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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 4 Jul 2012

Vol. 216 No. 8

Adjournment Matters

Planning Issues

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am sure she is aware of the court case that took place in Waterford in which a former Fine Gael town councillor was found guilty of accepting corrupt payments. This is an issue of concern, not only for the people of County Waterford but also for the people of this State. It shows that corruption has not gone away and reinforces the need for all of us to ensure we have proper and robust systems in place to protect the integrity of the planning system. The fact that this former town councillor did not have a vote in respect of the contentious zoning issue that led to the investigation in the first place, and which was at the centre of the individual's having accepted bribes and corrupt payments from a developer, is all the more intriguing. The court case and the subsequent conviction of the former town councillor also raise a number of very serious issues that need to be addressed.

The first and obvious one is in regard to the developer who made corrupt payments to him. There is also the need to clarify why a majority of councillors voted for the planning decision which led to the rezoning of the land in question. We need to have a full and independent inquiry into the motivations behind the decision making which led to that piece of land being rezoned. There is no doubt whatsoever that many of the individuals concerned, perhaps all, who voted for the rezoning did so with the best of intentions. Given that corrupt payments were made to a town councillor in respect of this zoning issue, however, it is important that this matter be investigated fully.

It is also important for us to understand the decision making arrived at by some of the councillors who voted for the zoning of this land. They voted in its favour, against the wishes of the county manager, the planners in Waterford County Council and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, who subsequently overturned the decision. It is important for those individuals, including the councillors who voted for the rezoning, that we have a thorough inquiry that will reach whatever conclusions it must. It is also important for the people of Waterford, especially those who live in the county, and for the people of this State. In addition, we need to implement the main recommendations of the Mahon report, one of which was that we should have an independent planning regulator so that if there were any contentious rezonings they could be properly regulated.

I was a city councillor for seven years and I know there is pressure on councillors in the context of the formation of development plans and the rezoning of land. People act for the best of reasons, even if it means going against the wishes of a manager. In itself, this does not indicate any wrong-doing. I listened to what many of the councillors who voted in favour of the zoning said and believe them when they state they acted in the best interests of the people of County Waterford. However, given that at least one corrupt payment was made, and to a person who did not even have a vote in the zoning decision, it is reasonable and acceptable that we should have an independent and thorough inquiry into this zoning issue and the decision making involved.

I thank Senator Cullinane for raising this very important issue. A specific matter in regard to the operation of the planning function in Waterford, involving one elected member, has been dealt with by the courts. I am not otherwise aware of any wider prima facie evidence that would merit the establishment of an investigation in respect of this planning authority. In any event, where there is any evidence of corruption, as in this case, it should be brought to the attention of An Garda Síochána for investigation of the matter and to determine if a prosecution is warranted in a particular case. If any person has such evidence I suggest he or she brings it to the attention of the Garda.

The ethics framework for local government, which applies to both elected members and employees, is provided for in Part 15 of the Local Government Act 2001 which came into effect on 1 January 2003. The legislation is supplemented by two codes of conduct, one each for members and employees, that were issued by the Minister in 2004. Under the framework, it is the duty of each member and employee, inter alia, to maintain proper standards of integrity, conduct and concern for the public interest, to observe certain procedural requirements, and to have regard to and be guided by the relevant code of conduct. The codes stress the importance, among other things, of members and officials acting with propriety and transparency in regard to the planning system.

Where there is a possible breach of the framework, this should be brought to the attention of the local authority's ethics registrar, who in turn is required to bring it to the attention of the manager and-or the cathaoirleach. The manager and-or the cathaoirleach is required to consider what action should be taken. This could include taking disciplinary measures, referring the matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions or referring the matter to the Standards in Public Office Commission under the Ethics in Public Office Acts. In proceedings under the Prevention of Corruption Acts 1889 to 2010, where there is proof that certain persons in public office have received moneys or other benefit from a person who has an interest in the outcome of their decisions, including planning decisions, there is a presumption that such payments were given and received corruptly.

With regard to the planning system generally, Members will be aware that I recently published the findings and recommendations of the planning review of a number of local authorities, and I will be appointing an independent planning expert to examine a number of themes arising from the review. The Government is fully committed to the highest standards in all aspects of the planning system, and in the coming weeks a whole of Government response to the recommendations of the Mahon tribunal will be published. I assure Senator Cullinane that will include the recommendation in regard to an independent planning regulator.

I again stress that if anybody has any evidence of suspected corruption with regard to planning or any other matter that is appropriate to the Garda Síochána, he or she should bring it to its attention.

Unfortunately, I find the Minister of State's response very unsatisfactory. It merely sets out the standards by which local representatives must abide. We are all aware of what those standards are. There was a contentious rezoning issue in Waterford which led to the conviction of a former town councillor and that has not been addressed in a satisfactory way because we have not had a full——

It went to court and there was a conviction. That shows that the system works.

Has the Senator a specific question?

My question is that we have not had a full and thorough investigation into the decision making which led to the rezoning of that land. It is not good enough to say there was an investigation and a conviction. We have to ensure that we examine all the issues which led to the rezoning of this land, especially in the context of a number of public representatives from within the Fine Gael Party who are using this issue as an opportunity to score political points. That is not helpful.

The Senator has gone over his time.

If there is any evidence, the Senator should bring it to the attention of the appropriate authorities.

I ask the Senator to conclude.

What we need to do — this is in the interests of those councillors who voted in favour of the rezoning — is to ensure that this investigation goes ahead.

I ask the Senator to resume his seat.

There are many questions that need to be answered. If the Government brushes this issue under the carpet——

It is not brushing anything under the carpet.

Senator Cullinane, please resume your seat.

There is nothing in the response here——

It was a case where there was a conviction.

The Senator cannot ignore the Chair; I asked him to resume his seat. He has had good innings

——which demonstrates that the Government is serious about this issue.

It is not right to suggest impropriety without evidence.

Flood Prevention

I thank the Cathaoirleach for the opportunity to raise the issue of the recent flooding in Cork. As everybody will be aware at this stage, severe flooding occurred last Wednesday night following very heavy rainfall last Wednesday night and on previous occasions during June.

The reason I raise this issue is to ensure that a comprehensive report will be prepared and made available under the Minister's direction. It should examine what happened, the background to this flooding issue and if any local infrastructure failed. A new culvert and thrash screen was put in place in the Douglas area in Cork during the past 12 months. It was under construction last summer during the quite period and therefore it is not even 12 months old. Did it perform to the standards expected? This is the kind of question that needs to be answered.

I visited a number of business people and householders in the area on Friday and Saturday of last weekend and the single issue people wanted was that a report dealing with what happened and how it happened would be prepared. They also wanted an assurance that if it was identified that measures could be put in place to prevent a repeat of such flooding occurring they would be put in place. Many of the people affected may not be able to open their businesses again. Many business people's premises are still closed. They are losing business and, unfortunately, also probably customers. People want measures to be put in place to ensure that such flooding in the future can be minimised and hopefully eliminated completely.

I am taking this matter on behalf of my ministerial colleague, Deputy Phil Hogan. I thank Senator Clune for raising the issue. Met Éireann issued a severe weather warning at 4.54 p.m. on Wednesday, 27 June of torrential and possibly thundery downpours during the period from 11 p.m. on 27 June to 12 noon on 28 June. As predicted, there was heavy rainfall across the country with very localised downpours, particularly in several areas of Cork. Given their nature, it is not possible accurately to predict the exact location, scale or intensity of such localised downpours. An aggravating factor was the already saturated ground due to the wettest June on record. On foot of the weather warning, both Cork city and county councils prepared by deploying outdoor staff to check drainage systems were clear; mobilising engineering staff to monitor rainfall and river levels; contracting the other principal response agencies, An Garda Síochána and the HSE to prepare for a co-ordinated response; and putting senor management on standby for crisis management roles.

Clonakilty, Douglas and Glanmire were particularly affected. Road access to and from Clonakilty and Douglas was severely affected with a number of roads impassable. Flooding of ESB subs-stations left approximately 10,000 homes and businesses without power. Rivers burst their banks in Clonalkilty and Douglas causing severe flooding, of which I know the Senator will be well aware. As the rainfall worsened, Cork County Council's crisis management team activated its flood response plan at 4.10 a.m. on 28 June. Local authority fire services, engineering and outdoor staff were fully deployed assisting those worst affected. The Civil Defence and other voluntary services were mobilised to assist.

Inter-agency co-ordination arrangements were formalised with An Garda Síochána and the HSE. This joined-up response involved communication and public information; prioritising resources to the worst affected areas; traffic management; rescue and evacuation; and pumping water to clear roads and protect infrastructure and property. Specific recovery actions undertaken and still to some extent under way are working with local communities to clear up areas affected, provision of skips to assist businesses and residents, opening recycling depots free of charge for affected people and liaising with the Department of Social Protection on the provision of immediate assistance and aid for the worst affected residents.

The Department of Social Protection is actively involved in assisting those families and individuals affected by the flooding under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme. This provides for exceptional needs payments to help meet essential once-off exceptional expenditure which a person could not reasonably be expected to meet out of their weekly income. In addition, there is a provision for assistance in the form of an urgent needs payment. In certain circumstances this payment can be made to persons who would not normally be entitled to supplementary welfare allowance.

The Office of Public Works has responsibility for flood mitigation. The identification of alleviating measures to prevent a repeat of the flooding in the Douglas and Kinsale Road areas is, in the first instance, a matter for that office. I understand from the OPW that it is currently carrying out a catchment flood risk assessment study for the south west river basis district area, which includes County Cork. This will provide a prioritised set of measures to address area of significant flood risk and will assign responsibilities for their implementation. It will incorporate the recommendations of a pilot study already completed by the OPW on the Lee catchment.

The budgets of local authorities cannot provide for all of the costs that can arise when responding to unforeseeable and exceptional emergencies. The costs incurred by Cork County Council, Cork City Council and Clonakilty Town Council during and following the flooding last week are being assessed at present and the Minister, Deputy Hogan will be considering the position in this regard with relevant Government colleagues as quickly as possible. When the details and analysis of the Cork flood from last week are to hand, I assure the Senator that a detailed report will be prepared for the Government task force on emergency planning.

The Minister of State might outline the relationship between the OPW and the local authorities and who will be reporting to the Minister on what went wrong. Who will be reporting to the Minister?

My understanding is that the various authorities will collate the information and a comprehensive report will include all the information.

Will the report be prepared by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government?

With the assistance of the Office of Public Works, but I can clarify this for the Senator.

Schools Building Programme

Ba mhaith liom mo chuid ama a roinnt, trí nóiméad dom féin agus nóiméad amháin don Seanadóir Michael Mullins, más feidir.

An bhfuil sé sin aontaithe? Agreed.

Cuirim fáilte arís roimh an Aire. Baineann seo le Scoil Naomh Caitríona in Eachroim, Contae na Gaillimhe, scoil ar thug mé cuairt uirthi an tseachtain seo caite. I raise the issue of St. Catherine's national school in Aughrim, County Galway. This is a small school in a rural area just outside Ballinasloe. The school has been subject to a number of staffing cutbacks in recent years but the main issue is related to the school building. My question for the Minister was whether in his view the school building is fit for purpose.

The teaching staff has reduced from eight to seven and a special needs assistant post has also been lost. One of the pupils is a child with Down's syndrome who is now without a full-time special needs assistant and this has not been fully explained. There is a fear that the school is being slowly run down. I ask the Minister to take account of their concerns in particular with regard to the school building. A recent inspection has taken place but a written report has not as yet been made available. The school building is reasonably old and the original wiring and plumbing are in place. There are three classrooms within the building, one of which provides cramped accommodation and a number of prefabs which are used for resource teaching and support teaching. The school has plenty of land which would be available if an extension or a new school were possible. An extension might be a suitable initial solution. I know from raising other issues on the Adjournment with other Ministers such as the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, that there might be a stimulus package in the near future and this would be an ideal solution for the school.

Heating is provided by storage heaters and the cost is very high so that the school is using a significant portion of its capitation grant to pay for heating. This is the 21st century and the students and teachers in St. Catherine's national school in Aughrim deserve a school fit for purpose. I welcome the Minister of State's thoughts on what can be done for this school.

I wish to support the case made by Senator Ó Clochartaigh and I thank him for sharing his time with me. St. Catherine's national school in Aughrim has been let down and disappointed over many years. There was an expectation prior to the general election before last that a new school was to be built. I visited the school on a number of occasions and I saw the very cramped and difficult accommodation in which teachers were operating. The school is not fit for purpose as it stands. If a new school is not to be built, then significant renovation work is required. The land and the space is available for such works. In this day and age it is incumbent on the Department of Education and Skills to consider this school's particular case because many schools in the locality were in a much better condition than St. Catherine's in Aughrim but they seem to have jumped the queue over the years. In light of the recent inspection I ask the Department to consider the situation at St. Catherine's.

Táim chun freagra a thabhairt ar an ábhar tráthúil seo thar ceann mo chomhghleacaí, an tAire Oideachais agus Scileanna. Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an Seanadóir faoin gceist a ardú mar tugann sé an deis dom staid reatha an iarratais ó scoil naisiunta Naomh Caitríona, Eachroim, le scoil nua ocht seomra ranga a shoiléiriú.

I thank the Senators for their contributions. The Senators may find it helpful if I set out the context within which decisions relating to meeting the accommodation needs of schools must be considered over the coming years. Total enrolment is expected to grow by around 70,000 students between now and 2018 — by more than 45,000 students at primary level and 25,000 students at post-primary level. Second level enrolment is expected to continue to rise until at least 2024.

In order to meet the needs of our growing population of school-going children, the Department must establish new schools as well as extending or replacing a number of existing schools in areas where demographic growth has been identified. The delivery of these new schools, together with extension projects to meet future demand, will be the main focus of the Department's budget for the coming years. The five year programme which the Minister, Deputy Quinn, recently announced will provide over 100,000 permanent school places, of which over 80,000 will be new school places. The remainder will be the replacement of temporary or unsatisfactory accommodation.

In view of the need to ensure that every child has access to a school place, the delivery of major school projects to meet the national demographic demands will be the main focus for capital investment in schools in the coming years. The five year programme is focused on meeting those demographic needs. In that context, it was not possible to advance all applications for capital funding concurrently.

In the case of St. Catherine's national school, Aughrim, the brief for the project is to provide a new eight-classroom school. St. Catherine's building project will progress into architectural planning shortly and will continue to be progressed through the various stages of the architectural planning process within the context of the funding available. However, in light of current competing demands on the Department's capital budget, it is not possible at this time to give an indicative timeframe for the progression of this project to tender and construction stage. I have heard the position outlined very clearly by both Senators. There may well be a stimulus package that would be appropriate but we do not have the details of such a package. I note the suggestion from Senator Ó Clochartaigh of the possibility of an alteration to the proposal in order to expedite it. I will convey to my ministerial colleague, Deputy Quinn, the points made by the Senators. I am sure if such a stimulus package were to be available that St. Catherine's will be considered.

Go raibh maith agat a Aire Stáit. The reply is quite disappointing and does not really answer the question of whether the Minister deems the school to be "fit for purpose". This is the important phrase. I understand from raising other issues for other schools about the need to build schools in areas where none is available but I do not think this gives the Government the excuse not to deal with schools which are not fit for purpose. I will await with interest to see what the inspection report says. If it recommends the school is not fit for purpose we will be pushing that more be done for the school. I note the Department may be open to having discussions with the school with the possibility of renovation work or an extension as opposed to a full build. I will ask the school to contact the Department. I ask the Minister of State to convey our disappointment to the Minister that the school is not included and that we would welcome a copy of the report on whether the school is currently fit for purpose.

I will convey those points to the Minister.

I thank the Minister of State for her attendance. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Shane McEntee who will deal with the final matter.

Farm Accidents

Tá fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. The matter of farm safety is extremely important. I am confident that each one of us knows people who have been hurt or fatally injured as a result of farm accidents. Thank God, farming is going very well at the moment. Income levels have risen and there is significant buoyancy. To state that farming is the backbone of our country is a correct statement. I was very troubled when I saw the recent Teagasc national farm survey which is carried out every couple of years. It has noted that farm accidents have increased by 35%. Some 2,500 farm accidents were reported in 2010. I emphasise the word "reported" because I suspect many more minor accidents go unreported. Compared with 2006, when a similar survey was carried out, 1,800 accidents were reported. Effectively, this is an increase of 700 farm accidents, an increase of 35%.

I accept that health and safety awareness is firmly on the radar of all the farming organisations. Certainly educational programmes for health and safety training are in place unlike in times past. However, given the increase in buoyancy and the importance of farming, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, as the leader of farming in society, has a responsibility to ensure farm safety is at the top of the farming political agenda. I encourage further action in this area and, if necessary, the allocation of resources as this would enable more people to participate in courses and to be trained in health and safety awareness. I suggest a half day module on farm safety awareness be rolled out in primary and secondary schools, particularly in rural areas, but also in non-rural areas given that many city dwellers go on holidays to farms and may have relatives who are not aware of the dangers. If this was done once a year it would make people aware of the obvious dangers.

The vast majority of accidents happen in the farmyard and involve machinery. The tragedies that occur in certain families which were imminently avoidable are heartbreaking. We have a responsibility to reduce the rate of accidents by 35% and even more as opposed to allowing it to increase.

Farming is a proud industry in which we are doing exceptionally well. It is one of the good news stories during these depressing times but we cannot take the finger off the pulse when it comes to farm safety. It is the single most important issue surrounding farming. The more awareness, education and training that is available the less accidents on farms.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue which I also consider important. I attended the national farm safety conference open day in Ballincollig three weeks ago to address the issue of farm safety and yesterday I spent an hour and a half with a man from my county who is doing a masters degree specifically on farm safety. The Senator has touched on many issues with which I agree. Farming will grow and there will be fatalities if action is not taken. The more times the issue is raised in the House and elsewhere the more lives will be saved.

In regard to road accident deaths, I was involved in road safety but we left it too late to take action. There was a massacre on the roads every weekend because of the volume of people travelling to and from work as well as those who were out and about. Many lives were lost because we did not deal with the issue on time. I pay tribute to the former Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Mr. Noel Dempsey, who took the bull by the horns, as well as Gay Byrne and Noel Brett. There were two ways of dealing with the issue, as stated by the Senator, one was through awareness but the second, and most important, was enforcement of the law. That is where the Health and Safety Authority which carries out 3,000 inspections each year comes into play. The number of inspections has increased. I spent four years working on road safety where everybody worked as a team. The position will be worse on farms if we ignore the awareness issue.

Since coming into office, the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, and I have acknowledged the importance of farm safety at all opportunities. All farm accidents and fatalities are tragic and devastating for the families involved and for the wider farming and social communities. It is even more tragic when many of these accidents on farms involve the younger and older people in our communities. It is a fact that children and elderly people are more vulnerable to farm accidents than any other age group.

It is also a fact that farming is the most dangerous occupation in the country with more people killed on farms than in all other workplaces combined. To a large degree the nature of a farm is at the core of the problem. A farm is, to a great extent, seen first and foremost as a family home. It is therefore seen as a place of security and welcome for family, friends, neighbours and visitors.

However, a farmyard is a very dangerous place of work with large modern machinery and other dangers such as animals and extensive slurry storage areas. Last year alone there were 6,673 non-fatal accidents reported on farms in addition to 22 fatalities. The difficulty is to marry the family home part of the farm with the very dangerous farmyard and other dangerous areas of the extended farm. The Health and Safety Authority, HSA, under the remit of my colleague, the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, has primary responsibility for health and safety in the workplace. The HSA is also the enforcement agency for workplace safety.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is represented on the farm safety partnership advisory committee which is a sub-committee of the Health and Safety Authority. The committee advises the board on the direction the HSA should take on farm safety. The end of this year will see the culmination of the Farm Safety Action Plan 2009-2012 which has been the main focus of the farm safety partnership advisory committee and the organisations involved in the past three years.

Many measures are being taken to raise awareness of this serious problem. The Department included a farm safety message with the single payment application packs that were sent to more than 130,000 farmers in March of this year. This was a joint initiative between the Department, the Health and Safety Authority and the Farm Safety Partnership Committee. It is just one example of co-operation between various agencies to remind farmers of the importance of farming safety awareness and the potentially fatal consequences for them, their families and other farm visitors of lowering their guard.

I recently launched the farm and countryside safety project, which is located in the Family Farm at Dublin Zoo. It is supported by Agri Aware in conjunction with FBD Insurance, the IFA and ESB Networks. This programme will help to educate children about farm safety, one of the groups most at risk on farms today. As the Senator said we must start with young people. The project will culminate with the production of a 2013 calendar featuring selected images of safety messages drawn or painted by children. The calendar will be sent to all primary schools in the country.

Last month I spoke at the national farm safety conference in Ballincollig, County Cork, which is a focal point in the health and safety calendar and serves to highlight the importance of farm safety. My Department also has a dedicated area on the Department's website outlining the requirements on farm safety and practical advice on safety on farms.

Members may have also seen the advertisements on television recently where farmers who have been seriously injured in accidents gave an account of their experiences and showed their injuries. The Health and Safety Authority, which produced these advertisements, has also incorporated six testimonials from farmers in a thought-provoking DVD which is being used in all training undertaken by my Department and is available for download from the HSA website. This DVD was shown on television channels in marts around the country in the spring and will be repeated in the autumn. Farm safety is one of the most important issues facing farm families today.

The Health and Safety Authority will carry out 3,000 farm safety visits this year. These visits are aimed at advising and educating farmers of the dangers that are ever present in the farm environment. There is no single solution to this problem. All relevant agencies should, and I am confident are, and will, work with the Health and Safety Authority and the farming representative organisations to continue to tackle the issue. This is a good time to be a farmer. We want to do everything we can to get individual farmers to take care of their safety, their family's safety and the safety of all others who visit their farms. The information is out there, but we must keep working to get individual farmers to take notice and to put into practice good safety procedures and routines at all times.

I thank the Minister of State for an extremely comprehensive response which dealt with all the main issues. It is good to hear about the DVD and the focus on young people and that a calendar featuring images of farm safety will be generated by young people. In many ways young people can act as educators of the old. I am delighted I raised the issue and that I have heard the Minister of State's personal commitment which he has demonstrated in everything he does time and again. It is not just a job, it is a passion.

The Seanad adjourned at 7.50 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Thursday, 5 July 2012.