Adjournment Debate.

Health Services.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to speak on this matter and the Minister of State for attending to reply.

The meals on wheels service, which is provided by SUPPORT in the Finglas area, has played a pivotal role in community care throughout the country. In this context, it is vital to maintain and expand services to ensure that every older person can benefit. The Government is committed to extending the service and there was a significant increase provided in the last budget to allow for €12.5 million to be spent nationally in 2006 and an additional €2.5 million next year.

In this context, it is not acceptable that the SUPPORT meals on wheels service, which operates in four sheltered housing complexes in Finglas — Mellowes Court, St. Helena's Court, Glasanon Court and Clareville Court — must cease operation in June due to lack of funding. Therefore, I appeal to the Minister of State to do everything in his power to ensure it does not happen.

SUPPORT is a voluntary organisation that has operated in Finglas since 1994 and is currently providing 70 meals per day to the aforementioned sheltered housing schemes. On average, this equates to 2,000 meals provided for more than 100 people per month. From a cost viewpoint, this service is excellent value for money. SUPPORT sponsors a community employment scheme for 27 participants, all of whom are engaged in the preparation, cooking and serving of meals. For this it receives annual funding of around €350,000 from FÁS and has been provided with accommodation and use of kitchen equipment free of charge from Dublin City Council since 1999. From the former Northern Area Health Board it receives a subvention of €1.40 per meal, equating to annual funding of €17,000.

Since 2004, SUPPORT has been using this money to fund wages for two drivers who deliver meals and collect food supplies. They work ten hours a week and are a vital element of this service. It will probably be asked why there are no volunteer drivers. Unfortunately, the cost of petrol has risen and it is not easy to get volunteers for this type of work anymore.

Since the beginning of this year, it has become apparent that SUPPORT can no longer use the subvention money to pay drivers — it just will not stretch to meet these costs. The staff raised this issue with the relevant authorities and have highlighted the urgency of the matter. They have been doing all they can to bring in extra funding. They applied for a lottery grant, which was refused, and they are awaiting a decision on dormant account funding. They raised the issue with the HSE in March and have received no further communication on the matter.

In these circumstances, a decision has been made to cease the meals on wheels service on 30 June. The Minister of State does not need me to outline the benefits of the scheme but it is important that they are listed in order to highlight the impact of this closure.

The provision of a daily meal is considered a vital part of an elderly patient's discharge plan from hospital. Referrals come from public health nurses, local GPs and social workers. This service is, therefore, vital to the discharge of all elderly patients in Finglas. It allows for older people to be cared for at home and in their own community, ensuring they maintain home comforts and independence, as well as reducing costs for health boards. Apart from the provision of a meal, the social contact involved is important. The service is a means of keeping in contact with older people, many of whom live alone and suffer from loneliness. Of the 70 meals that SUPPORT provides, 90% of them are to people on their own.

For SUPPORT to continue to provide these meals to help these older people who are on their own and dependent on the service, we must immediately clarify where the funding will come from to pay these drivers. I raised this issue with Dublin City Council and the HSE last year but to no avail.

It will cost approximately €10,000 to pay for drivers from now until December. From these projected costs, we can expect it will cost only €20,000 per annum for this vital delivery and collection service within the context of increasing funding for this service nationally by a total of €5 million, a 50% increase since 2004. I appeal to the Minister to find these funds and to ensure they remain in place for SUPPORT. This guarantee will allow the service to continue and will enable many older people to remain living at home and receiving care in their community amongst their friends and family. We should do everything possible to enable them to do this.

All the funds received from FÁS are solely used for participant wages, protective clothing, kitchen staff and training. Half of the participants' training must be spent on training required by the HSE in food handling.

SUPPORT recently had to stop taking referrals from hospital social workers and public health nurses. It has expressed serious concern about the future of its patients and their continuing residence at home without a daily meal. Some households receive more than one meal. In one household, SUPPORT provides meals to a 90 year old woman who has two mentally disabled sons in their late 50s who are totally dependent on the service. Another lady must give the driver a key so she can let herself in to bring the meal to her in bed because she is too weak to leave it because of breathing difficulties. A number of clients are elderly diabetic patients who have amputated limbs. Patients in the early stages of senile dementia and Alzheimer's disease, who often cannot remember what day it is, are also clients. Another elderly man living alone is terminally ill from cancer.

The delivery person is an important contact for these people. Many times they have alerted the emergency services, having found the patient unconscious on the floor following a fall the previous night. Often patients cannot afford to pay for their meals on time as they have no access to their pensions. This puts a further strain on finances because SUPPORT will not see an older person go without a meal. These people do not regard the service as a luxury but as a necessity. This is especially the case in winter when they are most vulnerable.

I ask the Minister of State, therefore, to intervene on behalf of this service to ensure the necessary funding is provided before the unnecessary closure of the service on 30 June.

I thank the Deputy for raising the question as it provides me with an opportunity to outline to the current situation in the meals on wheels service nationally and to indicate the priority we give it. It plays a vital role in the provision of community care and I express our appreciation to all involved in the service, particularly those working on a voluntary basis.

This Government has made services for older people a priority, supporting older people in dignity to live in their own communities for as long as possible. The meals on wheels service plays an important role by providing regular, nutritious meals and essential social contact for older people. These play an important role in facilitating older people to remain at home and in good health.

I recently attended an awards ceremony where a volunteer was given an award for the efforts he had made on the part of numerous voluntary organisations, one of which was meals on wheels. He referred to one person he calls on whose nearest neighbour lives half a mile away. He often asked himself as he was closing the gate which was more important, the meal he brought or the visit he had paid.

Additional funding for services for older people of €150 million was allocated in the 2006 budget. This is the largest ever increase in funding for services for older people, reflecting the new emphasis on home and day care. Almost three quarters, €109 million of the full year costs, are committed to community care supports. Within this allocation, the meals on wheels service received additional funding of €2.5 million for 2006 and a further €2.5 million for 2007.

The HSE has advised that St. Canice's day care centre, which provides meals on wheels in the Finglas area, receives funding by agreement from the executive. The HSE has also advised that the manager for services for older people in the local health office, north-west Dublin, will make arrangements to meet St. Canice's day centre to discuss any financial difficulties it may be experiencing at this time in the provision of meals on wheels with a view to sustaining this valuable service.

I thank Deputy Carey for outlining the difficulties that have arisen. We are aware of the importance of the service in the area and the prospect of closure is not one we would entertain. We will make every effort to ensure the service continues and the financial difficulties are addressed and will keep Deputy Carey up to date on the situation.

Animal Diseases.

At the outset, I commend the initial introduction of the 45 day retention period during a dangerous time in our economic history, the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. It was a commendable measure and I fully support its continuation in most instances.

That said, there are a number of problems emerging, particularly for small farmers or dealers, known as feeders, who buy cattle for a period, finish them and take them to be slaughtered for consumption. From a small farmer's perspective, people who have cattle and are dependent on these feeders buying and finishing cattle for them over a period of eight, ten or 12 weeks have found that because of the shortage of foodstuff and the enormous amount of rain that has fallen, whatever surplus foodstuff they had was used and they had to sell at a reduced price. They were vulnerable and prey for people who were prepared to take advantage of that situation.

The small type feeder, people who buy in lots in cattle marts or buy from other farmers, might buy in ten or 12 cattle and, of those, two would probably be finished in three to four weeks, certainly much less than the 45 days. The retention period for which they are compelled to hold them is in excess of 45 days unless they have a dealer's licence or the facilities whereby they can separate their cattle in their respective holdings. The knock-on effect is that they must feed them and, by the time they are slaughtered in the factory, the grade of that cattle has declined because they have gone beyond being finished, as we would call it. That is one aspect.

Another aspect is that most finishers or feeders, as we call them, are very susceptible to the meat industry in general. In the space of two or three weeks the price of finished cattle can drop in the factories and they are compelled to hold them if they have bought them within the 45-day retention period. Taking all that into consideration, perhaps there is an argument, especially in regard to finishing off cattle — I am not talking about dealers because they are covered by licence and so forth — for beginning to address in a proactive way the problems of small farmers in the industry who work to maintain their holdings in what is a rapidly declining rural population, and especially a small farming population.

All Members of this House, especially rural Deputies, are aware of the situation in rural Ireland, particularly in regard to the viability of trying to maintain a holding, make a living and put one's family through the education process and so forth. Perhaps an argument could be made in that regard as well. I ask the Minister of State to consider examining that in a positive way.

I have no problem with the retention period in most instances but where we are talking about finishing cattle, and cattle are tested after finishing — the meat is tested and so forth when they are killed — all that is taken care of in that regard. I ask the Minister of State to look favourably on this issue and perhaps over the next weeks and months she may come to a decision to address the points I make.

I thank the Deputy for raising the matter. The Department of Agriculture and Food is responsible for implementing arrangements for the approval and registration of persons engaged in dealing in cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry under the Diseases of Animals (Amendment) Act 2001. As the Deputy said, that Act was introduced in the context of concerns that arose during the foot and mouth disease outbreak in 2001 and included,inter alia, a provision requiring dealers to be approved and registered to provide further assurances on the health status and traceability of our national herd.

The purpose of this legislation and the regulations adopted under it was to minimise the risks of disease outbreaks, reduce the spread of disease and ensure traceability of all movements to secure and preserve markets at home and abroad. It also implements aspects of EU legislation on dealers.

Under the legislation, a dealer is classified as a person who purchases cattle, sheep, pigs or poultry and supplies them to another person within a period of 45 days. The 45-day rule was introduced to facilitate farmer trade and reduce exposure of cattle to disease risks associated with frequent trading patterns. We have no evidence that this rule is acting as a significant barrier to trading in animals through the marts or otherwise.

The Deputy alluded to the definition of "dealer" in his remarks. The definition of "dealer" in the Act, and carried through to the regulations, extends to all individuals who sell or supply animals on a regular basis within 45 days of purchase. In principle, therefore, all those trading animals, including those supplying for slaughter within a 45 day period, must be registered as dealers. However, the Department does not require those who engage in occasional trade on their own behalf or on behalf of others to apply for approval and registration.

The regulations introduced a number of obligations and responsibilities for dealers. In particular, if dealers are assembling or holding animals other than at an approved assembly point, they must have their premises approved for this purpose and the premises must meet certain minimum standards. Dealers must also comply with regulatory requirements regarding bovine tuberculosis, brucellosis and animal identification and registration rules. However, dealers are not obliged to have a premises. Those who buy or procure animals for other parties and supply the animals directly to those parties without assembling them or bringing them to an intermediate point do not need to have premises. Nevertheless, they must be registered and approved by the Department and are obliged to maintain records and comply with movement, disease testing rules etc.

All applicants for registration as dealers must undertake to comply with the regulations regarding the notification of animal movements, standard of facilities, disease control, record keeping etc. Each dealer is provided with an official identity card, with photograph, which should be presented in respect of animal and poultry transactions. Approved dealers and premises are subject to ongoing monitoring and inspection by officers of the Department.

The Department is reviewing the dealer legislation. The review will be comprehensive and will include an examination of the definition of a dealer. It will be completed soon.

School Accommodation.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me raise this issue concerning the construction of a new school at Croom. Coláiste Chiarán is a second level school in Croom under the auspices of the County Limerick Vocational Education Committee. There are 580 students attending the college. In the 2006-07 school year, it is predicted that number will increase to 700.

I wish to raise with the Minister of State the fact that up to two thirds of the college's accommodation is now in prefabricated classrooms. The conditions for teaching and learning are unsuitable for both students and teachers. It is an unacceptable educational environment and I ask the Minister of State to give a commitment to the early commencement of the construction of acceptable accommodation and a new school at Croom. At a time of Exchequer multiple surpluses, the construction of the new school must not be restricted by the usual Department of Finance limitations. I ask the Minister of State to fast forward the construction of the school and stop the discrimination against students and teachers because of the unacceptable conditions.

The school has grown and developed significantly over the past six to seven years and has a reputation for excellent educational standards. It has done so on a temporary accommodation basis. Classroom conditions are overheated in summer and cold in winter. The Minister of State will accept that such conditions are intolerable in 2006.

Coláiste Chiarán is a progressive and dynamic college community with great emphasis put on information and communications technology and innovative teaching methodology. The overall aim is to equip its students with the academic, practical and social skills necessary for success in further education and the workplace. The original vocational school was established in 1938 and the current structure constructed as a first phase of school development in 1986.

Croom village and the catchment area of the college is a vastly expanding community. It is situated approximately ten miles from Limerick city. The advent of the new national primary road from Limerick city and the bypass of Croom has created a very attractive residential area with easy access to the city. The population is growing and with the updating of services to the village, it will mushroom.

While the construction of a new school within the earmarked 18-acre site is urgently required for current student accommodation, it is vital to plan second level educational facilities for the future, taking into consideration population expansion. I understand the Minister for Defence, Deputy O'Dea, promised to raise the issue with the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, yesterday. Will the Minister brief the House on the outcome and details of that discussion?

A majority percentage of pupils from outside the catchment area were refused their first choice of college within their catchment area. The parents chose Coláiste Chiarán as the best opportunity to maximise the educational opportunity for their children. It is the parents' right to do this.

The urgent case for a new school in Croom is merited. I urge the Minister to expedite the construction of such a school. It has the full support of the County Limerick Vocational Education Committee and all who see the school as a vastly expanding educational centre in urgent need of acceptable and modern conditions. This will facilitate the present population of the school, as well as the predicted population over the years. I look forward to the Minister of State's reply.

At the outset, I thank the Deputy for raising the matter as it affords me the opportunity to outline to the House the Government's strategy for capital investment in education projects and to outline the position of the Department of Education and Science regarding the proposed developments at post-primary level in Croom, County Limerick.

Modernising facilities in our 3,200 primary and 750 post-primary schools is not an easy task given the legacy of decades of underinvestment in this area, as well as the need to respond to emerging needs in areas of rapid population growth. Nonetheless, since taking office, the Government has shown a focused determination to improve the condition of our school buildings and ensure that appropriate facilities are in place to enable the implementation of a broad and balanced curriculum.

As evidence of this commitment, there will be in the region of 1,300 building and modernisation projects active in our primary and post-primary schools during 2006. Over €500 million is being spent on the primary and post-primary projects throughout the country. This unprecedented level of capital investment is testament to the importance the Government places on improving the quality of accommodation in our schools.

Coláiste Chiarán is the only post-primary school in Croom and is a co-educational provider with a current enrolment of 435 mainstream pupils and 146 students attending post-leaving certificate courses. The school's accommodation comprises some permanent accommodation and an extensive number of prefabricated buildings provided for the school over the years to address its growing enrolment.

County Limerick VEC has applied to the Department of Education and Science for funding towards the provision of a new school building for Coláiste Chiarán. Given the restricted nature of the existing site, the Department has given approval to County Limerick VEC to purchase a site to facilitate the development of a new replacement school. The next step in the process is the determination of the long-term projected enrolment on which the school's future accommodation needs will be based. Officials in my Department are currently engaged with the VEC on this issue and factors being examined include the population growth, demographic trends, current and projected enrolments and the likely impact of recent and planned housing developments in the area.

When the long-term projected enrolment has been finalised, schedules of accommodation will be drawn up. The project will then be ready to enter the architectural planning process. The building project will be considered in the context of the school building and modernisation programme for 2006-10.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter, which allows me to outline the progress being made under the school building and modernisation programme and in particular the position of Coláiste Chiarán in Croom.

Physical Education Facilities.

I thank the Office of the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this matter. There is an obesity epidemic sweeping the country at the moment. According to the national obesity task force report, 300,000 children are overweight or obese and this is growing by 10,000 annually.

In a survey which I carried out in 2005 in 1,400 primary schools, I discovered that only 23% of the schools had a sports hall and their physical education programmes were severely curtailed because of the lack of indoor facilities. Many schools were unable to do the minimum amount of physical activity because of the lack of an indoor facility or even an outdoor facility. There are genuine concerns about young children being injured in school yards, which raises the question of liability.

Apart from our schools, there is a cohort of children of pre-school age who need play, which can clearly also be relevant to children of school age. The provision of playgrounds in communities across the country is essential. There is no national scheme on this issue.

I will refer in particular to Kerry County Council, which has been proactive in addressing the issue of public play provision for children. In February 2003, Kerry was one of the first local authorities to launch a countywide policy on the development and management of public playgrounds. I was on the relevant committee at that time.

Since the policy, Developing Play in Kerry, was launched, an internal play appraisal team has been established to ensure that all decisions about play are compliant with the policy. This has provided a more centralised and co-ordinated approach to the development and management of outdoor playground areas. A guideline booklet entitled An Spraoi has been produced by Kerry County Council to assist community groups interested in developing outdoor public playground areas. It outlines eight basic steps, and once communities follow these steps, they can apply to Kerry County Council for insurance cover.

All applications are assessed by the play appraisal team. To date, the play appraisal team has approved nine projects for insurance cover. These are located in Ballybunion, Cahirciveen, Waterville, Killorglin, Sneem, Clohane, Ballyheigue, Fenit and Rossbeigh. Four of these projects are completed and two are at an early stage of construction. The remaining three have not started construction due to lack of funding. These projects are proposed for Fenit, Sneem and Rossbeigh, all of which have or intend to raise 20% of the projected costs locally.

Considering the high capital costs associated with developing a play facility, where playgrounds can range from €90,000 to €350,000, high-impact funding targeted at a level which would allow a project to proceed must be provided. Small grants will not enable projects to proceed within Department timeframes. From a Kerry perspective, to enable these developments to proceed and be completed within the current year, I requested that a bloc grant of at least €200,000 be allocated to Kerry County Council.

The Minister is reviewing the grant allocation for last year as some of the grants were not taken up. The reason for this is that the grants were not high enough to ensure that communities could purchase equipment as it is so expensive. The communities have to make up remaining funds through fundraising, which they find difficult. Will there be a scheme this year and, if so, when will it be announced? The community of Fenit had to go to the bank to borrow money to buy the equipment which it had already ordered, and other communities will have to do the same. Many progressive and forward-looking communities that have taken the initiative to order equipment are left in limbo because no scheme is available from the Department and there is no immediate hope of funding from Kerry County Council. I hope the Minister of State can give me some good news.

I thank Deputy Deenihan for raising the matter. Obesity in children has been identified as an emerging public health problem, especially in the western world. Data from recent surveys indicate that one in five Irish boys and girls is overweight and one in 20 is obese. Worryingly, the age of onset of obesity in children across the world is falling and a child is twice as likely to be an obese adult if obese in childhood. We need, therefore, as a priority, to address the trend and scale of excess weight and obesity in Irish children. To do that, we need to look at the eating and activity habits of children and what influences these. We need to make it easier for children to eat healthy foods and to be more active.

Effective weight management for people at risk of developing obesity involves a range of strategies and opportunities for physical activities. For children, play facilities are very important. Ready, Steady Play: A National Play Policy,which was published in 2004, provides a framework for the development of public play facilities in Ireland, with the overall aim of ensuring that children have access to a range of quality play opportunities to enrich their childhood. The development of the policy by the National Children's Office was as a result of consultation with children and young people who identified the lack of play and recreational opportunities as a major quality of life issue.

As part of the implementation of the policy, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government was delighted to provide more than €2 million in grant aid to county and city councils in respect of 32 new or refurbished playground projects under the local authority playground grants scheme in 2004. In 2005, the Minister announced funding of a further €2 million for local authorities for the development of playground facilities. A fixed grant of €60,000 was allocated to each county and city council to meet the cost of purchase and delivery of playground equipment. We expect to announce shortly further similar funding for such facilities in 2006. The level of funding should ensure a substantial increase in the overall number of playgrounds in Ireland and we are pleased that we have been able to play our part in responding to the recreational needs of children.

Local authorities are empowered under the Local Government Act 2001 to promote the interests of the local community in amenity, recreation and other functions. This includes the provision of sports, games and similar activities and general recreational and leisure facilities such as playgrounds. Apart from the direct grants already mentioned, which assist local authorities in this regard, my Department also provides significant financial support to local authorities through the local government fund, which is usable at the discretion of the authority. With this funding and the revenue generated from development levies, we hope to see many more playgrounds being put in place by local authorities which will make a real difference to the future health of our children.

Funding does not all have to come from the special playground grants scheme. Some local authorities specifically ring-fenced a portion of their development levies for playgrounds and other amenities but they had trouble finding suitable areas in which to build the playgrounds, certainly in the greater Dublin area. That was not because there were too many to build but because some residents thought that, while they attracted children by day, they attracted a different element by night. It is hard to find a location that is convenient yet far enough away from residential areas. There might be more room in Kerry.

Some local authorities do not have the rates base.

They have the development levies. I do not know much about County Kerry but perhaps the percentage for the amenity——

It is €130,000 for the whole county.

Perhaps councillors might fight for a higher percentage. A scheme is being introduced this year. The Deputy is the expert on Kerry and some of the places I might have driven through on holidays are not huge compared with some of the suburbs in Dublin. However, if there is a local need and a local committee to drive the fund-raising, then the Department and the council might work with them. If it were a matter of a small amount per county per year, some help might be possible. I will talk to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, who is in charge of the policy.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.25 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 1 June 2006.