Commencement Matters

Special Educational Needs Service Provision

I welcome the Minister of State to the House.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this Commencement matter. I am delighted the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills with responsibility for special educational needs, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, has come to the House to deal with this motion because often when we table Commencement notices, it is not possible for the Ministers with specific responsibility to come to the House to deal with them. It is a testament to the importance of this issue that the Minister of State is here today.

As a former school principal and teacher for many years she will be aware that this and previous Governments have invested substantially in providing supports for people with disabilities to attend mainstream secondary school. When I was in secondary school in the mid-1980s a visiting teacher came to me twice a year. There were no resource teachers or special needs assistants. I went to an integrated school and had to make do with what was there and do my very best. As they do today, teachers then went the extra mile to ensure that as much equality as possible was achieved. We have moved on, thankfully, and have achieved quite a lot. There is, however, frequent criticism of the amount of resources pumped into equality and disability services to ensure people with disabilities have adequate resources. The reality is there will never be enough but we have come a long way as a country since the mid-1980s. It is a credit to all successive Ministers for education that in spite of the difficult economic environment in which we found ourselves, we were able to keep a reasonable service and there are 10,000 or 11,000 special needs assistants and resource teachers in schools now.

While we provide many resources, young people sometimes may need extra resources in first and second year. As they become more accustomed to school, however, and create their own ways to overcome difficulty, as equipment is provided and so forth, they may not require as many hours as they did when they started secondary school. Sometimes a student may have hours they may not need. They could be channelled in a different way. A report in 2014 suggested an alternative model. The Government is committed to introducing that model in September 2018 or 2019 and the Minister of State will clarify that in her response today. It is only right and fair that schools should be told when and how it will happen and what the methodology and mechanics will be for assessing the need and providing the resources.

Many teachers, principals and school administrators are happy that the report will be implemented and that there will be a new way of thinking in the allocation and provision of special needs assistants and resource hours and so forth. However, the time has come for schools to be told when, where, how and what the mechanisms will be in order that they can plan their budgets, human resources, academic calendars and approach. It is rather difficult to deal in a vacuum not knowing any of this information. I look forward to hearing the response of the Minister of State.

I thank the Senator for being a voice in the Seanad during the years for children with special educational needs. I congratulate him on his Darkness into Light event which was held recently. The purpose was to highlight the issues encountered by people who had problems with their vision.

I am the Minister of State with responsibility for the higher education sector, but I am delighted to take this Commencement matter. The Government is committed to ensuring all children with special educational needs can have access to an education appropriate to their needs. Under the new resource teacher allocation model which was introduced in the current school year, the allocation of additional special education teachers is based on each school's educational profile. The profile captures the school's overall requirement for additional teaching supports without the need to individually identify each student with special educational needs. One important element of the school's educational profile is the number of students with complex needs enrolled.

In its 2014 report, Delivery for Students with Special Educational Needs, the National Council for Special Education advised that students with complex needs were those who required additional teaching support because they needed highly individualised and differentiated learning programmes significantly different from those of their peers. The new allocation model commenced in September 2017. Following consultation with education partners and stakeholders, the NCSE’s low incidence allocations which had been made for each school during the preceding 2016-17 school year were used to establish the complex needs component of the profile for each school. This meant that on the introduction of the new allocation model and until allocations were reviewed, no school received an allocation for the support of pupils with complex needs that was less than the allocation it had received to support pupils with low incidence special educational needs during the 2016-17 school year.

In using the low incidence data from the NCSE to ensure children with complex needs were captured in the profiles of all schools, I am satisfied that no school has been disadvantaged by the allocation process. The Department of Education and Skills' Circulars 0013/2017 and 0014/2017 set out details of how the complex needs category of the profile was developed based on the existing low incidence allocations. They indicate that for the next re-profiling of the model, the complex needs category will take account of the existing low incidence allocations for schools less any leaver included in this category, plus additional allocations for any new complex needs category pupil in the period from when the first school profiles were developed to the point of the next re-profiling of the model.

A working group of officials, including officials of the Department, the NCSE, the National Educational Psychological Service and the HSE, continues to work to develop the complex needs component of the model. The work of the group is at an advanced stage. The working group will take account of the decision-making process and qualification criteria for the selection of children for access to HSE children disability network teams and how this information can be transferred from the HSE to the NCSE to inform future allocations following reviews. The working group will conclude its work on the identification of complex needs in advance of the review of allocations to schools which must be concluded by the end of 2018 in order that the allocations can be notified to schools in January 2019.

I thank the Minister of State for her kind words and comprehensive response. I would like the working group to conclude its work earlier than the end of 2018, if possible. We are still talking about a period of almost 14 months between now and the end of 2018. By the time schools are informed of their allocations it will be early 2019. Perhaps the Minister of State might have a word with the working group to see if it could conclude its deliberations sooner.

I will relay the Senator's comments to the Department of Education and Skills.

Noxious Weeds

I welcome the Minister of State. Since this issue is not within her area of responsibility, I appeal to her to speak directly to the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Heather Humphreys, who, I understand, is dealing with the problems posed by Japanese knotweed, to which I was alerted in recent times when travelling around County Mayo and elsewhere in the west. I saw signs popping up along the roadside asking people not to cut it. When I looked into the matter a little further, I found that Japanese knotweed was a highly invasive plant which had been introduced in Ireland as an ornamental plant in the 19th century. However, it has now become a major problem. It is spreading rapidly throughout the country along watercourses and transport routes and on unmaintained land. It is one of the worst invasive species because its root system and rapid growth can damage concrete foundations and buildings. It can come up through tarmac, roadways and so on.

There is a major problem with the species in County Mayo. I am aware of a scheme to deal with the problem along some national routes but others areas affected are not being treated. Overall, money is being spent but there is a need for a strategic plan covering several years to sort out the problem which is expensive to deal with. That is an important point, but it would be better to do this in a strategic and planned way with the assistance of various agencies co-operating together rather than having each do its own thing and not knowing what the others are doing. Ballycroy National Park in County Mayo will be overrun by Japanese knotweed if there is not an overall strategy in place. Mayo is one of the counties worst affected.

Eradication, as I said, is costly. For example, it cost £88 million to clear the site for the Olympic village in London some years ago. The plant can be controlled successfully through the application of appropriate herbicides. However, eradication requires planning, since follow-up treatments are usually required. In that regard, consideration should also be given to the management and disposal of dead plant material and the treatment of contaminated soils. We need to prepare a management plan and seek expert help before tackling any significant infestation of the species. If we do not have such a plan involving all of the relevant State agencies, we are simply wasting our time and money.

I am aware that Transport Infrastructure Ireland was given a budget of €5.5 million to deal with this problem. A sum of €2 million would deal with the problem along national roads.

However, there will have to be some way of going into private land to treat the whole infestation. If not, it will only be a control framework rather than a solution. Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, or each county council needs to start a full treatment programme of all roads. So far, it has been a piecemeal approach, which is a waste of money and not good enough. All State lands within each agency need to be surveyed for the presence of these plants, especially land that may be required for building over the next ten years and State properties that will be sold like old HSE buildings or closed Garda stations.

The presence of an invasive plant on property can significantly reduce its value. Any flood relief schemes envisaged for any time in the future should be surveyed and treated now. There is a significant cost benefit to the State by doing it now in a strategic way. One of the main culprits for the spread of invasive plants is the rail corridors. It has been suggested that Iarnród Éireann to date has made little or no effort to treat these invasive plants and, as a result, the good work done by other agencies is not effective.

There is also a problem with the lack of facilities to deal with the disposal of material if it needs to be excavated. The material has no specific code, meaning local authorities and the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, do not know how to categorise the material from a planning perspective. I have been informed the solution would be to create a new category and to get these facilities open as soon as possible. We need to ascertain at an early date what invasive plants we have on State lands and to work together to solve this significant problem.

I thank the Senator for raising this difficulty in rural areas. We even had difficulties with this issue in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. I am taking this Commencement matter for the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Humphreys. She is aware of public concern about the impact of invasive species, including Japanese knotweed. Her Department is responsible for the implementation of the Wildlife Acts and the European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011, Sl No. 477/2011, both of which prohibit the spreading of invasive species.

In law, control of invasive species, such as Japanese knotweed, is a matter for landowners. In this regard, the Department carries out considerable work on controlling invasive species in national parks and nature reserves. However, it does not have the resources required to extend such work into the wider countryside or to provide funding to landowners and home owners. While there is no national eradication plan in place at present for Japanese knotweed, there are several initiatives in place across Departments and agencies, as well as local authorities, which support measures to tackle invasive alien species. Significant work is being carried out by a range of agencies in this area, including several local authorities.

The management of invasive alien plant species project, led by TII, is a €5 million project aimed at managing invasive knotweed and other non-native invasive plant species over the next five years on the national road network and its interactions with regional roads. The project involves collaboration with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. In 2015, an invasive alien species national stakeholder group was established, led by the National Parks and Wildlife Service. This group includes representatives of a wide range of Departments, agencies and local authorities. It provides a forum to discuss the implications of the implementation of EU and national legislation, as well as to exchange information on the various initiatives being undertaken in this area.

The Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht will consider options for improved national co-ordination of work on invasive species, including increased co-operation between local and central government. Information on the distribution of invasive species in Ireland, including knotweed, is available on the invasive species section of the National Biodiversity Data Centre's website. Incidences of invasive species can be reported via the website. I encourage members of the public to use this facility. Answers to frequently asked questions on Japanese knotweed are also available from the same website.

Invasive species by their nature do not recognise political boundaries. A considerable level of co-operation exists on this issue between Departments and agencies in both jurisdictions. The Department has worked closely over the years with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, NIEA, to fund and manage the invasive species Ireland project. It is hoped this project can recommence in the near future. Information on general management approaches to invasive plant species is available from the invasive species Ireland website.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply. While I acknowledge initiatives are in place, there is a need for an overall plan and education on this matter. Japanese knotweed thrives on disturbance. People think they are sorting it out when they cut it back. That is why there needs to be education on managing it. If we are doing it in a half-hearted way, we are throwing good money away. We need co-operation and an overall plan. Otherwise, it is like trying to keep the tide out with a hayfork.

Will the Minister of State bring the points raised to the Minister's attention? It is important people know the dangers with the weed. There is a big gain to be made in tackling it but it needs to be done in a strategic and organised way. I urge that the Minister does that.

I will inform the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Humphreys, of the points the Senator raised this morning.

It is widespread in west Cork and south Kerry as well. It is a bigger problem than we realise. I am sure the senior Minister will make a start to deal with it.

Mental Health Services Provision

On the matter I have raised today, I am speaking for my mental health nurse colleagues and their patients, as well as being a member of the Joint Committee on the Future of Mental Health Care and a member of the Psychiatric Nurses Association, PNA. The high-dependency psychiatric unit at Tallaght Hospital has six beds. It has been rumoured that it will close due to staff shortages. It is my understanding that there are 43 nursing vacancies in this service, which is posing serious difficulties for any recruitment or retention of nursing staff. This has been going on for a considerable number of years.

In an overwhelming ballot last week of PNA members, 85% voted for industrial action should this unit close. In 1999, the admission unit in Tallaght was opened with two beds and no high-dependency observation unit. It involved a prescribed method of taking care of patients who are extremely volatile, vulnerable and unwell. It could be a one-to-one, where one nurse would sit with the patient on a 24-7 basis, or a two-to-one, dependent on the level of risk.

They demanded at the time, as did University Hospital Galway, that a high dependency observation unit be opened, in the interests of the patients' dignity and for the safety of staff and patients. It took industrial action to do this. When it was opened, the significant decrease in one-to-one, two-to-one or sometimes three-to-one nursing specials was glaringly obvious. The high dependency unit did not need one-to-one, two-to-one or in some cases three-to-one nursing specials for patients, which would deprive them of their liberty.

There is also the matter of seclusion. Seclusion is something we all think of as being like "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest". Seclusion is down and it is used very rarely now. It is also an issue of human rights and personal freedom. However, seclusion in the so-called padded cell, or whatever one wants to call it, is significantly down because of high dependency units.

I am aghast that the Minister of State with responsibility for mental health has proposed closing this high dependency unit leaving patients, staff and visitors to the unit very vulnerable. It is a retrograde step. It is going back to the Victorian practice of taking away people's liberty to move around without somebody following them, even into the toilet or shower, so that they can continue the prescribed one-to-one observation. Could the Minister of State please respond and put nurses' and patients' minds at ease? Go raibh maith agat.

Thank you. I call the Minister of State.

I thank Senator Máire Devine for raising this very important issue. I am well aware of her track record on mental health and with the Pyschiatric Nurses Association, PNA. I thank and commend her for her work in the past on those particular issues. I know the concerns she raises today are totally genuine. Our objective is to ensure that all patients and the staff who work with them are given priority.

Mental health remains a key programme priority for this Government, underscored by the fact that the HSE's mental health budget increased from €836 million in 2016 to approximately €851 million this year, and will further increase to approximately €910 million next year. This new investment will help to expand and modernise all aspects of the particular services.

Nationally, and in Dublin South-Central in particular, the HSE has encountered significant issues in the past few years in recruiting and retaining registered psychiatric nurses. This is a recognised issue for all nursing disciplines in the Dublin area, and was a factor in the previous industrial action by the PNA in 2016. The HSE has been attempting to maintain a full level of inpatient and community services in the face of this staffing challenge. This has contributed to a significant level of both agency use and nursing overtime. However, in trying to alleviate such pressures, the HSE has an ongoing recruitment campaign for psychiatric nurses in Dublin South-Central, alongside panels already in existence at the HSE national recruitment service in Manorhamilton. The acute mental health admission unit at Tallaght Hospital is endeavouring to provide a safe and secure environment to treat patients for the acute phase of their illnesses. The management of the service has become increasingly concerned about the high dependency on the use of agency staff and the inability to adhere to provisions of the working time directive.

The lack of staff continuity in shifts, together with the over-reliance on agency staff, are significant risks to patient safety. We accept that. The HSE is considering several options, and while no decision has yet been made, consideration has been given to closing the six-bed ward known as the Aspen ward. This ward was originally opened as a high-observation ward in 2003. Due to the limitations in design, it has not operated as a high-observation ward for some years. It now serves generally as a low-stimulus environment for selected patients. The closure of Aspen, if it proceeds, may reduce the bed capacity of the acute admission unit from 52 to 48 beds. A concerted effort is under way to reduce the cohort of patients on the unit whose acute phase of treatment has now been completed in order to ensure that bed availability for acute admissions is optimised. The management of the service continues to engage with staff representatives to explore all options to reduce the impact of nursing vacancies in the service. This service is currently running a nursing vacancy rate of 20%, against a complement of approximately 200 qualified nursing staff. That is a very difficult position.

Any measure taken to relieve this problem by the HSE is taken with a view to minimal impact on front-line services, and will be reviewed regularly for the impact on patient care. Subject to the availability of appropriate additional staffing, it is intended that any bed reduction will be temporary in nature.

I thank the Minister of State. I am delighted, as is everyone in the health service, that the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, CAMHS, beds have been reopened in Ballyfermot. It is a good news story and I am delighted that it has happened.

I refer to converting the agency staff to permanent posts. In regard to the design of buildings, we have had these problems before. The design needs to be led by service users, including the staff and patients, saying how they want their building to look. That needs to be done in all establishments in all parts of the health service.

We are again going to throw vulnerable patients out onto the street with no community services. Will the diagnosis and a risk assessment be done? We are downgrading the beds but nothing is replacing the service in the community, so we are just throwing them to the wolves. Will the Minister of State get in touch with the general secretary of the PNA, Mr. Peter Hughes, who has solutions to this and prevent the industrial action which nurses are unfortunately forced to take because of the loss of services to our patients?

I thank Senator Devine for her contribution and welcome her comments on the CAMHS facility in Ballyfermot. That is a good news story. To go back to the original debate, we have a major problem with staffing and I share the Senator's concerns in that regard. I met with Mr. Paul Bell from SIPTU yesterday in regard to care staff and the disability services. There is an issue there about recruiting staff. I accept that point. That is an issue the HSE has to do something about. We are 20% down and that is the reality. My problem is that we are increasing the funding for mental health to €910 million next year but seem to have a problem getting the staff. My argument, which I am sure is made by a number of Ministers, is that when we bring in agency staff costs are increased and the stability of the service is taken away, which is needed.

I will bring the Senator's concerns back to the Minister. We should listen to the PNA and the contributions from people on the ground. The Senator knows from her own experience, and I know as a former branch secretary in the Irish National Teachers' Organisation, INTO, that people on the ground will give an insight to management on the way services are run every day, and their voices should always be listened to.

The Senator mentioned the important issue of designing the buildings, and involving patients and service staff directly in that process. I will bring the Senator's concerns back to the senior Minister and the HSE. We have to do something about the shortage of nursing staff and prevent the closure of wards.