Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Tá na scoileanna druidte ó 13 Márta agus tá tuismitheoirí, páistí agus múinteoirí fágtha sa dorchadas ó thaobh na bpleananna don todhchaí agus do Mheán Fómhair. Cuireadh moill ar fhoilsiú na bpleananna seo arís agus arís. Rinne an t-iar-Rialtas agus an t-iar-Aire praiseach dóibh agus anois nílimid ag feiceáil nó ag cloisteáil aon rud ón Aire úr. Schools have been closed since 13 March. Parents, teachers and students have been left in the dark ever since. We have had delay after delay. The previous Government made a mess of things. We had promises and commitments from the previous Minister that a comprehensive roadmap for the reopening of schools would be published. He changed his mind on numerous occasions. The plan never emerged. It is more of the same under the new Minister. No plan has materialised.

We are just over four weeks from the traditional date of reopening schools and as it stands, schools, parents, students, school transport operators and we in the Dáil do not know what is happening. I suspect that on the Tánaiste's side of the House, the Government does not know what is happening either, based on the silence from the Minister for Education and Skills so far. Tens of thousands of parents have no idea how their children are going back to school in September. I have no idea how my four kids are going back to school in September. My wife is a teacher and my three sisters are teachers. Like tens of thousands of other teachers, they do not know how they are going back to school in September. They deserve clarity from the State, along with the thousands of other ancillary support staff in our education system across the country. By the time the Government talks about publishing its plan, we may be just three weeks from reopening schools.

I get that some of this is complex. I understand and appreciate that. However, some of it is not. We know that some of it is quite straightforward. We know that we will need additional teachers and that more money will be needed. We know that we need more space. We know that we will need increased investment in cleaning, hygiene and other measures. We know that children will need buses to get to and from school, and we know that other children with additional needs will need to be catered for in this environment.

The reality is that parents are worried, stressed out and anxious with regard to this. At this time, as is the norm, they are getting things together such as school uniforms, about which there are mixed signals about whether they will be needed or not, schoolbags and so on. They are being contacted by Bus Éireann to tell them they now need to start paying fees for school transport, not knowing how school transport will operate. They are being asked to pay for school books in the school. Many parents who I am speaking to simply do not have confidence that this Government has the ability to get their kids back to school in September in a safe way. I ask the Tánaiste to reassure them and to give us a commitment that all children will return to school for five days each week from September. Will he tell us how many extra teachers are to be hired and when recruitment will start? Will he give some indication about what is happening? Parents, students, teachers and school management need answers.

I thank Deputy Doherty for raising this important issue. I know Members from all parties in this House have taken an interest in this important matter. There are hundreds of thousands of parents across the country who are concerned about this and want to know the details and how their children will go back to school at the end of the year. There are more than 1 million children and young people who need to get back to school at the end of August because they have lost three or four months of schooling, which is not good for their education, development or socialisation. While one might be able to make up for the four lost months, it would be hard to make up for losing more months beyond that. That is why it is crucial that we get the schools open at the beginning of the academic year at the end of August, as planned. That is the plan. Provided that the virus continues to be suppressed as it is now, that will happen.

Much work is being done by the Minister for Education and Skills, the Department, the teachers' unions, principals and school partners to get everything in place that we need to have in place for the schools to open at the end of August. We want to get all the details right before we share them widely because it would undermine confidence to come out with a set of details and plans today and then change them in a week or ten days. We need people to bear with us a little at least for the next couple of days or couple of weeks while those plans are put in place.

Many other countries across Europe have a higher incidence of the virus than us, for example, Germany, which has dealt with the pandemic well but which as of today and indeed for the past few months has had a higher incidence of the virus than us, and it has been able to reopen its schools. Other countries have suffered much worse than us in the pandemic and never closed their schools fully. It would reflect badly on us as politicians, on the Government and on the education partners if we were unable to open our schools in August when other countries that have suffered much worse than us did not close them fully at all or were able to reopen them in June.

The Tánaiste said that is the plan but none of us have seen the plan. He has asked the people to bear with us for a couple of days or a couple of weeks. The reality is that the people have borne with the Tánaiste for the past four months since the schools closed. It is now just over four weeks until the schools are due to open. We need a bit of certainty. We appreciate that some of this might take a bit longer. We need to know, for example, if the plan is for all children, nearly 1 million of them, to return to education for five days a week at the end of August or start of September. Is that the plan? Will the Tánaiste outline that? Will he tell us how many additional teachers will need to be hired, at a rough estimate, and when that process will happen? That does not happen automatically. What is happening with school transport? Bus operators do not know, yet the bills are coming in to parents and households. Will the Tánaiste give an indication that there will be no ban on school uniforms, for example, which are causing anxiety to parents?

Parents need these answers. They have waited for four months. They heard the previous Minister, Deputy McHugh, stand with the Tánaiste at a podium and say that there would be a comprehensive plan by the end of June. It did not materialise. They have experienced complete deafness from the Minister for Education and Skills, who has said nothing over recent weeks about what is envisaged.

Will the Tánaiste answer some very simple questions as to what are the principles of this plan? Will the Tánaiste give certainty, if things remain the same in relation to the virus, that all children will return to school on a five-day basis at the end of August?

We have learnt a lot about this virus over recent months, things we did not know back in March when the schools were closed. One thing we have seen from other parts of Europe and across the world is that while nothing is no risk, the risks that arise from opening schools are low. This is why it should be done. Countries that have a higher incidence of the virus than Ireland and suffered worse than us in this pandemic did not close their schools fully. The schools north of the Border, for example, were never closed fully. In other places such as Germany, which has a higher incidence of the virus than us, the schools reopened in June. This is something we have to do as a country and as a society. It would reflect very badly on us if our schools were the only schools in Europe not to be open in September. A lot of work is being done on this by the Minister for Education and Skills and by the Department with the education partners. I do not want to give detailed answers to questions only for those answers to change in a few days or a few weeks. This is still evolving.

It is not true to say there is no information out there. The interim public health advice from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, has already been published. That is the public health advice on what needs to be done in schools to make sure they can open in a safe way. There is a lot of stakeholder engagement happening at the moment, which is also crucial.

On uniforms, the Department has received interim public health advice for educational settings provided by the HPSC. This advice focuses on keeping Covid-19 out of the schools and control measures to minimise the spread if it is introduced into schools. There is emphasis on hand and respiratory hygiene and on physical distancing measures. No issues from a public health perspective have been raised regarding children wearing school uniforms. The normal policy for each school for the wearing of uniforms will remain a matter for each school and its board of management. There is no public health reason for any change of policy on uniforms. As is always the case, and as was the case before Covid-19, that is a decision for boards of management.

Yesterday evening, as I do on most evenings I am in Dublin, I FaceTime my kids, Aoibhe and Senan, who always have a number of questions for me. They asked me last night - genuinely they flummoxed me when they said: "Will you find out if we're going back to school?" Their mum, Regina, is a teacher. The Tánaiste knows her as straight talking. She had told them that she did not know and said to them to ask their dad on FaceTime. It is critically important that we get this right. The decision is the fulcrum around which all society is going to operate in late August and early September. It is the most important issue that we need to plan for and get right, yet nobody knows, including the parents, principals, teachers and children. The Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, said that this is the number one commitment, and I agree with this. I am not confident that this is going to happen, and I say this genuinely, given what I have seen from the Department of Education and Skills and from the Minister.

The Minister, Deputy Harris, announced recently a package on third level funding, which I welcome, but I also note his guidance. This is important. The guidance speaks of a 2 m distance requirement in colleges and a maximum of two hours in a classroom. Unions, principals, teachers and parents have all noted this. It is a precedent. If that is the guidance, and this may be it, full stop, where does this leave the opening of schools? Parameters have been set. The Minister for Education and Skills has not in any way answered any questions. The way the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Foley, dealt with my colleague Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin in the Chamber last week was a disgrace. One must be accountable as the Minister. Hiding away in the Department, doing briefings and issuing press releases is not acceptable. I have one question for the Tánaiste. Will he please ensure that the Minister comes into the House next week to answer questions on education? Surely that is not too big an ask. I ask that the Tánaiste would please do this. They are genuine questions. The way in which my colleague who asked the question last week was treated is unacceptable.

The questions people have around school reopening include how special needs assistants, SNAs, will operate. They cannot be treated in the way proposed. There are questions also around school transport, hygiene protocols, the curriculum, books and materials. What about children and teachers who are high risk with underlying illnesses? What happens if Covid-19 does break out in a school? All of these are genuine questions.

I want the Tánaiste to guarantee that schools will reopen fully in September. I am not talking about blended learning. If blended learning happens in September, it means that the Government did not do its job. We need schools fully reopened. I also want a guarantee from the Tánaiste that the Minister for Education and Skills will come into the House, which she has not yet done, to answer questions. The people need to know where we are going with schools reopening in four weeks.

I thank the Deputy. Give my regards to Regina and the kids. It is a long time since I have seen them.

They are getting big.

I would say they are at this stage. What are their ages now?

Ten and eight.

Time flies. Getting back to business, the Whip informs me that the Minister, Deputy Foley, will be in the Dáil next week to answer questions, will answer questions on this matter, and will be happy to do so. In my view, if one looks at this rationally, the shops are open, hotels and restaurants are open, hairdressers and barbers are open. The Dáil, albeit in unusual circumstances, is open and functioning. Many countries in Europe that suffered from Covid-19 worse than us did not close their schools fully at all. Many places that suffered worse than Ireland and had higher incidences than ours now, opened their schools in June. There is no good reason Ireland should be the only country in Europe that does not have its schools open at the end of August for the start of the academic year. That is what we are working towards and that is the Government's plan.

It will not, however, be business as usual. There will be a new normal, or at least a new normal for a while. We will have to make changes. Everyone appreciates and understands that, be it adaptions to the school buildings, cleaning schedules or how classes are organised and children are kept separated in smaller groups and pods. This work needs to be done and completed, but the Minister, the Department and all the education partners are working really hard on it. It is essential, provided the virus stays suppressed, that schools open, that parents have that assurance and that children get back to education and their social and educational development, which is so crucial.

I will take it that the Tánaiste's comments about the Minister coming into the House to answer questions are not the oral parliamentary questions she is due to take on Thursday, and that this will be a separate questions and answers slot on the reopening of schools. In fairness, I believe that everyone in the House feels this is necessary. Will the Tánaiste please verify that?

The precedent set by the Minister, Deputy Harris, with regard to 2 m and classroom sizes has been set. Workers, teachers and people who work in the third level sector cannot be treated differently. If there are issues around how long a person can spend inside rooms, and obviously there is the 2 m issue, I just do not know how schools can reopen fully. I would like the Tánaiste to answer this question. How can they reopen fully? I have looked at the preparation for this. An education Estimate will have to be brought in because changes will be needed, and very soon, given the amount of money being spent. I noted, and this is just one example of a lack of planning, that the Department issued a request for information on personal protective equipment, PPE, with a deadline of 24 June, but no tender has gone out for educational supplies of PPE in Ireland. No matter what way we approach the reopening of schools we will need PPE. This lack of planning does not breed confidence that the schools will actually reopen fully. How will it be done with the precedent set by the Minister, Deputy Harris? Will the Tánaiste guarantee that the Minister for Education and Skills will come into the House to answer questions specific to the reopening of schools?

The Minister will be in the House next week taking oral questions, and I am sure that among those questions will be questions on schools reopening. The Business Committee is giving consideration to an additional slot as well to deal specifically with this issue.

What the Minister, Deputy Harris, produced the other day in terms of third level reopening is welcome. It paints a pathway by which colleges, institutes of technology and other further education facilities can reopen in the autumn. We need to appreciate, however, that we will have different solutions for different sectors. Most, not all, childcare facilities and crèches are open. They came back at the end of June. We were concerned that we would have more difficulties than actually arose. That sector has done a really good job in the context of reopening. There are arrangements for childcare that are particular to that sector. The same applies, for example, to restaurants and the hospitality sector where there are particular guidelines for those places. Paediatric healthcare never stopped. Our paediatricians continue to work throughout the pandemic and have done a really fabulous job. Accordingly, I have no doubt that our teachers will rise to the challenge. The paediatricians never stopped doing their job. Childcare workers came back and have done a great job. I have every confidence that teachers will rise to the challenge and make sure that schools are open.

I too want to raise the issue of the reopening of schools in September. The latter is only four to five weeks away. I am certainly picking up a sense of panic from parents and hearing questions from teachers. Obviously, the aim for some considerable time has been for schools to return in September. However, the question now is how that will happen. We know that youngsters have missed out on play-based learning. We know they have missed key building blocks in terms of their social and learning skills. We know children going into secondary school have missed out on particular rites of passage. Some of these events have been lost. The question is where we go from here. There must be a recognition that whatever we do must be done safely. However, there is no clear picture emerging. My colleague, Deputy Gannon, and others met with the Minister for Education and Skills last week. Not one single piece of reassurance was provided at that meeting. There was no clarity whatsoever on what is on offer. Quickly after the meeting, there was a press statement indicating that a broad briefing had been provided. That was not the case.

At the meeting of the Business Committee earlier, I requested that there should be a slot for a debate on this matter next week. I feel we got a reassurance that there would be such a debate. I see the Deputy Chief Whip across the Chamber, and I hope that will be the case. There is a framework document sitting on the Department's website. I have no doubt that there is an aspiration to open schools, but an aspiration will not cut the mustard. We have to see the details.

We can see what it takes for people to socially distance in this auditorium. There are classrooms in which there will be 32 children, a special needs assistant and a teacher. Space is tight even at the best of times. Will additional teachers be brought in? Is the Government looking imaginatively at other facilities and locations that could be used, such as sports halls, etc., which could be used to our schools back up and running? Are we talking about schools fully returning? Will be the Tánaiste specify what the term "partially back" means? Parents are now full-time carers, full-time educators and are working full-time. They are at breaking point. We need information as to how outbreaks in schools will be handled. There are so many details we need to know in the context of how this is going to happen. What is the optimum of what we can expect?

I am not sure there is much I can add to my previous replies, other than to say that additional teachers will be required and that space will need to be used differently. For example, spaces such as libraries, general-purpose rooms and gyms may be used in addition to classrooms. Stakeholder engagement is strongly focused on the shape and design of solutions that are both workable and supported by sufficient and appropriately targeted resources. Draft Covid-19 plans for both primary and post-primary schools, with details on a range of practical actions to allow schools to reopen safely, are being progressed through the work of all stakeholders. The procurement process is under way for a framework which will be provided to schools to draw down any additional equipment or cleaning products needed. A considerable financial support package to assist schools in reopening is currently being planned by the Government. Further details will be announced shortly. There will also be comprehensive communication with students and parents in advance of reopening in order to ensure that they will be fully informed as to what the new school environment will look like.

The Tánaiste rightly refers to what is happening in other countries. Ireland is not the same as other countries. We have much bigger class sizes. In some parts of the country, 32 pupils in a classroom is the norm. That is in buildings which in many cases were not designed for the new curriculum. We are not talking like for like. We are going to have to be imaginative about other locations in communities that could be used.

Funding for additional teachers and lessons about washing one's hands are important. We go on about the importance of the etiquette that is required, about social distancing and about washing one's hands. People have to have the ability to do that. Schools cannot be told to cover that the week before they open. There has to be a degree of information and it will cost money to provide that. If it is a question that we have to sit late next week in order to deal with a budget for that, we will do so. We cannot go into September without this being in place. Time will be required in order to put it in place. Will we get those the kind of details to which I refer next week? If we do not, we will spend the month of August with people rightly clamouring for the Dáil to return in order to deal with this matter in order to get children back to school.

I cannot say for certain whether the Deputy will get those details next week. The Minister for Education and Skills will be here next week and she will be able to answer questions. I am sure she is more up to date than I am on the issue of schools reopening.

While do not know everything about this virus by any means, we have learned a lot in the past few months about it. For example, we have learned that opening schools is on the lower of the spectrum of risk. NPHET has been clear about that and the science backs it up, which is significant. This virus does affect children but not as severely as it affects adults. They are not super spreaders in the way they can be with influenza. We know that opening schools is at the lower end of the spectrum in terms of risk. We have been able to open childcare and that paediatrics services have continued to function. There is no reason schools should not be able to reopen at the end of August. Schools in countries that have a higher incidence of the virus have already reopened. I refer, for example, to Germany, where schools reopened in June, and France, where they reopened before that.

It will not be the same; it will be different. It will be a new normal or, at least, a new normal for the duration of this pandemic. I understand that parents want to know what that looks like. They want that information and they deserve it. We will share that as soon as we have it. However, we want to make sure that the information is right. We all appreciate that mixed and changing messages do not constitute a good communication strategy. We want to get it right and ensure that the information is out there in good time, is clear and does not change.

I wish to raise some defence matters with the Tánaiste. There is almost universal acceptance that there is a severe and worsening staff retention issue in the Defence Forces. All we have to do is look at the naval base in Cork where two naval ships are tied up. These vessels are unable to put to sea because there are not enough sailors to crew them. I have also been reliably informed that a further two ships will be tied up by the year end. Almost half the fleet, four ships, will be at anchor, unable to put to sea on the eve, perhaps, of a hard Brexit.

If this were to happen in any other EU country, I suspect heads would roll. EU countries value their sovereignty and take their obligations to police their territorial waters seriously.

This issue requires urgent action.

While I have pointed out the problems, there are reasons to be hopeful and almost cheerful. Having interacted with the new Taoiseach and the new Minister for Defence over the past number of weeks, I detect a genuine and sincere shift in attitude towards solving this problem, but we need to focus on it. It would also be remiss of me were I not to highlight the support that we have received from the Opposition benches. There is cross-party support for fixing this issue. There is almost a consensus at this stage.

I have two questions for the Tánaiste. The Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, is on record as suggesting that a package of financial measures will be brought to the Cabinet some time during the summer to alleviate this issue. I would be grateful if the Tánaiste could indicate approximately when that will take place.

The second issue I would like to raise relates to the budget, which I will discuss the next time I stand.

I thank Deputy Berry for his question and his ongoing interest in and commitment to matters relating to the Defence Forces. It is true that we have a significant recruitment and retention challenge in our Defence Forces, and have had for five or six years, if not longer. It is something with which we have struggled to deal. Recruitment is not so bad, but retention poses a considerable difficulty. We want a reasonably high turnover in our Defence Forces, but the turnover rate in Ireland is much higher than it is in other jurisdictions. We are unable to keep people in the Defence Forces because they are often very capable and qualified and go on to much better jobs in the private sector. We need to do more to encourage them to stay on. It is something the Minister and the Taoiseach are committed to addressing.

Regarding ships being tied up, it is not that unusual in other countries. I understand that, at any given time, the Royal Navy is only able to send approximately half of its ships out to sea. Naval life is not easy and all European countries struggle to recruit seamen and other naval service personnel. However, that it is a problem in other countries is not a justification and does not make it okay.

Actions have been taken. For the past couple of years, there has been considerable pay restoration for members of the Defence Forces in line with public sector pay increases. Pay bottomed out around 2013, but it has been increasing consistently since then in line with pay restoration across the public service. There was also a package of increased allowances for members of the Defence Forces, which was implemented a couple of months ago.

As to whether there will be a further package, the Minister for Defence is working on that. However, I do not have the details and I am unsure as to when it will be brought to the Cabinet. We want to do it, but difficulties arise in this regard. As Deputies know, the House passed legislation to reverse FEMPI and underpin the existing public sector stability arrangement for all public servants. Any increase in basic pay or general allowances that is outside the public sector stability agreement or a ruling of the Labour Court cannot be done by the Government. They would require the House to legislate and I imagine there would be knock-on claims. I doubt that Deputies would be willing to say that no one else in the public service had a legitimate claim. That must be borne in mind.

I thank the Tánaiste for that clarification. My follow-up question relates to the defence budget. Based on percentage of GDP, we already have the smallest defence budget in the EU. Compounding this problem has been the practice in recent years of significant Department of Defence Vote moneys being returned to the Central Fund at year end. The size of that return depends on one's interpretation of it, but I am particularly concerned this year. Most of the Deputies present will know that we have voted through Revised Estimates for nearly all Departments in the past few weeks with the notable exception of the Department of Defence. I deduce from that that expenditure under the Department of Defence's Vote has not reached 70% or 80% of its threshold yet. I am concerned that a significant sum of money will still be unspent by the end of the year. Will the Tánaiste provide assurances or a suggestion that all the moneys given to the Vote at the start of this year will be used for their intended purpose and none will be handed back unspent at the end of the year?

There is a long-standing myth - I will be polite in using the word "myth" - that the Department of Defence hands back millions of euro to the Central Fund every year. I do not know whether it is an error of mischief on the part of those who continue to repeat it, but it is not true. While it is the case that money is reallocated from one part of the Department's Vote to another, that is normal. Anyone who has been in the Oireachtas for long enough or who has run a Department knows that one will often move money from one part of the Department's budget to another. Sometimes, money is moved from the pay budget to pensions. Sometimes, it is moved from the pay and pensions budget to buy new equipment, improve barracks, etc. Overall, however, the Department of Defence almost always spends all of its budget.

In 2014, its budget was €900 million. That year, €100,000 was handed back. Its budget was €900 million the following year, when €400,000 was handed back. It was €905 million the year after, with €100,000 handed back. In 2017, the budget increased to €921 million, with just under €1 million handed back. In 2018, the budget increased to €946 million, with €2.7 million handed back. Last year, the budget was more than €1 billion for the first time in a long time, with €100,000 handed back. Taking those years in the round, the Department hands back approximately 0.08% of its funding. As such, the idea that the Department has handed back a great deal of money to the Exchequer in any recent year is false. However, money is reallocated from one budget line to another within the Department of Defence Vote regularly.