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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 31 Mar 2004

Vol. 583 No. 1

Adjournment Debate.

Animal Diseases.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for affording me the opportunity of raising this important issue. I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House — I hope he can give me a positive reply.

There is an urgent need to re-examine and change the way the Department of Agriculture and Food deals with BSE cases. It is impossible to understand or justify why the Department should continue with a total herd slaughter policy when it is clear from all evidence that this disease does not affect the rest of the herd. I welcome the drop in the number of herds that are being slaughtered owing to the presence of BSE. However, the loss of a total herd to any disease is traumatic for any farm family and is almost akin to a family death. To lose a herd because of one BSE-infected animal, when there is no scientific or other evidence to justify it, is unfair and entirely irresponsible. Other EU countries have re-evaluated their structures and only slaughter the infected animal and cohorts. Ireland needs to satisfy health and export regulations and that is what this is about.

The three wise men who advise the Minister for Agriculture and Food advised that the process be re-examined — they obviously saw room for major savings as that was their brief. This was the only aspect of the report the Minister ignored. It is unfair that farmers, many of whom had closed herds before BSE struck, are forced into the open market where, even arising from the Department's advice, they have found other serious disease problems.

More than ten years ago, Fine Gael warned the then Minister about the dangers of Johne's disease and other problems imported into this country. Are depopulated farmers advised of these potential problems? A number of farmers whose herds have been depopulated and restocked have found their animals have serious disease problems for which they can get no compensation.

I know of a farmer whose farm was destocked for a second time. He was unhappy about this and requested that only the diseased animal be taken out. He is now under all sorts of investigation and he still has not been paid even though 15 months have passed. We must be sensible about this.

I know of a farmer, not from my constituency, whose farm was involuntarily depopulated in 1997. He made all kinds of efforts with his DVO in seeking personal and health advice. He bought animals under the DVO's regulations. At no time was he advised of a problem such as Johne's disease. He now finds that his herd is suffering from this serious disease. While a number of his animals have been disposed of and others are locked up, he cannot get compensation. The moneys being wasted on the destruction of entire herds should be used to evaluate the problems presented by the other disease. Another farmer in my constituency was forced to restock. He has incurred enormous veterinary bills arising from the diseases he found in his herd.

I urge the Minister of State to reconsider this scheme. If other EU countries have re-evaluated their schemes it is time we reconsidered ours. As president of the European Council on Agriculture, the Minister, Deputy Walsh, is in the strongest position he has ever been in. Surely he will have an opportunity to re-evaluate this to ensure people understand what it is all about. If other EU countries that do not depopulate can sell their products in the same markets as we sell to, surely we can do the same.

Depopulation is traumatic for farmers. I spoke to a woman yesterday whose herd is under investigation but has not yet been deemed to be BSE-infected. She begged me to raise this matter in a positive way.

I thank Deputy Crawford for raising this matter. Having had private conversations with him, I know of his personal interest and concern in this matter. The Deputy will be aware that since 1989, all Irish Governments have implemented a whole herd depopulation policy where BSE is confirmed. This approach was introduced in the context of concerns about the potential impact of the disease on human health, uncertainty about the epidemiology of the disease, and for market reasons that are in turn related to public sentiment in various importing countries. Since 1989, this policy has been the cornerstone of the Irish control system and, with other measures, has been used to underpin sales of meat and dairy products in a variety of overseas markets. Such markets are worth €1.4 billion annually.

Under current EU legislation on BSE, member states are obliged as a minimum to slaughter feed cohorts and progeny of affected animals. I am well aware that many member states operate this approach. However, we do not propose to discontinue the whole herd depopulation approach for a variety of reasons, including its value in the marketplace, particularly consumer perception of its benefit, the declining costs of the system and the potential difficulties which individual farmers would face in disposing of cattle and milk from their herds where BSE had been confirmed. It would be difficult to find any co-op in Ireland that would purchase meat from an infected herd. One must consider the potential damage to the market in, for example, baby food products. Unlike other EU countries, Ireland exports a minimum of 90% of its agricultural products. This is a consideration other EU countries do not have to make.

Denmark is an exporting country.

The EU supports the whole herd depopulation policy by funding 70% of compensation costs involved.

When restocking after depopulation, farmers must of course take appropriate precautions against introducing diseases. In particular, they should take care in sourcing replacement stock and subsequently follow calf rearing and management practices to avoid diseases such as Johne's disease. I am concerned about the level of this disease and the manner in which it has come into the country. The Department is actively pursuing this.

I am pleased to report that the outlook on BSE is positive. Numbers last year at 182 were down by 45% on 2002 and the reduction is continuing this year — to date 47 cases have been confirmed compared with 69 in the same period in 2003. Moreover, in both 2002 and 2003, 2% of cases were identified in animals aged six years or less at the time of diagnosis, compared with 16% and 40% of animals in that age category in 2001 and 2000 respectively. The increasing age profile of animals in which the disease is confirmed and the declining number of BSE cases are positive indications that the enhanced controls in relation to meat and bonemeal, specified risk material and the processing of mammalian waste products introduced in 1996 and 1997 are having the desired effect and that the incidence of BSE will continue to decline as older animals leave the system.

I assure the Deputy that the Department keeps this matter under constant review and this will continue.

Schools Building Projects.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for permitting me to raise the needs of the Monkstown Educate Together national school in my constituency. The Dalkey school project, which has been in existence for some time, is bulging and has a long waiting list. The Bray school project, which draws students from the southern end of my constituency, is also full and has a long waiting list.

The Monkstown Educate Together school was established seven years ago in response to the growing demand for places in such schools and has grown dramatically in the interim. It has grown dramatically over the seven years to the position whereby it now has eight full classes with more than 240 students and a long waiting list. However, it has no permanent school building and is housed in temporary buildings at the rear of Monkstown House community centre in Monkstown Grove. The temporary buildings are unsuitable, the site is very cramped and in recent times it has been subject to some vandalism. In a recent letter to me the chairman of the board of management stated:

The lease on our current site is not secure and we have only a temporary planning permission to operate from the site. The portacabin classrooms are too small. This is unhealthy and uncomfortable and restricts implementation of the curriculum. There is no assembly hall or sports facility of any kind. Rental on the portacabins on site is expensive and wasteful of the resources of the Department of Education and Science and of the parents, and the existing portacabins are not secure and subject to vandalism.

About four years ago, a site was identified for this school. The site is currently leased by the Department of Education and Science. Matters do not seem to have been progressed. The school has yet to get confirmation from the Department as to the site and when a permanent school building will be provided for this growing school. There is now considerable frustration and anger on the part of parents who saw their children enter the school seven years ago on a temporary basis and there is still no sign of a permanent school building. They are beginning to wonder aloud whether they are being discriminated against. A number of parents have put it to me that if this were a denominational school, they would not have had to wait this long for confirmation of a site and for school building to proceed.

There is a belief that because the cost of land, sites and buildings is particularly expensive in my constituency, the Department of Education and Science is reluctant to commit to expenditure. Every child in my constituency has a right to education. Children who have no option but to avail of the free education system are entitled to get the support from the Department of Education and Science and should not find themselves condemned to unsuitable buildings and school locations. They need to be allowed to avail of their constitutional right to free education in an area where the cost of sites, land and buildings happens to be expensive. The Department of Education and Science should not withhold from committing to provide the site and build the school on the basis of cost.

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to respond to me on this matter. I hope she has good news for me this evening. However, if that is not the case I ask her to use her good offices to ensure this issue is progressed as soon as possible so the parents and children at that school can have good news allowing them to see where they will be going well before the commencement of the new school year.

I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to outline my Department's proposals for the provision of a new school building for Monkstown Educate Together national school.

The school is currently accommodated in prefabricated buildings on a site adjoining Monkstown Community Centre. The school was granted permanent recognition in September 1998. The cost of site and portacabin rental is grant aided by the Department at the rate of 95%. The school had an enrolment of 243 pupils at September 2003 and a staffing of a principal teacher and nine assistant teachers. In addition, the school has three resource posts. Enrolments at Monkstown Educate Together national school have been increasing to the current figure of 243. The area from which the school draws its pupils is wider than the Monkstown area, where enrolments in other schools have declined in recent years.

The property management section of the Office of Public Works which purchases sites for new schools on behalf of my Department, submitted a report on the issue of site acquisition for Monkstown Educate Together national school. However, due to the commercial sensitivity of the process involved, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on any individual aspect of the report at this time. My Department intends to secure a site for the school as soon as possible. When this has been done the question of the architectural planning of a new school building will be examined as a matter of urgency.

In the meantime, my Department will continue to grant aid the use of temporary accommodation by the school at a rate of 95% of the cost pending the delivery of permanent accommodation.

Special Educational Needs.

I am very grateful for the opportunity to raise this matter on the Adjournment, namely, why a child assessed as "moderate Down's syndrome" has been refused entry to St. Dymphna's special school, Ballina. Little Breege Molloy turned five years of age on 1 February and has attended playschool for the past two years. She has a support worker for two hours every day from the Western Care Association and spends the other hour in the playschool. She also gets two hours every Friday with her in-house adviser who does excellent work.

Her mother began to consider Breege's schooling commencing in September 2004, as she believes that Breege has spent enough time at playschool and it is time for her to move on. As her mother thought Breege would not be ready for mainstream school, she considered another option, St. Dymphna's special school. Mrs. Molloy approached the principal at St. Dymphna's school and the home adviser visited on another occasion. The plan was that Breege would attend St. Dymphna's for a year and would then be ready for the local school at Beheymore.

The psychologist carried out an assessment and assessed her as having a moderate disability. While all the details went to the Department of Education and Science, the application for entry to St. Dymphna's was turned down. Mrs. Molloy was given the option of sending Breege to a mainstream school with a support worker or to send Breege to the school for moderate to severe disability. Mrs. Molloy believes this is the first time St. Dymphna's school has had to refuse a moderate Down's syndrome child and that this refusal is due to cutbacks.

Both Mrs. Molloy and her husband are extremely disappointed at the decision to refuse Breege entry to St. Dymphna's. They feel that as parents they were making an informed choice which has unfairly been taken away from them. The school principal was happy to take Breege into St. Dymphna's school. The home adviser was very pleased that this was happening. The principal at St. Dymphna's school is trying to fight the decision of the Department to exclude Breege, as is the psychologist who has written to the Department of Education and Science, pleading the case for Breege to be admitted to St. Dymphna's school.

As a parent, Mrs. Molloy feels her decision was undermined and the choice of where to send Breege to school was removed from her husband and her. She states that the local school informed her that it was not prepared to teach a child with Down's syndrome. If Breege were to go there it would be the first time the school had taught a child with Down's syndrome. This is the first time that St. Dymphna's has had to refuse a child. While St. Nicholas's school down the road is for children with moderate to severe disability, the psychologist felt that Breege's disability is milder than moderate and she would do better at St. Dymphna's than at St. Nicholas's special school.

The Western Care Association also felt that St. Dymphna's was the best school for Breege. The psychologist had written to the Department asking that Breege be sent there and the headmistress was happy with this decision. The headmistress of St. Dymphna's met Breege and was hoping to take her into St. Dymphna's. She has also written to the Department of Education and Science requesting that Breege be admitted there. The St. Dymphna's curriculum of swimming and gymnastics would suit Breege very well.

Breege's mother feels that she was undermined in making her decision and is supported by the Western Care Association and by the Down's syndrome association in her decision. Mrs. Molloy feels this is blatant discrimination against disabled people. Mrs. Molloy makes the case that if she brought her other daughter who is not disabled to the local convent school and if she was accepted by the principal there, it would not be fair for the Department of Education and Science to then refuse her. If it is not right and fair for her daughter who is not disabled, why is it right and fair that it should happen to her disabled daughter? She feels that this represents discrimination against disabled people.

As a parent, Mrs. Molly has done her best. However, she believes that the system has failed her and her daughter. She worked hard for 19 years and paid PAYE and all her other taxes. She cared for her elderly parents but never received, or for that matter sought, carer's allowances.

The Special Olympics took place last year. Everyone wanted to be associated with the games and people were filled with joy and wonder about the contribution disabled people were making. Everyone was so helpful. The Government was associated with the Special Olympics but, less than a year later, we are hearing about cutbacks being made. Why should parents be obliged to go to court to fight for basic rights, particularly those for their disabled children, to which they should have access?

I am pleased to have the opportunity to clarify the position concerning the enrolment of Breege Molloy in St. Dymphna's special school, Ballina, County Mayo, on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey.

I understand that Breege has been assessed by a psychologist as coming within the moderate range of general learning disability. Parents of a child with such an assessment have the option of seeking a placement for their child in either a special or mainstream national school. Where a special school placement is the preferred choice, the usual option would be a school dedicated to providing for children such as Breege with a moderate general learning disability. There is such a school, St. Nicholas's special school in Ballina. In this case, however, Breege's parents have sought to have her enrolled in St. Dymphna's special school, which is designated as a school for children with mild general learning disability. A preliminary investigation has been carried out by my Department and I can confirm that St. Dymphna's is not refusing to enrol Breege due to cutbacks or for any otherreason. Rather, it is seeking advice on the appropriateness of Breege's placement in the school.

The issue for my Department is to find an accommodation between parental choice, on the one hand, and appropriate educational placement, on the other. The matter is being given immediate attention with a view to bringing about an early resolution. I thank the Deputy for bringing the matter to my attention and I assure him that the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, will advise him of the outcome as soon as it is known.

Hospital Staff.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for affording me the opportunity to raise this important matter. When I was a member of the Eastern Health Board, a great deal of time, effort and energy was invested in a programme to restore, revive and refurbish Naas General Hospital. The matter had been on the stocks for in the region of 16 years without progress being made. I was glad to have been able to play some small role in this affair when in Government for a short period. I spoke with officials of the then Eastern Health Board, brought forward the plans which had remained on the shelf for so long and eventually ensured that the then Minister for Health, Deputy Noonan, kindly made available the necessary funds to carry out a development plan. That plan was ambitious in nature and was sufficient to ensure the future of the hospital at the highest level.

The Government that took office in 1997 delayed the proposals for two years, a period during which the costs involved doubled from £21 million to £42 million. However, construction work commenced and the hospital was eventually completed. It is a fine building but the final two phases contained in the original plan remain to be completed. However, the hospital is a credit to everyone involved, including the architects, engineers, contractors, the health board and the then Minister, Deputy Noonan. However, since works were completed in September last, there has been little effort made to provide the necessary staff to ensure that the hospital is fully and properly utilised. The fact that this has not happened to date is sad. The new state-of-the-art theatres are under-utilised and the clean-air theatre, which is one of the most modern in the world, is not used. No orthopaedic procedures are taking place at the hospital because of a turf war in the region which has not been resolved.

The great investment in the state-of-the-art facilities at the hospital has been to no avail because of insufficient staffing at almost every level. The high number of beds that are occupied by long-stay patients because of a lack of proper subvention for beds in nursing homes, where there are plenty of spaces available, means that the hospital is being slowly strangled. This is unacceptable.

During the past six months I tabled a series of questions to the Minister for Health and Children. On 30 September 2003, I tabled a question which inquired about the extent to which it is intended to put place the necessary resources for accident and emergency staff at Naas General Hospital and I was informed that it is a matter for the Eastern Regional Health Authority. I tabled the same question on 9 October, 19 November, 17 February, 18 February and 3 March and received the same reply on each occasion.

I do not know how to put it as emphatically as it should be put at this stage, but I have no doubt where responsibility for the funding of the hospital lies. It lies with the Department of Health and Children and its Minister who provides funding through the regional health authority or the health boards. The time has long since passed to bring an end to the ridiculous situation which prevails at present whereby services at the hospital will be brought to a halt and standards will fall due to a lack of adequate staffing and resources. Unfortunately, the major, worthwhile and necessary investment that has been put in place will go down the drain unless action is taken soon.

I am aware that the Minister of State has only a passing responsibility for this matter. However, I know that, in her heart of hearts, she agrees with what I have said. Bureaucracy has brought this project to a halt and I ask her to do what she can to ensure that the funds are released and that people can go to work in the facilities that were provided for them.

The Minister for Health and Children apologises for not being present and has asked me to read the following statement on his behalf.

Responsibility for the provision of services at Naas General Hospital rests with the Eastern Regional Health Authority, ERHA. Naas General Hospital has a 193 bed complement and provides general, medical and surgical services, acute psychiatric services and medical and social assessments for patients aged over 65 years and caters for 180,000 people in the Kildare-west Wicklow catchment area.

A major development programme, phase 2, commenced at Naas General Hospital in November 1999. In addition, phase 3A, which includes accommodation and enabling works for future phases 3B and 3C commenced on site in April 2002. Phases 2 and 3A were completed in September 2003. The additional revenue and staffing required to fully commission this development are the subject of ongoing discussion between the ERHA and the Department. It is anticipated that the remainder of the development, phases 3B and 3C, will be procured on a phased basis, with construction planned for commencement in late 2004 and completion planned for 2005-07. Pressures on the hospital system, particularly in the eastern region, which includes Naas General Hospital, arise from increases in hospital admissions through emergency departments and from difficulties associated with patients who no longer require acute care and treatment but who are dependent and awaiting placement in the sub-acute setting.

Measures aimed at addressing these issues include the provision of additional acute hospital beds in line with the report Acute Hospital Bed Capacity — A National Review. Some 568 acute beds have been commissioned to date on foot of the report, 253 of which are in the eastern region. Of these, 61 have been commissioned at Naas General Hospital. Revenue funding of approximately €40 million has been made available to the ERHA under this initiative.

An additional €8.8 million has been allocated to the ERHA to facilitate the discharge of patients from the acute system to a more appropriate setting thereby freeing up acute beds. It allows for funding through the subvention system of additional beds in the private nursing home sector and ongoing support in the community. To date, this funding has resulted in the discharge of more than 220 patients from acute hospitals in the eastern region, including Naas General Hospital.

The ERHA is actively monitoring the situation and working with hospitals, including Naas General Hospital, and the area health boards to ensure every effort is made to minimise the number of delayed discharges from acute hospitals. It is in consultation with the South Western Area Health Board and management at Naas General Hospital regarding the alleviation of accident and emergency pressures at the hospital through the opening of beds under the bed capacity initiative.

I assure the Deputy that the Government will continue to invest in the development of high quality, equitable and accessible hospital services so that those availing of the services continue to receive timely and appropriate care.

The Dáil adjourned at 11.05 p.m. until10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 1 April 2004.