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Schools Building Projects

Dáil Éireann Debate, Wednesday - 6 March 2019

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Questions (9)

Thomas Byrne

Question:

9. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills the status of the schools built by a company (details supplied) in which issues were identified; when the review into the design and build programme will commence; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10880/19]

View answer

Oral answers (9 contributions) (Question to Education)

This question seeks an update from the Minister on the Western Building System debacle. Deputy Burton also raised this matter and some of the issues she raised apply to schools in my constituency, such as Educate Together in Ashbourne, Gaelscoil na Mí and St. Paul's national school in Ratoath.

At the end of October or the beginning of November last year, on the back of the Western Building Systems controversy, the Minister committed to carrying out a review of the Department's design and build programme. I submitted a written parliamentary question about that and was told that the review had not started yet. Has the position changed? Can the Minister give an update as to what is happening? Can the Minister give an update on the four High Court actions that were lodged on 21 December and to what they relate?

The Deputy will be aware that last October and November my Department carried out initial investigations into 42 schools that were built by the company to which he refers. He will also be aware that of those schools, 22 required precautionary measures to ensure that they could be safely occupied. The safety of pupils and staff has been and remains our first priority.

Following on from this, my Department initiated a second phase of detailed investigations for the schools on 18 January last. This is focusing initially on the 22 schools that have precautionary measures in place and at Ardgillan Community College, Balbriggan, part of which remains closed. Eight investigations have been completed to date. The remainder are expected to be completed by early May. Detailed investigations in the schools that do not have precautionary measures in place will be carried out during the summer months.

The purpose of the investigations is to determine the type and extent of structural issues in each individual school and to design permanent remediation solutions where these are needed. The intention is that any remediation works necessary in the 22 schools with precautionary measures will be carried out in 2019. It is envisaged that remediation work in the schools without precautionary measures will take place in 2020.

Preparatory work to initiate a review of the Department’s design and build programme is currently under way. This includes consultation with the Office of the Attorney General given the existing legal process. It must be ensured that the review does not compromise this. I will make an announcement on the review when the necessary preparatory work has been completed.

The Minister has made a quite shocking admission that some of these schools will not be fully remediated or investigated until 2020. That is extremely worrying and concerning. We are already behind the schedule that was indicated to me when I met informally with officials. A much quicker timetable was envisaged for the remediation. I certainly do not blame the Department for the damage that this company has caused, or has potentially caused, but the Department does have a responsibility that this is done, fixed and put right.

It is concerning that the design and build review is being held up. I am not sure what it has to do with the Western Building Systems litigation. The bottom line is the Department is designing and building schools under the system that allowed this to happen. A review was promised with the aim of preventing this in the future and months later, that review has not started yet. That must be of concern, particularly when we were discussing the pressures on the capital budget earlier. All the schools are looking to get jobs done and we want to make sure that when those jobs are done, they are done properly.

We were faced with a major issue last October and November. In the middle of the debate and the prioritisation of making sure students, teachers and the workers within the schools were safe, questions were also raised in the House about the ongoing capital programme and how other schools would be impacted. My officials and I were faced with the challenge of how to prioritise both remediation and the ongoing building programme. We had to figure that out. We are looking at completing the schools that need external and internal remediation work in 2019. They will get first priority. The other schools, which do not require advanced invasive work compared with the other schools, will be dealt with in 2020. It is a question of resources, manpower and womanpower, within our offices. We have now set up a team within the building unit in Tullamore wholly dedicated to Western Buildings Systems issues.

We also want to ensure the independent review continues apace. I am committed to ensuring that an independent person or group is appointed by the end of this month.

I remind Members that there are other Deputies in the Chamber who would like to ask questions and, if people are succinct, we will get to those questions.

I am glad that I submitted a written parliamentary question because the Minister's answer has changed since then. He is now saying the review will start at the end of the month. That is what we are here for. It is not acceptable that the Minister thought the issue would go away and that he continues to build schools under that programme. The issues identified in the schools are extremely serious. The ongoing delays in rectifying this issue are causing significant stress. Deputy Burton outlined what is happening in west Dublin and, in my own constituency, parents are telling me about the position in the schools. It causes distress because of the look of the schools, as well as the practical issues that are being felt.

I accept this was one of the first issues the Minister had to deal with but a commitment was given on an independent review. It is absolutely necessary in the context of the hundreds of millions that are spent on school buildings. I will certainly be following up to ensure this review is started at the end of this month as promised here today.

This is about being vigilant and processes that are fit for purpose to ensure that lessons are learned where they are needed. We will learn if there are better ways of doing things.

We have a dedicated team in Tullamore with a rich history and tradition of ensuring that schools are being built in a proper way. I indicated and committed in October and November that the review will be done this year. We will be in a position to carry out that review and, where lessons need to be learned, they will be learned.

Will the Minister be taking submissions about that?

I am not allowing additional supplementary questions.

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