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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 30 Jan 2018

Vol. 964 No. 4

Topical Issue Debate

Planning Guidelines

I welcome the opportunity to debate the need for a relaxation of the "locals only" planning laws which allow people born and raised in an area and wishing to build a one-off house in that area to do so and the need for discussion of the EU ruling of last year that the "locals only" planning rule introduced in 2005 breaches articles of the EU treaty which guarantees the free movement of capital and of people.

Prior to my election to this House, I spent 25 years in local government and I know that the matter of rural one-off houses has been the singular issue that has preoccupied councillors, planners and officials at local government level. In raising this issue I want to make it clear that I am not a supporter of bungalow blitz and I understand the concerns of environmentalists in relation to the proliferation of septic tanks and the dangers to the water courses and sources and the need for legislation framing county development plans. However, if we continue to put obstacles in the way of people who want to build in rural Ireland, we face the death of rural communities schools and rural living.

I would like to outline these planning practices to the House. It all started with people living in large towns being told they could not build in the countryside, which is somewhat understandable, followed by people in the countryside being told that unless they are sons or daughters of farmers and so on they must live where water and sewerage is available. Those who want to live in smaller areas are directed to centres where there has been no investment in roads, footpaths and lighting, making it almost impossible to find houses or sites to build on. The latest strategy is such that even if a person is lucky enough to identify a possible site, the planning authorities do their level best to nobble the application based on site line distances, soil type, the 400 m area requirement in relation to land between one house and the next. People are being told they cannot build on a mountain, near the sea, close to a motorway, a national primary route, a secondary route, a flood plain, which is understandable, or close to an infill site. Also, there must be a 400 m gap between a group of three houses. In my own county, if a person lives in a village that has water and sewerage he or she will never have the opportunity to purchase a site there. All in all, we are closing off opportunities for those traditionally and generationally entitled to remain in their local areas. In not allowing them the opportunity to aspire to live in the area of their choice we are in contravention of the European Court of Justice ruling in the Flemish decree case.

In May 2017, planning authorities were advised by the Minister of State, Deputy English, that they should not amend rural housing policies in their development plans until the guidelines have been revised. This is not good enough. People are champing at the bit to get permission to live in their local areas. It is my contention that within reason houses can be built in most areas with proper infrastructural and environmental guidelines.

I thank Deputy Breathnach for raising this matter, which is an important issue for many people living in rural Ireland. I also thank him for the opportunity to provide an update on the review of the 2005 planning guidelines for sustainable rural housing, issued under section 28 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended. Like Deputy Breathnach, as a former councillor and a Deputy, I have represented people on planning issues, including in regard to one-off house building. I agree with the Deputy that it is important to many parts of our counties and certain rural areas that we allow one-off housing and we continue to do that under certain conditions. The impression is often given that no one-off house building is being permitted but the majority of housing built in the last number of years has been one-off housing, with an average of 6,000 one-off houses per year in rural areas over recent years.

In many of the counties I have been visiting they comprise the majority. What we are trying to do under Rebuilding Ireland is bring back some scale to housing construction. I am thankful that in the past 18 months, since we launched the action plan for housing, there have been many more larger housing developments, with one-off rural houses, which are important also. We need both if we are to deal with the housing supply issue. I acknowledge that for the Deputy this is about the people who want to build in their local area. The Government wants to achieve what he outlined and we allow for it in all of our action plans for housing and rural action plans.

Like all statutory planning guidelines issued under section 28, the rural housing guidelines are intended to be applied on a consistent and uniform basis by all planning authorities. Under the 2005 guidelines, planning authorities are required to frame the rural housing planning policies in their development plans in a balanced and measured way. The aim is to ensure the housing needs of rural communities can be met, while simultaneously taking account of the principle of sustainable development and avoiding excessive urban-generated housing and haphazard development, particularly in those areas near cities and towns that are under pressure from urban-generated development. The guidelines further aim to ensure sites being developed for housing in all rural areas are suitable with regard to vehicular access and wastewater disposal and also from landscape and design perspectives. In addition, the guidelines outline a number of criteria to be taken into account in local authority development plans for the purpose of assessing whether planning applications for rural housing are intended to meet a rural-generated housing need. These local needs criteria primarily relate to planning applicants having familial or occupational ties to the rural area in question.

In 2007 the European Commission issued an infringement notice against Ireland in regard to the 2005 rural housing guidelines. It was subsequently deferred pending the outcome of a related European Court of Justice case against Belgium, generally known as the Flemish decree case. In that regard, the Flemish decree linked the sale or transfer of property in certain Flemish communes with the condition that there should be a sufficient connection between the prospective property buyer and the relevant commune. This had the practical effect of precluding non-locals from purchasing property in the Flemish communes in question. The European Court of Justice eventually gave its judgment in the case in 2013 and ruled that the Flemish decree constituted an unjustified restriction on fundamental freedoms under the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, in particular that it breached Article 43 of the treaty on the freedom of movement of citizens. Further to this judgment, the European Commission re-engaged with my Department on the 2005 rural housing guidelines. Arising from this and further subsequent engagement between my Department and the European Commission, a working group comprising senior representatives from my Department and planning authorities was established in May 2017 to review and, where necessary, recommend changes to the 2005 guidelines with a view to ensuring rural housing policies and objectives contained in county development plans complied with the relevant provisions of the EU treaty. The working group concluded its deliberations in September 2017 and my Department is now consulting the European Commission on the matter, with a view to issuing new guidelines to planning authorities as soon as possible after the finalised national planning framework is adopted and published in the weeks ahead.

When the revisions to the guidelines are finalised and issued to planning authorities under section 28 of the planning Act, planning authorities and, where appropriate, An Bord Pleanála, will be required to apply the revised guidelines in the performance of their statutory planning functions under the planning Act, specifically in the assessment and determination of planning applications and appeals in respect of rural housing proposals. Pending the issuing of the proposed new revised guidelines, planning authorities were advised by way of circular letter issued by my Department in May 2017 that the existing 2005 guidelines remained in place and that they should not amend the rural housing local needs policies in their development plans until the revised guidelines had issued. This has resulted in thousands of people receiving planning permission to build houses in rural areas. It does reflect the need for local ties.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. He said he would revise the 2005 guidelines speedily. When will the working group which was established in 2017 and comprises senior representatives from the Department produce the report? When will we see the recommendations and changes required? Will the Minister of State update me on his plan to issue the revised guidelines, giving dates and times? We need speedy action on this issue which is of major concern not only in my county but also across the country. It should be remembered that anybody who is seeking planning permission in a rural area would be contributing to the community through the local school or football club, by becoming involved in the locality or by bringing business to local shops. Therefore, planning departments need to be more positive towards new families who will add value to an area.

The latest debarring in my county is such that if an applicant lives in a village that is connected to the water mains and has sewerage, he or she cannot aspire to moving to the country area, of which he or she is part. I understand the difficulty with the proliferation of houses, but there are possible solutions. If a family can show lineage or a connection to a local village and its hinterland, through legal documentation, birth certificates or school attendance records which were sometimes used in the past, they should be allowed to seek to live there and not be debarred from realising their dream, that is, to have a house in what they consider to be the countryside.

I ask the Minister of State to tell us the timeframes involved. There are numerous people affected. I have assisted people who live in villages and bought sites to make a planning application. They now have a site that is valueless because they are being debarred from having the opportunity to build. We need action.

I understand the Deputy's concerns. The Department is consulting the European Commission on proposed revisions to the statutory housing guidelines. The working group completed its work last September and we have been in negotiations with the European Commission since. I hope that in the months ahead we will be able to bring clarity to this issue. Through the national planning framework, we hope to outline the direction we will take. Through the discussion at the various committees here and with councillors all over the country, we will agree to change the wording to allow for economic and social ties in the case of one-off housing.

From my review of the planning guidelines for rural houses and the application of the guidelines in my county, I believe once the site criteria pertaining to transport, vehicular access and drainage are satisfied and there are local ties, to the school or football club, as the Deputy said, generally planning permission is granted. I accept that when somebody is moving from an urban area such as a town or village to a rural area, it is complicated. All of us want to make sure, however, that people from a rural area can live beside their family and from what I can see, that generally does happen. We are trying to respect that trend and continue it.

The national planning framework will set out the direction we will take. We will receive clarity from the European Commission in the months ahead and be able to provide an updated position for the Deputy. I will keep him abreast of developments as time progresses. I acknowledge that his concern is genuine. We do try to recognise people's social ties to an area, in addition to their economic ties. It is not the case that there is a block on housing. I have seen a figure of 6,000 one-off rural houses per year. This was quite a high number during recessionary times, when nobody was involved in construction. It is probably wrong to say no one-off houses are being sanctioned, but I understand the case the Deputy is trying to raise and hope we can deal with it.

Through the national planning framework, we are trying to target villages that have experienced decline in recent years and make it possible and affordable for people to build in them. In the past, even buying a site in a village area cost a lot of money and it was not practical to build a house there. We want to make it practical and try to strengthen the system to give people a chance to live in a rural village or other rural area.

Company Closures

I thank the office of the Ceann Comhairle for giving all of the Deputies present the opportunity to debate this matter. I called for this debate last week and I am glad that it is happening as it is necessary.

When Carillion finally went bust - it should be noted that many financial investors were shortening the company for quite some time, so worried were they about its financial performance - I issued a statement almost immediately asking the Minister for Education and Skills to clarify the position on the schools involved. The schools are St. Philomena's in Bray, Coláiste Ráithín in Bray, the Carlow Institute of Further Education and Tyndall College in Carlow, Loreto College in Wexford and Eureka secondary school in Kells in my constituency. The Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, has many constituents who attend the latter school. He was certainly involved with all of us in working towards its development.

Two weeks ago, when I made my statement, the Minister said he was confident that the schools would not be affected by the collapse of Carillion. A very simplistic answer was given to a question that others and I had raised about what was a complex set of circumstances. When the Minister said he was confident that the matter would be sorted, I took it in good faith and accepted it. It turns out that he can no longer be confident because the schools are idle and empty and, in general, being guarded by security guards. In some cases, subcontractors and suppliers are taking goods out of them. That is the case all around the country.

There are subcontractors throughout the country who have been very badly affected by the collapse and have not been paid.

One company in Kells, which I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy English, knows, is currently owed €62,000. It is a small company depending on such business and it thought this project would be a good thing but it has not been. Will the Minister meet the suppliers as well as making every effort to ensure the situation is resolved as soon as possible? We have two minutes each and that is sufficient because there are so many of us. I am grateful to you, a Cheann Comhairle.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to discuss this issue. The ability of the collapse of a private company in another jurisdiction two weeks ago to have such an impact on the completion of school buildings in Ireland is, unfortunately, the direct result of public private partnerships. Our schools or other public buildings cannot be at the mercy of public private partnerships going wrong. The schools in question, which Deputy Thomas Byrne named, include two in my constituency, Tyndall College in Carlow and the Carlow Institute of Further Education, need clarification from the Department. The email that was sent to schools from the Department was vague, with no detail, and did nothing to ease any concerns parents, principals, teachers and most important, students, have.

The schools in question are badly in need of new buildings, with some waiting years, decades even, in very poor conditions and they need assurances that they can relocate to their new buildings as soon as was promised. Initial reports indicated that work has been postponed indefinitely on at least two sites and that there are doubts over the status of others. The fact is that there are no longer contractors working at the site in Carlow since last week and all work has halted on that development which was 90% complete and is to cater for 3,000 students.

The situation has an impact on the workers who have been left without wages and without certainty. When the news initially broke reassurances were given that there would be no impact on the building work at the schools and last week the NDFA released a statement placing responsibility on shareholders and funders to ensure the buildings are completed. How long will that take and have the discussions even started? At what stage are the talks now? I am very conscious of time. Students need to know where they stand. We cannot ask them to study for exams in inadequate buildings where they do not even have proper facilities. I ask the Minister to please clarify the situation today.

People Before Profit has always opposed public private partnerships as a means to build schools, housing or other vital infrastructure. What has happened with Carillion and has now affected Coláiste Ráithín, St. Philomena's, the Eureka secondary school, Tyndall College and the Carlow Institute for Further Education confirms what we predicted when the Government and the main Opposition party embraced the notion of public private partnerships. What happened with McNamara and the housing developments in this city has happened now with Carillion, and several other PPP projects, in that when the private for-profit entity goes bust or walks away, whatever it might be, we are left holding the can. It is not the private sector which takes the risk it is the school students who have been existing in poor school conditions for years, hoping to get into a new school building and then fall victim to private interests who are in the business not of delivering schools but of making profits and if they are not making profits they walk away or go out of business. That is the fundamental problem with PPPs.

First, we need emergency legislation to get hold of those schools and ensure that the children can go into those building. The situation should not be allowed delay people going in and using those schools. We should recognise that we have to get those schools back into full public ownership so they are not controlled or dependent in any way on private for-profit interests. The Committee on Budgetary Oversight, the Committee of Public Accounts and any other relevant committees should now examine in detail what happened in the public private partnership in which Carillion was involved but also the public private partnership model must be investigated and examined to see whether, as I believe is the case, it is something that should be abandoned for the provision of schools and other vital infrastructure.

Two schools in Bray are completely unsure as to when their school buildings will open and what their future maintenance services will be due to the collapse of Carillion. Coláiste Ráithín and St. Philomena's in Bray are awaiting the completion and opening of the long-awaited essential buildings. When the news broke I immediately contacted the Department by means of a parliamentary question demanding clarity on the issue and I am very disappointed with the answers supplied.

When we in Fianna Fáil raised the issue we were assured by the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, who was confident that the five Irish schools would not be affected by the collapse. However, responses to parliamentary questions received by my office last week reveal a hands-off and careless attitude to this very serious issue for both school communities. I can confirm that the school community in Bray is very concerned, and rightly so. It has organised public meetings to inform parents and many students and staff have expressed deep concern about their new school at a time when we should be celebrating the new future of Coláiste Ráithín and St. Philomena's.

For the Government to have such a hands-off approach also raises question marks about the funding model being used to build the schools. Schools are essential public buildings which the community in Bray rightly expect the Government to control not to evade responsibility behind the NDFA. In short, could I ask the Minister when the schools will open and when all maintenance contracts will be fully honoured to the satisfaction of the school board of management?

I share the sentiments of Deputy Boyd Barrett. Since 2008 or 2009 in particular Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Governments have decimated the public capital programme and resorted to this PPP approach. Recently, a colleague of the Minister's, Andrew McDowell, previously his party's main economic adviser, told the Committee on Budgetary Oversight why we should use PPPs and try to keep projects off-balance sheet. At the end of the day, the people, the State and especially the communities affected by the building projects at Coláiste Ráithín, St. Philomena's, Tyndall college, the Eureka secondary school and Loreto college are having to pick up the pieces for a failed and short-sighted Government policy.

One key issue that arises is the tendering process. People will ask how the Dutch investment company and Carillion got through a tendering process in the section of the NDFA which examines PPPs. How did that happen? In terms of oversight, what were the Minister and his colleagues aware of in regard to the development of the contracts?

Many of us in this House have bad memories of aspects of PPPs in regard to some of the previous school bundles, in particular in regard to the treatment of workers and tradesmen who worked on the schemes and who often found they were working for out-of-state contractors and whose PRSI payments, pension payments and tax affairs were not sorted in a way which was beneficial to them. Grave questions arise in terms of what has happened. The Ministers are responsible and they must tell us what the position was in terms of tendering. They have failed us with the level of oversight that was provided.

Carillion and other such companies engage in so-called business process outsourcing, add nothing of value to the economy and are simply middle men. They have access and contracts and nothing else. What kind of research is done on such firms before contracts are awarded? In the past ten years Carillion's profits have continuously declined while its debt levels have skyrocketed. According to a parliamentary paper published in Britain this week it ran up debts and sold assets worth £217 million to continue paying dividends to shareholders between 2012 and 2016. The group paid out dividends of £376 million over the five-year period but it generated just £159 million of net cash from operations. The report shows the group's dividend continued rising even as the cashflow to support it evaporated. When dividends are paid on the basis of expected profits the company is effectively borrowing money to pay its shareholders.

Could the Minister indicate who decided to give those people the contracts? It was well flagged that those people were not coming with a great report card. What research was done? PPPs are lauded on the basis that risk is transferred to the private sector but when something goes wrong the risk comes back to the State and it certainly will not be the private sector which bails us out. The nature of competition for Government contracts needs to be looked at. In the area of PPPs there are just a few sellers in the market so there is very little competition. Instead of giving contracts to multinationals which hire someone else to do the work, why does the Government not seek to engage directly with the people who do the work? The current system only makes executives and shareholders rich.

It is nonsense. It is little wonder that public private partnerships are costing 15% plus.

My main concern in this whole situation is the extent to which it might affect the customer, that is, the Department of Education and Skills as well as the parents and children who are awaiting completed school projects. I am not so concerned about the public private partnership model. If it has worked before and it can work again. If it provides schools methodically, quickly, effectively and efficiently, then there is no problem.

There is another issue, however. It is the extent to which the sub-contractors are exposed in this situation. I realise discussions have taken place between the Minister and the Department and some of the people concerned. It is necessary now to reassure the sub-contractors in case they suffer a domino effect or find themselves left out in the cold while the debate takes place with the receivers and the grabbing of assets, etc., that usually takes place in such situations.

I call on the Minister to reassure the contractors in respect of what might be in their best interests, with particular reference to schools that are already finished, ready for occupation and that have been the subject matter of conciliation, which is the snagging that takes place in the normal course of events. I hope it is possible to expedite the process in so far as they are concerned with a view to ensuring that resources come their way. They have other projects that they wish to continue. If the whole system is held up for any appreciable amount of time, ultimately, the customer, that is, the Department of Education and Skills, will be affected in its attempt to provide the facilitates for children in schools throughout the country.

The collapse of Carillion did not come as much of a surprise to me and many others who saw this coming down the tracks. It has directly impacted on two schools in my constituency, namely, St. Philomena's primary school, Ravenswell and Coláiste Raíthín. I am delighted that so many parents, teachers and pupils from Coláiste Raíthín have travelled from Bray in Wicklow to be in the Gallery. They hope to hear positive responses from the Minister and news on when they can move in.

The school building in which Coláiste Raíthín is currently operating is totally unsuitable. Hence, a new building is being built. This will bring to an end to a 23-year battle, under way since 1995, to get the new school. The current location of the school is totally unsuitable. The school is operating from three different locations within Bray. Pupils have to travel from one building to another in different parts of the town.

In September, the school took on board a full extra class of first year pupils in the knowledge, and hope, that a new school was forthcoming. This is adding to the existing over-crowding. It is totally unsustainable. The school also added two additional subjects to the curriculum and took on two new teachers. The school does not have the facilities now to teach those subjects. It was hoping, and had been promised, that Coláiste Raíthín would be in the new school building that would be fully complete in October, November, December and 22 January, which was the latest date given. All dates have come and gone.

When I asked the Minister about this initially he said there would be no delays. Now, we are saying we simply do not know. I do not give a damn about what discussions, negotiations or legalities are going on and I imagine the teachers, pupils and their parents do not care either. What we want from the Minister today is a specific date for when the keys will be handed over to Coláiste Raíthín and St. Philomena’s primary school to bring an end to the 23-year battle they have been engaged in. I hope the Minister will be able to provide assurances that those responsible will get the keys sooner rather than later.

There are clearly some serious questions that need asking about large international firms underbidding and winning contracts based on unsustainably low prices, which has led to these sort of liquidations as well as pricing Irish firms out of the market. However, that is for another day.

I wish to specifically draw the attention of the Minister to the two schools in Bray in Wicklow, namely, St. Philomena's primary school and Coláiste Raíthín. I attended a meeting last night in the school. To say that the students, parents and teachers are angry, frustrated and exasperated is an understatement. They were meant to move in back in September. The school increased the student numbers, hired new staff and increased the subjects. Then they were told it would be ready in October, November and December. The principal relayed to the meeting last night that he was given a guarantee that he and his team would be in by the end of January. Now we have what happened.

The current school is not fit for purpose. I wish to put on record what one of the students said last night. She said that the students are sick of sitting in cold rooms getting chest infections and seeing mould on the wall. That is what they want to move out of.

I have spoken to commercial insolvency experts on this matter. They gave me their view based on the assumption that the school has been built properly. We know it is finished, ready and that it simply needs certification. Their view was that it should be no more than six weeks from the liquidation event of Carillion to the matter being wrapped up and students and staff being in the school. We are two weeks into that process.

What I would like to hear from the Minister tonight is that this is under control; that the contracts were written in such a way that foresaw these types of events; and that the Minister is working with the main contractor and the sub-contractors, if necessary, to get certification as well as with Carillion and the liquidator. The parents, teachers and students want to know that by the end of February they will be in their school. When can the Minister tell the students, staff and parents of St. Philomena's primary school and Coláiste Raíthín that they will be in their new schools?

I thank all the Deputies who contributed and many more as well for their views. The Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, the Minister, Deputy Harris, Deputy Deering, the Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy, the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, and many others have raised this with me. I do not in any way undervalue the concern.

I welcome those associated with the schools to the Gallery. Every one of these schools is important to its local communities. The reason they are being rebuilt in this way is because they are in serious need of it. I am pleased to get the chance to come to the House to clarify the position.

The compulsory liquidation of Carillion, announced on 15 January, is regrettable. lnspiredspaces, which is a joint venture between Carillon and the Dutch Infrastructure Fund, DIF, was awarded the contract for the schools bundle 5 public private partnership programme in 2016. Inspiredspaces is the PPP company responsible for the construction, finance, operation and maintenance of the five schools and one further education college included in the programme. Those buildings are approximately 90% complete, with two almost ready for occupation.

I wish to reassure Deputy Donnelly and others that there is best international practice in the way this bundle has been put together. The contract includes detailed provisions that apply in the event of liquidation of a consortium member, or an entity under the contract, to ensure that the project proceeds to completion. This means that, following the liquidation of Carillion, DIF is now required to intervene, with the approval of the project funders, to ensure that the project is completed to the satisfaction of the State. DIF has confirmed that resolution of the situation is its top priority. It is currently working to put in place a rectification plan to ensure that the schools are completed as soon as possible.

The National Development Finance Agency, which is part of the National Treasury Management Agency, is responsible for management of these projects on behalf of the Department of Education and Skills. The NDFA is working to ensure that the taxpayers' interests are protected and that the schools are delivered as quickly as possible through the implementation of the contract provisions. I assure Deputies that this issue is being treated with the utmost urgency by my Department and the NDFA. Officials in my Department are in constant contact with those in the NDFA, who are, in turn, liaising closely with DIF.

I have met with officials from NDFA and I am satisfied that everything possible is being done at this time to ensure that the schools can be delivered in as timely a manner as possible. I wish to acknowledge the very understandable concern of the school communities and all connected with the projects in respect of the current lack of certainty around dates for completion of the schools.

The outcome of the ongoing process will provide greater clarity on likely completion dates. While it had been initially hoped that an interim solution would be agreed - genuine efforts were made to achieve that - it has not been possible to date. Now, a more detailed rectification plan is being finalised by DIF in consultation with its lenders. This comprehensive rectification plan will address, among other things, the completion of the construction and the provision of services over the lifetime of the PPP contract. Importantly, this rectification plan does not place any financial obligations on the State and its implementation is a matter for the private sector parties. While I cannot be definitive on the timelines for the agreement and implementation of the rectification plan, it is a feature of this PPP contract, and PPP contracts more generally, that there are legal, contractual and financial imperatives for the PPP company and the funders to deliver the buildings within the shortest possible timeframe.

Apart from site costs, no money has been expended on the six schools in the bundle, which has an estimated value of €100 million. Construction, which is 90% complete, has been funded entirely by the parties involved. They will not secure a licence agreement providing for the payment of a universal charge each year for the next 25 years unless the schools are handed over and can be occupied and used by pupils. The State is, therefore, in a strong position.

A key advantage of the public private partnership model is that the construction and funding risk is transferred to the private partner. For this reason, DIF, rather than the State, is now responsible for ensuring completion of the schools. It is also the reason we have six buildings close to completion and in State ownership, for which no payments have been made, other than for off-site works.

I welcome the statement that officials of the Department will meet the principals and chairpersons of the boards of management of the schools concerned. However, Deputies in the relevant constituencies, who include the two main Opposition spokespersons on education, should receive a similar briefing. I will certainly make myself available for a briefing should the Minister consider it appropriate.

I am concerned by some aspects of the Minister's response. His statement was utterly different from his initial reaction to the collapse of Carillion. This is disappointing but at least we are now coming close to the truth of the matter.

The Minister omitted to mention a number of issues. He indicated that DIF is required to intervene "with the approval of the project funders" to ensure the project is completed to the satisfaction of the State. The project funder is the Bank of Tokyo Mitsubishi, the largest bank in Japan. Is it the case that the project cannot be completed until a bank official in Tokyo gives his or her approval? The Minister must clarify this as the issue is becoming more complicated by the minute and we need clarity on when students will move into the schools.

The Minister did not respond to my invitation to him to meet subcontractors. It is important he meets them because they need to have confidence that they will be able to work on school projects in future.

With the greatest respect, the Minister's reply contained little that will allay fears among the schools in question. The issue of public private partnerships is a debate for a different day as it would not help the schools in question to discuss it now. The projects are at different stages, with some ready to go and staff waiting to be given the keys to the new buildings. These projects need to be prioritised. A one-off meeting will not be sufficient. The needs of each individual school must be examined.

I hope Deputy Thomas Byrne, the Fianna Fáil Party spokesperson on education, will support Sinn Féin's request to have the Joint Committee on Education and Skills discuss this issue with the relevant stakeholders as a matter of urgency.

The Minister's statement did not contain any comfort for the schools in question because they do not know when they will be given the keys to the new buildings or when construction will continue. This issue will probably not be resolved before students studying for the leaving certificate sit their examinations. The issue must be addressed. The Minister must provide a much better timeline for keeping Deputies updated.

There is a fundamental problem with the Minister's response. His statement that the private partner is taking the risk is clearly not correct. The risk is being taken by the students, teachers, schools and communities who cannot access the buildings they badly need and the building workers who do not know whether they will be paid. This case illustrates the fundamental folly of public private partnerships. The Minister put his hands up and said it was up to the private partner to sort out the problem as the State cannot do so. Is that supposed to serve as helpful assurance?

The problem is that the State has signed away responsibility for delivering schools that communities and students badly need to entities that can walk away and stood to make a substantial profit. According to some reports, the consortium involved stood to make €150 million out of a deal involving an investment of €9 million. Deputies cannot find out the details of public private partnerships because they are subject to commercial secrecy. I repeat my call to have the Committee on Budgetary Oversight or Committee of Public Accounts investigate the details of this and other public private partnerships.

I thank the Minister for his reply, although I note it appears to be identical to the reply I received when I submitted a parliamentary question last week. That is not good enough. The Minister for Education and Skills should not be content with observing from the sidelines as the dreams and aspirations of the school community in Bray are dashed. As a result of Government incompetence, staff, students and parents are looking at their new school buildings, which were paid for with taxpayers' money, and do not know when they will be able to take control over them. This is a disgrace and a shocking indictment of the Government. The Minister must take full control of this matter. I ask him to meet representatives of the wider community of Coláiste Ráithín and St. Philomena's school this week.

I understand the Comptroller and Auditor General published an article on public private partnerships in his annual report. Would the Minister welcome a decision by the Committee of Public Accounts to carry out an urgent investigation of the collapse of Carillion and its impact on school communities here? The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, informed us of an interdepartmental working group on public private partnerships. I understand the working group was due to report by the end of 2017. Will we receive this report?

The recommendations of the International Monetary Fund's public investment management assessment or PIMA generated considerable interest. Would the PPP school bundle we are discussing have passed the PIMA?

The Minister referred to universal payments, which will amount to hundreds of millions of euro per annum. Listening to the Minister, one could easily conclude that the State got these schools for nothing. We will make annual payments for them until 2053 or 2054. Will the State be able to claw back any of the payment for this PPP bundle?

While I accept the Minister did not provide a timeframe, the Taoiseach informed the House last week that it would take a couple of weeks to sort out this issue. If that is the case, it will be a first. I intend telling the affected pupils and teachers in counties Wexford, Carlow, Wicklow and Meath not to hold their breath. The liquidator, Mr. David Chapman, who is a civil servant working for the Insolvency Service of Ireland, has been appointed and is being advised by six special managers from the accountancy firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers. There will be wrangling on this issue until the cows come home because such liquidations are never sorted out quickly. I ask the Minister to give an honest indication of how long it will take.

Last week, the Taoiseach indicated the State owned the school buildings in question. I do not understand how that could be the case. While it may own part of them, how could the State own them if they were built by another entity that is owed a substantial amount of money?

It is important to reassure the Irish subcontractors that their liabilities are covered or they will not be ultimately liable for something that went wrong in another jurisdiction. If possible, will the Minister make contact with the subcontractors with a view to alleviating their worries? If the matter drags on indefinitely, the concern is that they will be placed under unnecessary financial pressure. They can deliver the goods as matters stand. A long drawn-out argument in the courts or elsewhere would not benefit the Department, the parents, the children hoping to attend the schools or the Irish subcontractors. Will the Minister ask his officials to indicate to the subcontractors what will be the likely outcome of this process and to expedite the process of completing the projects and making payments?

This matter will end up in a protracted legal case. Liquidations do not end well and this liquidation will not be any different. Not only are the teachers, pupils and parents involved at the mercy of a potential legal case, they are also at the mercy of banks in Tokyo and Germany.

The Minister will be well aware that in the case of a public private partnership lasting for 25 years, the State will not take control of the asset until the end of the 25-year period. I ask him to clarify the position in this regard.

We cannot afford to wait. I want answers to a number of specific questions. What contingency arrangements will the Minister put in place? Will he consider introducing emergency legislation to ensure pupils and teachers are given immediate access to the schools in question? Given that Coláiste Ráithín only requires certification, will the Minister ensure the certification process is fast-tracked in order that staff and students can move into the new building?

Will he look at putting in a caretaker maintenance arrangement for Coláiste Ráithín and the other schools that are complete to ensure that they can move in? I have one final and very important point. Coláiste Ráithín is fully equipped, with tables, chairs, whiteboards and the lot. There are fears that the suppliers of those materials have not been paid and that they will go into the school, as they have in others, to withdraw those materials. Will the Minister ensure that the suppliers are fully paid and that the materials will not be stripped from the schools, adding to the delays they will face?

I have no doubt that the Minister wants to get these schools open. However, I do not think anyone who wants to get into these schools will take a lot of comfort from his statement. He stated that he is satisfied that everything possible is being done. My understanding is that the subcontractors have not been engaged with. It was stated a few minutes ago that subcontractors are beginning to remove equipment. Have subcontractors been engaged with? If they have not, will the Minister please commit to engaging with them this week? We cannot have a situation where worried subcontractors are removing equipment from the schools.

The Minister also said he would keep the House updated as details of the rectification plan are confirmed. At this point, it is disappointing that he does not have specific dates, so can he give us indicative dates, and can he tell us when he will have the rectification plan in place?

Finally, if the Minister comes back to the House, hopefully later this week or next week at the latest, with the proposed dates for when these schools will be accessible to the students and the parents and that will take more than a few weeks, will he commit to immediately putting in place a contingency plan, that is, a bridging legal agreement that gets the students into these schools?

I must clarify a few points. I wish to reassure Deputy Byrne that the Dutch Infrastructure Fund, DIF, has been mandated by the funders to put together the rectification plan. It is being put together as quickly as possible, so there is no question of funders anywhere not being interested in this. To answer the question of whether we are at the mercy of funders, that is not the case. Funders will not get their money unless they complete and hand over the building and get the licence agreement. They have paid the money, not the State. As such, the only way in which they will get their money back is by handing over the buildings and completing them. That is why there is such urgency on the part of DIF and the funders to get this rectification plan in place.

I must clarify a misunderstanding. Subcontractors do not have a contract with the State. They have a contract with the provider. The State is not stepping in to underwrite the obligations of the provider because under the public private partnership, PPP, contract, it is DIF that holds the responsibility, which is set out in the contract, to complete these schools. DIF will not be paid until it completes them.

In regard to PPP reviews, in our situation, 17% of school completions have been done by PPP. Any state will have a mixture of projects. I am always open to looking at the merits of cases, and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is undertaking a review of PPPs as is the Comptroller and Auditor General, and we are open to that. In regard to this issue, however, the concentration must be on getting the contract to work and getting to completion, as is the legal obligation. The funders will only get their money if they can hand over the schools, completed to the proper standard. Then they will get their licence agreement. Without completing that, they do not get their licence agreement and the State will not be paying them or anyone involved any money. That is really the important thing. We must use the power of the contract, which protects people, to ensure that those who took on the legal responsibility complete their work.

I can assure the Deputy that the National Development Finance Agency, NDFA, will be vigorously pursuing that. It is in everyone's interest, most of all those who have funded and built this project, that they do get to that completion point as quickly as possible. To be fair, that is what they have indicated they are seeking to do. I can assure the Deputy that I will keep a very close eye on this. I understand the concerns, and I will work with the NDFA to secure this outcome as quickly as possible.