giving effect to a range of reform measures and establishing a framework for a strategic approach by housing authorities to the delivery of a diverse range of social housing options. Part 4 of the Act represents a major step forward in the evolution of tenant purchase policy and practice with the introduction of a scheme for the sale of local authority apartments to tenants.

This legislation takes account of the difficulties experienced with previous attempts to introduce tenant purchase of apartments in areas such as the management of apartment complexes, insurance, the cost of maintenance and the transfer of legal title. While the new scheme tries to build on best practice in the private sector in the management of multi-unit residential developments, it also has to incorporate new arrangements to reflect the movement from social renting to private ownership. The transition from a rented social housing complex to a mixed tenure of privately-owned and social-rented accommodation adds an extra dimension to the legal and practical problems that can arise in private apartment complexes and this is reflected in the Part 4 provisions.

The details of the apartments sales scheme must now be set out in regulations to be made under the Act. Matters that will be covered by the regulations include the conduct of the tenant plebiscite to gauge support for the sale of apartments in particular complexes, as well as the discounts to be granted to tenant purchasers and the circumstances in which they are allowable. The regulations will also prescribe matters relating to the annual service charges to be levied by the management company in designated complexes and the operation by the housing authority of the support fund to assist the management company in carrying out major works to preserve and improve the complex. The form of the conveyancing documents giving effect to the three transfers of property ownership involved in the apartment scheme will also be prescribed in the regulations.

Apart from the regulations, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government must also prepare what may be termed a "model memorandum and articles of association" for the management companies that will assume ownership of apartment complexes designated for tenant purchase. The arrangements that need to be put in place for this purpose are being considered. In addition, guidance and advice must be prepared for housing authorities on all aspects of the operation of what is, of necessity, a complex scheme. While preparatory work for the apartments sales scheme is proceeding in the Department, the complexity of some of the issues involved precludes the setting of a firm date for the introduction of the scheme. However, the Minister is hopeful the necessary commencement order and regulations will be made, and guidance issued, this year in order that the scheme can be brought into operation as quickly as possible.

Computerisation Programme.

The Smart Schools = Smart Economy report was published in a blaze of glory on 16 November 2009. Nobody can disagree with the need for this initiative, given the ICT system in our schools is of Third World standard and is nowhere near what is needed to support a knowledge-based economy. The strategy launched in November has been a long time coming but the fact that the Minister is finally paying attention to the ICT deficit in our schools is welcome.

A number of matters have been brought to my attention regarding the contractual arrangements surrounding this plan and I would like the Minister to clarify a number of issues. Given the current economic position, funding for all sectors within the education sector must be spent wisely. Many schools are frustrated because they say they were not consulted on what they needed in terms of ICT before the framework was drawn up by the Department. I would like the Minister to clarify whether any of the schools benefiting from this money were consulted before he announced the ICT grant for a teaching lap top and digital projector. The most recent comprehensive information I have available regarding ICT provision in our schools goes back to 2005. Has a review of ICT in schools been carried out since then or was the Minister using the provision of a digital projector and laptop as an initiative he chose to announce last November?

Value for money is another important issue. Added to the frustration schools are experiencing about a lack of consultation is the apparent lack of flexibility that they have in spending the ICT grant they have drawn down. Many schools have reported that they do not need a digital projector or teaching laptop and would gladly use the money for other areas of ICT provision. Can the Minister assure schools that they have the flexibility to buy the ICT equipment they need assuming the money is spent in a full year and it meets their individual needs?

I would also like clarity on the resources being allocated to the National Centre for Technology in Education, NCTE, to oversee the implementation of this project. A sum of €150 million is significant and it must be spent wisely. Will the Minister outline whether the NCTE is properly resourced to do so? How many people are working on the implementation of the framework?

Another issue of concern that has come to my attention is the fact that small Irish ICT companies, some of whom had arrangements with schools going back years, have now effectively been cut out of the market due to the introduction of this strategy. The companies involved in supplying schools with the infrastructure promised in the strategy were involved in compiling the report and they are represented on the advisory group established by the Minister. Can the Minister of State outline whether a contractual agreement to supply schools with infrastructure was drawn up with specific companies prior to the introduction of this strategy? Furthermore, is he concerned that small Irish ICT companies may not be able to pitch for business on a level playing field under the terms of this strategy and are in danger of going out of business?

The Minister said in his statement of 16 November 2009 that this €150 million investment would go towards ensuring that, within three years, each classroom in Ireland would have a teaching laptop and digital projector. I would like the Minister to clarify a number of issues. First, how will the remaining money be spent? Will secondary schools be able to obtain funds? Second, how much does it cost to equip each classroom? It is estimated to be €1,600 on average. Will this meet the needs of every classroom? Third, how much has been drawn down to date?

The most worrying aspect of this strategy is that the Minister is spending money that should have been spent over the past number of years. He has not checked what schools need. He has not conducted a vigorous value for money audit in respect of this investment and there is no accountability for this expenditure on a school by school basis. Serious issues have been raised by this strategy and the Minister needs to clarify these matters in his reply.

I am taking this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Science. I thank the Deputy for raising this matter, as it provides me with an opportunity to outline to this House the way in which the ICT infrastructure grant for primary schools, which was issued last November, may be utilised. In November last year the Taoiseach launched the Smart Schools = Smart Economy report, which is the new action plan for integrating ICT in schools. The report, which was produced by the joint advisory group established by the Minister earlier last year, builds on the earlier strategy group report, Investing Effectively in ICT in Schools. As a first step in implementing the recommendations of the report, €22 million in ICT grants was issued to primary schools in November last. In order to ensure value for money and to make the procurement process easier, schools were instructed to use the national framework agreements for the supply of ICT equipment, where such agreements are in place. Four distinct agreements for the supply of specific categories of ICT equipment to schools have been set up by the Department of Finance. The categories in question are PCs, laptops, mono laser printers and colour laser printers. In addition, the National Centre for Technology in Education has set up a framework for the purchase of digital projectors. Frameworks can facilitate greater flexibility in the acquisition of goods and services and support more responsive pricing mechanisms that deliver better value for money. The major features of the frameworks are the lowest price guarantee, the simple and cost-effective procurement process for customers, the public service terms and conditions and the centralised contract management and monitoring of vendor performance. In all cases, the suppliers were selected following an open competitive tendering exercise in compliance with EU and national procurement rules. The process was open to all companies.

In the interests of achieving best value for money, schools were asked by letter to use the framework agreements for the purchase of ICT equipment under the relevant categories. Schools can run a mini competitive tendering process by sending a simple request for quotation, setting out their requirements, to a single central e-mail address. In addition to the core products, schools can also request quotations for associated products and services, such as docking stations, batteries, USB keys, hard disks and unpacking and installation of equipment. The frameworks deliver competitive prices and are covered by a three-year, on-site, next-business-day system of warranty and support. The operation of the frameworks is governed by the vendor participation agreements, through which schools are able to benefit from a range of favourable terms and conditions, as agreed in the aggregate for eligible non-commercial public sector bodies. Framework agreements are generally set up for a period of three years, with an option of an extension for a further year, at the sole discretion of the Department of Finance in conjunction with the ICT frameworks steering group. The current framework for PCs will end on 30 April 2010. This includes the one-year extension. The three-year framework for laptops will end on 7 December 2012 with an option for extension until 7 December 2013. In forms of procurement where framework agreements do not exist, schools are required to carry out normal competitive tendering processes under general public procurement rules.

A number of schools have indicated in feedback that in certain circumstances, it may be possible to achieve better value from non-framework vendors. Therefore, it has been decided that in such situations schools may include non-framework vendors when issuing a request for quotes. However, schools must ensure they comply with public procurement procedures at all times and carry out this process in an open and equitable manner. Quotes must be sought from framework and non-framework vendors simultaneously and for an identical specification. All bidders should understand the key criteria against which their bids will be assessed. All quotes received must be evaluated against these criteria to identify the preferred bidder. Schools must keep confidential records of this process. Information for schools on this option is available on the NCTE website. Information on the evaluation process is available on the Centre for Management and Organisation Development website. I thank the Deputy.

Schools Building Projects.

I was delighted to hear Deputy Hayes speaking about the new contractual arrangements for the provision of much-needed ICT systems in schools. I am sure the Minister of State will agree that the issue I am about to raise is light years behind that.

Carn national school in Gurteen, County Sligo, is a three-teacher school with a current enrolment of 72 pupils. The pupils are crammed into two small classrooms in the old school building and a prefabricated classroom, which houses the infant classes. The condition of the older building is extremely poor — it has old slate roofing and neither the walls nor the ceilings are insulated. The school toilets are damp and run down. The school playground has numerous hazards, such as an old and uneven tarmac surface and broken grates and gullies. It is an appalling set of circumstances. The space in which the school bus and the parents' cars have to be parked when dropping off pupils is extremely limited. This is a cause of huge concern, especially as the school is located beside a T-junction on the primary road between Tubbercurry and Boyle. There are major safety concerns when the school bus and many cars arrive at the start and end of the school day. Carn national school does not even have a staffroom facility. The school office is just four feet wide.

The immediate prospect for the school is that its enrolment is set to increase following the recent announcement by the Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, that the neighbouring Annaghmore national school is to close in June of this year. The board of management of Carn national school has submitted site details, title deeds and Ordnance Survey documentation to confirm that Gurteen parish has donated a suitable site, in an excellent location, for the proposed new school. The education of our children at primary level must be to the fore in the Minister's future policies. In light of the level of economic growth experienced by Ireland over the past decade, it is a shameful indictment of this Government's failure that children in 2010 continue to avail of primary education facilities of a 19th century standard. The Minister for Education and Science has been there. Many young pupils are forced to attend school in Third World conditions. That is how bad it is.

Gurteen parish and the school's board of management are clearly willing to proceed with the construction of a new national school. Gurteen parish and Sligo County Council, under its chairman, Mr. Gerry Murray, have spent almost €90,000 on purchasing additional lands for the school site and constructing an access road for the school. Having personally viewed the site, the Minister will be aware of its suitability and familiar with the work and expenditure that have taken place at local level to provide a site. He will appreciate that the site is highly favourable in terms of its proximity to ESB, water, sewerage and ancillary services. The Department of Education and Science has the ball at its feet with regard to this project. The site is in place and the need for this project has clearly been established. Funding is required so the children of Carn national school can have access to a fair and equitable primary education in conditions that are acceptable to teachers, parents and pupils. It is no more than any child deserves. In light of the totally unacceptable conditions at the school and the increase in pupil numbers, it is essential for the Minister to give this project the highest level of priority.

I call on the Minister of State, Deputy Curran, to state when funding will be provided for a new building at Carn national school. I hope he will indicate a timeframe for the construction of this building, which is needed as a matter of the utmost urgency and in the interests of the health and safety of pupils and teachers. I am delighted that the Minister of State is here to deal with this situation. During my 13 years as a Member of this House, I have been all over my constituency and the region. This school is the worst I have ever seen. It is an appalling indictment of the Government that in this day and age, 90 children attend a school that has not received any funding since the 19th century. If a health and safety audit were to be carried out on the school, it would be closed. It is an accident waiting to happen. I have a high regard for the good job that the Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, does in his portfolio. I sincerely hope the Minister of State will give us good news, or some ray of hope, this evening. When will the commitment of the teachers and the community of Gorteen be rewarded?

I am happy to respond on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, who cannot be present, unfortunately. I thank Deputy Perry for raising this matter and giving me an opportunity to outline to the Dáil the Government's strategy for capital investment in education projects and the current position in respect of Carn national school, Gurteen, Ballymote, County Sligo. As the Deputy will be aware, all applications for capital funding are 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. It ultimately leads 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. The 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 exists but there is a high demand for pupil 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 that more specifically describe the type of works needed and the urgency attaching to them.

The school to which Deputy Perry refers has a current staffing level of a principal and two mainstream teachers. The school also has the services of one learning support resource teacher. In 2009, the school had 66 pupils, which represents a 16% increase in enrolments in the past five years. The board of management of Carn national school applied for a new school in 2006. The application for major capital funding was assessed and assigned a band 2 rating. The Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, met a delegation from the school in late 2008 and undertook to review the band rating. In that context, a re-examination of the banding was recently conducted. However, the proposed project at Carn national school remains at a band 2 rating under the published prioritisation criteria for large scale projects available on the Department's website.

In December 2009, the Department contacted the school regarding the proposed site for the new school. Clarification was sought on site ownership, size and issues concerning title deeds and access. The school authorities responded, clarifying the site issues. The next step in the process will be a site visit. The Department's technical staff have been requested to schedule a site suitability assessment.

The Department has operated a summer works scheme for the past six years, which gives schools an opportunity to address issues such as upgrading electrical and mechanical elements, window replacement, roof replacement, toilet upgrade, disabled facilities, upgrade to play facilities, etc. Carn national school has only this year made an application for works under the summer works scheme. The application identified window replacement as the priority. Following an assessment process, projects will be selected for funding from all valid and approved applications on a top down basis in accordance with the prioritisation criteria published with the scheme. The timetable for the summer works scheme 2010 has also been published as part of the governing circular letter for the scheme. This circular letter is available on the Department's website. In accordance with the timetable, it is my intention to publish a list of successful summer works scheme applicants in March.

Modernising facilities in our existing building stock as well as the need to respond to emerging needs in areas of rapid population growth is a significant challenge. The Government has shown a consistent determination to improve the condition of our school buildings and to ensure that appropriate facilities are in place to enable the implementation of a broad and balanced curriculum. However, the level of demand on the school building programme is such that all projects cannot be carried out together. They will have to be carried out over time in a structured and coherent manner and this is the reasoning behind the Department's published prioritisation criteria. The project for Carn national school will be carried out consistent with this approach. I thank Deputy Perry for raising the matter and I assure him the Minister is committed to advancing the project for Carn national school.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.25 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 23 February 2010.