Topical Issue Debate

Sports Capital Programme

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to raise this important issue. The Canon Hayes Recreation Centre in Tipperary town is struggling to stay open. The centre has been a vital part of this, and the wider, community for more than 30 years. It has been a tremendous community resource and a monumental success for the development of sport and recreation in this area. The Canon Hayes national sports awards are world renowned. I compliment the management and staff of the centre on the job they do.

Major challenges now exist to meet overheads, such as insurance, which is in excess of €30,000 per annum, light and heat, which is in excess of €30,000 per annum, and the maintenance costs on a now 30 year old building. It is worth noting that when the centre was built, the three excellent secondary schools in the town relinquished their entitlement to the provision of duplicate facilities, such as the provision of a main hall or a gym in their schools.

The centre is now struggling and it has applied for several grants, both correctly and very professionally. It met the Tipperary Leader company and county council officials and was advised to submit a joint application under the county council recreation scheme and the South Tipperary Development Company. However, the county council let it down. The proposal was to upgrade the all-weather pitches with a new surface at a cost of €200,000.

A long process ensued to establish how the project could be funded. It was agreed to look at a co-funding project with South Tipperary Development Company and the community facilities branch of Tipperary County Council. On the advice of county council officials who were apprised of all the plans, the committee was advised to apply for a grant of €40,000 and a maximum grant of €150,000 from South Tipperary Development Company. The committee would have had to provide the remaining €10,000, which it had no problem in doing. However, those involved were completely disheartened to learn that the application for the county council grant was unsuccessful. The disappointment was exacerbated when they heard the reasons for the refusal. First, the project was too big, although it was co-funded. Second, following further questions, they were told that three smaller projects in the county would have to be excluded in order to include the Canon Hayes project.

These matters are with the county council. There is an unwillingness to engage in a joint membership proposal involving the centre and the swimming pool which is under local authority management in Tipperary town. It looks as if the county council has no wish to help or does not want to help.

The capital grants scheme is under the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross. The committee was even more disheartened as it had been told to apply and did. The deprivation index for Tipperary town is relevant. We all know the reasons for the score. It is a wonderful town with wonderful spirited people, but they have nothing in the way of employment or supports. We question the scaling and grading. The Eircode was used to identify the site and location. We question why and how the decision was made. The committee has received no satisfactory answers from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport as to why the proposal scored so badly in the deprivation index. Clearly, the Pobal deprivation index indicates that the relevant part of the town is severely challenged. I have no wish to talk down the town; it is a wonderful town with wonderful people. However, they have got nothing but kicks from successive Governments over the years. They have received no supports. There are other excellent community facilities such as the Moorehaven Centre and many other special facilities. They are organised by people in the true spirit of the late great Canon Hayes. It is not fair that this project has been denied funding.

I am taking this Topical Issue on behalf of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, and the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Brendan Griffin. Unfortunately, they are unable to be here. As a former Minister of State in the Department, I have some knowledge of the issue raised by the Deputy. As someone from a neighbouring constituency, I know the centre to which he is referring.

The sports capital programme, as operated by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, provides funding for voluntary, sports and community organisations for the provision of sports and recreational facilities. Over 11,500 projects have benefited from sports capital funding since 1998, bringing the total allocations in that time to close to €1 billion. The programme has transformed the sports landscape of Ireland, with improvements in the quality and quantity of sports facilities in virtually every village, town and city in the country. The facilities funded range from the smallest clubs to national centres of sporting excellence.

The most recent round of the programme closed for applications in February last year. I was the Minister of State who opened it. By the deadline, a record number of over 2,300 applications had been received. Originally, it was envisaged that €30 million would be allocated. That would have made the allocation of grants particularly challenging. Following discussions with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, we managed to secure significant extra funding for the scheme. That allowed us to allocate a total of €60 million to 1,807 sports organisations throughout the country. In the case of County Tipperary alone, a total of 82 projects were allocated funding totalling over €2.1 million.

I will outline how individual allocations were decided. For the first time, the full assessment process and scoring system for the 2017 round of the sports capital programme was published on the Department's website in advance of the assessment work commencing. I was the person who insisted that that should happen. The overall amount available for each county was calculated on a per capita basis, with individual allocation amounts primarily decided by the score received at assessment stage based on the published criteria. Extra marks were awarded for applications that demonstrated how they would increase participation, applications that shared facilities and applications for facilities located in disadvantaged areas. The Deputy referred to these criteria. He also referred to disadvantaged area status. The Pobal deprivation index was used to automatically generate the relevant score based on where the proposed facility was located, as shown by the applicant.

I can inform the House that the Canon Hayes Recreation Centre, of which I am aware, has been allocated a total of over €400,000 under the sports capital programme since 1998. This includes allocations made in the 2017 round of the programme of €27,500 towards the cost of refurbishment of the tennis court. As stated, this amount was based on the total amount available for projects in County Tipperary and the score obtained by the application. While this allocation was less than the amount applied for - a problem in applications throughout the country - officials in the sports capital division of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport are always willing to work with relevant organisations for grants, provided that the proposed alternative works fulfil all other terms and conditions of the sports capital programme.

The Government is committed to continuing to invest in sports infrastructure. In that regard, the national development plan commits to further expanding the sports capital programme in the years ahead. A full review of the 2017 round of the programme has been finished by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and published on the Department's website. The review suggests some further improvements that should be considered prior to the next round of the programme opening for applications. Among the changes being considered are further enhanced weighting for disadvantaged areas and an even greater focus on shared community facilities. Furthermore, the Department is committed to allowing all applicants to correct errors in applications during the assessment stage. This will remedy one of the criticisms levied by many people, including me. I expect an announcement on the timing of the next round to be made in the coming weeks. I imagine Deputies of all persuasions and none will welcome this. In that regard, any application for further suitable works at the Canon Hayes Recreation Centre in Tipperary will receive every consideration.

I am not happy with the answer. The cost of the proposed upgrade of the gymnasium and tennis courts came to in excess of €88,000. An application for this funding was made to the sports capital section of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. The committee looked for 95% funding, which would have meant a grant of approximately €83,000, if successful. However, the grant allocated for the project was €27,500, which would not allow either part of the project to proceed, whether the upgrade of the tennis court facilities or the gymnasium. The facilities are in bad condition. They have been badly neglected and are not being maintained by the county council, although it was supposed to do so.

After detailed investigation, it was discovered that the application had scored zero under the heading of level of disadvantage, although the centre is in a disadvantaged area and had scored 22.74 in the Pobal index. Who got the figures wrong? It was not the hard-working committee, the board or the supporters who have paid €100 for tickets in raffles in an effort to keep it going. The problem is in the Departments involved. They are not talking together. We see this a good deal in the Department for which the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, is responsible. Why did he or his officials not talk to Pobal to find out why the proposal had scored zero? It should have scored 22.74 since it is considered to be very disadvantaged in the Pobal index. These are the facts, as the Minister of State cannot deny. There has to be a review. I am not citing the figure of the Canon Hayes Recreation Centre committee or mine. They are the figures of Pobal. It is in a disadvantaged area because of the lack of employment and investment in the town. It is not fair to leave the committee or the community like this. The facilities are so well used by so many. Many good sportspeople have come from the town. The Canon Hayes sports awards scheme has been running for decades. The Minister of State needs to go back to the drawing board. The Department has got it wrong and the Pobal figures are correct. This will be an issue in many facilities throughout the country, including the county of the Minister of State and elsewhere. Facilities come of age. After 30 years they need maintenance and upgrading. There is no point in announcing a scheme if the Government is unable to keep the investment upgraded to a reasonable standard.

As I pointed out, the centre at the centre of this Topical Issue matter has received over €400,000 in State support under the sports capital programme. It is not an insignificant amount of money. The €27,500 received this time around is not insignificant either. I realise the allocation does not cover the cost of the project as set out, whether for the tennis courts or the gymnasium. However, if there are other works for which the Canon Hayes Recreation Centre committee wishes to apply that follow the original schedule set out by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport for eligible works, departmental officials in Killarney would welcome any opportunity to discuss the matter. It is not as if the €27,500 will not or cannot be drawn down. The Department will be open to seeing whether other elements of the project could be realised.

As the Minister of State, Deputy Brendan Griffin, said recently, the Department hopes to be able to announce the next round of sports capital grants in the coming weeks.

I have left the Department but in my time, there was an understanding that people who got money previously would not be prevented from applying in future. Allocations of €400,000 have been made but those groups can apply again. I know the centre in question and I encourage Tipperary County Council, the Leader company and the local community to go back to the Department to ensure that every point can be achieved in the application. I know the officials in the Department in Killarney and have worked with most of them. They are very good people and are open to an engagement with any sporting organisation which has difficulties to see how they can boost its points. It is often a matter of the presentation of the application. The Deputy has to appreciate, also, that when thousands of applications are received from across the country, officials can only act based on the documentation and information submitted. That said, I have referred specific cases from my constituency, which is across the Galtees from that of the Deputy, to the Department and the people involved, whether in the GAA or other sporting organisations, always found the Department's officials to be open and accommodating in ensuring the best possible allocation could be made the next time.

I am aware that the Minister, Deputy Ross, is anxious to hear directly about the specific case raised by Deputy Mattie McGrath because he and the Deputy are great friends. I will report directly. I am sure Deputy Cahill and other Deputies from County Tipperary will also have an interest in this. As Deputy McGrath is the person who raised it, I will ensure Deputy Ross reports to him directly.

He should be here to take the matter.

He sent a good substitute. The Deputy must admit that.

He is probably out in the dining room.

Public Procurement Contracts

The concept of tendering for State contracts is, in principle, a worthwhile one. There is an obligation on the Government to get the best possible value for taxpayers' money. However, a number of issues are arising on foot of the manner in which the State's procurement process is being implemented. Ireland has a small, open economy and has vulnerabilities other EU countries do not share. The size and scale of the economy is putting Irish contractors at a distinct disadvantage. The fact that the low threshold for all State contracts is €135,000 means virtually everything a State-controlled body does falls into the public procurement system. The local Irish supplier of goods and services who is not, in general, on the same scale as multinational companies is loaded with the huge costs of preparing a tender. In some cases, it can take a staff of dozens to fulfil the obligations of the tender process.

I turn to the example of a supplier of fruit and vegetables to the Garda College who had been supplying the college for decades but had his application turned down on the basis that he had no written plan in place as to how he could continue to trade in the event of major flooding or storms. Does that make the Minister of State feel comfortable about the process? I can given him numerous other examples where bureaucracy has superseded common sense. Local businesses, whether small, medium or large, are being frozen out of the system. We are losing jobs in Tipperary because of it and I am sure it is the same right around the country. The only avenue left open to local businesses is to act as subcontractors to the companies which are awarded the main tenders. It is at this point that local companies find themselves cornered and disadvantaged. Another company in Tipperary was subcontracted into a State-contracted construction project. The main contractor had one employee on site while the local subcontractor had 12. The local company was carrying all the responsibility for employment contracts and health and safety but was not benefitting from ownership of the main contract. In fact, the main contractor could not complete the contract, went into liquidation and left the local company with a huge outstanding debt.

The Minister of State must agree that it is unacceptable to put Irish companies at risk like this. Surely, something must change. In another example, block-layers and plasterers were subcontracted into another local authority construction project. Within weeks, the main contractor went into liquidation leaving the block-layers and plasterers with no payment for work done. I checked with the local authority and found that it had paid the main contractor €400,000 and was happy that its engineers had confirmed that €400,000 worth of work had been completed. The local authority had no legal option other than to pay the money to the main contractor while the subcontractors had funded the €400,000 worth of work. This is hard evidence that the current rules are not working. They allow multinational companies to tender for work with competitive pricing on the backs of local companies. We are losing jobs because of this and it is, ultimately, costing the State a fortune. Any analysis will surely show that there is little gain on one side of the balance sheet while we are losing a fortune on the other. The status quo is not an option. There must be some protection for local Irish companies.

I have a solicitor's letter regarding a company which presented in the High Court with a petition for examinership on 16 January. On 3 May, the scheme was approved by order of court with an effective date set as 14 June 2018. Four companies have been in contact with me in regard to moneys owed. The Minister of State and I met a gentleman from that part of the world in Arigna a number of months ago. Sadly, the same individual has been badly caught again, this time for €70,000. A plant hire company is owed €17,000, a machine company is owed €23,000 and another company is owed €60,000. This money is all owed by one company in one area on foot of work in regard to which it was supported with State grants. The company has paid none of these people since September 2017 notwithstanding the fact that they continued to work on site into 2018. These companies have been offered 1.75% of the debts owed to them. That is €403 in the case of the €23,000; €1,200 in the case of the €70,000; and €1,000 in the case of the €60,000. This is legal robbery and it cannot continue. Small companies are being put out of business and their employees' jobs are being wiped out by legal gangsterism, which is what this is.

I have met Deputy Scanlon on this issue before. Having grown up in a household which depended for its income on construction, I have told him frankly that the activity to which he refers is intolerable. Deputy Cahill has raised another couple of issues relating to procurement of goods and services in general and I can address those separately and in summing up. He makes a number of points to which I want to reply.

Unfortunately, these are not new developments, nor, as the Deputies said, are they confined to State contracts. Deputies Scanlon and Cahill have raised cases and I will gladly take the details from them when I leave the Chamber. The cases cited stem from a failure on the part of a main contractor to pay for work that has been carried out by a subcontractor. Former Senator Feargal Quinn's Construction Contracts Act was developed in consultation with industry to address these poor payment practices. The Bill was introduced in the Seanad in 2010 when the late Brian Lenihan was Minister for Finance. His Department spearheaded the Bill and it received cross-party support in both Houses. It was enacted in 2013 and applies to all construction contracts that were entered into after 25 July 2016. That small and medium enterprises are still not in receipt of payments due on construction projects was unacceptable then and it remains so today. It is all the more galling when it arises on a public works contract as it is the State that pays the main contractor what money is due. The State always pays when the money is due.

The conditions of most construction contracts in use between construction clients and building contractors in both the public and private sectors require that payments be made at defined intervals, which is to say in staged payments, and that payment is contingent on work being completed to a predetermined standard. Once that payment is made to the main contractor, there is an expectation that it will, in turn, pay its subcontractors. This is set out also in contract law and is not something unique to this situation. Usually, there is no contractual obligation in this regard in the contract between the construction client and the main contractor because the matter is left to the commercial arrangements between the supply chain members. This point was raised at the time of the debate, namely, that there is a commercial relationship between each of the principal and subcontractors down the line. That is where the problem arises. The issues identified by former Senator Quinn during the development of the construction contracts legislation highlighted an absence of formal contracts in many cases along with sharp payment practices by some, even where a formal contract did exist. The Deputies have raised this again today.

Now enacted, the Construction Contracts Act 2013 imposes payment regulations on all construction contracts, public or private, whether they be written, oral or otherwise, and provides the tools necessary to enforce payment. These include a maximum payment interval of 30 days and a requirement to honour payment requests within 30 days for subcontractors, a right to suspension for non-payment and a right to refer a payment dispute to adjudication. The legislation also outlaws the practice of pay-when-paid provisions which were prevalent in most forms of subcontract.

Whilst much of the interest from industry surrounding the Act was centred on the introduction of adjudication, it is the discipline that the legislation imposes on payments that would appear to be have been largely ignored - this is the point that the two Deputies have made so comprehensively. Arguably, these are the most important provisions in the Act but they require the subcontractor to enforce its entitlements with the contractor pro-actively in the manner prescribed in the legislation, which enjoyed all-party support at the time, for payments that are due.

The Act does not cut across the normal rules for company liquidation or receivership to which Deputy Cahill referred and where this arises there is no avenue for recovery. This point is laid out in law as well. However, the magnitude of the exposure that many subcontractors and their families currently face upon the insolvency of a contractor would not arise if the provision for payments were insisted upon and the remedies available were exercised where payment is not forthcoming. I understand the reasons and I am not averse to it because I grew up in a house that was directly affected by this kind of carry on.

The issues raised by the Deputies would suggest that subcontractors are not exercising the rights provided for in the Act. There may be a reason for that. To be quite honest about it, I can understand why that is so. While I appreciate a certain reticence to engage in the manner prescribed in the Act for fear of risking business relationships, subcontractors need to question whether it is worthwhile doing business.

In relation-----

The Minister of State will have to use his other two minutes.

The Minister of State has recognised that there is a problem. The procurement process needs to be re-examined. Small local companies are at a severe disadvantage and we are not helping. Often we talk here about what we can do for rural Ireland. This legislation is not helping and it has to be re-examined. We must put a level playing field in place so that local contractors themselves can win the contracts rather than going in as subcontractors where they have no rights.

Deputy Scanlon referred to unsecured creditors getting 1.75% of what they were owed when a company went into voluntary examinership. I will not name here the company that did it locally in my constituency but in the middle of January, it went into voluntary examinership. On 24 April, the company came back out of voluntary examinership and then traded away as normal again. Unfortunately, the company's local subcontractors only got paid 1.75% of what they were owned. No local businesses can carry that kind of a burden where a man who is owed €50,000 or €60,000 only gets paid a fraction of that. This has to change. The legislation has to change. This voluntary examinership is not working.

If Deputy Cahill wants to continue with the two minutes, there will be no time for Deputy Scanlon, who only has 30 seconds.

I will be brief. Deputy Cahill covered most of what I want to say.

Since the company came out of examinership, that company has been paid €700,000 for some of the contracts that were already done and where subcontractors were not paid. This is another issue. As Deputy Cahill said, when a person is owed €70,000 and gets €1,200, he or she has no hope of surviving in business. The law must be changed to support small companies employing ten or 12 people who go out and do a decent day's work and then get stung like this. It is disgraceful.

I meant to say in my earlier reply that Deputy Cahill referred to different issues. We talked about procurement not working and then about the construction issue. In fact, procurement is working. Some €12 billion is spent by the State in Ireland on an annual basis. Over 90% of it is spent with Irish companies and of that over 50% is spent in the small and medium-sized enterprise, SME, sector. I chair the SME leadership group within the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. We are constantly looking for Deputies who have particular issues to bring them forward to myself and I will discuss them with the Office of Government Procurement. The Office of Government Procurement is constantly looking at ways in which we can improve matters.

I acknowledge the points the Deputies raise on unacceptable behaviour in construction, which is a separate issue because it comes in under the construction contracts element of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and a complicating factor of which is that the covering legislation, Construction Contracts Act 2013, that former Senator Feargal Quinn brought in and that was then adopted by the Dáil, is now with the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation. As a state or as a contracting authority, our contract is with the principal contractor. The law of the land states that we are required to pay when a certain stage is met, and we do that. We live up to our side of it. If there are contractors who are not living up to their side of it, there is a problem. That is why the enabling legislation was enacted and that is why I encourage people to familiarise themselves with it.

I can understand this issue will come to a head with the €116 billion the State is about to spend under Project Ireland 2040, part of which we announced today. While we do not want to have the same fields of white elephants roaming around the country as roamed around under a previous national development plan, we want to make sure that we get value for money but at the same time that people are properly looked after.

I will take the points the Deputies raised in relation to specific companies - it would not be appropriate to raise them in the House - and have a look at them with the Office of Government Procurement, OGP. I have already discussed the construction issues that the Deputies raised with my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Donohoe. I am committed to trying to see whether there are resolution methods that can be adopted without additional legislation. I will revert to both Deputies. I look forward to working with both Deputies and anybody else as well.

School Accommodation

I sincerely hope the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, has come in here with some good news for me because the people in St. Michael's special school in Skerries truly deserve it. They recently had an inspection and the inspector found that the teaching and the learning in this establishment is exemplary. I have met some of the parents, I have met the children and I have met the teaching staff there. One could not meet a more dedicated, hardworking and nicer bunch of people.

However, the conditions in which they are delivering services are unacceptable. As the sun is shining - I am not here to give out about the sunshine - it gets uncomfortably warm within the school. The good news is at least they can go outside. When it is cold, they have no large hall in which to congregate. They are operating in a building that is not fit for purpose.

My understanding, and the Minister of State may correct me if I am wrong, is that Fingal County Council has confirmed that it has found a site. As far as the local authority is concerned, its work is done as the site is located and it is over to the Department. There was a board of management meeting earlier on this week, a phone call was placed to the Department to get an update on the position and the board of management has not received an update yet.

I represent the constituency with the fastest growing population in the State. Having many young people in the constituency is good but not being able to look after the children in the constituency is not good. As we speak, there are at least five children for whom there is no school place. These are children who have special needs. These are children who would benefit significantly from being in St. Michael's school. If I had an hour, I could spend it talking about those involved and the good work that they do. Colleagues of the Minister of State have visited the school. Anyone who does could not fail to be impressed.

I am not the only local representative who has raised this. The reason we have is because it is a lovely place and they are waiting a very long time to get suitable accommodation. I do not know how the staff manage to put up with it. The accommodation they are in is wholly inadequate and unsuitable and extreme temperatures, either hot or cold, show that up.

I have my fingers crossed here that the Minister of State has some good news for me.

I thank Deputy O'Reilly for raising this matter.

I am taking this debate on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, and wish to apologise on behalf of the Minister who cannot be present due to a prior commitment. I will make sure to convey to him the matters raised in this debate.

St. Michael's House special school was established in 1982 and is located in a rented building with temporary accommodation in Hacketstown, Skerries, County Dublin. The Department is committed to providing a permanent accommodation solution, and in that regard a project to deliver a new school building for St. Michael’s House special school on a greenfield site has been included the Department’s six-year capital programme. It is planned to provide a new school building for St. Michael’s special school to accommodate a 14 classroom school, expandable to 16 classrooms, to include classes for pupils with mild general learning difficulties, autism spectrum disorder, multiple disabilities and severe and profound disabilities. The Department is working closely with Fingal County Council in accordance with the memorandum of understanding on the identification and acquisition of a suitable site to facilitate the school building project.

The site acquisition process for this school has been ongoing for some time. Initial efforts were focused on acquiring land in the vicinity of the school’s current location which was preferred by the school authorities. Efforts in that regard were unsuccessful and subsequently the current site option was identified. The acquisition process was paused for some time while the Department engaged with the school authorities regarding potential alternative accommodation which was available at the time. Based on the outcome of this engagement, the site acquisition process recently restarted and negotiations with the relevant landowner are at an advanced stage. I confirm that a potential permanent site option has been identified and is being progressed.

The Department, with the assistance of Fingal County Council, is engaging with the landowner. Department officials are working to clarify some technical issues on the development of the site and this assessment process is expected to be completed in approximately two weeks, assuming no issues arise. Once these technical queries have been clarified, agreement on the terms of the site acquisition can be finalised and it is anticipated that the conveyancing process can then be advanced by the respective solicitors.

That is not all negative-----

It is pretty positive.

-----but it is not a date. I understand it is positive, but it is not a date. The Minister of State will appreciate that as we head towards the summer break when the kids will be heading off, it would be very helpful if we were heading into the summer knowing there was a definitive date. Reference was made to a potential permanent site option. My understanding is a permanent site option has been identified and that this process is under way. The Minister of State also referred to clarifying some technical issues. I appreciate she will not have the information with her here but she might provide to me in writing what exactly those issues are. If there are stumbling blocks and the staff, parents or any of the local representatives can help in any way with that, we certainly will because there is great affection for the school in our local area.

It would be preferable if we could identify a date. The Minister of State will appreciate, and she alluded to it in terms of the pausing of the process, that it is something that has had a lot of false starts which have not been helpful. There are five children for whom there may not be a place to go to school. They are children with special needs. They are the children we should be looking after the most. They and their parents do not have sight of what school the kids will be going to in September. There is definitely a need. My fear is by the time the school is built, the need will have outstripped even the new school. The Minister of State might advise me, even if it is in writing, of the technical issues and confirm that a permanent site option has been identified, not a potential permanent site option. My understanding is the site has been identified.

I am sure the Deputy can appreciate, as most people in the country can, that dealing with legal conveyancing takes time. I confirm the Department is committed to progressing this project and will continue to liaise with Fingal County Council. The acquisition process for a permanent site is under way. The Department is aware of the limitations of the current temporary accommodation and every effort is being made to progress the permanent accommodation for the school as quickly as possible.

Educational Supports

I raise the issue of Lisdoonvarna national school. Lisdoonvarna is a very famous town in County Clare. The school has had to take in 18 extra pupils over the past three months because a direct provision centre opened in Lisdoonvarna at the beginning of March and now has 115 asylum seekers, 18 of whom are schoolgoing children attending the primary school. The sudden influx of pupils has put substantial pressure on the resources of the school and its ability to deliver education to the highest standards.

It was a controversial decision to place the direct provision centre in Lisdoonvarna. The school openly embraced taking in the 18 children. The school was quite enthusiastic about bringing them in and assimilating them into the community. The school expected that it would be allocated extra resources. The real pressures that were going to come from the direct provision centre were on educational services and health services. The school expected that extra supports would be put in place and it enthusiastically embraced the students. The school expected it would get an additional teacher. It is looking for an additional language teacher and an additional classroom teacher because the number of pupils in the school has risen by 13% in a very short time.

The students, being asylum seekers, have language difficulties and educational difficulties. The school is in a very vulnerable position. The pupil-teacher ratio has increased and the extra 18 pupils have exceptional needs. In the future there may be more than 18 pupils because the nature of asylum seekers is that they are transient. The number of such students attending the primary school may increase beyond 18. The existing pupils in the school prior to the arrival of the asylum seekers had a standard of education that was very high, but that will invariably be diluted unless new resources and extra teachers are put in place to accommodate their needs.

The school is looking for a reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio because of the extraordinary and unique circumstances of having such an increase in numbers and asylum seekers who require greater time and attention from the teachers. The school is not looking for DEIS status but for a DEIS-type ratio for the school. The problem is that Lisdoonvarna is being treated as just an ordinary national school that has had an increase in pupils. It is in an extraordinary position in that the increase in pupils comprises asylum seekers and they have exceptional needs. I understand the Department has allocated a half-time equivalent language teacher to the school and that is very welcome. The school requires an additional classroom teacher to accommodate the extra numbers.

Lisdoonvarna should be seen as a template for the future in situations like this because direct provision centres may be opened in other towns like Lisdoonvarna. There should be an anticipation of the needs rather than the needs being arrived at first. It should be anticipatory rather than a crisis situation. Lisdoonvarna could be used as a template for other schools and as a beacon for the future.

I am taking this debate on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Richard Bruton. I apologise on his behalf as he cannot be present owing to a prior commitment. I will, however, make sure to convey to him the matters raised in the debate. I know Lisdoonvarna very well.

Education provision on an inclusive basis is a fundamental principle of the education and training system. Ensuring every child is supported and given the opportunity to reach his or her full potential is a key priority for the Government and the Department is committed to improving educational outcomes for children in the protection process.

In March the Reception and Integration Agency of the Department of Justice and Equality opened a new direct provision centre in the King Thomond Hotel in Lisdoonvarna, County Clare. The contract is for the provision of services for a maximum of 115 persons and for a fixed period of one year. The provision of accommodation services beyond that date will be subject to a new process and the contract will not be renewed automatically. To date, the Reception and Integration Agency has dispersed 107 asylum seekers to Lisdoonvarna on a phased basis, 36 under the age of 18 years.

The direct provision centre in Lisdoonvarna is one of a number opened by the Reception and Integration Agency across the country in recent years. The Department of Education and Skills has seconded an official to the agency to support the education aspects arising from accommodating asylum seekers in direct provision accommodation. Owing to the ad hoc nature of requests for asylum to the agency, it is not possible for the Department to be advised significantly in advance of the fact that a centre is being opened or details of the numbers of children and adults or their ages.

The education issues which arise for local schools and education and training boards relate to capacity in terms of the numbers and age profiles of children and to the English language competency of the adults. The impact of the opening of a direct provision centre on local schools, therefore, needs to be considered on a case by case basis. When the relevant information is available from the Reception and Integration Agency, the Department works with local schools, the education and training board and Tusla on education provision for residents of the proposed centre. St. Enda’s national school, Lisdoonvarna has enrolled ten pupils who are resident in the direct provision centre in Lisdoonvarna and indicated that it will enrol a further eight in September. From the outset, departmental officials have been engaging directly on an ongoing basis with the principal of the school to advise and assist him in the process of accessing additional educational supports required to provide for the needs of the additional cohort of children.

I have visited the centre in the King Thomond Hotel in Lisdoonvarna and the facilities are of a very high standard. The asylum seekers are looked after very well and are assimilating into the community. In spite of the many reservations of the local community, they are being welcomed and their adult educational needs and other requirements are being met. The school is in exceptional circumstances and needs to be treated as an exceptional school, rather than as just an ordinary school following the normal processes, when it applies for extra teachers and supports. It is important that it not be viewed as a normal school with an influx of indigenous pupils. It is taking in an extraordinary group of pupils with special needs. I congratulate the principal, Mr. Michael James Malone, who has embraced the children and welcomed them into the community. He was very enthusiastic about accepting them into the school and still is, but he is concerned about their educational requirements. The school should be treated as unique. The allocation of a half-time language teaching post is very positive and the school is very appreciative, but I would like the message to be conveyed to the Minister that an extra whole-time classroom teacher is a requirement to deal with the extraordinary needs of the students.

The school recently applied to the independent staffing appeals board for a teaching post in English and has been granted an additional half post. Should it receive more enrolments in September, the board of management can apply again in October for further support. The school has also applied for an additional post based on its developing status. A decision on this application will be made in the near future. The principal, Mr. Malone, has been advised that if he believes the school profile has changed to such an extent that it cannot provide for the special education teaching needs of the pupils from within the current allocation, a review of resources may be sought from the National Council for Special Education on the grounds of exceptional circumstances. Officials of the Department of Education and Skills will continue to engage directly with the principal on the resources required to meet the needs of the additional cohort of children. The school may continue to apply for additional resources as children are enrolled from the centre having established the additional educational needs of the children, including their language needs.