Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 8 Oct 2015

Vol. 242 No. 8

Commencement Matters

Schools Building Projects Expenditure

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Damien English.

I welcome the Minister of State back to the House.

On 30 September 2015 the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, was in this House to speak about the budget. On health, education and social protection issues, he said, "Our commitment to our citizens in these areas requires that we consider these trends into the future and make plans accordingly." On the education brief, he spoke of "our prioritisation of special education needs." Last week the Government announced €3.8 billion in capital funding for education services. The document, Building on Recovery: Infrastructure and Capital Investment 2016-2021, notes that, "The key objective of this investment is to meet the demographic demand for school places, which will impact on the primary and post primary school sector during the period of the Plan and feed through to the further education and third level sectors thereafter". The purpose of the capital allocation under the plan at primary level is to fund the delivery of a further 19,000 primary school places that will be required by 2018.

From previous Commencement matters I have raised, I am acutely aware that in the allocation of funding priority is afforded to where "population growth has been identified and that there is a demographic challenge facing the education system".

In the past couple of months I have repeatedly raised in the House, including as recently as last week, the 24% increase in the past five years in enrolments at Holy Family special school in Cootehill, County Cavan. The school was not included in the five-year construction plan announced in 2012. All going well in terms of progression of the project to the conclusion of Stage 2b, detailed design, including completion of the tender documents, will the school be allocated funding for the provision of new accommodation? I am aware that increasing demographic demand is a consideration in the allocation of funding, but there is a real and pressing need for new accommodation at the school, given, as I said, that enrolments have increased by 24% in the past five years. The parents of children attending the school do not have the luxury of being able to pick and choose where their children go to school. As I have repeatedly stated, the catchment area stretches beyond the town and village to the county boundaries. As such, there is a demographic need for the provision of the new accommodation. Taking into account the need for wheelchair and other specialised equipment in the school, increasing enrolments and the fact that current space is being utilised to maximum capacity, it would be impossible for anybody to deny that in providing funding for the project we would be addressing the challenge facing the education system.

What are the priorities in the new capital investment programme? Will projects outside the five-year construction plan be allocated funding under the new capital investment programme and, if so, what criteria will apply to eligibility for funding?

I thank the Senator for raising this issue which I am taking on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, who cannot be here.

In responding to the issue raised by the Senator I take the opportunity to remind the House of the significant challenges with which we are faced in meeting increasing demand for pupil places throughout the country in the coming years and to clarify the position on the Department's priorities for school infrastructure in the period from 2016 to 2021.

The Senator will be aware that the country has experienced an unprecedented population increase in recent years. This demographic growth has posed a significant challenge for the provision of school places across all needs. This challenge is set to continue. The demographic projections show that enrolments at primary level will continue to increase substantially until at least 2019. Primary school enrolments which stood at 509,652 in July 2011 are expected to increase to 570,000 by 2018, which equates to an increase in enrolments of over 64,000 since July 2011. Post-primary school enrolments which stood at 317,432 in July 2011 are expected to increase to 385,000 by 2022, which equates to an increase in enrolments of some 68,000 since July 2011. The demand for additional school places in the post-primary sector will continue to increase until at least 2025 when enrolment figures are expected to reach in excess of 400,000.

In reviewing the need for additional school places the approach taken by the Department is to identify the need for additional school places and then to examine the capacity of existing schools in an area to cater for the overall level of demand. Decisions are then taken on the need or otherwise for an additional school or to expand existing schools. The Department is in the process of concluding an exercise to determine where additional school accommodation will be needed from 2017 onwards. The demographic exercise encompassed all areas of the country.

The Senator will also be aware that significant capital funding will be invested in the education system through the Government's €27 billion capital programme announced on 29 September. In the next six years some €3.8 billion in direct funding will be invested in education projects. By comparison, the initial allocation under the previous five-year capital programme was €2.2 billion. This means that there has been a significant increase in funding to match demand. This level of allocation allows the Department of Education and Skills to deliver some 19,000 additional permanent primary school places, required by 2019, and 43,000 additional post-primary school places, required by 2022.

The six-year plan prioritises new building projects, as well as major extensions in areas where significant demographic need has been established, including special schools, which will provide for significant additional capacity to meet demographic growth. The plan also provides for devolved funding for additional classrooms for schools outside the plan where an immediate enrolment need such as the appointment of an additional teacher has been identified. It also prioritises projects that have a major deficit of mainstream accommodation capacity in respect of current enrolments, require major refurbishment and replacement of poor accommodation and which will also provide additional accommodation to meet increases in enrolments. In addition, the plan includes funding to replace prefabs with permanent accommodation.

I am not in a position to give the Senator an answer today on the particular school project she raised. However, she will appreciate that all of these issues are being examined and properly analysed, following which decisions will be made based on evidence and facts. Most people agree that the resources available under the five-year construction plan which will not expire until the end of 2016 will be utilised to address demographic demands. The school project referenced by the Senator will be examined in that context. I reiterate that provision is made in the plan for special educational needs demand.

I thank the Minister of State for his response and welcome the clarity provided therein. It is welcome that the approach taken by the Department is to identify the need for additional school places and then to examine the capacity of existing schools in an area to cater for the overall level of demand. I also welcome the Minister of State's clarification that the plan will prioritise new building projects and extensions in areas where specific demographic demand has been established, including special schools. On each occasion this issue has been raised evidence of increased demographic demand has been provided. Only last week, the Minister advised that such was the demographic need and demand, an application for five additional classrooms had been added to the current plan. I welcome the Minister of State's provision of clarity on the issue and ask that he relay to the Department the need for prioritisation in the allocation of funding under the new plan for the Holy Family special school project.

I will relay the Senator's concerns about the school mentioned. The overriding objective of the plan is to ensure every child has access to a physical school place, including, where possible, through the replacement of poor accommodation. The areas in which demographic demand has been identified are the ones on which we need to concentrate.

Mental Health Services

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch.

Cuirim céad fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Táim thar a bheith buíoch di as teacht isteach ar an gceist seo. I hope the Minister of State is aware of the crisis in psychiatric services in Galway. I know that she is aware of the issue that arose at the hospital last May, which led to nurses taking industrial action over health and safety and staffing levels at the acute psychiatric unit. Following that incident, an implementation group was set up to try to resolve the issues involved. Commitments were given on staffing levels and the opening of a new unit that is available but which is lying empty. I am told that these commitments have not been met.

I understand there was chaos in the acute psychiatric unit in University Hospital Galway last weekend because there were insufficient staff to manage the unit. I also understand worker representatives spent the weekend trying to contact members of management who were responsible for the staffing of the unit but that they were not available or would not make themselves available to resolve the issues involved. I am further told that the issues should have been resolved mid-week, while people were in their offices and that staffing at the time of the chaos was at a level which raised huge concerns among staff about their safety and that of patients. That is not acceptable.

This issue forms part of the broader picture of psychiatric services in the west, particularly the Galway-Roscommon area. I am told by people who work in the services that the closure of the service in Ballinasloe has put added pressure on the psychiatric unit in University Hospital Galway. When that service was closed, a commitment was given that a community psychiatric group, made up of approximately ten to 12 nurses who would work in the community, would be established to meet additional demand following the closure of the Ballinasloe unit. However, that group has not yet been established.

I am aware that there are serious concerns about some of the homes in Roscommon which are managed by the Galway-Roscommon PCCC. It has raised huge concerns about the incidents that have occurred there, which issues I have raised in the House previously. I understand there has been a reshuffle of management in the psychiatric and mental health services in Galway. Mental health and psychiatric services in Galway are chaotic. Something must be done immediately because, according to worker representatives, staff and family members of patients at the unit, lives at being put in danger. Their concern in this regard is real and genuine. Recently a patient admitted to the psychiatric unit in Galway somehow got out and was found some days later having hanged himself. The family is distraught.

This is another disaster waiting to happen. It is a serious issue that must be grasped and sorted out very quickly. The review of mental health services in Roscommon should be extended to Galway-Roscommon because the services there were managed by the same group of people and all of these services were being exchanged and staff moved between the two areas. If it is a question of resources, it needs to be made available immediately to make sure, particularly in acute psychiatric settings, that there are enough staff and nurses to ensure patients, doctors and other staff are safe.

The Senator may think this is patronising - I do not mean it to be - but the reason I like taking Commencement matters in the Seanad, although I would prefer if I did not have to take them so often, is there is always extra time to flesh out the questions posed. When anyone dies by suicide, it is a tragedy. I can only imagine the distress the family feels, especially when they thought their loved one was somewhere but then discovered he or she was not. Equally, someone admitted to an acute unit in the psychiatric service is very distressed and these things will happen. It is very unfortunate and I can only imagine the distress of families and the chaos the person who commits suicide leaves behind, which is why I am very committed to the new strategy. It is something awful for any family to experience. I pray that none of us will experience it, but that is not the reality. as it does happen.

The reorganisation of the service in Galway-Roscommon is a priority of mine. If anything I say - I asked for a detailed response - is in conflict with the facts, I would appreciate it very much if the Senator would tell me at some stage, but I hope the answer will be satisfactory. It is a service in transition which needs time to bed down, but people’s safety should be paramount in that process.

It is widely recognised that the Government has prioritised the development of all aspects of mental health policy. The explanation for this is the psychiatric service is different from mental health services which cover community-based and attitudinal problems. Despite severe financial pressures overall, we have provided significant additional funding of €125 million since 2012 to enable the HSE implement the long overdue modernisation of mental health services, in line with A Vision for Change. Key to modernising services in line with current and future demand and best international practice is reorientation from a hospital and bed-based focus to developing structures and processes required for enhanced community-based provision. In line with the national approach, Galway-Roscommon mental health services are committed to full implementation of A Vision for Change. The HSE appointed an expert group to review community mental health services in the region which reported in June 2014. The group recommended a broad reconfiguration across the area, with a focus on enhanced community care through residential and other community settings and a reallocation of resources across both counties. The HSE in the Galway-Roscommon administrative area provides an inpatient and community mental health service for a population of 314,000. It is well advanced in implementing A Vision for Change, including adopting the recommended population sectors of 50,000, appointing team co-ordinators and developing an overarching clinical governance model. The number of acute beds is well within the recommendations of A Vision for Change, which indicates 50 beds per 300,000 people. In Galway and Roscommon there are 67 beds in total, 45 in Galway and 22 in Roscommon, for a population of 314,000. This will increase by a further five beds in Galway, with the opening of the new acute unit there in early 2017.

When we started to realise there was a difficulty, we put a particular focus on the area. Since 2012 the HSE has secured significant additional new staff posts in Galway-Roscommon, including additional consultants in the areas of general adult community mental health teams, psychiatry of later life teams and rehabilitation and recovery teams. Allied staff include occupational therapists, community mental health nurses, social workers and psychologists. The service in Galway-Roscommon has a nursing complement of over 400 whole-time equivalents. It had funding of €62.3 million in 2013, €63.4 million in 2014 and an allocation of €65 million this year before receiving its share of the 2015 development funding, which was the ring-fenced for development posts. It should be noted that the service has a mental health spending figure of approximately €190 per head of population which, when adjusted for deprivation indices, compares very favourably to the national average of €161. Therefore, funding is not a core problem for mental health services, either in HSE west or nationally. This is one of the few areas that had an increase in funding. There are, however, acknowledged staff recruitment and retention difficulties generally, symptomatic of the wider health system which are being addressed in this context. The problems we are experiencing will not help in that regard. Recruitment is becoming easier, but it is still difficult. Notwithstanding such difficulties, an additional 16 staff are being recruited for the community home-based intensive treatment team, as an alternative to admission to University Hospital Galway. The Roscommon area has developed a home-based intensive treatment team since February this year. The acute unit in Galway continues to recruit additional nursing staff. Based on a Labour Relations Commission agreement in early June 2015, this includes two clinical nurse managers, five registered psychiatric nurses, one suicide crisis assessment nurse and progressing registration for 12 postgraduate nurses. In addition, six clinical nurse managers and ten staff nurses are in the process of recruitment.

I understand local HSE management has recently met the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, and staff representatives and that all concerns highlighted about health and safety are being addressed as constructively as possible. These things sometimes take time and they are not as straightforward as we like to think they are. Any indication that Galway mental health service is unsafe is unfounded and any patient or staff member requiring assistance from the service is encouraged to ask for it. I particularly mention from time to time that staff need support in this type of service which is demanding and challenging. We always hear about the acute hospitals, yet the most challenging of all is the service delivered by the extremely well qualified staff in acute mental health units.

I agree with the Minister of State’s initial statement on distressed persons in cases of suicide. The family’s question relates to how such a person was allowed to leave the place.

It does happen; that is my point.

It should not be happening and we need to examine that issue another day. The one phrase in the Minister of State’s reply with which I take umbrage is: “Any indication that Galway mental health service is unsafe is unfounded...” After a weekend like last weekend when an acute psychiatric unit was short four nurses and the nurses felt patient safety, as well as their own, it is an indication that a service is unsafe.

There are lots of promises about staff being recruited and I appreciate that there are difficulties in taking on staff. However, is the Minister of State confident that next weekend and the weekend after that, the situation in Galway will not be the same and that the acute psychiatric unit will not be four nurses short? Does she have absolute confidence that management of Saolta University Health Care Group will have the proper complement of nurses available in the acute psychiatric unit to ensure nurses and patients will have no health and safety problems?

The management reconfiguration is recent, as the Senator knows. I have every confidence in management. I do not think anyone, no matter who or no matter what his or her status is, whether it be the Taoiseach, the President or the Minister, can guarantee that things will not happen.

Following my investigation into the matters raised by the Senator, I can tell him that there are sufficient staff to ensure the shortages we see at weekends do not happen. I do not know whether it is a management issue or whether other issues are coming into play, but I will make further inquiries. I try to be as honest and open as possible as I do not believe in fudging matters, but I cannot guarantee any of these things. I am not there and not the person micromanaging the system. When resources are an issue, I will do my best to deal with it, but it is not my job to get into how something is managed at local level. I will make further inquiries, but I cannot guarantee that people will not be missing next weekend. With the resources that have been provided, this should not happen

Is it not ultimately the Minister of State's responsibility?

Ultimately, the buck stops on my desk, but how a resource is managed is an issue for managers. If somebody comes and tells me he or she is short ten nurses, it is my job to find the resources to deliver these nurses. Sometimes it is not possible because of issues relating to recruitment, but it is my job to ensure it happens as quickly as possible. I have confidence in management; I would not have approved this if I did not. We are dealing with acute mental health services which, by their very nature, have particular difficulties. To say the service is unsafe would unnecessarily frighten people who are not in the service but who need it. I have every confidence in the staff working in the psychiatric and mental health services who are incredibly well trained and very dedicated. I have confidence in the safety of the service but, from time to time, things do go wrong.

Postal Codes

The Minister of State is very welcome. I sincerely wish her every success in the forthcoming general election. I appreciate her friendship and the warmth she has shown throughout the years since I got to know her. My question is to the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. Will he clarify whether it is possible for constituents to appeal their Eircode when it is different from the property's geographical address?

Dublin residents have raised with me serious concerns about the new Eircode system which places them in an area geographically different from their actual home address. Significant changes in the traditional, designated districts have caused great upset. For example, there are people all over Ireland who have been located in geographically incorrect towns, counties and even provinces. The system has even located Shannon Airport in County Limerick, whereas we all know it is in County Clare, while residents in Leixlip have had Naas added to their address. West Wicklow homes have been given a Kildare postcode and, according to Eircode, people in Dublin 16 actually live in Dublin 24. The list of inaccuracies is endless.

In other countries codes are assigned in an orderly fashion and as a result houses and areas close to each other have a similar or the same code. The new Eircode system has created amazing confusion. Every Government agency I have contacted about this issue has completely washed its hands of it. The Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources redirected me to Capita which subsequently told me the issue was out of its control as the postcodes were assigned by An Post. It is absolutely absurd that this new Eircode system is live when it is so riddled with flaws.

The system is not fit for purpose in its current form and, strictly, it is not even a postcode system. Even at this late stage, a period of up to one year for an appeal process relating to the Eircode anomaly should be established. It is common sense. The Minister should arrange a consultation with citizens and communities that have legitimate grievances and be ready to make adjustments. After all, we live in a democracy.

I thank the Senator and wish her all the best in the upcoming general election, whenever it is held.

It sounds like as if it will be held in November.

Speculation is rife, but I am not sure it is correct.

I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Alex White. I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to address the Seanad on it. The Minister was delighted to launch Eircode, the new national postcode system, this summer. Ireland is the first country in the world to have a unique identifier for all properties in the State. Unlike other countries, where postcodes define clusters or groups of addresses, an Eircode identifies an individual address, rural or urban, and shows exactly where that property is located. The postcode contractor, Capita, with assistance from the postmen and postwomen from An Post successfully delivered a letter to all 2.2 million residential and business addresses notifying them of their Eircode throughout Ireland during July this year. Another exciting development during the launch was the new online Eircode finder tool on the website www.eircode.ie. The Eircode finder is an Eircode look-up application that helps citizens and businesses to look up or check Eircodes using a smartphone or a computer.

The most comprehensive address database available in the country is the postal address database which is owned by GeoDirectory, a subsidiary company of An Post and Ordnance Survey Ireland. The GeoDirectory database is provided under licence by An Post GeoDirectory, APG, to Eircode. The GeoDirectory database was used because it is the sole authoritative database in the State for all postal addresses.

It is very important to note that with the introduction of Eircodes, addresses are not changing and people do not need to change the address that they normally use. The addresses displayed on the Eircode finder and on the letters sent to every address in the country are postal addresses as used by An Post. They were used to ensure accurate and efficient delivery of the Eircode notification letters and may have differed from the property's geographical address. Some postal addresses include a post town and county that are different from the geographical county of the address. Whether constituents choose to use the postal address or another form of address such as the geographical address, the Eircode for the property does not change.

The Eircode is structured in order that the first three digits which refer to a routing key are aligned with An Post delivery districts. This is to ensure the codes are compatible with An Post mailing systems. In order to ensure An Post can deliver mail, it is not possible to allow constituents to change their Eircode as this would present problems for An Post. This has always applied in Dublin postal districts where the Dublin postcode, once assigned, could not be changed by An Post. The same principle applies to the national system of postcodes. It is not possible to change an Eircode but constituents are entitled to use whatever form of address they normally use with the Eircode.

There are many variations of addresses used in rural Ireland, but these occur even in urban areas. The Eircode address database contains a number of alias addresses for each postal address. If members of the public believe their postal address is incorrect, they may wish to inform An Post which will investigate the matter and if it decides to amend the address, it will update its central database. Eircode will update its database every three months to reflect the quarterly source data updates it receives from An Post GeoDirectory.

What the reply is really stating is that in terms of the address at which I reside - I am sure it is the same for the Senator because we both live in urban areas and know that even in such areas addresses can differ - there are, for example, three places named Fairhill in Cork and all of them are located within a small geographical area. One's postman and postwoman will know which is the correct one in terms of delivery. I have two separate addresses and can use either because they relate to the same location. What the reply is stating is that Eircode is the single identifier, even though one's address might vary from time to time. The single identifier relates to the system used by An Post. I know a little about the matter because my daughter happens to be a postwoman. The machinery identifies it and that is the key part. I understand how the matter can be confusing for people, especially those who live in rural areas where, for example, there can be different townlands, parishes, etc. The measure is most definitely designed to ensure An Post gets it right rather than to cater for what an individual or property owner needs.

I am still unclear about the matter. I must take the opportunity to refer to a recent report compiled by the Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr. Seamus McCarthy. He has major concerns about how taxpayers' money has been spent on Eircode during the past five years. In 2009 it was estimated that Eircode would cost €18 million over an 18-month period. Based on a review of costs to date, it is now estimated that it cost in the region of €38 million.

The Senator has veered away from discussing the matter that she tabled.

Cost is very much part of the mess.

It is not part of the matter tabled.

Mr. McCarthy claimed that there was a lack of clarity about overall achievements since the implementation of Eircode. He said there were serious concerns about the non-competitive basis on which consultants had been engaged and that there were significant delays. This is a very serious matter. Tenders were awarded without going through the proper competitive process. I still want to know what happens if people have a problem with Eircode, as it has been designated. Is there an appeals process available to change an address?

It appears from the reply I gave on behalf of the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources that there is no appeals process per se. Clearly, it is indicated in the reply that if people believe their addresses have been wrongly indicated, they can get in touch with An Post which will investigate the matter. If a concern is upheld, An Post will alter the database. There is a mechanism to appeal, but I am not certain one could call it an appeals system, the matter about which the Senator is really concerned.

I do not have the details of the other concerns expressed by the Senator. If I had, I would communicate them to her. I do not have details about the process. I do not think there is a central appeals mechanism, but there is a process by which one can contact An Post to outline a concern. As stated, its database will be updated every three months. Therefore, it will not take a year for a change to be registered. I presume that if a concern is upheld, the database will be corrected within three months.

I thank the Minister of State.

Sitting suspended at 11.15 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.