Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Community Development Initiatives

I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House.

I welcome the Minister of State to the Seanad today and wish him well in his Department.

Today, I seek to highlight the need for the Attic House CLG to be successful under the 2021 community development pilot programme. It has a proven track record of community service in Longford and is ideally located to pilot a community development initiative. This superb facility has a state-of-the-art campus that is ideally located at the heart of the most marginalised communities in the county. The existing project has been supported by many agencies to address the needs of young people in the community. Now it is time further develop on what has been built and offer Attic House as a community development for Longford town. Why Longford town? The statistics show that we have a very diverse population that is experiencing considerable disadvantage and there are many who would benefit from the project. The Pobal HP deprivation index of 2016 shows that within walking distance of the town centre two-thirds of the people's living areas were classified as being between disadvantaged and extremely disadvantaged, higher than the national average of non-white residents and four times the national average of Traveller families. The Attic House has developed an integration programme to ensure inclusivity of the migrant community. Many of these communities live independently of each other and that can lead to a divided population, which, in turn, can lead to conflict. The Attic House has very successfully engaged with a high number of these communities.

The Attic House started as a youth café in 2006. Following consultation that identified a lack of services and supports, for youth and family support services, the need for a dedicated centre was raised. In 2015, the Attic House was established as a volunteer-managed youth and community project, which has now become a central hub in Longford for youth and other agencies to work together to provide opportunities for all in the county. Funding to develop the facility was sourced from the LEADER programme, Longford County Council and the local enterprise office but more than €500,000 was raised locally to develop the project.

This gives the community of Longford a sense of ownership and pride in its achievements so far. It is governed by a management committee of members drawn from a broad section of the community who bring a wide set of skills to the governance of the facility and to the project itself. Stakeholders who work with and provide services include Foróige, Tusla, Longford direct provision, Mens Sheds Ireland, Longford Sports Partnership, Templemichael College, the EDI Centre Longford and Templemichael Parish Resources. The list of partner agencies include Backstage Theatre, the Traveller health project, the local Youthreach service, Longford County Council, County Longford Youth Service, the Lus na Gréine and Bridgeways family resource centres, Longford and Westmeath Education and Training Board, the HSE, the local public participation network, Longford Africans Network, the Polish community network, the volunteer centre and all of the local schools.

This is a community development programme that has, thus far, been financed and run by volunteers. What could it achieve if given the resources to allow it to expand with a full-time project manager? Its unique position, with an existing state-of-the-art facility, means that any project investment will result in considerable value for money. This organisation has experience, is embedded in the community and can hit the ground running, allowing it to reach more people in our community. I ask the Minister of State to prioritise Attic House for funding under the current programme.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. He will be aware that this Government is committed to supporting and enabling a strong community sector. It is my role to ensure that is delivered. In addition to the commitments in Sustainable, Inclusive and Empowered Communities: A Five-Year Strategy to Support the Community and Voluntary Sector in Ireland 2019-2024, published in August 2019, there is a very specific commitment in the programme for Government to introduce, on a phased basis, a number of projects similar in approach to community development projects. In response to this commitment, my Department announced the introduction of a pilot community development programme which will consist of up to eight projects promoting an autonomous approach to community work with marginalised communities. Initial funding of €1 million was secured for 2021 and it is expected that the programme will continue for three years.

The overall aim of the community development pilot programme is to trial community development initiatives that address poverty, social exclusion and inequality and promote human rights. The pilot programme will seek to develop community development responses to a range of social, economic and environmental concerns. In line with community development principles, the idea is to facilitate an empowering, collaborative approach to building relationships and to undertake co-operative initiatives between marginalised groups, mainstream services and decision-making bodies. Overall, we want to examine the benefits of an autonomous approach to community development with regard to existing, new and emerging issues. We want to ensure that those on the very front line of grassroots community work are empowered to identify and deliver in a proactive and reactive way, based on local knowledge of needs. The focus is on community development organisations working, or seeking to work, at local level to address issues in areas such as racism, domestic or sexual violence, migration, gender, people living in direct provision or seeking international protection, climate action and just transition.

The programme opened for applications in March and, due to the large number of high-quality submissions received, my Department is undertaking a two-stage assessment process to examine the applications against the eligibility criteria set out. It is expected that successful applicants will be notified at the end of May. This is a change from the original target of the end of April indicated in the initial information and guidance. All applicants have been advised of the revised timeline.

As the Senator will appreciate, it would not be appropriate for me to comment at this stage on any individual application that may be under consideration as part of this process, including any application from the Attic House CLG. I am grateful to every organisation that has submitted an application and I am very encouraged by the overall level of interest that has been generated. I am also aware of the important work that the Attic House CLG does for young people in Longford and I wish it every success in its ongoing activities.

In total, 123 applications were received in my Department, representing local communities and local development organisations working at local level to address issues facing marginalised groups. Some areas of work covered in applications include: work with Travellers, Roma and migrants; projects working to address domestic violence; projects working with marginalised women and children; addiction supports and mental health projects; and projects relating to gender issues, climate action, just transition and many other areas. Applications were submitted by organisations across all 26 counties.

I would also like to highlight that, in late 2020, I announced funding of €254,000 to support the work of the All Ireland Endorsement Body for Community Work Education and Training, AIEB, between 2020 and 2022 in order to support the future growth and development of community work in Ireland.

At the time of the funding announcement, I reiterated my desire to see further growth in grassroots community work, and I do so again today.

I thank the Minister of State and I appreciate he cannot make further comment. I acknowledge his comment about being aware of the strong work involved. It is an organisation I have been involved in for over ten years. When he is looking for a pilot programme, he should know this is already being done on a voluntary capacity, and I do not think there are too many programmes anywhere in the country where that can be said. As a town, we do not have a family resource centre and we have been unsuccessful with applications for one. It took the commitment of a voluntary management committee to raise €500,000 to purchase a property, develop it and run these programmes in our county town on a voluntary basis. I appeal to the Minister of State to look at this urgently. It needs support and our county town needs support. As I said, it is an existing facility. If we are looking for value for money as well as experience, we will not get as much anywhere else in the country. I thank the Minister of State for his time.

I thank the Senator for laying out the details of what the community has done in getting the project running. It is always very impressive when volunteer work at that level brings something to life.

I want to add a couple of points on the applications. They will be assessed and scored in accordance with the marking scheme set out, and that reflects the pilot programme aim, objectives and eligibility criteria. Consideration will be given to a number of other issues, such as geographic and regional spread and the range of issues covered. Successful projects will be selected by a panel selected for that purpose, chaired by my Department and comprising representatives from Pobal and nominees from Community Work Ireland and the Irish Local Development Network.

It is important to say we received a very large number of valid applications and a very large number of very worthy proposals. If a project proposal is not selected, we will explore ways that the need identified might be addressed via some of our other funding programmes. I will consider the overall volume of applications and the strong quality of the applications to pursue growth in the Department’s programmes to address the needs identified by people and organisations at grassroots level.

For the applications that have come in, we will consider he value within them in the broader scheme of things going forward. I genuinely thank people for the work that has gone into them.

Closed-Circuit Television Systems

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach. The Minister of State is very welcome and I thank her for taking time out of her busy schedule to be here.

Everyone agrees about the benefits of CCTV systems. They are located in many of our towns and cities, and are invaluable pieces of equipment when it comes to the investigation of crime or preventing crime. A UK study in 2013 estimated that 20% of crimes were prevented by having a CCTV system in place. There is no doubt they are hugely beneficial pieces of equipment. They allow people to go about their daily lives and if people want to go for a walk at night-time, they can do so with a sense of security. They are invaluable when it comes to investigating assaults and other crimes, which is a proven fact.

The statistics from the Department show that, for each of the three years from 2017 to 2020, €1 million was allocated towards CCTV systems. However, I am led to believe that only €750,000 has actually been approved, which clearly shows there is a problem with the system. The current application process is much too cumbersome and much too drawn out, and it is putting off many communities from applying in the first place.

I was interested to look back at some of my notes.

Three years ago I raised this issue of CCTV systems in respect of Monaghan town and countrywide as well as the issue of delays. That was three years ago. The then Minister for Justice, Deputy Flanagan, was in the seat now occupied by the Minister of State. I was looking for an update in respect of the system generally throughout the country and in Monaghan town. Here we are three years later. I am back in the Chamber this morning still looking for an update on the CCTV system for Monaghan town.

To sum up, I asked the then Minister, Deputy Flanagan, to look at the application process for community CCTV systems to see how those responsible could take away some of the cumbersome aspects to the application process. I wonder whether there has been an update in respect of that. Does the Minister of State have an update for me on Monaghan town and exactly where that scheme is this morning?

On behalf of the Minister for Justice I wish to thank the Senator for raising this matter. The Senator will be aware that the community-based CCTV is currently governed by section 38(3)(c) of the Garda Síochána Act 2005 and the Garda Síochána (CCTV) Order 2006, which is SI 289 of 2006. This legal framework requires that any proposed community CCTV scheme must, first, be approved by the local joint policing committee, second, have the prior support of the relevant local authority, which must also act as data controller, and, third, have the authorisation of the Garda Commissioner. This is the legal basis for all community CCTV schemes regardless of how they are funded. These key legal requirements have not changed since 2006.

It is important to note that decisions in respect of the introduction or extension of Garda CCTV systems are matters for the Garda Commissioner and not for the Minister for Justice. Since 2017 the Department of Justice has administered a grant aid scheme to support groups wishing to establish a community-based CCTV system in their areas. Eligible groups, including community groups and local authorities nationwide, can apply for grant aid of up to 60% of the total capital cost of a proposed CCTV system up to a maximum total of €40,000. On behalf of the Minister I can confirm that funding continues to be available for 2021.

The Senator may also be aware that the grant aid scheme was recently extended to cover not only new CCTV systems but to allow funding applications for extension or upgrade of existing community CCTV systems that are incomplete or obsolete. Applicants can now seek a once-off grant of up to €5,000 for minor maintenance costs. A total of 34 applications have been approved under the community CCTV scheme to date, with the value of grants awarded totalling €888,689.

It is important to emphasise that this funding can only be considered for CCTV systems that meet the legal requirements I have already outlined. Senator Gallagher has asked about Monaghan town. I understand the community CCTV scheme for Monaghan was approved by the Garda Commissioner. I can confirm the Monaghan town application for a grant of €45,000 for the community CCTV scheme has been approved by the Department of Justice and the payment of the first instalment of €25,000 was made to Monaghan County Council in July last year. I am also aware that Monaghan County Council has applied to An Garda Síochána for an amendment to the scheme that was initially proposed. The amendment was to increase the number of CCTV cameras from eight to 30. The Minister for Justice is keen to be of assistance and has asked the Department of Justice officials to obtain an update from An Garda Síochána in respect of this application. The Minister will write to the Senator on receipt of an update.

The role of the data controller for CCTV schemes is relevant as well. The Senator will be aware that the Department of Justice has published the general scheme of the Garda Síochána (digital recording) Bill at the end of last month. The general scheme puts forward several amendments to the operation of CCTV schemes to provide for robust oversight in response to concerns raised by the Data Protection Commissioner. I understand the Minister's priority now is to ensure community groups can continue to be supported in their valued contributions to their local CCTV schemes while ensuring sufficient proportionate oversight of data protection statutory considerations.

I hope that update will be of assistance to the Senator on this matter.

I thank the Minister of State for that comprehensive response, which I welcome. It is still worth noting that up to this point it has been a very cumbersome process and the figures the Minister of State has given go some way towards substantiating that point. I would like to see a system that is much more expeditious in how conclusions are reached when applications go in. As the Minister of State said, and rightly so, they are hugely beneficial to the communities in which they are installed and they are an added tool, as I said in my contribution, in respect of not alone the investigation of crimes committed but indeed the prevention of crime itself. I thank the Minister of State for her response.

I will bring the matters the Senator has raised, particularly his comments on a more expeditious application process, to the attention of the Minister for Justice. I note what he said about the 70% of crimes being prevented, or certainly their prevention being assisted, by the use of CCTV. I also note what he said about the fact that €1 million was allocated and that only €750,000 has been approved. I cannot confirm here whether or not all those comments are correct but I will bring that information back to the Minister for Justice. The fact that €45,000 has been given to Monaghan town and approved by the Department of Justice and the fact that €25,000 was paid to Monaghan County Council last July should be of assistance to the Senator in bringing this matter forward.

School Accommodation

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit freisin. Tá mé an-bhuíoch di as ucht teacht anseo chun labhairt linn ar an ábhar tábhachtach seo. Tá a fhios agam go gcuirfidh sí an t-eolas os comhair an Aire Oideachais freisin. As the Minister of State will be aware, Gaelscoil Laighean, the only non-denominational Gaelscoil in the Dún Laoghaire area, opened in September 2019. It was the result of a plebiscite that took place in the Blackrock-Booterstown area on foot of a decision by the Department to establish a primary school in that area. There was a substantial plebiscite. I was a councillor in the area at the time and was quite involved in the matter so I know how much there was behind the decision of parents in the area to say they wanted a Gaelscoil specifically in that area. That is what succeeded, and An Foras Pátrúnachta was given patronage of the school. The school opened in September 2019 in temporary accommodation in Deansgrange, or Kill of the Grange, in a former restaurant on Kill Lane and has been there since. It is a small area, and the reality is that the space provided for Gaelscoil Laighean prevents it from growing beyond its present size.

The Minister of State will be aware that in recent weeks it has come out from the Department of Education that accommodation is now being provided for the school in the former senior college in Dún Laoghaire, on Eblana Avenue. This is problematic for a whole number of reasons. It is something I initially welcomed because I understood that parents were happy with it, having spoken to a wide variety of people who are part of the school community of Gaelscoil Laighean: parents, teachers and the principal. I know now that that is not the case and I can identify very clearly the reasons why it does not work. I was surprised in the first instance because the site is outside the catchment area originally envisaged for this school. This is a school for the Blackrock-Booterstown area. A move to Dún Laoghaire makes no sense. In addition, the building that is proposed, the former senior college, is in quite a dilapidated state, so I had initially thought the school would have the benefit of a fully renovated building. In fact, it will have only the ground floor, which is not very much bigger than where the school is now. It will not have the benefit of the full building.

The building itself is in very poor condition and is directly opposite what is now a building site on Eblana Avenue, so the level of disruption to the students, teachers and parents of the school will be huge. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, there are no play facilities, there is no yard and there is no area where the kids can train or get involved in sports. At least where they are in Deansgrange is next to Clonkeen Park and a hall at the Church of Ireland Church in Kill of the Grange, so there are facilities available to them.

The move to Dún Laoghaire will massively encumber parents. People who have put their lives on hold, changed jobs and changed address to be within the catchment area of this school will now have to drive to Dún Laoghaire, where previously they walked their children to school. When they get to Dún Laoghaire, there will be no point to drop off children. They will be on a busy narrow lane in Dún Laoghaire town where there is lots of traffic, including lots of construction traffic.

All things considered, the decision by the Department of Education to move the school to this location, even on a temporary basis, is nonsensical. It has caused enormous upset among the school community and will cause massive disruption for the parents and families, and for the grandparents who are often involved in bringing children to or from school,and looking after them after school.

I raise this issue because it seems there has been an extraordinary level of misinformation about it. There are rumours about a site at the former council depot in Mount Anville. There are also rumours about a site elsewhere. Parents do not know what is happening. We were told initially that this was a permanent move and now we are told it is interim accommodation. Parents are entitled to certainty and clarity about what is happening here. They are entitled to a school in the Blackrock-Booterstown area, where they were told it would be. They were initially given the impression that they would get a site at the top of Newtownpark Avenue, which would appear to be perfect in all the circumstances, and now it seems that might be going to another school.

My ask to the Minister of State, which I know she will pass on directly to the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, is to please give us some clarity and certainty and take on board all of the reasonable objections of the parents and members of this school community to the location currently proposed for just a few months hence.

I thank Senator Ward for raising this matter. I am happy to clarify the position with regard to the development of permanent accommodation for Gaelscoil Laighean.

As a result of the nationwide demographic exercise carried out by the Department into the future need for primary and post-primary schools in the State, the requirement for a new eight-classroom primary school to service the Blackrock-Booterstown area was announced by the Government. Gaelscoil Laighean was established, as the Senator correctly pointed out, in 2019 under the patronage of An Foras Pátrúnachta. Gaelscoil Laighean is currently located in interim accommodation at Kill Lane, Deansgrange, County Dublin, that can facilitate two mainstream classrooms and ancillary space.

It must be noted that the school authorities were informed before occupying Kill Lane that it would only be for a two-year period. They were told that at the outset. They were aware that a move to an alternative interim accommodation would be required for the 2021 academic year to cater for the school's growing enrolments. As a result, I understand that officials in the Department have put in place the necessary arrangements to relocate Gaelscoil Laighean to the premises at Eblana Avenue in Dún Laoghaire. I heard the Senator's comments on that matter and I will return to them later. This premises is under the ownership of the Dublin and Dún Laoghaire Education and Training Board. This alternative interim accommodation will suitably accommodate the school's growing enrolments for the academic years 2021 and 2022. The Department issued verbal and written communications, on Wednesday 28 April, informing the patron of these arrangements. My officials understand that the school was informed of this communication on the very same day.

The Department remains committed to providing a permanent accommodation solution for Gaelscoil Laighean and a project to deliver this accommodation has been included in the Department's six-year capital programme. The Senator will be aware that the acquisition of a site is required to facilitate the delivery of this project. He will also appreciate that the acquisition of school sites in highly developed urban areas where land is extremely scarce presents particular challenges for the Department. This has, unsurprisingly, proven to be the case in the Blackrock-Booterstown school planning area. While a number of potential site options were identified - and I note the Senator's comments on those - with the assistance of officials in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, to date all but two sites have proven unsuitable or unavailable for acquisition. Officials in the Department are currently in discussions with county council officials on these two potential school site options for two primary schools in the local authority area, one of which is Gaelscoil Laighean. Good progress has been made to determine the optimum configuration of school sites within Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council in recent weeks.

Once a site for the school has been secured, the project to deliver the school's permanent accommodation can be progressed into the architectural planning process without delay. I assure the Senator that I am very conscious of the difficulties contended with by the school authorities and the families. In this regard, the acquisition will continue to be treated as a priority for the Department and I will bring it to the attention of the Minister, as the Senator has requested, and to the planning and building unit of the Department. I understand that officials are working to advance this project as expeditiously as possible.

The Senator referred to Newtownpark Avenue.

My understanding is that the site located at that particular place will accommodate the newly established Booterstown, Blackrock and Dún Laoghaire Educate Together secondary school. No assurance has been given to parents around locating Gaelscoil Laighean at that venue.

I appreciate what the Minister of State said. In fact, her office is the only one that has been able to give me any kind of concrete information on this matter, so I am grateful to her for that. However, I cannot accept the official response that the Eblana Avenue site is suitable for the reasons I mentioned. I acknowledge the Deansgrange site was always meant to be an interim one. The school authorities know that and nobody is denying it. My understanding is that identification of another primary school for the Dún Laoghaire area was made in the Sallynoggin-Killiney area, which has been given as a patronage to Educate Together. This is all very welcome but my understanding is now the proposal is to move that school into the premises at Deansgrange and move Gaelscoil Laighean to Dún Laoghaire.

I cannot see the sense in that proposal either. The school authorities have no problem with the fact that they are in interim accommodation. They want to move, but not further outside their catchment area. The proposal seems to be for them to move into the catchment area of the new Educate Together for Sallynoggin-Killiney and further outside the Blackrock-Booterstown catchment area for Gaelscoil Laighean. They do not want to do that and it makes no sense. I welcome that the Minister of State said it is was a priority to find a site for Gaelscoil Laighean, but why not leave it where it is until a permanent suitable site for the school can be found?

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. As I said at the outset, a number of site options for a permanent location are being explored. He will understand that there are technical, complex issues around that. I hear what he said about the absence of play facilities in the area and that Dún Laoghaire is not in the catchment area. I also note his argument about the dilapidation and the fact he was involved in the plebiscite from the very beginning. I obviously cannot confirm or deny any rumours regarding a particular permanent site for this school, but it is in the capital programme. This matter is a priority for the Department and I intend to make sure that I raise it with the Minister to ensure that these children will be accommodated in a way that will be a satisfactory, permanent solution for all the parents involved in the Blackrock and Booterstown area. I appreciate the Senator's concern and his comments on this matter.

Schools Building Projects

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to reply to this very pressing issue for Duleek boys and girls national schools, both of which were built in 2015. From the outside, one might mistakenly think that this looks like a state-of-the-art school but, unfortunately, one does not have to look too closely to see the faults left behind by JJ Rhatigan. There are several outstanding issues, but the most pressing is the condition of the roof. JJ Rhatigan contracted two experts to assess the roof and both agreed the problem existed. The National Development Finance Agency, NDFA, instructed JJ Rhatigan to complete the remedial works. These rectification works commenced in July 2019 and were completed in August 2019.

Unfortunately, these rectification works were not successful. The maintenance contractor for the roof pointed out many poor workmanship issues. In July 2018, JJ Rhatigan stated that a consultant engineer and roof specialist would be appointed to monitor the rectification works for a period of 12 months from their completion. This never happened. That individual has not been to the school since these remedial works were carried out in August 2019.

A representative from the NDFA has stated that the inspection by this individual cannot take place due to Covid-19. Inspections could have taken place between August 2019 and mid-March 2020 but, as with so many other issues, Covid-19 has provided a great opportunity for hiding and doing as little as possible. The remedial works have failed and puddles of water on the floors of both schools continue to be a health and safety risk.

I also draw the Minister of State's attention to numerous other issues that remain outstanding since 2015. A partition was never installed correctly. It remains in disrepair despite numerous attempts to engage with the contractors who installed it. This was to be an automated partition.

The building management system does not work. As the Minister of State is aware, this system monitors, supervises, controls and reports on smart building technology systems and has been raised with the National Development Finance Agency, NDFA, on numerous occasions. The heating system must be flushed by the school's maintenance contractor due to blockages in the system.

With the current Covid-19 ventilation policies, the heat levels must be increased but it is impossible to do that as some classrooms do not receive sufficient heat.

The issue of drinking water has been resolved last week and I thank the Minister of State for that. The water tank leaked in early September 2020 and was inspected by the original contractor. It was temporarily fixed by the in-house schools contractor but no long-term solution has been presented by the original contractor.

Here we are in May 2021, with a state-of-the-art school in Duleek where remedial works have been carried out on the remedial works, all of which have failed. It is completely unacceptable in this day and age that contractors that are paid quite handsomely for works can continue to walk away with poor workmanship and still get paid by NDFA. The last resort is that the schools apply for the emergency works funding to ensure that the schools can operate safely.

Can the Minister of State give a commitment here today that moneys will be made available for all these outstanding issues. I thank the Minister of State.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue, which gives me an opportunity to update her and the House on the current position in respect of the issues affecting Duleek Boys National School and Duleek Girls National School since their building project was completed in 2015. Since then the school authorities in question have identified a number of issues with the completed works that have been a cause of concern, some of which have been mentioned by the Senator. The National Development Finance Agency, on behalf of and supported by officials within my Department, has engaged with the school authorities and the contractor with a view to resolving these issues.

A UK-based roofing expert was appointed to investigate the roofing issues and a programme of repair work was undertaken in 2019 with the roofing expert retained to assess if this programme of works was successful. Issues persist with the roof, however, and unfortunately Covid-19 restrictions have affected the completion of the roofing expert’s assessment and recommendations. The NDFA has engaged with officials in the Department and with the schools over the past number of months in order to expedite this process and the resolution of the roofing concerns. I can inform the Senator that officials from the NDFA and the contractor have been on site and I understand the contractor is currently finalising its rectification proposals for the current issues.

Photographic surveys of the roof took place on 3 March and on 12 April to gather further information on the current condition of the roof and this information has been made available to the schools. As discussed with the schools, an expert assessment and recommendation will be completed in respect of the overall roof construction and performance in advance of any works carried out. I assure the Senator that the completion of this assessment is a priority for my Department and I also will raise the Senator’s comments with the Minister, Deputy Foley. This assessment will address the integrity and the ongoing performance of the roofing system and the potential longer-term problems and risks presented by the roof's current configuration. The assessment must also present a robust solution and recommendations to resolve these potential longer-term problems for the lifetime of the roof.

On the other issues raised by the Senator, I can confirm that with the agreement of the Department and in consultation with the schools, investigation and rectification of these issues have commenced.

Finally, the schools had raised a concern about the water supply and I am glad that the Senator has acknowledged that this has been rectified and addressed through the Department’s emergency works scheme. Officials from the Department will collaborate with the schools on any further issues into the future. I thank the Senator again for giving me the opportunity to inform the House of the position as regards these two schools. It is regrettable that some outstanding issues with a building project that was completed as recently as 2015 remain to be resolved and I appreciate the frustration of the school authorities and of the Senator at the time it has taken to find a solution. I can, however, assure the entire school community that the NDFA, which is supported by the Department, is making every effort to work with all of the stakeholders to achieve a satisfactory resolution to the outstanding issues.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Foley's, commitment and the fact that the Department is going to work with the school. Hopefully, I will not be back in the House in September to raise issues that remain outstanding.

At the weekend, there was an announcement by Bishop Tom Deenihan of changes that will be made in many parishes in County Meath. Duleek will be losing Fr. John Conlon to St. Mary's in Drogheda. He has been instrumental in improving primary educational campuses in Duleek, Bellewstown, Cushinstown and Mount Hanover. Fr. Conlon has worked tirelessly on this issue of remedial works. The people of our parish will miss him greatly. Our loss is Drogheda's gain, and I wish him every blessing as he continues to do God's work there. Our parish was certainly blessed to have him for the past 16 years. I also wish to mention Fr. Brendan Ferris who is moving from Curraha, Ardcath and Clonalvy to Stamullen, and Fr. Declan Kelly in Stamullen who is heading to Kilcloon. I also wish Fr. Jim Lynch of Kentstown good health in his retirement from the priesthood and welcome back Fr. Brennan to Beauparc.

It is important to acknowledge the administrative and, indeed, moral compass roles that the church plays in schools throughout this country. I wish to put that on the record of the House, and I appreciate it.

I wish Fr. Conlon well. As the Senator said, Duleek's loss is Drogheda's gain. I also wish Fr. Ferris, Fr. Kelly, Fr. Lynch and Fr. Brennan the best of success in the future in all their endeavours.

To conclude on the matter of Duleek school, I heard the Senator's list of further complaints, for example, the partition not being installed correctly, the building management system not working and, according to her, the blocking of the heating system. She also mentioned puddles of water on the floors, which I am not sure has been rectified. The Senator is pointing to the roof, that it is directly from the roof. I have a note of all those issues. It is very regrettable that this happened. Obviously, there is poor workmanship, and I am sure the Department is liaising with the original builders and contractors as well as JJ Rhatigan and Company to ensure this is expedited and the school brought up to a reputable standard as soon as possible.

We have not even opened the school-----

The Senator can engage with the Minister of State afterwards.

Emergency Departments

I thank the Cathaoirleach for choosing this Commencement matter and I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Feighan. Once again, I wish to discuss healthcare provision in Galway, this time in respect of overcrowding in the emergency department in University Hospital Galway, UHG.

We have had a strange year in healthcare provision. Obviously, there have been cancellations, Covid-19 and an array of issues. However, this is the month of May, not a month that is traditionally associated with overcrowding due to the winter flu, vomiting bugs and the like. Nonetheless, there is overcrowding in UHG. Today, according to the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, there are 24 people on trolleys in the hospital. The figure was as high as 36 last week, and it has gone up and down from the low 20s to the mid-30s over the past month. One patient on a trolley is one patient too many when he or she should have the dignity of having a bed provided. The overcrowding is not the fault of the hard-working staff and management team in the hospital, who are doing their best under difficult circumstances to ensure patients get the best care possible, which they deserve.

It is worrying that people in Galway are being told not to attend the emergency department unless it is necessary. I hope that nobody presents unless it is necessary. That is the basis of an emergency. Clearly, there must be an assessment of why there is overcrowding in UHG at present. We know the emergency department is not fit for purpose.

Former Taoiseach Enda Kenny said it in response to the then Leader of the Opposition, Deputy Micheál Martin. The then Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, announced in February 2017 that funding for the design of a new emergency department was provided by the Department. In September 2018, Saolta University Health Care Group told the then Minister, Deputy Harris, that the planning permission for the new emergency department would be lodged before Christmas 2018. Here we are in May 2021 with no planning application lodged yet.

There is a lack of focus and direction from the Saolta hospital group in terms of the emergency department. The people and patients of Galway are suffering from having an emergency department that is still not fit for purpose. We have had continous overcrowding over the last month. Hopefully, this will resolve itself in the near future. Is the Department of Health taking an active interest and a proactive approach to overcrowding issues in the hospital? Is the Department interested in sending down a team to assess why there is overcrowding over the last month in UHG? Are there sufficient discharge managers? Is there a team that can go in to better manage the discharge of patients and the flow of patients through the system to ensure they get a bed as quickly as possible? That was done before. The then Minister, Deputy Harris, sent a team down from the HSE nationally to ensure the efficiency of the hospital was improved. I do not like using the words "efficiency" or "flow" but it is a situation of grave concern for patients, their families and the people of Galway. We have continuous overcrowding and no light at the end of the tunnel. If there was such light and we knew work would start next month or before Christmas on the new emergency department, we could tolerate it to a degree. However, we are putting up with this problem and we have no light at the end of the tunnel.

I welcome this opportunity to address the House on behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, on the issues raised by the Senator. I acknowledge the distress overcrowded emergency departments cause patients, their families and front-line staff working in challenging conditions in hospitals throughout the country.

According to HSE TrolleyGAR data, there was a 79.9% reduction in the number of patients waiting on trolleys at 8 a.m. in the emergency department at University Hospital Galway in the period January to March 2021, compared to the same period last year. However, the number of patients waiting on trolleys at 8 a.m. increased by 51% in March 2021 compared to February 2021.

Several factors have affected the increased number of people waiting on trolleys in the past week, including a significantly higher level of attendances. Admissions for the over-75 age group with higher levels of acuity have returned to pre-pandemic levels. The management of Covid-19 and non-Covid-19 pathways presents an additional challenge to patient flow in UHG emergency department. The hospital is also experiencing capacity issues due to an increase in elective activity and bed closures for operational reasons.

The HSE is actively working with University Hospital Galway and Saolta hospital group to ease congestion with a focus on patient flow, facilitating transfers to level 2 hospitals, providing assistance from community health organisation services to support egress and prioritising diagnostics to aid inpatient discharges. UHG is particularly attuned to the need to manage infection prevention and control. We continue to invest in UHG to improve services to patients. The project for a new emergency department in University Hospital Galway, which is part of a larger development incorporating maternity and paediatric services, is included in the capital programme for 2021. Approval has been granted to complete a temporary extension to the emergency department to provide additional accommodation. This includes segregated waiting and treatment areas, isolation rooms, additional resuscitation spaces, additional support accommodation to take account of new requirements to treat Covid-19 patients and improved infection control and prevention requirements for the emergency department.

Enabling works have commenced and construction on this temporary extension is expected to commence in early May. It is expected the project will be completed in early 2022.

Improvements continue to be made in the haematology oncology day ward to increase capacity. A new radiation oncology facility is expected to be fully open by quarter 3 of 2023. The main emergency department and women's and children's block development at UHG is a complex project and is in the early stages of design progression. In addition, UHG has introduced a combination of virtual clinics and actual attendances in its general outpatients department clinics and oncology clinics in line with national guidelines to address the challenges presented by Covid-19. Furthermore, as outlined in the national development plan, a new dedicated ambulatory elective-only hospital facility will be provided in Galway. This will provide high-volume, low-complexity procedures on a day and outpatient basis, together with a range of ambulatory diagnostic services. It will create capacity at acute hospital sites and help to reduce the numbers waiting on trolleys, assist in reducing cancellations and acute hospital footfall, and drive down waiting lists for outpatient and inpatient day cases. Work is ongoing on a draft preliminary business case. The Department and the HSE will continue working to improve the emergency department waiting times for all patients.

The Senator asked about the former Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, sending a team from the Department. I will bring that issue to the current Minister.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply, but it is depressing to see written down that, "The main emergency department and women's and children's block development at UHG is a complex project and is in the early stages of design progression." When the former Minister, Deputy Harris, was in Galway in September 2018, we saw design plans for the emergency department. Yes, the situation may have changed. It was a shell and core fitting-out for the top two storeys of paediatrics and maternity services that then went to a full design project at fit-out, but how long does that take? Why do we have to wait for the temporary emergency department to be completed before we can lodge a planning application for the new emergency department? That application can be progressed. As I have said about numerous projects, nothing in this country can be built without planning permission and approvals. The application has not been lodged and we have no date for that.

While I appreciate the response, I would also appreciate it if the Minister of State brought to the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, what I have said about the possibility of bringing a team to Galway. I ask that the Department of Health engage with Saolta University Health Care Group and request it to progress the planning application for the emergency department.

The Minister acknowledges the distress that overcrowded emergency departments cause patients, their families and front-line staff. He and I commend all the staff in our emergency departments on the tremendous work they have done to ensure emergency departments have remained open and available to provide a service throughout the pandemic.

The number of patients receiving care on trolleys recently in UHG is unacceptably high. The HSE is actively working with the Saolta group and hospital management to ease congestion there. Improving timely access for patients to unscheduled care is at the heart of Sláintecare. The Sláintecare Action Plan 2019 includes a specific workstream on access and waiting lists. Sláintecare emphasises the need to invest in increased capacity while shifting the balance of care from hospitals to community services for better health outcomes and more sustainable health services.

I will bring to the Minister's attention the Senator's desire that a team go to Galway and speak to Saolta and the hospital as soon as possible.

Covid-19 Pandemic

I thank the Minister of State for attending. It is with considerable relief and a welcome that society and the economy are reopening significantly today. I am conscious the Government needs to be cautious about easing restrictions, but we still have no guidance as to when music, dance and drama classes can recommence. This is the simple question I wish to raise with the Minister of State. It is not acceptable that we are still waiting for such guidance. I had hoped the Minister for arts and culture could attend the Chamber, but I welcome the Minister of State's presence to answer in her place.

As the Minister of State will be aware, dance, drama and in-person music classes have been suspended since the countrywide introduction last October of the level 3 restrictions that were in place in Donegal and Dublin prior to that. Young children, teenagers and young adults have been waiting almost one year for the return of in-person classes. I do not need to tell the Minister of State the seriousness of this situation for the teachers. Music teachers are regularly relaying to me their frustration about the investments they made in perspex last year so that they could safely conduct in-person classes and dance teachers are telling me about the socially distanced placement of ballet bars and other equipment in dance studios and community halls. They are worried because there has been a fall-off in numbers as some children have not been able to access classes via Zoom because of broadband issues and others did not want to, or felt unable to, do that. There is a question as to whether they will return in numbers. More important, this is about the children and young adults.

We have heard so much about the need to look after the mental health of our children, particularly teenagers, during this pandemic. I am struck that we in this country have a very narrow perspective of what education means. All the focus has been on getting children back into the classroom in their primary or secondary schools. There has been no recognition that engagement with the creative arts is also a part of their education and, for many, an essential part of it. We need to have a debate about what constitutes a child's education in this country, in particular post pandemic.

I am asking for clear guidance today. I am reminded of the conversations I have had with the Dublin Youth Theatre and others, in which they told me of the efforts they have made to conduct classes via Zoom. For many others, children have not been able to engage because they have not been able to carve out a safe space in their houses to be able to participate. I know this is a broader issue for the arts sector as a whole and I am conscious that the National Campaign for the Arts has been engaging with the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media with regard to reopening guidance. I do not think it is acceptable that on 10 May, as the economy and society reopen, we do not have guidance on the reopening of a service that is a vital part of the education, development and well-being of children and young adults.

I am looking forward to, hopefully, hearing some positive news from the Minister of State in his response to this matter.

I thank Senator Sherlock for the opportunity to discuss this matter.

The framework for restrictive measures contained in the Covid-19 plan, Resilience and Recovery: The Path Ahead, sets out information on the staggered start of easing of other areas of restriction, with a focus on outdoor activities, including sport. For guidance purposes, dance has been included under sports under the different levels of the plan. This easing is dependent on whether the transmission of the virus reaches acceptable levels, the vaccination programme progresses as planned and the public health advice allows.

The approach to each phase is subject to ongoing review and will, at all times, take account the evolving epidemiological situation. All decisions taken by the Government on the timing of the lifting of restrictions are informed by the public health advice at the time of the decision. The framework sets out when it is considered that organised indoor or outdoor events can take place. Subject to the prevailing disease situation, from 26 April last, underage, non-contact outdoor training in pods of 15 or fewer, which includes dance, can resume with protocols. In these cases, robust protocols and protective measures, including appropriate supervision and capacity limits, should be in place.

The Arts Council has worked with the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media to develop guidance for children and young people's arts and cultural activities. This guidance was published last week on the Arts Council's website and it will continue to be updated in line with relevant changes to public health measures in the coming months. The guidance was reviewed by the Department's external health and safety advisers to ensure compliance with Resilience and Recovery: The Path Ahead, the stay safe guidelines and the work safely protocol.

The guidelines will assist those engaging in arts and cultural activities with children to provide a safe and controlled environment that will mitigate the risk of spreading Covid-19. This guidance is a living document, which means that as Government restrictions and public health guidelines evolve, this document will also evolve to reflect new Government advice and changes to protocol as they emerge.

The Arts Council's guidance on young people, children and education may be used for organised cultural activities for children and young people, including early childhood arts activities, arts training and education services that are delivered outside early learning and care.

The Senator may be aware that Government has decided to move ahead with the Recovery and Resilience: The Path Ahead plan. We are in the early stages of the recovery phases of the pandemic. The decision is based on advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, that a cautious and gradual phased reopening over May and June with an emphasis on outdoor activity and a moderate increase in social contact can be considered low to medium risk. The Senator can find all the details of the roadmap, as well as some of the useful guides, which have been published on the Government website and in newspapers and other media.

The Senator outlined the substantive investment made by music teachers in Perspex and dance teachers measuring out distances and spoke about how some participants may not have been able to participate because of lack of broadband or Zoom etc. I know it is an anxious time for everybody and I hope that in the coming weeks, this anxiety may be eased by lots of young people being able to join those classes, not just online but in person.

I can assure the Minister of State and whoever wrote the script that I do look at the media, including newspapers, on a daily basis. The guidance last week was welcome but it involves the organisation of cultural activities outdoors. The key appeal here concerns enabling children and teenagers to be able to plan and have certainty or some degree of certainty as to when decisions will be made as to when in-person indoor classes and participative activities can take place. To be fair, we did not see that last week. This is all we are looking for.

Everybody is extremely mindful that this has to be a summer where most activity will take place outside. However, as with the reopening of schools, which, of course, has to take place inside, there are other activities that can only happen inside. We cannot take a piano outside. While some drama classes can take place outside, a lot has to take place inside because of sheer physical resources and infrastructure, particularly in Dublin. Last week's announcement was welcome but we still do not have clarity and children and young people deserve clarity as to when in-person classes at a safe distance can take place.

The Senator articulated her views very clearly. She is right. Children face significant challenges but concerns around well-being arising from the pandemic apply to all of society. We face into the summer when there will be many festivals, including arts festivals. Some of that work will be carried on indoors. We have developed this guidance, which recognises the important work of the arts and culture sector to engage young people in the arts and provide them with opportunities to express and enjoy themselves, develop their skills and broaden their experience. I hope there will be clearer guidance by the stakeholders in the coming days or weeks in order that these young people can express and enjoy themselves in all these wonderful events that will happen in the future and possibly can get back to doing the simple things in life. I pay tribute to the way the Senator articulated those concerns.

Sitting suspended at 11.40 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.