Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 29 Jun 2022

Vol. 1024 No. 4

Autism Bill 2022: Second Stage [Private Members]

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.

It gives me great pleasure to second this Bill on behalf of the Labour Party. I commend my colleague, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, on speaking so passionately in proposing it. He has fought so hard for so long on the rights of children with autism in education. As he said, we are very glad to be joined today in the Public Gallery by many parents who have spent so long fighting for the rights of their children. I thank them very much for engaging with us. We appreciated the opportunity to learn from and speak to them this morning, especially parents in my constituency from the Involve Autism Dublin 6 and Dublin 6W group and the neurodiversity Dublin 4 group, in addition to parents from Clondalkin Autism Parents Support Network, Families Unite for Services and Support and Dublin 12. We are also glad to be joined by members of Inclusion Ireland and AsIAm. We are conscious there are advocacy groups, parents and individuals who have had to give up much of their time and, in many cases, paid work, to campaign and fight so hard for basic services and basic provision for their children.

This morning we heard some very harrowing stories and experiences of parents. We heard about the frustration, as Deputy Ó Ríordáin said, and the exhaustion parents are experiencing. We heard the real fear and concern parents have at each one of the key points in their children's lives. These include the point at which they are due to go to primary school and may not be able to access appropriate places in their area, the point at which children move to secondary school where there is again a lack of available places in so many areas, and the point at which they age into adulthood at 18, when services are again lacking and concerns arise about adequacy and appropriateness of residential care and where, in fact, parents cannot access sufficient supports to keep children at home. We heard from parents who rightly want to see, as we all do, the potential of their children fully realised in education, further education and training, and in the workplace. There are some very disturbing statistics on the high levels of unemployment and low levels of jobs being taken up and being available to those with autism. It is not just children with autism. We are talking about adults with autism and children and adults with other additional needs.

For their sake, and the sake of families and households everywhere, we ask for change. We ask the Government not just to accept our Bill - we are glad it is not being opposed on Second Stage - but to enable it to pass to the next Stage and into law. We want to see the Government, this State, and all of us collectively taking action to ensure a holistic strategy based on proper data, with proper planning for education, jobs, healthcare and other basic services to be available to those with autism and other needs, as we see in other states. We know of and we heard this morning about other countries and jurisdictions where services are available, sometimes in countries less wealthy than ours. On our neighbouring island, we see a better holistic approach being adopted, a national autism strategy, for example, and proper planning based on real and up-to-date data on levels of need across communities. That is what we are seeking in putting forward this legislation. As Deputy Ó Ríordáin said, we put this matter forward as a motion a year ago. We are now bringing it back as a Bill. We emphasise this is in response to the needs, desires and wishes of all those to whom we have spoken, whom we contact and whom we hear from every day.

I will share some testimonies with the Minister of State from frustrated and deeply distressed parents. They have given me permission to share their testimonies on how their children with autism and other needs are currently being let down by our State. One mother of two children, a boy and a girl, who contacted me said:

I am waiting 15 months so far for speech and language therapy for my four-year-old son. My little girl has also now received a diagnosis. Services are a nightmare. I have contacted 18 schools for my son for this coming September – nothing. I now know that I need to find a place for my little girl too. I am so scared.

Another mother who contacted me said her 16-year-old has been without a suitable school place since she was in primary school. Her family was initially forced to accept an inappropriate place as that was all that was available and they now feel they have fallen off the radar. Another mother of a four-year-old girl contacted me to say her child's diagnosis was deemed “not complex enough” for the local children’s disability network team but too complex for other types of support. As a result, she is receiving barely any support at all.

I have been contacted by many others, not just parents of children with autism but those who have children with other needs, who again lack sufficient access to services. One distressed mother whose three-year-old was referred to children’s disability services due to developmental delays described the “hell” she went through with the services since then and how she and her family are coping with a child who sleeps less than four hours every night, who has serious self-injury and safety concerns, and who had to have her head glued after headbutting herself so hard her hair clip pierced her skin. That family has spent their savings procuring private interventions to ensure they can get supports for their child.

These are the testimonies, the real stories and experiences we are all hearing across our constituencies. The figures are not clear, but we understand that more than 200 children may be without a school place this September. According to a damning report published by Ombudsman for Children, in excess of 15,000 children and young people are forced to leave their communities to access education outside of their area because there is nothing available in their catchment. In my constituency, there are serious issues in Dublin 6, Dublin 6W and Dublin 4. Parents in Dublin 12, Dublin 15 and Clondalkin have also told us of their issues with getting appropriate school places.

We understand there is immense frustration and that more needs to be done to ensure school places and other supports are available. Where school places are available, they must include access to the other services often needed. Often a complex range of services is required. Other supports, such as occupational therapy and speech and language therapy, need to be provided, ideally in a local setting. I know the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, are very aware of the level of need. We are all aware of the level of need. We want to see measures taken by Government to address that. Last April, Labour Party Deputies stood in this House and debated our motion to introduce a national autism empowerment strategy. The Government committed to taking action within a year. We accepted that response. Indeed, we have left it for longer than a year. More than a year has past since April 2021 and, regrettably, we are still hearing the same experiences and frustrations being expressed to us. Our headlines, even in the past week, continue to be dominated by stories of how many children with autism are not able to access places. The Ombudsman for Children, in his damning report, has highlighted the failures in provision.

We are asking the Government to state that a difference will be made and to commit to making a difference where it counts. We are asking for holistic strategies and the systems that work elsewhere in other countries to be introduced here. We also ask for responsibility to be taken. One of the big challenges many of us face in addressing constituents' concerns and those expressed to us by families is establishing who will take responsibility for different issues that arise. That may involve seeking an early assessment for a child, or providing sensory-friendly rooms for adults in public buildings and for children in schools. I can think of one school in my constituency that has been pushing for the provision of adequate bathroom facilities to accommodate children who require particular support from special needs assistants, SNAs, It may be that basic facilities are required, such as the provision of extra space in bathrooms for SNAs. I pay tribute to the wonderful SNAs. Indeed, we have heard from many of them on this issue. There is a difficulty at a practical level in getting these supports and knowing who to approach for them.

Our Bill proposes the adoption of a long-term strategy. That is essential. We also highlight the need for short-term and immediate intervention and action now. We know the Government has committed to some actions, but we need to see them speeded up and improved upon. We were here a year ago, proposing a constructive means to address the real difficulties, hardship and frustrations expressed by many to us. I reiterate to our guests in the Gallery the Labour Party's commitment to staying the course in this campaign. I know they will not give up. We will not give up either. We will continue to press from opposition, but we want to work constructively with Government to see that real and effective measures and strategies are introduced that will deliver real and necessary change to ensure children and adults with autism and other needs are enabled and supported to realise their full potential in society. Otherwise, our society is not inclusive and equal. We want to change that. That is why we are here today.

I thank Deputy Ó Ríordáin and colleagues in the Labour Party for bringing forward this Bill to allow us to debate the incredibly important issue of support for persons with autism in Ireland and their families. I welcome the families who are here in the Dáil to witness this debate. Like Deputy Ó Ríordáin, I share that sense of responsibility both as Minister and as a constituency Deputy. In the two years since I have been elected, time and again I have engaged with families struggling with access to education and therapies, and the potential for their children to go on to further and higher education and gain employment. I am deeply aware of the issues. The provision of support for persons with autism and responding to the particular challenges and barriers they face is a shared priority for me and the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, as it is for many of our colleagues across the House who are participating in the debate today.

The Autism Bill 2022 seeks to create a statutory obligation to develop a national autism strategy aimed at addressing certain prescribed matters. The Bill also seeks to provide a statutory definition of autism in amendments to the Employment Equality Act 1998 and the Equal Status Act 2000. These are intended to provide for an autism-specific reference in the disability definitions of those Acts. Action on autism is an existing commitment in our programme for Government. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is leading on work to establish a national autism innovation strategy to honour those commitments. I want to be clear this Government is committed to providing targeted and bespoke solutions for neurodiverse people that sit harmoniously in the wider context of disability policy and action.

However, it is the Government's view that legislation is not the most appropriate vehicle for advancing the objectives of the Bill, as primary legislation may not evolve sufficiently quickly to address changing realities and in view of the work already under way to develop a national strategy on autism. The development of a national strategy on autism is something we have already taken steps to deliver. On World Autism Day 2021, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, announced her intention to develop a national autism innovation strategy. An initial budgetary allocation of €100,000 was secured in budget 2022 for the purposes of designing and raising awareness of the strategy. This year, important steps have been taken to get the development process for the strategy under way. In April 2022, to mark autism awareness month, the Minister of State launched a comprehensive public consultation to inform the design of the autism innovation strategy. I am very conscious of Ireland's commitments under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD. Therefore, it is critical the autism innovation strategy is co-designed and informed by the lived experiences of people with autism, their families and their representatives. That is the approach we have taken in our consultations to date.

Consultation on the strategy has been conducted in an accessible format, with an easy-to-read version of the consultation document provided. The disability participation and awareness network conducted information sessions for its members on responding to that consultation. There were very positive responses to the process. My Department is working to analyse the submissions received. Furthermore, applications are currently being invited for membership of the oversight and advisory group. That will play a central role in overseeing the implementation and monitoring of the innovation strategy. As a next step, my Department will work across Government to prepare a draft of the strategy. It is anticipated a further public consultation will take place in advance of finalising the strategy.

The autism innovation strategy will have as its immediate focus delivering real and tangible solutions to the challenges, needs and experiences of people with autism and neurodiversity. It will be flexible, agile and capable of evolving in line with best practice and the wider policy context. The strategy offers a real opportunity to complement the existing national disability strategy, the national disability inclusion strategy and the comprehensive employment strategy by addressing the bespoke needs of people with autism. It is the Government's view this strategy, and not the one prescribed by primary legislation, is the most appropriate vehicle for addressing the particular challenges and barriers faced by people with autism and their families. The strategy needs to be given time to develop and to come to fruition.

Introducing primary legislation at this time is not only unnecessary, as we are already taking steps to deliver on the commitments, but it also risks producing unintended and undesirable consequences. We believe it would be less flexible and more difficult to amend than a strategy that is based on a policy framework. If an autism strategy was introduced by statute, there is a concern there would be a risk of enshrining a somewhat piecemeal and hierarchical approach to disability by focusing on particular medical impairments. That is at odds with the social model of the UNCRPD. It is also at odds with our approach in Ireland to date. Both the Disability Act 2005 and the Equal Status Act 2000 seek to respond to the needs of people with disabilities in an holistic manner. These Acts look at the common challenges faced by persons with disabilities while allowing space for specific and bespoke needs to be identified and addressed at a policy level. The Government is also concerned about the proposed definitional changes set out in the Bill, which would introduce changes to the disability ground for discrimination contained in the Equal Status Act to take account for autism.

However, a review of Ireland's equality legislation is under way and this review will include a review of the definition of grounds of discrimination. It is expected that the review will be completed by the end of 2022.

I want to take this opportunity to re-emphasise the Government's commitment to removing barriers for people with autism and their families. It is the Government's firm view that the autism innovation strategy, which is based on a whole-of-government and policy action framework, is the most appropriate structure by which we can take the lead in a more autism-friendly country and better address the needs of persons with autism and the neurodiverse community. This approach would avoid the inflexibility of a legislative approach and any unintended consequences of that.

It is important that we have a debate and flesh out the best approach in this area, which is why the Government is not opposing the Bill today. The Government will continue to advance its autism innovation strategy as the mechanism to deliver those real and tangible solutions for people with autism in Ireland and as a mechanism to deliver on the issues rightfully raised in the Bill. I thank the Labour Party for bringing forward this Bill and for giving us the opportunity to have this really important debate.

I will share some of my own thoughts and come to the Bill at the end. I was struck by something Deputy Ó Ríordáin said, which was that we all have a shared responsibility here. We do have a collective responsibility - public representatives, the HSE or whatever State agency you want to name. We all sit in very similar committee meetings and get similar briefings from constituents and agencies and there is one consistent thread, which is that the State has fundamentally failed people with disabilities, including people with autism. This needs to be stated from the outset.

While I do not know the particulars of the Minister of State's interaction with the four schools in question because I have only been following it online, I believe certain schools need to be called out. I will point to Cork because I know it best. I look at schools in Deputy Ó Laoghaire's constituency. I think of towns like Ballincollig with 30,000 people and one ASD class. Meanwhile five miles up the road in Dripsey, there are three ASD classes for a school population of 150. Ballincollig has a school population of 1,300. There are occasions to call it out. There are three ASD classes in the school where I taught in Fermoy and a fourth one is under consideration. Two other secondary schools in the town have no ASD class and there is no intention of opening one. I do not know the particulars of the Minister of State's case or the case in that particular area in Dublin but I do know that the ratios of ASD classes to students in Dublin is appalling and embarrassing and, therefore, I believe that on occasion, we need to speak the truth and share that responsibility.

I am encouraged by the words of the chief executive officer of the NCSE, John Kearney, yesterday when he met members of the Joint Committee on Autism. He is new to the job but he looks like he is taking the right approach. He is going around and meeting public representatives and I believe he has met the Minister. I have met Mr. Kearney. I know the NCSE is supportive of the emergency legislation the Government is proposing this week. I agree with the Minister that we should not have to introduce legislation at the eleventh hour but this is the situation in which we find ourselves. God knows, I am blue in the face from calling for this legislation for the past 18 months. While it is very late in the day to be looking at it, better late than never. I believe we can streamline that section 37A process. It is not fit for purpose. Any bureaucratic situation that requires 18 months for somebody to dictate to a school that it must or should open an ASD class is not fit for purpose so I welcome Government action on that.

I welcome the fact that we are allowing this Bill to proceed and are having a debate on it. This is to be encouraged. The one thing I am concerned about is possibly creating a hierarchy of needs within disability. Hopefully, this can be teased out in the debate to come.

For the benefit of those watching, the Government is not supporting the legislation. It is merely not opposing it and has provided its own critique. We do not want to be here legislating for basic public services that should be provided as of right to persons with autism. Deputies Ó Ríordáin and Bacik said that we were here in April 2021 calling on this Oireachtas and the Government to adopt our motion, which was constructively debated and forwarded by the Labour Party, to introduce a national autism empowerment strategy. This strategy drew very heavily on the experience in Malta and other EU states - modern, progressive and liberal democracies. We also know that there is an autism Act in the UK that provides for basic legal rights and access to basic universal public services to all citizens. We had hoped that we would see progress since the Government decided not to oppose our autism empowerment strategy but here we are again. That motion was not opposed so we assumed in good faith that progress would be made but it was not made. This is why we are presenting a Bill here today to provide for a legal framework underpinned by primary law within which the health, educational and employment rights and services needed by persons with autism can be delivered.

I understand that the Minister believes that this is an inflexible approach. We have no problem with being inflexible when it comes to the rights of people with autism. We demand that their rights be delivered and heard. Persons with autism demand that their rights be heard and demand the basic services we should expect to see delivered as of right in a republic. In a republic, we should not have to legislate for these rights. These rights and services should be provided as of right - plain and simple. Deputy Ó Ríordáin spoke very eloquently about the idea of a republic. In this country, we spend far too much time talking about a version of republicanism Irish-style that is focused on the political unification of this land mass on which we happen to live. Labour's vision of a republic is not about the fabled four green fields. It is about liberty, freedom, equality and universality. There is no equality when young people with autism and their families have to knock down doors, push down barriers and become semi-professional advocates and campaigners to obtain rights that should be theirs as of right. There is no freedom and no community when the State cannot accommodate a child with a school place in their own home place. I know only too well that there are children from Donaghmede in Deputy Ó Ríordáin's constituency are being ferried to my home town of Drogheda every day to access appropriate school places. That is not right and that is not sustainable. Nobody can stand over that.

I was really struck by one remark I heard made earlier that will stay with me - "her family feels that they are being punished because there is a child in the family with autism." Let us think about that for a minute. In a republic and one of the wealthiest states in the developed world, why are parents providing us with evidence that services work in objectively less well-off countries such as Spain and Portugal? What is wrong here? On a very basic level, there is a failure of accountability and a failure to resource, plan and manage services properly in a co-ordinated way. This should not be beyond Ministers working together. It should not be beyond senior public service and Civil Service managers.

The under-representation of people with additional needs in our workforce is frankly disgraceful. The Labour Party was founded on the principle of work, equal access, the right to work and a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. We exclude far too many people with additional needs from becoming full and active members of our workforce, economy and society. Let us start with the public service. We were told earlier that 85% of people on the ASD spectrum do not have a job. What kind of a republic is that?

The number of people with additional needs employed in the public service is disgracefully low. We cannot tell the private sector that we want it to do certain things if the public sector will not do the same. I call on Ministers to review that strategy and to ensure everybody in this society, including those of varying ability and those with additional needs, is enabled to become an active through full membership in the workplace and to have the dignity of work.

I am very disappointed in the Minister's script. While he did not read these words out, his script states: "It is for these reasons that the Government will not oppose, but can neither support at this time, the Autism Bill 2022." We did not pitch this Bill to be two or three steps away from the Government position so that it could not support it. We spent an awful lot of time working with parents, families and adults with autism to write a Bill that is deliverable. We feel we have done that. We came to the Chamber this morning on the understanding and with the belief that the Government was not opposing the Bill and that we would see it progress to Committee Stage for discussion. If the Government wants to make changes, it could table amendments and we could discuss them. As Deputy Bacik said in her contribution, we will work on this constructively. Unfortunately, this will instead go where all Opposition motions and Bills have gone - into the ether. It will stay on the Order Paper but go no further. Quite frankly, that is a tragedy for the thousands of people with autism all over this country, their families and their support networks.

I have a friend whom I first met at a party a number of years ago. He has a child for whom he was just beginning to seek interventions at that time. He said something to me that has stuck in my mind. I had just started as a county councillor at the time. He said that it was like he had just been thrown into a jungle with no map. That was how he felt. The fight began then. It is a fight for services, including speech and language therapy, early intervention and audiology; the list goes on. I am not even going to read out the waiting list numbers. We know them. They are astronomical. The question that is always asked of parents, usually by public health officials, is whether they would go private. That is always asked but that is a question that should never be asked. It is an awful question to ask because many people cannot afford to go private. They should not have to go private. Even if they can afford it and do go down that road, the waiting lists are out the door even in the private sector and the services are not there. It is a complete catastrophe.

Deputy Ó Ríordáin spoke about one of the other fights, which is the fight for education. One family had to go through 25 schools to get a school place. I ask everyone in this Chamber to think about their community and where they live and count 25 schools away from there. How far does that take you? For me, in Swords, it would take me up to Drogheda, where many families in my area send their children to school, down to Donaghmede, in Deputy Ó Ríordáin's constituency, or into Dublin city centre. That is the reality. This is again a total dereliction of public duty.

There is then the fight for the right to work post education. A couple of Fridays ago, I received a call from a parent whose son in his mid-20s. He has got jobs but been let go very quickly because of a lack of compassion and understanding of his neurodiversity. That is why, in the Bill, we have sought to amend legislation and introduce definitions to tackle the discrimination taking place in workplaces. We are really disappointed that the Bill will go the way of our motion last year. We feel that it is there to be debated and to be amended on Committee Stage, to become law and to improve the lives, opportunities and roadmaps of a great many people who are feeling excluded from this republic and from their communities. That is something none of us can or should stand over.

Sinn Féin will support this Bill. I commend the Labour Party on bringing it forward. My party colleagues in Sinn Féin and I supported a similar Bill from the Regional Group in October 2021. It is important that we see the development and implementation of a cross-departmental and multiagency autism strategy that has legislative underpinning. In April 2019, my colleague, Deputy Funchion, moved a motion on behalf of Sinn Féin calling for the development of an autism empowerment strategy and the establishment of an Oireachtas committee on autism. The motion received cross-party and widespread support and a commitment was given at the time to deliver on both of these aims. Yesterday, the first public meeting of the Joint Committee on Autism took place, having been established in February, almost three years after the motion calling for it. More than three years after the motion was passed, the strategy is still not complete.

In April 2021, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, announced her intention to establish a working group to develop an autism innovation strategy with the aim of launching it in early 2022. I acknowledge that Covid restrictions held this up but it was only at the end of April this year that a public consultation process was launched and only in early June that an open call for expressions of interest to join the autism innovation strategy oversight and advisory group was issued. The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, indicated that, on the back of the initial consultation, a draft strategy will be produced and a second public consultation will commence. I welcome the progress on the draft strategy and acknowledge that Covid restrictions have slowed this process somewhat but I would like to see this delivered without any further delay because three years since the initial motion is more than enough.

Autism is a lifelong developmental condition that affects how people communicate and interact with the world. While it is linked with challenges, it is also associated with cognitive strengths and talents. Autism is said to be a spectrum because, while autistic people can experience the world differently in specific areas such as sensory processing and communication, not all people will have the same profile of differences.

A number of key policy issues need to be addressed with regard to autism. The first relates to assessments of need and access to therapy services. The Disability Act 2005 provides for an assessment of need to determine the health or educational services required by a person with a disability. The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs, EPSEN, Act 2004 seeks to provide for an assessment of special educational need so that further provision can be made for a child with such needs to be educated in an inclusive environment. While the Disability Act was fully commenced, sections 3 to 13, inclusive, of the EPSEN Act have not been commenced. This is significant because the two Acts were drafted to work in concert with one another.

In the absence of the procedure under the 2004 Act, students who require an assessment of their educational needs are applying for an assessment of need under the 2005 Act, which has put increasing pressure on the 2005 Act mechanism. To try to relieve this pressure and speed up the process, the HSE introduced a preliminary team assessment in January 2020. However, after approximately 10,000 children had gone through these assessments, the process was found not to comply with Disability Act and these assessments have now been stopped. Each of the approximately 10,000 preliminary team assessments has to be reviewed and each family engaged with to establish whether additional assessments are required. This is a significant waste of time for children, parents and therapists, not to mention the waste of public money, and the waiting list continues to expand.

With regard to appropriate school places for children with autism, all children have a constitutional right to education. Under the UNCRPD, people with disabilities must have access to education on an equal basis with others in the community they live in. There is a programme for Government commitment to ensure every child with an additional educational need has an appropriate school place, yet a recent AsIAm survey revealed that at least 260 children do not have an appropriate school place for this September. The true number is likely to be much higher. We know that 120 children in Dublin alone have no appropriate school place. It is likely that many of these children have autism. The Department of Education and the NCSE have access to data on the true number of children who require a place but have not planned or acted accordingly.

I will highlight the severe lack of employment supports for autistic people. More than 85% of autistic people are either unemployed or underemployed. Recent research, carried out by AsIAm in collaboration with IrishJobs.ie, revealed numerous perceived barriers to obtaining employment and found that the workplace is generally considered unaccommodating to the needs of autistic adults.

There are many other issues but I am limited by the time allocated. I again commend the Labour Party on introducing the legislation, which we will support.

There is so much I could say that I am not sure where to start, but I will begin with the Government's approach to the legislation. The context here matters. The Government has indicated it will not oppose or support it. In April 2019, Sinn Féin brought forward a motion in support of a special autism committee and an autism empowerment strategy, and finally, three years later, that first meeting happened yesterday. Within that time, there were two Sinn Féin motions in March, an Independent Group motion last year and a motion from the Labour Party some months ago. All the while, things have been moving forward at a snail's pace. In any event, I commend the work done by Deputy Ó Ríordáin on this Bill.

It is difficult to credit an attitude from the Government suggesting legislation is not the suitable vehicle given so many motions have been brought forward, and so many attempts to articulate the issues in a general sense and to give the Government scope to go forth, develop strategies and so on have been met with progress at a snail's pace. Moreover, it is not the case that legislation in general terms is unsuitable for dealing with the various challenges and resource needs that accompany autism. Seventy miles up the road, in the North, an autism Bill has been passed, as has been the case in many jurisdictions throughout the EU. There is nothing to say legislation is not a suitable place to deal with these issues. If it is the Government's view there are shortcomings or gaps in this legislation, not that I see any at first glance, there is no reason they cannot be addressed through committee hearings, amendments and so on. Let us work with the legislation that has been published and get an autism Bill through. I do not see a problem with that. It is the same old approach of the Government of keeping its head down and trying to minimise criticism without truthfully addressing the matter.

I commend the groups in the Public Gallery, several of whom I have met. I have also met other groups from Dublin 2, 4, 6, 6W, 15 and 24, Kildare and Cork but there are many other groups beyond that and I commend the national groups such as AsIAm, Inclusion Ireland and Families Unite for Services and Support, FUSS, Ireland. One of the points of frustration that both those groups and others articulate relate to the question as to what would be in those areas if they were not there. There is not anywhere like enough of them in those areas, but what would be there if they were not, by way of school places, therapies and so on? It should not be the case that parents, who have jobs, lives and many other things they have to do to support their child, have to get up, organise and push the NCSE, and that they at times have to correct the NCSE and the HSE in respect of the situation on the ground. That should not be their job. The services should meet them where they are. They should not have to meet them halfway, or even three quarters or nine tenths of the way sometimes, and that is the reality. They have to fight for every little bit.

I spoke at a Families Unite for Services and Support, FUSS, rally recently in Cork and articulated a view that parents' patience is wearing very thin. Many of these issues have long been articulated and there has been no solution. This issue relating to school places has been going on for five or six years at least and probably longer in some localities. Every year, the NCSE and the Department suggest they will probably be okay in September, and by the time it comes to March, they say they do not have enough places and they do not know what they will do, and then they must scramble to find places. It should never get to that. In other areas, such as in therapies, it seems to be going backwards. Parents are completely lost in the system, not to mention the children, and the HSE barely knows where to direct them. Waiting times seem to be getting longer. A parent of a six-year-old child who has been waiting two years for an assessment of need came to my clinic but, unfortunately, that is not at all unusual.

It should not be the case parents have to fight tooth and nail for everything. Why not give a legislative basis to their rights and entitlements and to the resources? I urge the Minister to reconsider that position. The Bill is going to pass Second Stage, which is positive, but I hope he will clarity his philosophy by the time it gets to Committee Stage, actively engage with us and try to get it progressed.

I too thank the Labour Party for bringing forward the Bill and allowing me the opportunity to speak to the challenges people with autism face. Some challenges they have are pronounced, such as those relating to social interaction and communication, repetitive and restrictive patterns of behaviour and sensory processing. These challenges are bad enough, but the greatest challenge they face is in getting a timely intervention that will allow them to reach their full potential.

I commend those in the Public Gallery from all the campaign groups and particularly that from my area, the Clondalkin autism support network. I welcome two members of that group in particular, Jennifer and Lisa, and thank them for their tireless campaigning and their will to fight for the best services for their children, but they should not have to fight to meet the basic needs of their children. They should not have to fight for appropriate school places for their children or to ensure those school places are within their communities, or to make sure their children are part of the school community and not apart from it, or to get the proper therapeutic interventions their children need, such as occupational and speech and language therapies. They should not have to fight simply in order that their children can reach their development milestones, but fight they must.

Years of underinvestment and a lack of political will have led to abject failures in the provision of children's disability services. Even when the Government legislates for timely interventions, such as providing for an assessment of need within six months, the Government either disregards the law or blatantly tries to sidestep it. I stood in the Chamber last year when the HSE was introducing preliminary team assessments to replace comprehensive assessments of need and warned this would be in breach of the Disability Act 2005. Parents such as those in the Gallery today had to go to the High Court, which found this did not comply with the Disability Act and that the Government and the HSE had broken the law. Parents do not want to fight anymore and they should not have to. They should not be here listening to us today but should be able to meet the basic daily needs of their kids. That is not too much to ask.

I welcome the Labour Party Bill. It is so important because it speaks to who we are as a society. Groups such as Involve Autism, which is represented in the Gallery, do such powerful work in advocacy but also in supporting families in communities who are struggling day in, day out. There is also Neurodiversity Irishtown, Ringsend and Pearse Street, which does amazing work for families that it should not have to do. We all want to see classes opened as a matter of urgency. Just as a school should not be opened without a wheelchair ramp, a school should not be opened without an autism class. Schools must be compelled to open special education classes and, equally, they must be given resources to ensure that when they are open, they will have the necessary speech therapy and a sensory room. They have to have the wrap-around services because opening a class with just four walls might as well be in a field, and that is not acceptable.

We need to ensure the services are there for the children. Neurodiverse children deserve a high quality education in their community and they should not have to be taxied out of their homes, past their schools and far from where they live. As I have said previously, more than €70,000 per day is spent on taxiing children out of their homes past their local schools in south Dublin alone. That €70,000 could easily be used to resource schools that are opening classes. It is essential that happens because it amounts to a significant waste of money and it is unfair on the families and children who are taxied out.

Last week I mentioned a child aged two-and-a-half years who is being taxied out of their class because no early intervention is available in the community. Our children deserve a decent education. It is good for the community and for everybody in society.

I welcome the groups in the Gallery and wish them well. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill, which we in Sinn Féin support. Indeed we supported a similar Bill last October that was reintroduced by the Regional Group. That Bill is scheduled for Second Reading this October.

In April 2019, Sinn Féin brought forward a motion calling for an autism empowerment strategy and the establishment of an Oireachtas committee on autism. The motion received widespread, cross-party support and a commitment was given to deliver on both issues. Two years after my colleague, Deputy Kathleen Funchion, introduced our motion, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, finally announced her intention to establish a working group to develop an autism innovation strategy. A further year later, on 29 April this year, a public consultation process was launched. Almost three years after the Sinn Féin motion, a Joint Committee on Autism was finally established last February.

The Government needs to listen to groups that support people with autism. The recent AsIAm research highlighted the lack of employment supports available. More than 85% of people with autism are either unemployed or underemployed. There are many perceived barriers to obtaining employment and workplaces are generally considered unaccommodating to the needs of adults with autism. For example, 57% of businesses do not provide work experience opportunities for people with autism. More than 75% of people with autism believe they face barriers in getting the jobs they want or starting their own businesses. This is not acceptable. Some 70% of respondents did not feel confident that managers, colleagues or clients know enough about autism to support them at work. As a result, less than 10% felt confident enough to be open in the workplace about their autism diagnosis. There is a reluctance among people with autism to request reasonable accommodation from an employer.

The first step to the workplace is a good education. We need to ensure that every child has an appropriate school place. As I said last week in the House, our children have a constitutional right to education yet as the recent AsIAm survey revealed at least 267 children do not have an appropriate school place this September. We spoke about the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan’s regressive proposals on centres of special education. That is a huge concern. The Minister for Education has been on national radio recently calling out four schools in a manner that left these schools baffled. This needs to be taken in hand.

The final statement in the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman's, script that the Government will not oppose or support the legislation is a disgrace.

I thank the parents of children in the Gallery. I also thank the Labour Party for bringing forward the Bill. It is obvious that to address the shocking lack of services, relentless lists for assessments and unavailability of school places for children with autism that something must be done. At the moment, parents of children with special educational needs do not know if their children have a school place in September. Something must be done. Parents and guardians are at breaking point, mentally and physically worn out from trying to access proper services. Their entire day is taken up with fighting the system to get their children on a waiting list that can mean waiting for anywhere between 18 months and four years. There is not a Deputy who has not been contacted by parents looking for the basic right of assessment. Some tell us they have to borrow money, usually beyond their means, to get private assessments for their loved ones. As legislators, we need to recognise the serious problems with the current unworkable and unmanageable system and put in place a comprehensive autism strategy to be published in 12 months, as provided for in the Bill.

At present, we have no means of collecting the full data or the means to provide accurate information on autism. This is one of the main pitfalls that must be tackled now. An accurate information system will lead to determining the correct policies, staffing levels and provision to deliver autism services throughout the State and pinpoint where they are most needed. In my own county of Wexford there are four children's disability network teams, CDNTs, which have vacancies for four occupational therapists, three psychiatrists and 3.9 speech therapists, and they have at least 445 children on waiting lists. This is not acceptable for families with children with disabilities, especially autism. The kernel of the Bill is to have a clear system of accountability and scrutiny with direct oversight by the Minister of the day. The question of autonomy by various managers must also be fully examined. The protocol to the UNCRPD cannot be put aside any longer. We are also calling for the immediate fast-tracking of section 37A. Sinn Féin fully supports this Bill and calls on all Deputies to do likewise.

I will also say that the Government, by neither opposing or supporting this Bill, is putting good legislation into no-man's-land.

I welcome the Bill tabled by Deputy Ó Ríordáin and I thank the Labour Party for using its limited Private Members’ time to advance this legislation. The Social Democrats are strongly in favour of the Bill and its intended outcomes. Awareness of autism and neurodiversity more broadly has increased in recent years. Developmental needs of children are finally being recognised and diagnosis of adults illustrates how the condition has been so misunderstood for decades. Disgracefully, this wider awareness has not been matched by the provision of State services. Every week I am contacted by families who are deeply concerned about a child or family member with autism who cannot access the therapeutic interventions in educational supports to which they are entitled. The situation is equally challenging for adults who do not receive support to gain employment or live independent lives, or those having to navigate complex systems after a recent diagnosis. The Bill provides for the creation of a cross-departmental autism strategy and requires all relevant Ministers and public bodies to co-operate with its implementation. It also outlines the need for strong leadership, an awareness campaign and the training of State officials. The Bill outlines exactly the actions that Government should take. That it has to be put forward by an Opposition Party taken within Private Members’ time speaks volumes.

The Department of Health document estimating the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders in the population demonstrates that the actual number of people with autism in Ireland is unclear. Operational estimates put it at 1.5% of the population, which, according to the latest census data, equates to more than 76,000 people. That is close to the entire population of Galway city. The sheer scale of individuals and families affected demands a coherent and properly resourced State response. It is shocking that there is not a strategy for autism already in place. Unfortunately. even within Departments, policy is disparate and inconsistent.

The shameful lack of adequate school places for children and young people with autism is a result of poor planning. Since last September, I have worked with deeply upset and distressed parents seeking school places for this September. Some have secured places, in other cases children are being forced to travel for hours every day from west Cork to the city to access education. In some situations children are repeating a year in primary school not because of their individual needs but because the Department of Education is giving them no other alternative.

I am sure the Minister of State knows the size of the Cork South-West constituency. In that entire constituency there is not one special school. Parents have had to form a campaign group in an attempt to get one. If it could be possible, the situation in the area of healthcare is even worse. AsIAm’s report into autistic children’s access to healthcare last year reveals that two thirds of parents and guardians surveyed have had to wait two years or more to receive an autism diagnosis for their children. More than half felt very dissatisfied with the HSE support services for their autistic children. Almost four in five said they were not in receipt of any support either from early intervention or school-age going teams. Regrettably, this will come as no surprise. CDNTs continue to be disgracefully understaffed, for example the west-central Cork team is currently missing a speech and language therapist, 1.4 occupational therapists and a half-time physiotherapist while the Carrigaline-Kinsale-Bandon team is short 3.62 occupational therapists, two psychologists, one physiotherapist and 0.5 of a speech and language therapist.

The HSE continuously commits to recruiting and retaining staff but there is very little evidence of this. Clinicians and therapists are also deeply frustrated at not being able to provide the care they want as professionals. Moreover, the poor treatment of students and graduates is a disincentive for therapists to work here. Ultimately, it is children who are impacted, with their capacity to live full independent lives being eroded due to the absence of supports.

All of these examples and figures are indicative of the reality faced by autistic children and their families. It is clear their rights are being breached daily. A failure by the State to provide basic services forces all responsibilities and obligations onto already overstretched families. Families work and sacrifice to get private diagnoses, therapies and support. Many others do not have the option and must watch their child suffer and even deteriorate on public waiting lists.

Too often, autism is surrounded by stereotypes and misunderstandings. A strategy designed with representative groups and advocates is necessary to appreciate their needs. Figures from the National Disability Authority note approximately 50% of adults with ASD or autistic adults have a concurrent intellectual disability and many of them require lifelong services. Of the other 50%, some have very little need for supports but there is a significant cohort who are disabled by our education, employment and State systems. Unfortunately, the needs of this group are often not met. This situation, combined with the lack of data on autism in Ireland, underlines the need for a strategy. In this regard, the Bill also responds to current Government deficits by requiring public bodies to maintain data collection systems to identify and record the number of people in their client bases who have autism and to calculate current and future needs for services.

I highlight also necessary improvements that could be addressed on later Stages. Crucially, the Bill must have an implicit and binding obligation on the Minister to engage with people with autism, advocates and disabled persons' organisations, DPOs. Paternalistic and ableist cultures are hardwired into Government Departments and State bodies. It is highly probable that without such a clause, the strategy, awareness campaign and associated measures would be developed without any input from people with autism. The exclusionary process surrounding the rushed Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) (Amendment) Bill is the latest example of this type of approach. I have no doubt Deputy Ó Ríordáin is open to that inclusion.

The Government likes to talk about a rights-based approach to autism but we actually have a budget-based approach. Services, therapies and classes are provided according to budgets, not needs. This is the most sickening part. We know and understand the need. The Government, the Departments of Health and Education and the HSE are all aware of it. There is an abundant and pressing need for an autism strategy that adequately and respectfully provides the full range of integrated services needed by both children and adults. Children with autism and their families are being failed every day. They have been denied proper educational opportunities in their localities. Assessments take years and therapeutic interventions are practically non-existent for many families. Adults with autism face particular challenges and barriers that are only beginning to be fully understood, not to mention resolved. We need a fully resourced strategy that recognises the complexities and diversity of issues and experience involved. Any delays or deferrals intentionally make the situation worse for individuals and families who are struggling. Children, families, adults and whole communities need this strategy as soon as possible.

I am sharing time with Deputy Barry. I welcome everybody to the Gallery. I always think it sends a powerful message into the House on what democracy means. We can sit here chatting all day in a vacuum but to have people from the outside with real lived experience coming in sends a powerful message and I hope the Minister of State also recognises that. People Before Profit welcomes this Bill and we will support it as a step in the right direction.

Supports for those with autism are shockingly poor. We need a strategy. While I am always hesitant when it comes to announcing more strategies, documents and reviews when what we actually need is action and investment, this Bill would be an important step forward. For too long, the needs of autistic people and their families have been ignored. They have been seen and not heard but, more and more, they are speaking up through groups such as AsIAm and the Irish Society for Autism, whose members are in the Gallery.

The report from the Ombudsman for Children makes for stark reading. It highlights how the Department of Education is utterly failing children with special needs. AsIAm and others are demanding investment in education, more SNAs and a reduction in class sizes. Ireland, as we know, has some of the largest class sizes in the EU. That disadvantages all our young people but especially those with special educational needs. These groups have been fighting for years to have more SNAs, therapists, case workers and front-line workers hired. This would be a win-win for everybody as it would create decent jobs, cut waiting times and improve our education and public services. People Before Profit's alternative budget showed how it could be easily done by taxing the super-rich. It is a political choice that the Government makes to prioritise tax dodgers rather than children.

We know of at least 267 children with autism who have no school place yet for September. That is 267 families anxiously contacting schools because they are terrified their child will be left out. All the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, could do was try to dodge responsibility and blame the schools. The buck stops with the Minister of State. Her response to the crisis has been shocking. She has lashed out at the schools for her and her Department's utter failure. Why is it only now, in June, that the Government is finally talking about this? Surely it knew well in advance how many children with autism would need school places? Where these children live and how many places there are available in the areas in question is not unknowable. It is a failure of the Minister of State and the Department. I have an email from a principal of a DEIS school in Dublin 8 who states:

I'm not sure she [the Minister of State] grasps the choices principals have to make everyday to allocate scarce and finite resources. I have to continually prioritise children with complex needs ... [and we are not equipped to do so]. This means that children with mild to moderate needs who ... are equally worthy ...[to be catered for], are falling further and further behind. It's actually heart breaking

We should have planned years in advance, as I said, to expand the number of special education classes, hire the extra special needs teachers and assistants and have more capacity. Deputy Gino Kenny tabled an interesting parliamentary question in which he asked about the graduate diploma in education on the autism spectrum in Dublin City University for the next academic year. It is startling that 80 teachers applied to take that diploma course and the university could only provide 18 places. Of course, the reply to the parliamentary question did not answer the question but answered everything but the question asked. It is totally unsatisfactory. Again, as with all public services here, it seems the Government prefers to fly by the seat of its pants and leave everything until the last minute. The result is huge anxiety and pressure on families, teachers and principals. Most particularly, it leaves the children behind. The Government can plan when it comes to looking after data centres and we will see later today that it is about to spend €500,000 to increase electricity capacity to facilitate these centres.

On top of this scandalous shortage of school places we have the massive backlog of people waiting on the list to get a diagnosis in the first place. How can the Minister of State justify a situation where parents are left waiting up to three years to get the necessary appointments so their children can have a diagnosis. Those are three key developmental years in their lives that they are forced to go through alone without having the extra supports to which they are entitled in school and in their lives. Is the Government not ashamed of that?

AsIAm and other advocacy groups, including those with us today, have been pushing for years for increased investment to cut these waiting times. People Before Profit completely supports them but this Government has failed to deliver. The result is many families who can barely afford it are forced to go through private services, which further deepens the inequalities in our society. This can no longer be accepted. We need to invest now to bring the waiting times down to months rather than years in order that children with autism get the supports they and their families need when they need them.

I wish to use the time allocated to me to raise concerns relating to autism and the housing crisis. Those concerns arise from a case in Cork city with which I am dealing. It involves a woman who has been living in emergency accommodation for about a year. She has been offered alternative accommodation in the form of a one-bedroom apartment. She self-identifies as autistic, however, and states that the alternative accommodation being offered is totally unsuited to her needs as it is sited on a road that is noisy, particularly at rush hour. High levels of noise are a significant issue for autistic people with hyperacusis. As I live near the road in question, I can testify that it is a far from quiet area.

The emergency accommodation provider in question has told the woman that she must quit the premises by next Monday. This decision is in writing and comes into effect after an appeals process. In effect, the woman now faces a choice between accepting a property that she believes is totally unsuitable for her needs and being made homeless. I stated that she self-identifies as autistic. Like many other people in this country who would like to get a diagnosis, she went to the HSE. The process moves at a snail's pace, however, and she has not been able to afford to go private and pay a four-figure sum. Her general practitioner, GP, has put in writing that she is autistic. I have met her and believe her claim is credible. She clearly and sincerely believes it to be the case. As far as the system is concerned, however, she has no diagnosis and, therefore, is not autistic and can be offered a choice between homelessness and accommodation that is totally inappropriate to her needs.

Emergency accommodation providers are under significant pressure as a result of increased homelessness, notices to quit, increasing domestic violence and our rightful obligation to accommodate refugees. What we need is more funding, places and, crucially, alternative housing options. I am concerned that the pressures on the system are now causing real injustices and I suspect this case is one of them. The woman has been asked to quit by Monday. I will be raising her case in every way I can in the days ahead.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important subject that is close to my heart. I thank the Labour Party for bringing forward the Bill. Last October, the Regional Group reintroduced a Bill that had been brought through the Seanad by former Senator James Reilly. It was parked to allow the Government time to put in place the necessary measures.

Autism is not a health issue; it is a human rights issue. It is very important that we look at it in that way. The whole issue of autism is being treated on a haphazard basis. All the frameworks and working groups and so on are beginning to take shape but, as has been repeated here all morning, what is missing is that services are not being provided on the ground to the people who need them. The families are suffering.

The European Commission approved the charter of rights for persons with autism in 1996. That charter states that autistic people should have the same rights as those enjoyed by all EU citizens and these rights should be enforced by legislation. That has yet to happen in Ireland. We need to understand why that is the case. Why has what is required not been put in place? I sit on the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Disability Matters. Witnesses, including family members of autistic people, have appeared before the committee to speak about their experiences. Those families are under awful pressure. I welcome the people in the Public Gallery who are listening to the debate.

It is important to state that we need action on the ground. We need more than talk, strategies and working groups. We need to see the effect of this on the ground. I know that other speakers are passionate about this issue. We have to get to the stage where the money and resources are put where they are needed. It is important that we do not treat autism as though it is a disability. It is actually a gift that some people have and we have to make sure they get every right to enjoy life and have an equal part in society.

People with autism and their families suffered hugely during Covid because they were isolated and in strange environments. What has happened since then? That went on for the past two years. I will take the example of my constituency and that of the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte. In Loughrea, for instance, there is very little in the way of ASD facilities in any of the national schools in the area. A group representing 100 families in the area is trying to get education facilities for their children. Two weeks ago, I came across a case in my neck of the woods involving a boy who cannot go to the local school with his sister because it does not have an ASD unit. He has to go another school. That is isolation and segregation. All the members of a family should have the right to go to school together.

I do not wish to criticise anybody because this issue has been ongoing since 1969. We have to cut away the crap, as I would call it, and get to the basis of this, which is to support the families that need it. We need to do that now. We can have strategies and everything else one likes and we will waste a lot of money convening all these groups and doing whatever else but the families in the Public Gallery, along with those in my constituency and elsewhere in the country, will not be able to get the support they need. That is what is wrong. It is the creation of this mirage of bureaucracy, red tape and whatever else. A letter I received from Ability West this week highlights that what is going on in the services in general is frightening. We need to cut to the chase, put the money where it is needed and cut out the middleman, the upper man and whatever else and get the money to the families who really need it.

The Bill refers to the autism strategy, service delivery and all the various aims of the strategy. There is no doubt that education must form a central part of such a strategy. Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak on special needs education. We are falling short in many areas in that regard. In that speech, I highlighted a discussion I had recently with a parent of a child with special educational needs. She highlighted to me the constant battle for provision and resources that she has had to endure. The absence of long-term support plans means that too many parents are left anxiously waiting each summer to discover whether their child will have the resources he or she needs for the next school year. That includes children with autism. We must never underestimate the importance of the support given to those who need it most, and create long-term sustainable plans.

Should a template be required, Kilrane National School in south County Wexford stands out as a prime example of exactly what can be provided in terms of special educational needs and inclusivity in rural Ireland. The school has a top-class additional needs unit with a reputation for catering for every child in the community, regardless of ability. I take this opportunity to commend the school principal, Eoin Ó Donnagáin, or Máistir Eoin as he is best known locally in Rosslare, all his school staff and the school community on the inclusive ethos of the school, which is widely praised in education circles. Máistir Eoin will retire in August. A day of celebrations will take place in the school today - obviously, I cannot be there - in recognition of the immeasurable service he has given. Eoin has been bold, progressive, forward-thinking and dynamic in his position as school principal and that has resulted in a school that is all-inclusive in every sense of the word. I commend him on an accomplished career and wish him a healthy and relaxed retirement.

I will get back to the Bill. Those with special educational needs require constant support. The model of making parents and schools reapply and reassess every year needs to be replaced with a longer term approach. The needs do not disappear. It should be a system of ongoing provision. To illustrate what that means, I will refer to an email I received from a principal. She stated:

We appealed our Special Education allocation of hours. We were increased only by 1 hour. We have 60 hours which means 2 full time teachers and 10 hours shared with ‘another school’. We have great need in our school. We actively went after an ASD class in 2018 and opened a second one two years ago which we feel is an incredible step considering some schools now have to be compelled [under section 37] to open them.

We must resource and support the current system to ensure educational needs are delivered, and delivered in a manner that will sustain those with special needs as they potentially move towards full-time employment, living alone and so on. Acting now is a stitch in time to ensure adequate provision of services. I am tired of hearing from people who are having to fight for their needs. This is the case for everybody on the autism spectrum, right across the country, as the Minister of State has heard today. It seems to me that the only people who do not know what is happening are those in the Department. The Minister of State is new to the Department and to ministerial office. I know she is doing her best. She has made inroads and I hope that continues. We badly need a system and a strategy that work. We need a system that shows we know what is going on and that when a child starts in junior infants, there is a plan for his or her second level education and he or she will not just fell out of the system.

I am sharing time with Deputy Danny Healy-Rae. This Bill would oblige the Government to produce a cross-departmental autism strategy and require all relevant Ministers and public bodies to co-operate with its implementation. The strategy would outline how the needs of people with autism, including access to education, other public services, employment and social inclusion, can be met by public service providers. It would detail how the needs of families and carers can be met by setting out a roadmap of actions for the development and improvement of family support services. The Bill would make the Minister for Education responsible for monitoring the implementation of the strategy. It would make other Ministers and public bodies accountable, as each relevant Minister and public body would be required to publish a progress report on a three-yearly basis, giving updates on the implementation of the strategy.

It is remarkable that such a strategy does not already exist, especially given that the Government knows we will need school places for young people with autism into the future. The data we have make that requirement completely predictable. It is immoral that the State would allow the scandal to persist whereby hundreds of young people with autism do not know in June whether they will have a school place in September, not to mention the 15,500 young people who have to leave their catchment area to access a school place. There are large numbers of these children in west Cork. While the Bill will not address many of the prevailing issues impacting people with autism, we are happy to support its aim of achieving a legislative underpinning of rights.

It is truly shocking that in 2022, there is still not equality for people with disabilities. There is an ocean of window dressing by the State when it comes to inclusivity but the truth is that hundreds of thousands of citizens are excluded from life in this country every single day of the week. Yesterday, while we were discussing the arrangements for this week on the Order of Business, there were calls for the Taoiseach to give proper time for debate on the Government Bill and not just squeeze it in on Friday in an effort to push it through. This area needs proper debate because there are a lot of issues associated with it. It is an area that has been neglected for many years.

The Minister of State might smile but it certainly is not a smiling matter for the people who are suffering. The Government did its best to close the early intervention unit in Kilbrittain until I intervened and kicked up hell over it in west Cork. The Government eventually backed off and allowed it to stay open for one more year. The unit is delivering hugely for the people of west Cork and it needs to be allowed to continue that work.

I thank the Labour Party for bringing forward this important Bill. We all know young couples for whom it is a very tough cross to bear when they find out their child has a problem. It certainly places strain on them because they want the best for their child or, in some cases, children. The situation is no different in Kerry. We have our share of families that include children with autism. Parents are looking for assessments and placements and they see their child is being neglected.

The first point to make is that we should try to determine, as I have asked before of the Government, what is causing the increasing levels of autism in children. The numbers affected seems to be ever increasing. We are told that one in every 65 children presents with autism. I feel the number is much higher than that from the level of representations my office is getting daily. More than 4,000 children are on waiting lists for autism assessment. That is dreadful. I am not blaming anyone in particular for this. The problem was there under previous Governments but it is increasing now and we must deal with it. It is truly shocking that in 2022, children with disabilities are not being looked after properly.

The current waiting time for an autism assessment is between two and three years. Many parents are worried this will leave it too late for their child to be assessed and get the interventions that are needed. An incidence rate of one in 65 surely says there should be a special needs assistant in more schools, including one- and two-teacher schools. Many families have to go down the route of private assessment. We know how much stress families are under with the cost of everything today, including the cost of fuel to go to work. Parents often have to pay anything from €950 to €1,500 for a private assessment. It is safe to say that parents who can afford such an assessment have access to services sooner and, therefore, obtain better outcomes for their children. What about the parents who do not have €950 to €1,500? They feel their child is being denied the right to fair play.

I welcome the Bill and this debate. We need to see a sea change in how autism services are delivered and we need to see tangible results. We have our share of families in this situation in Kerry. An enormous number of parents are presenting who feel their child has autism. The first thing they are not getting is an assessment, which is taking two to three years to access. I know the Minister of State is listening. It is hard to stand up here when one only has a couple of minutes and can see the Minister is not listening. I see she is listening and I appreciate that. I hope she will take all our words back to the Cabinet table and make sure something positive comes out of this debate. That is what we are asking. We are depending on her. It is her time to act, as Minister of State with responsibility for this area, alongside the Minister of State, Deputy Butler. We appreciate that. Will she please do something for these children? It is their time as well and they only get one cut at it. We need to help them at the earliest possible stage in their development and ensure they get the assistance they require from the State and the education system.

I welcome all the families and campaigners who are in the Gallery today. It is a shame they have to come in here again after all their years of campaigning. However, there is a need for their presence. I see the Minister of State is nodding. I hope this will spur her on to push for action moreso than long-term strategies.

We know what we need. We must fill the children's disability network teams, CDNTs. This was supposed to be the new and positive step forward in moving children out of individual community healthcare organisations, CHOs, such as CHO 7 and all the other areas. The CDNTs were going to solve all the problems in this regard, but we have seen what has happened, with more than 10,000 families having not received assessments. There are vacancies all over the place and families cannot access the resources they need. This is the crux of the issue. Equally, my feedback from families is that those who assess the CDNTs find it is all paperwork. It is not a case of a therapist sitting down with the families and assessing the needs of the child.

The report of the Ombudsman for Children is a dire assessment of where we are when we consider that the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, was set up in 2003, which is now nearly 20 years ago, to support the educational needs of children with disabilities and autism. According to the report of the ombudsman, Dr. Muldoon, the Department of Education is failing children with special needs who do not have school places for next September. More than 100 children still do not have placements and other families are still chasing placements outside their local areas. The report states:

For children who live in provision 'black spots', most notably Dublin and Cork, the system can fail in its response. That such failings occur is not acceptable.

I agree 100% with that. It is just not acceptable. The report estimates that as many as 15,500 children have to travel outside their local school catchment area every day to access school places. The pressure this puts on families is unbelievable, on top of not having the resources they need.

Meanwhile, nearly 1,500 students are receiving home tuition, which the report recommends should only be used temporarily as a last resort. Dr. Muldoon also stated in the report "that approximately 4,000 children were awaiting a diagnostic assessment in order to qualify for a school place" initially. These children must be given "access to a psychologist via the ... [State services] to establish whether [they need] a special class ... [or] school place" in the short term. The report also raised the concern that too much onus is being placed on the shoulders of parents to get the system to respond to their children's needs. The ombudsman also stated the "decentralised nature of our education system" means it is largely up to individual schools to decide whether they will provide school places for children with special needs. Additionally, the ombudsman stated there must be a recalibration of the balance between "Government oversight of education and schools’ autonomy".

Twenty years on, this is a bad indictment of where we are now and of the situation that families and children are facing. On top of that report, we had the reply to the question posed by Deputy Cullinane, the spokesperson on health for Sinn Féin. The HSE said there are significant challenges in this regard. Out of just over 2,000 roles, some 732 posts were for professionals to provide services for children with disabilities. Many of those posts in the HSE are vacant. The response continued by stating, according to the HSE, that vacant posts equate to 480,000 hours not being provided to children on the waiting list for services. These 480,000 hours reflect the reality of the situation. The unfilled posts are across the HSE and other organisations funded by the State. This includes the NCSE, which stated yesterday it has vacancies in its speech and language therapist, roles and disability management posts. Some 52,000 children are waiting for initial assessment and therapy. The biggest part of waiting list for services is for speech and language therapy, with more than 30,000 children waiting. Nearly 8,000 are waiting for physiotherapy, while more than 13,000 are waiting for occupational therapy. There are 9,500 children on waiting lists for further speech and language therapy appointments.

Last Monday week, the Dublin 12 campaign for autism units organised an event where parents were invited to meet their local Deputies and explain exactly where they stood. It was devastating to listen to the stories, as the Minister of State knows, because she has heard them before. This has to stop. There must stop being a need for these families to have to continually meet councillors, Deputies, Ministers and Ministers of State to explain their situations when they have done that time and again. About eight to ten families were present at that meeting, but I did not get to speak to all of them. The main issues, however, concerned a lack of access to the assessment of need, AON, process, as well as to speech and language therapy, physiotherapy and occupational therapy services. Many of those families had been waiting for four or five years for those services. What really struck me was the number of parents who had to go private for the AON and the other therapies, such as speech and language, as well as for assessment for education to get children into school.

I am not saying we should stop speaking about it, because we must speak about this situation, shout about it and provide a voice for those families affected by this situation, but it is now up to the Minister of State and her Department to get the finger out. I heard the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, is creating more places for people to study to qualify as therapists. We must, though, think outside the box here. I say that because what we are finding is that while therapists are coming into services, they are then leaving quickly. They are going to private providers because better pay and resources are available. We must try to think outside the box in addressing this issue. Why are we not saying the State will encourage young people to go to college to study for these roles and pay for their courses if those students commit to staying in the HSE's services for at least eight to ten years? If people might wish to pay for their own course, that would be their own initiative. We must find a way that will enable us to keep these therapists, including nurses etc., in the services they are entering.

I support this Bill. The Government is wrong not to support it or to take its provisions on board and work with the Labour Party on it because this would give legislative rights to families and children. A strategy is not as strong as legislation. I ask the Minister of State for her opinion in this regard and why she is not considering this Bill as an important part of addressing the services being provided to children and parents. I ask that based on other countries having done this. It is not a pie-in-the-sky approach.

My last point concerns Kerina Cullen-Tuite, who said, during a report by RTÉ on the report of the ombudsman, that in the five years since her son Paddy was diagnosed, he had received 18 hours of therapy, of which 12 were for speech and language and six for occupational therapy. The report she got on the AON stated her son needed psychological and educational assessments. She has had none of those. Ms Cullen-Tuite said her son, along with all the other children, is not reaching his full potential.

I thank Deputy Ó Ríordáin and the Labour Party for bringing this Bill to the House. Along with my colleague, the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, I support the Government's decision not to oppose this Private Members' Bill at this stage of the process. I would like to bring the House through my thought process in this regard.

I read through this proposed legislation intensely. By any manner or means, this is not a million miles from the autism innovation strategy I have got up and that I am trying to pull together. This Bill refers to all the pillars within the strategy, such as housing, education, post-primary education, higher education and employment. Deputy Nash spoke very clearly about that aspect. I hope the legislative piece in respect of moving from 3% to 6% will be addressed when the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity)(Amendment) Bill comes to pass, that is included as part and parcel of it. What has been said by the Deputies referred exactly to all the pieces that explain why I found myself developing an autism innovation strategy.

We must remember that while many people and many Governments might have talked about it, this Government is actually doing it. The reason I am doing this is because I can see in all the different Departments where we are failing families and children with autism, from the very early years to the transition into higher education and then out into employment and to accessing housing. I have taken this approach to ensure we can have the consultation aspect, where the persons in the autism community, whether those are the advocates or the individuals themselves, shape the strategy. It is not the legislators. It is not us. I want this to be led by the people most impacted. I will address why I have done it this way.

All of us in this House know the Department of Education has been failing. We also know the Department of Health is failing. Why is that Department failing? It is because it is needs based and the Department of Education says it needs to have a diagnosis. The Department of Social Protection also says it needs a diagnosis, and if a person does not have a diagnosis, it cannot support him or her. It is to try to break down those barriers and ask how we can make a functioning system work. How can cross-Government, cross-Department and cross-State bodies work to ensure there is better delivery? We will see on Friday what is going to happen, but we already know the process is too long. Twenty-one steps and 18 months are not a functioning part of it. Bringing it back to eight weeks will perhaps make it. Perhaps it will ensure more within the Department of Education will also step up to the plate. No longer should parents and advocacy groups have to beg continually.

I acknowledge and complement everyone in the Gallery from Involve Autism, AsIAm, Families Unite for Services and Support, and Inclusion Ireland. I appreciate all the work they are doing, but it is wrong they should have to do it continually. That is why I believe in this strategy and that there should be various pillars. The Deputy and I agree, as I believe everyone else in this House does, where we need to have the pillars and that level of cross-Government understanding of what autism is about and what is required in the Departments. There is a complete lack of understanding, awareness, empathy and implementation, and that is what the strategy is about. By the end of this year, when it goes out for its second round of consultation, I will invite the Deputy to feed into that process. I would love the Labour Party, and all parties, to feed into it. These are not weightless words. That is where Deputies will see their input being part and parcel of the process.

As I have gone through the Bill, and the Deputies will see all the tick marks I have made, I agree completely with everything that is in the Bill, but I am asking the Labour Party to give me the opportunity to see if the strategy works. That speaks to Deputy Joan Collins's asking of me why I am not supporting the Labour Party. The reason is I want to see first if the strategy works. I am not opposed to legislation. I want to see if I can make the system work and use my position as a Minister of State within the Department with responsibility for equality and inclusion to make other Departments work together and to put the children and their families at the centre when it comes to education, health, housing, employment and transitional planning.

Where I have seen the system work in recent weeks is with the Minister, Deputy Harris, on higher education. He launched a plan amounting to €3 million every year for the next five years for accommodation for children with autism and needs transitioning into higher education. That is how the system should work, whereby there is communication with the system and having that inclusive piece within it. We now need to go back to the start, to the early years piece. We know the AIM process works in the early years. That should be the transition piece that brings us into primary and post-primary education, taking the learning from there.

I speak again to what Deputy Collins said about the CDNTs. I cannot leave the Chamber without acknowledging, because the Deputy has met with the parents, that one of the biggest barriers for accessing many of the services is the health aspect of it. In recent weeks, I have written and put it to the HSE that therapists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, and speech and language therapists should be added to the critical skills list. They were not on the list; they will be included now. Training behavioural therapists in NUI Galway and not having a behavioural therapist pay scale within the HSE is wrong. I have asked the HSE to add behavioural therapist to the pay scale. We are about autism and behavioural therapy must be part and parcel - a core piece - of it.

We know the figures that have come out and there was no new news on that for me last week as to how many therapists we do not have. The reason the parliamentary question was asked was because people could not believe it when I said it an Oireachtas committee that I was being open and honest about it. The parliamentary question went in and the answer came out. We need to pause the IFS piece. We need to deliver on the intervention. Therapist teams delivering 66% of their time on a desktop exercise and not delivering an intervention is wrong. It is wrong until such a time as the teams are fully populated. Until the teams are fully populated to 90%, I cannot include student therapists in third or fourth year to be part of the assessments for the simple reasons of clinical governance and clinical oversight. Therefore, we need to bulk up the teams.

The final piece on CDNTs and what needs to happen here is, every CHO up to this had only €25,000 for assistance with purchasing private assessments. Some €25,000 annually would not buy five therapy interventions. It is not enough. They have to go to the European level of public procurement so that we will have intervention and assessment on a twin, parallel approach. It cannot be either-or. It must be both until such time as there are enough therapists, and I go back again to the Minister, Deputy Harris, adding an extra 1,056 college places for therapists this week. A portion of those places will be held for occupational therapists, physiotherapists, speech and language therapists and psychologists. By the time those therapists come on board, perhaps we will have the capacity for in-house assessments and doing them ourselves, but until such time, we cannot leave families waiting four or five years.

The preliminary team assessment stoppage was a direction that came from my Department to pause it. The court made its decision. Let us stop faffing around. Let us pause it and find another agile way to approach it. Of the 10,000 who are there at present, 4,500 of them are in critical need of an assessment. There is a plan being devised as we speak for that.

To the Labour Party I say that, while I might not have given the response that was wanted, that is not to say I am totally opposed to legislation. I want to see if I can deliver in making a whole-of-government approach work. I like to think we could. We have seen how it happened in the cancer care strategy. Why can we not do it within autism? It is important to say I have found a willingness on the part of colleagues within Government to work with me, and that is awfully important. What I need now is officials to buy into the contributions that have been made by the families and persons directly impacted. While I might not often agree, if at all, with Deputy Barry, housing is a big part of this and we need to understand accessing housing. Even diagnosis, for the purpose of housing persons with autism, is not on some county councils' radar at all. That is what I am trying to do.

I welcome the debate. I normally do not get a chance to express my knowledge of this area. I also acknowledge the work Deputy Ó Ríordáin and his party have done and for giving me the platform to share this with the House. I do want to work with the Deputy on this issue.

Like others, I welcome everyone in the Gallery. It reinforces that we are not talking in a vacuum. We are actually listening and, I hope, reflecting the views of people who are affected by this issue. It is one that is understood by most people and all contributors across the House. I also commend my colleague, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, not alone on his work in preparing and introducing this important legislation but also on his ongoing campaign to highlight and, much more importantly, to address the many issues faced by people with autism and their families.

None of us are surprised by the passion of the Minister of State; she gets it. The problem is the rest of the Government does not seem to get it. We are trying to assist and provide her with the legislative means. I know, having worked in various Departments, the reality is everybody is in his or her own silo. Unless people are required by law to act and report, these things do not happen. That is why I hope the Minister of State will embrace this legislation as a legal underpinning of the clear ideas and understandings she has articulated in the Chamber. This is not a stand-alone Bill for debate. It is just another step in seeking to support the growing number of children and adults facing real and practical difficulties in the myriad of ways Members have outlined and we have heard directly.

No Member of this House has not had the most difficult and heart-wrenching conversations with mothers, fathers and families of children with autism seeking basic supports for their families - from the start, a basic assessment. The notion they have to wait three years for a formal assessment of need before being able to access any service is just not acceptable. It is just shocking. That is to get on the first step of the ladder. I know how difficult it is to get professional supports, as the Minister of State has instanced in her commentary, and to reinforce the number of people needed, including the professionals in these support teams, because they are being recruited in the private sector. The problem is we are all talking to the ones who remain and they are under so much extra pressure trying to cover for absences that they are now on the verge of leaving too. It is a crisis that is unfolding and we need a solution. It is no use saying we can solve these problems by having new places and new training. We need a way of holding people by paying them decently and reflecting what the private sector pays if we want them to stay in the public sector.

The response of the State to date can be described as inadequate, and that is a very mild way to say it. What is required is clearly a national strategy that is underpinned by law, that has all the multifaceted approaches to which everybody here has referred and that has a significant education component, because we need to plan from birth to graduation. People have to argue for their rights at every stage as if they will disappear after primary school or after secondary school. I commend the work of the Minister, Deputy Harris, on beginning a process, but we need the type of joined-up thinking for which everybody has argued but put on a statutory basis in order that the Minister of State is not the only one who gets it but that all her colleagues are required to get it and to report it.

I do not have time to go into the Ombudsman for Children's report but it makes for very salutary reading.

We all know the individual requirements because the families know them and they tell us what they are. This is a human rights issue, not an education issue, a health issue or an employment issue. Eleanor Roosevelt asked where, after all, universal human rights stand. She said they stand in small places close to home and that, unless those rights have meaning in those small places close to home, there are no international human rights at all.

I listened very carefully to the Minister of State. I felt her passion. It was very believable. Unfortunately, the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, basically insulted the House and, I believe, insulted all the people who are here to witness this legislation. It is tokenistic and absolutely wrong of the Government to say it will allow this to pass Second Stage but that it will not do anything with it and cannot support it. The arguments that have been put forward are garbage. They are rubbish. We need legislation here because everything else has not worked. My colleagues have outlined all the various issues.

When I started off in politics and doing clinics, I might have one in 20 people come to me to discuss this. Three or four weeks ago, I had 20 appointments in Nenagh, 11 of which had to do with families who had issues with their children with autism and education, early intervention and so on. I have been speaking about this for years. I am very passionate about it. I am delighted my colleague, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, has brought this forward. When it comes to early intervention, you are fighting. When it comes to assessments of need, you are fighting. When it comes to primary school - fighting; secondary school - fighting, not to mention third level, where support is non-existent to a point. When it comes to actually being able to live within your community, something that is often missed, you are fighting. That is why I and colleagues in Nenagh set up Make Nenagh an Autism Friendly Town, trying to replicate what is going on in Clonakilty. Then when it comes to work, you are fighting again.

The disability awareness strategy, DAS, to get people into employment is again tokenistic. I am working with a number of people to try to help them get into employment because of the stigma they feel every time they notify potential employers of their autism. For the Government to say it needs more time and that it will not start off with this legislation, which we are not saying is perfect, to have a whole-of-government approach shows that, despite the Minister of State's passion, from an holistic Government point of view, either the Government just does not get it or it just does not want to prioritise it. Both are equally bad.

There is no way we can say in a Republic we will continue to treat people like this. It is totally and utterly unacceptable and totally wrong. It needs a whole-of-government approach. A Republic is about more than the four green fields. It is about treating people with respect. It is about equality. It is about ensuring everybody has equal access. That is not happening.

The Government says it will continue for another while and then look at other legislation or other strategies. That will not work because we will be here in a couple of years' time, the same people advocating will be up in the Gallery, and we will not have moved much further, despite all best intentions. This needs legislation because legislation makes Departments act, makes people work and makes targets. It ensures priorities. Without that, we will never get to the stage where, as a Republic, we can ensure the people we need to serve, the people who have been let down by the services of this State across the whole spectrum of issues we in the Labour Party have outlined, will get what they deserve.

Question put and agreed to.