Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 18 Oct 2007

Vol. 639 No. 6

Adjournment Debate.

Regional Orthopaedic Unit Closure.

I am delighted to raise this serious matter on the Adjournment. I take it that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, is dealing with this as I note that once again the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, is not here because she is denying these facts. It is disgraceful that the Minister for Health and Children and the Government are downplaying this serious issue. The Minister's take on it is nothing short of a con job.

Why must the patients of the north-east region suffer because of Government cutbacks? We were promised this would not happen. In May, before the election, the Taoiseach and the then Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, stated there would be no cutbacks to frontline staff. In September and October when they were asked about cutbacks they stated no patients would suffer.

The north-east regional orthopaedic unit will close for a month. This unit serves a population of 400,000. It does on average 200 operations a month. The Minister is trying to dispute that, saying it does only six. According to her own figures yesterday, she admitted that the unit has looked after 16,000 patients in the first nine months. If one divides that number by nine, one gets 177 patients, which is much more than six. It is an insult to the people of the north east and to this country that the Minister keeps speaking of the figure six. It is a disgrace. I want that confirmed and I want her to come in here at some stage and admit that she was misleading people with that figure. Her own regional organiser employed by the HSE, which reports to the Government, has admitted publicly that the figure is approximately 180. The consultants have stated it is approximately 180. Who does the Minister think she is to continue misleading us by telling us lies, that the figure is six, which is wrong?

Deputy English should not use the word "lies".

I feel strongly about it. It is "mistruths", which is the same. I should not use the word "lies". "Mistruths" is probably a better word to use and I apologise.

Deputy English should withdraw the word "lies".

I withdraw the word "lies". It is a mistruth, but the figure is still wrong. It is much more than six. It is 177 to 180, according to her own figures. When this unit closes——

Would it be acceptable if Deputy English said it was deliberately wrong?

The Deputy has withdrawn the remark.

Deputy Quinn is correct. It is better to say it was deliberately wrong. This unit will close for a month, which will affect people scheduled for treatment in December, but it will also have a knock-on effect on every month during 2008. Each of the approximately 500 patients on the waiting list will suffer because of this cutback. It is wrong and deliberately untrue to continue saying only six people will be affected. Many more people will be affected. These patients will be left in serious pain.

Why were the consultants not informed when the decision was taken to close this unit? It is a disgrace that consultants who know how much pain patients are suffering were not even consulted about the closure of the unit. How is it safe for patients for someone to decide at the stroke of a pen to close this unit? This is a disgrace.

I accept the Minister may not have all the answers today but I have some questions to put to him. Why were the consultants not consulted on this serious decision? Why are the patients the ones who will suffer due to cutbacks when we were promised they would not? Does the Minister care about Our Lady's Hospital in Navan or this orthopaedic unit?

I did not receive any answers in the Minister's replies to parliamentary questions I tabled in recent days. She informed me it is not her responsibility. What exactly is the Minister for Health and Children supposed to do if not be in charge of our hospitals? It is ridiculous to say it is not her responsibility. Will the Government step in and prevent the closure of this unit? Will the Minister accept the figure of six patients is incorrect and totally and utterly misleading? Will the unit be fully operational in January?

If the unit is closed in December, no pre-operation assessment cases can be dealt with, so no patients will be ready for operation in January. In effect, this would result in two months of closure, which would be very serious. I seek clarification on this point. How much money does the Minister for Health and Children intend to save by closing the unit for a month? When a manager is absent due to illness, he or she can be replaced by a memo sent around the health service to find a replacement. A manager can be replaced but in this case it appears a unit must be closed.

Last April or May, prior to the election, we were promised in a big announcement by the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, that Our Lady's Hospital, Navan was due to get a medical assessment unit which would solve the problems experienced by the casualty department. We were promised it would open in July 2007 but construction has not even started yet and it is not due to open until 2008. This is another promise on which we have been let down.

We were also led to believe the medical assessment unit would be a permanent one but we have learned since the initial announcement that it is an interim unit which will close in 2009. Why are the people of the north east expected by the Government to accept a second-class health service? This is not good enough. People are suffering and will continue to suffer. What does the Government intend to do?

I have respect for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, but I no longer respect the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, since she got her figures wrong. I hope the Minister will bring the message to the Government that the north east can no longer endure constant cutbacks.

Since the election three announcements have been made about Navan Hospital: first, the closure of this unit; second, that there would be no medical assessment unit; and third, the withdrawal of cancer services. I am convinced all this information was available prior to the election. It was misleading and a con job not to have told people the truth in the north east. For years the people there have suffered from a lack of investment in the health service, yet they are expected to continue accepting the situation. This is not good enough.

It was confirmed during the week by the Health Service Executive's regional network manager that many vacant posts in the north east were not filled in 2007. Therefore, the current cutbacks do not look as bad as they would otherwise have. We do not appear to have to cut back as much as is actually the case. Posts were deliberately not filled in order to save money and it was decided to postpone the bad news regarding cutbacks for November and December. We need answers.

I thank Deputy English for raising this matter. I will be taking the matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney.

The Department of Health and Children is advised by the Health Service Executive that the orthopaedic department in our Lady's Hospital Navan, which performs elective orthopaedic procedures, will not be admitting patients for the month of December.

The Health Service Executive has advised that each year, before, during and after Christmas, there is a reduction in demand for elective orthopaedic services, such as hip replacements, in Our Lady's Hospital. Last year the orthopaedic unit closed completely for the month of December.

Construction work was under way.

The Health Service Executive advises that six patients who have had procedures booked for December will be given alternative appointments for January 2008. Patients suffering fractures or trauma, as well as day cases and those with outpatient appointments, will continue to be treated during the month of December.

The Health Service Executive has indicated that the orthopaedic department in Navan is ahead of its set targets for procedures for 2007.

With respect, this is not a factory.

The Minister should be allowed to speak without interruption.

I understand that, but this is an insult to the people of the north east.

The Minister should be allowed to speak without interruption.

There is no point in reading out the reply. It is a waste of time. It is an insult.

If there is no point in reading it out, I will not read it.

It does not say anything. We can go on the figures.

The Minister should be allowed to speak without interruption.

This is a crazy situation.

At the end of September the total number of elective procedures performed was 1,603, of which 331 were major joint replacements and 1,272 were other orthopaedic procedures.

The overall context for public hospital services in the country is that for each of the past three months of this year, we can still expect about 100,000 patient discharges, on a day case and inpatient basis. This excludes accident and emergency services. I say this to illustrate the high levels of service that continue to be offered in our public hospitals.

School Staffing.

I acknowledge the presence in the House of the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin. I appreciate that she has chosen to reply to this matter, as in my experience this has not necessarily been the practice.

The measure of any good bureaucracy is its ability to be both consistent and flexible at the same time. The allocation of resources, especially public resources, must respect the taxpayer and be fair in terms of distribution, especially when there are so many competing demands. The allocation of an additional primary school teacher to existing school is a good example of what I mean.

The system has worked well in St. Mary's boys national school in Haddington Road. Advance notice in spring 2007 of an increase in numbers resulted in the Department indicating to the school that it would be entitled to take on an extra teacher, which it duly did. In order to do so a classroom was found within the building, but this led to the closure of a pre-school group which affected many parents of children already in the school and others, and the redundancy of two pre-school teachers whose redundancy payments had to be funded out of the internal resources fund-raised by the school, which went for non-visible expenditure.

By the end of September this year, under the bureaucratic system I described with some praise, which I mean, the school properly informed the statistical unit within the Department it was three pupils short of the total number of extra children required. In this instance the unit in question replied that it operated on a numerical basis but an appeals procedure existed. I address this appeal to the Minister who recently visited the school. When she had a brief word with the principal in question, Liam Ó Frighil, he brought the matter to her attention. She may not recall the details as she is a busy person.

The net point of this appeal is the following. We know five extra children will be in the school by Christmas. The school caters for a large section of newcomers, as the school describes these foreign nationals. I will not use the term non-Irish population which is a most insulting designation of people. The Minister may have had a chance to read the documentation sent to her Department which outlines that many of them are people who have come here to ensure the Celtic tiger continues to work. Three of the young children who will arrive in the school before Christmas are Filipinos. They are the sons of people who are making our health system work. By Christmas the school will have the required numbers to meet the understandable criteria that have been set by the Minister and her predecessors in the Department. I urge her to exercise the discretion she possesses to look at the details of the files in her Department, which I do not propose to go into given the time constraints, and to ensure that this happens. The consequence of not doing so is the internal disruption of the school. The Minister will know what that means as she is a professional teacher. It will give rise to mixed classes.

The Minister, Deputy Gormley, who shares a constituency with me will share my concern that the closure of the pre-school and the non-appearance of the extra school teacher will be blamed on the newcomers and their children. That will have a negative effect which none of us wishes to see. I should have acknowledged the presence of another Dublin South-East Member, Deputy Chris Andrews from Fianna Fáil who is seated behind the Minister.

We all know the good work done by both the girls school and boys school. The boys come from junior and senior infants into the boys school. I ask that the Minister read the file of the case carefully and make the decision the three Deputies present would wish her to make.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue and thank the Minister, Deputy Gormley, and Deputy Andrews for being present. As noted by Deputy Quinn, I met the school principal in the forecourt of the girls school, which I was visiting, and he outlined the situation raised by Deputy Quinn, namely, that new students will be arriving at the school. The school is part of the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, disadvantage programme, which is an inclusive programme that for the first time draws together schools, pre-schools and second level schools in an integrated programme. We have all recognised in the past that funding needs to be focused on the most disadvantaged, which is happening for the first time in DEIS, rather than having a scattered approach where funding is spread among too many schools.

St. Mary's boys national school, Haddington Road, is in band 2 of DEIS but it is as a result of its previous participation in the Giving Children an Even Break programme that it qualified for the class sizes allocation, which is 20:1 in the junior classes and 27:1 in the senior classes. This obviously allows for the allocation of additional posts.

There is a very objective system for the allocation of teachers.

There has to be.

There has to be. It works on the following basis. There are 4,000 schools in the country. Traditionally, the only way teachers were allocated was on the basis of numbers on 30 September of the preceding year. Given increasing population and school numbers, we then introduced allocation on the basis of projected numbers. It was on this basis that St. Mary's boys national school made its submission and was allocated the teaching post. I was not aware it had shut down a pre-school, nor am I aware from where it got the money to pay for the two pre-school teachers — I am sure it did not come from its capitation or DEIS funding.

It came from the fund raised by the parents.

The allocation was made on the condition it would reach the required enrolment by 30 September 2007. The school wrote to the Department stating it had not reached the enrolment.

Notwithstanding this, there is an independent appeals process. There are two times when this adjudication panel meets: the first is when the original allocations are made early in the summer and the second when schools apply for a review in the first week of October, as I understand it. The independent panel is genuinely independent of the Department of Education and Science and the Minister. Were any Minister to get involved with an individual school, not only would the Minister have 4,000 schools coming after him or her, but 165 Deputies, 60 Senators and everyone else would do so also. That would not be an objective way to allocate teachers.

The allocations are not made on the basis that the pupils are newcomers or do not have English as a first language. There are classes throughout west County Dublin which hardly have native-born Irish pupils due to arrival of many newcomers. Teachers are not allocated on that basis.

I suggested to the principal of the boys school that he should indicate increased numbers were arriving and that he knew this for a fact. He indicated to me that the class guidelines under the Giving Children an Even Break scheme would be broken but that he still would not have very large classes when compared to others. However, he is making his appeal on the basis of newcomers arriving and the fact that he genuinely thought he would have them. Many schools——

They will be there by Christmas. If the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform issued the visas and all the other——

The principal is making his appeal on that basis but he lost out on the September number because some families moved — I remember him telling me this.

It is a very objective system. At the outset Deputy Quinn stated the school was only down by three pupils but there are schools which are down by only two or one. Teachers are employed in different schools on the basis of a panel. It is a good system that has worked well given 28,000 primary teachers are now employed.

The principal's appeal will be considered on 23 October, which is next week. I hope he will be successful in that.

The Minister can find a way.

Hunting Licences.

I thank the Acting Chairman for allowing me to raise this issue. I also thank the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government for being present. I understand the Minister is considering a request from the Ward Union hunt for a licence to hunt domesticated deer with packs of hounds. I have a number of concerns which I hope the Minister will consider when making his decision.

I am aware the Attorney General has given the view that because section 26(1) of the Wildlife Act 1976 refers to a licence to hunt deer, this reference alone makes it irrelevant whether the deer are wild or domesticated. However, I wish to draw the Minister's attention to the alternative view that the Wildlife Act 1976 in its entirety, in particular the part which contains section 26, deals exclusively with wild animals and the reference to "deer" is of course intended to refer to wild deer, not farmed, domesticated deer. It is, after all, a Wildlife Act, a point I hope the Minister will accept.

I draw attention to the report of the then Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry's veterinary inspector, Mr. K. W. S. Kane, originally obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, of which I then placed a copy in the Oireachtas Library. Mr. Kane's report states: "As the Red Deer at Green Park are obviously not wild animals it is equally hard to see how they fall into the ambit of the Wildlife Act, 1976 which specifically refers to ‘Wildlife' defined therein as meaning ‘fauna and flora', the word ‘fauna' being further defined as meaning ‘wild animals'." The Department inspector, an expert in his field, also states: "As the Red Deer herd ... [has been] maintained in captivity [by the Ward Union hunt] for something in the region of 150 years and is augmented regularly by stock from captive herds farmed solely for venison production, it is hard to see how they avoid falling into the category of ‘domestic animal' for the purposes of the Protection of Animals Acts, 1911 and 1965." The inspector's conclusion is as follows: "It could be argued ... that the stags are domestic animals and do not fall within the ambit of the Wildlife Act, 1976 and thus that the hunts contravene the Protection of Animals Acts, 1911 and 1965."

It was for the same reason that in the same year, 1997, the department of agriculture in the North, having taken legal and veterinary advice, decided to regard such deer as domestic animals and hunting them as an act of cruelty. It proceeded to outlaw the practice in the North.

In a Dáil reply to me yesterday, the Minister stated the Department has never granted a wildlife dealer's licence to the Ward Union hunt, despite the fact it maintains a large herd of red deer. Surely this is further evidence that we are not dealing with wild animals but farmed, domestic, tame animals. If so, let us examine what happens to them during the hunt. For the sake of accuracy, I will quote directly from the Department inspector's report, where he refers to stags being terrified, apparently distressed and exhausted, and concludes the hunt "must be terrifying and stressful to the animal". My case is that there must be, at the very least, a serious concern that the hunting with packs of hounds of these tame, domesticated deer causes unnecessary suffering to the animals and must therefore be in breach of the Protection of Animals Act 1911.

I have been present to monitor the activities of the Ward Union Hunt and witnessed Mr. Bailey, Mr. Ronan and others like them at their entertainment. In terror of the hounds, the deer frantically tries to stay in front of them but, being in unfamiliar territory, the route is hazardous and it crashes through hedges, jumps over walls and ditches, crosses busy roads and even runs down busy streets. It is a gruelling ordeal which can last for up to three hours and result in tears, bruises, bites, lameness and exhaustion.

Veterinary documents obtained by the Irish Council Against Blood Sports under the Freedom of Information Act have exposed some of the fatalities arising from the Ward Union Hunt's activities, including a deer which died as a result of fractured ribs, two deer which died from ruptured aortic aneurysms, a deer which drowned in a quarry and a deer which collapsed and died after desperately trying to escape over an 8 ft. high wall. When the animal becomes so depleted it can no longer run, hunt members move in to tackle it violently to the ground.

I hope the Minister will consider the issues I have raised, as he must clearly recognise that this activity involves terrifying an animal unnecessarily, which is in breach of the Protection of Animals Act.

I thank Deputy Gregory for raising this matter. Section 26(1) of the Wildlife Act 1976, as amended, provides that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government may grant to the master or other person in charge of a pack of stag hounds a licence authorising the hunting of deer by that pack during such period as specified in the licence. I know there are different views as to whether activities of the Ward Union Hunt are licensable, given that the deer owned by the hunt are considered domesticated animals. Accordingly, my Department obtained legal advice from the Office of the Attorney General which confirms the previous interpretation of section 26, to the effect that this section provides for the licensing of carted deer hunting irrespective of the status of the deer, wild or captive.

The Ward Union Hunt made an application to my Department in August 2007 for a licence under section 26 for the coming season. My Department wrote to the hunt on 10 September advising that I was considering not granting a licence to the hunt due to serious concerns relating to conservation and the protection of stags generally and failure to comply with previous licence conditions. I am aware that Deputy Gregory has attended hunt meetings as an observer. Officials of my Department then met with representatives of the Ward Union Hunt on 18 September and strong concerns put to the hunt representatives were discussed. Subsequently, the Ward Union Hunt responded by letter of 28 September.

I wish to see a number of issues clarified with the Ward Union Hunt and my Department will write to the hunt shortly. Following a further response from the hunt on these issues, I will be in a position to make a decision on the licence application.

Animal welfare and legal protection of animals from cruelty are the responsibility of my colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The programme for Government includes a commitment to introduce a comprehensive animal welfare Bill, which will update existing legislation to ensure the welfare of animals is properly protected and penalties for offenders are increased significantly.

Water and Sewerage Schemes.

I am pleased to have an opportunity to raise this matter on the Adjournment and thank the Minister for coming to the House to discuss the issue. He is obviously conscious of the difficulties being created by the waste water treatment plant in Ringsend, which cost €300 million to construct. I am not convinced by claims that the plant has delivered an improvement in water quality around Sandymount and Dublin Bay. Those who walk along the strand, from the Tara Towers up to the Poolbeg Peninsula, will have noted what appears to be a serious rat infestation in the area. I am not keen to bring children to the area and having visited the strand a couple of times over the summer, I decided not to return such was the number of rats. I am not convinced the plant has provided a panacea for the poor quality of water in the area.

An e-mail sent to me recently by residents in the Sandymount area states:

As you will be aware the odour from the sewage plant has been a major imposition on the residents of much of Dublin South East for the past few years. We have taken up this matter with Matt Twomey Assistant City Manager and were assured that the problem would be solved by late November by installing a higher quality of dryers and covers on the sewage tanks. Two weeks ago we wrote to Mr Twomey to ask him if the installation of the dryers was on schedule (we had been told in July that the first of three dryers would be installed in August, another in October and the last in November). The reply received last week informed us that these improvements will now not be in place until some time in 2008. No target date in 2008 was given.

The odour on Friday night last (Oct.12) was the most vile and noxious to date. It was so bad in our area that my wife thought that there was a gas leak! Given the amount of time that the City Council have had to date to fix this problem and the fact that they cannot now even keep to their own remedy schedule we believe that it is now time for the government to intervene.

Before his appointment, the Minister, referring to problems with the plant, called on the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to "conduct its own investigation and reveal who is responsible for this cock-up". I appreciate, therefore, that he understands the gravity of the situation. Around this time last year, the Minister also asked when someone would be held accountable for the problem. It appears no one will be held to account for this engineering and public relations disaster by Dublin City Council, which has affected the quality of life of people living in the area. While water quality may have improved, air quality has been particularly poor in the years since the plant was constructed.

People have given up telephoning Dublin City Council's complaints department because they have had enough and no longer have faith in the council. My office has tried to contact Dublin City Council in recent days but to no avail. Why would a member of the public bother his or her backside to contact the council when public representatives are unable to do so?

The Minister must ensure someone is held to account and made to pay for three years of failed attempts to control the odours emanating from the Ringsend plant. Why could the original contractors not fix the problem? Dublin City Council wants to increase the size of the plant while developing the Poolbeg area. While efforts to address the odour have resulted in some improvement, the problem is not nearly solved and the issue must be addressed as a matter of urgency.

I appreciate the Minister is precluded from discussing many issues affecting our constituency. Although the odour problem in the Sandymount and Poolbeg areas may not be a burning issue, it is a serious one. I am confident the Minister will deal with it as a matter of urgency.

I thank Deputy Chris Andrews for raising this matter. I am not precluded from discussing the issue. As the Deputy will be aware, as residents of Ringsend my family and I are personally affected by the smell emanating from the waste water treatment plant in the area. It is completely unacceptable that residents must endure this odour nuisance.

On taking office, I asked for a full report on this issue. The odour incidences at the Ringsend plant centre around an on-site sludge treatment facility and a treatment process. In 2005, Dublin City Council engaged independent consultants CDM of Boston, acknowledged experts in this area, to undertake an extensive technical examination of the processes at the Ringsend plant and to identify all possible sources of odours. Following this examination, a programme of works was commenced by the contractor operating the plant on behalf of the council. Unfortunately, the odour problem has periodically re-emerged and this has been attributed to maintenance procedures and equipment failure in the sludge process.

The first phase of the work programme to deal with odours, which eliminated the potential for odour releases from the thermal hydrolysis plant, was completed in mid-2006. The covering of the primary settlement inlet and outlet channels and the fitting of odour control units to these channels was also completed in 2006. Further works still to be completed include the provision of new enlarged combustion chambers to the sludge dryer units, covering the remaining open primary settlement tanks and the installation of additional odour control units for these tanks.

The three sludge dryers are being fitted with new combustion chambers. It is expected work on the first unit will be completed by the end of 2007. The second should be completed by mid-2008 and the last one by the end of 2008. Work on the 12 primary settlement tanks will be completed, starting in February 2008 and finishing in November 2008.

Some odour emissions originating from the sludge dryers have been exacerbated by the prevailing atmospheric and wind conditions. Where such unfavourable weather conditions are predicted in the short term pending the completion of the odour action programme, the operations contractor has given the council an undertaking that the sludge production operation will be adjusted to avoid the need to use the dryers.

While there has been a gradual improvement, I regret that progress has been punctuated by intermittent problems. Complaints to the council numbered approximately 100 in June 2007. Complaints in July, August and September were considerably reduced to 18, 7 and 26, respectively. There have been 13 complaints to date during October. Many people have given up calling the council. Fed up with the situation, they feel they are not getting action on their complaints.

The Deputy will accept that I am only too well aware of the annoyance and upset of people who cannot enjoy their homes or gardens because of these odours. However, I am satisfied that the council regards the putting in place of a permanent solution as a top priority and is maintaining ongoing contact with local residents' groups. I will tell the city manager again that the council must——

Who is responsible and who will be made accountable?

The Minister without interruption.

It is clear that the council of which the Deputy was a member is responsible. Unlike the Deputy, I live in the area in question and am affected by this issue.

Who will be made responsible? The Minister is in a position to make someone responsible and to hold people accountable. He should use his opportunity to do so.

I am making people accountable.

Who is being made accountable?

An independent examination of the plant has been undertaken by international consultants. They have identified the problems, remedial measures have been devised and a programme of works to resolve the situation permanently is in progress. It will be approximately one year before all remedial measures are completed, but both the council and the contractor on site are committed to doing everything possible to minimise any odour emissions in the meantime. I assure the Deputy that I will be keeping a close eye on the works' progress and on the ongoing efforts to minimise nuisance to the public. I accept that people in the area are fed up with this issue and action will be taken.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.25 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 23 October 2007.