Topical Issue Debate

Sustainable Development Goals

This matter arises from the annual sustainable progress index published yesterday by Social Justice Ireland, which mentions Ireland's progress implementing the UN sustainable development goals.

I compared this year's index to last year's and I note that there has been little or no positive change in how the Irish economy is integrating sustainable development and well-being objectives into everyday strategies and actions. Most worryingly, consecutive reports highlight poor and deteriorating performance on particular goals, including sustainable development goal 7, affordable and clean energy; goal 12, responsible consumption and production; goal 13, climate action; and goal 14, life below water. In addition, we are making poor progress in our Aichi biodiversity targets. This year, Ireland has retained its last place position in the index for these goals and targets. It is dead last, with the wooden spoon. These goals all speak strongly to core Green Party objectives. If I see no significant improvement in these areas, my voters will rightly ask me why.

Nearly six years ago, Ireland played an historic role in the process to agree and adopt Agenda 2030 and the sustainable development goals, SDGs, as co-chair alongside Kenya. The adoption of Agenda 2030 was one of the pivotal international moments in 2015, with countries from all over the world coming together and committing to do more for fair, equitable and environmentally sustainable development. I was pleased to note that the Taoiseach, in his address to the General Assembly of the United Nations last September, reaffirmed our nation's commitment to the sustainable development goals and Agenda 2030, but this needs to be more than an empty formula and a shiny pin on the lapel, which I notice that both the Minister and I are wearing this evening.

If this is to be the decade of action on the SDGs, we need concrete, measurable actions that help us to live up to the commitments that Ireland played such a key role in framing. I am wary of the perception that the SDGs are something applicable to developing countries - that they are something that we work on thar lear, i bhfad uainn i gcéin. For the SDGs to be effective, they need to be universally applied, as much here as anywhere else. We have seen some concrete progress in this Dáil, with the establishment of the all-party Oireachtas group on sustainable development goals. The SDGs and their attainment are now written into the Standing Orders of each committee.

It should be acknowledged that a national implementation plan has been in place since 2018, though I would question the level of oversight and reporting which exists to ensure the plan is being fully followed through. I have submitted parliamentary questions to each Department to ask which of the 169 sub-targets of the 17 goals it has identified as being relevant to the Department's work and whether the commitments to the SDGs will be reflected in the new strategy statements. The answers I have received have varied from excellent, and I give particular credit to the Department of Finance for its response, to abject. Ireland's shortfalls in meeting our goals and targets demonstrate a failure to enshrine one of the key tenets in Agenda 2030, which is universality. This means that everyone has a role to play and needs to work together. At Government level, this means full endorsement, understanding and leadership of all relevant Ministers and Departments, not just one or two.

I understand that the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications has been leading Ireland's implementation of the goals, including through the development of implementation plans, the co-ordination of an interdepartmental working group and engagement with civil society organisations and stakeholders. Will the Minister inform the House of the nature of the work being undertaken?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter and I hope I can do exactly what he suggested. I welcome the opportunity to set out the actions we are taking with regard to the SDGs. The programme for Government was developed with close consideration of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and provides specific reference to delivering on objectives in line with the SDGs in many areas. The Government has committed to strengthen engagement and awareness at local level, with a commitment to ensure local authorities have regard to the national planning framework and alignment to the 17 goals when drafting development plans.

The integration of the sustainable development goals at a local level as well as a new national SDG implementation plan, committed to be published later this year, will be vital to support progress towards achieving Agenda 2030. The first Sustainable Development Goals National Implementation Plan 2018-2020, published in 2018, established a framework for how Ireland will implement the SDGs and identified 19 specific actions for delivery in this period. I will now highlight some of these key actions.

Ireland presented its first voluntary national review to the UN High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in 2018. This report set out our progress with the goals. Ireland has committed to prepare a further report to the UN in 2022.

The national SDG stakeholder forum was established and has held six meetings to date. While Covid-19 disrupted planned meetings in 2020, further meetings will be arranged this year and are likely to be taken in a virtual or hybrid format. Twelve SDG champions were appointed to raise awareness of the goals within their respective sectors. The initiative has been extremely successful in its outreach to different communities and groups. A review of the champions programme and stakeholder forum will be finalised as part of the development phase of the next implementation plan.

An SDG policy map has been published, which enhances the ability of stakeholders to track Ireland’s implementation of specific goals and targets. It also supports and enhances cross-Government engagement in implementing each of the goals and targets. This is currently being revised to reflect changes to ministerial and departmental functions under the current Government. The enhanced format will include additional information on related stakeholder forums linked to each target. It will be published on gov.ie in the coming weeks.

The Central Statistics Office, CSO, working in conjunction with Ordnance Survey Ireland, has developed an online GeoHive data hub to provide spatially relevant information on our progress toward targets under the SDGs. As part of this initiative, the CSO is publishing a series of individual SDG goal reports. Goals 1 to 5 are available online and goal 6, water, will be published in the coming weeks. My Department will lead the development of Ireland's second SDG national implementation plan to further guide implementation and promote awareness of the goals.

It is important to emphasise that meeting Ireland's commitments under the SDGs will entail ambition across Government and wider society. For this reason, I intend to continue the established SDG governance arrangements of a senior officials group, chaired by the Department of the Taoiseach, supported by the interdepartmental working group, chaired by my Department. These governance arrangements are, of course, complemented by the valuable work of the SDG stakeholder forum, as well as sectoral engagement initiatives, which not only support the more coherent implementation of the goals to address environmental, social and economic challenges related to sustainable development, but also provide an essential interface between the public bodies and civil society in our collective work to deliver the SDGs in Ireland over the next decade.

I thank the Deputy for his interest in this area. I am interested to see how we can deliver it at local as well as a national level across the country. I know we were talking recently about the opportunity for Waterford to become the best example of a sustainable city in our country. I believe that is achievable with good leadership at a local level.

I thank the Minister. To give him his due, I know that the information in this year's report pre-dates our participation in government. We may not have our knees under the table for long but I would say that this reply sounds like business as usual, as if we are doing grand. Unfortunately the figures show that we are not doing grand, especially with environmental and sustainable development goals. We are ranking dead last. I want to see a step change in how we implement the SDGs. We should take them seriously and drive that agenda forward. I know the senior officials group met last week but that was its first meeting since November 2019. If we are serious about driving this agenda forward, we need to ensure that the meetings are more regular, or quarterly, as they are supposed to be.

I have three suggestions to make about driving this agenda forward. I know that there is work on well-being indicators. Iceland aligned its well-being indicators closely with the SDGs to make sure that the reporting happened in a transparent but meaningful way. I would like to see the SDGs reflected in the well-being indicators that are being developed by the Government. There is a programme for Government commitment about social dialogue. It has serious potential to be a framework for a whole-of-society discussion about the level of transformative change that we need in climate, in our society and in attaining Agenda 2030. With due respect to the work happening in the Department but recognising the cross-cutting nature of the sustainable development goals, I contend that this should not belong in the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications but in the Department of the Taoiseach, with proper oversight of the cross-cutting nature of the goals.

Will the Minister comment on that?

It is true. The response I delivered is, if I may say so, a kind of departmental presentation as to what the system is doing, which I believe is what was requested. I agree with the Deputy; we need to be more ambitious, heed that report from Social Justice Ireland and realise that we are not doing enough to meet the environmental goals in particular. We have to go further and to be far more radical. I commit to delivering on those goals as best I can.

I will give some examples of areas in which we are starting to ramp up and show real leadership which might encourage the Deputy. We are only at the public consultation stage at present but the introduction of a nationwide ban on smoky fuels, which will improve air quality, is an example of Government delivering an environmental benefit that will also deliver significant health benefits. It is something we can do. Earlier today, in answer to a question on promised legislation, I referred to the work the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, is doing with regard to the roll-out of less intensive farming systems and opening up the organics scheme in order to radically increase the number of farmers who are paid well for their produce while being engaged in the restoration and protection of nature and developing high-quality food.

I would also refer to the work being done to develop marine protected areas. Again, we are only at the consultation stage, but we are going to deliver on this. Our sea area is ten times larger than our land area. We have a responsibility to protect nature there with real ambition and to do what the great ecologist E. O. Wilson recommends, which is to set aside large areas of the natural world for the protection and restoration of nature. A further example within my own Department is our really ambitious 200-action plan for a new circular economy. This will take the advice of yesterday's Social Justice Ireland report with regard to phasing out single-use plastics. We have also done real work in the area of just transition. We are investing in the rewetting of our bogs to create jobs. The Deputy is absolutely right; this Government has started developing a new well-being index, which is a key part of this transition. We also recognise that, as the Deputy says, it is in the likes of the Department of Finance as well as in the Department of Taoiseach that this must be centred. I believe that is happening.

We are only at the start but the Deputy is right; let us be held to account. If we cannot improve on our delivery on those 17 goals, we will have failed in our mission. That is our manifesto. It is for all parties in this House. It is to provide us with a better future and I believe we can do that.

Wastewater Treatment

I want to talk to the Minister of State about the wastewater treatment plant in Arklow. This is absolutely critical infrastructure not only for Arklow and County Wicklow, but for the country. As the Minister of State will be aware, the Avoca river has significant issues with pollution as a result of mismanagement and a lack of infrastructure within the Arklow area. This project has been in planning for years and years. Residents have been waiting for it and are very eager to see progress being made. Businesses are also waiting for something to happen. The whole town is waiting for this project to get moving.

Irish Water has been working on it and the plans are in place but it is now sitting on the Minister's desk. In late 2020, the proposal was submitted to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. It is now awaiting ministerial consent. It is important that this project be developed as quickly as possible. Arklow has great potential but this potential is being restricted by the fact that this infrastructure is not in place. I refer to potential from a tourism perspective, a business and economic perspective and a housing perspective. Arklow is really on hiatus waiting for this project to happen. From an environmental perspective, fines are potentially coming down the road if this work is not done.

My question is very simple. What progress is being made in respect of the wastewater treatment plant? Will the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage expedite this matter because, as I have said, it has been on his desk since late 2020, three months ago? This is an important project and we need to focus on it. My third question relates to funding. I want to make sure that funding is in place and that this project can start as quickly as possible because the contract cannot be allocated until this funding is signed off on.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta. Her points on human health, business and the development of Arklow are well-raised. It also involves an area of mutual interest to me and the Deputy, the area of nature, biodiversity and the environment. There is no doubt that this project must be expedited.

Since January 2014, Irish Water has had statutory responsibility for all aspects of water services planning, delivery and operation at national, regional and local levels. The prioritisation and progression of individual projects is a matter for determination by Irish Water.

As part of budget 2021, funding of more than €1.4 billion was secured to support water services. This includes €1.3 billion in respect of domestic water services provision by Irish Water. This overall investment will deliver significant improvements in our public water and wastewater services, support improved water supplies right across Ireland, including rural Ireland, and support a range of programmes delivering improved water quality in our rivers, lakes and marine area.

Arklow has been identified by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, as an area where wastewater is discharged into the Avoca river without any treatment. This practice of discharging untreated wastewater into the river is no longer acceptable. Irish Water is working to address this historical issue, in partnership with Wicklow County Council, through the provision of a new wastewater treatment plant in Arklow. This will bring benefits to the town and surrounding areas in terms of health, environmental protection and improved water quality for all.

The Arklow wastewater treatment plant must be delivered in a way that not only meets the required legislative standards but that also ensures that all works are undertaken in a safe and environmentally responsible manner, in co-operation with the local community. Under the Water Services Act 2013, Irish Water is required, as the Deputy said, to seek the consent of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, given with the approval of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, to enter into capital commitments. Irish Water must seek ministerial consent prior to entering into any individual capital commitment of a value in excess of €20 million. This is a financial control and not an issue of project consent.

In the context of the updated public spending code for evaluating, planning and managing public investment in the project as it proceeds through its life cycle, consideration is also being given to the appropriate application of the code having regard to the current life cycle stage of the project.

I assure the Deputy that the capital commitment consent request is currently under active consideration. However, given the significant investment by the taxpayer, this does involve close scrutiny by my Department and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. In addition, NewERA carries out an in-depth review of the request on behalf of Ministers to help inform the decision. I also understand that some further inputs into the review process are awaited from Irish Water. However, the Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, hopes to be in a position to provide a timely decision to support Irish Water in its delivery of the project once all scrutiny is complete.

I was hoping for a commitment that this would be fast-tracked. It is a really important project. I understand that all the checks and balances have to be in place and that it is a very large project but, because of its importance, it would be really good to see it prioritised and for it to be ensured that it happens as quickly as possible. An indication of the timeline would also be really good. The proposal at the moment is for Irish Water to finish this project in 2024 or 2025 but there have been delays in the process all the way along. We want to prevent any further slippage and, rather than have slippage, for the whole thing to be expedited so that it can be done as quickly as possible. I know this requires ministerial consent but does it need to go to Cabinet? Is the project of such a significant size that it needs Cabinet approval? If that is the case, when does the Minister of State envisage it going to Cabinet?

Initially, it seemed funding of approximately €30 million was required but lately there have been reports that in excess of €100 million may be required. Is the Minister of State aware of any increase in costs and whether this could potentially impact on the delivery of this project because, to be honest, we cannot allow anything to impact this project? As I said, Arklow has waited for this for 20 years. The town cannot wait any longer. The river, biodiversity and the environment cannot wait any longer either. My fear is that, if progress slows any further, too much damage will be incurred.

Will the Government expedite and prioritise this project? Is the money available and can the Minister of State outline the timeline for completion?

I will revert to the Deputy with a written response on the two specific items she raises. It may well be the case that additional costs are involved at this stage, given the delays to the project but I will provide a written response on that. It is important to note that we will enter into a new cycle of river basin management plans and projects similar to this one must be expedited to improve our water quality status, which deteriorated during the previous plan period. We are all very conscious of that fact.

Plans for the delivery of the Arklow wastewater plant are at an advanced stage. Irish Water has secured the necessary planning, land and licences and the procurement of the construction contract is in the final stage. I am acutely aware of the need to progress the plant to stop the practice of discharging untreated wastewater into the Avoca river, provide a wastewater treatment facility that will comply with all relevant legislative requirements and service the population of Arklow well into the future and improve water quality in the river.

Irish Water expects construction work to begin in the second half of 2021. Together with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage is expediting consideration of the capital commitment consent for a timely decision to support Irish Water’s plans to commence construction. I hope this is of some assurance to the Deputy.

Covid-19 Tests

I thank the Minister of State for attending to address this important issue. I am glad that this has been selected as a Topical Issue matter and thank the Minister of State for taking the time to respond. I have been raising this issue for a number of months and am keen to hear about the Government's plans or intentions for the roll-out of rapid antigen testing.

The WHO and the European Commission recommend rapid antigen testing that meets the minimum performance requirements of greater than 80% sensitivity and 97% specificity. A number of rapid antigen testing products currently in use in this country far exceed these requirements, including the Roche and Abbott tests. Rapid antigen testing should be administered by trained professionals. Indeed, the nasopharyngeal sampling requires it. The rapid tests could be conducted on-site, in pharmacies or in local health centres. Results can be uploaded to the Health Passport Europe platform, which can be used for receiving and displaying Covid-19 status and certification. This technology exists and is being used in the corporate sector by many pharmaceutical companies and multinationals as well as in the food processing sector and the construction industry. This rapid testing technology is being used at the national children's hospital construction site, for example. I have been informed that the screening taking place in some of the businesses and building sites I have mentioned has detected Covid positive cases before they entered the workplace. I have been told that four Covid positive workers were detected recently at the site of the national children's hospital. Rapid antigen testing was key to identifying these cases early and subsequently isolating those affected. This meant there were no knock-on consequences for that site.

Rapid antigen testing can complement the PCR testing in use. It is not intended to replace PCR testing but can play a pivotal role in screening and detecting Covid positive cases. It can also give hope to certain sectors that business can reopen and hope to individuals that they can attend necessary appointments and spend time with their loved ones. Rapid testing can also provide protection for people in the workplace. It can help to protect our front-line staff as they deal with the wider public in the context of appointments, surgery and medical emergencies. I reiterate that this is not a panacea for all of our Covid-related problems but it will complement the PCR testing we are already doing. I urge the Minister of State to relay my arguments to the Minister for Health and the Government. Health screening can give our country greater confidence and some reassurance that there is a way out of our current situation. The investment required to do this could be minimal. Many companies are doing this screening themselves anyway and are leading on it. It is time for the Government to consider it as a tool to strengthen the measures being undertaken, including vaccinations and quarantining.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. I am responding on behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly. Testing and contact tracing continues to be fundamental to our response to the pandemic. It is critical to ensuring that we can identify and contain the spread of the virus.

The HSE has adopted RT-PCR as the gold standard test for diagnosing Covid-19 cases. This is the most reliable test that we have available for this purpose. In addition, appropriately validated antigen diagnostic tests are now being deployed by the HSE as a supplement to PCR testing, just as suggested by the Deputy. These tests are being used for specific indications in acute hospital settings and as part of the response to outbreaks in the community setting, particularly in symptomatic vulnerable populations and for their close contacts. Antigen detection tests, ADTs, are described as rapid and simple to perform. The validation work that has been done by the HSE and across Europe to date indicates that ADTs are most effective in detection of symptomatic cases, when symptom onset is within the past five days and when the likelihood of test positivity is greater than 10% among the target population. The validation studies available show significant disparities in test performance as against some manufacturer's claims. Many of the tests available do not meet the minimum performance requirements set by the WHO and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, although that is a general finding and does not relate to the specific tests referred to by the Deputy. This means that the tests currently available are of limited use in most circumstances when testing asymptomatic populations. It is also clear that new tests and new technologies are becoming available every day.

Considerable work has been undertaken to date to evaluate the use of ADTs in an Irish context. While antigen testing will not replace the requirement for large scale RT-PCR testing for public health purposes, validation of tests is continuing in the HSE due to the potential role that ADTs have in our national testing strategy. Consideration is also being given to the use of antigen tests in asymptomatic community populations. Professor Mark Ferguson, the Government's chief scientific adviser, has been asked by the Minster for Health to set up a group to examine the use of antigen tests in the community and more expert advice is expected shortly to inform us further on the potential of these testing technologies. While we now have more tools at our disposal, it is clear that we need to deploy existing tests appropriately and be guided by scientific evidence in doing so, particularly since we are aware of the limitations of many of the tests available.

I reassure the House that the national testing policy is kept under review and we will use whatever tools are appropriate to fight Covid-19. I hope that addresses some of the Deputy's queries.

I welcome the fact that Professor Mark Ferguson has been asked to keep this under review. However, we need to have a bit of ambition. The two tests I mentioned from Roche and Abbott meet the minimum standards set by the WHO. If we are to give people hope of the prospect of work post Covid or even as the vaccination programme is carried out, this is pivotal. In addition, if people have medical or dental appointments, an antigen test half an hour before they arrive could provide a lot of reassurance, not just for the patient but also for the staff at medical and dental clinics. I welcome the fact that Professor Ferguson is keeping it under review but believe that we need to do more, especially in the context of the vaccine roll-out. It is a fluid situation and there might be more speed bumps down the line with the roll-out of the programme. This would give people light at the end of the tunnel and some hope regarding the prospect of returning to some semblance of normality. I emphasise again that I am not talking about replacing PCR testing but complementing it. The more people we test, whether it is through PCR or rapid antigen testing, the better.

I draw the Minister of State's attention to the example of Liverpool, where daily rapid antigen testing was carried out in the city recently.

More than 200,000 people in the city were tested out of a population of 500,000. Of those 200,000 rapid tests conducted, some 4,000 people were found to be asymptomatic and carrying the virus unbeknownst to themselves. The rapid tests rolled out in Liverpool daily enabled those people to be identified and to isolate themselves.

I reiterate that the intention is not to use antigen testing to replace the system we have. As the Minister of State said, PCR testing is the gold standard. I believe there is a place for rapid testing as well, however. The HSE could publish guidelines for this type of rapid testing and then allow companies to provide this type of test to people, because there is a demand for them. This type of testing is already being undertaken all around us, such as in major pharmaceutical companies and other multinationals, for example, and it is about time that we moved with this trend.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. It is interesting that we are having this conversation today, because only last week I met Paul Reid and Dr. Colm Henry regarding this matter. The week before, the Minister of Health and I also had a long conversation on this issue. Rapid antigen testing is a complementary tool, and as the vaccination programme is being rolled out it is imperative that we have backup alternatives available as we reopen society. It would give people the hope that Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan spoke about.

When reopening society, we must also consider locations such as student campuses. We must have an option we can use in those contexts and that is where rapid antigen testing can have a role. I compliment the Minister on the appointment of Professor Mark Ferguson, who has been tasked with reviewing this matter. One aspect of the roll-out of the vaccination programme is relevant to this context, namely, how the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, has responded with its re-examination of those groupings assigned priority. Such a reassessment is exactly what is happening with rapid antigen testing.

The question now is how we can best use the tools available to us to ensure we can continue to function as a society when the vaccination process starts. We should not only give hope when we start to open up, but also an assurance that we will be able to respond to any situation which might develop, do the required tests and lockdown affected sectors. One sector that comes to mind where that could be done is in meat plants. The same kind of rapid antigen testing could be done in small communities where one or two cases might pop up. A review of the roll-out of rapid antigen testing is therefore at the forefront of the Minister's ambition in this context as well.

Health Services

I welcome the opportunity to address this issue with the Minister of State. It has been the case for many years in Laois-Offaly that there have been long waiting lists for services such as child psychology, speech and language therapy and occupational therapy. However, the situation is now truly awful and this is not all due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Action is needed now to deal with the backlog of children in these two counties who have been waiting for several years to access these services. It is a scandal that 4,771 children are waiting for services in these three specialties. What is worse is that some of those children, 2,650 of them to be accurate, have been waiting for more than one year to be given an appointment for assessment or appropriate therapy. The damage being done to children who may have autism spectrum disorder, ASD, or some other condition is immeasurable. The Minister of State understands that.

Some 2,014 children are on the waiting list for occupational therapy, with 1,181 of those children waiting for more than 12 months. In the area of child psychology, 1,304 children are on the waiting list, 801 of whom have been waiting for more than a year. There are 1,453 children in the queue for speech and language services, with 568 of those children waiting for longer than 12 months. These are the latest figures I obtained through parliamentary questions and they are shocking. Does the Government understand this situation is storing up massive problems for the future? I say this sincerely to the Minister of State. If appropriate interventions and services are not provided at an early stage in a child's development, more difficulties and more complex issues will arise in adulthood. I am not an expert in these areas, but all those who are experts have told me that over the years.

Aside from the difficulties being caused to children, these waiting lists are also causing great stress and many problems for parents and families. They have been watching their children regressing and have then had to deal with the resultant behavioural issues and cope with all that entails. Teachers are trying to deal and cope with challenges and problems being caused in school classrooms. The community and society in general will also face issues in this regard in future. It is important therefore that we try to rectify this situation. The Covid-19 pandemic does not explain away the existing backlog and the poor state of child services in Laois-Offaly. This area appears to have been a blackspot in this regard for many years. The provision of these services in Laois-Offaly has been poor for as long as I have been around. I was raising this issue some 20 years ago as a county councillor, but these services are in crisis now.

Action is needed. I have raised this situation year after year, and sometimes several times each year. I have raised it with the management of the HSE and with successive Ministers. The real issue here concerns the provision of services where they are needed, which is on the front line. It is crucially important that these services are in place. We should not look at the situation from a financial perspective, but there will be major economic consequences down the line. The human aspect, however, is the most important. I refer to the effects on the children themselves and the problems we are storing up for those children in adulthood, as well as the effects on their families, in classrooms and on the wider community. I ask the Minister of State to address this issue.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue for discussion. I think this is the third time I have come into the House to answer a Topical Issue matter regarding the Laois-Offaly area. I am thankful that Deputies Fleming and Cowen do not seek responses from me as well, or I would be in here every couple of weeks answering these questions.

The Government does understand this situation. I know all too well the difficulties families are facing in securing access to some disability services. That is why in preparation for tonight's answer I have tried to get to the exact root of the issue raised by Deputy Stanley. This has been a priority issue for me since being appointed in July and many parents have contacted my office to voice their concerns, which are particularly acute during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Turning to the situation in Laois-Offaly specifically, this is an area of which I was already aware. I have discussed this matter with the HSE previously, as there appear to be several challenges in the community healthcare organisation, CHO, and these most certainly must be addressed. Deputy Stanley is correct concerning early intervention being key. I have been told by the HSE that the lengthy waiting times for children to access Laois-Offaly disability services are primarily due to two issues which the HSE is struggling with and which we must rectify.

The first of these is the high volume of referrals to the services. I have been told by the HSE that local disability services are constantly striving to maximise resources and ensure that the maximum quantity of services is being provided to children. The HSE's Midlands Louth Meath CHO disability services are also facing and tackling several recruitment issues, which I hope will make a big difference to the waiting times that families are experiencing. The aim is to recruit staff to fill all vacant psychology posts as soon as possible, but the recruitment of staff grade clinical psychologists is dependent on the number of clinical psychologists graduating this year.

There are two vacant occupational therapy posts in Laois-Offaly children's disability services and every effort is being made by the local HSE to fill these posts as quickly as possible. Two speech and language therapy posts are vacant in Laois as a consequence of maternity leave, with one person due to return this month. In addition, there is one permanent vacancy and this post is due to be filled next month. In more positive news, the Deputy will be glad to hear that three posts which had been vacant were filled within the past month. As the Deputy may be aware, I secured funding for an additional 100 new therapy posts in the recent budget and I hope to see some of these posts allocated to the Laois-Offaly area in due course.

It is also important to inform Deputy Stanley that I met with CORU last week, which is the organisation responsible for recognising and validating the qualifications of those people who may have returned from overseas and granting them a place on the professional registers. I am working with CORU to ensure that task is undertaken speedily and I have been told that the turnaround time for physiotherapists is now down to 69 days. I am also pleased to note the Trojan work ongoing across all CHOs to clear the assessment of need backlog.

I meet all disability managers every month to monitor the progress being made on clearing the backlog. I am happy to report that in CHO 8, specifically in Laois-Offaly, the backlog fell from 410 in September 2020 to 100 at the end of January 2021, a 75% drop in five months, which the Deputy must agree is phenomenal progress. The important offshoot of this progress is that it will ensure that as the backlog becomes less of an issue, therapists should be better able to focus on the delivery of interventions, which is what children need most.

In the ten years I have been raising this issue, this is the first time that I have had some hope. It seems that, as the Minister of State outlined, the Department has intervened and that she has taken it up with the HSE. Sometimes we raise such issues in the House and express our concern and so on, but we do not get firm answers. The Minister of State, however, has outlined some reasons for hope in respect of recruitment to the disability services. She referred to the recruitment of clinical psychologists and stated that every effort is being made to fill the vacant occupational therapist posts, something I will come back to in a moment. She went on to state that speech and language posts that are vacant as a consequence of maternity leave are being addressed, and that is positive. There is some hope to be found in the announcement of 100 additional therapist posts in the recent budget, as well as in the effort to recruit practitioners who are returning from overseas. That is excellent.

There is a difficulty with recruitment that I wish to raise, although I do not know the exact ins and outs of it. I have been told there is a problem with people applying for these positions because sometimes they are offered only six-month or 12-month contracts and people do not find them attractive enough to apply for. We need to offer people full-time positions whereby those who get through a 12-month probationary period will be over the line and will have a permanent job.

I always get the impression that the HSE is very top-heavy. The Minister of State outlined some progress on trying to fill the gaps on the front line, which is really important. I encourage her to accelerate that and to examine the terms of the contracts being offered. Is the length of such contracts an issue and if so, can the Minister of State have that addressed in an effort to drive it on? It is a severe disappointment to me. It is one of the issues that I prioritised when I was first elected to the House ten years ago. I came to this debate with a heavy heart. I thought I was in here again raising this issue and would probably go home with no progress. The Minister of State has outlined some progress that has been made and I hope that is the case. She should keep her foot on the pedal and drive it on. She has our full support in that regard. She might comment on the issue of contracts and how they might be made more attractive.

I agree with Deputy Stanley in respect of contracts. It is often a fear that short-term contracts are intended only to bridge the gap for six or 12 months. The HSE will this year recruit approximately 16,000 people throughout the sector, including 100 therapist posts coming to my Department. They are all full-time, permanent positions that will be spread across all nine CHOs. There also will be recruitment to primary care, which also provides occupational and speech and language therapists. Furthermore, in the school inclusions model, there is a pilot for two CHOs that is yet to be announced, where there will be a further 100 therapist posts to focus specifically on the likes of speech and language therapy. There will, therefore, be a real bolstering of supports. All the positions to which I refer are full-time, permanent positions.

As the Deputy is aware, when the HSE is involved it is a long and drawn-out process but I hope matters can be expedited. Many people have returned home and have expressed an interest to CORU. I would like CORU to turn around their applications swiftly in respect of the vacancies that exist in order that we can capture the talent that has returned and ensure that those people will work at home and locally, and that the investment that was put in by their families through the years will be rewarded by having them working for us, because we have the best of talent. In fairness to the CHO that has provided assessments of needs in the Deputy's area for four months, it has worked tirelessly. Based on the figures I outlined earlier, it must be complimented. When the backlog is cleared, more therapists will be available and that will be complemented by recruitment. As a result, I hope I will not have to appear before the House on the matter for a few months to come.

The Dáil adjourned at 6.16 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 3 March 2021.