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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Vol. 731 No. 1

Adjournment Debate

International Terrorism

It concerns me greatly that a pipe bomb was found in my home town of Trim two weeks ago. The bomb detonated and caused some damage to the Wellington monument and to nearby houses. Is the Minister happy with the security measures being put in place for the visits of Queen Elizabeth II and President Barack Obama given the rise in this type of criminal activity in recent weeks and, more to the point, following the assassination of Osama bin Laden at the weekend? I read that Garda and Army intelligence officers are concerned that activists, currently keeping a low profile in the UK and Europe, could come here to take advantage of US President, Barack Obama's, visit to launch an attack in retaliation for the assassination.

Osama bin Laden is dead but al-Qaeda is not and there may be a heightened possibility of retaliation on the UK and the USA. With visits to Ireland in less than three weeks by the two heads of state of these countries taking place within hours of each other I wish to be assured that security has been stepped up to take the weekend's events into account.

The use of explosive devices such as that employed recently in Trim is a matter of ongoing concern to me and to the Garda authorities, no matter who is responsible for them. Garda strategies are very firmly focused on disrupting their use and, where sufficient evidence is available, proffering charges and bringing such persons before the courts.

The House should remember that there are significant penalties available to the courts following conviction for explosives related offences, including a penalty of life imprisonment for causing an explosion likely to endanger life, up to 20 years imprisonment upon conviction for an attempt to cause an explosion likely to endanger life, and up to 14 years imprisonment following conviction for possession of explosives. As with all such incidents, the incident to which the Deputy refers is of concern and is the subject of an active, ongoing Garda investigation. Clearly it would not be appropriate for me to go into the details of such investigations, but I appeal to anyone with any knowledge of the matter to share it with the Garda Síochána.

With regard to the incident itself, the Garda authorities inform me that at approximately one o'clock in the morning of 21 April a car drew up near the Duke of Wellington monument in the centre of the town. A device was thrown at the monument which caused a small explosion. There were no injuries and damage was not caused apart from some scorch marks to the monument. An Army explosive ordnance device team was called. It examined the remains of the device which was deemed to be a pipe bomb-type of device. Nobody has claimed responsibility for the incident.

I cannot state categorically who was responsible for the incident. It is quite possible, but not certain, that it may have been some sort of atavistic response to the announcement that Queen Elizabeth II is to visit the country later this month. Opposition to Queen Elizabeth's visit is the response of a tiny minority of people. We as a people and this country are fast approaching the centenary of having gained our independence. It is a testament to our maturity as a nation that this visit will go ahead at this time. Shortly thereafter we will welcome the President of the United States to our shores — a symbol of the special bond between our two nations. I have no doubt that the people will give the traditional welcome to those visitors as it gives to all visitors and for which we are, rightly, renowned.

The Garda Síochána is primarily responsible for the security of the visits of Queen Elizabeth and of President Obama. I have the utmost confidence in the Commissioner and his officers, who I know are totally committed to ensuring these events pass off without incident. The Garda Síochána, with the support of the Defence Forces, will continue to make all the necessary arrangements to make sure the appropriate level of security is in place for both visits. I am sure people generally will understand the security arrangements which have to be made and will co-operate fully with them. Security arrangements are a necessary feature of visits of this kind to any country and I am sure they will not detract from the great welcome which will be extended to our distinguished guests.

There are a whole range of security considerations that must be taken into account in relation to the impending visits of Queen Elizabeth and President Obama. Those considerations are based on an ongoing assessment of the risks involved. The House will appreciate that it would be counterproductive for me to go into the detail of security arrangements.

Obviously some people will seek to disrupt the visits. The right to peaceful protest is an important one and one that my Government will always uphold — but we will not tolerate those who seek to break the law to cause disorder nor will we tolerate those who set out to maim or murder. By their actions they display a barbaric and arrogant contempt for the constitutional civil and human rights vested in all who reside on or visit this island. The visits will be welcomed by the vast majority of the people. I reassure the House, that neither I, nor the Government, are complacent about the security measures which will be necessary to make these visits a success.

These visits are also a statement to the world that Ireland still has much to offer. For all the difficulties we face, there is every reason for us, working together, to be confident in our long-term future. No tiny minority should be permitted to cloud that message, nor will they be allowed to so do.

School Transport

I apologise for not being available to speak earlier. The changes to the primary school transport scheme announced in the 2011 budget is having an effect on families and local school communities. This is a sensitive area and it is having a disconcerting impact on families, school communities, boards of management, parents councils and private bus operators. I do not know where the changes to the various criteria have come from. Free transport is a thing of the past. It is a myth. People do not have a problem with paying for it. The issue relates to certainty on where one's children will be educated, continuity and more importantly that siblings would be allowed to attend the same school.

The amalgamation of small schools has been an ongoing issue for decades. It has proven detrimental in many cases. I remember when it happened in my area in the 1960s. We moved away from that approach and communities settled down and gelled again. Guidelines were imposed about distances. I understand the current minimum distance one must live from a school is now 2 km but, more importantly, if there is not a minimum of ten pupils a bus will not be provided. If there are nine pupils they will not have any place to go, which is unnerving. What independent evaluation has been carried out? Previously, when schools were amalgamated the minimum distance one had to live from a school was set at 3 miles. I never availed of school transport. As there was no amalgamation we always took the children to national school by car. Many people have begun to do so again given the significant increase in secondary school transport costs in recent years. They are willing and happy to do that.

The change to school transport regulations is a complete bolt out of the blue. It is a threat to many rural communities. If one takes a school out of a community much community activity is removed. Areas become denuded of population as there is no reason for people to live in a locality in the absence of a community network based around a school. We have seen in the past that communities did not recover when schools closed. Even farming communities die away and rural areas become more isolated. The integrity of families is a concern in addition to the costs.

Bus companies are also concerned about their viability. Bus Éireann has had the franchise for the organisation of school transport. What is the cost to it for the administration of the scheme? The question of unfair competition arises as Bus Éireann has retained the best routes for itself. If there was open competition in the transport area there would not be a need to close schools for financial reasons. Two-teacher schools have been asked to submit reasons they should remain open.

A two-pronged attack is being made on these rural schools. This will be detrimental unless there is a fair and proper adjudication of the situation. I am aware of a family where a child of seven years is already part of the scheme and will be able to continue in it for the next six years. A younger sibling will not be allowed to avail of the transport, however, and will have to travel to school in another county. As we are aware from sport and the GAA, county boundaries are a big issue in some rural areas. Schools in towns may be doing all right and have sufficient numbers, but rural schools four miles or so out of town may be struggling with numbers. None the less, these schools provide a valuable service to the community and the pupils and their families are happy with them. Now, however, a younger sibling may have to attend the town school. Will buses taking children to these rural schools be taken off their route if there are not sufficient students, for example, if numbers drop below ten? There is great uncertainty in this area and I call for an independent evaluation of the situation.

Bus Éireann should also be obliged to open up the school bus routes to competition. Private bus owners have provided a good service, not in rich areas but on routes not favoured by Bus Éireann. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me raise this significant issue and look forward to the Minister's reply.

I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Ciarán Cannon. I will draw to his attention the comments made by the Deputy and will respond as best I can with the information available to me.

A number of changes to the school transport scheme were introduced in the 2011 budget by the previous Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government. The changes regarding the primary school transport scheme derive from recommendations in the value for money report of the scheme and relate to the introduction of charges, changes to the so-called closed school rule and changes to the minimum numbers required to establish or maintain a service. I will now give more detailed information on these changes.

With effect from the 2011-2012 school year, a transport fee of €50 per annum will be introduced for eligible primary school pupils, with a maximum family charge of €110 applying for eligible primary pupils only. Eligible children who hold a valid medical card are exempt from paying the charge. As a consequence of the introduction of charges, parents now have to apply directly to Bus Éireann, which operates the school transport scheme on behalf of the Department, for school transport for their children.

The closed school rule for school transport eligibility purposes was introduced in the 1960s in circumstances where a primary school was closed and amalgamated with another. No time limit has been applied to the closed school or central school rule. In some cases, the primary school in question was closed up to 40 years ago and amalgamated with another school. In some instances, a newer school has subsequently been built in the general area of the original closed school. Under the current primary school transport scheme, however, the transport provided is to the amalgamated school only, even in circumstances where there is actually a newer school closer to the pupil's home. A pupil in these circumstances is not eligible for free transport to the newer school. The closed school rule can operate to distort parental decisions and result in pupils travelling longer distances than necessary or than were they to go to the nearest school.

The specific changes announced with regard to the closed school rule are as follows. From the commencement of the 2011-2012 school year, the distance criterion will be applied to all pupils attending primary schools and the exemption under the closed school rule will cease. This means that children who reside less than 3.2 km or 2 miles from the school of attendance and who are availing of free transport to that school under the closed school rule will no longer be eligible for school transport. From the 2012-2013 school year, eligibility based on the closed school rule and the central school rule will cease for all new children entering primary schools. It is important, however, to emphasise that existing primary pupils availing of transport under the closed school rule will retain transport eligibility for the duration of their schooling, provided the requisite distance is met. Moreover, given that the change in question will not come into being until September 2012, all new pupils enrolling this September will be eligible under the closed school rule.

To put this issue fully into context, drawing on the report of the value for money review of the school transport scheme, the following facts are relevant. First, in the 2009-2010 school year, transport services under the closed school rule operated to more than 800 primary schools, with almost 26,000 children — 54.4% of mainstream tickets issued — deemed eligible for school transport under this rule. Second, according to sample studies undertaken for the value for money review estimates applied nationally, in the majority of cases where such transport has been provided, pupils in fact attend their nearest primary school. While the application of the closed school rule is referred to in these cases, it does not mean they are not travelling to their nearest school. Third, the transport of such a significant number of children, some of whom would not qualify for transport on the basis of the distance criterion alone, involves a cost.

With regard to the change to school transport eligibility for pupils entering primary school in September 2012, where eligibility will be by reference to the nearest school, available statistics, based on sampling undertaken as part of the value for money review, indicate that the impact of this element of the change will be limited as the majority of pupils categorised under the closed school rule are in fact attending their nearest school. Therefore, the majority of families will not be affected by this change.

The Department has requested Bus Éireann to conduct a detailed analysis of the on the ground impact for individual schools and the rural communities they serve. This analysis will be based on the most up-to-date information available on current usage patterns and the information is expected to be available this summer. The likely effects of this change can then be carefully examined well in advance of the 2012 implementation date.

With regard to the minimum numbers required to establish or maintain a service, the changes mean that services under the minimum numbers, either single services or those which are part of double tripping arrangements, will be discontinued. A pick-up density of pupils in a distinct locality on a particular route, increasing from the current minimum of seven to ten eligible children, will be required to establish or retain services. All services transporting fewer than the minimum number of eligible children, either single services or those which are part of double tripping arrangements, will be discontinued with effect from the 2011-2012 school year. This brings the minimum numbers required to establish services back to 2002 levels. It should be emphasised that eligible pupils for whom a service is being withdrawn will be eligible to apply for the remote area grant.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter and in so far as I have failed to address issues raised by him, I will ask the Minister of State to communicate directly with him.

Animal Welfare

I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise this issue. The proposal of Bord na gCon to set up a racing franchise and export Irish greyhounds to the People's Republic of China has given rise to considerable concern among animal rights and welfare groups and ordinary dog owners. I am sure the Minister of State and every Deputy will have received numerous letters and e-mails on the issue in recent days raising concerns about the possible export of greyhounds to a country which has no animal welfare legislation and no regulation, supervision or mechanism for protecting such animals. There is no ban on the killing of dogs there and we are all aware that some dogs are regularly eaten or are on the menu in China. Obviously, there is considerable scope for abuse under the circumstances.

It is with a degree of trepidation that we have learned that Bord na gCon is to establish this link with China for a new greyhound industry there. We have just got to the stage of providing legislation in this country, through the Dog Breeding Establishments Act, and this year we expect to deal with the aptly named Welfare of Greyhounds Bill. It would be a retrograde step, when we are putting regulatory measures in place in this country to deal with the breeding of dogs, the prevention of abuse in that regard, and the welfare of greyhounds, which form a huge industry in Ireland, and ensuring there is adequate regulation and supervision in the industry, to open up an export market to a country that has no such regulation, measures or supervision and where we would only be in charge at long distance. We must remember that the People's Republic of China is not around the corner but at the other side of the world. While we could have the best of regulations here at home, we would have no power on a statutory basis to ensure there were any regulations in the People's Republic of China. Quite clearly there could be a lucrative contract with Bord na gCon in respect of this commercial matter, but is this a suitable business for Ireland to get involved in unless we can ensure that animal welfare is protected?

Can the Minister of State allay the fears that ordinary people have about greyhounds exported from Ireland? There are fears that they would not be properly supervised in their racing career while in China. There are concerns over how they are to be disposed of and dealt with after they have ceased to be of any use on the racetrack. If there is no protection for animals we can only imagine the worst may happen in many instances. The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has responsibility to grant approval and provide licences for any such export trade. What detailed discussions have taken place with the Chinese authorities on the project? Have there been discussions on animal welfare? Are the Irish authorities in a position to supervise and persuade the Chinese authorities that if such a greyhound industry is established in the People's Republic then statutory provisions would be introduced to protect the welfare of the dogs involved?

The greyhound racing and breeding industry sustains 11,000 full-time and part-time jobs directly and indirectly, many in rural communities. It contributes an estimated €500 million into local economies around the tracks, which are spread throughout the country. An independent review completed by Farrell Grant Sparks in 2009 stated that there is adequate evidence to support a strong argument that the greyhound industry constitutes a major source of direct and indirect employment, gives rise to considerable domestic and export earnings and is a key driver of substantial economic activity, especially in rural areas.

Some 17 greyhound tracks are licensed by Bord na gCon, of which Bord na gCon owns eight tracks at Shelbourne Park, Harold's Cross, Cork, Tralee, Waterford, Youghal, Limerick and Galway. It also has a 51% share in the Mullingar track. The greyhound breeding industry is very successful with more than 75% of greyhounds now running in the UK being Irish bred.

Bord na gCon is a commercial State body established under the Greyhound Industry Act 1958, chiefly to control greyhound racing and to improve and develop the greyhound industry. Responsibility for Bord na gCon transferred to the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in 2010. The board of Bord na gCon is responsible for leading and directing the activities of the company. Bord na gCon has repeatedly confirmed its commitment to the highest standards of animal welfare in the greyhound industry.

The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is aware that Bord na gCon is exploring possible business opportunities in China and has been in contact with the Department in this regard. Today I met the chairman and chief executive of Bord na gCon to discuss the proposal. I made it clear that I am not in a position to approve the project as presented. It was agreed that Bord na gCon would modify its proposal to exclude the export of greyhounds from Ireland but would continue to explore possibilities of developing the proposal to assist in the management of greyhound racing in China.

Deputies will be pleased to note that Bord na gCon has demonstrated its commitment to greyhound welfare and in this regard has several initiatives in place to ensure consistent and appropriate welfare standards are met. These include the attendance of veterinary surgeons at racing and at sales trials, employment of personnel to oversee greyhound welfare and the employment of a welfare manager. Bord na gCon is also an active member of the International Greyhound Forum, an international group involved in the establishment of welfare standards and education. A guide to best practice as to the care and welfare of greyhounds is available from the Bord na gCon website.

Bord na gCon established a welfare committee in July 2009 which seeks to identify ways in which the welfare of greyhounds can be improved. In addition Bord na gCon also operates the Retired Greyhound Trust which focuses on the adoption and re-homing of greyhounds when they finish racing. In 2011 it launched a campaign, which is ongoing, to promote greyhounds as pets. Officials of Bord na gCon investigate any complaints received regarding greyhound welfare and follow up on any issues of concern that arise through their everyday interaction with trainers or owners either on the racetrack or elsewhere. Any proposal involving Bord na gCon engaging with the greyhound industry in China would have to give due consideration to animal welfare matters.

Ireland attaches a high priority to animal welfare and, alongside our EU partners, is working to promote better animal welfare internationally. The Government is preparing to introduce legislation in the current term which will provide a regime tailored specifically to enhancing the welfare of greyhounds. The commitment of the Government to animal welfare in general is beyond doubt and is reflected among the priorities in the programme for Government.

No greyhounds have been exported from Ireland to China in recent years. Any proposal to export greyhounds from Ireland to China would require the establishment and agreement of export health certification protocols with the Chinese authorities and appropriate transport arrangements would have to be put in place to ensure the welfare of the animals in transit. The Department endeavours to ensure that all exporters comply with the European Council regulation on the protection of animals during transport and related operations. All EU member states including Ireland are working to promote better animal welfare internationally and in this regard Ireland has introduced national legislation giving effect to Regulation (EC) No. 1523/2007 of the European Parliament and Council dated 11 December 2007.

The Welfare of Greyhounds Bill 2010 passed its Second Reading and was scheduled for Committee and Remaining Stages in the Seanad but was not enacted before the general election. The 2010 Bill had cross-party support in the Seanad and had the support of Bord na gCon, Dogs Trust and the DSPCA. The Government intends to reintroduce the Bill very shortly.

Greyhounds have not been exported from Ireland to China in recent years. It was agreed at today's meeting that Bord na gCon would modify its proposal to exclude the export of greyhounds from Ireland but would continue to explore possibilities of developing the proposal to assist in the management of greyhound racing in China.

Accident and Emergency Services

In recent times serious concern has been expressed by the local community and staff members about aspects of the service provided by Connolly Hospital Blanchardstown. There have been consistent cutbacks in funding to the hospital in recent years as there have been to other hospitals. There have been suggestions that one emergency department of the three in the north Dublin area would be closed and that the hospital at Blanchardstown could be the casualty or at least that its emergency service could be reduced to a 12-hour 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. service. This would have drastic consequences for residents of catchment areas. Some 35,000 attendances are recorded at the emergency department annually. Trauma services are in great need in this hospital, which serves a very large catchment area and there is already great pressure on the other major hospitals in north Dublin, Beaumont and the Mater. If the emergency department were scaled down, it would have a major impact on the community in the catchment area. It would seriously inconvenience many people who would not have their own transport to travel long distances in the event that they were travelling there themselves. It would also have a serious impact on the availability of junior doctors coming there to work who would then not get the experience and training they need. We need an absolute assurance that the emergency departments in all three north Dublin hospitals are maintained on a 24-hour basis.

There is a second issue of great concern. Connolly Hospital Blanchardstown recruited its own junior doctors and was very successful in doing so. Many young doctors were eager to go to Blanchardstown to get training and experience. Now the HSE has intervened to stop this and proposes to recruit centrally and then dispatch people to different hospitals.

I am told that between 50 and 60 junior doctors are needed for a number of hospitals and that the HSE is going to far-flung corners of the world to recruit. This will be extremely cumbersome for Connolly Hospital Blanchardstown. There are fears it will make it far more difficult for the hospital to recruit the necessary staff, bearing in mind the linking of recruitment systems generally in many areas. We need the Minister to ensure hospitals will have the right to recruit locally. Connolly Hospital Blanchardstown was doing so successfully. Why fix something that is not broken? The funding cuts are causing big problems for the community that needs the health service and also for health service staff who are under great pressure. The flexibility afforded to hospitals such as that in Blanchardstown to recruit directly their own complement of junior doctors is absolutely necessary.

I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy James Reilly. The HSE has no plans to cease 24-hour emergency department cover at Connolly Hospital Blanchardstown. It is incumbent on the HSE to make the best use of available resources to meet the needs of the population served. In doing so it must consider a range of factors, including changes in medical practice and possible changes in the way hospitals are organised and run. However, there are no plans to change the current service at the emergency department in Connolly Hospital Blanchardstown. The Minister is committed to ensuring acute hospital services at national, regional and local levels are provided in a clinically appropriate and efficient manner. In particular, he wants to ensure as many services as possible can be provided safely in smaller, local hospitals.

The Deputy referred to concerns about the recruitment of junior doctors for Connolly Hospital Blanchardstown. In this regard, the HSE has implemented a detailed non-consultant hospital doctor, NCHD, recruitment project plan to facilitate and maximise recruitment, to ensure the shortage of junior doctors and any resulting impact on services are minimised and that patient safety is maintained. In certain locations this can require a flexible reorganisation of services in order that patients' needs will be met in the best possible way. Typically, where services are affected, it is because there is a shortage of doctors to fill rosters. In such circumstances the focus is on the safe provision of services. If there are insufficient numbers of doctors available, the HSE must make alternative arrangements.

The HSE is working with a number of consultants, the Forum of Postgraduate Medical Training Bodies and others to recruit NCHDs in India and Pakistan for employment in Ireland commencing in July. It has recently progressed the centralisation of recruitment which will support the filling of priority posts.

An important part of providing high quality services in the right location will be the national clinical programmes being developed by the HSE. These inter-related programmes aim to improve service quality, effectiveness and patient access and ensure patient care is provided in the service setting most appropriate to individuals' needs.

The Minister is very supportive of the work done by Dr. Barry White and his colleagues in developing the clinical programmes and has had several discussions with him on how best to ensure they are implemented. He has also made it clear that patient safety must be the overriding priority.

One of the HSE's new clinical programmes, the national acute medicine programme, provides a framework for the delivery of acute medical services in hospitals that seeks to improve substantially and standardise care of acutely ill medical patients. There is also a clinical programme being developed for the provision of emergency department services. These programmes are aimed at helping each hospital to meet the needs of patients in the best possible way. The acute medicine and emergency department programmes are clinically led and a whole-system approach is being taken, driven by a quality agenda. The focus will be on implementation, not just on the recommendations

The Government is committed to ensuring appropriate services, including emergency department services, can be provided safely in hospitals such as that in Blanchardstown. The Minister will continue to work with the HSE to secure the best service for patients in the right location. I thank the Deputy for raising this subject.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.05 p.m. until 1.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 4 May 2011.