Explainer: Budget 2021 and Autism
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause a great deal of uncertainty in people’s lives and their livelihoods.
Earlier his week, the Minister for Finance Paschal Donoghue TD and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Michael McGrath TD published the Budget for 2021. This is the largest budget in the State’s history, totaling €17.7 billion to defend as many sectors of the economy against both the longer-term impact of COVID-19, as well as the possibility of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit.
The Budget laid out substantial increases to healthcare and to capital investment projects, including the construction of new social and affordable housing, roads, schools, classrooms and hospitals.
Whilst there is much to welcome from AsIAm’s perspective, given that the scale of proposed impact will undoubtedly improve living standards (particularly the additional spending in the healthcare, education and disability sectors) and save industries most impacted by the pandemic, it would be remiss of us to not outline our concerns in a number of areas.
This explainer will take readers through a step-by-step guide of the key areas affecting Ireland’s autism community, as we note the different funds that have been allocated to support autistic people, as well as services which we feel require renewed focus and additional investment.
AsIAm welcomes that there have been some improvements towards inclusive education’s delivery and resourcing. We welcome the increased investment of €2 billion to support school children with additional needs (including those on the autism spectrum) to access their education.
The plan will include the creation of 990 additional posts for Special Needs Assistants and 403 additional teachers. This will, in turn, support the creation of additional special class placements for autistic pupils.
AsIAm further welcomes the Department’s intention to develop a plan for the provision of additional autism class and special school placements, based on demographics and data, and provide the funds to provide additional places for the 2021/22 academic year.
The Department also plans to reduce the pupil:teacher ratios from 26:1 to 25:1 through the creation of 300 teaching posts in mainstream classes across both primary and post-primary schools. Whilst this falls short of AsIAm’s proposals to reduce ratios to 24:1 by two pupils every year to bring Ireland in line with the European average, it is nonetheless progress, which we expect will have a tangible impact on Irish autistic pupils’ experience inclusive education within mainstream schools (of which the majority are in enrolled in).
In the primary and post-primary sectors, there are a number of proposals which AsIAm would like to see the Department of Education implement that would build upon this progress. These include:
● Support the continued rollout of the In-School Therapy Support Service on a national level to primary and post-primary mainstream schools;
● Commit a targeted investment of €20 million for 75 schools across the country to continue the progress made by the pilot programme;
● Invest €10million towards a national training programme for all teachers on inclusive education and best practices for engaging with autistic students within school settings;
● Conduct a full review of the Education for Persons with Special Needs (EPSEN) Act 2004, as outlined within the 2006 Interim Report, with a view to reform, update, and fully commence the Act on the foot of such a review, in consultation with the relevant bodies/agencies/ stakeholders;
A key aspect of the Budget 2021 has been a marked ramping up of financial support for the HSE to deal with additional costs involved with COVID-19 during the winter months. This includes additional hospital beds, purchasing more PPE, and increasing our contact tracing system’s capacity. The Budget also re-emphasised the commitment to establish a publicly- funded, universal healthcare service under the proposed Sláintecare model.
One aspect of Budget 2021 that’s especially notable is the substantial increase in funding for disability services. The Government has committed to providing a further €20 million in additional supports to disability service providers to meet the additional costs accrued by providers, as well as an added €100 million to provide additional services.
These include the resumption of day services, the delivery of respite services, and to support the Government’s de-institutionalisation efforts (i.e., moving people with disabilities from congregated settings, like nursing homes or residential settings, to living independently in their own houses in the community).
This also includes increased funding for the provision of Personal Assistants. This is good news for many of the families within the autism community, who would rely on health and social care as a source of additional support.
However, like with many policies outlined in the Budget, these will be complex services to develop and deliver to the public; additional, more specialised services will be required to meet the autism community’s needs.
As outlined in our pre-budget submission, AsIAm would like to see the following actions taken;
● €5 million for HSE Autism Action Plan to accelerate its delivery, with particular focus on developing clear and accessible pathways for service delivery;
● €4 million be provided to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) to develop an appropriate, timely clinical pathway for young autistic people in mental health crises;
● €3 million towards hiring a target of 250 regional key-workers to specifically support the health and social needs of autistic adults;
● €2.8 million to hire an additional 100 caseworkers to support early intervention services for autistic children and young people.
● €1million to be allocated for the development of a Community Initiative Fund as part of the National Autism Plan, for local organisations to support activities and social schemes to engage autistic people.
● €1million to be sanctioned for the development of an Autistic Youth Strategy to address the social isolation of many autistic young people across the country.
Employment and Social Protection
One of the key takeaways from Budget 2021 is the unprecedented levels of Government spending on social welfare. During the pandemic, many people across Ireland had availed of the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) and other allowances, to address sudden income losses.
Under the new Budget, the PUP is due to continue into April 2021 – whether or not it will be extended will remain under review. The cuts made to the Payment in September have not been reversed, but most of those currently in receipt of it will receive a Christmas bonus in early December. This will also apply to those in receipt of Disability Allowance, Carer’s Allowance, Carer’s Benefit, and the Domiciliary Care Allowance.
The emergency nature of these measures is understandable, given the uncertainty caused by the pandemic and Brexit. However, the absence of some of the measures AsIAm had proposed may have the unintended consequence of widening the gulf in income inequality; particularly since this is the second year in which core social protection rates like the Disability Allowance have remained the same.
This is important for us to highlight this as many people in our community rely on social protection as a source of income. Whilst some progress has been made in terms of increasing certain payments, such as an additional €5 to the weekly Living Alone Allowance from €14 to €19 for people with disabilities who are living alone; a €150 increase to the Carer’s Support Grant; as well as a €1,000 Training Grant to help people with disabilities who are seeking employment – these do not go far enough to address the fundamental issue at hand, that Ireland is among the most expensive countries in Europe to live in for people with a disability. Thus, we believe that not introducing a Cost of Disability payment was a missed opportunity to meaningfully address the close relationship between poverty and disability in Ireland.
AsIAm reiterates our calls on the Government to:
● Introduce a cost of disability payment;
● Provide an additional €20 to the existing rate of Disability Allowance, with a view to increase it by €10 per annum throughout the course of this Government’s lifetime;
● Domiciliary Care should be extended to 18 years of age and increase the rate of allowance by €20;
● Increase the rate of Carer’s Allowance by €20, and remove the means testing for present and future applicants.
Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Inclusion
It is an overdue, yet nonetheless welcome development and Disability and Inclusion have finally received a Ministerial portfolio at Cabinet-level, in AsIAm’s view. The €121 spending package outlined within the Budget contains a number of promising developments, among which include:
● €61 million for Tusla – the Child & Family Agency;
● €5 million for Youth Services (i.e., UBU Your Place, Your Space and the universal Youth Services Grant Scheme);
● €0.8m for Youth Participation Services
The Minister also plans to allocate an additional €2 million towards establishing the Decision Support Services (DSS), with a target of opening the Service proper in 2022. Whilst this figure and timeline falls short of AsIAm’s proposals, we would nevertheless urge the Minister to renew focus on establishing the Service along a quicker timescale, as many autistic people, particular those who are non-verbal and live with intellectual disabilities, are at huge risk of being taken advantage of, and still lack adequate legal protections.
We note, however, the conspicuous absence of an increase in funding for childcare and early learning. This is a critical set of services for autistic children, whereby many of whom are first diagnosed and receive crucial early intervention therapies. It is also a vital source of support and respite to young parents and families. We would urge the Government to reexamine this decision and allocate much-needed funds towards these services.
The HSE’s rapid mobilisation to mitigate the virus’ spread has witnessed the Government take ownership over safeguarding public health on a scale never before seen in the State’s history. It has categorically demonstrated, in our view, that when properly motivated and resourced, the Government does indeed possess the capacity to manage a wholescale strategy to meet targeted outcomes in the public’s interest and build a more inclusive society. We therefore believe that it is well within the State’s scope and capabilities to develop and deliver a national Autism Empowerment Strategy, one which actively involves autistic people and their families at the heart of its planning and rollout.
We call on the Government to:
● Invest €9.1 million to establish the Decision Support Service;
● Fund 100 additional caseworkers within the National Advocacy Service;
● Invest €5 million towards the development and rollout of an Autism Empowerment Strategy for Ireland.