Leaders' Questions

For far too many children, Ireland has become an unresponsive, hard and cruel place in which to live. There is a fundamental lack of political prioritisation of the needs of children. Too many children in Ireland are homeless. Too many children are living in poverty. Too many children have to wait far too long for hospital appointments, be it for outpatient or inpatient treatment. The position regarding access to mental health services for children and young people is shocking and unacceptable. The position regarding access to speech and language therapy, physiotherapy, occupational therapy and many other therapies is equally unacceptable. The lack of access to such therapies is appalling, particularly when they are critical in terms of the development of a child. For some children with special needs, access to special schools and school placement can be a very challenging journey, with very little advocacy for the child within the special education sector. The parents have to do all of the heavy lifting and beg for school placements, many of them sub-optimal in terms of the needs of the child. There are over 3,000 children who are homeless and living in emergency accommodation but there are thousands more living with their grandparents, uncles and aunts. The stress which we all see every week in our clinics is very distressing indeed to witness and very difficult on the families concerned.

Mental health services, although there is a lot of rhetoric, are clearly sub-optimal. There were 6,000 children waiting for primary care psychology appointments at the end of January 2018. Of these, 1,600 had been waiting over a year. Some 2,500 children and young people were waiting for appointments with child and adolescent mental health services. Of these, 350 had been waiting more than 12 months. I can go on. There were 15,000 children waiting more than a year for outpatient appointments and this month there are close to 9,000 children who have been waiting over 18 months for outpatient appointments. When he was Minister for Health, the Taoiseach pledged that this would be ended by the close of 2015. That has not happened and the numbers have gone up tenfold since.

The fundamental question I put to the Taoiseach is why services for children across the board, in so many areas, are so difficult to access. Why are waiting times so long in so many areas? Is the Government not ashamed of the very poor political prioritisation given to children's needs in our society? Can the Taoiseach explain the absence of such political prioritisation?

I am afraid I cannot agree with the Deputy's thesis and assessment regarding this Government's commitment to children and our response to the needs of children and the need to support their families. I would argue that the needs of children are actually at the heart of what the Government does. We invest in children because we know it makes sense; investment in children gives them opportunities for the future and, if anything, will save us money in the future. Providing care for children and support for education and health care is very much a large part of what the Government does.

Looking back over the seven years I have been in government, to give a few examples of what is not just rhetoric but is real action and real substance, there was: the establishment, for the first time, of a full Minister for Children and Youth Affairs sitting at the Cabinet table as well as of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs; there was the establishment of Tusla, a dedicated agency for child protection, because the HSE was not prioritising it enough; and, after many years of promises, mandatory reporting was brought in last December. The introduction of subsidised child care was, again, talked about for decades and is now a reality. Everyone between the ages of six months and three years, for example, receives subsidised child care. There are two years of free preschool education where there was only one before - and none before that. In education, there are record numbers of special needs assistants, SNAs. We have never had more SNAs in our education system. That is a recognition of the need that is there. In health, as I mentioned before, in the past, children with severe disabilities in receipt of the domiciliary care allowance got a medical card based on their parents' income. That was the case when the Deputy served as Minister for Health. We changed all that and now children with severe disabilities, 40,000 of them, get a medical card as a right regardless of their parents' income, and no longer face the kind of reviews that caused people enormous worry in the past, including in all those decades when Fianna Fáil was in office.

We have introduced free GP care for all children under six. The national children's hospital, promised again and again by previous Governments and previous Ministers for Health, is now under construction. The third storey is up on the satellite unit in Blanchardstown. Child poverty is falling again, at least according to the CSO's survey on income and living conditions, having risen a lot during the economic crisis. Just this week, an increase was made to the family income supplement, lifting low-paid working families out of poverty; there was an increase in the one-parent family payment and, for the first time in a very long time - perhaps ten years - an increase in payments to people on welfare who have a dependent child. That is just a short list of a few things the Government has done in the past couple of years.

In the limited time I have left, I would say that we absolutely acknowledge that a lot more needs to be done and we are committed to doing that.

The Taoiseach ignored all of the key areas that I outlined in my question. The fundamental point is that children in need, who are homeless or who require special interventions, particularly children with special needs, are not getting them and are waiting far too long, be it any of the therapies the Taoiseach wants to mention. Since the Taoiseach, when he was Minister for Health, gave a pledge that no one would be waiting longer than 18 months by the end of 2015, the number on that waiting list has gone up tenfold. All of the Taoiseach's own targets in the areas of mental health, therapeutic intervention, and childhood assessment under the Disability Act, have become worse and worse as the months go on. There are over 4,000 children waiting for an assessment. Early intervention is the key to a child fulfilling his or her potential. By any yardstick or metric, the Government is failing dramatically in respect of those targets. The Taoiseach can ask Barnardos, which knows a thing or two about the needs of children. It has stated this and called it the forgotten scandal in our society. I would appreciate if the Taoiseach could address more meaningfully the questions relating to mental health services access for children, special needs access for children and so on, the position in respect of which is quite shocking.

The Deputy should ask about the €37.5 million needed for mental health.

I acknowledge that much more needs to be done in the areas mentioned, whether in child mental health services or housing. The rising number of homeless children distresses us all and requires us to focus even more on the work that we do as a Government. One of the major investments we are making in the area of housing other than building houses - and it will be many years before our housing supply is at the correct level - is the investment in family hubs, which helps to reduce the number of children in hotels and bed and breakfasts. I have visited family hubs and spoken to the people who are living there. I have seen the quality of accommodation that is available there. It is, of course, only a temporary, inadequate solution to the problem of child homelessness.

We will continue to invest in family hubs and to reduce the number of people - families in particular - who have to live in hotels and bed and breakfasts, while we do what needs to be done, which is the building of vast amounts of social and affordable housing. The Deputy will know that Project Ireland 2040 provides for 110,000 new homes for social housing tenants to be built over the next ten years.

There was a harrowing, heartbreaking letter from a victim of rape carried in The Irish Times on Monday. I do not know if the Taoiseach has read it. This person was a victim of marital rape and the letter was shocking. The author wrote bravely and with considerable dignity. Her words reflected the trauma of being sexually assaulted and the additional horror inflicted when the perpetrator is one's intimate partner. She describes being terrified for hours the night she was attacked. She wrote:

I was threatened with a knife, I was threatened with being raped a second time until I promised to stay in the relationship. For the remainder of the night I was threatened with being killed unless I promised that I would stay.

Her child witnessed this.

The crime was punished and the perpetrator was sentenced. However, the woman expresses her deep anger and distress at the news in February that the sentence of the perpetrator of her rape was to be reduced by two years. She explained that "Every day of those ... years counted for us", and how the reduction in the initial sentence has robbed her, as she puts it, of her "peace of mind and freedom". The victim believes that the judges did not take seriously enough the gravity of the offence against her, that is, the offence of marital rape. She feels abandoned and let down by the judicial system.

I have raised the issues of inconsistency, leniency and light sentences, particularly those related to sexual crime, in this House previously.

I put it to the Deputy that she may be at odds with Standing Orders here because she is speaking about a judgment in a specific, quite identifiable case. That is contrary to the precedents-----

The case is concluded.

Yes, but it is not open to us to criticise the judgments made in a duly constituted court.

I have not criticised the judgment. I have reflected the real, lived experience of a woman, as published in a newspaper. If the Ceann Comhairle would do me the courtesy of allowing me to get to the substance of my question-----

I will do that, but implicit in what the Deputy is saying is a criticism.

Implicit and explicit in what I am saying is the true, accurate, real-life reflection of the reality as experienced by this woman and many others.

It is not in order to criticise the judgment.

There are significant issues relating to inconsistencies, leniency and light sentencing, particularly when it comes to sexual crime. I believe this underlines the need for sentencing guidelines. I understand that the Judicial Council Bill 2017 contains provision for a sentencing information committee. However, it does not recommend the drafting of guidelines, and as such I believe it will prove far too weak and will therefore not have the desired effect. This sends a dangerous message to victims generally and to society at large, because the case I have described is by no means unique. It is by no means isolated. There are many others. I have previously urged the Government to face up to that fact and to take the appropriate action.

I have commended the adoption of the sentencing council model as the way forward. I have outlined its merits in terms of consistency, accountability and the appropriate involvement of stakeholders. I want to know if the Government will now adopt that approach and adopt guidelines for sentencing.

I have not seen that letter, but there was an article on the front page of The Irish Times during the week which I believe covered the case the Deputy is referring to. I read that article. Rape is one of the most heinous crimes that can be committed on any individual, whether on a man or a woman, and it is particularly serious and egregious when that crime is perpetrated by a husband, wife or family member, particularly when the victim is a child. Everyone in the House will agree with those sentiments.

The Domestic Violence Bill is making its way through these Houses at the moment. The Domestic Violence Bill passed Committee Stage in this House as recently as this morning and I appeal to all parties in this House to co-operate with the Government to help get that Bill passed. The Opposition can really help the Government on this by making sure that we do not have unnecessary amendments or repetitive debates. We can all work together to get that through, and I would appeal to all parties to help us with that. In addition, the Judicial Council Bill 2017 is before the Seanad. That Bill potentially provides for the making of sentencing guidelines, which is something the Government is very keen to explore with Opposition parties.

We do, however, have to make a distinction between guidelines and mandatory sentencing. We have separation of powers in this country. Judges sit through entire cases for days and days, something we do not do. They hear all of the evidence and all sides of the story, including any mitigating factors. I am not referring to any particular case but am speaking generally. It is not right for us, having not sat through these cases and heard the evidence, to second-guess the judgments made, because, ultimately, it is the judges who sit through those cases for days and days, hear all of the evidence, all of the arguments and all of the circumstances and ultimately come up with a sentence on that basis. I do not believe that it is correct that people who do not do what judges do should second-guess their decisions. Having said that, nobody agrees with inconsistency in sentencing, and if there is room for guidelines in that area we are certainly happy to explore that with other parties.