Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Special Educational Needs Service Provision

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I wish to extend a céad míle fáilte to two groups in the Public Gallery this morning, AsIAm, which does Trojan work in raising awareness of autism throughout the country, and the Crumlin-based autism parent support group.

I raise this issue on foot of AsIAm's recent report entitled Invisible Children - Survey on School Absence and Withdrawal in Ireland's Autism Community. It is a national scandal that the right to an education is out of reach for so many autistic children at primary and secondary levels. A mother in her 30s is in jail this morning having been prosecuted for failing to send her children to school but this Government should be in the dock being prosecuted for the lack of places for autistic children at preschool, primary and secondary levels, which is preventing them from vindicating their right to an education.

There are several issues that the Minister for Education and Skills must address. He must ask the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, to develop policy advice on school exclusion and school refusal. He must also ask the council to improve the level and quality of engagement by special education needs organisers, SENOs, with families, particularly those that are in crisis because of the lack of school places.

When the aforementioned report was published on Monday, the Department said that it was satisfied that there were enough suitable school places. It must be accepted that there is a shortage of autism classes and moreover, a shortage of suitable placements in mainstream and special schools. I ask that the Minister for Education and Skills commits to publishing plans on how every autistic child can access a suitable school placement for the next academic year.

We finally ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities late last year but we are not living up to our commitments in that regard. It is estimated that one in every 59 or 60 children in this country has autism and we are failing those children. This Government is failing Ireland's autistic children. I hope that the Minister of State will provide some succour in her response this morning. The Minister for Education and Skills must instruct schools to open ASD units. That has not happened yet and I do not know how far the Minister is prepared to go in that regard. Schools need instruction as well as support and resources in order to ensure that children with autism grow up healthy, happy and secure and are educated within their own communities. They should not have to travel for miles to access a school place. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.

I thank Senator Devine for raising this very important issue. I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister, Deputy McHugh. I wish to acknowledge the important role stakeholders like AslAm play in promoting education and the inclusion of children in education. The Minister, Deputy McHugh, recently met with AslAm and was impressed with its work. Officials are studying the report published yesterday and the Minister will be discussing its recommendations with them.

Enabling children with special educational needs, including autism, to receive an education appropriate to their needs is a priority for this Government. At present, we are investing heavily in supporting our children with special educational needs, with €1.8 billion being spent annually, which represents approximately €1 in every €5 of the education budget. This includes an allocation of more than €300 million towards providing additional resources specifically to support students with autism in schools. The number of autism spectrum disorder, ASD, special classes has more than doubled in the last five years from 511 in 2014 to 1,196 across the country now. In addition, 124 special schools provide for children with autism and very complex special needs.

The work of the Department of Education and Skills in respect of special education is informed by evidence-based advice from the National Council for Special Education. The NCSE consults extensively with stakeholders, including parents, experts and organisations like AslAm, which has provided useful insights into difficulties experienced by children and families in getting an education. The NCSE is currently developing advice for the Department on education provision in special classes and special schools. The council is examining whether there are any students for whom both specialist and mainstream educational settings are currently not working and, if there are, will consider what might be contributing to this. Schools are required to have policies in place for the promotion of student well-being, positive behaviour and an environment that is conducive to good teaching and learning. The thrust of these policies is early intervention and provision of supports so that every child receives an education appropriate to his or her ability. Advice and support is available to help schools in this regard.

The National Educational Psychological Service supports children with ASD, including those who may also present with anxiety. This involves working with teachers to build whole-school capacity to work with children with special educational needs, including autism and anxiety. It also involves working with individual children who are experiencing difficulties. There are legal provisions around the exclusion and expulsion of students and these are the responsibility of Tusla. Fair procedures are a key requirement. Expulsion should be a last resort and reduced timetables should not be used as a behavioural management technique. Where students are excluded from school, the Department provides home tuition as a short-term measure until a more permanent solution is identified.

The NCSE is aware of the recent demand for additional special class and special school placements in the Dublin area. Planning is actively under way to ensure that children without a suitable placement for next year are provided with such a placement. We expect a clearer picture to emerge in the coming weeks when schools have finalised their enrolments. The NCSE is leading the work in this regard with significant support from the Department.

Responsibility for ensuring all children have access to a suitable education is a shared responsibility. The Minister, Deputy McHugh, is confident that through the work of the NCSE and the co-operation of schools we can address the current difficulties.

I thank the Minister of State, although I would have liked a more reassuring response. The Children's Ombudsman is overwhelmed. I have spoken with him at length about this issue. He is considering what to do next. I reiterate that nobody should tolerate any child not having a place in a school, let alone a child with extra needs. It is as if the child is a burden on the system. The partial schooling being offered throughout the country is illegal. It goes against the law of the land. The assessment the NCSE is going to carry out is long overdue. When is that going to happen? When will an uplifting, embracing and worthwhile announcement about what will be done be made? We will listen to the likes of the parents who are in the Chamber today. They are loud, they will speak boldly, and they will not stop. This movement has commenced. It is the next thing we need to blow out of the water and lift the lid on. We need to ensure suitable education for our children. We will get everybody involved, including the Children's Ombudsman who has indicated that he is frustrated by the number of cases. There are solicitors in Cork who are prepared to take cases in respect of the waiting list for assessments of need. We could go on and on. Disability and, in this instance, autism are being left out in the cold. It will happen no longer.

I welcome the Dublin 12 and AsIAm groups. As was set out in the opening statement the Minister, Deputy McHugh, provided, the Minister has already met with AsIAm and is very confident that some of the recommendations in its report will make a significant difference in children's lives. I will read back the last paragraph of the statement I was given:

Responsibility for ensuring all children have access to a suitable education is a shared responsibility. The Minister, Deputy McHugh, is confident that through the work of the NCSE and the co-operation of schools [and principals and teachers] we can address the current difficulties.

As a public representative and Minister of State, I believe that no child should be left without access to education no matter what disabilities he or she may have. I will continue to support efforts to deal with the difficulties I see in my role as a local Deputy such as the problems parents face in getting access to special classes in schools for their children. I will raise the issues the Senator has raised with the Minister when I meet him during the next week. I thank the Senator again.

Fibromyalgia Support Services

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I wish to raise the issue of fibromyalgia and the need for an improved medical service in this area. As the Minister of State will know, this condition involves nerve dysfunction and causes chronic pain and fatigue. People who have the condition suffer a lot from migraine. Restless leg syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, and difficulty in regulating one's body temperature are all part of fibromyalgia. There is a need for a proper structure to deal with this issue. A group presented to the Joint Committee on Health on this issue in July 2012 and very little progress has been made since. Changes have been made in respect of the recognition of this condition and the need for a planned approach to healthcare in Northern Ireland and the UK.

It is in that context that I am raising the issue of the need for a structure to be put in place not only within the Department of Health and the HSE, but within the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. This Department made a protocol, protocol 6, accessible online. This protocol is a 63-page document dealing with chronic pain and fibromyalgia. People who have this condition have difficulty in getting through the social welfare system in order to qualify for disability benefit or long-term illness benefit. It is in that context that I raise the issue of recognition for this condition and of a planned approach for dealing with patients who have this condition.

On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Harris, I thank Senator Colm Burke for providing the opportunity to update the House on this important issue. I took a debate on this issue on the Minister's behalf in the Dáil last week, during which a number of Members spoke.

Some of the speakers in the Dáil spoke about fibromyalgia as a disabling disease and how many doctors find it difficult to diagnose at its early stages. I thank Senator Colm Burke for his contribution.

The Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, acknowledges the seriousness of the symptoms of fibromyalgia and the many challenges that people with this condition encounter in their daily lives. The exact prevalence of fibromyalgia in Ireland is not known, but it is estimated to affect approximately 2% of the population with many symptoms which tend to vary from person to person. The main symptoms of fibromyalgia, include pain, stiffness, fatigue and even depression. Anyone can develop fibromyalgia, although the condition typically affects more women than men and generally occurs between the ages of 30 and 60.

Fibromyalgia is a difficult condition to diagnose as there is currently no specific test for it and its symptoms can be similar to those associated with other conditions and unfortunately there is currently no cure. A GP will diagnose fibromyalgia based on the patient having a typical mix of symptoms and ruling out any other conditions that could be causing these.

Treatment for the condition requires intervention from various medical specialists in order to manage its associated symptoms as and when they arise. As fibromyalgia has several different symptoms, no single treatment will work for all symptoms and for all patients. There are, however, a number of treatments that may ease symptoms. It is likely that the person will need to try a variety of treatments to find the most suitable approach for them. This approach to treatment will be decided jointly between the patient and the GP, depending on what is preferred, what is available and what is clinically appropriate for each individual patient. This will normally be a combination of medication and lifestyle changes. Several different healthcare professionals in addition to a GP may also be involved in the treatment depending on the complexity and specific symptoms arising for the individual patient, for example, a rheumatologist or a neurologist. As well as medications that may involve pain medications and antidepressants, there are some other treatment options like exercise, physiotherapy or cognitive behaviour therapy that can be used to help cope with the symptoms of fibromyalgia.

In the context of improved medical care, it is important to note that the national clinical programme for rheumatology in the HSE has produced a model of care for rheumatology in Ireland that seeks to address the needs of patients with fibromyalgia and those of all patients with rheumatological diseases. This model of care aims to ensure that a patient is seen and assessed and treated by the right person, in the right place and in the timeliest manner.

This Government is committed to the expansion of primary care. In line with the vision set out in Sláintecare, the aim is to ensure that all citizens, including those suffering from fibromyalgia, can be offered the right care in the right place at the right time and be supported in their local community wherever possible.

The Minister, Deputy Harris, is aware that there have been calls to include fibromyalgia as a specified condition under the long-term illness, LTI, scheme. These requests have been considered carefully, however, currently there are no plans to extend the LTI scheme. I note that it is proposed that the LTI scheme will be included as part of a review of the basis for existing hospital and medication charges which is to be carried out under commitments given in the Sláintecare action plan.

Those suffering financial hardship may also be eligible for a medical card. In accordance with our overall eligibility framework, this decision is not based on a particular illness, but rather on the overall financial situation of an individual and family. It is important to note that, under the drug payment scheme, the maximum monthly amount that anyone is required to pay for their medicine is being reduced from €134 to €124. As such, all those with fibromyalgia are urged to check their eligibility for a GP visit card and medical card and can apply for the drug payment scheme at their local health office or through mydps.ie. It is the Minister's sincere hope that as many people as possible with fibromyalgia benefit from these measures.

As the Minister of State is aware and dealt with in her reply, this is a complicated issue. It is difficult because the condition presents in different ways but enough research has now been done to clearly show that this illness is long term and does not resolve. There are 15 different conditions recognised under the long-term illness scheme. We should be trying to take a more planned approach to this condition. The Minister of State was with me on the health committee when we dealt with this issue back in 2012 and, seven years later, we should be trying to take a more proactive and planned approach to dealing with this condition from the perspective of healthcare and through the social welfare system. I ask that this issue is reviewed by the Department of Health to see what new actions can be taken to help people with this condition. It will not go away and sufferers face many challenges, both medically and financially, and therefore we should have a more planned approach to dealing with it.

I again thank the Senator for raising the issue. As I said, I took a similar matter for the Minister in the Dáil last week after a number of Members spoke about fibromyalgia. One of the things that came out of that debate was that I approached the Minister about the issues that were raised, particularly around long-term illness. Some of the issues that were raised in the Dáil, and which Senator Colm Burke has raised, are everyday issues that are making it difficult for people with fibromyalgia to even live out their daily lives.

I will bring the Senator's concerns back to the Minister and ask that a more appropriate process be put in place to care for people with fibromyalgia. I will ask about the prospect of putting a step-by-step model in place, under Sláintecare, for people suffering from the disease. It is debilitating. I know two people who have the disease and I know that, on a daily basis, life can be very hard for them.

I understand, after speaking to him, that the Minister welcomed the agreement on GP contractual reform that will see structures to care for patients with chronic conditions in primary care settings from 2020 and will benefit over 430,000 medical card and GP card holders over the next years.

I reiterate to the Senator that I will do my best to convey his concerns and ask the Minister to come back to the Senator on this.

Property Tax

The Minister of State is very welcome and I thank him for taking time out of his busy schedule to be here. I want to discuss the Government's decision to defer the recommendations from the review of the local property tax, LPT, and the implications that may have for pensioners and those on low incomes. A review of the controversial tax on homeownership, the local property tax, LPT, recommended that the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, increase the threshold for deferring property tax to ensure that pensioners were not excluded because of the rise in their weekly pension incomes. However, the Government has failed to bring forward any reforms to the local property tax. One could be cynical and suggest that is for political reasons due to the forthcoming European and local elections but I will await the Minister of State's comments on that.

There are serious consequences for the Government's inaction on property tax. Many low and fixed-income households will no longer be able to defer the property tax when it is due. As the Minister of State knows, a couple who are both on the maximum State pension of €248.30 per week, which gives them a total annual income of €25,800, are now above the threshold to qualify for deferral which was €25,000 for a couple. It appears that the message to pensioners now appears to be that it is tough luck but they have to pay up.

This is a particularly mean approach by the Government. It does not cost it anything to allow those on modest incomes to defer. Homeowners can currently defer their property tax charge if their income is below €15,000 for a single person or €25,000 for a couple. The property tax review recommended increasing this threshold to €18,000 for a single person and €30,000 for a couple. It appears the Minister's review of the controversial tax dismissed several proposals which would have made life easier, particularly for pensioners. Waivers for homeowners on low fixed incomes and people with disabilities were suggested. Both were rejected. The review group also dismissed a proposal to give property tax relief to people over 80 with long-term illnesses, despite this measure being previously recommended in a Government report. The report also ruled out cutting interest rates charged on property tax deferrals, which are mostly availed of by older people.

Approximately 328,000 people, mostly older people, are eligible for the deferral scheme but only a limited number take up the option. The possibility is that, as this is a relatively new tax, they might not be aware they are entitled to put off the payment. More needs to be done on this. Over 56,000 homeowners chose to defer their property tax last year. A deferred payment incurs a 4% interest rate annually which is permanently fixed as a charge on the property which must be paid on the sale or transfer of the home. As it is a relatively new tax, people need more information as to how the deferred payment system works. An information campaign is needed. Many people, including older people, have a fear of Revenue and are afraid to seek a deferral. I would hate to think that older people are stretching themselves just to pay a property tax when they may not be aware a deferral is available to them.

It is disappointing that many of the recommendations of the review into the property tax have not been implemented. Many of its good and worthwhile suggestions would have assisted those on low incomes and in financial hardship to be outside the property tax net. Unfortunately, that has not been the case.

The Minister for Finance initiated a review of the local property tax, LPT, in 2018. The Minister believed it was important the Government was able to make its position clear on LPT in order that households would be aware of plans for the tax well in advance of the November 2019 revaluation date, as well as the associated 2020 and beyond LPT liabilities.

The Minister further considered it was essential that the principle that formed a central part of the terms of reference for the 2015 review of LPT, namely, achieving relative stability in LPT payments of liable persons both over the short and longer terms, would inform the deliberations on this matter. By relative stability in LPT liabilities, the Minister meant that any increases should be modest, affordable and fair.

The review of the LPT has now been completed by the Department of Finance in conjunction with the Departments of the Taoiseach, Public Expenditure and Reform and Housing, Planning and Local Government, as well as with the Revenue Commissioners. The review focused on the impact of house price movements under a series of scenarios involving different rate and tax band structures. However, against a background of significant but geographically uneven increases in residential property price levels, the Minister believes it is necessary to engage in further consultation to identify a scenario which would deliver on the condition he set that there should be relative stability for all taxpayers in their LPT liabilities and that any increases should be modest and affordable.

Having considered the findings of the review report, the Minister has decided to defer the valuation date from 1 November 2019 to 1 November 2020. This should give sufficient time for the Committee on Budgetary Oversight to consider the review report in the context of the committee's recommendations in its report on the LPT of 21 March 2018. Importantly, as a result of the Minister's decision, the LPT bills of those liable for the tax will not be increasing in 2020.

Under the LPT legislation, a deferral option is available in circumstances where the annual gross income of the liable person does not exceed €15,000 for a single person and €25,000 for a couple. Marginal relief applies for owner-occupiers whose income is not more than €10,000 above the income limits to permit deferrals of up to 50% of the LPT liability. The Minister understands from Revenue that, while over 300,000 people fall within the current income thresholds for the LPT deferral, only about 15% of these actually seek a deferral on these grounds.

State contributory and non-contributory pension rates have recently risen by €5 per week. For the majority of persons in receipt of such pensions, their eligibility for LPT deferral will not change as a result of this pension increase. In the small number of cases, where the pension increase brings a person over the LPT deferral threshold, such persons may still qualify for a reduction of up to 50% of their LPT liability.

The LPT review recommended the income thresholds for LPT deferrals be reviewed regularly by reference to movements in the consumer price index, wage growth in the economy and changes in fixed income payments by the State. From the next valuation date, the review recommended the deferral thresholds be increased to €18,000 for a single owner and €30,000 for a couple. This recommendation, along with the other recommendations in the review report, have been referred by the Minister for Finance to the Committee on Budgetary Oversight for its consideration.

The committee's 2018 report on the LPT indicated it was against proceeding with automatic revaluation of properties in 2019, as provided for in current legislation, as this would result in significant increases in LPT liabilities. The committee supported revaluation with an adjustment to rates nationally to maintain LPT yield or revaluation with an adjustment to rates locally to maintain LPT yield. The committee also recommended the cessation of exemptions on new and unused properties on equity grounds and because it would broaden the tax base.

The deferral of revaluation until November 2020 provides time and space for the Committee on Budgetary Oversight to consider the report of the interdepartmental review and to provide its views to the Minister. In his engagement with the committee, the Minister will seek to promote the policy objectives which should underpin any changes to the tax. These comprise protection of the overall yield; modest and affordable increases, if increases occur, in LPT liabilities; integration of new properties into the LPT base; maintenance of the tax base with a small number of exemptions; upholding the progressivity of the tax.

The Minister considers that the reformed LPT needs to be based on a model of band widening combined with rate changes. The Minister supports retention of the option for local authorities to reduce the LPT rate for their areas. The Minister will also engage with the Committee on Budgetary Oversight on the issue of LPT relief for persons in apartment complexes, etc., who are paying management fees.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply. He stated only 15% of households are taking up the option to defer the payment. That speaks volumes in itself. As I said earlier, it is a relatively new tax and I feel not enough people are aware of this option to defer payment of the property tax every year. Will the Government look into an information campaign to make people aware that this option is available?

It may have been an oversight on the Department’s part that it did not take into consideration the increases in pension payments could result in some people falling outside the threshold. Will the Minister of State take that into consideration?

In discussing this we need to be honest. The LPT yields €500 million. Any changes to it will have a knock-on effect. While there could be a suggestion that people might not be aware of the possibility of a deferral, there are many who understand their tax liability and that when a tax is levied it must be paid.

Five scenarios were put forward by the review group and their impacts were considered. The Minister has said they need to go back to the Committee on Budgetary Oversight for its views on them. I have not heard from any Opposition party as to which of the five scenarios it would opt for. Each of them has its own pros and cons. There was much media coverage about one scenario which would have had an impact on rural homes. However, I have not heard any of the Opposition spokespersons from the three main parties say which scenario they would opt for.

As in other debates we have had, such as on climate change, budgetary matters, education or health, a little bit of tax honesty would be a good thing. The Minister for Finance is providing an opportunity for the Oireachtas to state its view and he will, ultimately, take it. There is a role for local authorities. Some have decided to reduce their property tax rate, which could make a small but welcome difference to a householder, but they have shoved up commercial property rates. There is some in-built hypocrisy in that.

We need an honest debate on the issue and we need to debate the scenarios put forward by the review group. It behoves every party in the Dáil and Seanad to state the way it would do it, while maintaining the tax base and being fair. If changes are to be made, the parties should say what those changes should be but the base has to be maintained. When there are deferrals there is a cost implication and local authorities will have to increase their overall rate, meaning there will be an impact on both urban and rural areas. The Minister for Finance has put this off so that people can have a say. Everybody says the Oireachtas should have a say and the Committee on Budgetary Oversight was established so that Senators and Deputies could have an input into the budget. Now is the chance for that. I look forward to hearing the views of Senators and to learning which option they would go for.

Sitting suspended at 11.10 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.