Seanad debates

Thursday, 28 November 2019

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Services for People with Disabilities

10:30 am

Photo of Tim LombardTim Lombard (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State back to the Chamber.

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Acting Chairman and the Minister of State for being here again.

I am very disappointed the senior Minister, Deputy Harris, is not here today. In the long term, we may have to look at particular Commencement matters where we should have the senior Minister present. Perhaps this is something that the Minister of State might bring back to the Minister, Deputy Harris, because I have a major problem in Carlow which does not involve a huge amount of money.

The Holy Angels day care centre, Carlow has been on the priority list for a new school building for more than five years now. The Government, however, has not yet delivered on this building. The HSE has made land available at Kelvin Grove for the new centre and I wish to know if there is a detailed delivery plan for the new school. I am concerned that the site at Kelvin Grove, which is on the vacant property register, has also been promised as a site for a women's refuge. It is marvellous as this facility is meant to have a site; the problem is there is no concrete plan in place. The children, their families, the staff and the management cannot wait any longer as the current conditions in the school are simply not good enough. I reiterate that the staff members in Holy Angels are among the very best in the country but it is not fair to expect them to make the best of things just because this Government cannot organise itself.

In the summer, following my representations, the Government approved an additional €25,000 for staffing from September to December. This allowed the school management to employ three childcare assistants and two bus escorts. This meant that the centre was able to offer a place to every child on its referral list for the school year. The total number of children currently attending the centre is 31 and they have a range of special needs that are being met by this centre. There is a huge programme to cater for and to implement the services required for these children with special needs.

As we all know, early intervention is essential for children attending such a specialised service in order to develop new skills and to reach their full potential. The staff at Holy Angels are the main daily providers of care and intervention, and even more so this year due to the significant reduction in occupational, speech and language therapy services. Most of the children who started in the Holy Angels this year are on waiting lists for the same services and now rely on the knowledge and experience of the centre staff to begin the implementation of therapeutic programmes.

There are big waiting lists across the country and the most vulnerable children in our society, that is, children with disabilities, are not being looked after.

The new centre has requested €62,000 for the year 2020 to retain its staff members in order that they can continue with what they are doing. I have gone to the Department of Health, to the HSE in Kilkenny-Carlow, and to Minister because unless we get the €62,000, we do not know what will happen in the long term. I have to acknowledge to the Minister of State that the €25,000 that was promised this year was provided recently to Holy Angels. Even though I have repeatedly raised this issue, it is not good enough that I must continually fight for such a small amount of money, which is so late in coming. It is crucial at this point, because it is now about saving jobs there.

The five staff members who are on temporary contracts at present need to know if they are being retained or will need to seek other employment shortly if no such confirmation is forthcoming. This places individuals and their families in a highly precarious position and the Minister of State should come back to me on this question.

If funding is not confirmed, the number of children who attend each day will have to be reduced in January. Parents will need to be informed in advance in order to arrange alternative childcare. This is also not ideal and in the approach to Christmas, this will place an unnecessary strain on them. The reduction of staff members in each classroom also will have a negative impact on the standard of care that can be provided without the role of bus escorts. Holy Angels will not be able to provide transport for as many families as it should, because supervision is needed for these children in order to use the bus services . I have raised the issue of the lack of public transport here before. The Minister of State will need to look at this issue.

My concern that unless this €62,000 is provided in early January, the two bus drivers will need to be put on protective notice and it will be necessary to consider the redundancy implications. This would be a incredibly bad news story for me. This is of great significance and there are two issues on which I need clarification. First, is the Kelvin Grove site and the funding for the building of the Holy Angels day care centre available? Second, will the €62,000 be available from January 2020, to keep the staff there in post and to retain the carers in the classrooms, who look after the most vulnerable children in our society?

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
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I will begin by thanking the Senator and by noting I do not have an answer on the question of the €62,000 funding in the reply given to me here. That is something new that has been raised by the Senator now because the Commencement matter did not specifically ask for this. It was on the funding generally for the service, rather than for individuals. I will come back to the Senator on this point.

I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, and thank the Senator for raising this important issue today. I acknowledge the great work the staff of the Holy Angels day care centre do for children with disabilities. The current programme for partnership Government commits the Government to improving services and increasing support for children with disabilities, particularly for early assessment and intervention. Significant resources have been invested by the health service sector in services for children with disabilities over the past number of years. This commitment is guided by two principles, namely, equality and the opportunity of improving the quality of life for people with disabilities.

As the Senator may be aware, the Holy Angels day care centre was established in 1978 and initially served with the focus on the provision of a day care service for children with disabilities of preschool-going age. The centre now exists as a designated special preschool for children aged 18 months to six years of age. The centre caters for children with a range of disabilities such as Down's syndrome, cerebral palsy, spina bifida and autism, as well as other rare conditions.

The Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, has been advised that there are currently 30 children attending the Holy Angels day care centre. The centre has range of facilities to support different aspects of development including a hydrotherapy unit, a soft play area, multisensory rooms, an outdoor play area, family rooms and three classrooms.

For the past ten years, the breadth of the services at the facility has expanded to providing respite services for children with disabilities and their families. Emergency and weekend respite is provided to children with disabilities aged from nine months to 18 years. The criteria for admission of children aged between 18 months and six years with suspected intellectual disabilities, where services are accessed through a multidisciplinary team, are made by referrals through the early intervention team.

The HSE provides funding to the Holy Angels day care centre under section 39 of the Health Act and in this regard, the service received approximately €580,000 in 2019. In this regard, the heads of service for the HSE social care visited the Holy Angels day care centre last month and met the chair of the centre's board to discuss the service and funding matters. Other meetings are scheduled to take place in March 2020.

The Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, has been advised by officials in the HSE that the Holy Angels day care centre has been on a priority list for a new school building for over five years now. There have been a number of challenges in securing an adequate site for the new school building. With the aim of providing assistance to the service, the HSE has designated an area at the site in Kelvin Grove, Carlow, for the Holy Angels day care centre to operate a new school. This project proposal has been submitted to the HSE capital steering committee and the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, has been informed that the proposal has been accepted by the committee and has been approved for prioritisation of funding.It is important to recognise that all capital development proposals must process through a number of approval stages in line with the public spending code, including details of appraisals, planning design and procurement before a timeframe for funding requirement can be established.

On the €62,000, I do not have an answer for the Senator but I will come back to her on the matter.

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Fianna Fail)
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My dealings on this matter over the last three years have been with the Minister, Deputy Harris, so I had requested that he come to the House to respond to this Commencement matter. He is well aware of the €62,000 because I have met him on a regular basis at meetings, where I told him about it. While the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, is always kind and courteous I am disappointed that the Minister is not here today. The loss of jobs and an excellent facility for children with special needs is an important issue and it worries me that the Minister of State's response is that she is not aware of the situation. Provision of the new building has been an ongoing matter for a some time now yet we have been told it is on a priority list. This is unacceptable. We need construction of the new facility to commence within the next year or two because the current facility is not fit for purpose. We are blessed in Carlow in terms of the Holy Angels Care Centre service and staff. Without the €62,000, which is a minimal amount, this service could lose staff and this is unacceptable.

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
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I do not have any further information to give to the Senator. I do not have any knowledge of the €62,000 to which she referred. I will raise with the Minister the need for this service to be supported until the new facilities are made available. None of us wants to see children, particularly children with disabilities, not being able to access proper services. I will relay the Senator's concerns to the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, and the Minister, Deputy Harris.

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State.