I have spoken in the House many times in support of many Opposition motions relating to education, health, community employment schemes and the disability sector, among others. This Government has broken many promises – promises which it did not need to make – in the general election campaign of 2011. The main headline commitments were related to personal taxation and social welfare rates. The Government failed even in those commitments when one considers that in its efforts to widen the tax bands it has imposed the property tax and the imminent water charges without due diligence and without proper preparatory audit procedures. It has also failed in its commitment to social welfare when one considers the slashing of children’s allowance and the debacle of the carer’s, respite and mobility grants followed this week by the SNAs and resource teaching.
The most common thread and theme in the most common, callous, concerted and targeted cuts is that they have been directed at rural services and at the disability sector. We all know that Labour’s heartland is in the cities and the major towns; its identification with rural affairs is minimal. The party has no history in that sector and it is not interested in creating one. How could it, when one considers the cuts dished out to rural transport, to rural Garda stations, to postal facilities and contracts, in rural community employment schemes and rural community welfare offices, in assessing rural agricultural buildings when examining the qualification procedures for third-level grants and, most severely of all, its efforts to amalgamate and close rural schools, the very heartbeat, foundation and source from which character-building emanates? They just do not get it. However, what troubles and annoys me and what I fear most is that it appears that Fine Gael does not get it either. We are told that Fine Gael is the dominant force and has put Labour in its place. In my view, Labour has got its way on all these issues.
I note the Government’s attitude to the disability sector, rural Ireland, rural education, special needs assistants and the manner in which resource teaching hours are allocated. If this Government is committed to education, to the ideals of the Constitution which espouses equal rights for all our children, how can the Minister improve teaching resources for mainstream education but he cannot improve them for children with special needs? Last week the Tánaiste stood over these cuts and tried to tell our spokesperson that the Government had not made cuts in special needs hours. As he has pointed out today, 22,000 children – an increase of 2,000 – are seeking the services and the Minister proposes giving them the same number of hours. The Government and the Tánaiste say there have been no cuts in this regard but that is not true, it is simply not factually correct for the Minister to try to explain what is inexplicable. One could go so far as saying that the Minister is treating those children with special needs, their school principals, the school managers and school boards of management, with contempt, with arrogance and with absolute disregard for how they are feeling.
The Minister has admitted many mistakes since coming into office and he is to be commended for that. He has apologised to students on the issue of his commitment on third-level fees made in Trinity College before the general election. He has apologised to students and their families for the manner in which the SUSI debacle was handled which was not to his satisfaction. He accepted responsibility. He has apologised for getting it wrong with regard to DEIS schools and for the pressure from his own party, predominantly.
The Minister apologised earlier today for the mistake he made in the allocation of resource teaching hours. There is a theme and a callousness in the manner in which the Government has singled out rural services and the disabilities sector. The Minister’s performance confirms that. Despite all the apologies and attempts to rectify obvious mistakes made with the best intentions, things have not improved.
When I meet boards of management in my constituency, as I did last night, I see the passion they have for their role and the effort they make to continue against the tide to provide the services they want to see in their schools and the difficulties and the hardship imposed on them in trying to do that. The Minister would say that Fianna Fáil does not have form in this area but we do. We gave a great deal of funding for the provision of facilities, services and new schools. We have form by virtue of the submission we made prior to the last budget when we sought to ring-fence education funding. We said we prioritised funding for education and would move heaven and earth to meet the demands of our children, especially those with special needs. It has become clear to those in opposition that, unfortunately, the Minister has targeted in a callous manner the educational facilities and services that must be provided to all our children.