Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Questions (5)

Thomas Byrne


5. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills the status of the completion of remedial works in schools identified as requiring remedial works or precautionary measures for schools constructed by a company (details supplied). [20077/19]

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Oral answers (11 contributions) (Question to Education)

I call Minister, or should I say Deputy Thomas Byrne.

Hopefully next February, a Cheann Comhairle. There are many ifs and buts before then.

Is February the date?

The leader of my party said that last November. He said he would go for another budget.

A February election.

Thank you for your confidence, a Cheann Comhairle. We will work hard to achieve it in the meantime. I had better stay in my leader's favour as well. However, this is a serious issue regarding the completion of the remedial works in the Western Building Systems schools. My question is about their status. The media cycle has moved on from this issue and the media are not covering it. People feel there is a lack of information, so it is important that the Minister provides as much clarity as possible. A number of schools are affected by this, including Ashbourne Educate Together national school, Gaelscoil na Mí, and St. Paul's national school, Ratoath, in my constituency. The Minister knows them only too well. Will he give a general update on this? I am keen to keep the matter in the public eye because many of the parents are very frustrated about it and they deserve information.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I agree with him that it is important to make the information available because a great deal of work is taking place behind the scenes. A special unit has been set up in Tullamore and it is working on this each day, so I am happy to update the House on this important matter.

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 enable continued safe occupation.  The safety of pupils and staff has been and remains our first priority.

Following the initial investigations, which were based on sample opening up works, my Department initiated on 18 January last a second phase of detailed investigations for the schools.  This next phase of the programme is focusing initially on the 22 schools that have precautionary measures in place and Ardgillan community college, Balbriggan, part of which remains closed. The purpose of these investigations is to determine the type and extent of structural issues in each school and, from the technical information gathered by the appointed structural engineers, to design permanent remediation solutions where these are needed. In line with the update published in January, detailed structural investigations have been completed in 19 of the 22 schools with precautionary measures in place and in Ardgillan community college.  The investigations into the remaining three schools with precautionary measures in place will be completed by the middle of May.

In the meantime, significant work has been undertaken by my Department, supported by the National Development Finance Agency and an appointed multidisciplinary team, to design and plan permanent engineered remediation solutions for each of the 22 schools. An individual work plan for each school will flow from this body of work.  These plans will feed into an overall timetabled programme of remediation works for the schools which will commence during the summer months.  All efforts remain on track to achieve this objective. When the works programme is available, the details will be first shared at meetings with the patrons and the schools involved.  An overall update will also be published.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

In parallel with this work during the summer months, detailed structural investigations in 17 schools built by the same contractor without precautionary measures in place will also proceed.  A schedule for those detailed investigations issued to the 17 schools involved and their patrons last week.  The intention is that any remediation works that may be necessary in these schools will be carried out in 2020.

I again acknowledge and thank the principals, staff, parents and pupils for their patience and co-operation as my Department works its way through this complex process.

It does not sound as if a large number of schools will have remedial works completed by September. I do not fault the Department for this as it made every effort to do what it could when this first came to light, but it is still at the stage of plans. That is worrying because there is no indication when these plans will be executed. Unfortunately, that is a recurring theme with this Government. First, does the Minister have the funding to implement these plans? If he does, will that affect the funding of any other project? How many schools, if any, will be ready for September? I would be grateful for that information. What is the envisaged timeline for the entire project?

I will break it into two parts. There are the schools with the precautionary measures. The schools in the Deputy's constituency that have fencing outside or scaffolding at the entrances have precautionary measures. Three more such schools have to be investigated before the end of May. That will complete the 22 schools with precautionary measures. That will mean each of the schools will have intervention construction completed and ready for September next. In tandem with that, there are 17 schools that do not have precautionary measures. These schools do not have fencing, scaffolding or any intervention. Their investigations will take place throughout the summer and they will be ready for work in the new year. We have a job to do. The officials have been working very diligently with engineers, construction engineers and quantity surveyors in a live school environment. All this work is happening during the Easter holidays, at weekends and after the school day during the school term.

I have a question about the financial situation. Legal actions have been instigated. There were a number a couple of years ago and some were more recent, before Christmas. I do not know if there have been any since. Has any insurer come on record for the defendants? Is the Department in discussions with anybody about this, particularly anybody who has money to fund it, or is the Department alone funding it? Is the Department waiting for the outcome of court cases to finalise its plan of action so it can pay for it? What is the situation with those court actions?

To give an update on the court actions, cases in respect of two schools, Ardgillan community college and Tyrrelstown Educate Together national school, are in the Commercial Court as we speak and we are seeking a hearing in the autumn. That is fast-tracking at a good pace. I am happy with how it is progressing, but I am also conscious that this is before the court and I do not wish to put words on the record today as to how that will develop over time. As far as I and my officials are concerned, we are seeking to recoup this money to ensure that the intervention work that is required will be completed. I will be able shortly to give the House an update on exactly how much this will cost. I assure the Deputy that whatever moneys are involved, it will not impact on our planned programme in the year ahead.