Topical Issue Debate (Resumed)

Special Protection Areas Designation

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important issue. I represent the constituency of Cork North-West. It is a rural constituency and I am concerned about the impact that European directives are having on the livelihoods of small landholders and family owned farms in this area.

Most of the area of western Duhallow was considered a disadvantaged area for many years. It was also part of the CLÁR designated area suffering from huge population decline. Recent EU directives aimed at the protection of the hen harrier and the freshwater pearl mussel will result in a vast area of this region becoming totally non-productive. Any moderate farming, not to mention intensive farming, is impossible. Forestry is not allowed in the area any longer and under the new county development plan wind energy is also to be discouraged. That plan, in order to comply with the EU directives, states that all developments in this area must be put on hold.

If the Government must impose these restrictions to comply with EU regulations, adequate compensation must be paid to the families. For years, it was Government policy to encourage the planting of these lands. Forestry was generating a return of approximately €500 per hectare. Adequate compensation for the restrictions must be comparable with what could be achieved from forestry plantations. There have been suggestions that top-up payment on the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, is being considered. This is a totally inadequate response. These areas must be treated separately. They are unique and require a special scheme to compensate farmers in the designated areas. Compensation should be at least comparable to income that would be achieved from forestry.

Recently, I met a constituent who has 400 acres of this designated hen harrier protected land. He wanted to sell 50 acres to invest in a business, but it was valueless.

I am replying on behalf of the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Heather Humphreys.

The hen harrier and freshwater pearl mussel are endangered species protected under EU nature directives. The objective of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht is to ensure these important species are protected while, in parallel, ensuring that the work of farmers and other landowners in managing the habitats which support these species is recognised.

The hen harrier was a major issue in the judgment of the European Court of Justice in 2007 against Ireland in the "birds case" for failure to provide adequate protection for wild birds.

As a result of the judgment, Ireland designated six special protection areas, SPAs, for the conservation of this species. The case remains open, with the continuing possibility of reputational damage and fines being imposed on Ireland if we are not seen to be in compliance with the judgment.

The hen harrier SPAs are at risk due to a number of factors, such as the reclamation of upland open habitats for agriculture, the development of wind farms and the maturing of the large-scale forests planted in upland areas. These activities have a serious impact on the birds' breeding populations. Agricultural reclamation of heath or bog is restricted in these SPAs, as it removes nesting and foraging habitat for the species.

A number of measures were taken to support farmers operating within hen harrier SPA sites under the rural development programme and through a farm plan scheme operated by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. With the economic crisis, access to the farm plan scheme was closed to new applicants in April 2010. However, under the agri-environment options scheme operated by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, priority access was granted to farmers within protection areas, including hen harrier SPAs. The Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has been working with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to ensure that hen harrier areas are included within the proposed GLAS scheme under the new rural development programme. The draft GLAS programme includes hen harrier SPA actions within tier 1 of the programme, which is designed for priority environmental assets and action, because of the difficulties landowners face in these areas. Farmers within tier 1 will get first priority access to the scheme in the first year and subsequent years.

The Department is working on a threat response plan with other relevant Departments, which is to provide an overall plan to improve the prospects of the hen harrier while bringing clarity to wider issues including afforestation. The fresh water pearl mussel is in serious decline in rivers in Ireland. It, too, is the subject of an EU infringement process. The Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has recently commenced a project co-funded by the EU, called KerryLIFE which is working closely with farmers and foresters to provide the necessary water quality for the species in two rivers in Kerry. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine is working on a targeted output measure under the new rural development programme, which will focus on the pearl mussel in certain priority catchments. Both of these projects will bring income to farmers in rural areas who carry out work beneficial to the pearl mussel.

Two weeks ago, I was in Kerry and met farmers affected by the issues. I listened to them and spoke to the Minister. While she has not been definitive about what she intends to do, we listened to the concerns and I conveyed them to the Minister.

Did the Minister of State hear what the Deputy said? In 2010, the Government stopped payments. Anybody could be on REPS, whether or not they are dedicated.

We are introducing the GLAS scheme.

It is scandalous. Families are being driven out of rural Ireland.

As I said in my statement, these areas will get priority.

They are not getting priority. Farmers can spread slurry with a trailing shoe and get the same priority.

The Deputy cannot interfere in a Topical Issue debate. He may put down a Topical Issue matter of his own.

What is being said here is scandalous.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply. While I accept what she said, with all due respect, the GLAS scheme does not provide the necessary compensation for these families. A farm with a hen harrier on it can be farmed to only 0.6 of its capacity, which is not viable. I know a young man in Ballydesmond who has a 100 acre farm and who has invested heavily. He is left with a huge debt and no income. I ask the Minister of State to consider the constitutional implications. The Constitution guarantees the right to private property. There are instances in which this right can be overcome for the common good, such as land requisition for necessary infrastructure. However, under the Constitution this can be achieved only when adequate compensation is paid to the landowners. These designations should be considered in the same context. While it is fine to protect the hen harrier, if we are going to do it we must pay the farmers.

All I can do is reiterate that I understand the Deputy's concerns and I met the smaller farmers. I understand the difficulty they face and how their incomes will be extremely difficult. As I am not the Minister with direct responsibility for it, I have conveyed my concerns to the Minister and will again. This is part of the GLAS scheme, which will prioritise these areas. On the other side of the country, small farmers are contacting me to say they cannot get on the GLAS scheme because other areas are receiving priority. I sometimes liken it to cases in which some people want me to do something on one part of a river while others want me to do something else in another part of the same river. I understand the concerns and I know farming income is on a downward trend. It is a serious issue and we will give it the attention it deserves.

School Accommodation

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for facilitating this Topical Issue, which provides me with an opportunity to raise the serious situation at the CBS secondary school in Ennistymon. I thank the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, for being here personally to take the debate, for which I am very thankful. CBS Ennistymon is a very progressive school where the management and staff promote an all-round education ethos. Its priority is very much focused on the needs of its students and, as a result, the school has a very friendly environment. As well as promoting academic performance, the school provides a range of extra-curricular activities in which the students are encouraged to participate. CBS Ennistymon was the only school in County Clare to be represented at the Web Summit. It is a regular participant at the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition and this year, for the first time in its history, it won a major hurling title, the Munster schools senior championship, and congratulations are due to all involved. It also runs after-school clubs in applied maths and computers, publishes an annual school magazine and, last week, had a very successful school concert.

I am highlighting these issues to show the Minister the difficult background and deteriorating conditions of the prefabricated buildings against which the students and teachers have to work. Last Monday morning, I visited the school. The main school building is in fair condition, except for one room, which had a smell of damp. At the rear of this building are six prefabricated buildings, all of which were bought second hand and have gone well past their sell-by date. I inspected all six units and not one of them is fit for purpose. One was being used by first year students and was closed down at the end of October because of health and safety issues. Earlier this evening, I presented the Minister with a copy of the HSE report. The other five prefabricated buildings are also in very bad condition, with holes in the external walls, no insulation, uneven floors and rotten floorboards one could walk through. They were extremely cold. The entrance door of one prefab which was used as a classroom was so bad it had to be replaced with a metal door. There are no handles on the windows, and when the weather is windy, two desks have to be placed against the entrance door to other prefabs to keep it closed.

One of the small prefabs I visited is a resource room. It has no heating, is damp, the paint is peeling and the floor is rotten. These are facts surrounding the appalling state of these prefabricated buildings that urgently need to be replaced in the interests of health and safety.

The problem of course is there is an amalgamation process in place in respect of all three schools in Ennistymon and that amalgamation proposal will put them all into a single site, which leaves the school in limbo. Talks on this project have been ongoing since 1997, and I understand the transfer of the site involved still awaits a decision from the Office of the Chief State Solicitor. Even with the best will in the world and even were the green light to be given for the amalgamated school project in the morning, it would take a number of years for it to happen. However, it will not happen because there are some problems at present with regard to the site transfer. The teachers and students of Ennistymon CBS cannot wait. The school has made an application for funding and given the school's positive reputation, there also has been a surge in enrolment. At present, 182 students are enrolled and next year, I understand this figure will rise to 215 students, which will place even greater pressure on the school. Will the Minister send down her officials to fast-track the emergency application for the prefabricated buildings in order that they can see the school for themselves at first hand. Being a Clare woman, the Minister is very familiar with north County Clare and I know she will have positive news on this issue, particularly at this time of the year at Christmas.

I thank Deputy Breen for raising this issue. His particular concern is the replacement of the prefabs but, as he stated, Ennistymon CBS secondary school is one of three post-primary schools in Ennistymon that have agreed to amalgamate on delivery of a new school building. This building project will require a suitable site for it to be progressed. As the Deputy has noted, the Department acquired land in the Ennistymon area. In addition, the religious congregation that owns existing school properties in Ennistymon has offered to transfer the properties concerned to the State as part of its offer made in response to the publication of the report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, that is, the Ryan report. The land in question, which the Government has agreed to accept, together with the lands already in the ownership of my Department, will be sufficient to meet the overall site requirements of the building project to facilitate the amalgamation of the post-primary schools.

My Department, through the Office of the Chief State Solicitor, is currently working with the solicitors acting on behalf of the congregation concerned on the legal procedures and mechanisms required to facilitate the transfer of this additional land. When the transfer of the property concerned has been completed, my Department will be in a position to consider how the amalgamated school project can be furthered. In that regard, my Department is evaluating technical elements associated with the proposed development of the site. This will facilitate the completion of the project brief for the schools concerned and my Department will be in further contact with the schools concerned in the matter.

However, I acknowledge the Deputy is concerned with the immediate problem facing the school. Although the more long-term solution probably is not too far away in terms of commencement, as the Deputy has stated, Ennistymon CBS secondary school has recently submitted an application to my Department for interim school accommodation consisting of one additional classroom and the replacement of five existing prefabricated classrooms and two resource rooms. This application is being assessed at present and my Department will be in direct contact with the school authorities on that matter shortly. However, I certainly take the Deputy's point and I note he gave me a report earlier this evening on the condition of the school. I wish to give him an undertaking tonight that my Department will revert to the Deputy and the school authorities as quickly as possible in respect of the more short-term issue. Obviously, the more long-term issue also is being progressed.

I thank the Minister for her reply and I note she is taking a positive approach to this issue. The Minister has outlined the current position with regard to the amalgamation and there are problems there. As the Minister has stated, I hope these problems can be sorted out in the short term, but whatever happens, the amalgamation will take time. The building project will take time, as a considerable amount of time is involved in an application, particularly when one is building a school in a new greenfield site. However, in the meantime, unfortunately, Ennistymon CBS cannot afford to wait for this amalgamation given the serious situation at the school. I have presented the Minister with a copy of the HSE report, which is very serious, and I acknowledge the Minister has taken time to examine the report. I ask the Minister to send her officials to meet the school officials before Christmas if possible. There is a new principal there, as well as hard-working staff. I reiterate I visited the school last Monday and the pupils and teachers are working in an extremely difficult environment in those prefabricated buildings. There is a health and safety issue, the buildings are rotten and there will be an increase in student numbers in the coming years because of the school's reputation. I reiterate it was the only school in County Clare to participate in the web summit and it also participates in the BT Young Scientist exhibition. It is an active school with an active staff who are very interested in the students.

This issue must be dealt with immediately in 2015 and it cannot afford to wait. I thank the Minister for stating she will fast-track the project as quickly as possible and will send the officials down to meet the school authorities. An application has been made and I hope the project will go ahead in early 2015. The school needs six prefabricated buildings to be replaced and it is a difficult site because its elevation means it will be necessary to build the prefabricated buildings on site. However, as a local Deputy, I am greatly concerned about the conditions in the school in which the pupils and teachers must work. I thank the Minister and hopefully there can be a positive results in this regard in the coming weeks.

Again, I assure Deputy Breen that I will ensure that the officials in my Department receive a copy of the report he has given to me and that my Department will follow it up as quickly as possible.

National Cancer Strategy Implementation

I thank the Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, for attending the midnight shift here in the Chamber. This Topical Issue matter is entitled mammography services at Sligo Regional Hospital, but it could have been called the impact of political decisions, broken promises and the very future of a hospital. If I may, I will set the context for Sligo Regional Hospital. The hospital serves a catchment area covering counties Sligo, Leitrim, south Donegal and west Cavan and even covers parts of counties Roscommon, Longford and Mayo. It provides a wide range of specialty services and generally is highly regarded for the quality and outcome of services. I have a personal interest in the future of the hospital because I spent a number of years working there and all of my children and grandchildren were born in that hospital. Consequently, it is close to my heart, as well as to the hearts of most people in the north west.

Up to 2009, women with breast cancer could avail of a full range of services at the hospital. Again, the service was highly regarded and the patient outcomes compared favourably with the best national and international performance standards. It made such a difference to women with breast cancer that they were not obliged to travel to Galway or Dublin for the services because it is a six-hour round trip to Galway for people from the furthest end of Sligo Regional Hospital's catchment area, which is a very long trip. In 2008-2009, the then Fianna Fáil-led Government announced that the breast cancer services were to relocate from Sligo to Galway. That announcement stunned local people, who spontaneously arranged several protest marches, which were among the biggest marches I have ever seen in Sligo. However, the Government and the HSE were not for turning. Spokespersons for Fine Gael and the Labour Party promised before the 2011 general election that if elected to Government, they would reverse this decision and restore full breast cancer services to Sligo Regional Hospital. That promise was a major factor in the 2011 election, which resulted in two Fine Gael Deputies, thankfully one Sinn Féin Deputy and no Deputy representing Fianna Fáil being elected for the constituency. Unfortunately, it did not take long for me and the people in the constituency to realise this was an empty promise and the incoming Government did not keep its word. As a sop, it stated that a luxury bus would be used to transport women with breast cancer between Sligo and Galway and that bus did operate for a couple of months before being withdrawn.

I will now turn to the issue of mammography.

Mammography equipment at Sligo Regional Hospital has lain unused for some time because, according to HSE, there are not enough trained mammographers to operate it. Also, in the interests of fairness and accuracy, the HSE today advised me that the mammography equipment was decommissioned as it was more than nine years old and does not meet current guidelines. Clearly it did not strike the decision-makers that the equipment could and should have been replaced.

The HSE made gave a solemn promise to politicians and people in the north west that it would ensure the necessary mammographers would be trained and assigned to the service at Sligo Regional Hospital. This equipment has been spirited away. When I last spoke on this issue I was attributed as saying that the equipment had been stolen from the hospital. I would like to correct the record. What I actually said was that the equipment had been spirited away because "stolen" implies an illegality and spirited away means only that it was removed with a lack of openness.

The HSE has now announced that mammography services will not be provided at Sligo Regional Hospital. This means women who could have availed of the service in Sligo must now travel to Galway or Dublin. This is an outrageous breach of several promises and a slap in the face for the women of Sligo. It is not good enough. Can this decision be reversed? Any person, agency or Government that cannot or will not keep their word should not be making decisions on behalf of sick people.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter and welcome the opportunity to speak about mammography services at Sligo Regional Hospital.

The Saolta University Health Care Group has decided that patients in the west-north west region who are recovering from breast cancer treatment will continue to attend University Hospital Galway for follow-up surveillance mammography services. This is a service decision for the hospital group and was not subject to ministerial consent. This is a continuation of the service arrangements that have been in place since 2009. I am informed that this approach is supported by the National Cancer Control Programme as the most effective way of providing quality assured follow-up services to patients who have undergone surgery for breast cancer.

A comprehensive symptomatic breast cancer service is provided to patients from the west-north west region at the symptomatic breast unit based at Galway University Hospital, with a satellite service provided at Letterkenny General Hospital. This service is provided on the basis of clinical need and is in line with the criteria approved by the National Cancer Control Programme for breast cancer diagnostic and surgical services.

Following the reorganisation of breast cancer services into the eight designated cancer centres, GPs in Sligo were requested in 2009 to refer all new patients to Galway University Hospital. The breast symptomatic service in Galway has had excellent outcomes over recent years and patient satisfaction with the service is reported to be very high. The National Cancer Control Programme advises that provision of surveillance mammography at the location where the patient's surgery was carried out is in line with best international practice. This normally involves annual checks for a period of approximately five years. Meanwhile, other cancer services continue to be provided at Sligo Regional Hospital, including the provision of chemotherapy services. Also, approximately 500 inpatients, 5,200 day cases and 2,700 outpatients are treated, between oncology and haematology services at Sligo Regional Hospital each year. Services are provided to patients from across the catchment area of Sligo, Leitrim, south Donegal, west Cavan and parts of Mayo. The service in Sligo is committed to consistently achieving high quality evidenced based care for the management of cancer patients and patients with non-malignant blood disorders.

I thank the Minister for his response. However, it misses the point which I outlined earlier. The breast cancer services in Sligo Regional Hospital compared with the best nationally and internationally in that patient outcomes were on a par with the best anywhere. There was no need for removal of those services from Sligo Regional Hospital.

There were several promises made, many in writing, that mammography services would be restored to Sligo Regional Hospital. Those promises have been broken. I am aware that the Department of Health delegates powers to the Saolta University Health Care Group and the HSE. This is not delegation but abdication of responsibility.

The problem that arises is as follows. If the range of services provided by a regional hospital are reduced no junior doctor worth his or her salt will take up employment there because they want to gain a broad breadth of experience at the hospitals in which they work. Similarly, consultants or registrars want to work in centres that provide a broad range of services. In removing services surreptitiously and promising that things will be done and then not delivering on those promises this is damaging to Sligo Regional Hospital not only now but into the future.

Will the Minister meet with management at the hospital to explore service developments that might be possible there? Can other services be provided at that hospital in light of the decision that breast cancer services cannot and will not be provided there? Will the Minister meet with management of the hospital to explore possible service developments for the hospital? As I said, the catchment area is large. It takes people six hours to travel from the top of the catchment area to Galway and back.

There are proposals for major capital developments at Sligo Regional Hospital in the coming years. As such I expect that at some point I will be meeting with the hospital group and management at Sligo Regional Hospital. This development is in the mix for the next five year capital plan.

By way of clarification, the powers delegated to the HSE are not delegated by the Department of Health rather they are delegated by the Oireachtas under the Health Acts. The Oireachtas in its wisdom decided ten or 11 years ago that service decisions should best be made by clinicians, the HSE and hospital groups rather than by politicians.

The group has informed me by way of briefing note that following an evaluation by it, re-establishment of the Sligo service would no longer be feasible for two reasons. First, there is concern that the potential for fragmentation of the service would not be in the best clinical interests of patients given it is now more than five years since the service was ceased and women who are already receiving follow-up in Galway will continue to avail of this option. Second, there is no longer a consultant radiology back-up in Sligo Regional Hospital and, therefore, any woman requiring further investigation from a mammogram would need to travel to Galway for this service, with the potential of a further delay in intervention. The group has also said that in order for radiographers trained in mammography to continue to perform their role they must meet quality assurance standards and a minimum number of examinations per annum. There are insufficient numbers of surveillance follow-up patients that would require mammography in Sligo Regional Hospital to maintain the radiographers' skill set. As Minister, it is hard for me to ignore that.

I am sure the Deputy will agree with me that patient safety must always come before politics and that clinical outcomes must always come before convenience. I hope we can agree on that. I would be happy to see mammograms carried out at Sligo Regional Hospital. I have no objection to that and would be happy to see that service provided again but this would have to be on the ground that it does not compromise patient safety and does not reduce clinical outcomes.

The Dáil adjourned at 11.50 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Thursday, 18 December 2014.