Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 5 Nov 2008

Vol. 666 No. 1

Adjournment Debate.

Health Services.

I thank the office of the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak on this issue, which is affecting a large number of people — many of them in my constituency — who are dependent on the availability of respite care in the excellent facility in Harold's Cross. I should point out it is not the palliative care unit that is affected, but the community respite unit.

The service provided is vital to the health and well-being of a large number of people, especially those in need of intensive physiotherapy. The closure of the 45 beds will have a severe impact on the people who were dependent on the service being available to them later this year. The service is to be closed for eight to ten weeks. Not only the people in the front line, the patients, but also the families will be affected by the closure. What the closure means is that the respite care that would normally have been available to patients will not be available for those eight weeks. As a result the families will have to provide constant care for their family member.

Unfortunately, once again it is the most vulnerable who will suffer on account of the loss of this service over the next eight weeks. Overall, up to 56 patients or 45 beds will be affected. Many of these patients are in constant pain as the unit affected deals particularly with patients with rheumatoid arthritis. These are the people who will be affected by the closure. I have had a number of phone calls since the closure was announced, from individuals affected or their families.

These people have pointed out that the amount of money that is to be saved on account of the closure is less than €1 million. This is a paltry saving in the eyes of those people who will lose out due to the closure. I understand the saving relates in particular to the cost of drugs and that the hospice can no longer provide these. It is also the case that this community unit must devote much of its time to fund raising. Despite its best efforts, there is a limit to the amount it can raise voluntarily. Therefore, it is dependent on HSE funding.

The service provided by the hospice is specific and extraordinarily effective for its patients. The outcome of the closure is that these patients will be left in limbo for the next eight weeks, while the hospice is endeavouring to ensure that the patients are provided with alternative placements. Unfortunately, this does not look optimistic. If it is the case that the patients could be accommodated in some other location, what is the point of moving them and closing this facility, since it would appear the shortfall has arisen because of the cost of drugs, not the bed spaces?

One lady to whom I spoke today told me how she depends on this service to give her some relief from her constant pain. Only last week her condition was exacerbated by a bad fall, making it now very difficult for her to get around. She had been looking forward to her two weeks respite care here, where she would be given excellent attention. All those to whom I have spoken have been highly complimentary of the service and the staff in the unit. The lady in question was shocked by the news that the service would not be available to her, particularly since she has had a fall that has made her condition even worse. It is unlikely she will get an alternative place before Christmas.

I urge the Minister to ensure that the money needed to keep this service open is found within the budget of the HSE. If necessary, the solution should be found through cuts in some area of the HSE service that does not affect frontline services.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue as it provides us with an opportunity to reaffirm the Government's commitment to services for older people generally and, in particular, to the important area of the management of existing services and associated funding. I should advise the Deputy that the Health Service Executive has informed me that it is unaware of any proposal to close 60 respite beds at Harold's Cross. It is understood that the current issue concerns, primarily, the rheumatology service.

While robust financial management systems are an essential feature of any health service, they are not an end in themselves. Our primary focus has to be on patients. Each hospital, each local health office, managers, clinicians and others working in the health services have a responsibility to ensure that they strive to provide the best possible service to patients and other clients of our health services, but within agreed budgets.

The HSE has committed, through the national service plan 2008, to delivering services within its Vote as provided by the Oireachtas. Significant ongoing resources are provided by the HSE for the delivery of services by a range of statutory and voluntary care providers across the country on an annual basis. This investment in services allows for the provision of a wide range of supports for palliative care patients, including specialist inpatient beds, home care teams, palliative supports in acute hospitals and day care services.

Earlier this year, the executive allocated an overall budget of €33 million to Our Lady's Hospice. The hospice was advised by the HSE that there would be no additional funding provided beyond the allocation. At a meeting in April, the hospice was further advised of the requirement to deliver services within available funding and to submit a plan to this effect. This was submitted in May. The hospice continued to be advised by the executive over the following months of the need to achieve a break-even position. This is no different from any other agency funded through the HSE.

At a recent meeting the executive requested that the hospice submit a revised break-even plan as it was not achieving its targets. Our Lady's Hospice confirmed that there were a number of options to be considered by its board of management at a meeting last Wednesday in this context. The HSE understood that when a decision was made by the board of management with regard to the break-even plan, it would be communicated to the executive for consideration. The hospice announced on Friday, 31 October 2008 its intention to close 34 rheumatology rehabilitation beds and 11 community rehabilitation beds for a temporary period, with effect from mid-November, with a view to meeting budget overrun.

Our Lady's Hospice provides specialist care for people with a range of needs, from rehabilitation to end-of-life care. Facilities and services include an extended care unit, a palliative care unit, a community re-ablement unit and rheumatology rehabilitation. The rheumatology rehabilitation centre is a multi-disciplinary unit for the assessment and management of rheumatic diseases. It is the only facility of its kind in Ireland and is linked to the rheumatology department at St. Vincent's University Hospital, Elm Park. The unit provides care and treatment for people of all ages with arthritis and other bone and muscle diseases. Over 800 patients are admitted annually. It provides medical, nursing, physiotherapy, occupational therapy and radiology services.

It should be noted that the decision to issue a press statement, or the content matter of that statement, was not agreed with the HSE in advance. The executive is working closely with the hospice to ensure that the infusion treatment currently being provided for rheumatology patients at Harold's Cross will continue to be provided. The HSE is continuing to work with the hospice in order to achieve a break-even position at year end. A further meeting between the executive and the hospice has been arranged for tomorrow, Thursday, 6 November 2008.

Cancer Screening.

Nine patients in the north east had a misdiagnosis of lung cancer, thus losing valuable time for their essential medical treatment. At least one of these patients would have had a major chance of their cancer being cured. Others had their lives shortened by a valuable period of months. Eight of these patients have now, sadly, died. There is, therefore, a need for an independent inquiry into why a clear warning, given seven years ago by a consultant radiologist in Navan, that the radiologists in the hospitals concerned were under intolerable stress, that a dangerous situation existed for patients and staff and that mistakes would be made, was ignored by the HSE.

The inquiry began in 2007. I have a letter dated 9 October, correspondence from Dr. John Kiely, regarding two missed diagnoses of serious lung pathology on radiographs. The core issue is confirmation in this letter that there were significant abnormalities on two patients' radiographs that were reported as normal. That appalling error had fatal consequences for eight of the nine people concerned.

How clear was the warning in 2001 and is there any way the HSE could say it was not adequate? The letter stated that staffing in the Louth-Meath group was inadequate and, in Mr. Towers's considered opinion, a dangerous situation had arisen for staff and patients. He warned that mistakes would be made by the situation created by the inability or reluctance of the HSE to appoint sufficient full-time permanent radiologists in Drogheda. He wrote that the radiologists were under intolerable stress and the radiology service in Drogheda was deficient for proper patient care. The unwillingness to fund proper staffing for radiology was at the core of the problem, according to Mr. Towers. The intolerable workload meant that teaching, administration and other activities have had to be discontinued. That description of the conditions obtaining in Our Lady of Lourdes and Navan hospitals was written seven years ago this month.

In 2006, when Judge Maureen Harding Clark investigated the Neary affair, the same issues arose. Her report clearly states:

The work of all doctors including highly regarded consultants has to be reviewed in an effective and dispassionate manner. Failure to engage in effective peer review and independent audit will ensure that history will repeat itself.

History has repeated itself in the Dr. Neary affair and again in the report published this week. It is a shame and a disgrace.

I would like the Minister for Health and Children to answer six questions. Can she confirm that the radiology department in the Louth-Meath group is now resourced with sufficient consultant radiologists and that the misdiagnosis of X-rays is no longer significant? Can she confirm that no concern regarding the number of radiologists employed in the group has been brought to the attention of the HSE in the recent past? Can she confirm that no concern regarding significant misdiagnosis of X-rays in the Louth-Meath hospital group has been expressed to the HSE since the locum consultant involved in the recent review left the region? Does the radiology department continue to depend on locums, including external radiologists employed by the HSE to report on X-rays, due to the department's workload? Has she been informed by the consultant radiologists that they are experiencing great difficulties in coping with the current workload of the three hospitals in the group? Is she or the HSE taking action on the repeated representations made by consultants regarding the inability of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital to cope safely with the number of patients on trolleys? On Monday, 3 November, for example, 34 patients were on trolleys in the hospital.

We need a root and branch reform of administrative structures in the north east. This review is a whitewash in terms of how and why these events took place. It sets out the medical outcome for the eight people who died but it does not address the core issue of why the warnings given seven years ago this month were ignored.

Yesterday the Health Service Executive published the review of chest X-rays and CT scans reported by a locum consultant radiologist at Louth-Meath hospitals group from August 2006 to August 2007. The review commenced in May 2008 and examined 6,000 X-rays and CT scans from 5,000 patients.

The review found that nine patients in Drogheda and Navan hospitals had their diagnoses of lung cancer delayed as a result of missed radiological diagnoses. Eight of these patients are now deceased and one is receiving ongoing treatment. The review acknowledges that the delayed diagnosis had varying impacts on these patients' care and treatment options. Along with my colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, I extend my deepest sympathies to the families of the patients who suffered delays in their diagnoses of lung cancer. These nine patients had been identified and diagnosed prior to March 2008. The review therefore did not find any previously undiagnosed lung cancer. The HSE and the radiologist whose work gave rise to this review have apologised to the families of the patients who were affected by these delayed diagnoses. The review will be forwarded to the Medical Council of Ireland and the General Medical Council in the UK.

While I understand that concerns were raised in 2001 in regard to radiology services in the north east, services have been enhanced in the intervening period. The HSE has confirmed that all radiology services in the Louth-Meath group are entirely consultant delivered. In 2001, five consultant radiologists were employed in the group. It is acknowledged that complexity and workload have increased in recent years and ten consultant radiologists currently work in the radiology departments of the hospitals in Drogheda, Navan and Dundalk. All the consultant radiologists have joint appointments to two of the three hospitals.

The importance of audit in a modern health care system is fully recognised and the HSE has informed the Department that peer reviews are conducted in the hospitals concerned. The radiologists hold separate weekly clinical radiology meetings in all three hospitals in medicine, surgery and breast radiology and regularly participate in grand rounds in Drogheda and Navan. Electronic conferencing is fully operational in Navan and is being developed in Drogheda.

In response to the matters described in the review, HSE north east hospital network is adding to its existing patient safety measures by beginning an additional process to enhance clinical governance in the radiology services of the hospitals. A good system of clinical governance in health care involves quality assurance systems aimed at reducing the likelihood of errors occurring and increasing the early detection of those errors which do occur. This will cover the five hospitals in the north east and will produce an agreed programme to improve clinical governance and, therefore, patient safety and quality of care. This process is underway and will result in an initial action plan in December to enhance the system and ethos of effective clinical governance in radiology services in the north east.

In regard to locum appointments, Louth-Meath hospital group's radiology department has in recent years employed no more than one or two locum consultant radiologists at any one time, out of a complement of ten consultant radiologists. This is due in part to the high degree of cross-cover provided among consultant colleagues in the hospital group.

The group's human resources department has in place a procedure for the recruitment of permanent staff and this is also used for the recruitment of temporary and locum consultant staff. In the case of the locum consultant radiologist involved in this review, all normal recruitment procedures were followed. Following an interview, registration with the Medical Council was confirmed and a reference was received from previous employers. Therefore, it is not considered that any specific issue arose in respect of this consultant's recruitment or appointment. However, given the overall requirement to provide assurance on the level and recruitment of locums in medical practice, the HSE issued national guidance in May 2008 which requires hospitals and facilities to accept locum medical staff only from medical recruitment agencies that meet a series of stringent requirements relating to the doctors they refer to the employers. These include ensuring that the doctor has full references and full CV, is a member of the relevant Medical Council register and has been given full occupational health clearance and police screening. Standards in recruitment and in levels of use of locum clinicians will continue to be reviewed and monitored by the HSE.

The HSE is committed to learning from this review and to driving change. In partnership with its clinical staff, it will do all it can to enhance patient safety at all levels.

Drug Treatment Programme

I wish to share time with Deputies Feighan and Naughten.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting for discussion the closing of Harristown House, the only public alcohol and drug treatment centre in the country funded by the probation service. Harristown House was established in 1998 as a residential treatment centre for offenders with alcohol and-or drug-related offences. It was originally supposed to take referrals from the courts only but in recent years has also taken referrals from the prisons.

The recent report of the probation service on Harristown House painted a picture of an institution with many problems but what must not be lost sight of is that this facility is badly needed in our modern life in this State. It has given the residents who have completed the six week course a chance to overcome their addictions with alcohol or drugs. The centre was run on a relatively small budget and, by helping to keep people out of prison, actually saved money in the long run. The cost of keeping someone prisoner is somewhere in the region of €100,000 whereas the cost of this facility was €460,000 last year.

The recent report of the probation service noted that the manager and some members of the staff did not co-operate with the report when it was being formulated. Part of the reason for that was because the previous reports, the Paxis and Brannigan reports, which had been largely positive were not followed through nor were their recommendations implemented. For example, one report indicated that 65% of residents did not reoffend after the course. These reports recommended the provision of greater supports in respect of staffing levels and facilities. If some of the recommendations of these reports had been implemented then many of the problems outlined in the most recent report may not have arisen.

The people affected by this closure are an extremely vulnerable sector of our society — all are addicted to alcohol or drugs, many left school early and have literacy and other learning difficulties, some have mental health issues, behavioural problems, poor employment records and prospects and some are estranged from their families. Therefore they are left with no possible source of support if this closure is implemented. Some 20 jobs are at stake and these people have not had a pay rise over the past number of years. They are not paid excessively.

Six residents took part in the report and told of their experiences. They said it was a good place but that it needed better facilities and that these facilities could be used as a reward for good behaviour. This was a cry for help from residents and they should not be forgotten. If it is to be closed, I ask that the problems be sorted out and that it be reopened as soon as possible.

I support this initiative. The Harristown treatment centre offered addiction treatment to young men who came through the courts and it treated up to 100 people per year. Effectively, it gave young people another chance. The commitment of the staff was impressive and I appreciate that the report has been completed. Although it has closed, we hope that the facility will reopen immediately.

I thank Deputy O'Mahony for sharing time. Not only is it important that the service is re-established as quickly as possible to avoid the need for more expensive prison places and to provide the opportunity to avail of this valuable service to young people, it is imperative that the skill set and knowledge built up over the past ten years in the staffing pool is not lost to any new service. While discussions have focused on the lack of specific skills of the voluntary management committee, it is evident that there was no difficulty with the present structure while the probation service took an active role in the management of the facility until June 2004. It was unfair on the voluntary committee, the staff and the management of the facility for the probation service to take a step back from such an active role. It is now essential that the probation service step up to the mark to secure the long-term future of Harristown House and its staffing complement. It is clear from recommendations in the report that the independent review body believes that this service needs to be re-established and reinstated as soon as possible.

In dealing with this Adjournment matter the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has asked me to put his funding commitment to community-based projects at the centre of the debate. It has been said that the planned closure of Harristown House is linked to monetary issues alone. I, on behalf of the Minister, want to categorically reject that assertion.

The Minister's first priority is to ensure that his Department funds projects in the community that will add to the core work of the probation service and help its clients to better equip them for a life free from the crime patterns in which they have found themselves. To that end, significant funding has been provided in the past number of years, up from approximately €16 million in 2004 to over €21.5 million last year. This is a very significant financial commitment and represents 36% of the overall annual expenditure budget of the probation service for 2007. That fact speaks for itself.

The Minister is committed to continuing to fund such projects, thus providing more effective and efficient supports for clients of the probation service. Included in the funding provided by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, through the probation service, is money to help run three adult residential facilities catering for ex-offenders and the Harristown Residential Alcohol and Drug Treatment Centre. In association with the probation service, the Department commissioned a review of adult probation residential facilities in order to examine, inter alia, the management structure, overall governance and operation of these residential facilities and the role of the probation service. In addition, the review included an examination of the efficiency, effectiveness and value achieved from the funding. The report was completed at the end of July 2008.

Harristown House, located in the grounds of Castlerea Prison, County Roscommon formed part of the review and management; staff and clients all had an opportunity to feed in their views. As is normal practice, following the completion of the work a copy of the final report was made available by the probation service in September to each of the four facilities reviewed and each board of management was asked to examine the findings and the required actions needed.

The Harristown House project was established in 1998 and has been providing a short-term residential facility for persistent male offenders over 18 years of age, appearing before the court where alcohol is seen as a contributory factor in their behaviour. Harristown House has capacity for 12 residents at any given point in time. However, the house has never operated at full capacity. The maximum number of residents present at any point in time is usually eight but this can vary a little. The statistics for admissions to the house in the years 2005-07 show that there were 66 admitted in 2005, rising to 76 in 2006 and dropping back to 69 admissions in 2007.

The primary aim of the project has been to educate the participant on the effects of alcohol and drugs to enable them to become more law abiding. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is the sole funder of the project and has approved and provided current funding of €460,000 to the facility in 2008, by way of quarterly grants. In April of this year, the Department provided an additional €100,000 to clear a deficit incurred by the project. The project is operated by a board of management consisting of 12 volunteer members including a representative of the probation service and employs 22 people, eight in a full-time capacity and 14 part-time.

The report on the residential facilities provides the probation service and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform with a very valuable blueprint of how the four facilities are currently operating. The findings in respect of Harristown House give cause for concern and the continuation of the project in its current format is not feasible.

The overall conclusion of the report was that the centre is in crisis. There are serious indications in respect of human resources, finance and quality of service that the organisation has become dysfunctional. The results of this review indicate that the organisation is no longer viable. It would be remiss of any Minister to sweep away such concerns. While the probation service provides funds for the centre, the centre itself is a limited company controlled by its own board of management.

The board, by letter to the director of the probation service, dated 7 October 2008, advised that it was the unanimous view of the board that the facility should be closed. In that letter the chairman of the board stated:

Unfortunately, the Board of Management has been frustrated in attempting to resolve a growing range of serious difficulties which have emerged relating to the operation and management of this valuable facility. These difficulties have included the effective programme and facility management, limited programme participation levels, the absence of clarity and focus in programme direction and purpose and the funding difficulties arising as problems have remained unresolved. The Board of Management of Harristown House shares the concern outlined in the review that the facility is not fulfilling its stated aims and objectives.[...] It was the unanimous view of the Board that Option 2 of the Review Report is our preferred course of action, i.e. close down the facility, take time to reflect on the learning and develop a vision and plan for a new way forward for Harristown House.

The Minister and his Department share the concerns contained in the report and expressed by the board. In any event, the Minister does not have the power to overturn the decision of the board of management. The probation service will now work with the board of management to bring about an orderly closure of the project in its present form. The board has made its decision and it is the best decision in the circumstances. I want to place on the record the Minister's deep appreciation, and that of his Department and the probation service, of the work done by the board of management and its staff since the project opened its doors.

Further to the board's decision to close Harristown and following a request from the trade union IMPACT, a representative of the board met union officials and staff members on Tuesday, 28 October 2008 to discuss the proposed closure. The director of the probation service was present at that meeting.

The Minister is committed to finding the best option available to meet the addiction needs of the client group of the probation service. Funding will not be an issue. The current report, combined with other reports on this facility, gives a good basis upon which to make informed decisions that will ultimately lead to a better, more focused and tailored service to this particular client group. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the probation service are committed to working to achieve a viable alternative that will bring added value to the work of the service and, most importantly, better meet the range of needs of individual clients with addiction and other issues.

The probation service will now set about developing a detailed new vision for the Harristown House concept, including identifying the needs for addiction treatment places in this catchments area, seeking to develop sustainable partnerships to deliver the identified services. I reiterate that this is not a simple money exercise. It is a strategic review of services to a specific client group with particular needs so that the State can provide the most appropriate service to that grouping.

Additional Information not given on the floor of the House.

I hope the Deputy will agree that the State must at all times be mindful of the type and range of services we provide to key groupings, such as those with addiction issues. We must be willing to look critically at how we are providing those service and be prepared to examine, evaluate and if necessary start afresh in the knowledge that the service will be better able to meet the many complex needs which are part and parcel of our population.

Funding has been and will continue to be provided to projects which support the work of the probation service. This money will be provided based on the needs of the client group and on the understanding that the necessary experience and expertise is available to deliver the service so required. That is no more than the taxpayer expects from us.

Anti-Social Behaviour.

Hallowe'en, a traditional time for religious commemoration, being the eve of the feast of All Saints, has become an occasion for serious anti-social behaviour. In my constituency of Dublin Central a factory was burnt in the docklands and a restaurant in Phibsboro in suspicious circumstances which suggest arson. A fire brigade was stoned while dealing with a bonfire in Sheriff Street and a fireman was injured in the eye. Some 12 men were arrested and two gardaí had their noses broken on Dorset Street. Rioting occurred in O'Devaney Gardens. Some gardaí were effectively imprisoned for some time and a number of unoccupied flats were set on fire. The Dublin Fire Service was called out to 800 incidents in the city and the ambulance service received 500 calls.

The clean up bill alone is estimated to cost more than €1 million to the taxpayer. Property damage would run into further millions. The bonfires in the green areas of estates have caused an ugly scar which, as the Acting Chairman will know, remains there throughout the year until next Hallowe'en. All this happened despite a co-ordinated attempt by the Garda and the local authority to seize tyres and pallets from youths who were hoarding them. Approximately 100 tonnes were seized in Dublin city and in one rear garden alone in Sheriff Street approximately 250 tyres, some large tractor tyres, were seized by the city council in the run-up to Hallowe'en.

It seems that the current policy is not working. I tabled a question two weeks prior to Hallowe'en asking the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform what he proposed to do this year. Operation Tombola was put in action again, with all the levels of consultation, liaison, seizures and so on, but clearly it is not effective. We need to put together a more comprehensive, co-ordinated plan to deal with the Hallowe'en mayhem that now is occurring not only in Dublin but throughout the country. There is almost a mindset among the youth of the country that Hallowe'en is an opportunity for violence and anti-social behaviour, that anything goes and that the authorities can be attacked at will.

Solutions must be found concerning the matter of fireworks. Fireworks are legal in Northern Ireland, while they are illegal in the Republic. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform — as I have said to successive Ministers over the years — must agree a set of proposals with his counterpart in Northern Ireland. He should try to synchronise the legislation between the two parts of the island. It is not rocket science. If fireworks can be sold legally in one part of the island and not in the other part, they will be sold, smuggled or brought across the Border. It is a simple matter of trying to deal with that by way of some cross-Border co-operation.

It is time to prosecute those business people who do not recycle pallets and tyres as they are obliged to do by law. As a result, they are "stolen" by youths for bonfires so that they do not have to pay the cost of recycling. The cost of recycling a standard car tyre is €4 or €5 and they are supposed to be dealt with properly. However, they are made available by the garages and the various businesses that deal with them. That also applies to pallets, wood and so on. Hallowe'en is a clean up time for businesses which do not want to pay the cost of recycling. Rather than seizing those goods that have been hoarded by youths, the way to stop such practice is to ensure the emphasis is put on prosecuting those who are making such goods available to these young people in the first instance.

It is unacceptable that the emergency services personnel become targets for assault while providing emergency services to the community. Such behaviour must be severely sanctioned. In this respect, it is very important that parents play their proper role in ensuring that their children are not involved in late night activities and anti-social behaviour at Hallowe'en.

In terms of the sale of the alcohol to minors, there is no doubt that there is no other time in the year younger children are to be found drinking alcohol throughout the city. Children as young as 12, 13 and 14 years of age have cans of alcohol. Clearly, such alcohol is being made available. On Hallowe'en eve I saw youngsters who were clearly under age carrying packs and bags of alcohol from a particular supermarket. This problem requires good Garda policing to ensure it is addressed. What is needed is a mechanism to identify the venues from which such alcohol is sold when it is to be found in the hands of minors. We need a labelling mechanism to do that.

While the local authority and the Garda are to complimented on what they have done in terms of activities were for the pre-teenagers, there was nothing available for the post-teenagers or for the teenager themselves. That area must be looked at. We need a comprehensive programme to deal with this matter for the coming year.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter on the Adjournment. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform regrets that he cannot be present due to other business, but he assures the Deputy that he shares his concerns and those of all right thinking people about anti-social and unlawful behaviour at Hallowe'en and at any other time.

The overwhelming majority of people celebrated an enjoyable and peaceful Hallowe'en. However, a small minority engaged in behaviour which was anti-social and criminal and caused injury and danger to others and wanton damage to property, as described by the Deputy. In particular, I condemn the attacks on members of the emergency services who were performing their duty and wish those injured a speedy recovery. Since the Criminal Justice Act 2006, such behaviour is punishable by up to seven years' imprisonment or a fine or both.

The Garda authorities take proactive steps to combat anti-social and criminal behaviour around Hallowe'en by putting Operation Tombola in place, as the Deputy mentioned. A few weeks ago the Minister spoke with the Garda Commissioner about intensifying the campaign this year. Operational orders were put in place in every Garda region, in particular in the Dublin metropolitan region and Border divisions, to prevent and detect the organised importation for sale of fireworks in the lead up to Hallowe'en and to police the Hallowe'en period. The penalties for these offences have been significantly increased. Proactive policing arrangements were in place which covered the period up to and including the night of 31 October. Additional patrols were carried out by uniform personnel as part of high-visibility policing initiatives, supported by plain-clothes personnel, including district detective and drug units, divisional crime task forces, traffic corps personnel, community policing and mountain bike units.

The Garda Síochána also engaged with local communities, local authorities and other stakeholders, such as Dublin Bus, in putting in place plans to address the issues that arise around the Hallowe'en period. They also put in place liaison arrangements for the removal of identified stockpiles of combustible materials. Through the schools programme and other local programmes, members of the Garda Síochána publicised the message that fireworks are illegal and highlighted the dangers associated with illegally imported fireworks. The Garda also advised managers of off-licences to ensure their staff were made aware of their obligations under licensing legislation relating to the sale of alcohol, in particular to under age persons.

Members of the Garda Síochána from local community policing units were instructed to liaise with local authorities and local residents to ensure that any information received regarding bonfires and other anti-social behaviour was acted upon in advance of Hallowe'en. During this period additional public order patrols were also directed to pay particular attention to areas where anti-social behaviour and drinking in public might occur.

Strong provisions are already in place to combat anti-social behaviour. The Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994 modernised the law in this regard. Furthermore, the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2003 contains provisions to deal with alcohol abuse and its effect on public order. In addition, the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 2003 provides the Garda with powers to deal with late night street violence and anti-social conduct attributable to excessive drinking.

The Intoxicating Liquor Act 2008 gives further powers to the Garda to tackle misuse of alcohol, which is too often at the root of crime and anti-social behaviour. Gardaí now have the power to seize alcohol in the possession of an under 18 year old which they suspect is for consumption in a public place. They can also seize alcohol where they reasonably believe there is the danger of public disorder or damage to property and require the person to leave the place. They also now have the power to issue fixed charge notices for the offences of intoxication in a public place and disorderly conduct in a public place. These notices will lead to a more efficient and effective use of Garda resources and avoid court proceedings where an offender pays the penalty.

In recent years the expansion in the size of the Garda Síochána has been unprecedented. From the start of this year to the end of 2009, the attested strength of the force will have grown by more than 1,100 to almost 14,900. This will represent an 8% increase. The additional rostered hours available next year arising from the increase in the strength of the force will amount to more than 1 million hours. This will more than offset the planned reduction in overtime hours.

The Minister strongly believes that the joint policing committees set up under the Garda Síochána Act 2005 will play a significant role in tackling anti-social and criminal behaviour. On 24 September, along with his colleague the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, he launched the roll-out of the committees to all local authorities where a committee is not already established under the initial pilot phase. Over time, the committees will make an enormous contribution to keeping our communities safe, since they represent a partnership between the people, through their elected representatives, and the Garda Síochána in preventing and tackling crime and anti-social behaviour.

The Dáil adjourned at 10.45 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 6 November 2008.