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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 6 Mar 2008

Vol. 649 No. 3

Adjournment Debate (Resumed).

Hospitals Building Programme.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the opportunity of raising this very important issue. It seems to be all bad news with regard to the health service. I seek a clear commitment from the Minister of State that the €39 million redevelopment of Ennis General Hospital will proceed. At least in the case of Naas General Hospital, a €75 million project was completed in 2003 but we have not seen any money like that in Ennis General Hospital.

The Ennis Hospital Development Committee has on occasions been accused of scaremongering. However, the constant downgrading and withdrawal of services from County Clare does little to dispel the fear that there is a hidden agenda to reduce Ennis hospital to little more than a first aid injury clinic. At a meeting with the Minister for Health and Children which I attended on 20 September 2007, she indicated that this development would proceed. When the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, visited Ennis in May, prior to the general election of course, he was happy to show up for the photocall announcing that the development had progressed to planning, saying that it "symbolises Fianna Fáil's ongoing commitment to safeguarding and developing the health services available to the people of County Clare".

I raised this matter by way of parliamentary question on 31 January 2007 and I have been advised in writing by the HSE that the review of the acute services in the mid-west is to be published shortly and that this review is likely to have significant implications for capital developments for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, I have heard from reliable sources that this review is likely to recommend that this project does not proceed or that it could be delayed. Alarm bells are ringing and I have grave concerns. The drip by drip leaking of reports and the downgrading by stealth of services in County Clare is an emergency health warning to the people of Clare that a decision has already been made with regard to Ennis General Hospital.

The population of County Clare is 103,277, with more than 44,000 of the county's population outside the golden hour travelling time away from an accident and emergency department. Over 25,000 tourists stay in County Clare overnight during the summer season and Shannon International Airport is on our doorstep, handling 3.4 million passengers. It is also the designated emergency airport for all western traffic. This seems to matter little to this Government which has presided over the downgrading of health services in our county.

The HSE's vision for 2010 as outlined in its Transformation Programme 2007-2010 of easy access, confidence and staff pride, meant nothing to the three expectant mothers living in west Clare when no ambulance was available to transfer them to Limerick Maternity Hospital. The ambulance service in County Clare is under-resourced and clearly understaffed. The staff are working in appalling conditions and must clean out their ambulances with a mop and bucket. The vision of easy access means nothing to the women of Clare who, following the closure of mammography services in County Clare may now face up to a two-year delay for a publicly funded mammogram in Limerick. It means nothing to those patients in County Clare who, following the closure of the rheumatology services at Ennis, cannot meet with a rheumatologist in Limerick because one consultant cannot possibly handle the numbers.

The lives of people who live in Clare, especially in west Clare, who suffer major traumas will be put at further unnecessary risk as they will not receive emergency treatment in time following the decision to bypass Ennis for all such cases from April next. Access to Limerick Regional Hospital at certain times of the day is a disaster. If the bypassing of Ennis hospital is not reversed then at the very least an air ambulance service should be provided for west Clare and the Kilrush ambulance station must be upgraded with extra staff and two permanent APTs in the station at all times.

Ennis General Hospital is essential for life-saving and stabilising emergency care. This is been undermined and people's lives been put at risk because there is no CAT scanner in the hospital. When a CAT scanner was approved for the hospital it was an outdated machine, not a 16 slice scanner as is required. Very little progress has been made in installing a scanner. I raised this matter in the Dáil last year.

The centre of excellence in Limerick cannot cope with the extra number of patients who are arriving on their doorstep following the closure of some services at Ennis and Nenagh. The withdrawal of acute beds from Ennis and Nenagh will add 57% to Limerick's acute bed numbers, if accident and emergency department closures proceed. With leaks emanating that accident and emergency services are also to close at St. John's Hospital in Limerick, I question how are they going to cope with the extra numbers.

A total of 5,000 people marched on the streets of Ennis last September to urge this Government to sit up and listen. The health service is a shambles in County Clare. The tactics of withdrawing by stealth services from County Clare with no alternative in place is unacceptable. In 2000, €20.9 million was promised to develop Ennis. In 2005, five years later, the Minister announced the investment. This Government is great at turning sods and showing up for photoshoots. However, eight years on, there is no sod turning ceremony for Ennis and nothing but downgrading for the hospital.

I am asking the Minister of State for a firm commitment that the €39 million promised to redevelop Ennis General Hospital will be given, no matter what the report on the acute health services recommends for the region.

I am taking this Adjournment on behalf of my colleague, Deputy Mary Harney, Minister for Health and Children.

I welcome the opportunity to address the issue raised by the Deputy and to set out the current position in relation to breast cancer services nationally.

The HSE has designated Limerick Regional Hospital and University College Hospital Galway as the two cancer centres in the managed cancer control network for the HSE western region, which includes County Clare. The HSE has advised the Department that breast imaging services are available at the Mid-Western Regional Hospital Limerick through a breast clinic which provides rapid access for all women with breast symptoms. The HSE has also advised that mammography scheduling is based on clinical need and referrals to the breast clinic are assessed, prioritised and subsequently referred to the radiology department for imaging. Urgent referrals to the breast clinic for mammography——

I believe the Minister of State is speaking on the wrong matter. I withdrew that motion yesterday and made it clear to the Ceann Comhairle's office this morning that today's matter related to the hospital service.

The Minister of State's reply is not on the issue that was submitted, which related to the need for the €39 million redevelopment of Ennis General Hospital to proceed.

I apologise. This was the answer I was given. I will need to get in touch with the office.

Perhaps the Minister of State would provide a response in writing to the Deputy.

Perhaps this matter could be taken on Tuesday's Adjournment Debate.

That matter would need to be considered by the Ceann Comhairle. In the interim, since the matter has been raised——

If the Deputy is willing and the Leas Cheann Comhairle is willing——

I am willing to let the Minister of State proceed.

That would be a matter for the Ceann Comhairle on Tuesday.

I am very disappointed.

I understand that the Minister of State is in a difficulty. Perhaps he could get a response to the matter that was tabled and submit it to the Deputy. The Deputy should have a discussion with the Ceann Comhairle's office on Tuesday.

I am willing to talk to the Ceann Comhairle on Tuesday on the matter. It is a very important issue, as I have outlined. If the Minister of State wants to continue with the reply he has——

That is a different issue and I am afraid——

If the Minister of State wants to give me a reply for the Dáil record, I would also accept that.

I believe the Deputy has probably received the written reply. However, I must proceed, as it is not the issue that was tabled for discussion today. I call Deputy Costello.

Hopefully I will get a reply on Tuesday.

The Deputy will get a written reply immediately I hope.

If the Deputy wishes to discuss the matter after the reply——

Will it be put into the Dáil record?

That will be a matter for the Ceann Comhairle to consider on Tuesday.

I hope it will be.

Schools Building Projects.

I am sure the Minister of State will have appropriate, correct and good news for me.

There has been a long-standing problem with gaelscoil Bharra, an all-Irish school established in 1996 which has been in operation for more than 12 years. It was established in prefabricated buildings because there was nothing else there. Little did the students, parents and staff think that 12 years down the road they would still be in the same old dilapidated prefabricated buildings. These prefabricated buildings have been in use for considerably longer than the length of time for which they were designed. The classrooms are in a dreadful condition. They are not fit for human habitation and are certainly not fit to accommodate primary schoolchildren.

The toilets are blocked on a regular basis. The schoolyard gets flooded every time it rains and urgently needs to be resurfaced. We badly need a new school for the 230 pupils and staff. This has been repeatedly promised, but nothing has happened. The school has identified four classrooms as being particularly bad and made a proposal to the Minister to replace these four classrooms and resurface the schoolyard. The cost of that work would be approximately €400,000. The only reply the school has received is that the cost should be taken from the minor grant of €10,000 for remedial works. It would take approximately 40 years to pay that off without any interest.

A major protest was planned to be held in Parnell Square in the run-up to the 2002 election. It was called off at the last minute because the Taoiseach promised in writing to the school that the matter would be resolved and that he was 100% behind the parents, pupils and staff in getting a brand new school building. Strangely there has been no contact with the Taoiseach since that time, which is now almost six years ago. Every effort made by the staff and parents to meet the Taoiseach has failed. Although they managed to meet the Minister for Education and Science in 2003, that meeting did not achieve anything either.

At present pupils and staff are condemned to spend approximately six hours of each day in an unhealthy and damp building where the sewage comes up from the toilet and where the yard is flooded every time it rains. It really is not good enough that it has gone on for 12 years. On several occasions I have tabled parliamentary questions. The answer I got last week to a parliamentary question was an atrocious five-liner. Previous answers ran to approximately 20 lines containing some sort of explanation. The responses from the Department of Education and Science are getting even poorer. At least in the past we got assurances that the Department was seeking a fresh site or was preparing to build on the existing site. Now there is not even reference to that. All we get is a general reference to the multi-annual budget of the Department of Education and Science, with no mention of the construction of a replacement for these appalling buildings.

I would like to get something positive. The school is not going away. It has proved its viability and more pupils are coming in every year. I would like a positive commitment to a new school for the pupils of the area.

I believe I have the right answer this time.

I hope it is the right answer for me.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to outline to the House the Government's strategy for capital investment in education projects and also to outline the current position regarding the future plans for gaelscoil Bharra.

Modernising facilities in our 3,300 primary and 731 post primary schools is not an easy task given the legacy of decades of under-investment 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 consistent determination to improve the condition of our school buildings and to ensure the appropriate facilities are in place to enable the implementation of a broad and balanced curriculum.

The Government has dramatically increased investment in the school building programme to almost €600 million this year. Under the lifetime of the NDP almost €4.5 billion will be invested in schools. This is an unprecedented level of capital investment which reflects the commitment of the Government to continue its programme of sustained investment in primary and post primary schools. It will underpin a particular emphasis on the delivery of additional school places in rapidly developing areas, while continuing to develop on the Government's commitment to delivering improvements in the quality of existing primary and post primary accommodation throughout the country. It will also enable the purchase of sites to facilitate the smooth delivery of the school building programme, with the focus being on site requirements in rapidly developing areas.

On this specific matter, the Office of Public Works, which acts on behalf of the Department of Education and Science in site acquisitions generally, had been requested to source a greenfield site for this school. On foot of advertising, no proposals were received for a greenfield site in the Cabra area. Further to this, the OPW was requested by the Department to consider building a permanent school on the existing site. A number of issues have arisen regarding this proposal on which, I understand, clarification is being sought. When progress has been made, the school authorities will be notified immediately.

I again the Deputy for affording me the opportunity to outline to the House the current position regarding the future plans for gaelscoil Bharra.

Victim Impact Statements.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this matter of great importance arising for the most part from a recent case which has once again adverted to the lack of importance placed on the role of the victim in the criminal justice system. It is true to say that over the years the victim had few or no rights in this system. In 1993, the introduction of the victim impact statement was a most welcome development. For the first time it gave victims — or in manslaughter cases, their families — an opportunity to articulate how a crime had affected them. The victim impact statement empowers victims or their families, allowing them to play a part in the administration of justice, rather than forcing them to be mere passive observers. Fine Gael has been pushing for some time for greater rights for victims. Earlier this year, we published a Private Members' Bill which aims substantially to enhance the rights of victims within the criminal justice system. I am hopeful that the Bill will receive cross-party support when it comes before the House later this year. In the interim period, however, the conclusion of the Kearney case this week has thrown up important issues that the Oireachtas must consider urgently.

The late Siobhán Kearney's family did not have an opportunity to read out their victim impact statement in the court because the law does not facilitate such a procedure in murder cases. The rationale here is that the victim impact statement should help the judge to determine a sentence where he or she has discretion. In murder cases there is no discretion because a mandatory sentence applies, so some would argue that a victim impact statement is unnecessary. I disagree with this approach, however, as do my colleagues in Fine Gael. We believe that the victim impact statement fulfils a greater role than just informing the judge. A victim impact statement is an important opportunity for victims, or their families, to stitch into the public record the impact that a crime, as committed, has had on their lives. The statement plays a vital role in helping victims and their families to find closure on a horrific experience. It is an inclusive measure that transforms victims or their loved ones into participants in our criminal justice system, rather than forcing them to be passive observers.

Would it have made a difference to the sentence handed down to Brian Kearney if Siobhán's family had been allowed to make a victim impact statement? The answer is "No", but it would have made a difference to her family. This is evidenced by the fact that her family felt the need to read their statement outside the court. They wanted their voices to be heard and, indeed, today's papers gave the statement much coverage. In my view it is most regrettable that the Government has failed to recognise the value of victim impact statements. There must be more to such statements than mere process and procedure. Victim impact statements are about making our justice system inclusive and humane.

Fine Gael is calling again on the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law reform to take these issues on board. I hope the opportunity that now presents itself will not be ignored by the Government.

I thank Deputy Charles Flanagan for raising this important issue and I am grateful for the opportunity to address it. My colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Brian Lenihan, is conscious of the need to support victims of crime in their contacts with our criminal justice system.

Over the past few years, this Government has taken steps to ensure that the victim has a central place in the criminal justice system. In 2005, we established the Commission for the Support of Victims of Crime, with a remit to devise an appropriate support framework for victims of crime into the future and to disburse funding for victim support measures. I pay a warm tribute to that commission for all the work it has achieved over the past three years. Its work is much appreciated by voluntary bodies that provide practical assistance to victims of crime and their families.

Since 2005, the commission has provided funding close to €2.5 million to over 40 groups engaged in the support of victims of crime. I understand that the commission is currently considering applications for 2008 from some 55 voluntary organisations. This will lead to the expenditure of a further €1 million this year to organisations supporting victims of crime. One of the most important services funded by the commission has been for the purpose of court accompaniment, where victims of crime are assisted by trained voluntary personnel in getting to understand the criminal court procedures, and where victims or their families have a friendly face to accompany them throughout any trial.

The Minister met with the Commission for the Support of Victims of Crime and has been advised that it has made considerable progress in devising an appropriate support framework for victims of crime in future. Only last week the commission held a well-attended discussion day with victims' organisations at which the elements of such a future framework were frankly discussed. Arising from those discussions, the commission expects to be in a position to present its findings to the Minister shortly. This document will provide important insights into how support for victims of crime might be developed into the future, including the steps that would be necessary to give effect to the commitment in the programme for Government to establish a statutory victims agency and advisory council.

In September 1999, a new and comprehensive victims charter and guide to the criminal justice system was published, which set out the rights and entitlements to services and the levels and standards of treatment which crime victims could reasonably expect. The charter operated from the time of publication with clear complaint procedures whereby if the victim's expectations were not met or where the level of service was not as set out in the charter, complaints could be lodged. This charter is currently under review by the Commission for the Support of Victims of Crime and a revised charter is expected to be published shortly.

Victim impact statements are among the most effective mechanisms available to ensure that the interests and concerns of victims of crime are brought to bear on the criminal justice process. Section 5 of the Criminal Justice Act 1993 provides that a court, before passing sentence, is required to take into account any effect, whether long-term or otherwise, of the offence on the person in respect of whom the offence was committed. This is one of the rare instances where the court is specifically directed as to a matter to be taken into account at the sentencing stage. Otherwise, courts — other than in murder cases — have a large measure of discretion as to the matters to be considered in the context of determining the appropriate sentence. As a result of the procedure under section 5 of the 1993 Act, victims can expect to have a level of involvement beyond that of a mere witness.

In recent times, a certain amount of attention has been given to the role of victim impact statements. The Minister has already undertaken that, following reflection on this complex issue, he may, if considered necessary and appropriate, bring forward proposals which will address any defect in the current arrangements or which may enhance further the role of the victim. In that context account will have to be taken not only of public debate on the matter, but it will also include consideration of the very helpful comments made by the Balance in the Criminal Law Review Group, chaired by Dr. Gerard Hogan SC, in its report earlier this year.

As regards the current arrangements under section 5 of the 1993 Act, the review group suggests the section may be too restrictive in so far as it permits a statement by or on behalf of the direct victim only. It suggests there is a case for expanding the definition of "victim" to include other persons intimately affected by the crime, such as would be the position in homicide cases where a close relative of the victim is, at the court's discretion, permitted to make or provide a statement.

The review group also discusses the possible use of victim impact statements at the parole or remission stage and places this issue in the context of restorative justice — that is, that the victim would have an opportunity to address the perpetrator directly, to make him or her realise more fully the harm that has been done.

The National Commission on Restorative Justice, with Judge Mary Martin as chair, was established in 2007 to examine both national and international practices in restorative justice, to consider the recommendations of the Oireachtas Joint Committee's report on restorative justice, and to consider what model or models of restorative justice might be appropriate to Irish circumstances.

I am loath to interrupt the Minister but I am afraid that the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has provided a very long reply.

It is a very detailed response.

I am afraid therefore that we will have to adjourn the debate.

I shall pass the written reply on to the Deputy.

I am grateful to the Minister of State.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.20 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 11 March 2008.