Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Yesterday was far from a good day for 430 Bord na Móna staff, their families and their communities. The accelerated decarbonisation programme will move its traditional peat business into renewables and resource recovery and reduce the number of managerial, administrative and peat operations workers. We wish the company well in its efforts to diversify into wind, solar power and waste management, as well as in respect of the prospects for herbal medicine, aquaculture and cluster energy parks. These are all very commendable and worthwhile and we hope they will reap benefits. Immediately, however, we will see the closure of 17 bogs out of 63 across the counties of Offaly, Roscommon, Westmeath and Kildare. The workforce and communities understand the programme associated with decarbonisation and are committed to it. That was borne out by virtue of the workforce agreement with management at the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, as long ago as 2016, when they signed up to a programme that would have seen the eradication of peat by 2030 and the diminishing of the workforce on those products over time, mainly as a consequence of the age profile associated with that sector of the business.

Bord na Móna was established in the 1940s with a particular remit to create jobs for the people of the midlands region in order that they might derive a living in their own region. The procedures that culminated in yesterday's announcement should not have put the Government on the back foot, but they have. That is why I put the following questions and observations to the Tánaiste. I welcome the comments I heard immediately after the announcement from the relevant Ministers. The first obligation is to those who will immediately lose their jobs, that there be adequate recompense and a package that meets their needs and requirements, and that it be to the fore of all immediate efforts.

Second, can the Government acknowledge the commitment made by ESB and ensure that it is carried out, namely, that it move forward with its planning operations for the cofuelling of peat and biomass at Lanesborough, Shannonbridge and Edenderry, which only has up to 2023? Can they be extended to 2025? They were waiting until last Monday week for the Government to eventually confirm it was Government policy for such cofuelling to continue.

My third question relates to a letter I sent to the Taoiseach earlier this week. Will the Government agree with my suggestion to put in place a just, sustainable forum with the relevant stakeholders available to participate, funded by ring-fenced funds from the carbon tax, savings as a result of the public service obligation being done away with in 2019 for the ESB plants and by the globalisation fund from the EU? I have also written to the relevant Commissioners in this regard.

It is a discussion I had briefly with the Minister for Finance during the negotiations on carbon tax. We did not necessarily agree with its increase except that it be used in the right manner rather than merely a revenue generating exercise for the State.

I acknowledge that yesterday was a difficult day for many Bord na Móna workers, their families and their communities. Bord na Móna has a responsibility, and is taking steps, to continue to provide good quality and sustainable jobs in the midlands for many years to come. I welcome that Bord na Móna has confirmed it is seeking redundancies on a voluntary basis. It is important that it puts in place a long-term plan for the midlands. It is planning to provide for long-term sustainable employment for the midlands, including 400 to 500 jobs in new areas of business, such as renewable energy and resource recovery. All relevant State supports will be made available to the workers impacted by yesterday's announcements. Bord na Móna also will provide additional support to workers who opt for redundancy, including reskilling opportunities when they are asked for. Bord na Móna will also engage in extensive consultation with workers in coming weeks, which will include a series of town hall meetings with senior management.

The midlands has had strong employment growth in recent years, I am glad to say, with 15,300 extra people working in the midlands since 2015. There has been a series of positive jobs announcements in recent years and we have every reason to believe that will continue. I remember well that when Deputy Bruton was Minister with responsibility in the area, he focused on an Action Plan for Jobs in particular for parts of Ireland that needed jobs focus at the time, in which the midlands was a large part.

This is a difficult time for families and individuals who face choices. I am confident that Bord na Móna will offer a generous and supportive package to workers who choose to take a redundancy package. The agencies of the State will work with Bord na Móna and the workers involved to help them reskill, where wanted, to ensure that new job opportunities are there and that Bord na Móna itself, which has been planning for this transition for many years and has been communicating with its workers to that effect, will also ensure that the job opportunities it provides are prioritised for workers who may have difficult choices to make in the coming weeks and months.

On the Deputy's suggestion to establish a forum, the Government would be willing to do whatever is constructive and necessary in terms of giving reassurance that in the transition to a low-carbon economy, which does and will impact on companies and work forces and energy policy in particular as well as other sectors, that we work with people to ensure that people can plan for, deal with and manage in a way which does not undermine their incomes.

The local authorities of Offaly, Westmeath, Roscommon and Kildare will be holding emergency meetings next week. That is because the 15,000 new jobs to which the Tánaiste referred are not very visible on the ground or in that region. I acknowledge the national figures are welcome but most those jobs created for people in the midlands require them to commute to Dublin. We are talking about midlands-specific jobs for midlands-specific people. Up to 450 jobs are being lost. I have asked the Tánaiste a question and he has responded that he agrees with such a forum. If so, will he and his Cabinet put the tools and infrastructure in place to make it real?

Will the Government commit the funds I have asked for to make this real? Will it provide an enterprise and innovation fund to give the midlands the chance to emerge from this? I want answers to those questions.

The Tánaiste mentioned that there will be 14,000 or 15,000 new jobs. My children and others like them have part-time jobs to supplement the cost of their education. They are registered with the Revenue and so these are deemed to be new jobs. I am thankful they have them. However, we are talking about 450 specific jobs. The knock-on effect on our region will be catastrophic. There have been infrastructural improvements in terms of roads and transport links with major cities, which of course has benefitted the area. However, it is now time for this Government to provide a subvention for the area. It must put this forum in place, and make sure that it has teeth and money so that it will have an effect.

I said that the Government will be open to any constructive suggestions. It will consider them and follow a policy that is in the best interests of people living in the midlands. I do not want to get into an argument with the Deputy over where the 15,000 extra jobs have come from, but they are jobs in the midlands, not Dublin, which people in the midlands can drive to and work at. We are taking a series of measures, and have reinforced them in the recent budget, in terms of rural development and rural regeneration. That might involve the targeting of different rural towns with the rural regeneration fund or structural targeted money through Enterprise Ireland via local enterprise offices to make sure that jobs growth is not based solely in big cities but is spread across the midlands and other parts of rural Ireland as well. We will continue to strive for that. I accept that this is a challenge for the midlands. Bord na Móna has been a fantastic employer across multiple counties and will be in the future. Yesterday a voluntary redundancy programme was announced. Workers in Bord na Móna will have to make choices. They will, I hope, be offered generous packages. This is part of the transition towards a more sustainable future in terms of how we produce power in Ireland.

The Government will continue to work with its State companies where appropriate, but also directly with people who are affected by the choices they are being offered at the moment, to ensure that employment remains strong and continues to grow across the midlands.

What about the ESB application?

I will look into that.

When Deputy Varadkar became Taoiseach there were 2,895 children in Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government funded emergency accommodation. The latest figures were published yesterday and show that in September there were 3,829 children in emergency accommodation. On the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar's watch almost 1,000 children have become homeless, an increase of 32%, or two children becoming homeless every single day since he took charge. In September the number of children in emergency accommodation rose by a shocking 136. That is an increase of four children into homelessness every single day of that month. We know that these figures do not paint the full picture. Despite repeated requests from my office and others, the Minister, Deputy Zappone, still will not instruct Tusla to release up to date figures on the number of women and children in domestic violence refuges and step-down accommodation. We do not even have figures for 2017, let alone updated figures for this year. Since March, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has removed 625 adults and 981 children from the homeless figures provided by his Department. According to the local authorities where these people come from, the families were accessing homeless services, living in temporary accommodation and considered homeless at the time they were removed, yet the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, saw fit to remove them.

The actual number of children sleeping in emergency accommodation tonight is far greater than yesterday's figures show. In response to the escalating family homelessness crisis, Focus Ireland is calling on the Government to take four clear steps. It wants a dedicated strategy in place to end family homelessness; for every homeless family to have a dedicated caseworker to assist them to get out of emergency accommodation; a guarantee that no family with children will be referred to a Garda station to sleep in the absence of emergency accommodation; and a commitment that no family will be in emergency accommodation for longer than six months. Last week I introduced the prevention of family homelessness Bill. The Bill, based on the Focus Ireland amendment, would prevent buy-to-let landlords from issuing vacant possession notices to quit, which is still the single biggest cause of family homelessness. It is our intention to bring that Bill before the House as soon as possible.

Will the Tánaiste, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government and the Government support and fully implement Focus Ireland's four key demands on family homelessness, and will they give a clear commitment that they will support the family homelessness prevention Bill on Second Stage?

We have had this exchange on many occasions in this House. I acknowledge that homelessness is one of the greatest challenges this Government faces, and we are determined to resolve it. I hope there will co-operation and constructive opposition from people on the other side of this House. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government published the monthly homeless report for September yesterday. Nationally the number of persons accessing emergency accommodation increased by 171 when compared to August; the report shows an increase of 35 adults and 136 dependents. For the second month in a row, however, family presentations in Dublin are down. It is important to refer to progress as well. The number of new families entering emergency accommodation is also down. Furthermore, in Dublin during September 119 families were prevented from entering emergency accommodation, while 45 families exited emergency accommodation. Despite the high levels of homelessness, results are being achieved. Last year 4,729 adults and their associated children exited homelessness into tenancies. However, we need to do more. We must accelerate exits from homelessness and we have to do more to prevent families becoming homeless in the first place.

The Tánaiste should answer the question.

On Focus Ireland's request, of course we want to achieve a limit of no more than six months in emergency accommodation. It is one of the reasons we have expended huge resources on putting family hubs in place as well as the supports in those hubs to help families transition from emergency accommodation, which should and can only be temporary in nature. Many families are being moved through those hubs into long-term tenancies and social housing well within that six month period. Of course we agree that no family should be sleeping in a Garda station. We agree with those things. In terms of the request that every family has a case worker, my understanding is that we are working with individual families. Whether they are in hotel accommodation, which is not suitable and which we need to move away from, in hub accommodation, which is only suitable for a temporary period of time, or in some other form of emergency accommodation, we have to work with those families to transition as quickly as possible into sustainable tenancies or into longer-term social housing.

All those things are happening and are under way, but the numbers are still significant. We recognise that, which is why the budget provided a dramatic increase of resources committed to this issue, including €2.4 billion for next year, a 26% increase - almost €500 million - to ensure that we add an extra 10,000 social houses to our housing stock next year and that we deliver an extra 25,000 homes generally across the housing market, as well as focusing on affordable housing programmes, increasing dramatically the resources for housing assistance payments, HAP, spending another €60 million on family hubs, both outside Dublin and in Dublin, and increasing the expenditure on homeless services to help support families through very difficult periods in their lives. An extra €30 million has been provided to that end, bringing the total to €140 million. When one considers the funding for homeless services four or five years ago, or even two or three years ago, we are now talking about multiples of what was available then. We are responding in terms of resources and policy, but it will take time to make the kind of impact on homelessness that we all want to see.

The slowdown in the number of families presenting in the last month is seasonal. Exactly the same thing happened last year and the year before, so that is not a sign of progress. The second problem is that the number of exits from homelessness the Tánaiste mentioned is incorrect. At least half of those families were never in emergency accommodation in the first place. Talking to the Department and the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive, it is clear that the number of families leaving emergency accommodation is approximately half the figure the Tánaiste has quoted. He is correct to say that funding for emergency services has increased dramatically. That is a sign of failure, not success. How much more time does this Government need? How many more children have to end up in emergency accommodation before the Government accepts that its plan is failing?

Focus Ireland has made four clear demands. It would not have made those demands if the Government was already acting on the issues it raises. Perhaps the Tánaiste will answer the question.

Will the Tánaiste commit to those four specific demands now? On the fifth question which the Tánaiste did not answer, will he support the Focus Ireland amendment, when we bring it forward on Second Stage, to ensure no family is evicted into homelessness by a landlord who benefitted from a tax break when they bought their buy-to-let mortgage at the height of the boom?

I am not going to commit to individual amendments to legislation on the floor of the House. The Deputy will have the opportunity to make the case and the Minister is more than capable of responding comprehensively to it.

We are putting more resources into emergency accommodation and housing assistance payments because there is a temporary crisis to which we need to respond in a compassionate way to ensure that families and individuals are as comfortable as they can be in emergency accommodation, that we upgrade that emergency accommodation but, at the same time, accept that it is not a long-term solution.

How long is that for?

This is a temporary arrangement where the State has to support families through homelessness while we put in place long-term solutions.

We have a five-year housing strategy which we are two years into. The most challenging element of that in terms of human impact is around homelessness, in particular family homelessness. We are more than conscious of that.

We work with, fund and listen to Focus Ireland every single day trying to improve our services. We will continue to listen and work with the agency. However, we cannot have a change of policy on the floor of the House. All of the measures that Focus Ireland is looking for, we are looking to deliver. We need to be honest with people, however, as it takes time to deliver these.

Over 1,000 pupils have no school to go to. Parents are in the situation of scrambling to come up with a plan for how to take care of their children. With 42 schools now to be inspected, this seems to be the tip of the iceberg. How many more pupils are being taught in schools with an 80% chance of a wall falling down in the event of a storm? By the end of the mid-term break, there could be tens of thousands of pupils facing that nightmare situation.

This is a consequence of the race to the bottom model in the construction industry, a model of putting profits before people's lives, in this case the lives of children. This is a model which resulted in London Grenfell and brought us Priory Hall, Longboat Quay and this crisis. It is a model that has to end. It is a model in which the Government and the State have been active participants. In 2009, the then Minister for Education and Skills, Batt O'Keeffe, boasted about the reduction of 30% in prices achieved for the construction of schools. How exactly did he think that would be achieved? It was achieved by awarding lowest price contractors who were involved in cutting corners. Western Building Systems clearly epitomised what that model meant. It is known within the industry as a bottom feeder and horror stories abound about its practices. One need just look at its books. It has 45 staff yet it built 25 schools in the past three and a half years. It is part of a model of subcontracting and bogus self-employment.

The Government can respond that this is the fault of the builders’ party, Fianna Fáil. However, the Government has wilfully ignored the evidence before it of unsafe practices. These issues have been repeatedly raised with the Department, including under the Tánaiste’s watch, by trade unionists. In today’s Irish Examiner Michael Clifford outlined how problems with fire standards in the Educate Together school in Rush-Lusk were uncovered in 2014 with an architect concluding the building could collapse in 20 minutes. Michael Clifford stated:

The matter was kept quiet... Joining dots might have opened a wider problem. Everybody left well [enough] alone.

A year later a journalist, Fiachra Ó Cionnaith, wrote about it and after that, for the best part of the year, the results were kept secret. Why were they kept secret? Most importantly, why did the Department of Education and Skills pay an extra €60 million to this company after which these matters had become public?

Yesterday, the Taoiseach proudly said that this is not a case of public private partnerships. However, it is the same essential logic with the design-build contracts in operation. When one has a private company allowed to design, to build and employ the certifier for essential public buildings, it is a recipe for the disasters like we have in this case. It is an invitation to cut corners, yet the Government continues to use these contracts. Does the Tánaiste agree these contracts should be ended? Does he agree that the received wisdom of relying on private for-profit companies to deliver essential State infrastructure has decisively been undermined and that we need a public construction company which will put safety, workers’ rights and quality first?

I am less interested in the party political slagging match and much more interested in reassuring parents, families, teachers and principals that we can fix this. We are talking about a different era of standards and inspection systems which have changed quite dramatically since 2014. We are talking about pre-Grenfell, after which the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, undertook the inspection of public buildings to make sure that mistakes made in the UK were not made here. What we are focused on now – I thank Opposition spokespersons for their assistance on this yesterday - is trying to ensure we can reassure staff and children that we will put contingency plans in place and prioritise their safety.

The Taoiseach and the Minister for Education and Skills visited two schools this morning to send a clear signal but the Government will prioritise this and ensure all of the schools built by this company will be inspected in the coming days. This will allow us to understand where there are problems, fix them and put contingencies in place for the schoolchildren and their families for the time it might take.

There is a list of schools which are yet to be inspected. There are grounds to expect some of them will be fine. Some of them will not need to take children and staff outside of school while some repairs might have to take place. There are other schools where there may be dangers to which we need to respond with safety as the first priority.

I ask Members to work with us. Rather than trying to organise protests, we need to organise a calm whereby we can work with principals, boards of management and parents to ensure that, after the mid-term break, if certain schools are going to be discommoded for a temporary period of time, that we do that in as efficient a way as possible that prioritises children and staff in terms of safety and education. That is what we need to do together. There will be plenty of time after we do that for a political debate on what happened, how it happened, can we learn lessons and make changes to ensure it does not happen again.

Schools which are being built today, in terms of independent inspection and certification, are operating to a very different model on-site than what happened before 2014. We should not pretend such progress has not been made.

It is disingenuous of the Tánaiste to counterpose the question of fixing the problem and having a discussion about why it happened. If we do not discover why the problem happened, then we are going to be faced with the problem repeatedly.

I have heard from people involved in the construction industry that it will probably be necessary to knock some of the schools in question and totally rebuild them which will involve two years. This will create a massive dislocation for parents and schoolchildren. Has the Tánaiste any information on that? It seems to be the case that Western Building Systems was involved in building hospitals. Are those buildings being inspected? Why were the results of safety audits from 2016 not released for an entire year? Design-build contracts continue to be used by various Departments. In May 2018, the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, told the Dáil, “For public sector design-build contracts, the assigned certifier is employed directly by the client.” We still have a problem and we still have public contracts going out under this model.

Under the current regulations, in terms of pre-2014 buildings and certification around that, the contractor and contractors’ design team were fully responsible for ensuring quality and certifying that the buildings were constructed in accordance with the works requirements and building regulations at the time.

Since then, under current regulation, an independent assigned certifier is appointed. The assigned certifier gathers and relies on ancillary certificates, which must be provided by the contractor. Responsibility for the design and execution of the works in compliance with the building regulations remains with the contractor and the design team for the build contract. What we have now is independent certification and inspection on site, which reflects the concerns that many people have in terms of reliance on contractors and their design teams in their entirety pre-2014. Now, it seems we have seen in some cases the results of this in our schools, although many good schools were also built in that period by many good builders.

Not by Western Building Systems.

With regard to healthcare facilities, at this point there is no reason to believe hospitals are affected but we are going to take a precautionary approach and the HSE is determining what projects have been-----

It built the Beaumont Hospital extension and the Temple Street hospital extension.

-----completed by Western Building Systems. We will, of course, follow up to ensure there are no issues. I am told by the Department of Health that it does not expect significant issues.

What about knocking down schools?

I want to raise the same issue as Deputy Paul Murphy. I agree with much of what he said on the problems highlighted. It was scary to hear the response of the Tánaiste on this because we will see the same problems arise in years to come.

The Letterkenny Educate Together national school in Donegal is one of the 42 school buildings throughout the country that faces structural assessment in the coming days. This is a result of the unfolding scandal of questionable building practices carried out by Western Building Systems that has already resulted in the closure of three schools. Letterkenny Educate Together national school is newly opened and enjoying its first full academic year as students only moved into the new building last January. Understandably, parents and students are very concerned and have many questions that need to be answered. I have spoken to some of the parents and they have not been able to get any information from the school or the Department, which is adding to the anxiety they already face concerning the future of their children's education. I understand the school board of management has sought to reassure parents that an inspection is a precautionary measure and there is no indication the building is unsafe for pupils and staff at present but that is all they have been told by the Department. Now we hear the Department of Education and Skills has established a communications team to ensure principals have the information they need. I urge that this communication be extended to boards of management to ensure the information is also given out to parents.

I am aware that senior officials from the Department of Education and Skills and Western Buildings Systems are due to meet today. I strongly urge the Minister to present to the House further information arising from the meeting so that all Deputies have an opportunity to relay information back to their constituents. We are speaking about potentially thousands of pupils facing classroom closures. It would be a miracle if, with regard to all 42 school buildings to be inspected, alternative accommodation was secured before children return after the Halloween break.

I hope the Tánaiste can understand why parents in Donegal are particularly concerned about this. A scandal such as this harks back to other construction-related catastrophes, which this Government and the previous Government failed to adequately address. I am speaking specifically about the ongoing mica scandal in Donegal, which has affected thousands of homeowners. In reality, its full extent is still unknown. It took years for residents and public representatives such as me to secure a redress scheme while many homes perished in the meantime and others continue to degrade while we wait for the scheme to kick in. Now we hear that certain hospitals built by Western Building Systems may also be affected, as may houses around the capital.

Will the Government carry out the necessary oversight and accountability measures required of a functioning Government? Will the Tánaiste confirm when the investigation into Letterkenny Educate Together national school will be carried out? What steps will be taken to identify alternative premises should the inspection find one is required?

I also have schools in my constituency affected by this and of course parents are asking questions. This is why a specific communications unit has been established in the Department to liaise with teachers and principals and ensure information is available on request to establish dates for when the inspections will take place in the coming days. Three contract teams have been taken on to undertake the inspections and they are already under way in a number of schools. I expect the school in Letterkenny will get notification of the day and time when the inspections are likely to take place.

The Department is arranging for structural assessments to be carried out in all school buildings constructed by Western Building Systems using the particular construction method of steel frame and timber infill. As I said, three teams of contractors have been mobilised to undertake the assessments. These assessments will progress today and continue over the weekend and during the mid-term break. The relevant schools will be informed as soon as a time and date is confirmed for their assessments.

A structural assessment was undertaken yesterday in a Gaelscoil in Firhouse, which was completed earlier this year. While the final analysis has not yet been completed, nothing has arisen from the assessment that would warrant the closure of the school. We can expect that some of the schools are unlikely to have serious safety issues but we need to be sure, just like we need to be sure that if the same contractor built health facilities using similar methods we do an audit and address it comprehensively. I am told that as soon as this afternoon we will have information on it. We know that some schools will have safety issues that will result in them been closed. In some cases, where they are three-storey buildings, it may be possible to keep part of the school open with the necessary engineering supports-----

Who inspected them?

In some cases, obviously, this will not be the case because we will err the side of safety always, which is what we must do. We will know more as these audits take place and we will ensure the communications on when and how the audits take place are available for principals and parents.

There are two aspects to this. One is the current response and one is what Deputy Paul Murphy outlined earlier with regard to the historical case. I will deal with the current response first. The Tánaiste said that information is being provided. I contacted the unit today and eventually received an email in reply to thank me for my email and that the Department will reply to me as soon as possible. This is what parents can expect to hear when they raise the issue. This is not acceptable for anybody and it is not the way it should be. There should be somebody there to fill in people and tell them what is happening and ensure they receive the news so their fears can be allayed. This is vital.

Temporary accommodation will not be available. If it turns out the school needs to have temporary accommodation the Department will just turn around and say it is up to the school to sort it out. That is not acceptable in this situation because these school bodies had nothing to do with the building and provision of these schools. This was solely down to the Department. If the drive of the Department which allowed this certification process to take place is to get the lowest price on tenders that builders will then certify themselves, we will have these problems in the future.

It is important to say that price is not the sole determinant.

It was with Western Building Systems.

Please let the Tánaiste respond.

No school will be left on its own. There is already a group of people in the Department whose job it is to work with schools when necessary and to work with the education and training boards, other local educational institutions and other institutions that can help accommodate, if necessary, students and staff in a way that protects their safety and ensures their education can continue. Nobody will be left alone here. This has unfolded quickly. The communications unit was only put in place yesterday and it is getting up and running. I hope and expect that as soon as today the Deputy will see a significant improvement in response times for people who have genuine questions and who are trying to get information.