Taoiseach defends Simon Harris after autism Bill delay criticised by his FG predecessor

Varadkar says Harris was right to prioritise CervicalCheck tribunal Bill

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has defended Minister for Health Simon Harris after his predecessor at the Department of Health James Reilly criticised Mr Harris for leaving legislation on the national autism strategy "lying dormant" for 18 months.

Dr Reilly introduced the Autism Spectrum Disorder Bill in the Upper House in 2017 which passed unanimously.

He said last week that a year-and-a-half later “that Bill has not moved so much as an inch towards Dáil Éireann”.

Mr Varadkar said the Department of Health was right to prioritise legislation to establish a tribunal to deal with the CervicalCheck controversy.


He was responding in the Dáil on Tuesday to Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy, who referred to Dr Reilly's criticism and said the inadequacy of autism services was "raised continually" with TDs in their constituency offices.

Ms Murphy asked the Taoiseach “why is the Bill not being progressed”. The legislation provides for the development of a cross-party departmental multi-agency autism spectrum disorder strategy.

Ms Murphy also asked if the Bill would make any difference if it progressed through the Dáil “in isolation from the resources” necessary to properly provide for autism services.

Mr Varadkar pointed to the Government’s legislative programme and the prioritisation of Brexit-related legislation.

“For reasons of which the House will be aware, we have only been able to prioritise six items of legislation for this session through to the end of March,” the Taoiseach said.

“The decision in the Department of Health, which I believe was the right one, was to prioritise the legislation on CervicalCheck and establishment of the tribunal to hear cases. That is being given priority in terms of health legislation.”

Labour TD and Mr Varadkar's constituency colleague Joan Burton highlighted the proposal for a special facility in Dublin West for children on the high end of the autism spectrum who cannot find places in autism spectrum classes because their needs are at a very high level.

She asked if the Government had proposals to address the needs of these parents and children who required good educational services.

The Taoiseach said the National Council for Special Education examined the issue and believed a school was warranted in the Dublin 15 area.

“The exact form that should take is still a matter for discussion in terms of whether it should be autism-specific or for all children who have profound special needs and cannot be accommodated in the existing schools.”

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times