Topical Issue Debate

Railway Stations

I sincerely thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this important topic in respect of public transport. The Killucan-Kinnegad Transport Lobby Group, chaired by my colleague, Denis Leonard, is a very vibrant local development group which has been in existence for a long period. It has been strongly focused on what it wishes to achieve and for a number of years has been actively advocating, and working towards, the reopening of the railway station at Thomastown, Killucan, which closed in 1963 after 115 years in operation.

It is the only station on the 22-mile stretch between Mullingar and Enfield on the Dublin-Sligo line that has double track, an existing station and platform and parking for over 120 cars. An independent report was commissioned by Westmeath County Council in 2007 and it strongly and unequivocally recommended that the station be reopened. It is part of the Westmeath county development plan and the national spatial strategy, while other strategic plans have also acknowledged it. There is a huge potential customer base, a matter which would worry the Minister in the context of recent reports. The demographics show that there has been a significant increase in the population of the area. The population in Killucan and Kinnegad has effectively quadrupled. There is also a large catchment area that includes east Mullingar, The Downs, Raharney, Ballivor, Rochfortbridge and Miltownpass.

The old station infrastructure is already in place, including a platform and signal box. It has been estimated that an unmanned facility could be put in place at a low capital cost of just over €1 million. The station is located at a loop point in the line. This section of double track is used to allow oncoming trains pass each other safely. Most hourly passenger services stop there already to allow other trains pass in safety, so we are not demanding something new. Adding Killucan as an occasional additional scheduled stop would clearly have minimal impact on existing customers and timetables.

We all acknowledge that many people need to get to their places of work. There is a huge migration of people from Mullingar and other stations along the line eastwards in the mornings. We do not wish to impact on them and this proposal will not do so. Iarnród Éireann owns a significant amount of land around the station. The installation of a park-and-ride facility could be achieved without land procurement and with virtually no impact on existing customers during the upgrade works. The 2007 study indicated that, at a minimum, approximately 260 commuters to Dublin from the housing developments in Ballivor, Killucan, Rathwire and Kinnegad would definitely use the Killucan station if it were reopened. That was more than eight years ago. Unlike the case with recent reports, this station would be extensively utilised as a significant number of people commute eastwards daily for work and other commitments.

Of course, some joined-up thinking at company and Government levels is also important in terms of the significant impact the availability of the reopening of the station could have on climate change targets and the significant reduction in the carbon footprint that would result from motorists availing of such a service and facilities. It is well known that there has been an increase in transport carbon emissions in the past number of years. There was a recent editorial in the Irish Independent on this issue. It asked what could be done to encourage commuters to utilise rail transport. It is instructive to read. It states:

What are the Department of Transport and NTA doing? Are they consulting with communities on what services they need to allow them to leave the car at home? ... The Government has a choice. Allow congestion to grow and emissions to rise, or tackle transport.

There have been ongoing consultations with, and representations to, Irish Rail about this station. Irish Rail has said it is okay from a safety point of view and eventually confirmed, through its chief executive, that it was also fine from a timetable point of view. The cost is €1.2 million to €1.6 million, depending on the specifications required. It is not a black hole. Up to 50% of the funding is available from the Border, midland and western, BMW, region and funding could also be leveraged from numerous rural development funds. I ask the Minister to support this.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. As Minister for Transport,. Tourism and Sport, I have responsibility for policy and overall funding of public transport. The operation of rail network and the stations on it is a matter for Iarnród Éireann. Killucan train station in Westmeath is on the Dublin to Sligo line, located approximately half way between Mullingar and Enfield. I understand that the station closed to passengers in November 1947.

Over the years, the question of reopening the station has been raised with my Department and with Iarnród Éireann on a number of occasions, particularly by Mr. Leonard, to whom Deputy Penrose referred. I understand that in 2008 Westmeath and Meath commissioned a study which, in part, reviewed the potential of opening a new station at Killucan but that Iarnród Éireann concluded that the projected demand in the area and its surrounding hinterland was of an insufficient scale to warrant the development of a station at the time. If the Deputy can prove otherwise, I will be interested to see the evidence. Iarnród Éireann remains in a challenging position financially and has limited resources available to fund new projects. The company has not made any proposal to my Department regarding the reopening of Killucan station.

The Deputy will be aware that Exchequer funding for public transport projects over the coming period is already set out in the Government's capital plan. The transport element of the plan covers the period up to 2022. I have previously outlined that my Department’s first priority under the capital plan is to ensure the maintenance of our existing transport infrastructure at steady-state levels so that it will remain safe and fit for purpose. Based on the funding allocations for public transport under the capital plan, we should achieve steady-state levels by 2020. In view of the current constraints on availability of funding, the priority for the heavy rail network under the plan is to improve efficiency and maintain safety standards, rather than expanding the network, opening new stations or reopening existing stations.

The Deputy will be aware that the Government has committed to review the capital plan in 2017 and I am determined to make the case for public transport investment to be both increased and accelerated as a result of that review, in order to address our grossing transport needs. Following on from this, if additional funds were to become available there would be many competing demands within the public transport sector. All projects would be subject to robust analysis and would require strong business cases to justify their value and demonstrate how they would significantly improve the public transport system.

I will briefly address the specific point made by Deputy Penrose about the possibility of a single-platform solution for Killucan. Iarnród Éireann advises that the operation of a single-platform station at Killucan would introduce an undesirable operational risk. I reiterate that the priority for the heavy rail network, with the funding available under the capital plan, is to improve efficiency and maintain safety standards, rather than expanding the network or reopening stations. Earlier this week, the National Transport Authority, NTA, and larnród Éireann launched a public consultation process on the rail review report. The report has been published on the NTA's website along with a public consultation paper. The purpose of the consultation exercise is to open a public discussion on the role of rail in Ireland and the funding of the rail network and services. This process will give the public and all interested parties the opportunity to give their views and contribute to the debate on the future of the heavy rail network. The public consultation process will run until 18 January and the NTA will then prepare a report about the process which I intend to bring to the Government. I stress that no decisions will be made until the public consultation process has concluded and been evaluated. I urge the Deputy and anybody else who supports the reopening of this station to contribute to that.

The Minister said the operation of a single platform would create an undesirable operational risk. However, in his letter of 30 October 2014, Mr. David Franks said he was satisfied that current operating rules and procedures could sufficiently address it. I was waiting for the answer the Minister got. I have been around long enough to know how officials and bureaucrats work. That puts an end to that. It is already there. The trains are already stopping 5 m or 10 m up the line. They should just pull in and let people get on. It is unbelievable. I will invite the Minister to come and see. He will have to come. Given his business background, he will say we have to get the show on the road. It would help relieve the choking traffic on the N4 and M50 as people try to get to their places of employment. There are several very good businesses in the vicinity of Killucan station and they appreciate the value of having it reopened. They would be prepared to help out in the provision of park and ride infrastructure facilities by way of contribution of essential materials, and they would not be found wanting in making it a reality. We should examine all these prospects.

All that is required is to be positive. Providing a park and ride facility will cost €1 million, however there is already parking for 120 cars. We are allowing for it to have 300 spaces. The catchment area is huge, stretching from Delvin and Raharney to Milltownpass, Rochfortbridge, Kinnegad, Killucan, The Downs, east Mullingar and all the areas in between. Killucan is at the epicentre of it. Let everybody here make it a reality for 2017 with good will and a small capital investment. This will not be a white elephant but a real, active station with the people just stepping on. When another train is coming, this train has to pull in to allow the train to pass, and it happens within metres of the closed station. You could not make it up. Some bureaucrat, as is their wont, wants to make a laugh of everything. On any cost benefit analysis, this would stand up to the most detailed scrutiny. I appeal to the Minister to use his common sense and ensure it becomes a reality. The people of the area deserve no less.

Will the Minister take the train to Killucan?

He should. He would learn a lot. He should forget about the bureaucrats.

While taking the train to Killucan may be difficult, I will certainly accept the Deputy's kind invitation to come and have a look. I am not an expert in this area and I would probably be wise to bring along somebody from Iarnród Éireann who has made a decision or judgment on this. Given the passionate way the Deputy has presented the problem, it is only fair.

He has made the case that the population is expanding and the project would have merit and would perhaps be commercial, be an asset to Iarnród Éireann and bring more passengers. Of course I will consider it. I am not here to refuse requests if they make sense. If it does not, it will be rejected. I strongly advise the Deputy to advise those who made representations to him to contribute to the public contribution, which the NTA will consider. While the NTA may be considered negative on reopening lines - I do not know whether it is - if the figures he presents are compelling, I do not see how any reasonable person could refuse them.

During Topical Issue debates there is often conflicting evidence from the Deputies and the people advising me, and it is very difficult for me, being struck by the figures in the debate, to criticise or challenge the Deputy's figures. I am happy to consider them and I will ask my officials to consider them. Iarnród Éireann has recently advised that the operation of a one-platform station at Killucan would introduce an undesirable operational risk. The Deputy said he had a letter from Mr. Franks.

Again, we have a conflict. The issues associated with the single platform relate to the impact on the timetable in normal operations and safety and recovery times in the event of a train failure or other degraded conditions. I thank the Deputy and I will visit his area. It is a pity he could not accept my invitation when I was there when he was being re-elected. At the time, he did not know he was going to be re-elected, so he could not invite me.

Exactly. I thank the Minister.

Planning Issues

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for facilitating me in raising this sensitive subject. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, for his attendance. The Ceann Comhairle will be very familiar with the silhouette of Naas, as I am. As one approaches it from any angle, one sees three cranes standing over the town, frozen in time like prehistoric dinosaurs. They are symbols of inactivity, inaction and decay which is not good for the town or the surrounding area. Worse, we could resolve it if we put our minds to it. The Minister of State has offered his assistance, as has his colleague in the Department of Justice and Equality, to try to bring this to a conclusion.

Imagine our chagrin when, in recent days, we discovered an invisible enemy within, which appeared on the horizon when a local business interest with potential for the provision of more than 400 jobs had to withdraw its case on foot of an objection from a semi-State body, Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII. TII successfully objected, for a second time, to such an extent that the business concerned withdrew its application on the basis that it could not risk a second refusal. I do not mind somebody having a genuine reason for making an objection. It is provided for in law, as it is in this case. However, when State and semi-State bodies are involved, it should not be beyond the boundaries of supposition for them to come together and recognise what is possible. TII's successful objection deprived the town of an industry which was going to be beneficial. It was going to upgrade the facility. The site, at the entrance to the town, has been derelict for many years. On safety grounds, allegedly, the good statutory body objected to the proposal. The proposal is in abeyance and we do not know if any application will ever receive favourable consideration.

The site is not directly off the motorway. It is off a roundabout which is off the motorway. It is a roundabout, off a roundabout, off the motorway. There is plenty of space to provide whatever safety features are required. It is an independent site and it is a prime site. There is no better located site in any town in the country. The fact that, for the second time, the statutory body decided to hold to its strict pattern and, once again, deprive the people of Naas of a beneficial investment, is unacceptable. The time has come when we must ask ourselves some very serious questions about the purpose of such an exercise. I would have thought the purpose in life of all such statutory bodies was to co-operate to the best of their ability and ensure they fulfilled their statutory functions within the meaning of the law with all due respect for all others, including the private enterprise that attempted to make the application. I leave it to the Minister of State to respond and I hope we can be of some positive influence.

I apologise on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, who was not able to stay for the debate. I thank the Deputy for raising the issue and giving me the opportunity to outline the position regarding the site in question near Naas, County Kildare. As the Deputy said, we have had a few discussions on sites in the area. I am familiar with the cranes he mentioned. The spatial planning and national roads guidelines issued by my Department in 2012 set out the general planning policy in relation to developments being undertaken along our national road network. The guidelines advise that development that includes offices, retail or other uses along national roads should avoid becoming destinations in their own right. Section 2.8 of the guidelines sets out the requirements for service areas, including on-line and off-line motorway service areas at national road junctions. With regard to on-line service areas on motorways, that is service areas directly on motorways, the guidelines advise that only TII can bring forward such development proposals. Regarding off-line motorway service areas, such as the case the Deputy raised, which is off a roundabout off a roundabout and incorporates a retail element, the guidelines advise that planning authorities should take account of policies for the consideration of such development in accordance with the most up-to-date TII guidance on the location and layout of such off-line motorway service areas.

The guidelines further state that a proliferation of off-line motorway service areas at national junctions should be avoided and that any such facilities should be of the type that avoids the attraction of short local trips. In this connection, I should add that a destination service area incorporating a retail element should also be in compliance with the retail planning guidelines of 2005.

As the Deputy will be aware, the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government and I are specifically precluded under section 30 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, from exercising any power or control in respect of any particular planning case with which a planning authority, including An Bord Pleanála, is or may be concerned. The handling of the planning application is a matter for the relevant planning authority - Kildare County Council in this instance - and we have no function or remit in this regard. However, from enquiries made of Kildare County Council, I understand that, notwithstanding the recent withdrawal of the planning application in this case, the developer involved remains committed to pursuing the development of the site in question and has made a submission to Kildare County Council in the context of the new county development plan with a view to resolving specific traffic related issues which were raised in the original planning application and to further progressing the development In question. I understand also that all parties and authorities involved in the matter are continuing to engage with one another. I hope a resolution can be found.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I hope that, in the course of the discussions currently taking place, common ground will be found to ensure we get a satisfactory resolution. In other words, I hope that the local authority will find it possible to grant planning permission, with the agreement of the dissenting objector, so that the economic potential of the area can be maximised. Looking at the history of Naas during the past ten years or so, we had a progressive provincial town. It was one of the key towns in the country but suddenly it seems to have been bypassed at every turn and what appears obvious to everyone does not seem to be possible. Long, drawn-out and protracted procedures are now part and parcel of what we would expect to be an easy solution but instead it is becoming more difficult, serious and circuitous as time passes.

The visible obstacle is already in place and we have the invisible objector. We have gone every which way about the town of Naas. If legislation is required to deal with situations such as this one, we should invoke it. Deputy Penrose referred to bureaucracy a few moments ago. It is not possible to have public confidence in a system in which there is a tendency for bureaucrats to emerge fortuitously, from their point of view, out of the woodwork, particularly as that is not to the advantage of the public.

I, too, hope that common ground is identified and a satisfactory resolution for all involved is reached. This has been going on a while. Our aim, as a Government, is to do exactly what the Deputy said, that is, to make the obvious and the necessary possible. As politicians and as a Government, that is our job. We want to see towns such as Naas and others in the greater Dublin area and beyond maximise their potential. That is the idea behind Rebuilding Ireland and the various construction plans and projects. We want to be able to restore towns to what they are capable of. That is the message we are trying to communicate. I hope our national laws, planning guidance, etc., will cater for it. As already stated, I hope the consultation under way at present will bring about a resolution in respect of the site.

Fish Quotas

The bluefin tuna is not a fish that many people in the Chamber or throughout the country would have come across. It is quite a rare, but valuable, fish. Only one tenth of Irish territory is made up of the island of Ireland, with nine tenths of it lying out in the ocean and affording many possibilities for Irish fishermen to make money. The bluefin tuna is a fish that offers huge opportunity because, although quite rare, it is extremely expensive. I understand that a fully grown bluefin tuna can fetch prices of up to €100,000 on the Japanese market.

We are seeking a small quota for Irish fishermen to catch this lucrative fish. Vessels from other countries are allowed to catch bluefin tuna in our waters. We support the introduction of a bluefin tuna tag-and-release research programme, so that we will be able to gather evidence to support the case for a quota for Ireland. We have called for it in the past, as well as for the opening of recreational bluefin fisheries in Donegal, in particular, and other areas throughout the country and also a catch-and-release programme. There is huge potential for job creation and the boosting of our regional tourism in this regard.

The Department with responsibility for the marine has ruled out negotiating for the bluefin tuna quota on the grounds that there is no basis for Ireland to receive such a quota. If we do not seek it in a proactive way, we will never get it. That is the issue. It was stated earlier that people were trying to find common ground on issues. We should be able to find common ground - or common water, as it were - so that we can seek this quota.

Ireland has a very small possibility of catching bluefin tuna. I am informed by many fishermen that there are many more of them in our waters than was the case in the past. Whether it is a result of global warming or some other issue, in recent years quite a number of them have been sighted by Irish fishermen up and down the west coast, in particular, in St. George's channel and in the Irish Sea. Recently, eight of them were caught off the coast of Wexford. Unfortunately, because there is no Irish quota, the entire catch had to be sold for €5,000. Those fish could have been worth €800,000. This was a huge amount of money for those involved to lose and it was all because of the absence of a quota.

I understand that there will be a meeting in December to negotiate and establish quotas. I am asking for the Government to seek a bluefin tuna quota, even if just for the recreational sector. Ireland could then at least have a space in all of this. As with many other areas for Irish fishermen, they see French, Spanish and Portuguese fishermen catching these fish, yet they are not allowed to do so. That is inappropriate. I appeal to the Minister to find a way and to fight hard for even a small recreational quota for Irish fishermen to be able to catch bluefin tuna.

I thank Deputy Martin Kenny for raising this important and interesting matter. The bluefin tuna is a highly regulated species and the situation is extremely contentious at EU and international level. The annual catch limits are set by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, ICCAT, based on scientific advice. Due to the severely depleted slate of the stock, a management plan was put in place by ICCAT in 2007. This resulted in greatly reduced annual catch limits in the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic Ocean in an effort to rebuild stocks. It is only in the past few years that the stock has begun to show improvement for the first time since the establishment of the recovery plan.

Within the EU, quota shares for bluefin tuna were allocated in the late 1990s to member states based on track record. Ireland, which did not have a track record of fishing for bluefin tuna, does not have a dedicated quota. We do, however, have access to a small by-catch quota of 39 tonnes for 2016 for bluefin tuna in our albacore tuna and pelagic fisheries only. It must be stressed, however, that this by-catch quota is also available to other member states and cannot be used for any targeted fishery including recreational and/or sport fisheries under any circumstances.

In terms of Ireland seeking to acquire a dedicated bluefin tuna quota, the only way we could obtain a quota would be to reach agreement within the EU to reallocate to us a portion of the EU total allowable catch, TAC. This would be extremely difficult as it would involve reducing the share of the total allowable catch of those EU member states that do have quota and for which bluefin tuna is an important commercial fishery in which they have had an established track record. These constraints apply also to any attempt by Ireland or others to increase the by-catch quota as any increase would have to come off the total EU allocation.

I have recently made funds available to allow the Marine Institute, with the support of the European Commission, to engage actively in developing Ireland’s involvement in the ICCAT Atlantic-wide research programme relating to bluefin tuna.

With these funds, Ireland is currently participating in an ICCAT sanctioned scientific tag and release research programme on bluefin tuna in the waters off the north-west coast. This is a scientific research project to assess the abundance and distribution of bluefin tuna in the waters off the Irish coast. In future, and depending on the results of the project, it may prove possible to extend the scope of the project. I appreciate the situation that there is growing abundance of bluefin tuna in the waters around Ireland. Deputy Kenny has alluded to that. I have asked my Department to explore any possible opportunity to increase the by-catch quota allocation particularly in light of the discards ban which applies to this species. In terms of seeking a dedicated quota for our recreational fishery or a commercial quota, it is clear that the European Union obstacles are formidable. At European Union and ICCAT level, we are showing our commitment to building scientific knowledge of the stock that will provide information on its abundance and migratory pattern. However, bluefin tuna is one of the most high value and contentious stocks. Any suggestion that Ireland receive a share for a directed fishery will face huge opposition from member states with established shares who would lose a portion of their quotas.

The annual meeting of ICCAT is currently under way in Portugal and will conclude on 21 November 2016. As always, Ireland is being represented at this meeting and has participated in all of the relevant technical preparatory meetings, with assistance from the Marine Institute. This meeting deals with all Atlantic tuna stocks, including bluefin tuna. From an Irish point of view, our immediate primary concern is our valuable albacore fishery. This meeting will determine TAC levels for both albacore and bluefin tuna but it will not address any reallocation or the creation of new shares.

The research work going on in the north-west Atlantic on the catch, tag and release of bluefin tuna is welcome. It may help to establish what the stocks are like there. It is disappointing to say we do not expect to get anything out of it. We should be going into this in a much more forceful manner to try to ensure that our fishermen get a fair share. I said at the outset that nine tenths of the territory of Ireland is in the Atlantic Ocean and yet we find that other countries have access to those waters. Whatever those countries have done in the past - perhaps they caught these fish 30 or 40 years ago, built up some kind of a stock and are therefore able to make an argument for it - the fact is they are in our territorial waters doing it. That has to be taken into account.

With regard to Brexit, can the Minister inform us if Britain got any of this quota? Is that a possibility that we could look at in the future? The big issue here is the sense of unfairness that an awful lot of Irish people have about the whole notion of where the European Union has gone down the years and certainly in regard to our fisherman. We have all met them and we all know the grievances they have but our fishermen in particular feel very aggrieved that they are restricted in so many ways in which they can make a livelihood. They see huge trawlers coming in from other places, particularly from other European countries, making massive catches and just taking them away with them. There are all kinds of restrictions on them as well but the truth is our quota for much of our fishing is low compared to many of these other countries. With regard to bluefin tuna, it is very clear cut. There are a lot more of them in our waters now than there was. There is a possibility of looking for something here and we should be going out in an aggressive way to try at least to give some hope to the fishing community that the Irish Government will fight its corner. I implore the Minister to ensure we look for even a small quota in the recreational side of it to ensure bluefin tuna can be a fish that is very lucrative and which Irish fisherman can gain something from.

As we face into the December Fisheries Council meeting, it is abundantly clear that science is the foundation on which decisions are made. Leaving aside the issue of bluefin tuna, the science is difficult to argue against. We face a very significant challenge in that context.

In the context of the Marine Institute's involvement here, what is happening is the building of a case but without the conclusions of the scientific research we are going nowhere. I will give the Deputy another example in the context of established track records in a fishery. Deputy McConalogue is here and he will be familiar with the pelagic fish sector. Killibegs has very significant involvement in that. If one was to argue that the fishery, which was established substantially on the basis of their efforts, should be reallocated to others, Deputy McConalogue knows what their view would be. It is understandable in the context that they have established a fishery on the basis of their endeavours over many years. The unfortunate truth about this is we did not have an established track record. There are issues around the migratory pattern of the species and its proliferation in Irish waters, which was not always the case. Whether it is due to science or global warming, it is the case. The Deputy alluded to the catch off Wexford. The Marine Institute is leading an effort to build the science. It is only when we have the conclusions of that science that we can proceed, whether it is an increase in the by-catch or the recreational catch and release, which would be significant for tourism and angling in particular. That will be the premise on which we proceed. The difficulty of expecting to go without the support of the science initially and then to have to overcome the ownership which others feel they have of this fishery because it was their endeavour that established it is not to be underestimated. We are taking the right steps.

It included a conclusion of science.

Hospital Services

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this very important matter for answer by the Minister of State, Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy. I am raising it so there can be no doubt that the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Simon Harris, are entirely aware of the very acute overcrowding in Letterkenny University Hospital and to allow the Minister of State the opportunity to explain the reasons for this unacceptable overcrowding uncovered by the investigations in the Department of Health. Most crucially, what is the Government doing to ensure the issues are addressed and to ensure this is not something we continue to see over the coming weeks and months as we go into the winter?

Yesterday, Letterkenny University Hospital had the joint highest number of people in the country, alongside Cork University Hospital, on trolleys in accident and emergency departments and waiting for admission. That was a record number in the experience of Letterkenny but it comes on the back of similar experiences over the last number of days and weeks where the maximum capacity protocol has been initiated in the hospital. Each day for the past couple of weeks, with very few exceptions, the accident and emergency department has been overcrowded and there have not been beds available in the hospital to take in new inpatients. I hope the Minister is able to give an explanation of the dynamic of the problem and what the Government proposes to do about it. It is not a result of significant respiratory illness, which is very often an issue at particular times in winter and leads to particular pinch points in hospitals. That is not part of the dynamic here. We are only at the start of winter and there is no identifiable cause, for example a particular illnesses causing a spike. It comes back to something which is much more structural about the management of our hospitals and our health service in Letterkenny and other hospitals across the country. This is an ongoing issue. Families of patients have been ringing me over the last number of weeks looking to get their family member moved from Letterkenny hospital either to a hospital in Galway, where they need to go for specialist treatment, or for an operation in a hospital in Dublin, one of the acute hospitals or one of the children's hospitals. They cannot get away because there are problems in those hospitals and they are then blocking beds in Letterkenny. The problem is we are seeing a domino effect where one issue in the health service has a knock-on effect on a number of patients right down along the track. For example, if a person in Galway cannot get in to have an operation, they are blocking a bed that somebody in Letterkenny wants to take up.

They, then, are blocking a bed in the main hospital in Letterkenny from someone who cannot get out of the accident and emergency department. Then, as a result of maximum capacity protocols being launched, inpatient and day cases are being delayed. In turn, this means those patients are being inconvenienced and not getting the treatment they need.

I hope there is clarity from the Government today in respect of exactly what the structural management issues are in the health service that are causing this capacity shortage and lack of beds. If the Government cannot clarify what exactly is at issue, then there is not much hope that the problems can be addressed. I hope the Minister of State can at least do that much and then outline what action the Government will take to ensure that the resources and assistance are put in place to address the problem in Letterkenny so that we do not see it continue on an ongoing basis over the coming weeks.

I thank Deputy McConalogue for raising this issue and for giving me an opportunity to update the House on the serious matter he has raised relating to Letterkenny General Hospital. The Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, has asked me to convey his apologies to Deputy McConalogue as he is unavoidably detained elsewhere. He has asked me to address this matter for Deputy McConalogue.

I appreciate that the number of people on trolleys is too high and this leads to a very difficult environment for patients and frontline staff. The HSE and the Department of Health are working hard on measures to try to reduce these numbers, especially as we head into the busy winter period. The Minister, Deputy Harris, has been meeting regularly with the HSE because of his concern at the high trolley numbers and particularly today’s unacceptably high numbers. I am pleased to say that the numbers have reduced dramatically by over 200 as of this afternoon but this is going to take a relentless management focus from the HSE in the coming winter period to sustain the improvement.

Patient attendances at emergency departments to the end of September have been 5% higher this year when compared with the same period last year. Notwithstanding this increased demand, there has been a decrease of approximately 3% in the number of patients who have had to wait on trolleys in comparison with the same period last year. Trolley numbers have been higher in recent days due to consistently higher emergency department attendances and increased incidence of infection, which has resulted in bed closures in many hospitals. In addition, hospitals are currently carrying out a high rate of elective procedures to address waiting lists and this is contributing to pressures on the emergency departments.

I realise Deputy McConalogue is more interested in what is happening in Letterkenny University Hospital but it is important to set the general context. The HSE TrolleyGAR system shows that Letterkenny University Hospital with 33 patients waiting on trolleys 8 a.m. yesterday morning. This reduced to 14 by 8 a.m. this morning. I am advised by the HSE special delivery unit that Letterkenny emergency department has been under pressure this week, due to high attendances, a high number of delayed discharges and a suspected winter vomiting bug outbreak. The hospital is working hard with the local community health organisation to resolve its delayed discharges.

Notwithstanding the pressure on Letterkenny emergency department in recent days, it is worth noting that patient experience times in Letterkenny are above the national average, meaning that patients complete their episode of care more quickly in Letterkenny emergency department. I imagine Deputy McConalogue will be pleased to get that information. Letterkenny University Hospital has continued to receive capital funding in recent years to address the flood damage sustained in 2013. At present, work is ongoing to restore and upgrade the critical care, haematology and oncology units damaged in the 2013 floods.

The HSE has advised me that a number of measures are being followed to address congestion seen in emergency departments in recent days not only in Letterkenny but throughout the country. These include the use of escalation plans by all hospitals and a continued focus on diagnostics and enabling prioritised discharges. Hospitals and hospital groups are also working with the HSE social care and primary care areas to maximise discharges, through optimising the use of homecare packages, transitional care beds, as well as community intervention Teams.

The winter initiative plan 2016-17 has provided €40 million of additional funding for winter preparedness and is now operational. The initiative sets out a comprehensive range of actions across primary, community and hospital services to increase hospital avoidance measures, facilitate timely discharge from hospital and increase hospital capacity. As part of this process, the HSE special delivery unit has been visiting hospitals to review current practices and support those hospitals in implementing key process improvement changes. Under the winter initiative, additional home care, home help and transitional care bed allocations have been made available to hospital sites, including Letterkenny University Hospital to alleviate winter emergency department pressures.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. It goes without saying that the experience that patients have had to endure in recent days in Letterkenny - the same applies to other hospitals - is unacceptable for them, their families and the staff, who have to try to manage what is an impossible situation.

I had hoped the Minister of State could have given me more detail on specifically why there has been overcrowding in Letterkenny in recent days and weeks as well as what specifically will be done. There was too much general comment in the response of the Minister of State. The Minister of State referred to what is being done at a national level, but there must be a specific response that recognises what exactly is causing the issue in Letterkenny and what exactly is required to address it. I call on the Minister of State and the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, to engage further with the management in Letterkenny hospital to establish exactly what the issues are and to ensure that the response from the Government and the HSE in appropriate to address them. As I indicated earlier, there are no particular issues yet with respiratory illness or seasonal spikes. Undoubtedly, there are structural issues in the management of our health service and knock-on effects from one hospital to another as well as particular problems at local level.

Can the Minister of State give me more detail on what specifically the Government is going to do in Letterkenny? Will the Minister of State come back with a clear plan on what is going to be done there? Will she give a commitment that the resources and assistance required will be made available to ensure that home help is available for people being discharged from hospital and to ensure that every possible community hospital bed is opened? This particular experience of recent weeks – not that we needed reminding – emphasises the importance of ensuring that community hospital beds are available. We must work to ensure that the use of escalation plans, to which the Minister of State referred, is not the standard response. This is because that standard response means people who were due to come in for day operations and appointments are being told to say at home. Waiting lists get longer as a result.

I have been advised by the HSE that those responsible in Letterkenny have confirmed that the emergency department is under pressure. The reason provided – this is as specific as I can be – is that there are high attendances there and a number of delayed discharges and a suspected winter vomiting bug outbreak. That is as specific as I can be about the reasons around what is happening in the emergency department in Letterkenny. Those responsible are working hard to try to resolve this.

The hospital in Letterkenny, as in the case of many hospitals, will benefit from the winter initiative and will received the associated funding allocation. I hope that will be of help in future. I hear the concern expressed by Deputy McConalogue around what might happen and I realise influenza outbreaks and so on can cause many problems.

There is a more general point to be made about our health and well-being. It is important that people who should be availing of the flu jab avail of it to prevent themselves from becoming ill in the first place. I realise this is not specific to Letterkenny but it is a general comment in terms of what should be done to try to keep ourselves well and healthy so that we do not wind up having to go there. For those who do end up in hospital, we want them processed as quickly as possible. In fairness, those in Letterkenny are doing a great job in that regard.

I will bring Deputy McConalogue’s message back to the Minister, especially his point about escalation. I have no hesitation in doing so.