No economic crisis justifies what vulnerable are paying


OPINION:In the past year one million hours have been cut from the homecare service, leaving great hardship and anger, writes JOHN LONERGAN

We are a society that appears trapped in a dark, depressing tunnel and we are slowly developing a dog-eat-dog mentality along with a hardness of heart that appears to make us almost totally immune and indifferent to the pain and suffering of many of our fellow citizens.

Every week more and more cutbacks are inflicted on many of our most vulnerable people. Only last Sunday RTÉ Radio reported on the sad situation of a Co Mayo mother caring for her child who has a serious disability. She was originally allocated eight hours’ home help, this was subsequently reduced to five, and just recently she was told by the Health Service Executive that the five hours were now being withdrawn as they were required for a more deserving case.

This callous decision means that this mother is left on her own to care for her child 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A great example of when the lowest common denominator is used to decide on the merits of a case – you think that you are badly off but I know someone who is worse off.

It must be remembered that the home help programme was introduced to support a government policy that encouraged families to care in their homes for their loved ones in order to facilitate the freeing up of beds in hospitals and other residential centres for more urgent cases and, of course, to save money.

The ongoing reduction, and in many cases the total withdrawal, of home help hours has been nothing less than a betrayal of the individuals and families who have so generously participated in this scheme over the years. During the past year one million hours have been cut from the home care service, leaving in its wake great hardship and frustration.

The most recent announcement by the HSE of a further reduction in hours to save an extra €8 million, made so close to Christmas, is a Scrooge-like decision and how any society can support such a miserable attack on such vulnerable people is sad indeed.

And I must stress that people selected for home help are almost totally dependent on the support of their carers for their very survival.

Surely no economic crisis can justify such decisions. The result is that both those being cared for and their carers are all suffering great hardship and stress and many are at breaking point. Many will end up back in hospitals, nursing homes and in special care units, defeating the very purpose of the whole scheme.

Also this past week the principal of a primary school in Bluebell in Inchicore, Dublin, went public to say that she had no money to have essential maintenance work carried out in her school. It appears that the funds available from the Department of Education for emergency repairs in schools are no longer available, and the principal had to rely on the goodwill and generosity of some members of the public who became aware of her plight.

The Irish Principals’ Network claimed that 46 per cent of primary schools were operating on a deficit, and the dropping of the emergency repairs funding will inevitably plunge many schools into dire straits; many will not be able to pay for light or heat. And primary schools were already under pressure because of cuts to their capitation grants which fund the day-to-day running of schools.

Add in the savage cuts and reduction in special needs assistants and other support services in both primary and secondary schools and it becomes obvious that once again it’s the poor and the most vulnerable who are targeted during recessions and they most definitely pay the biggest price – a price, incidentally, that is almost impossible to measure.

Yes, of course we can measure in financial terms what the State saves but what about the human costs?

Primary education is the most important and precious of all our strands of education and if we continue to neglect it we will in time pay a huge price as thousands of children will lose out.

Last week I attended a seminar organised by childcare residential managers at which many of those present expressed their frustration and anger at the State’s failure to care adequately for many very vulnerable children and their families, and in many cases the examples given were nothing short of neglect.

Earlier this year the report on the deaths of children in care concluded that almost 200 children had died, after the original figure given by the HSE was fewer than 30. This report generated a strong public reaction and lots of anger and rightly so. These were children who were failed by the State and all had paid the ultimate price.

At the time of its publication I expressed the view that the report was long overdue and at last the real cost of the State’s neglect of vulnerable children was being recognised. But I did highlight the fact that it was restricted to reviewing the cases of children who had died.

What about the many hundreds or perhaps thousands of children who were equally failed by the State but survived in so far as they are still alive? What price have they paid in terms of their health and their general wellbeing?

How many have experienced homelessness, addiction, imprisonment, mental health problems or lives of unemployment as a direct result of their neglect?

The answer is we don’t know.

I can vouch for the fact that most charitable and voluntary organisations are working on a knife edge and will not be in a position to sustain any further cutbacks in financial resources with the result that many essential family and child support services will be reduced or lost.

Like all budgets, this year’s is about choices, and I know where I stand on such choices: I am more than willing to give more to help those who are in dire need and I believe that there are thousands of like-minded people in our society.

Many in Irish society, young and old, have soaked up and tolerated huge hardship over the past four years or so; many are left with no real quality of life and the most vulnerable have suffered most of all, the old, the sick, children born into and living with poverty, children and adults with physical and mental disabilities, the unemployed and the elderly living alone. At this stage people need to be reassured that their lives are going to improve but most definitely that they won’t get any worse.

Next Wednesday’s budget can be a new beginning or it can be the straw that finally breaks people’s resolve.

One thing is certain: any more cutbacks for those on the margins of our society will have catastrophic consequences.

John Lonergan is a former governor of Mountjoy Prison

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