Wednesday, 15 June 2016
I will now take Leaders' Questions under Standing Order 29. I draw everyone's attention to the fact that the House in its wisdom has decided to apply time limits to these contributions. We will start with Deputy Micheál Martin.
I want to raise with the Taoiseach the appalling waiting times and waiting lists for children who wish to access therapy services such as speech and language therapy, physiotherapy and occupational therapy. Children from the earliest age do not have access to such therapists. That is the reality of where we are today. For example, Deputies Cowen and Fleming highlighted recently that in counties Laois and Offaly, 400 families with an autistic child cannot access therapy services while 950 children are waiting for occupational therapy in County Laois where the average waiting time is 47 months. A child referred at five years of age, therefore, could be ten before he or she receives treatment. In north Mayo, there are 86 children waiting for therapy services with 60 being high priority. There have been 101 referrals for speech and language therapy but there is no full-time therapist. A number of Members met representatives of Scoil Cara in Cork earlier this week. Its enrolment has gone from approximately 20 children with autism to 60 children. There is no multi-dimensional therapy team in that school. With regard to occupational therapy assessment nationally, more than 5,690 are waiting on under 18 therapy services with in excess of 3,000 waiting for more than a year for such an assessment.
The situation is not acceptable and is not tenable. The existing HSE model of progressing disability services for children and younger model is a failed model and it is the wrong model in my considered view. I have put this forward for the past 12 months as did my party's education team.
In my view the schools should be employing the therapists on school campuses either in one school or in clusters of schools and there should be a holistic multidimensional teams working with teachers and psychologists on the school campus. We are light years away from that; in fact, the opposite is now happening where teams are being taken from the special schools as part of the HSE's reconfiguration of services.
The bottom line is that we need a fundamental step change in how we provide basic therapy services to children of preschool and school-going age. What has been going on over the past number of years is just not on. The system does not get it. Parents are extremely frustrated at what is going on in terms of getting basic access to vital therapy services because early intervention is the key to a child achieving his or her educational and developmental potential. We are failing as a society to provide that in any meaningful form.
First, I accept that this is not a satisfactory situation. The programme for Government recognises that we should be able to deal with this at school level. The Minister was contacted by the Laois-Offaly group in respect of this. The programme for Government commits the Government to improving services and increasing supports for people with disabilities, particularly for early assessment and intervention for children with special needs. Yesterday the Government made a decision to increase the number of special needs assistants to 12,900 but these special needs assistants, while they do a brilliant job, generally impact on the physical needs of children in classes. We have never had an analysis of the outcome in terms of the quality and the impact of those interventions by those people. The vast majority of them do a first-class job. The Government also, as the Deputy is aware, has a proposition and has made a commitment to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio for junior and senior infants by providing smaller classes, which will give an opportunity for teachers to recognise that there may be particular challenges with young people in this regard.
The Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, is a dedicated and experienced person in dealing with disabilities and he now has responsibilities for disabilities as a Minister of State. In the past 18 months the roll out of the HSE's Progressing Disability Services for Children and Young People programme has targeted investment of €14 million and the provision of 275 additional therapy staff to increase services for children with all disabilities, including children with autism. The key objective is to achieve better access and consistency of service delivery for children and young people with disabilities and to develop a clear path to services regardless of where they live in the country, where they go to school or the nature of the individual difficulties a child may have.
I point out also that in the programme for Government we have decided to deal with the question of the use of county boundaries for access to health and social services; that will be reviewed independently - as the Deputy is aware, these matters stop at the county boundary for some reason dating back to the past - to ensure that the most efficient and the most cost effective service is provided to those who need it. As announced by the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, and the Minister, Deputy Zappone, this morning, Wednesday, a new scheme to ensure access to early childhood care and education programmes for young children with disabilities is commencing this September and we will ensure that further development of this initiative follows through. An amount of €4 million has been allocated this year for additional speech and language therapists for this age cohort. It will not deal with the backlog that Deputy Martin pointed out but it is an important start in that regard. An education providing access earlier to children and adults to speech and language therapy makes a vital difference to their future opportunities in life. We want all those opportunities for them.
It is a very honest satisfactory reply but it is depressing because the Taoiseach answered a whole lot of matters except the question I asked him. I asked him directly about therapists. We need a step change regarding therapists in this country. I did not ask about special needs assistants. That scheme started in 1998 and thousands were employed ever since and there will be annual increases. I am talking about access to speech and language therapy, physiotherapy and occupational therapy. We need to get those therapists into the schools and employed on the campus. We need to change the model. The Taoiseach has quoted the progressing disabilities programme to me. With respect to the progressing disabilities programme and policy, in 2014 they announced 275 additional therapists with 88 meant to be speech and language therapists. How many were recruited?
It is now 2016 and only 27 have been recruited. We took a step change in 1998 in terms of automatic responses and pupil-teacher ratios and we need a similar step change in terms of access to therapies in our schools. What is going on is a scandal and parents should not be put through any more of it.
The fact of the matter, which Deputy Martin understands, is that I mentioned the increase in special needs assistance because that has always been the fall-back position-----
-----when in fact it might have been much more appropriate if other interventions were made there like speech and language or occupational therapy. The point I am making is that with reduced class sizes for senior and junior infants, with special need assistants where they apply, and with teachers, one can identify at an earlier stage whether a child has a particular difficulty or not.
If the Deputy is suggesting that we get rid of them, that is not what I am suggesting at all. What I have announced today with the Minister, Deputy Zappone, and the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, is a new service with increased funding and an extra allocation of €4 million this year to start in September.
I welcomed the Taoiseach's visit last night to Dublin’s north inner city where he met with some of the community and listened to what they had to say. I hope he understands that this was just the first chapter in the consultation that needs to happen between the Government and the people there. He says that those who spoke at the meeting were inspirational and he is right. They are. In fairness, the least the Taoiseach could have done was to visit them. We know that the problems faced by the inner city are not accidental and the Taoiseach must know that too. A lack of opportunity, decent services, homes and decent work are all a direct result of decades of neglect and bad government, including by the Taoiseach’s own Government over the last five years. The Taoiseach has listened and now he must act. The needs are clear. Local people must be front and centre in drafting the terms of reference for the task force and they must be part of it. Teachta McDonnell and others are working with the community to bring forward an integrated plan for the regeneration of the north inner city.
It is also important to recognise that the problems there are not unique. There are countless other communities in the State and across the island that face the same issues of social deprivation, economic disadvantage and the lack of opportunity. If the Taoiseach is to deliver for these citizens and to deliver on the rhetoric of last night, his starting point must be the reality that the Government is not geared to eradicating social and economic disadvantage. Fine Gael is not geared towards ending inequality and poverty. It is their policies and the policies of Fianna Fáil which have created a deeply unequal society.
The North Wall Community Association's chairperson, Gerry Fay, has said that three decades of neglect have created social apartheid for people in his community. He spoke of a litany of broken promises over the last 30 years. Results count. Ní seasaíonn mála folamh. I want the Taoiseach to commit today to a long-term, resourced and integrated strategy to address poverty, drug addiction, educational opportunity, decent work and homes for the inspirational people of Dublin’s north inner city. I then want him to take that model into every disadvantaged community in the State from Tallaght to Finglas and Ballyfermot, from Muirhevnamore to Cox’s Demesne and from Knocknaheeny to Moyross. That is the challenge the Taoiseach faces today.
It is and I am sorry that Deputy Adams has taken a political line on this. I reject his assertion that the party I lead is not geared to deal with social disadvantage. I also reject the assertion he makes that the Government is not geared to deal with it. I was very pleased to see all of the public representatives who were there last night who chose to listen to the people and the community leaders in the north inner city. I found the meeting very constructive and positive from all of the work that is going on there. The point was made that people certainly have a feeling of a divide between those who make decisions and those who have to live in the community of the north inner city.
We heard the stories of isolation, fear and the need for visibility on the streets of members of An Garda Síochána and the facilities it required. We heard the stories of what needed to happen about drugs and drug treatment, the provision of injection rooms and the carrying of drugs by couriers from place to place. We heard all of those stories from real people. I intend to meet the public representatives on Monday to hear their priorities. In response to Deputy Gerry Adams, I am not going to make a political football out of this issue. I am not because the issues that need to be addressed in the north inner city are replicated in other places around the country. The decision makers here – the Government – using a strong and growing economy, need to invest in areas that were neglected. What did they say last night? They said it was the small things - the broken panes of glass, the unpainted signs, the unkempt footpaths, the inability of children to cross the street safely - that impacted on ordinary people's lives.
These are things that need investment in education services in terms of apprenticeships and the provision of training when construction starts at either end of Sheriff Street. These are the things about which the principal of the school who chaired the meeting so well last night spoke.
A combination is needed in terms of a response. It is a task force to deal with the north inner city as a model to be used in any other part of the country. The point made was that a scheme in south-west Cork was not the same as the scheme needed in the north inner city. I believe that and intend to follow through on the commitments made and the challenge I undertook as Head of Government to deal with the many problems, some of them small, some of them great, in the north inner city.
The Taoiseach takes exception to what I said but then goes on to say there is "certainly a feeling of a divide" between the people living in the area and those who take decisions. There is a feeling? It is the reality. Poverty is not an accident. Inequality is not an accident. It took brutal murders committed by criminal gangs to get the Taoiseach to acknowledge the inequalities faced by the community that he visited last night. One must name the problem and then deliver solutions. Sinn Féin will actively support the Government in doing so.
I know the inner city well. I was there 30 years ago standing with the community against the drug barons. Some of the community activists the Taoiseach met last night were then arguing for the same measures for which they are now arguing. They have been let down time and again, but they have remained resilient, sound and inspirational. Countless citizens would have been lost or have had no hope were it not for their efforts. The majority of these citizens have never let themselves, their families or Ireland down, but the political system has let them down.
I thank the Deputy for his offer of support from the Sinn Féin Party. I was glad to see its deputy leader there last night and know that she was present at the turning of the sod for the new primary centre in Summerhill last weekend. It is the first investment in the locality for many years.
We want to see much more of it. It is an area where the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has pointed to the extent of neglect and non-investment for many years. Many of the problems about which I heard last night were small by their nature, but they were important. They are the ones people want to see being dealt with in the first instance and I intend to follow through on them as non-party, non-individual political issues. This is about the people living in these communities. It is about investment by Government agencies and Departments to give people there a better quality of life. They want to be able to walk the streets without fear. They want their children to have an opportunity to go to school. They want to see opportunities for young people to avail of training apprenticeships and find jobs. They want to be able to take that road towards finding a better opportunity-----
-----and not be faced with the influence of power and misery that comes with drugs. In so far as we can, we will assist the Garda and the other agencies working with all parties. We will attempt to deal with the issue in the best way possible.
The report of Women’s Aid, published today, highlights the fact that in 2015 the national domestic abuse service received 16,375 disclosures of domestic abuse against women and 5,966 disclosures of child abuse.
That is a total of 22,341 abuse disclosures. These figures will shock not only those of us in this Chamber but also everybody across the country. Across Ireland, women have been choked, scalded, strangled, punched, spat at, cut with knives and hit with golf clubs. These are acts of barbarism.
Over the past 20 years, 211 women have been murdered in Ireland, almost half at the hands of people using their bare hands. In 2015 in Ireland, far too many women lived in fear. That continues this year. The women live in fear of physical and psychological abuse and they fear for their children. As a House, we must put an end to that.
We clearly need to do more to protect women in the home and women in relationships. Will the Taoiseach give a clear timeline to the House for the enactment of the criminal justice (victims of crime) Bill? Will he agree to amend that draft legislation to allow for young women in dating relationships who are not living with their partners to receive the same protection as envisaged for cohabiting couples under that draft legislation?
Given the small amount of additional money required, will the Taoiseach agree now to extend funding for the 24/7 national freephone helpline in recognition of the real issues that have been highlighted today in the Women’s Aid report?
What Deputy Brendan Howlin has raised here is a litany of shame and cowardice on the part of those who inflict violence on women. Those who do so are not macho and should be ashamed of themselves because they bring shame on our country.
We should have the opportunity to have the report debated here in the House. The Tánaiste was at the launch of the report this morning. I have every sympathy with Deputy Howlin's proposal for an amendment so protection may be given to victims of this kind of crime. We have set out a range of priorities for legislation. Some are quite immediate in terms of issues I have already addressed. I will advise Deputy Howlin on the programme for legislating in respect of the criminal justice (victims of crime) Bill.
On the Deputy's request in respect of coverage for the 24/7 helpline, it seems that it should, of course, be available. I do not know the costs involved but I am sure a case could be made that would bring it about. If the making of a call would protect one person fearing for her life, the helpline will have to be considered.
The report reflects a hidden, dark Ireland that needs to be dealt with and exposed. Those who inflict the kind of brutality in question on womenfolk should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.
I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. It is important that this report be debated in the House. Perhaps the Whips will set time aside in the next week or two weeks for that to happen. However, we also need to follow through with practical proposals. I look forward to hearing the timeline for the enactment of the criminal justice (victims of crime) Bill, the heads of which were approved last year. If we could reach a collective agreement to seek to make progress on it before the end of this session, the Taoiseach might indicate his willingness to agree to the proposal.
With regard to support for Women’s Aid, the very least this House can do is ensure women who are vulnerable have some mechanism to reach out on a 24-hour basis.
I ask the Taoiseach to ensure that whatever resources are required to make such a service available are provided without delay.
I will follow up on that issue immediately. In regard to the criminal justice (victims of crime) Bill, the new arrangement that kicks in next week will allow Ministers to answer individually in respect of legislation that falls within their responsibility. In the meantime, I will advise the Deputy on the progress made on the Bill.
In regard to having a debate in the House, the Whip has responsibility for 60% of business and the business committee has responsibility for the remainder. However, I am sure we can find an opportunity to debate a report of such profound implications for women all over the country as it needs to be debated.
While I welcome and respect the right of the Labour Party to raise the issues raised by Deputy Howlin, it seems to have forgotten that it was in power for the past five years. The abuse of women did not start today or yesterday.
I wish to press the immediate issue of the exorbitant increase in waste charges that will come into effect on 1 July. Questions have been submitted to the Government on this issue, which was also raised last week and this week in the House. How can the Government stand over these charges and the sharp practices in which waste companies are engaged? Under the polluter pays principle, the less waste a householder sends to landfill, the less he or she pays. What we are seeing, however, is that exactly the opposite is the case and people are incensed, anxious and angry. Greyhound's current service charge of €59.95 is set to increase to €169 per annum. This charge must be paid before a bin is lifted. The company will charge 35 cents per kilogram of black bin waste and 23 cents per kilogram of brown bin waste. The service charge imposed by Thorntons is set to increase from €50 to €104, while its rates for black and grey bin waste will be similar to those charged by Greyhound. The Government introduced a minimum mandatory fee of 11 cents per kilogram for black bin waste and 6 cents per kilogram of brown bin waste and yet the waste companies are charging the prices to which I referred.
What will these charges mean for a family? In the case of Thorntons, the cost of having a brown bin weighing 40 kg collected will increase from €6.40 to €8, while the collection of a black bin will increase from €9.90 to €10.50 for 30 kg of waste and €14 for 40 kg of waste. Disabled people who are incontinent and use nappies will have to pay the same price as everyone else. Under the new charges, a household which has a black bin collected 26 times per annum will pay €364 compared to €267 currently.
The Government lauded the increase of €3 per week in the old age pension last year. Most pensioners with private pensions had these cut by at least 80 cents. Local authority rents also increased and the new waste charges will wipe out the remainder of the increase. For ordinary people, the recovery means more of the same austerity.
The Government argues that the new waste charging regime will result in greater competition. Waste disposal is a cartel in which there is no competition. Competition has meant increasing waste charges. I intended to make a few points about the companies involved in the industry but I will return to that issue.
The increases in waste charges affect a large number of individuals and households. The Government should remember that the last time it introduced charges that affected most households was when it imposed water charges. People are incensed about the increases in waste charges and they will react to them. One of the e-mails I have received on the issue states that ordinary householders will be ripped off by the waste companies if something is not done quickly. The Government must regulate this issue by imposing a cap on annual charges with immediate effect.
Deputy Joan Collins stated that a cartel operates among the collectors of bins. That would be a criminal offence. If evidence exists that a cartel operates in respect of bin charges and the collection of bins, it would be a matter for investigation by the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission. The theory and spirit behind the legislation drafted on this issue was that it would not be a new charge in respect of waste being collected but would be a new way of thinking about how people could reduce their charges by using brown and green bins to a greater extent for recyclables, food and so on. The Minister for housing, local government and planning has been perfectly clear.
I am monitoring the position very carefully. The spirit of the legislation is to allow people to think differently about the waste put in bins. The charges set were as follows: 11 cent for a black bin of residual waste and 6 cent for a brown bin of organic waste. The Minister decided there would be a zero cent charge in the case of green bins. Given the concern expressed and because of the fact that numerous bin companies are operating in the greater Dublin area, the position is being monitored carefully by the Minister. The legislation was set in such a way that people would understand clearly that better use of the brown and green bins would reduce the amount to be placed in the black bin and that, therefore, charges should not rise. The position is being monitored carefully by the Minister.
The Taoiseach referred to the spirit of the legislation. However, this concerns multinational and profit-making companies and it does not happen that way, as is evident in this case. Without putting out a bin, there is an increase from €59.95 to €169 per annum. That is not the spirit of recycling. This is relevant for Thorntons. It has been reported in the media today that families are finding themselves subject to a 75% increase in waste charges calculated over one year. That is not in the spirit of recycling. The Taoiseach should initiate an investigation into the cartels. For example, if people move from Greyhound to Thorntons, they are charged a registration fee of €40. If they want to move to a bin company which operates outside the areas in which these companies generally work - for example, Thorntons and Greyhound operate in my area - they cannot get another to come in. Another company will not come into an area to collect ten bins. It will only do so if it will have a monopoly or enough bins to collect in a given area. People are incensed about this issue. I have organised public meetings in Drimnagh, Ballyfermot and Crumlin in the coming two weeks and I invite my fellow Deputies to join in them.
There is competition in city areas. While it is not a new charge on households, it does mean a change in how most people will pay for waste collection services from 1 July. It gives households more control-----
It gives households more control in how they place their waste in the green, brown or black bin. The spirit of the legislation is that better use of the green and brown bins means less in the black bin; therefore, it should result in a lower cost.