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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 12 May 2022

Vol. 1022 No. 1

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

An Garda Síochána

Last week, news broke that the next round of training for the Garda armed support unit, ASU, had been cancelled. I raised the matter in the House during questions on promised legislation. The competition to fill places on this course was completed back in 2019.

Those selected gardaí have been waiting since 2019 to take part in this armed support unit training. These gardaí effectively have had to put elements of their personal lives on hold while they wait on standby for their start date. It now appears that with a click of the fingers, this training course is gone and they have waited in vain. Garda headquarters said claims that the 2019 competition has been halted are incorrect. However, Garda membership say the message has been delivered clearly to them that it has been cancelled.

There were widespread media reports last week that the armed support unit across Dublin had barely enough resources to be operational and is only at 75% capacity. Last year alone, there were more than 2,500 weapons and explosive offences across the State. Ireland has a high rate of gun violence. Our gun murder rate is six times that of Britain and one of the highest across the EU.

Of course, it is not only firearms incidents to which the armed support unit responds. It is called upon daily to deal with the growing use of knives by gangs. Over a four-year period, the number of knife seizures in Dublin across most divisions has doubled. Local residents in City Quay have raised the issue before. They are still living in dread. I acknowledge that the Garda has put in place a plan to tackle the random street violence and use of knives in City Quay and in the Creighton Street and Pearse Street areas. That has been very welcome and has made a difference. Residents still live in dread, however. Young people are hiding weapons and knives in the bushes of Elizabeth O'Farrell Park in City Quay. It is still a community in fear. It is really important that the armed support unit is resourced properly.

The increasing use of weapons such as guns and knives is a cause for concern, not just for working-class communities but also the rank-and-file gardaí who patrol the streets. When a 999 call comes in regarding a possible knife or gun crime, it is the armed support unit that gardaí turn to for backup. How does it instil confidence in the public when we hear reports of gardaí having to wait up to three hours for support? The feud that has already claimed one life in Finglas is at boiling point. Gangland tension is rising across Dublin and spilling over into different parts of the city, including my own constituency of Dublin Bay South. Recently in Digges Street, shots were fired through a window at a family who were all at home. It was a case of mistaken identity. The perpetrators thought it was a different flat. That family is terrified; they are afraid go back home now.

Will the Minister of State comment on the current status of the next round of training for the Dublin region armed support unit? I understand the Government may be of the view that this an internal matter for An Garda Síochána and that it is independent in its allocation of resources. Naturally, it always says that but things have got so bad that it is very important the Government intervenes to ensure resources are in place to allow the armed support unit to make sure our communities right across the inner city are safe. Currently, that feeling is not there. The Garda and armed support unit need to be resourced properly.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue in the House. The Deputy will appreciate, of course, that Garda training is an operational matter for the Garda Commissioner. Under section 26 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005, as amended, the Garda Commissioner is responsible for the management and administration of Garda business, including the training of Garda members and staff. The Minister for Justice has no role in these operational policing matters. I am advised by the Commissioner that the armed support units are regional resources, serving all the Garda districts and divisions in each of the Garda regions.

The armed support units are an overt armed support service and are deployed on a 24-7 basis, providing a high-visibility, tactical armed response, including enhanced, less lethal capability. Members of the armed support units are highly trained and equipped with a variety of non-lethal and lethal weapons and perform high-visibility armed checkpoints and patrols throughout their respective regions.

In the event of an armed incident or similar incident, armed detective members from local district and divisional units will respond, as will the regional armed support unit. Should the incident be escalated and further armed support be required, the national emergency response unit, which is highly trained and specially equipped to respond to the most serious of incidents, is also available.

I am informed by the Garda authorities that the training and deployment of armed support units remains a priority for An Garda Síochána in 2022 in line with best international practices. Recertification and refresher training continues to be provided for armed support units in both the Dublin metropolitan region and nationwide. I am further advised by An Garda Síochána that all armed support unit personnel received the necessary training in 2021 to permit issuance with authority to carry firearms in 2022.

The Garda has advised that preselection and predeployment training for armed support unit applicants as part of an ongoing competition to fill vacancies in the armed support units nationally has been intermittently impacted and delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic and other competing training demands. I understand, however, that a number of candidates for the Dublin metropolitan region armed support unit completed their predeployment training requirements in March 2022 and await allocation by Garda human resource management to existing vacancies in the region.

The Government's commitment to tackle organised crime and the related issue of gangland violence is reflected in the Justice Plan 2022, which contains a number of actions under the objective of strengthening measures to tackle terrorism and other serious and organised crime through domestic action and international co-operation. The Minister looks forward to updating the Deputy again on these matters in due course. I hear what the Deputy is saying about the seriousness of knife crime. It is an issue that needs to be tackled. I thank him for raising this very important matter.

I thank the Minister of State for that response. I did anticipate that he was going to say it was an operational matter and, of course, nobody expects the Government to get involved in the day-today running. When there is an armed support unit, however, which is vital to the safety of communities throughout the country, and no more so than in Dublin Bay South in the inner city where, like I said, there is serious violence using knives and where guns are being shot, Government must intervene, not in how its personnel are trained or where they are deployed but to ensure it has enough resources. If it does not have enough resources, the gardaí cannot do their jobs properly and protect the communities they have been requested to protect.

The competition process for the Dublin region of the armed support unit was launched in 2019 and, of course, it was impacted by the pandemic. However, the reason for launching that competition has not changed and probably has become more acute and worsened. It was launched in 2019 due to the low numbers in the armed support unit and, three years on, approximately ten gardaí have left the unit recently due to transfers and promotions. With a fresh round of promotions to the rank of sergeant issued last Friday, it is safe to say the number of departures will grow. In effect, the combined resources will probably be down approximately 75% to 80% of what they should be. That is not acceptable. Communities are being left exposed. I accept the Government cannot intervene in day-to-day procedures but it must intervene to ensure the Garda armed support unit and individual gardaí are resourced properly in order that they can protect communities like those in City Quay and Pearse Street that have been left high and dry. They have been left to try to look after themselves, and that will not suit anyone.

I thank the Deputy again for raising this very important issue. As I outlined, tackling organised criminal activity remains a key priority for the Government. The Minister, Deputy McEntee, and I are very conscious of the repercussions such criminal behaviour can have on the quality of life for residents in local communities, as the Deputy has outlined. It is important people feel safe and are safe in their communities.

The Deputy will be aware the criminal justice (miscellaneous provisions) Bill is currently being drafted and will provide, among other matters, for an increase in the penalty for conspiring to commit murder and soliciting to commit murder from a maximum term of imprisonment of ten years to a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

Work is continuing on the drafting of the Bill based on the general scheme and further legal advices. The 2022 justice plan commits to the publication of these provisions in the second quarter of this year. This and other initiatives in train, such as the commitment in the justice plan to working to break the link between gangs and the children they seek to recruit, build on the considerable range of legislative measures taken in recent years, such as the Proceeds of Crime (Amendment) Act 2016, which provides additional Garda power for the immediate seizure of assets suspected of being the proceeds of crime to prevent them from being disposed of; the Criminal Justice (Forensic Evidence and DNA Database System) Act 2014, providing for the establishment and operation of the DNA database providing the Garda with links between people and unsolved crimes; and the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act 2009, introduced to protect the justice system from being subverted by criminal groups, including the potential intimidation of juries.

The Deputy raised some very important issues, which I will bring to the attention of the Minister.

An Garda Síochána

The Minister of State will be aware of an open letter sent from the people of Longford to the Minister for Justice and the Garda Commissioner, Mr. Drew Harris, urgently seeking additional gardaí for Longford town to tackle a spate of antisocial and violent crime. It is well known that as many as 14 different feuds, involving seven families, are smearing Longford's reputation and propelling us in the media as an area rife for antisocial and violent behaviour. Longford has been selected as one of the three national pilot schemes for the local community safety partnership. As part of the engagement process, the Minister sat in on a recent session of Comhairle na nÓg in Longford town, at which she heard at first hand young people speak of their fear on the streets of Longford.

Community policing needs resources, and when we do it right, it can be very effective. We have an excellent drugs unit in the Longford-Roscommon district and one of the top-performing community policing units in Longford town, ably led by Sergeant Darren Conlon, but to maintain that level of visible policing we need personnel. It takes a minimum of three officers to staff the station, and more if there are prisoners on site. The latest figures suggest the total complement of officers for Longford town is 77 gardaí, with a further 62 throughout the county. However, as of the end of February, at least 22 of these officers were unavailable for duty, through either secondment to other duties or districts, absence due to injury or illness or being on restricted duty. At best, Longford Garda station is struggling to operate, with at least one in five of its allotted officers absent, and this is before it makes provision for court duties and other operations. It is simply impossible to meet the demands now facing this busy station.

The Minister met Superintendent Séamus Boyle and other senior officers on her recent visit, and as one they spoke to the urgent need for more gardaí for Longford town. The population of the town is approximately 12,000, yet in recent weeks an additional six gardaí were allocated to the leafy suburb of Malahide, which has a population of 4,000 and very few of the socioeconomic challenges facing us in Longford. Garda management is reviewing its options for Longford and, based on the Malahide numbers, one would expect an additional five or six officers for Longford. That, in turn, presents us with an opportunity to bring in experienced officers, several of whom are currently based in Dublin and are very adept at dealing with the issues and challenges that now confront Longford. They are willing and eager to relocate to Longford and will bring with them much-needed experience and know-how as we face the malaise that is afflicting our town.

We hear much criticism of the courts in the context of the challenges facing Longford. There is sufficient legislation on the Statute Book to tackle these challenges, but what we need is a strict and near-militant interpretation of the bail laws. Bail is not a get-out-of-jail card but rather a privilege afforded to some while they await a court date. It comes with strict conditions, which can include the need to sign on daily at the local Garda station or to stay out a given town, non-association with named individuals, curfews, social media bans and, indeed, anything a garda considers necessary in the interests of public safety. Most judges will approve these terms and others if the case is set out for them. We need to start fully implementing the terms of the Bail Act. At any time, 50 to 70 people are on bail in Longford town. It is a major Garda operation in itself to police the conditions of these bail terms and it demands time and resources, but when done meticulously it can be a very effective deterrent.

In short, we need more gardaí for Longford town, visible on-street policing and a meticulous governing of the bail conditions in Longford town.

On behalf of the Minister for Justice, I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I am very familiar with the disturbing news that has come from Longford in recent months. As he acknowledged, the allocation of Garda resources is an operational policing matter for the Garda Commissioner. Section 33 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005, as amended, provides for the Commissioner to determine the manner in which members of An Garda Síochána are distributed and stationed throughout the State, and the Minister has no statutory role in regard to this matter. She has been advised that Garda management keeps the distribution of resources under continual review in the context of policing priorities and crime trends to ensure their optimum use. I understand it is a matter for the divisional chief superintendent to determine the optimal distribution of duties among the personnel available to him or her, having regard to the profile of each area within the division and its specific needs.

I am informed by the Garda authorities that, as of 6 May 2022, resourcing in the Longford district comprises one superintendent, three inspectors, 13 sergeants and 79 gardaí, and that the majority of violent crimes occurring in the Longford district in the year to date have related to feuding families. Local Garda management has responded to the situation between the feuding families by establishing Operation Stola in April 2019 to accurately monitor, record and manage the feud. I am further advised 6,761 incidents have been associated with this operation and that all resources within the Longford district are actively targeting the issues surrounding the feud, with 206 arrests effected and 454 charges preferred. A total of 54 of the charges relate to violent crimes, including assaults, violent disorder and knife crimes.

More generally, I am aware An Garda Síochána in Longford is dealing with all reported crimes - antisocial behaviour and otherwise - within Longford district in an expedited manner. It is working closely with the victims of crime and the public in general to ensure it provides an efficient policing service to Longford. For its part, the Government remains committed to ensuring An Garda Síochána has the resources it needs, with an unprecedented allocation provided in budget 2022 of more than €2 billion. This includes funding for the recruitment of up to 800 Garda members and 400 Garda staff this year. As the Deputy noted, the Minister engaged with community representatives during a visit to County Longford in February and is encouraged by the positive collaborative work emanating from Longford's pilot local community safety partnership. The partnership represents a significant element of the Government's new community safety policy, which facilitates formal collaboration by community representatives, local business and public service providers to tackle key issues identified by the community itself. The Longford partnership is subject to independent monitoring and evaluation throughout the life of the pilot, and learnings arising from its operation will inform its work into the future as well as the roll-out of partnerships nationwide.

The Deputy referred to the allocation of resources and gardaí to a town in north Dublin. I am sure that will be brought to the attention of the local Garda authorities. Situations such as the one the Deputy raised should be dealt with and should get the necessary resources, but that is a matter for the Garda authorities.

I thank the Minister of State for his solidarity with the people of Longford. He set out clearly the specifics of the Garda operation under way in Longford and the fact there have been almost 7,000 incidents related to an operation launched in 2019.

The reality is that businesses and retailers are facing into what will arguably be one of the most uncertain times in their trading lives with soaring energy costs and a cost-of-living crisis. The traders and businesses of Longford town face the additional challenge of violence on the street and the public consciously deciding not to visit the town, not to shop there and not to socialise in their county town. It is an enormous additional and wholly unreasonable burden to place on a town. It is a burden that has now plagued Longford for almost a decade. These acts of violence and public order violations are a stain on the decades of toil, passion and absolute dedication and devotion that are synonymous with Longford and on the selfless sacrifice that helped to make Longford a leading light in provincial Ireland. An extra five to six officers, boots on the ground and a rigid application of the bail laws would allow us to put the colour and swagger back into Longford. It is not a big ask but it is one we make with deference and a heartfelt sense of absolute necessity.

I thank the Minister of State and the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this issue tonight. At a time when we are starting to see real and significant progress in job creation and investment in Longford, the near incessant linking of the town with violent crime is highly demoralising. Longford remains one of the best places to live and work and is definitely one of the best places in Ireland to do business. It gives me no pleasure to paint the picture I have painted here in the House this evening. I thank my colleague, Councillor Seamus Butler, who instigated this very public appeal for additional gardaí. I know that Garda allocation remains the domain of the Commissioner but it is important that he hears the concerns I am raising here tonight, which are the heartfelt concerns of the people of Longford.

Deputy Flaherty has again outlined the fact that businesses, retailers, citizens and communities need to keep safe. Tackling organised criminal activity remains a key priority for this Government. The Minister, Deputy McEntee, and I are very conscious of the repercussions such criminal behaviour can have on the quality of life of residents and local communities. It is important that people feel safe and are safe in their communities. Again, I am familiar with this issue. It is not nice to listen to the bad news emanating from Longford. These activities are carried out by people who do not have the goodwill of the people of Longford. I thank the Deputy for raising the matter.

To look at what has been done, there are currently 6,761 incidents associated with An Garda Síochána's operation in the area. All resources in the Longford district are actively targeting the issues surrounding the feud with 206 arrests effected and 454 charges preferred. Some 54 of these charges relate to violent crimes including assaults, violent assaults and knife crime. That is a shocking statistic. I thank the men and women of An Garda Síochána for the incredible work they do, which sometimes goes unnoticed. I also want to thank the communities and people of Longford, the Deputy and the other Oireachtas Members from the county, the local representatives and all of the various stakeholders for standing up and raising this issue. By tackling it together, across the community, with the help of An Garda Síochána and all of its resources, this situation can be resolved. I hope it can be resolved quickly.

I thank the Minister of State and the Deputy for dealing with that particularly important matter. We now move from policing to issues with disability services. The next item is in the name of Deputy Verona Murphy, who wishes to discuss the lack of core services from child disability network teams across the country.

Disability Services

I thank the Minister of State for coming in. We are in the midst of a catastrophic crisis in child disability services. The lack of early intervention is detrimental to our children and will result in teenagers and young adults with extreme and complex medical issues and needs arising from the neglect of this Government and the Department with regard to continuing staffing issues. Although the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, is not here, he did recently meet a mother, Susan Dixon. She has sent me an email which was cc'd to the Minister and which I have to put on the record:

My son Leo has an extremely rare form of bethlem myopathy muscular dystrophy, a completely unique variation. Its a progressive muscle wasting disease with no cure and no treatment. Therapies are essential to maintain ... his mobility and his independence.

[He] has attended hse services since he was 6 weeks old. He then moved to Enable Ireland services when he was 3. He needs a multi disciplinary team of physiotherapy, occupational therapy and speech and language therapy. ... [While we] completely understood that covid halted some of the therapies ... my sons condition did not go away when covid arrived.

The issues I'm about to outline are not covid related, they are staffing, management and funding related.

Over the past 2 years my sons condition has progressed to a point where he depends on a wheelchair to attend school and manage any distances. We accepted a temporary chair in April 2021 with the promise of his own chair correctly fitted and appropriate for his [personal physical] circumstances. We had a seating assessment in January 2022 and at this appointment we were informed about the extremely long wait for funding from the HSE. I explained at the time the urgency of this chair as my son is no longer able to self propel in [his] chair, it's too heavy. The Chair itself was second or third hand by the time it got to us and is in a shocking state. The brakes don't work, the handles used to push him are broken and taped into position and the wheelrims are so worn that when he does try to self propel he gets metal splinters and cuts on his hands. It is a health and safety risk and is not fit for purpose. ... My son needs his wheelchair its that simple. I need someone to make a phone call, write a letter or send an email anything to help my son regain his independence.

She cannot afford to replace it but she wishes she could. She also wrote:

We were then informed, when I pushed for answers, that this paperwork was left on a desk for 9 WEEKS before it was finally sent to the HSE for funding approval, due to staffing issues. ... My sons independence is GONE.....he is 9 years old and might as well be in a buggy, he has to be pushed around everywhere he goes. He can not be left unattended in the chair as the brakes don't work and if he rolls he hasn't got the strength to stop himself. ...

I feel my son is just one of thousands of children that have been forgotten about, pushed aside. ... He had [a neck injury] in August 2021 and was in a neck brace for 10 weeks. His consultant requested he attend intensive physio for the 10 weeks (2 sessions a week) ... .we got 6!!!!!

:I cannot finish the email but it gets even worse. I am going to run out of time. As part of the Department, the Minister of State is fully aware of how shambolic the situation is. Every week, we get letters telling us that services are following the HSE recruitment process but do not have staff. For two years, they have had not had staff. I am reliably informed that we do not even have enough graduates coming out of college this year to take up the slack. When is this going to improve? Who is going to get a wheelchair for Leo Dixon?

I the Deputy for raising this important matter for discussion. On behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, I restate this Government's commitment to children and young people with disabilities, as well as their families. The Deputy talked about Leo Dixon and the fact that a letter spent nine weeks on a desk. That is simply unacceptable. The Deputy was involved in the private sector and ran her own haulage company. It is very difficult to stand over a letter spending nine weeks on a desk. That is certainly not the way a Department or service should be run, leaving aside all of the other issues the Deputy outlined with regard to the wheelchair and so on. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, accepts that the HSE has faced considerable challenges in parts of the country in the implementation of the progressing disability services programme. This has resulted in delays for families in accessing much-needed therapies for their children. Historically, children's disability services have been provided by a range of statutory and non-statutory service providers and the type and level of service provided varied widely across the country.

The progressing disability services, PDS, model seeks to address the previous unacceptable inequity in service provision where there may have been an excellent service for some children and little or no service for others.

As the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, has stated previously in this House, the reconfiguration of children's disability network teams, CDNTs, across the country has been challenging, particularly in the context of staffing. To illustrate these challenges, the HSE recently undertook a national children's disability network team staff census, which highlighted that the CHOs are, on average, operating with a 28% vacancy rate. The unfortunate reality is that there are recruitment challenges due to the significant availability of new posts across the health and social care sector, both public and private. These staffing issues have resulted in delays for families to access much-needed therapies for their children, delays which have caused untold stress and justifiable anger on the part of these families. That anger is understandable and, once again, on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, I wish to put on record the Government's sincerest apologies to any family experiencing such delays.

Such delays are simply unacceptable and need to be overcome to ensure delivery. In that regard, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is currently engaging in a series of meetings with the heads of disability services across the nine CHOs to hear what is happening on the ground in their respective areas. It is expected that these discussions will provide the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, with further detail on the challenges being encountered and, it is hoped, will generate potential solutions.

The Deputy will also be aware of the recent High Court judgment on the assessment of needs process. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is attending a day-long workshop tomorrow, the aim of which is to develop new interim guidelines to support the assessment of needs process and guide front-line staff. This workshop will be attended by key stakeholders, including senior HSE officials, Department of Health officials and representatives of professional bodies. Most importantly, children and young people will also be represented in the form of parents' representatives. In the interim, the use of the standard operating procedure as part of the assessment of needs process has ceased and practitioners will use their clinical judgment in relation to ongoing assessments. As we begin this process, we need to reaffirm that the assessment of needs is only the first stage of a journey towards vital therapy supports. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, remains committed to ensuring that the journey is made easier for families throughout the country.

I did not expect anything else and I am not saying that I doubt the bona fides of the Minister of State, but the answer is always the same. The answer is always just another network or it is a staffing issue, but we never seem to get to grips with the staffing issue in such a way that we would outsource it or consider critical skills permits. I have been saying this so repetitively on the floor of the House that even the Ceann Comhairle must be sick listening to me. An apology just does not cut it. As already stated, I do not doubt the Minister of State's bona fides but the apology will not buy the wheelchair or provide the wheelchair.

Next Wednesday, I am taking little Leo Dixon up here to the Dáil because he wants to sit in the Minister of State's seat and he wants to sit in the Minister's seat, given he is from Arklow, County Wicklow, in the Minister's constituency. While he is sitting in their seats, I very much hope that they will sit in his - a wheelchair not fit for purpose - for the eight hours a day that he sits in it, and then see how quickly he will get his wheelchair. Is it not a disgrace that an eight-year-old boy had surgery on his neck that has to be redone because he did not get the physiotherapy he was entitled to and because they had not provided a wheelchair that he should have had to assist him? What is wrong in this country that we have this total lack of services? It is beyond belief at this stage.

I spoke to families who held a rally outside Dáil Éireann last week. I met them in Wexford when they held a rally in Enniscorthy. There were some 30 families with placards stating that the HSE is letting their children down; there were lots of different placards but not one was positive, I can assure the House. The reality is that much of it is to do with the new CDNTs but this child has been suffering for nine years. He is going to be here next Wednesday. The Minister of State can use his two minutes to tell me when Leo will be getting his wheelchair. That is the question.

I thank the Deputy for articulating the details relating to this very difficult issue. As stated, progressing children's disability services is the policy underpinning children's disability services. All 91 CDNT teams are now established and while I know they are challenged with recruitment and retention issues, they are in place and the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is continuing to engage with the HSE to fill the vacant posts and to progress the service provision.

This has never been a question of a lack of financial commitment. The Government has provided significant funding to the HSE for new posts in recent years. Since 2019, almost 500 additional whole-time equivalent posts for children's disability services have been allocated. However, for various reasons, filling these posts has proven to be incredibly challenging. I know the various CHOs have prioritised filling these posts as a matter of great urgency. In addition, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, has begun discussions with the Minister for Higher and Further Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, around improving the disability workforce supply in the longer term.

I will bring the Deputy’s comments back to the Minister of State and inform her that this young man is coming to Leinster House next Wednesday. The Deputy talked about a new wheelchair. I will raise this in the Department as quickly as possible in the morning to see if anything can be done. On behalf of Deputy Rabbitte, I would like to restate her commitment, as Minister of State with responsibility for disabilities, to strive for the best services possible for children with disabilities and for their families. On this occasion, the best service has not been provided. I will bring that issue and the Deputy's concerns back to the Minister of State.

I do not think anyone could question the commitment of the Ministers of State, Deputy Feighan and Deputy Rabbitte.

I have acknowledged that.

I know the Deputy is not doing that. What the Deputy said is heart-rending. The Deputy should engage with the two Ministers of State. I invite her to table this issue for consideration in the next few weeks so we can see what advance has been achieved.

I appreciate that. I do not want to put a young boy of nine years of age in an uncomfortable position, but he wants to come here. I hope we will have resolved the matter by then.

If we have any humanity at all - and we all have - we appreciate the significance of this. Bring it back to us if the HSE, which is the service provider, does not address this.

Disability Services

Deputies Ó Murchú and O'Rourke are sharing time. I call Deputy Ó Murchú.

Unfortunately, in the context of all of these issues, there is always an element of Groundhog Day. That is something we need to address. We cannot continue having these same conversations.

I want to start with the response to parliamentary question I received in the past while. It stated that there were no occupational therapists in paediatric services at the HSE primary care centre in Barrack Street, Dundalk, with four vacant posts to be recruited and one maternity leave vacancy. There had been a failure to fill vacant posts via agency recruitment, but there will be a recruitment competition alongside three other CHOs to fill senior vacancies. It will be late autumn before any successful applicants are appointed. What we are talking about is 659 children on the waiting list for primary care, occupational therapy or paediatric assessment. Some 382 of those children have been on the list more than a year. The average waiting time is circa three years.

We can pick multiple issues. I am dealing with a nine-year-old boy with global development delay, which involves mental and physical issues. His father has been told recently that for occupational therapy and speech and language therapy, he could be waiting another eight to 12 months for an appointment. He was initially with the early intervention team in the Boyne Business Park in Drogheda until he was six, and then he was moved to the children's team in Dundalk. He got access to services until October 2019. While I accept that Covid created difficulties, he has not got any face-to-face speech and language therapy in the interim. An occupational therapist has visited since we became involved but, obviously, that is not sufficient to cut the mustard, given the circumstances. We are also dealing with a man with an autistic four-year-old who is not toilet trained and cannot get a place in a school. There are major issues involved here.

I thank the Minister of State for taking this matter. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, will be familiar with the issues in County Meath.

She attended a meeting with parents of children with disabilities on 3 May in Pillo Hotel, so she will have heard the case articulated and spelt out clearly far better than I can do now. Similar to Deputy Ó Murchú, I have replies to parliamentary questions. There are four children's disability network teams in the county and every one of them has vacancies. In some, one in four positions are vacant. There are vacancies at every grade and across every discipline. That has a real impact on the services that are available to people. It has to be addressed, and it does not end there. One can say the same with regard to paediatric psychiatry and say it ten times over with regard to respite care.

I thank the Deputies for raising this important matter. On behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, I reaffirm the Government's commitment to children with disabilities and their families.

As Minister of State with responsibility for disabilities, Deputy Rabbitte is fully committed to the development and enhancement of services for children with disabilities. She recognises that the changes brought about through the progressing disability services, PDS, programme have been challenging for many stakeholders, including health professionals and referrers, but most importantly for families. As she has outlined many times when this issue is raised, every Member of the House strives to reduce waiting times for children who require therapy supports. She welcomes the full reconfiguration of children's disability services in the children's disability network teams, CDNTs, with a total of 91 CDNTs across the nine community healthcare organisations.

While this is a positive step, it must be acknowledged that there have been significant difficulties in certain parts of the country in the implementation of the PDS by the HSE. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, has openly acknowledged this. Unfortunately, these issues have resulted in long delays for families to access much-needed therapies for their children. These delays have caused untold stress and justifiable anger on the part of those families. That anger is understandable and deeply regrettable. Once again, the Minister of State and I wish to put on the record the Government's sincerest apologies to any family experiencing these delays. Such delays are unacceptable and we must work together to find innovative and suitable means to overcome the constraints affecting service delivery.

The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, recently hosted a families' disability services forum in Meath where she listened to a number of concerned families speak about long waiting times for both assessments and therapy supports. She is aware that some families in the area are waiting four years for an assessment of needs. Once again, and in particular for the benefit of families who may not be aware of this, it is not necessary for a child to have an assessment of needs to access therapy supports. The Minister of State is aware that network teams in Kingscourt, Dunshaughlin, Navan and so forth are experiencing challenges, particularly in the area of recruitment, resulting in unacceptably low child-to-therapist staffing ratios which lead to unacceptable delays in accessing supports. This is reflective of the national picture. The HSE recently undertook a national children's disability network teams staff census which highlighted that the CHOs are, on average, operating with a 28% vacancy rate. This is one of a number of issues that require long-term solutions. I assure Members that the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is currently engaging with HSE officials from the national office on this.

I will quickly revisit the issue of the autistic four-year-old. There was a family intervention meeting and the mother was told that no therapies would be possible for a couple of months. This child is not toilet trained and that is creating specific difficulties. The problem is that the child cannot get a place in a special school or in a regular school until that is resolved. The only thing the mother is being offered is parenting programmes. Obviously, this is not fit-for-purpose.

We must get serious about workforce planning. We know what numbers we have, but we need an assessment of how many people we need and we must find any means possible to ensure we can employ those people. Looking down the line, we must ensure there is a throughput of people being trained. It is also about ensuring we facilitate people with work visas and whatever else is necessary. As we can see, the cost of not doing this is astronomical.

In the first instance, I commend Siobhán Campbell and Rachel Martin from Families Unite for Services and Support, FUSS, Ireland, who have been energised, despite everything that is going on in their lives and all their responsibilities, to organise and agitate with parents of children with disabilities in County Meath. It is a huge undertaking. They have clear requests and I will put some of them on the record. In child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, in County Meath there is no specific learning disability team. There are such teams in other counties and there must be one in Meath.

On the issue of assessments of needs, the services are not available for children. There is an acute shortage of residential respite care in County Meath that has to be addressed. There is insufficient emergency respite in the county and one must go outside the county to Ardee or Balbriggan. There is a list and I will send it on. The Minister of State is aware of it. We must see progress on these matters.

Once again, I thank the Deputies for their contributions and for their concerns about this matter in their counties. Deputy Ó Murchú referred to workforce planning. That is quite a reasonable suggestion.

Progressing children's disability services is the policy underpinning children's disability services. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, believes in the overarching aim of PDS, which is equitable access to a team of multidisciplinary clinicians. However, she acknowledges that the HSE's roll-out of PDS has not been smooth, and the Deputies articulated the challenges that exist. Nonetheless, 91 teams are established and the Minister of State is continuing to engage with the HSE to fill the vacant posts and to bring them towards the levels required.

The Government has provided funding to the HSE for new posts in recent years. Since 2019, almost 500 additional whole-time equivalent posts for children's disability services have been allocated. The Minister of State will continue in her efforts at local and national levels to address the obstacles that exist in recruitment and other important issues. As I outlined, she has begun discussions with the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, about improving the disability workforce supply in the longer term. I restate on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, her absolute commitment to strive for the best services possible for children and young people with disabilities and for their families.

Deputy O'Rourke raised a few issues. If he wishes to send the email to the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, I am sure she will deal with it as urgently as possible. I hope there will be some improvement in services in the near future.

I thank the Members for raising those important matters of topical interest.

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