Topical Issue Debate

Homeless Accommodation Provision

As the Minister of State, Deputy English, will be aware, unfortunately, another homeless person died in Cork in recent days. This is the second such death in the city. Another lady was found deceased in a tent in September. In the lead-up to Christmas, much of the focus has been on the number of people who are homeless in the Dublin region and I wanted to try to get some sense of what the winter plan for the Cork area will be.

Some of the agencies in Cork are working flat out. Simon is making available an additional 47 spaces, not in bed spaces but by opening up their day care centres for the night-time where people can sleep on floors. Even at that, it is not meeting the demand in the city at present.

Last night I spoke to a number of volunteers who go out every night. We have a number of groups in Cork which do homeless soup runs and they bed down people, and they say that to meet the demand over the coming weeks to ensure that nobody is on the streets of Cork, we need an additional 20 bed spaces opened as a matter of priority.

I do not know what the plan is for the region in the coming weeks and maybe the Minister of State can outline that tonight to us, but there is a lot of anger in Cork today following the death of Kathleen. The reality is she tried to get into a hostel and she was unable to get into one. She was told to come back later when they could see what space was available. The doorway she passed away in is the very same doorway her aunt passed away in seven years ago. This is not a new issue in the city. That family has now been touched by tragedy on two occasions and they have to pick up the pieces again.

Volunteers in Cork want to express the need for additional bed spaces. There is a perception, and a genuine feeling on the ground among the volunteer groups which are working in the area, that much of the focus has been on the Dublin area.

That is understandable in light of the number of people who are homeless in Dublin. However, Cork also has a homelessness problem and is trying to deal with it. I am not criticising anybody in the area. All of those involved are doing their best, including the local authority, the statutory agencies and the volunteer groups, but there are just not enough emergency beds available.

I understand why some people might be turned away from emergency accommodation. They might be too intoxicated or they might be aggressive when they arrive. However, turning them away and making them sleep in doorways is not the answer. Perhaps the Minister will outline what plan there is for the next couple of weeks to ensure that nobody in Cork is obliged to sleep in a doorway.

I thank Deputy O'Brien for raising this issue. He did so in a genuine manner. He is right that it is important to recognise that the homelessness and rough sleepers difficulty exists not only in Dublin, where the main media concentration is, but also outside. We are aware of that in the Department because we are involved in providing the services on a nightly basis. I accept that the Deputy is genuinely trying to bring a focus to this.

My Department and I learned of the sad death yesterday of a woman in Cork city who was availing of homelessness services. This death is a tragedy for the woman's family and friends and I extend our sympathies to them. Clearly, this is a very difficult time for those involved. Out of consideration for the families, I ask that we respect their privacy and not speculate on the circumstances of the deceased or the cause of death at this time. However, I will check out the Deputy's comment that she had sought to get into a hostel but was not facilitated. I will try to find out the reasons for that and, if possible, deal with it.

Of course, while it is not appropriate to speculate on the circumstances of an individual case, it is absolutely right that we should discuss the issue of homelessness and, more specifically, highlight the actions that are under way to support those who are sleeping rough at this time. If there are gaps in the service we should close them. That is something the Deputy tried to highlight tonight. There is a suite of State-funded support services available to homeless persons nationally, including in Cork city. Cork City Council makes every possible effort on an ongoing basis to ensure there is sufficient emergency accommodation available to those who need it. We have been clear to all local authorities that there must be enough beds, both temporary and emergency, to provide for people in these winter conditions. It is something the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, was clear about a number of months ago.

Cork City Council's cold weather strategy for homeless persons has been in effect since 1 November. This strategy ensures that additional temporary shelter can be brought into use across existing services to ensure that there is sufficient available accommodation this winter. At present, there are over 130 hostel type beds available for homeless adults in Cork city. This includes the additional capacity that is currently available under the city council's cold weather strategy. I understand that, typically, Cork city has less than ten rough sleepers on a given night. Beds are available for these individuals should they wish avail of them and outreach teams continue to work to try and provide solutions for such individuals and to encourage them to avail of accommodation. The Deputy has provided data tonight indicating that the figure is approximately 20. We will have to check our figure and update it because we are clear that we wish to ensure there is enough accommodation for anybody who needs it. As the Deputy said, there is no reason anybody should have to be a rough sleeper and remain on the streets at night, certainly in these weather conditions. That is our aim and that is what we provide resources for through the various mechanisms.

In addition to the hostel type beds, the city council is also funding the Simon Community to provide a night haven service from its facility on Anderson's Quay. This service, which is available throughout the winter period, provides supervised space in which up to 15 people who would not normally access services can spend the night if they choose. At the housing summit held last September, the Minister and I emphasised the need for all housing authorities to have sufficient capacity in emergency accommodation and appropriate facilities in place for every person sleeping rough on any night of the week. This is something we did last year as well. Generally, the assessment involves discussions with the various agencies on the ground over the months leading up to winter and Christmas. I hope we have provided enough accommodation but, if not, we will have to add to it.

In response to the housing summit, the key urban housing authorities where rough sleeping arises have put their cold weather strategies in place and some of them, including in Dublin, are rolling out additional beds. Government policy on homelessness recognises that the provision of long-term secure housing, with support as needed to ensure sustainable tenancies, is the key solution to ending homelessness. While all homeless people have a need for stable housing, homelessness is complex and a variety of other supports can be required to meet individual needs. Many homeless people, particularly those who are rough sleeping, have complex health and social care needs, including in respect of addiction and mental health issues, which require care and supports beyond the provision of accommodation via the housing authority.

The Minister of State must conclude.

I wish to make a final point. I agree with the Deputy that we must ensure the different types of accommodation cater for the need. I was at the Dublin Simon Community facility a few days ago where its personnel meet people who present with different needs and can cater for them.

I do not wish to be argumentative with the Minister of State about the figures but the figure he quoted is simply not correct. There are more than ten rough sleepers in Cork at night. That is a fact. I am aware that the Simon Community has opened a facility and I have said that it is working at capacity. The city council is doing everything possible. I am not criticising anybody but it is simply not true to say that there is an emergency bed available for every rough sleeper in Cork city. If that was the case, we would not have people sleeping on the streets.

I am aware, from personal experience, that some individuals who may be able to avail of a bed choose not to do so for personal reasons. If somebody has come out of addiction and is clean that person will be very slow go into an environment where there is drug use. I agree that it is necessary not just to make beds available but to examine the types of beds being made available. We cannot continue to state that there is a bed for everyone who wishes to avail of one because it simply is not true. The Minister of State can visit Cork on any night. We are discussing people who are rough sleepers tonight, but I know people who are homeless and are squatting. They are in a building at night and have some type of roof over their heads, but they are still homeless. If they are kicked out of the squat for some reason - and the majority of the squats are run down, dilapidated buildings - they will end up on the streets that night.

I ask the Minister of State to meet the agencies in Cork because the figures he is being given are not correct.

I wish to make it clear to the Deputy that there should be a bed available for everybody. The Minister could not be any clearer about this. He has repeatedly said in the House that when it comes to the emergency provision of housing, and we know that it is not a permanent solution, he has asked the local authorities to ensure there is a bed available for anybody who wants it. The Deputy is correct that in some cases people cannot avail of it for whatever reason.

That lady wanted one.

I accept the Deputy's good faith and am not denying it. I am just saying that the information we received does not match that of the Deputy. I am willing to have that checked out because we are clear that we wish to be able to say with confidence where we know we have a bed available for everybody. I monitor the Dublin situation closely. We are able to track the beds that are available every night, so I am clear about that. I do not have all the figures for Cork for every night of the week but I have been told that the average is ten. I will have that checked. The Minister could not have been clearer about this. I sat beside him when he told the local authorities that, under the winter initiative, it is essential that there are beds available. We know that in extreme weather conditions, such as those that will occur tonight and tomorrow night, people who do not usually avail of services will come forward and use them. That is also a chance to help them and perhaps save them by making other services available to them in the long term. We want to be in a position to have beds available. If they are not, I assure the Deputy that we will address the matter.

Company Closures

Air Bound Trampoline Park in Dundalk is the latest revolution in sport and fitness for both children and adults. It is made up of hundreds of square metres of interlocking trampolines covering the floor space and going up the walls. This is a big attraction in Dundalk. It is a great way for families to come together and have fun while exercising. It also caters for children who have special needs. In this era of computers and play stations it is vital that organisations that promote exercise such as Air Bound Trampoline Park are supported by the Government.

Last night, Air Bound Trampoline Park announced via its Facebook page that two years after opening its doors, it must close on Tuesday next, 12 December, just before Christmas. This will affect the 15 members of staff and their families because they will now be unemployed. The reason is that the trampoline park simply cannot get insurance. There are ten insurance claims against the park in the past two years, seven of which arise from a jump tower which was in place in the company's first year of business. It has been closed since last February.

I received a huge volume of phone calls from constituents in Dundalk asking me to help Air Bound. This morning I called to Air Bound to find that the management and staff are simply gutted that it has come to this. They have been in contact with the insurance company for over three months, trying to come to an arrangement, and now it will not even offer them a quote.

I also received a phone call this morning from a parent who was very upset that Air Bound was due to close. Her daughter has dyspraxia and requires physiotherapy. She informed me that her daughter attends Air Bound three times per week. On Tuesday and Thursday evenings it offers a class for one hour, called fit camp, which is for all children, including those with special needs. On Friday evenings it has a class for children with autism and dyspraxia only. She told me that the service it offers has resulted in her daughter requiring less physiotherapy, and her social and sensory skills are improving, along with her overall health and fitness. She told me that the management and staff bend over backwards in assisting children with special needs and that it is affordable.

It is no secret that I am a fan of fitness and the promotion of a healthy lifestyle - "your health is your wealth". I go to Air Bound most Saturday mornings with my two grandchildren. On a Saturday morning it offers what is called a toddler morning, which is for children under the age of five only. It has a great community spirit and offers a great chance for young children to interact with one another while having fun and exercising. Childhood obesity is currently a major problem in Ireland and it is vital that, as a Government, we promote heath and exercise for children. If this place is to close, it is the children who will lose out.

When I visited Air Bound today, I was very annoyed to be informed that it has been advised that if the trampoline park was to relocate to Newry, County Down, Northern Ireland, it would receive insurance. I could not believe this was happening. This is a family business run by Gayle Maguire and her family, with a great staff, doing fantastic work for children with disabilities and not making it hard on their pockets. Thankfully, just this afternoon, with the help of Douglas Howell of Cullen Insurances in Newport, County Tipperary, we have secured insurance for Air Bound Trampoline Park. Fifteen jobs are safe as Air Bound is not closing, which is great news.

The issue is that it is becoming nearly impossible to secure public liability insurance in Ireland. This is due to the lack of competition in the South of Ireland, which is not like the North. There seems to be a very narrow risk appetite in the South. The price differentials among insurers show that many insurers are offering different prices for different channels. This is confusing people and putting customers at a major disadvantage. Brokers in the North are providing choice and advice, whereas, in the South, there is a big push by insurers to go direct, which takes out the advice and makes it easier for insurers to turn down claims. Commercial business cannot be written in the South, which is resulting in a lot of Irish business now going to the UK, such as motor fleets.

I thank Deputy Fitzpatrick for raising this very important Topical Issue matter and I am delighted to hear that matters have been rectified since it was put down today. Thankfully, the staff and management of Air Bound Trampoline Park have received good news, which is excellent, although I understand where the Deputy is coming from in terms of ensuring this sort of thing does not happen in the future.

I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael D'Arcy. It is important to be clear on the matter of responsibilities. The Minister for Finance is responsible for the development of the legal framework governing financial regulation. Neither he nor the Central Bank of Ireland has the power to direct insurance companies on the pricing or provision of insurance products. Indeed, the EU framework for insurance expressly prohibits member states from adopting rules which require insurance companies to obtain prior approval of the pricing or terms and conditions of insurance products. The provision of insurance cover and the price at which it is offered is a commercial matter for insurance companies and is based on an assessment of the risks they are willing to accept and adequate provisioning to meet those risks. These are considered by insurance companies on a case-by-case basis.

As a result, the Minister for Finance is not in a position to intervene in the case of this or any company. It is also important to say in this instance that the type of activity conducted appears to be of a particularly risky nature and, therefore, requires the application of the highest possible safety standards at all times in order to avoid accidents and potential claims. Insurers will generally give some credit for such measures when making a decision to provide cover and at what price. In addition, while I have considerable sympathy for a company that finds itself in this position, I am strongly of the view that, while there is no statutory requirement to have a minimum level of public liability insurance cover, it would be unwise to conduct any type of business in its absence.

That said, both the Minister for Finance and the Minister of State, Deputy D’Arcy, in their roles in financial services and insurance are aware of recent problems in regard to the provision and price of insurance for businesses generally. Indeed, that is why the Cost of Insurance Working Group, which was established by the then Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, and which is currently chaired by the Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy, chose to examine the employer liability and public liability insurance sectors in its ongoing second phase, following the publication of the report on the cost of motor insurance in January of this year.

Some of the issues which have been raised by businesses and other stakeholders consulted during this second phase include: the significant increase in the cost of employer liability and public liability insurance; the lack of competition in the employer liability and public liability insurance market; frustration with the inconsistency of personal injury awards; high costs in challenging claims through the court process; and the prevalence of fraudulent and exaggerated claims. The working group is currently in the process of finalising its second phase report on employer liability and public liability, which will follow a similar format to the report on the cost of motor insurance, and thus will include an action plan with associated actions and deadlines for implementation. The final report is expected to be submitted to the Minister for Finance for approval by the end of the year and subsequently published in January, following approval by Government. It is envisaged that the implementation of all the recommendations cumulatively, with the appropriate levels of commitment and co-operation from all relevant stakeholders, will achieve the objectives of delivering fairer employer liability and public liability premiums for businesses, and a more stable and competitive insurance market, without unnecessary delay.

Finally, and notwithstanding the strict demarcation of responsibilities already referred to, Department of Finance officials today contacted Insurance Ireland in regard to the specific case which the Deputy has outlined. Insurance Ireland responded to confirm that it would be agreeable to engaging with the particular insurance provider concerned if all appropriate details could be submitted to it. In this regard, Insurance Ireland operates a free insurance information service for those who have queries, complaints or difficulties in regard to obtaining insurance, and the relevant contact details are on its website.

I think the Minister of State is wrong. The leisure industry needs help. I am delighted to see the Minister, Deputy Zappone, in the Chamber. I would like to invite her to Dundalk to visit Air Bound Trampoline Park, which is doing a fantastic job. It is looking after children, including children with disabilities, it is helping to combat obesity and is helping people make their lives healthier and live longer. It is fantastic for getting families together. As I said, I go there with my two grandchildren most Saturday mornings when I am free. Even at my age, I can still enjoy the trampoline park. I would extend to the Minister a warm welcome to Dundalk and to Air Bound.

It is vital that, as a Government, we address this issue. Insurance is becoming a huge issue in Ireland. Air Bound's previous insurer failed to even offer it a quote. Insurance companies' prices are rising for people on a daily basis. It seems highly unfair that they can raise a person's car policy in some cases by as much as 60% and then, on the other hand, refuse to even offer a company a quote. We need to put something in place now before more jobs are lost or companies simply decide to relocate 15 minutes up the road to the North of Ireland, where insurance companies are willing to play ball. Air Bound is doing everything right in regard to health and safety, risk assessment, checking equipment, training staff and improving services all the time.

The injuries board is not fit for purpose. We have a lack of competition. We are trying to push insurance brokers out of the market although they are providing choice and advice, as we can see from Cullen Insurances helping to secure insurance to keep Air Bound open. Insurers are operating directly, which is making it easier for them to turn down claims. Let us call a spade a spade. Insurance companies of leisure businesses in Ireland are paying out higher claims than those in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. This is something we have to look into - claims, claims, claims. Ireland has a name for high claims and it is something we will have to combat.

I want to wish Gayle Maguire at Air Bound Trampoline Park and her staff all the best and thank her for providing a fantastic service for all the young and old in Dundalk and surrounding areas. I again thank Douglas Howell of Cullen Insurances for keeping a good business going and keeping its employees in employment.

I applaud the Deputy's sincerity and the interest he has taken in this company. It is great news for staff coming up to Christmas that it has been able to find this vital insurance. I will pass on the comments he has made to the Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy, and I am sure he will also investigate the matter. I am not aware of the company, although it sounds a wonderful facility and important in terms of health and fitness, particularly in regard to its important work for those who suffer from autism or have other special needs. I can imagine it does an outstanding job and it is great, coming up to Christmas, that the staff and management have job security.

The report on employer liability and public liability, which follows on from the previous report on the cost of car insurance, will be published once it is agreed by the Government early in the new year. The Government and the Oireachtas are acutely aware of issues of cost and competitiveness in terms of the claims culture and all that goes with it.

It is wonderful news, and much better than when Deputy Fitzpatrick tabled this Topical Issue for debate earlier in the day-----

-----that this situation has been resolved. Keep the pressure on, and I will do the same with the Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy, regarding the report.

Early Childhood Care and Education

I am disappointed that the Minister announced the removal of the over-age exemption in the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme from September 2018 onwards in respect of children with special needs. I am pleased that, presumably when she got notice of this debate and after a strong campaign by parents that garnered more than 20,000 signatures, she last night announced that she would be pressing the pause button to allow parents to be consulted before making her final decision.

It is vital that all of our children have the best possible start in life and that the concerns of their parents be heard. More than 20,000 people signed the petition calling for the plans not to proceed. While the pause is welcome, I hope that when the Minister begins consulting parents, she becomes convinced that the extra year offers a special child the capacity to address issues that he or she has and that might not be addressed in primary education but that can be addressed, perhaps in a better way, in preschool education. As the Minister is aware, many children on the autism spectrum and with other special needs have specific language and learning difficulties. It may take them more time to catch up and realise their full potential.

I have spoken to many parents who have been shocked. They work hard looking after their children. The idea that the special extra year that has been available to date would be removed and that a child with special needs might end up in primary school a year earlier is difficult to understand, given all of the planning that has gone into special provision and the fact that we were only recently able to guarantee - during the time that I was in government - that early care and preschool services would become available on a national basis to children with special needs.

I hope that the consultation process will ensure an outcome that puts the needs of all of the children first and that those with special needs are supported in every way possible when starting school and throughout their journeys through the mainstream school system. Every child is different and policy has to reflect the needs of every child as well as his or her parents and families, who are obviously the ones who know that child best.

The Minister accepted the recommendation of experts. Experts produce considerable advice and knowledge that is valuable, but they do not know the individual children. What has upset parents is the idea that the attention they have given their children somehow or other will play second fiddle to views of experts that, however well-intentioned, could in the parents' view result in a serious setback for their children, whom they believe need extra time.

I thank Deputy Burton for raising this important issue for discussion. As she knows, I have great respect for her. I hope that I will bring some clarity to the issue, which has been the subject of much commentary in recent weeks.

Yesterday, I announced that I had paused a decision on this matter so that further consultation with parents could occur. This means that, for now at least, the over-age exemption will continue to be available. I hope that my decision will bring the parents concerned some relief. I encourage them to ensure that their views are represented in the consultation that will occur over the coming months, the details of which I will publish shortly. I would appreciate receiving direct representations from parents.

It is important that I set out the rationale for the original decision. The recent announcement of changes was designed to support the achievement of better outcomes for children with disabilities. The evidence is that children with a disability should start school with their peers once they have access to high-quality and inclusive primary school education. The evidence is also that they should become teenagers with their peers and transition to secondary school with them.

Over-age exemptions were introduced at the outset of the ECCE programme in 2010. At that time, the programme only operated for one programme year of 38 weeks. For some children with special or additional needs, attending preschool five days per week was not feasible. For this reason, an allowance was made to enable them to split ECCE over two years. An example of this is a child who may have availed of three days ECCE provision per week in year one and two days per week in year two. The child's total ECCE provision remained at 38 weeks.

In order to facilitate this, and in cases where the child would have been over the age limit for ECCE, which is five years and six months when finishing ECCE, an over-age exemption was approved. This flexibility was never intended to conflict with the legislative requirement to start school by six years of age. Children should be in school by the time they are six. The primary school system has a variety of resources to support children with disabilities. If children are not in school by six years of age, under the Education (Welfare) Act 2000, Tusla must be satisfied that the child is receiving a minimum standard of education in a place other than a recognised school. It does this by sending educational welfare inspectors out to the place of the child's education. This would be in addition to the early years inspectorate funded by my Department.

Since ECCE was first introduced, my Department has worked to improve the preschool experience for children with disabilities and to optimise their early development. The two main enhancements are an ECCE entitlement that will expand further to 76 weeks from September 2018 and the introduction of the access and inclusion model, AIM.

In the best interests of children, and for no other reason, a proposal was considered to remove the over-age exemption to the upper age limit of the programme. This was signalled last year but, in order to give longer notice, the planned introduction was delayed until September 2018. The original decision to remove the over-age exemption was made with the Department of Education and Skills. It was also done in close collaboration with members of the AIM cross-sectoral implementation group, including representatives from the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, the National Disability Authority and the HSE, representatives of parents of children with special needs and a representative of early years providers.

There was broad agreement that, in light of the developments in free preschool education and the supports in place for children in primary schools, the over-age exemption would no longer support the policy aim that children should transition to primary school with their peers. The decision acknowledged the supports provided by the relevant primary school, the NCSE and other bodies, as required. However, I am also conscious of the need to listen further to those with concerns. To this end, I intend to pause the proposed change and consult more widely with parents of children with disabilities and special needs.

Much of the Minister's answer deals with process. While she must address process, the critical issue is that many of the parents of children with special needs feel that they are being ignored, bypassed and not properly considered and included.

The Government recently published a spending review from the Department of Finance on disability and expenditure related to special education. Where is the empathy, understanding or the desperation to try to make things better for families of precious children with special needs?

When I came into the Department of Social Protection, there were major delays in getting monthly payments from the Department to parents of children with special needs. When the issue was re-examined with particular regard to children on the autism spectrum who, as the Minister is aware, constitute a significant proportion of children with special needs in schools, we had to consider the whole process, revamp it, redesign the forms, create an IT system and suspend applications for a couple of months. Since that process ended, I do not think any Member of the House has raised concerns about failures to give parents the payments to which they are entitled.

I want to hear the Minister say that she is going to have a rethink. A child with special needs may not be ready to go to a mainstream primary school at or around five years of age, which is what many parents are worried about.

I thank Deputy Burton. I believe we are on the same page. In her response she indicated that her greatest concern is the process which results in many parents feeling ignored and bypassed. I understand that. Parents in my own constituency feel that way. I am aware of the number of people who have signed the petition and who have been in touch with many Deputies. I appreciate the willingness of Deputy Burton to raise this issue now.

My response is to say that it is important to consult parents. That is why I have paused. The overage exemption will continue for September 2018. We are currently planning how to engage in a meaningful consultation with interest groups and to place that in a dialogue with, as I said in my initial response, the evidence from which the experts made this recommendation to me. The experts involved not just those in my Department but also those from the Department of Education and Skills and the disability sector. I accept that expertise has to be placed in dialogue with consultation with parents. That is what I have done.

In the past, the ECCE scheme comprised 38 weeks, which has now increased to 76. We have introduced the Better Start Access and Inclusion Model, AIM, which, as the Deputy knows, is an incredible support for children with special needs. I referred to the development of inclusive policies and practice in respect of the Department of Education and Skills, which has responsibility for this area. I accept all of the Deputy's points. I think we are on the same page. I have made a decision. I hope that in light of that consultation, we will come to the best policy possible.

The Dáil adjourned at 10.15 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Friday, 8 December 2017.