Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Hospital Accommodation Provision

I welcome the Minister of State to the House to discuss the 120 replacement beds that are needed at St. John's Hospital, Limerick. In 2017 the Minister, Deputy Harris, visited St. John's and acknowledged that he could see the need for the 120 beds to be replaced. My question is whether St. John's Hospital will be included in the capital plan. University Hospital Limerick is in the news all the time in respect of its beds and its bed capacity. While 60 modular beds have been started, it will be a while before they will be opened. We need to start planning for the future. Attendance numbers are up at both University Hospital Limerick and St. John's Hospital. St. John's Hospital is a minor injuries clinic but it does some day procedures and if it received 120 replacement beds on a permanent basis, it would be able to carry out more procedures and deal with more minor injuries. This would alleviate the pressure on University Hospital Limerick. The beds need to go ahead at the same time as in University Hospital Limerick because we need to alleviate the pressure. People come from all over the mid-west and Nenagh Hospital is now carrying out cataract operations but we need St. John's Hospital and University Hospital Limerick to deliver at full capacity to meet the needs of the mid-west.

I thank Senator Byrne for raising this issue and I commend her on her work to drive the project at St. John's Hospital. I know she has a particular interest in it and that she is very committed to the people of Limerick. It also gives me the opportunity to outline to the House the position on the proposed capital development of a 120-bed ward to replace the existing ward accommodation at St. John's Hospital, Limerick.

St. John's is a model 2S voluntary hospital within the University of Limerick hospitals group covering Limerick, Clare and north Tipperary. The hospital currently has 88 inpatient medical beds and ten beds for day surgery. It also provides a medical assessment unit, a minor injuries unit and five-day surgery to the people of the region. I understand the current proposal is for a 120-bed replacement ward block, consisting of four units of 30 single rooms for inpatient ward accommodation. Progress in respect of these and all other capital projects are subject to the availability of capital funding. All healthcare infrastructure developments, including this development, must comply with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform guidelines and EU directives and will require a lead-in time to complete the various stages of public capital projects. These stages include appraisal, project brief, design feasibility, detailed design, some of which may overlap, the review of costing estimates and the finalisation of financing.

The national development plan, NDP, announced last year as part of the Project Ireland 2040 policy initiative, provides €10.9 billion for health capital developments across the country, including both national programmes and individual projects, across acute, primary and social care. The delivery of NDP projects and programmes, including developments in Limerick, will result in healthcare facilities that allow for implementation of new models of care and for delivery of services in high-quality modern facilities. The revised health capital allocation in 2019 is €642 million for the construction and equipping of health facilities. The Department and the Health Service Executive are currently engaged in a process to finalise the HSE capital plan for 2019. In developing its capital plan for 2019 and future years, the HSE must consider a range of issues, including the expenditure that is contractually committed, the HSE's annual requirement in relation to meeting risks associated with clinical equipment, ambulances and healthcare infrastructure.

The HSE capital plan will propose the projects that can be progressed in 2019 and beyond, having regard to the available capital funding, the number of large national projects under way, the cashflow requirements attaching to each project and the relevant priority. Projects that are currently under construction and contractually committed to will not be affected. Once the HSE finalises the capital plan for 2019, it will be submitted to the Minister for consideration.

I will convey the Senator's considerations and concerns to the Minister.

I understand the Minister of State's point that everything must meet the requirements under procurement. My understanding is that St. John's Hospital is at an advanced stage and everything that needs to be submitted has been submitted. It has submitted all the required documents that have been requested to date.

University Hospital Limerick is constantly in the news. We need the two hospitals to be developed together because it is the only way forward. It is not just about serving the people of Limerick but also the people of the mid-west generally. There is a great deal of capacity. I read a tweet about figures by a senior member of staff at the hospital. It referred to some of the other, larger hospitals which have fewer members of staff and so on, but the number of people who present at University Hospital Limerick is 21% higher than the number who present at some of the larger hospitals in Dublin and the surrounding area. It is a high number. If we can get the small injuries clinic up and running properly, there can be more day procedures and it will take the pressure off University Hospital Limerick.

While St. John's Hospital is at an advanced stage, I fully accept the Senator's point because I know Limerick well. I have spent much time there and my sister lives there. I am aware, therefore, that Limerick needs two hospitals, which would take the pressure off. I also agree that it is important to bear in mind that the hospital serves the general mid-west, while the fact that 21% more people attend University Hospital Limerick than other hospitals must also be considered. The Government is committed to delivering acute hospital services and infrastructure. St. John's Hospital is an integral part of the University Limerick hospital group, providing hospital services and care for the population of counties Limerick and Clare and north County Tipperary. The hospital provides high-quality patient care. As I outlined, proposals for the new 120-bed ward, to replace the existing board accommodation at St. John's Hospital, are at an early stage of planning and appraisal. All capital developments depend on the resources.

I will convey to the Minister the relevant points raised by the Senator. The HSE capital plan will determine the projects that can be progressed in 2019 and beyond, having regard to funding.

UN Conventions Ratification

I raise the optional protocol to the convention against torture, OPCAT, a very important international treaty that governs Ireland's obligations to protect its citizens from all forms of torture and ill treatment. Ireland signed OPCAT in 2007 but 12 years later, we have yet to ratify it, meaning that we are not bound to comply with its requirements. When does Ireland plan to ratify this instrument? In response to a parliamentary question tabled by Deputy Clare Daly last week, the Department of Justice and Equality indicated that primary legislation will be required and that it will circulate a draft scheme to stakeholders before making a formal proposal to the Government this year. The Government held a similar position, however, on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In that case, it indicated that primary legislation would be required, but then decided to ratify it before the required legislative changes were enacted and progressed them after formal ratification. Has the Minister of State considered whether this would also be an option in the case of OPCAT? If the Department remains of the view that primary legislation is required, will the Minister of State provide more information on the status of the process? Does the Department hope to bring the proposal to Cabinet before the summer recess?

Will legislation be introduced in the Oireachtas in autumn? As the Minister of State knows, groups working in the area are concerned at the pace at which the proposals are being advanced. Therefore, as much detail as the Minister of State can provide would be appreciated.

As the Minister of State also knows, the key and most crucial part of the convention is the optional protocol which requires states' parties to set up, designate or maintain at the domestic level one or several visiting bodies for the prevention of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. These are known as national preventative mechanisms. States are required to provide those national preventative mechanisms with unfettered access to all places where persons are deprived of their liberty. In light of the history in Ireland of unlawful detention and institutional abuse, including in the Magdalen laundries, we need to get the inspections process right. Independent and regular inspections of institutions and care settings shine a light on otherwise hidden or closed spaces. The nature of such spaces is a common thread in abuse. We must also broaden our understanding of the deprivation of liberty beyond traditional detention settings like prisons and consider health and social care settings, immigration detention centres, direct provision centres, psychiatric hospitals and nursing homes.

The current system is in need of reform. By ratifying OPCAT, we can introduce new inspection regimes and improve, reform and consolidate the existing ones. I understand the Government is considering appointing a single body to conduct inspections in all deprivation-of-liberty settings. Potentially, this may be the Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention. I ask the Government to consider alternatives to this option. We need sector-by-sector mechanisms whereby those with experience and expertise conduct inspections within their own sectors. For example, HIQA has expertise on health and social settings as the Ombudsman for Children has with child-related settings. We need experts overseeing their own sectors to achieve real and effective oversight. These individual sectoral mechanisms could then be co-ordinated by a single body, with the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission being the obvious choice. I am happy to work with the Minister on any of these proposals. They are all practical and would see OPCAT implemented in Ireland to the highest possible standard. I look forward to the reply.

On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, who sends his regrets, I thank Senator Ruane for raising this important matter in the House. We acknowledge also Senator Ruane's dedicated interest in this area and in respect of penal reform and detention generally. It is an important issue which I hope she will continue to raise.

As the Senator said, Ireland signed the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture, or OPCAT, in 2007 but has yet to ratify the instrument. The protocol is additional to the convention, which Ireland signed and ratified a number of years ago. The Government is committed to the convention and has participated fully in everything its ratification entails. The additional protocol is preventative in nature and provides for the establishment of national preventative mechanisms for the inspection of facilities where persons are held involuntarily. While the Department of Justice and Equality has been tasked with progressing legislation to ratify the protocol, the instrument impacts on a number of sectors, including health, defence, children and youth affairs. The Department has, therefore, consulted key stakeholders in 2018. These stakeholders comprise those organisations with policy or operational responsibilities in respect of inspection arrangements across the ambit of the national preventative mechanism regime provided for in OPCAT. As I stated, that goes beyond the justice sector. In addition, stakeholders consulted include advisory and advocacy organisations with expertise in this area. As part of this process, the Department has sought the views of stakeholders on the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission's 2017 research on the implementation of OPCAT in Ireland. This welcome research led to the publication of a comprehensive report on the primary considerations for the State in making progress towards ratification and implementation of the protocol.

The last submission in the consultation process was received in April 2018. Since then, officials have met a number of stakeholders, including the Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention who was appointed last year. It is intended that the inspector and her office will have increased resources to carry out OPCAT-type inspections in the justice sector. Late last year, the Irish Penal Reform Trust and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties held a round-table discussion on the implementation of the protocol. Given the feedback at this discussion, it was decided that further consideration should be given to what organisation should carry out a co-ordinating role for national preventative mechanisms, including the option of appointing the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, which Senator Ruane also suggests. The Department is finalising the draft scheme of an inspection of places of detention Bill to provide for the ratification of OPCAT. It is intended to provide in the Bill for a network of national preventative mechanisms in relevant sectors. The Bill is intended also to provide for a co-ordinating mechanism to assist the sectoral bodies and liaise with relevant stakeholders on the implementation of the protocol.

In finalising the draft scheme, every consideration will be given to the proposals which were conveyed during the consultation process, including which organisation should co-ordinate the national preventive mechanisms, NPMs. The Minister intends to circulate this scheme to stakeholders for their comments as soon as possible. In doing so, the Department of Justice and Equality will look for other relevant Departments to consult all relevant stakeholders in their sectors. Similarly, in due course, it will be a matter for each Minister to appoint one or more sectorial NPMs. Following these further consultations, it is intended to finalise the scheme for submission to the Government for approval and transmission to the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel for formal drafting this year.

That sounds positive and is in line with what we have suggested to the Department. I have been working with other bodies on this. I am happy to support and work towards the goals the Minister of State set out for legislative provisions and draft schemes.

I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to bring the House up to date on this matter. I also thank her for stating she would be willing to assist with this process. That is a welcome suggestion.

The Government is committed to ratifying OPCAT. However, it is not straightforward. It involves not only the justice sector but other sectors too. The Department of Justice and Equality is in the process of finalising a draft scheme which will be circulated to stakeholders for comments. The Department will look for other relevant Departments to consult all relevant stakeholders in their sectors. Similarly, it will be a matter for each Minister to appoint one or more sectorial NPMs.

The intention is to build upon existing inspection structures, expertise and experience. The Department is working intensely with the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission in finalising the scheme and co-ordinating the NPMs. Their comments and those of other stakeholders will be taken into account before it is finalised for submission to the Government for approval and transmission to the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel for formal drafting. It is intended to have it done this year. Every effort will be made to progress this matter as quickly as possible.

Schools Building Projects Status

I welcome the Minister for Education and Skills to the House and thank him for taking this Commencement matter. I am raising with him once again the schools building project status of St. Molaga’s senior national school in Balbriggan, north County Dublin. I have raised it before on several occasions, the last time being late September. I am looking for an update on this project to see if we can keep it moving quickly through the system.

As I have outlined on previous occasions, Balbriggan is the youngest and fastest growing town in Ireland. St. Molaga’s senior national school has served the town for a long number of years and has an excellent reputation. However, it is in a difficult and unsatisfactory accommodation situation. It has 466 pupils, 28 teachers, including the principal, Ms Pauline Costello, and six special needs assistants. Approximately 60% of the school population is housed in 15 prefabs, many of which are 19 years old. These prefabs are not fit for purpose. They are too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. They are leaking and damp. The children and the teachers are getting chest infections and these conditions are having a detrimental effect on those with asthma.

Three of the prefabs were damaged during Storm Ali last September. While they have since been repaired, the overall bad state of the prefabs is causing a big impact on the learning environment in the school. The teachers, the principal and the special needs assistants are keeping standards high but it is a difficult task. The pupils and staff of St. Molaga’s and the people of Balbriggan deserve progress on this matter. An extension to the school was approved several years ago which was welcomed. However, it has taken a number of years to get to this point and patience is wearing thin. Conditions are too difficult for this matter to go on any longer. The project needs to be prioritised and fast-tracked. That is why I am raising it here again with the Minister.

This afternoon the Department of Education and Skills phoned the principal, Ms Pauline Costello, to let her know that the project manager framework is now completed, which is to be welcomed.

The next stage in the process is the appointment of a consultant design team. I would like the Minister to outline the timeframe for that stage of the process because it is urgent. It is important that we move on to that stage rapidly so we can build the new school for the children to move into and continue with the excellent learning environment at St. Molaga's. I would like the Minister to answer that question and I emphasise that this can no longer be put on the long finger. The school has a fantastic reputation in the town and staff are doing their best but are feeling neglected. We need to end the neglect of the children, teachers and other staff members at St. Molaga's.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir fá choinne an cheist seo. Tuigim na buntáistí agus na míbhuntáistí a ghabhann leis an ardú daonra sa cheantar agus tuigim na fadhbanna maidir leis na seomraí sealadacha. Tá sé soiléir go bhfuil tionchar suntasach ag an fhadhb sin ar an scoil.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to outline to the Seanad the current position of the major building project for St. Molaga's senior national school in Balbriggan, County Dublin. A building project for this school is included in the Department's school building programme being delivered under the national development plan. A project brief has been finalised and proposes a 16-classroom school, to include two special class teachers, eight special education tuition rooms and a two-class special education needs base. The project will be delivered by the Department's accelerated delivery of architectural planning and tendering, ADAPT, programme, an innovative, accelerated delivery programme first introduced by my Department in 2016. It uses a professional, external project manager appointed to a selected programme of projects to co-ordinate and expedite the work of the respective design teams on each project.

In this regard, a tender competition to establish a project manager framework is due to conclude on Wednesday, 10 April. Once established, this framework will be used in a tender competition to appoint a project manager for the ADAPT programme. Once a project manager is appointed, the next step will be for the project manager to run the tender competitions for the appointment of the individual design teams. My Department wrote to the school and, as the Seanadóir pointed out, a phone call was made to the school to provide an update on the status of this project.

I assure the Seanadóir that we have a new programme in operation, through ADAPT, keeping a close eye on it. It is a national programme comprising many schools from different constituencies throughout the country, including my own. It is a new way of doing things and the big feedback I am getting from the schools that are dealing with this project is that it takes pressure off the school. Once a project manager is appointed to administer this programme, I am confident that this will be a new way of trying to move it forward in as speedy a manner as possible.

I want to know how long will the process take to get the project manager in place. I know the framework has been completed but what kind of timescale is involved? Is it one month, five months or six months? Once the project manager is in place, how long will the tender for the design stage take?

Once the tender process is completed with the announcement tomorrow, it will be a matter of two or three months to ensure the project manager is appointed. This is part of a national plan and not specific to one school so I do not want to tie myself in a knot over the timeframe because it is a new scheme. My message to my officials when I meet them on this, and I have met them a number of times in Tullamore, is that if this is going to be a new way of doing things, we must look at the speed of completion and the importance of getting it done in as quick a timeframe as possible. Parents and schools tend to see the September window as the time to have works completed. We will not be ready this September but I am conscious that schools want to work in as speedy a manner as possible.

I am also conscious that we are dealing with many issues and difficulties with other schools in which things were done too quickly and with too much haste. It is about getting the right balance to ensure the right custom-fit building for proper outcomes while also being very conscious of the structural and safety capabilities.

I appreciate the point about buildings being in haste. We have experience of that in Balbriggan.

The Senator will have to discuss that on the margins. Under the rules, I am not allowed-----

I just want to compliment the Minister if the Leas-Chathaoirleach would allow me to do so.

I am not allowed.

I thank the Minister for outlining this.

The Senator is out of order and she will make me out of order as well. She can have a chat with the Minister on the margins.

I will keep an eye on this and will be in contact with the Minister and his Department to see if we can get a timeframe for the consultation phase.

Before the Leas-Chathaoirleach rules me out of order as well, I wish to reassure the Senator that once we announce the framework tomorrow, details around the timeframe will be built into that so there will be more specific detail on that tomorrow.

Special Educational Needs Service Provision

I thank the Minister for being here in person to discuss this matter with me. It is greatly appreciated.

I rise to speak on behalf of four boys from Dublin's north side whose parents do not have a school place for them in September with the only reason being that these children have autism. I refer the Minister to the report launched today from AsIAm entitled Invisible Children - Survey on School Absence and Withdrawal in Ireland's Autism Community. I believe some representatives from the organisation are in the Public Gallery. Some of the report's findings are quite stark and some of the representations made today were quite upsetting.

It is a survey involving around 300 parents. The findings showed that 35% said that they had applied to anywhere between four and seven different schools while seeking a place for their child. A total of 54% of these parents felt that our lack of school places was the largest barrier for their child in accessing education, supported by a further 18% who said that the chief obstacle was a lack of nearby schools or classes in the local catchment areas. When someone's child gets a diagnosis, what effectively happens is that he or she is handed a sheet of paper with a list of schools on it and told to do his or her best. Some of the schools I spoke to parents about were in places as far away as Drogheda. I will read into the record the names of the four children with whom I am dealing with currently. They are Oliver Lynam, Mason Kelly, James Field, whose mother Alison spoke at the launch today, and Riley O'Keefe. They have no place to go in September with the only reason being that they have autism.

The manner in which we deal with these parents really needs to be investigated and improved. We are giving a list of schools to a parent and telling him or her do his or her best. While some schools will say "Yes", in this case most of them said "No". I know we have the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018, which would challenge some of the attitudes displayed or responses given by some of the schools and I want to get the Minister's response to that.

The fall-back position, which the parents do not want because they want their children to go to a school setting, mix with other children and have that engagement, is the potential to home school the children but, again, parents are told to find a home school tutor themselves. Unless we are professionals in the field, none of us is qualified to know what kind of home tutor will benefit our child.

Again, I talk to other parents who are on a very long waiting list to get assessments. Today I spoke to another parent, Mark, about his daughter, Abigail, and how they have tried to get early intervention and have waited for effectively two and a half years to get it.

The Minister knows that once a parent gets a diagnosis, it is as if he or she must start waging a war with a system that should care for and be compassionate to him or her. The parent faces a challenge with this diagnosis and a child he or she loves, cares for and wants to do his or her best for. Simultaneously, the parent automatically becomes a kind of political campaigner, which is not the way it should be.

On behalf of those four children about whom I spoke, can the Minister give me and the parents some assurance that these children will have a school place in September? We need a long-term conversation about how we deal with parents in this situation. It probably falls between the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Health, which is probably part of the difficulty but certainly the shocking experience these parents are going through has really come to light in the past number of months. It is now April and will be May before too long. These four children do not have a school place for September.

I am sure there are hundreds of other parents in the same situation, as has been outlined by the report issued today and as has been reported in The Irish Times as recently as yesterday. I would appreciate the Minister's response.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir fá choinne an cheist iontach tábhachtach agus iontach dáiríre seo. Táim oscailte maidir leis an chomhrá atá de dhíth i ndiaidh na díospóireachta inniu.

I thank the Senator for raising this important matter. I value the Senator's observation that we need to look at the process and different ways that we can help in the process as well. I am open to that idea.

Enabling children with special educational needs, including autism, to receive an education appropriate to their needs is a priority for Government. At present, we are investing heavily in supporting our children with special educational needs, with €1.8 billion being spent annually, which is almost €1 in every €5, or 19% of the overall education budget. This includes an allocation of over €300 million towards providing additional resources specifically to support students with autism in schools.

Since 2011, the number of special classes has increased from 548 in 2011 to 1,459 across the country now, of which almost 1,200 are autism special classes. The National Council for Special education, NCSE, an independent agency of my Department, is responsible for planning, co-ordinating and advising on education provision for children with special educational needs. The council ensures that schools in an area can, between them, cater for all children who have been identified as needing special class placements. Individual school boards of management are responsible for the establishment of special classes. It is open to any school to make application to the NCSE to establish a class. When the NCSE sanctions the establishment of a special class or the expansion of special school provision in a school, the school can apply to my Department for capital funding to reconfigure existing spaces within the school building to accommodate the class and-or to construct additional accommodation. Where families are experiencing difficulty in securing a placement for their child, it is recommended that they work closely with the NCSE's teams of locally-based special education needs organisers, SENOs, who will assist and advise them. SENOs also support and advise schools.

My Department has no role in seeking a suitable school placement for individual children. Accordingly, I have arranged for the details of the four children provided by the Senator to be forwarded to the NCSE for its urgent attention. The NCSE is aware of the recent demand for additional special class and special school placements in the Dublin area. The council is actively engaging with schools, school patrons, parents, NEPS, health professionals and others who are involved in the provision of services for children with special educational needs to ensure that each child has a school placement appropriate to his or her needs for the 2019-20 school year. This work is ongoing. We are aware that enrolments in some schools have not yet been finalised for next year. We expect a clearer picture to emerge in the coming weeks. If additional places are required, the NCSE will work with schools and other stakeholders to ensure this need is met. My Department is liaising closely with the NCSE in this regard.

I reiterate this is a process. It can be a difficult process for parents who have gone through preschool with their child and are ready to take that next step. Like all parents, one likes to see a smooth transition, whether from preschool to primary or primary to secondary. I believe in working together and the good work of the likes of the AsIAm group, which I met in the early days of my new post. There are aspects that Government misses. There are aspects that officialdom misses. If there are gaps, I am certainly willing to work with the Senator in that regard. We live in a special time where we are trying to include all our children. Whether in special classes or in special schools or in the mainstream setting, that choice is so important. It is important that we continue to work hard and focus on that.

I deeply appreciate the Minister's sentiments.

I have a number of issues with the Minister's response, one being that the school can apply to the Department.

What happens if a school is not necessarily minded to apply? Sometimes it is easier to say "No". The fact the Department has no role in seeking a suitable school place for individual children will be of little comfort to the parents with whom I am dealing. We can see the difficulty. The NCSE is acting against schools, school patrons, parents, NEPS and health professionals. So many agencies are involved and parents go from one to the other to try to get a place for their children. I appreciate that the Minister acknowledges there are gaps, that it is not good enough and that working together we can find solutions. I appreciate that his official reply states a clearer picture will emerge in the coming weeks. This is fair enough. If we can discuss it again in a number of weeks' time we will have a clearer picture of where these four children are at and what the NCSE has come up with. Certainly, the entire system needs to change to be an awful lot more sympathetic and to rally around these parents who receive a diagnosis. Let us keep in contact and keep the conversation going. What these parents are going through is not good enough and the Minister appreciates this. He has also acknowledged that there are gaps, so let us work together to fill them and ensure the rights of the children I have named, Oliver, Mason, James and Riley, are vindicated and that they have a school place in September.

I am trying to evaluate the communication that takes place when SENOs give parents a list of potential schools. If some of the schools are already filled up, it creates massive frustration for parents. I want to see if we can get a bit better at simple communication and providing relevant information. It is a very important time for parents when their children go into a new school environment. I am happy to continue to work with the Senator on parents being put in a position where they feel they must fight for something.

Sitting suspended at 3.15 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.