Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Transport Policy

The Covid crisis has, for good or ill, led to a significant re-evaluation of what our communities can offer, what kind of public realm we have access to, and the primary role our immediate neighbourhoods play in keeping us healthy and safe during this crisis. Local authorities have a vital role in this regard. They now shoulder the great responsibility of making space available for people to prioritise public health in the public realm and to do so in a way that is universally accessible for every single person. A considerable disparity is beginning to emerge between local authorities in their response to the crisis. While towns, villages and cities throughout the country have risen to the challenges, some are falling very far short.

I see protected bike lanes and newly pedestrianised streets springing into existence. I see traffic speeds limited to 30 km/h in the area of Dublin City Council. I see families sitting out and enjoying meals on the streets of Cork and shoppers wandering and enjoying the space for people in Ennis. However, I also see local authorities such as Limerick City and County Council taking decisions that are, quite frankly, worrying in the context of the pandemic and the best interests of the public in the future. This local authority is offering free parking to encourage car use in the centre of the city at weekends and is hanging novelty forks and spoons off lampposts while putting even small decisions on pedestrian space and infrastructure for active travel on the longest of fingers.

We know that businesses are worried about their futures and that these kinds of changes can seem like yet another thing they have to contend with and worry about. We also know, however, that research indicates that pedestrianised areas actually see increased footfall and turnover.

We know that local authorities do not always have the expertise to implement the changes that we now need. Perhaps this is the problem. It seems the upper echelons of local government is bursting with road engineers but crying out for talented urban designers.

Ireland recently supported the Stockholm declaration on speed to make 30 km/h the default unless the relevant authority, in this case our local authorities, could prove it should be increased above that on any road. We know that making places where people gather, whether it is the local village square or a big city main street, more pedestrian friendly and safe for active travel is the responsible thing to do right now.

We are aware from in-depth reports from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2019 that air pollution is already at worrying levels in Ireland due to our high rates of car usage and our continued failure to ban smoky coal nationwide. Given that, and in light of the recent spike in pedestrian deaths, prioritising people, not cars, on some streets and in some public places is not in reality a lot to ask for. It would protect walkers, cyclists, people with disabilities, people with asthma, those with underlying conditions, and small children. It would protect all of us.

Covid has delivered us into a new world. It is not necessarily a world that we would have looked for but there are some challenges facing us that we may be able to transform into opportunities if we are brave, steadfast and if we plan well now and put people first. What plans has the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government put in place or can it put in place to develop and issue guidelines to local authorities as a matter of urgency on the best practice implementation of pedestrian and active travel measures in the Covid-19 pandemic? Regarding future transport strategies and planning decisions, what are the plans to address public health requirements in villages, towns and urban areas for increased space in the public realm in a post-Covid world?

I thank Deputy Hourigan for raising this matter as it gives me an opportunity to highlight the importance of active models of travel and the public realm now more than ever in the light of what we know about the Covid-19 pandemic. It is vital to ensure that timely and appropriate measures are put in place to support public health advice and best practice in response to the pandemic, including social or physical distancing.

On 22 June, my Department, working in collaboration with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, issued a circular to local and regional authorities alerting them to updated advice in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The design manual for urban roads and streets, DMURS, which was jointly launched by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government in 2013, was updated on 23 June 2020 with an interim advice note. The interim advice note supports the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport's announcement of funding to deliver improved walking and cycling infrastructure throughout the country in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and supplements correspondence from the National Transport Authority, NTA, on 22 May offering technical and financial assistance to the 31 local authorities.

The interim advice note highlights a range of practical measures that can be quickly implemented to address the challenges posed by the pandemic and in particular the immediate steps towards ensuring a city, town and village centre, and other areas where pedestrians may converge, can provide an environment that is safe and welcoming in support of communities and the reopening of business.

The advice note encourages local authorities to engage with local stakeholders and communities to monitor, test and adapt schemes in the coming months to address the issues that may arise. To date, 19 local authorities have engaged with the NTA on various Covid measures, resulting in 13 formal applications requesting approximately €7 million from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. The NTA is working with all cities to develop a Covid mobility framework which sets out the plans to provide widened footpaths, temporary protected cycle facilities, including new contraflow routes, revised bus routings and bus priority measures, and enhanced pedestrian priority zones.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to be felt for some time and the support provided acknowledges the many challenges authorities face to ensure that streets and transport networks can safely operate. I understand that a number of local authorities are working closely with the NTA and have issued or are in the process of developing temporary transport and mobility plans and have set up teams to oversee their implementation. I encourage all local authorities to develop mobility plans as an immediate response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Deputy may be aware that Dublin City Council has published such a plan, which is quite comprehensive, and the scale of ambition contained within it may be replicated across other cities and towns, of course factoring in local scale and context.

A positive outcome of the current circumstance is that there is now a unique opportunity for all local authorities to assess how urban spaces are being utilised and how various improvements can be made to better support local communities and businesses, not only to deal with issues arising from current restrictions but that could also have a longer term beneficial impact for everyone who uses our cities, towns and villages. I therefore call on all local authorities to take full advantage of the NTA offer of assistance, which, along with their own local expertise, will contribute to the development of the unique solutions required to maintain our way of life and deliver a safer and more sustainable urban environment.

It is also acknowledged that the broader policy context will inform and guide us as we endeavour to address the emerging consequences of Covid-19. The national planning framework, NPF, is endorsed in the programme as critical to underpin the towns first principle of balanced regional development and sustainable connectivity and mobility. It is Ireland's long-term national planning strategy to accommodate Project Ireland and the population growth for economic growth over the 20-year period to 2040.

I thank the Minister of State. We will come back to him. It was remiss of me at the start not to congratulate him on his appointment and wish him well in the challenges that lie ahead.

I thank the Minister of State. Part of the worry is that perhaps the roll-out or response from particular local authorities is somewhat erratic and that perhaps there needs to be communication in order that local authorities that do not have the specific expertise know that the NTA is there to help them and that they can access those supports easily. I thank the Minister of State very much for his response.

Thank you for your good wishes, a Cheann Comhairle. This gives me a key opportunity to highlight these issues and to show that this funding is available. I thank Deputy Hourigan for raising the matter and bringing it to our attention.

There is a funding stream within the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport from which the Covid mobility framework can be drawn down. Essentially, the current mobility funding is approximately €700 million for 2020, so there is a substantial fund available. I encourage all 31 local authorities to access this funding and to think outside the box in terms of what can be available to respond to this challenge. We all acknowledge that it is a significant challenge for business as well. We have changed the way we live and how we go about our daily lives. We can get easy wins by taking advantage of the challenges.

The national planning framework is the roadmap for how towns and villages will be developed in the coming years, right up to 2040, and how the population will be spread through the towns first initiative. There are significant advantages and I thank the Deputy for raising this Topical Issue matter.

Substance Misuse

I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Frankie Feighan. We wish him well in his endeavours.

Comhghairdeas to the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan. In recent months my local parks in Lucan, Clondalkin, Palmerstown and Rathcoole have become littered with strange shiny silver bullets. Many people were shocked to discover that these objects are the residue of a new drug abuse craze among young people. Teenagers are inhaling nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas, from these bullets to get high.`

While this craze is new in Ireland, we can see the path it leads to from the experiences of other countries. In the UK, one in 11 young people now use nitrous oxide. That is higher than the proportion of young people who use cocaine or ecstasy there. Young Dutch people started experimenting with one or two cartridges but this escalated to the point where abuse is running rampant and is now out of control in the Netherlands. A report by the National Information Centre on Poison in the Netherlands highlights a shocking increase in the number of people consuming 50 cartridges a day. Some young people are consuming as many as 100 cartridges a day through balloons.

It is becoming the drug of choice for young people and the consequences are chilling. In the Netherlands the number of recorded cases of nitrous oxide damaging health has increased tenfold in a four-year period. More than one in three Dutch partygoers now uses nitrous oxide on a regular basis. Some 64 young adults in the Netherlands have been hospitalised in the past two years alone. While too many young people see it as harmless fun neurologists are crystal clear about its long-term consequences. The gas depletes the body's store of vitamin B12. This can cause spinal cord damage and is leading to young people being diagnosed as paraplegic and becoming wheelchair-bound. The average age of Dutch patients confined to wheelchairs as a result of abusing laughing gas is just 22 years of age. In the UK, according to its official statistics, nitrous oxide has been linked to 17 deaths within three years. Tragically, we have suffered our first deaths as a result of this scourge with the media reporting deaths in Millstreet in County Cork and Tallaght in Dublin.

The easy availability of nitrous oxide really is shocking. If one types "buy nitrous oxide" into a search engine now one will see an ad displayed, which the search engine is paid to show, for a website hosted in Ireland, selling these capsules. They are sold under a brand called "Whip-it!" as a 50 pack of whipped-cream chargers. While this appears to be a business supplying the product for legitimate reasons, the comments on the website by purchasers gives the game away. One customer testifies that they "...had zero problems. Works good for whip cream and to trip out...". Another jokes: "This stuff really 'whipped' my cream, if you know what I mean!". "Feels good..." says another happy customer. This comes from a .ie registered website and that site should not be selling a product that is clearly and obviously being abused. We need to nip this in the bud by acting now. We need a clear strategy to tackle this problem head on before it escalates out of control.

I thank Deputy for raising this very important issue and for giving me the opportunity to address it as the newly-appointed Minister of State with responsibility for the national drugs strategy. I also want to take this opportunity to affirm the Government’s full commitment to implementing the national drugs strategy and its commitment to a health-led approach to drug use and the development of harm-reduction interventions. Nitrous oxide is a colourless gas that is most commonly found in pressurised metal containers and canisters and has a number of medicinal and industrial uses. Deputy Higgins rightly outlined all the various issues associated with it.

The gas can be misused to get euphoric effects and it can make users feel intoxicated. I am aware of the recent media reports of the increased use of nitrous oxide during the lockdown period which is of grave concern to me. However, it is important we have evidence-based information regarding the extent of its use. As a result, the HSE is currently in the process of gathering information on the prevalence of its use to inform any future actions that may be sanctioned.

As the Deputy will be aware, the Department of Health works with the HSE to raise awareness of the dangers associated with drugs through the drugs.ie website. This website provides a comprehensive range of information and supports related to substance use, including nitrous oxide and other substances. The HSE also operates a drugs and alcohol helpline which is a free and confidential active listening helpline and an email support service offering non-directive support, information guidance and referral to anyone with a question or concern relating to drug and alcohol use. The helpline can be used by directly and by their family members.

The Department of Health, as part of the introduction of the health diversion programme, is providing €100,000 in 2020 to develop a national harm reduction campaign to raise awareness of the risks associated with drug use. This will include the use of club drugs, festival drug use and new trends such as nitrous oxide. While this campaign was originally scheduled for the latter part of 2020, this timetable may need to be revised given the draw on resources in response to the challenges arising from Covid-19.

Recently, the HSE launched Know the Score, the first national evidence-based resource on alcohol and drugs for senior cycle students. It aims to engage young people in exploring and considering a wide range of topics related to the risk associated with alcohol and drugs. While these sources of information are most definitely helpful, it is also important to emphasise the crucial role played by parents in educating young people about the risks of substance abuse. Evidence-based content is available on drugs.ie regarding nitrous oxide, as well as the HSE booklet providing advice for parents on how to talk to young people about the risks associated with drug and alcohol use.

As Minister of State with responsibility for the national drugs strategy, I believe addressing the drug problem requires a multi-pronged approach that includes prevention initiatives in tandem with targeted harm reduction and treatment services. Particular vigilance is required in protecting young people from threats to their health and wellbeing from misuse of substances, including nitrous oxide.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. It is very encouraging that he has acted quickly by seeking a report from the HSE around the prevalence of nitrous oxide use in Ireland. Young people seem to have no idea that this product is killing and paralysing their counterparts elsewhere in Europe. I agree we need and education campaign so that they are aware of the consequences. We also need to start recording how many people are affected by abusing nitrous oxide. At the moment we are relying on media reports to tell us of hospitalisations and deaths. There should be official HSE data recording this problem so that we can understand it and the extent of it and I welcome the Minister of State’s move to gather this kind of information.

We need to limit the availability of this product. Due to the fact that it has genuine uses in the food and medical industries, it is freely available to legally purchase. I am not aware of any law banning its sale to persons under 18 years of age. It is illegal to sell it for human consumption but it is impossible to prove that that is the case and that leaves gardaí powerless to act. Belgium is planning to ban the sale of nitrous oxide to persons under 18 years of age and we should follow suit. The Netherlands is investigating banning nitrous oxide altogether and perhaps there is a point in us establishing whether its legal uses can be fulfilled by other means. If so, then maybe we should move to do the same.

Search engines should not be profiting at the expense of our children’s health by selling ads encouraging people to buy this product online. In fact, this product should not be available for purchase online at all. Our young people need to be aware that mild symptoms like a headache, tingling in the arms and legs or numbness can be the first step to ending up in a wheelchair or worse.

Will the Minister of State commit not just to working on a strategy that communicates the dangers of nitrous oxide but to work on a strategy that reduces access to the purchase of these gas canisters which are on sale right now online for as little as €1? I did not have to search very hard last night to find this used canister. They litter my local parks in Lucan, Clondalkin, Rathcoole and Palmerston. We need to act now to protect out young people.

I thank Deputy Higgins. As she is a new Deputy I am sure she is not aware of the protocols around displaying devices in the Chamber so I will just draw her attention to that.

I ask the Minister of State to conclude on this matter.

I thank the Deputy once again for raising the important issue of nitrous oxide. She raised issues regarding the banning of this substance and the fact it is freely available on the Internet. I share her concerns about the apparent ease of purchase of this gas. I assure her that as the Minister of State with responsibility for this area it is an issue I am taking very seriously. I will take the points she has raised this evening back the officials in my Department tomorrow morning. However, I reiterate the HSE is currently in the process of gathering the required evidence-based information on the prevalence of this drug and its use in Ireland and that will inform future actions.

I will conclude by stating that the Government’s policy on drug and alcohol addiction services is set out in the national drugs strategy document Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery: A health-led response to drug and alcohol use in Ireland 2017-2025.

The programme for Government commits to continuing to resource harm reduction and education campaigns aimed at increasing awareness of the risks of using this drug. As the Minister of State with responsibility for the national drugs strategy, I am committed to implementing an integrated public health response to substance misuse and I am confident this will lead to better outcomes for individuals and society.

Hospital Services

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this matter and I join in the congratulations for the new Minister of State, Deputy Feighan. I would say that at one stage he felt he was down, but he was not out and he made a great comeback, and I congratulate him on his appointment.

I am disappointed that the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, is not here. This is an important issue with regard to the Midland Regional Hospital Portlaoise. Page 47 of the programme for Government states additional capacity is required throughout the health system to deal with the growing population and, of course, Covid-19. Nowhere is this more true than the Midland Regional Hospital Portlaoise because it is dealing with the expanding population of County Laois, the fastest growing county in population terms outside of the Dublin region, and that of some of the surrounding areas, such as south Kildare and east Offaly.

Going back three years, there was a plan to remove the emergency department and other key services from the hospital, but a campaign was mounted which stopped it in its tracks. The then Minister, Deputy Harris, promised me and the two other Deputies from the county a quick public consultation, but three years later that public consultation has not happened. I said at the time that I thought it may be a stalling mechanism to get the then Government over a general election period and, unfortunately, my fears were confirmed.

When the Taoiseach was in opposition he met the Portlaoise hospital action committee and promised to deal with this issue and the lack of certainty about the hospital. Fianna Fáil made great play of it and great noise about it at the time. We still do not have it. Successive Governments have kicked the can down the road on Portlaoise hospital. This has gone on for decades and it cannot go on any longer. The one thing the staff, management, patients and the communities of Laois and the surrounding counties need is certainty. We need a clear plan for the future of the hospital. We have not had this and it cannot continue the way it has been going.

We need the Government to commit to putting in place a plan for the future of the hospital. This must include retention of the emergency department. Prior to Covid-19, on average 40,000 people used the emergency department in Portlaoise hospital. I must commend staff, management and everyone throughout the hospital for the way they have dealt with the Covid crisis. They have managed to keep it virtually free of Covid and it has been a huge effort. Recently, a relation of mine spent weeks there and could not heap enough praise on the staff. It is an elderly relative who, unfortunately, is in bad health at present. The hospital has a great track record.

If the Government does nothing else with regard to Laois and Portlaoise, will the Minister of State, along with the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, commit to putting a plan in place that gives certainty regarding the emergency department and the other key services in the hospital?

On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, I thank Deputy Stanley for raising this matter regarding Portlaoise hospital. I also thank him for the kind remarks he made about me.

The Minister would like to reassure the Deputy that the most important issue regarding the consideration of services at the Midland Regional Hospital Portlaoise is that patient safety and outcomes must come first. As the Deputy is aware, the Midland Regional Hospital Portlaoise has been the focus of a number of reviews, investigations and reports in recent years. The reports points to the need for a reconfiguration of some services to ensure patients are treated in the most appropriate setting by specialist staff who can safely meet their needs. With these reports in mind, the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, is committed to securing and further developing the role of the Midland Regional Hospital Portlaoise as a constituent hospital of the Dublin Midlands hospital group.

Since 2014, the focus has been on supporting the hospital to develop and enhance management capability, implementing changes required to address clinical service deficiencies, and incorporating the hospital into the governance structures of the Dublin Midlands hospital group. Significant work has been undertaken to strengthen and stabilise current arrangements for services at the hospital to ensure sustainable services are safely assured and adequately resourced. Funding has increased by 50% relative to the 2012 budget and staffing levels have risen by 36% from the 2014 base.

In addition to resourcing at the hospital, governance and management arrangements at the Midlands Regional Hospital Portlaoise have been strengthened. Additional clinical staff have been appointed and staff training, hospital culture and communications have improved. The Dublin Midlands hospital group has been working for some time on a draft plan for a new model of clinical service delivery at Portlaoise hospital which takes into account the need to develop services at the hospital in the context of developing the model of service provision for the entire hospital group.

The HSE group involved in developing the draft action plan for Portlaoise hospital focused on the risk issues and the interdependencies of the various clinical services in the emergency department, general surgery, general medicine, general paediatrics, obstetrics, gynaecology and neonatology. The draft plan has been submitted to the Department of Health but I would like to clarify that no decision has been made on it.

I emphasise again that patient and public requirements are paramount and have underpinned the Department's consideration of the draft plan. The Government is committed to investing in services, capital projects and staffing at Portlaoise hospital. The hospital has made considerable infrastructural improvements in recent years to improve the service user experience. These capital developments allow considerable service developments and additional recruitment of staff, and further solidify our commitment to securing and developing the role of the Midland Regional Hospital Portlaoise as a constituent hospital in the Dublin Midlands hospital group.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I welcome the fact there has been increased funding and I acknowledge it because I did complain in the Thirty-first Dáil about the budget for Portlaoise hospital, which was substantially reduced. I also welcome the increase in staff numbers. I report in a positive way that this has made a difference. There were investigations and reviews with regard to the maternity services. It is now acknowledged that Portlaoise has excellent maternity services and outcomes. The Minister of State is correct that it is part of the Dublin Midlands hospital group and this network has been beneficial. I acknowledge all of this.

The missing piece of the jigsaw is to nail down and tie down once and for all the emergency department because if we take the emergency department out, we will lose other key services such as paediatrics, maternity and the ICU. Prior to the Covid emergency there were only two ICU beds in the hospital. This will need to be examined when we get to the far side of the pandemic, and I hope that will be soon. It is difficult to recruit senior medical staff. Staff have been recruited but it is difficult to recruit consultants and senior clinicians when there is no certainty.

The Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, visited the Coombe to show Government support for front-line staff. According to his statement, he also wanted to underline the Government's full commitment to the implementation of the national maternity strategy. Portlaoise is part of the integrated maternity network with the Coombe, so where does Portlaoise fit into the national maternity strategy? I want the Minister of State to communicate to the Minister and the Government that this is an important issue. It is about a serious issue in the middle of the country in a very busy local hospital.

I reiterate that the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, is committed to securing and further developing the role of the Midland Regional Hospital, Portlaoise, as a constituent hospital within the Dublin Midlands hospital group. A number of reports point to the need for a reconfiguration of some services at the Midland Regional Hospital, Portlaoise, to ensure that patients are treated in the most appropriate setting by specialist staff who can safely meet their needs. As the Deputy said, significant work has been carried out in recent years to strengthen and stabilise current governance and management arrangements for services in the hospital to ensure the provision of appropriate and safe care for patients.

No decision has been made on the draft action plan for Portlaoise hospital. The most important issue in the consideration of services at the Midland Regional Hospital, Portlaoise, is that patient safety and outcomes must come first. I thank the Deputy for his support. I also thank the staff who worked so diligently. We are very proud of the staff in Portlaoise hospital and, indeed, all front-line staff in the Department of Health across the country. It is wonderful that we are all at one in agreeing that we are very fortunate to have them. I note the Deputy's concerns about the hospital and I will engage with the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, and the officials in the Department of Health on the matter.

In welcoming the Minister of State tonight and saying we are grateful to you for being here, as it is inordinately late that we are discussing this matter, it might be no harm at this early stage in the process to communicate to the Department of Health that there will be a very unhappy Dáil if the Department does in this Dáil what it did in the last and sends in Ministers of State to deal with issues for which they do not have delegated responsibility.

Drugs Crime

I call Deputy Ó Murchú to discuss the matter of drug crime in Dundalk, County Louth. The Minister of State, Deputy McConalogue, is present. Congratulations on your appointment and we wish you well in your brief.

I also wish the Minister of State, Deputy McConalogue, all the best. I had a sheet of notes relating to this matter and every time I wrote something down I changed it because the entire process and my involvement with this issue just make me angry. We have never reached a solution. The reason I decided to raise this now was a number of recent events. At 3.35 a.m. on Sunday, 5 July, a family in Dundalk were very lucky to get away with their lives in Clontygora Court following an arson attack. I have been at a number of these attacks over the years but this was by far one of the most serious. In this case two of the family got out, luckily enough, and three of the family were upstairs, the father, a mother who was eight months pregnant and a four year old child. They were forced to jump out of the two-storey building. Obviously, some of them were injured, but luckily nobody was killed. That is the seriousness with which criminal gangs are operating in Dundalk.

As regards drugs crime, one need only do a Google search to find that the Garda has been incredibly vigilant. Since it put a drugs unit in operation there have been finds of €30,000 and €35,000 worth of cocaine, crack cocaine and heroin. We have all seen the national drug treatment reporting system report which refers to an increase not only in cocaine use, which everybody is aware of, but also in the use of crack cocaine. When talking to community activists I have consistently been told about dealers being really sound to some of their customers and telling them: "I know things are not great now and I do not necessarily have a great supply of heroin, but do not worry because I have plenty of crack cocaine and I will sort you out with that". That is the reality, especially in working class areas. We have drug dealers who have been operating for many years but there has been a failure by the State to deal with them.

I welcome the operations that have been carried out recently, and in all my dealings with the gardaí I am happy that they are utterly focused. However, one will never have a meeting with gardaí in which they will not talk about the need for more resources. With regard to the attack I mentioned and a previous attack that occurred in my own estate in which a garda's home was attacked, I must commend the neighbours who were vigilant and called the fire service, whose members were spectacular. In addition, the gardaí are putting operations in place and they are carrying out the necessary investigative work and bringing it to a conclusion. That is to be welcomed.

My difficulty with the drugs problem is about who one should deal with at Cabinet level. I went to a meeting before the last election with the former Deputy, Mr. Gerry Adams, and the then Minister of State, former Deputy Catherine Byrne. She basically stated that one had to have somebody serious at Cabinet level who was willing to drive the project of dealing with dangerous criminals and ensuring there is a sufficient number of addiction services. Gardaí will state that they are constantly arresting people who need services and cannot get them. Services such as the Family Addiction Support Network are vital services that are not funded in any way. This issue crosses the areas of housing, health, education and justice. We cannot allow these dangerous criminals to operate. I want the Government to put somebody in charge. I welcome what is going to be done with the Citizens' Assembly, but we already know what has to be done.

I thank you, a Cheann Comhairle, and Deputy Ó Murchú for the good wishes on my recent appointment. On behalf of the Minister, Deputy McEntee, and myself, I thank Deputy Ó Murchú for raising this serious matter.

I begin by strongly condemning the criminal damage by fire caused by the attack on the family on Sunday, 5 July, in Dundalk, County Louth, and the terrible distress for them and all members of the family due to the terrible danger in which they found themselves. It also caused distress to the local community. An Garda Síochána is conducting a full investigation of this matter. The Deputy will appreciate that as a result of that I am limited in what I can say in response to him. An Garda Síochána arrested four men last Monday, 13 July, in connection with the incident. The Minister understands that two of the men were released without charge and a file is being prepared for the Director of Public Prosecutions. The other individuals were charged with regard to separate matters and appeared in court yesterday, 14 July. The Minister appeals to anybody with information on this matter to contact An Garda Síochána at the incident room in Dundalk Garda station or by using the Garda confidential line.

We share the Deputy's concern about the serious issue of drugs crime as well as drug related intimidation in communities, which involves the targeting of persons who use drugs or their families or friends in respect of a drug debt. I appreciate that the threat of violence to enforce drug debt impacts people's lives and their communities. While the reality is that drug-related crime occurs nationwide, in many instances the communities most acutely affected are already marginalised and contending with other forms of criminality associated with the illicit drugs trade.

Government policy is guided by the national drugs strategy, which represents a whole-of-Government response to the scourge of drug and alcohol abuse in the country. Implementation of the strategy is led by my colleague, the Minister for Health, and the Minister of State with responsibility for the national drugs strategy and health promotion, although obviously the strategy includes a wide range of actions for all stakeholders, including the Department of Justice and Equality and An Garda Síochána. There is a specific action in the national drugs strategy in respect of drug-related intimidation. An Garda Síochána, in partnership with the National Family Support Network, developed the drug-related intimidation reporting programme which is being implemented at national level since 2013 to respond to the needs of drug users and family members who may be subject to the threat of drug-related intimidation. Ireland's national drugs strategy is unique among national drugs strategies across EU member states in recognising the need to address drug-related debt intimidation at community level.

Recognising that the issue of drug use and drug-related crime in communities is a complex and multifaceted one, the Deputy might be interested to know about the Greentown project, a research project to examine the recruitment by criminal networks of children in Ireland and to make recommendations for interventions to disrupt children being lured into criminality.

The project is being led by the research evidence into policy programmes and practice project, REPPP, at the school of law in the University of Limerick. It is a strategic research partnership with the University of Limerick funded by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and supported by the Department of Justice and Equality.

I look forward to Deputy Ó Murchú's further contribution. I will provide further information in my closing response.

I appreciate the Minister of State's response and I accept there has been a lot of good work and extra resourcing of the Garda. However, gardaí say they do not have all the services they require. A car belonging to the drug squad in Dundalk was attacked at the Garda station. That is the level of brazenness of the criminal gangs. They have operated for too long and we need to deal with them.

Gardaí say consistently that addiction services are insufficient. They lift people for sometimes minor and sometimes more serious crimes and those people cannot access addiction services, so we go around in a circle. I go back to the fact that we need a person at governmental level who takes in the people from health and even from the local authorities and housing because we have issues there. I can talk about my own town, where a large number of serious players and drug dealers own their own houses and have plentiful supplies of money. That is where the Criminal Assets Bureau needs to come in. These criminals use people who are vulnerable as their front end. That is what needs to be dealt with because we are talking about communities that have been living with this for ten or 15 years in a serious way. These criminals are becoming more brazen. We need to take them on.

We also need to ensure we are serious about harm reduction. The superintendent in Dundalk said at a recent joint policing committee meeting that drugs are literally the most serious issue he has to deal with in his region and that he requires greater resources to give the drugs unit what it requires. We have had a chief superintendent who said we will lose an entire generation to cocaine. We need to ensure that this issue is dealt with at Cabinet level, somebody takes control and we can deliver a solution and look after our communities that are suffering from all this criminality.

An Garda Síochána continues to tackle proactively all forms of drug crime. I know from Deputy Ó Murchú's contribution that it is making a tremendous effort in Dundalk, but that needs to continue and to be supported. The Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau is having significant success in disrupting drug trafficking and the supply of illicit drugs as well as organised crime groups. From the bureau's establishment in March 2015 until the end of June this year, it seized, for example, illicit drugs to a value of €182 million, cash believed to be the proceeds of crime to a value of €14 million and 122 firearms and over 5,000 rounds of ammunition. This work is supported by the divisional drugs units nationwide and, more generally, by all gardaí working in local communities.

With respect to Garda resources working with communities in Dundalk in particular, 184 gardaí were assigned to Dundalk as of the end of May 2020. This is an increase from 147 gardaí, or 25%, since the end of 2015. As the Deputy will be aware, however, a key principle arising from the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland is that policing is not the responsibility of the police alone but also involves other agencies of government, such as health and social services, and other sectors of society. This principle is at the centre of a new policy on community safety which is being developed by the Department of Justice and Equality. The policy, which will be given a statutory basis in the new policing and community safety Bill, proposes to establish and support a system of community safety at local level across the country. Through cross-sectoral collaboration and by drawing on the available services, these systems will be best placed to identify support and implement community safety according to the needs of the local community.

We hear Deputy Ó Murchú's contribution and are very much aware of the serious issues at play. I assure him that, working with and supporting the Garda Síochána, and working within government, we will do all we can to try to ensure that this issue is addressed in every way possible.

The Dáil adjourned at 11.45 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 16 July 2020.