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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 11 Oct 2017

Vol. 253 No. 10

Commencement Matters

Flood Risk Management

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Boxer Moran, for facilitating this debate, which is very important in the context of Limerick. I refer to the catchment flood risk assessment and management, CFRAM, study which, in layman's terms, produces flood risk management plans for specific areas in Ireland. In 2009, and more recently, there was severe flooding in the same locations. I refer to St. Mary's Park and Corbally in the city, Westbury and Castleconnell, Montpellier and Annacotty in the suburbs of Limerick and the Mountshannon Road between Annacotty and Castleconnell village.

The same individual homes and areas flooded. The Corbally Road flooded down to the back of Westbury. The mall in the village of Castleconnell flooded. Mulcair Drive in Annacotty flooded. The Minister of State knows from his experience in Athlone that people's homes have been flooded on two occasions, which was traumatic. Smaller estates flooded in Montpellier, a small village on the border between Tipperary and Clare outside Castleconnell.

The CFRAM study is being prepared. Having spoken to Limerick City and County Council, I note it wishes to proceed with the design of flood defences to be built in the locations to which I referred. It has been advised by the Office of Public Works, OPW, that it has to wait for the CFRAM study to be published. When will it be published? If there is a delay in publication, is there a method by which Limerick City and County Council could apply to the OPW for funding to allow the design work to get underway?

The Minister of State knows that in respect of special areas of conservation the process is very slow. It takes a number of years to get to the stage where building can commence. Some work has been on Verdant Crescent in St. Mary's Park in the city. The main works are about to go to planning and the process has taken some time. It has been traumatic for those living in St. Mary's Park who experienced flooding.

When will the CFRAM study be finalised and published? When can Limerick City and County Council apply for funding in order to submit properly designed flood defences for Corbally, Castleconnell, Montpellier, Annacotty and Mountshannon Road? I greatly admired the Minister of State's work in Athlone. I extend an invitation for him to come to Limerick and visit the locations to which I have referred to see at first hand how important it is to get flood defences in place.

I wish to thank the Senator for raising this matter today and I am pleased to provide an update on the status of the preparation of the CFRAM programme and when it is expected to be published. The CFRAM programme is the largest flood risk management programme ever undertaken by the State. The programme is focusing on 300 areas for further assessment, AFAs, including 90 coastal areas, mainly in urban locations nationwide, identified as being at potentially significant risk of flooding.

This programme has identified feasible flood relief measures to provide protection to 95% of properties at risk in the 300 areas. The details will be set out in the flood risk management plan. Nearly 500 public consultation days have been held on the CFRAM programme, where the CFRAM teams met the communities involved to discuss the process face-to-face. Draft plans were published last year for public consultation.

There was an extensive response to the public consultation on the draft plans and constructive and wide-ranging observations were provided. The review and assessment of these observations took longer than expected but reflects the nature of the value of the comments received. People’s views have helped form what is now proposed in the final plans. These are currently undergoing an independent review in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Once this independent review of all plans is completed and observations are addressed, the final plans will be formally submitted to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform for approval, in accordance with the statutory requirements. I hope by the end of this year to publish the final plans developed under the CFRAM process and to announce the proposed structural measures contained within those plans that will protect communities and properties at risk.

The CFRAM programme addresses the requirements of the EU floods directive as well as national flood policy. The OPW has been in regular contact with the European Commission advising it of the progress with the finalisation of the plans. I assure the Seanad again that the Government will continue to ensure that measures to deal effectively with flooding through the development of the CFRAM programme and plans, and the continued investment in flood defence capital schemes, will receive the highest priority. I assure the Senator that in my role as Minister of State, I will give this a high priority. I sympathise with anyone affected by flooding, whether they are in Limerick, Cork, Clare or Athlone. Everything that can be done will be done. We hope that by the end of the year we will roll out the CFRAM provisions. It has taken longer than envisaged but I am pleased to say we are now coming to a finality. At the Senator's request, I will visit Limerick in the near future if he so wishes.

The Senator got a good answer so I ask him to be very brief.

I thank the Minister of State and look forward to him coming to visit Limerick. He is more than welcome. This is very important to us. There has been an extensive consultation process and in one location, Castleconnell village, there was a need for a second consultation because of risk of flooding. The OPW did the further consultation and I expect it will be rectified. People are worried about another severe rainfall as they know the areas of Corbally, Castleconnell, Montpelier, Annacotty, Mountshannon Road, as well as further into Clare with the likes of Clonard, will be flooded. The only way this can be arrested is if we get flood defences in place. I very much welcome that. I expect that any submissions from Limerick city and council to go with the design projects would give priority to the areas I spoke about for flood defences. I hope that will happen under the CFRAM study.

Local Authority Funding

I thank the Minister of State for attending, although I am very disappointed the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, or the Minister of State, Deputy John Paul Phelan, did not attend this morning. On 15 August they attended a meeting with officials at Carlow County Council where there was a proposal from the council on a draft budget going to 2018. I am very disappointed they did not attend today.

Carlow has been hit harder than most towns in the recession and Government funding is more important now than ever. Carlow needs the Government to address these matters immediately. Our workforce must leave town daily, as our young left our shores during the recession. Hundreds of our workers park their cars on our motorway access point or share cars to Dublin, Cork, Louth, Limerick and further afield. They put in at least 14 to 15 hours daily and they have no other choice. We lost our manufacturing industries and we saw the heartbreaking sight of long-established businesses closed, with the county's disposable income all but dried up. These people must leave their families behind to find work as they have bills to pay. Carlow was once one of the most prosperous counties in this country and Carlow town was one of Ireland's most progressive and successful locations. Carlow County Council played a major role in this prosperity and, unfortunately, the equalisation fund was set in these years of prosperity.

The reality today is so different. We can consider the loss of the Irish Sugar Company, Erin Foods, Lapple, Cold Rolling Mills and numerous engineering companies and building contractors that have gone. Numerous small and medium enterprises have also gone. Braun was a major player that left the area devastated when it closed. This company employed more than 1,200 women and many men. The women brought valued second wages into the family home, thus providing disposable income. This income and the value of these jobs were especially helpful to Carlow's economic success and the thriving business community in Carlow.

Carlow must look to the future, and securing our fair share of Government funding is the first step in the process of restoring Carlow to a prosperous and thriving town and county. We cannot be left behind under the cloak of rural Ireland and tourism campaigns. We must work together to boost our county. Housing is vital to our county, but if we build houses, we must consider planning for jobs to bring income to those houses. Local government must be aided in creating prosperity to enrich these homes. Carlow is not shouting for extra funding or asking to be bailed out like banks. It is just asking for its fair share of Government funding. The Government can start this with the local property equalisation fund, just one item that can start to help the recovery both of Carlow town and every other part of our county.

In just over a year in this House I have seen the country's financial position improve. I look at Dublin and see a city that is thriving. Other cities and towns in counties are benefiting from recovery, but many other parts of our country are not feeling these benefits. They are not feeling hope. If our future is to be bright, we must provide that hope. Unfortunately, Carlow is one of the areas that has not felt much recovery and it has lost hope. If the Government gives Carlow its fair share of funding, it will help the county develop, improve services and make it a more attractive location in which to live, work, invest, create and build. We work hard in Carlow with Government agencies that work to attract large industries. We cannot choose their location for them. We can, however, shine our shoes, put on our best suit, light our lanterns and demonstrate that Carlow is open for business, growth and profit.

We need the help of the Minister of State. Carlow County Council refused to raise the local property tax last week because my county is not getting its fair share of funding from central government. These councillors have seen all other counties receive extra funding that we are not getting. I ask the Minister of State to say if they were wrong to highlight this injustice. Would he honestly say he would not do the very same for his constituents, fighting for their fair share and being the brave public representative they elected him to be? To recover fully from the recession, the Government must ensure every county is included. We cannot have an island within an island, with a thriving business industry dynamo blocked by the M50. I am sure other counties will fight for their fair share of Government funding and they should do so. Today, however, I am highlighting the case of Carlow and speaking for my home county and its concerns. The Government has failed to accept there is a matter that must be addressed immediately with Government funding for Carlow. It is really urgent as we are getting some of the lowest levels of funding.

I thank Senator Murnane O'Connor for her comments and am delighted to see her fighting for her area. As Minister of State with responsibility for business and trade, I am always concerned about balanced regional development. I was in Carlow earlier this year and was very impressed with Carlow Institute of Technology and the innovation centre. The county is lucky to have a third level institution and its innovation, as it attracts entrepreneurs. I have no doubt that Carlow has a bright future, given its location. I would talk up Carlow rather than talk it down as it has much to offer and is a very nice town.

I apologise for the absence of the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and the Minister of State, Deputy John Paul Phelan, as both are tied up with budget issues. They asked me to take this matter this morning. I thank the Senator for raising the matter.

I welcome this opportunity, on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, to outline the importance of equalisation funding to local authorities such as Carlow County Council in the context of local property tax, LPT, allocations. It is important to recall that the LPT was introduced to provide a stable and sustainable funding base for the local government sector, providing a greater level of connection between local revenue-raising and local expenditure decisions, while simultaneously reducing the local government sector's reliance on other taxes. Local retention of the LPT started in 2015 and since then the overall principles and allocation mechanisms have broadly remained the same. A total of 80% of the LPT is retained in the area in which it is collected, notwithstanding any local variation decisions. The other 20% goes to support equalisation funding for local authorities with lower LPT bases, just like the Senator's county council in Carlow.

As we all know, local authorities vary significantly from one another in terms of size, population, public service demands, infrastructure etc. In the past, general purpose grant funding and other income reflected this variety. It is not possible, therefore, to compare absolute levels of funding received across local authority areas, as to do so would not reflect the differences between them.

With regard to the LPT, in accordance with decisions taken by Government regarding the distribution of funding, every local authority has a minimum level of funding available to it known as its baseline. Equalisation is the process that ensures that every local authority’s LPT allocation is brought up to this baseline. As well as the 20% contribution from each local authority, the Exchequer also contributes to equalisation support, with €43 million allocated in 2018 and to be distributed in 2018 in accordance with the LPT allocation mechanism. The current baseline is linked to previous general purpose grants and was increased in 2016 to take account of pension-related deductions previously retained as an income stream by local authorities. For both 2017 and 2018, the Government decided that no local authority should receive less income from the LPT than it received in the form of general purpose grants in 2014 as well as the amount of pension-related deductions that was integrated into the baseline in 2016.

Accordingly, Carlow’s LPT allocation is in line with its previous funding level, as is the case for all local authorities. In fact, Carlow County Council is a net beneficiary of equalisation. For 2018, the estimated LPT yield in Carlow, based on data from the Revenue Commissioners, is €3.9 million, of which €794,000, 20%, goes towards equalisation. This contrasts with a baseline figure of €6.1 million, meaning in 2018, Carlow will benefit by €2.9 million from equalisation support. If this is the figure to which the Senator is referring, it is important to remember that the same mechanism has been applied consistently across the local government sector, that LPT allocations for 2018 have been finalised and notified to authorities and that it is not possible to reopen this decision or to supplement the allocation of any individual authority.

The current approach to LPT distribution and equalisation is fair, consistent and ensures resources are used to support those authorities that need them most. It is important that local authorities are treated in a consistent manner. Any variation from that approach for one individual local authority would introduce inequity and, it is presumed, lead to similar demands from other local authorities. All such issues have to be considered within the parameters of the national and fiscal budgetary situation and the competing priorities presenting themselves at the wider governmental level.

In this context, it should be noted that the Government has allocated significant resources to tackling the housing shortage as part of the budgetary process. The Senator will be aware of the €1.83 billion allocated for that in the budget. The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government will continue to work with local authorities to deal with this issue.

It is a matter for each local authority to consider how it can maximise local income sources and manage its own spending in the context of the annual budgetary process. As the process of formulating local authority budgets ramps up in the aftermath of the national budget, local authorities must consider how to balance income with service delivery. The current local government funding model supports local authorities of all types to support an appropriate level of service provision. Every local authority has the opportunity to decide whether to increase or decrease LPT rates by up to 15% each year. Carlow County Council did not use its power to vary LPT rates for 2018, nor did it use those powers in the past. If the authority had decided to increase LPT rates, it would have retained 100% of the additional LPT collected and would, therefore, have had additional funding available for the county. It is important to note in this context that budgetary decisions, a reserved function, are a key responsibility of the elected members of local authorities. As well as LPT and grants from Government, local authorities also derive income from local sources, including commercial rates, and goods and services. These two sources account for almost 65% of Carlow’s budgeted income for 2017.

The Department keeps the LPT allocation mechanism under review to ensure equitable treatment of all local authorities. However, while acknowledging that local authorities may face challenging decisions in the coming weeks in the context of their annual budgets, no additional LPT funding can be made available to any authority.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I know she has grave concerns about it. There is very little we can do about the allocation for this year and it may be something that could be considered for next year.

I advise the Senator that we are five minutes over time.

The Senator does not have two minutes. She has one second to make a brief comment.

I am disappointed with the Minister of State's response given that many other local authorities have been given much more funding than our authority has been given. There is not a fair system in place. Yesterday's budget was supposed to be fair but it is not a fair budget. If the Government does not look after the local authorities that are telling those in government that they cannot come up with the funding they require, then we are in trouble. I am very disappointed. I am proud to be from Carlow and proud of what Carlow has achieved, but we were hit by the recession. Our county needs to be addressed like other rural counties, but the Government is not addressing our needs.

The matter was allocated eight minutes but almost 14 minutes have been used. The Minister of State has given a very comprehensive reply.

I take on board what the Senator has said but my message regarding the allocations is quite clear, and the Senator should take that message back to her local authority members.

Constituency Boundaries

I want to raise an issue I raised previously regarding the need for the Minister with responsibility for local government to outline his proposals to review the local government boundaries in light of the upcoming local elections in 2019. The review of local government boundaries is an issue we have discussed and it has been on the agenda since the previous report in 2013. That report unfortunately initiated a change in boundaries resulting in some constituencies increasing to ten seats, which has had a major knock-on effect on local government. None of us in this Chamber or in public life realistically sees the advantage in constituencies increasing to ten seats, given what that can mean in geographical terms with local electoral constituencies in, for example, south Kerry or west Cork stretching to 110 to 120 miles. It does not make sense. A review of the criteria in terms of the geographical nature of these constituencies is important.

We have seen that local government is the heart of Ireland and local government is about knowing one's local representatives. If a person lives in a constituency that stretches to 100 miles, the chances of him or her knowing the local representatives or the representatives knowing that person are very limited.

That criteria used for local government reviews need to be examined. Traditionally, we have used a system of district electoral divisions, DEDs. It does not make sense to use criteria that are more than 100 years old and up to 120 years old. These mapping districts need to be reviewed. Ireland has moved on. It does not make sense that we as a progressive State would return to boundaries that were set more than 100 years ago.

I will give an example of the unbelievable way in which constituencies have been divided. The town of Carrigaline in Cork, with a population of more than 15,000 people and a river flowing through the centre of it, was divided between two electoral districts. One half of the town became part of the Ballincollig-Carrigaline area, which became a ten-seat constituency, and the other half became part of the Kinsale-Bandon area, which became a five-seat constituency. It does not make sense to divide towns on the basis of those electoral districts. Electoral districts need to be inclusive in nature and an electoral area needs to include both halves of a town such as Carrigaline and its hinterland to promote better local government. Unfortunately, if we fall back to using these old maps and do not move on from maps that are more than 100 years old, we will not move on when it comes to representation of local government.

The report relating to current boundaries was published on 30 May 2013. This did not give public representatives, the public and executives in local authorities enough time to prepare for a local election that was held 12 months later. There is an anomaly in the system. The European election boundaries have already been set for 2019. The MEPs know their constituencies. They know exactly where they are running and the public knows the constituencies as they are laid out in law. They were laid out on 27 June 2017 but the process of laying out new local election boundaries has not even commenced. This is a major problem for the executives, the public and the councillors who want to serve these people. There are 918 councillors who are waiting for a local government review of the boundaries and for the Minister to press the button and set the criteria. There are many things at stake. Criteria are very important. We have seen how bad criteria have led to bad decisions. We need appropriate criteria and an appropriate timescale. I look forward to the Minister of State's response because we need to address this issue. The public needs local government and at the moment, the word "local" is missing in these very large constituencies.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. As someone who was once a councillor, looking at the previous divisions, I echo the Senator's concerns. I keep in touch with councillors of all colours to hear their concerns. It would be hoped that all their concerns would be reflected in any review. I apologise for the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, who has budgetary matters to attend to this morning and who asked me to come in his place.

A Programme for a Partnership Government sets out a number of commitments relating to local government reform to ensure that local government funding, structures and responsibilities strengthen local democracy into the future. In particular, the programme includes a commitment to consider reducing the size of local electoral areas. In this context, the preparatory work in support of a review of local electoral areas is being advanced in the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. It is intended that the review will be initiated shortly and will be completed in good time before the 2019 local elections.

In contrast to the position for Dáil constituencies, there are no constitutional or statutory requirements relating to the frequency of local electoral area reviews. Nevertheless, provision is made in section 23 of the Local Government Act 2001 for the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to divide each county, city or city and county into local electoral areas and to amend those areas as may be considered necessary. However, changes to local electoral areas may only be carried out following the completion of a review by an independent boundary committee established under section 28 of the Local Government Act 1991. The Minister must have regard to the report of a boundary committee before deciding on whether to make an order amending local electoral areas. The terms of reference for a boundary committee are set by the Minister of the day. The most recent review of local electoral areas was carried out from November 2012 to May 2013 by a boundary committee in advance of the 2014 local elections. Local electoral area reviews were also carried out by boundary committees in 2008, 1998 and 1985. In broad terms, previous reviews of local electoral areas had regard to a wide range of factors, including the emerging needs of society, population change and demographics as well as the policy considerations of the day.

In accordance with the programme for a partnership Government, the Department is currently preparing a comprehensive report for Government and the Oireachtas on potential measures to boost local government leadership and accountability, which is important for any politician. This report will comprise a number of papers which will cover a broad range of issues on the local government reform agenda. The Minister is aware that concerns have been raised by a number of local authority members across different local authorities and by the Association of Irish Local Government relating to the territorial size and configuration of some of the local electoral areas specified following the last boundary review. The demands on councillors in territorially large local electoral areas are greater than those in more compact areas even when member-to-population ratios are broadly similar. This can arise due to distance, travel time and the difficulty in keeping abreast of local issues. A further concern which has been raised is that there has been a loss of focus on some large urban centres by virtue of their inclusion in territorially large local electoral areas. To address these concerns, it is proposed that the review of local electoral areas will be given priority ahead of the broader report to Government and the Oireachtas on local government reform. In this regard, it is anticipated that the review of local electoral areas will be initiated shortly and will be completed well in advance of the 2019 local elections, so the Senator and other Senators can carry that message back to county councillors in Cork and elsewhere. This will be done and councillors and local authorities will have plenty of advance notice.

Perhaps Senator Lombard might have greater ambitions. Does the Senator wish to comment briefly?

I thank the Minister of State for his response. In many ways, I am just trying to ensure it is on the agenda and I am very happy that it is. I look forward to the Minister publishing the terms of reference for the commission. The idea of electoral districts has not served us well. Population changes have brought about major changes in areas. We need to look at a different way of doing things. These electoral districts work in some areas but they obviously do not work in all.

I again thank Senator Lombard. There are two huge areas in my county of Clare, one of which encompasses nearly 100 miles in the west Clare-north Clare area. It is very hard for any councillor to cover an area like that and they do lose touch, so I agree with what the Senator is saying. It is a matter for the boundary committee and the Minister but I thank the Senator for raising the issue, which is important and will be addressed.

Perhaps a bit of common sense will apply. An example of the point Senator Lombard is making is the Beara Peninsula, which was represented by two councillors in my time and one Deputy, Deputy Noel Harrington, up until recently. A person living in Bere Island now has to get a boat to shore and then travel 35 miles to meet his or her first public representative. There is no logic in that. I am out of that scene but I just mentioned it to make a comment, which I rarely do, in support of Senator Lombard.

Teachers' Professional Development

I thank the Minister for Education and Skills for taking the time to be here in person. In another circumstance, I would picture the many crushing disappointments of yesterday's budget announcement but I will save that for another time and just speak about one issue involving Gaeltacht courses that primary teachers in training are expected to attend. I raise the issue because of a letter Deputy Jan O'Sullivan received from a constituent and passed on to me. I will give the Minister a flavour of what the student, whom I will not name, was saying.

The student mentioned the cost of mandatory Gaeltacht courses incurred by primary school teachers and said that they sought Deputy O'Sullivan's support for a reinstatement of Government support for these courses in budget 2018. The student wrote that since 2012, due to cutbacks, students have had to pay for attending two courses in the Gaeltacht, each of two weeks' duration. The student wrote that although she believed it was necessary for students to attend these courses, the cost is around €1,400 per student, which she believed was too much for students to bear. She wrote that this does not include transport costs and living expenses. The student also makes the case that while they are two weeks away from home, teachers are missing out on the part-time job income they get during that time. She wrote that up until 2012, the cost of these courses was subsidised by the Government and that for an average student to save for one Gaeltacht placement now, they must work two eight-hour shifts every weekend for ten weeks and save all earnings.

As a result they have no money left to pay for living expenses each week. The student asked that the matter be brought to the attention of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Richard Bruton, and requested that in budget 2018 he reinstate the subsidies for these courses, which would help to alleviate the burden of these expenses on students.

The Minister will probably elaborate on what has been done in budget 2018 to deal with this issue; however, I wish to make a further point. I think the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, also called in its pre-budget submission for a restoration of the grants for student teachers attending mandatory Gaeltacht courses. Nobody is suggesting the courses should be stopped in any way as they are very important for student teachers in brushing up on their Irish language competence. I was involved with the Marino Institute of Education in setting up a local initiative where students attending second level DEIS schools with an interest in becoming primary schoolteachers did grinds and received tuition after school in order to attain the standard required. I would be worried if disadvantaged students involved in teacher training had to fork out a significant amount of money at their own expense to go to the Gaeltacht. Now that we are in a better position in terms of the economic projections and that we have more money at our disposal, what the individual student and the USI are calling for is an opportunity to go back to where we were in 2012 for students attending Gaeltacht courses which I attended as a trainee primary schoolteacher and for the courses to be subsidised. If that has not happened in the budget, rather than turning it into a party-political point-scoring exercise, will the Minister examine the issue and restore the support in the coming year?

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I have received similar correspondence to that which he has raised with me. I think he knows the backdrop to this issue better than I do in that there is a compulsory Gaeltacht placement element of the course and that it arose when teacher education courses were reconfigured in line with the recommendations of my Department's literacy and numeracy strategy and the Teaching Council's policy on teacher education. There is a need to ensure all primary teachers are competent and confident in their use of the Irish language, especially given its importance in the primary school curriculum. Changes to the structure and content of the Gaeltacht placement arose from the Teaching Council's new accreditation criteria, published in June 2011, which provide for "an extended and reconceptualised Gaeltacht residency which will now form part of the overall programme and be under the direct jurisdiction of the teacher education providers". The report of the Teaching Council’s Gaeltacht placement working group provides for the operation of the revised placement and that initial teacher education providers have responsibility for quality-assuring the content, teaching and assessment of the Gaeltacht element of initial teacher education programmes.

My Department supports the changes which contribute to overall quality improvement in initial teacher education. As the Senator indicated, the revised Gaeltacht placement now consists of two two-week blocks which take place in separate academic years. Prior to 2012, student primary teachers spent three weeks on Gaeltacht placement, usually during the summer months following the first year of their course. My Department paid a grant of €637 per student per three-week placement directly to the Gaeltacht summer colleges. The average annual cost was €850,000. The decision to stop the payments by my Department was made with effect from September 2012. In the context of budget 2012, difficult choices had to be made to achieve savings. To that end, in 2011 all Departments carried out a comprehensive review of expenditure on all budgets and programmes and proposals to achieve savings were put to the Government. It was in this context that the decision was taken to stop the payment of grants towards the cost of student teachers' attendance at Gaeltacht courses from September 2012. The removal of the grant means that students are liable for this cost which I understand is in the region of €1,500 for the four weeks spent on placement. This cost is split over two years in accordance with the Teaching Council's requirements. The Senator will understand, therefore, that the decision to stop the Gaeltacht placement grants was taken during the economic crisis when, unfortunately, very difficult decisions had to be made to stabilise the nation's finances. Priority was given to protecting resources for front-line education services as far as possible, which remains particularly challenging with rising numbers of schoolgoing children. The changes to the Gaeltacht placement grant were publicised in advance of implementation in order that students would be aware of the new arrangements before embarking on initial teacher education programmes.

The Senator may wish to note that, to assist with the cost of the Gaeltacht placement, students qualifying for a 100% fee grant or who would have qualified for a full fee grant but for the free fees scheme can apply for a field trip grant towards travel and accommodation costs, subject to the normal terms and conditions of the student grants scheme. Apart from the student grants system, in circumstances of particular need students may apply for support under the student assistance fund. In view of other pressing demands on the education budget it has not been possible to consider reinstating this subvention to date. The Senator will be aware that a major report on the funding of third level education, chaired by Mr. Peter Cassells, has been published and is being examined by the Oireachtas committee. The report outlines a number of options for future funding. The committee is assessing the appropriateness of the different options.

I find the Minister's reply disappointing. The announcement made by him yesterday was that the overall budget for the Department of Education and Skills was in the region of €9 billion. It would cost €1 million to resolve the issue I have outlined. We all know the background to it and I fully accept that we were in an economic crisis. We have all heard that 1,000 times, but we have also heard that the recovery is happening, that things are better now, that we have more money and that there are chances to repair the cutbacks and reductions that took place in recent years. That would be a reasonable expectation on the part of those in society who have endured huge pain. It appears that yesterday's budgetary announcement did not really do a huge amount for those studying at third level or training in various colleges. This is one such measure which would cost €1 million out of the €9 billion at the Minister's disposal. While I appreciate that he is not in a position to change the decisions made yesterday, I urge him to give some indication that he has a vision for the future - to paraphrase him - in rowing back on the difficult decisions made and that we can look forward to this type of measure being somewhere near the top of his priority list when trying to reverse the cutbacks introduced in the past.

The position is that one has to set priorities. I have clearly set priorities to get teachers back into the classroom. In September 2016 and 2017 I provided 5,000 extra teachers, plus 2,000 special needs assistants, SNAs. For the coming September I have added another 1,280 teachers and a further 1,000 SNAs. We are providing for 1,400 extra apprenticeships, 1,400 extra traineeships, 1,000 extra places on the Springboard programme and a demographic expansion of 2,000 higher education places. We are expanding substantially in all areas of priority, but, unfortunately, we have not been able to provide additional support for student grants, other than for postgraduate students, including those taking the masters of education programme, where those on low incomes receive additional support. It is an arena in which even the Senator would probably criticise the budget for not doing enough. We have a budget this year of €10 billion. It is the first time we have reached that amount, but even then, it is stretched to meet what are a lot of justifiable calls made on it. That is the difficulty. Each year I will review all of the calls made and look to see which ones can be funded from year to year. Unfortunately, I was not able to meet what I was asked to do within the resources outlined yesterday.

Sitting suspended at 11.20 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.