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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Vol. 951 No. 3

Topical Issue Debate

Pensions Reform

I have come across numerous cases in my clinic of retired or retiring people who have been adversely affected by the anomaly in how entitlement to the State pension contributory is calculated. I have been presented with a number of situations where individuals, mainly women who have raised their families, are being penalised for having paid a small handful of PRSI payments during what effectively amounts to a previous working life. Having spent a great portion of their lives providing a socially vital service, these women are now being doubly penalised. Not only have they secured no private pension entitlements for this period of their lives but they are now being denied a full State pension. This clearly must change and requires immediate action.

Consideration should be given to amending the calculation method for contributory pensions. The system already disregards time spent working in the home since April 1994 for the purposes of calculating yearly average contributions. We should explore the feasibility of backdating this further. Similarly, consideration should be given to allowing actual past payments to be disregarded, thereby altering the date at which the individual is considered to have entered the permanent workforce. Consideration should be given to allow individuals to disregard up to 200 pre-1994 A1 PRSI payments for the purpose of calculating their date of entry into the workforce.

I will give two examples from my constituency. A lady spent most of her married life working in the home. She entered the workforce for the first time in 2005, aged 56. She qualified for a full State pension in 2015, as she had paid an average of more than 48 weeks of PRSI contributions over ten years.

Another similar lady entered the workforce at the age of 46 in 1995. She paid an average of more than 48 weeks of PRSI contributions over 20 years. However, this lady also worked briefly in the late 1970s, before getting married and staying at home to raise her family. As a result, the Department of Social Protection averages her contributions over 37 years, rather than 20. This reduces the pension to which she is entitled and creates a great inequality in the system.

Despite the fact that the second lady has paid more than twice as many PRSI contributions as the first, she will have her pension greatly reduced while the first lady will be entitled to the full State pension contributory.

Expenditure on pensions, at approximately €7.3 billion, is the largest block of expenditure in my Department, representing 37% of its expenditure. Demographic change, such as longer life expectancy which is welcome of course, alone increases this by €220 million every year. Maintaining the rate of the State pension and its value is critical to protecting older people from poverty. Poverty rates in Ireland for older people at about 2% are among the lowest in the world.

The State pensions system comprises a number of schemes, based on criteria such as contributions paid, income need and other factors. These ensure that people have an adequate standard of living in old age.

The State pension contributory is one such scheme and its rate of payment is related to contributions made over the years into the Social Insurance Fund, which fund the scheme on a pay-as-you-go basis. As such, those who have paid more into that fund are more likely to be paid more under that scheme. The independent actuarial review of the fund in 2012 confirmed that the fund provides better value to female rather than male contributors on average, due to the redistributive nature of the fund.

Entitlement to the contributory pension is calculated by means of a yearly average calculation, where the total contributions paid or credited are divided by the duration in years of the working life. Payment rates are banded. For example, someone with a yearly average of 52 weekly contributions will qualify for a full pension, whereas someone with a yearly average of 20 may qualify at the 85% rate.

The homemaker's scheme makes qualification for State pension contributory easier for those who take time out of the workforce for caring duties. The scheme, which was introduced in 1994, allows gaps of up to 20 years, spent caring for children under 12 years of age or incapacitated people, to be disregarded when a person's social insurance record is being averaged for pension purposes. Homemakers still need to fulfil the eligibility requirements for that scheme, and have paid at least 220 weekly contributions. The scheme is not retrospective, and backdating it in respect of periods before its introduction in 1994 would cost an estimated €290 million every year.

A person who does not qualify for a full-rate contributory pension may qualify for a means-tested non-contributory pension, amounting to 95% of the maximum contributory rate. For example, a person with a yearly average of 20 qualifies for a reduced rate state pension contributory of €202.80. However, unless their means are over €52.50 per week, or €105 for a married couple, they may instead be paid a non-contributory pension of at least €204.50, which would bring their total personal means, including their pension, to over €257 per week.

Their household means test ignores their spouse's State pension, the capital value of their home and has generous income and capital asset disregards where applicable. This €257 does not include rent allowance, household benefits or fuel allowance.

Alternatively, if their spouse is a State pensioner and they have significant household means, their most beneficial payment may be an increase for a qualified adult, IQA, based on their personal means, which amounts up to 90% of a full contributory pension. Work is under way to replace the yearly average system with a total-contributions approach. Under this approach, the rate of pension paid will more closely reflect the total number of contributions made by people, not when they paid them.

The position of homemakers is being carefully considered in developing this new system of calculating the contributory State pension.

It is expected that this approach to pension qualification will replace the current one from 2020. Following completion of the actuarial review of the Social Insurance Fund later this year, a refined proposal will be developed. My Department will conduct a period of consultation with relevant stakeholders, including interest groups, representative bodies and the Oireachtas. Following the consultation period, I will submit a proposal to Government seeking approval for the new approach.

The homemaker's scheme, which was introduced by Fianna Fáil in 1994, makes qualification for the contributory State pension easier for those who have taken time out of the workforce for caring duties. It allows up to 20 years spent caring for children under 12 years of age to be disregarded when a person's social insurance record is being averaged for pension purposes. However, a problem arises for people who took time out of the workforce prior to 1994, as the number of years over which contributions are averaged is greater, reducing the average number of weeks worked and greatly reducing their entitlement.

The Minister has said a lot and I am sure his experience in his clinics concurs with mine that women in particular are vulnerable in this situation. They seem to be the ones most affected by this inequity within the pensions system. The Minister referred to means-testing pensions, but that will not solve the problem as many women and men fall through the net in terms of qualifying and being entitled to the contributory State pension. I am pleased to hear measures are being taken at the moment to re-evaluate the situation, but I appeal to the Minister to take cognisance of this blatant inequality in the contributory State pension as so many women are losing out because of the anomaly and action is needed to bring equity for men and women who have given so much to society.

I understand and am sympathetic to the case the Deputy is making. The homemaker's scheme was introduced by Fianna Fáil in 1994 and Fianna Fáil decided not to backdate it. The reason the Minister of the day, Michael Woods, decided not to backdate it was because of the very high cost of doing so. We estimate that the cost of doing so now would be approximately €290 million a year. When budget time comes around and one is Minister of Social Protection one must decide how best one is going to use additional resources and whether one targets them, as I sought to do, at those who need them the most, namely, the poorest in society, which is the reason I put the resources into jobseeker's benefit, the one-parent family payment, the widow's pension, the blind pension, the carer's allowance and disability allowance or whether one gives those resources instead to people who do not qualify for a means-tested payment at all, who are generally people who are a bit better off. That is the dilemma that faces any Minister at budget time. Of course one would like to do both but if one has to choose I hope one would tend to choose those means-tested payments paid to those who are the poorest in society.

The future is the new total contributions approach. I listened to the example the Deputy gave and it is anomalous to me that people who pay in more contributions get a lesser pension just because they paid them at the wrong time or over a longer period. We have worked out from our initial calculations that to do anything that is budget neutral, one would need to be making about 35 years of contributions to get a full pension. That is pretty normal. That is the case for people in employment and for public servants. However, in doing so, one could also give rise to many people ending up much worse off. Any change to the rules, as always, produces winners and losers unless one puts a lot of extra money into the system. What I intend to do is present a set of options on costings to the committee and consult it on how we go forward.

Road Projects

I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for facilitating discussion of this issue and for being understanding last week as well in postponing it until this week due to the death of Deputy O'Keeffe's mother.

There is significant concern about this motorway, which has been long flagged. It is a connection between the west and the rest of the motorway network. There has been much talk about it and many plans have been drawn up in regard to it. The main point we wish to make is one Deputy O'Keeffe and I raised a few weeks ago on Leaders' Questions, namely, the suggested rerouting of the motorway up to Cahir and not going through north Cork, which leaves places such as north Cork, Charleville, Buttevant, Mallow, west Limerick and north Kerry completely out of the loop. I do not know who came up with that idea, whether it was someone within the National Transport Authority or the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, but it is ludicrous to allow the area to be without connectivity.

There is significant concern in the Limerick and mid-west area about maintaining and enhancing the competitiveness of the region. Unfortunately, we have seen a two-tier economy develop in this country - Dublin and the greater Dublin area versus the regions. We must work on competitiveness. One of the key pillars in this regard which is missing in the mid-west region is the M20 motorway between Limerick and Cork, the second and third largest cities in the country. The urgency cannot be lost on the Minister, his Department and Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII. It is a source of considerable concern that a proposed route has been circulating from an unknown source that the proposed route is due to go via east Limerick on to Mitchelstown and connect onto the main Dublin to Cork motorway. That would significantly disadvantage west Limerick, north Cork, north Kerry and impact on the competitiveness of the region. That is not a runner. With that in mind I want the Minister to focus seriously on delivering the route which was originally planned, namely, the direct route from Limerick through Charleville, Mallow and on to Cork.

I welcome the Minister to the House. From the Deputies present he can see this is a regional issue not just a localised one. I could just talk about the need for Mallow to have a bypass but we have progressed beyond that. As Deputies Niall Collins and Michael Moynihan stated, the motorway is necessary for the economic development of the south west. The only benefit in terms of infrastructural progress the Minister gave to the south west in budget 2017 was the upgrade of the motorway at Naas to get the traffic down to us quicker, but he forgot to provide any traffic infrastructure in the south west. It is important the M20 motorway is progressed.

The reason we have raised the matter with the Minister today is because there is talk, which nobody seems to discourage, that the Department is perhaps using delaying tactics by putting information into the media to the effect that the motorway will go from Cork to Cahir and connect with the proposed M24, Cahir to Limerick road. From economic and time perspectives the proposal is a non-runner. As the crow flies Cork to Limerick is approximately 86 km. Cork to Limerick via Cahir in County Tipperary is 121 km. Why would we add mileage to the journey when motorways are built to help people get from A to B in a quicker time?

I thank all three Deputies for raising this very important issue. I am familiar with the arguments they make. They will be aware that I have heard about the issue from many other Deputies but nearly always from the Cork point of view, so it is refreshing to hear the view from Limerick presented by Deputy Collins. I take all their points of view seriously and I hope to be able to address them now.

I have responsibility for overall policy and funding in relation to the national roads programme. The planning, design and implementation of individual national road projects is a matter for Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, under the Roads Acts 1993-2015 in conjunction with the local authorities concerned. Within its capital budget, the assessment and prioritisation of individual projects is a matter in the first instance for TIl in accordance with section 19 of the Roads Act.

Ireland has just under 100,000 km of road in its network and the maintenance and improvement of national, regional and local roads places a substantial financial burden on local authorities and on the Exchequer. Given the national financial position, there have been very large reductions in Exchequer funding available for roads expenditure in recent years. For that reason the focus has had to be on maintenance and renewal rather than major new improvement schemes. The proposed upgrade of the N20 was one of a range of proposed road development projects which had to be deferred.

The capital plan published in September 2015 outlined proposed transport investment priorities to 2022. The transport element of the plan was framed by the conclusions reached in my Department’s strategic investment framework for land transport. This report highlighted the importance of maintenance and renewal of transport infrastructure together with targeted investments to address particular bottlenecks and critical safety issues. The capital plan provides €6 billion for investment in the roads network in the period to 2022, with €4.4 billion earmarked for the maintenance and strengthening of the existing extensive network throughout the State and €1.6 billion for new projects.

Allowing for the commitments relating to public private partnership, PPP, projects, the balance available for new projects within the available capital envelope was limited. Given the funding constraints, a project of the scale of the M20 would have absorbed a substantial proportion of the budget for new projects. In those circumstances, as I understand it, the decision made by my predecessor was to provide for a mix of smaller-scale projects throughout the country to address particular constraints, including bottlenecks and port connectivity.

While it will not be possible to address all the demands for schemes over the capital plan period, the plan does provide for the gradual build-up in capital funding for the road network towards the levels needed to support maintenance and improvement works. In this context a number of important projects in Cork are included in the plan, including the upgrade of the Dunkettle roundabout and the N22 road between Ballyvourney and Macroom. In addition, the plan also provides that the N28 upgrade scheme will also commence subject to necessary approvals.

We are all aware that the recovery of the economy is generating spending pressures across the Government system, including capital investment needs. I am conscious of the potential regional development benefits of an upgrade of the Cork to Limerick link, and in this regard I agreed to TIl spending €1 million to undertake some early activity surveys and studies.

The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is progressing the review of the plan and my Department has made a submission putting forward a strong case for additional funding. The submission includes a request for funding for the development of a pipeline of road projects and I expect further planning work on the M20 to be considered in this context. Final decisions on the allocation of additional funding under the capital plan review are a matter for the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Government as a whole. I will review the scope for advancing the project further once the capital plan review is completed.

I understand the Deputies' frustrations. It is coming to me loud and clear that something ought to be done in this area. The size of the project is pretty forbidding in the current circumstances, but I would not rule out creative or imaginative suggestions in this regard.

The question we need clarified today is about the priority being given to the project to move it on and to rule out the notion being given by the National Transport Authority or by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport that there is a proposed rerouting of this road up to Cahir and on a longer distance, as Deputy O'Keeffe has pointed out. We want to be very clear, and perhaps the Minister will clarify it in this Topical Issue debate, that it is not a runner and the proposed M20, the road between Cork and Limerick, will go right through Charleville, Buttevant, Mallow and right through Cork to open up the complete south west. The Minister needs to clarify this matter to dismiss any rumours and leaks coming out from the National Transport Authority or the Department of Transport., Tourism and Sport.

It is vital for the people of Limerick to know that when the road is built, it will have the shortest possible route, time and journey between the two locations, which is through Limerick, Charleville, Mallow and directly to Cork. The Minister would need to be pretty firm on that for us. The Minister referred to the size of the project. We recognise that it is going to be a very big project but there is no reason it cannot be broken down into phases at least to get it started. The Minister also spoke of the mid-term review of the capital programme. It is worth noting that many people made submissions, myself included on behalf of Fianna Fáil, for the mid-west. I will outline the submission briefly. The proposed M20 motorway was the first item we prioritised. We also included the proposed Limerick to Foynes motorway, the new 96-bed unit in the University Hospital Limerick in Dooradoyle, the relocation of the maternity hospital from the Ennis Road campus to the Dooradoyle campus-----

-----the construction of the 90-bed block in St. John's Hospital, the construction of two new schools in Mungret and in Croom, and the upgrading of the junctions at Beary's Cross on the N24 and also on the N20 at O'Rourke's Cross.

Deputy O'Keeffe wants to come in here.

This is vital for infrastructure in Limerick.

Yet again we are none the wiser with the Minister's answers. I asked Question No. 1376 more than ten Dáil working days ago. I have also yet to see a reply from Transport Infrastructure Ireland. We hope it will announce the decision being mooted out there that the route will continue to Cork and Limerick via Mallow and Charleville.

I will give the Minister a little history lesson. In 2008, the public consultation document identified the route from Cork to Limerick. I understand the situation was that we lost funding. In November 2011, our Cork and Limerick county managers were informed that proposed works and the agreed route that was designed to go to construction was postponed because of a lack of funding. I accept that but-----

-----on the same day, however, the then Minister, Deputy Varadkar, made an announcement to suspend public spending. He made a statement, “Given that we already have a large number of ‘shovel-ready’ projects which have been suspended until after 2016, there is little point in spending more money on planning new projects.” This project, however, had been agreed. It was shovel-ready and ready to go. I ask the Minister to do something about it, please.

I am sorry to cut across Deputies but the Topical Issue debate is for four different categories and four groups of Deputies. I would appreciate if Members would co-operate with me in this regard.

I take on board the Deputies' opinions on the alternative route but I cannot comment on things that are in any way leaked and unsubstantiated. Our ambition is to do what is absolutely the best for the area and the people. As I have already emphasised, the problem is the scale and the size. I take Deputy Collins's suggestion of building in stages as a constructive suggestion. The problem is that in building it now and spending the funds, it would use up virtually the entire capital allocation for the area. That cannot be done, I am afraid, and that is the truth. I would not rule out creative solutions in this case. When I speak of creative solutions, people get alarmed and they think there is going to be rerouting or a change of method. Do not ask me to comment on particular leaks but I will say that this project is still alive and it is intended to keep it alive, despite its size and its expense. Deputies Collins, Moynihan and O'Keeffe, among others, are keeping it alive. My Department is looking at ways of advancing it. There has been significant local pressure, we have found, at least to restart planning work on the M20 since the capital plan. The Department is conscious of the potential regional redevelopment benefits of an upgraded Cork to Limerick link, and the former Minister agreed to the spending of €1 million by TII to undertake some early activity surveys. This sends out the signal that this project is not being buried and is being kept very much alive. The scope for progressing the project further will be reviewed once the capital plan review is completed.

I thank the Minister and Deputies. It is not often easy when there are several Deputies speaking on one issue. I appreciate their co-operation.

Schools Property

I welcome pupils, teachers and parents from Clonkeen College, Dún Laoghaire, who are in the Gallery. A couple of weeks ago at the beginning of May, they were utterly shocked to discover that the school patrons, the Christian Brothers, planned to sell the school playing fields. These 8.5 acres of grass playing pitches adjoin the school and have been used by the school for many years for sport and outdoor activities. The school found that the lands were to be sold to a property developer for private development.

This is a non-fee paying school that draws its pupils from all over the Dún Laoghaire area. The fields are used by the pupils and a host of local community football clubs, GAA clubs and others. These fields are to be taken from the school, thereby substantially degrading the facilities available to it. The Department of Education and Skills invested €10 million on the refurbishment of the school and the management there spent more than €650,000 on draining and fencing off the fields. Approximately €300,000 of the latter was funding paid to the school by the Department. All of that investment is to be lost. A moderate special needs unit built adjacent to the hard court area will have to be relocated and this will impact on the special needs students in the school. It is outrageous. The Christian Brothers are justifying this sale on the grounds that they owe €10 million to the redress board. There is no doubt but that the Christian Brothers should pay their outstanding debt to the redress board in respect of the abuse they were guilty of visiting upon a previous generation of young people. However, it would be a supreme irony and an absolute outrage if the current and future generations of young people are to be made pay for the crimes of the Christian Brothers against previous generations. That would compound one crime against young people with a further crime against them.

I and, more importantly, the parents, the local community, the teachers and the pupils are asking the Minister to intervene urgently before this sale proceeds and they have a number of questions for the Minister. Does the Minister believe it is acceptable for the Christian Brothers to sacrifice and degrade school facilities at the expense of school students? That a patron body of a school is attacking its students and facilities is scandalous. When the Christian Brothers presented the plan - which, clearly, was hatched some time ago - to the school earlier this week, they said that the Minister knew about it. I hope that is not true. Did the Minister know about it and is he aware that the Christian Brothers promised in 2008 that those lands would be given under licence to the school for as long as it is in existence? They had an agreement with the school. Is the Minister aware of that agreement and does he believe it is acceptable that it is being torn up?

The school's students have been betrayed by the Christian Brothers. We are hoping that the Minister will intervene to prevent this sale going ahead and to protect the facilities at the school.

I thank Deputy Boyd Barrett for raising this important issue, which has given rise to some considerable concern. It is important to note that the decision to dispose of land owned by the Congregation of Christian Brothers is a matter for the congregation. It is not a matter over which I have direct control.

In early May, the congregation wrote to me on the wider issue of the transfer of ownership of its playing fields to the Edmund Rice Schools Trust, ERST. Proposals in respect of its playing fields had been made to the Government in 2009 and counter-proposals were made which were not accepted by the congregation or ERST, to which the playing fields are currently licensed. The congregation has indicated its willingness to engage further with my Department on how such a transfer would be reckoned as a redress contribution. That recent correspondence also noted the proposal to dispose of part of the lands at Clonkeen College, a secondary school under the patronage of ERST, and it states that contracts have already been signed with a builder. The congregation’s letter states that its intention is to use part of the proceeds of the disposal to meet its outstanding contribution of €8.8 million relating to the voluntary offer it made in 2009 in response to the findings of the Ryan report. The congregation also advised me that it will have provided the college with 6.5 acres, inclusive of the school, and lands transferred in 2008 and the additional 3.5 acres of playing grounds now transferring.

My Department will be writing to the congregation on the matter of the Clonkeen lands, seeking clarification on a number of points, including whether the land in question is now the subject of a legally binding agreement with a builder. There is a role for the school patron, the ERST, to ensure that the current and potential future educational needs of the school, including the capacity of the school to meet future enrolment demands, are prioritised. I am not privy to the deliberations or the debates within the congregation on why these particular lands were selected for disposal. As I noted, the congregation has an outstanding redress contribution of €8.8 million. Completion of this contribution at an early date is vital because it will ensure that Caranua, the Residential Institutions Statutory Fund, will have available to it the full €110 million in cash contributions offered by the religious congregations. I appreciate that the Christian Brothers wish to follow through on their commitments, having already paid €21.2 million of their voluntary cash offer. It would, however, also be very disappointing if the educational needs of the current and future generations of children were compromised in achieving this goal. I would hope that the congregation takes this fully into account during its deliberations.

I welcome the Minister's final comment but, to be honest, we need a little more because that is exactly what is happening. The educational needs of current and future generations of pupils at Clonkeen College, which affects a huge catchment area right across the Dún Laoghaire area, are about to be fundamentally compromised if this deal goes through. As I said, if this sale goes ahead money invested in the school by the Department, public money, will go down the drain. That is unacceptable. A solemn promise that was made by the Christian Brothers to the school in 2008 is being breached. That is also not acceptable.

If, as the Minister said, the current and future needs of pupils should not be comprised by the need and requirement of the Christian Brothers to pay for the redress scheme, which they absolutely should do, then he needs to intervene urgently to stop the sale going ahead. We understand the sale has not concluded. The school agreed a number of years ago - and was happy to do so - to the sale of the ERST building which adjoins the school, plus an acre of adjoining land. Is it acceptable that one school of 95 should take the full hit for the outstanding debt of the Christian Brothers to the redress scheme in terms of the loss of all of their playing fields? The school will not have a GAA pitch or any of the other playing facilities it had. It is not fair. This will impact on local clubs, including Cabinteely Football Club, Park Celtic, Bray Wanderers, Cuala, Kilmacud Crokes and others who use those fields. This is an assault on the playing facilities of students and the entire community.

I ask that the Minister intervene to prevent this happening and, if necessary, to have the lands and the school transferred to the State. Clearly, on the basis on this sale, the Christian Brothers cannot be trusted with the protection of the educational needs and facilities of their own students. To my mind, this means that the Minister needs to take this school and the lands back into public ownership and secure these playing fields and the future of the school for current students and future generations.

In the first instance, the ERST is the patron. It must be satisfied that it is making adequate provision for the school and its future needs. As I said, that is the responsibility of the patron and it will have to satisfy itself in its discussions with the congregation that it can do that. Neither I nor my Department are party to an agreement made in 2008. I am not aware of the agreement to which the Deputy refers and, as such, that is a matter on which I cannot comment. As already stated, I will write to the Christian Brothers to seek clarification on a number of points, including to what extent the contracts referred to in the letter I received are legally binding.

The Deputy asked about the status of lands owned by the Christian Brothers and their relationship to the State. He suggests that I have the power to force the transfer of lands to the State but that is not the case. The agreement by the orders after the Ryan report was voluntary in nature and the State did not have the power to compel the transfer of any particular lands. Selling lands is a matter for the congregations involved. I do not have the power to which the Deputy refers.

The issue of playing fields has been opened up again and the Committee of Public Accounts and Comptroller and Auditor General commented adversely on the way they had been withdrawn from an original proposal. The order has written to me indicating that it is open to considering an agreement that had been suggested by a previous Minister for Education, Ruairí Quinn. That will have to be examined in due course.

School Accommodation Provision

I understand Deputy Ó Laoghaire will give way to his constituency colleague, Deputy Michael McGrath, after three minutes.

The southern part of metropolitan Cork has experienced significant growth in population. Thar timpeall ar an Dúglas agus i mBaile an Róistigh tá an pobal thart ar 25,000 duine agus i gCarraigh Uí Leighin tá an pobal tar éis méadú ó 12,000 go 16,000 ó bhí 2006 ann. Consequently, and rightly, new schools have been planned for these areas, which I welcome. However, three schools face significant difficulties due to the arrangements made or, more specifically, not made. First, I will touch on the challenges facing Gaelcholáiste and Gaelscoil Carrig Uí Leighin. The school was opened in temporary accommodation in September 2015 following a lengthy campaign by parents. A site was secured in 2010 with a view to accommodating the Gaelcholáiste, a new site for the Gaelscoil and a special school. An Irish Examiner article from 2015 states that the Department expected the building to be ready by September 2016 but not a block has been laid. The Department is currently saying that it will be ready for December 2019, nine years on from purchase of the site. The process has been deeply frustrating for all involved, the cost appears to have increased and the timescales keep moving, causing serious difficulties.

The Gaelscoil expanded to three streams on the strength of a belief that the campus would be available and there are now 600 children on the site of a building initially developed for 200. The situation is farcical and very unfair on the schools involved and it will present a health and safety issue for the Gaelscoil. A permanent home has been identified for the Educate Together secondary school but the school is currently a tenant at Nagle community school. An interim building was to be developed in the vicinity for September 2017 but it has since become clear that there was not the necessary time to construct a temporary building. The school is soon to close for the year. It is operating out of two classrooms so can the Minister assure the school that, in the interim, adequate space will exist in Nagle community school for Educate Together to function adequately? Can the Minister give a timeline for the delivery of quality temporary accommodation for the Educate Together secondary school?

I thank Deputy Ó Laoghaire for giving me some time on this important issue. We are looking clarity on the campus development at Ballinrea, Carrigaline. I received a reply to a parliamentary question on 11 May which was very non-committal and evasive. I sought a timeframe for the development of the school, details of when it would go to tender and construction and when it would be occupied. I also sought an assurance that the capital funding was in place.

The campus is to have three schools and the current Gaelscoil in Carrigaline is bursting at the seams having become a three-stream school on the encouragement of the Department. The Gaelcholáiste is a new school and parents who are considering their child there want certainty that the new school building in Ballinrea will be ready in the near future. The Sonas special junior school for children on the autism spectrum has expanded across two sites in Carrigaline, which is far from ideal. Is the Department fully committed to this project and when is it going to go ahead to tender and construction? A reply from the Minister last November indicated that the Department was considering a fee schedule from the design team but a reply of the past two weeks stated that only a part of the fee schedule had been approved. That concerns me deeply. We need certainty for the three schools in question and the wider community they serve.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter on the Educate Together secondary school and Gaelcholáiste Carrig Uí Leighin. As the Deputy is probably aware, Cork Educate Together secondary school was established in 2016. It is currently operating from part of Nagle community college, Mahon, Blackrock, County Cork. An extension of this arrangement was recently agreed with the school authority pending the delivery of alternative temporary accommodation which is being arranged by the school's patron body. I want to take the opportunity to put on record my Department’s appreciation of the assistance of Nagle community college for facilitating this arrangement, which represents an excellent example of co-operation by the education partners in Cork.

In general, all new schools commence operation in temporary accommodation with a view to permanent accommodation being provided for them by my Department as quickly as possible. Officials in my Department have engaged with officials in Cork County Council under the memorandum of understanding for the acquisition of school sites with a view to identifying and acquiring a suitable site to accommodate Cork Educate Together secondary school. A number of site options were identified and a comprehensive technical assessment of feasibility was undertaken in respect of each option. A suitable site on the Old Carrigaline Road, adjacent to Douglas Garda station, has been identified and the acquisition process for this is at an advanced stage.

Departmental officials continue to work with Cork County Council in the context of the draft Ballincollig-Carrigaline local area plan with regard to the potential development of the site in question. Subject to the satisfactory completion of the conveyancing process and the views of the local authority, this site acquisition is being progressed with the intention of serving as the permanent location for Cork Educate Together secondary school. Development of the site will also be subject to planning permission being obtained. With regard to Gaelcholáiste Carrig Uí Leighin the Deputy will probably be aware that the intention is provide a new building for this school as part of multi-million euro school campus arrangement at Ardnacloghy in Carrigaline. Apart from a new state-of-the-art building for Gaelcholáiste Carrig Uí Leighin, the project also comprises new buildings for the local Gaelscoil and for a special school. The project has been devolved for delivery to the Cork education and training board. While earlier issues with planning permission have caused delay with this project, these have now been resolved and planning permission has been granted so that the project can now move ahead to the next stage.

I am pleased to be able to tell the Deputy that the education and training board's design team is currently preparing tender documents to pre-qualify contractors for the project. When the pre-qualification process has been completed, this positions the project to move to the tender process for construction. However, the existing contractual commitments for 2017 now fully account for the funding which was allocated for 2017 and carry a significant contractual commitment into 2018. This means that the Department must carefully manage the flow of additional projects to tender and construction stages for 2018. My Department will consider a request from Cork Education and Training Board for approval to proceed to tender for the full campus project when the pre-qualification process outlined has been completed. Our aim will be to progress all projects as quickly as possible, as soon as funding becomes available. In the meantime, Gaelcholáiste Carrig Uí Leighin is being accommodated temporarily in premises locally.

I am not terribly reassured by that. The site for the Gaelcholáiste was secured in 2010 and we are now in May 2017. The Department is entirely capable of delivering a building before December 2019 on a site that has already been purchased. The potential of the school is being held back and it is not good enough to say it has to go to the back of the queue. The desire to build this school was in the system far in advance of many of the other schools which are currently funded. The Department has to progress this sooner and it will create a serious difficulty for the Gaelscoil and the Gaelcholáiste if it is not delivered. It can be done but the cost and the timescales seem to be increasing all the time, which is not acceptable.

I note the point about the Educate Together secondary school. To an extent, this is a new development.

However, it is unfair on Nagle community school that it is dealing with the consequences of the Department's failures. There is no reference to temporary accommodation being provided until the permanent site is developed. It is quite worrying that the Department's attitude is that Nagle community school will be the location for the Educate Together secondary school until the permanent site is developed. Can the Minister clarify if that is the case? If so, that is an unacceptable situation in the context of needing space for resource teaching, for an autism spectrum disorder, ASD, unit which it has been operating and various other items.

I will share the remainder of my time with Deputy Michael McGrath.

I support everything that Deputy Ó Laoghaire has said in regard to the Cork Educate Together secondary school. There is an urgent need for clarity in regard to the temporary accommodation arrangements for the 2017-18 school year. There has been a great deal of messing in regard to that issue. There is still no clarity. I welcome that the site for the permanent building is being bought but I ask the Minister to focus on having proper arrangements in place for the temporary facility for next year.

I am concerned by the Minister's response regarding the campus development in Carrigaline. He spoke of contractual commitments spilling over into 2018. We have been told that the worst-case scenario is that the campus will be ready by the end of 2019. I question that. I worry about that. Even if it is delivered by then, that will create serious communities for those three school communities. We need greater clarity, the support of Government and that there be no undue delay in this project getting to tender and construction and getting on site as quickly as possible.

The response that I have received, which I presume is accurate, states that an extension of the arrangement at the Nagle community college was recently agreed with the school authority pending the delivery of alternative temporary accommodation, which is being arranged by the school's patron body. It therefore appears that the present situation is there is an extension of the arrangement at Nagle community college. It is not satisfactory that the process takes such a long time but there appear to have been planning difficulties. However, I am unaware of the backdrop to those difficulties or why they delayed the obtaining of planning permission on the site. I will seek clarification for Deputies Ó Laoghaire and Michael McGrath in regard to the temporary accommodation in order to clarify for them how the arrangements will work.

Deputy McGrath raised the wider issue of the pace of school building programmes and the Department meeting targets in that regard. Each year, the Department increases the number of places provided for. This year, the Department will provide 22,000. We must ensure, however, that we are in a position to spend every penny we get. There are a large number of major projects proceeding at all times. Some get held up. At any point in the supply chain we must ensure that we spend every penny made available to me in this regard. Having a continuous supply of projects that are shovel-ready is very important to ensure that the available capital budget in this area is fully exploited.

If that is the case, the Minister should ensure that this particular project is kept moving.

There are always projects and we must ensure that this situation continues. We will attempt to accommodate this project as quickly as possible. We have given pre-clearance to the approval of the contractors and it is hoped that we will soon be in a position to allow it go to the next stage.