Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Defence Forces Remuneration

I refer to the plight of serving members of the Defence Forces who find themselves in deplorable conditions relating to their pay and entitlements. What steps are being taken to alleviate the hardship being endured by many such members? The families and spouses of Defence Forces personnel recently marched to these Houses in a very dignified way and handed letters to the Government to seek to ensure that their dignity is maintained and that we recognise the service they give to this country.

What steps are being taken to ensure that there is the required core of military personnel across the Air Corps, Naval Service and Army? As the Minister of State will be aware, members of the Naval Service reserve were recently asked to fill full-time places within the Naval Service. Today of all days, the 60th United Nations Day, it is unedifying for the country to have a shortage of competent military personnel. I hope to hear something positive from the Minister of State regarding his intentions for concrete actions to ensure that the conditions under which people work within the services are addressed such that they, at least, receive the living wage and are paid a fair day's salary for a fair day's work. We must ensure that there is a core crew of competent personnel across the Army, Naval Service and Air Corps.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter and for his agreement yesterday to defer it to this afternoon.

I acknowledge his interest in the Defence Forces and his concern for the men and women of Óglaigh na hÉireann who serve Ireland with distinction at home and overseas. I, as Minister of State, and the Government value each member of the Defence Forces and the roles they carry out, whether as peacekeepers or supporting the Garda Síochána and other State agencies in Ireland. For this reason, we have taken measures to improve the pay and conditions of serving members as well as addressing the challenges facing the Defence Forces.

Defence Forces pay is continuing to increase in line with public sector pay agreements. The increases are weighted in favour of those on lower pay. Members of the Defence Forces received increases in pay in 2017 under the Lansdowne Road Agreement. In a separate deal agreed with the Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association, PDFORRA, the pay of general service recruits and privates who joined the Permanent Defence Forces after 1 January 2013 was increased further. The Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020 provides for further increases in pay ranging from 6.2% to 7.4% over the lifetime of the agreement. The increases under the agreement due from 1 January 2018 and 1 October 2018 have been applied to the annualised salaries of Permanent Defence Force personnel. Further increases under the agreement are scheduled for payment in 2019 and 2020. By the end of the current public service pay agreement the pay of all public servants, including members of the Defence Forces, earning under €70,000 per annum will be restored to the levels in place prior to the FEMPI legislation, as the Deputy will be aware. Defence Forces personnel who joined after January 2011 will also benefit from the recently announced amendments to the pay scales for new entrant public servants. The restoration of cuts to allowances will also be considered in the context of the public service pay agreement.

The average annual salary inclusive of military service allowance for a 3 star private, which is the starting rank for enlisted personnel, is currently €35,000 gross, while the average salary for an able seaman, which is the equivalent rank in the Naval Service, is €37,000 gross. Members of the Defence Forces also benefit from additional pay rates and allowances. These include technical pay which ranges from €420 to €7,000 extra each year depending on the job of the individual member. Approximately 47% of enlisted personnel are currently in receipt of technical pay. In the past two years, we have increased the opportunities for personnel to serve overseas. The average tax-free overseas payment received by general service personnel in 2017 was a little more than €8,000 and the average paid to officers was almost €10,300.

On retention, given the unique and demanding nature of military life, there is understandably a higher level of turnover among Defence Forces personnel than in other areas of the public service. This is not new. Recruitment and retention issues in respect of certain specialist grades in the Defence Forces were highlighted in the report of the Public Service Pay Commission in May 2017. The Government subsequently tasked the commission with examining these challenges. That work has commenced and a detailed joint civil and military submission has been forwarded to the commission.

A range of factors influence an individual’s decision to stay in the Defence Forces. Some progress has been made on non-pay initiatives, including more than 600 promotions to date in 2018 resulting in the promotion of one in 14 serving members. Members receive pay increases on promotion. For the first time in a decade, a potential officers course was commenced this year, giving 24 enlisted personnel a route to becoming commissioned officers. Additionally, four enlisted personnel were commissioned as officers earlier this year to fill vacancies in air traffic control.

I appreciate the Minister of State's answer. It presents a very rosy picture. The Minister of State stands up here and says on the record of the House that pay for a 3 star private, which is the starting rank for enlisted personnel, is €35,000 gross while pay for the average able seaman, which is the equivalent rank in the Naval Service, is €37,000 gross. I do not know if that is the experience based on an average working week of 39 hours because if we examine those figures more closely, we will find that most people who are within the services are working far in excess of 39 hours per week. When we annualise the hours and the average hours per week worked for the salaries that are being articulated here, the picture is far more stark than the one presented to us by the Minister of State. I have an example involving a soldier with 20 years service who got an affordable house with a mortgage ten years ago. He has a monthly mortgage payment of €700 and two daughters and receives €500 per week on average from the Defence Forces. He is applying for family income supplement. No soldier or member of the Naval Service or Air Corps should have to apply for family income supplement. That is the point I am making. There is a gap somewhere between what the Minister of State is telling us and the reality for soldiers on the ground. I do not want to be too rhetorical about this. I want to give the Minister of State a chance to deal with this issue and I think we have given the Government a fair wind to deal with it. I know of soldiers who are taking home €300 per week. The military allowance of €120 is being used to make up core pay when it should be additional pay. There are all sorts of issues there. Every Member of the House could come before us with individual examples of soldiers in their constituencies or members of the Defence Forces but I still believe there is a lot of work to be done by Government to make soldiering and working in the Naval Service or Air Corps something to be proud of. The rates of attrition are due to the fact that basic rates of pay are too poor.

I would be the first to say that we have challenges in the Defence Forces. There is no doubt about that and I have recognised and stated that on numerous occasions. We are competing in a very strong economy that is almost at full employment. A significant amount of work is happening in the background. The Deputy understands public sector pay. He understands that we cannot take one organisation out of the public sector and say that we will pay it more because the Deputy, his party and every other Member of this House, including those on my side of the House, would be jumping up and down asking why, if the Defence Forces were getting more pay, everybody else, including teachers, doctors and gardaí, did not get more pay. I hope the Deputy recognises and understands that. They are members of the public service who have received increases under the public service stability agreement out to 2020. Anyone in receipt of €70,000 pre-FEMPI cuts will have their pay restored. Military management and senior civil servants in my Department have worked over many months to produce a joint submission that was presented to the Public Service Pay Commission. The commission looked for a data-based submission with which we have presented it. I have asked that the commission meet face to face with military management and departmental management to go through the challenges relating to recruitment and retention within the Defence Forces. I commend members of the Defence Forces for the work they do. If it was as simple as just giving a pay rise, we would all do it but the Deputy understands that we just cannot take one organisation out of the public service and say there you go, that we are not looking after anybody else. We are going through the public service stability agreement programme. There have been increases this year since 1 January and 1 October and there will be further increases going to 2020. We are working in parallel with the Public Service Pay Commission.

Social and Affordable Housing Provision

This issue concerns the ongoing failure of the Government to fulfil a commitment it gave to the people of Dublin and the people of Ringsend and Irishtown in particular that 900 affordable houses would be constructed on the Irish Glass Bottle site. I welcome members of the Irish Glass Bottle Housing Action Group to the Public Gallery. I note that although I am pleased to see the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Phelan, here, I am disappointed the Minister is not here.

This was one of the biggest social and affordable housing projects advanced by the Government. Unfortunately, it has become bogged down in bureaucracy. In May 2017, an agreement was reached between the Government, Dublin City Council and NAMA that the Government would provide funding for the purpose of purchasing 900 social and affordable houses. A strategic development zone, SDZ, was subsequently approved by Dublin City Council on the basis of representations to the council by the then Minister that the receiver was on board and that there was agreement that there could be 25% social and affordable housing on the site. I think a total of 3,500 units were to be constructed.

There was then great surprise when the receiver lodged an appeal earlier this year that was heard by An Bord Pleanála in April 2018. It has now become even more delayed because An Bord Pleanála recently contacted Dublin City Council to say that it required further information. It has given the council until January 2019 to provide that information.

The Government needs to tell us when an agreement between Dublin City Council, the Government and the receiver will be reached. Members of Dublin City Council entered into and approved this SDZ because they believed an agreement existed between the receiver and the Government so the responsibility rests with the Government. It has become bogged down in bureaucracy. The people of Irishtown and Ringsend are waiting for these houses to be constructed. It is an essential part of the Government's housing policy, particularly with regard to social and affordable housing, but we have seen no development with regard to it yet. It has become a mess and I want answers from the Government.

Deputy O'Callaghan laid out the details very well. We need to know when this agreement regarding the provision of social and affordable housing on the site in Poolbeg will be agreed but we also need to ensure that it is the right form of agreement. On 25 May 2017, I asked the then Minister, Deputy Coveney, to set out what he envisaged the affordable housing provided within this agreement between the council, the developer and the State would be. He said that it would be predominantly affordable rental with the balance being social housing with a targeted provision for elderly people. This would be very welcome. There is a huge problem in the area involving local people not being able to afford housing and a need for affordable rental housing, which I presume will be delivered by a cost rental model. It maintains the units within public ownership and helps lower the rental costs for everyone. It is a win-win arrangement but we need to make sure that this is the case and that the Government is not going down the affordable purchase route. In this case, such an arrangement would be likely to result in very expensive properties as it is an ideal location close to the centre of Dublin. That would rule it out for the vast majority of local people even at the kind of discounts that would apply. Fundamentally, it would not be right. What the Government might call affordable housing that involves just shovelling money in from HAP and other payments to the private rental sector is not affordable housing. That is not where we need to go. Yes, we need to know when an agreement will be reached but we also need to know the details of the agreement along with confirmation that, as the former Minister, Deputy Coveney said, that it will be affordable rental with social housing for elderly people. That is what those additional 550 units above the standard social housing that will be provided must be.

I thank the Deputies for raising this important issue concerning the ongoing situation at the former Irish Glass Bottle site in Ringsend, which I am taking on behalf of the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, who cannot be here. I do not want to get into too much of a row with Deputy O'Callaghan but I am a Minister of State in the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. I can understand when Deputies wish to hear from a Minister from a Department but it is unreasonable to expect that Deputies get to pick which Minister will speak.

In May 2016, the Government, not Dublin City Council, designated Poolbeg west as a strategic development zone, SDZ, because of its potential to deliver a large proportion of the extra homes needed in the centre of Dublin. The Government’s designation of the area as an SDZ cleared the way for Dublin City Council, as the designated development agency, to take the next step in drawing up a detailed planning scheme or master plan to guide the development of the area. The city council duly prepared a draft planning scheme which was considered by its elected members in May 2017 and approved in October 2017, after the scheme was amended to take account of inputs from public consultation.

As a statutory consultee for that process, the Department highlighted the importance of the planning scheme, addressing a variety of housing needs and relevant matters. For clarity, it is important to note that there is currently an appeal to An Bord Pleanála regarding the scheme. The progress of development on the site will be dependent significantly on the nature and timing of the decision of the board. It is my understanding that An Bord Pleanála sought additional information about the proposed planning scheme from Dublin City Council on 20 September last and must revert to the board with that information before 17 January 2019, after which the board will make a final decision on the matter.

Securing an approved planning scheme for this site is a key step in enabling its development to progress. This is a matter for the city council and An Bord Pleanála, and the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Murphy, has no role in such matters. Under the provisions of section 30 of the Planning and Development Act, the Minister can play no role in a case before either a planning authority or An Bord Pleanála.

Pending the finalisation of the appeal process, and without prejudice to its outcome, I nevertheless wish to put on the record that the Minister is committed to working with the city council, any relevant approved housing bodies and all stakeholders relevant to the SDZ to see the site's development potential, particularly in terms of housing, fully realised.

If the planning scheme is approved, implementation of the SDZ must include delivery of additional social and affordable housing from this site over and above Part V obligations and of the order and magnitude laid out in the adopted planning scheme, but subject to agreement on all the normal and relevant terms, including value-for-money aspects.

The Department also understands that the receiver is engaging with Dublin City Council with a view to advancing an approach that would better enable the orderly development of this strategic but complex city location and assist in delivering much needed additional social and affordable housing. The Minister is ready to support such initiatives, subject to observance of all the normal value-for-money, procurement and wider legal aspects.

Deputies O'Callaghan and Ryan share the Minister's wish that this site be developed as expeditiously as possible. There are subtle differences between what each of the Deputies expressed. Deputy O'Callaghan's emphasis was exclusively on timelines whereas Deputy Ryan was expressing concerns that the right balance and mix should be delivered. Those are the issues that Dublin City Council and An Bord Pleanála will consider with the draft plan, subject to its approval.

Members should not mislead the public in Ringsend, or anywhere else, to the effect that the Minister can get directly involved in a decision that An Bord Pleanála has to make. The law is strict and there have been many planning inquiries and tribunals in the past, the results of which have led to planning law being in the shape it is in this country. The Minister has no role in influencing the decision of An Bord Pleanála, but he is adamant that, once that decision is made, this vital city centre location will be suitably developed.

Can I explain why, in this situation, there is a role for the Minister? The SDZ was unusual because it provided for 25% social and affordable housing. The law only provides for 10%. The reason that was permitted, and Dublin City Council went along with that 25% requirement, was because the council was led to believe an arrangement had been reached between the Department and the receiver and that the receiver was on board for the unusual 25% social and affordable housing. That is why this is different from the standard mechanism and why it was such a surprise when it emerged there was going to be an appeal by the receiver to An Bord Pleanála.

Another distinction regarding this site is that it is an enormous proposed development of social and affordable housing. There will be 3,500 units, with 900 social and affordable units. That it supposedly a flagship project for the Government and the Government should be on top of it and ensuring it is delivered. This part of the city is crying out for social and affordable houses. Young people from local communities cannot afford even to rent units in the vicinity. It is unique that this part of the city requires proper consideration and requires development of this site promptly.

There is no difference between what myself and Deputy O'Callaghan are saying. The State's role is to decide the nature of the affordable housing. I reiterate that, on Thursday 25 May 2017, then Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney, said that 550 units in this development would be affordable rental with an additional, smaller number of social housing units targeted at the elderly. I welcome that. It is the right thing to do. There is still much work to be done on the exact mechanism of rental. I want reassurance that units will be for affordable rental, not affordable for sale, in this development. It is important, as Deputy O'Callaghan said, because local people are being priced out of the area, both in purchasing and renting. We need affordable rental to give them a home to live in.

I thank the Deputies for their contributions. I am limited in what I can say because it is currently before An Bord Pleanála, but I will directly answer some of the questions that have been put.

Affordable housing will be delivered under three areas of activity on the site, the first of which is to enable affordable housing for purchase. Relevant provisions of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009 have been commenced. The Government will support the local authority to get sites ready for the delivery of affordable housing. The Government has committed, in the budget, additional money that we are all familiar with. According to the notes I have been given, the cost-based rental housing remains the primary delivery of social housing on the site in question and the Government position on that has not changed.

I am sure, without having spoken directly to the Minister, that he shares Deputy O'Callaghan's frustration about the delays in the process. The Deputy will know that planning laws allow anybody to lodge an objection or appeal at any stage and there is no way for the Government, any local authority, or anyone else binding a receiver or anyone else from lodging an objection.

This is a flagship project and the Government is on top of it. Dublin City Council is required to provide the additional information and An Bord Pleanála, which has received an increase in its staff complement recently to deal with a backlog of cases, can then deal expeditiously with the information and this site can be developed.

Rail Network Expansion

I thank the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport for attending to take this important Topical Issue matter about rail capacity for Kildare commuters and, in particular, the need to expand that and future-proof rail services for Kildare citizens.

The Kildare route project aims to contribute to meeting future demand for rail transport by increasing the capacity and frequency of commuter trains on the Cork-Dublin railway line. Phase 1 of the project has been completed from Heuston Station to Hazelhatch. Phase 2 is to upgrade the track to four lanes as far as Kildare town, covering Sallins, Newbridge and Kildare town. Capacity is key. The ongoing road reconstruction and widening of the N7 is welcome but is causing carnage on the road because of the volume of traffic shoehorned into the two lanes. There will be plenty of cars to fill all three lanes on the Naas bypass when it is widened.

In the light of climate change, we need to continue moving to a more sustainable transport model. Many students in my constituency cannot afford rental accommodation in Dublin and must travel back and forth everyday. The quality of life for commuters is key. Demand from residents in Newbridge, Kildare, Monasterevin and Portarlington will continue to increase.

We want to ensure we have ease of access and frequency of service. In my supplementary question I will raise the cost for Newbridge residents compared with those living in Sallins because the short-hop zone only extends as far as Sallins, which needs to be revisited.

I just caught the end of Deputy Heydon's contribution. My query also relates to rail services in Kildare but I think it is of a slightly different nature. As the Minister knows, I have been raising the plight of Kildare commuters since I entered this House and since the Minister became a Minister. At the stations in Sallins, Naas, Kilcock, Maynooth, Celbridge and elsewhere we have a problem with success. The service has improved. I would claim some responsibility for that improvement. I have been advocating for it for many years to the point that it is now a good service most of the time but is seriously overloaded. The carriages are bursting at the seams and it is difficult to physically board the trains. The car parks are bursting at the seams. Passengers can forget about getting a space after 7.30 a.m. Many passengers who get off at Heuston Station find they cannot get on the Luas either.

I regularly commute. I did so this morning and will run out of the Chamber shortly after this debate to catch a train back for a meeting tonight in the constituency. I see this every day. It has got to the stage that some people trying to board at Sallins and Hazelhatch cannot get on the train. They have to stand back or fight their way on and off and have further difficulties getting on the Luas. I give credit to the staff of Transdev, the Luas operating company. This morning, as one might see in a Japanese city or another city with high passenger volumes, they were physically managing people on and off the trams because they were so overcrowded.

I have tabled a number of parliamentary questions over the past two years since the Minister became Minister. I have repeatedly made the point that we needed extra capacity with additional rolling stock and carriages. I was very disappointed to receive a reply about a week ago stating that the National Transport Authority, NTA, had considered investment in refurbishment of carriages, spent two years investigating it and has now decided it could not do it because the costs were too great and there were risks relating to the supplier, Brexit issues, etc.

Two years on, the trains and trams are fuller than they ever were, not to mention the car park, and we have made no progress in reality. Had carriages been ordered two years ago - I believe there is a three-year lead-time - we might have been one year from getting them. Now we are still three years from getting them unless the Minister has news to the contrary. I look forward to his response.

I thank the Deputies for raising this very important matter, which is not unfamiliar as the Deputies will be aware. The NTA has statutory responsibility for the planning and delivery of transport infrastructure and services in the greater Dublin area, including Kildare. The NTA’s Transport Strategy for the Greater Dublin Area 2016-2035 provides the overarching framework for the planning and delivery of transport infrastructure and services in the greater Dublin area over the next two decades.

At a national level, this year also saw the publication of the national development plan as part of Government’s Project Ireland 2040. The NDP provides a national level framework for the delivery of transport infrastructure over the next ten years. Both the NTA’s statutory transport strategy and the NDP provide for the DART expansion programme as one of the key investment priorities in the coming years. Importantly the NDP also commits Exchequer funding to the project and an indicative allocation of €2 billion is provided in the NDP. That is a significant investment by the taxpayer in our transport network.

The proposed enhancements to the heavy rail system will create an integrated rail network which will deliver a very substantial increase in peak-hour capacity on all commuter lines in the greater Dublin area, including the Kildare line.

The electrification of the line to Hazelhatch-Celbridge and remaining infrastructure needed to complete the link of the Kildare commuter route to the city centre will be delivered as part of the DART expansion programme. In the meantime, the upgrade to the Phoenix Park tunnel in 2016 has seen commuters on the Kildare line have the option of direct trains to Connolly, Tara Street, Pearse and Grand Canal Dock Stations. It is proposed to further improve Kildare line services through additional off-peak and weekend services through the tunnel next year.

In addition, the NTA and Irish Rail continue to examine short-term, medium-term and long-term options for meeting increased commuter services demand. With regard to the adequacy of existing rail services, the existing rail fleet is fully deployed at peak times. However, the NTA, in conjunction with Irish Rail, is examining options for additional train capacity.

One option under current consideration is the lease or purchase of second-hand rolling stock and the NTA and Irish Rail will determine the viability of such an approach later this year. In the longer term, and as part of the DART expansion, a comprehensive fleet purchase programme will take place adding significantly to the rail fleet. The formal procurement notice seeking interested train manufacturers is expected to issue before year-end and a formal contract for the new fleet is expected to be signed next year.

I am confident that the improvements planned in the short, medium and long terms will enhance services along this important commuter line.

I thank the Minister for the response. Doubling the number of train tracks from two to four through Newbridge and onto Kildare town on the Dublin-Cork line on the makes eminent sense. Planning for that accordingly and ensuring it is a priority makes eminent sense as we prepare for future demand. Reopening the Phoenix Park tunnel has resulted in considerable benefits for commuters on the Kildare suburban line and has provided a very significant financial benefit for Irish Rail as it becomes a very user-intensive route because of its location.

However, the cost for commuters in my constituency is considerable. As I said earlier, the extension of the short-hop zone to Sallins, while welcome for residents in that area, has caused considerable issues. There is an astronomical disparity in the prices for travelling from Sallins versus travelling from Newbridge, which is only seven minutes down the track. The adult single fare from Sallins to Heuston is €4.75 but from Newbridge it is €14.30. An adult monthly ticket from Sallins to Heuston is €154 and it is €264 from Newbridge. This disparity is wrong. Money is being spent on extending a car park in Sallins which is full of commuters coming from Kildare South because they are driving to that station for the cheaper fares. The short-hop zone needs to be extended to Newbridge Station.

The Minister made a number of points in his reply. They are strong on rhetoric but they lack timelines or details. I am quite familiar with the issues because I have worked on the issue for a decade, long before I became a Deputy. I have tabled many parliamentary questions and some of the responses I received actually contradict the information in the Minister's speech. I hope that is a mistake or something that can be clarified.

For example, the Minister spoke about the long-term investment in the DART expansion. He spoke about the enhancement of the heavy rail system and, of course, he spoke about the electrification of the lines. These are all great things, but my understanding from replies to parliamentary questions issued from the Minister's office is that it takes a minimum of three years to buy an extra carriage. Are all these great things at least three years away or will they come somewhat sooner?

We have a crisis on the trains at the moment. I am also concerned that despite climate change and everything, people might turn away from the trains if something is not done soon, which would not be good.

I previously proposed to the Minister some practical changes that could be done more quickly. The carriages on the Kildare line are geared for day trips down the country and not for peak commuting, unlike DART and Luas carriages, which have standing room, hooks and handles. The trains on the Kildare line are more akin to the trains on which someone might spend a day journeying along the coast. They have seating, but not much room to stand.

A Luas shuttle from Heuston into town and back again would be very useful. It would allay some of the massive overcrowding we see as trains come into the station every morning.

I offer the Minister an invitation to come to Sallins one morning so that he can travel with me on the train. Let us try to park a car at 7.30 a.m. in the station and circle a few times to get a space.

Then let us get on the train and see if the two of us can actually find some room. Then let us get off at Heuston and see if the two of us can manage to get on the Luas.

I do that most days and I would be delighted if he would join me so he can see for himself.

I will start by responding to Deputy Heydon. I appreciate the disparity in prices between Newbridge and Sallins he mentioned. As is so often the case, I am not responsible for setting the prices from one station to another and cannot do anything directly to alter the prices that are set by others.

I will, however, pass on to the NTA the Deputy's point on prices, which seems very reasonable and fair.

In answer to Deputy Lawless, overcrowding on commuter trains and commuter DART and Luas trains is not new. It is regrettable-----

It is the worst I have seen in 20 years.

-----but it is not something we can do a lot about overnight.

It is two years in.

I wish to be allowed to finish. If not, the Deputy will just use up my time.

We have been examining the line in question and many others, particularly with regard to the purchasing of second-hand vehicles, as the Deputy probably knows. A decision on the viability of the second-hand vehicle option will be made later this year following market availability analysis and procurement options analysis. Work on developing tender documentation and training specifications for a bi-mode fleet of rail vehicles to operate as part of the extended DART system is progressing. The former procurement notice seeking interested train manufacturers is expected to be issued before the end of the year and a formal contract for the new fleet is expected to be signed next year.

The Government has committed several billion euro for the development of transport, including public transport, for the benefit of commuters in the coming years. The Kildare lines will be beneficiaries along with many of the other lines within the Dublin commuter belt.

Schools Building Projects

I congratulate the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, on his new position. Owing to his family contacts, he is very familiar with the constituency of Laois-Offaly and perhaps Kolbe Special School, Portlaoise. I hope he will take a special interest in the school.

The reason I am raising the issue of this school, in particular, is that it is extraordinary. There are very few schools like it. When we talk about a special school, we all have ideas about what they entail. There are many special schools throughout the country. This particular school has 40 students under the age of 18 who have severe and profound intellectual disabilities. Each child has a severe learning difficulty. This makes the school an outlier by comparison with normal schools in terms of the difficulties the students encounter. People, even locals in County Laois, do not understand that each student has a profound intellectual disability and a severe learning difficulty and that all the children are non-verbal. Practically the majority are in wheelchairs and are completely wheelchair bound. All have to be brought to the school in special adapted minibuses suited to wheelchairs. The Minister is getting the picture. There are only 40 students.

The school has been pleading for a new school building for the past 15 years. I want the Minister to give approval to appoint a design team. That is precisely where we need to be. The school is on a building list. The construction might happen sometime but unless there is a design team, nothing will happen. This is the critical next step that needs to be taken. The site has been identified. It is in HSE ownership and is adjacent to the current school but we need the design team. The accommodation schedule was discussed among the departmental officials in Tullamore and the board of management some time ago, in March 2017. There has not been a dicky bird since. Therefore, we need to move on to the appointment of a design team so further progress can be made.

Let me put Portlaoise in context and talk about the other schools. There are 5,000 people in primary and secondary schools in Portlaoise. In Kolbe school, there are 40, which is fewer than 1% of the total. The students in question are the most disadvantaged in the entire region. Kolbe school is the only school in the town that has not had a new school building in the past ten or 15 years. Every other school in the town has benefited. By comparison with any other town, Portlaoise has the most modern suite of primary and secondary schools. Despite this, the Department is neglecting the children who are most vulnerable and most in need. Therefore, we need a design team to be appointed.

I visited the school last week. I met the chairman of the board of management and the principal. I met every staff member and every child. No child could speak to me. None was able to utter a word. Many of them had severe difficulties. Some of them had to sleep. Owing to their profound difficulties, they are not even capable of sitting up in a wheelchair for the few hours they spend in the school building every day. These are very special cases. I cannot understand how their parents cope with the difficulties they face when they take the children home. Of course, it is a life-changing experience for all the families. Since the children are coming from a wide catchment area and are not just from the town, the parents can never meet for a parents' meeting. They cannot leave their children at home with somebody else to mind them for two or three hours. They can hardly ever get together because they are all isolated by their own work. They have not had the parent power one would have in other schools. I ask the Minister to appoint a design team for Kolbe school in Portlaoise.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta as ucht an t-ábhar seo a ardú. I thank the Deputy for raising this and for his kind words at the beginning. I am familiar with the two counties - King's county and Queen's county.

Do not say that, please.

I will obviously take a very special interest in the issue raised. These are important matters in terms of educational inclusion. I thank the Deputy for raising them.

Kolbe Special School, which is under the patronage of the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary Services, caters for students with severe to profound general learning disabilities. The school provides education for children aged between four years and 18 years. The school's most recent enrolment data indicate that there are 39 pupils enrolled for the 2017-2018 school year. The staffing allocation for the current school year includes a principal, seven teaching posts and 16 special needs assistants.

As the Deputy is aware, a building project, which involves the construction of a replacement school building for Kolbe Special School, is included in my Department's six-year construction programme. This school building project, which will comprise a single-storey building of 2,265 sq. m will provide a schedule of accommodation to include eight classrooms, a general purpose room, a library and resource area, a woodwork and art room, an exercise-therapy room and various ancillary spaces.

The schedule of accommodation for the new school was developed in consultation with the National Council for Special Education. The schedule has been issued to the school authorities and has been favourably received. To facilitate the development of the proposed new school, my Department has acquired a 1.433 ha site from the Health Service Executive at St. Fintan's, Portlaoise, County Laois, for the project. My Department is currently finalising the development of the project brief with a view to progressing the project into architectural planning at an early stage. As an interim arrangement, my Department gave approval to Kolbe Special School in late February 2018 for the provision of a temporary classroom to meet the growing current needs at the school.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I hope he is at the cusp of making some progress. He said he hopes to progress the project to architectural planning at an early stage. I have given a commitment to the parents and the teachers. I will be back to the Minister every month about this issue. I ask him to get the work started. Even when it is started, it will have to go through the planning and tendering processes. Therefore, it is still a long way off. I ask the Minister to allow the school to proceed to architectural planning as quickly as possible.

As the Minister just mentioned, he has sanctioned approval for another prefab. Five of the seven classrooms in the school are now prefabs. They are for children with the most profound intellectual disabilities in the country.

The school site is extraordinary in that the HSE owns the site, the Muiriosa Foundation owns the school buildings and the Department owns the five prefabs on the site, so it is a complete mixum-gatherum. Nevertheless, the Department must take ownership of this project.

I visited the school with the chairman of the board of management and the principal. Since September the school has lost its sensory room to facilitate a class. The pupils with autism cannot use the physical education hall because of over-stimulation due to people going through it. If one understands the nature of the profound disabilities involved one can understand why that is the case. The pupils need absolute quiet. We had to tiptoe in and out of many of the rooms last week lest we upset the children. The corridor to the nurse's room is cluttered with equipment, making access to the room difficult. In fact, there are two nurses on the staff, paid by the Muiriosa Foundation. That indicates the type of school we are discussing. There are 40 pupils in the school and the full complement of teachers and SNAs, but when it is necessary to have two nurses on the staff it shows what a special case it is.

As I said, there are 5,000 children in great new schools in Portlaoise, aside from the couple that are being examined due to the difficulty that has arisen in recent days with school buildings. The St. Francis Special School will have a site for building soon and another secondary school is getting a new site. However, these 40 children are being left in limbo in the meantime and I urge the Minister to move on this. I am not here to fight but to plead on behalf of those children, their parents and the staff.

I appreciate the Deputy's conviction on this. He has been to the school and met the students and the teachers individually. The most vulnerable people one will meet are people who cannot communicate or speak so I understand the seriousness of this issue. The project is at architectural planning stage and is in the six year bundle for 2016 to 2021. Obviously there are many pressures coming down the track with regard to which schools fit into the ten year capital plan, but the school is in the six year bundle and there is a commitment to it. However, I accept that there is anxiety on the part of parents and teachers to provide the infrastructure and a proper learning environment. Having read about the different elements of the new school it is clear they are looking forward to it.

I will take the Deputy's comments on board and speak to my officials about the current position and the next stage. It is at the design stage at present but given that the Deputy has highlighted the vulnerability of this group I will convey that to my officials.