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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 12 Nov 2019

Vol. 989 No. 1

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Schools Building Projects

The schools in question are two important primary schools in Dublin Bay North, Our Lady Immaculate senior national school, SNS, Darndale, Dublin 17 and St. Laurence's national school, Brookstone Road in Baldoyle Dublin 13. The principal of St. Laurence's, Ms Clare Finnerty, told me that she met the Minister's predecessor, Deputy Bruton, in March 2017 and that she sent in a letter of application for a single school campus because the school is unusual in that it has two separate campuses. The dual campus is unsatisfactory. Infants are in Grange Road and 3rd to 6th classes are on Brookstone Road. Her application was turned down, but she was encouraged to apply for upgrade works to both buildings. She applied again for a single campus in 2018 and did not even receive an acknowledgement.

In October 2018, the secretary of the senior school retired and the application for a replacement secretary was turned down. There is no secretary now at one of the campuses. In February 2018, the school made an emergency works application to replace doors that are necessary to create an internal corridor. It is one of the old style schools from the 1960s or 1970s. At present the children must leave the building to move into other classrooms. The covered shelter area outside the building is also in serious need of repair and could be very dangerous if it collapsed. This application was refused. St. Laurence's representatives were then told by the Department that they should apply for emergency works but, again, this was refused in September. They were then told that they should apply for a summer works grant to get fire alarms and electrics upgraded. The principal was also told the school could apply for a minor works grant but the amount, €13,600, is too small for the upgrading needed. Why has the school not received approval for the single campus or for the urgent works that are necessary?

With regard to the second issue, other Members and I were in touch with the principal and deputy principal of Our Lady Immaculate SNS Darndale, Dublin 17. They were in contact with us first around the time of a shocking murder in broad daylight beside the junior national school in Darndale, which had a devastating effect on the community. In fact, during the past school year there were two gun-related murders in close proximity to the school and as deputy principal, Shane Loftus, tells me, this had a serious impact on the children and on school life and teachers had to work closely with the children and parents to try to alleviate the impact of this utter mayhem happening outside their building.

School staffing is based on figures from the previous school year and, in effect, staffing runs a year behind the number of children in the school. I am told that in 2018-19, Our Lady Immaculate SNS had 180 children but had staffing for 193 based on numbers from 2017-18. This year, however, the school will have 197 children but will only have staffing for 180 students. The case made by Shane Loftus and his colleagues on the school team is that the school will have one teacher fewer but will have more children to provide for. The circumstances in that environment in the vicinity of the school are not remotely normal. I was told that the smaller classes in the school meant teachers were able to provide a critical support to the children. The school, the principal and deputy principal made the case that in these exceptional circumstances Our Lady Immaculate school should be allowed to maintain its current staffing level. The numbers coming from the infants school in 2020-21 will increase. We have had many discussions in this Chamber and I know the Minister and his colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, have visited the community. The north Coolock community is facing an exceptionally difficult time on those grounds we want the Minister to grant the additional teacher that is needed.

I thank the Deputy for giving the opportunity to outline to the House the position regarding these schools. He covered a broad range of issues. I acknowledge the recent difficulties faced by Our Lady Immaculate SNS in Darndale and the supports provided by the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, which launched a critical incident response, that included advice to the school in supporting the staff and students affected by the very unfortunate incident.

Budget 2020 marks the fourth year of a major investment in education. It provided for an allocation of more than €11 billion for my Departments in 2020. This is the highest ever allocation to the sector and an increase of almost €2 billion since 2016. The numbers employed in our schools have reached the highest ever level. More than 580 additional teaching posts will be funded to cater for children with special needs, the growth in our student population and supports to secure the future of small schools. This builds on the budget 2018 measure, which provided a one point improvement in the staffing schedule in primary schools to bring the position to the most favourable ever seen at primary level, and budget 2019, which provided for more than 1,300 additional posts in schools. Teacher numbers at primary level have increased by almost 3,500 when comparing the 2015-16 school year with the current school year and this has led to a steady improvement in the pupil-teacher ratio and average class size statistics during this period. It was also announced in budget 2020 that an additional 1,064 special needs assistant, SNA, posts will be allocated to schools by December 2020, bringing the total number of SNAs available for allocation to more than 17,000.

The key factor in determining the level of staffing resources provided at individual school level is the staffing schedule for the relevant school year and pupil enrolments on the previous 30 September. The staffing schedule operates in a clear and transparent manner and treats all similar types of schools equally, irrespective of location. The staffing process includes an appeals mechanism for schools to submit a staffing appeal under certain criteria to an independent appeals board. These criteria are available on my Department's website as part of the primary teacher allocation section. Our Lady Immaculate SNS submitted an appeal to the primary staffing appeals board but the appeal was unsuccessful. The school will be entitled to an additional mainstream class teacher in the 2020-21 school year based on its latest enrolment returns. The primary staffing appeals board operates independently of the Department and its decision is final. There is no change to the staffing of St. Laurence's national school in the current year and the school has not submitted an application for additional teaching staff to my Department.

An Taoiseach recently met local stakeholders in the area, including the principal of Darndale senior school. The meeting was attended by the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Finian McGrath, Deputy Sean Haughey and Senator Catherine Noone, and provided an opportunity to discuss a range of issues of importance locally. Under Project Ireland 2040, the Department will invest €8.4 billion in primary and post-primary school buildings. This will include the provision of 50 large-scale school building projects and 20,000 additional school places in new buildings and extensions being delivered annually.

The summer works scheme is designed to allow schools to carry out small and medium scale building works that will improve and upgrade existing school buildings. The works are carried out by the schools themselves on a devolved basis mainly over the summer months. There are no applications from the schools in question under this scheme. In addition, the Department also provides an emergency works scheme, solely for unforeseen emergencies or to provide funding to facilitate inclusion and access for special needs pupils. An emergency is deemed to be a situation that poses an immediate risk to health, life, property or the environment, which is sudden, unforeseen and requires immediate action and, in the case of a school, if not corrected would prevent the school or part thereof from opening. Grant approval for mechanical repairs to Our Lady Immaculate SNS was issued in September 2019 under this scheme.

The Minister has not given us any assistance on either issue. St. Laurence's national school in Baldoyle has had a distinguished history but it is unusual in having two separate campuses, 600 m or 700 m apart, along a main road. It has always been a popular choice for families in the Baldoyle area. There is no waiting list for families since every parent who applies on behalf of his or her child is given a place.

The school never used religion as a criterion for pupils’ entry. Accordingly, St. Laurence’s did not have to alter its enrolment policies when the Minister’s predecessor, Deputy Bruton, made some legislative changes in this regard.

A new Educate Together school is opening for the coast, the nearby district of the north fringe with thousands of new families due to be living there in the future. This new school is a welcome addition to the current poor services in the north fringe. Constituents ask, however, why the necessary improvements are not also being funded and supported for our existing primary school at St. Laurence’s, given the large size of the existing Baldoyle parish.

Will the Minister look at making the necessary funding available for the emergency works application made by the principal, Ms Clare Finnerty, in February and April 2018? In particular, will he examine the creation of an internal corridor and restructuring of the shelter area in the yard at the Brookstone Road campus? These are essential because the buildings in question are old style where pupils have to go into the yard to go from room to room.

On 18 October, Our Lady Immaculate senior school received notice from the Department that its staffing appeal had failed. The deputy principal, Mr. Shane Loftus, told me that he and his colleagues believe that the terrible events in the past year in the Darndale-Belcamp parish and its environs mean that an extraordinary intervention was needed and an extra teacher should have been provided. All the community organisations in Darndale, including Darndale Belcamp village, the Belcamp estate steering committee, the Northside Partnership, Coolock Development Council, of which I am a director, and An Garda Síochána, DMR north, strongly support this request. Will the Minister review this and provide the necessary funding for Baldoyle?

The Deputy is talking about two separate schools and two separate issues.

With respect to St. Laurence’s, I am not familiar with the two separate campuses idea. I can only suggest that if the application under the emergency works scheme was turned down, the summer works scheme will be open early in the new year. That could provide an opportunity for another application.

I am also interested in the two campus idea and more synergy between schools. I will need more details and will ask my officials to give me a run down on that.

On the staffing schedules, it is determined by an independent body which works on enrolments from the previous 30 September. I appreciate the Deputy’s point about the impact of the particular incident on pupils, staff, parents and the local community. I acknowledge the work of the NEPS, National Educational Psychological Service, team which worked with the school on this. Unfortunately, I am not in a position to make any changes with respect to teacher allocations in that regard. If the numbers are there for the following year, an extra teacher will be provided in September 2020. That will be coming up in the near future.

Electricity Generation

The ESB's announcement last Friday marked the end of an era of electricity generation in the midlands. This decision by the ESB not to reapply for planning permission to co-fire the West Offaly and Lough Ree power plants will have far-reaching repercussions, first, for its own workers and, second, for Bord na Móna workers who will no longer be needed to harvest peat to supply the ESB after 2020. The impacts on them, local businesses, communities and the local authority mean we will all have significant challenges to manage.

This day was flagged for at least two decades, resulting 15 years ago in the closures of Ferbane and Rhode power stations. Then the ESB provided €3 million to each community. While I welcome the €5 million commitment to be added to the just transition fund, it should be possible for the ESB at least to match the sum provided 15 years ago, if doubling it is not possible.

The Ferbane business park benefited from this fund which, in the past, was a car park and a dump. It now houses a good business park, a well-known child care facility, Bright Beginnings, and the expanding local business, Brosna Press.

People in the midlands are still reeling from the shock news last week of these power plant closures. The Government has not handled the matter well or planned for the workers. The solid fuel carbon tax came into effect in 2013. From 2013 to 2018, it generated just under €100 million. Will that money be ring-fenced for the benefit of the communities and the workers affected by these closures? What they have been offered is a drop in the ocean. The Minister is repackaging previous announcements but nobody is buying it. We need a firm commitment that the workers will be looked after in the communities in question in Offaly, Longford and other affected counties in the midlands.

I have been contacted by several seasonal workers who stand to lose much money. They have not been given a fair redundancy package. Neither have other workers. As I said to the Minister earlier, it is not comparable with the packages received by their EU counterparts. Spanish workers in the same position are being offered a fairer package. It is not on. I will be raising this issue again.

Notwithstanding my disappointment with An Bord Pleanála's decision, as well as the Government’s and the ESB's response to it, which culminated in last week's announcement, I want to reiterate questions I raised at yesterday’s meetings.

The plants at Shannonbridge and Lanesboro were put there 15 years ago at a cost of €415 million. We have been told that they will now be taken down over a two-year period. I want to ensure that is not the case. Will the Minister commit that they will be retained and have a use beyond their present usage? I want to ensure that the chief executive officer of Bord na Móna comes out front with the implications for the Edenderry power plant, its Derrinlough briquette factory and the horticultural sector. What funds has the company for rehabilitation? It claims it has €20 million and the Minister claims the PSO, public service obligation, will re-purposed to add to that. We want confirmation that the pension fund has the capacity to meet the demands that will be placed upon it. What application has Bord na Móna made to the EU for transition funds?

I want a detailed debate on the terms and conditions of the just transition package, as well as the potential to increase the transition fund commitment to an annual commitment to the counties concerned, particularly as €40 million in rates will be lost to Offaly. What are the statutory instruments relating to the horticulture sector beyond Bord na Móna? A recent High Court decision could impact on a further 4,000 jobs. We need clarification on this.

As said yesterday at our meeting in Ballymahon, I thank the Minister and his colleagues for meeting the people affected by these closures. That was important as the economic lifeline is gone. It is important that the urgent message coming from all Members, irrespective of the county from which they come, is listened to and adhered to. The reality is that with this economic lifeline gone, we need assistance and extra economic activity. That can only be brought around by the county councils and the local enterprise offices working together. There must be an absolute commitment that we put balanced regional development into practice.

Will the Minister address the issue of the dismantling of the power stations? I am totally opposed to it. It may be a planning issue but somehow we should be able get around it. It would be absolutely outrageous to dismantle those power stations, whether it is from a tourism perspective or otherwise. Maybe we could get gas into a plant like Lanesboro. They should not be dismantled. Will the Minister put a stay on that if he can?

One of the key objectives behind the co-firing of West Offaly and Lough Ree power stations was to build up demand rapidly for indigenously sourced biomass. The principal reason for the lack of biomass was the absence of any proven demand for energy crops that would attract farmers. This led to the rejection of the planning application for the West Offaly power station by An Bord Pleanála.

Before any decision is made on the future of the power plants in question, we must fully evaluate the possibility and potential for operating our current peat-powered plants with 100% locally sourced biomass. This could reduce agricultural emissions on local farms by 600,000 tonnes of carbon each year. This would be the equivalent of the removal of 130,000 cars off our roads, generating €372 per hectare with a price of carbon at €80 per tonne. It would also create 4,000 seasonal jobs in harvesting while guaranteeing income to farmers in the midlands.

The closure of the two power stations is devastating news for the midlands. It comes on the back of redundancies over the past 20 years in Bord na Móna. There has been much talk about a just transition for the midlands. The midlands includes Laois. The former workers of Bord na Móna and the communities they come from have had no just transition. I want the Minister, Deputy Bruton, to take note that County Laois must be included in the just transition framework.

The €6 million provided by Government and the €5 million provided by the ESB while welcome, is inadequate. It is a drop in the ocean. It will not even create a ripple in terms of what needs to be done. Jobs are promised but the promises are vague. Yesterday morning, 100 jobs were proposed in re-wetting. By yesterday evening, 300 jobs were being reported. These are one-off jobs, not long-term jobs. As mentioned, Shannonbridge and Lough Ree stations need to be converted to biomass. I have been saying for some time that we need to be growing biomass in this country to ensure we have a supply chain.

A further 400 jobs are proposed in retrofitting. While this is welcome, the workers are not skilled in that work and so they will need to be trained up quickly. I reiterate that we need to expand Mount Lucas training centre for this purpose. The centre is located in the midlands, in the heart of Bord na Móna country, and counties Laois, Offaly and Westmeath are close to it. Hundreds of jobs have been lost over the past 20 years. I have already mentioned Bord na Móna. The Coolnamona plant, of which the Minister, Deputy Bruton, is the shareholder representative of the taxpayer, is at the crossroads of the country, less than 1 km from the N7-N8 junction and the N80 junction. This fantastic facility needs to be utilised.

Last week's confirmation was a devastating blow to the workers, their families and the wider communities. I acknowledge that the Minister, Deputy Bruton, spent Monday listening to public and trade union representatives but this needs to be followed through with concrete delivery and substance. We are now faced with a ten-year just transition condensed into just over ten months. We need the Minister to intervene and to examine the possibility of a full move to biomass at one of the plants and the extension of natural gas from Ballymahon to Lanesborough.

There needs to be full disclosure from Bord na Móna in regard its plans for the future. Has the Minister considered changing the constitution of Bord na Móna, with a view to expanding its remit such that it will be possible to guarantee its workers that they can be re-employed in bog reclamation and home retrofit? As matters stand, public procurement prevents the Minister being able to guarantee those jobs will remain available to the employees of Bord na Móna. Can the Minister confirm the protection of the pensions of Bord na Móna employees and can he ensure that the expanded just transition committee will take into account people from a wider area than that which it currently serves?

I appreciate how intensely people feel about this matter. It was for this reason I spent time yesterday meeting unions, workers and public representatives and some community representatives. There is no doubt that this is a really difficult time. The anger and frustration was very evident.

The Government is determined to deliver a just transition. For me, a just transition is providing alternative employment opportunities that can be sustainable. As we know, peat was on an exit but it was expected to last for longer. We need to create job opportunities that will be permanent and can grow rather than be in a decline. Since this possibility first emerged from An Bord Pleanála, I have been working to put together the measures provided for in the budget, which point to a clear commitment to a just transition. As Deputies are aware, €31 million has been allocated: €20 million of which is for the retrofit scheme; €5 million for non-Bord na Móna activities on restoring bogs to a very high standard and €6 million of a just transition fund. In addition, as discussed yesterday, we have been working with the European Union to repurpose the PSO in order that we can use money to make sure that Bord na Móna can restore bogs to a very high standard. It is in this regard that 200 jobs will be provided, with 100 jobs on the non-Bord na Móna side. These are the 300 jobs referenced by Deputy Stanley.

There are many points that have been made here and yesterday concerning the future of the plant and the structure of tendering for business opportunities by Bord na Móna. I have taken on board those points and I will examine them, and many other proposals, with my officials. We took the step of putting in place a just transition commissioner in order that we could fully explore the many issues that are being raised. There are many opportunities coming from the communities. There are assets available from the two companies. I am determined that we will use this opportunity. I recognise, as others have done, that just transition is not just for 2020. It is a permanent part of our approach to carbon pricing. We have committed as an Oireachtas to move to a carbon price of €80 per tonne. We have been very upfront and honest that all of this money will be ploughed back into helping people make this adjustment. This involves a just transition for people uniquely exposed, as are the Bord na Móna workers and those working in the peat generation plants and, equally, people who are suffering from fuel poverty and people who need to make changes in their lifestyles. We want to harness this opportunity and make the midlands a leading exemplar of how we can move to a low carbon economy. This is, in part, what Bord na Móna is seeking to do in moving from brown to green. It has a diversification plan.

We need to work through the issues. Several Ministers felt the same sense of commitment that I do to make this work for the people of the midlands. I appreciate the frustration and the questions that need answers. We will work through and deliver those answers over the coming weeks and months and into the longer term. We do recognise that it is a central part of the climate action plan to manage this transition in a fair way to people directly affected. We will be committing to develop these ideas to the maximum extent possible.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I want to take this opportunity to raise the issue of the local property tax in Offaly in respect of which an increase is vital, as there has been no increase since 2014.

On the just transition commissioner, I am hoping that he will spend a considerable amount of time in Offaly or perhaps be based there for some time. I extend an invitation to the Minister to visit Shannonbridge. I think it would be timely if he could do so as soon as possible.

On the retrofitting, as pointed out by one of the union representatives these jobs are not guaranteed. What we are hearing here is airy-fairy stuff. We need solid commitments, including in respect of funding. I reiterate my call to the Minister to ensure that the carbon tax revenue is ring-fenced for the midlands region and that, as proposed, the commissioner will be on the ground in Offaly, which is particularly badly affected. I acknowledge that parts of Laois and Longford will also be affected.

I would like an update on the application to the EU coal regions in transition platform. This application which was only commenced in 2017 should have been made years ago. We are trying to do our best here but the Minister needs to take responsibility for what in my view is the most unjust transition ever. It is an insult to call it a just transition.

I ask the Minister to confirm that he will allow the Dáil to debate the terms of reference and, maybe, take recommendations in that regard before agreeing them in their entirety. Is the repurposing of the PSO agreed? If not, the Minister cannot say with any definitive value that the 300 jobs he mentioned are associated with it can be committed to. Does the Minister accept that if he does not bring in new legislation to allow the licensing of the harvesting of horticultural peat by the EPA, there is a huge threat to many more jobs outside Bord na Móna and will he confirm that the rehabilitation programme that is envisaged does not contravene the legislation which the High Court ruled in favour of, which was taken against the statutory instruments brought in by the Minister earlier this year?

It is like Larry Gogan's Just a Minute Quiz. It is very quick this evening and we are now down to half a minute. I came from a horticultural background before I went into the media business. There is a great amount of work that could be done, despite some of the cynics saying we could not do work in the horticulture business. I intend to submit a paper on the issue. We also need to look at IDA Ireland's focus on places like Ballinasloe and surrounding areas, Roscommon town and Longford which will be badly hit. We must up the ante for IDA Ireland to get it to take a special interest in the locality.

The two plants are clear of debt and have a ten-year life span without any major refit being required. No decision should be made on decommissioning either plant until all potential future options for their use are considered. The last thing we need is replication of the short-sighted decision to decommission the sugar beet processing facilities in Carlow and Mallow which has led to the appalling situation where the vast majority of biofuels used in transport in Ireland are now being imported. I urge the Minister to provide an assurance for the House in that regard.

The issue is having quality jobs to replace those being lost and that have already been lost in Bord na Móna in counties Laois and Offaly and the other midlands counties. Does Cúil na Móna figure in this just transition or is County Laois being written out of it altogether? County Offaly is being very badly affected by what is happening. County Laois has been very badly affected and there will be further job losses. I asked the Minister about the use of biomass in the two power plants at Lanesborough and Shannonbridge. It is very important that they not be demolished. We must look at converting them to 100% biomass and put in place biomass supply chains. We must also provide for training for retrofitting. There was a sum of €430 million collected last year in carbon taxes without any increase in it. There is €30 million in total going into the just transition fund for the midlands, which seems to be a small amount.

I asked about changing the constitution of Bord na Móna. Without doing so, we cannot guarantee that the jobs in bog reclamation and housing retrofits will be given to Bord na Móna staff. Yesterday the Minister, Deputy Madigan, said in Ballymahon that she was getting ready to put out to tender the bog reclamation work. How can she guarantee it will be given to existing staff of Bord na Móna? Will she confirm the impact the two statutory instruments on which the High Court ruled against earlier this year might have on future proposals for bog reclamation?

I will not be able to answer everything, but I will answer to the best of my ability. I recognise that one of the issues is the pressure on the rates base of local authorities. That issue was discussed yesterday and it is something at which we are going to have to look.

On retrofitting, we have committed hard cash to it. There is a sum of €20 million available and we will be mobilising the local authorities to be at the core in 2020. Clearly it is something we want to build in in the coming period. We have been admitted to the platform for coal regions in transition. I know that the new Commission is interested in putting funding through it; therefore, it will be an opportunity for us. I am open to suggestions on the terms of reference. If the Deputies want to make suggestions, I will be happy to consider them. We have tried to draw the terms in a broad fashion. We are very confident that we will get permission for the repurposing of the PSO, but obviously we will have to have it signed. We have done a lot of work in that regard and I am confident that we will deliver on it. The peat regulations do require the companies to apply for substitute planning permission. That is a requirement and it will have to be done. Again, I believe the work we are doing in restoring bogs strengthens the case.

On the other opportunities that are available, the ESB is the owner of the plant and has to evaluate its future. Clearly, there are alternatives, as we move to a renewables base, to have alternative sources of fuel at the times the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine. That is something the ESB will have to evaluate for the plant, as well as in its overall set. I recognise that we need to create opportunities in the midlands. Following the two particular announcements, there will be a concentration on working in the short term with those who have been impacted on most directly, certainly in providing for retraining and opportunities to switch to the new employment opportunities we are developing. To build that bridge, we will have to concentrate, in particular, on the areas where workers who have been directly affected are located. Of course, a just transition is something we will continue to pursue. I recognise the wider impact in the midlands.

Rail Network Expansion

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for including this item and the Minister, Deputy Ross, for taking the time to come to respond.

Like so many commuting families, particularly in the greater Dublin area but also in the larger urban centres, I despair. We all are aware of the lady who tweeted about standing and watching eight trams pass by and the fact that when one did stop, she would have required assistance to push her in to a tram to allow her to get on and make her journey. We do not need to remind anybody because he or she is suffering twice daily for five days a week the commute misery.

Over the weekend, to my amazement, when I was looking at the eTenders website, I read the following: "Irish Rail has a requirement for a transport and economic consultancy to prepare a robust and comparable detailed business case for DART expansion for submission to Government for securing capital expenditure approval". Hello. Do we need a business case to prove and underpin the fact that there is a need for additional rail capacity? We are throwing good money after bad in going to eTenders to have some third party bill us for a couple of hundred grand or more to do this job. What is more, when this was first mooted on 18 July 2013, the then CEO of Irish Rail announced and sought the committee's support for this wonderful proposal for DART expansion. Later, on 9 December 2014, in responding to a parliamentary question from my colleague, Deputy O'Dowd, the Minister for Finance gave further assurances about this great plan. On 18 May 2016 he Minister, Deputy Ross, our newly appointed saviour from the public transportation nightmare, gave detailed information to Deputy Lawless on the great expansion. In that debate he made reference to July 2015 and something being based on the outcome of the updated business case, presumably the second one. The call on eTenders for the making a third business case was made last Friday and it will be received in one month. When it comes in at whatever cost, however long it will take, will we have a fourth updated business case?

The stones on the road know. Is there a total absence of common sense that we have to throw good money after bad? Is the Minister honestly telling me that, given the competence and capacity of its expert team, Iarnród Éireann is not capable of putting a business case together? If it is not, what about the National Transport Authority or Transport Infrastructure Ireland? If they are not capable of doing so, what about the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport?

While the Minister is between photo calls with sport stars at Dublin Airport and given that the festive season is fast approaching - no doubt the Santa hat will be donned once again for photo calls outside Stepaside Garda station - people are suffering commute misery on a daily basis and we continue to have promises about great ideas in respect of what we are doing. At his press briefing to announce the construction of the Adare bypass, a project which has yet to proceed to planning, the Minister was also telling people once again about the greater Dublin area and DART expansion. It is great to know that following the making of a business case, the great idea the NTA described, and the making of an updated business case in July 2015, tenders are being sought for a further business case. Who is driving the bus?

I thank Deputy MacSharry for raising what is a serious issue. I can assure him that Iarnród Éireann and the National Transport Authority, NTA, have my full support as they seek to improve capacity and increase services on the rail network. That support is evidenced by the increased funding made available in recent years and the increased investment planned in the coming years. Equally, I assume I have the Deputy's full support and that of everyone in the House in ensuring that proposals to spend massive amounts of money are properly considered. Nobody should consider it to be a burden, as the Deputy has alleged. It is instead a duty on all of us, as public representatives, to ensure the taxpayer is protected. I agree that scrutiny and oversight must be proportionate. However, it must occur.

In recent months, as the Deputy probably knows, I have secured Government approval for the development a new national train control centre and the purchase of 41 additional rail carriages for the greater Dublin area. Together, that represents an investment of approximately €285 million in the rail network and is no doubt welcomed by everyone in this House who is worried about commuters, as I know the Deputy genuinely is, as coming from where he is he has reason to be so worried.

Individually, each of those projects costs over €100 million and therefore each was, of course, subject to scrutiny in line with the requirements of the public spending code. Let me assure the Deputy that there was no undue delay or administrative burden associated with either project. Nor will I apologise for ensuring appropriate oversight of hundreds of millions of euro, or indeed apologise for complying with Government guidelines. In the coming years Project Ireland 2040 commits billions of euro towards sustainable mobility. I can assure the taxpayer that my Department takes its responsibilities with regard to the oversight of expenditure very seriously.

Given the sums of money involved, I would expect all of us in the House to take those responsibilities seriously too. I will shortly seek Government approval for a €1 billion investment in our heavy rail network over the next five years. This investment programme will deliver better journey times, improved reliability and continued safety across the network. It represents an approximate 40% increase in funding as compared to the last five year programme over 2014 to 2018 and is hugely significant.

Next year I expect to receive a business case in relation to what the Deputy refers to as the DART expansion programme, which is a multi-billion euro programme, to increase massively the rail network and services across the greater Dublin area.

Each of these investment programmes will be properly assessed. That is required under the public spending code, but importantly it is also the right thing to do.

On the most recent decision to expand the commuter rail fleet in the greater Dublin area, the Deputy may wish to be aware that the business case was originally submitted at the end of August, with a final version submitted on 24 September and Government approval secured on 30 October. There no undue delay nor was there any unnecessary administrative burden. I welcome the fact these new carriages are on their way and I look forward to their entry into service.

The Deputy refers to the commuter misery crisis, which continues to deteriorate. I have listed some of the things that the Government is doing in the short, medium and long term to relieve a critical situation, which we all agree is not entirely satisfactory. It is being seriously tackled and I do not want to trivialise it in anyway in this House this evening.

I do not want to trivialise this matter either. None of this debate is personal. I learned this from the master in the Seanad. He would not tolerate this kind of response in those days and I certainly cannot tolerate it today. The Minister's new-found interest in value-for-money is admirable, but how many business cases does one need? Who is prepared to take a decision and back the facts and say, look, the issue is clear, a blind man can see and experience the complete misery of all of us. We are kicking it around the administrative merry-go-round time and again. What it boils down to is that Ministers have become non-executive directors. They turn up at the ceremonial occasions to say a few words, to cut the tape and be in the photograph but when it comes to running the country, it is on e-tenders. The Minister was referring to a business case on such a date. Which one is he referring to? Was that the one three years ago, the updated one, or is it the one that has not been replied to yet because the closing date is not until 9 December at 12 o'clock?

We have had this with the ordering of carriages too, with these 41 mythical characters. The Minister must be expecting the polar express to pull into town over Christmas because the reality is that I do not even know if the 41 have been ordered yet. There are 60 to 80 used ones to be leased and are supposedly to be arriving next February and I have not heard much about that lately. It must have run aground too.

We are back to value-for-money and the business case. We need a third business case. Is it third time lucky? Do we need three business cases before we take a decision to do what any five-eight person knows needs to be done? We need to expand this. Have we not got the money? Who is taking the decision? Why is he putting this out to tender? How much will that cost? That is more money wasted that could be much better spent elsewhere.

Returning to value-for-money, I apologise and I know this will annoy the Minister, but I have to give him the kick on this. I do not remember the business case on Stepaside Garda station when I was down at the Committee of Public Accounts, as the assistant commissioner responsible for Dublin said, no, that was not a priority for them. Other matters are. We know that we are coming into the season when the Santa hat will be donned and the Minister will be waving to the traffic with the lights turned on in Stepaside.

Meanwhile, those people getting the bus, if they manage to get stuffed on and have enough assistance to get pushed into it, will now leave it to the Minister. We are going to get value-for-money and in 100 years' time we may have a public transportation system that we deserve, when we have people who are prepared to take decisions, based on the facts rather than being put around the administrative merry-go-round with no solutions.

The train needs to leave the station. I call on the Minister, Deputy Ross, to reply.

I do not want to trivialise this issue, which is insulting to commuters. I am very keen that the commuters of the entire country, including the commuters in Deputy MacSharry's constituency, are listened to and catered for. One of the things that has happened here, and I am sure Deputy will admit this as well, is that the rail network is a victim of its success. The numbers pouring onto the rail network are absolutely phenomenal and the increases are likely to continue. I have to attempt to meet current and to anticipate future demands. The idea that anybody has sat on his or her hands or has been ignoring this problem is completely and utterly untrue. The NTA and Iarnród Éireann have been working on options to increase capacity, both in terms of service improvements introduced and in exploring the best way to increase fleet size.

One option was to refurbish the older fleet and bring them back into service. That option was actively explored until the costs come back. Deputy MacSharry is very genuinely and sincerely concerned about costs. These costs came back at about three times the estimate. People advocating this option as the panacea need to reflect on whether they think that spending two thirds of the cost of a new fleet on carriages with around one third of their lifespan is good use of taxpayers' money. It obviously is not.

Another option was to consider whether to buy or lease second-hand fleet. That option was similarly explored but it was ultimately not the best option, either due to things like uncertainty around availability, costs, age etc.

At the very end of the summer, a business case was presented to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport on what is the preferred option, to which Deputy MacSharry also referred, which was buying 41 additional carriages. Those who urge quick decisions and multi-billion euro projects are often the first people to criticise when things go wrong.

The Government is doing a great deal in the short, medium and long term on rail and I am pleased to say there is progress under way on each time horizon. On the fleet, I have brought a memorandum to Government on the business case for the purchase of 41 additional intercity railcars. It is expected that this new fleet will be delivered by 2021.