Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Trade Agreements

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to address the issue of the CETA deal, a very important trade deal between the European Union and Canada, the importance of trade between Ireland and Canada, and to debunk some of the misinformation that has been spread about this deal.

People sometimes have the idea that trade deals are something particularly negative. All the international evidence, including from the OECD, shows that trade deals result in more employment, higher average pay, raised incomes, improved working conditions and reduced prices to consumers. There are individuals who lose out, but it is better to upskill, reskill and help modernise industries rather than retain protectionist policies. The OECD has stated that up to half of employment in Ireland is dependent on trade-driven exports.

My understanding is that trade between Ireland and Canada is now close to €4 billion annually. That has significantly increased since the CETA deal came into place. Canada, like the European Union, has some of the highest labour, employment, public health and environmental standards anywhere in the world. Canada, like the European Union, is also committed to fair trade. I have to ask, if we cannot do a trade deal with Canada, with whom can we do a deal?

I have far more concerns about the deal between the EU and China, where there are questions around its labour standards, but those opposed to CETA do not seem to want to criticise China. In fact, those opposed to CETA seem more convinced that we should be looking at the economic models in Cuba and Venezuela where labour standards are certainly far lower. Internationally, there are currently more than 2,300 bilateral investment treaties.

All of those agreements have international arbitration or dispute resolution mechanisms. If a dispute arises, there has to be a way for it to be resolved.

The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement does not force governments on either side of the Atlantic to change any of our standards. Let us be very clear about this. It is about dispute resolution. If an Irish company is discriminated against by a Canadian provincial or national government, it can take action and, similarly, a Canadian company can do likewise on this side. The European Court of Justice has found that the investment court system of CETA is in line with EU treaties. The court mechanism will not be some sort of hidden system. It will involve public hearings. Documents will be made available, interested parties, including NGOs, will be able to make submissions, and areas like public health and the environment will remain national competencies which cannot be challenged.

I am looking forward to an era where we see blockchain smart contracts, which will make the need for dispute resolution mechanisms largely redundant. Until then, in all of our international trade agreements and treaties there has to be a dispute resolution mechanism. Canada, like the European Union, has very strong standards in all of these areas. We should be supportive of companies in Ireland that continue to trade with Canada and provide good jobs here and vice versa.

I ask the Minister of State to set out the benefits of Irish-Canadian trade and debunk some of the myths we are hearing about CETA. I ask him to make clear to people that the investor court system operates to provide balance and is not the result of some of the scaremongering we have been hearing about it.

I thank Senator Malcolm Byrne for raising this important topic and affording me the opportunity to factually address the House and contradict some of the misinformation that is circulating in relation to CETA. The EU's Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Canada is designed to benefit EU and Canadian companies through improved trade flows in support of increased employment for our citizens. The elimination of tariffs, reduced non-tariff barriers and simplified customs procedures that flow from CETA will make it easier and cheaper for Irish companies of all sizes to export to Canada and vice versa.

The agreement covers virtually every aspect of economic activity and provides new market opportunities in many sectors for Irish firms given the extensive bilateral business links between Ireland and Canada. Outside of Europe, the US and China, Canada is our largest indigenous export market. More than 400 Enterprise Ireland clients are doing business in the Canadian market, employing in excess of 6,000 people. Since the agreement was provisionally applied in September 2017, duties on 98% of products the EU trades with Canada have been removed. Furthermore, exports of Irish goods and services to Canada totalled approximately €3.9 billion in 2019. This was a 35% increase compared with 2016, which was the last full year prior to the provisional application of CETA.

CETA is delivering on the ground for our citizens. My Department and our enterprise agencies will continue to promote the benefits of the agreement for Irish-based enterprises. This increased trade along with wider trade performance help underpin the creation of quality, well-paid jobs. The benefits and opportunities will be especially valuable for small and medium enterprises, SMEs, given that trade barriers tend to disproportionately burden smaller firms which have fewer resources to overcome them compared with larger firms. The main benefits for Ireland in this agreement include the opening up of public procurement markets in the Canadian provinces giving Irish firms increased market access; unlimited tariff-free access for most of our important food goods; and a low beef import quota from Canada.

The full coming into force of CETA will see the implementation of the investment chapter of the agreement, including the mechanisms for resolution of disputes between investors and states, should they arise. The EU's new approach to investment protection, the investment court system, ICS, is contained in CETA and replaces the old investor-state settlement system, which has been included in more than 2,000 international investment treaties but is regarded as outdated.

The new ICS provides greater transparency provisions, safeguards to prevent forum shopping, provisions for the swift dismissal of frivolous claims, a clear distinction between international law and domestic law, the avoidance of multiple and parallel proceedings in the ICS and national courts and the establishment of a permanent list of arbitrators.

Investment disputes can continue to be litigated before national courts with the ICS as an alternative single consistent mechanism where investors, be they Canadian or European, can seek redress if they so choose. Significantly, CETA introduces a precise and specific standard of fair and equitable treatment of investors and investment for specific limited grounds such as the case of the denial of justice or fundamental breach of due process or through targeted discrimination.

The Senator referred to the opinion of the ECJ in April 2019. The court held that the dispute settlement mechanism in the CETA is compatible with EU law. It complies with the principle of autonomy of EU law, as well as the exclusive jurisdiction of court for the interpretation of EU law and the Charter of Fundamental Rights, in particular the right of access to court and the right to an independent impartial tribunal under the charter.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply and I strongly agree with him. When we have trade deals, there have to be mechanisms for arbitration and dispute resolution. What is proposed in CETA is an updating of those mechanisms, which will make dispute resolution more transparent and more efficient. It is not going to force member state governments to change any laws.

This is a small island nation. We rely heavily, as the Minister of State said, on trade. If Brexit has taught us anything, it is about the importance of being part of the EU, the world's largest trading bloc, and being able to trade. This will be one of the big political differences between those of us who in the political spectrum who are pro-trade, pro-business and anti-protectionism, and those who take a very narrow view of the world.

All trade deals should be subject to scrutiny. The China deal needs to be subject to greater scrutiny because of labour standards. I encourage all of those companies that continue to trade with Canada to recognise the work of Enterprise Ireland and support it as strongly as they can.

From a domestic law perspective, no transfer of judicial power from the Irish courts to the ICS tribunal is provided for in CETA. CETA expressly provides that the agreement is to be interpreted by the ICS tribunal in accordance with the Vienna Convention, along with other rules and principles of international law applicable between the parties. Accordingly, domestic law is to be treated by the tribunal as a question of fact, not law. In that regard, it is bound by the interpretation of the Irish courts. The Government has definitive legal advice from the Attorney General that confirms no constitutional issues arise with CETA.

The Senator is correct that nothing is to be feared by the ratification of this deal. There are many benefits to be reaped from it. The Government is not trying to rush the treaty through. It has been referred to the European affairs committee, which will have the opportunity to extensively examine all the benefits associated with its ratification. At a time this country is coming from the back of Brexit and trying to overcome the challenges of Covid-19, now it has never been more important that we look to embrace international trade and how we can a support our companies trade internationally in order that they can provide good quality jobs for our citizens.

I thank the Senator again for the opportunity to put the facts on the record of the Seanad.

Bullying in Schools

I warmly welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, to the House.

The issue I want to address today relates to the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO, the union that represents national school teachers. Many of us will be familiar with the union's magazine, InTouch, that it sends us every month and which is very informative. As a result of reading an article in that magazine, it became obvious to me that the union had made a detailed submission on the issue of bullying and the need for continual supports for teachers, parents, guardians and children in and around this sensitive issue. I thank the president of the INTO, Ms Mary Magner, for her significant leadership in this area.

As the Minister of State will be aware, teachers and the INTO want to operate schools in a safe and inclusive environment for all their pupils regardless of their social background, race, self-identity or learning needs. As we are talking about schools and teachers, how they have supported and engaged in terms of getting schools back open during Covid-19 is something we need to acknowledge.

The reality is bullying exists in our school communities and is an issue for teachers, pupils, parents and the wider school community. The anti-bullying procedures for primary schools and post-primary schools were introduced in 2013. One issue the INTO leadership and members have is that there has not been a major review of this policy since 2013, and they are crying out for it. They believe they need the necessary supports and skill sets to deal with the complex issues. The complex issues are wide and varied, from LGBT+ based bullying to race-based bullying, all of which have a negative impact on the mental health and well-being of pupils and, for that matter, teachers. This has to stop.

Cyberbullying, as everyone in this House knows, requires no face-to-face contact. It can occur day and night, and happens day or night. It impacts on children, young people and adults, including teachers and politicians. It is something we need to deal with.

Something my research on this issue showed clearly was that children from Travelling communities are vulnerable to bullying, children who are black or identify as belonging to a minority ethnic culture are vulnerable to bullying, and children who are perceived as being different in the broader sense of different are particularly subject to bullying and harassment. Children whose mother does not have the native tongue, children in direct provision, and children who are black or from a minority ethnic group are all being targeted for bullying day in and day out in our schools and it has to stop. Racially based abuse humiliates and dehumanises the heart of our children and their identity and their ability to realise their full potential and be their authentic selves. It is clearly an issue.

The INTO also talks about the social, personal and health education, SPHE, for which there are only 30 minutes in the curriculum every week. That is an issue because this programme empowers, assists, enables and helps children to deal with conflict resolution, bullying and other issues around them. It is important that be examined.

Schools are also places of employment for teachers and they involve boards of management, parents and guardians. We hear terrible stories of teachers being subject to inappropriate behaviour from school management, colleagues and pupils. This behaviour can be in the form of words, gestures and publications, both in print and on social media. There are major issues and we need to support our teachers.

I do not doubt the Minister of State's support. Indeed, I am familiar with many teachers in Scoil Treasa, which is a school that is very close to where the Minister of State lives, and people speak of the Minister of State's enormous commitment to education. They speak of her enormous commitment to the INTO and her knowledge of the important work the INTO and its members do. I would like if the Minister of State could outline how we can come on board and support the INTO in this important call for it, for its members' employment, for teachers and for children.

I thank Senator Boyhan for raising this matter.

I understand that the Senator is referring to one of a number of recommendations made by the INTO in a recent submission to the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science in respect of the committee's examination of school bullying and its impact on mental health.

I echo the Senator's sentiments on the Trojan work the INTO has done on reopening schools in a Covid environment. I acknowledge the work Ms Mary Magner and the INTO do each day to educate children in their formative years. Obviously, any matters regarding bullying that teachers receive have to be taken into account in any anti-bullying action plan we are considering in terms of words, gestures and publications, as the Senator mentioned.

The primary and post-primary schools anti-bullying procedures were published by the Department in September 2003 and are being implemented in 4,000 recognised primary and post-primary schools in the country as well as centres for education which are attended by students under the age of 18 years. These procedures give direction and guidance to schools on preventing and tackling school-based bullying behaviour and to deal with any negative impact within the school of bullying behaviour that occurs elsewhere. In addition, the "Wellbeing Policy Statement and Framework for Practice" was published in 2018 and refreshed in 2019. It sets out the ambition and vision in the Department of Education that the promotion of well-being will be at the core of the ethos of every school and centre for education in Ireland and that all schools will provide evidence-informed approaches and support appropriate to the need to promote the well-being of their students. This statement sets out the evidence base for best practices in the school environment in respect of school well-being promotion, which indicates that schools should adopt a whole-school, multi-component preventive approach to well-being promotion that includes both universal and targeted interventions. All schools are required to embark on a review of their well-being promotion process by 2025. That may help with regard to the Senator's remarks about a review. That should be done by 2025.

It is vital that there is support for teachers and schools in terms of professional development opportunities in the areas of well-being, as well as social, personal and health education and the stay safe and anti-bullying programmes. They have to be available to teachers and school leaders. Most of the supports in this area are provided by the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, with which the Senator will be familiar, and the NEPS staff from the Department of Education or by the Professional Development Service for Teachers, PDST, which is the largest teacher education support service funded by the Department. NEPS provides a comprehensive school-based psychological service to all primary and post-primary schools through the application of psychological theory and practice to support the well-being and the academic, social and emotional development of all learners. In addition to this service, it has also developed a range of resources for schools and parents to support the well-being of children and young people in line with the well-being policy statement and framework for practice that I mentioned.

In response to Covid-19, NEPS has developed well-being webinars and well-being tool kits for school staff. These contain information, guidance, tips and advice for schools on how best to support the well-being of all children and young people, including those with special educational needs, following the Covid-19 school closures.

I thank the Minister of State. Her comments were exceptionally helpful. There is a review, and I welcome that. However, it is a learning curve for everyone - children, young people, teachers and parents. It is important to acknowledge that, and that we continue to monitor it on an ongoing basis. The INTO represents over 40,000 people in the staff. It represents the national schools across the Republic. We should not be short in supporting those people in their work in helping children to understand the complexities and to support them, but also to allow teachers, as individuals in the workplace, to have dignity, be respected and to be able to be themselves. Everyone is on this journey and we must support everyone. It must be kept on the agenda. We must continue working on identifying and calling it out for what it is. It is intimidation and bullying, and it is unacceptable. We will call it out for what it is and put a stop to it, as well as support the teachers, children, parents and guardians to tackle this head on.

It is important to say, as the Senator mentioned, that it is not just with regard to children being bullied. It is something we want to stamp out.

The Senator mentioned black children, Traveller children, those in direct provision and other marginalised areas of society. She also mentioned children with special educational needs which is under my remit as well, and cyberbullying, which is a component we were not dealing with perhaps to the same extent in 2013 as we are at present, and that needs to be looked at. The Department will update its national anti-bullying plan also. The part of that that comes under my remit is gender ID bullying, which is something I will look at. We have to have an ethos within the school which comes from the principal within the teaching staff and all the way down to the students in order that bullying becomes something of the past. The voice of the student will be critical in that regard, as will making sure the voice of the student, as well as the voice of the teacher, is heard in order that we can collaborate on a wider scale to eradicate bullying in its totality.

Schools Building Projects

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank her for being here to take this Commencement matter. I have asked for the Minister for Education to provide me with an update on the status of a school's application for the construction of a permanent building and to provide a timeline for the commencement of construction. The matter relates to a school in my local area, indeed a very small distance from where I live, namely, the new Harold's Cross Educate Together Secondary School, which opened just recently, in September 2020. Its enrolment numbers are projected to reach 1,000 secondary school pupils. It is a co-educational secondary school. The projection is that it will have four classrooms and a special educational needs unit. It serves the two school planning areas of Dublin 6 Clonskeagh and Dublin 6W. It is currently housed, however, in temporary buildings at the site of the former greyhound racing stadium at Harold's Cross. This will also be the permanent location of the school, which will form a campus comprising a permanent building for the secondary school and a permanent school for Harold's Cross Educate Together National School, the primary school, which is currently also in interim accommodation on the same site.

I tabled a Commencement matter relating to this school on 9 December last because at that point the principal and school community had been in contact with me to say they were concerned about the delays in progressing the construction of the permanent building on the site. Staff, students and parents are all very anxious that the construction be commenced or at least that they get a timeline for construction. Therefore, on 9 December I put this matter down on the Commencement of the House. I was told by the Minister then that the planning application would be lodged with Dublin City Council by mid-quarter 1 of 2021. That would have been by mid-February. Unfortunately, I was informed just last week that the planning application was not in fact submitted to Dublin City Council by that date, and clearly we are now in mid to late March. I therefore tabled this matter at the request of the school community seeking to be provided with a timeline for commencement of construction and to get an update on the status of the application. I was told that the planning application was at stage 2(a) in December but, as I said, on 9 December the Minister, Deputy Foley, had confirmed to me that the planning application was intended to be lodged by the middle of the first quarter.

The secondary school and the primary school form a very vibrant school community. Despite all the challenges of Covid, the secondary school has opened successfully and has a large waiting list for 2021. There are 37 students enrolled for the current academic year, and I am told that for September 2021 an additional 48 student places are sanctioned by the Department but 180 applications have been received. There is clearly no space available, or there will be insufficient space, to accommodate projected numbers certainly from 2022 and beyond. The school would need to offer 72 places in 2022 to meet demand. The matter is very pressing. The students, staff and parents are all very anxious to receive some clarification from the Department on the status of the application and the timeline for construction of a permanent building on this site.

I thank Senator Bacik for raising this matter. I hope to outline to her satisfaction the current position on the provision of a permanent school building for Harold's Cross Educate Together Secondary School. It is, as the Senator said, a co-educational second level school which will provide 1,000 post-primary school places and a four-classroom special educational needs unit to serve the Dublin 6 Clonskeagh and Dublin 6W school planning areas as a regional solution. As the Senator also said, the school opened its doors for the first intake of pupils in September 2020 in interim accommodation on the site of the former greyhound racing stadium at Harold's Cross.

This will be the permanent location of the school. The site will also form a campus accommodating the permanent school building for Harold's Cross Educate Together National School, which also, as the Senator is aware, currently is in interim accommodation on the site.

I understand the joint building project for both schools is currently at an advanced architectural planning stage and an initial design for the campus was previously presented to Dublin City Council in a pre-planning meeting in August 2019. Thereafter, owing to various changes that were subsequently required to the design, a further pre-planning meeting with Dublin City Council was held on 26 January 2021. The plans were met with a positive response by Dublin City Council and its comments are being addressed in order to finalise the preparation of the planning application for the schools. I have been told by the Department that the schools' representatives will be invited to a meeting shortly, where the plans will be presented in advance of lodging the planning application, which, as the Senator mentioned, was due to happen in the first quarter of this year.

Previous planning permission for interim accommodation on the site was appealed to An Bord Pleanála. It is important to state there is a strong possibility that the planning permission for the permanent build, once secured, could also be appealed to An Bord Pleanála. However, it is good to hear that the opening of the secondary school has been successful. I note what the Senator has said on the issue of the waiting list. At this point, it is important that the planning application is submitted and that the school is opened as soon as possible. I will bring the issue to the attention of the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, as obviously all school buildings and the roll-out of such projects fall under her remit. I will tell her that the Senator is anxious to see this matter expedited as soon as possible.

I thank the Minister of State and I am glad to receive an update from her in respect of the holding of the pre-planning meeting with Dublin City Council on 26 January and her assurance that school representatives will be invited to a meeting shortly with a view to seeing those plans. That is most heartening, because it amounts so some progress, albeit slower than we had hoped.

I also thank the Minister of State for her commitment to speaking with the Minister, Deputy Foley, to ask her if she can do as much as she can to expedite matters. I should say that the members of the school community - they are well aware of the context mentioned by the Minister of State - are concerned that the five-year planning permission for temporary accommodation for all three schools on the campus, which was granted in 2018, will expire in August 2023. They are most concerned that the students currently attending the school started in temporary accommodation but should not finish it in such a manner when they complete their leaving certificate in 2026. However, to have the permanent construction in place by then, planning permission would need to be granted at the latest by winter 2022 or spring 2023 to ensure there is adequate time. The school community is anxious to get started on this and I am very grateful for the Minister of State telling me she will do all she can to ensure that it is expedited.

I should say that as with all school building projects, the exact timeframe for the delivery of permanent accommodation will be dependent on securing the grant of planning permission and until the planning permission is secured, it would be premature to estimate the timeframe for the tender and construction of the two schools. However, once planning permission is secured, the project for both schools will then be progressed for tender and construction stages, and the management authorities of the two schools will be kept fully informed. In the meantime, the Department will continue to address the schools' interim accommodation needs, which is important.

Suffice to say that the school representatives will be invited to a meeting soon, where plans will be presented in advance of lodging the planning application, which I hope will help. The Senator should also bear in mind my comments in relation to An Bord Pleanála but I will do everything I can do ensure that it is expedited. I will bring the issue to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Foley, and of the building and planning unit.

School Accommodation

This morning I wish to raise the issue of Sacred Heart Secondary School, Clonakilty, to discuss the need for an urgent update on the progress of the proposed extension to the school.

Sacred Heart Secondary School, Clonakilty, is one of the key cornerstone secondary schools in the town. Not only does it take in pupils from the Clonakilty town area, but it also has a large rural catchment area. There are over 550 students at the school and 47 classrooms. The school was established 80 years ago, in 1941.

One of the key issues relates to how we get development on this project. This project has been the subject of many stumbles along the way. A project manager was appointed in August 2019 for this school project and it was part of the so-called ADAPT 2 approach that bundles school projects together. However, because of the complex nature of the build in Clonakilty, where heritage and cultural issues pertain in respect of the project, it was taken out of that bundle.

Although appointed in 2019, the project manager left and did not take on the project. This became a significant burden on the school population in regard to how they would progress the new build, which is basically the redevelopment of a former complex on the site that has been left idle for several years. There is a real issue regarding how to get movement on the proposal. There has been temporary accommodation on-site for many years and there is also the need for an, ASD, unit, an issue in respect of which the Minister of State is very much involved. The school has actively looked for that but, again, the lack of accommodation is becoming a major issue in terms of site and school development.

The Minister of State might provide an update on whether the project has moved forward. In many ways, it went forward in 2019 but it has gone backwards since. We need to see movement on this project as there are so many issues, whether in regard to the ASD unit or the derelict building on the site, which, unfortunately has an erosion issue because of its location, and the building is falling into disrepair. There are many issues that need to be tied together so we can get movement on this project.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. I hope to be able to clarify the current position regarding Sacred Heart Secondary School in Clonakilty, which is an all-girls school under the patronage of Catholic Education, an Irish Schools Trust, CEIST. The enrolment at the school in September 2020 was 524 pupils and the school has a staffing of nearly 40 whole-time equivalent teachers. As the Senator is aware, Sacred Heart Secondary School is included in the Department's capital programme being delivered as part of the national development plan, NDP. The agreed long-term projected enrolment, LTPE, for the school is 600 pupils, with one SEN, special educational needs, base class, as the Senator mentioned, and it is critical that this goes ahead.

In order to plan for school provision and analyse the relevant demographic data, my Department divides the country into 314 school planning areas. It also uses a geographical information system, GIS, which uses data from a range of sources, including child benefit data from the Department of Social Protection and the Department's school enrolment databases, to identify where the pressure for school places across the country will arise. The Department has strengthened the process this year through specific initiatives, for example, enhanced engagement with local authorities in regard to the information on residential development incorporated in the analysis process, and additional engagement with patron bodies in regard to their local knowledge on school place requirements. Education and training boards, diocesan offices and national patron bodies, such as Educate Together and An Foras Pátrúnachta, can also be an important source of local knowledge. This will add to information already provided to the Department by local authorities or individual schools, and by utilising the information gleaned from schools under the national inventory of school capacity completed by individual schools last year as part of the primary online database and post-primary online database returns process.

In a standard year, addressing the increased demands for school places, while challenging, is manageable, generally through utilisation of existing spare capacity within schools, rental, temporary accommodation or other short-term measures pending the delivery of permanent accommodation.

With regard to the major building project for Sacred Heart Secondary School, my Department carried out a strategic assessment review of the proposed project in order to consider various options on how best to progress the project and to deliver the necessary accommodation to meet the long-term projected enrolment of 600 pupils. Following completion of the strategic assessment review, a number of options have been identified on how best the project can be progressed and this will form part of the project brief for the appointed design team to explore and develop.

The Department is now in the process of amending the brief formulation documents for the project to include the recommended options from the strategic assessment review, which will allow the project to be ready to progress to architectural planning.

The Senator will also be glad know that agreement has been reached with the school patron, namely, Catholic Education An Irish Schools' Trust, CEIST, to manage the delivery of this project on a devolved basis under a service level agreement. That is progress and will allow the Department to progress this project into the architectural planning process as quickly as possible. The school authority and the principal also have been advised of the current position.

Obviously, it is not possible at this early stage to outline the likely completion date of the project. I wish to advise the Senator, however, that updates regarding all building projects are provided on my Department's website and this information is updated on a regular basis. I will also bring this matter to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Foley, and to the building and planning unit within the Department to see if it can be expedited as soon as possible.

I thank the Minister of State for her comprehensive response. The big issue here is about clarity. Unfortunately, in 2019, the school was taken out of the partial bundle that had a set line with a project manager because of the complex nature of the build and the building and what is required of that site. It is important that we get progress. I am delighted that the school has been informed of the progress that has been proposed to date. The appointment of the architectural team is essential here. That is the key stumbling block. We need to have that team in place in order that it can review the structure and put in place a real design that will suit the school's present and future needs.

Clonakilty has seen significant development over the past two decades and there is a real potential there again for real development in housing, which will also have a knock-on effect on the school education infrastructure. The need for the school to be put in place, not alone for now but for the generations ahead, is very important. Hopefully, we can in time get a timeline for the architectural brief as to when we will see a design put in place. That design will be complex because one must take into consideration both the existing old structure and the reconfiguration of the previous 1941 building, which is probably where the new building will go.

I thank the Senator for his comments. I know what he is saying about the school being there since 1941. It is a badly needed development. I also note his remarks about the project manager who was in place in August 2019. I believe, however, I have given him some positives in my contribution today in terms of trying to move towards that architectural planning process which, as he said, is the key in this regard to. The fact that an agreement has been reached with Catholic Education An Irish Schools' Trust regarding the management of the delivery of the project under a service level agreement means we move towards that goal, which is positive, as is the fact the school has been notified of the progress. A strategic assessment review was carried out, as a result of which options have been considered, and having a project brief for the appointed design team to explore and develop is important. I acknowledge this is an issue close to the Senator's heart and I will do everything I can to ensure it happens quickly as possible.

I thank the Minister of State for her time today. I welcome the Minister, Deputy Ryan, to the Chamber.

Road Projects

Ba mhaith liom fáilte mhór a chur roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach inniu. Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis fosta mar go bhfuil a fhios agam go bhfuil a lán oibre á déanamh aige. I welcome the Minister to the House this morning. I thank him for taking time out of his busy schedule to be here.

This morning I wish to discuss the issue of the funding of local roads, which are vitally important to everyday life in our communities. The local road network is as important to the people of rural Ireland as the M50 is to the city of Dublin. In County Monaghan and many other counties throughout the country, the quality of local roads is critical to the communities that use them on a daily basis. Again, however, I will give the examples of Monaghan and Cavan and small counties like them.

Many small enterprises and businesses are located on boreens off small local and regional roads. They, like the communities who live on them, depend on a good quality roads network in order to get their goods to market and for the people who live in these communities to go about their daily lives.

The Minister is probably aware of a survey conducted by his Department before his time which discovered that the local roads infrastructure throughout the country was in need of substantial funding. Monaghan came across as the worst county in Ireland for its quality of local and regional roads infrastructure. That situation comes from the fact that over the last decade or so the local roads network has been chronically underfunded, which is an issue that needs to be addressed. I welcome the fact that this year the Department has increased its funding for local roads. It is very necessary and important that we get more such funding.

Unfortunately, this year many local authorities have the added burden of dealing with Covid-19 and the restrictions that it has placed on local authority work practices. As a result, many roads programmes have yet to commence. There is a fear among many local authorities, that they will not get their full allocation drawn down before the end of the year. The last thing that local authorities and local communities want is for local road allocations not to be drawn down because of the council's inability to get the works done because of Covid-19 restrictions.

I ask the Minister for two things. I am seeking a commitment that no local authority will lose the much needed funding required for local road repairs because of Covid-19 restrictions. I would like the Minister to issue guidance to local authorities that they are behind schedule with their roads programmes. Perhaps now with the evenings getting long, having longer daylight hours and coming into the summer months, local authorities would use that time wisely to catch up on the backlog of works needed because of Covid-19 restrictions. The last thing that communities and businesses want is to see roadworks taking place in the mouth of Christmas with queues of traffic going into towns. Certainly, after all that people have been through, the last thing that they want is to be stuck in traffic jams on the mouth of Christmas. The last thing that businesses want or need is for their potential customers to be caught in traffic on their way to do their shopping due to roadworks taking place that should have been done earlier in the year but through nobody's fault could not be done because of Covid-19 restrictions. I look forward to the Minister's response.

I thank Senator Gallagher for raising this very important Commencement matter.

The improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads is the statutory responsibility of the relevant local authority in accordance with the provisions of section 13 of the Roads Act 1993. Works on those roads are funded by the resources of councils and supplemented by regional and local road grants. Transport Infrastructure Ireland is responsible for the management of national roads in conjunction with local authorities. In addition, the National Transport Authority provides funding for sustainable transport measures and this year this funding is being extended to local authorities across the country.

As regards the main regional and local roads programmes funded by my Department, these programmes involve a mixture of direct labour work and contract work. Each eligible local authority is responsible for deciding its work programme and also for deciding the assignment of staff to undertake roadworks throughout the year. The costs involved are recouped to local authorities based on the work undertaken.

Under the public health guidance that is currently in place regarding Covid-19 restrictions, provision is made for certain essential services to continue. This includes the repair, maintenance and construction of critical road infrastructure. Local authorities have continued to carry out works considered essential on roads and appropriate operating procedures have been put in place to comply with Covid-19 public health guidance. In this context the nature of roadworks - outdoors and generally amenable to social distancing - facilitates compliance with public health guidance.

It is important to recognise that road maintenance activity is seasonal. While local authorities might carry out contract procurement and some preparatory work at this time of the year, the crucial period for delivery of the main regional and local roads maintenance programme is from April. This is when the road strengthening programme starts in earnest followed by surface dressing work from late May.

While it is for each local authority to assess the position in its area, overall, essential maintenance works will need to be carried out to keep the road network in a serviceable condition, address safety issues and deliver road improvement schemes which incorporate measures to support active travel. It is envisaged that these essential work programmes will continue and intensify as the year progresses.

As the Senator is aware, the Government will also be providing updated public health guidelines before 5 April. Hopefully, that will allow a more general return to construction work, including road maintenance work, in the critical period ahead.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive response. I take it from his contribution that no local authority will lose funding this year because of an underspend, which is important, and that local authorities will have the flexibility to have this work done during the summer months when the weather is good. Local road infrastructure is vitally important to local communities throughout the length and breadth of this country.

While the Minister is here, I ask him to consider the will and voice of the people affected by the North-South interconnector, with a view to having an independent review carried out on the cost of delivering the project overground as opposed to underground. With the passage of time and advances in technology, it is vital that we do that. I ask the Minister to ensure a full, independent review takes place. The communities would be happy to abide by the results of any such independent review.

I might address the second issue the Senator raised on another occasion. The interconnector is critical infrastructure that is vital for the economy, North and South.

To return to the key issue we are addressing, we must recognise that the maintenance, development and improvement of local roads are critical to local economies. As the Senator said, we have to avoid the prospect of all the work being bookended to the end of the year when we will be facing into Christmas to ensure towns are not shuttered because roadworks are only able to take place then. I hope councils will be able to organise the business in the long days ahead of us in the spring and summer months. I am very supportive of investment in road programmes that restore and protect the centre of towns, improve the public realm and provide small bypasses and detours so that we adopt one of the key economic and social programmes for this Government, namely, putting town centres first, in County Monaghan and elsewhere in the country.

Waste Management

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire agus gabhaim buíochas leis as ucht an t-am a thabhairt don ábhar an-tábhachtach seo. I thank the Minister for his time on this important issue.

All plastics come from fossil fuels. To produce a plastic bottle takes the equivalent of filling one-quarter of the bottle with oil. It takes up to 500 years for plastic to disappear. Recycling just one tonne of plastic saves between 1,200 and 2,000 gallons of petroleum. Each year, Ireland produces 1 million tonnes of plastic waste. Approximately 30% of that waste is recycled. In Europe, the average is approximately 40% of plastic waste recycled. In Ireland, six disposable coffee cups are thrown away every second. Producing plastic products from recycled plastics reduces energy requirements by 66%. In Ireland, all soft plastic is going into landfill. The three "Rs" of reduce, reuse and recycle, which I have been advocating since the 1980s, may need a fourth - replace or remove. All solutions and alternatives are available but we need to make them the norm, not the alternative.

Some 220,000 plastic bottles are thrown away every day in Ireland. How can we make it as easy and simple as possible to address the challenges we face? How will we progress to a plastic-free society? That is what most people want in their hearts. While I commend the Minister on the Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy, I want to see what steps we will take next.

The reason I am taking part in this debate is an email that was sent to my office and the Minister's office by Ellie Hoey, an 11-year-old from Dundalk, County Louth. It is much more appropriate that I read Ellie's words, as her email does much more justice to the issue than I ever could. It states:

Dear [Minister] Ryan ...

Hello, my Name is Ellie Hoey, I’m 11 and I’m from Dundalk, Co. Louth.

I hope you and your family are doing well in the current circumstances, and I know The Government are focused on important things at this time but I really wanted to write to you and bring something to your attention.

In these past years before Covid -19 I have become very interested in [the] Green Schools Initiative and climate change and what we can do to stop it happening.

I have gone to a few protests before and was supposed to go to more this year.

Because of this I have done some research into the matter and have discovered that Ireland produced over 1 million tonnes of packaging waste in 2018, for the second year in a row and that the recycling rate for 2018 had gone down from that of 2017.

Many small businesses in my locality have made efforts to move away from single use plastic and are instead using compostable and recyclable materials, and I would like to enquire about what The Government plan to do or are doing presently about the companies who can well afford to change recyclable and compostable materials who don’t appear to be doing so presently and especially because many family outings nowadays consist of going to the big chain coffee shops for a take away.

I am also worried about single use plastic straws, cutlery and shopping bags and the effects they have on the environment and while you can definitely see some change in companies trying to be more sustainable we are still very far off being as sustainable as we would like to be if we want to prevent climate change and the long-lasting effects it will have on our future generation and I am very worried if we don’t do something now that the earth that we will be passing on to my children and their children will not be a good one because of the amount of non-reusable plastics and waste materials humans are using up.

I think that the effects it’s having on the sea creatures and land creatures is devastating especially since they are not the ones using plastic and waste materials yet they are feeling the consequences [of our actions].

And the rate and way our streams, rivers, lakes and oceans are being polluted is terrible and they are becoming toxic very quickly.

I think this is a very important topic and almost more important than Covid-19 because we have found a solution to Covid-19 yet scientists are still [a little] bit unsure about how to stop climate change

I know I’m only 11 [years of age] but it’s me, my children and my grandchildren that this is going to have lasting effects on, so I wanted to write this letter to ask you what are you and your Department doing presently or are planning to do in the close future about this and I hope you understand why I’m sending this letter and how much this means to me and I would be thankful if you replied.

Thank you for reading,

Ellie Hoey.

I thank the Senator and I am happy to update both the Senators and Ellie Hoey in Dundalk on the range of plans for dealing with plastic waste. It is a top priority for me to tackle the blight on our streets, countryside, beaches and our oceans, as Ellie has set out, caused by mismanaged plastic waste.

I am grateful for both Senators' support for the Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy, which we launched last September. It is an ambitious plan, which includes a range of measures to reform and strengthen our waste management programme. This plan is probably at its most ambitious when we outline how we will tackle single-use plastics and plastic packaging and I agree with Senator Garvey that those two more Rs, of remove and replace, are exactly what we intend to do.

One of the key weapons in the plastics battle will be Directive (EU) 2019/904, commonly referred to as the single-use plastics directive. This directive, which will be transposed by July of this year, specifically targets the ten most common single-use plastics which are found on European beaches and waters. I will be making it mandatory for all producers of single-use plastic bottles to ensure that their packaging contains a minimum of 30% recycled content and that the producers of all single-use plastic beverage containers will have to ensure that the caps remain attached to the bottles.

To improve recyclability rates the directive also sets a separate collection target of 90% for plastic bottles by 2029 with an interim target of 77% by 2025. A report prepared for my Department by Eunomia concluded that a deposit and return scheme, DRS, is essential if we are to achieve the required levels of performance.

The Waste Action Plan tor a Circular Economy sets out a clear roadmap for the introduction of a deposit refund scheme for plastic bottles and aluminium cans in the third quarter of 2022. I shortly will be taking the second step in this process when I launch a second public consultation on the regulatory framework to support the DRS later this month and I am looking to the producers to take responsibility for this and have stipulated that the DRS must be producer-led and operated on a not-for-profit basis.

As Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, I am committed to significantly reducing the amount of single-use plastic cups and food containers that are placed on the Irish market. When coffee shops and restaurants reopen after the Covid-19 pandemic, I will be trialling the elimination of coffee cups entirely in selected towns with a view to achieving an eventual full national ban on them. In addition, by July 2021, I will ban a range of single-use plastic products from being placed on the market, including straws, plates and cutlery, as well as polystyrene food and beverage containers, in accordance with the single-use plastics directive.

However, the plan also demonstrates our ambitions in going beyond EU targets and we will also be banning a further range of single-use plastic items including non-medical wet wipes, single-use plastic hotel toiletries and sugar and condiment items.

The plan also details how we will deal with waste arising from packaging. By 2030, all packaging placed on the market in Ireland must be reusable or recyclable and we will be working throughout the supply chain to achieve this. All producers of plastic packaging will be subject to the extended producer responsibility regime. This model of waste management, which is based on the "polluter pays" principle, has been employed very successfully in Ireland for years with items such as electrical equipment, batteries and end-of-life vehicles. In addition, all producers will be subject to eco-modulation of fees whereby a reduced levy will be applied to recyclable and reusable packaging while non-recyclable packaging will attract a heavier fee. The legislative basis for this is in the European Union (Waste Directive) Regulations 2020, which I signed last summer.

I could go on outlining a range of other measures and talking about Ellie. Senator Garvey has worked in the past with An Taisce's green-schools and campus programmes. We have provided further funding of €200,000 to foster this engagement and disseminate further the necessary messaging. That is a critical part of this transition. We all must understand why this is in our interests and that it is our responsibility to make this change.

I am so happy to hear that there is a definite date for the deposit and return scheme in the third quarter of next year because people have been asking about that for ages. It is an important step forward. I am also happy that the producers will be the ones dealing with this issue and taking on the responsibility because as a consumer who tries to avoid plastic, the producers make it very difficult to do so. If the Minister needs any help finding towns in which to pilot the scheme, Ennistymon and Ennis both took on the "Love Your Cup" campaign way ahead of the game, offering 30 cent off to people who were bringing their cups back. If the Minister needs that piloted maybe we can help him in County Clare.

Ellie is in school at the moment so she is going to have to watch this debate later on. She is also a very active member of her green schools committee in the CBS in Dundalk. I felt that the words of an 11-year-old girl, in such simplistic and yet concise language, would give far greater emphasis to this issue than I ever could.

I hope that by the time she finishes school most of these measures will be in place and Ireland will be a better country. There will be less litter. As Senator Garvey said, in effect a third of every one of those bottles is filled with oil in order to make them. Reducing their usage and increasing recycling is part of the battle we have to take on against climate change and it will all be for the better. It will create a better economic system and less local pollution and there will be less long-term plastic, which is in the environment for 500 years. It will be there not just in the time of Ellie's grandchildren or great-grandchildren; one could say "great" many times and it would still be there in the environment. By making this change now we will clean up our act for the next 500 years. That is why it is such an important part of the changes we are making in Government at this critical time.

Sitting suspended at 11.39 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.