Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Prison Mental Health Services

I welcome former Senator and now Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, to address the House and Senator Murphy on the issue he has tabled.

I appreciate this matter being taken this morning. The reason I tabled it is that I have had a long involvement in supporting people with mental health issues in my constituency and on a broader basis for a number of years. I also served on the prison committee of Cloverhill Prison for almost two years. Anybody who has been a member of a prison visiting committee will know the one job one has to sign on the dotted line is to represent the welfare of prisoners. It was a difficult experience but it teaches one a great deal about life when one meets a person in a cell who is behind bars because justice has been put in place. In this particular situation we would all accept that something needs to be done rather quickly.

I acknowledge the phonecall I received from the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, last night. She would dearly like to be here today but I understand she is tied up with other issues at the moment. She has taken a keen interest in mental health issues during her period in the Oireachtas. However, it is great to have my own county man here, the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, who also has a very good understanding of this situation.

We are discussing this issue today because of an article by Conor Gallagher in The Irish Times yesterday in which he reported the inhumane treatment of a mental health patient put into Cloverhill Prison, which was highlighted by the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which found serious failings in the treatment of mentally ill prisoners, and that prisoner in particular. We all know the details of the case. They were horrifying and shocking. I read them again this morning. I also acknowledge the Irish Prison Service wants to deal with this matter very urgently. It should not be happening.

I know the Minister will agree with me that we have to stop the practice of putting mentally ill patients into prison cells and, worst than that, isolating them in a terrible way. We must consider putting in place a system within our prisons that will specifically deal with mentally ill patients where there would be a special quarter for them in which psychologists and psychiatrists can deal with them. Isolating these patients in a cell for up to two weeks, apart from handing them in a bit of food, is obscene in this day and age. If we are to treat human beings with any bit of dignity and respect we must move away from this type of carry on. This is not the only case. As was highlighted in the article in The Irish Times yesterday, there are other such cases happening.

In our constituency offices from time to time, we are contacted by families who on many occasions are struggling to cope with a mentally ill family member and find their family members are brought to court and put into prison because there is nowhere else for them to go. The man in this instance was waiting to get into the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum, for which there is a waiting list. Again, that begs the question of why we cannot provide more places in Dundrum.

I will not labour the point any further. This issue has been well flagged in recent days. I raise it in the context of being a former member of the board of Cloverhill Prison and on the basis of my involvement in many cases, some involving families who had a person put in prison because of mental illness. I hope the Minister of State's response will give us some good news. It would be the wish of everybody in this Seanad to move forward with this issue and make the changes necessary as quickly as possible.

I thank my colleague for raising this issue. The Minister for Justice yesterday welcomed the publication of the report of the committee for the prevention of torture and fully acknowledges the importance of external oversight and evaluation in helping develop and improve our penal systems. While the report offers encouragement in a number of areas and recognises progress made, it clearly identifies issues that need to be addressed urgently.

Among the issues to be welcomed is the introduction by the IPS of a new prisoner complaints system before the end of the year which, when bedded down, will include an oversight role for the Ombudsman. In addition, a review of the prison rules is under way, taking account of the most recently published European model rules. A specifically designed detention facility in Dublin Airport will provide a dedicated short-term facility for persons refused permission to land and will reduce the need to transfer such persons to another facility. The operation, management and governance of special observation cells is being reviewed and a clear distinction between the operation of close supervision cells and safety observation cells will be made. The practice of slopping out has been significantly reduced over recent years, with over €130 million invested in capital projects to improve and modernise the prison estate.

One of the most pressing issues raised by the committee relates to how we provide for the complex needs of people with mental health difficulties who come into contact with the criminal justice system. This is a priority for the Minister for Justice and I am pleased to say that in September, she met my colleague, the Minister for Health, to discuss this. They agreed to establish a high-level, cross-departmental and cross-agency task force to consider the mental health and addiction challenges of those imprisoned, as well as their primary care support on release. This work is under way with a view to planning for and implementing a revised model of care in order to deliver appropriate inpatient and step-down resources in the Central Mental Hospital, CMH, complemented by adequate prison in-reach and community forensic mental health services and supports. The Government acknowledges that every person with mental health difficulties coming into contact with the system should have access to a comprehensive mental health support system and the high-level task force will look at how we deliver this as a matter of urgency. Both the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, recognise the urgent need to design and put in place proper systems to care for the most vulnerable people who come into contact with the criminal justice system. It is only fair to acknowledge the very positive comments made by the CPT in its 2019 preliminary report regarding the overall high level of care provided by prison staff to prisoners, which demonstrated a genuine concern among staff for those in custody.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I accept that the setting up of that task force was very important to the three parties in government as part of the programme for Government. I am delighted to hear him say that the Ministers for Justice and Health have met. I do not want to be blaming the people in the Prison Service because they are not trained for this type of work. The task force is great. The Minister of State may not know the answer to this but when is it due to report back? If he does not have that answer today he might come back to me with it. In the meantime, we must ensure that there are psychiatrists, psychologists and people to deal with this issue within the Prison Service to deal with any mental health patient who ends up in prison. The divide needs to be addressed quite clearly in order that a person in this situation can go directly to a psychiatric hospital and not to a prison. It is not the place for those people and we see what happens, which shows that those people are in a vulnerable position if they end up in prison.

The Government is committed to delivering safe, secure and humane custody for those sent to prison in this State. This includes the provision of appropriate mental health services to persons in custody. We accept the CPT's findings that there is much to be done in this regard but welcome its recognition that progress has been made in a number of areas. We are considering how best to deliver appropriate CMH inpatient and step-down resources, complemented by adequate prison in-reach and community forensic mental health services and supports. This is a priority for the Ministers for Health and Justice and for the Government collectively. In addition, a review of the use of special observation cells is under way and appropriate and robust standard operating procedures and training on their use will be implemented. A new prisoner complaints system will be implemented before the end of the year and prison rules are under review to ensure they are aligned with international best practice.

Greater use is being made of alternatives to imprisonment and the IPS has developed a prison population management plan to maximise capacity within the estate, increasing the use of open centres and backdoor strategies, including structured temporary releases. The Irish Prison Service's capital strategy outlines plans for the complete replacement of outdated accommodation in Limerick and Portlaoise prisons, as well as improvements across a number of other prisons. A capital allocation of €36 million has been set aside for this under budget 2021. The Government and the IPS are committed to implementing the longer-term changes required to make our penal system safe, effective and able to respond to the needs of all prisoners, especially vulnerable ones. While there is unlikely to be a quick-fix solution to some of the issues highlighted by the CPT, we will work intensively together to ensure all people get the care and support they need from the system.

The Senator asked about when the task force will report back. I will try to get an answer for him on that as soon as possible.

Health Services Reform

I thank the Minister of State for his attendance in the Seanad this morning to discuss this issue. It is hugely important to the transgender community in Ireland, as well as their families, friends and supporters. Last year, the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, became increasingly aware of the difficulties faced by the transgender community in accessing essential healthcare in Ireland. He listened to that community and in taking on board their concerns, he set up and established the national transgender healthcare steering committee in May 2019. The committee was made up of members of the advocacy group Transgender Equality Network Ireland, TENI, clinicians, psychiatrists, endocrinologists and representatives from both the HSE and the Department of Health.

The overarching objective of the committee was to present a report to the Minister on how to develop a seamless and integrated service for those who present with gender identity issues, with clear pathways of care in order that the needs of the patients and their families are placed at the centre of the delivery of those services. This report was completed earlier this year and was received by the Department of Health on 28 February, which was unfortunately just one day before the first case of Covid was discovered in this country. While focus on tackling the pandemic understandably delayed the examination and publication of the report's recommendations in the first few months, the fact that no movement whatsoever has happened in the interim months is hugely disheartening.

The HSE and the Department of Health have done fantastic work to make sure normal healthcare services have for the most part resumed, yet the report remains shelved. According to some of the members of the steering committee, it is worse than shelved; it appears to be lost. It is an extremely important and valuable document which was developed at the request of the Minister for Health and was then submitted to the Department. That it seems to have just disappeared is baffling. The HSE maintains that it was submitted to the Department but the Department and the Minister of State - not Deputy Feighan - believe the HSE is still working on it. This passing of the buck is not good enough. It is a very serious report with very serious recommendations and it needs and deserves immediate attention and action.

What is even more worrying is the lack of engagement between the Minister for Health's office and his own ministerial appointee to the committee since the formation of the Government in June. That appointee has made six attempts to communicate with the Minister, all of which have been ignored. That is the main reason I am standing in this Chamber today. It is a real pity.

Members of the transgender community need to know their voices are being heard. As the previous Minister gave them a platform to speak, I hope their voices will not fall on deaf ears. The report must be examined and published without delay and a plan to introduce the recommendations in the report must be put forward immediately. Obviously, no one here has seen the report but given the wealth of expertise, personally and professionally, of the people on the committee, I have absolutely no doubt that the recommendations would improve the services for our transgender community and that this Seanad and the Dáil will support them.

Over the last few years I have had the privilege of working in a personal capacity with the transgender community, with TENI, and with members of the trans community seeking employment, where they face huge discrimination. We are making progress but it is slow. Often, some of the issues we highlight and some of the recommendations we make get ignored and are marginalised by governments around the world. This Government needs to make huge strides to represent this community, as did the previous one. This is a small community but it is large in its heart and even larger in the impositions its members face every single day. The future of transgender healthcare in this country is unclear.

The current haphazard provision of services to our young people who are struggling with their identity is unreliable and potentially unsustainable in its current format. Two years ago, the people made a decision not to export our citizens for healthcare to other countries and yet this year alone, we have sent more than 80 patients under 18 years of age to the UK for health. In the space of four months from November 2019 to February 2020, the waiting time went from 12 months to 24 months. This issue is critical and needs an immediate response.

Has the Minister received the report? Has it been read? Has it been actioned? If not, when will it be actioned?

I thank Senator Doherty for raising the issue. The National LGBTI+ Inclusion Strategy 2019-2021 sets out Government policy for promoting inclusion, targeting discrimination, and improving the quality of life and well-being for the LGBTI+ community in Ireland. It is supported by the LGBTI+ National Youth Strategy 2018-2020.

The strategy commits to ensuring that people can fully and equally avail of mainstream health services. In addition, the strategy recognises that targeted services are needed to support transgender people, including through the process of transition.

In line with international trends, the demand for transgender services in Ireland has increased exponentially over recent years. Prevalence studies suggest an increase in those experiencing gender dysphoria. In 1997 the World Health Organization reported a prevalence of 1:60,000 and in 2013, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders reported a prevalence of 1:20,000.

Services for transgender care have evolved organically over recent years, with adult services based in St. Columcille's Hospital, which is part of Ireland East Hospital Group, and children's services located in Our Lady's Children's Hospital, which is part of Children's Health Ireland. Endocrinology and psychological support services are delivered on both sites.

A model of care was developed to support the development of HSE gender identity services. The model of care was supported by the allocation of additional resources to enhance services. Recognising the need to develop gender identity services and to best use the additional funding, in May 2019 the HSE established a steering committee chaired by the national clinical lead in mental health, Dr. Siobhán Ní Bhriain, as the Senator outlined. The committee had the specific purpose to develop a seamless and integrated service for those people who present to the health service with gender identity issues. The committee brought together the various HSE transgender services, along with service users, as represented by Transgender Equality Network Ireland and ThisIsMe.

The committee concluded its work in January 2020 and issued its final report in February 2020. I recently had the opportunity to read the report. The report details the two outcomes achieved by the steering group, namely, the development of a job description for a consultant psychiatrist in child and adolescent psychiatry post to develop the transgender identity services for those aged under 18; and support for a governance committee across the Ireland East Hospital Group and Children's Health Ireland to ensure ongoing review of the national gender service as it develops.

The report notes the development of a strong sense of collegiality among the committee members and the commitment of all to develop a well-governed service for the transgender patient group. The report makes seven recommendations to enhance the model of care for the transgender community, all of which fall under the remit of the HSE. One of the recommendations is to develop a service users' forum within the national gender service. Most of the report's recommendations are in progress or ongoing.

I note the Senator's concerns about trying to get a meeting with the Minister and the Department. I will also bring those concerns back.

I genuinely thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to give us that information because the members of the committee have not been able to get it in any other format. I appreciate not only that the Minister of State said he had actually received the report but also that the seven recommendations have been read and some actions taken. I say on behalf of the transgender community that is greatly welcome.

I have two requests. I ask for the Department of Health, if not to re-engage with the entire committee, to absolutely return one of the six calls made by the Minister's advocate on that committee. He is a young gentleman who has worked his socks off to try to improve conditions in this country for himself and his friends. Having asked him to do that body of work, the very least we can do is to engage with him.

I ask the Minister of State to publish the report and outline the status of the seven recommendations. That will instil trust and restore faith in the transgender community and among the people who put this body of work together that they have been listened to and their recommendations have not fallen on deaf ears. I know the Minister of State might not be able to commit to those requests himself, but I ask him to bring them back to the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and ask for a response to be issued immediately. I thank the Minister of State; I really appreciate his response.

I am committed to supporting the HSE in ensuring that people wishing to transition their gender have timely access to treatment that accords with the best practice. I note the Senator's welcome for the report. I want to see the HSE develop a well-governed and patient-centred healthcare service for adults and children in the transgender community in line with the programme for Government.

The report of the steering committee on the development of HSE transgender identity services is an important step in achieving this objective. Already the committee has achieved two tangible outcomes and its seven recommendations are in train. I am seeking a further update on the implementation of the committee's recommendation over the recent months from the new national clinical lead in mental health, Dr. Amir Niazi. I commend the work of the steering committee and I would welcome the early publication of its report by the HSE.

The six calls from the advocate for the group should be responded to. I know many people in the Department are working on Covid, as I have seen with people working in the sections dealing with alcohol and tobacco. However, they should be able to reply to a phone call. I will also bring that back.

Covid-19 Pandemic

It would be good if we had a debate in this Chamber on that last important and sensitive topic.

Article 44.2.1° of the Constitution states, "Freedom of conscience and the free profession and practice of religion are, subject to public order and morality, guaranteed to every citizen." Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights binds Ireland to ensure that "Everyone has the right ... either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his [one might say his or her] religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance."

Some 1.2 million people, representing 36% of all adults, exercise these rights on at least a weekly basis by attending a religious service. However, under the current Covid regulations, SI 448 of 2020, in force since 21 October, the organiser of any event is liable for a fine of up to €2,500 or up to six months in prison. No exception was made for religious gatherings of any kind or of any denomination.

It is not an exaggeration to say that this is the first time that religious leaders have been threatened with prosecution for holding religious services since the last of the Penal Laws was abolished in the late 1700s. This blanket ban on worship is a flagrant breach of the constitutional guarantee in Article 44.2.1°. In 1972, in the case of Quinn's Supermarket v. Attorney General, the Supreme Court ruled that laws of general applicability which have the effect of preventing the right to practise religion are unconstitutional unless they include a carve-out protection for religious practice and any restrictions of that right must also be proportionate.

The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly ruled that governments must conduct a detailed scientific analysis showing that a ban is absolutely necessary on public health grounds. However, the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, has already suggested in the Dáil that no such analysis exists. On 22 October he told Deputy McNamara that he would "challenge NPHET to provide the evidence". On 3 November Deputy Nolan asked a parliamentary question seeking the evidentiary basis for the restrictions on public worship.

In a quite remarkable 800-word written reply, the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, provided no evidence and completely dodged the question he was asked. This suggests that the restrictions were applied arbitrarily, with no study of the available evidence. That is a breach of the Constitution and the convention.

I would be grateful if the Minister of State would state clearly whether the Minister for Health sought advice from the Attorney General on the constitutionality of these regulations, given the failure to make an appropriate exclusion for matters concerning religious worship, and what that advice was. The first part of the question can be given a "Yes" or "No" answer. Was advice sought from the Attorney General? Second, has an evidentiary analysis been compiled by the Department of Health on the need for such a blanket ban, given that such an evidentiary analysis would be required by the European Convention on Human Rights? Third, why was no detail given to the Dáil or the Seanad up to this point?

I would appreciate an answer to those questions. We all understand the need for restrictions for the sake of public health, and why the Government might urge such restrictions on people as a moral matter, as it were, and, if necessary, as a legal matter. However, where the Constitution is so clear on freedom of religious worship issues, it appears to be inadequate and unacceptable that legislation providing for penalties in the context of the breach of such restrictions would not nod, at least, to the constitutional reality and say that the State is not constitutionally permitted to impose penalties in this area. Good lawmaking would require that. That would not stop the Government from urging religious leaders, who have been very anxious to be compliant in all this, and religious communities not to have public gatherings in certain circumstances. However, to legislate for restrictions and penalties, knowing there is a constitutional problem with such penalties, seems at least sloppy and, more seriously, disrespectful to the State, the Constitution and the law.

I thank Senator Mullen for raising this matter. I would love to see the churches open again. Indeed, I, my wife and my family are looking forward to returning to mass, and I am proud to say that as a politician.

The Government's strategy, in line with the public health advice, is disease suppression. Covid-19 spreads when individuals and groups come into close contact with each other, enabling the virus to move from one person to another. The framework for restrictive measures is framed to account for periods when there is low incidence of the disease, with isolated clusters and low community transmission, through to situations where there is high or rapidly increasing incidence and widespread community transmission. It recognises the need for society and business to be allowed to continue as normally as possible. The framework takes account of the societal and economic impacts of the response to Covid-19. Nuanced and sectoral responses are in place to ensure the number of people impacted will be kept to the minimum necessary to control the disease, given the psychosocial impacts of the disease on the population.

With the recent epidemiological situation of high incidence of disease, widespread community transmission and increasing hospitalisations and deaths, it was necessary to put in place significant restrictions at level 5 to arrest the current trajectory of the disease and break transmission chains. This means asking people to stay at home and eliminating as much activity and contacts as possible to ensure that opportunities for the virus to transmit are minimised. Unfortunately, this includes moving religious services online, with places of worship remaining open for private prayer only and exceptions continuing for funerals and weddings, where 25 may attend. It is important to note that at all framework levels, ministers of religion are permitted to travel to perform a service online, to minister to the sick, and to conduct a funeral or wedding ceremony.

These restrictions have posed major challenges for the religious community and they are to be commended on how they have responded. By adopting new ways of connecting through social media and various communication channels, the church has continued to bring comfort and assistance to those in need, in particular those who are grieving. It is acknowledged that these restrictions impact on the spiritual well-being of faith communities, but the measures in place to suppress the disease transmission are intended to minimise the risks to public health while striking the right balance in prioritising and protecting some activities over others.

Regular ongoing contact is maintained with the faith groups and non-confessional organisations by the protocol and civic policy division of the Department of the Taoiseach, especially with regard to specific queries on interpretation of the Covid-19 guidelines and regulations. In this regard, the Taoiseach had a number of Covid-19 related meetings with faith groups. On 8 April 2020, the Taoiseach held a meeting with leaders of the main faiths and non-confessional organisations to discuss the effects Covid-19 is having on their communities. On 14 May 2020, the Taoiseach met with representatives of the Catholic Church, Archbishops E. Martin, D. Martin and K. O'Reilly, to share thoughts on the reopening of places of worship over the course of the summer. The church shared information on the work that is being done at all levels to develop a national church plan for safe reopening and emphasised it would play its part in applying public health measures to ensure the health and safety of its congregation.

A further meeting with the Catholic archbishops was held last month. Discussion at that meeting focused mainly on the effect which the current Covid-19 restrictions are having on the health and well-being of the faith community and the great desire to return to worship as soon as possible. The archbishops emphasised that they are fully supportive of the public health messages, but highlighted that coming together in prayer and worship, especially for mass and the sacraments, is fundamental to Christian tradition and a source of nourishment for the life and well-being of communities. The importance of gathering for worship as a source of consolation and hope at Christmas time was stressed. The need for a shared understanding of the effects of the pandemic as it evolves and to align our response accordingly was recognised. All agreed on the importance of solidarity in facing and overcoming the challenges of Covid-19 together. Pastoral work continues as we enter the traditional time of remembrance in this month of November.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. His personal expression of the importance of public worship for him and many other people will be appreciated by people of faith. However, he is in the unfortunate position of not being the Minister with Cabinet responsibility and having to come to this House to give a reply that does not address the core point I raised. There appears to be no constitutional justification for creating restrictions with penalties and not excluding public worship. In the Dáil, in response to Deputy Nolan, the Minister said that it could be noted that holding a religious gathering is not a penal offence. How does this make sense if there are provisions for a fine and potential prison for holding gatherings but no exclusion made for religious gatherings?

This is extremely problematic. As I and Members of the Dáil have pointed out, faith communities have been extremely compliant and have led by example. There appears to be no evidence that there has been a spread of the virus associated with religious gatherings. In that context, if we return to level 3, it would be intolerable if the Government were to continue to pretend, implicitly or explicitly, that it is somehow against the law to hold religious gatherings. Let it propose what it wishes, but it should not suggest that this is against the law. In light of what we know, it would also be intolerable if there would not be the possibility of public worship, as technically would be the case if we only return to level 3. It is clear that we need a modified level 3. That message must be conveyed, loudly and clearly. The Government has not done its work properly here by proposing to legislate to penalise those who organise religious gatherings when, in fact, it has no legal or constitutional basis for being able to do so.

I thank Senator Mullen for being so diplomatic in his response to my reply. The Government recognises the immense sacrifices that are being made by the country in this difficult time. As I mentioned, there has been significant engagement and solidarity from the Catholic Church and other faith communities at all stages through the pandemic to ensure the protection of individuals and communities from Covid-19. I agree with the Senator. As a politician and Minister of State and as a citizen, I believe the churches have done extremely well. They have gone out of their way to put all the necessary protections in place. I have highlighted to the Government that this should be taken on board. I hope that when we go down to level 3, it will be a modified level 3, as the Senator said. I look forward to a time when people who are responsible, and the churches and faith leaders are responsible with their congregations, will get the answer we all want.

Special Educational Needs

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Education who is here to update us on plans for Scoil Colm, Crumlin, Dublin 12.

I thank the Minister of State for coming in to address this issue. I have worked with the Dublin 12 campaign for ASD inclusion and the Involve Autism groups since their inception. These are groups of courageous and dynamic parents who campaign for autism units in their local schools. More specifically, the Dublin 12 for ASD inclusion has campaigned since 2018 for an autism-specific school in Dublin 12.

Over the years we have had huge difficulty in obtaining the exact figure for those diagnosed with autism in Dublin 12. There also remains an unanswered parliamentary question on how many children in Dublin 12 have been diagnosed with autism. Despite this we know that there is much anecdotal evidence that there is a massive need in the area for an autism-specific school. The Department of Education has identified that there are 25 children in the Dublin 12 area who receive home tuition. However, there are other children who live in the area but attend less suitable schools and autism units located outside of their area, so there is a huge need for an autism-specific school in Dublin 12. These groups of brave parents have identified a site at Scoil Colm. It is an empty building on Armagh Road that has the potential to be of huge benefit to the community. We have met the Minister for Education and asked her to open Scoil Colm as an autism-specific school.

As many Senators will know, Scoil Colm is set in the middle of an educational hub and surrounded by schools. Scoil Úna Naofa is a mainstream school that does not have a mainstream ASD class. Scoil Eoin is a special school that caters for all disabilities with students ranging in age from nine to 18 years. The Rosary College is a secondary school that does not have an autism class. There is also a Youthreach and primary care centre that provides the community with access to GPs and public health nurses.

Scoil Colm has been closed since its amalgamation in 2016. Everyone involved in the project is aware that the premises need a massive amount of work but it can host up to 132 children. Scoil Colm also has a big campus on beautiful grounds so could provide a sensory garden. The vision is for Scoil Colm to open and become a centre of excellence for those with autism. I visited the site several weeks ago and met the Minister for Education. This project has the cross-party support of all the politicians in the area who know first hand the huge need felt by children with autism in the area.

I congratulate the Minister of State on the recent announcement whereby she asked, or perhaps ordered, 25 schools in south Dublin to open special autism units. That is a hugely welcome development but there will always be children who do not thrive in a school with an autism-specific unit so need the services provided at a autism-specific school. It is in that light that I ask for an update on Scoil Colm. What is the future envisaged for Scoil Colm? When will a decision be made? The site is vacant and the local community want the premises to be opened as an autism-specific school because the children in the community lack such a service. Does the Minister of State know how many people in the Dublin 12 area have been diagnosed with autism? How many children are on waiting lists for either an autism-specific school or unit?

It is important for the public to know how difficult it is for parents who have a child with autism. When they seek to register their child in a school, parents must apply to all autism classes in the area regardless of suitability for their child and they must apply to all autism classes outside of the area to improve their chances of getting any placement for their child, regardless of suitability for their child. Schools contact parents to advise if their child has been offered a placement. This offering can be made well into June thus increasing uncertainty for parents. If a placement is offered a parent must accept it regardless of the suitability of the class for the child. It is difficult enough for a child to get a place in a local school without having autism needs. However, when one's child is diagnosed with autism, one is faced with treble red tape when trying to get him or her a place in a school, which is hugely unfair.

Last week, the Minister for Education announced a no homework day. The children in Dublin 12 who are being home schooled and have been diagnosed with autism would like to experience a no homework day. We must, as we all know, treat all of our children equally.

I can hear the Senator's frustration on behalf of the parents of children with special needs and their journey, and I share her concern. As the very first dedicated Minister for special education, I am going to do precisely what she asked and make the entire process of locating a placement whether it is a special class or special school as easy as possible because at the moment it is unsatisfactory. I will outline this matter in my contribution.

I thank the Senator for raising this important matter. I want to acknowledge the tremendous work done by Involve Autism and the Dublin 12 campaign, both of whom I have met. Many of the parents have become activists as a result of their children's issues and challenges that they have had to face when dealing with the Department and the system.

Next year, as the Senator will know, we will have a record breaking €2 billion investment in education or 20% of the overall budget. As a result, the number of special education teachers, and special classes and school places will be at an unprecedented level, which is a step forward in the right direction.

Since my appointment I have met not just Involve Autism and the Dublin 12 campaign groups but a number of different associations and advocates for the special education sector. They have raised a number of issues with me that I hope to tackle through action priorities. I have published a list of my action priorities. I intend to itemise them and state deadlines and timelines for achieving those goals. Through both better planning at local and national levels, it is my objective to have special education places to meet the stream of emerging demand. The Senator talked about the number of autistic children. The data is something that we are looking at in terms of collecting and harvesting the information.

A forecasting model is being developed by the National Council for Special Education so that in the future this perennial issue, where there is a dearth of special class places, is tackled from a demographic perspective. It is important to note that the growth of autism has grown exponentially not just in Ireland but throughout the world and constantly evolves, which we have noted is particularly true for girls.

I am very conscious that there are some parts of the country, including south Dublin, in which there has been an increase in population that has led to valid concerns about the shortage of school places. I assure the Senator that the NCSE is continuing its engagement with schools, patron bodies, parents and others across south Dublin to bring the required additional special education placements onstream.

The Senator will be aware that Scoil Colm has been identified as a potential location in terms of the provision of additional special school places for the area and my Department has had engagement with the building owner in this regard. Discussions are ongoing regarding the next steps in utilising this accommodation for special school places.

Can I not come in again? Everyone else had the opportunity.

It is now 11.30 a.m. The Senator can have one minute.

I thank the Minister of State, but I asked for a specific update on Scoil Colm. I would like to know where we are in regard to the discussions. What the Minister of State has said is very unclear. We need to know what is the future for Scoil Colm. What is going on is very cloak and dagger but the Department should give parents a proper update on the position of the school. They want to know what state the negotiations are at and what stage we are at in the ongoing process. It is hugely unfair to lead people up the garden path.

I assure Senator Ardagh that nobody is leading anybody up the garden path. Suffice to say, there have been site visits and discussions with the patrons, trustees and the principal of Scoil Colm where some 150 children are already provided for. My understanding is that the school will provide some but not all of the classes. There are ongoing discussions and we need to be hopeful in that regard. I hope something might arise out of the discussions and that I will be able to inform the House of it in due course.

Sitting suspended at 11.32 a.m. and resumed at 11.41 a.m.