Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Court Sittings

I raise the decision to cancel the High Court list in Kilkenny at short notice. When the High Court sits in Kilkenny each year it deals with quite a number of cases pretty efficiently. It was explained to the president of the Kilkenny Solicitors Bar Association that this cancellation resulted from a shortage of judges. The President of the High Court informed the local bar association of this. It is high-handed. This court serves the region very well and deals with a great number of cases. Many people who are listed for a hearing have been waiting for years. Having built themselves up emotionally to go to court and have their case heard, they were told, at short notice, that the sitting would not proceed. The President of the High Court should have shown a little more consideration for the citizens who have to appear before that court.

The civil court list was also cancelled at very short notice. Again the reason given was that there is a shortage of judges. Is that the case? Is there such a shortage of judges that the provincial court sittings have to be cancelled at the last minute? Is the Courts Service, under the President of the High Court who wrote to the local association, so dysfunctional that it could not have arranged for matters to be dealt with differently? Is the system so out of touch with the people who appear before the courts that it could not, or would not, give consideration to the serious difficulties this has caused for the individuals in question? Who is in charge? Is this an issue of efficiency or, as was stated, a case of there not being enough judges available to hear these cases? What happened in the week in question? Was the backlog in the courts so great? I hope the Minister will tell me if that was the case because I want to understand the reason for the decision to cancel the list at short notice. I appreciate the separation of powers, before the Minister starts telling me about it. This is not about the separation of powers. This is about time management for judges and respecting members of the public and citizens whom we all represent.

What are the Minister's views on the excuse used, that is, the lack of judges? Is this an effort by the Judiciary to put pressure on the Minister to appoint even more judges? Is there a business case for the appointment of judges at which I can look? This decision is unsatisfactory in respect of both the High Court list and the civil case list. I want an explanation.

I thank Deputy McGuinness. I am standing in for the Minister for Justice and Equality who is unavoidably absent. On his behalf, I note that under the provisions of the

Courts Service Act 1998, management of the courts is the responsibility of the Courts Service, which is independent in exercising its functions. The assignment of judges and the scheduling and cancelling of lists is a matter for the presidents of the courts who are, under the Constitution, independent in the exercise of their judicial functions.

In order to be of assistance to the Deputy, the Minister has had inquiries made with the Courts Service and has been informed that a notice was recently published on the Courts Service website, as directed by the President of the High Court, setting out a decision to cancel the High Court personal injuries list in Kilkenny due to a shortage of judges. Interim arrangements have been set out whereby all cases in the list are adjourned to the next list. Any case which is required to be dealt with more urgently may be mentioned to Mr. Justice Cross with a view to seeking a hearing date in Dublin.

As the Deputy will be aware, judicial appointments are made by the President acting on the advice of the Government in accordance with Articles 13(9) and 35(1) of the Constitution. The Government is committed to ensuring that judicial vacancies across the courts are filled in a timely manner. The issues which gave rise to the cancellation of the High Court lists in Kilkenny will be resolved following the appointment by the President of five judges - Brian O'Moore, senior counsel; Mark Sanfey, senior counsel; Mary Rose Gearty, senior counsel; Niamh Hyland, senior counsel; and Mark Heslin, solicitor - to the High Court on 2 December 2019. The new judges will be sworn in by the Chief Justice on Friday, 6 December. It is intended that the new judges will take up their duties immediately thereafter.

With regard to the Circuit Court sittings in Kilkenny, the listing of cases and the cancellation of lists are matters for the President of the Circuit Court. A notice was published on the Courts Service website, as directed by the President of the Circuit Court, setting out recent decisions to cancel lists as well as the interim arrangements. The Courts Service has informed the Minister that the planned criminal and family law cases scheduled for next week in Kilkenny will proceed as arranged. All civil cases have been adjourned to a date early in the new year.

The Circuit Court is operating with a full complement of judges. At its Cabinet meeting of 26 November, the Government nominated Judge Rosemary Horgan, who had already been sitting in the Circuit Court in an ex officio capacity, for appointment to the Circuit Court. Judge Horgan's warrant for appointment is scheduled to be signed by the President this week and her swearing-in ceremony is scheduled to take place on 9 December.

I have asked the Minister several questions, which he has not answered. I simply want to go back to those questions. Does the Minister believe that the President of the High Court, and thereafter the President of the Circuit Court, were using these cancellations to force the Minister to appoint more judges? Where is the business case showing the numbers required for these judges? Where is the information to inform me, as a Member of this House, that these judges were in fact needed? Is it time to review the 1998 Act so that we can have a better system to manage these cases? Is it not interesting that the President of the High Court cancelled the session in Kilkenny? The Minister's reply did not include an alternative date when that will happen. Urgent cases are to come to Dublin. The whole idea of provincial sittings is to deal with issues at that level and give people a chance. In my opinion they have not been given a chance. They have been shown a great discourtesy by the Judiciary.

This comes at a time when the President of the High Court has decided that he does not need Mr. Edmund Honohan any more. He took from him a body of work that he was doing very capably and gave it to several other judges. Is Mr. Edmund Honohan not being used to his full potential? Are the other judges so overworked that they cannot manage their caseloads? What is going on here? A serious cost to the State arises from all of this. For far too long we have left the management and functions of the Judiciary out of the loop. We should not be afraid to determine if it is giving value for money and if its members are actually needed. Maybe we should ask them to fob in. Then we will get a better picture of things.

As I said in my opening remarks on behalf of the Minister, it is envisaged that the most recent appointments will address the issue of the High Court sittings in Kilkenny. I will not accept the Deputy's invitation to trespass on matters germane to the Judiciary or engage with his commentary on this business case. I will convey his remarks to the Minister for Justice and Equality. The Deputy will be aware that the principle of the separation of powers between the Executive and the Judiciary is long established and I do not intend to go down that road.

The Deputy made a point about whether it is time to review the provisions of the Courts Service Act 1998 regarding the organisation and administration of the Courts Service. I will bring these comments to the attention of the Minister.

Aquaculture Licence Applications

Táim iontach buíoch den Dáil go bhfuil seans againn é seo a phlé tráthnóna inniu. There is huge anger and disbelief within the communities of Cloughaneely, Gortahork, Cill Charthaigh and the surrounding areas over controversial plans to develop large-scale oyster farms at Ballyness Bay. This anger, disbelief and frustration are best exemplified by the attendance of up to 700 people at a public meeting at the end of the summer. Thousands of people have signed a local petition. They are aghast at what has been planned for an area of stunning beauty. I am not sure if the Minister, Deputy Creed, is familiar with that part of our island but it is worth seeing. It really is a jewel in the crown. It has breathtaking scenery, clear waters and relatively unspoilt marine life, and it has been a source of pride for the local community for many decades.

This community cannot understand why the Department is considering placing industrial-scale oyster farms along its strands. If approved, these would stretch from Drumnatinny, through Ballyness and on to Magheraroarty on the western side of the bay. The vast majority of people, myself included, only became aware that these applications were with the Department several weeks after the public consultation period had ended. How were we kept in the dark? The answer is very clear. This was advertised in an excellent local newspaper, the Donegal Democrat. However and unfortunately, the Donegal Democrat does not have a wide readership in that area. Members of the community inform me that only 15 copies of the Donegal Democrat are sold in the Falcarragh area, in contrast with two other papers with a bigger reach there. The advertisement was not published in Gaelic, though this is a Gaeltacht area. It was available to view in the local Garda station, but in rural Ireland Garda stations are only open three hours a day, and if gardaí are on call, a member of the public will not be seen. If it is not advertised in the local newspapers or radio, members of the public do not know to go to the local Garda station to view the application anyway.

There are huge issues here. We have seen this in other areas as well. Several decisions have been made by the Department in recent weeks to approve oyster farming in various parts of Donegal where there was no objection or opposition. However, this is a pristine area. It is a special area of conservation. The bay is protected. Just last week I was talking to the Minister of State, Deputy Moran, about coastal erosion and the need to invest in that area to protect the habitat there. I support aquaculture, but the idea of trestles running from Magheraroarty through to Ballyness is just not acceptable. We are talking about harvesting oysters in an area equivalent to 45 or 46 football pitches. That is simply not acceptable.

The spirit and principle of the legislation and the EU directive on public consultation make clear the need for public awareness of an application of such magnitude. The public should be consulted. This application was placed in a newspaper with a circulation of just 15 in a community of thousands. I repeat, thousands of people have signed a petition calling for this process to go back to the starting blocks. Will the Minister intervene and nullify these applications? If the promoters want to make the applications again, they can do so with the knowledge of the community. At the end of the day, it is the Minister who will grant this licence or reject it.

I thank the Deputy. Decisions have recently been made in respect of several applications for licenses for the cultivation of shellfish in Ballyness Bay. Public notice regarding these decisions is scheduled to be published in the Donegal Democrat on Thursday, 5 December. The public notice will be in Irish and English as the area in question is in the Gaeltacht.

Representations have been received from public representatives and members of the public raising objections to these applications and to the manner in which the Department communicated the information to the local community. In fact, in accordance with the provisions of the legislation, public notices were placed by the applicants in the Donegal Democrat. These public notices were placed by the applicants on the instruction of the Department as a necessary part of the licensing process. One of the complaints is that as Ballyness Bay lies within a Gaeltacht area, the public notices should have been in Irish as well as in English. In fact, as the applications are placed in the newspaper by the applicant and not by the State, the requirement for Irish language notification does not apply. Notice of the ministerial decisions will be published in Irish and English as the Department is the publishing body in that case.

An aquaculture licence is required by law for the cultivation of finfish, shellfish and certain marine plants such as seaweed. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine considers all applications for aquaculture licences in accordance with the provisions of the Fisheries (Amendment) Act 1997, the Foreshore Act 1933 and applicable EU legislation. The licensing process involves consultation with a wide range of scientific and technical advisers as well as various statutory consultees. The legislation also provides for a period of public consultation. In addition, the Department must adhere to a wide range of regulatory requirements and other legislation that impacts on the licensing process.

A key component of the aquaculture licensing process is a series of measures designed to address the impact of aquaculture on the environment.

This series of measures is known as appropriate assessment. The appropriate assessment process arose from a European Court of Justice case against Ireland in 2007. The European Court of Justice, ECJ, declared that by failing to take all the measures necessary to comply with the EU habitats directive in respect of authorisations of aquaculture programmes, Ireland had failed to fulfil its obligations under that directive. The EU habitats and birds directive has resulted in the designation of certain bays by the National Parks and Wildlife Service as special areas of conservation or special protection areas for birds. These are known as Natura 2000 sites and most aquaculture takes place within them or adjacent to them. In the negotiations to address the ECJ judgment, the Department agreed a process with the European Commission and the National Parks and Wildlife Service that would govern the State's processing of aquaculture licence applications.

The appropriate assessment process is managed in the main by the Marine Institute via environmental and scientific contractors commissioned by the institute to carry out the necessary fieldwork and desk analysis. To date, the Marine Institute has submitted appropriate assessments on 32 bays to the Department, of which Ballyness Bay is one. Ballyness Bay in County Donegal is designated a special area of conservation. There are also a number of other special areas of conservation and special protected areas close to Ballyness Bay, and full consideration was given to the likely interaction between these areas and the proposed aquaculture activities. The appropriate assessment considered 20 applications for aquaculture operations in Ballyness Bay, which consisted of 14 for the cultivation of oysters only, five for the cultivation of oysters and clams, and one for the cultivation of clams only. The number of sites applied for has subsequently been reduced to 18 applications, with two sites for oyster cultivation having been withdrawn.

The legislation specifically provides for periods of statutory and public consultation in respect of aquaculture licence applications. All observations received within the consultation period are carefully considered by my Department. In accordance with applicable legislation, notice of the applications for Ballyness Bay were published by the applicants in the Donegal Democrat on various dates between 14 March and 26 March. From the date of the relevant notice, the public had four weeks to make written submissions or observations-----

If I might beg the indulgence of the House, there is a legal process I would like to go through. I just have one more page.

In accordance with applicable legislation, notice of the applications in Ballyness Bay was published by the applicants in the Donegal Democrat on various dates between 14 March and 26 March. From the date of the relevant notice, the public had four weeks to make written submissions or observations to my Department on the applications specified in that notice. During that time the application documentation was available for inspection in the Garda stations specified in the public notices and on my Department's website. In accordance with the applicable legislation, one of the Garda stations was open on a 24-hour basis, in Letterkenny. The following statutory consultees were contacted with regard to these applications: Donegal County Council, Inland Fisheries Ireland, Bord Iascaigh Mhara, Fáilte Ireland, An Taisce, Údarás na Gaeltachta, the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, and the Marine Institute.

In addition, the legislation governing aquaculture licensing provides for an appeals mechanism. Any member of the public who wishes to appeal a ministerial decision may do so by submitting an appeal to the Aquaculture Licences Appeals Board, which is an independent body established by statute.

The Department has received a number of representations from members of the public and public representatives around the licensing process as it affects Ballyness Bay. In addition to general complaints concerning the appropriateness or otherwise of intertidal aquaculture in Ballyness Bay, there have been specific concerns expressed around the consultation process, namely, the placement of public notices in the Donegal Democrat is regarded as inadequate by a number of members of the public and by public representatives. The procedures for the public notices, however, adhere fully to the legislative requirements. In addition to the public notices, the applications were available to view in specified local Garda stations and on the Department's website.

I will conclude now, and I appreciate the Acting Chairman's indulgence. The licensing process for Ballyness Bay conforms fully with all legislative requirements. A public notice in respect of the ministerial decision is scheduled to be published in the Donegal Democrat on Thursday, 5 December. Any person who is not satisfied with the ministerial decision can appeal the decision to the Aquaculture Licences Appeals Board. As the period of time for submitting such appeals will commence from the date of publication of the decision and will continue for one month thereafter, it would not be appropriate for me to comment further on the matter at this time.

I do not know if the Minister feels it is appropriate. I buy the Donegal Democrat every week. It has two newspapers and excellent coverage. Does the Minister think it appropriate that the notices were in a newspaper with only 15 sales in the area being impacted in Falcarragh? I do not believe it was appropriate. That is the reality. The Minister can talk about a Garda station in Letterkenny being open for 24 hours, but this is like saying that the public notification for works to be carried out in Leinster House will be on view in the Garda station in Bray. It is the same distance from Gortahork to Letterkenny as it is for me to jump in a car from this House to Bray. People in the area did not know about this and did not have an opportunity to make a submission.

Generally, public meetings on different things are not well attended, but when 600 or 700 people turn out to a public meeting, then we know there is an issue in the community. When thousands of people sign a petition, then one really knows there are issues.

The core of the issue comes down to a question. What does the Minister do with the 18 applications in for this area? The area is one of unique beauty in our county and in our country. The Minister has the final decision on those 18 applications and he tells us that we must wait until they are published in the Donegal Democrat. Will the Minister tell this House of the Oireachtas what decision he has made on those 18 applications? Has he granted or refused them? Did the Minister grant the applications with or without amendments? The people listening to this debate at home are worried about what will happen in an area of huge unemployment but which is seeing an uplift in tourism with the Wild Atlantic Way. These people do not want to look out at a beautiful area such as Magheraroarty and Ballyness and, when the sea is out, be looking at trestles as far as the eye can see. They do not want to see that. They want to make sure that people will have employment in their community. They want to make sure that what they have grown up with will be there and that they can hand it down to the next generation.

I will warn the Minister. This is my last opportunity here. If the Minister has granted those applications, this community will fight tooth and nail, and I will be with them every step of the way. I will appeal this, and I am sure there will be hundreds if not thousands of others too. Will the Minister clarify what the decision has been so that people will know? Has he granted these applications, has he refused them or has he granted them with alterations?

Deputy Doherty has raised a number of points. With regard to the advertisement of the applications in the media, the applicants are compliant with the law as it is by virtue of having advertised in the Donegal Democrat and having made the application details available at the local Garda stations, including one that was open for access for 24 hours. We can have debates about how widely read these applications are and so on, but in that context the applications comply with the statutory process.

I also made the point that in complying with the statutory process, there are a number of notice bodies invited to make submissions, and I listed those, including Donegal County Council, An Taisce, the National Parks and Wildlife service and so on. They were all notified and their observations, views and reports are taken into account, including the views that are available to me through my Department and other agencies that are involved in the decision-making process. Ultimately, I must make the decision. I do not mean to be in any way circumspect here, but there is a process and I will comply entirely with the process. Once the process is in the public realm I can discuss the matter. The process requires me to put the decision in the first instance into the Donegal Democrat later this week and I will be complying with the law on this.

Will the information go onto the Internet via the Department's website at the same time? What time will that be?

I would have to clarify that. It is going into the Donegal Democrat.

Pharmacy Services

I am glad to have the opportunity to raise this important matter. I, and I am sure most Deputies, have had recent discussions with their community pharmacies, particularly over the weekend. I have been inundated with phone calls, emails and letters, and I have some of them with me. I intend to pass them on to the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, at the earliest possible convenience.

Alarm bells have been sounded as a result of the recent proposal by the Department of Health that outlined changes to pharmacy fees to commence next year. It has been calculated that the cuts will result in a reduction in income of at least €12,000 per annum if the proposals for changes to the dispensing fee per item, the reduction of the number of items paid at €5, and the abolition of high-tech patient care fees are imposed in January.

This is the polar opposite of what was expected by the Irish Pharmacy Union, IPU, and pharmacy owners. They believed that, rather than the imposition of additional cuts, the cuts imposed under the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest, FEMPI, Acts would be unwound.

Concerns have been raised with me about the impact on rural, isolated, disadvantaged communities and independent pharmacies. That impact will be disproportionate on those in large population centres. Concerns have also been raised about the sustainability of community pharmacies where margins are as low as 4%. Some believe that they will not survive, especially with no alternative funding stream identified. One cannot but support their assessment of the situation. Curtailing services to patients will cause significant issues for GPs, hospitals and the HSE. The pharmacy is often the first port of call for patients and they retain a high level of trust with the public.

Pharmacists are mystified as to how this proposal has come about. During our period of financial austerity, they took the required cuts in the national interest. I am told that they are the only profession not to have had fee restoration. Increased investment, not cuts, was expected at this stage, especially in light of Sláintecare. A new pharmacy contract and investment in improved pharmacy services to benefit our people were expected.

There are 2,300 community pharmacies across the country. In my county of Offaly, 29 pharmacies are providing support for over 800,000 patient visits, with more than 250 jobs required to do so. I understand that the Minister, Deputy Harris, has prioritised a meeting with the IPU this week. I ask the Minister of State to convey to him how urgent it is to find a solution to this matter, which is causing unnecessary worry for pharmacists across the country and their staff. It is crucial that negotiations be entered into in 2020 as expected and in good faith.

I thank Deputy Corcoran Kennedy for raising this important matter, which I am taking on behalf of the Minster for Health. The Minister values the important role that community pharmacists play in the delivery of holistic patient care in the health service. He has given a clear commitment to commencing a thorough review of the pharmacy contract in 2020. It will address the role to be played by community pharmacies in the context of Sláintecare and consider all aspects of pharmacy service provision, including delivery of a multidisciplinary model of service delivery for patients, ensuring clarity of roles and achieving optimum value for money.

A new agreement that is fit for purpose and seeks to strengthen our primary care system is required. The vision and approach that underpins Sláintecare needs to be mapped out for the community pharmacy sector. This primary care model will be integrated with other health policies that will require the expansion of the scope of practice and the range of public services provided in community pharmacy. Any publicly funded pharmacy service expansion should address unmet public health needs, improve access to existing public health services or provide better value for money or patient outcomes. Accordingly, the decision to provide such services should be evidence based.

The Minister expects to see discussions on a new contract begin early in the new year because he fully believes that community pharmacy contractors have an important contribution to make to realising the future vision for community care, which needs to be enabled by a modern and fit-for-purpose contractual relationship with the HSE.

The Minister addressed the IPU at its national pharmacy conference in May and gave a clear commitment to move beyond the arrangements underpinned by the FEMPI Act 2009 with a view to optimising the role of pharmacists in the years ahead. In the meantime, however, the Minster is obliged to put in place before the end of this year a new framework to maintain a statutory basis for contractor fees, as the existing regulations will be revoked from the end of this year in accordance with the Public Service Pay and Pensions Act 2017.

Prior to the making of the new regulations, the Minister is required to consult the representative body for pharmacy contractors, the IPU. In that respect, departmental officials wrote to the IPU on 10 October inviting it to discussions on the making of the new regulations. Subsequently, meetings were held in the Department on 24 October and 7 November, following which a detailed submission was received from the IPU. That submission is being considered by the Department in the context of the statutory fee-setting process referred to previously. The Minister is due to meet the IPU this week to discuss these matters further.

I thank the Minister of State. It is welcome that the Minister is to meet the IPU this week. The conference was mentioned. The comments that the Minister made there have left pharmacists feeling let down and betrayed because they had the impression that the FEMPI measures would be unwound. They also believed that their submission to Sláintecare could save the State €90 million or more on biologic medicines. This contrasts with the proposed cuts, which would take €50 million out of the service.

This situation is causing significant worry. If we are to succeed with Sláintecare and in delivering at community level, it is crucial that the concerns raised by the IPU and pharmacists more widely are addressed as soon as possible so that they will not have this issue hanging over them going into the Christmas period. There will be a knock-on effect on their staff, who feel that they will be impacted, particularly in rural areas, by what they have seen from the Department to date.

I take the Deputy's points. I reiterate the Minister's appreciation for community pharmacists in delivering care to patients and I restate his desire for contractual discussions to commence early in the new year so as to enable their role to be further developed in the context of health service reform and modernisation. However, the Minister is also cognisant of the fact that regulations made under the FEMPI Act 2009 expire at the end of 2019 and that a new set of fee regulations will need to come into effect in order to maintain a statutory basis for pharmacy payments from 1 January 2020. Prior to finalising these regulations, a consultation process is under way with the IPU and further discussions will take place this Thursday in Leinster House. The Minister will keep the Dáil informed as that process develops.

I take the Deputy's points regarding pharmacists, fee restoration and investment. She mentioned the 29 pharmacies in her county. I will bring her concerns to the Minister over the next couple of days.

School Enrolments

I thank the Minister for taking this Topical Issue debate, which deals with the crisis in the number of secondary school places in Dublin Fingal. The Minister recently paid a visit to Skerries community college in advance of polling in the by-election. There is a more fundamental issue in north Dublin and I am glad of the opportunity to address it with the Minister. We are the fastest growing and youngest constituency in the country and a great deal of work has been done by successive Governments to provide additional places at primary school level, but some of our towns are struggling to provide secondary school places. For the first time in a long while, for example, Malahide community school has a waiting list of people in its catchment area to whom it will not be able to offer places. The same applies at Portmarnock community school. The Minister visited Skerries community college where parents are concerned about places for their sons and daughters. More than 100 people who applied to St. Joseph's secondary school in Rush could not get a place.

There are also issues in Swords and throughout the county. I have tabled a series of parliamentary questions in this regard and the responses I have received from the Department deal with the capital programme and what will happen. While that is fine, and we will keep the pressure on, for 2020 we have a specific issue. To take Portmarnock, for argument's sake, there are issues with the ongoing delay with the extension and refurbishment of the school. There is no additional capacity in Malahide. There was a delay with opening the Malahide-Portmarnock Educate Together secondary school in Kinsealy. It was planned to accommodate 1,000 people but the intake is only 48 pupils a year. We have a very specific issue in north Dublin.

I have spent the past couple of weeks speaking to parents and I know some of them have corresponded with the Minister's office. The lack of alternatives is a real concern and I have not even mentioned Lusk, where there are also issues, about which I have written to the Minister. The Department needs urgently to review the number of students who have not been able to secure a place for September 2020. We have time to rectify the situation. Most of the schools have set a deadline of 2 December for acceptance of offers, and I hope the lists will be worked through, but there is no doubt in my mind that we are still over capacity. As I have said, it is a very particular issue.

Where this matter becomes particularly acute is with regard to students with special needs. One mother emailed me and I have spoken to her. She has applied to nine schools. Her son has autism and requires assistance in school. I know this has come up previously in the Minister's brief. This child is No. 78 on one list, category 10 on another and No. 43 on another list. I know the Minister knows the stress for the parents and students of not knowing whether they will secure a place next year and, in particular, whether they will be able to secure a place with their peers and the children they have grown up with and been with through the primary system.

We need this issue addressed. It is at crisis point in north Dublin. I am sure the Acting Chairman, Deputy Farrell, will also confirm this. The numbers are significant and growing further with the new developments that are happening. There is a real concern that this year is bad but it will get worse year by year. We need to expedite the delivery of the promised schools. Will the Minister in particular look favourably at carrying out a specific review on the Dublin Fingal area to deal with the lack of availability of secondary school places?

I thank the Deputy for raising the question. I am aware of the pressures in the area. I reassure the parents who may be listening that we have put specific focus on this issue through the Department in Tullamore. I know the Acting Chairman is very interested in this issue.

The Deputy made a point on doing analysis as part of planning for school provision. We constantly do this. We have a team in this school planning area and it uses geographical information systems and data from a range of sources to identify where the pressure for school places comes from. The Department uses this information and offers a determination on where additional school accommodation is needed at primary and post-primary level. The case the Deputy has raised is with regard to post-primary places.

As the Deputy is aware, in April 2018, the Government announced plans to establish 42 new schools over the four-year period from 2019 to 2022, including five new primary schools and three new post-primary schools in the north County Dublin Fingal area. In addition, four new primary and seven new post-primary schools were established in recent years in the area. The requirement for new schools will be kept under ongoing review and, in particular, will have regard to the increased roll-out of housing provision as outlined in Project Ireland 2040. Sometimes it is difficult to make this calculation. Even though planning permission could be sought for 400 houses, it is not say those 400 houses will go in immediately as they could be built on a phased basis. It is a difficult enough exercise in itself, but at the same time communication between the local authority and the Department is very important because it can provide a proper determination.

In addition, the Department's capital programme provides for devolved funding for additional classrooms. Where an immediate enrolment need has been identified or where an additional teacher has been appointed, there is a fast-track process. At the beginning of this year, Ennis and Ashbourne were faced with a similar situation. The Deputy has pointed out we are at an earlier stage now and this is the time to have this conversation and debate.

When I was in Skerries a couple of weeks ago, I was able to hear first-hand the stories and pressures. In the Dublin Fingal area the Department is particularly aware of the enrolment issues in Skerries for 2020. In this context, the Department is in ongoing direct contact with the patron of Skerries community college in respect of the capacity in the school. Skerries community college has expressed a willingness to increase its long-term projected enrolment to 1,000 pupils. While visiting Skerries, I was able to inform the school that the Department is working on a proposal for a devolved build of three 49 sq. m general classrooms, three 15 sq. m special education teaching rooms and offices, a science laboratory and preparatory area, an art room, toilets and circulation space.

In addition, interim accommodation has been approved for Skerries community college pending the delivery of future accommodation needs. The patron of Skerries community college is tendering for the approved interim accommodation, and it is expected to have all interim accommodation in place for September 2020. While I understand the enrolment situation may result in some pupils not obtaining a place in the school of their first choice, the Department's main responsibility is to ensure the existing schools in the area can, between them, cater for the demand for school places in September 2020. It is a matter for the board of management as to which selection criteria are included in enrolment policy and in what priority the criteria are applied. The selection process and the enrolment policy on which it is based must be non-discriminatory and must be applied fairly in respect of all applicants. However, this may result in some pupils not obtaining a place in the school of their first choice.

Schools in the Fingal area can apply for additional accommodation under the Department's additional accommodation scheme if they believe there is a shortfall in their current accommodation. Applications will be assessed by the Department, and if it is found that additional accommodation is required, funding will be provided for a devolved build to the school.

I assure the Deputy and the Acting Chairman that our officials are examining the area and there is engagement with regard to finding solutions. At all times when interim temporary applications are submitted, we are open to prioritising those applications.

I thank the Minister for his response and I welcome what he has said with regard to Skerries. I hope those moves will deal with the students in Skerries who have not been able to obtain a place. The reason we are here and that we do not have enough capacity is because of delays in delivering schools. Take St. Joseph's secondary school in Rush as an example. The Minister speaks about additional accommodation, but it cannot take any more. A site was supposed to have been acquired but it still has not been acquired and is on the way. This needs to happen. I mentioned the Malahide-Portmarnock Educate Together secondary school, which will accommodate another 1,000 pupils but can only take in 48 students. There is a very specific issue with regard to capacity in our area. As I mentioned to the Minister, it becomes even more acute for children with certain special needs and requirements.

The Minister mentioned that schools can apply for additional accommodation. The Minister visited Portmarnock community school, just in advance of the by-election, coincidentally. I believe the Taoiseach was also there. The school has been promised an extension and refurbishment for years. It cannot take any more pupils and could not take additional temporary accommodation.

The Minister mentioned that the Department's main responsibility is to ensure the existing schools in the area can between them cater for the demand for school places in September 2020. Right now, many of them cannot do so. This is the problem. This evening, there are parents who have no school place secured for their children next year. We have time to fix this. The long-term planning was done and the delivery is where it was let down. We need to make sure there are school places for these students next September. The Minister's reply goes some part of the way and I thank him for it, particularly with regard to Skerries.

It does not deal with Swords, Rush, Lusk, Malahide or Portmarnock. Parents have asked me to raise these specific issues with the Minister directly because we need the intervention of the Department. While I recognise schools can apply for additional accommodation, in many instances they have nowhere to put that additional accommodation, and I referenced St. Joseph's secondary school in Rush in that regard. We had a delay with the delivery of phase two of Lusk community college. That meant we had further delays and a lack of capacity in the area.

I specifically ask the Minister to ask the officials in his Department to look particularly at Dublin Fingal and the towns I have mentioned and to work with the schools to rectify this problem.

We will continue to give it the focus it needs. It is about ensuring that once we have the information and once we know there are demand issues, we get in early. Engagement from the principals is critical here, and without singling any of those schools in the areas the Deputy mentioned out, I have met the majority of the principals. The Deputy is correct in saying I was in Portmarnock community school but it was not in recent weeks.

That is why I talk about a lack of delivery. The Minister was there a while ago and it still does not have its extension.

In St. Joseph's secondary school in Rush, I was able to hear first-hand about the pressures and the frustrations with the processes involved in acquiring sites. There are external factors outside of the Department's control. One matter we are committed to as a Department is that where there is extra demand, we try to provide solutions. We have to work towards the long-term and we will put those measures in place, but there are short-term needs now. We are focused on September 2020. We will continue the dialogue with the principals to ensure whatever short-term temporary provision we can bring in fits the needs. I understand some sites, such as St. Joseph's secondary school in Rush, will not have adequate space for additional accommodation, but we have to look at other ways of satisfying that demand. I emphasise again that a lot of the demand can be skewed in some instances. I am not using the example of this area, but in a different area in a different part of the country it was a school of choice and it was skewed because everybody wanted to go to this school. When it was pared back, it became clear that when the duplication of applications was taken away, there were still school places available. I know this is acutely sensitive in terms of the demographics, the increased population and further housing developments. I will keep this on the radar and no doubt the Deputies will keep me on my toes as well.