Adjournment Matters.

Community Services Funding.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, to the House and call on Senator Norris to speak on his Adjournment matter.

I also welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, to the House. I am particularly glad that he is in the Minister's chair. In the early days of my political career, I recall listening to him as a young Deputy talking passionately to a virtually empty Dáil Chamber about social conditions in his own constituency. I think it was the area around Ballymun, although I cannot remember. He knew the details of people's personal circumstances there and felt a commitment towards improving them. I thought that was the kind of politics in which I wanted to be involved. I am grateful therefore that Deputy Haughey is the Minister who is taking this Adjournment matter.

Darndale, yes, I remember that very clearly.

In respect of this Adjournment matter, I must declare a series of interests. I have raised it because of some old friends of mine who may be known to the Minister of State, at least by reputation. I have asked their permission to mention their names. They are George Morrison and his wife Janet. George is one of our most distinguished artists in film, having made films such as "Mise Éire" and "Saoirse". Like many artists, he is not a money grubber. He has not always had huge amounts of money but he has made a comfortable and civilised home for himself in a little by-way near Shankill. However, a short time ago he suffered a bad stroke, which incapacitated him to some degree. It means that he cannot drive a car and neither can his wife who has also been unwell. They would have been in difficulty has it not been for a group called Choices, which was founded by the sister-in-law of a lady with whom I was in college. There are therefore all kinds of connections here and Choices is run by a remarkable group of people.

In case I overstay my time, I want to frontload the demand now. We are seeking funding amounting to €30,000 in order to put the existing driver in the scheme on a full-time basis. The current driver has been with them for three years. The idea of the scheme is that people who are incapacitated make use of the befriending service and its driver in order to take them to the post office, chiropodist, chiropractor, the chemist to collect prescriptions or the library to exchange books. Without such a service, elderly people would be isolated, lonely and deprived.

This unique service has been running for 18 years and is largely dependent on community employment schemes. As the Minister of State knows, however, these schemes terminate after three years. The current driver is coming to the end of his period. He is known and loved by the clients. It is so often necessary to ensure that elderly, dependent people know and trust the person who is dealing with them. The driver is reliable, trustworthy and responsible. The service provided to these people is totally free of charge. In addition, State agencies already rely on this service and, in turn, refer people to it. Although the State is making use of it, the service receives no core funding whatever. There are minor fundraising events such as cake sales, and the service occasionally receives grants from charitable endowments. Over the last five years, the transport service has been funded by people in need. They must pay for diesel, maintain the people carrier and they now want core funding to keep the enterprise going.

The service started 15 years ago. In 1989, there was an RTE programme on the problems of isolation facing elderly people and the pressures placed on them by society. As a result, a sister-in-law of a friend of mine decided to get something done, distributed leaflets to local shopping centres and areas of housing where older people lived and was amazed at the overwhelmingly positive response.

The people involved indicated their priorities and of utmost importance was addressing the issue of loneliness. A lack of day-to-day company and social contact left elderly people feeling isolated. Transport was also an issue and the problems of getting to and from the doctor, post office, chiropodist, shops and the outpatients area of hospital were mentioned. Such a service is not only a practical necessity, it also provides a social outlet that relieves depression, lets elderly people meet others and even argue. The service also helps in the collection of pensions and prescriptions.

After the initial phase, the befriending the elderly service began. The group wisely and sensitively decided not to go into competition with existing local parish services such as those provided by St. Joseph's Roman Catholic church in Crinken. Instead of walking roughshod all over such services, they negotiated and sought to find out how they could complement them.

Many long-established clients rely on the service and it would be a great pity if they were to be deprived of it. As I indicated, the value of the service is evident in the fact that the group receives some support, albeit sporadic, from groups such as the FÁS community employment schemes, the County Dublin Vocational Educational Committee and so on. At the moment, more than 40 clients are on the befriending list, and without the support of Choices Local Enterprises and the befrienders, they would have no way of accessing the kind of services and community facilities they can with this team. The clients have been enabled to maintain their ability to live independently and we have often heard in this House of the value of independent living to people in wheelchairs and people with intellectual disabilities.

The group provides a service for people who are isolated, elderly, victims of stroke and debilitating illnesses and so on, with no cost to the client. There is support from community employment schemes but such schemes terminate after three years. The seven seater bus used for clients was paid for through funding from People in Need but everything else was paid for through fundraising.

However, the group is on a very tight budget, as is clear in the pathetic funding scheme I have in my possession. The Christmas raffle raised €596 and clients' donations raised €45: the widow's mite. Car cleaning is listed here as earning €247.41, so some volunteers must have performed a bob-a-job style fundraiser like the scouts. I do not know what the Catherine Howard Foundation is but it is obviously a charitable group and it provided €1,500. A printing and secretarial service came to €257 and the group ran a bingo night that came to almost €1,000. Expenses included petrol, bingo shopping, van maintenance and a Christmas party for clients that cost less than €500. Who could possibly begrudge them that little bit of fun and entertainment? I know the Minister of State would not.

After all this, Choices Local Enterprises ended up €18.08 in the red. I believe the Minister of State will understand what a significant function is played by this admirable group and I hope he will indicate a method whereby the State can assist in ensuring the service continues.

It is remarkable that an artist of the calibre and standing of George Morrison, who has given so much service to this State, should have found it necessary to approach me regarding this issue. He said he and Janet were in difficult circumstances and could not have survived without this group. If this service is not continued, 40 clients will go without and a number may then need to be taken into State-funded care facilities. Although it may be unwarranted, many elderly people are terrified at going into such facilities involuntarily owing to recent publicity on television programmes. Such a scenario would also cause a significant charge to the State so it would be both a good day's work and a good investment to find a way to provide some assistance to this wonderful group.

I will be taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, and I thank Senator Norris for raising this issue. It provides me with an opportunity to reaffirm the Government's commitment to services for older people and explain the current position regarding funding for Choices Local Enterprises.

The development of services for older people is a priority for this Government. This is reflected in the funding committed to services for older people in the budgets of 2006 and 2007. Last year, the Government funded the largest ever expansion in services for older people with a full-year cost of €150 million, and this year, a full-year package of €255 million has been allocated for services for older people. This gives a total of more than €400 million added to services for older people over two years.

Government policy on older people is to support them to live in dignity and independence in their homes and communities for as long as possible and, where this is not possible, to support access to quality long-term residential care. This policy approach is renewed and developed in the latest partnership agreement, Towards 2016.

As the Senator is aware, the Health Act 2004 gave the Health Service Executive, HSE, responsibility for the management and delivery of health and personal social services. As a corporate body, the provision of these services, including the delivery of services by agreement with voluntary and community organisations, is a matter for the HSE.

Funding for health services has been provided as part of the HSE's overall Vote for health and personal social services in 2007. The allocation of resources is a matter for the HSE in accordance with the overall priorities for specific services as set out in its service plan. The HSE is more than happy to meet Choices Local Enterprises to discuss the services it provides and it has advised that two appointments were made for this discussion but, unfortunately, on both occasions these meetings were cancelled. However, renewed efforts are being made to organise a meeting that is convenient to the organisation.

I understand that Choices Local Enterprises is also considering applying to the HSE for lottery funding. It is aware that its application should be submitted by Friday, 16 March 2007.

The Department of Health and Children also provides funding to voluntary organisations under a national lottery funded grant scheme. This funding is discretionary, and if Choices Local Enterprises wishes to make an application for funding, it should contact the finance unit of the Department of Health and Children.

A meeting will be arranged with the HSE and there are possible sources of funding for the group, including lottery funding from the HSE and the Department of Health and Children. I again thank the Senator for raising this matter and hope it can be resolved.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply and was not aware of the cancelled meetings nor the reasons for the cancellations. I will encourage the group to take up this opportunity for a meeting and will suggest it makes applications, which should include this debate from the Official Report of the House, to both sources. This will be intended as an encouragement to State agencies to assist in this valiant enterprise.

Schools Building Projects.

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, Deputy Haughey, to the House. As a member of the board of Scoil Naomh Iosaf in Adare, I ask the Minister of State for an update on the school's request to have an assessment carried out to determine the role of the Old Monastery CBS buildings in meeting the school's future education needs. The buildings are in urgent need of repair and improvement and are being temporarily used by Scoil Naomh Iosaf to house a physical education hall, an extra classroom and a learning support classroom for speech, drama and modern language classes.

As the Minister of State is aware, while the property forms part of the school complex, it is not vested with the Department. The buildings are vested with the bishop's nominees and trustees and the parish priest of Adare who have requested the Department to carry out an urgent assessment because the property is in a poor state of repair. The educational needs of the community in Adare are at stake. Given the urgency of the suitability of the buildings, I ask the Minister of State if the assessment could be carried out by the Department in the near future, with a view to meeting the future educational needs of the Adare community.

I thank the Senator for raising the matter as it affords me the opportunity to outline to the House the Government's strategy for capital investment in education projects. Modernising facilities in our 3,200 primary and 750 post-primary schools is not an easy task given the legacy of decades of under-investment in this area as well as the need to respond to emerging needs in areas of rapid population growth. Nonetheless, since taking office the Government has shown a focused determination to improve the condition of our school buildings and ensure the appropriate facilities are in place to enable the implementation of a broad and balanced curriculum.

Under the National Development Plan 2007 to 2013, funding of €4.5 billion will be invested in the first and second level schools modernisation and development programme. This unprecedented level of investment will allow us to meet the needs of a growing school population, modernise existing school facilities and provide for curriculum reform and innovation.

A total of 7,800 individual schools building projects were delivered for the €2.6 billion investment during the 2000-06 period of the previous national development plan. The completion of building projects under the €4.5 billion investment in the new NDP will benefit from recent innovations in delivery mechanisms which have allowed for fast tracking of priority school developments. Schools will have noted that activity under the new plan is already under way, with 1,500 schools building projects due to be delivered in 2007. In addition, in association with the Minister, I announced yesterday the approval of more than €87 million for building projects in 250 schools under the permanent accommodation and small schools schemes.

On the specific matter in hand, an application for capital funding towards the provision of additional accommodation has been received in the school planning section of the Department from Scoil Naomh Iosaf, Adare, County Limerick. The application is being examined with a view to establishing the future accommodation needs of the school. The continued future use of the Old Monastery CBS building and land will be taken into consideration in the course of this assessment. The project is banded in accordance with the prioritisation criteria for large-scale building projects and will be considered in the context of the multiannual schools building and modernisation programme.

I thank the Senator for raising the matter which allows me to outline the progress being made under the schools building and modernisation programme and the position of Scoil Naomh Iosaf, Adare, County Limerick.

I thank the Minister of State for his commitment to have the requested assessment carried out. I stress the importance of ensuring discussions on the suitability of the premises take place at an early date.

Special Educational Needs.

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, Deputy Haughey, to the House. The issue I raise on the Adjournment concerns special needs in education. Recently, I was presented with a case in County Kilkenny involving a child with Down's syndrome who attends her local national school. Following much agitation by her parents, she has secured 2.5 resource hours of additional teaching from the 18-hour allocation granted to the school as a whole. I am led to believe that from next year onwards, the child in question will receive only 30 to 60 minutes resource teaching out of the school's overall resource teaching allocation.

I ask the Minister of State to outline the position with regard to the allocation of resource hours. I understand from the case and some work I have undertaken in this regard that, until two or three years ago, children with Down's syndrome were automatically allocated a certain number of hours of resource teaching when they commenced school and that these hours were not subtracted from the school's overall allocation.

The Minister of State will agree that early intervention in the cases of children with special educational needs ensures they do not become a financial burden on the Exchequer. The decision to remove the automatic qualification for resource hours for children with Down's syndrome is a step in the wrong direction. Surely intervention would allow children with this condition to lead much more independent lives as adults. Any cutback in this regard is a retrograde step.

I understand Down's syndrome affects approximately 250 children in the general school system, a very small proportion of the primary school population. Perhaps the Government, in the short period it has left in office, will be in a position to reverse the change in entitlements made several years ago to ensure intervention in the educational development of children with Down's syndrome takes place at the earliest possible date in order that they can live independently in future. I look forward to a positive response from the Minister of State.

I am pleased the Senator has given me the opportunity to clarify the position regarding the provision of extra teaching support for children with Down's syndrome. As the Senator will be aware, the Government has established a range of teaching and care supports for children with special educational needs, including those with Down's syndrome. The professionally assessed needs of the individual child determine the appropriate model of response in each case.

Children with Down's syndrome are entitled to additional provision in school, either under the terms of the general allocation system for children with high incidence special needs or through an allocation of additional resources if the child is assessed as being within the low incidence category of special need. The general allocation system for primary schools was introduced in September 2005 in order that children with high incidence special needs such as mild general learning disability could secure resource teaching support at school without the need for an individual assessment in each case. All schools have been allocated resource teaching hours, depending on their enrolment levels.

A number of benefits are associated with the new system. It puts in place resources on a more systematic basis, thereby giving schools more certainty about their resource levels, facilitates early intervention as the resource is in place when the child enrols, reduces the need for individual applications and supporting psychological assessments and allows flexibility to school management in the deployment of resources, leading to a more effective delivery of services. The new system means that instead of each school having to make individual applications for resource hours for such pupils, an allocation of resource teaching hours is provided in advance to the school. It is a matter for the school to determine the pupils with high incidence special education and learning support needs who will receive this support. With the thousands of resource teachers now in place in our schools, each school has enough general allocation hours to provide its pupils with a level of support appropriate to their needs. School authorities can use their professional judgment to decide how these hours are divided among pupils to ensure all their needs are met.

This is a major improvement on the previous system, under which children with high incidence special needs required a psychological assessment before the Department allocated resource teaching hours. This time-consuming process often led to delays in children getting the support they needed. Learning support and resource teachers are now in place in all primary schools in order that children who need their assistance can get it straight away.

The new general allocation system does not preclude the provision of one-to-one tuition to pupils who need such support. A significant percentage of children with Down's syndrome have been assessed as having a mild general learning disability, which comes under the high incidence disability category. Thus, they are given extra teaching support from within the school's general allocation of resource teaching support. In circumstances where a child with Down's syndrome has other associated needs and falls into the low incidence disability categories, this may automatically attract an individual resource teaching allocation. Such applications should be referred to the local special educational needs organiser, SENO, by the school.

Far from withdrawing supports from children with special needs, the Government has presided over a dramatic expansion in special education supports. There are now 15,000 adults in our schools working solely with children with special needs. A fraction of this number was in place some years back. This complement includes more than 8,000 special needs assistants, compared with only 300 in 1998. The system for accessing supports has also improved through the establishment of the National Council for Special Education, with its network of 80 local special educational needs organisers.

Further improvements in services are on the way with the roll-out of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004. More than €820 million is being provided for special education in 2007. This is €180 million, or nearly 30%, more than what was provided in the 2006 Estimates. The Department will continue to prioritise the issue of special needs education and, in co-operation with the National Council for Special Education and the education partners, ensure that all children with special needs, including those with Down's syndrome, have the supports they need to reach their full potential.

I thank the Senator once again for giving me the opportunity to clarify the position on this matter.

I understand the Minister of State's answer but there are several points I wish to clarify. He stated, "With the thousands of resource teachers now in place in our schools, each school has enough general allocation hours to provide its pupils with a level of support appropriate to their needs." I could mention several schools that do not have access to adequate resources. This statement would gall those who are in a similar position to the family about which I spoke.

I accept there has been a great improvement in the allocation of resources for children with special educational needs, as the Minister of State outlined. That is welcome. There is clearly a case to be made, however, for children with Down's syndrome. It is a condition that effects only a small proportion of the primary school population and which responds well to early intervention. The provision of additional supports in the classroom will ensure these pupils can live independent lives in the future. Only a meagre allocation of resources is required to bring significant benefits.

I acknowledge the progress made in this area. For the level of financial outlay involved in my proposal, the benefits to the State far outweigh the costs that would be incurred. The Minister of State spoke about upcoming legislation in this area. I urge that some provision be made to ensure students with Down's syndrome are assisted in living independent lives as they grow into adults. Only a small proportion of the population of our primary schools is involved. This small investment will bring a great improvement in the standard of their lives and those of their loved ones.

I will ask the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, to consider this matter further in view of the Senator's comments.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.10 p.m. until10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 7 March 2007.