Topical Issue Debate (Resumed)

Job Losses

I would like to use my time in this House to best serve the people of Waterford who have been neglected for a decade in terms of industrial investment in the city and the region. Along with my fellow Waterford Deputies, I have the dubious honour of being the first person to use this new Topical Issues Debate. I use the word "dubious" because the news in Waterford over the past few weeks has been appalling. Some 575 people have lost their jobs in TalkTalk in Waterford in the past week and that is the critical issue up for debate this afternoon. Ironically, a company whose job it is to deal in telecommunications proved to do a spectacularly bad job at communicating this bad news to the Government and its workers.

Earlier this year we had more bad news in Waterford. GlaxoSmithKline, based in Dungarvan, is to lose 130 of its workers. In September 2009, Teva, the largest pharmaceutical company in the south east, let go 315 workers. Almost 500 jobs went in Waterford Crystal when the company went into receivership in 2009. The glass, as it is known locally, made the Waterford name a proud one and an international byword for quality and elegance and it employed almost 3,000 workers at its peak. Bausch & Lomb, an eye care company, announced 195 lay-offs in March 2009; I could go on.

Waterford has become an unemployment blackspot. Currently, more than 15,000 people are on the live register in Waterford; 2,500 of these are in the city alone. That is just not good enough and I intend to use my time in this House to fight for the people of Waterford and the south-east region. This crisis must be tackled. What will be done to tackle this jobs crisis Waterford currently faces?

I thank the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation for coming to Waterford at short notice to respond to the current crisis in the city. Deputies and public representatives from all parties and from none had ample opportunity to question the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, his officials and IDA officials on Monday last. Some of them chose not to stay at the meeting and asked only one question for 30 seconds or so.

The sudden announcement last Wednesday by TalkTalk has had a devastating impact on the city and the entire region. The treatment of the workers of TalkTalk demonstrated a lack of courtesy to the workers who have been loyal to it and to the State in which those workers live because the State has not had the opportunity or ample time to try to find alternative employment for that site. Unfortunately, the story has moved on and those workers are now left with the unenviable task of trying to seek employment or perhaps new courses or upskilling.

I point out to the Minister, the Dáil and the Government the fact that over the past five years, the live register figure in Waterford has increased from approximately 6,800 to 15,500. There is something fundamentally wrong with Government and IDA policy. The crisis Waterford is currently experiencing did not happen overnight. It is a result of continued neglect and lack of focus from the State agencies and past Governments.

Waterford and the south-east region need co-ordinated and specific attention. Waterford is a gateway city. It is a region with almost 500,000 people which does not have university. These are tangible facts that need to be addressed. What is needed is action by Government and a deep analysis as to why we have this unemployment crisis. The people of Waterford have spoken. They are worried and concerned. This problem could visit other regions quite easily and we need to stop it now while we can.

I thank the Deputies for raising this issue and I understand their sense of the huge blow this is for Waterford, in particular for the workers concerned. I was first informed of this decision on Wednesday, the day it was to be announced. I was dismayed, as was the IDA, at the way this was handled. In discussions with the CEO, local management and the representatives of head office in Waterford on Monday, I continued to press for a longer period because it is important not only for workers adjusting to it but also to give the IDA every chance to market this effectively as a going concern. A plant with workers and the skills they have built up is much more saleable while it is in operation than if it is closed.

I had a series of meetings with public representatives and business. I met the workers and the management and the city manager and business interests in Waterford on Monday. The message was very clear in that Waterford has not benefited from the advances in the good times and it has been badly affected in the more difficult times of late. On foot of that, I have instructed my agencies to put together an action plan for Waterford and the south east region to look at the areas they can intensify, at the way it is being supported and at the strengths and weaknesses of the area. That was reflected in the discussions I had with local representatives. There was a sense that there needed to be this sort of hard analysis as to why Waterford, with the strengths it has, not been more successful. That is the task I have set the agencies to complete within one month.

When that is done we will look afresh at what action can be taken and whether there are further, deeper issues which need to be assessed in some other way. I am determined to give Waterford the priority it correctly deserves. A casual view of the unemployment numbers and the history of industrial performance in recent times indicate that there are things which are wrong. I am addressing those and I am committed to having an effective action plan to address them.

There are issues of a long-term nature as well as things of a more short-term nature which we can address in the near term but we need to take a hard look at this to see how we can better support the enterprise sector in Waterford and set out the actions we can take in the near term and in the longer term.

I thank the Minister but I emphasise at this critical time for Waterford that talk, talk is not enough and that we need action, action. The Minister said the agencies will come together. The programme for Government promised that 50% of IDA funding will focus on the areas outside Dublin. Will the Minister ensure that the south east and Waterford is the focus of that 50% of IDA funding in the future because talk is no longer enough? We must see action.

I am aware the Cabinet discussed this matter and gave it very serious attention late last week. It is important the crisis in Waterford receives that type of attention. Waterford has a proud industrial and manufacturing past. It has a willing and an educated workforce and people who are resilient. They have shown this summer, through the Tall Ships Festival and many other good things, the positive contribution Waterford city and the south-east region can make as a gateway to this country.

It is important all Departments are instructed by Cabinet to respond to this crisis. It is not only the job of the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. Waterford is located in the heart of the south-east region which has huge potential from an agriculture and agrifood perspective. As Ireland's oldest city, it has great tourism potential, so the Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport has a part to play, as do all Ministers.

This type of focus must remain even after the hype, some of which we saw today, and the media attention die down. A concentrated, focused effort with real and tangible action is needed for the workers and the people of Waterford and the south-east region in the years ahead.

I acknowledge the support of Cabinet colleagues. The Minister for Social Protection responded immediately and staff from the Department have been in TalkTalk during the week and, indeed, were there last week. The Minister for Education and Skills also responded immediately and the support of FÁS for the workers is in place. In addition, the Minister for Education and Skills indicated that work on the proposal for a technological university, which is to be explored as part of the programme for Government, is being accelerated. Clear criteria will be developed for that opportunity, which arose in discussions. We need immediate action in the enterprise domain, but I also recognise that this assessment of strengths and weaknesses will throw up issues that are relevant for other Departments. On foot of that, I will bring to the attention of other Departments areas of action that have the potential to assist.

I accept that IDA Ireland has been meeting its target for 50% of activity outside Dublin but, for whatever reason, Waterford has not been doing as well as other regions outside the capital. I acknowledge there is an issue as to why Waterford, despite its offerings — and it has significant strengths — is not performing as well. That is why it is important to examine this matter to see what items we can correct in the short term to enhance that performance. It is our ambition to see Waterford doing better both from overseas investment and indigenous companies. We need to create an engine of indigenous growth in this country. Some 14 years after being in the Department, I am disappointed to see that the indigenous sector's contribution to our exports has not been enhanced in that time. We must re-examine the weaknesses in that regard.

Meitheal Forbartha na Gaeltachta

Before I commence, may I ask if the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, has direct responsibility for the partnership programme? My understanding was that under this new Topical Issue Debate, the Minister with direct responsibility would attend the House and not fob it off on the Minister of State.

Like Deputy Ó Cuív did.

They were never responsible for anything.

Does the Minister of State have direct responsibility for partnership companies?

Yes, I have. I am responding on behalf of the Department to the issues the Deputy has raised.

Yes, but we were given a commitment.

The Deputy is using up some of his time.

On the first day in, the Government goes back on what it said it was going to do.

The Deputy will be in Opposition for a long time.

That will be a matter for the Irish people to decide, not the Deputy.

They have decided already for this term.

That is correct, but for the next term they will decide again.

A Deputy

That was on the basis of a false promise. Deputy Buttimer should be careful.

Deputy Ó Cuív did not run for the Park.

Will Members please allow Deputy Ó Cuív to make his case?

Mar is eol don Aire Stáit, d'éirigh MFG as trádáil gan choinne an tseachtain seo caite. Bhí iniúchadh a chur mé féin ar bun á dhéanamh ar ghnóthaí MFG. Bhí an tuarascáil sin réidh roimh an Aire nuair a tháinig sé isteach sa Roinn. Ba mhaith liom i dtosach báire ceist a chur ar an Aire Stáit faoin eolas a bhí ag an Aire maidir leis na fadhbanna a bhí in MFG agus, go deimhin, na céimeanna a bhí á ghlacadh ag an Roinn agus ag an Aire chun déileáil leis na fadhbanna sin, a bhí ar eolas acu. Is dóigh liom nach dtuigeann an tAire an caillteanas mór atá i gceist sa chinneadh a rinneadh an tseachtain seo caite, ó thaobh cailliúint seirbhísí agus poist de.

Tá práinn le réiteach a fháil ar na fadhbanna seo. Creidim gurb é an bealach is fearr ar aghaidh ná teacht ar réiteach eatramhach ar na fadhbanna. Tógadh an cinneadh Dé Céadaoin seo caite agus bhí cruinniú Dé hAoine seo caite idir an Roinn, Pobal agus MFG. De réir mar a thuigim é, ní raibh an tAire i láthair — níor b'fhiú don Aire bheith i láthair nuair a bhí an cheist fíor-thábhachtach seo don Ghaeltacht á phlé. Ba mhaith liom míniú a fháil ón Aire, a bhfuil freagracht air i dtaobh na ceiste seo, cén fáth nach raibh sé i láthair ag an gcruinniú sin. Ba mhaith liom eolas a fháil ar céard atá á dhéanamh, nó céard atá beartaithe le déanamh, chun déileáil leis an gceist seo anois, agus cad atá i gceist a dhéanamh chun na seirbhísí seo a chur ar fáil arís agus poist a chaomhnú.

Tá sé thar a bheith tábhachtach, in aon socrú nua a dhéanfar, go gcuirfear na seirbhísí ar fáil trí Ghaeilge. Bunaíodh Meitheal Forbartha na Gaeltachta chun déanamh cinnte go mbeidh seirbhísí ar fáil do Ghaeilgeoirí na Gaeltachta ina dteanga fhéin. Ní bheadh sé sásúil dom, nó do phobal na Gaeltachta, dá smaoineófaí ar na seirbhísí sin a chur ar fáil in aon teanga eile. Ba mhaith liom a dheimhniú go bhfuil sé i gceist ag an Aire casadh le bord iomlán MFG. Cén uair atá sé i gceist aige casadh leo? Cad iad na socruithe atá i gceist a dhéanamh chun a chinntiú go mbeidh na cláir Leader agus LCDP, agus na cláir eile a bhí á reachtáil ag MFG, ar fáil do phobal na Gaeltachta amach anseo?

Ba mhaith liom freagra a thabhairt don Teachta. Tá sé an-thábhachtach go réiteofaí an cheist phráinneach seo ar son muintir na Gaeltachta, go háirithe. Tá an tAire agus an Roinn ag déanamh a ndícheall lá agus oíche chun an scéal seo a socrú, i dtreo is go gheobhaidh gach chuid de gach Gaeltacht sa tír an buntáiste atá ag teastáil ón airgead seo. Is é sin an bun-aidhm atá againn ar an taobh seo den Dáil. Tá súil agam go bhfuil an Teachta Ó Cuív ag cabhrú linn sa mhéid sin.

Mar is eol don Teachta, is comhlacht é Meitheal Forbartha na Gaeltachta atá ag obair sna Gaeltachtaí i gCorcaigh, Ciarraí, Dún na nGall, Gaillimh, Maigh Eo, an Mhí agus Port Láirge. This company operates a number of programmes on behalf of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, agus Ranna eile. Tá an comhlacht seo ag obair sa Roinn ina bhfuil mé i mo Aire Stáit. The programmes that are being delivered from my Department are rural walkways, rural development programmes and the local and community development programme. Is comhlacht neamhspleách lena bhord féin é MFG. Tá dualgais air ó thaobh company law de. It — bord an chomhlachta — has responsibilities under company law with regard to the proper stewardship of that company.

Níl aon bhaint ag an Roinn leis na rudaí inmheánacha atá ar siúl i measc na gcomhlachtaí seo, ach go háirithe. Dá bhrí sin, níl aon ról ag an Roinn in relation to rudaí inmheánacha, go mórmhór na daoine atá ag obair ionta agus na rudaí a bhaineann leo. Tá an dualgas iomlán ar an mbord na rudaí sin a réiteach agus a chur chun cinn, más féidir. Mar is eol duit, a Theachta, Pobal, which manages the local and community development programme on behalf of the Department, commenced an audit of MFG in January 2010. The audit findings and associated recommendations were notified don comhlacht sin in June 2010.

An independent executive, Mazars, was appointed by Pobal to MFG on 30 June 2011 to examine the outstanding audit issues and identify suitable mechanisms for their resolution. The executive presented their interim findings to Pobal in mid-August 2011 and presented their recommendations and progress to the board of MFG on 7 September 2011. The final status on the recommendations was scheduled to be presented by the independent executive to Pobal by 30 September 2011.

LCDP funding was temporarily extended to September 2011 to facilitate the completion of the final report. MFG has confirmed that its board, on examination of the company's financial situation, took the decision to cease trading as of 4 p.m. on 7 September 2011 on the basis of insolvency. The board has also confirmed that all staff contracts have been terminated since the board meeting.

On 9 September, a meeting was held with representatives from the Department, Pobal, Mazars and MFG. This meeting was used to gain clarifications on the specific decisions taken by the company and on its progress on implementing these decisions. The company was strongly encouraged to avail of financial advice, alongside the legal advice which, it was stressed, is imperative immediately. It also committed to effect all other necessary work to meet its statutory obligations.

It was agreed that MFG would take full legal advice on the necessary steps and that the company would ensure it is fulfilling all statutory duties relevant to its situation. The Department and Pobal are awaiting a written update on this work.

Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an Aire ach, in ndáiríre, níor fhreagair sé na buncheisteanna. An chéad cheist, muna n-éiríonn le MFG ord a chur ar a chuid gnóithe céard iad na socruithe eile atá i gceist a dhéanamh leis na seirbhísi a chur ar fáil don phobal, is é sin, seirbhísí chomhlucht Leader agus LCDP, an local community and development programme? Ar ndóigh tá an comhlucht neamhspleách. Ach muna bhfeidhmíonn sé de réir critéir na Roinne níl sé neamhspleách, mar tá an Roinn ag tabhairt a chuid airgid. Mar sin, muna bhfuil sé ag feidhmiú cad iad na malairt socruithe atá i gceist a dhéanamh le déanamh cinnte go mbeidh na seirbhísí seo ar fáil do phobal na Gaeltachta? Bhí dóthain ama agus dóthain fógra go raibh an fhadhb seo ann.

An dara rud, an bhféadfadh an t-Aire a dheimhniú dom go raibh an dliteanas ar fad a tharraing an trioblóid seo ag dul don Stáit? I gcás amháin, tá ordú Ard Chúirte go gcaithfear duine áirithe a íoc agus ní raibh aon rogha ag an Stáit ach aisíoch a dhéanamh ag MFG i dtaobh an duine sin. De bhreis ar sin, de réir mar a thuigim is dliteanas de thart ar €100,000 é, de réir tuairiscí. An bhféadfadh an t-Aire a dheimhniú gurb shin an dliteanas atá i gceist? Cuireann sé iontas orm nach rabhthas in ann teacht ar shocrú leis an gcomhlucht maidir leis an €100,000 sin agus déanamh cinnte go leanfadh an comhlucht ag déanamh na hoibre a raibh sé ceapaithe a dhéanamh ar son phobal na Gaeltachta.

Níor thug an tAire aon fhreagra céard atá i gceist a dhéanamh. Ta pobal na Gaeltachta gan na seirbhísí seo. Cén uair ar féidir linn a bheith ag súil go mbeidh na seirbhísí seo ar fáil do ghnáth mhuintir na Gaeltachta atá ag braith ar na seirbhísí seo agus atá ag fanacht ar chúnamh airgid nach bhfuil ar fáil anois.

Tá sé an-tábhachtach go mbeadh na seirbhísí sin ar fáil ins na gaeltachtaí chomh luath agus is féidir iad a bheith ann. Tá sé an-tábhachtach go mbeadh an Roinn ag déanamh a dhícheall chun na seirbhísí a chur ar fáil, más rud é nach bhfuil an comhlucht in ann é sin a dhéanamh.

Tá an Roinn ag déanamh a dhícheall. It is currently working on both long-term and short-term solutions to ensure the continued delivery of the programme for rural and Gaeltacht areas. At this stage, is féidir liom geall a thabhairt gur féidir aon project promoter who already has contractual commitments under RDP to have his or her contract honoured. Tá sé sin thar a bheith soiléir anois.

I assure the Deputy that the intention is to find an efficient and effective solution that can be applied at the earliest opportunity. My Department would be happy to brief Deputies from Gaeltacht areas to ensure they are fully informed at every stage of this process, which is critical for the Gaeltacht.

The funding that MFG has been given to spend in 2011 amounts to €1.8 million. It is also contracted to deliver other services between 2007 and 2013. The financial allocation to MFG over the programme period to the end of 2015 will be more than €17 million. Tá sé an-tábhachtach ar fad go mbeadh an t-airgead caite san áit cheart. Déanfaidh mé mo shár-dhícheall a chinntiú go dtarlóidh sé sin.

An féidir leis an Aire a dheimhniú gur €100,000 atá i gceist, give or take?

Suicide Incidence

According to the recently published provisional figures on suicide rates for 2010, 486 people died by suicide that year. For every individual who died, ten people were directly traumatised. For the purpose of making accurate international comparisons, undetermined deaths are included in the suicide rates. The figure for undetermined deaths last year was 123. Chooselife, which is the Scottish programme for suicide prevention and is regarded as very progressive in this area, advises that the inclusion of undetermined deaths protects against under-recording and provides more accurate figures for international and geographical comparisons. If we take this formula into account, 603 people died by suicide last year.

The substantial increase in recent years is directly associated with our economic difficulties. International research indicates that suicide rates increase by approximately 25% during times of recession. In 2009, the incidence of suicide in Ireland increased by 25%. Research in this area goes back to the 19th century. Mental ill health resulting from recession, loss of employment, reductions in income or eviction can stress family relationships and people often take solace in drug or alcohol abuse. The incidence of mental illness, especially depression, and suicide increase.

I welcome the programme for Government's commitment to ring-fence an additional €53 million per annum for implementing the recommendations set out in A Vision for Change. In 2010, only 5.3% of the total health budget was allocated to mental health services, compared to 13% in 1986, and A Vision for Change recommends that the allocation should be 8.4%. I suggest to the Minister for Health that €53 million per annum is inadequate to achieve the level of spending recommended and the commitment should be revisited.

I thank Deputy Neville for raising this important issue. I am aware that the number of deaths by suicide has increased in recent years. Discussing statistics in this context seems cold and unfeeling but we need to be aware of the increasing number of deaths by suicide. In regard to the Deputy's assertion on the number of deaths that are not reported in the statistics as suicides, we must be consistent in making comparisons until we make a decision on moving in that direction. There is no doubt that the suspicion arises in certain incidents, such as single vehicle fatal accidents, that suicide was involved.

The suicide rate in Ireland had been undergoing a gradual decline, from 497 in 2003 to 458 in 2007. These decreases gave cause for optimism that the action taken at local and national level to prevent suicide was having a positive impact. However, the number of deaths by suicide increased to 506 in 2008, an increase of 10.5% over the 2007 figures, and the provisional figures from the Central Statistics Office are 527 for 2009 and 486 for 2010. These are staggering statistics and they show that more people lose their lives from suicide than on the roads. The increases in 2008 and 2009 were largely in the middle age groups, which we think were severely affected by the economic downturn. Male suicides outnumber female suicides by a ratio of 4:1 and in some younger age groups the ratio is 7:1. While welcome, the reduction between 2009 and 2010 still leaves us to deal with a high level of suicides.

Reach Out, our policy strategy on suicide prevention, outlines the actions that need to be taken to prevent suicide and deliberate self-harm and increase awareness of the importance of good mental health. The National Office for Suicide Prevention is responsible for the implementation of Reach Out. A number of suicide prevention initiatives have been progressed in recent years, including the development and implementation of the ASIST and Safetalk national training programmes and the development of mental health awareness campaigns through TV, radio, cinema and outdoor advertising and the production of websites and written material.

In 2011, mental health awareness campaigns will focus on young people and those in distress as a result of their economic vulnerability. There is continued support for voluntary organisations working in the field of suicide prevention; this year, with the additional €l million provided for suicide prevention, a further 25 programmes were funded. Specialist training has been agreed and implemented with the Garda, the Prison Service and the Defence Forces and work is under way with the fire and ambulance services. In addition, a "tough economic times" information and training programme has been introduced for the staff of organisations such as citizens advice centres, the Money Advice and Budgeting Service and so on.

During 2011, the National Office for Suicide Prevention will continue to develop both the number and range of training and awareness programmes, including the ASIST programme, to reach the most vulnerable in our communities; improve and standardise the response to deliberate self-harm presentations; develop the capacity of primary care to respond to suicidal behaviour and consider new models of response; and ensure that helpline supports for those in emotional distress are co-ordinated and widely publicised. Within each of these four areas an emphasis will be placed on the most vulnerable groups identified in Reach Out and more recent research.

I thank the Minister for his response. While he has pointed to several positive developments, the reality is that we are coming from a very low base given the historical neglect in the area of suicide prevention and mental health service provision. I welcome the firm commitment given by the Taoiseach at the People of the Year Awards last weekend that the resources of the Government will be available to develop and improve mental health services in order to save lives and support the 70,000 people each year who attempt suicide or engage in self-harm.

Will the Minister comment on reports that the level of staffing at the National Office for Suicide Prevention has been reduced? While the budget for the office is currently in the region of €4 million, the programme for Government includes a commitment to increase the level of funding. I propose that it should be increased to €10 million over the lifetime of the Government, which would require an additional €2 million from the €35 million allocated to mental health services. I refer not to additional funding which must be found from somewhere else, but to the funding that is already committed to mental health services. An allocation of €2 million per annum should be given to the Office for Suicide Prevention from this funding line to deal specifically with suicide prevention.

I take this opportunity to thank the director of the office, Mr. Geoff Day, who has announced his retirement, for his excellent work since its establishment. Suicide prevention is an important arm of health service provision within the Health Service Executive and it is important that the Office for Suicide Prevention is given additional support. The current allocation of €4 million has been totally inadequate to deal with the issue nationally.

Deputy Neville's commitment in this area is well known for many years. I accept that the service base is low and that much requires to be done. Nevertheless, I remind the Deputy that within our primary care strategy, it is our intention that each primary care centre will have a mental health facility so that people with mental health problems will be treated in the same way as any other patient, thus helping to remove the stigma associated with mental illness. It often seems to be acceptable to talk about one's sore leg or chest pain but not to talk about mental health difficulties. That stigma must be debunked.

I too pay tribute to Mr. Geoff Day for all the work he has done. Some stories in the press have suggested he is leaving because of a lack of resources. This is not the case. I met him last Friday at the Console conference where he made clear to me, as he had done earlier to conference attendees, that he is taking the opportunity to pursue a master's degree at Trinity College. He had intended to retire next year but has done so a little earlier in order to commence his studies. Mr. Day has generously and kindly offered his services to us in the coming years. I am grateful to him for that and have no doubt he will continue to be a very valuable resource.

Hospital Waiting Lists

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this vital issue for discussion. Some days ago we heard the shocking revelation that the number of people waiting longer than three months for a colonoscopy has more than doubled in the past year. Colonoscopies are used in the early detection of bowel cancer and are therefore a crucial life-saving measure. It is shocking that the waiting list now stands at more than 2,400, according to the National Treatment Purchase Fund. The Irish Cancer Society has stated that more people than ever before are now waiting longer than three months for this crucial test, with an additional 1,400 joining the list in the past year. Beaumont Hospital in Dublin has the largest waiting list at 662.

The waiting list at St. Luke's General Hospital in Kilkenny is also very large. This should strike a particular chord because it was there that a young mother, Susie Long's, diagnosis of bowel cancer was delayed by a catastrophic seven months in 2005 to 2006, which cost her life and deprived her family of a devoted partner and mother. She died because she was on a public waiting list. Had she been wealthy or covered by private health insurance, it is most likely this tragedy would have been averted. The then Minister for Health admitted that the health service nationally had failed Susie Long and many others in her position.

Five years later, it is shameful in the extreme that waiting lists are lengthening. It is little wonder that Conor MacLiam, husband of Susie Long, has expressed his anger that after the tragedy he and his family endured, a situation could continue where other people might suffer the same fate. That is a betrayal of the serious, solemn promise made following Susie Long's death that nobody would have to wait longer than a month for a colonoscopy. No doubt the waiting times have been badly affected by the savage cuts in hospital funding being ruthlessly implemented by the HSE. For example, Blanchardstown hospital, which has a long list, has endured a savage reduction of 19% in its funding in the last two years. Colleagues and I have received correspondence from 23 doctors there describing the catastrophe this is causing.

These life-threatening cuts are being made while the Government continues to spend tens of billions of taxpayers' funds to salvage the European financial institutions and Irish speculators who gambled recklessly in Irish property. The EU-IMF-ECB strictures on austerity are placing people's lives under threat. The HSE claims that almost all patients who require colonoscopies and who are deemed urgent cases are tested within 28 days. This is disingenuous and highly misleading. The Irish Cancer Society points out that there is no clinical way of identifying all urgent cases since bowel cancer can be well advanced in some cases before severe symptoms are detected. The delays in providing colonoscopies are condemning to death people who depend on our public health service and cannot afford private care.

Why has the promise that nobody would wait longer than one month for a test for bowel cancer not been implemented? What is the Minister's timeframe to effect that promise? Will he give us the precise and immediate schedule showing what resources will be made available to honour the pledge made to the memory of Susie Long and in memory of all those who have tragically suffered, including many who have died, from bowel cancer?

I welcome the opportunity to speak about the issue of colonoscopy waiting times. As has been widely reported, the most recent waiting list figures provided by the National Treatment Purchase Fund to the Irish Cancer Society show 2,418 people are waiting longer than three months for colonoscopy tests. I have no hesitation in saying that both the numbers waiting and the longer waiting times are unacceptable.

That is the reason the HSE has put in place a specific waiting list initiative to address this issue.

It is important to point out that colonoscopy tests are carried out to monitor a range of other conditions besides cancer, including bowel disorders such as Crohn's disease and inflammatory bowel disease. I would like to clarify that while more than 50,000 colonoscopies a year are carried out in our public hospital system, the vast majority of patients are diagnosed as not having cancer. In 2009, the HSE provided hospitals with national guidelines on managing colonoscopies. This included a definition to prioritise patients referred for colonoscopy services into two groups, urgent and non-urgent.

The target timeframe within which urgent cases must be seen is four weeks. I accept, as Deputy Higgins said, that there is no exact science in terms of identifying all urgent and non-urgent cases. The symptoms which make a situation urgent are well known and these should receive priority. That is the way it has to be. However, I do not accept this number of people should be on a waiting list for a colonoscopy, urgent or non-urgent. I will deal in a moment with how we are going to address that. The target timeframe within which urgent cases must be seen is four weeks.

Data on waiting times for urgent colonoscopies has been collected. The monthly performance reports from the HSE show that the vast majority of people requiring an urgent colonoscopy receive the procedure within the 28 day target. In the month of June, 98.1% of patients waiting for an urgent colonoscopy had the procedure within the 28 day target. Nationally, five patients were outside the 28 day target. This is a slight improvement on the May figure, when the rate was 97.8%, with 20 people outside the 28 day target. It is important to stress that the NTPF waiting list referred to by the Deputy does not include urgent cases which are assessed and deemed by a doctor as being at risk from cancer.

With regard to HSE waiting lists initiatives for routine colonoscopies, the figures from the NTPF show that more than 1,600 people are waiting three to six months and a total of 2,418 are waiting up to 12 months and longer for the procedure. As I mentioned earlier, the HSE has put in place a specific waiting list initiative which will see at least an additional 3,000 endoscopies, namely, colonoscopies and upper GI endoscopies, take place by the end of the year in hospitals where there are waiting lists. The aim of this initiative is to increase access to routine colonoscopies for patients. A second phase of this initiative will bring the total additional number of endoscopies to be undertaken to 7,000.

The initiative involves providing funding to around 20 hospitals which will allow additional procedures to be undertaken within a strict timeframe during 2011 in order to address current problems. It may involve referral of patients to a different HSE hospital in line with the NTPF approach. This approach has a number of benefits, including increased access for patients, reductions in waiting lists for hospitals and assisting candidate screening colonoscopy units in their preparation for participating in the national colorectal screening programme which is scheduled to commence in 2012.

HSE monthly performance data show that practically all of those referred for urgent colonoscopy are being seen with a 28-day time frame. In addition, in regard to waiting times for non-urgent colonoscopy, I welcome the HSE's specific targeted initiative to address these and to ensure that those referred are seen in a timely manner.

The Minister agreed with the Irish Cancer Society that it is not possible to clinically identify urgent cases. The response prepared for him by the HSE relies on the fact that so-called urgent cases are seen within 28 days. However, many cases of cancer, which could be advancing with detection, will not, therefore, fall within the urgent case cohort. That issue has not been dealt with. The only way this can be dealt with comprehensively is if the one month maximum waiting time is absolute in every hospital in every part of the country.

The Minister has, with respect, contradicted himself in his reply. I ask that he be more precise. Within which timeframe will every person needing a colonoscopy be given the procedure? Does the Minister accept that the pressure which hospitals are under in terms of resources militates against that type of service being available and that it is an urgent issue which must also be addressed by him?

In reality, this is a cancer waiting list. Poor people, those on modest incomes and affected by the recession and the tens of thousands forced out of private insurance are now potential victims in this scenario.

I will try to address both of the Deputy's questions in the short time available to me. I have not contradicted myself. We know with certainty the cases that are urgent. We do not know with certainty the cases that might be urgent. That is the way cases are categorised. In other words, we know the symptoms which cause concern and should be seeking to identify. Doctors know such cases are urgent. That is not to suggest that people with innocuous symptoms will not also transpire to have cancer. Let us face it, in some jurisdictions which carry out routine colonoscopies cancer is identified despite the patient having no other symptoms.

Given the current climate, we are focussing on urgent cases. It is our intention, through the additional resources we are putting in place, to tender to have the backlog of colonoscopies in hospitals cleared. I cannot, however, tell the House today how much funding is being put aside as to do so would render the tender expensive. In other words, if people know how much money we have that is the amount at which they will pitch their tender. I will not share that information with the House as I want to get best value for the taxpayer and the best service for the patient.

The Deputy is correct that hospitals are under pressure. It is a legacy of the previous Government that hospitals were €70 million in the red at the commencement of this year. The previous Government allowed a huge overrun in activity in the first three months. We must also meet our commitments under the EU-IMF arrangement.

We treated the patient. That is the problem.

We are faced with a cut of almost €1 billion this year and a further €500 million next year.

Our mistake was to treat the people.

No roaring, shouting, giggling or laughing from Deputy Dooley or others on the opposite side of the Chamber will change those facts. That is the reality.

The Minister is accusing us of treating patients.

I would like the message to go out that we have a strategy to address this backlog. We are putting in place additional funds to make that happen and are addressing the issue in a manner which we hope will yield maximum result for patients who need this service.

The same strategy as applies to the hospitals.