Topical Issue Debate

Schools Site Acquisitions

I welcome the fact that the Minister for Education and Skills is here to take this Topical Issue and I thank him for his attendance. The issue relates to the purchase of a site for a national school in County Cork, Rochestown Educate Together national school. It is a relatively new school that was set up in 2013. It is a fabulous school under the leadership of Dr. Alan Sheehan. Having visited the school on a number of occasions, I can say that there is a palpable sense of enthusiasm within the school. They are passionate about education, but they are facing serious accommodation difficulties.

Since the school was established three years ago, staff and students have been accommodated in temporary accommodation in the grounds of Douglas Hall soccer club. They are grateful for that and it has worked reasonably well since then. However, the reality is that the school is growing rapidly and for the forthcoming school year, 2016-17, it expects to have in the region of 140 pupils attending the school so it will have to split across two campuses, Garryduff in Rochestown and the existing site. Clearly, that presents practical difficulties for parents and staff but they will get over them. The prize they are awaiting is confirmation that a site has been purchased for the permanent school building.

I am hoping the Minister can shed some light on this issue today. At the end of 2015, the school was included in an announcement by the former Minister as going to construction in 2017. It is now July 2016 and there is still no confirmation of a site being bought so that deadline is looming large on the horizon. I hope the Minister can provide some clarity on that issue.

I know from communicating with NAMA that a site of over 20 acres in the heart of Douglas is being sold by a receiver appointed by NAMA. I understand that this site is "sale agreed" with the Department of Education and Skills possibly with a view to accommodating Rochestown Educate Together national school and the new second level Educate Together school which is due to open in temporary accommodation this September. The Department will not confirm that and has informed the school that the site is not being purchased with a view to accommodating the school. I hope the Minister can provide some clarity on this issue.

I observed a Topical Issue debate last night where the Minister of State with responsibility for training and skills responded to another Deputy about a school. The Minister of State said the existing contractual commitments for 2016 now fully account for the funding that was allocated for 2016 under the previous Government and implied that no new commitments would be made in terms of school buildings as in contracts signed.

Will the Minister confirm if that is the case? Does it also relate to entering into a contractual commitment to buy sites? Will the Minister confirm if the Department is in a position to do that because the contracts are with the Department for the site in question, which is in the heart of Douglas and which the Department says it is not buying with a view to accommodating this particular school. It is sale agreed. The Department is doing work in terms of land surveying and geotesting on that site. I hope the Minister can provide clarity for the teachers, staff and parents so they can at least see a pathway to the acquisition of a site and the building of a permanent school building.

I thank Deputy McGrath for raising the matter. I share his enthusiasm for the development of this school under Dr. Alan Sheehan. There is no doubt it is a very popular school. It opened in 2013 and is in temporary accommodation. The last Minister for Education and Skills included it in the current six-year construction plan announced in November 2015. It was designated to go to construction in 2017 but a permanent site is required to accommodate this new school building.

The Deputy may be aware that the then Minister for Education and Skills signed a memorandum of understanding between my Department and the County and City Managers Association in 2012. This memorandum of understanding fosters increased levels of co-operation and formalises the local authorities' part in identifying and securing sites for educational use. In this context, my Department has been working closely with Cork County Council towards acquiring a permanent site to meet the needs of the new primary school. A number of potentially suitable sites were identified and were comprehensively technically assessed. Specific aspects relating to the development of some of the sites under consideration required significant investigation. In addition, the plans for infrastructure to access the Douglas area were also under review and clarifications about access to some sites have been required. The Department has examined several options, none of which provided a straightforward solution. The process has involved considerable discussions with relevant vendors and the local authority on the options considered. I can confirm that, subsequent to the analysis which has been carried out, a site option has been identified and it is being actively progressed. Given the commercial sensitivities associated with land acquisitions generally, I am not in a position to comment further at this time. I assure the Deputy that the acquisition of a suitable site for the school is very active on the programme of site acquisitions. My officials are aware of the limitations of the current temporary accommodation and every effort is being made to secure a suitable permanent site for the school as expeditiously as possible. Officials from my Department will be in contact with the relevant school authorities once the site acquisition process has been completed.

The Deputy raised a couple of other issues. On the issue of sites, the budget for school construction to which the Deputy and the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, referred is separate from the budget for site acquisitions. The fact that the projects fully absorb our capacity for 2016 does not impinge on our capacity to conclude site deals. I am not in a position to enter into commentary on any specific site. For good, historical reasons there is a commercial sensitivity and until a deal is finalised it is not helpful to speculate on any individual site.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I welcome the fact that a site option has been identified and, as the Minister indicated, is being actively progressed. Hopefully, if I am joining the dots correctly, the site in question is the one currently at contract stage with the Department of Education and Skills though I understand the Minister is not in a position to confirm that. I welcome the fact the Department is in a position generally to enter into contractual commitments to purchase land with a view to accommodating schools and that the exhaustion of public funds in terms of commitments for school building does not apply to the acquisition of land. That is welcome.

There is an urgency about this. The school is moving to a split campus situation for the forthcoming school year, 2016-2017. There will be sufficient capacity across those two sites for one further school year - the 2017-2018 school year - but that is it then. At that point it will be in serious trouble. It is taking in two junior infant classes every year and there is growing demand for places at the school. It is in an area of very large population growth. There are a lot of young families in the Rochestown-Douglas area and there is a demand for this school. I ask the Minister to take a personal interest in this case to ensure the file does not gather dust, that the site is actually purchased and the next steps are then taken to move this through the process because when it comes to preliminary design, planning applications, tendering and so forth, to have this school going to construction next year is a challenge. I hope it can be co-located with the second level Educate Together school for the south suburbs area of Cork city which is opening in temporary accommodation at Nagle Community College this coming September. I welcome the Minister's commitment and ask him to take a personal interest and to see this project through.

I have been assured by the officials dealing with this that they recognise it is a priority. If they were in any doubt, I will convey to them the Deputy's points about the dual site, the pressure it is putting on the school and the ambitions, scale and growth of the school. I will take a personal interest to see that this can be delivered. These deals have to be nailed down permanently before we can commit that this will go ahead. I am optimistic and Department officials will work hard on this.

Dublin Airport Authority

The strategic growth of Dublin Airport has been phenomenal and it is a hugely important contributor to Ireland's economy making approximately €6.9 billion according to a recent InterVISTAS study. It employs almost 16,000 people directly. The number of passengers using the airport reached 25 million in 2015 and in the first five months of 2016 these numbers increased by 14% in a year-on-year comparison. Mr. Kevin Toland, the CEO of DAA, whom I met at his briefing last week, stated that the development of the new north runway will support around 1,200 extra jobs and ultimately create another 30,000 jobs. While this further growth and economic impact of Dublin airport is strongly welcomed it is imperative we do not lose sight of the responsibilities of the Dublin Airport Authority to the residents and locality surrounding the airport which is impacted by noise pollution and pollution to the environment. Over the years I have made representations to the DAA on very early take off and high noise levels over Clonshaugh, Coolock and Artane, generally when the wind is coming from the east. Recently I made a number of representations to the chief executive, Kevin Toland, and his staff on behalf of residents from the Offington area, the Howth peninsula and Sutton due to their complaints about take offs from 4.55 a.m. In the late 1980s the 10R-28L runway was built without any planning conditions, no environmental impact study or night flight restrictions. At the time the St. Margaret's community council battled against Aer Rianta for appropriate insulation against noise pollution for the homes affected. The insulation scheme which was implemented at the time is apparently the one now being offered to those affected by the north runway without any review of whether it is still an appropriate level of insulation. Will the Minister confirm this? What research has the DAA carried out to show it is a proper level of insulation? The new north runway is not expected to have night flights though the DAA is saying it will fight that planning condition, meaning that the old 10R-28L runway will have night flights. Residents affected, who I represent, recognise the importance of the growth of the airport, particularly in the light of Brexit. They are simply asking to be treated fairly, with great consideration and the same treatment as those affected by the new north runway, given that the international legislative environment was very different 25 years ago.

There are two issues here, both connected. The first is the old runway at Dublin Airport. Residents within the contours of the old runway are concerned that increased flights, emissions and traffic will compound the problems they already experience. As Deputy Broughan said, they feel hard done by that the original runway was not subject to the same planning conditions or environmental impact study requirements.

They are worried that the mitigation measures that will be available to those coming within the contours of the new runway may be superior to the protection that they get or do not get, as the case may be.

There is a second issue which is of critical importance, and that is the new runway itself. We must register that this application is being made now almost ten years after the permission was given in a completely different type of world that we live in. Even then, with lesser criteria on noise and environmental protection than we have now, the condition applied was that the DAA should not loosen up on its restrictions on night flights. Anybody who went to the briefing last week will be aware that the DAA is explicit in its intention to break that condition that was applied years ago when conditions were less stringent than they are now and that is completely unacceptable to the local communities in the area.

There is a significant issue that the current proposal is to insulate homes that would experience noise levels of 63 dB or above, but night noise levels of 40 dB to 55 dB are known to have adverse health effects according to the World Health Organization, WHO. It is a little annoying that the WHO changed its recommendation on night noise maximums in 2009, two years after the planning permission was granted at a level of 63 dB. We cannot have that. With the current knowledge, we cannot ignore the health and safety impacts on residents in that community. What can the Minister do to reassure us that all of those matters will be considered?

I thank the two Deputies for once again bringing this particular subject to my attention. I met the DAA last week on the same day as it was making the presentation in Buswells Hotel, and I put some of those points to them to take away.

As the Deputies will be aware, DAA has a statutory responsibility to manage, operate and develop Dublin Airport, including the provision of infrastructure necessary to meet existing and future demand, such as the north runway project. The DAA was granted planning permission in 2007 for a second parallel runway and the necessary lands have been preserved for such a project since the 1960s. However, due to the downturn in the economy, the project was not progressed. Given the significant increase in passenger numbers at Dublin Airport in recent years and the projected traffic growth in future years, it is clear that a second parallel runway is needed.

Against this background, the DAA announced its decision to proceed with the development of the north runway project in April 2016. The DAA expects construction to commence in early 2017 with the runway operational by 2020. The planning permission granted for the second parallel runway in 2007 had 31 conditions attached and is valid for ten years. I should point out that planning matters are the responsibility of the relevant local authority, Fingal County Council in the case of Dublin Airport, or An Bord Pleanála, as appropriate. Two of the conditions relating to noise operating restrictions are of particular concern to DAA in that they would result, DAA states, in operations across the entire airport being restricted during the night, between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., to limit noise impacts on the surrounding area. The constraints are such that flights at the airport in the peak hour between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. would have to be cut back by approximately one third. Over the last number of months, DAA has been examining the scope of a further environmental impact statement, EIS, for the purpose of seeking a review of the operating restrictions foreseen for Dublin Airport under the existing planning permission for the north runway. I understand that a public consultation has now commenced to explain why changes are being sought to the two planning conditions and to provide an opportunity for stakeholders to contribute to the content of and the approach to be adopted in the EIS process. Regarding the issue of noise, EU Regulation 598/14 relating to the introduction of noise-related operating restrictions at EU airports entered into force last month. This regulation sets out the process to be followed when deciding on noise-related operating restrictions and involves consideration of all potential aircraft noise mitigation measures. The regulation provides for consultation with interested parties, including local residents living in the vicinity of the airport. The new noise regulation presents an opportunity to establish a modern, cohesive and measured approach to the management of noise at Irish airports which is capable of delivering the best outcome for all stakeholders. With a view to ensuring the most effective implementation of the new noise regulation in Ireland, my Department is currently working on the detailed technical arrangements to be set down in regulations that I intend to make in this regard as soon as possible. Finally, I met with senior officials of DAA last week to discuss a number of issues, one of which was the north runway project. The DAA advised that it is very conscious of balancing the national needs in delivering an essential piece of infrastructure while minimising impacts on local communities.

In this regard, DAA briefed me on its engagement with residents on the project and outlined the various strands of work underway on the project, which include the discharging of pre-commencement planning conditions relating to noise mitigation measures, such as the voluntary insulation and house buyout scheme which will be available to residents whose houses are most impacted.

In addition, they spoke about the substantial public consultation and communications programme they have commenced which will continue as the north runway project develops. I understand that these information sessions will provide relevant and accessible information to stakeholders about the planning permission that has been granted, what will be built, when it will be built, how it will be built and how any issues will be addressed.

The Minister referred to EU Regulation 598/14, some new legislation he would be bringing in, detailed technology arrangements etc. Does the Government intend to introduce a general noise Bill? The concern we mentioned at the DAA briefing is that residents talk about 69 dB levels and the airport referred to average levels.

On night flights, many of the biggest airports, such as Heathrow, Zurich and Frankfurt, have severe restrictions on flights between 11.30 p.m. and 4.30 a.m. Currently, Heathrow is restricted to 16 flights a night. The DAA literature speaks of 65 night flights but in the Roganstown consultation, DAA mentioned 100 flights a night. We will now have the second runway. What will be the Department's attitude on that?

Last week the Minister received the Indecon report which speaks of competing terminals. It also speaks of a possible second airport for Dublin. What is the Minister's attitude to those matters?

There is grave concern from the most affected residents - those within and close to the noise contours. Obviously, we will be expecting a strong response from the Minister.

When we raised this at Minister's questions, in fairness, the Minister was forthright in his support for residents in the area and the need for them to be adequately compensated. Those points were registered by the local communities and welcomed.

The Minister's answer is explicit as to the intentions of the DAA. They openly intend to try to breach this restrictive night-flight condition even though ten years ago when standards were lower it was deemed to be unacceptable for the local communities. It is even less acceptable now.

There is no business or connectivity imperative behind the proposition of that early morning glut. It is simply in place to enhance the profitability of the carriers, particularly the ones which want to have an aircraft return to base and go back out on another leg. For example, there are early morning flights departing to sun destinations where the passengers would far prefer to go mid-morning. That morning glut is all about aircraft going out and come back in time for a second leg.

The profits of airlines are of a lesser concern to the well-being of the local community. It is unacceptable that those conditions would be breached and that we would not have a cost-benefit analysis on this proposal. Such an analysis needs to be done holistically. I hope the Minister takes those points into account.

I thank the Deputies again for bringing this to my attention. They will not find a more sympathetic audience or Minister to the problems of the residents than I will be. I am particularly conscious of their difficulties, although I must say that the number of complaints landing on my desk is not as many as I would have expected. However, that is probably because they are complaining to the Deputies rather than to me.

Most of the time.

I have been conscious of this for some time and I am quite happy that the Deputies are delivering that message to me, and I will keep in communication with the Deputies.

The issue of compensation was raised by Deputy Clare Daly. When I met the DAA - Mr. Kevin Toland and the chairman, Mr. Pádraig Ó Ríordáin - last week I asked them what sort of measures they had in mind and they addressed the issue of insulation, which I did not think was necessarily the be all and end all.

They spoke in terms of paying people premium prices for their houses if they were disturbed or had to move. By that I understand it is not just the market price they are talking about, and I take some sort of encouragement from that. We were not specific on it but I will continue to pursue them on that issue if people feel the noise is so great they must move. In certain circumstances, it is a disturbance that is not warranted and nobody deserves that. They would be unfortunate victims of a necessary development in the country's infrastructure. I take fully the point about some conditions being set for noise many years ago. That might be something to be borne in mind, particularly in the public consultation process.

There was mention of the Indecon report and competing terminals by Deputy Broughan. I am reading the Indecon report now and it is something that will have to be considered in light of developments at the airport. I have an open mind about it and I will be discussing it with various parties in the near future.

Accident and Emergency Departments

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, and wish her well in her role as Minister of State with responsibility for drugs issues. It is an issue on which I have campaigned for a number of years so I hope we can work together on it.

This issue is addressed to the Minister, Deputy Simon Harris, and I refer to the crisis in University Hospital Limerick, as over the past seven days the number of people on trolleys has consistently been the highest in the State. Today there are 30 people on trolleys, yesterday and the day before it there were 40 people on trolleys, while on 1 July there were 30 people on trolleys. Will the Minister of State relay the following questions to the Minister? What steps does he intend to take in dealing with the issue? When does he expect the new accident and emergency department at the hospital to be fully operational? A press release in August 2015 from Professor Colette Cowan, the chief executive officer of the hospital group, stated that the new facility would be delivered in the first quarter of 2017 rather than the previously revised date of December 2016. In response to a question at the regional health forum meeting in June 2015, Professor Cowan indicated that capital funding is approved and in place and the group was working towards the completion of an accident and emergency department by the end of 2016. However, at a briefing by Professor Cowan in May this year that I attended, she stated the expected completion date is now March 2017.

In light of the ongoing crisis and the fact that University Hospital Limerick has the distinction of having the highest number of sick and ill patients on trolleys, when will the new accident and emergency department be in operation? Will the Minister of State give an assurance today on the floor of the House that the opening will bring an end to the trolley crisis, as people are on trolleys instead of beds in University Hospital Limerick? I refer specifically to an opening date rather than completion date, as there is a massive difference in the terms.

Does the Minister of State know the additional bed capacity requirements to enable the new accident and emergency department to function without the chronic overcrowding that exists now? This crisis will only be resolved when more beds are delivered. We are dealing with people and not just figures, and unfortunately many of them are waiting for hours and, in some cases, days for care. Many of them are elderly. We must resolve the crisis as quickly as possible and I ask for urgent action.

I am taking this Topical Issue matter on behalf of the Minister. I welcome this chance to update the House on the current position on the accident and emergency department at University Hospital Limerick. Pressure on accident and emergency departments throughout the country has been rising as the population is both growing and ageing. Accident and emergency department attendances have been significantly higher this year, and the HSE has reported an average increase in accident and emergency department attendances of nearly 6% compared with the same period last year. The accident and emergency department in University Hospital Limerick is one of the busiest in the country, with more than 60,000 attendances annually. Of those presenting, the proportion of patients requiring admission has also increased.

I completely accept that delays at accident and emergency departments are upsetting and distressing for patients and families. It has long been recognised and accepted that the current accident and emergency department at University Hospital Limerick is not fit for purpose. A new state-of-the-art accident and emergency department, which will triple the size of the current department, is being fitted out and is scheduled to open in the first quarter of 2017. Once built, the experience of accident and emergency department patients will improve immeasurably in terms of comfort, privacy and dignity. Pending completion of the new accident and emergency department, the university hospitals group is following the system-wide escalation framework agreed by the national accident and emergency department task force and issued to hospital groups in December 2015.

Actions being taken to relieve the pressure on University Hospital Limerick accident and emergency department include the transfer of suitable patients from the hospital to model 2 hospitals in the region, including Ennis, Nenagh, St. John's and Croom. Also, and where appropriate, patients are being transferred to community care settings. I know that staff in the hospital are working very closely with community intervention teams to provide antibiotics and other basic care in a patient's home or care facility. This will, it is hoped, facilitate hospital avoidance as well as early discharge. With such a system, people might be able to go home rather than stay in hospital. In addition, extra ward rounds are being conducted and elective surgery is being kept under review. Extra ward rounds are being done in order that people may be discharged more quickly.

The hospital is also communicating with local GPs to ensure patients are referred to the accident and emergency department only where necessary and encouraging appropriate use of local injury units. In the mid-west, there are now three local injuries units in St. John's, Ennis and Nenagh. These units are equipped to see patients with minor injuries and play a significant role in diverting patients from the accident and emergency department. In 2015, over 30% of unscheduled care patients were seen in one of these units. An awareness programme to inform the public of the range of services provided by these units was launched in autumn 2015.

I fully acknowledge the difficulties the current surge in accident and emergency department activity is causing for patients and their families. It is also important that I acknowledge that the staff are doing their utmost to provide safe and quality care in very challenging circumstances. I assure the Deputy that addressing accident and emergency department overcrowding is and will remain a priority for this Government. In that regard I am confident that the issue in University Hospital Limerick will be significantly improved in 2017 with the opening of the new accident and emergency department. I do not have a date for the opening but I will ask the Minister to revert to the Deputy on that.

It is difficult to respond as the Minister is not here, but I hope the Minister of State will relay my comments to him. I am especially pleased the Minister of State indicated the unit is not fit for purpose as that is what the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, stated two years ago and the crisis is ongoing. The amalgamation caused the crisis and the Minister of State mentioned the hospitals at Ennis, Nenagh and St. John's. Closing the accident and emergency departments in those facilities caused the crisis.

Is the expected opening in March 2017? If the date has been decided, has the Minister drawn up plans to incorporate existing accident and emergency staff into the new department? In that context has the Minister spoken to the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, the Irish Medical Organisation and other relevant unions and representative associations who will be involved in amalgamating the staff?

If the new unit is established, what new skills will be required? How is the recruitment drive for the accident and emergency department proceeding? In the framework of the hospital's operational plan for 2016, it states that the hospital will need to reduce total staff numbers in 2016 to achieve financial targets contained within the acute hospital division operational plan.

Is there any plan to reform and invest in modern diagnostic services, such as X-ray scanners, ultrasounds, etc. that will allow faster turnaround of patients? Currently, there are not sufficiently skilled staff available to operate existing equipment so the service is running at half capacity. This delay is increasing the number of people staying in beds in the hospital for longer than needed. We could have such people looked after properly in the community, with proper home help and assistance.

I have taken note of all the questions the Deputy has asked. Unfortunately I cannot answer them for him, but I will say from the reply the Minister gave that it is good news that University Hospital Limerick will have a new emergency department in the first quarter of 2017 and I will ask him to come back with a specific date if that is possible. I also acknowledge, as the Minister has done in his reply, that the other hospitals in the region are helping out at a critical time when patients' needs are rising, people are getting older and more people are attending the emergency department. It is imperative that we inform people that where there are other facilities within a county, people should also use those. They might be only step-down facilities and there might be units that are not fully equipped to deal with emergencies, so only those cases that need to go to the emergency department should go there. I will relay all the Deputy's questions to the Minister and I will make sure he will come back to him on the specific questions, particularly around the date, because I cannot answer that. As the Deputy heard in the statement and as he acknowledged himself, there is a crisis and the Minister fully acknowledges that.

Respite Care Services Provision

I welcome the Minister of State and I very much appreciate the interest he has taken in the issues relating to disability that have arisen in my constituency and which I have raised with him. St. Mary's in Drumcar is run by the St. John of God's order and for many years there has been an excellent relationship between the staff and the order and, indeed, the users. However, as Drumcar moves into a transition phase, going from a congregated setting to different alternative living for those who will become their former residents, its budget is still very significant. I understand it is around €24 million per year.

The Minister of State can imagine my concerns when in the last few weeks I have had a number of constituents ringing me, all of them regretfully in tears and very upset, looking for an increased level of care in terms of the respite their family members need. Their family members, in each case, have an intellectual disability. One of them occupies a respite bed in St. Mary's in Drumcar for three weeks and then on the fourth week of the month they are forced to leave that respite bed in the proper place and to go to a private nursing home, notwithstanding the excellence of care there. It is inappropriate and unacceptable to the family and, indeed, to the person who is in that bed, because they leave their familiar surroundings and they are put into an entirely inappropriate place with people who are much older than them. Some of those people are in their 90s, while the person I am talking about is in their 40s. When the person's mother is on the phone and she is crying and upset, one says this is not good enough. That is followed by another mother, who is concerned about a family member whom she looks after at home. Every three months the family member gets excellent respite in St. Mary's, Drumcar, but it keeps being cancelled. It was cancelled the week before last and I rang up and asked what was happening with this person, then it was cancelled again last week. People who are getting older are unable to continue without the reasonable respite that Drumcar has always offered them. That is another case.

I also have another member of a different family who has an adult with intellectual disabilities and is unable to get an appropriate and proper medical appointment and assessment for them due to behavioural issues which arise in terms of their disability and their inability to communicate. In fact, there are many difficulties in the house because the person with disabilities has increasing anxieties and concerns and needs to be properly looked after. All of them have been brought to the attention of Drumcar and to the attention of the HSE. To date, they remain unresolved.

Will the Minister of State look at the issue, not just the cases of the people who have come to me, but the wider issue of the emerging needs in our communities? As the institutions close, continuing professional respite and help for these people must be available. It is very important to families who look after their loved ones. I am talking about people in their 60s, 70s and 80s who are looking after their children as they grow older, still with concern for them. They love and care for their families and they just feel the State is neglecting them in this hour of need.

When one contrasts the tremendous work of the staff and the community of St. John of God with the scandal of the under-the-table payments to senior executives that were announced recently, it is absolutely unacceptable that this can happen. I have no doubt that the Minister of State will intervene immediately and urgently, so that the care these people need comes first and always first. These people must be looked after and I look forward to the Minister of State's response and, indeed, his actions. I know they will be appropriate, but it is unacceptable that the scandal of payments under the counter would continue.

I thank Deputy Fergus O'Dowd for raising this important issue. I commend him for his work as a strong advocate for people with disabilities in the County Louth area and particularly in relation to this issue of St. Mary's in Drumcar and the PEER project, which I am also working on.

I will outline my position on services for people with disabilities who need residential supports from the health service. This Government - I emphasise it is a partnership Government - is committed to providing services and supports for people with disabilities which will empower them to live independent lives, provide them with greater independence in accessing the services they choose and enhance their ability to tailor the supports required to meet their needs and plan their lives. I am acutely aware of the changing needs of people with disabilities and understand that many people require additional or alternative services. That is key. The approach I am pursuing is to move away from the old institution model to one of community-based, person-centred services. The programme for Government contains a commitment to continue to move people with disabilities out of congregated settings, defined as a setting where ten or more people with a disability are living, to enable them to live independently and to be included in the community.

This work is already under way and the number in congregated settings has dropped from over 4,000 in 2008, to under 2,800 today. Capital funding of €20 million from the Department of Health is being made available to the HSE in 2016 to move people out of congregated settings. That funding was announced two weeks ago. The funding will be used to facilitate the relocation of some 165 people currently living in 14 institutions around the country to suitable accommodation. St. Mary's, Drumcar, is one of these institutions and St. John of God's is committed to moving 20 residents from St. Mary's into community settings this year. That means 20 people are being dealt with immediately.

I accept the point Deputy Fergus O'Dowd has made that St. Mary's, Drumcar, is a significant provider of disability services in the Dublin north-east area and is part of St. John of God services, funded by the HSE under section 38 of the Health Act. In 2010 the St. John of God north-east services amalgamated their adult and children's respite, thereby reducing the capacity of respite provision in St. Mary's, Drumcar. The respite provision is now three weeks for adults and one week for children. There is currently a waiting list of 40 to 43 clients who have been identified as needing community residential placement due to elderly, frail parents caring for adult clients with an intellectual disability. All of these clients - people with disabilities and mental health issues - have been mapped onto a national housing strategy in partnership with Louth County Council. Capacity to respond to residential and respite emergencies is identified and managed on a geographical basis. This is done in consultation with service providers and taking cognisance of the policy in moving people out of congregated settings.

The emerging residential need in the absence of residential development funding over the past number of years is acknowledged by the HSE and myself as a challenge for all services providing support to clients with a disability. Recognising this, I recently announced an additional €31 million in funding for people with disabilities, of which €3 million is earmarked for new initiatives, including the anticipated cost of a number of emergency residential placements arising this year. In this regard, the HSE will continue to reform service delivery models to maximise the use of existing resources and develop sustainable models of service provision with positive outcomes for service users, delivering the best value for money.

I welcome the Minister's statement and I again acknowledge his commitment, as well as the extra funding. Drumcar is not doing what the HSE and the parents wish it to do and that is why the intervention of the Department is essential. The HSE has assured me there is adequate funding to provide respite needs, which are required by two of the families to which I have referred. It is not acceptable that an adult can be in a bed for three weeks and is need of respite care for another week but is sent into a private nursing home. It is totally inappropriate and it is equally inappropriate that a person under 18 then takes that service. Extra respite facilities need to be opened in Drumcar.

The person in the HSE who deals with this is actually on holiday at the moment but I spoke to them about this earlier and they said they were prepared to initiate any funding that might be available. I cannot speak for this person but I can speak for the families. They are deeply concerned and deeply distressed. I acknowledge that the Minister's brief is to move people out of Drumcar and into community settings but these people are already in the community. They are not getting the service they received for many years. One mother said to me that the respite care she had been receiving for her son for 40 years was no longer available to her. The mother who rang me about this said she was at her wits' end and could not cope with looking after her adult child at home for three months with promises of respite care having been broken not once, but twice. I urge the Minister to ensure the promise is not broken a third time. I have every confidence in his capacity to intervene and to take on board the points I am making.

Deputy O'Dowd made a number of crucial points. He is correct to say we need to listen to the families of people who need respite care. This case is not necessarily about funding but the management of resources. I agree with the Deputy's remarks that we cannot have section 38 organisations being given a certain amount of funding only for us to wake up on a Sunday morning to read in the newspapers of top-ups of €2 million while they are talking about reducing services.

That is a scandal and something I will not accept as Minister. My focus is on the people with the disability and their families. The cancellations to which the Deputy referred are also not acceptable in this day and age. It is not good enough. Respite beds are also important and I will follow up on the broader issues raised by the Deputy. I am aware of the work that goes on in the St. John of God services and in Drumcar and we need to ensure they get the maximum support. The three cases to which the Deputy referred have to be dealt with individually and I will follow up on them as well. If there are other serious issues with respite care and with residential issues related to those services, I will follow up on those too.

I have a vision for services for people with disabilities and a major part of that vision is to protect the rights of people with a physical or intellectual disability. I will prioritise certain cases such as the Deputy has mentioned. My loyalty is to the people with disabilities and their families and that is where my focus will be in the next couple of months.

Sitting suspended at 4.05 p.m. and resumed at 4.30 p.m.