I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am sharing time with Deputy Bacik. Deputies Bacik, Nash, Duncan Smith and I have just come from a briefing with parents who live with autism every day of their lives. Once again, they told their stories of how they are trying to manage the system. As a result of that briefing and other discussions I and my colleagues have had, I feel a new onerous sense of great responsibility to bring their experiences to the House. They are in the Visitors Gallery. We welcome them and we want them to be part of the solution. We bring forward this Bill in good faith. We want it to be enacted into law. We want the children, young people and adults with autism in Ireland to have what their counterparts take for granted in Northern Ireland under its Autism Act 2011, what they have in England under its Autism Act 2009, and what they have in Malta under its autism empowerment strategy. We want a national autism strategy in Ireland.
The Labour Party brought forward a motion in April 2021 seeking a national autism strategy. We now find ourselves in June 2022 with a discussion, debate and controversy on the basic provision of school places for children. It is still a topic of debate. That shames us all. If any child is having a difficulty accessing a school place because he or she has autism, that is a disgrace. It is a disgrace to our Republic. We use the word "republic" a great deal and we speak about republicanism and living in a republic, but you cannot feel you are living in a republic if your child is refused a school place because of who the child is.
We have been working on this for quite a period of time. It does not just come down to education. It comes down to health as well. We listened to what the parents said earlier in our briefing. They are wondering where the ambition and vision are, why we are losing the massive potential of the cohort of young people and adults who have autism, why parents are turning into de facto campaigners, why they are beginning to accept a waiting list of 36 months for basic assessments or interventions and why they have to accept going from school to school to try to access a school place for their children. We heard today that one woman had to travel to 25 schools to try to get a school place for her child. We do not often hear of these cases because parents are so exhausted. They feel they are going through this by themselves and they find they do not have the time to reach out to other networks or to engage with the political system. They have come to the conclusion they are second-class citizens and they have to go with that.
Then there comes the crunch point where they decide to fight back. However, they should not have to fight back. They should not have to engage in the political system to point to 36 months of a waiting list being wrong, the lack of provision of a school place being wrong, the fact employment opportunities are so low, the fact Departments do not talk to each other, and the fact we do not have national strategies in Ireland as other jurisdictions have or the basic provision of having health and education plans working together for young people. It is about having ambition and a vision. What we are trying to do in our legislation is provide that vision and ambition. This debate is crippling and crushing, and it does not have to be this way.
I have to turn to the controversy over last weekend centred on the Minister of State at the Department of Education, Deputy Madigan, and her comments on national radio. This is not the first time this Minister of State has let us all down. It is absolutely outrageous that a Minister of State would name four schools as being the problem or insinuate they are the problem. There is a problem with accessing school places. We know 15,000 children and young people move outside their school catchment areas to access school places elsewhere. Some of the school places that are accessed are based on reduced timetables, and a substantial number of young people in school are not being properly cared for or empowered by their school placement. In addition, we were dealing with 268 cases of young people who could not get secondary school places until recently. I met the families in Dublin 15 and I know the families in my constituency.
Rather than accept that as a problem to which we all must find a solution, we first had the warehousing proposal, effectively a direct provision proposal for children with special educational needs. Then the Minister of State decided at the weekend to isolate and name four DEIS schools as the problem, all of which are engaging with the system and with the National Council for Special Education, NCSE. One of them had a site visit by the Department of Education on the previous Wednesday.
The Minister of State has not even bothered to apologise for her misinformation and mischaracterisation of these four DEIS schools. Maybe she is completely unaware of what a DEIS school does or how it serves the community around it, but there are challenges within those schools I am quite sure she has not got a clue about in her constituency. For her to name and shame those schools, and to shift her responsibility and that of the Government for that, was very regrettable. The Government has to account for that, apologise for it and never do it again.
On the wider issue, and in trying to be positive and trying to find vision, there is common cause in these Houses between the Government and the Opposition. I do not think anybody in the Government believes it is good enough to have a 36-month waiting list for an assessment or intervention. There is nobody in the Government who believes it is good enough that somebody would be restricted from a school place, yet it keeps on happening. We have to raise the level of ambition and vision and move from a situation where we are firefighting all the time to one where we recast our brains and attitudes fundamentally and look at every child in this country as an integral part of this Republic, without an asterisk beside that child because he or she has autism. That seems to be the prevailing sense we get from different Departments on how we deal with, empower and enhance this, and how we make it better.
Children with autism are a valued and integral part of this Republic, so why are we sticking them on waiting lists? Why are we saying "No" to them when they try to access school places? Why are there so many barriers when they go into or try to enter the workplace? Why are there so few people in the public service or the private sector who understand autism? How many Deputies on these benches really understand autism as parents do? How many people working in our school system, the HSE, supermarkets or the transport service understand autism? How many of us fundamentally understand what we have to do collectively as a Republic to lift this experience? I do not think we do. I know I do not know enough. We all have to tool up.
We can have a national autism strategy, which we need. We want it to be legislated for, we want it to be the same as it is in other jurisdictions, and we want to lift the experience of parents. We do not want them to become full-time campaigners anymore. We want them to feel differently about the Republic in which they live. We want them to close the door at night and say their interactions with the State, HSE and education system were positive and that their child is cared for, loved, safe and part of this Republic, but they do not feel like that.
It is not just about legislation, strategies and political bun fighting on the last week of the school term over school places in September, and emergency legislation being rammed through the House on Friday. We need collectively to change all our attitudes and fundamentally cherish all the children of this Republic equally. That is why this issue is so important.