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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 1 Jul 2021

Vol. 1009 No. 6

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Ambulance Service

Tá muintir Chonamara ag fanacht le blianta i gcomhair sheirbhís otharchairr chuí. Tá a fhios againn ar fad cé chomh tábhachtach is atá seirbhís otharchairr agus muid i gcás éigeandála. Níor chóir go mbeadh aon duine ná pobal gan an tseirbhís seo. Bhí cruinniú againn cúpla mí ó shin, áit a ndúradh go mbeadh tuairisc déanta. Níl sé seo déanta go fóill. Tá a fhios agam go raibh go leor cruinnithe ann thar na blianta ach teastaíonn gníomh anois.

The people of Conamara have been waiting for years for an adequate ambulance service. We all know the importance of an ambulance in an emergency. Nobody should be left without such a service. We had a meeting some months ago when we were told a report would be done but it has not yet been submitted. I know there have been many meetings over the years. What we need now is not more meetings but action. I would like to hear from the Minister of State about that.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCeann Comhairle as ucht an t-ábhar seo a roghnú. Tá sé thar a bheith tábhachtach do chosmhuintir Chonamara. Tá siad ag streachailt le breis is seacht mbliana anois agus ag iarraidh ár n-aird a dhíriú ar an ngá práinneach atá le seirbhísí cuí do Chonamara ó thaobh otharchairr de. Bhí mé seafóideach i ndáiríre ach cheap mé go raibh dul chun cinn á dhéanamh agus go raibh muid ag fanacht ar thuarascáil. Faraor, níl sé againn fós.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for choosing this matter because it is particularly important. For seven years the people on the ground have been struggling in a very positive way. My efforts have spanned two elections, and they began before that, trying to draw the attention of the Government to the urgent need for an ambulance base in north Conamara. I hope we can make progress as a result of raising the issue tonight.

On 19 April 2021, a virtual meeting was held with the Oireachtas Members, the ambulance campaign group in Conamara and the National Ambulance Service, NAS. The clear understanding of everybody at the meeting is that a report was to be prepared on the optimum location of an ambulance waiting base that would be located centrally somewhere in Conamara.

On 13 May I tabled a parliamentary question which received a reply stating the matter was referred to the HSE and the NAS. I asked when the report on the optimum location would be available. I got the answer, tráthúil go maith, inniu. However, there is no answer. Nothing has happened. I was told that the National Ambulance Service is focused on improving service delivery and to this end an analysis of operational resources is currently planned. In other words, it has done nothing and nothing has changed. It is vital now that we get action, as agreed at the meeting, on this issue.

I thank the Minister of State for being here to deal with this matter.

Not at all. Like the other Deputies, I thank you for selecting this matter. I thank Deputies Connolly, Farrell and Ó Cuív for raising the issue of ambulance services in Connemara.

I am advised that the National Ambulance Service has been engaging with local representatives on an ongoing basis regarding the provision of emergency ambulance resources for Connemara. The most recent engagement involved the chief ambulance officer for the NAS west division, meeting virtually with the Connemara Ambulance Crisis group and other attendees invited by the group. Deputy Ó Cuív referred to that.

As a result of these engagements, an analysis of ambulance demand and response times for the area has been circulated. I understand from the NAS that feedback is awaited from the group. The Deputies have specifically raised the possibility of an ambulance base located centrally in Connemara to ensure the region is covered at all times. As the Deputies may be aware, the National Ambulance Service deploys its resources in a dynamic manner operating on an area and national basis, as opposed to a local or county basis. This means that emergency ambulances are not held at specified static bases, but used in a more flexible manner that reflects the population need and demand.

Dynamic deployment uses an ICT platform that provides real-time information to the staff of the National Emergency Operations Centre, who continually match currently available resources and their locations with service demand requirements. The most appropriate nearest available resource is deployed in the first instance. The baseline and capacity review also highlighted that the most effective way to improve emergency response times in rural areas is through the community first responder scheme. Community first responder groups comprise trained volunteers, who are supported and dispatched by the National Ambulance Service.

These groups respond to particular types of medical emergencies, such as cardiac arrest, respiratory arrest, chest pain, choking and stroke. I am advised that, at the end of February 2021, a total of 275 schemes were established, including 26 in County Galway. In Connemara, two community first responder groups have returned to service following Covid-19 stand-down, while four other groups will be reactivated.

The purpose of the question was the follow-up in regard to meetings. Prior to coming to the House today, I followed up on the issue because I did not feel my scripted response would address it properly. I want to outline the information I received just before coming to the House. The National Ambulance Service has advised that no report has been committed to in regard to a feasibility study for a base near Maam Cross and no commitment was provided for a base location, nor any report committed to. The National Ambulance Service has undertaken an analysis of demand, which consists of calls in the Connemara area, in order to understand the level of service required in the area. Further analysis of national demand is being undertaken but the ability to complete this analysis has been hampered by the recent cyberattack.

It is important to have that read into the record of the Dáil because I would be doing the Deputies a disservice to stand here and give the answer I have in front of me, which does not address the question which the Deputies raised as to exactly the position in regard to addressing the report, if there was a report, and timelines for location.

I thank the Minister of State for her honesty. I call Deputy Farrell.

I too thank the Minister of State for her honesty. The reality is that we can all work together on this, and we see that from the fact the three of us are working together, with many other Oireachtas Members as well. What we have at the moment is just not working for the people of Conamara. That is why there is a campaign group, although that is not to take away from any of the work the Minister of State outlined in her statement. The reality is it is just not good enough for the people of Conamara and it is not working. When people get to the point where they have to call an ambulance, they are in a crisis situation and they need that professional help immediately. In the Conamara area, when they make that call for an ambulance, they cannot say with certainty that it is going to be there or that help is going to be provided. Looking at this need to be a priority. It was my understanding that a feasibility study was going to be carried out. What we clearly need is a centrally-based ambulance base in Conamara.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit as ucht a ionracais, as é a chur in iúl nach bhfuil sí sásta leis an bhfreagra agus as dua a chuir uirthi féin freagra a fháil. Níl sé sin sásúil ach an oiread. I thank the Minister of State for her honesty and for taking the effort to get a further reply. Níl aon mhíthuiscint ó thaobh mhuintir na háite nó ó thaobh na dTeachtaí. There is no misunderstanding on the side of Deputies or on the side of the people on the ground. We clearly understood from the last meeting that a report would be prepared. I am not sure if the word “feasibility” was used but there was to be a report on how suitable that area was, from Maam and Oughterard out, in regard to a base location for the ambulance. That was clear but, since then, we have got nothing but evasion. Arís inniu, táim ag iarraidh ar an Aire Stáit, má tá aon chumhacht aici, freagra a fháil maidir leis an tuarascáil a gealladh dúinn nuair a d'fhreastail muid ar an gcruinniú i lár mhí Aibreáin.

Does anyone ever feel they are going backwards at an alarming rate? During the term of the previous Dáil, people came out from the National Ambulance Service to look at a location in Conamara and, at that stage, there was really no question but that a base was needed. The idea that it does not have bases such as this and that, while waiting, it moves an ambulance into a central position is incorrect. It has a number of those in County Mayo, for example. The problem with Conamara is this. If the National Ambulance Service wants to call the nearest ambulance when its ambulance is gone, it is in Galway city. It is a simple as that. What we need is action in this regard.

If we took what the National Ambulance Service said, namely, there was no commitment to look at the optimum location in the middle of Conamara, I think it is a case of mass hallucination on the part of the participants at that meeting, both the community and the public representatives, because all of us clearly understood that the National Ambulance Service was going to look around the area and find the most suitable location. We need to stop the pussyfooting. If it is not going to do it, let it come out and answer to the people of Conamara, and say it is not going to do this.

I live in the heart of Conamara, 35 miles from Galway city and far from the services. This campaign has been going on for seven to ten years and it is time it was brought to a conclusion.

I thank the Deputies for raising this. We are fortunate that it is a Minister of State from Galway who is taking this question as I have a complete understanding of Connemara, and I have an understanding that when I leave the Bearna road to go out west, I am as close to Dublin as I am to some parts of Connemara. As to what I will do for the Deputies, the answer I got this evening was from the trauma and pre-hospital emergency care policy unit. I will organise a meeting with that team within the Department of Health, along with the members of the National Ambulance Service, within the next month. I invite all three colleagues, who are working closely together, representing their constituents on the ground, to a meeting. Perhaps we can move this agenda item forward.

Thank you. It is outrageous that State agencies would treat this House with contempt when they produce to us, by way of an answer to a serious question, waffle rather than a substantial answer. The Minister of State is to be commended on her integrity in the manner in which she has dealt with this.

Public Transport

As Deputy Violet-Anne Wynne is not present, I call Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh.

I regret it is not the Minister for Transport who I am addressing and that it is to be dealt with by the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, as I know transport is not part of his departmental brief. In one sense, however, it is very positive because I know he is a regular visitor to Tramore and he knows the lay of the land in the south east as well as anybody in this House.

I want to share with the Minister of State some of the Bus Éireann services that were disrupted in the south east, out of Waterford in particular, on just one day, the Sunday of last week. These details are taken from the Bus Éireann website. On route 2, the 5 p.m. service from Wexford to Dublin Airport was cancelled along with the return service at 9 p.m. On the 4-X4 route, the 9 a.m. service from Waterford to Dublin Airport was cancelled along with the return at 1.15 p.m. The 4.30 p.m. service from New Ross to Dublin was cancelled along with its return service. Five services on route 40 were cancelled along the Cork, Waterford, Wexford and Rosslare route and four of the services along the 360 route between Waterford and Tramore were officially cancelled as well, according to the website, although I am led to believe that another six services in each direction were also cancelled during the course of the day. As the Minister of State may remember, this was on one of the best days of the year so far, when we could expect passenger numbers between Waterford and Tramore to be especially high, and at a time when the buses are running at a limited capacity because of Covid restrictions.

The upshot of these cancellations is that many passengers were left high and dry, either waiting for a bus that was not coming or having been told that the service was at capacity and that they could not get on. Moreover, and this particularly applies to the longer intercity Expressway routes, people just were not informed in time to make alternative plans. People were left feeling angry and let down and they struggled to find an alternative way to travel. I know of one case in particular where the last intercity service was cancelled and the person had to sleep out for the night, having no alternative.

This is not an isolated incident and these cancellations are happening on an ongoing basis. It is leading to a situation where people feel they cannot rely on the public transport service operating out of Waterford.

Will the Minister of State cast any light on the situation? Is the problem exclusive to or particularly pronounced in Waterford? Are there particular issues with staffing in Waterford? An additional city service has been laid on to provide transport to the mass vaccination centre in the Waterford Institute of Technology Arena. Has that route been adequately resourced or is that impacting the provision of other services? How stand the relationships between management and drivers at the Waterford depot? Are there difficulties that the Department can get involved in to help to resolve. The Minister of State knows as well as anybody how hard we fought in programme for Government negotiations so that State spending would go two to one in favour of public transport over road projects. Moving people away from private vehicles to public transport is a key action to decarbonise our transport sector and meet climate targets. For people to make that choice, public transport has to be comfortable, affordable and reliable. That does not seem to be the case in Waterford at the moment. Will the Minister of State outline whether the Department is aware of these issues and what steps it is taking to remedy the problem?

I thank Deputy Ó Cathasaigh for giving me the opportunity to discuss this. I am familiar with Tramore. We go there for our weekly supplies of Dooly's chips. As Members will be aware, the Minister for Transport has responsibility for policy and overall funding related to public transport. However, the Minister is not involved in the day-to-day operation of public transport services as this falls under the remit of the National Transport Authority in conjunction with the relevant public transport operators, which is Bus Éireann in this case. The public transport system in Ireland has played an essential service role over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, especially in carrying essential workers and others making necessary journeys. I am sure the Deputy will agree that public transport operators, including Bus Éireann, have demonstrated great dedication and resilience in dealing with the unique challenges posed by the impact of Covid-19 on the sector. At the height of the pandemic last year, Bus Éireann services continued to operate at a time when many others ceased operations and delivered essential public transport to those who needed it, most notably front-line workers.

As the Deputy will be aware, the easing of some level 5 restrictions in recent months, such as those previously placed on schools, construction, retail etc., has led to a significant increase in demand for some public transport services. While operators are now permitted to carry up to 50% of normal capacity on each service, there are still some capacity constraints on certain services, with increased congestion also causing issues.

With regard to the Deputy's question about bus services in the south east, Bus Éireann has advised that, regrettably, it has experienced operational issues in recent weeks that have impacted on service delivery in the Waterford area. I understand that while the majority of services in Waterford have continued to operate as scheduled, a small number, less than 5% of the scheduled services in Waterford, were impacted and therefore did not operate. Bus Éireann has advised that the issues with these services have largely been due to staff shortages in the region, which was more than the typical need to cover annual leave and vaccinations at this time of year. A further contributing factor has been the significant increase in congestion in Waterford in recent months due to the higher traffic volumes following the relaxation of some Covid-19 restrictions. This gets to the point the Deputy made about public transport and private car travel. Some local traffic diversions have been in place in Waterford city to facilitate local business, which have impacted on city bus routes and schedules.

I understand that the Minister, Deputy Ryan, has been assured by Bus Eireann that it is addressing the issue of driver availability and that it is well advanced in its recruitment process in Waterford, with a number of these new positions due to start this weekend and more to follow. I am pleased to advise that Bus Éireann is due to commence additional summer services for Waterford to Tramore this Sunday. These services will double the frequency between midday and 7 p.m. and provide additional capacity to those travelling to the newly refurbished terminus in Tramore. While I trust this clarifies the position regarding Waterford services, Bus Éireann has advised it is happy to engage directly with the Deputy on the matter.

I thank the Minister of State for his answer. I do not envy him. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, who spoke before him had an answer that was not an answer, but she was able to elaborate on it because she is a Minister of State at that Department. I am afraid that the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, has been handed an answer that is not an answer but it is not his Department. To say that some of the services were cancelled due to increased traffic in June, when schools are finished and the traffic is lighter, is risible, as is saying that local traffic diversions have for some reason cancelled intercity services from Waterford to Dublin Airport. I do not envy the Minister of State having to sit there but that was not an answer. Bus Éireann said there are staffing shortages but it will double the service from next week. How can I put those two things together? Last week, Bus Éireann was short-staffed. It was not just for one day since this has been ongoing. It was short-staffed and could not provide the scheduled service but it says it will double the service next week. I know there are issues in the Waterford depot.

I do not ask the Minister of State to elaborate on his response, since he has a script which was supplied by another Department, but I ask him to go back to the Minister for Transport to ask him to get actively involved in this. I cannot accept the deflection, saying that this is not under the Minister's remit and that it is the NTA's problem. There is a role for the Minister. Something is happening in the Waterford depot that is particular to the area. More services have been cancelled than in other areas. Will the Minister of State relay that message to the Minister for Transport in the clearest possible terms?

The Deputy is correct that I cannot answer the question because it is not my Department and it is not my remit, so I am relaying a scripted response on behalf of the Minister for Transport. I am more than happy to take the issues back to the Department of Transport. There is a commitment in the notes that the CEO of Bus Éireann, Stephen Kent, is happy to discuss the matter directly with the Deputy and with other Deputies who have raised this. The issue of the delivery of some Waterford services was raised by a number of Members. It is important, in light of the previous question, that we get comprehensive and specific responses to what seems to be a significant challenge in this area of the south east. I am happy to take the issue back to the Minister but there is a commitment from the CEO of Bus Éireann to engage directly about the matter to try to resolve the issue.

I thank the Minister of State for his helpfulness. It seems that we have another reply for the waffle box.

Housing Provision

I raise the issue of housing conditions at the Oliver Bond complex because the House will be aware that it made headline news yesterday when a report was published about the conditions in which the residents live. I congratulate those behind the report and indeed the residents and campaigners who have been working on this for years. The campaign related to the promise of regeneration started ten years ago. We are being told it has been put on hold for four years. This is not just an issue for the local authority. The State bears responsibility for the conditions these people live in. The question is not just about the speed of the proposed regeneration programme but highlights the systemic, State neglect and disregard for Oliver Bond tenants and others, including in Balgaddy, Pearse House, Bernard Curtis House in Bluebell and hundreds of council homes.

Although it was in the media today and yesterday, it is worth going over some of the conditions people live in. One woman who I spoke to today talked about a neighbour, a 27-year-old mother of four, babies and kids up to the age of six. She is pregnant again. She has sewage constantly coming up through her shower onto her bathroom floor. Most neighbours have complained about sinks being blocked. From last March until now, there have been several complaints about blocked sinks that have not been addressed by the council. After a fire in her home, the mother of a woman I know there had to wait for 11 years for her windows to be replaced while the wind and rain howled through her windows.

Another neighbour waited three years for a hall door to be replaced. A 77-year-old woman is still waiting for broken latches to be fixed on her windows. It should interest the Minister of State, as a Green Party Deputy, to hear that these people are absolutely crucified trying to pay heating bills because the wind howls through their properties. There are broken latches, pipes bursting in kitchens and sewage outside the flats. Most of the tenants say the washing machines they purchase last just three to four years because of blockages that wreck the machinery.

A report and a promised regeneration have been put back on hold for four years. This is not just because these buildings, built by Herbert Simms in 1936, have preservation orders and are very beautiful to look at, which is true. It does not explain how tenants have been treated for decades or how issues of mould, damp, sewage, etc., continue. These tenants still have no legally enforceable mechanism to vindicate their rights.

I have one comment. We often hear in this House - we have heard it repeatedly from the Tánaiste but also from other Deputies and the mainstream media - that people should not expect the right to free housing. That "free housing" says much about the nature of the deep class bias against public and social housing in this country. These people are tenants and they pay 15% of their total family income on their rent. This attitude is very ignorant and shows there are vested interests in this society who see property as a way of generating wealth rather than a way of housing families.

I am asking that the Government makes the regeneration of Oliver Bond flats a priority. It should not just put everybody out in the sticks and expect hardly any of them to come back. Tenants were promised they would be temporarily rehoused in a block of apartments on Bridgefoot Street while Oliver Bond was regenerated block by block. That promise has now been taken from under them when the council told them no other tenants will be going into that block. These are huge issues and the Government has to intervene.

I thank Deputy Smith for raising this issue. I did not see the report but I am shocked at what I have heard. These are certainly unacceptable conditions for people to be living in. At the very least, people should expect a basic minimum decent standard of living and a decent standard of quality housing in 21st century Ireland. I agree with the Deputy in that regard.

Our Department is committed to ensuring that tenants in social housing are provided with adequate housing that meets the standards most recently laid down in the Housing (Standards for Rented Houses) Regulations 2019. Our Department is actively engaging with the local authority sector to promote the preventative maintenance of local authority housing stock and provides significant funding for stock improvement works.

In addition to funding provided by local authorities in respect of their own housing stock, approximately €350 million per annum, our Department provides funding across a number of programmes to support the local authority work to maintain and improve social housing stock. In all cases, it is the local authorities that identify priorities. The continued work of local authorities in undertaking stock condition surveys, their responsive and planned maintenance programmes, as well as important programmes such as the energy retrofitting and voids programmes, seek to support the local authority maintenance programme.

Specifically with regard to Oliver Bond House, as the Deputy said, built in 1936 by Herbert Simms, and one of the oldest and largest flat complexes in Dublin city with 397 units and approximately 1,200 residents, the upkeep, refurbishment and regeneration of this social housing complex is a matter, in the first instance, for the local authority. However, it is my understanding that Dublin City Council is actively engaged with the residents and is working on a number of short-term projects to improve the outdoor common areas as well as long-term proposals for the retrofitting and refurbishment of the flats at Oliver Bond House.

Dublin City Council is working on proposals and designs for two projects that will see the total refurbishment of all 397 flats at Oliver Bond House in two phases to bring them up to modern standards, including size and energy efficiency. Our Department looks forward to receiving these submissions for funding consideration from Dublin City Council and we will work with it to ascertain the appropriate funding mechanisms for these projects. Deputy Smith spoke about other projects such as Pearse House and Bluebell.

In addition to the normal voids programme funding, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, recently announced funding to bring flats that are vacant in older flat complexes, including Oliver Bond House, back into stock.

It is very disappointing that the Minister of State comes to the House to address this issue but has not read the report and is only now hearing the testimonies I have given him. I am very disappointed and, again, I echo what the Tánaiste said in his last two criticisms of responses from Ministers, or those who advise them, as inadequate.

I ask the Minister of State to cast his mind back to a European Committee of Social Rights ruling that stated Ireland was in breach of the European Social Charter. This was a class action taken by communities throughout the country in relation to local authority accommodation. It ruled that Ireland breached Article 16 of the charter which states that: "The family as a fundamental unit of society has the right to appropriate social, legal and economic protection to ensure its full development". The ruling found that the provision of family housing is "to ensure the right to housing of an adequate standard for not an insignificant number of families." This ruling was made after a collective action was taken to the European Committee of Social Rights but it has never been acted on by this State. It has never been put in legislation and has never been ruled upon, but it is about local authority tenants and their rights. The Minister of State may not be aware of this either, but local authority tenants do not have recourse to the Residential Tenancies Board. A significant cohort of tenants in this country are completely excluded from any independent complaints process.

I ask the Minister of State two things. I ask him to really use every power both he and the Department have to hurry up the question of the regeneration of Oliver Bond House. That is the first and most important thing I ask. The other is to speed up legislation to address our breach of the rights of tenants under the European Social Charter. Local authority tenants, no matter where they are in the country, have no independent body to which they can go to make complaints. It is a bit like somebody who feels they have suffered a grave injustice going to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, and having gardaí investigate gardaí. Local authorities do not investigate their own complaints properly. Oliver Bond House, Bernard Curtis House and Balgaddy are the evidence of that. I could go on naming them but the dogs in the street know this is true. Local authority tenants live in appalling conditions. This is the 21st century.

I apologise to the Deputy for not having read the report. I was at meetings all afternoon when I received this question. I apologise for that but I will read the report. I give the Deputy my commitment that I will work with our Department, and with the Minister, to try to advance the regeneration of Oliver Bond House. I give my commitment on that and I will try to expedite matters with Dublin City Council.

On the legislation on the EU charter on the rights of tenants, again, I will get a response for the Deputy on that as well. It is really important that we try to work together to achieve this. Again, I am appalled at what I have heard this evening. It really is unacceptable that people have to live like that in this day and age. I give my commitment that we will work to try to resolve it.