Adjournment Debate.

Hospital Services.

In their pre-election promises the Taoiseach and Minister for Health and Children said no health cuts would be made and that more than 4,000 health workers would be recruited in the post-election period. The recent health cuts have completely undermined any credibility the new Government might have had. We cannot believe a word it says. The Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Devins, promised two weeks ago that there would be no cutbacks at Sligo General Hospital. We learn now that he is uncomfortable about the cutbacks which have been made. It is two weeks since he toldThe Sligo Champion that patient care should not be hit in any way by cutbacks being implemented at Sligo General Hospital. The promises of the Minister and Minister of State that such measures would not reduce services were plainly inaccurate. Today’s developments on critical services and the roll out of BreastCheck and radiotherapy are very disappointing. Delivery will depend on the capacity of services in Belfast to take patients from the region. It is appalling.

Sligo General Hospital has lost four consultants and 30 nurses. The scale of the cuts at the hospital exceeds anything proposed for any other location nationally. The cutting of the consultant posts will be especially disappointing for women in the north west with the loss of a consultant obstetrician gynaecologist and a general surgeon with special expertise in breast surgery. Other specialties affected are orthopaedics and ear, nose and throat services, which are also critical. These extensive cutbacks in front-line staff will adversely affect the quality and availability of patient care. The IMO president, Dr. Paula Gilvarry, has said the decision will cause outpatient appointments and clinics to be cancelled and result in longer waiting lists. The IMO president would not make such a statement without specific knowledge. The chairman of Sligo General Hospital medical board, Dr. Niall Considine, has said that breast operations will be reduced by 50%, while there are over 360 placed patients on the waiting list for surgery for more than 12 months. These major cutbacks will result in longer waiting times for outpatient appointments and the cancellation of clinics leading to greater hardship and stress for patients. There is no arguing with these facts.

I am very disappointed that the Minister, Deputy Harney, is not present to deal directly with this matter. She is trying to defend cuts which are doing grievous damage to patient care. It is the responsibility of the Minister for Health and Children to ensure the standards of care and access to the service are maintained. I call on the Minister, Deputy Harney, to urgently address these serious concerns.

The budget is the responsibility of the HSE but the Minister has ultimate responsibility. Look at the scale of the cutbacks. The staff in the north-west region cover a huge area. It is most disappointing to hear the Minister, as late as today, briefly allude to this and offer a feeble excuse. There is huge unrest about this issue, as my colleague Deputy Scanlan will agree. No spin will alter the fact of the cutbacks in this area, while up to €13 billion is being spent on health care services.

Before the general election we were promised the roll out of BreastCheck in 2007, in addition to radiotherapy and other oncology services. However, the IMO president, Dr. Paula Gilvarry, has said this decision will cause outpatient appointments and clinics to be cancelled, as well as longer waiting lists for patients. The most eminent consultant in Sligo, Dr. Niall Considine, in a letter toThe Irish Times said that breast operations will be reduced by 50%. The Minister, Deputy Harney, should reply not just to me but also to Dr. Considine, who knows his business.

This relates to the oncology service. People are dying in the north west because they do not have services. They feel the cutbacks and the lack of BreastCheck and radiotherapy services. A doctor who provides breast surgery is being removed. Dr. Niall Considine has stated as much. I demand quality health care. With no disrespect to the Minister of State, Deputy Hoctor, I am disappointed that the Minister, Deputy Harney, who knew this issue was to be discussed and mentioned it earlier, would not wait to reply to the debate. It clearly indicates what she thinks of the roll out of services in Sligo General Hospital.

I am replying on behalf of my colleague, Deputy Harney, Minister for Health and Children. The provision of services at Sligo General Hospital is the responsibility of the Health Service Executive. The Health Service Executive has informed the Department that Sligo General Hospital is reducing temporary staff in some nursing, medical and catering posts. This does not involve any withdrawal of the core services provided by the hospital. The circumstances are specific to each staff category and I will explain these for each.

With regard to nursing staff, as in previous years, in the summer months additional temporary staff were employed, mainly to cover annual and other leave. A total of 30 people were employed on a temporary basis for this reason. This compares with a total permanent nursing staff of over 700 at Sligo General in whole time equivalent terms. As in every organisation, small or large, public sector or private sector, when permanent staff have returned from their summer holidays, the temporary cover staff are no longer needed. This is what happened at Sligo General Hospital. In no organisation could this arrangement be described as a cutback in staffing.

Four temporary consultant posts, which were contracted for specific temporary purposes and time periods, have recently come to the end of their contracts. These posts were in addition to the permanent consultant complement of the hospital, which is not affected and remains the same. In orthopaedics, one of the three permanent consultants was a member of the Medical Council until his recent retirement. To maintain full orthopaedic services a locum was employed while this consultant was away on Medical Council business. Following his retirement, a new permanent consultant was appointed and has taken up full-time duty in Sligo General Hospital. There was therefore no requirement to maintain the locum position.

In obstetrics/gynaecology, one of the three permanent consultants retired in July, his replacement having taken up duty prior to this. To ensure a smooth transition, the retiring consultant was contracted on a short-term locum basis following his retirement. This arrangement can now be discontinued, and the specialty has its full complement of three consultants. In surgery and ENT, a temporary additional consultant was employed in both these specialties during 2006 to help reduce waiting lists. They were not intended as permanent appointments. The hospital has had the benefit of these temporary appointments in reducing waiting lists and seeing more patients. However, within its overall funding the hospital has to make choices about which service pressures most need to be addressed from time to time, and it was decided at this time to discontinue these temporary contracts, to allow the funds to be used for other service priorities. The recently opened new neonatal intensive care unit, for example, which provides a much better facility for newborns, required and received more nurses to staff it.

With regard to the Deputy's reference to patients waiting over 12 months, the Minister understands that to date this year, 207 inpatients have been referred to the National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF. Patients waiting longer than three months are entitled to apply for treatment through the NTPF. I hope Sligo General Hospital would make every effort to reduce its waiting lists by referring appropriate patients to the fund.

Overall consultant staffing has been significantly enhanced at Sligo General Hospital. An additional appointment has been made in paediatrics and radiology. Further consultants in emergency medicine, pathology and radiology have been approved and a consultant neurologist will take up post in January 2008.

It is clear that these measures do not entail a reduction in the hospital's core services, nor will they adversely affect the quality and safety of patient care. Every effort is being made to ensure the hospital's resources are managed in an efficient and effective manner to protect core services and activity, and to deal with emerging service pressures. This year, our health services are seeing significant increases in funding, staffing and patient services. That is the record so far and will be the overall outcome at the end of the year.

The Government is clearly committed to the provision of services at Sligo General Hospital. The HSE is fully aware that it must remain within the employment ceiling negotiated with the Department of Finance. The Minister is confident that the measures taken by the HSE with regard to Sligo General Hospital will assist the hospital to manage its services within budget.

Industrial Development.

Is é seo an chéad uair a bhfuil mé ag labhairt sa Dáil. Dá bhrí sin, gabhaim buíochas le muintir Maigh Eo as ucht an tacaíocht a thug siad dom ag an toghchán deireanach.

Twelve years ago the IDA, in association with Mayo County Council, acquired a site in Ballina to develop a technology park. The site was acquired in the face of considerable local expert advice not to proceed with the acquisition, owing to known difficulties with the title of the site and the fact that, at the time, the site had no services. In the intervening period Mayo County Council invested in the site to install the relevant services. However, the title issue has still not been resolved. Throughout that time the advice provided by the IDA to relevant Ministers and to departmental officials was that it would be sorted or was on the verge of being sorted. That advice might be in the reply to be given this evening by the Minister.

It is local knowledge that the title issues are still outstanding and are just as far from resolution. I call on the Minister and the Department to intervene. We have waited 12 years for a site. The IDA refuses to acknowledge that there are other serviced industrial sites available in Ballina for potential investors and employers. The issue has been highlighted by recent figures from the Central Statistics Office, which show that 15.8% of the labour force in Ballina is unemployed. It is the largest figure for a town of its size in the country. The average comparable figure is 8.5%.

The reluctance of the IDA and other agencies to invest in Ballina contrasts with the private investment made by local business people in recent years. New hotels, retail units and services have considerably transformed the town's ability to be an attractive destination. There has been considerable Government investment in roads, broadband and currently in connecting Ballina to the national gas network. The challenges presented to Ballina by the IDA in terms of its infrastructure are being addressed. What is lacking is a willingness on behalf of the IDA to intervene and take a position to resolve the issue. The attitude of the IDA to date has been incredibly disappointing. The advice it passes to officials and Ministers is that it will be sorted. We are extremely concerned when we consider the experience of Castlebar and Westport where technology parks were developed. Were prizes going at the Chelsea Flower Show for the quality of the trees on display the IDA would win. However, no jobs or units are located in the parks. When we get a park up and running we will maintain maximum pressure to locate industry.

The recent decision by Coca Cola to expand its workforce at a time when it was cutting its workforce everywhere else — and we sympathise in particular with Drogheda — demonstrates the quality of the workforce available to any potential investor in Ballina or Mayo. It is extremely frustrating to sit down with parents who make considerable investment in their children's education only to see it used in cities and towns in other parts of the country because of the lack of industrial and other jobs in the Ballina area.

We have an extremely qualified and willing workforce. What we lack is a proper site and the will and commitment of IDA Ireland to develop the site and Ballina as a location. I ask the Minister of State to intervene personally to resolve the issue. If we cannot have this specific site within the next 12 weeks, the time has come to move to another site. Otherwise, we will have to wait another 12 years before we have a site to put on offer. We waited 12 years and surely 12 weeks can resolve the problem.

I congratulate Deputy Calleary on his election to the House. His family has a proud tradition of representing Mayo and I wish him well.

The management of IDA Ireland's property portfolio, including the development of industrial parks in particular areas, is a day-to-day operational matter for the agency and not a matter in which I or my Department have a statutory function. Overall, IDA invests significantly in the provision of planned and focused property solutions in the west region and specifically in County Mayo. This is an essential marketing tool in the process of attracting potential new investors to County Mayo. The Government through the IDA has spent almost €6 million in property development in County Mayo, a cumulative spend in the four-year period up to December 2005.

With regard to Ballina, IDA Ireland has been engaged in protracted discussions with Mayo County Council regarding the acquisition of a 27-acre site on the Sligo road in Ballina. The agency requires "unburdened title" to the site before it can begin development work on the land. As the Deputy may be aware, progress in this matter was delayed due to lengthy legal proceedings over which the IDA had no control and to which the agency was not a party. I am now informed by the agency that these proceedings have been completed. It is in regular contact with the council and expects an early resolution of the matter.

The Government is determined to see the emergence of strong magnets of attraction in each region. For its successful development each region needs to develop clear competitive reasons for companies to locate there rather than elsewhere and effective local leadership is vital in this regard. Under the national spatial strategy Castlebar and Ballina form a linked hub. Both these towns, together with the town of Westport, are priority locations for Government. The IDA actively promotes them for new foreign direct investment. The Government recognises the need to provide high-value employment opportunities in the key towns in Mayo which provide sustainable long-term jobs. The IDA on behalf of Government is committed to the development of Mayo and works continually with its existing client base to deepen the global strategic importance of the Irish operations within their parent corporations. At present, 21 IDA supported companies in Mayo employ more than 3,000 people in permanent employment with approximately 500 more in temporary and contract employment.

Working in strong partnership with other organisations at national and local level, the IDA can support and influence the delivery of some of the conditions that are necessary to attract investment. All of the development agencies under the remit of my Department are actively involved in the Mayo County Development Board.

The overall aim of Government policy is to transform Irish companies into market-focused and innovation-driven businesses to increase their exports, sales and employment. The Government, through Enterprise Ireland, has approved funding support of more than €5.3 million and paid more than €3.1 million to companies in County Mayo in the period from 2004 to date. This financial support will facilitate the companies to fund their plans for innovation and new product development. As part of its remit, Enterprise Ireland provides preferential funding for companies, with detailed export plans, which are establishing or expanding business in the county as part of the Border, midland and west region.

Community enterprise centres provide a much needed business infrastructure and incentive for small new company start-ups in disadvantaged areas. Working in partnership with the local community, Enterprise Ireland has approved support for a total of ten community enterprise centres in County Mayo, some of which have received support for several different phases of development. These centres are located in Ballina, Ballyhaunis, Brickens, Castlebar, Claremorris, Foxford, Killala and Kiltimagh. In addition, Enterprise Ireland has worked in close co-operation with Mayo County Council in the development of the broadband MANs in Ballina.

Regarding the Deputy's assertion that Ballina has the largest unemployment problem in Ireland, my understanding is that the CSO data referred to by the Deputy is sourced from the results of the 2006 census, which indicated that, for towns with a population of more than 10,000, Ballina had the highest level of unemployment among large towns. The standard reference used for unemployment data is the quarterly national household survey, not the census. The quarterly national household survey, QNHS, published by the CSO, does not provide data on specific towns and is available on a regional basis only. Under the QNHS, the unemployment rate for the State at the time the census was taken was 4.3%, and the figure for the west region of which Ballina forms part was 4.2%. The August live register data for Ballina shows that 1,445 are on the register, practically the same level as for the same period last year. Comparable live register figures for the six years up to 2007 show that the numbers on the live register for August decreased year on year from 1,976 in 2002 to 1,445 in 2007.

FÁS offers a wide range of supports to people in County Mayo who are unemployed. In Ballina town, FÁS offers a suite of five training courses providing 90 training places. At present one carpentry and joinery apprenticeship exists and it is planned to increase the apprenticeship capacity to 44 places by adding a further two electrical apprenticeship courses in January 2008.

Contracted training in the Mayo region has a capacity for 150 places and recruitment is taking place for eight courses commencing in October and November 2007. Placement and progression from these courses is generally approximately 65%. FÁS has three employment services officers in Ballina who provide a vocational guidance and job matching service for clients. The main challenge to progressing people into employment is the relative lack of new job opportunities in the area. Penneys was the most recent employer to come to the Ballina area and FÁS assisted with the recruitment of approximately 70 staff for its store.

I will use my office to ensure that the issue is addressed and will respond to the Deputy if it is required.

Irish Sign Language.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, to the House. This is the Irish Deaf Society's awareness week. The central theme of the week is the quite serious campaign to get recognition for Irish sign language. It is the indigenous language of the deaf community and affects approximately 40,000 people. It is a minority language which has all the attributes of an oral language in terms of complexity and composition. The society has campaigned for this during the 25 years since its foundation. It is high time the Irish Government seriously considered the provision of appropriate recognition for Irish sign language.

Each country has its own sign language and there is no such thing as a universal sign language. They are all different. When the previous Government discussed the provision of certain disability rights in the context of new disability legislation, the disability legislation consultation group recommended that Irish sign language be enshrined in the Constitution. The European Parliament on two occasions in 1988 and 1998 gave recognition in its voting procedures to sign language and recommended that all member states give recognition. While it gives recognition within its own legislative parameters, the principle of subsidiarity applies and, unfortunately, this has not taken place in Ireland. Approximately 45 countries worldwide have formally and legally recognised sign language, 24 of which are in Europe, but the Republic of Ireland is not one of them. It is ironic that the British Government has given recognition to the British sign language and to Irish sign language in Northern Ireland, while the Irish Government has given no recognition to Irish sign language in the Republic.

We have a group of people who speak a minority language who are marginalised because there is no appropriate recognition of that language. It is high time we decided to give appropriate legal recognition to Irish sign language.

I am responding on behalf of my colleague the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Mary Hanafin.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to clarify the position of the Department of Education and Science in relation to Irish sign language. As the Deputy may be aware, section 2 of the Official Languages Act 2003 states that "the official languages" of the State are (a) the Irish language, being the national language and the first official language and (b) the English language, being a second official language, as specified in Article 8 of the Constitution.

The Government has no plans at present to recognise Irish sign language as an official language of the State. However, I wish to advise the Deputy that Irish sign language has formal recognition in the Education Act 1998. Under the Act, it is a function of the Minister for Education and Science to ensure, subject to the provisions of the Act, that there is made available to each person resident in the State, including a person with a disability or who has other special educational needs, support services and a level and quality of education appropriate to meeting the needs and abilities of that person. This includes provision for students learning through Irish sign language.

A number of initiatives which seek to promote, develop and implement Irish sign language in order that it should achieve greater recognition and use in the education system are currently in place. These include the special schools for the deaf in Cabra, Dublin which have been encouraged in relation to the use of sign language in class. Funding is available for training of teachers in Irish sign language. The Department of Education and Science has provided funding for an Irish sign language weekly home tuition service whereby deaf tutors visit the homes of deaf pre-school children and deaf school-going pupils to provide training in Irish sign language for the deaf children and pupils, their siblings and parents.

The Department, through the Higher Education Authority, has established and fully funds a centre for deaf studies in Trinity College, Dublin which provides diploma courses for Irish sign language English interpreters, deaf tutors and in deaf studies. The course modules include issues such as sign linguistics, bi-lingualism and socio-linguistics of sign language. The course is delivered in seminar sessions, group work and the award of the diploma is based on continued assessment, a project and course design.

I again thank the Deputy, on behalf of the Minister, for the opportunity to clarify the position in relation to the Irish sign language and the relevant provisions of the Education Act.

Local Authority Funding.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this matter which no doubt will be of interest to him, being a fellow Kerryman.

Play is essential for the physical, cognitive, emotional and social development of our children. We have an obesity epidemic in this country. Due to the lack of proper research we do not have accurate statistics on the precise numbers and their area distribution. However, according to the report of the obesity forum at least one in eight children is obese.

Kerry County Council, through its community cultural and tourism SPC, developed a policy document entitled Ag Spraoi. This policy document looked at developing play in Kerry and set out eight steps to developing a public playground area for the children and young people in our communities.

Since the policy was adopted by members of Kerry County Council in February 2004, the community and enterprise department has actively worked with communities to establish state-of-the-art playgrounds in the county. In each case where playgrounds have been established, such as the state-of-the art facilities in Fenit, Ballybunion, Waterville and Cahirciveen, to name but a few, a local committee was established, a site identified, advice and assistance was provided through the play appraisal team of Kerry County Council and financial assistance provided by the council through a combination of disbursal of the annual Government grant, supplemented by recreational and amenity development levies.

For the past three years a grant of €120,000 has been received on an annual basis and has been disbursed as appropriate in light of the stage of development of playgrounds throughout the county. This funding has been absolutely vital to the establishment of playgrounds. Last year €20,000 of the fund was spent on the completion of the Ballyheigue playground and €100,000 was allocated to Fenit. This was opened last April by the Minister, Deputy Roche, who promised on that occasion to open similar playgrounds around the country. He did not mention that he had suspended the grants scheme at that time. I understand he knew that the grants scheme was suspended then but he did not reveal that to the people present.

Kerry County Council has recently been notified by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government that it is not in a position to justify the initiation of another year's grant scheme. The loss of the playground grant will have serious implications for the playground programme in Kerry, most particularly in the current year. Kerry County Council's 2007 playground development programme is dependent on receiving €120,000 at least, similar to that for other years. A programme had been set out for spending in this regard which would be supplemented by development levies. The withdrawal of these funds will have immediate effect on playgrounds at various stages of development in areas such as Sneem, Rossbeigh, Kenmare, Valentia Island, Ardfert and in my own village of Lixnaw. Kerry County Council would have required funding of approximately €200,000 from the Department to complete these projects. Given that this funding will not be provided, the whole programme will probably have to be suspended.

The national development plan provided a clear commitment for a funding scheme through central Government for the development of playgrounds throughout the country. It is clear this commitment has been reneged on. Initially the grants scheme was provided as a two-year scheme to kick-start the national play policy, ready steady play, but it is clear that it may not be continued. Many local authorities, apart from Kerry, will have to provide playgrounds from their own resources without any recourse to the grants scheme which was in place.

The Minister of State will probably say that a number of local authorities did not use up their grant. It is unfair that a county like Kerry with a very proactive scheme, which was availed of by locals and tourists alike, should be penalised. I appeal to the Minister of State to go back to the Minister, Deputy Gormley, to ensure he restores this grant scheme. I recall the time when his colleague slated the then Minister, Deputy John O'Donoghue, for not providing enough funding for sport facilities. In fact he referred to him as a pimp because young people had to go out bagging in supermarkets to get funding for sport facilities. Now the Minister, Deputy Gormley, is reneging on this grant for a vital piece of infrastructure. I appeal to the Minister of State to do something about it.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue.

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 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 this policy, the Department introduced a grants scheme in 2004, whereby allocations were made to city and county councils in respect of the purchase and delivery of playground equipment. Installation and other ancillary costs, including surface materials and fencing, were borne by the local authority. The location of the playgrounds benefiting from the funding is a matter for decision by local authorities. The Department provided funding for local authorities for additional schemes in 2005 and 2006. In all, the Department has allocated funding of over €8 million to county and city councils for the development of 167 new or refurbished playgrounds since 2004.

Kerry County Council has developed four playgrounds under the three playground grant schemes to date. Financial assistance amounting to €257.822.43 has been provided for the council by the Department for this purpose. As such, the council has effectively drawn down all allocations made to it under the schemes. The playgrounds involved are located at Ballybunion, Ballyheigue, Waterville and Fenit. I commend the council on its efficiency in responding promptly to the needs of these communities by installing playgrounds without delay. I understand the council would be in a position to develop playgrounds in four additional locations in County Kerry.

Local authorities are empowered under the Local Government Act 2001 to promote the interests of the local community regarding amenity, recreation and other functions. This includes provision for sports, games and similar activities, as well as general recreational and leisure facilities such as playgrounds. Apart from the direct grants already mentioned which assist local authorities in this regard, the Department also provides significant financial support for local authorities through the local government fund which is usable at the discretion of an authority.

Grant aid of approximately €4.1 million in respect of more than 80 playgrounds remains to be drawn down from the Department by other local authorities under the playground grant schemes. An assessment of the overall scheme will be made by the Department when full information is available upon completion of all the projects in those local authorities currently approved for grant aid. The question of inviting further proposals from Kerry County Council and other local authorities in a position to develop additional playgrounds is being kept under review in the light of progress made under the existing schemes and the availability of funds to the Department for these purposes.

The Dáil adjourned at 10.55 p.m. until10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 27 September 2007.