Wednesday, 26 October 2011
Dáil Éireann Debate
Deputy Micheál Martin: Before the election the Taoiseach not only promised to maintain special needs assistance provision in education but he also supported a motion in this House to increase funding for special needs assistants, SNAs, this year. In September, parents of children with special needs who were starting the new school year were told that there would be a 10% reduction in the number of special needs assistants. In addition, the Government unilaterally decided to withhold 475 special needs assistants from the country’s classrooms.
It took only months for the Taoiseach to abandon promises such as no cuts to special needs assistance, and none of the promises he made in February came with small print. After eight months he has settled into his role in Government. It is a Government that is dismissive of the Oireachtas and of anybody who challenges it. The Taoiseach cannot cover up the enormous and growing scale of his broken promises. Schools throughout the country will be on mid-term break next week. I am told by parents, teachers and special needs assistants that the special needs provision and the allocation of special needs assistants are still very inflexible and that there is a huge disconnect between what is happening on the ground and what we hear officially from the Government and the Department of Education and Skills. I have met many parents, teachers and special needs assistants who have articulated this and the fact that real need is being deprived in our schools and children who deserve special needs assistants are not getting that provision.
During a previous Leaders’ Questions the Taoiseach promised that every child who required special needs assistance provision would get it. That is not happening. Can the Taoiseach outline if the 475 posts that were withheld have been allocated to children who are in desperate need of such provision, so they can have their constitutional right to an education?
The Taoiseach: There has not been a 10% reduction in SNA numbers. A total of 10% were held back for very good reasons, for example, for cases where sickness or injury might occur, for new pupils and so forth. The majority of those have already been allocated to schools under the appropriate guidelines. The Deputy is aware that the number of SNAs was capped at 10,575. The Minister made a 90% allocation and held back 10%, the majority of whom are now being allocated to schools. We all have access to parents and SNA personnel to discuss the work they do and the responsibility in that regard. The Minister for Education and Skills is due to meet with the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, tomorrow and any issues the council wishes to raise with him will be listened to and dealt with by the Minister directly.
Deputy Micheál Martin: The problem, as I have said repeatedly in the House, is that there is a huge disconnect between what we hear officially and what is happening on the ground and what parents and schools are being told. I cannot articulate that strongly enough. In one case a school with children with severe and profound autism had two teachers summarily removed. The response it received from the Department was that the Department had nothing to do with national council. The Taoiseach said the Minister is due to meet the council. However, everybody outside the House is being told that the Minister cannot intervene with the National Council for Special Education. Can we get away from this parallel universe in Dáil Éireann, which appears to be oblivious of the needs of people and what is happening in terms of the withdrawal of special needs assistants?
Deputy Micheál Martin: There is no need to reference the troika either. My colleagues met with the troika last week and it made it clear that specific detailed policies were a matter for the Government. It was only concerned with global issues in terms of the bottom line.
Deputy Micheál Martin: Can the Taoiseach give a commitment that the 475 special needs assistants will be allocated? That 10% was part of the full year costing and it is now nearly the end of the year, so there has been a little sleight of hand in the withholding of that amount for so long. Will the Taoiseach also confirm that the Government will protect special needs education in the forthcoming budget?
The Taoiseach: Of course, and it is the calendar year as well. There are 80 special educational needs organisers, SENOs, dealing with 18,000 pupils in this case. The Deputy made an allegation of a disconnect and commented about people living in a parallel universe. Politicians will always blame the person with responsibility. In a democracy it is always right to be able to point out who is responsible and in charge.
The Minister for Education and Skills is dealing with this directly. When the council meets him its representatives will be able to articulate, with more time and more examples, the issues to which the Deputy refers. They will not be talking to an official but to the Minister. He has set out his policy in the House. He held back 10% of the SNAs for a very good reason and he will deal with the issues raised by the council when he meets its representatives tomorrow. There is no disconnect and no living in a parallel universe.
The Taoiseach: There is an addressing of the reality as we find it. In this case, the Deputy has articulated a valid question. The Minister for Education and Skills accepts his responsibilities and is dealing directly with the council. If its representatives can give examples of where the current policy is inadequate or is not fulfilling the needs as determined by the professional assessors of children’s needs in this case, they will have the opportunity to say that to the Minister directly and for him to give his response.
Deputy Gerry Adams: Ar dtús, go n-éirí an t-ádh leis an Taoiseach ag cruinniú an Chomhaontaois Eorpaigh níos moille inniu, ach tá níos mó ná“Tá” de dhíth ón Taoiseach agus caithfidh sé athrú mór a dhéanamh. Mar shampla, on 30 September in Warsaw the Taoiseach ruled out treaty change as part of the effort to solve the euro crisis and he repeated this on 10 October yet on Sunday it is reported that he and other European leaders agreed treaty change. He is involved in negotiating a 50% to 60% writedown in Greek debt, yet he refused to make the case for reductions in banking debt in Ireland. He laments the lack of money here for job creation for various people yet is prepared to pay billions of euro to unguaranteed bondholders in Anglo Irish Bank. Mar a dúirt mé go minic leis an Taoiseach, tá rogha ag an Rialtas — seasamh leis an daonlathas nó leis an super elite. Is léir go bhfuil Fine Gael agus Páirtí an Lucht Oibre leis an super elite. Next Wednesday the Government will pay out €700 million to unguaranteed bondholders and a total of €2 billion between now and the end of January.
There are three questions I wish to put to the Taoiseach. Does he still oppose any further centralisation of fiscal powers and will he assure the House that any treaty changes will be put to a referendum? Will he seek a writedown of Irish banking debt at today’s summit? Will he give a clear commitment not to pay €700 million next Wednesday to unguaranteed bondholders? Some €700 million would pay for special needs assistants and hospitals and it would mean no welfare cuts, no household charges and no universal social charge.
Deputy Gerry Adams: The second question is will the Taoiseach give a clear commitment not to pay €700 million to unguaranteed bondholders in Anglo Irish Bank next Wednesday? I have put this question to him at least 100 times.
The Taoiseach: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta as a ráiteas ag súil go mbeidh an t-ádh linn nuair a bheidh na díospóireachtaí seo críochnaithe, anocht nó maidin amárach. Níl a fhios agam ag an bpointe seo cé chomh fada agus a leanfaidh an cruinniú seo ar aghaidh. The question of fiscal discipline was raised in the context of one of the governance issues for the eurozone for the time ahead. Clearly the flexibility that exists within the existing instruments which were agreed and signed-off on in July allow for a great deal of activity and scope to occur without any treaty change. I have made my view known very publicly. In a situation where there is a change of competence that would require treaty change by referendum, the Deputy will be aware of the process by which treaty changes are brought about. While it might be an issue for an individual country or for an individual leader to say there is a need for treaty change, for instance, some people might be of the view that if one does not measure up in terms of fiscal responsibility that it would be appropriate to have voting rights withdrawn or be removed from the eurozone or the EU. Things like that would require treaty change.
If one opens the gate to major treaty change, one is talking about Intergovernmental Conferences and much longer periods and a situation where one cannot guarantee the outcome either by time or by Government decision because different governments ratify these things in different ways. The crisis is now and the flexibility exists within the existing instruments to deal with this crisis now. In regard to the discussions I heard on Sunday and in which I participated, 90% can be dealt with without any treaty change.
Deputy Adams will be aware that in the case of treaty change in Ireland, the Attorney General would give legal advice to the Government of the day as to whether a referendum was necessary in respect of any treaty change proposed. It was agreed on Sunday that the eurozone would look at the governance of the way it does its business in the time ahead and that there would be a report back in December about the possibility of limited treaty change — I stress limited treaty change.
I have made my view perfectly clear on this issue. We have to deal with the current crisis now. This country is heading in the right direction. We do not want to lose any assistance or encouragement from our European colleagues to continue on the path of confidence and get out of this mess. From that point of view we will deal with it immediately. I hope that the discussions this evening will have arrived at a point where decisions can be made by the leaders of the eurozone. I hope that clears up the position.
The Taoiseach: The Deputy asked about the €700 million. This is not a payment from the Exchequer in the next couple of weeks. This money was allocated by the previous Government to Anglo Irish Bank to pay off these bondholders.
The Taoiseach: It is called a promissory note. What we are looking at are discussions and negotiations that can bring about a reduction in the overall level of debt on Irish citizens and a number of opportunities are being explored under the EFSF facility.
Deputy Gerry Adams: Does the Taoiseach have a substitute to send to today’s meeting given his dismal efforts to keep a focus on this notion he has, that he can simply say that he rules out treaty change, that he is against treaty change and then it becomes limited treaty change? There is either going to be treaty change or not. It appears to me from his reply that he has gone along with the other European leaders and agreed to this upcoming treaty change. Also he has refused to give a clear signal that if such treaty change comes about he will authorise a referendum. This should be a political gesture of confidence in Irish people, the new dawn of politics that he promised would come with his Government. I also think——
Deputy Gerry Adams: While I would disagree with Fianna Fáil, it is not good enough to blame it for what the Government will authorise next Wednesday. Will the Taoiseach make it clear that he will not allow that €700 million to be authorised and to consider that all of these issues are pressing down on the most vulnerable in society, those on trolleys, the families of children with special needs, the unemployed? That €700 million and the €2 billion that he will pay out before next January should be used to regenerate the economy and to provide our people with jobs.
The Taoiseach: The Deputy is making allegations that do not stand up. I am only one of the 17 leaders who represents the eurozone countries and one of the 27 who deals with the question of the European Union and the issue of treaty change or not. There was a serious discussion about the governance of the eurozone, how countries should have fiscal discipline and fiscal responsibility and why some countries are AAA rated and some are not. The Deputy will appreciate that the situation that arose in this country has led to a position where we are not AAA rated. We are in a bailout situation. There were serious discussions by serious people about what needs to be done when countries are clearly out of line. How does one grow the Single Market Act which gives so much potential to the European Union? Why do we not have a competitiveness league across Europe where people can say one is now measuring up? This country is improving but we still have a long way to go. Why is it that when one discusses business and finance in the United States or in China that Europe is rarely rated? The answer is that it is all over the place. That is why there needs to be a focus on doing the job properly and within the agreements that are set out.
What was agreed on Sunday is that there would be a report back in December on issues about governance including the possibility of limited treaty change. We have had no problem with a limited treaty change. I just state the reality that one is not going to deal with the eurozone crisis by talking about major treaty change because it takes too long when one has all of the countries that must have Intergovernmental Conferences and meetings of the European Parliament and the Council. Every country would then want to put issues on the table for treaty change themselves. One could be engaged in that process for a considerable period and it would not deal with the eurozone crisis we face today.
The Government is not authorising the payment of €700 million next Wednesday. It is a fact that before the Deputy came to the House that the previous Government signed off on a promissory note of €3 billion every year for ten years.
The Taoiseach: We are all interested in the least amount of payment, which is a crushing burden on the Irish taxpayer, as a consequence of what happened. That is where the politics and the negotiations for the future will be focused. We cannot do anything about any of those things until a decision is made by the leaders in respect of the eurozone crisis.
The Taoiseach: ——was put off last Sunday week. It was held on last Sunday. The second meeting will be held this evening because of the requirement of some leaders to go back to their parliaments, discuss the issue and get approval for it. I hope we can get this process moved to a point this evening where the leaders can make decisions that can deal with the matter comprehensively. Afterwards, we will look at the question of governance for the future.
Deputy Finian McGrath: I also strongly challenge the Taoiseach. He gives the impression that there are no cuts to services for people on the ground. I wish to bring him back to reality. Last week I met representatives of St. Michael’s House, the largest provider of intellectual disability services in Dublin, and the third largest in the country. As the Taoiseach is aware, it provides day services for 1,616 people and residential services for 450. A total of 80% of the services are located north of the Liffey and 20% are located south of the Liffey. Coming up to the budget I wish to ask the Taoiseach a few direct questions on St. Michael’s House and disability services in general.
Deputy Finian McGrath: Is the Taoiseach aware that despite the moratorium on recruitment being in place in recent years €8.7 million has already been cut from St. Michael’s House services which led to a reduction of 104 staff? St. Michael’s House has upped its game and despite losing 104 staff it has also managed to provide 114 more day care services and 44 more residential services. There is another example of a disconnect and a cut.
Does the Taoiseach accept that St. Michael’s House has taken a major hit? On top of that, is he aware that staff have increased productivity and achieved a major reduction in absenteeism from 6.5% to 2.1%. There is another disconnect in terms of the Taoiseach’s views on the issues. Why is he planning to cut funding to St. Michael’s House in advance of the budget? St. Michael’s House has delivered fantastic services to many people and the families of people with intellectual disabilities. Will the Taoiseach deliver for those families and not cut front line services?
The Taoiseach: I do not have the details on the position of St. Michael’s House to hand. For the first time the delivery of mental health services is being made a central part of the delivery of health services in general. The Government has ring-fenced funding of €35 million under the remit of the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, for the delivery of those services.
As Deputy Finian McGrath is aware, every Department was asked to reduce costs and that has applied across the board. I appreciate the work done by front line services. I am aware of many cases where psychiatric nurses have retired and have not been replaced because of the moratorium on recruitment. There is a shift from the institutionalised delivery of services to community-based services. The delivery of mental health services as a normal part of the health service is a good thing rather than having it sidelined as it used to be.
I do not have the details of the situation in St. Michael’s House to hand but if Deputy Finian McGrath wants to send me the details I would be happy to receive them. Perhaps he wishes to raise the matter as a topical issue with the permission of the Ceann Comhairle. I accept his central point that this is of great importance for those concerned. I appreciate the pressure and difficulties front line workers have to contend with in the delivery of those services. Many of those for whom the service is provided are demanding mentally and physically on staff.
Deputy Finian McGrath: I thank the Taoiseach for his response. I am trying to encourage him and the Ministers for Health and Finance not to cut these services which have already lost 104 staff. I believe an 8% cut is on the agenda of the Health Service Executive in the coming weeks. An 8% cut in St. Michael’s House services will result in the loss of significant services that will wipe out residential and extra care services. I raise that issue with the Taoiseach.
Is he aware that there are 240 parents over 70 years of age caring for their son or daughter with an intellectual disability at home? A total of 147 of those families are in serious difficulty and there is significant pressure on them and on St. Michael’s House. They are the figures for people in their 70s and 80s with adult children with intellectual disabilities in their 30s and 40s. They are not large figures and there is an opportunity for creative budgeting and creating care services to look after those people. Does the Taoiseach think it is fair for there to be any cuts in those services? Does he still believe in the just society? Will he support me in ensuring that St. Michael’s House and other intellectual disability services are not cut in the next budget?
The Taoiseach: I do believe in a just society. In order to arrive at a situation where that can apply, the structure of the way we deliver services and how Government and its agencies and the services of the State are run need to be changed drastically in many cases. That does not happen overnight.
Deputy Finian McGrath referred to the 240 parents, of whom 147 have serious difficulties. I invite him to send me the details. I will arrange for the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, who has responsibility for the area to meet a delegation from St. Michael’s House to hear at first hand what is its problem.
I have already made the point that there are cost reductions across the board in the delivery of services in every sector. We need to arrive at a position where people have facilities to give service to those people. Deputy McGrath talks about the same level of cut across each sector. It does not work that way in reality. Some services are able to take more than others. The concern is for the people who are the object of the exercise and the delivery of the service in the first place.
I ask the Deputy to send the details to me. I do not have them available to me now. I believe in a just society and in the importance of transferring the delivery of mental health services from the sidelines to being a central part of the normal delivery of health services. It is important to ring-fence an allocation for the delivery of those mental health services. It is also important to recognise that a very active Minister of State, who is dealing with this area, has a concern and will do the very best she can within the responsibilities she has.
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