In the spirit of co-operation mentioned by the Minister-----
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Health Insurance Payments
I will tell the Deputy some of my big ideas.
I thank the Minister of State.
We might stick to the question.
I think it would be helpful.
My apologies, a Cheann Comhairle.
I appreciate the Minister of State does not have advance warning of the specifics of my contribution. He has an idea of the general theme.
A constituent of mine received a copy of a bill from a particular private hospital that had been paid by the individual's health insurer. It is for two stents inserted and a one-night stay in a private ward in the hospital from 11 a.m. one morning until 11 a.m. the following morning. The person used all their own tablets. The cost of the medical treatment seemed reasonable at approximately €1,000 and given the serious nature of the procedure, my constituent was happy enough with that charge. However, there was a charge of €7,055 for the use of the hospital's facilities and bed for a 24-hour period - probably somewhat less than that.
As this seems an outrageous figure to a layperson I did some investigation into it. I was told that included in such a payment would be things such as the use of theatre, recovery space for a patient, perhaps consumable costs but not drugs in this case, and then what the insurers might call the hotel-like accommodation costs for keeping a patient overnight. These are probably fees agreed between all insurers and private hospitals. This is a semi-private room and not a fully private room. There does not seem to be a great variation between what is agreed between each private insurer and each private hospital. Therefore there is not a significant difference between what insurers are paying to private hospitals.
If this procedure had been carried out for my constituent as a private patient in a public hospital, I am told the rate of reimbursement to a public hospital for a private patient would be approximately €1,000 for this procedure, the insertion of two stents. Here is the nub of the issue. What is the real cost of this? I am told by the public hospital that €1,000 probably does not cover this and that it is about €500 per stent. That is just for the stent, but that €7,000 is nowhere near the accurate cost of it either. Therefore, if I go as a private patient into a public hospital for a procedure, the public hospital will receive €1,000 from the insurer, but if I go in as a semi-private patient into a private hospital, the insurer will pay €7,000.
I am thinking of all the people who scrimp and save. During hard times there were two things most families kept going: health insurance and the mortgage. That the cost of private insurance is so exorbitant must be linked to these kinds of charges from private hospitals.
I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue. I am aware of the particular case he mentioned.
The charges that apply in a private hospital are the subject of negotiation between the health insurers and the health service providers. The rates for particular procedures are the subject of agreement between insurers and medical consultants, while the rates that apply for accommodation and other services in private hospitals are agreed between health insurers and each individual private hospital. Since health insurers can negotiate with private hospitals and with consultants, it is in the insurers’ interest to negotiate the best possible rate they can for procedures and services for their customers, as this will control their claims costs.
This is in contrast with the public hospital setting, where under the Health (Amendment) Act 2013 a per diem charge applies when a patient is admitted to hospital and the patient opts to be treated on a private basis. Health insurers cannot negotiate with the HSE and the rates are set by legislation. There is an objective in setting such charges from public hospitals to reduce the subsidy to private practice, including the changes that were made following the 2010 Comptroller and Auditor General report. It should be noted that in recent years there has been no increase in private charges by public hospitals, notwithstanding the significant increase in costs, including salaries.
My colleague the Minister for Health has no role in the commercial decisions of any health insurer, and has no role in the charges for accommodation and other services that apply in any private hospital. It is neither possible nor appropriate to comment on individual procedures without knowing the full circumstances and clinical decisions involved.
In general terms, care provided in a hospital setting will always be more expensive than care provided in a community setting and surgical procedures are considerably more expensive than medical procedures.
I note that there was a 1% decrease in claims paid by insurers last year, primarily because of a drop in insurance claims paid to public hospitals.
Significantly, from the perspective of the individual patient, it should be noted that in our community-rated health insurance market, an individual’s premium will not be affected by his or her own claims history. By law, insurers are not allowed to charge an individual a higher premium based on any of the individual’s personal circumstances. Instead, the premium for a health insurance plan is set at a rate where insurers will cover the expected claims costs that will arise based on the coverage received by their customers who are availing of that plan.
Our community-rated private health insurance market is underpinned by a risk equalisation scheme. The scheme involves a community rating levy collected by the Revenue Commissioners from insurers in respect of all policies written. All of the moneys collected are paid over to the risk equalisation fund administered by the independent regulator, the Health Insurance Authority, HIA. The authority then redistributes the fund back to the market through credits payable to insurers in respect of insured lives to offset some of the additional cost of insuring older and less healthy members. The scheme is Exchequer neutral, with neither a cost nor a benefit to the State.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. The consultants' costs are not being questioned in this case. I take his point on the State having no role in charging for accommodation. Is he not even half scandalised by the cost? There has to be a trickle-down impact from the charging of more than €7,000 for an "overnight stay" in a semi-private room in a private hospital. I have been informed by people who know far more about this than I do that the equivalent stay in a public hospital for the same procedure costs €1,000. The Minister of State has explained why and said that legislation is covering it. He said €1,000 does not cover the cost. There is no way, however, it would cost €7,000.
Many constituents have shown politicians, including the Minister of State, bills received for treatment covered by private health insurers in respect of which they have been pleasantly surprised by the cost of the consultant or surgeon but absolutely outraged by, and left gasping at, the cost of the hospital facilities, even for the shortest of stays, particularly where there has not been an overnight stay. I realise there is a cost associated with equipment, plant and ancillary staff. Would it not help, however, if the insurer provided to the subscriber a detailed breakdown of exactly where every single cent of the sum in excess of €7,000 went.? If there are hundreds of patients in a hospital in any given week, millions of euro are paid over by health insurers. I have read reports that the payouts last year were marginally lower, resulting in marginally lower premiums for people. Given, however, the increases in the cost of living experienced by people over the past year, including in the cost of motor and health insurance, surely there is something the Government can do as opposed to just reciting the law and the negotiating stance of health insurers. Surely the Government could do something for the insurer when it sees the outrageous amounts health insurers are charged by private hospitals.
I thank the Deputy. I take his point on excessive charges considering that the cost of a routine procedure exceeded €8,000. The procedure in question was a stenting of the heart. I take the Deputy's point that his constituents remain unhappy about the rate of the VHI charge. These are genuine concerns.
He asked what we are going to do. Of course we must try to do something about this. The Government and I are committed to bringing in dynamic changes to improve our public healthcare system under Sláintecare, ensuring that the right care is provided by the right person in the right place. Private hospitals have, and will continue to have, an important role in our national health system. In future, however, I hope patients will be able to make an informed choice between receiving care in a private hospital, using their health insurance or another payment method, and receiving care in a world-class public hospital system. That is our plan and what we intend to do. We must also examine the issue of cost. Patients and Deputy Lahart should note my focus must always be on the safety of the patient. If it costs a little extra to insure and to save a person's life, I will be strongly supportive of that position. Where public moneys are involved in public health services, there has to be accountability and transparency. Above all, we have to have a quality health service.
Tá mé buíoch den Cheann Comhairle as an seans seo an ábhar tábhachtach seo a phlé. Tá a lán daoine agus a dteaghlaigh i nDún Dealgan buartha tar éis an droch nuacht faoi The Authentic Food Company an deireadh seachtaine seo caite.
I first wrote to the company on 21 September having been contacted by workers and their representatives about rumours that The Authentic Food Company was closing. The company did not respond to my initial correspondence or to representations from Sinn Féin councillors, Ruairí Ó Murchú and Anne Campbell. Instead, on 19 October, the company went to the High Court. Staff at then received notice that the company was allegedly insolvent and unable to pay wages. I met the liquidators this morning.
The managing director of The Authentic Food Company, Nik Basran, claims that management carried out a comprehensive review of the business to try to find a way to make it profitable over the long term but he said this was not possible. The Minister of State has a responsibility to ask what type of review it is that excludes the workers' representatives and refuses to engage directly with Unite. What kind of review is it that it can be manipulated by employers so that these workers have no notice pay, P45s, references, redundancy payments or income for six weeks. This is very calculated, and it is sharp practice. Will the Minister of State give the Dáil a commitment that he will investigate whether this is a tactical insolvency? We need to establish whether the British-based The Authentic Food Company deliberately wound down the Dundalk plant. The workforce has been treated shamefully. They cannot gain access to social welfare. I urge the Minister of State to use his discretion to ensure the workers get their social welfare payments as soon as possible.
I have spoken to Enterprise Ireland to encourage it to find a buyer for the plant and to assure it of Sinn Féin support for this. I ask the Minister of State to do everything possible to have the workforce re-employed as quickly as possible. The workers need their social welfare entitlements anois.
The most pressing issue is that the staff of The Authentic Food Company factory in Dundalk are in desperate circumstances in which they are to receive no pay or social welfare payment for the next month. The workers will not receive their P45s for another month. Unless immediate action is taken, they will be left high and dry for the next 30 days as we approach the Christmas period. The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection must intervene and put procedures in place to ensure this matter is rectified immediately.
One hundred and eighty people have just lost their jobs. They now face a month without an income and no social welfare to tide them over. How are they going to pay their bills or feed their families in the next 30 days? How does the Minister of State propose to rectify this? This mess was not of the workers' making. How does he propose to rectify it so the workers will not be left for 30 long days without any payment whatsoever?
I thank the Deputies for raising this sensitive issue, which has arisen as a result of the closure of The Authentic Food Company in Dundalk. Our thoughts, like those of the two Deputies, whom I know have been in touch with the employees, are always with the families affected by the closure of a company. It is a difficult time for them. We all understand that very much.
The Protection of Employment Act 1977 imposes a number of obligations on employers who are proposing collective redundancies, including an obligation under sections 9 and 10 to engage in an information and consultation process with employees' representatives and to provide certain information relating to the proposed redundancies.
Section 11A of the Act provides that, where an employee believes the employer to be in breach of section 9 or section 10, he or she may pursue a complaint to the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC. It is also an offence under section 11 of the Act where an employer fails to comply with section 9 or section 10.
Following contact from my Department, the joint provisional liquidators of the company have advised that the consultation process with employees began on Friday, 19 October and will continue for a period of 30 days.
My Department will continue to engage with the provisional liquidators as required.
In cases where an employer is insolvent, the Social Insurance Fund provides a safety net for the employees. It is the liquidator’s responsibility to seek, on behalf of employees, payment from the redundancy payments scheme in respect of statutory redundancy and from the insolvency payments scheme in respect of wage related entitlements. An eligible employee is entitled to two weeks' statutory redundancy payment for every year of service, plus a bonus week. Compensation is based on the worker's length of reckonable service and reckonable weekly remuneration, subject to a ceiling of €600 per week. To qualify for a statutory redundancy payment, an employee must have at least two years of continuous service, be in employment which is insurable under the Social Welfare Acts and be over the age of 16 years. Entitlements covered under the insolvency payments scheme are arrears of wages, holiday pay, sick pay, payment in lieu of minimum notice and certain pension contributions. Payments are calculated by reference to an employee's wages and are subject to a limit of €600 per week. Arrears of wages, sick pay, holiday pay and minimum notice are limited to eight weeks.
My Department will ensure that the affected employees receive advice on jobseeker's payments and other income supports that may be available to them and will provide support to them in returning to work or accessing appropriate education and training and development options. The team in the north-east division met employees of the company yesterday and provided them with information on the lntreo services available locally. An information and recruitment event for the workforce will be held in the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Dundalk on Thursday, 1 November next. The event will be supported by other key service providers. Local employers with job vacancies have also committed to attend. The key message for employees is that the Department will provide any redundancy, insolvency and jobseeker payments to which they may be entitled in a timely manner and will proactively help them to access opportunities available for employment.
Finally, the Workplace Relations Commission's customer service section provides information on the rights and obligations of employees and employers, respectively, under employment rights legislation. WRC information officials are available to meet the staff concerned, either individually or collectively, to discuss their employment rights, including matters related to redundancy.
First, the Minister of State's response bears no relationship to my question. I ask him to study my question and revert to me on it. There is a small chink of light with his statement that: "The key message for employees is that the Department will provide any redundancy, insolvency and jobseeker payments to which they may be entitled in a timely manner". How will these people pay their rent? Last week they were in work, this week they are not. Where will they get the money to pay the rent? The Minister of State has the discretion to send a very clear signal that they should be paid now.
I raised other issues which I do not have time to discuss now. They relate to liquidations such as this. There is a responsibility on the Minister if this is a tactical liquidation which is to the advantage of the company and the disadvantage of the workers. The company ignored the unions and communications from me and other local representatives. It was wilful, deliberate and tactical. The company went to the court. The people who are the salt of the earth and who gave loyal service to this company are being abandoned. The Minister might not have had the chance to study what I said but I ask him to take up this matter and make a difference in the lives of these workers and their families.
Companies cannot be allowed to run amok in this way. They must be compelled to talk to trade unions in situations such as this. The worker cannot always be the loser. Workers must be protected and the Government must provide that protection. We raised the issue of them not receiving any payment for the next 30 days to pay bills and mortgages or to put food on the table. My colleague, Deputy Cullinane, and I have already introduced the Trade Union Representation (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2018 and I sincerely hope it will not be blocked by the Government in the same way previous legislative measures have been blocked. The Minister of State must support our efforts to rectify this. He must make provision for social welfare payments for the workers in Dundalk. He must also support our Bill when it is brought before the committee to prevent something like this happening again. We seek a definitive answer. Will the Minister of State ensure that workers receive payments in the next 30 days to tide them over until they get their P45s?
Our first thoughts are with the families affected. Some 180 people have lost their jobs as a result of this. Our response plan was put into place immediately after the liquidator was appointed. It was put into place on Monday but the process started over the weekend. The emergency response plan was put in place by our teams in Dundalk. As the Deputy correctly pointed out, the first issue is that the affected employees quickly receive access to all income supports that are available. These will be provided, as will job opportunities. The agencies have been informed of the situation with regard to any job opportunities for people who have been affected by this. In addition, they will get priority in the area of education and training.
We have acted very quickly on this, as has the Intreo team in Dundalk. The team met the workers on Monday afternoon at Ballymascanlon House Hotel. The priority was to expedite payments and to offer help and assistance with registration for the public services card and so forth. As I said earlier, an information and recruitment event will take place in the Crowne Plaza Hotel on 1 November next between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. That is important because all agencies will be attending the event, including the education and training board, Dundalk IT, the local enterprise offices, the National Learning Network, the Revenue Commissioners, the Money Advice & Budgeting Service and the Citizens Information service, to help and assist the people who have found themselves in this unpredictable situation. We will ensure-----
When will they be paid?
-----that the 180 employees will get priority with regard to any upskilling that is necessary. I promise I will take note of what Deputy Adams said earlier.
Special Educational Needs Service Provision
I had the opportunity last week at the meeting of the education committee to wish the Minister well in his new position. I reaffirm that now. In fact, on the Saturday the Minister was appointed I was driving to the conference of the National Parents Council, at which I was due to speak, and when I heard the news I pulled in and sent him an email to wish him well and to raise the situation I will outline here.
It is an absolute disgrace in this day and age that six children with special needs are being denied their constitutional right to education in their home town. I will put the children's names on the record. They are Kelly Semple, Josh O'Shea, James Tiernan, Latoyah Bowers, Jason Moran and Jack Reilly. These children received an excellent education in a special autism spectrum disorder, ASD, unit in Scoil Na Naomh Uilig in Newbridge. Some 18 months ago when we collectively discussed the next steps in this regard it suddenly dawned on the Department of Education and Skills that no provision had been made at the next level for when these children would leave the ASD unit. There were many conversations, meetings, telephone calls and emails. In fact, I brought the parents to an education committee meeting which was dealing with the area of special educational needs in order that they could have an understanding of how we deal with these issues.
Nine weeks after 1 September, when the children were told they would have a place in St. Conleth's Community College, Newbridge, they have not had an hour or a day of education. If the shoe were on the other foot and the children were not going to school, the State and the Department would bring their parents to court for non-attendance at school.
The delays in opening the extension of the St. Conleth’s community college and the delay in opening the autistic spectrum, ASD, unit are directly impacting on the education of the children who are waiting and on their families. They are not the school's fault. All children, including children with special educational needs, have a right to an education that is appropriate to their needs. Education should be about enabling all children, in line with their abilities, to live full and independent lives so that they can contribute to their communities, co-operate with other people and continue to learn throughout their lives.
These six children, however, are yet to start their school year, despite commitments that were made in January 2018. At a meeting in January, the parents were told by a principal officer of the Department of Education and Skills who is in charge of special education provision, and by the head of operations for the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, that if there was a delay, alternative accommodation would be in place by 1 September. This has not happened. It is an absolute disgrace. The parents feel very let down by the system, which I can understand. The system was meant to support and nurture their children. I am aware that this morning the Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board, KWETB, lodged an application with Kildare County Council to open part of the ground floor extension. This, however, can take up to another three weeks, which leaves us well into November. It is completely unacceptable that these children are still waiting to start school. They still have no date on which they can start school, there is still no alternative accommodation put in place and there is no home tuition in place. That commitment was fully given in January in respect of the six children.
I shall go straight into the substantive issue of the reply. There is a preamble around the general allocation of money in this sector. The NCSE is aware of emerging need from year to year, and where special provision is required in an area, it is planned and provided for. The NCSE sanctioned a new special class in St. Conleth's community college to meet the identified needs of students in Kildare, and the relevant teaching and SNA support has been allocated to the school. To this end, the Department is providing a stand-alone extension to the community college in Newbridge. This extension will provide 4,602 sq. m of additional accommodation, including a PE hall and 552 sq. m of accommodation for children with special needs, to complement the existing 3,072 sq. m building.
The Deputy will be aware that the Department devolved the project for delivery to the KWETB. The contractor was appointed for the project in October 2015. Unfortunately, the project was significantly delayed primarily as a result of contractual issues. Though progress has been less than satisfactory throughout the project, I am pleased that the building work on this project is now complete. The Deputy will be aware of this from her conversations with the KWETB this morning. A small number of snagging and defects issues that remained to be rectified and that prevented the extension being ready in time for 1 September have now been addressed. Additionally, some further drainage issues that emerged and which led to a further delay in the completion of the project have been resolved.
I acknowledge how disappointing these difficulties have been for the school community, including the pupils and parents concerned. It is, however, in the nature of any building project that unforeseen issues can arise. The objective is always to deal with these as quickly as possible to minimise delay and this has been the focus of KWETB and its design team. When a building is completed, certifications for the constituent components are required to be registered with the local authority for the purposes of demonstrating that the building complies with building control regulations. This was done yesterday. The local authority is required to turn this around within three weeks. After hearing of the Deputy's intervention, I would implore if possible that the turnaround time be brought into a more realistic timeframe. The schools rise at the end of this week and they will then have the week off. To give parents a bit of certainty on the issue I would like to see that happen. I am aware there is a three-week turnaround, and if this is possible I would certainly support that.
KWETB is actively communicating with the key stakeholders in respect of this project. The school management is in regular contact with the parents concerned to keep them informed of progress with the project and met with them recently in that context.
I thank the Minister. I appreciate his good intentions in this regard. He referred to school places and supports being planned for and being provided but the kernel to this is that these places were not planned for and were not provided. Last January a sticking plaster was applied to the problem. The problem is going to escalate in the area. As of last year, we only had 18 places that were suitable or available for children with special needs who were leaving mainstream primary schools. In this situation another three weeks means it will have been 12 weeks - three months - during which these children were without any type of education. This is completely wrong. The impacts for any child of staying out of education for this length of time can have lasting effects on their progress in school and on learning. This especially applies to children with special educational needs. To be fair, I am aware that the Minister has only been in office for one week but officials in his office had told the parents that alternative accommodation would be in place by 1 November. We are now at 23 October and we have heard nothing about that, and now it is to be pushed back another three weeks.
Last week, a reply to a parliamentary question I tabled stated: "In the meantime, the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) is continuing to work with the school and the parents to ensure that the appropriate supports are in place, including application for home tuition." No supports whatsoever have been put in place for these six children or their parents. This is absolutely and completely wrong. Home tuition is a poor substitute for children who are used to attending school. It amounts to only a maximum of nine hours per week. From day one, we have said that this was not going to be acceptable. Alternative avenues must be considered to have these children in the classroom to ensure that the impact on their education is minimal. Let this be a lesson going forward to the Department and to the Minister with regard to other situations like this around the country. It is simply not good enough.
I agree that this is an important issue. Every child and every young person deserves access to education and has a right to that education. I do not know the specifics about what was offered or if the home school tuition was offered. For the record, up to 20 hours can be made available for home tuition. I do not know why that was not taken up or why it was not organised. We can explore that further, but up to 20 hours a week can be provided for home school tuition. If the council has to take that three weeks, and if we need it in place for the week after Halloween and it be arranged, I will be happy to facilitate that. As the Deputy has rightly pointed out, that does not compensate for the physical building and being in a space with their peers. People may feel isolated enough because of certain situations and to be learning with their peers is where they want to be, first and foremost. I am happy to stay in touch with the Deputy on this matter.
First, I wish to offer congratulations to the Minister on his appointment. I am pleased for him personally and I wish him every success.
The Topical Issue matter that I wish to raise affects a school in my constituency and also affects other schools. The Minister will be aware that phase 1 of the development of Ardgillan community college, which was started in 2009, has closed elements of the school. I would like to know how promptly the fourth year students will be re-homed. They have been asked to stay at home, which is not acceptable, but I appreciate the unknown element in this story. How long will the works take and what assurances can the Minister give to parents across the Balbriggan and Ardgillan community that the project will be completed as soon as possible? What assurance can the Minister give that the State will not be left holding the can for this?
It is unacceptable that this situation has arisen and that we find ourselves in a position where we may have to close not just Tyrrelstown Educate Together, as was announced earlier, but other schools throughout the country as the result of shoddy workmanship.
The Minister's troubles at the beginning are in battalions, not in single spies. This is a big one. The structural safety assessments to be carried out on 30 schools built by Western Building Systems are important because the lives of the children who attend those schools are at stake. The seriousness of that should not be lost on this House. If the Minister were in opposition and speaking on education, he would tell Fianna Fáil that it started the problem by abolishing the rigorous independent control inspections carried out by local councils in 1990 and replacing them with a series of self-certifications. The legacy of the Galway tent and all the rest that goes with that tradition has proved to be a disaster. What now faces us is the urgent need to make sure that schools which house children are safe. I would like us to discuss how in the name of God this happened. Is competitive tendering at the root of the problem? What is supposed to be cheap and efficient ends up costing the State far more and could also end up costing lives.
I am horrified by the Minister's description of the problems this morning. What has been happening in our schools has put a shiver down the whole country's spine. I have a number of questions. Why are these issues arising now, more than one year after the fire safety audit was announced by the Department? Western Building Systems has stated in the media that a substantial completion certificate was issued by the Department. Is this the case? Can the Minister confirm that the Department certified this work as being appropriate, as Western Building Systems has said? If it did not do so, has it ever checked works independently itself or has it always relied on certificates of completion whether under the old regulation or the new regulations? When did the appointment of clerks of works start? I understand that only started one year ago and that it has not been done even with the new regulations. It seems clear to met that Western Buildings Systems should be eliminated from public tendering for the moment. The Minister is required to show significant or persistent deficiencies in the performance of a public contract to do this. There is no doubt that it has reached that threshold. Can the Minister confirm that the Statute of Limitations is not yet in force and that there is still a period in which to sue Western Building Systems and other professionals that may well be involved in negligence here?
I wish the Minister all the best in his new position. It is a bit of a baptism of fire. It is interesting that Fianna Fáil Deputies come in here and criticise the suitability of this contractor to carry out a government contract when Fianna Fáil awarded the contract. I do not think-----
I am sorry but Fianna Fáil does not award contracts and never has.
-----it is going to be lost on people that it was in government when the contract was awarded. I have some questions for the Minister which come from parents of children attending Ardgillan community college who have raised them with me directly. When will fourth years know where they are going to be accommodated? Will they be accommodated during the works on a permanent basis? Is the Minister going to set up and ensure that there are information sessions and a steady flow of information to parents? How long have concerns existed regarding the community college? Parents are concerned that perhaps officials in the Department knew about this ahead of time and that they were the last to know? Maybe the Minister could put their minds at rest.
I know there were specific questions. I will try to get back to them during the supplementary questions but for the purposes of the record of the House, I will lay out what has happened over recent days since I was briefed on this last Thursday. I just want to update the House.
I thank the Deputies for raising this matter. Before I put the specifics on record, I assure the House that the health and safety of students and staff are of paramount importance and that any and all actions taken to date are predicated on ensuring their safety. Ardgillan community college, Balbriggan, is a 1,000 pupil school under the patronage of Dublin and Dún Laoghaire Education and Training Board, DDLETB, with a current enrolment of 910 pupils. Phase 1 of the school building was built in 2009 as a design and build contract completed on behalf of my Department by Western Building Systems. This was followed by phase 2 in 2015, which was delivered by a different contractor. A fire safety assessment of phase 1 was carried out and necessary works were being undertaken to remediate issues discovered during the assessment. During the course of these works additional issues of a structural nature were identified. Opening up works in two classrooms took place last Friday and, following an inspection by a consultant engineer on behalf of DDLETB, significant structural issues were discovered. Having considered the engineer’s advice, and in the interests of the health and safety of the students and staff of the school, DDLETB in consultation with my Department and school management made the decision to close phase 1 of the school building immediately.
A structural assessment was carried out today at Tyrrelstown Educate Together national school and at the adjoining St Luke’s national school. Some of the type of issues identified in Ardgillan community college were found and both schools are being closed as a precautionary measure to allow for further detailed investigations. This development impacts 1,200 pupils and their parents. I am aware that there are also two crèches on the same site. My Department will work closely with the school authorities in respect of interim accommodation solutions for these pupils. The target is to have interim accommodation solutions in place for the pupils as they return to school following the mid-term break.
The Department acknowledges the disruption that school closures have on families and parents and on the students and staff of the affected school. They will be kept fully up to date with developments. We will have a direct line of communication from the Department for the schools. To update the House, every school in the original bundle of 30 was contacted by the Department today. As a result of the news this evening, the Department now intends to conduct structural assessments on all remaining schools constructed by Western Building Systems. We are going to do structural assessments on all of them, even those built post 2014 after the building control regulations came in. This involves some 40 schools in total. These initial structural assessments have been commenced this week as a matter of urgency. We will continue to do that this week and next week at a very fast rate and with great urgency. School authorities will continue to be kept fully informed of developments. We will also outline a timeline and chronology of the order in which schools will be contacted and assessed tomorrow.
I assure the Deputies that at all times the key priority of my Department is the health and safety of students and staff. I also want to provide assurances that every effort will be made, working closely with local authorities and communities, to identify solutions that will provide alternative accommodation for the students until matters have been resolved with their permanent school buildings. On the question of when we seek to have students back in Ardgillan community college, we hope to have them back in the week after the mid-term break, that is Monday week.
I thank the Minister for his response. Given that he has only been in the role a matter of days, he will be shocked as all of us are, regarding the developments that have directly affected 1,200 pupils and which will undoubtedly affect many more. It is particularly shocking, and an indictment of poor construction techniques and oversight of the construction industry in the past, that children's lives are being put at risk, never mind those of the teaching faculty and management teams of those schools. I await with interest the results in respect of the other schools that are being investigated. I sincerely hope the Minister and the Department will be in a position to reaccommodate everybody as quickly as possible and to ensure the safety of the children across these schools.
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive answer but it raises other questions. The questions it raises for me do not just involve the structural assessment of the schools and the number of children and parents who are going to be displaced in their lives as a result. Could we have a structural assessment of the system and of the use of public procurement tendering processes that put us in this place? This is not the first competitive tendering process that has been made a hames of in the past few weeks. We could look at broadband services, CervicalCheck, or the bus tendering process. We need to assess the structural reasons, the hows, the whys and the conditions under which Departments sit down and say let us give this crowd such and such a contract or let us give the broadband contract to this crowd.
The criteria are obviously a whole mess. These very expensive outcomes will cost the taxpayer, the State and ultimately the lives of children and their families.
I asked a series of questions and I would be grateful if the Minister would answer them. I can submit them as parliamentary questions. There is the issue of Western Building Systems, WBS, which is still looking for contracts. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has a role in procurement. He has to show there are deficiencies in its work. I want the Minister for Education and Skills to confirm he will say that bar has been reached and that Western Building Systems should not be getting the benefit of State contracts anymore and that it should be out. Too much has been put up with. This started off as very serious fire safety deficiencies and now we find there are probably more serious structural deficiencies. That company needs to be gone and we need to get proper standards. We need the Department of Education and Skills to inspect these projects and not just leave it to outsiders.
Did I hear the Minister correctly? Did he say all pupils who are not at school at the moment will be accommodated after the Hallowe'en break? Perhaps the Minister can provide more detail on that in correspondence.
Yes, specifically Ardgillan. The Minister said in his response that during the course of the works in Ardgillan, additional issues of a structural nature were identified. Can the Minister indicate when those issues were identified? Parents are worried there was information that was known but not communicated to them. Perhaps the Minister can provide myself and other Deputies from Fingal with a timeline of who knew what and when in order that parents' minds can be put at rest because they are concerned. They are still sending their kids to the school. They want to know if it is safe.
There are many specific questions. I met with my officials before I came into the Chamber. I asked them to make themselves available to members of the Opposition tomorrow. They will meet together at 10.30 a.m. They will make contact with the Opposition spokespersons and, I suggest, the members of the education committee to do a full briefing. This is a very serious issue.
Deputy Thomas Byrne raised a question about WBS. I met the Attorney General today and talked to him about future contracts. Personally I could not stand over a situation emerging where we have two schools - I have heard some of the feedback on Ardgillan - in which there are no wall ties and wooden panels are not bolted to steel girders. It is unacceptable that the lives of students, teachers and staff have been put at risk. I hope that tomorrow we will have a chronological outline of which schools will be inspected next. I am not working on the basis that it is 2009 to 2013 any more. There is an issue with WBS. We have to be vigilant. There is a lot of litigation and I am advised as the Minister to be careful what I say about litigation. I will not be careful about what I say when it comes to lives. As a result of this decanting, many lives will be disrupted. Parents already have very busy lives. The most precious thing to them is obviously their children but time is also a precious thing. We need a whole-community approach. I implore my colleagues across the House that we try to work together on this. There are serious questions about how we got here and how these buildings were allowed to be built in such a short period of time. It took three months to build a two-storey to three-storey building. These are the questions. I will try to keep the House updated as best I can and try to keep the communication open. My officials will be working very hard to ensure that happens.
I thank the Deputies for raising this issue.