Wednesday, 21 September 2011
Dáil Éireann Debate
Deputy Micheál Martin: Before the general election, the Taoiseach not only promised to maintain special needs assistant provision in education but also supported a motion in the House to increase funding for SNAs this year. For the past few months parents of children with special needs have been coming under increasing pressure. Deputies have met many parents who are affected by what is an inflexible approach to the provision of SNAs. We know the provision of special needs assistants is critical for these children in order that they can avail of their constitutional right to an education.
Last night on “Prime Time” there were specific examples of how this policy was being implemented and how it was affecting children with special needs. The stories on the programme were truly shocking to anyone who was watching. It is simply unacceptable. The way in which the system is being implemented is heartless and demonstrates a hand-off approach on the part of the Minister. It is clear from all the evidence we have heard that there is a disconnect between what people are being told in the House and what is happening on the ground. Parents of special needs children are well aware of the commitments the Taoiseach made and his choice to break them will not be forgotten. Will he take a hands-on approach to this issue in order that genuine cases will be properly dealt with and common sense and flexibility will prevail?
The Taoiseach: I did not see the “Prime Time” programme to which the Deputy refers, but I realise this situation always causes genuine concern and anxiety for the parents of children who are challenged in their schooling. Since 2001 the number of SNAs has tripled to 10,575. There are also 9,950 resource teachers for special education services, 350 more than last year. The programme, as far as I have heard, did have a point in that there is clearly a need to consider the extent of observation time in classes by professionals. Professionally qualified people assess children on the basis of their needs and it is as a result of these assessments that SNAs are appointed in the first instance. As the Deputy is aware, the special educational needs organiser then discusses the use of these SNAs with the principal, the staff and the children involved.
I assure the Deputy and everybody else that this is a sensitive matter which is importance to the Government. We do not have a hands-off approach, as though it were happening somewhere else and the matter did not need to be considered by the Minister for Education and Skills who has a genuine interest in it. It will not be the case that all SNAs will be removed from a school. A child who needs care and attention will have access to an SNA. I have made that commitment before and stand by it. I do not determine the professional assessment in each individual case, as the Deputy is well aware, but where a professionally qualified person says a child needs particular attention, it will be provided.
As I have said to the House before, the Minister for Education and Skills has retained 475 SNA posts that have yet to be allocated. These are withheld for a very good reason: to cater for cases in which a newly assessed child comes into a class, an accident occurs or some other issue arises. Far from viewing this issue as being of no interest to the Government or not being a hands-on matter, the Minister for Education and Skills is considering and is right to consider the extent of observation periods in class in order that a fully comprehensive assessment of each child’s needs can be obtained. Following this, decisions about the allocation of SNAs to particular schools or classes can be made and discussions on the use of SNAs in the interests of children take place among the SENO, the principal and the staff.
Deputy Micheál Martin: Since 1998 there has been radical change, as well as dramatic improvements in mainstreaming special needs education services. For God’s sake, what the Taoiseach is saying does not tally with the reality on the ground. It is ridiculous to talk about 475 posts being withheld; why are they being withheld? The school year has started and SNAs are being removed from children. The Government must release the 475 SNA posts being held over as a first step. That is elementary. We do not need to hold them back for the rest of the school year. The Government should release them now and stop taking SNAs away from children.
I have said there is a complete disconnect between what the Taoiseach and the Minister are saying in the Dáil and what is happening on the ground. There was a hands-off approach. Last night on “Prime Time” the Minister used phrases as, “That is not the way it should be happening” and “It is not meant to happen that way.”
Deputy Micheál Martin: That is of no consolation to the parents and no comfort to the schools involved. The Government has an extra €1 billion to €2 billion since it took office, which gives it flexibility; therefore, there is no real need for this. We should have the matter sorted quickly. I appeal to the Taoiseach to stop talking at a level that is completely at variance——
Deputy Micheál Martin: ——with the reality as experienced by teachers, parents and, most critically, children in schools. The Government should release the 475 SNA posts being withheld. It can deal with any emergencies that emerge during the year——
The Taoiseach: I live in the very real world. I met the parents of St. Senan’s schools in Templeshannon, Enniscorthy, when I was in Wexford last week. I met them for 20 minutes. Those people were absolutely concerned——
The Taoiseach: ——and very angry about the situation that had arisen. However, I want Deputies to understand that I meet that situation in many places. In that school, for example, which I understand was mentioned in the programme yesterday, there are three special classes for autism spectrum disorder, with 13 special needs assistants catering for the 18 pupils in those classes, or almost one SNA for each individual pupil, higher than the recommended ratio for special class groups, namely, one SNA for three children.
The Deputy knows, as I do, that no one knows a child better than its mother does. This is obviously of great concern and anxiety to people. We all want to see a situation where every child gets the best opportunity. I believe, therefore, that in reviewing this the Minister for Education and Skills is right to look at the issue of the extent of observation time in classes in order that those who are professionally qualified to make an assessment about a particular child’s needs from an educational perspective are enabled to do so. Based on those recommendations the Minister and the Department can determine the allocation of SNAs for each school and, through the special education needs officer, discuss the best use of that allocation between the teachers and the staff allocated to the children.
Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: On 10 May the Taoiseach introduced his jobs initiative, stressing that it was not a budget. In May there were 440,000 people on the live register. By the end of August that figure had risen to almost 500,000, or 14.4%. It is now clear that this jobs initiative has failed, the policy of squandering the National Pensions Reserve Fund on the banks rather than using it as a stimulus has been seen to fail, and austerity is not working, the most acute evidence of which is the swelled ranks of the dole queues. Today, as we meet in this Chamber, hundreds of people who work for Aviva fear for their jobs. This comes hot on the heels of the loss of 475 jobs at TalkTalk in Waterford, losses of jobs in the Gaeltacht, and 425 job losses in Pocket Kings and Allied Logistics in Dublin. These are but a sample of the haemorrhage of jobs. At what stage did the Government become aware of the threat to the jobs at Aviva and what contact, if any, has there been by the Government with the management at Aviva?
The Taoiseach: The situation in which the country finds itself, with unemployment at the level it stands on the live register, is completely unacceptable. As the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, has commented on many occasions, the figure of 300,000 people who are unemployed within the context of the live register is unacceptable to me and to the Government. That is why the entire focus of this Government is to rectify our public finances, restore our economic sovereignty, grow jobs, put out a very clear understanding that this Government is open for business, is pro-business and pro-initiative, and within the course of this Dáil session will bring in a number of further measures that will add confidence, demonstrate flexibility for small and medium enterprises, provide micro-finance for those who employ very small numbers or who want to employ such numbers, and adjust, where we can, the red tape, bureaucracy and obstructions to job creation.
I made the point the other day to the Deputy’s party leader that I was approached by an employer in the past fortnight who told me that the rates of pay in her place of employment were between €9.50 and €11 per hour, but after advertising and interviewing on three occasions, not one Irish person could be taken on to work in the establishment, which has a very high standard rating. The consequence, she told me, is that she will now have to bring in people from outside the country who will work for and contribute on those rates and send money back to their own countries.
The Taoiseach: Regarding the report about Aviva, it is one of the longest established, global enterprises in the insurance business and has announced it is going through a restructuring phase. It is only right and proper that I do not comment on this until such time as the company arrives at its conclusions, having carried out its analysis. The extent of insurance drop-off in terms of car and house purchases and many people leaving health insurance indicates the extent and depth of the recession and the pressure on people as we take €6 billion out of the economy this year. Obviously, there are serious challenges ahead. IDA Ireland, which has been in contact with Aviva, cannot make any sort of judgment about the future until such time as the company makes its own decisions in respect of the review which it is carrying out.
Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: I find it astonishing that the Taoiseach would even suggest that the hundreds of thousands of people out of work do not wish to find employment. Given that he raised the issue of hourly payments, he might also reflect on the fact that no one sitting in this Chamber is on €9.50 per hour. If he takes a look around him——
The Taoiseach states that the unemployment figures are unacceptable; in that he is correct. What is even more unacceptable in the face of this unemployment crisis is to have a Government that sits on its hands. It talks big, it acts small.
Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: I do not accept the Taoiseach’s position that he has had no contact with Aviva. He has passed the buck to IDA Ireland. Hundreds of jobs are now under threat. What will he do about it? It is not sufficient to pass the buck to another agency. If he is so appalled, so concerned to keep people in work and get them back to work, he should get cracking now and ensure those jobs in Aviva are secured. He should match his rhetoric with action.
The Taoiseach: That is why we called back all the ambassadors and diplomatic personnel we have around the world. That is why the Tánaiste is in New York and the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, is in the United States. That is why we have had direct contact with business interests at home and abroad to rebuild this country’s reputation, to tell people that we are open for business and that this Government is focused on making changes that will restore our country’s finances and our people’s good fortunes.
The Taoiseach: ——both for the opening of the Coca-Cola plant, a €300 million investment, and to talk to enterprise and small indigenous business which is now employing unemployed people and is in the business of manufacturing and exporting.
The Taoiseach: Far from living in an ivory tower, the Government is cracking on in dealing with the obstructions to business and job creation. That is where our focus is going to be. I sympathise with every person who is unemployed, as people want to work. There are some cultures within Irish society which must be shaken up because we are facing a new reality. We are not our own economic masters. The Government was left with that legacy, but it is going to shift the position and return to a point where Ireland can borrow on the bond markets——
The Taoiseach: ——and be in charge of its economic destiny. The Government’s ethos is that Ireland will be open for business, that business will be created here and that work and initiative will be rewarded. We will proceed, in conjunction with the people, to put Ireland back in the position it should occupy.
Deputy Shane Ross: The Taoiseach who has just made a rousing rallying cry on the economy will no doubt be aware of the IMF report issued last night. It is devastating in its findings, not just with regard to the global economy but also and more particularly in respect of Europe. The chief economist of the IMF has stated it is time for Europe to get its act together. These are pretty strong words from an international body of this nature. When the US Treasury Secretary, Mr. Timothy Geithner, addressed a meeting in Poland last weekend at which the Minister for Finance was in attendance, he delivered a similar message. The message from outside is that Europe is an economic swamp, that it is sinking and that it has no leadership.
Is the Taoiseach happy with the solution being offered in each European crisis, namely, that Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy get together for a meeting? They met in June, July and August and achieved nothing. They were in contact by telephone last week and achieved absolutely nothing. Who gave them the authority to pose as the voices of Europe, to meet in high profile situations and to give the appearance — deliberately so — that they have solved the European problem? Regardless of whether we like it and partly because the economy has been mismanaged, Ireland is a pivotal player in the recovery of Europe.
Deputy Shane Ross: The IMF has suggested — this runs counter to much of what the Taoiseach has just said — that all European countries will be obliged to surrender a great deal of their economic sovereignty if the current problem is to be solved. The Taoiseach has stated — I applaud him for it — that is that our ambition is to get ourselves out of the grasp of the IMF-EU-ECB troika and re-establish our economic sovereignty. Is he going to move in the opposite direction and sacrifice that economic and political sovereignty to President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel?
The Taoiseach: I note the report from the IMF. The Deputy is only too well aware that frequent denials regarding the state of the country’s economy were issued prior to the arrival of the IMF. The Government, which I lead, has been working assiduously with the IMF, the ECB and the European Commission — the troika — on the changes we consider to be important, both in the context of this country’s interests and those of the European Union. As a public representative, I have made the point on many occasions that in the past large European countries stood by their smaller counterparts in the context of the overall political direction of the Union. Given the nature and make-up of the governments of quite a number of countries — namely, minority administrations, multi-party administrations and s on — there are obvious internal difficulties. There are no such difficulties in this country.
The Taoiseach: I make it to the Deputy that in the context of the decisions made in July with regard to the economic position for the future. We undertook to engage in certain actions and are doing so assiduously.
Deputy Ross is correct when he observes that the conversation in Europe is focusing on whether any country can be successful in emerging from the current economic turmoil. Everyone in Europe is looking at this country as one in which the Government and the people are working together to deal with the challenge we face and is asking whether it could well be the first to emerge from the difficulties. Confidence levels are rising in terms of the perception of how Ireland is dealing with this matter and our reputation abroad is being restored. It is true that we have had to do some work in rebuilding that reputation with international business interests. However, our work is paying dividends and the line of investment continues to be very strong. When we consider the matters that have been renegotiated by the Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform in the context of the memorandum of understanding, it is obvious that the IMF and the other members of the troika are willing to listen to and agree with the credible arguments being made by the Government in respect of a change of direction and emphasis.
I accept that America has its own difficulties and that there is economic turmoil in other parts of the world. We would like to believe everything is rosy in the European garden. At the meeting in July the Greek Prime Minister provided clear assurances that the conditions of the bailout relating to his country would be adhered to. Changes have been made in Greece in respect of its Ministry of Finance and austerity programmes, etc., have been introduced. Italy has also introduced an austerity programme.
Ireland is focusing on doing what it undertook to do, while also seeking to grow the economy in order that we can return to a position where employment can be increased. We must send a signal that of all the small countries in the world, Ireland is the one in which it is best to do business. Despite comments being made internationally, politicians must ultimately make decisions for the future. We are making such decisions and working assiduously with the troika in the interests of the people and the country and also Europe.
Deputy Shane Ross: Perhaps the Taoiseach might answer the question I posed on sovereignty when dealing with the supplementary question I am about to ask. Will he indicate whether he is prepared, as required by the IMF, to give up our sovereignty?
Is the Taoiseach satisfied that President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel should be meeting and posing as the spokespersons for Europe on a continual basis? The President of France must recognise that in the past week two of the three biggest French banks, namely, Crédit Agricole and Société Générale, have been downgraded. France is in the same swamp as Ireland at this stage. For the IMF to suggest we should hand over sovereignty to others who are in possibly worse situations is something we must question.
Deputy Shane Ross: Is the Taoiseach happy to be an impotent spectator in the European solution to this problem, while others in similar positions are posing as the leaders of Europe? Is he happy to allow these individuals to speak for him?
The Taoiseach: The IMF is perfectly entitled to make its proposals. It has been very considerate of propositions put forward by our Minister for Finance in respect of the renegotiation of elements of the memorandum of understanding. It is perfectly in order for Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy to meet, as it is for any other leaders. I expect to go to Germany to provide an update on the progress we are making here. I also expect to meet the French President when it is appropriate. Both countries are enormously influential. Germany, in particular, sets the base rate here. The Chancellor has made it perfectly clear that Germany will continue to support the euro and that the eurozone has to work together to get out of these difficulties. For the first time ever, a measure of economic sovereignty has been removed from this Parliament. We are not in a position to determine all the things we would like to do now. If we comply with the conditions of the bailout deal and get back to borrowing in the bond markets, the Government will be able to work with the people to determine our future as a country.
The IMF is perfectly entitled to put forward its plans and make known its views on the future of Europe. The Lisbon treaty has been signed off on. I do not see any prospect of further treaties up ahead. We have to work together. I want Deputies to understand that the Government will continue to put forward propositions at ECOFIN meetings and leaders’ meetings. Those propositions will not just be based on the narrow individual interests of Ireland, but will also be based on the interests of Europe. An element of that was accepted when we made our argument about the interest rate reduction. We made the point that other countries within the EU were getting moneys at a much lower interest rate. That argument was accepted and became the norm. That is part of the reason the interest rate reduction has been applied in the way it has been.
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