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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 19 Jan 2022

Vol. 1016 No. 4

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

International Agreements

I wish to start with very sombre figures.

Our fellow human beings are behind the figures. As of today, Covid-19 has claimed 5.5 million people worldwide. It is an incredible statistic. Nearer to home, 150,000 people in Britain have died of Covid-19. On our island, 10,000 people have died, thus far, as a result of the pandemic. It has taken a terrible toll on those people, their families and society as a whole. There is hope; without it there will be despair. The pandemic continues to separate us in some ways, but also unites us and brings us together in other good ways.

This virus is universal and indiscriminate. Through science, we have found a vaccine that at least stops the ravages of this terrible disease and saves lives but, at the same time, we have a contradiction. While we have a vaccine, many people in this world cannot get access to it. Almost 40% of the world's population have not got a single vaccine. Even health workers in the developing world have not got access to this vaccine. It is quite extraordinary that in the circumstance of a world emergency countries cannot get access to vaccines because pharmaceutical companies have control over supply and intellectual property rights. Many people will ask if this is not the time to waive intellectual property rights, when is it?

As I said, the statistics are extraordinary. Even this week, Oxfam International stated: "Vaccines were meant to end ... [the] pandemic, yet rich ... [countries] allowed pharma cut off the supply to billions of people". Many people, through NGOs, religious organisations and civic organisations, are calling for a waiver to end the embargo on intellectual property rights to allow countries to make these vaccines. The argument is that countries in the developing world cannot make these vaccines, but they have the infrastructure in India and Africa. Factories where these vaccines can be mass produced are ready to go, but big pharma is not allowing that to happen and is allowing people to get the disease and die.

I do not know anybody who can stand over that. I do not think anybody in this Chamber could stand over it with a serious face, but that is the reality. Last December, a motion was passed in the Seanad calling on the Government to publicly call on the European Commission to support the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, TRIPS, waiver. The European Commission has failed to do so, even though two countries who are members of it, Italy and Portugal, have stated that they support the TRIPS waiver. I call on the Minister of State to use his influence, as a member of the Government and a Deputy who is part of the Cabinet and so forth, to push for a TRIPS waiver via the European Commission so people can get access to this vaccine.

I thank the Deputy for raising this debate and important discussion. The figures he outlined, and the loss of life we have seen all over the world, reminds us all just how serious Covid-19 is and of the impact it has had on many people's lives, including those who have lost their lives, their families and many of those who have been left very ill. I again reiterate the importance of all of us all over the world working together, which is what we are trying to achieve through the WTO talks. More than 164 countries are working together and making decisions together. It is important that Ireland is in the middle of that and leading it. The Irish people would expect us to do that.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I am conscious that he had it down for discussion at a similar time as the Seanad debate in December, but it is important that we get a chance to look back over it. It refers to Ireland's and the EU's position at those talks, which have not yet happened. This scheduled meeting was postponed because of the Omicron variant but, hopefully, it will happen soon. There have been ongoing meetings and discussions over the past few months, but we also need to have those formal talks.

It is important to point out that TRIPS is an international legal agreement between all the member nations of the World Trade Organization, WTO. Therefore, any proposal for a potential variation or waiver of the current intellectual property, IP, protections under the TRIPS Agreement is for negotiation at the WTO, where Ireland is one of 164 members. It is important that we are there and we use our influence through the EU Commission; we speak together with it.

As the Deputy is aware, the Tánaiste, who is the lead Minister in our Department, is on the record as saying very clearly that:

The Government is a very strong supporter of vaccine equity in the world. Morally we need to make sure the world is vaccinated.

It is something we are very committed to as a country because it represents the views of our people. That is why we did not oppose the motion in the Seanad. I think everyone in this Chamber today would support this view, as was the case when I addressed this matter in the Seanad in December. I wish to reiterate what I said then; Ireland will continue to do all we can to help make sure countries worldwide have access to Covid vaccines for their people. We will do so as universal and equitable access to vaccines is crucial in the global fight against Covid-19.

Ireland will continue to engage with the European Commission, and other member states, on the EU position for the WTO discussions regarding how the flexibilities within the TRIPS Agreement can contribute towards increasing the manufacturing capacity and the equitable access to vaccines around the world. The EU continues to be committed to an open and comprehensive dialogue with all WTO members to explore how the multilateral rules-based trading system can best support universal and equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines and treatments. This is why the EU proposed an alternative to the TRIPS waiver proposal. That proposal was targeted and pragmatic and aims at ensuring that governments can resort to compulsory licences, including to export to countries with no or limited manufacturing capacities, in the most effective manner and adapted to the circumstances of a pandemic. The EU will also consider any other pragmatic proposal for a TRIPS waiver, should a further proposal be submitted. Again, it is something we are very committed to working through.

The Government has an open mind on the alternative suggestion of a TRIPS waiver. The Tánaiste recently met the United States trade representative, Katherine Tai, and made it very clear that we would happily look at a proposal, if one lands, and discuss that with her. It has not yet been formally put forward. Those talks have not formalised yet, but hopefully it will happen soon. The EU has repeatedly made clear that it sees intellectual property as being part of the solution to the pandemic and not the problem, but it is an issue. There are IP regimes in every country and it is a matter our Department has had a role in over many years. Due to that IP regime, we have seen billions invested in many drug treatments and solutions all over the world, in addition to Covid-19 treatments. A lot of taxpayers' money in many countries, amounting to billions, has been put forward in the past couple of years to build on that previous research to develop the drugs that are now helping us to deal with Covid. It is important that we get that balance right.

Consideration of this matter must balance the need to encourage and incentivise industry to continue to carry out research, to innovate and to develop new medicines and medicinal products during this public health crisis. Intellectual property protections are a crucial incentive for the research and development of new vaccines, modified vaccines adapted to new variants and new medicines and treatments for Covid-19, as well as investment in production capacity. Intellectual property, in our view, continues to play an important role as an enabler that contributes to our overall objective of ramping up production of Covid-19 vaccines and medicines. Again, therefore, any solution must balance industry’s research and innovation costs, and the importance of maintaining a workable IP regime, with the importance of ensuring fair, equitable access to medicines and medicinal products during this public health crisis. We remain very much committed to achieving that through dialogue with the European Commission and the WTO talks.

I again emphasise the amount of public money that has been invested by governments in private companies to research this vaccine. It runs into tens of billions at this stage. At the crux of this argument, because we can talk about and almost intellectualise why companies have to have property rights to what they create, we are talking about an emergency that the world has not seen for the past 75 years. We are talking about people dying unnecessarily while big pharma creates huge amounts of money and profits for its shareholders.

It is a binary choice. On the one hand, do we protect big pharma and its intellectual product?

Is it, on the other hand, to protect the vulnerable, the poor and people who cannot access vaccines? That is the binary choice. When it comes down to it, there are governments in rich countries that do not care about poor people and never have. That is the nature of capitalism, which at its heart has to cannibalise, consume and profit from a product. That is what it is doing with vaccines. Rationally, one would think this vaccine would be available to everybody and that everybody in this world would have got at least one. However, 40% of the world has not got any. How anybody logically can stand and defend that, I find very hard to take.

I want to be clear with the Deputy that the Irish Government and people absolutely do care. The Irish response to the pandemic has been rooted in our commitment to the principle of universal and equitable access to vaccines and treatments. We will continue to use our influence across the world on that. It is right and fair to say, and I acknowledged it in my opening comments, that billions have been invested from the public purse by countries and governments all over the world on behalf of their taxpayers. That, in conjunction with many billions spent before that on developing those drugs, has enabled us to be in our current position with regard to vaccines and a number of treatments. It is about how we utilise that wisely to get it to those who need it in all developing countries and situations where there is poverty, as well as continuing to be able to invest in treatments and drugs for future emergencies. We have to get that right. We know it is important to make sure there is equitable access to those vaccines around the world.

Ireland will continue to engage with the European Commission and other member states on the EU position for the WTO negotiations and discussions on how the flexibilities within the TRIPS agreement can contribute to increasing manufacturing capacity and equitable access to vaccines around the world. Consideration of this matter must balance industry’s research and innovation costs and the importance of maintaining a workable IP regime with the importance of ensuring fair, equitable access to medicines and medicinal products during this public health crisis. That balance is key to protecting future investment from all of us - taxpayers, private, etc. We will get the best bang for our buck by putting the two together.

We recognise and are clear in the Government that global access to vaccination is essential to curbing the spread and future mutations of the Covid-19 virus. Ensuring developing countries have access to vaccines is a complex endeavour involving a number of policy and operational areas, such as manufacturing, supply, distribution, transport, storage, capacity to manage vaccination campaigns and the uptake of vaccines by citizens in the countries concerned.

While the production of Covid-19 vaccines has substantially increased globally, fair distribution and diversifying production remain major objectives and ones we have to achieve. I think we can agree on that. The focus is shifting from vaccine production to administering vaccines and how strengthening health systems and preparedness is pivotal to the achievement of the 70% vaccination target.

We have to come at this from a range of areas but we are committed to the agenda of making sure there is fair and equitable access to vaccines across the world. That is something the Government will continue to do on behalf of the Irish people.

Environmental Schemes

The main reason I bring up this issue is that there is a new national retrofit scheme to be announced shortly by Government. Currently, there are three schemes available. There is the better energy warmer homes scheme, which is a free scheme that applies to people who qualify under a range of social welfare headings. It has been in place since 2009 but has changed over that time. In 2009, attic insulation and cavity walls were the main ones that applied. In 2018, that was extended to include internal and external wall insulation and replacement of windows from single to double glazing. The problem is that if you applied at any time from 2009 on, let us say 2010, and qualified under the scheme, you would not have got the double-glazed windows. However, your neighbour could apply today and qualify for the replacement windows as well as the internal and external wall insulation. That is an anomalous system and needs to be changed. We must ensure people can apply under the better energy warmer homes scheme more than once.

There are two other sister schemes, which are grant-based. They are the better energy homes scheme and the one-stop shop scheme. In those cases, you get a grant and can apply on a number of occasions on the basis you have not claimed under a certain heading. The better energy homes scheme is where you get the contract yourself, whereas under the one-stop shop scheme, the State will arrange for the contractor. Under that scheme, you can apply for ventilation as well. Under both of those schemes, you can get solar panels, which are not available under the better energy warmer homes scheme, which is the free scheme and which is also taking up to 18 to 24 months.

I ask for a commitment that, under the new national retrofit scheme to be announced shortly, the better energy warmer home scheme, which is a free scheme for people on social welfare in specific areas, would allow them to apply more than once and be extended to include solar panels and ventilation, which is very important with Covid. The waiting time at the moment is 18 to 24 months. There should be consistency between schemes. This scheme has evolved over time and there is an anomaly where someone who applied at any time up to 2018 was not eligible for internal or external cavity walls for insulation and did not qualify for replacement windows. That is an issue in terms of combating fuel poverty, dealing with climate change and emissions reduction. We must ensure this scheme is amended. I seek a commitment that will happen.

I thank Deputy O’Donnell for raising this important issue. It is important and timely because the new scheme is under consideration and will be brought to the House quite soon. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, was unable to make the debate, but I will feed in the comments and issues the Deputy has raised because he is right on waiting times, giving greater access to the scheme, reforming the scheme, dealing with ventilation and solar panels and many other issues. This scheme is targeted with a significant amount of money around making our homes safer, warmer, healthier places to live in, and more efficient to run to play their part in relation to emissions and to make it more affordable for people to live in these homes. Those are the aims of the scheme and it will be updated and brought by the Minister to the House soon. I will feed in the Deputy's comments to make sure they are heard.

The programme for Government and the climate action plan have set ambitious targets to retrofit 500,000 homes to a building energy rating of B2 and install 400,000 heat pumps in existing buildings over the next number of years. These targets represent a significant increase in both the volume and depth of retrofit activity in Ireland. The recently published national retrofit plan sets out how we will achieve these targets and identifies an unprecedented €8 billion to support homeowners to retrofit their homes out to 2030.

The better energy warmer homes scheme delivers a range of energy efficiency measures free of charge to low-income households vulnerable to energy poverty. It is administered by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI. Since the start of the scheme, more than 143,000 homes have received free upgrades. In 2021, the average cost of the energy efficiency measures provided per household was €17,100. Activity under this scheme and the associated expenditure were significantly impacted in 2020 and 2021 by the Covid pandemic.

The Deputy raised the issue of the 18-month timeline, which is longer in some cases. That is not acceptable and we want to get back on track with that. It has been hit by Covid, which has affected the number of houses that could be reached.

The budget 2022 allocation for energy poverty schemes, including the better energy warmer homes scheme, is €109 million.

The SEAI’s business plan for 2022 is currently being examined by the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications.

The eligibility criteria for the scheme were selected because they represented the view of the Department at the time on those areas where the limited resources available to the scheme could have the greatest impact. The Deputy was right to say they need to be looked at again. The criteria are kept under ongoing review with the Department of Social Protection to ensure they are consistent with and complementary to the other income support schemes offered by that Department.

There are currently just over 7,000 homes awaiting works on the better energy warmer homes scheme work programme. This includes homes that are currently undergoing works, homes that have been allocated to contractors for works, homes that have completed an initial home survey and are awaiting allocation to a contractor and homes that are awaiting an initial survey.

Until 2018, as the Deputy referenced, the scheme predominantly focused on delivering shallow measures, such as attic or cavity wall insulation. In many cases, where the walls were not cavity walls, only the attic was insulated. With the expansion of the scheme in 2018, internal and external wall insulation were introduced, which meant that solid wall properties could now receive insulation under the scheme. However, in line with the current one home, one visit rule, which the Deputy referenced, where a home has already received any works, it cannot receive further works under the scheme. This rule was introduced to help to manage demand for the scheme and ensure homes that had not previously benefitted from the scheme were prioritised. With the scheme expansion, many homeowners who only received attic insulation previously but who would, under current scheme rules, qualify for wall insulation began contesting the one home, one visit rule. The Department of Environment, Climate and Communications committed to review the rule and, in line with the Deputy's request, will assess the possibility of allowing second visits to homeowners. That is important and essential. Recommendations on the implementation of changes to the scheme to better target those most in need will be finalised shortly and brought to the House by the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan.

The provisions of the new national home retrofit scheme are currently being finalised. The new scheme will focus on the delivery of B2 retrofits with heat pumps as well as the development and expansion of the one-stop shop and retrofit market. That will reflect the request the Deputy has put forward today. I will make sure that the points the Deputy has made will be brought to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, tomorrow.

I thank the Minister of State. The one home, one visit rule needs to be amended. There needs to be consistency across all schemes in terms of what is covered and how the schemes are administered. Through the better energy warmer homes scheme, which is a grant scheme, and the one-stop shop scheme, everyone, no matter who they are, should be able to access the same range of measures. That needs to happen.

The grants will have to be increased for the new retrofit scheme that is going to be announced. They will have to be accessible so that people from every walk of life, including people dealing with fuel poverty and those on social welfare, can access the entire range of measures. We cannot have a situation where people who claimed under a scheme prior to 2018 are omitted and are left with single-glazed windows. That needs to be changed to double-glazing, at a minimum. I look forward to that review taking place.

I also look forward to the announcement of the new retrofit scheme that will include multiple visits to households and is based on ensuring that all schemes are consistent, including the better energy warmer homes scheme. I also hope that grants will be extended and other forms of supports are available to ensure that all families in houses can avail of the retrofit programme. I also hope that the waiting times are brought down.

I again thank the Deputy for raising this matter. He has covered most of the issues that need to be addressed through the new schemes that are being brought forward. I have listened with interest to the points raised by the Deputy. I will make sure they are brought to the attention of the Minister and his team in the Department who are working on these matters.

As I mentioned earlier, the new national residential retrofit plan, published on 4 November as part of the Climate Action Plan 2021, sets out how we will achieve ambitious targets to retrofit 500,000 homes to a building energy rating of B2 and to install over 400,000 heat pumps in existing buildings over the next number of years. It identifies an unprecedented €8 billion to support homeowners to retrofit their homes to 2030. We must make sure those schemes are reformed correctly to make use of that money and ensure it reaches the right people, those who need assistance, as the Deputy has identified. The plan sets out measures designed to address barriers to retrofitting in the key areas of driving demand and activity; financing and funding; and supply chain, skills and standards. It also sets out measures to support those least able to afford to retrofit to participate. Those include the people the Deputy is representing tonight and those he has mentioned in his questions. They include people in low-income households and in the rental sector. It is important to point that out.

The annual allocations set out in the plan totalling €8 billion will primarily be used to fund the expansion and enhancement of the SEAI residential and community retrofit schemes, including the warmer homes scheme, and their reformation, as well as other initiatives to support retrofitting. The consistent and significant increase in the annual allocations will help the sector to grow in a sustainable way over the years to come.

Funding for the SEAI's free energy poverty retrofit schemes has increased dramatically in recent years and we want to build on that. It increased from €15 million in 2015 to €109 million in 2021. This shows the Government’s commitment to the issue and to reflect the needs the Deputy has highlighted. The budget 2022 allocation for energy poverty schemes, including the better energy warmer homes scheme, is €109 million. As I said earlier, the SEAI’s business plan for 2022 is currently being examined by the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications and will be announced soon.

The average value of the energy-efficiency measures provided per household under the better energy warmer homes scheme has also increased very significantly, year on year, from approximately €3,000 per home in 2018 to more than €17,000 in 2021. We recognise that it will probably cost more than that for the full retrofit scheme that is now being recommended. The deepening of retrofits provided does not mean that each home takes longer to deliver and it should not mean that. We want to bring those waiting times back down. I am confident that the actions I have outlined will increase output, address the Covid-related delays and have the effect of significantly decreasing average wait times over the coming year. We need to make sure we can get the one home, one visit rule changed.

Special Educational Needs

I thank the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, for being present to deal with my question. This is a matter we have spoken about privately on a number of occasions. I acknowledge that she has always been constructive in those discussions and in her deliberations with me. I always appreciate her time.

At the outset, I will acknowledge that there have been a number of improvements in the whole area of special education over the past few years. We have seen record investment in special education. I think that investment now accounts for over 20% of the education budget as a whole, amounting to approximately €2 billion. That needs to be acknowledged. There are also record numbers of special needs assistants, SNAs. I know the Minister got an extra allocation in last year's budget. There have also been efforts made to tackle the pupil-teacher ratio. I acknowledge all those positive steps before I get to the challenges ahead.

I received correspondence from the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, last March. It details comprehensively the issues we are having in Cork city and county, primarily suburban Cork. That correspondence details that at primary school level, all but one primary school, a school in Midleton, were full in terms of autism spectrum disorder, ASD, provision. The same was true for villages such as Berrings, a relatively small village on the western side of Cork city. For Blackrock in the city centre itself, Grenagh, or whatever other village one wants to mention, this correspondence details the same thing, namely, that in the whole issue of special education, the lack of places is quite stark. The figures suggest that schools are operating at capacity.

The picture is similar when we move to second level. The majority of areas such as Glanmire, where I live, Ballyvolane, The Glen, the entirety of the north side of the city and Churchfield are at capacity at second level.

The most important figure provided by the NCSE is that 193 primary schools have ASD provision for students and only 70 are available at post-primary level. Those figures might have changed since then and I know there was an extra allocation last year but the figures paint a stark picture for kids who depart primary school and transition to second level. There is nearly a 3:1 ratio of ASD provision in primary schools compared to secondary schools. An awful lot of parents and children honestly feel as if they are falling off the edge of a cliff in terms of service provision when they make that transition.

The picture painted by the figures available to me is quite stark. Where do we go from here in terms of service provision for Cork? I am aware that the Minister has powers available to her under section 37A of the Education Act and those powers have only been utilised sparingly, and primarily in Dublin, since that legislation came in.

I ask at this stage that the Minister seriously considers, for parts of the city that I represent, particularly Glanmire and the northern side of the city out to Blarney where it is fairly obvious that certain schools are not pulling their weight, enacting those powers. Saving that, I encourage her to legislate for the NCSE to make direct interventions where schools are failing to meet that need.

Before my time finishes, I will highlight one area in particular that is a real bone of contention. It is not an area that I represent but in Ballincollig, there is a considerable deficit in autism spectrum disorder, ASD, provision. Children are travelling from that area, where I believe there is a population of more than 25,000, to outside villages like those I mentioned earlier such as Dripsey, Farran and so on to get the kind of ASD provision their students need. That is a damning indictment of the system as it is currently set up. I believe that we need to consider changing that to where the discretion is taken away from schools and ascertain whether we empower the Minister or the NCSE to make those interventions.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue as it gives me an opportunity to outline the current position regarding provision for children with special education needs, including autism. In fairness, I acknowledge his ongoing engagement with me and his very clear and specific interest in this area of education. I thank him for that.

Enabling children with special educational needs to receive an education appropriate to their needs is a priority for this Government. This year, the Department of Education will invest in excess of €2 billion or more than 25% of the Department's budget in special education needs support. As a result, the numbers of special education needs teachers, special needs assistants, SNAs, and special class and school places are at unprecedented levels in this country.

Since 2011, the number of special classes in mainstream schools has increased by almost 386% from 548 to 2,118 for the 2021-22 school year. Of these, 1,854 special classes cater for students with autism. Throughout 2020 and 2021, the Department of Education and the NCSE have worked closely on a more streamlined and joined-up planning process, which has ensured a targeted approach to meet demand for special needs placements ahead of each new school year. This approach is delivering. This intensive intervention has seen an additional 269 special classes providing more than 1,600 new places opened nationwide for the 2021-22 school year.

Notwithstanding the extent of this investment, there are some parts of the country where increases in population and other issues have led to concerns regarding a shortage of school places. The NCSE has responsibility for co-ordinating and advising on the education provision for children nationwide. It has well-established structures in place for engaging with schools and parents. The NCSE seeks to ensure that schools in an area can between them cater for all children who have been identified as needing special class placements.

Normally, special class and special school places are established with the full co-operation of the schools in areas where they are required. There are, however, some parts of the country where the NCSE has faced challenges in getting schools and their patrons to voluntarily agree to provide special classes or special school places. I know this can cause much anguish for the parents and families involved.

There is currently a network of 357 special classes in Cork of which 309 are special classes for children with autism. Of those, 228 are at primary level, including 21 early intervention classes and 81 at post-primary level. A total of 45 new special classes were established for the 2021-22 school year.

The NCSE, through its network of special educational needs organisers, SENOs, is currently engaging in a process of establishing new classes for the 2022-23 school year and beyond. The council is looking at local information with regard to projected demand for future special education places, particularly to cater for students with autism who have associated complex needs.

Budget 2022 has provided for the creation of 287 additional special classes for the 2022-23 school year. These additional classes will provide more than 1,700 new places this year. This additional provision will bring the total number of special classes to more than 2,400 in the 2022-23 school year.

The provision of special school places in Cork was also significantly increased for the 2021-22 school year with the opening of a new special school in Carrigaline. The number of places available in this school will again increase for September 2022 and work is also progressing on the expansion of an existing special school in Rochestown. Overall, budget 2022 has provided for an additional 23 teaching pots and 46 SNA posts in special schools nationwide, which will create an additional 140 special school places in 2022.

The response gives me an update on the figures but it still points out a concerning ratio in the provision of ASD places from primary versus secondary school. In Cork, we are now at 228 at primary level and 81 at post-primary level. There is, therefore, still almost that 3:1 ratio of ASD provision from primary versus secondary, particularly in Cork where the pinch point is. It is when kids are transitioning from primary to secondary level that parents are finding it extremely difficult to get access to ASD places and ASD classes.

With regard to the responsibility of the NCSE for co-ordinating and advising on education provision, as I said, it is quite clear that every unit in suburban Cork is full. It might be anecdotal evidence but it is quite clear to any Teachta Dála from Cork who is approached by parents. We have parents driving or sending their kids on minibuses, often for 30 to 40 minutes and up to an hour. Kids are not getting that provision in their own locality as should be their right.

Without naming schools, I can give examples or large towns where there are three secondary schools and only one school is providing ASD classes. In one case, the other two schools have never bothered. Whether that is an issue over snobbery and not wanting to run an ASD class or whatever the case may be, those are the facts. As long as we allow that discretion for secondary schools and boards of management, that difficulty is going to remain.

I ask again that the Minister give further consideration not only to her own powers under section 37A, but to strengthen the role of the NCSE and get it to directly intervene. Even looking at the demography of Cork, the population growth is quite apparent. From the city centre east to Youghal, there is not one ASD place at the moment. I think there was one last year in St. Aidan's, Ballyvolane but those figures are outdated now. That was the only place between the city centre east as far as Youghal. That is almost 40 km. That is the stark picture and that requires urgent action. I acknowledge that good progress is being made on a new special education site in Glanmire. I know it is at a sensitive commercial stage but, again, there is progress on that issue and that is giving us hope as well.

I thank the Deputy again for raising this issue and for the opportunity to reassure the House that the Department is committed to ensuring that all children can access an education suitable to their needs.

Planning is actively under way to ensure that children without a placement for next year are provided with a suitable replacement. The NCSE is leading work in this regard. I reassure the Deputy that the Department will continue to support the NCSE and schools through the provision of necessary funding and capital investment to ensure all children are successful in accessing an education.

Considerable work is undertaken with schools on the ground and this has proven successful, notwithstanding the issues the Deputy has raised and the need to continue to engage with schools in this respect. I want to again emphasise that there is a huge commitment from the point of view of the Department to accelerate provision of school places and special schools. Considerable progress has been made in this very short time span since the formation of this Government. It is a significant recognition that almost 25% of the budget now is being expended on special education and rightly so. Beyond that, specific interventions, for example, budget 2021, provided an additional 990 SNAs and this resulted in more than 18,000 SNAs being allocated to schools by the end of December in 2021. Budget 2022 then provides funding for an additional 1,165 SNAs to provide support to children with special education needs, which will bring the total number of SNAs in this country to more than 19,169 at the end of December 2022. As I said, provision for 19,169 SNAs at the end of the year will represent an increase of 81% since 2011, at which time 10,575 SNAs were provided for.

Budget 2021 also provided for an additional 145 special educational teachers, bringing the provision to 13,765. Budget 2022 provides for the creation of additional 980 new teaching posts in special education. This new investment is required to meet the needs of students with special educational needs. The point is that there is an ongoing commitment to address the issues that arise in staffing and supports for students, as well as the provision of places for students with additional needs.

State Examinations

I call Deputies Fitzmaurice, Kerrane, Barry and Ó Laoghaire. We have to stick tightly to the time of one minute each.

First, I thank Minister coming into the House. Last Monday, Deputy Kerrane and myself met students in St Cuan’s College in Castleblakney. Those students last Monday gave up their dinner time or their lunch break and went out to stand together in solidarity looking for the hybrid system that they believe they deserve. I believe they deserve it. In fairness, most Deputies around the country believe that the choice should be given to those pupils. Today, we see students in different parts of the country looking for the same.

Bear in mind that many families unfortunately have been affected by the Covid and have lost time. The same has happened to teachers and we must remember this as well. I was rather surprised to hear the Taoiseach at Leaders’ Questions today state that there may difficulties because they may not be enough college places. Are we now saying that a student sits the leaving certificate exam so that we will be able to make sure that X number will get in and X number will not? I would be very worried about that. The Minister's Department needs to go back and look at this. I will hand her a copy of the letter.

As has been said, Deputy Fitzmaurice and I met with students and teachers at St. Cuan’s College in Castleblakney on Monday last. On that same day, students in the Holy Rosary College in Mountbellew were also protesting. A number of those protests also continued today. They have been clear that they want certainty. It is great shame to leave students with this worry and stress. The leaving certificate year is already stressful enough as it is. They have not had an ordinary year. It is a two-year cycle. It has not been a normal leaving certificate year and therefore the normal leaving certificate should not go ahead. There should be choice for students. I ask the Minister to make a decision and to give certainty to the students now so that they are allowed choice. That is the very least they deserve.

A leaving certificate student at the gate today asked me in this debate to ask that all of the windows in the Dáil Chamber would be opened up so that all the Deputies can see the conditions that they have to work in. It is in all weathers, including freezing cold. Of course, I cannot ask that that be done because there are no windows in the Dáil Chamber. However, the basic idea is good. What he was saying to me was that we should put ourselves in the students’ shoes. They missed months of direct classroom teaching time in fifth year. They have real mental health pressures bearing down upon them. They have just gone back to school at the start of a new year. Some have not been able to go back because they had Covid-19. Some have not been able to go back because they were close contacts. Some did not go in because their parents kept them home, fearful of Covid-19. Some of their teachers did not arrive. My question to the Minister is why, given all of this, has she still not shut down the option of an unwanted traditional leaving certificate?

I first want to echo Deputy O’Sullivan’s points in the previous debate. There is a very serious issue in relation to the allocation of special educational classes in Cork city and suburbs. I give specific mention to the issue of post-primary in Ballincollig.

Much has been made of the fact that this is not the same situation as last year. Of course, that is true, it is not precisely the same. However, it is the case that this is not a normal year and it is nothing like a normal year. Students faced months outside of the classroom. They have endured significant periods of self-isolation themselves, perhaps two or three periods, perhaps the same for their class teachers. It is proving very difficult to cover the course. The Minister will go to the stakeholders' meeting tomorrow. Of course, all voices have to be listened to, but she should listen in particular to the voice of students. What they are saying is clear, it is fair and it is deliverable. That is that they are given the choice between accredited grades and written exams. I believe it can be done. The Minister went for that herself last year. It was the right choice. Many people called for it and she responded to it. I urge her to do the same again this year.

I thank Deputies for raising this issue and for allowing me to address the matter. At the outset, I would like to say that I am very much aware of the disruption experienced by students who are due to take their leaving certificate examinations this year in the class of 2022. It is welcome that the schools reopened at the normal time after the Christmas holidays. I know that schools are working tirelessly to deliver the best possible educational experience to students. It is important to say that. All planning for the 2022 examinations is guided by the prevailing public health advice and it will have regard to the well-being of students. The Department of Education continues to engage with the partners in education on all matters relating to the leaving certificate 2022 examinations. The next meeting of the advisory group on the State examinations is planned for tomorrow. The advisory group includes representatives of students, parents, teachers and school leaders, as well as representatives from the State Examinations Commission, SEC, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, higher education and my Department.

Adjustments to the examination papers for the 2022 State examinations were announced in August 2021. These adjustments were designed to take account of both the disruption to learning experience by students in the early part of 2021, as well as providing for some possible further disruption in the 2021-22 academic school year. The adjustments ensure that the overall structure of the examinations remains intact, but allow for greater choicer for students. Revised arrangements for leaving certificate oral examinations in Irish, in the modern foreign languages and the practical performance tests in leaving certificate music were announced last month. These examinations will now take place outside of school time over the first week of school Easter holidays. By moving these examinations to the Easter holidays, the State Examinations Commission aims to minimise disruption to teaching and learning, especially for those candidates preparing for the examinations, as this change will specifically limit teacher absence from schools.

The State Examinations Commission also recently provided further information to schools regarding aspects of the 2022 State examinations. This included postponing commencement of assessment of what is known as the leaving certificate applied February tasks from 31 January to 14 February. Schools were also reminded of the flexibility which is available regarding the dates for completion and authentication of coursework for leaving certificate candidates. I have also announced that an alternative set of leaving certificate examinations will be run 2022, shortly after the conclusion of the main set of examinations. This will be for students who are unable to set the main set of examinations for various reasons, including Covid-19 illness, bereavement or serious illness.

Finally, the Department of Education has also provided a suite of guidance materials agreed with the educational partners to enable schools to mediate the curriculum safely for all pupils and students in a Covid-19 context. The Department of Education will continue to engage with all partners in education on all matters relating to the leaving certificate 2022 examinations. As I said, the meeting of the advisory group on planning for State examinations 2022 has been planned for tomorrow, Thursday. As previously outlined, this group represents the widest possible experience of stakeholders in education, students, parents, teachers and managerial bodies. It is important that this advisory group has been in operation for a considerable amount of time. Their last meeting was on 20 December, where the decision around the final arrangements as regards the examinations for the orals and the musical practicals was taken. The next meeting will take place tomorrow. I look forward to that opportunity tomorrow to hear again the views, thoughts and experiences of everybody around the table. They have played a vital role up to this point in determining how we proceed. It is important that they be afforded the opportunity also tomorrow.

Now each Member has only 30 seconds to reply.

Schools were opened, but the Minister should realise that many families got Covid-19, many teachers got Covid-19 and there was total disruption.

On top of that, it is interesting that many teachers have said that they were surprised at the unions' talk as they were not consulted. We should not even be debating whether children should have the choice. This should be an option every year going forward. The Minister spoke about the group that is going to meet tomorrow. With everything she has outlined, I would not hold out much hope. The Minister should respect the children and what they have gone through and give them the choice.

The Minister said there will be a meeting tomorrow but is it the case she has already made the decision on the leaving certificate and she is not considering giving students a choice? I understood that was the position until the Taoiseach made the situation seem different again in an interview last weekend. Has the decision been made on this matter? Students are trying to get their voices heard. They have been clear on what they want and it is unfair that we are putting this further pressure and stress on them now and not listening to them.

The Minister said the Department is offering students more choice in the papers and that some exams have been postponed until the Easter holidays. That does not really matter a damn. It is not the point or the issue. The issue now is whether there will be a traditional leaving certificate or non-traditional leaving certificate. What is the Minister's answer on that?

On the mental health issue, the Minister and I both know there is a mental health crisis in schools. Is she going to compound that further by imposing a leaving certificate that 70% of students - that is seven in ten - are against, as shown clearly by the ISSU poll?

We all anticipated that the Minister's response would kick this question into tomorrow's meeting. I understand how things work. What I did not anticipate was that her response so far does not even contemplate giving students the choice, even though the Government has stated it is open to that. I am hoping the Minister will say in her next reply that she is open to that. I urge her to take that decision early because the situation students are in at the minute is unbearable due to the uncertainty, stress and pressure they are under. Many of these students will have missed upwards of eight weeks of in-class time last year and potentially five or six weeks between themselves and the teacher covering the subject this year. Teachers are saying they will not organise mock exams on certain subjects because they have not covered the course. That is the reality they are facing.

I again thank the Deputies for their contributions. I will note them. In my previous response, I took the opportunity to outline the progress and consultation that has taken place to this point. It has been a process of progress and consultation, which is important. As I have already outlined, it is a consultation with the widest possible representation of stakeholders through the advisory body. That includes students and they have been very much part of the process, which continues tomorrow. That is right and proper. It has been the hallmark of progress to this point for the leaving certificate in 2022 and equally so for those in 2020 and 2021.

I emphasise that I am acutely aware of the disruption caused to students who are taking the exam in 2022. The Department will continue to engage with education stakeholders to ensure the best interests of all students are at the heart of all decisions made relating to the leaving certificate in 2022. There was ongoing engagement in planning prior to the return to school when plans were put in place for accommodations to exam papers. As I outlined earlier, other accommodations such as second sittings of exams and the provision of exams at Easter outside of school time will be made.

There will be a further opportunity tomorrow to hear all voices and opinions at the advisory group meeting in what has always been an open and constructive manner. An opportunity will be afforded to each of the stakeholders tomorrow to articulate their views, experiences and representative thoughts and ideas on the next stages of development for the process. I look forward to that opportunity. I have always supported the opportunity for the widest possible stakeholder engagement, including with students, and I will continue to do that. It is a proper process and it is right and proper that that opportunity be facilitated tomorrow.

Cuireadh an Dáil ar athló ag 11.15 p.m. go dtí 9 a.m., Dé Déardaoin, an 20 Eanáir 2022.
The Dáil adjourned at 11.15 p.m. until 9 a.m. on Thursday, 20 January 2022.