Adjournment Debate.

Hospital Services.

The relevant Minister of State is not present to take the Adjournment.

The Deputy should proceed.

This is an important issue.

I call on the Deputy to proceed.

There is no Minister to take the matter. We raise these matters in the presence of Ministers to ensure they hear at first hand the issues involved and understand them. Am I expected to proceed?

The Deputy should record the details of the matter.

If the Deputy proceeds, we will note what he says.

This is completely unsatisfactory.

The Deputy should make his speech. The Minister of State will arrive shortly.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this matter. Last May, when Deputy Martin was Minister for Health and Children, I asked him to investigate the disgraceful circumstances of a patient suffering from scoliosis who was forced to travel from Galway to Dublin for treatment because the Western Health Board would not acquire the necessary equipment to allow him to be treated in Galway. Unfortunately, nothing has changed during the intervening seven months. The patient continues to be subjected to appalling treatment. He is not the only patient in the Western Health Board area suffering in this way.

Family members are at their wits end and have gone public in an attempt to secure the necessary treatment in Galway. As this appalling matter is now in the public domain, I will record its details and outline the case to allow the Minister of State to understand it fully and act to address it. The patient is a 23 year old man from Tuam in County Galway who suffers from cerebral palsy, epilepsy and scoliosis, which is a deformity of the spine. He is fed through his stomach, requires a colostomy bag and has now contracted the MRSA bug. He is completely immobile and must be accompanied by a member of his family at all times. He is in constant pain and requires constant morphine to control it. A pump has been fitted inside his skin to feed the morphine into his system gradually which must be refilled every two weeks. The patient must be taken on a six-hour return ambulance journey from Galway to Dublin for the procedure which takes ten minutes to perform.

His fragile state of health means he is not fit for the journey which takes a terrible toll on him and results in a prolonged hospital stay in either Dublin or Galway. On one occasion after an ambulance trip to Dublin he had to remain in hospital for ten weeks as a result of complications. His mother had to stay with him in hospital in Dublin for that time. Dr. O'Keeffe, a pain specialist in St. Vincent's Hospital in Dublin, has been very good to the patient and his family. The doctor has offered to instruct a medical person in Galway on the procedures to be carried out, but this offer has not been accepted by the Western Health Board. I am informed that all that is required is a clean hospital area and an anaesthetist to carry out the procedure in a mere ten minutes. The pump was fitted about four years ago and at first the procedure only had to be carried out every three months. That has been reduced now to every two weeks and as time progresses it is expected that the need will become more frequent, resulting in even more hardship for the patient because of having to travel to Dublin.

The patient's family love him very much. His mother and father, with whom he lives, give him full-time care in a loving way. His sisters, who live locally, give every support to their parents in looking after the patient. His sisters are there to attend to his needs at all times as required. The family has excelled in coping with all the patient's illnesses, but they are weary having to cope with everything and at having been treated in such a cold manner by the Western Health Board. This family needs the support of the State. They need this service in Galway, which would require little funding to put in place. They need the support of the Minister for Health and Children.

What I have outlined is an appalling case. This patient is being treated appallingly by the Western Health Board. The Minister of State has responsibility for this matter and his senior Minister has final responsibility. He should not allow this situation continue for a day longer. In the patient's interests, in the interests of his parents and sisters and in the interests of humanity, I beg the Minister to act now, give a boost to this patient and his family for Christmas and engage with the Western Health Board to bring this appalling injustice to an end.

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

The provision of health services for people who live in County Galway is primarily a matter for the Western Health Board and that will remain the case until 1 January next. The Department of Health and Children has made inquiries from the board about the case referred to by the Deputy. I have been advised that the person is attending St. Vincent's Hospital, Elm Park, Dublin, on a regular basis and that the services the patient requires are being provided there. I commend Deputy McHugh for raising this matter. I understand from the Western Health Board that the person's general practitioner has offered to assist with the provision of the service to the person referred to by the Deputy if and when required.

The Government has prioritised the health services for investment. Since 1997, substantial additional funding and staff have been provided for the health services in the west to ensure increased levels of clinical activity, new procedures, better treatments and greater numbers of patients availing of the services. The Government will continue to invest in developing services for persons from the west. For example, we have provided unprecedented capital funding to upgrade and provide for new services at University College Hospital, Galway.

The Western Health Board was unable to provide the service referred to by the Deputy at University College Hospital, Galway, in 2004. However, the board has informed the Department that it will consider the matter in the context of its 2005 service plan. I commend the Deputy again on raising this issue on the last sitting day of the Dáil before we adjourn for the Christmas recess and I hope this case can be attended to. I will attend to it myself to determine whether the matter can be followed up.

Prisoner Escorts.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House for the last time this year. The issue I want to raise concerns the prisoner who was given compassionate temporary release from Mountjoy Prison to visit his seriously ill mother in Our Lady's Hospice in Harold's Cross. There is something of the Keystone Cops about this case. The prisoner was released in handcuffs with three prison officers attending. He escaped. He visited his mother at that time and, apparently, visited her a second time yesterday morning. The prisoner is still at large and nobody appears to know what is happening.

I agree with the policy of compassionate leave, and it is important that that is part and parcel of a prisoner's rehabilitation process, but questions arise in this case because the prisoner had only started a ten year sentence for armed robbery with assault. In those circumstances it is unusual for the prisoner to be allowed compassionate release. On many occasions I sought compassionate release for somebody who had a much shorter sentenced to serve yet the Department, by and large, refused the request.

First, why was this prisoner, who had served only a short part of a long sentence, granted compassionate release? Second, if this prisoner was in handcuffs and under strong escort, why were the handcuffs taken off? I can understand that would be appropriate considering he was visiting a seriously ill parent but surely the three prison officers in attendance would have been able to position themselves in such a way around the room to ensure the prisoner could not escape. To make matters worse, having had his first visit with his mother he went back to the hospice at 7.30 a.m. yesterday, bewigged and disguised and without the prison officers or the handcuffs, and visited her again. He left the hospice following the visit and remains at large.

I would like the Minister to elaborate on what happened, why it happened, the progress on apprehending the person who has absconded and the guidelines and measures that are likely to be introduced to ensure it does not happen again.

I will try to elaborate to the best of my ability and give the information at the disposal of the officers in the Department. On behalf of the Minister, I advise the House that escorts take place outside prison walls for a variety of reasons, including visits to hospitals and court, transfer to other prisons or on humanitarian grounds. Many thousands of escorts take place each year with a significant number of those being for compassionate reasons, such as visits to sick or dying relatives, or funeral homes or gravesides. Such releases are extremely important for prisoners and are very rarely abused. Deputies on all sides of the House are familiar with intervening with the Department to secure the necessary discretion to accommodate such arrangements.

It is the nature of prison escorts that there is always an element of risk associated with transporting prisoners outside the secure confines of a closed prison. However, it is a very rare occurrence for prisoners to attempt to escape during such escorts. A balance must be struck between security and the need to operate a humanitarian prison system. It is a question of managing the risk involved. This is reflected in the number of prison staff accompanying the prisoner. Obviously, there are other cases where the level of risk dictates refusal of the request. However, requests are accommodated where possible.

Decisions on requests for escorted outings are made, on behalf of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, by senior officers in the Irish Prison Service. In some cases, they are submitted to the Minister. The incident to which the Deputy refers occurred on Sunday, 12 December this year. The prisoner had made a request to visit his mother who is terminally ill in Our Lady's Hospice, Harold's Cross. An escorted outing was approved on compassionate grounds by a senior officer of the Irish Prison Service. The prisoner visited his mother on Saturday, 11 December 2004 and again the following day as her condition deteriorated. He also had a previous visit without incident. All visits were accompanied by three prison officers and approval was on the basis that the prisoner was to be handcuffed at all times. During the visit on Sunday, at which a prison chaplain was also in attendance, the prisoner escaped from the hospice.

The prisoner was serving sentences totalling ten years for robbery, assault and other offences, and is due for release in June 2009. An investigation is being carried out by the Governor of Mountjoy Prison into the incident. I am sure Deputy Costello will appreciate that the Minister is unable to comment in detail at this stage as the investigation is ongoing and he does not wish to prejudice the outcome of any proceedings that may arise out of the incident. However, initial reports suggest that the prisoner slipped the handcuffs, escaped via a patio door and made his getaway into the grounds before scaling a boundary wall. An officer was injured while in pursuit. Staff contacted the prison, which in turn notified the Garda Síochána.

The full report of the investigation into the incident will be forwarded to the Director General of the Prison Service and to the Minister. The Minister fully understands that such incidents cause public concern and, to safeguard both the prison staff and the general public, every precaution must be taken to prevent their recurrence.

Schools Building Projects.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to raise this matter.

Tullamore College has an excellent reputation as a fine education provider in a growing town. The school has a very good teaching staff and exam results have improved in recent years. In addition, the school has an excellent gym facility which is continually in use by the school and sporting organisations in the area.

The school has a large catchment area stretching from Daingean to the edge of Clara. In 2001 the school had a student population of 600. At that time it was granted approval for an extension with funding of £1.2 million agreed. This included new classrooms as well as a new science laboratory, as the school has placed a great emphasis on the development of the sciences.

In June 2001, two thirds of the school was burned in a fire. From that point all planning stopped. The extension was not built and permanent buildings did not replace the burnt two-thirds of the school. All that has been provided is a series of temporary accommodation units on a smaller scale than that destroyed. Most of the school now consists of temporary buildings. This is an unacceptable situation. It was bad enough to have to face the aftermath of a fire but to find that the Department had turned its back on the school at the same time was appalling.

A sum of €80,000 was recently spent on fixing the roof of the prefabricated accommodation so that the school could re-open in September 2004. While this was necessary to facilitate the re-opening of the school, spending such sums on patch-up work hardly represents value for money.

In reply to questions of mine on this issue the Minister's predecessor said the Department is of the opinion that the accommodation now available is adequate and capable of serving the school's needs for several years. I have visited the school many times and I do not think that is the case. The school urgently needs to be provided with proper permanent accommodation. Space is available on a valuable site in the heart of the town. Deputy Noel Dempsey, when Minister for Education and Science, told me, in a letter dated 20 September 2004, that the school would be included in his review of all school building projects which were not included in 2004.

Tullamore is a fast growing town and the commission on school accommodation has projected an 8% to 10% growth over the coming years. Junior infant intake at the local primary schools is growing and the town expects more than 200 jobs by 2008 under the decentralisation programme.

I ask the Minister of State and the Minister for Education and Science to reconsider this issue. I invite the Minister to visit the school when she next visits the building unit, which is only up the road from the school. A mother whose son is in a junior certificate class recently told me he has never been in a permanent school structure at either primary or post-primary level in the town. Surely this is not the best we can offer the children of Tullamore.

I thank Deputy Enright for affording me the opportunity to outline to the House how the Department of Education and Science is meeting the accommodation needs of Tullamore College in County Offaly. The building and planning unit of the Department is located in the town and it is easy to stand over the record of the Department in this matter.

In 1996 County Offaly VEC applied for capital funding for the college towards the provision of two additional classrooms. Following an examination of the long-term accommodation needs of the school, the Department approved an extension and refurbishment project based on a projected long-term enrolment of 650 pupils.

A design team was subsequently appointed and the project had advanced to a stage one-two submission when the school was damaged by fire in 2001. Following this incident, the options open to the Department were to carry out re-instatement works on and extend the existing buildings or to provide a new building. In each of these scenarios, the school would be facilitated in temporary accommodation pending completion of the major works. It was envisaged that the cost of either option would be met partly from insurance money and partly from money that would be set aside under the capital programme. However, given the urgency of recommencing the school, the proceeds from the insurance claim were used by the VEC for the rental and installation of a significant amount of temporary accommodation, as well as for carrying out re-instatement works and upgrading external areas. The temporary accommodation in question is of a very high quality and has a long life span. Consequently, the Department of Education and Science subsequently purchased it outright at a cost of more than €300,000 in March of this year. It was made clear to the VEC at that time that the temporary accommodation combined with the re-instatement works would be capable of meeting the school's needs for the foreseeable future.

The Department continues to support minor improvement works at the school concerned. In this regard, roof repair works were carried out at a cost of €82,144 during 2004. In addition, under the summer works scheme for 2004, the Department grant aided an upgrade of the schools gas system at a cost of €15,000.

The school has applied under the 2005 summer works scheme for additional funding for further works and this will be considered in the context of an assessment of all applications received. The Department intends to publish a list of the successful applicants in February next.

I thank the Deputy once again for raising this matter in the House.