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Attorney General consulted over awarding of school building contracts to WBS

A total of 42 schools will be assessed over the next two weeks.

Ardgillan Community College in Balbriggan which has been closed.
Ardgillan Community College in Balbriggan which has been closed.
Image: Eamonn Farrell

QUESTIONS HAVE BEEN raised as to why tenders to build schools continued to be awarded to Western Business Systems when fire defects had been identified. 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar confirmed yesterday that approximately 40 schools will be inspected amidst concerns about structural issues at a number of facilities. 

Two schools and a building at a third, all in Dublin, have been closed so far this week following inspections by the Department of Education. 

They are Tyrrelstown Educate Together, St Luke’s National School also in Tyrrelstown and Ardgillan Community College in Balbriggan. 

Education Minister Joe McHugh told reporters yesterday that it is likely more schools will have to close, but said there are no indications that all 42 schools will face such drastic action. 

Dun Laoghaire TD Richard Boyd Barrett told the Dáil he raised concerns about Western Building Services in September 2017 and specifically asked why contracts continued to be awarded to the company when fire defects in schools had been identified.

Speaking previously in the Oireachtas Education Committee, the TD also raised concerns about the same company being involved in the construction of the extension to Beaumont Hospital, Poppintree rapid-build homes, and Temple Street Children’s Hospital.

Awarding public contracts 

“I stated that Western Building System should be excluded from getting public contracts. It has taken until now for us to get to that discussion because nothing was done and we were ignored and told these are the rules and that is the way it is. It is a disaster,” he said yesterday.

The company, which built all 42 schools now under inspection, were awarded contracts under the public procurement process. 

When asked about the tendering process, McHugh told reporters yesterday that the company continued to tender for projects. 

“When you don’t have a criminal conviction anyone can tender for a tender process,” he said, stating that an analysis will now be done.

He added that since 2008, there have been fire safety defects identified, but it was only last Friday the department were informed on structural defects in the buildings.

The minister added that a number of litigation cases are ongoing between the government and the company in relation to some projects.

McHugh said there will be competition for tenders in the future, and he has spoken to the Attorney General to look at the whole area of awarding future contracts.

The minister said he could not stand over a situation where schools have no wall ties and wooden panels are not bolted to steel girders.

“It is unacceptable that the lives of students, teachers and staff have been put at risk,” he said. 

A number of TDs raised concerns about the tendering process in recent months and the questions over fire safety.

While addressing the then Education Minister Richard Bruton during an Oireachtas Education Committee meeting last year, Boyd Barrett said he had read the fire safety reports, which found that there were multiple breaches of the requirement for 60-minute compartmentalisation in the school buildings built by WBS.

“It is not that the school could burn down in 60 minutes; it could burn down in 10 or 15 minutes because where there is supposed to be resistance between units of 60 minutes, there was not… These breaches meant that these children were and, where remediation has not been carried out, are still in danger. There are multiple breaches of basic fire safety,” he said.

He asked the minister how he could justify the statement that none of the schools in question was dangerous or posed a risk? Boyd Barrett also asked who originally signed off on these buildings back in 2008 and in subsequent years.

Tendering process

Explaining the tendering process, Bruton told the committee that Western Building Systems is eligible to apply for further contracts.

“It can. The rules under which tendering occurs are very strict as to when an individual or a contractor can be disallowed from participating in the process,” said the minister, outlining these include when someone has committed offences such as “grave professional misconduct” and “demonstrated significant or persistent deficiencies in the performance of a public contract” .

Bruton said what represents misconduct or misrepresentation has to be proven in a court of law in order to disqualify a person from applying to tender.

He said the Department of Education was taking legal advice on the whole matter.

Minister Bruton stood by his assertion that the school buildings were built to the highest standards.

We are now doing a full audit of all of the WBS schools. It is important for me to say this is not based on a concern that we have. We believe that the premises have been to the highest standards but we just want to make doubly sure…
The Department is confident that they are being built to the highest standards. All of the new protections which have been in place since 2014 in terms of certification are in place in respect of those buildings. We want to make sure there is no question of anything which is not up to the highest standards being missed. That is why we are undertaking a 100% audit of the schools built by Western Building Systems since 2003.

Who signed off on the buildings?

In 2008, it was regulation that the contractor signed off on the buildings as to whether they were compliant with the terms of the fire certificate.

However, defects were found in a particular school in the WBS batch from 2008, which forced the department to then conduct an audit of the other schools in the batch.

The department’s approach was to deal with the fire officer for the school and pursue the contractor to undertake the necessary work. The contractor indicated that it was being undertaken, said Bruton, however, when a subsequent inspection occurred, it was discovered that it had not been undertaken.

This led to the department stepping in and contracting to have the work undertaken.

While prior to 2014, it was down to the contractor to sign off on compliance, new rules kicked in that year to ensure sign off on compliance was undertaken by professionals, such as the various architects, designers and so on, who must also certify professionally that the work has been done in accordance with planning permission and fire certificates.

Since these new signing off rules came into effect, which were meant to clamp down on contractors approving their own work, Western Building Systems has been awarded 18 contracts for school building projects under public procurement processes, the Department of Education told TheJournal.ie.

The department’s statement added that its current priority is advancing structural assessments of schools constructed by Western Building Systems using a particular construction method and ensuring the safety of all school pupils and staff. 

Fire safety and building structures

A statement from WBS issued yesterday evening, states that it is the company’s understanding that the assessment of school buildings initiated by the department is focused on two issues – fire safety and building structures.

It continues:

We understand from public reports that the Department’s assessment involves a range of schools, including 42 schools which we either fully or partially constructed.
It is important, not least for pupils, parents and teachers, that accurate information is firmly established as to the process now underway. In respect of the 30 fire safety inspections carried out by the Department, we have only received reports for 20 schools, responding to each in full. We continue to await receipt of the 10 outstanding reports. On the building structures, we have only received a draft report for one school.

The company said it has written to the minister seeking an urgent meeting with him to better understand the department’s concerns.

Referencing the assessment process for Ardgillan Community College, Tyrellstown Educate Together National School and St Luke’s National School, Mulhuddart, WBS said it welcomes this development “as it allows for a better understanding of why these schools, previously deemed compliant by the department, have now been closed”. 

In relation to the compliance process, WBS said in its statement that it included on-site inspections by department appointed inspectors every two weeks, plus monthly on-site inspection meetings with the department’s inspectors.

It added that projects were only deemed concluded once a completion certificate was issued by the department’s inspectors.

A meeting is taking place between department officials and Western Building Systems today.

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