Adjournment Matters.

Water and Sewerage Schemes.

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach and the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this issue and the Minister of State at the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Noel Ahern, for coming to the House. In the past I have raised the question of the sewerage scheme for Glenamaddy, County Galway. Glenamaddy is famous in song as the town that has the four roads. While many towns have four roads this one is famous because it made one of the great songs of the past. The people of Glenamaddy are anxious to see development in the town. They have a new community school sanctioned, the Department has in the past sanctioned money for water schemes in the area and it was recently announced that the CLÁR programme area has been extended to include Glenamaddy. Above all there is a need for industry, extra housing and development in the town and this cannot be done without an upgraded sewerage scheme.

The Minister has a programme from Galway County Council for the period 2005-07. It is an ambitious programme. Glenamaddy is on that list. Obviously, I would like to get a report from the Department given that there has been some development. In the past I was told that documentation was requested from Galway County Council by the Department. I tried to follow that up with the council but was told that the last queries made by the Department were answered by the council.

I thank the Minister for taking an interest. I hope he will take a further interest in upgrading the scheme and delivering good news for the people of Glenamaddy and the hinterland of north-east Galway.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. The Department's Water Services Investment Programme 2005-07, published in December 2005, includes some 60 major water and sewerage schemes for Galway, with a value of over €450 million. I am pleased to confirm that the Glenamaddy sewerage scheme is included in the investment programme as a scheme approved to start construction in 2007. The necessary funding has been allocated for it and it will be able to go to construction once all the necessary planning and procurement procedures have been completed.

My Department is committed to delegating more responsibilities and functions to local authorities whenever possible in order to strengthen local government and, where water services infrastructure is concerned, to also speed up and improve the efficiency of approval and procurement procedures. Previously, once the preliminary report for a project costing up to €2.5 million had been approved under the Department's water services investment programme, the local authority could usually proceed to construction without further reference to the Department. The Minister, Deputy Roche, has recently further extended this devolution of functions.

The position now is that for every project in the water services investment programme costing less than €5 million, local authorities are entitled, after they have received preliminary approval, to proceed right through to construction without further reference to the Department. This means that the local authority does not have to come back to the Department to get approval for contract documents or to place a contract after the tender process has been completed. I am optimistic that, as well as increasing local autonomy, this measure will have a positive effect in accelerating progress on smaller schemes in the water services investment programme.

The estimated cost of the Glenamaddy sewerage scheme is under €4 million and this should allow it to benefit from the streamlined procurement procedures for smaller projects. A revised preliminary report for the scheme has been submitted by Galway County Council and is being examined in the Department. However, additional information has had to be sought from the council to allow the preliminary report to be cleared. Once this additional information comes to hand, the Department will finalise its examination of the preliminary report as quickly as possible. When it is approved the council will then be free to proceed right through to construction. I hope the remaining queries can shortly be sorted out and that construction can begin on the Glenamaddy sewerage scheme next year as planned.

Schools Building Projects.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this item. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, to the House. The proposal is that the Minister for Education and Science would sanction and indicate the resources she will make available for the extension to Mercy College, Woodford, County Galway. This school was built as a stand-alone school in the 1980s for 220 students. With an increase in the recent past of up to 30% in student enrolment at the school, it is now catering for 264 students and the number is rising rapidly. The intake in the next couple of years will reflect the increasing local population and will probably increase to close to 300 students. In addition, the school must cater for 23 students with a wide range of disabilities and special needs. Included in that are moderate and mild learning difficulties, cerebral palsy, Down's syndrome, profound deafness and physical handicap.

The resources and facilities within the school do not do justice to the needs of students, particularly the 23 with special needs. Over the years the school has expanded the curriculum. For example, art is now taken to leaving certificate level, having begun in the past couple of years, and this necessitates additional space and resources. Likewise, woodwork is accommodated in a converted shed in the school premises. The size of the staff room, which caters for 25 teachers and special needs assistants, would have to be seen to be believed. In addition, PLC courses and all other courses for the surrounding community are provided in prefabs or previously vacated national school premises.

The board of management, school management and staff were told that the school would be included by March 2006 in the allocation for funding. It currently has band 2 rating, the essential stage, and it was hoped it would be included in the March allocation of 2006. However, to the dismay of management and staff, they were recently told the school should be included between 2007 and 2010. That set the alarm bells ringing with regard to what can be done to provide adequate accommodation for the school enrolment.

The school has developed from being a small, stand-alone school serving a wide rural population. It has grown in strength and its record of academic achievement for its students is second to none nationally. In light of the commitments given under the Disability Act 2005 and the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004, there is an onus on the Department of Education and Science to respond positively and to indicate to the board of management, school management and staff, as well as the parents, that there will be good news for them in the near future so they can plan for their future, rather than having to reduce the curriculum or shed students to surrounding schools. This would cause great difficulty for parents because they would then be faced with the need to avail of school transport.

It should not happen. The school should serve the catchment area for which it was intended. It cannot continue in its present accommodation due to the lack of space. I urge the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, to impress on the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, the urgency of this matter, particularly as the school provides for 23 special needs children with no extra facilities other than mainstream facilities, which is a credit to the management and staff, who are dealing with a very difficult situation and providing a good standard of education. The Minister of State should impress on the Minister that she should allow the project to proceed rapidly because it is required.

I thank the Senator for raising the matter as it affords me the opportunity to outline to the House the strategy of the Department of Education and Science for capital investment in education projects and also to outline the position regarding the development of education provision in Mercy College secondary school, Woodford, County Galway. Modernising facilities in our 3,200 primary and 750 post-primary schools is not an easy task given the legacy of decades of under-investment in this area as well as the need to respond to emerging needs in areas of rapid population growth. Nonetheless, since taking office, the Government has shown its determination to improve the condition of our school buildings and to ensure that the appropriate facilities are in place to enable the implementation of a broad and balanced curriculum.

As evidence of this commitment, there will be approximately 1,300 building and modernisation projects active in our primary and post primary schools this year. Over €490 million is being spent on the primary and post primary projects throughout the country. I am sure the House will agree this record level of investment is a positive testament to the high priority the Government attaches to this sector.

The Mercy College secondary school, Woodford, is a co-educational post primary school with a current enrolment of 264 pupils. Enrolment has increased slightly in recent years, from 218 pupils in 2001 to 264 this year. The school authority has an application with the Department of Education and Science for an extension. The long-term projected enrolment, on which the school's long term accommodation needs will be based, has been agreed with the school at 225 pupils.

Schedules of accommodation for the proposed extension were drawn up some time ago, presumably before the school population increased. Officials in the Department of Education and Science are currently re-examining these schedules to ensure that the level of accommodation being proposed will meet the long-term needs of the school. When these are confirmed, progression of the project will be considered in the context of the school building and modernisation programme 2006-10.

I thank the Senator for raising the matter and I will convey what he said to the Minister. It might well be that the long-term needs were agreed at 225 pupils a few years ago. The number of pupils in the school has increased and the long-term projection must be right before the project goes ahead.

There was no mention of special needs in the reply and I ask the Minister of State to emphasise that.

Neighbourhood Watch Schemes.

I thank the Minister of State for taking this Adjournment matter on the important issue of funding for Legan neighbourhood watch. I cannot stress enough the need for him to give an update regarding essential funding for Legan neighbourhood watch and community alert under the programme of grants for locally-based community and voluntary organisation as this group provides an invaluable service to the local community and urgently needs funding. The key point is volunteerism, something about which the Minister of State and the Taoiseach have spoken in the past. It is not only a catch-phrase but an expression of the hard work and voluntary effort by groups such as the Legan community and neighbourhood watch and other community-based organisations throughout the country.

It is an indictment of the State and the Minister of State's Department that such groups, which work tirelessly in remote rural areas, lack adequate funding and that funding is not put in place to assist and promote their endeavours. Every member of this organisation gives his or her time without pay or, in many cases, without recognition and do so for the benefit and good of their community. They do not want recognition anyway. All they ask is that the Government recognises their contribution and back it accordingly with funding.

The group applied under the Department's programme of grants for locally-based and voluntary organisations in 2005. Having been turned down for funding, I ask the Minister of State what steps he intends to take to ensure such a valuable community service is not left without adequate funding to promote its endeavours. If the voluntary groups in this country, which are neglected and left carrying the can, were to fold up their tents and walk away, the onus on the State would be considerable as the already crisis level of urban and, indeed, rural crime would escalate even further.

The sense of community in areas such as Legan, an area from where I come, with a small population of under 1,000 people is amazing. The Minister of State should recognise this, hold out a helping hand, give this group the funding to which it is entitled and keep the spirit of community and volunteerism alive, which is very important. Groups, such as the Legan group, provide a valuable service in the community and they also provide assistance to Government. Therefore, the Government must provide assistance to groups such as this one.

When the group received the letter rejecting its request in January, I appealed the decision. All the group was told was to apply again. Where there is so much volunteering, people deserve more than that. These people have much to do with their time but they are very generous with it in respect of elderly people who live in the neighbourhood. It is time a group such as the Legan one is prioritised. We can throw as much money as we like at setting up committees, groups, task forces, etc., but the real work is done on the ground and it is important it is recognised by way of financial contribution. Perhaps the Minister of State has the goodies for us and I await his response with bated breath.

The programme of grants for locally-based community and voluntary organisations which the Senator mentioned is funded by my Department and supports the activities of local voluntary and community groups addressing disadvantage in their community. The programme transferred to my Department from the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs in 2002. Since then, and in its previous format, the programme has benefited thousands of locally-based community and voluntary organisations throughout the country.

Last year I announced funding in excess of €5.5million under the programme for over 500 groups throughout the country. This represented an increase of approximately €2million over the 2004 figure. The organisations funded represent a broad cross-section of local voluntary and community activity but especially those addressing disadvantage in their communities. The groups which received funding under the programme are published on the Department's website.

The programme consists of three schemes. One makes funds available for small-scale refurbishment of premises such as community halls. Grants of up to €40,000 are available for refurbishment purposes. This is complemented by a second scheme to provide for the purchase of essential equipment, including IT equipment. The maximum grant for equipment is €10,000. The third scheme is aimed at enhancing the capacity of local communities and grants of up to €10,000 are available towards education, training and research proposals. Grants towards wages or salaries or other running costs are not available under this scheme.

The programme is advertised widely in the national and regional newspapers every year. Last year in response to invitations for applications, we got almost 1,500 applications. They were assessed for the Department by reference to the criteria set out in the published guidelines and scored accordingly. Priority under the programme is given to disadvantaged communities with a greater priority accorded to self-help initiatives by disadvantaged groups and communities. In addition to the general application requirements, the applications are assessed by reference to a number of criteria. Last year all the eligible applications were scored against these criteria and the grants were based on the results.

An application for funding was received by the Department under the 2005 programme from the Legan neighbourhood watch in Longford. The application from the organisation in question failed to achieve a sufficiently high score to enable it to be considered for funding. The application from the organisation in question failed to achieve a sufficiently high score to enable it to be considered for funding on this occasion. A request for a review of the original assessment of the application was received by my Department in January. The result was that the application submitted was for the provision of security equipment for older people in the local community and was therefore outside the scope of the programme of grants for locally based community and voluntary organisations. The group basically applied under the wrong scheme.

The Department operates a separate scheme, the scheme of community supports for older people, which addresses such needs directly. There is no shortage of funding whatsoever under this scheme. Today we celebrated the scheme's tenth anniversary and the event will probably be reported in the media, including the regional papers, over the coming days. We have arranged for the Department to forward a copy of the application form and the guidelines for the scheme to the group in question.

I totally agree with the Senator's points on voluntary effort and volunteerism. I do not know if there were people from Longford at the celebrations in the hotel today but I know that a couple of hundred people from different groups from all over the country attended. They seemed to be highly motivated and energised and were quite favourably disposed to the amendments I made to the scheme.

The group applied under the wrong scheme. If it applies under the correct scheme, fills in the application form sent to it correctly and submits it as early as it can, we will certainly see to it that the grant is made. There is no shortage of funding for security measures for elderly people.

My brother, Councillor Larry Bannon, raised this issue with me. He is very active in the local community and is a member of the committee. Can the organisation apply for the two grants at the one time? I have no doubt that it will be submitting another application. I have given the Minister the reference number and perhaps he will consider the application sympathetically this time around.

The organisation is doing considerable work for disadvantaged people as well as enhancing the security of elderly people. In some rural areas, elderly people have to board themselves into their homes from 4 p.m. They need company and it is important that they be looked after and that they have friends who will sit with them, talk to them and provide for their needs if requested to do so.

There would be no problem. The organisation will have to apply again because the application submitted was for last year. It is seeking security measures for the elderly, including alarm pendants, locks and bolts for doors and windows, security lights that come on automatically when one approaches and non-electrified fire alarms. These are granted through the scheme of community supports for older people. We were launching this year's version of the scheme today and it will be advertised tomorrow and over the next couple of days.

The scheme under which the organisation applied last year is more for refurbishing community halls, equipment for community halls, including IT equipment, and research and training. One could certainly apply under the three headings of this scheme or apply under the scheme of community supports for older people. One could apply under both but unfortunately the group applied under the wrong scheme last year. Maybe this is a simple error and the Department may——

It covered the two areas.

We have so many good schemes giving out so much good money that I can well understand how a voluntary group could send in the wrong form. Unfortunately, the application was assessed under the criteria of the scheme to which it pertained and the system does not allow for its transfer to the other scheme. The Department proceeds on the basis of what one puts down in writing. I have no doubt but that if the group submits a proper application this year, we will see to it.

The Seanad adjourned at 7.45 p.m. until10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 4 May 2006.