Adjournment Debate.

Industrial Disputes.

I congratulate the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Barry Andrews, on his appointment. We will lose him from one of our committees, which he chaired expertly. I wish him well. I hoped this matter would have been deemed important enough for the Minister for Health and Children to attend, but she decided not to do so.

The dispute involving the psychiatric nurses is serious and it affects the most vulnerable people, namely the psychiatric patients in hospital and in the community. Any diminution of service has an effect and the diminution in question is considerable. It is feared that the trend will continue. We urge the Minister, the HSE and the unions to make every effort tomorrow with the Labour Relations Commission to find a solution to the crisis affecting psychiatric services.

Assaults of varying degrees have been a fact of life for psychiatric nurses for a long time. In 2002 the Psychiatric Nurses Association, PNA, carried out research on the number of assaults on psychiatric nurses in 2001 and found that 857 had been injured by assault. On making this finding, the PNA wrote to the then Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, stating that the frequency of the assaults in psychiatric services can, in most instances, be attributed to the mental health of the patients. The letter states that the perpetrator of the assault is, quite often, suffering from an illness such that, if charged with a serious criminal offence, there would be a finding of insanity or diminished responsibility. There was no response by the Minister and the PNA balloted members on industrial action. However, on the eve of the action, the Minister intervened and set up a taskforce on assaults on psychiatric nurses. The Minister gave a written assurance that the findings and recommendations of the taskforce would be accepted and progressed within an agreed timeframe.

The taskforce reported in April 2003 and the report contained a recommendation for the establishment of a no-fault, non-statutory compensation scheme for nurses working in mental health services who suffer serious injury as a result of an assault. It defined "injury" as "any serious impairment of the person's physical or mental condition". It provided for retrospective compensation for nurses previously injured by assault. The PNA accepted the recommendations of the taskforce but, despite several demands, there was no sign of the scheme being implemented by the Minister.

The Government considered the matter at its Cabinet meeting on 13 July 2005. The then Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, met the PNA that evening and said that, despite the Government's previous undertakings, the Government had decided not to implement the scheme. She stated she was asking the State Claims Agency to consider the introduction of a fixed redress scheme along the lines of the PIAB scheme that would expressly prohibit any compensation for psychological trauma and would not cover any injuries incurred before the introduction of the scheme. This was contrary to the recommendations of the taskforce and to the undertaking of the Minister's predecessor, Deputy Martin.

The PNA was adamant that psychological trauma and retrospection should be part of the scheme. However, it decided it would be prudent to allow the Government to approve the scheme as the principle of no-fault compensation at least would be established. The Government subsequently approved the scheme at a Cabinet meeting on 17 January 2007. The PNA immediately referred the matter to the Labour Court and sourced legal and medical expert opinion. The Labour Court in its recommendation upheld the PNA claim. It stated:

The Court accordingly recommends that an insurance-based scheme be put in place to take effect from the date of this Recommendation, which should include an element of compensation for psychological trauma, where relevant, and where it arises directly from the effects of an assault on a nurse while at work.

The Labour Court's understanding is that there are approximately 40 such claims already lodged in the system. In the case of these claims and no other, the court recommended that the terms of the proposed new scheme be extended to embrace those claimants on a once-off basis. Following the recommendation from the court, the Department went back to the various Departments involved, particularly the Department of Finance and the Office of the Attorney General for advice.

Following repeated requests to the Department of Health and Children, the HSE and HSE-Employers Agency, the union was informed that the Department of Health and Children had completed its consultations early this year and that a revised scheme to incorporate the findings of the Labour Court was presented to the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney on 3 January 2008. The PNA issued a press release describing the scheme as being "Yellow pack in the extreme".

As of yesterday evening the delivery of services has been upset to a considerable degree. Various problems have arisen in County Kildare and the Central Mental Hospital, Dundrum, where there has been a proposal that soldiers and gardaí should take over nursing duties. While I hope this was never considered, a newspaper reported that this was the case. A staffing crisis that arose before noon in County Kildare was averted until 5 p.m. Problems exist in St. Ita's, Portrane, Tallaght hospital and in the mental health services in Clonmel and counties Clare, Monaghan and Cavan.

I thank Deputy Neville for raising this issue and for his good wishes. I am taking this Adjournment debate on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney.

In 2002, a task force was established to investigate assaults on psychiatric nurses with a view to exploring preventive measures to reduce the incidence of assault and to provide for a compensation scheme for the nurses concerned. The task force reported in April 2003. It recommended the introduction of a no fault, non-statutory compensation scheme for those nurses working in the mental health services who are seriously injured as a result of an assault by patients during the course of their duties.

On 13 July 2005 the Government decided, in the light of advice received from the Attorney General, that it was neither feasible nor practical to proceed with the introduction of a no fault compensation scheme as recommended by the task force. The Minister for Health and Children met officials from SIPTU and the PNA on 13 July 2005 and advised both unions of the Government decision. However, the Minister confirmed that consideration would be given to the idea of a fixed and proportionate redress fund for physical injuries as an add-on to the serious physical assault scheme.

Following from this, the Labour Court recommendation dated 29 March 2007 and subsequent clarification, the HSE introduced an insurance scheme to provide compensation for nurses in the mental health services assaulted by a patient or client in the course of their employment. This insurance scheme is modelled on standard personal accident insurance cover and will provide a fixed tariff of compensation for particular physical injuries resulting from assault by a patient. It would be in addition to the existing serious physical assault scheme, which provides for enhanced sick pay and cover for medical expenses, as well as five sixths of salary for nurses permanently incapacitated as a result of a serious assault at work.

It also should be noted that premiums due for the personal injury insurance cover are paid for by the HSE and no charge is incurred by individual nurses. The policy commenced on Monday, 21 January 2008 and is in line with industry norms in respect of insurance-based schemes that are available to other sectors of the economy. Both the PNA and SIPTU have rejected the scheme and have argued that any benefit should be reflective of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, PIAB, book of quantum. However, the cover provided is an insurance-based scheme which never was intended to compensate persons at levels equivalent to the PIAB or the courts.

The PIAB assesses claims for compensation only in circumstances in which the negligent party, whether employer or otherwise, acknowledges fault. The PIAB compensation is based on the equivalent compensation that a person could expect to be awarded by a judge of the Circuit Court or High Court.

Following 21 days' notice, the PNA and SIPTU commenced a work to rule on 30 April, which includes a ban on overtime whereby psychiatric nurses will work rostered hours only; no co-operation with assisted admission; no escorting of patients to mental health tribunals; and no attendance at non-essential meetings. The HSE invited the PNA and SIPTU to talks yesterday, 7 May, to discuss issues relating to contingency plans, continuity of service and emergency cover for the ongoing dispute. Both unions declined to attend. This non-attendance, combined with the failure to notify the HSE of their non-attendance, raises serious questions about the commitment of union leadership to patient safety.

Meanwhile, as a consequence of the ongoing PNA-SIPTU industrial action, the position in Lakeview acute mental health unit at Naas General Hospital has reached critical point. There have been significant ongoing difficulties in staffing the Lakeview unit. However, due to uncertainty regarding the ability to deliver continuity of care in a safe environment, a decision has been made to transfer immediately patients to other treatment facilities. This is a regrettable step but is unavoidable at present and has been taken in the best interest of patients.

As for claims concerning the Central Mental Hospital, the hospital remains open. Management of the HSE has met both unions locally and is managing the situation on a daily basis. It should be noted that staff from all disciplines and management have worked tirelessly to protect patient care since the dispute started last Wednesday.

The Labour Relations Commission, LRC, has formally invited the parties to the current dispute for exploratory talks on Friday at noon. This invitation is on an unconditional basis and all parties have accepted this invitation. The Minister has welcomed the initiative by the LRC. She has expressed her deep concern at the adverse impact of the dispute on the care of mental health patients and has appealed to the two nursing unions involved to suspend their industrial action to minimise hardship to service users and their families while the talks process at the LRC gets under way.

State Airports.

I also congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, on his appointment. However, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey, was in the House earlier to answer oral questions and I had expected he would remain for this transport-related question on the Adjournment, which pertains to a highly important issue facing Shannon Airport. It is typical of the Minister for Transport to run away. He ran away from the Heathrow service issue when it arose last September and he has run away this afternoon. He should have spared five minutes for Shannon Airport. Things do not really change and this is more of the same.

I welcome the opportunity to raise this matter in the House. When the former Minister for Transport, Deputy Martin Cullen, signed the EU-US open skies agreement, he promised that the introduction of open skies would herald the beginning of a new era of opportunities for Irish airports, including Shannon, to exploit the US aviation market. He promised that pre-immigration clearance would be up and running at an early date and would give Shannon Airport an economic advantage. He also stated he was putting the final touches on a major tourism and economic plan for the Shannon region to cushion the blow. However, the ink was hardly dry on the agreement when the promises made to Shannon Airport evaporated one by one. The last Aer Lingus flight took off from the tarmac at Shannon for Heathrow on 13 January last with the region's slots on board. A total of €20 million was erased from the tourism and economic plan without objection and now the unique advantage possessed by Shannon in respect of its extension to its US Customs and Border Protection facility is being whittled away by a lacklustre Government that is showing no urgency in introducing legislation to give effect to this development at Shannon Airport.

The Government's legislative programme for summer 2008 provides no indication of when the proposed air navigation and transport pre-clearance Bill will be published. I urge the Minister of State to put pressure on his colleague, the Minister for Transport, to bring forward this legislation. I have raised this issue a number of times and have been informed that negotiations are ongoing. It seems extraordinary, therefore, that while there have been many high profile visits to the US in recent months by the former Taoiseach, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, former Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Minister for Transport, none of them bothered to discuss this matter with their US counterparts.

When I had the opportunity to meet the US Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, last November in Dublin, I raised this issue with him. He was highly supportive of this project and my understanding is that while the US authorities are behind this development, the Irish Government and Department of Transport are dragging their heels in this respect.

Shannon Airport can only avail of opportunities in an open skies environment if it is in a position to exploit its advantages. The airport authority is striving to secure year-round transatlantic services and has introduced a three-year winter transatlantic incentive scheme. The airport also faces concerns following Ryanair's threat issued this week that while an agreement is in place with Shannon Airport until 2010, there are no guarantees beyond this date.

Tourism interests in the west of Ireland in conjunction with Tourism Ireland recently launched the Discover Ireland's Wonderful West campaign in the United States. If the Government is serious about supporting this campaign, the success of which depends on full customs and agriculture pre-clearance, such pre-clearance should be in place. Full pre-clearance would allow passengers to be treated as domestic passengers on their arrival in the US. New services from Shannon to the US could be developed. Other airlines would be attracted to use the airport as a hub for their services to the US from destinations throughout Europe and there is huge potential to expand the airport's corporate jet business. This facility is essential if Shannon Airport is to cope with the negative effects of the Open Skies agreement. There was a 4% decrease in Shannon's transatlantic services in 2007. This trend is set to continue this year, as a further decline is predicted. Some 65 US companies, directly providing 11,000 jobs, are located in the mid-west region. Almost two out of every three foreign direct investment projects coming to Ireland in 2007 originated in the US. American firms contributed over €2.5 billion to the Irish tax coffers in that year.

The Dublin Airport Authority announced last week that a new city is to be developed at Dublin Airport. My colleague, Deputy O'Dowd, raised the matter earlier during Question Time. It is claimed that the project represents a blueprint for the next generation of foreign investment in this country. The significant shift in US tourism and business from the west of this country to the east will continue if the Government does not devise radical national policies to stem this tide. I am afraid, however, that there is no King Canute in the Government who will to push back the tide for Shannon. There is nobody with new ideas.

The global airline and aviation industry is experiencing a period of severe turbulence. Four airlines have filed for bankruptcy in the US in recent weeks. Industry sources predict that travellers will see little immediate benefit from the Open Skies Agreement, due to the current turmoil in the US economy. Nevertheless, the same sources are predicting that a wider range of low-cost, business-class and other carriers will operate on expanded transatlantic routes in the future. If Shannon is to be in a position to compete for its share of this business, full pre-clearance must in place.

Government inaction is hampering Shannon Airport. I urge the Minister for Transport to introduce legislation so that this project, the original deadline for which was 1 May, can get under way. How many more deadlines will have passed before it is introduced? There is a suspicion that agreement is being delayed to allow Dublin Airport to introduce the facility at the same time as Shannon Airport, thereby ending any competitive advantage Shannon might have had. This is not acceptable. I urge the Minister to expedite this agreement. Shannon needs this facility. The airport is ready for it. However, the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, and his Government colleagues are stalling.

The Minister for Transport does not accept that there is any undue delay in legislating for pre-clearance at Shannon Airport. Negotiations with the United States need to be concluded before legislation providing for such a facility can be drafted. Under the provisions of the Air Navigation and Transport (Pre-Inspection) Act 1986, Ireland has an agreement with the United States whereby all US-bound passengers departing from Shannon and Dublin airports are eligible for pre-inspection by the US authorities before departure.

Pre-inspection is the procedure whereby personnel from the US customs and border protection body, which is a division of the US Department of Homeland Security, carry out those inspections of passengers and aircraft crew that are required under US immigration and public health laws and regulations for entry to that country. Under the 1986 Act, the procedures are confined to immigration clearance only — they do not include inspections that are required under other US laws and regulations, such as agriculture and customs inspections. Pre-clearance is the process whereby all inspection and clearance requirements under US law for passengers arriving into the US are met at the departure airport. Passengers arriving at US airports are then processed without any further official contact. On arrival at the US airport, they have a status similar to that of passengers arriving from other US airports.

There would be benefits if pre-clearance facilities were introduced in Ireland. Passengers would be processed through all US entry procedures before they travel, knowing that when they arrive at their destination airport in the US they will enjoy an uninterrupted passage. Airlines would be able to use the less congested domestic airports or domestic terminals of international airports on arrival in the US. If pre-clearance facilities were available, Shannon Airport Authority would be able to market Shannon Airport as a hub for US-bound flights. Any attempt to move to a pre-clearance regime will require the negotiation of a pre-clearance agreement with the US. That agreement would have to be incorporated into Irish domestic law to enable pre-clearance operations to take place on Irish soil.

The proposals of the US authorities for the provision of pre-clearance facilities at Dublin and Shannon airports were submitted to the Department of Transport in late December 2007. Formal negotiations on the proposals with the US authorities commenced in January of this year. During his visit to Washington last week, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey, met the US Secretary of Homeland Security, Mr. Michael Chertoff, to discuss progress on the negotiations. While the content of the discussions must remain confidential, the Minister is looking forward to making good progress with the US authorities. As the matter is under negotiation, it is too early to say when the necessary intergovernmental agreement will be finalised and legislation will be brought before the Oireachtas. However, subject to Government approval, the Minister for Transport is targetting the end of year for the agreement and the legislation to be in place.

Special Educational Needs.

I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews. I wish him well in the future. We hope to hold him as accountable as his colleagues.

The Deputy cannot be too hard on him this evening.

I would like to highlight a major issue which has arisen in Drogheda. It was recently announced that the special needs unit attached to Marymount national school in the Ballsgrove area of the town will be unable to take new students from the end of this year. For a number of years the unit's teachers and special needs assistants have looked after extremely well five young people with special needs — there were six pupils there until quite recently. As the children move into the secondary system, their parents are becoming concerned. The special needs unit was established with the aim of integrating children with special needs into the ordinary environment in which all students are taught. It has worked extremely well. Five of the special needs students will be making their confirmation shortly. They are participating fully in the celebrations, for example by participating in music and mime. The parents of these children, as well as representatives of various organisations involved in this sector, are outraged that other young people in the Drogheda area and the surrounding districts in counties Meath and Louth will be unable to avail of the services of the unit.

Who is responsible for this closure? I have been informed that the powers that be, who are not necessarily based in the Department of Education and Science, do not intend to continue with the experiment of integrating special needs students in the local primary school. A great deal of concern has been expressed about this decision at local level. It has been the subject of an editorial in the Drogheda Independent. I await the Minister of State’s response. I hope it will be as good as the response I would give him if the position were reversed. In other words, I would make sure that the unit would stay open.

I thank Deputy O'Dowd for his kind remarks. I am pleased to have been given an opportunity to clarify the position in respect of the special needs class at Marymount national school, which had an enrolment of 422 pupils on 30 September 2007. The school's current staff comprises a principal teacher, 15 mainstream class teachers, a disadvantaged concessionary teaching post, five learning support and resource teaching posts, two special class teaching posts, a resource teacher for Travellers, a home school liaison post, three urban band teaching posts and five temporary language support teaching posts.

As the Deputy is aware, the National Council for Special Education is responsible, through its network of local special educational needs organisers, for allocating resource teachers and special needs assistants to schools to support children with special educational needs. The organisers approve the establishment of special classes where a need has been determined. I understand that officials from the Department of Education and Science have been in contact with the National Council for Special Education about the special needs class in Marymount national school. It seems that a significant number of children enrolled in the special class will move to post-primary education in September. I am informed that the local special educational needs organiser is actively involved in discussions with the school authorities and local HSE officials regarding the future of the special class. A decision has yet to be taken. I thank the Deputy for raising this matter.

Environmental Protection.

I join other Deputies in congratulating the newly appointed Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, and wishing him all the best for the future. I know he will do a great job.

I would like to mention two environmental issues relating to the town of Youghal in east Cork. One of the beaches in the town was the subject of an unfavourable report yesterday. I understand that until quite recently, the water quality at the beach was found to be excellent. It passed all the tests because it was top class. However, it failed one of the ten tests which were undertaken over a period of time on 17 July 2007. I understand there were exceptional circumstances on the day in question. It seems that heavy rainfall may have resulted in effluent being washed into the sea. The beach failed one of the tests as a result. Perhaps the matter could be reconsidered — the beach could be tested again — in light of the exceptional circumstances which prevailed on the day in question. The report brought out this week relates to 17 July of last year. The beach was closed at the time. When the water quality was tested afterwards, it was found to be okay. We need to examine all these matters because they just do not add up.

It is unfair that such a poor reflection of Youghal is being portrayed. The treatment plant being developed in the town was supposed to have been up and running in 2007, but that has not happened yet. I ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to ensure the project is completed as quickly as possible. Youghal is a beautiful tourist town in a scenic area. We do not want any further delays. The development needs to be pursued vigorously. The Department should ensure there are no delays.

The second environmental issue relates to the landfill site in Youghal, the only facility of that nature in the south Cork area. Those living in the area have complained to me about the noxious smells in the locality. The smell from the landfill site is causing them to wake as early as 6 a.m., even though their windows are closed. That is not good enough. I have been speaking to representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency, who are doing their best, and to the council, but more needs to be done. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, was written to last June about this matter but he said that he has no role to play and that it is up to the EPA. It is not right that people in Youghal cannot go about their business. They are taxpayers, yet they must put up with this foul, nauseating odour. It is not a case of saying "Not in my back yard" because they do not mind having the landfill there provided resources are put in place to run it properly. The EPA, the council and the Minister should do their jobs. I am representing my constituents in this matter which is unfair to them. I am sure the Minister of State would agree with me if he could not sleep at night, even with the windows closed, because he was living near such a landfill site.

I am worried about the onset of summer because warmer weather will create more foul conditions from the sludge at the landfill site. Last summer, flies swarmed into houses from that site, which posed a health risk. The Minister of State should re-examine the matter to see what can be done about it. The situation is having a really negative impact on local people's health and quality of life.

I ask the Minister of State to investigate water quality at the local beach, which was found to be polluted. A treatment plant is urgently required. He should also examine the regime in place for testing water quality. Noxious odours emanating from the waste treatment plant and another facility need to be put right.

I am taking this item on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

The landfill site at Foxhole is operated by Cork County Council and, in accordance with the Waste Management Acts, is licensed by the Environmental Protection Agency. This licensing system is intended to ensure that high standards of environmental protection apply to the operation of such facilities. It also precludes the EPA from issuing a licence unless it is satisfied that, among other things, emissions from the activity concerned will not contravene any relevant standard.

The licence granted for this landfill lays down strict conditions regarding the operation of the site, including dealing with matters such as environmental nuisances from dust and odours. The enforcement of the conditions attached to the licence is a matter for the EPA's office of environmental enforcement. Under the Waste Management Acts the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is specifically precluded from exercising any power or control concerning the performance by the EPA of its functions in particular circumstances. However, I understand that in the past 12 months Cork County Council has been taking measures to address the issue of odours at the site, including: the introduction of an odour neutralising system on a trial basis since March 2008; and the provision of gas extraction wells in active cells, thereby allowing the landfill gas to be drawn out and flared with a subsequent reduction in odour problems.

In addition, an intensive study, instigated by the EPA, is under way on the landfill gas management system. Fast-tracking the capping off of particular active cells at the site is a priority for the council with a view to ensuring that this problem is resolved as speedily as possible.

As regards the issue of bathing water quality, the Minister is disappointed that Youghal strand failed to meet the mandatory EU standard. It is, of course, a matter for the local authority to ensure that bathing water quality standards are met and maintained. The report by the EPA on bathing water quality for 2007, which was published this week, indicated that Youghal strand was one of four bathing water areas that failed to meet the minimum standard. I understand that it failed because of the presence of faecal coliforms in excess of the limit laid down in the bathing water regulations. This is particularly disappointing because in 2006 Youghal strand met the higher guide standard.

The EPA's office of environmental enforcement provides advice and guidance to local authorities on environmental protection activities. The office also audits the performance of local authorities and, where necessary, issues legally binding directions. I understand that the office has been following up the issue regarding Youghal strand with Cork County Council. It is worth pointing out that in this case one sample out of ten taken failed to meet the standard. This is sufficient to fail overall. I am aware that Cork County Council has investigated the possible reasons for the failure and has previously carried out remedial works at a nearby pumping station. The EPA points out that the unusually high rainfall last summer would have been a factor in the failure of certain bathing areas to achieve the required standards.

More generally, it is good that the overall situation regarding the quality of our bathing water remains pristine with 97%, or 127 out of 131 bathing areas, complying with the mandatory standards.

As regards the Department's water services investment programme, Youghal, together with nearby Claycastle, will be incorporated into the Youghal sewerage scheme at an estimated cost of €14.42 million. I understand that Cork County Council is preparing to appoint consultants to develop the contract documents for the scheme. The council should be in a position to submit the contract documents to the Department for approval next year, with construction on the scheme due to start in 2010.

It will be 2012.

I also wish to add my congratulations to the Minister of State on his new appointment.

I thank the Acting Chairman.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.15 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 13 May 2008.