Thursday, 1 April 2021
Prime Time Investigates Programme on Department of Health: Statements
Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
I listened to the Minister of State. She spoke with some feeling, compassion and empathy. From my experience of her, I believe that to be sincere. This debate may be an opportunity to show sympathy and to ensure that people feel heard but it must be a hundred times more than that. The Minister of State has a responsibility to put pressure on her colleagues to end this practice, ensure it never resumes and there is an independent investigation of the kind we have outlined and, most of all, radically transform the culture in the Departments of Health and Education as it relates to these issues.
I watched the programme on Thursday night as, I am sure, did many others. My blood was boiling. It was an outright disgrace. The anger that I and many others, I am sure, felt cannot be compared to the anger felt by the parents of children with special educational needs, especially the unfortunate hundreds, and perhaps thousands, who have had to take the Departments of Health and Education to court to vindicate basic fundamental rights to education. In the context of something as basic as the right to an education to allow one's child to progress and thrive, imagine the courage required to take a case to secure an assessment of need, a school place or a place on a bus. Imagine a person having to take on the HSE, the Department of Health and the Department of Education only to find out that they have been going behind that person's back to try to gather dirt and have been treating the person in question as an object of suspicion and threat or as someone who has motives other than the best interests of his or her children. As we have said, this may have been legal but, my God, it is not right. It is profoundly wrong and must end.
I hear the Minister of State and she speaks with sympathy but there are senior civil servants and senior Government representatives who are still trying to defend this. A commitment must be given to end this practice and that it will never resume. We need an independent investigation to find out who is responsible and how this came about. We also need to ensure that all the families directly affected are informed. Those who potentially could have been affected should also be informed because they will be asking whether they are affected. There also needs to be a dedicated helpline.
The last thing I will say before allowing the Minister of State a minute to respond is that this illustrates a whole culture in respect of education and children with special educational needs. We talk a great deal about these children being a priority but the front-loading model is causing serious issues, progressive disability therapists are being lost to schools and all sorts of targets for assessments of need are not being met. There are crises everywhere, including in Cork city, with regard to places in secondary schools and in special schools generally, which are leading to children being educated at home by parents who do not have the ability to do so and cannot find a tutor. It is just wrong. Education is a right. It is enumerated as a right in the Constitution. We need to start honouring that.