Commencement Matters

Building Regulations

I welcome the Minister of State with responsibility for housing and urban renewal, Deputy Damien English. For the past past five years the normal procedure in dealing with Commencement matters has been that the Senator raising a topic has four minutes, with one minute to ask a supplementary question following the Minister's response. Technically, under Standing Orders, a Senator has five minutes and he or she is not permitted to ask a supplementary question. My suggestion, therefore, as Cathaoirleach is that we continue the practice of allowing a Senator to speak for four minutes and to then ask a brief supplementary question following the Minister's response. I think that would work well and unless there is a desire on the part of Members to do otherwise, we should stick to precedent.

I wish to share one minute of my time with Senator Rose Conway-Walsh.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I am sure the Minister of State with responsibility for housing and urban renewal will have watched the "Prime Time" documentary aired on 31 May that revealed the devastating consequences of a profound failure in State regulation regarding the manufacture of concrete blocks. The concrete block is the core component of the family home. Senator Paudie Coffey visited County Donegal in his time as Minister of State and examined this issue. Essentially, family homes in County Donegal are literally falling apart. Families have to decide whether they continue to live in their homes and risk the roof falling down on top of them because of the impact on the gables of their homes.

The Government set up an expert panel to look at this issue, but its terms of reference are inadequate. The Government has only asked the panel to look at the issue as it pertains to private homes. I can confirm that Donegal County Council has examined hundreds of examples of its housing stock and confirmed that very large numbers of houses are affected by this disaster for many families across the county. The issue also apparently affects schools and other public buildings, yet the Government has only asked the panel to look at the matter as it pertains to private homes. I am asking the Minister of State simply to amend the terms of reference to ensure the panel can investigate the matter as it pertains to private and public homes.

The Minister of State also needs to clarify whether the panel can recommend a redress scheme similar to the pyrite redress scheme that was rightly put in place for devastated families in Dublin and north Leinster.

Families have had to make difficult choices. They had money set aside for education of their children in years to come, but they have had to rebuild the outer leaf of their home. They had no choice and could not wait for the Government to take action.

Will the Minister of State clarify these matters today? I know that he will travel to the county and meet families soon. I hope he will meet a delegation from Donegal County Council. He should be aware that public representatives in his county took action on a similar matter when pyrite had an impact. This affects hundreds or probably thousands of homes across County Donegal. It was caused by a profound failure in State regulation, as it was left to manufacturers to ensure concrete blocks were built to a required standard. I urge the Minister of State to take the opportunity to clarify the matter and assure us he will amend the terms of reference.

I thank the Cathaoirleach and the Minister of State for being here. This is a very important issue for the people of County Mayo also. I was extremely disappointed that the "Prime Time" programme only covered County Donegal as there are hundreds of homes in County Mayo affected by pyrite. A representative group met officials from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government in March 2014 and presented photographic evidence and the reports indicating beyond doubt that the houses were affected by pyrite. I know that families that have had to flee their homes because of pyrite and that is not fair. Hundreds of families in County Mayo have had to stand by and watch households in the eastern part of the country be compensated. I understand the difference between pyrite being in the foundation and blocks.

I welcome the setting up of the expert group, but I am absolutely dismayed that it has indicated it will not come to County Mayo until September. That is not good enough. We know that the only solution to the problem is the demolition of buildings. Will the Minister of State consider intervening with the Central Bank in order that a stay can be put on the mortgages of the people concerned who are being crucified paying mortgages while paying rent also? Are there proper standards now in place and are we sure this is not happening this very day? Are similar materials being supplied by unregulated quarries throughout the country?

I thank both Senators for raising this important issue. In April this year an expert panel on concrete blocks was established to investigate the problems that had emerged in the concrete blockwork of certain dwellings in counties Donegal and Mayo. In fairness to the Senators' colleague, Senator Paudie Coffey, that expert panel was set up quite quickly when compared with other panels in the past. We must recognise the timeframe and it is important that it is up and running, doing its work.

In May the expert panel held meetings with the mica action group and elected members and officials from Donegal County Council to seek any information that might be available on the nature of the problems that had emerged in blockwork and affected homes. The panel's report is due in October and I look forward to receiving it in order that we can see where to go from there. I am aware the elected members of Donegal County Council welcomed the establishment of the expert panel during their meeting of 12 May and they have corresponded on the matter with me, requesting a meeting. I am also aware that elected members expressed the view that the panel's terms of reference were too narrow and proposed that the terms of reference be amended to include buildings owned by public authorities. However, unlike many private home owners, public authorities are generally better equipped and better resourced to investigate problems that may have emerged with their buildings and identify appropriate remedial solutions.

In a specific case of local authority dwellings in County Donegal that may be affected by defective blockwork, it would be a matter in the first instance for the council to deal with it. As the owner of the properties and the organisation most familiar with their construction, it should investigate the nature of the problems, establish the number of dwellings affected and identify practical and cost-effective solutions to address the problems. Subsequently, it would be a matter for the council to present a detailed business case to my Department for consideration, should capital funding for remedial works be required on foot of those investigations. This is in line with standard practice in such matters generally and in other areas also.

For the avoidance of doubt, my Department will examine any proposal brought forward by Donegal County Council in this matter and will work closely with the council to solve any problem identified in the concrete blockwork of the social housing stock to facilitate the delivery of cost-effective and timely solutions. As was confirmed by the Taoiseach a few weeks ago on the floor of the Dáil, I intend to visit a number of private homeowners in north Donegal next week and at some stage to visit County Mayo in the near future. I can give that guarantee. As part of the visit, I will meet elected members of Donegal County Council in order to listen to their concerns about these matters. They were in touch with me via written correspondence in the past few days and I have written back with confirmation that we will meet. I hope that will happen next week.

Ultimately, the terms of reference involve establishing the facts behind the problems in counties Donegal and Mayo, engaging in consultation and outlining technical solutions for addressing the problems identified in order to assist affected homeowners. I have no proposals to amend the terms of reference of the expert panel, particularly given that it is already two months into its investigations. In this regard, I will await the outcome of the panel's report before considering what further actions may be required to assist the parties directly involved in reaching a satisfactory resolution to the problems that have arisen in the two counties.

To be very clear, the expert panel is moving quite quickly. It did not waste any time after it was set up and a chair had been appointed before visiting County Donegal and it will visit County Mayo also. We will let it do its work first and we will see what comes out of it.

The Senator referred to the pyrite problem in north Dublin and County Meath. I have been very much involved in that campaign during the years. I understand what it is all about and what had to happen eventually to make it work. It took a lot of time, but those homes are being fixed and I hope in the next 12 to 18 months all of the homes affected will have been fixed. It is a step-by-step procedure, but first we must identify exactly what is behind all this. That is the first job of the expert panel and we will take it from there.

The issue is that we have had statutory instruments since 1949 and have had building control regulations and standards right through the decades that followed. This is a profound failure in State regulation and it is staring the Minister of State in the face. I am sure he has watched the documentary and seen for himself the impact of this problem, as has the former Minister of State, Senator Paudie Coffey. I cannot understand why he cannot ensure the terms of reference of the panel will be amended immediately to allow it to examine the impact on the private and public housing stock. Why is that important? It is important because then the Minister of State will have a full sense of the scale of the challenge that lies ahead. He gave a vague commitment that the county council in Donegal or Mayo can submit costings and there might be a capital grant. We are talking about a significant amount of money that would be taken away from other local services in County Donegal to be deployed towards resolving this issue. Will the Minister of State amend the terms of reference?

The Minister of State has pointed to his own involvement in the pyrite campaign in his own county, on which I say, "Well done to him". The families there were rightly given a pyrite redress scheme and fair play to them for the campaign they conducted. Will the Minister of State make a commitment here and now that the Government will put in place a mica redress scheme to assure families in counties Donegal and Mayo that the nightmare they are living through will be addressed by the State and the Government whose profound failure caused the problem in the first place?

The expert panel was set up with the task of establishing the facts. The Senator has his facts and assumed a particular position. That is fine. He is very much involved and was involved in this issue before I was. The "Prime Time" programme addressed certain issues also, but a panel has been set up, independent of the Senator, me or anyone else, to establish the facts. That is the first procedure to be implemented. If the Senator does not mind, it would be advisable for us to stay with that. It will take a couple of months for the panel to complete its work and I will engage with and work with it and visit the sites myself. That is the position and it is important to establish the full facts. We will take it from there. The Senator will have to understand this. Most colleagues, of all parties and none, would accept-----

In County Donegal they do not.

I did not interrupt the Senator.

The Minister of State will meet and hear from the cross-party delegation. It does not accept-----

The Minister of State could amend the terms of reference to ensure the job would be done properly.

Let the Minister of State respond. I have been very fair to the Senator.

Any logical person would accept that the facts must first be established. Is there one reason a combination of reasons? I understand Senator Pádraig Mac Lochlainn has his view and that is fine, but we have an independent expert panel to inform both Houses of exactly what happened. Then we can judge what happened. In the meantime, I will go there myself to meet residents and councillors from any party. I will meet anyone who wants to meet me. There is no problem whatsoever. The door is open. However, we will establish all the facts behind this and follow a procedure from then on. That is the best way to address the issue. It is the way we have implemented other schemes.

The Senator commented on the pyrite scheme, to which the same approach was used: first, we established the facts behind it. Each case is different. The pyrite and mica problems are different, but we will establish the facts. That is the right way to go and I will continue the work the former Minister of State, Senator Paudie Coffey, started to try to find a solution to the problem in the end.

Social Insurance Rates

I welcome Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Leo Varadkar.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this Commencement matter and the Minister for attending the House to deal with this important issue. The matter has been spoken about in the past few years. If affects many people within the Department and the Civil Service. The class K PRSI contribution is paid by a large sector of society with no benefit to them. They qualify neither for pension purposes nor for any benefit. During the last Seanad election it also came to light that a large number of full-time councillors, in particular, did not receive any benefit or pension in paying the class K contribution on their annual allowance. The wording of this important matter speaks for itself. The class K contribution does not confer any benefit on a large sector of society who pay it, particularly councillors, who are working hard, and especially those who are working as councillors full-time, are young and have not yet retired. They depend on the councillor salary for their livelihood. I believe they are entitled to some benefits and hope the Minister can address this issue in the next budget or the next social welfare Bill.

As this is my first time in the new Seanad, I take the opportunity to congratulate all Senators on their election, particularly those who are serving for the first time in the Oireachtas. I also congratulate the Cathaoirleach on his return and election as Cathaoirleach.

I thank the Minister.

I thank Senator Paddy Burke for raising this very important matter which has been raised with me on a number of occasions and which I know is of real importance to councillors and Senators.

PRSI class K contributions are paid by a number of categories of contributor. Since 1 January 2011, public officeholders pay PRSI at the class K rate of 4% on their income as officeholders, provided that income exceeds €5,200 per annum. All public officeholders are liable to pay the contribution, regardless of their age. Public officeholders include the President, Members of both Houses of the Oireachtas, members of the Judiciary, the Attorney General, the Comptroller and Auditor General and city and county councillors. Payment of class K PRSI does not contribute towards the establishment of a social insurance entitlement - in short, a person gets no benefits from it. Prior to the introduction of the class K contribution, all public officeholders were exempt from PRSI on their income as public officeholders. Then, as now, they could establish and protect their social insurance entitlements based on their non-officeholder activities, or through the payment of voluntary contributions. When the class K PRSI charge on the income of public officeholders was introduced in 2011, it was done on the basis that public officeholders had been identified as a group that were not paying PRSI on their income as officeholders. The charge was, therefore, introduced as a measure of solidarity, allowing them to contribute to social insurance at a time when extensive curtailment of social insurance entitlements to other public and private sector employees was introduced.

Since the introduction of the class K contribution for public officeholders, further measures to charge class K PRSI have been introduced. Since 2013, class K PRSI at 4% is charged on the non-employment income of certain Civil Service and public sector workers who pay modified rates of PRSI, classed as B, C and D, where they also have income from a trade or profession. Payment of class K PRSI by this group does not give cover for a range of benefits and pensions such as the State pension, jobseeker's benefit and illness benefit. In 2014 employees and pensioners under the age of 66 years whose only other source of income was unearned became liable to pay class K PRSI at 4% on that unearned income where they were paying tax on that income.

I am examining whether changes are required to the basis on which class K PRSI is charged, particularly the position of local authority members.

Most councillors already have cover under the PRSI system through their other employment or activities. A minority of full-time councillors do not have cover. Any change to the current class K arrangements will need to have regard to the social insurance and occupational position of the officeholders generally and I will have to consult other relevant Ministers in this regard.

I thank the Minister for his reply, but it still does not clarify the position. I hope the Minister, in the run-in to the social welfare Bill, will address the issue because it is one that needs to be addressed. It can only be addressed in the context of the budget. This issue involves more than simply giving benefits to one group or another. I hope the Minister will address it in the budget.

I am definitely keen to do something. The issue has been ongoing for a long time and I have the opportunity now to do something about it. I intend to make some change in the forthcoming budget or, more particularly, in the forthcoming social welfare Bill which will be brought before this House in the winter.

The situation, as it stands, is unfair. Local authority members pay PRSI at 4% but get no benefits in return for it, which is uniquely unfair and a position that applies to other public officeholders also. However, it is different for us in the sense that we have severance and pension arrangements but councillors do not. Therefore, they are in a uniquely unfair position and one which needs to be dealt with. I think all councillors know this, but what they may not know or realise is that local authorities which are not technically but which are effectively their employers do not pay employer's PRSI. If one were to change the position and make them, for example, class A contributors like everyone else who works for the councils, the councils would then have to pay employer's PRSI and that would have an impact on the councils' budgets. That needs to be borne in mind. Another potential option is to treat them in the same way as those who are self-employed and move them to class S contributions. A further option would be to raise the minimum threshold below which one does not have to pay anything. In that way they would not have to pay anything, but they still would not get any benefit.

There are a number of options and I will be meeting representatives of the Association of Irish Local Government in the coming weeks to discuss those options and decide on the best one. As is always the case with these things, there are knock-on consequences. I want fairness for councillors, but I am not in favour of special treatment. Whatever the case, we should bring them into line with other workers or other self-employed persons. However, it must be something that is fair and not something that creates special treatment or a special class or privilege. In fairness, I do not think that is what they are looking for.

National Maternity Hospital

The next item is in the name of Senator Kevin Humphreys. For the benefit of new Members, while the Minister, Deputy Simon Harris, is coming, when Commencement matters are submitted, I try to be fair to the parties when they are first submitted. This time there were three matters from Sinn Féin, of which I chose one, and there were three from Fine Gael, of which I chose one. I tried to achieve a balance between the different groups in order that there would not be four matters from one party and none from another. I will try to do this as best I can, even though this time, with the new groupings, it may be a little more difficult. We will deal with it as we go along and if there are issues, I will discuss them with the groups also.

Given that information, I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this Commencement matter. I congratulate Deputy Simon Harris on becoming Minister for Health and thank him for attending to deal with this extremely important issue which concerns the co-location of the National Maternity Hospital, Holles Street, with St. Vincent's University Hospital in Elm Park. I am disappointed because this is an issue which has been running since I was a member of the board of the National Maternity Hospital in 1999. At that stage, it was expected that the National Maternity Hospital would move to the St. Vincent's University Hospital campus within ten years. It is now 2016 and there is a problem which was not flagged before at any stage relating to the governance of the hospital, as a result of which the moving of the hospital is now in danger.

The National Maternity Hospital was built in the 1800s. A total of 9,500 babies are delivered in very cramped outdated conditions, putting mothers' and babies' health, if not their lives, at risk because of the conditions in the hospital. The staff do a fantastic job and give a very high standard of care.

We face a turf war between two hospitals in the form of an argument over a budget. I do not believe this argument is about the health and well-being of up to 10,000 babies or their mothers, nor is it an argument about the quality of care. In Holles Street there are ten delivery wards where 9,500 babies are delivered. There should be 24 delivery wards for that number. There are knock-on implications.

It is very much welcome that the Minister has appointed a mediator and hope they will be successful. I have raised this issue on a personal basis and know the Minister’s personal commitment to it and that much of it is outside his control. I urge him to consider his next step if the mediation is not successful because we cannot allow up to 10,000 babies to be delivered in a hospital that was built in the 1800s. That has a real negative and possibly detrimental impact on the babies and mothers who deliver them in an outdated facility. I look forward to the Minister's response.

I congratulate the Cathaoirleach and all Senators on their election and appointment to this House. I look forward to working with them.

I thank Senator Keving Humphreys for raising this important issue. The proposal to redevelop the National Maternity Hospital on the St. Vincent's University Hospital campus has been under consideration for many years. Within a couple of days of my appointment as Minister for Health, I visited the National Maternity Hospital, Holles Street. One cannot leave the place without thinking it is an entirely inappropriate and substandard building. It is not up to the standards we would want for expectant mothers and their infant children and front-line staff to work and deliver babies in. It is utterly unacceptable. It is quite disgraceful to think we went through the entire Celtic tiger period without ever building the new national maternity hospital.

In 2008 the KPMG independent review of maternity and gynaecology services in the greater Dublin area noted that Dublin's model of stand-alone maternity hospitals did not align with the considered norm internationally and acknowledged that for optimal clinical outcomes, maternity services should be co-located with adult acute services. The report recommended that the National Maternity Hospital be relocated to the St. Vincent's University Hospital campus. In 2013 the then Minister for Health, now Senator James Reilly, with the agreement of both hospitals, formally announced the Government's intention to relocate the National Maternity Hospital to Elm Park and said funding had been approved in the HSE's capital plan to allow the project to proceed. Work on the design brief for the new maternity hospital has concluded. I have seen a scaled model of the new hospital and can say it represents a very exciting development for maternity services.

The project is one example of the Government's commitment to maternity services. That commitment was underlined by the launch of the country's first national maternity strategy earlier this year. The programme for Government commits to implementing the strategy and I look forward to leading the improvement of maternity services for women and their families over the lifetime of the strategy. The House will be aware, however, that difficulties have emerged about the future governance of the new National Maternity Hospital on the Elm Park campus. Concerted efforts have been made to get the agreement of both hospitals to allow the project to proceed. Meetings were held last year with both hospitals at departmental and ministerial levels and a facilitated dialogue was undertaken earlier this year. Unfortunately, that process did not achieve a solution.

Since taking office, I have met both hospitals separately and jointly and stressed to them the need to resolve the outstanding issues as a matter of urgency. I have also visited the National Maternity Hospital and I am acutely aware of the very significant infrastructural deficits there which are impacting on the ability of the hospital to deliver appropriate clinical services.

I am heartened, therefore, that both hospitals have now committed to a further independent mediation process. I have appointed Mr. Kieran Mulvey as a mediator and the process has commenced. A number of meetings have already taken place. I acknowledge that a lot of work went on over the weekend. It is now important that we step back and let Mr. Mulvey and the two hospitals work on a solution outside the media glare. However, I assure the Senator and all other Senators that my overriding aim is to try to find a solution. I must stress that both hospitals are voluntary independent hospitals and, therefore, I cannot simply impose a solution. I intend to use my office to facilitate the finding of a solution. An unedifying spat between two of our great medical institutions does not serve patients well. It is important that the overriding objective of delivering property maternity services in appropriate accommodation for expectant mothers and their families is not lost in some bureaucratic row. It is frustrating, given that the project is fully funded and a plan is ready to go. We could lodge planning permission for the project within weeks if we were to find a solution.

Ultimately, both hospitals will have to reach an agreement on the outstanding governance issues. The process cannot go on forever. Agreement needs to be reached quickly. The hospitals are working constructively with Mr. Mulvey and I hope and expect to see the outcome of that work in the coming days. I remain hopeful a solution can be found. It is important that this happen as quickly as possible in order that this landmark project can proceed.

I do not believe that at any stage the Government or the HSE would have spent €5 million of taxpayers' money in preparing planning applications and conducting the research needed to base the National Maternity Hospital at Elm Park. I am deeply disappointed and frustrated that this problem was raised at a very late stage. The plans should have been lodged at the end of the second quarter of 2015. As far as I am aware, they were substantially finished and were ready to be submitted and at that stage the issue was raised. Some €150 million has been committed to the project in the capital investment programme. We now know that €5 million has been spent on the preparation of the planning application. A lot of consultative work was done at the early stages of the project and at a very late stage the issue of governance arose. I do not believe it is acceptable for there to be any further delay on the part of the two hospitals concerned. I wish the mediation every success and offer it every encouragement, but both hospitals have to be practical and put the health of mothers and children first. This is not a case of money not being available. The money is in place and has been ring-fenced and €5 million of it has already been spent.

I know that the Minister cannot comment on my final point. If mediation is not successful, the Minister will face a number of bad choices and whave to pick the best of them. I urge him to investigate and be ready to consider the possibility of a compulsory purchase of the site to allow the hospital to be built and the planning application to be lodged. I know that they are two voluntary hospitals and that this is a turf war. They have to set aside their interests and put children and mothers at the forefront.

I share the absolute frustration of the Senator. He is correct; about €5 million has been spent on the project already by a Government of which he was a part, because as a country we want to deliver this landmark project. Let me be very clear: this is a priority project for me. I have invested a significant amount of time in the project since becoming Minister for Health because we are close to delivering a landmark project for maternity services, not just a hospital for the Dublin area but a national maternity hospital that will care for some of our sickest newborn infants. It is important that we get this right. The national maternity strategy needs to be implemented, but if it is to be implemented correctly, we need to have the appropriate physical infrastructure in place, that is, hospital buildings.

I have to be very honest with the Senator. There is not an apparent plan B. That is why it is so important that the hospitals get this right. We have decided as a matter of policy that co-location works. We know that the co-location of maternity and acute hospitals works. If these hospitals walk off the pitch, there will be no simple option. The only people who will suffer, with front-line staff, are future expectant mothers and their babies. We cannot allow that to happen. This process has to work. I need be very careful about what I say because I do not want to say anything that will undermine the mediation process in any way.

My hope is the mediation process under the stewardship of Mr. Mulvey will deliver an outcome and that it will happen very quickly.

Misuse of Drugs

I congratulate the Cathaoirleach on his election. I thank the graduates of Trinity College Dublin for giving me a mandate to be here. I also thank the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, for his time.

To give some of the background, I spent the past 15 years on local drugs task forces developing addiction programmes. I have been involved in drug research into drug trends and the changing nature of drug use. I have also worked directly with those involved in low-level dealing. I was alarmed to read in the media last week about proposed amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Acts that would further criminalise the drug user. How we as legislators respond to the use and sale of drugs illustrates our values. With others, I was elected to advocate for a progressive drug policy. Criminalising drug users has been proved by international evidence-based research to have failed to address addiction and drug problems. All over the world societies are recognising that addiction needs to be treated as a public health, not a criminal, issue. If we look at the amendments in the light of recent developments on injection rooms, it is nonsensical; it is a case of one step forward and two steps back. For example, the Minister has named zopiclone as a drug that would be targeted by the amendments. Many of the people selling zopiclone are selling it to fund their own drug use. People who are addicted to zopiclone, a widely used street benzo, would be at risk of resorting to other substances that would create further harms to the individual and the community. The proposed change would also alter trends in drug use, with which the services cannot keep up in the absence of adequate resources. Many who use street benzos cannot access treatment for benzo addiction. Many people have suffered benzo fits from trying to detox themselves. The Bill does not help the matter as it potentially forces the removal of such drugs from the market without matching that with treatment beds, which pushes the addict further into harm. I hope that would not be the desired outcome for the Minister for Health.

I draw the Minister's attention to studies that clearly demonstrate the need to be progressive with drug policy, not regressive, which the amendments are mostly. In the context of the UN General Assembly on the world drug problem, a Brookings Institution report outlined that "socio-economic approaches for addressing drug-related crime and alternative livelihoods policies should be fully integrated into overall...economic development efforts". The report also stated: "Mass incarceration of users and low-level, non-violent pushers does little to suppress - and can exacerbate - the use of illicit drugs. It may also increase drug market violence".

Possession of street benzos and their legality put extra strain on already under-resourced gardaí and potentially cost the State owing to unnecessary imprisonment of low-level dealers. In another study, the International Drug Policy Consortium, an important point made was that the level of harm was more important than the size of the market. For me, the amendments are harmful. Further criminalising individuals will further alienate them, prevent them from moving on and having prospects, especially with the current Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill. The success of the Portuguese model has been well documented and I urge the Minister to explore the evidence for a decriminalisation model that includes a person-centred approach to drugs and addiction.

I call on the Minister to delay the introduction of the measures to allow for input from all involved stakeholders in order that policy is evidence based. Will he commit in the future to evidence-based drug policy that has harm reduction at its foundation rather than contributing to the cycle of criminality? How will the banned drugs be scheduled? Will the Minister indicate whether the control of the substances will be extended to the medical and pharmaceutical industries, as the over-prescription of the drugs has been much more harmful than the illegal street dealing. I understand the Minister possibly feels compelled to respond to the incidents in the north inner city, but I hope he will consider that the measures are regressive, potentially harmful to the users health, and ultimately will never affect those at the top of the drug trade.

I thank the Senator and congratulate her on her election to this House. I take the point she made very seriously based on her experience, but there are two issues involved and my contention is that they are somewhat separate in terms of what I am trying to do but also what the Government must do in a national drugs strategy.

I wish to start with a brief explanation of the existing misuse of drugs legislation which has two primary purposes. First, it aims to protect the public from dangerous and harmful substances which have no therapeutic or other legitimate use, for example, ecstasy or head shop drugs by establishing a system of tight control over them.

Second, the legislation facilitates the safe use of certain controlled drug substances which have a medical and therapeutic value but which are harmful if misused such as benzos, heroin and cocaine. The misuse of drugs legislation is an important element of the Government's arsenal in the fight against drug dealing and trafficking and consequent gangland crime. There is a problem in parts of Dublin and elsewhere with the on-street sale of prescription medicine such as benzos. To be clear, while it is already an offence under medicines regulations to supply or sell such products without prescription, the Government and An Garda Síochána are of the view that controlling these products under the misuse of drugs legislation will lead to more effective enforcement. Following the recent murders in Dublin's north inner city, I instructed my Department to expedite the drafting of the misuse of drugs Bill which was originally scheduled for publication in the the autumn of 2016. I brought the Bill to the Government yesterday and received agreement to publish it. To be clear, the Government resolved to give the Garda whatever tools it felt it needed to respond to the situation in the north inner city and this was one tool the Garda asked to be put in its toolkit. This measure to address the issue was sought by the Garda and I am responding, as part of the whole-of-government approach, to what the Garda has asked the Government to do to address the ongoing worrying situation.

On-street drug dealers often carry relatively small quantities of drugs on their person which can make it difficult for the authorities to proceed with the sale or supply charges. Therefore, the Bill seeks to make possession of controlled medicines an offence to enable An Garda Síochána to disrupt the activities of dealers and to protect local communities. If enacted, the Bill will provide for the drafting of regulations in order that it will not be an offence for legitimate users such as patients with a prescription and health care professionals to be in possession of controlled drugs. In addition to controlling a number of prescription drugs, the Bill will also control a number of substances which the European Union or the United Nations have identified as harmful and open to misuse. These include substances in the NBOMe or N-bomb family of drugs that are implicated in the tragic incident in Cork earlier this year, in which one individual died and five others were hospitalised. The Bill will also control clockwork orange, a psychoactive substance that is being abused in the Border counties and elsewhere. This legislation is necessary and appropriate and part of the suite of measures to assist in tackling crime and protecting public health.

Importantly, I intend to bring forward a second misuse of drugs Bill later this year which will provide for the establishment of supervised injecting facilities for chronic drug users. I reaffirm the Government's commitment to doing this, which is a commitment in the programme for Government. I acknowledge the work done by Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin in his time as Minister of State with responsibility for the national drugs strategy.

My colleague, Deputy Catherine Byrne, now Minister of State with responsibility for the national drugs strategy, is developing a new drug strategy. In that context, I understand consideration is being given to the establishment of a group that would consider alternative approaches to dealing with simple possession offences. There will be public consultation on the drugs strategy in the coming months and Senators and others will have an opportunity to contribute to this process. The Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, would welcome an opportunity to benefit from the Senator's own knowledge and expertise in this area. In the meantime, however, I ask for the co-operation of Members in enacting this legislation as just a piece of the jigsaw the Government has been asked to put in place by An Garda Síochána. I make the point clearly that this legislation is not my response or that of the Government and is not the new national drugs strategy. That piece of work will be undertaken and there will be a second misuse of drugs Bill in the autumn. Moreover, a new national drugs strategy which will be an action-based strategy to deal with the larger issues the Senator has legitimately raised will be published this year.

I reiterate how the focus is on possession which, again, mostly targets people who will be selling for their own use. As for N-bomb and clockwork orange, if one looked further into those cases, polydrug use is usually more the issue than simply the use of N-bomb. Many of the recent deaths have been due to a toxic mix of alcohol, other drugs and this substance. It has not been proved to be due to this substance alone. I reiterate the programme for Government is committed to a health approach to addiction and note my belief these amendments are regressive and retrograde in this respect and do not reach the intended target of high-level dealers. They just serve to criminalise further the most vulnerable in society.

I note the Senator's points and accept her bona fides on the issue. I hope she will accept mine also that the Government intends to deliver on the commitment in the programme for Government to a health-based approach to addiction. I intend to prove this to the Senator and others through the second misuse of drugs Bill later this year and the new national drugs strategy. In addition, however, from my perspective, when An Garda Síochána asks the Government to give it a range of tools to deal with a specific problem in the north inner city, I feel obliged to act in that regard. That is why I am bringing forward this legislation which I hope to have in this House before the summer recess.

Sitting suspended at 11.20 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.