Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Speech and Language Therapy Provision

I welcome the Minister of State. Tá fáilte romhat, a Aire-Stáit agus gabh mo leithscéal.

Anois I call on Senator Martin Conway who has four minutes to outline his case.

Go raibh míle maith agat, a Chathaoirligh, agus tá fáilte romhat, a Aire-Stáit. I acknowledge that the Minister of State, who has responsibility for disabilities, has come here to take this important Commencement matter.

World Down's Syndrome Day was last Thursday and we all wore odd socks. This Commencement matter arose as a result of an engagement I had with the parent of child who has the condition on World Down's Syndrome Day. We spoke at length about the challenges that children with Down's syndrome come up against. One of the significant challenges is in terms of communication and speech. The Minister of State will be fully aware of the unique set of challenges that children with Down's syndrome in particular encounter when it comes to speaking. Every one of us, as a result of our involvement in the business of politics, appreciates the value of being able to communicate. If one is in a situation where one cannot articulate properly as a result of difficulties with speaking due to having Down's syndrome, then the basic premise of communication is compromised.

Down's syndrome children are beautiful and have a huge amount to offer. We have a responsibility to assist them and provide the necessary supports to enable them to develop their communication skills. It is one thing if one will never be able to communicate but if one can communicate with proper interventions and supports, then that is where the State needs to step in. Last week, I was informed by the parent to whom I refer that the State only provides six sessions of speech therapy a year. The child involved had six sessions of speech therapy in 2015, 2016 and 2017. In 2018, there were still six sessions even though our economy has benefited enormously from a recovery and despite the fact that the Government has prioritised the issue of disability and support structures for people with disabilities. In 2019, the allocation still is six sessions.

This parent, through hard work and dedication, is funding speech therapy privately for her child. The child gets two sessions a month. That works out at about 24 or 25 sessions a year. That parent uses the six sessions available from the State to complement these. We need to do more and we need to do better. Perhaps there is a mechanism whereby this can be improved. Perhaps there is a plan. The provision of speech therapy is a critical intervention for children with Down's syndrome because of the unique challenges such children face and because speech therapy has been proven over and over again to be successful and to work. All children with Down's syndrome in our society and our State should be able to reach their potential in terms of communicating. Through hard work, the parent with whom I engaged has the resources to provide speech interventions and therapy privately, but what about the parents who cannot?

I thank Senator Conway for raising this very important issue. I totally acknowledge his own great work in pushing and campaigning for all children with disabilities and, in this debate, for children with Down's syndrome in particular. I thank him again for raising this very important issue. I absolutely agree with most of the sentiments he expressed. I accept the point that we need a plan, but we have a plan. I will deal with that in my response.

Timely access to speech and language therapy services is important and I understand that delays in accessing the service are a source of concern for patients, their parents and their families. The Government is committed to improving access to services through investment and improvements in how services are provided to enable children to reach their full potential. In 2019 we are going to spend €1.9 billion on disability services under the HSE service plan. That is an increase of 7.5%. Anybody who comes into this House to say that cuts are being made to services should look at the statistics and information and get his or her facts right.

The overarching principle governing the planning and delivery of health services and supports for adults and children with disabilities is that they should be integrated, as much as possible, with services and supports for the rest of the population. The Government’s agenda, and mine, in this regard is clearly set out in the national disability inclusion strategy, the steering group of which I chair. The strategy is based on a non-condition specific approach to the delivery of public services and the mainstreaming agenda. I take the Senator's point. I did a number of events myself on World Down's Syndrome Day. I spent a lot of time with parents and talking to children on that day.

As Senators will be aware, speech and language therapy is mainly provided through the HSE’s primary care service. Overall funding for primary care has increased in the HSE’s national service plan for 2019, with more than €50 million in additional funding being made available. An extra €50 million is being put in in 2019. This represents an increase of 6% on primary care for 2018. I make that point very strongly. Of course, we also have to look at individual cases. Each individual that presents to the HSE’s speech and language therapy service has an initial assessment to determine the individual’s presenting need and requirements for therapy. The therapist, in conjunction with the parents or carer, will then determine the severity of the individual’s difficulties and prioritise for therapy accordingly. The level of intervention is in line with clinical policy, age and presenting need according to diagnosis. The waiting period for intervention is dependent on the nature and severity of the disorder following assessment. The HSE aims to ensure that the resources available are used to best effect, in order to provide assessment and ongoing therapy to children and adults in line with their prioritised needs.

Speech and language therapy staffing levels in primary care have increased significantly in recent years with an additional 76 whole-time equivalents appointed between January 2015 and January 2019. Further increases are anticipated in line with funding in 2019. I accept the Senator's point; we need to increase and expand services further, but we have started. The HSE anticipates that almost 280,000 speech and language therapy patients will be treated in primary care in 2019. That is a lot of speech and language services. In addition to this increase in staff numbers, the HSE has established service improvement groups to develop new standardised models of service provision for speech and language therapy and other therapy services to support service delivery. We accept the point the Senator raised in his introduction. We are increasing staff numbers to expand this service. Measures under these models include providing structures, training and support to parents or carers so that they can work to help improve the individual’s speech and language. In addition, therapy is delivered in group settings where appropriate.

The HSE and I are committed to working in partnership with other service providers to achieve maximum benefits for children and adults requiring therapies and aim to ensure that the available resources are used in the most effective manner possible. On the Senator's general point, we have started the work and the reforms, but we have a fair distance to go yet. I accept that argument, but we have started, we have increased spending, and we are expanding the services. We have to make sure that every child with Down's syndrome has access to proper speech and language therapy. That is the objective of my plan under the national disability inclusion strategy.

I accept this is a very worthy cause. I have a grandchild with Down's syndrome of whom I am very proud. I am also the godfather. I will give Senator Conway 40 seconds to conclude.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I agree with him in respect of the increased resources but I would like to see these increased resources orientated specifically towards speech and language therapy for children with Down's syndrome. Perhaps there could be a greater level of increase for that specific group of our citizens for 2020. It is probably too late for 2019 at this stage. Perhaps the Government could direct the HSE to ring-fence the great majority of whatever increase in funding is provided for speech and language therapy for 2020 for children with Down's syndrome. At the end of six sessions over a year there will be an obvious improvement in the child but can the Minister of State imagine what would happen if the number of sessions were to be doubled and if the child was to have an intervention of 12 sessions? I know it is a doubling of resources but perhaps the Government could look at a specific increase in funding for speech and language therapy for 2020 as a once-off intervention for children with Down's syndrome.

I will make three short points. First, I recognise what the Senator has said about delays in accessing speech and language therapy being a source of significant concern for parents. We are trying to act on that. Second, as Senators including Senator Conway may be aware, funding for additional therapy posts for children's disability services was announced in budget 2019. As I speak, these posts are being rolled out. These posts will support the completion of the assessments of need and will increase the number of therapeutic interventions provided. I am confident that the additional resources committed by Government and the HSE's reform programme will lead to significantly improved services for children requiring speech and language therapy. However, I cannot isolate one sector of society, even though I am a parent of a daughter with Down's syndrome and was chairperson and treasurer of the Dublin branch for many years. We have to treat everybody, right across the disability sector. People with speech and language difficulties should be given priority.

Home Loan Scheme

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, to the House. I will be brief. This matter relates to the Rebuilding Ireland home loans scheme, of which the Minister of State will be fully aware. He will also be fully aware of the controversy around it.

There is an element of misunderstanding or misinformation out there. It is important, therefore, that clarification is provided on the current status of the Rebuilding Ireland home loan, which is a very effective and important scheme. It is one of the many initiatives we need to address the issue of providing housing, including affordable and social housing. There is a broad spectrum of routes that must be pursued. There is no one-size-fits-all solution but this is a particularly good scheme that I welcome.

I hope the Minister of State will be able to clarify some issues related to the status of the initiative. An internal document released by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to "Morning Ireland" under freedom of information legislation revealed that the scheme had been put on hold because it had run out of funding. That was subsequently denied but I have seen documentation that confirms that is the case, so I do not think that is in dispute. In the Dáil recently, the Minister indicated that he was seeking a second tranche of funding to address these issues, which I welcome. The Taoiseach confirmed in the Dáil that 575 people had availed of the scheme. A further 1,000 applications had been approved but funding had not been drawn down. There may or may not be issues with some of the 1,000 applicants concerned. I have been in touch with a number of local authorities, five of which have confirmed that they have run out of money. That is not to say that the scheme has ended. However, the capacity of local authorities to grant further funding is on hold until there is clarification. That is somewhat different from saying the scheme is closed, which is encouraging.

I ask the Minister of State to set out how the negotiations with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform are proceeding and how it is intended to bring this scheme back into line. When that information is crystallised and clear, can a new public awareness and information campaign be launched to provide clarity, encourage people and ease their fears? This is an important initiative because it offers some people the only chance they will get of acquiring a home. I know the Taoiseach is conscious of people getting up early in the morning, putting their shoulder to the wheel and doing a day's work. These are people who want to purchase a home. They want to provide a home for themselves and their families. We should pursue this scheme but it would be helpful to get clarification about its future funding.

I thank Senator Boyhan for raising this issue and quite rightly seeking to bring additional clarity in an area that might need more clarity. When the Rebuilding Ireland home loan was initially being developed, it was estimated that the drawdown of loans under the scheme would be approximately €200 million over three years. However, thankfully, the scheme has proven to be far more successful than originally anticipated. Officials from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government have kept the Minister informed regarding the progress of the Rebuilding Ireland home loan on a regular basis and have been engaging with officials from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform regarding the scheme since October 2018 when it became clear that the rate at which loans were being approved was higher than was originally anticipated, thus highlighting the success of the scheme. The Minister had made a commitment on launching the scheme that he would seek further funding for it at an early stage, if necessary, given his belief in its potential. By the end of January, €106 million had been drawn down, which accounted for some 53% of the available funding, at which point €66 million would have been more consistent with the expectation of funds being drawn down over a three-year period.

The Minister informed the Dáil on 29 January 2019 that the scheme had proven to be more successful than initially anticipated and would require a further tranche of funds. He further indicated that his Department was in discussions with the Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform and Finance with regard to an extension of the scheme. A meeting with the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform was scheduled for 4 February 2019. However, this had to be rescheduled and took place on 5 March 2019. At no time was the first tranche of funding depleted and following the meeting on 5 March 2019, the Minister informed the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government that local authorities could continue to accept applications as discussions had commenced on further funding. As of the end of January 2019, €106 million had been lent supporting 575 individuals and families to buy their first home. The Minister is in discussions with the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform regarding further funding for the scheme. The Central Bank is also being consulted. Specific allocations to local authorities for 2019 will be finalised when those discussions have concluded. However, in the meantime, the scheme remains open and all local authorities should continue to receive and process applications up to and including drawdown of funding, as appropriate.

I thank the Minister of State for his helpful reply. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government. I am aware that at least five local authorities do not have any money to hand out under the scheme. While it makes sense to put in applications and prepare, we must be fair to people because this might be their only hope of funding the purchase of a home. The sooner we see the specific allocations for the local authorities in 2019, the better. Next week, we are into April, which is the fourth month of 2019, so there is a certain urgency here. I am not suggesting the Minister or Government is not treating this matter with urgency but it would be helpful given the importance of this issue and the fact that it will be raised on the doors by many people in local election campaigns. It would be very helpful if the details of the scheme could be released as soon as possible. I thank the Minister of State for his very helpful information.

I thank Senator Boyhan again for raising this issue and shining light on it. Thankfully, it has been a very successful scheme. I have been fortunate to be able to assist a number of constituents in making applications, which have been successful. It is an indication of the ambition of our people to build or acquire their own home. This is a very important tool in the arsenal of opportunities we offer in securing permanent housing for the future. The message I would like to see go out loud and clear from this discussion is that it is not a case of whether local authorities will receive funding. It is a case of when they will receive funding and what the scale of it will be. I would tell anybody contemplating making an application that the scheme remains open, all local authorities have been instructed to continue to receive and process applications and people should not have any doubt as to the Government's commitment to sustaining the scheme in the future.

Schools Building Projects Status

I raise the issue of accommodation at Sacred Heart secondary school in Clonakilty, County Cork. I have been involved in this matter for the past few years. This vibrant school has nearly 550 students, a teaching population of just over 40 and a history on the site going back to 1941. It is a unique campus in many ways. It also had a boarding element, which ceased in 2005 and, as a result, one building has been left idle. This building is the reason I have raised this Commencement matter. It is a unique structure in the middle of the campus that is unfortunately lying idle. It dates back many years and it is planned to redevelop it. The building has great potential to meet the educational requirements of Clonakilty, particularly those of Sacred Heart secondary school.

This State has a history of having prefabricated buildings on site. Prefabs have been on this site for more than a decade. Approximately €1 million has been spent on prefabs in Clonakilty over the past 12 years. This is unfortunate when one considers that this money could have been put to much better use redeveloping the old boarding school building in the heart of the site.

I am trying to get movement on this project, which is part of the ADAPT programme. It will involve having outside consultants run the redevelopment of the boarding school campus. Progress is needed on the project. Clonakilty is a busy and thriving town. Population growth has been immense in the past decade. The county development plan has predicted many more thousands of people will move to this vibrant town. We need an education campus that will meet the town's future population needs.

The need is there and the building is there. The funds to redevelop that unique building should be advanced in order that the Sacred Heart school in Clonakilty can develop and flourish as it needs.

I ask the Minister of State to provide an update on the ADAPT programme, where the school fits into the programme and when a project manager will be appointed. The external project manager who will run the project is a key element in ensuring it is delivered. This redevelopment has been talked about for generations. In the light of €1 million, unfortunately, having been spent prefabs for the school over the past decade, the need for movement on this project is very evident. We cannot just put money into a dead end such as prefabs. Rather, we must reinvest in this beautiful campus such that the school can flourish as it has since 1941.

On behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, I thank the Senator for raising this matter which I know from previous conversations with him is very close to his heart. It provides me with the opportunity to outline to the Seanad the current position in regard to the major building project for the Sacred Heart Secondary School in Clonakilty.

A building project for the school is included in the Department of Education and Skills six-year construction programme. That is a significant first hurdle to get over. A project brief has been finalised and will provide an extension with refurbishment to cater for 600 pupils in the long-term projected enrolment. As the Senator stated, the project will be delivered via the ADAPT programme, which is an innovative delivery programme first introduced by the Department in 2016. It uses a professional external project manager to co-ordinate and drive the respective design teams on each project. In this regard, a tender competition is in train to establish a project manager framework, which is essentially a list of potential project managers with the skills and capacity to deliver on the project. That framework is expected to be in place shortly. Tenders have been returned by potential project managers and are being evaluated. Once established, the framework will be used to appoint a project manager for the ADAPT programme following a further tender exercise specific to ADAPT. The Department of Education and Skills wrote to the school on 19 March 19 to provide an update on the status of this project.

As the Minister of State pointed out, I am familiar with the school, going to it every Monday afternoon for issues relating to my daughter. It is a very vibrant space of which we are very proud. It is important that there be movement on this project. The update by the Minister of State is very helpful. It is about trying to keep momentum behind the project. As soon as the ADAPT project manager is appointed, we will see significant movement. It is very important that we get a project manager in place in the next few weeks or months in order to be able to drive this very important project forward.

There is no question regarding the commitment of the Department of Education and Skills to see the project through to conclusion. We are very close to a project manager being appointed. I will undertake to again speak to the Minister, Deputy McHugh, on behalf of the Senator to impress on him the urgency of bringing the project to a conclusion as quickly as possible.

Sitting suspended at 11.05 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.