Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Drug and Alcohol Task Forces

I wish to raise with the Minister of State the level of funding for the local and regional drug and alcohol task forces. I thank the Minister of State for the time she took last week to meet and update me on the progress of the implementation of the current drug and alcohol strategy. During that meeting we discussed a number of issues. One issue I highlighted was my concern at the level of funding the local and regional drug and alcohol task forces receive. That funding relates to regional and local drug and alcohol task forces. I believe that the Minister of State is sympathetic and that she understands the problem. The problem is that we have to convince the Minister of State's colleagues and members of Government that this issue needs to be addressed.

It is worth putting onto the record of the House that the proposed funding for 2019 is exactly the same level of funding that was made available in 2018. The 2018 finding was the same as the 2017 budget, as it was for 2016, 2015 and 2014. For all of those years the budget allocation has been the same. In 2014, there was a reduction on the previous year of 2013. I understand and acknowledge that we have had a recession but we have come to a point in recovery. Drug and alcohol task forces are primarily funded by the HSE and the Department of Health. Funding going into the parent Department is increasing significantly year on year, but these projects are being left behind. The projects are struggling to survive and maintain the existing level of service, to pay the salaries of those people employed and to meet new and emerging challenges. They are under huge pressure.

I have asked these questions in the past and I am aware that in her reply the Minister of State will say that additional one-off funding has been made available to improve the organisational effectiveness of the task forces and that towards the end of the year there was additional funding. I put it to the Minister of State that if this additional one-off funding had been built into the base as core funding, we would have seen growth year on year. I have very real concerns about the effectiveness of one-off funding. It is a challenge for task forces to engage and introduce new programmes to spend that money. In real terms, when the funding runs out, the problem remains to be dealt with. Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is that the work done by the people involved in drug and alcohol task forces and the programmes that they support in our communities is in continual demand. It is regrettable but it is the reality. We will be facing addiction and minimising its impact for a long time to come. If these programmes and projects are to be supported, they need to be supported financially.

I can see no reason at all, when the health budget has been increasing year on year, why the base core funding going to task forces has remained the same since 2014. I find this incredible. Apart from the physical strain it puts on the providers of these programme projects, the lack of support also undervalues them. People feel that they are being ignored, the work they do is not being recognised and they do not get the same recognition as other groups. I do not know of any other group or programme, be it for capitation fees in schools or the recipients of grants given out by the Minister, Deputy Ring, to RAPID areas, that has been left static for that period of time.

I do not blame the Minister of State for this whatsoever. I genuinely believe that she realises the work being done by the task forces, but between us, and I include the other Members of the House in that, we need to convince the Minister for Health and the Minister for Finance that the funding made available in budget 2019 is inadequate. Rather than coming at the end of the year with a Supplementary Estimate, that budget needs to be amended at the start of the year so the money can be spent wisely in a managed and effective way to achieve the programmes set out.

I thank Deputy Curran for raising this issue. I know he is very passionate about it, as am I. I will go through my speaking notes first and then I will address some of the issues raised by Deputy Curran in his contribution.

Government policy in relation to drug and alcohol addiction services is set out in the national drugs strategy, Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery - a health led response to drug and alcohol use in Ireland 2017-2025. Providing additional resources to enhance service provision is a key objective of the strategy. I welcome the additional funding provided for integrated treatment services for people in addiction and mental health issues in the HSE 2019 national service plan. The service plan also commits to improving healthcare services for people who are homeless. The service plan will also deliver more integrated and effective models of care for people with complex healthcare needs and who are experiencing severe health inequalities.

Drug and alcohol task forces play a key role in assessing the extent and nature of substance misuse in their areas, and in supporting community responses, as part of a co-ordinated approach involving all sectors at local and regional levels.

A total of €27.645 million was allocated to the drug task forces by the Department and the HSE in 2018. This level of funding has been maintained for the past number of years. A further €500,000 in one-off funding was provided to task forces in 2018. In addition, task forces were consulted by the HSE on the provision of €710,000 in one-off funding for priority projects and services in CHO areas in 2018. This funding is used to support community drug projects in order to deliver services which meet local priorities. I am very familiar with and greatly appreciate this valuable work in communities. Measuring the overall effectiveness of the response to the drug problem is an important objective of drug policy. Resources should be directed towards interventions and strategies which are most likely to lead to a reduction in problem substance use and an improvement in public health, safety and well-being.

The level of progress achieved in delivering on the national drugs strategy will be determined using performance indicators. To this end, the national drugs strategy commits to operationalising a performance measurement system by 2020. The system is primarily concerned with the overall effects of implementing the drugs strategy at a population level, including the effects on the health, well-being and quality of life of people living in areas served by the drug and alcohol task forces. Last year, I established a working group to revise and update the handbook for task forces. It is intended that the revised handbook will improve the overall governance and accountability of task forces. I hope to be able to provide that handbook in the next two or three weeks. The group is developing a governance code for task forces in line with best practice as set out by the Charities Regulator.

I appear to have mislaid a page of my statement. I cannot seem to find it. I will respond to some of the issues raised by Deputy Curran later.

The Minister of State referred to the fact that there will be an overall effectiveness model. I want to bring it to her attention that she provided the same reply on 23 January 2018. It is taking a long time to implement the model. At the same time, we are expecting the task forces to effectively operate on the budgets of 2014. That is not doable - it is not possible. I am all for accountability and for measuring the effectiveness of the various programmes. In the meantime, however, they must be funded. I am concerned that the lack of funding will mean that the projects will not be as effective as they could and should be.

The Minister of State also referred to one-off additional funding. I still believe that is not the most effective way to proceed. When money becomes available in a Department, this is one method of using it. However, increasing core funding, where there are managed programmes which provide certainty and which are effective, is much better than once-off funding. A lot of time goes into setting up those programmes.

On Monday night last, after our visit to mark the centenary of the first sitting of the Dáil in the Mansion House, I returned to Áras Chrónáin in Clondalkin where the Clondalkin drug and alcohol task force had an evening to present certificates to a number of people graduating from its addiction studies course. I chatted to those involved and two interesting things emerged. I spoke to the co-ordinator of the task force, who reminded me that when the it was established in the late nineties, the catchment area for which it was responsible had a population of 35,000. Today, it is 117,000. It was receiving more money then than it is now. We are setting the task forces an impossible task. When I was presenting the certificates, it dawned on me that some of the people had travelled from far and wide. I asked if there was huge interest in the course. There were 20 people graduating, but over 70 had applied for the course. I asked the co-ordinator why there were so many and was informed that other task forces do not have the funding to run similar courses. This is an example of the impact of the restricted amount of funding available. It is not tenable or feasible to state that we will wait and have a new model next year. I am appealing to the Minister of State to go back to the Ministers for Health and Finance and argue that there should be an increase in the allocation of core funding, rather than one-off additional payments being made over the course of the year. That would help us improve the position year on year. The base has been significantly eroded because the lower level introduced in 2014 has remained in place. This matter must be dealt with as a matter or urgency. The programmes and projects that should be supported in our communities cannot be, as a result of the amount of funding available.

I want to make it very clear to Deputy Curran that the Taoiseach and the Minister, Deputy Harris, were very much a part of the launching of the new strategy, Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery. The strategy came into being as a result of a public consultations held throughout the country. At those consultations, it became very clear that task forces are unhappy because funding has not been increased. We will not talk about the past, however. We should focus on the future. In allocating more money in the latter part of 2018, I was very conscious that I was only providing short bursts of funding to fill small holes. In the coming weeks and months, I intend to look at the envelope I have and consider options for the provision of additional funding to task forces. However, I do not want to just give out money willy-nilly. I want to make a real impact and provide core funding from one year to the next. It is not good enough to give small amounts of money to a group and expect it to do good work with it. We need continuous funding and I will be looking at that issue.

Although we did not have a great deal of success in getting money via the budget, we have received more funding in the past couple of weeks. I intend to look into how to use that money in the next couple of weeks to establish how that can be best spent within the task force areas.

On the task force handbook, it should be remembered that the existing version was released in 2011. It is time to examine the structures of the task forces and investigate where we might make gains and improvements in areas where what was envisaged has not worked as well as we hoped. There has been a very positive reaction from the people on the task forces who are responsible for the handbook. I hope the new handbook will be available by the end of the month.

I agree that projects cannot continue to be funded unless money is made available on an annual basis rather than in the form of one-off allocations. We have not been lucky in the past. As the Deputy is aware, last year was the first in a long time that the drugs policy department was allocated funding. Of the €7 million allocated previously, €2 million went to mental health and homelessness services and the other €5 million was spent on the implementation of strategy, not only in the context of drugs task forces but also within communities and the HSE. I am confident that in the coming weeks and months we will start to make an impact and allocate additional funding through the task forces. We will not just fund anything; the funding will be given for a reason. I am of the view that the only way to strengthen task forces is to provide them with continuous funding. In order to do that, we must have a proper model. I have looked at some of the issues regarding task forces and the many reports that have been compiled. For us to get this right, it is important that we begin this year by ensuring that any money available to task forces is allocated correctly and is strategically located within task forces so that it can make a difference in communities. Deputy Curran and I are singing from the same hymn sheet, but I need a few more weeks in order to put in place some of the funding that has been made available and to look at the areas in which we should be spending it in the context of the task forces and communities.

I look forward to the response of the Minister of State in the coming weeks.

Disability Services Funding

As there are three Members who wish to contribute and only four minutes in which to speak, I know the Acting Chairman will exercise a degree of leniency. I welcome the fact that the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Catherine Byrne, is here, but I really believe that the responsible Minister should be here in the first instance.

The Irish Deaf Society is the representative body of the deaf community in Ireland and provides services to 50,000 people across the deaf community annually. Every year it faces a struggle to secure core funding to support these necessary services.

No State body will take responsibility for the provision of education and support services to vulnerable deaf people who struggle to engage successfully with State and other services through English, which is a deaf person's second language. For them, the first language is Irish Sign Language.

Despite promises from the HSE in November, the Irish Deaf Society has no indication of when a final decision will be made. The IDS is now paralysed and unable to make key business decisions. The HSE and Government are fully aware of this situation and, more worryingly, of its implications.

I remember very well the recognition of Irish Sign Language as an official language of this State declared on the floor of this Chamber only one year ago. The Irish Sign Language academy, the adult literacy programme, the advocacy service and awareness-raising efforts are all now under threat of closure. The deaf community is planning protests while the IDS is currently planning for closure of much needed services and, more seriously, of the organisation itself. The IDS has this week decided to cancel all its classes from the end of February. This is the first operational decision it has had to make in acknowledgement of the society's serious lack of funds. As the next month approaches and proceeds, it will be more and more difficult to reverse these inevitable actions. This is a most pressing matter and I urge the Minister of State to ensure that funding is approved immediately.

Thank you for selecting this matter, a Cheann Comhairle. I speak not only for myself but for all members of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality, including my colleague, Deputy O'Callaghan, who has also signed up to this.

We are deeply concerned. Approximately 200 people from the deaf community attended an emergency meeting last Saturday in Deaf Village Ireland to get an update on the imminent closure of vital services that are provided by the Irish Deaf Society, which is again facing financial crisis due to a lack of structural funding.

The IDS is unique. It is deaf-led and it provides services and does its work through Irish Sign Language. It is an absolute irony that those of us in the committee that was proud to deliver ISL as an official language of Ireland are now seeing the organisation at the helm of delivering the services and access to supports for this language facing imminent closure. We are shocked and deeply concerned. Without the Irish Deaf Society it will be virtually impossible for the deaf community to access these services. Many people at the meeting at the weekend questioned whether this is happening because they do not get access to the airwaves - in that sense their voice is silenced.

We should be in a position where the society is looking at expanding services and where ISL is taught to hearing people so that deaf people can become an integral part of our communications. The society provides advocacy services and deaf literacy and the Irish Sign Language academy is needed now more than ever. We really need this issue addressed now, in the short term. Moreover, we need a more long-term structural funding basis and support for the society.

The issue of funding does not lie with one Minister. A cross-departmental strategy is needed. It was always going to be needed if we were realistically to implement the provisions of the legislation passed by the House on Irish Sign Language 13 months ago.

We cannot realistically do that without the input of the organisation that has played a central role in providing support for deaf people for the past 38 years. The depth of the experience, history, legacy and trust of the Irish Deaf Society is extraordinary. The social capital of the IDS cannot be replicated by another agency.

The money needed to keep the services open is not vast. The society is looking for €150,000 to keep the doors open or else it will face closure in March. We need to engage in some joined-up thinking between the Departments with responsibility for health, education, public expenditure and justice to ensure that adequate funding is in place for the future. It makes no financial sense to see this organisation closing its doors. What if the society is forced into closure? Who will provide the advocacy service? Who will provide the awareness training? Who will provide Irish Sign Language classes? Who will liaise on behalf of the deaf community? It makes no sense.

There is a song called "I Don't Like Mondays" but I am starting not to like Thursdays, to be honest, because I seem to be the only one here on Thursday evenings. I welcome this Topical Issue debate and I thank Deputies Wallace, Clare Daly and Ó Caoláin. I will set out the prepared response but I will respond to some of the comments made as well.

On behalf of the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy McGrath, I thank Deputies Wallace, Daly and Ó Caoláin for raising this important issue and for the opportunity to respond to the House.

The Government is committed to providing services and supports for people with disabilities that will empower them to live independent lives, provide greater independence in accessing the services they choose and enhance their ability to tailor the supports required to meet their needs and plan their lives.

Significant resources have been invested by the health sector in disability services in recent years. This year alone, the Health Service Executive has allocated €1.9 billion to disability services programmes. People with disabilities, including those who are deaf, hard-of-hearing and deaf-blind, can access the broad range of acute care, primary care and community-based services that are provided by the HSE. They can also avail of specialist disability services, which are provided in a variety of community and residential settings in partnership with service users, their families and carers as well as a range of statutory, non-statutory and community groups.

Several non-statutory organisations are specifically focused on addressing the needs of the deaf community. Services offered include family and support services, active technology and active listening devices, community and lip-reading classes, information and advice and sign language classes as well as a mental health and deafness service. Most of these organisations receive funding from the HSE either through local grants of various amounts or direct funding. The HSE had 35 separate service level agreements with organisations providing services for the deaf or hard-of-hearing in 2018. The largest provider of such services is the National Association for the Deaf, which received significant core funding from the HSE of €6.7 million in 2018. The Irish Deaf Society, on the other hand, focuses its service delivery on advocacy and training and development as distinct from the delivery of services and social care supports to deaf communities. For this reason, the Irish Deaf Society does not receive core funding from the HSE.

The Minister of State with responsibility for disability services, Deputy McGrath, is aware of the financial difficulties that the Irish Deaf Society is currently experiencing and of the concerns regarding its future sustainability. Several different funding options are available to the organisation and the Minister of State strongly urges the society to pursue them actively. I understand, for example, that it has received funding in the past from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government in respect of its advocacy work. The society received €269,700 under that Department's most recent round of the scheme to support national organisations in the community and voluntary sector. This scheme is running for a three-year period from mid-June 2016 to mid-June 2019. The society has also been funded by the Department of Education and Skills and it has received grants from the Department of Justice and Equality and the national lottery.

I wish to emphasise that the Department of Health does not provide direct funding to organisations and any such funding is provided by the HSE. Furthermore, the HSE can only fund organisations for the purpose of providing health services on its behalf. However, in May 2018, one-off bridging funding of €195,000 was provided by the Department of Health to the Irish Deaf Society to allow it to resolve its financial issues. This was provided on an exceptional, one-off basis and the Department made it clear that it would not be repeated in the future. The Department urged the organisation to take immediate steps to resolve its ongoing funding requirements. It would appear that the Irish Deaf Society has not made much progress in this regard and it has submitted a further application to the HSE for core funding for 2019. The HSE has reviewed this submission and has again declined the society's funding request on the basis that it does not provide health-related services. This decision has been confirmed in writing to the Irish Deaf Society. I know that the Minister of State, Deputy McGrath, is currently in discussions with his Cabinet colleagues to try to resolve the Irish Deaf Society's financial difficulties. These discussions have been very positive so far and the Minister of State will be in a position in the coming days to confirm the outcome of these discussions.

I know the reply is not of the construct of the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne. Nevertheless, she has said the HSE can only fund organisations for the purposes of providing health services on its behalf. Who would argue that the provision of Irish Sign Language skills does not meet this requirement? Such skills provide the opportunity to be able to communicate to people who otherwise would be mute and unable to communicative in any way and would have to cope with life in silence and isolation. I find it incredible.

It is a highly damning indictment of our governance that there is a situation whereby the HSE on the one hand and the Department of Health and heaven only knows how many other Departments on the other are all happily washing their hands of responsibility in this regard.

The deaf community is a substantial body of people who are coping with a significant disability in their lives. They are absolutely deserving of an immediate response from us. This is a most pressing matter and an issue the Government can solve quickly and without much difficulty. I understand the money has been committed. I urge the Minister of State to use her good offices to get her colleagues to do the right thing and to do it immediately.

I agree that this is a justice rather than a health matter. However, we did not nominate the Minister of State at the Department of Health to respond on this issue. We demanded justice for the Irish Deaf Society to enable it to continue to provide vital services for the deaf community when we make Irish Sign Language an official language. This is a necessity. The society's expertise cannot be replicated and its viability is imminently threatened. While I recognise that it is not the fault of the Minister of State, the response she gave is not good enough. We do not care where the money comes from. We are saying clearly that this organisation needs the Government to inform it that a stabilising strategy will be put in place. This can be done by means of a commitment from the Government to secure funding into the future. We do not mind where that funding comes from, whether it is from the budget of the Department of Justice and Equality, the Department of Education and Skills or elsewhere. Responsibility for funding lies with the Cabinet and the Departments, rather than us. The Irish Deaf Society would have liked a hint from the Minister of State that the Minister may have some good news in the days ahead. Our job is to say he had better have good news because this service cannot be sacrificed.

We hope that the Government sees sense and comes up with a rational approach to this matter. According to the Central Statistics Office, there were 3,809 deaf people or persons with a serious hearing impairment living in County Wexford in 2016. Members of the deaf community in Wexford have had zero access to services following the closure of Chime and the Wexford deaf club. The current experience of the Irish deaf community is one of extreme marginalisation due to a lack of Irish Sign Language recognition and provision. This manifests not only in the personal lives of deaf people but in their interactions with the organs of the State, including the education system, health service, courts system and national Parliament. Such systemic exclusion is not acceptable and must be addressed urgently.

I noticed the Ceann Comhairle liked the unusual shirt I am wearing.

I never said a word about the Deputy's shirt.

I just knew. I was asked to wear it by the Irish ambassador to Malawi, Gerald Cunningham. I wear it today in solidarity with the people of Malawi but also in solidarity with a most special group, namely, the Irish Deaf Society. I ask the Minister of State to get the Government to do the right thing.

I think the Deputy's shirt is lovely. The colour suits him, although he always wears bright colours.

I do not have much to add. I have listened to the contributions and taken notes. I am sorry the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, is not here in person. He has indicated he is working with his colleagues at Cabinet level. He will be in a position in the coming days to confirm the outcome of discussions on this matter. I have nothing further to add as I cannot promise A, B or C to the Deputies. I thank them for raising this matter and apologise, on behalf of the Minister of State, for his absence. I am sorry I cannot give the Deputies a fuller reply.

I have used the service provided by Sister Lydia for my children in the past. I understand how difficult it is for adults and children who are unable to communicate because they are deaf or deaf blind. I compliment all those who work in organisations for people with disabilities. They do an extraordinary job, particularly those who work with people who are blind, hard of hearing or deaf. I will make it my business to convey the Deputies' concerns to the Minister of State and to speak to him in the next two days.

Speech and Language Therapy Waiting Lists

I have raised this matter directly with the Taoiseach and the Minister for Education and Skills. I have also written to the Minister for Health, the Minister of State with responsibility for disability and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. I hope I will get an answer to my question today.

I am sure the Minister of State will agree that it is appalling that a child with profound and complex needs must wait 42 months to have its needs assessed by a team and, hopefully, addressed through speech and language therapy. That is the official waiting time for a child in community healthcare organisation, CHO, area 7. In response to a letter I wrote in June 2018 concerning a child who had been waiting for assessment since 2016, I was told there were 95 other children ahead of the child in question and the team was working at maximum capacity. At that stage, the team was dealing with referrals made in May 2015. In December, I wrote another letter to CHO area 7 about a separate case. This time, I was told that there were 298 children ahead of the child in question on the speech and language waiting list, a further 80 children were being screened and a further eight were waiting to transition from the early intervention service to the speech and language service. There are currently 222 children ahead of this particular child. The current waiting time for assessment is 42 months.

According to the reply I received, there has been no movement on the waiting list in the past 11 months owing to the large number of children who have transitioned from the early intervention service, the capacity caseloads of team members, delays in filling vacancies and the failure to replace staff on maternity leave. I was also informed of the staff positions that are vacant. A staff grade educational psychologist post has been vacant since December. A staff grade psychologist is only available on a half-time basis and a half-time senior speech and language therapy position is also vacant. Other posts that remain unfilled include a social worker and a staff grade physiotherapist. It is clear the team is broken and that this is causing the backlog.

A significant increase in health and social care professionals is required to adequately meet demand for services for children in CHO area 7. Additional resources are required to address the backlog. It is unfair that any child is left in this position. One expert told me that every day that a child is left without this support represents a backwards step of two days. For a child waiting three and a half years that represents seven years in his or her development. This must not be allowed to continue.

The latest census figures suggest that the increased population and increased prevalence of disability will result in increased demand in future. Families and parents are at their wits' end. Where do they go from here? Clearly, the system is broken. One suggestion is that parents should go down the private route, but that is a costly alternative. Many of the families who contact me are not in a position to take the private route.

Does the Minister of State agree that the policy of early intervention is not working if children must wait 42 months to secure access to a team? God knows how long they must wait after that to receive speech and language therapy.

CHO area 7 covers some of my constituency and I deal every day with some of the issues raised by Deputy Crowe. It is very disturbing and frustrating for parents who are left waiting for such a long time.

On behalf of the Minister for Health, I thank the Deputy for raising the very important matter and for providing the opportunity to update the Dáil.

The Government accepts that there are challenges in access times for speech and language therapy services and that this is a concern for patients and their families. I assure the Deputy that every effort is being made to reduce waiting times nationally and at the local level in Dublin South-West. The challenges we face in ensuring timely access to services should not be underestimated. Not only is the demand for speech and language therapy and other therapy services increasing across the country, but the HSE reports that the complexity of individual cases is increasing.

The speech and language therapy team in Dublin South-West works across primary care and disability services. In the primary care sector, the majority of the service is focused on the needs of children under 18 years of age. In the 11 months up to the end of November 2017, 1,377 referrals were accepted in the area. The current position is that 713 people are waiting to be seen for an initial assessment, 244 of whom have been waiting for longer than one year. All of those waiting over one year are under 18 years of age, with the majority of these individuals awaiting specialist disability multidisciplinary team assessments and interventions. In addition, 313 individuals are waiting for initial intervention following assessments.

It gives me no pleasure to inform the Deputy of such numbers. The Minister, Deputy Harris, is conscious that behind these figures are real people seeking care and support. Access times for speech and language therapy services are too long and it for this reason that we have introduced a range of measures to address the problem.

Funding was provided in 2016 for speech and language posts to prioritise the longest waiting children. CHO 7 was allocated an additional 16 posts under this initiative. Other actions taken to improve services in the area include the establishment of drop-in clinics that provide advice and support, the provision of maternity leave cover and the introduction of new models of working. Of particular note is the in-school speech and language therapy demonstration project that is now up and running in CHO 7, covering Dublin, south Kildare and west Wicklow. This joint collaboration between the HSE, the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs provides occupational therapy and speech and language therapy services across 150 schools and preschools. Under this scheme, children can receive in-house therapy services with the aim of delivering therapeutic interventions as early as possible to support their social skills, mental health and academic performance.

The HSE's national service plan 2019 reflects the Government's commitment to improve access to primary care services such as speech and language therapy. It contains provision for the recruitment of 170 additional community nursing and therapy posts and sets a target of 4,500 additional patients to be seen in 2019, with a full-year impact in 2020 of 9,000 additional patients seen. An additional 100 therapy posts are planned to reduce waiting times for the assessment of need under the Disability Act 2005.

The Government appreciates that delays in accessing services can be difficult for the families and children affected. However, the recent investment in speech and language therapy posts, along with new ways of working, such as the in-school project, will support improved access to services and have a favourable impact on the long waiting list, including children on it. Furthermore, the 2019 national service plan contains a number of provisions aimed at improving access to therapy services. This additional investment should make a real difference to patients and their families.

We raise these issues to try to get some action on them. This year's budget provided an allocation for 100 new therapy posts, but the CHO 7 area has yet to be advised how many of these will be allocated to it. Clearly, this sector needs to be prioritised. It is unacceptable that any child should have to wait 42 months to access key services that would transform his or her life. Not getting that access impacts on the child's development.

To be positive, will the Minister of State ask the Minister to use whatever influence he has in this matter? I have outlined the gaps in the area's team. I do not blame the team operating out of Chamber House, as it does not have the key personnel. This is not the team's fault. However, families and children are being impacted. I have tried everything and do not know what else I can do. The only route I can recommend to the families is for them to go to the courts. I do not want any family to have to do that just to get what the family's children are entitled to, but that seems to be the only option open to them. It would be a costly affair for the State, which will have to deliver services for these children eventually anyway. Clearly, the State is not doing so now. No one can say that the system is working.

The Minister of State's response was actually more depressing than the figures I outlined. This matter needs greater focus from the Minister. I realise that he faces other difficulties, but these are vulnerable children and this issue will not just affect them now, but also as they get older. I ask that whatever resources can be allocated to these children be put in place, particularly the additional resources that were budgeted for this year. This sector needs to be resourced immediately.

Numbers speak louder than words. I read this response before coming to the Chamber and was shocked by the numbers. The Minister acknowledges this situation as well, though, and is concerned that efforts are taking so long, particularly given the number of individuals under 18 years of age who still have not been assessed. Access to multidisciplinary assessments and intervention at an early stage is important. In many ways, this is why the new in-school support service has been put in place. Via my grandchildren, I witnessed it starting to operate recently.

I acknowledge that the Deputy has raised this matter with the Minister and the Taoiseach previously and is pursuing it again today. I always say this, but I mean it - I always revert to the main Minister and outline the concerns and anger expressed at the state of the services in question. Deputies do not come into this Chamber to raise concerns like these unless they affect the people in our communities whom we represent.

We have a great deal of work to do in this sector, as I know from the area I represent. In Deputy Crowe's area, my area and others where people are less fortunate and living in communities with multiple problems, people can sometimes be left behind. As soon as the Minister has returned to the House, I will raise the issue with him. I will also raise it with the Taoiseach when I see him. There is a great deal happening in the House, as everyone knows, but issues like this that affect children and others in our communities should be prioritised and addressed.

I compliment those who work in the primary care services, in particular speech and language therapy. They do a job that not only needs a great deal of compassion, but also a great deal of energy, as they work in difficult situations.

I hear the Deputy's concerns and will make it my business to ensure that the Minister hears them loud and clear.

I thank the Minister of State. That is appreciated.

Schools Building Projects

I thank the Ceann Comhairle. I appreciate him choosing this Topical Issue. It is an important issue that I have raised in the House previously. I particularly thank the Minister for Education and Skills for taking time to come in himself to deal with the issue.

The Minister is still relatively new to this brief and I wish him well in his challenging position. While the Minister is new to his position, the staff and students of St. Michael's House special school in Skerries are in the same position they have been in for many years. I am sure the Minister will have read in The Irish Times this morning that they have been in temporary accommodation for 36 years.

The school has a longstanding application in for a new school building and I have raised this on many occasions in the Chamber. In a Topical Issue reply I received in March last on this issue from the Minister's predecessor, the Minister, Deputy Bruton, stated:

No effort will be spared in trying to progress the situation. It is an important project for us.

However, there is no evidence of this.

I am disappointed by the slow development of much-needed school provision by the Government. In fact, disappointed does not even cover it. It is devastating that so little progress has been made.

I understand a site has been identified and purchased. The site was the issue for so long. When a site is identified and acquired, there are still further delays on other matters.

In the previous Government, Labour Party Ministers prioritised the provision of new schools in the worst of economic times. In 2015, I brought the then Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, to St. Michael's House in Skerries to see for herself the current building and how inadequate it is to meet the needs of the pupils. Deputy O'Sullivan and the Department officials recognised the need but the prioritisation of the provision of new schools has been too slow.

When will we see works commence on site? That is key for the people. The principal, staff and pupils and their families deserve a proper answer. They deserve a timeline for this to happen and I hope that in his response the Minister will provide that.

The current building is unfit for purpose. The school has been housed there for 36 years. Unfortunately, the building is well past its use-by date. It is an old farmhouse. I have visited it several times. The mounting level of repairs needed just to keep the building in basic condition is financially onerous.

The school received prefabs in recent years due to the poor state of the building and the benefits are acknowledged by everyone involved, but these are not long-term solutions and are merely putting the finger in the dam. In the summer, it can be too hot to have classes indoors. In the winter, the school can be very cold.

Also, the school is at maximum capacity. There is no more space for any increase in the student body. Currently, pupils are only admitted when an existing pupil finishes his or her time at the school. With a maximum capacity of 30 pupils supported by 17 dedicated staff, the number of spaces that crop up is small. Many families are left on waiting lists and are living with perpetual disappointment and, of course, great concern.

With a new building, St. Michael's House could increase its service provision to 92 pupils, thus trebling its current number and giving hope to many others who are waiting for places. What a transformation that would be.

We talk about this being a time of economic recovery, and it is. Unemployment is returning to boom time levels, Exchequer receipts are up and we finally have some funds to invest back into the State. We need to look after our most vulnerable citizens.

The students in St Michael’s special school need and deserve a facility which meets a good standard. In a new school, they can thrive and fulfil their potential. They cannot do it in the current building.

The staff in St. Michael's House are a credit to the teaching profession and to the public sector generally. They are being inhibited from doing their job to the best of their ability by the inadequacy of their building but they are not the real losers. The people who lose the most are the pupils. They are not getting the facilities they deserve and which would allow them to thrive and fulfil their individual potential.

I thank the Deputy for putting down this matter. It is an important area and I join with the Deputy in acknowledging the valuable work that is carried out at St. Michael's House special school, Skerries.

I am happy to clarify the position in respect of the development of permanent accommodation for St. Michael's House special national school.

The school was established in 1982 and is currently located in a rented building with temporary accommodation in Hackettstown, Skerries. My Department is committed to providing a permanent accommodation solution and in that regard, a project to deliver a new school building for St. Michael's House special school on a greenfield site has been included in the Department's six-year capital programme. It is planned to provide a new building for St. Michael's special school to accommodate a 14 classroom school expandable to 16 classrooms, to include classes for pupils with mild general learning difficulties, autistic spectrum disorder, multiple disabilities and severe-profound disabilities.

My Department is working closely with Fingal County Council in accordance with the memorandum of understanding in relation to the acquisition of a suitable site to facilitate the school building project.

The site acquisition process for this school has been ongoing for some time. Initial efforts were focussed on acquiring land in the vicinity of the school's current location which was preferred by the school authorities. However, efforts in that regard were unsuccessful and subsequently the current site option was identified. The acquisition process was subsequently paused for some time while my Department engaged with the school authorities regarding potential alternative accommodation which was available at the time. However, based on the outcome of this engagement, the site acquisition process re-started and agreement was reached with the relevant landowner in respect of the proposed acquisition. This acquisition is currently at conveyance stage.

I wish to confirm that my Department is committed to progressing this project and will continue to liaise with Fingal County Council and the school authorities to achieve this.

The acquisition process for a permanent site is under way. My Department is aware of the limitations of the current temporary accommodation and every effort is being made to progress the permanent accommodation for the school as quickly as possible.

That is for the purpose of putting on the record the history of the matter and where we are at. At a personal level, I am eager to move this forward. If there are areas where we can work together to make this happen, I would be happy to do so. The Deputy asked for a timeframe. Unfortunately, I am not in a position to give the timeframe because of the conveyance issue but I am aware parents want certainty, staff want to know when this will happen and the Deputy also spoke of the opportunity to grow the school population. It may require meeting with relevant officials sitting around a table. Deputy Brendan Ryan's constituency colleagues, my own party colleagues, have been on to me as well on this issue. It is not just because it is a public issue that appeared in the media today - Deputy Brendan Ryan has raised this on numerous occasions. I want to give my personal commitment to do whatever it takes to do this. It is not acceptable to be in this position for over 30 years but, unfortunately, things happen. The Deputy talked about his colleagues being in office previously, a site was identified and things did not happen. Unfortunately, that can happen. It is a slow process. At the same time, if there are areas where we can work together, I would be happy to sit down with the Deputy and the relevant officials to ensure that we keep this on a live agenda.

I thank the Minister for his response. Much of the Minister's reply goes through the history of it, which is exactly what we heard the last time I raised it in March of last year. The site has been acquired. As I understand it, the conveyance matter should not take long. This is an issue of priority.

From the time St. Michael's House was founded in 1955, it has helped to change fundamentally how we as a country educate people with intellectual disabilities. It has been a leader in the development of community-based services for people with intellectual disabilities, providing services to 1,751 children and adults.

St. Michael's House has demonstrated exceptional leadership throughout the years but if it is to deliver its vital service, it requires assistance from the State in the form of a new building and facilities worthy of its staff and deserving of its pupils and their families.

The school community needs a new school delivered. It needs the Department to provide this as a priority by getting work under way as soon as possible. The people are waiting to see machines go on that site. If they can see that, they will take hope from it. From where the process is, that should not take too long. It needs to be accelerated.

I have been working closely with the school in recent times. I am aware of the various developments and reasons for delays, but I cannot emphasise strongly enough how stretched the school is. Pupils cannot take their required breaks. There are also pressures on space from a staff perspective, which has a direct effect on how well they can deliver their services to the pupils.

St. Michael's House is a special school and as such has special requirements unlike mainstream schools, but these requirements are not so special that an inordinate delay should occur.

I ask this Minister to be the one this school has been waiting for who finally delivers this project. The Irish are a compassionate people who want to see fellow citizens treated equally and fairly. I want to see this progress as soon as possible.

There is a wider concern I want to raise in the couple of seconds I have left.

Throughout my 12 years as a Member of the Oireachtas, school building programmes have come and gone. Special schools tend to be factored in at the tail end of each school programme and are never given priority. They are never provided for upfront in year one or two of the programme but, rather, are afforded low priority. They tend not to be delivered and are then rolled into the next programme. On and on it goes. The Minister is new to the Department and there is an opportunity for him to make his mark. He must root out this approach to how the Department treats special schools and he will be a hero of the disability sector. They very much deserve it.

I wish to reiterate my point on the conveyancing process. The matter is currently with the Office of the Chief State Solicitor. If there is something that can be done at this stage of the process to keep this alive and on the agenda, I will do it.

On the Deputy's second point regarding where we are in terms of the priority of special schools, in my initial introduction to the Department and the area of special schools and special classes in mainstream schools I have been struck by the intensity involved. The services are demand led. Parents demand the choice of being able to send their children to a special or a mainstream school based on what is most suitable for the child. I met representatives of three special schools this morning and committed to continuing to work with them. The Deputy is correct that we must ensure there is equal focus on this issue, including special classes. The number of special classes has increased from more than 408 in 2011 to 1,500 currently, indicating significant momentum and change.

The overall budget for this year is approximately €1.75 billion. We must hold what we have in terms of priority for special schools, which is very important. I appreciate the sometimes very challenging areas within that. However, a recent visit to Little Angels, a special school in my county, highlighted the number of dedicated staff, including special teachers and special needs assistants, who work very well on a collaborative basis. However, if the staff do not have the proper environment and buildings, it makes their job far more difficult.

I am focused on this issue and want to see progress made on it. If there are things we can do collectively, I am prepared to do them. The Deputy and I worked very well together on the Business Committee, along with the Ceann Comhairle. As a politician, I believe in consensus and that by reaching out and working together, we can make changes more quickly. I am happy to do so in this case.