Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Agriculture Industry

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and her office for kindly picking me and allowing me the opportunity to raise this matter. I thank the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, for being present to deal with this important issue.

I am glad to say that I speak on behalf of snail farmers throughout the country and I wish to highlight their concerns. Not many people may realise that a snail is classified in Ireland as an individual animal. We can imagine the complications, the paperwork and the unnecessary bureaucracy that this creates, and I ask the Government to deal with this issue. Ireland has approximately 30 professional snail farmers. I am proud and glad that we have one such farm in Toormore, Cahersiveen, County Kerry. The first problem Irish snail farmers have is that a snail is classified here as an animal but, obviously, it does not qualify for any farm payments. In France snails are classified as shellfish, therefore allowing for an easy processing system, but because a snail is deemed an animal in Ireland, it is necessary to have the same documentation to process each snail as for a cow. We must bear in mind that a tonne of snails contains approximately 115,000 snails. This is an absolutely insane situation. How can two member countries of the EU have totally different rules for this agricultural sector?

The Minister of State is well aware of the current scenario concerning peat. I am sure she is ashamed that this Government has shut down Bord na Móna and our own peat processing, meaning that we are now importing peat from Latvia and briquettes from Germany. Similarly, in snail farming, there is a requirement that all live, farmed Irish snails must be shipped to Greece to be processed and then be shipped back to the Irish snail farms, where they can be jarred and sold as a processed product. This is laughable. The Minister of State, as a member of this Government, must surely be ashamed of this situation. The Government talks about going green, but it is also telling us to ship the snails out for processing and then to ship them back again. It is as bad as the situation with peat and the importation of bales of briquettes.

I congratulate Escargot, which is an umbrella group that flies the flag for the snail farmers of Ireland. We are talking about diversifying farming, and I am pushing all the time for the generation of off-farm income. I refer to people who can diversify into other methods of farming and make an income in that way, such as those who go into producing cheese or sowing a little bit of forestry. It is so important now, when families are struggling, trying to live on their land and to make what they can from their farms. I congratulate the snail farmers of Ireland for being imaginative and for thinking outside the box, but I ask the Minister of State and the Government to please support Escargot. What does the group need? It and its members need assistance from the Government. Snail farming must be recognised as a viable farming enterprise and snail farmers need to be included in possible grants and funding for farm diversification aid. The classification of snails must also be brought on par with the rest of Europe and changed to consider snails as shellfish.

I thank the Deputy for raising this Topical Issue matter, and I convey the apologies of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, who cannot be here to respond.

Snail farming, also known as heliciculture, is a niche market in Ireland, but one that has been growing in recent years, as the Deputy said. Climatic conditions in Ireland are suitable for year-round snail breeding, and Bord Bia conducted research in 2018 which showed the strong export market potential for snails, particularly in Europe. Snails intended for human consumption are defined in EU food regulations as terrestrial gastropods.

Farmers interested in snail farming may wish to refer to the helpful guidance document on snail farming produced by Teagasc, which is available on its website. Further advisory support for those looking to diversify their enterprises is available through the Options for Farm Families programme, and interested farmers should contact their local Teagasc office, details of which are also available on the website. In addition, Teagasc recommends that potential snail farmers visit a commercial snail farm, of which there are approximately 30 in the country, as the Deputy indicated, to get a feel for what the endeavour entails prior to investing any resources. To register as a snail farmer producing snails for live sale only, or if there is already a herd number for the holding in respect of other farming activities, and the addition of snail farming activities at the holding is required, a completed ER1 application form should be submitted to the regional veterinary office, RVO.

Snail farmers who intend to process snails for human consumption must be registered as a snail farmer with their local Department RVO and they must also be approved to operate as a food business operator with the Department's meat hygiene division. Any person producing food is regarded as a food business operator. In Ireland, all food intended for human consumption must meet the requirements of EU food law.

The main purpose of food law is to ensure a safe food supply and protect consumers' interests in regard to food. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland is responsible for enforcing food law in Ireland and carries out this enforcement through service contracts with official agencies, including the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. To date there are no Department-approved food business operators processing snails for human consumption in Ireland. I understand there were a couple of applications in previous years but that both were withdrawn. Therefore, some farmers did try to obtain food business operator status. Any snail farmer interested in seeking approval to become a food business operator for the processing of snails for human consumption should complete a notification-of-intent application form, which is available on the Department's website, and submit it to the meat hygiene division in Portlaoise.

There are currently no schemes under the rural development programme to support snail farming. However, snail farming may benefit from wider supports, such as Enterprise Ireland's innovation voucher scheme, for which the Teagasc food research centres are knowledge providers. This scheme awards vouchers of €5,000 to small companies with a business opportunity or problem. The voucher can be exchanged for advice and expertise. Further details can be found on the website.

The topical issue was quite open-ended so the detail on what I have to speak about is limited. The Deputy has identified that snails are identified under Annex 1 of Regulation (EC) No. 853/2004 as terrestrial gastropods. Classification is at the discretion of the member states. The justification of the classification of snails as fish in France, for example, may relate to the fact that snails, being terrestrial gastropods, are closely related to their marine cousins. Each member state has discretion to identify a snail as either a fish or an animal.

I thank the Minister of State very much. Could I ask her, her Department and the Government to use their discretion in the same way as it has been used in France? I would call it a matter of using common sense. Having looked at a snail and a cow, could the Minister of State please tell me what the comparison is? To me, there is a fair difference.

The Minister of State's four-minute reply totally avoided the two main elephants in the room regarding snails. First, a snail, in the Irish Government’s eye, is the equivalent of a cow. Second, when we want to process snails, we have to send them to Greece, bring them back and then send them out again. Whoever put a lot of time into writing the Minister of State’s response chose to ignore those two facts. Those are the two biggest obstacles facing snail farmers in Ireland. If anybody were to listen to the reply, they would have to say to themselves, “My goodness, isn’t it so hard to do business in Ireland, and isn’t it so hard for a farmer who wants to try to do something different with the land he or she owns." Among the words that came jumping out at me – besides "terrestrial gastropods", which the Minister of State used instead of just saying "snails" – were "enforcement", "control" and "regulation". It is not that the people concerned do not want regulation; we should remember that there are none better than farmers and enterprising people to do their business. The 30 people involved are highly responsible people. Would you not love to see 300 or 3,000 people involved? How in the name of goodness could any other group of people – be it a couple or individuals – say they are going to diversify and have a go at snail farming? If they think the Government is going to be silly enough to classify the snail as a cow, where would they be going? The Minister of State should please engage with Escargot. The chairperson is Deirdre O’Connor. I ask the Minister of State and her officials to liaise with those concerned and tell them that the Government is prepared to help and work for them.

I thank the Deputy. As I indicated in my original response, the topical issue submitted did not give the detail that would have allowed me to respond to the Deputy’s questions. Had he given it, perhaps I could have had a more wholesome reply for him. I take his point, however, on snails being classified as animals. Certainly, a gastropod is not the same as a mammal or a vertebrate such a cow. To compare the two so bluntly is unfair. Cows have individual herd identifiers and identity cards; individual snails do not, as far as I am aware. The comparison is a bit flippant when, in fact, snail farming is viable and diverse practice for anyone to consider getting into. Anyone who is interested would find it worthwhile to visit certain commercial snail farmers.

There is scope for existing snail farmers to register as food business operators. Maybe there is something the Department could do to encourage the farmers to look into this. If we are exporting snails to Greece only to bring them back again, it seems ludicrous. Maybe there is work we could do in that regard.

On the definition of snails, I do not know offhand why we choose to identify them as animals as opposed to fish. Maybe we can look into that also. I cannot make any promises here in the Chamber, but it is all for discussion. I accept the bones of the Deputy’s arguments on this.

Disability Services

In 2011 and 2012, the then Ombudsman, Ms Emily O'Reilly, found the eligibility criteria for the motorised transport grant and mobility allowance were in breach of the Equal Status Acts. What did the then Government do? Did it improve access to the schemes, as any compassionate Government would have done? Did it do all it could to ensure people with a disability would not be grounded in their homes? No, it callously discontinued both schemes for new applicants in 2013.

Yesterday morning, the outgoing Ombudsman, Mr. Peter Tyndall, published his final report, Grounded: Unequal access for people with disabilities to personal transport schemes. In it he claims that, despite appeals to success of Governments over the course of nine years to reintroduce the schemes, nothing was done. The report states:

I am very concerned that the issues identified appear to have effectively been ignored and that nine years later, there is no evidence of any real progress that would serve to enhance the lives of those for whom these schemes were intended to assist with their daily lives. This is of huge concern to me.

The problems Mr. Tyndall identifies are the problems I am sure every constituency office has received from people in need of supports through the schemes. He outlines the absolute injustice that is being experienced by people with disabilities owing to the inadequate transport supports that have been provided by previous Governments and that are being continued by the current one. It is a year and a half since the current Government was cobbled together, yet we are no further along. How many more damning indictments will be published before the Government does right by people with disabilities?

People with disabilities should be able to lead full and active lives within their communities but there remain many obstacles that work to prevent them from doing so. Access to personal transport is one of these. While improving access to public transport is an important issue in its own right, it is unreasonable to suggest it can address the transport needs of the many disabled people who may live in rural areas and who may struggle to get to bus stops or stations. Without access to personal transport, many disabled people cannot do what others take for granted – including working, visiting friends and family, and shopping – and engage in the many other areas of their lives where mobility is essential.

In the report published yesterday, entitled Grounded: Unequal access for people with disabilities to personal transport schemes, the Ombudsman focuses attention on the fact that personal transport supports for people with disabilities are inadequate, unfair and inequitable. The report points out that, in 2013, the Government decided to discontinue the mobility allowance and the motorised transport grant for new applicants. At that time, it said it would draw up an alternative scheme; however, almost nine years later, this has still not happened. The report also outlines that the remaining support available for those living with a disability is the disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme, which provides a range of tax reliefs linked to the purchase and use of specially constructed or adapted vehicles by drivers and passengers with a disability. However, it goes on to highlight that this scheme is inadequate to meet the needs of many people living with a disability as the limited medical criteria for eligibility have been excessively restrictive. A recommendation that the Department of Finance introduce legislation to replace the existing medical criteria with an overall assessment of general mobility was never acted on. It is shameful that, in 2021, disabled people are still not able to participate equally and actively in their communities and at work. What plans does the Government have for personal transport supports for people with disabilities? Will they have to wait another nine years for progress?

I thank Deputies Martin Browne and Tully for raising this important issue for discussion today. The Ombudsman issued commentary on three transport support schemes for people living with disability. Those are now closed. I refer to the motor transport grant and mobility allowance schemes and the disabled drivers and disabled passengers tax concession scheme operated by the Revenue Commissioners. I can assure the House that the Government shares the concerns expressed by the Ombudsman regarding the transport challenges facing people with disabilities. As the Deputies have outlined, the Government decided to close the motorised transport grant and mobility allowance administrative grant schemes in 2013. That was on foot of the reports of the Ombudsman in 2011 and 2012 regarding the legal status of both schemes in the context of the Equal Status Acts. The Government also decided to continue payment of the monthly mobility allowance on an interim basis to the 4,700 people who were in receipt of the mobility allowance at the time that the scheme closed.

Under the current remit of the Minister of State with responsibility for disability, Deputy Rabbitte, work is ongoing on the policy proposals for the provision of transport supports for people with disabilities. The Minister for Health will then revert to the Government with proposals in due course.

I would like to make this House aware of other transport supports available to people with disabilities, which include the free travel scheme operated by the Department of Social Protection, the Revenue Commissioners' disabled drivers and disabled passengers tax concession scheme and measures funded under the Department of Rural and Community Development CLÁR programme to provide grants to voluntary organisations providing transport for people with significant mobility issues. I would also like to inform the House that there have been a number of recent developments which may impact on policy options for the provision of transport supports for people with disabilities. These include the ongoing progress by the Department of Transport in providing accessible public transport nationally and that Department's review of active travel and public transport policy, including accessible public transport. The Department of Social Protection has commissioned a cost of disability study that will inform policy direction for the provision of adequate supports to meet the needs of people with disabilities, including transport costs.

Under the national disability inclusion strategy, a working group was established to lead a review of all Government-funded transport and mobility schemes for people with disabilities. The Department of Finance is reviewing the disabled drivers and disabled passengers tax concession scheme. I can assure the House of the Government's continued commitment to finding a long-term equitable solution that meets the transport needs of those people with disabilities who face the most significant challenges.

The Minister of State can speak of as many strategies, reports, reviews and working groups as he likes but the fact remains that for nearly a decade, successive Governments have withheld these schemes from a considerable number of people. If, as he says he does, the Minister of State shares our concerns, I urge him to speed up the process. We do not need another review. It is now nine years since Emily O'Reilly gave her report. That is nine years of a review, as far as I am concerned. People with disabilities will tell the Minister of State that nine years is more than enough for any review or any process to be put through.

If my words will not do, perhaps the words of the Ombudsman might. He stated:

Living with a disability in Ireland in 2021 should never mean that a person is grounded in their home, unable to participate equally and actively in their community and in work. Another working group or action plan is not enough. Those people who are adversely affected by the current lack of access to transport supports require immediate and decisive action.

I urge the Minister of State not to let Mr. Tyndall's appeals to the Government be in vain. Action needs to be taken now.

We have obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD, to ensure that disabled people are treated equally in society. We ratified the UNCRPD in 2018 but from what I can see, no progress has been made on this issue since then in the area of transport. It is a vicious circle. The Minister of State mentioned the free travel scheme and access to public transport, which is all well and good and welcome, but if a disabled person does not live near a bus stop, how will he or she get to the bus? How can such people access the transport? People need personal transport supports and if disabled people do not have access to them, they cannot work. If they cannot work, they cannot afford to buy an adaptable car that is specially constructed to support their needs. It is a vicious circle.

I welcome the fact that there is a review of the disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme but that needs to happen immediately. It needs to bring in real concessions. I do not know why publication of the Indecon report is taking so long. It is completed and should be produced.

It is clear that access to transport supports for people with disabilities can assist them to live independent lives of their choosing. Deputy Tully is right that they need to be able to travel to their place of work and to live independent lives of their choosing. I assure the House that continued efforts have been undertaken by the Department of Health to develop an equitable scheme which meets the need of people with disabilities who face the most significant challenges.

The range of policy developments I outlined earlier is an indication of the level of importance attributed to this matter across several Departments. I heard Deputy Browne's point that we need to speed up the process and I will take that on board.

As mentioned, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is working on policy proposals for the provision of transport supports for people with disabilities and the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, will then revert to the Government with proposals in due course. The Government is committed, as are the Deputies, to finding a long-term and equitable solution to this matter.

Legislative Programme

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, for coming in to take a matter that pertains to his personal responsibilities. On 1 December 2016, the then Minister said in the Dáil select committee:

The Wildlife (Amendment) Bill 2016 is important legislation. The bringing forward of this Bill is a commitment in the programme for a partnership Government.

After that, the Bill went through the Dáil and the Seanad, where it was amended. When the Government collapsed in 2020, the Bill fell, as all Bills do at the end of a Dáil session. What had to be done at that stage was to bring the Bill back into the Dáil to either accept or reject the Seanad amendments and finalise the Bill. Just as is the case with the mobility scheme, we in this country seem to have come into a world where we talk about doing things but nothing ever happens. It is almost two years since the election, although the Minister of State will argue that it took time to form the Government, which is another day's work. The House is owed a detailed explanation as to why, almost a year and a half in Dáil time since the Government was formed, we still have not gone through the simple process of bringing the legislation back into the Dail for finalisation and bringing it into law. When will this Bill be before Dáil Éireann for completion? If there really is a procedural issue with the Ceann Comhairle, I would have thought he could have sorted it out in a year and a half. In fact, I would have thought he could sort it out in a week, never mind a year and a half.

I thank Deputy Ó Cuív for raising this matter with me. I also thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. This has been going on since 2016. The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, was in the Chamber earlier. Forestry is being help up around the country at the moment because this legislation has not passed. A civil servant has probably written a long speech for the Minister of State. I know he is genuine about things. The facts are that there will be talk of some other Bill or something else being attached to this legislation. This is a short Bill that Deputy Ó Cuív, former Deputy and now Senator Kyne, and I discussed here. The Bill went into the Seanad, where it was amended. In talking to representatives of the National Parks and Wildlife Service at the time, my understanding was that they could live with the few amendments that were made. For the life of me, I cannot understand the situation. It is fine if the Minister of State or his Department want to bring in other legislation. We would handle that down the road without a problem.

This has been going on for five years during which people have been left in a quagmire regarding planning and especially forestry. As soon as a local authority or anybody sees natural heritage area, NHA, written over something - even though it is to be taken out of that - straight away it is out the gate. I know private forestry people who want to plant but when they see it, they run a mile from it. It is of utmost importance. I do not understand why we cannot - even if it is late some night here - reintroduce what Deputy Ó Cuív has suggested and solve this. The other legislation can be done later when the Government has time. I know there is a schedule but we need this brought through urgently.

Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis na Teachtaí as ucht an cheist seo. I thank the Deputies for raising this and I hope it will help expedite matters. However, there are some complexities which I will try to outline.

The principal purpose of the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill, as initiated, was to provide for review of raised bog habitats, the making, amendment and revocation of natural heritage area orders and for those purposes to amend the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000. The Bill was originally presented to Dáil Éireann. There was a very constructive debate on the Bill in both Houses, including the adoption of the Deputy's proposals to extend its scope to provide for a review of blanket bog natural heritage areas. Later in the Seanad it was agreed to place a duty on public bodies to promote the conservation of biodiversity, which was an important and innovative section of the Bill.

As the Deputies will be aware, the Bill had completed all stages in the Dáil and the Seanad, and had been returned to the Dáil for consideration of the various amendments made by the Seanad. The Bill was at what is colloquially known as the "cream list" stage when the Bill lapsed with the dissolution of the Thirty-second Dáil on 14 January 2020.

Dáil Standing Order 227 provides that where a Bill passed by the Dáil is subsequently amended and passed by the Seanad, those amendments are then returned to the Dáil for its consideration. Standing Order 228 provides that the Dáil may accept, amend or reject the Seanad amendments. Amendments in the Dáil to the Seanad's amendments may only be moved where they are "consequential upon the acceptance, amendment or rejection of a Seanad amendment." There is no mechanism under Standing Orders to move amendments to a Bill returned to the Dáil under Standing Order 227, other than as set out in Standing Order 228.

It is the Government's intention to proceed to seek the approval of the Oireachtas for the important changes proposed in this Bill. However, Deputies will appreciate that the sequence of events I have described is an unusual one. My officials have been working with colleagues in the Houses of the Oireachtas to establish how it would be possible and what might be the appropriate procedure for restoring the Bill to the Dáil Order Paper, and to clarify the implications of any decision in this regard. Ultimately, this process would of course be subject to the ruling of the Ceann Comhairle on examination of the finalised text of the proposed restoration motion and any associated amendments.

Deputies will appreciate that restoration of this Bill to the Order Paper is not straightforward. However, once the complexities have been resolved it is my intention to bring a memorandum to Government outlining the next steps for the Bill. I hope that will be possible be in the early part of 2022.

I have met a number of Deputies and Senator Higgins to discuss issues of concern. This is a high priority for me and for my Department. There are other elements relating to the statutory footing of the national biodiversity action plan that also are very important to me. We want to deal with this as speedily as we can. I appreciate the Deputies' raising this today because it certainly focuses minds on getting this back onto the Order Paper.

I would be very interested to hear if there was a meeting with Deputy Fitzmaurice. There was certainly no meeting with me and both of us had a big interest in this Bill. I am still totally baffled. The Government was formed at the end of June 2020. It is now nearly December 2021. It has had a year and five months to resolve the issue. In my little simple mind, there seem to be two quick ways around this. The first is to change the Standing Orders of the Dáil to deal with this eventuality because I presume what happened was nobody thought of this eventuality; it was highly unlikely. However, the unlikely does happen. The other way is to reintroduce, as a new Bill in the Dáil, the Bill that was passed by the Seanad as the wildlife amendment Bill 2021 and put it quickly through the Dáil and Seanad. It has all been agreed and we would be home and dry. The procedural issues the Minister of State outlined should not have held us up. It has held us up for a year and heading for a year and a half because he has told us that it will not happen until 2022.

In fairness to the Minister of State, I do not think he said there were any meetings. I just spoke to him in a corridor, but there was no meeting about this with his staff. Would it be helpful, if it was workable for everyone here in the Dáil, that we would reintroduce the Bill? Would the Minister of State accept it? I know he wants to introduce Government Bills and I understand all that, but this is a bigger picture.

The Minister of State spoke about raised bog habitats, but he must remember that a lot of ordinary land that farmers are farming is involved. They are just held up at the moment. People will say that they should not be, but they are held up with planning, forestry or any other work they want to do with their land because it is a red flag the minute it goes on. There must be a way of resolving this rapidly. I ask the Minister of State to meet Deputy Ó Cuív and me. If there is a quick way around it and we can help him, we are willing to help him. This is not a barrage of politics with one against the other. This is about trying to solve a problem that is not of the Minister of State's making.

I would be more than happy to meet the Deputies to try to expedite this. As I said in my opening statement, it is our priority to try and get this through. We need to try to work through the complexities to resolve it. I believe we discussed it informally shortly after the Government was formed. I had a number of meetings with Senator Higgins to try and move it along. I assure the Deputies that it is of our highest priority to try to get this resolved once and for all. I would be more than happy to meet the Deputies to discuss it further and see how we can move it along.

Special Educational Needs

I am grateful to the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for allowing this matter to be taken. I congratulate the Minister of State on the progress that has been made on special education, which is truly transformative. We now have four times as many special classes and twice as many special needs assistants, SNAs. We have moved from individual models of assessment and expensive gateways to support to one that is much more of a whole-school approach.

The final game changer for me is the proposal developed by the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, of what is called the school inclusion model. That brings a range of therapeutic supports to an extended number of schools and preschools. It has been piloted very successfully. A pilot was adopted because at the time, there were constrained resources and it needed to be road-tested to ensure it was the best approach. I would strongly argue that this is far better than the previous health-based approach involving referral to the health system. It is accessible. There are no appointments and no risk of no-shows. It is a team approach, integrating the resource teacher or the special needs teacher and the SNA. It encourages learning and growth within the school as to how to adopt proper therapeutic approaches to supporting children who need it. For pupils, it is delivered in a familiar setting and addresses real constraints that teaching and SNA support alone cannot achieve.

We need to move swiftly and I would like to know about the evaluation. What are the criteria and outcomes of assessment? How long will it take? Will the NCSE be at the heart of that evaluation? What approach will be taken to extending to new areas? This is urgently needed and will help address what all of us know is a crisis in early intervention access because people will have access to therapeutic services within the familiar school-based system.

I am very pleased to be able to discuss this matter along with my colleague, Deputy Bruton, and I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House.

The difference between the provision of supports for children with special educational needs in their schools and their having to go somewhere else after the school day finishes is transformative for the children, for their convenience, for how natural it is for them to stay in their own school environment and for the comfort with which they can access additional services. Anything we can do to make children more comfortable and less different, whether in terms of special educational needs, support services or play therapy for any child in school, and to the extent that we can support them within the familiar environment of their own school, we should do to make things better.

There is so much really good work being done in this area, and I thank the Minister of State for all her work and engagement. In my area, Dún Laoghaire, we have had 11 additional special educational needs classes, bringing the number up to 43. That is a huge increase since the general election. I thank not only the Minister of State for her work on that but also all the schools in my area, which have engaged with the Department and come up with creative solutions. We have more in train. This has made a significant difference for parents, particularly parents of three- and four-year-olds, who have been struggling to know where they will send their children and how they will be able to get them class places. It has taken an awful lot of pressure off them and made a massive difference, as has the additional number of special needs assistants. We have now had an additional 2,165 in this two-year period, and I thank the Minister of State for her work in securing the budget to deliver that.

As my colleague, Deputy Bruton, said, this pilot model is a real opportunity to deliver services in a much more natural and convenient and, I believe, effective way. We would love to hear an update on the pilot, how the Minister of State thinks it is going, the prospects for its roll-out into other areas and, indeed, nationally for further testing, and any possible timeline for that.

I commend the Deputies on bringing forward this Topical Issue matter. It is a very pertinent issue to me, as Minister of State with responsibility for special education. I appreciate all the work done by Deputy Bruton, a previous Minister for Education, who in fact kick-started the process of the school inclusion model, and thank him for that. I wish to reassure both Deputies that I feel this will be the gold-star policy change for special education in Ireland. I hope that, in time, other jurisdictions will look to this country and admire the model we have. I commend both Deputies on the work they have done in this regard. As they have correctly pointed out, this will be the transformative model for children with additional needs.

The pilot of the model, as the Deputies will know, started in community healthcare organisation, CHO 7, in Kildare, west Wicklow and south-west Dublin. As we all know, the pandemic, unfortunately, got in the way and schools had to close in early 2020 and early 2021. In March 2020, the HSE, unfortunately, had to take some of our therapists to use them for testing and tracing, which of course posed difficulties for the education sector in trying to retain its own therapists. In that regard, my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Foley, brought to the Government a memo on the recruitment of our own therapists by the NCSE. One of the challenges we face is to ensure that we have a sufficient number of therapists for the school inclusion model and that the HSE can use its own therapists. Both models are complementary; neither is in lieu of the other.

It is really important when we talk about the school inclusion model that we note its key elements. One is the continuing professional development and training for our teachers and SNAs. In that regard, we have set out a new SNA training programme in UCD. It was oversubscribed. I think about 3,500 SNAs wanted to avail of it. There are more starting again this year and there will be more early next year. That will be of critical importance to those SNAs. As Deputy Bruton knows from his time as Minister for Education, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has told us it will not be possible to continuously add on more SNAs year on year. At the moment we have 19,000 SNAs. That is an increase of 70% since 2011.

The ideal model is this multidisciplinary, wrap-around approach within the school environment. That will involve the other key element, namely speech and language therapists, SLTs, and occupational therapists, OTs, to have those in-school supports, which Deputy Bruton's colleague, Deputy Carroll MacNeill, has pointed out will make it more comfortable and convenient for the child within the school environment. That approach should be commended.

There are also the psychological and behavioural supports. When I have visited schools that have already rolled out this model - St. Martin de Porres National School, in Tallaght, is one that springs to mind - and other schools, they have said to me that the behavioural practitioners are imperative and badly needed within the schools. That is another key element of this.

There is also the front-loading of SNAs. We have already started that process with the special education teachers and we want to do it with the SNAs as well. The National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, expansion in respect of the well-being of children with additional needs will also be crucial, and we intend to expand that as well.

I thank the Minister of State and congratulate her on her very accurate appreciation of the benefits of this model. I remember when Eamon Stack, then chair of the NCSE, developed this. He was like a child, so enthusiastic was he about the impact it would have on special education. There is an opportunity to drive this and make it, as the Minister of State said, unique. There is no other best-practice model. This is the best-practice model that can be developed. It does not need assessment by anyone other than the NCSE to see that it is achieving its goals. The key is to make sure we move as rapidly as possible to deliver this and see no obstacles put in its way.

I absolutely concur with my colleague, Deputy Bruton. I keep thinking about this child-centred focus from the perspective of the child and the child's needs. Speech therapists, occupational therapists and psychological supports should be brought into the child's school rather than the child having to be othered or made different by travelling to another place. I keep thinking this is a little like children in hospital with ongoing additional health needs who have to turn up again and again to multiple different types of appointments, whether neurology, endocrinology or anything else. I refer to complex cases in which the child is constantly taken out of his or her routine. Children should wake up, have their breakfast, get to school, come home and have as normal a day as possible. For any child with additional needs, whether educational needs or health needs, as a State, we need to think about this from the child's perspective and deliver the services in the most natural and convenient way for them that will achieve the best outcomes and be minimally disruptive to them.

This is a fantastic model and, as Deputy Bruton said, the evaluation is clear. What is really exciting about it is being able to deliver it more broadly as quickly as possible.

The important point to note, which I may not have mentioned yet, is the fact that the pilot has recommenced in CHO 7 this term. We have plans for expansion of that. The independent evaluation is critical, and I am very satisfied so far with a report we have received on the confidence children with additional needs have gained from availing of the school inclusion model and the fact that they have reached most of their targets in a way in which they had not before. It is important, as both Deputies said, that children get the right supports available at the right time in order that they can achieve better educational and life outcomes. That is what we all want. Special education should never be a partisan issue. It is something we all care about. We in the Government have demonstrated that by providing more than €2 billion, which is over 25% of the entire education budget, dedicated solely to special educational needs.

As for the school inclusion model and the next steps involved, a memo to the Government will be brought in the coming weeks, we hope. That will ensure we continue to roll this out into other CHO areas across the country. I hear both Deputies' enthusiasm for the school inclusion model. I am very grateful they have brought the matter before the Dáil because it shines a spotlight on it and the really good work we are doing. The model provides a framework for teaching, care, training and therapeutic supports that will facilitate the greater inclusion of children with complex needs in education. The Department has received funding of €6 million from the Government in 2021 for recruitment of therapists, including OTs and SLTs.