Topical Issue Debate

Driver Test Waiting Lists

As a result of legislation introduced by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, the driving test for learning drivers is becoming more exacting. The standards expected have increased, which is welcome and Sinn Féin has supported all the legislation the Minister has introduced. It is now necessary, for example, to ensure a fully qualified driver is always in a vehicle and this requirement is being fully enforced, as is right and proper. However, other factors outside the remit of the Department, including the cost of insurance, make learning to drive increasingly difficult. In that context, it is reasonable to expect the Government to go some distance towards ensuring that learner drivers have reasonable access to the driving test and have an opportunity to become fully qualified drivers. Learner drivers are facing inordinate waiting times across the country, particularly in Cork city and surrounding areas. According to the Road Safety Authority's website, the average waiting time for a driving test is 15.6 weeks. This does not tell the full story, however.

The longest wait is 25 weeks, according to the RSA website. What is important to understand is that for those who are in a position to book a cancellation, for example, it is not that difficult to get a test but those cancellations could fall at any time. The reality for anybody working full time is that that option is not available to him or her. One must pick a specific date and that date could be five or six months down the line. Others are in a situation where they need to pass a driving test to be able to qualify for a new position that they have applied for.

In anticipation of this debate, I asked my constituents on social media for examples of how long they had been waiting. I was told that one person had booked a test in January and still had not heard anything. Another was waiting seven months for a test date. One person was waiting since September. A driving instructor told me that a pupil had sat the test yesterday who had applied last November. Another person has been waiting since November and is being told that it could be some time.

For many, the wait is longer than six months. That presents considerable difficulties, as I say, particularly for those who are waiting on a job and need a driving licence for that. It is quite unfair, especially for those who have sat the test, may have missed out narrowly and then must wait another six months before they can sit the test again. In the context of us setting higher and higher thresholds for learner drivers, it is only fair that Government would ensure that learner drivers have access to a test reasonably speedily.

One step that should be taken is that a second driving test centre would be set up to serve the greater Cork city area. The city test centre covers not only Cork city, which has a population of more than 200,000 when one takes in the surrounding areas, but also east Cork, because there is no test centre there, and a good part of north Cork. This test centre serves a population of between 300,000 and 350,000. That is excessive. There should be a second test centre to serve that area.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue.

I would like to put on record my personal appreciation for the support given by Sinn Féin to the traffic legislation before the House. We are on the same page about saving lives.

I acknowledge what the Deputy has raised here today is a real problem. It is something which is being addressed. I acknowledge as well that it is not yet resolved. The driver testing service has seen an increase of almost 20% in the levels of driving test applications over the past four years. This, coupled with the retirement of driver tester staff, has meant that the waiting times for customers for driving tests have increased.

Driving tests are delivered across 52 test centres nationally. The objective of the RSA is to have a national average waiting time of no longer than ten weeks. The current national average waiting time for a driving test is 12.5 weeks. The RSA continues to monitor capacity against demand and deploys driver testers to best meet the demand across all test centres.

The current average waiting time for a driving test in the Wilton test centre in Cork is 16 weeks. The longest waiting time for a test at the Cork centre is 23 weeks. This longest wait time may be due to an applicant applying for a test before completing the required driver training of 12 lessons, or the test maybe on hold for medical or payment reasons. That is consistent with what the Deputy said when he mentioned six months, which is 26 weeks. The Deputy is probably right about that figure which he produced.

The following table gives an overview of test applications at the Cork driving test centre:

Cork (Wilton) Test Centre — Applications on hand as at 9 May 2018

Available and Waiting

Scheduled

Yet to complete

driver training

On hold for

medical or

payment reasons

Total

3,805

898

1,071

6

5,780

The Road Safety Authority, RSA, employs 97.49 full-time equivalent driver testers. My Department has sanctioned an additional 31 driver testers since October 2016, and to date, 23 are now conducting driving tests. The remaining eight testers will be recruited in the coming months. Sanction was given to the RSA to replace retired testers as required, and my Department and the RSA are examining the long-term requirements for driver tester numbers to ensure that the authority can meet future demand.

The RSA is undertaking other initiatives to increase capacity to deliver extra driving tests. These include the delivery of 120 extra overtime tests per participating driver tester. A total of 46 driver testers have completed the delivery of the extra tests over the past seven months, and this has yielded 5,520 tests. Other initiatives include a reduction in the number of applicant no-shows at the driving test, with 10,637 applicants having been contacted, resulting in 2,053 tests being cancelled in advance that would have been lost due to no-shows and these tests being made available to other test applicants. Another initiative is a reduction in non-conducted driving tests whereby, closer to test appointment dates, the RSA, in an effort to reduce non-conducted driving tests, communicates to test applicants via text messaging and via applicants' approved driving instructors key messages regarding the vehicle and document requirements. The new driving test booking system is yet another initiative. The RSA plans to introduce a new test booking system that will give test applicants much more control over their booking and appointment choice. A tender process has been completed and it is envisaged that the new system will be in place by mid-2019.

I must interrupt the Minister as his time has expired. He will have another two minutes.

I appreciate the Minister's response. While I raised this in relation to my own constituency, the Minister said there are fewer than 100 staff dedicated to this nationally, which seems to me a meagre number. It is no wonder that there are such waiting times.

Averages do not properly capture the picture because some can get tests quite rapidly if they are in a position to avail of a cancellation, which most people are not. Anyone who is working full-time does not have that level of flexibility because he or she is offered one cancellation date and can either take it or leave it and wait for the dates that he or she has selected, which could be five or six months down the road. That is an unreasonable situation. For example, if a person undergoes training to become a fully qualified driver, applies for the test, waits five or six months to do it but does not reach the standard, he or she will have to apply again and wait another five or six months. That would amount to a year spent waiting to become a fully qualified driver even though the driver's standard of driving might be quite good. In fairness, such drivers should be in a position to resit the test quite quickly, become fully qualified drivers, having gone to the effort, and not face the restrictions that learner drivers face.

Given the amount of additional tasks that learner drivers have been asked to do in recent years, it is quite reasonable that they should expect a sensible waiting time of two months or three months, not five or six months and potentially a year if they are repeating it. I put it to the Minister again, because this is one of the solutions locally at least, that he should consider whether there is scope for a second testing centre location to serve the greater Cork city area.

I will refer the Deputy's comments to the RSA and ask is there any case for that at all. I suspect that the RSA will respond by saying that the efforts it is making at present are adequate. I note that Cork is high up on the list of average waiting times. At 16 weeks, it stands in ninth or tenth position in a fairly long list. It is well above the average waiting time. I will ask the RSA to bear that in mind also.

The Deputy quotes a fair number of hard cases and I am sure he is correct in every case. I remind him, though, that a driving applicant may, if he or she wishes, seek an appointment at a different test centre should there not be a suitable appointment at his or her preferred centre. It may be inconvenient, but it is open to an applicant to apply to any centre at all.

Some have average waiting times that are much lower than the Cork one. They go right down to 7.2 weeks. With regard to those people who are seeking urgent appointments, I am assured by the RSA there is a priority list whereby cancelled test appointments are made available for such applicants. Over 1,000 tests are cancelled by driver test applicants weekly and these slots are subsequently offered to applicants who require urgent test appointments.

My Department has also asked the RSA to examine the longer term staffing needs of the driver tester service to ensure that the RSA can plan for revision of tester numbers based on demand for tests and to better manage succession planning for driver testers who may retire. The RSA and I accept that current waiting times remain too high but I am assured the measures it has put in place will have the desired effect of reducing waiting times for the public.

I will draw to the attention of the RSA the particular case for Cork as made by the Deputy.

Dublin Bus

Dublin Bus is not perfect but it is our Dublin Bus. It has emerged from the last decade as a modern, distinct and instantly recognisable part of the fabric of life in our capital. In my experience, Dubliners have a great affection for and loyalty to the company, which they own. It is a profitable and dynamic public company and in recent years its revenue has been steadily and dramatically increasing while its PSO subsidy has been decreasing. In recent times, I have become concerned about the concessions Dublin Bus has been forced to make in the wake of Luas cross city. For example, 30% of its routes through College Green have been redirected to facilitate Luas cross city. In facilitating these necessary changes, Dublin Bus illustrated its flexibility as a public transport provider. No account has been taken of how Dublin Bus commuters might have been discommoded as a result.

Last year a number of Dublin Bus routes were contracted out following a tender to the UK firm Go-Ahead. In tandem, the National Transport Authority is using this opportunity of a new service provider to roll out a new public bus brand called Transport for Ireland. The new brand will also cover all new additions to the Dublin Bus fleet from 2019 onwards guaranteeing the disappearance of the iconic Dublin Bus brand. No one asked the millions of Dublin commuters who rely on this service about this. The decision to erase Dublin Bus from the public transport map is simply not worthy of our National Transport Authority. The Dublin Bus brand is worth defending and fighting for. It is a brand that is well recognised. It is an identifying mark for customers and a proud symbol for its employees. Its livery and logo was developed in direct consultation with several disability transport users' groups, including bus service users with a range of visual and intellectual impairments. I also have concerns regarding the possibility this poses for future privatisation of the capital's public bus service. With one universal livery or brand, commuters will never know that more and more of their bus service is being contracted out to private providers. I am also concerned that new employees of the contracting companies will not enjoy the same pay and conditions as Dublin Bus employees. In response to me about workers' pay and conditions at Go-Ahead and whether they would be the same as those employed by Dublin Bus, the CEO of the NTA responded that while they understood it will be the case, the specific arrangements are a matter for Go-Ahead and its staff.

I am old-fashioned. I believe in public service and that with the right management, a public service company can build a dynamic service and corporate image and can motivate its staff to achieve the kind of results stereotypically associated with the private sector. Dublin Bus is one such company. In addition, the provision of permanent, reasonably paid jobs and conditions of employment opens up so many other opportunities to employees, such as home ownership and a secure future. This new brand, Transport for Ireland, could ultimately become a means of seamlessly and invisibly transitioning towards greater privatisation of services. There is the issue of accountability. Commuters ought to be able to recognise instantly who their service provider is. It is possible for the NTA to incorporate its new brand while not eliminating the Dublin Bus brand. The Dublin Bus brand is strongly Dublin-focused. The new NTA brand, Transport for Ireland, aside from being slavishly borrowed from Transport for London, in Dublin terms is anaemic and means nothing at all. The idea of a common livery or brand, also borrowed from London, equally makes no sense. The new brand proposed by the NTA speaks nothing to Dublin or Dubliners unlike the strong Dublin Bus brand which uses the castle icon and strong Dublin colours alongside a vibrant yellow that alerts commuters well in advance that their bus is arriving. Dublin Bus belongs in a real way to Dublin. It is very much part of the fabric of Dublin and not the NTA. It is an independent State company. It is time to defend this great company and the great service it provides. On this side of the House we will not stand by and watch it erased from the public eye and inevitably from public consciousness.

As Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I have responsibility for policy and overall funding of public transport. However, I am not involved in the operation of public transport companies, including their branding. The NTA has statutory responsibility to secure the development and implementation of a single public transport brand under section 5 of the Dublin Transport Authority Act 2008. Under the Act, the NTA may give a direction to a public transport operator on the promotion and use of a single public transport brand. This single public transport brand relates to services provided under contract with the NTA, that is, PSO, not commercial services. The statutory position is therefore clear. The NTA has the necessary statutory powers to design, develop and ensure implementation of a single public transport brand. I have been advised by the NTA that in accordance with this legislative provision, it has developed the unifying brand Transport for Ireland and has developed a common livery for the bus fleet on the public service obligation services that will now be operated by multiple operators and not just Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann.

As the Deputy will be aware, under bus market opening in August 2017 the NTA announced Go-Ahead, a UK bus and rail operator, as the winner of the tendering competition to operate 23 orbital routes. They are routes that do not go through the city centre in Dublin that are currently operated by Dublin Bus. In November 2017, the NTA announced Bus Éireann as the winner of the tendering competition to operate five city bus routes in Waterford city. With regard to the more recent Dublin commuter competition, the NTA announced Go-Ahead as the preferred tenderer in March to operate PSO bus services on six bus routes in the Dublin commuter area along the Kildare corridor. All these new services are expected to be phased in over a number of months commencing later this year and will benefit passengers through enhanced and improved quality services. Collectively these routes comprise approximately 10% of the total PSO bus route network currently operated by Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann under contracts concluded with the NTA. The NTA has stated that it expects to introduce the new bus livery on the Go-Ahead services and on the revamped Waterford services to be provided by Bus Éireann. The NTA has further advised it will subsequently extend the new livery to other services on a phased basis.

I understand discussions have taken place between the NTA and Dublin Bus, together with the other CIÉ subsidiary companies, since early 2016 with regard to exploring the issues related to developing a single public transport brand. Public consultations took place in October last year relating to new service providers only and discussions are continuing between the NTA and Bus Átha Cliath, together with the other CIÉ subsidiary companies regarding the complete roll-out of the new bus livery. To be clear, the NTA has informed me there are no proposals to change the Dublin Bus corporate brand. It is evident that all parties are aware of the need to develop an integrated approach towards branding of public transport. However, differences clearly exist as regards how such an approach should be developed. As referenced earlier, the Dublin Transport Authority Act 2008 provides a clear statutory power to the NTA to design, develop and implement a single public transport brand and it is, therefore, the NTA's responsibility to take the lead in this area in line with its statutory remit.

Where to begin? They have pulled the wool over the Minister's eyes. I accept what the Minister is saying and accept the NTA has informed him it has no proposals to change the Dublin Bus corporate brand. However, it has not reassured the Minister it has no proposals to change the Dublin Bus livery or brand. I would like it in writing. I would like the Minister's assurance. I know it has statutory authority in this area. Under the Act the NTA may give a direction to a public transport operator but nobody is compelling it to do it. I absolutely accept that if it wants to have a corporate image and corporate brand across all public transport providers it is acceptable.

However, does the Minister think the Dublin Bus brand, its livery and logo with the dark blue, the light blue and the yellow, is worth defending? It has become quite an iconic part of the public transport system in Dublin. It was tested out with disability groups and a lot of money was put into it. It has been valued at €28 million by Dublin Bus providers but the NTA has not given the Minister any reassurance that it will not change the Dublin Bus livery. This is nothing personal but we will fight it on this side of the House. Dublin Bus is part and parcel of the fabric of Dublin.

This is part of the micromanaging mentality of the NTA. If I want to meet Dublin Bus officials or invite them to a public meeting in my constituency they have to clear it with the NTA beforehand. Does the Minister know that? If Dublin Bus wants to change or adapt a route, it has to go to the NTA for clearance. This is a national transport authority micromanaging to an enormous degree. We on this side of the House will not let this go and we will fight for the Dublin Bus brand and livery, which have served the population of city and county well by ferrying them to work, shops, hospitals, college and leisure activities every day of the week. It was the first transport provider in the city to respond and get back to work so that the city could get moving again after Storm Ophelia. It did so well in advance of the Luas, DART and rail services.

I do not have much more to say to the Deputy because I have made it quite clear that this is a matter for the NTA and not for me. He spoke about micromanaging Dublin Bus but I will not be micromanaging Dublin Bus. It would be absurd to suggest I do so.

The Minister is a leader.

It is totally contradictory to suggest I intervene at a higher level. I am not going to do so. The Deputy is perfectly entitled to fight this particular battle and I am perfectly willing to allow the NTA to do the job I have entrusted it to do. That is why we appoint its people. I do not get involved in the day-to-day business for a very good reason - if I did so, Deputy Lahart would be the first person to come into the House and say the Minister is interfering in the operation of Dublin Bus.

I wish the Minister would. He would have our blessing.

The Deputy would ask why we had the NTA at all. On the question of privatisation, we have made it absolutely clear that 10% is where we are and 10% is where we wish to stay. For the Deputy to come to the House and use scare tactics about us privatising a lot more is misleading, though I will not say it is dishonest. We have made it quite clear we are not on a privatisation path for Dublin Bus, Bus Éireann or any of the other transport companies.

Water Services

Go raibh maith agat, a Chinn Comhairle. Tá mé buíoch duit as ucht an deis seo an t-ábhar tábhachtach seo a ardú. I am very glad for a further opportunity to raise this issue. The population of Ratoath, including the wider area which is quite large as compared with 20 years ago when it was a small village, is approximately 12,500 and the issues I am raising also apply to Ashbourne, which is served by the same water supply. Ratoath suffers from regular water outages, with dozens in the past number of years. People do not know when they can expect water. There are local issues and issues with some housing estates and there is pressure within the village. The key issue is supply to the village from the Staleen water treatment plant.

There was a public meeting some months ago where a number of measures were announced to have been agreed. One had already been agreed, which was to replace 1.4 km of pipework within the village, which is starting next week. The experts and engineers tell us that this will provide some relief to the area and more pressure into Ratoath. However, another thing was promised at the meeting by the Government, which was that the long pipe from Staleen to Ratoath would be replaced over the next two years. If this was completed it would also have huge benefit for Ashbourne, which is also suffering from water outages due to the distance between the towns and the water treatment plant, as well as the state of the pipe. I accept that the internal works in Ratoath will start next week and I welcome the engagement between business and Irish Water, which I hope will continue. I also hope Irish Water will take into account what business and residents are saying.

Where stand the promises made at the meeting with residents in March to the effect that the Staleen water pipe would be upgraded over the next couple of years? What about the promise that investigations would take place into the bore hole and well at the military housing estate? I am aware that some work has been done on that and I am wondering what is its status. Are Irish Water and the Government saying that this will not be done to give relief to people in certain housing estates?

We just want clarity and we want the Minister to know the difficulties my constituents are facing. This is a young town with lots of young children who depend on the water supply, and there are some cases of people with disabilities who depend on a stable water supply. There are a lot of small businesses in this village but we do not have many franchise stores. Instead, we have individual business owners who depend on a stable water supply on a day-to-day basis for their customers. They pay their water charges and standing charges to Irish Water, rates to Meath County Council and taxes to the general taxation fund of the Government and they are entitled to be able to rely on a water service, as are all the residents.

I hope the Minister can give some clarity on the promises that have been made on the Ratoath water supply. I hope he takes on board the genuine concerns residents have raised about which Irish Water, the Government and Meath County Council know and I hope he tells us what action the Government is planning.

I am taking this issue on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and I thank the Deputy for the opportunity to provide an update on improvements by Irish Water to the water supply in Ratoath, County Meath.

Since 1 January 2014, Irish Water has had statutory responsibility for all aspects of water services planning, delivery and operation at national, regional and local level. Irish Water, as a single national utility, is taking a strategic, nationwide approach to asset planning and investment and meeting customer requirements. Irish Water’s water services strategic plan, WSSP, sets out the strategic objectives for its delivery of water services over 25 years up to 2040 in order to ensure the provision of clean safe drinking water, effective management of wastewater, environmental protection and support for social and economic development. It takes a long-term view of water services investment at a national level, to ensure that investment is strategically targeted towards priority needs and to put in place an asset management approach towards investment in water services that gives the optimum balance between capital and operational spend to ensure the required service delivery to the people of Ireland over time, and at least cost.

The Irish Water business plan, Transforming Water Services in Ireland to 2021, also published in 2015 by Irish Water, sets out its short- to medium-term planning for implementing the first phase of the water services strategic plan. While the Irish Water business plan sets out the planned level of operational and capital expenditure over this period, the actual allowed operational expenditure and capital investment is decided on by the economic regulator, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU. To this end, Irish Water submits to the CRU a water charges plan for specific regulatory periods, based on the WSSP and its business plan. Irish Water has also developed an investment plan based on a five-year investment planning horizon, 2017 to 2021, which aligns to the WSSP and the seven-year business plan. In that context, Irish Water must optimise investment decisions to ensure that it utilises scarce capital by making investments that deliver the best possible service improvements while maximising value-for-money.

A substantial proportion of investment by the State through Irish Water over the next ten years will be focused on programmes to improve compliance with relevant public health and environmental standards. This will include implementation of the measures contained within the river basin management plan for Ireland 2018-21 and the achievement of the outcomes identified. A priority objective is to bring public water and wastewater services to acceptable international benchmarks, verified by independent monitoring and reporting.

A vital measure for improving water quality is increased wastewater treatment, where the focus will be on ensuring full compliance with the urban wastewater directive and wastewater licensing requirements.

Irish Water acknowledges the ongoing issues with water supply experienced by the communities in Ratoath and the inconvenience this has caused. It is actively pursuing an action plan to address these issues. This plan involves a series of works being carried out to the network in phases, some of which Deputy Byrne referred to in his opening comments, along with an upgrade to the Staleen water treatment plant, which is the water supply for Ratoath and a large part of east county Meath.

The completion of these upgrade works will deliver environmental benefits to the River Boyne and surrounding areas and will also deliver an improvement of the energy efficiency of the plant. Most importantly, it will eradicate the underlying weaknesses of the plant and thereby remove the scheme from the EPA's remedial action list and ensure a safe supply of drinking water to the people of Ratoath.

My constituents will be absolutely delighted with the environmental benefits to the River Boyne, as will I. I will be delighted with the improvement to the energy efficiency of the plans at Staleen in Donore, County Meath. Of course, we will be absolutely delighted to have the Staleen water treatment plant removed from the EPA's remedial action list and have a safe supply of drinking water ensured for the people. However, fundamentally what my constituents want is a supply of water that is reliable, clean and safe and on which they can depend.

I want the Minister of State to set out on the floor of the Dáil, or if he cannot do so to come back to me as soon as possible in writing, the exact nature of the action plan that Irish Water is pursuing, the actions in that action plan and the timescale the action plan involves. We have been told this will all be sorted in a couple of years. I want to know whether this is the case. I want the Minister of State to know the urgency of this and to pursue it and not let it drop because it is very important. All these points on the water treatment plant at Staleen will also benefit constituents in the rural area who are on the main supply and those in the very important town of Ashbourne. There are industries and jobs there that depend on a reliable water supply. There is no recompense whatsoever for businesses that have been discommoded by Irish Water if the supply is not there. If a business, such as a dry-cleaners, a cafe, a supermarket that sells coffee or a range of other businesses that depend on water, loses out, Irish Water does not give compensation. I want to mention this because by and large these are tax compliant small businesses and they deserve better treatment than what they are getting. At the very least, they deserve to know what is happening and have it set out in a very clear way.

I do not have the full details on what is happening with the Staleen plant but I will endeavour to get the information for the Deputy from Irish Water. It is not unrealistic that an approximate timescale would be provided.

I want to outline to the House that neither myself nor the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has a role in the selection and progress of individual water service projects, including those relating to water supply in Ratoath. The Deputy is aware that Irish Water has established a dedicated team to deal with representations and queries from public representatives on specific issues relating to water services. This team is available to the Deputy and all other Members through a dedicated email address and phone number, as a direct avenue of communication on individual projects and issues. However, I will endeavour through my office to get some of the specific details the Deputy has requested in his supplementary question.

On a point of order, and for the information of the Minister of State, I have submitted queries to Irish Water and in those particular cases it took almost two months for it to come back to me. This is why I am raising it on the floor of the Dáil. The replies were very vague. It is important that we are still able to raise issues on the floor of the Dáil. I know the Ceann Comhairle supports this. This is why we like to get answers from Ministers and why my constituents like to get answers from Ministers.

The Minister of State will oblige.

Schools Building Projects Status

I thank the Minister for coming to the House. This refers to extensions being built in two schools, namely, St. Colman's community college in Middleton and Coláiste an Chraoibhín in Fermoy. Both are in the constituency represented by me and Deputy Sean Sherlock, and I thank him for sharing this Topical Issue. I am au fait with the Fermoy issue where, at present, 750 students are in attendance. This figure is projected to increase to 800 in the school year from 2018 to 2019. This issue arises from a parliamentary question I asked of the Minister on 26 April. With regard to Coláiste an Chraoibhín in Fermoy, the Minister replied that the Department is working with the education and training board and the contractor to ensure the project is completed as quickly as possible. We are led to believe, and the Minister has said it himself, that this contractor has been dropped altogether from the negotiations. The same contractor, Sammon, is involved in the development of both schools and the works have been a nightmare, including for the subcontractors on site doing the work and the issues that arose over the past two years. These works started under the previous Government's rapid build programme. It is ironic we are already a year and a half behind schedule. Now we see liquidation arise and we do not know where we are at present. Parents are writing to all of us. Teachers are in disarray. We are wondering whether the Minister can do something to get the issue sorted.

I welcome the opportunity to raise this issue, in co-operation with my constituency colleague, Deputy O'Keeffe. I was the Minister of State who turned the sod for the two schools in question in 2015. These are multimillion euro projects to deliver, in the instance of St. Colman's community college in Middleton, for 1,000 students and, in the instance of Coláiste an Chraoibhín in Fermoy, for 800 students. The parents, staff and students, who are the most important people in all this, received correspondence last week from Cork Education and Training Board to state it had decided to terminate the contract with Sammon for the building of the extensions. This is a very serious matter and it is causing a great degree of worry because the ETB is stating it will put in place additional accommodation for September 2018 if necessary. Our reason for raising this issue here today is to seek to ensure that Cork ETB can work with the Department and all the other stakeholders to ensure the tendering process that is necessary to deliver these two vital projects to completion happens post-haste, in other words, that it happens immediately, so we can reach the milestones set down under the previous school capital programme. At the end of the day, this is about delivering education for hundreds of students in our local area, and we want to ensure they get the best possible chance to be able to do this and that it is done in a timely fashion.

I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. We are very much aware of the frustration felt locally by parents, staff and pupils alike at the delay in completing the building projects at Coláiste an Chraoibhín in Fermoy and at Coláiste Cholmán in Midleton. We are acutely aware of the need for these extension projects to be completed as quickly as possible to improve conditions for the pupils and staff and to facilitate overall enrolment growth. The completion of these projects is an absolute priority for my Department and for Cork Education and Training Board to whom the projects have been devolved for delivery.

The contractor for the project entered examinership on 5 April last. The Deputies are probably aware that prior to that event the projects were a year behind, as Deputy O'Keeffe recognised. Despite strenuous and relentless efforts by Cork ETB and its design teams over that time, the contractor did not respond in any meaningful way to complete the projects within the contract. It was due to complete in February 2017.

When the contractor entered examinership, work on the projects effectively ceased. A meeting was convened on the 19 April with the examiner’s representative, the contractor, my Department and the Cork Education and Training Board, ETB, together with its legal adviser, to determine what impact examinership would have on the projects. At the meeting the contractor was given an opportunity to present a viable plan to complete the projects. As the contractor did not subsequently provide those plans as agreed, or indeed any plans, and as an independent conciliation process between the contract parties on the 3 May concluded without a satisfactory outcome, both contracts were terminated by Cork ETB on 8 May.

While this development is regrettable our priority now is to achieve a very clear path to getting the projects completed. The next steps are for the design teams to prepare schedules of the work needed to complete each project and costings for them. This is in train and the ETB expects to have reports from the design teams shortly. These will be submitted to my Department for consideration and approval and this process will be turned around as quickly as possible. Following that, the remaining works will be tendered. I have asked my Department to provide me with a critical path and to consider how each stage in that critical path can be delivered as quickly as possible. I can give assurance that for both projects, all efforts are being focused on attaining the quickest outcomes possible without compromising building quality.

I thank the Minister for his response. As I said earlier, the alarm bells were not ringing in 2017 or 2018. This was an issue well before that. There were major difficulties with that contractor. It is ironic, in the case of Coláiste an Chraoibhín in Fermoy, that some of the classes have been sent back to the school they left 30 years ago, the old tech on Main Street in Fermoy. There are many issues outstanding around health and safety, fire safety and well-being that have not been addressed in that building. I ask that the Minister gives the ETB every bit of support so we can get this work to progress in both of the colleges affected.

I welcome the Minister's response. It sets out the process around the meetings with the contractor and the fact that the contractor did not subsequently provide the plans as was agreed. I welcome the Minister's transparency in this. We now need to talk about the future and ensure the projects are completed so the students can get into the two schools. This is the most important thing. Following the reply, I now understand why the ETB suspended the contracts. We have it clearly from the Minister himself.

The Minister said he is to seek a critical path and that a process is under way. The parents, students, teachers and staff will find some comfort in those words. It is for us as the public local representatives and Oireachtas Members to try to ensure that we maintain the pressure on the process, and if there is a critical path to deliver both projects, that it is done in a timely fashion and as soon as possible. I hope the Minister will soon be in a position to give us a clearer timeframe by which this can be delivered.

I thank the Deputies for their contributions. It is an unfortunate situation. No one planned for an examinership. In this case the examinership has not been able to deliver on these projects. We will have to re-tender the work. I will seek to have this done as quickly as possible but tendering has to be robust. We are all aware of the obligations in that regard and that it protects all the interests, especially those of students and their parents.

The Midleton work is about 80% complete. The Fermoy project is further down the line, but I have been informed of issues around roof, mechanical and electrical aspects, along with doors and windows. There is significant work to be done in the Fermoy college, notwithstanding its appearance of being closer to completion. There is significant work for the ETB to finalise the design and on the brief that must be completed and tendered for. I am acutely aware of the priority that the Deputies have assigned to this. I feel the same about the situation and we will do everything we can to get this done quickly.