Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Irish Sign Language

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Rabbitte, to the House and thank her for taking this important Commencement matter.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this matter on the Irish Sign Language, ISL, which I know is of deep personal interest to him. I thank the Minister of State for coming into this House, as I know she is personally invested in this issue. My colleague in the Dáil, Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan, has also regularly raised this issue. It is an important statement by these Houses on how we value those who are deaf or have hearing impairments as members of our society and how the legislation that is designed to support them is enforced.

Four years ago, on Christmas Eve 2017, we saw the signing into law of the Irish Sign Language Act. It was rightly recognised as transformative in the position of deaf people in Irish society. As Senators know, it followed a report from an Oireachtas committee that highlighted how deaf people were marginalised in Irish society. We have seen the contribution of those with hearing difficulties in Ireland. I refer to my Wexford colleague, Úna Walsh, who appeared on "The Late Late Show" on Friday. Over the years, many others who have hearing impairments have made significant contributions. I am rather concerned, as recently reported in the Irish Examiner by Donal O'Keeffe, that a survey by the National Disability Authority of a range State agencies found that 32%, or one third, of all public bodies were not aware of the Act and a further 20% were not aware of their responsibilities. Of the country's 16 education and training boards, only four responded to the NDA's survey.

Many tributes were paid in this House in April after we heard Andrew Geary talk about his son Callum to Ryan Tubridy. People could understand the passion Mr. Geary felt about ensuring that his son's rights, including his right to education, were vindicated. We have to ensure that right through our education system every young person, regardless of disability, has the opportunity to achieve his or her full potential. That continues to be a challenge. Given that many public bodies are not fully aware of their obligations under the Act or have not given them priority, I am concerned that there is not a real commitment to the legislation on the part of the State. It is also a worry to me that the Department of Education is not sufficiently invested to ensure that young deaf people have the necessary interpreters in place.

ISL interpreting is highly specialised and, thus, it is wrong that the best the Department can offer is the salary of an SNA. The role of SNAs is important but in this case we are talking about highly qualified interpreters who are needed for educational purposes, in respect of which they must complete four years of third level education. We need to see a seriousness behind the supports that are given here.

How do we measure the success of this legislation? The success is that every young deaf person will feel that the State is responding and engaging with him or her and is allowing him or her to reach full potential. I am not convinced that this very noble Act is being taken sufficiently seriously by all arms of the State.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this matter for discussion and I thank Senator Malcolm Byrne for bringing it forward. When tabling it, the Senator put it forward to the Department of Education, but it was deflected to me in my role as Minister of State with responsibility for disability. It is important to understand that while I will be giving an answer, the true pathway in terms of response lies within the control of the Department of Education.

As the Senator rightly stated, the Irish Sign Language Act 2017 was enacted on 24 December 2017 and commenced by the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, on 23 December 2020. I am deeply invested in this legislation. It was the first legislation that the Minister and I signed together and, for that reason, it is important to me that there is complete follow-through.

The Act recognises the rights of users to use ISL as their native language and imposes a duty on all public bodies to provide ISL users with support when availing of statutory entitlements and services. Under section 10 of the Act, a report was commissioned earlier this year on the operation of the Act. The National Disability Authority was commissioned to produce that report, a draft of which I have received. The report notes that further progress is required to fully realise the ambition of the 2017 Act and a number of recommendations are made, which I will consider and pursue, as appropriate. The draft report is being finalised and I expect to be in a position to lay the completed document before this House in the coming weeks. I could not publish the draft at the time I received it because it had to go out to all relevant Departments for observations, the reasons for which I totally understand.

Enabling students with special educational needs, including those students who are deaf or hard of hearing, to receive an education appropriate to their needs is an ongoing priority for this Government. Section 5 of the ISL Act requires the Minister for Education to: establish a scheme for the provision of ISL classes for families of children who are deaf; establish a scheme to provide ISL support for children who are attending school and whose primary language is ISL; ensure that there are a sufficient number of placements for the training of teachers of children who are deaf or hard of hearing; and determine the minimum qualifications of teachers of children who are deaf or hard of hearing, where practicable and necessary, in order to ensure the provision of education to children who are deaf or hard of hearing.

There is work yet to be done to fully realise the ambition behind the Act. Nevertheless, there are supports in place for students. It is important to recognise that elsewhere the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, published a comprehensive review of the SNA scheme on 20 May 2018. The Department has noted the contents of the report, as required under the Act. That report recommends that the ISL qualified assistant should be put in place to support deaf students whose primary language is ISL and that this should be aligned to the requirements of the Act. I am told that the recommendation with regard to the introduction of the Irish language scheme is under consideration in the Department of Education. In plain English, the NCSE has identified this need and the Department is aware of it. This matter has been ongoing since 2017. We have a number of children throughout the country who need this provision. Everything that we do in regard to disabilities has to be about inclusion, integration, participation and equality.

Unfortunately, a cohort of young people are marginalised because we are not allowing them to reach their full potential by providing them with the equipment and an individual to support them in participating.

I thank the Minister of State. I know her passion for this area and exactly what she feels. That passion is something that we need across all elements of government because, with the greatest of respect, the Minister of State cannot do this on her own. In the education space in particular, this has to be about focusing on the individual young person and what it is we need to put in place to ensure that he or she can reach his or her full potential. I encourage the Minister of State to continue being ambitious, but the message has to go out clearly to all elements of government that the era of decisions being taken without the interests of those with disabilities being at the top of the agenda has to end.

I welcome the Minister of State's comments and I look forward to the publication of the NDA's report, but the message to all Departments, in particular the Department of Education, is that the approach needs to change.

Before I invite the Minister of State to respond, will she clarify whether the Department is in compliance with the Act at the moment? If she cannot provide the answer now, perhaps she could on another day.

If it was in compliance with the Act, I would not be here taking a Commencement matter this morning. Perhaps that is the best way to answer the question.

At the end of the day, we have young people whose parents are their advocates. We all talk about early intervention through speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and physiotherapy, but we also talk about early intervention in education. Under the access inclusion model, AIM, programme and the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme, the young person down in Mayo was able to access an AIM support worker to ensure that that little person could participate in the early years setting. It was unfortunate that, when he transitioned from the early years setting into education, he did not get the same approach with a person who was qualified in ISL. However, the person transferred over at the rate of an SNA, which has to do with the other part of the Senator's question.

There has to be a full and comprehensive acknowledgment of the role that the ISL interpreter plays in delivering communication within the classroom in support of the teacher. We should get to the stage where, if there is an ISL interpreter in the classroom, the children can look either way, left or right, to the teacher or the ISL interpreter, to understand what is being taught. That is a whole-of-class and whole-of-community approach.

My colleagues, the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, are working hard on this matter. Perhaps it is officialdom that we sometimes need to push harder in the delivery of our ambitions.

I thank the Minister of State.

Enterprise Support Services

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English, to the House.

I thank the Minister of State for attending to have this all-important debate. I know how committed he is to this area and the work he has been doing.

Alarm bells rang through my head when I read a newspaper report on Limerick and the wider Munster area and how there had been a 4% drop in business start-ups. I will preface my comments by saying that local enterprise offices, LEOs, are doing fantastic work. They are running a number of training days, encouraging people to get involved and trying to instil confidence in business start-ups. I served on an old enterprise board for 15 years and am aware of how important LEOs are to businesses, especially small start-ups.

I served on the former enterprise board for 15 years and am very aware of how important LEOs are to businesses, particularly small start-ups. I am concerned that people are not confident enough to start a business and I want to highlight the supports available through the Department and the LEOs by way of courses and mentoring programmes. The latter are very important for business start-ups. I look forward to the Minister of State's reply. He visited us in Limerick recently and saw the wonderful work that is going on there. It is important to have a discussion on this because there are people considering starting businesses but they are lacking in confidence.

I thank Senator Byrne for raising this very important issue which allows me to focus on start-up businesses in Limerick and all other counties. It is important to discuss start-up businesses regularly and to highlight the support and encouragement that is available to them. This Government talks a lot about a jobs-led recovery but for that to happen, we need to support existing businesses to sustain existing jobs and to create more but we also need to encourage a number of start-ups to come through the system every year to keep the supply of jobs going. This is essential because the only way we can run this country is through people being employed and paying taxes, which in turn pays for all the services.

We have a very strong pro-enterprise agenda as a Government which permeates local government, the LEO network, Enterprise Ireland, the IDA and other development agencies like Science Foundation Ireland. It is important to recognise that and to channel support to the companies that need it, particularly the start-ups, and to drive their ambition. We really want to help people who are thinking of starting a business, to encourage them to take the plunge and go for it. It can be risky, awkward and difficult. Starting a business is not an easy route to take but we want to make it as easy as possible by providing supports to assist people to start and to grow a viable business. Again, I thank Senator Byrne for raising this and for her continued interest in this area.

I am aware from a recent visit that Limerick's LEO is very successful, as Senator Byrne pointed out. I agree with her that the Limerick LEO is doing excellent work. It is clear that over the last 18 to 20 months as we have dealt with Covid, the staff and teams in our LEOs around the country, as well as the enterprise teams and economic growth teams in various counties really got stuck in. They were always there for businesses, providing them with support and guidance. Staff were always available at the end of a phone line or online to help businesses in difficult times. The business people I meet in Limerick and everywhere else tell me that they really benefited from that support. That is a relationship that the Department is keen to build on. The Tánaiste, with whom I work very closely, wants to be able to drive on that relationship and find new ways to reach companies in order to provide them with support through the LEO network. The Department wants to complement the work the LEOs are doing.

Senator Byrne will be aware that LEOs act as a first-stop shop for providing advice, guidance and financial assistance to those wishing to start or grow their own business. In addition, LEOs can provide information on and referrals to other relevant bodies, including Revenue, Micro Finance Ireland, Fáilte Ireland, LEADER, and Enterprise Ireland, under agreed protocols. They can also guide businesses through the local government system. It is important for people who are thinking of starting a business to engage with the LEO from day one. I have met many business people around the country who have told me that it was a year or two after starting before they went to the LEO for assistance and they regretted that. The benefits of going to a LEO from day one, as the local first-stop shop, are significant and I would encourage people to do so. The staff in our LEOs, including Limerick LEO are there to provide impartial advice. They have worked tirelessly over the past number of years to continue to promote entrepreneurship as a viable employment option. They always encourage enterprise, including among primary, secondary and third level students.. They regularly run programmes to encourage more young people to think of being entrepreneurs.

It is true to say that the Limerick LEO has seen a small drop off in start-up activity in over the past few years but that requires some context and qualification. While it is not something that I would be gravely concerned about because of the times we are in, we need to focus on it and work to address it. The number of potential new entrepreneurs in Limerick remains strong as evidenced by the numbers attending the Start Your Own Business training programme. This year alone, there have been 221 people to date, which gives Limerick the seventh highest attendance nationally and demonstrates ongoing strong interest in entrepreneurship within the county and offers hope for future growth. Another measure that the LEOs use as a significant indicator for the level of start-up activity within a county is the number of successful applicants for priming grants. In this respect, while there has been a decline in priming grants awarded in Limerick, this is part of a national trend with significant declines in the number of grants awarded in many parts of the country. This is largely due to entrepreneurs being reluctant to commence trading in what is an uncertain economic climate.

From my recent visits to the LEOs and Limerick in particular, I can say that there is optimism among the LEOs that there will be strong demand for such grants as the economy begins to return to normality.

The local enterprise offices will be receiving an additional €2 million in funding in 2022. This represents an almost 5% increase to drive on with their work. This investment will allow each of the 31 local enterprise offices to enhance the role they play in driving local and regional development, including the regional enterprise plans and the Look for Local campaigns, which have been extremely successful.

The Minister of State, Deputy Troy, and I have been working on bringing forward the work of the SME task force which identified the foremost challenges and opportunities facing SMEs and entrepreneurs. The task force was put together by the Tánaiste approximately this time last year. These include access to finance for SMEs; digital transformation; increasing the number of first-time exporters; enhanced assistance for high-potential businesses; clustering and networks; SME management skills; reducing the regulatory burden on SMEs; delivery of a single portal for business information and assistance; ensuring comprehensive enterprise agency coverage for SMEs; and promoting SME participation in public procurement. We will work with the LEOs and other stakeholders to drive the implementation of this policy agenda and actions in these key areas during 2022. I look forward to having plenty of discussions in this House with Senator Maria Byrne and others as well.

It is also important to note that Limerick can look to its very vibrant multinational sector for employment and growth and, thankfully, many of these businesses were among the least affected by the pandemic. Many budding entrepreneurs are working with those companies already. Often, when the employment market is strong and there is international uncertainty as a result of issues, for example, with the supply chain or inflation, potential entrepreneurs tend to play it safe and stay in employment, rather than taking the risk of starting a business. Employers are doing everything they can to keep them because they are also under pressure to source all the staff they need.

The uncertainty due to Covid is affecting businesses. I agree that we have had significant expansion of multinationals and that employers are trying to keep experienced employees in their employment. I would like to get the message out about all the support that is available. I accept the times are uncertain, but I encourage people to have faith in themselves and to get out there. There are many capable people that have come through the LEOs and participated in the many start-up courses. I draw the Minister of State's attention to one area where there is a bit of uncertainty and I ask him to keep an eye on it. I refer to the hospitality and hotel industry. Given staff shortages, some establishments find it very difficult to keep going. This is an area the Minister of State could possibly examine in terms of his remit. I thank him for highlighting all the supports that are available. I look forward to working with him in the future.

I thank Senator Maria Byrne on behalf of Limerick and other counties. It is important that we have such conversations. She touched on some of the programmes that are offered through LEOs. I forgot to mention in my earlier contribution the success of the mentoring programme. It is working extremely well in Limerick too. I know there is a strong panel of mentors there and I thank them for their efforts.

It is important that if entrepreneurs are thinking of starting their own business back themselves and have the confidence to take a chance. They should engage with the LEOs to give an extra layer of security, back the confidence and put them in a stronger position. They can find out what programmes will suit them at different stages of their journey. As well as the mentoring programme being key, the start your own business programme is also extremely important. The lean for micro programme is operated through the LEOs as well to help make businesses that are up and running more cost-effective and also to minimise any waste in how a company is run and ensure people run companies to the best of their ability and sustain the competition.

Various grants are available to businesses that are in manufacturing or internationally traded services. The trading online voucher is key and has been very successful. Applications increased by more than 1,000% in nearly every county, including Limerick in the past year. We want to build on that success. We will be having more conversations with LEO clients about digital supports and supports for going green and taking on climate change as well. There is much interest in that regard. Microfinance Ireland is another useful resource. There is access to high potential start-up programme through LEOs and Enterprise Ireland. A very strong relationship is developing between LEOs and Enterprise Ireland. They are working very well together and businesses are growing, expanding and moving from one to the other as well. There is a lot of opportunity in that regard.

In Limerick, access to the educational facilities is key, given the work that can happen through the New Frontiers entrepreneurship development programme in conjunction with the education stakeholders. There is a lot of opportunity.

Many of the companies I have met around Limerick have benefitted from that involvement in the education system, the combination of education and enterprise supports and working together as well. The key to all that is the local authorities coming together to make it happen. That will also be reflected in the regional enterprise plans coming through. There are massive plans for the area the Senator is covering, comprising counties Limerick, Clare and Tipperary. There are many issues there.

I am conscious it is a difficult time. The Senator mentioned the hospitality sector. That sector and many others are under pressure now between trying to keep staff through a difficult time and finding enough staff when they have the business. We will work directly with that sector in the weeks and months ahead to get it through this difficult time and hopefully get back to a very sound, solid footing.

I thank the Minister of State and the Senator.

Sitting suspended at 12.30 p.m. and resumed at 1.02 p.m.