Adjournment Matters

School Funding

I welcome the Minister to the House.

I thank the Minister for being in the House this evening. The Minister will be aware of the issue in Meath. I have asked the Minister for Education and Skills to make a statement on the financial issues facing the Educate Together organisation. The matter I have raised relates specifically to Educate Together and the organisation has been in direct contact with me, but this is affecting all patrons.

(Interruptions).

I will give way to the Minister but I have already started. Is that in order?

We have started on the second matter. Are you giving way?

I do not mind, but I have started. I really do not mind. Go ahead, it is fine.

(Interruptions).

The way the Chamber is ordered is a disgrace.

Deputy Varadkar does not want this Chamber to be here in the first place.

The Chamber could at least order business efficiently. Anyway, go on.

I need not give way on foot of those comments. We are trying to facilitate the Minister. An important debate took place in the House facilitated by the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch. She came to the House to answer questions about what happened in Swinford. That was the reason for the delay.

Senator Mullen, please proceed.

It is very unfair of the Minister to say the way the business is ordered in this House is a disgrace. The Minister may wish to consider how it works in the other House, the use of guillotines and how the Government orders its business.

Senator Mullen, please.

Public Service Contracts

All I can say is that it is a good thing I did not go for what George W. Bush would call a bathroom break. The Minister knows what this motion is about. Serious concerns have been raised in the media and by others about the award of contracts for the provision of information technology services to the group of hospitals in the HSE north-west region recently. The group has been rebranded Saolta.

It has been reported that a contract to provide information technology for patient care management, among other things, was awarded to Northgate Public Services, a British company. The value of the contract has not been disclosed by the HSE. The Irish Times has reported that a senior member of management with Saolta was previously a consultant with that company. The contract is presumably valuable given that it covers the major hospitals in the north western and western region. It is also clear from The Irish Times report in question that Northgate was the only company invited to bid for the contract.

The Minister is well aware that we have had a problem previously in respect of this hospital group and tendering for contracts, specifically in the context of a report on maternity services. In that case only one party was invited to bid and the successful party had a connection with the then chairperson of the west north-west hospital group. The consultancy was called D & F Health Partnership. It was awarded the contract and the then chairman, Mr. Noel Daly, later resigned his post as chairman of the west north-west hospital group.

The Minister's predecessor, Deputy James Reilly, told the House on 28 May that a review by the HSE found the procurement of services from the D & F Health Partnership consultancy was not in accordance with internal regulations.

The question is what has happened in respect of the Northgate contract. Several questions need to be answered. What was the value of the contract for information technology services awarded to Northgate? In light of whatever the value was, did the tendering processes follow correct procedure? I understand there was an earlier contract with Northgate which was then extended. Were tendering processes followed correctly at all times?

Were the Department of Health and the then Minister aware of the possible tendering anomalies to which I am referring in the context of Northgate when the other issue about the maternity services was raised in the Seanad? If so, why was no advertence made to potential anomalies with the Northgate contract when the Minister dealt with the previous issue in this House? This is important, particularly considering the Minister gave an assurance that there would be no further breaches in respect of procurement matters. If the Minister knew at the time that there had already been a significant breach, his not adverting to that fact raises a serious issue. If any such breach happened subsequently, what does that say about the attitude of this particular hospital group to the question of appropriate tendering and procurement requirements? Any conflict of interest or commercial connection in respect of any member of senior management of those hospitals raises serious issues.

It is being reported that the current chief executive of Saolta, Mr. Bill Maher, is the party who has or had some commercial arrangement through consultancy with Northgate. He is due to finish his term as chief executive of the west north-west hospital group at the end of this year.

Please refrain from naming people on the record of the House.

I understand. He is due to go on to the north-eastern region. If there has been any issue about tendering either before the then Minister, Deputy Reilly, came to the House last May or since, it raises questions about his ability to transfer to the role in the north-east region. At the least-----

You are referring to Members.

I am no longer referring to him. This is in the public domain.

A person can be identified.

At the very least, it seems that there should be a suspension of any such appointment until we have full clarity and assurance that nothing inappropriate has taken place.

I am in the unusual position of having a fair idea of what the Minister is going to say because of what happened yesterday when this matter was due to be taken, unless the script has changed since then. I look forward to the Minister's response but I am bound to say that it is not appropriate to hide behind the fact that there is some kind of audit currently under way. If a matter is sub judice there can be no reference to individual facts that may impinge on a court case and so on. However, the fact that the HSE might be engaging in some kind of audit to see exactly what happened in respect of this particular tendering contract is no argument against providing specific answers to specific questions about factual issues and arrangements that I have presented. I look forward to the Minister's response.

I wish to put on the record my thanks to Senator O'Brien for giving way on this occasion. However, I wish to put on the record of the House my concern at the way Adjournment matters are being handled. I go out of my way to come here in person as much as I can. I figure I am in the Seanad probably twice a week and, if not, then for three or four sessions a week. Yesterday there were three Adjournment matters which I spent some time preparing for. Then, the House went into disarray and recess and the three Adjournment matters fell. Today, I was informed my matter would be take at 6 p.m. This was changed to 7.30 p.m. and then it was changed again to 8 p.m. I am dealing with an important issue relating to Áras Attracta and as much time as possible needs to be set aside for that. As a result of the-----

That particular issue was being debated in the House. The time was extended. That is what happened.

I know that, but there must be a better way to order the House. Three Adjournment matters were cancelled one day and the next day a Minister has to cancel three meetings about a very important issue because the Seanad keeps changing the schedule. Please take that into account in the way you order your business in future. I mean no disrespect to the House in saying that, but there must be better ways for all of us to organise our schedules rather than their being constantly subjected to change and cancellation.

It is not fair on others who come into this building and think we are professional politicians to see the way in which things can be disordered so often.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. The HSE confirmed in May 2012 that the Galway-Roscommon Hospital Group had awarded a contract to Northgate Public Services for the installation of a clinical information system, a key support in the identification of areas for improvement in patient flows and outcomes. This system which is in use in approximately 20 hospitals in Ireland was extended across the Saolta group in January 2014.

The matter of procurement was raised in November 2014. The HSE has stated when issues, actual or perceived, are brought to its attention, objective action is taken. Therefore, when matters relating to Northgate were raised, an internal audit review was instigated and is ongoing. As I am sure those present will understand, while the matters raised by the Senator are under official investigation by the HSE's internal audit unit, it would be inappropriate for me to make any further comment in order to preserve the integrity and the independent, robust and objective nature of the process.

The HSE has verified that all appropriate personnel are co-operating fully with the HSE internal audit review and that recommendations arising from the review will be implemented. It anticipates that the review will be completed by the end of the month.

I thank the Minister and understand his frustration, which we all feel, but let it be said it goes on in the other House also. He cannot have spent very much time preparing this answer. I know that he is busy and effective, but this is simply a stonewalling exercise, if not by him, by the officials. He assumes we understand why it is inappropriate for him to comment further, but I do not understand it at all. We have just watched a documentary on RTE that is forcing the carrying out of an investigation. I am only asking the Minister to put the facts in the public domain, which would not in any way prejudice an objective inquiry by the HSE. This is not transparent administration and I am asking legitimate questions. At the very least, I would have expected the Minister to say that, while the investigation was ongoing and until it was established that nothing inappropriate had been done by the CEO in any aspect of the tendering procedure, he would not proceed to the next post and that it would have to be suspended until such time as there was clarity. Otherwise, if there was inappropriate tendering, Mr. Maher would have to be watched like a hawk in his next job.

The Senator's time is up.

There is a clear public interest issue. I do not see how any investigation would have been compromised in any way by giving factual information in answering questions.

It is inappropriate for me to comment further because I do not know what the facts are.

The HSE has access to certain facts.

It may, but I do not know what they are. An allegation has been made; an internal audit review is under way and due process has to be followed. It is only right and proper that the internal audit unit be allowed to do its work. When it has completed its work, it will give the director general of the HSE the facts, at which stage I will have them. In the meantime, I do not think it would be appropriate for me to outline a series of allegations that have not been proved at this stage.

School Funding

There are serious funding issues facing the Educate Together organisation and I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, for attending to discuss them. My colleague, Senator Averil Power, and I have met members of Educate Together in my area, in which there are Educate Together schools in Balbriggan, Skerries, Swords, Malahide, Holywell, Thornleigh, Rush and Lusk. It is good that parents have a choice in how they want their children to be taught. However, there is a major issue, one which relates to all patron bodies, namely, the initial costs of establishment of schools. To give an example, in Britain Educate Together opened a primary school in Bristol, for which a total of £230,000 sterling was paid to the Educate Together Academy Trust. One can strip away some of the things for which we would pay, but it is still over £100,000 sterling more than a school here would receive. If Educate Together establishes a school in temporary accommodation here, as it has done in Malahide, it will receive a one-off payment of €10,000 and that is it. That is not sustainable.

In September this year there were 74 primary schools in the Educate Together sector which believes, based on its research, that we will need 300 such schools. It is not scaremongering in stating this or stating we will need to close down any school or anything like it. What it is stating is that this issue is inhibiting its ability to set up schools, particularly secondary schools. To be very fair to it, it is not being selfish about this and it has mentioned that this is an issue that affects all patron bodies. This issue needs to be addressed specifically for Educate Together, for which I have a lot of regard. I am glad to say my own party was very involved in providing for parental choice when my party leader, Deputy Micheál Martin, was the then Minister for Education and Science. We need to do something about the provision of funding for the establishment of schools, given that there are ongoing issues in this regard. I am interested in hear whating the Minister of State has to say.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I am in the House on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, who was unable to attend.

I am glad to have the opportunity to outline to the House the funding arrangements for the Educate Together organisation, an issue which is well recognised. I visited one of its excellent schools in the Senator's area recently and know that the organisation is doing great work. Naturally, all of us involved in education would like to see greater resources and, as the position improves, it is our aim to try to match resources with demand as best we can.

I inform the Senator that the Minister met a delegation from Educate Together yesterday and funding for the management body was a priority on its agenda. Despite continuing financial challenges, the Government has remained committed to protecting front-line education services as far as possible. This priority commitment was most recently demonstrated in budget 2015 when the Minister's priority was to provide funding to maintain class sizes and ensure the education system could recruit more teachers. As a result, almost 1,400 additional teachers will be taken on in primary and post-primary schools next year. The budget also provides for an increase of 365 in the existing cap on the numbers of special needs assistant posts. Funding provision has been made to provide the additional school places needed to meet the increased demand and progress the reform agenda in education. Our main priority for additional resources for the foreseeable future will be to cater for the continuing increase in demographics at all levels in the education system.

As a matter of policy, the Department does not fund patrons or patron bodies. It does, however, provide annual grants for the recognised management bodies at primary and post-primary level to assist them in providing management support for the schools in their sectors. Management bodies such as the CPSMA, Educate Together, the Church of Ireland Board of Education at primary level or second level, the JMB-AMCSS, the IVEA and the ACCS provide important support services for schools in employment, legal, financial and other matters. The individual management bodies' remit reflects the particular patronage of the schools which they serve.

In 2013 the core funding for the management bodies at primary level amounted to some €760,000, of which the Educate Together management body received €133,000. This level of funding has regard to the number of schools served by Educate Together and the level of funding provided for other management bodies at primary level. Educate Together is the national body for 69 primary schools, although the Senator referred to a figure of 75, which perhaps refers to schools it intends to take over.

Some are at second level.

Some 57 are schools for which Educate Together is the patron, with the remaining 12 being affiliated to it. Since 2012,15 primary schools have opened under the patronage of Educate Together, 11 through the new school process and four through the divesting process. At post-primary level, Educate Together is or will be involved in a total of eight schools between now and 2016. For five of these schools, it is sole patron; it is a co-patron for two of them and in a partnership model in one of them.

In addition to core funding, Educate Together received €80,000 in 2013 and a further €64,000 for opening and taking over patronage of divested schools. In February 2013 my Department approved a non-recoupable secondment for a teacher to the Educate Together management body. This secondment which was for an initial period of two years has recently been extended for a further three year period.

The Minister is committed to providing funding for the Educate Together management body within the constraints of the budgetary measures that are putting the public finances on a more sustainable basis. It is incumbent on all organisations in receipt of State funding, including the Educate Together organisation, to manage their operations in line with the funding available to them.

I again thank the Senator for providing me with the opportunity to outline to the House the funding arrangements for the Educate Together organisation. I hope the information provided is useful.

I thank the Minister of State, but there is nothing new in the answer.

Where one is looking at all the initial set-up costs to establish or take over a school like this, the Minister of State will appreciate that €10,000 will not do it. There is also the ongoing cost.

I will be going back with my colleague, Senator Averil Power, to meet with Educate Together. We will assess the response and revert to the Minister of State with any further queries. There is nothing new in it. While I appreciate the Minister of State coming here and giving me that answer, we need to look at increasing the funding as best we can in what are, I grant, straitened times. I thank the Minister of State for his response.

I will certainly also raise the Senator's concerns with the Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan. As the Senator knows, she met with Educate Together representatives yesterday. Perhaps at the Senator's follow up meeting, he can discuss that with them also.

Any Minister starting in the Department of Education and Skills realises that it is a question of doing a great deal with very little. We are certainly trying to do our best and to stretch resources. All schools could do with more money, but it is a question of using what we have. Naturally, we will be fighting over the year on the things we cover to get more money and to ensure it is distributed fairly. We recognise that all schools could do with more money, but it is a case of ensuring we divide it equally and fairly among those who need it.

Information and Communications Technology

I have tabled this matter to highlight the need for a proper digital ICT strategy for schools. When will the Government ensure that all primary schools are connected to high-speed broadband? When will the Government ensure that all schools, both primary and post-primary, have access to the equipment they need, curriculum relevant content and training for teachers?

I welcome the fact that high-speed broadband has been rolled out to our second level schools which are now getting speeds of up to 100 MB, which is the speed they need to integrate ICT properly in the classroom, use video content and upload and download things from the cloud. Unfortunately, we have a huge digital divide between primary and second level. While second level schools have high-speed broadband, the Department's own figures for primary schools show that they have an average speed of up to 5 MB per second, which is incredibly slow. Some schools have considerably slower speeds than that.

There was an article in this month's INTO magazine In Touch, in which a principal was quoted as saying he has 0.74 MB and that the connection was faster when he had dial-up. Such slow speeds create huge problems for teachers. It means that when they are putting together videos and planning presentations to their classes, they are not sure if they will be able to show those properly. In Touch cites scenarios where teachers get classes to sit down to watch a three or four minute video clip, but while the first minute plays, they are then sitting around watching a timer on screen trying to load the rest of it. They could be watching that for three or four minutes before the video kicks back in. Teachers are also concerned about having to bring things in on USB sticks as they are not sure they will be able to get access to broadband when they need it. It could be down. It is all extremely frustrating. Principals have also said they are supposed to make online returns to the Department and some are having to do that at home. They are having to make their OLSC entries at home to ensure that their staff are paid on time. There is a major difficulty there in terms of broadband speed for primary schools.

I understand that work is under way in the Department on a new digital strategy for schools. The reason I tabled this matter was to draw the Department's attention to the huge deficit at primary level and to ensure it is addressed as part of the new strategy. I hope the Minister of State can provide me with an update on the Department's thinking in that regard, the speeds it is expected will be provided to primary schools and when they can expect to have proper connectivity. There is also a need to ensure that schools have access to curriculum appropriate content. While there is a great deal available on the Internet, much of it is American or from other countries. We need to provide teachers with access to age-appropriate screen content which is tied into our own curriculum. That is a huge issue.

Equipment is also an issue. Some schools have fantastic suites of equipment, perhaps on foot of partnerships with local businesses and IT companies or sponsorship or through fund-raising from parents in the absence of sufficient State funding. There are significant gaps among schools in terms of the type of equipment they have and the gaps need to be closed. Training is also required to ensure that all teachers receive adequate training, not just those who might opt in to in-service or out-of-hours training. The people who are most likely to do that are probably already ICT savvy or at least interested in using it. We must ensure that all existing teachers in the system are brought up to speed and know how to integrate ICT into teaching, learning, assessment and all the other strands of our education system. We must also ensure that at the pre-service level we equip new teachers with the highest level of ICT competency.

There are various issues involved. Many teachers across primary and second level have embraced ICT far beyond the limits of the State under-investment and there is a need to step up. I was in a second level school in Kildare the other day where the principal raised with me the issue that because of the suppression of A posts within schools, the only way he could get an ICT co-ordinator was to expect someone to do it out of the goodness of his or her heart. If we want people to co-ordinate ICT within schools, we must consider having specific ICT posts. I ask the Minister of State to update me on that wide range of issues, the status of the digital schools strategy and whether it will address these issues.

I thank the Senator for raising this important matter. I convey the apologies of my senior Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, who could not make it here. We appreciate that quality Internet connectivity is essential for good teaching and learning using ICT. While great progress has been made at post-primary level where every school will shortly have a high-speed connection, I am aware that improvement at primary level is slower and is dependent on market and technological developments. As the Senator points out, it can be very frustrating when a teacher is trying to teach a class and keep the pupils with him or her. Young people now expect the service to be top notch. I even see in my own house that when Sky goes, a child of three years of age will ask where the Sky man is. Likewise when it comes to broadband, young people expect a high level of service, which they deserve. Certainly, it is something we must aim at, not just in educational facilities but across the board.

Broadband is a very important issue in all our communities. Be it a rural or urban area, the availability of broadband is key. The first thing a teenager asks when one wants to bring him or her somewhere is about the speed of the connection there. That is where it is at and as a country, we must recognise it. We must have more conversations on the issue to provide for the years ahead. Many of the science and research facilities I deal with tell me that we are only at perhaps a tenth of where we will be in terms of information moving through the system. Apart from dealing with today's situation and looking ahead for a couple of years, we must think of the capacity we will need in the long term. This area is going to increase a great deal.

Under the schools broadband access programme, my Department provides for the supply of Internet connectivity for all recognised primary schools. A new framework involving more providers was put in place in 2012 which ensures improved solutions are available to schools on an ongoing basis. The professional development service for teachers leads the provision of continuing professional development, CPD, advice and information for teachers on the use of ICT in teaching and learning. The service is also involved in the annual delivery of approximately 12,000 ICT CPD places for teachers on Department-funded courses. The website, www.scoilnet.ie, is the national education portal and is actively used by primary and post-primary teachers. In 2013, 1.66 million visits to the portal were recorded. This supports what Senator Power said and shows that teachers are genuinely interested and want to get up to speed. We have to facilitate them as best we can. I am amazed at the number of events I attend at weekends where teachers turn up in their free time with a willingness to get more involved in advances across ICT, maths, science and engineering. They are very interested in the core STEM subjects and must be commended for putting that effort in. We have to match that effort with resources and try to make the commitment to them.

This is all evidence of teacher interest in quality and up-to-date digital content that is relevant to the school curriculum. A great deal of good work is being done in the education centres to keep teachers on top of this. It will be very hard to stay ahead of some of the students when it comes to ICT developments. The Department's website has evolved to include the provision of free access to a wide variety of education content including, for example, Ordnance Survey Ireland mapping resources and the internationally recognised Encyclopaedia Britannica. The site further provides for the sharing of teacher-produced resources. Students have access to these resources also. Other support services and the national network of education centres also provide support for the use of ICT in teaching and learning in particular areas of interest and need.

The forthcoming digital strategy for schools, about which the Senator asked in her opening statement, will outline the future direction of policy in this area and address how ICT will support teaching, learning and assessment in our schools into the future.

Having the right infrastructure in terms of equipment, Internet connectivity, teacher training and availability of access to relevant digital content will be key to achieving effective use of digital technology in the classroom. Improved connectivity for primary schools will be a priority. In this regard, my Department will collaborate with the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources with a view to providing enhanced broadband services as quickly as possible.

As part of the implementation of the new strategy there will be an annual plan with clear objectives and a funding commitment in line with the national budgetary strategy. The strategy will build on the strong desire of teachers to meet the learning needs of primary students.

We have to be ambitious concerning the digital strategy. It is certainly something that I will be pushing with the Department, as will the Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan. We know all about the tight budgetary constraints and it will take us time to achieve what other countries have. Our strategy needs to set out where we have to go and where we should be. We should not be limited by current budgets; we should plan the strategy for what the ideal is and try to plan for it. There will be budgetary constraints and timing might not be as quick as we want, but we have to find new ways of doing that.

There is a greater role for industry to get involved in the business strategy for schools and I am engaging with industry to that end. Some schools are lucky enough to be located beside the right companies and will benefit greatly from that. We must find a way that will spread that effect right across the country, however, so that every school - no matter the address - has access to the same kind of material, services and talent to drive this agenda.

The business agenda and the accompanying strategy is a major part of education, so we have to get it right. I have no doubt that we will be discussing the matter again in this Chamber in the near future. I thank the Senator for raising this issue today.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply, but wish to stress that this strategy should be published as a matter of urgency.

I have one final issue, namely, the price of e-books, that he might take up with the Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan. It is bizarre that an e-book costs more than the paper book, even though the latter has to be printed, distributed and sold in shops, while an e-book can be purchased online. I have raised this point previously with the Minister at the Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection, but the general response is that European law covers it and we did not get an exemption for e-books. Obviously, e-books had not been conceived when the EU legislation was enacted, but it does not appear the Government is doing anything to change that. If we are unhappy with the EU legislation we should be pushing for an updated directive. I ask the Minister of State to raise that matter with the Minister. It is a big issue because it is prohibitively expensive for students to use tablets with e-books, rather than carrying around heavy schoolbags.

I agree with Senator Power and it is something we have to make progress on. Having spoken to the Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, about this, I know that she wants to make inroads concerning this matter. It does not add up and is not right. We know what the cause is so we have to work on it. Hopefully we will see some changes in that regard.

I thank the Senator for raising these issues and will discuss them with the Minister because they are very important. My own responsibilities cover enterprise as well as education, but we have to get this strategy right. We must push these subjects, including technology, engineering and mathematics. The online supports for all those courses are essential also, so access to broadband and online services both for teachers and pupils is essential.

Our business strategy focuses on the use of such information. It is so easy to gather data now, but we must teach pupils how to use it individually and through team work. We have to increase access to equipment but we must also teach students how to handle such knowledge.

Students must have respect for each other when using IT facilities, including Facebook and other social media. That is the biggest issue in all the schools I have visited and I am sure it is the same for Senators. Pupils say that their biggest concern is what goes on via social media. That is a part of the strategy that we must get right.

Road Safety

I welcome the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, back to the House. I call Senator Higgins to raise her Adjournment matter.

I ask the Minister to make funds available to address a significant road safety issue at Ballydavid, Athenry, in County Galway. I have previously raised this ongoing issue both locally and nationally in the Seanad but to no avail. I cannot overemphasise how precarious the current situation is both for residents and motorists in the area. If the situation continues unchanged, it will only be a matter of time before more serious accidents occur.

In the past, there have been fatalities in this particular area. There are nine housing estates in the Ballydavid area with approximately 1,000 residents in total, including children. Incredibly, despite it being one of the larger populated areas in Athenry, residents from Ballydavid have no continuous footpath into the town centre. This begs serious questions about the original developments, as well as the planning for these estates and developers' contributions. Those contributions should be spent for the betterment of such areas.

The problem is compounded by the fact that residents are forced to use two roads, one of which is highly dangerous. There is also a wide railway bridge with a notorious bend, while the other one is a back road with another railway bridge. It is incredibly dangerous for road users. By any standards, they are less than ideal for pedestrians. The fact that so many people have no option but to use them daily to get to schools, churches or the middle of town, raises more serious road safety issues.

A comprehensive road safety plan is urgently needed for the residents of Ballydavid. Such infrastructure requires investment which is vital for the Athenry community. Residents should be able to walk safely to and from the centre of Athenry without risking their lives, all for the want of something as basic as a footpath.

I hate having to raise such issues in the Seanad but I am frustrated. I have contacted Galway County Council and have met with council officials on this matter. I have also raised it in the Seanad, yet the situation has remained unchanged for the last two years. I therefore implore the Minister to make funds available to rectify this situation and put something as basic as a footpath in the area so that pedestrians can walk safely to and from the town. Motorists would then not have to swerve to avoid pedestrians in that area.

I thank Senator Higgins for raising this matter. I am pleased to take this debate in the Seanad this evening and to take the opportunity again to respond to the Senator's request. I wish to re-emphasise the position regarding the funding of regional and local roads.

I understand the Senator's motion refers to a non-continuous footpath and, separately, to a railway bridge, both of which are located in the vicinity of Ballydavid, Athenry, Co. Galway. I will begin first of all by addressing the issue of regional and local road funding.

The improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads, including footpaths, is the statutory responsibility of each local authority, in accordance with the provisions of section 13 of the Roads Act 1993. Works on those roads are funded from local authorities' own resources, supplemented by State road grants.

The role of Exchequer grants for regional and local roads is to supplement local authorities in their spending in this area. The initial selection and prioritisation of works, including footpaths, to be funded is also a matter for the local authority and its elected members.

On 23 January this year, my Department announced the €331.9 million investment programme for regional and local roads. From this, Galway County Council was allocated €18.3 million. These grants are mainly focused on the maintenance of the existing road network and it is open to Galway County Council to undertake work on footpaths from its discretionary grant allocation. Short lengths of safety-critical footpaths can also be submitted for consideration under the low-cost safety programme.

All available funding for 2014 has now been allocated and no further funding is available. I expect to announce the details of the 2015 road grants in January next year.

As regards the Irish Rail bridge at Ballydavid, Athenry, this is an operational matter for Irish Rail. Irish Rail has provided the following update to my officials regarding the bridge which is designated as OBG156 and spans the Dublin - Galway railway line at Ballydavid.

larnród Éireann renewed this bridge in 2013 with a provision for the later addition of a pedestrian deck. Currently, the pedestrian deck is in storage awaiting the installation of the approach footpaths by Galway County Council. As soon as the footpaths are nearing completion, larnród Éireann will place the pedestrian deck on the integrated supports on OBG156. The pedestrian deck was not included in the installation work in 2013, as it was felt that it presented a potential hazard to children inclined to attempt to cross the track using what would have been an unfinished pedestrian way.

As outlined above, the prioritisation of work on regional and local roads, including the approaching footpaths at this location, is a matter for Galway County Council.

This is communicating to me, as the Senator may already be aware, that the pedestrian deck, which might make a contribution to dealing with some of the difficulty the Senator has outlined, has been constructed and is in storage at the moment. The challenge in this matter is how funding can be found and how existing funding can be prioritised to allow construction of footpaths at this location to allow the delivery of the pedestrian span in a continuous manner.

I thank the Minister for his response. I accept that roads fall within the remit of Galway County Council or county councils in general, but where there are road safety issues and there have been fatalities on the road in question and in the area in question, it is not acceptable that the situation continues. I will contact the director of roads for Galway County Council to ask that he apply for funding when the new funding comes on stream for 2015 and I urge the Minister to seriously prioritise funding for this area to try to rectify the issue.

I am flummoxed and flabbergasted by the remark in the response that the pedestrian deck and the attempts to install it would be a potential hazard to children. It is a hazard to children on a daily basis as things stand as they make their way to school with no footpath. Parents are having to dodge cars and motorists are having to dodge pedestrians. There have been fatalities at this point in the past. How many more do we need before something is done? I ask that Deputy Donohoe, as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, along with representatives from Irish Rail and Galway County Council, come together and liaise to try to sort out this matter for the 1,000 people living in this area.

I thank the Senator for her response. My challenge in dealing with issues like this is that as Minister my role, as the Senator well knows, is to determine the funding that is available and allocate that to local authorities. With the knowledge they have of their localities, which is not available to me, they would spend that money in the best way possible for their areas and be able to respond to local needs and decide which projects should go ahead and which should not in a way that I cannot.

However, I was struck, when I received the Senator's motion after it was selected and we were preparing to respond to it, by the fact that money has already been spent to construct a pedestrian span that is now lying in storage and this money was spent by a semi-State body for which I have direct responsibility. It is a striking situation that taxpayers' money has already been spent on a deck to make that part of it safe and that cannot be installed because the funding is not available to cover off either side of it. That sounds like a very unusual and specific difficulty.

While as Minister I must respect how Galway County Council spends its funding, given that a deck has been built by Iarnród Éireann, which also has very scarce resources, I will contact the county council and Iarnród Éireann and its chief executive, to see if anything can be done to move this forward. When I get into the allocation of funding, I will always allocate the total funding in the expectation that the Senator and the other local representatives will have the best idea of how it can be spent. It is an unusual position to be in the Seanad and to find out that work has been done on part of a bridge that has been in storage since 2013.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.45 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 11 December 2014.