DUNGANNON MLA Lord Morrow has said that Northern Ireland, and Dungannon in particular, is dragging behind its European counterparts in relation to special needs provision.
Speaking during an Assembly motion which he tabled on the subject, Lord Morrow said: “The debate on Special Needs Provision was unique in many ways not least because everyone in the chamber supported it wholeheartedly and agreed provision is lacking.
“I led a delegation of parents and teaching staff from Dungannon who met with the Minister for Employment & Learning Stephen Farry and he has assured us he is taking action.
“The issue of special needs provision has gone on far too long and in many instances there has been no meaningful outcome. Despite neighbouring areas of Armagh, Cookstown and Omagh doing much better, Dungannon remains the poor relation. Regrettably there has been a failure of duty to care. Such failure to protect and adequately provide for the vulnerable is discrimination and gross breach of equality. I challenge anyone who would seek to dress up this situation in fancy language in order to detract or smooth over this situation. Examine it closely and it can’t be done.
“A report recently compiled by the NI Commissioner for Children & Young People found there are concerns centred on the lack of support for the young person with special needs attending Further Education courses, as well as a lack of genuine options and subsequent opportunities for progression, when the course comes to an end. There are no specific statutory obligations to support these young people on transition into Further Education and employment.
“Northern Ireland is woefully dragging behind our European counterparts. From research I am aware where funding can be source from the European Social Fund under the social inclusion strategy. It beggars belief the department is not making more use of this funding. It would be my hope Northern Ireland would take a leadership role in this and become a model of excellence for the rest of the UK.
“Indeed Section 75, which is widely quoted by many MLAs and Ministers in respect of certain key groups, of which there are nine, and disability is one. I am highlighting that particular category. This is a key group yet we hear little mention of. It states government departments, agencies and councils take into account Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act, which lists nine key groups that must be given consideration before any decisions are made. One of these key groups is disability. In relation to equality, Section 75 promotes ‘equality of opportunity’ which means that everyone in society should be able to compete on equal terms. All government departments, agencies and councils must also give the nine key groups ‘due regard’ when creating a policy.
“I am of the opinion that when applying this test to providing for the requirements of 19 year olds who have special needs, then failure is unfortunately the only conclusion one can come to.
“However we must not remain in this position. It is vital then Minister initiates action across departments and I have written to the First Minister regarding this issue urging a collective approach.
“The debate concluded with Minister Farry assuring the house this issue would not be left on the shelf to gather dust. Indeed he felt the debate would spark change and bring this urgent issue to the fore.
“There has already been too much dust. All the research, reports, strategies, meetings etc etc have been done. The time for action is now. I will be following progress very carefully and earnestly hope I don’t have to remind the Minister of his commitment to the Assembly.”