Tuesday, 20 November 2018
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
Today is International Children's Day, as Deputy Martin said. Therefore, it is only fair to recognise the progress we have made in recent years, not just the shortcomings. While it is right to acknowledge the shortcomings, it is wrong to ignore all the progress that has been made in recent years and in the last year.
I will give some examples. Real progress has been made in terms of educational outcomes for our children. Education is the great leveller and we see real improvements in outcomes for children in education, particularly around reading and maths. That is down to the excellent work in our schools but also down to the correct policies being pursued by Government and investment by Government over the last couple of years. We have the lowest pupil-teacher ratio ever in primary schools this year for the kids attending those schools. There is huge investment in special needs assistants, meaning there are more special needs assistants in our schools than ever before, recognising the enormous needs of children and the fact we need to make sure children with special educational needs get additional support. There is also investment in preschool. For the first time, all children are guaranteed two years of free preschool. We know those early, formative years are the most important years in terms of determining how well kids do in life, which is why we have been so committed to expanding free preschool.
In the area of health, the national children's hospital is at long last under construction. That will be the mainstay for improvements to paediatric care across the country, including a new paediatric unit planned for Cork, which Deputy Martin will be aware of, and, as the first element of that, the new satellite centre at Blanchardstown is almost complete. Free GP care has been extended so more children are able to attend their doctor or primary care physician without their parents having to pay.
It has been extended to all children under six years and in recent years to 40,000 children with severe disabilities who when Fianna Fáil was in government might not have been granted a medical card because of their parents' income and would have faced regular reviews. We have taken all of that away and guaranteed as of right that all children with severe disabilities will receive a medical card, regardless of their parents' income.
There will be a €1 billion investment next year in mental health services. If spent well, properly and efficiently, it will bring about real improvements in child and adult mental health services, CAMHS, particularly with the hiring of the socio-psychologist.
There has also been big investment in childcare services in the past year. On mandatory reporting which has been long promised and which some people said would never become a reality, mandatory reporting of child abuse is now a reality. The change has worked well because we had prepared for it and ensured Tusla was ready for it. We have introduced universal subsidies for childcare which are paid to all parents of children aged between six months and three years without a mean test. As announced in the recent budget, the affordable childcare scheme has been expanded. As a result, low income families will receive more subsidies towards the cost of their childcare schemes, while more middle income families will qualify. Next year middle income families earning up to €100,000 will qualify for affordable childcare services.
The Deputy is right to point out that there many shortcomings and that there is a lot of work still to be done in improving the lives of children in Ireland, but it would be wrong not to acknowledge also the enormous progress made in recent years.