Dáil debates

Thursday, 28 January 2010

2:00 pm

Photo of Jack WallJack Wall (Kildare South, Labour)
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Question 8: To ask the Minister for Education and Science, further to Parliamentary Question No. 1053 of 19 January 2010, the amount of moneys spent on grants aiding the purchase of temporary prefab accommodation for schools in respect of the years 2008 and 2009; the number of schools that spent more than €100,000 renting temporary prefab accommodation in 2009; the number of schools that spent more than €50,000 renting temporary prefab accommodation in 2009; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4149/10]

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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Since the beginning of 2008, 557 schools have been approved for funding to purchase prefabs, with an alternative option to build permanent classrooms. To date, 201 schools have indicated a preference to build rather than purchase or rent prefabs. A further 249 have opted to purchase prefabs; the remainder have yet to indicate their preference. In 2008, just under €26 million was spent on purchasing prefabricated accommodation. This reduced to €7 million in 2009. In addition, just over €2 million was spent in 2009 on buying-out existing rental contracts in respect of 105 units in 15 schools, arising from my Department's review of the provision of temporary accommodation.

Of the 790 schools renting temporary accommodation in 2009, 92 schools received over €50,000 in rental grant aid and 73 schools received over €100,000. It is a key priority for my Department to reduce rental costs and achieve better value for money. Significant progress has been made in reducing spending in this area in the last year alone.

In 2009, expenditure on the rental of temporary accommodation fell significantly to €39 million, a saving of €14 million over 2008. This is a clear indication of my success in tackling this area of expenditure in 2009. Furthermore, the number of schools which are renting temporary accommodation has reduced by almost 10% in the last year and I intend to make further reductions in 2010.

A specialist firm has been engaged to review and develop new procedures and systems for the provision of temporary accommodation with a view to achieving best value for money. The work of this review is now well advanced. The target outputs of the review include a set of standardised specifications and a suitable generic contract for the rental of prefabricated accommodation. These will be in place before the end of 2010.

Another important strand of the review is to buy out existing rental contracts. Fifteen of these, involving 105 units, have already been terminated. A further group of schools will be targeted in 2010, with a view to identifying and achieving the most cost-effective solution for bringing to an end the relevant rental agreements.

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Dublin South East, Labour)
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I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. I shall go through some of the detail in due course and table supplementary questions.

In the light of this welcome departure in terms of policy, which I support, and speaking in a broader context, is the Department aware of the massive demographic cohort of new pupils coming through? The Central Statistics Office predicts an increase of as much as 20% within the next seven to ten years, depending on circumstances. The problem has not gone away, therefore. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that schools can have permanent buildings, now that the building industry has a massive capacity to respond very quickly? There would be three solutions: employment and tax revenue for the State and for those lucky enough to get back to work; decent accommodation for the pupils involved; and permanent building structures rather than the temporary structures that exist. For example, St. Oliver Plunkett's in Malahide is an absolute disgrace.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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Deputy Quinn raised this issue with me and when I examined it I was not satisfied with what was happening within the Department in its regard. We have made dramatic improvements. I understood that Deputies Quinn and Hayes were invited to look at the Department's geographical website which shows the precise anticipated growth.

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Dublin South East, Labour)
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That was presented to the Joint Committee on Education and Science.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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Both Deputies have seen it. Obviously, it is a major step forward and in terms of forward planning it identifies very clearly for us where the demand will be and gives us an opportunity to ensure we have proper school structures in place to meet that demand.

Taking my capital programme for this year, despite all that was said last September about my not spending the money I received, the Deputies will find there was a 79% carry-over. I was allowed to carry over 10% of the overall budget and all the spending took place. There is a carry-over of projects to be completed this year. In the capital budget overall, I will have €789 million this year which is on a par with last year. If I continue to get the 30% extra value for money that will obviously increase the output in terms of the number of schools we can build. I am very anxious to progress matters.

In addition, I have asked my Department to speak with the various entities, whether architects or engineers, and go through the new contract process. There was a delay last year and the last thing we want is to have delays in projects arriving on site. A good number of these projects are coming on site in January and February but I want to ensure that when I make an announcement on the capital programme within the coming weeks people will go ahead with plans and we will be able to sustain jobs. We reckon that with the current programme we will sustain approximately 7,500 jobs in construction.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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I am pleased that the Minister is to announce more capital projects. He normally does this every February. Will he radically increase the number of announcements this year? The real problem we have had is that we do not get the schools through the planning, tendering and construction stages as quickly as we should. Some of that is down to the tendering process employed since 2008 in the Department of Finance. The big problem last year was that the Minister did not make enough announcements in February 2009. Will he ensure there are more announcements this year? Not all schools will get through to completion stage.

The Minister referred to the fact that €39 million was the rental charge for last year. That was a substantial improvement on the previous year but it is very far ahead of the sums for 2006 and 2007. Some of the money spent last year was in buying out the prefabs in question. Will the Minister agree to make public the findings of the expert group which was appointed by the Minister on foot of considerable parliamentary scrutiny by Deputy Quinn and me during the past 12 months? It would be good to see exactly what the group had to say about the way in which the Department of Education and Science's building unit organises itself.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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Obviously, it is a success story and I am glad it is. This will be a public document and will be available. I have no problem in making such information available.

I refer to the capital programme. I will allow myself a wry smile because when I added two schools to the list last year, Deputy Brian Hayes informed me that I was complicit in being political.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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The Minister was complicit in being political at that time.

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Dublin South East, Labour)
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No one could ever accuse him of being political.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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Now the Deputy is stating that I did not include a sufficient number of schools on the list last year.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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All schools which made applications should have been included.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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We included a sufficient number of schools on the list and we met all our commitments. The last thing I want to do is inform a school that it is being included on the list and discover that I do not have adequate funding available in respect of that particular building project.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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Only seven of the 70 projects were completed.

Photo of Arthur MorganArthur Morgan (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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Has the Minister had discussions with the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Minister for Finance in respect of the schools building programme in the context of some of the reasons outlined by Deputy Quinn? Expanding this programme could act as a stimulus to the economy and could assist in returning people to employment. Has the Minister considered segmenting some of the projects, which would thereby allow them to come in under the EU's radar, in order that local builders and developers and, by extension, local economies might benefit? There are four schools in my constituency which are paying out in excess of €100,000 for prefabs. That is money down the drain.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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I am sure the Deputy will communicate further with me regarding the four schools in his area. I met representatives of the Construction Industry Federation recently and discovered that some smaller building firms are concerned about the level of turnover they must have to qualify to tender for projects. I am sympathetic to their plight in that regard. I do not believe a high level of turnover is required in respect of some of the smaller projects. My officials are involved in discussions with the Department of Finance at present in an attempt to reduce the turnover figure to a much more realistic one.

Photo of Arthur MorganArthur Morgan (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I thought that was an EU threshold.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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I do not believe so. One would not need such a level of turnover to tender for certain small projects in rural areas. It would be better value for the Department, in the context of contract prices-----

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Dublin South East, Labour)
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We are only talking about amounts ranging from €200,000 to €500,000 in certain instances.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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Yes. We are examining the position and I hope we will succeed in having the threshold lowered.