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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 19 May 2022

Vol. 1022 No. 4

Ceisteanna ar Pholasaí nó ar Reachtaíocht - Questions on Policy or Legislation

The Government's lack of forward planning in respect of special education school places is holding children back from achieving their full potential. The Government has had plenty of warning about this. The Milne family first appeared on "Prime Time" three years ago when the Tánaiste held the post of Taoiseach. The Government knows the number of children with special educational needs who need school places. The eleventh-hour announcement by the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, this week that she will begin to issue section 37A notices to compel schools to open special units is a day late and a dollar short. Families again fear that they are going be left with no school places due to this Government's failure. I ask the Tánaiste to explain to concerned families out there how the Government will meet its programme for Government commitment to ensure that every child with a special education need has an appropriate school place?

I am deeply conscious of the anxiety experienced by many families where there are no appropriate school place available to them. Indeed, this is a hot issue in Dublin 15 in my own constituency, where we need approximately three additional special classes. There was a hot-and-heavy public meeting about the matter this week. The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, the Ministers of State, Deputies Chambers Madigan, and I are working on solutions at present.

There has been a major increase in provision for special needs in recent years. The budget for special needs now is more than €2 billion, which is 25% of the education budget. There has, therefore, been a big increase in provision of special education. The number of special education teachers, for example, is now 14,000 - it was only 10,000 in 2011 - and there are additional special classes as well. By any objective measure, there has been a real improvement in provision and a big increase in resources for special education, both in terms of money and teachers. I know that butters no parsnips and gives no comfort to parents who cannot get places for their children. We need to get that sorted out well in advance of September.

My Labour Party colleagues and I were glad to stand in support of the Medical Laboratory Scientists Association on picket lines outside hospitals around the country yesterday. I was glad to join members of the Medical Laboratory Scientists Association in hospitals in my constituency. We are all conscious that there are long-running issues that had driven the medical laboratory scientists to take this action. In some cases, these issues have been ongoing for 20 years or more. I refer, for example, to long-standing pay and career development issues. There is massive frustration and burnout among medical scientists over the problems with recruitment, retention and pay and conditions. I appeal to the Tánaiste to ensure that there is serious engagement by Government with the Medical Laboratory Scientists Association in order to ensure that this matter is resolved, that the issues which gave rise to the industrial action are addressed and that we do not see any escalation. Through Covid, we all have got a new appreciation of the vital importance of the work that medical scientists do.

I thank Deputy Bacik. I acknowledge that medical scientists are essential to the health service. Patients and members of the public often do not see what they do because they work in laboratories rather than in patient-facing areas. As a medical doctor, I know what they do and I know how important they are to the health service. I would certainly like to see this dispute resolved.

My Department, as the Deputy will be aware, has two offices under its remit, the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, and the Labour Court. We stand ready to assist in resolving this dispute, if we can. The public service agreement group, which is made up of union and Civil Service representatives with an independent chair, met on 11 May to consider this matter. It recommended that the matter should be referred to the WRC and that industrial peace be maintained in the meantime. While the Medical Laboratory Scientists Association has agreed to engage at the WRC, it has not agreed to lift its strike action, which is unfortunate. As I say, the WRC is ready to intervene and wants to intervene but we would like normal patient services resumed in the meantime.

I want to ask the Tánaiste about the Government's plan to give €450 million in subsidies to developers to build apartments. Analysis from the Business Post shows that these apartments will be sold at prices that only people on the top 14% of incomes would be able to afford. They will be sold at full market prices; they will not be affordable. Yesterday, I put three questions to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. I asked if developers lobbied for this scheme, why there were no cost-benefit analysis, economic evaluation or regulatory assessment and what level of profits for developers would be guaranteed and underpinned by this scheme. The Minister did not give answers to any of my questions. If the Government plans to give €450 million of the public's hard-earned money to developers, the least the public deserve is to get answers to these questions. Will the Tánaiste answer any of them?

I will answer them as best I can. I would not have been involved directly in this; it would have been dealt with by the Ministers, Deputies Donohoe, Michael McGrath and Darragh O'Brien.

Speaking to some construction companies and developers in recent weeks, I am aware that they are not happy with this. This is not the scheme that they would have organised or arranged. They would have preferred some sort of tax break or tax incentive, and they are not particularly enamoured of the Government's scheme. It is fair to say that this was not done for them. Nor was it the scheme they would have designed for themselves.

The intention behind the scheme is to make the building of apartments viable. For reasons related to the housing shortage and the need to take climate action, we need many more apartments to be built in Dublin, Cork and our other cities. Unfortunately, it is not viable to build apartments at present because of the cost involved. This subsidy is designed to make it viable to produce apartments that would otherwise not be built.

After the events of last night, the Government has only a paper-thin majority and is significantly more vulnerable to pressure. I am of the view that pressure will grow from working people hard-hit by the cost of living crisis. Bus Éireann workers have been threatened with a two-year pay freeze and are not going to wear it. Medical scientists have been underpaid for years and they are not going to take it anymore. Some 87% of Bausch + Lomb workers in Waterford voted for strike action to reverse a pay cut.

With interest rates set to rise and big increases in mortgage payments on the way, I hope today's cost-of-living protest will be just the start and more workers will begin to fight back. What is needed is an Opposition that does not just put pressure on the Government in the House but which helps fan the flames of workers' opposition, which could hasten the end of this Government. Sinn Féin should take note of that. I will conclude with a question. Does the Tánaiste concur that if the mood of discontent hardens among working people, Deputies Hourigan and Costello might be the least of the Government's worries come the autumn?

The Deputy can rest assured that the Government still has a majority in the Dáil and a substantial majority in the Seanad. As he pointed out, there is little or no evidence that the Opposition parties would be able to come together to form an alternative Government. You do not need an election to form an alternative Government. The parties opposite could have formed a left-wing Government two years ago but they decided not to. The position in that regard has not changed.

The Government will address the matters raised by the Deputy, work on them and do the best it can to protect people's living standards. That is the job of the Government. We need to do this in a sensible way and in a way that does not drive up inflation. We cannot do it with borrowed money. This is the approach we will take. I echo the comments of Deputy Cowen on "Morning Ireland" earlier when he said that some of the best Governments this country ever had were minority Governments. I had the privilege to lead one for three years. I do not believe we will get into that scenario, but people need not fear an election any time soon.

I thank the staff of Leinster House for how they treated Leo Dixon, the nine-year-old child in a wheelchair who visited me here yesterday. I know nobody from the Cabinet was able to meet him, although they knew he was coming. Today, more than half of all children with disabilities are not receiving any services and the position is getting worse rather than better. We are in the midst of a catastrophic crisis in child disability services. Healthcare services for our most vulnerable are getting worse to the extent they are practically meaningless or non-existent. This week a constituent of mine contacted me whose son is autistic and non-verbal, with 50% vision and who has developed an extremely worrying and possibly dangerous food obsession, leading him to eating items from the freezer. His case was certainly compounded by Covid, but it has resulted in much weight gain for him. I must go on, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

I am afraid you cannot.

His mother is a widow and she is also his main carer and that of his brother, who is also autistic. He has been told it will be five years before he gets an appointment that he requires to deal with the weight gain.

The Tánaiste will respond.

Will the Tánaiste please intervene?

I am very sorry to hear about that case. I do not know the details but if the Deputy wishes to pass them to me, I will certainly look into it. It probably relates to a specialist childhood obesity clinic rather than disability services. If the Deputy passes on the details, I will see if there is anything we can do.

This morning, Dr. Robert Sweeney, senior economic and policy analyst with the Think-tank for Action on Social Change, TASC, launched a report on the cost of living, which is reaching highs not seen since the 1980s. We know it is going to increase further. It also deals with inequality and we know over a million people were pushed below the poverty line in the past year. He stated Ireland has always been a high cost-of-living country and long-standing issues that elevate our costs include consistent failure in planning and public service delivery. He was asked what targets could be achieved between now and October, and some of those were discussed already this morning. He made a particular point about a windfall tax on energy companies. We know that the profits of these companies have increased enormously because of the price of energy. The UK is talking about a windfall tax, and Italy has imposed a 25% tax on energy companies. Dr. Sweeney pointed out that energy companies in Ireland are registered in such a way that we do not know their profits. What is the Government going to do about this? The proceeds from windfall tax could be targeted at the people who need help most.

As measured by the survey on income and living conditions, the official Central Statistics Office statistics indicate much progress in recent years. Living standards have improved, median incomes have gone up, rates of poverty and deprivation are down. Inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, has narrowed. That may not be the prevailing narrative but those are the facts. There is a big risk now that because of the cost-of-living crisis, we may see the progress reversed. It is important we do all we can as a Government to ensure that does not happen.

We are not ruling out a windfall tax on energy companies. I know other countries are doing it. The difficulty we have in Ireland is that the vast majority of energy companies are not Irish. Petrol, diesel, gas, etc., are imported. This is not something we are ruling out as a potential means of raising revenue, which we could then use to help people with the cost of living.

West Cork Connect is a commercial bus company. It operates in and out of west Cork 16 times daily, carrying approximately 800 customers daily on its buses. It receives no Government subsidy as it takes people every hour on the hour from Skibbereen and Bantry to Cork and back daily. The recent 20% to 50% reductions in travel prices, mainly for youths in Dublin, has been of no benefit to any of the 800 people who travel with this company daily. Fuel prices have gone through the roof, as the Tánaiste can imagine, for this company. Instead of lying down to these Government hits time and again, the company intends to put on new services from Kinsale and Ballinhassig to Cork several times daily.

The company made a proposal to the National Transport Authority, NTA, eight months ago to do a run from Goleen on Mizen Head every hour on the hour, thus opening up places like Goleen, Lowertown, Schull, Ballydehob and Kilcoe to possible day visitors. The NTA has refused to sanction the route, indicating it could not see a demand. As far as I am aware, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, his Department and the NTA are suppose to put a plan together called Connecting Ireland so how could they disconnect part of Ireland by refusing a private bus operator this run, which is of no cost to the Department. The proposal, run by West Cork Connect, must be allowed to go ahead. Will the Tánaiste immediately seek a change of mindset on the part of the NTA in respect of this matter?

The Deputy might send me the details. If I understand him correctly, the company is seeking a licence for a commercial service and is not looking for a subsidy. I do not see why the NTA would refuse a licence. If it works, it works and if it does not, it does not. If the Deputy sends the details I will see if I can look into it.

The treatment benefit scheme in the Department of Social Protection provides important dental, optical and oral services to a range of different people. We heard from Amber Women's Refuge service and Safe Ireland in Leinster House 2000 this morning. One of the matters they raised relates to the practical effect of having to get consent for a qualified adult in order to get those treatments and, in particular, the impact on somebody who may be in a violent or coercive relationship having to obtain consent from the partner in order to receive the benefit of those schemes. I wonder if this matter could be raised with the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Heather Humphreys, in order that we might try to address any barriers that may be faced by victims in the context of receiving treatment.

The treatment benefit scheme is great. People pay their PRSI and get benefits in return, including optical and dental benefits. It is linked to PRSI, as the Deputy knows. I have not heard of qualified adults needing consent. There must be a way around that. I am sure it is not necessary because the Department of Social Protection should have the data already. I can certainly see how there would be a difficulty, especially if there is a strained relationship or abuse in a relationship. That is not right. I welcome that the Deputy has raised this matter. It has not been raised with me before. I will ensure that the Minister is aware of it, and we will see if we can work out a solution or workaround.

One of the great success stories of the past ten years has been the level of job creation in Limerick and the mid west. Credit is due to the previous two Governments for getting that level of job creation going. This Government is certainly reinforcing that and will accelerate it.

There are 6,000 people employed at the Raheen industrial estate. There is a disused rail line there. It is stated in the national development plan that the line is to be reopened. We need a train station at the Raheen industrial estate to facilitate the movement of workers. The mid-west region has proved it can move fast. It needs Government support to enable it to do so. I very much welcome the announcement of the Shannon Estuary task force. Will the Tánaiste tell us more about how he sees the latter conducting its work in the coming months and reporting?

I thank Deputy Leddin for the question. I am a strong supporter of the plans of the Minister, Deputy Ryan, for commuter rail in Limerick and Cork. It could really make a big difference for the cities in terms of the climate, quality of life and future development.

The new Shannon task force has just been appointed. One thing I have asked it to do is engage with the three local authorities and the Oireachtas Members who represent the area. There will be an opportunity for direct engagement with the task force, which is designed to look at the estuary itself - not the entire region - to see what the economic opportunities are there. Those opportunities are considerable. More importantly, it will look at how we can then operationalise them and make them happen.

I also want to speak about special educational needs. In recent days I have spoken with the Tallaght Parents Autism Support Group and the Clondalkin autism parents network. They asked me to raise the lack of autism spectrum disorder, ASD, secondary school places in the Dublin Mid-West constituency. According to information they received from the National Council for Special Education indicates that there are 17 primary school with 29 ASD classes in the constituency. There are 174 children in ASD primary school classes. We have five secondary schools with 1.5 ASD classes each that accommodate 45 children. Simple maths tells me that putting 174 children into 45 places does not go. Why is the Government still working with half-class models? Instead of having 1.5 ASD classes per school, why not simply have two? What plans does the Government have to address the lack of secondary school ASD classes in my area and across the State?

I thank the Deputy. Those are very fair questions that deserve comprehensive answers. I would be afraid to give the Deputy an answer and get it wrong. On foot of that, I will tell the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, who is responsible for this area, that he has raised the issue and ask her to come back directly to him with replies.

Childcare is a massive issue for young parents in every constituency. The cost of childcare here is one of the highest in Europe. We need clarity on how it is proposed to reduce fees for parents, improve pay and conditions for staff and increase the number of places available for children. Fine Gael's policy lab has done excellent work to accurately reflect concerns and preferred solutions for a wide range of diverse groups in the Care of the Child policy paper. Last Friday, I visited two brilliant childcare and early year education services in Mayo. There is frustration among some about the lack of co-location of education and childcare services. This should be factored into the future capital building projects. Early childhood and childcare must become key pillars in the national development plan. I ask the Tánaiste whether the Government's new core funding model will address affordability for young parents through an enhanced early childhood care and education scheme and the national childcare scheme.

I met Fine Gael's policy lab and we discussed these issues. On the issue of pay, we have provided a core funding package that is worth €221 million in a full year. This is supporting the development of an employment regulation order for the sector. An initial €13 per hour payment, which is more than the living wage, has been agreed and other rates are being negotiated by the joint labour committee. This will be the first time this essential sector of 30,000 women who receive pay that is far too low will have clear wage rates set for it.

The Deputy is absolutely right with regard to capacity. A total of €70 million has been set aside in the national development plan for extending the capacity of existing services and for the development of new services. We will put out the first call for that next year. The Deputy is also absolutely right regarding affordability. There is agreement in all three Government parties that affordability of childcare will be a focus in this year's budget.

It is stated on page 49 of the programme for Government that the Government will extend the remit of the National Treatment Purchase Fund in order to secure timely assessment for child and adult psychological services. Has this happened? If not, why? There is a huge issue with recruitment and retention of staff in children's disability services under the progressing disability model and in primary care itself. If we are to believe the HSE, it is working to resolve the staffing issues but this will take time. In the interim, a large cohort of children who require services now are missing out on important interventions. We are told constantly that early intervention is key. Will the Government sanction the use of the National Treatment Purchase Fund to allow children to access assessments of need, interventions and services such as speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, physiotherapy and psychology in order that they can progress rather than regress?

I thank the Deputy for her question. It is something I have looked into from the perspective of providing primary care psychology for children with mental health issues. Legislation would be required to set this up. The National Treatment Purchase Fund works very well for people who need hip replacements, knee replacements and cataract operations, but it is much more complicated for primary care psychology because a child could need four, six, eight, ten or 12 appointments. The Department has been looking into this to see how feasible it is. Between September and December of last year, €4 million was allocated to reduce primary care psychology waiting lists for children waiting longer than 12 months. We managed to reduce it by 1,600 children. This year, working with the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, I secured another €5.5 million for a targeted approach to try to reduce these massive waiting lists. I will ask the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, to speak to the Deputy about disability.

I want to raise with the Tánaiste the issue of ASD classes. For every three ASD classes in primary school, there is only one at secondary level. There is a clear gap in service provision. A total of 90% of all students who begin in ASD classes remain in them for the duration of their education. Given this disparity and taking into account the comments of the Minister of State in recent days with regard to glaring gaps, what will the Government do? Is it high time that we legislated for ASD classes to be provided in all schools?

I thank the Deputy. It is useful to put on the record of the House that in the past ten years the number of special classes has increased from approximately 500 to 2,000. We now have almost 20,000 special needs assistants, which is not far off double the number we had ten years ago. New special schools have opened in Cork and Dublin this year. There has been a huge increase in resources and provision in this area. I acknowledge it is not enough. Many parents are worried about whether there will be a place for their child in September, including in my constituency. The Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, is committed to working on solutions. I am confident we will see results in the coming weeks.

There are 445 children waiting for disability services in County Wexford. They and their families are in dire circumstances. This week "Prime Time" exposed the extent of the lack of services throughout the country through the bravery of the Milne family. I have met families in Wexford who are vexed by having to and tired and worn out from fighting for services for their children. They are sick and tired of telling their stories. They need and want action. Front-line staff are struggling with the numbers and are also stressed out. Something must be done to fix this now. The HSE has stated that there is a serious requirement for additional resources to meet demand. What action can be taken and will be taken to fix the inadequacies and failure to provide services to our most vulnerable children and their families in Wexford and beyond?

I acknowledge that this is a significant issue not only in Wexford but across the country. The HSE has considerable resources. Last year was the first in a very long time that it was not in a position to spend all of its budget. The budget has been increased to approximately €22 billion. The difficulty the HSE often has is finding suitable qualified staff. This is a real challenge at present. In the context of Wexford, I will certainly make sure that the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, knows the Deputy has raised the matter and I will ask her to come back to him directly.

The Tánaiste and the Minister mentioned core funding for childcare. However, neither mentioned the crisis created by the current core funding proposals. Since those proposals were published, 21 childcare providers have closed their doors. It is estimated by the Federation of Early Childhood Providers that 260 providers will close their doors by the end of next year. If this happens, it will mean 1,000 childcare providers will have closed their doors since 2017. That is an incredible situation. What is happening is reducing the options that parents have. It is also pushing up prices because there is less supply in the market. One provider I spoke to said that she remained open throughout the pandemic but that she has come to a decision to close the doors after 15 years because of Government mistreatment.

She said that it is nauseating to see big providers so lavishly boosted by the Government while smaller providers, which are the bedrock of our communities, are snubbed. Will the Minister reverse the damage done to small early childhood care and education, ECCE, providers in the State?

The Government provided huge support to the childcare sector during the crisis through a range of funding mechanisms, particularly through the availability of the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS. That supported the amazing work done by childcare providers in staying open for the most vulnerable children and children of essential workers, even during some of the toughest times of the crisis. It is also demonstrated by the fact that, in 2021, we had the lowest number of closures in the sector for a significant number of years. The Government is now bringing forward a major core-funding scheme of €221 million, an investment which we have never seen in the sector, that will target supporting the capacity of services across all parts of the sector. It will deliver the much-needed increase in the pay of the workers who did so much during and before the pandemic.

I want to ask about the scandals at the top of An Bord Pleanála. The terms of reference of the review have been published and they leave a lot to be desired. They are extremely narrow, dealing with only three particular decisions of the board and only one of the board members, Mr. Paul Hyde. The terms of reference do not include the 2019 case in which Mr. Hyde approved the deeply unpopular co-living development by Bartra in Dun Laoghaire, which his brother's firm had been employed to produce the fire safety report without declaring a conflict of interest. There are at least five other similar cases not included in the terms of reference, nor do they include the broader conduct of the board. I understand new revelations will emerge in the coming days about the conduct of another member of the board of An Bord Pleanála. The question is whether the Tánaiste agrees that the terms of reference need to be broadened to include the broader conduct of the board.

I responded to a question on this from Deputy Cian O'Callaghan earlier, so I do not want to expand too much on what I said. I want to reiterate that these are serious allegations, and serious allegations should be investigated seriously. People are entitled to due process and fair procedure, and that will happen. It is a matter for the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, to consider whether he thinks it appropriate to extend the scope of the existing investigation or to find another way to have them examined.

I would like to raise the shortage of childcare places particularly in Lucan and Newcastle. I have been contacted by parents who cannot find a place for their child and are met with really long waiting lists. Sadly, in some cases, this means that one parent, invariably the mother, decides to change her working hours because she cannot find appropriate childcare.

I have also been contacted by a number of childcare providers who are disappointed in the funding they are due to receive under the new ECCE core funding model. They said that it will not cover the increase of fuel costs, never mind the much needed wages increase for trained staff. Parents in my constituency cannot access the childcare they need. Some childcare providers, who were so grateful for the support of the Government that allowed them to keep their doors open during the pandemic, are saying that they may have to shut their doors. What will the Government do to support parents and the industry more?

The chief way we are supporting the industry is through core funding, the massive investment of €221 million across a full year, which is designed to support capacity. The Deputy has highlighted that capacity is missing in certain areas. The funding is designed in ways to recognise that there are gaps, particularly for younger children under the age of one. Where a service provides a baby room for children under one years of age, there is additional financial support recognising the extra staffing needs of a service like this.

I responded to Deputy Dillon earlier on the provision of additional capacity. Some €70 million is provided in the national development plan. Next year, we will put out a call for the modernisation and extension of existing services. The following year, we will put out a capital call for new services. We are also aware of how the planning system may be used in the obligation to provide services where large developments are undertaken. I had a very useful meeting with a range of city and county planners on Monday to see how my Department can work with the Department with responsibility for housing to revise planning guidelines.

We are over time but as there are two Members left, I will allow them to contribute with the co-operation of the House.

I want to raise the issue of a family resource centre for Erris, which is absolutely imperative. We fought for more than ten years for a family resource centre there. The steering group has the strategic plan together. It has done the needs analysis. It is a beautiful area but it is severely disadvantages. It is classed as disadvantaged or very disadvantaged according to the Pobal HP deprivation index. We need the family resource centre in order to provide a vibrant hub for mental health services and many other services that are needed within the community. Will the Minister meet with the steering group to discuss its needs and a plan going forward? We have a site for the family resource centre. It is just a matter of the Government making a commitment.

The last time I stood up here, I asked a question about the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill, which had gone through the previous Dáil and was to be reintroduced. I was promised a reply and I have not received it.

Will the Minister give an assurance that the assisted decision-making (capacity) (amendment) Bill will be published in this session? It is a very important Bill and it is long overdue.

I can commit that the assisted decision-making (capacity) (amendment) Bill will be published in the next two weeks. We look forward it being passed by the end of this session, with the co-operation of both Houses.

I am happy to engage further with Deputy Conway-Walsh on the issue she raised. Tusla is currently undertaking a review of all its family support services, including the place of family resource centres. Any new decisions on family resource centres would have to wait until that process is complete, but I am happy to engage with the Deputy separately and update her on that, and we can look for a way forward.

Will I get a reply on the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill?

I thought I had written a reply to the Deputy. We will endeavour to get the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill back on the Order Paper. It fell with the last Dáil but it is ready to go and we would like to get it through the Houses.