Adjournment Debate

Schools Recognition

I thank the Minister of State for taking this important matter in relation to Glasnevin Educate Together. The Minister of State will, no doubt, be aware the school was established almost ten years ago in 2002 in the Glasnevin area. Like many schools formed throughout the country it has not been given recognition or a school building. The school is in limbo in that the Department has not granted it recognition despite it having an enrolment of 230 pupils, representing Ireland and 20 other countries. Some 768 pre-enrolled children are anxious to attend the school yet for almost a decade the Government has not seen fit to give it recognition or to address its accommodation needs.

Currently, the school is largely accommodated in portacabins which are old, dark, cramped, ant infested, too hot in the summer and cold and damp in the winter. These are not satisfactory conditions for children to be taught in. Unfortunately, there are too many similar situations. I know the Minister and Minister of State are concerned about the number of schools they have inherited in such conditions. This is particularly true of gaelscoileanna and Educate Together schools. There appears to be a reluctance on the part of the Department of Education and Skills to grant these schools recognition and to address their accommodation needs.

It would be worthwhile for the Minister to compile a database of all schools in this situation. This would provide a pattern countrywide which would allow the Minister to address this issue. I am sure the Minister and Minister of State have access to all that information. Glasnevin Educate Together has been awaiting recognition for some time. Accommodation at the school is unsuitable and substandard for children to be taught in this day and age. In any day and age these conditions would be considered substandard. There is a huge waiting list to attend this school. The Department has been sitting on its hands in relation to this matter. I urge the Minister of State to take on board what I and Glasnevin Educate Together have been saying on a continuing basis to the Department, grant the school formal recognition and commence construction of a permanent new school for the children of Glasnevin and surrounding areas.

I am taking this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn.

I thank the Deputy for raising the matter as it provides me with the opportunity to outline to the House the Government's strategy for capital investment in school building projects and also to outline the current position concerning the long-term accommodation requirements at Glasnevin Educate Together national school. The Minister would also like to take the opportunity to note the regular representations he has received from the Deputy, and also from the Minister of State, Deputy Shortall, in relation to this school.

As the Deputy will be aware, all applications for capital funding are assessed in the planning and building unit of the Department. The assessment process determines the extent and type of need presenting based on the demographics of an area, proposed housing developments, condition of buildings, site capacity and so forth, leading to an appropriate accommodation solution.

Projects are selected for inclusion in the schools' building and modernisation programme on the basis of priority of need which is reflected in the band rating assigned to a project. As part of this process, a project is assigned a band rating under the published prioritisation criteria for large-scale building projects. These criteria were devised following consultation with the education partners.

Glasnevin Educate Together school is currently located in temporary accommodation in the Glasnevin area. The school is operating with provisional recognition from the Department and this was awarded on the basis that it would be providing multidenominational education in the Clontarf-Marino-Fairview area of Dublin. In light of demographic changes in the Glasnevin area, it would now appear that a need exists in the area in which the school is now operating. On this basis, the Department is currently considering the school's request for permanent recognition and expects to be in a position to convey a decision to the school authority shortly. This position was communicated to the school patron at a recent meeting with the Department.

On the question of a permanent accommodation solution for the school, the school authority has made a number of suggestions to the Department regarding the acquisition of a permanent site for the school. Department officials have conducted technical inspections of two such properties. Arising from these inspections, a preferred option was identified. Subsequently, a proposal was made to the landowner regarding a possible acquisition of the property in question. This proposal is under consideration by the landowner in question and a response is awaited by the Department. When this response is received, it will be considered in detail and the acquisition of a suitable site and the delivery of new school buildings will be considered in the context of existing commitments and other competing demands on the Department's capital budget.

Higher Education Grants

I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for affording me the opportunity to speak on this issue.

I appreciate the grave financial difficulties currently facing us, caused by reasons already known and spoken of at length in this Chamber and outside. I acknowledge the commitment and dedication of the Minister, Deputy Quinn, and the Ministers of State, Deputies Cannon and Sherlock, who are working hard to maintain educational supports and to best utilise stretched budgets in the face of diminished resources.

Despite the very regrettable changes to the levels of grants, I welcome that none of the measures being taken will result in the loss of a grant for a student or a student becoming ineligible for one. I also acknowledge the efforts of the Minister and Ministers of State to introduce measures to create efficiencies in the areas of administration, such as the online application method for grants and the creation of a single grant-awarding body, the City of Dublin VEC. However, I sincerely hope that this centralisation will prove more successful than that of the drug payment scheme under the HSE which has been centralised in Dublin but has more than doubled the waiting time for reimbursements to eligible citizens. However, sin scéal eile and I will pursue that matter on another occasion. Such efficiencies in the administration of the grant system can and will minimise the impact on the rates of grant payments. I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, with whom I served on Galway County Council a few years ago, will remember the delays in the processing of grants, so I hope the change will be a positive one.

The one measure of great concern to me and a number of constituents in Galway West, however, is the ending of the automatic entitlement to the non-adjacent grant for mature students. This is unfair and at the very least there is a need to enable mature students who are pursuing educational courses to retain their funding grants at the current non-adjacent rate. Mature students have made significant investments in furthering their education, and acquiring new skills and knowledge while at the same time having other commitments such a family or financial ones which other students would not have. The State has also acknowledged their investment by providing grants and other educational supports.

In 2009-10, mature students comprised more than 13% of the total student population with more than 45,000 mature students attending third level institutions. At some educational institutions such as NUI Galway, NUI Maynooth and Dublin City University, more one in ten students were in the mature category with the figure rising to one in five students for the institutes of technology. The figures provide a clear indication of the value and success of second-chance education and life-long learning policies. It would be unfair to proceed with a funding measure that will undo years of hard work and commitment on the part of students which may also ultimately deprive students of the fruits of their investment.

If, as may be the case for thousands of mature students, a person has to drop out of an educational programme owing to the financial hardship the loss of the non-adjacent grant would bring, the State would also stand to suffer the financial consequences of the increased strain on the social welfare system. For the sake of saving a few thousand euro, therefore, the State would end up paying five times this amount in jobseekers benefits or allowances and the supplementary benefits that the former mature student would now have to seek. It would be a case of being penny rich but pound foolish and I ask the Minister to reconsider the measure for all current and perspective mature students but in particular for those who currently attend third level educational institutions in Galway and across the State.

I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn and I thank the Deputy for raising it.

The Deputy refers to a change to the student grant schemes announced in budget 2011 by the previous Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government, which removed the automatic eligibility for mature students to the non-adjacent rate of grant effective from September 2011. I understand the overarching need in making changes to the student grant schemes for the 2011-12 academic year was to find savings to manage additional cost pressures arising from a significant increase in the number of students qualifying for grants, a proportionate increase in the number of students qualifying for higher rates of grants and payment of the student contribution on behalf of grant-holders.

As a consequence, the removal of the automatic entitlement to the non-adjacent rate of grant for mature students was one of three measures introduced to ensure that the student grant system is not extended beyond what current resources will allow in a climate of overall pressures on the public finances.

The non-adjacent rate of grant is designed to assist with the costs of living away from home. I know that the change for mature students took account, therefore, of the availability of improved transport facilities and road networks, and better and more cost effective travelling options that have altered commuting practice more generally in society over that time. It also took account the availability of further and higher education options closer to home in the PLC and institute of technology sector.

Reliance was also placed on the fourth round of the Irish Eurostudent Survey which provides information on where students live. The statistics indicate that 45% of all full-time students now choose to live in their own or their parents' home during term time, yet 77% of grant holders are currently on the higher non-adjacent rate. Clearly, this is a mismatch given what the non-adjacent rate of grant is trying to achieve.

The recently published DIT Student Cost Of Living Guide 2011-12, which provides students with information on costs for rent, utilities, food, travel, etc. shows that the likely cost for a student living in rented accommodation is almost twice the cost involved for students living at home. This underscores the reason for a non-adjacent rate of grant. Where mature students are living within 45 km of their college the measure in question brings the grant level that will be paid to them from next September in line with all other students in similar circumstances.

In general, it was considered that none of the changes in budget 2011 would result in a student losing a grant or becoming ineligible for a grant. However, if the approach was not taken to target grant reductions in areas where students' costs are genuinely lower, a far deeper cut than the 4%, which was introduced for all grant levels in January of this year, would have been needed. The potential impact of this on all students, particularly those on the lowest income, was taken into account.

From next September, all eligible students, including mature students, living more than 45 km away will get the non-adjacent rate of grant and those with particularly low incomes will still qualify for a top-up in the special rate of grant. In addition, the student assistance fund at some €5 million continues to be made available through the access offices of third-level institutions to assist students in exceptional financial need.

I regret that the economic circumstances of the country are such that the Minister is not in a position to reverse or vary any of the changes to the student grant schemes, including that for mature students.

General Medical Services Scheme

I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for giving me the opportunity to raise the issue and I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Shortall, for taking the matter.

The charging of medical cardholders for blood tests was raised with me just after the general election in February. A couple were asked to pay for a blood test even though they were in possession of a valid medical card. Of course they paid because they were worried about their health and felt that failure to pay would result in failure to have a test, resulting in the illness going undiagnosed or untreated. They were confused and decided to pay as of course they would.

They worried about how they could afford it and whether this was just the start of a creeping system whereby they would pay for more and more services while at the same time being in possession of a medical card. I know they were not the only couple as others across County Meath have contacted me, and I believe it is common in other counties for GPs to charge people for taking blood, even though those people have medical cards.

At present, one in every three people in the country has a medical card or a GP card, and this number has been increasing since the start of the recession. The HSE's figures suggest that by the end of this year up to 40% of the population will be in receipt of a medical card. The overall cost of the GMS scheme to the Exchequer was just under €2 billion in 2009 and payments to GPs under the scheme total approximately €500 million every year. Some 2,100 GPs are in receipt of a GMS contract and the average payment to each of them is approximately €225,000. Payments vary throughout the country but, of course, on top of those payments GPs are also entitled to take on private clients, so the total payments going into a GP's practice could typically be of the order of €400,000 to €500,000 per year.

There was an 8% cut to the payment a couple of years ago and the Irish Medical Organisation argues that this makes it more difficult for GPs to provide services. However, not one GP has opted out of the GMS contract so, clearly, it is not that difficult to cater for the 8% cut. It is intolerable and unfair that GPs are asking vulnerable people to pay a blood test charge, which is a direct attack on poor people. Personally, I am disgusted any doctor would do this.

I am glad to see the Minister of State, Deputy Shortall, in the House. We need to have clarity on this issue so I ask the Minister of State to outline the situation and clarify whether GPs have the right to charge people with medical cards for blood tests, what they can charge for and whether the Minister will be issuing guidance in this regard so we can clear up the matter once and for all.

I thank Deputy Hannigan for raising this matter. I know it is an issue he has been concerned about for some time and he first raised it with me shortly after being elected to this House. I am glad to have the opportunity to provide clarification on the matter. A number of other Deputies have raised it in parliamentary questions also, so it is important we get this clarification.

Under the General Medical Services contract, a general practitioner is expected to provide his or her patients who hold a medical card or a GP visit card with all proper and necessary treatment of a kind generally undertaken by a GP. Where blood tests form part of the investigation and necessary treatment of patients' symptoms or conditions, these should be provided free of charge to medical card and GP visit card holders.

The HSE also points out that in many GP surgeries it is the practice nurse who takes blood samples. The HSE significantly subsidises the cost of employing practice nurses. In fact, last year the executive provided €39 million in allowances to GMS GPs in this regard.

There are almost 2,300 GPs contracted by the HSE to provide GP services under the GMS scheme to more than 1.6 million medical card holders and 120,000 GP visit card holders. As Deputy Hannigan pointed out, GPs within the GMS receive payments up to approximately €500 million in this regard. The HSE has recently reported to my Department that it has received approximately 30 formal complaints from GMS patients regarding GPs charging for blood tests and there have also been a significant number of queries to the HSE's national information line about this issue. Formal complaints will be dealt with through the HSE's consumer affairs service.

The GMS contract prohibits GPs seeking or accepting payment from patients for the provision of services under the contract. I am disappointed that a minority of GPs have disregarded this provision and have chosen to charge patients whom the State has deemed to be unable to meet the cost of medical services. As Deputy Hannigan said, these are the most vulnerable people. At my request, the HSE has recently written to all GMS GPs reminding them of their obligations under their contract. I will be monitoring the situation closely to ensure this unacceptable practice is brought to an end. In the meantime, public patients should contact the HSE if they believe they are being wrongly charged for services by their GP and the matter will be appropriately investigated.

I appreciate that because of the nature of the GP-patient relationship, it may be difficult for patients to make such complaints. Where public representatives are made aware of GPs charging GMS patients for blood tests, they may wish to notify the HSE directly.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. I assure him of my determination to address the issue and bring an end to this practice.

Industrial Development

I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for the opportunity to bring this very important issue to the attention of the House. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, to give a commitment that a new IDA manager will be appointed for the north west and that the Letterkenny IDA office will remain open and will remain as a hub for attracting new industry to Donegal and the north west.

In recent weeks, the outgoing manager for the region has been promoted to a national role working with engineering companies, which means that the role is now vacant. In addition, the other member of staff in Letterkenny has also been appointed to a national role. This means that the Letterkenny office is not now working in the way it was before, namely, working to attract industry to Donegal and the north west. I urge the Minister of State to give a commitment that this situation will be rectified immediately and that we will continue to have, as we have always had in recent years, an office in Letterkenny working to ensure industry is attracted to the area.

I am particularly concerned that the IDA has made this move without first ensuring it had an exemption and permission from the Minister for Finance to replace that role and appoint a new north-west manager before moving the person out of the role. That shows where the IDA's priorities currently lie, which is not with ensuring the north west and Donegal have people working on its behalf to ensure we get our fair share of investment. This, allied with the fact the IDA manager for the north-east region of Monaghan, Cavan and Louth has not been replaced either since retirement, indicates that the IDA is moving away from giving the support that is required to Border counties.

I very much hope the Minister of State will be able to give us an assurance that the situation will return to the way it was before, and that we will have a manager and an office. In these difficult times, foreign investment has been the key to driving Donegal, in particular Letterkenny, which has been a gateway area. I will give some examples of how this has benefited the town and the county. In September 2009, SITA announced an extra 80 jobs to bring its employment level up to 150. In December 2010, Zeus Medical Devices invested €10 million to create 75 new jobs over three years. Pramerica has been expanding constantly since 2000 to a point where it now has in excess of 800 employees. In July last year the UnitedHealth Group announced 200 new jobs to add to its total of 340.

As we all know, it is more difficult to attract jobs to the regions, which is why the regional manager structure and the regional office structure have been in place in recent years. During these most difficult of times for attracting investment, I hope the new Government will not announce it is moving away from a structure which has been important for County Donegal and the north west. I urge the Minister to give us a commitment on the appointment of a new north west regional manager for the IDA and on the retention of an office in Letterkenny.

I am taking this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation.

The IDA is an autonomous agency set up by statute with a mandate to attract foreign direct investment in manufacturing and internationally traded service industries into Ireland and support new and existing foreign direct investment operations so as to maximise the related industrial employment, output, exports, economy expenditures including wages and corporation tax contributions. The management and location of IDA staff is a day-to-day operational matter for the agency and not one in which the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation has a function.

The IDA's head office is located in Dublin and the agency has a number of regional offices throughout the country as well as a network of marketing offices globally. The IDA decides where it needs to invest its resources to meet its strategic goals. The agency has informed the Minister that the north west was in the unique position of having two IDA offices, in Letterkenny and Sligo, respectively. These have now been merged into one north-west regional office based in Sligo. Under the national spatial strategy Letterkenny is one of nine gateway locations and will continue to be a key location for foreign direct investments. The north west contains 36 IDA client companies which employ almost 5,000 people. Letterkenny had two key client announcements in the past year, with a 200 job expansion of UnitedHealth Group to more than 400 employees and Zeus, which expanded its manufacturing facility to create 75 additional jobs. Examples of other client companies in the Letterkenny are Pramerica with 800 employees, SITA with 90 employees, Medisize with 140 employees and Abbot with 140 employees. The IDA's focus on these key clients and on the north west continues through one north-west regional office based in Sligo.

The IDA's strategy, Horizon 2020, sets out the agency's targets for direct job creation in the FDI sector to 2014 of 62,000 direct jobs in 640 investment projects over the period, resulting in an additional 105,000 jobs overall. In implementing this ambitious strategy the agency has also set specific regional goals of securing 50% of all investment in locations outside the two major cities and transforming the existing FDI base throughout the country to develop, retain and grow employment in client companies operating here.

In the context of achieving successful implementation of its strategy and challenging job creating targets, the IDA is maximising efficiency by increasing its focus on business generation and client facing activities which will ultimately benefit all regions. The transformation of the IDA involves the redeployment of its staff into client facing activities, an expanded footprint in the marketplace, an increased allocation of resources for existing client companies to retain and grow their presence and a more efficient support to front-line staff through reorganised shared services internally and externally with partner agencies. Since the launch of its strategy in March 2010, the IDA has carried out a business transformation process which examined every job in the organisation. This process identified operational changes that could be implemented to support achievement of Horizon 2020, areas of duplication which could be addressed by improved processes and areas where additional information technology could be used to bring about staff savings. The outcome of the process provided opportunities to free up staff resources for core business generation activities and needs additional staff to ensure the IDA meets its job targets. The process specifically identified potential changes in how the IDA drives business to regional locations, manages its property portfolio, the preparation and dissemination of information and the application of information technology.

The objective of the regional transformation is to enable a more focused and intensive emphasis on driving new investments into regional gateway locations that will benefit the entire region by changing the role of staff located in those areas to increase contact with key infrastructure and service providers and developing regional value propositions that provide a compelling attraction for clients in identified sectors. They will have closer interaction with targeted investment and their needs, as well as meet identified needs in the business generation area.

While the Minister accepts that in the period 2008 to 2010, IDA staff numbers fell from 302 to 268 and are due to reach 254 by the end of 2011, the IDA has indicated that the overall staff complement in 2011 is sufficient to implement its current strategy in the period to 2014. The Minister has every confidence in the abilities of the IDA's board and senior management team to manage the available resources to enable the agency to continue to win FDI for this country, even in the face of the most difficult economic circumstances.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.15 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 12 July 2011.