I call on the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Joe McHugh, to make his statement. He has ten minutes.
Structural Assessments of Schools: Statements
Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil le mo chomhghleacaithe as ucht seans labhairt i dtaobh imní atá ar na daoine sna scoilenna i gceist agus i dtaobh an ábhair iontaigh thábhachtaigh seo. I appreciate the opportunity to update the Dáil on the structural assessments that were undertaken at 42 schools constructed by Western Building Systems and the next steps to be taken by the Department of Education and Skills. Throughout this process, my priority and that of my Department has been the safety of school students and staff. We fully appreciate and acknowledge the disruption and inconvenience that has been caused to parents, teachers and pupils by the assessments and by the precautionary measures implemented. I am aware that the recent disruption has been difficult for families and that many parents have had to arrange childcare or take time off work because of these developments. I want to take this opportunity in the Dáil to recognise that.
Tá sé ráite go bhfuil an fhírinne searbh ach ní searbh atá sé; tá sé garbh. It is often said the truth is bitter but it is not; it is rough. This has been a rough truth for many communities, many that have been involved in building and many involved at every step of the way with the schools. It is also a rough truth for the staff, parents and young people who go to these schools. I am committed to ensuring we have these problems rectified in as timely a manner as possible.
I express my sincere thanks to school principals, patrons and boards of management who have worked and continue to work in close co-operation with my Department through this difficult period. The outcome of all 42 structural assessments, including the full list of schools requiring precautionary measures, was published on 1 November. The summary of the situation is as follows: 19 schools were cleared to open in full this week without any precautionary works; a further 19 were enabled to open in full following external precautionary measures in the form of a fence around the building, or part of a building, and protective decking at all entrances and exits; three schools, two in Tyrrelstown and one in Lucan, are being enabled to open, initially at ground floor level only, following the implementation of both internal engineering solutions and external precautionary measures; and one building, namely phase 1 of Ardgillan community college, built in 2009, remains closed but with the use of phase 2 of the college and overflow accommodation it has been possible for the school to open fully. There has been intense deliberation and contact between the education and training board, ETB, the CEO, Paddy Lavelle, and the principal, Michael O'Leary, to come up with a solution. I acknowledge the role of the ETB in that regard.
I would like to give a more detailed update in regard to two of the schools, St. Luke's national school in Tyrrelstown and Tyrrelstown Educate Together national school, which have required internal as well as external precautionary measures. Following feedback received from the school authorities at a meeting with Department officials on Monday, further work was undertaken over the past two days to minimise the impact of the precautionary measures on the smooth running of the schools. Time has also been required this week to work through other operational and logistical issues, such as a traffic management plan. As only the ground floors of the buildings will be opening initially, some students will need to be accommodated in alternative locations.
Prior to the reopening of the schools, the school authorities have invited parents this morning to view the precautionary measures in place and to raise any questions they might have. Representatives from the independent structural engineering firm that conducted the assessments, along with Department officials, are on site at the schools to assist in answering any questions arising. We are collectively working towards the reopening of both schools this week; however, the arrangements for reopening will be communicated by the schools directly to parents and pupils.
The Department's clear priority over the mid-term break was to ensure that the structural assessments were conducted and any precautionary measures implemented to ensure safe occupancy this week. This required significant mobilisation of engineers and contractors. I acknowledge their commitment and support.
In total, some 250 workers were on site in the 22 schools requiring precautionary measures. All measures were in place by Sunday night, 4 November. I acknowledge all the individual communities who worked hand in glove with the school boards of management and principals to ensure solutions were put in place in this tight timeframe.
The Department now intends to move as quickly as possible to the next phase, which is to initiate more detailed structural investigations at the 42 schools and, following this, to implement the permanent remediation works required. We cannot give a precise timeframe at this point for the duration of precautionary measures or the implementation of permanent works as this will depend on the outcome of the next phase of investigations. Every effort will be made, however, to keep the duration of temporary measures to a minimum. I wish to give a direct message to principals that my team of officials and I are committed to ensuring we do this in a speedy way because we do not want principals to face uncertainty as to what length the fencing around their schools will be, such as the 3 km fence around the three-campus school in Ashbourne. My commitment to the principals and the school communities is that this will remain a priority when we start the more comprehensive investigations into the 42 schools.
The structural issues uncovered during the programme of assessments have raised many questions and concerns that need to be addressed. It is important to restore trust in our school building programme. Schools are at the heart of our local communities. As a part of that, it is our intention to initiate a programme level review of the Department’s design and build programme to include aspects such as procurement, quality control, workmanship and oversight. This review will be informed by the detailed structural assessments at WBS constructed schools. It will be an independent review conducted by a person or entity from outside of the Department. I want to see this done in as timely a manner as possible. I am not in the business of having a six month or nine month review which will potentially hold up proceedings. I want to ensure this review, examination, investigation or whatever people wish to call it will be done independently and in as speedy a manner as possible. It will be a single process.
If there are specific lessons for the Department or the wider system, we want to learn them and ensure they inform our building programme. As Minister, it is my duty to fix whatever needs to be fixed. I want to be crystal clear, however, that in parallel with this we fully intend to pursue WBS through all contractual and legal challenges for the costs arising from the structural defects. Under the public works design and build contract, the contractor and the contractor’s design team are clearly responsible for ensuring quality and presenting certificates which confirm that the buildings are constructed in accordance with the works requirements and building regulations.
The certificates signed by WBS are on the Department’s files. As we have seen, significant issues were uncovered in buildings which were confirmed by the contractor as having been compliant with regulations. As we turn our attention to some of these important questions, I am conscious that it is school students and staff who must deal from day to day with the significant disruption and inconvenience caused by the structural defects. Our priority remains their safety and that will continue to be the case. No effort will be spared in ensuring all defects are remedied on a permanent basis and that students and teachers can enjoy the highest quality education environment.
Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis na daoine uilig sa Teach agus sa Seanad, go háirithe baill an chomhchoiste oideachais, fá choinne an chumarsáid agus an comhoibriú thar an coicís atá imithe thart. I thank all the Members of this House and the Seanad, in particular, the members of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills for their co-operation and communication over the past fortnight. Níl sé éasca do na daoine uilig sna scoileanna. It is not easy for all the people within the schools, ach tá mé tiomanta don ghealltanas atá luaite agam le coicís anuas agus arís ar maidin. The commitment I give this morning and have given for the past two weeks is that I will ensure the safety of the pupils and staff in these schools and get this work done properly to the highest possible standards.
Each spokesperson has six minutes for questions and answers. No question or answer will be longer than one minute.
To clarify, does the Minister have six minutes to answer?
Yes. The Deputy can ask a question of no longer than one minute and the Minister will reply.
May I make a statement for a couple of minutes beforehand?
No. This is the order of the House.
That is fine. I wished only to clarify the rules.
It shall consist of alternating questions. We will start the clock now.
I will use my six minutes to ask questions and get answers.
I did not understand the order to be so strict and that there would be one minute back and forth.
That was the order of the House yesterday evening. We must move on.
If I use less than a minute, may I ask another question?
The Deputy may ask four questions, provided it is under a minute in total.
Three questions in one minute would be 20 seconds per question.
The Deputy may have a go.
We have six minutes back and forth.
Is it the case that each spokesperson has three minutes, while the Minister has three of the six minutes? If there is time remaining before the debate concludes, will time be allowed for another round?
No, we will not have another round.
That is fine.
We each have six minutes back and forth.
On a point of order, it was agreed yesterday at the Business Committee that if the 57 minutes was not used in the question and answer session, we would continue and use the full 57 minutes.
We will see. I will be as pragmatic as possible. I will be surprised if all the time is not used. We must take parliamentary questions at 10.30 a.m. We must start now.
I asked for time to be provided for this discussion. It is a little strict and constrained to have one minute back and forth. I was not at the meeting of the Business Committee.
It was agreed by the House last night.
It was agreed by the Business Committee and the information was sent out.
I can implement only that which is agreed by the House. The agreement states that following the Minister's statement, each party or Opposition group will each have six minutes, consisting of alternating questions and answers, each of which shall not exceed one minute.
We can ask as many questions as we wish within the six minutes, which is great. Does the Minister accept there was a cover-up regarding fire safety audits before his time in the Department, and that it is only as a result of freedom of information requests and the Information Commissioner's decision on journalists, that this issue was discovered?
No, I do not agree there was a cover-up. An intensive assessment of 55 schools was begun in quarter 4, 2017. Last August, a team and plan were put in place to ensure the opening of works, which happened two weeks ago. Before that, assessments were also done in 2014. Fire defects, however, must be separated from the structural defects that were found in the past fortnight.
Is there a clerk of works on every major project or is it just on major projects that started after the announcement made in 2017?
There is a clerk of works from the Department on every major project. Obviously, there are different summer work schemes of perhaps one or two classrooms where there is no clerk of works, but on major extensions and major capital programmes, there is a clerk of works on every one of them.
There is a financial cost to all of these works. I certainly support the Minister pursuing to the ends of the earth those who are responsible, as well as perhaps the builders and other professionals. The financial cost is having a considerable impact on the Department's capital budget. Will the Minister confirm that he will seek further money from the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform? Will he also confirm that no other building projects, whether small, medium or large, under the Department's auspices are being delayed because of this debacle?
On the question about the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, there has not been an assessment of costs for the past fortnight's work and some of the work is ongoing this morning. As soon as we receive it, we will look for the costs to be recovered. The significant cost will emerge next year and, therefore, I do not expect the Department to seek additional money through the Estimates process this year. The significant work will be when the comprehensive assessments are carried out in 2019.
On the second question, I meet Deputies and Senators in the corridors every time I leave the Chamber and they raise with me various projects that need to go ahead.
I am committed to ensuring they will go ahead. We also have a very extensive ten-year bundle of capital projects worth upwards of €8.4 billion. It is important that we continue with those schemes.
Will the Minister confirm that there are no delays on those projects? I know that staff are working on this issue. Is anything being held back? Are decisions being delayed because of tendering, etc?
There was a mobilisation of the team in the last fortnight. Over the bank holiday weekend people from different parts of the Department came together in Tullamore. Thirty staff members, from a total Department staff of 1,300, were working on this interim accommodation measure to find solutions for assessment. In the last fortnight there was a deployment of staff. Obviously, this has had an impact on their day-to-day work. There has been a focus on getting students back into class and teachers back teaching, which is what they want to do. Once that has been done and the interim arrangements for transportation to other venues have been mobilised, we will get back on track to pursue important things such as other building projects.
At a meeting of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills in September last year the then Minister, Deputy Bruton, said the Department would engage with Engineers Ireland and other similar bodies. As part of that engagement, did Engineers Ireland specifically warn the Department about Western Building Systems or design and build projects? Was there a specific warning about the danger to children in these schools?
According to the information I have, no alert whatsoever was received of any structural issue in any of the schools.
I am concerned that in his opening statement this morning the Minister failed to give an exact timeline for when he expected permanent solutions to be put in place and final investigations to take place in schools. Deputy O'Loughlin and I were the only two members of the joint committee who were able to attend last week's meeting in the Department, to which all members were invited. At that meeting I understood solutions would be put in place within weeks, but the Minister has not been as specific in his remarks this morning.
I need to separate the two elements. In the case of schools where internal and external works are needed such as in the two schools in Tyrrelstown and the school in Lucan, internal works are now complete on the ground floor and we are looking to do the first and second floors in the next few weeks. We are looking to get the students back into their school campuses in the coming weeks. In the case of the 42 schools where more permanent works are needed, we will go to tender and get the structural engineering company that wins the tender to assess the extent of the works that need to be done. That will take a little longer. I reiterate the commitment made in Tullamore to getting students back into the two schools in Tyrrelstown and the school in Lucan within a matter of weeks.
The process will take considerably longer in Ashbourne and Ratoath which are in my constituency, if there is a need to go to tender and contract. I have contacted the building control section of Meath County Council to ask it whether it is investigating this issue. It has the power to bring prosecutions. Has the Minister contacted the local authorities involved to ask them to investigate the matter? Perhaps they are already doing their job by investigating this activity and possibly bringing criminal prosecutions in respect of it.
I have made no contact with the local authorities. As the Deputy has rightly pointed out, the local authority building control units have a role in this regard. It is important to get their input into any review of the design and build process. I will be happy to encourage it.
I will make things easier for the Minister by asking all of my questions in a single contribution. I suppose he has inherited a disaster. It is not very promising and I will get straight to the point. I have a number of questions.
In his opening remarks the Minister confirmed that "the certificates signed by WBS are on the Department's files" and mentioned that "significant issues were uncovered in buildings which were confirmed by the contractor." Do we know what the significant issues are? It is obvious that there are foremen and site clerks, etc., on these sites. They also have to sign off on stuff. Will they be held accountable and responsible for this? A great deal of money is involved.
I pay tribute to the principals of some schools who had the gumption to refuse to allow students to go back into their schools on health and safety grounds. The Minister has mentioned that safety is paramount. The approach being taken has to be welcomed, even if teachers and other staff, students and family members are inconvenienced.
The Minister has said there has been no cover-up, but surely somebody signed off on the buildings in which defects have been found. Somebody somewhere has to be hiding something. Someone must be covering someone else's back. I am not saying this as a personal attack on the Minister, but I would like to know if there will be clarity on this issue. Many schools, including six in my local area, are affected by it. While I accept that the situation with the Carillion group is different, nothing is happening with the vocational school in my town of Midleton.
This is all about the need for clarity. We need to get answers. I would like the Minister to follow up on the issues I have raised. I am interested in knowing who signed off on these projects. Did a foreman or site clerk sign off on them? I have a background in this area, having spent 22 years in construction. When I worked as a foreman, I had responsibilities. If I had let down the people I represented, I could have faced jail. That is how important this issue is. I would be very much obliged if the Minister answered the questions I asked.
I thank the Deputy for his questions. I appreciate that there are difficulties in a number of schools in his constituency. I will begin by providing clarification on certification of compliance. Unlike the Deputy, I have never been involved in major works on building sites, although I did a bit of hod carrying in my day. I remember that there was a need for vigilance, oversight and responsibility on site.
I make it clear that responsibility for design, build and operate projects lies with the contractor and the design team, on which we rely entirely for certification of compliance. They are responsible at each stage. For example, when the inside cavity wall is finished, somebody has to look down to ensure there are enough wall ties in the right places. The onus is on the contractor and the design team to make sure that happens. As I said at yesterday's meeting of the joint committee, I know from speaking to people in the private sector that the new regulations which have been in place since 2014 are adding approximately 18%, on average, to the cost of buildings. There can be delays in getting in fire safety officers. It is right that design teams are very pernickety to ensure every stage is completed properly. It is important to point out that although four schools which have been built since the introduction of the 2014 regulations have shown signs of potential structural issues, there has been a move towards a more regulatory environment. I remind the House that the clerk of works has been on site since 2017, which provides an added layer of oversight.
The Deputy asked about certification of compliance. Once again, the onus is on the contractor and the design team. There has been a debate about certification of completion because it is a grey area. Certificates of completion are signed off on by representatives of the Department. They are signed on the understanding all other works have been completed. If one goes to Ardgillan and Tyrrelstown, one will see nice and lovely new schools that have been freshly painted, but one does not know what is inside the walls. An unacceptable lack of standards and workmanship has brought about the situation in which we find ourselves.
I would like to separate a few of the schools. Ardgillan community college is an outlier. The Deputy asked whether there were visible signs of some of the defects. Issues were noted when Ardgillan community college was opened up. There was an insufficient number of wall ties in the right places. The inside timber relief was not joined to the steel structure or properly embedded on top of the concrete. Such standards are completely unacceptable. That is why the phase 1 building from 2009 has been closed. It is closed today. The school also has a phase 2 building. There has been disruption. Over 200 students have been relocated off-campus.
The schools in Tyrrelstown and Lucan also have internal issues. Engineering solutions have been agreed to to make the internal walls safe. Junior students in Gaelscoil an Eiscir Riada in Lucan were able to go to school on Monday. In the schools in Tyrrelstown there were a few jagged edges with the new supporting and strengthening timber infrastructure. The principals, staff and boards of management have rightly worked with the team. I acknowledge the Tyrrelstown team for also doing that.
Deputy Burton can use her time as she wishes.
Yesterday afternoon at the Joint Committee on Education and Skills, the Minister agreed that he would have an inquiry and I suggested to him that such an inquiry would need to have somebody very experienced and competent in building and technical issues, for example, a structural engineer and-or architect. Furthermore, a reputable senior counsel would also be needed because, as the Minister stated, a great number of legal issues arise as to where ultimately the legal liability will fall.
When does the Minister propose to bring his request for a proper full inquiry into this matter, with datelines setting out when all of these building projects commenced and when the design and build process commenced? I understand the Department moved to design and build some time around 2005 and this approach had been written up by 2008. We need to have this information. The schools which were mentioned as having the biggest problems - one in Whitehall was mentioned yesterday and the Minister referred to the Ardgillan school just now - all go back, apparently, to the period between 2005 and 2009. It is important that we understand the timeline for these buildings because considerable effort was put into changing the regulations in 2013-14.
From my experience as a Minister, I believe this will cost the Department between €50 million and €120 million. The other day, I saw at least 250 cars parked in the car park of the community centre in Tyrellstown where Tyrellstown Educate Together school and St. Luke's national school are located. Other cars were parked on verges of the road as far as the shops. Some Members who are expert in the building trade will be aware that the workers in question could earn €200 a day and some of the more qualified among them could earn €600 over a weekend. If we tot up the figures, they amount to a lot of money. It is imperative that the Minister asks for a Supplementary Estimate to fund this to ensure funding is not robbed from the existing school programme. Schools in Dublin West and elsewhere in the country are waiting on buildings to be provided. We have seen this caper in the Department of Health. I put it to the Minister - who I know is trying very hard - that we do not want to go down that road with his Department.
I am committing to initiating a programme-led inquiry specifically to examine design, build and operate projects. It has to be independent. The Minister for Health Deputy Simon Harris, appointed an international expert to inquire into CervicalCheck. I am open to suggestions from this House regarding the design of the inquiry to ensure we address culpability and accountability and, first and foremost, have safe schools for our younger generations.
On the other issue the Deputy raises, my total focus over the past fortnight has been on safety and finding a solution for the short-term problem of relocating students. That is why the Department established a team to deal with interim accommodation and a second team to deal with communication and keep principals and parents informed. That has been the total focus to date.
I will take on board the Deputy's suggestion. This matter is moving very fast and is very fluid. I agree that there must be a sense of urgency about setting up the review, which must not impact in any way on our legal processes. The legal processes and channels we are pursuing have to continue. We have four litigation cases ongoing with WBS in four separate schools and I want to continue with those apace.
The type and model of the inquiry have not been decided. I want to ensure there is accountability and that a message goes out to members of the public, some of whom have had to deal with housing defects in recent times. I have personal experience of the mica issue in County Donegal where people are living in houses that may fall down. This type of culture drives people crazy but it is not reflective of the entire construction industry and the many bricklayers, blocklayers, carpenters and electricians who work hard and comply with the rules. This case sends out a bad message that the problem is across the board when that is not the case. There is substantial compliance with the 2014 legislation and even during the crazy years of 2008, 2009 and 2010 there was considerable compliance. The case of Ardgillan community college shows clearly that we had unacceptable practices. We have to find out what went wrong at that school and with the design, build and operate system with which there was not proper compliance. Culpability has to be followed up in that regard.
The Deputy also cited a figure for costs. I will not state a figure as to what this will cost. To give an indication, the 42 schools in question cost upwards of €151 million to build. We will not even approach that figure because many of these schools will not require the level of structural work as other schools. I do not have a figure for costs. The important issue is to have the comprehensive assessment done as quickly as possible.
Yesterday, the Minister told the Joint Committee on Education and Skills that clerks of works were on site. To make it absolutely clear to people viewing these proceedings, clerks of works do not check safety, as the Minister confirmed today. As we speak, therefore, we are putting thousands of children into buildings for five or six hours a day and hundreds of employees, yet we do not have a policy where any of the work has been checked.
Today, the Minister spoke about unacceptable working standards, which almost implies that the bricklayers may be to blame. This is a policy decision by the Department of Education and Skills and successive Governments, ranging from Fianna Fáil-led Governments to the current and previous Governments, to have bottom-feeder companies that build at the cheapest rate. The company in question has 45 employees officially on its books but is able to build 20 schools, modular housing and hospitals. This is incredible. Three years ago, despite findings of unacceptable fire safety standards in Rush and Lusk Educate Together school, the company was allowed to continue regardless.
The Minister announced that he will establish an investigation. Will he have a criminal investigation? Will he contact the Garda Síochána about this? It is surely a crime to build without any regard for basic safety. Could we have had a Grenfell Towers-type scenario involving children in this State? Is that what we are talking about? If so, the Garda should be called in rather than just having an inquiry that may examine some specific matters.
Why is WBS such a favoured company with the Department of Education and Skills? Many of the other companies that are doing projects for this Department seem to be based outside the State and are able to undercut other companies by up to 30%. We have to assume that the reason they are able to do this is that they are driving workers down from the North, many of whom are probably claiming welfare payments in Northern Ireland. This is the belief of building workers here who cannot get decent employment with these companies. That is, as is well known, a policy of previous Ministers.
The point was made that politicians were very eager to announce new school buildings. They were certainly eager to do so in Dublin West, Dublin Mid-West and Dublin Fingal. In areas of high population growth, houses were thrown up and people had to clamour to get schools built. For elections and so on, it was very important to announce new school buildings. In the rush to do that, safety was secondary and profits and cost were the priority.
The Deputy made a series of observations and asked some questions, to which I will try to respond as best I can. To be clear, it was the role of the clerk of works that I was talking about yesterday at the meeting of the joint committee. That role is to give additional oversight. If the clerk of works sees something that indicates safety is not being done right, he or she has a responsibility to issue a direction and ensure it is done right.
That might involve ensuring that the work is happening within a particular period of time. The clerk of works has a general role, but it is not his or her responsibility to ensure compliance. I made that distinction yesterday. Compliance is the responsibility of the contractor, even if he or she is sub-contracting the work or supplying different bricklayers for the site. I am not blaming anyone for this because we have no evidence yet. We are pursuing legal channels to establish the facts. The contractor has responsibility for compliance, and the line of communication between the sub-contractors and contractor is important.
At each stage of the building, be it the closing of the cavity walls or the putting on of joists, extra oversight costs money and is therefore resource dependent. Perhaps something will emerge from the investigation or review into design-build-operate, DBO, contracts in that regard. We need to be very realistic about this. There is a culture of taking responsibility in this country. There are good bricklayers working this morning, and contractors and designers are doing their work in compliance with regulations and legislation. This is why it is important to pursue legal channels, to ensure that the deficits or weaknesses in this system are addressed.
There is no correlation between a fire safety audit and the structural defects found in Ardgillan. However, as a result of the findings that some schools have severe fire safety defects, there is now a correlation established between fire safety and structural issues. This has been highlighted in the last fortnight.
The Deputy mentioned criminal investigations and asked whether An Garda Síochána will be asked to investigate. My job is to ensure that the legal team in the Department continues to work closely with the office of the Attorney General and the CSSO to ensure there is a proper and deliberate pursuit of truth and an inquiry into who is responsible for this. We will see what emerges from that investigation.
The awarding of contracts was discussed. In this DBO 60% is awarded on technical merit and 40% is awarded on cost.
There are many issues at play here, and we can only scratch at them at the moment. The problems in the construction industry in Ireland reflect poorly on this Government, the previous Government and the Government before that. Nothing is being done about the problems that prevail. How in God's name did one company get so much State work? I would love to know that. What kind of connections does it have? If a company tenders for work in this country one of the first things it will be asked about is its turnover. It is not asked how good its building record is, but rather how big the company is. Big is considered best. I can tell the Minister that the majority of bad work in this country is done by bigger entities, not smaller ones. That is a fact. However, the Government is wedded to the financial end of things. When my company started, the rule was that unless we had completed a contract of a particular size we could not tender for work. It is absolute nonsense.
There is some confusion about the role of the clerk of works. In a design and build scenario, if there is a clerk of work on site who sees that concrete is about to be poured but the steel is a size smaller than what it is supposed to be - for example, 25 mm instead of 32 mm - the contractor should take responsibility for that. The Minister is correct that responsibility lies 100% with the contractor. It is not the clerk of work's fault because he or she does not actually have the power to stop such work progressing under DBO-type contracts. The situation is crazy. It is not a good idea. DBOs create huge problems, in the same way that public-private partnerships, PPPs, create problems. It is so blatantly obvious that there are many problems around how the Government is doing things. I cannot, for the life of me, understand why nobody gives a bollocks. Why is there no desire to change this, or to address the inherent problems that have been there for years? These problems can be fixed, and things can be done differently.
A guy from my office pulled out an article this morning which dated from October 2015. It reads: "Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan confirmed she is currently arranging the safety checks on [some] facilities built by Western Building System, which has constructed 26 schools for the State since 2008, after ... chronic problems [were exposed]". In 2014 and 2015 the same company was awarded contracts to build more schools by the same Government. Why would a company that had proved itself to be doing poor work be given more work? Can the Minister answer that question? Why does a company that has a poor track record get more work? I do not understand that. It does not make any sense. Does the standard of building matter or are one's connections and the size of the company the only things that matter? Since I became a TD in 2011 regulations have decreased. The Minister spoke about an 18% increase in the cost of building. He is correct, but that increase relates entirely to paperwork. None of it concerns better regulation or better supervision, inspection or oversight. It is all paperwork, and it is absolute nonsense.
The Deputy has raised a number of very important points. When one speaks to people in the building trade and at a wider level it is clear that smaller companies feel that they are precluded from tendering for contracts, even when they have a proven track record, because of the turnover threshold . I am on public record on that issue, and I certainly agree that it is an issue that should be grappled with. We should ensure that smaller companies with good track records should not be precluded from tendering. My Department is looking at bundling projects for the Higher Education Authority. I have publicly commented on that issue in the past.
The head of building control has agreed to give a briefing to the members of the committee on the processes that are employed. I am taking the DBO process very seriously in this instance. There were unacceptable building standards applied to schools, and those unacceptable standards have lead to chaos for families and children. Parents are wondering if their children were in a school that was unsafe in the first place and if the school they are attending is now safe. It is completely unacceptable. Whatever the findings of this review in terms of culpability and accountability, and whatever the legal outcome, I want to learn from this to ensure that personal responsibility is taken. We cannot have a situation where someone is looking over a bricklayer's shoulder and checking every block that he or she lays. That is not possible. However, we can provide legislative accountability in terms of who is responsible, i.e. the contractor and the designer. The Deputy has identified a weakness with the role of the clerk of works in this particular DBO process. I am happy to highlight that, and I am sure the review-----
What about political accountability?
-----will highlight it as well.
I wish the Minister well in his new portfolio; I am sorry that he has been greeted with this matter. I worked with him when he was Chief Whip and he was very co-operative. I know he will be same in his new role.
My questions are similar to those asked by Deputy Wallace. I want to declare an interest in this as I am a plant hire contractor. I have worked in many jobs. To lay a simple water main one has to pressure test the water main before it is finished with a certain pressure to detect leaks and bursts. It is simple. The Minister said that clerks of works cannot be expected to look at every block. They certainly can be expected to do that. They can look at every wall to make sure they are level and strapped up in the correct way. We have become too fancy, with too many DBO contracts. I welcomed those contracts because it seemed they would speed up the process, and I also welcomed PPPs. Perhaps I am going to have to reconsider that. We have lazy and lethargic people working as clerks of works. I remember dealing with clerks of works when I was involved in building houses. One particular chap would have a spirit level on a letterbox, and if it was out a fraction, even if it was not noticeable to the naked eye, it would have to be changed. Now there are no clerks of works. They are the people inside in the building on a daily basis. The Minister is correct about the thickness of the steel; the clerk of works should have stopped that job, or had the power to stop it. We have to empower the inspectors.
We have all kinds of design, cosy cartels and arrangements. Deputy Wallace was right in what he said. Many contractors contacted me. Unless one has a turnover of €1 million one cannot tender for a job. What is big is not wonderful. We have seen that with the group that had a meat empire, with the vulture funds, with the Coolmore empire, which is now buying everything, and with the supermarkets. The small people, na daoine beaga, are the people who keep Ireland ticking over and who kept it gong during the recession, not the big powerful entities.
Why is the line of command not in place during the design, build and operate process with the design being properly assessed by engineers in the Department? We have so much regulation, bookwork and paperwork but paper does not build houses and schools, or keep them standing. Health and safety is a vital issue. All the brickies going onto those sites had to be kitted out to the last with everything, including face masks, and rightly so, yet a building is constructed that is faulty and could fall down and, God forbid, destroy lives. I want to add my voice to the thanks to the patrons of the schools, the boards of management, the parents council and the parents and the students for their co-operation. This is frightening for people. We have some fine new schools in my constituency which were delivered under the design, build and operate, DBO, process and a fabulous job was done but we are now thinking about them in terms of safety as problems were found in schools elsewhere built by the same company that built those schools in our constituency. However, if one walked through them, one would think a fine and noble job was done on their construction.
We need to be able to trust the system and have a clerk of works who would have the support of an engineer, or a clerk of works who would have his or her own qualification and engineering support, and who would be able to withstand the might of the big contractors and say that he or she takes that responsibility. It is no good in terms of responsibility if the steel in the construction is too small or too light and it is gives way and does not have the holding power or strength.
The Minister should get rid of the plethora of senior officials in his Department and allow the people on the ground who know what they are talking about to implement the regulations but, first, he should get rid of half of the regulations. We have overkill with all the regulations. We are not implementing the basic ground rules of good building with a design, build and construct process and to standards that should be delivered. Can the Minister give us those guarantees, including that there will be a clean out in the Department of Education and Skills? I understand there was a whistleblower. I did not have proper evidence of that two years ago but that whistleblower was pushed aside. We need whistleblowers but we all know what is going on.
Deputy Wallace hit it on the head. How can companies get billions of euro worth of contracts? What about the small contractors who have track records, can deliver these projects, employ local people and pay all the sub-contractors? When the contractors leave they are gone and the sub-contractors are left with bills and to deal with structural elements. Will the Minister give us a guarantee that he will get rid of half the dead weight in the Department, bring in people who understand this area and have them follow through the building process from the turning of the sod to the turning of the key?
The Deputy has covered a broad range of issues. I want to clear up the issue about the clerk of works. The clerk of works is involved on a permanent basis on each major build, be it a major extension or a major new school building, and that has been in place since 2017. That has acted with respect to, and added further, oversight. When examining this review, we have to take account of what that impact has been.
The Deputy mentioned the Department officials. The only thing I can say about them is that in the two weeks I have been in the Department they have shown versatility in being able to deal with a major crisis, in responding to it and in listening to suggestions I made, and I received suggestions from colleagues in this House and from people within the building trade. I noted their adaptability in listening to those suggestions. I commend to the team that put this plan together. Potentially 16,000 students were going to be decanted. That was the issue we faced on the Friday the walls were opened in the Ardgillan school, which posed a potential hazard. We were thinking about decanting students to other schools. It was a major issue but the officials demonstrated a great level of versatility and foresight in knowing what to do in that situation.
I hope the review will bring together all the information, suggestions and proposals to ensure we learn from the mistakes and start building trust again with school communities. Those 42 school communities would have been actively involved in the build up to those schools, which are part of their communities. I appreciate the buy-in they have had in that process but now they have had to face this issue of trust, and of trusting the people at every single level. We, as politicians, have to be trusted in terms of opening schools on the basis of understanding that the cavity walls are done and that the fire-proofing is in place to make sure the firewalls are protected. All that is based on an understanding but the more oversight we can put in place the better. Obviously, however, that is resource dependent and those will be decisions that will have to be made.
I had a number of questions submitted for reply last night on these issues but the responses to them were less than transparent. I will be returning the questions today and I would appreciate the Minister giving a commitment that he will provide full answers to each of the questions.
The structural assessment programme that has been under way in recent times has been project managed by a company called KSN. Can the Minister tell us how that contract was awarded and whether that company had any role in project managing any of the 42 school building projects?
Yes. KSN was the project manager on up to 12 schools. To be clear on what a project manager does, the project manager does not certify any issues of compliance on the project. It went through a process to get the job with regard to the 55 school assessments, the 30 Western Building Systems, WBS, schools and the 25 other schools - a random audit. It got that, having gone through the process. Obviously, its know-how and knowledge of these buildings were paramount during this process. They were very important linkages in ensuring that we took the proper steps during the past two weeks but, ultimately, PUNCH Engineers was the company that carried out the structural assessment. It was the independent assessor and was not involved in any of these schools.
How was the contract awarded to KSN?
As far as I am I am aware, it went through a proper tendering process.
How can it be that there is not an obvious conflict of interest here where we have a company that project managed 12 of these schools and then the Minister is bringing that company in to do a structural assessment? Surely there is a conflict of interest there. There is no transparency because that company has already been involved in delivering those projects.
Let me be clear about it. That company acted and advocated on behalf of the Department. In terms of the certificate of completion, it was not the Department officials who signed off on the certificate of completion but the company acting on behalf of the Department. The project manager was KSN and it was working on the understanding that at each stage of the compliance process all the work had been done and carried out by the company and the designers. It does not act in an oversight role in certifying compliance, and that must be made clear.
It had a role. It was project managing those 12 schools and now the Minister is sending it back to look at doing a structural assessment. There is no transparency in that. Can the Minister not see there is a conflict of interest there?
From listening to some of the parents of the students in Tyrrelstown and from speaking to the principal, fears were expressed about the fact that KSN had been involved in a number of schools on a project management basis, but let us be clear, in terms of certification of compliance at each stage, KSN was the Department's representative in signing off the certificate of completion that the works were complete on the understanding that at each stage the company or the contractor and the designers were complaint the whole way along. That is something I take very seriously.
The Minister is being quite Jesuitical about this.
By any standard, it just does not stack up that there is clarity and transparency on the whole issue regarding those 12 schools. Why is the Minister only examining structural issues? The structure involves the walls, the roof and the foundations. There are many health and safety concerns about several of these 42 schools. For example, there are concerns about windows falling out, doors collapsing and guttering falling off the building which would pose a real health and safety danger. Why is the Minister only considering the structural issues? I notice he and the Taoiseach keep saying that it is structural structures and that it is signing off on structural issues. There are a myriad of other issues which pose a safety threat to people using those schools. Many of those issues have been brought to the attention of the Minister's Department. What has his Department done about a very high level of shoddy work?
Just to be very clear, we are not just looking at structural issues. We have been looking at the assessment of fire safety. We are taking that very seriously. That assessment was completed in August of this year. Works now need to be done. We have asked Western Building Systems, WBS, to look at four particular schools to see whether it will come forward and do the required work. The Deputy is aware that those four cases are undergoing litigation, so I am being careful as to what I say in that regard. We are going to be looking at all the outcomes, all the recommendations, all the weaknesses and all the defects from the fire assessment reports that were completed last August. A total of 55 have been assessed. Some 51 reports are in and there are four outstanding. We will be pursuing WBS for those as well as for the structural issues.
To reiterate once again, I want to find out all weaknesses, deficiencies or shortcomings that are in this design, build, and operate scheme because I want to ensure that we restore confidence and build up the trust that has evidently been lost in respect of this particular type of system.
Does the Minister have any concerns about any officials-----
No, it is all over.
-----or ex-officials in his Department regarding some of the building companies concerned?
We do not have time.
No, I have no concerns.
We move on to the questions-----
Can I just say one thing?
Questions have not been answered here today.
The Deputy will have to find-----
It is very frustrating. The Minister has been asked by nearly everybody why the Government continued with a company that was known three years ago to have breached fire safety standards in a school. He was also asked whether we could have had a situation similar to Grenfell in respect of these schools. He has not answered these really important questions.
I will give the Minister a minute if he wishes. Otherwise I have to move on.
Why continue with this company when it was known years ago that there were problems with it? That was the first question.
Let us be very clear about the process. The process was set out very clearly in the immediate aftermath of Grenfell, which I believe happened in June 2017. These assessments in the fourth quarter of 2017 included 30 schools built by WBS because they were showing weaknesses in other assessments, along with another 25 schools. That assessment was completed in August of this year. A team and a work plan had to be put in place. I arrived in my job on a Tuesday and got the first report that there was going to be a wall opened in Ardgillan on Thursday afternoon. I got a call at 3 p.m. on Friday to say that there was structural issue with Ardgillan. Obviously there was then concern around all the WBS schools. We are working now. I am working on the information I was given on a Friday at 3 p.m. My first concern was the safety of the students. The Deputy should also remember that once this issue came into the public domain, there was a lot of concern around continuity of education. That is why we set up the team.
The Minister's predecessor knew the position three years ago. That is the question.
If there are other questions, the Members and the Minister will have to find another way to ask and answer them. I am complying with the rules of the House.