Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

School Accommodation

I welcome the Minister for Education to the House and thank her for taking time out of her busy schedule in the Department to take the first matter, which has been raised by Senator Moynihan.

I welcome the Minister to the House and thank her for taking this matter. I understand that at the moment, given the current Covid numbers, she is particularly busy with managing the opening of the education and school system and keeping it going. I pay tribute to her and teachers throughout the country, who have kept schools going. One of the most important issues relates to keeping children in school, and the impact of lost days is significant, not least for kids in my area and from disadvantaged backgrounds.

I raise the issue of capacity within the school system, with a particular focus on St. Patrick's National School in Chapelizod. The school building has enough space for only one classroom per class. There are three small special-needs rooms but there is not space for a specialised autism spectrum disorder, ASD, unit, which the school's principal believes are becoming increasingly necessary within school settings. The school is oversubscribed by approximately two times. There are 70 applications for the junior infants class each year. The school can take 30-something pupils and at the moment is at capacity, with 36. The yard space is limited given the number of children in the school and the size of the yard precludes the option of an extension for the school for anything else. Moreover, its location on a three-way crossroads makes it difficult and dangerous for the children coming to school.

In light of these constraints, limitations and the potential for the expansion of the school to take in a sufficient number of pupils from the catchment area, a site has become available across the road, opposite the old school post office. I understand a compulsory purchase order, CPO, for the site is being processed. I accept the Minister will not have a direct answer during this debate, but she might follow up within the Department to engage with Dublin City Council with a view to purchasing the site for the development of the school across the road. It would keep the school within the local area, with enough space for pupils from the catchment area, and allow it to expand. It would also allow it to include an ASD unit and, potentially, to run a number of additional classes. The school building is 50 years old and expensive maintenance is required. An application has been lodged for a grant of €300,000 to fund the replacement of old windows and frames. That was submitted two years ago but appears to have stalled. There is an expensive maintenance cost in the upkeep of an old school building that is too small and is not fit for purpose.

Will the Minister and her Department engage with the principal and Dublin City Council with a view to allowing the school to move to a safe site just across the road that will allow for expansion to serve the educational needs of children within the local area, including through an ASD unit?

I thank the Senator for the opportunity to speak with her today. I express my gratitude for her very positive comments on the school sector and Department. She is correct that a significant body of work has been undertaken by the entire education sector to ensure our schools could operate safely and continue to operate. It is a significant achievement that today I can say that we in the education sector cater for 1 million students in 4,000 schools with 100,000 staff. They are not operating without challenges in particular areas, and we are conscious of that. Significant resources have been provided for schools so that they can operate. I have been consistent in my view that resources are significant but they would be of no value if the goodwill and generosity was not available on the ground to implement them. We have seen that in abundance in the education sector. It is a positive reflection on society that schools continue to be supported to operate.

On St. Patrick's National School and the issue the Senator raised, the specific school was not flagged with me in advance. If it had been flagged in advance, I would have had a more specific and detailed answer for her. I will commit to her that engagement will be provided by my officials regarding a specific update on the school.

In general terms, we have a very significant building programme within the Department of Education. The provision of new builds and additional accommodation, as required, is all provided for. Even during lockdown, the school building programme continued. It always continues, with the collaboration of and close engagement with patron bodies and schools. The Senator referred to local authorities, which have been very helpful and have engaged with us positively in advancing specific education needs in specific locations. We have benefited very much from the proactive engagement of the partners in education. I acknowledge that local authorities have played a role where necessary.

In respect of St. Patrick's National School, I am happy for my officials and the Department to examine the matter. I will revert to the Senator in due course with an update.

I thank the Minister. I understand her comments. I did not frame the Commencement matter in a specific way because such matters are sometimes ruled out of order. I also did not expect it to be selected for that reason. I understand that I sprung the issue on the Minister. I will email her and the Department after this debate. We can continue the engagement because I do not expect a specific answer, given that I did not flag the issue in advance. I thank the Minister for her engagement.

I thank the Senator and appreciate her absolute honesty on the phrasing of the question. I assure her that the Department will be very open to receiving an email regarding the issue she has raised.

Schools Building Projects

I thank the Minister for coming to the Chamber to take this Commencement matter. We are very fortunate that she announced we would have approval for a third new second level school in Gorey. I know from engaging with her that she took an interest in this issue. Educate Together became the patron body for the school. We are now fortunate in Gorey to have three excellent second level schools, Creagh College, Gorey Community School and the new Educate Together school, under a great team led by principal, Conor Berry. I was fortunate to have visited the school. It has a student council up and running, even though it is only in its first year. It has a very active school community.

As the Minister knows, the difficulty is that the school is located in a temporary site in Creagh in Gorey. That means the current students are disadvantaged in that they have no, or very limited, access to practical classes. In science, technology and home economics the students are not getting the full experience they should get. This was accepted when the school year began in September. It was known that the school would be located in a temporary site, but commitments were given that this issue would be addressed.

I am happy to say that there is a strong demand for places in the school. We are fortunate to have a young and vibrant community, and there is significant demand for school places. It is a very good school, but it is unfair on the students concerned that they do not have access to practical spaces and that there is a lack of certainty around the location of the school site. Wexford County Council, local public representatives and anybody living locally who wants to help the Department would, as the Minister knows, be more than happy to do so. It is a question of urgency as to where the site will be. We need a permanent second level Educate Together school to be constructed. It is to be hoped that by next September the students will know will exactly where they are going.

I thank the Senator and acknowledge his very positive and proactive engagement regarding all issues in the education sector in his constituency. He has been particularly vocal regarding this matter. I acknowledge his positive engagement and interaction with me. He is personally invested in seeing this advance.

I appreciate having the opportunity to update the Senator on where we are at in this point in time. The site acquisition process has been progressed in respect of the requirement in question and in line with standard acquisition protocols, as the Senator will appreciate. The Department is liaising closely with Wexford County Council under the memorandum of understanding for the acquisition of school sites, with a view to securing a suitable site for Gorey Educate Together Secondary School. The Department has engaged the services of a site acquisition manager in order to shortlist potential sites.

Following an extensive site identification and assessment exercise to identify a permanent site location for Gorey Educate Together Secondary School, a number of site options have been identified and investigated by the Department, in conjunction with, as the Senator referenced, officials from Wexford County Council. As part of our standard general procedures following technical assessments of the site options, valuations were carried out on a number of preferred site options.

Negotiations are ongoing with the landowner of one of the preferred options. However, these negotiations have proven to be protracted to date despite the best efforts of officials in the Department of Education. The Department is now opening negotiations with a landowner of another of the preferred site options. The Senator will appreciate that commercial sensitivities are attached to site acquisitions such as this. Given that negotiations are at a critical point, I am not currently in a position to disclose further information in regard to that. I assure him that the work is ongoing, has priority and will be continue to be prioritised by the Department. Should agreement on the proposed acquisition be reached, the process will advance to the conveyancing stage when draft contracts are prepared and legal due diligence is undertaken in respect of the proposed transaction.

I thank Senator Byrne for giving me the opportunity to address the issue and I assure him that the school authorities will be kept apprised of the situation and informed of a permanent location for the school as soon as it is possible to do so. I again assure him that this is a priority for the Department.

I thank the Minister. I appreciate that there are commercial sensitivities involved and that this involves the expenditure of public money. We have to ensure we get value for money. However, I am concerned about what the Minister described as the protracted nature of some of the negotiations. If one side is not deemed to be suitable or a commercial agreement cannot be reached, other potential sites have been identified. As the Minister said, Wexford County Council and people locally are more than willing to work with the Department to assist in this process.

I am seeking certainty for students, teachers and parents that this matter will be addressed in the coming months. I would not like to move into the new year without agreement having been reached on a site. We owe it to the students and school community to get an answer.

I thank the Senator. I want to articulate my understanding of the dynamism that operates within the school and the provision of excellence in education. I am very impressed that all of the benefits are in place for students in terms of creating a school environment, including the establishment of a student council, to which the Senator referred. I am a great admirer of the operation of school councils in our schools. They are proactive and positive contributors to school communities. I appreciate all that is being done on the ground.

The Senator said that when engagements with landowners become protracted, we need to move elsewhere. I confirmed in my answer that a significant number of potential site options were considered as part of the site acquisition analysis. Each of those sites was technically analysed and assessed. The assessment involved considerable technicality and complex work, but the work was done. I acknowledge the role of Wexford County Council. The Senator will appreciate that the work takes time because of the arrangements that have been set for what has to be done.

The original discussions and engagement with the landowner have proven to be protracted, but we have now moved on. That can be reassuring. We have now moved on to engage with another landowner to advance this. I appreciate the urgency with which the Senator views this. I assure her that I view the matter with a similar lens in respect of the urgency and the provision of the accommodation. We will do all that we can to expedite the process as a matter of priority.

Healthcare Policy

I welcome the Minister. I thank the Cathaoirleach's office for selecting this matter for debate this morning. Friday, 19 November is International Men's Day so this is an opportune time to consider issues concerning men's health. Men's Health Forum is an all-island network of individuals and organisations that have identified key concerns related to men's health and understanding these issues. There is a strong reason to keep a focus on men's health. Men and women continue to have different life expectancy rates, and health inequality among different subpopulations continues to feature. There is a substantial body of evidence supporting a gender-specific approach. It is imperative to build on the momentum and key milestones achieved over the past ten years.

A review of policy in the Department of Health and the HSE concludes that the policy has made significant progress in four key areas: promoting an increased focus on men's health research in Ireland; developing health promotion initiatives that support men in adopting positive health behaviours and increasing control over their lives; building social capital within communities for men; and the development and delivery of men's health training for health and other professionals. That is all positive. The HSE has funded a men's health forum to produce an Irish men's health report card, which represents an excellent body of work providing valuable statistics in the area of men's health. For example, the life expectancy of males increased from 77.3 years to 80.5 years between 2007 and 2018.

There is much evidence on the causes of health problems in men. Cancer is the number one cause of men's deaths in Ireland, and Ireland has the highest rate of diagnosis of prostate cancer in the EU. To be positive, this may reflect the use of prostate-specific antigen, PSA, screening, on which we are a leader. Cancer is the cause of 33% of all men's deaths. These include neoplasms of the larynx, trachea, bronchus and lungs and cancers of the prostate, pancreas and oesophagus. Testicular cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among males under the age of 45. The incidence of non-melanoma skin cancer has doubled since 1994. Thankfully, however, the mortality rate is low. The mortality rate associated with testicular cancer is low, and the survival rate has increased. Some 71% of heart disease cases in 2019 related to men. I refer in particular to coronary artery disease and coronary heart disease, which is a narrowing of the heart arteries. That is important to note. The male death rate associated with respiratory diseases has fallen, but the rate is still higher than the EU average.

Circumstances are improving but it is important to keep the focus on men's health to remind men - and, in many cases, to remind women to remind men, their loved ones - to look after their health and get regular checkups. In this vein, it is clear that we need to redouble our efforts and provide a new national men's health policy and action plan that would strive to build on the progress we have achieved to date. Maybe the Minister will comment on whether that is in train.

The Senator will appreciate that I am responding on behalf of the Minister of State in the Department of Health, Deputy Butler, who is unavailable today. I thank the Senator for raising what I consider to be a timely discussion in the Seanad on an important matter. I am pleased to have this opportunity to inform the House about progress in this important area. Events such as International Men's Day and Men's Health Week always give us a great opportunity to come together to raise awareness of men's health, as the Senator has done, and, perhaps most important, determine what we can do to improve it.

The need for a continued focus on men's health is grounded in the evidence that men die younger than women and have higher death rates associated with the leading causes of death, including accidents and suicide. Research suggests that, by comparison with women, men have more limited contact with GPs, can be reluctant to use primary care services and are more likely to present late in the course of an illness. These are trends we need to reverse to improve the health and well-being of Irish men.

In 2009 Ireland was the first country in the world to publish a national men's health policy, and it has been at the forefront internationally in advancing men's health at research, policy and advocacy levels. The HSE's National Men's Health Action Plan: Healthy Ireland - Men 2017–2021 sets out a new vision and roadmap for men's health. Good progress has been made on implementing this plan, which has seen the delivery of several health-promoting activities targeting men and boys. It is led by the HSE's health and well-being division, with several active and engaged partners. In particular, the further delivery of the Engage men's health training programme has improved the way health and social care services are targeted at, and are delivered to, men.

Health and well-being are promoted in men's sheds through the network of more than 400 men's sheds across the country and the development of an evaluation programme for Sheds for Life. Earlier this year, my colleague, the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, launched an impact report on the Sheds for Life programme. It shows very encouraging results in several areas, particularly an increase in levels of physical activity and benefits for mental health and well-being.

Programmes such as Men on the Move and On Feirm Ground are making a real difference and supporting men in making their journey to better health and well-being. The HSE's men's health advisory group works to develop annual action plans to deliver on the overall Healthy Ireland plan for men. It is made up of key stakeholders in the area of men's health, including the HSE's health and well-being division, the Institute of Public Health, the Irish Heart Foundation, the HSE's National Office for Suicide Prevention, the National Men's Health Research Centre, the Irish Men's Sheds Association, and the Men's Development Network. This group is currently planning to develop a new action plan, and work on this will begin in the coming months.

I thank the Minister for her response on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Butler. I welcome the fact that the advisory group is working on the delivery of a new plan. It is important that we continue to focus on men's health. As the Minister pointed out, tremendous work has been done by men's sheds, which have played a major role in providing a social outlet for men across rural and urban areas. The Irish Men's Sheds Association is being considered internationally as a model that brings men together.

I welcome the announcement that work is continuing and that a new action plan will be devised over the coming months. It is most important that we continue to focus on men's health and encourage men to visit their GP regularly. If they feel something is not right, they should go to see a GP. We must urge the loved ones in their lives, including spouses and partners, to encourage them to look after their health for the sake of themselves and their families.

I thank the Senator for his significant contribution to the House today on this important topic. Any opportunity we have to shine a light on the discussion on men's health and to be proactive in this regard must be seized.

As the Senator will be aware from what I said earlier, significant progress has been made on this. As he has indicated, there is a responsibility on all of us collectively to play our part.

A range of factors needs to be taken into account when we apply ourselves collectively to such an important goal as improving men's health. However, if we had to pick just one term to encapsulate the significance of the success that has been achieved to date, it would be co-operation and partnership. Healthy Ireland, the national framework for improving the health and well-being of our people, emphasises the importance of recognising that it is beyond the capability of any single Department or Government agency to promote health and well-being to everyone. This can only be done through society-wide engagement with health and well-being promotion and health improvement activities. This ranges from individuals making positive lifestyle choices and projects run by community and local groups, to policy and legislative changes, where necessary at the highest level of Government. Therefore, it is a collective approach.

In the area of men's health, we have been pleased to work with the organisations I referenced earlier, such as the Men's Health Forum, the Men's Development Network, the Irish Men's Sheds Association and of course the HSE. This is the type of co-operative, collaborative approach that is delivering results. We will continue to work to strengthen and develop this partnership cross-departmentally and also with wider society, individually and collectively.

Commercial Rates

My Commencement matter relates to the loss of commercial rates as a result of the closure of Lough Ree power station. On 8 November 2019, the ESB announced the closure of two peat-powered generating plants at Lanesborough and Shannonbridge, near the Minister of State's area. These plants stopped generating electricity in December 2020. This was a major blow to employment and local economic activity in the region. Counties Longford and Offaly were negatively impacted not only by the loss of commercial rates income from the plants themselves, but also by the potential loss from suppliers to the plants, including Bord na Móna.

Lough Ree power station paid €1.2 million in rates annually. It was the single biggest ratepayer in Longford and accounted for 15% of the rates base in the county. The rates income loss from Bord na Móna was €16,200. Considering that the average ratepayer in Longford pays €1,782, this puts the severity of their loss into a vivid context. To compensate for the loss of one large ratepayer, another 674 new ratepayers would need to emerge for 2023 out of a rateable property population of 1,455, which will not happen.

To sustain a loss of rates income of that magnitude in one year would mean that in order to compensate on the income side, we would need to pass on an increase of 13.5% to balance the books. Longford County Council has consistently varied the LPT upwards by the maximum of 15% for four years. It was the first county in Ireland to do that. I was my party's group leader and in conjunction with our Fianna Fáil colleagues, we proposed doing that to finance critical capital regeneration projects in the county. It would be wrong to ask the same council, whose funding model is predicated on the maximum upward variation of the LPT each year, to curtail or even completely cease this critical work on regeneration.

I will contextualise the problems we would face with this potential devastating loss of income. A sum of €1.2 million is the equivalent of keeping 35 general operatives employed. A sum of €1.2 million is earmarked to service capital project loans to the tune of €12 million over the next ten years. This, in turn, could potentially attract capital funding of €124 million into the county. A sum of €1.2 million in discretionary income pays for such diverse services as tourism initiatives, community grants, public lighting, leisure centre costs and sports partnership costs. A sum of €1.2 million lost per annum will severely compromise and probably halt our ability to match funding for many Government initiatives, such as the urban regeneration and development fund, URDF; the rural regeneration and development fund, RRDF; the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme, ORIS; CLÁR and the town and village renewal scheme, which we have been successfully doing so far; and our contribution to just transition projects. It would effectively mean a moratorium on all recruitment. We need a long-term sustainable solution. It is critical for us to alleviate this potential calamitous situation that could arise in the coming years. We have received the top-up for 2021 and 2022, but we want certainty up to 2027 which is when the just transition period was meant to end.

I was involved in a meeting with the just transition commissioner, Kieran Mulvey, also attended by the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Green Party leader, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan. In discussing the just transition project, I raised the subject of rates. It was agreed, including by Kieran Mulvey, that this needed to be put into place until 2027. We need certainty. Based on my knowledge of the director of finance in my county, John McKeon, I am sure he is already planning ahead for the 2023 budget and the various projects planned to regenerate our county. I do not think it is too much to ask for certainty rather than me coming here next August or September looking for that top-up of money while everyone agrees that we should get it. We just need to put it in place now so that Longford County Council can plan ahead financially for the coming years.

On behalf of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to speak about the funding of Longford County Council, and in particular the loss of income due to the closure of Lough Ree power station in Lanesborough. I believe I was present at the online meeting the Senator mentioned involving the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Kieran Mulvey some time ago. I know the Senator made a very strong case on the issue on that occasion. It is good that he is taking the opportunity to continue dealing with this major issue for Longford, Offaly and other adjoining counties in the midland region. It is definitely a very important issue in Longford and Offaly.

Just transition is integral to the Government's climate action plan, and we are committed to supporting communities transitioning to a low-carbon economy. However, the Government acknowledges that the closure of power plants has a serious impact on the local economy. Longford and Offaly are the two most affected counties. In 2019, Lough Ree power station in Lanesborough accounted for approximately 16% of the rates receipts for Longford County Council.

The Government recognises that this is a significant portion of the rates income of the local authorities, particularly against a backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic and the financial impact it has had on ratepayers generally. As part of budget 2022, the Government announced an allocation of €1.3 million to Longford County Council in respect of the rates that would otherwise have been levied on the power station next year. Funding for the same reason was also provided this year, as the Senator knows.

In the wider context of rates, since revaluation in 2018, the rates base in Longford has increased by just over 7%, which is equivalent to an increase of about €590,000 in the rates levied. In addition, I note that the Programme for Government: Our Shared Future commits to bringing forward local property tax, LPT, reforms and streamlining commercial rates. The LPT reforms, brought into effect by the Finance (Local Property Tax) (Amendment) Act 2021, are bringing in new homes, that were previously exempt from LPT, into the taxation system as well as providing for all money collected locally to be retained within the county.

The Revenue Commissioners are currently conducting their first revaluation of LPT. Once the information on the new yield is available, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage intends to conduct a review of the allocation process and funding baselines across the local government sector, which is very important. Any significant changes to the rates base of individual local authorities will be considered as part of this process.

In the absence of a more permanent solution to this issue in Longford, which also affects Offaly County Council, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage will continue to engage with both local authorities, as part of the overall Government approach to just transition, with a view to developing a longer term solution for 2023 and beyond. In the meantime, I assure the House that the Government is committed to supporting the financial stability of local authorities and to the sustainable funding model of the sector. Once the review of the new LPT is complete, we will look at the long-term stability arrangements for the years to come. Pending that, we will keep in touch with the local authorities. That process can only commence now that the Revenue Commissioners are finalising details of the recent LPT revaluation. Rates in LPT are being looked at collectively.

By way of figures, although not exact figures, our LPT base is more than €2 million, albeit we used to have a top-up from the equalisation fund. Based on the figures, more than 90% of our housing is in the lower end of the LPT market. We will not see a significant increase in our LPT uptake. I wish to highlight the fact that we were the first county to increase it by 15% and to use that funding to match funding for regeneration projects for our county. It has been very successful, and I hope it will be taken on board.

From what has been said, it is positive that there is a commitment to engage with the local authorities so that it is intended to discuss the plan from 2023 onwards. I ask, and this is in the Minister of State's interest as it relates to his constituency of Laois-Offaly, that when the decision is made, it is made for a three- or four-year period. It is important for any local authority to plan forward. We have a significant number of projects. We have a large €10 million urban regeneration and development fund, URDF, project in Longford town. We have an URDF project of more than €6.5 million in Ballymahon. There are significant projects throughout the county on outdoor recreation. We have been successful with those applications because of the decision we took on the LPT and the model, which has now been replicated by 15 or 16 local authorities in the country. When that review is complete, I hope the commitment is for a four-year period so that we can plan ahead for the projects we have in the pipeline in our county.

I, again, acknowledge the contribution of Senator Carrigy. Having listened to everything he said, if every Oireachtas Member was as well informed as to what was happening in his or her local authority area as he is, it would add to the richness and quality of the debate and the information available to us in this House when dealing with these types of issues. The Senator listed a number of projects and it is clear he has a great interest in each one. I acknowledge what he said about the 15% being used for matching funds to increase. The Government has provided an unprecedented level of support in the context of the just transition and the impact of Covid-19 at the same time. Longford County Council applied 100% commercial rates waiver for 100 businesses and received more than €4 million from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage for that rates waiver.

On additional Covid-related expenditure in 2020, the Department provided €1.7 million to Longford County Council due to other income loss streams. As has been the case since the outset of the pandemic, the Department will continue to engage with the local government sector, with individual local authorities on the financial impacts of the pandemic and provide them with the necessary financial support. Additionally, in the Senator's county there will also have to be special engagement on the just transition and the serious loss of a rates base in the county.

Sitting suspended at 11.15 a.m. and resumed at 11.32 a.m.