Adjournment Matters

Community Care Provision

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, to the House.

I have raised this matter on the Adjournment on a number of occasions because it is important for the people of Waterford city and for older people. I am looking for an update on what is being done to meet the need for additional community nursing beds. I am specifically interested in the plans to build a new specialist community nursing unit in Waterford city. I will set out the history of this issue for the Minister of State. In 2008, 19 beds at St. Bridget's ward in St. Patrick's Hospital in the city were closed on the advice of the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA. At that time, the then Minister for Health and Children gave a clear commitment that the beds would be replaced as part of the development of a new 50-bed community nursing unit. The last time I questioned a Minister on this matter, I was told that the commitment which had been given was subject to funding being available. The Minister also cited the Prospectus report, which looked at the need for nursing home spaces across the State. Given that the report was published in 2008, obviously it did not take account of the loss to Waterford city of 19 beds as a consequence of the closure of the ward at St. Patrick's Hospital.

The Prospectus report said that capacity was fine up to 2013. Given that we are now in 2014, it is timely to ask the Minister for Health to give us information on the Department's future plans to meet the needs of the citizens and older people of Waterford city. I would like to ask a number of questions in that context. Have the demographics changed since the Prospectus report was published in 2008? Is the need for more nursing home units accepted by the Department, the Minister and the HSE? If so, what plans are in place to build a new unit? If capital funding is to be made available, when will it actually be delivered and when will the unit be built?

I would like the Minister for Health to respond to those questions. He gave a clear commitment to the people of Waterford when he visited St. Patrick's Hospital in the city before the last general election and met patients, families and staff at the hospital. He said he was concerned about the closure of St. Bridget's ward and he gave a commitment to support the construction of a new community nursing unit on the grounds of St. Patrick's Hospital. I am interested in hearing what the current position is. Have there been any changes in the Government's thinking? Is there now an established need? Will money be available? What plans are in place to build a new unit on the grounds of the hospital?

I thank Senator Cullinane for raising this issue and enabling me to give the House a clear update on the current position. The Government has a policy of supporting older people to live with 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 quality long-term residential care where appropriate. The health service is continuing to develop and improve health services in all regions of the country to ensure quality and patient safety. Before 2009, the provision of a community residential care facility at St. Patrick's Hospital was included in the list of capital construction projects. As a consequence of the economic downturn and the resulting substantial reduction in the capital funding available for the HSE construction programme, however, it was not possible to deliver this or other projects. In 2012, the HSE reviewed its long-stay bed complement and developed viability plans. Priority locations for funding were identified in 2013.

In the case of the project referred to by the Senator, the health service has undertaken a historic building assessment report and completed a development control plan. The project that is now proposed involves the construction of a 100-bed community nursing unit on the St. Patrick's campus, to replace the existing accommodation at St. Patrick's Hospital and St. Otteran's Hospital. The health service is in the process of appointing a number of design teams for a variety of projects, including this community nursing unit, which will enable building design, statutory approvals and tender documents be completed. As with all capital projects, this project must be considered within the overall capital envelope available to the health service. There will always be more construction projects than can be funded by the Exchequer.

The method and timescale for the delivery of health care infrastructure is a dynamic process which is constantly evolving to take account of changing circumstances, including the feasibility of implementation. There is limited funding available for new projects over the period 2014-18 given the level of commitments and the costs to completion already in place. The HSE has submitted to my Department its draft capital plan for the multi-annual five year period 2014-18. My Department is reviewing the proposals and following up with the health service where further details may be required. The proposed plan requires my approval with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.

I welcome the fact that it is on the face of it good news that the Government is looking at a 100-bed unit in the grounds of St. Patrick's Hospital. It is also good news that it is part of the HSE's viability plan and a design team will be put in place, which will allow for statutory approvals and tender documents to be completed. The plan then goes on to say that this will be part of a range of capital projects across the State and that again, all of this is subject to funding. While it is good news that this is being considered and that designs will be drawn up, what people will want to know is whether the money will be delivered to enable this to be built. Is there any requirement for matching funding or will it be 100% funding? I know the Minister of State may not have those answers with him but he might follow up with the Minister for Health to get them. I will follow this up separately because the people of Waterford have a real need. If it is delivered, the Government and Minister should be commended and it is a good news story but the fact that it is still subject to funding would be a concern. I hope that an indication could be given as soon as possible that the funding will be made available.

It is very good news and the 100 beds are good for Waterford and surrounding areas. There are many competing projects in the south-eastern region but I can see from the response received by the Senator that it is good news. I would not underestimate it because I live in that region and know what other areas are getting. They are not getting as positive a response. I will relay the Senator's question regarding timescales to the Minister but Waterford is in a good position. I would be positive but I do not want to say any more than that.

Traffic Management

This matter is related to speed enforcement zones and to something that was raised with me by someone in my own locality. We all know that the safety of children of special concern to many professionals and the public due to their increased vulnerability. Due to their smaller size, they are probably less conspicuous to drivers and their behaviour can be more unexpected compared to that of adults. It is also more difficult for a child to judge a vehicle's speed and distance. When we discuss speed enforcement and speed limits near schools, it is important to remember that at certain times, there are heavy flows of traffic into and out of the schools and when oncoming traffic does not heed speed limits or warnings during these times, the lives of children, their parents and teachers are put in danger. This is particularly the case on main roads off which schools might be located as is the case with a school in my area which is also near many bad bends and has experienced a number of accidents and the movement of large vehicles due to its closeness to a quarry. It is not rare to see speeding cars coming up the road without any thought for school traffic or having to brake suddenly, which may risk an accident. Parents have approached me with concerns about the speed of some of these drivers during these important times, be it in the morning when they are dropping off their children or in the afternoon when they are collecting them.

I am inquiring about how speed enforcement zones are delegated and if consideration is given to the location of schools along roads, particularly main roads and primary roads. I am aware that the demand for speed limits in these zones is not necessarily 24-7, 365 days a year. However, during these peak hours, particularly during the school term, there should be some kind of enforcement or indeed speed van to make sure that drivers are heeding any speed limits or are slowing down and not driving dangerously and putting the lives of young children, teachers and parents at risk.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter on the Adjournment. I am speaking on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality who regrets that he is unable to be present due to other business. The Minister is in ongoing contact with the Garda Commissioner in respect of a wide range of road safety matters but the House will appreciate that detailed speed enforcement strategy is principally an operational matter for the Garda authorities. The legislation regarding speed limits is a matter for the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport.

Effective local and national roads policing is central to the Garda policing plan and the level of Garda enforcement remains high and determined throughout the country. The policing priorities that the Minister has set for 2014 include a strong focus on targeted enforcement measures directed at reducing the number of deaths and serious injuries on our roads. Excessive or inappropriate speed continues to be a significant contributory factor in the number of serious and fatal injuries arising from road collisions. Under the new road safety strategy 2013-20 and building on earlier strategies, An Garda Síochána is implementing a series of visible enforcement initiatives, including the outsourced safety camera network, targeting high-risk behaviour such as speeding and focusing on identified vulnerable road users. In this context, An Garda Síochána, in conjunction with the National Roads Authority, has designated specific sections of roads as "speed enforcement zones". This was done following an extensive analysis of five years of collision data where speed was deemed the primary contributory factor in the incident.

An Garda Síochána utilises these zones in order to direct speed enforcement activity in a proportionate and targeted manner including through the use of safety camera vans. Each site must be clearly visible and risk assessed to ensure the health and safety of both the public and van operators. Signage is erected at the start of each speed enforcement zone. The locations, which are kept under review by the Garda authorities, are in the public domain and are available on the Garda website garda.ie.

In so far as the location of schools is concerned, divisional Garda enforcement activity is directed in line with the probability of occurrence of fatal and serious injuries on our roads at targeted locations as reflected in the speed enforcement zones. The Minister is assured, however, that additional enforcement activity is also conducted outside these zones as required by local district officers. A factor in determining the location and type of Garda enforcement activity includes the presence of vulnerable road users and young road users in particular.

The Minister has no direct role in the identification of these speed enforcement zones or the deployment of Garda resources but in the context of community policing generally, local Garda management will, of course, be highly attuned to concerns regarding school locations and road safety. I should also say that road safety awareness is an important component in the Garda schools programme, as indeed it is within the overall road safety strategy, and a range of road safety education initiatives are specifically targeted at children. It is also important to say that all road users have a part to play in improving road safety for children. Persons driving in or around school locations, in particular at the beginning and end of the school day, need to take particular care to comply with speed limits, to expect the unexpected and to have a heightened consideration for children walking and cycling in the area.

In so far as the question of speed limits are concerned, as I have said, these are a matter for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport who has, under the Road Traffic Act 2004, set ordinary default speed limits in respect of built-up areas, non-urban regional roads, local roads, national roads and motorways.

However, a county or city council may make special speed limit by-laws in respect of particular roads within its administrative area, in consultation with the Garda Síochána and in respect of national primary and secondary roads, with the National Roads Authority. To assist in this process, in 2011 the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport issued guidelines for the application of speed limits to all local authorities.

Road safety is a major consideration in the application of speed limits. As part of a direction by the then Minister for Transport in 2011, all local authorities were requested to undertake an assessment of special speed limits in their functional areas. To assist in this, the present Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport formed a stakeholder working group, including An Garda Síochána and the relevant road safety partners, to carry out a review of speed limits on roads throughout the country. A comprehensive speed limits review was published on 21 November, 2013, following detailed consideration of this very complex issue by the working group. The Minister, Deputy Varadkar, has accepted all recommendations from the working group designed to address a number of matters relating to the operation of speed limits on our roads. It is planned that all the recommendations contained in the report will be implemented over a two-year period.

On behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, I thank the Senator for raising these important issues. Garda road safety operations are based on identified risks, taking into account collision history and local road safety considerations and the enforcement zones are identified through the process I have described. While detailed enforcement measures are a matter for the Garda authorities, the Minister wishes to assure the Senator that vulnerable road-users, such as children, are a particular concern and enforcement measures are configured at a local level to take into account the concerns and needs of the community.

The Minister asks everyone in the community to support An Garda Síochána in its efforts and to take the utmost care when driving in or around schools. The unfortunate reality, however, is that people ignore speed limits and that a significant number of fatalities and serious injuries arise as a result of speeding. Last year, 190 people lost their lives on our roads. Half of this number were driver fatalities, of whom 80% were male and 50% were between the ages of 16 and 34. Slowing down would have prevented many of these fatalities. The Garda advice is that just a few kilometres per hour in speed can be the difference in avoiding a collision or in preventing a minor collision becoming a fatal or serious accident. We cannot expect gardaí to be on every corner of every road. Too many lives have been lost or grievously harmed because of speeding, with all the tragic consequences for families and loved ones. Everyone in our community needs to take responsibility and to challenge speeding behaviour, in particular, the culture of speeding which exists among some young men.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply.

Domestic Violence Policy

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Tá mé thar a bheith buíoch di as teacht isteach anocht agus an rún seo a thógáil. I have raised this issue with the Minister previously. I attend the joint policing committee meetings for both Galway county and city. It has been alarming to note over recent years and in particular over the past year and a half, that the statistics given at both city and county committee meetings show there has been an increase in domestic violence in both areas. This is a serious concern. At the meeting of the County Galway joint policing committee we decided to task a sub-committee with an examination of all aspects of domestic violence. Some of the reasons are due to the downturn in the economy. The Garda Síochána believes that men at home with very little to do can find domestic situations becoming more difficult. There has been a noticeable increase in drinking in houses.

The issue of domestic violence is related to the matter I have raised this evening. I refer to the support services for people who find themselves subject to domestic violence. These services are creaking at the seams. Refuges are full and women with children find it difficult to cope with living in these crowded conditions. The policy in refuges is that nobody should be turned away.

The Child and Family Agency is carrying out a reconfiguration of services and resources. I ask the Minister to provide information on the funding given to the organisations dealing with domestic violence issues.

I welcome the opportunity to reply to this Adjournment matter and to update the Seanad on the Government's approach to strengthening the provision of domestic and sexual violence services. Domestic and sexual-based violence is a multifaceted problem which can have a devastating effect on both the victims and the wider community. While overall responsibility policy in this area rests with my colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, the new Child and Family Agency which is under my remit has specific responsibility for funding rape crisis centres and refuges previously funded by the HSE. I thank Members of this House for their support in passing the Child and Family Agency Act. The agency was formally established on 1 January 2014.

The Government decision to establish the agency was informed by the work of the task force which I established in September 2011 and which reported in July 2012. The task force considered that domestic and sexual violence services should form an integral part of the remit of the new agency due to the significant impact of domestic violence on the welfare of children.

This recommendation was borne out by the findings of the pilot phase report of the national audit of neglect, published last June, which highlighted domestic violence as a significant contributor in child neglect cases. The 2012 independent report on child deaths further illustrated how many troubled teenagers who demonstrated high-risk and challenging behaviour grew up in chaotic households where domestic violence was prevalent. The prevention and disruption of domestic violence, while being essential in protecting and supporting the abused partner, should and must be recognised as part of the continuum of protection and welfare, including prevention, early intervention and family support. It is a critical issue which must be addressed. All the information suggests that domestic violence is a key issue for child protection and welfare in this country. Such cases are presenting to the child welfare services.

The recommendations of the task force on domestic and sexual violence services was accepted by the Government and reflected in the provisions of the Child and Family Agency Act 2013. The functions of the agency include responsibility for the care and protection of victims of domestic, sexual or gender-based violence, whether in the family or otherwise.

The Senator has requested an analysis of the expenditure. Increased funding has been provided over the years. In 2013 the HSE spent approximately €17.4 million on the provision of domestic and sexual violence services.

I shall give a breakdown of the most recent figures that I have for 2013 which includes funding for 60 services throughout the country as follows: 20 crisis refuges at a cost of almost €10 million per year; 16 rape crisis centres at a cost of over €4 million; and 24 support services at a cost of almost €3.5 million. I wish to pay tribute to the many staff who work in those services and without question they are very dedicated.

The establishment of the agency will allow for a more dedicated focus on the issue. The agency has been established separate from the HSE to allow a more dedicated focus on all of the issues. There will an ongoing and more focused implementation of the 2010 HSE policy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.

Clearly the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government also supports refuges where beds are allocated to homeless women and children. Recent statistics have become available to me that suggest about 2,000 children, in the course of any one year, will spend some time in a refuge. That is a significant number of children to be affected. Of course the policy that we ought to have and need to have in the first instance, where possible, is to provide support to women and children to remain in their homes and have the appropriate use of the law.

Due to the complex nature of the issues involved in domestic and sexual-based violence, and the need for a co-ordinated response, Cosc - the National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence - was established as an executive office of the Department of Justice and Equality in 2007. Cosc has formulated a comprehensive cross-Government strategy that combines the efforts of many different organisations and individuals to combat the issue. The strategy will run until 2014. There will be a new cross-cutting strategy that will ensure that a range of Departments and organisations work effectively in the area. Quite a number of new initiatives have been established recently. For example, four new co-ordinators have been appointed to work with offenders regarding sexual abuse. In addition, there are four regional co-ordinators that will help people who have suffered sexual violence. The HSE is in the process of appointing the eight positions which will help to co-ordinate services.

We are at the point where we have the right structures in place to drive forward the much needed reform of children and family services. We will adopt a cross-Government approach to ensure that we deliver a comprehensive and integrated service to vulnerable children and their families. This will require the support of various Departments and agencies and the support of society in general.

I thank the Minister for her reply and I support the efforts being made to deal with the matter. Is it possible to get a further breakdown of the figures of the 60 services? How much funding did each organisation receive? I would be grateful if she could also supply me with the 2012 figures.

Yes, I will get a detailed breakdown of those figures for the Senator. The point that has been made on quite a number of occasions is that there is not an equitable geographic spread of services which raised difficulties. It is not always possible to have a refuge in every area. The new agency will examine the matter of an equitable geographic spread of services in order that people around the country have access to services. I will forward a breakdown of the figures to the Deputy.

Agriculture Schemes Appeals

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to the House again.

I thank the Minister of State for attending to discuss my issue. I refer to the need to make the agriculture appeals process more open and transparent in order that those availing of it have certainty about the board's findings, as they apply.

The EU Common Agricultural Policy outlines the direct payment programme in which farmers may receive payment provided that certain requirements have been met. That includes inspections of farms, concerns on which I have raised on a number of occasions in the House. In my opinion sometimes inspections have been carried out illegally but that is based on information that has been given to me and is a separate matter.

The inspections, as the Minister of State will know, relate to animal welfare and hygiene regulations, cattle and sheep tagging inspections and land eligibility inspections. The system of inspections uses satellite technologies in some cases in addition to ground inspections in order to ensure farmers are in compliance with the direct pay schemes. If a farmer fails to comply with the schemes there are significant associated monetary losses. A farmer found to be non-compliant will have his or her direct payment reduced by 5%. If there is deliberate non-compliance the penalty will be increased to at least 20% of the original amount that he or she might have been awarded under a scheme, which is quite onerous. Alternatively, the farmer may not receive any of his or her direct payment as has happened in some cases that I have dealt with as a public representative since I entered Seanad Éireann.

A farmer has an opportunity to appeal any decision made by the Department that he or she disagrees with regarding the direct pay and other schemes. The Agriculture Appeals Office is an independent committee that was established by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to handle such appeals. A farmer must submit evidence to the appeals board and may elect to have an oral hearing if he or she so wishes. When a decision is reached, a written copy articulating the decision and reasoning will be delivered to the appellant and the Department is subsequently notified.

The appeals office was established to assist in the protection of farmers' rights. It is not technically a court and the process is more informal than a court hearing. The role that the committee fulfils is quasi-judicial. Therefore, a similar level of transparency should be afforded to farmers as is their right. Case precedents must be made available to farmers undergoing the process so they have certainty about what happened in a similar case in the past. Obviously the individual appealing should be afforded anonymity. He or she could be referred to by an initial, as in family law cases and refugee law that are also sensitive cases. However, judgments should be published for public access to allow farmers to know and have some degree of certainty when going before the agriculture appeals board. The provision would ensure continuity in terms of decisions made by the office.

Publication of the decisions made by the Agriculture Appeals Office will promote increased transparency and clarity in the justice system. In 2011, Transparency International conducted a survey and concluded that 21% of Irish citizens believe that there is corruption in the justice system. Last year the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine took the initiative to make the Agriculture Appeals Office an independent entity which I welcome. Previously there was a system of internal review. It is a step in the right direction but it is not enough and we could go further in terms of giving farmers' additional rights.

The freedom of information policies currently offer a method through which the public can obtain information and files maintained by the Government but there are significant fees and roadblocks. The judgments made by the Agriculture Appeals Office should be published and made accessible to the public at large. The measure would protect farmers' rights and establish a sense of openness, certainty and transparency as I highlighted during my speech. I look forward to the Minister of State's response on the matter. We must seriously examine the matter and I hope that such a scheme will be implemented.

I welcome the opportunity to deal with the issue. I thank Senator Higgins for giving me the opportunity to highlight the work carried out by the Agriculture Appeals Office.

The Agriculture Appeals Office is an independent agency established in 2002. The office provides an independent appeals service to farmers who are dissatisfied with decisions of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine concerning designated schemes. The office has a statutory basis as set out in the Agriculture Appeals Act 2001 which, along with the Agriculture Appeals Regulations 2002, clearly set down the functions of the director and the appeals officers. The Act also sets out the decisions that can be appealed and the procedures to be followed.

The procedures followed by the Agriculture Appeals Office provide for each appeal to be dealt with on an individual, case-by-case basis. One of the main features of the office is the right of an appellant to an oral hearing. This is where an appeals officer brings together the appellant and officials from my Department in an informal setting to hear both sides of a case and ask questions. Following consideration of all the facts of a case, comprehensive decision letters are issued to both the appellant and my Department.

Each decision is made on its own merits and is specific to the particular individual appeal. A wide variety of often unique, individual situations and circumstances are covered.

Decision letters aim to clearly set out the reason for the decision made in each individual case in an open, transparent and understandable way. The decision of an appeals officer is binding on my Department, although such decision may be revised if new evidence is received. The director may revise an appeals officer's decision but only if it is found that an error was made in law or in fact. It also remains open to appellants who remain dissatisfied to bring the matter to the Office of the Ombudsman or to the High Court on a point of law.

The Agriculture Appeals Act 2001 also provides for the publication of an annual report by the appeals office. The 2012 annual report, published within the timeframe set down in legislation, is available on the Agriculture Appeals Office website. This report sets out the main developments during the year and provides a statistical breakdown of the office's annual work. The Agriculture Appeals Office received 1,036 appeals in 2012, a 40% increase on 2011. Some 886 appeals were received in 2013. Oral hearings were held in every county in Ireland during the course of 2013. Conscious of the need for efficiency, where possible, the Agriculture Appeals Office aims to hold oral hearings in a convenient location for the appellant. The majority of appeals dealt with in 2012 and 2013 related to the single farm payment, rural environment protection, suckler cow welfare scheme and agri-environment options schemes.

The Agriculture Appeals Office annual reports also contains details of a variety of cases across a number of schemes dealt with during the course of the year. The identity of the appellant and identifying features of the appeal are excluded. In the 2012 annual report, this includes cases related to the single farm payment, rural environment protection and agri-environment options schemes and non-valuation aspects of the TB and brucellosis eradication schemes. Examples of decisions made to allow, disallow or partially allow appeals are included. These cases were carefully selected to provide useful examples for both farmers and officials. The report contains key findings for my Department. Information on common errors by scheme applicants that lead to penalties is also included.

The 2013 annual report is currently being prepared. This report will also contain examples of a variety of cases across schemes. These cases will relate to decisions made during 2013. The 2013 annual report will be presented to my colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, and made available on the Agriculture Appeals Office website within the prescribed timeframe.

I am not satisfied with the response provided by the Minister of State this evening. In my opinion, an annual report does not satisfy transparency and consistency requirements. The suggestion that it does means we are focusing on the general rather than specific incidences of appeals by farmers. At the end of the day, farmers in this country are entitled to access to decisions which are being made under natural and constitutional law. That is fundamental. It must be remembered that family law proceedings, which are very sensitive, are reported. The decisions of appeal boards in refugee law cases are reported and published, yet Irish farmers do not have similar rights.

I ask that the Minister of State make this issue a priority during his term in office.

It would be hard for me to prioritise something with which I do not agree. I agree on the need for openness and transparency in respect of appeals in relation to all schemes. Tomorrow morning we will be dealing with a case that has been dragging on for nearly four years. I know that the farmer concerned would not want his concerns made public.

Provision could be made for anonymity of individuals. In reports of refugee and family law proceedings the initial letter of the surname rather than surname is used, as would be the situation in most legal cases.

I do not think anybody wishes to hide anything. We are speaking in this regard about money drawn down from Europe, which is taxpayers' money. I will take on board the Senator's point in regard to ensuring transparency in the process. However, I believe it is important that individuals are protected.

I agree with anonymity. The use of the initial letter of a surname is the way around that.

I will take a look at that.

I thank the Minister of State.

The Seanad adjourned at 7.15 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 23 January 2014.