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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 23 Jun 2022

Vol. 1024 No. 2

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Léiríonn tuarascáil an Ombudsman teip iomlán an Rialtais áiteanna scoileanna a chur ar fáil do pháistí agus do leanaí a bhfuil riachtanais speisialta acu. Tá gníomh éigeandála de dhíth anois le cinntiú go mbeidh áit scoile ag gach páiste sa Stát i mí Mheán Fómhair. The Ombudsman for Children has released a scathing report of the Government's failure on children with special needs who cannot secure appropriate school places come September. Mr. Muldoon was very clear regarding the seriousness of the situation. He said the situation is "a clear failure on the part of the State, which has an obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the right to education of every child." The Ombudsman went further. He said the failure to provide children with special needs with an appropriate school place is discrimination.

As things stand there are hundreds of children with special needs who do not have an appropriate school place. Today, on 23 June, we have parents who do not know whether their child will have a place in a school come September. It is scandalous that children with special needs and their parents are treated in such a way. The failure of the Government to plan for the school places needed happens year in year out. We can speak about the statistics all day but behind all of these numbers are human stories of stress, worry and heartbreak. Take Aaron's story for example. He is 12 years old and has a dual diagnosis of autism and intellectual disability. This was identified in his early years. He went on to early intervention, preschool and a special school. Recently he graduated from his special school. He has no place to progress to in September. He is 12 years of age with nowhere to go. Aaron's mother said that in her opinion the Department of Education and the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, did not engage in forward planning to ensure Aaron and his classmates had a right to education that was guaranteed. She said that even if he was accepted now there would be no opportunity for a transitionary programme for him to familiarise with the new school environment. She said that Aaron is confused about his future.

Unfortunately, Aaron's story is not isolated. There are children and families the length and breadth of the State who are in the same situation, particularly in blackspots such as Cork, Dublin and the midlands. We know the courts have ruled that the failure to provide children with special needs an appropriate school place is a breach of their legal rights yet every year we are faced with this appalling situation. The Department scrambles for school places and parents and their children are left in the lurch. It is a result of a complete failure to plan on the part of the Government. It is even more frustrating when we consider that the NCSE has the data and information to get this right but here we are once again.

This is an emergency for every one of these children and their families. Children with special needs and their families need action and they need it now. The Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, who accepts, in fairness, that this is discrimination by the State, has thrown out a few possible solutions but there is still real confusion as to what will happen. The section 37A process, which takes 13 months, needs to be shortened to guarantee an appropriate school place for these children in September. There are three weeks left in the Dáil term. Will the Government pass emergency legislation to make sure this happens? Sinn Féin will support the Government in trying to meet this objective.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue, which I know is causing a lot of angst and worry to families throughout the State, including in my constituency of Dublin West. I have read the Ombudsman's report. The Government accepts the criticisms being made. We are committed to ensuring that every single child with special educational needs has access to education. One child who does not have a school place is one child too many in our view. We are prioritising children who have special educational needs. We have a dedicated Minister of State for special education for the first time and €1 in every €4 spent on education is spent on children with special needs. We have more special needs assistants, special education teachers and more special classrooms in mainstream schools than ever before. We have new special schools in Dublin 15 and in Cork. I absolutely appreciate this is cold comfort, indeed no comfort at all, to families and children who do not have a place for September. Every day that goes by they get more and more worried about what will happen in September when they need a school place.

I know the Minister of State is redoubling her efforts with the Department to make sure this is sorted out in the next few weeks so that parents have peace of mind that their child will have a place in school in September. This is absolutely what we are working towards. I am not aware of any plans at present for special legislation on this but I will take on board the Deputy's offer of full co-operation from Sinn Féin should it be required. As I mentioned, this year we will spend in excess of €2 billion, 25% of the Department's budget, on special needs. This is a 60% increase over the past ten years. Budget 2022 provided for the creation of 287 additional special classes for the school year. These will provide 1,700 new places from September next. This is a very significant increase in places. The difficulty is that the projection has been exceeded and 1,800 additional places in 312 special classes will be needed in 2022.

I thank the Tánaiste for his response. I am surprised by his commentary that there are no plans for emergency legislation. This highlights the fact the members of the Government are not speaking to each other. The Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, is on the record as saying she has spoken to the Attorney General in the context of emergency legislation. We need emergency legislation. The Tánaiste is absolutely right that his words and statistics are cold comfort and no comfort to any family. Today there are 106 children who do not know whether they will have a school place in September. Aaron's mother nailed it on the head. Even if they get a place children with autism must go through a transitionary programme. It is crucial that the children know the surroundings and has familiarity with the school they will enter. Sometimes they need to meet the teachers beforehand. This year again we have a failure to plan. How many years will we have to listen to Ministers accept the State is involved in discrimination against children with special needs? How many years will we have to hear Ministers and Tánaistí stand up to say it is wrong and they are hoping to get it right? This has been going on for years. We on this side of the House are willing to assist the Government to bring forward emergency legislation. The Ombudsman's report makes it very clear that section 37A is not fit for purpose. The process is too long. Let us bring forward the powers necessary to make sure every child has a school place in September.

I thank the Deputy. Again, I welcome the offer of co-operation should special or emergency legislation be needed. We will probably be able to find places for the 100 children or so without the need for legislation but if it is required to do it then it should be done. I know from my engagement with the NCSE and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, that they have revised the way they project the number of places needed. They are confident that in future years we will not end up with the problem we have had in recent years where there has been an underprojection of the needs and demands.

The Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, has initiated the section 37A process for the third time. The process is now under way. She has formed an opinion that there is insufficient primary school special class capacity and special schools capacity in Dublin. The second stage of the process is now complete. Following its engagement, the NCSE will provide a detailed report on the matter to the Minister of State. This will consider existing provision, any relevant proposed building works and which schools may be able to provide additional provision. In preparing the report the legislation requires that the NCSE consults with school patrons, national parent bodies, school management bodies and teacher unions.

The Minister of State has asked that this be done as quickly as possible because it is an emergency situation.

Later this afternoon, my colleague, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, will introduce Labour's autism Bill, which would create a coherent framework for addressing the needs of children with autism. The need for this sort legislation has become patently clear in recent weeks and months. That need has been clear for a long time for the parents of children with autism who have been waiting for so long to see proper and effective provision made for their children.

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of attending a training session involving Ranelagh Rockets, the brilliant initiative of the Ranelagh Gaels GAA club in my area which works with children with autism and provides one-on-one coaching. However, I heard there, as we have all heard throughout the country, about the immense anguish and frustration that many parents are experiencing because they cannot secure appropriate school places for their children and as a result of the immense delays involved. These issues were highlighted just this week in the report of the Ombudsman for Children, which indicates that the Department of Education is failing children with special educational needs. The ombudsman estimates that as many as 15,500 children have to travel outside their local catchment areas every day because there is nowhere available for them in their communities.

We all know the parents. On RTÉ just yesterday, we heard the story of Gareth, a young boy from Athlone who is finishing primary school next week but who cannot secure a secondary school place near him because he is autistic. His mother, Michelle, spoke powerfully about the toll that this has taken on her child. He has stopped attending class altogether because he feels that there is just no point. He is not alone. Some estimates indicate that nearly 270 children in Ireland are without school places for this coming September. We know many more who are waiting for diagnostic assessments to allow them to qualify for school places in the first instance. We are approaching the end of the primary school year. We are approaching the end of June, and we are only beginning to hear now about processes being invoked by the Minister and the Government.

The Ombudsman for Children's report was prompted by the actions of parents. The great group, Involve Autism D6 & D6W & Surrounds, is based in my constituency. Its chairperson, Miriam Kenny, has spoken out powerfully about how the group had to lodge a complaint with the ombudsman to get things moving. That complaint was lodged because of the lack of autism classroom places in Dublin 6 and Dublin 6W despite the existence of the section 37A process.

It is simply not good enough for parents and children to hear that processes are now being invoked this late in the school year and to still lack any clarity or certainty about whether they will be able to attend school anywhere near where they live this September or whether they will be able to attend school at all. The Ombudsman for Children's report is clear that the current failures in the system amount to discrimination against children with special educational needs, especially those with autism. We know that other jurisdictions do so much better than us. They have proper planning in place and they know the numbers of places required. We are failing children. Is the Tánaiste in a position to give any clarification as to school places for those awaiting them?

As stated earlier, I have had the chance to read the ombudsman's report. The Government accepts the criticisms that are being made. The report acknowledges some of the changes that have been made in the past two years, especially with regard to future planning. Use of such planning will mean that in future years we will not face the problems we have been facing for the past couple of years whereby parents do not know if there is a place available for their child until very late in the day. That is not acceptable, and it is something we are working on. We very much have an emergency situation in which approximately 100 children do not have school places - as yet - for this September.

I am always reluctant to discuss individual cases in the Dáil but I understand that in Gareth's case, an additional special class is now being provided in Athlone. That will be an option for him. I hope that will resolve that issue to the satisfaction of his parents.

I look forward to seeing Deputy Ó Ríordáin's legislation. We will, of course, give it special consideration. Perhaps it can be considered by the new special committee on autism that has been established under the chairmanship of Senator Carrigy.

With regard to the wider issue raised by Deputy Doherty earlier in terms of emergency legislation, section 37A is currently being reviewed within the context of the review of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 - the EPSEN Act - to establish whether the process can be streamlined to ensure that sufficient specialist places can be made available in a more efficient manner. The review is being conducted by way of engaging with those who are part of the process, including the NCSE, Department officials and schools, in order to take into account the cases where section 37A has been used and the effectiveness for the child. In addition, the advisory group for the overall EPSEN Act review will have an opportunity to submit its views.

The Department is separately considering whether there is a need to introduce new emergency legislation to assist in securing additional special educational needs provision. The Department has engaged with the Office of the Attorney General to discuss this matter. This work will consider whether new legislation would assist in expediting the existing section 37A process.

I thank the Tánaiste for the response in respect of the individual case I raised. Again, however, this will be an immense source of frustration for parents who in so many cases have been forced to go public and to air private issues around their children in order to secure what should be the right of each child. It is simply not good enough to hear that the Attorney General's advice is being sought and that amendments of the section 37A process are being considered. This is too little, too late for those who are currently unclear as to whether their child will have a school place or even an appropriate school place for this September.

Even where we see provision made, the lack of wraparound supports and the additional measures necessary is very evident. I had the pleasure of visiting St. Francis Special School in Portlaoise earlier this week. I heard about the need, even there, for the additional supports to be present. I am also conscious that with regard to special needs assistants, SNAs, the exceptional review process is simply not working as it should. I pay tribute to Fórsa's campaign to ensure decent recognition of the immensely important work that SNAs do in providing those additional supports. We are continuing to fail children because we cannot provide them with certainty and clarity about availability of school places and because of the immense delays in diagnosis in the first place.

I appreciate both of the Deputies raising this matter and the sincerity of their concerns with regard to it. As already stated, it is something we are committed to improving and resolving as soon as possible in order that children and families who do not have a place for September will know that they have one, as soon as possible.

In the context of the various therapy supports which the Deputy mentioned, I am a big advocate of providing these in schools rather than through the HSE. It is much better if therapists are in and employed by schools and are present on-site, perhaps shared among schools, rather than being off-site with the HSE because that inevitably leads to children ending up on waiting lists. We are working on this at the moment, and I understand that a pilot project is in place.

Yesterday, there was a tale of two Irelands. On one hand, there was the Ireland of the highly paid and the rich. In this case, I am referring to the top 1% of civil servants who are on €150,000 or more a year. The Government was out across the media to justify pay increases of €15,000, €20,000, €30,000 or more for some of the highest earners in the country. Secretaries General of Departments will get a raise of almost €40,000. This will bring their total pay up to €250,000 per year. The total annual cost of these increases will be €60 million. On the other hand, the Government had a very different message for low- and middle-income workers. There will be no immediate pay increase in July. The Government did not say it will have to do something about their pay because it is legally bound to do so. No. The message to the low- and middle-income workers is that they will have to wait and that there will be no action until the budget. There is an insulting pay offer to public sector workers, which amounts to 3.5% in a year at a time when inflation stands at 8%. In other words, workers are being asked to sign up for a significant pay cut.

This morning the ESRI warned that Irish households face the biggest drop in living standards since the 2008 crisis, but the Government continues to say it can do precious little. That is a political choice. A different choice is entirely possible. The Government says it is bound by the 2017 legislation. That is legislation against which People before Profit voted. However, the Government could bring in new legislation next Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. It can say there continues to be a financial emergency for ordinary people and the one in three people who are living in energy poverty and say that it will not, at the moment, pay the already well-paid even more.

Workers in both the public sector and the private sector need a pay rise. If they do not get a raise equal to or higher than the rate of inflation, they will experience a cut in their living standards.

There is a reason that Mick Lynch, the leader of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers has become such a popular figure, including in this country. Not only is he unflappable in the face of ridiculous right-wing media questioning, he also represents the fact that when workers are struggling, they look at the idea that when they get organised, they have power. That is what we need to see here in order to see wage increases being won. Instead of massive pay increases for the top 1%, the Government needs to take action now to protect low- and middle-income workers from the cost of living and housing crises. We need price controls on essential goods to stop the spiralling costs. We need wage increases at least equal to the rate of inflation for public and private sector workers. We must raise the minimum wage immediately to raise the wage floor for all. Will the Tánaiste prioritise low- and middle-income workers instead of the highest-paid?

What the Deputy describes is, quite simply, a misrepresentation of the facts that does not describe what is going to happen on 1 July. For those who are interested in the facts - I know most people are genuinely interested in the facts - I am going to set them out. First, this is not a pay increase; it is pay restoration. It is the reversal of pay cuts that happened more than ten years ago. Ten or 12 years ago, there were pay cuts across the board in the public sector. Those on the highest salaries had the deepest pay cuts for the longest period. This is the last group that is having its pay restored. It is not a pay increase; it is the reversal of a pay cut and pay restoration. If it was any other group involved, that is how the Deputy would describe it.

The Deputy stated that these people are civil servants. Again, that is not factually correct. Some 90% of them are doctors. Those doctors are public servants. They are working in our public hospital system. If I accompanied the Deputy to one of the maternity hospitals throughout the State today, the only person who would not have had his or her pay restored would be the one who performed a caesarean section at 4 a.m. If I accompanied him to one of the busy accident and emergency departments in any of our public hospitals, the only person who would not have had his or her pay restored would be the consultant doing the rounds and trying to get patients off trolleys and into beds. If I accompanied him to the children's hospital in Crumlin, just down the road from here, and we went to the orthopaedic operating theatre, the only person there who would not have had pay restored would be the person performing the scoliosis operation. These are people who are hard to recruit and retain. They are well sought after around the world. They are the last people to have their pay restored. That is what is happening. The way the Deputy tried to represent the position is simply non-factual.

On the wider issue of public sector pay, the Government believes that all public servants deserve a pay increase. We have already agreed a pay increase of between 2% and 3% this year, plus or minus an increment, and we accept that is not enough in light of the cost of living. That is why we are engaging with public sector unions on an agreement for a better pay increase than that, not just for this year but also for next year. As the unions rightly point out, there are three elements to this. It is not just about how much somebody is paid; it is about how much he or she gets to take home after tax and how far the money goes. That is what the unions refer to as the social wage. The space is there for an agreement if we take into account those three aspects.

When is a pay increase not a pay increase? Is it when a person is on over €150,000 a year? The Secretaries General of the Departments led by Ministers took home €210,000 each last year. Over the next 12 months, they will take home €250,000 each. In anybody's money, that is a pretty significant pay increase year on year.

In the context of the points relating to hospitals, the truth is if we want to attract and retain health professionals, we need to have pay equality in the health service. We should not overwork staff in the overly pressurised environment of our currently underfunded health service. We need to tackle the housing crisis and get people to come work in a national health service. That is the answer and what the studies show. People do not need to be on €250,000 a year to do a job in our health service. People will want to work in our health service if they feel they can contribute to a real public service.

The Government is moving immediately to increase the pay of the highest earners and saying to ordinary people that they have to wait. They cannot wait. Thousands of people were out on the streets last Saturday and tens of thousands of people will come out if the Government does not move now in respect of pay increases for ordinary workers and price controls to stop the cost of living and housing crises.

To answer the Deputy's question, a pay increase is not a pay increase when in 2022 a person ends up earning the same as he or she did in 2012. It is the reversal of a pay cut. It is pay restoration. The Deputy may choose to misrepresent them, but those are the facts.

I heard the Deputy speaking on the radio yesterday. One thing I have to say is that I respect his sincerity. He believes in an ideology, namely, socialism, and I respect that. Nevertheless, he made two statements that are totally wrong. He mentioned price controls. We know the world over what happens when price controls are introduced. We end up with supply problems and rationing. It is what happened in the Soviet Union, eastern Europe and other places when it was tried. I also heard the Deputy say we should have a maximum wage and nobody should earn more than €150,000 a year. That is fair enough; that is the Deputy's view but I disagree with it. If that happened, there would be a brain drain of talent from the State. It is what happens in socialist countries around the world when they attempt this. We would see investment from multinationals and foreign direct investment either dying off and, perhaps, being removed altogether. The cake would then get smaller and there would be less for everyone. That is what happens when socialism is attempted in the genuine and sincere way the Deputy would try to do it.

Over the past number of years, different electricity suppliers entered the Irish market. one of them was Iberdrola, which acquired approximately 30,000 customers, mostly businesses, in Ireland. The company has since left the country voluntarily. It posted a profit of €1 billion in the first quarter of this year. I can provide an example of a business whose owners I have spoken with about Iberdrola. It is Black Donkey Brewery in Ballinlough. The company finished its previous electricity contract . To enter a new one would, with the increase in electricity costs, have been 145% more than it paid before. In February, the brewery signed the contract with the electricity company in question. In March, the brewery started to have its electricity provided by this company, having used what is called a green energy provider to see where it could get the best price. Everything was going okay.

Funnily enough, Black Donkey Brewery heard via the media - I emphasise that it was via the media - that Iberdrola had left Ireland. The brewery received no word of this from the supplier. The owners went to their green energy supplier, not knowing what was happening, to see if they could get another supplier. Bord Gáis Energy was the only supplier that would provide electricity. Its cheapest rate was 16% higher than they were previously paying. The owners decided to sign a contract with that supplier but, lo and behold, a month later, they received a letter from the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities, CRU, stating that Electric Ireland would be taking over Iberdrola's contracts and that customers would be obliged to pay 30% more than they had agreed in their original contracts. Those affected cannot get out of these contracts until 1 September 2022.

The data has been transferred without consent from the company in question. Everything about it has been given to Electric Ireland, and the CRU has done nothing about this. One part of the contract signed by the brewery states clearly that Iberdrola would have to give one month's notice, but this seems to have been bypassed completely. With the 145% increase and the subsequent rise in electricity costs, the brewery is facing close to 200% of an increase in electricity prices in September. Why is this happening and what is the CRU doing?

How can this be tolerated? In my book, a contract is a contract.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I am informed that on 31 May, Iberdrola announced that it would be exiting the market in a controlled exit. I understand that while the company is profitable globally, it was not profitable when it came to its Irish operations. The supplier of last resort protocol was introduced. That is managed by the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU. The primary objective is to ensure that customers' electricity and gas supply is not interrupted. Under this, all customers of exiting suppliers are transferred to the standard tariff of that gas or electricity supplier. Electric Ireland and Bord Gáis Energy as suppliers of last resort for electricity and gas, respectively, were directed by the CRU to take over the electricity and gas supply of Iberdrola customers. ESB Networks and Gas Networks Ireland transferred the customers to Electric Ireland and Bord Gáis Energy with no interruption to power or gas supplies.

Customers will remain with the supplier of last resort until 31 August 2022. The customer will then be free to switch from 1 September 2022. However, once the transfer process is complete, customers can renegotiate the standard tariffs with Electric Ireland and Bord Gáis Energy, both of which offer competitive rates. This is the same for business customers. The CRU has indicated that customers who were in the process of switching from their old supplier may need to check with their new supplier that the switch has been completed correctly. This is because when the customers are being moved from the existing supplier, any switches currently in process may be cancelled as part of the technical transfer to the supplier of last resort. The duration of term is determined by a number of factors, including the large volume of customers transferring, the requirement to purchase additional energy in the short term on the wholesale market and to allow adequate time to facilitate the registering of customers and the issuing of bills.

As Iberdrola made a commercial decision to exit the Irish market, it requested it be done through the supplier of last resort process as it was commercially unsustainable for it to continue to operate in Ireland. The timing of the decision taken by Iberdrola to leave the Irish market unfortunately left a limited window for its customers to switch supplier. While both Bord Gáis Energy and Electric Ireland will write to domestic customers within this period to offer them the opportunity to take a contract on discounted or improved rates, the key message to all customers is to contact Electric Ireland or Bord Gáis Energy once they have been transferred and have received communication from the new suppliers. If the customers do not wish to avail of the renegotiated rate, they can of course switch. The electricity and gas supplier handbook, which was recently updated by the CRU, states that the standard terms and conditions must include that a customer's personal information may be transferred to a supplier of last resort in the event of a direction from the CRU and any requirement which applies to customers in relation to safety or network-related activity.

When Iberdrola left Ireland, it did so voluntarily. It did not go bankrupt. It made a €1 billion profit in the first three months. Some companies have to take the hit in one place while they make money somewhere else. The Tánaiste said the CRU contacted Bord Gáis Energy and Electric Ireland. This company had a contract signed with Bord Gáis Energy and was told it could not use it. It had to go to Electric Ireland. Where is the process when there is supposed to be one month's written notice? Customers heard it in the media and did not even got a letter or notice from Iberdrola. The likes of Iberdrola is supposed to be putting €160 million into offshore wind in Ireland. Is it being let off scot-free from the Irish market because it has investments? What is the CRU playing at in allowing this to happen? The reality is that a small business in rural Ireland that employs people, not only having seen a 145% increase early on, but will now see a 200% increase at least in electricity and is being forced into the position that it cannot sign a new contract until September, when the Tánaiste and I and dog in the street know that electricity is going to be dearer. Is this the way we are going to save rural businesses from losing jobs? That is not the way to treat a business. A contract is a contract and should be honoured.

I am probably not across this issue in the detail that I should be. I will speak to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, about it and will ask my office to make contact with the CRU to see if anything can be done. I know that no business or customer can be charged twice for the same unit of electricity. I suspect what the company did on this occasion was try to buy market share by selling below cost. It did not work out, it lost money and it has now decided to leave the State. I take the Deputy's point. Contracts should be honoured. If somebody engages in a deliberate strategy of trying to buy market share by below-cost selling, they should still honour the contract. The difficulty we have is that if somebody leaves, how can we enforce it if they are not here any more? Perhaps something can be done through the courts. I do not know. However, I will follow up on it with the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the CRU to see if there is anything else that can be done.