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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 22 Jun 2022

Vol. 286 No. 6

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Health Services

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Feighan, to the House.

The Minister of State is very welcome. I wish to raise the issue of sickle cell disease and patients with the disease. Last weekend, I attended a fantastic celebration in Malahide to raise awareness of sickle cell disease. I have been to several awareness days in recent years. The organisation in question is an incredibly positive one, even when it comes to dealing with such a serious condition.

There are more than 600 people in Ireland with sickle cell disease. More than two thirds of those with the disease are under 18 years of age. The majority of those with sickle cell disease are treated at two centres of expertise, namely, Our Lady's Children's Hospital, Crumlin, and St. James's Hospital. It is really important to get early diagnosis in order to prevent early deaths. The team at Crumlin hospital have done incredible work over many years and have organised neonatal screening that is now carried out at the majority of maternity hospitals.

The Minister of State is aware that the migrant population in Ireland has increased in recent years. Many of those among the migrant population are genetically predisposed to sickle cell disease. It is one of two major genetic blood disorders that affect red blood cells. Those living with sickle cell disease experience many significant difficulties. My priority in tabling this Commencement matter is to raise awareness of sickle cell disease within the migrant community and for migrants to be empowered to undergo genetic testing. I very much welcome the fact that the national screening advisory committee has added sickle cell disease as one of its priorities this year.

I know the Minister of State will have a comprehensive answer for me, so, rather than asking questions, I wish to highlight a particular family. Esther Onolememen is the founder and CEO of Sickle Cell Society Ireland. She is the mother of two children with sickle cell disease. She has identified to me the importance of a registry of children at risk of this life-threatening genetic condition. As a result of the lack of screening, there was a delay in finding out that her children have sickle cell disease. One of her children suffered a stroke at eight months, prior to accessing adequate care in Ireland. Her daughter suffered life-threatening multiple organ failures while accessing care and spent approximately nine months in hospital, with three ICU admissions. She completed her junior certificate from a hospital bed in Crumlin. Thankfully, due to the support of international experts and improved medical care within Ireland, she has recovered. She is still accessing care in hospital, but more regularly than other cohorts. Not all of the children with sickle cell disease are lucky enough to survive. There was a terrible incident in 2019 when a young boy with severe sickle cell disease who fought a deportation order died from complications resulting from his ill health.

I have a few asks of the Minister of State. There is a need to work on awareness and a national screening database. There is a need for awareness in direct provision centres because many people who come here are carriers of the disease but are unaware of that fact.

I thank Senator McGreehan for raising this issue and providing me with this opportunity to discuss developments in the area. The Minister for Health and I fully appreciate that sickle cell disease can place a substantial medical, social and financial burden on patients, their families and their carers. The Senator outlined exactly what Ms Esther Onolememen and her children had to go through regarding the lack of screening. It is a lifelong, inherited condition that affects both children and adults. At present, we have a two-centre approach to treating patients. Children can access services provided by Children's Health Ireland, CHI, at Crumlin hospital, supported by a multidisciplinary team. Adults can access the services of the haemoglobinopathy service at St. James's Hospital. In support of these services, the HSE currently reimburses a number of medicines under the community drugs scheme for the treatment of both adults and children.

I am advised a number of new therapies are in development for sickle cell disease. The Minister hopes to see those coming on stream as soon as possible, if they are proven to be clinically effective, in line with the Health (Pricing and Supply of Medical Goods) Act 2013. The Senator will be aware the 2013 Act gives full statutory powers to the HSE to make decisions on reimbursement of medicines. In doing so, the HSE takes account of a range of objective factors and expert opinion, as appropriate.

The service at Children's Health Ireland has expanded rapidly since 2000 to cater for the increased prevalence of the disease. In 2000, 20 children were undergoing treatment for sickle cell disease. Last year, 385 children were attending the service, as well as 18 with the related condition of thalassemia. I am pleased to advise there have been other positive developments in terms of services for children. The centre at Crumlin is now designated by the HSE as an expert centre for haemoglobin and red cell disorders. A priority for the HSE in 2022 is to further advance the non-malignant haematology service at CHI Crumlin.

As regards adult services, St. James's Hospital has provided these services since 2014. The scale of activity has also grown from 32 patients in 2014 to more than 220 patients attending the service in 2021. Since the service was set up in 2014, service growth and development has been ongoing, including the following: the establishment of multidisciplinary outpatient clinics; the development of transition clinics involving regular collaboration and communication with CHI Crumlin; and the development of a maternity service in conjunction with the Coombe hospital.

However, due to the increased demand, I am advised by the HSE the transition of patients over the age of 16 years to adult services is currently a challenge due to capacity constraints at St. James's. In order to address this issue, a business case is under consideration with HSE leadership to further increase capacity at St. James's to meet the growing demand for these services. The Minister hopes this business case can be considered by the HSE in as timely a manner as possible in order that we can begin to see improvements in access to services for adult patients at St. James's as soon as possible.

I again thank the Senator for raising this issue. I do not think many people are aware of it. The number attending adult services has increased from 32 patients in 2014 to 220 patients in 2021. Some 385 children attended the service last year, which was a major increase from 20 in 2000. This is an emerging and very serous issue.

This is a growing medical issue for Irish citizens across this island. We must grow our medical intelligence to assist doctors to get the best research and care to be passed on to these patients.

I reiterate the few proposals I would like the Minister of State to bring back to the Department. I would like it to focus on the cohort of people who are genetically predisposed to this disease, particularly in direct provision centres, to make sure they have screening for sickle cell disease. Like cystic fibrosis, it takes two carriers to have a child with sickle cell disease. Children are been born in Ireland and their parents do not know that they have sickle cell disease. I called for the setting up of a database and registry to examine the geographic spread and to consider the possibility of having satellite care clinics. If one is based in Galway or Cork, travelling to St. James’s Hospital or CHI Crumlin would involve a major financial cost and often those people do not have those financial resources. Research in the area and an awareness campaign are needed, particularly for people who are genetically predisposed to the condition.

I have listened to the Senator and can assure her the Minister appreciates the difficulty faced by people suffering from this awful condition. She spoke about those who are genetically predisposed to this disease living in direct provision centres and requested a database be set up and satellite care centres be provided. That is a very worthy solution to a very difficult issue.

There is no doubt with the growing prevalence of the disease, services for adults are stretched. The services available for those with sickle cell disease faced capacity challenges in recent years as the demand for both paediatric and adult services have increased. I am pleased to inform the Senator the HSE continues to enhance and develop these services in order to provide the necessary level of care to those suffering from this condition.

It is encouraging that the centre at CHI Crumlin has been designated as an expert centre for haemoglobin and red cell disorders. The good work of the HSE at the expert centre in Crumlin was reflected in the approval in 2017 by the European Commission for the inclusion of CHI in the European reference network, EuroBloodNet, and further developments at the centre have been prioritised by the HSE in 2022. I again thank the Senator for raising this issue.

Go raibh maith agat.

Home Help Service

I welcome the opportunity to raise what I believe is an important issue and I am pleased the Minister of State with responsibility for this area is here. He does not need me to tell him about the difficulties that exist in our acute hospitals and the significant delays people have in getting access to bed capacity. Much of the elective work is now delayed because of the crisis in accident and emergency departments. Some of that relates to the inability of patients to move from the care facility, which is the acute hospital, into either a step-down facility or back home. Therefore, there is a passage through the system for many.

I have identified what I believe is one of the very considerable difficulties that exist. It is the inability of the HSE or many of the other service providers to be able to hire home care assistants. From his constituency work over the years, the Minister of State will have had people come to him seeking more home care hours to be made available by the State. In order words, they want the State to put money aside to enable people to be cared for in their home and for them to allow them to live out their lives there. That used to be a problem but that is not the problem any more. The money is in place for the service but the problem is the service providers cannot get staff to fill those hours. Many more people could be living out the latter days of their lives in their own home if there were care assistants available to them.

I have met many care assistants and I do so on a regular basis. Some of them are now leaving the service. The only reason they are doing so is that they are not being properly looked after financially. The wages are poor but many of them are prepared to do the job because it is flexible work. What is killing them in the current climate is the cost of travel. The profile of the Minister of State's constituency is not that much different from mine. A carer might care for a person who lives ten or 15 miles from where the carer lives and visit that person at 8 a.m. By 11 a.m. the carer has to be with another person somewhere else. By 2 p.m. the carer has to be with another person. By 5 p.m. the carer has to be with another person and by 9 p.m. the carer might be back with the person he or she visited first that morning.

Carers may travel more than 100 miles, or sometimes 200 miles, in a day depending on the profile of the people they look after. It is not sustainable for those people to be asked to continue to do that work at the rate they are being paid for mileage. It is abysmal. They just about got by when diesel and petrol was somewhere between €1 and €1.12 or €1.13 per litre. It is now €2.13 per litre. These are people on very low incomes in the first instance. They provide a phenomenally valuable service. Without them many more people would be in the care of State, putting a further burden and pressure on the acute services, further lengthening the wait time in places like University Hospital Limerick, UHL.

We saw from the HIQA report the appalling display of service available to patients. If we do not intervene at the home care assistant level, the problem is going to get worse. As the price of fuel continues to spiral out of control, and we accept that is outside of our control, these people will not be able to keep their cars on the road and continue to travel and do the great work they are doing. I am appealing to the Minister of State to look at every line item in the budget of his Department and try to find an appropriate amount of money to make it possible for these people to do their work. Their low wages can be dealt with through the normal labour relations mechanism. I have argued about this before and will again. However, there needs to be an urgent intervention putting in place a few extra cent to make it possible for them to do their phenomenal work.

I thank Senator Dooley for raising this issue which is raising its head all over the country. I have seen it in my constituency as well. As part of the broader Sláintecare reform of our health and social care system, the Government is committed to reorientating the model of care towards primary and community care. In furtherance of this objective, in budget 2021 my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, secured additional funding of €150 million for home support. This is supporting the development of a statutory home support scheme as well as the delivery of 5 million additional hours of home support. The funding secured in budget 2021 to provide the additional 5 million hours has been maintained for 2022 and preliminary data indicate that at the end of April 2022, some 6,902,191 home support hours had been delivered nationally to 54,949 people.

Against this background, the Minister of State is aware that some home support providers require their front-line employees to pay for the travel costs they incur in the course of their duties, and I thank Senator Dooley for raising the matter. While the HSE pays for the travel expenses incurred by healthcare support assistants whom they employ to provide home support, providers in the voluntary and private sectors do not always do so, nor is there any obligation for them to do so when contracted to provide services on behalf of the State by the HSE.

This is one of many issues currently being explored by the cross-departmental strategic workforce advisory group. The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, established this group in March 2022 following a call for submissions from relevant stakeholders such as the Senator. The remit of the group is to identify and formulate recommendations to address strategic workforce challenges in the home support and nursing home sectors. Accordingly, the group is examining issues such as recruitment, retention, training, career development and pay and conditions of front-line carers in these sectors so that solutions can be found.

The group's deliberations will be informed by an evidence review of the role, function and supply of home support workers in four European countries, which has been commissioned by the Department of Health from the Health Research Board and which will provide insight into home support workers' employment conditions internationally. Stakeholder engagement is also central to the work of the group. As part of a structured programme of consultative engagements with key sectoral stakeholders, a facilitated workshop was held on 23 May. The group continues to liaise with these stakeholders to further explore the issues arising and will submit a report for my consideration by September 2022. The report will outline the group's findings and recommendations as well as an action plan for the recommendations' implementation.

Concurrently, the Department of Health is preparing a general scheme and heads of Bill to establish a licensing framework for professional home support providers. Secondary legislation setting out the minimum standards with which providers must comply in order to be licensed and HIQA national quality standards is also being developed. This will provide a robust regulatory framework for a sector which is at present unregulated, clarifying home support workers' rights and responsibilities. A public consultation on the draft minimum standards is under way and will close on 28 July 2022.

I think the Senator is looking for a stipend, effectively, for these great workers who are providing an incredible service. I would think the sooner we can come up with some solution, the better. Across the country we are all facing this. It is an issue we need to address as quickly as possible. It is not just a service these staff are providing but they are also saving a lot of extra hours in hospitals, nursing homes and so on. I would like to get this raised. I do not think Covid has helped. A lot of people have looked for other opportunities. We need to make sure this very important work is enhanced and continued.

I welcome the Minister of State's response. While I know what the Department is trying to do, I am concerned that the issue will be lost in reports and more bureaucracy. The State has outsourced this service and does so with other services through section 38 and section 39 agreements. Clarecare in County Clare is an example. It was never given back the funding that was cut. There were plenty of carefully worded responses from Ministers at the time stating it was a matter for the voluntary body to figure out how it paid people and what they did and did not do. The truth is that when the cut came and the Department cut HSE staff, the cuts were imposed on the private sector operators as well but the money was never properly returned to the level it should have been. That is a separate issue I hope can be addressed in due course through ongoing dialogue and debate.

The issue I am raising now is the cost of travel, which has been exacerbated dramatically by the increase in the cost of fuel. It has doubled in cost. It is obvious that we do not have people to fill these positions. They are not prepared and cannot afford to do it. Immediate intervention is needed. Otherwise there will be more people on trolleys in accident and emergency departments because we will not have the bed capacity to address demand.

Workforce challenges in the social care sector are international challenges that Ireland has in common with other jurisdictions. For example, in March 2022 the Scottish Government published a national workforce strategy for health and social care to address the challenges they face in Scotland. This Government is committed to addressing the strategic workforce challenges that exist in the home support sector in Ireland.

It should be noted that, notwithstanding these challenges, progress is being made in increasing home support provision. Overall service delivery has increased by approximately 17% year on year and the total number of people waiting for home support has fallen from over 9,000 at the start of 2020 to 5,068 by the end of May 2022. In providing clarity on the roles of service providers, home support workers, service users and family carers, the regulation of the home support sector will ensure the quality of home support services and safeguard service users. The work of the strategic workforce advisory group is progressing and the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, is confident the recommendations of the group will be effective in addressing the workforce challenges that we face in the home support and nursing home sectors.

Senator Dooley has raised the possibility of some stipend - I will not say a magic bullet - to address the increased cost of fuel. This is happening in all sectors. It is an emerging issue and we need to tackle it.

Insurance Coverage

I am always happy to see the Minister of State in the House but I am disappointed because I tabled this matter for the Department of Justice and it was transferred to the Department of Health. In December last, I tabled the exact same Commencement matter. Before I list chronologically some of the delays and problems around this, I will refer to the Minister of State's response to my Commencement matter on 9 December 2021. This is around the question of international students' health insurance. The Minister of State said:

As outlined in my opening reply, this issue concerns international students coming to study in Ireland who are required to adhere to particular immigration visa requirements, one of which relates to having private health insurance. I repeat that it is not within my policymaking role within the Department, as the Senator said. Officials in my Department have been engaging with officials in the Department of Justice to see if this requirement should be necessary for these students at all. It is good that those discussions are at an advanced stage and, in the coming weeks, I hope to have some positive progress to communicate to the Senator. Perhaps in two months, or certainly at some time next year, this issue will be resolved.

I first raised this issue in 2020, not long after I came into this House. The failure to address the question of health insurance for international students is potentially prohibiting a number of international students from coming here. As I communicated to the Minister of State in December of last year, this is an issue that falls between a number of Departments.

On 24 September 2020, I raised this matter with the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Simon Harris, and I have also raised it with him at Oireachtas committees. I have also raised the issue with the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. Every time I raise it, I am told that negotiations are taking place between officials.

On 5 March 2021, I introduced the Health Insurance (International Students) (Amendment) Bill, with the aim of addressing this matter. I engaged in discussions with the Department of Health and was told that discussions were taking place in other Departments. I decided not to proceed with an amendment to the Health Insurance (Amendment) Bill 2021 because I was assured at the time that this matter would be addressed. As the Minister of State will recall, that assurance was given just a week after a Commencement debate taken by the Minister of State, Deputy Butler. In response to me, the Minister of State said:

I know this is causing a lot of bother for students from non-EEA countries studying in Ireland. I understand the officials are engaging on this and that there will be a positive update in the new year.

In February 2022, I raised this issue again on the Order of Business in this House. I have regularly raised it with officials in the Department of Health. Clearly, somebody in either the Department of Health or the Department of Justice is not doing his or her job. This situation cannot continue. For two years, I have been told that progress is being made, yet we are no further on since I first raised this issue in 2020. It is the international students who are impacted and losing out.

Last December, the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, gave me a commitment in good faith that the issue would be resolved within two months. While I have no doubt his approach to this matter is genuine, it is simply not acceptable that a number of Departments are supposed to be sorting out this matter and somebody is clearly not doing his or her job.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. I note his continued engagement with the Minister for Health and his Department on this issue. The requirement for international students to have health insurance is a matter of immigration policy, which is the responsibility of the Minister for Justice.

I acknowledge the Senator's dedication to this issue and understandable frustration at a lack of response. I, too, am frustrated that he tabled a Commencement matter on this issue on 9 December last, to which I responded, raised it again during the Second Stage debate on the Health Insurance (Amendment) Bill 2021 when the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, was in the House, and raised it again on 15 December last. On all of those dates, the Senator was informed that work was being done by officials in both the Departments of Health and Justice and a resolution was hoped for in a matter of weeks. Unfortunately, it has not been possible to resolve this matter yet. However, I have been informed that communication is continuing between both Departments on this issue. My brief includes a statement that "I hope it will be possible to resolve in the near future". That response is not good enough.

As I have said, students are coming to Ireland. They are required to hold health insurance as part of the conditions of securing a visa. As immigration policy is a matter for the Minister for Justice, this seems to be an issue. I will give an account of the rationale behind our community-rated health insurance market and where the regulatory mechanisms for it intersect with this issue, as this matter falls within the remit of the Department of Health. I will also describe supports community rating gives to older and sicker people who decide to avail of health insurance.

As the Senator will know, we have a voluntary and community-rated market in Ireland. This means there is no requirement for any person to procure private health insurance under Irish health insurance legislation. Community rating means that when people decide to purchase health insurance they are not risk-rated and, therefore, not discriminated against on the basis of age, gender or health status. This is long-established Government policy and ensures that health insurance policies are affordable for everyone.

In order to maintain a policy of community rating and under the Health Insurance Acts, any person who is ordinarily resident in the State and purchasing private health insurance must buy a community-rated health insurance policy from a registered insurer. This ensures the products these consumers are buying are regulated by the independent regulator of health insurance, namely, the Health Insurance Authority. Providers who sell health insurance to consumers must also comply with the provisions of the Health Insurance Acts relating to open enrolment, community rating, lifetime cover and minimum benefits.

The current issue regarding international students and health insurance arose because travel insurance-type products were being sold to students who were here for longer than one year, in which case those buying health insurance should purchase a community-rated health insurance product. This was the subject of court proceedings where the court found in favour of the Health Insurance Authority, which took an enforcement action against the company providing these travel insurance policies to students staying for more than one year.

Irish health insurance legislation does not currently contain any reference to persons who are required to hold health insurance. This requirement is a part of a person's visa checklist when he or she is preparing to come and stay in this country. The policies and procedures around visas are not within the Minister for Health's policymaking remit.

What is needed in this regard is cross-Department co-operation. Many months ago, we said this matter would be resolved in the future. It is not good enough that it has not been resolved. I will bring this matter to the attention of my Department and the Department of Justice.

I seek the guidance of the Acting Chairperson. Is it possible for me to withdraw my Commencement matter? With all due respect to the Minister of State, and I am not criticising him personally, his reply is the exact same as the one he gave me last December. I know that because I compared the reply the contents of the two replies and they are almost word for word. I am not satisfied with the response and for this reason, I seek to withdraw my Commencement matter and direct it to the Minister for Justice. Is that possible?

Officials in the Department have indicated there has been progress but the delay is with the Department of Justice. No progress has been made for two years. We have heard about talks and discussions but nothing has happened, despite Ministers in a number of Departments giving commitments that there will be discussion or engagement on this matter. I ask that the Minister for Justice be invited to the House. I appreciate that may not be possible with a Commencement matter. I reiterate that the reply I received is not acceptable. I ask the Minister of State, at a minimum, to give a commitment that I will get an answer in writing within the next week from the Minister for Justice outlining progress.

Unfortunately, the Senator cannot withdraw his Commencement matter as it has already been taken. However, he can submit another Commencement matter directed at the Minister for Justice in the hope that she will come to the House. He can also request a debate on this issue during the Order of Business.

On a point of order, normally one cannot resubmit a Commencement matter. As today's Commencement matter was answered by the Department of Health, can I submit the same Commencement matter but insist that the Minister for Justice answers?

Yes, if the Commencement matter is directed to the Minister for Justice and it is accepted, it will be considered a new Commencement matter.

I thank the Acting Chairperson.

As I stated in my opening remarks, unfortunately it has not been possible to secure an agreement on these matters yet. However, I am informed by the Department of Health officials that communication is ongoing and that both Departments are working towards a solution. I take the officials at their word. Although this matter is not directly within the Minister for Health's policymaking role to determine immigration requirements and procedures, officials in the Department of Health have been engaging with officials in the Department of Justice to see if this requirement should be necessary for these students.

Again, I thank the Senator for his contribution and for raising this issue. As outlined, there are issues concerning international students coming to study in Ireland. They have particular immigration visa requirements related to having private health insurance. The Departments of Health and Justice need to redouble their efforts to overcome these anomalies or obstacles. Unfortunately, it has not been possible so far to secure an agreement.

I am not privy to what is going on. I am quite sure that work has been going on between Departments. I hope we can get an agreement on this as soon as possible. I will bring the concerns of the Senator directly to the Minister.

School Accommodation

The Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, is very welcome to the House.

Gabhaim buíochas, a Chathaoirligh Gníomhaigh. Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire stáit, an Teachta Madigan, freisin. Tá díomá orm nach bhfuil an tAire Oideachais í féin anseo, an Teachta Foley anseo agus ba cheart go mbeadh sí.

It is a shame that the Minister for Education has not seen fit to be able to be here today. This is a matter I have put tabled on a number of occasions and the Minister of State has come to the House on a number of occasions to reply on issues relating to this school. It is a shame that the Minister is not here as this is a direct responsibility of hers in the Department of Education, rather than related to the Minister of State's brief, which concerns special educational needs. I want to put on the record the credit given to the Minister of State by the community of Gaelscoil Laighean for the work she has done in this area. I recognise that she is supportive of what the community is trying to do.

As she is very well aware, there is a major issue with Gaelscoil Laighean, a small Gaelscoil currently located in Kill of the Grange in Deansgrange. It is currently in a two-room building and the school community is extremely stressed about the space available for it to grow. The reality is that the inaction of the Department is preventing the school from growing. Until it has the space to grow, it cannot take in extra classes and pupils, despite the fact that there is significant demand for that.

The Minister of State will also be aware that for a number of years the school has sought an alternative to the Kill of the Grange site. One has now been found at Mount Anville and disposed of by the Department of Education, and is now in a position to proceed, although I recognise that there is a certain amount of time involved in creating a school on the site. However, we also know that there is not enough room in Kill of the Grange for the school to grow in the way it needs. At the moment, there are 75 students enrolled for September. It has another class coming in and it does not have the physical space to accommodate it.

As far as I can see, the Department has done absolutely nothing to progress the fact that the school needs space for the new class. The parents and community of the school identified the school site in Mount Merrion that would accommodate the school on an interim basis before moving to the site in Mount Anville. The Department did not do that work; the parents did. Notwithstanding that, permission was required to construct the tigín, or prefab building, in Mount Merrion to accommodate the school on an interim short-term basis.

It was for the Department to make an application to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council under section 5 of the Planning and Development Act in respect of exempted development status for the site so that a building could be put in place. As I understand it, that application has still not been made and there is no good explanation as to why that has been the case. There has been talk about this for months. It is a simple application. Engineers have attended the site and examined it, and I understand the application is ready or will be submitted soon. Why has it not yet been submitted?

As long as it is not in, all the parents, families and teachers connected to Gaelscoil Laighean are in limbo. They do not know what is going to happen. They cannot plan for after-school classes, which were to be made available on the Mount Merrion site. They cannot plan for commuting to and from the school in the morning. People living in Mount Merrion have taken their children out of local schools to attend the school in September and now do not know where it is going to be.

The interim proposal from the Department, which has been communicated to all parents and An Foras Pátrúnachta, is to have a site across the road in the community centre of Kill of the Grange parish. That is not acceptable. There is a busy road. It is proposed that a small school be divided between two sites, which would involve children crossing the road at lunchtime, little or big break or whatever else. More importantly, that will divide teachers and classes. It is not a real solution.

I hope the Minister of State will have some information on this. I want to know why the building has not progressed and why we have not given parents some certainty regarding what will happen with the school in September, which is just a few months away. I hope we can make progress on this issue.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. As he knows, it is something of which I am acutely aware. I have had numerous conversations with families whose children want to attend Gaelscoil Laighean. As we know, we want a permanent building to be provided as soon as possible on the Mount Anville site. I understand the Department lodged a planning application with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council on Tuesday, 21 June, to provide interim accommodation on the Mount Anville site.

I understand that, as a contingency arrangement, the Department has, as the Senator said, submitted a section 5 application to the council to determine whether a proposal to provide interim accommodation on the grounds of Mount Merrion community centre requires planning permission or is considered exempted development. I understand it will lodge that application this week. The interim accommodation, which can be installed on either site once permission is secured, has been procured and is available to the Department for installation. I am not aware of the reason the application is only being submitted this week. It would have been preferable for it to have been done before now.

I will bring the Senator's Commencement matter to the attention of the planning and building unit and the Minister to make sure that we can expedite the building of a permanent building as soon as possible. I understand that heads of terms have been agreed and the Department is waiting on draft contracts. It is expected that conveyancing will conclude shortly.

That still leaves a gap, as the Senator said, between where we are now and when the children will attend school. I note what he said about the fact that the interim accommodation in Kill of the Grange would not have the capacity to take in any more children or expand. He mentioned after-school or afternoon classes and commuting.

I understand 39 pupils are enrolled and another 24 are expected to begin in the new the school year. I believe there are two contingency plans. One involves the Mount Merrion community centre and the second concerns the parish hall, as the Senator said. The Department has worked with An Foras Pátrúnachta to identify contingency arrangements.

The difficulty is that we know the permanent school building will not be built by September and, therefore, we need to find an arrangement that is satisfactory for the families, whether that involves the use of the parish hall in Blackrock or the Mount Merrion centre, which is near where I live. Fire and disability access certificates will be required on whichever site is available first. I understand applications are being prepared.

The views of parents are critical in ensuring that we have adequate facilities for children and that the commute and after-school activities will not be unduly onerous while the school community awaits the building of permanent accommodation. I hope the Department, which is listening to this contribution, will be able to provide some clarity on that in early course.

I accept the bona fides of the Minister of State and I acknowledge the efforts she has made to facilitate the school community. I welcome the fact that the application will be made in short order. It should have been made weeks ago. The reality is that it is unlikely I will have an opportunity to raise this issue again before the end of this session, but I am not letting this go. I may come back here in September. So help me God, if the school community in Gaelscoil Laighean has been left in the lurch again there will have to be consequences in terms of the inaction of the Department. This should have happened and it is simply not fair to the school community to leave it in the lurch like this, not knowing what is going to happen.

Those living in Mount Merrion do not know whether they will have to drive to Deansgrange in the morning with children before driving to work, wherever that might be. That is not fair on parents and households. Action needs to be taken. I dearly hope that Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council will deem this to be exempted development so that matters can progress. I hope the interim site in Mount Merrion will be in place in time for September. It should be, and if it is not, we know who is to blame.

The Senator has made his views known quite clearly. As a parent, I know how difficult it must be not having clarity. We want clarity as soon as possible. I agree with his sentiments around Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council.

In that case, at least the parents can be told one way or the other where their children will attend in advance of September so that they can make the appropriate arrangements needed. Obviously, this is a critical issue. In tandem with that, I will put pressure on the planning and building unit in the Department to make sure that the conveyancing is wrapped up and we get the permanent building built as soon as possible, which is ultimately what everybody wants.

Special Educational Needs

I thank the Minister of State for being here. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important matter. Just months before the start of the new school year, we have heard that hundreds of children do not have appropriate school places. AsIAm, the national autism charity, published a survey earlier this month showing that at least 267 children do not have appropriate school places for September. According to the survey, at least 112 children aged between one and six are on waiting lists for an appropriate school place. Just 20% of people who responded have a child with a school place in their locality for September. It is believed that the actual numbers are much higher than this snap survey has shown.

Last month, the Government proposed opening five special educational needs centres in Dublin as an emergency measure to respond to the shortage of suitable school places. I add my voice to those parents and disability organisations who have said this is no solution to a very real problem.

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, has also raised concerns about this proposal. IHREC monitors Ireland’s obligation under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and has called on the Department to take a human rights- and equality-based approach. It has called on the Government to ensure mainstream educational provision that is fully inclusive of all people with disabilities. This means making sure children have appropriate school places that meet their needs. This is an education issue, a disability rights issue and a child’s rights issue. As a member of the Joint Committee on Autism, the Joint Committee on Disability Matters and the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, I have spoken often on how we need to work towards a fully inclusive society that upholds the rights of all our people.

The Minister of State said that she plans to start issuing section 37A orders to schools, if needed, to make sure that spaces are available for children in special classes in schools but we know that is a lengthy process. However, we also know the Oireachtas can pass legislation very quickly when the political will and pressure is there. Is this not an emergency situation that requires an emergency response?

My question is very straightforward. Is the proposal to set up separate special education centres still being considered? I am looking for a straight "Yes" or "No" answer if it is possible. The children, families and their advocates deserve to hear that. If that plan is no longer being considered, will the Minister of State use her authority to enact emergency legislation to make sure the additional special educational units needed in our schools will be there for September?

It is very important for me, as Minister for State with responsibility for special education and inclusion, that I support children with additional needs in any way I can. I have a budget of €2 billion, which is more than 25% of the entire education budget and an unprecedented amount. It has grown by 60% since 2011. Due to that, we have been able to put in place many more special education teachers. We have more than 14,000 of those and more than 19,000 special needs assistants, SNAs. In addition, special classes and special school places are at unprecedented levels. but, clearly, there is still a gap for some children and we need to make sure that we provide for them.

Recognising some of the difficulties experienced by parents in securing appropriate school placements, my Department and the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, have worked over the past two years, since I have been in this role, on a more streamlined and joined-up planning process, which has ensured a targeted approach to meet the demand for special needs placements ahead of each new school year.

The Department and the NCSE have introduced a number of strategic initiatives to deliver the scale and quantity of special educational needs, SEN, provision required for our children and young people. The Department has a geographical information system that is being utilised to support a more strategic and co-ordinated approach to the planning and delivery of SEN provision. Some of the initiatives that are bearing fruit from that are: 269 special classes opened in September 2021, with a further 33 opening for 2021-22; 315 new special classes opening for the 2022-23 school year; two new special schools established in Cork and Dublin in 2021; and a new special school opening in Cork in the 2022-23 school year. In addition, there is a new major policy departure in the Department where we got the fee-charging schools under the Spiritan Education Trust to agree to open special classes for the very first time. It will open a new special school in existing accommodation at the Templeogue College campus in Dublin, with an overall objective to provide a modern permanent provision for the school to enable it to cater for up to 150 pupils when completed, adding very significant capacity for the south Dublin area.

The Senator mentioned section 37A of the Education Act. That process has been initiated for the third time by the Department and I triggered it. The NCSE wrote to me and formed an opinion that there was insufficient special class capacity in Dublin. At the moment, we have special class and special school provision completely covered outside of Dublin. Dublin is the pinch point and that is what we are trying to sort out.

The NCSE advice in May was that 80 special class places and 49 special school places were still needed for September this year. Since then, due to much ongoing work, we reduced those places to 56. We are making progress and we will continue to make progress during the summer. I recognise how stressful it is for families who are working hard to get sufficient school and special class placements.

Stage one of section 37A is now complete. The Senator will be aware that the process itself is under review. It needs to be streamlined and truncated. It is the only tool available to me at present. However, we want to make sure that we review that properly and that it is more streamlined.

On emergency legislation, which the Senator mentioned as well, my Department is considering the need to bring in emergency legislation to assist us in securing additional placements where we do not have them in schools at present. My officials are currently engaged with the Office of the Attorney General on that matter.

I know parents of children with special needs and the children themselves would very much appreciate the Minister of State’s last comment around creating more spaces for our children in our mainstream schools. Is there any way she could give the children and parents a “Yes” or “No” answer? Is it still on the table to open five separate centres for children with special educational needs?

I appreciate the €2 billion that has gone into special educational funding this year. Unfortunately, that means very little to parents who are looking for a place for the children but have not found one yet.

Remember, it is now June. I stress the importance of engaging. I know from organisations and individuals I spoke with over the past two weeks, people from the disability sector and people with disabilities do not agree with the segregation of people with disabilities. That never worked. Putting Travellers into schools by themselves in the 1970s and 1980s did not work and it is not going to work for people with disabilities.

I thank Senator Flynn. The Department is working closely with stakeholders and the advocacy groups she mentioned to ensure that children with special educational needs can access educational places appropriate to their needs. My Department and I are listening really closely to the voice of parents and those representing children with disabilities. That is essential to ensure that what we deliver meets their needs.

There is a shared determination to work intensively on the issues facing us. We are doing that through the special education consultative forum I set up on which all the advocacy groups are represented. We are focusing on addressing this need without having to introduce other avenues of support than those I have already outlined. That has always been our first priority.

Any additional supports that could be provided to parents of children who are availing of home tuition and which are currently being discussed, as I said, through our special education consultative forum would require the mutual support of the forum and the Department. Engagement on this is continuing.

I want to reassure Senator Flynn that I will continue to support children with additional needs in whatever way I can with the support of the advocacy groups. Whatever way we move forward it will be in a united way with those representative bodies.

Local Authorities

I thank the Cathaoirleach's office for choosing this Commencement matter. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, although I am disappointed that of three Ministers of State and the Minister in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage not one of them could be here to discuss this matter. Nonetheless I welcome Deputy Madigan.

I have been raising this issue for many years in various ways with different Ministers. The issue is the perilous financial situation in Galway County Council in terms of its baseline funding. Last year when the Minister contacted the county council and gave a very welcome once-off allocation of €600,000, he stated the Department was reviewing the local property tax yield and once available allocations would be reviewed. I now understand that is not going to be concluded this year. The review will encompass all local authorities. However, the Department stated that as previously discussed whether a financial plan specific to County Galway may be appropriate is something we can revisit. Is that something the Department will now look at? The Department also stated it was available to support and collaborate on this issue. I certainly think that a specific case and a plan for Galway needs to be enacted prior to the coming budget, before the councillors have to make their decision in regard to local property tax.

The baseline figures for Galway are as clear as mud in terms of the revenue budget and revenue per capita. In the 2022 revenue budget, Galway County Council has a budget of €143.9 million. Comparable counties such as Mayo and Donegal have around €162 million or €163 million although they have lower populations. That is basically the issue. The per capita figure for Galway is €802 compared with Donegal with more than €1,000 and Mayo at €1,256. That is the crux of the issue that we are trying to address.

It just shows that there is a team of people here in the west fighting for funding for the population of the west. We are the seventh largest population with 180,000 people living in County Galway. We are the second largest county and that means a hell of a lot of roads in Galway.

As a Galway county councillor elected in 2019, I am fully aware of the devastating impact in terms of the roll-out of services to people and families who live in our towns and villages. This is our rural future. These are the policies we want to roll out at a local level. We cannot do it because in my own municipal district of Ballinasloe, which goes from Ballymote, close to Castlereagh in Roscommon all the way down to Banagher Bridge, in one section we have more than three vacant positions out of nine for general operatives. We are down an engineer. Another technician was promised last year but is still not in place.

We need clear guidelines on core funding as Senator Kyne as mentioned. We need to know as it impacts from housing and active travel to fire services and libraries on our ability to provide services in the county for enterprise, our planners, water services, economic development, our tourism and heritage officers who are trying to promote hidden heartlands and trying to bring more income into our area that is already suffering in terms of not being able to access these services that we should be seeing from local authorities.

Senator Kyne and I have been working closely with the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke. The Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, will be fully aware that we have raised this a number of times previously. Our budget is crucial. As Senator Kyne mentioned it is €802 per capita. To break that down, looking at each section within a local authority, for example, in housing the national average is €480 per person. In County Galway, €95 per person is allocated. It is beyond time that we state that Galway County Council needs support now. It needs exceptional support. I look forward to the response from the Department.

I thank Senators Kyne and Dolan. At the outset, the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, has informed me that both Senators have been in constant contact with him about this issue and secured a package last year through their work, and that he will work closely with them again over the coming period of time.

The local property tax, LPT, as we know was introduced to provide a stable and sustainable funding base for the local authority sector, providing greater levels of connection between local revenue and associated expenditure decisions. LPT allocations to local authorities for 2022 amount to €523.9 million. This figure includes the Exchequer contribution to equalisation funding of €34.5 million. Galway County Council was allocated €14.5 million for 2022.

In addition to the LPT allocation, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage has also agreed a provisional allocation of €4.44 million for Galway County Council in respect of the additional costs that will arise in 2022 as a consequence of the national pay agreements. This allocation relates specifically to increases in rates of pay and public service pension reductions resulting from the unwinding of financial emergency measures in the public interest legislation and increases in pay and pensions relating to Building Momentum - A New Public Service Agreement 2021-2022.

The overall aim of the allocation is to ease the burden on local authorities of the increased costs in 2022. As part of the budget process the Department engaged with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on the financial impact on the sector and secured the allocation which will assist local authorities to meet the costs arising. Across all schemes and funding resources the Department has provided €82.9 million in 2020 and €85.9 million in 2021 to Galway County Council. The payments in 2020 also included an allocation to Galway County Council of €1 million, funding that was linked to the operation of municipal districts. In 2021, Galway received an allocation of €600,000 for additional discretionary income.

It should also be noted that unprecedented support was provided for local authorities during the Covid-19 pandemic. One of the earliest priorities was to secure funding to provide a waiver of commercial rates for businesses impacted by the pandemic while simultaneously supporting local authorities. In 2020, Galway County Council applied a 100% commercial rates waiver to just over 3,500 businesses and recouped €10.2 million in that regard. In addition, in recognition of Covid-19 related income losses and additional expenditure incurred, funding of €6.7 million was provided to Galway County Council in 2020. This support continued in 2021 when the Government introduced a nine-month commercial rates waiver applying to the businesses most seriously affected by the restrictions, and a more targeted waiver for the final quarter of the year. Galway County Council received €7.3 million for this waiver and an additional €1 million for Covid-19 related income losses and expenditure for 2021.

The programme for Government commits to bringing forward LPT reforms, including providing for all money collected locally to be retained within the county. The Government has signalled its intention that the move to 100% local retention of LPT will be introduced over the 2023 and 2024 budgetary cycles. It is expected that the LPT yield will change following revaluation last November and the distribution model will be reviewed when the new yield per local authority is fully quantified.

However, final figures are not yet available.

Given the need for timely information to be provided to local authorities for their budgetary process and the need for final local property tax figures to inform that, it is not expected that baselines will be reviewed in advance of the 2023 local authority budget process. Each local authority position is complex and it is important that sufficient time is taken to analyse and assess potential options in that respect. Preliminary census data will also form an important input to that deliberation. The Minister will, however, be considering, in consultation with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, the potential for a move towards 100% retention for 2023.

I acknowledge the current funding pressures on local authorities and, as such, the funding for Galway County Council and other local authorities will be kept under review as part of the normal Estimates process for 2023 and in the context of the aforementioned final local property tax yield following the revaluation process.

That is a very disappointing response. There was mention of money to reverse the financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, and the money used during the Covid-19 pandemic. All local authorities were eligible for those and received them, and they were not particular to Galway County Council. As Senator Dolan commented, this is about staffing resources to provide services the people of County Galway need, and we need better engagement than we get now. It is clear now the local property tax will not be reviewed in time for the forthcoming budget and we need a specific plan for County Galway, the possibility of which the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, committed to last year. I ask that the Department engages on that.

It is important, as the Minister of State indicates, that taxes collected in the local area would come back to that local area. That is in regard of the local property tax. It is important to recognise that core funding for Galway County Council is the issue. I know the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, and the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, must engage with Galway County Council in this regard.

There has been an increase in commercial rates within Galway County Council and this shows the executive is making commitments to raise funds. We know income must be generated within the local area but we need to be able to have the resources to be able to do that. If we do not have the resources to bring enterprise into our area, how will we get the commercial rates to deliver these services within the county? We need the resources on the ground to do that for Irish Water and a myriad of other things. We would appreciate the support of the Minister of State on this.

I note what the Senators have said about Galway being the seventh-largest centre of population and the comments around FEMPI and core funding, which are important. I acknowledge that Galway County Council moved to increase commercial rates for 2022 to increase the level of funding available to the council, which made an important contribution to the overall position. Of course, Senators are aware that local authorities may also vary their local property tax rate by up to 15%. Authorities that increase the rate retain 100% of the additional income, whereas local authorities that decrease the rate bear the full reduction in income. Galway County Council has opted not to avail of this opportunity to raise additional locally sourced income since 2018. I am told the council could have benefited from an additional €2.2 million in 2022 if it had applied the additional 15% upward local variation in the same way as many other local authorities have. That said, the funding position of Galway County Council will be kept under during the 2023 Estimates process. I know the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, has an interest in today's contributions and will work very closely with the Senators. He recognises the work done to date for Galway County Council and will continue to support the Senators in their roles.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 11.15 a.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 11.30 a.m.
Sitting suspended at 11.15 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.
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