Simon Harris criticised by predecessor over autism ‘inaction’

James Reilly and current minister for health both have relatives with autism

Blaming Minister for Health Simon Harris for leaving the legislation “lying dormant”, Dr James  Reilly said a year in the life of any child was critical. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Blaming Minister for Health Simon Harris for leaving the legislation “lying dormant”, Dr James Reilly said a year in the life of any child was critical. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Minister for Health Simon Harris has defended his actions following an unexpected attack from his predecessor and party colleague James Reilly in a row over autism services.

Dr Reilly criticised Mr Harris in the Seanad for failing to bring a Bill for a national autism strategy to the Dáil 18 months after it was unanimously passed by the Seanad.

Dr Reilly introduced the Autism Spectrum Disorder Bill in the Upper House in 2017 and said that a year-and-a-half later “that Bill has not moved so much as an inch towards Dáil Éireann”.

He added: “In the meantime 60,000 families with children with autism mark this passing with anxiety and worry.”

The Bill provides for the development of a cross-party departmental multi-agency autism spectrum disorder strategy.

Blaming Mr Harris for leaving the legislation “lying dormant”, Dr Reilly said a year in the life of any child was critical.

“But a year in the life of any child with autism is even more so because the missed opportunities are difficult to catch up on.

“The early interventions that they should be having, that they are not having, will impact on them for a long time later into life,” said Dr Reilly, who served as minister for health from 2011 to 2014.

Mr Harris is on paternity leave after the birth of his first child.

His spokeswoman insisted, however, that Mr Harris had made autism a priority since he entered office.

“He last year published two reports on the prevalence of autism and a review of the services for people with autism,” she said.

“He has also asked the HSE to implement the recommendations in the report and to publish an overall autism plan next year. This will deliver Ireland first ever National Autism Plan.”

Both Dr Reilly and Mr Harris have relatives with autism. One of Dr Reilly’s sons has autism as does Mr Harris’s brother.

Dr Reilly called for Mr Harris to address the Seanad and explain the delay.

He said he knew Mr Harris had other problems in the Department, but said: “It really isn’t good enough to produce reports on the state of children with autism in the country”. This did not respect the wishes of the Seanad in relation to autism and the needs of children and their families, he insisted.

However, the minority Fine Gael-led Government warned before the start of this Dáil term that its legislative programme for the session would be almost exclusively confined to emergency provisions to deal with the Brexit crisis.

Bills currently before the House will be dealt with and legislation to allow referendums on divorce and on extending the franchise in presidential elections will also be processed.

The only other health legislation guaranteed to go through the Oireachtas is the Bill to create a tribunal to inquire into the cervical cancer screening programme.