Commencement Matters

Drugs Crime

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, for coming to the House. Councillor Paul McAuliffe has asked that the Taoiseach would come and see for himself the effects of crack cocaine use in Ballymun, which reached a crisis point this summer. He wants a cross-departmental task force to be organised to address the issue. Over the past year there has been an increase in crime, anti-social behaviour and aggressive begging and children have been used to transport drugs. While the Garda has put short-term measures in place to deal with the issue, it needs a cross-departmental and whole-of-Government response.

Local residents have been slow to highlight the issue because of the great work that has been done to ensure that Ballymun is a place that everyone is happy and proud to live in, and that has been the case, but the epidemic of crack cocaine use has blighted the community. The response has not been adequate and that must change. In recent months, Fianna Fáil's deputy leader, Deputy Calleary, our health spokesperson, Deputy Donnelly, and our spokesperson on children, Deputy Rabbitte, attended a meeting at the Setanta GAA club organised by Councillor McAuliffe to listen to the concerns and bring them to the attention of the Government so that it can address the issues. The agencies in attendance at the meeting included the Ballymun drugs task force and two youth services in the area, namely, the Ballymun job club and the Dublin North West Area Partnership. Many other groups have discussed the issue with Councillor McAuliffe. There is a solution but funding is required to implement it.

Press releases are not sufficient or even a visit by the Taoiseach, although he should visit Ballymun and see for himself what is going on. A cross-departmental task force, led by Dublin City Council, is required to ensure that this crisis does not continue and that a new generation is not affected by the scourge of drugs. The approach needs buy-in at all levels from Departments, led by Dublin City Council. It is essential that the Taoiseach would come to Ballymun to meet Councillor McAuliffe and other public representatives to ensure that he is aware of the problem and that a solution is put in place. That requires both co-ordination and funding and the approach taken could be applied to other communities in Dublin and elsewhere that are affected by the blight of an epidemic of crack cocaine use in society.

I am taking this Commencement matter on behalf of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone. I thank the Senator. I will read the written response before responding to a few points. The Senator spoke about drugs and I will contribute on that issue.

As the Senator is aware, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs was established in 2011. This Department, along with all Departments, was required to deliver substantial savings on all funding programmes in line with the comprehensive review of expenditure 2012-14. The Department sought to ensure that front-line youth services, particularly those for the most vulnerable young people, were protected as far as possible from the impact of the reduction in funding.

Established in 1999, Ballymun Regional Youth Resource is a youth work organisation with special emphasis on young people at risk of drug misuse. The centre-based youth work has a strong focus on developmental group activities and the provision of youth work training and practical supports. Poppintree Youth Project supports the personal, interpersonal, social and analytical development of young people. The project develops programmes which include recreational activities, sports and adventure, creative arts and skills development.

In recent years, funding for the provision of youth services has been increased on an annual basis. In 2011, Ballymun Regional Youth Resource and Poppintree Youth Project received a combined total of €539,104 in youth funding from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. In 2018, these services received youth funding with a combined total of €1,442,794. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs completed an exercise with Pobal and each of the 16 education and training boards which mapped youth service provision across the State. This mapping exercise will assist the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and each education and training board in developing a detailed social demographic profile in terms of both population numbers and deprivation levels and will inform future development and investment in youth services. For 2019, an extra €1.5 million has been allocated in current funding to support the provision of youth services, which brought the total current youth funding available to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to more than €60 million.

The additional funding is being used for programmes that target disadvantaged young people. The Department has commenced a process to identify service development needs for 2019 and to finalise the 2019 youth funding allocations. The primary purpose of this process is to ensure that youth services are sufficiently resourced to meet the needs of young people, particularly those who are at risk of drugs or alcohol misuse, early school leaving and homelessness or who are living in disadvantaged communities. In this regard, officials in the Department are awaiting the return of completed funding renewal applications on behalf of youth projects throughout the country which are due to be submitted by 21 December 2018. On receipt of these completed renewal applications, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs will be in a position to finalise the funding allocation which will be provided for each youth project in 2019, having regard to the overall budgetary position.

I will address the Senator's other comments when I come back in.

I realise the Minister could not be here and I appreciate the Minister of State coming in on her behalf. The Minister of State outlined the issues around the funding and purpose of the Ballymun Regional Youth Resource and the Poppintree Youth Project. However, we were talking about restoring funding to 2008 levels, whereas the Minister of State referred to the funding available in 2011, which was a time of many cuts. That is just one element of what is required across Departments and Government. This needs to be targeted towards Ballymun in conjunction with Dublin City Council, which should meet public representatives on the ground.

We cannot simply leave it to the Ballymun Regional Youth Resource to tackle a crack cocaine crisis in Ballymun. It is not within the organisation's gift to tackle all of the areas that need to be addressed, such as aggressive begging and anti-social behaviour. I can only deal with the youth who come before it. The Garda, social services and the local community need to be involved and that needs co-ordination by the Government and Dublin City Council. I call on the Taoiseach to meet Councillor Paul McAuliffe and other public representatives on the ground in Ballymun to ensure a response is provided for the benefit of the area's residents. They feel threatened by the anti-social behaviour taking place. Ballymun should be used as a template for other communities in Dublin and beyond which are blighted by drug use and the current crack cocaine epidemic.

I have been speaking to Deputy Rock about this issue and I know he is in the process of trying to arrange a date with the Taoiseach to visit Ballymun. I hope that will be finalised some time in the new year. We are all aware of the serious concerns about drugs in every community. Crack cocaine has become popular with many different age groups and with people living in wealthy as well as poorer communities. It is also being used as a social drug.

I have met the GAA club in question and I had some of its members in the Houses for discussions. We are trying to address this issue through the new national Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery strategy. We are examining emerging trends as part of one of our actions to support and influence communities through education and youth projects to tackle the use of different drugs by young persons and vulnerable people. We will look at our policy in that regard in the coming weeks and months.

The local drugs task forces, as the Senator is aware, are funded through the drugs policy department and the Health Service Executive. We all know the reasons funding was cut substantially in recent years. A small amount of funding, up to €20,000, has been made available to each local drugs task force this year, €10,000 of which is to be used within the task force for the members to update their skills, with the other €10,000 to be used to plug some of the gaps in services. It is only a small amount of money but we wish to further fund the task forces in the coming year for specific actions in the national plan. The oversight forum has identified some new actions, particularly for those aged under 18 and other community services.

I can only give the Senator the update the Minister provided as the matter falls within her remit. I responded on the issue of drugs because we strayed into that area. Deputy Rock is in the process of arranging a date with the Department of the Taoiseach for a visit by the Taoiseach to Ballymun. I will ask the Deputy to inform all the other public representatives in the area when that date becomes available. I do not know when that will be at present.

I understand the concerns of the community in Ballymun and communities throughout the country about emerging drugs such as spice and other drugs that are coming into the market and affecting people at a very young age. Young men in particular are being used as runners and to perform other significant duties in the criminal aspects of the drug trade. I will emphasise to the Minister the importance of this issue. As soon as the applications have been received and the budgets examined, decisions will be made on funding.

I understand that it is not only community groups that can tackle this issue. It is a broader issue for many Departments and we need to target areas such as Ballymun and my home area with something similar to what has been done in the north inner city. I will relay that point to the Minister.

Mica Redress Scheme

Thousands of families in the north Donegal area have been devastated by the issue of mica, a mineral in the concrete blocks in their homes. I have been in many of those homes and have spoken to the families, sometimes on a weekly and even a daily basis, in regard to what they have been enduring. It is heartbreaking. As the House knows, people's greatest ambition is to take out a mortgage and build or purchase their own home. They do that over 20, 30 or 40 years. It is a massive undertaking and probably the biggest thing they will do in their life. It is said that a person's home is their castle. No one wants to see that home crumbling around them.

I want to share a couple of stories with the Minister of State because we need to reinforce how important this is and why we urgently need timeframes for a redress scheme in 2019. I visited the home of a family where the man took us around all of the outside walls. It was a beautiful setting overlooking the Donegal countryside - a dream home. This man and his wife are hard workers. To see that man break down in tears in his kitchen, worried that the ceiling or the gable wall could fall down on his family, is something that never leaves me. There is also the story of a man in Inishowen who took his own life, no doubt because of the unbelievable financial stress of having to move out of the home and deal with all of that. I could tell the Minister of State many more stories if I had the time. What has happened is heartbreaking and devastating.

The Mica Action Group is a group of affected families who have campaigned long and hard. They are inspirational people. Their work led to the expert panel report which concluded its work in June 2017, one and a half years ago. It made firm recommendations and, having identified that as many as 5,000 homes in Donegal are affected, it stated that a protocol needs to be drawn up by the National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI. There was then the issue of Engineers Ireland putting together a panel of engineers who would inspect the homes and recommend the work that needs to be done. While it took too long, I understand all of that work is completed. The Government has said we will have a mica redress scheme and families can make their homes safe.

What I ask today, as we wrap up business for 2018, is to please provide me and the people of Donegal, in particular the campaigners, with a clear date as to when this scheme will be up and running, when families can apply for funding to bring in a qualified engineer to do the studies necessary and when contractors can be brought in to make their homes safe. It is vital, as we move towards Christmas, that the families affected will know this is the last Christmas they will spend in, frankly, devastation and heartbreak in what should be their happy family home. I need timeframes and confirmation today as to when this is going to happen in 2019, and reassurance that the moneys have been provided for this to happen.

I thank the Senator. I am taking the matter on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. I wish to acknowledge the distressing circumstances experienced by the owners and residents of homes where defects have emerged in the blockwork. As the Senator will be aware, building defects are matters for resolution between the contracting parties involved - the homeowner, the builder, the developer and-or their respective insurers or structural guarantee or warranty scheme.

The Expert Panel on Concrete Blocks was established by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government in 2016 to investigate problems that had emerged in the concrete blockwork of certain dwellings in counties Donegal and Mayo. The report of the expert panel was published in 2017 and included eight recommendations. The Department is actively progressing these with the relevant stakeholders, including prioritising the implementation of recommendations 1 and 2. With regard to recommendation 1, the NSAI established a technical committee to scope and fast-track the development of a standardised protocol which would inform the course of action in regard to remedial works for all affected householders.

After publishing a draft protocol for consultation, a final standardised protocol was published by NSAI on 13 November 2018. The benefit of this is that it provides a standardised approach for assessing and categorising the damage in properties where the concrete blocks are suspected to contain the minerals mica or pyrite. Previously, there was no common way for engineers or homeowners to assess the damage caused by defective concrete blocks to help decide what, if any, remedial work could be carried out. This standard does the following: it establishes a protocol for assessing and determining whether a building has been damaged by concrete blocks containing certain excessive amounts of deleterious materials; it describes methods for establishing the extent of the problem; it describes the scope of any testing required; and it categorises buildings and provides competent persons with guidance on the appropriate measures to be taken.

With regard to recommendation 2, the Department has been in contact with Engineers Ireland regarding the establishment of a register of competent engineers for the reference of homeowners or affected parties. Engineers Ireland has provided assurance that it is in the process of finalising measures to establish such a register now that the standardised protocol is in place. Engineers Ireland recently issued a call for suitably qualified engineers to participate on the register.

Over the past two years the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, has visited Donegal and Mayo on a number of occasions and met key stakeholders, including affected homeowners, elected representatives and officials of the local authorities and other interested parties. The Government approved in principle the development of a grant scheme of financial assistance to support affected homeowners in the two counties to carry out the necessary remediation works to dwellings that have been damaged due to defective concrete blocks in budget 2019. The putting in place of such a scheme is a key priority for the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. Work in this regard is under way and it necessarily involves discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in regard to the conditions that will apply to the scheme and the associated costs. The intention is to revert to Government early in the new year with proposals for the scheme, after which details of it will be published as soon as possible. While I do not have a date for the Senator as to when that will be, it is clear the proposed scheme will be identified early in the new year and details will be published as soon as possible.

I understood these proposals were to be brought to Cabinet this week and that they were delayed until the new year, so I assume it will be mid-January before they are brought forward. I met the Minister of State, Deputy English, earlier this year. We had an extensive meeting and I believe him to be genuine in his efforts to resolve the issue. The members of the Mica Action Group are impressive people. They have made a significant impact on various Ministers, in particular on the Minister of State, Deputy English.

After that meeting, I did not play politics. I gave an honest assessment that I felt they were trying to progress matters, even though I was frustrated with how long it was taking. I am not going to play politics now because is far too important for that. I ask the Minister of State to please understand that families are posting videos on social media of their houses literally falling apart. Their hearts are broken. We need to say to those families, particularly those with houses in serious distress, that this is the last Christmas they will have to endure this. They need to know that, as early as possible in 2019, there will be a scheme under way whereby people can apply and get their homes examined and made safe. That has to be the priority.

I end 2018 speaking to the Minister of State and, no doubt, the officials in the various Departments who are listening to the debate. I ask them to please make sure 2018 is the last year when we have to appeal for this and that it will be in place so families can make their homes safe. I conclude 2018 by making that appeal.

I reiterate that the Government has decided there will be a redress scheme, although I cannot confirm exactly when that will happen. I am a parent and I have a home. I know a home is a person's castle. I saw the horrible television programme where people were devastated, with families torn apart and, unfortunately, people passed away because of it. There is nothing like having the keys of a first home and a person being able to turn the key in the door and know they are going to live there forever. To find it crumbling down around them is heartbreaking, as the Senator said. All people want is to be helped to rebuild the home they thought was going to be their castle for the rest of their lives.

There is a genuine concern on all sides of this House and in the Dáil that these people should be helped as soon as possible. I will go back to the Minister, Deputy Murphy, and the Minister of State, Deputy English, to emphasise the fact this redress scheme needs to be put in place as soon as possible. I thank the Senator.

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