Commencement Matters

School Accommodation

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne. She is dealing with the matters in the names of Senators Ó Domhnaill and Swanick. We are waiting for Senator Ó Domhnaill.

My sincere apologies, a Chathaoirligh.

I was caught behind a road traffic accident and I got delayed, unfortunately. There was an ambulance at the scene.

If the Senator wants to draw his breath, the Minister of State can deal with Senator Swanick's matter first.

I am okay to proceed.

Scoil Mhuire in Creeslough, County Donegal, has a pupil enrolment of 111 at the moment. That is due to increase in September of this year. A new school facility with new classrooms is required under the capital investment programme. Scoil Mhuire is one of the last remaining national schools in County Donegal that requires such investment. I have visited the school on a number of occasions and I have seen the facilities, which are antiquated, to say the least. They are cramped and are certainly not fit for purpose. There are health and safety issues at the school. There have been meetings of the board of management and the parents to discuss this matter. The only solution is a capital investment project within the confines of the school. The site is fine, but the conditions within the buildings are certainly not fit for purpose in the 21st century. The pupils at the school deserve better facilities.

I understand that the board of management of the school made an application to the Department of Education and Skills. However, the Department referred the matter back to the board of management and indicated that the application was premature. I understand that the board of management has since been in touch with officials in the Department again. I would be very interested to hear the thinking of the Department of Education and Skills on this project at this time and if an application would be considered favourably given the unique circumstances in the school and the fact that its enrolment is due to increase by approximately 10% in September 2018 for the new school year.

In view of that increasing enrolment, a capital investment project is required. The answer provided to the board of management by the Department is that the enrolment figure is not increasing. However, that is not the case. The enrolment figures are due to increase by approximately 10% - from 111 to 121 or 122 - in September.

On behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, I thank the Senator for raising this matter because it provides the opportunity to outline the current position on accommodation for Scoil Mhuire in Creeslough, County Donegal. The Senator will be aware that Scoil Mhuire is a co-educational national school that caters for pupils from junior infants to sixth class. The school has a current enrolment of 111 and a staffing complement of principal plus three main school teachers. In addition, the school has one special education support post. As the Senator may also be aware, in order to plan for school provision and analyse the relevant demographic data, the Department of Education and Skills divides the country into 314 school planning areas. The Department carries out nationwide demographic exercises at primary and post-primary level to determine where additional school accommodation is needed.

Scoil Mhuire is located in the Falcarragh school planning area, in which there are 13 primary schools in total. The demographic data for the Falcarragh school planning area, as with other school planning areas nationwide, is being kept under ongoing review by the Department, taking account of updated child benefit and enrolment data. In May 2017, the Department received an additional school accommodation application to provide a new mainstream classroom, a general purpose room, a library-computer room and ancillary accommodation. When assessing the application, it was noted that the existing school accommodation comprises four mainstream classrooms, two special education teaching rooms, a library-computer room, staff room and a general office. With a staffing complement of four mainstream teachers and one special education teacher, it was determined that there is currently no deficit of mainstream class accommodation. The Department acknowledges the request by the school for the provision of a GP room and other ancillary accommodation. The position, however, is that due to competing demands on the Department’s capital budget imposed by the need to prioritise available funding towards the provision of essential school classroom accommodation in areas of demographic growth or in cases where an additional teaching post is being approved, the school’s request cannot be prioritised at this time.

I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to outline the current position regarding accommodation at Scoil Mhuire.

I thank the Minister of State for the response. It is what I was anticipating. Unfortunately, there appears to be a focus in the Department to prioritise funding in urban growth centres. This means that small rural schools, where teachers and pupils are dealing with antiquated conditions, are not being prioritised. I do not think this is right. A percentage of the overall budget should be made available to schools such as Scoil Mhuire. Will the Minister of State inform the departmental officials that they should expect a new application from the board of management? Will she ask the Department to take into account the revised figures for the increased enrolment in that application? Those figures are due to rise in September.

I will bring the Senator's concerns, particularly those relating to the different in the figures, back to the Department. I will take a note of it. I will speak to the Minister and raise the matter with his officials. They might reply directly to the Senator.

Local Authority Members

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. I will be brief. The issue I raise impacts on a small number of local authority members - it impacts on them nonetheless - and clarity in respect to the guidelines would be very much appreciated.

Under the section on personal leave, Department Circular 0032/2007 states that those who are members of public bodies, for example, county councils or statutory local bodies, are allowed up to ten days in a school year. Obviously, this absence applies only where meetings are held during school opening hours. As a result of the 2014 local government reform, there are ten monthly meetings during school terms, five municipal meetings and one budget meeting. There are also special meetings that can be convened occasionally. Does the Minister have any plans to update the Department circulars to reflect the additional workload of the local authority members?

In response to a parliamentary question on a similar matter, the Minister articulated that local authority members must get prior approval from the boards of management of schools in order to attend meetings and that, in approving such leave, the boards must take into consideration the welfare and educational needs of students. I am told that is becoming somewhat problematic. Department circulars provide for the absence up to ten days per year but cover for such absences is an issue for the schools and the local authority members involved. For those members who have a duty as public representatives and as educators, this is undoubtedly a strain.

We are all aware of the barriers that exist for women and men who are thinking of entering politics. They are vast but some are much easier to address than others and I believe that we can make small changes and provisions to break down barriers and encourage inclusivity in politics. It should not be a case of one or the other.

I am seeking clarification on whether the Department has plans to update the guidelines to bring them into line with the increased workload of local authority members.

Again, on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, I thank the Senator for raising this issue which affords me the opportunity to outline to the House the situation regarding primary and post-primary school teachers who are also members of a local authority.

Where a teacher in a primary or post-primary school is an elected member of a local authority, paid absence of up to ten school days in a school year may be availed of in order to attend council meetings but only when such meetings are held during school opening hours. Prior approval must be obtained from the employer, that is, the board of management or education and training board, depending on the school type. Substitute cover is not provided by the Department of Education and Skills for such absences. In general, substitute cover is provided by the Department in the case ofstatutory leave such as maternity leave or long-term leave such as certified sick leave. Changes to the arrangements for teachers leave or substitution cover for such leave can be raised at the Teachers Conciliation Council. The latter is the recognised forum for dealing with matters relating to pay and conditions of service of teachers. The parties to the forum include representatives of the managerial authorities of schools, the teacher unions, the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and it is chaired by an official of the Labour Relations Commission.

I presume the Senator will not be happy with the reply in light of what he outlined. I have nothing further to add. There are other types of leave that do not allow for substitute cover, including exam and study leave and extra personal vacations. I cannot really add anything further but I will bring the concerns the Senator raised to the attention of the Minister. Perhaps the Senator might be able to follow this up with a personal letter to the Minister.

Unfortunately, the Minister of State is the messenger and not the line Minister. I am not sure if she can add any more but I will allow Senator Swanick a brief supplementary contribution.

I thank the Minister of State for her response and appreciate what she said about bringing the issue of substitution cover for local authority members when they are attending meetings to the Teachers Conciliation Council. Our local authority members have increasing workloads, however, and the Department needs to deal with this issue.

I urge the Minister of State to bring this matter back to the senior Minister. I believe Department Circular 0032/2007 needs to be amended. I accept that it affects a small cohort of individuals. If we are to encourage people to enter politics, we should not put any barriers in their way. Will the Minister of State inquire in the Department as to whether the circular can be amended?

Hospital Management

In the absence of the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, we will allow the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, to take this Commencement matter as well. We will let Senator Conway off as long as he does not keep us all day.

I am happy to co-operate. I welcome the Minister of State to the House. The situation in emergency departments in many hospitals was particularly acute over Christmas and the post-Christmas period. University Hospital Limerick, UHL, is facing constant challenges. It seemed to be in crisis management mode for most of last year. The difficulties at the hospital reached an unprecedented level earlier this month. According to some commentary, there are concerns about the management of the hospital, which is located in the Dooradoyle area of Limerick. I do not know whether these issues relate to the management, the management structure or the management system. I would like clarity on this aspect of the matter. I know that the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Ministers of State, Deputies Catherine Byrne and Jim Daly, and the other people are doing their best to deal with this issue by allocating resources and managing change.

I welcomed the investment of over €20 million in the new accident and emergency department at UHL. I would have expected that things would have improved with that investment. I have noted commentary by the Taoiseach and the Minister in recent times to the effect that there are management challenges at the hospital. I think the people of the mid-west have a right to know what those management challenges are. What is being done about them? Are they being addressed? What are they? Are they causing bed blockages? Are there human resources issues or structural issues? It is really not good enough to comment that there are management challenges at a time when people are on trolleys for between 48 and 72 hours, as has happened in recent weeks. I would like clarity on what the management challenges are. I would also like to know what is being done about them.

On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Harris, I thank Senator Conway for raising this important matter today. It is unacceptable that patients, especially the elderly and the vulnerable, have to wait on trolleys for long periods of time. The accident and emergency department at University Hospital Limerick, UHL, is one of the busiest in the country with approximately 67,000 attendances annually. Demand for accident and emergency department services at the hospital continues to increase. The number of accident and emergency department attendances at UHL in 2017 represented a 6% increase on the 2016 figure. In recognition of this high demand, funding of €24 million was provided for a new accident and emergency department at UHL which opened in May of last year. The new facility is three times larger than the old accident and emergency department. It has improved the patient experience in respect of comfort, privacy and, above all, dignity. The Minister for Health visited the accident and emergency department for its opening last year. I know he was impressed with the accident and emergency department, particularly its pod-based design, the aim of which is to streamline patient pathways.

Notwithstanding this significant investment, the accident and emergency department at UHL continues to face challenges. There are many patients on trolleys in the department each day. Late last year, the Minister for Health met the director general of the HSE, the chief executive and the clinical director of the hospital group and the head of the HSE special delivery unit to discuss the situation in the accident and emergency department at UHL. At his request, the hospital has submitted an accident and emergency department performance improvement plan, which sets out in detail how performance will be improved. The plan is currently being implemented. In December 2017, there was a 4.9% decrease in trolley numbers at UHL compared to December 2016. We expect to see this incremental improvement continue in 2018.

In order to alleviate overcrowding pressures this winter, 17 new surge capacity beds opened in the old accident and emergency at UHL in September 2017. These beds will be converted into a medical short-term unit in 2018. In addition, Limerick has been in receipt of access to 13 additional transitional care beds and four additional home care packages every week since the start of October. These supports will continue until the end of winter in March. UHL was chosen as a pilot site for a national HSE programme which is designed to improve patient flow across acute hospitals and the wider health service. This programme aims to develop and assist different approaches to the improvement of patient flow.

I reiterate that the Minister of Health is acutely aware of the current situation at UHL and is monitoring the situation closely. The Department of Health, the HSE and the University of Limerick hospital group are carrying out measures to improve this situation. We must bear in mind that behind every trolley number is a real patient who needs effective, timely and compassionate care from the health service. I assure the Senator that the Government remains committed to driving this type of improvement in all accident and emergency departments in the country. I will be happy to respond to any other issues the Senator may wish to raise.

I know the Minister of State has responded on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Harris. With due respect to the senior Minister, this answer does not address the specific question I asked. Is there a specific difficulty with the management of the emergency department at UHL, as has been alluded to in media reports lately? Is there an issue with the structure of the management? Is there a human resources issue with the management that is of concern? I know that the nurses and the staff on the ground are run ragged. They are doing their very best. They provide an incredible service to patients in UHL. I am concerned. I would like to know whether there is an issue with the management. Does the Minister have confidence in the management team that is running UHL?

I cannot answer the personal and direct question about the management. I assure the Senator that the Minister is fully aware of the situation at UHL and is monitoring it closely. In light of the concerns raised by the Senator, I will certainly speak to the Minister again about this issue. Perhaps he will be able to reply directly to the Senator on the specific concerns about hospital management which have been raised this morning and which he and the Taoiseach have previously spoken about. I will pass on the Senator's message to the Minister.

I think that is a good compromise.

I thank the Minister of State.

Garda Deployment

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Flanagan.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Gabhaim buíochas leis as an gceist seo a fhreagairt. Tá súil agam go bhfreagróidh se í. The Minister is very welcome. I thank him for taking the time to respond to this question. My rationale for submitting this matter is anecdotal in the first instance. I have noticed an increase in the frequency with which the bus I use to travel from Belfast to the Seanad is stopped at Dundalk so that gardaí can come on board to ask people for their passports or papers.

The gardaí are entirely within their rights to do so. The gardaí who got on the bus asked passengers to produce their passports or national ID cards. I do not carry either item when I travel within Ireland and I do not expect to be asked for them.

Beyond the figures I have sought in my Commencement matter, and this is something that we may have to tease out down the line as I appreciate the fact that the Minister may not have the information today, but what are the terms of reference in cases where a garda stops people and asks them to produce a passport or ID papers but they do not have either? Does the garda allow them to proceed? What are the terms of reference for such a stop? I tabled a Commencement matter because I noticed an anecdotal increase in such instances. I would like to hear his reflections on the matter. We have an agreed duty, across the board, to ensure that there is no hardening of the Border or, indeed, no return to the borders of the past. I do not want to see a manifestation along our roads network that would indicate such a worrying development or trend, if indeed that is the case.

I thank Senator Ó Donnghaile for raising this issue which is of some importance. It is important, in the first instance, to recognise that the purpose of any operation by the Garda or the Garda National Immigration Bureau, GNIB, at the Border is to detect any immigration abuses by non-EEA nationals who may wish to attempt to use the common travel area in order to gain illegal access to the State. It is not focused on and nor does it impact upon Irish or UK nationals or EU nationals who, as the Senator will be aware, enjoy free movement under the common travel area and under the EU free movement directive. The Senator will be fully aware of that, having regard to the fact that he said he does not carry ID with him and that he does not carry his passport.

The number of specific operations held each year, to which the Senator refers, is an operational matter for An Garda Síochána and it obviously consults, on a regular basis, with the UK border authorities. Obviously a decision to engage in the type of operation referred to by the Senator is based on that consultation. These decisions take into account matters such as emerging patterns of travel and emerging patterns of immigration abuses within the common travel area. Again, the Senator will be aware of the importance of maintaining the common travel area in the context of our discussions, as part of the EU 27, with the UK on the matter of Brexit and the withdrawal of the UK, including Northern Ireland, from the European Union.

An initiative, entitled Operation Gull, between the GNIB on this side of the Border and the UK Immigration Service has been ongoing for a number of years. The sole purpose of Operation Gull is to address the issue of immigration abuses within the common travel area. That has resulted in checks being conducted at ports and airports in both jurisdictions, including but not limited to, those along the Border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Over the past number of years, these operations have been conducted in Ireland under Operation Sonnet, which is specifically aimed at targeting, detecting and preventing illegal immigration into this State via the common travel arrangements. These targeted operations are in addition to the day-to-day immigration controls in place in order to maintain the integrity of the common travel area.

Detailed data on the number of operations pre and post the date of the UK referendum are not ready available. However, I have listened to the point raised by the Senator and acknowledge his anecdotal evidence. Indeed, I acknowledge his first-hand experience and knowledge in this area, having regard to his attendance here and membership of the Oireachtas. Under Operation Sonnet there were 91 detections in 2015, some 27 detections in 2016 and a provisional figure of 22 detections in 2017 that I will confirm as soon as I can. These detections came about as a result of a number of specific days of action. There were four days of action in 2015, two days of action in 2016 and two days of action in 2017. In addition to these days of action, members of An Garda Síochána continually carry out routine checkpoints along the Border in an effort to help detect persons attempting to enter this State illegally. As a result of such detections, some 774 people were refused leave to land along the land Border with Northern Ireland during this period. The breakdown is as follows: 275 persons in 2015; some 282 persons in 2016; and 217 persons in 2017. Out of the total, 20 people claimed asylum and the remaining 754 were removed from the State, in accordance with the law.

I am sure the Senator agrees that the continuation, preservation and maintenance of the common travel area is one of the main objectives of the Government in the context of the Brexit negotiations. These key benefits are really important to our people. The free movement of people and the wider economic benefits means that we must ensure that the common travel area is not abused by persons who are not legally entitled to such freedom of movement. This will require appropriate checks to be made on the land border to maintain the integrity of the common travel arrangements. Such checks will not, and such patrols do not, impact on the freedom of movement of the many millions of Irish and UK nationals who use the common travel area each year, and particularly the 35,000 people, like the Senator, who cross the Border on a daily basis.

I thank the Minister for providing me with some of the information. The statistics he outlined this morning are worthy of reflection. I am disappointed that the detailed data on the number of operations or where vehicles are stopped and checked is not readily available. I understand that it was too short a time for officials to prepare the figures. Therefore, I will ask one of my colleagues to table a parliamentary question requesting the details.

I agree with the Minister that the Garda must maintain its obligations in terms of the common travel area. I also agree with him that we must do all we can to ensure that the integrity of the common travel area is protected. I am keen to know, whether it is from a political direction or, perhaps, an internal policing misunderstanding around their expectations in the first instance, if there has been a steady incline in the amount of checks, which I have noticed. I do not think that there is necessarily a need for that beyond what the Minister has rightly outlined has been implemented pre-Brexit thus far, which has been reasonably successful in identifying people who enter the State illegally.

Again, I thank the Minister for his response. I am sure this is a matter that he will, like myself, keep a watching brief on and interest in. We are very much in concert and agreement that the common travel area, in any future arrangement, must be protected.

I welcome the Senator's comments. I am happy to keep the House fully informed and will do so, and as far as my responsibilities to the other House are concerned by way of replies to parliamentary questions, in order to provide an appropriate level of information to Members. Again, I am sure everybody will agree that the maintenance and preservation of the integrity of the common travel area continues to be a priority for us here. It has always been a priority for our immigration services. While Brexit has perhaps focused wider attention on the operation of the common travel area, the operational protection of the common travel area has not changed because of the result of the referendum in the United Kingdom.

I was pleased only last week to have the opportunity of meeting for the first time the recently appointed Home Secretary, Ms Amber Rudd, in the United Kingdom. Among the matters we discussed was that of the common travel area and the need to ensure, as the negotiations enter a critical phase, that both the UK and the EU 27 including Ireland continue to prioritise the need to ensure that the unique relationship on the island of Ireland and between the two islands of Ireland and Great Britain continues to operate as was. One of the fundamental pillars of that unique relationship is the common travel area and I welcome the support of all Seanadóirí on that. The continuation of the common travel arrangements, including their physical manifestation which is the open land Border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, remains a key objective and a fundamental pillar of the negotiations.

The objectives of our Government and this State are to operate a fair and balanced immigration protection regime. This means that the common travel arrangements and area are not subject or open to any abuse that might ultimately impact adversely upon on undermine their operation. That means there will be appropriate checks, including on the land border. I believe it is important therefore that any appropriate checks that take place from time to time be proportionate and that they be along the lines of ensuring that our immigration protection regime is both fair and balanced. I acknowledge the close working relations between Ireland and the UK on immigration matters.

There are some specific issues in the context of the Brexit negotiations pertaining to home affairs and immigration of which we need to be mindful. I would be happy to keep the House and the Senator informed of developments as they occur. It is important that we continue to ensure that the close working relationship continues. I am confident these efforts will continue in the run-up to the actual withdrawal of the UK from the European Union through the transition period and also beyond it.

Sitting suspended at 11.15 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.