Monday, 22 February 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Disability Services Provision
I thank the Minister of State for taking this matter, which I have had tabled for consideration for several weeks. I am glad to finally have the opportunity to raise it.
Notwithstanding the response given to a parliamentary question last week indicating positive news regarding a new multidisciplinary early intervention and respite care centre for children with complex additional needs on the grounds of St. Otteran's Hospital in Waterford City, it is important to put some information on the record with regard to the inadequate nature of the existing Sacred Heart centre and associated disability services that operate from Johnstown industrial estate.
While the commitment and dedication of the staff that work at the existing Sacred Heart centre cannot be faulted, the facility is simply no longer fit for purpose. It was built more than 44 years ago and has numerous disadvantages. The HSE has identified that it does not conform to Tusla requirements. There is a lack of ceiling track hoisting and appropriate storage facilities, which are health and safety risk; there is poor ventilation contrary to building conditions; it is poorly lit with a lack of natural light; there are narrow corridors, which do not meet current standards; there are inadequate parking and set-down facilities and inadequate space or quiet areas to support children with sensory processing disorders. There is a requirement to hire external venues when offering training to parents and staff.
Some of the other disability services, such as physiotherapy, occupational therapy, psychology, nursing and social work, currently operate out of a building on Johnstown industrial estate, which was leased by the HSE in 2003 for 20 years. This building is also highly unsuitable for children with complex needs due to capacity and building issues. The waiting area is too small for children and families with buggies or wheelchairs. Clients have to stand in the hall when they are waiting. The rooms are not of an appropriate size. In winter, the building is prone to flooding and there is a lack of storage phase for occupational therapy and physical therapy equipment. One clinical room is dedicated for storage, which reduces clinical capacity. Soundproofing is non-existent, which means that speech and language therapy services are delivered from University Hospital Waterford.
The latest census for Waterford showed that the number of children with complex disabilities stood at 1,125.The need for an integrated and multidisciplinary centre to deliver for young children and families cannot, therefore, be underestimated.
This brings me to the response issued by the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, to a parliamentary question on this matter which indicates that this much-needed project will be included in the capital plan for this year. The same response, however, says that it will not go to tender until late 2022, with a view to completion in 2025. That is just not good enough. I am sure the Minister of State will agree that these children, their families and the staff have waited long enough. This project must be fast-tracked. I see no reason it could not go out to tender and be commenced next year. I appeal to the Minister of State, her officials and the Minister to clarify and expedite the timelines for this project.
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention the fantastic charity, Touching Hearts, which has been raising funds for this project since 2017. I know the Minister of State has engaged extensively with the group, as has the former Senator, Paudie Coffey. I had the pleasure of nominating the group as one of the charities for my mayor's ball in 2017. Since then, it has raised €415,000 towards this project. It is committed to raising €1 million towards the cost, which is estimated to be between €11 million and €15 million. I thank Ann Marie Queally, Dermot Dooley and all of the committee members, staff and parents for their drive, determination and commitment to this project, which will be life-changing for this generation, and future generations, of our most vulnerable young citizens.
I am very well aware of it. I thank Senator Cummins for raising this issue and giving me the opportunity to outline to the House the position. He is quite right in everything he has said and I thank him for the very comprehensive overview of the situation pertaining in the Sacred Heart Centre, which provides services for children with complex additional needs.
As the Senator will be aware, the early intervention services provided by the Sacred Heart Centre on Lady Lane, Waterford, empower children with a broad range of intellectual and physical disabilities and challenges, many of which are profound, and their families to develop their full potential in a safe and nurturing environment. Referral to this specialist centre for a child nearing two years of age or younger, if deemed necessary, can be a lifeline for families. Children attending the centre access a range of personal, social, cognitive, communicative and fine and gross motor skills programmes. Family members and staff work as a team to plan, implement and evaluate services tailored to the families' unique concerns, priorities and resilience. The centre also provides training and support to families, communities, preschools and schools, as appropriate. In speaking about referral to this vital service, we have to compliment the staff because the current service is absolutely fantastic, as the Senator has outlined. Any service is only as good as its staff. Having visited the site, I can say that this centre's staff are spectacular.
The Senator mentioned the charity set up to support the building of the new Sacred Heart Centre, Touching Hearts. The current facilities are completely inadequate as they are too small and too old and are not fit for purpose, as the Senator has outlined. The benefits of a new building for children and parents availing of this service include that it will greatly improve morale and on-site facilities and that it will result in improved and increased access for parents to training and education. As the Senator quite rightly said, Touching Hearts has been raising awareness for many years. It has also been raising funds and supporting families and staff. The group must be commended for its tireless work to reach this stage.
The HSE has advised that the development of children's disability services at St. Otteran's Hospital, Waterford, has been approved for inclusion in the HSE's capital plan. If approved, a design team will be procured this year. It is expected that the plans will go to tender in late 2022, with construction due to commence in 2023. The programme of construction should last for a period of 18 to 24 months, but I will come back to this point in my supplementary reply. It is important to recognise that the delivery of capital projects is a dynamic process and is subject to the successful completion of the various approval stages, in line with the public spending code, which can impact on the timeline for delivery.This is welcome news, especially for children who have significant developmental delay in a number of areas and require a considerable amount of individual attention and who are only able to participate in small group situations for short periods of time.
I thank the Minister of State for her confirmation again this morning that the project is to advance as part of the capital plan. As she rightly stated, this is a facility for our most vulnerable young citizens and the timelines that are set down are not adequate, given that this project is to only go out to tender at the end of 2022. It is February 2021 now. I see no reason not to proceed more quickly and for the project to go out to tender and construction in 2022. The families, individuals, staff and parents have waited too long for this facility already. Since 2017, the commitment, drive and determination of those involved has raised almost half of their €1 million target and it is important that we as a Government now show our commitment to the project and expedite it as quickly as is humanly possible.
The development of a multidisciplinary, early intervention and respite care centre for children with complex additional needs on the grounds of St. Otteran's Hospital in Waterford is an important and significant project and it has been long fought for by many. Many people in both the Dáil and Seanad have advocated for this to happen. I agree with Senator Cummins that the announcement is very welcome and positive. I look forward to working with him to progress the timelines in a positive manner. Timelines are key, but I do not believe the service users and staff can wait for completion until 2025. It is unusual for me to say that as a Minister of State, but I am acutely aware of the premises the children and staff are accommodated in. I visited the hospital approximately 12 months ago before the election and I saw exactly what the Senator has outlined about storage space, capacity, hoisting, hydrotherapy and other such facilities that these vulnerable children need. They need every opportunity so that no child is left behind.
I look forward to working with the Senator on this project. The timeline is as I outlined, that it will go to tender in late 2022, but I believe that should be expedited. Construction is due to commence in 2023. There is a period of 18 to 24 months for completion. These children and families have waited long enough. I will work closely with the Senator to try to expedite the project as quickly as possible. I will also speak to the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, about the timelines.