Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Road Safety

Last week I ran a consultation with primary schools from across Cork South-West on the draft county development plan. Of the 35 schools participating, two thirds identified the need for safe crossings near their school and nine out of ten wanted cycle paths.

When young people live close enough, they want to be able to walk or cycle to school, to go in with their friends and have a sense of independence. This also brings many health and environmental benefits. However, to make this possible, we need proper infrastructure that can ensure the safety of children. This is severely lacking in so many places across west Cork and rural Ireland. Belgooly needs investment to safely connect the school and village, and Ballyheda and Dunderrow national schools are just two examples of many that need traffic calming measures.

While this is a matter for many communities, my question today relates to Kealkill near Bantry. Getting to school there involves crossing the main street in the village which is also the primary route between Beara, Bantry and Sheep’s Head to Cork city. There are many lorries coming through from Castletownbere and last week community members showed me and my colleague, Councillor Ross O’Connell, where the children have to cross. There are literally no traffic calming measures, no footpaths or pedestrian crossings and no legible road markings. There is absolutely nothing. Furthermore, as with many towns and villages, traffic goes through dangerously fast which increases the risk for the 190 pupils in the school in Kealkill. This is incredibly dangerous.

While all schools need and should have proper infrastructure, Kealkill is an outlier that requires immediate intervention to have a safe crossing and footpaths in place for September. We will be pursuing this matter at council level but given the immediacy of the need, I ask the Minister to ensure a safe route to school is provided to the children of Kealkill. It is a small but vibrant community that is trying to retain its population and ensure economic viability. Local groups have done incredible work in developing facilities and a parkland and they have highlighted the pressing need for a safe crossing to school as a priority.

The Minister will no doubt outline the safe routes to school initiative which specifically funds footpath upgrades and new cycle lanes to encourage more active travel to school. I can assure him that Kealkill is in desperate need of this type of investment and would greatly benefit from the programme. Last year, Belgooly primary school, which also needs support in safely connecting the village and school, showed me the significant difference that simple interventions such as bollards can make to empower children to walk and cycle to school, while in Skibbereen there is a successful cycle bus which can act as an example for other towns. We all want this type of activity and infrastructure for as many primary and secondary schools as possible.

In talking with primary school classes, over one third felt that although they were close enough to walk or cycle to schools, they did not do so because it was not safe. We need to work to bring that number down. Kealkill is one school where we can make a substantial difference. I know there are lots of areas that need these kinds of works but Kealkill is in a league of its own in terms of the risk to people’s safety. I urge the Minister to act to help put proper infrastructure in place and have it ready for students in September.

I thank Deputy Cairns for raising this matter. As it happens, I know Kealkill well. I used to bring a lot of people up to the stone circles in Kealkill which are stunning and the school is just below that site. I know it well. That route to Cork is the one that everyone uses. It is a kind of rat run because it does not go through any town and is a relatively straight run all the way. It is similar to Belgooly, which I also happen to know through friends. They are both small villages off the main road but with a lot of passing traffic. They are on the back roads but they are very busy. I am absolutely aware of the issues in places like Kealkill.

Primarily, this is a matter for the council but it must be said that Cork County Council, in terms of its planning, has done well in comparison with other parts of the country. If one looks at places like Skibbereen, Bantry, Clonakilty, Dunmanway and Macroom, with the bypass, one can see that Cork County Council has understood the idea of the urban realm, creating villages and towns that have centres, pedestrian spaces and so on. Cork County Council is better than most which may be due to the simple fact that it has a good county architect which has led to a different design approach.

There is no shortage of funding to develop safe routes to schools but I will not list off all of the different initiatives now. What this really comes down to is political will at a local level to rethink the purpose of the roads. When I was involved in transport campaigning I met a brilliant Dutch engineer who taught me about how to create safe spaces. To simplify it, first, one has to look at the function of the road. Then one looks at the shape or the way the road is divided up and finally, one looks at behaviour. If we are going to bring about change, which we need to do for places like Kealkill, as well as for our 4,000 primary schools, and create safe routes to school, then we must devise mechanisms to achieve a transformation, to bring back walking and cycling as a safe way of getting around our communities.

If one looks at the road in Kealkill, one must ask whether it is a through road for people getting to Cork city. If I recall the village correctly, the national school is slightly away from the main roads, the one to Gougane or the one to Cork city. What is the function of the roads through Kealkill? Are the roads to serve the village or are they back roads to Cork? It should be the former. First and foremost, the function of the roads around the village of Kealkill is to serve the people of the village. When one looks at the shape of the road, one must ask whether we need to install footpaths, bollards or other mechanisms like ramps, although we do not want to do the latter if we can avoid it. We need to find better ways of managing traffic. The third thing to look at is behaviour. What is the speed of the traffic going through the village? What types of vehicles are passing through? Are we talking about big fish trucks heading to Rosslare in order to get to Spain in 24 hours? They are very threatening.

Those people are doing their jobs; I am not blaming them directly.

On a village by village, primary school by primary school basis, we need to ask what the function of the road is. In my mind, it should be primarily to serve local needs, particularly safe routes to school for our children. Second, we must look at whether we need to change the shape to assist that, perhaps narrowing or maybe building out pavements.

The Minister must conclude now. He will have another opportunity to respond.

I will come back in then.

I must bring in Deputy Cairns, who has two minutes.

I thank the Minister for his response and his commitment to ensuring that as many young people as possible have access to cycling to school. Like I said, we will be pursuing this issue with the council and I agree that it is a council issue. I would not normally bring an issue like this to this House. It is simply the urgency of this particular issue in this particular town. I know we need better infrastructure in many places but there are no traffic calming measures and not even a road marking in the village. Like the Minister said, it is seen as a main road so people are often overtaking through the village. This is going on where a person would go to cross the road where there is not a pavement. It is simply really urgent, which is why I raised it as a Topical Issue matter.

I hope Kealkill will be made a priority for the safe routes to school initiative. There is an immediate need for safe infrastructure, which can be installed at the most effective time for the community. It highlights the types of projects we need for all our schools, from footpaths and cycle lanes to crossing points and traffic calming.

Regrettably, despite warning signs and current speed restrictions, people still drive much too quickly past schools. We need, therefore, to look at additional measures, including more 30 km per hour speed limits, especially in rural areas where schools are often beside roads with speed limits of 80 km per hour or 100 km per hour.

Safe infrastructure for cycling and walking will benefit the whole community. Cycling campaigns in Bandon and Skibbereen are calling out for segregated lanes and pedestrian crossings, which are vital for everybody, especially for people with disabilities.

The situation for schoolchildren in Kealkill is exacerbated by the volume of traffic that is going through the village too fast. Although it is a regional road, like the Minister said, it is one of the main routes connecting west Cork and the city over the Cousane Gap. The Minister spoke about the nature and function of the road and the volume of traffic, specifically with regard to trucks coming from Castletownbere. There is a clear need, therefore, to which I believe the Minister alluded, for a traffic calming analysis study to guide the types of calming measures the village requires. It arguably should not be considered a regional road anymore given that it is so predominantly used. Given the volume of traffic, this really needs to be looked at.

A part of place-making is liveable streets, and that applies to villages as much as it does towns and cities. I hope the Minister will look at providing this type of project for Kealkill too. Ultimately, as the Minister knows, the barometer for safe active travel is whether one would allow a ten-year-old to use the road with his or her friends. In Kealkill, I can tell the Minister a person absolutely would not, at any age. This needs to be a target, and not just for the easy wins in cities but for the type of transformative infrastructure we need in rural areas and the type of infrastructure Kealkill needs now.

The Minister has two minutes for his concluding statement.

I do not know how big the school is. I would be interested to know the numbers.

There are 190 pupils.

Okay, it is quite big.

It is the biggest population in a school for the area.

They are not just coming from the village of Kealkill; they are coming from the wider area.

All of the population is on the lower part of the town-----

On the Pearson's bridge side.

-----and then one must drive up the hill across that main street, where all the lorries pass, to get up to the school. And there are no road markings, footpaths or anything like that.

I will make this point because I absolutely agree with the Deputy. We need to reduce the speeds and try to define the village as such. The roads serve the village and people who are driving through should realise they are going through a village area.

There is also the issue of the wider road network in the area, however. In my mind, we want to be able to make it safe for our children to walk and cycle to school. Sometimes that will be a longer distance. It might be two or three miles. That is not every case and people may find that they have to drive. No one is shaming, pointing the finger or saying that anyone has to do anything.

If at all possible, however, we need to make it safe. There is a particular culture in west Cork. I have an interest because for years I used to bring people cycling around those very roads on holidays. The same question applies, however. Is it safe and does one feel safe? Most of the time, actually, on most of the back roads in west Cork, one does, because there is that old culture with local people where one would still say hello to someone when driving by raising one's finger. One is actually not speeding from one place to another.

There are other places where that is not the case. The example of Kealkill is very true because there is this idea that people are in a hurry to get to Cork. The speed limit is probably 80 km per hour and then, in some cases, it is 100 km per hour. By and large, therefore, people are in that mindset that they are going to get there as quickly as they can within the 100 km per hour.

The question we must ask, therefore, is how we create the safer wider environment where it is safe to walk on the country road or cycle to school. What is the culture and what are the characteristics of how we drive and how the roads are treated? We need to get this right because we have such a dense network of roads.

Will the Minister carry out analysis on the volume of traffic?

If Cork County Council wants to take Kealkill as an example, I would very much support and encourage that and use it as a test case. As I said, if we saw that working in Kealkill, we could apply the lessons in Belgooly or other places that are very similar.

On that positive note, we must conclude the debate. Deputy Cairns can follow up with the Minister on that commitment.

Broadband Infrastructure

Longford County Council and the local development group in Edgeworthstown have pioneered the development of the co:worx remote working hub in what was formerly the Ulster Bank premises in the County Longford town. It is a visionary €1 million plus project, which really found its niche as the pressures of Covid-19 kicked in and we realised the need for spaces and places to facilitate remote working and high-speed broadband in rural areas.

Next week, the project will be one of the finalists in the prestigious .IE digital town awards, which seek to promote awareness, knowledge, use and understanding of digital in Ireland by its citizens, business and communities. The awards highlight the benefits and possibilities of digital and celebrate the digital achievements of local towns, big and small, including Edgeworthstown. We are delighted to see that Edgeworthstown is one of the finalists in the medium town category this year as the town pushes ahead with its ambitious co:worx remote working hub.

The Minister would be mistaken for thinking that all is rosy and is probably wondering why I am eating up valuable Dáil time today with this success story. The reality is, however, that a major project in the county's second largest town, directly across the road from a new €3 million plus public library, which will open later this year, will not, in fact, have the high-speed broadband that the facility and its ultimate users will crave.

Essentially, the community needs a dedicated fibre broadband connection, and a separate connection for redundancy, for both the co:worx building and the new library, which will be located directly across the road. As part of the recent upgrade to the streetscape in Edgeworthstown, Longford County Council had the vision and foresight to include a 110 mm ducting network linking the two buildings. As all the good civil contractors will tell us, most of the heavy lifting has been done with regard to this project.

As I said earlier, this is the second largest town in County Longford, home to a number of leading industries and employers. While the local exchange has fibre broadband to the cabinet, there is, it seems, no provision for fibre to homes or businesses. The provision of a dedicated fibre connection is simply too costly for a start-up, and particularly a community project like co:worx.

We asked Eir to consider expediting the roll-out of its Ireland’s fibre network, IFN, to Edgeworthstown, which it is currently rolling out in nearby Longford. I am aware that Eir has made provision for a similar project in Abbeyshrule, where the project is a similar co-working space called The Yard Hub. There is real hope and expectation in Edgeworthstown, and within the local community, that the organisation charged with taking this to the next digital level will see the merit in these two projects, that is, the public library and the co:worx hub, and work with the local community to ensure that we have the high-speed broadband on which both these facilities will be dependent.

I thank Deputy Flaherty for raising this issue. I recognise how vital telecommunications services are to citizens for so many aspects of their daily lives including remote working, studying and staying in touch with family members. These services have proved essential since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic and given the restrictions imposed nationally. Having local facilities such as libraries and hubs in place to facilitate digital access in towns and villages will be important in the gradual return to normality and economic recovery.

The provision of services in a liberalised market, however, is regulated by the independent regulator, the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg. I do not have a direct role in investment decisions. Eir is a private, commercial company and the decision to roll out broadband infrastructure is a matter for the management of the company.

That said, with regard to connectivity on a nationwide basis, the national broadband plan, NBP, is obviously of critical importance in ensuring high-speed connectivity. Work is under way on foot of the contract, which was signed with National Broadband Ireland, NBI, to roll out a high-speed network right across the country, including 100,000 businesses and farms along with 695 schools.

The NBP network will offer those premises in the intervention area a high-speed broadband service of up to 500 Mbps from the outset. Construction will commence in all counties, including Longford, in the first two years and more than 90% of premises in the State will have access in the next four years. In County Longford, almost 5,000 premises have been passed by the Eir 300K roll-out in recent years. NBI is making steady progress on the delivery of the NBP. Design work is complete or ongoing in target townlands across the country. Since 25 January 2021, retailers have been able to resell the service to householders across the NBI network.

As regards the specific query raised by the Deputy, I understand that Longford County Council is currently in active discussions with Eir and with relevant Departments, including mine and the Department of Rural and Community Development, to determine how best to ensure improved digital and broadband access for Edgeworthstown, including for the start-up hub and the library, both of which are due to open towards the end of 2021. In the context of our economic recovery, and on the day after the launch of the national economic recovery plan, we must look to the future to support the full resumption of work and to get people back to work. It is hugely important that vibrant local partnership approaches such as those being taken in all local authority areas, including through the work of the local broadband officers, be supported in driving forward digital transformation at local level for the benefit of communities. Hubs such as the one planned for Edgeworthstown will help kick-start local economies all over Ireland and facilitate co-working, SMEs, start-ups and local job creation.

There may be an opportunity in this regard. The Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, is particularly keen on the concept of hubs. I understand that the Co:worx hub in Edgeworthstown is a former Ulster Bank branch and I am sure that location would be familiar to her. What is happening in that town is exactly the sort of project at the centre of our new rural development strategy. Yesterday, it was announced that in excess of €60 million has been allocated for just these types of hubs in the new recovery and resilience plan. I will discuss with the Ministers for Rural and Community Development and Enterprise, Trade and Employment whose Department is responsible for that plan and how this particular project would fit within Government plans. It is exactly in tune with what we want to do in the recovery plan so we should do everything we can to support it. It looks like a good example of what we want.

I am delighted to see the Minister's enthusiasm for the project. I am also delighted that his Department is engaging with the project promoters and the county council to ensure the town, the hub and the library will get improved digital and broadband access, specific to the two projects that will come on stream towards the end of the year. I appreciate that Eir is a private company with investors' capital but we will all agree that it has been gifted the opportunity to develop our telecoms network, with the profits that will doubtlessly ensue. We have a very ambitious broadband plan and it is something we simply have to get right for future generations. It is very important that Eir is reminded of the need to work and engage with local communities. It is inconceivable that it cannot accommodate a public library worth over €3 million, which is soon to open, and such an innovative remote working hub in the county's second largest town. I am delighted that the Minister is aware of this project and enthused and engaged with it but we need to send a loud and clear message to Eir that it must engage with the project promoters and ensure they get the broadband they need. These are probably the two largest capital investments in the second largest town in the county in recent years and are worth more than €5 million to the local economy between them. It is critical that, when the doors open to these facilities towards the end of the year, both of them have high-speed broadband.

Based on the Deputy's earlier contribution, my understanding is that the local authority is looking at supporting ducting to connect the Eir network and that the local exchange is fibre-enabled. In a sense, this looks like a public-private partnership, in that Eir is a private company coming together with the library and the hub, which is on a former commercial premises. Supporting the local authority in getting that ducting to the building would make a lot of sense for the local authority. Going back to what I was saying earlier about the town centres first policy, we do not want historic buildings to fall into disrepair. We want them to be used to the maximum extent. We have seen in other hubs across the country, such as the Ludgate centre in Skibbereen, that they can bring a lot of economic activity to an area. I would be very supportive of any support my Department can give the local authority in getting that exchange connected or putting the fibre ducting in place to get it to the relevant buildings.

Tax Code

The so-called property tax is, in reality, a family home tax. It is an austerity tax. It is a tax against which the socialist left campaigned when it was introduced in the aftermath of the household tax. People Before Profit warned at that time that if it was introduced it would rise and rise and that is precisely what is happening. The Government is proposing to hike up the property tax by approximately €100 for one in three households. That €100 might be small change for Ministers but for many households it is a big increase, especially those on low incomes, those who are retired or the very many who are out of work right now. This will hit those with large mortgages or low incomes hardest as it takes no account of people's ability to pay. Homeowners who lost their jobs due to Covid now face the double-whammy of a pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, cut and a property tax hike together. The Government likes to pretend that the property tax is about funding local services but in reality, local councils did not get an extra penny when the property tax was introduced. The Government gave with one hand, telling them they could have the property tax, and, with the other, cut back the Local Government Fund, leaving councils just as underfunded as ever. In reality, that money went to paying off the bondholders, and let us not forget that we are still paying them. Instead of hiking the property tax and instead of this equality of misery that the Government wants us all to have, we should scrap it and replace it with a genuine property tax, that is, a wealth tax on the assets of the very richest. A 3% wealth tax on the top 1% in this country would raise more than seven times the amount that will be raised by the increased property tax. All their assets should be taxed, including property, but also stocks, shares, yachts, sports cars and everything else. Instead of hitting ordinary people again, it is time we tax the rich.

The property tax, so-called, is a fundamentally unjust tax because it takes no account whatsoever of the homeowner's income or ability to pay. It becomes even more unfair in the context of the disastrous failure of this Government to control a fundamentally dysfunctional housing market. Property prices have gone off the Richter scale. In areas like my own, as well as much of Dublin and many other urban centres, the value of property has gone through the roof and that will impact the rate of property tax people have to pay. Of course, that bears no relationship to the income of the person in the house. As nobody can afford these property prices, the people who happen to live in areas where prices are extremely high and have gone out of control will be punished just for living in those particular areas. In the long term this tax, as well as many other things like the failure to build social housing in these areas, will lead to a social cleansing of many of them. People on lower incomes simply will not be able to live in certain places. The property tax punishes them for the fact they happen to live in a particular place.

It is noteworthy it is not only the socialist left. We have been saying this for a long time and, indeed, actively campaigned against the introduction of this tax. I note Dr. Lorcan Sirr, on "Morning Ireland" this morning, when asked directly is it a fair tax and is it a regressive tax, said that it is not a fair tax and it is a regressive tax. The Government should accept that. In the aftermath of Covid, in particular, it should not be loading it on people. The Government should abolish this tax and introduce a proper wealth tax.

I thank the Deputies for raising this matter.

The programme for Government includes a commitment to bring forward legislation in relation to the local property tax on the basis of fairness and that most homeowners will not face an increase in their local property tax liability. In addition, there is a commitment to bring new homes, which are currently exempt from local property tax, into the taxation system.

Accordingly, yesterday the Government gave its approval for the general scheme of the Finance (Local Property Tax) (Amendment) Bill 2021. This Bill will now be drafted to give effect to a package of measures addressing the programme commitments and related matters.

Perhaps the most significant proposal is a revised method for calculating local property tax, LPT, liabilities. The new approach maintains the number of bands at 20. Band 1 is expanded from €1 to €200,000 and band 2 contains values in the range of €200,000 to €262,500. The LPT charge is fixed at the current charge for bands 1 and 2, which is €90 and €225, respectively.

A 75% increase is applied to all thresholds which is broadly consistent with the 74% increase observed in property prices up to 2020 and a forecast 2% increase for this year. In addition to this, a lower rate of 0.1029% is applied and the existing charging structure is maintained.

There is currently a higher rate for properties valued above €1 million with the first €1 million charged at 0.18% and everything above at a higher rate of 0.25%. Properties are charged on the self-assessed value at individual property level.

Under the proposed methodology, it was likely that owners of higher value properties could benefit from reductions in LPT liabilities due to the widening of the bands and the reduced rate. To address this, we propose that a higher rate should be applied to properties above €1.05 million by charging a higher mid-point rate on bands above that level and a third rate be applied to properties above €1.75 million. Properties in bands 12 to 17, inclusive, between €1.05 million and €1.75 million, will be charged a mid-point rate made up of 0.1029% on the first €1 million and 0.25% on the balance, and properties in band 20 will be charged on individual property prices up to 0.3%.

Residential properties built after the current valuation date or 1 May 2013 remain outside the charge to LPT. These properties will now become liable at the next valuation date of 1 November. Previously exempt properties purchased during 2013 and trading stock of builders and developers unsold on 1 May 2013 or sold in the period 1 January 2013 to 31 October 2021, inclusive, will now be brought into the charge.

The general scheme also provides that all new residential properties built between valuation dates will be retrospectively valued as if they had existed on the preceding valuation date. New properties becoming liable for the LPT charge at the next liability date, that is, the following 1 November, will be valued at the previous valuation date and the Revenue will provide assistance to property owners to determine this value. This will maximise the local property tax base and ensure equity.

The measures proposed for this Bill fulfil the programme for Government commitments in this area and secure the future of the local property tax.

The Government has decided to cut both the rate of the tax and widen the bands to make charges affordable. This means that the majority of homeowners are likely to see either a decrease or no change. Where increases occur, the majority will be a single band of €90 notwithstanding the significant increases we have seen in property values since 2013.

Yesterday, the Taoiseach said that what we were experiencing was the opposite of austerity. It is a bit hard to accept. There are many similarities now to what was done in 2008 when the Government responded to the crash by bailing out the banks and making ordinary workers foot the bill through cuts to public services and taxes such as this. The result was a lost decade, untold suffering for many and massive profiteering by a tiny few. Now we have the funnelling of huge amounts of money to big business with no strings attached and at the same time the hiking up of property tax for workers, cutting back on pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, supports for those who have lost their jobs, and letting landlords impose double rent hikes to drive up their profits.

We must not go back to austerity. We cannot go back to bailing out the rich. Instead, it is time that we imposed a Covid wealth tax on those who have profited from the crisis, such as Mr. Denis O'Brien whose wealth increased by €4 million every day in the pandemic. Tax the billionaires, tax the big businesses and invest in an eco-socialist green new deal.

The property tax is not only an unfair tax; it is an utterly pointless tax. When the Fine Gael-led Government introduced it, the justification for it was that it would dampen the property market and fund local services. Now we see the reality - not a single extra cent for local government. With the removal of the equalisation fund, we will deepen the gap in the ability of local authorities to fund services depending on where they happen to be. Of course, it has done nothing to dampen the market, which has gone completely out of control. Therefore, there is no point to this tax and it is an unfair tax.

The alternative is, as Deputy Paul Murphy said, a wealth tax on billionaires. Here is another suggestion. Put a tax not on the family home but on multiple property owners. One could raise just as much money and it would be a far fairer and less regressive tax.

Deputy Boyd Barrett responds to what I said. Deputy Paul Murphy comes in here and reads out a script that was written a decade ago. Look at what the Government announced yesterday - €4 billion worth of investment in the future - on top of last year's budget which led to record levels of investment in our future. Look at the employment wage subsidy scheme where the State is standing absolutely behind Irish workers and full-square behind Irish employers to maintain jobs and maintain income at exactly the time at which that help is needed most.

The two political parties represented by the two Deputies today are in favour of tackling the climate crisis but they are against any changes in carbon pricing. They want higher spending and higher investment in housing but they are against any changes in the local property tax. The kind of politics we are seeing here this morning that I expect to see more of in the coming weeks, months and years is for nothing. It is against everything.

The measure that the Government is bringing forward is looking to broaden the local property tax base so that all homes are taxed fairly. We are making changes in relation to the way in which the bands are structured and the rate is delivered to do all we can to ensure that the bill that will be presented to homeowners across January and February next year is as fair and affordable as possible.

I am aware of all the challenges homeowners and citizens face at present but that is why we brought in all the measures that we announced yesterday to help guide our country through this crisis. I am certain if I was to bring in some of the measures the Deputies are looking for and have just called for, they would find some reasons for opposing them as well.

School Transport

I am raising this matter because, after all that our schoolchildren and their families have been through over the past 12 to 18 months, they can do without the seemingly endless bureaucracy and battles they face in securing school transport. Every year, parents in Tipperary are left struggling to get spaces on school buses under the school transport scheme. In some instances, people have been told that, due to distance limits, they cannot get tickets despite buses for the schools they have chosen passing their houses every morning. Sometimes, those buses are not even full. In other cases, parents of children with additional needs have found that the scheme gives no consideration to the fact that the most suitable schools for their children may not be the nearest schools, which is the requirement under the scheme.

Recently, a constituent wrote to me. She has a daughter with additional educational needs who will be moving from a particular mid-Tipperary school to the Presentation Secondary School in Thurles, but she is running into problems with school transport because Thurles is not the nearest school to them. They have chosen Thurles for the simple reason that it best supports the daughter's educational needs and has a teacher with the specialist training she needs, but her mother is having to battle to secure a place.

The family of a young chap in Rearcross, County Tipperary, applied for a ticket to attend a school in Newport. The bus passes his gate every day. His brothers get that bus, but he has been turned down because he is 300 m too far from the school. I do not know whether Google Maps is being used, but citing a distance of 300 m when his siblings use the same bus is crazy.

No matter what the needs of a child are, the current scheme does not take into consideration the geography of many areas in rural Ireland, especially in a large county like Tipperary. For example, a school bus passing someone's gate may not be going to the school that the Department declares should be attended. The issue needs to be addressed once and for all. Families should not be going through this after all they have put up with over the past 12 to 18 months.

The first example I gave was of a young girl. Her family want to send her to a particular school because it has a teacher with the specialist training she needs. It is crazy that, in 2021, the Department says that children cannot use a school because of bureaucracy or someone sitting behind a desk using Google Maps. In the case of the young chap in Rearcross, we have discovered what the problem is. The Department measures a point from his house to the middle of Newport, which is where the 300 m measurement arises. From his house to the school is not measured, though. We are asking that a complete review of the scheme be undertaken as quickly as possible.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. Before I address it specifically, I wish to provide the House an outline of the extent of the school transport service.

School transport is a significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department. In the current school year, more than 114,000 children, including more than 14,700 children with special educational needs, are transported on a daily basis to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country at a cost of more than €224.7 million in 2020. The purpose of the Department's school transport scheme is, having regard to available resources, to support the transport to and from school of children who reside remote from their nearest school. Under the terms of the primary and post-primary scheme, children are eligible for school transport if they satisfy the distance criteria - 3.2 km at primary level and 4.8 km at post-primary level - and are attending their nearest schools or education centres as determined by the Department or Bus Éireann, having regard to ethos and language.

All children who are eligible for school transport and who complete the application and payment process on time are accommodated on school transport services for the 2021-2022 school year where such services are in operation. Children who are not eligible for school transport may apply for transport on a concessionary basis only and will be facilitated where spare seats are available after eligible children have been accommodated. Where the number of ineligible children exceeds the number of spare seats available, Bus Éireann allocates tickets for the spare seats using an agreed selection process. Concessionary transport is subject to a number of terms and conditions, including the availability of spare seats on an existing service and payment of the annual charge. Routes will not be extended or altered, additional vehicles will not be introduced and larger vehicles or extra trips using existing vehicles will not be provided to cater for children travelling on a concessionary basis.

As referenced by the Deputy, a review of the school transport scheme is under way with a view to taking a fresh look at the service and its broader effectiveness and sustainability. Given the evolving situation with Covid-19, the steering group's work on the review has been delayed. However, I am pleased to confirm that an initial meeting of the steering group was recently held in order to recommence the process, which will continue over the coming period. The review is being conducted to ensure that the school transport system is fit for purpose and serves students and their families adequately. The review will build on the proposals in the programme for Government as they relate to school transport, for example, by examining the options to reduce car journeys, assessing how the school transport scheme can work in liaison with the Safe Routes to Schools programme and examining the options for providing better value and a better service for students, including issues such as the nearest or next nearest school.

It is planned that the steering group will report to me on an interim basis as the review progresses, with a view to presenting a final report later this year with recommendations on the future operation of the Department's school transport scheme. The steering group will report to me initially on preliminary findings regarding eligibility before moving to consider and report on broader issues such as the objectives of the scheme and its alignment with other initiatives and wider Government policy.

The Minister can read from a script like that all she likes, but the rules of the scheme are not reflective of the reality of rural schools and their large catchment areas. In a letter about the school transport scheme for children with special educational needs, the Minister told me that "children are eligible for transport where they have special educational needs arising from a diagnosed disability and are attending the nearest recognised mainstream school, special class/special school or unit, that is or can be resourced, to meet their special educational needs". The term "nearest school" limits their options.

Will the Minister guarantee me and the families across the country that, however long it takes for the report to be put in her hand, she will address this problem well before the children are due back in school and she will not leave it until the last minute to announce a half-hearted attempt to resolve it? Parents should not have to fight with the Minister or Bus Éireann so that their children can go to the schools they deem best suited to their children. They have been through enough. Please do not inflict more hardship on them.

The example in Rearcross shows how crazy the system is. That young man's brothers are getting on a bus that passes their gate, yet the Department says that he is not eligible for the same transport. It is not an isolated case. Every Deputy, probably including the Minister, is getting told this by families continuously, especially now that we are in the school holidays and people are starting to worry that, come September, their children will not get school transport because of some silly rule that the Minister just referenced.

I acknowledge the points the Deputy raises. The reason behind many of them gives rise to the necessity for a review. I come from a rural constituency and am more than familiar with the issues that have pertained to the school transport system.

I deal with it with my constituents. It has been an ongoing issue for many years and it predates many of us being elected to the House. It is for this reason I was more than keen that the review of the school transport service as we know it would be given every opportunity, notwithstanding Covid and I understand there could have been issues with Covid. I was very keen that we would reconvene and get down to business and tackle many of the issues as the Deputy has outlined them. I am happy to confirm the steering group has now reconvened and its work is ongoing. To confirm, it is my intention the steering group will present its initial or preliminary findings regarding eligibility, which is one of the key issues outlined by the Deputy, in the short term. I expect to have it before the fuller and more comprehensive report is outlined by the close of year.

I appreciate that for parents this is a hugely difficult, trying and complex process. It is my intention we will do all we can to ensure it is a more streamlined service and that students are accommodated. The impetus for the entire review is to ensure the school transport service provides the service it should provide and I look forward to the interim report in the not too distant future.

It would help a lot of people.