Commencement Matters

Cycling Policy

I thank the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport for joining us today. I ask the Minister to make a statement on the national cycling framework, the appointment of a national cycling officer and, specifically, the commitment in the national cycling framework of having 10% of all journeys in urban and rural areas made on a bicycle and the journey we need to make from the 2% at the moment. I also ask the Minister to address the spending target for cycling infrastructure for the National Transport Authority and whether he will seek to achieve a 10% of spend within the National Transport Authority, which is quite short of what the UN recommends which is 20% of national transport budgets to be spent on cycling.

There are multiple reasons I am asking for this specific focus on cycling. We know it is an efficient, a cheap, a healthy and an environmentally-friendly mode of transport, something which effectively tackles congestion and contributes to health, participation in public life and our climate ambitions, and I would like if the Minister could address that.

We saw in the newspapers today figures which show the public enthusiasm for cycling. Over the last decade, 12,000 cyclists are now crossing the canals, which is an increase of 7,000. That is very much matched by a decrease of motorists making those journeys. This can only be good for our city centre but while there is public enthusiasm, we have not seen the same level of enthusiastic engagement at departmental level and we still have a concern that cycling seems to be treated as a peripheral part of our transport strategy rather than a very central plank. We now see that a majority choose sustainable options in terms of entering Dublin city centre. In other cities around the country, such as in Galway, people have said that if those options were being presented in terms of sustainable transport, many congestion problems could be solved and we could see that same balance of transport.

The Government recently issued a statement of strategy which made one reference to more commutes by way of walking and cycling but it did not really make the links - I would like if the Minister could elaborate on this - on how it would also fulfil the other goal of a low-carbon transport sector by 2050. What are the measures that will be put in place in terms of those more commutes by way of walking and cycling?

We also have a smarter travel commitment since 2009 to reduce journeys taken by car from 65% to 45% and increase to 55% sustainable transport by way of walking, cycling and public transport. I would like to hear how the Minister plans to implement them. Specifically, in the national cycling framework, there was a commitment and a recommendation in terms of a national cycling officer and the achievement of that target of 10% of journeys.

I recognise the Minister has taken one positive initiative in terms of cycle education in schools but research from the CSO shows that only 8% of boys are cycling to school and only 1% of girls. There is a key issue around safety and inclusion in terms of cycling strategy and education alone cannot be the answer. We need to look to meaningful and appropriate infrastructure. In countries where the infrastructure is place, the evidence shows more inclusive participation, a greater gender balance in cycling and older and younger people participating. I would like the Minister to indicate how he plans to address and put in place infrastructural spend to support cycling.

In pushing forward this cycling strategy, how is the Minister engaging with other Departments, for example, the Department of the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten, which is leading in the area of climate change and is looking to how sustainable transport is going to play a key role? Some 25% of global emission of carbon dioxide comes from motorised vehicles. Clearly, transport has to be at the centre of our climate change and sustainability strategy and our health strategy. Information from the UK, for example, shows that the NHS has indicated that £1.7 billion could be saved by an increase in cycling. I would be very grateful if the Minister could address those issues.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for the opportunity to address this question which was not addressed completely last week. I apologise for that but it is difficult to address all the questions in the Chamber. If I do not address all the questions or have precise answers today, the Senator is welcome to send them on to me and I will address them.

I am sympathetic with what the Senator said, particularly when only 8% of young boys and only 1% of young girls cycle to school. That is a stark figure and not satisfactory. The cycling community is vocal about what it feels and is powerful. It is a strong lobby group which has made a good case for greater attention in the future. Many of the initiatives which have gone wrong or have not met their targets are, for some reasons, beyond their control. Some of the targets were certainly overambitious and could not be fulfilled because the principal programme was initiated in 2009. Everybody knows what happened between 2009 and now. The finances of the State meant cycling was not the only project in which targets were missed. Most of these programmes were cut vehemently.

I said before that the 10% target was an ambitious one. In retrospect, it was probably overambitious and one which we were unable to meet. However, it must be recognised this target, as well as others, contained in the national cycle policy framework and smarter travel were predicated on substantial investment under the Transport 21 investment plan at the time which, given the economic crisis which ensued, could not be delivered on. That said, it is obvious we will not achieve that ambitious target. However, that does not mean progress has not been made. The Senator rightly referred to some of the progress made. It may be, as she says, due more to the spontaneity of those enthusiastic about cycling than Government policy. However, that is a matter for debate. Success has been achieved and there has been a big modal shift which is fair to acknowledge. It might not have happened to the extent we wanted, but it has happened. We are continuing to strive towards achieving further growth in the numbers cycling.

In that regard, the canal cordon count report published by the National Transport Authority and Dublin City Council last week showed the number of people using sustainable modes of transport, namely, public transport, cycling and walking, into Dublin city centre increased further in 2016 and now accounts for over two thirds of all journeys. The number of journeys by sustainable modes of transport in 2010 was 59%. This has increased every year since then to 67% in 2016. This is obviously an indication that the gap between people using sustainable and non-sustainable modes of transport continues to grow. It might not be fast enough, but it is happening.

Of the journeys made into Dublin city centre, cycling continued its steady trend of increasing usage. That represents a modal share of 6%. While overall cycle numbers are up 150% on 2006, the cycle mode share has more than doubled in the same period and has increased year on year since 2010.

It must also be borne in mind that these heartening statistics do not include the numbers using the dublinbikes scheme within the canals. It is likely that a further few thousand cycling trips took place during the 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. peak period of the count if users of the dublinbikes scheme were factored into the equation. The numbers now cycling into Dublin city in the morning peak are on a par with those using the Luas. We see continued growth year on year in the numbers cycling in Dublin.

Cycling will continue to play an important part in addressing congestion in Dublin city centre and in other urban centres. We need to persuade the 33% who continue to use private motor vehicles, usually occupied by only one person during peak commuting times, to switch to a more sustainable and an efficient mode of transport, be that public transport, cycling or walking. We have no more space for private motor vehicles in Dublin city centre and we need to use the limited space we have in the most efficient way possible.

However, while the numbers cycling in Dublin show significant increases, we are not seeing similar increases in the regional cities of Galway, Cork, Limerick and Waterford. Unfortunately, we do not have similar counts set up for those cities at present. However, my Department, along with the NTA, is investing in cycling and walking infrastructure in these cities.

However, my Department, along with the NTA, is investing in cycling and walking infrastructure in these cities. Last week, my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, officiated at the opening of the Limerick smarter travel area flagship route from the city centre to Corbally and the University of Limerick. I am sure this route will see excellent usage in the years ahead.

The significant investment of €21.7 million made in Limerick, Dungarvan and Westport by my Department under the smarter travel area scheme will be assessed this year to see the effect it has had on the numbers choosing to travel by sustainable transport modes, and will inform our future funding decisions. We will take action as a result of those findings.

We need to see what has worked and what has not before we make further funding decisions. We also invested significant amounts under the active travel town banner in a further 11 towns. I do not believe that setting a target of expenditure for the NTA for cycling infrastructure would be helpful at present. It is important to remember that for the first time, the greater Dublin area cycle network plan is included in the NTA’s greater Dublin area transport strategy.

In addition, a draft network plan is currently being developed for Cork. These network plans will now guide the funding requirements for those areas and ensure that there is a steady stream of projects in planning, design and construction. While there is currently no national cycling officer in place, a number of local authorities have appointed cycling officers for their regions, which is a welcome step and a recognition of the importance of cycling as a reliable and viable mode of transport. My Department will be undertaking a review of the national cycle network policy this year and will consider the appointment of a national cycling officer in that context.

I acknowledge that we are below expectations in what we had aspired to do in the cycling area. This is mostly due to financial constraints. As a result of the mid-term capital plan this year, we intend to put cycling and cycling projects as top priorities. Some of the money which might have been used for certain projects sometimes gets diverted. This year, for example, the Luas cross-city project has taken up an enormous amount of funds, but it would be wrong to delay that for any particular reason. Competing areas have created a problem for cycling and meant that we have not met our targets. We intend to improve that in future, however, and particularly in terms of the mid-term capital plan.

We normally have eight minutes for each Commencement matter but we have already used 12 minutes for this one, so if the Senator is asking a supplementary question it will have to be brief. The other matters will have to be cut because 12 minutes is extraordinarily long.

The Minister mentioned many of the local projects, but it is unfortunate to see that the smarter travel scheme and sustainable transport grants have been cut. We have seen less resources for that in 2015 to 2016 and now into 2017. How do we marry this regional focus with the fact that we are cutting funding in that area?

Since 2009, climate change has continued apace. All the evidence points to the fact that cycling is not simply a matter of expenditure and cost, but is also a net saving. It is one of the most inexpensive and efficient modes of transport, so I would ask the Minister to address that.

As regards road safety, the Minister talked about persuasion. It is hard to persuade people, however, when they see accidents such as the one in Kildare last week. Six hundred members of a club are surely influenced when a lack of infrastructure leads to yet another tragic death of a cyclist.

I call the Minister for a brief reply. He has already given a comprehensive answer.

I fully accept virtually everything the Senator has said. In the mid-term capital review, I will certainly consider cycling projects as a priority. If the Senator wishes to send me any more detailed questions in writing, I will get them answered because I know she cannot come in every week.

Third Level Fees

I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this Commencement matter. I also thank the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, for attending.

In 1995 the then Government decided to abolish undergraduate fees for Irish and other EU students. The scheme was generally referred to as the free fees initiative. Fees were cut by 50% in 1995 and eliminated thereafter. In announcing the introduction of free fees in Ireland on 9 February 1995 the then Minister, Niamh Bhreathnach, expressed to Dáil Éireann the universality dimension to what was a radical change in third level education in the State. She stated, "An education system which will no longer decide on behalf of its students what is a right and what is a privilege is an education system which aspires to include all the needs of the community." She went on to express the intent behind the free fees initiative, which has stood to this very day:

Education is the most pervasive and sustained interaction between the child, the family and the State and I believe that it is the most important such relationship. The importance of the individual child is central to my vision of education.

I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments expressed by the then Minister in 1995 and the continuation of the free fees initiative by successive Ministers for the past 20 years, but I cannot stand over how the scheme does not cherish all of Ireland's children equally. Article 2 of the Constitution reads:

It is the entitlement and birthright of every person born in the island of Ireland, which includes its islands and seas, to be part of the Irish Nation. That is also the entitlement of all persons otherwise qualified in accordance with law to be citizens of Ireland.

It is the final passage of Article 2 which is crucial that I would like the Minister of State to consider: "Furthermore, the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage". How can it be said the free fees initiative includes all of the needs of the community when the very community the entitlement of which is enshrined in the Constitution will actually be discriminated against should its members wish to obtain a third level education in this country? I ask the Minister of State to consider how his Department, the Higher Education Authority or the third level colleges for which his Department provides block grants can determine that an Irish citizen who has resided in Ireland for at least three years is more worthy of access to the third level education system than an Irish citizen who has lived abroad. It is constitutionally inappropriate that Irish citizens abroad are discriminated against in such a manifest fashion in the delivery of third level education services. Irish citizens abroad are no less Irish than the Minister of State or me. If they determine that they wish to study in Ireland, they will pay VAT on the products they purchase, tax on any part-time income they generate and, no doubt, a few quid for the beer they drink, like any other student. In return for the same contribution their fellow Irish citizens make to the State, they will not, however, be entitled to the same level of support for the education services to which, as citizens of the State, they are entitled.

An obstacle faced by children of emigrants to the United States is the American citizenship or permanent resident rule that applies to many scholarships to colleges in the United States. Many of the children concerned are consequently prohibited from applying for these scholarships as they are not US citizens. Therefore, they find themselves in the unenviable position of being disadvantaged by the citizenship requirement in the country in which they reside and the residency requirement in the country of which they are citizens, namely, Ireland. This double disadvantage leaves them in an educational limbo.

I have seen at first hand the commitment the Government has made to the diaspora, to which in many ways my appointment to the Seanad is testament, but I cannot see how, as a matter of basic fairness, the Minister can justify this form of discrimination against those very citizens in respect of whom it is the stated policy of the Government to foster deeper ties and relations. At a time when walls are being built on the other side of the Atlantic, why would the State not want to attract the best and brightest back to Ireland and bring them through the third level education system in order that they could be the nurses, doctors, engineers and scientists of the future? On behalf of all Irish citizens, be they living abroad or at home, I implore the Minister of State to uphold Government policy, respect the Constitution and put an end to the continuation of this discriminatory practice in the administration of the free fees initiative in third level institutions.

I thank Senator Billy Lawless for raising this matter. I want to apologise on behalf of my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, who is engaged in the other House and cannot be here for this debate, although he wanted to be here because it is an important issue.

I will begin by explaining the background to the current free fees schemes. Under the terms of the Department’s free fees schemes, the executor meets the cost of tuition fees in respect of eligible students who are pursuing full-time undergraduate courses of study which are of a minimum of two years duration in an approved institution. The main conditions of the scheme are that students must be first-time undergraduates, meet the nationality clause, which is Irish, EU, EAA or Swiss, of the scheme in their own right and, for study at levels 6, 7 and 8 in universities and level 8 in institutes of technology, and have been ordinarily resident in an EU, EEA or Swiss state for at least three of the five years preceding their entry to an approved third level course.

Where students do not meet the eligibility requirements for free tuition fees, including the residency requirement, they are liable to pay the appropriate tuition fee, either EU or non-EU, as determined by the third level institution. These institutions are autonomous bodies and the level of fee payable by students who do not meet the requirements of the free fees schemes is therefore a matter for the relevant institution. Due to concerns about the fact that in some cases the higher non-EU fee was being charged to students who hold EU, EEA, Swiss nationality but who do not meet the residency clause for free fees, the then Minister for Education and Skills requested, in March 2014, that the higher education institutions charge the more moderate EU fee to such students who have completed at least five academic years of study, at primary or post-primary level, in Ireland, the EU, the EEA or Switzerland and commence their first undergraduate course of study in an approved institution here.

That position took effect from the academic year 2014-2015 onwards. The particular concern was in regard to those people who have had to move abroad for occupational or economic reasons requiring them to take their children out of the Irish education system in the process. If, after a period, they return to live in Ireland, their children may not have met, in some cases, the residency criteria necessary to qualify for free fees. In addition, they may then have found themselves to be doubly disadvantaged by being charged a higher non-EU rate of free fees designed for international students rather than the more moderate EU rate. The Department was anxious to ensure that the children who move out of the Irish education system in such circumstances and subsequently return should not be doubly disadvantaged by being charged a higher non-EU rate of fee.

Tax relief at the standard rate of tax may be claimed in respect of tuition fees paid for approved courses at approved colleges of higher education. Further information on this tax relief is available from the Revenue Commissioners.

To alter the residency requirement would significantly extend eligibility for free fees and would have to be extended not only to Irish nationals but also to the nationals of other EU countries. It could only be considered in the context of additional Exchequer resources being made available to the colleges. Senator Lawless is raising the issue of citizens living in the United States, which I will raise with the Minister, Deputy Bruton, but it is a discussion that would only happen if there is increased funding available to be able to make it available to the institutions. It would open the doors not just to our own citizens, regardless of where they live, but also to other EU nationals living here. It is a cost that might prove to be unmanageable for us at this time. I thank the Senator for affording me the opportunity to respond to the House on this matter and bring some clarity to it also. I will pass on the Deputy's sentiments and the argument he is making to the Minister to allow him further analyse the position.

I thank the Minister for the response. I would like to put on record that whereas I am aware they do not fall under his responsibility, in addition to issues around access to third level education there are a number of other problems facing returning emigrants, including car insurance, driving licences, grants for first-time home buyers, etc. I would ask that the Government as a whole begin a dialogue with all support organisations to address these issues. We want our citizens abroad to return home and we should not put any barriers in front of them. I again thank the Minister for coming into the House.

That is something I would certainly welcome. I know from my previous role in the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and my current one in the Department of Education and Skills that even from a skills point of view and from the point of view of our economy, many people such as the ones the Senator represents are abroad with the skills we need. From a construction point of view, the housing agenda I am involved in with the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, and across many other Departments in terms of the science and research agenda and the many technology jobs, we need the people who have those skills to come home.

We need people who come home to have the skills as well and they also need to be able to upskill when they get there. We have an interest in trying to eliminate some of the barriers. Senator Lawless has touched on some of them, namely, housing and car insurance but even fitting back into the system can be complicated when it comes to social welfare. We are aware of the issues and we have attempted it in some areas with enterprise but perhaps a greater effort is required by all of us. I would be interested in engaging with the various bodies that are there to help, and the representative bodies in order to make this happen. With certain issues, if we deal with them in advance it can make it easier for people to make that journey home.

I appreciate what the Minister of State has outlined and thank him.

Services for People with Disabilities

I wish to speak to the Minister of State about a school in Carlow. This is the third issue relating to a school that I have raised in recent months concerning schools for children with disabilities. I will explain the situation to the Minister of State, whom I am sure has investigated the matter.

Saplings Carlow is a special school for children with autism and complex needs. In 2007 a number of parents from the Carlow area began the process of setting up the school. It was run more or less like a private school with tutors assigned and designated to each pupil. The school thrived and by 2010 became a Department of Education and Skills special school. Teachers and a principal were employed. DEIS funding paid a grant for the behaviour analyst and tutors became SNAs, resuming all of their previous duties. After Iengthy negotiations a seven-year transition agreement was reached, which has now been extended to 2019, a further two years.

The school originally started as a 12-pupil school and has recently grown to 19 pupils. It currently has a principal, a behaviour analyst, four teachers and 13 SNAs. The group of pupils range from four years to 18 years and have mild to severe learning difficulties with autism being the primary diagnosis. Pupils who attend Saplings Carlow do so mainly because of the nature and severity of how their behaviour and autism impacts on their daily life. Many pupils have failed to progress in their placement in mainstream schools, autism spectrum disorder units and special schools so this school is essential seen as a high-support placement and a specialised setting.

Many of the staff are highly qualified having master's degrees in special needs and autism. The main issue with the school building is that it is not fit for purpose. On 8 December 2016 the school had a critical incident whereby one of the pupils became extremely aggressive, which resulted in one teacher being knocked unconscious and many staff were injured. Both the children and the staff are in serious danger of being hurt. There is a duty of care to both pupils and staff. However, if they cannot educate the pupils there are no other options for them or their parents.

The conditions are appalling. It is unacceptable that society's most vulnerable children and the staff dedicated to them endure such inappropriate conditions. The school is based on the site of an old bungalow house. Therefore, the heating and sewerage are not suited to the needs of a school. The heating system is inadequate for the school. The building is freezing on a daily basis, with many staff and children wearing coats for the entire day. That is difficult to believe in 2017. There is severe damp in the bungalow. The damp is dreadful with a fungus continuously growing on the walls. The corridor is narrow and is not wheelchair-accessible, which is a problem as many children are in wheelchairs.

When a child is demonstrating challenging behaviour and is engaging in continuous aggression, self-injuring or high-magnitude destructive behaviour, they are escorted to the chill room or outside, depending on the child, regardless of the weather. Staff have received injury after injury and multiple bruising from being shoved, punched, kicked and hit in the narrow corridor. There are days when an aggressive child has to stand outside in the rain until he or she calms down because the physical space is not available inside the building. Another issue is that the child is a safety concern for other pupils. It is difficult to believe that is happening in 2017.

The staff kitchen is far too small. The kitchen was originally built to accommodate a family of four and now it must accommodate a staff of 20 plus. The staff room is a place of rest and should be a place of rejuvenation for staff members. The main bathroom is leaking and the leak from the bathroom is now coming into the classroom. The disruption caused is appalling. As well as the many other issues the school faces, the daily issues include problems with sewerage, yard space, no general purpose room or adequate room for eating lunch or getting exercise on wet days.

The front lobby is extremely narrow and dangerous, with far too many students, escorts and parents dropping and collecting children. A staff member's nose was broken this time last year, and two teachers have had their noses broken since then.

The lack of space and health and safety risks are endured on the premises every day. The sewage is overflowing and backs up once a month, sometimes fortnightly. It is costing €250 to deal with the problem each time, which means that grants are spent on trying to sort out the sewage problem.

Every year, the school has phone calls from parents looking for places for their children. It is not in any position to enrol more students this year because it is too small. This time last year, 29 children were enrolled in the school but only six could be facilitated. Expressions of interest for this year have been sought and many families are trying to get their children into the school.

I am ashamed that, in 2017, these vulnerable children, who do not attend mainstream schools or fit into autism units in mainstream schools, are dealing with conditions like this.

Senator Murnane O'Connor made a very strong case. I understand the situation.

I apologise that the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Richard Bruton, was not present to hear the strong case the Senator made. He is familiar with the Saplings school in Carlow, the great work that is done there. I understand there are 19 students, four teachers and 12 other staff. The Minister is familiar with the work that is being done there and understands the situation.

The Senator asked us to outline the position from our point of view and that of the Department. Saplings school is a co-educational school operating under the patronage of Saplings Limited Carlow and caters for children with autism and complex needs. The Saplings facility was founded in 2007 by Saplings Limited, which had responsibility for sourcing and operating the accommodation that the school currently occupies and has rented a property from a local landlord. As the Senator said, the parents established the school in 2007.

Saplings was granted temporary recognition as a primary school by the Department of Education and Skills in 2011. In this regard, the board of management has responsibility for the school's accommodation. This includes responsibility for ensuring that the accommodation complies at all times with planning, fire, health and safety, and building regulations. The school's management must also satisfy itself that the necessary insurances are in place.

In September 2016, the school was granted permanent recognition by the Department. As part of this recognition, the board of management was advised that the provision of interim accommodation remained the responsibility of the patron.

The Department is aware that there are issues with the sewerage system at the school and that the board of management has made arrangements to have these matters addressed. The Department provides funding for the school towards the cost of renting the current building. The Department also provides a grant to the school to facilitate reconfiguration works within the building to provide an extra classroom and additional sanitary facilities to meet increased enrolment. The Department is aware that the board is actively looking for alternative accommodation and will continue to engage directly with the school in the context of its accommodation needs.

I compliment the board of management, which is doing an excellent job. It has looked for accommodation but the current bungalow is not fit for purpose. The board of management and the Department should seek a new premises immediately. It is very difficult to find a suitable premises for the children's needs. This is urgent. I ask the Minister of State to ask the Minister for Education and Skills to intervene and make sure that the Department helps the board of management to find a new premises for the children, who are the most vulnerable children in our society.

I will pass on the information to the Minister, Deputy Bruton. The Department funds the rent for the current premises and is quite happy to fund the rent for an alternative premises. From the point of view of the Department, the board is responsible for the premises and is also best placed locally to find alternative accommodation. We understand it is looking for that, and will be happy to facilitate that and work with the board of management.

In terms of capital plans for the future, it is only when a school has permanent recognition that it can apply for capital funds belonging to the taxpayer. The school received that in September 2016. It is something on which the patron and parents can work if they want to bring forward a case for a new building or permanent building for the school.

That is entirely up to themselves but the Department understands they are seeking alternative accommodation. The Department is happy to work with them and will fund such accommodation. The decision on the matter is a local one for the school board.

Sitting suspended at 3.10 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.