Education Minister promises inquiry into school closures

Education Minister Joe McHugh has warned that building failures of the kind that caused the closure of a number of schools around the country and remedial works at others may warrant criminal investigation.

He pointed out that under the Building Control Acts, it was a crime to construct substandard buildings.

“I haven’t made contact with the gardaí but I will say that it’s very specific in the law that there it’s not just about fines, it’s imprisonment. There has to be culpability,” he said.

The minister was being questioned at an emergency meeting of the Oireachtas Education Committee to discuss the concerns around the structural safety of 42 schools built by Co Tyrone company Western Building Systems (WBS).

Emergency assessments last week cleared 19 of the schools but others require varying degrees of remedial work and three have been shut down although two of them, Tyrellstown Educate Together and St Luke’s National School in Dublin, are due to reopen tomorrow.

Mr McHugh said there would be an inquiry into the matter, as well as a review of the way the department’s school building programme was run. He also said he was determined to pursue every avenue to ensure the costs of the remedial works and disruption were recouped.

“We are going to pursue every possible channel to ensure that we get justice, not just from a taxpayer’s point of view, but justice for those communities as well,” he said, adding that architects, designers, engineers, contractors, and anyone else involved in the projects who may have had a part to play in what has transpired were all within his sights.

Mr McHugh also said a conversation needed to be had about building controls and the current self-certification system for construction. He said that while local authorities were responsible for building control, they did not have dedicated building control units.

The review would also have to examine whether rapid build — which WBS specialised in — was the best way to respond to urgent demand for infrastructure. This was important in light of the current demand for rapidly built homes, he said.

TDs asked whether the department had ignored red flags about WBS after problems arose with a building for Whitehall College of Further Education in 2014.

Hubert Loftus, head of the department’s planning and building unit, said those problems were specific to that building and different to the issues that had more recently arisen.

WBS last night said it has been trying to meet the minister for “some weeks” and that “conclusions are being reached before all perspectives are known”.

“Committee members have not had the benefit of full information, not least the assessment reports from each of the schools reviewed,” it said, adding that an inquiry would only be credible if it was independent of the two main contracted parties to every school project — the department and the contractor.

“Today’s committee un-derlines once more the shortcomings in the system,” said WBS. “Regardless of the multiple layers of inspections today, there is confusion and an increasing abdication of accountability. As is the case elsewhere, it is time to move fully to a truly independent certifier with no departmental or contractor involvement.”

By Caroline O'Doherty
Senior Reporter

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