Adjournment Debate.

Services for People with Disabilities.

In January 2004, a state-of-the-art six-unit residential complex, custom-built to cater for young Limerick people with moderate to severe mental handicaps, was completed at St. Vincent's, Lisnagry, County Limerick, at a cost of €4.25 million. It remains closed one and a half years later. Tonight, the Department of Health and Children stands indicted for failing to provide the staff to properly operate this vital facility for young Limerick people.

I raise this matter to discover why this situation was allowed to develop and continue to the present. The children who should have been accommodated in this modern facility are tonight languishing in sub-standard facilities, cared for by dedicated Daughters of Charity staff, who look out the window with envy and disbelief at a modern facility which was custom-built to their needs and ask how this situation arose at a time of unprecedented resources.

The boys with challenging needs are currently accommodated in this facility in large groups, which is contrary to best international practice. Bowls, sink units and hand basins have been dismantled by some of these patients. The new unit was designed to accommodate fewer numbers in each group and the materials used in its construction stand up to any attempt to dismantle the unit. This flagship project backed by the best available expertise is, regrettably, deteriorating before our eyes for want of a commitment from the Department to employ staff to run it.

Mental hospitals have been closed because the system of care was repressive. Locked wards have no place in the treatment of persons with learning disabilities. The Daughters of Charity have developed an effective holistic treatment for their patients. Nurses there are professionally trained to administer this therapy. Patients require nursing care rather than care workers. I am looking for answers and a commitment from the Department that it will ensure this important facility in Limerick is opened as soon as possible.

I am pleased, on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children with responsibility for services for people with disabilities, Deputy Tim O'Malley, to have this opportunity to clarify the current position in the provision of funding to staff a new six-unit residential complex at St. Vincent's, Lisnagry, County Limerick. I thank my good friend and colleague, Deputy Peter Power, who expressed to me his deep frustration and anxiety about this unit.

The Health Act 2004 provided for the Health Service Executive, which was established on 1 January 2005. Under the Act the executive has the responsibility to manage and deliver or arrange to be delivered on its behalf health and personal social services. This includes responsibility for funding new or enhanced levels of health and personal social services. I understand from the Department of Health and Children that the Health Service Executive is examining the proposals it received from the various areas, including the mid-western area, on new and enhanced service provisions that have been agreed within those areas.

The Minister of State, Deputy Tim O'Malley, has asked the executive to provide him with details of the services which will be put in place nationally with the additional funding available for 2005 as soon as decisions regarding these matters have been finalised. The Minister of State has also asked the executive to inform Deputy Peter Power of the outcome of the particular matter he raised. I assure the Deputy that, as a result of the forthright representations he has brought to my attention regarding his concerns about the residential complex at St. Vincent's, I will also be happy to pursue this matter with my ministerial colleague with a view to a successful conclusion and the opening of the unit as soon as possible. I will keep Deputy Power informed of developments.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of the lack of an audiology service in the west, particularly in the west. At present, approximately 750 adults and 210 children in the west await the services of an audiologist. This figure includes new referrals and recalls. The average waiting time for child audiology services in County Roscommon is four years. A child who, due to hearing difficulties, requires speech and language therapy cannot progress until a hearing aid is provided. This is disgraceful and it should not be tolerated. I ask the Minister of State to take up this issue to ensure that this pathetic situation is addressed immediately.

People cannot take up employment because of the liability associated with their limited hearing, and they cannot get an appointment for a hearing aid. It takes some time from ordering to delivery of the hearing aids and when people eventually get them they may not fit.

In 2003, I raised this issue with the relevant health board. After transferral of the service to the community services in County Roscommon, I was told that arrangements were being put in place to restore the service as quickly as possible — the people of County Roscommon never had an adequate service — but to date, no action has been taken. In August 2004, I was told that the service would resume in mid-September. In January 2005, I was told that an audiologist was not available but that efforts were being made to appoint one to provide a service. Last month, I was told that, following interviews, a shortlist had been compiled for an audiologist for adult services and that it was hoped the service would be operational soon.

I have been told that the recruitment of an audiologist for children is being actively pursued. Due to the scarcity of this grade of workers, a number of past attempts to recruit to this position were unsuccessful. The reality is that the health service has let these children and adults down. They are being ignored simply because they reside in the midlands and County Roscommon. The health service is washing its hands of this matter by claiming that it cannot recruit for the position. If a recruitment cannot be made on the salary offered by the health service, an enhanced salary should be paid or other incentives put in place to ensure that the post is filled.

A person's physical location should not be a cause for discrimination. Nobody should have to tolerate the situation where he or she must wait four years for an appointment with an audiologist. The Minister of State should ensure that this issue is addressed and that we are no longer fobbed off on this issue. These circumstances have obtained for the past two and a half years, but nothing has happened. No one has been recruited and the backlog has not been addressed. The lack of hearing aids means people cannot find jobs and children cannot access proper speech and language therapy. The Government must do something immediately.

I am happy to have the opportunity to address on behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, the issue raised by Deputy Naughten. As the House will be aware, the Health Act 2004 provided for the establishment of the Health Service Executive on 1 January 2005. Under the Act, it is the responsibility of the executive to manage and deliver, or arrange to be delivered on its behalf, health and personal social services, including audiology services. I am happy to set out the development of policy in this area and to convey the information provided by the chief officer of the executive's western area on the specific question raised by the Deputy Naughten.

The chief officer of the western region of the HSE has informed the Department of Health and Children that there are approximately 750 adults awaiting appointments as new referrals and recalls in the western region. The number of children waiting for appointments is 210. I concur with Deputy Naughten's view that 950 is an unacceptable number of people to be waiting. While waiting times for tests in Mayo are relatively short at up to four months, there are difficulties in Roscommon and Galway. Excessive waiting times of up to four years obtain in the two counties due to difficulties in recruiting the necessary specialist staff. Deputy Naughten will support my view that early intervention is the best policy by far, especially in relation to children. If one does not intervene early, one finds one has to provide other support services at a later stage. I would like to see the earliest possible intervention and appropriate services being made available as quickly as possible.

The chief officer has advised the Department that the main difficulty giving rise to delays relates to the recruitment of audiological scientists. While audiological scientist and senior audiologist posts have been advertised on three separate occasions, the HSE has been unsuccessful in recruiting the required specialists due to their scarcity in the workforce. The posts are being re-advertised in Ireland and an advertising campaign is also being carried out in the UK. The HSE's western area has informed the Department that in some areas it has engaged a part-time audiological scientist to deal with the most urgent cases. In other areas, the HSE has received support from the audiology department of University College Hospital Galway. In addition, the services of an audiologist from the royal group of hospitals and dental hospitals in Belfast have been employed. He is contracted to provide services to Mayo as he can only undertake services in one county. This accounts for the improved position of Mayo compared to the other two counties.

Since 1 January 2005, 35 adult clinics have been held in the audiology department of Galway community services. A total of 714 clients have been called for hearing assessment and the fitting of hearing aids during these clinics. In addition, 18 children's clinics have been held, during which 207 children, including those aged from four years down, have been called and assessed. In Mayo, approximately 100 adults and 30 children are seen and assessed each month. The average waiting time in Mayo for audiological treatment is from six to eight weeks for children and from two and four months for adults.

In January 2004, following an evaluation of the posts of scientist and senior scientist on foot of the Labour Court recommendation, the posts of audiology and senior audiology scientist were upgraded. The upgrade linked the posts to those of physicist and senior physicist and provided for significant increases in salaries. In addition, the appointment of a chief audiologist was sanctioned for a number of HSE areas. The regrading of posts is expected to enhance their attractiveness to future recruits.

The Department of Health and Children is committed to the development of community audiology services, for the development of which it has provided since 2000 additional ongoing funding in excess of €2.6 million. The funding has been allocated to provide for the development of services and capital funding for the improvement of facilities in Health Service Executive areas. In addition, the Department provided once-off funding of €407,000 in 2004 and €329,000 in 2003 for the purchase of hearing aids.

I assure Deputy Naughten that the Department of Health and Children has taken steps to provide an attractive grade structure for audiologists and funding for improved community services. Unfortunately, recruitment of audiological scientists to work in the western area of the HSE has proven difficult. The Department will continue to impress on the HSE the need to address this matter as a priority in service delivery and is optimistic that an improvement in services will be witnessed.

Crime Levels.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this important issue. Life is cheap in Dublin West where gun crime has reached epidemic proportions. I draw the attention of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to the recent, savage killing of Mr. Joseph Rafferty who was shot twice by a lone gunman as he left his apartment in the Ongar Park housing estate near Clonsilla at approximately 9.15 a.m. on 12 April. The shooting took place in broad daylight in a residential part of west Dublin. The brazen and casual manner in which the murder was carried out is especially horrific and demonstrates the extent to which gun crime has become an unavoidable part of life in Dublin West.

The Star newspaper reported on 19 May that the family of Mr. Rafferty had asked Sinn Féin councillor, Mr. Dathaí Doolan, to help them address the IRA death threat against their relative. The death threat originated with a dispute between Mr. Rafferty and an IRA member from the south inner city of Dublin about a relatively minor row at a 21st birthday party. What does the Minister have to say about this case and its chilling comparisons with the murder of Robert McCartney in Belfast?

Firearms are in plentiful supply and guns are being used to settle scores as never before. The fact that personal disputes are being addressed through fatal gun attacks is evidence that a gun culture has developed in Dublin. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform made the bold claim six months ago that he did not believe there was new energy in crime in Dublin and that events were, to some extent, the sting of a dying wasp. The Minister has been stung by the stupidity of that assertion. The recent spate of killings in Dublin West demonstrates the degree to which the Minister has been divorced from reality.

While the Minister has been in never-never land denying the reality of gun crime, gangs have steadily reasserted themselves in Dublin West. While the Garda has recently launched Operation Anvil to target the significant surge in gun crime, which is welcome, Dublin West continues to show signs of chronic under-policing. It is still awaiting the establishment of a proper community Garda force based in the area and armed with local knowledge. I was stunned at the end of 2004 when the Minister revealed to me that the number of community gardaí in Dublin West had fallen to 17 from 19 in 2003. In 1997, there were 18 community gardaí serving Dublin West and Blanchardstown. In the intervening eight years, the population of Dublin West has grown dramatically to reach 80,000 and is now much larger than Limerick or Galway.

While the Minister appointed 20 recent graduates of the Garda College at Templemore to work in Dublin West, is he able to confirm that they will remain in the area for at least two years? It is usually the case that they come, go and are never seen again. The failure of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to supply adequate numbers of community gardaí to urban areas, especially those which are under siege from gangs, guns and drugs, is a shameful indictment of the Government's failure on policing. We need real community and neighbourhood policing in Dublin West. That means communities being policed with gardaí back on the beat, not just cruising in squad cars. More effective training, longer assignments to the task and greater recognition for promotion purposes of the qualities required for successful community police are essential if the community garda service is to be successful.

International evidence shows that putting the police back into the community is the best solution to tackling the epidemic of gun crime and anti-social behaviour. Two years ago I told the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to travel to Boston to see how community policing operates there. It has taken him nearly two and a half years to get there. He has already been around the world before he managed to go there and have a look at what it means on the ground.

No issue is as important as this for the local community. The lawless operation of criminal gangs destroys the efforts of individual families and the whole community to create an environment where parents can feel secure for the safety and welfare of their children. I want the Minister to come back to Dublin West very soon to meet those who heard his assurances last year about the death of the gangs. They will give him an earful he will not forget for a long time but maybe he will learn enough to rise above his usual rhetoric and start to come to grips with the reign of terror currently operated by gangs in west Dublin under his nose.

I do not want to continue receiving e-mails from mothers and fathers who have just bought an expensive house in west Dublin, asking what they are to tell their four year old child about a man being shot down in cold blood at the end of their street. In the past six months that has happened four times with fatal consequences in Dublin West and many other times with less serious results. It is an epidemic.

I thank Deputy Burton for raising this matter. I am deputising for my colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, who would like to be present but is unable to be here as he is committed to other business.

As the Minister made clear in the House last week, he considers gun crime to be a matter of the utmost gravity. As a Dubliner I am concerned about this matter. The Minister has been concerned for some time that serious offences taking place have pointed to the emergence of a gun culture in Dublin. This, sadly, has been manifest in the number of fatal shootings, including the shooting referred to by Deputy Burton, which have taken place in recent weeks.

The Garda has amassed a considerable amount of intelligence about gun crime in Dublin and it has a very clear picture of what is going on. In the view of both the Minister and the Garda Commissioner, Noel Conroy, the time is right to strike at this emerging gun culture. Consequently, the Minister reported to the House on 17 May that the Garda Síochána had launched Operation Anvil, specifically targeted at those involved in gun crime.

The Minister, my Government colleagues and I will put renewed energy and vigour into stamping out any gun culture that may exist. A clear message must be given to criminals of this nature that there will be no safe houses for them. This is one of the most intensive special policing operations ever undertaken in the State. It is intelligence-driven and is aimed at those involved in gun crime of any kind in the Dublin metropolitan region. Its cost will amount to €6.5 million, which the Minister has made available from his Department's allocation for this year. It is intended that it will involve about 15,000 additional hours overtime being worked each week by Garda in the Dublin area. I should emphasise that this expenditure will not adversely affect existing agreed overtime allocations across the Garda divisions, including those for the Dublin metropolitan division.

Operation Anvil will involve divisional uniform and detective patrols throughout the region, backed up by national units, overt and covert operations, mobile and foot patrols, random checkpoints at specific locations, searches, execution of warrants and gathering and collation of high quality criminal intelligence.

A feature of the gun culture that has emerged is the apparent belief on the part of some criminals that they have immunity from the laws of the land. While our legislation for tackling organised crime is one of the toughest in Europe, the Minister is proposing that it be strengthened further. As Deputies will be aware, the Criminal Justice Bill 2004, which is currently on Second Stage in the House, provides for a comprehensive package of anti-crime measures that will enhance the powers of the Garda in the investigation and prosecution of offences. These include a general power in regard to the issue of search warrants, including a provision to allow a superintendent to issue an emergency search warrant in certain circumstances, increased detention powers of up to 24 hours for arrestable offences and a statutory power to preserve a crime scene.

In addition, Part 3 of the Bill makes provision for the admissibility as evidence in court of statements by witnesses who subsequently refuse to testify or who retract their original statements. Furthermore, the Minister is considering bringing forward a number of amendments to the Bill, including a proposal to provide for criminal offences in regard to participation in a criminal organisation.

There is a particular overriding necessity, in view of the recent increase in violent crime involving firearms to which Deputy Burton has referred, to ensure that public safety and security are given priority in any review of policy and legislation in regard to firearms. With this in mind the Minister has decided to bring forward at an early stage certain proposals for inclusion in the Criminal Justice Bill. The Bill as published contains one of those proposals, to provide for the secure custody of firearms. The Minister is increasing the sentences for the more serious range of firearms offences, including the possibility of mandatory minimum sentences in some cases, as well as new offences of illegally modifying a firearm, for example, sawing off a shotgun barrel, and the imposition of severe penalties for this offence. The Minister has already asked all sides of the House to assist in the early enactment of this legislation. We look forward to the support of all Deputies in that regard.

The Garda authorities have informed the Minister that the incident to which the Deputy refers is the subject of a major, ongoing Garda investigation that encompasses several Garda divisions and specialised Garda units. The Minister is further informed that this investigation has, to date, led to a number of arrests and that it is anticipated that more arrests will follow as further progress is made. The Garda investigation team is aware, as reported in the national press, of allegations that unlawful organisations were involved in this incident. Garda inquiries are continuing in this regard.

The Garda authorities have also informed the Minister that the level of both foot and mobile patrols in the Dublin 15 area has been increased and that the area is also the subject of intensive policing activity, in accordance with the operational goals of both Operation Crossover and Operation Anvil. Moreover, local gardaí will continue to liaise with residents and residents groups in the area to ensure that their concerns are being met. I hope that is somewhat helpful to Deputy Burton.

School Accommodation.

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to raise this important matter on the Adjournment and I thank the Ceann Comhairle and the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for that.

People in Westport are taking to the streets. They intend to march locally and to Dáil Éireann. These are people who would not be interested in doing something like this unless they were desperate, which they are. Gaelscoil na Cruaiche has been in existence since 1995 and the school has gone from strength to strength. It now has almost 200 pupils. For the past nine years 30 pupils and another teacher have been added each year. The school is most impressive.

The problem is that the school is on a temporary site in five prefabricated classrooms. As the lease will soon expire it will have to prepare for another move. It has already moved three times. The position is desperate because almost 200 pupils and nine teachers will be out on the road. The school has received notice to quit from the site by 2006 and the lease is not renewable. On 31 May 2006 the school will have to vacate the site. Unless alternative accommodation is provided those 200 pupils will be on the street in one year's time.

I have been pursuing the matter with the Minister and the reply to a question I tabled in December 2004 was that the OPW was examining the site. In 2001 the OPW was asked to examine the site and it was decided in 2004 that it was not successful in finding one. This is a major problem which is causing great worry for these children who are being educated through Irish and their parents. The matter requires urgent attention.

A shocking report exists on the conditions in the school in terms of health and safety, which was commissioned by the board of management. It paints a terrible picture of dry rot, wet rot and so on. The five prefabricated buildings were bought second-hand six years ago and are falling apart. The position is critical, taking into account eviction notices, dry and wet rot and so on.

I raised the matter with the Minister for Education and Science again in February and was informed that the property management section of the OPW was exploring the possibility of acquiring a site for the school. The Minister was unable to give me more information because of commercial sensitivities. The OPW was to select a site and the Minister had no news thereon at the time in question. The OPW has made its final assessment and has told the school that the result would be available soon. However, that was four months ago and the school has heard nothing. Nothing has been done about the provision of a school site, the shape of the school to come or the financial allocation, yet it has to be open by 1 June 2006.

The Department says it can do nothing until it receives a report from the OPW. So far there are no signs of progress at the design or planning stages. On 26 April 2005, I asked the Minister, further to her statement in Dáil Éireann that Gaelscoil na Cruaiche would be provided with a site, the reason for the delay by the OPW in finalising the site arrangements, given that a site is now available. I am aware that a site is available. I asked her if she would fulfil her promise that a school would be built when needed. Furthermore, I asked when the school would be built and if she would make a statement on the matter. She replied:

The property management section of the Office of Public Works, which acts on behalf of my Department in relation to site acquisitions generally, is continuing to explore the possibility of acquiring a site for the school referred to by the Deputy. The technical suitability of seven sites is under consideration . . . . The question of the development of a new school building will be considered further in the context of the multi-annual budget when the site has been acquired.

I know many buildings and much funding has been provided by the Department, but I refer to desperate circumstances because the people involved need to be in a new, permanent school within one year. The conditions are desperate. I asked the Minister to prioritise the case of the school. There is a site available and there is nothing commercially sensitive about it.

People are saying the Minister is not interested in doing something because she is not prepared to commit money to the west. The situation is desperate and I am not exaggerating by saying that people are taking to the streets. They are desperate for an answer and I hope the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Callely, can give me one tonight.

I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to outline to the House the proposals of the Department of Education and Science on the provision of a new facility for Gaelscoil na Cruaiche in Westport, County Mayo. The Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, would like to be present, but unfortunately she is unable to attend. I thank Deputy Cowley for his kind remarks on the good work of the Minister and her Department.

Since the beginning of the year, in addition to her having done much good work, the Minister has made a number of announcements relating to the schools building and modernisation programme. This year alone, €270 million will be allocated to primary schools and €223 million to post-primary schools just for building works. This represents an increase of 14% on the 2004 allocation.

The programmes supported will include 141 major building projects already on site and more due to go on site in the near future, 122 major school building projects countrywide, which will go to tender and construction during 2005 or early 2006, 192 primary schools which have been invited to take part in the small and rural schools initiative and the devolved scheme for providing additional accommodation, up to 120 schools which have been given approval to rent temporary premises pending delivery of a permanent solution to their long-term accommodation needs, 43 schools which have been authorised to start architectural planning of their major projects, 590 schools which were recently given approval to complete essential small-scale projects under the summer works scheme and 124 schools to progress through architectural planning.

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 the funding.

What about Westport?

Devolving more funding to local level through the summer works scheme and the small and rural schools initiative will allow schools to move ahead more quickly with smaller projects.

Gaelscoil na Cruaiche opened in September 1996 with provisional recognition and was granted permanent recognition in 2000. As Deputy Cowley stated, the school is accommodated in prefabricated classrooms on a three quarter acre site in Westport. The cost of site and classroom rental is grant-aided by the Department of Education and Science at the rate of 95%.

The property management section of the Office of Public Works, which purchases sites for new schools on behalf of the Department, was requested to explore the possibility of acquiring a site for the school in question. Following the most recent advertisement placed by the OPW seeking proposals of possible sites, a number of responses were received. Seven sites have been visited and their technical suitability as locations for the Gaelscoil are being considered.

I am sure the Deputy can appreciate that, due to commercial sensitivities, the Department is unable to comment further on specific site acquisitions. I assure him that the permanent accommodation needs of this school are being addressed as expeditiously as possible and that the provision of a permanent building for the school will be considered——

They are not being considered and the people affected are going to march on the Dáil because they are so fed up.

——in the context of the schools building and modernisation programme when a site has been acquired.

It is unfair for the Deputy to make that comment given that I just said the Office of Public Works, which is responsible for purchasing sites for new schools on behalf of the Department, was requested to explore the possibility of acquiring a site for Gaelscoil na Cruaiche in Westport. The feasibility of sites is being considered. Following a recent advertisement placed by the OPW seeking proposals of possible sites——

I know all that. I heard it all before.

——a number of responses were received.

They were considered and there is one very good site.

Seven sites are being considered.

There is a delay and nothing is happening.

The Minister would be very happy to process all the information very rapidly but the Deputy will agree that due process must be adhered to.

Due process since 2001.

There are commercial sensitivities and we must adhere to normal procurement procedures. I have no doubt that the Minister will be happy to inform the Deputy about further progress as it is made.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.10 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 25 May 2005.