Topical Issue Debate

Hospital Investigations

Will Members, please, clear the Chamber to allow for Deputy Micheál Martin’s Topical Issue matter to be taken?

Thank you, Acting Chairman. I thank the Minister for Health for attending the Chamber. Last week-----

I ask Deputies who are not here for the Topical Issue debate to leave the Chamber and not to talk.

If Members would not mind, as this is a serious and sensitive issue. There are people listening in the Visitors Gallery and a little decorum might be called for.

Last Tuesday evening, I had a meeting with a couple, Catherina and Stephen McGarry, from Sallynoggin, Dublin. On November 27 1991, 24 years ago, their daughter Jennifer Anna was born in the Coombe hospital. It was a forceps delivery and it went badly wrong. Jennifer Anna’s spine was badly damaged and just over ten weeks later, on St. Valentine’s Day, 1992, she died in her mother’s arms. Incredibly, her death was not reported to the coroner. In addition to this, Jennifer Anna’s brain and spine were removed from her body without the consent of her parents. Catherina and Stephen only learned of this in 2012, 20 years later. In 2009, the national audit of retained organs and post mortem practices occurred but they were not informed of it.

The Coombe hospital has now apologised in a somewhat qualified way to the couple over Jennifer Anna’s death. The hospital now accepts that Catherina should have had a caesarean section at an earlier stage. If that had happened, it is likely that Jennifer Anna would have been born without injury. It is clear too that she would be alive today. The qualified apology by the Coombe, while welcome, does not go far enough by any objective yardstick or for Catherina and Stephen McGarry. They want justice and accountability and are anxious that their daughter’s case be independently inquired into. They would also like a meeting with the Minister for Health to put their case.

They have written to the Minister on several occasions seeking a meeting but he has always refused their request. In a letter on 2 November last, they were told in a letter from the Minister, “there will be no further reply to correspondence on this matter.” I have read the hospital's report. I urge the Minister to reconsider his previous refusal to meet Catherina and Stephen McGarry and to meet with them at his earliest convenience. I also urge him to support their call for an independent inquiry and take steps to ensure such an inquiry takes place.

After the death of Jennifer Anna, Catherina and Stephen tried many more times to have children but had to endure seven miscarriages. They also tried to adopt but were rejected on grounds of age. This entire event has had an enormous and profoundly damaging impact on their lives. Catherina makes the valid point that if she did something wrong, she would have to be held accountable for it.

I understand the registrar who delivered the child using a forceps subsequently moved to the United Kingdom and that later, he resigned from a position in a hospital after concerns were raised about his treatment of patients. There are issues there to be inquired into. At the very least, an independent investigation is warranted in this case and that those involved and responsible be held to account.

At the very least, will the Minister meet with the couple to hear their case? It is evident that without the work Stephen and Catherina did themselves, we would not even have the report or the review that the Coombe hospital belatedly published in the past year. It is their work and persistence that has resulted in this matter being raised in the Dáil today and in the review being carried out by the hospital.

I thank the Deputy for raising this case and for affording me the opportunity to offer my sincerest condolences to the family involved. The Deputy will appreciate that I have a no role in individual cases and do not have access to individual patient files or personal information.

I am informed that the Health Service Executive, HSE, and the Coombe hospital have been in contact with this family on an ongoing basis for several years and have apologised to them for the death of their child 23 years ago. In 2012, the Coombe hospital initiated a systems review to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of an infant in 1992. This review, undertaken in line with the HSE's incident management policy and guidelines, concluded that there were deficiencies in care which contributed to the child’s death. It is important we learn from these adverse incidents as the single most important obligation for any health service is patient safety and improving the quality of care. That is why the Government is committed to improving the quality and safety of maternity services. A national women’s and infant health programme will be established by the HSE to drive improvement and standardise care across all 19 maternity units. The maternity strategy under development will provide the policy to direct and underpin the work of the programme.

There was also an additional €2 million provided to the HSE in 2015 to improve maternity services further and this funding provided for the appointment of additional staff, including additional obstetricians, midwives and other front-line staff. We will build on these improvements through the provision of further additional resources for maternity services in 2016, the detail of which will be set out in the HSE's national service plan.

I am very disappointed with the Minister's reply. It is too cold. I asked him to meet the couple and he should meet them. They can inform him on why there are issues across the hospital system. He is saying he has been informed by the HSE and the Coombe hospital. The Coombe hospital has not covered itself in glory in regard to this case. There are fundamental lessons to be learned from this case alone and how the Coombe hospital dealt with it. As the Minister has put the Coombe hospital and the HSE in charge of what happens in the Midlands Regional Hospital, Portlaoise, so it has to be beyond reproach.

I acknowledge improvements which might have been announced today or last year and so on but this case was not even reported to the coroner. It was only reported to the coroner in recent months. That is very worrying. The apology is a qualified apology and the full story has not come out. There are issues in terms of what happened here. There are issues around the registrar. Did the authorities pursue those issues? Greater clarity needs to be brought to the situation as a matter of urgency.

Just because it happened many years ago is no reason to try to push it to one side and say, "I have been informed" and "I have no role in individual cases", because the Minister does have a role. I never said the Minister had access to files. However, when cases such as this one come to light, we all have a role. I could easily say I have no role. It was quite incidental that I came across the couple involved. I did not seek out the case to raise it in this House. I met the couple on a doorstep and they came to me months later and asked me to raise the matter here. The Minister should meet the couple. He may learn something through their experience about how the system works.

There should be an independent inquiry. What we have had so far is not an independent inquiry. The Coombe hospital has not covered itself in glory in this matter and that needs to be revealed and lessons learned. Full accountability and answers as to why it was not reported to the coroner at the time are also required.

The Deputy will know that I receive a lot of requests to meet patients and their families-----

-----as he would have during his term as Minister for Health and Children.

-----and I met them.

I also do so on occasion. I have met the families in Portlaoise and Mr. Rowlette and Mr. Kivlehan. I met the patients' councils at Connolly Hospital, Blanchardstown, and Cavan Monaghan Hospital. I meet patients and patient groups all the time. There are, however, 2 million patient attendances in the public health service every year. If one goes back 20 years, that is 40 million attendances. It is not possible for me to meet everyone. I meet people where I have a particular role and can add something and there is a particular purpose to the meeting.

On the request for an inquiry or inquest, I am advised by the HSE legal services that this case must be notified to the current coroner and that no statute of limitations applies to the matter. Dr. Chris Fitzpatrick on behalf of the Coombe hospital has written to the coroner officially notifying him of the death. The coroner responded that he had received the notice and a decision on whether to hold an inquest will be made by the coroner, who is an independent quasi-judicial officer. I do not have the authority to order an inquest be carried out. It is a matter at this stage for the coroner.

The Minister could have a separate independent inquiry.

In terms of accountability, if there is a complaint against a particular doctor, the Deputy knows that the complaint is to be brought to the Medical Council. The situation is made difficult if the person is not in the State because no one in the State has the authority to act extrajudicially. If it is a criminal matter, a complaint would have to be made to An Garda Síochána.

Drug Treatment Programmes

Gabhaim mo bhuíochas leis an gCeann Comhairle go bhfuil seans againn an t-ábhar seo a phlé. We know that people get caught up in abusing and misusing drugs and alcohol and many will be come addicted. While there is a wide range of reasons this happens, we can all agree that no one sets out to become an addict or an alcoholic. I would like to see everyone in recovery and very much support the work of the Recovery Academy, but the reality is that there are those who will stay in addiction. We need a wide range of options and services to enable and support stability and recovery. We also need to do more in terms of prevention and education but that is another day's work.

At the request of the Ana Liffey Drug Project, I hosted a meeting in the AV room in Leinster House on having a medically supervised injecting centre. It was difficult to look at someone injecting him or herself but there was no doubt it was done in a clean and safe environment. People who work in these kinds of centres told me they saw a reduction in the use of heroin, the safe disposal of drug paraphernalia, a reduction in the incidence of overdoses and other health issues being addressed. The film showed an older cohort of established drug user. I wonder about the injecting drug users we see shooting up on the streets and their chaotic lives. Will they be able to get to a centre to avail of these services?

I agree that this is a medical as well as a health issue and that medical supervision is required. These centres have been recommended as far back as 2005. The questions relate to the timeframe, because we are under pressure. We must ensure the injecting centre does not come out of the current addiction services budget, which has been pretty much decimated. Location is another issue. I know everyone will say, "Not in my back yard", but there are areas that have an abundance of services allied with private rental accommodation meaning anti-social behaviour and criminality occurs. A mobile unit was suggested and the Ana Liffey Drug Project has also made a suggestion. I acknowledge the role of the Minister of State, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, and his availability to task forces, projects and those working in addiction and the launching of reports.

I also welcome the opportunity to discuss this issue about medically supervised injection centres. I commend the Minister of State for the way he has handled the matter to date and ask him to clarify further how it will be addressed and delivered. I have just come from the Joint Committee on Health and Children which has been discussing emerging trends and key responses to HIV in Ireland. It has been indicated that there has been a substantial increase in the incidence of HIV in recent years, in particular last year and this year. There is also a younger cohort contracting HIV in various ways, some of which have been identified. There is major concern that intravenous drug addiction and behaviour is one of the contributory factors. There is a strong view that having properly supervised injecting rooms would be effective in addressing this situation. Street injection is particularly dangerous and risky. It is engaged in by marginalised groups, individuals, homeless people and people with various difficulties and it seems it is now taking place to a greater degree than in the past.

We must address the issue in an effective manner. It is time to grasp the nettle and say that this is one way to deal with some of the problems related to drug abuse. It is not a panacea by any means. Resources are needed across the board. Other aspects must also be addressed. However, we can have safe and supervised injecting. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction recently reported that, in areas where it has been introduced, this can be an effective way of reducing HIV and other harmful problems associated with intravenous drug addiction.

I thank Deputies Joe Costello and Maureen O'Sullivan for raising this issue. This morning I accompanied Mr. Tony Duffin and other members of the Ana Liffey Drug Project on a walk through the streets north and south of the River Liffey for an hour and a half.

What I came across was particularly shocking. I saw drug paraphernalia, human excrement, the result of a drug user's withdrawal symptoms, blood and various other types of drug litter. What I witnessed today is still very much playing on my mind. I had been on a walk-around previously with Mr. Duffin and was very much taken aback then. I was taken aback again today by what I had witnessed. I will give the official response and we can then discuss the issue in more detail.

I thank the Deputies for raising the issue of the recognised problem of street injecting in Ireland. The establishment of supervised injecting centres has been proposed by the Ana Liffey drugs project. Such centres are essentially drug consumption rooms where drug injection is facilitated in a clinical setting under the supervision of nurses and counsellors. Service users are supplied with clean injecting kits and health care professionals are on hand to make an intervention in the event of a drug overdose. These centres save lives.

Supervised injecting centres seek to attract hard-to-reach populations of chronic injecting drug users. They are particularly effective in reaching out to marginalised groups, namely, those who use drugs on the street or in other risky and unhygienic conditions and those who have remained out of reach of or who are resistant to higher threshold services.

The Minister for Health, Deputy Leo Varadkar, and I have reviewed the evidence on supervised injecting centres and intend to submit a formal proposal to the Government before Christmas. The aim of any supervised injecting centre is to reduce the incidence of public street injecting and the negative impact it has on those who inject, in terms of their dignity, health and ability to access health and social care services, as well as on the wider community and public service providers such as gardaí and ambulance personnel. The aim is also to reduce the number of drug-related deaths resulting directly from overdoses.

No decision has yet been made on the number or location of such facilities. I intend to include additional heads in the Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Bill to provide for supervised injecting centres. Drafting of the Bill is under way in the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel. The Bill will restore the Government's powers to make regulations to control new drugs. As Deputies will know, these powers were curtailed by the Court of Appeal judgment earlier this year. It is anticipated that the Bill will be published in early 2016 and provide for a legislative unblocking of any impediment to the introduction of medically supervised injecting centres.

I agree with Deputy Joe Costello when he says this is not a panacea. It is not the only response available to us. There are lots of overlapping concerns, including homelessness, isolation, marginalisation and disadvantage. A humane response to the issue of street injecting is to take the small cohort of very vulnerable drug users who are outside any mainstream drug programme off the streets, away from corners, bus shelters, parks and playgrounds and provide them with a safe, secure and compassionate setting where they can inject, as they will do anyway. The aim is to curtail the possibility of their contracting HIV or hepatitis C and to save lives. Nobody anywhere in the world who has injected in a medically supervised injecting centre has died of an overdose. There are 88 such centres across Europe and several in Australia and other parts of the world and they work very effectively.

I expect the legislation to be introduced in the House early next year, after which we will have to talk about management, the way any such centre would be organised, where they would be located and the funding mechanisms which would have to be put in place to run them effectively. I envisage one centre being opened in Dublin city centre initially, but representations are being made to my office to have supervised injecting centres opened in other urban centres, including Cork, Limerick, Waterford and Galway.

The Minister of State's answer is very welcome. I still believe recovery is the ultimate goal, but, in the meantime, we need innovative strategies to deal with the people concerned, the kernel of which are compassion and dignity. I refer to the issue of detox beds and draw the Minister of State's attention to a winter strategy used in London in the 1990s. Unused office space was taken over and a floor set aside for those who were homeless and had an addiction but who wanted to embark on a detox programme. The project reached a cohort of extremely vulnerable people. The criteria for entry into a detox programme do not suit poly drug users who are homeless and who, in many cases, have mental health issues.

In terms of a timeframe, I hope the Government will not fall before the legislation is passed. This is World Aids Day and this issue is part of that bigger debate. I ask the Minister of State to verify that additional funding will be provided and that the centres will not be funded from the current drugs budget.

I am delighted that the Minister of State has stated categorically that he intends, with the Minister for Health, to submit a proposal to the Government before Christmas. That is most welcome and it is great to see some action being taken on the matter. The sooner it happens, the better. It is welcome that a provision for supervised injecting centres will be included in the Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Bill. The Minister of State is correct in saying there are other areas of the country besides Dublin which would welcome centres of this nature and this should be taken into consideration by the Government. It must, of course, be done with public consultation because there is something of a stigma attached to drug abuse. We must ensure we treat this as a health issue rather than as something that inspires fear in communities. There is important work to be done to reassure people in this respect.

This is a very welcome development. It is certainly not a panacea and we must ensure adequate resources are put in place to make it work and that it will not affect existing resources. This is definitely a step in the right direction.

I thank the Deputies for their support. I thank all Members of Dáil Éireann for supporting this initiative. A memo has been sent to all Departments seeking their observations which should be with us by 15 December. Upon their receipt, we will proceed with inserting the relevant section into the Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Bill which will be presented to the House in the new year.

What I saw this morning shocked me. I saw syringes discarded dangerously on the steps of the Customs House and in alleyways. I also saw blood and human excrement. This is our city and the people concerned are citizens of this Republic who are, for their own reasons and because of their vulnerability, forced into a situation where they feel they have no option but to access an area behind a dumpster to engage in this activity. We have to look at this issue from the perspective of the entire community and within it drug users who need dignity and a safe, compassionate place where they can inject heroin in a controlled way in order to take the first step on the road to recovery, safe from contracting HIV or hepatitis C and from the danger of taking an overdose. It is a compassionate response which will be welcomed by the citizens of Dublin and Ireland who are nervous about the unsightly nature of open injecting. The retailers of Dublin city are also pushing for this measure. I do not agree with the suggestion that there should be a mobile clinic because there is a better chance of developing a long-term relationship with a facility if it is located in one fixed spot. However, that is a discussion we must have after the legislation has been passed. Once the Bill has been enacted, we can get into discussions about regulation, funding, control and consultation.

I thank the Deputies for their support and hope to see an historic new section in the Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Bill in the new year which will provide for an injecting centre in Dublin initially and perhaps, in the coming years, in other parts of the country.

Living City Initiative

There is a growing realisation that the take-up of the Living City initiative has not been good so far. The Minister for Finance described it recently as "miniscule".

From what I have read, there seems to be a movement in the direction of extending this to towns in some way. I want to put forward another suggestion, which is to extend the initiative specifically to the counties of Waterford and Limerick. This is for a number of reasons, one being that they were the two locations picked when the Living City initiative was devised and that choice was based on levels of deprivation in both cities.

We should not give up on this scheme. I believe it will be successful if it is varied in some manner. Much effort has been put into it and I believe it will contribute to heritage-led renewal and economic recovery. My guess is that the massive success of the home renovation scheme has affected the take-up of the Living City initiative in some respects. Where I see a difficulty with extending this scheme to towns, as the Heritage Council has proposed, is due to the incredibly lengthy process with the European Commission the Department has dealt with during the years. As the Minister will know, it took almost three years to get the Commission to sign off on the scheme. If there is to be an extension, it should be as simple as possible in a regulatory sense. That is why I suggest extending it to the counties of Waterford and Limerick, even for a certain period of time. My understanding is that to do this, it may not be necessary to have new legislation underpinning variants of the scheme and it might be possible with a commencement order identifying the area in question and by utilisation of the Taxes Consolidation Acts.

My concern is that if we go down the road of identifying architectural conservation areas in various towns around the country, as proposed by the Heritage Council, we will probably have to deal with the European Commission again, and it could take another three years or longer. I believe the county version is simpler and more workable and it should be considered. When the Department of Finance thought up this proposal on the first day, a figure was assessed as to how much foregone revenue would be involved over a number of years. However, we will not come close to that in terms of take-up, based on the numbers I have seen so far. I believe we should vary the initiative but do so in a manner that capitalises on what is a very good scheme and, at the same time, waste as little time as possible. To focus on the two locations this initiative was constructed for at the outset would seem to make most sense.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. The Living City initiative was enacted in the Finance Act 2013 and commenced on 5 May 2015, following discussions with the European Commission to ensure that the initiative was in compliance with state aid rules. It is worth pointing out, therefore, that the initiative has been operational for just six months.

The initial intention of the Living City initiative was to provide tax relief on the refurbishment of inner city Georgian buildings in Limerick and Waterford, both those used for commercial purposes and those that are residential homes. These types of buildings are traditionally more expensive to refurbish and inner city areas had been suffering neglect due to the relocation of homes and businesses to the suburbs.

A comprehensive independent ex ante cost-benefit analysis was carried out by Indecon International Economic Consultants, which recommended, among other elements, extending the initiative to rundown areas of other cities in Ireland. Correspondingly, four more cities were included in the initiative, namely, Dublin, Cork, Kilkenny and Galway. As I have said all along, the initiative is targeting particular areas of these six cities which are most in need of regeneration and it was never intended as a widespread initiative.

The Heritage Council recently recommended in its report on policy proposals for Ireland's towns that the Living City initiative should be extended to include the historic core areas of all Irish towns where these are protected as architectural conservation areas and that the specific fiscal measures be tailored more directly to attract people to live and do business in towns. I considered potential extensions of the Living City initiative in the run-up to budget 2016 but decided not to bring forward changes at this time as this would provide uncertainty about the operation of the initiative and could encourage further demands for extensions.

I also considered proposals to provide incentives to target rural areas or towns. As has been seen elsewhere, tax breaks alone will not encourage people to live in an area where there is no work or sustainable lifestyle for them. A more integrated solution for revitalising rural areas is needed, rather than just tax reliefs. I believe direct expenditure is a more appropriate way to target support to rural areas for their regeneration.

It is also important to note that a tax relief only works if there is sufficient taxable income to obtain the benefit. A grant system, by comparison, can be fairer as it applies to those who pay low rates of tax, those who pay no tax and also higher income earners. Tax reliefs, for example, are generally not of interest to those in social housing, those who are pensioners and those who pay low rates of tax.

The Living City initiative is a targeted property incentive aimed at a specific goal: older buildings in urban areas which were neglected and deprived. Since the initiative has launched, I have received requests to extend the initiative to newer buildings, to other areas and to areas which are not as deprived within those cities. I do not think a one-size-fits-all approach can be taken when considering tax reliefs. Just because a tax relief exists, that does not mean it can or should be extended to cover other areas. I also am very conscious to take care that we do not see a repeat of the days of property-based incentives extended beyond their original target.

My officials and I are willing to consider suggestions for tax reliefs. However, I remind the Deputy of both the tax expenditure guidelines and the Department's commitment to evidence-based policy-making. Any tax incentive needs to carefully considered and used in limited circumstances where there are demonstrable market failures and where a tax-based incentive is more efficient than a direct expenditure intervention.

The Heritage Council policy document came about when the Heritage Council launched its January 2014 report entitled, Assessment of Possible Fiscal Incentives in Relation to the Built Heritage in Ireland's Towns. At the launch, the Minister's former Secretary General, Mr. John Moran, challenged the Heritage Council to identify the role of the small town with heritage attributes in Irish economic recovery. That is how it came about. This is the document the Heritage Council came up with. While it is a very good document, I am not sure the council has a clear understanding of how problematic it was to get clearance from the European Commission on certain matters involving the Living City initiative.

My main purpose is to put into the heads of Department of Finance officials and the Minister, going into next year, that singling out a county or counties on a certain timeline would make more sense. I know there have been other proposals to extend the Living City initiative and they have been rejected. However, I believe the simpler the parameters of this, the better. I am from Waterford and the Minister is from Limerick, but this is not some selfish political proposal. The scheme was constructed with these two locations in mind and it makes sense to stick with them, if any variance takes place. I also know that the Department of Finance is working on a tax relief scheme for older private houses, as that has been publicised today, and believe this matter should be considered in conjunction with that scheme.

The Living City initiative is only seven months in operation after getting the clearance from the European Union to which the Deputy refers. There are seven applications in Dublin, one in Cork, none in Limerick, six in Waterford, two in Kilkenny and two in Galway.

I presume when various tax advisers and professional groups in these cities learn more about the scheme, the take-up will be even more significant, because it has been in place such a short time - since last May.

On the issue of extending the scheme, I thought about doing that before the budget. However, there are many reasons for the decline of rural towns and we need a package of measures to revitalise them. Tax breaks alone will not revitalise them. Unless a town has an economic base, a tax break will not drive people into it, unless perhaps we go back to the type of tax breaks that allow an investor to develop a building in a town and apply the tax break deriving from that development to rental income from investments elsewhere. That crossover was one of the seeds of the Celtic tiger. In that situation a developer could build houses on the upper Shannon and not occupy them but could write off the cost of construction against rental income in Dublin city, for example. He or she could also then sell his or her tax credits to another developer if he or she had not enough tax to cover them. That created a kind of market.

I agree on the particular problem identified by the Deputy and, God willing and if we are all back here after the general election, I would like to work with him to see whether we could come up with a more broad-based solution. There is a problem, but there are few policy initiatives targeted to remediate it.

Crime Prevention

The reason I raise this issue is the surge in crime along the motorway network. We have seen a shocking increase in crime, particularly in the number of burglaries carried out by mobile criminals driving high speed cars. The recent official figures indicate that Kildare ranks in third place in terms of the number of burglaries per county, while my county, County Laois, ranks in sixth place out of the 26 counties.

The map produced last weekend shows clearly that communities adjacent to motorways in these counties are hardest hit. The significant shortage of gardaí on the ground does not help matters. We have a serious shortage of gardaí in terms of trying to deal with this problem. The shortage is not just in the overall number of gardaí but in the number of gardaí in rural areas or on the beat. People in rural areas are being terrorised. I have come across several who have been burgled a number of times in the past couple of years. In areas around Camross, Borris-in-Ossory, Monasterevin and Kildangan, I have seen farmyards turned into fortresses. I have spent a good bit of my time in rural areas and this is one of the big changes I have seen. Not only are people turning their farmyards into fortresses, they are taking more extreme measures to protect their houses and themselves. People now keep a German Shepherd dog or two or a Rottweiler in their yards and they tell me and others that they are keeping a shotgun in their bedrooms at night.

There is no easy solution to this problem, but we must try to get back to a situation where we make communities safer. More gardaí have been promised, but I recognise it will take time to deliver on that promise. None has materialised to date. In the Laois-Offaly division, there are far fewer gardaí than there were a year ago, following the closure of Ballinakill and Ballacolla Garda stations. In the station in Monasterevin in south Kildare which services that area and the hinterland around it out to Kildangan there are only three gardaí. We need more gardaí on the ground and a more visible and active presence in rural areas. The community alert and text alert schemes do great work, but I would like to see these developed further. I would also like the Government to develop some initiatives in regard to text alerts, because they are a help in preventing and solving crime and I have seen their benefit at first hand.

I suggest cameras should be placed at junctions and slip roads along our motorways and on the M7 and M8. Cameras should also be placed at other strategic locations in co-operation with the community alert schemes in rural areas. We cannot place cameras everywhere, but they could be placed at key locations being used by mobile criminals to gain access to rural areas. If we targeted these locations with proper high quality cameras, that would be a help.

I am speaking on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality who regrets that she cannot be present due to other official commitments. She is grateful to the Deputy for raising this important matter in the House. She is aware of the concerns about rural crime, burglary in particular. She considers that burglary is a persistent and highly damaging crime, particularly in the very distressing situations where householders may be assaulted by the criminals involved.

Earlier this year, following an urgent review of the overall approach to dealing with burglary, the Minister published the Criminal Justice (Burglary of Dwellings) Bill 2015. This legislation targets repeat burglary offenders through bail measures and provisions concerning the imposition of consecutive sentencing for repeat burglary offending. The key objective of this legislation is to target a cohort of persistent offenders who prey on law-abiding householders and clearly have no concern for the damage and distress which they inflict on others. It is hoped to have this new legislation enacted as soon as possible.

The new legislation will underpin the concerted drive which is now being made by An Garda Síochána against those involved in burglary and other property crimes, which is co-ordinated under Operation Thor. Operation Thor is a new multi-strand national anti-crime operation which will entail a broad range of activities to tackle burglars, organised crime gangs and prolific offenders, as well as working with communities to prevent crime. The Garda approach includes additional high visibility patrols and an increase in checkpoints to tackle criminal gangs using the national road network. Gardaí are also making important use of technology to target suspect vehicles, including automatic number plate recognition, as well as deploying new high powered vehicles for use by the armed regional response units. In addition, a high profile national crime prevention awareness campaign is under way as part of Operation Thor.

The full suite of policing and awareness measures is made possible by the increased investment in policing by the Government, including an allocation of €5 million to specifically support Operation Thor. This follows the investment of €34 million in Garda vehicles since 2012, with 640 new vehicles becoming available this year, as well as an investment of €1.75 million in airborne surveillance technology. In addition, the Capital Plan 2016-2021 provides for a very significant investment in new Garda technology and information systems as well as the ongoing delivery of new Garda vehicles, amounting to €205 million over the lifetime of the plan. Operation Thor is further supported by the decision of the Government to end the moratorium on Garda recruitment, with 550 new recruits having already been taken in and a further 600 to commence training next year.

In regard to the use of CCTV, Garda CCTV systems are planned and implemented on the basis of the identified operational needs and priorities and decisions in regard to these systems are a matter for the Garda Commissioner. Some community-based CCTV systems have been implemented in previous years and in this regard the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, has recently made an announcement regarding piloting the provision of CCTV in rural areas, to be funded from the Rural Development Programme 2014 to 2020. In addition, having regard to the value that communities place on CCTV, the Minister for Justice and Equality has instigated a review of the effectiveness of the community CCTV scheme in conjunction with the Garda authorities. This review process is ongoing.

On behalf of the Minister, I have outlined the determined strategy she is pursuing to confront and disrupt those who attempt to prey on law abiding householders. All of these measures, including new legislation and targeted Garda operations, will support a robust response to criminals, enhance public safety and provide communities with the reassurance of a visible and determined police force.

I welcome the measures outlined by the Minister of State that are to be taken. There is certainly a need for extra vehicles and it is welcome that 550 new recruits have started their training. It is important that these measures continu on a rolling basis until we get numbers up, but that alone will not bring about a solution.

The other part of policing is legislation. The legislation being brought forward on repeat offenders is obviously a positive move. We have seen the statistics and a relatively small cohort is creating most of the mayhem and havoc, terrorising people in their homes. I emphasise that we can recruit as many gardaí as we like, but unless they are out on the ground it is no use. I know there are specialist units working behind desks doing research or whatever and I understand the logic of that. However, the absence of gardaí on the ground in many counties is a huge problem.

The third strand concerns partnership with the community. Several community groups have already raised essential funding to erect cameras. Under the pilot scheme, one group in south County Laois has been given €50,000 to erect cameras. That group is located adjacent to a motorway as well. I am appealing for a more modest funding scheme for a number of groups that are adjacent to the motorway. There are a lot of groups which, if they got €10,000 funding, would be able to put up specialist cameras in conjunction with the gardaí. That certainly would be of great benefit.

I am asking that a scheme of grants be put in place for community alert schemes located adjacent to motorways, to help catch the criminals, to prevent crime and to strengthen partnership with local communities. That will be a missing piece of the jigsaw if we do not get it right. I understand the Minister for Justice and Equality cannot be here, but I appeal to the Minister of State, Deputy Gerald Nash, to bring back to her my suggestion of a scheme of modest grants for community alert schemes operating adjacent to the motorway corridors in Laois, Kildare and other such counties.

I will mention those points to the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald at the earliest opportunity. I am familiar with many of the points the Deputy has raised. Just last night I attended the Louth IFA meeting in the Ballymascanlon House Hotel in north County Louth to discuss these very issues. Reference was, in fact, made by a senior IFA representative to the south County Laois pilot scheme, funded by my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly. I hope that will be an effective measure for the community in south County Laois and elsewhere. It is certainly something that should be given wider consideration. Let us assess the efficacy of that measure when we are in a position to do so. Any measures that can give reassurance to members of the community in rural Ireland should be given serious consideration.

As I mentioned, the issue of community CCTV is under review. I have already set out the comprehensive strategy the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Garda Commissioner is implementing to confront those who engage in burglary and similar crimes at the expense of law-abiding citizens, who form the majority of the population. Operation Thor has been given great prominence and I hope it will be successful. Furthermore, An Garda Síochána is working with communities and partners across the country such as the IFA and utility companies to target other crime trends. These include metal theft and the theft of machinery from dwellings, farms and business premises. In addition, there is long-standing support from An Garda Síochána for the many community alert and neighbourhood watch schemes the Deputy outlined. These groups are key partners in working with the Garda. The very successful text alert scheme which the gardaí operate involves more than 700 groups and 130,000 subscribers. I know how effective those schemes are in my own county of Louth.

The Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, does wish to underline her determination to continue to oppose criminals who violate people's homes and property. She will continue to support An Garda Síochána, as we all will in this House, through both improved legislation and the allocation of increased resources which the Government is now providing to combat crime across the country.