Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Health Services Provision

I thank the Office of the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this matter and the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, for coming in to take it. This is about dental services and occupational therapy in Celbridge and the surrounding area. I will deal with dental services first. I was contacted by numerous parents in Kilcock, Maynooth, Leixlip and Celbridge who have concerns about access to dental services in local communities. They have been told that the service will be moved to a central location, namely, the new primary care centre in Celbridge. They do not typically have an issue with that but they are concerned about when this will happen. While they were given information, no detail has been provided. I tabled a parliamentary question and contacted the HSE via the Deputies' line in order to ask for this information so that we could give it to parents, schools and the public in general. Although it is a priority for community health organisation, CHO, 7, I was informed in April that, alarmingly and astonishingly, there is no date or plan to put it in place and to commence provision of those services in Celbridge for the wider area. I hope the Minister of State will have some different information for me. Dental services are not even available in Celbridge at present. Parents who take their children to the dental service in Celbridge have been asked to go to Naas for the last weeks. Naas is approximately 30 to 40 minutes away by car. If one wants to go by public transport, one has to get a taxi or train to Sallins and then a taxi from Sallins to Naas. It is not straightforward logistically and there is a financial implication. It causes much difficulty and hardship for families, and a lot of stress because they do not know what is happening. When will the dental services be in place in Celbridge for Celbridge, Kilcock, Maynooth and Leixlip? Does the Minister of State have a date and a plan?

Occupational therapy services are not currently available in the Celbridge primary care centre for children over 16 years of age. They have to go to Clane for that service. Again, there are logistical problems, such as for families who do not have two cars. Someone who needs occupational or physical therapy may be a child with special needs or someone with a particular challenge, so it is not that simple or straightforward to commute with him or her by public transport or by taxi to Clane, which is nearly 15 minutes away.

We have a wonderful primary care centre in Celbridge. On Leaders' Questions earlier, the Taoiseach advocated for primary care and the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, did so at Question Time yesterday. We all advocate for primary care because if it is financed, resourced and staffed properly, it can be a great front-line service to communities and can ensure that people can avoid having to travel long distances for care and stay away from accident and emergency units. The problem we have in some cases is that the basic services, such as occupational therapy, physiotherapy and dental services, are not in place. We must examine how they can be resourced better so as to play a more integral part in the community and to provide the service we all want them to provide. I would very much appreciate some information from the Minister of State on those services and when they will be in place.

I thank Deputy O'Rourke for the opportunity to address the matter of dental and occupational therapy services provided by the HSE in Celbridge and Maynooth. The public dental service of the HSE treats children up to the age of 16 and persons of all ages with special needs at its dental clinics. This is an operational matter for the HSE, which has advised that a modernisation plan for the dental service in CHO 7 will create a larger, modern and more appropriate dental location for north County Kildare, based in Celbridge. The new location will service the current Maynooth and Celbridge clinics and the previous clinic in Leixlip, which is now closed.

The Celbridge clinic closed in June 2018 for refurbishment in order to enable it to comply with new regulations. The refurbishment is on the HSE capital programme and is a priority for CHO 7. The contract for the refurbishment work was put out to tender and tender returns are currently being reviewed by HSE Estates. The HSE capital plan for 2019 is being finalised. Funding will be dependent on the capital available and competing priorities. Currently, the Maynooth clinic is operating five days a week. The dentist in the surgery is due to retire in September. The HSE is engaged in recruitment to replace dental staff. It is intended that the services provided in Maynooth will be relocated to Celbridge after the clinic in Celbridge is refurbished and reopened. There will be no loss of service to patients as a result of the move. While the dental clinic in Celbridge is closed, all patients are being offered services as close as possible to Celbridge. Routine dental services are being provided in the HSE dental clinics in Naas while emergency services are available from all HSE dental clinics located across the dental area, as per normal. The HSE is actively monitoring this service and will ensure that all patients will continue to be offered appointments.

With regard to occupational therapy, OT, services, I can assure the Deputy that both the adult and paediatric services continue to be based in Celbridge and Maynooth primary care centres. The HSE advises that all priority 1 adult cases are seen within five days in both Celbridge and Maynooth, although there is an accepted need to do more to reduce waiting times for children both locally and nationally. Service improvements in occupational therapy delivery include a number of health promotion groups running in Celbridge primary care centre, while staff from the OT department are working closely with parents in a new three-tiered approach which involves more parent coaching sessions.

In Maynooth, the OT department is reviewing the model of service delivery to include consultation, universal education and support, including drop-in clinics and home programmes, where appropriate, and a targeted approach for children where individualised intervention is indicated on assessment. I can advise the Deputy that there is a funding allocation in 2019 for the recruitment of 170 community nursing and therapy posts. Included in that, are 40 occupational therapy posts. The allocation of the posts will be determined following consultation with the CHOs.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. What was missing is a date for the opening of the clinic in Celbridge. I accept that the clinic had to close for the refurbishment. It is a positive development that the new primary care centre is coming to Celbridge, because the centre was built and developed to provide the services for Celbridge and the wider catchment area. That is all positive, but the Minister of State will understand the difficulties experienced by parents in Celbridge who are trying to get a service for their children. The closest service is in Naas and everyone is being directed there, despite what the Minister of State said to the effect that patients are being offered services as close as possible to Celbridge. That is not the case. Naas is 30 to 40 minutes away and it is not logistically possible to get to it directly by public transport. The situation is not as straightforward as has been presented.

Given that the refurbishment work has gone to tender and the tenders are being reviewed there must be an indication of the cost involved. When will the work start to bring the new dental service to Celbridge and when will it be ready for children to access the dental services they need there. I have been trying to distil the information for the past six months. I accept that the Minister of State is trying to help but the crux of the issue relates to when the service will be up and running in Celbridge for local children and the children of Kilcock, Maynooth and Leixlip. That is the critical issue. If the Minister of State is not able to provide a definitive timeframe today, I hope he can do so within the next week before the Dáil rises so that we would have some clarity.

The Minister of State indicated that occupational therapy services are provided in Celbridge but that is not the case with physiotherapy. In addition, unfortunately, patients are not being seen in five days. Children with special needs have particular challenges and an assessment of needs sets out what they require but after the assessment has been carried out it can take between six and 12 months before they get into a programme of treatment. Unfortunately, that is the reality on the ground. We want to work with the Minister of State to improve the situation.

Unfortunately, I do not have a date. As already stated, this is an operational matter for the HSE so I will have to revert back to it to get the dates sought by the Deputy.

In April, Smile agus Sláinte, the new national oral health policy was published. Smile agus Sláinte provides the guiding principles to transform our current oral healthcare service over the next eight years. Under the policy, all children up to 16 years will receive eight oral healthcare packages, including examinations, assessments, advice, prevention interventions, emergency care and referral as appropriate. Oral healthcare packages will also be provided for medical card holders over 16 years. The packages will be provided in a primary care setting by oral healthcare practitioners contracted by the HSE. In 2020, the introduction of packages of care for children under six years of age will be prioritised. In addition, there will be a focus on enabling vulnerable adults to access their local dentist as a first point of contact and ensuring that they are referred to the HSE community oral healthcare service or other appropriate service, if required. In total, 41 actions have been identified and implementation will take place over the next eight years.

Smile agus Sláinte provides the groundwork to transform oral health services. It embraces the same ideals as Sláintecare with the needs of people at the core and where the provision of services in the local community is paramount. As outlined, there has been no diminution in occupational therapy services in Celbridge and Maynooth and the HSE remains committed to achieving the optimum outcomes for service users.

Long Stay Residential Units

This is not the first time I have raised this issue on the floor of the Dáil. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle and I have continually raised it with the Minister of State for a number of years. Táim buíoch go bhfuil an cheist seo roghnaithe inniu le plé a dhéanamh ar Ospidéal Íosaf Srath an Urláir agus ar Ospidéal Pobal Ráth Mealtain mar tá an cheist seo fíorthábhachtach do dhaoine i nDún na nGall.

The communities in Ramelton and in the Finn Valley remain in limbo about the long-term future of residential care in their much-loved community hospitals, Ramelton and St. Joseph's. Despite repeated assurances from the Government, including from the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, that the projects would be financed, but that has not happened. We even had an announcement by the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, that the funding was allocated. Oireachtas Members have been told that everything will be fine, that detailed design will take place in late 2019 and that planning will occur in early 2020. Despite the assurances given to Members who wish to save those vital services, however, we know that not a red cent has been allocated to date.

Just last week, senior officials from the HSE confirmed to us at that forum that they have not received formal approval for either project yet despite their repeated requests. That leaves them in a position whereby, if nothing happens to these hospitals by 2021, HIQA will close the beds down. That is basically it because there will be non-compliance. Given the current position on the commitments made heretofore, to the effect that significant works would be carried out at the hospitals to the value of over €300 million, the HSE now has to consider plan B. Plan B is to carry out minor works by 2021 to make sure the hospitals are in compliance with HIQA standards. This is to prevent HIQA from coming in to close the facilities down. That means some en suite facilities will have to be added to rooms and that the dignity of patients will need to be preserved, but it is another example of the HSE squandering money and waste within the public service. It is another example of everything that is wrong with this Government and with planning. What should happen is that the project should be given the green light this year, as committed to. It makes no sense to carry out minor works on the hospitals only to have to carry them out again when doing the major works. The Government will probably tell us again it is committed to this work.

I will focus on the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, personally. He sat with me, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, Deputy Pringle, the current Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, and the committee members who travelled a long distance from Donegal to come to the Oireachtas on 7 November 2018. The Minister of State told us, along with senior officials from the HSE and the Department of Health that the project was going ahead. He told us there would be a detailed design in 2019. He told us there would be an allocation. He told us planning would proceed in early 2020 and that there would have to be sequencing in terms of patient transfers between Ramelton and Letterkenny while the works were ongoing. That is now not happening. The Minister of State's promise has been broken. There have been deep suspicions among members of the community and the activists about what the Government has been telling them because they have heard all this again. Last week, a statement was made to us categorically, in black and white. It is nothing but another set of broken promises because the Government has not given the go-ahead for the project to commence.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue and giving me the opportunity to provide an update to the House on the development of community nursing units at St. Joseph's Community Hospital, Stranorlar, and Ramelton Community Hospital, County Donegal.

The overarching policy of the Government is to support older people to live in dignity and independence in their own homes and communities for as long as possible. The standard of care delivered to residents in public units is generally very high but we recognise that many of our community hospitals are housed in buildings that are less than ideal in the modern context. Without them, though, many older people would not have access to the care that they need. It is important, therefore, that we upgrade our public bed stock, and this is the aim of the capital investment programme for community nursing units that was announced in 2016. This provides the framework to allow for an enhanced programme to replace, upgrade and refurbish these care facilities, as appropriate.

The HSE is responsible for the delivery of health and personal social services, including the facilities at St. Joseph's Community Hospital, Stranorlar, and Ramelton Community Hospital, County Donegal. The HSE has advised that the capital programme provides for the retention of services at St. Joseph's Community Hospital, Stranorlar, and Ramelton Community Hospital, with a requirement for refurbishment of both centres.

Significant work was undertaken to determine the most optimum scheduling of projects within the phased provision of funding to achieve compliance and registration with HIQA. In the short term, the HSE will invest minor capital in both units in 2019 and 2020 in order to deal with HIQA compliance issues, and an agreed schedule of works is being finalised with HIQA.

It is important to recognise that all capital development proposals must progress through detailed appraisal, planning, design and tender stages before a firm timeline or funding requirement can be established. This includes, where possible, future-proofing to ensure capital developments meet current standards and that provision is made for additional capacity and improved equipping, or both, and that these are addressed appropriately.

My Department has been working with the HSE and Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to develop a multi-annual capital plan for the health services. The health capital allocation in 2019 is now €642 million for the construction and equipping of health facilities. This represents an increase of €224 million on last year's capital provision. My Department and the HSE are currently working to finalise a multi-annual capital plan, which will determine the projects that will progress in 2019 and beyond, having regard to the available capital funding, the number of large national capital projects currently under way, the cash flow requirements attaching to each project and the relevant priority.

That just confirms exactly what we have been told by the HSE, that the commitment given by the Minister of State has been ignored. I ask him about this on behalf of the committee members who made the long journey to meet them in his ministerial office. He told them face to face that there would be a detailed design in 2019, planning in early 2020 and a phased transition based on the movement of patients as works progressed. Now, as just confirmed in the Minister of State's response, this is not happening. A sum of €2.75 million was the allocation for St. Joseph's, and there was €1.5 million for Ramelton. The HSE and Government have refused to give the go-ahead. Instead, as the Minister of State said, minor capital works are to take place in 2019 and 2020.

Can the Minister of State acknowledge - I will be careful with my language here - that, at the least, he misled the community activists and has broken his promise to them and the members of the community who turned out both on the streets and at public meetings? We have addressed and been with hundreds of people who are angry at the fact that the Government is drip-feeding them misinformation. Does the Minister of State accept that he told them what I said? The reality is that the people in Donegal will say the Minister of State told them bare-faced lies. That is what they will say because the Minister of State told them the works would be in the capital plan and proceed to detailed design this year to allow for planning next year. Now that decision has been reversed and all the fear in the community still exists. What changed since 7 November last year, when we all sat around the table and believed there was a genuine plan, light at the end of the tunnel and a timeframe in which to do all the work?

As the HSE has told us, unless the works are part of the capital plan they cannot proceed. There is an aspiration but unless money is allocated for the projects, involving detailed design as the first step, they cannot proceed. That is why plan B is being considered. It is to ensure HIQA does not close down the facilities in 2021. It is a waste of money. Why would the HSE be spending over €0.5 million on this type of work when most of it will be obsolete and it will have to do it all over again in a couple of years? It is a clear example of waste. Worse, it is a clear example of the Government demonstrating bad faith to the community that values these projects and hospitals so much.

I am 15 years a politician and this is the first time I have ever been called a liar or accused of lying. Well done to the Deputy on crossing that threshold. Let me be very clear to him because I am not sure what part of this he does not understand. I appreciate he is a politician and it is his job to stoke up fear among the elderly, create hype among the communities and tell them the hospitals will be closing. He said that in his speech. I do not subscribe to that type of politics. It is beneath the Deputy to be frightening the life out of people in the areas concerned.

The reality is that a decision was taken by my predecessor, former Minister of State Kathleen Lynch, to build a new unit in Letterkenny and not to proceed in respect of Ramelton or St. Joseph's. The current Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, put a lot of pressure on me, my Department and the HSE to have the decision reversed. We acquiesced and the HSE and Department have agreed to retain the two units but to continue to build the new unit in Letterkenny. When former Minister of State Kathleen Lynch announced the capital programme for Donegal in 2016, the county was allocated €51 million for new projects. That was an enormous contribution on the part of the Government to the older people in Donegal. We have now increased that allocation by a further €6 million to ensure we can retain St. Joseph's and Ramelton community hospitals. We have given that commitment. It was made by the HSE and the Department of Health.

I cannot give the Deputy the capital plan piece by piece across the floor here. The Minister, Deputy Simon Harris, is to publish it. The Deputy will have to wait to see it. I have given the Deputy a commitment that the works in question will be in the capital plan. When it is published, the Deputy will see the commitment delivered on. He can continue to call me a liar, do all he likes, stoke up fear and engage in whatever form of politics he wants but I am not interested and I am getting a bit bored by it. His games and my having to answer the same question time and again are making me a little bored. I suggest, with respect, that the Deputy wait for the capital plan for his local community nursing units, just as every other Member has to do.

The Minister of State is accusing me of lying and that is a serious accusation.

The Deputy's time is up, can he resume his seat, please? We are moving on and the Deputy is out of order. The Deputy's time is up.

The Minister of State has not refuted the point that he told them that the unit was going to be in design stage. What I said was that what the people in Donegal will say is that he told them barefaced lies. Will he refute the point that he sat across the table and said the unit was going to detailed design in 2019, instead of throwing accusations at me? Will he refute that point?

Will the Deputy stop and respect the rules of the House, please?

Trade Union Recognition

The next Topical Issue matter is in the names of Deputies Ó Caoláin, Pringle and Collins. The Deputies have one minute each, by way of introduction.

Is the Acting Chairman proposing one minute?

The issue at the heart of this dispute is one of rights, primarily the right of workers to join and be represented by the trade union of their choice. We have had six days of protest action, including one of 24 hours duration, by the more than 500 ambulance staff who are members of the National Ambulance Service Representative Association, NASRA, branch of the PNA. We are now to face another 24-hour strike on 19 July from 2 p.m. until 2 p.m. on the following day. Tomorrow, a protest rally will take place outside of this parliament building from 12.30 p.m. Why has the Minister for Health failed to instruct the HSE to engage with the PNA under the facilitation and oversight of the WRC? This is a shameful situation where the State and its agencies are refusing to recognise the fundamental right of workers to join the trade union of their choice. Make no mistake about this, the PNA and its NASRA branch are a significant workers' representative organisation. The PNA is an experienced representative and negotiating body that the HSE engages with on a regular basis but not in relation to ambulance staff.

I reflect what Deputy Ó Caoláin said. I am aware that the Minister of State has answered questions on this issue before but this has to keep coming up again and again because it is very important. I fail to see why the Department does not engage on this because it will not cost anything and it is not about money or budgets. It is about the right of workers to be represented by a union of their choice. That is vitally important.

Over 500 members of the ambulance service are members of the PNA and that is a huge cohort of those workers. This represents between 40% and 50% of the entire ambulance crew saying that they want to be represented by this union and not to be represented by a union that is dictated to us by our employers. That is totally wrong in this day and age. These workers demands should be recognised and the HSE will have to accept that it will have to work with a different union which is the reality of the situation. When the majority of workers want to do this, they should be allowed to so do.

I want to preface my comments by saying that the Minister, Deputy Harris, has stated publicly a number of times that he wants to see a resolution of this dispute through dialogue and not through confrontation. The PNA and ambulance personnel members, including paramedics, advanced paramedics and emergency medical technicians, were left with no option in this dispute but to take strike action on six days, with one 24-hour strike on 31 May. Despite this clear demonstration of the resolve and determination of those ambulance members, they still face into a dispute.

The Minister stated on a number of occasions that he would ask his officials to meet with the HSE to review and to resolve this dispute. In a letter of reply to us - five Deputies from the Opposition - on 12 April, he said he was going to ask his Department officials to discuss this with the HSE. We want to know where those discussions are at. Are they moving on? The WRC invited the HSE three times to enter into negotiations and it has refused which is outrageous. The HSE should attend the Labour Court or WRC.

I would like to thank the Deputies for raising this issue here today.

As we know, this matter relates to a branch of the Psychiatric Nurses Association called the National Ambulance Service Representative Association, NASRA. This group has engaged in industrial action on seven dates since the action initiated on 22 January 2019. The last date NASRA members engaged in industrial action was for a 24-hour period on 31 May. It is regrettable that this week it has announced a further date of 24-hour action due to be held between the hours of 2 p.m. on Friday, 19 July and Saturday, 20 July 2019.

By way of background, members of NASRA represent approximately 350 front-line ambulance personnel out of a total National Ambulance Service work force of 1,800. I understand that they are mostly based in Cork, the south east and Tullamore.

The HSE and the National Ambulance Service have confirmed that again, robust contingency arrangements were in place to ensure that there was no risk to the health and safety of our health service users during the industrial action. The HSE has confirmed that full emergency cover was provided. This means that all emergency calls were responded to.

In addition, the National Ambulance Service, NAS, put robust contingency arrangements in place to provide additional emergency cover. The Defence Forces have also been on stand by with a number of crewed ambulances. The intention, as previously, is to minimise any disruption and to ensure that patient safety is not compromised.

During the industrial action, National Ambulance Service management closely monitor service demand and delivery. NAS has confirmed to us that during the dates of action there has been no negative impact on the ability of the service to provide patient care and service delivery. What this means is that there were no adverse incidents.

We need to be clear again on what the actual position is in relation to this dispute. The National Ambulance Service Representative Association, which is affiliated with the PNA, is a group which is not recognised by the HSE and therefore does not have negotiating rights. The PNA also does not have negotiating rights for ambulance personnel. The legal position is very clear. The HSE and the National Ambulance Service have no obligation to recognise NASRA or the PNA for ambulance personnel. The PNA, which is a non-ICTU affiliated union, has negotiating rights for nurses working in psychiatry and intellectual disability sectors. The main union which is recognised by the HSE for ambulance front line grades is SIPTU. FÓRSA and Unite also represent ambulance grades. The HSE deducts subscriptions at source for those ambulance staff that are members of SIPTU, FÓRSA and Unite. This is consistent with the fact that these are the unions that are recognised as representing ambulance grades.

The HSE does not carry out deductions for subscriptions to NASRA, as it is not recognised. It should be noted that facilitating deductions at source is not a legal right, rather it is a concession granted to recognised unions.

Of course, individuals have a right to membership of any trade union. However, they do not have a right that such membership is facilitated or recognised by their employer.

Deputies, at this stage I note, are asking what progress has been made between the Department of Health officials and the HSE on exploring various options to see how a resolution to this dispute can be reached. I can assure the Deputies that we all want to see a resolution to this dispute. I can also advise that the discussions, as suggested by the Minister, Deputy Harris, have been held but an appropriate solution has not yet been identified. Deputies must be aware that industrial relations policy has had a long-standing objective of avoiding fragmentation in worker representation in public sector employments and the trade union movement generally to facilitate the orderly conduct of bargaining and other aspects of industrial relations. However, as of today, the fact remains that the PNA does not have negotiating rights for ambulance grades.

First and foremost, the Minister, Deputy Harris, should be here to answer this issue. He continuously absents himself on health matters. This is as grievous an issue as any other that will present itself. The Minister of State said that the HSE and the National Ambulance Service have no obligation to recognise NASRA, or the PNA to represent ambulance personnel. I contend that they have a moral obligation and responsibility. It is a fundamental right and withholding recognition is absolute hypocrisy. The Minister of State goes on further to indicate that discussions, as suggested by the Minister, have been held. I ask the Minister of State elaborate on exactly what discussions have taken place because the only discussions that will resolve this dispute are those that can be held under the terms of the WRC. Nothing less will suffice in this very grave situation.

The Minister of State's reply is not acceptable and it is a vitally important right that workers' own choice of union be recognised. The Minister of State said SIPTU represents the ambulance grades. This is fair enough as it represents quite a large number of them. FÓRSA and Unite, as far as I understand, have very small numbers of ambulance-grade workers within their membership. At the very least, if NASRA is not the biggest, it is certainly the second largest union that workers have chosen to represent them with their employer.

The Government represents the people of all the country, including these workers, and does not just represent the HSE. Unfortunately, it seems like we are fighting on behalf of the other unions as well, which can stand back and watch. The only people this decision facilitates are the other unions. It does not make life any easier for the ambulance service. What would make life easier for it would be recognition of workers' right to be represented by the people they choose.

I thank Deputy Gallagher, who is fully supportive of the issues we are raising and would have liked to have been present for this debate.

Strike action has occurred on six days, including a 24-hour strike on 31 May. Workers will demonstrate outside Leinster House at 12.30 p.m. tomorrow. Unfortunately, there will be a further 24-hour strike. They do not want to do it, but they are being forced to do so because this issue has been ongoing for six months. The Government has had six months to hold discussions with officials and the HSE to try to resolve this issue. The Minister of State assured the House that everyone wanted to see a resolution, but there has been none. Six months is a long time and people are getting tired of this. If the Minister of State thinks that workers will just walk away after fighting for the past ten years to have their union of choice recognised, he will find they will not. The dispute must be resolved.

Following on from Deputy Ó Caoláin's point, what discussions have there been with the HSE and what avenues were considered? The Minister of State keeps referring to a figure of 350, but there are more than 500 people in NASRA. Some were registered before the payroll cut-off happened. It is a significant group of workers in the ambulance sector and they should be recognised.

I do not have the details of the discussions, nor would it be appropriate to go into them on the floor of the House. Members will agree that we will not sort the issue out in this Chamber. This is not the forum where we-----

Could we have the meeting for which we asked?

I am sorry, but I did not interrupt you. If you would just let me say what-----

Whenever you finish. Sorry.

This will be sorted through face-to-face talks between the HSE and the bodies involved. I do not want to say anything that is unhelpful, as I want to see this resolved as much as any of the Deputies opposite. So does the Minister, Deputy Harris. However, I must restate the HSE's position. I will not defend it or stand on one side or the other. I am just making the point that there is a broader issue of fragmentation of representation. Given that there are already three unions representing workers, the HSE is slow to recognise a fourth union. It would mean that every time there was a change, four different bodies would have to be consulted and the representation of the workers would be fragmented. That is a legitimate question to raise and be addressed in this discussion. Notwithstanding that, I am hopeful that we will be able to find a solution through the bodies sitting down and trying to resolve this.

At issue is the collection of subscriptions, which the HSE is refusing to do in this instance. It states that it is not legally obliged to do so, that it only collects subscriptions as a concession, that it is already doing so in respect of three unions and that doing it for a fourth would be to fragment representation. I just want to put those points on the record and reiterate that the Minister and I want to see a resolution to this situation and see the workers back doing what they do best for the State on a daily basis.

On a point of order, the Minister of State is right to say that we should not have to do this across the floor-----

A point of order is not allowed within the-----

-----but we requested a meeting with the Minister on 12 March. Will the Minister of State arrange that meeting?

Unfortunately, I am like the Deputy and am obliged to work within the rules and Standing Orders. I am sorry, but I am only implementing the rules. If I gave the Deputy latitude, I would have to give it to everyone else as well.

Yes, but the Minister of State said that he could not discuss these issues across the floor. Maybe he could arrange a meeting for us.

Schools Building Projects Status

I thank the Minister for attending this important Topical Issue debate. The relocation of Curraghmore national school in Mullingar should be a good news story for the locality. However, it has become frustrating for pupils, teachers and parents. Breaking point is long past for all those involved in the process. There have been nine revised programmes of works and nine false dates for the completion of delivery, including September 2018, October 2018, December 2018, April 2019, June 2019, July 2019, September 2019 and now October 2019. Each date brought a false dawn. Parents must now put in place contingency measures because they are being advised that the school will not be delivered for new students in September 2019. Of the 287 pupils, 47 are going off site. Those going to Kinnegad have special needs and are some of the most vulnerable children in society. The programme changes are causing their parents frustration at a time when certainty in their daily lives is being cried out for.

Some €7,500 per month is being spent at Curraghmore national school on ten portakabins. The Department is renting out the St. Loman's Mullingar GAA club to accommodate children. There is also a cost associated in going to Kinnegad. What of the human cost? Some parents must pay for additional afterschool care because, even though they already have children attending the school, their children who are new students are being moved to a different site. This is adding to the pressure of getting students to school, which is wholly unacceptable in light of the series of completion dates. To be fair, the school's delivery has been managed in an appropriate manner by Westmeath County Council. Mr. Murty Hanly, who is the school's project manager, has worked day and night to deliver it, often at the expense of his personal time, including family holidays. He has gone step by step to try to deliver the school on time. The principal, Mr. Michael Molloy, and the school's staff are also frustrated.

I commend the Minister on visiting Mullingar and meeting the board of management in an attempt to progress this issue, but we must pursue the developer morning, noon and night for the project's delivery. There is a national outcry because a number of school projects are late owing to a gap in tender law. We must examine the legislation. When a new tender is drafted, a company that is consistently late with its projects can still apply for it. We need a traffic light system whereby past performance in projects is measured. As legislators, we must ensure that the system is up to the mark.

Speaking as someone who has followed this project for more than a decade, the series of bumps in the road have been frustrating. Now that the school is at a stage of 80% completion, there is a further delay. My colleague, Councillor Andrew Duncan, has secured this issue as a permanent item on the agenda at Mullingar municipal district meetings, with councillors getting updates for the parents, pupils and staff on a monthly basis.

I appeal to the Minister to keep the pressure on the developer. I cannot express enough the frustration and outcry in my community concerning what should be a brilliant news story, namely, the delivery of a new state-of-the-art 16-teacher school for Westmeath, which will be a major asset to the area.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta fáchoinne an ábhair seo a ardú inniu. Ábhar iontach tábhachtach atá ann. Tuigim na deacrachtaí agus na míbhuntáistí atá i gceist agus tuigim an frustrachas atá ar an bpobal, ar na scoláirí, ar na tuismitheoirí agus ar na múinteoirí uilig sa cheantar.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter, as it gives me the opportunity to provide an update to the House on the current position regarding Holy Family primary school, Mullingar, previously known as Curraghmore national school. I am conscious that this new school building project was in gestation for many years before it went to site in 2017. The project, which has been devolved for delivery to Westmeath County Council, will provide a new school building comprising 16 classrooms and a special needs unit.

It is in the nature of any building project that difficulties can arise. The objective always is to deal with these as efficiently as possible in order to minimise delays as well as costs. However, these difficulties can lead to some additional costs by way of request for change orders by the contractor and can arise during the construction period of any building contract.

The initial delays with this school project arose primarily because the contractor encountered bad unforeseen ground conditions together with severe weather events.

In addition, as with any building contract, issues may arise that form disputes between the design team and the contractor. There is nothing unusual about this and the public works contract provides dispute resolution mechanisms to deal with such matters. A number of issues of this nature have arisen on the Holy Family project and these have been referred to conciliation in accordance with the contract. Most of the matters are still being considered within the conciliation process, so I am limited in what I can say in that respect.

Let the House be in no doubt that I consider that the delays which have arisen in recent months are completely unacceptable for all concerned, particularly as the school will have to continue to operate from unsatisfactory conditions with an increasing number of enrolments until its new building is ready. The programme provided by the contractor which had indicated a completion date in July was most recently changed to provide for a completion date in October. Westmeath County Council has expressed to the contractor its disappointment with the level of resources on site and the slow progress of the construction programme. However, I can inform the House that the council reported to my officials earlier today that there has been a significant improvement in the activity on site. The project is well over 80% complete, with only the installation of doors remaining to make the project fully protected against the elements. On that basis, I am hopeful that the project will be completed in October as now planned. I am conscious that lists of dates have been previously mentioned and that we are now giving another date, this time in October. I am also conscious of the deep frustration of parents and the board of management and I wish to acknowledge the various stakeholders who have been persevering with the project. Deputy Burke cannot be accused of ignoring this issue. He keeps raising it with me formally and informally and I know that is something that will ensure that we can meet the October deadline.

In the meantime, my Department has met and worked closely with the patron and school authorities of Holy Family in order to put in place contingency arrangements to ensure that the needs of the school for the coming academic year are being met. It is unfortunate, given that the building will not now be ready by September 2019, that these plans will have to be activated. As already stated, the school authorities and the patron of a school in Kinnegad have kindly agreed to provide temporary accommodation for a number of special needs pupils as an alternative to home tuition for those children. The Department will be providing the funding needed to facilitate this arrangement. I wish to express my thanks to the patron and school management of that school and the personnel, including the clerk of works, whom I met in a portakabin on the site when the Deputy and I visited it. I thank them for their efforts to ensure that we will achieve this timeline in October. One of my team members is from County Westmeath and very aware of this project, which he raises on a weekly basis. Decanting from the old to the new school will not be a problem because the new premises is only around the corner. We will keep it on the agenda and I have no doubt that the Deputy will keep me up to date over the summer.

I thank the Minister for his detailed response. I am heartened that the project is more than 80% complete and that activity on site has increased. However, we need to keep pressure on day and night and move mountains to ensure that the project is delivered by October. I am thinking of the children with special needs who will be upset at being moved to Kinnegad, their parents and all those affected. It is not good enough that they are upset because when the Department commits to a school being ready and provides funding in its capital budget to deliver the school, that commitment should be met. Through the history of this project, I have dealt with a series of boards of management. The only person who has been consistently involved from the start in the push to relocate the school is its principal, Mr. Michael Molloy. I appeal to the Minister to expedite the delivery of the school.

The equipment in the school has depreciated over a number of years. I appeal to the Department to look favourably on providing upgraded equipment for the new school. That is the least we can do in light of the circumstances everyone involved has faced in the course of the project.

We must bear in mind that legislative change in respect of tender law in this country is required in order to bring in a traffic light system for new projects such that past performance is taken into account before a contract may be awarded. We need to protect ourselves. For me, there is nothing worse than walking into a room in front of 40 new parents and them asking what I can do about this. The worst part is that procurement law cannot be overridden in terms of the contract that was signed with the contractor. We must accept that. However, we need to pursue the contractor to deliver the project and ensure the October deadline is met. That must be cast in stone.

I will not repeat myself. I am sure the parents of children in the school do not want to hear the same thing over and over again. One thing I can say for certain is that this project is not out of sight or out of mind. It is on the radar and I know the Deputy will keep it there.

On the Deputy's question on equipment, departmental officials asked the school to evaluate or assess which items of equipment and furniture, including ICT equipment, can be transferred to the new school. That is currently being assessed. If there is a need for support in regard to furniture, equipment and ICT needs, we will step up to the plate.

I hope that decanting from the old school to the new one will take place in October. I do not like setting deadlines as too many have been missed, but we must do so in order to keep the pressure on. The project is 80% complete and will soon be protected from the elements. The necessary work will soon be completed.

I again acknowledge the board of management, the parents' association and the various stakeholders. The role of the clerk of works is of great importance. Last October, Deputies raised the issue of the importance of following regulations and so on in schools building projects. The role of the clerk of works is very important. I saw the clerk of works for this project in action and I wish to acknowledge that he is doing an incredible job and putting his personal time into the project to ensure it gets over the line.