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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 20 Jan 2022

Vol. 282 No. 2

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Regulatory Bodies

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, to the House and call on Senator Malcolm Byrne to begin.

I thank the Minister of State for coming in to take this matter. It is one that is of personal interest to him. As far as the consumer is concerned, there is very limited, and in some sectors no real competition, in banking, insurance and financial services in Ireland. The Minister of State will also be aware that there has been criticism among fintech companies about the approach the Central Bank has been taking, especially about trying to encourage a number of these companies to develop here. Due to his own expertise, he knows that we do not have competition within the insurance sector and in many sectors there is only one provider offering insurance products. In some areas there is no Irish provider and people must go outside the State to try to find service.

Every time we hear of a bank leaving the Irish market, meaning there is less competition, we sadly hear somebody from the Central Bank saying promoting competition is not its function. The Minister of State will be aware that there are some roles for the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC, that he may be able to clarify. He will be familiar with the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index, HHI, which looks at the whole area of market concentration. If the HHI is greater than 1,000 it is regarded as a very concentrated market and if it is greater than 2,000 it is a highly concentrated market. The Irish mortgage market currently has a HHI of over 2,100 and for new lending Ireland has a score of 2,624. We thus have a highly concentrated market with no competition.

While the euro has lead to greater market integration it has not led to more competition. It certainly has in the areas of wholesale banking and corporate finance but in retail banking and with respect to benefit to the consumer we have not seen real competition. The Central Bank has acknowledged this. Governor Gabriel Makhlouf, writing on thecurrency.news in January 2021 made clear the Central Bank did not have a function in the area of competition. In the bank’s own strategic policy statement, its strategic plan published in September, the word “competition” is not mentioned once. This is in contrast to central banks worldwide that in many cases have a specific mandate to promote competition. There is a statutory mandate to do so among the central banks in Australia, Argentina, China, India, Poland, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and the United Kingdom. While it is not formally set out in legislation, competition is a function of the central bank, and is clearly promoted, in Brazil, Russia, Singapore and Thailand but also crucially in our fellow eurozone countries such as France and Germany. The Lithuanian Central Bank’s strategic plan lays out very clearly as one of its core competences – and the country is a competitor for us in financial services – that it wants to encourage competition in the financial sector and boost competition in the payments market. Therefore, if we end up losing more banks or insurance companies, I do not want to hear the Central Bank washing its hands and saying it does not have a function with regard to competition.

I appreciate there is a memo between the CCPC and the Central Bank around who has responsibility in these areas but I ask the Minister of State to guide me on this because we do not seem to have any agency specifically looking out for the consumer, be they an individual or a business, to ensure we have a competitive market. In the era of digital currencies and especially when we move towards a central bank-issued digital currency, namely, the digital euro, it is going to be even more important that there is a very clear competitive mandate given to the Central Bank.

I thank the Senator for raising the issue of the promotion of competition in the banking and financial services market.

HEADING

It is not easy to balance the competing economic processes of consolidation and competition in any market, and the banking market is no different. We have seen some consolidation and it is also very difficult to promote and achieve competition during that process. However, as to the consolidation that is happening, there are new people and organisations providing a greater level of banking services than they would have heretofore, but perhaps are not considered part of the traditional banking system.

In the earlier years of the century, that is, in the past two decades, the Irish banking market was very competitive and one that had diverse banking and credit providers. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, it is not a sustainable banking market and I believe it is fair to say that ultimately it did not serve the best long-term needs of the Irish economy. We have seen that as a result of the financial crash and the banking crash and the banks that had to be bailed out. There was unbridled competition at that stage, which ultimately led to many difficulties in its own right, which we are still dealing with in terms of reserves, etc., that banks are required to hold.

Following the global financial crisis and its impact on the Irish financial system, changes were made to the legislation governing the financial sector and the structure of the Central Bank of Ireland, which included removing the part of its mandate to promote the development of the financial services industry. I wish to ensure that the banking and financial services system is one that will effectively contribute and support economic growth and employment. Competition in this sector is vital to ensure that businesses and consumers have a range of options available when using financial services and accessing credit.

When considering competition in any market, two key aspects are the range of products available to consumers and the various sectors in society and the pricing of those products. In terms of the product range, it is worth noting the provision of financial services is evolving rapidly and it might not be all through the traditional banking system that people talk about in the normal course of events. Innovations in the fintech space, which Senator Byrne referred to clearly, and new initiatives from credit unions, which I wish to highlight as Minister of State with responsibility for credit unions, and the new offering by An Post, are resulting in the provision of new services and products at all times. As regards An Post, any AIB or Bank of Ireland customers can go in to a teller in any post office in Ireland that has one and withdraw up to €1,500 cash, lodge cheques, lodge cash and conduct the normal business that they would have done in the bank branch that may have been up the road and is no longer there. That full range of services is now available through An Post, but perhaps people do not fully appreciate that at this point in time.

For the banking sector to be competitive, it must be acknowledged that it will have to be profitable. In order for banks to survive over the long term they need to generate adequate revenue and profits in order to employ and pay staff, meet business costs and provide economic return for their depositors and other financial providers.

With regard to the issue of the role of the Central Bank and competition, the role of the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC, would need to be considered. The CCPC, a body under the aegis of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, is the statutory body responsible for the enforcement of domestic and EU competition law in the State. Essentially, there is a demarcation regarding competition. It is a matter for the CCPC primarily, and not a role for the Central Bank. It did have that role, and perhaps there was over-competition, and now those two roles have been separated.

Tá nóiméad amháin ag an Seanadóir Byrne.

I agree with the Minister of State that consumers are voting with their wallets, so to speak, and moving on to new products such as Revolut and N26. They are moving into new areas of fintech. If he talks to any of the fintech companies, he will find that they do not feel that they are getting a level playing field from the Central Bank. The Central Bank obviously has to protect the consumer, but one of the best ways it can protect the consumer is by ensuring that there is competition between traditional retail banks and some of the new companies. There also needs to be collaboration in those sectors. The ultimate test is from the perspective of the consumer, and whether the consumer feels there is real competition in the Irish banking financial services and insurance sector. The answer is "No".

I appreciate the Minister of State's point about the CCPC. Some of the roles there need to be clarified. Very clearly, the Central Bank needs to take a greater role in ensuring that we have a competitive banking and financial services market in Ireland.

Again, I thank Senator Byrne for raising this issue. While competition issues are primarily a matter for the CCPC, competitive pressures can clearly have an effect on the functioning of the financial system and the achievement of the Central Bank's aim, as can the ability of firms to enter and exit the system in an orderly manner. In light of the changing landscape for banking in Ireland, the Minister has instructed and commenced a broad-ranging review of the retail banking sector, which will also include the competition sector. This retail banking review has commenced its work and is currently at the research phase. As part of the review, a survey of consumers will be undertaken in the coming months to ascertain their experience and perceptions of the retail banking sector in Ireland. In due course, the Minister will consider the outcomes of that review and any findings it makes on competition in the retail banking market. It will look at the issue of competition as part of that review and it will be brought back to the Minister as soon as that report is completed.

Road Projects

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan. I would like to thank the Cathaoirleach's office for choosing this Commencement matter. I know the Minister of State is familiar with Connemara and the N59. I am sure he has driven it on numerous occasions going out to Clifden or elsewhere in Connemara. Over the past couple of years we have seen huge improvement on that road. First of all, on the surface and, secondly, on some realignment of the sections between Bunnakill and Maam Cross, which started in late 2019 and was complete last year. That is a very welcome development for a road that had a very low level of overtaking opportunities. There has been a huge improvement on that section of road.

There is also work at the moment on the Maigh Cuilinn bypass, and again, that is very welcome. Some €23 million has been allocated this year for that bypass which will benefit Maigh Cuilinn but also all areas past that, such as Rosscahill, Oughterard, Recess and beyond. I welcome the allocation of funding for the N59 from Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TFI.

There is also funding for continuation of purchase of land between Maam Cross and Oughterard. There is some €700,000 allocated this year. There was some surprise and disappointment that there was no allocation of funding for the continuation of the planning for an upgrade of the road between Maam Cross and Clifden. This is an existing road; this is a realignment. This is not a new road; this would be a realignment of the existing road to improve safety for all road users and to bring it to a level similar to that which was achieved between Bunnakill and Maam Cross. However, TFI has not allocated funding and it has stated to the county council that is because of the structuring of the national development plan, NDP, which puts an emphasis on other transport projects in the first five years and allocates the majority of funding for new road projects between 2026 and 2030. This is having an impact on the preparatory work. There are issues in the Minister of State's own area, between Mullingar and Longford, and the road towards Sligo-Leitrim as well.

As the Minister of State knows, it takes a long number of years to get to a stage where diggers and machinery can be moved in to build a road. There is a lot of preparatory work required. Certainly, in an area that is as environmentally sensitive as Connemara, it takes even longer in terms of the number of environmental reports and necessary appropriate assessments and the like that are required. The council acknowledged that.

That is why they need a sufficiently long period of time to allow for the preparation of the planning application and all the reports that are necessary to bring that road project forward.

The director of services in Galway County Council has said to me that, with the best will in the world and if money was not an issue, it would still be five or six years before machinery could roll in and carry out improvement works between Clifden and Maam Cross. However, now Transport Infrastructure Ireland is not providing money to allow that preparatory work to take place, so when the money becomes available, it will have to start again from scratch and do all the environmental reports and everything else that is necessary, and that will take four, five or six years. It is not proper planning nor forward thinking on a project that people assumed would go ahead, would be a continuation of the improvement works that have taken place, and would be beneficial to the residents in Connemara and visitors alike.

I thank Senator Kyne for raising this important issue. Approximately €616 million of Exchequer capital funds has been provided for national roads through Transport Infrastructure Ireland, Tll, to local authorities in 2022. The 2022 funding allocations are made having regard to the National Development Plan 2021-2030, which balances investment in transport against other priorities of Government, such as housing and health over the lifetime of the national development plan, NDP.

Exchequer funding under the NDP will facilitate continued protection and renewal of our national roads infrastructure, including motorways, and will allow for the development of a number of new road projects in line with Government policy. Approximately €5.1 billion of Exchequer funds is earmarked for new national road projects across the lifetime of the NDP. This funding will, among various objectives, contribute to the achievement of two key national strategic outcomes under the national planning framework, namely, enhanced regional accessibility and compact growth. The greater part of this funding will become available in the latter half of the plan. Some €4 billion will come on stream in the second half of the decade, with €1.1 billion earmarked for the period 2021 to 2025.

Indeed, Senator Kyne outlined the Moycullen bypass. It is a great piece of infrastructure. I am familiar with this road from Clifden to Maam Cross as well. I hope these roads can be enhanced and improved upon and will get the attention they so desperately need. Discussion is ongoing.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, for the reply. He states on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Ryan, that it is expected the report will be with the Minister for review and a decision this year on whether the project will move to the next stage, and also while this project is not being progressed in 2022, it will be considered for advancement next year. I am confused. Is that the Clifden to Maam Cross section or the Maam Cross to Bunakill section? Perhaps we can get clarity on that.

What is needed here is funding to allow this project to be kept alive, to be progressed and to be ready when funding is available. If funding is to be available, as reported, in 2025 or 2026 we will not be ready at that stage unless we have the preparatory funding to get it ready. That is the crux of the issue. It is agreed the project is beneficial, worthwhile and would be a substantial improvement, but we need the preparatory funding to get it to the stage where, when the big money necessary is available, we will be ready to roll. I ask the Minister of State to liaise with the Minister, Deputy Ryan, to ensure that can be kept under review and funding can be provided to keep this project alive and moving.

I thank the Senator. As I mentioned previously, the N59 Clifden to Maam Cross improvement project remains on the list of projects included in the NDP. While funding has not been provided to progress planning and design of the scheme within the current year, subsequent phases will be progressed later in the plan. However, I agree with the Senator that these things should be kept alive. I will bring the Senator's views to the attention of the Minister. The project was originally part of the N59 Clifden to Maam Cross to Oughterard scheme, which was subsequently taken through statutory process as two separate schemes, Clifden to Maam Cross and Maam Cross to Oughterard.

The project, as part of the overall N59 Clifden to Maam Cross to Oughterard scheme, will provide 45 km of improved road and 12 km of greenway infrastructure, providing linkages to other sections of existing and proposed greenway, which will boost the tourism industry regionally, as set out as a national strategic outcome in the NDP. One thing for which we should all be thankful is the fact we are putting in more greenways along with these sections of improved road, but 45 km of improved road is desperately needed in an ever-growing area and an area of beautiful scenery as well. I hope this will be progressed as quickly as possible.

Departmental Funding

I thank Minister of State for coming into the House today. My question relates to the funding for the north inner city drug and alcohol task force. This is an issue Deputy Feighan and I have spoken about previously. There has been what I consider to be a new development with regard to the task force in that a meeting took place last week between the HSE and the directors of the task force. At that meeting it was communicated that no operational funding was being allocated to the task force in 2022.

Will the Minister of State confirm whether this is a direction from his office in the Department of Health? If it is, then we can say it is an attempt effectively to dismantle the north inner city drug and alcohol task force, with all the implications that would have in turning its back on 25 years of Government policy and commitment to task forces. There is a question as to whether the north inner city has been singled out or indeed whether this conversation has been had with the 23 other task forces throughout the country. I am looking for answers to those questions today.

I understand concerns were articulated at the Joint Committee on Health yesterday and there was a suggestion the HSE is awaiting a plan of some sort from the task force. Again, we need to hear detail from the Minister of State as to what plan is being envisaged. I understand the service level agreement, SLA, negotiations typically take place in January or February each year, but from what I understand from the participants of that meeting that took place last week, there was no suggestion of a plan to be put together by the task force that the Department or the HSE is waiting upon.

We need to hear if there is a commitment to the future of the drug and alcohol task forces in this country that have served communities afflicted by drug and alcohol addiction well.

Of course, there are always grounds for improvement but if this is a change in Government policy, we need to hear about it. I welcome that a citizens' assembly on drugs is to take place this year but we cannot have a situation where we will see the dismantlement of some task forces and new structures set up in 12, 24 or 36 months' time. The communities cannot wait for that, particularly because of the extent of the problem within the north inner city, or, indeed, other communities, if other task forces are being affected or have had this conversation as well.

The Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, and I have had a conversation about our concerns and our desire to see the inner-city task force get on with its job. We are well aware that there is a stand-off between the Department of Health and the task force with regards the appointment of the chair. Will the Department do everything it can to get over that stand-off, resolve that situation and not be petty in terms of withdrawing operational funding? I understand the funding to the service providers is in place but it is the operational funding which is important in terms of the co-ordination of services, the identification of training needs and the range of other activities that are required within the inner city in terms of ensuring we have adequate and appropriate drugs and alcohol addiction services. What will the Department do now to try to overcome that stand-off? Surely the withdrawal of funding will not happen, as it seems was proposed in that meeting last week.

I thank Senator Sherlock for raising this issue. The Commencement matter, which asks if the Minister will confirm that the North Inner City Drugs and Alcohol Task Force will not be allocated funding in 2022, approaches this matter from an unusual perspective.

The drug and alcohol task forces play an important role under the national drugs strategy in co-ordinating services to assist individuals and families to address drug and alcohol issues in the community. They are based on an inter-agency partnership, which is at the heart of the strategy. Task forces oversee the allocation of almost €29 million in Department of Health funding for drug and alcohol services. Within this global allocation, €2.2 million is provided for community-based services in the north-east inner city. I can assure the Senator that this allocation will continue in 2022. I am happy to inform her that in budget 2022, I announced the provision of additional resources to enhance health services, including drug and alcohol services, that will benefit the north inner city. These resources include €490,000 to establish a clinical community response to alcohol service, €340,000 to support the health communities project as part of the Sláintecare healthy communities programme and €530,000 to continue health services for primary school children and young people as part of the north-east inner city initiative.

I recently announced the establishment of the community services enhancement fund to provide additional funding of €2 million on a recurring basis for community-based drug and alcohol services. From this fund, I have allocated €240,000 on a recurring basis to the community healthcare organisation, CHO, in Dublin north city and county, which includes the north inner city. The CHO will commission community-based drug and alcohol services based on an assessment of population needs. Some 25% of the funding allocated is ring-fenced to increase access to the provision of drug and alcohol services for women, ethnic minorities and members of the LGBTI+ community, who often face barriers in accessing drug and alcohol services. It is intended that drug and alcohol task forces will be centrally involved in deciding how this funding will be spent and in commissioning the services. People with lived experience of drug use will also be involved in the design and delivery of the new services.

I have been notified of a recent email, purporting to be from the North Inner City Drugs and Alcohol Task Force, informing local services that the task force is no longer in a position to function. This follows the resignation of the outgoing chairperson and the impasse that has arisen regarding the appointment of a new independent chairperson. The Department is concerned with this development and has asked the channels of funding - the HSE and the City of Dublin Youth Services Board - to provide reassurance to front-line services that the allocation of €2.2 million will continue in 2022. I understand that the HSE has met with the directors of the limited company previously associated with the task force to determine if they wish to continue to receive funding to provide drug and alcohol services in 2022. Any funding will be subject to the standard governance procedures for section 39 organisations. I look forward to a positive outcome from these discussions.

There is an impasse. Senator Sherlock is correct. I look forward to working with the Senator and, indeed, all the stakeholders so that we can get over this impasse but I am assured that the services will continue. I thank the drugs task forces and their members. I value them for their time, energy and commitment. We really need task forces on the ground because they are the eyes and ears knowing exactly what needs to happen in the community. There is HSE funding and they, effectively, can direct where that funding will go. I hope that we will be able to be in a position to move forward and get over this impasse.

I thank the Minister of State for the reply. It is regrettable that he started off by calling out that I was being negative. I acknowledged that the services are being funded, but the Minister of State did not address the operational funding for the drugs and alcohol task force in the north inner city. I do not know where the Minister of State is getting his information from, but he is simply not being brought up to date. He said that the north inner city task force has sent out an email saying that it is no longer in a position to function. I understand an email was sent to the members of the task force saying that there are now two directors there and that they are well capable of functioning and want to get on with their job. I am not sure what kind of information the Minister of State is being given. That alarms me all the more in terms of what he is saying here with regards to his commitment to the task forces in the inner city or, indeed, elsewhere. I also did not hear if that conversation is taking place with other task forces across the country, because that is a real concern now. Is the north inner city being singled out or is there an attempt to dismantle other task forces as well? With regards the operational funding, either the Minister of State is intending to fund it this year or he is not.

I will get the Senator further clarity on the operational funding. Regarding the email that was sent out, I can only go on the information I have and I will try to clarify that as well. I am committed to addressing the drug and alcohol issues affecting the north inner city. It is really for the local community and the statutory agencies and voluntary service providers. This has been ongoing. They have sought to work with the task force leadership and the membership. There are a number of concerns regarding the functioning and governance of the task force. This includes a consensual agreement on the selection and appointment of an independent chairperson. Unfortunately, it was not possible to resolve these concerns without the support of all parties.

The Department is continuing to work with stakeholders in the north inner city to establish effective, inclusive and transparent governance of the task force and of the significant funding it oversees. My officials are engaged in a consultation process with stakeholders. I encourage community organisations to participate in this process. I ask for the support of the Senator - I am sure she will give it - in this regard. I expect to receive a report on the consultation which will inform the next steps in re-establishing the task force. I will follow up on the two issues of the operational funding and the email.

Schools Building Projects

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, for coming into the Chamber today. Fortunately, we cannot shoot the messenger. The Minister of State is not the Minister for Education but I will go for it anyway.

In light of what we know from the pandemic - we knew that ventilation was important way before the pandemic anyway - and the importance of ventilation for public health, I asked that the Minister for Education make a statement committing to the installation of a whole-school ventilation system in both the new community school in Ennistymon and the new school planned for Mary Immaculate Secondary School in Lisdoonvarna. In light of the cost of fossil fuels, the climate emergency and the existence of much better technologies than we had when we were building schools in previous years, will the Minister commit to the installation of an air-to-water heating system in both schools also? I have raised this issue on a number of occasions in the past year and a half since my first week in the Seanad. I have raised it directly with the Minister, I have raised it here as a Commencement matter, I have emailed the Department and I have been onto the building section, but I still have not got any commitment. It is not good enough. It is not good enough for the staff who spend all day in the schools. It is not good enough for the pupils. We have rising health issues. With the number of asthma sufferers increasing and air pollution issues, we need ventilation. We do not want it only in the home economics room. That is like what we did in the 1980s, when I went to school. We need ventilation around the entire school. Currently, the design of the school in Ennistymon is only putting ventilation in the home economics room.

The second issue is they are putting in gas boilers, which is an absolute joke in this day and age because the Department has done the research and knows that the best thing to do is to put in air-to-water heating.

Currently, the Department is retrofitting schools, removing gas and oil burners and installing air-to-water systems, yet new schools are being built with gas boilers. It is beyond belief that the Department would do this. I welcome the fact there will be many photovoltaic solar panels on the new school, but even that emphasises the ridiculousness of not providing air-to-water systems that run on electricity. That would save money not only for the school but also for the State. It is such a logical step to take. Many professors and experts have talked about the importance of ventilation in schools, while the Minister for Education has committed to providing air monitors and air cleaning systems in schools. Building new schools without proper ventilation and air-to-water systems should be illegal. It is madness. It makes no sense for the climate, for the people who spend all day in schools or for financial reasons, including from the Department’s point of view.

I am seeking a proper commitment today. I have received general replies previously saying the Department is moving towards greener things, ventilation and so on, but I do not want vague points or research. I want a specific commitment in respect of new schools. In Ennistymon, we have been fighting for a secondary school to be built for more than 40 years. The pupils, past and present, and all the parents and staff who have fought for it over the years deserve the best. They deserve whole-school ventilation and air monitors. I could roll off the names of many professors who have spoken in support of this. There is a great man from Sixmilebridge who is head of the school of life sciences at the University of Nottingham. He is an expert in infectious diseases and he has spoken about the absolute necessity of ventilation in schools. I could spend ten minutes talking about the reasons we need ventilation and air-to-water systems. It is obvious why we need both. We needed both before the pandemic and we need them even more now since the pandemic began and in the context of the climate emergency and our climate action plan. There is a commitment in the programme for Government that every Department must reach its carbon targets, but they will not be able to do that if they continue putting in gas and oil burners.

I hope we will get a commitment today from the Minister for Education. I appreciate the Minister of State is not the Minister at that Department, but I hope the Minister for Education gave a commitment to him when she received notice of the Commencement matter. I will not let this one go because, if it is happening in Ennistymon and Lisdoonvarna, I presume it is happening in other parts of the country as well. It is great to install the photovoltaic panels to make the school look green but it is not green if a gas burner is being installed, and it is not a healthy school for the students or the staff if there is ventilation in the home economics room but not anywhere else. It is 2022 now and we know a lot more than we did in the past. We cannot build schools designed with 1980s or 1990s thinking in 2022.

I thank the Senator for raising these issues. It gives me the opportunity, on behalf of the Minister for Education, to outline to the House the Department’s position on the Ennistymon community school and Mary Immaculate Secondary School, Lisdoonvarna, building projects, as well as the Department's approach to climate action in new-build schools. The Department is at the forefront of design with respect to sustainable energy in school buildings and this performance has been recognised at both national and international levels, with sustainable energy awards for excellence in design and specification. New renewable technologies and approaches are tested to ensure compatibility with school design and operational requirements under the research programme. Successful and repeatable results are then incorporated into all new-school designs and refurbishments through the Department's technical guidance documents, which set out the benchmark for sustainable design in school buildings with a clear focus on energy efficiency. The Department's policy is supported by a strong research programme, with 53 research projects at various stages, including the energy website energyineducation.ie, a joint partnership with the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland.

Schools, including Ennistymon community school, that are designed and built in accordance with the Department's technical guidance documents have been achieving A3 building energy ratings, BERs, since 2009, with schools typically achieving a performance up to 20% higher than required by the current building regulations, along with 10% of primary energy provided via photovoltaics and infrastructure provision for electric-vehicle charging. For instance, Ennistymon community school will include an A3 BER standard; a fully evaluated natural ventilation strategy for all spaces; a 20% higher energy performance and a 25% better carbon performance than required by the 2019 building regulations, even though the school was designed pre-2019; 10% of primary energy provided via photovoltaics; and provision to enable energy supply companies to sell renewable biomass heat to the school under the support scheme for renewable heat, SSRH, as that type of heat matures as a service in Ireland. The SSRH is a Government funding initiative designed to increase the energy generated from renewable sources in the heat sector. Other provisions will include a system that automatically shuts down power to non-essential electrical power outlets when the school is closed, eliminating energy use out of hours; infrastructure for electric-vehicle charging; rainwater harvesting; CO2 monitors; excellent daylight; internal and external LED lighting; variable speed pumping; building management system control of energy, including energy metering; zone and individual room heating control; educational signage drawing attention to environmental aspects of design; and support offered to the school to aid the understanding of energy use and the optimisation of control.

In summary, in the interest of sustainability, the potential of renewables is maximised in school designs while ensuring that renewable applications are properly suited to needs and reflective of school opening hours and school holiday periods. It is critical also that an energy reduction plan be part of any investment in renewable energy applications. I have been provided with a further three or four pages of detail, and while I will not get through it all, I will respond to the Senator directly in my follow-up reply.

The Minister of State indicated there is a natural ventilation strategy for the school. Does that just mean the use of windows? An air-to-water system is what is needed. Let us not mess around with words. Gas is a fossil fuel. Let us not pretend there is such a thing as green gas because it does not exist and people use some kind of mad terminology to pretend gas is anything other than a fossil fuel. Unless there is going to be a biodigester out the back of the school using the local farmer's slurry, I cannot see how this will be in any way green. If it is not an air-to-water system, it is not climate friendly or carbon reducing.

Both these schools are green schools and have worked hard in the green schools programme. They are both full of students who have great concerns about the climate. Installing any kind of a burner that involves fossil fuels as opposed to air is insane and insulting. I do not understand what a natural ventilation system is. I am talking about a whole-school ventilation system, with vents in the classrooms; I am not talking about windows or an air vent in the home economics room.

We have two clear asks. We want air-to-water heating systems that can be paid for by the photovoltaic panels the Minister of State outlined, instead of paying for gas that will not be produced by the photovoltaic panels, and we want proper ventilation systems that can also be run from the photovoltaic panels in the school. I do not what a natural ventilation strategy means. It sounds as though it refers to opening windows, which is what we have been doing forever.

I will try to determine what exactly the Department means by a natural ventilation system. Work is ongoing on a decarbonisation option for new schools, with a focus on the standard of required design criteria and specification to achieve a net-zero-energy school building and on establishing the trajectory for the integration of suitable solutions on a phased basis in a risk-controlled manner via the credible cost-effective transition to zero-carbon school buildings while ensuring no delays to school accommodation delivery. The Senator mentioned air-to-water, and while I am not an expert on the matter, I am familiar with it. It is certainly a way forward for most buildings, including public buildings, and it has helped many houses that otherwise had high energy bills. Moreover, from the point of view of sustainability and the environment, it seems to tick all the boxes.

I thank the Senator for the opportunity to outline the Department's position on the building projects for Ennistymon community school and Mary Immaculate Secondary School, Lisdoonvarna, as well as on climate action in new-build schools. I will bring her views to the attention of the Minister.

Schools Building Projects

I thank the Minister of State for his attendance. I seek clarity from the Department of Education on the provision of a permanent school building for Gaelscoil Áine, Glasnevin. Gaelscoil Áine is a wonderful multidenominational Irish-language-based primary school. It was established more than three years ago and is temporarily located on the first floor of Whitehall College of Further Education on St. Mobhi Road, adjacent to Na Fianna GAA Club and other community facilities.

It is a wonderful primary school. It has three classes at the moment and, as I said, it is temporarily located on the first floor in Whitehall Community College. The classrooms are wonderful. It is an old building but it has been fitted out to a very high standard. As we were talking about ventilation, there is fabulous ventilation there, as well as good, proper, purpose-built toilets and a recreation room. Is pobal iontach é. The school, however, is in a temporary facility and it is oversubscribed for this coming September. It does not have a classroom for the junior infants class. It had over 120 applications for junior infants this year and it does not even have a classroom to accommodate 20 or 30.

The Minister of State can see the problem, which is fairly obvious. In the building itself, on the second floor, there is spare or vacant capacity. It seems to my untrained eye an obvious and immediate solution for the Department of Education to support what is a very strong board of management and a wonderful principal and teachers by expanding into that second floor. I hope the Minister of State has been sent with some good news about the school's immediate needs so he can advise me and the House on what the immediate solution is. The Minister of State might also be able to advise, as my Commencement matter suggests, on the location of a permanent building for that school.

The school was set up just over three years ago and, in those three years, despite not having a permanent school and despite uncertainty over a permanent school location, the school is going from strength to strength and it is building a very strong reputation within the immediate community and the wider community. It is very important that the Department supports this school. It is a school that is already thriving but with the continued support of the Department, it can really flourish. I hope the Minister of State has been sent today with an answer on the immediate needs for the temporary accommodation and on a permanent location for the school.

I thank the Senator for raising the matter as it provides me with the opportunity to clarify the current position relating to Gaelscoil Áine's school accommodation on behalf of the Minister. Gaelscoil Áine opened in 2019 and was established in vacant accommodation in the OPW building known as Coláiste Chaoimhin, St. Mobhi Road, Drumcondra, Dublin 9. The Department facilitated refurbishment works in the building in 2019 to provide the classrooms, along with some ancillary accommodation for the school, with which the Senator is very familiar.

The enrolment in the school as of September 2021 is 70 pupils. As part of the 20-year Strategy for the Irish Language 2010-2030, the Department has committed to creating opportunities for expanding Irish-medium education outside the Gaeltacht in the context of the April 2018 announcement on the establishment of 42 new schools from 2019, which affords particular consideration to the establishment of Gaelscoileanna, Gaelcholáistí, and Aonad Lán-Ghaeilge as part of the patronage process. Since the April 2018 announcement, the number of new schools to be established over the period from 2019 to meet a demographic demand has increased to 47 schools. This includes eight Gaelscoileanna and a Gaelcholáiste arising from the transition of an Aonad into a standalone Gaelcholáiste.

With regard to Scoil Áine's future accommodation, a permanent site for a new school has been identified and the Department is in advanced discussions with another public body to acquire a site. However, due to the confidential nature of these discussions, it is not possible to provide further information at this time. I will ask the Minister and the Department to keep the parents informed of any key developments in advancing the permanent site for the school. In tandem with the site acquisition, my Department has been working to put interim accommodation arrangements in place for the school for September 2022 and will be engaging with the patron of the school shortly in this regard.

I appreciate that the Minister of State has been sent here to respond on this issue. I acknowledge, and the school acknowledges and is very appreciative of, the support the Department has given in the setting up of the school and the fitting out of Coláiste Chaoimhin to meet its needs in the immediate term.

I find it very disappointing that the Department says two things in this reply. First, it says that it is on the job, it has identified a site and it is working to secure that site. I appreciate the confidentiality of contract negotiations, as we all do - we are adults - and the school community appreciates that as well. I just do not understand how and why the Department would move ahead to acquire a site and not even consult in a confidential way directly with the school. They are the people who will have to operate it. They are the people who know the immediate needs in the area. I urge the Minister of State to go back and encourage the Department to review its practices in terms of how it is conducting its consultation.

In terms of the short-term immediate needs, I do not understand why the Department cannot deal directly with the principal. We are in January. Anyone who has a child going to school is looking for a place. It is very hard for parents to commit to sending their children to a school that cannot show them a classroom that the child will go into. That is just an unreasonable request and an unreasonable burden to be putting on a principal and a voluntary board of management. The Department of Education needs to step up to the plate. I would like to see a date for a meeting with the board of management and the school within the next couple of weeks.

I would again like to thank the Senator for giving me an opportunity to outline to the House the position in regard to Gaelscoil Áine. As I said, the Department has identified a site and I know the Senator agrees with the point on confidentiality. Nonetheless, I would have thought the school principal and the school would be consulted. In regard to a meeting of the Department with the board and the principal, I will bring the Senator’s views back to the Minister to try to get this progressed as quickly as possible.

Schools Building Projects

I welcome the Minister of State. Like other Senators, I find it disappointing that the Minister for Education is not here today but I know discussions are taking place. Nonetheless, I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, in regard to my Commencement matter on Meán Scoil Mhuire, given he knows the area and he knows Longford very well. This is an issue I have raised on six or seven occasions since I was elected and it was a priority for me to work on this. I have raised it on the Order of Business, put forward parliamentary questions and spoken directly with the Minister but, unfortunately, it is very difficult to get a reply on to this issue. Other public representatives in my area of Longford have made promises of sites without even discussing it with the people who own the sites.

The issue concerns Meán Scoil Mhuire, which is a school with over 600 pupils based in the old convent in Longford town, where 40-year-old to 50-year-old cabins are being used by the school for pupils. These are not fit for purpose and the only play area for a school of that size is one basketball court because the indoor sports facilities are being used as a classroom. While the Department put in place funding about 18 months ago to rent the former Turners Printing building, which is located across from the school, to take in new classes, the school, the principal and the parents need certainty going forward with regard to a new school.

The reality is that where it is located is not fit for purpose for a school population of that size. If not for the fact a large number of pupils leave Longford town to go to schools in outlying areas, whether at Moyne or Ballymahon, the schools in the town would not be able to cope with the numbers. I live in Ballinalee, which is located halfway between Granard and Longford. Years back, a significant number would go from where I live to Longford town but many now go back towards the school in Granard. We need certainty with regard to a new school, particularly for the students and parents.

Longford County Council recently purchased a 14-acre site neighbouring the Mall complex for projects for the community and for Longford. It has put forward that it would be willing to sell an area of ground on that site to the Department in order to build a school for Meán Scoil Mhuire. I am looking for an update. I know there have been some negotiations with the Department and with Longford County Council in that regard. I am looking for a commitment for the teachers, the parents and the students that this deal will be sorted out very shortly.

I also seek a commitment that a new school for Meán Scoil Mhuire in Longford will be on the capital plan, that funding will be put in place and that work on the project will start in the very near future.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity, on behalf of the Minister for Education, to clarify the current position regarding Meán Scoil Mhuire in Longford with which I am very familiar.

Meán Scoil Mhuire is an all-girls Catholic school that is under the trusteeship of CEIST, which was founded by the Sisters of Mercy in 1861. The enrolment for the school for the 2021-22 academic year is 591 pupils. There has consistently been strong enrolment in this school and that is expected to continue.

Meán Scoil Mhuire submitted an application under the Department's additional school accommodation, ASA, scheme. The purpose of the ASA scheme is to ensure that essential mainstream classroom and special education needs accommodation are available to cater for pupils enrolled each year where the need cannot be met by the school's existing accommodation. Officials from the Department assessed the application and identified a deficit in the school's current accommodation based on projected future enrolment. As part of that assessment process, officials from the Department's professional and technical section identified significant challenges in providing the level of accommodation required on the existing school site. In this context, the Department has engaged with CEIST, as patron of Meán Scoil Mhuire, in order to identify and assess potential long-term solutions for the school. All potential options for the accommodation of the school will be assessed in the context of projected medium to long-term school place requirements in the area. That will be done on the following basis: the deliverability of the options; value for money considerations; climate action goals; and Project Ireland 2040 objectives around compact growth and sustainability.

As an interim measure, and in response to the safe re-opening of schools due to the Covid pandemic, the rental of an additional building by the school was supported by my Department. My Department will continue to work closely with CEIST, as school patron, to identify and advance the optimum solution to meet the long-term needs of Meán Scoil Mhuire.

I am familiar with the school. Indeed, the Sisters of Mercy opened a school in my own town of Boyle many years ago. I thank the congregation for the opportunities and great work they have done in Boyle, Longford and many other areas around the country because sometimes that work, and vocation, go unnoticed. In my own town a lot of work has been done. Christy Wynne has relations in Longford and wrote a nice two lines on the history. It was very encouraging to read that history. On behalf of the people in my own town of Boyle, and I am sure the Senator will concur, I thank the Sisters of Mercy for the great work they have done over the years.

I echo those comments with regard to the work done by the Sisters of Mercy.

I am disappointed that the reply did not contain an answer to my question. However, the Minister of State did say that the Department is working closely with CEIST, as the school patron, on the matter.

I am on record as asking the Minister for Education the following question a number of times. I again ask for her to arrange a meeting between herself and her officials with both of the Oireachtas Members who represent the county and the principal of the school so that we can advance the project. The local authority is very willing to work with the Department to make sure that this major infrastructural project in the county town benefits the community. I pay tribute to the CEO and staff of the local authority for their tireless work on behalf of all of the people in the county. They always put County Longford first in anything that they do. I ask the Minister of State to convey to the Minister for Education my request that she meets the two Oireachtas Members from the county, the school principal and Department officials to make sure that we progress this project.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue and giving me the opportunity to outline the position in terms of Meán Scoil Mhuire to the House.

I note that the Senator mentioned two things. I will convey to the Minister his request for a meeting to be arranged between the two local Oireachtas representatives from County Longford, the local authority and officials. The Senator also stated that this is a huge infrastructural issue for Longford town, County Longford and further afield.

Sitting suspended at 11.35 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.
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