Commencement Matters

Hospital Staff Recruitment

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit.

Senator Devine has four minutes.

I thank the Minister of State for her attendance. I am not sure how well aware she is of Sarcoma Ireland, which formed last June or July owing to the lack of expert care in treating sarcoma here following the loss of a very experienced locum at the time. After much toing and froing we met the Minister, Deputy Harris. We asked him a series of five questions which have still not been answered. In that meeting in July he agreed that filling that post was necessary and he committed to advertise that post as soon as possible. This has been advertised and apparently the interviews took place last week.

I welcome Susan and her sister Anna in the Gallery today. There would be many more; nine have passed away in the few months that they have been together as a group. Those are only the people that we know of because of their protests. The rest are ill and unable to attend.

I have five questions I would like the Minister of State to answer today. How many applications were received for this post? How many of those applicants were deemed qualified and eligible for interview? Who are the members of the interview panel? What is the most likely date the appointee will start to work at the sarcoma clinic? These are important questions and we need transparency in this appointment. Several different meandering paths have been taken and we really have not got to the point whereby we will get the expertise these patients require. We need a response from the Minister of State. I might also ask for the Minister, Deputy Harris, to contact me by the end of the day. The members of Sarcoma Ireland want five minutes with the Minister to discuss issues further.

The Minister apologises that he cannot be here this morning. On his behalf, I thank Senator Devine for raising the issue, which gives me an opportunity to update the House on the matter. Sarcomas are rare cancers with about 220 cases occurring annually in Ireland. Services for patients with sarcoma are currently provided in St. Vincent's University Hospital, Dublin and in Cork University Hospital. Both hospitals are designated cancer centres and have an extensive range of multidisciplinary services and expert clinical advice available to them.

A national clinical lead in soft tissue sarcomas is in place to oversee services for patients. Patients have their cases presented and discussed at one of the two sarcoma multidisciplinary teams and members of these teams have links with European specialists in sarcoma. The treatment of sarcomas requires integrated multidisciplinary care, with the involvement of many different clinicians. St. Vincent’s University Hospital has provided highly specialised and individualised treatment to sarcoma sufferers for a number of years. St. Vincent’s has access to all of the relevant specialties for treatment, including surgery, medical oncology, radiation oncology, radiology and pathology. It is the largest provider of surgical procedures for soft tissue sarcomas in the country.

The Health Service Executive is committed to providing a high quality, responsive and sustainable service for sarcoma patients. To support the existing range of services for patients with sarcoma, an additional permanent post of consultant medical oncologist with a special interest in sarcoma has been approved for St. Vincent’s. The HSE has advised that interviews for this position took place last week and a successful candidate has been identified.

The Department is currently working on a new national cancer strategy for the next decade. Services for rare cancers, such as sarcoma, have received considerable attention in developing the strategy. The strategy will aim to meet the needs of patients in the treatment of cancer and in improving their quality of life. Other areas of focus will include prevention, early diagnosis of cancer and facilitating patient input. The Minister, Deputy Harris, intends to publish the new strategy in the coming weeks. I would like to assure the Senator that high quality services will continue to be delivered by the multidisciplinary sarcoma teams, including the team at St. Vincent’s University Hospital.

In response to the questions raised by the Senator, unfortunately, I do not have answers at present. I will pass on her comments to the Minister and I will also inform him that Senator Devine would like him to contact her. Although I do not know precisely where he is at present, I know the Senator is looking for some kind of a meeting, so I will pass on that request. As I said, I do not have answers to the Senator's specific questions. She has answered one of them herself in that somebody has been appointed and the starting date is due shortly.

I think the most prudent way to proceed is if Senator Devine could get an assurance that the Minister, Deputy Harris, will meet her. The Minister of State is not the line Minister.

There are outstanding questions concerning how the applications were dealt with, how candidates were deemed qualified for interview and who were the members of the interview panel. It is great that the Minister will launch the new strategy in the coming weeks and I hope this will facilitate patient input. However, these people do not have that time. They have lost several of their comrades in the last few months and more are very sick and unable to make it today. Who is the new person who has been appointed? Has the process followed the European Society for Medical Oncology guidelines and the protocol that should be followed in regard to this appointment? How do I get the attention of the Minister, Deputy Harris?

I do not have that information to hand. I will pass on Senator Devine's concerns to the Minister and inform him that she is seeking to meet him. However, I cannot give her any commitment as to whether or not the Minister can meet her. That is up to him, not me.

I am sure the Senator will pursue it further if she does not get a response.

Garda Vetting of Personnel

I thank the Minister of State for dealing with the matter. The National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012 makes it mandatory for people working with children or vulnerable adults to be screened by the Garda National Vetting Bureau. This provision is necessary and prudent and is welcomed by all organisations working with the young and with vulnerable people. It means that adults in roles such as teaching, youth work, sports coaching and nursing, those working in church organisations and many others are now obliged to have Garda clearance. While this is positive, the fact an individual has to make a unique application for vetting clearance for each organisation seems an unnecessary duplication of effort and is an example of how the procedures are designed to suit the system rather than to accommodate the volunteer or the staff member.

A young woman I know had to have Garda vetting for her college course. She had to be vetted again because she is involved in a church group, vetted a third time because she is involved in the Irish Girl Guides, vetted a fourth time because she teaches English as a foreign language in her spare time and, would you believe, vetted a fifth time because her family keep Spanish students. All of these accreditations are identical. They all say that she has no criminal conviction and that there is no concern she will harm a child or put a child at risk. They all say the exact same thing. When she asked me why she cannot just have one card that proves she has been vetted and cleared, I could find no logical answer for her. At the moment this woman, who has much to offer her local community and who understands and supports the need for vetting, is being asked, like many others, to jump through multiple hoops unnecessarily.

This can be offputting and serve to discourage people from taking additional voluntary roles in the community. I will agree that the application procedure has speeded up considerably in recent years, particularly with the introduction of online application vetting. However, with 3,000 applications a month, I believe it makes more sense to have a single vetting card issued to an individual which would be valid for a fixed period of time and would be used in multiple contexts, as happens in other countries.

There is an issue which is coming to a head at present involving 32,000 teachers who have worked in the same schools since before 2006, when vetting became compulsory. They all now need to apply for vetting before the end of the month. The Teaching Council is concerned that, based on current trends, as many as 600 teachers may lapse from its register and, therefore, face loss of salary. Many of these 32,000 teachers already have Garda vetting clearance for other activities in which they are involved. It seems ridiculous that this cannot be used for their teaching.

Vetting is essential but unnecessary complication is not. There are lots of excuses as to why a more streamlined vetting system cannot be put in place but there is no good reason. I ask the Minister of State, the line Minister and the Department to review the current procedure without delay with a view to making it more user-friendly. We need a system that not only protects children but one which removes unnecessary barriers for those wishing to help and support those same children.

On behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, I thank Senator McFadden for raising this issue in the House. Unfortunately, she cannot be present and I am here in her place.

As the House will appreciate, the primary purpose of Garda vetting is to seek to ensure the safety of children and vulnerable adults. Every effort is made to make the system as efficient as possible but that cannot be at the expense of the core objective. In accordance with the provisions of the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Acts 2012 to 2016, vetting is conducted by the Garda National Vetting Bureau in respect of a range of employments and services where persons would have substantial and unsupervised access to children and vulnerable adults. It is necessary for the Garda National Vetting Bureau to conduct full vetting checks for each new vetting application received to ensure that the most recent data available is taken into account. This is because once there has been any significant lapse of time between one employment and another, the original Garda vetting disclosure must be reviewed to take account of any changes in information, such as more recent criminal convictions. Furthermore, under the Data Protection Acts, any sensitive personal data which employers use in regard to their employees must be current, accurate and up to date.

I am pleased to inform the Senator that the vast majority of vetting applications are now submitted and processed via the eVetting system and that 80% of the applications are now being processed by the Garda National Vetting Bureau in five working days. In circumstances where there is such a sustained reduction in processing times, the problems presented in individual cases of re-vetting or vetting transferability are very significantly reduced. This sustained improvement in processing times has come about primarily as a result of significant investment by the Government in the Garda National Vetting Bureau and, in particular, following the launch in April this year of the new eVetting system.

All organisations are encouraged to avail of this service and indeed 85% of organisations registered for vetting are already using it. Some individual cases will of their nature take longer than the average to complete when, for example, more extensive inquiries are required. However, these cases are in the minority. It is important to note also that the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Acts 2012 to 2016 provide for a degree of flexibility which may lessen the administrative burden in respect of vetting for the management of organisations that work with children and vulnerable adults.

Section 12 of the Acts makes provision for certain limited circumstances where organisations can share a single vetting disclosure in respect of an individual application where there is agreement with the vetting applicant. This is a particularly important flexibility in respect of persons working, for example, in the health or education sectors as locums or substitute teachers. Section 12 of the Acts also makes specific provision in respect of persons who may be employed on a recurring but non-continuous basis. This could comprise persons who might provide services in a school or a number of schools on a regular basis. The vetting obligations in respect of these persons shall be regarded as satisfied where the registered organisation received a vetting disclosure in respect of the individual for the initial engagement. In summary, the vetting process demands rigorous procedures to safeguard its integrity and to maintain the highest level of confidence by the public and organisations availing of the service. Any vetting process will take a certain minimum amount of time to complete and, given the importance of this service, I do not consider the current processing times unreasonable.

I thank the Minister of State and I appreciate that this is not necessarily her portfolio. It is absolutely vital that we and the public have confidence in the vetting process. Nobody denies the absolute need for it, bearing in mind what we have been through in this country between the church and situations like Áras Attracta in the past. It is absolutely vital. However, I believe that a passport type situation or a card valid for one year would make more sense. The person I spoke to the Minister of State about had five different applications. That is duplication of work. One application could have looked after that situation for a whole year and reduced the work. I think it would have been more cost effective for the State and much easier for people who want to start jobs but have to wait because of the Garda vetting. It is duplication and a waste of money, but nobody denies the absolute need for it.

I will not read the concluding remarks because they have already been said in the initial response. If Senator McFadden would like to give me the details of that particular applicant, I will make sure that the Minister has a look at it herself. I will pass it on to her. Regarding the other points the Senator raised, I will also bring those to the Minister's attention.

I thank the Minister of State and Senator McFadden. It is a very popular issue. I have heard from many sources that it is a problem.

Garda Stations

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House today to discuss this very important issue with regard to the reopening of Garda stations. I particularly want to raise with her the issue of Rush Garda station, which is located in north County Dublin. Rush Garda station closed down in 2012 under the last Government. I call on the Minister of State to strongly consider Rush for inclusion in the pilot scheme to reopen six Garda stations, which is imminent.

The closure has left a serious void in the policing of north County Dublin. When it was closed in 2012, we were reassured that a 24-hour service would be provided in the nearby Lusk Garda station, but this never occurred. In fact, the hours in Lusk Garda station have since been reduced. As I said, this has left a very big void in the policing of north County Dublin. Fingal is the fastest-growing county in Ireland. The population of Rush itself is 10,000 and Lusk has almost 10,000. We are being policed from Balbriggan Garda station, which is the nearest 24-hour Garda station. That is over 14 km from Rush and has a population itself of 26,000. That station is seriously overstretched and it is not able to provide an adequate service to the people in Rush in particular, as well as in nearby Lusk.

Unfortunately, we have seen an escalation in both violent and serious crime in north County Dublin as well as anti-social behaviour, particularly in or around the Rush area. I believe there is a strong correlation between the lack of a Garda service in the town and this increase in crime. I come from a Garda family myself. I am very well aware of the vital service community gardaí provide to the community and the impact that visibility of gardaí on the streets of a town can have on the level of both serious crime and anti-social behaviour in the area.

As per the programme for Government, there is a commitment to review the Garda station closures, which occurred during the lifetime of the last Government. More than 100 Garda stations were closed nationwide. This review is currently being undertaken and is due to report in May. As I mentioned, there was a commitment in the programme for Government that six Garda stations would be opened on a pilot scheme basis. Recent media reports have suggested that the Minister, Deputy Shane Ross, has already secured the reopening of the Stepaside Garda station, which is in his own constituency. According to media reports, he is so confident of this that he already has newsletters ready to be distributed around the constituency.

I know that the Minister of State is not the direct line Minister of State but I appeal to her to pass on the message to the Minister for Justice and Equality to include Rush in this pilot scheme. We do not have a senior Cabinet Minister or any Minister in north County Dublin. I feel therefore that we are going to get left behind and that south County Dublin will benefit because it has a Minister. I appeal to the Minister of State on the basis that Rush is a large and growing urban area with a surrounding rural hinterland. As I said, it is among the fastest-growing areas within the fastest growing constituency and county in Ireland. Therefore, we really need the reopening of Rush Garda station. I appeal to the Minister of State to consider Rush Garda station in the pilot scheme.

I thank Senator Clifford-Lee for raising this commencement matter. The Tánaiste unfortunately cannot be here and asked me to reply to the Senator.

The Senator will appreciate that the Garda Commissioner is primarily responsible for the effective and efficient use of the resources available to her, including with regard to Garda stations. As the Senator will be aware, the Garda Síochána district and station rationalisation programme gave rise to the closure of some 139 Garda stations, including Rush Garda station, in 2012 and 2013, following the completion by An Garda Síochána of a comprehensive review of its district and station network. The review was undertaken with the objective of identifying opportunities to introduce strategic reforms to enhance service delivery, increase effectiveness and streamline practices within the organisation. The Tánaiste has been informed by the Garda authorities that the closures have allowed front-line gardaí to be managed and deployed with greater mobility, greater flexibility and in a more focused fashion, particularly with regard to targeted police operations.

The programme for Government commits the Government to ensuring a strong and visible police presence throughout the country in order to maintain and strengthen community engagement, provide reassurance to citizens and to deter crime. A cornerstone of this commitment is the Government plan to achieve an overall Garda workforce of 21,000 personnel by 2021 comprising 15,000 Garda members, 2,000 Reserve members and 4,000 civilians.

Revisiting the decisions made to close Garda stations at the depths of the recession is also part of the commitment. In this context, the Tánaiste has requested the Garda Commissioner, while fully cognisant of her statutory functions, to identify six stations for reopening on a pilot basis to determine possible positive impacts that such openings will have on criminal activity, with special emphasis on burglaries, theft and public order. The pilot will feed into the wider review being undertaken by the Garda Siochána inspectorate at the request of the Policing Authority of the use of resources available to An Garda Síochána in the delivery of policing services to local communities. I understand that work is continuing in An Garda Síochána to identify the six stations for inclusion in the pilot and that consultations have taken place with relevant stakeholders, including the Policing Authority.

In this context, I am sure the Senator would agree that a comprehensive and evidence-based analysis should be carried out taking account of all the relevant factors before a final decision is made in respect of the stations to be reopened by the Commissioner. I also understand that the Tánaiste expects to receive a report from the Commissioner by the end of May in connection with the exercise.

The redeployment of Garda resources is not being felt in the community. I can give the Minister of State some real examples at a later stage. It is really not being felt on the ground and the people of Rush have really felt the impact of not having a Garda station, even as a place to go to get their passport form signed or to get Garda vetting. Not having a Garda station is very difficult for a community of 10,000 people. The Minister of State referred to the increase in Garda numbers. Garda numbers have dropped in the division that covers the area in question. Fingal is the fastest growing county in Ireland and it is unacceptable that it is seeing a drop in Garda numbers.

I understand that the report is being compiled by the Commissioner. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport has secured the re-opening of Stepaside Garda station and it is a bit unbelievable for everybody else to believe that this is totally independent of Government. I do not mean to labour the point but we do not have a Minister in north county Dublin and we urgently need the re-opening of Rush Garda station. I appeal to the Minister of State to include it in the pilot scheme.

The Senator made a very strong case. Does the Minister of State have anything she wishes to add?

If the Senator wants to send me information relating to a Garda presence and the redeployment of gardaí in the area to me, I will certainly raise it with the Tánaiste. I cannot comment on other Ministers having decided that Garda stations will be in the area because I am not assured of that.

The Minister of State is wise on that.

It probably will but I cannot comment on that. I believe the Senator has raised a very significant point. I have taken details of the points she raised and will bring them back to the Tánaiste. If the Senator sends me some of the data relating to crime, I will give them to the Tánaiste.

Schools Building Projects Status

I wish to raise the status of the building project at Ballinspittle national school, which is a small school in a nice village in south County Cork. The school has seen significant development, as has the village of Ballinspittle, over recent years. The school was put on the six-year capital building programme in November 2015, which was a very positive step for Ballinspittle and the entire community. In the original proposal, it was supposed to go to construction in 2017. This is one of the key issues we are fighting for this morning. We want to see this school progressing and we need the project to go to construction in 2017. For the 2017 commitment to be met, it must go through detailed design, planning and tendering this year. It is now March, time is ticking and the need for the school is very important. The site is available. There are at least three and a half acres around the school so there is no issue with the site itself. Numbers in the school have increased. By 2018, 230 pupils will be going to this school. There are two autism spectrum disorder, ASD, classrooms that are a very important part of the school and its ethos.

One of the key issues with the school building is that it is maximised at every level, be it a store room, the general purpose, GP room, the community hall or the hall itself. The GP room is divided in two so there are two resource teachers in that room. As the GP room is taken up with resource teachers, there is no drama or PE in the school. A total of 19 children need sensory space, sensory time and sensory breaks, which are very important. The only way they can get them is to get them in the hallway, which is not appropriate. It is a big issue for the community, the principal and the parents of children in the school. It is a thriving community that will do its utmost for its children. It needs this project to be moved forward. It is in the building programme but time is ticking. It will need another teacher for the academic year starting in 2018. There is no room at the moment for that teacher. If the store room and GP room are being used and if there are children who need to use the hallway for sensory time, there is no capacity at any level to take another teacher in September 2018 so we need this project to be moved forward at pace.

We need a site visit, the project to be progressed and the detailed design, tendering and planning to be done. We need to get somebody on site in order that in the next year and a bit, this school will be completed. In many ways, Ballinspittle national school is like many schools that need upgrades in a very short period because the community has grown rapidly. The special needs aspect is probably the heartbreaking part. We need to move urgently and the matter needs to be prioritised. I realise that the Minister of State is not directly involved but she could give some hope to the community that this project will be progressed in the short term and completed by September 2018 because these are the very strict and tight deadlines that the community is unfortunately under.

I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills who is unavailable. I thank the Senator for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to clarify the Department's position regarding the provision of a major building project for Ballinspittle national school in County Cork. The Senator will be aware of the demographic challenge facing the education system in the coming years, including in the Cork area. In that regard, the six-year construction programme aims to prioritise new building projects and major extensions, including special schools, in areas where demographic need has been established. In addition, the capital programme also provides for devolved funding for additional classrooms for schools, including special schools, where an immediate accommodation requirement has been identified. In that regard, it is open to schools to apply for funding for additional classroom accommodation where required.

The Senator will be aware that Ballinspittle national school is a co-educational Catholic ethos primary school catering for boys and girls from junior infants to sixth class. In recent years, Ballinspittle national school has experienced significant growth in enrolments of almost 50%, with pupil numbers increasing from 145 pupils in 2010 to 214 pupils in 2016. As a result, it requires a major extension to the existing school to meet current and anticipated future demand for school places. In light of this increase in enrolments, it was agreed with the school that it would be allowed to grow from an eight-classroom to a 12-classroom school. In addition, the Department has been in regular contact with the National Council for Special Education in respect of special education requirements in the Cork area, and provision will he made in the project brief for Ballinspittle national school for a three-class ASD unit.

The Department is aware of the specific accommodation needs of the school, and in that regard, the building project for Ballinspittle national school is included in the Department's six-year construction programme. In the context of progressing this project, the Department is undertaking an analysis of the school's architectural plans in advance of a technical site visit. The Department will also be contacting the school shortly with a view to scheduling a date for the technical site visit after Easter. I thank the Senator for raising this matter and confirm the Department's commitment to progressing the building project in the case of Ballinspittle national school. I recently spoke to officials from the Department who are fully aware of the need to increase classroom space. However, until the scheduled technical site visit takes place after Easter, they cannot provide any specific dates.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. The key issue is the technical site visit which needs to be made as soon as possible. We need to get the people on the ground to work out exactly what is required and where we can actually go. As Easter is only a few weeks away, I hope that will happen in the next month. If the technical site visit can be made, we can progress. Perhaps the Minister of State might correspond with me on when exactly the site visit will be made. Getting a date is very important for us. If we can get one, we can reassure the community that progress is being made.

I will speak to the Minister and ask him to correspond as soon as possible with the Senator on a date for the site visit.

It might be appropriate for the Senator to also raise the matter at a parliamentary party meeting.

Sitting suspended at 11.15 a.m. and resumed at 11.35 a.m.