Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Social Welfare Eligibility

We have a bumper edition of Topical Issues matters, I understand. The first is in the name of Deputy Darren O'Rourke. Is that right?

There are three of us: me, Deputy O'Rourke and Deputy Kerrane. We will take one minute each, if the Acting Chairman is agreeable to that, followed by a response from the Minister and a further one minute each for the reply. Is that okay?

I know the Minister is aware of the plight of Aer Lingus workers because I have written to her on the matter, as have my colleagues, but I wish to share with the Minister just some of the stories we are getting. I will not identify anyone. I received an email yesterday stating:

My net pay for a fortnight after deductions this week came to €250. I have a mortgage and bills to pay which I now cannot afford. We've been informed by our local Intreo office that we are entitled to jobseeker's benefit for the days that we are not working. Aer Lingus have refused to sign the paperwork required for this payment.

Here is another one:

Social welfare and Aer Lingus are still maintaining that we are only entitled to short-term working supports while on the EWSS and not the TWSS. Furthermore, Intreo offices are still stating that they have not received clarity from Aer Lingus and their head of social protection on how to process any of the claims.

The Minister yesterday, on radio, said this was a matter between Aer Lingus and its employees. It is not. It is a matter for her. These people are absolutely desperate. They have rent and bills. We have heard some terrible stories. I have shared with the Minister two of them. I have had hundreds of them into my office. Urgent action is needed on this.

We need absolute clarity on this this evening. Can the Minister confirm if employees were eligible to apply for applicable jobseeker supports for their days of unemployment, even when Aer Lingus was claiming the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS? The company said it was receiving conflicting messages from Revenue and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and says it is for the individual employee to contact his or her local Intreo office. What does the Minister have to say to the workers who could not get their forms filled? Was this wrong, as I suspect it was? Are they due arrears? If so, for what maximum period - for the duration of the TWSS or not?

How do they go about claiming those arrears? The situation relating to the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, is clearer, but will the Minister confirm that all Intreo offices have been advised of the current position, which is that an individual may be in receipt of both?

This issue has been ongoing for approximately six months. That is six months of workers not knowing their income from one week to another and struggling from one week to another. These are workers with families and with mortgages or rent to pay. They have been under immense pressure in the past few months. They have been told one thing by their local Intreo offices and another thing at work. Aer Lingus has actively blocked employees at every turn from accessing their social welfare entitlements. These are entitlements in respect of which workers pay PRSI in order that they can access assistance when they need to. That is what social protection is supposed to be about. The actions of Aer Lingus, as we have seen in the correspondence we have received, has been absolutely appalling towards employees in this State. The company needs to be taken to task. The Minister has responsibility and she needs to do this.

When did the Minister begin engagement, if she has done so? If there were talks between Aer Lingus and the Department or the Minister, how did they come about? What was the outcome of those talks?

I thank the Deputies for raising this matter. I have also received correspondence from those involved and I acknowledge the huge stress many of the affected workers are under at this time. I have received their emails and read their stories, and I accept that some of them are in an awful situation.

We have committed billions of euro in funding to support people's income since the onset of the pandemic through the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP; the TWSS, and the EWSS, which is new and which took effect from the 1 September. These supports have helped over 1 million people to date. In the context of the issue at Aer Lingus, it is important to outline the position with regard to short-time work. If a person is placed on a shorter working week - for example, if he or she is place on a two-day week as opposed to a five-day week - he or she can claim the short-time work support payment in respect of the days he or she is unemployed, even where the employer is claiming the newly introduced EWSS for days of employment. This means that if a person works two days, the employer pays him or her for two days. For the three days he or she is unemployed, he or she can claim jobseeker's support or the short-time working payment. The normal scheme rules and application processes continue to apply, including completion of the relevant forms by the employer to certify the position. The employer signs a form to certify the number of days the person has worked.

Since the EWSS took effect on 1 September, many thousands of companies have transitioned onto it without any impact on their workers. It is difficult to understand how an organisation the size of Aer Lingus, with a dedicated HR department, could have had problems in interpreting the criteria relating to the EWSS and short-term work, particularly when many small businesses throughout the country have had no such issue. Notwithstanding that fact, my primary concern is for the impacted workers and ensuring that they can access their entitlements. I spoke to my officials about this matter last week and the relevant officials from my Department have engaged directly with Aer Lingus on it since then. Management of the company has today advised that any outstanding documentation required to finalise applications for jobseeker's support will be provided by Aer Lingus to their employees as a matter of urgency. I have asked my officials to prioritise decisions on these applications on receipt of this information and to ensure that claims are put into payment as quickly as possible once it is received. I hope this will happen swiftly in order that this matter will resolved and the workers will be able to access their entitlements.

Yesterday, the Minister stated on radio that "if people are entitled to benefits, they are entitled to them, and I want to make sure that they get them". The performance of Aer Lingus to date will not inspire the workers or give them much confidence that they will get their forms filled. I ask the Minister to issue an instruction to her officials to accept those forms, if they are filled out correctly and if the relevant documentation, with the exception of that from Aer Lingus, is provided. These people are desperate. Receiving €250 for two weeks' work when one has rent and bills to pay and children to feed is not acceptable and is not going to work. Aer Lingus has been dragging its heels and an Teachta O'Rourke has asked the Minister about backdating those claims. Will she confirm that they will be backdated? People have been sending in these forms for months. They have no confidence that the company will fill out the forms. The Minister can intervene with her officials and make sure that those forms are processed as long as people have filled them out and provided as much documentation as can reasonably be expected.

I did not hear reference to the TWSS. I heard reference to the EWSS and that is what we received previously in responses from the Minister and her Department in written replies to parliamentary questions. I repeat the question: will the Minister confirm if employees are eligible to apply for applicable jobseeker's supports for days of unemployment even when Aer Lingus was claiming the TWSS for that period? The company stated that it received conflicting messages from the Department. Will the Minister confirm that people are eligible and can and will have their applications backdated? I appeal to her to please deal with the TWSS.

We all appreciate the process that is in place for these workers but the issue is with the Minister's reference to when the employers signs the forms. That has been the entire issue here: the employer has not been signing the forms and that has left employees in an awful situation. I reiterate that this has been going on for months. The Minister indicated that Department officials have been engaging with Aer Lingus since last week. Is that correct? This has been going on for months and it would seem extraordinary if engagement only began last week.

Will there be further direct engagement by the Minister's office with Aer Lingus, given the way in which they have actively blocked their employees from accessing their entitlements? That is no carry-on for any employer to be engaging in and the matter needs to go beyond officials in the Department pulling the company up on this. As an Teachta O'Rourke stated, we need clarity on the TWSS, specifically in the context of backdating claims.

This issue only came to the fore in the past number of weeks. My priority is in getting the issue sorted for the workers so they can claim the supports they are entitled to. In order to do that, the employer needs to provide UP80 forms to certify the number of days that employees have worked. We must have confirmation of the days people are unemployed because otherwise we would be paying money out to everyone. We have to get the details. I confirm that when those forms are received, claims will be backdated to 1 September. Aer Lingus confirmed to my Department today that it will provide those forms to its workers as a matter of urgency. Once the Department receives that information, my officials will prioritise the processing of the applications from Aer Lingus workers. The Deputies will understand and appreciate that we need the forms because we need to have certification of the number of days a person is working before we can make a payment.

I share the frustration of the Deputies as to why that has not happened previously. There are thousands of companies in receipt of the EWSS and, to the best of my knowledge, this issue has not arisen elsewhere. I spoke to the officials last week and they have been engaging with Aer Lingus. My Department has clarified to Aer Lingus on a number of occasions the details that are required.

I hope and expect the management at Aer Lingus to communicate fully with its staff members on this matter and provide them with the necessary documentation. Once that documentation is received by my Department, these applications from workers in Aer Lingus will be prioritised for payment.

Regarding the EWSS, when those forms come in, to be clear, they will be backdated to 1 September and claims will be paid from that date. Turning to TWSS, that was a different scheme to the EWSS, and the key issue in this regard is that it is necessary for a potential claimant to have been unemployed for several days before it is possible to get the short-term working payment.

Flood Prevention Measures

I welcome the opportunity to discuss this issue and I thank the Minister of State for making himself available to respond.

I am aware of about 200 farms in south west Offaly, and some in east Galway and in Westmeath, that have been under water since July. This is not an occurrence that happens every few years. It is, unfortunately, an annual event now. Some of these areas have been designated as special areas of conservation, SACs, and restricted agricultural practices, in the best weather and circumstances, ordinarily prevail in these areas. As referred to previously, however, and evidenced only last week, and last year as well, this situation is not being resolved through minimalist clearance of pinch points on the Shannon, as evidenced by the impact of minor works in recent years. It does not seem to be a situation that can be resolved with the current approach to the situation, where there are conflicting interests regarding water levels between the Office of Public Works, OPW, the ESB, local authorities, Waterways Ireland and other agencies.

The situation could be resolved if there was a single agency that could bring all these separate interests together and reach an agreement with local farming communities and organisations to maintain and adjust water levels to meet the requirements of all concerned. I refer to water levels in locations such as Meelick. I am thinking, in particular, of those dependent on these lands for their agricultural practice and livelihoods, and enabling them to maintain standards of living that one would expect them to enjoy from having such lands available to them.

It may be the case that there is an unspoken practice, within the OPW, which deems it appropriate for these lands to be flooded to safeguard other areas along the path of the Shannon as it nears the sea and Ardnacrusha. If that is the case, it should be stated openly, brought to the attention of those affected by it and there should be a discussion regarding adequate compensation to deal with the impact on those 200 farms. The effects are even wider than that and I know other representatives in the area have also contacted the Minister of State's Department, and others, to seek a resolution to this issue.

As it stands, without any such flooding, major restrictions on farm practices are imposed by the SAC designation, but those impacted are prepared to work within the confines of those regulations. They cannot do so, however, because of this ongoing flooding. The weather has not been so detrimental as to cause this situation. The issue arises from the management, maintenance and delivery of adequate resources within the Shannon region to meet the needs of all the bodies to which I referred. Those who suffer the most and who suffer regularly appear to be those constituents who have been in touch with me, namely, farmers and families in south-west Offaly, east Galway and parts of Westmeath. I ask the Minister of State to respond to the various requests that I and other bodies associated with those farmers have made with a view to meeting and resolving this issue. I refer to being upfront and straight regarding the efforts and deliberations of the OPW and to clarify if there is some unspoken action that allows these lands to be flooded to such an extent that farming, already restricted by the SAC designation, is not now possible.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. As we approach the winter season, it is opportune that we consider our preparedness as a country to respond to severe weather events such as flooding. I am acutely aware of the impact that the recent flooding has had on individual households and on communities at large, and specifically in the midlands. Since becoming Minister of State with responsibility for the OPW, I have visited several areas affected by recent storms, witnessed the damage caused and spoken with the people and business owners directly affected in Kenmare, Kilmallock, Skibbereen, Bandon, Bantry, Clifden and elsewhere. I compliment and thank the staff of the OPW, the local authorities, the emergency services and those volunteers who have provided assistance to all of those communities that have been affected by the August storms, including in the midlands.

The Government's framework for major emergency management underpins co-ordination of responses to all emergencies in Ireland, including flooding. Through that framework, the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government is the lead Department with national responsibility for co-ordinating the response to severe weather emergencies, including flooding. Local authorities are designated as the lead agency for responding to flooding events within their administrative areas and for ensuring that effective arrangements are put in place to receive and respond to public service weather warnings issued by Met Éireann.

I recognise the proactive planning of the local authorities in putting in place temporary flood defences and putting response staff on standby in preparation for these recent weather events, including those in the midlands. Their planning and rapid response to flood events helped to mitigate the damage and devastation caused. Each local area has its own individual plan in the event of flooding. An Garda Síochána, the civil defence and the HSE are all involved in these plans and I acknowledge their work in responding to the recent floods as well.

Turning to planning to mitigate flood damage in the future, on 3 May 2018, the OPW launched 29 flood risk management plans and a €1 billion investment in flood risk over the coming decade. These plans are the output from the catchment flood risk assessment and management, CFRAM, programme, the largest ever flood risk study carried out in the State. The plans set out measures proposed to address the flood risk nationally, and include 119 new schemes to protect towns, villages and cities. Procurement for 60 of the 119 flood relief schemes is now progressing and, in some places, is complete. These schemes, with the 46 already complete, will mean that 95% of at-risk properties will be protected by flood relief schemes.

In addition, the OPW is co-ordinating Ireland's whole-of-government approach to flood risk management across three strategic policy areas: prevention, protection and preparedness. The interdepartmental flood policy co-ordination group was established to examine the potential non-structural measures that will inform the ten-year implementation strategy of the flood risk management plans and to ensure the preparation of policies that can benefit communities directly. The Government also established the Shannon flood risk State agency co-ordination working group in 2016 to support existing plans to address flooding on the Shannon and to enhance ongoing co-operation of all State agencies involved with the River Shannon, to which Deputy Cowen referred.

The group has taken several significant decisions since its establishment, including targeted maintenance activities at several locations, trialling the lowering of levels in Lough Allen and a study on the cause, degree and rate of restriction downstream of Parteen weir. In October 2019, the group agreed to a €7 million strategic programme of maintenance and the removal of constrictions or pinch points, as Deputy Cowen called them, on the bed of the River Shannon at the Callows region between Athlone and Meelick weir. Progression of these works will be subject to the full environmental impact assessments required and planning consent to proceed. The decision to undertake these projects was noted by the Government in December 2019 and Waterways Ireland has advised that it has commenced work on advancing the various interventions for these works, with implementation expected to commence in 2021. This investment, as well as helping to manage flooding, can support the tourism, navigation and agricultural sectors for this region.

Regarding water levels on the River Shannon, the ESB manages the weirs, sluices and other works that are part of the Shannon Scheme, and the water levels on Lough Allen, Lough Ree and Lough Derg.

The levels in between those lakes are managed by Waterways Ireland for navigation purposes. Both organisations are members of the group to which I referred earlier and communicate on a daily basis to ensure a co-ordinated approach to managing the water levels on the river. Queries arising from the protocols of the managing of the water levels at any given time are directed both to the ESB and Waterways Ireland.

I thank the Minister for the details in his response. In order to deal with this issue, I will concentrate specifically on the fact that the Government established a Shannon flood risk State agency co-ordination working group in 2016. Its specific remit was to support existing plans in place to address flooding. As the Minister of State alluded to, measures that have been undertaken further to that include €7 million towards a strategic programme of maintenance and the removal of constrictions or pinch points on the bed of the River Shannon at the Callows region between Athlone and Meelick weir. Those works are ongoing and have not had the desired impact or effect we hoped or envisaged. That must be addressed.

The agency's other duty was to enhance the ongoing co-operation of all State agencies involved with the River Shannon. I am here and raising this issue for the second year running. It is impacting at least 200 farms, their livelihoods and potential to provide livelihoods in the future. That would suggest that the co-ordinated approach is not working. The protocol to which the Minister of State referred that seemed to direct us towards the ESB and Waterways Ireland to deal with levels and their maintenance between Athlone and Meelick is not working. That protocol is not sufficient because if it were, we would not have the flooding or the diversity of opinion about the management of those weirs as has been relayed to me.

It is now incumbent on those with responsibility within the Government to again bring together that risk agency co-ordination working group, lay those questions at its table, seek resolutions from those at the table with responsibility and who had given commitments that such a co-ordinated approach would meet with the desired impact, resolution, success and support of those agencies and, especially, the people who depend on these lands for a livelihood. That is not the case. As I said earlier, the agency has failed in its responsibility in that area and, as a result, I implore the Minister of State to reconvene that group in the short term and meet the disaffected farmers and the representative associations to which I alluded in order that he is properly armed and has at his disposal all the relevant information. He should have not only have access to the information provided by those at the table who have failed to date but also the input of the people who have been severely impacted by the group's neglect and have little hope of survival if a resolution is not forthcoming as a result of the meeting I have proposed.

In his earlier contribution, the Deputy asked me to meet, to be upfront and straight and to resolve issues. I can commit to two of those things. I commit to meetings and to be upfront and straight. The Deputy knows me long enough to understand that.

As for the resolution of the issue, flooding on the Shannon predates the foundation of the State. It is a slow-moving river and we all know the issues associated with it. We know where communities, man-made obstacles and agricultural land have interfaced with the Shannon. The river flows through my constituency, albeit in a different context through the estuary. It is a highly complicated body of water, running from Cavan to Kerry.

The Deputy is absolutely right that people have been inundated over the past number of years and terrible devastation has been foisted upon them. Over the past nine weeks, I have seen seven major flood events. They are happening more frequently and we must contend with the reality of the rate at which our climate is changing. The Deputy, and other Deputies, can support me on this. Our regulatory and policy platform has not changed as rapidly as it should have to take into account the changing environmental considerations. Deputies will agree with me when I say that the regulations, directives and legislation which control the manner in which we can deal with flood events frustrates, to varying degrees, the process by which we can respond to people. It might sound like passing the buck but the reality is that the powers available to the Houses of the Oireachtas have been set out under several items of legislation.

Deputy Cowen asked if I would meet the relevant parties and I have no problem doing that. Farming organisations have already been in touch with me and I intend to go to Offaly, Galway, Westmeath and that part of the Shannon basin as quickly as I can over the next couple of weeks. I had hoped that the Deputy might be available to join me because he is right and I do want to see it first-hand. We need to have an honest, upfront and clear discussion in this House and the Upper House about how our policy, legislative and regulatory platform is designed to cope with these kinds of events, which are becoming more frequent.

Abortion Services Provision

Is a Minister available to deal with my issue?

The Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, is present.

I was hoping for the senior Minister for Health. Some 18 months ago, a family was told that their unborn child had a fatal foetal abnormality by a member of staff at the National Maternity Hospital. This was not the case and it was not a mistake. The false diagnosis was given to the child's mother without fulfilling the necessary guidelines or adhering to the law. The couple claims that their child would be with them today were it not for the actions of some people within that hospital. It is alleged that medical professionals who were signing off on abortions have a commercial interest in the companies that produce the fatally insufficient test.

Medical notes have shown that only one obstetrician met the mother in question. That is clearly against the law, which says that the mother must be examined by two medical professionals. The final element of the test used in the hospital showed that the baby was healthy but the abortion was carried out before the final results arrived. It is only through the diligence of the mother that she found out that the child was fully healthy because the information was not readily and openly given to her.

Moreover, the hospital did not report the abortion to the State until a letter was sent to the hospital by the solicitor for the family. When the hospital finally reported the abortion, it was well after the 28-day statutory limit in the law. The law was again breached. These are just some of the many aspects of the law and guidelines that were ignored.

It is incredible that such a level of information has been in the hands of the Government for 18 months and yet no efforts have yet been made by the previous Minister for Health, the previous Government or this Government to make sure that the family in question found justice. There is another aspect to this because abortions due to false diagnoses may have happened since. The parents affected may not even know it has happened. There is no doubt that, under the current regime, such false diagnoses will happen again. This is a public health issue and, as a result, the family are determined to seek the truth and achieve the necessary changes to ensure that this never happens again.

Not only has the family had to go through this grievous wrong, all of its efforts to achieve justice for themselves and their son have been stymied by the State. It is incredible that the mother and father were initially told that the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, RCOG, in Britain was to review the case but the RCOG said it would not be able to do so. The parents met the previous Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, who assured them that there would be an independent investigation. That meeting happened well over a year ago. The family also met the Chief Medical Officer, who agreed that protective action was necessary to make sure that it would never happen again.

However, no changes have been made so far. The hospital has not co-operated in an independent, fair investigation. A hospital cannot be allowed to investigate itself. The previous Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, stonewalled me on a number of occasions when I tried to raise this issue. He stated that it was a private issue, although the family has clearly asked me to raise it. Will the Minister of State do the human, just, fair and decent thing and commit that there will be an open and independent investigation into what happened to that family?

The incident that occurred at the National Maternity Hospital in March 2019 was tragic and the Minister and I are very conscious of the distress it has caused for the couple involved. Our overriding concern is that the couple's questions are answered appropriately and that any patient safety learning identified from the case can be implemented at the hospital concerned and across all maternity services. It is not appropriate to discuss the specifics of the case but I will outline the process that is being put in place to address these issues.

We are strongly of the view that, when a serious incident occurs within the health service that requires investigation, the establishment of an independent review is the appropriate way forward in order to ascertain the facts of the case in line with the HSE's incident management framework. We are aware that significant efforts have been made to establish an independent external review of this case. I am advised that extensive engagement has taken place with the family regarding the composition of the review panel and the draft terms of reference with a view to addressing their concerns regarding the planned independent external review process. It is of vital importance that all parties are confident in the review process.

I have been advised that the review will be conducted in accordance with HIQA's national standards for the conduct of reviews for patient safety incidents and the HSE's incident management framework. The review panel will include members with the appropriate medical expertise to allow for a full understanding of the facts to be developed and will incorporate clinical expertise from outside the jurisdiction. The Department has been advised that the review panel should also include senior counsel among its membership to provide input regarding the specific requirements in Irish law with regard to the termination of pregnancy. The importance of enabling the participation of patients in any such review is also well established and the panel will include a patient representative. The clinical director of the national women and infants health programme, Dr. Peter McKenna, has also agreed to take a significant role in the review panel.

It is important that the family concerned is at the centre of the review process. The Minister, Deputy Donnelly, will meet the family in the coming weeks to listen to their concerns and to work together to move the process forward. The Minister's view and that of the Department is that this review needs to proceed and be completed as quickly as possible to establish the facts of the case, provide clarity and answers to the couple concerned, identify any patient safety risks associated with the termination services provided by the National Maternity Hospital and other maternity services, and identify any patient safety learning that can be implemented in the National Maternity Hospital and across the wider maternity services.

The little boy's name was Christopher and 18 months ago his life was ended in that hospital. The Minister of State said it is not appropriate for the details of that case to be mentioned here in the Dáil but it is not appropriate that, 18 months after this happened, there has been no effort to seek justice for that family. No truth has been given to them and no one at all has been held accountable. That is not appropriate. Christopher's mother and father are broken-hearted but they are not giving up. They have shown steely courage in maintaining their fight for justice and, despite the hospital, the HSE and the Government dragging their feet, they are determined not to go away.

The Minister of State says it is not appropriate. It is not appropriate that it is virtually impossible for a family that has been wronged by the health system to achieve justice in that same health system or that so many elements of that system will fight tooth and nail to stop a family getting justice. I do not refer to this family only but to virtually every family that tries to get justice within the health system. Patients have to go to court to get justice. That is not appropriate and it means that justice is only available to those who can afford it. This means that families that have already gone through grievous wrong have to go through years of fighting to get the justice to which they are entitled. It is not appropriate that the State burns through hundreds of millions of euro of citizens' money in forcing these families to go to court. It is throwing this money at legal cases when it should be used to help those families. This is a gross misuse of citizens' funds.

All they want is the truth and to have what happened to them acknowledged. The hospital could have done that on day one. Here we are again. I appreciate that the Minister of State says there is going to be a full and independent review. They heard that story 18 months ago but nothing has changed. I ask the Minister of State to take this family into his heart and ensure that this matter does not get long-fingered, pushed off the table or hidden.

I thank the Deputy for his statement on this tragic case involving Christopher and his parents who are, as the Deputy said, broken-hearted. The Minister fully agrees with the need for a fair investigation to take place into the incident that occurred in the National Maternity Hospital in March 2019. He is committed to moving this process forward as expeditiously as possible.

The Department is satisfied that an independent external review is the appropriate mechanism by which to investigate this matter. To ensure that services conduct appropriate reviews of patient safety incidents, in 2017 HIQA and the Mental Health Commission published joint national standards for the conduct of reviews of patient safety incidents. The standards require that, for the most serious incidents, services must commission an external independent review. Furthermore, the HSE's Incident Management Framework 2018, which is based on the standards, sets out the procedure to be followed by a service in conducting a patient safety incident review. The framework sets out that serious incidents, referred to as "category 1 incidents", should be reviewed by a team external to the community healthcare organisation, hospital group or National Ambulance Service directorate.

The Minister believes this review should proceed and be completed as quickly as possible to establish the facts of the case, provide clarity and answers to the couple concerned, identify any patient safety risks associated with the termination services provided by the National Maternity Hospital and other maternity services, and identify any patient safety learning that can be implemented in the National Maternity Hospital and across the wider maternity services. It is the intention of the Minister to meet the family in the coming weeks.

Ambulance Service

I have spoken to a number of paramedics in my home town of Thurles regarding a lack of resources in the south-east area that is resulting in a drainage of ambulances and paramedics from the Thurles area, where they are needed. The ambulances in Thurles are based in the town with the intention of responding to emergency calls locally.

I will give the Minister of State an example of an average day for a paramedic in the Thurles area to explain to him why the service, as it stands, is totally unacceptable. During one Saturday shift, the Thurles ambulance travelled from its base in the middle of Tipperary to a call in Kilkenny, some 50 km away and in a different healthcare region. En route, the ambulance was diverted to a call deemed to be a higher risk in Castlecomer, County Kilkenny. The crew changed route and headed for the location to which it was directed. The ambulance then received another call and was told to go back to Kilkenny. The paramedics managed to make it to the location and dealt with the issue in question. The ambulance then returned to a call in Thurles and en route was redirected to Kimaganny, County Kilkenny, a distance of 45 km from Thurles. It is worth noting at this point that, of all of the locations I have mentioned, Thurles is the only one in the mid-west region which this ambulance should serve and to which these paramedics are assigned.

While the paramedics were driving to Kilmaganny, they received a call to tell them that they were now needed in Arklow, County Wicklow, as theirs was the closest available ambulance in the area and this was a higher priority call. Arklow is 130 km from Thurles. Then, as the paramedics followed their route across the bottom half of Leinster, they were again told to stand down.

The message came through that they were now needed in New Ross, County Wexford. New Ross is 80 km from Thurles and almost the same distance from Arklow. That was not the end of it. Before the ambulance could get to the call in New Ross it was again diverted. This time, the Thurles-based paramedics were told to go to a call in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, which is 30 km from New Ross and almost 100 km from Thurles, County Tipperary, which is their base. Finally, before the paramedics were able to reach the call in New Ross, they were again directed to stand down and told instead to attend to a call in Waterford. Waterford is 50 km from Enniscorthy and 80 km from Thurles. Out of all these calls only one was in the area that this ambulance and these paramedics are supposed to be servicing. Out of these eight calls during a 12-hour shift, the paramedics only got to attend one. In all other instances they were redirected to another area either because an ambulance closer to the scene had become free or because there was a higher priority call somewhere else. These paramedics spent almost their entire shift driving around the south-east of the country. During that time the environs of Thurles, where the ambulance was supposed to be based, was left without any service. The paramedics who should have been servicing that area were in the south east. Due to lack of resources in the south east, ambulances are being redirected and taken out of the areas where they are supposed to be operating to make up the shortfall. This is simply not on and it is a bad use of resources. I would nearly say it was an abuse of resources.

I do not believe this situation is unique to Thurles. It is nonsensical that an ambulance and paramedics will be pulled out of a town in the middle of Tipperary to go to a call in Arklow. Yet, that is the reality of the situation. The timetable I have set out from last Saturday and the list of calls are not unusual. Unfortunately, they are the norm for a paramedic based in Thurles. The first obvious issue is that the ambulance should not be pulled from the Thurles area to serve in other regions unless for genuinely exceptional circumstances. It should not be a regular occurrence. Yet, that is what is happening.

I welcome the opportunity to address the House on behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, in respect of the ambulance service in the south-east region and in Thurles in particular.

The National Ambulance Service makes use of historical data and future projections of service volumes in determining the allocation of resources and deployment locations within an area. Therefore, to increase the response capacity of the south region of the National Ambulance Service, in 2020 an additional six whole-time equivalent posts have been allocated specifically to the south east. In addition, a further eight full-time posts have been allocated to assist in the implementation of the recommendations of the report, A Trauma System for Ireland. It is projected that these 14 posts will be filled before the end of 2020.

The National Ambulance Service continuously evaluates its services and aligns them to available resources and activity levels. It is not a static service and as such deploys its resources in a dynamic manner. It operates on an area and national basis as opposed to a local basis. The dynamic deployment of ambulance resources ensures that the nearest appropriate resource is mobilised to the location of the incident.

The National Ambulance Service has undergone a significant process of modernisation in recent years and several important service innovations and developments have taken place. Many of these innovations are aimed at improving response times and resources availability in rural areas. Recent initiatives include the development of alternative pathways of care and a clinical hub, which facilitates a hear-and-treat model of care. This went live in the national emergency operations centre in March 2018. The hub has now been expanded to provide a public information telephone line on available mental health supports and services. The service diverts some lower acuity patients away from busy emergency departments and frees up some emergency capacity. In addition, the National Ambulance Service has developed the intermediate care service to provide lower acuity hospital transfers. This frees up emergency ambulances for more urgent calls. Community paramedics have also been introduced in rural and urban areas to allow patients to receive care closer to home. It is anticipated that such initiatives, coupled with the aforementioned increase in staff numbers, will help to improve availability of ambulance resources across the south-east region.

Over recent years, year-on-year additional investment has been directed towards the National Ambulance Service. This year, the National Ambulance Service budget has increased to €173.9 million. This will support the National Ambulance Service in continuing to deliver a high-quality service throughout the country.

I thank the Minister of State for his answer. Unfortunately, it is not what we see happening in reality in my home area.

The second obvious issue I want to address is response times. The ambulance services are under pressure to meet a 90-second turnaround from when the call comes in to getting an ambulance on the road. It appears little thought has been put into where that ambulance is coming from. Surely, we must look to see how long an ambulance takes to arrive at a call, not how quickly it can be put on the road. The situation we have means an ambulance such as the one in Thurles is being directed to drive around the country all day without actually making it to calls, all the while leaving a large area without a service that it desperately needs. I am asking for additional resources in order that our emergency services and paramedics are not spending their shifts driving from call to call and being redirected without even reaching the person in need, time and time again. Our region, the south east, needs additional resources in order that Thurles, which is in the mid-west region, is not drained of its paramedics and ambulances to fill the gap.

I read out the timetable. It is nonsensical to think that an ambulance in Thurles would do such driving around the country. We must take a serious look at the National Ambulance Service nationwide. Measuring response times in terms of how long it takes to put an ambulance on the road is not correct. It should be measured by how long it takes to get to the call and the person in question.

I was talking to one of the paramedics who told me they were being redirected to a call in Kilkenny after being redirected from Borris-in-Ossory. He said they were passing by Borris-in-Ossory and contacted the central location to find out whether to do the call in Borris-in-Ossory on the way because the patient would be going to Kilkenny. He was told not to because there was an ambulance on the way from Ballinasloe to deal with the call. This type of inefficiency cannot be allowed to continue. It is happening at the moment and the paramedics are getting frustrated with the use of their resources.

I thank Deputy Cahill for raising this important issue. I assure the House that the National Ambulance Service is focused on continually improving the ambulance service in the south-east region and throughout the country. The improvement of the service is being implemented through a multi-annual reform programme, Vision 2020, which prioritises investment in new developments, increased manpower and fleet and improved technology. Recent developments such as the new community paramedic model of care and the hear-and-treat clinical hub will divert some lower acuity patients away from busy emergency departments and free up emergency capacity in the south east. I thank Deputy Cahill again for raising this important issue. I hope that this can be resolved in the near future.

Garda Stations

It might be appropriate that the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, is taking this because he is in charge of the national drugs strategy. The issue of drugs is an important issue throughout the country but on the north side of Dublin, it causes great heartache.

In June 2019 on a visit to political leaders in Dublin Bay North, the assistant Garda commissioner confirmed that a Garda station was to be located in the Dublin 13 or Dublin 17 area to serve the vast expanding community in Clongriffin and Belmayne. It is expected an extra 50,000 people will be inhabiting the area in the coming years. We have had several successful campaigns in that area for the establishment of a second level school. We now have an Educate Together second level school and we are happy about that.

I was involved with the local community, including the community in Clongriffin through the Clongriffin Community Association, in having a petition to ensure we would get a Garda station for the area based on community infrastructure. We were delighted when the assistant Garda commissioner announced that negotiations with the Office of Public Works, OPW, on a particular site at the corner of Northern Cross were ongoing and that a Garda station would be located on the site in the coming years.

Aligned with that, a Government commitment was made during the general election that a Mulvey-style commission would be established on the north side and in Drogheda as a reaction to a murder spree in both those geographic locations. What I was trying to do, and what Deputy Ged Nash, who was then a Senator, was trying to say at the time was that the response to drugs and gangland murder should not be one of Garda resources only but also required an in-depth discussion about education, empowerment, oral language, youth development and housing along the lines of what happened with Kieran Mulvey's commission in the north inner city. We wanted that approach to be replicated on the north side and in Drogheda. After months of making repeated calls for such a commission in the Seanad - I was a Senator at the time - the then Minister for Justice and Equality agreed the Government would do so if returned to office.

This commission is desperately needed. While I acknowledge these are difficult times and establishing a commission at this time would be problematic because of the national crisis we are in, poverty, disadvantage and drug crime still exist and people still have murder on their minds. I would like an update on that promised, pledged and proposed Garda station. At what stage is the process? When will the station be opened? When can the community of Dublin 13 and 17 be satisfied that the campaign, which they were thrilled to see reach a successful conclusion in June 2019, will result in the next stage of the process and the opening of the doors of a fully staffed and resourced Garda station in this expanding area on the north side of Dublin?

On behalf of the Minister, I thank Deputy Ó Ríordáin for raising this matter.

As the Deputy will appreciate, the Office of Public Works has responsibility for the provision and maintenance of Garda accommodation. Works in respect of Garda accommodation are progressed by the Garda authorities working in close co-operation with the OPW.

The current Garda building and refurbishment programme, which runs to 2021, is based on agreed Garda priorities and covers more than 30 locations across the country, supported by significant Exchequer funding across the Garda and OPW Votes. While a new station in Dublin 13 and 17 is not part of the current programme, I understand from An Garda Síochána that proposals for a new station will be considered as part of the next Garda accommodation programme. In the meantime, the Minister has been advised that local Garda management have a policing plan for the district in question, which incorporates a weekly Garda clinic in the area operated by the community policing unit from Coolock. This includes regular liaison meetings with residents groups to deal with policing matters.

The Deputy will also be aware that, as part of the overall strategy to oppose criminality, the Garda authorities pursue a range of partnerships with community stakeholders, for example, the community alert programme and the Garda text alert scheme. That said, the Minister is very conscious of how the impact of anti-social behaviour affects the quality of life for local communities. Crime prevention and diversion, beginning with young people, are priorities for the Minister and the programme for Government contains a number of commitments to tackle anti-social behaviour, including a commitment to set up a special expert forum on anti-social behaviour to consider the effectiveness of existing legislation and propose new ways forward. These include new powers for An Garda Síochána and additional interventions to support parenting of offenders; new legislation implementing the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, which will, among other elements, redefine policing to include prevention of harm to those who are vulnerable and mandate multi-agency collaboration in conjunction with impacted communities; and development of a youth justice strategy 2020-26, which will include consideration of the full range of issues connected to children and young people at risk of coming into contact with the criminal justice system, including early intervention and preventative work.

I was a Member of the Seanad when the Deputy was a Senator and I am aware he raised this issue many times. Deputy Nash who was also a Senator at the time outlined the position regarding Drogheda. On the face of it, the north inner city initiative has been a success. I will make the Minister aware of the Deputy's comments on setting up a commission to examine these two areas of the north side, specifically in the Deputy's constituency.

I thank the Minister of State for his response but the language in it does not give me much comfort. It states: "... I understand from An Garda Síochána that proposals for a new station will be considered as part of the next Garda accommodation programme". The assistant Garda commissioner announced in June 2019 that it would happen. I worry when I see words like "proposals" and "considered" in the Minister of State's reply. I appreciate his comments about the proposed commission for the north side and Drogheda. This issue is not about police alone. We cannot police our way out of a murder triangle, so to speak. A commitment to establish a commission was made by an outgoing Minister for Justice and Equality of a party that is still in government. As such, that should be considered and we are waiting for that to happen. The issue of whether it will happen is not up for discussion. A commitment was made in the heat of the general election campaign. That is what it took for a commitment to be made to establish a Mulvey-style commission for the north side of Dublin, and not just to discuss policing. It is all very well to talk about the policing element but there is so much more to talk about, for example, education, oral language, literacy, diet, access to employment, housing, transport, health and other issues. That is what the Mulvey commission in the north inner city was about. That commission was successful to a degree. It has successfully cut through the red tape and created immediate access for the community by allowing their concerns to go straight through to the decision-makers rather than, unfortunately, all the bureaucracy.

I need a firmer commitment on the Garda station, which was a commitment made by the assistant Garda commissioner. I also need a date for the establishment of the Mulvey-style commission on the north side and in Drogheda, to which the Minister of State's party committed in the general election. It is still in government and, indeed, still holds the Ministry for justice.

On behalf of the Minister, I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. I will bring his comments on establishing a commission to look into these very difficult areas to the Minister. The Deputy will be aware that the Garda Commissioner is, by law, responsible for the management and administration of An Garda Síochána, including personnel matters and the deployment of resources. As such, the Minister has no role in these matters. I am assured, however, that Garda management keeps the distribution of resources under continual review in the context of crime trends and policing priorities to ensure their optimum use.

I am aware of a similar situation. Commitments were made in December for a new Garda station in my area of Sligo. I was of the same opinion as the Deputy that such commitments were made and I would like to see them being delivered on. I was disappointed that the Garda Commissioner changed his mind on that. We can try to work together to get our views across. I appreciate where the Deputy is coming from in this regard.

An unprecedented level of resources has been provided by the Government to An Garda Síochána this year with an allocation of €1.88 billion. That level of funding is enabling sustained ongoing recruitment of Garda members and staff. As of 30 June 2020, there were approximately 14,700 gardaí nationwide, supported by more than 3,000 Garda staff. These numbers are continuing to grow and have a positive impact at community level.

Determination of the need for a new Garda station for Dublin 13 and 17, or in any other location, will be considered by An Garda Síochána in the context of the overall accommodation requirements arising from the ongoing expansion of the Garda workforce and policing reform plan, A Policing Service for the Future, and implementation of the new Garda operating model, which will inform the overall accommodation needs of An Garda Síochána over the years 2022 to 2026.

I thank Deputy Ó Ríordáin for his commitment to this. I hope that, in the future, he will have a Garda station and more Garda resources for Dublin 13 and Dublin 17. I would like to see the commitments made by the last Government honoured by the current one.

State Examinations

One of the great levellers of Irish society has been the leaving certificate examination. No matter who one was or where one came from, when one sat the examination, one knew one’s papers would be marked objectively and fairly. In many respects, an outstanding student from Castleisland was treated the same as an outstanding student from Castleknock. Unfortunately, that has not occurred this year. Obviously, it was as a result of the pandemic that new, extraordinary measures had to be put in place. To a large extent, those efforts were successful but there is a large contingent of students who were treated very unfairly by the State in this process. These were the students whose estimated grades, provided by their teachers, were marked down by the State during the standardisation process.

The decision made about the students has had a major impact on their lives. Not only did very many of them not get the first course they were seeking but they did not even get the second, third or fourth. Had they received the marks their teacher originally gave them, they would have been able to get into the courses they had at the top of their CAO list. Unfortunately, the CAO process, which is usually very transparent, has not become transparent as a result of this.

I have spoken to so many parents and children over recent days that I could not go into the full detail with the Minister. It would take me so long. The Minister will no doubt be aware, however, that there is considerable upset over what happened to the students. They were treated unfairly. It appears to be the case that these students, who are students of schools that previously excelled in the leaving certificate examinations, were downgraded because of their schools' excellence. That is not fair. The State needs to acknowledge that the students were treated unfairly. We need to recognise this and try to determine what we can do for them.

I thank the Minister for attending in person. She carries a great burden at this time – the burden of office associated with looking after and ensuring the smooth running of our primary and second level education systems during these extraordinarily challenging times. The country, and certainly her party colleagues and everybody in the Dáil, are grateful for the job she is doing and the manner in which she has taken on her task.

Deputy Jim O'Callaghan has, in his usual erudite way, made most of the points I wanted to make, including the point on the leaving certificate being a great leveller. Historically, there was a suspicion that if one went to a school with a high proportion of pupils from so-called disadvantaged areas, one would be unfairly penalised in the marking of the leaving certificate examinations. To some degree, we are now looking at the other side of that coin. As Deputy O'Callaghan said, this matter needs to be treated with a sense of urgency that might not have been applied in respect of disadvantaged pupils in the past.

The predicted grading has gone enormously well, and the Minister and her Department deserve great plaudits for that, but it appears to have been unfair on some students, who appear to come disproportionately from schools that achieved excellent results in previous years. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response. I have no doubt that it will be measured, bearing in mind the context of threatened High Court proceedings, appeals, etc. We are grateful for the Minister's presence.

I thank the Deputies for raising this issue and allowing me to address it.

The provision of calculated grades to students arose in the unprecedented circumstances of our not being able to run a leaving certificate examination, as the Deputies will all be aware. The concept was first mooted by students and there was an extensive process of engagement with education stakeholders and an agreement to proceed with the calculated grades process. Under the model, estimated marks from schools were adjusted, using a carefully developed standardisation model to ensure a consistent standard was applied across schools across the country, when judging the performance of students. Standardisation takes place every year in marking the leaving certificate examinations. That is an extremely important point. While teachers are familiar with their own students, they cannot be expected to have knowledge of the standards nationwide. Standardisation allows student-to-student comparability across the country.

As Deputies may be aware, at the start of September I brought to the Cabinet a proposal to remove school-by-school historical subject level data from the national standardisation process used to determine calculated grades. This decision meant that no student's calculated grade was impacted by the historical performance of the school he or she attended. The statistical procedure has been subject to a high degree of oversight by the national standardisation group which was established to oversee the work. Its implementation has also been independently overseen by an independent steering committee, chaired by Dr. Áine Lawlor, former director of the Teaching Council. All the information regarding the process and its oversight is fully transparent and it is available online at www.gov.ie.

As Deputies will know, as part of the process, schools provided the Department with an estimated percentage mark and rank order for each student. Following the standardisation process, the estimated percentage mark was converted to a calculated mark and, subsequently, to a calculated grade. This was provided to students on 7 September. It is only at this point that students were awarded a grade.

It is not accurate to state students were downgraded, or upgraded, through the standardisation process; rather, the grade that was awarded following the standardisation process is the grade for the 2020 leaving certificate calculated grades.

The system of calculated grades allowed the Department to provide results to over 60,000 students, many of whom have now received CAO round one offers. Some 80% of CAO applicants received a CAO offer from their top three preferences. Of all grades awarded, 83.1% were either the same or higher than the grade that school estimated percentage marks would have awarded, while 16.9% were lower. The increase of 4.4 percentage points in the average marks across all subjects and at all levels this year is present across all types of schools. It was inevitable, however, that some students would have their estimated marks adjusted downwards as part of standardisation.

The overall data from school estimated marks show there was a very significant rise in estimated grades against what would normally be achieved nationally in examinations. Without standardisation in some subjects, the number of H1s awarded would have been two to three times higher. This would not have been tenable and would have presented considerable difficulties for higher and further education.

While some students had a lower percentage mark awarded following standardisation, it is possible that many of the concerns being raised are based on what marks schools estimated for their students this year rather than on the results attained in examinations across previous years. I believe this is the point made by the Deputies. The standardisation process was applied to all schools in the same way, irrespective of whether the school was in the State system or was fee charging.

With regard to schools outside the State system, data analysis in the report of the national standardisation group shows that schools in the non-recognised category, which is made up largely of institutions often referred to as "grind schools", overestimated their student marks to a greater extent than in recognised schools.

Furthermore, when comparing the results of students in fee-charging schools in the State sector and in the private non-recognised schools institutes versus those in non-fee-charging schools, those in fee-charging schools and institutions still have higher scores than students in non-fee-charging schools even after standardisation.

Students who are disappointed with one or more of their calculated grades had the opportunity to submit an appeal. The appeals process closed yesterday, Wednesday, 16 September at 5 p.m. The appeals process is a review focused on looking for errors in the transmission and processing of student data through the process.

I thank the Minister for her considered reply in respect of this matter. I note she states it is not accurate to say that schools or certain students were downgraded but that is how the students see it. Last Monday, when they got the estimated grades given to them by their teachers and learned those grades were above what they got in the official calculation grades, they viewed that as being downgraded. I recognise this is an exceptional event. One thing we can learn from this is that we need to get back to the leaving certificate as it usually operates because no matter what the unfairness of the leaving certificate may be, it is an objective and fair system of assessing academic ability.

What is going to happen in this appeal process? There is a huge amount of uncertainty as to what is involved and who will make the assessments under the appeals. Is it purely a clerical appeal or is there some further facility available to the students who put it in?

We should acknowledge the upset that has been felt by these students. A woman told me on the phone today that she was not prepared to leave the house because she was so concerned at how upset her son has been since he got his results. That is across the board and not just in certain schools or in certain counties. I have spoken to colleagues in this House and it is an issue throughout the country. We need to recognise the unfairness these students believe they have been subjected to.

There is quite a lot to digest in the Minister's response and I am grateful for the detail into which she went in such a short period. I take on board, as everybody does, that faced with an unprecedented set of circumstances her Department moved quickly and came up with a system that has attempted, successfully for the most part, clearly, in dealing with the challenges faced by students. It is worthy of repetition and we do not want to lose sight of that.

The Minister is right to emphasise, and we all knew it as public representatives at the time, that this was student-led. As there is a movement at the moment within the present sixth years regarding how they will be treated next year, there are some lessons to be learned from here as well.

In the short time the Minister has left perhaps she could give us some details on what my colleague said about the appeals process. Given the closing time was yesterday, has she any idea yet on the nature and number of the appeals or what kind of cohort of school or schools they are coming from? That is an interesting finding with regard to the so-called non-State schools, that is, the grind schools. It is a sobering fact, and she presented it as such. It is something that parents may bear in mind as they go forward because the success of this depended completely on objectivity as much as possible. There are, however, some questions to be answered. I look forward to the Minister's second response on this and perhaps some further correspondence on it.

I reiterate that the development of the model for calculated grades has been a challenging process and would not have been possible without the co-operation of teachers and schools. I absolutely acknowledge that.

For students who are disappointed with their results, the opportunity to avail of the appeals mechanism to ensure there were no administrative errors in processing their results was, as I have already outlined, provided to them. I appreciate that in every examination system and in every leaving certificate system, as we are aware, there are students who will be happy and students who will be disappointed. I absolutely want to acknowledge that. I also acknowledge that it has an impact on entire households in circumstances of that nature. I am aware and cognisant of that.

I also reiterate that students have opportunities at the postponed examinations in November. I believe this is an important avenue open to students should they wish to available of it.

It is important to point out that this year, the CAO was able to make 78,950 first round offers last Friday. That is 6% higher than in 2019. Overall, CAO applications were up only 0.6% as a result of additional places being made available by the Government. This means many more students will have received a CAO offer. Some 52% of students received an offer for their first preference course while 80%, as I said previously, received an offer for a top three preference. Again, given that we are in the midst of a pandemic and given the extraordinary circumstance in which we find ourselves, it is an extraordinarily positive reflection that so many students were in a position to avail of those offers.

Inevitably, there will be students and parents who remain dissatisfied with the outcome of the calculated grades and the CAO process. Every year, students miss out on CAO places as more students seek places than there are actually places available. I would, however, encourage those students to explore the options available to them to achieve their goals and ambitions and I wish them well. I recognise that it can be a difficult time for everybody involved. It was, however, an extraordinary circumstance that meant we had to introduce an extraordinary measure and that was the agreed measure of calculation grades.

School Accommodation

I thank the Minister for coming in to take these questions today. I wish to raise the issue of Greystones community college with her this evening. Greystones community college is a brand new secondary school in Greystones that had its first intake in September. Obviously, all the parents and students were excited about the fact this new school was getting started.

The school was due to was due to share accommodation with Greystones community national school, in a new primary school building that was also meant to open in September. Unfortunately, the Department decided not to open that school in September at the last minute. I believe the announcement was made in early August. The rationale given was that the Department needed to make sure the school was fit to hand over. This was one of the schools built by Western Building Systems. Unfortunately, we now have two schools, namely, the Greystones secondary school and the primary school, Greystones community national school and that were not able to access their new school building.

The Greystones primary school remained in the temporary accommodation in the rugby club where it has been for the past five years. Unfortunately, because the Greystones community college was a brand new school it did not even have a plan B. It did not even have temporary accommodation it could go back to. The principal spent the month of August scrambling around looking for rooms in Greystones where they could house their new school.

Luckily, the tennis club became available for the school and that is where it is at the moment. There are 64 pupils in this secondary school and, as I said, they are in the tennis club in Greystones. While they were fortunate to get this accommodation, it is not suitable as a school. A classroom is being taught in the foyer of the tennis club. One must walk through the shower room to get into the principal's desk because it is in the changing area. If a student wants to move or go to the bathroom, he or she must go through two other classes to walk around the school to get into use it.

It has also had significant impact on the classes that can be provided to these students. The students were particularly keen on getting stuck into woodwork, as many first-year students are, and, unfortunately, even this simple subject is not being provided this year because the accommodation is not suitable. The tennis club is available until October and we are not sure what will happen after that. It is critical, however, that this school is sorted out.

What are the issues with the new building? It was due to be a rapid build. It was meant to be a ten-month programme and years later, it still has not opened its doors. It is sitting there. My understanding is that there have been no visits from Department to see what is wrong with the school. I may be incorrect, but I am hearing locally that no-one has attempted to get into the school. What is the issue with school and when will it open? When will the primary school, Greystones community national school, and the secondary school be able to access that brand new school accommodation? It is important that the Minister's Department expedites this issue and makes sure the solution is provided to this school as soon as possible. After October I really do not know what will happen to them.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it gives me the opportunity to provide an update to the House on the status of the provision of accommodation for Greystones community college. On 17 December 2019 it was announced that the patronage of the new post-primary school for Greystones-Kilcoole was awarded to Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board, KWETB. It had been the intention to open the community college in the newly constructed community national school building in September 2020 but this has not proved possible. Greystones community college opened its doors to 64 first year students on Friday, 28 August 2020 in Greystones Lawn Tennis Club. The school, KWETB and my Department are grateful to Greystones Lawn Tennis Club for facilitating Greystones community college. I acknowledge the efforts of the entire school community in preparing the accommodation for the school's opening in these particularly difficult circumstances.

As the Deputy will be aware, the building project to deliver a new 1,000-pupil school for Greystones community college is planned for the designated post-primary site at Charlesland. My Department is committed to delivering this site for the new post-primary school for the Greystones and Kilcoole area of County Wicklow and work is ongoing to achieve this as soon as possible. Discussions are ongoing with the landowner with a view to acquiring this site. As the Deputy will appreciate, any site acquisition process can be lengthy and there can be complex issues which need to be addressed during negotiations, technical assessments and conveyancing. At all times, my Department must strive to obtain best value for the Exchequer while seeking to complete the acquisition as quickly and efficiently as possible.

The project to deliver the permanent accommodation for the school is to be delivered under the Department's design and build programme. As soon as there is sufficient certainty in respect of completion of the site acquisition, the architectural planning and design stage will be completed and, following grant of planning permission, the project will be expedited to tender and construction stages.

I am aware of the issues the Deputy has outlined regarding the current accommodation. I again acknowledge the work that went into making that accommodation available. She will be aware of the difficulties with the proposed accommodation that was being made available. My Department is in ongoing discussions with the contractor on that and it will be expedited as quickly as possible.

I thank the Minister for her reply, but it really has not brought any further clarity to the issue. There is no indication as to whether the secondary school will be in the tennis club post October. There is no indication as to when the brand-new primary school will be opened and both the primary school and the secondary school can go in there. This school needs clarity. Everybody involved has done an amazing hob. The principal, staff, parents and students have put great effort into making this school as good as possible, but the tennis club is not a suitable location for them in the medium term. It will get them to October but is not suitable post October.

What are the Minister's plans for this school after October? The school and its students need to know; they need clarity. I have raised the issue several times with departmental officials. I have sent emails and submitted parliamentary questions. I have written letters. Last week, I brought together the five Deputies from Wicklow and we are seeking a meeting with the Minister. Will she commit to meeting the five Deputies to give us an update on the issue? We need a firm understanding of where she expects the school to be after October. At the moment there is no indication and no clarity, which is unfair on the students and staff.

As the Deputy will be aware, construction of Greystones community national school commenced on site in September 2018, prior to the emergence of issues in October 2018 in 42 schools constructed by the contractor involved, which has been the focus of the Department's schools remediation programme. For the duration of the work, the Department's project management technical advisory team included an architect, civil and structural engineer, fire consultant and others. These parties carried out regular site visits and inspections for the duration of the works. Matters raised by the contractor were tracked on an ongoing basis through fortnightly site visits and inspections by the project team to ensure the identified items were closed out.

The Department also retained a full-time on-site clerk of works for the duration of the project. Throughout the construction period the Department's project management team have used the appropriate provisions of the public work contract to secure the necessary assurance that the building is fit for handover prior to accepting it for handover. The Department will only accept the building and make it available for occupation by the school when it is completely satisfied that it is fit for handover prior to accepting it. The Department is taking appropriate steps to ensure this and engagement is under way between the Department and the contractor in this regard under contract. It is too early to say how long this engagement process might take but, as the process develops, my departmental officials will keep the ETB and school management informed of developments. I think it would only be appropriate to consider having a meeting further to that information becoming available to me.

Road Projects

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this issue and I am delighted that the Minister is here to debate it. I know he is extremely aware of this road and its fabled history, not just from his nine years representing this constituency with distinction, but crossing it many times. I remember following him across this road some time ago when he was previously in government and attending the launch of a particularly impressive Coillte exhibition in the Dublin Mountains over which he presided. I am delighted to say that my family and I will be visiting that site this weekend. Thankfully, it is within the Dublin boundary.

As the Minister is aware, this road is not fit for purpose in the modern era. During the summer, a very serious two-car collision occurred on the road. This gave rise to concerns for many people and highlighted the need to progress with the plan to redesign the road. That plan is 25 or 30 years old at this stage. It predates the establishment of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council and was originally drawn up by Dublin County Council. The road in most parts does not even have a footpath. In 2007, planning for the road was agreed but the project was put on hold due to the financial crisis. Thankfully, just when I left the local authority and entered the Seanad some years ago, a new planning application was submitted and accepted for a far more contemporary project in line with all the best regional planning guidelines, including, most importantly, the provision not just of properly proportioned and designed footpaths but also cycle lanes. I know the Minister would look forward many times to cycling up around the Dublin Mountains.

A new layout has already been completed at the junction of Harold's Grange Road and Blackglen Road. However, Blackglen Road still needs to be finished. The compulsory purchase orders have just been completed and the tenders have gone out to secure the construction of this road. I spoke to the engineer in the local authority today and was told that, all things going well, it would be able to begin the works in February. To reach that stage, we need to hear a commitment from the Minister that his Department will contribute to the funding. Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council has reserved considerable funding for this project, but it will never get the go-ahead if it does not also get central government funding.

It is vital because as soon as this welcome project is completed, the other two spurs of this three-road junction will need to be completed. I refer to the Harold's Grange Road spur alongside Marley Park and, most importantly, the Hillcrest Road spur through Lambs Cross and going down to the M50 where every day we see articulated lorries going to the major shopping centres, Sandyford Business Park or the very famous livery yard on the Enniskerry Road. They do so through a road junction where barely two cars can go across and in respect of which residents have had to campaign, sign petitions and have sleep-outs. I appeal to the Minister to give that guarantee, not just to the local authority and the local representatives but, crucially, to the rapidly growing population of the greater Blackglen Road area.

I am very happy to be here to take this matter because this is a road and area I am very familiar with.

Did the Minister notice the Deputy following him on the road at any stage?

I am sure he will be following me all the way to ministerial office at some stage.

The improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads is the statutory responsibility of the relevant local authority in accordance with the provisions of section 13 of the Roads Act 1993. State grants, where applicable, are intended to supplement the funding allocated to the maintenance and improvement of roads by local authorities from their own resources.

In the case of the four Dublin councils, under the arrangement put in place by Government following the introduction of the local property tax, LPT, local authorities are required to fund their main regional and local roads programmes from their own resources, including LPT receipts. While it is possible to seek grant support under the Department's regional and local roads grant programme for strategic projects, this is dependent on available budgets and the outcome of the project appraisal process required under the public spending code.

As regards budgets, the extent of the cutbacks in grant funding during the post-2008 recession meant that grant funding for road improvement schemes had to be curtailed because expenditure on maintenance and renewal was falling well short of what was required to adequately maintain the regional and local road network.  The national development plan, NDP, provides for the gradual build-up of funding for the road network, but funding is not yet at the level needed for the adequate maintenance and renewal of regional and local roads. For this reason, the primary focus for capital investment at present is the maintenance and renewal of the network and implementation of the 12 regional and local road projects identified for development, subject to necessary approvals, in the NDP.

Some limited provision is being made in the capital budget for the appraisal of a pipeline of upgrade projects. This is intended to cover the appraisal of projects for future development, if possible. Last year, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council raised with the Department the possibility of submitting an application for part-funding of the Blackglen Road-Harold's Grange Road scheme under this allocation. The council was proposing at the time to deliver the scheme in two phases. Phase 1 relates to the Blackglen Road and extends from the junction at Lambs Cross to the junction with Ticknock Road. Phase 2 deals with the Harold's Grange Road, extending from the junction with Ticknock Road to the junction with College Road-Grange Road-Kellystown Road. The council indicated that the estimated cost of phase 1 was of the order of €22 million. 

Following on from a meeting with the council, the Department indicated that given its existing funding commitments for strategic road schemes under the NDP, the detailed project appraisal requirements under the public spending code and the scale of and proposed timetable for implementation of this particular scheme, it would not be feasible to consider it for funding under the regional and local roads grant programme.  However, the National Transport Authority, NTA, has allocated funding of just over €2 million under its sustainable transport measures grants as an initial contribution towards the cost of the walking and cycling aspects of the scheme. The NTA is liaising directly with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council in respect of this allocation.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. I will not pretend that I am not a little disappointed with the lack of progress. As the Minister well knows, people in this area have been waiting more than 25 years for improvements to a road that is not fit for purpose. In the time since the need for an upgrade was identified, 7,000 new homes have been built in the area and there has been a significant increase in traffic. The population has grown to such an extent that since I was first elected to office in 2009, a dozen new national and secondary schools have been constructed in the area. The volumes of traffic, including motor car, bicycle and, to a lesser extent, pedestrian have multiplied.

Priority must be given to upgrading this major linear artery across the Dublin Mountains. The road is used by people travelling to and from such places as Dundrum Town Centre, the M50 and Sandyford business district, and it encompasses a vastly populated and growing residential area. Many people bought their homes in the area assuming that the road would be built before they even had children, let alone when they were sending those children off, as the case may be, to third level. As I said, there was an extremely serious accident on the road this summer. Fortunately, there were no fatalities but there were a number of injuries and the traffic delays were manic. If we think back to the very bad snows of 2009 and 2010, there were four-hour to five-hour delays for motorists trying to cross this road. It is a very serious matter. I appeal to the Minister and his officials not just to engage with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council but to prioritise this project for funding, for the benefit not only of the immediate population but that of the wider population of south Dublin and north Wicklow.

The Deputy is right that I know this particular road well. I am also very familiar with Hillcrest Road, which the Deputy mentioned, and the travails of its residents over the years as a result of the inordinate traffic volumes on what is a narrow residential road. The Department engaged with the council in July last year and came back strongly with the position that funding for this scheme could not be drawn down under the regional and local roads grant programme. As I indicated in my reply, the roads already identified under the NDP will receive priority funding.

The only prospect I can offer the Deputy - without in any way committing, because it is impossible to do so - is that any review of the NDP might led to a possible reconsideration of the funding it provides. In the meantime, I understand the council has done the planning for the project and has started the process of securing compulsory purchase orders. I do not know whether the council has the resources to proceed with the works or where the project fits within its strategic investment plans. The Department, having considered the matter in some detail as recently as last year, concluded that the project would not be included in the regional and local road grants programme. As to whether that might change under any review of the NDP, which would be early next year, we will have to wait and see.