Adjournment Debate

Care of the Elderly

As this matter affects older people, in the main, I am glad that the Minister of State with responsibility for older people, Deputy Áine Brady, is present as I raise this question this evening. Loughloe House has been used as a residence for over 30 years. It currently deals with 26 residents. I suppose its numbers have varied over the years. That is, by and large, the amount of residents it would have at any one time. We all approve of the Health and Information Quality Authority. We approved of its role as a standards body when the legislation came before this House. Its mission is to ensure that private and public nursing homes and residences are of a particular standard. Officials from the authority have visited Loughloe House in Athlone to that end. I do not know how many visits they have made. When the Minister of State replies to me, perhaps she will be able to tell me how many visits were made and when they were made.

People have complained that the authorities in Loughloe House did not know when the inspectors were coming. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle knows from his teaching days that one is not meant to know when inspectors are coming. If one knew they were coming, one would be shining and polishing, stitching and hemming, and having everything beautiful. The Minister of State is aware that HIQA inspectors are meant to call unexpectedly so they can see how the home is run on any given day. They visited Loughloe House on two or three occasions. When will the report setting out the findings of the inspectorate's visits to this facility be issued? I refer to the report which led to the HSE's announcement of its decision to close Loughloe House. That is the first question. There was no intimation of this decision before it was announced. It was not forecast. There was great shock when the news became known.

We all know that much older people are very sensitive about everything. Many people have made Loughloe House their home. They have no landing place other than Loughloe House. I would like to put on the record the level of professional care, commitment and support given by all who work in Loughloe House to its residents. It is a huge level of commitment and support. I understand that HIQA has particular issues with ceiling heights, bed space, adequate recreational space and various other aspects of care in homes such as this around the country. How many visits were made to Loughloe House? When will the draft report to the HSE midlands area become a full report? I acknowledge the legalities involved and that one cannot allow a report to come out that would in any way lead to legalities being invoked because nobody wants that. More important, what arrangements will be made for each person? HIQA-approved nursing homes in the neighbourhood have been trawled for available beds. There would be no point closing one home and sending the residents to a home that is not HIQA-approved. When will that exercise be concluded? The most significant issue for residents leaving what was their home is knowing that they will be moved to a home that is nearby in order that their loved ones and friends can continue to visit them without too much disruption. Are full and proper arrangements being put in place for the residents of Loughloe House? I would also like to establish the lead in to what happened.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue, which provides me with an opportunity to update the House. The Government is committed to supporting people to live in dignity and independence in their own homes and communities for as long as possible. Where this is not feasible, the health service supports access to quality long-term residential care where this is appropriate and we continue to develop and improve health services in all regions of the country and to ensure quality and patient safety.

The Health Service Executive, HSE, has sole operational responsibility for the delivery of health and social services, including those at facilities such as Loughloe House. This institution is a former welfare home located in Athlone, which shares its site with day services for older persons in the area. The Deputy will appreciate that all developments have to be addressed in light of the current economic and budgetary pressures. The executive has been asked to make a rigorous examination of how existing funding might be reconfigured or reallocated to ensure maximum service provision is achieved. In particular, we need to ensure the highest standard of care will continue to be provided to all patients in a safe and secure environment. Any decisions, therefore, taken by the executive must have regard to the current budgetary position and the current moratorium on the recruitment of nursing and non-nursing staff.

As a welfare home, Loughloe House once accommodated up to 40 patients of lower dependency. In recent times, given the increasing dependency of clients and other challenges, the numbers of residents fell to 25. The longest resident has been there for 14 years while the most recent arrival was a year ago. The home is one of two long-stay facilities in Athlone. The second is St. Vincent's community nursing unit, CNU, which is situated in the town centre. They are, therefore, relatively close to each other. There are approximately 60 residents in St. Vincent's CNU. There is one management structure for the two units.

At a broad strategic level, the overall plan for HSE services in Athlone had been to transfer all services to the Clonbrusk area of the town, where lands were purchased by the Midland Health Board in 1999. This would have allowed the proposed Clonbrusk campus to become the hub for HSE service delivery in Athlone. This plan would have facilitated the closure of Loughloe House as well as allowing several other premises to be vacated. In anticipation of these plans, spending on existing infrastructure, including both Loughloe House and St. Vincent's, was limited in recent years.

Given the current financial constraints, the anticipated developments at Clonbrusk have been curtailed and the construction of a new community nursing unit on the site has been postponed for the foreseeable future. As a result, both Loughloe House and St. Vincent's face significant challenges in meeting the necessary HIQA requirements and standards, given the design, age and condition of the two buildings. Loughloe House has been inspected by HIQA. Numerous concerns were raised in the inspection process both in regard to the physical infrastructure and to management-staffing issues. Concerns also exist regarding the fire safety precautions at the home.

With these considerations in mind, the HSE has decided it has no option but to proceed with the orderly, phased closure of Loughloe House. The executive has no intention, at this time, of closing St. Vincent's and it is working towards ensuring compliance with HIQA's standards. There will be a consultation process with Loughloe House residents and their families with a view to organising transfers into private or public nursing homes in the surrounding area. This consultation was scheduled to take place around this time. The overall level of provision of long stay beds in the Longford-Westmeath local health office area will remain adequate to meet patients' needs. There are sufficient vacancies to cater for the residents of Loughloe House.

The safety of the residents is our first concern and we owe them a duty of care. I am sure this House will agree that quality care and patient safety comes first and all patients should receive the same high standard of quality assured care. Unfortunately, due to the current industrial action, this was the most up to date information available as of 29 April 2010. I regret that I do not have more information but if the Deputy wishes to raise this matter with me again, I will endeavour to have the matter re-examined at that stage.

The Deputy asked about the inspections. There is a mixture of announced and unannounced inspections.

I could not get that detail for the Deputy but there would have been at least one of each.

Social Welfare Benefits

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to bring this matter to the attention of the House, particularly after my boldness during exchanges this morning.

The Deputy was very bold.

I assure the House no ill will was intended on my part. It was one of those things we all have to do from time to time when raising issues.

This matter is unique because the Minister of State and I share the constituent affected and we can both help in the way people would like us to co-operate for the benefits of those we represent. I am sure the Minister of State will respond positively. The man affected is entirely devoted to caring for his mother and looking after the farmyard. He does not own property and he was assessed as having nil means but then somebody came up with the classic line, "You are working/attending a course outside the home for more than 15 hours per week". I do not accept that because in the normal course of events he is available 24-7 if his mother needs him. He is on call at times. He has no income and it is a serious case, which the Minister of State knows well. Given my knowledge of the Department, it is possible to deal with this case in a quick and positive way. I am sure the Minister of State will be in touch after she has read the reply into the record. I expect her to make the classic announcement that she will have this matter dealt with and will be in touch with me as a matter of great haste.

I hope I do not disappoint Deputy Durkan. I am replying to this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, Deputy Eamon Ó Cuív, Minister for Social Protection. The matters which are the subject of this debate are related to the social welfare entitlements of an individual. As the Deputy is aware, under social welfare legislation decisions on claims or entitlements are made by deciding officers or appeals officers. These officers are statutorily appointed and the Minister has no role in making such decisions.

An application was received in the carer's allowance section of the Department from the person concerned on 30 December 2009. The applicant indicated on the application form that he was self-employed and also worked as a farm labourer. One of the conditions for the receipt of carer's allowance is that an applicant cannot work more than 15 hours a week outside the home. The carer's allowance section forwarded the applicant's file to a social welfare inspector to investigate his work pattern and income.

The person concerned was interviewed on 3 February 2010 at his home. He works on the family farm which is in his mother's, the caree's, name. He receives €129 per week as payment for the work involved. During the interview, the applicant confirmed that he works full time on the farm except during the summer when he spends five to six hours a day as a self-employed hedge-cutter and fencer. He was requested to furnish bank statements and accounts for his self employment. Upon completion of the investigation, the inspector returned the file to the carer's allowance section on 15 April 2010.

The inspector confirmed that the person concerned looks after his mother and that she satisfies the conditions for requiring full-time care and attention. However, the inspector concluded that the applicant works more than 15 hours per week outside the home either farming or in his own business. That was confirmed by the applicant during interview. That would disqualify him from receipt of carer's allowance.

A deciding officer of the Department made the decision on 24 April 2010 that the applicant did not satisfy the conditions for receipt of carer's allowance as he was working outside the home for more than 15 hours per week. The condition that an applicant cannot work for more than 15 hours per week outside the home is one of the key conditions for receipt of carer's allowance. The deciding officer has no discretion on this condition and is, under legislation, bound to disallow a claim where the applicant's work outside the home exceeds the 15 hour limit.

In accordance with his statutory rights, the person concerned was notified of his right to appeal to the social welfare appeals office if he felt that the decision was incorrect. To date, he has not lodged an appeal. However, he has until Friday, 15 May 2010 to make an appeal if he so wishes.

Could this debate be considered as an appeal?

Mine Sites

He is speaking on the Deputy's behalf in New York.

I hope the issue will be brought to his attention as a matter of urgency.

I am a Minister of State in his Department.

I am aware of that.

The community has organised a group under the chairmanship of Eoghan Carroll — East Galway for a Lasting Environment — EAGLE. The group has highlighted the matter. The local authority has done everything it can. Every public representative from east Galway now and in the past tried to have the matter resolved. The HSE west should be asked to carry out a longitudinal study on the site in the interests of health. I call on the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to immediately provide emergency funding to carry out remedial safety measures in the short term leading to the eventual remediation of the mine. I request that the EPA and the Department be invited before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to reveal the full detail of the technicalities outlined in the report. The EPA should provide the full details on the risk assessment detailed in the report. I hope the Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady, does not read from a prepared script that will just give the history of the site without getting into the detail of what the Minister intends to do in this case as a matter of urgency.

I am taking this Adjournment on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley.

Article 20 of Directive 2006/21/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council on the management of waste from extractive industries, required member states to ensure that an inventory of closed waste facilities, including abandoned waste facilities, located in their territory which cause serious negative environmental impacts or have the potential of becoming in the medium or short term a serious threat to human health, is drawn up and periodically updated. Ireland transposed this directive with the making of the Waste Management (Management of Waste from the Extractive Industries) Regulations 2009.

In compliance with the requirement of Article 20 of the directive, the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and the Environmental Protection Agency recently published the report of the Historic Mine Sites - Inventory and Risk Classification project. This report identifies waste piles and other features, for example shafts and adits or entrances associated with closed mines. The project set out to assess the potential risk posed by these sites to human and animal health and to the wider environment, and to consider issues related to safety at each of the sites.

Of the 27 sites or districts investigated as part of the study, the report identified three "class 1" or priority sites, which were determined by use of a scoring system based among other factors on the source of contamination and who or what might be affected by it. The site at Tynagh was among these priority sites, and the report made a number of recommendations. These included, inter alia, that the local authorities should be advised of all issues of environmental concern falling within their functional area. In addition, the report indicated that other authorities such as the Health Services Executive, the Health and Safety Authority and Teagasc might also need to be informed of specific relevant issues and that priority sites should have a full environmental risk assessment carried out, if not already undertaken. Ongoing monitoring at these sites was recommended. The report also recommended that a scientific-based monitoring scheme should be developed appropriate to each of the site classes, incorporating relevant expertise from the EPA and the Geological Survey of Ireland.

The issue of remediation of such former mine sites is a matter for the owners of such sites. Enforcement is a matter for the local authorities in the first instance.

However, in terms of the overall approach on this matter, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will shortly be meeting with the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources with a view to assisting that Department in moving forward with relevant recommendations of their study.

Sports and Recreational Development

Ar dtús báire ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an Cheann Comhairle as cead an cheist tábhachtach seo a ardú. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise the need, essentially, to get value for money in how we fund basic educational facilities in this case at Balbriggan community college. For background, this secondary school has a proud record in what is the fastest growing area in the country, based on the last census. One can meet pupils from this community college at the Young Scientists' Exhibition, on the sports field or at any number of artistic events and in our third level institutions around the country.

However, the fitness levels of our young people all over Ireland is a major concern, as has been acknowledged in this House time and again. I appreciate that the Minister of State, Deputy Brady, has been working on this and understands exactly where I am coming from, as we worked together when I was Minister of State in that area.

The obesity report mentions €5 billion as a total cost of obesity related problems per annum. This must make us think twice about what we are doing in this country to address that issue. In Balbriggan, as in many towns, the proliferation of betting shops and takeaway outlets is screaming a warning at all of us in Government. Unless we can motivate our communities to enjoy being active, then we face even costlier epidemics of type 2 diabetes and heart disease in younger and younger age groups.

This is why I feel so strongly about the short-sighted plan to just replace the roof of the old sports hall at Balbriggan community college. As there is asbestos in the old roof there is a need for a new roof. A summer works grant is secured to put in a new heating system. However, Fingal Council has the vision in these straitened times to offer €500,000 towards building a new modern sports hall to replace the outdated one. This new sports hall would have a full size basketball court, changing rooms as well as meeting rooms and a kitchen. With matching funds from Government the 600 pupils and the wider community of 20,000 people in the town alone would then have a badly needed modern sports facilities and meeting rooms.

My debate here this evening is as much to do with value for money as doing the right thing for our children and the wider community. Let us be creative in our thinking here. Let us tap the dormant accounts funds, or perhaps the area partnership funds. Meanwhile I am sad to see that this has to date been seen as a grade 4 project, which suggests sports facilities do not rate as important in the Department of Education and Skills. This is a view which is out of touch with modern educational thinking. Our young people deserve to have basic facilities for a rounded education. I believe we can provide that in this instance is we look at what funding is available and then the best return for that funding. If we do that I believe Ballbriggan community college can have the sports hall it needs a give a good return to the taxpayer.

I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, Deputy Mary Coughlan, Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills.

I wish to thank Deputy Trevor Sargent for giving me the opportunity of outlining to this House the Department's position regarding the planned re-roofing of Balbriggan community college and gym and regarding the approach made to County Dublin Vocational Education Committee from Fingal County Council concerning a new sports hall for Balbriggan community college.

The school has a current enrolment of 584 pupils. The College consists of two buildings: the original 1950s vocational school building and a more substantial building constructed in the early 1980s on the same site.

The Department has already provided considerable investment into Balbriggan community college. An all-in grant in excess of €27,000 was provided in August 2006 for a replacement boiler in the school. Under the summer works schemes in excess of €23,000 was provided for electrical works. A further grant in excess of €1.1 million was provided under summer works 2007 for extensive works to the school including enlarging and upgrading classrooms and practical work rooms, renovating toilets and demolishing old stores.

The summer works scheme 2009 is ongoing in the school and includes renovation of the original 1950s building including roofing of the courtyard area. The Vocational Education Committee has also been instructed to proceed to tender for the replacement of the gas boiler and the LPG system for the science rooms in the school. Approval has recently been provided under summer works 2010 for mechanical works at the school.

The Department of Education and Skills has assigned responsibility for managing and monitoring the asbestos removal programme in schools to the Office of Public Works' health and safety unit. The role of the Office of Public Works is to ensure that school boards of management are managing the removal of asbestos materials in a safe manner that is not detrimental to health. It is primarily a monitoring and management role. An Office of Public Works code of practice on the Management of Asbestos in Schools has been drawn up and is available on the Department of Education and Skills website. The entire cost of the programme of detection and removal of asbestos materials in schools is borne by the Department of Education and Skills.

In the case of Balbriggan community college, as the works are of a substantial nature, the major projects division of the Office of Public Works is taking the lead role. Detailed preparation work is required to bring major projects such as the roof replacement works to tender stage. Detailed design stage has now been completed by the Office of Public Works. The proposed work entails the removal and replacement of the asbestos roof, gutters and down pipes with associated works including ceiling replacement and rewiring where necessary. The Department has been in regular contact with the Office of Public Works in relation to the progression of this major project.

I can confirm that County Dublin Vocational Education Committee has written to the Department proposing the construction of a new PE hall for Balbriggan community college, to be co-funded with Fingal County Council. The major projects division of the OPW has been informed of the proposal concerning the new sports hall.

To allow further consideration of this proposal, detailed information will be required on costings, the terms of the suggested co-funding, and the possible savings, if any, that can be accrued by the progression of these projects in tandem. This information is being sought from County of Dublin Vocational Education Committee. The progression of this co-funded project will be considered in the context of requirements and the competing demands on the Department's capital budget.

As the Deputy will be aware, there has been significant growth in pupil numbers in the Balbriggan area. The priority for the Department in terms of capital investment is providing additional classroom space. In this regard, at post-primary level, the first phase of Ardgillan Community School, which is also under the Vocational Education Committee, was completed in 2009. The second phase, which was approved for architectural planning in February of this year, will be an extension to cater for a 1,000 pupil school, including an enhanced community facility.

I assure the Deputy that the Minister and her Department are committed to providing suitable high-quality accommodation at Balbriggan Community College. I thank the Deputy once again for raising this matter.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.20 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 18 May 2010.