Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 17 June 2002
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would appreciate your clarification and help on a matter of procedure. The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Ms de Brún, presented the document ‘Developing Better Services’, about modernising the hospital service, on Wednesday 12 June at a press conference in the Odyssey Arena. I would have thought that it should have been presented to the Assembly first — at least by way of a statement — rather than outside. There is no precedent for that.
It was a discourtesy that the Minister did not come to the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety beforehand and give it information about the document. The Department’s permanent secretary most certainly did on Tuesday and Wednesday, the day of the presentation. I am not aware of any case in which such an important ministerial document — in reply to the Hayes Report, and concerning all the people of Northern Ireland — has not been presented to the Assembly.
I have written to the Minister this morning saying that it would be a proper courtesy to the House for a matter of that kind to come forward in the normal way, as a statement. It remains for the Minister to respond. I was disappointed that on a matter of such importance the normal procedure was not followed.
The Member is aware that there are other ways in which he, as Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, or another Member, may bring the matter to the Floor of the House.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Dr Farren):
I beg leave to lay before the Assembly a Bill [NIA 18/01] to make provision in connection with the formalities for marriage and the solemnisation and registration of marriages; and for connected purposes.
Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.
The Bill will be put on the list of future pending business until a date for its Second Stage is determined.
The Minister of the Environment (Mr Nesbitt):
I beg leave to lay before the Assembly a Bill [NIA 19/01] to make provision for implementing Council Directive 96/61/EC and for otherwise preventing and controlling pollution; to amend the transitional provisions in relation to waste management licences in article 47 of the Waste and Contaminated Land (Northern Ireland) Order 1997; to make provision about certain expiring disposal licences; and for connected purposes.
Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.
The Bill will be put on the list of future pending business until a date for its Second Stage has been determined.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Dr Farren):
I beg to move
That the Second Stage of the Budget (No. 2) Bill (NIA 16/01) be agreed.
In moving the motion, I shall briefly draw attention to a few points. The debate follows the Bill’s First Stage on Tuesday 11 June and the Supply resolution for the 2002-03 Main Estimates, which was also considered and approved last week. The Bill can be given accelerated passage because the Committee for Finance and Personnel has confirmed that, in line with Standing Order 40, it is satisfied that there has been appropriate consultation on the public expenditure proposals contained in the Bill. That condition has been met, and the confirmation was given in a letter dated 11 June from the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel to the Speaker.
I welcome the Committee’s assistance in the matter and, indeed, the work that it undertakes and the contribution that it makes on all matters concerning public expenditure and related procedural issues. The purpose of the Bill is to give legislative effect to the resource Estimates approved through the Supply resolution passed on Monday 10 June. In introducing that Supply resolution, I provided considerable detail about the figure work contained in the Estimates booklet. Therefore, I do not intend to delay today’s debate with unnecessary repetition of that detail. Members have received copies of the detailed Main Estimates booklet. Copies of the Budget (No. 2) Bill and the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum should also be available.
For the benefit of Members, however, I wish to summarise briefly the main features of the Bill in accordance with the nature of the Second Stage debate envisaged under Standing Order 30. The principle of the Bill is to authorise the use of resources totalling £5,710,516,000 by Departments and the issue of £4,962,077,000 from the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund in respect of the Main Estimates for 2002-03.
I remind Members that the spending plans reflected in the Budget (No.2) Bill were approved and endorsed by the Assembly when the Budget for 2002-03 was approved last December. Today’s proceedings are an important step in putting in place our expenditure framework for the year 2002-03.
The Assembly has important responsibilities in this area, and I was most interested to hear the views of Members in last week’s useful debate. The nature of these debates means that they are wide-ranging; that is important, because financial provision is fundamental to every one of our public services, and I welcome the interest that Members take in those matters.
We are now becoming more familiar with the various stages of the budgetary processes. In that context, the Assembly has made considerable progress. In addition to coming to terms with many complex issues and processes, it has had to cope with making the transition from cash to resource accounting. The Assembly has important responsibilities for public expenditure, authorisation and control, and it has demonstrated considerable interest and diligence in addressing those responsibilities.
I thank the Department of Finance and Personnel’s officials for their work in bringing the Bill to Second Stage. As I have already said in the House, the Bill is an indication of how successful the Assembly has been in organising and administering its finances. As we approach the end of the Bill’s process, will the Minister look ahead to the reinvestment and reform initiative, which was initially introduced by his predecessor, Mark Durkan, and worked on more recently by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister? Will he consider whether some money can be spent on roads in my constituency of South Down? Some hope and opportunity must be offered to provide improvements to its woeful road infrastructure. There is not one inch of dual carriageway in the constituency. Moreover, no major road schemes have ever been undertaken there, and no significant money has been spent on roads. Accessibility to the area is neglected and must be improved for the constituency’s growing tourist trade and its other services and needs.
That was a briefer debate than I had anticipated, notwithstanding the fact that Members have addressed the issues on several occasions. I thank Mr ONeill for his contribution. The Department of Finance and Personnel is embarking on its preparation of the 2002 Budget. The Executive’s position report, which was recently presented to the Assembly, is available. It is hoped that Members will take the opportunity to put forward their views at pre-consultation stage. Those views are influential in shaping the draft Budget, which the Department will introduce for consideration in September.
Mr ONeill has invited me to stray outside the limits of the particularities that surround the Budget (No.2 ) Bill, but the Executive, officials in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and officials in the Department of Finance and Personnel are working on the first set of proposals that they want to see adopted and implemented with respect to the resources available through the reinvestment and reform initiative. I note the points that Mr ONeill made about his constituency, and I am sure that many of those concerns could be reflected by other Members. The reinvestment and reform initiative is intended to provide the Assembly with a greatly enhanced range of resources from which to draw from in order to make good the deficit in investment in infrastructure.
I am not in a position to make any commitments on the Member’s concerns about roads in South Down: that is a matter for the Minister for Regional Development, who will undoubtedly bring forward suggestions with respect to how the resources available to us under the reinvestment and reform initiative can be allocated to meet needs such as those that the Member has identified.
The roads in South Down are part of the range of considerations that are in the Minister for Regional Development’s mind. The reinvestment and reform package will enable us to address many other aspects of our infrastructure that are suffering from the deficit that we are all well aware of. I thank Mr ONeill for raising the point, and I thank him for his complimentary remarks. I seek the House’s support for the Second Stage of the Budget (No.2) Bill.
As this is a Budget Bill, it requires cross-community support.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That the Second Stage of the Budget (No. 2) Bill (NIA 16/01) be agreed.
The Minister of the Environment (Mr Nesbitt):
I beg to move
That the Local Government (General Grant) Order (Northern Ireland) 2002 (SR 182/2002) be affirmed.
This Statutory Rule is needed to specify, or list, the district councils that are taken into account to determine a rate that is used in the current formula for distribution of the resources element of the general grant. Members will be familiar with the financial support that the Department of the Environment provides for district councils in the form of the general grant.
There are two elements of grant: the derating element to compensate district councils for loss of rate income due to the statutory derating of certain properties; and the resources element to provide additional finance to those district councils whose total rateable value per head of population falls below a standard determined by the Department. The amount of grant available in the current financial year is £27·9 million for the derating element and £19·5 million for the resources element. That is a total of £47·4 million.
The funds are distributed to councils in accordance with a statutory formula, which is detailed in the Local Government &c. (Northern Ireland) Order 1972. The primary legislation requires, as part of the methodology of the distribution of the resources element, that the Department set a standard rate each year. Any council that falls below that level is entitled to a share of the grant, but those councils above the standard do not qualify. To determine the rate, data for selected district councils relating to gross penny rate products and population are applied. The formula is extremely complicated.
The legislation also requires that the councils taken into account in the calculation of the standard rate be specified in an Order subject to affirmative resolution. Article 2 of the Order lists the 14 councils for which data were used to determine the standard rate for distribution of this year’s provision of £19·5 million. The approval of the Order is a necessary part of the methodology for distribution of the resources element of the general grant for 2002-03. I commend it to the Assembly.
The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Rev Dr William McCrea):
I support the motion. This is a very important Statutory Rule that is needed each year to specify those councils that will be used in calculating standard penny rate product, which is an essential component of the formula used to distribute the resources element of the general grant.
The Minister is aware of the Committee for the Environment’s ongoing scrutiny of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, which aims to put a new methodology in place for the distribution of the resources element in the general grant payable to district councils. The Committee is in discussion with the Department on clauses that relate to the general grant, and several amendments are being considered.
The Committee is concerned about the projected reduction of the general grant from £20 million to £13·3 million for 2003-04. I have already drawn that issue to the attention of Members, and I assure the Minister that my Committee will not allow this injustice to occur — and I use the word "injustice" deliberately, but that is a debate for another occasion. Although this Statutory Rule will play a part in future calculations of the grant, the Committee has no objection to it’s being made. I support the motion.
I do not have much to say, but I am concerned about an issue that the Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment has already referred to; that is the disquiet that councils feel about the general grant and its operation. There is a genuine feeling of injustice. It is an archaic way to provide support for councils. Perhaps after the Committee and the Department have considered the issue, the result may be a fairer and more efficient method that will cause people fewer concerns and dispel any sense of injustice.
Even before devolution I was worried about the general grant. It has been eroded gradually to such an extent that some councils, including small councils such as Down District Council, have had an enormous budgetary battle to stay solvent and keep within the bounds of reasonable financial control. Can the Minister tell us how the community sector worked within the administration of the general grant allocation? Consideration was to have been given to how communities were divided, how they were made up, and what overall effect that had. However, he may not be in a position to give us that information.
Unlike Dr Farren, I am pleasantly surprised that there have been so few comments.
I thank the Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment for his support for the motion and the necessity of the resources element. I wish to put on record that since I have become Minister of the Environment, Dr McCrea and I, although we come from different positions, have worked in a professional way; I commend the Chairperson for that. He referred to the new methodology that the Committee and the Department of the Environment are discussing. I repeat what I said on that topic: if the Committee or others have concerns, I seek constructive criticism from them — namely, that when they disagree with certain elements they genuinely put forward other views on how those issues can be dealt with.
Dr McCrea also mentioned that the resources element of the general grant has possibly gone down from £20 million to £13·3 million; that also concerns me. There is a problem with minima and with how the Department bids in the next round. I am conscious of how the Department has bid for resources and of how that bid may pan out. However, as the Chairman has rightly said, that is a debate for the future. I commend him for his words of support.
Mr ONeill referred to the injustice of the general grant and the disquiet that it has caused — perhaps echoing Dr McCrea’s fears that the general grant seems to have been reduced. Those concerns are raised when I meet with councillors.
Mr ONeill referred to the archaic method. I draw his attention to the new method that Dr McCrea referred to, which will be introduced in 2003. It will focus more on wealth and population indicators with adjustments that reflect the needs of the community, needs that are based on unemployment, tourism, and so on. I trust that the new method for dealing with the grant — when it is finally agreed upon — will empathise more with the community and will reflect its needs better than did the previous formula. I do not consider the new method to be archaic. I am not sure whether Mr ONeill wished me to explain the complicated method that is proposed today. It is more mechanical in relation to statistics, standard rates and average rates.
I hope that I have covered that aspect. Mr ONeill asked me how communities were dealt with in the workings of the grant. The difficulty was that communities, as such, were not dealt with. The grant was worked out by dividing the rate poundage by the population of Northern Ireland to get the average rate. The rate for each district council was examined. If a district council’s rate was below average, it was entitled to more money. If Members saw the number of councils that were below average, they would see that the amount of money needed this year — based on the Northern Ireland average — is £23 million. The Department has only £19·5 million.
Therefore, the Department must undertake a mathematical process to reach a figure that allows it to allocate the £19·5 million among 14 councils, which will be listed. However, that £19·5 million will only be shared among some of the 14. That complication in the calculation means that it may be viewed as archaic, in a sense. A new method is being devised and will be introduced. I believe that I have covered the points raised by the two Members.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Local Government (General Grant) Order (Northern Ireland) 2002 (SR 182/2002) be affirmed.
I draw to the attention of the House — lest anyone has not been observing the annunciators — that a private-notice question to the Minister of Education has been tabled and will be taken immediately before Question Time.
The next item of business is a motion on the involvement of children in armed conflict. However, I do not see the proposer of the motion, Mr McGrady, in his place.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As Members can see in the indicative timings, the motion was scheduled to be debated at 1.20 pm. As a member of the Business Committee, I understand that the indicative timings are just that. Mr McGrady has had a personal problem this morning. However, he is on his way to the Assembly. I should be grateful if the House would debate Dr McCrea’s motion first to allow Mr McGrady time to arrive.
I am sure that the Member’s Colleague will be grateful that he asked the question. However, he must know that what he suggests is not possible.
If a Member is not available to move a motion, for whatever reason, it must fall. There may very well be reasons that the House would entirely understand. Nevertheless, I am held by our procedures, and the motion must, I regret to say, fall.
Rev Dr William McCrea:
I beg to move
That this Assembly recognises the lack of suitable facilities for young, disabled persons leaving special education and calls upon the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to make immediate Province-wide provision for the continued care of special school leavers and to alleviate current pressures on day-care facilities.
The motion is very important, and I thank the Business Committee for permitting it to be tabled.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair)
Life is full of challenges, but the challenges faced by children with a severe learning or physical disability are often immense. How we provide for the needs, both immediate and long-term, of those children who require additional help, especially as they make the strenuous transition into early adulthood, is a measure against which we should be judged. Surely, they too should have the equal rights and equal opportunity to achieve their full potential.
In schools for those with severe learning disabilities, the transition stage begins at 14 and continues until pupils leave school at 19. For many young people with a severe learning disability, that transition stage is particularly traumatic given the changes that accompany leaving school and the preparations necessary for them. At that age, the options available are either placement in an adult day-care centre, a specialised course at a college of further education, employment or staying at home.
Although the numbers leaving special schools each summer are not large — 74 in 1998; 84 in 1999; 79 in 2000, and 84 in 2001 across all board areas — day-care services have become stretched in some areas. Saturation point has been reached, and no more places are available. Parents in my Mid Ulster constituency have been told that their children must remain at home until the waiting list there can be addressed. Mid Ulster is not alone in that. Parents in South Antrim are facing a similar dilemma.
Surely with the involvement of social services in transition plans from age 14, the shortfall in local day-care places should have been detected much earlier. Appropriate measures should have been taken to avoid what is now a calamity for many parents, who have every right to fear that any benefits and skills that their children accrued at school will be lost unless effective adult services become immediately available. The situation that they face cannot be put on the long finger. Although I want to develop longer-term issues, the motion deals directly with a situation that is immediate and a dilemma that many parents are facing.
In a memorandum to the House of Commons Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs’s inquiry and contained in its report ‘Public Expenditure in Northern Ireland: Special Needs Education’, published on 19 April 1999, Mencap (Northern Ireland Division) stated that
"Transitional plans . have not always been given the attention they deserve."
In a similar submission, the Northern Ireland charity Sense recognised the need to upgrade the adult services available when children reach school-leaving age at 19. Sense said that when the children leave school
"They will have had 15 excellent years at well resourced schools, with programmes geared to meet their needs . The transition from school to adult services, where their needs cannot possibly be met, can be traumatic . these people have special needs which need to be met, no matter what age they are."
More recently, in ‘Ignored or Ineligible?’, a survey conducted last year by the National Autistic Society, it was reported that the Government policy of inclusion in the education system raises expectations which are shattered in adulthood, as current provision is woefully inadequate:
"The crucial years of transition can mean the difference between an unhappy and dependent existence in adulthood, or a more independent and fulfilled life."
In seeking adequate and appropriate provision for their children, parents are looking not for an adult crèche but for consistent and continuous curricular provision, so that the excellent work already delivered by the professional and dedicated teaching staff at special schools can continue. Is not the mission statement of the Northern Health and Social Services Board "Promoting Health and Securing Care"?
The help and teaching available to these children from birth are second to none. I pay genuine tribute to the professional support staff, social workers, psychologists, occupational therapists and special-needs teachers who have such a positive impact on young lives. How sad it will be, therefore, if all their efforts over the years are washed away because further facilities are unavailable when school-leaving age is reached.
Surely society owes these young people a chance to lead a fulfilling life, during which they can achieve many of the things that we, as able-bodied people, often take for granted. Instead, it appears that some are simply tossed aside — too unimportant to be considered for future advancement when people in mainstream education are actively encouraged to take up opportunities now and throughout their lives.
Pressure on day-care services and post-school placements has been of primary concern to many in the special school sector. This issue should be viewed in the context not only of Mid Ulster, but of the Province as a whole.
I thought it prudent to source opinion from special schools across Northern Ireland before this debate. The similarities in the 21 responses I received were striking. They all reported difficulties with appropriate provision and support. Among the main issues identified were: very late confirmation of placements for young people, with the added stress that that brings to their families; inappropriate placements, or mismatching, where a school feels that placements have matched the provision available rather than a young person’s actual needs; an inability to guarantee full-time placements; a lack of more appropriate placements because of demand and the difficulties experienced by health and social services in moving people to alternative placements to release places for school-leavers; a breakdown in further education placements due to a lack of consistent and practical support; and a lack of alternative occupational provision for those unsuited to further education and for whom traditional day-care provision is inappropriate.
The principal of Cranny Special School in Omagh told me that provision in that area is not encouraging and that, unless the situation is quickly resolved, two more students will leave at the end of December 2002 with no proper placements available.
The principal of Sandelford Special School in Coleraine stated that the problems to which I have referred have become more pronounced over the last six or seven years. Many leavers have had to wait at home for a considerable time before, in most circumstances, being offered one or two days’ placement a week because the local day-care centres are either full to capacity or understaffed.
Riverside Special School in Antrim noted that if a young person does not get a place at an adult centre, he and his family are often isolated from the rest of the community and that a parent may have to contemplate seriously giving up work and rely solely on state benefits to support the family.
The principal of Jordanstown Special School in Newtownabbey stated that there is a need to ensure that proper provision is made for young people so that they are challenged and stimulated and continue to develop their skills.
The principal of Loughan Special School in Ballymena stated that something must be done about the appalling lack of provision for people over the age of 19 who have learning difficulties. That sentiment was reiterated by Knockevin Special School in Downpatrick, where support was expressed for a review into the funding arrangements for post-school placements for all those with learning difficulties.
At the end of June, many parents will be faced with the need to provide care, occupation, training and entertainment for their son or daughter, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Holiday periods are especially difficult for children who require additional learning time and support and for those who need a set routine to continue to make good progress over the summer recess. The Assembly must assess the damage that will be done to individuals if, come September, placements cannot be found.
In the areas where increased pressures are most evident, immediate measures must be taken to ensure that this summer’s leavers can make the transition to the post-school world seamlessly. Provision for children who leave special schools will continue to be an ever-increasing problem unless it is addressed at the highest level and long-term strategies are deployed.
The parent of a child at Kilronan Special School in Magherafelt wrote to me and said that
"in a society where moral and social values are rapidly deteriorating, please consider just how valuable a part can be played by many of these very special young people. Please don’t allow their world to be shut down at a time in life which most consider to be their prime".
I received that letter because of the problems experienced by children who leave Kilronan Special School in Magherafelt at 19 years of age. Many parents are angry and frustrated because no one seems to acknowledge their plight and because, although the children that they love with all their hearts face a very uncertain future, no one seems to understand the pain that they suffer. I pay tribute to the parents of those very special children. However, although we agree that they are special, it is about time society provided for them. As I said earlier, the motion deals with a particular situation: children face a dilemma, and their parents face a nightmare. However, the motion itself is not the answer.
Able-bodied children are encouraged to fill their potential through continued education. That education could continue until a person is 30 years of age, because people are encouraged to go to university. However, for disabled children, education ends at 19 years of age, and that ought not to be the case. I have spoken to the Minister for Employment and Learning, Ms Carmel Hanna, about this and I headed a delegation that met her. Departments must work together to ensure adequate provision, and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Department for Employment and Learning have vital roles to play. Why should education for these children finish when they reach the age of 19, given that other children are able to continue with theirs?
Adequate provision is vital because when these children reach the age of 19, they are put into adult centres. That is inappropriate but welcome, because there is no other provision. However, those placements are inadequate, and places ought to be provided for disabled people between the ages of 19 and 35. Society is not doing that, and it should. Adult centres are suitable at a later stage in life, but not at 19 years of age.
I ask the Assembly to offer genuine care, and I pay tribute to those who have drawn this matter to my attention. Whether the child is Mary’s, Teresa’s or Peter’s, I say to those about whom I am concerned that the Assembly owes it to them to make this provision. At the end of this month those parents should know that their children will not be cast aside, that their rights will be acknowledged and that a place, albeit inadequate, will be found for them. They may not receive perfect provision, but they will receive good provision. These children are being discriminated against. Every other child is encouraged to continue with his education, but at 19 years of age disabled people are told that their education is over. These parents and children are doubly discriminated against because they are told that there is no provision for them and that the children must be kept at home.
I ask the Assembly to support the motion wholeheartedly. Justice will be done if we ensure that these children receive adequate provision.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Dr Hendron):
I should like to congratulate the Dr McCrea for tabling this important motion. Learning difficulty is more common in Northern Ireland than in Great Britain; indeed, approximately 8,000 people here have a severe learning disability, and approximately 35 children out of 1,000 under the age of 16 are disabled. People with a learning disability have the same right as non-disabled people to lead their lives as independently as possible. A key priority for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in the Programme for Government is described in the section ‘Working for a Healthier People’. That focuses on helping disabled people to achieve the highest possible standards of living and to be integrated fully into society, which is a worthy aim. However, evidence points to wide gaps in the provision of services for the learning disabled, with disparities in expenditure between different areas.
The Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety recently met with the Kilronan Parents’ Action Group —I know that Dr McCrea is familiar with that group — as well as with the Foyle View Parents’ Support Group. The Committee learnt of the chronic lack of support for young people with special needs. Problems connected with a lack of respite care provision, especially in rural communities, were described. Transport to and from special schools and, crucially, a lack of suitable after-school places were also mentioned. Due to the limited options available, parents are often faced with providing 24-hour care for their children. That can mean that they must leave employment, which can lead to stress and severe health problems for the carers.
The Foyle View Parent’s Support Group advised the Health Committee that parents in Belfast receive provision of £73 for each child compared to £53 for each child in Derry. Post-19 education services for people with learning disabilities are chronically underfunded. There is little available by way of training and social-care provision. The three existing adult centres in the Homefirst Trust area are already operating at 30% over capacity, and the trust cannot build more centres without additional funding.
At the age of 19, these vulnerable young people are faced with the complete withdrawal of educational input. That means a lack of mental stimulation and loss of skills, which can lead to isolation, behavioural difficulties and depression. These young people must be able to build relationships with others in their age group and develop their full potential. Many of the children attending special schools are quite skilled and can excel in different areas.
This is a cross-cutting issue for health and education, as Dr McCrea pointed out, and it needs to be addressed urgently. Children with special needs are very limited in their life choices. At 19 their lives should be just beginning, but they face a poor quality future. That is clearly an equality issue. The Human Rights Act 1998 provides an additional focus on the rights and freedoms of individuals guaranteed under the European Convention on Human Rights, which includes the right to education.
Legislation must ensure provision for day care for young adults with disabilities. The Executive must demonstrate a clear commitment to targeting social need by directing resources equitably to ensure that this most vulnerable group is provided with the same opportunities and encouragement to develop as children in mainstream schools.
Mr J Wilson:
This is a Province-wide problem, but I am acutely aware of difficulties in my constituency of South Antrim, where I have been pursuing the interests of Riverside Special School. The school has a high reputation but cannot send its pupils, on leaving, to the local day centre because it has advised in advance that it will be unable to admit them.
In February I asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety if she agreed that all young people leaving special education should be entitled to a full-time place at an adult facility or day centre so that they can continue to avail of the opportunities created for them at a special school. The Minister’s reply, like that given to my Alliance Colleague in South Antrim, Mr Ford, contained a high degree of detail about procedures in place between the Departments of Health and Education. Those procedures were so complicated that they might have been specifically designed to fudge the question of who has responsibility for this.
Children who attend special schools have severe learning difficulties, and some have additional complications brought about through sensory or physical impairments. The main goal of the curriculum designed for them is to give them independence in their adult life. In mainstream education each child has his talents, strengths and weaknesses. So too, have the children who attend special schools, except that these children also have physical and mental needs that vary from child to child. There are different implications for each child, depending on his individual needs and ability.
That can present problems when these young people attain school-leaving age and are forced to leave the secure cocoon provided for them during their formative years. Some are able to pursue further education by attending a further education college, backed up by a work placement. That option is a positive step for those whose disabilities are not too serious. Others are not so fortunate. Sensory and physical impairments restrict their passage into the adult world and an independent life, and the options available to them are severely limited.
Attendance at an adult centre is usually the most appropriate option for them, but places are limited or, as in my constituency, non-existent. At the beginning of June, the local adult centre in Antrim closed to school leavers. The centre is oversubscribed, and the implications for young people and their families are serious, to say the least. Denied a place at an adult centre, they will find themselves plunged into isolation.
Dr McCrea was spot on when he said that some families have no option but to give up work and rely on state benefits. Families’ incomes can be reduced suddenly and drastically, affecting all members of the household.
Even if a young person obtains a place at an adult centre, there are problems ahead. The 10 or 12 years spent at a special school will have been carefully planned and tailored to suit an individual’s special needs, including interaction with students of similar ages. However, once a person has been allocated a place at an adult centre, there is every possibility that he will stay there for the rest of his life, which could be 50 years. The variety of stimulation provided by such an environment is bound to be very limited.
Anyone leaving special education should be entitled to a full-time place at an adult day centre to continue to pursue the opportunities created for him at school. How can the teachers who educate these young people have any job satisfaction, knowing that the benefit of their efforts will come to an abrupt end when the children leave school? How can we encourage new teachers with a penchant for teaching children with special needs to enter the profession? That is a real problem. How can the families of children with special needs hope to achieve any quality of life, for their children or themselves?
These serious matters must be addressed now. If anyone is in any doubt about that, he should visit Riverside Special School in Antrim — I encourage members of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety to do so. They will see the young adults there, the special facilities that are provided for them, the special care that they receive and the expertise of the staff. When they leave, they should ask themselves whether those young adults are ready to leave, without further provision being made for their care. I support the motion.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom tacú leis an méid a dúirt Comhaltaí eile faoin ábhar tábhachtach seo. I commend the Members who have spoken for highlighting the needs of perhaps the most vulnerable section of our community — young people and adults with learning disabilities. I also commend William McCrea for tabling the motion, for drawing attention to this essential area and for collating the views of the principals of schools such as Cranny Special School in Omagh and similar schools in Magherafelt, Antrim and other places.
The case that he made would strike a chord with a mother from the Dromore area of County Tyrone who recently lobbied me on her situation. I can testify to the parental anxiety and trauma, having listened to her account. Parents are struggling to meet the needs of children with learning disabilities, and they dread their sons or daughters turning 19 and having to face the next stage of their lives with minimal or no provision. Often, they learn only at a very late stage whether their child has secured a place at a day centre.
Even when someone is allocated a place at a day centre, the arrangements are often not suitable. Facilities can be overcrowded, young women and older men can be catered for together, and there can be minimal stimulation — the point has been made already that everyone has right to a meaningful and fulfilled education, not least young people with learning disabilities.
As usual, the Irish language is equipped to deal with daoine le Dia — special people with special needs.
Reference was made to their world shutting down at a time when it should be opening up. The right to education is absolute, and it applies to all. There are equality issues here, and part of the problem rests in the lack of long-term planning in the past. We should be looking at long-term planning and a joined-up approach by the various agencies and Departments, not least the Department of Education and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has said that the boards have been given additional money in the recent past to deal with community services such as this. There are certainly issues here for the boards and the trusts. With reference to the Sperrin Lakeland Health Trust, I want to pay tribute to individuals such as Mr Ciaran Downey and Mr Liam McDermott, who do a great job in difficult circumstances to provide this care. They need more money to do the work that they have been charged to do.
Support for carers and parents is crucial. Often parents need respite urgently, and Dr Hendron adequately covered the area of stress on parents and the debilitating effect it has on the carers who are essentially charged with a huge task. They are often stressed out and at the end of their tether, and there is a cry for urgent help and attention. We need to invest in our carers and the parents involved, because they are the key delivery mechanism of the help at the end of the day. More focus and greater resources are required. Mr Jim Wilson spoke well when suggesting areas of work that the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety might wish to undertake. I am sure that that Committee has a heavy workload, but this appears to me to be an ideal subject for a Committee inquiry. Perhaps Dr Hendron and the Committee members would consider that.
We are all challenged to look at the priority that we give to the issue. Should this area of health provision come before the Executive in the future for Executive programme funds and extra funding, the other Ministers would need to give the necessary support. In conclusion, a LeasCheann Comhairle, I agree that society must not leave young people with learning difficulties behind. We should work hard on the matter, and there should be a joined-up and thoughtful approach taken by everyone.