Thursday, 12 July 2012
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Joe Costello. Some years ago the county child care committee in Sligo established the Early Years health promotion project which is now co-sponsored by Sligo and Leitrim child care committees in collaboration with the counties' sports partnerships, a community dietician and community workers from the Health Service Executive. What is being done under the scheme is simple but practical, namely, targeting young children up to six years of age to encourage healthy eating, physical activity, oral health, sun safety, gardening and outdoor play. This is the type of project to which we routinely point when it is done in one of the Scandinavian countries and we wonder why we cannot have something similar in this country. As we are all agreed, if we are to safeguard the nation's health, we must begin to work with children and their parents at the earliest possible stage of development.
The number of children involved in the scheme in counties Sligo and Leitrim has grown steadily from the 500 earmarked five years ago to more than 1,500 today. The cost of running the scheme is calculated at 58 cent per child per week. It includes working with children with special needs, parent and toddler groups, children from the Traveller community and private and community services. As well as directly benefiting the children concerned, the initiative is also building a nucleus of knowledge and good practice in the community in regard to healthy eating and living. The benefits for the wider community are clear to see after only five years and will undoubtedly build over time. There should be something similar in every community in the country. The statistics clearly show that more and more children are suffering from obesity, with all the evidence suggesting the problem will get worse in the next decade without effective intervention. The Seanad Public Consultation Committee, of which I am a member, recently heard that some 30% of common cancers were preventable entirely through lifestyle changes, that is, what we eat and drink and the amount of physical activity in which we engage. The Government must take action to ensure children receive a good grounding in healthy living which they can carry into adulthood and pass on thereafter to their own children.
I am seeking a guarantee that funding for the Early Years project in Sligo-Leitrim will continue once the current allocation runs out in September. The Government has indicated its desire to roll out a national programme of this type, but there has been no concrete action in this regard. I understand the Health Service Executive is examining the strengths and weaknesses of the programme, perhaps with a view to using it as a model. Those running the Early Years scheme support and advocate a national project and will do everything they can to assist in its roll-out. At this juncture, however, they are uncertain of the future of their own project. Their expertise and good work should be supported and taken on board in seeking to introduce a nationwide scheme. For that to happen, sufficient funding must be provided.
I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, who is speaking in the other House. The Minister established the special action group on obesity to advise him on priority actions to tackle overweight and obesity. In the light of the growing problem of obesity among children, the group has identified the necessity of targeting childhood obesity as one of a range of action measures. We know from the ongoing Growing Up in Ireland study, carried out by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, that one in four children as young as three years of age is overweight or obese. It is well accepted that childhood obesity can track into adulthood and is linked with a range of chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
The Health Service Executive is represented on the special action group on obesity and has updated it on successful initiatives for young children, including the Early Years health promotion programme in Sligo-Leitrim. I understand the programme is a partnership between the local family resource centre and the HSE and funded through the executive's Border counties child care committees via the local region. The HSE has provided funds of €15,000 for the Early Years health promotion programme for training and resources in 2012. The training is intensive and while it produces excellent results, the cost per beneficiary is high.
It is in this context that the HSE approached the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and arranged a meeting to discuss the long-term future of the programme. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs, in turn, facilitated a joint meeting with the Department of Education and Skills to discuss national training possibilities. The outcome of this meeting is that discussion is under way with officials to ensure all voluntary education centres throughout the country include the Early Years health promotion programme as part of their training agenda. This will allow for everyone working in the area of child care to do this course as part of their training. In other words, the Early Years health promotion programme will not only continue to be provided in the Sligo-Leitrim area but will, as the Senator proposed, be mainstreamed for the entire country in order that all child care workers can benefit from the training. The good news story that is the health promotion programme initiated in Sligo-Leitrim is being expanded in order that children who are overweight or obese can obtain consistent advice on healthy eating and being physically active.
In regard to cost, the Minister of State's indication that the cost per beneficiary is high is completely at odds with what the managers of the Early Years scheme have told me. Second, while I understand talks have taken place with voluntary education centres with a view to rolling out the scheme across the State, that process of engagement has apparently stalled. As such, the people running the scheme in Sligo-Leitrim have been left in limbo. If the project is not, after all, going to be delivered on a nationwide basis, what will happen to it when its funding runs out in September? I appreciate that the Minister of State may not have this information to hand.
I have given the most up-to-date information from the Minister. Given his indication that the project will be mainstreamed, I assume that whatever difficulties have arisen are being addressed and that the matter will be resolved. We can take it in the round that this is now part and parcel of the way forward. In conjunction with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, the Minister for Education and Skills and the Health Service Executive, the decision was made that because it was such a good programme, it should be rolled out across the State.