Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Hospital Accommodation Provision

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for selecting this critical item for debate today and I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, to the Chamber. I know accident and emergency departments around the country are under pressure, not least the department at Mayo University Hospital. There is a planned extension for the accident and emergency department and a plan to install more medical bed capacity. I would like to see some progress on this and I ask that funding be ring-fenced so that architects can be appointed and the hospital can at least begin to design the extension to start moving this investment along.

Currently, there are staff operating in very pressurised circumstances and patients are on trolleys in corridors. I heard that yesterday there were 30-odd persons on trolleys in Mayo University Hospital and a similar number on trolleys in Galway. Mayo University Hospital's capacity is smaller than that of Galway and the accident and emergency department is much smaller. In excess of 30 people on trolleys in Mayo University Hospital would have a bigger impact there than a similar number would have in Galway.

I know part of rolling out Sláintecare is an increase in capacity and this speaks to that objective. Something needs to be done. When the accident and emergency department was designed, it was meant to handle approximately 20,000 cases per year but it is now receiving approximately 36,000 cases per year. This is evidence of the clear capacity constraints that exist. On the other hand, I acknowledge some of the measures taken by the Government, including investment in the Castlebar primary care centre. That is a good news story as it provides X-ray facilities outside the hospital setting, and it handles approximately 7,000 cases per year. This is done under the auspices of the hospital consultants and radiology department, and it means people only wait approximately one week for the service. This demonstrates that the Government's move towards investment in community and primary care centres is correct. There is more potential capacity and there are plans in the pipeline to expand services at the primary care centre, including ultrasound facilities. In the meantime, this issue needs urgent attention. A recent survey was done on patient experiences and all the issues pertaining to Mayo University Hospital involve capacity. No matter how efficiently people work, when they do not have space to take in patients, problems arise, as the Minister of State knows.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue and giving me the opportunity to outline to the Seanad the position on capital development projects at Mayo University Hospital. The role of capital investment is to support the delivery of quality healthcare services. This includes the provision of the appropriate infrastructure that supports service delivery, such as the facilities at Mayo University Hospital. Mayo University Hospital provides health services and care to the people of Mayo and the west. It is an integral part of the Saolta hospital group, a model 3 hospital with 331 beds, providing quality patient care delivered safely by skilled and valued staff through the best use of available resources. This Government is committed to developing services and infrastructure at Mayo University Hospital.

A number of capital projects at Mayo University Hospital are progressing and are at various stages of development. This includes electrical upgrade works, fire response improvements and a mortuary upgrade. A proposal has been developed to provide a new multi-storey block extension in the courtyard area of the hospital. This block would facilitate an extension at ground level to increase the size of the accident and emergency department and provide space for the medical assessment unit. It would also provide space at second floor level for a new 12-bed ward. It is also proposed to provide space for a further 12 to 15 beds at second floor level in the existing two-storey building.

This is a complicated project addressing a number of separate, if related, issues in different parts of the hospital. The project is being reviewed. It is expected to be progressed in 2020 as two separate projects - one addressing additional capacity and the other focusing on the emergency department and the medical assessment unit. This proposal will be subject to further definition in the coming months with a view to being in a position to make progress with the project, subject to funding availability and overall project prioritisation in 2020. It is important to recognise that all capital development proposals, including capital developments at Mayo University Hospital, must progress through detailed appraisal, planning and design, procurement, construction and commissioning stages before a firm timeline or funding requirement can be established. This Government is committed to developing services at Mayo University Hospital and will invest more than €2 billion in capital funding in the public health services over the three years between 2019 and 2021.

I thank the Minister of State. We all know that the planning process takes a while but we need to get down to the nuts and bolts of designing this extension. The Minister of State has pointed out the complexities of it but it has been well appraised. We need it; we needed it yesterday. I am mindful of the constraints on capital expenditure that existed in the past. I would like to make a significant point. I have mentioned University Hospital Galway, which serves counties Mayo, Galway and Roscommon. The blockages in Mayo University Hospital are having an impact on University Hospital Galway. Patients, especially oncology patients, need to be discharged, released or transferred to Mayo University Hospital. If there is no capacity in Mayo, it blocks up the centre of excellence in Galway. It is a circular situation. There is a blockage somewhere. We should have moved past the appraisal stage. We need to get on with it. We need to get the design going to overcome the complexities and to get a hospital that functions better than the hospital we have at the moment.

I appreciate the sentiment the Senator expressed and I agree with her. It is accepted that we have a capacity issue at Mayo University Hospital and throughout the country. This was recognised and identified in the bed capacity review that was undertaken by the Department recently. I appreciate the opportunity to try to make progress with this matter for the Senator. I will take back her strong sentiments to try to get this matter prioritised and progressed as quickly as possible. Clearly, it is in the interests of the people the Senator serves that we ensure the capacity of Mayo University Hospital is enhanced.

Special Educational Needs

In February this year, I raised with the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, the funding of Inishowen Children's Autism Related Education, ICARE, which serves the Inishowen area. The organisation in question works with more than 100 families, some of which have two or three children who are on the autism spectrum. Even though it is based in Buncrana, it serves the north Inishowen area. The Bluestack Special Needs Foundation, which is based in Donegal town, serves families in south Donegal. A large part of County Donegal is covered by both organisations, which have been in existence for almost 20 years. Until a year ago, they were entirely self-funded. This has been a long road for families. Family members who are dealing with the significant stress of being carers for their loved ones have to go out and raise money again and again. The local communities in north and south Donegal are supportive of these organisations. They always give great support to their fundraisers. These families should not have to raise funds. They should not have to live with the uncertainty of how they are going to secure these services each year.

I am knowledgeable about ICARE because it is based in my home town of Buncrana. Families are referred to the services of ICARE by schools, social services and health services. The State asks ICARE to provide the services it should be providing, but it does not offer any funding support. ICARE sought €100,000 this year, but instead it received just €35,000. The Bluestack Special Needs Foundation sought €150,000, but it received just €36,000. It is well known that they are getting just a fraction of what they need. The HSE worked with both organisations to put together these funding proposals. There are no exaggerations in them. The organisations are looking for exactly what they need - no more and no less. They have been given a fraction of what they require for this year. As the year draws to a close, it is crucial that the same mistake is not made in 2020. That is why I am raising this matter now. To be clear, ICARE requires €100,000 and the Bluestack Special Needs Foundation requires €150,000. That is the appeal. I am frustrated because nothing has happened even though the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, told me earlier this year he would keep a close eye on this issue. Funding was found when the HSE in Donegal reallocated funding from somewhere else. It was robbing Peter to pay Paul. No additional funding was provided by central government. Instead, we got tea and sympathy. I am asking for an end to the tea and sympathy. These organisations, which are delivering services that have been referred to them by the State, should be respected and funded properly in order that they can do the work they are doing with the support of the people of north and south Donegal.

I thank the Senator for raising the issue of funding for ICARE autism support group and the Bluestack Special Needs Foundation. As Senators may be aware, ICARE was founded in 2000 by a small group of dedicated parents of children with autism. It provides a range of activities for children and young adults with autistic spectrum disorder, ASD, in the Inishowen area of County Donegal. The supports provided by ICARE include informal education and supports for the individual with autism and his or her family, school holiday activities, access to a youth club and support meetings, training and development for families. I acknowledge the extraordinary achievements of the Bluestack Special Needs Foundation since it was established in 2006 by a dedicated group of parents and professionals working in the disability sector. The foundation operates a range of educational, practical and emotional support programmes using a family support model. It provides evening and weekend activities, summer camps and a diverse range of activities.

The family-centred approach adopted by ICARE and the Bluestack Special Needs Foundation is an important move away from a system designed to suit the needs of the service provider and towards a system designed to meet the needs of service users and their families. This model ensures families are empowered by being supported and included in the planning of their children's care. The successful manner in which ICARE and the Bluestack Special Needs Foundation have integrated their services into the community goes an enormous way towards challenging historic patterns of exclusion and is very much to be welcomed. I understand that ICARE and the foundation each received funding of €41,000 from the HSE in 2019 towards the costs of their operations. Submissions for funding from ICARE and the foundation of €41,000 and €86,500, respectively, have been made to the HSE in respect of 2020. The HSE will consider its decision on the level of service to be provided in the context of available resources and priorities for the coming year.

Additional funding of €2 million has been secured under the autism plan in budget 2020 to address health-related issues for individuals with autism. This money will be used to implement an awareness-raising programme that can provide a better information resource for children and parents about the supports that are available; to build capacity and competence among key professionals working with autism, including a national training programme for clinicians; and to implement a tiered model of assessment to improve access to and responses by services for those with autism. It will also be used to fund a campaign to assist in creating awareness of the challenges, needs and experiences of people with autism. The Government remains committed to providing services and supports for people with disabilities in a way that empowers them to live independent lives, gives them greater independence in accessing the services they choose and enhances their ability to tailor the supports required to meet their needs and plan their lives.

We have a serious problem here. The person in the HSE or elsewhere in the health service who drafted the Minister of State's response has his or her numbers badly wrong. I appeal to the Minister of State to sort this out. A senior official in the Department of Health needs to speak to the person who drafted the response to ask him or her why it is suggested that ICARE has applied for €41,000, or less than half of what it requires. I spoke to representatives of ICARE and the Bluestack Special Needs Foundation in advance of this debate. ICARE is seeking €100,000, as agreed with the HSE. That is what it requires to fund the dedicated core portion of its service. It does all sorts of ancillary works that would not be funded from this €100,000. The Bluestack Special Needs Foundation requires €150,000. The person who put together the numbers in the Minister of State's response is not serving the interests of ICARE or the Bluestack Special Needs Foundation.

This response is an absolute disgrace. Let us be clear about the amounts involved, which are €100,000 and €150,000. If that is not what was applied for in 2020, then the application needs to be amended urgently. What has been given is a fraction of that and shows the lack of respect for these two organisations. I reiterate that education, social care, community and health services are referring families to iCARE and the Bluestacks Special Needs Foundation for support. Those organisations have only a fraction of the supports available to the statutory organisations. I conclude by asking the Minister of State for an urgent intervention because these figures are completely wrong. I am certain about that. This is a misrepresentation of what these organisations require and this situation needs to be resolved today.

I reiterate the acknowledgement of the good work being done. The Bluestacks Special Needs Foundation and iCARE provide excellent services to people with disabilities and their families in County Donegal. The HSE acknowledges that commitment and endeavours to support such community voluntary-based services as much as possible. In that regard, each organisation received €41,000 in 2019 towards the cost of their work. I also reiterate that some 100 new therapy posts have been added this year and there is an overall budget of €2 billion.

Regarding the Senator's contention that the figures are wrong, I have no problem getting clarity from the HSE. I have no reason to doubt that agency, but I have no objection to seeking that clarification.

I would like to clarify that-----

There is no provision for that. The Minister of State has said that he is going to seek the information.

Will I get a response?

The Minister of State has indicated that the Senator will get a response.

That is fine. The Minister of State will respond to me with a clarification of these figures.

Local Authority Housing Standards

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am disappointed, however, because I saw the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, in the canteen. It is disappointing that the Minister cannot make himself available. Regardless of who someone is or what party or political group one represents, if any, if a Minister is in the building then he or she should endeavour to do his or her very best to attend. I have other opportunities to engage with the Minister on a range of matters because I am a member of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government. I am more than happy, however, to drop the Minister a line to tell him how disappointed I am. It is disrespectful to the House for the Minister to not come in. I know Ministers are busy, but so are we and the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, is very busy. That was clear from the answers he gave to the earlier Commencement matters. That said, I do not doubt his commitment and ability to pass on this message.

I ask the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to empower the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, or somebody else, to monitor local authority standards on housing. Local authorities randomly inspect the properties of private sector landlords. Who is keeping an eye on the local authorities, however? People with young children have come to me because they have mildew on the walls of their residence. They have been told to go out and buy a bottle of bleach by the local authorities and those people have that in writing, by the way. They were told they had to ventilate their residences better, use bleach and take the mould off the walls.

People across the country, and probably in the Minister of State's constituency, are living in appalling accommodation which is part of our social housing stock. Who is monitoring that situation? This is an important issue because tenants often fear that continuing to harass the local authority about the poor standards of their accommodation will result in some sort of rancour, to the detriment of a transfer or move to another property. It is not acceptable for local authorities to be acting as judges and juries in their own causes.

An independent inspectorate is needed to ensure that our local authority social housing stock is maintained to high standards. I acknowledge that some authorities are making better progress than others. We still have situations, however, where there is bad ventilation, damp and even pyrite in some of our social housing. We have serious problems, in certain spots, concerning local authority standards. I ask the Minister of State, at his convenience, to ask if the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government will consider putting in place whatever mechanism for inspections might be possible to give comfort to tenants in those situations.

There is no point in all of us, from all parties and none, bellyaching about standards and doing nothing about the problem. This is our forum during Commencement matters and that is why I want to bring this topic to the attention of the Minister. The record will show my disappointment that he is not here. Leaving here today, I commit to contacting some local authorities and I undertake to send photographs of the problems to which I have referred. I will zone in on the constituency of the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government himself. I will identify a few appalling houses in his electoral area and bring them to his attention within the next week. I thank the Minister of State.

I thank Senator Boyhan. I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy English, neither of whom could be here today. I assure the Senator that both of them do their very best to be present when they can.

He is rarely here.

They are both unavoidably absent today and they asked me to stand in. I did not question where they are, I just took their bona fides, which I have no reason to doubt. I assure Senator Boyhan that I will pass on his sentiments to the Minister and the Minister of State. Officials from the Department are also monitoring this debate and taking on board the points raised by the Senator. He can rest assured that he is not making his case in vain.

I thank the Senator for raising the matter of monitoring standards in local authority housing stock. The Housing (Standards for Rented Houses) Regulations, last amended in 2019, specify requirements on a range of matters such as structural repair, sanitary facilities, heating, ventilation, natural light and safety of gas, oil and electrical supply. These minimum standards also include measures covering fire safety, carbon monoxide and window safety. The regulations apply to all rented dwellings, both private rented houses and local authority housing stock, with just a small number of exemptions. All landlords have a legal obligation to ensure their rented properties comply with these regulations. Responsibility for the enforcement of the regulations rests with the relevant local authority. Local authorities are responsible for the management and maintenance of their own housing stock under the Housing Acts, 1966 to 2015, including responsive and planned maintenance and the identification of housing in need of upgrade, regeneration or adaptation.

The Government's Rebuilding Ireland Action Plan on Housing and Homelessness committed all local authorities to adopting a preventative maintenance approach to housing stock management, including consistent standards and the adoption of a common national re-letting performance standard. The City and County Management Association, CCMA, on behalf of local authorities, is driving a shared approach to the planned maintenance of social housing, including stock condition surveys, building on the work that several local authorities have already launched in that regard and there is ongoing dialogue between the CCMA and the Department to advance reform in the area.

In addition to funding provided by the local authorities themselves in respect of their own housing stock - approximately €350 million per annum - the Government provides funding across a number of programmes to support local authority work to maintain and improve social housing stock, for example the energy retrofitting and voids programmes. In all cases, however, it is the local authorities that identify priorities. Local authorities have a multi-stage procedure for dealing with complaints from their tenants regarding housing conditions. The first involves discussing the complaint at the point of service. This is usually the quickest and most efficient way to address matters that have arisen. If someone is unhappy with the outcome of this first stage, a formal complaint can be made under the council's complaints and appeals procedure, details of which can be found on the websites of the local authorities. If a person continues to consider the response from the local authority to be unsatisfactory, the matter may be pursued further through the Office of the Ombudsman.

The Residential Tenancies Board is an independent statutory body established under the Residential Tenancies Acts 2004-2019 to operate a national tenancy registration system, provide information and advice to the public, and to resolve disputes between private landlords and tenants. The inspection of rental properties is not a function of the RTB. Social housing is subject to a separate legislative regime under the Housing Acts and it would not be appropriate for the RTB to have an enforcement role in relation to social housing.

I thank the Minister of State for the response. I take on board the official response concerning the role of the RTB. It is a valid point and I am happy to take it on board. There is, however, a need to regulate and inspect independently of the local authorities. They are failing on a whole range of fronts and we need to monitor them because no actor currently has responsibility in that area. We need to find some way to zone in on those standards. I reiterate that I undertake to contact some of the housing bodies today and I will identify a few houses on the social housing list in the constituency of the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government. I will then come back with a further Commencement matter on this topic, because we need to drive home notice of the existence of this problem right into the political heartland of the Minister.

I thank the Senator and I reiterate that I will convey his sentiments and that officials from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government are watching this debate. As a fellow practitioner in the political world and to be helpful to Senator Boyhan, it may be of interest to him to consider contacting the Office of the Ombudsman to ascertain the current level of complaints.

That is a long process and complaints have to be dealt with locally first.

I am being helpful in that it is something I have found in the past. Contacting the Ombudsman can be very helpful to gain an insight into the level of complaints regarding local authority housing.

Light Rail Projects

The Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly, which includes Dublin, has made proposals on the regional spatial and economic strategy for 2019 to 2031, which is a 12-year strategy to consider and make provision for the extension of the MetroLink south to the Rathfarnham, Churchtown and Knocklyon direction on one arm and the UCD and Stillorgan direction on the other. I echo what Senator Boyhan said, that the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, should be here today. He is in the House. When I left the self-service restaurant to come here he was there so I cannot understand why he cannot be here to deal with this matter personally.

The Minister has advertised his intention to conduct a public consultation on amending the spatial strategy document to delete all reference to any alternative route for the southern end of the metro system. The result of this is that what the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, said about being open to persuasion on this matter is being quietly shelved and a decision is being made to cannibalise the green Luas line and incorporate it eventually into the metro system.

The House knows, because I have mentioned it previously, that the consequence of doing this is the green Luas line would be out of operation for two years while these works are carried out. This is a matter of great importance for the south Dublin region. It is very unfortunate that the Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly, which is a democratic body of local representatives, has made an amendment to make provision for the options the Taoiseach has said are open to the Government to pursue but now it has become apparent that the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, led by the Minister, Deputy Ross, has requested the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to make an order deleting all references to alternative routes in the spatial strategy. In effect, this means the Minister, Deputy Ross, has asked the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to end all possibilities of alternative routes for the southern end of the MetroLink system. The consequence of this is that the Minister, under section 31A of the relevant planning Act, has the power to make a direction telling the regional assembly to amend its spatial strategy to conform with what is now emerging as the preferred strategy of the Minister, Deputy Ross, which is the green line cannibalisation scheme and the two-year delay implicit eventually in pursuing that scheme.

We are now in a situation whereby the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has started a procedure. He has put advertisements in the newspapers indicating he intends to consider ending any possibility of these alternative routes by making a direction under a statutory power. I acknowledge the presence of the Minister of State while complaining about the absence of the senior Minister. My information is the Minister has a draft order before him. He has had correspondence with the National Transport Authority, the Office of the Planning Regulator and the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. The Minister should make a clear statement. Has he yet made the order in question? Does he intend to do so? When is he likely to make this order? Will he publicly state the effect of making this order is that what the Taoiseach has said about the possibility of pursuing alternative routes will be brought to an end?

I thank the Senator for raising this matter and allowing me to clarify the position on extensions to planned metro projects within the regional spatial economic strategy for the Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly.

The completion of the construction of MetroLink from Swords to Sandyford was identified among the key transport infrastructure investments in the regional spatial economic strategy. At material amendment stage, the members of the assembly included the additional undergrounding of extensions to UCD and Knocklyon from Charlemont, which effectively adds an additional two metro lines to the project. The regional spatial economic strategy never proposed the extension of the metro to the Rathfarnham and Churchtown areas.

The consideration of the regional spatial economic strategy by the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government has been framed in the context of Project Ireland 2040 and the statutory requirement for the Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly regional spatial economic strategy to be consistent with the transport strategy for the greater Dublin area, which provides the statutory framework for the planning and delivery of transport infrastructure for the region and with associated funding included in the national development plan.

Following this consideration, the Minister gave notice on 7 August 2019 to the Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly that he intended to issue a direction under section 31A of the Planning and Development Act 2000 on objectives in the regional spatial economic strategy that identified additional rail, metro and Luas infrastructure, which went beyond the scope of the National Transport Authority's transport strategy for the greater Dublin area for 2016 to 2035, the National Planning Framework 2040 and the National Development Plan 2018-2027.

In reaching this position, the Minister took account of advice from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport in July 2019 that the regional spatial economic strategy contains references to projects that are not consistent with the national planning framework, the national development plan and-or the greater Dublin area transport strategy. There was also a strong recommendation, also made in July 2019, from the NTA for the issuance of direction to the Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly to remove, among other items, the reference of the metro extension to Knocklyon and UCD. There was also advice from the Office of the Planning Regulator.

The draft ministerial direction was the subject of public consultation from 20 August 2019 to 2 September 2019, following which the Minister, on the 11 October, appointed an inspector to carry out an independent review. This has now been received. Following consideration of this review, the Minister will decide either to extend the period for consideration or issue the direction as per the draft or with amendments by 9 December 2019.

I understand that a review of the greater Dublin area transport strategy will commence next year and will incorporate a re-examination of travel demand across the greater Dublin area based on the most recent forecasts of population and employment distribution. It would be more appropriate at this point, and through this process, that the requirement for additional rail lines, or for expediting certain elements of the greater Dublin area transport strategy, are identified and considered.

I am deeply disappointed with the answer given by the Minister of State. The Government is speaking with a forked tongue on this issue. The Taoiseach says he is open to persuasion on other routes. The proposal to extend the metro to Sandyford was stated to be something that would not be required for the next 20 years but now it appears the Government is quietly going back to its original proposal, which is to cannibalise the green line and exclude all other possibilities. I want to make it very clear that if the metro is extended to incorporate the green Luas line as far as Sandyford it will entail closing the line for two years and replacing one piece of infrastructure that is working, and with extended tram sets will work more efficiently, while ignoring the possibility of giving other suburbs in Dublin, such as UCD, Belfield, St. Vincent's University Hospital, Churchtown, Rathfarnham and Knocklyon any decent public transport system, which is wholly absent. Whereas I recognise the Minister of State has informed the House today that a decision will be made by 9 December, this has been an exercise in kicking the can down the road. The Taoiseach has said he is open to persuasion on these matters but this process is going to culminate on 9 December. It is deceiving the people as to the Government's real intentions.

Tá áthas orm fíor-fháilte a chur roimh scoláirí as Gaelscoil Inse Chór. I welcome all the boys and girls and their múinteoirí. They are being hosted today by Senator Catherine Ardagh. We hope they find their tour and visit very informative. It is great to have them.