Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

School Accommodation

I thank my colleague, the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, for designating the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, to answer this question. I am grateful for that. Firhouse Educate Together post-primary school is to cater for 1,000 pupils, and it may be the only such school planned for my constituency. I welcome the efforts made by officials, management, staff and all the stakeholders in securing a site for a much-needed permanent home for this school, which will house 1,000 pupils when it is complete. A formal planning application has been submitted to South Dublin County Council for temporary accommodation at a site adjacent to Ballycullen Green, which is off the Old Court Road in Ballycullen–Firhouse. It is a site which will not be without its challenges, particularly regarding access, traffic movement, etc.

However, the reason I chose this subject for a Topical Issue debate centres on my concerns regarding the manner in which the Department of Education took a decision, pending the outcome of the planning application by the Department for a temporary site for the school, to relocate Firhouse Educate Together secondary school to the grounds of the existing Firhouse Community College, which has been in that community for many years. I understand the decision was made to ensure Firhouse Educate Together secondary school opens in September, which I welcome. My concern, though, relates to the manner in which that decision was communicated to Firhouse Community College and to the Dublin and Dún Laoghaire Education and Training Board, DDLETB, was truly poor. It caused a great deal of genuine and deep hurt and upset to the management, students, parents association and staff of Firhouse Community College.

I think the principal just heard about the decision the night before the news was made public. Until that stage, I do not think Firhouse Community College had considered that it was really a live option being considered by the Department of Education. It was a shock to hear the news that Firhouse Educate Together secondary school will be temporarily located on the grounds of Firhouse Community College from September, and the college will have no say in that. Equally, people who live in neighbouring estates, residents associations and parents councils will have no input into this decision. The decision had been made.

Therefore, there are several pieces to pick up and several questions to pose regarding this matter. First, I ask that the Minister of State communicate to the Minister for Education that this process was handled in a disrespectful manner when it comes to Firhouse Community College. I put that on the record tonight. In organising the temporary relocation of Firhouse Educate Together post-primary school to the grounds of Firhouse Community College, a commitment was given that it will be for a maximum of a year. I want a commitment and a guarantee from the Minister for Education that that is the case.

If the separate ongoing planning application is successful, then that will ensure the relocation to the grounds of Firhouse Community College will be temporary. An appeal or prolonged process regarding the planning application for temporary accommodation on another site, however, will cause real concern to the parents, staff and management of Firhouse Community College. Can it be guaranteed and committed to that the temporary relocation will be for an absolute maximum of one academic year?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it allows me to provide an update to the House on behalf of the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, who is unavailable, on the current position in relation to the provision of interim and permanent accommodation for Firhouse Educate Together Secondary School, ETSS, The school will have approximately 1,000 pupils, illustrating the very strong demand in the area for this project to be completed.

Firhouse ETSS opened in September 2018 in vacant classrooms in the permanent school building of Firhouse Educate Together Primary School on an education campus shared with the permanent 16-classroom school for Gaelscoil na Giúise. In September 2019, the Department put in place arrangements with Gaelscoil na Giúise and its patron body, An Foras Pátrúnachta, to use some vacant classrooms in the Gaelscoil for Firhouse ETSS. However, it is not possible for the secondary school to continue to operate in its current location for the coming school year as the space is not available and the agreement with Gaelscoil na Giúise and An Foras Pátrúnachta was that the arrangement would be for the 2020-21 school year only. Consequently, alternative arrangements are being progressed.

A planning application for interim accommodation for the school on its permanent site was lodged on 26 May 2021 and instructions have issued to the project manager overseeing the delivery of the interim accommodation to proceed with the procurement arrangements under the Department's new modular buildings framework. That is progressing as we speak, in parallel with the planning application process and hopefully both will move forward together. There was a delay in obtaining a necessary legal consent from an adjacent landowner in order to lodge the planning application and as a result, the Department is putting in place contingency arrangements for the school to be located in suitable interim accommodation at the Firhouse Community College site from August 2021 for a maximum of one academic year. The interim accommodation, which includes specialist classrooms, special educational needs, SEN, provision and ancillary accommodation, will be installed on the community college site for the beginning of the 2021-22 school year using the planning exemption secured in March 2021. Details of the accommodation were recently issued to the patrons of the schools concerned.

It is the Department's intention that the school will move into the interim accommodation on its permanent site as early as possible in the 2021-22 academic year and that the vacated interim accommodation on the community college site will remain on site and will be available for use by Firhouse Community College as provided for under the exemption.

I accept the point that the Deputy made with regard to departmental communication with Firhouse Community College at the very last minute and can understand the upset and disquiet this caused. However, based on the information laid out by Deputy Lahart, it has been a difficult situation. The planning application was delayed because legal consent from an adjoining landowner had to be secured and that took some time. The plan is as I have clearly outlined and I hope my reply is of assistance. It is important that the Department communicates clearly with the patron and the board of management and that they communicate immediately with staff, parents and all involved in the school. I hope my reply provides some assurance and if the Deputy has any further comments or questions, I will happily relay them to the Minister tomorrow morning on his behalf.

I am very grateful for that empathetic response which grasps the hurt and upset that has been caused. I ask the Minister of State to relay to the Minister my belief that steps need to be taken quickly to begin communications between both schools. Both have been left in the lurch to some degree and the communications deficits have hurt them. If Firhouse ETSS is to be accommodated on site in Firhouse Community College for one academic year, it is important that channels of communication between management and between parents' associations are opened up as quickly as possible.

I welcome what the Minister of State said in his reply in terms of the arrangement being for a maximum of one year. I acknowledge the fact that the Department of Education's planning application for temporary accommodation in Ballycullen closed today. A number of objections and submissions were lodged so it remains to be seen whether South Dublin County Council approves the application. If it grants permission, then obviously the temporary accommodation at Firhouse Community College can be vacated by Firhouse ETSS sooner rather than later. I also welcome the fact that the Department honoured the commitment given to the patron body of the Gaelscoil that Firhouse ETSS would only be housed there for a year. Obviously, that did not benefit Firhouse ETSS but the Department said that arrangement would be for a maximum of one year and it stuck to that. In that context, there are lots of positives to be taken from the answer that the Minister of State has given today.

I am grateful to the Minister of State for his understanding of the fact that the manner in which the whole thing was communicated was unacceptable. It treated the management, staff, students, parents and all other ancillary staff of Firhouse Community College in quite a tawdry manner. It has caused deep hurt which will take some time to undo. There must be some payback in the future for Firhouse Community College for accommodating a neighbouring school.

I thank the Deputy who makes an important point with regard to communication between the two schools. Every school is independent and has its own structure and this coming together, albeit temporary in nature, may cause some difficulties. It is important that there is proper communication between the two schools. I will raise this with the Minister directly tomorrow morning.

The Department is committed to delivering an interim accommodation solution for Firhouse ETSS for September 2021. Department officials continue to provide regular updates to the school's patron body, Educate Together and the patron body keeps the school community updated. The project to deliver the permanent school accommodation is to be delivered under the Department's design and build programme and is currently at the architectural planning stage. A pre-planning meeting with the local authority has taken place and the design work is ongoing. When planning permission has been secured it will be possible to provide a timeline for the progression of the project to tender and construction stage. Everything depends on securing planning permission. I note Deputy Lahart's comment that some objections were lodged but hopefully that will be resolved satisfactorily.

On the question of guaranteeing that the school will move off the site of Firhouse Community College by September 2022, a planning application for interim accommodation on the Firhouse ETSS permanent site was lodged and it is intended to relocate the school to its permanent site in advance of the 2022-23 school year. The indicative date for the commencement of construction is early 2024 although this is dependent on planning permission being granted.

The Deputy has highlighted the fact that there is a growing population in Firhouse and this school, with the potential for the enrolment of 1,000 pupils, must be given priority.

Employment Rights

I ask the Minister to give serious consideration to changing the employment status or classification of home tutors governed by the home tuition grant scheme from self-employed to employee. These tutors are essentially employees of the Department of Education but their current PRSI status puts them at a serious disadvantage because of their lack of eligibility for pensionable PRSI contributions. I ask the Minister to give serious consideration to this proposal.

This issue is quite serious because those who are providing home tuition on a full-time basis cannot make class A contributions because they are in PRSI class S. They cannot claim expenses and yet they are regarded as self-employed. They are also restricted from paying into a private pension fund. They are at a huge disadvantage. They are employed to provide home tuition and the vast majority are working full time providing this service. The Department of Education is paying them but they are not regarded as employees.

We had this debate in recent weeks where people from RTÉ, for instance, who were regarded as having individual contracts have now been brought in as employees. Home tuition is another matter the Department has to give serious consideration to. On the one hand, home tutors are treated as self-employed but they do not have the same advantages of being self-employed because they cannot pay claim expenses or pay into a pension fund. On the other hand, they are not entitled to sick pay or holiday pay and, therefore, they are working at a huge disadvantage. At the same time, they are providing a good service to young people who are not able to fit into the school structure or who are finding it difficult to work within it.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue in the House because it is one that affects a number of people who are involved in home tuition. It is probably a subtle issue that many people would not have been aware of and I can understand that it is a bit confusing. Nevertheless, there are clear procedures and rules in place but I understand people will find them a little bit more complicated than the normal situation.

I am advised by the Revenue Commissioners that, from a Revenue perspective, the home tutors referred to by the Deputy are engaged under a contract of service. This means they are employees but the point is that they are not employees of the Department. They are engaged by the parents subject to satisfying criteria specified by the Department of Education. Prior to September 2015, the home tutors were paid by the parents from grants paid to them by the Department of Education.

As a consequence of a Revenue audit, the Department of Education agreed to operate the PAYE system on payments to the home tutors. This facilitates ease of administration as the payments originate from the Department. It also avoids placing an obligation to register as an employer and administer the PAYE system on each individual parent. It was done on an administrative basis for convenience and to assist everybody involved but it did not change the employment status of home tutors.

It should be borne in mind that PAYE is not a tax in its own right. PAYE is a withholding mechanism. Employers are obliged to deduct income tax from emoluments they pay to employees. Employees remain liable to income tax and the universal social charge, USC, on those emoluments. Application of PAYE does not confer an employment right on a worker. However, I understand that when many people get a pay slip and see who the money is coming from they would believe they are employed by them. However, even though the application of PAYE is made by the Department, it does not confer employment rights.

Matters of PRSI status and employment classification are determined by the scope section in the Department of Social Protection and the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC. I am advised that the scope section in the Department of Social Protection has examined the status of home tutors on a number of occasions and has determined that they are engaged under a contract for services, or self-employed, and that the appropriate PRSI class is class S. The Deputy can appreciate that in my earlier comment I stated that they are deemed to be employees from the Revenue point of view but the Department of Social Protection considers them to be self-employed. There is an unresolved issue here.

On eligibility for PRSI contributions, I am advised by the Department of Social Protection that self-employed workers who earn more than €5,000 in a contribution year are liable to pay social insurance contributions at a class S rate of 4%, subject to a minimum payment of €500. Such contributors, once they satisfy the scheme-specific criteria, in addition to having the required number of social insurance contributions, are covered for a wide range of social insurance benefits. This includes: the State contributory pension; widow's, widower's or surviving civil partner's contributory pension; guardian's contributory payment; maternity, adoptive and paternity benefits; treatment benefits; invalidity pension; partial capacity benefit if in receipt of invalidity pension; jobseeker's benefit for self-employed persons; and parent's benefit.

The following point is important. The Revenue advises that it is available to engage with officials in the Department of Social Protection and the WRC to discuss any determination that might arise under social welfare and employment legislation. The Department of Social Protection is probably the key Department dealing with this issue. The Revenue's involvement is straightforward from an administrative point of view. The Department and the Revenue Commissioners are available to discuss this with the Department of Social Protection and the WRC to try to resolve this matter.

It does not resolve the issue. The Department is paying for this service. I know it is not regarded as the employer on paper but in real terms it is. This is the same debate that has gone on in respect of many organisations in recent months, in that people who are deemed to be self-employed under contracts are, in fact, technically employees. It is time this issue was resolved.

The Minister of State talked about numbers. My understanding is that there are up to 500 people in Cork alone providing this service. I am not sure what the number for the entire country is but we should try to find out as it would be interesting. We should also make sure they get the same recognition as teachers in our primary and secondary schools because they are providing that same level of education, but in a different setting. Why should they be regarded differently just because they are providing the same education but in a different setting? In many cases it is far more challenging so there has to be a huge and genuine commitment by them to make sure the pupils they are dealing with get the best quality education at all times.

I ask that the Department work with the Department of Social Protection and any other Department to make sure we do not have people who are technically employees of a Department who are being treating as self-employed. We criticise that in the private sector but this is the public sector adopting the exact same position. It is time that was reviewed.

I appreciate the Deputy's point of view on this. People are being paid by the Department and they feel that as such that they are employees of it. I would highlight that the parents come into this. They are the people who bring home tutors into their homes so that they can provide those tuition services to children in the household. The parents have a pivotal role and it is important that is not omitted because it is through the parents that this scheme happens.

That said, I accept the confusion between the Department of Social Protection and the WRC, if it was to adjudicate on this. There are many classifications where determinations have to be made on whether a person is self-employed or a contractor working for a business. The question is whether the person is in effect and in reality an employee. That determination has yet to be made and it is important that this case is put. I would recommend that the Department of Social Protection work on this. Revenue is available.

During the recent pandemic, the pandemic unemployment payment, which was available to employees and self-employed persons, was available to people carrying out home tuition. There was also an enhanced illness benefit available to employees and self-employed persons up to a maximum of two weeks when they were medically required to self-isolate during Covid-19.

The matters of PRSI status and employment classification are for the scope section in the Department of Social Protection. I suggest the Deputy table a Topical Issue matter for that Department to get the views from the Department of Finance and the Department of Social Protection on the Revenue's position on the record. It might be helpful to then bring the matter to the WRC.

Self-employed workers who pay social insurance contributions, or class S contributions, are covered for a wide range of social benefits, which I mentioned. I understand the difficulties with the lack of sick pay and holiday pay and not being able to contribute to a pension fund.

Further discussion is required on this matter.

Departmental Schemes

In west Cork, we are lucky to have some of the most spectacular marked trails in Ireland, including the Sheep’s Head way and the Beara way. We also have wonderful short routes such as the Fastnet trails, Castlefreke trails and Kilbrittain trails. Research carried out for West Cork Development Partnership in 2012 demonstrated that walking tourism generated €14 million for the local economy and supported an estimated 353 full-time equivalent jobs. It is exactly the type of sustainable tourism project we need in rural areas.

Rural recreation officers, who are employed by local development companies, are crucial. They are responsible for the roll-out of the national walks scheme. They administer the scheme, work with landowners and communities, complete maintenance plans, develop new routes and so much more. Unfortunately, there seems to be no correlation between the allocation of staff and the workload. The West Cork Development Partnership has the largest number of plans and payments to landowners by a considerable margin. The rural recreational officer in west Cork is responsible for 695 work plans whereas the national average is 190, and for 573 payments while the average is 138. This means the officer is responsible for three times the average for work plans and four times the payments average. The officer administers more than €800,000 in payments to landowners and co-ordinate in excess of 600 km of trails. The dedicated individual in the role had to apply for job sharing last year having been overwhelmed by the workload. While this has provided personal relief, it does not address the clear need for additional officers. Not only is this too much work for one full-time role, it is reflects poor management from the Department. It is fundamentally unfair to have people in part-time jobs working full-time roles. One person cannot effectively do all that is required. There needs to be a set ratio between the scale of the schemes in an area and the number of officers employed to get the most for the public investment. It is essential that this is addressed immediately before the people concerned understandably leave their roles. Will the Minister of State assure the people of west Cork they will be getting necessary additional rural recreational officers as soon as possible?

The Sheep's Head way and Beara way are two of the most iconic, stunning and popular walkways in Europe. Their contribution to the local economies of Sheep's Head, Beara Peninsula, Bantry and the entirety of west Cork is immense. The two trails have a combined length of 400 km and involve more than 600 participants. They are an enormous success. However, those 400 km of trails and the 600 participants are administered by one full-time equivalent rural recreation officer. That is unsustainable. The workload involved in administering that number of trails and participants is beyond belief. That is why we are appealing to the Minister of State to give serious consideration to increasing the number of rural recreation officers to administer the west Cork walkways.

I will give him a small example of the equivalent position in Drumshanbo, County Leitrim. There are 25 km of walks in that area, with only 24 participants, and there is one full-time rural recreation officer to administer the scheme. That is compared to west Cork where 400 km of trails with 600 participants are administered by one officer. We are appealing to the Minister of State to seriously consider additional rural recreation officers for these fantastic schemes.

I thank the Deputies for raising this matter which is important to their locality. The walks scheme, which is funded by the Department of Rural and Community Development, contracts landowners to undertake maintenance work on national waymarked ways and other priority trails that traverse their lands. The landowners receive modest payments for maintenance work undertaken in line with agreed work plans. It makes an important contribution to maintaining some of our most valued walking trails and we want to ensure it continues to be resourced properly in the coming years. Both Deputies outlined the value of both ways to their community and others.

The programme for Government and Our Rural Future includes a commitment to double the number of walks covered by the scheme in recognition of the value of outdoor recreation amenities, not just for individual and community well-being, but also for the tourism impact these trails have on a local economy. The Government is committed to providing investment to further develop this sector in the coming years.

The process of expansion has commenced and the scheme is currently operating on 45 trails supported by approximately 2,040 landowners and is being managed by 16 local development companies around the country. Total costs in respect of the scheme in 2020 were in the region of €2.8 million.

At present, the Department funds rural recreation officers in 13 of these 16 local development companies. The rural recreation officers manage the scheme at a local level. They work with landholders to ensure that the designated walks are maintained at an approved standard, with repairs and improvements made as appropriate. They also make a significant contribution to the development of the outdoor recreation sector locally.

West Cork Development Partnership has two significant trails funded under the walks scheme. Those are the Beara way and the Sheep's Head way, to which the Deputies alluded. There are almost 580 landholders funded under these two walks, receiving funding of approximately €650,000. I am aware that an issue has arisen in West Cork Development Partnership and my colleague, the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, has asked her officials to formally meet with the company. I understand her officials are in the process of confirming a date for the meeting with the company.

Separate to this, the Department has commissioned an external review of the walks scheme to examine the delivery and strategic development of the scheme. Some of the difficulties the Deputies are experiencing are in their locality have been articulated. The Department is also assessing the role and resourcing of the rural recreation officer posts throughout the country. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, will continue to work with all of the stakeholders, including West Cork Development Partnership, to ensure that the scheme can continue to function effectively. I am assured the meeting to which I referred will take place imminently.

I thank the Minister of State and welcome the fact that the Minister has agreed to meet with the group in west Cork. We had requested such a meeting. The Minister of State outlined the scale of investment and that is the reason we need more rural recreational officers. That is the way to get the full benefit of the scheme, not to mention the obligations to the overstretched staff there.

As well as the existing duties, the west Cork rural recreational officer role is also responsible for a significant portion of the planned Beara to Breifne way, which will be Ireland's longest waymarked trail and about which we are all very excited. On top of that, the officer is assisting with new routes in Dunmanway and Ballingeary. That officer position currently has the largest workload in the country by far. It is only increasing, and rapidly. There is a clear and immediate case for the establishment and recruitment of additional rural recreational officers as soon as possible.

In his response, I ask the Minister of State to provide an update on the review of the scheme. Local development companies have outlined the need for more resources but are apparently waiting for a review to be made available to them. What is the status of that review? It is not required, of course, to know we need more staff in these roles. I wish to impress on the Minister of State the need for additional rural recreational officers in Cork.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. It is welcome that the Minister will meet representatives of the West Cork Development Partnership. I am sure she will hear first-hand the challenges they are facing in west Cork but also the considerable potential that exists. That is what this is about. At the moment, the single full-time rural recreational officer is struggling to deal with the enormous workload of running the two schemes about which we have talked. We should not just look to maintain what we have but expand it. We can expand walks such as those from Bantry to Drimoleague, around Dunmanway and walks around the entirety of west Cork. There is considerable potential in walking tourism in Ireland, particularly in west Cork where we have scenic peninsulas. I implore the Minister of State to listen to the people of west Cork, Deputy Cairns and me. I call on him to answer our calls for extra rural recreational officers in this area because they are vital.

I have heard the views of both Deputies. I will raise the matter with the Minister on foot of this debate. I understand from both Deputies the importance of the amenities in question and what they provide. I acknowledge the scale of trails and the number of landowners on the scheme in west Cork compared to other areas, as has been mentioned. As I mentioned earlier, an external review of the walks scheme is nearing completion and assessing the role and resourcing of rural recreation officer posts is part of that review and is key in terms of the terms of reference to establish it.

I understand the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, will publish the review once it has been fully considered by her Department. The recommendations contained in the review will inform the decisions on the further strategic expansion of the scheme, including the resourcing of local development companies such as the West Cork Development Partnership. Direct engagement with the company in west Cork by officials from the Department of Rural and Community Development, together with recommendations emerging from the external review of the walks scheme, should help identify the best approach for the future of the scheme in west Cork and elsewhere.

Water Services

Lead is a very toxic heavy metal and is detrimental to human health, in particular, the health of young children. The risk to health is especially grievous where quantities of lead contained in water supplies are consumed over a long period, even if the lead present is at very low concentrations.

It has been shown that consumption of lead can affect the brain development of children. Infants and babies in the womb are most at risk from lead contamination as children and infants absorb more lead than adults. Studies have shown that the toxic effects from the consumption of lead over time can lead to kidney damage and it has also been linked to cancer.

Over recent decades there has been a concerted effort to remove lead from both petrol and paint in recognition of both the harmful effects and the danger lead poses. Both the HSE and the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, have indicated that no amount of lead in drinking water, no matter how small, can be considered to be completely safe. Every effort must be made, therefore, to eliminate it from drinking water and water supplies.

Water production across the State's treatment plants is lead free and the water mains network carrying the water is also lead free as a result of remedial works carried out over many years. A serious problem exists, however, for many houses built before 1980, where some have been exposed to lead contamination because internal pipes are made of lead. This is especially true for some older homes and buildings, particularly in Dublin, where some pipes in older houses date back to Victorian times.

It was the practice for many years to use lead pipes in service connections, which are the pipes running from the public mains to houses. Such lead pipes were routinely used in the plumbing of homes up until the mid-1970s. Many of the larger estates, such as those in my constituency of Dublin North-West, were built back in the 1950s and 1960s. The issue of lead piping has scarcely been addressed in these estates. Lead leaching from such connections into the drinking water of these houses clearly poses a health risk to the residents.

Irish Water has estimated that approximately 180,000 homes have been affected. That means possibly in the region of 500,000 people are living in these houses. Of this number, approximately 40,000 are thought to have shared backyard common service pipes, which Irish Water said it would take on the responsibility of replacing.

According to the EPA, the only realistic resolution to this health problem is to replace the lead piping in total and this should be done as soon as possible. Irish Water developed a national plan to address the issue and allocated €370 million to be spent over ten years in replacing lead pipes in the public water supply. These moneys did not include replacing pipes under the front gardens or in houses. Homeowners were deemed to be responsible for such works and some homeowners could avail of a means-tested grant to assist in the cost of replacing these pipes.

A short-term solution to the problem was to dose water supplies with orthophosphate. This chemical formed a protective film around the inside of the pipe and provided a barrier between the water and the lead. Clearly, this is nothing more than a short-term solution.

What is the status of the lead mitigation plan? As far as I can see from my constituency, there seems to be little or no progress in addressing this issue in my local area. I suggest that a public awareness campaign be put in place to highlight this issue and build greater public recognition of this problem.

I thank Deputy Ellis for raising this very important matter. Following the publication of the national strategy to reduce exposure to lead in drinking water in June 2015, a new grant scheme was introduced in February 2016 to assist low-income households with the replacement of lead pipes and related fittings in their homes. The intention of the lead remediation grant scheme was to incentivise households to carry out these works. The scheme is administered by the local authorities on behalf of the Department.

As the Deputy quite rightly said, however, it is fair to say the uptake on the scheme has been poor to date. To aid the Department with further consideration of the issue, a behavioural science and lead mitigation research programme is being undertaken now by the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, in collaboration with Irish Water and other stakeholders. It is anticipated this study will contribute to informing future policy considerations in the broader context of addressing lead remediation issues. It has been delayed somewhat due to restrictions with regard to Covid-19.

It is vital and important to note, however, that lead in drinking water can come from both private-side pipes and from the public network, which is the responsibility of Irish Water. Significant progress is being made in addressing the public-side network, including networks in housing estates, both council or where taken in charge.

There are an estimated 180,000 lead service connections in Ireland and Irish Water has replaced more than 36,000 to date. Since January 2014, Irish Water has replaced approximately 9,282 backyard and shared lead services and approximately 26,976 public-side lead services.

Under current funding arrangements, Irish Water will be targeting the replacement of a further 54,000 public-side lead services between now and 2030. This would bring the total number of public-side lead services replaced to almost 90,000.

In addition, Irish Water has assisted local authorities with the running of a number of trials to determine the best and most effective options for the replacement of private-side services. Irish Water also offers a customer opt-in scheme, where the replacement of any public-side lead is prioritised at no cost to the customer when the homeowner replaces their private-side lead pipework.

The Deputy will note that a lead mitigation advisory group, chaired by the Department with representation from the Department of Health, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and Irish Water, meets regularly to consider and make arrangements on the broader national lead mitigation strategy. The most recent meeting of the group was held on 9 June 2021. I assure the Deputy that my Department, as advised by the lead mitigation advisory group, will continue to develop actions to reduce lead exposure in our water nationally.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. We do not really know about or have any analysis of the real effects of lead contamination in our water. We know it is a threat to our health and that tens of thousands of houses built in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s used lead piping.

Many people living in these houses are on pensions and have very little money. They bought their own houses from the local authorities. A scheme is in place but there is not enough awareness and not enough take-up. I am glad, therefore, to hear the Minister of State say there will be a study to see how we can speed up that process.

He mentioned that so many houses would be done by 2030, but that is not enough. The scale of the problem is very big. It is a real worry that we do not have enough incentives and proper awareness. We should be going out more to people and letting them know a scheme is in place which they can avail of. In some cases, it is quite expensive for those who have earnings. That is another issue we must address. We need viable solutions. We really need to address the whole idea of funding and how to fund this even more and much faster into the future.

This is a very important environmental issue which is affecting our people right across the board. It is not only in Dublin; it is in Cork, Galway and in different places. It is an issue that is not going to go away. We do not honestly know the effects of this or what it has caused.

We do not know what its impact may have been, for example on people who were treated in their homes for cancer. There is a whole raft of issues we do not have the answers to.

I genuinely appreciate the concerns put forward by Deputy Ellis. I will raise the awareness aspect of the current scheme with the Department, as well as the results coming from the study. If it is an issue of awareness, we will try to see how we can target that and make people aware of it.

As I said, Irish Water is responsible for lead pipework in the public water distribution network. Water leaving Irish Water's treatment plants is lead free and, therefore, there is no lead in public water mains in Ireland. However, since connections within properties can contain traces of lead, the vast majority of lead pipes are contained within properties built up to, and including, the 1970s. Lead in drinking water is the responsibility of both water suppliers and property owners. The Water Services Act 2007 provides that owners of premises are responsible for the maintenance and renewal of the internal water distribution system to ensure that drinking water provided meets the prescribed quality requirements at the taps. Therefore, lead plumbing in buildings, within property boundaries and on the private side of the network is primarily a matter for the property owner, including local councils where appropriate.

As I outlined earlier, the Department provides funding and assistance to low-income households through the lead remediation grant scheme, where the premises is owned or occupied by the applicant, to support replacement of lead pipes and related fittings. We will take the Deputy's comments in that regard on board. The Department already provides support to local authorities to upgrade housing stock and, more generally, meet modern building regulations. While Irish Water is making significant progress in regard to the public network, including in housing estates, as referenced by the Deputy, it is clear that the assistance my Department provides for low-income households is not being utilised to the full extent. This is something we are taking very seriously. We are examining it with the ESRI and the lead mitigation advisory group. I hope improvements can be made to the scheme in the coming period.

The Dáil adjourned at 10.12 p.m. until 9.12 a.m. on Wednesday, 30 June 2021.