Topical Issue Debate

Early Childhood Care and Education

I wish to highlight the changes in the early childhood care and education scheme that are scheduled for introduction in September and issues and concerns that have been brought to my attention by many parents and childcare providers who have contacted me in recent months. They are deeply concerned and believe the system is unjust and needs to be revised.

We all agree that early childhood is a time of great opportunity for learning and development. In these early years, children learn through discussion, exploration and play. Much work has been done to develop Aistear, the early childhood curriculum framework, to assist parents, early years educators and care providers to create enjoyable and challenging learning experiences which allow children to grow and develop as competent and confident learners. This is a very valuable programme. I have seen the level of work and preparation that our childcare providers and teachers of junior infants put into this programme to make it such a success. It is certainly working.

Undoubtedly, a child's early years development is substantially enriched by activities which nurture well-being, identity and belonging, communication, exploration and thinking. The Department's early childhood care scheme, which provides access to such early childhood care and education for children of preschool age, was well received. It has enriched the universally available offerings in community childcare settings across the State. However, the proposed changes in September will compel some children to enter the programme too early while denying others their right to start when ready to do so. That is far from child-centred. We are moving away from a child-centred approach to an approach that is unworkable and will disadvantage children.

The issues here arise as a result of two factors. The first is the reduction from three entry points each year to just one. The second is the reduction in age eligibility from three years to two years and eight months. Until now, the scheme has provided for three intakes, namely, in January, April and September. Children who became eligible entered the scheme at the enrolment point closest to their birthday. My consultations with parents, childcare providers and the county childcare committee, suggest that there were no particular logistical issues arising from this rolling system. They were quite satisfied with the system and felt it was working well. A very small minority questioned the value to children of the April intake because it was so close to the summer recess but all reported that the January and September intakes worked well and were flawless.

The proposed change to introduce a single point of entry only, in September, has caused great concern to parents and childcare providers alike.

The current arrangements will deny many children who will become eligible after enrolment access. They will be obliged to wait it out until the following September. Children will be affected in varying degrees, depending on their birth dates. Some children may have a significant loss of entitlement below the 76 weeks provided for over the course of their preschool years.

The second issue arises from the reduction in age from three years to two years and eight months. This has implications for childcare providers because many children in this age bracket are not yet fully toilet-trained. Concerns will arise in this context if childcare facilities are not co-located with full day-care facilities. The universal opinion of those with whom I have spoken is that three years is the optimum age for entering preschool. There is anecdotal evidence that children aged two years and eight months are being enrolled even though they are not ready. It is unsatisfactory that parents have to do this. However, they feel they have no alternative. These issues need to be addressed.

As the Deputy is well aware, from September 2018 all children meeting the minimum age requirement of two years and eight months will be eligible to participate in the early childhood care and education, ECCE, programme for a full two years. This means a total of 76 weeks of the scheme will be available to every child, thereby fulfilling a commitment in the programme for Government. The current system of three intakes of children was introduced in 2016 to help to expand ECCE from its original 38 weeks to the current average of 61 weeks. While the expansion of ECCE to 61 weeks on average was a welcome measure, the number of weeks for which children proved eligible varied greatly. In addition, the April take-up proved poor and the three entry points caused difficulties for children, providers and parents. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs received numerous reports of the three entry points causing significant disruption to children in the learning environment.

Funding was provided in budget 2018 to make two years, or 76 weeks, of ECCE available to all children, thereby significantly enhancing the equity of the scheme. Depending on a child's month of birth and parental choice regarding school readiness, some parents may decide to start their child in school after one year of ECCE only. Children are born across 12 months of the year, but there is only one entry point to school. Therefore, the parents of children who were born at certain times of the year will face harder decisions than the parents of children who were born at other times. Parents have the discretion to decide how much of ECCE to avail of for their children. I respect that choice. A decision may be made to utilise just one year of the programme for various reasons. For example, some parents of children who were born in the first quarter of the year may opt for them to start school at the age of four rather than the age of five. Such parents may decide to avail of just one of the two years of ECCE available to them.

Age limits exist for the scheme to guide its usage in a child-centred manner. The minimum age of two years and eight months was chosen based on national experience and a review of international practice. It had regard to the regulatory environment for early years care and education in this country and issues such as child development readiness and adult-child ratios. The upper age limit for the scheme reflects the law of the country with regard to enrolment in school and the policy of the Department of Education and Skills. The refinement of the scheme back to a single enrolment point in September reflects the extra investment, which offers a full two years to all children. It will help to streamline the administration process and will make it easier for childcare providers to operate and budget for the programme year. It will make it easier for parents to secure places for their children. A child will not be able to commence his or her ECCE in September 2018 if he or she has not reached the age of two years and eight months on or before 31 August 2018. However, such a child will be able to commence ECCE in September 2019 and continue for a further year from September 2020 before commencing school in September 2021. As with all initiatives introduced or supported by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, we will continue to be open to receiving feedback. The expansion of ECCE to a full two years this September will be monitored closely by the Department. Any opportunities for continued improvement will be considered. I hope this clarifies the situation for the Deputy.

While I thank the Minister for her response, I have to say it has not clarified the situation. She said that a substantial number of complaints about the three entry points have been received. Like many other Deputies, I have heard differently. I accept that a small minority of providers expressed the view that the April intake could be disruptive. Many childcare providers and the parents have been calling for the retention of the other two entry points. They feel it is unfair to retain the September entry point only. I would like to know how many complaints about this aspect have been received by the Department. I do not feel that such complaints reflect the reality. My constituency office has been inundated with complaints about this measure. I know other Deputies feel the same way.

The Department has estimated that there will be an intake of 114,000 under the ECCE programme in September. If the Minister is committed to the delivery of a child-centred scheme, it is incumbent on her to ensure that no child's access to and participation in the scheme is disadvantaged by virtue of his or her date of birth. I ask the Minister to review the scheme before September. I think it would be fair for her to assure us that no child will lose his or her place on this scheme, which has worked well, because of his or her date of birth. We want to move forward and make sure we are doing our best for all children in our society. I feel this change will have a negative impact. I think it will undo all the great progress that has been made through this scheme in recent years. It is very unfair to impose a single entry point if it means children will lose out on this valuable scheme. I ask the Minister to carry out a review. People across the State have problems with the proposed enrolment dates for this scheme.

I appreciate the commitment and passion with which the Deputy has expressed her views on these issues. She is committed to doing her job as a public representative in the best possible manner. She stated that a number of providers have contacted her to express their view that at least two of the intake times have been working well and without administrative difficulties. She also indicated that other Deputies received similar representations. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs has based its decision on the representations it received from providers and parents regarding the difficulties that are being encountered in administering the scheme, for example, with regard to the three entry points. In particular, it was mentioned that there was often a lack of places by the time the third entry point was reached. Our position on the appropriate time for a child to begin preschool is based on international best practice and research. We engage in ongoing monitoring as part of our efforts to make the best possible policy and procedural decisions for parents and children.

The Deputy asked for a review, but I assure her that the decisions we make are reviewed and monitored, in effect, on an ongoing basis. The Department will review the issue that has been raised by the Deputy, particularly her indication that a number of people have expressed concern about a lack of fairness. One of the reasons we decided to make a change to the ECCE scheme was in order to facilitate an increase in the number of weeks for which children can enjoy this opportunity. Indeed, we are very committed to fairness. This scheme is child-centred. I recommend that the Deputy, and any other Deputies she knows of who share her concerns, should provide me and the Department with details of the representations to which she has alluded. We will take a look at them to see whether the decision we have made should be revisited in light of the significant number of people who, according to the Deputy, are saying this will not work.

Flood Relief Schemes Status

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this important matter for debate. Major flood events have taken place in Ennis over the years but particularly in 1989, 1994, 1995, 1999, 2004 and 2009. In fairness to successive Governments, they have made serious investments to mitigate against the potential for Ennis town centre to flood. In this regard, I welcome the completion of phases 1 and 2 of the Ennis flood relief scheme. Without the successful implementation of a flood relief plan for Ennis, there is little doubt but that further serious flood events would have had disastrous outcomes for local residents and business owners.

The matter I raise today is the third and last substantial element of alleviation works required for Ennis. It is known as the Ennis south flood relief scheme. Few will forget the scene of flood waters pouring over the boundary wall at St. Flannan's College in late November 2009. Householders in housing estates off the Clare Road, at Clonroadmore, at Tobarteascáin, on the Kildysart Road, and in the Ballybeg area of Clarecastle had their homes invaded by floodwaters, with devastating consequences.

The scheme involves the construction of two flood overflow culverts from the stream at St. Flannan's and the stream at Ballybeg to the River Fergus, together with the upgrading of the existing flood defence embankments between the Quin Road and Clarecastle tidal barrage, including rehabilitation, construction of sluices and the upgrading the existing back drainage system. The St. Flannan's and Ballybeg streams continue to pose serious flood risks to householders in both Ennis and Clarecastle. Each winter these streams are overwhelmed with water and at times of heavy rainfall, flooding is caused to houses and public roads.

In the absence of the Ennis south flood relief scheme, much credit is owed to the outsourced staff of Clare County Council who battle against the elements with pumps to keep houses and public roads free of water. However, this is unsustainable and a massive drain on resources. A permanent solution is required, namely, the provision of the Ennis south flood relief scheme. Householders, business owners and the school community at St. Flannan's have waited patiently since 2009 for this problem to be finally tackled. It is for this reason that the Minister of State's visit to Ennis on 27 February 2018 was very welcome. He was the bearer of good news. A package of €8.6 million was supposed to be in place to enable the scheme to finally move to construction. To put it mildly, it is deeply disturbing and highly concerning that the scheme has been delayed yet again. All the delays mean the scheme will cost more and more. An additional charge will be placed on the taxpayer. All the time, the residents, business people and school authorities at St. Flannan's are left without proper flood protection measures, and they cannot get full flood insurance.

Today I am asking the Minister of State to put on the record of the Dáil, in clear language, the reason for the delay. The very people who are depending on the scheme, many of whom I have been speaking to over the past week, are really concerned. They actually feel misled because last February they were left with the clear impression that the scheme was moving forward this month. I want the Minister of State to inform the House which body is responsible for the delay. Is it Clare County Council or the Office of Public Works, OPW? Who will take responsibility?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The OPW remains committed to funding the Ennis south flood relief scheme. As the Deputy will appreciate, as with all public finance projects, it is essential that cost and value for money be assessed closely.

An issue arose in regard to the preferred tender for the project and it did not prove possible to resolve this satisfactorily. As a result, the preferred tenderer withdrew his tender and, on foot of legal and other advice, Clare County Council, decided to re-tender the project. The circumstances giving rise to this situation could not have been foreseen and were dealt with by Clare County Council in an appropriate manner. I am pleased to say work on the re-tender process is under way, and I have been informed that the new tender competition should be ready for advertising on the Official Journal of the European Union website in late July or early August. This project is very important to me, as Minister of State, and to the Office of Public Works. We will continue to work with and offer every assistance to Clare County Council to ensure the work commences as soon as possible.

The time for false starts is long over. Will Deputy Moran, as Minister of State responsible for this area, publish a definitive timeline for the project, outlining all the various works that need to be completed before the scheme can move to construction? It is simply not good enough to say the relevant information will be published on a website in the next couple of months and that the project will proceed to construction in the spring. We need a clear understanding. All the stakeholders need to know the number of phases in the project, how long it will take and when construction will definitely happen. We need absolute clarity and certainty for the people of Ennis.

There have been so many false starts. The time for false starts is clearly over. I do not doubt the commitment of the Minister of State to the project and I welcome his comments today but we need clarity. Everyone needs to buy into the timeline. Will the Minister of State publish in very clear language a timeline that the stakeholders can buy into and understand?

Over recent months, since I became Minister of State I have done a lot of work with Clare County Council on developing the scheme the Deputy talked about. As I said at the outset, what happened was unforeseen. One could not have predicted it. This happens all the time with contracts. What I am saying to the Deputy today is that we have moved beyond him standing up asking for a definite timeline. We are now ready to advertise and re-tender in late July or early August. I do not know of any other scheme around the country on which I am working that has moved fast enough to do what I am doing in regard to the scheme in Ennis. I am very much committed. I have been in Clare. I met the chief executive officer of Clare County Council and everybody. The authorities in Clare are driving the scheme; I am funding it. I have committed the funding. If it needs more money, I will be committed in that regard also. I do not and will not accept that I am not doing my job. I am delivering exactly as I promised. When the circumstances arose, I dealt with them in the fast, appropriate manner that anyone else in my position would have to deal with them. Deputy Carey should trust me when I say to him that I have dealt with this speedily. I am very pleased to say the people are not waiting on something that will be going back to tender next year. I can informed the House of a re-tendering process today, and I am happy with that.

Local Area Plans

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this issue this afternoon. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy English, for attending to respond. I wish to raise with him two issues that relate to the recent local area plan for Celbridge. One has to do with lands zoned or highlighted in the plan, at Hazelhatch train station in Celbridge. The other is to assist positively in helping to deliver the second bridge for Celbridge to allow the town develop and grow further as the population grows. It is currently over 22,000.

With regard to the lands at Hazelhatch train station, the reference in the local area plan is section 4.6. The lands are right beside the train station. The plan identifies them as key and strategic development lands. There is a master plan to be implemented as soon as possible to allow for the delivery of houses in the area because, as referred to in the local area plan, it is an area of key and strategic development. It is important to note that all the stakeholders involved in this area are ready to go but need to partner with the local authority or Department to make that happen. They are ready to go to make progress on the master plan to allow for the delivery of housing, which we all know is urgently needed.

The Minister of State probably heard recently from my colleague, Deputy Durkan, that the land in question is right beside the train station. It is about a two-minute walk from it. It is within a few minutes' walk from Celbridge GAA Club, Celbridge Tennis Club and a school. There is easy access to the M7, M8, M9 and M50. There are flooding issues in the area, on which works are under way, thanks to the assistance of the Minister of State's colleague who just left the Chamber, the Minister of State, Deputy Moran, who has been working with me positively on this. There is a site owned by the Department through Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board that has been identified as a location for two permanent schools.

This is all very positive. The lands at Hazelhatch beside the train station fit all the criteria and are not dependent on infrastructure to be developed. What is the process to get this started, to allow the master plan to be agreed with the relevant stakeholders and to progress to the delivery of the required housing and the services that go along with it?

I will now turn to the second bridge for Celbridge. The land that is zoned in this regard is referred to as 12.2.5 KDA 5 - Simmonstown in the local area plan. These lands have been zoned following a submission made by the Department to the recent local area plan. It will ultimately lead to approximately 1,300 houses being constructed. The difficulty is that this side of Celbridge cannot grow or be developed further because of the lack of infrastructure. The infrastructure required in this area is a second bridge in Celbridge to cross the Liffey and to alleviate congestion, reduce gridlock and help people go about their daily lives in an easier and more efficient way. We have been seeking this for 20 years or more and this is an opportunity to find out if it can happen.

I have had a very positive meeting with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, on this project. I ask the Minister of State to engage with the Minister, Deputy Ross, and then consider if he can give Kildare County Council the approval and funding it needs to allow it to proceed to route selection. That is the critical phase that will ultimately decide where the structure will be and the access roads to it. Then a design detail will be done and it will go to tender in time. However, we cannot consider that aspiration until the route selection is completed, which I am given to understand can take up to 15 months. It requires the commitment of the Department. Given that it is tied to the development of the town and particularly in view of the submission from the Department regarding the lands outlined for zoning, I hope the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government can work with the Minister, Deputy Ross, to give approval to Kildare County Council to get that done.

The bridge in Celbridge currently serves 19,000 vehicles per day. That is more than the traffic on most national secondary roads and some national primary roads in Ireland.

I thank Deputy O'Rourke for raising this matter and giving me the opportunity to discuss the advancement of housing development in Celbridge, specifically with regard to vacant lands, which have been identified as an area of key and strategic development, and to discuss the attendant infrastructure measures that have to be implemented to deliver this housing supply. This housing supply has been identified as necessary by Kildare County Council and certainly from a national point of view it is needed and sustainable, so we would be supportive of the key infrastructure that is required to open up these lands.

The Celbridge local area plan, LAP, for 2017 to 2023 was adopted by the elected members in August 2017 and came into effect in September 2017. As Minister of State with responsibility for housing and urban development, I welcome the fact that the plan supports the provision of substantial housing development in a key urban area close to Dublin. Kildare County Council in its county development plan has earmarked Celbridge to grow in population by approximately 10,000 over the next five to ten years. We must plan for this and for the infrastructure that is required to make it happen. We must ensure that Celbridge has a heart and soul, which means we need more than just the sprawling housing developments surrounding weak town centres that are so symptomatic of many Irish commuter towns. We want Celbridge to be more than just a dormitory commuter town; we want the population of the town to be part of the community and the spirit of the town. That is what Deputy O'Rourke wants too, and Deputy Durkan made representations to us on this issue as well.

As part of the roll-out of the local area plan and in the interests of supporting the integrated development of housing within the LAP, Kildare County Council is committed to preparing a transport mobility management plan to support the sustainable growth of the town. State agencies, along with my Department and the National Transport Authority, NTA, will be active in their support of the development of such a plan, which will inform future infrastructure development. That includes the bridge. I will be happy for my Department to follow up with the Minister, Deputy Ross, on that because it is a key part of opening up the lands on which we need houses built. Irish Water is in the process of upgrading the Leixlip wastewater treatment plant, which serves Celbridge, and is actively working to address identified constraints in the local wastewater system, in particular the upgrading of the local pumping station. These measures will actively support the ongoing and future delivery of housing in Celbridge.

Furthermore, my Department recently opened a call for proposals under the new urban regeneration and development fund, URDF, which was launched as part of Project Ireland 2040. The fund is designed to support the compact growth and sustainable development of Ireland's five cities, regional drivers and other large urban centres such as Celbridge, and to leverage a greater proportion of residential and commercial development supported by infrastructure, services and amenities within the existing built-up areas of our larger urban settlements. My Department has responsibility for implementing the URDF, which has an allocation of €2 billion over the ten-year period of the national development plan to 2027, with €100 million available to get projects moving in a meaningful way in 2019. We call that the A list. Projects such as the bridge the Deputy mentioned could be fitted into that if it can be moved through the system. It is important that the next stage is taken on the bridge and I urge all involved to make that happen in order that it can fit into this funding over the next couple of years. The fund encompasses the local infrastructure fund, which is also an activation measure to provide the infrastructure that is key to opening up land. It would fit into that, but it must go through the different stages. For my part, I will follow up with the Minister, Deputy Ross, and I urge the local authority in Kildare to do likewise.

The application process for the new fund will run until September 2018. Proposals that have been identified by local authorities must demonstrate that they will be: innovative and transformational urban regeneration projects; public sector led and with the option of community or private sector partners or both; matched by at least 25% direct funding from other public or private sources or both; a minimum bid of €2 million; a catalyst for development that would not otherwise occur; or likely to leverage significant further public and private sector investment. I have visited Celbridge. I was there when we were making decisions on the plan and on the directions we had to issue, so I am familiar with the town. I walked on the bridge, stood on it and parked on the bridge because that is what one does - one parks on the bridge-----

You would not want to stand on it for too long.

Exactly. The lack of movement on it is a key issue. It is important to see it moving.

Taking account of the criteria and objectives I mentioned, there is scope for Kildare County Council to submit proposals for funding infrastructure requirements for urban regeneration and associated housing delivery in the Celbridge area. I look forward to applications from Kildare County Council that support the regeneration of towns such as Celbridge and the sustainable development and delivery of housing.

I acknowledge the Minister of State's positive comments. What is key here is to break it down to the two projects. One is the land at Hazelhatch train station. It is not just me or the Minister of State saying it is strategic land for development in the short to medium term, that is agreed in the local area plan. Many areas are depending on infrastructure before they can be developed but this not one of them. All the services are in place. The National Transport Authority, NTA, and the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport are advocating more public transport. We are making submissions to BusConnects to get increased public transport in the Celbridge and north Kildare area. The footfall through Hazelhatch train station shows it has the least number of passengers using the station on a daily and weekly basis, so this is an opportunity. It is not sprawling development but cohesive development from the town outwards. The development is being brought in a strategic way to the services I have mentioned. I hope this debate could kick off that process because all the stakeholders are ready to go and are motivated to make it happen. We want to see how we can move that on in the short to medium term.

Regarding the second bridge for Celbridge, as the Ceann Comhairle said one certainly would not wish to stand on it for too long. Unfortunately, for most people who drive out of Celbridge each day it takes them 45 minutes to travel 300 m because 19,000 vehicles are crossing that bridge and it cannot cater for that. I am not being opportunistic and saying this is the Minister of State's problem. It is an historical problem. However, there is an opportunity now to solve it. Kildare County Council is willing to lead on this but it needs the green light from the Government, including the Minister of State's Department and the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, so it can progress to the next stage. If the Minister of State wrote the cheque tomorrow morning it could not be built. It must go through a process. The Ministers must give Kildare County Council the approval to go through that process in order that this necessary infrastructure can be put in place for Celbridge.

The Deputy is correct that it is not any one person's or one agency's problem, but it is a problem for the community and for anybody who wishes to drive through Celbridge or to work or live there. We would be anxious that it would happen too. The focus of all the stakeholders - the council, local businesses, landowners, State agencies and the wider community - should be on implementing the Celbridge local area plan. Both I and my Department will work proactively with Kildare County Council in this regard in terms of infrastructure delivery and sustainable urban development. We will link with other Departments as well to try to move this along because it is important that it go through the different stages.

A new crossing of the Liffey is identified as a strategic infrastructural development for Celbridge and, in particular, Simmonstown. A second bridge crossing will form an important part of the transport infrastructural assessment for Celbridge as it will be a key item in the delivery of supporting infrastructure for the planned development of the town, again in a sustainable manner, to open up other lands to town centre development and also to open it up to housing delivery. We want to see Celbridge developed in a sustainable way.

The Deputy also asked about the land at Hazelhatch, which is in the vicinity of Hazelhatch railway station. This land has been identified in the local area plan as a flood risk and also as a key piece of land to be developed. I understand that the council has undertaken in the local area plan to continue working with the OPW and the Minister of State, Deputy Boxer Moran, on the extent of the flood risk and measures to deal with it. It is important that these lands are provided for future development as part of a master plan. The Department likes to see land use being properly planned via a master plan, in which a local authority takes the lead and works with local land owners. The flood risk issue will need to be addressed before plans can be put in place for use of the land, but in a sustainable manner that will develop Celbridge in a positive way for people who want to live there.

Vaccine Damage Compensation Scheme

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this matter for discussion and I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Daly, to the House. This matter relates to issues arising in regard to the Pandemrix vaccination for swine flu some years ago, but I want to put on record my unequivocal support for vaccination when vaccines are available. That said, my ambition is to ensure that when known side effects or issues arise with a small number of patients who have been vaccinated appropriate care pathways are put in place for them and that a compensation scheme is put in place for these people in line with the recommendation of the vaccination steering group several years ago and committed to in the programme for Government.

On 18 May 2009, Dr. Brendan Corcoran signed a contract with GSK for 8 million Pandemrix vaccines manufactured with the benefit of an adjuvant known as AS03, manufactured in Dresden in Germany. An adjuvant is a stimulant to the immune system which means less core vaccine is put into the vaccination, which is a cost saving measure to the company. It is within this adjuvant that a problem may have arisen. When this contract was signed Pandemrix had not been clinically tested and no risk analysis of it had been done, and this was known. As a result the HSE had to provide an indemnity to GSK before it would agree to provide it to Ireland. The European Medicines Agency, as part of the licensing, demanded that GSK keep all details of any adverse impacts of this particular vaccine.

In October-November 2009, just before the vaccination programme commenced, leaflets were distributed to patients that promoted false and incorrect information. Patients were told that Pandemrix is as safe as the ordinary flu vaccine but this was not known to be true at that time, and in fact is false. They were also told that Pandemrix was clinically tested. This was known to be not true and false yet it was produced by the HSE in our name as a State. The office of the Chief Medical Officer was informed by the Irish Medicines Board of its concern in the absence of clinical testing and a risk analysis regarding the dosage, if any, that could be administered to children or pregnant women.

Why was the public told lies in this way while health professionals were given different information? The incidence of swine flu began to decline in week 42 of 2009. In other words, one week prior to commencement of the vaccination programme on 25 October 2009. Four days later on 29 October 2009 GSK informed the HSE of significant adverse outcomes but the vaccination programme continued. By week three of 2010 incidents of swine flue was down to one case per week but still the vaccination programme continued. Why? Was it really necessary or was it the case that having purchased 8 million vaccines at an alleged cost of €80 million we needed to save face? This 8 million vaccines amounts to two for every person in the State, with a prescribed lifespan. Rather than have a voting machines type debacle we continued to prescribe regardless.

As this vaccine had not been clinically tested and no risk analysis of it had been undertaken general practitioners, GPs, had to be fully indemnified by the State Claims Agency before they agreed to vaccinate people. Was the State Claims Agency provided with the information that GSK was sending in regularly in regard to adverse outcomes? Where are we now? In 2012, Dr. Darina O'Flanagan on behalf of the State, along with others in Norway and Sweden where the same vaccine had been administered, reported a proven link between narcolepsy and the Pandemrix vaccination. This is now established. A number of children and young adults have experienced life altering illnesses. Some have taken cases to the courts and others are desperately awaiting State assistance and compensation commensurate with those life altering illnesses. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, to outline his proposals to compensate these people who are suffering.

I thank Deputy MacSharry for the opportunity to update the House on this issue. I acknowledge the impact on all people who have been diagnosed with narcolepsy. In particular, I am aware of a specific group of individuals who claim to have developed narcolepsy after they received the Pandemrix vaccine during the 2009 influenza pandemic.

The Deputy raises issues concerning when knowledge of potential side effects become known. I take this opportunity to update the House of what was known at that time. In August 2010, the Swedish pharmacovigilance authority reported that it was investigating six cases of narcolepsy reported by health care professionals as a possible adverse event following the use of the Pandemrix vaccine during the pandemic. This was followed later that month by reports from the Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare noting there had been a more than expected number of cases of narcolepsy in children and adolescents that year. On 23 September 2010, the Committee on Human Medicinal Products of the European Medicines Agency concluded in its initial review of available data that the available evidence did not confirm a link but that more research was needed.

By the end of March 2011, the Irish Medicines Board - now the Health Products Regulatory Agency - had received reports of two confirmed cases of narcolepsy following vaccination with Pandemrix vaccines. The Department of Health and the HSE agreed that the HSE Health Protection Surveillance Centre would work with the Irish Medicines Board and Irish clinical experts in narcolepsy to examine the Irish data and report on the findings. The information I have just given is included in the final report of national narcolepsy study steering committee entitled, Investigation of an increase in the incidence of narcolepsy in children and adolescents in 2009 and 2010, published on 19 April 2012. As Deputies are aware, I cannot comment on individual cases or matters that are the subject of litigation. However, I can provide background information and clarify matters that are already in the public domain.

The management of these cases transferred to the State Claims Agency on 15 October 2013 when the Taoiseach signed the National Treasury Management Agency (Delegation of Claims Management Functions) (Amendment) Order 2013. It is not appropriate for a Minister to interfere in the court’s case management of these claims or in the management of these claims by the agency. The Minister, Deputy Harris, continues to engage with the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, on what further improvements can be made to the legal framework governing the management of product liability cases. Like the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the HSE, my priority is to ensure that the individuals and families affected receive appropriate health and social care supports. The Department has engaged with the HSE and the Departments of Education and Skills and Employment Affairs and Social Protection to ensure the provision of a range of services and supports on an ex gratia basis. The HSE's advocacy unit acts as a liaison with other service providers and Departments to facilitate access to required services. It is in regular contact with the individuals affected and their families and regional co-ordinators have been appointed to assist by providing advice, information and access to local services.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply but it does not answer the questions. I am informed that the State Claims Agency has spent €2 million rigorously defending discovery alone in cases. Have we learned nothing from more recent crises involving people who have lost their lives or will lose their lives? Ministers need to take a much more hands-on role in regard to how the State Claims Agency handles cases.

Last year the Minister, Deputy Harris, was quoted in the media as saying that the Department was considering a compensation scheme for side effects of important vaccines in line with the steering group on vaccines which had gone back over several years. That is over a year ago: what has happened? It is six years since our own Dr. Darina O'Flanagan established and proved the link with narcolepsy which concurs with the Swedes and Norwegians who also used the same one, and yet we have done nothing. I accept there is discretion in medical cards and there are a few bits and pieces to help people out, but no compensation commensurate with the level of suffering they have with lifelong and life-altering illnesses such as narcolepsy.

I am unequivocally in favour of vaccination. I have been vaccinated with Pandemrix as have my children. Luckily for us we have no side effects. Some do and they are entitled to be compensated as such. We need to bear in mind that Dr. Brendan Corcoran on behalf of the State signed a contract for 8 million vaccines in 2009 in the knowledge that it was not clinically tested and had no risk analysis. I am putting it in the public record, if the Minister of State feels it needs to be on the public record before he can comment. The Irish Medicines Board expressed its concerns about this to the office of Dr. Tony Holohan, the Chief Medical Officer, and nothing happened. The State intentionally lied to patients in three patient-information leaflets telling people it was tested when it had not been, that it was as safe as the ordinary flu vaccine when it was not, and that it was exactly the same as Celvapan and other vaccines when it was not.

The Deputy's time is up.

I ask that the Minister of State seek with the Department of Finance, through the NTMA and the SCA, to desist from costly defences in these cases, engage and offer immediate mediation, and put in place an appropriate compensation scheme for the girls and boys, young women and young men-----

I thank the Deputy.

-----who have had life-altering illnesses.

Finally, let me say-----

Can the Minister of State ensure that the State never knowingly lies to patients again?

The development of a national narcolepsy service continues to progress. The paediatric service is currently fully operational with all staffing in place. The Department gave approval for the adult services in January 2018. The clinical nurse specialist is already in place and the recruitment of a consultant neurologist is under way. A range of equipment needed for the centre is being procured. St. James's Hospital expects to have a formal service for adults in place by the fourth quarter of this year and referrals are currently being accepted.

It is acknowledged that treatment and individual medical needs may need to be reassessed over time. Consequently the services and supports provided are reassessed on an ongoing basis to take account of any changes in the individual's condition and circumstances. I again acknowledge the impact on the lives of these people and families affected by narcolepsy and reiterate my commitment to the ongoing provision of appropriate services and supports for these people.

I will relay the Deputy's comments and concerns back to the senior Minister in my Department and to the Department of Finance on his behalf.