Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Drug Treatment Programmes

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, to the House. I pay tribute to her for the commitment, work and vision she has shown in her role. I thank her for being here this morning. As Members will know, there has been a significant increase in certain types of drug use in many parts of the city. I sit on the joint policing committees for both Cork county and Cork city. We have heard presentations on this issue. I commend the collaborative approach being taken by the HSE and the local drugs task force and praise Mr. David Lane, Cuan Mhuire and the Tabor Group for the work they are doing.

The significance increase in the use of cocaine and other drugs is, as the Minister of State knows, a source of worry. As somebody who was the Seanad spokesperson on issues relating to communities and drugs from 2007 to 2011, I believe the halfway house model which the Tabor Group uses at Tabor Fellowship House in Cork city has been very successful. There is now a need to increase the number of detox beds available in Cork city. It is about wraparound community supports being made available to people. I refer to access to care, access to counselling, and the whole area of rehabilitation and reintegration into the community and into families. It is through enhancing supports that we can offer people a second chance. Equally, it is important to make facilities available with regard to people's later employability and ability to reach back into their families and communities.

Through the work of Cuan Mhuire and the Tabor Group, we can see that there is now a need for more detox beds within the system. I support everything the Minister of State has done and is doing and thank her for it. The Southern Regional Drug and Alcohol Task Force has been very powerful in Cork. It has been a very strong advocate and voice but has also challenged all of us. There can be a dual approach and a collaboration to address both mental health and addiction. These sometimes go hand in hand. That is not always the case but it very often is. I ask that we look at increasing the number of detox beds and amount of community support within the system in Cork.

I thank Senator Buttimer for raising the issue of drug and alcohol detox treatment in Cork and for allowing me the opportunity to update the Seanad on our position. Government policy on drug and alcohol addiction services is set out in the national drugs strategy document, Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery - a health led response to drug and alcohol use in Ireland 2017-2025. My focus, and that of Government, is now on implementing the strategy and its 50 actions.

The strategy emphasises a public health response to drug and alcohol use in Ireland based on providing person-centred services that promote rehabilitation and recovery. A person-centred approach means giving people a say in their own treatment and supporting them to play a role in their own recovery. Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery reflects a change in attitudes to substance misuse not only among politicians but among people in communities. It promotes a more compassionate and humane approach to people who use drugs, with addiction treated first and foremost as a public health issue. This approach is underpinned by the key values of the national drugs strategy, which are compassion, respect, equality and inclusion. The strategy commits to expanding the availability and geographical spread of relevant quality drug and alcohol services and to improving the range of services available, based on identified need.

In June of this year, I was delighted to have the opportunity to visit Cork city and Cuan Mhuire's new step-down facility at Teach Mhuire, which provides an important service to men exiting rehabilitation, offering aftercare support and safe accommodation. I want to acknowledge Sr. Consilio and Cuan Mhuire for the work they do in providing residential detoxification and treatment for persons suffering from addiction right across the country. I was therefore very pleased that the HSE provided funding for this important service in Cork city.

I was, therefore, pleased that the HSE provided funding for this important service in Cork city.

With regard to services in Cork city and county, the HSE has advised that there are eight medically supervised detox beds provided through Cuan Mhuire in Farnanes, County Cork. In cases where the demand exceeds the availability of residential medically supervised detox services in the Cork-Kerry area, the CHO has access to 30 medically supervised detox beds for adults in Cuan Mhuire, Bruree, Limerick, ten medically supervised detox beds for adults in Merchants Quay Ireland, St. Francis Farm, County Carlow, and four medically supervised detox beds for adolescents in Aislinn Adolescent Services, Ballyragget, County Kilkenny. Should a detox bed not be available in any of these facilities, addiction services in Cork and Kerry also provide medically supervised detox for service users in a community setting.

Typically, this would include detox from alcohol, opiates and benzodiazepines. This is provided in association with appropriate counselling supports through community services. The HSE has advised that funding was allocated for the development of a proposal for an eight-bed stabilisation unit for Cork in 2019. This comprises an inpatient stabilisation unit for people when complex needs prevent community stabilisation. In addition to the above, several general practitioners, GPs, provide their service users with detox medications, both with addiction service support and on an independent basis.

The acute hospital sector also provides detox for service users who are acutely ill in an inpatient setting, and mental health services and the acute hospital sector have recognised pathways to refer to addiction services through the crisis nurse and liaison psychiatry service. The HSE has further advised that a recruitment process is currently at an advanced stage for a drug liaison midwife and assistant director of nursing. In addition, an addiction counsellor post has been recently filled and recruitment is under way for a needle exchange worker.

I acknowledge the significant investment and I thank the Minister of State for her personal intervention on the issue of Cuan Mhuire. She has been very supportive. Much good work is being done, although there are deficits and gaps that must be filled. We need more detox beds to ensure people have the ability to get clean, before moving to the halfway house and on to reintegration into the family and society. I look forward to working with the Minister of State and thank her for her reply.

I do not disagree with anything Senator Buttimer said. The more facilities we can provide in communities, run through the HSE and community services, the better chance people have of being caught at an early stage in their addiction, which helps them in the long run. I was pleased to announce additional funding of €1 million in budget 2020 to support the implementation of the national drugs strategy. Two initiatives submitted by Cork Kerry Community Healthcare in conjunction with Cork city and the southern regional drugs task force were approved for this funding. These initiatives reflect the priority agreed between the community health organisation and the task force to target resources at groups most in need. Each initiative will receive a total of €190,000 over three years.

One initiative is targeted to provide special youth support to a significant vulnerable cohort of young people in Kerry. Another initiative will fund a case management clinical supervisor to enhance services across drug and alcohol homelessness and prison services in the Cork Kerry Community Healthcare region. I am confident that these initiatives will improve access to drugs services for people with complex needs and assist them in their journey to recovery.

The Department has been starved of funding for a long time and I am conscious of the fact that we are only starting to fund projects and community facilities again. I wish to work in partnership with the HSE and community groups. My responsibility, as Minister of State with responsibility for the national drugs strategy, is to ensure that the funding is used well and, most of all, that there is governance and accountability, be it in the HSE or in community groups. That is my job. I intend to ensure that when funding is made available to groups we will follow up through reviews of how the money has been spent. It is not my money, but the people's money. It comes into the State's coffers. We must ensure that when money goes to communities and to the HSE it is specifically monitored through governance and accountability. That is what I am trying to do, particularly in the task force area. There has been some upset in the task forces about that, but that is my job. I intend to finish the job I started.

Local Authority Housing Maintenance

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath. It is always pleasant to see you early in the morning.

I call Senator Byrne.

I welcome the Minister of State who is here on behalf of the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy.

The issue I am raising is subsidence in former local authority houses. There is an estate in Limerick that was built in the 1960s by the local authority. By the late 1970s the local authority admitted there was a problem with the estate. It had to knock down half of it and one of the avenues adjacent to it and rebuild the houses. At that stage, cracking and a number of issues were found due to subsidence in the houses. The local authority applied to the State for funding. The money was provided and the houses were rebuilt. Those houses are fine, but the houses that were not knocked down at the time are beginning to show subsidence. The estate appears to have been built on quarry land.

The residents got an engineer to examine the structure of the houses. They believe an amount of work must be done. They might have to be piled at the bottom. The most interesting thing is that the ground rent for the houses is still owned by the local authority, although a number of them have been purchased. Can anything be done to help the residents whose houses are subsiding?

You say they were built by the State, but presumably they were built by the local authority.

My apologies. They were funded by the State and built by the local authority.

I thank Senator Byrne for raising this important issue and for the opportunity to respond on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy.

At the outset, the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government does not have a funding stream available to address the precise set of circumstances relating to subsidence which the Senator has outlined. The only information the Department has on the matter is derived from the details that the Senator kindly provided. I understand from this information that the houses concerned were built in the 1960s and that they are former local authority properties that are now in private ownership. This is a matter for Limerick City and County Council in the first instance. The people affected by these issues should raise them directly with the council, which is best placed to examine possible solutions. At least some of the homes may have been the subject of tenant purchase, possibly several decades ago. Again, if these properties were purchased from the council, it illustrates the need to follow up with the council in the first instance.

From the Department's contact with the council, I understand that the council has had no recent contact from homeowners on these issues. This is to the best of our knowledge in the short time available to check, and the council is carrying out further checks on the matter. Regrettably, I cannot comment further, beyond stating that it must be addressed with the council, which will be in touch with the Department if it is a case that further intervention is needed. I emphasise that this is a matter for the council and the Department would simply not be aware of such issues. However, there is the option that if the homeowners refer to the council, the council will refer to the Department.

I thank the Minister of State.

Has the Minister of State something further to add?

I will bring this back to the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy.

Water Quality

I would like permission to share time with Senator Mulherin.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach. Senator O'Mahony is also present. He has a knee-deep interest in the Letterbrick, Keenagh, County Mayo, water scheme as well. I acknowledge the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, is busy, and I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, for taking this matter. It is a sad day when water is not fit for human consumption. There are only 24 houses involved. It is a very small scheme in the context of all the water schemes that are being funded the length and breadth of the country. The scheme is not fit for purpose. At different times when there is too much rain or bad weather, the water supply is contaminated and the water is undrinkable.

It is a remote area. The people there are trying to build up the community to keep the local school going and their GAA club in place. It does not help to have a water supply that is not fit for purpose. There is an onus on us to provide good drinking water to the 24 households in Letterbrick. There is not much to say on the scheme other than that it is not fit for purpose. There is not a large sum involved. The Department should lead the way and give the local people a scheme that is fit for purpose.

I thank Senator Burke for allowing me to share time. I acknowledge the support of Senator O’Mahony on this critical issue in County Mayo, which is the provision of a drinkable water to all households throughout the county. The households in Letterbrick do not have a public or a group water scheme. People mainly depend on wells or streams or so on. It is not adequate. Sometimes they do not have a water supply in the summer and they have dirty water at other times. There are many houses affected in County Mayo, including 17 in Downpatrick Head; 17 in Shrataggle; seven in Sallyhernaun; 16 in Carrowmore-Kilbride; 17 in Furmoyle; and a number of houses in Carrowteige, Porturlin and Portacloy. The Minister of State will tell us it is costing too much. At this point I do not believe this is acceptable. These people are out on a limb.

We know of the problem at the Leixlip water treatment plan and all the people without water here in Dublin. The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, and other State agencies, including the HSE, are saying something has to be done as the water is not fit for human consumption. There is no State agency, professionals or experts, to shout on behalf of the people living in these villages in Mayo. The exception is the very good work done by the rural water section of Mayo County Council. Something has to be done for these people. They are being told it is too much, that is it. Where are they supposed to go? They have been drilling wells, the water is not adequate. It is dirty, it cannot be drunk, clothes cannot be washed in it. Where are they to go? There does not seem to be a plan for them except to tell them there is not enough money and they are already paying money for water. All these houses need to be sorted out.

I thank Senators Burke and Mulherin for raising this important issue. I also thank Senator O'Mahony for his support. The points they raise are relevant particularly to the recent debate in the Dublin area.

On 8 February this year, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government announced details of the measures being funded through his Department under the Multi-annual Rural Water Programme 2019-2021. In parallel with the announcement local authorities were invited to submit bids for funding schemes or projects in their functional areas, with the deadline for receipt of proposals set as 14 March 2019.

The new multi-annual programme includes measure 4 - new group water schemes. This measure supports social and economic development in rural towns and villages and their hinterlands by providing new group water schemes where public water supply schemes or individual or private wells are not the most viable options.

Mayo County Council made a number of bids under measure 4, including for a proposal for a Letterbrick group water scheme. The estimated cost of the proposed 24-house scheme was €469,000, or €19,542 per house. An expert panel was put in place to support the Department in its bids evaluation process. In addition to providing an expert perspective, the panel brought independence, openness and transparency to the bids evaluation process, which was done on a national prioritised basis. The panel's membership included departmental, stakeholder and independent representations. The panel made recommendations to the Minister on the suitability of schemes and projects for funding based on objective criteria, which were set out in the framework document issued to local authorities when requesting proposals. In particular, the framework sets out that grants of up to 85% of cost are available for new group water schemes subject to a maximum grant of €7,650 per house. This means that the effective financially viable cost limit per house for a scheme is €9,000. A supplemental grant can be considered in exceptional cases, subject to the recommendation of the panel and departmental approval.

The panel, in considering the bid for the proposed Letterbrick scheme, concluded that at €19,542 per house it was not financially viable when viewed against the criteria in the framework. In the circumstances the panel did not recommend a supplementary grant. The panel recommends that the local authority engages with the promoters to consider alternative lower cost solutions for example, private wells for which, subject to terms and conditions, a separate grant is available. The private wells grant under the rural water programme can be accessed through the local authority, to assist with the necessary improvement of an individual water supply to a household.

In approving the new multi-annual rural water programme, the Minister also approved an improved and increased private wells grants scheme to replace the existing scheme. It is expected that the procedures for applying under this new scheme will be completed shortly when the necessary regulations dealing with the financial assistance arrangements and related administrative matters are put in place. This will enable circular letters, terms and conditions, guidance and the application forms to issue to local authorities shortly thereafter. I again acknowledge the interest of the Senators in this matter and I appreciate their interest in the water supply for County Mayo. I will bring their concerns to the Minister.

I thank the Minister of State for taking this matter and for taking our concerns to the Minister. It is not satisfactory. I do not think that Martina Hegarty and the other 23 householders in the area will be happy with the reply. While the expert panel has adjudicated on this, what happens when everybody drills a well, if new houses are built in the area or new people come in? The Department will be grant-aiding new wells all the time. It is doing nothing for the future of the area. That is one problem with the expert report. Whoever the experts were on this committee, they certainly were not thinking of the future of the Letterbrick area. There is no consideration given to whether additional houses will be built in this area or new householders come in whereas if there was a group water scheme, those houses could be connected to the existing scheme. Will the Minister of State take that issue back to the Minister?

In most of the houses and areas I have mentioned, they have spent a bomb drilling wells and it is not working. If it worked, they would not be going to the State and, quite frankly, if the State does not intervene, those people have no other place to go. I am disappointed that while there is provision for a supplemental grant where the schemes are costing extra money because of the topography of the landscape, not one additional supplemental grant was made in the whole of the county and, as I understand it, the whole of the country. How is this scheme being operated by this so-called expert panel?

I thank the Senators for their questions and absolutely take the validity of their arguments. The original point made was about Letterbrick and the argument about how other parts of the country are treated is valid. I will bring the Senators' concerns back to the Department. The people of Letterbrick should be treated the same as the people of Lucan and I agree with that argument absolutely. People have a right to water. Senator Mulherin highlighted the point about wells and that no grants have gone into that area. I give the Senator a commitment that I will go back to the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and the Department and raise these issues, as well as the points raised by Senator Paddy Burke about the urgent need to give funding to these families and the panel issue as well, which is something in which I am very interested having heard the debate today.

Schools Refurbishment

I welcome the Minister of State to the House this morning and I thank him for taking the time to be here. St. Aidan's comprehensive school, Cootehill, is a stand-alone, post-primary school built in 1996. That school has had no refurbishment to the fabric of the building since that date, apart from some works that were done on foot of a health and safety audit, when some works were done as a result, including the upgrading of the heating system, the addressing of some lighting issues and roof repairs.

St. Aidan's is a progressive school. There are currently 506 students attending with a teaching staff of over 40 and ancillary staff of ten. Student numbers have increased and, thankfully, are increasing, with an extra class in first year this year and a further additional first year class projected for next year. It is worth noting that it is the only post-primary school located in the town of Cootehill.

An application was made to the Department of Education and Skills in 1998, updated in 2014, and again in 2019. Unfortunately, nothing has been forthcoming to date. The application includes a gym and a socialisation area for students to have a place to sit, eat and relax during breaks. Currently, students are sitting on the floor to eat their lunch, which is totally unacceptable. The application includes an upgrade of practical rooms, including two woodwork rooms, one art room and one engineering room to meet current health and safety standards. It also includes an upgrade of the inefficient heating system and an upgrade to the facade of the building to deal with serious leaks, moulds, brickwork deterioration and lack of insulation. Fire doors are required in all classrooms and offices need to meet current fire and health and safety regulations.

Contact has continued through the years with the Department's building unit and architects have been engaged to draw up a detailed plan and costings in line with the Department's regulations. Due to their frustration at the lack of movement on this issue, parents have formed an action group to lobby for the delivery of this project and have sought the services of the building unit of Cavan and Monaghan education and training board, ETB. The board is providing much-needed support and advice on the application.

Practical rooms are in serious need of upgrade to meet the Department's own technical health and safety guidelines. As I said earlier, students deserve a place to sit, eat and socialise. A fit-for-purpose socialisation area is required because, as I said, children currently have to sit on the floor to eat their lunches.

At a time when Departments are rightly concerned with health and safety, being active, mental health and well-being and at a time that the Department is introducing physical education, PE, as a leaving certificate subject, St. Aidan's has no gymnasium. The school has a strong sporting tradition with many staff coaching teams after school. However, if it rains, teams cannot play. With increased numbers seeking to use the school hall for PE at the same time, some of the group are forced to go to a classroom to study as there is no space for them.

St. Aidan's is a school that has embraced well-being, creating awareness of the need for a healthy lifestyle and encouraging active participation by all, especially girls, yet their PE classes frequently have to take place behind desks in a classroom. As an inclusive school, St. Aidan's opens up its facilities, such as they are, to the local community and many groups, including the Holy Family school, with which I am sure the Minister of State is familiar from his visit to the area, use the facilities on a weekly basis. Local football teams and organisations frequently have to use the school facilities in the evenings. Proper gym facilities are needed to develop even stronger links with the clubs and local groups in the community. The town of Cootehill has no indoor facility and this would be a significant contribution to the resources that are available to the people of Cootehill, which is located in a disadvantaged area.

The school does not close its facilities at 4 p.m. It opens its doors 24-7 to the entire community and the community at large would benefit if the funding was allocated so that they can upgrade their building to a decent standard. It is clearly a progressive and fast-moving school with many more students hoping to enrol. Very little investment, if any, has been given to the school since it was built back in the early 1990s. I had the pleasure of visiting the school last week and I was hugely impressed by the principal, Mary Ann Smith, the staff and the students. The staff are totally dedicated to their students and their working conditions are an insult to them as professionals and, indeed, to the students who have to put up with them. I would appreciate if the Minister of State could bring back the message to the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, that serious consideration should be given to providing much-needed funding for this school.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue as it gives me the opportunity to outline to the House the plans of the Department of Education and Skills for upgrading school buildings including St. Aidan's comprehensive school, Cootehill, County Cavan. St Aidan's is a co-educational comprehensive school under Catholic patronage. There are currently 493 pupils enrolled in the school. I know, from what the Senator has said, that it is an inclusive and progressive school that deserves our support.

The Department's planning and building unit received an application from St Aidan's seeking funding for a new PE hall, socialisation space and extension to woodwork construction room and this application is being considered. The immediate priority of the Department is providing 20,000 new and replacement school places each year to ensure that every child has a school place. As the Senator is aware, the Department will be investing €8.4 billion in school buildings over the lifetime of Project Ireland 2040. This investment will see a 70% increase in the school building budget which will be targeted at delivering on the twin objectives of catering for the continued increase in demographics and a greater focus on refurbishment and upgrade of existing school stock.

The Government remains committed to delivering on existing projects on the school building programme. Project Ireland 2040 provides the investment necessary to implement the commitments in the Action Plan for Education to reform and modernise the school curriculum by committing to a PE hall build and modernisation programme, starting in the second half of the Project Ireland 2040 period, that ensures that students in all post-primary schools have access to state-of-the-art facilities to support PE provision, particularly in the context of the roll-out of PE as a leaving certificate subject.

During 2018 and 2019, the capital budget is facilitating extensions and new schools being delivered as part of the roll-out of Project Ireland 2040, which involved overall construction activity during 2018 and 2019 of approximately 130 large-scale projects ranging in value from €1 million to projects in excess of €20 million.

There was also in excess of 280 projects with a project value of less than €1 million at construction during this period. All of these projects are expected to deliver more than 40,000 permanent, additional and replacement school places and replace about 600 prefabs. This will make significant progress in terms of providing modern, energy efficient school facilities and the replacement of temporary accommodation.

In addition, in April 2018 the Department of Education and Skills announced that 42 new schools would be established between 2019 and 2022 in areas of population growth. The focus in 2019 is on start-up interim accommodation for the 19 schools opening in September 2019.

I can also confirm to the Senator that the Department is in receipt of an application from the school for the summer works scheme 2020 onwards for category 9, fabric defects. Commensurate with the level of funding available for the summer works scheme 2020 onwards, all applications will be assessed on a top-down basis in accordance with the prioritisation criteria outlined in the governing circular letter for the scheme. The circular letter is available on the Department's website www.education.ie. The Minister for Education and Skills intends to publish a list of successful applicants in quarter 4, 2019, for works to be carried out in summer 2020. I will convey the requests made by the Senator concerning St. Aidan's school to the Minister.

I thank the Minister of State for his response and I would be grateful if he corresponded with the Minister on this issue. As the Minister of State can see from my presentation, there has been little or no investment in the school since it was constructed in 1998. Therefore, it is past time that the school was considered for funding. I request that serious consideration is given to the school. It has waited too long for assistance and the children of Cootehill and the surrounding area deserve facilities as good as elsewhere in the country. I ask the Minister of State to convey my serious concerns about the school to the Minister at the first available opportunity and ask him to consider the school's application for funding.

I take the point made about little or no investment being made in the school since 1998. Schools like St. Aidan's need extra things to facilitate their students. I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to outline the position of the Department of Education and Skills to the House. I understand that the application from St. Aidan's is under review and the Department will be in contact with the school shortly. I know, having listened to what he said, that St. Aidan's is a great, inclusive and progressive school. These are the kinds of schools that we should support.

Sitting suspended at 11.13 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.