Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Postal Services

An Post recently signalled to the monitoring group its intention to close one of its four mail centres. Workers, rightly, are very worried and fearful that the announcement has been made just weeks before Christmas. In the past An Post often expressed an interest in closing one of the centres, but this time it has shown its hand early. The information I have received in recent days backs this up. Rumours are rife in Cork but also in the other mail centres in Dublin, Portlaoise and Athlone. The rumour is that Cork mail centre is to be targeted for closure or that there is to be a drastic downsizing of operations in the south. I seek confirmation as to whether that is true. I have been told that new equipment has been placed in two or three centres. Will the Minister also confirm if that is true? Nothing new has been placed in Cork mail centre, except the possibility of bad news.

Recently I tabled a parliamentary question to the Minster about the status of plans for Cork mail centre and its continued use in letter processing and other relevant roles, including investment in new equipment and staffing plans, in view of its importance to the region. To my surprise, the reply was not encouraging. I was told that the Ceann Comhairle had to disallow the question because the Minister had no official responsibility to Dáil Éireann in the matter which was an operational one for An Post. My view is that communications are at the heart of this issue and that the possibility of losing 200 jobs just after Christmas in Cork unquestionably matters. The staff are very hard working. Surely their loyalty to An Post matters. In recent months we have seen the closure of many rural post offices, pubs and Garda stations which has left rural communities feeling very isolated. On many occasions I have raised in this House the issue of rural depopulation. Now there is the possibility of urban depopulation as the next phase. Surely we cannot allow that to happen.

Only recently in this Chamber the Minister spoke about the need for An Post to be commercially viable. I accept that, but surely after it has turned the corner and given that it is now profitable, we are trying to fix something that is no longer broken. The fear is that a decision will be made to close this regional mail centre which will leave a very bitter taste in the mouths of loyal employees and their families for a long time. They are taxpayers and also voters in every constituency in County Cork. They have worked in tandem with An Post, with very modest wage increases in the last decade. It must remember that it has benefited greatly from its employees' good will. They now face the possibility of the closure of the only regional mail centre in Cork. Christmas is a short few weeks away. Will the Minister, please, not let this centre close? On behalf of the staff of Cork mail centre at Little Island, I appeal to him to support the retention of the services provided.

To a degree, the Deputy has answered his own question in that he indicated that decisions in this area are not ones for the Minister to make.

I did not say that; it was the Ceann Comhairle who said it.

He has recognised the reality that An Post is a commercial State body. He also knows that An Post has been through an extremely difficult period in the last couple of years. It suffered a 40% loss in mail volumes which brought it to a really precarious point last year when the outlook was very bleak for the 9,000 employed in it. The company has had to take some difficult decisions, including to increase significantly the cost of postage and restructure with voluntary redundancies. It has also been working to expand, find new business and pursue exciting new opportunities.

Some time ago, when An Post was in discussions in the Labour Court with the unions, it confirmed that, as part of its restructuring, one of its mail centres would close in 2019. However, it has been confirmed in the House previously that no decision has been made on which centre will close. Consideration of this issue is still ongoing. It will be a decision for the board and management of the company. It is a commercial company with a mandate to deliver postal delivery services and a viable post office and mail centre network.

In 2017, when the Labour Court issued a recommendation for a 2% pay increase in An Post from 1 July that year, payment was conditional on necessary cost savings being achieved. One of the requirements was conclusion of discussions on An Post's proposal that the size of its mail processing network be reduced. The recommendation provides that 50% of the savings arising from the closure of a mail processing centre will contribute to the cost of the pay award.

A lot of time and effort have been spent in the last two years in working on restructuring An Post which has found itself in a very serious financial position. This work was critical in order to save it and protect thousands of jobs and the post office network across the country. Postal services have been expanded from five days to six for parcel deliveries and collections in several areas. There is no doubt that continued transformation of the postal business will be difficult and require tough decisions to be made, but the new changes will be designed to make An Post fit for a future in which the organisation can be confident, robust and grow again.

I understand what the Deputy is saying about there being great concern when it has been flagged that one of the mail centres is to be closed. However, An Post has a strong reputation for working closely with the unions and worker representatives and handling such decisions in as sensitive a manner as is possible and sought to do so in its dealings. When the company introduced a voluntary redundancy scheme last year, the terms were generous and fair. Ultimately, we have to see An Post develop a trajectory for its business that will be sustainable in the long term.

That is why it is expanding into financial services with the recent decision in regard to Avantcard and it is developing mortgage packages and facilitating one-stop-shop locations for non-digital transactions. It is trying to develop its services.

I thank the Minister. To correct the record, I was only quoting the Ceann Comhairle's words.

The Ceann Comhairle's words are well worth listening to.

I have with me the document sent by the Communications Workers' Union, CWU, headquarters and it confirms one centre is going to close, so I agree with the Minister on that. As I said, however, there are rumours in Cork. There are three centres at Athlone, Portlaoise and Dublin, and one will possibly be taken out of Cork - that is the possibility for Ireland south. Cork is a huge county. It beggars belief, if we are to have a sustainable model that covers the four parts of the country, that we would not have a centre in each part of the country.

Another worrying thing I have been told by staff in the other centres, and I have no problem saying this, is that those other centres have been actively lobbying their politicians for a number of months, whereas Cork only received the news last week. My fear is that the unions would have known about this months ago. Why cannot all their members get a fair crack at lobbying and standing up for what they believe is right, fair and just? One of the quotes from the CWU was that it would write to representatives in Cork not to engage with politicians at the present time, which is worrying.

This is 200 jobs in County Cork. It is a very big county and we actually have our own passport, whether the Minister knows it or not. I am disappointed. Maybe it is not the Minister's fault but I am trying to get answers for employees and families just before Christmas. Nobody is giving me an answer as to what is going to happen with regard to 200 jobs in this centre, plus the knock-on jobs. The Minister is saying he does not know what is happening. I would appreciate if we could get a concrete answer and some assurance for the staff before Christmas.

I know Cork has a Passport Office but I did not know it had its own passport.

It is not new news that one of the mail centres is to close.

I understand that.

Back in September 2017 this was made clear at the Labour Court and it was part of the negotiations at that stage. This is not something that has been sprung.

I am assured that An Post will not take this decision on political grounds. This will be a decision taken in the best interests of An Post. It is trying to rebuild for the future against a backdrop where the volume of standard mail has dropped by 40%, and even this year it dropped by 8%. It has a real problem with the mail service. It is supplementing that by developing its parcel package service, which has grown by 20%, so it has been successful. It has negotiated a reorganisation of that service with its trade unions so it could grow in the way it is growing.

At the end of the day, An Post and its unions have to work together to build a restructuring plan that carves out the sort of future we all want for the company. That is what is happening. All I can assure the Deputy of is that this decision will not be taken by me or other politicians. It will be taken in the interests of the company and its workers by An Post, and it will go to the board in due course. The date for a decision is 2019, not 2018. That is all the assurance I can give the Deputy. I can understand his concern and that of his constituents but we have to allow the company and its workers to deal with this in the traditional way.

I hope it is not detrimental to the workers.

Local Authority Housing Funding

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy English, for attending. Louth County Council currently has 91 vacant council houses that cannot be brought back into use due to the lack of maintenance funding. I call on the Minister to provide additional funding to ensure that existing houses in need of refurbishment can be brought back on stream as this can happen in a much faster time than providing new builds.

Under measures announced in budget 2019, the Government is allocating Exchequer funding of almost €2.3 billion to housing programmes. In addition, local authorities will fund a range of housing services to the value of almost €93 million from surplus local property tax receipts, bringing the total housing budget in 2019 to €2.4 billion. None of this matters if the hands of the local authorities, such as Louth County Council, are tied in regard to refurbishing existing stock to bring it back into use. I ask that a portion of the funding announced in the budget be ring-fenced by the Department for local authorities for refurbishment works.

My local authority, Louth County Council, has been lauded in this House in many debates for its achievements in acquiring vacant houses under compulsory purchase orders, having purchased approximately 180 houses. It has been very successful in the use of those powers under the Housing Act to acquire non-derelict homes that are vacant as part of the local authorities' obligation to provide housing. However, it is regrettable that this success cannot follow through to refurbishment of council-owned voids and result in the provision of extra housing to service the ever-growing housing list due to lack of funding.

The housing department of Louth County Council has assured me it has a great working relationship with the Minister of State and his Department and it is working to the best of its ability to find solutions to the housing problem. Louth County Council, like every local authority, is grappling with significant outgoings from the housing department in terms of housing maintenance costs, which are not covered by grants, and the servicing of land loans, which in Louth total €65.3 million, with a cost of over €1 million annually to service the interest.

In regard to the scheme for refurbishment of voids that have been vacant for a longer period and need significant works, the amount of funding grant-aided runs to just €30,000, which is not enough. In Louth, additional works have been carried out on 15 properties this year, with an average cost of €15,000 per unit. This additional funding comes out of the housing maintenance budget. When we talk of casual vacancies, there can be a cost of between €5,000 and €10,000 to bring these houses back to a standard as they often have not been maintained for a number of decades, other than reactive maintenance. These costs are also incurred to facilitate transfers and may not even result in additional families being housed from the waiting list. Other costs that are eating into the budget for refurbishment of newly acquired vacant units relate to funding the use of direct labour on properties that the council has purchased to bring the home up to an appropriate standard. This includes upgrading electrical and plumbing systems, installing smoke alarms and so on, which is different to works on a casual basis.

I ask the Minister to make additional funds available to the local authorities from the budget measures announced to speed up the refurbishment of these vacant units. It is a disgrace that 91 houses are sitting empty when people could be occupying them.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. I agree with him that there is no excuse for 90 houses to be lying idle. If that is the case, I urge Louth County Council to discuss funding options with us.

To be clear, we have a voids programme which provides funding to refurbish housing. I understand that, this year, Louth County Council applied for 16 and was granted 15, and a claim was recently put in to draw down €166,000, which was paid out. We wrote to every local authority in October this year to ask them again if they had any vacant properties or voids, to bring them forward, and we told them that if these could be completed and tenanted before 14 December, we would be in a position to fund them. I am not aware of any additional application by Louth County Council for 90 units or anything close to that.

If 90 units are lying vacant that the council believes it cannot fund, we have a voids programme that has funded nearly 10,000 voids in recent years. Like many other councils, Louth County Council has brought forward many voids and I congratulate it on that. There is a great pipeline of projects and great work is being done in that regard. If Louth County Council has 90 properties, as the Deputy said, the voids programme is there to be used. We wrote to all the councils in October to tell them to use it and to draw down funding. Other counties have come forward with an additional 30, 40 or 50 units and we have provided the funding for that. There might be some confusion in this regard but there are funding options.

We do not have a timeframe for voids. There is some confusion. I have followed some of the debate about long-term and short-term in Louth. We do not specify a term because, if we did, people might be encouraged to leave houses vacant for a long time. We provide the funding to fix them. We are open to discussing that. We have a very good relationship with the Louth County Council. I have met representatives of it on numerous occasions. In this case some clarity may be required but the funding is there. I am not aware that there are 92 vacant council properties. I reckon from our research that maybe there are 40 and, if that is the case, we certainly would like to bring them back into use and fund them.

We are aware that there are other vacant properties that Louth County Council has purchased and we have used them as best example because it has done great work under the purchase and renew scheme, which is fully funded by our Department. There will be no issue of costs left if a council has purchased vacant properties, Louth being one of the leaders in this, and we cover the costs to purchase and repair them and bring them back into use. Louth has looked for 32 which were approved successfully and work is being carried out. It applied this week or last week for a further 36 under that scheme. I have no doubt that we will process them very quickly because it has done great work.

It is not the case that the council is left carrying the bill. The Department funds that scheme under purchase and renew and I am very clear about that because it is a scheme we want to encourage more local authorities to do. Louth has been the leading one in this and has done great work. We certainly would not leave it hanging for money, as it were, because we want vacancy tackled and the Deputy's local authority has been one of the best at doing that. It has been used at many of our housing summits as the best example of the purchase and renew scheme. We would encourage more of that. If there are several voids lying idle, we would ask it to bring them forward.

In general, maintenance historically has been carried out by Louth County Council, as by every other local authority. We fund the voids programme of houses that are left empty and need work done on them. We encourage local authorities to do their own maintenance. I understand the council is in the middle of budget discussions. I believe councillors should vote to have some money set aside for general routine maintenance but we do fund putting vacant properties back into use. The taxpayer, through our Department, has funded more than 10,000 this year. We had money and we wrote to everybody to do that this year. There is still time if they have vacant properties that they want to bring back into use. We have not started the month of December. They can give us a shout and we will see if we can sort this out.

I thank the Minister of State for his comments because I am delighted to hear him reiterate what I heard him say on local radio recently, that because of the success of the compulsory purchase orders, CPOs, and bringing other properties back into use, he would be amenable to additional funding. I welcome that. I tabled this Topical Issue matter early last week. There may have been an application that the Minister of State referred to and I take his word that it has come in, but that still leaves approximately half the number I referred to. I think the Minister of State indicated 46 houses, which subtracted from 91 leaves approximately 45 more houses, if my maths are correct. I stand over that.

I will be speaking to the department of housing in Louth County Council on Monday morning to make sure a further application is submitted to the Department on which I hope the Minister of State will look favourably. Louth County Council has also been advocating for the design of social housing schemes to be in line with a universal design for the past year and I have been told that the Minister of State has committed to changing the policy to do this, but the Department is indicating that it is unlikely to fund that element of works, for example, on a new housing scheme in Mount Avenue where special moneys were allocated. It is a no-brainer that standards should improve in new builds. Can this be considered again in view of the funding announced in the budget?

Louth County Council is also seeking the introduction of an asset management strategy for the local authority housing sections that we have funded centrally. I may be stretching this a bit but, as a result of Garda activity and the bulldozing of some of the sites that were causing problems in Drogheda, Cement Road had considerable works. Will the Department provide funding in the order of €50,000 to sort out that problem, which I am sure the Minister of State is aware of, arising from anti-social behaviour?

The Deputy packed a lot in there.

Two for the price of one.

I will work backwards. I am not in a position to write cheques for €50,000 off the cuff but I will get that checked out. If funding is required for something, it helps when the local authority makes an application for it. Then we can process the application.

In general we encourage a top-class quality and high design in all our local authority housing and there is a massive spend on retrofitting, but any new housing is high specification and most of the houses that I have seen being opened are at A2+, which is a high specification and certainly above what most people are providing. We are clear on this. While there is an urgency in respect of social housing, we are not reneging on quality or design. If there is some issue there, I would be happy to have that examined too.

I am not sure what Louth's proposal is for asset management. I have sat with the council but have not heard that mentioned. I am happy to consider it. We want to encourage the management of our assets, which is our housing stock, to a high order and for rents to be used to refurbish them in general in short-term re-lets. They would not need to enter the voids programme. That is something we would do well to encourage. The Deputy mentioned Louth having a landbank on which it is paying interest. I am aware of this. We have said in this House and in the council's office that the best way to reduce the cost of that land is to use it and to put forward a pipeline of projects. If it owns quite a lot of land, it could build more than a few thousand houses which would not all be needed for social housing. The landbank should be used for affordable and social housing and for some private element. That is the best way to return the money. We are very happy to work with it on proposals to use that land, bring down its debt, and provide much-needed social, affordable and private housing for Louth. I have mentioned that to the council in our meetings and will do so again.

In the voids programme and the money we provide for vacant properties, Louth applied for 16, we granted 15, and it has drawn down money for 13, of €166,000. It has also looked for 36 properties under purchase and renew, which were approved and dealt with, and this week it came back for 32 more. There are no outstanding applications for voids of which I am aware. The Deputy mentioned 92 and 40 but they are not on our desk.

Hospital Accommodation Provision

As happens in most Topical Issue debates now, with no disrespect to the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Catherine Byrne, the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, has just left the building. He was here five minutes ago and he has just walked away, even though this Topical Issue matter was down.

I demand that the Minister for Health provide immediate clarification regarding the future of St. Brigid's Hospital, Carrick-on-Suir. It is a wonderful institution and I salute the matron and staff there. It has a wonderful hospice suite. Only a few weeks ago a Fine Gael colleague of the Minister of State, former councillor John Fahey, spent his final weeks there. He was a decent fine public representative all his life. I offer sympathies to his wife and family. I have been trying to get clarification on rumours about this institution since I was contacted last Sunday. There is a new hospice suite and step-down beds. We know how hard it is to get a step-down place anywhere today in the country and the chronic problem that is making for our acute hospitals in south Tipperary, Westmeath and the region of Limerick. St. Brigid’s Hospital is like its sister hospital, St. Theresa's Hospital in Clogheen, which is a fabulous institution with a wonderful matron, Anne Walsh. The hospital in Cashel is a step-down facility as well. It is a tremendous institution.

We are beyond cuts. We cannot afford to lose one more bed. We have lost mental health beds and all kinds of beds, and the pressure that is putting on the acute service is silly. There is €17 billion annually going to into the HSE, with worse outcomes for respite and step-downs and convalescents. People go back there after having a hip done, if we have to send them up to Belfast or Ardkeen or Kilkenny, Cill Chainnigh. Serious concerns have been raised that the HSE may be considering closing the vitally important facility in Carrick-on Suir. Will the Minister of State clarify that for the sake of the staff, the patients, the matron and the community? Councillor Kieran Bourke and many others down there are asking that this facility be kept. Many people have contacted me.

I also ask the Minister to explain why the redevelopment of St. Patrick's Hospital in Cashel is not now expected to be complete until 2022. It is a wonderful institution and I pay tribute to its former manager, Mary Prendergast, and sympathise on her recent bereavement and the untimely loss of her husband. I pay tribute also the staff.

In June 2018, nurses at the hospital voted overwhelming for some form of industrial action to highlight the chronic staff shortage. The ballot for action was approved by 98% of them, citing growing fears for patient safety as their key concern. The nurses, care assistants and doctor we have thankfully found for the positions there do a tremendous job. However, they are not being supported. They are short-staffed and under pressure. Wards are being closed and cutbacks imposed. A massive redevelopment was announced there by the Minister, Deputy Harris, and by Deputy Kelly when he was in office. Indeed, Deputy Lowry has also made announcements. However nothing has happened. Planning permission has not even been applied for. There is no joined-up thinking. Beds are being closed yet they are vital to keep pressure off acute hospitals to allow people to convalesce or get physiotherapy.

St. Patrick's is an excellent institution in Cashel. There is a rehabilitation ward. My late mother was there and I know first-hand how many more patients there are. We need clarity and to have the building commence. Planning permission is not even applied for. We are going around in schemes and rhymes. Across the road, 400 yards away, Our Lady's Hospital is lying idle. That is why I was so adamant about the Minister being present tonight. I took him to the hospital to see it with other colleagues a year and a half ago and he was aghast to see that €21.5 million had been spent on that wonderful institution in which my appendix was removed years ago but it was lying idle but for offices. The top floor is splendidly redecorated and redeveloped but there are no step-down beds. It is a bed-free zone and a disgrace.

I am taking this matter on behalf of my ministerial colleague, Deputy Jim Daly. The overarching policy of the Government is to support older people to live in dignity and independence in their own homes and communities for as long as possible. This is clearly what older people want and only those in genuine need of residential care should go down that route. The standard of care delivered to residents in public units is generally high, but we recognise that many of our community hospitals are housed in buildings that are less than ideal in the modern context. Without them, though, many older people would not have access to the care that they need. It is important, therefore, that we upgrade our public bed stock and this is the aim of the five-year capital investment programme for community nursing units announced in 2016. This provides the framework to allow for an enhanced programme to replace, upgrade and refurbish these care facilities, as appropriate. Significant work was undertaken to determine the optimum scheduling of projects within the phased provision of funding to achieve compliance and registration with the Health information and Quality Authority, HIQA.

The HSE is responsible for the delivery of health and personal social services, including those at facilities such as St. Patrick's Hospital in Cashel and St. Brigid's Hospital in Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary. St. Patrick's Hospital, Cashel, and its associated facility at St. Anthony's unit in Clonmel, have an excellent reputation as care facilities. The hospital provides residential, rehabilitation and respite care to older adults in the south Tipperary area. The hospital is registered with the HIQA and the maximum number of persons that can be accommodated at the designated centre is 102 residents. Under the five-year investment programme, it is proposed to deliver a new community nursing unit at St. Patrick's to replace existing beds where the physical environment requires significant improvement. The challenges associated with the redevelopment of St Patrick's must be viewed in the context of the presence of a listed building on the site and its status as a working hospital. These challenges will be managed by the HSE as with other developments where such challenges present and the HSE now propose to progress this project via the traditional capital process and not through a PPP as originally planned. The project is currently at appraisal stage and is proceeding according to capital planning guidelines with construction projected to begin in 2020.

St. Brigid's Hospital provides convalescent, respite and palliative care and is registered with HIQA to accommodate 16 residents. In the latest inspection report published by the authority, the inspector found that residents' healthcare and nursing needs were met to a good standard. The feedback received from residents was generally positive and indicated that they were satisfied with the staff and care provided. The Deputy will be aware that the hospital is not included in the five-year plan for refurbishment and upgrading. However, I confirm that the HSE has advised the Department today that there are no plans to close St. Brigid's.

I asked the people in charge of older care and they reassured me by telephone. However, I wrote to them and they did not reply in writing. That is why there are worries. I want to allay fears; not create them. I thank the people who contacted me. They have the interests of the people of Carrick-on-Suir and the surrounding area in County Waterford and into County Kilkenny at heart. I thank them for contacting me and I praise the staff. Thankfully, the HIQA report was good. It is a wonderful institution but it is flat on the ground. I did not mention St. Anthony's, which is linked to St. Patrick’s. It is also a wonderful institution that deals with dementia care, people with Alzheimer's and acute cases. Cashel is not moving fast enough, however.

The Minister of State referred to the 2016 capital plan but it is almost 2019 and no planning has been applied for. She said works will start in 2020 or next year. We want to see that work start. It is not fair to the nursing staff, care staff and the doctor who are all dedicated. Dr. Willie Ryan has retired and we have a new doctor whom I wish well. We were lucky to get him and there were worries about that as well. There should not be scares on this. We should have the plan and proceed with it.

For that matter, St. Theresa's Hospital, Clogheen is short approximately €70,000 from the Department for its extension. I appeal to the Minister of State to allow the hospital to finish that extension. We need step-down facilities to take pressure off St. Joseph's in Clonmel, South Tipperary General Hospital, Waterford and all the other acute regional hospitals. We need the step-down facilities and not to have fears around them. I am, therefore, thankful that the Minister of State has said on the record that the HSE has informed her that it will not close St. Brigid's Hospital but I am disappointed it is not included in the five-year capital programme while the hospice suite is relatively new. A lot of funding was provided locally for that. St. Patrick's Hospital, Cashel, St. Brigid's Hospital, Carrick-on-Suir and St. Theresa's Hospital, Clogheen, are badly needed and I pay tribute to the staff in them. They do tremendous work. However, people are crying out when they get their hips done. The Government calls them bed blockers but they have no place to go for physiotherapy or respite care before or after operations. We need certainty around these facilities. There is no point talking about €17 billion in the HSE when there are issues like this. Above all is the madness of keeping Our Lady's in Cashel closed when other hospitals are under pressure. It is a state-of-the-art facility in which €21.5 million has been invested. It is a concern.

We all recognise the quality of work done in nursing homes and community care settings nationally, particularly by staff and doctors not to mention carers. Many people have taken up the role of carer in hospitals and become a central part of units, in particular units for older people. Public nursing units are central to our infrastructure. Without them, many older people would not have access to the care they need. These units will continue to be very necessary over the coming years. As the Minister has said, the number of older people is increasing in line with demographic trends. However, we must strive constantly to modernise and improve infrastructure and the settings in which these beds are being delivered by Government. It is, therefore, essential that these beds be put on a sustainable footing and that the fabric of the buildings in which they operate be modernised and improved. Having said that, it is expected that 4,500 additional short and long-term beds will be required across the public system and in community nursing units and other step-down faculties, as the Deputy said, and as identified by the health capacity review. Health capacity programmes under way include the planned investment in community nursing homes which will continue. I have been assured by Deputy Jim Daly that as Minister of State with responsibility for older people he is conscious of the work being done in many hospitals nationally. He realises the buildings may have become outdated but the staff have not. I thank Deputy McGrath.

School Placement

I thank the Minister of State for attending. I was contacted by the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Joe McHugh, this afternoon to say he could not be here due to a political engagement to which he committed some time ago. He asked if I wanted to leave the matter until Tuesday and said he would come in and reply at that point. However, I felt time was of the essence and decided to go ahead tonight. I appreciate the fact that the Minister got back to me, however.

Today is 29 November.

It is a significant day and that is why I wanted to address this issue in the Dáil. We have had an ongoing situation with the lack of secondary school places for young people in Newbridge. This has been going on over the last four to five years. There are many different Topical Issue matters that Deputies could raise but it is a shocking indictment on the education situation in Kildare that the last number of such matters that I have submitted have all been on education. They have been on autism spectrum disorder, ASD, places, the delays in St. Paul's in Monasterevin and this issue of absolutely needing to have a second level school in the Newbridge-Kildare area.

The reason 29 November is a significant date is that five months ago, the then Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, said that an announcement would be imminent on the possibility of the provision of a new secondary school in the Newbridge-Kildare area. There was some talk, which was welcomed, about the possibility of amalgamating the education and training board, ETB, school on the Curragh site and a new second level school, more than likely from Educate Together given that we have two Educate Together primary schools, one in Kildare and one in Newbridge, which are very well subscribed.

When I pressed the then Minister, Deputy Bruton, a few months later, he said that a decision would be made by the end of October. At the end of October I visited the Department of Education and Skills unit in Tullamore, together with the Minister, Deputy McHugh, and I was told by the officials that because of the issues around the buildings it would be pushed out for a month but a decision would definitely be made before the end of November and possibly in mid-November.

In fairness, I understood that there were issues with 42 schools around the country which placed a lot of demands on them, but here we are with one day left in the month of November and we are hanging on for a decision. Parents have been contacting my office all this week because they have not got places for their children in the three schools in Newbridge for September next. I have contacted the three schools and every one of them has a long waiting list for next September. This is simply not good enough.

As a country, we revere education and we put much investment into it and we say that we want all of our students to have an equal opportunity to learn, to develop themselves and to prepare themselves for life and for work. How can we do so when we have a situation where children are being turned away from schools? I am absolutely not blaming the schools. We have excellent schools in Newbridge but they simply do not have the capacity. When we look at the available figures, Kildare is one of the areas with the fastest population growth in the country and between 2011 and 2016, the number of children between the ages of 13 and 18 grew at a rate of 205% of the State's growth rate. That certainly has to indicate the absolute need for a new second level school.

I thank the Deputy. As the Deputy has already mentioned, the Minister, Deputy McHugh, could not be present and he apologises. It is due to a prior commitment between an Tánaiste and himself. I will set out for the Dáil the position with regard to post-primary provision in Newbridge and the surrounding areas.

As the Deputy will be aware, the Department of Education and Skills is currently advancing building projects in a number of post-primary schools in the south Kildare school planning area, including Newbridge, and these projects, when completed, will provide additional capacity in the region of 1,700 school places.

In Newbridge, the projects include St. Conleth's community college, Newbridge and the Patrician College, Newbridge. In surrounding areas, the projects include: Athy community college, Athy; Cross and Passion secondary school, Kilcullen; and St. Paul's secondary school, Monasterevin.

The Government recently announced plans for the establishment of 42 new schools over the next four years. The requirement for new schools will be kept under ongoing review and will have regard for the increased roll-out of housing provision as outlined in Project Ireland 2040. In addition to the new schools announced, there will be a need for further school accommodation in other areas in the future.

While the new schools announcement did not include a new post-primary school in Newbridge, a review of provision at post-primary school level across the school planning areas in south Kildare is well advanced and nearing completion. The outcome of the review will be finalised and made available as soon as possible.

This review will include an assessment of the extent to which projected needs in the area will be met from the additional capacity being provided by the projects already approved and how any specific additional needs will be best catered for, recognising the importance of maintaining a balance between existing and any additional school provision.

I wish to advise the Deputy that the current status of large-scale projects, including those in Newbridge and surrounding areas, being delivered under the school building programme may be viewed on the Department's website, and this information is updated regularly.

In addition, a list of large-scale projects completed from 2010 to date may also be viewed on the website.

I do not have any further information to give the Deputy at this time but I will pass her concerns on to the Minister.

I was angry before and with the greatest of respect to the Minister of State, I am twice as angry now. The ink on that paper is not worth anything and I would be tempted to tear it up, but I have too much respect for the Minister of State. I will put it in as a Topical Issue matter for the Minister again next week.

That answer is absolutely disgraceful. It does not give any sense of the priority the former Minister, Deputy Bruton, put on this issue five months ago. It does not mention anything about the commitment that was made for the end of October and for the end of November and here we are with 24 hours to go before the end of November.

Telling a Deputy in this House to check the website is an absolute insult. I check the website every day but surely I would expect that with a Topical Issue debate in this House, which God knows it is hard enough to get, there would at least be some sort of response. How am I expected to respond to the concerns of those traumatised parents who have been contacting me this week about their children not having a place to go to school? This issue will get worse and worse. The only change over the past five months, between the time the former Minister, Deputy Bruton, committed to making an imminent decision and the present, is that the situation has become worse.

What will we do in September when there are children with no school place because of the lack of foresight from the Minister and the Department? This is an urgent issue. I would not have put it down as a Topical Issue matter if it was not and I will continue to table it as such. The Government is letting down the young people of the Newbridge area and their families. The campaign that was started by South Kildare Educate Together more than five years ago to try to provide choice and diversity for our young people also has been let down. Shame on the Department and shame on the Minister.

I am given the reply and I do not have much more information to give the Deputy. However, I will express the frustration, anger and concerns that she has raised to the Minister by telephone tomorrow. I do not have any further information to add to what is in the reply.

I agree with the Deputy in many ways. In times when parents are anxious about getting children into schools and looking for places, it can become very difficult when the proper, meaningful answers are not given to a parliamentary question or a Topical Issue debate. I know that there is concern because I have spoken to somebody who I know who lives in the area and have listened to that person's concerns. Throughout the country and the city, including in my constituency, there is a need for secondary schools to be built, particularly in towns and urban areas.

I will relate the Deputy's concerns and frustration to the Minister by telephone and when she puts back in her Topical Issue matter, I will ask him if he might contact the Deputy. I apologise.

I thank the Minister of State.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.50 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 4 December 2018.