Commencement Matters

Institutes of Technology Funding

I raise the issue of third level funding in general, with particular reference to the Castlebar campus of GMIT which, like many institutes of technology, faces significant financial challenges, notwithstanding the fact that student numbers are growing at third and fourth level across the State. However, most of the buoyancy is within the universities sector and, unfortunately, the institutes of technology are struggling. A financial review carried out last year for the Department of Education and Skills identified this issue which I raise wondering what steps are being taken.

In the case of the Castlebar campus of GMIT, there is a debt shortfall of €2 million. I understand there is also a deficit in Letterfrack. The Castlebar campus matter was highlighted at the monthly meeting of Mayo County Council where concerns were raised by my colleague, Councillor Michael Smyth, and Councillor Michael Kilcoyne. A meeting has taken place with the president of GMIT, but I understand it may not have resulted in much. Ultimately, it is a matter for the Department to give a commitment to provide additional funding in order that the current suite of courses will not be reduced in any way. There is a precedent within the Department in the provision of an additional €3 million which was made available to a second campus of Letterkenny Institute of Technology in Killybegs for the ongoing suite of courses offered there.

I am not sure if a request has been made, but certainly one is to be made for a meeting between the Minister and a delegation from Mayo County Council to discuss this issue. I understand a motion was passed at the most recent monthly meeting of the council seeking a meeting. I encourage the Minister to meet councillors as they are the persons best equipped to raise local concerns about the campus. I hope he has some news or an update for us and can share the outlook of the Department. I note that he provided additional funding in the recent budget, which I welcome. Ultimately, however, there are increasing education demands and the IT sector must be funded to play a key role. It cannot leverage funding from the private sector in the same way as universities for research and development and in other avenues. The IT sector must be encouraged, supported and facilitated across the board to meet the capacity demands on the third and fourth level education sector in the years to come.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. The higher education sector is vital in achieving our long-term ambitions as a nation. After nine years of continuous cuts to the budget for these institutions, I have been pleased to provide for the first increase in investment this year. Beyond that, we have committed to a demographic dividend in the coming three years. On top of this, we have decided to develop, with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, an Exchequer-employer mechanism. We have published a paper for public consultation and would welcome submissions.

Direct funding for individual colleges is not provided through the Department but through the HEA which we assign to deal directly with institutes of technology and the universities.

It does not come through the Department. We assign the HEA to deal directly with these institutes of technology and with the universities. They are independent bodies and have their own governing authorities. The HEA is reviewing its funding mechanism.

The Senator is right that there was a recent review of the entire institute of technology sector during which issues such as the difficulties they have in funding were raised. Very specifically the difficulties of IOTs with multiple campuses were highlighted as an issue that the HEA wants to support as part of its ongoing development of funding in the sector. That is a positive backdrop to the discussion we are having.

My Department and the HEA are aware of the financial difficulties being experienced by a number of the IOTs, including Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology. The HEA has been closely monitoring the financial position of all of the IOTs and in particular is working closely with those institutes operating in deficit to ensure appropriate mechanisms are put in place to eliminate the deficit as quickly as possible. In line with the HEA’s policy for dealing with financially vulnerable institutes, GMIT has agreed a three-year financial plan with the HEA to reach a balanced budget by 2017-18 and an external financial expert has been appointed to review the plan.

GMIT has also identified a number of areas to address its financial position including implementation of a retention strategy; review of the offering versus other higher institutes of education to try to increase demand; and a new programme development to bring increased student numbers. The HEA has also stated that plans for the future of Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology must support the sustainable development of provision on all campuses. That is a very important principle.

The HEA and the GMIT governing body have reconfirmed to my Department their commitment to implementing a viable development plan for the Castlebar campus as part of this process. GMIT has appointed an interim head of the campus in Castlebar to lead this process. The GMIT board has also established a sub-committee look at the overall strategy and future plans for the institute.

The Department and the HEA recognise the particular challenges attached to multi-campus provision in GMIT and other institutes of technology. A major review of the funding allocation model of higher education has commenced and the review will look at how the future model can take account of the additional costs associated with these arrangements. My Department and the HEA are committed to such multi-campus provision, including that at Castlebar.

The rest of the response deals with the wider issues of funding this sector. I believe, as the Senator does, that one of the keys to building a strong sustainable competitive advantage in our regions is building around the skill base. I regard the presence of campuses and the development of those campuses as vital to securing that long-term regional capability.

I thank the Minister. Is a copy of the Minister’s script available as generally is the case?

I will definitely arrange to have it circulated.

That would be fine.

I understand the challenges that IOTs, including GMIT, are facing. It is important to recognise that rationalisation of services into the central pillar of GMIT would be at the expense of the Castlebar campus. I appreciate that the HEA has responsibility, but overall responsibility rests with the Minister. Would he be willing to meet the delegation from Mayo County Council to discuss not just that issue, but other issues relating to third level education in the Mayo area?

I thank the Senator. It is important that we develop this plan, particularly for Castlebar and that we carve out a strong and resilient future for it. I will be meeting representatives of the college to get an understanding of the challenges and how it will meet them. I regularly go to different parts of the education sector to have consultation sessions where we hear local ideas.

As local authorities are not specifically an education body, I am not committing to meet local authorities. Unfortunately, I get such requests on a very frequent basis. I assure the Senator that I am very conscious of the needs of Castlebar. I will ensure I get first-hand experience from those who are extremely committed to its development. I believe that together with the HEA and the new funding models we can carve out a strong future for Castlebar.

Summer Works Scheme

My query is a simple one that relates to Edmonton school outside Killucan. I am sure the Minister is aware of the situation regarding it. The school sought upgrading works for toilet facilities last year under the summer works scheme but was unsuccessful. The school has again sought a grant for this year. I have been in the school with the local Deputy Robert Troy and, to say the least, the facilities are exceptionally poor. I would be surprised if the school would pass a health and safety review. The facilities at the school must be upgraded with the utmost urgency. I implore the Minister to look at them himself.

The upgrade works that are required have been costed at €40,000, which is not a large amount. I am sure the Minister will fund a summer works scheme this summer. I am pleased he is in the House and that I can make him aware of the conditions in the school. It is not an exaggeration to say the amenities are exceptionally poor. In addition to the substandard conditions for the pupils, the teachers must also endure the existing facilities, which are just not good enough. I would very much appreciate if the Minister could give a firm commitment on Edmonton school.

I thank Senator Davitt for raising this issue. The summer works scheme is one that was completely suspended at the height of the downturn following the crash. It was reintroduced in 2014 to 2015 and it is to be provided in the 2016 to 2017 school year. It generally runs in two-year cycles. The scheme for 2016 to 2017 is again in a two-year cycle. The first phase of it for 2016 dealt with the first two categories, namely, gasworks and electrical works, and the next phase will go down through the remaining categories.

The position in regard to St. Patrick's national school, Edmonton, is that it has applied for summer works. As Senator Davitt outlined, it is a co-ed school with 77 pupils. The school applied for the scheme to upgrade toilet facilities. Under the classification for the summer works scheme, toilets come under category 5. The assessment of applications for the summer works categories is now being undertaken by the Department. I expect to be in a position to announce a further round of successful applications in the near future. I should point out that nearly half of all schools in the country have applied for the scheme and as Senator Davitt can imagine, given the interruption of the scheme for a couple of years, there is a backlog of demand. The Department must apply prioritisation criteria to ensure the most urgent cases are addressed. The 2017 scheme is a continuation of last year's scheme and if we are in a position, I hope we will announce a further scheme for 2018 and 2019. That is the current status of the scheme. The work is ongoing and decisions will be made shortly.

I appreciate that the Minister has come to the House today and the response he has given. We have made him aware of the position. I do not say it for the sake of saying it but because I have been in the school with the local Deputies and if the Minister were there on the ground himself he would consider making this an urgent case. I thank him for coming here today.

I thank the Senator. I will alert officials to the case Senator Davitt has made but I think the school itself has made a very strong case in its submission. Unfortunately, given the nearly 1,700 applications from schools around the country it is a challenge to allocate the resources in a fair way that meets as many of the needs as possible.

Tribunals of Inquiry Recommendations

I thank the Minister of State for being with us. The Mahon tribunal investigated planning corruption in Dublin between 1997 and 2012. The tribunal cost more than €160 million, consisted of 589 days of public hearings and taking evidence and had 427 witnesses. One might ask what the taxpayer has to show for all of this work and all this money and these hours of investigation? We know that court decisions relating to 12 named persons, including a former Minister, developers and a Dublin City assistant manager were subsequently quashed. Hard-hitting and clear recommendations have been made in the report by the tribunal. We need to hear how they are progressing. Can the Minister of State explain why some of the key recommendations of the Mahon tribunal report have not been implemented? For example, it recommended the disclosure of the identities of all those making political donations in excess of €55. That is not my choice nor my recommendation, but it is what Mr. Justice Mahon said to a Deputy. The report also refers to various thresholds concerning donations. That is an area on which the tribunal has made strong recommendations. I want to hear what the Government is going to do about it.

I am aware of the Corruption Bill, and no doubt the Minister of State is also. I recognise that it is not the Minister of State's responsibility nor the responsibility of his Department. There was a direct effect following Ireland's failure to implement recommendations in terms of corruption. We know that Ireland was recently placed 19th in Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index for 2016. It was expressly stated in its findings that, "The failure of the Government to implement the Mahon tribunal and the Moriarty tribunal recommendations was at the very heart of this change". That is profound, and it is something that we need to address.

The Mahon tribunal uncovered extraordinary information about widespread corruption in the planning process, and that infected the planning process for decades. That was a legacy we had in the past. The Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coveney, and the Minister of State, brought in the Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Bill 2016, which has been passed by both Houses. How is the Minister of State going to implement the recommendations that have come from the Mahon tribunal? Can he advise the House of his plans to establish an independent planning regulators office? This was part of the programme for Government. The Minister of State has a lot of work on his plate. The key issues I want to identify today are the implementation of the recommendations of the Mahon tribunal - I would like a timeframe for that - and how it is intended to proceed with the independent planning regulator.

I think Senator Boyhan for raising this issue. The Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments, otherwise known as the Mahon tribunal, was established by order of the then Minister for the Environment and Local Government back in 1997 to inquire into and report on various planning matters as set out in resolutions passed by the Dáil and Seanad concerning the establishment of the tribunal. As Senator Boyhan will be aware, the tribunal made in total 64 recommendations, of which ten are planning related and fall to my Department to implement. Some of the planning-related recommendations have already been implemented, such as the development of regional, spatial and economic strategies by the regional assemblies, and prohibiting the use of powers available to elected members under section 140 of the Local Government Act 2001 concerning planning matters.

The majority of the remaining Mahon tribunal planning-related recommendations are provided for in the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2016 which is presently being progressed through the Oireachtas, with Dáil Committee Stage scheduled for 12th of April next.

I understand the Senator raised this issue with me during a debate last week. All Stages of the Bill are progressing.

The Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2016 proposes to provide legislative underpinning in respect of the following tribunal recommendations. It proposes to place on a statutory footing the proposed new national planning framework, to be titled Ireland 2040 - Our Plan, as a successor to the 2002 national spatial strategy. It also proposes the establishment of a new independent office of the planning regulator to take over the functions of evaluating and assessing local development plans and regional strategies, to generally oversee the operation of the planning system and to conduct necessary reviews of the operation of the planning system. This proposal is particularly important and will introduce a further institutional layer of sophistication and oversight to the planning system.

The Bill also proposes enhanced transparency in the planning process, requiring the publication of submissions, local area plans and development plans, as well as the chief executive's report on such submissions on the website of the planning authority. It also proposes the forwarding of any proposed grant of planning commission which will materially contravene a development or a local area plan to the relevant regional assembly for observations. The payment of reduced or no fees by elected members when making submissions and planning applications as well as the noting of such representations on a development planning file is also proposed.

There are two planning related recommendations in the final report of the Mahon tribunal which have not yet been progressed, one of which the Senator mentioned. The first recommendation relates to the proposal that members of regional assemblies shall be directly elected. In this regard, the new regional assembly structures were only established in 2014, further to the Local Government Reform Act of that year. Accordingly, it is considered premature to progress this recommendation at the early stage of the operation of the new regional assembly structures. However, it is intended that implementation of this recommendation will be reviewed after the new structures have run a full five-year term in 2019.

The other outstanding tribunal recommendation which remains to be progressed, and to which the Senator referred, relates to the introduction of a requirement that applicants for planning permission be required to disclose if they have made a political donation to a member of a local authority or elected representative when submitting a planning application and also to indicate the identity of the recipient of any such political donation.

On this matter, it is considered that issues relating to political donations generally are probably most appropriately addressed in the standards in public office legislation, which is a matter for the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. However, the Minister will reflect further on whether it might be possible to address the issue of planning related political donations in the specific context of planning legislation. Committee Stage of the relevant Bill will be debated in April. I hope I have clarified the position for the Senator.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive response. It will feed into a proposal on a draft Bill on which we are working and which will come before the House at some point.

I want to raise two issues. The Minister of State has not identified the new independent office of planning regulation. He acknowledged it but gave no commitment on its implementation, including the date of its establishment. I ask him to come back to the House on that.

On the payment of reduced or no fees for county councillors and elected members of the 31 local authorities, we are none the wiser. I ask the Minister of State to share some of his thoughts on that.

The Bill to which I referred - it is on Committee Stage - will deal with the matter. In terms of timelines in regard to the independent planning regulator I do not want to second guess what will happen on Committee Stage. As the Senator knows, proceedings can go quite smoothly or take time. Either way, we are open to having a lengthy discussion with all Members of both Houses on Committee and Remaining Stages of the Bill. I have no doubt I will be back in the House. I cannot comment on timelines.

Nursing Home Accommodation Provision

I am glad to be given the opportunity to raise this important issue and thank the Minister of State for being here today. As he knows, at the start of last year, his predecessor, Kathleen Lynch, announced one of the most comprehensive investment programmes in public nursing home facilities in the history of the State. As part of this €400 million investment programme by the Government, 33 existing home facilities throughout the country will be replaced and 57 others will be refurbished or extended. Before this breakthrough announcement, many communities feared that some nursing homes would be closed because of a failure to meet the required HIQA standards. With this significant funding programme, that will now not be the case.

In County Roscommon, the Plunkett home in my town of Boyle and Áras Mháthair Phóil in Castlerea benefit from €1.14 million and €850,000, respectively. The single biggest beneficiary in County Roscommon was the Sacred Heart Hospital in Roscommon town. After a long and hard fought campaign by many stakeholders, including myself, €9 million in funding was finally secured to upgrade its facilities. The funding allocation of €9 million will ensure that the facility will become compliant with the environmental aspects of HIQA standards by 2021. It is important to state that HIQA inspections of the Sacred Heart Hospital have confirmed the excellence of care that residents receive, which is reassuring for residents and their families. If I may be a little parochial, my mother, who is 89 years of age, has been in the Sacred Heart Hospital for the past two months. My family and I are absolutely delighted with the care she receives and I thank the doctors, nurses and staff there.

Many people like my mother are availing of rehabilitative care but the health care ranges from continual care to rehabilitative, palliative and respite care for up to 95 residents. However, as is the case with many long-established public nursing homes, the physical environment needs improvement. Part of the Sacred Heart building dates from 1842 and has undergone modifications over the years to improve facilities but HIQA inspections have found that significant structural improvements are required to ensure compliance. From my regular visits, it is evident that the building is not designed and laid out to meet fully the needs of the residents. Most of the bedrooms are multi-occupancy and accommodate up to four beds in each room. No one can argue that this does not impact on the privacy and dignity of residents.

Thankfully, a specific plan is now in place to make provision for a new 50 bed unit on the site of the Sacred Heart Hospital. This will involve an extensive refurbishment of the building to provide residents' accommodation in en-suite, single and two-bed rooms along with a suitable communal space and sanitary facilities. As I stated at the outset, the funding was announced more than a year ago. We now need a commencement date for the works on the new Sacred Heart unit. I hope the Minister of State can give an indication of the timescale today.

I thank Senator Frank Feighan for raising this important issue. I know he is committed to developing services for senior citizens, health services and disability services in the Roscommon area.

Although it is Government policy to facilitate older people to remain in their own homes for as long as possible, there will always be a cohort of people who need long-term care. Quality residential care must continue to be available to those who need it. We are strongly in favour of choice with regard to services for senior citizens. Public residential care units are a significant and crucial part of our framework of services for older people. They provide more than 5,000 long-stay beds, amounting to approximately 20% of the total stock of nursing home beds nationally. The standard of care delivered to residents in these units is generally very high but we recognise and accept that many of our public units are housed in buildings that are less than ideal in the modern context.

The HSE is responsible for the delivery of health and personal social services, including those at facilities such as Sacred Heart Hospital in Roscommon. The hospital was registered with HIQA in 2015 for a period of three years with the maximum occupancy of 95 people. The beds provided by nursing homes such as Sacred Heart Hospital are an essential part of our health care infrastructure.

The beds provided by nursing homes like the Sacred Heart home in Roscommon represent an essential part of our health care infrastructure. Without them, many older people would not have access to the care they need. Therefore, it is essential for them to be put on a sustainable footing and for the fabric of the buildings from which they operate to be modernised and improved.

The capital programme that was announced last year is one of the most comprehensive programmes of investment in public nursing home facilities ever undertaken by the State. It provides for the replacement and refurbishment of 90 public nursing homes across the country. Significant work was undertaken by the HSE to determine the most appropriate scheduling of projects over the five-year period from 2016 to 2021, within the phased provision of funding, to achieve compliance and registration with the Health Information and Quality Authority. Under this capital programme, it is proposed to deliver a new community nursing unit at the Sacred Heart home by 2021. This project will replace existing beds where the physical environment requires significant improvement. Like all health care infrastructure developments, this project requires a lead-in time to complete its various stages, including appraisal, project brief, design feasibility, review of costing estimates and finalisation of financing. This project is at the appraisal stage. The HSE expects that construction will begin in 2020 and will be completed and operational by 2021. The works, when completed, will ensure the hospital’s long and proud tradition will continue well into the future.

I thank the Minister of State again. I am delighted that the Government is fully committed to upgrading the Sacred Heart nursing home. The Minister of State has said that the "project is at the appraisal stage". He mentioned that the various stages before the construction stage include "appraisal, project brief, design feasibility [and] review of costing estimates". I have sat in on the three stages that have happened at the Sacred Heart's sister facility at Roscommon County Hospital. It has taken almost four years for the endoscopy building at the hospital, which is now providing excellent facilities in Roscommon, to get up and running. I sat in from the appraisal stage to the design stage. I thank the management and staff of the hospital. Along with doing their own significant work, they were able to make an input into the development of the endoscopy unit. As a result, the hospital now has significant accreditation as a working hospital. The input of hospital management and staff enabled them to determine the best possible result. I would like to think the knowledge and endeavours of the staff of the Sacred Heart home will be included in the appraisal stage because it is absolutely vital. I am delighted that this project is going ahead. I do not think people fully realise how much work goes on during the appraisal, project brief and design stages. It is a long and drawn-out process. It has to include all the stakeholders, including the staff, to ensure we get the best possible result. I thank the Minister of State again. I wish him well.

I thank Senator Feighan for his remarks. I know how committed he is to the protection of our senior citizens and the elderly, particularly in the Roscommon area. I take his point that the bureaucracy associated with the different stages can sometimes lead to delays. I will be responsible after this debate for passing on Senator's Feighan message that we need to ensure progress is made with these projects. It is important to provide for services to be made available to senior citizens who otherwise do not fit into options like home support and home care packages. There are other issues with the provision of services for our senior citizens. As I have said, approximately 5,000 people across the country fall into that category. It is essential for the senior citizens in the Roscommon area whom we are discussing to get services of the best quality. The quality services they deserve as a right include proper, modern and state-of-the-art beds, conditions and toilet facilities.

Senior citizens worked for all their lives. The least we can do for them, towards the end of their years, is our best to support them. It is very important that we do. I also take the Senator's point about the staff in the Sacred Heart Home. I reassure him that every provision will be made and every avenue followed to ensure the staff and patients will receive the support and services they deserve. I will bring the points raised by him to the Minister, Deputy Simon Harris.

I thank the Minister of State and the Senator.

Sitting suspended at 3.15 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.