Adjournment Debate.

Hospital Accommodation.

This is an important issue and I would like a straightforward response from the Minister.

Last week we heard that 100 jobs were being lost at Our Lady's Children's Hospital in Crumlin. This was basically because of mismanagement; the money had run out and people had to be let go. That is no way to run a hospital. Obviously no hospital could provide a full service with such a sudden reduction in staff numbers. The hospital is now starved of resources and it will be difficult to provide the services required.

The Children's University Hospital in Temple Street, like the hospital in Crumlin, does sterling work. However, it is located in antiquated residential buildings which are a couple of hundred years old and it now has a bevy of outhouses, extensions and prefabs. Thus, it too is totally unsuitable for the job it is supposed to do as a children's hospital. For a quarter of a century Temple Street hospital has been promised a new building on a designated site at the Mater hospital. However, every time a solution seemed to be in sight it was dashed within a short space of time. Finally, in 2002, the national development plan seemed to provide the perfect remedy by allocating €400 million towards the redevelopment of Temple Street hospital on a designated site in the Mater campus. At last we thought we had a result.

More than €50 million was spent on the design, preparation and planning process. However, in December 2006, at the eleventh hour, as tender for the construction of the project was about to be opened, the Department of Health and Children countermanded the instruction. The project was not opened to tender and instead, inexplicably, the Minister for Health and Children appointed a number of consultants to consider the feasibility of the project. The outcome of this was the McKinsey report, in which it was decided, strangely, after a quarter of a century of considering the redevelopment, that this was the wrong way to go entirely. It was instead suggested that a new national children's hospital should be built to replace all the children's hospitals in the country. This occurred after the expenditure of €50 million on the project. A task force was then established to determine the optimum location for the hospital. It decided on the Mater site, which was much against the wishes of the consultants in Crumlin, who threatened legal action.

That was the decision of the Department, the Minister and the HSE. However, unfortunately, we have not heard a single word about the project since then. No master planners have been tendered for and no planning application has been considered. All the work that was done on the original children's hospital project has been jettisoned. At present, permission for redevelopment has been applied for by the new adult hospital at the Mater. All of this is happening in a vacuum, without reference to how the proposed national children's hospital will fit into the integrated campus.

It seems there is no will within the Department of Health and Children or the HSE for the project to continue. Worse still, it seems also that there is unlikely to be any money to continue with the project even if the will was there. One could say that in the absence of a national children's hospital what we do have is a national disgrace. The existing hospitals are being starved of the facilities, resources and staff they require. The hospitals are inadequate in terms of carrying out the work they are expected to do. In the last analysis, it is the sick children of the country and their parents who are suffering and will continue to suffer in the absence of the new children's hospital.

I ask the Minister for a straightforward answer on what is to happen with the proposed national children's hospital. When are we going to hear something about it?

I will take this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney.

The development of the national paediatric hospital is a priority project for the Government. The objective is to provide a world-class specialist paediatric service for children in this country. The National Paediatric Hospital Development Board, which was established in May 2007, has statutory responsibility for planning, designing, building, furnishing and equipping the new hospital. The board is made up of representatives from transferring paediatric hospitals, the faculty of paediatrics of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, the public and the HSE. The executive is working closely with the development board in progressing the project. The board is in the process of recruiting a number of key personnel, including a chief officer and a medical director, to allow the project to progress to the next stage. The Department is advised that the development board hopes to be in a position to make these appointments shortly. The board is also procuring professional project management support services. Tenders for a business adviser service are currently being evaluated by the board.

Following the recruitment of the support teams, the next stage of the project will involve the preparation of a detailed development brief for the new hospital by the hospital management team. This will build on the work undertaken for the HSE by RKW, an established UK-based health care planning company, which involved the preparation of a high-level framework brief for the hospital. The target of the board is to have the development brief completed by the end of the first quarter of 2009. The brief will be converted into a detailed design, outlining the exact dimensions and specifications for the new hospital, to allow the project to proceed to tender for construction.

The legal requirements to enable the transfer of the designated site to the HSE have been agreed and the Department has been advised that the transfer of the site to the HSE has now been finalised. I am sure the Deputy will be pleased to hear this. I look forward to continuing progress on this important development.

Schools Building Projects.

I thank the Minister for being here in person to deal with this matter, on which I hope we will see progress. This is a long outstanding problem which in recent times has descended into a farce. The situation with regard to primary school accommodation in Portlaoise is now a fiasco. It is likely that 80 to 100 pupils will have no school place in September. The Government still has not signed contracts to allow work to commence on a site purchased by the parish, at no cost to the State, at Summerhill on the Stradbally Road in Portlaoise. This would allow the long-awaited amalgamation of three town-centre primary schools, Scoil Mhuire, Sacred Heart and St. Paul's. Coinciding with this we will see the extension of a school on the west side of the town, Scoil Bhríde, Knockmay, and there is also the long-outstanding matter of the gaelscoil. Sadly, progress has been slow and I ask the Minister to intervene. The parish has invested €2.25 million in the project whereas the Department has not spent one cent. Rather than consulting stakeholders about its future, it has tried to force the gaelscoil into a half-built building at the site of the vocational school following the site's rejection by other primary schools in the area. This is a serious development and matter. Who is in charge?

Portlaoise's primary schools are beginning to resemble a prefab shanty town. More than 80% of the students of Scoil Bhríde, Knockmay, are taught in prefabs, but the school is being denied an extension. No one in the town has been consulted by the Department's officials, for which reason we find ourselves in this chaotic situation. Who is in charge and what plan is in force? The area is developing, but some of its children will not have educational facilities next September. Supposedly, this matter has been under way for ten years, but nothing is occurring. After this debate, will the Minister visit the town and meet me and my colleagues, Deputies Moloney and Fleming? If not in the town, will he meet us here? The situation cannot be allowed to continue. The Department seems to be shuffling paper from one section to another and avoiding decision making. Meanwhile, parents, pupils and all interested parties in Portlaoise do not know what will occur in September.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to outline to the House the Government's strategy for capital investment in education projects and to outline the current position in respect of the Department's long-term plan for Portlaoise in general.

I seek specifics, not generalities.

Funding to address the capital investment requirements of approximately 3,200 primary and 730 post-primary schools is ongoing. The Government has dramatically increased investment in the school building programme from just over €90 million in 1997 to €586.2 million this year. During the lifetime of the national development plan, almost €4.5 billion will be invested in schools, an unprecedented level of capital investment that reflects the Government's commitment to continue its programme of sustained investment in primary and post-primary schools.

As the Deputy is aware, a developing areas unit was set up recently in my Department to focus on the school accommodation needs of rapidly developing areas. The main emphasis in 2008 is on providing sufficient school places in developing areas, as well as delivering improvements in the quality of existing primary and post-primary school accommodation throughout the country.

Regarding Portlaoise generally, the developing areas unit has identified the town as an area of rapid development. In this regard, a decision has already been taken to provide three new post-primary schools and to amalgamate and expand primary provision to meet the area's growing needs. Educational provision at post-primary level needed to be addressed first and a new VEC school building has already been delivered. Two other post-primary school building projects are due to go on site this year and are being delivered by way of public private partnership. Each will cater for 850 pupils.

Now that the accommodation requirements of the town at post-primary level are well on their way to being addressed, it is proposed to deal with the primary school requirements. Approval in principle has been given for three large-scale primary building projects in Portlaoise, which will improve conditions for the schools concerned and provide much needed extra school places. Two new greenfield site schools will be built to facilitate the amalgamation of Scoil Náisúnta an Chroí Naofa, St. Paul's primary school and Scoil Náisúnta Mhuire. The new facilities will be configured as a junior and senior school and will cater for 1,600 pupils. The school authorities were given approval to appoint design teams and my Department is currently considering the nominees for ratification.

The third project is the extension of Scoil Bhríde, Knockmay, to create a 32-classroom school catering for 800 pupils. The school authorities were given approval to appoint design teams and my Department is also currently considering the nominees for this project for ratification. Progress on these proposed works will be considered on an ongoing basis in the context of the Department's multi-annual school building and modernisation programme

Due to the level of demand for pupil places in the Portlaoise area, the need to make further provision at primary level in addition to that outlined is being kept under continuous review by my Department. I am confident the measures outlined will assist in alleviating the immediate demand for pupil places in the area and I thank the Deputy for allowing me the opportunity to outline my Department's position on school provision in the Portlaoise area.

Parents in Kilfinane, County Limerick will withdraw their children from school on Friday. They took this decision out of despair at the Government's failure to keep its promise. They are entitled to be told why the construction of their school has not been given the go ahead for this summer. No one has been able to explain why. Is it because they do not have enough political clout? The Minister stated that €586.2 million will be spent on schools this year, but not a penny will be spent on Kilfinane. There is no transparency about how the decision was made to build other schools, but not this one.

Kilfinane national school is at the bottom of the INTO's list of substandard schools, which Mr. John Carr, INTO general secretary, stated on radio this morning. It has been given numerous promises, has planning permission, has gone to tender and is the generic model for schools of its size, but the plug has been pulled. My colleague, Mr. James Heffernan, who lives in Kilfinane and is a past pupil of the school, tells me that people cannot believe they are being bypassed, given the school's condition. The children must queue in the yard to go to the toilet. The reason for the queue, shown on the front of yesterday's Irish Examiner, is that the teachers cannot let them go to the toilet when they need to because the teachers cannot, for health and safety reasons, let them out alone to cross the yard. Nor can they leave the rest of the class alone. Hail, rain or snow, young children must go to the toilet on cue using an outdoor toilet.

We need answers. While the Minister is new to the job, this is the Government's responsibility. If the contract is not signed by the end of June, the tendering process will have to start again. It will inevitably cost more. The children will have more than one more winter of queuing in all weather. They need a date when construction can start. Of all the billions of euro in the State's capital budget, surely two and a half million can be found so that children will not have to queue in the rain. Given this year's spend of €586.2 million, why can €2.5 million not be found for the worst national school in the country? I urge the Minister to find the money for Kilfinane national school.

I take this opportunity to support the call for a new school at Kilfinane. In 2002, the school was promised for the following year. It was also promised before the last election, after which there was an expectation that the contracts would be signed. However, word came through last November that the school would not be built. Angry citizens, a broad representation of the people, not just teachers and parents of school children, attended a public meeting in Kilfinane. I understand the Minister visited the area last week to announce that the school would not be built this year.

That is not correct.

I was not present, but I was informed of the announcement in several telephone calls. There is an urgent need for a new national school in Kilfinane. Various promises were made since 2001 and there is deep concern that the school was not included in the most recent announcement on schools building projects last January. It was indicated to us at Easter but that did not happen either. The Department of Education and Science commissioned a feasibility study for this school as far back as 1999 and recommended that a new school be built on a greenfield site. The project has advanced to tender and construction stage and planning permission was granted in 2007. The existing school still has an outside toilet which has always been a significant cause of concern to parents, guardians and school staff. The board of management and staff continually strive to put measures in place to ensure pupils' safety at all times. It is becoming increasingly difficult to guarantee that safety, particularly in the wake of a sinister event that occurred during the summer regarding the children. This incident highlighted the vulnerability of pupils when they leave the school buildings to use toilets and has struck fear in the hearts of parents, guardians and staff. Nothing will allay this fear other than the construction of a new school.

The present building was constructed as a church in the 19th century and remodelled as a school in 1887. The last major refurbishment was undertaken in 1909. The classrooms are cramped, with three measuring only 35 m2 and there is no room for sinks. The learning support and resource teacher and the secretary work in cubicles partitioned off the classrooms which is totally unacceptable. There is no indoor physical education facility and the high windowsills reduce visibility for teachers and pupils. There are continuous ventilation and heating problems despite the remedial works to address this. The glass and timber partitions between classrooms lead to significant noise interference.

I urge the Minister to immediately sign the contract to have this school constructed.

I thank both Deputies for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to outline to the House the position with regard to the proposed building project for Kilfinane — I had understood the name to be pronounced as spelled though others call it "Kilfennan"——

It is pronounced "Kilfennan". The Minister should not listen to RTE.

Kilfinane national school in County Limerick has a current enrolment of 126 pupils. It has a staffing of a principal, four mainstream assistants, one permanent resource teacher and one permanent learning support teacher, the latter post shared with another school.

Originally, the school board of management applied for capital funding to the Department for an extension project. A feasibility study was commissioned to examine the merits of upgrading and extending the existing building as opposed to the provision of a new school on a greenfield site. The Department took a decision in favour of the greenfield option on the basis of the outcome of this study and for reasons of cost effectiveness. A site was identified, inspected and found to be generally suitable for the construction of a new school. This has been purchased by the diocese.

It is intended to provide long-term accommodation in the new building for a principal, five mainstream assistants and the full range of ancillary accommodation appropriate to a school of this size. The project was included among those announced by my predecessor on 29 November 2006 to proceed to tender-construction stage. Tenders have been received and the project is now awaiting approval to proceed to construction.

I share fully the concerns of the school community in Kilfinane about their school building, particularly in the matter of the outdoor toilets. The Deputies will be aware that I visited the school recently at the request of my colleague, Deputy John Cregan, and I spoke directly to the pupils, teachers and parents. I assured them that this situation must be remedied as soon as resources are available.

The Minister must make them available.

However, the Deputies will appreciate that I am not — and I indicated this when I visited the school — in a position to give the go-ahead for any more projects to proceed to construction at this time, including that for Kilfinane. I do not want to mislead this school or indeed any other school in the same situation by making any suggestions to the contrary.

I indicated quite clearly to the community that I am currently reviewing with my officials the Department's spending plans for this year, that I am in the middle of this process, that it will not be complete for some time and that I will not be making any decision on any further capital expenditure until that process is completed.

Under the last national development plan, more than 7,800 building projects were delivered to provide new and modernised educational infrastructure but the reality is that not all needs can be met together. They must be met incrementally and in order of priority.

Surely outside toilets are a priority.

This is why my Department consulted the education partners with regard to prioritisation criteria for the allocation of large scale capital funding and why these criteria are published. They are clear and unambiguous and they bring an openness and transparency as to how projects are selected for inclusion in the school building and modernisation programme. Not alone has their introduction improved the management of the building progamme but they also ensure a clear-cut selection process and an orderly advancement, over time, of all school building projects, with the most urgent need being addressed first. They are subject at all times, however, as is the project for Kilfinane, or any other project, to the availability of funding.

I will continue my review and I assure both Deputies, as I assured Deputy Cregan, that I am quite concerned that we progress this matter as soon as possible but I will not be making any decision on this progress until such time as I have completed the review. I have asked the parents——

We heard all that four years ago.

——the teachers and everybody involved to give me an opportunity to carry out that review to ensure that I do not make any promises that I cannot fulfill and for which the proper funding is not in place to ensure that the project can be completed. As soon as my review is finished, Kilfinane will certainly continue to be a priority for me.

I cannot understand why outside toilets are not a top priority.

They are a priority but I cannot and will not spend money when I am not aware of what I have. I gave that commitment to the parents of Kilfinane. I ask the Deputies to allow me the opportunity to go through my envelope for 2008 and if I can accommodate Kilfinane at the end of that review I will certainly do it and it remains a priority for me.

I thank the Minister.

Special Areas of Conservation.

I am delighted that my debate was selected because I am very concerned about what is happening in special areas of conservations, SACs, particularly in my own area, the Blackstairs Mountains on the Carlow-Wexford border, and also on the upland areas of County Wicklow. Quads, sports utility vehicles and scramblers are using these beautiful upland commonage areas for recreational use. These lands are farmers' fields. They use the lands for commonage grazing and they collect financial payments for that. Unfortunately, some people using quads, SUVs and scramblers are destroying the habitat on which these farmers graze their sheep. Under the EU habitats directive, farmers will be penalised, and I believe the Government will be also penalised unless it brings in by-laws or national legislation to protect these wonderful upland commonages. They are the most magnificent habitats, not only for sheep but for a wide diversity of flora, fungi and extraordinarily beautiful grasses.

I am concerned that unless we do something to protect these habitats we will be in trouble with Europe. I know that the national parks and wildlife service has conservation rangers who patrol the area Monday to Friday and in some areas they do so 365 days a year, particularly in the Wicklow uplands. Unfortunately much of this damage takes place at weekends and bank holidays. While a person must have a licence and must tax a quad, a SUV or a scrambler while it is in use on public roads, when such vehicles are used on the upland commonages many are without tax designation. Nobody knows who owns them and it is very hard to track down these people.

I am delighted there is ranger cover in some of the national parks but there is a need for by-laws where there is no cover. We know that there are by-laws in parts of County Wicklow and County Louth but I believe there is a specific need for a dedicated area for the use of quads in order to get them away from these wonderful areas, the SACs. The drivers could then indulge in their sport in a safe way that will not impact negatively on the uplands nor impinge on the farmers' livelihood.

Coillte has a recreational policy position but I do not believe that such on its own is enough to address this issue. There must be, in tandem with the legislation, visible signals and a willingness to enforce the legislation. Otherwise our habitats will suffer and we could be left open to a charge from the European Union for not protecting these special landscapes. I live in one of these landscapes. There are penalties for unauthorised activities including the seizure of vehicles, fines of up to €3,000 and imprisonment of six months. However, detection and identification are virtually impossible. There are no prosecutions pending, although notices of special area of conservation designation have been served on several users. We need a concerted effort to protect our mountains and habitats. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley, launched a position paper on protecting our bio-diversity, the loss of which would be significant. EU Directive No. 43 of 1992 obliges Ireland to protect these uplands.

In parts of England there are quad bike liaison groups which have done tremendous work in tandem with users and local authorities and have cut the unauthorised use of quad bike in SACs, mostly in sand dune areas. We should examine the option of this type of partnership the success of which was spectacular. I ask the Minister, Deputy O'Keeffe, if there are funds available to increase the number of wildlife rangers. Will the Minister encourage local authorities to enact by-laws or is there a form of national legislation that could protect these wonderful upland commonage areas? We owe it to farmers who graze sheep there and to the landscape to protect it from improper, recreational use of quads, scramblers and sports utility vehicles.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley, is unavailable and conveys apologies for his absence as he has another engagement. I welcome the opportunity to address the issue of the use of off-road vehicles in upland areas. This is an issue of concern because of the damage that such vehicles can cause to sensitive upland habitats, including such places as the Wicklow Mountains National Park and, in particular, to designated habitats.

New powers were taken to address this issue in the European Communities (Natural Habitats) (Amendment) Regulations 2005. These regulations make it an offence to bring onto, or place in, a designated area, any object, or carry out any activity, likely to damage such a site and includes powers of arrest and seizure in the event of non-co-operation by the offender.

The use of such vehicles is a "notifiable action" in upland heath and bog habitats designated as special areas of conservation under the habitats regulation. This means the specific consent of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is required.

The use of off-road vehicles sometimes involves driving in some of the most remote and rugged parts of the mountains, through fragile upland peatlands. This can cause soil erosion and damage to blanket bog and heath. Disturbance to wildlife may also occur. For example, I understand many quad bike riders seek to scale Lugnaquilla, the highest mountain in County Wicklow and barriers erected to prevent entry at certain locations have been damaged and knocked down.

While the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government's National Parks and Wildlife Service organises enforcement patrols, the sheer extent of these upland areas, numerous access points, lack of identification marks on off-road vehicles and their high mobility, make it very difficult to apprehend the offenders. Even if putative offenders are apprehended in such places as forestry car parks, it is generally not possible to establish that a particular person or vehicle was involved in the committing of an offence.

The Department is drafting amendments to the habitats regulations, which are planned to be put in place later this year. It is envisaged these regulations will contain measures to make the control of such vehicles and activities more effective. In this context, consideration is also being given to the introduction of registration and licensing requirements for recreational off-road vehicles.

In the meantime, anyone with information on where and when such activity is occurring should contact the relevant regional office of the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

The Dáil adjourned at 10.35 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 5 June 2008.