Adjournment Matters.

Health Screening Programme.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Tim O'Malley, to the House. It was brought to my attention in recent months by a number of public health nurses and various members of the medical services in my area of Carlow and Kilkenny that there is a problem with the operation of the child health screening programme. I am not familiar with the operation of the scheme throughout the country or even in my own area but I am aware the scheme, as originally operated, provided a useful service for children, their families and the State in identifying illnesses or other problems children might have at an early stage and acting upon them as soon as possible.

In recent years it appears the operation of the scheme has become more haphazard in that not as many tests are being carried out or not as many aspects of the child's health are being covered as was the case previously. I am anxious to hear the Minister of State outline the current position on the number of children being reached by the scheme and any views he or the Government has on how the scheme could be revised and modernised to ensure it continues to provide a useful service, in particular in detecting difficulties children might experience with their hearing or sight, dental checks and so on. The scheme provided a useful service in that regard and I hope it will continue in future. I am sure the Minister of State has detailed information on the way the scheme operates and any changes envisaged in the foreseeable future.

I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney. I thank the Senator for raising the matter as it provides me with an opportunity to outline to the House the importance attached by the Department and the Health Service Executive to child health screening.

The matter raised by the Senator relates to the management and delivery of health and personal social services, which are the responsibility of the HSE under the Health Act 2004. I am not aware of the reports referred to by the Senator. However, I set out below the principles guiding the provision of school screening services.

Best Health for Children introduced national recommendations on the child health screening and surveillance programme in 1999, and these were revised in 2005. In summary, current recommendations regarding child health screening that should be offered to children attending primary school are as follows: health assessment at school entry with follow-up selective medical examination where necessary; hearing screening at school entry; and vision screening at school entry and exit.

The school screening service is public health nursing led and where anomalies are discovered, children are referred to the area medical officer service, community ophthalmology or a service relevant to the issue highlighted. Should any urgent medical issues arise, an appropriate referral is advised immediately. There is coverage of all public primary schools and uptake rates are very satisfactory. In areas where the service is unable to visit all schools during the school year, the outstanding schools are visited as early as possible the following school year. Particular emphasis is placed on children who join a school who have not had a previous school health examination and in these cases, all elements of the screening programme are provided to those children.

A health assessment questionnaire for completion by parents has been also introduced in some areas and, based on the review of these questionnaires by the school public health nurse, children are referred to school medical clinics at their local health centre if necessary. In the case of a child being absent on the day of screening, parents are offered the facility of bringing their child to the local health centre for screening at a nurse-led child health clinic. I have been informed by the HSE that the statistical information on the coverage achieved by the programme since 2000 is not available.

Schools Building Projects.

I recently visited Ballylanders primary school and met the principal and other staff members. There was extreme disappointment that they were unsuccessful in their application for the grant for national schools under the small schools scheme 2007. Ballylanders is a fast-growing community which in recent times has seen a rapid expansion of staff in all three of its local factories. Part of the workforce includes foreign nationals, mainly Polish and Lithuanian workers. Construction is buoyant in the area, which has led to many service-led firms in the area.

Recent extra planning applications for 83 private houses and for the development of seven acres for a commercial and industrial enterprise park will give a new impetus to Ballylanders in the future. There is also an application for a 60-bedroom nursing home and 40 retirement homes. All these developments will lead to an expansion of the population and attract more non-nationals to the area.

The school has experienced an increased enrolment of 17% since 2005 and now has 75 pupils. The projected enrolment for 2007 is 87, which will entitle the school to an extra teacher appointment. Ballylanders national school is a three-classroom building constructed in 1893. Two of the classrooms have dry rot and it has very high ceilings. In 1998-99 an extension for indoor toilets and a staff room were added to the rear of the school. A corridor was taken off the middle classrooms to facilitate access to the toilet block, which has resulted in a smaller, misshaped classroom with three doors leading from it. Two open into other classrooms and the other into the new corridor. The parents are concerned that the classrooms constitute a health and safety hazard because school bags obstruct entrances and exits and they have expressed their concern to the board of management.

The school now has five non-national children on the roll and in January 2007 appointed a language teacher for one hour daily. This person works in a disused prefab, formerly an outdoor toilet block dating from pre-1980. The resource teacher, who is shared, works in the same prefab. The Department of Education and Science is leasing a portakabin and paying 95% of the cost to accommodate a school-based learning support teacher. Ballylanders is located at the side of a busy main road and it is essential that all pupils attending the outdoor classes be accompanied at all times.

The school has been designated as qualifying under the DEIS rural scheme. To help it overcome some of the disadvantages confronting it, it is vital the necessary accommodation be provided to carry out the principles of the revised curriculum effectively. The board of Ballylanders national school has applied to the Department of Education and Science for a permanent extension to the school, as any further portakabins would hinder the health and safety of the pupils, increase the workload of the staff and reduce the green area of the field.

I appeal to the Minister to consider the school's appeal favourably. It is imperative the Department grants approval for this much-needed extension. A development at the school will leave it well-positioned in the future to cater for the expanding number of pupils attending. Failure to proceed now will have serious implications for the future expansion of the school. I sincerely hope the Minister responds with good news.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter as it affords me the opportunity to outline to the House the Government's strategy for capital investment in education projects and to outline the position of the Department of Education and Science regarding the development of education provision in the school referred to by the Senator.

Modernising facilities in our 3,200 primary and 750 post-primary schools is not an easy task given the legacy of decades of underinvestment in this area as well as the need to respond to emerging needs in areas of rapid population growth. Nonetheless, since taking office, this Government has shown a focused determination to improve the condition of school buildings and to ensure the appropriate facilities are in place to enable the implementation of a broad and balanced curriculum.

As evidence of this commitment, in excess of €540 million will be spent on building and modernisation projects in the coming year on primary and post-primary schools. Since 1997, a total of €3 billion has been invested in school buildings and this has delivered more than 7,800 school building projects. The additional investment of more than €540 million will build on these achievements and will focus in particular on the provision of school accommodation in areas where the population is growing at a rapid rate. As further evidence of our commitment, national development plan funding of €4.5 billion will be invested in schools over the coming years.

I am sure the Senator will agree that this record level of investment is a positive testament to the high priority the Government attaches to ensuring school accommodation is of the highest standard possible. On top of this, to reduce red tape and allow projects to move more quickly, responsibility for smaller projects has been devolved to school level. Standard designs have also been developed for eight and 16-classroom schools to facilitate speedier delivery of projects and save on design fees. The design and build method is also used to expedite delivery where the use of standard designs is not possible. Taken together with the unprecedented level of funding available, these initiatives ensure building projects are delivered in the fastest timeframe possible.

Ballylanders national school, County Limerick, submitted an application under the small schools scheme in 2007. On 5 March 2007, the Department of Education and Science announced details of the schools to receive funding under this scheme. Owing to the volume of applications received in the Department it was not possible to allocate funding to all proposed projects and Ballylanders was not successful in this instance. However, the board of management of the school has made an appeal, which is under consideration in the Department. Once a decision on the appeal has been reached, officials from the Department will contact the school authorities. Once again, I thank the Senator for raising this matter which allows me to outline the progress being made under the school building and modernisation programme and the position regarding Ballylanders national school, County Limerick.

I do not expect the Minister of State to know when the appeal will be heard but can he reassure me that the Department of Education and Science will notify me of a date?

I will ask the Department to do so and I am sure it will be in touch in June or July.

I trust it will be in touch with me before 15 May or whatever is the date of the general election.

Job Creation.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. A report has been presented today to the Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business and it is an indictment of the level of investment in the past ten years. I will talk specifically about the interdepartmental report, launched in Donegal in July 2006, and the task force report commissioned by the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, when she was Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment.

A plan was supposed to have been put in place by the Government for Donegal but it has not materialised. Today's report on the Border, midlands and western region identifies negatives and gaps apparent to the public in Donegal for some considerable time. The region encompasses a number of counties but no county has suffered as much as County Donegal as a result of the lack of investment.

At the end of June 2005, the total spend was 50% of the original forecast. That followed a mid-term review in 2003 which found there had been a €400 million underspend in the BMW region on infrastructure and ancillary investment. There was a 36% underspend on agriculture and rural development, a 41% underspend on sea fisheries development and a 35% underspend on industry.

The BMW regional assembly commissioned a study whose results, to say the least, are alarming. An audit of innovation report was produced in 2004 which showed a disproportionately low number of new company start-ups in the BMW region; an overall low level of company performance and growth; a number of weaknesses in innovation; low levels of research and development, venture capital and entrepreneurial culture; weaknesses in the ICT and pharmaceutical sectors; an absence of links with third level institutions; and vulnerability due to lack of or poor infrastructure in air services, telecommunications, road and rail networks and energy.

The innovation report was presented in November 2005 to the Taoiseach, with suggestions for improvements and solutions for places such as Donegal and the greater BMW region. The audit was produced in 2004. This is 2007 and little or no progress has occurred. I was part of a team that commissioned the report, Creating a More Inclusive Labour Market, two years ago. We presented a series of key recommendations to assist the labour market in Donegal and regarding key areas of investment. These have not been realised either.

County Donegal has a vibrant entrepreneurial spirit despite the successive lack of investment by the Government. In the face of the constraints presented by peripherality and the lack of road and rail links, telecommunications and broadband infrastructure, we have managed to fight the fight. Rather than talk about the past, I call on the Minister to outline a map for progress in County Donegal. The Government must implement policy as it should be implemented. The underspend of €400 million in 2003 on the BMW region, including Donegal, can no longer be justified, especially given what will happen in Donegal in the future. The new institutions will be up and running as a result of the re-establishment of the Assembly and we must work closely with our counterparts in Northern Ireland, with Donegal County Council and with the people we represent.

There have been lame duck excuses for not investing in the west, such as that offered by the Department of Finance two years ago which stated that the reason for pumping investment into infrastructural projects in the east was to clear the bottlenecks. It is time Government representatives and Ministers realised that the solution to the problems in the east is to open up infrastructure in the west. If proper infrastructure and access can be provided in counties Clare, Donegal, Galway, Mayo, Sligo and Leitrim, IDA Ireland will start to source potential business for those regions. If we provide free access to the west of Ireland, we can provide a solution to the bottlenecks in the east.

We need a strategy that will work and that encompasses every aspect of infrastructure, from rail to broadband to port and airport solutions. We must have that strategy. An opportunity was missed in the past ten years. People in the north west and west will no longer accept the lame duck excuses for successive investment in the east of the country. The solution lies in opening up the west and north west. We do not need any more excuses for the lack of progress and for not following the policy that has been mapped out for almost 20 years.

I thank Senator McHugh for raising this matter on the Adjournment. The Donegal employment initiative task force was established in September 1998 by the then Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Harney. Included in its terms of reference were three specific actions: to assess and recommend the most appropriate responses to offset and compensate where there are any immediate risks to jobs in particular areas of Donegal; to draw up a set of priority actions for establishing Donegal as a prime, competitive and attractive location for job creation; and to assist the development agencies in selling Donegal locations to prospective investors.

The employment initiative task force report set targets for the enterprise, tourism, public, community and voluntary sectors. The report also set out the resource and funding requirements necessary for Donegal over a seven-year period. A review was undertaken by the Donegal County Development Board in 2005 of the implementation of the task force report. Among the findings of the board was the belief that significant implementation had taken place of those actions and projects over which the local actors had control and were able to drive their implementation.

While acknowledging substantial progress in the support of air access to the county and the extension of broadband, the review found that the area in which the most significant impediments to the economic development of the county continued to exist was its infrastructure, the development of which is dependent on Government decisions and various Departments' funding. It was in that context, as well as some more recent major job losses, that the interdepartmental group on Donegal was subsequently established at the request of the Government. In July 2006, my colleague, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Martin, published the report of the interdepartmental group. The interdepartmental group was asked to focus on the progress being made on infrastructural requirements to make Donegal a more attractive location for enterprise creation, especially as it makes the transition from traditional to more modern and higher value added industries.

The report showed that Donegal has no shortage of advantages and opportunities in so far as the promise of a brighter future for its inhabitants is concerned. There is a dynamic combination of State development agencies active in Donegal which are committed to enhancing the attractiveness of the county for business. These agencies have demonstrated the ability to provide a clear vision and focus for future economic development. IDA Ireland aims to pursue more knowledge-based, greenfield foreign direct investment for Donegal and to convince existing IDA Ireland clients to transform their current operations into higher value activities. Enterprise Ireland will encourage and assist more innovative, technology-led companies and promote a greater level of start-up activity. These actions are in response to the challenges facing traditional industry in the county, which is under pressure for competitiveness reasons, and both agencies, as well as Údarás na Gaeltachta, are endeavouring to meet these challenges.

Enterprise Ireland has also been very active in supporting the development of community enterprise centres in the north west which are critical to continued enterprise development in rural areas and to the development of an entrepreneurial culture. Nine community enterprise centres in County Donegal have received funding of approximately €2 million under the community enterprise centre scheme to date. In Donegal town, IDA Ireland has commissioned architects to design a 1,000 sq. m. office building at Lurganbuoy. IDA Ireland has applied for planning permission for the building and a decision from Donegal County Council is imminent. It is planned to enter discussions with the private sector regarding the construction and provision of this building as soon as planning permission is received. I am confident a substantial number of new jobs will arise from this initiative. In Ballyshannon, IDA Ireland has undertaken a significant amount of site development work on the industrial estate and this work is now complete. The county enterprise board will continue to provide existing and new supports to micro enterprises.

The lack of much needed infrastructure has been highlighted as an obstacle to job creation in County Donegal over a number of years. The interdepartmental report highlighted many developments under way or planned in the areas of roads and air transport, water supply and treatment, broadband, energy and education. These have been solidified and strengthened in the recently launched National Development Plan 2007-2013. Particular emphasis has also been placed in the NDP on North-South co-operation and developments which will be of direct benefit to County Donegal. An important study on the development of the all-island economy has recently been completed and this sets out a clear and strong economic rationale for all-island economic activity. InterTrade Ireland, the all-island trade and business development body set up under the Good Friday Agreement, is supporting the development of key business networks on the island of Ireland, including the North West Science and Technology Partnership. This partnership between industry, academia and other key stakeholders is focused on strengthening science and technology-based innovation and business in the north west.

I am confident that we will see major advantages for County Donegal and the north west flowing from the re-establishment of the political institutions in Northern Ireland. The Senator will be aware that funding, to include Government investment of €580 million, is to be set aside for linking the North and South. This will allow for considerable progress to be made under the North-South initiative regarding the national roads programme, in particular on the A5 Aughnacloy to Derry route via Omagh and Strabane. The plan commits specifically to the completion by 2013 of a high-quality road network on the interurban routes linking the major population centres of Dublin, Belfast and the north west, especially the Letterkenny-Derry gateway. The A5 Aughnacloy to Derry route via Omagh and Strabane and the announcement today are a major development in the achievement of this goal.

We have already seen improvements along the A5, in particular the works that have been completed at Omagh, Newtownstewart and Strabane and the continued improvements are making a real difference to accessibility to County Donegal and the north west. This will be further improved when the NRA completes the Castleblaney bypass later this year. The Government is committed to improving the roads from the M1 to the Border at Aughnacloy and from the Border at Lifford to Letterkenny.

Under the north-west gateway initiative launched by the two Governments in 2005 there was a commitment to examining the potential for joint investment in key infrastructure projects. In line with that commitment, the National Roads Authority and the Roads Service of Northern Ireland undertook research on potential road infrastructure projects which would have cross-Border benefits. Progress on the A5 in Northern Ireland will help in opening up County Donegal on a commercial and socio-economic level by providing the much-improved infrastructural access to the county.

The north-west region is a priority area for IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland as the agencies continue to market this region strongly for new investment. The job creation achieved over the past year is largely as a result of the ongoing commitment to County Donegal from the State development agencies which will continue this commitment into the future. The Senator will be aware of the significant employment developments for County Donegal recently. In addition to the Abbott announcement, recent major job announcements include SITA, ZEUS, PowerBoard and AssetCo.

The Government and the State development agencies are fully committed to fostering the environment for job creation in County Donegal with economic benefits accruing right across the county.

The Seanad adjourned at 9.25 p.m. until10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 29 March 2007.