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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 26 Jan 2022

Vol. 1016 No. 7

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Dental Services

The crisis in our dental care has been discussed many times in the Chamber over the past number of months. The crisis is getting worse. The most recent estimates state that only 750 dentists remain in the dental treatment services scheme, DTSS. That is less than half the number in the scheme prior to Covid-19. Covid-19 is not the reason these dentists have exited the scheme, which covers medical card clients. Covid-19 has exacerbated this crisis, as has been the case in many areas. We are now left with a situation whereby those most vulnerable in society, who have the least discretionary funding or zero discretionary funding, are forced into a position where they must pay out of pocket for emergency dental procedures. Anyone in this Chamber, in this building or in this country who has had a toothache knows how painful it is. To have that and be unable to get treatment, to have to pay out of pocket, get loans from family to get dental extractions, is untenable and is something we cannot stand over.

It is more complex than that. I have an email from Lauren who writes on behalf of her brother, Philip, who has Down's syndrome. Philip, along with many others who have disabilities in Ireland, has major dental issues. He has no adult teeth and it is, therefore, crucial to maintain the teeth he has now. This is made more difficult due to frequent antibiotic use. The family has been informed by the HSE that dental care has ceased for individuals aged over 18 with intellectual disabilities. It has pulled funding from dentists who specialise in dentistry for people with additional needs. Given the ongoing medical card crisis, the family cannot access a dentist or a hygienist. That is just one example of the pain that a family goes through trying to access basic dental care for someone who needs it.

I have referred to the lack of access to dentists and the number of dentists who have exited the scheme. A woman in Swords advises that nobody is taking on medical card holders in the town at the moment. A woman in Swords contacted me. She is a wheelchair user. Her ability to navigate Swords is difficult, never mind having to get out to try to find a new dentist and get the much-needed care she needs. Today the Labour Party has tabled a motion on the cost of living. This is one of the many additional emergency much-needed costs that cannot be put off. Oral health is linked to good physical health. People cannot put off the care they require and they have to get loans from family for this. There is a crisis in north County Dublin and all over the country. The representative body for dentists has been seeking a meeting with the Department to discuss the DTSS, how it can be reformed and how we can get dentists back into it. This has reached crisis levels. Will the Minister of State give an update as to how she is going to resolve this and where we are in discussions with the industry? When will we be in a position where the most vulnerable in society are able to get quick access to dental treatment when they need it?

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. There is nobody in this Chamber who has not been contacted in our constituency offices on this issue. I am taking this debate on behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. The Minister is acutely aware that access to dental services for medical card holders under the DTSS has become an ever-increasing problem during the pandemic. The problem is that a significant number of dentists who were contracted by the HSE to treat medical card patients have chosen to leave the scheme, which has led to difficulties for medical card patients in accessing dental care. Some parts of the country have been particularly affected, an issue which is of particular concern to the Minister. The latest figures we have from the HSE suggest that 1,150 dentists are contracted to the HSE to treat medical card patients, which is approximately 300 down on the figure before the pandemic.

The Minister has also heard what the dentists have had to say about the viability of the scheme and he wants that addressed as well. The Minister secured an additional €10 million in budget 2022 to address this very problem. He hopes that agreement can be reached very quickly on how the money can be used to address some of the immediate problems with the scheme, pending the full root-and-branch review.

Officials from the Department and the HSE last met with the Irish Dental Association on 17 December. Certain proposals were put to the association and the responses to those proposals are now being actively considered by the Department and the HSE. The Minister hopes that through dialogue some interim solutions can be found as quickly as possible, for the benefit of patients and the dental community. As the Deputy quite rightly said, anyone who has ever experienced a toothache knows they cannot hang around.

In the meantime, officials are engaging with the HSE public dental service, the in-house salaried service, which is seeking to provide cover for any medical card patients who are experiencing problems in accessing a service from their local dentist.

The situation is very complex. Another area of delay is the assessment of primary school children. I was very privileged to benefit from being screened in primary school, in fourth or fifth class, and being taken into what was the Eastern Health Board system at the time. Through my teenage years, right up to the week before my leaving certificate, I had everything from crowns to braces all done through the State. I was discharged a week before my leaving certificate and I will never forget it, having been captured in the fourth or fifth class. We need to get back to that quickly.

I am encouraged a meeting took place on 17 December, but my understanding from that meeting is that the Department is looking at quarter 2 of 2022 to move this process forward. That is too late. We cannot be discussing this in terms of quarters; we need to be discussing it in terms of weeks.

There has been a breakdown of trust between the dentistry world and the Department. That has to be repaired. I would ask, and I would like to put it on record, that there would be an independent chair of the discussions between the Irish Dental Association, the Government and the Department on this. That is what is happening with the consultants at the moment. That is what happened previously when the dentists had negotiations with the Government. That should happen again to rebuild trust and get to where we need to be. As I said, we must ensure those who are most vulnerable and those who need it the most get dental care. We must ensure that those children who need screening as early as possible in primary school get it in fourth class instead of hoping to get it in sixth class, if, indeed, they get it at all. This will be based on successful negotiations done quickly and which will bring about a resolution. I ask that this is raised with the Minister in the strongest possible terms.

Regrettably, this problem has become particularly acute during the past two years when the concentration of effort, both in the Department and the HSE, has been on the pandemic. That is not to say that officials have not been engaging with the dental profession. There has been engagement between HSE officials and the dental community throughout the pandemic on infection control measures and guidelines for safe dental practice, with a view to ensuring that a safe, satisfactory service could be continued for medical card holders.

However, the Minister acknowledges that there is an urgent need to address the fundamental issue of access to dental care. To achieve this objective, the Minister and officials wish to work in collaboration with the Irish Dental Association to address problems around access to services and to make the scheme more viable for contracting private dentists.

The €10 million the Minister has secured for this purpose represents an increase of nearly 20% on the existing budget. The Minister wants that funding invested as soon as possible, to make the scheme more attractive for practising dentists and thereby ensuring that a sufficient number of contractors will be prepared to continue to treat medical card patients. As I said, talks between the Department and the HSE with the Irish Dental Association are under way and there is hope a satisfactory conclusion can be reached by all concerns.

I will bring what the Deputy said back to the Minister because it is a very pressing issue and I agree with him on quarter 2. We need to push this rapidly.

Bus Services

I thank the Minister of State for taking this matter on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan. I appreciate her taking the time. The history here is that before our more modern bus services in our urban centres, including in Waterford city, in towns like Sligo, we had an imp bus service, which comprised small buses that covered all the areas. We were lucky to have had this in Sligo and it gave quite a full service to the people in urban areas. Unfortunately, with its abolition and replacement with a more modern service, it left several gaps, in particular, the whole west area of Sligo town. One particular group, the Merville Maugheraboy active retirement association, spearheaded the search for a replacement service and it was joined by all the councillors on Sligo County Council and the four the Deputies. An approach was made to the National Transport Authority, NTA, and meetings were held directly with the councillors of Sligo County Council and, indeed, the four Deputies. I must praise the NTA because it designed an appropriate route, which it proposes to call the S3 and which will provide adequate services for part of the urban area in which many elderly people, people without the benefit of a car, people without the resources to access other forms of public transport, such as taxis, and people who may need access to hospitals, to the Institute of Technology Sligo, soon to be a technological university, and to St. Angela's College, live. For that reason, it has designed an appropriate service for us, the S3.

It is about a year or so since we pulled this plan together and, again, I praise the NTA. However, what is missing is the funding to facilitate it. It is not a huge amount of money; presumably, we are talking about a bus and a number of drivers and whatever support staff are needed to run this service. This Government and, in particular, the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and the Green Party, are very much focused on the promotion of sustainable transport methods. The rising cost of fuel and other items have been highlighted in other debates here and show that we need to prioritise the provision of such schemes.

This is far from a metro north, an extension to the DART or the procurement of 600 new rail carriages. We are not reinventing the wheel. What I would love to hear from the Minister of State, on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is that the cheque is on its way to Ms Graham in the NTA and that the new bus will commence on particular date. I look forward to hearing from the Minister of State.

I thank the Deputy for raising this topic, which I am taking on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Ryan. From the outset, I would like to note that the Department of Transport has responsibility for policy and overall funding in relation to public transport. However, it is not involved in the day-to-day operation of public transport services. It is the NTA, as the Deputy knows, that has statutory responsibility for securing the provision of public passenger transport services nationally and for the allocation of associated funding to the relevant transport operators.

That being said, in budget 2022, the Department of Transport secured €538 million of funding for public service obligation and LocalLink services provided by State operators and under contract by the NTA this year. This includes more than €200 million of Covid-19 emergency funding in 2022 to counter the continuing impacts of the pandemic on fare revenue across transport operators.

Out of this significant budget for public transport services, the Department of Transport has allocated €5.6 million of funding to the NTA to begin investing in the new Connecting Ireland plan. This plan is designed to increase travel connectivity across rural Ireland with the aim to provide better connections between villages and towns by linking these with an enhanced public transport network, which also connects to cities and regional centres nationwide.

Connecting Ireland will significantly increase both the number of routes and the frequency of existing services across the country, including in Sligo. As a result of Connecting Ireland, hundreds of rural villages and areas will, for the first time, be served by a viable public transport link. It is proposed that there will be an overall increase of approximately 25% in rural bus service as part of a five-year plan to enhance existing services, adding new bus routes and new services, in addition to expanding the demand responsive local bus network.

Accordingly, it will build on both the TFI Local Link network and on the rural regular public transport network.

The Department also secured almost €1 million for the development and implementation of new town bus services in 2022, as well as allocating €25 million to the introduction of a young adult card. This card will enable any person aged between 19 and 23 years old to avail of an average fare discount of 50% across all public transport services, including city, intercity and rural services. This will benefit many young people living in the west.

As the Deputy will be aware, the NTA is actively engaging with Sligo County Council officials on the development of proposals and the assessment of options to build on the success of the existing Sligo town bus service. This process includes an examination of possibilities to improve the current S1 route to ensure full co-ordination between bus services and between bus and rail services at the Sligo bus and train stations in light of the fact that the existing S1 service does not currently serve these stations. The NTA has advised that the close proximity of the bus and train stations presents an opportunity to integrate the existing Sligo town bus service with regional and national bus and rail services. Aligning services is fundamental to the goal of connecting people across Ireland in an accessible and sustainable manner.

The service planning section of the NTA has been reviewing the efficacy of the town bus service in Sligo. It has identified demands for transport within the town of Sligo and concluded that there could be unmet public transport demand between Finisklin Business Park, Maugheraboy, Sligo bus and train stations, Sligo town centre and Manorhamilton Road. The NTA is currently finalising plans and drawing up a detailed service specification for a new S3 route which would serve Finisklin Business Park, Maugheraboy, Sligo bus and train station, Sligo town centre and Manorhamilton Road. The NTA is currently engaged with stakeholders to identify suitable bus stop locations. I want to assure the Deputy, on behalf of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan, that this work is underway.

I thank the Minister of State for that response, the last paragraph of which was the most important. The rest was a good promotion for Government policy, as normal, which I understand but really a timeframe on this is what is required. While I appreciate that this is not the Minister of State's direct departmental responsibility, I ask her to engage with the Minister of Transport on it. I ask her to urge the Minister to tell the NTA to refocus its efforts in terms of timing and facilitation. The Minister of State seemed to indicate that money was made available in budget 2022 for the funding of the S3 and routes like it throughout the country. The people of the areas the Minister of State highlighted, from Finisklin Business Park through Maugheraboy and the other areas of the town currently not served, are well overdue to be catered for. It was my understanding that the bus stop locations were already determined and secured and that all that was needed at this point was pounds, shillings and pence to engage in the procurement of a bus, the recruitment of additional drivers if necessary and the commencement of the service. I ask the Minister of State to relay my concerns to the Minister for Transport and I look forward to getting an update from him.

I thank the Deputy and advise him further that the review of the Sligo town bus service is not looking at specific routes in isolation. Rather, the NTA is working to develop a bus network in Sligo town which can better serve the multiple needs of people who wish to use public transport there. For example, the NTA is examining the potential of a corridor in which the existing S1 and S2 routes and the propose new S3 route might integrate to offer people a higher frequency of service where demand merits it.

I wish to reassure Deputy MacSharry that the NTA is continuing to progress the development of bus services in Sligo town and hopes to complete the work now underway, including the preparation of costings, early this year. I trust this clarifies the position with regard to the third Sligo town bus route. Out of a significant budget for public transport, the Department has allocated €5.6 million in funding for the NTA to begin investing in the new Connecting Ireland plan. I will pass on the Deputy's concerns to the Minister, including the fact that the nub of the issue is funding.

Undocumented Irish in the USA

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, for taking this matter on behalf of the Department of Foreign Affairs.

I was very disappointed to read an article on Monday, 24 January in The Irish Times about the need for stronger advocacy in Washington on Irish-American issues and for Irish people living and working in the USA. The article details a statement issued by the Ancient Order of Hibernians, one of the largest Irish organisations outside of Ireland. This feeling is shared by most of the Irish community living in the USA, especially the undocumented who feel that they have been forgotten about by this Government. The Irish-American group has appointed a former Fine Gael Deputy, Mr. John Deasy, as its head of government affairs. He took a swipe at the Department of Foreign Affairs in the same article, saying: "It’s fair to say the view in America is that the new management team need to get the department back to basics." That is a damning quote from a former Fine Gael Deputy who is now working in the USA.

Having lived and worked in Boston for many years, I know only too well the difficulties Irish people in the USA face, especially the undocumented. This time last year I raised the issue of undocumented Irish people in the USA with the Taoiseach and asked him to raise their plight with newly-elected President Biden. Has the Department of Foreign Affairs or the Taoiseach raised this issue with the American Administration? Covid has meant that the last two years were especially difficult for the undocumented. Those who were not working would not have had any income. Our people in the USA are hard working. They contribute to society and have made their lives over there. Many have lost loved ones in Ireland including mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters but they could not come home because of the fear of not getting back into the US, which is now their home. Has any progress been made on establishing an E3 visa agreement between Ireland and the USA?

If we are to be true to Bunreacht na hÉireann and the Irish nation at home and abroad, we must give the diaspora a say in electing a President for this nation, as promised.

What supports are in place for returning emigrants in terms of access to housing, schools and so on?

In a few weeks, Ministers and the Taoiseach will be heading to Washington for St. Patrick's Day. I urge the Government to do all in its power to raise with President Biden the issue of the thousands of undocumented Irish in the USA. We cannot have our people in the USA saying that we in Ireland do not care about them.

I thank Deputy Guirke for raising this issue, which I am addressing on behalf of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney.

Ireland's relationship with the United States of America has been of critical importance for successive Governments and continues to be a major priority for the current Government as set out in our programme for Government. The key priorities and objectives for this unique relationship are set out in the Government's United States and Canada Strategy 2019-2025. The actions are categorised around the five pillars that underpin Ireland's overall foreign policy, namely our people, our values, our place in Europe, our prosperity and our influence.

The strengthening of our bilateral political relations with the USA is of critical importance to this State. We have a broad range of priorities in our relations with the USA, including high level political engagement, in particular in support of the peace process in Northern Ireland; the promotion of trade, investment and job creation; and support for our citizens and the broader Irish-American diaspora.

There is ongoing advocacy and engagement at every level with the US Administration and political leaders across the USA. Our Embassy in Washington DC takes a leading role in advocating for the most important and critical issues facing our country and our citizens, including the undocumented Irish who are seeking to regularise their status.

The scope for high-level meetings at senior political level has been limited due to the impact of Covid. The return this year of high-level visits will strengthen our ability to maintain and further develop the strong political relationships, particularly as we mitigate the impact of Brexit on this island. It will also allow us to continue our work to build new networks across the US, including engaging with a new generation of political leaders in the US at the federal and state level.

Ireland works closely with the United States to support and defend the mutual benefits of a stable, open and ambitious economic relationship. This relationship underpins an environment that supports the provision of more than 110,000 direct jobs by Irish companies across all 50 US states, mirrored by more than 800 US companies operating in Ireland, employing 180,000 in this State. That is up from 100,000 a decade ago. Working closely with our State agencies, in particular Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland, we have supported the developed of this highly mutually beneficial economic environment.

The strength of the bilateral relationship is largely rooted in the many links between Irish and American people. Irish America is of enormous importance to Ireland, including those who are Irish-born, those who claim Irish ancestry and those with a strong affinity for Ireland. Our Government launched a new diaspora strategy in 2020, which includes a focus on engaging with the new generation of Irish diaspora in the US and strengthening our co-operation and support of Irish citizens and Irish-Americans in the US. Through our embassy in Washington DC, as well as across our seven consulates general across the US, we work closely with Irish community organisations in support of the needs of Irish citizens. In response to the pandemic, a dedicated Covid-19 response fund for Irish communities abroad was set up to help these organisations meet the needs of those who are particularly vulnerable. In 2021, over €4.22 million was provided to diaspora organisations in the US.

The influence of Ireland in the US, through our history and culture, is remarkable. Under our current strategy, we have worked closely with Culture Ireland to streamline the long-standing and deep cultural links between our two countries, as evidenced by the appointment of dedicated cultural officers based in our consulates in New York and Los Angeles. Under the US-Canada strategy, we have reinforced our network of diplomatic missions across the US, including opening a new consulate general in Los Angeles in 2018 and the opening in summer 2022 of a new consulate general in Miami.

I thank the Minister of State for her answer. She stated that the influence of Ireland in the United States is remarkable. However, that influence does not seem to be used as best we can. That is the way Irish people overseas look at it. I know Covid has had a serious impact on the last two years but we need to get these talks with the American Administration up and running, especially about the undocumented. Some have been there for 20 or 30 years and have not been able to come home to their family members. That is not fair. Even the former Fine Gael Deputy, John Deasy, says the Government is not doing enough, which is a damning indictment of this Government.

We will never have a better chance to make progress on Irish issues, especially the undocumented, than now, with an Irish-American President and Democrats controlling the Senate and the House of Representatives. We need to do more to help. We cannot just talk about it. President Biden's proposed US Citizenship Act of 2021 shows that immigration issues are a key priority for his Administration. The Irish Government must keep raising this at every opportunity and explore all available options.

I take this opportunity to thank the people and organisations that help the Irish diaspora. Organisations like the Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust are there to help bereaved families in tragic circumstances, the GAA helps Irish people all over the world, and Irish people abroad themselves are great when fundraisers are being run or if anything is needed when people are in trouble. When going to Washington on St. Patrick's Day with a bowl of shamrock, I ask the Minister of State not to forget the undocumented Irish.

I thank the Deputy. I doubt it will be me going with the bowl of shamrock. The Department of Foreign Affairs has established Ireland houses in New York, Austin and San Francisco to allow for an impressive Team Ireland footprint. Several Irish State agencies, together with a consulate, can work together to maximise impact in a particular location. Plans are under way to open more Ireland houses in other US locations. The Deputy referred to the former Deputy, John Deasy, a colleague of mine from Waterford. I did not see the article but in fairness the last two years have been very challenging with Covid. America has had serious issues with Covid, as have we. Another Waterford man, Dan Mulhall, is the Irish ambassador to America. He is doing Trojan work and promotes Ireland constantly. Even just on his Twitter feed, he is constantly advocating for the Irish in America every single day.

Our embassy in Washington DC is actively engaged across the political spectrum in the US, meeting regularly with Members of the House of Representatives and the Senate on a bipartisan basis. The efforts of the embassy have been instrumental in ensuring consistent priority and support at the highest political level to protect peace on the island. The embassy also continues to work towards finding innovative solutions and immigration pathways to address the challenges faced by the undocumented Irish in the US. We have maintained strong relations with the US at every level over the past two challenging years. We must continue to prioritise our strong transatlantic connections, be they in business, academia, tourism or in maintaining family connections, as we emerge from the impact of the pandemic. I take the Deputy's point that this is a great opportunity as we move out of Covid and we will be able to continue those visits to America to support the undocumented.

These issues have been going on much longer than two years and they have not been addressed.

Special Educational Needs

I am passionate about special needs education and the critical role special needs assistants, SNAs, play in the system. I am grateful for the Minister of State's presence. I will outline some of the duties special needs assistants fulfil in our schools, although it is not an exhaustive list. In mainstream schools, they monitor the children in the yard daily to make sure they are included in play with other children. They also assist children with differentiated work in the classroom. It is usually on the same topic as the rest of the children but adjusted to suit the needs and abilities of the child. They help children to take down and correct homework, set up assistive technology equipment such as visualisers, tablets and so on and help them use this equipment if they are unable to do so themselves. They bring children for movement breaks if they appear to be getting overwhelmed, use calming techniques if a child has emotional or behavioural difficulties, and they may remove them to a sensory room or garden if one is available in the school.

SNAs communicate using Lámh sign language when necessary. They help children to develop their life skills, such as shopping, preparing healthy food and practising good hygiene and help them participate in social programmes like Friends for Life. They are there before school and at dispersal at the end of the day, and in some cases where the child might be a flight risk, they take extra precautions with that child. SNAs accompany children with additional educational needs on school tours or any time they are out of school grounds. They also participate in the preparation of religious events with additional needs children if they are required to do so in particular schools. There is also a range of other responsibilities they are given, some of which could be considered inappropriate to their status and role. SNAs in some schools are very willing to assist and in some cases can offer to do these things but there is a lack of definition and delineation of the roles they fulfil.

With regard to care needs, the Minister of State will be aware that SNAs administer Buccolam if a child has an epileptic seizure, check insulin levels on diabetic children, administer glucose if a child has low blood sugar, assist with PEG feeding, help children access their lunch and make sure they eat properly. In some cases, SNAs have had to monitor children who are prone to choking. They accompany special needs children on school tours, as I mentioned.

The education criteria for SNAs is the heart of this matter. The Department of Education states that an SNA only needs three Ds in the junior certificate, which baffles many parents. That is three Ds at FETAC level 3. On educationposts.ie, principals advertising for SNA posts are looking for SNAs with qualifications of FETAC levels 5, 6, 7 or sometimes even 8. Some of the criteria mentioned in these advertisements include the completion of a relevant childcare or SNA course. Applicants are sometimes asked to provide copies of certificates, diplomas and degrees. Sometimes they must have a special needs assistant qualification at QQI or FETAC level 5, or equivalent, and some schools require that applicants must be willing to avail of further training and have knowledge of Lámh and the picture exchange communication system, PECS. The SNA course in UCD that came to the fore in the last year remains unaccredited for qualifications, which is a bizarre situation given that the SNAs are essentially working for the Department.

The programme co-ordinator of the UCD SNA course carried out a survey of approximately 500 SNAs who enrolled in the course. It showed that only 2.1% of those 500 SNAs had stopped their education at junior certificate level. It also showed that 66% of SNAs have already attained a FETAC level 6 qualification. The ask from SNAs is that a FETAC level 6 qualification be a requirement for new entrants only and that SNAs with experience should not be expected to return to study. In general, parents of children with special needs are quite taken aback when they realise the entry qualification levels necessary.

I will take up the second thread of the matter following the Minister of State's response.

I thank the Deputy for raising this Topical Issue matter today, which is relevant at the moment, particularly for my own Ministry for special education.

The role of the SNA is critical. The Deputy has very eloquently set out the non-exhaustive list of duties they undertake daily. In my visits to different schools throughout the country, I have met many SNAs. I have spoken to them first-hand about the work they do. I know from the families I meet daily - the Deputy also made this point - that the majority of children with additional needs would not be able to exist in a school environment to any proper capacity without an SNA there to support them. The SNAs facilitate the support of children with additional needs and they minimise disruption in the class for a child and his or her peers in regard to reaching. They also help to increase the independent living and life skills we want all children with additional needs to endeavour to attain.

The Deputy will be aware that €2.2 billion, which is almost 25% of the entire education budget, is dedicated to special education. In 2011, we had approximately 10,575 SNAs. We now have 19,169 SNAs, which is an 81% increase. There has been a considerable amount of investment made to ensure we have sufficient SNAs for our children with additional needs. The Deputy correctly pointed out it is not just about having SNAs in place. It is also about their qualifications and, in particular, their training. When I took up my role as the first Minister of State with responsibility for special education, I looked at the review carried out by the National Council for Special Education in 2018. It was very strong on the need for training. It was on that basis we set up the very first training course for SNAs which, as mentioned by the Deputy, is in UCD. The course has been completely oversubscribed. It is gratis in the sense there is no cost to the SNA to do the training. It is very valuable for them. There are very good modules within that course.

If we are going to be looking at accreditation, we need to look first at the outcomes of that course and to identify what worked and what did not. We also need to speak to the SNAs. I note the contents of the survey mentioned by the Deputy. It is useful for us to be aware of that. On the qualification, as correctly pointed out by the Deputy, it is FETAC level 3 on the national framework of qualifications or a minimum of three Ds in the junior certificate. It is important to stress the existing qualification has not taken away from the calibre of SNA we have now. A number of them will have an additional qualifications on top of what is required of them. The SNA deployment is carried out by the schools. There is no longer a requirement for a diagnosis, especially in a mainstream class, to avail of the skills of an SNA. That was a very important step, particularly when we are talking about children in mainstream classes. The SNA is, perhaps, even more critical in a special class or special school.

I thank the Minister of State for the response. It is 43 years since the minimum standard of education was set for the SNA. In that time, as we know, SNAs have retrained and engaged in continuing professional development. It is time for the conversation around special needs assistants to be reset. My own party has a very proud record in this area, having introduced the SNA. The initial budget was €9 million. It is now into the billions.

I refer to the very interesting paper by the European Journal of Special Needs Education, published in 2020, which looked at learning and support assistants, LSAs, in inclusive education across six countries, including the UK, Austria, Ireland, Bulgaria and Slovakia. What is very interesting is that it is only in Slovakia that SNAs have to have completed the upper secondary level or possess a bachelor's degree in pedagogy, making Slovakia unique in this regard. In addition to a lack of qualification requirements in most countries, there are also limited opportunities for professional development. That is critical. It is key. This is a career. Ireland has a real opportunity to lead a European standard and to raise the standard.

In Slovakia, SNAs are part of the advisory board of the school, which is interesting. That is not exclusive to Slovakia. I do not see any role here for SNAs on the boards of management or in the overall administration of our schools. We are all aware of the range of responsibilities they are given, some of which I excluded in my initial remarks and are entirely inappropriate. I will not list them. The SNAs will have spoken to the Minister of State about them. In the international experience as well as in Ireland, in some schools SNAs collaborate extensively with the school, teachers, management and the board of management, while in other schools they are excluded from a lot of say or participation. We now have an opportunity to reset the narrative in regard to SNAs, to enable them to progress and develop in their careers, and to acknowledge that many of them are far more qualified than the three Ds that qualify them for the SNA course. Will the Minister of State provide a timeline for when the reset of this conversation might take place and engagement with SNAs will begin?

I thank the Deputy. Again, it is important to stress that, through the education partners and the mechanism of the Department, there is ongoing engagement with SNA representatives. I know Fórsa has put in a claim to the Workplace Relations Commission. Any review of the SNA contract will happen through the Building Momentum national pay agreement, which would the be appropriate channel.

I again thank the Deputy for bringing forth this Topical Issue matter today. The role of the SNA is pivotal. I acknowledge that. As I said, I meet SNAs regularly. I know the very good work they do. However, it is important not to put the cart before the horse. I want first to see the outcomes of the training programme in UCD and to review them because they will dictate in terms of future training and accreditation and in terms of any other steps we need to take to enhance the role of the SNA. The training and support of SNAs will, in turn, support children with additional needs, which ultimately is what this conversation is about. Being an SNA is a vocation. It is not an easy job. Most of them go above and beyond their remit and they are very much appreciated by their respective schools and boards of management. They should always be listened to in the context of what works for them and does not work for them.

I am satisfied we have in place a training programme that is tailored to their respective roles. Once we know those outcomes, we will be in a better position to consider what will transpire for the future in terms of a roadmap in regard to further training.

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