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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Vol. 223 No. 7

Adjournment Matters

Hospital Services

This matter relates to Dungloe Community Hospital in County Donegal, a publicly funded HSE community hospital that provides essential day care services and both long and short-stay beds, which are needed by the elderly population of west Donegal, which includes Árainn Mhór, which has the most elderly population in the country. Given its location, it is crucially important the hospital is fully supported given the increased demand for beds at the hospital.

The hospital was established in 1958 and has served the community exceptionally well since then thanks in no small way to the staff who work in it, both retired and current. At present, according to HSE figures, there are 16 long-stay beds in the hospital and 19 short-stay beds, a total of 35 beds. That is a reduction of ten beds in recent times, which has affected the capacity of the hospital to provide essential respite care and longer stay care for those in transition from hospital treatment or who may require accommodation in the nursing unit.

This issue has been raised by the local community at a public meeting.

A public meeting was held on the issue and heard serious concerns from members of the community. The problem boils down to one issue. While I do not question the Health Service Executive's commitment to the long-term future of the hospital, the moratorium on the recruitment of staff has resulted in a lack of full support to the hospital. In the past four to six weeks, long-term sick leave among staff has increased and other staff members have retired or gone on planned maternity leave. The moratorium does not allow the HSE or hospital management to fill the vacant positions. The Department must step in and allow some degree of flexibility to enable a recruitment process to proceed to replace staff on sick leave or maternity leave as well as those who have retired.

The Health Information and Quality Authority will not allow any more than 35 beds to be occupied under current staffing levels. The facility has been well maintained and developed and in 2010 it benefited from an investment of between €500,000 and €600,000. The issue at the hospital is entirely one of staffing.

While the Health Service Executive may have the option of using agency staff, recruiting staff is a no-brainer in terms of the drain the agency option places on Exchequer resources. Some degree of flexibility must be provided to allow community hospitals such as the facility in Dungloe to replace staff who are on sick leave or maternity leave, even if only for a short period. It does not make sense that demand for services cannot be met because staff shortages cannot be addressed as a result of the moratorium on recruitment.

The Minister of State is aware of the issue I raise. The Department must show flexibility if this problem is to be resolved, not only in Dungloe Community Hospital but other hospitals in a similar position. The moratorium on recruitment in the public sector must be reviewed to meet the needs of patients in such hospitals. This must be done quickly because patients and their families are being forced to avail of alternative services, both private and public, outside their catchment area. In this case, the catchment area is a Gaeltacht area. I hope the Minister of State has some good news. The Government must give a commitment to address this important local issue.

Unfortunately, as Senator Ó Domhnaill will be aware from previous Adjournment debates, I will be reading a reply.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue, which the Government is examining. As he is aware, Government policy is to support older people to live in dignity and independence in their own homes and communities for as long as possible. Where this is not feasible, the health service supports access to appropriate quality long-term residential care, including the provision of financial assistance under the nursing homes support scheme. In 2012, with a budget of almost €1 billion, financial support was provided to over 22,000 people in nursing homes.

These are challenging times for the Health Service Executive in respect of all services. In the case of community nursing units, these include challenges regarding staffing, funding and the age and structure of its units. In this regard, all developments have to be addressed in light of the current economic and budgetary pressures and any decisions taken by the HSE must have regard to this and the current recruitment moratorium.

As the Senator will be aware, Dungloe Community Hospital is located on the Gweedore Road, a short walk from the town centre. The facility was registered with the Health Information and Quality Authority on 22 June 2012. The registration period is three years and the current capacity is 35 beds. This consists of 16 continuing care, six respite, three convalescence-rehabilitation, two palliative care and eight assessment beds. The hospital also provides a wide range of care services, including a day hospital, outpatient clinics, an X-ray department and other specialist services, such as physiotherapy, speech and language therapy, mental health and social work.

Dungloe Community Hospital has recently experienced an increased number of staff retirements, long-term sick leave and maternity leave. To maintain a safe level of care to patients, the Health Service Executive decided to temporarily reduce by ten the number of short-stay beds in the facility. Long-stay beds are unaffected by the decision. I understand six beds closed in the week ending 10 May, with the remaining four beds closing last week. The decision to temporarily close the beds was taken to ensure there is an adequate number of staff to safely meet all of the needs of the residents. This matter will be kept under constant review. The hospital will continue to provide respite and rehabilitation care within its current capacity. Additional respite services, if required, are available in Falcarragh Community Hospital. The HSE has asked me to assure the House that residents at the hospital are receiving a safe and quality service.

The Government is committed to the provision of a quality public nursing home service. Our overall objective is to protect the viability of as many units as possible, within the funding and staffing resources available. The Department is working closely with the HSE to finalise an overall plan regarding future public provision. The plan will reflect regional need and have regard to the current severe financial constraints, restrictions on public sector staffing and recruitment as well as the ongoing need to meet service and safety standards, all of which pose challenges for community nursing units across the country. Senator Ó Domhnaill can take some solace from the fact that we are fast running out of capacity in respect of nursing home beds.

Garda Vetting Applications

A central pillar of Government policy is to have large numbers of those who are currently without work gain meaningful employment as a means of resolving the economic crisis. I commend the efforts the Government has made in this regard, including successfully increasing foreign direct investment, implementing two action plans for jobs and announcing a schools building programme. Despite the recession, it also announced substantial capital expenditure on infrastructure under last year's stimulus plan.

Notwithstanding these positive developments, I propose to focus on how a policy of the Government or State agency is affecting the growth of jobs in east County Galway. I am sure the issue I highlight is replicated across the country. I am fully in favour of ensuring that all residents in my area have full accessibility to the workforce and that boundaries and barriers to work are eliminated through Government action. To achieve anything of significance in this regard, we must address a delay that many people are experiencing in having applications to the Garda vetting unit processed. The Garda Síochána provides a great quality control service in processing vetting applications. However, it is of the utmost importance that nothing comes between those who wish to work and access to employment. People are waiting for months to obtain Garda clearance, which is acting as a major barrier to entry into the workforce. Last year, in my home town of Athenry, 63 students who were studying various post-leaving certificate courses in the vocational college were prevented from undertaking work experience as part of their courses as a result of delays in obtaining Garda clearance. Some of them also had placements withdrawn as a result, which essentially deemed them unemployable for the period of the delay.

I have also been contacted by a self-employed individual who had to cease work for a three-week period because he did not have the clearance required for the job he was undertaking. This caused him financial hardship. It is a terrible indictment of the current process that it deters and discourages people from entering the workforce. Much of the problem with delays is caused by people making multiple applications for Garda clearance each year. For instance, if someone needs clearance for his or her workplace, an application must be submitted to the Garda vetting unit. If the same person wishes to train a children's sports team or work for a charity, he or she will have to submit separate applications for each purpose.

We must consider the number of job opportunities that are being lost as a result of these delays. Will the Minister of State consider redeploying public servants to the vetting unit in Thurles to alleviate the delays being experienced? Will the Department draw up plans to invest in technology that will help address the current delays in processing Garda vetting applications? Greater efforts must be made to prioritise applicants who have been approved in previous months.

I am not suggesting in the preceding years, obviously, because as the Minister of State knows well, people might have committed a crime that might be contrary to the spirit of the legislation and, in particular, the Garda vetting unit.

Unfortunately the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, cannot be here today so I am taking this Adjournment matter on his behalf. While I am reluctant to say he has been detained elsewhere, that is actually the fact of the matter.

It is the intention of the Minister to ensure that the best possible vetting service is provided in this country and by extension, to ensure that the maximum protection possible is provided to the most vulnerable people in our society. The vetting services in this country are provided by the Garda Síochána through the Garda central vetting unit. The unit provides employment vetting, not Garda clearance, for a number of organisations in Ireland registered with the unit which employ personnel to work in a full-time, part time, voluntary or student capacity with children and/or vulnerable adults. The service provided is continually being extended, on a phased basis, to such organisations. At present, approximately 20,000 organisations are registered with the central vetting unit and the unit processed approximately 328,000 vetting applications on behalf of these organisations in 2012.

The Garda Commissioner has informed the Minister that one superintendent, two sergeants and approximately 113 civilian personnel are currently assigned to the Garda central vetting unit. This civilian complement includes 23 staff recently transferred from Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine who are undergoing required training. A further 15 staff will commence their training later this month. The current average processing time for applications is approximately 12 weeks from date of receipt. There are, of course, seasonal fluctuations in average processing times and the processing time can also be affected where further inquiries have to be made, normally in respect of court outcomes and-or suspected offender details. All organisations registered for Garda vetting are aware of the processing timeframes for the receipt of Garda vetting clearance and have been advised to factor this into their recruitment and selection process.

In order to observe equity and fairness in respect of all applicants for Garda vetting, standard processing procedures are such that applications are processed in chronological order, from the date of receipt at the central vetting unit. Clearly, the protection of children and vulnerable adults is the primary objective of the Garda central vetting unit and this must remain the case. The Minister remains in contact with the Garda Commissioner as to how best this service can continue to be delivered and improved upon, while at all times protecting the integrity of the system. The methodology currently utilised both in the training of appropriate personnel in registered organisations and the actual processing of applications for Garda vetting provides a direct working relationship between the unit and each organisation seeking Garda vetting disclosures in respect of prospective employees. In doing so, the security, integrity, confidentiality and accountability of the overall Garda vetting process are protected. This process also provides each registered organisation with Garda vetting disclosures which are up to date at the time of their assessment. Critically, this also minimises the risk of false, forged or fraudulent Garda vetting disclosures being presented to employers by prospective employees. Standard policy in place with registered organisations for Garda vetting is that the vetting subject gives written permission on a Garda vetting application form for An Garda Síochána to disclose details of all prosecutions, successful or not, pending or completed and-or convictions, recorded in the State or elsewhere, in respect of them to the registered organisation.

All available resources at the Garda central vetting unit are fully deployed on an ongoing basis to provide for Garda vetting services to meet the demands of registered organisations. The Minister fully agrees with the objective that processing times should be kept to a minimum, while maintaining the overall integrity of the vetting system. In that regard, the Department of Justice and Equality is examining the scope for the redeployment of additional personnel from within the public service to the central vetting unit. Regarding streamlining the process, the Minister, as pointed out earlier, remains in ongoing contact with the Garda Commissioner as to how best the service can continue to be delivered and improved upon, while at all times protecting the integrity of the process. Clearly, the protection of children and vulnerable adults is the primary objective of the unit and this must remain the case. In that context, it is essential that registered organisations have confidence in the system, a confidence which can only be underpinned by rigorous checking processes and access to the latest available accurate information on prospective personnel, who after all, are seeking to work with the most vulnerable members of our society. In this regard, the possibility of introducing an e-vetting system has been assessed and the Garda authorities are now in the process of developing a system which will enable vetting applications to be submitted electronically through a secure web service. In addition, the system will facilitate the checking and monitoring of applications.

The relevant work is being pursued on a priority basis and it will be completed as quickly as possible. I can, on behalf of the Minister, reassure the Senator and the House that it is his intention to ensure that the most efficient and effective vetting service is provided by the Garda central vetting unit while, at the same time, providing the maximum protection possible to the most vulnerable people in our society.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. It is excellent to hear that 23 people have recently been transferred from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to the central vetting unit. I also welcome the plans to introduce an e-vetting system. On the question of dealing with multiple applications, it might be worth considering introducing a card system so that a person would have a valid card indicating vetting clearance for a one-year period. That person could then be re-vetted on an annual basis thereafter. I ask that the Minister of State bring this suggestion to the Minister.

I would point out to the Senator that on top of the 23 people who have already been transferred, an additional 15 staff will be transferred and will start their training at the end of this month.

We need some joined-up thinking on Garda clearance and Garda vetting. There is a difference between the two processes and one is less rigorous than the other. Perhaps the Senator's suggestion that a person who passes under one process should be deemed to have passed under the other could be examined. I will relay the Senator's comments to the Minister.

The Seanad adjourned at 7.30 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 23 May 2013.