Wednesday, 24 November 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 12 to 14, inclusive, together.
Since 27 June 2020, ten new Cabinet committees have been established with specific responsibility for a range of issues to advance the Government's programme. Through the work of the committees, supported by my Department, a range of policy work has been advanced since June 2020, including management of the whole-of-government response to Covid-19. This includes the national vaccination programme roll-out; the economic recovery plan, which was published in June and implementation of which is helping to drive a jobs-rich recovery and support our transition to a decarbonised and digital economy; delivery of an initial well-being framework for Ireland and supporting information hub, which are being developed to better understand and measure our progress as a country; establishment of a social dialogue unit in my Department, which is working to co-ordinate and support the Government's overall approach to social dialogue; driving delivery of our commitments on shared island on a whole-of-government basis through the shared island unit in my Department and the shared island fund; work of the Future of Media Commission, which has now concluded its work and has produced a comprehensive report and recommendations; completion of the work of the Citizens' Assembly on gender equality; launch of the revised national development plan, setting out the roadmap for investment of €165 billion in new and upgraded infrastructure over the decade ahead; publication of Housing for All, an ambitious and far-reaching plan to address the provision of housing; supporting the development of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021 and the Climate Action Plan 2021, which are key elements of a suite of measures introduced to fundamentally alter Ireland's approach to climate change; supporting Ireland's role in Europe and the world, including through my participation in the European Council, Ireland's seat on the UN Security Council and with respect to continuing EU-UK discussions on the Northern Ireland protocol; and four legislative programmes published setting out priority legislation across government.
The Taoiseach and I have previously discussed the unintended consequences of the programme for Government commitment in regard to the children's disability network teams.
Full-time therapies have been taken out of some special schools, to be accessed instead through community HSE services. This policy has had negative outcomes for children and I know the Taoiseach shares some of my concern in that regard.
I want to raise again the outstanding issues at Carmona School in Glenageary. I thank the Taoiseach for pursuing the matters raised and for his correspondence to me last month. I need to inform him that the information provided to his officials in terms of resources being returned to the school are simply not correct. A speech and language therapist is on site just one day a week, primarily for the purpose of evaluations. The reality for the children is they have had no speech and language therapy since February of this year. The occupational therapist is only on site two or three days each week. The physiotherapist is not trained for emergency chest compressions, nor are the two nurses on site, as referred to in the Taoiseach's response to me.
The parents have repeatedly stated to the HSE and the Minister of State that their failure to reinstate this necessary on-site resource constitutes a real, foreseeable and life-threatening risk to children attending the school who are non-verbal and disabled. Perhaps most alarmingly of all, the parents have been able to ascertain through freedom of information, FOI, that no risk assessment was carried out by the Department or the HSE in advance of implementing the progressing disability services programme in special schools. I urge the Taoiseach to have his officials re-engage with the HSE on these issues as a matter of urgency.
Over the past number of weeks, many taxi drivers were pushed off the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. In fact, many of them could have stayed on it but voluntarily signed off because their sector was recovering. Now the sector has gone over a cliff because of the night-time curfew, the public health advice for people to reduce social contacts and the work from home provisions. Taxi drivers are being offered nothing. They have got it in the neck from the word go in this pandemic. Every measure that is taken impacts on their ability to make an income. It is not fair that they will again be punished financially and get no supports. We need to give them back the support such that they can earn a little from the bit of work that is out there, while having the income support of the PUP.
Precisely the same goes for musicians, entertainers and people working in events and the night-time economy. It is not fair that, yet again, they get hit. They have been the longest affected and the worst hit - they have been repeatedly hit - but they are denied the right to the PUP. Indeed, while other business supports are maintained, the workers, who depend on the supports and were hit hardest, are hammered and their supports taken away, with no indication from the Government that it intends to restore supports for them and people in similar sectors that are particularly hit by the latest round of public health measures.
First, I will revert to my officials on the issues raised by Deputy McDonald in respect of a specific school and the point she made that services have not returned. My overall commentary is that the progressing disability services policy or programme was developed nearly a decade ago. I was not in government at the time and I remember having concerns from the Opposition benches and speaking about it to principals of schools. What is happening, in essence, is that the objective from the HSE's perspective has been to get a harmonised system. Prior to the progressing disability services programme, special schools, in particular, had their own complement of therapists as part of the overall multidisciplinary school teams. The progressing disability services programme wanted to create a centralised system in a given region or location to give equal access to therapies to all pupils in mainstream and special schools. It has been a very slowly evolving programme and there have been problems with it. In my view, the programme should be rolling out without impacting on existing services in education or in schools. That is my view and I know the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, shares those principles.
We are engaging with the HSE in respect of some schools where this issue has manifested more recently. I will have a look at the situation again. We will have to take a serious look at how the progressing disability services programme is being rolled out. It should not be done on a basis that undermines existing provision in existing special schools. We provided resources for an additional 100 therapists last year, so there should be room to develop this new system in parallel. The previous Government started a pilot scheme and my view, personally and from a policy perspective, is that it needs to be developed. There is merit in continuing with the multidisciplinary approaches in schools while, on a more general basis, centralising provision in some centres. For example, Enable Ireland in Cork has an excellent centre in Curraheen. The only problem is that the schools have not been located adjacent to it, which would be the perfect solution that would allow for the full panoply of resources available to children with special needs. This is something I intend to continue to pursue with the agencies and Ministers responsible in terms of a broader review of policy.
On Deputy Boyd Barrett's questions about income supports, as we have reopened the economy, there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of people on the pandemic unemployment payment. I do not think people were pushed off it.
I just think work came back. We know from the returns in revenue that the economy has picked up very significantly throughout the summer. Thousands of people got back to work, which is a good thing. It is where people want to be. The changes we have made in the past week, in essence, bring the hours back to midnight. It is not ending any particular sector. Prior to this, intervention economically was when we moved from level 3 to level 5 or where, in effect, a sector was closed down or rendered completely inoperable. Those were the triggers and there were other triggers in respect of the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, and the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, in terms of the closure of a premises, for example.
We are now in a different phase of the pandemic. The measures we adopted at the very start in terms of restrictions and all of that were necessitated by what we knew then about the virus, the level of vaccination and so on. Now we are in a fourth wave. It is a very transmissible variant. Right across Europe, there are very considerable concerns. People have adapted here and that adaptation in terms of reduced socialising is having an impact on certain sectors. I acknowledge that. The challenge for us will be to develop more bespoke models in terms of the broad-brush approach we have used in earlier phases of the pandemic. That is the approach we intend to take. We will assess the impact of the measures on specific sectors, including the areas the Deputy identified. We have brought it back to midnight but I would not call it a curfew. In Holland, I think it is at 7 o'clock or 8 o'clock at night that all activity stops. However, what we have done does have an impact. I do not disagree with the Deputy on that.