Thursday, 30 September 1999
Dáil Éireann Debate
11. Mr. Spring asked the Minister for Health and Children the action, if any, he is taking to tackle the unacceptable waiting lists for social work services in the Eastern Health Board area; if he will provide the additional resources to ensure that children waiting for referral to a social worker due to neglect or abuse will be seen without delay; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18318/99]
Mr. Cowen: Health boards are resourced by my Department to discharge their statutory responsibilities under the Child Care Act, 1991, and under other relevant legislation. Since taking office in 1997, the Government has allocated an additional £29.5 million in revenue funding for child care services. The £15 million allocated this year is the largest amount allocated in a single year since the Child Care Act was passed. The Eastern Health Board has received a greater than pro rata share of these additional resources because of the wider range of issues to which it has to respond.
Resourcing decisions are made against the background of regular contacts between officials of my Department and officials of the health boards. In the case of the Eastern Health Board, the board, in discussions with my officials, has highlighted problems in recruiting and retaining staff as a constraint in providing services, but the availability of resources has not been identified as a serious constraint in this area. It is a matter for each health board to manage its services to ensure their effective and efficient delivery. I will ask the Eastern Health Board to provide information to the Deputy in regard to the detail of his query which relates to operational issues which are the responsibility of the board.
Ms Shortall: The Minister recently provided that detail. Looking back at the record, it has not changed much over the past few years. Approximately 450 to 500 children are on the waiting list for referral to a social worker at any one time. Does the Minister find that acceptable? Will the Minister desist from telling us how much money he is spending and comment on the scale of the current problem?
Mr. Cowen: I do not see why the public should not know what money we are spending. It is their money. The information supplied by the health board to us in May of this year indicated that there were 463 children on waiting lists for social work services. That contrasts with 47 cases in the remaining seven health board areas. The Eastern Health Board advised that all cases requiring an immediate response should receive it. Many of the cases on the waiting list have undergone an initial assessment and are awaiting reports from other specialist agencies. In our discussions with the Eastern Health Board on these issues, the board has indicated the difficulty of obtaining and retaining staff. That is something it has to continue to work on all the time. It has not stated  that resourcing was the core issue. If they could retain more of their staff or get more staff perhaps this list would not be as it is. The board makes the point that those who require an immediate response get it.
Ms Shortall: I spent half an hour dealing with an urgent case – that is why I was late coming in today – in respect of which there was no social worker available within the Eastern Health Board. The Minister did not answer the question as to whether it is acceptable to have 500 children awaiting referral to a social work service. Perhaps if he could generate interest in that he might, in turn, be able to take some action to address the problem. The problem is not going away. It is remaining static.
Ms Shortall: On the issue of the shortage of social workers, is the Minister aware that at any one time there are approximately 8 per cent of posts vacant in the social work service? Does the Minister accept that this has been an ongoing problem and there is an urgent need to take action in relation to dealing with third level colleges to ensure that there is a substantial increase in the intake of social work students so that, as services develop, social workers will be available?
Mr. Cowen: I will take up with my colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, how that can be addressed. Obviously, the fact that there are 463 children on waiting lists in the Eastern Health Board area, as against 47 in the remaining health board areas, shows that there is a more unsatisfactory situation pertaining in the Eastern Health Board area than in other health board areas. I have explained some of the reasons given by the health board providing the service. I am also stating that the recruitment of social workers by the Eastern Health Board is an operational matter for it with which it has to deal.
In relation to the wider policy area, the Deputy makes an assertion that this is something that can be resolved within the third level institutions in terms of providing more places. That is a matter I will take up with the Minister for Education and Science and revert to the Deputy on it.
Mr. Shatter: Would the Minister agree that, as Deputy Shortall said, it is unacceptable that there are this number of children awaiting social work service? Would the Minister acknowledge that the ongoing difficulties which the Eastern Health Board has given rise to a genuine concern as to the capacity of that health board to properly implement the new child abuse guidelines?
Mr. Cowen: The questions relates to the present position in that health board where there is clearly a less ideal situation than in the other seven. We have to see how we can address that issue. That is something that I, with my colleague,  will seek to do something about. I would also make the point, and the Deputies should not take exception to it, that more resources than ever before are being put into this area. Clearly resources alone are not the issue. There is the issue of recruitment and of retaining staff. That also must be addressed. It is for the Department and the Eastern Health Board to work on those problems to see how we might improve matters because, given the figures, there seems to be a very satisfactory situation in the other seven health board areas. We must learn from other health boards while acknowledging – and I do in my reply – that there is a breadth of social problems in Dublin that may not pertain to other health board areas.
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