Schools built by Western Building Systems face audit after fire safety fears
An audit has been ordered of every school building project overseen by one Northern Ireland company during the past 14 years after fire safety concerns were discovered in five primary schools.
Education Minister Richard Bruton said the review of 30 construction works carried out by Tyrone-based Western Building Systems would be done by next March.
Mr Bruton said that Government officials believe the works were done to the highest standards, even though inspectors reported some materials used in five school projects did not meet the required 60-minute fire retardation period needed for a full evacuation.
"This isn't based on a concern that we have - we believe that they have been built to the highest standard - but to make assurance doubly sure," he said.
Mr Bruton told the Oireachtas Education Committee that Western could still apply for other state tendered building projects while the full audit takes place.
And he defended his claim that the fire safety issues did not pose a "danger" to children.
"What the audit revealed was that the fire retardation period was not being fulfilled. We understood it was higher than 30 minutes but it hadn't reached the 60-minute requirement," Mr Bruton said.
"There was not an issue that the fire officer deemed that this was a dangerous situation."
Western also had contracts for rapid build homes in Poppintree, Ballymun, Dublin and for hospital extension and renovation schemes in the city in recent years.
A spokesman for Western Building Systems said it was confident all of the buildings conformed with the required standards and specifications relevant "at the time of handover".
He also said the schools had been signed off by the department's professional representatives.
"Western Building Systems Ltd has a distinguished record of delivering high quality buildings for more than 35 years throughout the UK and Ireland. We take matters of health and safety very seriously indeed," the spokesman said.
"We believe all of the school buildings in question - which were delivered since 2004 - met all relevant fire safety and building regulations that prevailed at the time of handover."
Western Building Systems said it is important to note that both building and fire regulations have been updated since the buildings were handed over.
While Mr Bruton was being called on to answer claims that reports on the original fire safety audits on five schools had been suppressed for up to two years, the Department of Education issued details of how future works would be monitored.
Discussions will be held with the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland, Engineer's Ireland and the Association of Consulting Engineers of Ireland to outline designers' responsibility for ensuring works meet building regulations dating from 2014.
Officials also reminded designers on current projects of their responsibilities to ensure that all buildings comply with fire certificates awarded by the local authority.
Mr Bruton told the committee it had previously been the responsibility of a contractor to ensure adherence to fire safety and design.
A clerk of works will also be appointed by the department to all future "major" building projects. Mr Bruton said they would be the "eyes and ears".
All concerns from future fire safety audit reports will be raised immediately with the school's patron, the board of management and a local fire officer.
At the start of September the Department of Education published fire safety audits carried out in five primary schools over a year earlier, which found they were non-compliant with safety standards.
The committee heard claims that one principal sought the report on a school seven times and that the documents were only made public after Freedom of Information requests and the intervention of the Information Commissioner.
The schools had been built as part of a 2008 "rapid build" programme by Western.
They were Powerstown Educate Together; Gaelscoil Clocha Liatha, Greystones Co Wicklow; Mullingar Educate Together in Co Westmeath; Belmayne Educate Together; and St Francis of Assissi, National School, in Belmayne, North Dublin.
In a statement on the issue, the Department of Education said that if any significant concerns are spotted during the full audit of Western projects they will be reported immediately.
Separately, audits of a representative sample of up to 25 schools constructed over the past 20 years are also being ordered. They are expected to be completed by January.