Commencement Matters

I think we have a resolution. We will deal with the third matter, from Senator Cáit Keane which the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, is taking.

Schools Building Projects Status

I thank the Minister of State. I know tht everybody is very busy on one of the last days, but I am raising an issue that I raised before about one year ago. Gaelscoil Chnoc Liamhna is a school in Knocklyon where the students and teachers have been in prefabs for 18 years. This is unprecedented and unacceptable in Ireland.

Every education Minister has said prefabs are not suitable for the education of children and that they do not expect any school to be in a prefab for longer than three years. This school has been in a prefab for 18 years. I had this matter on the agenda here before. Parents and teachers are looking for a permanent building. When I was attending a meeting in Knocklyon last Thursday night, a mouse ran across the floor. I understand this is a daily occurrence in a space where children are being educated. The Minister of State knows what that does from the perspectives of health, safety and cleanliness. It disrupts the class for a time. It is a regular occurrence. I have campaigned on this issue for almost 20 years, since I was first elected to South Dublin County Council. I do not usually raise local issues in the Seanad, but the question of prefabs is a national educational issue. I know it is now the policy of the Department of Education and Skills to have all schools out of prefabs within three years. That is a new policy. I have heard the Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, speaking about this.

This case has been going on for far too long. An urgent solution needs to be found by South Dublin County Council and the Minister for Education and Skills. It is disappointing, to say the least, that delays have been caused by bureaucracy and the legalities of the purchase of this site, which is in no-man's land because the bureaucracy has taken so long. I have raised this matter with the former Minister, Deputy RuairíQuinn, and the current Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan. I raised it here with the Minister of State, Deputy English, approximately a year ago. I was told ten years ago that the site would be vested in the Department of Finance. Then I was told that there would be a compulsory purchase order. Now it is back to a compulsory purchase order again. It is totally unclear. I want a clear answer. If the Minister of State cannot verbally give me a clear answer here in the Seanad, I want it in writing. I want to be told in simple language - A, B and C - when this is going to happen.

In May 2015, the Minister of State, Deputy English, said the commencement of the building could not take place before the formal transfer of the land. On 22 June last, my office received a further letter from the Minister for Education and Skills which stated that the board and the Department had agreed a proposal that would possibly serve as a satisfactory solution. Today, we are back to square one. The compulsory purchase order has still not been taken. I have been told by South Dublin County Council that it will be initiated. The context is a clear commitment from the Government. The money is there. The Department of Education and Skills and the Minister have said that money is not the issue. The money will be forthcoming. The legalities need to be ironed out with the legal people in South Dublin County Council. Perhaps more pressure needs to be put on the Department of Education and Skills.

I want to see this happen in the next month. I want to see the compulsory purchase order out of the way and dealt with. Perhaps the Minister of State's last act in the Department of Education and Skills will be to get this school on the road for the people of Knocklyon and Dublin South-West by 2021. The Minister of State and the Minister for Education and Skills said that the use of prefabs for more than two years would be a rare exception. This case is a rare exception in Ireland. It has been 18 years on the go. I ask the Minister of State to highlight the reasons for this and say how and when it is going to be solved. I would appreciate it if he could give me a date and the other clear details I am seeking. It has slipped through the net. I do not like to use the word "negligence" when I am talking about officials in councils or elsewhere, but it is downright irresponsible, to put it mildly, that such delays are being caused by bureaucracy, carelessness and inefficiency.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I am sorry for keeping her waiting. I could not make it here before 2.45 p.m. I thought I was due to respond to the third Commencement matter. I apologise for the problems caused.

As the Senator is aware, officials from my Department have been working closely with officials from South Dublin County Council to secure a suitable site to facilitate the delivery of permanent school accommodation for Gaelscoil Chnoc Liamhna. Agreement in principle on the acquisition by the Department of a site owned by South Dublin County Council has been reached. That is going back quite a while now. The site in question is the current location of the school’s temporary accommodation and has been deemed to be technically suitable for the development of permanent accommodation. As has been outlined to the Senator previously, certain title issues associated with the site were identified as part of the standard conveyancing process. As the Senator will understand, it is critical for these issues to be resolved before the Minister takes ownership of the site. The resolution of title issues can sometimes be complex. Unfortunately, this has proved to be the case in respect of the site for Gaelscoil Chnoc Liamhna.

South Dublin County Council has worked closely with the Department of Education and Skills and the Property Registration Authority for some time in an effort to achieve a satisfactory outcome. The complexity of the issue has meant that the site acquisition has been delayed significantly while officials work towards a resolution. Officials from my Department have discussed with their counterparts in South Dublin County Council possible mechanisms which could provide for a satisfactory resolution of the title issues and thereby facilitate the land transfer. Officials from my Department have been informed that South Dublin County Council intends to initiate a compulsory purchase order process as soon as possible, subject to legal advice which is under discussion with a law agent.

My officials have also been informed that representatives of the council have arranged to meet the school's board of management next week to update it and discuss the matter.

Once the acquisition of the site is finalised, it is the intention of my Department to initiate the architectural planning process for the provision of a new school building. Officials from the Department will continue to work closely with officials from South Dublin County Council to progress matters in the context of the pressing need to advance the project for the provision of permanent accommodation.

I again thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to outline the current position to the Seanad. The matter has been ongoing for a long time. I would have assumed that it would have moved on at this stage, but it has not. At this stage the only way to move the issue forward involves compulsory purchase orders. The council has tried to do all it can to avoid having to do that, but it looks as though progress will involve that. There is a commitment for that to happen. I can make sure the Department keeps the Senator informed of the situation over the next couple of weeks.

I was told about eight years ago that the county council would go down the route of compulsory purchase orders. I was informed that it had to go down the route of vesting in the Department of Finance because it was impossible to have compulsory purchase orders. I have been told about legal advice for the past ten years, which seems to involve people sitting on their backsides. As I said, this is not the fault of the Department of Education and Skills. I have never before seen that Department draw up plans for a school when it did not own a site. It has gone as far as drawing up plans for the school, which is unprecedented and for which I thank it.

The Minister of State's Department will have to contact the legal department in South Dublin County Council and make sure the work is done. If it cannot be done, it should say why that is the case. I ask the Minister of State to send a letter. The Department of Education and Skills is meeting the board of management, but the board is sick of meetings. I do not know how many meetings it has had. I want the Minister of State's Department to send a letter telling the relevant bodies to proceed with the project. I again thank the Minister of State. As I said, the money is in place, something which has to be acknowledged.

An official in the Department of Education and Skills will work with council officials. That person cannot instruct them on what to do or demand that they do something. Rather, that official can work with them and ask them to proceed as quickly as possible. I ask the Senator to use her good offices and those of her council colleagues to try to put any pressure that is needed on the officials involved and stress the urgency of the matter.

This situation is very serious. I do not know what happened nine years ago regarding the compulsory purchase order. I understand the intention is to drive the project forward and build the school. As the Senator said, once the site is secured in name, there will be no delay in progressing the project thereafter.

Sitting suspended at 3 p.m. and resumed at 3.15 p.m.

Disability Definitions

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Kathleen Lynch.

The Minister of State is very welcome. Last week, on the Order of Business, I raised the case of Carol Brill who has Usher syndrome. She has a devastating rare genetic disease that causes the gradual deterioration of hearing and sight for which there is no cure or treatment at present. The Leader proposed and suggested that it would be more appropriate for me to raise the matter as a Commencement matter this week.

Last year, at a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children, Carol spoke and pleaded passionately for help for people who have the dual-sensory loss of sight and hearing. She spoke about the urgency of recognising deaf-blindness as a unique disability. In 2015, Carol was formally diagnosed with Usher syndrome type 2a. The diagnosis was only possible through the relationships that Carol had forged with many of the international researchers working in the field. She did all of this with drive and energy, despite being handicapped with deteriorating sight and hearing. She has to wear very high powered hearing aids but she is not entitled to get them on a medical card. She is 45 years of age and it is very difficult for her to get a job with her unique problem.

I wish to point out that there is no dedicated entry on the national physical and sensory disability database to record Carol's needs and those of people like her. Such persons should have their needs recorded on the database.

There is not a single case worker to look after her needs and the needs of other people with her unique disability. I am pleading with the Minister of State in the dying days of this Government and, please God, when she goes forward again herself in the next Government, that this issue be dealt with and that there be compassion for the people who have this rare syndrome. The horror of going deaf and blind simultaneously just does not bear thinking about - everything going dark. Deafness and blindness, generally speaking, are unique to people as they get older but this affects young people. Carol herself is 45 years of age. What is keeping her spirits going is her daughter of eight, Sarah. She conquered depression when her marriage broke up and her baby son died. She has come through so much and is an inspiring person. I am here today pleading her case.

I thank the Senator both for her patience and raising the issue. I did listen to the evidence given. One could not but be touched by what we heard. I would like to thank Senator White for raising the issue on the Commencement of the Seanad today.

In addressing the specifics of the question raised in the Commencement matter, the Minister for Health does not classify or recognise specific medical illnesses or conditions as a disability. There are a number of definitions of disability that are used for particular purposes, for example, the Disability Act, the Education for Persons with Special Needs Act, the Equal Status Act, the Employment Equality Acts and the census. In addition, there are definitions of disability in use for determining qualifying criteria for income supports such as domiciliary care allowance and disability allowance. These definitions describe disability in terms of an individual’s functional ability in his or her environment, rather than a medical diagnosis or condition. The Government currently provides funding of approximately €1.57 billion to the disability services programme as described in the HSE’s national plan for 2016.

Persons with disabilities, including those who are blind, those who are deaf and those who are both deaf and blind, can access the broad range of acute hospital, general practitioner, primary care and community-based services, as well as specialist disability services. I would like to outline for the Seanad the specialist disability services provided for people who are deaf or hard of hearing and for those who are blind or vision impaired. Services for blind and vision-impaired people are provided as part of the HSE’s physical and sensory disability services and are delivered directly and in partnership with a number of voluntary service providers, including the National Council for the Blind of Ireland, the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind, the National Association of Housing for the Visually Impaired, ChildVision and Fighting Blindness. The HSE community audiology services provide assessment and rehabilitation for medical card holders and, separately, for children. The audiology services provided include audiological assessment, hearing aid fitting and management advice, and advice on the use of assistive listening devices. In addition, the service provides onward referral to acute hospital specialist services, the cochlear implant programme, speech and language therapy or other services as appropriate.

There are a number of voluntary organisations providing specialist disability services for people who are deaf or hard of hearing including DeafHear, the Catholic Institute for Deaf People, the Irish Hard of Hearing Association and the Irish Deaf Society. DeafHear is the largest provider of such services and receives over €4 million in funding from the HSE. The services offered by these organisations include family support services, assistive technology and assistive listening devices, communication therapy and lip-reading classes, sign language classes, and a mental health and deafness service. These organisations receive funding from the HSE.

With the broad range of acute hospital services, general practitioner and community care services and the specialist services outlined, the HSE also supports the Anne Sullivan Foundation for Deafblind. The foundation is funded by the HSE under section 39 of the Health Act 2004 and provides residential services for people who are deaf-blind. The foundation receives over €1.9 million from the HSE for the provision of specialist services to people who are deaf-blind.

People who are deaf-blind receive a wide range of health and professional social care services from the HSE. They attend general practitioners and specialists in acute hospitals to provide for their clinical needs. In addition, specialist services and supports are provided by the HSE and a range of agencies and organisations.

I know that the Senator will understand this because she has heard it before. Not a month goes by when we are not approached and asked to define a different area differently or in a specific way. Most of us would know off the top of our heads what these areas are. It is our intention to provide a service with a broad range. If Niall Keane from DeafHear were sitting in the Visitors Gallery - I am sure he will be listening in another way - I imagine he would agree. I have always believed that deafness is different. It is isolating and it keeps people separate from the rest of the community. However, we must ensure the services provided have a broad range and that people need not fit into a particular category to access a given service. That is important and it has always been my belief that this is the best approach when it comes to disability.

I am afraid the Minister of State and I misunderstand one another. Fewer than 50 people benefited from the services of the Anne Sullivan Centre, which is a primary residential care centre. I am referring to people who are living in society. The 2011 census gave us a figure of 10,365 for people who indicated that they have a combination of the disabilities. The key is the combination of one or more of the disabilities of hearing difficulty and sight loss. It is a question of suffering from the conditions simultaneously. It is not a question of hearing loss or blindness, it is a matter of when a person has both. That is the key and that is what we are discussing today.

There is no register for deaf-blind people, yet there is a register for blind people and for deaf people. That is the issue. There is no register for people who are deaf-blind or who have Usher syndrome. This issue has fallen through the cracks. Please God, this is my second last day in the Seanad and I will not be back here again, but I will fight my cause in the outside world on this matter. It is a serious matter that deaf-blindness is not recognised on the database.

There is a register of disabilities, as the Senator has rightly pointed out. It may simply be a question of altering how the question is answered or indicating that there might be a position to indicate that both conditions exist simultaneously. However, I had thought that was not the central point.

It is part of what we need to know, because information is key in respect of how we do this exactly. However, I would have thought that it is about recognition in terms of a particular disability being treated in a different way. I may misunderstand the point and, if I do, then I apologise, but most definitely my understanding was that it was about ensuring that it be recognised as a separate and distinct disability.

That is the point I am making.

We are well over time.

I am repeating what this young lady said and nothing has happened since she spoke to the Oireachtas joint committee in May last year. There is an urgent need to recognise deaf-blindness as a unique disability.

We are well over the time. Will we proceed with the other matter?

We will try to be brief. Will the Leader agree to amend the Order of Business to increase the time allowed by seven minutes?

I propose an amendment to the Order of Business, "That we extend the time allocated by continuing the Commencement debate to 3.45 p.m."

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Primary Care Centres

Tá ábhar an-tábhachtach le hardú agam ar Thosú an tSeanaid inniu. I have a very important matter to raise in the Commencement debate. It goes to the heart of the failure of the Government's primary health care strategy. The Government has been slowly opening a number of primary health care centres throughout the country.

Full and integrated primary health care is essential, not just for curing and treating people, but for solving the hospital crisis. Too many people are going to hospitals when they could easily be treated in primary health care centres.

I was pleased that pressure was applied in the Seanad by me and in the Dáil and locally by my colleagues to ensure that the centre in Kells was delivered. It has been built and is about to open, but a number of issues have arisen, one of which is that of parking charges. The centre is situated far outside the town and there is no issue with parking in the area except at the health care centre. The only reason one might go to the building is to attend the centre. One cannot nip out to the shops beside it because there are none.

It has been suggested locally that there will be a charge of €4 to enter or exit the car park. For someone driving from Kells town to the centre, €4 is a great deal of money. Is there a policy on this matter at national level? It makes doctors' practices unattractive, as parking can be found at considerably cheaper rates or for no cost at all in the town centre. The charge goes against the strategy and should not happen. I hope that the Minister of State will tell me that it will not happen. It is not right. There have been too many controversies about parking charges at hospitals and the inconvenience these pose. Generally speaking, hospitals are one-off events for most people whereas attending a primary care centre is a regular event, in particular for many people with chronic diseases. They attend centres to get appropriate treatments at an early stage in order to stay out of hospital. Why are parking charges being tolerated and will the Minister of State stop their imposition?

May I clarify something first? Are these suggested charges or have they actually been applied?

The place is not open yet but it has been suggested locally that there would be a charge of €4. The HSE has responded that this is not its concern.

Therefore, it is something that might or might not happen.

Yes. Will the Minister of State clarify the matter? That is why I am raising it.

If there is no proposal, what does the Senator want me to clarify?

If the Minister of State does not know what is going on, there is no hope for the rest of us.

Is it suggested or-----

It has been suggested and, as I understand it, the HSE has responded to the effect that this is not its concern because it does not own the centre.

It has not happened.

Not yet, but we are worried about it. The centre has not opened. It is about to open. It is finished and we do not know why it has not been opened.

I have had a very busy day, but I have never refused to attend the Seanad. I am always the most obliging. However, the notion that I am in here discussing something that the Senator thinks might happen when I should instead be in the Dáil dealing with something that is very serious is a different day.

The amount of car parking required for a primary care centre is determined by the size of the centre, the range of services it provides and its location. The development of these centres will facilitate the accommodation of a range of primary care centres, including general practitioner care, community health nursing services and physiotherapy, occupational therapy and speech and language therapy services. Dental, ophthalmology, podiatry and psychological services may be sited in these centres along with other integrated services, for example, mental health, child care development, disability, antenatal, etc. However, the amount of car parking provided at a particular primary care centre must comply with the car parking standards set out in the relevant local authority's development plan. Fianna Fáil is the largest party on this-----

It is not, actually.

In primary care centres developed on HSE-owned land, car parking is generally free of charge. In certain circumstances that are dependent on a centre's location, however, it may be necessary to control car parking and charge for its use. I am assuming that this is when a centre is in the middle of a busy and built-up area. In these circumstances, parking fees are similar to those charged by the local authority for parking in the area.

As the Senator will be aware, local authorities throughout the country operate systems of parking restrictions and fees so as to ensure that parking does not cause obstructions for other people using the roads and footpaths or accessing local businesses or services. In primary care centres delivered by way of operational leases, a specified number of spaces are provided for the HSE under those leases. Any additional parking provided by the developer is under his or her control and he or she may charge fees on these additional spaces. The parking fees charged by the developer are generally in line with the public car parking fees in the area.

The modernisation of the primary care structure and practice is vital to the successful delivery of services in the future. The development of primary care teams and primary care centres is a priority under the programme for Government and an extremely important element in the health reform process. The provision of primary care centres and teams throughout the country will significantly increase health and social care in local communities, which will be achieved by redirecting services away from acute hospitals. Primary care infrastructure is being delivered under three mechanisms, namely, direct build, leasing initiative and public private partnerships, PPPs, announced in 2012. As for the slow roll-out - I hope the Senator takes note of this - the development of primary care centres is central to this Government's objective to deliver a high-quality, integrated and cost-effective health system. To date, 90 primary care centres have been completed and a further 16 are under construction. That is in the middle of the worst economic collapse this country has ever seen. In addition, it is expected that the PPP contract for the provision of 14 primary care centres will be signed this month, February 2016, and construction will commence next month. The notion that I am here-----

We made ourselves available whenever the Minister of State was free.

I am in here, replying to what the Senator thinks might happen.

I have never refused to come here. I have always come in here and have been the most accessible Minister. The notion that I would be in here today, talking about what the Senator thinks might happen-----

If the Minister of State was needed in the Dáil, we would have accommodated her. The Leader said she was available at this time and we said that was fine. There was no discussion. It was due to be taken at 2.30 p.m. We had no issue with it.

I am so accessible.

I am not questioning that, but we would have made ourselves available at whatever time suited.

We are now under time constraints. I thank the Minister of State and wish her well.