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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 19 Jun 2013

Vol. 224 No. 2

Adjournment Matters

Care of the Elderly

I thank Senator Colm Burke for allowing me to speak first. This matter concerns Cara House, Market Street, Skibbereen, which is run by the Skibbereen Geriatric Society. Currently, there are 12 residents in the home and there is major concern that the home has been deemed to close on Friday of next week. There is concern and worry about where people will go. Most of these people are in their 80s; some are in their 90s. As far as they are concerned, Cara House has become their home. These people are old and vulnerable and their home is their castle. They are frightened and concerned about where they will be moved to. There are different rumours, including that HIQA has put the gun to the head of the Skibbereen Geriatric Society and demanded the closure of the home. There is another story that some of them will be transferred to Cork city, which is 60 miles from where some residents come from. I would like the fears and concerns to be addressed. Everyone in Cara House, which I know for many years, is a citizen of the State and it is unnecessary and unfair that they are stressed and that their families are worried and concerned about where they might be shifted to.

They are stressed and their families are worried and concerned about where they might be moved. This is unfair and unreasonable. I hope the Minister of State will clarify that an extension can be given through HIQA, the HSE or the geriatric society that runs the home to find suitable alternative accommodation. I have inquired through the HSE and no beds are available in the local community hospital in Skibbereen or in Dunmanway or Schull, while the privately run nursing homes in the area are full. The HSE is not stating this publicly, but its officials will admit that if they have to accommodate the people concerned, they will face logistical difficulties.

I hope the Minister of State will allay fears locally. I have said to those who have contacted me that the elderly people concerned should not worry because they will not put on the streets, but they are fearful about where they will be transferred. It is rumoured that they may be moved to St. Finbarr's Hospital in Cork, which would be a major inconvenience for them and their families. I hope the Minister of State will understand the motivation behind this debate and I do not raise such issues lightly. There is concern and worry, particularly among the elderly patients, some of whom are in their 80s and 90s. They are mentally active enough to understand what is happening and deeply concerned that they will be moved again. They experienced significant trauma and change when they moved from their own homes to this nursing home. None of them can return to his or her home. Cara House has provided an excellent service in the Skibbereen area. The staff are doing wonderful work and the patients are happy there. I wonder, therefore, why this is happening, who is driving the change and what is the current position. It is most important that when I relay the Minister of State's reply she reassure those affected directly that there is light at the end of the tunnel, that there is a way out of this and that the transfers will be made in a dignified and orderly fashion and with respect for the elderly people involved.

I thank the Senator for tabling this matter. Clearly, the shortage of long-stay intensive care beds for people who are ageing is an issue. We need to face up to it and we are examining it is a serious manner.

Cara House, Skibbereen is a residential home for 12 elderly women. It is managed by Skibbereen Geriatric Society. I concur that people are doing their best with the best of intentions. They did a good job at a time the State was not doing it. The society is a company limited by guarantee, which provides residential care and other services for the elderly of Skibbereen and its environs. In December 2012 it applied to HIQA for the registration of Cara House, Market Street, Skibbereen, County Cork, as a designated centre under the Health Act 2007.

Since July 2009 HIQA has been responsible for the registration and inspection of all designated centres for older people. It needs to be satisfied that systems are in place in all designated centres which ensure the safety and welfare of all residents and staff are protected. Cara House, as a designated centre, catering for the long-term residential needs of older people, is subject to registration and inspection under the nursing homes regulatory framework. A registration inspection visit by HIQA raised concerns which included the level of dependency of a number of residents, medication management, staffing and the ability of the home to cater for the residents in its current format. An immediate concern in relation to the administration of medication was addressed in the interim by the association by providing nursing cover to administer medication in the home.

As a result of the concerns raised during the inspection, HIQA prepared a plan of action for the society to address. Following receipt of this plan, the society's representatives met to discuss the situation. The outcome of this meeting resulted in their withdrawing their application for registration. The society advised both HIQA and the HSE that it would close on 28 June. At this stage the overall priority is the residents' wishes and concerns, as the Senator will be aware. One resident has been relocated to a long-stay bed in Bantry, while two residents are in Bantry General Hospital. Discussions are under way with them with a view to identifying an appropriate placement. Nine residents remain at Cara House, eight of whom have been assessed as requiring long-term residential care.

The HSE is working with the residents and their families to find alternative accommodation. Discussions have been held on the options available to them as they work to find alternative accommodation. Each is being supported in completing the application for financial support under the nursing homes support scheme. While all of the residents have identified a preference for a placement in Skibbereen - as the Senator pointed out, this has been their chosen area of residence for a long time - they have been advised that it is extremely unlikely that this number of beds will become available within the timeframe and second preferences have been discussed with them. All residents can be accommodated within the timeframe in at least the facility they have identified as their second preference. They have been further advised that a transfer back to either the community hospital or the private nursing home in Skibbereen could be requested and that they would receive the next available suitable bed. The remaining resident was not deemed to be in need of a continuing care placement and a package of care is being arranged to support her relocation to an apartment in Skibbereen.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. To some extent, she has cleared the air because all sorts of rumours were circulating about public meetings and so on. The issue was aired on local radio because the geriatric society, faced with the gauntlet of trying to comply with HIQA's request, decided to run before the storm, but the deadline of 28 June is tight. There is no fire hazard in the home and €50,000 was collected from the public by voluntary organisations in the past few months to cover the cost of works there. It is a pity the home will be closed and I hope somebody in charge of the relocation will visit it. As of a week ago - I am not sure about the past few days - the families of the elderly patients had not received reassurance about their security of tenure. A reassurance to that effect from a senior HSE official would help them to overcome much of their anxiety. I hope they can live out the rest of their days with dignity and respect.

We all hope for the same. I will relay the Senator's concerns to the relevant HSE officials and I hope some reassurance can be provided. No one will be thrown onto the side of the street. At this stage of their lives, I will ensure the dignity they deserve is delivered.

Courts Staff Recruitment

I thank the Minister of State for taking this matter relating to the Department of Justice and Equality and the Courts Service. The High Court has two Taxing Masters and I do not want this matter to be viewed as a criticism of them because they are doing a good job, but there are long delays because of the volume of work they face.

I refer to the need to appoint a third Taxing Master. I make this proposal on the basis that such an appointment would be cost neutral. If one sends a bill for costs to be taxed by the Taxing Master, stamp duty must be paid before one receives a certificate of taxation.

Therefore, stamp duty paid will more than adequately pay for the cost of a taxing master.

Let me refer to a case that was settled in September 2012 and that was submitted for taxation of costs. Obviously, there were ongoing negotiations beforehand. The client said she sent in for taxation of costs in February. The earliest date for taxation given is 12 July. Therefore, there is a gap of five or six months. The problem is that if there are any applications for adjournment, the case may well not be dealt with until October or November. There is a major problem, but not so much with the bigger legal firms. The bigger legal firms in Dublin are doing fine because they have all the additional work. I was surprised to discover recently that work that was sent to a Cork legal firm heretofore is now all sent to one in Dublin. No one has explained this to me.

The issue for the smaller legal practice is cashflow. The problem that has now arisen is that insurance companies are aware of the delays in processing the taxation of costs. They have decided to play hardball as regards what they are offering in settlement, not so much in the settlement of cases but in the subsequent settlement of costs. Smaller practices are suffering badly because if one wants to take a case in the High Court in respect of personal injuries, one must pay for the medical reports and many other reports up front. Last week, I spoke to an office worker who told me he or she had to pay £2,500 for a medical report from the United Kingdom. Such reports may take anything up to four years to recover. This results in a cashflow problem. Unless the issue is resolved, practices will be forced to close and jobs will be lost. This is unnecessary. This issue can be dealt with easily without any additional cost to the State. That is why I am raising this matter tonight and seeking the appointment of a third taxing master.

I am responding on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality. I thank the Senator for raising the matter. The Minister appreciates that people, especially legal practitioners, are interested in the matter of taxation of costs and the efficiency of the system of taxation. As the Senator may be aware, taxing masters are independent officeholders attached to the High Court. The positions of the taxing masters and their offices are currently governed by the Court Officers Act 1926 and the Courts (Supplemental Provisions) Act 1961. As the Senator is aware, there are two taxing masters who perform functions of a judicial nature in respect of legal costs with the aim of establishing a fair relationship between services rendered and the cost of those services. The Courts Service has informed the Minister that the current waiting time for taxation of a bill is ten weeks, down from 12 weeks earlier this year. The Minister has also been informed that a number of measures have been introduced in the taxing master's office to tackle backlogs. These include improved scheduling of cases. Practitioners have also been informed that all requisite documentation is to be lodged at the commencement of the taxation process. It has been necessary to inform parties that taxation cannot be completed due to non-lodgment of the requisite documentation or where proofs are not in order.

The Minister has been informed that the senior taxing master has also already indicated to practitioners that he will take any application for urgent taxation and regularly does so. He has also indicated that complaints regarding delays should be brought to his direct attention. The Senator will appreciate that the need to ensure that persons appointed as taxing master have the requisite experience in practice can, on occasion, give rise to some circumstances in which recusal from a case may be appropriate. However, the Minister has been informed that this issue is being managed between the two taxing masters. With regard to the modernisation of the current legal-costs regime and the framework for the taxation or determination of disputed legal costs, the programme for Government for the period 2011 to 2016 undertakes to "establish independent regulation of the legal profession to improve access and competition, make legal costs more transparent and ensure adequate procedures for addressing consumer complaints". These undertakings complement those structural reforms in the EU–IMF–ECB troika programme of financial support for Ireland aimed at removing restrictions to trade and competition in the provision of legal services and at the reform of the legal costs regime. Effect is being given to these structural reform commitments in the form of the extensive provisions of the Legal Services Bill 2011, which remains a priority under the Government's legislation programme. Second Stage has been completed in the Dáil and Committee Stage is due to begin on 10 July.

The Bill makes extensive provision, particularly in Part 9, for a new and enhanced legal-costs regime that will bring greater transparency to how legal costs are charged, along with a better balance between the interests of legal practitioners and those of their clients. It is particularly relevant to this subject that the Bill provides for a new office of legal costs adjudicator to deal with disputes about legal costs. At present, these are dealt with by the Office of the Taxing Master. The new office, headed by a chief legal costs adjudicator, will modernise the way disputed legal costs are adjudicated, with greater transparency. The office will be empowered to prepare legal-costs guidelines. It will establish and maintain a publicly accessible register of determinations which will include the outcomes and reasons for its determinations about disputed legal costs. It should be recalled that the two existing taxing masters have been appointed by public competition under the enhanced qualification criteria of Part 14 of the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2011, which was enacted to prepare the way for the legal-costs reforms contained in the Legal Services Regulation Bill. The Bill also sets out, for the first time in legislation, a series of legal-costs principles. These are contained in Schedule 1 and enumerate the various matters that may be taken into account if disputed costs are submitted for adjudication. Clearly, therefore, the Legal Services Regulation Bill will introduce a range of structural reforms that will make legal costs far more amenable to public scrutiny and competition and subject to more modern and business-like adjudication procedures than ever obtained in the past. The Minister does not propose appointing another taxing master in these circumstances as the necessary reforms are already under way and the matters raised by the Senator can continue to be resolved as part of the managed transition to the new legal-costs architecture contained in the Legal Services Regulation Bill, and as may be considered appropriate by the new office of the legal costs adjudicator.

While I fully accept that reform is taking place, it will not resolve the problem immediately. There are issues to be addressed. I will be writing to the Minister directly about the matter. There is a cashflow problem and it will cost jobs. That is the reality and the position will not change immediately. The unnecessary delay due to the volume of work facing taxing masters is of major concern. I do not accept the response that the period between the submission of costs and a hearing is only ten weeks. It is certainly not the experience of the people to whom I speak.

I understand that the Law Society of Ireland wrote to the Minister on this matter. I accept that reforms are taking place, but something should be done immediately on this matter. The new legislation will not be implemented for at least another six months. It will take yet another six months to set up the system. Therefore, there will be a 12-month gap.

I do not understand why all departmental and statutory agency legal business is being farmed out to legal practices in Dublin and not to other practices around the country. This matter needs to be tackled also.

The Senator should write to the Minister directly. I do not dispute what the Senator is saying for one minute because he operates in and is closely connected with this area. It is therefore very difficult to dispute his experience.

I should also mention that the Courts Service has informed the Minister that the total number of bills lodged in 2012 represented a 34% decrease on the number lodged in 2011. That, which is related to the downturn in business, probably makes the Senator's case. The Minister reiterates that he does not intend to appoint another taxing master in view of the reforms he is undertaking. The views of the Senator will be conveyed to him.

Fodder Crisis

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, to the House. It is his first visit to the Seanad, where he first cut his teeth in national politics. I congratulate him on his recent appointment as Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and wish him much success in what is a very challenging Department.

I wish to be associated with the comments of the Acting Chairman. It is about 12 years since the Minister of State has been in the Chamber. I extend my heartiest congratulations to him. He is well deserving of the position he holds in government.

I am concerned about tonnages being reaped from the land. I have spoken to people in County Wexford, where the tonnage per acre is down by between 30% to 50%. That must be taken in conjunction with the complete depletion of the existing reserves, which were built up over a number of years. Reserves in sheds, pits and silage bales were all used during the fodder shortage last spring.

I am an optimist. We have to hope for the best but plan for the worst. We could have a bad back end of the year or a poor spring in 2014. We must move now to ensure the potential difficulties, which could be many times worse than what we have experienced, are dealt with. The Minister has done a lot of good work to try to alleviate the difficulties. We need to take immediate steps to try to deal with the problem. Doing something in a month or six weeks' time will be too late. The growing season is now at its peak, later than normal. We need to take steps now.

I thank Senators for the welcome and for their good wishes. I served in this House for four years from 1997 to 2001. They were great times in my political life. I am delighted to be back here in my current role.

I thank Senator D'Arcy for raising this important issue. It is important that we discuss it and get to the facts of the situation. On 24 April the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, established a €1 million fodder transport subsidy scheme to help alleviate the difficulties being encountered by farmers. The purpose of the scheme was to contribute to the transport costs of importing fodder into the country and to provide assistance to farmers to enable them to feed their animals. In light of the continued difficult circumstances and poor weather during the month of May, the deadline for the scheme was extended twice and funding was doubled to €2 million, more than we had thought was needed. By the end of May, some 2,800 loads of imported fodder, amounting to over 40,000 tonnes, had been delivered to farmers, co-ops and marts throughout the country.

My Department also maintained an animal welfare helpline which received over 1,100 calls through the early warning system. The vast majority of incidents were adequately dealt with through fodder being made available under the transport subsidy scheme, but about 475 farmers in need of more substantial support were aided directly by the Department with targeted emergency assistance.

To assist farmers in financial trouble, which was a major issue for many, farm payments have been processed as quickly as possible. To date, more than 29,300 of the remaining 30,200 REPS 4 participants have been paid a total of €167 million in respect of the 2012 application period. Almost €36 million of this issued this year. In recent weeks, approximately €3.6 million worth of AEOS payments have also been issued.

It is clear that the main cut of silage, as Senator D'Arcy outlined, has been delayed this year and, as a consequence, we need to consider the potential for growing additional fodder later in the season. In co-operation with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, a temporary and targeted adjustment of the nitrates regulations was made to support additional fodder production on farms and to maximise grass growth later in the season. One hopes that if the weather improves - it is very good today - growth will be good and ground conditions will be extremely favourable. One must be optimistic. Farmers are optimistic by nature; otherwise, they would not survive in the business. It is to be hoped there will be better second and third cuts, which is what we must plan for.

Concerns have been expressed regarding access to credit and flexibility with regard to loan repayments, which is very important. Many people have found it difficult to pay for feed or fertiliser. The Department has been in constant contact with the banks. The Minister has met them, as well as the co-ops. They claim adequate credit is available but we need to streamline it and make it more available to people in need. If any Members of this or the other House know of cases in which credit is not being made available to people they should be reported to us. It is very important that this be done. If it is the case we will bring the banks in again.

I also wish to acknowledge the work being carried out by the inter-agency fodder committee. In addition to Teagasc and the Department, there is broad industry representation on the committee. It meets regularly and not only monitors the fodder situation but will also co-ordinate actions over the coming months to ensure sufficient fodder is conserved for next winter. The Minister has requested the committee report to the Food Harvest 2020 high level implementation committee, which he chairs, on the actions being taken and the progress being made. He also proposes to devote a session of the next meeting of the Food Harvest 2020 committee to the fodder situation and the outlook for the remainder of the year. Central to meeting the ongoing targets set out under Food Harvest 2020 in the case of the dairy and meat sectors is a strategic approach to fodder production and conservation.

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the numerous co-ops, marts and merchants that managed the importation and distribution of fodder. I also commend farm organisations on their efforts and neighbours and friends who have helped farmers during this difficult situation.

Last spring was the coldest in 50 years, and as a result we had a very late gathering of fodder. The crucial issue is the application of chemical fertiliser. I welcome the position of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, on the alteration to the nitrates directive, which is very important. The application of bag chemical fertiliser is the most financially efficient method of obtaining fodder. One grows fodder on one's land by purchasing chemical fertiliser. We may need to use more than we did in the past.

That may be necessary, however, because the difficult situation farmers are facing as a consequence of the prolonged poor weather is something that might occur only once in 50 years.

The requirements under the nitrates directives have been alleviated somewhat, but we must go further to ensure farmers have sufficient stores of feed for the winter. There is no point in arriving at the same situation next March and wondering what can be done. As I said, I am an optimist and always hope for the best. The reality, however, is that we must plan for the worst. Farmers have been left with no reserves and we have seen the difficulty and expense of bringing stock over in boats from Britain and the Continent. The easiest and most efficient way of dealing with the problem is to allow farmers to spread a small additional quantity of chemical fertiliser now.

The Senator is correct that we must seek to be self-sufficient and grow all our own fodder. That is the ideal situation. We will monitor the situation in regard to the nitrates directive and keep in touch with the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government in that regard. I urge farmers to engage with Teagasc, whose advisers are the people with expertise in these matters. Their assistance will be vital, particularly in the next two to three months when more fodder can be grown. By also addressing the issue of fertiliser application and the credit situation, I am confident that we can arrive at a situation in which we will have good silage crops and hopefully sufficient fodder for next year. A good harvest would help by ensuring there is an abundance of grain and hence of straw. We are hopeful of a good end to the year.

Local Electoral Area Boundary Committee Report

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan, to the House. He might be surprised at the motion I have tabled today, which relates to County Cork rather than my own county of Waterford. I have received several petitions from people in the area about the recent report of the local electoral area boundary committee, which outlines the proposed new electoral areas for city and county councils. The publication of the report is welcome in that it provides certainty for local government candidates in advance of next year's elections in terms of their respective wards. It was never realistic, however, that a perfect solution would be found for all areas. Despite the greater flexibility that arises from having a range of six- to ten-seat local electoral areas, LEAs, there are several areas throughout the State in which the boundaries are poorly mapped. Some of these wards are oversized and bear no reality to the communities with which people identify.

Of particular concern are the proposals to divide certain towns. In this regard, the decision to divide Carrigaline in County Cork along the line of the Owenabue river, which runs directly through it, seems utterly senseless. Local residents have contacted me by telephone and e-mail asking me to urge the Minister to reconsider what they see as a very poorly thought-out decision. The population of the town has increased exponentially in recent years. As recently as 1971 there were fewer than 1,000 residents, but that number had increased to 6,482 by 1991. There was even greater population growth in the Celtic tiger area, from 11,282 to 14,775 in just five years. Like any town that has experienced rapid growth, Carrigaline is facing considerable challenges. It has an exceptionally high number of commuters, with the highest rate of commuting by car, at a massive 74%, of any town in Ireland. The old town has been replaced by a major commuter town as large as any of Cork's major suburbs. I am sure the Minister will agree that a town of this size requires a co-ordinated and sensible approach to planning matters which will ensure the considerable challenges it faces are met. There must be an adequate road network, for example, an adequate public transport infrastructure and efficient management of traffic flows. There must be co-ordinated efforts to attract businesses, investment in retail and so on. In that context, having some 16 councillors from across two separate LEAs making decisions for the town is not prudent. Decisions will invariably lack the necessary focus, and confusion will arise in a situation in which neighbours living only a few hundred metres apart are obliged to make representations to different councillors.

The revisions to the LEAs that impact on Carrigaline also affect the nearby town of Ballincollig, which has been moved back and forth between different general election constituencies and local electoral areas for years. Once again, that town will be separated from its hinterland in the local elections in 2014. These decisions are not helpful in the context of the sustainable planning of towns. There may be contrary views in the area but I have not heard them. I look forward to the Minister's response to the concerns that have been expressed to me by residents.

I thank the Senator for the opportunity to clarify issues regarding the recent report of the 2013 local electoral area boundary committee. The committee was established by me in November 2012 and produced its report on 30 May 2013. In publishing the report, I announced my intention to accept in full the recommendations therein and to make in due course the necessary local electoral area orders to give them effect. The local electoral areas specified in these orders, and the number of members to be elected for each area, will apply at the 2014 local elections.

The completion of the report was an important step in the Government's programme of local government reform. The review had a specific goal of improving balance and consistency in representational ratios in local government, while taking particular account of factors such as the location of towns in the new municipal governance arrangements provided for in the action programme for effective local government. The terms of reference provided for minimum levels of representation in lower-population counties and cities. Arising from the recommendations in the report, a total of 949 councillors will be elected at the 2014 elections, in 137 local electoral areas, to 31 local authorities.

Much of the commentary on the report has focused on the reduction in the number of council seats from 1,627 to 949 and the number of local authorities from 114 to 31. However, beyond these reductions is the development of a far more integrated approach between county and municipal government which will better serve the needs of all citizens. This radical structural reform will provide a sound platform for the wider development and strengthening of the local government system in the future. The current number of councillors in local authorities was set in the distant past. There have been huge changes in population in recent decades, as the Senator observed, which have resulted in great disparities in the ratios of councillors to population between different counties and indeed within counties. Whereas previous local electoral area reviews left the total number of members in each local authority unchanged, this review involves a fundamental reform of the system to take account of population changes and representational disparities.

The recommendations in the report stand as they are. I have accepted them in full, for Cork and for every other local authority area. As I said some months ago when we were debating the new arrangements for Dáil constituencies, there are swings and roundabouts in constituency reviews. In nearly every situation there are multiple options and a range of solutions. However, every change or move has a knock-on effect, with consequences for other parts of the country. The committee, in chapter 3 of its report, makes particular reference to issues arising with regard to the representational ratios in County Cork and recommends, in a later chapter, that eight local electoral areas be formed within the existing divisional boundaries that have operated for administrative purposes in the county.

Senator Cullinane has drawn our attention to local electoral areas in the southern division, where the committee is recommending a number of revisions. The committee explains that these recommendations provide a balance between recognising existing administrative arrangements and facilitating the creation of new local electoral areas which acknowledge the community identities of newer large urban and suburban areas.

I accept that in the case of Carrigaline, it is probably difficult to explain to the local community how a town can be divided in this fashion. However, population and the ratio between population and members come into play, as happened in the case of the town of Swords in the last redrawing of the Dáil constituencies for the 2011 election.
The boundary configuration of Carrigaline will not hamper the strategic planning and development of the town or the general area. It will be a matter for the entire municipal area and Cork County Council to ensure the infrastructure and development plans for the area are inclusive, irrespective of which electoral area people are in. The Ballincollig-Carrigaline area, the area of most concern to the Senator, includes Passage West which has a town council. There is also a six-member Bandon-Kinsale area recommended, which takes its name from the two town councils in this new proposed electoral area.
I understand the Senator's position in regard to this issue, and people have made representations to me regarding the division of Carrigaline. However, if I was to make changes in a particular area, I would be adopting a stance that indicated I did not accept in full the report of an independent group which had examined all the issues intensively. The local government Bill, which is being prepared currently and will be published later this year, will implement the decisions of the boundary review and the municipal districts will cover the entire territory of each county, reflecting European norms, uniting towns with their hinterlands, removing outdated boundaries and ending the anomalous treatment of some larger urban centres.
The Seanad adjourned at 9.25 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 20 June 2013.