Topical Issue Debate

The list of Topical Issue matters selected for debate has been revised. The matters raised by Deputies Sherlock, Fitzpatrick and Brendan Smith will be taken now.

Road Improvement Schemes

I thank the Minister for coming to the House to deal with the issue at hand. To be fair, I acknowledge the role of the Minister, Deputy Ross, in keeping the northern relief road on the agenda, as he has with regard to the M20. I was in receipt of correspondence previously from the Minister on the M20 Cork-Limerick route, but there is a need for the interurban network of roads to be facilitated also, which is why I am making the case here today for the N72 and N73 bypass.

The Minister may be in possession of the economic assessment case made by Indecon consultants and issued in June 2015. It makes a strong case based on the future projected growth of towns such as Mallow. We welcome wholeheartedly the funding provision made for the M20. There is a parcel of funding behind it of approximately €900 million, and we acknowledge some grant aid has been given through Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, to allow for feasibility studies and further works on the northern relief road.

Will the Minister give us further clarity on timelines for the progression of the project? Is there a possibility that further moneys might be made available for the project? The key findings of the Indecon international economic analysis state Mallow is the largest town in the north of County Cork and is one of the fastest growing towns in Cork with regard to population. The agrifood sector is a key sectoral strength in the immediate conurbation, and it supports more than 12,000 people in the agriculture sector alone. We have seen the growth of Dairygold as one of the key reference points nationally for the production of milk powder and the expansion of dairy. This is giving rise to major transport movements through HGVs, and it is putting a constraint on the local infrastructure.

Is it possible for the Minister to engage further through TII, with a view to seeing whether there is a possibility for further grants to be made available, from his finite budget, to progress this project and reflect the realities of the fact Mallow is a growing town, ensuring it facilitates and dovetails with, or runs in parallel with, the M20 Cork to Limerick project?

I thank Deputy Sherlock for raising the issue, of which I am aware, because, as the Deputy knows, it has been the subject of some attention recently.

As Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport I have responsibility for overall policy on and funding of the national roads programme. The planning, design and implementation of individual national road projects is a matter for Transport Infrastructure Ireland 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 TII 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. As a result of the national financial position, there were very large reductions in the Exchequer funding available for roads expenditure after the financial crisis. For this reason the focus has had to be on maintenance and renewal rather than major new improvements in recent years. The capital plan Building on Recovery 2016-2021 and the capital plan review allocations mark a significant step forward in terms of restoring funding to the levels needed to maintain the road network in a steady state condition and allow for investment in road improvement schemes. The allocations and planned projects for the first years of the proposed ten-year capital investment plan will align with the existing capital plan, as supplemented as part of the capital plan review. Allowing for the extra funding secured under the capital plan review, roads investment in the four-year period to 2021 will be €4.26 billion.

The Mallow relief road is one of the limited number of improvement projects included in the original Building on Recovery plan. TII is advancing these projects on a phased basis, in line with the annual funding allocations available to it. The inclusion of the Mallow project reflected the fact there was recognition at Government level of the impact on the people of Mallow and on businesses in the area of the amount of traffic travelling through the town centre. The project requires necessary project approvals. In this context, the approval process includes compliance with the requirements of the public spending code and my Department’s capital appraisal framework, together with the submission of the scheme to An Bord Pleanála for development consent.

Cork County Council is responsible for progressing the project in liaison with TII. In this context, I understand from TII that a feasibility report, referred to by the Deputy, on the scheme has been completed recently and that Cork County Council is now preparing a brief to commence the procurement of technical advisers to bring this project through phases one to four of TII’s project management guidelines. These phases cover project appraisal, design and progression through the required statutory processes.

I thank the Minister for his reply, which was positive. Given his commitment to ensuring the interurban networks get attention throughout the country, as per his statements on the national development plan, I hope the Minister will keep Mallow in mind, and that when funding becomes available to progress the schemes beyond the project appraisal, design and progressing through the statutory processes, funding will become available to ensure the project stays on the political agenda.

Of course, I will keep it in mind. Responsibility for the allocation of funding to progress the project, as the Deputy knows, lies with TII, which has to manage its expenditure in the overall funding available to it. In this context, the projects included in the capital plan are being implemented on a phased basis. TII has allocated €300,000 to the Mallow relief road this year.

Housing Assistance Payment

A distraught family in emergency accommodation in Dundalk has contacted me. This family of four girls is on the Fingal County Council housing list, but had to leave the area to go to Dundalk as they feared for their safety. The family chose to come to this area as it has local connections with relations living there. Fingal County Council has offered to pay for the family's emergency accommodation indefinitely. I telephoned Fingal County Council this week and it confirmed to me that whether it is six months, three years or whatever it takes, it will pay.

The cost per month for this accommodation to the State is more than €5,000 per month. The family is going into its 12th week in the emergency accommodation, which has cost Fingal County Council more than €15,000. The family has found a suitable property to rent in Dundalk and has the opportunity to set up home and make a fresh start. However, Fingal County Council is unable to provide a housing assistance payment for the family in Louth, but is able to do so in other nearby counties such as Meath.

All the family requires is a deposit and the first month's rent. The amount of money it is seeking from Fingal County Council is approximately €2,600, which would be a considerable saving compared to monthly costs of more than €5,000.

This family is stuck between a rock and a hard place, as Fingal County Council has stated it is unable to provide it, leaving this family stuck in emergency accommodation. In the long term, the cost of the housing assistance payment, HAP, for this family in Dundalk is less than the cost of emergency accommodation for one month.

If Fingal County Council would pay the deposit and a month's rent, the family would be able to come off the Fingal County Council list and go onto the Louth County Council list. After that, Louth County Council would be able to take over the HAP payments. This would possibly take four weeks. The cost of the rent would then be approximately €1,500 per month, rather than the current cost of more than €5,000.

As I said, this is a family of four girls. They are staying in a bed and breakfast, in a single room with two double beds. One of the family members is permanently disabled, and her health and mental health is quickly deteriorating. That family member is currently out of education and is only seven years old. She has a life-limiting, life-threatening metabolic condition, known as mitochondrial disorder, and is tube-fed. She is behind on her school work and is not sleeping properly. How could anyone sleep properly with four girls in one room with two double beds? If the family was able to move into this rented accommodation, the girl would then be able to take up her education in a local special needs school and have a healthy routine.

I would like to thank Deputy Fitzpatrick for raising this issue with me today. One of the key commitments in Rebuilding Ireland is to help homeless families and children exit homelessness and move into independent tenancies. The housing assistance payment forms a key element of the Government's response to achieving this.

HAP is a flexible and immediate form of social housing support, enabling households to choose where they wish to live. The national roll-out of the HAP scheme was completed in 2017, and HAP is now available in 31 local authorities. It is working quite well in counties like Meath and Louth and in Fingal and other areas that were mentioned here today. There were 31,200 households supported by the scheme by the end of 2017, with a target of an additional 17,000 households during 2018.

One of the measures put in place in early 2017 to support families through the use of HAP was the establishment of a homeless HAP Place Finder service in the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, which leads the response to homelessness in the four Dublin local authorities and in Cork. The homeless HAP service supports families in emergency accommodation by nominating them to viewings with the place finder service and encouraging and supporting them in finding private rented accommodation. More than 2,000 families are being supported by the scheme.

The scheme has had success in Dublin, Cork, and the Fingal area referred to by Deputy Fitzpatrick, where the housing team has done great work. Likewise, the housing team in County Louth is doing great work, providing housing solutions for many people who are homeless. Following this, the scheme was introduced to all local authorities earlier this year.

A critical aspect of the homeless HAP Place Finder scheme is the results that it is achieving in preventing families from entering emergency accommodation. For example, a family provided with a notice to quit a tenancy can be supported by the local authority to secure a tenancy without ever having to enter homeless accommodation. Accordingly, the scheme is playing a vital role in prevention.

Preventing homelessness is a priority for the Government. Increasing inter-agency prevention efforts is a key function of the inter-agency group on homelessness, which was established by the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, following the housing summit in September 2017. The group is chaired by Mr. John Murphy, a former Secretary General, and includes representation from the Department of Health, the HSE, Tusla, the Department of Justice and Equality and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. The group is expected to make its first report to the Minister in the coming weeks.

Of course, delivering more social housing is critical to addressing homelessness, and my Department is working closely with local authorities to accelerate delivery. Last year an additional 7,000 new social houses were delivered across all schemes throughout the country, and this year we expect to have 8,000 new houses. That is in addition to the 17,000 HAP places that we hope to have as well.

While the level of homelessness remains a significant problem, solutions are being implemented. Over 4,000 exits from homelessness were achieved in 2017, and my Department is working to build on this in 2018. The homeless HAP place finder service will remain an integral part of our response, and will certainly help counties like Louth, Fingal and other areas to find accommodation for people who find themselves homeless.

I understand that there is a particular issue with the case Deputy Fitzpatrick has raised, and I am happy to discuss it with him. I have been assured by the officials in my Department that a solution can be reached. As Minister State, I commit to working with the Deputy and with the local teams in Louth and in Fingal, which are doing great work. We will find a solution for this family. I can assure this House of that.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I repeat that there are four girls living in one room, with two double beds and no facilities for cooking or washing clothes. As I said, one of these girls is a seven year old child who has a life-limiting, life-threatening metabolic condition and is tube-fed. She is out of school and her health is suffering. I have spoken to a local special needs school in Dundalk that is willing to take her on.

I do not blame the Fingal County Council or the Louth County Council and I agree with the Minister of State that they do tremendous work. However, it makes no sense to pay €5,000 per month for one room in emergency accommodation when the family can get a house where each member will have their own room for roughly €1,500. It makes no sense whatsoever.

I have great confidence in the Minister of State. This Government has given a tremendous commitment to look after the housing needs of the people over the next two years. I work very closely with Mr. Denis McArdle, who looks after the homeless people in Dundalk, and with Mr. Joe McGuinness, the housing officer in Dundalk. Louth County Council is willing to take this family on, but the position at the moment is that Fingal County Council is paying, and one cannot be on two local authorities housing lists. We have to get the family off the Fingal County Council list and onto the Louth County Council list. In the meantime there might be four weeks without payment. The Minister of State is a very capable person, and I am not just saying that to build my case. This family is in a very bad way. It is not nice when one sees a seven year old child being wheeled into one's office in a wheelchair. I am pleading with the Minister of State, and I have faith in him. Please, can we help this family?

Deputy Fitzpatrick raises two very important issues. The first of these is this family and their circumstances. It is so important that we find them a home as quickly as possible. As a Government and as taxpayers, we do not want to see anybody in emergency accommodation. It is not a place to raise a family and it is not a place in which to be. It does not provide value for taxpayers' money either. For everyone in the Dáil, and certainly for everybody in government, the priority is to get people out of emergency accommodation and into permanent accommodation.

Deputy Fitzpatrick also points out that from a taxpayer's point of view, we must use our money better. There is a cheaper solution available to give these people a better home and I am determined that we make that happen. What Deputy Fitzpatrick is asking is that we use common sense. I have no doubt we can do that. Working with Ms Margaret Geraghty and all her team in the Fingal local authority and with Mr. Joe McGuinness and his team in the housing section of the Louth County Council, including Mr. Denis McArdle, we will find a solution to this. I have no doubt about that and my Department officials believe we can do that as well.

It is about trying to find people a housing solution and find them a home. Certainly there is a lot of pressure in the Dublin area and in Louth, Meath, Kildare and Wicklow but the pressure extends even further. I refer to County Cavan, represented by Deputy Brendan Smith, who is in the Chamber. There are housing difficulties in many parts of the country. Thankfully, after a year and a half of Rebuilding Ireland, we are beginning to make the progress we need.

Taxpayers' money is being spent. This year will see almost €2 billion of taxpayers' money spent on housing solutions. This spend includes the local authorities, all the non-governmental organisations, NGOs, that benefit from taxpayers' money and our approved housing bodies. Everybody is coming to the table to provide solutions. We need to do that as quickly as possibly and in a common-sense way. That will involve inter-agency work. It means working at local authority level and that is certainly something we will do.

The Minister and I, along with all the officials in our Department, are determined to be solution-focused and to find a home for as many people as we possibly can. While there is no doubt that the number of homeless is still far too high, last year homes were found for more than 4,000 people. This year we will go way beyond that. As I said, emergency accommodation or a hotel is not a place for a family.

DEIS Applications

I appreciate the Office of the Ceann Comhairle accepting this subject as a Topical Issue. I want to make a strong appeal, through the Minister of State, to the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton. I appeal to the Minister to give urgent and detailed consideration to the very detailed application submitted by the principal and the board of management of the Convent of Mercy national school in Belturbet, County Cavan, to be included in band 1 of the urban DEIS, Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, scheme. Over the years, I have been privileged to work along with the principal, the staff, the boards of management and successive parents' associations in trying to bring investment to that particular school. The school is a pivotal part of the local community and pursues as much involvement in extra-curricular activities as possible. Indeed, I have been at many of these events in the school over the years and it is a very important part of our local community in Belturbet.

The board of management submitted a detailed application. The criteria are very much based on the statistics gathered in past censuses. The Pobal indices for 2011 and 2016 all point to the inclusion of the school in the DEIS 1 band. The Department has the detail, but the position has deteriorated since and the number of areas of disadvantage has, unfortunately, increased, which considerably strengthens the school's case to be granted this status.

The Minister of State will be aware from his County Cavan connections that Belturbet is a Border town and, unfortunately, because of the Troubles when roads were blown up in the area and so on, the community suffered terribly. There has been a lack of employment opportunities in the town, which has suffered from the general disadvantage that has affected Border communities. I commend the local community, those working in statutory agencies locally and the teachers who ensured they provided the best possible education for the children under their care. The DEIS designation at primary level is valuable and the school in Belturbet has submitted a strong application which meets all of the criteria laid down by the Department. According to previous correspondence with the Minister, decisions will be made at the end of quarter 1 this year. I appeal to the Minister of State to convey a strong message to the Minister who I appreciate cannot be present owing to other commitments. However, I ask the Minister of State to convey to him the strong case I have made and ensure every aspect of the application submitted by the board of management will be given detailed and favourable consideration. The community does not look for handouts. It is seeking support to enhance the school environment for all of the children. I hope the Minister of State will have positive news on the application.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue and apologise on behalf of the Minister, who cannot be present. I discussed the issue with him earlier and he is very much aware of it from the correspondence he has received from the Deputy. He is sorry he cannot be present, but I will make sure to convey to him the additional information provided by the Deputy.

DEIS is the main policy initiative of the Department of Education and Skills to address educational disadvantage at school level. DEIS Plan 2017, published in February last year, introduced a more robust and responsive framework for assessing levels of disadvantage in schools and set out details of an updated DEIS school support programme. The DEIS identification process uses data from the following sources: Central Statistics Office small area population statistics, as represented in the Pobal small area HP deprivation index, combined with centrally held data from the Department's primary and post-primary online databases as provided by schools. This new approach removes the administrative burden on schools to provide socioeconomic data for their pupil cohorts and ensures consistency and uniformity in the assessment process for all primary and post-primary schools. The system is also responsive to demographic changes in schools, with the capacity to update school data on an annual basis from the school annual census returns and socioeconomic data every five years following the CSO national census of population. This development was strongly called for by stakeholders during the review of the DEIS programme undertaken by the Department in which I was involved at the time.

The initial application of the model assessed all schools and found that most schools had pupils from disadvantaged areas but that the concentration of disadvantage varied significantly. It is important to note that the Department's assessment is not based on the location of the school but on the CSO small areas statistics from which a school derives its pupil cohort. Accordingly, the demographics of neighbouring schools can differ in terms of assessed levels of need, which are based on the pupil cohort within each school. Following the initial application of the identification process, 79 additional schools were brought into the programme, while a further 30 existing DEIS schools were identified for increased levels of support with effect from September 2017. An updating of the identification model is under way and will take account of data provided by schools for the current school year, combined with the Pobal HP index of deprivation, based on census 2016. It is envisaged that the process will be completed by the end of quarter 1 this year, or in a month's time. If the exercise reveals that any school meets the criteria applicable to schools with the highest concentrations of disadvantage, it may be included, subject to available resources. It is also important to note that all schools, including the Convent of Mercy, Belturbet, have available to them a range of supports provided by the Department to meet the identified additional educational needs of their pupil cohorts. They include additional teaching and other resources to meet special educational needs, language and behavioural supports and educational psychological supports. Further services provided by the Professional Development Service for Teachers are also available to support teachers and school leaders in the delivery of teaching and learning in schools.

I thank the Minister of State. The 2016 census demonstrated through the measurement of the levels of disadvantage that all areas of Belturbet fell into either the marginally below average or very disadvantaged category. That represented a deterioration in comparison to the position following the 2006 census. The Pobal map shows that the largest population currently resides in the most disadvantaged area of Belturbet. It is an area of significant disadvantage. One good initiative undertaken by the education and training board in recent years through the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in partnership with the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Youth Work Ireland was the introduction of an intervention programme designed to target older children deemed to be at risk. The programme is necessary and worthwhile.

The Department has classified the school incorrectly in that it is included in the rural instead of the urban classification. That is a misreading of the position at official level. That the school should have urban status is demonstrated by the fact that it is a participant in the non-statutory school meals local project scheme which is funded by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. A school has to have urban status to be included in the scheme. There is a difference in designation between the two Departments. It is a small town school which should have urban status. On its own initiative, the school established the role of home-school liaison officer in 1997. Even at the time, it recognised the need to provide additional support for children and families. All of these factors should be taken into consideration.

The principal, Ms Breege Flynn, and her staff would not look for something unless it was needed, nor would the chairman or members of the board of management or the parents association. The school community works in the best interests of the children and the local community. I would not table a Topical Issue matter unless I thought the application merited serious, urgent and favourable consideration. I appreciate that the Minister of State will speak to the Minister about the application, but I appeal to him to do so in the strongest terms.

I acknowledge the Deputy's integrity and genuineness in bringing forward this issue, which I know is close to its heart. I recognise the work principals do with boards of management, parents associations and the local community to fight for resources for their schools. The Deputy is correct that they generally do so only when they know that they need them. The new process in place will examine applications objectively. I will convey the Deputy's clear message to the Minister, in particular, on the issue of the urban-rural classification. I will raise the issue because it is important.

When the data have been assessed, the analysis will be beneficial in making decisions. For the first time, the Department has introduced an objective statistics-based model for deciding which schools merit inclusion in the DEIS programme in order that all stakeholders will have confidence that additional resources are being targeted at the schools identified as having the highest concentrated levels of disadvantage. The schools included in the programme, with effect from September 2017, are the ones which have been identified as having the highest concentrations of disadvantage among their pupil cohorts.

The schools that have not been included at this stage, and which include the Convent of Mercy national school, Belturbet, County Cavan, which Deputy Smith has just raised, are those which have not been identified as having the highest levels of concentrated disadvantage among their pupil cohort under the new identification model. It is also important to note that this is the first step in a process, and the fact that a school has not been included now does not preclude its inclusion at a later date if the Department's assessment indicates a level of disadvantage that warrants inclusion in the programme. With the analysis at the moment and the additional information the Deputy has provided, I will make sure this case is looked into and I will raise it on his behalf with the Minister, Deputy Bruton.