Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 3 Oct 2012

Vol. 217 No. 7

Adjournment Matters

Schools Amalgamation

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Shane McEntee. I understand Senator Cullinane has agreed to allow the matter raised by Senator Conway to be taken first.

I thank my good friend and colleague, Senator Cullinane, for facilitating me as I am under a little pressure. I raised the proposed amalgamation of three secondary schools in Ennistymon, County Clare, last April. The town has a secondary school population of 670 pupils which is split between three schools, a vocational school, a convent, Scoil Mhuire, and a Christian Brothers school. All three schools have been given a commitment that the amalgamation of the three schools will proceed. The teachers and parents were informed almost 30 years ago of plans to merge the schools. I attended one of the schools in the late 1980s and early 1990s and even then amalgamation was a political and educational issue. The commitment must be met to ensure the quality of the teaching staff in the schools in question is nurtured and proper facilities provided.

Students must tramp from one school to another in pouring rain and unacceptable conditions. Given that the three schools are located in different parts of the town, students taking science subjects must travel to one of the schools, students studying humanities must visit a second school and students taking mechanical drawing or woodwork must travel to another school. Pupils are criss-crossing the town every day in all sorts of inclement weather. The amalgamation must, therefore, be prioritised.

In 2005, the then Government announced the school would be built by 2010. While sites have been identified, little further progress, if any, has been made.

There was a meeting of the chairs of the boards of management, the principals and the trustees of the three existing post-primary schools which, unfortunately, I could not attend because of prior commitments in Dublin. It is becoming an important issue that needs to be dealt with. It would be a good investment because, not alone would it create construction jobs in the short term, it would ensure a quality education service in north Clare for the long term. That, in turn, would mean facilitating a proper investment in our young people’s future. I hope the Minister has some positive news in that regard.

I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills. I thank the Senator for once again raising this particular matter as it provides me with the opportunity to outline the Government's strategy for capital investment in education projects, as well as providing the Senator with the up-to-date position on the application for major capital funding for the proposed community school in Ennistymon.

The Department of Education and Skills is forecasting the number of pupils in post-primary schools will expand by over 25,000 by the beginning of the 2018 school year. It is expected that numbers at post-primary level will continue to increase until at least 2024. To be in a position to cater for the growing population of schoolgoing children, the delivery of new schools, together with extension projects to existing school buildings at both primary and post-primary levels, has to be the main focus for capital investment in the coming years.

The three post-primary schools in Ennistymon have agreed to amalgamate to form a new community school. I commend the work of those schools, the staff, boards of management, their patrons and the wider community in that regard. It is intended that a new school building to accommodate the new community school will be developed. The acquisition of land to have a site suitable for the development of a building for the new community school is being progressed by the Department of Education and Skills through the Chief State Solicitor's office in conjunction with the current landowners. The land in question is in addition to lands already in the Department’s ownership.

When taken together, there will be sufficient land to meet the overall site requirements of the new community school. It is not possible to give a definitive timeframe within which the acquisition will be finalised. However, I can assure the Senator the Department of Education and Skills is working to ensure the site is acquired as quickly as possible.

Once the site has been secured, the building project will be considered for progression in the context of available resources. To ensure every child has access to a school place, the delivery of major new school buildings, together with extension projects to existing schools to meet the type of demographic demands to which I have referred, will be where capital investment in schools is concentrated in the coming years. The five-year programme announced earlier this year is focused on meeting those demographic needs. It was not possible to advance all applications for capital funding concurrently. However, I can assure the Senator that work is ongoing in the acquisition of land to ensure that a suitable site is available for the proposed new community school building. I again thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to outline to the House the current position regarding the proposed new community school in Ennistymon.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive response. I hope we will see progress with this project in the coming months as opposed to years. When the land acquisition has progressed, hopefully the funding from the Department will be ring-fenced to ensure construction of the new school will occur as a priority.

University Status Applications

I make a direct appeal, on behalf of the people of Waterford and the south east, to the Minister of State and the Government to expedite the placement of a university in the region. We have had a long-running campaign for a university for the south east, jumping over all the hurdles and through all the hoops over the years. Numerous reports, including the Hunt report, have been favourably disposed to Waterford Institute of Technology becoming a university for the south east.

The region has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country at 19%, which is 5% above the national average. We have a real crisis of unemployment, as well as underemployment, in the south east. There is a real danger of Waterford city and county councils being forced to amalgamate which will, in turn, downgrade the gateway and city status of Waterford. It is critically important the Government makes the right decisions for Waterford and the south east on all of these issues.

The Minister and the Higher Education Authority, HEA, commissioned an expert group to examine higher education. Its report, which has been leaked, recommends a national university with a campus to be based in both Dublin and Waterford. It is important the Minister does not let this report sit on the shelf but publishes it in order that we can all examine the proposals about the national university, as well as the impact it may have on Waterford. We do not just want a name change but a university that has the capital, finance, autonomy and the ability to meet the needs of the south east. In a recent jobs announcement in Limerick, the company involved said one reason it chose the location was because of the university there. We see jobs announced for Dublin, Cork and Galway but precious little for Waterford. It makes sense to the people there that they are disadvantaged because they do not have a university. The previous Government failed to deliver a university for Waterford. The Government has the opportunity to deliver on this not just for the people of Waterford but for the people of the south east.

I thank the Senator for getting his point across without having to read any notes. Waterford Institute of Technology has a good name and I understand the Senator’s point.

The Government has endorsed the national strategy for higher education to 2030 which was published in early 2011 as the roadmap for the future development of our higher education system. The objective of the higher education reform programme that is being pursued is to create a more flexible and outward facing higher education system, one which is responsive to the diverse needs of students and society and delivers a high quality student experience. The reform programme will require several system changes to support these objectives. These will include: the development of a smaller number of higher education institutions of significant strength and critical mass governed according to best modern practice; a sustainable system of funding to allow for further growth and development with public funding more aligned to national priorities and needs; and a more performance-oriented system with much more transparent data flows to assess outcomes and impacts and strengthened accountability for institutions according to agreed performance contracts.

The implementation of the reform programme is being overseen by an implementation group chaired by the Secretary General of the Department of Education and Skills. A detailed implementation plan, updated regularly, is published on the Department's website. As part of the implementation process, Towards a Higher Education Landscape, published in February 2012, initiated a process of engagement by the HEA with higher education institutions with a view to providing the Minister with advice on how the higher education system should be configured to deliver on the objectives of the reform programme as provided for in the strategy and further articulated in the landscape documents. As part of this process, all publicly-funded institutions were asked to make submissions to the HEA on their future strategic development within the system. The HEA has also commissioned several other inputs, including from a panel of six international experts and the ESRI. When the process of analysing the institutional submissions against the objectives and recommendations in the national strategy and the landscape documents is completed, the HEA will publish the inputs it has received.

Regarding the evolutionary pathway laid out in the national strategy for institutes of technology, the landscape document also sets out a clear four stage process and criteria for institutes of technology which wish to apply for designation as a technological university. This process and the criteria have been endorsed by the Government.

The Minister of State is taking this debate on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills. The response says a lot, but says nothing. It speaks of more process, more delay and more analysing. That is the last thing the people of Waterford and the south east need.

There is much in that Higher Education Authority report of which the Minister of State spoke. It talks about other institutions in the State. There is a great deal of opposition to some other mergers contained in it and I hope that the issue of a university for the south east does not become lost in a bigger battle taking place among other institutions and universities, and that university politics does not come into play and prevent the people of Waterford from getting what they need.

The people of Waterford will not tolerate more delays. We do not need more analysis. The case is compelling and unassailable. For all of the following reasons - our critical mass, the fact we are not operating on a level playing field and the fact we have one hand tied behind our back in the south east - we need a university. I ask the Minister of State to use his influence in the Cabinet and talk to the Minister for Education and Skills to ensure that the issue of a university for the south east is not lost in some bigger battle that might play out in terms of reforming higher education in the State.

As the Senator stated, the politics within universities goes back a long time in Ireland and sometimes that mould must be broken. I will deliver the message directly to the Minister, Deputy Quinn. I urge the Senator to continue his fight because if he keeps at it, it always works out.

Noxious Weeds

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, for attending. I want him to imagine that he is getting severe stomach pains and losing weight fast, and he stops eating and has no energy. The sun hurts his skin, he is losing co-ordination and he is struggling to breath. Now he is going blind and, worst of all, he cannot tell anybody or communicate how bad he is feeling. That is how a horse feels after it has eaten ragwort.

A horse need not eat much ragwort. Horses can eat a tiny amount and within a couple of days, as the Minister of State will be aware, it damages their liver. There is no way an expert or a veterinarian can tell whether horses have this condition.

We have had a nice summer and we are back after our break. I was luck as I got to visit Kerry, Roscommon, the west and Waterford. I have never seen such a summer of ragwort. If we were harvesting ragwort, or if we could do something with it to make money, we would be making a fortune.

I am here because I am passionate about the horse industry in Ireland, particularly the sport horse industry. Goffs bloodstock sales are on this evening. It is the biggest sale of the year. The thoroughbred racing industry is of significant importance. We are best in class globally at that industry.

Obviously, cows get affected by eating this noxious weed as well. I do not want to step on the toes of farmers living around me but there are some for whom it is merely a joke. They are not bothering to spray it or pull it. What is the Minister thinking of doing about this problem? Will he introduce legislation that will include a preventive measure that would really hurt those who are ignoring it and letting their land?

I thank the Senator for tabling the motion. When I was asked this morning to take the Adjournment debate, I asked what was it about and they said, "Ragwort", and I was delighted to hear it. I am not saying this merely because Senator Mary Ann O'Brien is sitting here. During the summer, I was disgusted when driving up the Ashbourne bypass to see the amount of ragwort in the middle of the road.

I come from a farming background where one of the chores every summer was for three or four of us to be sent out to pull the ragwort. Sometimes it would come easy and sometimes it would cut the hands off you. After that, one had to go and see whether any yew trees had grown over the previous summer.

I am very much aware of the effect ragwort has on animals, especially when it is cut with a mill and left on the ground. I suppose if an animal is hungry enough, it will eat it. However, when it is cut, it sweetens, and if it is lying for a day or two and one does not pick it up out of the swath, one is in trouble.

People have a responsibility to pull ragwort or spray it just like thistles, and we have neglected this for a long time. It is up to local authorities as well. One is not squealing on anybody when he or she telephones to say there is ragwort and asks what the person is doing about it. There are named noxious weeds for which what has to be done is set out and people should be urged to do it. It destroys a field, it is ugly but, most important, as the Senator correctly stated, is what it does to an animal. I am delighted that the Senator brought the matter up. I would urge farmers in this regard because nowadays they have a responsibility to have the correct plants growing in their ground. I will give the Senator the Minister's exact response.

The Noxious Weeds Act 1936 provides for the control of the spread of six noxious weeds, namely, thistle, dock, common barberry, wild hop, oat plants and, the most commonly and the most frequently mentioned of the species in the Act, ragwort. Ragwort is a highly poisonous plant as what it contains can cause serious damage to the liver of farm animals. The only way to safeguard against loss from ragwort poisoning is to eradicate the weed, either by pulling, ploughing, cutting or chemical control.

Under the Act, it is an offence not to prevent the spread of these weeds. The owner, occupier, user or managers of lands on which these weeds are present are subject to the provisions of the Act, including a fine of up to €1,000 on conviction.

The Department seeks to enforce the provisions of the Act by the issuing of destruction notices in all instances where it becomes aware of the presence of such weeds. Some 35 such notices were issued in 2011 with a further 43 having been issued to date in 2012. These notices are issued as a result of inspections carried out by Department field officials or on the receipt of complaints made by the public. Follow-up action may be taken by officials with the landowner to ensure compliance with the destruction notices is effected and that the particular weed in question has been dealt with as stipulated.

Additionally - it is important that this point be emphasised - under the EU single farm payment scheme, farmers are obliged to keep their lands free from noxious weeds under the cross-compliance measures set down for farming practices. Failure to do so can result in the application of a reduction of their payment entitlement. While figures for the number of penalties for the current year under the scheme are not yet available, in the years 2009 through 2011, a total of 104 such reductions were applied to farmers for failing to take the appropriate measures to prevent the proliferation of the such weeds.

While the Act makes provision for taking prosecutions against offenders, this measure has not been resorted to in recent years. Modern farming has reached a level of specialisation and intensification which makes weed control a fundamental and automatic practice. Therefore, with the few exceptions I have mentioned, the problem of noxious weeds on farms has diminished in recent times. However, the prevalence of ragwort found along the margins of roadways and in locations such as derelict sites regrettably appears to have increased.

In this context, the Department continues to engage with all county and local authorities, together with the National Roads Authority, to address the issue of the presence of such weeds in public areas and on roadsides, and to ensure a consistent programme of treatment and safe disposal of such weeds on an ongoing basis. In this regard, officials in the Department have been in contact with each of the county and local authorities early this year, re-emphasising both the importance of early treatment and safe disposal in order to minimise the risk of spreading and the prevention of further spread of the weed.

In recent years the Department has undertaken a number of public information campaigns to raise awareness of the impact of such weeds and the importance of controlling their growth from the perspective of reducing their spread through the promotion of best practices. In addition to the farming sectors, these campaigns have also been aimed at promoting awareness of non-traditional land users such as land for development, etc.

I thank the Minister of State for the good, detailed answer. While it is comforting, I hope he would agree that everyone from a rural area with whom one speaks will say that this was the year of the ragwort. Each plant produces 50,000 to 200,000 seeds over a four to six week period from July to September. Particularly now that the flowers are dying down, I am conscious of the seeds.

I am glad he mentioned the local authorities but he barely mentioned the NRA. I sit on Kildare County Council's audit committee and, as far as I am aware, the county councils are not in charge of the motorways, the NRA is. The motorways, as the Minister of State will be aware, have become famous for the yellow flowers which, unfortunately, are not daffodils which grow in the spring. At present, there is a great deal of ragwort and the seeds are blowing over fields, even into good farms.

The Minister of State's answer was very conclusive. Are we going to be proactive? A total of 40 people were notified this year but these people need to be fined. Their single farm payment must be reduced or taken away. I dealt with ragwort on my farm and farmers know that they need to go out and pull it up or spray it. The farmer next door to me has a beautiful farm because he sprays it regularly. He says that he does not have the time to go out and pull it up but it can be done. In the context of Bord Bia's beautiful Origin Green initiative, which highlights our beautiful country, I urge the Minister to clamp down and be more proactive with punishment.

The fact that the Senator has raised the matter is a start. I hope the matter will not be just left here but will be brought to the attention of the wider public. I do not doubt what the Senator is saying because I have been up and down the country this year and it is in a mess with ragwort. The NRA has a lot to answer for. It spends more time preventing businesses from setting up along the roads than doing what it is paid to do. It would suit it a lot better to do its job and I make no apologies for saying that.

From a farming point of view, the cutting of hedges is important. County councils notify people and are reluctant to fine them. If they are notified to do it, farmers will respond. If they are let away with it, they will get away with it. Everybody in the farming community knows that things are tight but if they are asked to do it, they will. The fact that the Senator has raised this issue is good. When I saw ragwort during the summer I was slow to have a go at somebody about it. I assure the Senator that I will bring the matter back to my Department and make it a priority.

Bus Services

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this issue because the timing is important. Behind the motion lies a very real concern about the effect on people in various parts of the country of a decision taken by Bus Éireann a number of weeks ago, which only came into the public domain in the last week to ten days. The company intends to reduce the amount of accessible bus stops across a variety of Expressway routes in Ireland. It is doing this because the Expressway service is not subsidised, which I ask the Minister to explain. I thought the general subsidy to Bus Éireann covered all of its services. The company has said it does not and, consequently, it is competing with private operators and needs to make its services more efficient.

As a result of the elimination of bus stops along the Expressway routes, which had been serving, admittedly, a small number of people, such people are now going to be denied access to the service. These people are primarily in the lower socio-economic groups and are mostly elderly people who rely on public transport. I have heard reports about people in County Wicklow who will now have to walk over a mile to get a bus. That is not acceptable. In my own part of the country, the matter was brought to my attention by a local councillor, Mr. Seán McGowan, who lives between the villages of Dromod and Rooskey on the N4. A number of passengers were being collected and alighting from the Expressway service there and had come to rely on it. Now they are going to be denied that service. The argument is that there is an Iarnród Éireann station at Dromod which they can access but it is a matter for speculation as to whether such changes will make the route more efficient. Councillor McGowan has argued at council level and in the local media that the amount of time saved as a result of coming off the N4 to pick up and drop off passengers would be minimal. He has also proposed that of the five services a day that are on the N4 between Sligo and Dublin, one in the morning and one in the evening could be retained.

However, this is a policy issue and not just a question of efficiency. Such is the concern that this morning at the meeting of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications, all committee members, of all parties and none, unanimously agreed that a letter would be sent to Mr. Martin Nolan, the CEO of Bus Éireann, asking that the company suspend the implementation of its amended timetable, which is due to be introduced on 7 October, until a representative comes before the committee to explain and justify the company's actions. The committee also agreed to communicate with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport on the matter.

I am highlighting this issue, which is predominantly a rural one. When I say rural, I mean non-Dublin because the Expressway service goes into all of the major cities in the country. I raise the matter to highlight it and also to try to ascertain the view of the Minister. I assume the Minister is aware of the issue and I wish to know what steps, if any, he has taken to convey to the board and management of Bus Éireann the concerns that have been expressed to him by Deputies and Senators of all parties.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter and note that the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications discussed the issue this morning. As I come from the poor end of County Meath, namely, the Kells district, where there are more roads than in the rest of the county, I know what the Senator is talking about with regard to people being isolated. What amazes me is the fact that in places like north Meath, Cavan and elsewhere, buses are going up and down the road with only one or two people on them. Departments must work together and companies, whether they be public or private, will have to start working together. That said, people do need a bus service and I appreciate where the Senator is coming from.

I am taking this Adjournment debate on behalf of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, who is out of the country on official business. It must be stated that the Minister has no personal or ministerial power when it comes to bus routes and route frequencies operated by Bus Éireann. The provision of bus services and the routes they take are operational matters for the company, in conjunction with the National Transport Authority, NTA. However, as the Government is the sole shareholder in the CIE companies, the redesign of this and other Bus Éireann routes is something that the Minister is aware of and he has made inquiries with the company on the matter.

It should be noted that Bus Éireann operates a mix of services. It operates the school transport programme for the Department of Education and Skills. Furthermore, along with the other two CIE companies, it has the contract to 2014 from the NTA to run the public service obligation transport network. In return for this contract, the CIE companies receive a subvention known as the public service obligation, PSO, payment. This payment is so that Bus Éireann can provide important and necessary bus services that would otherwise not be viable.

In addition to the above, Bus Éireann also operates commercial services. These commercial services are in competition with private operators and do not form part of the PSO network. Bus Éireann does not receive a subsidy, either directly or indirectly, for these commercial services. Bus Éireann's inter-urban bus services, known as Expressway, are part of these commercial services. Unfortunately, the Expressway services were not as direct as their competitors. The recession has had a very big impact on the company in terms of a reduction in both revenue and passenger numbers. Also, new and better motorway infrastructure has played its part in changing the expectations of the customers on Expressway routes. Therefore, to gain competitiveness, Bus Éireann has had to redesign its Expressway service to make it more attractive to consumers. The Minister appreciates that changes to the bus services will inconvenience some passengers. However, given the financial position that Bus Éireann and the CIE companies find themselves in, there is no alternative for the companies but to ensure that commercial services operate on a commercial footing and that, unfortunately, limits their scope for changing the services.

More broadly, rural transport is a critical component of public transport services and it is vital for the development of a fully inclusive society, both from a social and economic perspective. In January last, the Government approved new arrangements for the development and implementation of integrated local and rural transport services. It was decided that the NTA would be assigned national responsibility for local and rural transport services integration, including the rural transport programme, RTP, and this has been effective since 1 April 2012.

This new role for the NTA, coupled with its existing national remit for securing the provision of public passenger transport services, will enable the development of better links between local and rural services and scheduled bus and rail services. This is something which is fundamental to a wholly integrated transport network. Local integration working groups have been established in some areas, while in others, RTP groups have been working informally with potential partners to identify transport integration opportunities. Work has commenced on the inclusion of the RTP services in the national journey planner and the inclusion of RTP and school transport services in reviews of public transport services being undertaken by the NTA in the south eastern regional authority areas, the Border, midland and west area and the south and mid-west area. Consideration of RTP services in these reviews will serve to highlight transport needs and offer opportunities for integration.

The integration process is set to achieve the efficiencies required in the face of the country's challenging fiscal climate. Some of the challenges are complex, involve multiple players and give rise to matters not always within our control. Integration can deliver a more complete and effective transport service in local and rural areas which will be better at meeting the transport demands of all users. The Minister acknowledges the concerns expressed regarding the impact on certain passengers of the redesign of Expressway routes and has asked the chief executive of Bus Éireann to brief Oireachtas Members on the changes to services in the north west. He will also ask the NTA to take account of locations which will no longer be served by commercial services in its ongoing reviews of public service obligations. It should be noted that future cuts to the level of subvention for public service obligation public transport will, however, limit the scope for the addition of new services.

I am grateful for the comprehensive reply given by the Minister of State and acknowledge that the Minister, Deputy Leo Varadkar, is not only aware of the issues arising but has also been proactive in addressing them. I hope the NTA will now consider the revised arrangements with a view to integrating rural transport services for those who are going to be denied access to public transport. The changes will primarily affect those who are most vulnerable and do not have access to private transport. From that point of view, I am grateful that there may be some hope of alleviating the pressure on them.

The Senator referred to the Oireachtas committee that met this morning. Sometimes I find Oireachtas committees to be more powerful than the main Chambers. I would like to think the Senator's request will be considered, as there are too many empty buses on the road, like the milk lorries in our area several years ago when five milk lorries from five companies could have been travelling along the same route. It does not make sense. It is a question of co-operation and making the best use of the money available.

The Seanad adjourned at 7.20 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 4 October 2012.