Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 16 Apr 2015

Vol. 239 No. 7

Commencement Matters

School Transport Eligibility

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Tá mé an-bhuíoch dó faoi teacht isteach leis an gceist seo a phlé. Chuaigh muid chuig na daoine éagsúla a bhaineann leis an gceist seo, ach níor éirigh linn aon réiteach sásúil a fháil. We have tried to have this issue resolved through a number of channels but we keep hitting a brick wall. There was no other option but to raise it with the Minister in the House. We are asking the Minister for Education and Skills if she thinks it is acceptable that a 13 year old boy with Asperger's syndrome had his application for school transport to a school of his choice turned down by a special educational needs organiser, SENO, on the grounds that there is a school with fewer resources closer to his home and whether the Minister thinks it is acceptable for a SENO to base such decisions purely on distance to the nearest school and to ignore the quality of education and resources available at schools and the overall long-term interests of the young person concerned.

This 13 year old boy was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome in 2007. The parents visited six schools during 2013 before agreeing on a particular school. The child visited two of the schools in 2013 before the final school was selected. Obviously, it is a specific situation and the child must be comfortable in the school. The child was accepted into the school in February 2014 and started the transition from primary school to that college in April and May 2014. The transition took ten days. The school in question applied for school transport on his behalf to a SENO in Sligo in May 2014. The application was turned down in June 2014 because there is a school in County Mayo which is 12 km closer to the child's home. The basis of the decision was the rule regarding the distance to the nearest school, not the quality of the education or the resources available in the school. That was the slat tomhais or the only measure used; it was not the education stipulation.

The decision was made without consulting the parents or other health care professionals who had been involved in the child's education in primary school such as the occupational therapist, the speech and language therapist and educational or clinical psychologist, which the parents believe is in breach of section 8(3) of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs, EPSEN, Act 2004. The Health Service Executive, HSE, benefits provided for the boy in Sligo would cease to be provided if he moves to the other school or if he is forced to attend a school in a different county. This is imposing a huge burden on the family. The parents are driving him to the school, which is costing approximately €150 per week in fuel. Owing to the lack of transport provision, one of the parents who had returned to education has had to cease attending the third level course because it is no longer feasible for them to continue the course due to the travel, cost and so forth. The other parent is a homemaker and there are other children in the family.

This is a situation where the rule makes no sense. I can understand why the Department of Education and Skills would state school transport must be provided to the nearest school for a child in a normal situation, but this is a very specific and exceptional scenario. The fact that the child has Asperger's syndrome should be taken into consideration. The trauma of trying to move a child with this type of medical condition from a school and getting him or her settled in a new school must be taken into consideration. We have gone down the different possible routes with this case.

I do hope the Minister can intervene and try to bring a little sense to bear on this issue and ensure that the child in question can be kept in the school he has become used to. There is a difference of only 12 km between it and the other school to which SENO has said it is willing to provide transport. I look forward to the Minister of State's reply which I hope will be positive.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. School transport is a very significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department. Approximately 113,000 children, including almost 10,000 children with special educational needs, are transported on a daily basis to schools throughout the country during the school year. This network involves approximately 4,000 vehicles using more than 6,000 routes and covering over 82 million km annually. Expenditure on school transport for children with special educational needs is €69 million, or 40% of the total budget for school transport provision.

The case the Senator outlined is similar to others and not unique. Quite a number of young people with special needs avail of school transport through the education system. The purpose of the school transport scheme for children with special educational needs is, having regard to available resources, to support the transport to and from school of children with special educational needs arising from a diagnosed disability. Children with special educational needs are eligible for school transport if they are attending the nearest recognised school or unit that is or can be resourced to meet their special educational needs under Department of Education and Skills criteria.

School placement is determined by the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, through its network of special educational needs organisers, SENOs. School transport eligibility is then determined based on the terms of the scheme I have just set out. It is based on the nearest recognised school which has or can have the resources. It is often the case that a school has been given extra resources to match the needs of a child.

In addition, to assist parents, the NCSE has published guidelines on choosing a school, which are available on its website at www.ncse.ie. These guidelines were developed to inform parents about the range of educational placements and supports now available for their children. The guidelines also set out a number of factors that parents might want to take into account when choosing a school for their children such as school transport.

The Senator is aware that the child in this case is not attending his nearest school and is, therefore, not eligible for school transport. The policy of eligibility for school transport based on attendance at the nearest school or unit is acceptable, given that resources can be allocated to a school if necessary. All State-funded primary and post-primary schools have been allocated additional resources to provide for children with special educational needs enrolled in school. Primary and post-primary schools have a permanent allocation of additional teaching supports to provide for children whose educational psychological assessment places them in the high-incidence or less complex disability category.

Separately, the NCSE allocates special needs assistants for children with additional care needs, as outlined in Circular 0030/2014, along with additional resource teaching hours for children who have been assessed within the low-incidence or more complex category of special need, as defined by my Department's Circular Sp Ed 02/05. The NCSE operates within my Department's established criteria for the allocation of special education supports and the staffing resources available to my Department.

The Senator may also be aware that the NCSE is at an advanced stage in the preparation of policy advice on the education of children with autism. I expect its final report will reflect the broadest possible range of views, both national and international, and will provide recommendations which will assist the development of policy for future years.

Regarding the provision of therapeutic services such as speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and psychological services, these are matters for the Health Service Executive and not a factor in identifying the nearest recognised placement or for transport eligibility purposes. I know a lot of effort and detail went into the choice of school for the child to whom the Senator referred and the parents visited six or seven schools. I advise that while it is the prerogative of parents to send their children to the school of their choice, eligibility for school transport is to the nearest school or unit. The terms of the school transport scheme for children with special educational needs are applied equitably on a national basis. There is no opportunity for me to intervene. I have dealt with many similar cases in the past seven or eight months. The criteria are in place and it is not within my gift to change them for one case. There is a duty to apply the rules equitably and fairly across the system. It is very clear that schools are given the resources to match needs, but parents have to pick the nearest school. I am sorry, but the rules have to be fair across the board.

I thank the Minister of State for his response, but in this case the law is an ass. We are not making the child's needs paramount; rather, we are putting rules and regulations within a system of administration before him. I am very sorry that this is the response we have received. I ask the Minister of State to seek a specific review of the case because if the child has to move to a different school, he will lose the current support he receives from Sligo HSE, which will be detrimental to his health and well-being. It is a serious issue and I would welcome a review of the case if the Minister of State was willing to do so.

I certainly will. I have a brief summary of the case and went through many of the issues. I can see that the decision is in line with policy, but I will take up the file and go through it in detail, which I would do in all such cases. There is often a perception that such cases are exceptional, but they are not. They are quite common and the policy was set to the effect that children would go to the nearest school that had or could have the resources to match needs. In this case, the family picked a different school which was further away. The criteria are quite clear that children must attend the nearest school which can accommodate them. Young people in other counties travel for 80 or 90 km and receive transport because they are attending the most suitable schools which had the required resources. There are 10,000 cases, many of which are quite similar to this one. I have reviewed many files and will review this one to see if anything was missed. I am not allowed to change the rules because that would not be fair to everybody else. There are rules for a reason. A review is taking place which may help to change things in the future. At the Senator's request, I will review the file in detail to see if there are issues we can help with in case something was missed.

Medical Card Reviews

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. However, I expected to see the Minister for Health, Deputy Leo Varadkar. I mean the Minister of State no disrespect, but this matter is within the remit of the Minister for Health. I regret that I have to bring this matter to the floor of the Seanad. I have tried every other avenue open to me.

The lady concerned was the holder of a discretionary medical card for many years. Her case was due for review and she reapplied and was refused. She did not even receive a GP visit card. She reapplied a second time and was again refused. The case was reviewed and appealed, and was unsuccessful. I have to raise this issue here because when I rang the medical card office the person to whom I spoke would not even acknowledge that the women had had a discretionary medical card. He kept telling me that it did not show up on the computer. That was the answer I kept getting from him, which was absolutely appalling. I just had to hang up. I asked how the person could explain the fact that this woman's husband had not received a medical card if it was not a discretionary card.

The lady has a very complicated medical history. She suffers from arthritis, osteoporosis, hyperthyroidism, hiatus hernia, polymyalgia rheumatica and two other conditions that I cannot even pronounce, which are written down here if the Minister of State wants to read them. She has had one knee replacement and is awaiting another, but the operation cannot be carried out as a result of poor healing because of her polymyalgia and other ongoing conditions. She is a priority for surgery. She also has inflammatory disease, with swelling and deformity of MCP joints in her hands. She has no option but to attend a GP more than 20 times a year, along with very regular blood monitoring. She also has to attend the hospital for outpatient assessments on a regular basis. With all of this, she has to undergo surgery again, which will necessitate a lengthy stay in hospital. One consultant refused to take her on because her medical condition was too complicated. One can see why she is extremely worried about the cost of her health care.

On top of this, her husband is also on medication. He is 65 years of age and has the option to continue working until the age of 66 if he wants to, but he has to weigh up his options. If he gives up work and claims social welfare, that will be their only income. She is in receipt of invalidity pension and he will receive jobseeker's allowance for nine or 12 months. When one is in receipt of social welfare as one's only source of income, one receives a medical card. That is how much value they place on a discretionary medical card. The couple applied for one only for the wife. Their financial circumstances had not changed, and they could not understand why the medical card was taken away.

I understood all those who had discretionary medical cards which had been removed had them returned after the furore a year or two ago.

The woman in question is in receipt of an invalidity pension, meaning tgat the Department of Social Protection recognises she has a complicated medical condition but the Department of Health does not.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue which I am taking on behalf of my colleague the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, who apologises that she could not make it owing to a previous commitment.

In accordance with the Health Act 1970, as amended, eligibility for a medical card is awarded where a person cannot arrange GP, general practitioner, services for themselves and their family without undue hardship, having regard to their financial circumstances. With regard to the particular case, it would be inappropriate to discuss the family circumstances and their financial details in public in the Seanad. However, I understand from the HSE, Health Service Executive, that in this particular case, in February 2011 the local health office did not issue the medical card on the basis of the HSE exercising discretion. It was not a discretionary medical card at that stage in 2011. In a later review in September 2014, the applicant's income was found to be in excess of the qualifying means threshold. The person's application was referred for a further review to see if the HSE could exercise discretion in this case. However, the outcome was that there was no evidence that the applicant faced undue hardship in arranging medical services. Subsequently, the applicant appealed this decision to the appeals office. The application was further examined and the appeal was unsuccessful.

The Senator is also seeking confirmation that all those who had discretionary cards removed in the past few years have had them reinstated. In June last year, the Government decided that medical cards or GP visit cards would be reinstated to persons with a serious medical condition or disability who had the renewal of their discretionary card refused by the HSE, having completed an eligibility review between 1 July 2011 to 31 May 2014. Almost 11,400 persons who met the criteria have had their discretionary cards reinstated.

The person to whom the Senator referred did not hold a discretionary medical card. Discretion continues to be an integral part of the medical card assessment process. All applications are assessed under the relevant legislation and the HSE's national assessment guidelines. If the circumstances of this particular applicant have changed since the last assessment, I advise the person to contact the HSE to make a new application. Every effort is made by the HSE, within the framework of the legislation, to support applicants in applying for a medical card and, in particular, to take full account of the difficult circumstances in the case of applicants who may be in excess of the income guidelines.

As part of the suite of actions that the Minister for Health, Deputy Leo Varadkar, and the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, announced in November 2014, the medical card system is now operating in a more sensible and sensitive manner. The HSE is exercising greater discretion. This is evident in the number of discretionary medical cards in circulation which has increased by 56% from almost 52,000 in mid-2014 to over 81,000 at the end of February this year.

I hope this clarifies the individual case for the Senator and reassures her that the medical card system is now operating in a more sensible and sensitive manner. The HSE has made it very clear that it was not a discretionary medical card in February 2011.

If it was not a discretionary medical card, why did the person's husband not have a medical card? Why did she receive a medical card when her financial circumstances are the same now as they were back then? Nothing has changed and the thresholds have not increased. There seems to be a communication breakdown in this case. This woman had a discretionary medical card - the HSE may not want to call it that - because of her health condition while her husband did not have one. The only option left for this woman is to take her case to the Ombudsman because she obviously has been treated unfairly. I will suggest she follow this course of action as it is the only one to prove the HSE made a mistake.

That course of action is open to anybody. The HSE stated it did not issue the medical card on the basis of it exercising discretion. It was not a discretionary medical card. That is where the problem lies.

Can it determine what kind of card it was?

That is a good question. I will ask Minister of State to check this out. Obviously, the person received a card because of someone’s interpretation of the guidelines. The Senator’s question is essentially why the card was granted in the first place. I will bring this matter to the attention of the Minister of State.

Fishing Industry

Will the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine request the European Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries to put into law a requirement that any member state’s fishing vessels entering or operating in another member state’s waters be required to inform that member state’s authority by telephone, fax or ERRS, electronic recording and reporting system, of each vessel's quotas, its list of quota species and its area of operation prior to beginning its fishing operations As it stands, when the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority or the Naval Service boards another EU member state's fishing vessel in Irish waters, all its catches will be logged. This is required of all fishing vessels. The problem is these two agencies do not know these vessels' allowable catches. TACs, total allowable catches, are issued to each member state which then allocates a quota to a fishing vessel. However, the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority and the Naval Service do not know what are their quotas.

I want to level the playing pitch for all boats fishing in our waters. The lack of this information is making the job of the two agencies in question impossible. Some of the vessels they inspect are enormous. One talks about running around a football field. Running around one of these vessels would be the same as running around six football fields. In the interests of clarity and fairness, I am calling for this change to fishing regulations. It will give enforcement agencies what they need to implement and regulate fishing in our waters.

The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine apologises that he is unavailable to take this matter as he is in Brussels dealing with fisheries issues.

All EU fishing vessels must comply with all regulations relating to the Common Fisheries policy, CFP, including reporting of catches and respecting technical measures. The CFP sets out roles for the authorities of member states in ensuring compliance by fishing vessels with their obligations. There are roles for the flag state, the country in which the vessel is registered, the coastal state, the country with jurisdiction over the waters from which the fish are taken, and the port state, the country to which the fish are landed. In addition to a role as a flag state, Ireland has substantial obligations as a coastal state to verify compliance by all vessels fishing in the Irish exclusive fisheries zone.

The annual TAC and quota regulation sets out the quotas for each stock available to member states. The distribution of the stock among the vessels of the member states is a matter for the national authorities in each member state. Accordingly, it is a matter for each member state to manage the available quotas and make them available to its fleet in an appropriate manner.

The monitoring of uptake against national quotas is a matter largely for the flag member state.

In recent years fisheries control within the European Union has been structured so as to deliver a level playing field across member states. In October 2009, the European Union adopted a new regime dealing with fisheries controls. Council Regulation 1224/2009 establishes a community control system for delivering compliance with the rules of the Common Fisheries Policy. Control and inspection is now focused where it is most effective through an approach based on systematic risk analysis. Inspection procedures are standardised and harmonised.

The controls available for a coastal state comprise remote-sensed data monitoring, ongoing risk analysis and at-sea inspections. The types of remote-sensed data available to Ireland as coastal state for non-Irish vessels include the output of the vessel monitoring system, VMS, and the electronic logbook recording system, ERS. The VMS system transmits position, heading and speed to the flag state which should make it available to any relevant coastal state. The ERS system transmits the catch retained on board every midnight to the flag state and onto the coastal state. In other words, Ireland's control authorities can see what vessels are in the Irish exclusive fisheries zone at any time. It has access to details of catches logged for every day the vessel is fishing in the Irish exclusive fisheries zone. These data are monitored to identify any indicators of non-compliance and the Irish Naval Service, assisted by SFPA, performs at-sea inspections taking account of this information.

The introduction of electronic logbooks is a significant milestone in fisheries control and the access to catches logged each day is an important control tool. Ireland would like to see the co-operation between member states in the sharing of this information further strengthened, in particular to give the coastal state access to all catches by the vessel on a trip when any component falls within the Irish exclusive fisheries zone. Ireland has strongly pursued compliance with this provision at EU level to tighten the data provision requirements. This objective is being pursued at EU level and will, in any case, be pursued in the Commission's upcoming review of the application of the EU control regulation.

The Irish authorities are key players in collaborative fishery control in the form of specific control and inspection programmes co-ordinated by the European Fisheries Control Agency. A specific example is the ongoing plan in the substantial pelagic fisheries off the Irish coast in north-western EU waters. These pelagic vessels have legitimate access to the Irish exclusive fisheries zone where they fish extensively. Their catching capacity and onboard processing facilities mean they pose particular risks and challenges in the verification of compliance. These joined-up EU control missions are very useful in delivering targeted control operations to high-risk fisheries and Ireland will continue to contribute to this type of EU operation.

Ireland's control responsibilities both as a flag member state and a coastal member state are taken very seriously and Irish authorities continue to work to promote a culture of compliance throughout the exclusive fisheries zone and wider.

I thank the Minister of State. I call on him to arrange a meeting with the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, because the reply did not address my proposal. If it were introduced, be it through legislation or a directive, it would give the enforcement agencies such as the Naval Service and the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, SFPA, the knowledge and power they now lack. These vessels are owned in Holland and Spain and registered in France, England, Lithuania, Germany and elsewhere. They use fish quotas to mop up huge amounts of fish in Irish waters. I hope this issue will be brought to the European Union and I will contact our MEPs because I cannot see why the relevant people in DG MARE and the Commission would not do this.

To make a comparison, this would be the same as a garda pulling over a man for drink-driving and asking him whether he had drink taken to which he answers he has drunk ten pints. There is no committal on the other side. I am explaining it as best I can. The quotas are given to the country and the State allocates the quotas to the boats. When the SFPA or the Naval Service boards the ship, it can see the fish catch which has been logged, and everything is above board, but it cannot state the ship is over quota because no quota has been specifically addressed to the ship. When the vessel goes back to its mother country, it will land more fish and there is no control. I call for a meeting with the fishing representative bodies and the Minister because in the interests of fairness and a level playing pitch every ship in EU waters should have a quota for its time at sea which should not be on a yearly basis. If a quota were allocated to a ship, the SFPA and the Navy could compare and see, as many involved in fishing state, that our waters are being fished out because no quotas are allocated to a vessel while it is in the waters. Will the Minister of State request a meeting with the Minister and the fishing representative bodies on this matter?

I take the point the Senator makes. If we have to monitor quotas, it is very important that we do it in a transparent and very open way. What the Senator suggests is a different way of monitoring and he has made a very strong case for it. The best way to proceed with this, whereby the Senator can get his viewpoint across as he is obviously representing people, is to set up a meeting with the Minister in the first place because he is the person who deals with it. I assure the Senator we will set up this meeting and follow it with a meeting with those involved in the industry if we think there is a case to be made. The Senator is asking the Department to do something in a different way from how it does it and the Minister would have to agree. He is in Brussels today dealing with marine issues. As he takes a significant interest in them, he will certainly be amenable to the case made by the Senator.

Sitting suspended at 11.10 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.