Commencement Matters

Driver Licence Applications

I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this Commencement matter. I wish to share a minute and a half of my time with SenatorMichelle Mulherin.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. As a long-standing Member of the House for many years, I am sure he loves coming back to it. I wish him well in his new portfolio and hope he will have a long career in that office.

The issue concerns the need for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to review Government policy on the Road Safety Authority's tendering process for driving licences to allow post offices to act as agents in processing and co-ordinating applications. The issue was raised by Senator Michelle Mulherin on the Order of Business some weeks ago and brought to my attention by Councillor Bernard McGuinness from Culdaff, Inishowen, County Donegal.

We have had discussions and debate on the closure of post offices. I know that the Minister has championed the cause for the retention of local Garda stations, in particular his local Garda station in Stepaside. I am sure the issue of the local post office is close to his heart also. We have seen a number of post offices throughout the country close in the past ten years. That is another service that has been lost by rural communities. Let me give an example from County Mayo. There are two National Driver Licence Service, NDLS, centres where licences are issued, one in Castlebar and the other in Ballina. It is 50 miles from Belmullet to either Castlebar or Ballina. In County Donegal the two areas where the licences are issued are in Letterkenny and Donegal town. It is a long distance from Culdaff, Malin Head and other parts of County Donegal to Letterkenny. The post office network could co-ordinate the licence application, the applicant would complete the application form and have the photographs and the post office would process it and send it to the licensing authority. Were the post office to provide this additional service, this would make the post office more viable in rural communities. We believe this could be taken into account when the tender process for the issuing of licences comes up for renewal.

I thank Senator Paddy Burke for sharing time with me. I welcome the Minister to the Chamber.

I support the motion. Until 2013, vehicle licensing was under the jurisdiction of the local authority before it transferred to the Road Safety Authority. Arising from the arrangement made by the RSA, licences now issue from fewer offices. This causes difficulties, particularly in rural areas. As has been described, people may have to travel 50 miles to go the NDLS centre, a round trip of 100 miles to apply for their licence. They must attend one office as opposed to the many offices of the local authority. Cognisance needs to be taken of the problems posed by the limited number of NDLS centres. People do not have the option of using public transport. I think the post office network is ideally suited to act as agents in respect of driving licences. It has a large network of post offices throughout the country. It does a similar job in regard to the application process for a passport. There is no problem with fraud or in validating the identity of the person, which is assisted by the Garda verifying the individuals who are applying for a passport and the process being handled by the post offices. This has worked very well. We all know that the passport is an important document.

We have an opportunity to consider the post office network as an agent for this service. It would be in keeping with Government policy to drive business and stimulate the growth of post offices with real business while at the same time responding to the need in rural Ireland. I urge the Minister to consider this motion, especially in the context of the Road Safety Authority putting the service out to tender.

I thank both Senators for raising this very important topic. I thank Senator Paddy Burke for his kind words. I seem to be spending more time in this House during my period as Minister than I did when I was a Member. I hope to come back to the Chamber as frequently as necessary.

I hope we will see a great deal more of the Minister.

I thank the Cathaoirleach. I hope he will. I am sympathetic, as both Senators will know, to the difficulties caused by the closure of the post offices throughout rural Ireland. I was well aware of that during the period of the previous Government. I have not lost that sympathy but this is a subject I have to address in the light of the circumstances in which we find ourselves and what has happened since 2011.

The previous Government, of which neither Senator Paddy Burke nor I was a member as he was above politics at the time and I was in opposition, decided in May 2011 to move from a system under which local authorities issued driving licences to one where a single National Driver Licence Service, NDLS, would operate under the Road Safety Authority. The Government decision was made because it made sense in terms of efficiency, effectiveness and security, as well as value for money. At the time, more than 30 local authorities were responsible for issuing driver licences and this led to duplication, inefficient use of resources, and considerable unevenness in the quality of service provision. The then Government maintained the new system was able to operate in a more streamlined way, while local authorities were able to reassign staff to areas of more pressing concern to them. I am happy to add that no jobs were lost.

The NDLS operates with a central unit in the RSA and three outsourced contractors - a front office to engage with the public, a back office to process applications and a manufacturer for the plastic card licence. The point raised by Senator Paddy Burke, namely, whether An Post might act as front office agents for the NDLS, was raised by a number of Members of both Houses when the legislation for the NDLS was being passed during 2012.

The starting point has to be that the NDLS is about providing a driver licensing service for the public. The three outsourced elements are advertised for tender. The tender processes in each case must comply with rules and guidelines, both national and European. The essence of these rules is that the processes must be open, fair and transparent. We cannot have a situation where tender processes are slanted or prejudged and I am sure no one intends that we should. Government policy on all tender processes remains that they should be open, transparent, and fair. I, therefore, expect the RSA, like any agency of the State, to run fair contracting processes which are designed to select the best proposals for any contractor. The aims of any such contracting process for a service for the public must be to ensure a high-quality service will be provided, that the public will get value for money and that the process by which a contractor is selected is fair and equitable to all those who tender. I am assured that this was the case in all the NDLS contracts.

There is, of course, nothing to prevent An Post from applying for the front office contract and I understand it did so when it was first advertised. It remains open to An Post to tender to run the service when it comes up for renewal, which I understand is next year or possibly the year after. It is due to come up next year, but it can and probably will be postponed until 2018. As the Senator may be aware, under the programme for Government, the Government has committed to establishing the feasibility of offering motor tax services and other State services in post offices.

I thank the Minister for his reply, but it is a typical Civil Service answer. Nothing we said could be interpreted as other than wanting the process to be open, transparent and fair. Nobody is suggesting otherwise. How could the fact the post office would process and co-ordinate the application and send it on to the licensing authority be anything other than open, transparent and fair? The process would be the same throughout the country. The applicants would get their application form in a post office and would get their photographs taken in the same way that people get their photographs taken for passports. They would bring the completed application form to the post office, where it would be checked and then it would be sent to the licensing authority. I think that is a very simple process.

The Minister said the contract would be put out to tender in 2017 or 2018. I hope at this stage that the post office network which is in urban as well as in rural areas will put a tender together to compete for the contract. It would be a simpler process if post offices were allowed to co-ordinate the applications and send them to the licensing authority.

I do not disagree with a great deal of what the Senator has had to say. Let us remember there is a contract that is put out to tender. Like the Senator, I encourage the post office network to tender.

I thank the Minister. I am sure Senators Paddy Burke and Michelle Mulherin will revisit this matter.

Passport Services

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit as ucht a bheith anseo linn ar maidin leis an ábhar seo a phlé. Tá fáilte roimhe. Tá a fhios agam, óna ról mar chathaoirleach ar choiste Chomhaontú Aoine an Chéasta, go bhfuil sé eolach faoina lán cúrsaí ó Thuaidh, cuid de rudaí agus an cineál ráchairte a bheadh ansin ó thaobh na mbásanna agus an idirghníomh polaitíochta anseo i mBaile Átha Cliath.

I thank the Minister of State for being with us to address this somewhat modest and sensible request for the Department to examine the current provision for passport office facilities in the North. We know anecdotally - I hope to know more factually via a question to the Minister - that there is a very high or significant demand for Irish passports. There are a large number of passport applications from the North. The number has risen quite starkly in more recent times because of the Brexit result. In the constituency I represented for five years in Belfast City Council which is probably one of the most loyal of all loyalist constituencies I am proud to say the post office on the Newtownards Road actually ran out of Irish passport application forms. That tells us something. Community organisations, business leaders and politicians have been calling for a long time for the Department to consider locating a passport office in the North, preferably in Belfast. This has been expedited as a result of the Brexit vote. It would meet the needs of people, particularly those who apply under pressure or in emergency situations, who because of family or economic circumstances may not be able to avail of a day travelling down to Dublin and spending the day there waiting to collect a passport to bring back up the road. It is something I am sure the Minister of State will accept in the spirit in which it is requested. I look forward to hearing about it and working with the Minister of State, his colleagues and officials in the Department to bring it about.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir as ucht na ceiste. Ar dtús ba mhaith liom m'aitheantas agus mo chomhghairdeas a thabhairt don Seanadóir as a cheapachán úr sa Seanad. Chomh maith le sin, fuair mé fáilte mhór i mBéal Feirste nuair a bhí mé ann cúpla bliain ó shin. Chonaic mé an sár-obair atá déanta sa cheantar féin. Fuair mé taithí agus uchtach mór mar chathaoirleach choiste Chomhaontú Aoine an Chéasta. Tá cúrsaí tras-teorainn iontach tábhachtach. Tá cúrsaí sa Tuaisceart agus sa Deisceart tábhachtach agus go háirithe an obair atá romhainn fá dtaobh Brexit. Tá sé sin thar a bheith tábhachtach. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir maidir le sin.

I will set the context in terms of the current and projected future demand for passport services and then set out the services available to citizens across the island and new initiatives to be introduced in the coming years. The passport service is in peak season, with 44,927 applications in the system as of 11 July. The level of overall demand is very high this year, with an 11% rise in the number of applications this year to date compared to the same period last year. However, the position has improved recently. On 31 May there were a total of 68,009 applications in the system and this has fallen steadily throughout June and July. I pay tribute to the team in the Passport Office who faced an enormous challenge at the end of May. They have been working diligently and effectively in this regard. At the same time, we are seeing a significant increase in queries and applications from Northern Ireland following the outcome of the UK referendum. In June there were 7,045 applications from Northern Ireland and 5,719 applications from Great Britain. These represent increases of 9.5% and over 20%, respectively, compared to the same month in 2015. While it is too early to say what the precise impact will be, I expect that applications from Northern Ireland will increase substantially in the months ahead. However, the numbers need to be taken in context, as the passport service issued more than 670,000 passports last year. The passport service currently provides a comprehensive range of options for citizens to apply for passports and I do not anticipate any impact on the processing times for passport renewals as a result of the referendum and increased application levels from Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

The vast majority of passport applicants on both sides of the Border submit their applications through the post office network on the island. This is the most efficient and cost-effective way to apply and documents can be submitted at 77 post offices in Northern Ireland. This means that no Irish citizen needs to travel a significant distance to renew a passport. Over 90% of passport applications from the island of Ireland to date this year were submitted through the postal service. To accommodate a relatively small number of people with urgent or sudden travel needs, an appointment service is in operation in the passport offices in Dublin and Cork. This allows customers to book guaranteed time slots, removes the necessity to queue and provides certainty as to waiting times at public counters. The passport reform programme which is well under way will deliver significant customer service improvements to benefit citizens. From early next year it will be possible for adults renewing their passports, whether they are based on the island of Ireland or overseas, to submit their applications online. This will greatly improve convenience and efficiency, and applicants in most cases can avoid having to travel to a passport office or a post office. The passport service plans to have the online service available across the full range of application types, including first-time applicants and children, by 2019. The service will include personal assistance through public offices or service providers, with online applications for those people who lack internet access or technology skills. I expect that the efficiencies generated by the online passport system will result in lower turnaround times, fewer demands on the passport offices in Dublin and Cork and an increase in customer satisfaction.

Overall, I am satisfied that the range of service options meets the current needs of passport applicants and that the service improvements on the way will allow the passport service to cope with future challenges. This includes an increase in applications from Northern Ireland. Moreover, given the current financial pressures on the Department’s resources, there is no justification, on a value for money or operational basis, for opening any additional passport office at this time.

There is no need for concern about freedom of movement or entitlements to an Irish passport following the outcome of the referendum. The process of negotiation to enable the United Kingdom to leave the European Union is likely to take at least two years, as envisaged under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, once the article is triggered. During this period, the United Kingdom remains a member of the European Union and its citizens continue to enjoy full rights, including freedom of movement within the European Union. At the same time, the referendum has not in any way changed the entitlement to an Irish passport, including as it extends to those people born on the island of Ireland and those who are entitled to Irish citizenship through parents or grandparents born in Ireland, North or South.

I am confident that the service options in place provide a sufficient level of access to passport services for citizens, whether they are based on the island of Ireland. The introduction of online services shortly will ensure even fewer people will need to call to a passport office than is the case now. Less than 8% of passport applications were made in person at passport offices so far this year. There is no operational or financial justification for the opening of a passport office in Northern Ireland at this time. My Department will continue to keep service levels under careful review and adjustment will be made to the deployment of resources as needed.

I urge all Members of the House to join with the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, and I in promoting public awareness of the need to apply for passports in a timely manner. When this is done, applicants should have no need to visit a passport office because the post office network throughout the island partners with the passport office in providing an application service.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht an fhreagra chuimsitheach atá sé i ndiaidh a thabhairt dúinn. There is some glimmer of hope in what the Minister of State has said.

The statistics he gave us are welcome. Thus far, by and large, information has been anecdotal and I know that because when I was a city councillor I had to deal with a vast number of passport applications that came through my office.

I pay tribute to and echo the Minister of State's positive remarks about the staff in the Passport Office. I agree with him that they are extremely professional. Recent events have put them under a huge burden but they have dealt with it very professionally. That said, the number of passport applications will not go away and will probably grow. We are in danger, despite the best efforts of staff, of facing a potential backlog. I have heard from people across the North who are extremely worried that their applications are, understandably given the circumstances, somewhat lost in the system. We need to look at the matter. I am encouraged with the news that a review is under way. The online service is crucial and one that young people, in particular, will avail of in the time ahead. I would not lose sight of the potential assistance that an additional office could bring to the overall process. I am sure, given the cross-Broder nature of this matter, that the matter could be teased out and explored at the North-South Ministerial Council.

I note the point made that a financial burden would be placed on the Government. It is something that both the Government and the Executive could look at collectively in terms of trying to make this a reality. At the end of the day, the hope and aspiration is not only to franchise more people by supplying them with an Irish passport but to make the process easier and more accessible for the ordinary citizen.

I am taking the suggestion in the spirit that it was given. I do not want to get into a debate about Belfast or west of the River Bann either. I know the Senator was a public representative in Belfast. I know he worked in a very populated area and, therefore, knows the needs of Belfast. We should keep an open mind about a review as time goes on. A number of years ago in this House I raised this issue in connection with the needs of the north west. It is not all about incurring costs and setting up new up new offices. I am sure there is plenty of infrastructure whether it is Belfast City Hall, Derry City and Strabane City Council or Donegal County Council. We have to be mature enough in politics these days to have a conversation at least without boxing ourselves into corners. Just saying something does not mean there will be action and it does not mean that we have committed to something happening.

The figure of 8% might seem small in terms of people having to go to a Passport Office. It means a lot if one is from Malin Head and must travel to an appointment in the Passport Office in Dublin in the case of an emergency such as the death of a loved one or to avail of a health appointment. Such trips are not a one-day turnaround. Galway to Dublin and Limerick to Cork are one-day turnarounds. If one must travel from Letterkenny, west Donegal or Arranmore Island, going to the Passport Office will necessitate an overnight stay in Dublin which will result in a cost having to be paid. We should keep an open mind. In terms of Antrim, Coleraine and the rest of the region, we should not lose sight of the 8% of people who have travelled here for emergency purposes. I have taken the Senator's question in the spirit it was raised and I want to guard against boxing people in. I would not like to box in the Senator and make this out to be a west of the River Bann versus Belfast issue because I know he is interested in the whole of the province of Ulster.

Arís, gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir agus leis an Leas-Chathaoirleach. Táim buíoch as ucht an seans labhairt fá dtaobh na comhairle thábhachtach fá choinne na ndaoine ina gcónaí in Ulaidh agus sa Tuaisceart.

Motor Insurance

I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. I want to raise the issue of insurance costs. The spiralling cost of motor insurance has placed a massive burden on motorists. In the past year increases in excess of 30% have become standard within the sector and that is unacceptable. I am fully aware that the Minister for Finance has set up a task force to examine the issue and undertake a review of policy in the insurance sector. It is important that this report and the recommendations be made available and actioned without delay.

I know of many people of all ages who have found it extremely difficult to pay their car insurance. It is an issue that disproportionately affects rural areas. Many people who live in rural areas must travel a distance to reach work and do not have the option of public transport. The only mode of transport available to them is the car. Last week, I met a young person who had been quoted in the region of €3,000 for her annual premium. She must pay it to get to work. For every €10 she earns, as much as €1.70 goes to pay her car insurance. This is scandalous and it does not make work pay for her. This issue is also crippling businesses because they are finding it extremely difficult to keep lorries, buses and vans on the road due to the high cost of insurance. The issue needs to be dealt with as quickly as possible because it has had a major impact on overhead costs. If the Government is committed to revitalising rural towns and villages and achieving its target of creating 135,000 jobs outside of Dublin, then it is critical that we tackle the issue of motor insurance.

I call on the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality to ensure that additional resources are diverted to the traffic corps to make sure we have improved enforcement. An Garda Síochána needs to have access to a computer system where the analysis of each number plate will provide insurance details in real time. We need insurance companies to provide verified statistical analysis as to why it is very difficult to receive a quote for cars older than ten years that have passed the NCT.

Dealing with accident claims through the courts system has proved to be very expensive because the costs have been passed on to the consumer in the form of higher insurance premia. At present, it is far too easy to bypass the injuries board. Mechanisms need to be put in place to ensure the board is fit for purpose and that it limits the number of claims that end up in the courts system. The book of quantum, if used more extensively, would provide standard amounts for specific injuries. I ask the Minister of State to outline what interim measures are being implemented while we await the findings of the task force. I also ask that these findings be actioned as quickly as possible.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I welcome the opportunity to discuss in the Seanad the important matter of the cost of insurance and to highlight the actions the Government is taking to address the issues.

An adequately reserved, cost-competitive insurance sector is a vital component of economic activity and financial stability. The current high cost of insurance is a concern for the Government. I know it is a concern for the Senator and citizens. I also know that it is an important element for job potential and creation outside of Dublin and all parts of the country.

While the provision and pricing of insurance policies is a commercial matter for insurance companies, this does not preclude the Government from introducing measures which may, in the longer term, lead to a better claims environment. Different reasons have been put forward by various interested parties to explain Ireland's current increasing insurance costs. Motor insurance appears to be particularly affected, with the cost of premiums increasing significantly in the past 12 months. Reasons often presented include the increased level of insurance claims and the increasing value of compensation awards. Insurance fraud is also considered to be a contributory factor. Others have highlighted that the highly competitive nature of the domestic market for non-life insurance in recent years has begun to impact on firms' underwriting profitability, with underwriting losses reported for a number of high-impact firms. This has been compounded by the fact that investment returns that have traditionally compensated for underwriting losses are currently very low due to the existing low interest rate environment.

To examine these issues in more detail and assess the options for the Government, the Minister for Finance has established a task force in his Department to undertake a review of various aspects of policy in the insurance sector.

An important element of this review is an assessment of the factors contributing to the increasing cost of insurance. This work will be progressed through a working group on the cost of insurance, of which I will be chairman. The working group consists of representatives from all relevant Departments and agencies and will consult relevant stakeholders. The aim of the review is to try to identify measures that can reduce the costs of insurance in the short term and also on a more long-term basis. Among the issues to be examined is data availability to inform policy in this area, taking into account what information or data are required to be in place, what is currently available and what will be provided through the introduction of Solvency Il and to identify any shortfall. Options such as a national claims register and motor insurance policy database will be evaluated.

This is a complex area. It appears that there are a wide range of factors contributing to the increased cost of insurance. The purpose of the review is to identify credible and sustainable solutions that take account of the nature of the problem as it affects consumers in the form of higher costs. However, it is also important to develop a solution that facilitates an increase in the capacity of the market. Moreover, it is necessary to take account of the fact that we want a well capitalised and robust insurance sector and this must be reflected in the final outcome of our deliberations. The latter point is essential if we are to avoid the risk of unrealistic competition on price as companies try to gain market share at the expense of their underlying solvency.

It is my view that even short term solutions to address the cost of motor insurance need to be considered by the review group as part of a comprehensive package of reforms. Failure to do this could compound an already difficult market position, with the risk that Ireland would become a more unattractive place to conduct this type of business if the situation is not fully thought through. The review will be completed in the coming months. I have noted the Senator's proposal for the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, which we will also consider.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. It appears the working group will take the issue of motor insurance costs seriously, as it must if we are to remove all possible barriers for people who are trying to work, which is a major issue in rural areas. The issues around fraud, claims and more extensive use of the book of quantum are core elements in addressing this matter. I look forward to the publication of the report in the coming months. This is a major issue and short term measures need to be put in place to support people. Motor insurance is compulsory; it is a legal requirement. As people do not have options in that regard, we need to ensure it is affordable. The cost of meeting motor insurance requirements is making things very difficult for people.

The work that will be undertaken on insurance costs fits with the programme for Government commitment to a fairer country and a fairer society in Ireland. I know that is what at the core of the Senator's motivation in raising this issue. Certain groups of people are particularly affected by the increase in insurance costs. I can assure the Senator that the working group which I will chair will undertake to conclude its work as soon as possible. Following completion of the review, we will consider what recommendations can be implemented immediately and what recommendations are more long-term in terms of implementation. The working group is tasked with examining what drives the cost of insurance, making short, medium and long-term recommendations and progressing the issue of dealing with increasing insurance costs, taking account of the requirement for an economically vibrant and financially stable insurance sector. I will bring an interim report to the Minister before the end of the year. The Departments and agencies involved in the group include the Department of Finance and, under its aegis, the Central Bank of Ireland; the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and, under its aegis, the Personal Injuries Assessment Board and the Consumer Protection and Competition Commission; the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and, under its aegis, the Road Safety Authority; and the Department of Justice and Equality and, under its aegis, An Garda Síochána and the Courts Service. The group will also consult with external stakeholders, including the insurance industry, and those sectors of the economy that are significantly influenced and affected by rising insurance costs. My intention as chairman of the group will be to bring a report to the Minister for Finance before the end of the year.

Alcohol Treatment Services

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to deal with this Commencement matter and congratulate her on her appointment. Alcohol misuse in Ireland is an issue about which I am passionate. For the benefit of the Minister of State, I will repeat the data I gave yesterday on the Order of Business, as set out in the Health Research Board's national alcohol survey. More than 150,000 Irish people are dependent drinkers; more than 1.35 million people are harmful drinkers, and 30% of people interviewed said they had experienced some form of harm as a result of their drinking. The survey also reveals that 75% of alcohol consumed in Ireland is consumed while binge drinking and that we underestimate what we drink by about 60%. There is a massive unmet need in this area. Alcohol-dependent individuals need psychosocial intervention and therapy and hazardous drinkers need brief interventions to minimise the chances of their progressing to dependency. It is important to make that point.

I would like to provide some more facts and figures from the survey, because they are quite shocking. Some 88 deaths every month in Ireland, or three per day, are directly attributable to alcohol, which is frightening. There are almost twice as many alcohol-related deaths as there are deaths as a result of all other drugs combined. Some 900 people in Ireland are diagnosed with alcohol-related cancers and around 500 die from these diseases every year. Alcohol is a factor in half of all suicides in Ireland. We know we have a huge problem with suicide, but the fact that alcohol is involved in half of all suicides is horrendous. Alcohol is also involved in over one third of cases of deliberate self-harm, peaking around weekends and public holidays. More than 14,000 people were admitted to the liver unit at St. Vincent’s University Hospital for treatment due to alcohol dependence in 2011. Every day, 1,500 beds in our hospitals are occupied by people with alcohol-related problems. Alcohol-related illness cost the health care system €800 million in 2013.

These are a few of the stark figures from the Health Research Board’s survey on alcohol harm. Behind those figures are thousands of family members who require support and guidance in dealing with the stress, anxiety and heartbreak of a having a loved one with an alcohol problem. For a concerned family member or a person identified as having an alcohol misuse problem, accessing services is difficult, which is my concern. The first port of call for people who are anxious that their loved one might have an alcohol problem, or who themselves might have an alcohol problem, is the Internet. The website provided by the HSE, www.drugs.ie, is amazing. I commend all the people involved in its operation. I carried out a search of that website, specifically looking for supports that specialise in alcohol dependency, and found that the only services available in counties Donegal, Galway, Wicklow, Limerick, Cork and Wexford were Alcoholics Anonymous and Alateen, which we all know are peer-to-peer support groups. Based on the startling and worrying facts linked to alcohol misuse, this is a very worrying indication of the lack of support we are offering citizens. In not offering early interventions we are prolonging the agony for the people involved and their families and we are allowing the problem to escalate over time, increasing the heartache for all concerned, as well as giving the HSE a much larger and more difficult problem to deal with in the future.

A report commissioned in 2007 by the HSE, chaired by Professor Des Corrigan from Trinity College Dublin, found that there is severe under-provision of residential places. The report also recommended that mixed treatment for alcohol and other substances should be considered more or less on a county-by-county basis, with input from service providers. We know the benefits of alcohol-only services over mixed-substance services in some settings. I suggest a minimum number of treatment places be set aside for alcohol services and that the ratio of alcohol-only services to mixed-substance services should be discussed by all involved in treatment. Funding should be earmarked for these services.

The national drug strategy is being rewritten and due for completion by the end of the year. My concern is that if alcohol is not included, it will be forgotten. Funding for that needs to be included in the Estimates being put together in advance of the budget in October. As the Minister of State knows better than I, a great deal of alcohol-related harm is hidden and does not reach the public realm. I refer to self-harm, gender-based abuse, physical abuse, sickness, absence from work and economic desolation. The published harms represent a minimum level; the levels relating to real harms are higher. Will the Minister of State provide an overview on what support the State offers to those who have problems with alcohol and, in particular, their families?

I thank the Senator for raising this matter and acknowledge her good wishes to me in my new role.

I reassure the Senator that the Government is committed to tackling alcohol misuse and cognisant of the widespread harm and pain it causes. Alcohol is causing significant problems across the population - in workplaces and for children - and is a substantial burden to all in society. The HSE provides services to prevent and treat addiction to alcohol. People who present for alcohol addiction treatment are offered a range of interventions, namely, initial assessment, comprehensive assessment, the Minnesota programme, brief intervention, individual counselling, self-help, peer support or a combination of these depending on the individual. The delivery of these services is based on the four-tier model of treatment intervention and services are designed to respond to the individual’s specific identified needs. This care model implies that clients should be offered the least intensive intervention appropriate to their need when they present for treatment initially.

Interventions range from community and family-based supports through to primary care services and specialist support services either in the community or residential settings. Inter-agency working involving the HSE, drug task forces and multiple other community, statutory and voluntary agencies forms the basis of this delivery, as the target is to provide services, where possible, in a community environment. Counselling and rehabilitation services provide care to those presenting with an addiction through one-to-one counselling and onward referral to other statutory and voluntary groups where appropriate. The HSE also provides funding to a number of voluntary service providers who treat drug and alcohol addictions. The remit of the drugs task forces was extended to include the problem of alcohol misuse in 2014, in view of the central role they play in coordinating the response to substance misuse at local level. Last year, five drug and alcohol task force areas developed implementation plans to reduce alcohol-related harms, with a further five task forces developing implementation plans in 2016. The Senator will acknowledge that this is something in which she is interested.

The experience of children living with and affected by parental substance misuse has become widely known as "hidden harm". These children are often not known to services and suffer harm as a result of their parents substance misuse. The importance of recognising hidden harm and ensuring these children are identified and supported at an earlier stage cannot be underestimated. The HSE's addiction services and Tusla have collaborated on the development of a hidden harm strategy statement. The statement which is due to be published shortly will address what needs to happen to create the structures, processes and continuum of care to effectively respond to hidden harm. In addition to providing services to those impacted by alcohol abuse, the Government is working to reduce alcohol consumption and to address the underlying causes of alcohol misuse, that is, affordability. availability and attractiveness. The Government approved the publication of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015 and its introduction in the Houses of the Oireachtas last December. The Bill completed Second Stage in the Seanad on 17 December and I expect that it will commence Committee Stage early in the next term. I am anxious that it be prioritised to resume its passage in the next term.

I thank the Minister of State. It is welcome that the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015 will go through the Houses. That is fantastic and it will keep the conversation going. I also welcome the hidden harm report. Implementation is vital, particularly for children who live in homes. Nobody understands the impact of hidden harm. I work with families who have loved ones with alcohol and gambling problems. The main issue is alcohol and it causes devastation within the family. When people want to step into recovery, they find it difficult to access a service. When a family approaches the RISE Foundation and asks where their loved one can go, they find it difficult to access services, particularly if they are in County Galway or County Donegal. People in many counties do not know where to get support. We refer them to the website, www.drugs.ie, but it is still difficult to access a service that deals solely with alcohol abuse.

We have a significantly unhealthy relationship with alcohol in Ireland. Three people a day die from an alcohol-related issue. It is important that alcohol addiction be tackled separately from everything else. Sometimes it is included with the drugs issue or mental health issues and while there is no doubt dual diagnosis needs to be addressed, the alcohol issue needs to be examined first. Services are vital and more residential services are required. I look forward to working with the Minister of State on this issue. We can work well together on it, but I will not let go of it. That is why I am in the House and it is important that we make changes in this area. I hope we can concentrate more on services in this great country of ours.

I very much look forward to working with the Senator on this issue because her expertise in this area is acknowledged. I am concerned about the point she raised about the lack of services in some counties. I will follow up on that to ascertain what can be done to fill the gaps she has identified. Every county is affected by this issue. If there are services in one county, there should be services in another county to match them.

As a society, we have to address our relationship with alcohol. Even 20 years ago, none of us would not have recognised alcohol as a drug and it is timely to have that debate now. It is also time for us to hold up a mirror to society and discuss what we are doing to ourselves, our children and health services. Consuming alcohol in the home makes it become like consuming any other product. It is a specific, separate product and if children are exposed to that, it will become the norm for them. If people are doing their grocery shopping and a child is sitting in the trolley, they will reach for milk on one shelf and alcohol on another. This is the path for the child to view the consumption of alcohol as the norm. This is a challenge for everyone in society. The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015 will seek to address this. I look forward to working with the Senator on the issue in the passage of the Bill through Committee Stage.

Sitting suspended at 11.30 a.m. and resumed at 11.35 a.m.