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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 21 Mar 2018

Vol. 966 No. 8

Topical Issue Debate

Garda Strength

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to raise the issue of Garda resources in north County Kildare. I also thank the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Charles Flanagan, for coming into the House to take this Topical Issue which is a major concern to the people of County Kildare. I am looking forward to discussing it in a constructive and positive way in the knowledge that the Garda College in Templemore was closed until 2014 and that the confidence and supply agreement includes a commitment to bring Garda numbers to 15,000 by 2021. While the Minister has no direct input in the allocation of Garda resources in my area, as a public representative, this is the forum in which I have to raise issues of concern to my constituents. It allows me to bring a focus to the issue and use this mechanism to send a strong message to the Garda Commissioner that the required resources to help the Garda do its job in County Kildare should be allocated. That is the framework in which I have raised this Topical Issue in the hope it can be progressed in a positive way.

I acknowledge the gardaí who are doing their duty in my constituency, particularly when they are under-resourced owing to a lack of numbers. In County Kildare the ratio of gardaí to population is 1:680, while nationally it is 1:450. The ratio in County Kildare, therefore, is well below the national average. One of the largest towns in north County Kildare, Celbridge, has a population of 22,000 but only 11 gardaí and no full-time Garda station. At one stage 22 gardaí were based in the town. This brings difficulties to the area and it is also the case in many other places such as Maynooth, Clane, Leixlip and Kilcock which are growing and developing. Garda numbers need to grow and develop with them to keep up with demand. If a Garda station is not operating effectively, it takes longer for gardaí to respond to, say, a burglary or a road accident. It is important that these towns and areas have a good Garda base to provide security for the people and businesses located in them. We are not suggesting County Kildare is a crime black spot. However, it is close to the suburbs of Dublin. I am highlighting the lack of Garda numbers in the hope they will be increased to assist in the good policing work already being done.

Maynooth, a university town, has a population of 15,000 and over 12,000 students but no full-time Garda station. Clane and Kilcock each has a population of 6,000, but their Garda numbers are seven and ten, respectively, and there is no full-time Garda station in either town. Whatever Garda management does with its resources is a matter for it; I am here to have extra gardaí allocated to these areas to have a better policing presence which is so badly needed in these communities. There are additional resources in Leixlip and Naas because they are the locations of Garda divisional headquarters. The figures are skewed because gardaí are allocated to the drugs unit and the traffic corps. While the numbers of gardaí may be higher than in other towns in north County Kildare, they are not actually in a position to do the day-to-day community Garda work required. Overall, we need increased numbers to bring the ratio of gardaí to population in County Kildare closer to the national average of 1:450.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. The distribution of Garda personnel and resources generally is exclusively the statutory responsibility of the Garda Commissioner as the allocation is based on a range of factors, including assessed policing needs based on crime trends and Garda intelligence. I am assured by the Garda Commissioner that the personnel assigned across the country, together with the overall policing arrangements and operational strategies, are continually monitored and reviewed. Such monitoring ensures optimum use is made of resources and that the best possible policing service is provided for the general public.

I acknowledge and welcome the approach taken by the Deputy in this debate. It is his entitlement as a public representative for the people of County Kildare to raise the issue with me.

I wish to assure him that every consideration will be given to the very valid points raised in the course of this debate.

I am informed by the Garda Commissioner that the overall strength of the Kildare division as of 31 January 2018, the latest date for which figures are available, was 357, a 14% increase on the number at the end of 2015. Of particular interest to the Deputy will be that the strength of the Leixlip and Naas Garda districts increased by 28% and 9%, respectively, over the same period.

When appropriate, the work of local gardaí in the Kildare division is supported by a number of Garda national units, such as the armed support unit, the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau and the Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau. The Deputy will be aware that the closure of the Garda College in 2010 and the moratorium imposed at that time had a negative impact on Garda numbers across all divisions, including in Kildare. Since the Government reopened the college in September 2014, just under 1,800 recruits have attested as members of An Garda Síochána and have been assigned to mainstream duties nationwide, including 85 to the Kildare division.

I can assure the Deputy that the Government is committed to ensuring a strong and visible police presence throughout the country to maintain and strengthen community engagement, to provide reassurance to citizens and to deter crime. To make this a reality for all, the Government has in place a plan for an overall Garda workforce of 21,000 personnel by 2021, including 15,000 Garda members. Real, tangible progress has been made towards this goal. Garda numbers, taking account of projected retirements, increased to 13,551 at the end of 2017, a net increase of more than 600 since the end of 2016.

I am pleased that funding is in place to maintain this high level of investment in the Garda workforce. This year 800 Garda trainees will enter the Garda College, 200 of whom have already entered since January. A further 800 Garda trainees are scheduled to attest this year, with more than 200 graduating from the Garda College just last week. I am pleased to say this continued investment will bring Garda numbers, taking account of projected retirements, to 14,000 by the end of 2018. Undoubtedly, the ongoing recruitment process will support all Garda activities and enhance visibility within our communities and will enable the Garda Commissioner to provide additional resources across all divisions, including in Kildare, as new Garda recruits continue to come on stream. The investment in personnel is complemented by substantial investment in resources across the board for An Garda Síochána. A total budget of €1.65 billion has been provided to An Garda Síochána this year, an increase of 2% on last year.

I acknowledge the additional gardaí who have come to Kildare since 2015 and the percentages quoted by the Minister, which I accept. The point I was making is that, even at that level, they are probably replacing others and the numbers are probably not growing at the rate we would wish, given the gardaí coming in are dealing with the work of gardaí who are being transferred or are retiring. Notwithstanding all of that, proportionally Kildare still has 40% fewer gardaí than any other part of the country.

It is with this in mind that I have raised the issue of a reallocation or redistribution of resources to Kildare to help bring increased Garda numbers to the areas I have mentioned until more gardaí come through training in Templemore. We are aware of the vacuum that has to be filled and we are aware that it is going to take time, which I acknowledge. I am simply asking if a redistribution of resources can happen and if more gardaí can be brought to Kildare while we are waiting for those qualified gardaí to come through.

This would be important because, even with all the figures the Minister quoted, which I accept, we are still 40% below the national average and we still have a ratio of one garda to 680 people, whereas other parts have one garda to 450. With a reduced number of gardaí, there is reduced visibility, a reduced presence and, obviously, reduced policing, which has an impact. The more gardaí there are, the better the visibility and presence, which gives everyone a sense of positivity. In those key areas I have mentioned in my constituency of Kildare North, there is a need for extra resources over and above what the Minister has mentioned. That is why I am asking for a redistribution.

The Kildare local economic and community plan 2016-21 identified 15 Garda stations in full-time operation in Kildare, the second lowest rate of Garda stations per 10,000 head of population nationally. Kildare also has the lowest rate of gardaí in the country, with 15 gardaí per 10,000 head of population. That was the point I wanted to bring to the Minister to see if gardaí can be reallocated to Kildare to help deal with the issue I have raised.

I assure the Deputy the issue of the distribution of resources is kept under continual review in the context of crime trends and policing priorities so as to ensure that the optimum use is made of these resources. I am informed by the Garda Commissioner that, in regard to the deployment of Garda personnel, a distribution model is used which takes into account all appropriate factors, including population, crime trends and the policing needs of each individual area. It is the responsibility of the divisional officer to allocate personnel within his or her division as appropriate. I am advised by the Garda Commissioner that recent census data is being incorporated into the personnel allocation model. I understand that census information received on a specific county format is amended by the Garda Síochána analysis service to reflect Garda divisional boundaries.

I take on board the point raised by the Deputy in regard to the situation in the university town of Maynooth and the fact its population increases for some part of the year, which means this area of north Kildare may represent a special feature. I assure the Deputy I would be happy to raise that specific point with Garda management.

On foot of a commitment in the programme for Government, the Garda Síochána Inspectorate, at the request of the Policing Authority, is carrying out a review of the dispersal and use of resources available to An Garda Síochána in the delivery of policing services to local communities across Kildare, as well as throughout the country. The review will be comprehensive and includes a consultative process with local communities. It will also take account of the changing environments in rural and developing urban and suburban areas, and the allocation and deployment of Garda resources at the local policing level, including the use of the Garda Reserve, Garda facilities and Garda equipment.

I assure the Deputy this issue will be looked at in the context of the allocation of resources by the Garda Commissioner. I thank Deputy O'Rourke for raising this important matter.

Schools Building Projects Status

I am disappointed by the slow development of much-needed school provision by the Government. In my constituency we have towns which are under serious pressure for mainstream school places at primary school level and it is becoming a crisis, with serious problems in Swords, Balbriggan and Donabate. Today, however, I am speaking directly to the problem of school places in one particular school. St. Michael’s House special school in Skerries is at maximum capacity in a building that is not fit for purpose. I am raising this matter today to impress on the Minister the urgent need to get the site acquisition process completed as soon as possible and for the new building for St. Michael’s House to be delivered without any further delays.

In the previous Government, of which the Minister and I were a part, and under Labour Party Ministers, we prioritised the provision of new schools in the worst of economic times. In 2015, I brought the then Minister, Deputy Jan O’Sullivan, to St. Michael’s House in Skerries to see for herself the current building and how inadequate it is to meet the needs of the pupils. She recognised the need and the Department officials recognised the need but the prioritisation of the provision of new schools has been too slow.

I need a definitive answer to two questions in the Minister's response, and if they are not in his prepared response, he might please add them in advance of his reply. First, is money set aside to complete the purchase of the new site? Second, is money set aside to fund the construction of a new school building and will it go ahead without further delay once the site acquisition process has been completed?

The principal, staff and pupils and their families deserve answers to these questions. They deserve a timeline for this to happen and I hope that, in his response, the Minister will provide that.

The current building is unfit for purpose. The school has been housed there for 36 years and, unfortunately, the building is well past its use-by date. I have visited it several times. The mounting level of repairs needed just to keep the building in basic condition is financially onerous. The school received prefabs in recent years due to the poor state of the building and the benefits are acknowledged by everyone involved, but these are not long-term solutions and are merely putting the finger in the dam.

The school is at maximum capacity. There is no more space for any increase in the student body. Currently, pupils are only admitted when an existing pupil finishes his or her time at the school. With a maximum capacity of 30 pupils supported by 17 dedicated staff, the number of spaces that crops up is small. For the next academic year, there will be six spaces created by departing pupils. There are 21 applicants for these six spaces and, as such, 15 pupils and their families will be disappointed. I know some of those families personally. It is my understanding that no pupils are due to depart the following year, so no new places will be available. With a new building, St. Michael's House could increase its service provision to 92 pupils, thus trebling its current number. What a transformation that would be.

This vital service is desperately needed in north Dublin generally. From the time St. Michael's House was born in 1955, it has helped to change fundamentally how we as a country educate people with intellectual disabilities. It has been a leader in the development of community-based services for people with intellectual disabilities, providing services to 1,751 children and adults. St. Michael's House has demonstrated exceptional leadership throughout the years, but if it is to deliver its vital service, it requires assistance from the State in the form of a new building and facilities worthy of its staff and deserving of its pupils and their families. The school community needs certainty. The time for being unclear is over.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I acknowledge that the investment in school facilities has been an important feature of recent years. I assure the Deputy that we are sustaining the high level of building. Indeed, we have completed over 200 new schools, comprising more than 120,000 additional places. In terms of financial provision, almost €8.5 billion will be provided for investment in schools under the recent ten-year plan. This level of funding is unprecedented. We are committed to providing for children. Ireland is unique, in that no other European country has the same pressure of a growing school population that we do. The Deputy rightly acknowledges that meeting this increasing demand has been a challenge.

St. Michael's House special national school in Skerries was established in 1982. Enrolments are stable, with 30 pupils enrolled in the 2017-2018 school year and a staff allocation of a principal plus five special class teachers. The school is located in a rented building with temporary accommodation in Hacketstown. My Department is committed to providing a permanent accommodation solution. In that regard, a project to deliver a new school building for St. Michael's House special school on a greenfield site has been included in the Department's six-year capital programme. It is planned to provide a new building to accommodate a 14-classroom school, expandable to 16 classrooms, covering classes for pupils with mild to general learning difficulties, autistic spectrum disorder, multiple disabilities and severe to profound disabilities.

My Department is working closely with Fingal County Council in accordance with the memorandum of understanding on the identification and acquisition of a suitable site to facilitate the school buildings project. The site acquisition process for this school has been ongoing for some time. Initial efforts were focused on acquiring land in the vicinity of the school's current location, which was preferred by the school authorities. However, efforts in that regard were unsuccessful and the current site option was subsequently identified. The acquisition process was paused for some time while my Department engaged with the school authorities regarding potential alternative accommodation that was available at the time. Based on the outcome of that engagement, the site acquisition process recently restarted and negotiations with the relevant landowner are at an advanced stage. I confirm that a potential permanent site option has been identified and is being progressed. My Department, with the assistance of Fingal County Council, is engaging with the landowner. There are some clarifications required on technical issues regarding the development of the site, and this assessment process is nearing completion. Once there is agreement on the terms of the site acquisition and technical queries are clarified, it is anticipated that the conveyancing process can be advanced by the respective solicitors.

I thank the Minister for his response. I have been working closely with the school in recent times, so I am aware of the various developments and reasons for delays, but I cannot emphasise strongly enough how stretched the school is. Pupils cannot take their required breaks. There are also pressures on space from a staff perspective, which has a direct effect on how well they can deliver their services to the pupils. St. Michael's House is a special school and, as such, has special requirements unlike mainstream schools, but these requirements are not so special that an inordinate delay should occur. We have acknowledged the source of some of the delays.

Will the Minister grab a hold of this issue and help get it over the line as quickly as possible? He should not be reluctant to spend public money on this service. The public in north Dublin want and value it. It would also benefit the Minister's constituents, given its location. The public in north Dublin want to see investment in this service regardless of whether they will be direct users. The Irish are a compassionate people who want to see our fellow citizens treated equally and fairly.

The staff in St. Michael's House are a credit to the teaching profession and to the public sector in general. They are being inhibited from doing their job to the best of their ability by the inadequacy of their building, but they are not the real losers. The people who lose the most are the pupils. They are not getting the facilities they deserve, facilities that would allow them to thrive and fulfil their individual potential.

We need to see progress on this as soon as possible. Will the Minister please give me direct answers in his supplementary reply? Is it the case that, once the acquisition process is completed, money will be available to finalise the purchase of the site? I understand from the Minister's reply that the acquisition process is at an advanced point, but will he make a commitment that, once it is over, he will move swiftly on delivering the building, which has been in the programme for some time? He referred to a six-year programme, but this is urgent. Not only would we be improving facilities for current students, but the potential in opening up additional places would be of tremendous value.

I assure the Deputy that money is not a constraint on meeting this requirement. Delays can be frustrating for schools, but there are always delays in site acquisition, particularly in Dublin where site availability is scarce. It can take time. There can also be frustrations with the planning and design processes and so on.

I assure the Deputy that my Department is committed to this school. It is a priority, as the Deputy stated, and its development will provide the Department with new capacity, which will be fully utilised once made available. No effort will be spared in trying to progress the situation. It is an important project for us.

School Curriculum

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this issue for debate, which I have submitted for discussion because the Department Education and Skills has clearly and shamefully overlooked the applications made by a number of secondary schools from counties Sligo and Leitrim that were seeking to participate in a new pilot scheme for the provision of leaving certificate physical education.

The House may be aware that, during 2017, the Department sought applications from secondary schools across the entire country that were seeking to be included in the new programme. Following on from that notice, 360 schools applied. Of those, I have been advised via a parliamentary question this week that only 80 schools have been selected for inclusion in the scheme.

If those 80 schools were spread across all the counties of Ireland, there would not have been a major problem with certain schools not being selected. However, of the 80 schools that were selected nationally, not one secondary school from either Sligo or Leitrim was selected to be included. I find it absolutely shocking.

Following the Department’s decision to overlook the applications from Sligo and Leitrim schools, I took the opportunity to speak with a number of disappointed principals from my constituency in order to discuss whether or not their applications had been strong enough and to gauge their feelings about not being selected by the Department. Of the schools I visited, the applications I saw were outstanding and the principals in question are now furious over the entire selection process. The schools now want answers about how the process was decided on, by whom and on what criteria.

The fact that large schools such as Summerhill College in Sligo and Sligo Grammar School were overlooked for the scheme by the Department is quite simply astonishing, considering their strong and proud sporting traditions and their record of achievement at national and international level. No consideration was given by the Department to using geographic location as a criterion when selecting the 80 successful schools. That should be called into question and needs to be looked at in further pilot schemes by the Department for Education and Skills. The people of Sligo and Leitrim have as much right as the people from every other county to expect fairness and equality when decisions are being made by central Government. These two schools in particular have amazing sporting facilities and dedicated and leading sports programmes. They have sports teams competing across a wide range of sports at national level and at Summerhill College, there are five PE teachers. How could that be overlooked for the purposes of the scheme?

As a public representative for the constituency of Sligo-Leitrim, the situation of the schools was highlighted when we learned that Donegal had eight schools selected and Limerick had seven, yet poor old Sligo and Leitrim did not have one school selected between them. I welcome that Coláiste Cholmcille in Ballyshannon has been included, which is part of the south Donegal area of my constituency. It is important to note that parents who had expected that Sligo and Leitrim would at least have one school included for 2018 are now beginning to ask questions of the schools that had applied and are questioning the standards and types of applications that were submitted.

Does the Department consider it to be a fair approach? Who sat on this steering group and how did it make its recommendations? There is no mention of a broad selection of school type.

I thank Deputy McLoughlin for raising the issue. I will clarify a number of things. It is not a pilot scheme; it is phase one of a model that will go countrywide from 2020. It is a testing of a concept that has been developed by the NCCA of a new physical education curriculum, both an examinable curriculum at leaving certificate and also a framework for students who choose not to do the exam. It was not a contest to select the best schools in the country for a pilot scheme. It was, by contrast, a need the Department identified in order to make sure the programme is delivered to the highest possible standard to get a range of schools across a range of different needs, including DEIS and non-DEIS schools, single sex and mixed sex schools, small and large schools and so on. It was not a contest to select schools with particularly strong sporting traditions and put them into a pilot scheme to demonstrate the excellence of the project. Instead its purpose was to prove the concept and to have schools that are perhaps not as strong or do not have as great a tradition and to have a mixture of schools. I assure the Deputy that we aim to provide it on a nationwide basis in September 2020. It is one cycle of students going through the programme to complete the leaving certificate senior cycle.

As the Deputy indicated, it was massively oversubscribed. We had 369 applications for 80 places. There is a huge appetite for this. It is something we are really keen to get right. The two years between this coming September and the nationwide delivery will be used to make sure we deliver quality continuing professional development to prepare teachers to deliver the programme with the new curriculum and the new examination model. The way it is being done is very exciting - video material is being included as part of the examination process. It is a period in which we are proving the concept, which is extremely strong. The design was done entirely independently by a steering group set up - it was chaired by my Department - to ensure we got the best test to prove the concept and make sure we ironed out all the glitches that might occur in the delivery of a curriculum such as this. It is an exciting new project. I assure the Deputy there was no ill-reflection of any applicant. There were wonderful applications we were not in a position to include in the first phase but which will be included when we go countrywide with the project.

I thank the Minister for his response. I am still baffled that there are eight schools in Donegal and seven in Limerick. It is a pilot scheme over the next two years with 80 schools included but there are very few in the north west, particularly in my constituency. That may not be what the Minister set out to do but he has a responsibility to ensure the members of the board look at it on a geographical basis. How can the Minister justify there being seven in one county, eight in another and none in others? It is not acceptable. I accept the Minister's point but parents, teachers, PE teachers and various other people are looking at the situation in fine schools in Sligo and Leitrim and are not convinced that what has happened in this case has been fair.

It is only right and proper that we get the system right. I welcome it because it is a first and it will be of huge benefit to many students all over the country. It is vitally important we get it right and do not discriminate against certain areas of the country. That is what is happening. When I speak to teachers, students and parents, they are very confused, worried and disappointed by what has happened in my constituency.

I understand what the Deputy is saying. If it was being allocated on the basis of giving every county a fair shot and one county was being left out, the Deputy would rightly feel aggrieved, but that was not the approach. It is a model that will go countrywide. What we are trying to do in the first phase is get a selection of schools across a range of school types to ensure we have ironed out any glitches and that we have the right sort of professional support for teachers and that if we discover or identify weaknesses that we improve the professional support team that is in place. It was not an attempt to pass judgment on the quality of the applications. We accepted schools that were in a position to participate which might not have been schools of sporting excellence in an area. The schools have been independently selected. The purpose of the selection was to ensure we road-test in as effective a way as possible the 80 schools, the frameworks - the leaving certificate examinable and the framework that is not being examined - to make sure we are in a position to deal with any challenges it throws up. What has been done is entirely independent. There has been no direction of any sort given to the steering group. It has made the selection to best deliver the objective of the curriculum development.

I have to stand over the quality of the work being done despite acknowledging that the Deputy has misgivings about what has happened. It was done in the best interest of having a nationwide quality PE programme in place from 2020.

Hospice Services Provision

Last week the Government managed to set another record: 714 citizens were left on trolleys. I did not think that, even under the stewardship of this Government, it would get that bad. I believed that, as someone who has a fair amount of experience of the health service, I was unshockable but the Government has managed to shock even me.

Last Monday, the general secretary of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, said:

We saw record trolley figures last week with a total of 3,112 in just one week and today each daily total from that week has been surpassed by the extraordinary figure of 714 admitted patients on trolleys today... This upsurge was predictable and the INMO warned against inaction or insufficient action in the wake of Storm Emma. It is unfortunate for both healthcare staff and patients that these warnings were not heeded and that emergency measures sought have not been put in place.

It is unfortunate for health care staff and patients that these warnings were not heeded. We see yet again a predictable crisis.

The Government has blamed the flu, the patients, the staff and I am sure now the Minister of State will blame the storm. The truth is there is a lack of capacity within the system. This year there has been a bed capacity review and the passing of a Sinn Féin motion detailing measures that will make an appreciable difference but we have not seen any action on either of these events. There is a state of emergency whereby elective surgery and planned procedures are cancelled but all that does is store up problems for later in the month or the year. We would like to hear from the Minister of State what exactly the Government has planned to deal with a very predictable crisis which has now become a perpetual crisis.

With no disrespect to the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, once again the Minister for Health has not showed up. This is my thirteenth attempt to get him to respond to this topical issue matter and four times I have asked him to respond to a similar question. He has not turned up on any of those occasions. That is not good enough.

I have tabled many questions on the University Hospital in Limerick but I do not seem to get answers. Today 64 people are on trolleys in Limerick. There were 66 yesterday. Last Monday there were 80 and in February almost 1,000. There will probably be more than 1,000 in March and there is no solution in sight. In recent months 13% of those on trolleys have been in Limerick University Hospital. It is a new hospital and before it was opened I tabled a topical issue matter because the nurses in the INMO were concerned that more than 24 people would be on trolleys there every day. At that time another Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, deputised for the Minister whose excuse was that he was at the hustings to elect a new leader for the party. Deputy McGrath said: "there is no basis for any suggestion that 24 patients will be accommodated on trolleys in the new emergency department". Unfortunately, now we almost wish it was only 24 because every day there has been more. What Deputy McGrath said is completely untrue. In 2018 there have been only two days when there have been 24 or fewer on trolleys, 22 and 23. The core problem in the hospital stems from the merger of Nenagh, St. John's and Ennis accident and emergency departments into one so-called centre of excellence in Dooradoyle in Limerick.

We know that a 96 bed project will be delivered in some years' time. What will the Minister do in the meantime? Additional beds should be opened immediately in Ennis, St. John's and Nenagh.

I thank the Deputies for raising this important matter.

Emergency department, ED, overcrowding has been linked to many adverse outcomes, such as longer wait times, worse patient outcomes, treatment delays and growing staff and patient dissatisfaction. That is why this Government is committed to breaking the cycle of overcrowding in our health service and has again provided significant funding this winter for measures to relieve pressure on our EDs. This winter has been a particularly difficult one for our health services. During February, there was a 7.7% increase in ED attendances and a 5% increase in ED admissions, compared to February 2017. There was also a 9.5% rise in ED attendances and an 8.5% rise in admissions among those over 75 years of age in February, as compared to the same period last year. This increased demand was further exacerbated this month by the impact of Storm Emma and related severe weather across the country.

This growth in demand is well ahead of population growth and reflects international evidence that emergency department demand is driven by more than demographic factors. However, inpatient bed capacity to meet the growing demand is constrained, resulting in an 11.8% increase in patients waiting on trolleys compared to February 2017. As part of budget 2018, €40 million in additional funding has been provided to respond to winter pressures, of which €25 million has been ring-fenced for social care measures to reduce delayed discharges and improve patient flow from our EDs. These measures are being rolled out and include €3.5 million for 20 additional transitional care beds and €18 million for 45 additional home care packages a week in the system during the winter period.

In addition, the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, recently approved a further €5 million in funding to deliver an extra 324 home support packages, HSPs, across 13 specific sites and an additional 50 approvals per week for transitional care beds, TCBs, for a six-week period across all hospitals to support hospital discharging in the aftermath of Storm Emma and associated adverse weather. Among the sites to benefit are Tallaght, St. James's Hospital, St. Vincent's Hospital, the Mater and Beaumont. As of today, approximately 190 additional beds have been opened this winter at St. Vincent's, Drogheda, Limerick, Waterford, Galway, Beaumont, St. James's Hospital, the Mater Hospital Dublin and Naas Hospital. Further beds are already funded to come on line throughout 2018, including new beds in Kilkenny, critical care beds in Cork and the Mater in Dublin, and as part of the development of a modular build for South Tipperary General Hospital.

While acknowledging the need for productivity improvements and reforms across the health service, the recently published health system capacity review outlines that in order to reach international standards of bed occupancy level, the acute hospital system needs additional beds front loaded. In response to this recommendation, the Minister has asked the Health Service Executive, HSE, to develop a plan to identify the location and mix of beds across the hospital system which can be opened and staffed by this November to improve preparedness for winter 2018-19 and relieve overcrowding in our hospital EDs. The Department of Health is working with the HSE to develop this plan as a priority.

We all wish for a better health service and improved hospital services. It is only through continued investment in capacity, in hospital staff and in reform of our health services in line with Sláintecare that we can deliver this. I assure my colleagues that this remains a priority for this Government and we will continue to work hard and stay focused on this issue.

I left my crystal ball at home but I did not need it because I could have predicted that the Minister of State would blame the storm and make a nod towards the staff, patients and disease profile. There is a real lack of accountability and sense of responsibility for this problem. The Minister of State does not have to take my word for it. The INMO publishes the figures. After seven years of Fine Gael in government the problem is getting increasingly worse.

When Fianna Fáil was in government 469 people on trolleys was declared a national emergency. Fine Gael has picked up that ball and run with it fairly enthusiastically surpassing the Fianna Fáil figures to reach 714 which is nothing short of disgraceful. The Minister of State did not acknowledge that. The transitional care beds and the investment are all to be welcomed. The Government does not need another bed capacity review or another report from the HSE. It can see that if there are 485 people on trolleys we are short 485 beds. That is very simple mathematics.

The Minister of State cannot dress this up or hide behind statistics. The simple fact is he has managed to preside over a health service that is not an attractive place for people to work in. Nurses, doctors and allied health professionals will tell one that. They tell me that. The Minister of State must be aware of that. There is a crisis in recruitment and retention, which is leading to a crisis in capacity, and there are no answers coming from the Government. I have been to the print room and have seen people from the Minister of State's party. They are voting no confidence in his ability to sort this crisis out. They are printing leaflets to give to their constituents to advise them on how they can get treated abroad. That is a vote of no confidence. They have no confidence that this will be improved. Judging by the words just uttered by the Minister of State, I would have no confidence that he has any plan to improve this. The plan is blame the weather and in the meantime, ask the HSE to devise another plan. It beggars belief.

There is nothing in the Minister of State's response that I have not seen before. There is nothing in his response that helps anybody in Dooradoyle who is on a trolley. As I said earlier, we have the worst trolley crisis in history. It has been ongoing for years in Limerick. I think I will be standing here next year talking about the same thing. Nothing in the Minister of State's response will help people. We hear about how it is sometimes so overcrowded that the relatives of elderly patients on trolleys are not allowed to stay in the accident and emergency department so they have to leave before their relative is even admitted. We heard today that they do not get any hot meals while they wait and some are waiting for 20, 30 or 40 hours. A huge number of these people are older people. I need far more than the Minister of State's response and I ask that he forward my comments to the Minister with the request that the Minister stop ignoring my emails to him and arrange a meeting with me to discuss this matter.

I wish to clarify that I certainly did not blame patients, staff, the system or the weather but the facts are there. I know Opposition Deputies are not always interested in engaging with the facts. Soundbites and headlines make up easier discourse in which to engage but the facts are there. There are underlying challenges and I was merely outlining those challenges and the steps that are being taken to deal with them. A total of €100 million was put into the winter initiative this year. This is a fairly significant investment by any standards. It was designed and designated merely for access measures made up of €40 million for winter measures, €10 million for waiting list measures and a further €50 million for the NTPF for waiting list initiatives. This is not small change by any standards. A total of 189 additional beds have been opened this winter. Clearly, it is not enough but we are not going to open 721 beds. One does not open beds based on the number of people waiting on trolleys on any one day. We need a review and to look at capacity and where the pinch points are. It is not just a case of clicking one's fingers and opening beds so, of course, the HSE has a job of work to do to identify the issues. That is how systems are run and that is how an organisation like the HSE has to perform. It has to produce a report and carry out analysis. A total of 189 additional beds have been opened this winter. The Deputies opposite may not wish to hear this but some very significant steps are being taken towards alleviating the winter pressures. I had no difficulty in acknowledging that there was an 11.8% increase in the number of people waiting on trolleys this February compared with last year so we have no issue with accepting and acknowledging the challenges and there is no desire to hide from them. Of the 189 beds, 22 new beds have been opened in St. Vincent's University Hospital, 25 have been opened in Drogheda and 17 in University Hospital Limerick. These are new beds that have been opened this winter. This winter, 28 new beds have opened in University Hospital Galway, 19 in University Hospital Waterford, 20 in Beaumont Hospital, 23 in St. James's Hospital in Dublin, 24 in the Mater hospital and 11 in Naas General Hospital.