Wednesday, 6 February 2008
Pearse Doherty (Sinn Fein)
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stait go dtí an Seanad.
In the past many schools availed of the summer works scheme to get work done throughout the summer months, including essential repairs of windows, roofs and other maintenance work. In budget 2007 the summer works programme was suspended, therefore denying grants to schools for vital building work. Will the Minister indicate how the urgent requirements of schools will be met without this scheme? The scheme had previously allowed schools with minor repairs to access funds speedily and to take small projects out of the general building programme.
As a result of this unilateral decision by the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, schools with minor maintenance repair needs will now get caught behind other schools in the schools building programme. This means schools that need new windows or to have existing ones repaired, or are in need of minor electrical or plumbing works will be made to wait substantially longer.
Under this scheme, schools that wished to apply for grants had to hire a consultant to organise the application. The cost of hiring the consultant was covered in the grant. However, schools which have applied to receive a grant this year, without the knowledge that the scheme was to be suspended, now have to cover the cost of hiring the consultant to organise their applications in the first place.
Not only will schools not be able to apply for grants for crucial building works but some have found themselves in debt due to applying for grants in the first place. This is unacceptable. I was told that one school with which I have been in contact had to fork out €1,500 to consultants for the compilation of the report used in its application. One can well ask for what. Has this money been thrown away or will it be refunded? I ask that the Minister refund the money spent by schools on consultants. Other schools that responded to my query indicated that they paid between €400 and €2,121 on consultants' fees.
In announcing the suspension of the scheme following the budget, the Minister claimed there was no longer a need for it. It is clear that if schools are still applying for grants then the scheme is required. I wrote to the 204 primary and secondary schools in County Donegal and it is clear from the responses I received that there is a need for the scheme this year. Approximately 50% of the schools that have responded so far have applied for this grant but will not be able to avail of it because it has been cancelled.
The Minister should be honest about this cutback in the budget. Prior to the election schools were allowed to apply for funding from the summer works scheme and once the election was out of the way, the scheme was suspended. That is outrageous. Many projects will be stalled as a result.
The responses to the questions that I put to the principals of the schools show that the projects are essential. They include the removal of asbestos from roofs, replacement of leaking roofs, playground extensions, refurbishments of toilets originally constructed in 1956, upgrading of a heating system from the same year, electrical rewiring of buildings dating from 1971, emergency lighting, installation of fire alarms and cavity wall insulation. These are just some examples of work this scheme was supposed to fund and cannot be done under the minor works scheme because that does not cover the costs associated with the works for which funding has been sought.
Not only will schools not be able to apply for grants for crucial building works but some have found themselves in debt due to applying for the grant in the first place. Once again, I call on the Minister to reinstate the summer works scheme. I ask the Minister, through the Minister of State, because she is not here, to ensure that no school must pay consultants' fees for applications for grants which they will not receive.
The Minister of State will be aware that there is already a crisis in terms of funding for our primary schools in particular and it is estimated that half the cost of heating our schools is provided by contributions from parents or through local fund raising. Does the Minister of State agree that the suspension of this scheme will add further financial burdens on many schools which are already under severe strain? For many schools it is simply incomprehensible that they could meet these costs themselves and, therefore, the decision to end this scheme has ensured that our children will continue to be taught in sub-standard schools for yet another year at least. Primary schools, in particular, are already under-funded due to the highly inadequate capitation grant. With the recent announcement of water charges for schools, the suspension of the summer works scheme is yet another imposition of a costly charge on already drastically under-funded schools.
I ask the Minister of State whether there will be a summer works scheme in 2009. The current suspension is illogical, especially when taken in the context of an inadequate schools building programme which has left us with rodent-infested schools, damp prefabs and other school buildings in dire need of repair and maintenance. If anything, this scheme should be enhanced, not suspended.
This is a low blow by the Minister and the Government. It is a blow directed at the most vulnerable who cannot speak for themselves, the children of this nation. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.