Seanad debates

Friday, 19 December 2008

7:00 pm

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
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I thank the Minister for remaining to deal with this issue. The Minister and I have soldiered long and hard on the question of primary school building. This must be a unique Adjournment debate matter on schools in that I am not seeking for any school to be built, extended or replaced. I am trying to deal with the Government's requirement of seeking value for money. After going through many issues I am focusing my attention on Scoil Árd Mhuire, Tallaght, Dublin, as an example of where money has been wasted, where it could have been saved and where standards have not been maintained. The Government and every Cabinet meeting is examining these matters.

I have a thick file on this school. I have written to the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Committee of Public Accounts and the Minister on a number of occasions. I seek only a process and a structure. It is not about money. The money has been paid. No money is involved. However, nobody seems to want to know. The whole process needs forensic investigation. I refer to money being wasted, quality of work and payment being made for botched work. I refer to architects signing off on work which, the most basic examination would show, is not concluded and ready to be paid for. I refer to very one-sided contracts. Some €3 million to €4 million has been spent on this school in two lumps. The first time, the Office of Public Works did the work and there was no problem. The second time, up to €3 million was spent and it has been one problem after another for the school.

I will give the Minister an example, and this is what I want him to take from here. The school told me it was being forced by the Department to pay a builder although the school thought the builder should not be paid until the work was put right. I asked how much it was costing and the school said it was costing nothing. The school had the money from the Department in its bank account and could pay it tomorrow morning. Then I knew the school was not seeking money or trying to save itself any money but was coming to me in the public interest. I have dealt with this for the past four or five months. I asked for an example and I will tell the Minister the example the school gave, which I had checked.

There is no ventilation in the school's sewerage system. In a new school on which we spent €3 million there is a build-up of methane. It could explode, and the architect has signed off on it. I can give more examples and I can show the whole file if anybody is interested in it. Eventually the Department said the terms of the contract were such that once the architect signed off on the project, the contractual requirement was that the builder be paid. I said to the school and the Department that the work surely has to be up to standard. The answer to that is that once the architect says it is up to standard, it is up to standard and the money must be paid or the school could find itself at the end of litigation. The school was forced to pay the builder for work which the board of management, school principal and parents association all said was wrong. They had a list of things they wanted done.

I asked about the tender document because I saw a coincidence of names between the quantity surveyor and the person who got the building contract. I do not know this to be the case. I raised it with the Minister but got no further with whether they were related. I am not convinced that the opening of the tender documents complied with the public sector governance requirements in that area. However, I would be happy to be corrected on that.

I raised an issue related to this during Private Members' time. The Government amended the motion and put in a requirement for energy savings. These included things like energy light bulbs, dual flush toilets, sensor lights in areas not in constant use, controlled water taps and so on. However, none of those things was done. When the Government states there is a need for these things, it still pays for not having them done.

There were also cost problems. The builder was charging the school €28,000 for changing the main electric cable in the area. The school management referred the matter to the ESB, which stated it would cost €700, yet €28,000 was paid to the builder. That is one example of many costs that the school has questioned. The OPW finished its work two years ago, and since the new builder came in and concluded his work, the school has lost its intercom, its lockable doors and its security fencing. I recall the Minister of State making a strong representation many years ago for his own school for security fencing, so he knows what I am talking about. We got that security fencing for his school on that occasion. This school had security fencing, but two sections were taken out and there have been three break-ins since. There are no window blinds in the school, which might sound like a small thing, but teachers know what it is like with the sun coming in through the windows.

I raise this issue in utter frustration. I am not looking for money; I only want this done properly. I will take this to an bord snip as well. I think the school building section of the Department of Education and Science should be closed and local authorities should build schools. We would not have had the problems that occurred in Dublin 15 and in north Dublin if local authorities dealt with school buildings in their county development plan. Even though there is a planning section in the school building section of the Department, I could not find any evidence of any presentation being made by the Department on the county development plan of any local authority. What are we doing?

For the case of the school that I have raised, I ask that the Department carry out a forensic examination of how this thing went from point A to point B. There is no money involved. I want us to be satisfied that this is the way it works, but people could not be happy with it. I could spend an hour and a half reading from my file, but I will not do that. I am dealing with a very diligent principal and staff and a committed, responsible school board of management. Just like the school of the Minister of State, they are really interested in their locality, but are absolutely frustrated at the waste of money involved. They are frustrated that they are being tied into a contract that does not deliver that to which the taxpayer and the Government are entitled. I cannot get any movement on it, and that is the issue for me.

Photo of Pat CareyPat Carey (Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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I was not aware that the issue raised by the Senator still continues to run. If the school principal in my school had not taken a hands on approach to supervising the contract when the school was being refurbished a few years ago, many issues similar to those the Deputy raised would have come to light.

I am replying to this on behalf of the Minister for Education and Science. It is important to ensure that costs are kept under control in the construction of school buildings and that those responsible ensure that value for money is achieved for the taxpayer. In this way, we can ensure completion of the maximum number of projects from within the funds available to the Minister for the school building programme under the current national development plan.

In view of the large amount of activity under the school building and modernisation programme, it was prudent to improve efficiency and ensure value for money. In this regard, a number of innovations have been introduced in recent years. All school building projects are tendered on a fixed price basis. The new forms of Government contracts assist in ensuring projects are delivered within budget. All small-scale projects are delivered on a devolved basis at local school level. Programmes such as the devolved small schools and permanent accommodation schemes and the summer works scheme were introduced into the building programme in recent years in order to give schools control of their projects with a guaranteed level of funding and to maximise value for money. Granted discretion and funding, schools must equally accept responsibility for prioritisation, adherence to statutory regulations, control of costs and ensuring value for money. This use of devolved schemes allows the Department of Education and Science to make use of local knowledge and the skills of school authorities in ensuring efficient and effective delivery of projects in schools.

The Department has developed generic repeat designs to reduce the cost and speed up the delivery of new schools, particularly in developing areas. The Department has used design and build contracts to deliver very large school building projects. These contracts allow for the transfer of risk to contractors in delivery of these projects. I wonder if the Senator might pursue that avenue in his case. The Department's role is concentrated in setting the initial design parameters. Initial designs are evaluated at meetings rather than through correspondence, in order to speed up the design phase.

An extensive project for Scoil Árd Mhuire is nearing completion. The school's consultant architect provided certification relating to satisfactory progress at various stages of the works. The Department of Education and Science funded the school, which was the party to the contract, on receipt of the certification to enable payments to be made to the contractor as required, under the terms of the contract between the school and the contractor.

Officials from the Department met with the school management to discuss the situation which arose and urged the school to comply with the terms of the contract regarding payment to the contractor. I understand the school subsequently met with the consultant architect and exchanged correspondence with the contractor regarding the release of money and the completion of works on the project. The Department is in ongoing contact with the school and its architect with a view to ensuring this agreement is implemented, and that the work on the school is completed.

I thank the Senator again for giving me the opportunity of outlining the current position. I will speak with the Minister for Education and Science about the Senator's concerns so that he can try to push the matter to a successful conclusion. If there was never a problem with the public finances, value for money and good governance are a sine qua non for any spending of public money.

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I know he understands the points I am making. He stated the school management met with the consultant architect and exchanged correspondence with the contractor regarding the release of the money and the completion of works in the project. That meeting took place on 4 November, and the contractor agreed to complete the works immediately. However, he has not been near the school since. That is an example of how the school is being treated. The Minister of State stated the Department is also in ongoing contact and its architect. I was not aware of that, and I would appreciate if the Department made me aware of the level of contact with the architect.

The specifications are not being met on this. We need to look at the process. I have huge questions and I will certainly raise these issues again. I thank the Minister of State and I wish him a happy Christmas.

Photo of Pat CareyPat Carey (Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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I will certainly convey the Senator's concerns to the Minister.