Ceisteanna - Questions

Cabinet Committees

Alan Kelly

Question:

1. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing will next meet. [16885/20]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

2. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing will next meet. [18562/20]

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

3. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing will next meet. [18794/20]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on housing was established by the Government on 6 July and its first meeting will take place this Thursday, 30 July. In addition, I have already had a bilateral meeting with the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to review housing issues. The committee will oversee implementation of programme for Government commitments relating to housing and will receive detailed reports on policy implementation and consider relevant policy actions.

The committee’s membership comprises the Taoiseach; the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment; the Minister for Climate Action, Communications Networks and Transport; the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage; the Minister for Finance; the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform; and the Minister for Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands. Other Ministers or Ministers of State will participate as required.

The committee will operate in accordance with established guidelines for Cabinet committees and substantive issues will be referred to the Government for discussion and approval. I look forward to the committee helping to ensure effective delivery across all Departments of the ambitious housing commitments in the programme for Government.

I thank the Taoiseach. It is quite surprising the first meeting of the Cabinet sub-committee is only taking place on 30 July.

This is probably one of the most critical Cabinet committees at any time, but particularly now. The Taoiseach might explain why it has taken this long for the committee to come together, given the discussions we have had today and in recent weeks regarding housing. During this economic crisis, I would like to have seen much more from the July stimulus that would have had direct impact on housing. Alas, that was not to be.

According to the latest official figures, some 8,876 people were homeless in May, including 2,787 children. This is a scandal and shows that housing is not affordable for many people. The only good news I can take from those figures, if it is possible to take any good news from it during a pandemic, is that they are down from a peak in excess of 10,000 people in February, including more than 3,500 children. That tells us clearly that one good thing is that the emergency rent freeze and moratorium on evictions have worked, as we in the Labour Party said they would all the time.

I want to make a legal point. I heard for a long time that putting in place a rent freeze was going to be impossible. I heard that from the previous Government. I heard it from Fianna Fáil while supporting the previous Government. I knew the rent freeze was possible, however, because I did it. How was it possible, constitutionally, to bring in a rent freeze when the same people sitting around the Cabinet table said that it was not constitutional? The Taoiseach and his party supported that and the previous Government.

A real issue regarding the Cabinet committee is its make-up and the roles of many outside bodies. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government can never deliver housing unless all the levers are in his possession. That means that the Minister for Finance must be completely in tune, but also the local authorities. The Minister must ensure that the local authorities are 100% in tune to ensure delivery. That is particularly the case when it comes to affordable housing, cost rental and the measures committed to in the programme for Government. That triumvirate has to work very closely together and I would like that reflected in how the Cabinet committee works.

The main reason that homelessness is down by nearly 1,000 people in three months, including 700 fewer children, is because families are not being evicted from private rented accommodation. The first action of this Government in the crisis, however, has been to end such legal protections in the future. If homelessness can go down by 1,000 people in three months, it is certain that homelessness can increase just as quickly, especially when so many people are losing their jobs.

I ask Deputy Kelly to conclude.

I am concluding. I have some questions for the Taoiseach. When will we have the full timetable regarding how often the Government's Cabinet committee on housing will meet? When will the cost of housing, including the cost of building a house, be treated as a priority? Finally, what is the Government going to do in the short term regarding those who have rent debt, which is going to crystallise in the coming weeks and months? How is that situation going to be dealt with, because in some cases the cost will be thousands of euro?

It is remarkable news that the Cabinet committee on housing did not meet in advance of the significant and hugely retrograde decision, made in the Bill now passing through the Dáil, to open the door for a resumption of evictions into homelessness in the middle of a pandemic. I find that extraordinary. I do not know if the Government does not understand or, worse, does understand the implications of the Bill now going through the Dáil. Let us be clear, however, that it removes most of the emergency protections that were put in place to prevent people being made homeless and evicted because there is a public health emergency. That public health emergency still exists and people made homeless now will have their health imperilled as a result of the pandemic, and the Government will be responsible. Yet, that issue has not even been discussed at the Cabinet housing committee. That is an extraordinary admission from the Taoiseach.

I ask the Government, even at this stage, to pull back from that decision because the number of people presenting for homeless services has dropped dramatically as a result of the ban on evictions. By the way, when People Before Profit put forward a Bill to ban evictions in the previous Dáil, the Fianna Fáil party supported it. I do not understand why that party is now supporting a plan to lift that ban on evictions into homelessness in the midst of a pandemic, when it is really unthinkable to put people on the street, into shared accommodation where they are more vulnerable to the virus, or into overcrowded conditions, where they are also vulnerable to the virus.

I will quickly ask about one other issue. Walking about Dublin city during the pandemic, I met an elderly woman from the south inner city. She asked me to go and take a look off Aungier Street, where a row of beautiful old buildings is run-down and empty. That elderly woman said the situation was shocking because people in her area, including her children and grandchildren, needed to be housed, yet some landlord was sitting on those empty buildings. That story is repeated in towns, villages and cities across the country, where landlords, property owners and vulture funds sit on empty properties that could be used to house people. That is really taunting the people on the housing waiting lists and nothing is being done about it.

Does the Taoiseach have any plans to go on an aggressive campaign of getting hold of hoarded land and empty properties that could be used to house people impacted by homelessness and, more generally, to address the lack of social and affordable housing by getting that property into use in respect of the dire housing crisis?

The Residential Tenancies and Valuation Bill 2020 that the Government is seeking to rush through the Dáil this week is a far cry from the Fianna Fáil new deal for renters that was promised by the Taoiseach just a few months ago. In fact, he and his Government are now moving to allow for rent increases, notices to quit and the misery that will ensue in the heat of a global pandemic. It is noteworthy that the Cabinet committee has not yet met.

The protections in place have resulted in a significant drop in the number of families presenting as homeless and the lowest number of families in emergency accommodation in the past three years. The emergency measures also confirm the argument that we, along with Focus Ireland and others, have made that banning vacant possession notices to quit has played an important role in reducing homelessness. It is to the great shame of Fine Gael that it took a pandemic for the previous Government to take the actions necessary to protect renters. It is to the great shame of the Taoiseach, however, that he is now withdrawing them as the pandemic continues.

Many renters, as the Taoiseach will be aware, are under great financial pressure. They do not earn huge salaries and do not have that luxury. They believe, as I do, that there is a huge gulf in understanding between their reality and the reality of those who govern. In that light, will the Taoiseach inform the House whether he is still drawing down the €50,000 top-up from the Fianna Fáil party leader's allowance? Will he make that clear to the Dáil?

This morning, FM radio stations across the country were quoting Government sources as stating that the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Bill 2020 offers protection for tenants on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and the temporary wage supplement scheme, TWSS, until the new year.

Those Government sources did not say that these protections will not apply to tenants on the PUP and TWSS when landlords plan to evict on the grounds of sale of property, refurbishment of property, relatives moving into the home and so on and so forth. In fact, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government earlier told the Dáil that he has information which indicates that 28% of evictions in the State take place on the grounds of rent arrears. He also indicated that approximately three quarters of tenants who have protection from eviction today will no longer have those protections in two weeks' time.

The Taoiseach is no doubt aware that the end of the moratorium on evictions in New York city last month has resulted in an explosion of evictions in that city. How on earth can he guarantee the Dáil and renters in this country that the same thing will not happen here in the months of August, September and October, as we move towards the autumn and winter?

In response to the comments of Deputy Kelly and others, I do not think there is any surprise that the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government is meeting approximately a month after the Government was formed. I met very quickly after the formation of the Government with the Minister and his Secretary General to discuss a range of issues, including homelessness and preparations for the July stimulus programme, particularly in respect of voids. I wanted specific funding for that and the Minister included it in the July stimulus programme. That funding will allow local authorities to bring approximately 2,000 council houses back into operation and in which people may be able to live before the end of the year. That funding was provided in the July stimulus programme, in addition to funding for water infrastructure and the help-to-buy scheme which will help those who are endeavouring to buy a house. The Minister also had to deal with rates relief which was separate to the housing issue but also fell under his policy remit.

Of course, the first weeks of this Government have been spent dealing with Covid-19 and the July stimulus programme, which is a €5.2 billion programme of expenditure and tax that seeks to give a lifeline to the Irish economy during this time. I do not think that the housing committee not meeting until 30 July is a big deal. It is a reasonable timeframe and does not mean that the Government has not been engaging on housing issues. We have been doing so, particularly through the Cabinet sub-committee dealing with the July stimulus programme.

I would also say that homelessness is on a downward trajectory in part due to the rent freeze and eviction moratorium but also due to the fact that more than 1,000 extra units were provided in Dublin alone, with up to 1,400 units provided nationally, for the homeless during the Covid crisis. That had a big impact. One of the good stories, if one can use that phrase, during this crisis has been the low level of infection among the homeless and that the virus did not spread into settings where one might have anticipated. That is a result of the great work of all those in NGOs, the HSE and local authorities who work for homeless people. People have worked collectively to avoid the spread of the virus within homeless settings.

The other key factor in that downward trajectory is the fact that more and more properties are now becoming available. We have for the first time seen the impact of Airbnb on property in Dublin and other cities. I have said to the Minister that an opportunity now exists to purchase and access vacant leases and properties, as Deputy Boyd Barrett also said, with a view to keeping homeless figures down and to get proper, fit for purpose accommodation for people who need housing. There has been a decline in Airbnb properties and a consequent increase in the supply of available properties because of Covid-19. That represents an opportunity that needs to be grasped to try to get more people houses more quickly.

In the context of the point made by Deputy Kelly, the Ministers for Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Housing, Planning and Local Government are on the housing Cabinet sub-committee. It is important that they work with local authorities and I know that the relevant Minister has been in touch to discuss working with them. I think that was the point the Deputy was making.

The time has elapsed, Taoiseach.

I also want to deal with the questions asked by Deputies Boyd Barrett and McDonald, if I may. On the evictions moratorium and rent freeze, the only reason we are introducing the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Bill is because they were not legally tenable. The Bill will give a stronger statutory footing to protect tenants who are in rent arrears from being evicted during the Covid crisis. Tenants who make a declaration under this legislation cannot be evicted and that will remain the situation until January. The existing statutory instrument was grounded in the emergency legislation around Covid and given the reopening of society, it was not legally grounded or constitutional. We are now almost six months on and we have been advised, trenchantly and strongly, that the State is vulnerable to challenges and so on. It is not legally tenable to maintain the existing situation. This Bill is stronger and better than similar legislation in other jurisdictions, including Northern Ireland, where the Minister gave tenants 12 weeks' grace. Statutory protection for renters in the Republic is now much stronger than that in the North.

I say to Deputy McDonald that I was never in receipt of an annual allowance of €50,000. The allowance was €30,000 and I did not take it for the first three years. The Oireachtas passed legislation a long time ago under which leaders of Opposition parties were entitled to an allowance in respect of the overall resources of the party. That money is taxable and I am not in receipt of it now. Those are facts and bear no relation to questions about housing but, of course, the Deputy had to throw it in for some reason or another.

Speaking to Deputy Barry's point about the end of the moratorium, we will continue to monitor the situation. We are bringing in legislation to strengthen the position of those in rent arrears and facing eviction. There are other protections in the Bill that allow for the Residential Tenancies Board to assist renters and strengthen supports for those in rent arrears. We have no desire to see more evictions or people getting into rent arrears. We want to do everything we possibly can to assist people in difficulty and will continue to do that.

Cabinet Committees

Alan Kelly

Question:

4. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on the Environment and Climate Change will next meet. [16886/20]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on the Environment and Climate Change will next meet. [18563/20]

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

6. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on the Environment and Climate Change will next meet. [18795/20]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 6, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on the environment and climate change was formally established by the Government on 6 July 2020. It will oversee the implementation of the programme for Government commitments on the environment and climate change and will receive detailed reports on identified priority areas, including the annual climate action plan. The first meeting of the committee has been scheduled for 30 July 2020. Thereafter, I anticipate that it will meet at least once every four weeks, as outlined in the programme for Government.

The programme for Government states that climate change is the single greatest threat facing humanity. The Taoiseach obviously takes an interest in this matter, as do his coalition colleagues, particularly those in the Green Party. The Government has committed to halving carbon emissions by 2032 although, incredibly, the plan expects the next Government to do more of the heavy lifting than the current one. That is kind of ironic. It is polite and decent of the Taoiseach to lump most of the work onto his successors. One never knows who will be around to do the work.

The real question is what the Government intends to achieve over the next five years. I would like to dig into a little detail about what areas the Government will target and what conversations have been had, given that the Cabinet committee has not met. We need to see enormous changes to our economy that will reflect our prioritisation of the climate. We also need to do it in a decent way through a just transition. I have spoken about this numerous times and the Taoiseach has already referenced it today. I share the concerns of other parliamentarians here. I represent Littleton in County Tipperary where people lost jobs with the closure of the Bord na Móna plant.

They will put together proposals on the just transition commissioner. We are committed to our international commitments to halve our carbon emissions by 2030 and become zero emitters by 2050. I know how difficult this area is, as I was the Minister who introduced climate change legislation in this country.

What is the Taoiseach going to do about transport? What will be done in respect of rail lines? What will be done to ensure there is a greater use of rail lines? It is a capital intensive area. In his response the Taoiseach might outline how the Government will support that, and how it will support public enterprises and State organisations so that they are better able to do more to deal with the climate crisis we are all facing. We need to ensure that a number of State organisations are refocused on the deep requirements they will have in the coming years.

The climate situation was an emergency that needed to be addressed before Covid-19. The urgency to address the climate emergency has now been multiplied very significantly by the advent of Covid-19. There is a very important natural intersection between the destruction of biodiversity and the proliferation of pandemics.

Some serious scientists are, to some extent, suggesting and have evidence to believe that the frequency of pandemics in recent years is linked to the destruction of biodiversity. H1N1, swine flu, bird flu, coronavirus, SARS, MERS and Ebola are some of the more well-known pandemics. Why is this happening? One very significant reason is the destruction of biodiversity, given that biodiversity acts as a natural firebreak to the spread of virus and disease. The destruction of biodiversity, in particular the destruction of natural habitats and forests, creates the conditions where pandemics of this sort, and the jumping of viruses from animals to humans, become more likely. We need to grasp that very important fact.

Where are the most naturally biodiverse areas in this country? They are the ancient woodlands which have been almost completely destroyed. Does the Taoiseach know how much ancient woodland is left in Ireland? Just 0.002%, and that is under pressure. The lack of biodiversity in our forests has an impact in terms of its version of a virus, such as invasive species threatening them in, for example, Killarney National Park.

We need to protect and nurture the ancient woodlands and allow them to expand. We need a real focus on and investment in this area, rather than monoculture forestry and the forms of agriculture that are destroying our biodiversity in a way that is threatening not just the natural world but the ability of the planet to sustain our existence.

Following on from my previous question, I am happy to correct my assertion that the Taoiseach's top-up was €50,000. It was, as he correctly stated, €30,000. Will he inform the House at what point he stopped receiving that top-up payment?

Will the Taoiseach also tell us what contribution or engagement the Cabinet committee on the environment and climate change has had on the July stimulus plan? I would have thought that was the Taoiseach's first set-piece opportunity to explicitly and comprehensively marry the agenda of climate justice and the framework in the plan for economic recovery. The truth is that the plan is very scant on detail in terms of the Government's commitments on climate change.

The July stimulus plan includes a commitment to a retrofitting skills training initiative to support the future expansion of the national retrofitting programme. This is just one example. We do not know what targets have been set in terms of the numbers to be trained and the impact their work will have on the Government's annual retrofit targets.

Similarly, the Government has made a commitment to increase infrastructure related spending by 12%, or €1 billion. How much of this will be invested in public transport, cycle lanes and greenways? Of the moneys committed in the July announcement, how much is additional to the existing 2020 budget?

It would be my expectation that the Cabinet committee would be the appropriate space for Ministers to develop interdepartmental proposals to meet Ireland's domestic and international climate action obligations. It would be helpful if the Taoiseach were to clarify whether this approach will be adopted by the committee in the time ahead.

In the first instance, as I outlined, the Minister, Deputy Ryan, will chair the committee. The agenda is clearly set out in the programme for Government. The immediate objectives of the Cabinet committee will be, for example, the climate action (amendment) Bill, which will be introduced to Dáil Éireann within the first 100 days of the Government, the development of a national retrofitting plan and the progression of matters in furtherance of our move to a higher rate of renewable energy, such as the marine planning and development Bill, which will be an important Bill, the wind energy guidelines and the just transition, in particular.

As the Deputy knows, we intend to hypothecate the carbon fund which will create about €9.5 billion over ten years. As the Deputy also knows, €3 billion of that is earmarked to protect against fuel poverty and the bulk is earmarked for retrofitting. The remaining money will be used for a rural environment protection scheme which will be designed to help farmers adapt to the challenges of climate change and create practices to remunerate and incentivise them to create practices that would be in alignment with our climate change objectives.

The climate action fund was established in law through the early enactment of the National Oil Reserves Agency Bill. In respect of Deputy McDonald's question, we will also publish a detailed all-of-Government implementation plan which will be consistent with the recommendations of the just transition commissioner's first report. The just transition commissioner was established as a statutory office and published the terms of the trust transition plan to frame the work of a permanent commission. There is a lot of work to be done, much of which is already under way by the Minister. The publication of overarching legislation is an important foundation stone on which many of the actions will be based.

Deputy Kelly said a lot will fall on the next Government. The key decisions that will be made now will clearly have an impact on the future in terms of our performance on greenhouse gas emissions. Building blocks have to be put in place now and will have an impact in the latter half of a ten-year period in terms of achieving a significant reduction.

I take Deputy Boyd Barrett's point very seriously, but I do not have the scientific proof. I am aware of the thesis on the link between weakening biodiversity and the growth of pandemics. There can be different factors. The growth of the world population has to be a factor and, in certain areas, it is certainly facilitating the ease of spread.

We have had SARS, MERS, H1N1, the swine flu and so on. Covid-19 is the one that got away insofar as it was not tested and contract-traced out of existence. I spoke to a number of scientists who are of the view that we may see these more frequently now than we would have over the past 100 years.

I support fully every effort to retain and strengthen our biodiversity. The Deputy mentioned ancient woodlands. We must do everything we possibly can to protect but also incentivise the nurturing of our biodiversity, which can recover if it is given the space to do so, both marine and on land. That is why I favour the rural environmental protection scheme, the just transition fund and also initiatives to create more native woodland on farms. We should try to persuade farmers to do this. We must have a contrast to the monoculture forestry policy. We need to grow more indigenous native Irish trees on a grander scale than we have done to date. That is extremely important and I will work with the responsible Ministers in that regard.

In terms of the retrofit agenda, obviously there will have to be a degree of upskilling. We have to work with the institutes of technology and education and training boards, ETBs, in developing programmes to bring a greater cohort of people who will be skilled in the retrofitting area. There will be significant opportunities in that field into the future because the Government aims to increase the number of retrofits and retrofitting activity generally.

Regarding Deputy McDonald's final question, the allowance is an Opposition allowance, which ceases when one is no longer an Opposition Member or Opposition leader. Therefore, it ceased on becoming Taoiseach. That is the basic approach.

I asked the Taoiseach a question on transport and rail infrastructure which he did not answer. I would appreciate if he would answer it. As a highly capital intensive area, planning in this area takes a number of years. The Government's interests in this area and the signal it will give as to what it plans to do in the area - whether on rolling stock, track improvements, improving the services in Dublin - will have to be flagged early if they are to be achieved in the lifetime of the Government. What are the plans in this regard in the first six months of the Government? From a climate change perspective, they are obviously critical.

The national development plan will be reviewed and obviously there are key agenda items in terms of rail infrastructure generally across the country. In the July stimulus funding is already going into remedial works in our existing railways. Developing fast-track rail between the major cities is one agenda item. There are major projects in and around the Dublin area, including the metro and so on. There is a review of the western rail corridor and proposals for that are being looked at as well. The trend will be strongly towards public transport into the future. Deputy Kelly is right, projects will take a lot of planning and design but the development of public transport initiatives in the NDP review will be important to achieving our climate goals.

Cabinet Committees

Alan Kelly

Question:

7. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will next meet. [16887/20]

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

8. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will next meet. [18475/20]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

9. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will next meet. [18564/20]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 to 9, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on education was established by Government decision on 6 July last. The next meeting will take place in September. It will oversee implementation of programme for Government commitments in the area of education. Its membership comprises the Taoiseach; Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Minister with responsibility for climate action, communications networks and transport; Minister with responsibility for education; Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform; Minister for Finance; Minister with responsibility for further and higher education, innovation and science; and Minister with responsibility for children, disability, equality and integration. Other Ministers or Ministers of State will participate as required.

In addition to the meetings of the full Cabinet and of Cabinet committees, I meet Ministers on an individual basis to focus on particular issues. I met the Minister for Education and Skills and her team last Friday to discuss the reopening of schools. The Government had met prior to that as well. The Government is committed to ensuring that schools will reopen for the new school year as fully, safely and normally as possible. The Government announced the Roadmap for the Return to Schools yesterday, including a support package of well over €375 million and we are now supporting schools to reopen safely in the coming weeks.

The announcement yesterday was welcome. Seven eighths of it could have been announced in June. However, the funding amount of €375 million is welcome; there is no doubt about that. I have a number of questions. I raised this issue with the Tánaiste last Thursday. In the month remaining, principals and boards of management are expected to advertise, interview and recruit all the staff in four weeks. They are being asked to commission minor building works in four weeks, which is impossible because there are not enough people available to deliver to the work in such a short space of time. They are being asked to train their own teachers and staff in new procedures, secure PPE and deal with a whole range of other issues in a short space of time. How is that possible?

Specifically, what is happening with special needs assistants, SNAs? They are barely mentioned in 53 pages of the document. Is the Taoiseach aware of that?

They are barely mentioned. The roadmap mentions some training for SNAs. They work in close proximity with children who need an awful lot of help. What is the plan for SNAs? Will more of them be taken on? I have been asked this direct question in the past two hours. What training will be put in place and what number of SNAs will be in place? SNAs are important for students who need to catch up on their education. How are principals and boards of management meant to hire all these staff and have all the minor capital works done? Specifically, because this question genuinely needs an answer, will more SNAs be taken on? How will their roles change and what will be expected of them?

The allowance of €30,000 can, in fact, be payable to a party of Government. I take it the Taoiseach is not now in receipt of that allowance. Is it fair to say then that he stopped being receipt of that allowance once he received his seal of office from Uachtarán na hÉireann? The Taoiseach might clarify that.

On the plan, all of us want to see children back in school safely and teachers back in the classroom. The Government's plan places a huge burden to act very quickly and, in some cases, to carry out tasks that seem almost impossible in a tight timeframe. There is anxiety among many parents and teachers I have spoken to that time has been left so tight.

There has been an abject failure by successive Governments to deal with Ireland's class sizes. It is an omission in the Government's plan that it has not moved to address this issue. The plan references, for example, classrooms of 80 and 60 sq. m but in many schools, older buildings in particular, classrooms are much smaller than that.

At post-primary level, 1,080 new positions are to be filled in the next five weeks but we are none the wiser as to how it is proposed to achieve this. There is to be a provision of 200 substitutes at primary level but this figure is fewer than half of the substitutes required on a daily basis and has been acknowledged to be wholly inadequate.

To allow for physical distancing, as well as refurbishments we need extra physical space. This was true prior to the onset of Covid-19, where we had the most overcrowded classes in western Europe. They were unacceptably overcrowded. Now that is completely intolerable and incompatible with human health. While I understand refurbishment using libraries and sports areas is not ideal because at some time we will need those spaces again, we need additional physical capacity. There needs to be an ambitious and aggressive plan of locating additional physical space.

I am sure other Deputies could point to this. It is like the point I was making about empty properties. In the middle of Dún Laoghaire, a former further educational college has been sitting empty for six or seven years. It was a scandal before the Covid pandemic but now it should be used to provide additional space for schools. On the Merrion Road beside St. Vincent’s Hospital is a building called the Seamark Building, which has probably been empty for a decade. It is about as big as ten or 15 big school halls. That is how big it is, and it is just sitting there empty. It is outrageous. I think Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council has significant empty space in Cherrywood. That is one administrative area, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, with which I am familiar.

This is against a background where many of our school students are in prefabs. Gaelscoil Phádraig in Ballybrack has been using prefabs for decades. How can that school expand? Over the summer, as a matter of urgency we need to get out and get these spaces that are sitting empty and use them to provide extra capacity for our primary and secondary schools, and indeed for some of our universities.

In an exchange we had earlier in July, the Taoiseach confirmed to me that the Department was giving active consideration to making changes to the leaving certificate of 2021 in order to take into account the very significant loss of face-to-face teaching time that the students who have just completed their fifth year studies have suffered. In that exchange, he also indicated to me that an outcome or a plan would be in place by the end of July. We are nearly there; we have a day or two to go. I am hoping the Taoiseach might be able to give some information to the House and to students as to what changes and what tapering will be made to the leaving certificate of 2021. Has this been discussed? What is the current position?

I will start with Deputy Kelly’s comments. It is unfair to single out one and say there was no mention of SNAs. The entire roadmap is about three school settings: primary schools; special schools and special units; and post-primary schools. That is made very clear in the document. The overwhelming idea is a safe school community, embracing all the school staff. That is not just teachers, principals and SNAs. It is also caretakers, assistants and others who make the school community tick.

This is a very important milestone for society and we need everybody behind it. We need to keep community transmission of the virus very low. That is the most effective way for us to keep our schools open. It is the single most important national objective in the coming months. Children’s life chances are limited if they are out of school for too long. Particularly for children with special needs, we need to do everything we can to ensure that not only do we reopen the schools but that we keep the schools open for the long haul. That is what the roadmap is trying to provide for. If certain events happen, can we intervene?

There will be additional SNAs; I do not have specific figures. There will also be substitution and supervision for SNAs because I take the Deputy’s point that they are up closer in many respects. Advice from the health authorities is very clear in calling for common sense and balance if a child falls or whatever. The requirement is for 1 m distancing, but sector-specific application and balance will be applied to that.

Primary schools are well used to the minor works grant scheme. This year we have doubled it, which will enable them to reconfigure classrooms. It is not for big extensions. It can relate to plumbing and electrical adjustments. We need more hot water flowing in many schools. Some schools are up to speed and some are not in that regard. I feel school administration will be innovative enough to apply that funding fairly quickly to optimise space in school settings. We need to bear in mind that all of this was worked through with the partners in education, representing SNAs, teachers, management, parents and children. The students’ voice was quite significant this time around during the Covid crisis. We saw it with the assessment issue in respect of the leaving certificate. Those discussions shaped this roadmap, which did not just come from on high, from the Department.

In terms of the advertising and recruitment, some of this is on the ongoing substitution. The pilot projects for substitution in primary schools worked very well. They feel confident that they can roll that out and that it will not be as big an issue at primary level because there is a greater supply of teachers. At post-primary level there will be challenges with certain subjects such as the science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, subjects and Irish, and we need to be particularly careful there.

Regarding Deputy McDonald’s points, I have covered the primary substitution. A range of options are open to the Department to try to secure the additional 1,000 post-primary posts. However, that will require a significant reduction in the post-primary pupil-teacher ratio for the first time in a long time.

I did not realise that the allowance that I had as an Opposition leader was payable if one went into government. I have made the point that I see the demarcation line being once I become a member of Government, I cease to benefit from that. That is the way I have applied it.

It is a tight timeframe for teachers and for the school community. From talking to people on the ground, my sense is that everybody wants this to happen and they will work in a co-operative and constructive way to enable this to happen and it is very important that we do so.

I would say to Deputy Boyd Barrett that if they can utilise community buildings or other buildings that are available, that is a decision for the schools. There will be considerable local autonomy here and we will be supportive of the schools in using local solutions to solve their problems. I am not aware of the specific buildings he mentioned, but we can follow up on those.

In response to Deputy Barry, the roadmap provides for how we can assess this year’s fifth year students in the leaving certificate next year. Recommendations on the curriculum will be made to the schools. They cannot change the curriculum. I spoke to the chief inspector, Harold Hislop, last Friday. He is a very solid individual who is very strong on assessment generally. They will not be able to change the curriculum, but they are conscious that different cohorts of students might be at different stages of the curriculum. Some might have a certain aspect of English and geography covered. They have proposed to widen the choices in questions that students will have to face in next year’s leaving certificate to take cognisance of the fact that they missed a number of months from school this year meaning that they may not have all the curriculum covered by the end of the year. They are trying to create some flexibility there and give greater choice. That is work in progress and there will be constant engagement with the schools and particularly the leaving certificate cohort of 2021 to ease any concerns and anxieties students may have in respect of the leaving certificate. It is proposed to have the leaving certificate examined physically next year.