Leaders' Questions

St. Gabriel's special school in Bishopstown, County Cork, provides education for 43 special needs children with very severe and profound diagnoses of autism. That includes intellectual disability with autism, probably the most severe and profound condition that is catered for in the education system. These are children who should be our number one priority, but they are being neglected by the Government in their need for a new school building. The parents say they feel forgotten. The existing school building has huge issues. It is substandard. The bathroom is not big enough for wheelchairs to fit, there is no hot running water, the roof leaks, there are no dedicated toilets for children with medical needs, there is a lack of infection control and the sensory room is in a windowless outbuilding. I could go on. The parents are now crowdfunding for €200,000. Parents of a school of 43 children with severe and profound conditions are attempting to raise €200,000 to carry out repairs to make the school habitable.

That school is illustrative of many other schools throughout the country, both special schools and mainstream primary schools. Parents all over the country are raising money for the day-to-day expenditure needed to keep schools going. Quite simply, the capitation grant is not anywhere near sufficient to meet the costs of running a school. According to the chief inspector's report, spending per pupil in Ireland is less than the European Union average or Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD, average. According to a recent Grant Thornton report, the capitation grant now covers approximately 52% of the cost of running a school, depending on whether the school is small, medium or large. In all cases however, we are looking at situations where the capitation is much less than what is actually necessary. The average capitation grant of €46,000 in 2016 was clearly insufficient to meet the average general expenditure costs of about €91,000. This includes the heating expenditure and all the basic operational costs. Voluntary schools at secondary level are in a similar situation. I visited several secondary schools recently. Maintenance costs are a big issue for them. They do not have the day-to-day resources to meet them.

The programme for Government includes a commitment to multi-annual increases in capitation grants and funding for schools under a number of headings, but it has not been implemented. Last year we forced the Government to act on the pupil-teacher ratio as part of the confidence and supply agreement, but the Government was resistant on the issue of capitation for some reason. I would say there are three ways to bring some ease to schools. One is to commit in the next budget to a phased increase in the capitation rate for schools. Second, the minor works grant scheme should be a permanent feature as a non-discretionary payment to schools by the Government and this should be provided for statutorily as an annual payment, not just something that may happen next year or the following year. Similarly, summer work schemes should be annual and should be fixed in order that schools can plan with some degree of certainty as to the income that will help them to meet the day-to-day running costs and repair and maintenance costs.

This year the Government will invest €10 billion in education, the highest ever spending on education in the history of the State. In fact, €1 billion more is being spent on education this year than when the current Government of Fine Gael, the Independent Alliance and Independent Members came to office. That is money well spent. It is taxpayers' money invested in our children and in education. It is invested in giving them the best opportunities in life and ensuring they can access the best jobs when they grow up and become adults. That involves a lot of investment in school buildings as well. I cannot comment on the individual case that Deputy Martin raised but we have seen an enormous amount of new school building all around the country. My own constituency, a very rapidly developing area, has had a number of new schools built, including secondary schools and primary schools. The quality of those buildings is really excellent. I also have seen extensions built all over the country.

In the case of large projects, 340 large projects have been delivered since 2011 and 175,000 additional school places have been provided, recognising the growth in our population and the current demographic bulge. We have 6,000 additional teachers working in our education system and 3,000 additional special needs assistants, SNAs. We now invest more in special education than we do in higher education. Some 150 new autism spectrum disorder, ASD, units are being provided per year, which is an enormous investment. As Deputy Micheál Martin mentioned, the pupil-teacher ratio has been reduced.

There is a commitment in the programme for Government to increase capitation funding in the next several years and there is a commitment in the Action Plan for Education to do the same.

Even the wealthiest countries, those that are doing well economically, as we are, cannot do everything they would like to do in any one year. When it comes to capital projects - new schools, refurbishments and extensions - it will always be the case that there will be a pipeline of projects. It is never possible to do every project and everything one would like to do in education, health or any similar area in a given year. One has to prioritise and last year in particular we prioritised new schools where they were needed, increased teacher numbers, reduced the pupil-teacher ratio, and introduced new examination subjects such as physical education and computer science. As part of the budget, which is five months away, we will consider an increase in capitation in line with the commitment made in the programme for Government.

I also ask the main Opposition party to tell us what its priorities are because I hear its education spokesperson demanding more spending on new school buildings one day, the next day demanding full pay restoration or full pay equality for young teachers and the following day demanding an increase in capitation. All of that does not add up and Deputy Micheál Martin knows as well as I do that one cannot deliver all of those things in one year. What is Fianna Fáil's priority? What would it put first? Would it be capitation, capital spending for new schools or pay equalisation for new teachers, because it cannot be all three? What is its priority?

We put our priorities into the confidence and supply agreement. The reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio would not have occurred if it had not been provided for in the confidence and supply agreement. Fine Gael resisted the reduction, just as it resisted the National Treatment Purchase Fund.

Fianna Fáil no longer has confidence in the Government.

Likewise, the Fine Gael Party resisted postgraduate grants which we put into the confidence and supply agreement. The same applied to ex quota career guidance counsellors. There would have been no movement on career guidance counselling if I had not insisted that, despite Fine Gael objections, it be included in the confidence and supply agreement.

I am not interested in a tit-for-tat argument about who does what better. The parents of 43 children with severe and profound diagnoses of intellectual disability and autism do not want a figure of €10 billion thrown at them. They want a new school and a sense that somebody is listening to and aware of them because right now they do not have any such sense. I have met these parents. That is the problem and this is not about Deputies in a debating Chamber saying, "I will do it better than you do it", but about responding to real need.

Last week, a list of 42 new schools was published. No one went looking for two of the schools in Cork that feature on the list, yet a school that has been seeking a new building for three or four years is not on any goddamn list. Does the Taoiseach understand the frustration of parents when faced with the juxtaposition of the Government publishing a fantasy list claiming it will build new schools in three or four years' time, while at the same time it cannot even get around to providing habitable conditions for children who have been diagnosed with severe and profound intellectual disabilities?

The Taoiseach wants to know what my party's priorities are. Last year, we said our priorities were reducing the pupil-teacher ratio and increasing capitation. An increase in capitation is possible. It is unsustainable for schools to survive and meet their ongoing day-to-day running costs from the capitation grant they receive.

We need more time for this discussion.

This is a simple and valid point, which the Government acknowledged three years ago in its programme for Government but which it has not implemented.

The confidence and supply agreement was not resisted; it was agreed. It was a negotiation. As is the case with any negotiation, one tries to agree what is possible and cuts one cloth to suit one's measure. What is wholly dishonest in politics is when people go around the country promising every interest group they will do everything they ask this year. That is not possible.

That sounds like Project Ireland 2040.

That is what Deputy Micheál Martin's party is doing.

Deputy McLoughlin knows all about that.

Please allow the Taoiseach to continue without interruption.

As is always the case, the truth hurts. That is what Deputy Micheál Martin's party is doing and I am keeping a record of all the promises his spokespersons are making as the weeks go by. Hundreds of millions in extra spending are being promised every week for every interest group and it is all being promised now. That is exactly the kind of philosophy that landed this country in the hole out of which we had to take it a number of years ago.

What does the Taoiseach say?

(Interruptions).

Deputies may not like the answers but I have no control over them.

We have delivered. We delivered on the pupil-teacher ratio, guidance counsellors, extra teachers, pay restoration and additional schools. I welcome Deputy Micheál Martin's clarity that capitation is Fianna Fáil's priority in education spending, not the other promises Deputy Thomas Byrne has been making to other groups in education.

They are all needed.

There is one issue on which I disagree with Deputy Micheál Martin. It is important that we plan for new schools in four or five years' time and the Department of Education and Skills, under this Government, is much better at planning for schools than it used to be because we now look at demographics and child benefit.

The Taoiseach should look at Pelletstown in his constituency where children have to be bussed to other areas.

I remember very well when I was in opposition that we had to set up an emergency school in prefabricated buildings one September - Scoil Choilm - precisely because the then Government did not plan three or four years ahead.

Remember the emergency school on the racecourse. There was no planning back then.

(Interruptions).

Deputies will have to find another way to have this debate.

We need to plan three and four years ahead. It is disturbing that-----

The Taoiseach is completely out of touch.

-----we are planning three or four years ahead for children who are born and are aged two.

The same rules apply to the Taoiseach. If he and the leader of Fianna Fáil want a longer debate, they will have to find another way to do so.

They should get a room.

There is trouble in paradise; the Government parties have fallen out.

The clock has started for Deputy McDonald.

It has started in more ways than one.

Yesterday, I raised with the Taoiseach the issue of leniency in the sentences handed down for sexual crimes against women and children. In response, the Taoiseach gave his support for our call for the introduction of sentencing guidelines. I urge him and the Minister for Justice and Equality to support Sinn Féin's amendments to the Judicial Council Bill.

As the Taoiseach is aware, I raise these matters on foot of an RTE "Prime Time" programme aired last night which centred on the case of three young girls who were raped by Keith Burke while in the care of a foster family in County Galway. Shock, heartbreak and anger best describe the reaction of the nation - shock at what the girls were subjected to and anger because of the way in which the agencies of the State, particularly the Health Service Executive, utterly failed to protect the children.

In 2007, Rachel Barry disclosed to the HSE that she had been abused by Keith Burke. Her disclosure was judged to be credible by a subsequent HSE investigation. Rachel also disclosed that a second young girl known as Amy had been raped by Burke. A file was sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, but no prosecution followed. Incredibly, Amy and another child remained living in the Burke family home where Amy remained until she made a disclosure in 2011. For four years after the risk to this young girl was uncovered, she and other children were left in a setting in which the authorities knew they were at severe risk of rape and abuse. This risk, and the failure of State agencies to act, are best emphasised by the fact that a third victim was uncovered as a result of the investigation following Amy's disclosure. These were young girls who were already vulnerable - that is the precise reason they were in foster care - yet the State failed them when they most needed it. This represents another collapse in the systems and processes designed, we had all hoped, to protect and guard vulnerable children. It was not so long ago that the House discussed the harrowing case of Grace. It is an indictment of our system, therefore, that we come here again and again to express rightful outrage while knowing that it is only a matter of time before the next case arises. I am sure the Taoiseach agrees we cannot go on like this. There needs to be accountability. The Government must support the call for an independent inquiry into this case. Will it do so?

I thank Deputy McDonald for raising this important issue. I had an opportunity to watch the "Prime Time" programme last night. Sexual crimes perpetrated against children are the worst form of crimes - they are abhorrent, unspeakable and unforgivable. It is particularly distressing and shocking that the young women in question were in State care.

I noted some similarities with the Grace case in the south east. I commend the bravery of Sarah, Rachel and Amy in telling their story. In doing so, they will help others. I am sure of that. There is a criminal conviction in the case and the abuser is behind bars where he can do no harm to anyone. I am aware of the concern about the leniency of the sentence in this case. It is, of course, up to the DPP to decide in the coming weeks whether it is appropriate to appeal the sentence to the Court of Criminal Appeal. There will be an independent investigation by the national review panel, which is made up of independent professionals working in the field of child protection. In fact, the investigation is already under way, having commenced at the end of 2016, and is nearing completion. However, it was affected by the fact that a criminal case was in train.

While I realise fully that the victims must relive the abuse they experienced every day, whether it is the smells, sounds or visual flashbacks, it is important to acknowledge that the abuse happened between ten and 15 years ago. Since then, a great deal has been done to improve child protection in the State. For example, the HSE is no longer responsible for child protection or foster care, responsibility for both of which now falls under the remit of a dedicated agency, namely, Tusla. We also have a Department of Children and Youth Affairs with a dedicated Minister at the Cabinet table. We have changed our Constitution to enshrine within it the rights of children and introduced mandatory reporting. All provisions of the Children First Act are now fully in force. We can honestly say that there has been a real change in the way we have prioritised child protection in the State since 2011, although there is always more to be done. We need to do a great deal more in this space in the period ahead.

I join the Taoiseach in commending the women who have come through the awful ordeal that was visited on them as very small girls. I commend them on their bravery. I accept that the protection of our children is now a matter which looms large in public policy in a way that it did not ten or 15 years ago. However, there is no room for complacency. I recall very accurately that as we dealt with the Grace case, we discovered that there were still massive gaps and inadequacies in our child protection system, as well as a reluctance within parts of the HSE and other services to be held accountable when mistakes are made or systems failures identified.

I ask the Taoiseach to tell us more about the independent investigation that he says commenced in 2016. That is, of course, prior to an apology being made to the victims in question. Is this the independent investigation for which the legal representatives of the victims have called? Have the victims and their legal representatives had access to the terms of reference of the inquiry and will they have an opportunity to provide testimony to it? If the Taoiseach could answer those questions in as precise terms as possible, I would appreciate it.

The national review panel was asked to investigate this case in April 2016, which is when the matter was referred. The panel is an independent body consisting of independent professionals from a range of disciplines engaged for their professional expertise. Tusla staff and some former children in care and their families have been interviewed by the panel. Tusla awaits the outcome of the review and has agreed to act on all of its findings and recommendations. I do not have the terms of reference in front of me. As I say, it is an independent panel.

In the context of foster carers and foster families, it is important to note that foster parents are wonderful people in the vast majority of cases. They take vulnerable children who are often troubled, neglected or abandoned into their homes and look after them. We want more people to do this. It is important that we do not do anything which might discourage people from becoming foster parents or create the impression that they are not properly vetted. Before someone becomes a foster parent, there are several months of checks, including a medical check and a Garda check, a link-in with a social worker and training in child protection. We know, however, from recent reviews carried out by HIQA, which is now responsible for inspecting foster care, that this has not happened in some cases where Garda checks have not been conducted as frequently as they might have been. It is evident that we need to do a great deal more work in this area to ensure we raise standards further.

We move now to Independents 4 Change. Deputy Wallace has three minutes.

The end of February saw the first ever prosecution resulting in a conviction in the UK of a corporate body for failure to prevent bribery. The case concerned the managing director of a company paying a £10,000 bribe to secure a contract worth £6 million. This was the first test of section 7 of the UK's Bribery Act, which provides that a corporate body is guilty of an offence if a person associated with it has been found guilty of corruption. Equivalent Irish legislation, namely the Criminal Justice (Corruption Offences) Bill, came before the justice committee in March this year. The Bill incorporates the "failure to prevent" principle, copying the UK legislation, which is welcome. The legislation will be pointless and a mere fig-leaf reform, however, if the Government does not create an independent body with the necessary legal power to enforce the Bill's provision.

Sadly, the legislation may have come too late for some organisations. We know for a fact that NAMA's chairperson and chief executive were aware of corruption taking place within the organisation to which they turned a blind eye. When it was discovered that a NAMA employee had been leaking debtor portfolio details to investment funds, NAMA's chair and chief executive called in Deloitte, not the Garda, to investigate. By coincidence, NAMA has, since its inception, paid Deloitte over €7 million in fees for receivership duties. If this is not a conflict of interest, I am not sure what would be. We know of ten more cases where senior executives in NAMA became aware of corruption by staff but dealt with it in-house instead of reporting it to the relevant authority. Sadly, it seems that NAMA will get away with it. NAMA is the only State agency that has a policy of deleting the emails of staff members one year after such staff have left its employment. It does not sound as if the organisation is too interested in transparency.

Another serious development took place in February this year in relation to happenings in NAMA. A former NAMA staff member, Paul Pugh, was due to stand trial in the Dublin Circuit Court on 12 February for leaking highly sensitive information that NAMA was supposed to be keeping safe. For some strange reason, the DPP withdrew the case at the last minute. No explanation has been given as to why the proceedings have been halted and there is serious anger in certain quarters that this could have happened. If someone in the DPP's office saw fit in 2016 to recommend the prosecution of this NAMA official and to send him forward for trial, why was the prosecution halted and on whose instructions? If the Taoiseach does not have the answer at this stage, he should provide it to the House as soon as possible. There are a lot more questions than answers around how these individuals are operating.

Before the Taoiseach responds, I remind Deputy Wallace that he should be very careful. I heard him refer to corruption and the CEO in NAMA and it is an allegation. He should choose his words more carefully.

I have done that. I promise the Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

I do not believe the Deputy has done so and I caution him.

I am not in a position to respond to allegations the Deputy has made against individual members of staff in NAMA. This is not the place for us to make allegations, nor can I respond to them not knowing whether they are true or untrue. The DPP acts independently of the Government and does not receive direction from it. The DPP's office does not account to the Government for its decisions. From experience and following cases down the years, I am aware that when the DPP decides not to prosecute, it generally does so because it does not believe there is sufficient evidence to pursue a case and secure a conviction. I cannot say in this individual case whether that is the position. I am not even sure I am allowed to ask.

On the broader picture of fighting corruption and white collar crime, the Government published a package of measures last year to crack down on such crime in Ireland. This was produced back in November. Since then, the Department of Justice and Equality has taken this forward through three major legislative initiatives.

The first is the Criminal Justice (Corruption Offences) Bill which has made significant progress through the House with Report Stage to take place on 1 and 2 May. It is then planned to bring all Stages through the Seanad and have it passed before the summer recess. The Bill includes legislative provisions for recommendations arising from the Mahon tribunal. It will substantially advance Ireland in meeting its obligations under several international anti-corruption instruments. The major modernisation of the corruption offences law will repeal and replace seven previous Prevention of Corruption Acts, some of them dating back to 1889. It will consolidate, update and strengthen seven Bills for modern times.

An amendment to the Bill was agreed by the Government yesterday which will ensure the full implementation of Article 7 of the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions, making it an offence to launder the proceeds of bribery outside Ireland involving a foreign public official, even if the bribery was not an offence in the place in which it was carried out. In addition to that, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, has brought forward the Criminal Justice (Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing) (Amendment) Bill as part of the Government's package of measures.

I take the Deputy’s point in this regard that one can have all the legislation one likes, but if one does not enforce it, or have the power or strength to enforce it, then it counts for little. We indicated already, as part of our package of reforms, that we intend to strengthen, expand and beef up the role of the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement. It will be moved from being an office within the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation to a stand-alone bureau of investigation, a sort of Irish FBI, if one likes, when it comes to white-collar crime and corporate enforcement.

I am not making allegations. I am stating facts. I want the Taoiseach to dig deeper.

Not only does NAMA have a tendency to play a bit footloose with criminal law, but it seems to care little for the data protection law. Two months ago, the Data Protection Commissioner found that NAMA was in breach of its obligations under data protection law regarding requests for data from the O'Flynn group. I have read the 67-page report and believe the Government should be concerned. The O'Flynns had asked for all personal data NAMA held on them, which is their right. NAMA initially agreed to undertake a full search for this. Some 14 months later, however, it told the commissioner it had decided not to do the requested searches.

I have no doubt the workings of NAMA will prove to be the biggest financial scandal in the history of the State when the truth eventually emerges. Former NAMA officials and their closest friends now control vast amounts of Dublin's housing stock. They have morphed from being civil servants into millionaires, quicker than the Government can build a semi-detached house. I know the Taoiseach is a busy man and it cannot be possible for him to be on top of every issue. I appeal to him to consider, however, putting NAMA on his radar and address the fact that it lacks transparency and accountability. There was much talk in the House last week about insider information but a blind eye is being turned to NAMA. The Taoiseach is ignoring it at his peril.

In fairness, some of those points sound like allegations to me. I have no idea whether they are true or not. I have no doubt the Deputy believes them. However, it would not be the first time in this House that Deputies put allegations on the record of the House in good faith, perhaps believing them, and we subsequently found out they were untrue. That is why we all need to be cautious in this area.

NAMA is very much on my radar. It is coming to the end of its remit as a public body which was set up as a solution to the banking crisis. We now believe it will make a small profit and remit that to the State. At that point, it will have served its purpose and have ended its remit.

I wish to raise two matters regarding the lack of infrastructure in Kerry.

On the N70 road to the west of Blackwater Bridge, on the Kenmare to Sneem road, there is a 4 km section between Foley’s Bend and the west of Tahilla Church where two large vehicles cannot pass when they meet each other. It is not safe. A lorry or bus and one car cannot pass each other but have to reverse. Can one imagine that on a busy national secondary road? An EIS, environmental impact statement, design and CPO, compulsory purchase order, process is being progressed. Improvement works will cost between €8 million and €10 million, depending on what the tenders come in at. Will the Taoiseach and the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Griffin, ensure funding is made available for this section?

There is also another section of a kilometre just west of Blackwater Bridge. No design has been progressed on this yet but this is dangerous. I know it myself. If an articulated lorry passes a car on this part of the road, the car will pass the cab fine but will be caught between the trailer and the ditch. If the car cannot stop, it is stuck in the lorry or the ditch. That improvement would cost between €2 million and €2.5 million. Will the Government make that funding available?

The R551, between Ardfert and Ballyheigue, often gets flooded when there is a high tide and heavy rain. Approximately 200 m of this road becomes impassable with a mix of salt and clear water. We are looking for a specific improvement grant or funding to be made available to raise the road by 200 m to ensure the people of Ballyheigue and other road users can get in and out of the village.

Does the Deputy know where it is?

Will the Minister of State, Deputy Griffin, or the Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Moran, provide the funding to raise the road for people's safety? It is not fair on people that they have to get through salt water. The road can be blocked for up to a week at a time. Will the Government ensure funding is made available for these worthwhile projects?

While this question might be relevant to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I have no jurisdiction over the questions asked of the Taoiseach.

It was asked last week.

The provision made for capital investment in our national, local and regional roads is close to €4.3 billion. That includes €1.8 billion on regional and local roads. I cannot make a commitment here and now about specific road projects in the Deputy’s constituency or in any other constituency. However, because the economy is doing well, more people are back at work and the public finances are back in order, we are now able to invest in our roads and public transport in the years ahead in the way we were not in the past. That allocation of €4.3 billion over the next four years will allow us to do much important work around the country improving our road network.

This will only be possible, however, if we continue to manage the economy well, do not repeat the mistakes of the past, do not engage in profligate spending and do not allow our competitiveness to fall. It is important that all Members on all sides have a bit more regard to that in the future.

The Government can spend €135 million on a footpath in Dublin. We are asking for small sums of money to be made available. In the context of what Kerry gets in a year, this is a small request. It is not fair to ask people to drive through a flood to get into their village.

The Deputy is too late. The matter was raised last week.

I did not interrupt Deputy Brassil when he raised the matter. He asked me if I knew where it is. I know too well where it is. I make no apology to anyone for raising it in the Chamber.

The Deputy is too late.

I did not interrupt Deputy Brassil.

The Deputies can have this out in Kerry. This is the national Parliament.

I did not interrupt him. The Minister of State, Deputy Griffin, criticised Jackie Healy-Rae for bringing funding down to Kerry. Let the Minister of State bring down the funding for the N70 between Blackwater Bridge and Sneem. Jackie Healy-Rae brought a lot of money and did a lot to improve sections of these roads. There are a few bits remaining to be done. It is time the Minister of State brought the funding and looked after the people of Kenmare, Sneem, Ardfert and Ballyheigue.

This is their time to provide the funding for the people of Kerry for these worthwhile projects.

I have no doubt whatever that the Minister of State, Deputy Griffin, is bringing the goods to County Kerry-----

-----whether through investment in tourism, and Kerry is very much a tourism county and has being doing very well in this in recent years, through sports capital projects - the Minister of State has been touring Ireland to visit many of the projects that have received Government investment in sport - or roads. Deputy Griffin is very much doing his job as a Minister of State at a national level while also making sure that Kerry gets its fair share of investment from the Government.

That completes Leaders' Questions.

I am watching him now.

There is no second supplementary.

He criticised Jackie Healy-Rae.

There will be no supplementary questions.