Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Pharmaceutical Sector

The first Topical Issue is in the name of Deputy Tóibín, to ask the Minister for Health to discuss an update on negotiations with the Irish Pharmacy Union.

Should I not wait for the Minister for Health?

The Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, is taking this.

I thank the Minister of State for coming along to take this Topical Issue debate. Non-aligned Deputies do not get any guaranteed speaking rights at all in this Chamber. As any speaking rights that we get are purely on the basis of a lottery, when we manage to get a lottery question or Topical Issue addressed to the Minister for Health, it would be very useful for that Minister to be in the Chamber to answer it. In fairness, the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, has his own portfolio and objectives and may not be able to answer all of the questions. If we are going to have this idea of a Topical Issue where questions are asked of the Minister, it would be really useful if the Minister would show up and answer the questions.

For years, the Government has spoken about getting patients out of hospitals and into primary care. Pharmacies can play a significant role in the delivery of primary care. It is very obvious that pharmacies are not being utilised to the full extent in what they can deliver to patients. If we can get doctors' surgeries to take patients out of hospitals and pharmacies to take patients out of doctors' surgeries, it would make it far easier for the system to work. The Irish Pharmacy Union, IPU, was given a commitment by the Minister for Health that he would enter into negotiations and that a new contract would be signed in 2020. He also committed to unwinding the financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, among pharmacists. Pharmacy is the only sector in which FEMPI is not being unwound. Every other sector is in the process of unwinding FEMPI. Why is the pharmacy sector excluded? In October this year, the IPU was told at a meeting with the Department that €40 million to €50 million of cuts would be expected from the sector. No justification for that was given.

Given that we are looking for the pharmacy sector to take a bigger role in the delivery of primary care, why are we going down a route of threatening €40 million to €50 million of cuts for the pharmacy sector? If one contrasts the pharmacy sector with the dental sector, the dental profession was not told that cuts were expected from it. The pharmacy sector is equivalent to the GP and dentistry sectors combined in numbers employed. I recently heard that there may be some rowback with regard to these cuts and some preparation for negotiations and a contract. Are these cuts completely off the table? Is it the case that the Government will not proceed with the cuts in this sector? Will the Minister of State guarantee that? Has the Government taken a new position just because there is a general election in the offing and it realises that the Government will be gone before any contract or negotiations are complete at all? The nature of the pharmacy sector has changed radically in recent years. Pharmacies are doing more administration and dispensing than they did ten years ago but with less money. Business costs, including rates, rents and insurance are radically increasing. We heard from a Deputy earlier that insurance costs are affecting many different parts of society. The Government's inaction in this regard also has contributed to it.

The cost of full-time security is increasing for pharmacies around the country, especially in Dublin with the cocaine epidemic there. There is demand-pull inflation because workers are dealing with higher rents and they are forced to look for higher wages to be able to cover those rents. Pharmacists are anxious to engage with the Government to reduce wastage in drugs, especially with the new higher costs of drugs that are absorbing increasing amounts of the drugs debate in the State. This can be done in negotiations too.

I am taking this debate on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Harris. I thank Deputy Tóibín for raising this important matter.

The Minister for Health values the important role community pharmacists play in the health service in the delivery of holistic patient care. The Minister is obliged, before the end of this year, to put in place a new framework to maintain a statutory basis for contractor fees as the existing regulations will be revoked from the end of this year, in accordance with the Public Service Pay and Pensions Act 2017. Prior to the making of new regulations, the Minister for Health is required to consult the representative body for pharmacy contractors, the IPU. To that end, engagement between the Minister, the Department of Health and the IPU has to date been consultative in nature. Department officials wrote to the IPU on 10 October inviting it to discussions on the making of the new regulations. Subsequently, meetings were held in the Department on 24 October and 7 November, following which a detailed submission was received from the IPU. The consultation process has now concluded.

The Minister, Deputy Harris, met the IPU on 5 December and indicated his intention to commence a substantial review of the pharmacy contract in 2020. In this context, the Minister also communicated his intention to maintain the current fee structure from 1 January 2020. The comprehensive review of the pharmacy contract in 2020 will address the role to be played by community pharmacy in the context of Sláintecare. It will consider all aspects of pharmacy service provision, including delivery of a multidisciplinary model of service delivery for patients, ensuring clarity of roles and achieving optimum value for money. However, any publicly funded pharmacy service expansion should address unmet public healthcare needs, improve access to existing public health services or provide better value for money or patient outcomes. Accordingly, any measures to be considered must be evidence based.

This is one of the reasons why I made the complaint at the outset. I asked specific questions and the Minister of State has a script which does not deal with any of the questions that I asked. We are unfortunately talking at cross-purposes. There is no commitment with regard to the threatened cuts of €40 million or the unwinding of FEMPI. The Government and HSE have pointed out many times that there needs to be investment in primary care to deliver lower costs. Sláintecare talks about 70% of healthcare being delivered in the local community without a need to go to an acute hospital. The Government is only investing about 4.5% of its current health budget in primary care. If the Government seeks to pivot the healthcare system away from overdependence on the acute system, would the Minister of State not agree with Aontú that at least 10% of the health budget should be invested in primary care and communities?

GPs are in a great space to do that. They should be at the heart of a responsive, proactive, cost-effective healthcare system and should be incentivised to offer a wider range of services, either in a direct fashion or as part of an integrated group practice. In order to do that, we need pharmacists to take patients out of GP surgeries. Pharmacists must be given a greater role in providing services in the healthcare system. They can, for example, carry out blood pressure tests, blood readings and many other practical services for patients. We are asking for a broad negotiation and a redesign of the pathways between doctors, pharmacists, and hospital services in primary healthcare. We need to make sure FEMPI is unwound, that there are no threats of any cuts, and that further money is given to primary healthcare provision as a proportion of the total healthcare budget.

I again thank the Deputy for raising these issues. I reiterate the Minister for Health's appreciation of the contribution of community pharmacists in delivering care to patients and re-state his intention to commence contractual discussions early in the new year. The issues the Deputy raised within the debate will be dealt with during that process. However, the Minister is also very cognisant of the fact that the regulations made under the 2009 FEMPI Act expire at the end of 2019, and that a new set of fee regulations will be needed in order to maintain a statutory basis for pharmacy payments from 1 January 2020. The issues the Deputy raised are very important. He spoke of wastage, insurance, security, and primary care, on which I agree with him. Those matters have to be - and are - a huge part of Sláintecare, as is the redesign and reform of all services. I will bring the Deputy's concerns back to the Minister.

Greyhound Industry

I welcome the opportunity to speak about the Indecon report and the possible closure of Youghal greyhound track. I have been told that nobody from Indecon visited that track and that the survey was conducted by email. That is getting off to a very bad start. It is a typical Irish thing to try to fix something that is not broken. Only two greyhound stadiums are making money at the moment. The Youghal stadium is making €4,500 to €5,000 a night because it was the first to introduce the Sports Information Services, SIS, betting scheme, which it piloted for two years for free - gratis - for the Irish Greyhound Board, IGB. Now there is talk of closing the stadium. It is also home to the oldest track supporters club in the country, which was founded in the 1950s. The closure of this track will be detrimental to the area and would be similar to the closure of Youghal Carpets when I was young. I do not know whether the IGB or Indecon - although it said it is not liable - will make the decision, but I appeal to the Minister of State to please not close this track.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for choosing this as a Topical Issue today. To be sharp with the Minister of State, last Friday was a black day for Irish sport. One other sport made major headlines, while this report was released without much coverage. In the last three or four days, it has gained momentum, particularly in east Cork, through breeders, supporters and tourism activists. Earmarking this stadium for closure is a bad blow for east Cork and Youghal. I do not think the Indecon report has done it any justice in its comments and recommendations. The Youghal track has a good income, which is not all from spectators because many of them gain free entry during the summer. It also has the great facility of SIS TV coverage with the bookmakers' association, which has gone from one night a week to two and generates automatic revenue of almost €10,000 per week. Taking the greyhound track out of Youghal is like a village losing its post office.

I raise the very important issue of the decision of Bord na gCon to withdraw funding from Enniscorthy greyhound track, and its inevitable closure as a result. I welcome the report's recommendations regarding care home facilities for animals to be opened next year, a fostering programme for dogs and the introduction of a 100% traceability programme involving microchipping. Animal welfare must be at the centre of this report. Anyone who abuses a dog or any other animal is less than one.

The closure of the Enniscorthy track comes as an economic blow to the town, which is only now getting back on its feet. The track makes a significant contribution to rural employment and developing the town of Enniscorthy. It is a profitable track, which makes it difficult to understand why it is being targeted by Bord na gCon. It makes little or no sense for the region. Between 30% and 70% of the dogs raced in Waterford are from Enniscorthy, so when those dogs leave Waterford, Waterford will come under pressure as well. It is difficult to comprehend this decision when so many other tracks are making a loss.

I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. I am aware that this past year has been a challenging one for the greyhound sector. However, I believe that 2019 will be remembered as a key turning point. The Greyhound Racing Act was signed by the President on 28 May 2019 and this legislation strengthens the legal basis for the industry, with a view to fortifying the integrity of the greyhound racing sector and improving provision for greyhound traceability. The board of Bord na gCon remains committed to the protection of the integrity of the greyhound industry and to promoting the welfare of greyhounds. With the new legislation, together with the maintenance of the horse and greyhound racing fund for Bord na gCon at €16.8 million for 2020, the industry will have the tools to reform and to be strengthened.

According to the 2017 Power report, the greyhound sector provides and supports considerable employment both directly and indirectly throughout the country. It is estimated that in 2016, the industry supported 5,058 full-time and part-time jobs in the economy. In addition, there are 7,313 active greyhound owners in Ireland. The total number of people deriving economic benefit from the sector is estimated at 12,371. The welfare of greyhounds is a cornerstone of the greyhound industry. I am assured that Bord na gCon is striving to ensure the highest standards for the sport and its participants both on and away from the race course.

I refer to the enactment of the Greyhound Racing Act 2019. The greyhound industry has undergone a series of reforms in recent years, informed by several key reports into the sector which led to the enactment of new legislation this year. The future of the industry is dependent on a strong governance platform and on the industry having the highest standards of integrity and welfare. On this basis, I am confident that provisions in the new Act, which came into effect last May, will make a significant difference. The Act reflects recommendations for legislative change made in the Indecon report, the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine's report on the greyhound industry and the Morris review of anti-doping and medication control. This new legislation strengthens the legal basis for the industry, with a view to fortifying the integrity of the greyhound racing sector and improving provision for greyhound traceability. It will also improve the governance of Bord na gCon, strengthen regulatory controls in the industry, modernise sanctions and improve integrity.

Regarding the Indecon review of greyhound stadia, a fully independent, systematic review into the sustainability of individual stadia and the wider industry footprint forms a key element of Bord na gCon's current strategic plan 2018-2022. Bord na gCon released an independent report undertaken by Indecon Economic Consultants on 6 December 2019, which reviewed the future needs of its 16 licensed stadia and made recommendations regarding the industry's footprint into the future. The recommendations of the report, which have been accepted by the board of Bord na gCon, provide a road map to underpin a sustainable long-term future for the industry. The brief for the study included the assessment of infrastructure and services available at all 16 licensed greyhound stadia in Ireland, an assessment of financial sustainability at each track, analysis of population catchments and motorway access, and detailed recommendations regarding each individual stadium.

The report has recommended restructuring the footprint of the greyhound sector; ongoing cost efficiency measures; targeted investment in animal welfare, marketing and infrastructure; and the ceasing of funding for four stadia, namely, Enniscorthy, Lifford, Longford and Youghal. These four tracks have a long and distinguished history and have been focal points for recreation and enterprise in their respective communities. The impact of their closure will be acutely felt, and I am cognisant that people's livelihoods will be impacted. The Indecon report highlighted several challenges facing the industry which are a threat to its long-term viability. Bord na gCon has already taken steps to address these challenges.

I will leave it at that and I can come back on a supplementary as my time is up.

I thank the Minister of State for his fairly lengthy reply. Unfortunately, Youghal was only mentioned once in it. It does not really deal with the detrimental effect of this. There is a thriving industry in Youghal. Again, I am asking why we are trying to fix something that is not broken. It says that the recommendations of the report, which have been accepted by the board of Bord na gCon, provide a road map to underpin a sustainable long-term future for the industry. If something is working, please do not try to fix it again. If we lose that industry in Youghal, it will affect our tourism. Many of the issues in this are slightly flawed because they are all about population, numbers and people coming in. In 2018, 1,016 races were held at 101 meetings. On top of that, the two months they do every year - July and August - that are free are not even in the report. This is a thriving business. I again appeal to whoever is dealing with this not to close this track because it will have a massive knock-on effect on local industry such as restaurants and hotels and the transport system. The caravan park behind it is jammed for the two months. It is probably the only outdoor sport that brings everybody in, including children.

We recently voted for the 2019 legislation and approved the funding for the horse and greyhound racing industry. I wholeheartedly supported it but I did not know I was signing the death warrant for Youghal or the likes of Enniscorthy. I ask the Minister of State to take on board our concerns. I know submissions can be taken up to 10 January but I ask him to take on board the concerns that have been raised. As indicated by my colleague, Youghal is a tourist town. We may as well use the facility during the vacation period in summer, particularly when the weather can sometimes be inclement. Youghal greyhound track has seen an increase in the number of race nights because of the SIS supports. There was recent adverse publicity regarding greyhound racing and the greyhound industry. We need to give things time to level out so that they improve again. We saw a massive response in Curraheen Park when a meeting was held to generate sponsorship for the Irish Laurels. The response was tremendous. Youghal plays a large role in local communities and fundraising up as far as my own backyard regarding St. Catherine's GAA Club in Conna. There are tremendous race nights and fundraisers in Youghal greyhound track. I ask the Minister of State to take on board submissions that come forward because it is a big issue of concern.

The track in Enniscorthy is approaching its 90th year. It is a profitable track. Many of the other tracks that are to be left open are losing money hand over fist so the fact that Enniscorthy is one of the tracks to be closed makes no sense. I call on the Minister of State and Bord na gCon to meet with the track operators, an independent track in Enniscorthy, to review this decision. I hope this track will not close. If it is to close, we should remember that when a factory in any town closes, the Government springs into action with a support plan for that town. I ask that a similar support plan be put in place for Enniscorthy, Youghal and any other town that will lose a track because those towns depend on those tracks for their economic well-being. I also hope that the welfare plan in the Indecon report is not only implemented but that there is proper oversight to ensure it is implemented and these animals are properly cared for. What we saw on "Prime Time Investigates" was disgraceful and I hope we never see the likes of that again.

I do not pretend to be anything like an expert on greyhounds but I have visited Youghal and Enniscorthy tracks. I met some members of the Oireachtas Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport in Youghal and could see their progressive thinking. Regarding the Indecon report on the footprint and structure, pillar three of the strategic plan was to carry out an independent review so I had nothing to do with it. Bord na gCon had nothing to do with it other than with regard to the terms of reference. I urge people, including the tracks themselves, to make robust submissions before 10 January. When the Indecon report on the future of the greyhound sector, which involved among other things the closure of the Harold's Cross track, appeared, I as Chairman of the Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine asked Bord na gCon to appear before the committee to explain the rationale behind what it was doing. Not everybody agreed. Doing this again would probably be a worthwhile exercise. I will admit to being somewhat surprised that these two tracks were chosen, not because I have visited them but because I am aware they are both profitable.

However, I cannot second guess what was done so it is really important that robust submissions are made regarding both tracks. I have no doubt but that the ability to do that is within the gift of the people who are interested so I will leave it at that. I do not think it would be appropriate for me to say anything more but I am listening.

School Enrolments

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this issue. Regarding the closure of the greyhound track in Youghal, I think Youghal is being sacrificed on the altar of expediency. It is a profit centre that is washing its face. The terms of reference set out with regard to the Indecon report seem to have worked unfairly against centres like Youghal. There will be a good fight by the people of Youghal regarding the proposal to close this track.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the lack of school places in east Cork. The Minister for Education and Skills will be aware of the proposal regarding Carrigtwohill community college. The people of Carrigtwohill are now being told that it could be 2023 by the time the school opens there and that a process is being gone through with Cork County Council. We have had some engagement with the education and training board. As late as last Friday, we were told that a certain number of places for the Carrigtwohill area for the 2020 intake up to 2023 will be provided. Notwithstanding that, I wish to put to the Minister the fact that we are receiving many emails and phone calls from parents who find themselves falling foul of the enrolment policy as instigated by the community college in Carrigtwohill through no fault of their own. They are bereft at the fact that notwithstanding the proposal to put in place new classes for September 2020, there is no guarantee that a certain number of those parents will have places for their sons and daughters for September 2020 and onwards. It applies not only in Carrigtwohill but in Midleton.

I know the Minister is a person of deep empathy who would be very mindful and conscious of the needs of families and will appreciate that at this juncture, there is no guarantee of places for those students in Carrigtwohill, which causes a massive amount of stress for those families. I wish to bear witness for those families because they are being told that by dint of the enrolment policy, particularly where there are two siblings, one girl and one boy, if the girl has received a place in another all-girl school, the boy who may wish to enrol in Carrigtwohill community college is not guaranteed a place. This is a function of the enrolment policy. I have been told by the education and training board that this position is entirely legal. I understand that to a certain extent but in an era where equality matters, it must be the case that the Government does everything it can to ensure that families are not divided in towns like Carrigtwohill by dint of an enrolment policy where there is no guarantee of a place notwithstanding the efforts of the education and training board to provide extra classrooms and the fact that the education and training board is engaging with the Department of Education and Skills as of 18 November regarding future provision of places. We must still ensure that no young student is without a school place so I ask the Minister to do his level best on this.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter because it gives me the opportunity to set out to the House the position regarding second level places in Carrigtwohill and the wider east Cork area. This is a matter that the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, has raised with me on a number of occasions. It is an issue that Deputy Sherlock and his colleague from east Cork, Deputy O'Keeffe, continue to keep on the radar. I realise and understand the importance of this issue.

Major new residential developments in a school planning area have the potential to alter demand in that area. In that regard, as part of the demographic exercises, my Department engages with each of the local authorities to obtain the up-to-date information on significant new residential development in each area. This is necessary to ensure that schools infrastructure planning is keeping pace with demographic changes. For school planning purposes, Carrigtwohill is located in the Midleton-Carrigtwohill school planning area. Where demographic data indicates that additional provision is needed, as the Deputy is no doubt aware, the delivery of such additional provision can be provided through utilising existing unused capacity within a school or schools, extending the capacity of a school or schools, or the provision of a new school or schools.

As the Deputy will be aware, in April 2018 the Government announced plans for the establishment of 42 new schools over the next four years, 2019 to 2022, including three new primary schools and one new post-primary school in County Cork. While the announcement did not include a new school for the Midleton-Carrigtwohill school planning area, or the wider east Cork area, the requirement for new schools is kept under ongoing review and, in particular, has regard for the increased roll-out of housing provision as outlined in Project Ireland 2040.

The following new schools were established in recent years to serve the Midleton-Carrigtwohill school planning area. Carrigtwohill community college, a new 1,000 pupil post-primary school was established in temporary accommodation in 2016. Scoil Chlíodhna community national school, a new 16-classroom primary school, was established in temporary accommodation in 2015. A campus development in Carrigtwohill, when complete, will accommodate three new schools: Carrigtwohill community college, with 1,000 pupils plus a three-classroom special education needs base; Scoil Chlíodhna, with 24 classrooms plus a three-classroom special education needs base; and Scoil Mhuire primary school, with 24 classrooms plus a three-classroom special education needs base with a total population of approximately 2,200 pupils. The site is over 10 ha in size which includes a road network. This will be the single biggest and most expensive schools campus ever built by the Department.

The building project for the Carrigtwohill campus is being delivered under the Department's design and build programme. This delivery programme uses a professional external project management team to progress the project through the stages of architectural planning, tendering and construction.

Carrigtwohill community college is currently in interim accommodation and a planning application for the permanent accommodation campus was lodged in May 2019. A request for further information was received in August 2019. The Department's project management team is actively working on this request for further information. It is expected that a response to the local authority's request for further information will be submitted shortly.

In February 2019, the school was approved for rental of additional temporary accommodation of a 100 sq. m science lab and three mainstream classrooms to cater for additional enrolments. All of that accommodation has now been installed.

Planning has also been secured for an additional two classrooms to facilitate enrolments for the 2020-21 academic year and these will be installed during the summer holiday in 2020.

Representatives of Cork Education and Training Board, ETB, which is patron of Carrigtwohill community school, recently met officials from my Department regarding the provision of further additional accommodation. The ETB and the Department will continue to engage regarding the provision of this further accommodation. I understand that officials of Cork ETB met parents on 21 November 2019 to update them on the accommodation position for the school and I understand that a further meeting is due to take place in December 2019.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Notwithstanding the facts about the additional two classrooms and ongoing engagement between his officials and the ETB that the Minister has laid before the House, there remains the problem that, even when that capacity is achieved, there will still be unmet demand from parents and students in the east Cork area.

It should be taken into account that 2020 is the timeline for the delivery of the school campus. I should respectfully correct the Minister and say that this has been on the agenda since 2012. Even when that temporary infrastructure is built and the demand for places is met through the new campus, parents will still not know where their children will be going to school and that might be the case into May of next year. We cannot countenance a situation where we have uncertainty that is causing major stress and strain for parents. Parents would be reassured if that could be looked at. There is no guarantee from the ETB that demand can be met at present. That is what the ETB is telling us.

I understand the frustration and anxiety. Frustration builds if proper information is not given and communication channels are not kept open. That is why it is so important that Cork ETB and the officials in Tullamore continue to liaise with one another and continue to ensure that relevant information and updates are put out there. I am confident that is already happening.

I am also confident that this major project is being treated with seriousness. There are some important areas to address and examinations that need to be done before moving onto the next stages, including the procurement of additional topographical surveys and further liaison with Cork County Council to firm up the extent of revisions to the public road areas once the topographical surveys are complete. These surveys have been commissioned and were due to take place on 29 November. Project managers have liaised with the electrical department of Cork County Council and also continue to liaise with Cork Count Council on flood alleviation works. It is a big project.

The Deputy expressed concerns about September 2020. If there is outstanding demand for school places in September 2020, we have vigilant officials who will deal with that. They will stay in touch with the different people and bodies, including principals or, in this case, the ETB. It is really important that we continue that conversation.

We are now in December 2019 so we have time to deal with the outstanding issues and I assure the Deputy that we will continue to be vigilant in that regard.

Pupil-Teacher Ratio

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue. On the issue raised by Deputy Sherlock, Deputies from all across the country, including myself, are raising the issue of the lack of places at second level, week in and week out, in this Chamber. The Minister needs to take that matter very seriously. Deputies, including myself, have raised such concerns and it is a worrying situation in all parts of the country. That is a considerable challenge for the Department of Education and Skills.

As the Minister is aware, there is currently a campaign under way calling on him to reduce class sizes for delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, band 1 schools. The campaigners argue that it is unfair and that the smaller class sizes achieved under the confidence and supply agreement in recent budgets have not seen corresponding reductions in class sizes for DEIS band 1 schools and this needs to be rectified. I agree with those campaigners. When the pupil-teacher ratio reduction was negotiated, it was assumed that it would be passed on correspondingly to DEIS band 1 schools but it was not and we have not seen those reductions.

I am proud that the DEIS scheme was established by Fianna Fáil to provide the supports needed to ensure that every child can reach his or her potential. The DEIS scheme works and it should be protected and enhanced so that children from disadvantaged backgrounds can have a greater opportunity to reach their full potential. The DEIS scheme appears to be working.

The Minister will know that the evaluation of DEIS schools at the post-primary level shows that the achievement and attainment gaps between DEIS and non-DEIS post-primary schools continue to narrow in the performance of students in the junior certificate and in retention rates. There has been a rise in the percentage of students in DEIS schools taking English and mathematics at higher level. The evidence is that the scheme is working and results and school completion rates are going up in key areas. The issue is the rate at which it is improving. It is not improving at a rate that would allow pupils to compete at the same level in the very near future. While I accept that the additional supports that have been provided will take time to appear in data, there is a need to continue increasing support to speed up this process.

There is already a recognition in DEIS band 1 schools that a reduced class size is of significant value and smaller class sizes are already included in the original specification. However, the pace at which progress is taking place needs to be accelerated.

As the pupil-teacher ratio has been lowered considerably in the general national school system, the competitive boost given to DEIS band 1 schools is being eroded. This could result in the comparative progress which has been made in this area also eroding. Is the Minister considering the proposals raised previously in this House and that are currently being raised by the INTO in particular? I thank the INTO and all the teachers involved in the INTO campaign. It is refreshing that, as they have always done, teachers took time out of their own day to try to advocate for their students. I look forward to hearing the response from the Minister.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue of delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS. It is the main policy initiative of the Department of Education and Skills to address educational disadvantage at school level.

The DEIS plan is based on the findings of an extensive review of the DEIS programme, which involved consultations with all relevant stakeholders. It sets out the vision for future interventions in the critical area of educational disadvantage policy and builds on what has already been achieved by schools that have benefited from the additional supports available under the initial DEIS programme introduced in 2005.

This year, my Department will spend in the region of €125 million on the DEIS programme providing for smaller class sizes in urban band 1 schools as well as other supports, including DEIS grants, enhanced book grants, home school community liaison co-ordinators, curriculum supports, priority access to continuing professional development and the school excellence fund for DEIS. Evidence from the various evaluations of the DEIS programme demonstrates that it is having a positive effect on tackling educational disadvantage and is succeeding in improving educational outcomes.

Within the DEIS programme itself, in the 2019-2020 school year there are 891 schools serving in excess of 185,000 pupils. This represents approximately 20% of the overall school population, with 231 of the total number of schools being DEIS band 1 schools and availing of smaller class size.

The DEIS programme allows for a reduced class size in urban band 1 primary schools, with the application of a preferential staffing schedule to these schools of 20:1 at junior classes and 24:1 at senior classes to support those students at the highest risk of educational disadvantage.

The DEIS plan acknowledges that the allocation of teaching resources to DEIS primary schools with the highest concentrations of children at risk of educational disadvantage has served to improve learning outcomes and commits to the evaluation of the level of teaching resources for schools participating in DEIS to be undertaken to inform future policy in this area, and work has been undertaken in this regard.

I thank the Minister for his response. The changes required are comparatively small compared to the changes that would be required across the entire education system. Fianna Fáil wants to see lower class sizes. That has been our stated objective for a number of years and we succeeded partially with the lowest class sizes on record as part of the confidence and supply agreement. That work has to continue in the general national school system but it also must be extended to DEIS. We will be strongly advocating that that would happen and that the Minister would make arrangements for it to happen.

The INTO has reported that many DEIS schools are facing growing mental health and literacy challenges. There is also the challenge in some parts of the country of organised crime affecting children in schools, sometimes in DEIS schools but at other times, as the Minister is aware, in non-DEIS schools also where criminal activity is influencing the way children behave and how they develop later in life. The extra supports DEIS band 1 offers are one way of helping to tackle criminality spreading to very young groups. People may say that is an exaggeration but I am speaking from the experience of teachers in junior primary schools. What is going on is frightening. The Minister's officials graciously met a delegation from a particular school affected by this which is looking to get DEIS band 1 status. It sees the lower pupil-teacher ratio in DEIS band 1 as potentially being of significant help in dealing with challenges it faces due to criminality in its area. That pupil-teacher ratio must be reduced further.

I accept that consideration is taking place in the context of the broader DEIS review. The review has been ongoing since last year and will provide important details on progress. It is my understanding that all schools are considered in the context of the review of DEIS. Can the Minister confirm that the pupil-teacher ratio for DEIS band 1 is being considered and that a reduction in that is being considered by the group? If not, will the Minister commit to a short review to be published at the same time or soon after the DEIS review and the working group review also?

Everything is on the table in terms of class size. That is the reason the working group was set up. It includes representatives from the social inclusion unit, the special education unit, the teacher allocation unit, the statistics unit, education stakeholders such as the INTO, the Irish Primary Principals' Network and the Catholic Primary School Management Association. Education and Training Boards Ireland and An Foras Pátrúnachta were also represented on the working group, as was the Education Research Group, so it is a fairly extensive group. It has done a lot of work. That work is almost complete. We will be producing that report in a few weeks' time. All aspects of class size will be examined.

There is a twin-track approach. While that is going on we are reviewing the DEIS scheme. We are at a significant stage now in respect of that. I am aware it is an area of interest to the Leas-Cheann Comhairle in terms of the value of DEIS, its impact and the history of DEIS. It was introduced in 2005, very much on a geographical basis due to the socioeconomic indicators, but life has got much more complex. The Deputy raised issues to do with crime and other pressures on the system. We have to be very targeted in respect of the support.

Regarding the working group, that work is almost complete. We will be following through on that in a few weeks' time. Significant progress has been made in respect of the review of DEIS as a collective. It is more nuanced and complex but we have to ensure that it is targeted. There is a massive amount of work involved in that. That is not to take from anything we have already but to build upon the momentum because there have been massive gains in respect of tackling educational disadvantage through DEIS supports.