Topical Issue Debate

Garda Station Refurbishment

I really must raise this issue again. First, I pay tribute to a very sad victim who fell into the river, or was located in the river, in Carrick-on-Suir under the district of Clonmel superintendent Willie Leahy and his sergeant and staff in Carrick-on-Suir. I pay tribute to the public, the Civil Defence and everyone else involved. Carrick-on-Suir River Rescue carried out a huge search for nine days and located her body. The funeral of this little 14 year old from Carrick-on-Suir was today. I salute the Garda Síochána for co-ordinating the whole event, tragic as it was. Thankfully, her remains have been located. The funeral was very sad.

I salute the local Garda because they do tremendous work daily under Superintendent Leahy, the sergeant in charge and all the other gardaí. However, the Minister for Justice and Equality has seen the conditions in the station. I hope we will hear good news from him today.

In 2012, the then Minister, Alan Shatter, and the then Minister of State, Tom Hayes, announced that there would be a new station and that it was moving to a new site. The old Army barracks was a proud system of defence and served the people in Tipperary so it will be a wonderful location for a new station. The then Minister and Minister of State announced the project at the time and, unfortunately, Mr. Hayes said the funding would be provided in the following round. That was in 2012 under the capital funding project. Nonetheless, we did not see the station open.

Deputy Kevin Boxer Moran is now the Minister of State with responsibility for the OPW. There is a bundle of stations in Sligo, one in Cork and one elsewhere. There are some technical delays on land issues and disputes over rights of way and so on. However, the people of Clonmel and the Garda Síochána deserve better. Tipp FM recently went into the site and was shocked, as is anyone who visits it. It is a Dickensian building, hundreds of years old, and is on lease from the county council, which incidentally wants the building back. To make matters worse, it is a listed building. I acknowledge the Minister for Justice and Equality has provided upgrades to some of the toilet facilities and some of the cells in recent times and rented another building down the town as well. He had to do so because there is neither the space nor the equipment in the site and it is higgledy-piggledy upstairs and downstairs. It is not in any way suitable for the public or An Garda Síochána. The space in the public office is not as big as the three seats beside me. If a woman with a buggy or a family comes in, they must come in and sign on, get passports stamped, get driving licences or whatever else alongside them. There is no privacy for people to do their business. If there are people there who are out on bail on serious crimes, they could be in the same restricted area. It is unfair and unfit and it has gone on for too long.

I do not want any more announcements from the Minister. I do not expect him to make any, in fairness. I want to see the contract signed and the sod turned in order that the Garda can move into the building. Tús maith, leath na hoibre. Let the building proceed. I know it will take some time from the time the builder is appointed and the procurement process is all gone through to the work starting, but we want to see the work start and the contract signed. No one is more anxious about this than me. I have not made announcements about it but I have been on to the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Boxer Moran, and before him the then Minister of State, Deputy Canney, about the matter. We must get this for the public and the Garda Síochána in Tipperary. I salute them and the morale they have maintained as they are expected to go in and work in these conditions. No one, whether us here, factory workers or workers from any other institution, would work in such conditions because they could not. It is totally unsuitable from an IT, personnel and fire safety point of view. They must stand up on a toilet bowl to get out of the window at one of the fire escapes. It is beyond talking about. It is time we moved on and got this modern building to serve modern times to allow all ranks of the Garda Síochána to give the service they want to give to the people of Clonmel and Tipperary.

I offer my condolences and the condolences of the Government to the family of Elisha Gault, whose body was found in Carrick-on-Suir. I offer my sympathy to her parents, Cameron and Gráinne, and to her extended family and I pay tribute to the Garda Síochána, the Coast Guard and the hundreds of volunteers in the south Tipperary area who engaged in the search. It was a dreadful tragedy for the family and the community.

I thank Deputy Mattie McGrath for raising this important issue. As he will be aware, the programme of replacement and refurbishment of Garda accommodation is progressed by the Garda authorities working in close co-operation with the Office of Public Works. Deputy McGrath will also be aware of the significant efforts being made by the Government to enhance the working environment for members of An Garda Síochána and of the major investment that has been committed under the Capital Plan 2016-2021 to upgrade Garda premises. The Garda building and refurbishment programme, an ambitious five-year programme based on agreed Garda priorities, continues to benefit over 30 locations around the country. The programme includes over €60 million of Exchequer funding as well as a major public private partnership to deliver stations in Macroom and Sligo and, from Deputy Mattie McGrath's perspective, more importantly, at Clonmel.

Two site transfers are involved in the Clonmel development. It is proposed the new Clonmel development will be built on part of the former Kickham Barracks site, which has been acquired by Tipperary County Council, and arrangements to transfer the appropriate ownership to the Office of Public Works are well in train. In addition, the OPW owns a building immediately adjacent to the entrance and a portion of that site needs to be transferred to the county council in order to facilitate the overall development of the site. An important element of the plan involves the widening of the existing main entrance to the barracks site. The OPW has actively engaged with the council and a revised entrance arrangement solution has been identified. In addition, the council has demolished an existing site hut in order to bring clarity to the site boundary. I was pleased to visit the area before Christmas. The Office of Public Works is engaging with the council in order to complete the necessary legal documentation regarding the two site transfers involved.

I understand that acquisition by the OPW of the site for Macroom is complete and that acquisition of sites for Clonmel and Sligo is well advanced. Once completed, the development of the public private partnership bundle will be progressed actively under the auspices of the National Development Finance Agency. Pending development of the new station in Clonmel, a project to upgrade the cells and custody facilities in the existing Garda station is well advanced. This comprises the refurbishment of four cells to modern standards and the installation of a prisoner shower facility. Arrangements to source alternative accommodation for locker facilities during the construction are being finalised by the Office of Public Works.

I do not disagree with anything Deputy McGrath has said about the conditions in Clonmel Garda station. I am really anxious that this matter be advanced and progressed at the earliest opportunity. I assure the Deputy that I am fully committed to proceeding with the major investment programme that aims to provide new Garda stations and to modernise older Garda stations at key locations around the country, including Clonmel, in order that we can ensure a safe, modern working environment for Garda as well as fit-for-purpose facilities for visitors, victims, suspects and those engaged in the daily business at a Garda station.

I thank the Minister for extending sympathy on behalf of the Government to the family of Elisha Gault and saluting all of the emergency people, volunteers and co-ordinators under Superintendent Willie Leahy and Kevin Langton, a good Laois-Offaly man, who is the principal of the secondary school she attended, Comeragh College in Carrick-on-Suir.

We know where I am coming from. I am speaking about the conditions and I am glad the Minister accepts it. They are Third World conditions which are not suitable. I worry when I hear about the OPW and the procurement of two bits of sites and widening the entrance. I know how planning permission happens. This has to be done. I accept completely the Minister's bona fides but I want to see procurement of the bundle of the three stations in Sligo, Macroom and Clonmel finalised. It would be a pity for one to hold up the others for so long. If this is the case perhaps we can change bundles. It is so near now and yet so far. For the morale of the force and the public in Tipperary they must see activity on the site. The new site, which was the old Kickham Barracks, is a model site in pristine condition with a huge tradition of service to the public not only in Tipperary but the United Nations and everywhere, at times of flood or emergency. That is gone. It would be nice to see the lights on and a new functioning Garda station. I would go so far as to say, because it is a spacious site, that the Minister should consider locating the horse element of An Garda Síochána there. We have plenty of mountains to train them in the foothills of the Comeraghs and Slievenamon. I am happy with the Minister's reply but I will be coming back to this week in week out because I want to see the documents signed and the preferred contractor for the bundle appointed, and let the work begin. Let An Garda Síochána in Clonmel and Tipperary be in a half respectable position for themselves and their own health, well-being and safety to deliver the top-class service they always do for the people of Tipperary.

I thank Deputy McGrath for raising this issue. I bow to his superior knowledge in the matter of horse training and the equine division of the Garda Síochána, but I acknowledge the diligence, commitment and very hard work the gardaí in Clonmel and south Tipperary undertake on a 24-7 basis. I would like to see this project advancing at the earliest opportunity. As I mentioned, the preparatory works relating to the new Garda station in Clonmel are progressing well. I am anxious to ensure the OPW engages actively, importantly and urgently with the county council to complete the necessary documentation regarding the two site transfers involved. I visited the Garda station before Christmas. I understand the circumstances in the station and I understand the need for a new Garda station in Clonmel. I assure the House and Deputy McGrath in particular that in conjunction with the Office of Public Works we will do everything to advance this project at the earliest opportunity. I expect the public private partnership project will get under way this year, but I am happy to keep Deputy McGrath fully informed on the technical developments as far as the matter of the transfer of the site is concerned and with regard to the legal documentation to ensure the contract can be completed and the builders can be on site at the earliest opportunity. It is overdue and I want it done.

Community Employment Schemes Eligibility

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this topical issue for debate because it is extremely important. It might be beneficial for the Minister of State to engage in this debate as opposed to with his colleague.

I want to put on record thanks for the invaluable work the community employment schemes do the length and breadth of the country. They are very much at the heart of the community from a social, cultural and environmental perspective. They work in child care facilities, GAA grounds and other sporting facilities. They maintain tidy towns. They support the often unrecognised work of thousands of volunteers throughout the country.

They have huge difficulty now because the pool of available participants is being squeezed by both sides. On one side there has been an increase in employment opportunities, and that is extremely welcome, but on the other side changes were made to the eligibility criteria for the scheme in April 2017. This is placing a huge burden on participants and many of the schemes. It is putting the long-term viability of many of the schemes in doubt. Just because JobBridge has been introduced and somebody has been moved off the live register and onto JobBridge does not necessarily mean the person will be able to get a job. There are people on these schemes who, for whatever reason, perhaps because of their age or an ability or disability issue, cannot go back into the workforce. What we are telling them now is they are no longer any good or qualified for participation in society. I will give an example. In recent weeks, Moate amenity and heritage park has lost five participants. The local newspaper described it as a devastating blow to the park and rural Ireland. The loss of five employees at a key tourism facility in Moate is a devastating blow according to a local community activist and member of the management committee. The workers have completed their length of service with the scheme and no extension is in sight. They have no option but to vacate their positions. An emotional participant who was interviewed stated he had been there for the past four years and had loved every minute of it. He said his dignity and pride have been taken away. I will not give his name. It is not about the money, it is about feeling part of something.

I understand the group met the then Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Leo Varadkar, who is now Taoiseach. He gave cast-iron guarantees that reforms were under way on eligibility for people on community employment schemes. This has simply not happened. As I said, the future viability of many of these schemes is under threat.

My colleague, Deputy Willie O'Dea, has produced a Bill that would tackle this issue. I understand the Minister of State is here representing his colleague the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty. Will he give a cast-iron guarantee the Government will take note and acknowledge that changes need to be brought about, and acknowledge the significant contribution that community employment schemes make the length and breadth of the country in urban and rural Ireland?

I thank Deputy Robert Troy for raising this very important issue. In the context of the economic recovery, the Department undertook a review of its work programmes in 2016. Arising from the review, the Government agreed to implement changes to the qualifying conditions for community employment in order to broaden access to a wider range of people. These new rules were implemented from July 2017. In general, all placements will now be for one year only. If community employment participants are undertaking training to achieve a major award, their time can be extended for up to two years to allow them to complete the training which will enhance their overall employment prospects. This is a positive development. This also allows for three years' continuous participation in a community employment scheme.

Those over 55 years of age can also remain on a community employment scheme for three years.

A six-year participation limit will apply to community employment, or seven years in the case of a person in receipt of a disability payment. A person may re-qualify for participation on a community employment scheme after 12 months, having been in receipt of a qualifying social welfare payment, provided he or she has not reached the six-year overall lifetime limit. Participation on a CE scheme is intended to be for a temporary fixed term. These placements are not full-time sustainable jobs. Participation limits are in place to ensure that as many unemployed people as possible can benefit from the scheme. My Department's priority in supporting work programmes is to provide access to good quality work experience and training qualifications to support the progression into employment of jobseekers and other vulnerable groups. The eligibility criterion for participation on a community employment scheme is kept under ongoing review to ensure the effectiveness of the scheme in targeting long-term unemployed jobseekers and other specific disadvantaged groups.

As for Moate community employment scheme, significant extensions of time were previously granted to each of the five community employment workers who completed their participation in the programme with the sponsoring organisation, Moate Heritage Company, on Friday, 23 March 2018. A total of 29 places are approved under the sponsor's current CE contract. As of 22 March 2018, 27 people were employed on the scheme. In the last two weeks, one new participant commenced on this scheme in an administrative role and another commenced work in a general operative role. The Department's midlands community employment service, CES, team and case officers maintain a strong focus on the urgent recruitment needs of Moate Heritage Company and ensure that the promotion of the benefits of participation in the scheme is highlighted at all meetings with eligible customers of the Department. The midlands CES team is also in regular contact with the sponsoring organisation in order that issues with recruitment can be given immediate attention.

The Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, has received representations on this issue from the Minister of State, Deputy Moran, Deputies Burke and Penrose and Senator McFadden, all of whom highlighted the needs of the Moate Heritage Company. The Department's midlands CES team and case officers will continue to attend to the urgent recruitment needs of Moate Heritage Company and will maintain regular contact with this sponsor in order to provide assistance with recruitment. I thank the Deputy for raising the matter as it is important that such issues are raised. I hope this clarifies the matter.

I regret it does not clarify the matter. I am well aware of the eligibility criteria for participation on the community employment scheme, which the Government changed a number of years ago. This change is having a devastating impact on community employment schemes. I am surprised that schemes in the Minister of State's constituency have not contacted him about the impact this change is having on their ability to attract participants to the scheme. The fact that a person might be no longer eligible to participate in a scheme does not mean he or she will find employment outside of it. As I said in my opening remarks, there are people who, because of their age and abilities, are unable to find mainstream employment. The work provided by community employment schemes is hugely rewarding for such people.

As I said, the change to the rules is having a devastating effect on communities. If it were not for the work undertaken by community employment schemes - social, cultural and environmental - towns and villages the length and breadth of the country would not be maintained in a pristine condition and many child care facilities would not be able to operate. The change is not working but the Government does not get it. I am delighted that my colleagues are bringing this issue to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty. I am bringing it to the attention of the Government on the floor of the House again today. Not only are the Minister and the Government not acting on these representations they are refusing to acknowledge that there is a problem.

My colleague will bring forward legislation this week that will ensure that there can be changes to the eligibility criteria. I hope that it will receive cross-party support. If the Government does not support it, Fianna Fáil will force it to make the changes needed to ensure the long-term viability of critical schemes like this.

I again thank Deputy Troy for raising this important issue and will make a number of points. First, the CE scheme operated by Moate Heritage Company is not terminating. I take the Deputy's point that these schemes provide valuable work. As I said in my initial response, there are 27 people on this particular scheme and they are making a positive contribution to their area. As I said earlier, a person in receipt of a disability payment is eligible for participation on a CE scheme for seven years, which is positive. I take the Deputy's point in regard to age, particularly those aged 55 and over. While the unemployment rate has decreased to 6%, we would like it to be at 3% because at that point we could tackle a lot of these issues.

In terms of my portfolio in the area of disabilities, there are 5,000 people with a disability on the wage subsidy scheme, WSS, under which the Government and the employing company each pay half the salary of the person with the disability. There are other initiatives under way in this space. On the Deputy's point on the need for reform, I will bring his concerns to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty.

The third matter has been deferred as the Minister is unavailable. Is the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, taking the fourth matter?

Is it agreed that the House suspend for five minutes? Agreed.

Sitting suspended at 5.08 p.m. and resumed at 5.13 p.m.

Hospital Staff

On 29 January last, I met the management of University Hospital Kerry. I did so after being contacted by staff members from various departments in the hospital, primarily with regard to morale being low and the lack of resources. I requested the meeting following numerous complaints. I wish to put it on the record that the staff in the hospital are excellent people. They do a fantastic job, as does the management. I met the new manager and I was very impressed by him. They do a fantastic job in very difficult circumstances. They are dedicated professionals who wish to provide the best services possible, but they are unable to do so due to chronic understaffing and a lack of resources.

They find their work environment extremely stressful, to the extent that some agency staff are refusing shifts in the accident and emergency department due to the severe and overwhelming workload there. I am also told that several members of staff are out of work due to stress-related illnesses, with more likely to follow. At the meeting, I was given assurances that workplace conditions are being addressed. The reality, however, is that the hospital is so under-resourced and the workplace conditions are so stressful that a serious injection of resources will be required to deal with the problems.

In the meantime, the cardiologist, Dr. Louis Keary, has resigned. The Department says he has tendered his resignation but has not resigned. However, I am informed that he has resigned his position at University Hospital Kerry. This means the hospital will be operating with just one part-time cardiologist tending to hundreds of heart patients. Dr. Keary was working in Bon Secours Hospital in Tralee and for two days per week in University Hospital Kerry. It is totally unacceptable that a hospital with a huge catchment area, comprising parts of west Limerick, parts of west Cork and the entire county of Kerry, does not have a full-time cardiologist. That is an indictment of the system. The Minister of State will be aware that there has recently been a review of the 46,235 scans carried out by a consultant radiologist who no longer works at the hospital.

An investigation of workplace practices is needed now more than ever. This must be dealt with. There must be an examination of the workload of consultants and staff at the hospital. We must ensure there are the facilities and resources to ensure the morale of the staff in the hospital is in a good place. That requires a proactive approach on the part of the Minister for Health and his Department to address the difficulties currently being experienced at University Hospital Kerry. I ask the Minister of State to speak with the Minister and the staff about this. It is something that can be resolved but there must be a political commitment to doing that. The people of Kerry appreciate the work done by the hospital and the staff but the Government, the Minister and the Department must step up to the plate and ensure that they get the resources they require and deserve.

I thank Deputy Ferris for raising the issue of staffing at University Hospital Kerry. I understand that the Deputy’s concerns relate, in particular, to the provision of cardiology services in the hospital, notwithstanding the wider issues he has raised. He specifically focused on that.

The cardiology department in University Hospital Kerry performs a variety of heart tests such as electrocardiograms, echocardiograms, stress testing, Holter and blood pressure monitoring and pacemaker checks. The current cardiology department staffing complement comprises one consultant cardiologist, one chief cardiology technician, two senior cardiology technicians, one basic grade cardiology technician and an electrocardiography, ECG, technician. From a nursing perspective, the department is supported by a cardiac rehabilitation co-ordinator and a cardiology staff nurse. Furthermore, the department is supported by a health care assistant and administration staff.

In terms of additional cardiology supports, the HSE has advised that over the past number of months two visiting consultants from the South/South West hospital group have commenced attending the hospital on a regular basis. One is scheduled on a weekly-fortnightly basis and the other is scheduled on a monthly basis. These two consultants run additional outpatient clinics with a view to reducing long waiting times for new patients. I understand from the HSE that these clinics are having a significant positive impact on waiting periods. The HSE has further advised that University Hospital Kerry also has links with the cardiology department at University Hospital Limerick. Consistent with the recommendations in the national acute medicine programme for model 3 hospitals such as University Hospital Kerry, patients with acute coronary syndrome are transferred to the primary coronary intervention centre in University Hospital Limerick. Cork University Hospital is the tertiary referral centre for more complex cardiology patients.

I am aware that there have been reports recently about the resignation of the cardiologist from University Hospital Kerry. The Minister, Deputy Harris, has been informed by the HSE that no formal resignations have been received in this regard. The HSE has further assured the Minister that if a formal resignation is received, the hospital will immediately seek to commence the process of recruiting a replacement and will seek to appoint a locum consultant cardiologist in the interim.

With regard to the recruitment of medical staff, in July 2013 a working group chaired by Professor Brian MacCraith, president of Dublin City University, was established to carry out a strategic review of medical training and career structure. The group made 25 recommendations relating to training and career pathways for doctors with a focus on improving graduate retention in the public health system and planning for future service needs. It is significant that, overall, the number of consultants has increased by 109 in the 12 months ending December 2017 to a total of 2,971 whole-time equivalents and by 415 in the four years since December 2013.

The Minister for Health is deeply committed to ensuring that we have the necessary resources in place at all times for the delivery of safe patient care, both at University Hospital Kerry and throughout the health services. On the recruitment of consultants in particular, the HSE has streamlined the approval process for consultant posts in our hospitals and, notwithstanding significant recruitment and retention challenges, considerable progress has been made in the past four years in growing the numbers of doctors in the public health services as additional resources have become available.

I find it difficult to understand how the HSE can say it received no formal resignation, yet it says it has a consultant on a weekly basis and another on a monthly basis treating cardiac patients in Kerry. My information is that a part-time cardiologist comes to the hospital for one day or perhaps two days per week. That is deemed to be sufficient despite the huge waiting lists in the hospital. That is not accurate. Another consultant is on a monthly basis. The Minister of State says they "run additional outpatient clinics with a view to reducing long waiting times for new patients". Somebody is being economical with the truth here. My information is that Dr. Keary has resigned and that nobody has replaced him. Somebody is coming from Cork once or twice a week in order to try to deal with the backlog.

It also says here that people can go to the hospitals in Limerick or Cork for treatment. We are talking here about a situation where a person with severe coronary attack has to travel by ambulance - if they are lucky enough to survive - and that journey is 65 miles one way and 80 miles another way. That is not acceptable in this day and age.

I will now turn to the issues regarding the accident and emergency department in the hospital in Kerry, which was raised in the House during this morning's discussion on promised legislation. People contacted my office at 3 a.m. and described that accident and emergency department as a war zone with so many people on hospital beds and so forth. At 4.45 a.m this morning, a great friend of mine passed away in a nursing home at the age of 90. Three weeks ago he had been on a trolley in the accident and emergency department in Tralee for more than 36 hours.

He was released but was back in again on a trolley a week later. The man was 90 years of age and passed away this morning. I am not saying that was the reason he passed away but it is not acceptable that we have people of that age-----

The Deputy is well over the time.

-----not being treated properly and by not having a cardiologist in that hospital.

I appreciate there is confusion around the current status of that situation. The HSE has informed me that no formal resignation has been received to date from the cardiologist in question in University Hospital Kerry. To avoid confusion, the purpose of the cardiologists who go there weekly, fortnightly and monthly is to deal with outpatient clinics and to reduce the waiting times, whereas the cardiologist who is permanently appointed to the hospital deals with the procedures within it.

Deputy Ferris spoke of people having to travel for treatment. That is just a medical decision and a clinical decision. When a patient is triaged and is deemed to require more complex coronary care, better care and more facilities are available in Cork University Hospital. This is why some people have to travel. I absolutely accept that this winter has presented difficulties and challenges to the emergency departments in hospitals and University Hospital Kerry is no exception. There was a significant increase in presentations at the hospital. I believe that 36,000 people presented at University Hospital Kerry this year. These increases are proving challenging. The increases are more than just demographic increases. There are more presentations to our emergency departments and it is quite a significant challenge. This winter has been no exception. The Government has taken a number of measures to try to alleviate this with funding. An allocation of €85 million was made, with €40 million allocated specifically for winter measures this year and an additional €11.6 million was allocated for waiting list initiatives such as opening new beds and transitional care beds. A total of 189 beds have been opened overall in the system but I appreciate there is a lot more to do. We will continue to work with, and keep the pressure on, the HSE try to alleviate those situations of which Deputy Ferris has spoken and in many hospitals across the country.