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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 15 Dec 2021

Vol. 281 No. 8

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Local Drugs Task Forces

I thank Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, for being in the Chamber today. I purposely requested the Minister for Health because we are at a point of escalation in relation to the issue I speak to today. If I were in a position to do so, I probably would have called for the Taoiseach to come in to address the issue. He has spoken about it in the Dáil.

What is happening right now with the north inner city drugs task force represents what I and many who on the ground and involved in drugs task forces believe to be one of the most serious attacks that we have experienced on the principle of community engagement on our national drug strategy, NDS, and on the independent voice of the community sector. That attack happens by throwing out words like "governance" and never backing it up and saying what the governance issues are, neither within these Chambers nor to the people who the allegations are levelled against.

It reminds me a little bit of growing up in my community where all you had to do is write, "Lynn is a rat" on the wall. You never had to give any evidence, explain why or give any sort of rationale as to what that meant. However, you were tarred as soon as it was there. Everybody else would slowly step away, just in case what was being said was somehow right.

That is what the Department is doing to the north inner city. It is labelling it as if there is something there, but it is not saying what that is. The north inner city has now been without a functioning drugs and alcohol task force since June. This has happened because of the actions of a Department official who took upon himself the right to interfere in the selection of the new task force chair by blocking the appointment of the duly elected incoming chair. Right now, this official is continuing to interfere by setting up bilateral meetings with task force members, operating outside of any kind of proper process or procedure that we should be entitled to expect from any public official.

The selection process for the new task force was overseen and managed by the outgoing chair, Dr. Joe Barry. The new chair, Ms Anna Quigley, was nominated by the task force community representatives and unanimously approved by the full task force membership in April.

Senator, I do not mean to interrupt you and stop your contribution but I just want you to be careful in relation to identifying individuals.

I asked them for permission.

That is all right. I just want you to be mindful of it.

By blocking the appointment of a strong community nominee as chair, the professional integrity and reputation of both the outgoing and incoming chairs have been questioned and undermined. Unfounded allegations around governance issues are being made without producing, as I said, any shred of evidence whatsoever. Both are known to us all as people of the highest standing in their fields and highly respected across many sectors involved in our NDS. We should be thrilled that people of this calibre are willing to take on a voluntary role as a chair of a drugs task force and offering them every encouragement. Instead, this whole sorry story sends out a very disheartening message to anyone who might be thinking about making a contribution to their community in this way.

Last week in the Dáil, the Taoiseach said he: "... passionately believe[s] in the community and voluntary pillar in terms of the implementation of national [drugs] strategies and in working to formulate and implement those strategies". I believe him. We are asking his colleague, the Minister for Health, who I would like to have seen here, to immediately intervene in this situation. I ask that the Taoiseach meet with the north inner city community networks as they called for his support in their statement last week. The outcome of what is happening in the north inner city has really serious implications for all drugs task forces. If things continue in the direction they are going in it is a clear message to all such task forces that the Department of Health is in control and if they do not go along with what it wants them to do then they will be punished. It sends out a clear message to all of us in the community sector that there is no place for us anymore in the national drugs strategy.

I thank Senator Ruane for raising this issue. The Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, is in the Dáil from 10 a.m. until noon for a Private Members' Bill. I welcome the opportunity to update the Seanad on the Department's engagement with the North Inner City Drugs and Alcohol Task Force to address the governance issues that are preventing it from operating effectively.

Drug and alcohol task forces play an important role under the national drugs strategy in co-ordinating services to assist individuals and families to address drug and alcohol issues in the community. Task forces oversee the allocation of almost €29 million in Government funding. A handbook for governance and operation of task forces is in place since 2011. Task forces are expected to conduct their affairs in accordance with the handbook. Senator Ruane, as the independent chairperson of a drug and alcohol task force, will be familiar with the handbook and appreciate its role in managing the affairs of the task force.

The devastating impact of drugs and alcohol use on the north inner city was acknowledged by the Government with the establishment of the North East Inner City, NEIC, Programme Implementation Board to implement the recommendations of the Mulvey report. The Department of Health chairs the board subgroup on drugs and alcohol use and works closely with local stakeholders, including drugs and alcohol task forces, to improve the provision of drug and alcohol services in the community. The Department co-funded a community needs analysis to identify drug and alcohol issues affecting the local community, in conjunction with the task force. The Department also engaged with the task force on the appointment of a new independent chairperson to drive the work of the task force. It identified the need to broaden the membership of the task force to include all local stakeholders. The Department has sought to work with the task force leadership and membership to address these governance concerns. I support the autonomy of the task force to appoint its chairperson and believe the collective membership is the appropriate entity to appoint a chairperson on a consensual basis. It is important that the membership of the task force is afforded the opportunity to consider these governance concerns and to decide how it wishes to proceed on the appointment of a chairperson.

As Minister of State, I urged the outgoing chair to engage with all members of the task force, community, voluntary and statutory, to consider this matter on a consensual basis. Unfortunately, the task force leadership and members have not been able to resolve the impasse in the appointment of a chairperson of the task force. I note the content of the recent email circulated to local services that states the task force is no longer in a position to function. This follows the resignation of the chairperson and company directors. The Department is concerned by this development, as am I, given our oversight of the task force and the €2.2 million in public funding allocated to projects under its remit. The Department and I will continue to work with stakeholders in the north inner city to establish effective, inclusive and transparent governance of the task force and the funding it allocates. My officials and I are currently engaged in a consultation process with stakeholders on a process to re-establish the task force. I expect to shortly receive a report that sets out the next steps in that re-establishment.

I value the Senator's judgment and opinion. If there is anything we can do to bring all the stakeholders together to try to resolve this issue, my door is open at all times. We might have to take a different approach to try to resolve this because it is an issue that has not been dealt with appropriately in the last few months. I hope we can do that.

I thank the Minister of State for his comments. I have just pulled up the handbook to check a particular point. If that overreach by an official in relation to the election of the chair had not happened we would not be in the position of saying the task force cannot operate at all. Task forces should be free to appoint their chair without interference by the Department, provided the chair:

... is not directly connected with any of the projects being funded by the Task Force. ... [and there is] complete transparency in the arrangements put in place by [the drugs task forces] DTFs for the selection process and appointment of Chairs.

That is from the Local and Regional Drugs Task Forces handbook. There was nothing in the appointment of the chair that did not repeat what was required by that handbook. I do not think we can keep saying: "governance and handbooks". The Department should come out very strongly and say there was not a governance issue. If this is what the Department is seeing as a governance issue, that is, that there was something wrong with the appointment of the chair, then that is very different from saying the word "governance" out there because everyone thinks the worst. People think somebody has done something fraudulent or that there has been a misappropriation of funds or that somebody has been dishonest. The onus is now on the Department to clarify what it means when it said it was governance issues that led it to over-reaching into this. The Department gave itself a power it did not have to suspend the task force and that is not okay. If the Department can take ownership of what it did wrong in the process maybe people will be able to move closer to fixing the issue.

I thank the Senator. I am committed to addressing the drug and alcohol issues affecting the north inner city in conjunction with the local community and relevant service providers. Considerable additional resources have been provided to enhance drug and alcohol services in the area, both from the NEIC initiative and the Department's budget. The drugs and alcohol task force has a key role to play. However, it is clear that maybe a new start is needed for the task force so it can command the support of all stakeholders, including the local community, statutory agencies and local politicians.

I would like to confirm that the Department's annual funding of €2.2 million for community and services under the auspices of the task force is continuing and there should be no disruption in front-line services. The residents of the north inner city deserve a well governed and fully functioning task force. In particular, a transparent process for the selection and appointment of an independent chairperson is required. I ask for the co-operation of all stakeholders in putting this in place. If there is anything we can do, if we can bring something from a different angle and if the Senator can be helpful or whatever and we can bring the stakeholders together, my door is always open. Maybe we could resolve this by sitting around a table because there have been many letters flying around. If there is anything we can do my door is, as I said, open. I think this can be resolved to everyone's satisfaction.

I thank the Minister of State. I hope those people can get around the table because it is a very important issue. The next matter is in the name of Senator Fitzpatrick.

Hospital Facilities

Go raibh maith agat a Chathaoirligh Gníomhach. I thank the Minister of State for coming in to respond to my Commencement matter which seeks a date by which a team will be appointed for the design of a critical care wing for the Rotunda Hospital on Parnell Square. The Rotunda is the world's oldest maternity hospital. It dates from 1745. More than 8,000 babies a year are delivered there. One in six of all babies in the country is born there. One in four of all premature neonatal babies is born there. There has been a 10% increase in demand at the hospital over the past year. It is a hugely important health institution for women, children and families of the north inner city but also for the nation.

The Rotunda receives approximately 500 gynaecological referrals each month and there is a waiting list of more than 3,000 at the moment. It is a health resource of huge importance to women and children. As I said some of the buildings date from the 1700s. The hospital is challenged to deliver 21st century healthcare in 18th century built infrastructure. HIQA has done inspections going back years that indicate the building is out of date, old, cramped and not fit for purpose. In fact, in places it is potentially dangerous.

This issue has been well recognised for a number of years, dating back to 2018. There have been reports done.

The most cost-effective, cost-beneficial and expedient solution is to develop a critical care wing on the west side of Parnell Square. The requirement went out to tender earlier this year. I understand that that tender process has been successfully completed. I am hoping that the Minister of State can advise the House today on when the design team will be announced.

I will also acknowledge, and we all know, that our State has a very poor history in women's health. That is something the current Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, the Minister of State and everybody in government are making great strides in changing. The State's approach to women's health is changing with a commitment that has never been previously made to women's health, including the establishment of the women's health task force, the commitment to establish menopause clinics, free contraception and a fully funded maternity strategy. I commend the Minister of State and the Government on those real changes that are being made in the State's approach to women's health, but we need to do more. We need to continue the great changes that have already been made. I hope the Minister of State can advise us as to when a design team will be announced for the design of a new critical care wing for the Rotunda Hospital.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue and for giving me the opportunity to outline to the House the position regarding the Rotunda Hospital.

The National Development Plan 2021-2030, launched on 4 October 2021, provides a total five-year allocation, to 2025, of €5.657 billion to the Department of Health. This includes funding towards projects provided for in the capital plan, such as the critical care wing at the Rotunda Hospital.

It is acknowledged that there is a need to address the highest infrastructural risk and capacity issues at the existing hospital at Parnell Square on a prioritised basis. There has been engagement between the Department of Health, the HSE and the Rotunda to clarify the scope and extent of the development needed to resolve patient safety risks arising at the hospital from infrastructural issues. Capital funding has been provided to the hospital over recent years to help it to manage its estate, together with appropriate allocations for equipment replacement. Last year, funding was provided to assist with Covid-related emergency works. Some €5 million has been provided over 2020-21 for redevelopment works to sustain a modern foetal assessment unit and a neonatal intensive care unit, together with a new emergency theatre and delivery suite.

As required under the public spending code, the hospital has submitted a business case in support of a proposed critical care wing, which is under consideration by the HSE. It was agreed earlier this year in a meeting between the hospital, the HSE and the RCSI Hospitals Group, to initiate the process of design team recruitment to support these necessary interim works pending co-location to Connolly Hospital Blanchardstown. The evaluation of the recently received design team tender documentation with respect to the new critical care wing has been concluded. The successful and unsuccessful applicants have been identified and notified following a recent procurement process.

As the Senator knows, as is normal for a capital project of this scale, approval to formally appoint a design team will be subject to the normal health sector approvals processes in line with requirements under the public spending code. In the meantime, there continues to be ongoing and active engagement between the HSE and the Rotunda Hospital refining key aspects of the project.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I fully acknowledge and value the commitment the Government and the Minister of State have given to the Rotunda. I also acknowledge the significant funding that has already been provided but I am disappointed with his reply. It is very disappointing that we are at the end of this year without a design team being announced. This tender process commenced at the start of this year and engaged not just the hospital, the HSE and staff within the Department, but external private companies that engaged in the tendering process and that have been told whether they have been successful or unsuccessful. I do not understand the inertia or how long the health sector approval process will take. How long is it? Is it a piece of string? It is not any way for the State to conduct its business.

Everybody and every business has been under pressure during the Covid pandemic. When organisations respond to the State's request to produce a tender, they do so in good faith and they expect to be responded to and advised in a prompt manner. Apart from them, the women of Dublin and our country deserve better. I urge the Minister of State to go back to the Department of Health and ask its officials to make a decision on this. They know who the successful tender applicants were. They should make a decision and make it public. We need to move on with this without any further delay.

I thank the Senator for her concerns, which I will bring to the Department to try to make this decision as quickly as possible. I understand there continues to be ongoing and active engagement with the Rotunda Hospital refining key aspects of the project. As the Senator knows, again, all capital development proposals must progress through a number of approval stages in line with the public spending code, including detailed appraisal, planning, design and procurement before a firm timeline or funding requirement can be established.

Approvals must be received for each individual stage to ensure that the proposal delivers value for money, remains affordable and that sufficient funding is available to fund the project to completion, including equipping and commissioning status. The development of capital projects is a dynamic process and is subject to a number of key considerations, including service prioritisation, clarification of scope, determination of affordability, as well as the successful completion of the various capital project approval stages, which can impact on the timeline for delivery.

I hear what the Senator said. I will bring it back to the Minister and the Department to try to get this progressed as quickly as possible.

Airport Policy

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. As she knows, aviation and tourism throughout the State have been devastated due to the Covid pandemic. Shannon Airport is no different to any other airport in the world, in that it has suffered very considerable losses in passenger numbers and a reduction in activity. I recognise the support the Government has provided to date, which is well respected and well regarded at the airport and in the wider region. I am very pleased to see that the supports the Government put in place have today received the support of the European Union, which is most welcome.

As the Minister of State knows, however, 2022 is seen as the year from which the recovery of the aviation and tourism sectors will begin. I will put on public record that, prior to Covid, Shannon was not keeping pace with growth at other airports. We saw very significant growth in tourism numbers in the five years prior to 2020 and, quite frankly, Shannon was not holding pace with that growth. Only 1.7 million passengers went through Shannon Airport in 2019. In 2007, there were close to 3 million passengers, or more, going through the airport. Cork Airport is at 2.5 million and Dublin Airport, the behemoth, has 35 million passengers going through it and is growing all the time.

The effort now in rebuilding activity at all airports gives an opportunity to rebalance, to some extent, the lopsided growth that has taken place between east and west. There is now an opportunity to see more balanced growth. Dublin was bursting at the seams, putting pressure on the infrastructure at the airport, in addition to the infrastructure of the roads and public transport network around it. Shannon Airport will need ongoing support to ensure that it is in a position to rebuild and be ultimately self-sustaining into the future.

In the long term, we have to look at putting in place a national aviation policy and establishing a national aviation authority, which will have responsibility for the three State airports in order that they work together rather than in competition with one another and do so in a way in which Government policy dictates a regional development approach.

It is not to take from Dublin, but it is to take the unnecessary traffic from Dublin, and supporting Shannon, Cork and the wider region in the way we do it. I do not think the structure as it is currently constituted, or the current policy, are appropriate to do that. However, I am also mindful that it will take some time to change the policy and put those kinds of processes in place. In the meantime, we must do everything we possibly can to rebuild the foundation in Shannon in order that it is able to compete and start to rebuild from this year on.

I have a couple of asks. The first thing we need to do from the perspective of the Department of Transport is ensure that there is an hourly direct bus service between Galway and Shannon and Limerick and Shannon. There are good Bus Éireann services at the moment but they are not direct. We need the buses to make the journey in the quickest possible time. It is possible to drive by car from Shannon to Galway in less than an hour and it is important that we have a direct bus service to replicate that.

The chambers of commerce in Clare and Limerick have done a very good piece of work on the need to establish a link between Shannon Airport and one of the big hubs in Europe, either Schiphol or Frankfurt. Schiphol is probably the best, with Frankfurt at number two and Paris and number three. To get an airline to do that in the short term will require significant Government support. Under the public service obligation, PSO, rules it should be possible to put in place that kind of funding. I accept it will need intervention from the European Commission, but I hope the officials in the Department will be open-minded to such a proposal and will be prepared to put together an application for PSO status for a route from Shannon into Schiphol or Frankfurt at the earliest opportunity and to give Shannon and the wider mid-west region – the Minister of State's city, my county and neighbouring counties - a real opportunity to start the rebuilding process as early as possible.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss this topic with Senators this morning. Aviation plays a critical role in our economy as a driving force for tourism and business, including foreign direct investment. Nowhere is this more evident than in Shannon. Government policies have consistently recognised and supported this contribution. Indeed, this has remained the case following the arrival of Covid-19 to our shores. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the aviation sector has benefited considerably from a suite of measures to support businesses across the economy, including but not limited to, a wage subsidy scheme, grants, low-cost loans, a commercial rates waiver, deferred tax liabilities and the Covid restrictions support scheme. It is estimated that Irish airports and airlines will have received approximately €440 million under these measures by the end of 2021. Early in the Covid crisis the Government implemented a range of horizontal economy-wide supports. Shannon has rightly and appropriately benefited from these supports, including the recently extended employment wage subsidy scheme.

Specifically, in relation to Shannon Airport, it is benefiting from a suite of aviation-specific Exchequer-funded programmes and schemes. By virtue of its size - pre-Covid the airport had more than 1 million annual passengers - Shannon Airport has not been eligible for funding under the regional airports programme. However, in light of Covid-19, a decision was taken by the Government to provide funding to Shannon and Cork airports under a newly designed €32 million Covid-19 regional State airports programme this year in recognition of the impact of the pandemic on these airports. Under this programme, the Exchequer is funding 100% of all eligible non-economic safety and security-related current expenditure at Shannon Airport in 2021, as well as a number of safety and security-related capital projects. Shannon Airport was also separately allocated emergency capital supports of more than €6 million towards its hold baggage screening project, a safety and security project at the airport.

The Government has been responsive to the needs of airports as part of the wider aviation ecosystem. This ability to respond decisively is clearly seen in the funding announcement I made this morning. I am pleased to inform Seanad Éireann that today, I have announced €108 million in direct Exchequer supports to the airports of Shannon, Dublin, Cork, Ireland West Airport Knock, Kerry and Donegal. This means that this year, an unprecedented €160 million in Exchequer funding has been allocated by the Government to support airports under the Covid-19 supplementary support schemes, the regional airports programme, and the regional State airports programme. Funding under these programmes supports airports in delivering safety, security and sustainability-related projects and activities.

The supplementary support schemes will help compensate smaller regional airports for the damage caused to them by Covid-19, as well as providing State airports, including Shannon Airport, with the flexibility to roll out more route incentives and to charge rebates with a view to supporting recovery and growth of connectivity. In total, in 2021 the Government will have allocated almost €24 million to Shannon Airport in direct grant support. This is in addition to the aviation-specific supports provided in 2020 and the horizontal supports provided to Shannon during the Covid-19 crisis.

Turning to the wider group, I understand that Shannon Group's engagement with the relevant local authorities on the transfer of Shannon Heritage sites to them is progressing well. As Members may be aware, due to the complexities involved in the transfer, due diligence exercises must be concluded before any necessary formal consents of the Minister for Transport and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform can be given to execute any transfer of the sites with the agreement of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. The restructuring of the group is seen as necessary to assist the Shannon Group to focus on the recovery of the airport and to build back international passengers, while continuing to develop its aviation cluster and associated property activities.

The Minister of State correctly identified the considerable support the State has provided to Shannon and to other airports, which is welcome. What we now need to look at is to move beyond the care and maintenance of the airport sector. It is hoped that, all going well, 2022 will be the beginning of the end of the Covid pandemic and in parallel with that we will have a reawakening of the tourism and aviation sectors. I want to work with the Minister of State and others, as I have done in the past, to try to ensure that when we rebuild, we rebuild better and that we build a fairer base. The policies that existed heretofore, unfortunately, skewed the activity towards the east coast to an extent that was too great. Shannon Airport had 1.7 million passengers compared to up to 35 million in Dublin. Some 500,000 or 1 million extra passengers through Shannon Airport would make an amazing difference to the lives of many people who work in the airport and the tourism and hospitality sector in the region. The lack of growth in Dublin would only help the city and Dublin Airport. It there is to be further growth of 1 million passengers in the coming years, it would be lost on Dublin and would merely put further pressure on the infrastructure there. There is a real opportunity to get a policy shift right now by putting in place the key supports that will enable the recovery of Shannon and to skew in an incremental way increased growth in Shannon and the mid-west region.

I do not doubt the importance of Shannon Airport for the mid-west region. I do not need to tell Senator Dooley that this will continue to be a focus of the Government to ensure it is supported. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and I had a very good meeting with the new chair of the Shannon Group, Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh last Friday. We discussed the current status of the airport, the key challenges, risks and opportunities for the future, including his ambition for building back passenger numbers at the airport, as the Shannon Group continues to successfully position itself for recovery.

I welcome the commitment to the resumption of transatlantic flights with Aer Lingus and United Airlines both offering services from March next year. The availability of transatlantic flights is critical to the mid-west region to ensure balanced regional development. We are all cognisant of the fact that these services provide support and access for the US multinationals based within Shannon Airport's catchment area. They are also critical to supporting tourism and industry in the region.

I have also been informed that next year's Aer Lingus Heathrow service will increase to twice daily from 18 February and then three times daily from 27 March and that Ryanair is planning to operate 20 routes, including the first service from Shannon to Malta. These are positive developments and recovery is being seen. The Government will continue to support Shannon Airport into 2022.

Sitting suspended at 11.10 a.m. and resumed at 11.32 a.m.