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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 23 May 2013

Vol. 223 No. 8

Adjournment Matters

Services for People with Disabilities

I am glad to welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, to the House, and I am pleased that she is taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Health. Over the past two years we have raised many issues in the House, particularly health and social matters, and none can really be classed as more important than another. Nevertheless, I am convinced that I have raised nothing more important than this case. I am not abusing privilege or protocol as it is a matter of public record and I have the permission of the family as I do not want to speak around the issue. The person affected is Mr. Michael Malone, Shanahoe, Abbeyleix, who for 14 years-----

The Senator should not name individuals in the House but he can give the details to the Minister of State afterwards.

I take the point and I do not mean any disrespect in that regard. The case pertains to a man to whom I can relate in a personal capacity as he is only 48 years old, which I would regard as very young. For him to be confined to a nursing home for the past 14 years is distressing to me and his family. He has a caring and loving family and his siblings do everything possible for him, although both parents have, unfortunately, passed away. The man has a rare disorder called Kjellin syndrome, which is complicated by a number of other related conditions. The man has been wheelchair-bound since he was 23, and he suffers from deafness and other complications arising from the condition.

The Minister of State will agree that we have a duty of care and responsibility to our citizens. We spend much time here and elsewhere talking about depression, social inclusion, independent living and the importance of people having fulfilled lives, where possible. In this regard I am desperately reaching out and raising this matter as a last resort on the floor of the Seanad. I do not like doing it with individual cases but the family has, unfortunately, hit a dead end in their interaction with the HSE, which is being obstinate in the extreme. It is taking a poor position, to say the least, in this case.

It is clear that this man can live a fulfilled life with peers but he must be transferred urgently to the St. Joseph's home for the deaf in Stillorgan, which has capacity. That has been confirmed by the facility. It would be an ideal location for the man to make a recovery and live an engaging life, as he would be safe among peers with a good quality of life and independence. Otherwise, I fear his condition will deteriorate and he will slide back into needing further care and assistance. It is inappropriate to say that at 48, the man is in a nursing home. I hope the Minister of State will give me and the family some hope for optimism in her reply on behalf of the Department.

I thank the Senator for raising the issue, although I am not certain we can resolve it today. I am sure it will not be the end of it. I know the Senator is referring to the circumstances of a particular case and I am informed that the HSE is in discussion with the individual and family to identify the services best suited to his particular needs. At Abbeyleix community nursing home, the individual's medical and nursing needs are supported and his case is reviewed every three months by the local doctor, or more regularly if required.

The individual's social inclusion in the local community is also facilitated. In early 2013, the family requested the possibility of a transfer from Abbeyleix Community Nursing Home to St. Joseph's House, Stillorgan, citing its more specialist services and more appropriate age profile. A meeting was facilitated between the individual, his family and local HSE staff to consider the options.

There are a number of factors for consideration before any transfer can be progressed. These include clarification of the individual's needs, the availability of necessary resources within the local midlands social care budget allocation and ongoing discussions between the HSE and St Joseph's House, Stillorgan as to its future service model, in the context of the congregated setting report. Local staff within the HSE continue to engage and be available to the family for liaison and update as to ongoing options for this individual.

There has been a strong move by the State over many years to ensure people with disabilities have choices and options. In response to public policy and investment, the number of people in congregated settings, or settings with ten or more people living together, has been declining. A number of centres have already made arrangements to enable persons with a disability to move to the community. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities also sets out clearly, in Article 19, that people with disabilities should be supported to live in the community rather than institutional settings or segregated from the mainstream of the community.

In 2011 the Health Service Executive, HSE, following extensive consultation and international research, launched a new model of residential supports for people with disabilities. The report, entitled Time to Move on from Congregated Settings, found that, notwithstanding the commitment and initiative of dedicated staff and management, a significant number of people were still experiencing institutional living conditions where they lacked basic privacy and dignity and lived their lives apart from their communities and families. The report outlines a strategy for community inclusion which is in line with national and international policy. The HSE proposes to work with agencies such as St. Joseph's House over the coming years to deliver this new policy. Decisions on future admissions to St. Joseph's House will be made within this context. In the case of this individual we will contact the HSE in that area and I am sure a solution can be found.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply. I am a little heartened that she went off script because up to that it was the standard HSE position, which sets the alarm bells ringing for St. Joseph's House and which seems to be on the way to being phased out. I understand the policy. It would be great if everybody could be cared for in their own homes and in a non-institutional setting. With no disrespect to anybody, nobody can tell me a nursing home anywhere, no matter how good it is - and the nursing home in Abbeyleix is good - is a place for the last 14 years for a wheelchair-bound 48 year old man who has a lot to offer and a lot of living left to do.

The Minister of State is correct that this is not the end of it. I am taking this as a special case and will hold the HSE responsible for the neglect of this man if it does not intervene and take heed of the Minister of State's intervention. I welcome the Minister of State's commitment that a solution suitable to this man and his family can be found. Otherwise we are looking at a life sentence in institutionalised care which is inappropriate to his condition, needs, entitlement and right to a healthy, long and fruitful life which can be as independent as possible and with as much fulfilment and growth as possible. His condition is declining and regressing due to the inappropriate setting. He needs to be among his peers in a setting of special care which can address his condition, the syndrome he has and his deafness.

I am grateful, as always, for the personal input from the Minister of State and the compassion she indicates. I urge her to intervene and bring forward her own input to this with the HSE so this man can look forward to the coming weeks, months and years ahead with some optimism. Despair surrounds him, languishing as he is in an inappropriate setting of a nursing home at this young age.

The solution that will be found may not be in St. Joseph's House. Any solution that will be found will be with the help of the HSE. They are the people at ground level who deal with this on a day-to-day basis. Maybe there is a different solution but I will definitely talk to them.

Community Welfare Services

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. The motion I tabled today is very specifically regarding the closure of the community welfare office, CWO, in Tramore, County Waterford, but there have been closures elsewhere in Waterford as well. The CWOs in Tramore and Cappoquin in County Waterford are to close but we are also going to see the closure of clinics in Dunmore East, Kilmeaden, Portlaw and Clashmore. We are seeing a withdrawal of community welfare services from small towns and rural villages and areas in County Waterford.

The Minister will know the individuals who avail of benefits under the community welfare services are those on the lowest incomes or social welfare. It is regrettable, unfortunate and wrong that the Government is closing down services available to those people in their own areas. It is forcing them to travel into Waterford city for appointments to see community welfare officers at a time when it is almost impossible for people in Waterford city to get an appointment with a community welfare officer because of the very narrow time slots available in the first place. The Government is going to make a difficult situation for people in Waterford city even worse by adding to the list of people who seek appointments with the community welfare officers.

The Government is closing down a service to people in rural areas. This is not just about CWO services. Many small villages and towns are losing post offices and Garda stations, there are issues around schools and now we are also taking away one of the vital services for those communities by closing the offices or by removing the clinics. It is not good. I attended the Convention on the Constitutional at the weekend and it was discussing electoral and political reform. One of the issues discussed in the context of reforming the system was the notion of localism and clientelism. One of the reasons we have a very high level of localism and clientelism in this State is that people are not getting a good service from the community welfare officers or from the social welfare system, not because the community welfare officers are not doing their jobs - they are - but because resources are so thin that they are not in a position to provide the public interface with people that they should.

People cannot get access to their community welfare officers or social welfare offices. If they try to contact any of the numbers they cannot get through. They leave messages but get no response, get deeply frustrated and they are forced to come to their politicians to get information from them. We are disempowering citizens. By closing these clinics and offices we are disempowering them even more. Worse than that, it will have a very negative impact on those rural villages and small towns which are already suffering. There must be a re-examination of this because, again, it will be dressed up as creating efficiencies and centralisation. In reality this is about more cuts, saving more money, and as a consequence, we are drawing services from the lowest paid in society and people on benefits who need to be able to talk directly with community welfare officers or social welfare officers to get information.

That is the context in which I am putting this motion down today and the question I am posing to the Minister. What is the rationale for closing those offices and clinics? Does she agree it will inconvenience people in those areas? Does she agree it will have a negative impact on people on low incomes and social welfare? Does she agree that those small towns and villages are already suffering from a reduction in services? Does she agree this is a retrograde step, as I am sure the people who live in those towns and villages find it?

I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton.

The Minister is conscious of the need to provide efficient and effective customer-facing services at local level for clients of the Department. As part of the relocation of community welfare services to Waterford, the frequency of clinics is being increased from three to four days per week and the number of staff available to these clinics will be increased, giving clients improved access to services there.

Staffing needs for all areas within the Department are continuously reviewed to ensure the best use is made of all available resources with a view to providing an efficient service to those who rely on the schemes operated by the Department. This includes meeting commitments under the Pathways to Work programme to provide opportunities, support and assistance to approximately 415,000 people on the live register by intensifying the Department's level of engagement with people who are unemployed and, in particular, those who are, or become, long-term unemployed.

It was in this context that a decision was made to relocate community welfare services from Tramore to Waterford following the retirement of a staff member. The relocation will take effect from 17 June 2013. In the interim, services in Tramore will continue to operate as heretofore. A key factor influencing the decision is the objective of ensuring continuity of service in the event of any future staff absences which would otherwise negatively impact on the quality of service. An important factor taken into account in the reconfiguration of services was the good public transport service from Tramore to Waterford, with a frequent bus service passing the existing community welfare service offices in Waterford and the main offices of the Department. There is also the facility for clients who are unable to travel to Waterford, for example, due to illness, to telephone the community welfare service in Waterford and discuss their case and, if required, the officer may arrange a visit to the client's home.

The relocation of a service coincides with a greater integration between the community welfare service and other locally based staff of the Department. This process will be further enhanced by the roll-out of a full Intreo service to Waterford later this year. I am aware from the launch in Sligo, which I attended with the Taoiseach, that the Intreo service is a fantastic facility. One should visit one of the offices. It interfaces with the unemployed and meets employers. It is a one-stop shop for people who are seeking work.

It should be noted that claims for supplementary welfare allowances are currently processed within a number of days where all the required documentation is in place.

With respect, as the speech was written for the Minister of State I cannot blame him. If the issue was not so serious, the response would be funny. Justifying closing the offices and withdrawing the services on the basis that there is a bus service from Tramore to Waterford does not take into account the cost and inconvenience involved in getting that bus. It does not just take a couple of minutes to jump on a bus and get there if one has children and responsibilities and if one is working. Life is being made more difficult for people in Tramore and other areas in Waterford to access to those services. To suggest that people can telephone their community welfare officers and get through is laughable because that is not the reality. People telephone the community welfare officers but get no answers. They leave messages which go into a black hole and there is no response. That is the reality for the majority of people with whom I deal. That is the reason they end up coming into our clinics for us to get the information because they cannot get it themselves. Those individuals are being disempowered by closing these services. That the closure is justified on the basis of a bus service is laughable. However, it is not funny. It is a serious issue, as the Minister of State would accept.

I would agree with the Minister of State on the idea of a one-stop shop for social welfare and community services because we need to get away from disempowering citizens to empowering them. In Britain there are one-stop shops where one can discuss the details of one's case and get the information without approaching somebody else to get it. That is the type of system towards which we need to move. I repeat what I said earlier. This is a retrograde step for the people who live in those towns and villages.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. Speaking from the experience in County Sligo where an Intreo office has been opened, the demographics of the county are huge. We have a one-stop shop facility where the staff are very focused on the unemployed and it is a complete transformation. An unemployed person can walk in and get matched up with employers. I will certainly ask the Minister to roll-out the Intreo office as quickly as possible to Waterford because it is an enhanced service where people find the facilities. We have outreach offices all over the region but we have an enhanced centralised service in Sligo. Although it is a pilot scheme, it is extraordinarily successful. The way to solve the problem is through the roll-out of an Intreo office, with which the Senator would be impressed, which would more than compensate for the duplication of offices in rural areas. It means that if people have an idea or concept or want a job opportunity, they can go to the one-stop shop which is based on state-of-the-art technology. That would be less imminent in Waterford.

Architectural Heritage

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy John Perry, for taking this matter on the Adjournment. It relates to the opening of Athenry medieval castle for the use and benefit of the people of Athenry who want to host a social evening at the castle to mark a twinning event in the town on Thursday, 15 August 2013.

Athenry tourism committee has been working extremely hard since its inception to revive the tourism industry in Athenry. At a time when many commercial units have closed and unemployment has increased, I like to see its verve and enthusiasm for this type of project in order that it can encourage people to visit the historical and medieval town. The committee has gone to great lengths to revive tourism in the area. This would be a welcome departure for the town which has suffered badly.

On 15 August 2013, Athenry is twinning with the Canadian town, Renews, in Newfoundland, the home town of the Canadian ambassador, Mr. Loyola Hearn. Much work has gone into the project to bring it to fruition. I have been involved with the committee. The list of dignitaries on the day will include the Canadian ambassador and his wife, Mrs. Maureen Hearn, Pete St. John, the songwriter who wrote the "The Fields of Athenry", Dr. Hadyn James of the Welsh Rugby Choir, Mr. Don McNeil, chairperson of the Ulster Canada initiative, Mr. Michael Blanch, chairperson of the Commemoration of Irish Famine Victims, members of the county council, local representatives and members of the community. It is intended to have a live link-up with the residents in Renews, and it is widely felt by the committee and members of the community in Athenry that it is necessary to show off the very best of what Athenry has to offer as a means of stimulating further tourism and economic activity.

Athenry is a medieval town with a medieval castle but it has not been used previously on such occasions. The tourism committee considers that a medieval style banquet to cater for approximately 50 people would augur well and that the castle would be the ideal venue for this momentous occasion. It is the first time that Athenry has been twinned with a town outside Europe and it is a big deal. That we have the support of the Canadian ambassador is welcome. As I have stated, there is no question of food being prepared in the castle but merely brought in by outside caterers. Therefore, there should be no difficulty with health and safety or environmental issues. On that basis the committee has asked me to raise the matter in the House because it feels the event should take place in the castle.

I welcome the opportunity to put the matter to the House and look forward to the Minister of State's reply.

I compliment the Senator for raising a fantastic idea. I compliment everybody involved in community regeneration and tourism because it is all about the empowerment of communities. The date of 15 August is very important as it is my birthday and I might even join in the celebrations that day.

We will extend an invitation to the Minister of State.

Athenry Castle dates from the early 13th century. It was constructed originally by the de Bermingham family and survived until the 1640s when it was effectively destroyed by Cromwellian forces. The castle is a national monument and one of 70 heritage sites where the OPW provides guide services to visitors. Last year an impressive total of 9,455 people visited the castle. The OPW is keen to see the figure increase and attract more footfall. The Senator should know that we are anxious to encourage more visitors and events at the castle, particularly during the year of The Gathering.

Last year the Minister launched the community involvement initiative which hopes to involve local communities and groups in heritage sites under the care of the OPW. Difficulties will arise with individual suggestions from time to time. The OPW is committed to directly engaging with local communities on the use of all of these sites but that can only happen when a proposal is suitable, safe and sustainable. The event proposed by the Senator involves serving food and drink, presumably including alcohol, to up to 80 guests in suitable large areas in the castle. The national monuments service of the OPW has informed the Minister that the castle is unsuitable for the proposed event.

The keep at Athenry is the principal area available. Access can only be gained via a narrow external staircase on the outside wall of the building. Were the event to be held at the location, guests and food service staff would potentially have to negotiate the same route at the same time. This would be fraught with some difficulty and inconvenience and is totally impractical. The toilets would be located just off the reception area on the ground floor. They would be difficult to access easily and confusion and congestion on the stairs would inevitably result.

The other area that might be considered suitable is the undercroft or basement area. It poses difficulties in terms of its confined nature and lack of circulation space once furniture is installed. The area also lacks heating and lighting and mitigates against the undercroft being used for an event such as the one suggested. The OPW has suggested that installing temporary heating, power and lighting would ruin the ambience that the promoters seek to create, would create a hazard and would not lead to a successful event.

Most crucially, from the point of view of safety, the undercroft area at Athenry does not have an adequate fire escape for the event. The space is unfurnished and essentially empty. It does not present a similar difficulty for groups of tourists that are led by an OPW guide during the daytime. It would be an entirely different prospect were there need for an emergency evacuation of a large group of people unfamiliar with the building and having to navigate to a remote exit around furniture, temporary power cables, heating units and other obstacles.

I can see the attraction in having the event at Athenry. I can assure the Senator that the OPW is aware of what the sponsors want to do. With that in mind, the OPW has adopted a creative approach and may have come up with a satisfactory solution. Instead of using the castle as the focal point for the event, for which the OPW believes the castle is completely unsuitable, the building should be used as a backdrop. The event could be staged in the grounds of the castle. Perhaps a marquee could be erected for the evening. Catering and services could be provided, and the whole physical logistics could be managed professionally and safely, by any number of event planners. The castle would be a stunning backdrop for the evening. It could, for example, support the event by providing toilet facilities and guided tours. The OPW could, in this scenario, keep the castle open late on the day and provide guided tours for guests either before or after the dinner event. This may not be what the organisers had in mind. However, when they analyse the pros and cons of both proposals, they will conclude that an event in the castle would be fraught with difficulties for the reasons that I have suggested. There is a level of expense associated with hiring a marquee, etc. Inevitably, there would be similar costs involved in setting up temporary light and power and providing furniture, etc., for diners in spaces within the castle walls.

In order for the proposal to be brought to fruition the organisers need to have a deeper engagement with my officials on matters such as risk management, stewarding, insurance requirements, etc. Opening the site later would mean the OPW would have to pay for extra staff, overtime, etc., and such matters must be addressed. These are details that can be worked out with co-operation. I invite the Senator to engage with the organisers and to give the OPW a revised proposal, perhaps along these lines. I can assure her that Department officials will be happy to work with them to ensure a successful and enjoyable event that will showcase Athenry Castle and the town in a very positive and exciting way.

I shall allow Senator Higgins to ask a supplementary question.

I welcome the response of the Minister of State and the approval to open the castle for the event, albeit in limited circumstances. This is the first time that the people of Athenry have sought its opening so I expect that every effort will be made to facilitate them. I welcome the suggestion of guided tours and the possibility of a marquee being allowed on the grounds of the castle and within the curtilage of the site. That is great news for the Athenry tourism committee. A marquee means that some expense will be incurred.

I had hoped that the Minister's answer would not amount to a constructive refusal to open the castle. A number of concerns were outlined and a request made for "a deeper engagement with my officials on matters such as risk management, stewarding, insurance requirements", and bringing in extra staff. I hope that the Minister will work with us to ensure that the event goes ahead and is a complete success for the people of Athenry. This is the first time that the people of Athenry have sought the opening of the castle to showcase it on a national and international scale. Everything should be done to market it on an international scale and to ensure that the enthusiasm and the verve shown by its people will be facilitated by the Department.

I can assure the Senator of that. The Minister of State, Deputy Hayes, stated in the reply that this was a unique opportunity and a fantastic idea. Ballymote Castle dates back to the 1300s and a similar event was held there using a marquee adjoined to the castle. The main requirement for Athenry Castle involves the logistics of hiring a marquee and installing facilities which are important for public liability cover. If it is a community-based limited company then there should be no problem extending insurance to meet the concerns of the OPW. Obviously the OPW will have its own insurance for guided tours. The event will not create more barriers to providing guided tours through the castle because there will be no catering facilities provided within the castle. The event has received the imprimatur of the Government and the Minister to ensure that the day goes ahead successfully. The clear message to the committee is that the castle is theirs to use as a facility. The committee must sit down with the officials and work out the logistics in a business like manner. We have not given ten reasons it cannot be done. We have given one reason it is available. Clearly, it is up to the committee to engage with the Minister and work with officials to work out what is required in order to make the event possible. I suggest that the Senator and the committee move on that straight away.

I commend the Minister of State for his enthusiasm for the project that will take place on his birthday, 15 August. The people of Athenry will welcome him wholeheartedly to the town.

I may take the Senator up on her offer.

Will the Minister of State ask his colleague, Deputy Hayes, to supply my office with a contact name in order to avoid unnecessary delays and get the project moving in the right direction immediately?

I have no further input. I thank the Senator.

I thank the Minister of State and the Senator.

The Seanad adjourned at 3.10 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 28 May 2013.