Commencement Matters

Constituency Boundaries

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing this Commencement matter to be taken today. I welcome the Minister of State.

The situation for the people of County Roscommon is very grave and serious. A three-person commission, under the chairmanhip of Mr. Jack Keyes, has been established to review the boundaries of County Roscommon for the purposes of a possible amalgamation with County Westmeath. The commission is based in the civic offices in Mullingar. It may be an indication of a certain bias that the boundary review secretary is based on Mount Street.

A serious campaign has been established. Last week1,600 people attended a meeting in South Roscommon, chaired by Councillor Tony Ward and attended by other councillors, including Paddy Kilduff, John Naughten, John Keogh, Ivan Connaghton and Lawrence Fallon, the councillors elected for the south Roscommon area and the municipal area of Athlone, which is in County Roscommon.

I compliment the Save Roscommon campaign on its work in opposing the proposals of the boundary commission and the councillors who are very much involved in the campaign, not only in south Roscommon but also throughout the county of Roscommon. All 18 councillors are unanimous in their opposition to the proposal being made. It is important that the Government get a clear message that the people of County Roscommon will not permit the annexation of part of the county. It is important that all public representatives, especially those running in the general election, are unequivocal in their opposition to this land grab. The Fianna Fáil candidate, Councillor Eugene Murphy, has made his support for the Save Roscommon campaign quite clear.

What is the rationale for the boundary commission? Who initiated it? Why was it initiated? At whose request was it initiated? The panel consists of three not particularly wise men from the east; it does not even have the gender balance required for electoral purposes.

Will the Minister of State quantify the loss of income or potential income to Roscommon County Council of this proposal? Has she considered the additional investment required in Roscommon if the proposal goes ahead such as building new area offices and all of the other requirements? The Connacht side of Athlone was annexed years ago, in the early part of the last century. If any amalgamation is to take place, the more logical step would be that the area of Athlone west of the River Shannon in Connaught, where the diocese of Elphin reaches the edge of the bridge in Athlone, would be a natural boundary with the new area of Monksland and give it a stronger identity.

Whatever happens, we are where we are. We would be satisfied if we were to retaine what we have. Monksland has been prioritised by Roscommon County Council for investment. In 1975 Don Panoz brought the Élan Corporation, now trading as Alkermes Pharma Ireland limited, to the area. In the 40 years since a vast tract of land has been transformed and investment has taken place in industrial infrastructure, roads, paths and social housing in the south Roscommon area. There is also a primary care centre. The area has been developed for industry and has attracted Jazz Pharmaceuticals. It has ready access to the motorway. County Roscommon is a gateway for job creation.

We are making this case and I know that the Minister of State is acting for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, today. I propose that the boundary commission be disbanded and we develop the county as it is. In the 1920s the country was divided into two areas, one comprising 26 counties and the other six. Can the Minister of State is who is from Cork imagine how I, as somebody born and bred in County Roscommon, feel about the idea that a large portion of the county be transferred to another, thereby depriving the people of County Roscommon of their identity?

It is a very serious issue. I appeal to the Minister of State and the Government to transfer the matter elsewhere. The decision will not be made until March, which is, of course, very convenient because the general election will be over.

Whoever comes in to the Office of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, I am making the appeal in this House. I put it genuinely and seriously that the people of County Roscommon are united 100% in their opposition to the possible proposal to annex an area of the county into another. I hope the Minister of State will convey this message to the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Taoiseach. The message is: "Hands off Roscommon."

I thank the Senator for raising the issue. As he will probably know, we are going through the same process in Cork, but it is within one county as opposed to two. There are views on either side of that question also. The Senator should know that it is not only County Roscommon where this applies. As he rightly pointed out, I am taking the matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, who is keen for me to update the House on the matter. As Members are aware, he announced the establishment of statutory committees to review local government boundaries in Athlone, Carlow, Drogheda and Waterford on 19 June last. In the case of Athlone, the committee has been asked to carry out a review of the boundary between County Westmeath and County Roscommon and make recommendations with respect to that boundary which it considers to be necessary in the interests of effective local government.

The main rationale for undertaking the review of boundaries in Athlone is that the 2011 census showed a significant Athlone environs population in County Roscommon. The question that arises is the proportional relationship between administrative jurisdictions and the current settlement and development position. I imagine the Senator is well aware of all these arguments. Bringing an entire town or city within a single local authority area can eliminate or prevent anomalies and distortions of divided administration, service provision, regulatory and enforcement responsibility and electoral representation. Potential problems can also include differing policies and practices between authorities in respect of matters such as planning, rating and other changes that can impact negatively on town centres. Possible differences in standards of service delivery can also be avoided. Consolidation of administrative responsibility can also strengthen the economic performance of a town by ensuring a single authority working on its behalf.

Athlone is now an important economic hub for a wide hinterland and has the potential to act as a major economic growth and employment centre at the heart of the country. That can benefit the people of all the surrounding counties, irrespective of what side of an administrative boundary they reside. The Athlone boundary committee has been established under section 28 of the Local Government Act 1991 and, in accordance with section 28(3), it is independent in the performance of its functions. While it would be inappropriate, therefore, for me to comment on the substantive matter under examination, I take the opportunity to address some misconceptions that have been reported recently on this issue.

First, neither the Government, as the wording of the Commencement matter seems to suggest, nor the Minister is proposing that the boundary be changed. The task of examining and analysing the issue has been entrusted to the independent boundary committee and it is that group which will consider and report on the matter. At that stage, it will be open to the Minster of the day to suggest the alteration of a boundary by order, having regard to the report in question. In this context, it is clear the matter will not be decided finally by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government but by the Oireachtas. In accordance with the 1991 Act, a draft of any order made by the Minister providing for a boundary alteration must be laid before each House of the Oireachtas. The order cannot be made until a resolution approving the draft has been passed by each House. This would normally follow a submission to the Government and be unlikely to arise unless the independent statutory committee proposed a boundary alteration. The Members in this House, as well as their colleagues in Dáil Éireann, will, therefore, have an opportunity to examine any draft order that might come before them and it will not proceed unless approved by a positive resolution of both Houses. Moreover, any boundary alteration proposal would apply purely to the local government administrative jurisdiction. Contrary to an impression that has been given by a degree of publicity, a boundary alteration, were it to take place, would have no effect whatsoever on sporting affiliations, such as, for example, how GAA clubs are organised. There are notable examples in the North and the South of where GAA club affiliations depart from local government boundaries and where clubs located in one county compete in a neighbouring county.

The establishment of independent statutory committees to review local government boundaries in counties Westmeath and Roscommon and elsewhere is a natural development, building on the measures announced in the action plan for effective local government in 2012 and subsequently provided for in the Local Government Reform Act 2014. I hope this is of some benefit to the Senator.

Feedback thus far suggests the revised structures and measures implemented by this Government are generally operating well and I imagine the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government will look forward to studying the various reports, including the report relating to counties Westmeath and Roscommon, to assess whether further adjustment is necessary. No decision has yet been taken.

I thank the Minister of State for her comprehensive reply. If County Roscommon is deprived of the rates that are generated in the Monksland area, it will put the funding of the county in serious jeopardy. There is no question about this. If that area is annexed from Roscommon, the rates will be collected and spent in that area. By the way, the Connacht side of Athlone is one of the most deprived areas in the country. Indeed it is no great credit to the county council in Westmeath that the area has been neglected. The people there would be far better off if the area was transferred under the responsibility of Roscommon County Council. It would be more logical; to Connacht for Connacht, not "to hell or to Connacht".

I am unsure whether the Minister of State is aware of the deep feeling on the matter - perhaps she is aware of it in Cork. I appeal to all the candidates of all the parties, including Fine Gael, the Labour Party, Renua and Fianna Fáil, to come together, unite and make this one of the issues, with the hospital and other issues, of the general election campaign. No candidate can go before the people without committing to support the retention of our beloved County Roscommon.

Since the same process is under way in Cork, I am conscious that the rates area, the adjustment of valuations and all of those matters are critical points to be considered in the event that the independent commission decides on whether there should be an adjustment. However, no one can be certain that this will happen. I imagine the arguments made by public representatives and the public in general will be taken into consideration. In the event, that is one of the elements that will have to be considered. As I have said, no decision has been made. There has been no definitive instruction in terms of a "Yes" or "No". It is simply an overview to take a look at what is best in terms of effectiveness in respect of local government and what is best for the county in terms of economic development. As the Senator rightly pointed out, there are areas in every county which have an abundance of wealth and other areas which are greatly deprived. This type of adjustment has to be taken into consideration also.

Ambulance Service Provision

I am pleased that it is the Minister State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, who is in the House to take this matter because I have found in the past that not only is she aware of what is going on but she aslo has a great knowledge of and insight into the actual situation. Equally important, I have found her to be a listening Minister of State who persists and perseveres, sometimes against the head, as she did in the case of community nursing homes. I am keen to say this. The nursing homes in Abbeyleix and Shaen in Portlaoise were earmarked for closure, but, thanks to the intervention of the Minister State, she was able to secure the funding to invest in these important community nursing homes. This ensured they were upgraded and brought up the HIQA standard and rules. I acknowledge that she saved the day for the elderly and the communities of County Laois.

I have a bleak warning for the Minister of State.

The National Ambulance Service is overstretched, under-resourced and understaffed to the point of lives being put at risk. I make no bones about saying this. It is a difficult job at the best of times and a stressful one on a good day. It is intense work. The service is often the lifeline between the community and life-saving medical intervention at a hospital, including surgery.

The service cannot cope with the demands being placed on it. I do not raise this matter lightly and have witnessed what is happening at first hand. How is it possible that a hospital as large as the one in Portlaoise which serves a large catchment area that includes south Kildare, north Tipperary and the entire midlands is often left without any ambulance cover whatsoever? That is the reality. In the past fortnight ambulances from Portlaoise were dispatched to places as far away as Enniscorthy to pick up the slack resulting from a lack of ambulances covering Kilkenny, Carlow and Waterford. How can this be possible? Ambulances from Portlaoise have been dispatched to Carrick-on-Suir in south Tipperary, leaving the midlands without ambulance cover for hours on end. This is not acceptable or sustainable.

Ambulance drivers and paramedics are at their wits' end and being stretched beyond belief. I witnessed this before Christmas at a commemoration of UN veterans in Portlaoise. A man collapsed at the event within a mile of Portlaoise hospital but there was still no ambulance after 45 minutes because the vehicles had been dispatched to elsewhere. However, paramedics who had been attending the commemoration - it was an Army and Air Corps event - had the skills and training necessary to resuscitate and save him. He had to be brought to hospital in a car after they deemed him fit to be moved. No ambulance was available. I am not making up stories or crying wolf. The ambulance service cannot operate at its current staffing and resourcing levels.

This issue is feeding into doubts about the future of and safety and staffing levels at Portlaoise hospital. There are question marks over the 24/7 emergency department. In an unprecedented move this week, Laois general practitioners, GPs, raised questions about why the HSE had not come forward with a plan to commit to the hospital's future status, including a 24/7 emergency service of which the ambulance service would be a core part. That announcement was supposed to be made in September but the issue has been fudged and long-fingered until after the general election. This is not acceptable and I will not countenance any situation in which the ambulance service in Portlaoise is diminished or under-resourced further or where there is any question of a threat of undermining the hospital's status, its 24/7 emergency service and the proper resourcing and staffing of same.

I thank the Senator for his kind remarks, although I am never certain that remarks of that type can get one a reward, seeing as how people usually believe one will do something great the next time around also.

Sometimes, it is not possible to resolve every issue. In my personal experience and that of a close family member, however, the ambulance or pre-hospital care was fascinating and incredible. The Senator is right about staff ensuring people are stabilised by the time they reach hospital instead of facing into the awful dash that is usually the case following a serious incident.

I am pleased to be able to outline to the House current developments in pre-hospital emergency care services in the midlands and nationally. The National Ambulance Service is working to ensure the provision of high-quality and timely pre-hospital emergency care services, using all available resources as effectively and efficiently as possible.

As with any complex modern health service, development and modernisation form an ongoing process as technology and clinical standards change. A significant and ongoing reform programme has been under way in recent years. Funding of €7.2 million has been provided this year to ensure response times are maintained, including €2 million to recruit and train extra staff and expand the community first responder scheme which trains local volunteer groups to respond to cardiac emergencies. Last year saw the opening of the national emergency operations centre, NEOC, in Tallaght and the establishment of a single national control system. This project is delivering improved technology to improve response times. Developments such as national digital radio, national computer-aided dispatch, mobile data and electronic patient care reporting will allow the National Ambulance Service to deploy resources more effectively and efficiently.

The emergency aeromedical support, EAS, service was permanently established in 2015. It ensures that seriously ill or injured people in remote areas have timely access to appropriate clinical care. While targeted mainly in the west where road networks may not allow for timely transport to hospital, the emergency aeromedical support service can be tasked anywhere in the State. More than 1,200 EAS missions have been completed since June 2012. The intermediate care service which was set up to provide transfer for non-emergency patients between hospitals allows emergency vehicles to focus on emergency calls. In October 2015, 88% of the inter-hospital transfers previously carried out by ambulances were handled by the intermediate care service.

It is important to note that the model of service delivery for the ambulance service has changed. It is no longer considered appropriate for an ambulance station to provide services only to its own area. For this reason, the ambulance service is moving to dynamic deployment, whereby all resources in a region are deployed across that region as a single fleet in response to demand. This means that, in the midlands, services are provided across the region from Tullamore to Edenderry, Longford, Mullingar, Athlone, Birr and Portlaoise. Services in the region have been enhanced with additional staff based at Edenderry ambulance station in order to provide additional cover. The introduction of a rapid response vehicle in Tullamore further augments services. New rostering arrangements for the region have been agreed between the National Ambulance Service and trade unions and will lead to greater efficiencies in the service.

The Senator can rest assured that the Government intends to drive further improvements in pre-hospital emergency care that will benefit the people of the midlands and the rest of the country. From personal experience, I know those involved to be an incredible group of people who deserve our support. I hope that, with the finances improving, we will be able to invest in the service further.

I accept the Minister of State's assertion that there must be reforms and that, with radical improvements through the use of new technology and flexibilities, we must have a modern ambulance service that can be dispatched. I also second her sentiments about the professionalism, commitment and hard and vital work of ambulance crews. However, I have first-hand knowledge of the crews in Portlaoise being understaffed and overstretched. I understand them operating within a region or catchment area, but I cannot understand how Enniscorthy and Carrick-on-Suir fall into Portlaoise's area. It does not make sense, either in terms of safety or the useful deployment of resources and services.

In the case that I mentioned, a man collapsed - almost fatally - within one mile of the hospital on a Sunday morning but no ambulance was available. That makes no sense. There are issues with resourcing and staffing. While a central hub in Tallaght may work efficiently and effectively from an accounting point of view, we must consider whether it is effective from the point of view of patient safety and patient care, with particular regard to the status of Portlaoise hospital and the demands placed on it by the size of the population that it serves.

Portlaoise was in the news again this morning following the publication of the report on a tragic incident that occurred six years ago. Our thoughts should be with the two parents in question, as well as others. The concentration on Portlaoise and the midlands area must be continued. It will include the ambulance service.

The Senator is right to raise this issue, as additional investment is required. With the economy improving, I hope this investment will be made available.

Judicial Council

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I preface my remarks by stating that, in general, the State has been well served by the Judiciary since its foundation. I am aware there are issues such as, for example, whether we would be better served by having the continental inquisitorial system rather than blindly following the very costly adversarial system we have, which is a throwback to our colonial occupation. There is also an issue around appointing multimillionaire barristers to the Judiciary. There should be a debate on a system whereby people, on foot of education and appropriate qualifications, would see the Judiciary as a career in itself and enter it through those educational qualifications.

My purpose is to inquire about the position on the judicial council. It is over ten years since a group of members of the Oireachtas justice committee visited the United States to look at the Judicial Council of Massachusetts. We returned quite enthused about it. We met the supreme court justice there who told us how the state's judiciary was accountable to its peers through the judicial council system. Subsequently, I inquired about it on a number of occasions, as it was a decision of the Government to pursue that course. However, it was opposed by some elements within the Judiciary. Is it still being stalled or opposed by vested interests? I heard the comments of the Supreme Court Chief Justice in this regard and she appears to be quite supportive of the idea. In particular, I am anxious to know what precautions have been put in place in the absence of a judicial council.

The economic downturn affected people rather badly because of the large amount of liquidity they had financially. Many were heavily borrowed and lost a great deal through investments. There were questions as to whether some would be bankrupt or become insolvent, although I have not seen much evidence of this. There is no reason to believe the Judiciary would have been immune from the effects of the downturn. The Bangalore Principles of Judicial Conduct are clear. Under principle 2.5, a judge shall disqualify himself or herself if it may appear to a reasonable observer that the judge is unable to decide the matter impartially. This includes, for example, where the judge or a member of the judge's family has an economic interest in the outcome of the matter in controversy. There have been suggestions, which might be untrue, that some judges, like people throughout society, were heavily borrowed and if they were adjudicating on bank creditors appearing before them there would appear to be an element, perhaps, of conflict of interest. I am sure the judge would disqualify himself or herself from hearing such cases but in the absence of a judicial council we cannot rely on this. Given the severity with which the downturn has affected people, it is important that the Government should have taken some initiatives, but, given how slow it was to deal with the bankruptcy and insolvency issue, I am not confident that it has done so. Principle 4.7 of the Bangalore Principles of Judicial Conduct is very interesting. It states that a judge shall inform himself or herself about the judge's personal and fiduciary financial interests and shall make reasonable efforts to be informed about the financial interests of members of the judge's family.

In a republic everybody is equal before the law. There should be no unaccountable elites anywhere in our society. I am seeking an accountability system in this area. We saw what happened with Justice Hugh O'Flaherty who resigned, very honourably, in circumstances where most people said that what he did was perhaps wrong but was not a resigning matter. Another judge, Judge Brian Curtin, did not resign and received a considerable amount of money from the State in circumstances where it appeared that there should have been no hesitation in a resignation. The independence of the Judiciary is fundamental, but that independence is not just independence from the Executive but also from other influence. Will the Minister outline to the House the precautions the Government has taken to ensure nothing untoward might have happened during the course of this difficult economic climate, in which many people found themselves in straitened financial circumstances before the courts?

I thank the Senator for his interesting contribution. I am not certain that much of it has anything to do with the question in hand, but I take his point. I am never certain about the equality before the law either. If there was true equality before the law, those who are called as witnesses would not have their title disclosed when they are called. It has an undue influence from time to time, as if somehow their evidence is more pertinent than that of the rest of us old sops who do not have any title. With regard to the American system, while this might be a good idea, I am not sure we would take on many of its other practices.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue and, on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality who cannot be here, I acknowledge the importance of the matters to which the Senator refers. We are very lucky in this country that the Judiciary is independent and acts with great integrity. We can all agree that an independent Judiciary, the integrity of which is beyond question, is fundamental to the working of our democracy and essential in terms of upholding the rule of law on which all citizens rely. The Senator will be aware that Article 35.4.1o of the Constitution states a judge of the Supreme Court or the High Court shall not be removed from office except for stated misbehaviour or incapacity, and then only on resolutions passed by Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann calling for his or her removal. This constitutional process has been extended by statute to the question of removal and dismissal of Circuit and District Court judges. That is an improvement. Otherwise, with the exception of statutory provisions dealing with investigating and reprimanding judges of the District Court, there is no means of investigating or dealing with allegations which are not sufficiently serious to merit the invocation of the constitutional provisions. Both this and previous Governments have been conscious of the fact that there is a need for an alternative structure to be put in place to deal with allegations of this nature and the development of such a structure is a key driver behind the Judicial Council Bill.

The current draft of the Bill provides for the establishment of a judicial council and board that will promote excellence and high standards of conduct by judges. It will also provide a means of investigating allegations of judicial misconduct. In this context, a judicial conduct committee which will have lay representation will be established. It will facilitate the ongoing support and education of judges through a judicial studies committee and through the establishment of judicial support committees. I assure the Senator that there is no hidden agenda behind the fact that the Bill has yet to be published. It is a regrettable reality that the finalisation of the Bill has had to give way to other pressing priorities in the legislative area, but the Government remains firmly of the view that it is of the utmost importance that this legislation be advanced within a speedy timeframe. I should add that the various drafts of the Bill have benefited from review by the Judiciary who have considered it as part of the work of the interim judicial council which has been established pending the Bill’s enactment.

With specific reference to the Bangalore Principles of Judicial Conduct, these principles enshrine key values relating to independence, impartiality, integrity, propriety, equality, competence and diligence which, in many ways, are self-evident characteristics of a properly functioning judicial system. It is to be anticipated that any future guidelines concerning judicial conduct and ethics will be reflective of these principles. This would not be surprising since the Government would have every confidence that judicial conduct accords with these principles and it would not support any implication that values such as independence and integrity are not intrinsic to the way in which the courts operate. I believe the Senator would agree with this.

The Minister of State clearly signalled at the start that her response would be unsatisfactory. Obviously, it is. The Bill will fall with the fall of the Government and, therefore, will not be enacted during this term.

That is appalling, given the fact that we have been waiting for over ten years. The Minister of State was silent on whether it had been stalled by vested interests. That silence tells its own story and we can draw the obvious conclusions.

The Senator may draw an inference. I do not.

I did not interrupt the Minister of State. She will get her chance to speak. It is obvious to any objective observer why she did not address that in her reply. She mentioned no timeframe. We know that it is going to fall; therefore, in fact, it has been long-fingered. It is reminiscent of the dereliction of this and the last Government in failing to implement the recommendations of the report from the Competition Authority in 2006 which specified that increased competition was needed for consumers of legal services. The troika and others emphasised this and I know that the members of the troika were still pressing it at their most recent meeting here. This is evidence of a failure to recognise what the priorities should be. The Minister of State's reply rings very hollow. She stated it was "of the utmost importance that the legislation be advanced within a speedy timeframe," but we have been bloody well waiting ten years for it. Whoever writes this kind of gobbledegook should be brought to heel. If someone in the House takes the matter seriously, it is not good enough to come back with a reply like this. It does the Minister of State no justice. I know that it is not her fault, as she is in the Department of Health, but it reflects badly on the Department of Justice and Equality. We are very well aware from the report last year that we have a dysfunctional Department of Justice and Equality.

Whoever wrote the speech is a good civil servant. We should be very conscious of this. We are fortunate with the people who work in the administration of democracy in this country. There are other countries we could name, of which the Senator will know a few, that are not as fortunate with their civil and public servants as we are. I was reared with the ethos that one should never judge others by one's own standards. No one sitting on the Bench every day of the week to administer justice operates only in his or her own self-interest.

I never said that. I certainly have not said it. That is poor sophistry in which the Minister of State is engaging.

They operate on the basis of the administration of justice-----

As I acknowledged at the start.

-----and none of us is above the law. To imply, as the Senator does, that somehow or other-----

I have not implied it. I said "clearly". The Minister of State should look at my introductory remarks.

The Minister of State, le do thoil.

I cannot allow that kind of thing to go unchallenged. The Minister of State knows exactly what she is at. She is deflecting from the dereliction of duty of her ministerial colleagues in the Department of Justice and Equality.

Bhí an seans agat, a Sheanadóir.

To imply, as the Senator is doing, that somehow or other the judicial system has a vested interest in preventing this from proceeding is unfair and, in this instance, unjust.

Sitting suspended at 11.05 a.m. and resumed at 11.40 a.m.