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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 19 Jul 2012

Vol. 773 No. 3

Topical Issue Debate

Data Protection

There have been a number of cases in which personal financial details were leaked to the media by nationalised banking institutions within the control of the Minister for Finance. It is disgraceful and outrageous that private and confidential banking details of individuals have been put in the public domain via our newspapers. It is clear from reading these articles that they go beyond the basic security or mortgage information available to the public by means of a search of the Land Registry, the Registry of Deeds or the Companies Registration Office. The articles refer to business and personal information that individual customers give to banks when looking for loans or refinancing. This sensitive information does not appear on any public register and the only time it usually comes to light is during the course of litigation or other court proceedings, in which case, where business information is sensitive, aspects of hearings can be held in camera.

This is a new and worrying development among nationalised banks. It is not something that has happened, as far are I am aware, in private banks, other than by accidental or implicit divulgence of sensitive information. It is an implied term of the contract between customers and banks that banks will keep their clients' information confidential. This confidentiality is not only confined to account transactions but extends to all banking information held on behalf of customers. The bank's duty of confidentiality to its customers is fundamental to the relationship between the two parties. A breach of this duty can give rise to legal actions but, unfortunately, significant damage can have been done by the time cases come to court.

I raise this issue because a number of business people in my constituency and, I am sure, those of many other Deputies have expressed concern about it. I am referring to regular business people rather than big developers. They are going through a tough time and are concerned about casual talk regarding their businesses and their relationships with their banks. These rumours are undermining their efforts to put their businesses back on track. Concerns have been expressed that details of settlement and refinancing arrangements which customers negotiate with banks could appear in local newspapers. I ask the Minister for Finance to take a stand on this issue to ensure this new culture does not take over within our State-controlled banks. This is a difficult time for many businesses. Individuals provide sensitive business information in the course of their dealings with banks. We should not allow the publication of this information in our newspapers to become a casual or acceptable practice. There should be serious consequences for those who run the State banks if this practice is not brought under control. If it happened in the private banks, someone would be sacked.

I have been informed by the Minister for Finance that he has not received any complaints about the leaking of personal banking information by nationalised banks to the media. Without knowledge of the specific issue to which the Deputy referred I can only comment on this issue in the most general of terms. Primary responsibility for the safeguarding of customer information rests with the financial institutions themselves. As a shareholder the Government has no role in investigating data breaches in the State-owned financial institutions, although it obviously has an interest in ensuring that the State-owned banks follow best practice in order to protect their customers and the reputation of the institutions.

The Data Protection Commissioner is responsible for ensuring that people's rights are respected and those who hold personal information meet their responsibilities in this regard. The Data Protection Acts make it clear that organisations that hold personal data on individuals owe them a duty of care. This protection also extends to State-owned institutions. In regard to data protection breaches, I understand that the policies in place between the banks and the Data Protection Commissioner are such that breaches are notified immediately to the commissioner upon discovery. These breaches are then investigated internally and appropriate remedial actions are taken. Outside of this process, any individual is entitled under the Data Protection Acts to make a written complaint to the Data Protection Commissioner, who will then deal directly with the relevant organisation. The commissioner will make a full and thorough investigation of all the facts before making a decision. If the complaint is found to be in breach of the electronic communications regulation the commissioner may decide to prosecute the organisation concerned. The commissioner has significant powers to ensure that all organisations act in accordance with data protection laws.

The data protection rules are very specific and are binding on every data controller. A failure to observe these rules is a breach of the Act. It is the responsibility of all institutions to ensure their data on individuals is safe and secure. If any individual suffers damage to his or her reputation, financial loss or mental distress, the data controller of an organisation may be subject to civil sanctions and the individual may be entitled to claim compensation through the courts. I strongly urge any individual who may suffer as a result of the leaking of personal banking information to explore these avenues of resolution.

The protection of customers' data is taken seriously by all of the State-owned financial institutions. Each bank is fully aware of its obligations to safeguard the security of customer data and they employ a wide range of measures to protect the confidentiality and integrity of that information. All banks have strict security protocols for information technology and physical access in order to protect information. They employ dedicated information security personnel, who commonly report to an information technology security council. They also have an information security policy. Bank network repositories and systems have robust password protection and access control, which restricts access to relevant personnel only.

All bank premises are protected by swipe card access control systems and certain areas allow access to designated personnel only. Banks generally also employ what is termed a clean desk policy, requiring all personnel to keep their desks clear of any sensitive or confidential data that should be stored securely. Banks also have mandatory annual training courses for all personnel on the requirements of the Data Protection Acts and their responsibilities under them. The courses also cover ethics and include the banks' code of conduct. I understand all personnel are required to review and electronically accept key policies, such as the code of conduct and information security policy. These policies also inform personnel of the potential consequences of policy breaches. As a shareholder, the Government will continue to work with the institutions to ensure that they take all necessary actions to safeguard the personal banking information of their customers.

I am familiar with the procedures and the possibility of complaints being made to the Data Protection Commissioner. I am also aware of certain complaints that have been made to the Data Protection Commissioner. Still, it should not be beyond the capability of the many officials that the Minister, Deputy Noonan, has at his disposal to read the newspapers of recent months to see the type of information that is being put out into the public domain. Clearly this information could only come from the banks or someone within the banks. It is outrageous and wilful; there is no question of a mistake or of it being accidental. The Minister of State should consider it in this light because I am not familiar with similar incidents in the private banks and it does not match the manner in which they conduct their business. There has been a sea change and a change of culture in the State banks and the Minister should take control of the situation. This goes beyond the Data Protection Commissioner.

I note the helpful comments of my colleague on this issue. The House has established in law an independent regulator, whose sole function is to protect data collected by all institutions in the State, whether they are State-owned or privately owned and whether they are banks or otherwise. The independent regulator has a clear line of responsibility to deal with complaints made in the first instance. The commissioner makes an annual report setting out his recommendations to the Government. The commissioner would highlight the issues if he believed there were glitches in the legislation or new cultural practices, to which Deputy Mulherin adverted, in the State-owned banks or anywhere else.

It behoves people who have been wronged in the way Deputy Mulherin has suggested to make a complaint to the regulator in the first instance. In this case the regulator is the Data Protection Commissioner and it is his job to investigate the matter thoroughly. If he believed this was part of some new systemic culture within the State-owned banking sector I presume he would report it. I encourage Deputy Mulherin in concert with the people who have been wronged in this way to make a complaint in the first instance to the Data Protection Commissioner. He reports to the Government every year and I am confident he would report any new systemic problem if he believed it had been unearthed as a result of his investigations.

Public Procurement

I appreciate the Minister of State with responsibility for this matter being in the House to take this issue. The programme for Government states: "We will reform public procurement to become a tool to support innovative Irish firms and to allow greater access to Irish small and medium sized businesses." In a recent article in The Irish Times the Minister of State acknowledged, rightly, the concern that some small firms may be squeezed out of the public procurement market by centralised frameworks. He stated: “I am actively working with the small and medium enterprise sector to ensure that SMEs are better prepared to bid for public service contracts and barriers to their tendering are being identified and addressed.”

Several of these SMEs have approached me. In Ireland there are approximately 120 such firms involved in the provision of copiers and printers etc. to the education system. These firms have approximately 2,500 employees. They maintain they are being squeezed because of the central framework mechanism. They provided an illustration of their concerns relating to the forthcoming tender process for managed print services. The criteria adopted as part of the tender process effectively eliminated 90% of these firms from the beginning because of the requirement of a minimum average turnover in the previous three yeas of not less than €10 million. Over the years all of these groups have built up a wonderful relationship with the schools and other organisations with which they have been dealing. If we are to adopt this central framework we must ensure that this point is not overlooked.

In many cases involving the provision of printers etc. there is a maintenance service programme as well. Some service users, including principal teachers, end up ringing someone in Hong Kong to get direction on how to work a printer. Naturally, when the language breakdown arises the telephone at the far end is put down but who suffers as a result? The school and the children in the school. This is a considerable problem which must be addressed according to the groups that have approached me. I readily accept the comments of the Minister of State in the newspaper recently with regard to his overview of the sector but there is a need to act on this. The Minister of State should follow up with the small and medium sized enterprises and other individual groups and open the door of his office to allow them to present their case.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. He is right to suggest the issue of procurement falls under my responsibility. The national procurement service is part of the Office of Public Works. Since its establishment in 2009, the service has done a tremendous job to ensure that we get better procurement throughout the public sector. The truth is that far too many people are procuring in Ireland. There are too many localised arrangements and there is not enough focus on cost and efficiency. If we are to reach our 3% deficit target by 2015 it will not only involve slashing budgets and new taxes. It is also about procuring better and ensuring that we get better value for money. I am keen to ensure that as many Irish SMEs as possible win these contracts. We are at one on that point.

The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform circular 10/10, introduced by the previous Government, has done several important things. Previously, any contract of €50,000 or less was not advertised on the e-tenders portal. Now, every contract of €25,000 or less is advertised. The big problem facing Irish SMEs is that they are not all registered on the e-tenders portal. How can they bid for something unless they know about it? I wish to use the opportunity of the debate on the issue put forward by Deputy Wall to encourage the SME sector to register with us. All public procurement must go through the e-tenders portal so that we know exactly what is on offer. Circular 10/10 sought to get rid of the restrictive tendering processes through greater use of open tendering and this is very important for small Irish businesses. In the circular we asked people to be proportionate and not to be overly burdensome when it comes to insurance and turnover requirements for SMEs. It is crazy, as far as I am concerned, to say to an Irish SME that it needs a massive amount of insurance before it gets a job, and we will reform that even further.

The fourth matter is trying to subdivide much of the work so that Irish SMEs can get more of the opportunities available. This is a multi-billion euro business. Throughout the Irish public sector, in excess of €16 billion was spent last year on goods and services. It is a great opportunity for new employment.

Fifth, in Circular 10/10, we want SMEs to come together to ensure they could pitch for some of this business. Deputy Wall referred to the managed print framework contract - I apologise I am not reading from my script, which the Deputy should not mind as the speech is the important matter. Six companies were selected in that centralised procurement framework and three of those companies were Irish SMEs that won that framework. My point is that if the Irish SME sector gets its act together, realises what we need from it in terms of better tendering and ensures that it is up to speed on the requirements under Circular 10/10, there is no reason they cannot win this business.

Some 85% of contracts under public sector procurement in this country are won by Irish SMEs. I want more of them to be won by them. Despite the headlines one sometimes reads, 95% of all the money we spend in this area is retained in this country. It is my ambition - I say it unapologetically - to get more Irish SMEs winning more of this. They are already doing very well. I want them to get the biggest possible share of the market that they can get.

However, we also must drive price. We must get the best value for the Irish taxpayer. We must ensure the savings we make are all part of the national effort to balance our books and get the country's expenditure and taxes on an even keel. For too long, this issue was not taken seriously. Better public procurement, more central procurement and a much more professional focus on procurement across the system can deliver that change.

I do not doubt the sincerity of the Minister of State and his approach in this matter, but the facts, according to what I have been told, do not bear up what he stated on it. The NPS stated that some of the SMEs could submit a joint tender.

That is not a possibility. They are rivals each day of the week and it could take two to three weeks to put a tender together

I agree with the Minister of State. What I am asking is that he goes the next step to ensure the National Procurement Service enters into dialogue with the SME national organisations to give them the opportunity to take up his challenge. If the NPS continues to state that unless a SME has an income of €10 million over the past three years it is not at the races, then what the Minister of State is saying will not hold up and the SMEs in Ireland will fall by the wayside.

There is no sense in saying that it can happen if we do not underpin it to ensure that it does happen. I am asking the Minister of State, whose side I am on in the challenge we face, not to rule out our own companies because we put a mechanism in place that the previous Government thought was appropriate. That is no reason to say that we think it is appropriate. We must accept the challenge to ensure the position of SMEs. With 2,500 workers, we cannot wipe them off the slate as simple as that.

I am grateful to Deputy Wall for raising this issue. If we are to get value for the Irish taxpayer, this is a crucial debate this country needs to have.

I very much agree with Deputy Wall as well. We cannot allow any of these jobs to be lost, but the only way those jobs will be saved is by better procurement and people understanding our requirements as well. All over the country, we have been having "Meet-the-Buyer" events, which are all about us explaining to the small guy what he needs to do for us in terms of making the tendering work. I accept it is a dialogue between both sides. The SMEs are crucial in that. They are on the NPS board. They are well represented. I am conscious of their views.

Deputy Wall is correct when he refers to this lunatic requirement that one needs €10 million turnover in order to pitch for business. That is because the local procurer, who is inserting that stipulation, is not applying Circular 10/10 in a proportionate way. If I am looking for a contract for €10,000, it is madness to state that one needs to have had a €10 million turnover for the past three years. That is because the local procurer has not the confidence to do as we suggest he should be doing - altering the terms so that the Irish SMEs can win some of this business.

I very much agree with Deputy Wall. We are at one on this. It is about dialogue. It is about ensuring that we meet those concerns of the Irish SMEs and I assure the Deputy that am absolutely up for that task.

Ambulance Service

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the selection of the matter and for the opportunity to raise it.

In recent times, I have received complaints about the ambulance service in counties Louth and Meath being somewhat erratic. Whether or not that is because of some organisational difficulty, I do not know.

Pre-hospital emergency care is vital. If there is to be a dependable health service, the pre-hospital emergency care is vital to the provision of that service. The ambulance response time is critical. Where somebody is unwell and needs to get to hospital quickly, the ambulance must be available with the qualified personnel on board.

If the service is understaffed, response times will suffer accordingly and one will finish up with a diminished service as a result. The key performance indicators recommended by HIQA include appropriately trained personnel attending patients with life-threatening cardiac or respiratory arrest incidents within eight minutes in 75% of all cases.

A number of parliamentary questions have been submitted here in this House and they indicate that those targets are not being met on a regular basis. It begs questions about the position in the Louth-Meath ambulance service area. Is there an issue with staff shortages and is there a truncated ambulance service as a result? Is there sufficient paramedical staff available?

Is there sufficient staff available where staff, for one reason or another, are not in a position to come to work? If that is the issue, what is the plan of the HSE and, from now, the Department of Health? This is a vital service. The emergency hospital need can arise unexpectedly for anybody right across the country.

It is fine to reform the health service, building the structures of the hospitals and the reconfiguration of the services within the hospitals, but the vital linkage is the ambulance service and the response time in that regard is equally important. I look forward to hearing what the Minister of State has to say on the matter.

On behalf of the Minister for Health who, unfortunately, is unable to take this important issue, I thank Deputy Kirk for allowing me to address it. I very much agree with Deputy Kirk, who has correctly highlighted the importance of having an ambulance service in place, not only in the north east but throughout the country, which is reliable and fit for purpose in terms of the requirements of a modern Irish health service.

The national ambulance service, NAS, operates nine ambulance stations across the north-east region. These provide emergency response services which include telephone assistance, assessment, treatment and stabilisation at the scene of an incident, and ongoing treatment during transport to the nearest appropriate medical facility.

Emergency service staffing includes trained control and dispatch staff and highly qualified paramedics and advanced paramedics. An emergency ambulance crew consists of two clinical staff, who will be paramedics, advanced paramedics or a combination of these, depending on the nature of the call out, availability and rostering. In addition to the regional resources of the NAS, a memorandum of understanding is in place with the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service. This provides for operational day-to-day co-operation and resource sharing in responding to 999 emergency calls on both sides of the Border.

The emergency ambulance service provided by the NAS is not a static one. The NAS deploys its resources in a dynamic manner, which means ambulance services are provided on an area and regional basis, as opposed to a local basis. Ambulances and paramedic staff are no longer restricted to particular locations, stations or areas, as was the case under the old health board service arrangement. Resources are also deployed across the area according to predictive analysis, so they are not necessarily in a station but where activity patterns indicate they are most likely to be required during a shift. Accordingly, the emergency resources for a particular location include all available vehicles and personnel within the wider area.

The dynamic deployment of emergency resources ensures the nearest appropriate resource is mobilised to the location of any incident. In the north-east area, this is achieved by the dynamic dispatch of resources from surrounding stations in the first instance. In Drogheda, for example, the emergency resource immediately available for deployment in response to a 999 call includes all the surrounding stations.

In responding to 999 calls, ambulance dispatchers prioritise resources according to clinical status. All life-threatening conditions - cardiac, respiratory and other - receive first priority and the closest appropriate resource will be dispatched to these incidents. The Deputy will appreciate what this means, namely, on occasion, an ambulance responding to a lower priority call will be diverted en route to respond to a clinically more urgent incident. However, all efforts are made to then secure resources in the wider area to respond to the lower priority call.

The Deputy will note that approximately 60% of all 999 calls made to the NAS are neither life threatening nor potentially life threatening. Approximately 10% of all 999 calls to the NAS are inappropriate for an emergency ambulance. These statistics are consistent with international experience and evidence.

While I do not say this very often, I am particularly disappointed with the response. The script the Minister of State has read could be used in response to any query about an ambulance service anywhere across the country. The query I submitted was specific and referred to serious concerns about the rostering and manpower in the ambulance service in the north east. I wish that those who prepared the response would address the particular points that are being raised because they are raised for very good and genuine reasons. Concern does prevail about the matter. I am not blaming the Minister of State and I admire his versatility in taking responsibility for a number of responses today. However, the situation is very unsatisfactory. I ask the Minister of State to go back to the Department of Health and ask it to re-examine the matter. I would appreciate it if the Department would come back to me with a more detailed and specific response to the query I raised.

The Deputy has a very high standing in this House and has considerable experience on both sides of the House. He has rightly highlighted the issue of the lack of detail in the reply, and I agree with him on that. I have at my disposal a more detailed briefing note which I intend to hand to him at the end of this debate and which sets out the issues in Drogheda and the region. If there are specific issues around that, he might dialogue with the Minister for Health on them, which I hope will answer his questions more fully.

School Transport

I am glad the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, is present because, this time last year, he attended a meeting in the Listowel Arms Hotel hosted by the Minister, Deputy Deenihan. There were 500 or 600 people present that night and their anger as a consequence of the post-primary school transport system in the north Kerry area was evident. I can tell the Minister of State it is an awful lot worse now than it was then. Those of us who were public representatives were able to work with Bus Éireann in a constructive way to facilitate the requirements of many of those who had concerns at that time.

I want to bring the current situation to the Minister of State's attention. There is currently a 53-seat and a 49-seat bus service operating in Ardfert, Ballyheigue and Abbeydorney and servicing the Causeway Comprehensive School. That service is operating at capacity and, while an extra 18 people from the Ardfert-Abbeydorney area need transport to the school for the coming year, there are no seats available for them. This situation is replicated in the Ashdee, Tarbert and Ballybunion areas, and Kilflynn and every other village throughout north Kerry is experiencing similar circumstances.

Students from Ardfert and Abbeydorney are consistently unable to gain entry to the nearest school, which is in Tralee, because the school admission policy favours students from the local feeder schools in Tralee, whose capacity is ever-increasing. Yet, the Causeway area would be a feeder area for Ardfert, Ballyheigue, Abbeydorney and other villages. The outcome of all of this is that, in one area, there are 18 students who have no seat and cannot get on the bus, whereas their brothers and sisters are currently using that bus to travel to Causeway Comprehensive School. There is a similar situation in Ashdee, where nine students want to get on the bus but there are only three seats available, although they have brothers and sisters travelling to Tarbert or Ballybunion. As they cannot get on the bus, they are compelled to try to get into schools in towns such as Listowel or Tralee.

Something needs to be done. I have met Bus Éireann representatives and will meet them again on Monday. It is an injustice to divide families when the parents went to these schools previously and when brothers and sisters must go to a different school. It is ridiculous. I hope the Minister of State will give this consideration and that he will be able to find a way to resolve the matter.

While I acknowledge savings have to be made in regard to school transport, the implementation on the ground of some of the changes is madness. Children starting primary school and requiring transport must now go to what is the nearest school but, in many cases, problems are being caused due to distance rules which might involve just 100 m. What savings can be made from 100 m? As Deputy Ferris said, families are being split up, with members of the one family being forced to go to different schools.

I know the Minister of State is very aware of this and is making efforts to get it sorted out. However, the situation will come to a head in August and September. There are several examples in Mayo. In Kilkelly, some 200 m in the difference means a bus goes to one school but no bus goes to the other school, to which first year students are being asked to go. It is not as if there is a choice between the two because a tradition has built up in one direction. In Knock, the bus passes the door of a child who is being denied access to it, again because of this distance rule. In Ballyboy, a tradition that has built up over 40 years has been broken. Where pupils are now in a different diocese, they will be forced to travel in a different direction from their natural shopping hinterland, sporting clubs and so on. The same happens between Baal and Ballinrobe where the distance involved is 100 m.

If this goes ahead next September one member of a family will be collected at 8.10 a.m. and dropped off at 4.10 p.m. as is the case at present but their young sister will be picked up at 7.30 a.m. and dropped off at 4.30 p.m. When this works through the system it will have major implications for schools that received investment for new and additional buildings in recent years. There is no way that savings can be made from some of these decisions that are due to be implemented.

I thank both Deputies for raising this matter. As they are both aware, school transport is a very significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on the Department's behalf and covering over 82 million km annually. Approximately 113,000 children, including more than 8,000 children with special needs, are transported in approximately 4,000 vehicles on a daily basis to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country.

The Deputies are referring to the changes regarding school transport eligibility for children attending post-primary schools, which take effect from the beginning of the next school year. At the outset I want to explain that the main objective of the Department's school transport scheme is to support the safe transport to and from school of children who would have difficulty travelling, for reasons of distance, to their nearest school if transport is not supported.

The current system for determining eligibility for school transport at post-primary level has been in place for over 40 years. In 1966, when the Government announced the introduction of free post-primary education, the country was divided for planning purposes into geographic districts which we have now come to know as catchment areas, each with several primary schools feeding into a post-primary centre with one or more post-primary schools.

Post-primary pupils are eligible for transport if they reside 4.8 km or more from their local post-primary education centre, that is, the centre serving the catchment area in which they live. The definition of school transport catchment boundaries has been the cause of many submissions and representations to the Department over the years. It is widely considered by many that the current catchment boundary areas do not reflect changed demographics.

Changes in the post primary school transport scheme were announced in budget 2011. One of the changes which will take effect from this September means that the use of the catchment area system as a means of determining eligibility will cease for all pupils newly entering a post-primary school. From this date, school transport eligibility for all new pupils entering a post-primary school will be determined by reference to the distance they reside from their nearest post-primary education centre having regard to ethos and language. This eligibility criterion will be applied equitably on a national basis.

In general, existing eligible children, including those who are not attending their nearest post-primary centre and who meet the distance criterion of 4.8 km, will retain their transport eligibility for the duration of their post-primary education cycle provided there is no change to their current circumstances. Siblings of these children and other children who are not attending their nearest school may apply for school transport on a concessionary basis only in accordance with the terms of the post primary school transport scheme.

Regarding the planning of school infrastructure, the general approach of the Department is to plan on the basis of pupils attending at their nearest primary schools and that those primary schools then feed into attendance at the nearest post-primary schools or the nearest post-primary centre generally. The changes announced in post-primary school transport services are in line with this approach and ultimately will result in a more efficient and cost effective scheme.

While it is the prerogative of parents to send their children to the school of their choice, eligibility for school transport is to the nearest school, having regard for ethos and language.

The Minister spoke about a feeder system but there is very little difference in the distance between Ardfert and Abbeydorney, for example, and Causeway Comprehensive School. It is almost impossible to get into some of the post-primary schools in Tralee yet there is ample room in Causeway. It is difficult to comprehend that in so far as people are being forced to go to a school that is bursting at the seams, yet the school of their choice, which their brothers and sisters might attend, does not qualify for primary school transport. There are 18 people in one area waiting to get into Causeway and there is a 53 seat bus coming from that area to the Tralee school that is not full. Some imagination is needed in that respect. Changing the size of the bus could make a huge difference but that requires political will, and I do not see that.

Would the Minister accept that there will be implications for the schools and numbers in future years? This is being done to achieve savings but over the years Bus Éireann's accounts have shown that it is costing more to transport fewer children. The cost in 2009 was €1,266 per student. In 2010 it cost €1,392 per student and in 2011 the cost was €1,526 per student. There has been a 20% drop in the number of students availing of Bus Éireann transport but the cost has increased. I cannot understand these changes. Families are being split up and the students' sense of place in terms of where they have always gone is being discommoded. This change will not turn around the transport costs. It does not make sense.

I want to emphasise that in order to allow parents ample time to consider all their school options a 20 month gap was allowed between the announcement of this measure and the time when parents needed to apply for school transport for the coming school year. Those changes were posted on the Department's website in October 2011 and the updated scheme was made available on 1 February this year. I should add that the Department contacted post-primary schools directly on two occasions in addition to the relevant education partners formally advising them of the changes.

Even in times of plenty one could never argue an economic case for transporting children other than to the school that is nearest to where they live. Deputy Ferris may say that parents wish for their children to attend the school of their choice - all of us as parents wish that - but it is not possible, and never would be possible, to facilitate that choice by providing transport to the school of choice for every child in the country.

The transport scheme is available to underpin the school system, particularly across rural Ireland, but it was not designed to bring every child to the school of their choice. That is not what the system was about.

Deputy Ferris pointed out that when we have the radii of two schools intermeshing with one another, situations will arise where a child who lives in one location is not entitled to transport to a particular centre while a child who lives 100 metres away is entitled to transport. That will happen everywhere where those two radii meet.

Deputy O'Mahony stated that there may be additional costs associated with perhaps providing new classrooms. Research carried out by Bus Éireann would indicate that 95% of pupils are already attending their nearest centre and therefore it is unlikely to result in significant capital costs involved in building new classrooms. Second, if it is, that would be a once-off capital cost associated with that development whereas the savings accruing from a more efficient and cost effective school transport system will accrue to us year after year.

On the Deputy's comment about the cost of school transport, he is correct in pointing out that the cost per pupil has risen exponentially in recent years but that is because it includes 8,000 children with special needs who, because of their special needs and the special transport that needs to be provided for them, incur a far greater cost. Some 8,000 children with special needs are being transported every day whereas a very short time ago very little of that was happening. During the transitionary phase and while we allow the current cohort of students to work their way through the system, some anomalous situations will occur. That is unavoidable, but it is a transitionary phase and, once complete, we will have a more efficient and cost-effective school transport system in place that will be fair, equitable and will be applied equitably throughout the country.