Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 19 Feb 2013

Vol. 793 No. 1

Topical Issue Debate

School Curriculum

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this topic. It is highly relevant given that the Minister of State is visiting Kinvara today to launch a CoderDojo club. Approximately 4,000 young people are involved in CoderDojo, which emerged as a result of a deficiency in science and computer science subjects in the education system. I welcome the emphasis on the STEM - science, technology, engineering and mathematics - subjects in the new junior certificate cycle and the introduction of standardised testing for the science subjects from 2016 onwards.

The rationale for science is that it contributes to a balanced and broad educational experience for students, extending their experience at primary level. It is concerned with the development of scientific, literacy and associated science process skills and an appreciation of the impact science has on our lives and the environment. In an era of rapid scientific and technological change, the study of science is fundamental to the development of the confidence required to deal with the opportunities and challenges such changes present in a wide variety of personal and social contexts.

In 2006, Dr. Carol Gibbons, a former deputy chief scientific adviser, stated that we must foster and grow an interest in science at a very early age. Dr. Gibbons is now senior investment adviser at Enterprise Ireland and her statement remains relevant. In my area, the Kerry Group is generating technology jobs and Intel and Hewlett Packard are major employers.

Sadly, many of these companies have difficulty in finding Irish people with the relevant qualifications to take up positions. This issue has arisen at the jobs committee in terms of accelerating the processing of work visa applications for people at that level.

Ireland is unique among 21 countries in that science is not compulsory at junior cycle level. Students in Irish schools receive a lower proportion of teaching in science, approximately 8%, compared with the EU and OECD average of 12%. As with mathematics, it has been reported that fewer than 30% of teachers who teach a scientific subject have a degree in that subject. Many schools lack adequate laboratory facilities, as a result of which there is a tendency to reduce the amount of science taught.

I welcome many of the changes to the junior cycle. In driving our economy in a new direction, though, our emphasis will be on education based around science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, subjects. Making science a compulsory subject for everyone will be vital. Will this idea form part of the Minister's proposals on a new junior cycle?

In the context of junior cycle reform, A Framework for Junior Cycle was launched on 4 October 2012. The implementation will begin on a phased basis in 2014. The cohort of young people entering first year in September 2014 will be the first to partake. All of the existing subjects, including science, will continue to be available. All students will be required to experience 24 statements of essential learning as part of their junior cycle programmes. These statements describe what students should know, understand, value and be able to do at the end of junior cycle, having fully engaged with and participated in the junior cycle programme of their schools. Irish, except where there is an exemption, English and mathematics will remain core full subjects.

One of the 24 statements of learning refers clearly to science when it states, "values the role and contribution of science and technology to society, and their personal, social and global importance". Furthermore, science is also recognised in the junior cycle framework as having a key role in a number of other statements of learning. From 2016 onwards, there will be a standardised test for all second year students in science. This gives a particular importance to science in the framework. Schools will also have the option of providing locally developed short courses of 100 hours, supported by exemplars developed by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA. However, it will be a matter for schools to determine from the range of subjects and short courses on offer how these statements of learning will be met.

Overall, my Department is in favour of leaving the decisions on what is offered at the school's discretion and of students having as broad a range of options to choose from as possible. Schools are best placed to identify the needs of their students. The junior cycle framework gives them the flexibility to meet their students' needs in the most appropriate way.

Currently, science is not a compulsory subject in the junior cycle. However, the overwhelming majority of students, some 88%, opt to take it. The specifications for science are being developed by the NCCA. The new specifications will be implemented in schools from 2015. We know that there will be a greater emphasis on school work than heretofore. In the recast junior cycle syllabus, some 40% of the marks will be awarded for the second component, that is, work in the classroom, and only 60% for the final exam. This will allow students and their instructors to engage to a greater extent in practical learning. Hopefully, it will encourage more students to continue their science and maths studies into the senior cycle and beyond.

I welcome the statistics, but I am disappointed that science will not become a core subject. The Minister mentioned the three core subjects, those being, Irish, English and mathematics. I have a problem with Irish being a core subject. It only seems to be so because the universities have set it as an entry requirement. Science is of more relevance and importance.

I am concerned that schools will be given the flexibility to decide on what subjects to provide. Science costs more and requires laboratories if it is to be maintained as a core subject. A number of parents have approached me with concerns that their children, who will be starting the new cycle in 2014, might not be offered science because the number of classes that their schools can teach will be limited.

Another problem is teachers, in that we do not have enough. This problem dates back to the Celtic tiger era when many people did not take scientific subjects.

I would love to see science as a core subject. If we are to drive our economy, it will be through maths, English and science. These will help us to extricate ourselves from this situation.

I broadly agree with the views expressed by the Deputy. At one point, we were going to restrict the number of subjects that could be done in the new junior cycle to eight, of which three would be the core subjects. In reality, almost 90% of young people are taking science. Making it compulsory would run into the difficulties to which the Deputy referred, since some small post-primary schools of 200 plus pupils would not have the resources or facilities to provide the course. The level of uptake is high at 88%.

Giving schools and pupils the choice to run their junior cycle in the revised system of ten subjects rather than eight, which was the original thinking, plus the specific breakdown of subjects that might replace a course, will provide some flexibility. I hope that, as we move forward, science will become embedded and will be regarded for all intents and purposes as a core subject along with the others.

Anti-Racism Measures

I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for allowing me to raise this issue and I thank the Minister for his attendance. I raised this issue with him previously by way of a question on the yellow flag programme. I will explain, for while the Minister knows the House might not.

The yellow flag programme is described as a "progressive equality and diversity initiative for primary and secondary schools" that "promotes and supports an environment for interculturalism." Through a co-operative approach involving students, staff and management, it is possible to consider issues of diversity and equality. These should not be seen as school subjects. Rather, they should be taken outside the school setting, as they affect everyone's life.

We are all familiar with the green schools project. In parallel with that environmental programme, the yellow flag programme is a practical scheme with an award as an incentive. Following completion of the eight steps involved and an external assessment, a school is awarded the yellow flag in recognition of its work in promoting diversity and inclusion.

When I raised this issue last December, the Minister replied:

My Department has not provided support for the programme referred to by the Deputy, which I understand was run as a pilot project in some schools. In view of the current economic climate, funding for new programmes, including this programme, cannot be considered at this time.

I was disappointed by the Minister's answer, as the programme would not be expensive. The Minister might inform me of the situation, but I hope that the pilot scheme has been successful. As the Traveller movement has stated, there is a great need for diversity among teachers and for additional anti-racism training at the colleges of education. The teaching practice programme should send a message of diversity in the education system.

Gaelscoil Riabhach in Loughrea, County Galway, has a yellow flag. Nationally, 26 schools are working on the green flag scheme and 30 have been awarded it, including Gaelscoil Riabhach. Thirteen schools are working towards the yellow flag, including St. Patrick's boys' national school in Tuam, County Galway.

I hope that we can make more progress.

I am worried that the Children's Rights Alliance has awarded the Government an E grade for its unsatisfactory performance on issues affecting Traveller children. Likewise, any cutbacks to education should not affect Traveller children in the education system because it would only reinforce and condemn another generation of young Traveller children to exclusion and marginalisation. I hope the Minister will examine the issue again. The yellow flag programme is worthwhile and perhaps the Department might be able to support it.

The yellow flag programme, based on the same principle as the green flag environmental education programme, and developed by the Irish Traveller Movement, ITM, is a school-based programme and award scheme which recognises a school's work in promoting diversity and inclusion. The programme works through a model based on eight practical steps which allows schools to apply the steps to the day-to-day running of the school. The yellow flag programme is a practical scheme with an award incentive. Following completion of the eight steps and external assessment of the school, it is awarded its yellow flag in recognition of its work in promoting diversity and inclusion.

The programme operates through a co-operative approach of students, staff, management, parents and wider community groups so that issues of diversity and equality are not merely seen as school subjects but can be understood and taken outside the school setting into everyone's personal lives, creating an environment for inclusion with a long-term impact on wider society. The yellow flag programme was initially piloted in four schools, two primary and two secondary, in 2008 to 2009. A further 17 schools in Dublin, Wicklow, Clare, Galway, Louth, Meath, Kerry and Limerick have been included in the programme.

The yellow flag programme is a private initiative supported by philanthropic funding. It is not funded by the Department. I am pleased to say that the authors of the yellow flag programme, the Irish Traveller Movement, were consulted on the development of the anti-bullying action plan which I launched recently. The ITM made a comprehensive submission and also met the anti-bullying working group to outline the particular issues that arise for children from the Traveller community who experience bullying at school and the role of the yellow flag programme in addressing the issues. The action plan report recognised that while bullying can happen to anyone, some groups are particularly at risk. A number of submissions to the working group focused specifically on vulnerable groups including children and young people from the Traveller community. The working group recommended that the definition of bullying in the new national procedures for schools should include a specific reference to identity-based bullying and that all grounds of harassment under the Equal Status Acts should be listed in anti-bullying policies - gender, including transgender, civil status, family status, sexual orientation, religion, age, disability, race and membership of the Traveller community.

The popularity of the yellow flag programme means that it clearly strikes a chord with schools who wish to develop inclusive and respectful school communities. I hope it will be possible for the Irish Traveller Movement to continue to make it available to schools. At the very least I hope that some best practice and learning in this important area can be extracted from its use to date for wider use.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I am especially pleased that he mentioned the anti-bullying policy developed by the Department. He is correct to state that an issue arose about identity-based bullying. That has been raised by many interested parties, in particular by the Irish Traveller Movement. I hope the Department will support the initiative to tackle identity-based bullying. One way of doing so is the yellow flag programme although I am not sure where the funding will come from if we are depending on the philanthropic sector. The yellow flag programme should be supported in the same way as the green flag scheme for the environment, which has been supported by local authorities and the Department.

The bottom line is that schools have changed and different challenges and issues face them. We must move to deal with them. I hope it will be the case that the rights of ethnic minorities will be dealt with by the Government at a later stage. The Children’s Rights Alliance award of an E grade to the Government suggests we face a serious challenge. I hope the Minister will deal with the issues confronting schools. Different issues face schools currently and significant challenges arise with the diverse school population.

I thank Deputy Kitt for raising the issue. He has had a particular interest in it for some time and I welcome the fact that he has raised it again today. However, we do not have the additional resources that are necessary. We have focused in a major way on bullying in the school place, both within the classroom and outside and within the entire school community. The guidelines on bullying within the Department of Education and Skills were last examined in 1993 and 20 years later we have focused on the manifestation of bullying in all of its current forms, including identity bullying and specifically in the context of Travellers being bullied or harassed because of their identity and special ethnic background.

What the Deputy has raised is constructive. Discrimination, bullying and ostracisation are in a related space to bullying, as defined within the new guidelines on bullying. The guidelines have been made available to various groups and through the Irish Traveller Movement I urge them to utilise that particular vehicle which is being funded. I have allocated €500,000 to promote the guidelines in various forms. I ask Deputy Kitt and the Irish Children’s Rights Alliance to align the new guidelines with the yellow flag programme to achieve the same outcome and desired results he has brought to the attention of the House.

Roads Maintenance

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as teacht isteach anseo inniu. I thank the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, for attending to respond to the issue I raise. Most of my constituents, as with the vast majority of constituents, are decent law-abiding citizens. They pay their car taxes and property taxes. They are paying an ever-increasing array of taxes which the majority of them have no difficulty with and are happy to so do. However, they are asking a legitimate question of their elected representatives, namely, what are they getting in return. There is only so much one can say about righting the wrongs of the past and explaining to them that it is a case of putting on the green jersey. People in my constituency do not make a lot of demands on their elected representatives, and most of the demands they make are reasonable. One issue that is important and is always contentious in west Cork is the road network people have to travel every day. It is a large tract of land with a large road network and people are constantly challenged by the conditions they must endure. That has been particularly exacerbated in the past 12 months. The Minister will be aware of the crumbling road network as he recently visited the constituency. We are grateful for the visit. I do not refer lightly to the crumbling road network. I do not wish to be populist or to overly play my hand.

The road network is crumbling for a number of reasons. They include the inclement weather and the challenging flood events we have had in recent years. There has been a significant reduction in the overall amount of funding for roads. The most important factor has been the lack of maintenance for a number of decades. Water has simply not been removed from roads. I am not an engineer and do not have an engineering background but it is not rocket science to realise that if water is left on the road, it will increase the challenge to maintain the road. When driving on the roads, one can see the floods of water washing the roads away before one's eyes. It is disheartening.

I am a big fan of the old adage that if one always does what one always did, then one will always get what one always got. I call for a root and branch review of how the tens of millions of euro the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport allocates to Cork County Council on an annual basis is spent. The Department must show leadership. I am aware the reduction in funding being allocated to roads is primarily as a result of the reduction in the finances of the council. I acknowledge the rebalancing the Department brought last year to the overall funding for Cork County Council which brought it more in line with funding for other counties pro rata on the basis of size and the length of road network. That is much appreciated.

I am not here to look for another €10 million or €20 million because I live in the real world and I know that we will not get that kind of money. We must be much more clever about how we use the moneys we have. I plead with the Minister to instruct his officials to engage with councils and to have a root and branch reform of how these moneys are spent and of how we can maintain our road network. We must go back to basics: we must clear the waterways, remove water from the roads and in that way allow the roads to be strengthened. If that were to be forthcoming from the Minister's Department, I would be very appreciative.

During the past three years I have worked to have a scheme established and I made several pleas to the previous Administration in this respect. I use this opportunity to renew my plea to the Minister to support me in my efforts to get a scheme up and running. I would ideally like a pilot scheme that would allow unemployed people to assist on road maintenance work to be run in county Cork. Dozens of people have approached and pleaded with me in my constituency office to establish such a scheme. These are people who are long-term unemployed who do not want to be sitting at home and would love to contribute to the overall benefit of the community. I hope the Minister would consider establishing such a scheme in due course along with the re-organisation and a reappraisal of how the money allocated to councils is being spent on the roads.

I thank the Deputy for the opportunity to address this issue. The House will be aware that the issue of the maintenance and upkeep of regional and local roads was the subject of oral questions earlier today and I dealt with many of the issues and circumstances surrounding this issue then.

As with any debate on the matter of the roads network, be they regional, local or national, the House will be familiar with the qualifying preamble. As Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I have responsibility for overall policy and funding in relation to the national roads programme. The planning, design and implementation of individual road projects is a matter for the National Roads Authority, NRA, under the Roads Acts 1993 to 2007 in conjunction with the local authorities concerned.

Within its capital budget, the assessment and prioritisation of individual projects is a matter in the first instance for the NRA. Its budget for improvement and maintenance works on national roads is €318 million for 2013. The improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads is the statutory responsibility of each local authority, in accordance with the provisions of the Roads Act 1993. Works on those roads are funded from local authorities own resources, which are supplemented by State road grants paid by my Department. The initial selection and prioritisation of works to be funded is also a matter for the local authority.

I announced the 2013 regional and local road grant allocations on 25 January this year. A total of €348 million is being provided under the regional and local roads investment programme this year and, from that allocation, Cork County Council is being provided with more than €39.7 million.

The level of grants allocated to individual local authorities is determined having regard to a number of factors. These include the total funds available in a particular year, eligibility criteria for the different road grant schemes, road pavement conditions, length of road network, the need to prioritise projects and competing demands from other local authorities. In determining the annual grant allocations, the overall objective remains to supplement the resources provided by each local authority in a fair and appropriate manner.

Ireland has a uniquely extensive road network. There are approximately 98,000 kilometres of road in the network which represents two and a half times the EU average in terms of kilometres per head of population. The maintenance and improvement of this extensive network of roads places a substantial financial burden on local authorities and on the Exchequer.

The devolution of control of regional and local roads is very important. With the vast network of roads serving very disparate needs from small farmers to large multinationals, a one size fits all based regional and local roads maintenance regime would not be appropriate in my view. I believe that the decisions should be made locally by local public representatives.

Given the current financial position, the main focus has to be on the maintenance and repair of roads and this will remain the position in the coming years. There have been very large reductions in roads expenditure during the past number of years and there will be further reductions in the future. In 2007 the grants from my Department stood at €363 million and that fell to €232 million this year.

It is also important to reiterate that the role of Exchequer grants for regional and local roads is to supplement councils like Cork County Council in their spending. The contribution made by Cork County Council, which is the road authority for the area, has fallen in recent years in both real and percentage terms. In 2007, Cork County Council provided €30 million in own resources for expenditure on regional and local roads, representing 34% of the total amount spent on roads in the county in 2007. This own resources expenditure has dropped to €9.4 million or 18% of the total expenditure with the State providing €43.7 million in 2012. This contribution of 18% does not compare favourably with other large counties. Kerry, for example, provides 30% and Meath provides 34%.

I appreciate that many local authorities are in a position where they are trying to implement savings. However, I think that for some local authorities to complain about reductions in Government grants or to seek additional funding is missing the point when they, at the same time, have reduced their own contributions by a greater proportion. I appreciate that the Deputy has not called for additional funding in this regard.

The reality is that the available funds do not match the amount of work that is required. My Department and local authorities are working closely together to develop new, more efficient ways of delivering the best outputs with the funding available to them. Given the likely squeeze on Exchequer funding, this concentration on efficiency is essential to ensure that we achieve the best outturns for the limited money available.

I wish to mention two further points. Among the things being done is "map road", which is an IT based system, where all the roads and all the road works that are done all over the country are essentially mapped online and that will allow us to use this system much more efficiently in the years ahead.

The Minister's time has elapsed.

Also, local authorities will probably get more flexibility in how they can use funding under the different headings.

I thank the Minister for his response. We would be delighted with any additional funding that would be made available to Cork County Council. On a serious note, we are borrowing billions as a nation every day to provide a whole array of public services. This is about menu options and about our priorities. If the Minister were to ask the people in west Cork what is a priority for them, they would say that roads are top priority for them. I am not coming in here every day looking for something else: that is how the people there genuinely feel. They are entitled to have good roads. The county has been neglected for decades in the national spend on roads. The Minister's Department has an increasing responsibility to ensure the money that is allocated is being spent wisely. Information I received recently showed that up to 65% of the money being allocated by the Minister's Department is being spent on payroll when private contractors could carry out similar type works for up to 18% to 20% less. We have a responsibility to examine how the money is being spent. It is time the Department took a more hands on approach with the councils to see what is happening on the ground. The allocation of the money is one thing but that in itself is not enough.

Will the Minister confirm if he would be willing to consider supporting a pilot programme I mentioned being carried out in the county of Cork? It would allow for engagement with his Cabinet colleagues, the Ministers, Deputy Hogan and Deputy Burton. I have spoken to them and to their officials to try to progress a scheme that would allow unemployed people to assist on road maintenance works under the auspices of Cork County Council. I will meet the director of services in the council on Friday. I will also meet those in the farm relief services as they will have an input in organising the voluntary contribution of people in this respect. I ask the Minister to confirm if his Department would be willing to support a pilot project being carried out by Cork County Council that could be then replicated throughout the country.

The short answer to the Deputy's question is "Yes". I would be very supportive of a scheme that would allow people who are currently unemployed to be taken on by local authorities to do outdoor work. I know the Minister for Social Protection and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government have done some work on that already and certainly my Department stands ready and willing to assist in that. If the pilot programme is in Cork, I would be happy for that to be the case but the lead has to come from Minister, Deputy Hogan, who is responsible for local authorities, and the Minister, Deputy Burton, who is responsible for social protection. Certainly, my Department is willing and ready to assist in any scheme like that. It is a good idea but there are issues that would have to be addressed around employment rights and so on and they need to be taken into account.

The reality of the situation is that we probably now spend only about 60% of what is required to maintain the roads to the standard that we should maintain them. Taking the money spent by councils and by central Government together, it is only about 60% of what is required. What we have done, as a Government and as a society, is decided that we will prioritise pensions, public sector pay and benefits over infrastructure and that is starting to show. It is showing in our roads, our schools, the lack of primary care centres and the lack of child care facilities but it was not always that way. If we look back to the 1990s about 3% of the entire Government budget went on transport. During the boom period when we were building all the motorways, the percentage increased to about 5% but it has now decreased to around 2%. As a proportion of the national budget, we have never spent less on transport and it is starting to show. It is showing across our infrastructure in general because we as a society have decided that we will have pay, pension and welfare rates that are much higher than countries of a similar wealth. That is starting to show in our roads, schools and infrastructure. It is an area about which we as a society need to have a debate.

Local Authority Housing Maintenance

I wished to raise this matter because it is becoming a more prevalent issue in my day-to-day work in my constituency of Dublin South-Central, where much of the housing stock is of a certain age. It may also be related to climate change and changes in our weather patterns. In St. Teresa's Gardens and other large local authority flat complexes there are also issues of mould, dampness and condensation.

It has come to my attention that when a council house becomes "void", or vacant, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government provides funding to bring that house up to an acceptable building energy rating, BER, standard. However, sitting tenants cannot access any of that money. Tenants are also advised that the carrying out of repairs due to condensation is their responsibility, but that is not what I am talking about here. My concern is about the insulation of homes and the anomaly I have discovered is like a form of apartheid, whereby a council tenant cannot apply for a grant but a private home owner with a mortgage can. Furthermore, the local authority cannot apply for a grant on behalf of a sitting tenant.

A climate change Bill is being prepared at present and there have been discussions on a national policy to reduce fuel emissions and the use of fossil fuels and so forth. At the same time, in one of the largest housing stocks in the country, namely, local authority housing, tenants cannot access insulation. Many tenants are not in a position to get loans from their credit unions to carry out such work because money is so scarce. This is an issue that could be dealt with in the context of the forthcoming climate change Bill. We could allow the local authorities to apply for grants for insulating homes or, ideally, there should be a national programme of public works for all council housing, public buildings, schools and so forth. The DEIS school in Bluebell, for example, is crying out for insulation because of the amount of heat being lost from the building.

I ask the Minister of State to give her opinion as to whether an insulation programme could feed into the climate change legislation. Is there a basis for changing the current legislation to allow either council tenants or local authorities to access grants for insulation? Are there any plans in the pipeline in the Department to upgrade local authority houses with sitting tenants?

On a separate matter, Deputy Jim Daly raised the issue of unemployed people doing outdoor local authority work. If Deputy Daly is sitting twiddling his thumbs any day, perhaps he should make himself available because he is already getting well paid. If there is work to be done, it should be paid for.

I thank Deputy Collins for raising this matter and share her concern on the need to address the issue of inadequate insulation and draught proofing in older local authority housing stock. Given the constraints on capital budgets across all areas of the public service, my Department is now placing greater emphasis on local authority social housing improvement programmes to improve living conditions and comfort levels for tenants. The enhancement of energy efficiency standards remains a priority within my Department.

As Deputy Collins has said, the grants under the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland scheme are for private houses only and fall within the remit of my colleague, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte. In the past, funding for housing maintenance programmes was provided from the local authority's own internal capital receipts. However, with the decline in internal capital receipts, funding has been provided from my Department for the retrofitting and improvement of the housing stock, particularly with regard to energy efficiency measures. Under my Department's social housing investment programme, local authorities are allocated funding each year in respect of a range of measures to improve the standard and overall quality of their social housing stock. The programme includes a retrofitting measure aimed at improving the energy efficiency of older apartments and houses by reducing heat loss through the fabric of the building. Again, as Deputy Collins has pointed out, over the past two years, the retrofitting measure focused on improvement works to vacant houses, known as "voids", with the objective of returning as many as possible of these dwellings to productive use and combating dereliction and associated anti-social behaviour. Over that period some €52.5 million was recouped to local authorities in respect of improvements carried out to 4,774 dwellings. Deputy Collins is correct that these were "voids" and were not occupied houses.

I am currently reviewing the terms of the energy retrofitting measure for 2013 to target grants at those older houses and apartments which lack adequate insulation and draught proofing. Local authorities should pay particular attention to dwellings which accommodate older people and people with disabilities. My Department will issue revised guidelines to local authorities in the context of the capital allocations under the housing programme for 2013. Work is under way in this regard and my Department requested local authorities to submit details of their capital requirements under the various measures within the housing programme. This information is being assessed at present and I intend to advise individual authorities of their capital allocations as soon as possible.

The retrofitting programme offers a very practical and cost-effective way for local authorities to improve the standard of their housing stock. The programme brings immediate as well as long-term benefits for the community as a whole in terms of sustaining and creating jobs and delivering a greener Ireland for the future. The programme also reduces peoples' energy bills, which is a very important consideration.

It is clear to me that we need better information to give sharper focus to the overall national improvement works programme and to better target resources at areas which will give the best return on the investment made. My Department, in conjunction with the local authorities, has now commenced an audit of the 130,000 social housing units. Over time, this will build up a comprehensive profile of the stock and enable the compilation of planned housing maintenance programmes locally and the development of targeted strategies to address deficiencies in terms of thermal efficiency and so forth. Next year, I intend to use the results of the audit to inform the capital allocations to local authorities.

In the last two years the emphasis was on vacant houses with the objective of getting them back into use. I have specifically asked that now we focus on occupied houses. In many cases tenants have been in place for a long time and have maintained their homes as best they can but they have serious problems with dampness and so forth. Once again, I thank Deputy Collins for raising this issue.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. This is an area that needs to be addressed urgently. I know of a young woman with two children who moved into her house in Drimnagh in 2010, just after the BER rating system was introduced. Almost every week she has to wash down the walls on the ground floor of her house to remove mould. Her young children had to move out of the house over the Christmas period because it was in such a bad state. The response from the council has been to advise her to open windows, open vents and not to dry clothes indoors. She is doing all of that but the same thing keeps happening. She is caught in a bind because she cannot get a grant to insulate her home to prevent the dampness. She is getting no assistance from the council in this regard and has reached a point where she does not even consider it a home anymore. I know of another family who have been living in Pim Street in Pimlico for four years who have the same problem with mould. They are constantly wiping down the walls, using chemicals to remove the mould but it keeps returning. It is going onto their bedclothes, mattresses and is becoming a nightmare for them.

There is no recognition on the part of the local authorities that there is a problem. I contacted the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government to see if there is a list of complaints made about mould but was told there was no list. There must be a list because complaints are being made every day of the week. The person in Pim Street to whom I referred has been making complaints for the last two years. There is something wrong somewhere.

A root and branch analysis is required to identify where the problems are and then they should be addressed. Next year is too long to wait for some people. Is there some way, in the short term, that tenants can access grants?

We want to gather the information, as the Deputy said, and find out where the problem houses are located. We have asked the local authorities to do that. This year I hope to be able to divert to occupied houses some of the money that would have been used for "voids". I also hope to develop programmes with the information we are gathering from the local authorities. It could be very cost-effective if, for example, there were a number of houses in a particular area and a single contract could cover the work on them. That could save a lot of money. The point about households saving money on fuel costs is also very important. A lot of the older local authority houses have very low BER ratings and are very energy inefficient. If we can improve them significantly, that will save money for householders as well. Like Deputy Collins, I have been shown many photographs of houses with serious mould which is very difficult to live with. People paint their houses but must do so again within a very short period of time. It is a genuine issue that we will address as best we can.

Sitting suspended at 6 p.m. and resumed at 6.30 p.m.