I thank all Senators who contributed to this debate which, as Senator O'Rourke reminds me, took place over three days. I applaud them on some wonderful contributions and for their interest in the subject of autism. It is only when one gets into individual cases, such as that of Senator O'Rourke's nephew, that it is brought graphically to our attention what people have to put up with when a family member is autistic.
I am delighted to inform Senator O'Rourke, and other Senators who raised the issue of research, that we are endeavouring to participate in an international autism genome project. We are currently discussing this with the National Alliance for Autism Research, a parent-funded group in the United States, and I hope there will be participation by Irish researchers in this project. I agree that there has been a significant increase in the prevalence of autism and I will do everything I can to ensure sufficient funds go to research in this very important area.
Senator Terry referred to speech and language therapy. We are educating more speech and language therapists, among other therapists. Unfortunately, there are not enough of them at present. If Senator Terry speaks to me about the case to which she referred, I will see what I can do.
Members raised many other points. Respite is an issue that is frequently brought to my attention. The Government has invested a great deal of funding in this area in recent years. I am currently looking into the matter of autism services on the Loop Head peninsula referred to by Senator Daly.
Senator Brian Hayes referred to a matter that is close to my heart, multi-annual funding. When I came to the Department I could not understand the lack of multi-annual funding, especially in the area of disability. My departmental officials would love to have multi-annual budgeting but, unfortunately, the Department of Finance does not listen attentively to us. I hope we will make progress on the matter. The more Senators and other people outline the advantages of multi-annual budgeting, the sooner we will arrive at that position.
The Government is conscious of and has acknowledged the difficulties faced by families caring for persons with disabilities, including those with autism. It is for that reason the Government identified these services as a priority area for funding. Since 1997, additional funding amounting to €643 million has been invested in health-funded support services for people with intellectual, physical and sensory disabilities and those with autism. This includes an additional €25 million in current expenditure which was made available by the Minister for Finance in the 2004 budget for services for people with disabilities.
Additional revenue and capital funding of €388 million has been provided for autism and intellectual disability services since 1997. This has provided a broad range of new and enhanced services around the country and includes an investment of approximately €16 million since 1998 in the early intervention, pre-school and multi-disciplinary support services for children with autism and those with an intellectual disability.
Services to people with intellectual, physical or sensory disabilities and those with autism is one of the limited number of areas in which additional revenue funding has been provided by the Government to any Department over 2003 and 2004. In respect of services to persons with autism and intellectual disability, this funding, amounting to €43 million up to the end of 2004, was specifically provided to meet costs associated with the provision of emergency residential placements, extra day services, particularly for young adults leaving school, and to enhance the health-related support services for children.
I wish to address some of the issues raised during the debate. One such matter was access to pre-school services. The direct provision of pre-school services which are educational in focus is not part of the remit of the health services. However, in the past, within the resources available to them, health boards grant aided some special needs specific pre-school services, in addition to assisting individual children with disabilities to attend mainstream pre-school services.
The role of the educational services funded through the Department of Education and Science in respect of the provision of pre-school services for children and in particular children with disabilities is a fundamental issue which requires to be addressed. My Department has advised the Department of Education and Science that the health services are very anxious to work with the educational services to enhance access to pre-school services for children with disabilities, including those with autism.
The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Bill 2003 will provide a statutory guarantee of education services for people with a disability. It will provide a statutory framework within which the education of children who have special educational needs because of a disability can be guaranteed as a right enforceable in law. The Bill was considered carefully by the Dáil and a number of changes were made to ensure the delivery of appropriate support services. It was passed by the Dáil on 26 May and Second Stage commenced in this House earlier today.
A number of Senators raised questions related to school supports for children with special educational needs, including those with autism. The Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, has approved the allocation of an additional 350 teaching posts for special needs and a new system for the allocation of resources for special needs in primary schools. The new system will involve a general weighted allocation for all primary schools to cater for pupils with higher incidence special needs, those with learning support needs, borderline mild and mild general learning disability and dyslexia. It will also allow for individual allocations in respect of pupils with more acute needs.
The general weighted allocation system will greatly reduce the need for individual applications and supporting psychological assessments and will put resources in place on a more systematic basis, thereby giving schools more certainty over their resource levels. This will allow for better planning in schools, greater flexibility in identifying and intervening earlier with regard to pupils' special needs, as well as making the posts more attractive to qualified teachers.
The question of the current level of uptake of the MMR vaccine was raised during the debate. I have arranged for copies of a reply to a parliamentary question on this subject, which was answered on 21 June, to be made available to those interested in this issue. In accordance with a commitment in Sustaining Progress, the social partnership agreement running from 2003 to 2005, my Department is required to carry out a strategic review of existing service provision, in consultation with relevant interests, with a view to enhancing health and personal social services to meet the needs of people with intellectual, physical and sensory disabilities and autism.
This review is particularly timely for the following reasons. A considerable period of time has now elapsed since the publication of the relevant policy documents in this area. Account must be taken of the effect of Government policy in respect of the mainstreaming of services. The level of additional funding invested in the services in recent years makes an examination of the results of the funding timely and necessary. The implications for disability services of the publication in 2000 of the health strategy, Quality and Fairness — A Health System for You, and the primary health care strategy should be examined. The health services reform programme approved by Government and published in June 2003 will also have far-reaching effects which will influence the delivery of services for people with disabilities. The new legislative measures being introduced in the area of disability will have a profound effect on the future planning and delivery of services.
The strategic review will examine a number of specific areas of service provision. My Department sought and received initial advice from various stakeholders regarding the format and content of the review. Taking this advice into account, a number of specialist study groups have been established to look at particular topics, identify relevant issues and make recommendations on future policy in respect of the specific topic. Some examples of these topics include assessment, early intervention and pre-school services; management of health services for persons with autism; links between education and health-related support services; access to mental health services for people with intellectual disability and those with autism; disabilities and older people; mainstreaming; protecting vulnerable people; supported living and personal assistance; information and databases; training and sheltered work; value for money; and funding.
Significant resources have been provided by this and the previous Government to enhance the overall level of support available to people with disabilities, including those with autistic spectrum disorders. These resources have been provided through the health and education services in addition to other measures such as mainstreaming, which will also impact positively on the lives of people with disabilities. This is very visible evidence of the Government's commitment in this area. Despite the very significant levels of additional funding which I have outlined above, the Government has acknowledged that further significant additional investment is required over the coming years if we are to meet the identified needs of people with disabilities and their carers. Much progress has been made but the Government is not complacent. Much more remains to be done and it shall deliver on its commitments.
I acknowledge the contributions made by all Senators who spoke during this debate. It is through opportunities such as this, in sharing knowledge and information, that we can assist in moving issues forward in a positive manner.