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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 2 Jun 2011

Vol. 734 No. 2

Adjournment Debate

Election Monitoring

I welcome the Tánaiste and the Ministers of State. Angola is not a country which looms large in terms of Irish and African relationships. Since the long-running civil war of 27 years ended in 2002, however, a degree of relationship has built up between Angola and Ireland. Irish Aid is making a contribution in the fight against AIDS, in regard to good governance and combatting the abuse of human rights.

The country is oil rich. The economy is largely based on oil exports which account for 85% of GDP, although the majority of the population live on subsistence and farming. In that regard, we can see the great diversity and the disproportionate nature of the operation of the economy.

A general election is planned for 2012, which is welcome because elections were sporadic during the course of the civil war and afterwards. The previous election took place in 2008, and it was observed by a European Union mission. The European Union mission was critical of the conduct of the election and the results were challenged by the main opposition parties. Subsequently, the President, Don Eduardo dos Santos, reneged on his promise to hold a popular election for the presidency in 2009. Instead, with a majority in parliament he introduced a constitutional change which appointed him to the presidency for a further two year term. It is with some trepidation, therefore, that we look at the possibility of the elections going ahead in 2012.

In any case, certain provisions have been made to prepare for the election. A national electoral commission has been established for the purpose of preparing for and running the election. The problem, however, is that it is composed largely of the ruling party, the MPLA, the popular movement for the liberation of Angola.

Democracy is still very much in a fledgling state in Angola and there are serious concerns about corruption, intimidation and so on. Angola rates poorly in terms of governments. It scores as low as 44th out of the 48 African countries and fares particularly badly on participation in human rights, sustainable economic opportunity and human development. The track record on good governance, anti-corruption measures and a fair legislative and judicial system is not the best. From that point of view, it would be desirable if the European Union and the international community got involved at the earliest stage possible to ensure the forthcoming elections are free and fair.

It would seem that the appropriate approach would be to appoint an EU or international observer mission at the earliest stage possible to supervise, in the first instance, the national electoral commission currently in place because it is disproportionately in favour of the ruling party. That is the stage at which all the registration will take place and where the identification and the authenticity of the electoral process will be determined. If there is not a supervisory body in place to be present throughout the preparatory electoral process, an observer mission, as happened in 2008, will be coming in cold and will not have the full facts at its disposal.

I urge that this aspect be examined. It is not something the European Union has given sufficient attention to, particularly as very often in a case where there has been a former colonial past the particular country, in this case Portugal, has probably been left with undue responsibility in the area, and that is not necessarily the most desirable way to proceed. The European Union and the international community should examine it more carefully and get involved at the earliest stage possible to ensure an observer process is established, not just when the election takes place but well in advance of that.

I ask the Minister to raise this matter at a meeting of the Council of Ministers, which would be an appropriate forum. There have been only two elections since 1975 and we would not want an election to be held without it being a proper free and fair election. Also, I ask if it could be raised in any other appropriate international forum.

I thank Deputy Costello for raising this issue. I have noted the points he made.

The governing party of Angola, the MPLA, has been in power since Angola gained independence in 1975, and President dos Santos has held the position of President since 1979, making him one of Africa's longest-serving rulers. Angola's first parliamentary election since 1992, and only the second since 1975, took place on 5 and 6 September 2008. The MPLA won a landslide majority, with 82% of the votes and a total of 191 seats out of 220, which gave it the two thirds majority in Parliament needed to change the constitution. An EU election observation mission said the elections represented a "positive step towards strengthening democracy", despite some organisational weaknesses and the state's control of the media, but did not go as far as describing the elections as free and fair. The elections passed off peacefully, which was significant, given that the results of the 1992 elections were violently disputed by the main opposition party UNITA, leading to the re-intensification of the civil war.

The adoption of a new constitution in February 2010 established a presidential parliamentary system, under which the Angolan President will not be elected by popular vote but will instead be the head of the party which has the most seats in the Parliament. A limit of two five-year presidential terms has been set, which would enable President dos Santos to remain in office until 2022 should he so wish, and should the MPLA retain the most seats in Parliament.

Angola's next legislative vote — elections to the Parliament — is scheduled to be held in September 2012. Given its dominance of the national media and of the apparatus of government, the ruling MPLA party has a major advantage going into the polls. Despite such advantages, economic difficulties, including such austerity measures as reductions in fuel subsidies, mean that a sweeping victory by the MPLA cannot be taken for granted.

In recent months, there have been reports of more loosely organised groups of protestors, inspired by the events in North Africa, using the Internet to try to organise support. The Parliament has passed legislation aimed at limiting the use of the Internet by such groups.

The European Union will in due course have to consider the question of mounting an election observation mission to Angola for the elections in September 2012. A number of factors will be important. First, the Angolan Government will have to invite such a mission to be present, an invitation which we hope would be forthcoming, in view of the observation mission in 2008. Second, the resources will have to be available to train, staff, and equip a mission in such a large country. Third, the situation will need to be assessed by EU heads of mission in the capital, Luanda, in advance of the election campaign, to see if the overall conditions permit a realistic assessment of the electoral process by observers.

It is too early at this stage to give a definitive view on these factors, but the Irish Government supports and regularly participates in such electoral observation missions, which are an effective monitoring tool. The EU collaborates on these missions with other international organisations, such as the United Nations, in seeking to ensure that minimum standards of debate, participation, transparency and accountability are observed during the election process. Ireland, which is accredited to Angola from our Embassy in Maputo, will consult our EU partners well in advance of the Angolan elections on the key issues which would surround such a mission.

I will raise some of Deputy Costello's points, particularly his concerns about the electoral commission, with the Tánaiste. I am not sure which one of us will attend the foreign affairs Council in June, but it will be on the radar and if there is an opportunity to raise it I will be happy to do so. I will speak with the Tánaiste about it as well.

Institutes of Technology

With the permission of the House, I would like to share time with Deputy Conway, who has been working closely with me on this issue.

I acknowledge that for the first time in the programme for Government, there is a clear commitment to explore the establishment of a university for the south east. In response to a parliamentary question two months ago, the Minister stated that the establishment of a technological university will require new legislation and will require detailed performance criteria for the designation process. That is the reason I raise this matter on the Adjournment today. The Minister recognises that a pathway is open to Waterford Institute of Technology and Carlow Institute of Technology to pursue a technological university for the south east.

Waterford Institute of Technology has already done much groundwork in this area and it has achieved very high standards by any international measure. It is ready and willing to engage in this process. An independent report commissioned by the previous Government — the Port report — outlines the merits of this case. It is essential now that the necessary criteria are published as soon as possible to allow full engagement and give clear direction to all stakeholders in this process. There is a very strong political will across all parties in the south east to achieve this objective. There is strong collaboration between Waterford IT and Carlow IT. There is an intention to have a multi-campus university in the south east which can expand to the other counties. Deputies from all counties in the south east and from all parties are very anxious that this process would progress as soon as possible.

The south east is the only region without a university and this is reflected in the higher than national average unemployment figure, which lies at 18.5%. There are fewer graduates in the region when compared with other areas. The south-east university does not have to aspire to duplicate existing universities. Both WIT and Carlow IT have all the courses and the capacity to meet the third level requirements of university status. We now need urgently from the Government the criteria, the legislation and the support to allow this to happen.

I thank Deputy Coffey for allowing me speak on this issue. It is an issue that I support fully. We have promised in the programme for Government to examine the establishment of a university in the south east. Over the past few years, campaigners in Waterford and in the south-east region have put a great deal of time, effort and money into the bid to gain university status for Waterford IT. Despite a very strong campaign, it seems that the groups have drawn a frustrating blank, as decisions were delayed and a key report in the issue was only released in the dying days of the last Government. Now we have an opportunity to shine the spotlight on the matter once again, and the issue of a technological university is coming into focus.

There seems to be confusion as to what exactly a technological university is, as there is no internationally recognised and agreed definition. This is why I support a call for the criteria defining technical or technological university to be brought forward as soon as possible. It is important that any changes in the status to WIT or any other IT do not make the institute any less accessible to local students. Access to good, quality education locally is vital and this has been one of the strengths of institutes of technology. They do not exclude students who might be seen as less academic, but provide top quality education and training for all students, while offering the chance to progress as far as PhD level if desired.

Research shows that students who go to college are less likely to come home to settle after they have graduated. This is why we need students to have the opportunity to obtain the quality qualifications at home. Brain drain will not help us create jobs in the south east. Figures released this week show that unemployment is again growing in Waterford and in the south east. This needs to be tackled as a matter of urgency.

The sooner we bring forward the criteria for defining a technological university, the sooner institutes like WIT can capitalise on increased funding and research opportunities that a designation of this kind would bring. Having said that, any new criteria must emphasise the highest standards in accountability so that moneys are spent in ways that are prudent and which benefit education and research, rather than on cosmetic enterprises.

Ultimately, whatever changes are proposed must be meaningful and helpful and must build on the great work done by all those associated with Waterford Institute of Technology. We do not want this to be a case of giving something a new coat of paint and a new name for the sake of it. We want to see the technological university brought to the south east so that our graduates and young people can work and remain there.

I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills. I thank Deputy Coffey for raising this matter and Deputy Conway for her contribution.

The question of the establishment of a university in the south east must be considered within the overall reform agenda for the higher education system, outlined in the national strategy for higher education to 2030, which is now the blueprint for further development of the sector. I am also cognisant of the commitment in the programme for Government that "we will explore the establishment of a multi-campus technical university in the south east."

The Minister agrees with the analysis and conclusion of the national strategy for higher education to 2030 that there is no case for the creation of any new universities on the basis set out in section 9 of the Universities Act 1997.

However, the Minister also believes that the development of a small number of technological universities, of equal status and of significant strength and quality, with their own legislative framework and a distinct mission that is faithful to the ethos of the technological sector, would complement our existing universities in meeting the full range of needs of students and wider society. There is strong merit in the development pathway that has been laid out in the strategy for the creation of technological universities. It is important that any process of re-designation focuses on the capacity of amalgamated institutes of technology to meet mission-relevant performance demands.

Already, the system is moving to respond to the recommendations of the strategy in a dynamic and organic way. The driving force behind any discussions should be sustainability and excellence. Institutes should take time and care to ensure that the choices they make are in the broader public interest as well as in the interests of the institution. Central to ensuring a designation process with integrity and credibility will be strong and relevant criteria against which proposals for designation can be rigorously assessed and that will maintain and enhance the necessary diversity in the system.

To build on the parameters and principles laid out in the national strategy regarding the evolutionary pathway for the institutes of technology, international higher education expert Dr. Simon Marginson was commissioned by the Department of Education and Skills to consider the establishment of benchmarks for redesignation, informed by international developments in this field as well as by the Irish context. The Department has now received his input, and the Minister has asked the HEA, in its statutory advisory capacity, to engage in a focused consultation on the draft criteria. We look forward to its response in the coming weeks. It is intended to publish the criteria when they have been finalised so that institutes of technology will have early direction on the expected demands for designation, enabling them to consider appropriate amalgamation options and prepare for future performance requirements.

I have noted the comments of the Deputies and I will happily pass them on to the Minister. I hope that on the publication of the report there will be an opportunity to discuss this again. I again thank the Deputy for raising the matter.

Special Educational Needs

This is an issue with which the Acting Chairman, Deputy Broughan, as my constituency colleague, will undoubtedly be familiar.

There is an urgent need for the Minister for Education and Skills to continue to provide funding to the parents of children who attend the Achieve ABA school in Kilbarrack. This issue is one that was inherited by the new Government. It was flagged with the new Minister over two months ago and it needs to be dealt with as a matter of urgency.

There are ten teaching staff and eight children attending this school in Kilbarrack on a daily basis. Effectively, since last September, Achieve ABA has received no State funding in respect of four of the eight students who attend the school. The situation has been unsustainable for some time and is now coming to a head, with the management giving one month's notice of the school's closure by 24 June if funding is not provided by the Department. It would be a shame if that were to happen. The Minister must continue to provide the home tuition grant to parents of children who attend the school. In addition, the school has submitted a joint proposal, along with Mayo Autism Action, to the Minister and his Department officials for the setting up of an ABA academy which would specialise specifically in the teaching of autistic children through ABA.

Achieve ABA is a tightly run school with an excellent track record for the five years in which it has existed. The average cost for a student in one of the 126 State-funded special schools is €38,725 per annum, which includes the costs to both the Department of Education and Skills and the HSE; in comparison, based on the Achieve ABA model, schooling costs €30,000 per annum per student. Thus, from a simple economics point of view, there is a saving to be made by the Exchequer in continuing to fund this school and supporting parents and teachers in providing an excellent, first-class service to these children.

The Acting Chairman has been to the school, as have I and other Deputies in the House, to see at first hand the great work that is done. It cannot happen that this school is not allowed to continue. An academy for children with autism is crucial. The proposal from Achieve ABA and Mayo Autism will include provision for the educational needs of the children but will also include the provision of psychology, speech and language therapy — which is so important — and occupational therapy, which will be provided by highly qualified and experienced staff.

The State spent more than €70 million on pilot projects under the previous Government, but it is a shame to say that no report was ever produced setting out the costs and benefits of these projects. Clearly, it is working in this school. Achieve ABA has made a commitment that it will produce a report and set itself up for a peer review within the space of two years of receiving more funding.

Funding provided in this area is money well spent. One system clearly does not suit all children, but we know that children who have attended this school have gone on to mainstream schools, so it has been a major success. I urge the Minister to visit the school and see the great work that is going on there. I implore him to continue to provide the home tuition grant to the parents of all children who attend the school.

I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn. I thank the Deputy for raising this matter, which provides the Minister with the opportunity to clarify the Department's position with regard to the provision of funding to parents of children who attend the Achieve centre.

I understand the Deputy is referring to the Achieve centre in Donaghmede, Dublin 13, which is a privately funded ABA centre. I wish to clarify that the Department has no direct funding arrangements with the group that operates the centre. The Minister has been advised that four children attending the centre are using their home tuition funding to pay the fees. The home tuition scheme, which the Department operates, provides funding to parents to provide education at home for children who, for a number of reasons such as chronic illness, are unable to attend school. The scheme was extended in recent years to facilitate tuition for children awaiting a suitable educational placement and also to provide early educational intervention for pre-school children with autism. Continued funding to the parents of the four children in question through the home tuition scheme will be considered for the next school year in the context of available school placements.

The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, is responsible, through its network of local special educational needs organisers, SENOs, for allocating resources to schools to support children with special educational needs. SENOs are a valuable source of support to parents who are actively seeking a placement for their children.

A proposal for funding for an academy for children with autism was submitted to the Department for consideration. The Minister wishes to thank the Deputy for also forwarding a copy of this proposal. The Department will respond to the submitted proposal shortly. However, I must remind the Deputy that consideration of this proposal will take account of the Department's policy in this regard, which is focused on ensuring that all children, including those with autism, have access to an education appropriate to their needs, preferably in school settings through the primary and post-primary school network. This facilitates access to individualised education programmes, fully qualified professional teachers, who may draw from a range of autism-specific interventions including ABA, special needs assistants, and the appropriate school curriculum, with the option, where possible, of full or partial integration and interaction with other pupils.

As each child with autism is unique, it is important that children have access to a range of interventions so their broader needs can be met. The Department's policy is to provide for children with special educational needs, including autism, to be included in mainstream schools unless such a placement would not be in their best interests or the interests of the children with whom they are to be educated. Some children may be supported in a special class attached to a mainstream school. These students have the option, where appropriate, of full or partial integration and interaction with other pupils. Other children may have such complex needs that they are best placed in a special school.

Students with special educational needs have access to a range of support services, including additional teaching and care supports.

In special schools and special classes, students are supported through lower pupil-teacher ratios. Special needs assistants may also be recruited specifically where pupils with disabilities and significant care needs are enrolled.

Reflective of the important role of continuing professional development, the Department has put in place a training programme for teachers in autism-specific interventions including treatment and education of autistic communication handicapped children, picture exchange communications system and applied behaviour analysis, ABA, through the special education support service.

The Deputy will be familiar with the ABA pilot scheme which has been funded by the Department for the past decade. All of the centres which participated in this scheme have been granted recognition as special schools for children with autism. These schools will operate in line with the Department's policy. I am pleased to update the Deputy that following their recognition the new schools are currently progressing well in the transitional phase. Twelve schools have opened and the remaining school is scheduled to open shortly. It is the Minister's intention to continue to support this transitional process.

The pilot scheme was established in the absence of a network of school-based special classes for children with autism which is now available. The Deputy will be aware that the establishment of this network of autism-specific special classes in schools throughout the country to cater for children with autism has been a key educational priority in recent years. In excess of 430 classes have now been approved throughout the country at primary and post-primary level, including many in special schools.

On behalf of the Minister, I thank the Deputy once again for raising this matter.

State Airports

On the day we spoke about Dáil reform, I am very disappointed to see some bad habits continue in that the Minister did not bother to come to the House to take the Adjournment debate. I always decried this when I was in government and I always made a special attempt to come to the House. I think I missed an Adjournment debate in the Dáil and Seanad on only two occasions, when I could not possibly have been there. It is bad form that the Minister responsible does not have the courtesy to be in the House.

We are discussing a serious issue, which is the future of Galway Airport because it cannot survive in the short term without operational expenditure funding, OPEX, funding. For a long time, the Department of Transport, now the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, has felt that Galway Airport is surplus to requirement. A value for money report was produced, but it was flawed because it suggested people could get from Shannon to Carraroe in an hour or an hour and a half. One would hardly get from Galway to Carraroe in that time. It also suggested one could get from Shannon to Carraroe much quicker than one could get from Dublin Airport to Kinnegad and this is quite ridiculous.

The decision made by the previous Government, of which I was part, to discontinue the PSO between Galway and Dublin was reasonable because the number of passengers on the route has dropped dramatically since the introduction of the motorway. PSO passengers between Galway and Dublin amount to 20% of the total passengers whereas they used to amount to 40%. Galway Airport is vital for access off the island of Ireland.

The Department has made a consistent argument that there are too many airports on the west coast and that the number is disproportionate compared to the east coast. I suggest we look at the facts. The east coast of Ireland has four airports, two in Belfast, one in Dublin and one in Waterford. The west coast of Ireland has six airports, and it is one and a half times the length of the east coast and much more indented. This gives the exact same proportion of airports to mile of coast, not taking into account that the west coast is far more indented than the east coast.

The Department always forgets the fact that there are 35,000 people in Connemara along with the 25,000 people west of Galway city, who are landlocked. Unless one goes to County Mayo, the only way out of Connemara is between Lough Corrib and the sea. Therefore, it is vital that the airport continues to serve the people. There is a demand for it. When I was Minister, I met the IDA which stated the airport was vital for business development in Galway. It is also vital for the local people who use it and for tourism.

For some reason, the Minister is making a principle out of a practicality. The cost is €1.5 million. It is amazing the same Department can spend €6 million this year on eliminating roundabouts in Galway and putting in traffic lights when, given a free choice, the people of Galway would much prefer to keep the airport and make do with roundabouts for the moment. It is also a fact that the Department is not short of money this year because it had factored in going ahead with work on the N17 and N18 roads along with work at Newlands Cross and on the road to Arklow. These projects are not going ahead because the private money to match the public money could not be found.

The idea that from a budget of €619 million money cannot be provided for priority transport that is of strategic importance to a region is, in my view as somebody with experience of being a Minister, unrealistic. The Minister is making a principle out of a practicality. For some reason, he believes this airport should not be supported and no valid reason has been given for ordering the demise of the airport for the sake of €1.5 million when there are plenty of alternatives.

Fine Gael seems to have a problem with airports in the west of Ireland. It is well known that James Dillon stated all that would run on the airport in Shannon were rabbits. It is also well known that when Jim Mitchell was a Minister, he stated the airport in Knock would be a soggy boggy hill. The Minister of State is from Mayo and knows well the huge success of that airport. Last month was its most successful month ever. Having failed with regard to two airports in the west it is now targeting another.

Galway will not accept the demise of its airport. We need that airport for development. In a week that it is rumoured that the Government will remove the enterprise functions from Údarás na Gaeltachta it would appear the Government has decided the west is surplus to requirements and that anything west of Leixlip is irrelevant. If the Minister wants to think that way that is fine but we will fight tooth and nail to retain our airport, which is so vital to the west of Ireland and the Galway region.

I advise the House that I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Leo Varadkar, who genuinely cannot be here this evening. I appreciate the Deputy opposite was very attentive to Adjournment debates and I acknowledge this. However, as I stated the Minister is unavoidably absent this evening and I assure the Deputy——

It is amazing they are all unavoidably absent. The Minster for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, was unavoidably——

I was taking an Adjournment debate on behalf of the Department of Foreign Affairs, where I am Minister of State.

This is the usual trick. It used to happen in our Government also. It is reprehensible.

The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport is aware of the contribution of Galway Airport to the region. However, the Deputy will be well aware of the difficulties the Minister is now facing with regard to the lack of funding available for the regional airports programme for 2011 and in future years, following the reductions made by the previous Fianna Fáil-led Government. This is a fact and it is indisputable. Deputy Ó Cuív will be acutely aware of the funding provided to the regional airport programme for 2011 and its implications, given that he was a member of the Government that made that decision.

At the same time as the available funding is reducing, some of the regional airports are becoming more dependent on Exchequer support of some sort. Given the State's current financial position, such a position is obviously not sustainable. A total allocation of €13.4 million is available for the regional airports programme for 2011. Of this allocation, €11.4 million is for current expenditure. Current expenditure is spent on the PSO air services of which more than €10 million has already been committed, with the remainder being available to cover the operational losses of the airports.

Based on a decision of the previous Fianna Fáil-led Government, after existing commitments for PSO air services to July 2011 and for new PSO air services from Kerry and Donegal to Dublin are accounted for, only €0.6 million is available for operational subvention for airports in 2011 whereas €4.8 million was paid out in 2010. The Department understands that the operational subvention for Galway Airport alone will be in excess of €1.5 million in 2011.

A further €2 million in the regional airports programme is available for capital projects at the airports, all of which is committed. This compares to expenditure of €21.2 million on the programme in 2010 and €200 million in the past ten years.

The value for money review published by the previous Fianna Fáil-led Government in January 2011 recommended that funding for PSO air services between Dublin and the regional airports be discontinued when current contracts end in July 2011, except for the Donegal to Dublin service, and that operational expenditure funding, OPEX, and capital expenditure funding, CAPEX, be discontinued for Sligo and Galway airports. These recommendations took into account changes in EU legislation, airport performances, the substantial investment in surface transport, overlapping catchment areas, the best use of scarce Exchequer resources and the implications for the tourism and business sectors in the regions.

The Minister is aware of the implications for both Galway and Sligo Airports arising from these recommendations. However, in the context of addressing the lack of funding issue, he has to take into account developments in recent years as highlighted in the review and the need to focus on ensuring the sustainability of a strong network of regional airports servicing the public, both in terms of business and tourism.

No decision on the funding for regional airports for 2011 and future years has yet been made by the Government. In the circumstances, it would be inappropriate at this stage to comment on the possible outcome of the Government's deliberations. However, it is clear that, in the current difficult climate, any decisions will have to take account of available Exchequer funds.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.25 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 7 June 2011.