Adjournment Debate.

Nursing Education.

This issue is of national importance and is critical to St. Angela's College in Sligo. I have great admiration for those who choose a career in the medical and caring professions. It is a most noble and worthy career path and marks these individuals out as true custodians of our health and well-being. Graduates from the general nursing programme in St. Angela's College are employed locally, regionally and nationally in both private hospitals and the HSE. In addition, all the graduates of the intellectual disability nursing programme have secured employment in local and regional services. I have no doubt every nursing graduate from St. Angela's College becomes an outstanding health care professional.

The proposed cuts in nursing places will lead to a reduction in the number of graduates available to the health service in the region and nationwide. The Minister's proposed cuts will mean the number of places on the bachelor of nursing science degree programme will be reduced by 310 from 1,880 to 1,570 in the forthcoming year. The intake to St. Angela's College will be reduced from 65 to 40 places annually, a 31% reduction in nursing places offered by the college. This reduction is one of the highest in the country, with the intellectual disability nursing programme being particularly hard hit, with a 40% reduction in places. General nursing will suffer a 25% reduction in places and the western region, particularly St. Angela's College, is being severely hit by these cuts.

Cutting the number of nurse training and education places is a short-sighted proposal. A shortage of nurses exists at European and global level. Cuts to undergraduate nursing numbers will make this problem worse and will have a long-term negative impact on the Irish health care system. From recent history we know that if we cut the number of nurses in training, within a few years there will be a shortage of qualified nurses. In response, international recruitment will be required to meet the needs of the Irish health service. This is a more expensive solution than continuing to educate nurses and maintaining a steady nursing work-force.

Education and training of nurses is an important investment in the capabilities and skills of our most valuable resource, our people. A nursing qualification represents a practical and durable skill, and is one of the most marketable qualifications internationally. Qualified nurses have a passport to a job anywhere in the world. From past experience, we know that if there is a short-term surplus of nurses they can find work abroad and when demand picks up at home, many of them will come back to work in our health system. Thus, the investment we made in the education and training of nurses reverts to us. As we head into a period of rapidly rising unemployment, we must strive to give maximum investment to job-related education and training. Our number one priority must be education and training for people coming out of second level this year and next.

A reduction in the number of nursing places will also have a significant impact on the number of mature students entering the profession. This will deny the health service access to a group of graduates that offers considerable practical experience to patients, service users and the nursing profession. This is a significant factor in the current economic crisis with the increase in job losses among those with practical work experience.

Do the Minister for Education and Science and the Minister for Health and Children really believe that slashing nursing education places is good for the economy, our children and our future? If they do not believe that education and training is the way to a better economy, then it is time for them to quit as Ministers. The country has a great opportunity to educate and train people for real jobs anywhere in the world. The education staff, facilities and training skills are all available. All that is needed is a student intake. I ask the Government urgently to review and reverse the proposed reduction in the numbers of nursing places being made available nationally, and in particular at St. Angela's College, Sligo. Given the scale of the job losses now sweeping across the country, we should be expanding the number of nursing education programmes, not reducing them.

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

By way of background I should explain that, following the publication of the 2009 Estimates for public services, the Health Service Executive was tasked to deliver economy savings of €115 million. Among many other issues, a reduction in nurse training expenditure is needed to contribute to achieving these savings. The total cost to the health services both for undergraduate and post-registration nurse education is currently in excess of €117 million per annum.

Savings of €5 million in 2009 will be achieved as follows. First, the number of places on the undergraduate degree programme will be reduced by 310 places, from a total of 1,880 to 1,570. The reductions will take place in all 13 higher education institutions across the country which provide this programme and will relate to general nursing, 197 places; intellectual disability nursing, 60 places; and psychiatric nursing, 53 places making a total of 310 places. These reductions will result in savings of €1.65 million approximately in 2009 and €3.3 million per annum from 2010 onwards. They will be effected mainly in those areas that are not experiencing nurse shortages. The Deputy should note that while the reduction in intellectual disability places in St. Angela's College, Sligo, is 40%, the reduction for this programme nationally is25%, as I have outlined. There will be no reductions in places on the undergraduate programmes for midwifery, 140 places, and children's and general nursing, integrated, 100 places.

Second, nurses trained under the apprenticeship and diploma models undertaking part-time degree courses can apply to their employer to have their course fees paid in return for a service commitment to the public health service. This initiative has been in operation since 2001 and should have been completed in 2005. Its purpose was to afford serving nurses and midwives the opportunity to avail of the degree course, thereby avoiding a two-tier nursing and midwifery system. It will no longer be available for new entrants from 1 January 2009, resulting in a saving of €2 million next year and about €3.8 million per annum from 2010 onwards.

Third, further savings of €1.35 million in 2009 will be achieved by reducing places on the various post-registration courses in specialist clinical practice.

These three cost saving measures will produce savings of €5 million in 2009 and €8.45 million per annum in future years.

The OECD's 2008 public management review, entitled Ireland — Towards an Integrated Public Service, noted in its case study “Reconfiguration of the Health Services”:

One statistical characteristic of Ireland is its very large number of practising nurses (15.2 per 1,000), which is twice the OECD average, just below Norway (15.4) but much higher than UK (9.1) or France (7.7). The number of nurses graduating every year is also high (14.4), above Norway (10.1), UK (8.6) or France (5.9). This contradicts the universal perception of a "shortage" of nurses, held by health actors in Ireland who were interviewed by the OECD. Partial explanations come from the fact that some 40% of nurses in Ireland work part-time (as compared for example with 26% in France for nurses working in hospitals).

The percentage reductions in undergraduate student places take account of geographic and demographic trends in nursing placements whereby it is not always possible to fill all vacancies in the eastern region, whereas outside this region the number of graduates being produced may exceed demand. Accordingly, the estimated one third reduction on the western seaboard should go some way towards correcting this imbalance.

The percentage reductions in the 13 higher education institutes also take account of the situation whereby the removal of the full intake of the nursing degree programme — which, in some cases, forms the backbone of an institute — could cause great difficulties for the institute as a whole.

Against this background it is important to note that the Minister has approved a strategic review of the nursing degree programme, which will commence this year. Overall, the review is designed to provide a systematic analysis of what is actually being achieved by expenditure under both capital and revenue headings. It should also provide sound evidence and a critical analysis of the preparation of nurses for practice. The findings will provide a basis to inform decision makers on the future direction of pre-registration nursing education programmes in Ireland.

Inter-country Adoptions.

I spoke earlier to the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, about this matter and I understand that he has a previous commitment this evening. I am raising the issue of the possible renewal of a bilateral adoption agreement between Ireland and Vietnam. As we know, the whole area of adoption is a sensitive and personal one. I have been contacted by a number of people who are at various stages of the adoption process. At any one time there can be up to 1,500 people at different stages within that process. This agreement was put in place quite a number of years ago with the Vietnamese who have a particular issue with young children being abandoned in their country. In the 1970s and 1980s we had a successful refugee programme between Ireland and Vietnam. Indeed, in my own constituency of Dublin Central we have a vibrant, well-attended community centre in Hardwicke Street for the Vietnamese population based in Dublin. From speaking to those people, I know that they are grateful that young Vietnamese children are being adopted and get a great opportunity to live with people who are willing to bring them here and become their parents. However, there is some delay in renewing this inter-country adoption agreement. It is a sensitive matter and the adoption process itself is very difficult. It is only right that the best people are selected to adopt these young children. There are two sides to this story. There is the couple in Ireland anxious to provide a loving home for a young child and there is also the child who is in an orphanage or institution in Vietnam. I look forward to the Minister's update on this matter.

I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleagues the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, and the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews. Deputy Andrews spoke to me about the matter earlier and regrets he could not attend the Chamber.

The mutual co-operation agreement concerning adoption with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam has been in operation for five years and will expire on 1 May 2009. The agreement contains a clause which states that it will be automatically extended for another five-year term, unless one state notifies the other to the contrary.

The Government formally notified the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in October 2008 that there would be no automatic renewal of the agreement when the five year term expires on 1 May 2009. While Ireland's current agreement is based on Hague principles, there is a need to elaborate the agreement to reflect the standards of the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption more comprehensively. This is in line with Ireland's own commitment to ratify the convention. It is also considered necessary to reflect the experiences gained by both sides over the first five years of a formal relationship between the two states. This approach is also part of the preparations for new adoption legislation in which it is proposed that a bilateral agreement will be required between Ireland and any state which has not ratified the Hague Convention. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam has not yet ratified the convention.

Following the notification, officials travelled to Vietnam in November 2008 to meet the relevant authorities dealing with inter-country adoption as well as the embassies of other governments to discuss inter-country adoption in Vietnam generally and progress towards ratification of the Hague Convention.

In December 2008, following a decision on the matter, the Government advised the Vietnamese authorities that it wished to enter into discussions immediately for the purpose of negotiating a new bilateral adoption agreement to follow on from the existing one. In order to expedite the negotiation process, Ireland offered to provide the Vietnamese authorities with the draft agreement as a basis for negotiations. The Vietnamese authorities responded positively to Ireland's request to enter into formal negotiations and the proposal that Ireland would prepare a first draft was agreed.

Work on a draft agreement requires careful and detailed consideration by several parties including the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Attorney General's office and the Adoption Board. An initial text was prepared by the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs in December and it is now at an advanced stage. It will be finalised shortly once legal advices have been received on outstanding matters. It is anticipated this will be forwarded to the Vietnamese authorities for their consideration in the immediate future.

The issue of contingency arrangements in the case of an agreement not being reached by 1 May 2009 was raised by the Government in a December 2008 communication to the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese authorities formally advised on proposed contingency arrangements on Friday, 13 February through the Irish Embassy in Hanoi. The Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs subsequently prepared and circulated a public information note on the contingency plans to prospective adoptive parents through the Helping Hands Adoption Mediation Agency and the adoption support groups.

These are contingency plans in the event of an agreement not being reached by 1 May 2009. The Department of Health and Children is continuing to pursue the successful conclusion of a bilateral agreement with Vietnam as a priority. The Government will continue to seek to revisit the contingency arrangements which have been put in place over the course of and in light of negotiations on a new agreement.

The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is a sovereign state and decisions it makes regarding the internal regulation and management of the adoption of its children must be treated sensitively as is appropriate to a sovereign state. Demands for guarantees or changes to contingency arrangements are matters which fall to be dealt with as part of the negotiation process on a bilateral basis. At this stage, I cannot pre-empt either the Government's deliberative process as those negotiations advance. The Department's priority is to advance the process.

The work to prepare for and advise the Government on this issue and to implement the Government's decisions continues to be given the highest priority. These are complex matters which require careful consideration. At all times, the Government and the officials advising it, are guided by the need to respect and protect the best interests and rights of the child.

Garda Deployment.

The issue of Garda resources in the Inishowen area has been raised in the Donegal and national media. This is not an argument for increased Garda resources along the Border. As Fine Gael spokesperson on North-South co-operation, I laud the fact the Border is no longer policed as it was in the 1970s, 1980s and the 1990s. The fading of the Border should be welcomed and encouraged by every Member. My specific request is for increased Garda resources in a part of north-east Donegal which circulates around the fourth largest city on this island, Derry city.

A spate of burglaries across Inishowen in recent weeks has caused upheaval and great anxiety in every home. Across the area, people are installing house alarms and I have been contacted by many people who are keeping nightly neighbourhood vigils. I have met senior Inishowen gardaí to discuss the matter. I welcome the fact that the assistant commissioner is taking the issue seriously which was reflected in his trip to Donegal last week. I commend the superintendent in the Inishowen district who is taking the issue seriously and the efforts made by the Garda in deployment for the short term.

From speaking to many public representatives in the area, I believe it is time to examine the ethos of community policing in the area. I will use, for illustration, a comparison between the Inishowen area and the greater Cork area. Cork city has a population of 120,000 while Derry's is 90,000. If suburban areas are included, Cork's figure rises to 190,000. However, Derry's figure is distorted by the fact that it does not account for the part of east Donegal that is considered to be a suburb of Derry. In east Cork, there are 22 gardaí based in Glanmire, a 24-hour station, Carraigtwohill has a 24-hour station and 50 gardaí are based at Cobh. In the west, 50 gardaí are based in Gurranbraher, 16 in Blarney and 50 in Bandon. In east Inishowen, Burnfoot has 16 gardaí, Muff, two, Carrigans, five, Newtowncunningham, four, and Carndonnagh, five. There are no Garda stations in Quigley's Point or Killea.

The Inishowen Peninsula is the most northerly part of this island. It is geographically proximate to Derry city, which is the natural shopping centre and university town in the region. Inishowen is part of the Catholic diocese of Derry. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, in distributing Garda Síochána resources, must acknowledge this fact and, accordingly, allocate such resources as are necessary for a region which is situated adjacent to a major city with a six-figure population.

I raised this matter over a five-year period when serving as a Member of Seanad Éireann. There is still time for action to be taken in respect of it. In light of North-South ministerial collaboration and co-operation, there is room for progress to be made.

The problem I am highlighting only related to Inishowen a number of weeks ago. In recent days, however, it has emerged that it is becoming prevalent throughout Donegal. This problem, which is termed "creeping crime" by some, will soon become all-island in nature. We must be vigilant and the only way to do so is by deploying additional Garda resources in the rural areas to which I refer. We must also engage with local communities. I acknowledge the efforts of the assistant commissioner and the force in general in examining the nature of the community policing ethos.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform regrets that due to other business he is unable to be present to take this matter. However, I assure the Deputy that the Minister shares his concern with regard to crime in the Inishowen area and is conscious of the distress caused by being the victim of burglary.

The Minister is informed by the Garda authorities that local Garda management is aware of an increase in the number of incidents in the Buncrana Garda district to which the Deputy refers. These incidents are under active investigation by An Garda Síochána. Local Garda management has put in place a series of measures to prevent and reduce the frequency of such incidents and detect the perpetrators. Additional patrols by uniform and plain clothes personnel have been put in place in the areas concerned and resources have been redeployed to assist in the identification of the suspected perpetrators of these offences. Senior Garda management will be meeting representatives of local communities to inform them of ongoing efforts and initiatives to target this type of criminality and to urge them to report any suspicious activity occurring in the area to An Garda Síochána. Crime prevention advice will also be provided through the local media.

There are significant levels of ongoing cross-Border co-operation with the Police Service of Northern Ireland to identify crime trends and suspected offenders. Border superintendents, including those from County Donegal, attend bimonthly crime meetings. At local level, cross-Border crime meetings are held monthly, with regular contact taking place in respect of individual incidents and criminal activity in general.

The Minister is further informed that a Garda divisional crime manager has been appointed to assist in the monitoring and analysis of crime trends in order to prepare further specific initiatives and operations to target the specific crime types. The personnel strength of the Buncrana Garda district on 19 February 2009, the most recent date for which figures are available, was 90. This follows the allocation of significant numbers of additional personnel to the district in recent times. It is the responsibility of the Garda Commissioner to allocate personnel throughout the force while taking all relevant matters into account. The situation in the Inishowen area and the Buncrana Garda district will be kept under review. Additional civilian support staff have also been assigned to the district. This has released members of An Garda Síochána for patrolling and other duties.

The Minister and the Garda Commissioner are aware of the needs of areas such as Inishowen. On 26 January they launched a new national model of community policing. This model builds on the success of existing good community policing practice within Ireland and aims to foster collaborative partnerships between An Garda Síochána and members of the community. A comprehensive model of community policing ensures that enforcement will be employed not only to reduce crime, but also to reduce the fear of crime and ensure a better quality of community life for all. In particular, a new rural community policing initiative for the Inishowen peninsula was recently established.

Joint policing committees provide a forum where An Garda Síochána and local authorities — the two organisations that make the most significant contribution to preventing and tackling crime in specific areas — can come together, with the participation of Members of the Oireachtas and community and voluntary interests, on matters affecting an area. A committee has a range of functions and monitors two broad areas. The first of these relates to the levels and patterns of crime, disorder and anti-social behaviour in an area. The second relates to the broader issue of the factors underlying and contributing to crime, disorder and anti-social behaviour. A committee will subsequently advise the relevant local authority and An Garda Síochána on how they might best perform their functions, while having regard to the need to do everything feasible to improve the safety and quality of life and to prevent crime, disorder and anti-social behaviour within an area. Following a pilot phase in 29 local authority areas, including Letterkenny, the committees are currently being rolled out to all other local authority areas.

The Minister is of the view that the committees have enormous potential in the context of tackling the problems of crime, disorder and anti-social behaviour. He wishes to assure the Deputy that he and the Garda authorities are committed to providing resources to tackle crime in Inishowen and elsewhere.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.15 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 3 March 2009.