In raising this matter which refers primarily to County Kerry, I realise from discussions with my colleagues that it applies throughout the country. There is a dearth of services particularly in relation to the assessment of children, speech therapy, psychology services, physiotherapy and occupational therapy. Parents in County Kerry asked me to give voice to their concerns.
In the past, we could defend circumstances because we had limited funding available for services and had to do the best we could, but recent successful years in the economy, when we had the best growth rates in the world, make it difficult to explain to people that we appear to be incapable of providing services to those with special needs. The situation is dire and I do not think that the people responsible for providing services understand the difficulties. When I raised this matter in the Dáil some weeks ago, I was told by the Minister for Health and Children, and subsequently by the Southern Health Board, that, for example, we had six whole-time equivalent occupational therapist posts in Kerry community services, but only two of the posts are filled. There were two further therapists employed in 2001, but one returned to Australia and the other was promoted elsewhere. That is not satisfactory for the parents living with children with special needs.
The statutory authorities seem to be incapable of responding to those needs. I do not think they appreciate the families' difficulties. This is particularly poignant at a time when we are preparing for the Special Olympics – we are all proud of the effort going into them. People who come to the country for those games will not see the shortage and the lack of services for our own people with special needs.
I wish that the Minister of State could give some hope and optimism to people throughout the country, not just in Kerry, whether they be carers or the parents of children who need special services. The Minister for Education and Science came into this House many months ago to say that he had an open cheque book to provide services for people with special needs. I tried many times to prise some money from that open cheque book for children with autism in County Kerry. Ten children with autism attend Nano Nagle special school in Listowel and they have no facilities of their own such as a specific classroom. In reply to my parliamentary question, the Minister inanely tells me that we are now spending X pounds more in 2002 than we spent in 1997. It is fantastic that we are spending more but we are not providing the services, which is the key issue. We are spending double on the health services but we are not providing the services there either. It is not the amount we spend but how effective the spending is that matters.
I do not expect results from the Minister of State at this hour of the night or from the Government this side of an election. It took it five years to discover the necessity of having a health strategy, and now the Government has outlined what it might do in the future, when it should have re-established the health services over the five years of the booming economy. There are enormous pressures on the parents of these children and I hope that the Minister and his officials will get the priorities right. We talk about spending billions on sports facilities at a time when families face these pressures every day. Small amounts of money correctly spent through the health boards, the Brothers of Charity and the special schools would build up the services. That must be the prime responsibility whatever Government is formed after the general election. It behoves all of us as politicians to reach out to these people who are asking for modest financial support to have personnel in place so that children with special needs can get the same entitlement as other children by virtue of our Constitution.