Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Local Authorities

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Malcolm Noonan, back to the House. He spent a lot of the day in the Seanad yesterday, between Commencement matters and legislation. The first matter is Senator Seán Kyne's who has four minutes.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this Commencement matter. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, to the House. I know the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, has recently engaged with councillors on a cross-party basis on the issue of funding for Galway County Council. Obviously, they are better placed than I am to put forward the case. As I understand it, the amalgamation of the city and county councils is off the table, so there is no point in talking about the merits or demerits of that.

Funding of Galway County Council has been an issue for some time but, particularly, since the economic crash of 2008-2009. Realistically, however, it has been an issue for more than 20 years, particularly in comparison with other local authorities. If one looks at the tables of funding going back to 1999, there has been an anomaly in relation to funding for Galway County Council.

Galway County Council has a low rates base, as the city is in a separate authority, and pulls in so much investment. Compared with Mayo, which has large towns such as Castlebar, Westport and Ballina, we have much smaller towns with a lower rates base. Similarly, Shannon and Ennis in Clare are drivers while in Kerry, Killarney and Tralee are good drivers of the economy and provide a good rates base. The budget of Galway County Council in 2021 is €136.5 million. In comparison, Mayo's budget is €159 million, Kerry's is €168 million and Tipperary's is €185 million. I certainly do not begrudge any other local authority what they receive or what they are able to generate but the truth is that Galway has not got the capacity to grow its rates, in particular, because of the influence of the city.

In regard to staffing in Galway, according to the 2009 figures, Galway County Council had 767 staff, Mayo had 1,000, Kerry had 1,153 and Tipperary had 1,034. Clearly, in terms of funding, and the consequence of that, which is staffing, Galway County Council is at a lower level than other comparative local authorities. That has an impact on the provision of services. It is totally unsustainable and it cannot continue in this fashion.

The councillors, in fairness, were the first to increase the local property tax to try to fund a shortfall. They got no thanks for that from the Department. Indeed, the Department ignored the gesture. It did not look at providing any additional funding. In fact, the Department has starved Galway for more than 20 years. The carrot of improved funding that would come with amalgamation was dangled, but even with that, there was no clear indication of additional funding.

The position of chief executive officer was left unfilled for seven years. For seven years, there was an acting CEO in Galway. I take responsibility in that regard. We were in government for that period, but that was position was left unfilled. Would the position of Secretary General or assistant secretary general in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage be left unfilled for seven years? I do not think so. It would not be left unfilled for seven weeks.

Clearly, there have been certain issues and anomalies regarding the funding of Galway County Council. When we approached officials in the Department - again on a cross-party basis - a number of years ago, there was an admission that Galway had been badly served for a long number of years in comparison to similar local authorities, some of which are our near neighbours. However, there has been no resolution to that. There has been no additional funding. The then Minister of State, Deputy John Paul Phelan, provided an extra, I think, €1 million, which eventually came through, based on issues surrounding the municipal districts, to try to improve the situation.

We have a stark situation in Galway. The Minister of State, Deputy Noonan's officials have been aware of this matter for a long number of years and yet nothing has been provided for Galway. I look forward to the Minister of State's reply.

The case was very well made by the Senator. The funding system for local authorities is complex, with authorities deriving their income from a variety of sources, including commercial rates, charges for goods and services, and funding from central Government. Local authorities vary significantly from one another in terms of size, population, population distribution, public service demands, infrastructure and other income sources. All of these factors should be taken into account when comparing levels of funding for different local authority areas. Most of the funding from central Government must be used for specified services. This can be grouped into five broad programme categories: recreation, education, environment, housing and transport.

Across all schemes and funding sources, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage provided €51.1 million and €82.9 million to Galway County Council in 2019 and 2020, respectively. The increase between 2019 and 2020 is due to an increase in housing funding, as well as funding in respect of the Covid-19 rates waiver and other Covid-19 related expenses that occurred in 2020.

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. Local authority members may decide, as part as of the process, to vary annual rate of valuation, ARV, and local property tax, LPT, in order to increase revenue available to them. I understand that Galway County Council has opted not to use these tools for many years.

The power to vary the local property tax is a reserved function. Local authorities must balance with these priorities against available resources. To achieve that balance, the elected members must make informed and necessary choices to balance the level of service provision with the available income. For 2021, 22 of the local authorities throughout the country opted to vary the local property tax upwards, while only three have opted to vary it downwards.

Arising from the variation decisions, the local authority sector will gain an additional €11.5 million from the LPT when compared with 2020.

Galway County Council would have gained an additional €2.2 million if it had applied the maximum upward variation of 15% for 2021. Galway elected members decided not to vary the LPT rate for 2021, thereby denying themselves additional discretionary income. The Department does not, as a matter of course, provide supplementary funding to local authorities in lieu of the LPT changes. Doing so would undermine one of the reasons the LPT was introduced, namely, to strengthen the link between the decision-making of elected members of local authorities and services provided in the area. This has consistently been the position since 2015.

The programme for Government, Our Shared Future, commits to bringing about reforms in the workings of the local property tax. These reforms will involve bringing new homes, which are currently exempt from the tax, into the taxation system, as well as providing for all money collected locally to be retained within that county. This will also be done on the basis that those counties with a lower LPT base are adjusted via an annual national equalisation fund paid from the Exchequer, as is currently the case. The Minister for Finance is examining options for reform of the LPT in light of the 2019 interdepartmental LPT review report, the views of the Committee on Budgetary Oversight and the programme for Government commitments.

On 13 April 2021, my colleague in the Department, the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, met a delegation from Galway County Council and agreed the Department will work with the council to explore the options available to putting its finances on a more sustainable footing. Preliminary work is under way in the Department and I understand that efforts in this regard will intensify in the run-up to the local authority budgetary process later this year.

Notwithstanding all of what I have outlined, Galway County Council was given an exceptional allocation of €1 million to support the municipal districts in 2021 and to be distributed equally among them. This was a significant commitment by the Government in supporting the council, which, coupled with the more general Covid-19 related supports provided in both 2020 and thus far this year, represents significant financial support for the council and the wider local government sector.

When Galway County Council increased the LPT - it was one of the first local authorities to do so - it was done on the basis that the Department would come with it some of the way, but it did not do that. While one could argue it would have gained an additional €2.2 million by increasing the LPT, I return to the comparisons. Galway County Council's budget for this year is €136 million, while the budgets of the local authorities in Mayo, Kerry and Tipperary are €159 million, €168 million and €185 million, respectively. An additional €2 million, while welcome, would not fill those gaps.

There is a fundamental issue with the model of funding for Galway County Council, as has been conceded by officials in the Department. In fact, they went on to say that the initial model, which dates from more than 20 years ago, is so complex that they do not know which model is used to decide where funding derives from. While Galway County Council has a certain ability to raise additional funding itself, the direct grants it receives from the Department are insufficient for the needs of a county that is the fifth largest by population. The funding we receive is up to the third lowest per capita. There is a serious anomaly in regard to funding for Galway County Council and I ask that the Minister of State's officials address that in a serious fashion.

I note the concerns of the Senator. Every local authority is facing similar challenges. We can look towards the budgetary process for 2022, whereby elected members can again give consideration to the LPT, which is a mechanism that can be used.

I reiterate that the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, is committed to working with Galway County Council to try to resolve these issues, notwithstanding the significant pressures on local government and the recognition that local government, through the community call, has been front and centre of dealing with the Covid pandemic. That has been recognised by the Department in a measured way that supports local authorities to continue to do that valuable work and provide the valuable services they do to the community. That has been highlighted throughout the pandemic.

I will convey the Senator's concerns to the Minister of State, Deputy Burke. He is firmly committed to resolving these issues over the lifetime of the Government.

Special Educational Needs

The matter I raise relates to equity in education and goes to the heart of an inclusive education system. The backdrop is that a national school in Roselawn, Dublin 15, wanted to provide a reading class for the community and the board of management and staff were fully on board. The school successfully opened a special class for autism called Sonas in June 2019 and I attended the opening.

The special educational needs organiser, SENO, endorsed the application for a reading class because they know the demand is there in the school and in Dublin 15 and beyond. In April 2021, the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, wrote to the principal confirming that a specific learning disability class, SLD, had been sanctioned for the 2021-22 school year and the school was told to progress the practical side of things, such as the prefabricated classroom, the set of grants and the staff. Six students in Dublin 15 were identified as suitable, including pupils from the school in question.

Three weeks ago, however, out of the blue, the decision to sanction the reading class was reversed. I do not need to tell the Minister of State about the disappointment that has caused. These are families and students who struggle with severe dyslexia and really want the opportunity to avail of a reading class for a couple of years. They know the location of every reading class in Dublin and beyond and they also know how long the waiting lists are. I have received messages from parents of children with severe dyslexia from all areas. One of them wrote that if their son had been successful in accessing a place at Catherine McAuley reading school, they were willing to allow him, at eight years of age, to get on a school bus and go all the way to Dublin city to attend. Another wrote that their son's learning needs were not being met at his mainstream school, and while the school was doing its best, it could not give him the individual attention and support he required.

That student should not have to travel to the city to access education that other children can get in their communities. Dublin West does not have any reading class and now it seems to be the Department’s policy not to open one. The parents and the school are, understandably, confused and they deserve an answer as to what happened. If opening a reading class is not the policy any more, surely the SENO, NEPS and the Dyslexia Association of Ireland should know that. What if they disagree? We have rightly seen a move away from exclusively inclusive mainstream classrooms for other special education needs and we have a model that seems to work for reading classes.

A report by NEPS has stated that not all children with special needs are the same. It goes on to state that while inclusive school settings might be beneficial for some children or groups of children, special classes or schools may be beneficial to others, and that we need to rethink the divide between inclusive education in mainstream settings and segregated education in special schools or units. A crucial issue in that regard is that of choice. Moreover, a progress report on the future of special schools and classes, presented by Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO, to the NCSE on 11 March, endorsed this approach.

I hope to put this matter into context for the Senator. As she will be aware, enabling children with special educational needs to receive an education appropriate to their needs is a priority for the Government. The principle of inclusive education is set out in the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 and embedded in the Department's policy for supporting children with special educational needs, including those with reading difficulties. The Act provides that a child with special educational needs should be educated in an inclusive environment with children who do not have special educational needs unless it is not in the best interests of the child with special educational needs or is inconsistent with the effective provision of education for the children with whom the child is to be educated.

The Department's policy is, therefore, to provide for the inclusive education of children with special educational needs in mainstream schools and this policy is supported by significant investment. Senator Currie will be aware that the Department will spend approximately €2 billion, or just under 25% of the education budget, in 2021. That is nearly a quarter of the entire budget spent on making additional provision for children with special educational needs this year. Only where it has been assessed that a child is unable to be supported in mainstream education are special class placements, as the Senator mentioned, or special school placements recommended and provided for. The majority of children with special needs attend mainstream education with appropriate educational and care supports.

In the context of the reading class, I want to talk about the new model for allocating special education teachers to mainstream schools, which, as the Senator will be aware, was introduced from September 2017. This is based on the profile needs of schools. The special education teacher, SET, allocation model provides a single unified allocation for special educational teaching support needs to schools based on a school's educational profile. It allows schools to provide additional teaching support for all pupils who require it and to deploy resources based on each pupil’s individual learning needs. We know that a diagnosis of need is not required to access such supports.

At the moment, we have in excess of 13,600 SETs who are provided to mainstream schools to support the learning needs of pupils who have additional needs in literacy, including those arising from specific learning difficulties. The Department’s policy, in accordance with the principles of inclusive education, is that people with such additional learning needs are supported in mainstream classes with additional provision made by a special education teacher.

Therefore, in that context the Department no longer supports the opening of new reading schools or classes, and no such classes have been opened since 2017. However, I understand that the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, which the Senator mentioned, recently engaged with St. Francis Xavier National School on an application for the opening of a reading class. The NCSE response to this was an operational error, I understand, and the school has been informed. I very much regret that this operational error occurred.

The NCSE has responsibility for co-ordinating and advising on the education provision for children nationwide, and it has well established structures in place for supporting schools and parents. I am aware of the good work being done by the teachers and SNAs of St. Francis Xavier National School in Dublin 15 in supporting children with special educational needs. The inspectorate’s 2020 report on the whole school evaluation carried out in the school provides ample testimony in this regard. I have asked the NCSE to review the special educational teacher allocation at this school to see if it meets the needs of the pupils in the school.

It is important to stress that I have also asked my Department to arrange a review of the policy on reading classes and schools. This review will, in turn, inform future policy for supporting children with special educational needs and the place of the specialist provision in these supports.

I thank the Minister of State for conducting a review of the process and of reading classes. She said it was an operational error, but an operational error does not give any comfort to families whose hopes were raised and who have now been disappointed. I refer to the postcode lottery in that children in certain areas may be able to access this type of education, facility and service, and yet children in Dublin West will not. I know how much we are investing in special education. It is only right and it is a very positive development. We say we will support these kinds of settings where they are needed, but I believe it is needed in Dublin West, to make it equitable compared to other parts of Dublin, for children who have been recognised by the NCSE, the special educational needs organisers and the school, as needing this additional support.

As Senator Currie outlined earlier, the school deserves an answer as people’s hopes were raised. I hope I have set out an adequate answer for them. Obviously, I cannot speak on behalf of the NCSE, but I can certainly communicate what happened. What happened was an operational error and I understand the school has been informed about that. I am satisfied that the 13,600 SETs we have should be supporting literacy needs and teaching within the school environment. What I have said specifically in relation to St. Francis Xavier is that the NCSE is reviewing the SET allocation at that school to ensure there are adequate numbers of SETs to support children, particularly those with dyslexia, or any other child who needs support with reading. My Department is undertaking a review, as I said, of the policy on reading classes. This review will, in turn, look to inform future policy.

Special Educational Needs

The Minister of State is very welcome, and I appreciate her coming in to take my matter. This is about supporting SNAs. We have in excess of 16,000 in our inclusive education system. That inclusive education is hugely important to everybody. It is an aspiration that children with special needs, and special educational needs, will have the opportunity to be educated in their own localities, along with siblings and neighbours, in mainstream schools. Without the 16,000 SNAs, who are the bedrock of the system, that would not be possible. It is the work of the SNAs, day in, day out, that helps to ensure these children can go to school and participate in education locally. Their care and compassion are a testament to them. I know many SNAs and, honestly, the care and comfort they give to children makes things so much easier for parents and, of course, teachers and the whole school community.

We have a record number of children in mainstream schools. I think approximately 38,000 students avail of an SNA. I commend the Minister of State on launching the national training programme for SNAs last year, because everyone within the school community requires continuous professional development. This is the first time a course has been put in place to enhance the knowledge, skills and expertise of SNAs, and that is very important. This is being done in conjunction with UCD over a period of four years. Some 500 SNAs started this training in January. I have spoken to a number of these SNAs. It is a very ambitious and in-depth programme, which is good, but there is a concern that there is a lack of accreditation for SNAs undertaking the programme and I think that is wrong. SNAs undertaking this programme, both the present cohort of 500 and those who will under take it, should be accredited when taking this course.

I take this opportunity to raise two applications for autism spectrum disorder, ASD, classes in Newbridge, with the Minister of State. In Newbridge, we have a particular problem with a growing population and the need for extra places. St. Conleth and Mary's Primary School has an ongoing building programme. It has put in an application, which the Department supports, for a second badly-needed ASD class. The Holy Family Secondary School has also put in an application. I ask for the Minister of State’s support in these.

I have one other issue I would like to raise.

I commend the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Foley, on the extra €80 million funding that has been put in for the summer provision to help support both children with special needs and those with educational disadvantage and give them the opportunity to catch up on the education they have missed over the last 14 months. It is a really good programme. However, I hear of schools not taking this up. Are there extra supports or is there a plan B to ensure the €80 million is taken up for the children that need it?

As the Senator correctly pointed out, €2 billion, almost 25% of the total education budget, is going into special education this year. Budget 2021 provided for an additional 900 SNAs who are vital to the smooth running of the schools for children with additional needs. An unprecedented 18,000 will be in place by the year's end. They play a critical role in supporting children with additional needs, many of whom would not otherwise be able to attend school or participate in any school activities. Children often have a great attachment to their SNA. They attend to the significant care needs of students with complex needs and work under the direction of the class teacher to help ensure that class teaching and learning proceeds smoothly for all students.

Specifically, on the training programme in UCD, the Senator correctly pointed out it is the first SNA national training programme. The 2018 NCSE policy advice on the SNA scheme recommended that a new national training programme at level 5 of the national qualification framework be developed for existing SNAs who do not have the requisite level of training, and for new SNAs on appointment. That policy advice was considered at length by the Department. It was decided that priority should be given to the development of a training programme for SNAs who may not have had a recent opportunity to access a training programme tailored to their role. The aim was to provide an upskilling opportunity rather than a formal qualification. As the Senator set out, it is in UCD and 500 SNAs started in January, there is up to a maximum of 3,500.

On accreditation, as it is the very first national training programme, it is appropriate to take the time to review the outcomes from this training which will inform the future approach to ongoing training and professional development of SNAs. Part of that consideration would include accreditation. The programme is fully funded by the Department and delivered online at no cost to the SNA themselves. Completion of the programme may serve as a stepping stone to further education opportunities in this area. Each participant who completes the programme successfully will receive a certificate from the UCD school of education, which I think will be of assistance to them in pursuing further education. Some €2.45 million has been allocated over the next four-year period. The next cohort of SNAs due to take part will enrol in September 2021.

I appreciate what the Senator is saying around the care and comfort that is given and the compassion they give in their job every day. That is why the Department has rolled-out this national training programme for the first time. It is a stepping stone - it is not the end of the line, it is only the beginning. I have had great feedback from SNAs individually around it. I appreciate the issue around accreditation. It is something that will be considered as part of the outcomes of the review after we see how this first program actually transpires.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. I commend her and the Department on setting this up. Education is very important. It has to be valued in its own right in what it does for the individual as well as the continuing professional development. Everybody in the education world needs the opportunity as there are always new things to learn. I appreciate that there will be a review of this first programme and the outcomes, but it is very important for those undertaking the course that there be a formal accreditation process and that when the outcomes are reviewed and when the question of accreditation is examined down the line, that it be given retrospectively to those taking the course now. It is important that it is recognised in its own right.

As I mentioned, part of the consideration of the review will include accreditation and no doubt the retrospective element will be considered as well. I am satisfied that the new training programme now in place is of very high quality. It will help the experience of our children with special needs in our schools.

The Senator mentioned Newbridge and St. Conleth and Mary's Primary School and the Holy Family Secondary School in relation to ASD classes. As Minister of State with responsibility for special education, I have an acute awareness of the dearth of ASD classes and will do all I can to assist in any school. The NCSE encourages schools, and particularly existing schools, to open ASD classes. I will certainly pass on those applications, and if they come in I will bring them to the attention of the Department.

To clarify on the summer provision, the funding is €40 million. I wish it was €80 million, although €40 million is double the amount last year. There are 81,000 children who will be eligible for summer provision this year. We have removed all barriers and impediments, as far as the Department is concerned, around the participation of schools in this programme over the next month in July and August.

School Enrolments

I welcome the Minister of State to the House to discuss a very important matter for many people in the county in which I live, Kildare. There is no doubt there is a problem there. It is acknowledged by the Minister for Education in replies to my Labour Party colleagues over the last year or so, and the direct conversations I have had with the Minister and her office. In acknowledging the problem in her replies, the Minister stated it could be caused by different factors, including duplication of applications where pupils have applied for a number of schools in the same area and where pupils cannot get a place in their preferred school, while there are places in other schools in the town or area. Some towns have single-sex schools and while places are available in the school, they are not available to all pupils or they draw pupils from outside the local area. One would expect much or all of this information to be available. The Minister went on to say only until these issues are discussed with the relevant school authorities will the true extent of any capacity issues become known. Unfortunately, this is the reply or a version of it I have continued to receive for over a year now, and still parents are without places. The latest waiting lists range from 20 to over 40 in some schools. The Minister continues to tell me that she is engaging with patron bodies to identify particular capacity requirements for the forthcoming year. I sincerely hope that there is some good news today.

I have been involved in campaigns for new schools in the area that have still not commenced, although I acknowledge a number of extensions of schools in the Kildare south area. However, there is growing concern around what is happening with the proposed new 1,000 pupil school for the Curragh which we were told would include joint Educate Together patronage. Recent updates on this school tell us that the land deal is still at a sensitive stage. Perhaps the House can be given an update on that today.

I hope the Minister of State will give us some good news here today. I have been contacted by parents as well as young people who are very upset that they do not know what school they will attend in September.

This is especially hard on the student, the young person, whose friends are aware of his or her school place and where he or she will be attending.

There are lessons to be learned here by the Department. The question put to me repeatedly is why Kildare County Council allowed all of these houses to be built without enough school places to accommodate the children in the families who came to live there? The south Kildare Educate Together secondary school campaign presented these projected growth figures to the Department a number of years ago. There was an obvious delay in acting upon them and there is no doubt about that.

We all welcome the school extensions and what we hope will be the urgent announcement on the new school in the Curragh, but that good news is a number of years away. Until then we need to create school places in existing schools and invest in these schools to accommodate that. We all await the Minister's response as to how this might be achieved.

I thank Senator Wall. It is important to set out the context around the consideration of additional secondary school places, not just in Kildare but throughout the country. To plan for school provision and to analyse the relevant demographic data, the Department, as the Deputy may already be aware, divides the country into 314 school planning areas. It uses a geographical information system, using data from a range of sources, including child benefit and school enrolment data, to identify where the pressure for school places across the country will arise and where additional school accommodation is needed at primary and post-primary levels.

The most recent analysis, which I believe is interesting, undertaken by the Department projects that over 60% of the 314 school planning areas at primary level have stable or decreasing projected enrolments for the period to 2024. This can be contrasted with some 90% of the school planning areas at post-primary level that are anticipated to have increased enrolments for the period to 2027. The level of demand volume, therefore, across school planning areas with an increasing net requirement ranges from small to medium increases that are likely to be accommodated by existing schools, through to significant projected growth that may require additional provision.

Where our data indicate that additional provision is required at primary or post-primary level, the delivery of such additional provision is dependent on the particular circumstances of each case and may be provided either through one or a combination of the following. First, there is the utilising of the existing unused capacity within a school or schools. Second, there is extending the capacity of a school. Third, there is the provision of a new school.

As the Senator may be aware, since April 2018, the Government has announced 47 new schools to be established over a four-year period from 2019 to 2022, including two new post-primary schools to serve the school planning areas of Kilcock and Maynooth in County Kildare. I advise the Senator that the Department is aware of increasing pressures and demands for additional post-primary school places in a number of school planning areas, including in south Kildare. The Senator has quite correctly outlined what happened when capacity issues arose. It may not be as a result of a lack of accommodation. There is the duplication of applications, which the Senator has set out. He also talked about single-sex schools and the external draw. The Senator further mentioned that it is only when these issues are discussed with the relevant school authorities that the true extent of any capacity issue will become known.

Similar to the process adopted in advance of the current academic year, it is important to stress that the Department is engaging with patron bodies, including in the area in question, to identify particular capacity requirements for the forthcoming year which may necessitate action.

The Senator asked specifically about the Curragh Post Primary School. It is intended that significant additional capacity to address this demand will be provided by the planned new 1,000-pupil building for the existing Curragh Post Primary School. The school at present has an enrolment of 145 pupils. As the Senator may be aware, a new site is required for the replacement of the Curragh Post Primary School. This project is also proposed to address demographic need in the Kildare, Curragh and Newbridge school planning areas. Officials in the Department are in advanced negotiations at present with the landowner in respect of the acquisition of a suitable site to address the aforementioned needs. The Department continues to work closely with officials from Kildare County Council to progress the transaction under the memorandum of understanding, MOU, between the Department and local authorities for the acquisition of school sites with a view to securing a suitable site for the school.

Should agreement on the proposed acquisition be reached, the process will advance then to the conveyancing stage where draft contracts will be prepared and due legal diligence is undertaken in respect of the proposed transaction. It would be expected at that stage that the project to deliver the new school accommodation can simultaneously progress to architectural planning stage.

I thank the Acting Chair and I also thank the Minister of State for the reply. Unfortunately, we are not hearing anything new in the reply the Minister of State has given us today. These are the same replies that all public representatives who have been pursuing this issue have been receiving because it is a very significant one for us all in south Kildare. It is the same reply as the one we received one year ago which referred to the Department looking at, and talking to patrons about, additional places. Yet the pupils and their parents in south Kildare are still waiting on news on the 40 places and are trying to get places for September.

Will the Minister of State please go back to the Minister for Education and to the Department and ask them to be more forthcoming as to what is actually happening in south Kildare? We cannot continue to receive the same answer, year after year, month after month, on places. This was known back in 2014 and 2015, when the figures were brought to the Department, yet we are still looking at schools two years down the line, which are nonetheless very welcome. We need to get answers now, to solve this problem, to talk to patrons and ensure those who need places in south Kildare have them come September. We cannot wait any longer, but I thank the Minister of State for her reply.

I thank the Senator and I understand his concerns around clarity for students who wish to attend school, whether it is a primary or a post-primary school. The instructions I have from the Department specifically on the school mentioned by the Senator are that the negotiations are at an advanced stage on the site acquisition. I will obviously bring his views back to the senior Minister, Deputy Foley.

Furthermore, St. Conleth's Community College has agreed to an additional first year class and the patron has agreed to the expansion of the school to cater for a total capacity of 1,000 pupils. There is also an accommodation brief for the major project in Cross and Passion College in Kilcullen, and that has been increased to cater for a 1,000-pupil school to provide for increased demographic growth. The accommodation brief for the Patrician Secondary School in Newbridge has also increased to a 1,000 pupils to provide for increased demographic growth. I will bring the Senator's concerns to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Foley, and the Department.

Cycling Facilities

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire agus gabhaim buíochas leis freisin as teacht anseo chun labhairt ar an ábhar seo. The Luas, as we know, and I am specifically talking here about the green line that runs along the old Harcourt Street railway line corridor, was constructed without regard to other transport options that might have been put alongside it. For example, as you go through Ranelagh, right out through Milltown and the Milltown viaduct, and through all of the other places as far as Bride’s Glen and Cherrywood, there is no facility for people to walk or cycle alongside the Luas line. Undoubtedly, there is not enough space to do that in places, but given that the corridor was there and there was certain land acquisition, it seems to me that it was a real missed opportunity not to create a parallel facility. The Minister and I have spoken on a number of occasions about the provision of corridors, particularly for commuter cyclists and walkers. The one we have probably spoken most about is the Sutton to Sandycove greenway, S2S, which would be along the coast of Dublin Bay. The principle is the same here.

We are trying to encourage people to be commuters on foot and on bicycles because of the myriad benefits that arise from that both to them personally and in respect of the traffic and the levels of pollution, etc. If that is the starting point, we should also be making it as easy as possible for them to do that by putting in place properly segregated and separate spaces for cyclists and pedestrians to commute in and out of the city centre.

That is exactly what I am proposing with the S2S, which is separate from the road and not on the Rock Road but on the coast, away and uninterrupted. The same is possible with the Luas line.

If we go as far as the end of the green line in Bride's Glen, there is definitely space throughout Cherrywood before construction takes place adjacent to the Luas line to create a segregated cycle space for commuter cyclists and, ultimately, for the thousands of people who will be living in Cherrywood to use that direct, uninterrupted line into the city centre if that is where they need to go to commute to and from work. It may not be possible to do that at every stage. The Luas goes through some fairly tight spaces in places like Dundrum, Balally and Ranelagh. Even if it involved extra construction along places like the viaduct in Milltown or if the line was to be extended through the viaduct at Bride's Glen, there is an opportunity to create a segregated cycle lane that would be a safe and easy route for commuter cyclists and it would encourage more people to use their bicycles to commute along spaces between different points along the Luas line or between points and the city centre.

The Minister will be aware that bicycles are not allowed to be brought onto the Luas, which is an issue that is not specifically related to the question I am asking the Minister. That is regrettable. People can take their bicycles onto the DART at certain times and under certain conditions but there is no tolerance whatsoever by the Railway Procurement Agency for bicycles to be brought onto the Luas. Again, it is another disincentive for people to part-use the Luas and part-use bicycles.

The purpose of my raising this issue today is to ask the Minister to give serious consideration to making it easier for cyclists to use their bicycles rather than their cars, essentially to use public transport rather than private transport which clogs up the roads and all that goes with that. There is an opportunity, even if it is retrospective, to refit the sides of the Luas line with cycle tracks, or one side as the case may be, but there was a missed opportunity to do that when Luas line was constructed. We have an opportunity now possibly to correct that. Will the Minister endorse the notion that we should have these separate segregated safe cycle routes and pedestrian routes for people parallel to the Luas line where there is space and an opportunity to provide them?

I thank the Senator for raising this topical and important issue. I will give some of the historical background to the issue because what he is suggesting was considered when the first Luas plans were being drawn up. The original plan was to run a cycleway alongside the Luas, right the way through along all the sections. It makes obvious sense. It is flat terrain and would provide a direct route into town, existing alongside Dundrum Road, which is difficult and dangerous, so it made a great deal of sense. At the last minute it was felt we would have to consider upgrading the Luas from light rail status to metro status and, literally at the last minute, it was decided to take out the cycle facility. It was considered that a slightly wider breadth width would be needed for a fast-moving, potential driverless metro train. The Dundrum bridge design was changed at that time to cater for the heavier requirements a metro would involve. Now it is uncertain as to whether that metro route will use that line.

As part of the greater Dublin strategy review, we are currently considering three options. The first is the metro extending south from Ranelagh either south-west to Terenure, Rathfarnham and Knocklyon. The second is to go up the green line, which would involve considerable disruption. It would be difficult to convert it, even though it was originally designed to be metro compatible, for a variety of reasons which I will not go into. The third option is to run the line south-east via Donnybrook to UCD and Stillorgan to Sandyford and in that way cope with long-term traffic demand on the green line. If it transpires we will not use the green line, it would make sense to reconsider the original design proposal, which was to run a cycle facility parallel to the line. Knowing the line very well, as I am sure the Senator does, there are certain sections where that would be very difficult now. However, I agree with the Senator. There is real potential.

Regardless of what happens, if we consider, as the Senator suggested, for example, having cantilever cycling facilities either side of the nine arches bridge, that would give a very attractive, safe route and provide a relatively easier way into town. Another example would be to use Dundrum bridge, and if people were travelling from Taney Road, and the Senator will know that area, they would be able to cross over and follow that route. I absolutely will commit to asking my officials to look at that design option. We have to wait and see the outcome of the consideration of the three different metro route options. My view is it is not likely the green line will be the metro route because of the significant disruption that would involve. We would have to close it for two years. We will come back and look at it.

The wider issue in Dún Laoghaire and across the city and country is that there is great potential in the shift we need to make to create safe cycling infrastructure. My frustration is the length of time that has passed and the lack of priority it has been given in past decades. At the time we were considering putting cycling facilities along the Luas line, we were also considering sections of what is known as the Sutton to Sandycove route. The Senator will know the pinch point at the Blackrock DART station. Between Deepwell Gardens and the station there is a narrow pinch point, which is the key missing link to creating a spectacular service. I remember at the time, which must be 25 year ago, being told it would be addressed shortly, and now, 25 years, later thousands of people use the facility but those pinch points are still in place. The rest of the facility in Dún Laoghaire along that route is excellent. If we could deal with the pinch points such as that one in Blackrock, it would be of significant advantage to all the people of our city.

I am very grateful to the Minister for his response. I am very encouraged by what he has said about potentially looking at this again in the future. Regarding what he said about the Sutton to Sandycove, S2S, route, I must disagree with him, although I agree with him on the frustration caused by that small laneway next to the platform at the DART station in Blackrock . It is not the pinch point for the S2S route because it is outside the DART line; it is a coastal route. It is uninterrupted and it could be built in very short order, particularly as part of the reconstruction of the DART seawall. That wall has been in place since the 19th century. It is beginning to disintegrate and it will have to be ungraded as a flood defence in any event. There is a real opportunity to create a proper coastal segregated cycle route there. It is not about bringing it inland and on-road. It is about creating that separate segregated space.

I am encouraged by what the Minister said about the Luas line. If it comes to pass or does not come to pass that the metro will use the green line, I am very encouraged by what the Minister has said about reconsidering the provision of cycle facilities there.

I support the construction of that seawall or further protections and cycle facilities on the coastal side. It will take time because it is an special area of conservation and we all know the environmental sensitivities and the planning difficulties that would involve. Let that not stop us doing immediately what we need to do, which is to build the Strand Road section of the coastal cycle route. We would then be able to do a section from Sean Moore Road down Pigeon House Road. There is a pinch point at the East Link Bridge but from there we would have a safe route to Alfie Byrne Road. We could create a spectacular coastal sea route this summer when we want to get people outdoors, to give people safe options for their children and for people to have a variety of different uses. That is achievable now. Do not let the perfect get in the way of the good in terms of what we can do here and now. The sections that have been done in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown provide great support and it has been a great success. Let us build on that. It will take us several years to build the coastal sections of an alternative seaside route but that should not stop us doing what we can do today.

Common Agricultural Policy

The Commencement matter I have tabled consists of a long statement. I welcome the Minister to the Chamber today and particularly thank him for being here, which indicates the seriousness of the matter. This is a very important week in Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, negotiations and a breakthrough is expected. I wish the Minister well in those negotiations. He has the support of all of us in this House to get the best outcome possible for all our farmers.

I met the local IFA group in Tipperary last Friday. There are two IFA groups. The chairperson of the IFA group in north Tipperary is Imelda Walsh and the chairperson of the IFA group in south Tipperary is Erica O’Keeffe. The president of the IFA, Tim Cullinan, comes from Tipperary; he is a good Tipperary man. There is concern within the agricultural community about the negotiations. That happens at every juncture where there are new CAP negotiations. The members of the IFA group asked me to relay a number of points they consider are very important. Certainly farmers in Tipperary believe they are very important. This is not about trying to pitch one farmer against the other but about getting the best outcome possible for all farmers in Ireland.

Farming is a major factor in all walks of life in Tipperary and the amount of productive farmers that are a benefit to the community there is hugely significant. They asked me to raise a number of points. I am sure the Minister will be familiar with some of them, but I wish to emphasise the areas they think are important in the negotiations.

The first is to minimise the impact of eco schemes on each farmer's basic payment. The proposals on eco schemes will see 30% of CAP pillar 1 funding ring-fenced for environmental measures. The eco schemes must be paid in addition to basic payments and must not be based on costs incurred on income foregone. If introduced, costs incurred on income foregone will mean further cuts to farm incomes.

The second is that the proposal for agriculture must be robustly defended. I refer to the EU Council's position on 75% internal convergence. The key message I get from farmers in Tipperary is about convergence. I know the European Parliament wants a full flattening of that. At a minimum, we must hold to 75% internal convergence. I welcome the fact that the Minister is seeking more flexibility for the State on the spending of this money. Convergence is a key point of that, so that we support it to a certain level, but we must be in a position where CAP does not make it unviable for more farmers to get into the industry.

The Government must confirm its commitment to maximise national co-financing of CAP pillar 2 schemes. My background is in tillage farming and there needs to be a pillar 2 scheme for tillage farmers. Sometimes it is a forgotten area of agriculture and we need to focus on it.

The Government must also honour its €1.5 billion carbon tax rural environmental protection scheme, REPS, 2 commitment in the programme for Government. Other areas of concern include an appropriate genuine farmer definition and the phasing out of long-term leasing of entitlements, as they are EU requirements in the next CAP negotiations. The IFA proposes a minimum economic output metric to be used in defining a genuine farmer and this metric would be based on sales or output per hectare, with a differentiated rate depending on the areas of natural constraint, ANC, definition. A range of issues are of huge concern to farmers in my area, in particular productive farmers. I will follow up when the Minister has responded. I thank him for being here.

I thank Senator Ahearn for raising this issue. His timing is important, as I am flying to Brussels this evening and I will be there until Friday for three days of a trilogue meeting between the Council of Ministers, the European Commission and the Parliament to try to get final agreement, as the Senator indicated in his contribution, to the European CAP plan.

The CAP negotiations have been under way for just under three years. The CAP reform proposals were first presented to the European Commission in June 2018. The European Council reached a position with regard to those proposals in October 2020, as did the European Parliament. Since then, trilogue negotiations between all parties have been under way. The negotiations have been challenging. The Council favours a position of broad flexibility for member states. I fully support this approach. It is important to be able to take account of the very different farm structures across Europe. The Parliament, however, is seeking a more prescriptive approach. As always, a compromise must be found. I continue to work with my counterparts in Europe to achieve a successful outcome for Irish farmers.

The new CAP proposals are focused around a number of key areas. First, there is an increase in environmental ambition with the introduction of eco schemes in pillar l, enhanced conditionality standards and a number of targets for spending directed towards environmental actions. I believe farmers more than anyone understand the impacts of climate change and are willing to engage on this topic. Farmers have always been adapters and they have also been adopters in this regard. We can see this in the keen interest shown in the results-based environment-agri, REAP, pilot. The new CAP will include interventions to support environmental ambition. For the first time there will be a new eco scheme as part of pillar I payments. Under this, farmers will be rewarded for undertaking environmental actions and farming in an environmentally friendly fashion.

Second, the proposals have focused on the continuing redistribution of farm payments through capping, degressivity and convergence. I recognise that this is a challenging area and there are mixed views among farmers and farm organisations in this regard, as Senator Ahearn outlined. I have always been clear that I believe in capping of overall farm payments and that is something I have pursued throughout the negotiations in Brussels.

The new CAP will introduce a new delivery model, which will move away from the compliance-based approach to focus on the results and outcomes achieved. I support the intention to focus more on the outcomes and results. Each member state must submit a comprehensive and coherent CAP strategic plan to cover both Pillar I and Pillar 2 expenditure. The entire process is the subject of extensive consultations with stakeholders and citizens alike. We began this process even before the regulations were published and since then we have set up a CAP consultative committee with broad representation among stakeholders. There have also been public consultations at various stages including a strength, weakness, opportunity and threat, SWOT, analysis, so there are ample opportunities for all to engage in this process.

This week's Agrifish Council aims to reach an overall conclusion. If we are to submit our plans to the European Commission by January 2022 it will be necessary to reach agreement soon. The next CAP will be a further evolution in this central EU policy that has served farmers well for many decades. Citizens are focused clearly on climate change and environmental action and the new CAP will address those demands and support farmers to bring about this change. These are and will be challenging negotiations. There are clear differences of opinion between the various EU institutions. I assure Senator Ahearn that my intention is to achieve the best possible outcome for Irish farmers.

I thank the Minister and wish him well in his negotiations this week, which he will attend following this contribution. What I have heard from farmers right across Tipperary is that it is important that the Minister stands up to the Commissioner because there is a feeling that he does not have farmers' interests at heart so the Minister must represent Irish farmers, including those in Tipperary, as strongly as possible. We in Tipperary lost approximately €13 million when the previous CAP negotiations took place and we could potentially lose €7.5 million if convergence happens again. That is a hugely damaging to the industry. At the moment, the industry is doing quite well but it is volatile and that has always been the case. We must be seen to support productive and sustainable farmers going forward. I stress to the Minister the importance of the position he and the Government play in supporting productive farmers. In recent weeks we have seen issues in other areas, which I know we cannot speak about too much, but there are areas within farming that can be very vulnerable on the back of decisions that are made. Productive farmers in my community in Tipperary cannot survive without the support and payments coming from Europe. We must support productive farmers. We produce food for 50 million right across the world, but to do that we need the support from the Minister, the Government and European Union. I urge the Minister to represent all the farmers within this country in his negotiations in the coming days. I know he will do that, and I wish him well in it.

It is complex at European level because we have the three institutions – the Council of Ministers, which is made up of the various agriculture Ministers from the 27 member states, the EU Commission, which tries to co-ordinate policy and the European Parliament. It is not necessarily that the Commission is pushing for one thing, it is more a case of the moving parts between all three institutions and the fact that 27 member states are feeding into the process.

The funding pot has been defined for the next CAP at European level. We will have to define what our domestic contribution to that is. I will be working to maximise that in every way I can. My key objective this week is to ensure that we have as much flexibility and discretion as possible to be able to make our own decisions on our national CAP plan. I do not want our hands to be tied in a way that sets our course, as I believe we should set our course ourselves during the summer in terms of developing the next national CAP. There are difficult issues involved but I want to engage with farmers from all counties and all parts of the country to frame it and to get an outcome that is ultimately fair to all types of farming and all parts of the country. That is a challenge, but it is my objective.

As I engage at European level next week, it will be about trying to ensure the outcome is one that gives us the capacity to have the best CAP possible to reflect our national agricultural model and the interests of farmers across the country over the next period of up to seven years.

I thank the Minister. We wish him well and thank him for his hard work on our behalf.

Sitting suspended at 10.10 a.m. and resumed at 10.30 a.m.