The Minister of State is most welcome to Seanad Éireann and I thank him for taking these four Commencement Matters this morning. We are changing the order slightly.
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I thank my good friend and colleague, Senator Tim Lombard, for facilitating me going ahead of him. It is much appreciated. The Minister of State is very welcome to the House. I tabled this Commencement matter for one simple reason, that is, a young chap who is blind and who spoke on the Joe Duffy programme last week. He explained that he had done his Irish oral exam. Obviously, given that he is blind his does not see pictures. Part of the Irish oral exam is to describe pictures as Gaeilge. For a blind person to be asked in any circumstances to describe pictures in any language is not acceptable, but it is completely unacceptable for this to happen in a State examination situation.
I have been in touch with the National Council for the Blind of Ireland to try to get a handle on exactly how and why this is happening. It would appear that there is no consistency around the country. In some areas, special provision is made and a commonsense approach is adopted, but in other situations the rules are rigidly stuck to. That is not acceptable. We need the system to be consistent. We need to have a little bit of respect for a young person who cannot see what he or she is doing.
There is a much bigger question in terms of access to the leaving certificate, which I have spoken about before. The fact that we are one of the few countries in the world that does not provide the likes of the leaving certificate examinations in digital format is completely unacceptable. Were the leaving certificate papers in digital form, not alone would blind and visually impaired people be able to access them through the medium they use, anybody with a print disability would be able to access that material.
In the overall context, we have a long way to go in terms of making the State examinations accessible. On the specific issue of the picture elements of the Irish oral exam, we need an immediate response from the Minister of State.
I want to apologise on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, who unfortunately cannot be here today. I thank Senator Conway for raising this very important matter. At the outset, I want to acknowledge the strong contribution he made at the weekend in promoting diversity in public life. It is important that our council chambers, Seanad and Dáil reflect the society they serve. It was a timely intervention at the weekend and something that we will robustly support in our Department in terms of trying to get diversity into political life. It is important interventions like that that we need in public life.
The State Examinations Commission, SEC, has statutory responsibility for the certificate examinations and provides a scheme of reasonable accommodations at the certificate examinations, RACE, to support students with a complex variety of special educational needs. The RACE scheme allows relevant students to engage with the standard examination arrangements and to demonstrate what they know and what they can do in a way that does not compromise the integrity of the assessment. The focus of the scheme is on the need to remove examination access barriers while retaining the need to assess the same underlying skills and competencies, and to apply the same standards of achievement as apply to all other students.
An extensive range of examination supports is available through the RACE scheme to support candidates with visual impairments in taking their examinations. The SEC works very closely with the visiting teacher service of the National Council for Special Education in this regard. In the oral examinations for modern foreign languages and the Irish language, the provision for enlarged pictures sequences or role play cards will be provided to candidates who have been granted the accommodation of an enlarged examination paper under the scheme. The use of visual aides, magnifier or reading lamps can also be used if required.
In considering the possible accommodations for the oral Irish examination with regard to picture sequences, it is necessary to consider the demands of this aspect of the examination on all candidates. The oral examination is worth 40% of the overall marks available for this subject, with the picture sequences worth 80 marks out of the 240 available for the oral examination. Typically, candidates taking the oral Irish examination are expected to be familiar with 20 picture sequences but in 2022, to alleviate the burden on candidates due to Covid-19, this has been reduced to ten. Each picture sequence is an A4 page with a series of six pictures that present a particular story. Candidates have access to the picture sequences from the beginning of fifth year. Candidates choose at random one of the picture sequences and are expected to provide an account in Irish about the series of pictures. The candidate's ability will be assessed on both the descriptive narration and the interaction between the candidate and the examiner.
In recent years, in engagement with the visiting teacher service, the accommodation provided for candidates with visual impairments is to replace the picture sequences with a narrative description of what is happening in each of the storyboards presented in English. The picture sequences of the Irish oral examinations are assessing a core skill and so candidates may not be exempted from this element of the examination. The provision of the English language storyboards for students with visual impairments upholds a fundamental principle of the RACE scheme, which is that any alternative assessment provided must assess the same construct as the original test item and must not compromise the purpose of the examination.
I will bring the two issues raised by the Senator to the attention of the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, specifically in terms of the variation from area to area and also the digital component.
I sincerely thank the Minister of State for his observations with regard to my Sunday Independent article at the weekend. I know diversity is an area for which he is responsible as Minister of State with responsibility for local government and I very much welcome his support of the concept of a diversity quota. I thank him for taking this Commencement matter on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan. It is an important issue. I do not believe the content of the reply comes with a solution but I have no doubt the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, will pass on this serious issue and how it is affecting children or young people doing oral Irish. I know he will articulate that to the Minister of State.
I again thank the Senator. It is a very important issue. The Senator has outlined the media discourse in the last week with regard to the effect it had on a student in terms of their interaction with the SEC and the oral Irish paper. When there are issues like that, they need to be responded to. I will bring them to the attention of the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, specifically the two concrete points the Senator raised in regard to what people are experiencing on the ground.
Schools Building Projects
I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber and it is good to have him here. I am looking for an update in regard to a primary school in my part of the world. Summercove national school is a wonderful school that has such potential but it has literally been at the bottom of the list for the past 20 years. We have been trying to make sure that it can get the appropriate new build that it has been seeking for more than 20 years. Kinsale is a wonderful town that has seen massive development, particularly on the educational front, and there is now the community school and the Gaelscoil, and another primary school is being built at the moment on the road towards Ballinspittle. However, Summercove national school has been somewhat left behind. The population of Kinsale is projected to increase by one third in the next few years in the county development plan and will go to an amazing 7,500 people. The need for the school to be redeveloped is urgent.
I have continuously raised this issue. Last year, I got an update from the Minister on 13 June stating that the Department would be finalising the accommodation brief for the project. We have seen very little movement on it since then and, therefore, I am looking for clarification as to where is the brief and where are the proposed timelines that we can put in place for the people of Kinsale regarding this important structure.
It is quite a small school in many ways. It has eight mainstream classrooms and three special education rooms. The newly appointed principal, Ms Hallissey, is doing a fantastic job and there is a powerful board behind this proposal. However, they have waited nearly two generations. I spoke to people at the weekend whose children have gone through the education system while they have been waiting for this new build to happen; not alone did they start primary but they finished secondary in that time. That is a damning indictment of where this project has been for the past 20 years. We need political and ministerial leverage to make sure we can deliver this project going forward. As I stated, Kinsale is a thriving town and this school is a very important part of it. We need to make sure we can develop both together. The Minister of State might give us an indication of the timelines, when the Department proposes that the finalised brief will be published and when it is proposed we will see boots on the ground and development starting.
I thank the Senator for raising this important issue on behalf of his community and Summercove national school in Kinsale. I first want to offer the apologies of the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley.
The project for Summercove national school, Kinsale, is included in the Department's construction programme, which is being delivered under the national development plan. The brief for this project is the development of a single-storey, eight-classroom primary school with two classrooms for pupils with special educational needs at Summercove national school, including a new building and all associated site works. This major building project will be delivered under the Department’s ADAPT programme, which uses the services of a professional external project manager to co-ordinate and drive the design team to achieve the best possible timeframe to progress the project through the stages of architectural planning. The tender process to appoint a project manager is nearing completion. Upon appointment, the first step to be undertaken by the project manager will be the tender competitions for the appointment of design teams for a number of school building projects. This will include the appointment of the design team to progress the project for Summercove national school.
I note the Senator said in his opening remarks that it was 13 June when he tabled a Commencement matter to raise this very valid issue for himself and his constituents. I will follow up with the Minister in this regard. Obviously, they are awaiting the appointment of the project manager, as cited in the reply. All I can do is follow up for the Senator. I know he has been consistently raising this on behalf of the board of management, the principal and the parents of Summercove national school in Kinsale. It is very important that we deliver our capital programme, and especially our building programme in the educational sphere, quickly. Unfortunately, that is not our experience throughout the country. We have to get our act together and get those projects delivered on a timely basis.
I am disappointed with the response, which is almost verbatim the response I received in the previous Commencement debate. Six months later, the only thing that has happened is that the price of construction has gone up by perhaps 35%. The cost of the majority of projects has gone through the roof. I was speaking to a major contractor with regard to concrete blocks yesterday, and he said they are going up by 12.5% on 1 May, having already gone up by 10% on 1 January. Because of this delay in the past six months, we could say that the price of this school has increased by 25%.
I do not think that is acceptable. We need to make sure that when it comes to appointing these project managers and to getting the tender documents out, sooner rather than later is key. They have waited for 20 years and still nothing has happened. I would therefore respectfully ask the Minister of State to go back to the Minister for Education and to ask her to put some political pressure behind this project. Otherwise, the costs of the build will go through the roof. The knock-on effect will be that pupils in the community in Kinsale, which I represent, will still be in prefabs. In this day and age, that is not appropriate.
Obviously, this is not my area of responsibility, but I will raise this matter with the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, and her Department. What the Senator is saying is key. We are experiencing very unusual increases and inflation. One can see in competition across public procurement projects that this will become very difficult. We therefore have to be able to deliver these projects on a timely basis.
In Holy Family national school, Mullingar, there was an awfully stressful period, again trying to deliver a project that should have been done 20 years ago. Therefore, as a State, we have to get our act together regarding getting these things appointed. I will raise the specific issues, because it is not good enough to come back with the same reply that the Senator received in June. I acknowledge that. I will refer back to the Minister, Deputy Foley, on it.
Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh, agus cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. The Minister of State’s role in ensuring action was taken on foot of the Moorhead report to address the terms of conditions for councillors needs to be acknowledged. The Minister of State provided great leadership in that regard and I know he continues to work closely with the representative bodies, the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, and Local Authorities Members Association, LAMA, in trying to ensure that the role of councillors is recognised and in making sure that their terms and conditions are improved. The implementation of the new regime, though, has resulted in a number of problems, particularly around the area of vouched expenses, where different rules or interpretations seem to be applied by the different local authorities.
Councillors are looking for consistency in the application of those expenses, so that when they submit applications for expenses, they will know that no matter where they are located in the country, the same rules will apply. A problem has arisen, as I am sure the Minister of State is aware, with regard to the chairs of the strategic policy committees, SPCs. That allowance has now been interpreted as a taxable form of income. This means that even though some councillors were financially better off as a result of the increase in the councillor’s salary, the net effect is that because their SPC allowance is now taxed, they may not be better off as a result of that change.
I would also ask the Minister of State to look at some of the questions around the travel bands. Obviously, the cost of travel has increased significantly and there are some issues around the levels given for travel expenses, depending on where within a county an individual councillor may be located.
Finally, there is, and I would appreciate the Minister of State’s views on this, some concern around the gratuity payments that have been made. There has been a reduction from 100% of final salary to 75% of final salary. Indeed, that will impact on a number of us in this House, whenever we decide to leave politics. I know much of the focus of the Moorhead report was around the terms of conditions, but part of the recommendations were about the devolution of more powers to local authorities. This would give councillors greater responsibility and more time and support in dealing with issues around governance and around policy development.
We know how hard the 949 councillors around the country work. All of us who are in this Chamber now would have come from that background, as have many others in these Houses. One of our challenges has been around juggling time. Frequently, local government in Ireland feels powerless. In fact, we still do not have local government. We continue to have local administration.
I would be interested to hear the Minister of State’s plans to look at devolving more powers and supports to local authorities. It is key that we look at encouraging - I know the Minister of State is doing this - a broader range of people into local government from as diverse a range of backgrounds as possible. The Minister of State is actively encouraging more female members and more people from minority backgrounds to come on board.
There is a general concern that applies across Government, and in the Minister of State’s capacity I would ask him to look at this, which is the habit in legislation to exclude councillors from appointment to State boards. It makes sense why Members of the Oireachtas are excluded, because we have a role in the setting of the legislation, and so on. We frequently deal with State boards. Even though it is an open application process, all things being equal, just because somebody is a councillor, they should not be excluded from a State board. This is particularly the case when we are trying to encourage as many people as possible to become involved in local authority.
I commend the Minister of State on his work, and I am very grateful that he continues to work closely with the AILG and LAMA. However, I would hope that he would be able to provide us with a response to some of those issues, as well as how he is enhancing the role of local councillors generally.
I thank Senator Byrne for raising these important matters on the implementation of the Moorhead report and the issues of the devolving local powers down to local government.
On 1 July 2021, new regulations came into effect to reform the framework of financial supports for councillors to allow them to continue to carry out their statutory functions and community representational role in an effective and sustainable manner. This gave effect to an important commitment in the programme for Government to implement the findings of the Moorhead report within 12 months. One of the main recommendations of the Moorhead report was that there should be a rebalancing of financial supports for councillors away from tax-free expenses allowances in favour of more normalised salaried income, as applies to other types of office holders. The new regulations that I, along with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, gave effect to provided for: the introduction of an annual remuneration payment that, since 1 February 2022, is worth €26,415 per annum; and the introduction of a new vouched local representation allowance worth up to a maximum of €5,160 per annum, with similar terms to the vouched public representation allowance that is available to Oireachtas Members.
The Senator has referenced two issues in terms of the calculation of the expenses. I met with both the AILG and with LAMA in response to that and we will resolve that issue. Across the 31 local authorities we do need clarity. My view, as Minister of State, is that I want to support local authority members in every way, so that they can discharge their functions to their communities. I do not want to make it any more difficult. We will therefore work to resolve that and I am confident that we will do so.
In relation to the SPC chairperson, in the first instance, when terms and conditions are reviewed by the Government, they have to be set to the Revenue Commissioners for approval. That is part of the rules and regulations, and unfortunately, the chairperson of the Revenue Commissioners notified us that they had decided or made the determination that SPC chairperson allowances were to be taxed. There were some negotiations and they decided to do it from 1 January. They had looked to do it earlier on prior to that. Unfortunately, however, this is an argument that we did not win. I have to be quite and frank and honest about it. Unfortunately, it is beyond my control. They are independent in the performance of their functions and they made that determination.
In relation to travel bands, essentially, the key issue here is that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, as I understand, are reviewing the calculation for milage and expenses across the whole Civil Service. That will obviously apply directly to local authority members. Therefore, that is out of my remit and it is part of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Once it has its review done, that calculation will come back, and we will be advised of it through a Government decision.
In relation to gratuity, which is another significant issue, the Moorhead report was clear that in the first instance local authority gratuities or pension calculations work in line with the normal public service rules and they were looking to increase it up the normal 66 age retirement. Second, the report raised issues about the funding of the local authority pensions. In response to that, I have set up a group to have a look at bringing in local authority members to the Department to see if we can get a resolution. However, I want to be honest about this, which is to say that I am not promising anything with regard to that. This is because it is difficult in terms of the funding mechanism, as well as the fact that they will get payment when they are 55. Yet, I think that the change in the PRSI class S will assist local authorities. Subsequent to that, it is going to be difficult. However, I have put the process in place to try to resolve it and to address the concerns that many of the local authority members have brought to me, like Senator Malcolm Byrne has done. Hopefully, we will do that.
We also have our action plan to tackle other areas such as maternity and paternity leave. Hopefully, we will be bringing proposals on this issue to Government soon. The issue concerning diversity is an important one and we must try to ensure our local authority chambers reflect the society they serve. It is important. A great deal of work and reform is under way in that regard. In a wider reform perspective, we have the property tax review, which will be key to local authorities retaining their funding. I refer as well to the directly elected mayor of Limerick, which is another exciting proposal bringing devolved government back closer to citizens. Additionally, a citizens' assembly will examine the same idea for Dublin. A right for a plebiscite to be held in all the other relevant local authority areas will also be contained in that legislation.
That was a comprehensive response, and reflects the Minister of State's understanding of and passion for local government. Councillors around the country are full of praise for his work in this area. One issue he did not refer to, however, and I appreciate the time constraints at work, was the general policy concerning the exclusion of councillors from State boards. It is written into nearly all legislation.
A new media commission is being formed in the context of the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill 2022, which will be debated this afternoon. We again see an effort there to insert a provision to exclude from consideration for appointment to the board someone who is, or becomes, a member of a local authority. I am not asking for political appointments to boards, but if someone goes through the Public Appointments Service, and all else is equal, then that person should not be excluded from consideration because he or she is a councillor. Many councillors have a great deal of experience in areas other than local government and they should be entitled to be considered for appointment to State boards. This seems, however, to be a cross-Government policy. Therefore, I ask the Minister of State to lead on this issue and to try to prevent this policy from forming part of future legislation.
I thank Senator Malcolm Byrne for his kind comments. Regarding appointments, I note the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform oversees the Public Appointments Service and all appointments. I will liaise with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, regarding this matter. I fully understand the valid point being made by the Senator. As someone who served for a good length of time on a local council, I know local authority members have so much to give in respect of valuable contributions to the organisations they are members of. One mind-blowing aspect is the number of statutory and non-statutory authorities, and even public participation networks that local authority members interact with, work on and support the activities of to add value to our communities. I will discuss this point with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. It has been raised with me before, so I will continue to work on it and I will respond to the Senator separately in this regard.
I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for taking time out of his schedule to be here. Recently published reports I have seen indicate we need approximately 50,000 homes to be built every year for the next 30 years. That information was published before we welcomed thousands of Ukrainians fleeing the war in their country to our shores. Trying to find homes for our young people is clearly the number one social crisis we face. Thankfully, we are beginning to make progress on this issue, despite the obstacles posed by Covid-19 and many other factors. I compliment the Minister of State and the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, on the work they are doing in this regard.
Housing starts for the last year exceeded the target of 35,000. It is welcome and commendable that we have reached that level. We have much more work to do, however, and it is important in this context that we remove any obstacles that could hinder young people in their efforts to try to find homes. I have been contacted by several young people who obtained planning permission to build homes in the last five years. They have been unable to commence building those homes because of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the inflation levels we have, and have had for decades, the shortage of building materials and difficulties getting builders and other tradespeople. Those young people are finding that their planning permissions are about to expire. Such planning permission, as the Minister of State is aware, normally has a fixed duration of five years. It is possible to get an extension under section 42 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, where substantial work has been completed on a home. An extension of approximately two years can be obtained in those circumstances to allow the building to be finished.
The young people I am dealing with have been unable to start the works for which they have planning permission. They were able to get the required planning permission, but they have not been able to start the building work. I firmly believe that in cases where young people have got planning permission, but where its validity is now nearing an end because it has not been possible to commence building works due to a combination of factors, including the impact of Covid-19 and challenges regarding costs and finding materials and builders and other tradespeople, there should be some flexibility in the system to allow for the extension of that planning permission for approximately two years. That would allow people in such circumstances to build the homes they need so badly.
Such facilitation operated until recently, perhaps until last September or October, when local authorities were informed that it would no longer apply. I can understand that change in the context of large projects where developers, for whatever reason, might not be able to follow through. A push is under way to try to get as much building done as possible. However, in situations where young people who spent thousands of euro getting planning permission were unable, through no fault of their own, to commence their homes, an extension should be granted to allow them to start to building them. We all know we need many more homes for our young people to enable us to start making inroads in addressing this crisis. I hope the Minister of State will have some positive news for me. No pressure, of course.
Before the Minister of State responds, I welcome our visitors in the Gallery. They are more than welcome. I call the Minister of State.
I thank Senator Gallagher for his important intervention in this area. I also agree with the sentiments expressed about the tours of the Houses. It is great to see people back in the Gallery. It is important that the Oireachtas is open to students and for people to be able to see the great work that goes on here.
The duration of planning permission is generally set at five years, but planning authorities may grant shorter or longer durations. The maximum duration for residential development planning permission to remain valid is ten years. Section 42 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, for example, enables a planning authority to extend the initial duration of planning permission, provided that certain conditions are met. In September 2021, the Minister instituted a package of measures to amend section 42 of the Act and related provisions in the Planning and Development Regulations 2001, including, among other aspects, a new temporary provision in the context of section 42. Section 42(1B) was introduced to respond to the construction delays caused by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. This provided a further extension of the duration for planning permission by an extra two years, or until 31 December 2023, whichever first occurs, subject to certain requirements being met. Section 28(1) of the Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Act 2016 was commenced, which entailed the deletion of section 42(1)(a)(ii) of the Planning and Development Act 2000. This removes the possibility of an extension of duration for uncommenced developments or developments where substantial works have not been carried out.
Section 42(8) of the Planning and Development Act 2000 was introduced to provide that: "A planning authority shall not extend the appropriate period under this section in relation to a permission if an environmental impact assessment or an appropriate assessment would be required in relation to the proposed extension". As such, a planning authority can only grant an extension of duration where it is satisfied that: the development has commenced; substantial works have been completed; the development will be completed in a reasonable time; and an environmental impact assessment and appropriate assessment are not required for the proposed extension.
I note the concerns raised regarding the lack of a lead-in time for the commencement of section 28(1) of the 2016 Act which deleted the power to grant an extension of duration for uncommenced development. However, this provision has been enacted on the Statute Book since 2016, providing ample time for developers to apply for an extension of duration or to commence a development before the provision was commenced in 2021. Cognisant of the recent impacts of Covid-19 on the construction industry, section 42(1B) provides, on a temporary basis, for further extensions in respect of planning permissions where an extension of duration has already been availed of, by up to an additional two years or until 31 December 2023, whichever first occurs. This will facilitate the completion of developments - such as vital housing projects - already commenced and with substantial works carried out, which were delayed or interrupted due to the impacts of Covid-19 on construction activity.
While there may be legitimate reasons a developer has not commenced or carried out substantial works under a planning permission, to allow such developments avail of an extension or further extension beyond their initial duration of five years or possibly more in such circumstances would conflict with the Department's objective to expedite the activation of planning permissions and completion of developments that have substantial work already carried out, particularly in respect of the delivery of housing. Any interventions in this area must have a positive effect on development and incentivise developers to activate and complete planning permissions to the greatest extent possible, particularly with regard to housing developments. Accordingly, it is not under consideration at this point to provide for further extensions of duration for planning permissions for developments that have not been commenced or have not been substantially completed within the initial duration of the permission.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. I am hugely disappointed with it. Most of the reference here seems to apply to developers. I am not talking about developers, but about young people who are trying to build a one-off house, many of whom reside in the Minister of State's constituency as well. A pandemic the like of which we have never seen, inflationary issues we have not seen in decades and difficulty getting materials, builders and tradespeople have meant they have been unable to commence building their homes, through no fault of their own. They have spent thousands trying to get a planning application together, have got planning permission and, now, with the stroke of a pen and no lead-in time in relation to planning applications granted in the past five years, they find themselves in a bind and cannot move forward. Now we are inflicting further financial hardship on them by saying they will have to pay for planning permission again and go through the entire process again. It is hugely unfair. This response makes no reference to the young couple trying to build a one-off house.
Will the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, have a second look at this? We are not talking about developers. I appreciate we need houses. We all know that, but I am trying to help out young people trying to get their foot on the ladder. This is a kick in the teeth to them.
I thank the Senator for his intervention. This decision was taken during the Covid period. The Minister took the decision to allow five-year planning permissions to take their course and not extend them as has been done heretofore.
I will raise it. I understand the issue in terms of many one-off planning applicants in my constituency. Many of them were not fully aware of this when it came upon them. I have raised it in the Department because I was concerned about it. Unfortunately, at the moment I do not see an openness to change. I will raise it with the Minister again and invite the Senator to do so because it is difficult for young couples who are trying to grapple with inflationary pressures.
There is another side of the coin with these permissions. I have seen that one-offs can go on and on and not be delivered upon, unfortunately, due to different circumstances. I can see why the planning system wants to tidy things up but sometimes there are unintended consequences to bigger developments that can be felt locally.