Topical Issue Debate

Social Media Regulation

I am grateful to the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this matter. I am disappointed the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources could not be present but I understand. I thank the Minister of State for attending in his absence.

This is one of the most important Topical Issue matters that I will table during the lifetime of this Government. I recently had a meeting with students from Lucan Community College in my constituency and I am happy that two of them, Orla Kenny and Katie Farrell, are present. I was challenged by them to examine, research and study the Neknomination phenomenon. As I said to them at the time, it was one of the most disturbing experiences of my life. I have never seen a four or five minute film that was so disturbing and I had difficulty containing myself in the seat while I watched it. When it concluded, they said: "Derek, this is not the worst by any means."

There is significant peer pressure on young people today. Neknomination is a Facebook game. It is a dangerous practice that has led to deaths, sickness, injury and increased psychological problems over the past few weeks. Friends contact each other through social media to make a dare and some of those who do not respond to the dare stand to lose their friends. The vast majority of young people in second and third level have many hundreds of contacts on their smartphones and tablets and there is continuous communication. Adults often communicate with each other through social networks from time to time but I have come to realise young people communicate continuously through them. It is a way of life for many people, particularly young people, and it helps to form relationships and communications.

The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources is on record saying it would be helpful if Facebook agreed to take the Neknomination page down.

I am calling for much more than that. I am requesting an intervention from the very top in order to deal with this new and dangerous practice. We have laws and regulations which are in the interests of people from different walks of life and which reflect the common good. I refer here to the laws relating to roads, licensed premises, etc. There is a need for social media to be regulated as a matter of urgency.

I welcome the fact that the Internet content governance advisory body is prepared to examine this dangerous phenomenon, which, as a result of online bullying, the issuing of crazy challenges, increased binge drinking and the performance of some of the most dangerous acts one could possibly imagine, is affecting the lives of many young people. I welcome the Union of Students in Ireland's campaign against this dangerous drinking game. I reject what Facebook has said to the effect that "controversial or offensive behaviour is not necessarily against our rules". I have a serious issue with anybody who adopts such an irresponsible position. Parents, teachers, students unions and those who play leading roles in our society all have a major part to play in stopping this practice by encouraging young people and detagging and unblocking their dares.

An eminent judge recently warned that if the current Internet drinking contest takes hold, there will be a tsunami of prosecutions before his court. I am of the view that the Neknomination phenomenon is one of the greatest threats to young people in modern times. I welcome the fact that some students have responded to it by launching their own campaign, RAKnomination, which involve people performing random acts of kindness. However, I am of the view that those involved have a challenge on their hands. This House must send out a message to the effect that it is prepared to provide leadership and respond to any threat or risk to members of society. Facebook must be regulated as a matter of urgency. It is not only the latter which has facilitated Neknomination challenges and we must beware of that fact. The two students I met last week informed me that other social media options and opportunities are becoming available all the time.

There can be no doubt but that the pervasive use of social media has challenged a wide number of previously accepted norms, both in the context of media governance and in more general societal terms. These issues are far from simple. In fact, they are quite complex. The nature of the sector is such that a formal regulatory system similar to that for broadcast media would be impossible to create. Moreover, the evolution of social media and online media in general has proven to have radical and important positive characteristics. Social media are categorically not a bad thing, rather they enrich the lives of millions of people every day. That is not to say, however, that all of the uses to which social media are put are positive.

Substantial work has already been completed in this area in the past 15 to 20 years and European Union Safer Internet Day is an example of what has already been achieved. On Monday, at this year's Safer Internet Day event, my colleague and Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, reiterated the Department's and Government's commitment to safer Internet use, including the responsible use of social media. To this end, the Department has funded the Up2Us anti-bullying kit as a practical resource for dealing with the issue of cyberbullying.

It is clear that time has come to take stock of Government responses to some of the questions posed by online media use. In that context, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, has asked the Internet content governance advisory group, formed in December, to evaluate the full range of content issues that now arise online. This group will report in May and the Government will consider its report in great detail. A public consultation process is now open and submissions from all interested parties are welcome before the closing date of the 18 March. I am aware also that group expect to meet with all key stakeholders in the coming weeks as part of its work.

While there has been significant media commentary around the way the phenomenon referenced by the Deputy has been propagated, the key issue here is our underlying attitude towards alcohol in this country. The Government has been very clear about its commitment to deal with the pattern of alcohol misuse in society and the widespread harm this causes. The issues involved are multifaceted and a co-ordinated response is in place across a number of Departments. Last October the Government approved an extensive package of measures to deal with alcohol misuse based on the steering group report on a national substance misuse strategy, which was published by the Department of Health in February 2012. These measures are being delivered and include a minimum price for alcohol and a number of new restrictions on how alcohol is advertised, particularly in the context of how it is advertised to children and young people.

The issues that arise in respect of this matter are complex and delicate. A balance must be struck between preserving freedom of speech and freedom of expression online, and protecting children and young people in particular from content that may well be age inappropriate or harmful. As already stated, social media and online content in general are not subject to the same types of editorial restrictions as broadcast media, for example, and questions as to the most appropriate governance model are being asked by governments and civil society groups across the globe. There are no simple answers to these questions but I am confident that the group established by the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, will evaluate all of these issues thoroughly and in detail.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I am aware of a number of the matters to which he refers. I am aware, for example, of the many positive opportunities to which the Internet gives rise in the context of education and communication and in facilitating people in enhancing relationships through social media. However, I want to focus on the dangers involved. I welcome the establishment of the group to which the Minister of State referred. I also welcome the fact that it is going to report in May. However, I am concerned with regard to the fact that an emergency exists in respect of this matter and I am of the view that an emergency intervention is required. Will the Minister of State comment on that matter?

I accept that there are huge levels of peer pressure involved and the Minister referred to the misuse of alcohol. We all have a responsibility in this regard. The phenomenon under discussion can lead to cyberbullying and the online shaming of people who to not take part. The two students whom I met last week informed me that many other social media and networking options and opportunities are coming down the line. We must be prepared to deal with these also. Yesterday I wrote to the principals of each of the second level schools in my constituency and asked them to provide advice on the best way to respond to the current phenomenon before more deaths or injuries occur or more damage is done. As stated earlier, Facebook and other social networking sites must be regulated. Despite the fact that the Internet content governance advisory group has been put in place and will report in May, I am concerned that - as is often the case - the process will take too long. People are dying and we must respond.

I agree with the Deputy that some very tragic incidents have been associated with the Neknomination phenomenon in recent weeks, not only in Ireland but across the globe. He suggested that we somehow shut down all social media communication which is in any way connected with these tragic occurrences. It would be impossible to achieve this, either now or at any time in the future. If we decided to try to convince Facebook to remove all references to Neknomination from its website, what would be the outcome? The Deputy referred to the many other social media opportunities that are becoming available on a daily basis and there is no reason why young people - in view of their talent and creativity - would not develop their own social media platforms in order that they might engage in what some regard as quite juvenile behaviour. One would certainly not advise one's sons or daughters to become involved in such behaviour. The Deputy must realise that it would be impossible to regulate or shut down communication on the type of sites to which we are referring here. That is the way the Internet works and that is the way it will always work.

Deputy Keating referred to peer pressure. What he said is correct. Peer pressure occurs everywhere, not just on social media sites.

It happens in our schools and in school yards, streets and pubs but there is no suggestion that we need to regulate that interaction between young people and those settings. It is undesirable in those settings and it is undesirable in social media. What we need to do is to educate and empower our young people to use social media and all other forms of communication sensibly and not to engage in activity that compromises the safety of their friends and their peers. The long and perhaps difficult process in which we have always been engaged and in which we will continue to engage is to educate young people on how best to interact with and support one another.

Deputy Keating referred to the nominations for random acts of kindness. I saw an excellent example of it on Facebook where a young person in my constituency had put up a RAK nomination, a random act of kindness. I am more than confident that young people themselves are well capable of highlighting the general challenges around these nonsensical Neknomination activities and how they are subjecting their peers to these very challenging situations. They are well capable of responding and showing the very positive force that social media can be to do positive things. I do not think it is a question of regulation or somehow shutting down the interaction that will always occur through the use of social media, rather it is about educating our young people to the best possible extent on how social media can be used wisely and effectively as a positive force.

Gaelscoileanna Issues

Deputy Emmet Stagg and Catherine Murphy are sharing time on this issue.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this matter. I am sorry the Minister is not here to take the debate as he, rather than the Minister of State, is the Minister responsible. I thank the Minister for the provision he has made for north Kildare with two new second-level schools in Maynooth, and a second level and new primary school in Celbridge.

Cóláiste Cois Life was established in 1997 to serve the needs of west Dublin and north Kildare. It has been repeatedly stated that this was the purpose, including very recently in answer to a parliamentary question from my colleague, Deputy Bernard Durkan, to the Minister for Education and Skills who said the school was for students from north Kildare and west Dublin. However, a new enrolment policy has been put in place by Cóláiste Cois Life which excludes north Kildare students. All-Irish schools in Celbridge, Leixlip and Maynooth are now excluded from that post-primary all-Irish school. These three schools have no outlet to a second-level school.

The Minister has stated repeatedly that he will make provision if there is a proven need; there is now a need proven. I propose to the Minister that the provision can be achieved at a minimal cost. It is accepted that Cóláiste Cois Life is full. Maynooth post-primary school will be empty shortly because although it is a fine structure it is not fit for purpose for the post-primary general school. The Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board is prepared to make it available for use as an all-Irish second-level school in north Kildare. In September 2014, the sixth class students from the three primary schools will have nowhere to go. I suggest that the vacant prefabs in Cóláiste Cois Life could be used on a temporary basis until the post-primary school building in Maynooth is available, which is expected to be shortly. I ask the Minister of State not to tell us about Aonad because this is not an acceptable alternative to a full immersion in an all-Irish system. The secondary schools in Naas and Clondalkin might as well be on Mars because there is no public transport from north Kildare to either place and the Minister of State will not provide school buses from north Kildare to those schools.

I know the Minister is a reasonable and practical man. I am making a very positive proposal which will deal with the issue at minimal cost and I ask him to consider it.

The all-Irish school model is well established in north Kildare, with the first primary school established in 1979. There are three all-Irish primary schools in the north-eastern part of the county, in Kilcock, Maynooth and Leixlip. In September this year they will have to refuse admission to just short of 200 pupils. They are very successful schools. Six classes of sixth class - rang a sé - will be finishing in June and there is insufficient post-primary provision for them. Cóláiste Cois Life was developed as a regional school. It is popular in Lucan and pupils from two primary schools in Lucan will take up all the available places in Cóláiste Cois Life from next year with the result that no children from north Kildare will be admitted because of the enrolment policy. Modern prefabs are in place. Short, medium and long-term strategies need to be put in place and we have made proposals. I met the Minister several times last week and I gave him the numbers for each of the schools.

Approval is awaited from the building unit for a third stream in the all-Irish school in Kilcock. This proposal is stalled at a time when the baby boom is producing the children and the parents desire this type of education. It is not a fad and it has been a consistent desire since 1979. It is a choice that has to be met. The kind of choices we debate are exclusively restricted to the issue of religious patronage. Parents want to make different choices and they are choosing with their feet. Some 197 students in north Kildare are not being accommodated where there is a desire to have them accommodated. There is something going wrong with the planning for those children and this needs to righted by the Department.

I thank the Deputies for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to outline to the House the position on the extent of all-Irish school provision in the north Kildare area. Three Gaelscoileanna were established at primary level in north Kildare to meet demand for instruction through the medium of Irish, Scoil Chearbhaill Uí Dháiligh in Leixlip, Gaelscoil Chill Cóca in Kilcock and Scoil Uí Fhiach in Maynooth, while in nearby Lucan, two new 16-classroom school buildings have been provided for Gaelscoil Naomh Pádraig and Gaelscoil Eiscir Riada.

I am aware that one of the Gaelscoileanna recently applied to my Department to expand its accommodation. As with any application for capital investment, the assessment process will necessarily take into account overall enrolments and the extent of the existing and planned school accommodation in the area where the school is located. My Department is currently liaising with the patron of the school in question and a decision will be conveyed to the school authorities when this process has been finalised.

At post-primary level, the Deputies will be aware that in July 2012, the Minister, Deputy Quinn, announced the patronage of 14 new post-primary schools to be established to cater for increasing demographic changes across a number of locations. This included the Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board as patron of a new post-primary school for Maynooth to commence operation in September 2014.

One of the requirements for patronage of new post-primary schools where the medium of instruction is English, is a willingness and commitment to open an Aonad in the school if there is a significant element of parental demand for instruction through the medium of Irish. In the case of Maynooth, the Department noted the high level of parental demand identified for alternative language provision. Accordingly, the announcement included the establishment of an Aonad in the new Maynooth post-primary school. In addition, my Department has confirmed that if sufficient demand for education through the medium of Irish in the Aonad is demonstrated over a four-year cycle, consideration will then be given to the establishment of an independent Gaelchóláiste. I expect that this Aonad, together with provision in Cóláiste Cois Life, can between them meet the current demand for students seeking instruction through the medium of Irish.

The Department of Education and Skills is forecasting an increase nationally by 2019 of over 70,000 primary pupils and over 35,000 post-primary pupils. To meet the needs of our growing population of school-going children, the delivery of new schools together with extension projects will be the main focus for capital investment in the coming years. Considerable investment has already been made in the north Kildare area in recent years to meet the demographic challenges, including significant all-Irish provision at both primary and post-primary level. My Department will continue to keep the demographics of the area under review and additional accommodation requirements will be met under this process in consultation with the patrons of the schools concerned as appropriate.

The Minister of State's response was a typical civil servant one rather than a response to what we said. He did not even consider what we said and I ask him to do so rather than what the civil servants are telling him about this in isolation. We face a situation where there is no all-Irish second level school for students from three primary schools.

In a short period of time, there will be an empty school in Maynooth which is entirely fit-for-purpose for the establishment of a second level all-Irish school. The civil servants are saying they might consider it in four years time if a need is proved. How can one prove a need if there is nowhere to show the need? Aonad will not show a need. We have the primary schools and the students who have said they want to continue in all-Irish setting. If we value the Irish language and its development and growth, we should deal with this situation now rather than in four years time. Without very much cost, we could establish an all-Irish school in Maynooth in an existing school building to cater for the three schools right beside it.

I sometimes wonder what is the first language. My children went to one of these schools in the 1980s and the early 1990s. Each time one was established, the parents were the drivers and it was fought all the way. The Aonad is seen as a rowing back or a watering down. It is not seen as an acceptable model. Hundreds of parents have united in terms of what they want and they do not want an Aonad. Again, they are being asked to prove there is a demand. There are seven sixth classes coming out of the primary schools. The estimate is that 60% of those will want to go on to an all-Irish model, which is not available. There will not be one place available to them from next year unless there is a change in the way the Department deals with this.

The building section must also do something in regard to the application for the third stream in Kilcock. Almost 100 pupils are being turned down in that school alone. It has a wider catchment area, which takes in Clane.

What has the Department been counting? Has it not been counting the children in those schools? It does not seem it has been counting the right thing at all. The Minister of State referred to the overall enrolments. It seems it is not about choice or continuing a very successful model in terms of teaching through the medium of Irish.

As I stated earlier, the biggest challenge the Department faces between now and 2019 is to find and establish accommodation for those 70,000 extra children in primary and 30,000 in post-primary. That is a major challenge which the Department is undertaking over a five year programme which was announced by the Minister, Deputy Quinn, very early in the life of this Government. The Department had regard to both the existing and planned all-Irish provision at primary and post-primary level in the areas concerned in determining where new schools would provide tuition through the medium of English or Irish.

As I mentioned, Maynooth Community College, which will open in September 2014, includes an Aonad and, in the opinion of the Department, along with Coláiste Cois Life, both those centres are able to address current demand.

That is not correct.

According to the people in the building unit, the Aonad and Coláiste Cois Life have sufficient capacity to accept the enrolments likely to occur from the Gaelscoileanna in that particular region.

If the Deputies are making the case there is insufficient accommodation available within those two centres and if there is an opportunity, as one Deputy suggested, to look at reallocating a particular school building in the region, I will certainly undertake to raise that directly with the officials concerned and to revert to the Deputies on that matter.

Stardust Fire

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, for attending and the Minister, Deputy Shatter, for contacting us and giving his apologies. The Minister of State may recall it is almost a year ago today that I raised the same issue with her on the approach to the 32nd anniversary of the Stardust tragedy. We now approach the 33rd anniversary. The same unease and the same grief remains that this important legacy issue has not been dealt with. The Stardust Relatives and Victims Committee campaign is clearly showing the need for a commission of investigation into this tragedy under the 2004 legislation and I am calling for this investigation.

On hundreds of occasions in my time as a public representative, I have highlighted the concerns of the Stardust families that the cause of the fire was not adequately or correctly investigated by Justice Keane's tribunal or subsequently. Most recently, I have raised the matter with the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste. The families of those who died or were injured are rightly dissatisfied with the Keane report of 1982 and the subsequent report of Paul Coffey in 2009. As the Minister of State may be aware, a Garda investigation is now taking place into alleged perjured evidence presented to the Keane tribunal in 1981. In recent years, there have also been a number of instances of new evidence emerging about the tragedy. The families have in their possession research which points to inconsistencies between an earlier version of the Coffey report from 2008 and the final published report by Paul Coffey SC in 2009. They also note that a Garda letter sent to Paul Coffey in 2008 concerning the map of the Stardust presented at the Keane tribunal was not furnished to the families. They also have new evidence which I understand they will publish on the 33rd anniversary this Friday.

Based on research carried out by independent researcher, Ms Geraldine Foy, and a leading fire expert on these islands, Mr. Robin Knox, it seems clear that the fire started in the roof space of the Stardust nightclub where cleaning and other flammable materials were stored. The time line of the first external witnesses to the fire, as outlined by Ms Foy at a recent press conference in the Skylon Hotel, strongly supports this conclusion. The implications of this research are profound for finally establishing accountability for this terrible tragedy and for vindicating the memories of the young people who died and to bring closure to the great suffering of their relatives down through the decades.

Recently, the release of the 1983 State papers underlined the need for a new fresh inquiry. It was reported, on the release of those papers, that a confidential Government memo cautioned against fully implementing all of the recommendations of the Keane tribunal report because of the potential that it could leave the State open to civil liability claims for similar future accidents. It seems clear the Haughey Government of the day and subsequent governments were not overly concerned about getting to the root of this matter.

Earlier this year, I highlighted evidence also obtained by Ms Foy through a freedom of information request which showed that crucial aspects of an earlier unpublished draft of the Coffey report were not included in the final published version. Among other things, Paul Coffey stated in that draft: "I further accept that a new inquiry is necessary if it is the only way of placing on the public record a finding that is based on evidence". Basically, the missing excerpt of the report related to the lack of an established cause of fire based on evidence having been erroneously arrived at by the earlier Keane report.

Members of the Stardust Relatives and Victims Committee have argued continuously that there were seven significant alterations of the Coffey report between it being in draft form and the later published version. They are very anxious that a short sharp commission of investigation is held into this tragedy. Last year I think the Minister of State associated herself with addressing one or two of the most critical legacy issues in our country and getting resolution for the victims and relatives. I hope she urges the Minister to do the same.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. We are approaching the anniversary, which falls on such a poignant day each year, and it cannot be easy for people who lost such young vibrant people. I am taking this issue on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality who sends his apologies but he must be somewhere else. However, I commit to bringing back to him the remarks made by Deputy Broughan who has been a very active campaigner on behalf of this committee.

As the Minister previously emphasised, irrespective of any differences of opinion, no one disputes the magnitude of the tragedy or the impact it had on the families concerned and on the wider community. We are all conscious that this Friday is the anniversary of the fire and all of our thoughts and sympathies are with those affected by this tragedy.

The Deputy is familiar with the background to the concerns relating to the cause of the Stardust fire. As the Minister has responded previously to queries the Deputy has raised on behalf of members of the committee, I will not revisit the full history of the case on the Minister's behalf.

The victims committee's long-running campaign for a new inquiry into the cause of the fire led to the making some years ago of a detailed submission making the case for a new inquiry, criticising the original tribunal and setting out an alternative hypothesis regarding the cause of the fire. The professional advice that was given to the Government at the time was that the argument being presented did not amount to new evidence. The committee rejected this assessment. It was precisely in response to this situation, and with a desire to resolve this question definitively and impartially, that an independent examination was put in place. Mr. Paul Coffey SC was appointed to carry out this exercise by making an entirely objective and professional assessment of the committee's call for a new inquiry. His appointment and terms of reference were agreed with the victims committee and its legal representatives. The committee was given considerable financial assistance to make its case. It had a full legal team to present that case over three days of hearings.

The outcome of the Coffey process was very significant, in so far as it led to resolutions in both Houses clarifying that no one present on the night can be held responsible. This was a key concern for many people and a central component of the committee's criticism of the original tribunal. Mr. Coffey concluded that in the absence of any identified evidence about the cause of the fire, the most another inquiry could achieve would be another set of hypothetical findings, which would not be in the public interest. As the Deputy is aware, these findings were endorsed by motions in both Houses of the Oireachtas and were widely welcomed at the time. Since then, members of the committee have continued to contend that their theory on the cause of the fire accurately reflects what transpired. Nothing the Minister has seen would warrant a departure from Mr. Coffey's findings.

Issues have been raised by members of the committee about the Coffey process on the basis that they justify a further inquiry. There has been an entirely unfounded suggestion that attempts were made to influence his drafting or conclusions. The Minister has made it clear for the avoidance of doubt that no such influence was brought to bear. Unwarranted significance has been attributed to differences between a draft report and the final report. Extracts have been cited out of context and without regard to Mr. Coffey's actual recommendations, which were materially unchanged. The nature of draft reports is that they change. The Government of the day clearly had to rely on the final report, as submitted by Mr. Coffey. As I have said, Mr. Coffey's conclusions and advice were entirely independent and were widely welcomed when his final report was published. The Minister is aware that allegations have been made to the Garda concerning evidence presented to the original tribunal. The Deputy will appreciate that these allegations are matters for the Garda to examine in the normal way. It would not be appropriate for the Minister to comment on that process.

Clearly, members of the victims committee do not accept the outcome of the independent process which was put in place to enable them to present their case for a new inquiry. The people in question have made it clear that they will continue to campaign for a new inquiry. The Minister sympathises greatly with them, but having regard to the outcome of the independent examination and in the absence of new evidence concerning the actual cause of the fire, he does not believe it is open to him to disregard the advice which emerged from that process and which was endorsed in both Houses of the Oireachtas. The Minister has indicated he will arrange for the examination, as appropriate, of a further submission on behalf of the committee. He has cautioned against raising unrealistic expectations about what can be achieved or appearing to suggest the outcome of the Coffey examination can be set aside, simply on the basis that Mr. Coffey's conclusions are not accepted by some.

It is right that concerns about this dreadful and tragic event should be raised in the House. On behalf of the Minister, I thank the Deputy for his continuing support of the victims committee. I can give him a commitment that I will ensure the Minister hears about the statement he has made today.

The Minister has said on a number of occasions, in replies to parliamentary questions and in response to debates on this issue over the past year or two, that he has examined all of the new evidence presented to him and that he has concluded that nothing he has examined has changed his mind regarding Mr. Paul Coffey's final report. In that light, would it be possible for the Minister to meet the relatives and victims committee to explain why he believes the new evidence is not sufficient and why he thinks the Keane and Coffey conclusions are valid?

As the Minister of State knows, Ms Antoinette Keegan, who is a leading personality in the Stardust relatives and victims committee, occupied the security area at the Department of the Taoiseach for 24 hours last week on foot of a commitment given by the current Taoiseach during the 2011 general election contest. I understand that when he was in Coolock in support of Deputy Terence Flanagan's re-election campaign, the Taoiseach gave the people of Artane and Coolock a commitment that he would put a commission of investigation in train. On the basis of what he had heard at that stage, perhaps having listened to me and other Deputies in this House over the years, he felt a commission of investigation was necessary. Will the Minister of State follow up on that? The Tánaiste told me last Thursday morning that if a request for a meeting with representatives of the relatives and victims committee went to him, he would be prepared to meet them and such a meeting could take place.

The key aspect of the Minister of State's response was the statement that "unwarranted significance has been attributed to differences between a draft report and the final report". I suggest that the decision to omit Mr. Coffey's call for the establishment of a commission of investigation was a profound change. It is understandable that the relatives and victims committee and its advisers have paid strong attention to the draft report.

A number of investigations have taken place under the legislation that was introduced by Michael McDowell in 2004. I refer, for example, to the investigations in the cases of Dean Lyons and Gary Douch, a constituent of mine who died tragically. These commissions of investigation were short, sharp and effective. They did not cost the State a great deal of money. I think the commission of investigation approach is the right one to adopt in terms of cost. I thank the Minister of State for her attention to this matter. I would like her to ask the Minister, Deputy Shatter, to act in the manner that has been requested by the committee.

I have no difficulty in bringing the Deputy's request to the Minister. We will look at anything that can bring a degree of comfort to these families. I will also convey to the Minister the fact that the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste have indicated that they would be quite prepared to act in the manner suggested by the Deputy if such an invitation were extended and acceded to. I will convey that and I will do my best.

Mental Health Services Provision

I acknowledge the presence in the Chamber of the Acting Chairman, Deputy Feighan, and of the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon. I am calling for a stay to be put on the reconfiguration of mental health services in the Galway-Roscommon area, pending a review of the services available in the wider catchment area, which comprises the west and midlands regions. The initial evaluation of the acute units in the region was flawed. On the question of whether the location is adjacent to a major or regional hospital, Roscommon hospital was deemed to be an excellent level 2 hospital, which is a hospital that does not have an accident and emergency department and where minor surgery is the only form of surgery that is available. Portiuncula Hospital in Ballinasloe scored below average even though it is a level 3 hospital, which is a hospital with a 24-hour, seven-day accident and emergency unit and where complex surgery is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is alleged that the reason for Portiuncula Hospital's score is that the €3.1 million St. Luke's acute psychiatric unit is 3 km away.

The HSE is currently spending €5 million upgrading a similar acute unit in St. Loman's Hospital in Mullingar, which is 3 km from the level-3 regional hospital in Mullingar. The minutes of a meeting in January 2011 refer to one of the authors of that evaluation, Mr. John Meehan, stating that St. Brigid's Hospital was to close. Clearly the report was to endorse the decision and not the other way around.

This is not about Roscommon versus Ballinasloe because the same meeting in 2011 outlined that the long-term plan for the Galway, Roscommon and Mayo mental health catchment area was for 50 acute psychiatric beds. Coincidentally that is what is planned in a new €13 million unit in Galway University Hospital. This would leave psychiatric patients, who are neighbours of the Acting Chairman, Deputy Feighan, 120 km away from their local acute psychiatric unit.

Patients are not at the centre of the plan for reconfiguration. For example, eight months ago when a woman lost her life in Roscommon psychiatric unit, I was told that there was no six-bed high-dependency observation unit vacant in Galway University Hospital. However, when management at Galway University Hospital realised last September what was being planned with the closure of St. Luke's unit in Ballinasloe, miraculously this six-bed unit was found and is now being opened. Beds are being found to deliver on the downgrading plans but not to protect patients. I urge the Minister of State to carry out an independent review of the services across the region.

This topic arises as a consequence of a report in last week's edition of The Connacht Tribune, which suggested that mental health patients from the east Galway mental health services who would previously have been directed to St. Brigid's Hospital were left on trolleys in an emergency unit in the middle of last week. From information the HSE gave the local media, it appears that the patients concerned may have been involved in a self-harm situation.

However, that does not change the fundamental principle that it is completely inappropriate for patients reporting with mental health difficulties to be left in an emergency department for any length of time beyond that required for their immediate treatment. It is particularly inappropriate in the case of those attending owing to self-harm because the emergency department is not a ligature-free unit, unlike the inpatient unit in St. Brigid's that was only recently upgraded at a cost of €3.1 million to provide a ligature-free environment.

From my discussions with the front-line staff - an exercise in which the Minister of State should involve herself - I have discovered that in the incident at Galway University Hospital, no psychiatric nurses were available to support critically ill people. I have also discovered that private security personnel were there to support general nurses with respect to their admission. Issues such as this will continue to arise and the decision to close a recently refurbished state-of-the-art unit in Ballinasloe is flawed. The Galway University Hospital psychiatric unit is simply not capable of undertaking the workload to be adopted from the east Galway services. The unit in Galway University Hospital has been subject to significant criticism from the mental health inspectorate. I call on the Minister of State to commit to carrying out a review of the decision to close St. Brigid's Hospital.

We are not closing St. Brigid's Hospital, we are changing what goes on there. We all need to be very careful with the language we use when discussing mental health and people who find themselves in need of an acute service. I think some people are being reckless in that regard.

I thank the Deputies for raising this issue for discussion today. The HSE has, on several occasions recently, indicated the clear need to modernise mental health services across the HSE west region, including in the Galway and Roscommon area. A key factor in this regard is that the current overall stock of 79 beds in Galway and Roscommon is too high, as set out in A Vision for Change, allied to a corresponding underdevelopment of community-based mental health services.

In this context, an implementation plan to reconfigure mental health services across the Galway-Roscommon administrative area was recently put in place. Phase 1 of this was implemented on 20 January with the transfer of five acute beds from Ballinasloe to the existing acute unit in Galway University Hospital. The initiative now under way is a rebalancing in a more focused way of available resources and skills towards community-based services. It has not resulted in reduced service levels overall for Galway and Roscommon mental health services.

The existing Galway University Hospital acute psychiatric unit is currently registered to operate at a higher bed number, so no issues arise with regard to capacity or managing increased bed numbers. The Deputies will also be aware that a purpose-built 50-bed acute mental health unit will come on stream at Galway University Hospital next year to replace the existing smaller unit. This new facility will consist of 35 general adult mental health beds, with the remaining 15 beds dedicated for psychiatry of later life, eating disorders, and mental health and intellectual disability purposes. The acute unit in Roscommon will continue to provide 22 general adult mental health beds.

Regarding the two cases of patient care raised, the HSE has indicated that, on occasion, patients may present with co-existing medical emergencies. In such cases, they are managed initially through an emergency department, in line with best practice, to ensure their medical needs are addressed as a priority. The majority of patients admitted to the psychiatric units in Galway or Roscommon are referred via community-based mental health teams or directly through consultant psychiatrists. Very few patients come directly to psychiatric services through an emergency department.

Mental health services in the Galway and Roscommon area have been enhanced recently by the introduction of a suicide crisis assessment nurse, SCAN, service. This service will help address gaps and provide supports to general practitioners in the area, and patients who present to them with thoughts of suicide. Access to the SCAN service is via a single mobile telephone number which gives the GP direct access to the service, allowing for speedy referral and immediate discussion of an individual's case.

The HSE is not aware of any recent increase in the incidence of self-harm in the catchment area. However, when such cases occur, a community mental health team is available to deal with such incidents, and where necessary, patients can be admitted to Galway University Hospital, or the department of psychiatry in Roscommon. The executive also points to a welcome and increasing awareness generally of issues surrounding depression and self-harm, which include specific measures adopted by local mental health services.

I am satisfied that the decision taken by the HSE, based on expert recommendations, to enhance future mental health provision across Galway and Roscommon is the best option, taking account of overall service needs and competing resource priorities. The approach and objectives to bring about change in this case is no different from that undertaken, or planned elsewhere, to implement a widely agreed policy on improving mental health services. Therefore, all concerned should work together to improve future service provision in this area.

In her response, I had hoped the Minister of State could address some of the questions I have raised. She made the point that very few patients come directly to the psychiatric services via an emergency department. I can tell her that is not the case in Portiuncula Hospital where a substantial number of people have come through the emergency department, as the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, will be aware.

I will put to the Minister of State a hypothetical situation, which highlights the flaws in what is happening not just in our catchment area but across the country. A woman from Baylough on the Connacht side of Athlone might give birth to a baby in the local maternity hospital up the road, which is Portiuncula Hospital. If that baby has serious complications he or she could not go home with the mother and because of that separation the mother might suffer post-natal depression, which is not uncommon. However, instead of that woman being treated beside her baby in Ballinasloe, she would need to travel 70 miles to St. Loman's Hospital in Mullingar.

If I were to cut my finger here today I could go to St. James's Hospital and have it sutured but if I were harmful to myself or someone else in this House I would have to be transported to the acute psychiatric unit in Roscommon town because that is my designated unit.

Why is mental illness not being treated the same as physical illness? St. Luke's unit in Ballinasloe, which is the most modern in the country, cannot provide a service to patients within its own local catchment area - so much for treating the patient as close as possible to his or her home. Would it not make far more sense to put mental health on an equal footing with physical health and allow catchments in respect of acute psychiatric units to be similar to those for accident and emergency departments in respect of general hospitals?

I observed with great interest the Minister of State's caution around language when it comes to the issue of mental health. I also noticed the absence of a wholesome response to the substantive questions that have been raised here.

To focus again on the evaluation that facilitated the political decision to accelerate this type of reform, could the Minister of State share with the House if she is prepared to stand over the objectivity of the professional input? Will she also share with the House the timelines applying to that criteria in terms of the evaluation? I am of the firm belief that this evaluation took place significantly earlier than the justification to apply the matrix that was used by the consultants associated with it.

I wish to deal with the issue of staffing in the Minister of State's response. Under A Vision for Change, there is provision for 97 staff to be provided for the facilitation of this change across the region. To date, there are only 37 staff in situ. The Minister of State is accelerating this reform and change, which, we would argue, is based on flawed criteria. I would be grateful if she would comment on that. The staff are not on the ground to facilitate this organisational change. We both want to support the implementation of A Vision for Change but the ethos underpinning that change, that the composition of the community-based teams would be in place before the scale of this change happened, is simply not there.

I advise Deputy Naughten that there will not be a separation of mothers and babies in any new unit that will be built. In the case of any woman who suffers from postnatal depression, the plan is that there will be a bed available for both the mother and the baby. All modern thinking informs us that there should be no separation.

They are living in County Weatmeath - that is the problem.

That is what will happen. I wish to reply to the Deputy's point about what has happened about treating the patient as close to home as possible. What we are doing is ensuring that they will be treated at home - not as close as possible to home but at home. The community mental health teams will call every morning, afternoon and evening and they do so in my area. That is how I know about it, and that is what is going to happen.

For the acute phase.

It is during the acute phase that this happens. That is what happens in Cork North-Central, in Tipperary and in other areas where this has been rolled out. This is not something that has been done without history and practice to back it up.

I do not understand why the Deputy thinks that only 10% of the teams are in place. Of the 44 teams, 32 are in place. On Deputy Keaveney's point regarding the additional staff that are necessary to implement this, 64 was the number made in the business case and 64 is the number that is being allocated. Almost all of them are in place and the rest are being recruited. That is the business case that was made to us and that is what we are doing. I do not have the information with me but I have gone over this numerous times in regard to Ballinasloe and I do not mind doing so because I went through it in terms of Clonmel and I will go through it in terms of a certain part of Cork. The same argument will made, namely, how was the assessment done, what was the analysis and what was the outcome. I stand over the conclusion of the expert group because I have spoken to the members of it time and again. I spoke to one of the members about it in Stewarts Hospital three weeks ago and I again went over all of this. I stand over this.

Does Deputy Naughten's observations - that one of the consultants was minuted - not concern the Minister of State?

No, they do not concern me because I know the consultant and I have asked him face-to-face about these matters. He is a man whom I consider to be of the highest possible integrity who desperately wants to give the best possible service to people in the community. I understand the politics of this but I do not understand how anyone could possibly justify keeping people in an institution when there is a better way to ensure they have a better life.

Thank you, Minister of State.

They were sent to another institution that the Mental Health Commission has said is inappropriate.

May I address that point?

The Mental Health Commission had not-----

Allow the Minister of State to conclude.

The most recent report from the Mental Health Commission is an excellent one.

The one I have clearly states that Galway University Hospital is inappropriate.

The one the Deputy has is clearly the one to which he is going to cling like a life-raft.

It is the one I received last week.

The one I have-----

The Minister of State is talking about the one she did not get. She is rolling away on this on the basis of information she does not have.

It is a scandal-----

It is a scandal. What happened is a scandal-----

-----that any elected representative would use vulnerable people to enhance their own reputation.

-----that two vulnerable people were left abandoned in Galway University Hospital last week by her plan to roll ahead with this based on sand. Scandal is right.

It is a scandal.

Sitting suspended at 1.57 p.m. and resumed at 2.57 p.m.