I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ann Phelan, to the House.
Seaweed Harvesting Licences
Cuirim céad fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Tá mé an-bhuíoch di faoi theacht isteach leis an gceist seo - ceist chonspóideach na feamainne in iarthar na hÉireann - a fhreagairt. I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to answer this question, which relates to the ongoing debate around seaweed harvesting rights along the coasts of Ireland. I have raised this with the Minister of State, Deputy Coffey, on previous occasions as well.
There was a lot of talk about the legal position regarding folios and whether harvesters have traditional rights, whether they have legal rights, how they can enforce those legal rights, etc. Deputy Coffey told us in the spring that he had asked the Land Registry to conduct an audit of all folios within a mile of the foreshore to assess how many folios around the island of Ireland have these rights attached. That is an important piece of work. We were told at that stage that it would be done by September and we have not heard back since. I wrote to the Property Registration Authority of Ireland, PRAI, but unfortunately it did not respond, so I felt I had no option other than to drag a Minister back to the Seanad to get clarification on this important issue.
As the Minister of State with responsibility for rural affairs, Deputy Phelan will be aware that there is a huge opportunity for us to develop seaweed harvesting around the coast. It is something that has been totally under-utilised since the foundation of the State. There was the company Arramara, which was in State ownership until recently, but its potential to develop as much as possible in the sector was probably hindered by the fact that the seaweed was being processed only to a basic level, after which the pellets were sent away for more diverse and value-added processing abroad. There is considerable potential and it is important for those coastal communities and for the seaweed harvesters that the income they can get from seaweed harvesting is maximised.
One of the concerns is that there is an attempt by the Government to corporatise the industry. We have seen a large international player, Acadian Seaplants, come into the market and take over Arramara Teoranta. We do not have an issue with a company coming in, but we do have concerns about who will be given licensing rights to harvest the seaweeds. One of the pertinent issues is the need to ascertain who has rights at present and who does not.
I understand that having a right written into one's folio is not the only way of asserting one's right to harvest seaweed, but it is an important one. Apparently, if a company applies for a licence to cut seaweed in a particular area, if somebody has a strip of seaweed harvesting in that area, the licence must exclude that strip. There are other ways in which people can assert their rights, but that is another day's work. One possible method is under the 1998 conveyancing Act, which contains articles allowing a person to assert his or her rights even if it is not included in the folio.
This was a very important piece of work. I am not sure where it stands, which is why we have asked the Minister of State to clarify it. Has the work been finished? If so, can the information be made publicly available? Can we see a list of all the folios in which people have seaweed harvesting rights included? Can it be shown on a map such that we can see areas of the coastline where the rights exist, almost like a red line, and other areas in which there is a contention as to who has the rights and where licences can be issued? I welcome the Minister of State and hope she can clarify the situation.
I thank the Senator for raising this very important issue. I know exactly how people are thinking around the issue and I understand their concerns. I welcome my colleague, Senator Máiría Cahill, to the Seanad. Again, I thank Senator Ó Clochartaigh for raising the issue and allowing me the opportunity to set out where the Department stands on regulating the harvesting of wild seaweed under the 1933 Foreshore Act.
The Department has received a number of applications under section 3 of the Foreshore Act for licences to harvest seaweed. As has been outlined in previous debates, the applications are varied, being made by both individuals and commercial harvesters. The applications range from very small-scale harvesting of niche seaweed species to large-scale commercial harvesting, as the Senator pointed out. All foreshore lease or licence applications must be assessed in the context of the applicable regulatory framework. Public participation is a requirement of the foreshore consenting process and a number of submissions received by my Department expressed the view that certain rights to harvest seaweed exist, with some submissions referring to such rights to collect seaweed.
My Department sought the advice of the Office of the Attorney General on the interaction between the Foreshore Act and any relevant appurtenant rights, that is, rights that attach to a piece of land close to the foreshore to collect or harvest seaweed. My Department has engaged with the Property Registration Authority of Ireland, PRAI, to attempt to establish the extent of appurtenant rights specified in Land Registry folios to harvest seaweed that may exist. On foot of this request, the PRAI has provided my Department with data detailing the extent of the rights in seven of the western seaboard counties, namely, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Clare, Galway, Mayo and Donegal. I acknowledge the valuable assistance of the PRAI in compiling the information for my Department. It was a complex task, given the manner in which the requested data is held by the PRAI and having regard to both the PRAI's and my Department's obligations under data protection legislation.
From information provided by the PRAI, it is clear that appurtenant rights to collect seaweed exist, and the implications of such rights regarding the harvesting applications before my Department are being assessed. It is important that these rights, including the location and scale of such rights, are fully considered to inform the evaluation and determination of such harvesting applications. This process is ongoing.
I thank the Minister of State and welcome that she has told us this work has been done in seven counties. My understanding from the PRAI is that anybody can get a copy of a folio of land if they pay the charges. Making the information available is not necessarily a data protection issue. Will the Minister of State make the information available? Can a map be made available showing where strips of harvesting rights are attached to certain parts of the shoreline?
It would be important and useful to anybody making any future applications to know that there are folio rights in certain areas already. These rights are on the folios, so they are public information. These documents can already be availed of through the Land Registry. It would be important for the Minister of State and her Department to make this information available publicly so that people can see where these rights actually sit.
Perhaps I will go through the legal advice. It is clear from the advice of the Office of the Attorney General that the Department needs to establish the scale of appurtenant rights to harvest seaweed before it can answer some of the questions that have been raised and process certain licence applications. The Department must take account of any established legal rights, and the aggregate quantification of these harvesting rights, as part of the application process. This requires the Department to identify the folios to all land bordering on the part of the foreshore and the folios to all parcels of land with the exception of urban lands and housing estates within one mile of that part of the foreshore which is the subject of the licence applications currently with it and to examine those folios to ascertain whether they contain any entries showing a right to take seaweed from that part of the foreshore. I appreciate that the note I have read is probably a little legalistic. If it helps the Senator, I will give him a copy of it so that he can go through it. If he still has concerns about specific aspects of this matter, he might come back to me.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy McHugh, to the House.
I join the Chair in welcoming the Minister of State to the House. The issue I am raising today poses some problems and challenges and offers some great opportunities. I refer to the concerns, ideas and interests of this country's 3,000 beekeepers, who are represented by the Federation of Irish Beekeepers Associations. They are particularly concerned for the prospects of the native Irish honey bee and for the manner in which this sector is managed.
While apiculture is a niche sector within our food production and agriculture industries, it almost beggars belief that there is no reference whatsoever to it in the Harvest 2020 document that was drawn up by the Government to set out our objectives and ambitions with regard to food production in this country. Most of the 3,000 enthusiastic beekeepers who are operating in this country keep bees as a hobby rather than for commercial purposes. In my own area, the long-established Dunamaise Beekeepers Association, which is based in Stradbally, County Laois, has passed down the tradition of beekeeping within families and communities down through the years. Many of the members of that association have produced and harvested honey of such world-beating quality that they have won medals and cups on the world stage for their produce.
It is astounding that this country, which is renowned for its agrifood sector, its food production and its food exports, imports 90% of the honey that is consumed here. It is hard to believe, but my point is that it does not need to be the case. We could turn it around so that it becomes a fantastic win for honey production, for beekeepers and for employment in rural Ireland in this niche sector. I will set out what is required to do things differently. While honey production is not a big-ticket item like beef production or dairy production - it is not anything of that order - there are certainly great prospects for jobs to be created and for niche rural industries to be spawned in this sector. A number of actions are required if that is to happen. First, an all-island approach needs to be taken. I am sure the Minister of State, as someone who comes from the north of the country, would appreciate that fact.
Bees by their nature do not respect, regard or identify with borders. They do not fly over large expanses of water either, which is an advantage in our case. As we are an island nation, we can develop honey which has an integrity and which is produced within a defined area within the European Union. That would be to our advantage in terms of marketing a high quality product, organically produced and so forth.
The native Irish honey bee has adapted to our intemperate climate. While most people believe that bees are only out and about in the sunshine, that is not the case. They are busy pollinating and making honey as long as it is not raining, which is another challenge to which they have adapted. Some of the challenges that both bees and beekeepers find difficult to deal with include the introduction of foreign hives which can introduce disease, parasites and hybridisation which weakens the strain of the Irish honey bee and limits its ability to adjust to the Irish climate. Beekeepers are seeking a ban on the importation of foreign hives, which has already been done elsewhere, including on the Isle of Man. Beekeepers want to prevent interloping bees from places like Italy weakening the Irish bee stock.
Apiculture offers great opportunities and potential not only as a hobby, but as a commercial pursuit. In countries like Poland, one can study apiculture at university and emerge two or three years later with a recognised qualification in this area. We have totally ignored apiculture but there is an opportunity for us to engage, embrace and develop the sector for everyone's benefit.
I thank Senator Whelan for raising this issue. The value of honey produced in Ireland in 2014 was estimated at slightly over €3 million. The value fluctuates from year to year depending on the climatic conditions during the summer. There are almost 2,500 beekeepers in the country, over 56% of whom have three colonies or fewer while only 3% or approximately 70 beekeepers have more than 50 colonies. Only five beekeepers have over 150 colonies, which many would consider to be a commercial apiary.
Notwithstanding this scale of activity, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine fully appreciates the importance of beekeeping in Ireland. The value of bees as pollinators far exceeds their value as honey producers. In 2008, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government estimated the value of pollinators, including honey bees, for Irish food crops was at least €53 million. This does not include the value of pollinators in terms of non-food crops and maintaining bio-diversity in the wild.
One of the major issues facing beekeeping is that of bee health and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine recognises the importance of maintaining and further developing a healthy honey bee population and has devoted considerable effort to this. With this in mind, the signing into law of the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013 repealed the outdated Bee Pest Prevention Act 1908.
The Control of Animal Diseases Regulations 2014, SI 110 of 2014, lists six pests and diseases of bees of concern, including the small hive beetle. In response to the 2014 outbreak of small hive beetle in Italy, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine established a sentinel apiary programme earlier this year. Working with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, a similar programme has also been rolled out across Northern Ireland. This programme was established with the support of the Federation of Irish Beekeepers Associations and the Native Irish Honey Bee Society. Volunteer beekeepers in areas which are considered to represent greatest risk for the introduction of pests such as the small hive beetle, as well as other beekeepers are participating in this programme. Over 20 beekeepers providing a representative geographical spread across the country are involved. The sentinel apiary programme is designed with the objective of providing early notification in the event that any exotic pest or disease affecting honey bees arrives in Ireland. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine co-ordinates the programme and has provided equipment and guidelines to the beekeepers and also provides the diagnostic service to implement the programme.
In addition, a bee diagnostic service is operated from the Teagasc laboratories at Oakpark in Carlow. Analysis of some 300 samples for foul brood, nosema and varroa which are submitted by beekeepers each year are carried out and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is informed where a case of a notifiable disease is detected. Officials in the Department follow up, where appropriate.
The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine co-funds Ireland's national apiculture programme with 50% co-funding from the European Commission.
The 2013-16 programme is due to run until August 2016 and is being implemented by the University of Limerick in collaboration with Teagasc Oakpark and NUI Maynooth. Funding of €70,000 per annum is available for the programme. The objectives of the current programme are: to monitor Irish over-winter colony losses during the period from 2014 to 2016 in collaboration with the international COLOSS network; assess the efficacy and tolerability of alternative varroa treatments under Irish conditions; establish the prevalence of pests and pathogens in Irish honeybee colonies and assess if the dark native honeybee has inherent resistant characteristics; and provide technical assistance to beekeepers and groupings of beekeepers.
The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine intends to engage with the Irish beekeeping associations shortly with a view to preparing plans for submission to the European Commission in early 2016. These plans will seek co-funding for a new national apiculture programme to cover the period 2016 to 2019. Appointment of bee health inspectors under this programme will be one of the issues for consideration in deciding the priorities in terms of Ireland's application for funding.
The Department also provides grant aid to beekeepers under the national horticultural grant scheme. The current scheme is advertised on the Department's website, with a closing date of 18 December 2015. In recognition of the smaller scale of beekeeping compared with other sectors of horticulture, a minimum investment of €2,000 is required compared to €10,000 for other areas of horticulture. Potential funding for beekeeping groups is also available from the Department under the scheme for conservation of genetic resources to develop breeding programmes and strategies to protect the dark native honeybee. The Department also provides an annual grant to the Federation of Irish Beekeepers Associations, FIBKA. The objective is to assist FIBKA to meet its operating costs, thereby allowing the association to promote the craft of beekeeping among its members, and to inform the general public of the role of bees in our environment.
The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is also active in ensuring that imported and domestically-produced honey marketed in Ireland meets all the various quality and labelling standards. More than 100 samples of honey are taken per annum under the national residue plan. A broad suite of tests are carried out in respect of contaminants such as antibiotics, pesticides, heavy metals, etc. In addition, a sampling programme is being organised across the European Union this year to ensure that the honey marketed is not being mislabelled with regard to its geographical or botanical origin and that products declared as honey do not contain externally added sugars or sugar products. The Department and Health Service Executive have taken upwards of 70 samples under this programme. The Department is also working with a number of stakeholders in producing a guide for beekeepers to ensure they fulfil all legal criteria pertaining to the production, marketing and labelling of their honey.
Officials are in regular contact with their counterparts in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in Northern Ireland to ensure that a common approach is taken, particularly in the area of bee health. They will continue to explore the opportunities for greater co-operation in ensuring the development of beekeeping across the island.
I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive answer, which touched on many of the points I raised. I ask that the Department engage with its Northern Ireland counterpart on this matter because an all-island approach would offer solutions and opportunities. The sting in the tail, to use a pun, is that Ireland should not need to import honey. We have an opportunity to develop a strong, viable and sustainable rural enterprise. Honey production is an enjoyable activity and bees, as pollinators, are important for other food production and agricultural sectors.
As the Minister of State noted, the Department and Teagasc have estimated the value of the bee pollination process at between €50 million and €60 million per annum. Bees are providing a free service and deserve a little payback, as it were. For this reason, we must protect and value them and develop the honey industry, which is currently small in scale. We have an opportunity to develop a rural enterprise and enable Irish honey to join other Irish food products on the world stage.
Meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council take place on a regular basis. I do not know when the next sectoral meeting between representatives of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in Northern Ireland will be held. I will raise the matter with the Minister as it should be added to the agenda. I will bring the Senator's message to the Minister.
Invasive Plant Species
I ask the Minister of State to outline what the Government is doing about the problem of Japanese knotweed, known botanically as Fallopia japonica. This weed was introduced to Europe by a German botanist in 1850.
It was deemed to be the darling of garden plants for many years until it was discovered that it was an invasive species when, after a few years, it started to take over parts of Germany and spread right through Europe. In recent years, it has landed on Irish shores. I acknowledge and thank Councillor Marcia D'Alton from Passage West in Cork who provided me with a great deal of information on this matter.
Knotweed is now in Offaly, Tipperary, in my own town of Carrick-on-Suir, Cork, Kerry, Limerick and many other counties. It is moving unabated across the country and it cannot be controlled by the methods we are currently using. It is causing serious damage to flora, fauna, flood plains, river banks, roadsides and farmland. It grows at a rate of 3 m to 4 m per week. Despite all efforts in Britain, where control efforts are costing the British taxpayer £228 million per year, it infests every 10 sq. km of that country. To date, the only solution has been to spray or inject but that process takes four to five years to achieve containment. Knotweed needs to be buried at least 5 m below ground to ensure it does not resurface.
The issue has been raised at many local authority meetings. I have looked at some of the reports from Kerry and Cork where the official response has been that it is a matter for the National Parks and Wildlife Service and not one for local authorities. Clearly, it is an issue for the country and we need to take some action on it. A number of questions have been asked on this issue in the Lower House and the answer in the main is that we have noxious weeds legislation and that there are a number of EU regulations, namely, the European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011, to control the importation of the weed and its movement. The difficulty is that these regulations have not yet taken effect in Ireland. In any event, it is not a solution to the problem. I would like to hear what the Minister proposes on behalf of the Government to tackle the problem. Following the reply, I will give my view as to how we should start.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir as ucht an t-ábhar seo a ardú inniu. Táim sasta an cheist a fhreagairt ar son an Aire, Teachta Heather Humphreys, agus ar son an Rialtais.
I thank the Senator for raising the matter. I am well aware that there is a growing public awareness and concern about the impact of invasive species, including Japanese knotweed. Since it was introduced as an ornamental plant from Japan in the 19th century, it has spread across the country, particularly along watercourses, transport routes and waste ground where its movement is unrestricted. Japanese knotweed grows vigorously and out-competes native plants. It is recognised that once it becomes established in or around the built environment, it can become hard to control. In this regard, my Department is responsible for the Wildlife Acts and the European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011, which prohibit the spreading of invasive species. In general, control of invasive species is a matter for landowners. My Department carries out considerable work to control such species in national parks and natural reserves. For example, work has been undertaken over many years to deal with the rhododendron threat in Killarney National Park.
While my Department does not have the resources required to extend such work into the wider countryside or to provide dedicated funds for such work to other bodies, it is currently supporting the development of a Japanese knotweed protocol for Ireland. A number of agencies, including the National Biodiversity Data Centre, Inland Fisheries Ireland and the National Roads Authority, are involved in drafting the protocol which it is intended to have completed next year. The protocol should help us to manage the impact of Japanese knotweed more effectively around the country.
I am aware that a number of local authorities are already carrying out control programmes for problem species, including knotweed. In addition, the European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011 include provisions to control the possession and dispersal of ecologically harmful and invasive species of animals and plants, including Japanese knotweed.
For example, under regulation No. 49 of the 2011 regulations, a licence is required from my Department for any proposal to remove Japanese knotweed from a site and transport it to another site for disposal.
Invasive species, by their nature, do not recognise political boundaries and I am pleased that a considerable level of co-operation already exists on the issue between Departments and agencies in both jurisdictions on this island. My Department works with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency to fund and manage the invasive species Ireland project, which provides substantial advice and guidance on the management of a range of invasive species that can negatively impact on the environment and property on the island of Ireland. We are also working on this issue with other member administrations in these islands through the British-Irish Council and we will host a workshop next year in Dublin on this theme.
At a European level, my Department is actively participating in discussions with the Commission, member states and other Departments and agencies here on arrangements for the implementation of some key provisions, including border controls relating to the European Union regulation on invasive and alien species. That will come into force next January. One strong focus of that regulation is the prevention of the spread of new species. It seems unlikely, however, that Japanese knotweed will be included on the Union list as it is already widespread in the EU. Therefore, it will remain a matter for individual member states.
I thank the Minister of State. I recognise the work that has been done already in recognising the problem and the initiative to set up and have a working protocol in this State. There is urgency to this matter, however, which perhaps has been lost in the approach that has been taken.
Most of the statistics we have on knotweed relate to Britain. Knotweed in Britain currently prevents people from getting mortgages to buy houses. It prevents properties from being sold. It has destroyed development property where it has blown in from adjoining wasteland. The same thing is happening in this country and we need to wake up to what is going on here.
I recognise that what the Minister of State is doing is good but alongside those measures I suggest that he should bring together the various players involved. These include Inland Fisheries Ireland, the National Botanic Gardens, the National Roads Authority, the National Parks and Wildlife Service and, most important, the local authorities. The local authorities are actively facing and dealing with the matter.
I drove through east Cork some weeks ago. Along the road between Fermoy and the Waterford border I saw signs warning people of Japanese knotweed. More than anything else, I call on the Minister of State to get the Department to lead an awareness campaign, because people do not recognise knotweed. They do not recognise it by viewing it and, therefore, they do not realise that if they touch it, the spores will move from that location to wherever they go that day and the next day. People can spread it without knowing. An awareness campaign is essential as a first step. I call on the Mister State to bring the relevant people together and to hold a forum on the matter as soon as possible.
That is not a problem. There is already engagement involving Inland Fisheries Ireland. I say that as much with my other hat on because I have responsibilities in the relevant Department as well. I will speak to my officials again to highlight the obvious sense of urgency. The protocol is being worked on. There will be a gathering or bringing together of minds on the matter next year in a formal setting, but I will certainly speak to my officials to raise Senator Landy's concerns.
I wish to raise the issue of the MRI scanner for children in Our Lady's Children's Hospital, Crumlin and the associated waiting list for children. The scanner has broken down, and I believe this is not an irregular occurrence. It broke down at least one week ago but no contingency plan is in place to manage the care and assessment of children. My understanding is that there are only two MRI scanners for children in Ireland with the appropriate medical support, one in Crumlin and the other in the hospital in Temple Street. Children require a general anaesthetic. The result is that the waiting list in Crumlin currently stands at 28 months and I do not know the length of the list for Temple Street - perhaps the Minister can enlighten me. I understand the list is divided between the two hospitals.
I wish to share a case with the Minister of State. Obviously, I will not disclose the name of the person on the floor of the Seanad, but I am happy to provide it to the Minister of State.
It is very illustrative of why this is such a critical issue.
One young boy, who is now six years of age, when aged three had symptoms including very poor balance, being tired and lethargic and the development of a tick in his head. His parents were able to afford to bring him to a neurologist on a private basis. The neurologist advised them that the child probably had flat feet and questioned whether something was happening in the home which caused him to develop the tick. Thankfully, the mother insisted on the scan. The neurologist was reluctant to put the child forward saying the child was not an urgent or high priority case. Given that there are only two MRI scanners, at that time the waiting list was eight months.
The child went for an MRI scan over two and a half years ago on a Friday morning and the parents were advised that they could receive the results in about four to six weeks. They were in the recovery room 30 minutes later and a team of medical staff surrounded the bed. The team said a brain tumour had been found and a biopsy needed to be done, the earliest opportunity for which was Monday. The first test was done on the biopsy on Monday and the parents were told there was an 80% likelihood that the child had cancer, but the results were inconclusive and a second, more intrusive, test needed to be done, and was done two weeks later. The further test found that it was a low-grade tumour which required regular monitoring but, thankfully, was not cancerous.
These parents initially brought their child for three-month checks, and then tests on a six-month basis to establish a baseline and ensure they could monitor the situation. At a six-month scan in April 2014, they were told that they were not allowed to leave the hospital as the child had developed hydrocephalus. He was transferred by ambulance to Temple Street, monitored overnight and had surgery the next morning. The parents advise me there were no obvious signs in the lead-up to that test in April 2014 and nothing made them feel that the test would be any different.
The child has scans every six months. Last Friday he was due to have his next six-month scan, but the parents were told on Tuesday last week that the machine was not working and it would take two weeks to get a part from Germany, which is mind-boggling - I would get on a plane and get the part. They were advised that the new appointment would most likely be in early 2016. Thankfully, because of the pressure the child's mother applied and, I imagine, the debate we are having here today, she received a call yesterday to say the child would have an appointment early next week.
I am thinking of all the other parents out there. This is a low priority, non-urgent case involving regular monitoring. How many other children are low priority? How many other parents have been told that their children's cases are not urgent and, therefore, they are on a waiting list? As I said, the waiting list is very long. Why are MRI scanners for children not in operation seven days a week? It would give parents assurance if an MRI scanner did not show anything of concern. A wait of 28 months to find out whether something is wrong is unacceptable.
The parent who contacted me is obviously concerned for her child, but in her generosity is extremely concerned not only for the children lucky enough to be in the system but those on the impossibly long waiting list. I have been told by a senior source in Our Lady's Children's Hospital, Crumlin, that children requiring a general anaesthetic, usually those aged under 12 years, face a waiting list of 28 months.
Over the past two days I have discussed this issue with a number of friends. I could not believe the number who shared frightening cases they knew directly or of friends' children who are on the waiting list to ensure their children can get MRI scans. Over the past three and a half years waiting lists have increased from eight to 28 months. Even eight months is far too long, but the parents to whom I referred were told their child's case was non-urgent and not a priority, it was likely the child has flat feet and something was happening at home. They were able to afford to go an alternative route, but I want to know the situation regarding the MRI scanner for children in Ireland and the length of the waiting list.
I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I am taking this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Health, Deputy Leo Varadkar, who is elsewhere on Government business. I want to reassure the House about the MRI scanner in Our Lady's Children's Hospital, Crumlin. I understand some concerns may have been raised last week about whether the machine is in working order. I am happy to advise the House that the MRI scanner was fully operational last week, other than on Friday, 13 November, when scans were postponed to allow for repairs to be carried out on the machine.
The repair on Friday affected five patient slots and these scans have been rescheduled for this week. MRI scans recommenced fully on Saturday. Appropriate contingency plans were put in place by Crumlin hospital, with Temple Street hospital, for any emergency cases that might have arisen on the Friday while the machine was being repaired.
On the broader issue of waiting times for MRI scans at Crumlin hospital, the capacity to provide these scans is, as the Senator pointed out, under pressure. Referral patterns reflect the tertiary paediatric nature of services provided in the hospital. The oncology specialty generates the largest portion of MRI activity. Crumlin hospital also provides the only paediatric cardiac MRI service in Ireland. The unit takes consultant referrals from local maternity hospitals and from hospitals nationally where paediatric MRI with general anaesthesia for younger patients is required. Demand for MRI services is steadily increasing from all specialties. In this context, particular attention has been paid to optimising existing capacity and managing demand through clinical triage. MRI capacity at Crumlin hospital has increased in recent years and is at almost 2,000 scans per annum. This compares with 1,600 scans in 2011. The MRI service now operates for 37 hours per week and staff are available to provide lunchtime cover as demand requires it. In addition, a service is provided from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays, which is suitable for those patients who do not require anaesthesia or sedation. This has improved access and decreased the waiting list.
To maximise capacity there is a strong focus on active local management of appointments, with the result that did not attend, DNA, rates are extremely low. Triage is also a key element in managing demand and preventing inappropriate referrals. Under the triage process, between six and 14 referrals weekly are triaged as urgent and these are dealt with as soon as possible. Unfortunately, however, patients from specialties other than oncology and cardiology who require a general anaesthetic and who are categorised as routine experience long waiting times of between 15 and 27 months. I emphasise that the Government sees this as unacceptable and acknowledges the difficulties which delays cause for patients and their families.
Crumlin developed a business case for resources to increase capacity and submitted it for consideration in the context of the current service planning process, which is still ongoing. The HSE and the Department of Health continue to work together to address waiting times for diagnostic services, including MRI, and to ensure appropriate collection and reporting of MRI waiting times.
I thank the Minister of State. Obviously, somebody is telling somebody untruths because why would those at Crumlin hospital have telephoned the mother I mentioned on Tuesday and said the machine would be down for two weeks? For me, there are serious questions to answer. I am not questioning the veracity of what the Minister of State said but I am concerned that the truth is not being told. How do we actually know this is urgent? The Minister of State spoke about the routine waiting list of between 15 and 27 months. My reference to a 28-month waiting list is probably more accurate. I know the Minister of State is a parent and that he understands what it is like for parents to worry about a child. I welcome the fact that the Government sees this as unacceptable. I will continue to monitor it because I find it totally and utterly unacceptable that we are asking parents to wait this length of time to be reassured or to ensure their children get the correct and appropriate treatment. We know the importance of early intervention and prevention, particularly in the lives of children, and we need to increase the pressure in respect of this matter. I hope the business case will be put through and we will ensure children are seen in a timely manner. The case I have raised today was routine and the neurologist did not wish to refer it. How many other children are like this?
I appreciate the Senator raising this extremely important matter. I do not doubt that her contact with the parent concerned will have highlighted to her the obvious distress the family went through. Statistics are statistics and, unfortunately, demand for the MRI scans increased from 1,600 in 2011 to 2,000 per annum at present. The Minister is not using statistics as an excuse. However, he will use them to try to improve the service and I have no doubt he will ensure that, where possible, resources will be directed to where they are needed. I will certainly convey the Senator's message to the Minister and I thank her for raising the issue.
I thank the Minister of State.