Tuesday, 12 November 2019
Ceisteanna - Questions
Programme for Government Implementation
13. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on the Programme for a Partnership Government commitment on the timeline for the passage of Bills as outlined on page 148. [46658/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 to 13, inclusive, together.
A Programme for a Partnership Government was agreed in May 2016 during the formation of the Government. This is a five-year programme of work being undertaken for the duration of the present Dáil. The Government publishes an annual report each year on the implementation of the programme. The third such report was approved by Cabinet in May 2019 and is published on the Gov.iewebsite. The next annual report is scheduled to be published in May 2020.
The Thirty-second Dáil has seen significant reform in how the Oireachtas does its business. Some of the crucial reforms include the establishment of a new cross-party Business Committee to discuss and agree proposals for the Dáil schedule. A new budgetary oversight committee has been established to allow the Oireachtas play a greater role in the budget. Committee Chairs are appointed using the d'Hondt system and there is more time for Private Members' business in the Dáil. Indeed, 13 Private Members' Bills have been enacted by this Dáil, which is more than any since the foundation of the State. Votes are grouped to encourage a more family-friendly environment, particularly on Thursdays. The timelines for the passage of Bills through the Dáil are agreed by the Business Committee with a view to ensuring that the use of the guillotine is not required. Should the need arise for a Bill to be guillotined, it can only be done with the recommendation of the Business Committee and the approval of the Dáil. Dáil reform is a continual process and as part of the sub-committee on Dáil reform, Government will continue to play its part.
I want to raise the programme for Government's commitments on education. The Government made big promises in the programme, which neither it nor its partners in Fianna Fáil have delivered on over the past four years. Diversity and choice for parents in the school system have not been delivered. Core funding and capitation grants for schools and funding in third level are simply not up to it and students, particularly those outside Dublin, are in effect being priced out of their entitlement to third level education.
I want specifically to raise the issue of special education and education for children with additional needs. I attended a meeting last night with a number of principals in my constituency. The community healthcare organisation area that we are in, CHO 4, has the longest waiting list in the country for assessment of needs. Beyond assessment of needs, which is the issue that generated the headlines, the system of therapies for children once they have had an assessment is entirely broken. The organisations that provide these therapies are doing their best. Some of these assessments are done privately but there is no continuity of care then. In Cork, a charity, Marian House, provides therapies but children are not getting the therapies that they need. This has a serious impact on the children and their families and I believe it has an impact on society as a whole. These children are failed when they only get speech and language therapy or occupational therapy every few years. School principals are not trained in that regard and they are forced to try to figure out this stuff as best they can. What is needed is an entire re-evaluation of the special education system in the State because the Department of Education and Skills is blaming the Department of Health, which says it is not its problem. The co-operation between the two is not good enough, particularly in respect of the Department of Health, but the Department of Education and Skills needs to do much more as well.
It is over three years since a Programme for a Partnership Government was agreed. It set out what most of us in this House believed would be a temporary arrangement, which has now survived three years. The document, as set out, was based on an ambition for a fairer Ireland. We will argue about that on the hustings in a few months. There is nothing fair about the record of the Government on so many levels. I want to ask the Taoiseach about the conclusion of this arrangement. I understand Deputy Micheál Martin is now suggesting an orderly wind-down of the arrangement, with these commitments raising the prospect of an agreement between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael of a timetable and an election date. Will the Taoiseach confirm if he discussed or agreed an election date with Fianna Fáil, the party that supports him in government? Will he share his views on that matter?
Does the Taoiseach intend to have such discussions on an agreed date for the next general election that he might set out for the rest of us?
The programme for Government makes specific reference to implementing the national dementia strategy. As the Taoiseach is aware, there is major anxiety or fear about the fate of the St Joseph's dementia care facility in my constituency in Shankill. I brought up this issue last week when I sought a debate with the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, on its fate. It is threatened with closure. It is the biggest and best and a model dementia care facility in the country. There are, however, real fears about its fate. It would be a disaster for dementia sufferers and their families if it were to close. That simply cannot happen. There have been some reassuring comments made by the Minister for Health, but it needs to be definitive. Critically, the fate of the facility turns on recognition by the Government and the HSE that the care provided for high-dependency dementia sufferers will be funded against the minimal level of funding coming from the HSE through the fair deal scheme. Can the Taoiseach tell us, in line with commitments given in this area in the programme for Government, that the gold standard in dementia care facilities in the country will be protected, that funding will be provided and that the anxiety suffered by dementia sufferers and their families will be ended? The sooner he makes a statement on the matter the better.
I wish to make a general point, given previous comments that the programme for Government is not a document that emanates from the confidence and supply arrangement. There is a separate document on policy, to which the programme for Government commits the Fine Gael Party and the Independent Alliance. The confidence and supply arrangement document is much tighter.
I also make the point that all Ministers belong to the Fine Gael Party and the Independent Alliance. There are no Fianna Fáil Ministers or Ministers of State. Such references are superficial or shallow and have no substance to them. Like every other party, we will hold the Government to account. The Taoiseach knows that secretly nobody wanted a general election while there a no-deal Brexit was threatened.
Privately, no one in the Deputy's party wanted to push the issue too far either, but it is happy enough to criticise Fianna Fáil for facilitating the continuation of the Government in the context of a no-deal Brexit.
In a follow-up to the previous question and the first group of questions the Taoiseach will be aware that the programme for Government talks directly about "ending the housing shortage and homelessness". Does the Taoiseach believe this commitment will be delivered on?
On mental health services, it is widely acknowledged that the consistent failure of the Minister for Health to implement agreed plans and the use of mental health services funding to balance overspending elsewhere have led directly to a failure to deliver the level and quality of services that are so badly needed. The Government had the tools and the funding, but the Minister did not deliver services on the ground. In County Wexford, in particular, there is huge anger surrounding the issue of mental heath services. As part of the confidence and supply arrangement we secured extra funding every year for mental health services. Each year much of it has not been spent and the teams in place throughout the country have been understaffed. That is particularly true in the case of Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. Will the Taoiseach tell us the specific actions he has taken to ensure the allocated budget will be used for mental health services and that the posts unfilled will be filled as soon as possible?
The first question was about education. There are also challenges within that sector, but it is one in which the country is doing well. We know, for example, how well children are performing relative to their counterparts in maths and reading. The education budget this year is €11 billion and will go up again next year. It is the biggest ever education budget in the history of the State. No Government has invested more in education than this one which is made up of Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance. In practical terms, it means more teachers. We now have the lowest ever pupil-teacher ratio in primary schools. We have been able to increase capitation grants but not fully restore them. This has enabled pay restoration to take place for hard-working teachers and other staff in the education sector, while a huge school building programme is evident all over the country, as well as in universities and institutes of technology. There are now approximately 15,000 special needs assistants and more special classes than ever before, as well as a very substantial special educational needs budget of €1.7 billion. There are record numbers making it to third level, which is very encouraging and really important for our future. There are more people than ever before from non-traditional backgrounds attending higher education. We have reformed the curriculum, of which people will be aware. We have, for example, the reformed the junior cycle programme with the introduction of new subjects like physical education and computer science which are examination subjects for the first time.
On the general election date, no date has been discussed or agreed. My view is well known and was set out in writing in August 2018.
On the St. Joseph's dementia care facility, I am aware that discussions are ongoing. The objective absolutely is to ensure the centre will be sustainable into the future. The briefing material I have available tells me that rather than the funding being at a minimal level, the centre is receiving among the highest levels of funding for patients of any provider contracted by the National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF. There may well be very good reasons for this, namely, the very high quality of care provided, or perhaps the acuity and needs of the patients. Rather than the funding being at the minimal level, as the Deputy suggested, it is in the top five or six organisations funded by the NTPF. There is active engagement by the HSE and the NTPF with the provider to secure the future of the service.
On mental health services, the budget will be over €1 billion in 2020 for the very first time, up from approximately €750 million a couple of years ago. We all acknowledge that there is more to providing health services than providing funding. Health services here are well funded by international standards. We have a relatively young population, but perhaps do not achieve the outcomes people are entitled to expect. However, we are seeing some positive changes when it comes to mental health services. The new forensic mental health hospital in Portrane is almost finished and will open next year. It will come in on time and on budget and enable us to close the Victorian facilities in Dundrum. The waiting lists for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, CAMHS, are falling and have fallen by about 25% in the past couple of months, which is positive. The funding provided for the National Office of Suicide Prevention and implementation of the suicide strategy is showing some results, with a 30% fall in the number of suicides. It is not all down to the funding provided by any means, but it is at least moving in the right direction. We will launch very soon the first 24/7 helpline for people suffering mental health difficulties. There are a lot of mental health services in Ireland, but sometimes they are not joined up very well.