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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 28 Nov 2012

Vol. 219 No. 2

Adjournment Matters

Wildlife Conservation

One matter will be taken immediately with the remaining three to be taken at 5.30 p.m.

I welcome to the House the Minister of State, a very able man from Donegal. I am delighted to hear the good news about Valentia and Malin, which is not related to this subject.

The office really condensed the matter I wished to raise. I have always been very concerned about the Kerry red deer. As conservationists in Kerry, we do not shoot them and do not want to see any of them shot. I recognise the national importance of this deer herd and welcome the Minister's recent order taking female Kerry red deer off the open-season list. I acknowledge the work of the NPWS in general in regard to them. In particular, I applaud the NPWS in the south-west region on protecting the red deer in Kerry. I thank all the rangers for the work they do with their patrols, including their night-time work. I look forward to the Minister of State clarifying the situation with regard to the size of the herd. Not many years ago the herd was threatened with extinction, which is no longer the case, I believe, but I look forward to hearing from the Minister of State. We also need to protect the gene pool in case, God forbid, we ever had an outbreak of TB. The deer traverse the same land as cattle, badgers and so on, and, thanks be to God, there has not been an outbreak. In order to protect the gene pool in the past we had Kerry red deer in Letterfrack and Doneraile and on Inishvickillaun. I ask the Minister of State to comment on the protection of the gene pool. I look forward to hearing from him.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. Deer in the wild are of interest to me because I live adjacent to a national park in County Donegal that has a very extensive herd of deer. While I am not sure of the species, we are very familiar with their presence.

They are first cousins and Scottish bred.

They were imported from Scotland as far as I know and would not have the direct line the Kerry deer are alleged to have.

There is no alleged about it.

I withdraw the word - it has been proved. The Kerry red deer are a unique feature of our heritage. A recent report discovered that the Kerry red deer are the direct descendants of deer present in Ireland some 5,000 years ago. While the report concluded that these deer species were brought from Britain into the country, the authors of the report believe the unique Kerry red deer population are worthy of special conservation status.

The fortunes of this unique species have fluctuated during the years. Prior to 2005 the hunting of Kerry red deer, both male and female, was prohibited. At that time, data indicated that there was an increase in the red deer population in Killarney National Park and the surrounding area. As a result it was decided to allow the hunting of the Kerry female red deer during the open season in the period from November to February. However, the hunting of Kerry male red deer was still prohibited.

In the intervening years the monitoring data of the National Parks and Wildlife Service of my Department recorded a significant decline in red deer density in Killarney National Park. Therefore, in order to conserve the special lineage of red deer in Kerry, the Minister decided last month to prohibit the hunting of the Kerry female red deer. The effect of his decision is that it is now prohibited to hunt both the male and female Kerry red deer species. I am aware that most hunters support this measure given that some hunting organisations had already urged the Minister to take action to address the poor status of the Kerry red deer. My Department will be closely monitoring compliance with this prohibition.

There have been a number of recent incidents of illegal killing of red deer in Kerry. It saddens me to think that people would go to the trouble of illegally shooting these beautiful animals. I know that staff from the National Parks and Wildlife Service of my Department have carried out increased patrols in the county in recent months, including patrols at night, with a view to deterring the illegal shooting of deer. I am hopeful that prosecutions will be brought against the people involved in this illegal activity. I also commend the various deer organisations, including the Wild Deer Association of Ireland, for their vigilance in reporting such incidents.

Within the boundaries of Killarney National Park, there are some 600 red deer which are of a healthy nature. I hope in the coming years that we will see an increase in the number of red deer in the national park and in the county as a whole following the decision to ban the hunting of the female red deer.

I am very grateful to the Minister of State for that reply. I notice that it did not contain anything about the gene pool, but we can follow up that issue further.

With regard to the illegal shooting of male Kerry red deer, I understand some trophy hunters are prepared to break the law. I again salute the work of the rangers, particularly in their night-time patrols. It is difficult to catch the people concerned on the Kenmare Road because, as the Minister of State knows, the main road from Killarney to Kenmare passes through the national park. The deer tend to come down and the lights seem to attract them. It is very sad that people do this and I hope they are prosecuted.

I very much welcome the order protecting the female red deer, as well as the males. I hope to hear further about the protection of the gene pool. I am very satisfied with the answer the Minister of State has given.

I appreciate the Senator's comments. Unfortunately, the illegal hunting of deer - red deer or otherwise - is not confined to the Killarney National Park. It seems to be becoming - I will not say a pastime - but an activity in other parts of the country, including in my county. Coincidentally, a number of concerned citizens from my county want to meet me to discuss what can be done to prevent this happening in the area. People in Donegal have welcomed what the Minister did to protect the male and female deer in Kerry. If it is operating successfully in Kerry, they would like to see it employed in other parts of the country where this sort of activity takes place.

Sitting suspended at 5.20 p.m. and resumed at 5.30 p.m.

Asylum Seeker Accommodation

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Táim thar a bheith buíoch dó as teacht isteach chun an cheist seo a fhreagairt. The Minister of State may be aware that I have raised the direct provision model on a number of occasions. This is an issue of major concern to me. It not appropriate for the long-term housing of refugees seeking asylum in the State. There are major issues concerning the treatment of people in these centres. The Irish Refugee Council has raised very serious issues about the treatment of children in these centres in its recent reports. When one hears the discourse on issues such as this locally or in the media, one gets a sense of the public perception that those seeking asylum are lucky to have a place to stay and are provided with meals. When refugees find they are stuck in the situation for years on end, it is very difficult for them. There is a significant human cost from the social and economic perspectives. People may be held in limbo for up to ten years. I have met and talked to some of the people concerned.

When the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, was in opposition, he and the then Labour Party members in opposition raised serious questions about the direct provision model, whether it was economic and if there was a more suitable method of housing people who are seeking asylum and fast-tracking asylum applications. There is a will to try to move the process forward. What is the cost to the State of the direct provision model? There are urban myths that direct provision is a cheaper way to house people than allocating them community housing or providing them with a local authority house in cities and towns.

I am sure the Minister of State shares my concern that the direct provision model is a privatised system. We know it is being run by private companies on behalf of the State, with very little oversight. The main goal of these companies is to make a profit. There are questions as to how much of the State money that is paid per capita for persons in this direct provision accommodation is being spent on providing a top quality service? That is the reason I am requesting a breakdown per capita of the cost of keeping somebody seeking asylum in the direct provision model. What payments do the State make to them? We are told that those living in direct provision accommodation are paid €19.10 per week to allow them to buy what they like. Are other payments made in addition to this weekly allowance?

I look forward to hearing the response of the Minister of State, Deputy Alex White, and thank him for coming to the Chamber.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I am responding on this subject on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter.

It is necessary in the first instance to outline what direct provision means and how we fulfil our obligations to those persons who apply for international protection from the State. The policy of direct provision and dispersal is one of the central features of the State's asylum system. The Minister has recounted in responses to parliamentary questions in the Dáil how the direct provision system was a necessary response to the increasing number of asylum seekers arriving in the State, given the incapacity of the structures dealing with homelessness to cope with the crisis.

Direct provision is essentially a cashless system whereby the residents of accommodation centres are provided with food and other services on a full board basis. Residents do not have to pay for rent, electricity, heating, food, maintenance or other costs. Health and education services from mainstream hospitals-clinics and schools are provided in the same way as for Irish citizens. Residents receive a weekly direct provision allowance of €19.10 per adult and €9.60 per child. They are also entitled to supports under the community welfare scheme.

There are currently 4,836 persons seeking international protection residing in 35 direct provision accommodation centres across 17 counties under contract to the Reception and Integration Agency, the RIA, an operational unit of the Irish naturalisation and immigration service, INIS, of the Department of Justice and Equality. Three of the 35 centres are State owned, that is to say, the land and buildings are owned by the State but the management of all 35 centres is provided by private companies under contract to the RIA. The RIA does not own, lease or rent premises from commercial contractors, rather it contracts in a comprehensive range of services and facilities which include accommodation, housekeeping and so on for a fixed sum over the period of the contract. The Minister has explained in numerous responses to parliamentary questions that the RIA negotiates separately with each contractor. It is not in the interests of the taxpayer that details of rates paid to individual contractors for current contracts are provided publicly. With reducing numbers and because of significant cost cutting measures put in place by the RIA, the overall cost of the direct provision system is declining. In 2008 the RIA spent €91.5 million and in 2012, the Estimate provision is €63.5 million. This represents a decline of 30% over four years. A breakdown of these expenditure costs are shown in the RIA's annual reports for the years 2007 to 2011, inclusive, which are published on its website.

Given that different rates are paid to different contracts and residents receive a range of welfare, medical, legal and educational benefits not covered in the RIA's budget, a note of caution has to be sounded in proving a statistic showing the cost per individual to the State of keeping asylum seekers in the direct provision system. Nonetheless, taking overall RIA expenditure of €69.5 million in 2011 and the number of residents at the midpoint of that year - 5,745, this would represent a cost per RIA resident of just over €12,000 per year. It is worth noting that in 2010 a value for money review of the direct provision system found that, "From comparison with a number of options, including social welfare and self-catering, the chosen policy of direct provision was found to be the best choice for a number of reasons. It is less costly, it is less likely to act as an incentive to new asylum seekers (asylum shopping) and it allows the State to manage the challenge of asylum seekers in a way that reduces pressure on local services". A copy of that report, the value for money review, is on the Oireachtas and RIA websites.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I have read the value for money report but it does not say much about the human element, which is sadly lacking in the direct provision system.

The Minister of State has stated residents receive a weekly direct provision allowance of €19.10 per adults. I have a receipt from one of the asylum seekers of his payment from the Department of Social Protection which states his weekly flat payment is €186, of which €166.90 is deducted; therefore, he receives €19.10. Where does the €166.90 from the Department of Social Protection go? Who deducts it and where is it going? It is a significant amount of money. I am not sure if the Minister of State has information on it. Will he request the Minister to revert to me on that question? It appears that we are paying more than €19.10 per individual and that we are paying €186. When I asked a number of people who deal with asylum seekers - I showed some NGOs this slip - it was the first time they had seen one of them and they were as puzzled as I was as to where the money might have gone.

The Senator will understand it is impossible to respond to the specific example he raises, which is not incorporated in the original matter. I am not being critical of him, but it is impossible to respond on the hoof to it. Certainly, we will see what we can do and if there is an additional question the Senator would like to have addressed. In fairness, he did say the individual NGOs with whom he shared this information had not seen anything like it before. It does look like that it is an unusual event. Certainly, we will have a look at the issue separately.

Tobacco Control Measures

I welcome the Minister of State back to the House. I feel very strongly about this issue. As in many other countries, smoking in Ireland is a serious public health issue and one that quite often does not attract the attention it deserves. Among the general public it certainly does not receive the respect it should, given the dangers it causes. In addition, the cost to the taxpayer arising from the implications of ill-health from smoking is particularly serious, especially when we are in a troika programme.

Having said that, I must commend the former Minister for Health, Deputy Micheál Martin, for introducing the smoking ban in public places, which was a brave move. We were the first in Europe to do so and at this stage our example has been followed by most other European countries. The ban sent out a positive message but we have taken our eye off the ball on this issue somewhat since then. My family runs a shop in County Clare where, unfortunately, we sell quite an amount of cigarettes. Speaking to other retailers in recent times, however, we have noticed that cigarette companies are now pushing out the boundaries concerning what they can or cannot do. We have seen the recent introduction of packs of 23 cigarettes. Smokers now face a choice of packs of 20 or 23. We banned packs of ten in order to reduce the incentive for young people to buy them, but we are now back to having a choice of two packs. We should either ban the 20 pack or the 23 pack, but only one pack should be on sale. Next we will see a pack of 30 cigarettes which will work out cheaper per cigarette than a 23 pack. We could even see the introduction of packs of 50, which would work out cheaper still. The economics of scale are built into the number of cigarettes purchased.

Coupled with this, we have also observed in-store incentives being peddled by cigarette companies. These are to incentivise staff to push cigarettes on the public. Under one scheme being operated in shops around the country, staff members who increase sales of a particular brand of cigarettes will receive a €50 shopping voucher. There is an incentive to partake in such a promotion coming up to Christmas when times are difficult in an expensive period. In addition, glossy and colourful price lists are being produced on the basis that retailers are legally obliged to advertise the price of their products. They are, therefore, taking advantage of that loophole to peddle their brands.

I abhor smoking which is one of the greatest curses in the modern world. We have a responsibility to do what we can to curb it. This is a time sensitive subject because the budget is being announced next week. That would be an opportune time to deal with this issue by regulating new methods of in-store promotion of cigarettes.

Retailers are permitted to buy tins of cigars, yet they can be sold individually. Thus, people in a difficult economic situation who come from an unprivileged socioeconomic background could, unfortunately, be incentivised to buy single cigars. Tobacco products should be sold as part of a package.

Another element that has crept in recently is the peddling of roll-your-own cigarettes. We will always be fighting this battle against smugglers who are selling tobacco on Henry Street for €5 a pack. We may not have a large amount of control over that but we certainly can control how tobacco products are sold in shops, including the price and packaging.

It is a win-win to tackle this problem and the vast majority of the public will be on our side. Statistics show that 18% of the population smoke, while 15% want to quit smoking. Therefore, we will probably have 90% support for any initiative we take to deal with this matter.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue and giving me the opportunity to discuss the steps that we at the Department of Health are taking in moving the country towards a tobacco-free society.

It is important to take a moment to consider the immense damage that smoking causes to the health of people in this country. It is well documented that smoking is the greatest single cause of preventable illness and premature death in Ireland, killing over 5,200 people each year. Half of all long-term smokers will die from smoking-related diseases.

What are we doing to alleviate the societal and economic burden placed on us by smoking? What can we do to discourage people from smoking? Since his appointment as Minister for Health, my colleague, Deputy James Reilly, has been very public about his commitment to tackle the problem of smoking. The tobacco policy review is nearing completion in the Department of Health and will make recommendations aimed at further reducing smoking.

No one measure alone can reduce the number of smokers or the number of children who start to smoke. We need a combination of measures which includes, effective legislation, supports for smokers who are trying to quit, and effective media and education campaigns. All these measures have the effect of denormalising tobacco use in our society which is the most effective way to prevent future generations from continuing the habit.

In consultation with the HSE, the Department of Health is continuously monitoring the ever-evolving marketing tactics of the tobacco industry which were referred to by the Senator. As these evolve, so too must our legislative and policy framework by way of response.

A comprehensive range tobacco control legislation is in place in Ireland which places us in the top rank of countries internationally. Some of these significant initiatives include: successful implementation of the smoke-free initiative in 2004; a ban on the sale of packs of cigarettes of fewer than 20, in 2007; ground-breaking legislation in 2009 that introduced the ban on in-store display and advertising; and the introduction of the retail register.

Last December the Minister for Health signed regulations which will place an obligation on tobacco manufacturers to include photographs on cigarette and tobacco packs. These images depict the negative health impacts associated with smoking. These packs will appear in shops from 1 February 2013. This particular measure, together with the 2009 retail measures, will have a positive impact on reducing the numbers of young people starting to smoke. It is heartening to see that in a recent survey the number of children smoking fell from 18% to 12% from 2002 to 2010.

The introduction of many of the legislative measures I have mentioned was facilitated by developments at European Union level. It is important that our tobacco policy and legislation framework continues to develop within the context of the European Commission. To this end, I hope to be in a position to progress the revised EU tobacco products directive during the course of the Irish EU Presidency in the first half of next year.

I am confident that the outcome of the revision of the directive, together with the implementation of the future recommendations of the report of the tobacco policy review group, will go a significant way to moving us towards a tobacco-free society.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. Having said that, however, further regulation is necessary in the immediate term. Such regulation should cover: the sale of single-item tobacco products; the availability of packs of 20 and 23 cigarettes - there should be only one pack; banning cigarette companies from offering financial incentives to retail staff to promote cigarettes - we need to move away from this; and closing the loophole whereby they can provide colourful, eye-catching price lists. Further regulation by the Minister is required on these four important matters. It needs to be done in the interests of public health.

Each of the four items the Senator has raised seems to have merit. I will ensure his views are communicated to the Minister for Health. I have heard what he has had to say about these individual items and we will do everything we can to see if we can incorporate them in our response.

Medical Card Reviews

I thank the Minister of State for taking the time to attend the House. A practical problem is arising in the north west over medical cards, particularly in County Donegal.

In other parts of the north west the review letters have gone out. I have been contacted in many cases by people with family members in nursing homes, sometimes over 90 years of age, who are being asked to resubmit the review. Through no fault of their own, they had not been reviewed for ten years. Some families are getting frustrated because some of the information being requested cannot be ascertained and they feel that they are forced to fill in the forms incorrectly. Are allowances being made in cases where information cannot be garnered from individuals? In one case a son asked his father about money and assets because the mother had died some years earlier and she had looked after the family's financial affairs and the father, who is now at an age where he suffers from dementia, did not know. The family do not know the information and feel they are compromising the medical card application. Could the HSE or the Department issue direction for such extreme cases? Others have come to me and the process for replying has been quite straightforward but when a person finds it difficult to reply, there should be some provision made for this.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. The Health Service Executive operates under the legislative framework of the Health Act of 1970 as subsequently amended. In the interest of probity, the HSE is obliged, irrespective of the age of the person, to ensure that a person's eligibility is correctly recorded in line with the eligibility legislation and the national guidelines. The HSE aims to ensure that every person who is entitled to the medical card schemes is given the opportunity to avail of their entitlement. The Senator may be aware that the HSE spends in the region of €750 million on medical cards for persons aged over 70 years of age, mainly on prescription drugs and GP care. The HSE is legally obliged by legislation to have regard to the need to secure the most beneficial, effective and efficient use of its resources. However, where an individual requires help or has any questions or difficulties in completing a medical card application or review form, he or she, or a member the family, should contact their local health office, where the staff continue to provide assistance.

Medical cards are provided for persons who, under the provisions of the Health Act 1970, are in the opinion of the HSE unable without undue hardship to arrange GP services for themselves and their dependants. Under the legislation, determination of eligibility for a medical card is the responsibility of the HSE. The assessment tor a medical card is determined primarily by reference to the means, including the income and reasonable expenditure, of the applicant and his or her partner and dependants.

A new medical card scheme for persons aged 70 years or over was introduced with effect from 1 January 2009. Under this scheme, a person who is ordinarily resident in the State qualifies for a medical card when he has attained the age of 70 years as long as his gross income does not exceed the means test income limit. The income limit for a single person is €700 per week and the relevant income limit for a couple is €1,400 per week.

Reviews for medical card holders who are 66 years or over now operate on a self-assessment basis. The length of validity for all standard medical cards for people under 66 is now three years. However, the length of validity for people aged 66 years and over is four years.

Any medical card holder undergoing a review to renew a medical card who genuinely engages with the HSE in that review will not have his or her entitlement withdrawn before the review is complete, regardless of the expiry date shown on the medical card. In cases where a decision is made not to grant a medical card, the applicant is informed of the decision and is notified of his or her right to appeal this decision. Contact details for the appeals office are provided for him or her. Where a person submits an appeal to a decision not to renew a medical card within 21 days of that decision, he or she retains his or her medical card or GP visit card until the appeal is decided.

All efforts are made by the HSE to deal with the individuals properly, fairly and impartially. In the circumstances outlined by the Senator where it is not possible to ascertain the existence of assets, if that relatively unusual situation is communicated in the course of this exercise, I am sure the HSE and those dealing with this issue will deal with it in a sensitive and pragmatic way. There is a legal responsibility on the HSE to ensure people who are properly entitled to a medical card get one. As far as information on assets or means is concerned, it is usually ascertainable but I accept there may be circumstances where there are difficulties in that regard. I emphasise that the HSE will exercise sensitivity and be pragmatic but people must engage in the fullest way possible with it, rather than, as was suggested by the Senator, feeling reluctant to give information. They should give the information as best they can and if there is a lack of certainty about the information, this should also be outlined. People on both sides will deal with this issue with their eyes wide open.

I thank the Minister of State for that reply. As it seems to be geographically specific, perhaps there are more medical card reviews in Donegal because of the population profile and the level of unemployment but the local office should contact the families of those in nursing homes. People have to ask their relations in nursing homes about their assets and who are perhaps not compos mentis. The local office should contact the nursing home to inquire about particular difficulties. I know a family who were normally on top of their affairs but in this instance they felt constrained and did not want to provide information about which they were not sure. Families are not always aware of the help that is available because this might be only happening for the first time.

The Seanad adjourned at 6 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 29 November 2012.