Topical Issue Debate

Special Educational Needs Service Provision

I thank the office of the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this extremely important topic. Moreover, it is highly topical, given the announcement by the Minister last week of the postponement of the implementation of the new model for allocation of resources hours and learning support. This announcement has created much worry and anxiety for a number of people. I acknowledge that it is important to get this right and note that my colleague, Deputy Colm Keaveney, previously sought to highlight a number of concerns shared by Members on this side of the House about the new model, as proposed. I reiterate that it is important to get this right, as the current scheme has many inconsistencies with regard to learning support, which is simply allocated to the school which has discretion to decide which children receive the specified hours. Moreover, in respect of resource allocation, some children wait anything up to two years for a diagnosis. Consequently, it is important that the model be tweaked and that we get it right.

It is important to reflect the true realities of what is going on. The Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, should note that the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs, EPSEN, Act 2004 stipulates that a child with special educational needs shall be educated in an inclusive environment with children who do not have such needs. The Minister of State's senior colleague recently addressed the annual conference of the Irish Primary Principals Network, IPPN, and used the quotation:

I could be anything at all with half the chance. But today, I am going to change the world.

Does she realise this is also the ambition of Down Syndrome Ireland? At the conference she also spoke about research which showed that early intervention was often the key to improving educational outcomes and stated she was aware that children's education was about much more than reading and writing. Down Syndrome Ireland is extremely concerned about the proposed delay and I understand the Minister may have been meeting representatives of the organisation today. However, I met representatives and parents in my constituency during the week who spoke emotionally and frankly about their experiences of their children's diagnoses. On the diagnosis, one parent has written:

It's mild. I should be rejoicing and celebrating; my glass is half-full, my daughter has a chance, she has "good cognitive scores". They tell me this means she has a good IQ ... [She] is an exceptional child, she went through junior infants, senior infants and first class with no learning support and no resource teaching. Her teachers over the years consistently say that Anna brings a very positive dimension to the class. But now she has developed emotional and behavioural issues; it was only when she did poorly in a sten test at the end of first class that she qualified for limited learning support this year. She needs extra help.

While she needs such help, unfortunately, she is not getting it.

I met another woman - I will call her Mary to avoid revealing her identity - who told me her son's diagnosis had changed from mild to moderate and that he had been moved from his local national school which could not meet his needs to a special school outside his community. A woman I will call Emily has a daughter who is three and a half years old and has just been given a mild diagnosis, even though she suffers from significant speech delay. She is non-verbal and her mother is extremely concerned and worried. Her perception is that she is being punished because she gave so much support to her child that she was given a mild diagnosis.

I will conclude by asking two questions. In the period during which the scheme is being reviewed will the Minister abolish, straightaway, the misconceived label of mild learning disability for Down's syndrome children? This is a well recognised medical condition with multiple disabilities and which is recognised as an intellectual disability. Second, the system is flawed, as children with Down's syndrome are not treated equally. A child with Asperger's syndrome and a high IQ is eligible for resource hours, which is right and proper. Surely, however, it should be the same for a child with Down's syndrome who is deemed ineligible if his or her IQ is in the mild learning disability range. There must be equality and fairness.

First, I relay the apologies of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan. While she had hoped to be present, the Deputy will appreciate that, on foot of the change of times, the debate clashed with something else and she is unable to be present. Consequently, I will make this statement on her behalf. I reiterate that she is sorry not to be present because this is an important issue, about which I have spoken to her and the Department.

I thank the Deputy for raising the matter. I advise him that under the existing allocation system, all pupils with Down's syndrome, including such pupils in the mild range, are entitled to receive additional teaching support. Such support is provided either from a school's allocation of learning support or resource teaching hours under the general allocation model, GAM, or from an allocation of additional resource teacher hours allocated to schools by the National Council for Special Education, NCSE. It should be noted that, whether resource teaching hours are allocated to schools under the general allocation model or through an allocation made by the NCSE based on an individual assessment of low-incidence special needs, it is a matter for schools to utilise and manage these resources to best provide for the teaching needs of qualifying children. Each school will use its professional judgment to decide how the provision of additional resource teaching time and hours is made to qualifying pupils in the school to ensure all of their individual needs are met. Schools have discretion in how they allocate their general allocation hours to pupils. Whereas schools will have regard to the number of pupils who require additional teaching support in a school, they are not constrained in the number of hours they may allocate to pupils who may have Down's syndrome and may be in the mild range. This is an important clarification because there is some confusion in this regard. I have also met a lot of parents affected by this matter and the Deputy is correct that they need a changed system to be able to ensure they receive exactly the services they need. Schools are encouraged to allocate hours to pupils while taking into account the extent of their individual learning needs. They may also increase the amount of additional teaching time they provide for pupils by using a combination of individualised teaching time with pair and group work.

The NCSE was asked to provide policy advice on the issue of whether Down's syndrome should be reclassified as a low-incidence disability in all instances, regardless of assessed cognitive ability. In its policy advice it stated it could not establish an evidence base to support a recommendation that a child with Down's syndrome be allocated supports over and above those provided for other children with mild learning disabilities or children with other syndromes that also have associated co-occurring conditions. However, it also recommended that under a new resource allocation model proposed by the council, children should be allocated additional resources in line with their level of need, rather than by disability category. This is probably the issue the Deputy is raising in regard to the NCSE's recommendations.

The Deputy will be aware that last week the Minister announced her intention to retain the current model for allocating resource and learning support teachers to schools for the coming school year to ensure sufficient time would be allowed for further consultation to take place with education stakeholders and address a number of outstanding issues before the new model was implemented in schools. As the Deputy stated, the proposal was not perfect either and still required some clarification and tweaking. Concerns were raised on both sides, by people who had concerns about it but also by those who sought to have it brought forward as quickly as possible. It is a balancing act to get it right and I note that the Deputy has made the point that it is important to get it right. I share that view, as does the Minister. While we must get it right and certainly must not put it off indefinitely, to use it for this year and the coming term, it would have been necessary for it to be implemented last week.

The Minister has informed me that some parents and organisations representing children with Down's syndrome continue to have concerns that the existing system does not give them certainty on the number of resource teaching hours that may be allocated to their children under the general allocation model, as these hours are distributed locally by schools. She will take into account these concerns and listen to the views of parents and representative organisations. To clarify, this morning she met representatives of Down Syndrome Ireland, as well as some parents. It was an opportunity for her to discuss their concerns about this issue and she intends to meet more parents in the coming weeks to try to tease it out and talk further about it.

I will ensure the Minister considers all the issues the Deputy raised, as well as the suggestions he made to deal with them. It is an important issue, one which we all want to see corrected. There is no point in rushing the model when all the evidence we need to get it right is not together yet. The message needs to go out that the system has not been put off indefinitely but that it is a matter of tweaking and getting it right. It was not possible to get it in place for the coming September.

The message is the Department is reconfiguring the system which is correct. It is critically important, however, that those who need additional supports get them now. Twelve months without necessary supports is a significant time for such children when two to four years of age. The difficulty with the allocation of learning support hours and resource hours is that it is at the schools’ discretion. One parent stated to me in a letter:

These supports are provided as part of the school’s general allocation. [My son] is basically under a compliment to that system and we pray that some bureaucrat does not change the school’s budget which could take away these resources with the stroke of a pen.

These are the anxieties over this system. The simple truth is that Down’s syndrome is a condition diagnosed at birth that affects speech, co-ordination, hearing and cognitive skills. Children diagnosed with a mild degree of Down’s syndrome are being told they are not bad enough to qualify for educational supports. Essentially, they are being discriminated against. There are parents who have invested much time, effort and resources to support their children before these tests. However, as their children are diagnosed as mild, they are discriminated against. That needs to be reviewed in light of the evidence that is coming forward from parents.

One parent wrote to me:

Education, as we all know, is the building blocks that give all children, with or without a disability, the skills they need later in life, yet the current system is allowing a small section of children to be denied the extra resources they need to gain and develop these self-same skills. Give our children a fighting chance and leave them and us, their parents, with our dignity. Do not turn us into beggars, pleading with civil servants for what our children need. Let us enjoy our children, just as we do their siblings, without the constant worrying about their education. We know they have a disability, we live with it every day, you do not need to constantly remind us of their condition by making us grovel and stress.

I know the Minister of State is genuinely concerned about this matter. He must listen to the concerns of Down Syndrome Ireland. Deputy Finian McGrath introduced a Private Members Bill recognising Down’s syndrome as a low incidence disorder to ensure adequate provision of resource teaching hours. It was not opposed by the Government and was supported by all Members. We need to progress this legislation because every week of a delay is very difficult for the children in question.

I will bring all these issues to the Minister’s attention. Every Member wants to see this whole area changed. The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, has put forward recommendations for a new allocation model that will ensure resources will be allocated based on children’s needs and their level of need, not their category of disability. That is what the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O’Sullivan, wants to do. She met with Down Syndrome Ireland this morning and will take on board its suggestions. She will also meet with some parents. The Deputy has correspondence from some parents explaining how they feel what they are up against. We have been given a good look-in through the articles by Brendan O’Connor over the past several weeks in the Sunday Independent, painting the picture of how difficult it is for parents to get the resources they need.

We all know this model has to change but we have to get it right, as the Deputy said himself. The Minister feels very strongly that rushing it through in the last month would not work because all the evidence needed to ensure it is right is not there and it is an issue that crosses several Departments.

As to what can be done in the meantime for a short-term solution, as the Deputy raised this afternoon, I will bring it up with the Minister. Deputy Finian McGrath’s Bill was not opposed by the Government. The NCSE which gives policy advice on this matter, however, did not agree with the legislation. It stated it could not establish an evidence base to support a recommendation that a child with Down’s syndrome should be allocated supports over and above other children with mild learning disabilities. It is proposing a new model which will give the same solution. We have to join the dots and see what we can do.

I will bring this matter back to the Minister and make sure she contacts the Deputy on this. I know he is being genuine in raising the issue and we are genuinely trying to sort it out.

Single Payment Scheme Administration

I thank the Ceann Comhairle’s office for giving me the opportunity to raise this issue. I understand the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine is not available today to take the matter in the Chamber due to a busy schedule.

I am concerned about the publishing of the full details of those receiving single farm payments. I accept it has come about from a decision by the European Commission. My concern is not over transparency or accountability in the payments system as this is European taxpayers’ money being spent. We know from the single farm payment we get job security, food security and food quality.

My concern, however, is from the perspective of rural crime. We will be publishing on a set day the names and addresses of individual farmers receiving X amount of money. That is making it a little too easy for a criminal who might want to pick off someone who lives in an isolated rural area. Ministers and the Department always like to announce when the single farm payments will be paid, as it is a good news story and an event for which the farming community waits. Why do the name and the address of the recipient have to be published? Why not the name and just the county or the herd number and the amount? It must be possible to make it more difficult for criminals.

I have no doubt the ministerial reply will explain how this whole process was arrived at. However, we can be very overzealous in how we implement European Commission rules. Did the Department have an opportunity to say it has an issue with this? This process was to be introduced several years ago but three German farmers stopped it at the time. The European Court of Justice deliberated on it for some time and here we go again. Outside of farming, we have very strict and correct data protection laws. One cannot even make a telephone inquiry about a family member’s health appointment or insurance details because of data protection regulations. In this case, however, we are publishing detailed information about the farmers and the amounts they have received. I cannot understand how that does not run against data protection law. The European Court of Justice certainly thought it did several years ago. We need to be very careful how we set this out.

Were the farming organisations consulted on this? I do not know why we have gone the whole hog in publishing all these names and addresses. The Department is only too well aware of the amounts farmers receive from the scheme, as it is very quick to claw it back when it believes it has overspent. There is a very clear and transparent system there already. Will the Minister go back to the European Commissioner, Phil Hogan, to ensure this information is not as detailed when published to ensure the protection and safety of farmers?

I thank Deputy Connaughton for raising this very important issue. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine is unfortunately not available to take the Topical Issue but I am responding in his place.

Prior to November 2010 member states were obliged under EU legislation to publish information - names, addresses and amounts received - on recipients of amounts paid out of the European Agricultural Guarantee Fund, EAGF, or European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development, EAFRD, CAP funds. This information was made available on the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine website and, in line with EU requirements, included a search engine to permit users to search the database using different criteria.

On 9 November 2010, following its judgment in a case taken by German CAP beneficiaries, the European Court of Justice found that aspects of EU legislation requiring the publication of information on beneficiaries of CAP funds, who are natural persons, were invalid. On the day that the judgment was delivered the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine took down the CAP beneficiaries' database from its website. Following that judgment and pending the adoption of new rules taking account of the objections expressed by the court, the EU Commission adopted amending legislation in order to lay down explicitly that the obligation to publish the information on the beneficiaries does not apply to natural persons. However, they instructed member states to continue to publish information on legal persons and the Department has done so on an annual basis.

Following the extensive analysis and the consultation with the stakeholders, the EU Commission determined that it was critical that any new proposal must observe a balance between the pursued objective of the public control of the use of the money from the EAGF and the EAFRD on the one hand, and the beneficiaries' right to respect for their private life in general and to protection of their personal data on the other.

In September 2012 the Commission made a proposal on the publication of data on amounts received by all beneficiaries - natural and legal persons - that was intended to take account of the European Court of Justice judgment. The Commission's basic rationale was that it considered it vital to inform citizens how Union funds are being spent and that the new rules are based on a justification centred on the need for public control over the use of funds. The proposals were the subject of intensive discussion at Council meetings and subsequently in the formal discussions with the EU Commission and the European Parliament which led to the adoption of the new CAP and the legislation which underpins it.

In accordance with EU legislation the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is obliged to ensure annual ex-post publication of all of the beneficiaries of CAP funding including both legal and non-legal persons. In accordance with regulations the Department must publish the name of the beneficiary, unless the amount of payment under CAP funds is less than €1,250 in which case the individual will be identified by a code; the municipality where the beneficiary is resident; the amount of payment corresponding to each measure received by a beneficiary; and the nature and description of each measure. In accordance with the regulation the Department will publish such information by the 31 May 2015 deadline. Work is currently ongoing within the Department on this issue.

I thank the Minister of State for the response. The last line is the bit I am most concerned about, which I think should be reconsidered, is where it states they are going ahead with this by 31 May and that is it.

No one is hiding anything here. The Department is well aware of what each farmer receives. The EU auditors are over here every year making sure every cent of taxpayers' money is spent properly and, if it was not being spent properly, we would know about it and the whole of Europe would know about it. I am not sure why we are so hell bent on this extra step forward all of the time.

I will always bring it back to the local. I apologise for being parochial but I cannot understand, particularly for those in very rural constituencies who may live a number of miles away from their neighbours, why we have to publish the name, address and amount of money they are about to receive and then we announce when they receive it. If a gang of criminals wants to target a house or farm, we effectively tell them when the money is going to arrive. I really cannot understand this and the matter should be re-examined.

Again, I want to state publicly that this is not about accountability or wanting to prevent transparency. We have that already. The Department should just publish the county and name, for example - County Galway, Paul Connaughton and the number. That does not mean much to anybody but people will know what I received. Why we have to give the address and other details is really beyond me. In some parts of our society, such as health or education, we are very strict on data protection law, and correctly so. All of a sudden, for farming, data protection does not seem to be talked about due to this over-zealousness of the European Union. These proposals were knocked back a few years ago and here they come again. I request that the Minister, Deputy Coveney, go back to the Commission and say we have some concerns. He should ask that we address them and arrive at a fair and feasible solution where we give the Commission the transparency it wants while protecting the identity and addresses of farmers.

The Deputy makes a fair comment about what are effectively security concerns. It is reasonable that he would make his concerns known in the House. I will convey them to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and we will see if we can make some progress.

Private Rented Accommodation Price Controls

The third matter on the current crisis in the rental sector in the name of Deputies Terence Flanagan and Eamonn Maloney, has been postponed until next Tuesday due to technical problems.

Domestic Violence

I welcome the opportunity to raise this matter with the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, around funding for domestic violence services. I know most of the services across the country are under pressure. Demand is increasing, whether that is because people are more willing to come forward or because the incidence of domestic violence is increasing. I hope it is not the latter, but I believe there is some evidence to show that it is.

I want to raise the issue of Laois Domestic Abuse Service, based in Portlaoise, and to outline briefly the situation in which it is operating at the moment. It has one full-time and one part-time staff member, with community employment placements from time to time - there are two at present - which are welcome. In 2014 it had €64,000 in funding for the full-time position and for operational costs such as rent, travel and all other expenses. A part-time position was added on to that, which is funded by the Commission for the Support of Victims of Crime. The service then raised €12,000 in voluntary funds. It is operating on a fairly tight budget, but, as of yet - I checked within the last ten minutes - it has not received a funding allocation for 2015. It has less than €1,000 left in the kitty.

The service welcomes the funding and State support it is getting. The staff are providing a marvellous service, but funding is precarious. They need that part-time position, which has been funded by the Commission for the Support of Victims of Crime. They really need a full-time position and additional funding. They dealt thoroughly with 911 separate cases over the seven-year period up to the end of last year. In 2014 alone, there was 166 new cases, new women coming in the door, and 116 repeats, for want of a better term - women who had been there before.

The service is comprehensive and professional. It is provided out of a small house on the Abbeyleix road in Portlaoise, in Kellyville Court, just opposite the Garda barracks. The feedback I get is good. The service does not have funding for child counselling services and there is a related issue about children who are victims of or witness domestic violence. I had a reply from Tusla dated 4 February which covered this issue but did not actually deal with the fact that they do not receive funding for this. Tusla said that funding was provided to other agencies in the area but they are talking about children who are victims of or who witness domestic violence.

Funding for this service is very precarious at present, its workload is increasing massively and the funding for extra services such as child counselling is critical. There is a need for some certainty.

Tusla has confirmed that a new system for managing funding applications, which it calls a commissioning process, is being put in place. It has indicated that it is not in a position to manage the current system. According to my information, Tusla will basically set up a federation through which funding will be provided rather than directly through it.

I thank the Minister of State for taking this matter which I raise because, as a Deputy for County Laois, I am very concerned that this service is kept going. It is under severe pressure and needs modest resources. l would welcome any positive information which the Minister of State might have.

I thank Deputy Stanley for raising this issue and I welcome the opportunity to clarify the Government's approach to the funding of domestic violence services around the country and in the Deputy's constituency of County Laois.

For the first time, with the establishment of Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, domestic, sexual and gender-based violence service provision is under one body with clear national direction. Services can now be delivered within a wide child and family support framework and this represents a significant change to the previous service delivery model.

In 2014, €17 million in funding was provided by the Child and Family Agency by way of grant aid to 62 specialist domestic violence and sexual violence services. These include 16 rape crisis centres-sexual violence services; 44 domestic violence services, including 20 refuges; and two national networks.

In addition, funding of €2.54 million has transferred to the Department of Children and Youth Affair's Vote from the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government which, in turn, has been transferred to Tusla.

This funding was previously distributed under section 10 of the Housing Act 1988 and is for domestic violence refuge services. The purpose of this funding transfer is to ensure that the State's relationship with the domestic violence services is managed in a manner which is more coherent and adapted to the needs of service users, that is, victims of domestic violence.

In 2014, Tusla funded specialist domestic violence services in County Laois provided by Laois Domestic Abuse Services in Portlaoise. The service received €64,900 in funding from Tusla last year. As the Deputy outlined, the service involves the provision of domestic violence supports, including information, advocacy and counselling services to women experiencing, or who have experienced, domestic violence. The work of Laois Domestic Abuse Services and other community-based domestic violence services is recognised and absolutely valued.

Tusla has recently completed an initial review of domestic violence and sexual violence services in order to identify strategic priorities and set out a Tusla roadmap for sexual violence and domestic violence services. There is for the first time a consolidated national budget for these services and an opportunity for more co-ordinated and equitable provision of sexual and domestic violence services across the country.

Tusla will communicate with funded services shortly to advise on the Tusla budget and funding for 2015. Individual domestic violence service provider organisations, including Laois Domestic Abuse Service, will be contacted about their specific funding and service arrangements.

Future planning for domestic violence and sexual violence services will seek to address gaps, avoid duplication and support effective delivery of front-line services nationally.

Developments for domestic violence services in County Laois will be considered as part of Tusla's future commissioning processes. The agency has advised that population size will be one of the factors that will inform this process. Services responding to domestic, sexual and gender-based violence are being given a high priority by Government and Tusla will work closely with service providers, giving particular priority to supporting front-line services.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply and welcome the fact that for the first time, there will be one consolidated national budget because in the past, there have been difficulties in terms of how the schemes and funding are administered. The committee which oversees Laois Domestic Abuse Services raised more than €12,000 voluntarily last year.

I refer to the equalisation of funding. The Minister of State said the agency has advised that population size will be one of the factors informing the process. I welcome that and was going to raise it with the Minister of State. County Laois does not have a huge population - it is approximately 84,000 - but the service covers a large catchment area and sometimes people come from north Tipperary or west Offaly where there may be gaps in services. We should take the size of the region into account when allocating funding.

In 2011, the last year for which I have figures, County Carlow, which is a similar size to County Laois, received €134,000 while County Laois received €56,000, although the Minister of State is correct that it received €64,900 last year. By the way, I am not arguing for County Carlow's funding to be reduced. County Tipperary received €176,000 while County Longford received €124,000 in 2011. The Minister of State will be able to see the problem there and I welcome the fact population size will be taken into consideration. That is a very positive move, as is the fact there will be a consolidated fund.

The Minister of State said Tusla will communicate with funding services shortly to advise. Will he raise this in the Department and convey to the civil servants, Tusla and the funding agency that Laois Domestic Violence Service is really under pressure and is operating on a wing and a prayer? Can the funding be expedited because it now almost the end of February and Laois Domestic Violence Service had a very busy year last year and its resources are on the floor? Will the Minister of State work that out with the senior officials?

I referred to the other counties not to have their funding lowered but to illustrate the 2011 model. I welcome the move towards equalisation based on population.

Will the Minister of State raise the issue of a second full-time position in Laois Domestic Violence Service? There is only one full-time position. The co-ordinator, Ms Marna Carroll, does amazing work but there is only so much she can do. Will the Minister of State ensure this valuable service has the resources to continue to provide vital services to women in County Laois who need it? Setting up the family law centres was one of the positive things we did. They are under pressure but that is a matter for another day. The other positive thing we did was to set up these centres and we must ensure they continue. Let us hope instances of domestic violence are not on the increase and that it is a case of better reporting or that women and men are more likely to come forward. Let us ensure we provide an open door for them when they come looking for it in their hour of need.

The Deputy made some very constructive comments and I appreciate his positivity towards what we are trying to do. His comments on the population question are appreciated. I take on board the Deputy's comments on the individual service and the need for clarity, certainty and to plan for the future. I do not think any service, in particular one that deals with such a sensitive issue as domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, should be insecure as to its future. I will take on board the Deputy's questions and get working on them to ensure the service is more confident, as it is providing an excellent service. Again, I thank the Deputy for raising this issue.

The Dáil adjourned at 2.40 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 24 February 2015.