Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

School Transport Provision

I thank the Minister of State for coming into the Chamber to respond to this Topical Issue matter. I thank his Department and Bus Éireann for the good work they have done in recent weeks in north Cork and in Ballyduff in the Minister of State's county of Waterford. Issues regarding school bus transport have been resolved in those areas. A similar issue remains in Mallow, however, regarding the St Joseph's Road catchment area for children attending Gaelscoil Thomáis Dáibhís. In areas such as Castlelands, for example, more than 20 children have been left without public bus transport.

Gaelscoil Thomáis Dáibhís, Mallow, is a successful school in north Cork. It continues to grow and attract increasing numbers of pupils. One of the provisions of its planning approval some years ago was a stipulation that there be an attempt to reduce the number of children dropped off at the school by parents. Providing school bus transport would be one solution. School bus transport was available to all the families who had children going to the Gaelscoil in recent years. This year, for some reason, there has been an increase in the number of pupils seeking to avail of the public bus transport on this route. We now have a scenario where parents have to change their work practices and times and to cope with other forms of disruptions in order that they can get their children to school, which in the case of many such parents is more than 2.5 km away.

This has been a concessionary area in previous years. We must, however, think outside of the box regarding restrictions and qualifications. In the past week, climate change has been the topic of much conversation, as has a reduction in the amount of transport on the roads but to do that will mean having buses. I ask the Minister of State to intercede in this case because it is an emergency. This concerns primary school children aged up to 11 or 12 years. The Minister of State has interceded in similar situations recently and made money available for areas including north Cork and west Waterford. I commend him on doing that. He needs to intercede in this case as well because this situation has been causing major problems for parents in recent weeks. I am still receiving telephone calls from parents. They are telling me that they have had to give up their day jobs because their working hours conflict with the need to bring their children to school.

The other major issue is the general traffic disruption caused in Mallow. It is not an easy town to get through. There have been recent repairs to the bridge in the town, which created unnecessary extra journey times. We must remember that Mallow is a big town. I will leave this issue in the hands of the Minister of State after I make one final point. Bus companies find it hard to get people to work for just a few hours a day. One of the restrictions affecting Bus Éireann is that the company will not employ drivers who are older than 70. That is a major anomaly. We are encouraging people to work longer and yet this type of restriction exists. The Minister of State knows that it is difficult to get people to take up a job for only a few hours a day. That type of employment would, however, suit elderly people who are capable and keen to drive our buses. I ask the Minister of State, therefore, to intercede in this issue regarding Gaelscoil Thomáis Dáibhís in Mallow.

I thank Deputy O'Keeffe for raising this matter today and for his kind opening remarks. Before I address the specific issue, I will provide Members with an outline of the extent of the school transport service. The purpose of the Department's school transport scheme is, having regard to available resources and finance, to support the transport to and from school, particularly in rural areas, of children who reside far from their nearest school.

In the 2018-19 school year, more than 117,000 children were transported to primary and post-primary schools twice a day throughout the country, including almost 14,000 children with special needs, in 5,000 vehicles. A total of 100 million km a year were travelled at a cost of more than €200 million.

Believe it or not, the scheme is regarded as being one of the best in Europe. All eligible children, including children with special needs, for whom the scheme is designated are carried through this school transport system at a very reasonable cost. A primary school child is transported twice per day at an annual cost of €100. A value-for-money review carried out by an independent group stated the cost would be more than €1,200 per year by car.

Children are generally eligible for school transport if they satisfy the distance criteria and are attending their nearest school. Children who are eligible for school transport and who completed the application process on time have been accommodated on school transport services for the current school year where such services are in operation. Children who are not eligible for school transport but who completed the application process on time are considered for any spare seats that may be on the bus. Where the number of applications for school transport exceeds the number of spare seats available, tickets are allocated using a general selection process.

On an annual basis, Bus Éireann allocates tickets for non-eligible children after all eligible children have been accommodated on school transport services. This exercise normally takes place after the closing date for receipt of payment, with a view to ensuring maximum use of capacity of school bus services. This cut-off point is necessary in order that effective planning of routes and allocation of tickets can take place in a timely manner in advance of the start of the school year.

Bus Éireann has confirmed that a number of children attending the school referred to by the Deputy were not allocated a ticket for the 2019-20 school year due to not having completed the application or payment process within the timeline or who were unsuccessful in the allocation of concessionary transport.

The very good scheme for eligible children and children with special needs was put in place by a Fianna Fáil Government. Rather than leave a few spare seats on a bus go empty, children who were not eligible were allowed travel on it. They received concessionary tickets. At the beginning, there were 300 such tickets and now there are 28,000. The scheme is creaking at the seams. Every year we invest substantial money in the scheme. This year, we were successful in getting an extra €1 million from the Department of Education and Skills and we are looking for more money in the budget. The problem we face is that every year, more eligible children, more children with special needs and more concessionary children come into the scheme. This requires more buses and more money. Children with special needs require carers. Garda clearance is required. Sometimes a child with special needs has two carers. It is a very difficult scheme to manage and run. It is very complicated and over the summer months, it kept staff in my office here until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. as they ensured those who were eligible and children with special needs were accommodated on buses throughout the country.

On the particular issue raised by the Deputy, I am prepared to sit down and speak to him to see exactly how many children are involved and their circumstances. I have no problem doing this. I have met any Deputy or family who has asked to meet me.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. He outlined the positive side. Every day, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, is inundated with requests for new classrooms to be added to existing schools. One of the reasons such requests are made is that pupils come to the school from outside the area. Does the Minister tell those parents and teachers to tell those children not to go to that school in order that there would be no problem with overcrowding? No, he does not. The same approach should be taken with regard to the provision of school bus transport.

Gaelscoil Thomáis Dáibhís is in a major catchment area. Mallow is a growing town and I accept that it is sprawling. Payment as such is not a problem. The Minister of State mentioned there were late applications, of which I was not aware, but I am sure this can be addressed. One way of addressing it is to open the programme sooner, in conjunction with the schools and Bus Éireann, to know in advance what numbers are projected to attend each school and from where the children are coming. Then we would not have Bus Éireann telling parents one or two days before the school opens that their children will not have a place on the bus for the coming year. We need to overcome these issues and forward planning and forward thinking are needed.

Many parents accept the circumstance. Bus services have been working positively for a number of years. A bus was put in place for Gaelscoil Thomáis Dáibhís to overcome planning difficulties and travelling congestion at the other major schools in the same catchment area. I acknowledge the offer of the Minister of State to speak on the issue but it is a problem. More than 20 children have been disenfranchised and more than 40 adults have been affected with regard to getting to work.

The Deputy made a number of points, including advertising the scheme. I have spoken to the Department and Bus Éireann and I have often spoken to school principals. We have a website and we contact all of the schools to tell them when the application process is beginning and when people need to apply.

The Deputy asked about extra school buses. If I had my way, all concessionary children would be on buses. The scheme has been legitimately and legislatively put in place for eligible children and children with special needs. I am not aware of any case at present, unless one or two have slipped through the system, where an eligible child or child with special needs is not on a bus.

The Deputy might be aware of the rural grant. Children who cannot get on a bus can apply for the rural grant. The difficulty is that dealing with concessionary tickets requires substantially more funding. It would mean completely revisiting the scheme and putting a new scheme in place whereby children would not need to go to their nearest school. The Deputy would then be coming in here in two years' time looking for a budget of approximately €300 million and certainly €220 million. The argument would then be made that all of this money is being spent on bringing a child to school, while prefabs are falling apart. I am not stating this is correct. I believe children need to be brought to school and I am the Minister of State with responsibility for making sure they are. We are over budget this year. Last year, we went €6 million or €7 million over budget. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has already had us in to tell us we are over budget. I have resisted increasing the price of the scheme and I have resisted taking buses off the routes. The reason is we are able to get all eligible children and children with special needs on buses. I will meet the Deputy on this particular issue and if he wants to bring representatives with him I will be delighted to meet them.

School Staff

I am raising the very important issue of the position of school secretaries. Last Friday, we had the unprecedented situation of school secretaries going on strike. They had a one-hour strike that morning and went on a work to rule. They do a very important job and are the first port of call for parents. They do the administrative work for the schools. They are central to the efficient running of schools. There is a two-tier system. The minority, who are employed directly by the Department and education and training boards have Civil Service rates and conditions, while the majority are employed directly by boards of management. There are hundreds throughout the midlands, including counties Laois and Offaly.

I met some of them at the protest on Friday morning and heard them outline the very precarious situation they were in. They are on lower pay than anyone else; some of them are earning just above the minimum wage. They have to sign on during the school holidays. They are officially unemployed for 14 or 15 weeks of the year. They clock up no pension entitlements from employment. They have no real job security and many of them are on short-term contracts. They have asked me to tell the Minister of State that they believe they are being taken for granted. Without them schools would not work. Obviously, a few hundred are employed by the Department. They start on a salary of €24,000, against which I am not arguing. It is the basic starting rate for a clerical officer and low enough in itself. However, the people concerned are not earning within an ass's roar of it. Some are earning as little as €12,000. Fórsa officials have told me that there have been no meaningful negotiations on the part of the Department and no serious engagement. It is a long-standing injustice. I know that the Minister of State will support their becoming unionised because they have been picked off one by one and we need to deal with the issue.

I know that this issue predates the Minister of State's tenure and dates back to the late 1970s. I do not believe this situation would be tolerated in any other workplace or occupation. The facts are stark. About 300 or 10% of school secretaries are entitled to holiday pay, sick pay and pension entitlements. Therefore, the Department of Education and Skills is discriminating against 90% of school secretaries in State schools. It is ironic that this is taking place in cradles of learning - schools. This is very bad not only for the secretaries but also for everybody involved. Last week Fórsa organised a one-hour stoppage which was supported not only by their colleagues - the other 10% - but also by the teacher unions, parents and, most importantly, students. It is a great anomaly that amounts to pay apartheid in schools and the secretaries want the Department to address it immediately.

On behalf of the Minister, Deputy McHugh, I thank the Deputies for raising this important issue. Deputy Stanley is right that they should be unionised. I agree that all workers should be unionised. The staff in my office are all unionised. I ask them to do this when I employ them. I recognise the very important work done by these and other support staff in the running of schools. I have spoken to a number of school secretaries about their employment conditions and understand the issues they have raised. I have met them and received correspondence.

Earlier this year the Department relaxed the moratorium for community and comprehensive and education training board, ETB, schools with an enrolment of 700, allowing them to employ additional school secretaries up to a maximum of two per school. There are 91 schools in the community and comprehensive and ETB sector that meet this criterion based on the information available to the Department. It is an initial step and has immediate effect.

Schemes were initiated in 1978 and 1979 for the employment of clerical officers and caretakers in schools. The schemes were withdrawn completely in 2008. They have been superseded by the more extensive capitation grant schemes. The current grants scheme was agreed to in the context of the Programme for Economic and Social Progress which was published in 1991.

The majority of primary and voluntary secondary schools receive assistance to provide secretarial, caretaking and cleaning services under the grant schemes. It is a matter for each individual school to decide how best to apply the grant funding to suit its particular needs. Where a school uses the grant funding for caretaking or secretarial purposes, any staff taken on to support these functions are employees of individual schools. Specific responsibility for terms of employment rests with the school.

On foot of a chairman's note to the Lansdowne Road agreement, in 2015 the Department engaged with the unions representing school secretaries and caretakers, including through an independent arbitration process. The arbitrator recommended a cumulative pay increase of 10% between 2016 and 2019 for staff and that a minimum hourly pay rate of €13 be phased in over that period. The arbitration agreement covers the period up to 31 December 2019. The arbitration agreement was designed to be of greatest benefit to lower paid secretaries and caretakers. For example, a secretary or caretaker who was paid the then minimum wage of €8.65 per hour in 2015 prior to the arbitration process has from 1 January 2019 been paid €13 per hour, which represents a 50% increase in that individual's hourly pay.

Officials from the Department attended a meeting of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills on 9 April to discuss the status of non-teaching staff. In May officials from the Department had discussions with Fórsa representatives as part of a planned meeting. Fórsa took the opportunity to formally table a pay claim. It was tabled as a follow-on claim from the current pay agreement for this cohort of staff which lasts until December 2019. The Department issued surveys on 10 July to establish the full current cost of the trade union's claim. This is standard practice. Fórsa's claim will be fully considered once the current costings have been determined on completion of the survey analysis. I subscribe to the view that anybody has the right to take industrial action. We are asking that until the arbitration agreement expires in December industrial action not be taken by Fórsa members. Officials from the Department met Fórsa representatives last week.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I am aware of the increase of 10% that was awarded, but I question whether the majority caught in this situation as direct employees of boards of management have received it. I came across one secretary who was working in three separate schools, something she does not mind doing, but she should be on the same rates of pay. Secretaries in different schools can be on different rates of pay. They have taken on additional responsibilities such as the use of computers, extra administration work and paperwork. New grades were created in local authorities at the stroke of a pen during the boom years. New grades have also been created in the Civil Service. We need to recognise that the people in question on the front line are providing a very important service in primary and secondary schools. Negotiations held last Wednesday morning did not deliver on the issue of pay and conditions. Having to sign on during the school holidays, the lack of pension entitlements, the lack of job security and pay are the four key issues that need to be addressed. Boards of management also need to recognise their trade union, Fórsa.

The Department of Education and Skills believes it would be premature to engage with the union on the stoppage that happened last week. That is slightly odd because this issue has been ongoing for 41 years. If the Minister of State was to find that a colleague of his was on higher pay for the job they were doing, it would cause him grievous mental torture. It is an odd statement for the Department of Education and Skills to make. Some 90% of school secretaries are being discriminated against, while a further 10% of their colleagues who are employed directly by the Department of Education and Skills are receiving much higher financial rewards. This issue needs to be addressed urgently or there will be further industrial action in the coming months and years.

As I was about to say earlier, officials from the Department met Fórsa representatives last week. Representatives of management bodies representing the employers, schools impacted on by the action, were also in attendance at the meeting, the purpose of which was to explore further the details of the pay claim as presented by Fórsa and the nature of the industrial action. The Department restated to the trade union that the claim would be fully considered once the current costings had been determined. It is standard practice for the Department to establish the full cost of a trade union's claim, including hours worked and the current rates of pay. A survey of school secretaries closed on 20 September and departmental officials are analysing the findings. They received 2,000 responses to the survey. The Department is fully committed to acting on the findings. Contrary to what might be said, it remains fully open to further dialogue with Fórsa on completion of the survey work. The Minister and I have met secretaries and do have some compassion, although perhaps that is not the word to use. I believe they work hard and should be paid for their hard work. My view which I think the Minister shares, but he will have to say so is that secretaries should not be laid off for a period. They should be in employment from the time the school opens until it closes. Further discussions with Fórsa would probably be productive.

Hospital Accommodation Provision

It is quite clear that the situation at University Hospital Limerick is intolerable. There were 81 patients on trolleys last Monday, the joint highest number ever. That figure was also reached in April and July and we are not even close to the winter which people are dreading. I want ministerial and Government responsibility to address this issue to be taken, first to acknowledge that there is inequality in the allocation of resources for the mid-west region. Deputy Kelly gave the figures today during Leaders’ Questions. The region is under-resourced for the provision of beds and staff across the spectrum. That needs to be acknowledged and addressed. When the numbers of staff were increased in recent months, the region did worse than others which are much better resourced. That has to be acknowledged, accepted and acted on. Owing to the embargo in effect on recruitment, although the Minister described it this morning as control measures, there are 100 nursing posts unfilled, as well as several doctor and ancillary posts. It has come to my attention this week that there are people employed as home helps who are waiting to have their contracts renewed, while others who have been interviewed have not been told that they will be offered work. There are patients who could leave hospital if they received support at home and get out of beds which are urgently needed in the emergency department. All beds in the region should be opened and staffed, including in geriatric and lower tier hospitals. Wherever there are beds, they should be opened and resourced to take the pressure off University Limerick Hospital. We are talking to people in their eighties. What they are going through in the emergency department is intolerable. A second MRI scanner which is urgently needed should be provided. We should have progress in providing the 60-bed modular unit and the 96-bed unit. We need all of these actions urgently.

The situation in Limerick is disgraceful for patients and staff. It has a knock-on effect on recruitment and retention. Working in the conditions in Limerick burns staff out and they become disillusioned. That is one of the reasons for the problems in recruitment. To have between 60 and 80 patients awaiting admission is intolerable. They are mostly elderly people with complex needs. The longer they stay in the casualty department on a trolley the longer their stay in hospital will be and the poorer their outcomes. That has been scientifically proved. What is happening in Limerick is adding to the torture and problems these patients are suffering.

We are waiting for the 60-bed modular unit to be provided. If everything goes well, it will be available by the end of next year. However, the 90-bed unit is as far away as ever. Unfortunately, there is a suspicion that the national children’s hospital will soak up the funding for the 90-bed unit and that it will not be delivered for many years. There is a need for immediate recognition that what is happening in Limerick is unique to the region. As Deputy Jan O’Sullivan said, there is unique under-resourcing and a lack of beds in Univeristy Hospital Limerick. It is 20% down on the number of beds it should have for the catchment area that it serves and 20% down on the number of staff, nurses, consultants and other health professionals, it should have. This is leading to long waiting lists and long delays.

The most immediate problem is the provision of an MRI scanner. I visited six patients from my practice in the hospital a few weeks ago. Four of them were sitting on beds bored to death waiting for scans and a consultation with other doctors, while down the corridor there were 70 patients on trolleys waiting for admission. There is a huge problem in the provision of diagnostics, staff and beds.

I welcome the opportunity to address the House on the issues raised by the Deputies. I speak on behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, who cannot be here and sends his apologies. He acknowledges the distress overcrowded emergency departments cause for patients, their families and front-line staff working in very challenging conditions in hospitals throughout the country. The number of patients attending emergency departments continues to increase year on year. For the first eight months of 2019, the number of patients attending hospital emergency departments increased by 2.9%, while the number of emergency department admissions increased by 1.7% compared to the same period last year.

University Hospital Limerick is one of the busiest in the country. As such, the hospital and community health organisation mid-west were identified as one of the nine focus sites which required additional investment and support last winter. In University Hospital Limerick there was a 13.3% increase in trolleys in the year to date in August 2019 compared to the same period last year, while there was a 5.9% increase in August 2019 compared to the previous month. It is acknowledged that this is unacceptably high and the Health Service Executive, HSE, is working actively with the University of Limerick Hospital group to ease congestion in the hospital, with the focus on facilitating transfers to level 2 hospitals, assistance provided by rehabilitation units and community health organisation, CHO, services and the prioritisation of diagnostics to aid inpatient discharges.

The health service capacity review, published last year, highlighted the need for a major investment in additional capacity. Progress has been made in increasing capacity in University Hospital Limerick. The average number of open inpatient beds increased by 4% between 2017 and March 2019. Since 2017, an additional 25 beds have opened in University Hospital Limerick, including eight as part of last year's winter plan. A capital budget of €19.5 million has been approved for the provision of a modular 60-bed inpatient ward block at University Hospital Limerick, with funding of €10 million allocated in 2019. The new modular block will include three wards comprising 20 single occupancy rooms with en-suite facilities, two of which will provide full isolation facilities and care and treatment for patients from admission to discharge. The HSE has advised that the enabling works are complete and that the main contractor is commencing work. In addition, the national development plan includes a 96-bed replacement ward block at University Hospital Limerick. Capital funding was provided in 2018 to progress the design phase of the project.

Planning for winter 2019-20 has commenced. The Department of Health has been engaging actively with the HSE in planning for winter 2019-20. In that respect, the HSE has been asked to consider actions and initiatives over and above non-funded actions, building capacity and the options available to it to alleviate the expected overcrowding. The Department expects to receive a draft winter plan in the coming weeks. I will bring the Deputies' other points to the Minister's attention.

We need more than just the Minister, Deputy Harris, acknowledging the problem. We need him to take action. One simple action would be providing the €6.5 million required for a properly functioning MRI scanner, which would address the issue of patients occupying beds and waiting for scans for which others could be in the hospital. No other region has such an inadequacy. There is a need for a particular focus on the region, given that it is clear it is under-resourced and underfunded. The health system is supposed to be fair to everyone, no matter what part of the country people live in, but we do not currently have this in the mid-west. That is the strong, factual point we are making. We have made it repeatedly and need a response. The extra beds need to be delivered as quickly as possible. One action that could be taken in respect of the 60-bed unit is ensuring the recruitment of staff alongside the resourcing of the building in order that when it is open, it will be ready and able to be staffed and occupied immediately. They are practical steps that could be taken, but we need to pull out all the stops to ensure the winter will not be terrifying for people who are ill.

The issue in Limerick is much wider than the emergency department. It appears in the emergency deparment, but the problem is not confined to it. Rather, it is much wider within the hospital. There is a need for an expansion of the number of consultant staff in the hospital and ophthalmology services. One can wait three and a half years following the diagnosis of a cataract to see a consultant, not to mention waiting for a surgical procedure. In urology, one can wait six months for an investigation when one has symptoms that indicate a high likelihood of cancer. There is only one endocrinologist in the mid-west for 400,000 people, which diminishes the treatment of diabetes, in particular, and all other endocrinology problems. Ear, nose and throat, ENT, treatment is a case in point, where there is a significant problem. Limerick Regional Hospital has lost its recognition for higher professional ENT training since 2014. One can wait an inordinate length of time just to have one's tonsils removed or grommets put in one's ears. One of the issues that needs to be resolved is the devolution of services to model 2 hospitals within the mid-west, particularly in Ennis, where two modular theatres should be provided to allow for the provision of day care services. I refer to ENT day care services, in particular, which are essential to relieve the pressure on Limerick Regional Hospital.

I thank the Deputies for raising this important matter and acknowledge their knowledge and expertise in the area.

The Minister for Health acknowledges that attendances at emergency departments are growing year on year and that the health service capacity review indicates that Ireland has among the highest acute bed occupancy rates in the developed world. Deputy Harty is correct that it is widely agreed that an important part of the solution in Limerick is the provision of beds, other services and staff. In the past two winters an additional 25 beds were opened in Limerick, including eight as part of the winter plan last year. The new emergency department that opened in May 2017 provides modern, safe and fit-for-purpose facilities which meet the expectations of patients and their families, while at the same time providing high quality accommodation that better protects privacy and dignity. In addition, the new 60-bed ward block was established to provide a rapid build internal solution to the hospital capacity issue in response to the health service capacity review carried out by the Department of Health. University Limerick Hospital group has welcomed the commitment in Project Ireland 2040 to build a new 96-bed ward over the emergency department and a design team has been appointed for the project.

Improving timely access for patients is part of Sláintecare. Building on the progress made in recent years in the area, the Sláintecare action plan for 2019, published by the Department of Health, includes a specific work stream on access and waiting lists. In addition, many of the other service reforms and enhancements included in the action plan will support timely access to care for patients in the coming years. Progress has been made in implementing the Sláíntecare action plan access actions for this year.

We all acknowledge, including the Minister, that the challenges we face are significant. It is the Minister's firm belief, however, that all Deputies want to find the right patient-centred, evidence-based, results focused and sustainable solutions to the challenges facing the health service. Investment alone will not deliver the health service to which we all aspire, but neither will reform or productivity improvements on their own. All three actions, including the provision of additional capacity, as Deputy Harty pointed out, must be delivered in tandem if we are to stand any realistic chance of meeting healthcare needs in the coming decades.