Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Rail Network

I welcome the opportunity to raise this issue in the Dáil with the Minister, Deputy Ryan. The Ballybrophy to Limerick railway line is very important. It goes from Ballybrophy in south Laois down the whole way to Limerick city and has much more potential than its current use. Much investment has been made in this line in recent years, such as track upgrades, but the benefits of this to either the public, the environment or to Iarnród Éireann have not been realised.

The line branches off in Ballybrophy and travels down through Roscrea, Cloughjordan, Nenagh, Birdhill, Castleconnell and Limerick city and connects up the three counties. The line could play an important role in the economic and social development of the southern part of Laois, particularly in places like Rathdowney, Borris-in-Ossory, Mountrath, Durrow and indeed in north Tipperary. My colleague, Deputy Martin Browne, from Tipperary will refer to that in a moment.

Passenger numbers can be increased for work, tourism and shopping. At present, one train leaves Limerick at 7 a.m. for Ballybrophy. It sets off on the return journey back from Ballybrophy at 10 a.m. and arrives in Limerick at 12.05 p.m., but the train sits there all day and is unused until 4.55 p.m. when it sets off again on the just over two hour journey back to Ballybrophy.

To make better use of this line and train a number of low-cost actions need to happen. A company engineer needs to review and do a full report on line speeds and take account of the track upgrades that have been done to shorten journey times. All tracks, to my understanding, must be inspected every three years and have reports done, and this one has not been done for a number of years. A new timetable should be put in place for the train to leave Ballybrophy earlier in the morning and for the return train to leave Limerick after 5 p.m. which would facilitate workers and students. The option of putting on a midday train service should be looked at.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCeann Comhairle. I am here to talk about the need for a better service on the Ballybrophy rail line. The Ballybrophy line in my county which serves the towns of Roscrea, Cloughjordan, Nenagh and Birdhill remains undervalued and has been for years, and it is true that the potential has not been realised. If one wants to open up rural Ireland in a way that means we do not have to rely on our cars then the Minister has to act. One should listen to the North Tipperary Community Rail Partnership for whom this is a very important issue and who have done extensive research into this issue. On local radio recently one of its members pointed out that in 1962 the journey time was one and a half hours. In May 1987, it was an hour and 17 minutes. It now takes two hours. It is crazy to think that it takes longer now, after some 50 years, which is even after work has been carried out on the track. That is unacceptable in this day and age on such a major issue. The partnership is now calling for the following: line speeds to be increased on the sections of the track that have been developed into continuous welded rail; a review to take place on the lifting of existing overall speed restrictions from 50 mph to 60 mph; a service to be provided in the middle of the day to be added in both directions; and the timetable to be reviewed, as stated by Deputy Stanley. We need a proactive approach to be taken by the Minister and also by the rail management. With this in mind I make another call on the Minister to appoint a regional rail manager who would develop the line's potential.

The Ballybrophy line has a level of regional importance that nobody in a position of authority wants to see. The people of Tipperary need to see the Minister share this vision and to recognise what this line has to offer in tourism, third level education, in giving access to industry and as a means to get to work. The group has met with Iarnród Éireann on this matter. Can the Minister now tell me what he will do to show that his green agenda extends to the rail transport in my part of rural Ireland?

I thank both Deputies for raising this Topical Issue matter and I welcome the chance to discuss the future of the Ballybrophy to Limerick rail line. This Government is committed to investment in the public transport network, to increase the size of the rail fleet in order to address the capacity constraints and to expand services in many parts of the country. Initiatives such as the Cork line relaying programme will improve journey times for passengers and will increase rail as a sustainable transport option. Further ambitious fleet investment programmes will see the overall Iarnród Éireann fleet grow over the coming years with 41 additional intercity rail carriages currently contracted and a further contract for up to 600 over the coming decade set to be awarded next year.

These initiatives will help expand capacity in areas where it is badly needed and in areas where future population growth and development are expected. Unfortunately, the Ballybrophy route has to date been struggling to accommodate large passenger numbers. Iarnród Éireann identifies this service as a continually low-density passenger numbers route although the company has over the years operated varying levels of service during periods of both economic growth and recession. I understand that Iarnród Éireann has undertaken both national and local promotions on the route but that such efforts have not resulted in any significant uptake and passenger numbers have remained low. In this context, the National Transport Authority has no plans at present to increase services on this route.

larnród Éireann promotes usage of rail services, both in national promotion and through local initiatives. I am told it has a number of partnerships which support this, including on the Ballybrophy to Limerick line.

The company has stated it will continue to promote all routes and engage with local communities to seek new business opportunities and examine the potential for revisions and enhancements to timetables that will benefit specific customer groups.

Furthermore, larnród Éireann has advised that the infrastructure on this stretch of line does not facilitate higher-speed rail services. The current speed profile on this section of the rail network is consistent with the age and condition of the track infrastructure and the greater number of user-operated level crossings, which would pose safety risks with increased speed.

The moneys that would be required to improve the line significantly to address these matters are not available within the present national development plan, NDP, envelope, which envisages investment of up to €8.6 billion over the period 2018 to 2027 to further develop sustainable mobility options. Given the pressures and opportunities that have already been identified and that will need to be addressed in the NDP, it is unlikely that the upgrade of this line would be afforded greater investment priority than other proposals for capacity elsewhere on the rail network and other public transport and active travel projects.

I advise the Deputies that the draft Limerick-Shannon metropolitan area transport strategy includes some proposals in regard to encouraging greater use of the line as a commuter route into Limerick. I assure the Deputies that these and other proposals are under consideration now that the consultation process has ended. I look forward to working with them to promote such possibilities as ways of improving the rail services in this area, as we are going to do around the rest of the country.

I thank the Minister for his reply. It is very disappointing. Of course there is not a struggle to accommodate large numbers but the point is that the existing infrastructure is not being utilised. We have not got bang for our buck for the commuters or in terms of economic development along the route. There are a number of low-cost steps that can be taken. The reason Deputy Browne, as a Tipperary Deputy, and I, as a Laois-Offaly Deputy, are raising this is that we have met people along the line who use the service, from Cloughjordan, Nenagh and Ballybrophy itself. A report needs to be produced on the line because there has been significant investment in it. I refer to a low-cost measure that can be implemented. One could have faster trains on the lines because there is continuous welded track. A new timetable needs to be produced. The timetable can be tweaked. A train should not sit idle all day.

Continuity of service needs to be addressed because the reliability of the track is being undermined by the frequent line closures without sufficient notice. That does not cost money to address. The timetable needs to be publicised. Social media can be used. Iarnród Éireann can publicise via Twitter, Facebook and other media.

This line has more to offer than I mentioned. It is worth bearing in mind for the future. I have given an example of how the location of the line works for the region. If services on the Ballybrophy line were aligned with those at Limerick Junction, it would yield an opportunity to link with the Dublin-Cork line. It makes sense; it is as simple as that. It opens up the region. That is what Deputy Stanley and I want, and that is what the people in the region deserve.

When I speak of Limerick Junction, it should be noted that the Waterford service has particular problems that also need to be addressed. Tipperary town is on the N24, the main route to Waterford, but it is clogged with traffic. One reason for this is the timetable for the Tipperary-Waterford service. It just does not suit people. The south of the county is poorly served by rail and the north of the county is also.

If the Minister wants rural Ireland to progress and work, he will have to commit to engaging personally with us and Iarnród Éireann on a vision for moving forward. Sixty years on, it should not take an extra 30 minutes to make the journey. It is absolutely crazy given all the money spent on the line.

I thank the Deputies. Deputy Browne is absolutely right that the current arrangements are not satisfactory. The timetables, journey times, lack of frequency, poor quality of the line and the fact that the carriages are left in Colbert Station in Limerick for the rest of the day are not satisfactory. Everyone recognises that. Deputy Browne is absolutely right that the services are very much analogous to the current services on the Waterford-Limerick line. In effect, we are maintaining the line but we are not really utilising it to the full extent.

We are at a point of change. The Government is committed very much to towns-first policy. One of the characteristics of the two rail lines I have mentioned is that they go through a series of towns that would benefit greatly from development, particularly close to their centres, where railway stations tend to be. Therefore, I do not disagree at all with the Deputy's intention. The question is how to get the numbers up to justify the investment we need to make to rectify the problem. It has partly to do with the poor service but even if there were an increase in that regard, we would have to remember that the number of passengers in the past four years on the Ballybrophy line, for example, has ranged from about 100 to 150 per day. This is very low.

I mentioned the question of whether it may be possible to start increasing patronage of the line for commuter rail services to Limerick. The Limerick metropolitan area transport strategy cited Castleconnell station, for example. One could go even further out and consider commuter numbers from Nenagh to Limerick and determine whether improving the service and providing new really high-quality electric battery trains would increase the volume of passengers. Would a metropolitan-type commuter service, in turn, start to turn around the prospects for the whole Ballybrophy line because it would start to see usage and patronage that might make it more viable?

I thank the Minister. I am sorry for rushing Members but we are way over time this evening.

Crime Prevention

I appreciate the opportunity to raise this matter. I thank the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform in advance not only for responding here but also for his responses to my parliamentary questions and letters on this issue. I hope he, along with the Minister for Justice, can tell how passionate I am about my proposal. I believe it involves a common sense approach to dealing with the plague of crimes affecting society and that will always affect it.

In recent months, I have been vocal about an issue that is very close to home in my constituency, involving families I know very well. I refer to the rise in knife crime. In 2019, over 2,000 knives were seized from our streets. This year alone, over 1,200 knives have already been seized. Hospital admissions in this regard are up by 10% owing to stabbings and slashings.

We must ask how we can target the source of crime. This year has been a bonanza year, particularly for An Garda Síochána, primarily due to the Covid pandemic restrictions. So far, bearing in mind that the year is not even over and we are not even at the end of November, €16 million in cash has been seized by An Garda alone, never mind the Criminal Assets Bureau or any other agency. Last year, it was just over €7 million. The year before that, it was just over €7 million. This year alone, An Garda has taken in more cash than in the previous two years together. What will we do with it? I anticipate the Minister's reply. I appreciate what it is and will not necessarily dispute it but we can take the money and plough it straight in at source to tackle the causes of crimes. We can run youth diversion programmes, new education programmes and work experience programmes and pay for addiction counsellors and social workers. People always talk about sentencing and being tough on law and order but if one is not tough on the causes of crime, one is merely allowing it to continue apace.

I am aware of the budgeting argument. The Minister says we are not in a position to work it out but the money in question is new money. Rather than just ploughing it back into the Exchequer to have it scattered around Departments, we should ring-fence it. We have an additional €9 million this year alone. This does not compare with any of the previous two years. I refer to the additional €9 million in cash that has been seized, not to mention the moneys from the goods auctioned off by the Criminal Assets Bureau, such as the luxury watches, motor cars, property and designer art. Every day on An Garda Síochána's Twitter account, one sees that €10,000 has been seized here and that €1 million has been seized there, or that ten motorbikes have been seized here and that 17 Rolex watches have been seized there. Rather than saying it is great and taking the money, let us invest in the communities that are absolutely devastated by the criminals and gangsters. Let us take the ill-gotten gains of some of the worst criminals and mobsters in the country and invest them in the communities and projects that will make sure the residents' sons and daughters will not go down the path of crime that so many in their communities have gone down. I ask the Minister once again, this time on the floor of the Chamber, to reconsider this matter, if only in respect of the additional €9 million seized this year, and ring-fence the money next year for a new project.

I thank Deputy Richmond for raising this Topical Issue tonight and for the sustained interest he has shown on this issue on which I know he has submitted several parliamentary questions in the past. The response I have focuses on the Criminal Assets Bureau, CAB, in particular. I know Deputy Richmond is, as he has acknowledged, familiar with the responses he has been receiving to date on the ring-fencing of proceeds of this nature. I will put some of the key points on the record for the benefit of the House. I will then perhaps engage further with Deputy Richmond on how to we can try to move this issue forward.

I acknowledge that Deputy Richmond's question is broader than the question of the CAB. As Deputy Richmond has outlined, it encompasses the cash collected by An Garda Síochána separate to the operations undertaken by CAB.

CAB is a multiagency statutory body established under the Act of 1996. It is charged with targeting a person's assets, wherever situated, which derive or are suspected to derive directly or indirectly from criminal conduct. The bureau works closely with law enforcement bodies at national and international levels. It continues to relentlessly pursue the illicit proceeds of organised crime. I note today the bureau had an operation in County Louth that was reported on as well. It is good to see that the bureau continues to be active. The actions of the bureau send a strong message to criminals and local communities to the effect that crime does not pay and that the State will not allow criminals to profit from their crimes.

In accordance with the Proceeds of Crime Acts 1996-2016, all funds collected by the bureau are forwarded to the Central Exchequer Fund. The investigations conducted by CAB and the consequential proceedings and actions have resulted in more than €194 million being returned to the Exchequer as a whole for the years 1996 to 2019. This is an average of a little over €8 million per year. In 2019 almost €4 million was forwarded to the Central Fund, compared to €5.6 million in 2018.

In accordance with the provisions of Article 11 of the Constitution, there must be statutory authority for any State revenues not to be paid into the Central Fund. Examples of such exceptions include appropriations-in-aid, which are departmental receipts retained in accordance with the Public Accounts and Charges Act 1981, and PRSI contributions, which are paid into the Social Insurance Fund in accordance with the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005. The Government draws expenditure from this Central Fund for all public services and investment, including early intervention programmes to tackle crime and the illegal drugs trade. The Constitution requires, and Government accounting principles provide, that public moneys may be spent only as voted or approved by Dáil Éireann, unless otherwise provided by statute.

While there have been calls from time to time for moneys confiscated by the bureau to be ring-fenced, a policy of ring-fencing moneys obtained by the Exchequer and the reallocation of same for a specific purpose runs contrary to the normal Estimates process. It is a general principle of public financial management that earmarking revenues for a specific expenditure programme would tend to constrain the Government in the implementation of its overall expenditure policy. I will allow the rest of the reply to be noted and I will respond on the second occasion to the Deputy.

I appreciate the response of the Minister of State, including the written response and all the detail and acknowledge that the Minister's response focused on the Criminal Assets Bureau and its work.

I have talked the point to death at this stage in respect of using cash seized by An Garda Síochána and the extra cash seized this year. I will leave that with the Minister for tonight but I will be coming back to him on this matter.

I want to talk in particular about CAB and some of the obstacles raised and pointed out so eloquently, not only in the Minister's response this evening but also in parliamentary questions. Unfortunately, we need to start thinking differently. It is not that hard. This policy is one that many of our neighbours have introduced. We can and must learn from the examples. France's agency for recovery and management of seized and confiscated assets was set up in 2010. It was set up directly modelled on the Criminal Assets Bureau. Those responsible saw Ireland and the great work that CAB had been doing since the mid-1990s. They said they needed that for France. More important, that agency sets aside a percentage of revenue from seized assets every year to fund policy operations and drug diversion programmes. In New Zealand, the asset recovery unit seized the proceeds of crime. The organisation is similar to our CAB. Proceeds contained in the criminal proceeds fund policy, health and customs. Agencies can apply to make use of these funds for initiatives such as alcohol and drug treatment services, initiatives to buy organised crime and to address mental health issues and to generally improve community well-being.

I have already mentioned the youth diversion programmes and education programmes. This is something Ireland should be looking into emulating. I work on a daily basis with Councillor Kenneth Egan of my party. He is a county councillor on the ground in Clondlakin and Neilstown. Councillor Egan is also an addiction councillor and a youth boxing coach. He is one of the people who is in touch with exactly what is going on. Let us imagine we could turn around to him and state that CAB would guarantee a fund. I will go back to my original points. What about the bonus cash amounting to €9 million? That does not compare to the previous two years. We could ring fence it directly. That would send a brilliant message to the most deprived communities and the people in our society who too often we leave behind.

My thanks to Deputy Richmond for his response. I will write to the Minister for Justice and engage with her in respect of this issue. It has always been the case that the Department of Finance and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform resist any efforts to ring-fence proceeds for any particular purpose. They like that to be part of the Estimates process. That has already been the case but that does not mean it necessarily has to pertain indefinitely I future. The idea from the Deputy is a good one in principle. It is a question of how it can be made to work in practice. That is what we need to examine in further detail. I will commit to doing that.

I wish to point out that the justice sector and justice Vote has done well in the context of the Estimates and 2021 with extra funding of almost €200 million going to a range of initiatives. The extra funding is for not only extra gardaí but the Garda youth diversion programmes as well. Extra funding will be available for a significant number of organisations that provide supports in the area correctly identified by Deputy Richmond as one where there is a need.

I acknowledge the work of the Deputy on this issue. I will engage with the Minister for Justice. Perhaps we can take the issue up off-line again.

Special Educational Needs

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Tá an cheist seo ardaithe agam léi, agus le Airí Oideachais eile, roimhe seo. D'ardaigh mé í le déanaí leis an Aire Stáit, an Teachta Madigan. My specific part of this relates to Scoil Colm. I know the Minister has visited the site, as has the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and other Members of this House and the other House. They saw for themselves the empty school building in an educational campus in the heart of Dublin 12 near HSE facilities. I believe the HSE is about to put a disability service next door to this site. It is ideal in every single way and it also would help to address a major need that has been identified by the Department and parents. They are crying out for somewhere central when they are dropping off one child and another child then has to be put back into the car and moved to another location. That is if they are lucky enough to find a place for their child who has additional needs. There is an urgent need for this.

Few sites are available in Dublin. This is an educational space; it is an old school. However, it also has gardens, playing fields, yards and so on already in situ. It might cost money to fit it out because we are talking about an autism spectrum disorder-specific school rather than a unit.

I know there have been discussions with the Department. Can the Minister fill us in on whether they have gone well? The Department has been liaising with the various school patrons and the like.

I thank the Minister for being here to take this Topical Issue matter. She will be aware of the burden falling on principals at the moment and of the additional pressures Covid has put on them right across the board, in primary schools, post-primary schools, special schools and so on. Consider those principals who are managing everything connected to Covid, managing the ordinary running of the school, managing the running of ASD units and also teaching a class or perhaps teaching more than one class.

There are 83 teaching principals in mainstream schools where there are special classes. Of these schools, 21 have two or more special classes. Those principals did not have to take on all the additional work in relation to that but they took the decision that their community needed these units and that they wanted to serve those needs. They deserve commendation for that but the fact is that these principals, in particular, are under inordinate pressure and that has implications for their schools.

I spoke to one teaching principal in a mainstream school just outside of Mallow in County Cork. They have two special classes and they communicated to me how demanding the role of a teaching principal is generally, while also managing these classes. On paper, and for the Department, this looks like a four-teacher school, but the reality is this principal manages a team of 18 staff members, including four teachers, two special education teachers, two ASD class teachers and six special needs assistants, SNAs, as well as whatever they have to do in terms of bus escorts. There is a fair bit of work in that, on top of managing the curriculum and the school and ensuring it all works. This has all become even more difficult.

The children who missed out most during lockdown were those with special needs. The burden on these schools is enormous and we need to do something about this. We need to relieve the pressure on these teachers.

I thank both Deputies for raising these issues as it gives me an opportunity to outline the current position regarding provision for children with special educational needs and the supports in place for schools with special classes. Enabling children with special educational needs, including autism, to receive an education appropriate to their needs is a priority for Government. Next year, more than 20% of the total educational budget, or €2 billion, will be invested in supporting children with special needs. As a result of the numbers of special education teachers, SNAs and special class and school places are at unprecedented levels.

Special class provision in mainstream primary and post-primary schools is a central element of the continuum of education provision in place to support children with special educational needs. This continuum extends from full-time placement in mainstream classes and special classes through to full-time enrolment in special schools with a number of options in between.

The Department supports this continuum through a range of dedicated supports in line with the needs of the child. These supports include the provision of teachers, SNAs and psychological support from the National Educational Psychological Service. In addition, there are specialist supports provided by the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, including extensive professional development programmes for principals and teachers and advice for schools, parents and families. The overall aim of the continuum is to ensure that every child is supported in the journey of realising his or her potential through education in an inclusive and caring school environment.

I am keenly aware of the huge contribution made by all principals, including teaching principals, in supporting this continuum. I acknowledge the work of school leaders who opened special classes in response to the needs of their community. I am aware too that Covid-19, as Deputy Ó Laoghaire outlined, has placed an additional strain on principals and our schools.

Apart from the supports I outlined earlier, there are a number of other supports provided by the Department. As part of the additional funding to schools, €10.2 million has been allocated specifically to support principals and deputy principals who undertake teaching duties in primary schools. This funding will provide each teaching principal with a minimum of one release day per week, and release days for deputy principals in those schools that have an existing administrative principal for this school year. More than 1,700 primary schools with teaching principals have benefitted from the increase in release days. Teaching principals in schools with special classes are allocated a further four release days, in addition to the 37 allocated to each school with a teaching principal. There are also arrangements in place for schools to cluster their principal release days into a full-time post which will assist teaching principals to more effectively plan their release days for the benefit of the school.

Notwithstanding the extent of this investment and the supports which have been put in place, I am also conscious that there are some parts of the country, including Dublin 12, where increases in population and other issues have led to concerns regarding a shortage of school places. The NCSE has responsibility for co-ordinating and advising on the education provision for children nationwide. The NCSE is planning a further expansion of special class and special school places nationally, to meet identified needs. The process is ongoing.

It is open to any school to make an application to the NCSE for the establishment of a specialised provision and, where sanctioned, a range of supports, including capital funding, is made available to the school.

As Minister, I have powers under section 37A of the Education Act to direct a school to provide additional places but this power is only used as a last resort where all reasonable efforts have failed.

Through better planning at both national and local level, it is my objective that specialist education places should come on stream to meet emerging demand on a timely basis. However, the active collaboration of school communities is essential in this regard. The legislation was used for the first time in 2019, in respect of the Dublin 15 area. Significant progress has been made in that area on foot of action taken under section 37. The legislative process is again under way this year in respect of south Dublin. While progress is being made, the NCSE is continuing its engagement with schools, patron bodies, parents and others to bring the required additional special class and special school placements on stream.

In terms of the provision of additional special school places in the area, I can confirm that sites such as Scoil Colm are currently being examined. The work will continue until every child has access to a suitable education. In the meantime, special educational needs organisers, SENOs, are available to support both families and schools who need help or advice.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an méid a dúirt sí, ach is trua nach bhfuil scéal níos fearr aici. It is a pity that there does not seem to be any progress, otherwise, the Minister would have taken the opportunity to announce or fill us in on some progress. All she said in relation to Scoil Colm was that it was being examined but I was told that in March, May and October. I do not expect a miracle overnight but has the examination gone beyond walking around the building? Has it looked at all the numbers in relation to children who will need such a school? I note the Minister said the NCSE has responsibility for co-ordinating it but she is the Minister and the one who has to dictate policy. There is a crying need for such a school in the Dublin 12 area so, hopefully, the next time I ask, she will have a better response.

I appreciate what the Minister said but I hoped there might be something more positive. Perhaps in her response she might give an indication of that. I raise this issue in a spirit of trying to see if we can find a solution to it. It is not a huge cohort of schools but where an issue arises in a unit or in terms of the significant number of staff who are dependent on the principal, it is usually the mainstream class, which the principal teaches, that loses out on account of this. Indeed, the whole school loses out. Extraordinary work is being done but principals cannot continue to perform the miracle of loaves and fishes with the limited number of hours and all the different responsibilities they have.

The group of teaching principals I have been engaging with put forward proposals. The sums of money we are talking about are very small. Some €3 million or € 4 million would resolve this and make them administrative principals. Will the Minister commit to ensuring that or, at the very least, exploring whether principals teaching in small schools can be made administrative principals? It is a reasonable ask. Will she meet with the group of principals in question?

I thank both Deputies again for raising these issues and giving me the opportunity to reassure the House that my Department is committed to ensuring all children can access an education suitable to their needs.

I am conscious of the points Deputy Ó Laoghaire raised. We have gone a step forward in the recent budget, in particular in relation to the measures we put in place as a consequence of Covid-19. I appreciate there is work still remaining but I am very conscious of it, and I say that unequivocally to the Deputy. The Department will continue to support principals in schools through the provision of the necessary funding and capital investment to ensure all children are successful in accessing an education.

Some €2 billion, or 20%, of next year's total education budget, will be spent on making additional provision for children with special educational needs. This is to be welcomed and is richly deserved. It means that the number of special education teachers, special needs assistants, special classes and special school places has increased significantly. This will enable children with special educational needs to continue being a priority for the Government.

The Deputy will be aware that I am familiar with the Scoil Choilm case. I have engaged with representatives on it and will expedite it as quickly as I can.

Schools Building Projects

I thank the Minister for being here so late at 11.50 p.m. Three days from now will mark the fifth month since the Government's formation. Since her appointment to the Cabinet, I have engaged with the Minister on the school capacity problem in east Cork. Without doubt, it is one of the worst capacity problems in the country. Approximately 100 children in my constituency are without a school place for the second year in a row. The issue rose to prominence around this time last year when I was first elected to Cork County Council. When engaging with parents, teachers and students, I found the upset and anger on the ground all around my constituency extraordinary. This was particularly the case among parents living in the Midleton and Carrigtwohill areas as well as the small towns and villages in rural communities surrounding that part of my constituency. The Minister is familiar with that part of the world from her time as a teacher.

This problem is concerning. Both of us inherited a mess in the sense that, under previous Governments, little action was taken by what is now the Department of Education to foresee the current situation. From my discussions with highly experienced educators in my constituency, areas in Cork East have been badly affected by the failure to consider data from the Central Statistics Office and instead used housing data, which were not reflective of the population statistics in Cork. Cork has one of the youngest populations in the country. Cork East, which I am proud to represent, has a 10% growth rate. The national rate is 3% to 4%, although that changes each year. This has caused a major problem, one that is stressful for the children, their teachers and their schools.

We must recognise that the schools have been put in a difficult position. There is no doubting that. They have dealt with the situation in the most diligent way possible. In discussing this matter in the Dáil, it is imperative to acknowledge the work being done by principals, teachers, boards of management and parents' associations across east Cork. There is serious pressure on them to try to accommodate the children.

I must be fair. I have worked with the Minister and she has been diligent in her responses to me so far, but frustration is now boiling over in east Cork. Parents want answers as to where their children will get school places. They expect me as their local Deputy to provide them with answers, which is only fair, and I am here with the Minister so late at night to try to get those answers.

It would be beneficial were the Department to examine east Cork and acknowledge the situation on the ground. An increasing number of housing developments will be built throughout east Cork. A new town is even being planned at Water-rock. The Department needs to see this situation for the emergency it is and treat it with the urgency it deserves. Will the Minister visit east Cork to meet the principals, parents' associations representatives and boards of management so that she can have a better understanding of the situation on the ground?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue and giving me the opportunity to outline to the House the position regarding school developments in east Cork. In order to plan for school provision and analyse the relevant demographic data, my Department divides the country into 314 school planning areas and uses a geographical information system, GIS. The GIS uses data from a range of sources, including child benefit data from the Department of Social Protection and my Department's own school enrolment databases, to identify where the pressure for school places across the country will arise.

The process has been strengthened this year through three specific initiatives, the first of which is enhanced engagement with local authorities in respect of the information on residential development incorporated in the analysis process. The second initiative entails additional engagement on school place requirements with patron bodies regarding their local knowledge. Education and training boards, ETBs, diocesan offices and national patron bodies such as Educate Together, An Foras Pátrúnachta and so on can also be important sources of local knowledge. This will add to information provided to the Department by local authorities or individual schools. The third initiative involves utilising the information gleaned from schools under the national inventory of school capacity completed by individual schools last year as part of the October returns process.

Where data indicate that additional provision is required at primary or post-primary level, its delivery is dependent on the particular circumstances of each case and may be provided through either one, or a combination of, the following: 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.

Similar to the process adopted for September 2020 readiness, the Department will engage further with patron bodies in the coming weeks in advance of identifying specific September 2021 capacity pressure point priorities that will necessitate specific action. In a "normal" year, addressing the increased demands for school places, while challenging, is manageable, generally through utilisation of existing spare capacity within schools, rental, temporary accommodation or other short-term measures pending the delivery of permanent accommodation.

Building projects are in train or proposed for a number of post-primary schools in Cork East, which is the area of specific interest to the Deputy. Carrigtwohill Community College is a co-educational post-primary school established in 2016. It is currently located in temporary accommodation pending the construction of a permanent school building. The new school building will have capacity for 1,000 pupils. It is at stage 2b of the architectural planning process and planning permission has been granted. Pending the construction of the permanent building, the Department has approved additional temporary accommodation to cater for the school's immediate needs. This project is part of a new three-school campus development in Carrigtwohill. The other two schools to be located on the campus are Scoil Chlíodhna and Scoil Mhuire Naofa.

St. Aloysius's College, Carrigtwohill, is an all-girls post-primary school with an enrolment of 776 for the 2019-20 school year. The Department has approved a grant to the school to facilitate its expansion to cater for 1,000 pupils. The project has been devolved to the school authority for delivery.

St. Colman's Community College, Midleton, is a co-educational post-primary school with an enrolment of 775 pupils for the 2019-20 school year. A building project for the school that will provide capacity for 1,000 pupils is currently on site and is due to be completed in the coming weeks.

Pobalscoil na Tríonóide, Youghal, is a co-educational post-primary school with an enrolment of 977 pupils for the 2019-20 school year. The Department has approved a grant to the school to facilitate its expansion to cater for 1,200 pupils. The project has been devolved to the school authority for delivery.

Carrignafoy Community College, Cobh, is a co-educational post-primary school with an enrolment of 321 pupils for the 2019-20 school year. A building project to expand the school's capacity to cater for 600 pupils is at the early stage of the architectural planning process. The project is being delivered by the patron, Cork ETB.

Coláiste Muire, Cobh, is a co-educational school with an enrolment of 666 pupils for the 2019-20 school year. An application for additional accommodation has been received from the school and is under assessment in the Department. A decision on the application will be conveyed to the school authority when the assessment process has been completed.

St. Mary's High School, Midleton, is an all-girls post-primary school with an enrolment of 718 pupils for the 2019-20 school year. An application for additional accommodation has been received by the Department and is under assessment. A decision on the application will be conveyed to the school authority when the assessment process has been completed.

I thank the Minister, but I have to stop her there.

I thank the Minister for referencing the first project she mentioned, that of the school complex in Carrigtwohill. I have engaged with the parents' association there a great deal. As the Minister knows, this has been an arduous and long process, one that has been plagued by numerous issues for many years. Is there an update further to what the Minister outlined to me previously? Will she be in a position to travel to the Cork East constituency in the near future to discuss this matter with representatives of the school, the principal, the board of management and the parents' association?

That move would be greatly appreciated. It is needed. From my perspective as a local Deputy, I would be absolutely indebted to the Minister if she was able to fulfil such a commitment.

In terms of the Educate Together patronage, I am glad to hear the Minister referenced it because there is a lot of work going on in the Educate Together group in Midleton on the possibility of establishing an additional secondary school for which there is demand. Demand is why we are in this situation. Quite frankly, there are too few school places available in east Cork. As a Government we have to bite the bullet, acknowledge the problem and put coherent steps in place to try to deal with it over the next number of years.

Parents, students and teachers accept that this will not be fixed overnight but we have to be able to say to them that we have a plan. I am glad that the Minister has outlined multiple different school projects throughout east Cork, including Midleton, Youghal and Carrigtwohill, but we need to show a degree of ambition in addition to what the Minister outlined and accept that we need an additional school. We also need to ensure that the staff, teachers and current and future pupils in Carrigtwohill Community College and the primary schools that will come along with that development make sure that the Department of Education brings the project to fruition after the wait they have had. It has been a horrendously difficult experience for many people in the community. As a Deputy representing the area, I will be very grateful if that could be given urgent attention by the Department.

As I previously outlined, there has been considerable development in the Cork East area. In respect of the primary schools in the area the building project for Scoil Chlíodhna, Carrigtwohill, a co-educational community national school, which will provide permanent accommodation for the school is currently at stage 2B of the architectural planning process. The building project, when completed, will provide capacity for 24 classrooms.

Scoil Mhuire Naofa, Carrigtwohill, is a co-educational primary school. A building project for the school is currently at stage 2B of the architectural planning process. The building project, when completed, will provide capacity for 24 classrooms.

Scoil Chlochair Mhuire, Carrigtwohill, is a co-educational primary school. An extension of the school to provide capacity for a 16 classroom school is proposed. The project is currently at the preparation of the accommodation brief stage.

Scoil An Athar Tadhg, Carrignavar, is a co-educational primary school. A major building project to provide a new 16 classroom school is currently at stage 2B of the architectural planning process.

It is also, of course, open to the patrons of schools to submit an application for additional interim accommodation to the Department for consideration. should it be required. I want to thank the Deputy for raising the issue of accommodation in east Cork. The Department is concerned to ensure that sufficient capacity is in place to meet the needs of schools throughout this area, through the delivery of the building projects that are planned or those that are in train, as well as through the Department's engagement with patron bodies in identifying specific capacity pressure priorities for September 2021, which will necessitate specific action.

In regard to the Carrigtwohill issue raised by the Deputy, he is aware that it is part of the bundle for the first quarter of 2021 and will be expedited as quickly as possible. I will of course continue to work with the Deputy on an ongoing basis. I know all of these projects are of particular interest to him and I commend him on his diligence and ongoing interest in delivering these projects for the east Cork area.

The House adjourned at 12.04 a.m until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 25 November 2020.