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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 23 Mar 2022

Vol. 1019 No. 7

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

School Staff

Last October, the Holy Spirit junior school in Greenhills was told it would lose a teaching post and would have to go from having four junior infant classes to three. This was because a number of parents who had planned to start their children in junior infants in September decided to keep them back a year in light of the scale of the Covid pandemic at the time and the negative impact it had already had on their children's preschool education. For the past five months, the school has managed to shuffle around teaching hours and use the Covid learning and support scheme to keep the fourth junior infants class open and keep the teacher at the school. However, the school has now reached the end of the line. Unless the scheme is extended or some other support is offered, this teacher will be out of a job, the classroom will be closed and the children will be scattered across the remaining three classes. This will have a massively disruptive impact on those children and will push their class sizes above the pupil-teacher ratio for the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, band 1 status, which the school has been assigned.

The school, the parents and the children are pleading for supports now to keep the class open and to keep the teacher in post for the remaining weeks of the school year. They are also pleading for the fourth junior infants class to be supported come September. As matters stand, the three junior infants classes starting September 2022 are fully subscribed and the school has a waiting list of 24 other children looking for places. In addition, the school has already proactively been welcoming in Ukrainian children - refugees from the war - and are expecting more. It makes no sense whatsoever to have a classroom empty and 24 children unable to get school places simply because the school numbers dipped during a particular period in the pandemic. The assurances they seek is that come September they will have four junior infant classes again. If the Minister can give that assurance, surely she would also agree that it would be a folly to lay off a teacher now, close a class and put four classes into three, particularly in view of all the disruption this would cause now and in terms of trying to get the teacher back come September.

I have been contacted by many parents, whose children either go to the school or are seeking to do so, outlining the impact this situation has on them. I will reference what Jessica wrote. She indicated that she is one of the parents who made the extremely difficult decision to delay stood entry for her child due to serious concerns about the impact of Covid and restrictions on the child and their education. She went on to explain that very difficult decision. She wrote that she was not the only parent to take this difficult decision and that as a result of reduced enrolments, the school lost a teaching post. She further wrote that she was unaware of the impact her decision would have but that to penalise the school by reducing teacher numbers was short-sighted on the part of the decision makers involved. She went on to say that failure to address what is happening will cause lasting damage to the education of this cohort of children.

I wrote to the Minister, Deputy Foley, about this matter last October. She replied that the school's enrolment did not reach the enrolment required to maintain the post for the remainder of the year. She indicated that the school submitted an appeal to the primary staffing appeals board, which made a decision on the basis of published appeals criteria. She further indicated that the board operates independently and that its decision is final, that is, “No.” However, the issue is that the grounds for appeal at that time were outdated and did not take into account the fact that we were in a pandemic. The dip in the number of children starting junior infants last September was much higher than normal as a result of the pandemic. It was a once-off and should be treated as such. Neither the school, the parents, the students nor the teacher should be punished as a consequence. They need a commitment that the teacher will be retained now and that the class will be retained come September.

I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to outline the position regarding staffing in primary schools. I am happy to take this matter on behalf of the Minister.

The key factor for determining the level of staffing resources provided at individual school level is the staffing schedule for the relevant school year and pupil enrolments on the previous 30 September. The staffing schedule is an allocation mechanism that uses enrolment bands to determine the number of classroom teaching posts allocated to a school.

This is a long-standing arrangement for allocating teaching posts to our primary schools in a fair and equitable way based on the respective enrolment. Previous budgets of 2016, 2018 and 2021 improve the staffing schedule by one point on each occasion to its historical lowest level ever of one classroom teacher, on average, to 25 pupils, with lower thresholds applying to Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, urban band 1 schools. In addition, there has been a three-point reduction in the retention schedule, which has helped schools that would otherwise be at risk of losing teaching posts.

The staffing arrangements include a provision whereby schools experiencing rapid increases in enrolment can apply for additional permanent mainstream posts on developing grounds using projected enrolment. I understand that this, as the Deputy outlined, is what occurred here. Holy Spirit Junior National School was allocated a temporary teaching post on this basis, as a school that indicated it was expecting an enrolment of 263 pupils in September 2021, which was a projected increase of 25 pupils. The Deputy conceded that there were some children who were going to enrol but did not. The Department received an enrolment return of 246 pupils from this school as at 30 September 2021, which is an increase of eight in the pupil enrolment of the previous year. The enrolment required to retain the post for the remainder of the year was 263 pupils. Therefore, the school was informed, as the Deputy correctly said, that the post was to be suppressed at the end of October last. Therefore, with an enrolment of 246 pupils, which is what it has at present, and 13 mainstream teachers, the school is operating on a mainstream pupil-teacher ratio of 18.9:1. This compares favourably with the general allocation ratio of 20:1 for junior DEIS schools. It is important to point that out.

The staffing process includes, as the Deputy said, an appeals mechanism for schools to submit a staffing appeal under certain published criteria. The school appealed the suppression of the post to the primary staffing appeals board, which refused the appeal on the basis that the grounds of the appeal did not warrant the allocation of an additional post under the published staffing arrangements. The primary staffing appeals board operates independently of the Department and its decision is final. I know the Deputy is aware of all that.

It is important to say that there has to be a fair, equitable, transparent and clear type of staffing schedule. When we are talking about schools, we cannot have one rule for one school and another rule for another school. That is the issue that has happened here. The school staffing for the current school year was finalised in October following the completion of the staffing appeals process. The school is not, as the Deputy knows, due to lose a teaching post next week. I have taken into account what the Deputy said, however, about using up the class scheme etc. All types of schools have to be treated equally, irrespective of location. My understanding of this school is that because there had been a projected number of children who were due to attend the school and then did not attend, we have, at the moment, sufficient teachers. This is 13 mainstream teachers, for a pupil-teacher ratio of 18.9:1, when then normal junior DEIS school would be 20:1. The Department is therefore satisfied that it has sufficient staffing under the circumstances.

Is there a copy of the Minister of State’s response?

I can get one to the Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

I appreciate that the Minister of State has the response from the Department and is reading it out, but it is just the same response that we got in October 2021 basically, which is just a sticking to the rigid bureaucratic rules of “these are the numbers, etc.” It is not taking into account the reason that they fell short was because of the pandemic. The school staff then took the decision to try to use some resources available to them to try to maintain the four junior infant classes that they started off with, which was honourable. What the Department continues, it seems, to say to them is that at this stage in the school year, it will force four classes into three and it will not allow them to have four classes next year. This is despite the fact that from September 2022 the numbers are clearly there in terms of the waiting list of 24 for junior infants. I have email after email from parents who are heartbroken because they are unable to get into the school starting in September because, precisely, the fourth teacher is not being provided. The principal wrote to the Minister, Deputy Foley, and I believe the Taoiseach as well, in relation to the rule that was decided, saying that while it is understood that rules must be fair and transparent, they were going through a very unpredictable and extraordinary time and so fairness needed to be reinterpreted. That is an absolutely reasonable position. They went on to explain that the school needed 254 pupils to retain the 14th teacher at the end of September 2021. We did not reach that number in September, but due in some part to the crisis in Ukraine, we now have 252 pupils. We appeal now for the extension of the schemes so we can keep the substitute teacher until the end of June.

This is very simple. We have lived through extraordinary times. All sorts of rules that have been in place have been bent and broken and so on. Simple asks are being appealed for here, that the teacher is retained for the rest of the year for the fourth class and that the resources are put in place so that the fourth class can be in place in September.

First of all, the key world in relation to this particular school is “temporary”. The extra staff member that was given was only ever on the basis that it was a temporary measure. It was never meant to be permanent. It was very strictly and categorically told to the school that it would be in a position to retain this staff member only if it actually had the projected number of children, which it then transpired it did not. The Deputy made some points, not without merit, and some of them particularly around the pandemic and taking Ukrainian children, but the difficulty is that there are 4,000 schools also looking for teaching staff at various different particular times during the year. There has to be some sort of system that is fair and equitable for all of these schools.

The Department is satisfied with the fact that there are 246 pupils and 18 mainstream teachers at a pupil-teacher ratio of 18:1. This is satisfactory at present. As the Deputy mentioned earlier, in September should there be a change in circumstances and an increase in enrolment, then the situation can be reviewed again. That applies across the board for all teachers and, indeed, for special needs assistants, SNAs, under my particular remit, who can apply for exceptional reviews and schools can apply for exceptional reviews. We are, at present, in a very unpredictable situation vis-à-vis the education sector in its entirety when we are talking about the influx of Ukrainian children coming into the education sector. The schools and the staff have already been under significant stress in relation to Covid. I want to thank those schools that have come forward to help with Ukrainians. However, this is something that can be reviewed at a later stage. It is important to stress that at the moment it has a current staffing allocation that is satisfactory to the Department.

We still have three Topical Issues left. With everyone's help, we might gain a minute or two, because we have to stop at 10 a.m. I will ask everyone for a little help.

Special Educational Needs

It will come as no great surprise that I rise to discuss the assessment of needs and disability services for children with special needs. I do this on behalf of many families across County Tipperary who are at their wits’ end in trying to get timely access for their children. The seriousness of this situation is conveyed on a daily basis in Tipperary, with parents getting in touch with me, with parents going on local radio and with parents discussing the situation that their children are faced with on social media.

Take, for example, the case of a family of a young girl who has fallen foul of the system by having an initial diagnosis of autism. I have been told she will not get a full diagnosis for at least 24 months. They cannot afford to go private like many others are forced to do. They thought getting the domiciliary care allowance might give them room to do this, but after applying they were told they are not entitled to it because there was no diagnostic report available. Outlining the dysfunctional nature of the system, the Department of Social Protection said in a letter of refusal that it is not that it does not consider the child to need additional care, it is that there is no objective information to indicate the extent of the care needed. However, this is the tip of the iceberg.

One such parent, Linda, was on Tipp FM this week. She has a six-year-old son who has been waiting for an assessment for 37 months. This is another family failed by the system that the Minister of State has a role in overseeing. He has been left with no SNA in school and will not qualify for one until he is assessed. What about four-year-old Ollie, who has been on a waiting list for speech and language and occupational therapy and has needed assessment for nearly two years now?

He is a year away from starting school. Early intervention is key, but he is not getting it.

Under the Disability Act 2005, an assessment of need must be commenced within three months of receipt of an application and completed within a further three months. The recent High Court ruling essentially found that the HSE failed to comply with the provisions of the Act. The executive tried to subvert its obligations under the Act by replacing the assessment of needs process with a standing operating procedure, SOP. The SOP essentially amounted to a screening exercise. In cases which indicate that a child requires a comprehensive assessment, they are referred to an additional waiting list for further assessment. As the Ombudsman for Children stated, this effectively created a second waiting list.

Not only did the HSE steer away from its obligations in this regard, my colleague, Deputy Cullinane, has since found out that the last time that it submitted a report on the needs of children with disabilities, as it is required to do under section 13 of the Act, was in 2014. These reports are essential to provide a picture of what resources are needed. When confronted with this, the HSE questioned the Act until the fact that it operated under an outdated database was highlighted. Again, this was discovered by my colleague.

Behind every reason these children are being failed by the State likes yet another reason. I would appreciate it if the Minister of State could answer some of the questions I am posing and not reel off a load of corporate speak, as the ombudsman put it, that does not reflect the needs of the children concerned. The Minister of State knows that I am from County Tipperary. In that context, can she tell me what measures are being put in place to ensure not just the recruitment of staff but also the retention of existing staff? What specifics has she got? In terms of recruitment, what process is under way in the community healthcare organisation, CHO, 3 and CHO 5 areas? How many staff are needed and how many are being taken on? Is it true that people are applying for speech and language therapist and occupational therapist positions but are being turned away? Can she tell me the causes of differing levels of access available across the CHOs? Is the outsourcing in some areas and not in others causing this? If she needs me to repeat my questions, I will be more than happy to do so. I wish to stress that there are parents who want answers and there are children whose future is being put at risk because of a crisis that the HSE has tried to hide.

Finally, can the Minister of State tell me why the HSE was allowed to get away with the SOP farce? Why was the database to inform the Department about the extent of needs allowed to get outdated and why were reports allowed to go unwritten?

There are a lot of questions.

Yes, there are a lot of questions. I will read the blacks later on in order that I can obtain answers to them all. The questions that the Deputy has asked are no different from those asked by parents in Tipperary, Clonmel, Galway, Dublin, Limerick or wherever. These are the questions that every parent wants to get answers for.

I thank the Deputy for raising these important issues for discussion in the House. I am involved in ongoing discussions with the HSE on this matter in light of the urgency involved. I am going to focus on the SOP. I hope that is okay with the Deputy. It relates to one of his main questions.

I met the HSE last Tuesday, 15 March, following the ruling to discuss the High Court ruling with the HSE. Let me be quite clear with the Deputy and the House. I am opposed to the HSE appealing this ruling, and I made that clear at my meeting last week. It is clear that the SOP is not fulfilling the legal obligations of the HSE and that any such appeal would waste State funds. In fairness to the HSE, its intention not to appeal was stated yesterday at the meeting of the Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. I have always been acutely aware that there were differing views on the SOP, which is why I was keen to see the results of the review of the standard operation procedure for assessment of need for children, which was launched by me in March 2021. The review group is chaired by Mr. Robbie Ryan and comprises five nominees from Fórsa and five from the HSE. It was the intention of the chairperson to issue interim reports after three months and six months and a final report after 12 months. Unfortunately, these reports have not come before me, but I actually see the review now as being redundant because the court has made its ruling.

What is clear is that the old assessment of needs process was not working. That is was why we had a backlog of 6,500 children when I was appointed in June 2020. We now see that the SOP cannot be used so the HSE and, indeed, this House needs to ensure that we have a system that supports children and their families. All Deputies will agree that the assessment of needs process must have at its core the development of any child with a disability to reach his or her full potential.

I am conscious that the Deputy does not want me to engage in any corporate speak so let me try get into dealing with some of his questions. One of the questions relates to retention and recruitment. Two weeks ago, on the floor of the House, I announced during the debate on a Sinn Féin Private Members' Bill that we are recruiting assistant psychologists within the network disability teams, which would be the first time ever that we have done this. It happens in primary care and mental health, but it was not happening in the area of disability. The second thing I announced on that particular evening was that we would have more senior grade positions. Why should we have more senior grade positions? It is in order that we can have better clinical oversight and encourage more people to come in at a staff level. So more people would be seen to but we would also have more senior experience. That is one of the things we are lacking within the area of disability. As more senior clinical posts are being advertised in the areas of primary care, the care of older persons and mental health, we are losing out.

There is another aspect - this was also raised at yesterday's meeting of the committee - regarding the panel system. I do not believe the panel system is fit for purpose or that it is working. In fact, the panel system is eroding the number of staff available in the area of disability.

The Deputy sought a breakdown in respect of every CHO. It is quite clear from listening to Mr. Bernard O'Regan yesterday that not one of the 91 teams has its full complement of staff. I acknowledge that, and I am currently working on recruitment. Let us be fair, it is not that we have not put funding into it. A serious amount of funding has gone into recruitment. In excess of 365 people have been recruited. I acknowledge that this is still not enough, but that does not mean to say that we will not continue working in order to ensure that we get a solution. I do believe that these teams will work.

There is no doubt, both in here and outside, that we have been lambasted with statements that early intervention is required. I know from parents, teachers and so on that this is not happening. I am glad to hear that the Minister of State is not happy with the SOP. What is being done about the matter? The Ombudsman had a go at the HSE and the High Court has ruled against it. Why the database was allowed to be so outdated in the first place is another thing that needs to be answered by the Minister of State or the Department, because the dysfunction of the system spreads further than the HSE's smoke-and-mirrors act, which is what the High Court called it. Yesterday, Mr. Paul Reid said that 91 children's disability network teams are now in place across the country. He pointed out that substantial additional resources have been provided to these teams since 2019.

For one family who contacted me, Mr. Reid's optimistic comments do not wash. Their child had been referred to occupational therapy through an early intervention pathway in September 2020. Then the teams were reconfigured and he was told that he was being transferred to the children's disability network team. However, this seems to have cost him time because when informing the family of this change, the children's disability network team also said that they could not provide them with a timeframe as to when their child will be seen. In terms of early intervention, this case has taken two or three years, which is ridiculous and something needs to be done. I appreciate that the Minister of State has fierce concern about the matter and done a lot of work on it but an awful lot more work needs to be done. I hope, as she has said about the SOP, that even if that can be changed so that families can get more early intervention because the situation breaks their hearts and breaks the heart of the Minister of State. I have no doubt that she and the other Deputies present have listened to the stories of families who are struggling to get that kind of intervention.

First and foremost, I acknowledge that the 91 disability teams do not have all of the staff that they require to do the job. Second, I acknowledge that there are children who have been waiting far too long on waiting lists and not getting intervention. Third, in the context of the €350 million that was allocated, and in the context of access to care waiting lists, I am ensuring that we get a fair portion of that money in order that we can provide public private therapy intervention so that every child can get a result. I see children on waiting lists as equally as acute to the individual who needs a hip operation. That is where we have to change the mindset and culture within various departments.

Fire Service

I would like to inquire if there will be an increase in the level of funding to local authorities to ensure that the current level of fire service is maintained. In addition, are there plans to bring a voluntary fire service into full-time service and retain a fire service scheme in the Carlow fire service?

Virtually every town in Ireland has a local fire brigade made up of experienced first responders who are advanced first aid officers and are tied to the town, particularly when they are on call 24 hours a day or on call for the week, as they cover the fire and rescue call-outs.

In Carlow fire service, six volunteer firefighters have been doing this in a voluntary capacity for almost four years for life-threatening ambulance-related call-outs only. That is important because these are ambulance-related callouts only, even during the Covid-19 crisis. As firefighters they carry defibrillators, advanced airway management and trauma bags, in which are carried all of this equipment. It makes perfect sense to avail of this training, experience, knowledge and equipment in attending life-threatening medical emergencies within minutes of being alerted on their pagers, until the overstretched National Ambulance Service Ireland, NASI, arrive at the scene. These crews must be brought into the fire service properly to ensure that they are paid properly to provide what are life-saving services.

There are approximately 1,800 retained firefighters throughout the 220 fire stations covering the Republic of Ireland. Central Government, the HSE and local government need to work together on a plan to make better use of their existing resources. A great deal can be achieved if heads work together. Life is everything and nothing else matters. One cannot put a price on a life.

I have raised the pressure that the National Ambulance Service Ireland is under with the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, and with An Taoiseach and have also raised this issue in the House several times. I compliment our ambulance paramedics in Carlow on the work they do. They are worked very hard and I will say again that they are in a building that is not fit-for-purpose. I understand that the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, is coming shortly to Carlow to visit this facility and we all know the pressures that the ambulance paramedics are under.

I welcome that in some counties the fire service personnel can be used to assist in the cardiac arrest service agreed by the National Ambulance Service. This makes sense as it uses the existing resources. This allows trained fire service personnel to respond where life is at stake and when available to free up the ambulance service to focus their skills and expertise toward other medical emergencies.

What are the Minister of State’s plans to address sustainability of the fire service in Carlow and to address the use of these volunteers? It is important when I am speaking about volunteers to acknowledge the great work they do which we have seen over the Covid-19 period. We saw the work that the ambulance paramedics and fire services did. We have such great people in Ireland who work so hard and those are just two examples of the dedication and of the work they do outside their call of duty. Many of these officers do a great deal of work outside of their remit and it is important that we acknowledge that. The only way we can do that is to ensure that we know and understand the work that they have done and look after them. I feel that is missing and that we do not appreciate their work enough. It is very important when we have such good people on the ground working within their communities, saving lives and working together, to learn that when we all work together we will grow more and will work better. There is a duty of care on the Minister State’s Department to ensure that these workers are looked after. I thank the Minister of State and the Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

I thank my constituency colleague for raising this issue which she has consistently done in this Chamber, as have a number of other Deputies. As she has said, there had been some counties where existing resources have been utilised.

The provision of a fire service in its functional area, including the establishment and maintenance of a fire brigade, the assessment of fire cover needs and the provision of fire station premises, is a statutory function of individual fire authorities under the Fire Services Acts, 1981 and 2003. The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage supports the fire authorities through setting general policy, providing a central training programme, issuing guidance on operational and other related matters and providing capital funding for equipment and priority infrastructural projects. The number of front-line fire service staff have been maintained at a consistent high level throughout the economic challenges of the past number of years, even at a time when staffing numbers were, of necessity, reduced in other areas of the local authorities.

The external validation group, EVG, report 2016 was the first of a new external validation process on fire risk management in Ireland arising from implementation of Keeping Communities Safe: A Framework for Fire Safety in Ireland. It reported conclusions on the four specific areas of inquiry - area risk categorisation; fire safety and fire service operations; major emergency management; and health and safety management. The report concludes with an overview of themes and issues before making some recommendations for future directions. The EVG report concluded that the available evidence provides for confidence regarding the match of fire service capability with the assessed fire risk.

A capacity review to capture lessons learned, review good practice and assess resilience of the fire services during the Covid-19 pandemic was completed in 2020. Response, Resilience and Recovery: A Review of the Impact of Covid-19 on Irish Fire Services reported many strengths and the outstanding commitment and effort of front-line teams, and made recommendations which are being implemented, which the Deputy acknowledged in her contribution.

On policy, a review of the retained fire services delivery model is currently being undertaken. The review of the model will reflect the current circumstances with the aim of ensuring its effectiveness into the future as part of the local authority. The objective is to explore issues and their impacts, diagnose the situation and propose options towards solutions which will underpin future local authority fire service provision.

Finally, the fire services capital programme forms part of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage's strategy to support the fire authorities in the development and maintenance of a quality fire-fighting and rescue service. The Department recently announced a new fire services capital programme for the period 2021-2025, with a funding allocation of €61 million. This new programme will see six new fire stations built, continued support for the construction of a further 12 new fire stations, nine fire station refurbishments as well as the allocation of 35 new fire appliances or engines.

Again, I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. As the Deputy has said, it is essential that we use all of the existing resources that are available to us, particularly in those life-threatening emergency situations. I hope that this response gives the Deputy some indication of our commitment towards that.

I thank the Minister of State and I am aware of his commitment and that of the senior Minister, Deputy O'Brien. My first concern is that it is a statutory function of individual fire authorities under the Fire Services Acts. That should be addressed and all local authorities should look at this. I ask the Minister of State for a commitment on this. It is about resources and saving lives and it is something that can be done. If this can be done in some of the local authorities, it should be rolled out across all 31 of them. The Department has a role here through local authorities to ensure that they deliver and are accountable. I ask that the Minister might do this.

I welcome the review of the retained fire service and the delivery model. It is good and I know of the Minister of State's commitment here again. We all need to work together. I understand the importance of funding also but we must remember that we are dealing with lives here and with firefighters who have seen horrific crashes, fires and who have dealt with accidents which must be very traumatic. It is a training and calling. On the other side we have our ambulance paramedics who are excellent. We are so blessed with what we have. If we are not using all of our resources to the best of our ability, however, that needs to be looked at.

I cannot finish today without mentioning our own volunteers and community first responders, of whom the Minister of State will also be aware. It is important that I mention them because the communities of Carlow and Kilkenny are brilliant. We have our community first responders in Carlow, Tullow, Hacketstown, Bagenalstown who did great work during the Covid-19 period. I again emphasise that these are voluntary groups which need to be recognised. We are so lucky. We must ensure that we appreciate and look after those people who are out there day-in and day-out saving lives and doing what they can for us as a country. I thank the Minister of State again.

To respond to the point made by the Deputy about the onset of Covid-19, the pandemic has presented challenges to the fire services in respect of the delivery of services. Our Department has monitored regular reports from the fire services in respect of the impact of the pandemic on staffing levels and the business community. In order to maximise the available capital funding programme, our Department reassesses the status of projects in the programme on an annual basis and some flexibility is normally available to advance projects that are ready and offer the best value for money, taking into account the state of readiness of projects and work generally.

The provision of fire services and its functions, including the establishment and maintenance of fire brigade, assessment of fire cover needs and provision of fire service premises, are statutory functions of the individual fire authorities under the Fire Services Act, as was stated. Our Department continues to support fire authorities through the setting of general policy, the provision of a central training programme and the issuing of guidance on operational and other matters. I agree that all resources should be deployed and the local authority should give further consideration to the matter. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and I will commit to offer our support to whatever the local authority deems appropriate within its functional area.

I agree with the Deputy wholeheartedly on the community first responders. We will be looking at a massive increase in our population in coming months with the intake of Ukrainian refugees. If that transpires as it may do, we will need to deploy all resources available to the State to try to support communities at this very critical time.

National Car Test

I want to raise the ongoing issues people are having trying to book an appointment with the National Car Testing Service, NCTS, and engaging with the National Driver Licence Service. In many aspects these things have become intertwined. In many cases it is essential for people to pass their test to take up employment. The crisis has become compounded. We have moved beyond Covid restrictions and we need to get these services back to where they should be.

Constituents of ours have contacted me outlining various scenarios impacting their lives due to the backlog in the system. For one person, his NCT is not due until 2 July, but when he tried to book his test, the earliest date he can get is 3 August, five months from now. We need to bear in mind that this man is attempting to book his test four months ahead of his NCT expiry date. Another constituent, whose NCT is due in coming weeks, cannot get a test until late August. He is a young learner driver who is paying extortionate insurance costs and is preparing to take his driving test in April. Those are two reasons this young man needs his NCT as soon as possible. In recent days people in my office checked and the earliest date they could get a test was in July, but in Naas and not anywhere in Fingal or other areas of Dublin. That is three months away in another county. The earliest time for any test in Dublin was August or September.

The messaging on the website is confusing. The four-month extension that was granted during the Covid pandemic is said to still exist but when people enter their registration number into the NCT website, it is not spitting back the four-month extension but is spitting back the date their NCT was originally due. The whole system is mired in confusion and delay, which is causing real stress to people who are trying to get on with their lives post Covid, trying to take up employment, trying to take their car test, trying to care for people and trying to do their shopping or collect kids from school. This is this is a serious problem. Some 8,500 people are on the waiting list, whereas it was 1,000 in 2019. The time for forbearance on this issue has gone.

I am replying on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, who would like to thank the Deputy for raising this important matter.

The operation of all roadworthiness testing in the State, including the National Car Testing Service, is the statutory responsibility of the Road Safety Authority, RSA. It is important to highlight that quarter 1 is always the busiest time of the year for the NCT service. This is because the date of the first registration of a vehicle determines the subsequent roadworthiness test due dates. Long-term trends demonstrate a strong preference among vehicle purchasers to buy at the beginning of the year, with January and February the busiest months for registrations and high demand for NCT appointments accordingly.

Coinciding with this typically busy period is the need to manage the continuing impact of Covid-19 on staff availability at NCT test centres. In January this year, the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, was advised of a higher rate of test cancellations than usual. In January and February 2022, there were approximately 36,000 test appointment cancellations, of which 11,400 were cancelled by the NCTS. This is broadly in line with 2021 figures, which saw approximately 28,000 cancellations, with 7,800 of these cancelled by the NCTS. These figures include very high levels of customer no-shows and late cancellations, undoubtedly as a result of Covid-19. This has led to an average lead time for an appointment of just under 21 days in this quarter to date. Before the pandemic, the average waiting time was up to 12 days.

However, the NCTS is working hard to ensure that all customers can book their vehicle in for testing in a timely fashion and significant progress has been made in addressing this backlog. Currently, all 49 NCT test centres in Ireland are fully operational and the NCTS has taken a number of steps to provide additional capacity at test centres in the immediate term, including offering overtime to staff and running a longer shift schedule than normal. This is in addition to ongoing efforts to improve the efficiency of service delivery and recruit additional staff, including securing agreement from the RSA to develop a proposal for an alternative resourcing model to provide semi-skilled staff capacity to complete machine-led elements of the inspection process. This will be considered further in the coming months with a view to establishing a pilot scheme.

NCT test appointment slots are released continually across all centres and many slots also become available through cancellations or rescheduling of appointments. Some customers may only find dates that are beyond the due date for their NCT, as the Deputy mentioned. If a customer requires an appointment sooner than those available online, they should contact the NCTS directly or place themselves on the priority waiting list online. The NCTS will do its best to accommodate all customers on the priority list within 28 days of application. Currently approximately 18,000 people are on the priority waiting list, with 32,500 full tests carried out each week.

The NCTS has also advised that customers can book a test appointment up to 90 days in advance of their test due date without affecting the validity period of the certificate issued, which allows them to ensure a suitable test date at their preferred centre and avoid incurring the risk of delays during busy times.

I ask that the NCTS website be updated with clear messaging about the extension in order to remove stress and panic for people when they are booking. It is encouraging that new staff will be hired. At least there is a sense that the NCTS is looking to fix the problem. Unfortunately, I believe the NDLS used the pandemic to copperfasten changes that are disadvantageous to the public such as insisting on non-cash payments and making it more difficult for people to get driving licences. That issue needs to be revisited. We should look at the post office network for driving licence provision. We have a network of more than 800 post offices throughout the country as opposed to a couple of dozen NDLS offices.

In the debate on the previous Topical Issue, it was mentioned that we are about to have a big population increase with people coming from Ukraine. Many of those people will be coming in their own cars. This will be an issue for driving licences. We do not have an agreement with Ukraine on the transfer of driving licences, something which needs to be fast-tracked. We will also need to have some kind of process for the NCT.

There is a lot to do, but this is having a real impact on people. It is an additional stress for people on top of major crises happening in our country, in our region and throughout the world. It is these pebble-in-the-shoe issues that the Government can solve and should solve. I ask the Minister of State to bring the issue to the RSA to try to get it resolved.

On behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, I again thank the Deputy for raising the matter. The backlog for the NCTS has undoubtedly been frustrating as the Covid-19 restrictions have eased and many people are now returning to their offices and workplaces. The Department of Transport is very aware of the challenges faced by the NCTS and the RSA as they work to manage the extremely high demand for test appointments for the National Car Testing Service. There are clear signs of progress since this issue was first notified to the Department of Transport at the beginning of the year. The proactive work to increase capacity at test centres and to manage priority waiting lists will help.

Demand is expected to ease as we enter quarter 2. However, it can be expected that it will take a few months for the waiting list to reduce to its normal level of less than 1,000 as more people look to get back on the road. I have noted the Deputy's point about the website and the potential challenges posed by the large number of Ukrainian citizens arriving in the State.

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