Adjournment Debate.

Care of the Elderly.

Cé go bhfuil sé déanach, gabhaim buíochas as ucht an seans an rún seo a mholadh. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to raise this matter, despite the fact it is rather late in the evening.

The people of north Tipperary very much appreciate the progress made on a number of fronts in the provision of health services to serve the people of that region. Our county hospital has been developed and expanded, new consultants have been appointed and, at present, the x-ray laboratory and accident and emergency services are being extended.

While I was a Member of the Cabinet, moneys were provided for a new community hospital in Thurles. We now have a state of the art facility catering for the elderly, which matches the best not only in this country but in the world and we are proud of it. In St. Conlon's in Nenagh and the Dean Maxwell home in Roscrea, the services provided for the elderly are quite extraordinary. When many of us began in public life, we could not have envisaged the care, compassion and understanding provided in such facilities. They are sometimes taken for granted but very much appreciated.

However, because of geographical circumstances, one region, the Borrisokane and Lower Ormond area, has been denied the type of services to which it is entitled. The people there have traditionally travelled to the Hospital of the Assumption in Thurles, but for many of them it involves a journey of more than 50 miles. Deputy Hayes also knows the area.

The burden on families and the isolation of individuals concerned was probably not always understood. However, we now provide excellent facilities in local regions. Whether it is in St.Conlon's in Nenagh or the Dean Maxwell home in Roscrea, people have become accustomed to having day care, long-stay care and cancer care facilities closer to their homes. That is not the case for the people of Borrisokane and Lower Ormond who still have to travel.

In the context of the provision of services for the elderly, I ask that a 22-bed unit and a day care centre be provided on the site in that area acquired years ago by the health authority to give the people in Rathcabbin, Lorrha, Terryglass, Kilbarron, Carrig and Ballingarry the kind of facilities that are now taken for granted in the rest of the county.

The Leas-Cheann Comhairle, the Minister of State and my colleagues here appreciate the importance of giving to an older generation, many of whom have given a great deal and not asked for much in return, the opportunity to be close to their homes as they grow older and to meet their neighbours. Whether they are in long-term care, a public facility or a day care centre, each day they can meet with their friends and their families do not have to travel a distance of up to 50 miles, which has been the case.

I appeal to the Minister of State to respond as positively as he can. I am aware consideration is being given to the provision of such a unit in the county as a whole. My case, which I put genuinely, is for this area to be given that provision because these people have not questioned what they have had to do for decades. They travelled that 50 miles to visit their fathers, mothers, uncles and aunts who, in turn, were 50 miles away from their homes and felt isolated. We have moved on from that stage. We have a beautiful state of the art facility in Thurles which caters for the surrounding region. We are asking the Government to measure up, in the context of the resources available, and give to the Lower Ormond area what we have given to Nenagh, Roscrea, Thurles and what we would like to give to the community as a whole.

I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney. I thank Deputy Smith for raising this question as it provides me with an opportunity to outline to the House the current position with regard to services for older people in the Lower Ormond area.

This Government has made services for older people a priority by significantly increasing resources made available in recent years. Additional funding for services for older people, amounting to €150 million, was allocated in the 2006 budget. This is the largest ever increase in funding for services for older people. Reflecting the new emphasis on home and day care, almost three quarters of that sum, €109 million of the full year costs, is committed to community care supports.

In the context of dealing with the issue of the 22-bed unit and day care centre in Borrisokane, the Health Service Executive has advised that the provision of services for older persons in north Tipperary must be viewed not only in the context of the provision of extended care beds but also the increasing attention to and resourcing of community-based services to support older people with the view of maintaining them in their own homes and communities for as long as possible, thereby reducing the dependence on extended care beds. Consistent with this type of provision, there has been an emphasis in north Tipperary in the past decade on enhancing both the quantity and quality of day centre provision and much has been achieved to date. There are 30 places in Nenagh, 25 in Templemore, 25 in Newport, 25 in Roscrea and 30 in Thurles.

With specific reference to residential services for older persons, the particular emphasis in recent years has been, in the first instance, to improve the infrastructure and the quality and type of service in existing facilities. As a result of this emphasis, significant refurbishment has taken place at the Dean Maxwell community nursing unit in Roscrea and a completely new hospital has been built to replace the Hospital of the Assumption in Thurles. Both these projects have been completed and the new hospital in Thurles has been fully occupied since April 2006. In Nenagh, there has been investment in 2005 and 2006 to improve the existing facility at St. Conlon's community nursing unit.

There is an identified need in the Borrisokane area in respect of day centre provision and also some bed capacity, and that will now form the basis of consideration by the Health Service Executive. In the interim, it is noted that the overall support for older persons in the north Tipperary area has been significantly enhanced, not only by the aforementioned developments but also through the provision of increased funding for the home help service and new funding to provide home care packages for older persons in the area. Such home care packages allow for a co-ordinated response by a number of areas of service provision, which come together to support older people living at home, and the people in the Borrisokane area, Nenagh sector, can avail of these services. It is the intention of the HSE that the significant developments in total service provision for older persons in north Tipperary in recent years will continue.

Special Educational Needs.

I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak on the withdrawal of home tuition grants. In the past, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, emphasised her commitment to ensuring that all children, including those with autism, receive an education appropriate to their needs. In that context, the decision to withdraw home tuition grants for children with autism is perplexing. What could be the rationale for this action when it clearly affects one key element of children's education, that is, the essential extra they receive in a comfortable home environment on a one-to-one basis? That has been crucial to their successful integration into the mainstream education system.

The Minister now says her Department considers that school-based education provision is the most appropriate intervention for all children. That is an arrogant statement which is untrue. It is astonishing in the context of fulfilling the educational needs for children with autism. The Irish Society for Autism states that it is essential to have an individualised education programme for each person. It also states that parents should be encouraged to take an active role in all aspects of a child's development. The Minister is suggesting that the home tuition service can be ended and that from now on such children can struggle through the school system without any back-up. Parents will lose out also as a result of the withdrawal of the home tuition scheme. As they, too, learn how to cope with their children's needs, home tuition is a support for them also.

Children with autism need one-to-one tuition on a consistent basis from as early an age as possible. They grow up to be independent and in doing so save the State from having to provide for them as dependent adults in the future.

I repeat that the decision by the Minister to reverse the gains made through the provision of the home tuition grant scheme is astonishing. I cannot believe the Minister made the decision for money reasons because I am aware of her commitment to education. With the Government coffers overflowing, the Department is not short of funds.

As a society, we are still dealing with the damage caused to three or more generations of our citizens because of the mistaken belief in institutions such as industrial schools and the refusal to believe that the home environment is where a child's crucial learning occurs. The same occurred in the past when children with intellectual disabilities were locked away in institutions, with the result that their potential was lost forever. I am not suggesting that our school system can in any way be compared to those practices but the institutional approach the Minister is taking to the issue is causing such concern for parents who are struggling, with all the pressures of modern life, to rear children with intellectual disabilities.

Schools do an excellent job with their limited resources but they do not have the specialised personnel to cope with a child with autism in a classroom of 30 children. Some of my constituents in west Clare are very concerned about the removal of this key plank in support of the education of their children. I know from talking to my colleagues that the same is true throughout the country. We all saw the "Prime Time" programme the other night. I know the family involved in that programme very well.

It is not enough to talk about the number of pre-schools and the school classes for autism when there is no adequate back-up in most areas, apart from what the Government was able to provide up to now through the home tuition grant system. Despite assurances from the Minister, the west Clare autism specialism system sanctioned in Kilrush looks doubtful for September because no qualified personnel are available as yet. I urge the Minister to ensure those qualified persons are appointed as soon as possible.

A response to a recent parliamentary question indicated that the Department had spent €11.7 million in legal costs and settlements relating to educational provision for children with special needs in the three years up to 2005. The Minister admitted that the vast majority of these cases relate to children with autism. This is a staggering amount of money and I doubt that the Minister could assure me that a similar bill will not be presented to the taxpayer in 2006. The courts have repeatedly found that the State has failed to provide the funding and resources for children with autism. Has the Minister calculated how many years €11.7 million would pay for a properly funded home tuition grant scheme with all the appropriate back-up in terms of providing training for personnel?

The Minister has said with no apology to the taxpayer that her Department attempts whenever possible to reduce the potential for litigation and the level of legal costs where litigation arises. Has she calculated the legal costs that arise from this penny-pinching measure? It seems to be a case of being cent wise and euro foolish. It is no wonder the opinion polls show support diminishing for the Government as it loses its grip on the reality of value for money principles, not to mention the constitutional provision to cover the education of our children.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to clarify the position of the Department of Education and Science on the matter of home tuition.

The Department of Education and Science considers that school-based education provision is the most appropriate intervention for all children, including those with special educational needs, and has discontinued the practice whereby children who are in full-time education provision would also be able to avail of home tuition grants.

The children referred to by the Deputy are on the autistic spectrum and are enrolled in special schools or special class placements or are attending mainstream schools with additional resource teaching and special needs assistant supports as appropriate.

Recent years have seen a major expansion in school-based provision for children with autism. Current provision includes 162 special classes for children with autism, attached to special and mainstream schools; 15 pre-school classes; five special classes for children with Asperger's syndrome; and 12 stand-alone facilities providing an applied-behavioural analysis, ABA, specific methodology. Approval has also been given for the establishment of a further two such facilities.

The newly established National Council for Special Education and its team of more than 70 special educational needs organisers are also working across the country to ensure that new services are put in place where needed so that children with special needs, including those on the autistic spectrum, have access to appropriate school-based provision.

The decision to discontinue home tuition grant was on the basis that the educational needs of these pupils can be best met in their individual schools. It is open to any parents who may have a concern over the educational supports being delivered in the schools to discuss their concerns with the school in question.

Schools Building Projects.

The announcement in April by the Minister for Education and Science of an additional primary school, St. Benedict's, for the Ongar and Castaheany area was welcomed by all the community because of the ongoing crisis regarding school places in this rapidly growing area. However, the recent news that St. Benedict's will share the site reserved for more than three years for the Castaheany Educate Together national school has caused great concern among local residents.

The two schools along with community facilities will be located on only four acres, which is considerably less than the usual size for schools with such numbers. I have been advised that only three acres of the site have been reserved for educational use. I have been told that the Department of Education and Science plans to provide a 40-classroom facility on this three or four-acre site potentially catering for up to 1,200 children. Local residents are extremely concerned that the access to the two schools for the 1,200 children and the community facility will be through one housing estate in which, because of high densities, roads are designed to be narrow, with no free parking. Residents are very limited in the amount of parking.

I call on the Department to meet residents, public representatives and Fingal County Council in a round table discussion to work our way through the issue. While people really want the school, equally they need to be able to get into and out of their homes. Having been promised a school for three years, the board of Castaheany Educate Together school is anxious to open in September. Equally it is alarmed at the level of traffic safety and access issues that arise for so many children in a confined site with a limited access point.

Why were the members of the board of the Castaheany Educate Together school not consulted about the possibility of an additional school being built on the site reserved for its school? When will the Government inform the board of the Castaheany Educate Together national school of the full detail of its plans for this site? Apparently the Department has consulted Fingal County Council, but has consulted none of the other parties, including the school boards, residents and local public representatives. What plans has the Minister made for access, parking and drop-off points for a school of this size in what is essentially a cul-de-sac residential estate?

I have campaigned for the Minister to pay some attention to the crisis of primary school places in Dublin 15. However, squeezing two schools into a small site is not a solution. Some 8,000 houses have been built in the area in the past seven years and the new communities will need to live with the consequences of this decision for 30 or 40 years. While there is urgency, there is also a need for consultation to get this right. When vast tracts of land are zoned for housing, school sites must be acquired at the same time. Sites reserved for educational use must not sit vacant for years.

There is an easy solution. Two other sites are reserved for education in the area in Hansfield, directly across the road from the site that is to hold these two schools and further up the road at Phibblestown. Why did the Minister choose to squeeze two schools on to such a small site with access problems? For St. Benedict's the resources available in reserved sites in the Dublin 15 area, particularly the Hansfield site directly across the road, must be utilised. Once two schools are built on this site with limited access there will be no going back. I am sure the Minister of State knows from his constituency that where there is limited access and the residents have 1,200 children coming through one small space, it sets the scene for continual conflict down the decades.

I have championed both the schools and will continue to do so. I ask the Minister to consult now while there is time. While no one wants to see any objections, the residents who will live beside these schools had been promised one school and a green space. They will now get two schools and a community facility with another school site lying vacant across the road. They deserve to be consulted, as do the boards of the two schools. I am sure that if this is done we can find an amicable way forward to resolve the issue and provide these important schools on time.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it provides me with an opportunity to outline to the House the actions being taken by the Department of Education and Science to address the school accommodation needs of the Ongar area of Dublin 15. The Department of Education and Science has acknowledged that the population surge in Dublin 15 has created a significant extra demand for primary school places. This unforeseen surge has been created, in the main, by occupancy rates greater than those predicted by the local authority for housing developments. This appears to have arisen largely because families have moved into the area.

Having found itself in a position where a considerable amount of additional primary school accommodation was urgently needed, the Department moved quickly to provide this accommodation by extending existing schools and providing a number of completely new schools. The Department is particularly appreciative of the boards of management which rose to the challenge of meeting the needs of their communities.

All the projects concerned, including extension projects, attract a band one priority rating under the prioritisation criteria for large-scale building projects. The delivery of building projects for the new schools is being expedited by using generic repeat designs or the design and build method where generic repeat designs are not feasible. This approach will ensure that school accommodation is delivered in the fastest timeframe possible and is a clear indication of the urgency with which the Department regards the provision of educational infrastructure in the area.

The Department took the exceptional measure of recognising a new school, St. Benedict's Ongar National School, outside the new schools advisory committee process in order to ensure that places will be available for eligible pupils for next September. This is one of the schools which will be permanently located on the Ongar site.

The Department wishes to be unequivocal about what is happening on the Ongar site. This site is being developed on a phased basis. The focus for the Department is, in the first instance, on providing a new permanent school building for Castaheany Educate Together school on the site by September 2007. This is a challenging timeframe in terms of dealing with the design, planning permission and construction phases of the project. The project will be followed by a permanent school building for St. Benedict's Ongar National School. Both schools will have a separate identity on the site. One will be a two stream facility, the other will be a three stream facility. It is expected that further provisions will be made in other locations in the area.

Officials in the Department had extensive discussions with Fingal County Council prior to lodging the application for planning permission for the first phase of the project with a view to addressing any planning issues arising. It is a matter for the planning processes to iron out any remaining issues.

The Ongar site, which comprises four acres, is reserved for educational use rather than for one school or school type. It is in the ownership of the Department of Education and Science and there is no question of such a large parcel of scarce and costly land being dedicated to one educational facility when the needs of the community exceed what one school is able to provide. It is the function of the Department to assess the educational needs of the constituent parts of any given community and to deliver infrastructure to meet those needs in the context of statutory regulations such as planning permission requirements.

The best technical advice available to the Department indicates that, with imaginative and creative design, the site has the capacity to accommodate two primary schools without compromising standards. The Department will be pressing ahead with its plans in this regard. Issues such as access and traffic management will be dealt with under the planning procedures.

Multi-school campus arrangements will become a feature of the educational landscape. In Fingal County Council, these campus style arrangements will have the added benefit of access to shared community facilities, which will enhance the educational experience of the pupils attending the schools and benefit the community at large. The Department hopes to be able to test this model with all due haste but the first priority is to ensure that all eligible pupils in Dublin 15 are able to attend school.

The provisions being made on the Ongar site are necessary to match demand. The Department has the land to make the required provision and the plans are fully in train to deliver it.

Planning Issues.

I wish to share one minute of my time with Deputy Timmins, by agreement.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I have concerns about the planning regulations for developments which front on to national primary roads. I am aware of several cases in which planning permission was granted by local authorities but appealed to An Bord Pleanála by the National Roads Authority. On occasion, objections have been made to the construction of single houses.

This year, a major garage in my town applied to Mayo County Council for planning permission. The National Roads Authority made critical observations on the application. I am delighted the garage was granted permission but a young couple were refused planning permission by Mayo County Council to build a house 200 yards away on the same road. I interceded on behalf of the couple, who subsequently made a successful application to the council. However, the NRA objected to the development. The couple asked me why the NRA objected to their development but not to the garage. I made serious allegations in this House, which I stand over, but I will not repeat them tonight.

I wrote to the NRA to seek an explanation as to why it did not follow through on the observations it made with regard to the garage. The NRA replied that it did not prove feasible to do so within the prescribed period due to the receipt of notification of the council's decision immediately before the Christmas break and the absence of authority personnel on annual leave. Does that mean we will have to wait for someone to advise that the NRA's staff will be on holidays and, therefore, will not object to a planning application?

I urge the Minister of State to persuade the NRA to withdraw its objection to the couple's application on the basis that it did not object to the garage. A couple of hundred cars will enter and leave the garage area but only one or two will leave the couple's private house. The matter must be resolved. The NRA has an obligation to withdraw its objection.

If planning permission for a project is granted the day before the NRA's staff go on holiday, will the agency fail to make objections on safety grounds? That question will have to be answered because I will not let it go. I intend to outline the matter to RTE and will introduce the couple to any Ministers who visit my constituency. This is the couple's only opportunity to build a house.

There should be one planning process under the aegis of local authorities and An Bord Pleanála. An Taisce and the NRA should not be allowed to make objections later than the five week period allowed for observations. I am unhappy about this situation because it is wrong that a State agency should put such a reply in writing. I will ask the Ombudsman to adjudicate on whether the staff of the NRA can avoid their responsibilities simply because they go on holiday. That would mean emergency surgery is cancelled when a hospital consultant takes a holiday or, if the staff of the Oireachtas decide to go on holiday tonight, the Dáil will not work tomorrow. That is not the way this country is run. There should be an investigation into the unfairness in the planning process.

The explanation provided by the NRA to Deputy Ring is completely unsatisfactory. During the holiday period additional days are added to the 28 days allowed for appeal. I cannot understand how this is the case. In a similar case north of Blessington the NRA appealed plans for a one-off house.

One of the major issues in my constituency is the condition of the national secondary road, the N81. Improvement of this route between Blessington and Tallaght was included in the National Development Plan 2000-2006 by the Government but nothing has happened. It was included in Transport 21, launched with such fanfare by the Minister for Transport. I have tabled questions to establish when work will be carried out on the N81 but they were ruled out of order. I wrote to the NRA who replied that there are no plans to carry out major works on the road. How can I find out what is the situation?

This is one of the most dangerous roads in the country. A number of people have been killed on it in recent years. Over the past ten years more than 400 accidents have occurred, leading to major and minor injuries. As a representative of the area, I cannot find out when improvement works will be started. I urge the Minister of State to contact the Minister for Transport to ascertain what is happening.

I am pleased to outline the Department's position on development fronting on accessing national roads. The decision to grant a planning application, with or without conditions, is a matter for the relevant planning authority or An Bord Pleanála in the event of an appeal. In making decisions on applications planning authorities must, under planning legislation, consider the proper planning and sustainable development of the area, having regard to the provisions of the development plan, any submissions or observations received and relevant ministerial or Government policies, including any guidelines issued by the Department.

Policy on development of national roads has been consistent for many years and was restated recently in the Department's draft development management guidelines, which are expected to be issued in final form before the end of this year. These guidelines state that the location of new means of access to national primary roads or residential, commercial, industrial or other development dependent on such means of access should not be permitted except in areas where a speed limit of 50-65 km/h applies or, in case of infilling, in the existing built-up areas. The same considerations apply to national secondary roads.

The safety of road users is of particular importance. Analysis of road accident data indicates that more than 50% of all injury accidents reported on Irish roads over the period 1996-2004 occurred at junctions or involved turning movements on to or off roads. The risks posed here are obviously greater on national roads where there is a greater volume of traffic and higher speed limits apply.

This policy was stated as long ago as 1982 in the Department's development control advice and guidelines, which referred to the need to protect the investment in national roads and to traffic hazards for both residents and road users. The NRA's recent policy statement on development management and access to national roads, dated May 2006, is a further elaboration of this policy. This policy has also been restated in the Department's sustainable rural housing guidelines for planning authorities, issued in April 2005. Accordingly, policy on development on national roads is long-established and well-known.

Under the Planning and Development Regulations 2001, the NRA must be consulted on all planning applications where the proposed development would involve the formation or widening of an access to a national road except in a built up area or where it might give rise to a significant increase in the volume of traffic using a national road.

Any submissions made by the NRA on a planning application must be taken into account by the planning authority in making its decision. It is open to the NRA, as it is to any person or body who made a submission, to appeal the decision of a planning authority to An Bord Pleanála. The policy guidance on development of national roads is clear. There are no plans to introduce amending legislation. If the Deputies wish to provide the correspondence regarding planning permission I will speak to the Minister.

The Dáil adjourned at 12.55 a.m. until10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 5 July 2006.