Education Minister Joe McHugh orders review of files on school building safety

Education Minister Joe McHugh orders review of files on school building safety

Education Minister Joe McHugh has called for an immediate review of all Department of Education files to clarify when exactly officials first learned of the Celtic Tiger-era schools safety problems.

Mr McHugh confirmed the move last night amid opposition calls for an “independent investigation” and rival TD claims “there is a can of worms here about who knew what politically”.

Speaking as the department and Western Building Systems became embroiled in a fresh stand-off over who is responsible for what happened, Mr McHugh said he only heard of the crisis nine days ago, a week after becoming education minister.

Mr McHugh said while there were “a lot of red lights on fire safety” which were first uncovered in a 2015 Irish Examiner exposé, the first he learned of “structural” issues was last Thursday when urgent safety investigations were launched.

However, he confirmed that in light of the concerns, he has asked department officials to conduct an immediate review of existing files to clarify when exactly officials were first informed of what happened.

The comments came as Labour TD Joan Burton called for an “independent investigation” into Government knowledge of the crisis, and as Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett said issues were known a number of years ago.

Citing concerns he said were flagged by construction workers about WBS in 2011 and 2012, Mr Boyd Barrett warned: “Frankly, I think there is a can of worms here about who knew what politically.”

In recent days, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Mr McHugh have repeatedly stressed that the schools safety crisis was only revealed as part of emergency structural reviews launched last week, which led to three school closures and the risk of dozens more in the coming days.

However, the claim appears to contradict previous reports from the Irish Examiner and Dublin Inquirer which include:

Then education minister Ruairi Quinn being told of some concerns in May 2013 and dismissing them as “minor”.

The department being warned of serious fire safety fears at Rush and Lusk Educate Together by Dublin Fire Brigade and two independent architects in June 2014, issues which cost €800,000 to repairs.

Five secret fire safety audits by the department into WBS schools which were only published after an Information Commissioner decision last year.

Dozens of further fire safety audits launched last October by then education minister Richard Bruton, which remain sealed.

In addition, despite the concerns raised in 2015, the department at the time said in a statement there was “no indication” schools may have to close.

Meanwhile, concerns continue to centre today over whether dozens of other WBS schools will be closed in the coming days due to fears that they are unsafe for children and staff.

Of the three currently closed schools, a department spokesperson said Tyrrelstown Educate Together and St Luke’s will partially re-open on Monday, November 5, meaning half of the 1,200 pupils can return.

He said Ardgillan will also be accommodated at Dun Laoghaire ETB in a shared community hall after the Halloween break.

Timeline of concern on schools

2008: WBS wins the contract to build dozens of schools within three months as part of the rapid build programme.

May 2013: Rush and Lusk Educate Together raises concerns with then education minister Ruairi Quinn about the building’s leaky windows and doors. Mr Quinn rejects the concerns as they are “minor” issues.

May 2014: Rush and Lusk commissions an independent architect report, which finds the building will burn down within 20 minutes of a blaze, below the 60- minute advised evacuation time. Dublin Fire Brigade repeats the warning in a separate report.

June 2014: On departmental advice, the school is not closed as €800,000 of repairs can take place over the summer, and re-housing 270 pupils poses problems. A general “repair works” letter is sent to parents. A department report confirms the issue.

October 2015: Then education minister Jan O’Sullivan launches a fire safety review of five more WBS schools. There is “no indication” schools may close, says department.

2016: After conducting five more audits on schools, the department demands WBS fixes serious problems and threatens legal action. The Irish Examiner reports WBS has received more than €60m in State hospital and housing projects, and is still building schools, and that Educate Together has been blocked seven times from accessing audit information.

September 2017: After a Dublin Inquirer FOI request and successful information commissioner appeal, the department releases the

five fire safety audits confirms it has asked a firm to conduct fire safety audits of all WBS schools. Education minister Richard Bruton says an internal departmental fire safety committee and clerk of works will be appointed.

September 2017-October 2018: Department refuses Irish Examiner requests on the still unpublished audits, if legal action is being taken and if the buildings are safe. The Sunday Times reports four legal actions underway.

October 19: Education Minister Joe McHugh launches separate structural safety reviews of WBS schools, which begin immediately.

October 23: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Mr McHugh confirm 42 schools now being examined, including three that have been closed.

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