Adjournment Debate.

Rural Environment Protection Scheme.

I thank you, a Cheann Comhairle, for allowing me to raise this matter on the Adjournment. I congratulate Deputy Seán Connick on his elevation to the position of Minister of State. He will do an excellent job. This is his first challenge this evening as Minister of State.

It is an easy enough one.

For the past three or four weeks 400 REPS 3 and REPS 4 files are awaiting approval for payment by a district superintendent in the Tralee office for the north Kerry area. The average payment is €8,000 per file. Farmers need this money urgently just to keep going. Many are involved in dairy or beef farming or both. Income from these sectors has collapsed in the past year and most farmers are running their operations at a loss. Hence the importance of these REPS payments, which may be their only source of income for some time to come.

The acting district superintendent retired in 2009 and was not replaced. In November 2008, there were three permanent supervisory agricultural officers, SAOs, and permanent district superintendent based in the Tralee AES office processing and approving these payments. The district superintendent was transferred to Kildare. One SAO retired in November 2009 while the third SAO acted up as district superintendent until his retirement in December 2009. No replacement was appointed to fill these vacancies. One SAO now remains in the Tralee AES office, which is totally inadequate to service REPS for the farming community.

A similar situation exists in the AES office in Killarney where approximately 500 REPS 4 files await payment plus additional REPS 3 payment. The permanent district superintendent in Killarney was transferred to Cork on 5 January 2009 and was not replaced. Currently there is no district superintendent in County Kerry, an area that is heavily dependent on incomes from REPS.

The offer of REPS management for an SAO to upgrade to district superintendent for a number of weeks is not acceptable to the staff concerned. The offer should have been for a minimum of 12 months at least and have included the appointment of a replacement SAO to process the files for the same period if it was to be seriously considered. The current staffing situation in Kerry is a direct result of no effort having been made to fill vacant posts. It seems that Kerry has been ignored and neglected in this instance. The remaining staff are working under extreme pressure in dealing with the increased workload and the verbal complaints from irate and frustrated applicants who have not received payment to which they are entitled within the agreed protocol.

I call on the Minister of State to at least extend the offer of acting up to the current SAO in Tralee for 12 months. If he cannot do that, there is no reason his Department could not pay 75% of the outstanding moneys owed to the almost 1,000 farmers in County Kerry. At least that would carry them over for some period.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter with me and for his kind words. I look forward to working with him.

Payments for the 2009 REPS 4 scheme commenced on 18 December 2009 and continue to issue on a weekly basis. To date, out of 28,842 farmers who are due payments, 19,951 have been paid in full. Claims continue to be processed and a further 1,000 payments or so will issue very shortly. Queries have arisen on the remaining cases.

To meet the requirements of EU regulations, applications for REPS payments have to go through an extensive series of administrative checks before payment can be released. In a significant number of cases, those checks raise issues and queries which require further detailed examination. Department staff are working to resolve these as quickly as possible. Many of these cases will, however, require the applicants' planners to amend the farm plans that were submitted originally. The persons concerned have been made aware of the position and the applications will be further processed without delay on receipt of amended plans.

There has been a vacancy at district superintendent level in the Tralee office since December, 2009. The district superintendent has a key role in the approval of claims for payment. Due to the need to further control public expenditure and the number of public sector employees, the Government decided in March 2009 to introduce a moratorium on recruitment and promotion in the public service. This moratorium forms a central plank in the Government's programme to control public expenditure. As a result of that moratorium my Department has been unable to fill the vacant district superintendent post in Tralee. The Department is endeavouring to put alternative arrangements in place to ensure the prompt processing of claims. A total of 804 applications under the REPS 4 scheme were received in the Tralee office and 411 of those have been fully paid. The balance are files that are under query or awaiting to be confirmed for payment and the Minister remains committed to ensuring that payments issue as quickly as possible.

The current delays in a number of cases should not in any way detract from the merits of REPS. The scheme has been one of the most successfully operated by the Department since its launch in 1994. It has delivered multiple benefits to the environment in terms of water quality, biodiversity, conservation and landscape enhancement. It has also brought welcome income benefits to farmers, with more than €342 million paid out to REPS participants last year and a total of more than €2 billion paid since 1994. In fact, payments in 2009 reached their highest level ever. The original allocation for last year was just €330 million but additional funds were provided in December last and approved by Dáil Éireann by way of a Supplementary Estimate. Payments due to REPS farmers this year will continue at this high level.

Notwithstanding the Government's decision to close REPS to new entrants in July last year, which was unavoidable given the state of the public finances, those farmers who are already in REPS will see out their five-year contracts. This means that there will still be farmers in REPS right upto the end of 2014. By the time the scheme finally comes to an end, payments to farmers will have exceeded €3 billion. The Minister is also planning to launch a new scheme — the agri-environment options scheme — in the very near future.

Special Educational Needs.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Durkan.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Connick, as he performs his first duty in the House and warn him that he will be burdened with reading scripts on behalf of many senior Ministers if he does not put his foot down pretty quickly. It is not fair to him nor to us when that happens.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this vital issue concerning our special and most deserving young citizens. The Minister's decision will determine the quality of life they will enjoy for the rest of their lives. Great progress has been made in making provision for the education of special needs children generally, and I acknowledge that. While parents still have to fight step by step for services, the objective of the Government policy is that each special needs child would develop to the maximum of his or her potential.

The decision of the Government and the former Minister for Education and Science to remove 1,200 special needs assistants from the education system will be an unmitigated disaster for those who are special young citizens. The progress they have made will soon be reversed in the absence of or with the reduction of the SNAs.

In the specific case of the special needs school at St. Raphael's, St. John of God Brothers in Celbridge it is proposed to withdraw 4.5 special needs posts from that special school. There are 47 pupils in this school and all of them have been assessed to be in the category of severe to profound. They are in classes of six and they have SNAs at the rate of two pupils to one SNA. If a child has to use the bathroom, gets a fit or becomes disturbed. two SNAs are required to manage that special child. That leaves only one SNA to manage or assist the other five children and that is not possible. If the current proposal goes ahead, that is what will occur with all the consequences for the educational development of the children and their physical safety.

I appeal to the new Minister, Deputy Coughlan, whom I know to a woman with a sympathetic understanding of children with special needs, to review the decision on SNAs generally and in particular to grant the appeal lodged with the SENO in the case of St. Raphael's special needs school. I know the Government is strapped for cash but surely some savings could be found elsewhere other than from the most needy and deserving children. I am depending on the Minister's humanity to correct this unacceptable decision.

I thank my colleague, Deputy Stagg, for affording me time to join in supporting his matter on the Adjournment.

It goes without saying that every Member of this House must be acutely aware of the special situation that exists throughout the country in all schools in terms of the need for SNAs. The situation has been brought to our attention many times in the recent months by parents, teachers and those associated with children and young adults who have special needs. There is a fear among them that the degree to which the structures already in place and that need to be put in place in terms of SNAs is likely to be dismantled in a way that will set back the development and the opportunity available for children with special needs for many years.

We know as well as I am sure does the Minister of State of the huge workload undertaken by St. Raphael's in Celbridge and the great job it has done for many years. I also point out the huge responsibility that remains. Somebody has to take responsibility for issues of this nature. While we are fully aware of the serious economic circumstances in the country, the most vulnerable in our society are the group of people who are most in need of protection. I fully support my colleague's call for everything to be done to ensure special needs requirements are met in full in all cases, including in the case of St. Raphael's special needs school in Celbridge. I invite the Minister of State to visit the school at any time to meet parents, teachers and special needs assistants to allow them to illustrate the important role they play.

I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Mary Coughlan. I thank Deputies Stagg and Durkan for raising this issue as it gives me an opportunity to clarify the position regarding the matter.

The education of children with special educational needs remains a key priority for the Government, which invests significant resources in schools to enable them to meet the needs of children with special educational needs. More than €1 billion was spent in the education system for this purpose alone last year. Students with disabilities will continue to receive support as they have for the past ten years.

I emphasise what is important in this context, namely, that schools which have enrolled children who qualify for support from a special needs assistant, SNA, will continue to be allocated SNA support. The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, continues to process applications from schools for SNA support. The SNA scheme has been a major factor in ensuring the successful integration of children with special educational needs into mainstream education and providing support to pupils enrolled in special schools and special classes. The scheme will continue to be supported.

The terms and criteria for the SNA scheme have not changed. Where the criteria are met, SNA posts are being allocated. I assure the Deputies that there is no question of posts being removed from schools where they meet the scheme's criteria. However, there is also no question of posts being left in schools indefinitely where they are deemed to be surplus to the care needs of the pupils or where the pupils have left the school.

That is not what is happening.

It is important to understand that in the SNA allocation process the allocation for any school and any adjustments to that allocation depend on a number of factors such as the number of pupils with care and medical needs leaving, the number of new pupils and the changing care needs of existing pupils in the school. SNA allocations are therefore not permanent but are increased or decreased as pupils who qualify for SNA support enrol or leave a school. They are also decreased where a child's care needs have diminished over time.

The Deputy will be aware that the NCSE, through its network of local special educational needs organisers, SENOs, is responsible for allocating resource teachers and SNAs to schools to support children with special educational needs. The NCSE operates within the criteria of the Department of Education and Science in allocating such support. The NCSE is independent in the making and issuing of its decisions relating to the allocation of such supports.

The Department of Education and Science requested the NCSE to review all SNA posts because the Department had become aware that a number of SNA posts were in schools where the care needs of the pupils in the schools concerned did not justify such an allocation. Accordingly, the Department asked the NCSE to carry out a nationwide review of all schools to ensure SNA posts were allocated to schools in line with the care needs of pupils and any excess posts would be withdrawn.

The NCSE, through its network of SENOs, is carrying out a review of SNA allocations in all schools with a view to ensuring that the criteria governing the allocation of such posts are properly met. SENOs are communicating the outcome of the review directly to schools as the review progresses. It is expected that the NCSE will have completed the review by the end this month.

The Deputies are fully aware that the Department of Education and Science has prioritised the provision of special education supports to schools. While this is a key Government policy, this does not mean that resources allocated in response to various historical factors are retained in schools ad infinitum. At a time of constrained resources, it is essential that we ensure public resources are deployed as effectively as possible. Resources left in an area that are not in accordance with criteria mean public resources are not available for another deserving area.

I am sure the Deputies shares the Tánaiste's concern to ensure there is a consistent application of policy in the allocation of special needs supports across the country. This is all that is happening at the moment. I assure the Deputies that supports will continue to be made available to schools which have enrolled pupils who qualify for such support. I thank the Deputies again for raising this matter.

On a point of order, the point I made has been clarified by the answer the Minister of State read out as it did not address the issue of St. Raphael's special school where all the children are either severely or profoundly handicapped. Whereas special needs are assessed at that level special needs assistants are being removed from the school on a quota basis. This is being done to achieve the previous Minister's target of reducing the number of special needs assistants by 1,200. That is what is being done. There is no new assessment.

That is correct. We encourage the Minister or Minister of State to visit St. Raphael's special needs school.

I will pass on the Deputy's invitation to the Minister.

National Drugs Strategy.

Gabhaim comhghairdeas leis an Aire Stáit as a phost nua ach is trua gur eisean atá anseo anois, mar is cáineadh ar an Rialtas é an méid atá le rá agam. Níl an Aire Stáit ach díreach tar éis a phost nua a ghlacadh. The national drugs strategy is in crisis and the Government, in particular the Department of Education and Science, has chosen to abandon the strategy and the thousands of families who are dependent on its full delivery, despite its shortfalls. By its actions, the Government is abandoning the national drugs strategy at a time of recession, despite the fact that historically recessions have led to increased drug use.

The Government is dumping the strategy at a time when drug crime is reaching unprecedented proportions and head shops and the so-called legal highs they supply are posing an increased threat to public health by enticing more people to use dangerous substances. There are more than 100 head shops in this State, meaning we have more such shops per capita than any other country in Europe and possibly the world. One of the functions of the Department of Education and Science should be to raise awareness among young people as to the dangers of so-called legal highs and illegal drugs, especially given the Government’s failure to date to regulate or ban head shops.

The abandonment of the national drugs strategy is evidenced this week by the Taoiseach's decision not to appoint a junior or senior Minister with overall responsibility for the strategy. The national drugs strategy does not feature in the title of any Ministry. The Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government is playing a deadly game of political chess with the strategy. The Minister for Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Pat Carey, once held a part-time role as Minister with responsibility for drugs but was bumped out of the way to the position of Chief Whip and replaced by the current Chief Whip, Deputy John Curran. Later, Deputy Curran was appointed Chief Whip, a position in which I hope he will do a good job. While the Minister for Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Pat Carey, has responsibility for drugs, he also has a multitude of other briefs. Drugs is clearly not the priority brief as it does not feature in his title.

These changes have been made following the dismantling of the national drugs team on the premise that a super Ministry with responsibility for drugs would be established. What we have instead is another broken promise. The Department of Education and Science also cut funding recently, which indicates a policy decision to dump the prevention pillar of the national drugs strategy, probably the most important of all the strategy's pillars. We need to stop future generations becoming addicted to drugs. To do this, we must educate and support young people. It is the Government's responsibility to deliver and fund programmes and services rather than reduce or cut them.

I propose to highlight some of the effects of budget cuts. A budget cut of 33%, which is fatal to many projects, has been made to 38 young people at risk, mainstream programmes, many of which are located in my constituency. The 33% cut this year will be followed by a complete withdrawal of funding by the end of the year. The projects in question employ 64 people who are delivering vital services which target young people at risk from drugs, including diversionary activities, one-to-one supports and supports to remain in education. These projects have all been evaluated, proven effective and mainstreamed but are now being closed by Government without as much as a second thought.

In 2001, a child living in the inner city had a one in four chance of becoming addicted to drugs. Now that child's survival odds are ten times higher — or even more — a direct consequence of the work of these projects and projects like them. Implementing these cuts will set those projects and services and young people back years in those areas which are suffering from the recession and which never benefited in a major way from the Celtic tiger.

In my own area, Ballyfermot youth service peer education is being hit with the 33% cut now, followed by the loss of all funding at the end of the year. The same is to happen to Familiscope. The Ballyfermot advance after-school grants scheme has been abolished outright already. There are other such projects such as the BRU youth club, Dublin 12 Youth Service and CLAY youth project in Crumlin and Drimnagh and many others. Some of these are limited companies and in some ways are trading recklessly because of the cut.

There is much more to be said about the curriculum and the support projects in schools. I could continue and probably shall on future occasions because there is a great deal to be concerned about arising from the Government's approach in recent times, especially after the Cabinet reshuffle which suggested it is to abandon the national drugs strategy.

Go raibh maith agat, a Theachta. Ba mhaith liom cúpla focail a rá faoin cheist seo. I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Mary Coughlan. I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it gives me an opportunity to outline the Department's involvement with these projects and its ongoing contribution to the implementation of the national drugs strategy.

At present, the Department provides funding for over thirty projects in local drugs task force areas. These projects, through a variety of programmes and activities, seek, in the main, to encourage young people not to engage in drug-taking. The Department originally took on responsibility for funding these projects through a mainstreaming process, whereby projects on interim funding were assigned to a number of Departments and State agencies.

Most of the projects are administered by the three VECs — Dublin City, Dublin County and Dún Laoghaire — while the remaining three projects are funded directly by the Department. In the main, the projects provide for the employment of youth workers and project leaders, the delivery of peer education in a drug education context and initiatives aimed at retaining and supporting children in first and second level education and the prevention of early school leaving. In addition, a number of projects provide support for the delivery of the substance misuse module of the social, personal and health education curriculum in schools.

Arising from budget 2010, it was decided that funding for these projects was to be reduced from €3,643,000 in 2009 to €2,461,000 in 2010 and to cease from 2011. The Tánaiste acknowledges the difficulties that arise for projects and the Department is currently reviewing the implications of the budget decisions relating to funding allocations for all of these projects.

A key aspect of the review is to determine whether the Department is the appropriate location for these projects or whether funding could more appropriately be channelled through another Department or agency. In this regard, officials of the Department have held discussions with officials in the office of the Minister with responsibility for children and youth affairs to determine whether projects which involve a significant element of youth work might be more appropriate to that office. These discussions are ongoing. A number of the projects are being reviewed within the Department in the context of their work being similar to that of other departmental initiatives aimed at preventing early school leaving. The Department will submit recommendations for the Tánaiste's consideration based on the reviews which, it is anticipated, will be completed shortly.

The Tánaiste wishes to reassure the House that, within the resources at her disposal, she remains fully committed to implementing the national drugs strategy. In that regard, she wants to place on record the significant contribution her Department has made, and continues to make, in support of the prevention pillar of the strategy, through the introduction of a social, personal and health education, or SPHE, curriculum at primary level and at junior cycle in second-level; the initiatives under delivering quality of opportunity in schools, or DÉIS action plan and the school support programme to prevent early school leaving and achieve better educational outcomes for students; and the guidelines on substance use policies issued to all schools.

I shall provide some additional detail for the House in regard to these measures. The SPHE programme is the foundation for developing awareness of drugs and alcohol issues in schools. It is a mandatory part of the curriculum at primary and junior cycle in second level. The substance use modules of SPHE are augmented by two support programmes, the "Walk Tall" programme at primary level and "On My Own Two Feet" at post-primary. The implementation of these programmes in schools is supported by support services at primary and second level, which provide professional development for teachers and advice and support to schools.

The DÉIS action plan for educational inclusion is aimed at identifying and tackling levels of disadvantage and it provides the basis for school supports to, among others, schools located in local drugs taskforce areas. Supports targeting children most at risk of leaving school early are currently being enhanced through the integration of the relevant services, namely, the school completion programme, home-school-community liaison and the visiting teacher service for Travellers, under the National Educational Welfare Board.

Through the office of the Minister of State with responsibility for children and youth affairs, the Government continues to support initiatives for youth, such as the young people's facilities and services fund, which aims to divert young people away from the dangers of substance abuse and the special projects for youth scheme, which supports out-of-school projects for disadvantaged young people.

Again, I acknowledge the difficulties for the projects in local drugs taskforce areas which are funded by the Department. In that regard, the Tánaiste anticipates that the examination of the projects and related discussions with the office of the Minister of State with responsibility for children and youth affairs will be completed shortly.

I thank the Deputy again for raising this matter.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.20 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 30 March 2010.