It is a hard act to follow. The unsuitable accommodation in the school has been well-flagged with the Minister and his Department. It is ironic that in the aftermath of Storm Ali conditions deteriorated further. The issue was raised in the Seanad yet here we are a few weeks later on the eve of Storm Callum. Parents and pupils are wondering if they will have a school to go into at all because 58% of the school, which accommodates hundreds of students, 30 teachers and six SNAs, is housed in 20-year-old crumbling prefab buildings, four of which had to be evacuated in the last storm. These buildings are beyond repair. There are holes and gaps in the roof, fallen gutters and exposed electrical wires. It is beyond belief that children are sitting with coats on and cannot get warm in the winter and are too hot in the summer. There needs to be action. The report on the technical site visit that was made is supposed to be in its final stages. We have not been given a clear indication of what will be done. They need their new premises.
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Schools Building Projects Status
It is freezing cold in the prefabs. Parents are concerned that the coming storm will do away with the prefabs altogether. That might not necessarily be a bad thing. They leak when it rains and they are impossible to heat because the electrics are overloaded. The parents dread sending their kids to school if they think it is going to be cold because their kids' teeth will be chattering during the day. Over 50% of the school's children are accommodated in prefabs that were put in as a temporary measure in 2000. I am inundated, as I am sure my constituency colleagues are, with requests from parents. The result of the technical review have not been made known to the school. It is still waiting on it. Another storm is approaching and parents are fearful about sending their children to the school, which is the only school they can attend in Balbriggan. It is a place where the population is growing. It is an issue that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
I visited the school on a number of occasions. All our colleagues know the school. Since 2003, the Department has spent €1.16 million on prefabs. We would have a new school built with that. The school is unhealthy and unsafe for the kids. My colleagues have mentioned the technical assessments. The technical assessment was carried out in February. I submitted another parliamentary question to the Minister in September. The reply stated that a technical site visit was carried out. We know that. It happened in February. The parents and the principal, Pauline Costello, and her team are losing patience. They are exasperated by this. We need to get a resolution. It is a cross-party issue as well as an issue for those of no party. Representatives from the Dublin Fingal constituency want a proper school facility for the kids and the staff of St. Mologa's. It needs to be fast-tracked. I hope the Minister can give the commitment to us today that after all this time waiting - some of the prefabs have been there for 19 years - we can move ahead with a proper permanent building.
I thank Deputy O'Reilly for submitting the Topical Issue matter in my absence last week. I appreciate my constituency colleagues facilitating me. I echo the sentiments of my colleagues. I found myself thinking about what I was going to say. I have been in Third World schools and they are of a better standard than the prefabs in St. Mologa's. It is essential that the fast-track process for the school is completed and that we can somehow manage to get a plan. If we have to copy and paste it, let us copy and paste it. There are so many school extensions or permanent prefab replacement programmes across the State, which we have spearheaded over the last seven years, that I am sure it would be possible in this instance to complete it. The weather forecast for this evening is very windy with strong to gale force winds with severe gusts. The school is in a coastal location. It is in an orange alert zone. The Department has issued warnings to those schools to be vigilant. As Deputies Clare Daly and O'Reilly said, I am pretty sure the parents' concerns are justified in worrying about whether those prefabs will be there in the morning.
I thank the Deputies for raising the issue. I understand the concern. It has also been raised by Senator James Reilly. There is acute concern. The Deputies are right there was a visit by the Department to the school in February. That was followed up by a technical site visit in April. The agreement has been worked out on the exact scale of what is required, namely, an 18 primary classroom and two ASD classroom unit. The work has been ongoing in doing the masterplanning of the site, which I understand is complex. The purpose of the building project is to provide additional accommodation as well as the replacement of the current temporary accommodation. The development of the project brief must have regard to the continuance of the existing school while construction is under way. Due to complexities of the school's existing site, issues to be considered in the development of the project brief included identifying the preferred location of the buildings having regard to the challenging site, decanting considerations and construction traffic access. The project brief is expected to be completed by the end of next week, having regard to the complex technical assessment process involved. The Department will be in contact with the school with regard to the next steps. The completion of the project brief will facilitate progression of the project into the architectural planning process, which includes the appointment of a design team. It is in a position to move forward. The project brief will be completed at the end of next week and it will then move into the architectural planning phase. I am acutely aware that the school suffered damage to three of the old-stock prefabs due to adverse weather conditions. Repair works were being carried out on those. In addition, my Department gave approval for additional temporary accommodation, pending the delivery of the major project. That included two mainstream classrooms and one special education teaching space. Clearly the priority now is to get the permanent project under way. I assure Deputies the Department will endeavour to have that proceeded with as rapidly as possible.
Obviously, the Minister has a different definition of the word "rapid" from anyone else. One can talk about the site being complex and requiring a careful master plan but the site has not changed. It is the same site. The school was opened in 1987 when Balbriggan had a population of 5,000. It now has a population of 22,000. We are the ones telling the Minister that they need a permanent site. For us to be told it is complicated and we need to look at it is really not good enough. It could be the case that after the storm tonight the school may not even be there and that the inadequate situation they are in, which is appalling, might not even be there to be dealt with. We need the plan yesterday and unfortunately I do not think the Minister's answers are adequate.
The Minister's answer is not good enough. Deputy Clare Daly is right. There is a really strong possibility, given the poor weather that is forecast, that parts of the school will be unusable. The prefabs are practically uninhabitable as it is. I do not think the Minister has any words of comfort to give to the parents other than they must wait.
Telling the parents, the teachers and the principal, Ms Costello, that they must wait is not good enough. They are in intolerable conditions but all the Minister has said is that those intolerable conditions are set to continue. A plan must be put in place because we could be dealing with a serious situation. Some 52% of the children are in those prefabricated buildings, which are already uninhabitable.
Like my colleagues, I am disappointed with the response. The Minister has stated the technical assessment process will be completed by the end of next week but I wonder if that answer was given because the matter was raised here today. This concerns all of us, party politics and affiliations aside. I do not know whether the Minister has visited the school but if not, I invite him to come with us to look at the school. There are other schools in north Dublin that require attention, but this school and Hedgestown national school are in desperate condition. The response is completely inadequate and I ask the Minister to redouble his efforts and tell his officials this matter must be fast-tracked because his response gives no comfort to anyone.
I have some photographs that the principal was kind enough to send to all the Members. We are frequently tweeted at about this by people. On the last occasion, during Storm Ali, the roof almost completely came off, the skylights fell in and the classrooms had to be abandoned. The storm this evening and tomorrow has potential to cause significant damage to these 18-year-old prefabricated buildings.
When I was elected in 2011, I remember we replaced the prefabricated buildings in Scoil an Duinnínigh in Kinsealy, which had been in prefabricated buildings for 24 years. Successive Governments had failed the community.
That is not correct.
I would hate to think this school would be left any longer. It is not acceptable any more.
While I understand the Deputies' concerns, the project brief is an important phase in any construction project. There is no way to avoid appointing a design team. A design will have to be drawn up and planning permission must be obtained, which has its own process to go through. The Department will have to be satisfied the design achieves the objectives. We do not want to have any second-rate construction here and, therefore, the process must be completed. As I said, it involves construction of 12 new classrooms, two autism spectrum disorder, ASD, units, as well as refurbishment of existing accommodation.
This project is proceeding to the next stage. The Department seeks to minimise the delay in all those stages but it must be robust in each of the processes. We do not always control issues such as site conditions, planning delays and so on. While the Department will seek to push this project on as quickly as possible, I cannot give timelines or dates. I am sure the Deputies will understand these processes must be completed. To say the answer is not adequate ignores the fact that this is the way we do every school project. We must do it in a robust way but we will seek to complete each of those stages as rapidly as possible in view of the acute concern that the Deputies have expressed. I also acknowledge the concern of parents, principals and staff alike.
Special Educational Needs Service Provision
On Monday evening, Deputies Jack Chambers, Coppinger and I attended a packed meeting of parents, professionals, education providers, the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, and public representatives in the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Blanchardstown, Dublin 15, representing people from Dublin 15 and Dublin 7. The committee which called the meeting comprises a group of parents of children with autism and professionals who have worked with children with autism in the area for more than ten years.
The parents who called the meeting on Monday night in Blanchardstown are firmly of the view that an innovation is required in the form of an ASD special school for Dublin 15. Dublin 15 and the adjacent parts of Dublin 7 along the Navan Road have a population of approximately 120,000, which is considerably bigger than either Limerick or Waterford, but there is no special school for children with severe ASD. There are 32 primary schools and 11 secondary schools in Dublin 15, but at primary level there are only 18 ASD classes with approximately 108 students and only eight secondary school ASD classes with approximately 32 students. The parents firmly believe that a special school is required for a portion of children with ASD who have complex presentations of autism and who present with significant needs. The majority of children with moderate to severe autism are non-verbal, are unable to cope to mainstream classroom settings and do not benefit from integration. There was a unanimous opinion on that at the meeting of more than 150 people.
Will the Minister agree to meet representatives of the parents and the professionals at the meeting and the local Deputies to enable us to have a discussion about when we can get this urgently required school for children with ASD?
Like Deputy Burton, I attended a meeting of parents, professionals and people involved in this new campaign. Many of the parents said that evening that six year old children had been expelled from a school through no fault of their own but because they have severe behavioural difficulties. As a country we have progressed in this area over the past 20 years, with ASD units established and special needs assistants provided for, but ASD, as the name suggests, is a spectrum disorder. With children with moderate to severe diagnosis, sometimes the classification we have in our education system does not match their requirements. We have had a policy of inclusion from the Department but that has resulted in some instances in the exclusion of many children from exercising their right to an education.
Parents in Dublin West want an autism special school established in order that there is a proper educational healthcare mix of occupational therapists, teachers and speech and language therapists in order that the children's behavioural difficulties can be dealt with and their educational rights can be provided for. To hear parents saying their child was put on a reduced day, or that their child was eventually expelled because the education system we have cannot cater for them, where their child is then left lingering at home without any hope, prospect or opportunity to be the best he or she can be in his or her life, is a tragic circumstance in our education system and it must be rectified. Parents in Dublin West who may want to go to a special school often have to travel more than 30 km. Dublin West is a constituency close to the Minister's, and we have a population the size of many other cities in the country. The parents' campaign should be supported by the Minister and his Department. As Deputy Burton said, the parents would like in the first instance to present the data, facts and their own stories to the Minister in order that his officials can meet and support what the parents are trying to establish and that the children are given the best chance in life. That is what we are looking for and we hope to work with the Minister on it.
I thank the Deputies for raising this important matter. It is an area in which huge investment has been made in my own time and, to be fair, in that of my predecessors. Since 2011, as Deputy Burton will know, we have increased spending on the support of children with special needs by 43%. It has risen consistently, therefore, even in the most difficult times, to €1.8 billion. It is a provision that is based entirely on the assessment of need, that is, not on any budgetary restrictions. Based on a professional assessment, the NCSE decides how children with ASD should best be provided for.
I do not have the figures with me but, roughly speaking, more than 60% are provided for in mainstream classes. The remainder are split evenly between ASD special classes within mainstream schools and special schools. In recent years, however, because of the advice that the inclusion model is the optimal model, the expansion and explosion of provision has been in special classes. The number of special classes has trebled since 2011 and continues to grow every year. It is the NCSE that advises me and the building units of my Department as to the appropriate need. There have not been many additional special schools. I am not aware of any new special school being created in recent times but that is not to say that it cannot be, if the NCSE believes that is the best approach.
The main expansion has been the effort to integrate children with ASD within units in mainstream schools. That is better for their development. If the NCSE advises that a special school would be an alternative placement, then the NCSE, through its special education needs organisers, SENOs, would seek an appropriate placement. The decision has to be made on additional provision year by year. One new power, of which the Deputies will be aware, that we took in the recent Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016 was to give me the power, in certain circumstances and on the advice of the NCSE, to require a school to open an ASD unit where a school may be reluctant to do so.
Deputy Burton is right. There are 18 special ASD units in the area. There will be a need for additional units and we are providing in the 2019 budget for additional ASD classes to be opened throughout the country in areas where they are identified as being needed. I am sure Dublin 15 would be an area where that would be the case. I am not, however, the one who makes the call as to whether a placement for a particular child is best in a special school, a special class or in a mainstream setting. In any event, we provide support, as Deputy Burton knows. In my own relatively short period in the Department, we have appointed 1,800 additional resource teachers and 4,000 additional SNAs to support the integration of children into our school system. We will provide the best support advised by the NCSE and based on the individual assessments of each child. That is what we seek to deliver.
The Department has to take responsibility for the education of these children. The parents have no difficulty with the ASD special units. We all know they have done very good work for the children for whom they are appropriate. It must be borne in mind, and this may come as a shock to the Minister, that for the school year 2017-2018 there were, as far as we know, 56 students on the home tuition grant in Dublin 15 and more in Dublin 7. That is an astonishing figure. These are children who have very specific needs. Their school and mainstream teachers are unable to cope with the behavioural issues. These include flight risks, self-harm from time to time, sensory overload - parents stress that in particular - and violent outbursts at times as the children are unable to express themselves effectively. The meeting with parents the other night would have brought tears to the Minister's eyes. I urge him to meet the parents and the professionals. I know that would constitute a change of policy but this is a section of our children. They have been left out and deserve a chance to get the education appropriate to their lives.
It would be worth the Minister's while meeting these parents so that they can describe to him the challenges their children face daily. As Deputy Burton has mentioned, 56 children are on a home tuition grant. Many of them have been excluded by our education system because it is not fit for purpose for them. I recognise there is a policy of inclusion in ASD units and some children thrive within those units. That is not the case for people with severe autism who are non-verbal and are not receiving the appropriate healthcare and educational interventions. Teachers cannot even cope with the difficulties in managing the children in that setting. We need to have a policy response. We are not doing that at present within the current policy construct that we have through the NCSE.
I ask the Minister to meet the parents to see what their proposal is. They want the best for their children. He mentioned the assessment of needs process. We know that takes years. Our whole community healthcare intervention is not appropriate. The parents want the proper mix to be delivered for children with very complex needs. We should not be expelling six year olds from classrooms in primary schools and leaving them on home tuition grants to linger without any opportunity or prospect in life. That is not the Department that the Minister wants to run. A meeting would open his eyes. It certainly opened mine on Monday to see the depth of this problem and the sheer numbers of children left at sea in our education system.
I assure Deputy Jack Chambers that we are providing a policy response all of the time. As I outlined, since 2016 we have delivered 1,800 extra resource teachers, 4,000 extra SNAs, 500 additional ASD units, and 30 additional National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, staff. We strengthened the inclusion service of the NCSE itself to support parents, teachers and students. We have also reformed the way in which resource teachers are allocated to make it more in tune with the needs of pupils, and that is being done on the advice of the NCSE. We are starting to pilot, and it may include some of the areas mentioned by the Deputies, the integration of certain therapies into schools to deliver additional therapies, be that speech and language or occupational therapy. In addition, this coming year we are commencing the implementation of the NCSE's recent report on how SNAs should be delivered in a broader context of having a regional centre that can provide a range of therapies, including nursing supports and other appropriate supports.
The advice of the NCSE to me has been that this is the way we should develop the suite of policies to support children best. I am always open to policy change but I do have to rely on the NCSE. It has not let us down in respect of the advice and the inclusive way in which it evaluates needs. Here in the House, we have taken additional powers. I now have the power, on the advice of the NCSE, to instruct a school to do things. That is a power we never had before. I am always open to initiatives and, as a result of this debate, I will ask the NCSE to assess the needs in Dublin 15 and adjoining areas, and to look at the proposal coming from the parents.
Medical Products Supply
I call Deputy Ó Caoláin who wishes to discuss with the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, his continuing refusal to accept the BeNeLuxA initiative concerning nusinersen, Spinraza, now that Ireland has joined the initiative. Is the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Finian McGrath, taking this Topical Issue Matter?
May I ask for clarification on why the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, is not here? It is less than half an hour since he was sitting in the front row on the Government side of the House, then he left. It is the Minister, Deputy Harris, who should be taking this Topical Issue matter as the Minister for Health. I say that with no disrespect to the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath.
It is my understanding that when a Minister is not in a position to take a Topical Issue matter, he or she informs the Deputy and a Minister with delegated responsibility-----
I have had no such courtesy extended to me on this Topical Issue matter. I have been in correspondence with the Minister, Deputy Harris, on this matter and I have engaged with him. I am very disappointed that he has failed to present here this afternoon. I will continue, however. The Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, is a parent. The Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, is not yet a parent, or so I understand.
I hope he will know the joy and the stress of parenthood. I believe he can imagine the distress a parent or parents would struggle with if their child had a life-limiting condition. Despite impassioned appeals, their Government and its agencies refused to make a proven, life-saving drug available to their child. Can the Minister of State imagine if it was his child? There are 25 such children across this State, and they and their parents are suffering grievously. I am reliably informed that some 70 people would benefit immediately if this drug was approved. Spinraza, also known as nusinersen, is a first-of-its-kind treatment licensed in the EU to treat spinal muscular atrophy. Spinal muscular atrophy is a rare neuromuscular disorder characterised by loss of motor neurons and progressive muscle wasting which can be fatal. It is fatal. Only today I spoke with parent who lost a young child and I heard once again the serious pain and hurt that will remain with that gentleman and his family, and many other families, because of the absence of any medicinal support.
The American biopharmaceutical company, Biogen, manufactures nusinersen-Spinraza, but the drug is not available in Ireland. In May 2017 the European Medicines Agency granted market authorisation for Spinraza, and in October 2017 the HSE received a reimbursement application. In December 2017 the National Centre for Pharmacoeconomics, NCPE, completed a health technology assessment of Spinraza and did not recommend reimbursement at the price submitted. The Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, in a reply to me by letter on this issue on 25 September said that he did not have any statutory power or function in terms of reimbursement of medicines. I would ordinarily accept this. However, it is quite clear that the primary obstacle in this instance is price. We have clearly seen this previously with Orkambi and other orphan drugs. Yet again, the patient - and more worryingly in this case - very ill and vulnerable young children - is caught in the middle of a price war between big pharmaceutical companies and the Government.
Significantly, we have been part of the BeNeLuxA initiative since June this year. I do not know if the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Finian McGrath, will be able to elaborate on the text he has been requested to deliver by the Minister, Deputy Harris, but I have questions to ask now that we are part of the BeNeLuxA initiative. The BeNeLuxA initiative has secured a negotiated arrangement for a significantly reduced provision of Spinraza. We are now in tandem with Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Austria. We are part of that grouping, and I want to know if we can now be added to the negotiated arrangement for Spinraza? If the answer is "No", why is this not possible? Has the Department of Health explored joining the arrangement for Spinraza, or endeavoured to establish a new agreement in tandem with either this particular initiative or with other countries? Can the Minister of State update the House today on where the nusinersen or Spinraza process stands and where it is likely to lead us in the short term? We need a result in the short term in this instance.
I apologise for the absence of the Minister, Deputy Harris, who is unavailable this evening. I will represent him in this debate. I wish to thank Deputy Ó Caoláin for raising this very important issue. Spinraza is indicated for the treatment of 5q spinal muscular atrophy, SMA, a disorder characterised by progressive muscle atrophy and weakness. I appreciate that this debilitating and progressive condition places enormous pressure on SMA sufferers and their families and carers and that access to potentially beneficial drug treatments is an extremely important issue for people with SMA. Today, I met a family, Paul and Lorraine O'Malley from Mayo, and their lovely daughter, Grace, and I was really impressed by their compassion, sincerity and their urgent need. It is important that I record that in this House.
As Deputy Ó Caoláin will be aware, Ireland signed the existing BeNeLuxA initiative on pharmaceutical policy on 22 June 2018. This agreement is in line with the Minister for Health’s stated objective to work with other European countries to identify workable solutions in an increasingly challenging environment and to secure timely access for patients to new medicines in an affordable and sustainable way. In July 2018, two members of the BeNeLuxA initiative on pharmaceutical policy, Belgium and the Netherlands, completed a joint negotiation for the reimbursement of Spinraza. However, this joint negotiation process commenced when Ireland had just opened negotiations with Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria and Luxembourg with a view to joining the existing collaboration between these four countries. As a candidate country, Ireland was not notified, due to confidentiality arrangements, that negotiations were occurring for the reimbursement of Spinraza, and we were not party to the negotiations and proceedings that occurred.
As the Deputy is aware, the Oireachtas has put in place a robust legal framework in the Health (Pricing and Supply of Medical Goods) Act 2013, which gives full statutory powers to the HSE to assess and make decisions on the reimbursement of medicines, taking account of a range of objective factors and expert opinion as appropriate. The Act specifies the criteria to be applied in the making of reimbursement decisions, which include the clinical and cost effectiveness of the product, the opportunity cost and the impact on resources available to the HSE. In reaching its decision, the HSE will examine all the relevant evidence and will take into account such expert opinions and recommendations that are appropriate, including from the NCPE.
The HSE received an application for the reimbursement of Spinraza in July 2017. The NCPE conducted a health technology assessment on Spinraza and did not recommend the reimbursement of Spinraza at the submitted price. The application for the reimbursement of Spinraza is currently being considered by the technology review committee on rare diseases and the HSE drugs group. It is due to be considered by the HSE leadership team shortly, following which the final decisions will be notified.
The Minister of State's response rehashes much of what the Minister, Deputy Harris, put in his letter to me just a few short weeks ago. There is absolutely no question as to the clinical effectiveness of Spinraza. This is a proven medicine and one that has been granted market authorisation by the European Medicines Agency. It is outrageous that we are going through a process that is independent of an exercise that happened to have commenced before we became members of the BeNeLuxA initiative, and that we are not actively and proactively pursuing access to that arrangement. In the reply the Minister of State has just put on the record of the House there is no answer to my question as to whether Ireland can be added to the BeNeLuxA agreement for Spinraza, and if not, why not? Is the door closed to us for some reason?
What are the terms and conditions of our becoming a member of the BeNeLuxA initiative? Were we not to be a beneficiary state, lining ourselves up with those countries for more affordable access to expensive medication? That is why we joined in the first place, and this is an ideal test of the effectiveness of the decision and the arrangement in place.
Despite the talk of decisions to be notified and processes that are under way, this all comes down to pounds and pence or euro and cent. Children's lives are ticking away as we speak. The Minister of State is quite right. He has met one of those families, as he indicates. He has seen, as I have seen, the huge worry and the strain in the eyes of all those parents. Those beautiful children deserve a better response than the "We will see" answer that the Minister of State offered again today. I urge him to use his position at the Cabinet table, special member of same that he is, to press for this immediately.
I do not doubt Deputy Ó Caoláin's sincerity on the issue, particularly on Spinraza as a proven drug. The Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring and I are on the same page in that regard. The HSE is the decision-making body on the reimbursement of medicines under the Health (Pricing and Supply of Medical Goods) Act 2013. It is the HSE that will make the final decision on whether Spinraza will be reimbursed, taking into consideration the statutory criteria specified under the Act.
I commend Deputy Ó Caoláin on raising this issue. Paul, Lorraine and Grace O'Malley have a very difficult day ahead of them tomorrow in Temple Street Hospital. I wish Grace well with her operation tomorrow.
Again, there is a moral and ethical debate going on here concerning quality of life cost. Price should never be an issue when it comes to children's health. I urge common sense on this issue. I was directly involved in the campaign at the time of the Orkambi debate. We all rallied around the families affected by that. I accept that the Deputy's views are strong and sincere. I know the families are suffering and I will bring all the issues raised back to the Minister, Deputy Harris.
Post Office Closures
I know that events earlier today have determined that the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, is here to take this matter. For the record, his area is natural resources, community affairs and digital development. Is that correct?
I thank the Minister of State for coming along. The decision to close 159 post offices was taken without consultation with this House, the people's representatives, the Seanad or even county councils throughout the country. A private trade union, the Irish Postmasters Union, IPU, and An Post, a commercial semi-State company, designed a process for the closure of post offices nationwide without any consultation with the people's representatives. I was critical of the then Minister, Deputy Naughten, and the Government generally for allowing this to take place. It is a bad precedent. The IPU did a splendid job on behalf of its members in negotiating a retirement package and it is entitled to do that. An Post is entitled to balance the books because it has a commercial mandate. However, neither of those entities speaks for communities. Neither has the authority to decide what services communities need or aspire to. That is our job, a job that the Minister of State's Government has abdicated.
The Government set up a flawed process whereby it sought to close post offices on the back of a retirement package. While people are quite entitled to apply for the package, and that is fine, a flawed process was applied subsequently. A conurbation with a population of 500 people or more was to have a post office within a radius of 15 km. The bodies I have named determined that themselves. On we went and 159 closures followed. In particular I refer to Cliffoney, Gorteen and Ballinfull, County Sligo. Cliffoney was given a reprieve, even though it falls below the criteria, because common sense prevailed and An Post realised it is a thriving and growing village with a substantial number of people living in it. We did not see that in the cases of Ballinfull or Gorteen.
Here is the most troubling aspect of this. In August, An Post informed people in Ballinfull, to take one example, that they could make submissions for a review up to and including 28 September. They did so. The submission was put together very professionally and ran to 51 pages. It was posted on 27 September. It arrived with An Post on 28 September. Saturday and Sunday passed and, most peculiarly, on the Monday morning they got an email to say they had been unsuccessful. What is more, the decision was taken on 24 September, three days before they had sent their submission and four days before it arrived at An Post. Even it if was considered over the course of the weekend, there is no question that any time was spent on a submission of that nature.
As is outlined in that submission, if anyone would only read it, 21 townlands with a total population of 1,036 are serviced by the Ballinfull post office. It is all laid out in detail, but no one in An Post or in any independent review had any interest in that. Gorteen on the other hand has 512 inhabitants. It is a small town rather than a village, yet its post office is to be closed. The process was rigged from the beginning. As to the independent reviewer, he was only allowed to adjudicate against the criteria set by the IPU, a trade union, and An Post itself.
As we have been shown by the decision on Ballinfull, taken three days before the submission even arrived, the Government is standing over a Mickey Mouse superficial process. It is sending communities to go out and act like fools, myself among them. They put together well-thought-out submissions with the facts on population and a community's commitment to its post office, and it does not matter. The recipients do not care. The IPU and An Post run the country. They decide who is going to get services. We have made fools of communities throughout the country. In the Ballinfull case I can show written proof that the community was disrespected to the degree that the decision was taken well before they even sent in their submission. That is an insult in the extreme. I look forward to hearing the Minister of State's response.
I thank Deputy MacSharry for raising this Topical Issue matter. I address it on behalf of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. I thank postmasters throughout the country for the dedicated service they have given to rural and urban communities over many years. As Members are aware, some postmasters have taken the difficult decision to leave the business in recent weeks. I understand the concerns of older people in the communities and that this is an anxious time for many of them. We have all watched the gradual demise of the post office network over many years. More than 500 post offices closed during the economic boom in this country between 2002 and 2007 while no action was taken and the post office network was allowed to fall into decline. No new investment or services were put into it. The Government did not want that to continue.
The postmasters in this country and the communities they serve deserve a clear future and for a plan to be put in place for the development of and investment in the post office network and its services. We have set out a clear path and future for the post office network. Almost two years ago, the then Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, was presented with a future for An Post and the post office network that was uncertain and very bleak. There was a very real possibility that the company would go under. The potential for a complete shutdown of postal services with the loss of thousands of jobs was undeniable. Immediate action was needed to ensure the survival of An Post and the post office network. That was necessary to protect the jobs of the 9,000 people working in An Post throughout the country.
Two years later, critically important decisions have been made. An Post has been stabilised because of the actions that have been taken. The company is changing from a 19th century model to one that has relevance and can have resonance in rural and urban areas in the 21st century. While the future is not as bleak for An Post, the underlying challenges remain. Mail volumes continue to decline. E-substitution and the move to online payments and online banking continue to have an impact on the post office network. There is widespread acceptance that the post office network requires modernisation to build, maintain and protect the service that meets the needs of communities throughout the country. An Post's renewed vision for the post office network centres on the availability of new services in a modernised and revitalised network. These services must include a better range of Government, financial and e-commerce services for shoppers and small business.
Since taking office, the former Minister, Deputy Naughten, drove the offline avenue with his officials, Cabinet colleagues, the management team in An Post, the Office of Government Procurement and other agencies. Government approval was recently given to examination of an offline avenue for all Government online services. This work has started, and Deputy Naughten's successor will update the Government on progress before the end of the year.
Investment of €50 million in the network, equivalent to €45,000 per post office, is based on getting communities to use the enhanced services that their local post office will provide through a modernised network. These measures are meaningless unless the public use the services the post office provides. Key to the survival of the network is the willingness of all of us to use it.
Essential to delivering on the renewed vision for the post office network is the agreement reached with the Irish Postmasters Union, IPU. In their negotiations with An Post, postmasters and postmistresses sought the modernisation of the network and a voluntary redundancy package for those who wanted to leave the business. It is important that the decision of those who wish to leave the business is respected. The decision on whether to accept the package was one for individual postmasters.
An independent appeals process has been put in place to enable communities to have a decision relating to their local office reviewed. This is part of a protocol that the then Minister, Deputy Naughten, specifically sought. In addition, any retailer in the locations of the 159 post offices can apply to An Post to be considered to take over some or all of the services of the closing post office. If a retailer looks to avail of services, and if An Post decides, for one reason or another, not to provide them, that decision can be also submitted for review through the independent process. An Post has confirmed that it has extended the deadline for receipt of appeals under this process to Wednesday, 31 October.
I understand the Deputy has raised concerns about the outcome of a specific appeal. It is important to point out that the review process is independent and neither the Minister nor his officials have a role in it. It would, therefore, not be appropriate for me to comment on individual cases. I understand, however, that the former Minister, Deputy Naughten, raised the matter with An Post and was assured that the contents of the detailed appeal referred to by the Deputy were taken into account before the final determination issued. I will ask officials in the Department to take on board the information the Deputy has provided if it is in addition to what they were previously led to believe.
It is widely accepted that the post office network has been facing many challenges for some years, with a continuing decline in transaction numbers, primarily driven by the move to online payments and online banking as well as e-substitution. Standing still is not an option for the network. After years of drift, there is now a clear direction for An Post and the post office network.
I know the reply was prepared by somebody else but, quite frankly, it was shocking. It is a rigged process. The independent appeals process is totally rigged. An Post privately came up with the 500 people and 15 km criteria. I have proved to the Minister of State that Ballinfull was not remotely looked at. In fact, An Post's first response on Ocean FM, given by one of its senior representatives, was that it was a typo in the letter. An Post has come back a little from this and now states it considered everything. It did not. Ballinfull was thrown under the bus and there are 1,000 people there. An Post also will not clarify how it calculates population for a substantially rural area. Ballinfull is not a village. The post office served 21 townlands with more than 1,000 people. Gurteen is a substantial village, it is a small town really, but we are not listening to the people there either. This decision was taken by the IPU, a trade union, and An Post.
We know An Post has a commercial mandate. It has to be subvented. Every year, the 8,700 rural post offices in the UK receive a subvention of £130 million. The amount here would be only €10 million. We are talking about a very small amount of money. It is not about cost, it is about realising there is value to rural Ireland. We have a culture whereby people live in rural Ireland. The Varadkar vision for rural Ireland needs to be more than milking it for every photocall it is worth and then shutting it down. In practice, this is what is happening. We had the shameful launch of Ireland 2040 in Sligo. The Government must think the people are stupid. It sent people off to work for six weeks on putting together a detailed report, as Ballinfull and Gurteen post offices did. We have proved that Ballinfull post office was not even considered because the response was out on a Monday morning and, according to the date, the decision had been taken the previous Monday. Gurteen and other places throughout the country can reasonably assume they were going through a superficial process because the decision had been already made by somebody else.
The former Minister, Deputy Naughten, is gone but the rest of the Government is responsible now. What will they do about it? Two weeks ago, a motion was passed democratically in the House to preserve the 159 post offices and provide a subvention. What has happened to it? It probably got thrown into a room along with all of the other motions we pass in here because the Government tends to ignore the will of Parliament while stating an issue is a matter for An Post, the HSE or somebody else but not it.
The Minister of State mentioned earlier about previous Governments allowing post offices to close. He is right. They got their answer in 2011. They were nearly wiped out. Since then, we at least have been trying to learn from those lessons. What is clear from the response of the Minister of State today is the Government has not.
That is the first time I heard it was the closure of the post offices that almost wiped out Fianna Fáil in 2011. It is an interesting twist on the history.
It was in the speech of the Minister of State.
It is Government policy that An Post remains a strong viable company in a position to provide a high-quality nationwide postal service and that it maintains a nationwide customer-focused network of post offices in the community. The Government remains fully committed to a sustainable post office network which is a key piece of economic and social infrastructure for rural and urban areas.
The postmasters of this country and the communities they serve deserve a clear future and a plan to be put in place for the development of, and investment into, the post office network and its services. Such action was not taken by a series of Governments over many decades. We have now set out a clear path and future for the post office network. The decision on whether to accept the voluntary redundancy package was one for individual postmasters, and it is important those decisions are respected. Where a post office closes it is important to note that 70% of the business transfers to a neighbouring office. The reality is that by facilitating those who wish to exit the business neighbouring offices will be further supported, thereby ensuring a sustainable network for the future.
Innovation and change are being embraced and new services to meet new needs for the future are being developed. Politically, our responsibility is to lead that change, to strengthen An Post as a public company delivering a public service and to support the decisions required to translate that aspiration into effective action. The post offices being closed are ensuring the viability of the remaining post offices. The Deputy and others have commented that they should all be subvented now to prevent their closure but we must ask whether we should subvent all of the other post offices that closed, for example, in Sligo and Leitrim. In Sligo, there were two in 2005, one in 2006, another in 2007, two in 2008, one in 2009 and four in 2010. In Leitrim there was one in 2005, three in 2006, two in 2007, two in 2008, one in 2009 and two in 2010. Should we reopen all of these and put at risk the viability of all remaining post offices?
I will raise with my officials the issues raised by the Deputy in this specific case, and if something has gone astray we will ask officials to look at it.