Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 11 Jun 2013

Vol. 806 No. 1

Topical Issue Debate

Pyrite Remediation Programme Implementation

As this is Deputy Helen McEntee's first Topical Issue, I wish her every success.

Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle, for allowing me to raise this Topical Issue. I also thank the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government for being present in the Chamber. I know this issue was and has been raised on numerous occasions by my late father and other Deputies. It is important for us to keep the ball rolling on it. As the remediation process starts, it is important that we keep it moving. It is great that we are at the stage we are at and I thank the Minister for his help on the matter to date. I know it is a very important issue for him, as it is for me and many others. I do not think many people thought we would reach the current position, with an end in sight.

The welcome announcement before Christmas of the establishment of the Pyrite Resolution Board was a great Christmas present for many home owners. Having met the chairperson and members of the board, it is fair to say their dedication and commitment are obvious. They want to see this through as much as anybody else does. Having said that, we are not there yet. No homes have been fixed and we still have a long way to go.

The website of the Pyrite Resolution Board, which was launched just two weeks ago, is a welcome addition to the process. The read-only website summarises the scope of the scheme, the qualification criteria and the various steps involved in the remediation scheme. I understand the next step will see the website going live. The board will be able to begin accepting applications at that point. After this has happened, I hope the main priority will be to put funding in place. There is no point in going through all of this if we have no money to fix the homes affected. I am well aware that a non-profit company, Pyremco, which was established to oversee the remediation process is drawing down a loan from the banks involved. Obviously, the initial loan will only be able to go so far. We need to ensure the pyrite levy Bill is passed before the summer recess. I am concerned that delays will occur, as this tends to happen with any new scheme. I hope this will be one less delay for us to have to worry about. As we know, it took some time for this problem to come to the forefront and I firmly believe it will take a long time to go away, if it ever will. We need to ensure funding is available in the years to come in order that it will be available to those who may find pyrite in their homes in the future.

As I have mentioned, this issue has been ongoing for six or seven years. Home owners still have some problems, unanswered questions and fears after all that time. In that context, I would like to put three proposals to the Minister. I urge him to consider them and consult the Pyrite Resolution Board on them. First, I wish to make a proposal regarding the three categories - red, amber and green - in the three-tier system. We hope approximately 1,000 homes will fall into the red category initially. However, there is a great deal of confusion about those in the amber category. I ask the Minister to consider moving straight to the amber category when all the homes in the red category have been remediated and fixed. The homes in the amber category should not be allowed to deteriorate until they reach a condition that would qualify them for inclusion in the red category.

Second, I would like to make a proposal regarding those who have to organise their own accommodation initially and, therefore, face an extra level of strain and pressure. They are already paying a great deal of money for homes which are, in essence, worthless. I wonder whether the Minister will consider providing some assistance for those who might not be able to afford this.

Third, I ask the Minister to consider reimbursing those who have already fixed their homes. I am aware that the cases of the small number of people in this category have been raised previously. A number of home owners in County Meath have already fixed their homes at great cost and they have had to remortgage their homes. I ask the Minister to consider the proposals I have made.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue which is very important for her and the other Deputies who represent Dublin North and the Meath constituencies.

Following the Government's recent approval of the general scheme of a pyrite remediation Bill, work is under way to develop the legislation as a matter of urgency. It is my intention that it will be published and enacted in the shortest possible timeframe. I look forward to the co-operation of all Members of the House in this regard. The advancement of proposals for homes in the red category mentioned by the Deputy is a priority for me. In accordance with the general scheme, the Bill will provide for the imposition of a levy on the quarrying and the non-life insurance sectors, as recommended in the report of the independent pyrite panel in July 2012. The report outlines a means of providing the funding necessary for the remediation of pyrite-damaged dwellings where no other forms of redress are available to the affected home owners. The Bill will also aim to establish the Pyrite Resolution Board on a statutory basis. The broad remit of its role will require a strong corporate governance structure to be in place to ensure the public interest and the particular interests of the affected home owners is best served.

The Pyrite Resolution Board has made excellent progress in developing the scope and detail of a scheme, including the terms and conditions of the scheme dealing with eligibility, assessment criteria, procedures and priorities, etc. Answers to many of the questions asked by the Deputy can be found in the conditions of the board's scheme. The Pyrite Resolution Board recently launched the initial phase of its website, www.pyriteboard.ie, on which it provides an outline of the proposed remediation scheme, including the scope of the scheme, the application process and detailed guidance and information for home owners on how to identify significant pyritic damage and the steps involved in the assessment of such damage. The information on the website will give affected home owners sufficient knowledge and direction to enable them to consider whether they qualify for the scheme and what steps they have to take to avail of it. The proposed scheme will provide for the remediation of private dwellings with significant pyritic damage, where the home owners have no other viable option to have pyrite remediation works undertaken. The next phase of the board's website will include an online application system. It is intended that this will be available in July.

Affected home owners can now register their interest on the website and will be notified when the application system goes live.

The three construction stakeholders - the Construction Industry Federation, the Irish Concrete Federation and HomeBond - are currently in the process of establishing a not-for-profit entity to operate the pyrite remediation programme under the direction and supervision of the Pyrite Resolution Board. Discussions are also continuing with the financial institutions with a view to making a loan facility available to the not-for-profit entity being set up by the construction stakeholders to facilitate the early commencement of a remediation scheme.

I thank the Minister for his response. With regard to the statement that discussions are continuing with a number of the financial institutions, can the Minister provide clarity as to when this might happen? As I said, one of the most important points in regard to keeping the issue moving is to ensure we have funding in place. The Minister might explain this point.

On another question, while there are obviously many charges we do not want home owners to incur, there is a fear that people will be charged above what they should be charged with regard to prices for the initial building condition assessment. Is it possible to consider some sort of regulation of this to ensure as little cost as possible is incurred by the home owners?

The Pyrite Resolution Board is very conscious of the need to minimise costs to home owners who wish to avail of this scheme. I point out to the Deputy, however, that the State is not liable in any way. Were it not for the political interest shown by Deputies in the House and by myself, as Minister, we would not have a scheme at all. This is something people often do not realise. The financial institutions are prepared to make a contribution. We have been discussing figures but this must now be referred to the credit committees of the respective financial institutions in the next short while, and I expect a positive outcome to those matters before the end of this month.

Water and Sewerage Schemes Provision

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this issue and thank the Minister for being here in person to discuss it. The Minister has seen the reports that Fingal County Council has identified the site at Clonshaugh as the potential site for its sewage treatment plant. I am sure he is familiar also with the concerns of local politicians and of residents' groups. Effectively, what we have here is Fingal County Council choosing the least contentious site for itself because the only residents it will affect around that site are actually Dublin City Council residents in a different council area. This is where the Minister's Department has to step in. When there are two competing interests between Fingal County Council and Dublin City Council, there has to be a higher authority that can adjudicate between the two situations. I know of residents in Darndale, Priorswood and Clonshaugh who are furious with the potential for a Fingal-based plant to impact on their lives.

Most people have always argued for a series of smaller plants, and seven is the number that has been most agreeable. From the point of view of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, does the Minister not believe that to have seven plants would be more environmentally sound and would make more sense? The plant would also impact on a local GAA club, Craobh Chiaráin, and its lands. The idea of having a plant the size of Croke Park at that location is surely environmentally unwise, does not take into account the 10,000 submissions that were made from Fingal residents and certainly does not take into account the 2,500 homes that would potentially be beside this site.

The Deputy should conclude.

The main point I want to register with the Minister is that, in my view, Fingal County Council has made a decision which is politically advantageous for it because nobody in Fingal will necessarily be affected by this plant being beside them as it is Dublin City Council residents who will be affected. I would like to get the Minister's response on that point.

As has been said, the construction of the €500 million sewage treatment plant at Clonshaugh was confirmed by Fingal County Council yesterday. It will serve up to 700,000 people across 26 km from south Louth to the greater Dublin area. The proposal has stirred a high level of opposition and there are a number of real procedural problems with how the Government has dealt with this issue so far. Despite the efforts of the Taoiseach earlier today to evade questions and shirk responsibility, it lies under the remit of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to provide funds for this project, so Deputy Hogan holds the purse strings on this issue and he determines if funding should be made available - it is called political accountability.

The 12,000 residents of the area who have objected to this location have been completely ignored heretofore. The Minister has actually refused to meet the groups of residents and listen to their concerns, despite the fact €18 million of taxpayers' money has already been spent on the project. The refusal to meet is particularly unjustifiable given the scale of the problems with the scheme. It is only to provide a secondary treatment of sewage as opposed to a tertiary treatment model, leaving it well below international standards. I remind the House that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, previously stated he would investigate the matter and would seek to have a cost-benefit analysis of the proposal prepared. He has since, like the Taoiseach earlier today, washed his hands of it. I hope the Minister, Deputy Hogan, will roll up his sleeves and not do likewise. Will he commit to a meeting with the residents groups? Will he commit to undertake a cost-benefit analysis of the scheme before he releases funds for it or will he blindly accept a fait accompli? Will he not exercise the sort of leadership we expect and exercise conciliation and negotiation rather than imposition, which appears to be the mantra of the Taoiseach and the Government in recent times?

I thank Deputies Ó Ríordáin and Cowen for raising this important issue. The greater Dublin drainage project is a critical wastewater project which will facilitate employment and economic growth in the wider Dublin region, not just in one local authority area, and contribute to improving and protecting the environment. From extensive examination over many years, it is clear there will be insufficient drainage and wastewater treatment facilities in the region by 2020 if the project is not progressed at this stage.

This project was part of the greater Dublin strategic drainage study, for which a strategic environmental assessment was completed in 2008. This assessment, which was a systematic evaluation of the likely significant environmental effects of implementing the project, was subject to a statutory public consultation process. In March 2011, Fingal County Council appointed consultants to prepare a preliminary report and environmental impact assessment for the project. In October 2011, as part of the alternative sites assessment and route selection report, Fingal County Council identified nine potential land parcels in the northern part of the greater Dublin area within which a proposed regional wastewater treatment plant could potentially be located, along with a marine outfall and an orbital drainage system.

The council carried out an eight week non-statutory public consultation seeking views on the proposals and the land parcels. These nine land parcels were then assessed as potential locations in which to site the regional wastewater treatment plant. The routes for the orbital drainage system and the marine outfall pipe locations were also assessed. Site-specific information, more in-depth desktop research and detailed site surveys, as well as feedback from the public, were used to assist in identifying the locations with the least impact under 15 criteria. Of these nine land parcels, three sites were then identified by the council as emerging preferred site options in the alternative sites assessment and route selection report. The three emerging preferred site options were located at Annsbrook, Clonshaugh and Newtowncorduff. A new eight-week non-statutory public consultation ran from May to July 2012. As part of this process, four open days were arranged by the council where the public could meet with the project team and discuss the report.

Following consideration of all submissions, Fingal County Council yesterday announced that its consultants have published a report entitled, The Alternative Sites Assessment and Routes Selection Report Phase 4: Preferred Sites and Routes Report, for the greater Dublin drainage project. The report details the process used to appraise the three short-listed site options and identifies the preferred site option for the development at Clonshaugh. Now that the preferred site is identified, the council will prepare detailed plans and complete an environmental impact statement. This EIS, together with a planning application under the strategic infrastructure Act, will be submitted to An Bord Pleanála. An Bord Pleanála will carry out its own statutory public consultation on the project, which typically involves an oral hearing. In advance of that, I understand the project team is holding public consultations over the next eight weeks to seek feedback on what should be considered in the EIS.

In response to Deputy Cowen, I point out that if I was to meet residents while the matter was about to be referred to An Bord Pleanála, I would certainly be accused of political interference.

I have refused to meet residents because I am statutorily part of the process as Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and, therefore, cannot meet any of the residents.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I take issue with the suggestion that there has been an extensive consultation process because, as I have already said, the bulk of the residents who will be adjacent to this proposed site in Clonshaugh are resident in the Dublin City Council area and have not been involved in any consultation process undertaken by Fingal County Council. There is a suspicion that this location was chosen purely because it would not have an impact on any residents Fingal County Council is charged with looking after.

I reject the Minister's statement. Given that the funding is coming from his Department, we must question the construction of something as large as Croke Park in a place such as Clonshaugh and the environmental implications thereof, because it will surely be shot down by Europe at the end of the day. Why are we waiting for that process to be completed instead of looking at a more low-scale development, such as the proposal for seven plants across that area to facilitate what we are trying to do? The vast majority of residents who have contacted my office about this colossal plant have not been consulted about it. We need to look again at what I consider to be a wrong-headed project.

I thank the Minister for his response. I do not disagree with the process that has emerged since 2008 in respect of the necessity for a drainage scheme. I do not question the chronological series of events that has evolved since then concerning preferred route selection and the public consultation process that emanated from that. Before the Minister gives his sanction to and commits the funding - in addition to the €18 million already in place - for the next stage of this development, which is the preparation of a detailed environmental impact statement that will be submitted to An Bord Pleanála, I ask him to take account of the representations made to members of my party in the greater Dublin area and public representatives within his own party and that of his coalition partners who question the manner in which the consultation process was conducted. Many feel they did not have a meaningful part to play in that process. They say they need a meeting with the Minister to be updated about the process and for the Minister to reaffirm the consultation process as being beyond reproach. If that is the case, the Minister should sit down with them and tell them so they can be satisfied that every effort has been made by all those who represent the State in respect of the funds that are spent on behalf of the taxpayer to achieve the desired result.

The Minister should not ignore the feelings of people and the representations being made across all political parties on this issue. He should show the sort of leadership we expect from him as Minister with responsibility in this regard.

Before the Minister replies, I remind Deputy Cowen that when the Chair is speaking to him, he should not ignore it. I ask him not to speak over me and will note it for future reference. He will not do it again.

It is clear from what Deputies Ó Ríordáin and Cowen have said that there will be unease about where any plant is located. As a public representative, I am not immune to that. However, it is also clear that we need the facilities. We will have difficulties with job creation and opportunities in the greater Dublin area if we do not invest in infrastructure such as wastewater treatment systems in the years ahead. No matter what location is chosen, there will obviously be some concerns at local level. A process was laid down by various planning and environment Acts when Deputy Cowen's party was in government and it was laid down for a good reason. If all politicians were to be involved in making decisions about the siting of these facilities, in many cases, developments would never happen. It is an independent process that involves a detailed consultation programme. I have sympathy with what Deputy Ó Ríordáin said about not being consulted, but he will get another opportunity because the planning application must be lodged, An Bord Pleanála will be involved and there will be another consultation period during which people can make submissions. That is the way for people to indicate their concerns about these matters. These are the devolved statutory functions laid down under the planning Acts over the years. I can certainly list the necessary processes that must be completed for the benefit of the Deputies if they wish, but as somebody who just provides the funding for a project once it goes through the various stages, including An Bord Pleanála, my hands are tied.

Pupil-Teacher Ratio

I wish to share time with Deputy Mary Mitchell O'Connor.

The Deputies have two minutes each.

And we have one minute for a reply.

As many others in this House have done, I represent some very unhappy parents and children in fee-paying schools. They are unhappy because they see the pupil-teacher ratio being raised to 23:1 in September, with the intention of another increase - possibly to 27:1 - by 2015, and because they see themselves as victims of an ideological policy that makes no sense and a Labour Party plan, based only on ideology, to remove all public funding from private schools as soon as possible.

The idea that private schools are necessarily the privilege of the elite is not always true. In some cases it is true that only some people can afford it, but in many other cases parents make great sacrifices. They save, scrimp and do not do things other parents do in order to educate their children in the way they feel is best for them. This is particularly true in schools that have a different ethos from the majority. I am referring to Church of Ireland schools and schools of other religions and denominations. In these cases, parents feel that because that they have such little choice, they must send their children to schools where that ethos is predominant. Twenty out of the 55 affected schools are fee-paying and they feel they are being discriminated against. What we need is an assurance from the Minister that they are not threatened and will not be treated in this way and that fee-paying parents are making a contribution to the State. If this trend continues, the State will be landed with more expense rather than less.

I thank Deputy Ross for sharing time. Parents and pupils living in the constituency of Dún Laoghaire have a serious problem because they do not have the choices enjoyed by parents throughout the country when it comes to sending their children to voluntary secondary schools, community schools or VEC schools. Due to a historical overhang and through no fault of their own, many parents have to trump up for their children's education. Many schools in my area did not enter the voluntary system in the 1960s. Therefore, parents are forced to pay in order for their children to access second-level education.

Of course, many parents choose to send their children to privately funded schools. However, many of my constituents have lost their jobs, taken cuts in their salaries, are paying huge mortgages and have paid the household charge. They are not immune to the recession and quite honestly, many can no longer afford to pay for their children's education. For example, in Navan town, parents have a choice of four free voluntary schools in the town and they also have access to schools in Dunshaughlin, Trim, Kells and Nobber. In Tuam town, parents have a choice of four free voluntary schools. However, in my area with a population of approximately 107,000, second level pupils have a choice of four to five free voluntary schools in the whole of the Dún Laoghaire constituency area. I also wish to draw the attention of the Minister and to argue on behalf of schools of minority faith in my constituency and throughout the country which, for historical and geographical reasons, will be negatively affected by a pupil-teacher ratio which will be much higher than in other schools. This is unjust and unfair. Parents have paid their taxes on their incomes and they should be able to spend their hard-earned cash on their children's education without their children being subjected to larger classes. I ask the Minister to accept these arguments against any further increase in the pupil-teacher ratio for private schools.

I thank the Deputies for giving me the opportunity to outline to the House the position on this issue. The Government has protected front-line services in schools to the greatest extent possible in the recent budget. Therefore, there will be no reduction in teacher numbers in primary schools and in free second level schools for the 2013 to 2014 school year. The DEIS scheme for disadvantaged schools is also fully protected with no overall changes to staffing levels or funding as a result of the budget. At post-primary level, a two-point increase in the pupil teacher ratio in fee-charging second level schools will be introduced in September 2013. This is in order to promote fairness in funding second level schools.

There are currently 55 schools out of 723 post-primary schools charging fees ranging from €2,550 to €10,065 for day pupils. At present, the State pays the salaries of one teacher for every 21 pupils in these schools compared with one teacher for every 19 pupils in schools in the free education scheme. A ratio of 18.25 pupils to one teacher, applies in DEIS schools. This will rise to 23:1 in fee-charging schools from September 2013.

However, these schools have the resources, through fees charged, to employ teachers privately, an option that is not available to schools in the free education scheme. A report on the analysis of the tuition income of fee-charging schools carried out by the Department was recently published. It shows these schools have €81 million in discretionary income that is not available to schools in the free scheme. It is important to note that the report does not contain any policy proposals at this stage. However, even after the budget changes are implemented, the discretionary income available to these schools will still be quite considerable.

There are some concerns within the Church of Ireland community about the recent budget measure affecting fee-charging schools. This Government recognises the importance of ensuring that students from a Protestant or reformed church background can attend a school that reflects their denominational ethos while at the same time ensuring that funding arrangements are in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution. The issue of providing education for widely dispersed and small local communities does present a particular challenge, especially where enrolment is declining to single figures. The Government wishes to foster pluralism in school provision and regards supporting small communities, including minorities to maintain their schools as being part of that policy.

With regard to the fee-charging Protestant schools, an arrangement exists whereby funding is provided by my Department to the Secondary Education Committee, an organisation run by the churches involved in managing the Protestant secondary schools. The SEC then disburses funds to the Protestant fee-charging schools on behalf of pupils who would otherwise have difficulty with the cost of fees and who, in the absence of such financial support, would be unable to attend a second level school of a reformed church or Protestant ethos. Funding amounts to €6.5 million annually. This fund ensures that Protestant children who require financial support can attend a school of their choice. In conclusion, I wish to confirm that the Minister and Department officials will continue to engage with the relevant education sector stakeholders, including the Church of Ireland and boards of education on education provision for all areas.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply which is full of aspiration and provides no comfort whatsoever, except fine words, about what the Government would like to do and how it recognises the ethos and the difficulties of the Church of Ireland schools and other schools. This train has already left the station in that Kilkenny College has already opted to go into the public sector and other Church of Ireland schools and minority schools and other fee-paying schools which are not Church of Ireland schools, are already considering going into the public sector. The consequences of this decision are simple. Whatever the effect on the ethos, the effect on the Exchequer will be detrimental. In depriving people of this right, the Minister is costing the taxpayer a significant sum. I refer to a PwC report which found that a saving of €3,500 was being made to the State for each privately-educated pupil. This is a kind of a win-win situation but for ideological reasons the Labour Party is kicking people in the teeth. When people are prepared to make this sacrifice, whether it is right or wrong, when they are prepared for a particular education for their children, the State should not kick them in the teeth but rather it should be grateful and it should say "Yes". I have been approached by schools like Wesley College in my constituency and other schools who see the Minister's particular attempts to take away money by the back door as threatening their ethos and their future.

I will be very brief. The points I tried to make were that the parents in my constituency do not have a choice. They all scramble to try to get their children into the State-funded schools and if this is not possible, they have nowhere else to go. I am not exaggerating when I say that we have only four to five State-funded schools in the area. Our pupils have nowhere to go. The Minister of State can talk all he likes about the fund of €81 million available to the private schools but people in my constituency who have lost their jobs or who have taken substantial cuts in their salaries and whose children are 11 and 12 years of age cannot afford to pay and they have nowhere to go. What can I advise them, as their public representative? I was a school principal in an area and this was a constant problem. I have been assured by the new principal that the problem has got worse in the past years. Despite all the talk about what the private schools have in their funding, I am worried about the parents and the children and their education and not about the private schools, per se.

Deputy Ross referred to five Protestant comprehensive schools which do not charge fees. Second level schools such as Kilkenny College and previously Wilson's Hospital, have demonstrated that they believe they can maintain and promote their Church of Ireland ethos through the free second level scheme.

I have referred to the report and the analysis which we cannot dismiss. It shows clearly that €81 million of discretionary income is not available to schools in the free scheme and that there is a mechanism funded to the value of €6.5 million annually which allows for the disbursement of moneys through the SEC to pupils who would otherwise have difficulty with the cost of fees and, in the absence of financial support, be unable to attend a second level school of a reformed church or Protestant ethos. There are mechanisms in place. Fee-paying schools have been treated in budgetary terms in exactly the same way as all other religious ethos schools in a manner consistent with the Constitution. The Department is open to discussions with any fee-paying school of Protestant ethos on transitioning to the free scheme and will look at each case sympathetically and in detail.

State Examinations Issues

We are all aware that the leaving and junior certificate examinations are taking place. We are also aware that there have been shortcomings in examination papers, as widely reported in the media. These shortcomings relate not only to the leaving certificate higher level maths paper but also to the junior certificate civics, social and political education paper. While we will all be concerned about this as citizens, the greatest effect is felt by the pupils and their parents who find themselves facing uncertainty about the errors in the examination papers. The State Examinations Commission has a good run-in period of 12 months to organise the examinations. There is something amiss about the fact that it has not been able to carry out a simple task within this period and produce examination papers which are accurate and guard against the mistakes we have seen. I have no confidence in it, not only on foot of the issues I have cited but other matters also. The Department should consider sacking the commission or undertaking a very strong review of its ability to carry out the functions with which it has been entrusted.

There has been some talk about the commission having the papers printed in another jurisdiction. I do not have a great problem with this as other member states do the same. There are very good reasons for having examination papers printed in another jurisdiction. However, I have an issue with the fact that while the commission has the papers printed at a cost to the taxpayer of €500,000, within days of the end of the examinations, private companies obtain, publish and sell them without paying any fee. Last year they made €3 million. I raised this issue two or three weeks ago.

While I welcome the Minister of State, I am disappointed that the Minister is not present to answer Members' questions on this and the last Topical Issue. I look forward to some form of Dáil reform which I hope will include a requirement that the senior Minister attend the House to deal with Topical Issues.

As we are dealing with the examinations issue, the Minister is fully aware that 50,000 students are sitting the leaving certificate examinations this year. I wish them all the best in the rest of their examinations. There was an increase in the number sitting the higher level maths paper from 11,000 last year to 15,000 this year, which was extremely welcome. Members have spoken to the Minister at the committee about the STEM subjects which I am also pushing strongly. We are trying to change the dynamic of the workforce and it is only through STEM subjects that we can lay the foundations for a sustainable working environment in the future. I want the Minister of State to relay to the Minister that one must be able to assure the students who sat the higher level maths paper and the CSPE paper at junior certificate level that they will be treated fairly. I studied higher level maths virtually until the leaving certificate examination and know how much pressure students are under in taking that subject. They should be given fair treatment in the marking of examination papers.

Will the Minister of State provide the House with an assurance that there will be no repeat of these issues during the rest of the examinations period? When the examinations are over, the State Examinations Commission must be brought before the Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection and thoroughly grilled about the way in which it let students down. It is all about trust. We trust students to work hard and deliver on subjects. Can the commission be trusted to deliver on examination papers?

Context is everything and the overall examinations infrastructure in Ireland stands up to international scrutiny in terms of the level of educational attainment, etc. I acknowledge the validity of the points made by the Deputies that the number of errors in the examinations is a cause for concern. The State Examinations Commission has expressed its regret for the errors made. In response to Deputy Anthony Lawlor, I have a delegated function as Minister of State and have responsibility for the project maths curriculum, for example. As such, one could say the Deputy is addressing the line Minister on this issue. I take the point he is making which is important.

As we are in the midst of the examinations process, it is important to reassure pupils who went through this issue yesterday that the errors will be taken into account in the marking scheme. The State Examinations Commission sets the papers in an independent process, which is very much at arm's length from the Department. Issues arose yesterday, however, for which there must be a degree of accountability to the parent Department in the resolution of such issues into the future. As the Deputies said, what we must do now is ensure we get pupils through the rest of their examinations. We must ensure the remaining examination papers are robustly checked to avoid errors and that there is a reporting mechanism and a degree of accountability by the State Examinations Commission to the Department about what occurred in the papers referred to by the Deputies.

From a logistical point of view, in a typical year the examinations involve over 116,500 candidates in over 4,900 main examination centres and 10,000 special centres, over 250 test instruments, 90 curricular and 15 non-curricular subjects, over 6,000 examiners, 3 million individual exam papers comprising over 34 million pages and just under 2 million test items. Notwithstanding that, errors still took place. If we acknowledge the errors took place, all we must do is ensure there is a degree of accountability. There must be accountability for why the errors took place and the reparations in terms of how we ensure it does not happen again.

I do not agree with the analysis that we should sack members of the State Examinations Commission, which has been an independent agency since 2003. I strongly believe there should be full accountability in a transparent way with regard to what happened to the papers. I am confident we will get the answers to the questions in due course. While the leaving certificate and junior certificate are ongoing, we should ensure students and parents are assured and remain confident the State Examinations Commission will take into account the errors made. The errors will be recorded and reflected in the marking scheme and no one will be at a disadvantage as a result of the errors. From the initial statement of the State Examinations Commission, I am confident that will take place.

I thank the Minister for the frankness of his reply. Exam time is one of the most distressing and stressful times for children. I do not know if it is as stressful as fighting a general election but that is an exercise for another day. Given the age profile of those undertaking leaving certificate and junior certificate exams, and the stress that exists, everything should be done to prevent what has happened from happening. I accept the State Examinations Commission is independent, which is quite right. It is very difficult to have full confidence in any commission, irrespective of its independence, given what has happened. I acknowledge the statement to which the Minister of State referred. The commission said it would rectify it, and I hope it will, and that it was sensitive about the matter. In my contribution, I said the only way of allaying these failures is for the people concerned to be sacked or for the Minister of State to consider a review of the operation. We should not be back here next year, having the same debate.

I thank the Minister of State for his reassurance with regard to the students who have taken the two exam papers. It is all about trust, which is something the State Examinations Commission must rebuild and part of that involves accountability. The best place for accountability is in the committee and I urge the commission to come before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection so that it can explain clearly how it will introduce checks and balances so that something like this does not happen again. I wish students the best in the days ahead.

If we are sending a message from the House, the important thing is that we give the assurance that no student can be disadvantaged as a result of an error on the examination paper. I doubt any student is watching these proceedings but if their parents are watching or if this debate is reported, it is important to give them a sense of confidence that whatever errors occurred will be reflected in the marking scheme in a way that ensures students are not put at a disadvantage. I am confident that will be the case vis-à-vis how the State Examinations Commission will handle this matter. I have confidence in it in that sense.

I take on board what is being said in respect of a review. We need to get the students over the line for the remaining exams and give them a sense that this will be sorted out. There must be a degree of accountability and whether that involves an entire review is not something to go into at this stage. One must allow for some margin of error in anything one does in life. That is not to justify anything that happened but we must ensure that errors such as those in question 8 and in the CSPE exam, for example, do not happen again. Where fundamental errors occur, checks and balances should be put in place to ensure they are weeded out at an early stage and that there is a proper filtration process. At this juncture, I wish to reassure people that the marking scheme will reflect the difficulties students experienced in the exam and the time lost in terms of answering questions. That must be reflected in some compassionate way and I am confident it will be.