Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

I ask for the co-operation of the Deputies on time limits. I will try to be strict on it. Today is the final day of the session and we are going off on holidays so I ask for co-operation.

Tá córas againn sa Stát seo maidir le measúnú do pháistí atá riachtanais sa bhreis acu. Níl an córas sin ag obair, ní raibh sé ag obair riamh, agus níl an Rialtas ag déanamh faic dó. This morning, RTÉ has shone another light on an issue we have had to raise in the House for far too long and far too often. This is the time that children are waiting for an assessment of need for which an average waiting time of 19 months, despite a legal requirement for assessments to be completed within six months under the Disability Act 2005. Some have been waiting up to two years and more. The six-month timeframe is crucial because it recognises the vital importance of early intervention for children in these circumstances. It is one of the only legally set timeframes to which the HSE must adhere. It was put there for a very valid reason. Despite this, the State has consistently failed to live up to its legal requirements to ensure children can access an assessment of their needs. This is crucial to ensure the best possible outcome for every child.

If we do this within the timeframe, proper outcomes for every child will be possible but this is not happening. Nine out of every ten children are being failed by the State with regard to their legal right. Children are being left behind and parents are at their wits' end waiting for an assessment for their children. They know that without a diagnosis for needs such as autism and communication difficulties, their children will not be able to get the vital supports and services they need.

A couple of weeks ago, the Sinn Féin leader, Deputy McDonald, raised this issue with the Taoiseach. She raised the fact that parents are currently before the courts trying to address the situation and obtain an assessment of need for their children within the legally specified timeframe. Here again, we have another situation where citizens of the State have to go to court to vindicate their rights and the rights of their children. I will not comment on an individual case but it has become the default position of the State to force people into stressful and expensive legal battles instead of throwing up its hands and saying it was wrong. These parents deserve an apology and support, not a legal battle to ensure their children are afforded their legal rights in the first place.

The Tánaiste should put himself in the shoes of these parents and imagine a day or a week in their lives, or a month or a year with no light at the end of the tunnel, watching and worrying as delay after delay causes harm to their children - harm that is absolutely avoidable. Walking this walk with these parents is the only way to understand why the timeframes of three and six months are set as a legal right. Will the Government do the right thing? Will it ensure children receive the care to which they are entitled under law? Will it act to ensure that no parent of a child with special needs must go to court to obtain vital and legally guaranteed supports for their children?

I formally congratulate the Leas-Cheann Comhairle on her recent election. I know she will do a fabulous job.

I thank Deputy Doherty for raising this important question. All of us know from our personal lives, people we know or constituents who come to us with their problems and difficulties how big an issue this is. Children are waiting for too long to get an assessment. We know that more than 6,000 have been waiting for more than six months to get the assessment of needs they need. It puts a lot of stress on them and on their parents and families. We know the delay in an assessment of need can be very expensive in the long run because earlier intervention means better outcomes sooner, and a delay in intervention can result in higher costs for the taxpayer in the longer term. This problem has existed for a long time and it is one we acknowledge and want to resolve.

The new Government is committed to improving access to assessments and therapies for all children who require them. To achieve this, some important reforms are now under way. The HSE disability service is engaged in a major reconfiguring of its existing therapy resources for children with disabilities into multidisciplinary geographically based programmes. This is part of the national programme for progressing disability services for young people. The objective of this is to make sure we bring about equity of access to disability services so it should not matter what part of the country children live in as they will have equal access to those services, and to provide consistency with a clear pathway to the services for children with disabilities and their families regardless of where they live, what school they go to or the nature of their particular difficulties.

Additionally, a revised standard operating procedure for an assessment of need has been developed and implementation began in January 2020. Obviously, a lot of this was delayed as a consequence of Covid and the fact that assessments could not happen one to one. They could happen over a video link but not in person. Everyone will understand why this is not the same thing. The new procedure provides a standardised approach to assessment in all areas and is designed to ensure children with disabilities and their families can access appropriate assessment and intervention as quickly as possible. The reforms involve important structural changes that will have a positive impact on services for all children with disabilities, including those with autism, and the budget provided an additional €2 million in funding for an autism plan for these services.

The Tánaiste said he understands and rightly made the point this has been ongoing for a long time. Two years ago, when I raised this with the then Tánaiste on the floor of the Dáil, 3,850 children had been failed by the State. Today, the figure is more than 5,000. It is only going in one direction; it is getting worse. Two years ago, we heard excuses from the Government on reforms being introduced. The reality is the State is fighting these parents in the courts. There are numerous cases where parents have been forced to go to the courts to vindicate the rights of their children with special needs because they are being failed in regard to their legal entitlement to have an assessment of need carried out within six months. The State is not saying it is sorry and that it will support and help the parents and that it is trying to do better, the State is fighting these cases. These families are at their wits' end. Being a parent of a child with additional or special needs is a challenge in itself without having to battle every single day for services and supports. This is only the first hurdle. After the assessment of need, there are numerous other battles to get speech and language therapy, SNAs and all of the other supports, including school placement. Will the Tánaiste give a guarantee the Government will not fight these parents in the courts anymore and put in place a robust package of measures to make sure no child is denied his or her legal right?

I thank the Deputy. I cannot possibly comment on court cases on which I have no information. Even if I had information, I probably could not comment on them either. Certainly anybody is entitled to take a case to court but we all appreciate this issue will not be resolved in the courts. It would not be right to give preference to people who go to court as opposed to those who do not. This is not a problem that will be solved through court cases or by paying lawyers' fees. This is a problem that if it can be solved it will be solved by additional resources where they are needed and the proper use of existing resources. This is the approach the Government is taking.

Last Monday the Government announced the allocation of a €375 million support package for schools to reopen in September. I have consistently highlighted the need to reopen schools not only because of its importance for children's education and their mental health due to the lack of engagement with classmates and even the lack of a regular routine but also for the mental health of parents, especially parents who have been juggling with childcare and employment since last March with no childcare support. We have already seen the impact of the lack of childcare on front-line healthcare staff, and we are seeing it again now as parents struggle to find childcare for young children. If schools do not reopen in September there will be a far bigger childcare crisis.

However, before we face that crisis there is a current crisis with regard to the provision of school places for children with additional needs. This spilled over into the public domain when the former Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, wrote to 39 primary schools in south Dublin on 26 June last directing them to establish special classes for four and five year old children with autism in order to immediately accommodate 43 children who have no school next September. The then Minister took this decision on foot of the advice of the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, which had failed to convince schools in south Dublin to cater voluntarily for students within their catchment. On Tuesday evening, the Minister of State with responsibility for special education, Deputy Madigan, told the Dáil that she understands some progress has already been made and that the NCSE is working with several schools to establish classes in south Dublin for the coming school year.

While a proactive approach has been taken by the Department of Education and Skills to accommodate 43 children in south Dublin next September, the opposite approach has been taken for eight children in south Roscommon and east Galway. St. Teresa's special school, Ballinasloe, is willing to establish an ASD class from next September following a request from the NCSE but the building unit in the Department of Education and Skills says that it cannot have a prefab classroom in place in time. St. Teresa's is so committed to accommodating the eight local children that it has sourced alternative temporary accommodation pending the delivery of the prefab unit but the response from the Department is the same, that due to time constraints the Department cannot open an ASD class in St. Teresa's school, Ballinasloe, this year.

Why are children with autism being treated differently simply because of their address?

Thank you, Deputy, for staying within the time.

I thank Deputy Naughten for raising the important issue of the establishment of an early intervention ASD class in St. Teresa's special school, Ballinasloe. The Deputy has a long-standing interest in disability and looks out for the special educational needs of children in his constituency and beyond. The former Senator, Maura Hopkins, has spoken to me about this issue as well.

The Government is deeply conscious of the worry facing some families in finding suitable accommodation and school places for their children who have special needs. Ensuring that every child has a school place is a priority for the Government, and we have taken a number of actions to achieve this. Where the NCSE identifies the requirement for an ASD early intervention class in an area, the local special educational needs organiser, SENO, will consider all schools in the area with a view to establishing the class. Early intervention classes are not generally established within special schools but there are some exceptions in various places in the country. I am informed that the school in question does not have the physical space to accommodate an early intervention class in the existing school building. Eight children have been identified by the school, however, and some of them are not yet of an age to enrol in early intervention classes at only three years old.

In establishing any special class, the NCSE reviews the current and expected future demand for classes. It has advised the school that it will explore the potential to establish an early intervention class with the school in the near future, but that might not be this school year. The NCSE will continue to engage with and advise the school and the local SENO is available to assist and talk to the parents of children with special educational needs about their options.

I thank the Tánaiste for his reply, but the reality is that there are children in the catchment of the town of Ballinasloe who have no school place for September. The NCSE has asked schools in Dublin to provide accommodation and has asked the Minister for Education and Skills to direct schools to provide that accommodation. There is the opposite situation in Ballinasloe where a school is willing to come forward and provide that facility for children with autism, yet a very different approach is being taken by the Department purely because of geography. Can the Tánaiste advise me of the support these eight families can expect for their children from 1 September and let me know what to say to the parents of those children about the additional supports that will be put in place specifically for them when we are not prepared to provide them with a school, which every child in the State should be entitled to regardless of address?

There has been a phenomenal investment in special education in recent years. The budget is now almost €2 billion. One in every five euro we spend on education is for special education, roughly the same as we spend on higher education. In the last ten years the number of special classes has trebled. There will be an extra 1,000 special needs assistants for schools this year and an additional 120 special education teacher posts, as well as 31 speech and language therapists. A huge amount of investment has gone into special education in recent years, and it is necessary. Saying that, however, is cold comfort for parents who do not have a solution for their child in September. Options can often be put together. Sometimes it can involve a home tuition grant. Another potential option can be a place in another school if it is not possible to provide places in the local school. The Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, is present and she is interested in this topic. I will ask her to speak to the Deputy directly to see if more can be done because I know the parents will want a plan for their children for this September and for September next year.

There is a serious jobs crisis in Kerry. I wish to raise the closure of BorgWarner in Tralee. This bombshell occurred a couple of days ago and took the workers and the town of Tralee by surprise. It was akin to the bombing of Pearl Harbour. I thank the Tánaiste for already showing an interest in this serious issue. I must explain that this amount of jobs being lost in Kerry, which has a population of 150,000, is equivalent to 2,100 or 2,200 jobs being lost in the population of 1.5 million in the greater Dublin area. If that happened here, the Taoiseach and every Minister would be out doing something about it. This is an awful blow to the areas where these workers live in Tralee, Killarney, Listowel and Killorglin.

The job losses follow other job losses such as the 130 jobs in Debenhams in Tralee and almost 200 jobs in Fexco in Killorglin and Cahersiveen. Aqua Dome Tralee is to remain closed until at least next April. This has been a massive attraction and is a serious loss to business in Tralee. The move to cut three race nights from the monthly calendar by the Irish Greyhound Board and relocate them to Cork and Limerick has hurt many dog owners and will certainly hurt business in Tralee. I support the request of Ken Tobin of Tralee Chamber Alliance that Kerry be separated from Cork city when it comes to economic development as they are and have always been two separate regions and should be treated as such. I ask the Government to set up an emergency jobs task force to address the jobs crisis in Kerry and ask the relevant Minister to come down to meet the workers and stakeholders in Tralee as soon as possible.

The Cahersiveen and Iveragh area has been devoid of any job creation for many years under successive Governments.

From Kells station through Cahersiveen right up around the Ring of Kerry to Sneem and Kenmare is now totally dependent on a bit of farming, fishing and tourism. When the youngsters go off to college, most never return as there are no jobs to come back to. The only thing the Government has brought to Cahersiveen is asylum seekers to the unfit-for-purpose Skellig Star hotel, where we are told food and water are now being rationed. The Kerry jobs situation has been exacerbated by the Green Party's role in the programme for Government. We will no longer have Shannon LNG providing natural gas, which was to create between 350 and 500 badly needed jobs in north Kerry, even though this company has already spent €70 million of its own money and was going to fund totally the project itself. We need gas for at least 30 more years.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue of job losses and employment in Kerry. As a result of what has happened to the economy due to this pandemic, we have all seen a major increase in unemployment in recent months. Thankfully, it is falling, and people have seen that the number of people on the pandemic unemployment payment, which peaked at more than 600,000, is now below 300,000 and is still falling at a rate of approximately 20,000 to 30,000 per week, which is encouraging. In addition, more than 400,000 people are having their employment sustained through the Government's temporary wage subsidy scheme.

As for BorgWarner, the news of those job losses came as a terrible blow to the staff and to the town of Tralee. I have spoken to the IDA about this and have been in touch by conference call with the company to express my disappointment that there was no advance notice of this to any Government agency. The company explained to me that demand for its product is in terminal decline, which is unrelated to Covid, and that it does not see any future product line for the factory, so it has to close. It will close by the end of the year, although some people will remain on site until the second quarter of next year. I discussed the issue of redundancy and the need to make sure the workers get a good redundancy package. The company said that that would be put in place and that it will negotiate with the representatives on it. I also asked about the site because the company owns it and I would like to see a new company come in there and bring more employment back into Tralee. The company has agreed to work with the Government and the IDA to find either a new investor or a buyer for the site in order that we might replace some, if not all, of those jobs with new jobs for Tralee. That is what we are working on.

In addition to that, as is always the case, Government agencies and supports will click in. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection will make sure all the workers know their rights in respect of redundancy and welfare payments if they are losing their jobs. The education and training boards, the institutes of technology and so on will go in to make sure people are given a whole set of opportunities such as alternative employment, education and training and possible grants to set up businesses. All these things will be offered to the workers in order that they know their options and opportunities. This is separate from the fact that we will try to find an alternative investor for the plant. The job losses are really bad news not just for the workers affected but also for the impact on the local economy. I know it comes at a really awful time, when people are going into a labour market that is very difficult, but I assure the Deputy that the Government and its agencies will do everything we can to help the people who have lost their jobs and to find alternative employment for Tralee.

I thank the Tánaiste for his reply. I highlight as well that very recently we lost 45 jobs in Kenmare when Jam closed its outlet. In the tourism industry we have lost hundreds of jobs: bus drivers, pub workers and many others. I ask the Government to probe urgently the following possibility. The Tánaiste has said he is doing this, but I ask the Government to leave no stone unturned in getting BorgWarner or another company to use this very skilled workforce, with many years' experience, and the facility there in the production of some other components, such as ventilators to deal with the coronavirus or other needed products such as air-to-water pumps, which we are importing from Germany and Denmark at present. We really value our remaining employers, such as Liebherr, Munster Joinery and Harty's of Causeway, and all the other small employers that are vital to the economy of Kerry. Many of our manufacturing jobs have been lost over the years to eastern Europe and have never been replaced. I ask the Government to look at Kerry and put in place a new task force to deal with the jobs crisis in Kerry because we are on our knees and the county is really suffering.

The Deputy can be assured that the Government will do the best we can and work might and main to find an alternative employer or investor for the facility. It would be a shame to see it go unused. The company says it will work with us on this, but it would be a new company coming in and probably producing something different. I was talking to the Minister, Deputy Foley, and Deputy Griffin about this the other day. We are very keen to put Government resources behind Kerry and to make sure it gets its fair share of investment. In the past ten years the number of IDA jobs in County Kerry has increased by 48%, so it is going in very much the right direction. That might fall back a bit this year, but I think we will be able to make progress again in the years ahead. One thing that will be absolutely crucial for the county, as we all appreciate, is getting our tourism industry up and running again because Kerry is Ireland's premier county when it comes to tourism. This is why we took the decisions we took in the July stimulus package only last week to put in place a stay-and-spend scheme, which I hope will be useful to the tourism industry in Kerry from October onwards. We are also extending the wage subsidy scheme well into spring of next year and allowing those employers to take on seasonal workers who were not on the payroll in February. This was one of the big asks that employers had. It is therefore hoped we will start to see some of those jobs coming back.

During the Covid crisis we have all paid our respects and thanks to the front-line workers, whether in the health service or in shops, but one sector - the farming community and the agricultural sector - has kept food on the table, not alone in this country but also in what we export to other countries. However, farmers in various sectors are at a loss at the moment. If they want to cut trees on forestry they sowed 30 years ago, they cannot do so because of serial objections and departmental incompetence. Soon 12,000 people in the forestry sector may be out of work. Timber is not available. We are now looking at importing it from Latvia and other countries to keep jobs going in the various areas.

In addition, farmers do not know whether the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, will be rolled over. There is a section in the new Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, on strictly protected areas, under peaty lands, which would include Donegal down to Kerry, bar a few areas. Farmers affected may not get the new CAP funding because of new regulation coming in under CAP. After the last election was called, the candidates of the Tánaiste's party and Fianna Fáil, which comprise 90% or perhaps 95% of the Government, in all the hustings around the country and in their manifestos gave a commitment to the suckler sector. Sucklers comprise 95% of the cows in the area I have mentioned, which runs from the top of Donegal, along by the Shannon and right down to Kerry. They said they would fund a new suckler scheme to protect the suckler farmer. Is the Government prepared to bring this in shortly? If so, when will this happen? Will the Tánaiste give us a date for it?

Farmers and the farming community have been among the unsung heroes of the pandemic. One of the real worries we had at the start of the pandemic was distribution, supply and getting food into shops, onto tables and into and out of the island. Between the farming sector, our hauliers and our logistics industry, we made sure this was never a problem.

We appreciate their role in that, not only in making sure we had solid food supply in Ireland but making sure other parts of the world and Europe were also well fed. The Deputy will be aware that in the past year we have put in place about €100 million of grants for beef farmers, which have helped. The future growth loan scheme is being expanded and the Covid loan scheme, which will be launched at the end of August, will also be open to farmers, giving them low-cost finance to help with cash flow. We have also brought in changes to tax laws to allow people who make a loss this year to claim back some of the income tax they paid last year, which will be helpful in some circumstances.

On the Deputy's point about suckler cows, I do not think that was a commitment in my party's manifesto. It may have been in the Fianna Fáil manifesto. Our manifesto had something about sheep but I do not think we had a specific commitment on sucklers. I will double-check that but I think the Deputy is mistaken.

The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, is responsible for forestry and she will work hard on it in the period ahead. We are at an unusual stage in Ireland where it is almost impossible to plant or fell a tree for various reasons related to licences. We need to get that sorted out. I understand it largely relates to legal issues.

It is envisaged that GLAS will continue until a new scheme is up and running. There has been no formal decision on that but it is envisaged that it will continue until the new CAP starts or in the transition period. In the next couple of months, we will be working on getting REPS plus or REPS 2 up and running, which I know farmers will welcome. We will use proceeds from the carbon tax to set up a new REPS scheme which farmers will be able to avail of to make changes that will be beneficial for the environment and farm incomes.

I thank the Tánaiste. I agree with him on the unsung heroes. The €100 million for a beef exceptional aid measure, BEAM, scheme was provided when the price of cattle was down to €320 or €330 to keep a floor under the price of cattle. I am familiar with the new REPS, which is a pilot scheme. However, a pilot scheme will only involve a certain number of people over a certain length of time.

I beg to differ with the Tánaiste on the issue of a commitment because I sat beside his party's candidate. The different farming organisations got a commitment from the different candidates in each constituency and it is there in black and white. The Fine Gael Party, Fianna Fáil and other parties have given a commitment to introduce a new suckler cow scheme to protect the suckler sector in those vulnerable areas.

I welcome the Tánaiste's statement that the GLAS will roll over but we need clarity on it. We do not want to hear the Tánaiste say he does not know when that will be. We need to know when the scheme is coming so farmers are no longer wondering where they are going. The Tánaiste said farmers have been the unsung heroes and he needs to give them clarity. Will he stand by the commitment that has been made to provide a suckler welfare scheme?

The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Calleary, will make an announcement on GLAS when he is ready to do so. He will want to make that announcement as soon as he can. I do not know the details but the Minister may need Commission approval or other things to continue the scheme but I am sure he will be keen to make that announcement as soon as he can and as soon as it is confirmed.

I will have to pull out the programme for Government but, to the best of my knowledge, the commitment the Deputy referred to is not in the programme for Government. I may be wrong about that. In a coalition, it is the programme for Government that contains the commitments made by the Government. I do not think a specific commitment on sucklers was in my party's manifesto either by the way, but I will check that out and perhaps I will stand corrected.