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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 14 Dec 2004

Vol. 595 No. 2

Adjournment Debate.

Eating Disorders.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise the issue of eating disorders. With so much attention on food, Christmas is a difficult time for people with eating disorders. Last year, Bodywhys dealt with over 2,000 helpline contacts, sent out over 3,000 information packs and facilitated 40 on-line support meetings. Calls to its helpline increase dramatically over Christmas.

There is a need for recognition that eating disorders are a serious psychiatric illness from which up to 20% of sufferers die. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness. The expert group on mental health report, Speaking Your Mind, says: "Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia have the highest rates of mortality for any psychiatric condition."

Eating disorders are not self-inflicted. They affect all classes, urban and rural, male and female, albeit the majority of sufferers are young and female. They are complex disorders that have no one cause or cure. Addressing the problem involves co-ordinated efforts from school education programmes, public awareness and health promotion activities, professional training for health professionals and access to service provision at community, primary and inpatient level.

Some 1% to 2% of young females are affected by anorexia while 3% to 5% are affected by bulimia. It is estimated that 10% of new eating disorder cases are male. A recent community survey indicated an increase in the number of people engaging in inappropriate weight management behaviours such as laxative abuse and forced vomiting. These dangerous behaviours can lead to an eating disorder. People with eating disorders can and do recover — 60% make a full recovery. Early intervention is the key to recovery.

The report on service provision by Bodywhys pointed out that the majority of health care professionals, including general practitioners nutritionists, psychiatrists, counsellors and psychotherapists, had treated one to two eating disorder patients in the previous 12 months. Over 20% of respondents had between three and four patients. It also pointed out that there are no specialised services for patients at a local level. The three public beds in St. Vincent's Hospital have long waiting lists with an average of four new clients being diagnosed via the outpatients' department each week. The average stay for an eating disorder patient is eight weeks while the longest length of stay at St. Vincent's in 2003 was 217 days. The report indicated that a multidisciplinary approach is currently not available within the public health care system despite recommendations from health care professionals, and from Fine Gael. Both the public and private inpatient programmes do not provide aftercare community based services. Aftercare therefore falls back to the primary health care team who often feel ill-equipped without specialist understanding. Some 75% of general practitioners surveyed stated that they had no training in eating disorders. Of the 25% who had, the majority felt it was inadequate. The report also found that general practitioners were the first point of contact with a health care professional for a person with an eating disorder.

We eagerly await the report from the expert group on mental health policy in 2005. While Bodywhys can provide a listening ear and play a vital support role for people facing their disorder and seeking treatment, it cannot signpost people to professional health care services which are not available. The majority of sufferers will require professional intervention to overcome their eating disorder.

Some of the key recommendations of the report are the need for research into eating disorder incidence, that is, the number of new cases, and prevalence, the number of people living with an eating disorder; the need to include professional training for all health care professionals on eating disorders; the need for specialised services, including access to a multidisciplinary team for mental health and social services, at a local community level; and the need for greater self-esteem building work and development of coping skills within the education system. Other key recommendations are that messages of positive body image and healthy eating need to be addressed and not allowed to get lost in the midst of more recent discussions on obesity; and the need to implement and resource the recommendations of the expert group on mental health policy which is consulting with an eating disorders sub-group.

There should be specific arrangements for a clinic in each health board area to deal exclusively with eating disorders. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy O'Malley, and look forward to his comments.

I thank Deputy Neville for raising this matter on the Adjournment.

The report referred to by him on service provision in the eastern region was prepared by Joy Wall for Bodywhys. Established in 1995, Bodywhys is the national voluntary support organisation for people affected by eating disorders. In addition to an information and helpline service delivered from its central office, there is a network of support groups and BodywhysConnect volunteers delivering services throughout the country. Its mission is, "to provide help, support and understanding on a national basis to people with eating disorders, their families and friends and to promote awareness and understanding among the wider community."

My Department has provided funding in the region of €400,000 to Bodywhys since 2001 to further develop its activities in this area. Eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, can be extremely serious for those affected and their families. Although these conditions are not specific to either gender, they particularly affect women. The symptoms of the disorders may range from mild to severe.

As part of a comprehensive community-oriented psychiatric service, persons presenting with eating disorders are generally treated through the psychiatric services of their local health board. Outpatient psychiatric services are provided by a network of hospitals, health centres, day hospitals and day centres. Where inpatient treatment is deemed necessary, it is provided in the local acute psychiatric unit or hospital, where beds are allocated on the basis of patient need at any particular time.

In addition, a tertiary referral service for eating disorders is available in St. Vincent's Hospital, Elm Park, Dublin, where three inpatient beds are designated for this purpose. A similar service is available privately at St. Patrick's Hospital, James's Street, Dublin 8, and at St. John of God Hospital, Stillorgan, County Dublin.

In August 2003 I established an expert group on mental health policy to prepare a national policy framework for the further modernisation of mental health services, updating the 1984 policy document, Planning for the Future. The future direction and delivery of all aspects of our mental health services, including those services for persons with an eating disorder, is being considered in the context of the work of the group.

The report referred to by Deputy Neville, which details the nature of eating disorders and the services available to those suffering from the disorder in the eastern region and makes recommendations for the future development of such services, has been referred to the expert group and will be taken into account in the development of a national policy framework. It is expected the expert group will report in June 2005.

Alternative Energy Projects.

Go raibh maith agat a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. Táim an-bhuíoch díot as an seans seo a bheith agam labhairt ar an gceist thábhachtach seo.

I am grateful for the opportunity to address the House on the announcement by the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, last Monday regarding the additional renewable energy projects that will now benefit under the AER VI programme. I am concerned about the 27 small renewable energy projects that were awaiting approval under AER VI which have been excluded. I call on the Minister to explain why these 27 small projects were excluded from participation in the scheme.

The Electricity Regulation Act 1999 provided an opportunity for farmers and other like-minded people who wished to become involved in the production of renewable energy, thus ensuring that the harnessing and marketing of green energy would not become the sole domain of the bigger power generators and supply companies, thereby ensuring that market liberalisation and competition as envisaged under the Act would be achieved. However, there is great concern among the small wind farm project holders who were anticipating approval under the announcement made on Monday. They met with great disappointment because their smaller wind projects have yet again been excluded.

The people awaiting approval for these small-scale wind farm projects in the north Tipperary area took the risk of becoming involved in this venture. They borrowed money and made significant investments. They were also approved for the BES scheme until 31 December 2004. What will become of these small projects that were recognised under the Electricity Regulation Act 1999?

I also wish to refer to the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's constituency of Kilkenny where the Camphill Community residence for people with disabilities in Callan, County Kilkenny, has also expressed concern. Many of my constituents in north Tipperary avail of the excellent services provided by this Camphill Community. The Biomass AD plant that is up and running in the Camphill centre produces 800 m3 of gas per day for the production of electricity. However, in the absence of a power purchase agreement they have had to flare off substantial amounts of gas, especially during the summer. This research and development project was funded at a cost of almost €1 million but the centre has now learned it is in a lottery-type situation where it may be pulled out of the hat to gain from the AER VI announcement. It puzzles me why such investment is made in research and development yet it is left to fate to decide if such projects will come to fruition.

Will the Minister of State explain why less than half a megawatt of additional capacity has been issued for Biomass AD instead of the 8 MW plus that was sought, particularly in view of the fact that this technology is doubly beneficial in reducing greenhouse gas emissions?

It appears the large-scale corporate developers have once again gained in this recent announcement and that local communities who want to have a stake in the future of local renewable resources will have to wait. The recent announcement was a disappointment for them, which I share. The people involved in small local schemes have waited patiently since the allocation of the 140 MW. The news they received on Monday is devastating. Many of them were waiting in anticipation and were ready to go but now they do not know where they stand.

Many questions remain in regard to this issue. I am familiar with the work of Meitheal na Gaoithe, which represents small wind farm projects. Its concerns are reflected in what I have said. I look forward to the Minister of State's reply. I hope there will be an opportunity for Meitheal na Gaoithe to meet the Minister in the near future.

Gabhaim buíochas don Teachta Hoctor as ucht na ceiste seo a ardú agus deis a thabhart dom freagra a thabhairt thar ceann an Aire maidir le comórtas AER VI.

The alternative energy requirement programme is a competitive process to support the construction and operation of new renewable energy-based electricity generating stations.

The need for the AER programme arises because renewable energy technologies cannot yet compete on price with conventional technologies. Section 39 of the Electricity Regulation Act 1999 requires that the additional costs of new stations supported by the AER programme be passed on to final customers under a public service obligations order.

The net benefits of the AER process are the 15-year guaranteed purchase contract which gives investors and financiers, particularly banks, sufficient confidence to finance projects which would not otherwise be funded, and that the competitive process minimises the additional cost passed on to electricity consumers as a levy.

There was no question of excluding any project in any category in AER VI. The biomass anaerobic digestion, biomass general, large-scale wind, small-scale wind and offshore wind categories of AER VI were each oversubscribed in a competitive bidding process. It is inevitable in any competitive process which is oversubscribed that some applicants will be disappointed. In the case of AER VI, the initial target of 500 mw was significantly increased by 140 mw. This additional capacity has been distributed fairly among all the oversubscribed categories.

The initial and revised targets were both notified to the EU Commission under state-aid rules. The Commission determined, in a formal decision, that the support mechanism constitutes state aid. However, the Commission also concluded the programme is compatible with state aid, providing it is not changed without prior notification to it. The overall amount of aid that can be granted at this time is therefore limited by the overall volume cleared by the Commission under state-aid rules.

The cumulative capacity of projects submitted exceeded the capacity limits cleared by the EU Commission. There is no discretion available to further increase the available support level above state-aid clearance without the delay of a further notification to the EU Commission under state-aid rules. However, each applicant who has received AER VI support has ongoing obligations to the Department to progress the selected projects. Any project that does not proceed at a reasonable pace will have the Government support withdrawn and this will be offered to the next ranked project in the particular category. Therefore, there is a possibility that some projects now on the reserve list will subsequently receive an offer of AER VI support.

There will also be future opportunities available to all the disappointed applicants in AER VI. The renewable energy development group established in May last and chaired by the Department is currently examining future support mechanisms and targets for the renewable energy market. The group includes relevant experts from the administrative and scientific sector including Sustainable Energy Ireland, the Commission for Energy Regulation, ESB National Grid and the Economic and Social Research Institute among others. The renewable energy industry is also represented on the group through the participation of members nominated by an industry sub-group.

The group's review of options on future policies, targets, and programmes to support the increased use of renewable energy in the electricity market to 2010 and beyond is due shortly. Its views will form a basis for the Minister's future policy decisions on new challenging targets for renewable energy technologies in the electricity market. I refute the suggestion that 27 projects entered in AER VI were excluded from the process. AER VI was oversubscribed in several categories of a competitive programme. Although I understand Deputy Hoctor's disappointment, it is inevitable in any oversubscribed competition that some disappointed applicants arise. AER VI was no different. More importantly, to meet market demand and ensure Ireland meets its environmental obligations under the renewables directive, work is ongoing to develop a future programme to offer additional support to those disappointed in AER VI and others exploring the sector at this time. This is consistent with the priority this Government places on increasing the use of indigenous renewable energy technologies.

Schools Refurbishment.

I support Deputy Hoctor's comments about the Camphill community. I know of the organisation and the wonderful work it is doing. If the project to which the Deputy referred is helping Camphill, it is worthwhile and I ask the Minister of State to examine it.

I am very grateful for the opportunity to raise this important matter on the Adjournment. I am concerned about Facefield national school, which is located between Ballagh and Claremorris in County Mayo, which I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, knows well. The board of management has applied for the school to be included in the small schools pilot initiative last March but has so far heard nothing other than an acknowledgement of its receipt. The board also made an application under the summer works scheme 2005, but has not heard anything about it either.

The school is 112 years old but is in generally good condition for its age due to the splendid and dedicated work of successive boards of management and the teachers in maintaining it over the years. The board of management and parents are not looking for a new school, but rather one which can cope with their needs. They require essential works as a matter of some urgency in order to cope with the space required for the extra activities specified by revised curriculum. The classroom needs to be expanded. The simple and reasonable plan is to build onto one of the classrooms to allow for all the hands-on work to be done which is necessary under the new curriculum.

The school has two classrooms, the second of which is very small. There are 37 children in the school at present, 20 of whom in the higher class are accommodated in one room. Next year, an additional seven children will be enrolled, which will bring the total number of children to 44. Some 24 children will be accommodated in the smaller classroom and 20 children in the higher classes. This represents a great number of children in very small rooms. Therefore, the classroom needs to be extended urgently to cater for the increased numbers.

The school intends to use the space occupied at present by the children's toilets to enlarge the room to create an adequate classroom. The toilets are badly in need of upgrading as they are of poor quality. To that end, it is proposed to build children's toilets linked to the classrooms as well as a staff toilet as there is none at present; staff and pupils share the pupils' toilets, which is not recommended, satisfactory or acceptable. There is no staff room or office in the school. Therefore, it is intended to have a room which will serve as a staff room at break times and an office at other times.

These are reasonable plans for very necessary improvements in the interests of health and safety and in order to provide a better teaching environment for pupils and teachers. It is not too much to look for. Anything less is unacceptable, as is the present situation, which will get worse with the new input of seven pupils next year. These improvements are essential to allow the new curriculum to be taught, to keep up with the times and maintain proper standards of health and safety and give these children from a rural area a proper chance.

The board of management and the teachers are in no doubt that if these repairs are made, the school will be in a sound educational position and provide a strong base for the next 100 years. The board of management is very willing and enthusiastic. It is prepared to take on this project and work in association with the teachers, the pupils and their families. I urge the Minister of State to give those people a chance. They are willing to do so much. This is a new idea the board is prepared to undertake. I urge the Minister of State to deal with this issue urgently.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it affords me the opportunity to outline to the House the strategy of the Department of Education and Science for capital investment in education projects and to outline the current position regarding the application received for improved accommodation at Facefield national school, Claremorris, County Mayo.

The Minister for Education and Science recently outlined details of the school building and modernisation programme. Next year alone, €270 million will be allocated to primary schools and €223 million to post-primary schools for building works, representing an increase of 14% on the 2004 allocation. The programmes supported will include 141 major building projects already on site and a further 28 due to commence in the coming weeks, and details of 75 major primary and 30 major post-primary projects, already at an advanced stage of design, will be authorised to complete the design process in the coming weeks. This will provide a flow of projects to go to construction over the next 12 to 16 months, a further 18 to 20 post-primary schools suitable for inclusion in public-private partnership project bundles and 120 primary schools which will be invited to take part in the small and rural schools initiative and the devolved scheme for providing additional accommodation.

The new Schools Building and Modernisation Programme 2005-2009 will be underpinned not just by a significant increase in overall funding but also by major improvements in the administration of that funding. Devolving more funding to local level through the summer works scheme and the small and rural schools initiative will allow schools to move ahead with smaller projects while also delivering better value for money. Funding for the summer works scheme will be almost doubled to €60 million in 2005 to allow schools to carry out improvement works during the summer holidays. A total of 448 schools benefited from works under this scheme in 2004 at a cost of €31 million.

Last March, the school authority of Facefield national school submitted an application to the Department of Education and Science for the provision of an extension to and refurbishment of the existing school building. This application is being considered in the context of a review of all projects which did not proceed to tender and construction as part of the 2004 school building programme. In addition, the management authority of the school recently made an application for the construction of a new toilet block and conversion of existing toilets at the school under the 2005 summer works scheme. This application will be assessed by reference to the relevant criteria outlined in the published documents and it is planned to publish the list of successful applicants early in the new year.

It is hoped Facefield national school will be on the new list to be published in January.

Local Authority Housing.

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to deal with this issue which was brought to my attention by Wexford Sinn Féin county councillor, Mr. John Dwyer, who discovered that New Ross Town Council had not, when calculating the discount to be applied to the gross property price in the sale of local authority houses, applied the additional €3,809 as per circular HRT 6/95 from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The suspicion is that the failure was ongoing over approximately ten years and amounts to a considerable sum of money. The Minister of State needs to tell the house how long this situation has been ongoing and when it was brought to his attention.

The effect of the overcharging on those purchasing local authority housing in New Ross by €3,809 should not be underestimated. Tenants of local authorities tend to be on the lower end of the income scale and the extra €3,809 may, in some cases, have prevented some people from proceeding with plans to buy local authority houses. How much money must New Ross Town Council now pay to those who did not receive the appropriate discounts when buying their house? From where will this money come? Will it be paid by the Department in recognition of its failure to conduct adequate audits?

I acknowledge that, following the raising of this issue by Councillor Dwyer, New Ross Town Council has begun to apply the discount. There are serious concerns that the practice of not applying the €3,809 discount in all cases has been in place in all five local authorities throughout Wexford. As Wexford County Council is the loans authority for the county all valuation certificates for local authority houses sold under the tenant purchase scheme pass through that office. If New Ross Town Council was alone among the Wexford local authorities in not applying the discount, this matter would have been spotted and rectified.

The question that the Minister must answer is whether there has been full compliance by all local authorities with the terms of the tenant purchase scheme at all times during the past ten years and, if there had been any deviation from those terms, whether the money due to purchasers of local authority homes has been returned to them. Has the Minister investigated the compliance of other authorities with the terms set out by his Department? The Minister of State needs to outline what procedural checks his Department has in place to prevent deviation by local authorities from the terms of the tenant purchase scheme? If these procedural checks are in place, how did this go undetected? Does the local government auditor routinely check purchase-sale details of local authority housing?

The Minister was recently involved in a rather childish blame game with local authorities where he sought to put the entire blame for poor delivery in terms of the construction of new social housing units on local authorities. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government must stop abdicating his responsibility for local government and housing.

Combined with the Minister's attempts to bury his head in the sand on local government and housing issues, the Government has been responsible for taking powers away from local authority members and increasing the powers of unelected county and city managers. Consequently, the problem of lack of accountability within local authorities has been aggravated. This lack of accountability is intimately connected to the occurrence of problems such as the failure of New Ross Town Council to comply with terms of circular HRT 6/95. I hope the Minister will fully answer all the questions I have raised.

We recently witnessed the systematic ripping-off of customers by banks and others. I will not go so far as to claim that local authorities have joined them. Generally, local authorities are staffed by honourable officials who perform an excellent public service, and long may that continue.

The allowance of a discount of €3,809 for tenants purchasing houses under the current tenant purchase scheme is provided for under article 6 of the Housing (Sale of Purchase) Regulations 1995. The regulations apply to all houses purchased under the scheme, of which the application of the discount is an integral part.

My Department has been in contact with New Ross Town Council and I understand that the matter of the discount has been brought to its attention. The council accepts that a mistake was made and, again, I understand that letters have issued to a number of house purchasers informing them that the amount due will be refunded immediately.

Under the Housing Acts the operation of a tenant purchase scheme is a matter for a housing authority subject to compliance with regulations and directions from the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. Prior to this case, my Department was not aware of problems in terms of the interpretation of the regulations regarding the discount. The scheme has been in operation for ten years and the discount has applied throughout this time.

As indicated, this is not a question of deviation from the terms of the scheme but rather a simple mistake by the local authority concerned. Fortunately, in this case, the matter, having been brought to the attention of the authority, is being dealt with and the mistake is being rectified. The Deputy suggested there may be other housing authorities which do not apply the discount. To allay fears in this regard I have asked that my Department write to all housing authorities immediately to remind them of the position relating to the discount. I find it hard to understand how this happened. The Deputy claims it may have gone on for ten years but so has the scheme. It is possible that the local authority in question believed the abolition of the first-time buyer's grant applied to this extra discount. The discount amounted to €3,089, the equivalent of £3,000, which was also the figure for the first-time buyer's grant. It was never specified as such in the regulations. Only a dozen cases are involved but someone presumed this was the first-time buyer's grant. It is possible that some other local authorities have done the same but it is most unlikely. However, the possibility exists that when the first-time buyer's grant was abolished, the New Ross local authority believed the extra discount, which was the equivalent figure, was also abolished.

Should the auditor not have picked it up?

I will check on that in case there has been a similar misunderstanding elsewhere. This would surprise me as all Members are dealing with such cases in their constituency clinics. I appreciate the Sinn Féin Party's councillor spotted this. When one is going through figures such as this, I am surprised it was not copped onto earlier. However, I am informed that fewer than a dozen cases are involved. I thank the Deputy for raising the matter and I will ask other local authorities to check if the same misinterpretation has occurred.

The Dáil adjourned at 10.55 p.m. until10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 15 December 2004.