Commencement Matters

Drug Treatment Programmes Availability

I welcome the Minister of State. As part of my responsibilities when I was Minister of State with responsibility for the national drugs strategy, I took the opportunity to visit as many clinics and speak to as many service operators and service users as I could. Last year, I visited a clinic on Granby Row off Dorset Street where I met a wonderful woman who was travelling from the midlands to Dublin every day to access her methadone. She was a young mother getting her life back together. She took a bus from Portlaoise to the national drug treatment centre in Trinity Court and back every day because she was told she would have had to wait six months for treatment where she lived. Three weeks ago, she died of an overdose. I am told that those who have come to a stage in their lives with their addictions when they realise they cannot go on and ask for help are told they have to wait between six months and two years to get on a methadone maintenance programme. There is a cap on the number of clients certain clinics can help.

I appreciate the efforts of the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne in this regard. I have observed her work at first hand and listened to a number of her speeches.

I was at an event a few mornings ago at which she gave an incredibly impassioned speech about our responsibility to treat those who are vulnerable due to their addictions with the most compassion possible. I believe she is doing a sound job and I support her in everything she is doing. However, what is the Department's and the Government's response on how to shorten the waiting time to access this essential treatment programme? Also, what can we do to ensure that clinics such as the one on Granby Row have the capacity to deal with all those who require their services? Obviously, we must address the long waiting times, but having caps on the numbers of patients clinics can deal with does not stand up to scrutiny.

This is a life or death issue. I am advocating for people who are often not well thought of or well regarded in our society. I was incredibly struck when I heard the news last week that the beautiful person I had met, who was getting her life together and doing her best to overcome her addiction by travelling from Portlaoise to Dublin every day to make her and her child's life better, had succumbed to her addiction three weeks ago and died on the street of an overdose. We could save lives by changing or re-evaluating how we are doing things. The people on the front line simply wish to be given the tools to do their work better.

On behalf of the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Catherine Byrne, I am pleased to address the Seanad on the subject of methadone maintenance treatment. I acknowledge the work Senator Ó Ríordáin did when he was Minister of State and his continued genuine and passionate interest in this area. I also acknowledge his support for the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne. She regrets that she cannot be present as she is attending a meeting of the Joint Committee on Health. I will convey the Senator's comments to her.

Government policy on the drugs issue is set out in the National Drugs Strategy 2009-2016. The overall objective of the strategy is to tackle the harm caused to individuals and society by the misuse of drugs. The strategy emphasises the need to provide opportunities for people to move on from illicit drug use to a drug-free life where that is achievable. Methadone maintenance treatment is a critical stabilising treatment that enables the people concerned to counter their problem drug use and to rebuild their lives. In conjunction with other services and supports, such as counselling, after-care and training, methadone maintenance treatment provides a pathway to recovery for the individual affected by problem substance use. However, different people in various circumstances may require different approaches to treatment and support.

There are currently over 10,000 people availing of methadone treatment. The Health Service Executive, HSE, has advised that the number of individuals awaiting treatment has significantly reduced in recent years. At the end of March 2016, a total of 163 people were waiting on opioid substitution treatment. This compares with 445 in July 2010, a reduction of over 63%. This is against a background of increasing numbers in methadone treatment.

Historically, the development of the addiction service was made possible through consultation and partnership with local communities. This has meant that services were established within particular geographical areas, with the agreement of the local community, that would provide a service specifically to people from that area. The effect of this type of agreement is that it has enabled the HSE to develop methadone services in some areas which may not have had such services previously. However, they were restricted in some instances to providing a service solely to residents from within that area. This approach has made it difficult to develop services that respond to individuals with particular needs, such as people who are homeless, since they do not belong to a specific geographical location.

As the Senator will be aware, the Department of Health is currently developing a new strategy, which the Minister of State hopes will be completed in early 2017. One of the key issues being examined as part of the process is how to improve access to treatment for people affected by problem substance use. A number of issues have been raised in the course of this process, including the difficulty of attracting general practitioners, GPs, to participate in the methadone programme. The slow rate of transfer of patients from the clinics to the primary care setting and from level-two GPs to level-one GPs is also an issue affecting progression rates. The Minister of State is hopeful that solutions will emerge to these issues in the context of the new strategic action plan to tackle the drugs problem.

I am sorry to hear the person the Senator was acquainted with has passed away in those circumstances. I extend our condolences.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton. I appreciate that the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, is obliged to attend a meeting of the health committee. Perhaps the Minister of State would convey to her the seriousness of the situation. I accept that she is aware of it, but perhaps a meeting with the senior team in Granby Row would be of benefit simply to have a first-hand conversation on the pressures the team is under and the solutions it is offering.

I met with the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, after she was appointed and I suggested a number of places that she should visit. She has done that. I am particularly impressed by the compassion she has brought to this brief. Statistics on a page are one thing but the problem with this issue is that those who are afflicted with addiction, particularly heroin addiction, are constantly undermined in the public perception because of their portrayal in the media. When one meets somebody who is getting her life together and who symbolises in one's mind how the system can work and then one hears less than a year later that the person has succumbed to her addiction and one tries to square that with the reality of her life travelling from Portlaoise to Dublin every day, one must only come to the conclusion that the reason this continues is that, at some level, public policy demands that this person be ashamed of the reasons they are ill. There is an element of victim blaming in that regard. I realise the Minister is trying to change this and that she feels passionately about it, but perhaps the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, would convey to her an invitation to meet with the senior team in Granby Row. It would be an attempt to understand better the realities that people are dealing with on the front line.

The issue of the cap was not mentioned in the Minister's response. The statistics that were outlined would suggest that things are getting better. Regardless of whether that is true, people are being told it could take two years to get onto a methadone maintenance programme. I believe that is being said to give people the impression that this will not happen overnight, but two years is an awfully long time. Six months is also a long time. For some people the prospect of waiting six months is too long. We are losing people in that gap. I ask the Minister to convey to the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, the invitation to meet the senior management team in the clinic. Perhaps we can then move to a situation where fewer lives are being lost unnecessarily.

I certainly will convey the Senator's comments to the Minister of State. As the Senator said, she is deeply committed to, and passionate about, this area. She wants to make a difference and is working hard on that, following the work the Senator did in a similar capacity in the last Government. I also note his point with respect to the public perception and the fact that addiction is an illness and should be treated as such, rather than as a crime. That is something which, in other work we have done together previously, we have acknowledged and recognised.

I thank the Senator for bringing this important and serious matter to our attention today. Some questions were unanswered, unfortunately, but I will bring them to the Minister's attention. In addition, if other issues require further clarification, I will ask that it be provided.

Road Safety

I thank the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport for coming to the House this morning. The issue I wish to discuss covers two parts of the Minister's portfolio, sport and transport. The Minister is not the type of man who would wish to have any form of nanny state to over-regulate the sporting side of our lives. Both of us would agree that all sports should be allowed to take place, provided they do so in a correct and safe environment.

The problem that has been brought to my attention relates to the use or misuse of scrambler motorcycles and quad bikes. I was quite shocked to learn that children as young as eight years of age are being given motorcycles of 50 cc and upwards which are essentially designed for use as off-road vehicles. Children are using these bikes and quads on main public highways and around housing estates. When I researched this matter, I learned that the Enniskerry Woods area and some of the public pathways in Enniskerry are being recommended as places where children can learn to use quad bikes as long as they are aware of the presence of pedestrians. It is clear that this is not a safe environment for kids to be using these vehicles. I have also found that these bikes are being used on main roads in places like Tallaght and Finglas.

As these bikes have no registration, no tax and no insurance, a garda who sees one of them on the road has no way of identifying the owner. If one of these vehicles runs into a bus or a car, the likelihood is that the person driving the vehicle will be killed and, more importantly, will cause risk to the life and limb of others. One can imagine what would happen if a Garda car or motorcycle pursued an eight year old kid driving one of these vehicles through an estate. If the child was injured, the Garda would come under immediate scrutiny from the general public, which would want to know why the child was chased. Although this is not a huge problem, it is a serious one. These things are typically allowed to run. I accept that this did not start on the Minister's watch. It has been going on for a long time. I have been asked by local authority members to call on the Minister to introduce some form of regulation to control how these bikes are being used and to provide for some form of recognition of who owns them and where they belong. Some form of identification mark would allow us to track down the users of these vehicles. We need to provide for some means of ensuring they are not used on the road. If they are used on the road, the full rigours of the law should apply. I thank the Minister for coming to the Seanad to listen to what I have to say on this issue. I look forward to his response.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter with me. He is not the only person who has done so. Many local county councillors have also raised it. The chair of South Dublin County Council's joint policing committee, Councillor Deirdre O'Donovan, was in touch with me about this issue yesterday. I know the Senator will be familiar with Councillor O'Donovan. This is a matter of great concern for many local authority members. I understand and sympathise with those who are concerned about this issue. It might be helpful if I begin by clarifying the current legal position on the regulation of scrambler bikes under road traffic legislation. Then I will deal with the specific issues raised by Senator Craughwell. As a scrambler is a mechanically propelled vehicle, which is defined as "a vehicle intended or adapted for propulsion by mechanical means", road traffic legislation provides that regardless of engine capacity, the user of a scrambler motorbike in a public place is legally bound to have insurance, road tax and a driving licence and to wear a helmet. If he or she does not comply with these requirements, the road traffic laws provide for severe penalties including fixed charge notices, penalty points, fines and the possible seizure of the vehicle. Notwithstanding what I have just said, I am aware that many people using scrambler bikes do not comply with the regulations, as the Senator has said.

For the purposes of the Road Traffic Acts, a "public place" means "any street, road or other place to which the public have access with vehicles whether as of right or by permission and whether subject to or free of charge". Road traffic law does not extend to the use of mechanically propelled vehicles on private property. Certain places, such as parks under the control of local authorities, can be subject to by-laws prohibiting the use of these vehicles. Local authorities have the power to introduce such by-laws. Some scrambler motorbikes do not comply with the requirements of the Road Traffic (Construction, Equipment and Use of Vehicles) Regulations 1963 to 2002 and the Road Traffic (Lighting of Vehicles) Regulations 1963 to 1996. These regulations prescribe standards in relation to essential matters such as brakes, steering, mirrors, safety glass, wipers, headlamps, rear lighting, indicators and reflectors. Such vehicles are not, therefore, considered suitable for use in a public place. The Road Traffic Act 2004 makes it an offence to supply a mechanically propelled vehicle to a person under 16 years of age. With effect from 24 January 2005, a person convicted of supplying a vehicle to a minor faces a fine of up to €5,000 or a term of imprisonment of up to six months, or both. Mini-motorised scooters, micro-motorcydes and quadricycles also come within the definition of a mechanically propelled vehicle for road traffic law purposes. The supply of such vehicles includes giving a gift or loan. As a result, it is illegal to supply such a vehicle to a person under 16 years of age.

The enforcement of road traffic laws is a matter for An Garda Síochána, which is satisfied that it has the necessary powers under the Road Traffic Acts to deal with cases of the use of scrambler motorbikes and similar vehicles in public places. It should be noted that the Garda Síochána does not have any legislative powers to deal with scrambler bikes being driven on private lands. Local authorities have the power to introduce by-laws to prohibit the use of vehicles in areas under their control, such as parks. The Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs has similar powers to control off-road vehicles in certain areas. For example, the unauthorised use of off-road vehicles is prohibited in certain national parks. Section 41 of the Road Traffic Act 1994 and the Road Traffic Act (Section 41) Regulations 1995 provide for three grounds for the detention of a vehicle by An Garda Síochána in a public place. A vehicle may be detained if the person driving the vehicle refuses or fails to produce there and then a driving licence then having effect and licensing him or her to drive the vehicle and the Garda is of the opinion that the person by reason of his or her age is ineligible to drive the vehicle; if the vehicle is registered in the State and the Garda reasonably believes a policy of insurance is not in place for the vehicle; or if the vehicle is registered in the State and motor tax has not been paid in respect of a continuous period of three months or more immediately prior to use. An Garda Síochána can also use section 20 of the Road Traffic Act 1961 to perform an examination of roadworthiness of any vehicle being used in a public place. An Garda Síochána has indicated to me that it is satisfied with the powers it has to deal with the use of scrambler motorbikes by under age and uninsured drivers in public areas. Following the representations from Senator Craughwell and others, I will discuss this matter with my colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, to see whether any legislative amendments are needed to deal with the specific issues they have raised.

I thank the Minister for the comprehensive answer. Perhaps his Department will consider notifying the retailers of these bikes that they are required to advise a customer who is purchasing one of them for someone under the age of 16 that he or she is breaking the law. I will conclude by asking the Minister a question. I do not expect him to answer it today. Will he ask his officials to consider the introduction of some form of registration identity mark on off-road bikes that do not need to comply with on-road legislation so that the owner of such a bike can be recognised and tracked down? I ask the Minister to consider such a measure, as it would allow gardaí to investigate the misuse of a bike by taking the registration number and subsequently contacting the owner and bringing charges if necessary, rather than having to physically chase after the user of the bike.

The answer to the Senator's question is "Yes".

Sitting suspended at 11 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.