I note Deputies Ferris, Buckley and Ó Laoghaire are introducing this matter.
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Mental Health Services
The reply to a recent parliamentary question revealed there were 61 vacant psychiatric positions, including 13 in community healthcare organisation area 4, covering Cork and Kerry. Those positions were in child and adolescent psychiatry, the psychiatry of learning disabilities, the psychiatry of old age as well as general psychiatry.
Ireland has six consultant psychiatrists per 100,000 of population, just half the EU average. In area 4, covering Cork and Kerry, 1,191 young people are waiting more than three months for an assessment. That is a huge indictment on this Government. That is just for an initial assessment, many having been referred in the first place by their general practitioners. Children and adolescents from Kerry are having to try and access inpatient beds in Cork where there are not enough beds to cater for the number of children in crisis, which is resulting in children been admitted into adult wards in University Hospital Kerry. This situation cannot be allowed to persist. If a child or a young person needs care they will face an extended waiting period, which puts them and their mental health at serious risk.
We are focusing on the rising number of vacancies within the mental health service. I visited the Linn Dara unit during the summer. There have been problems there and also in the Cork child and adolescent mental health service, CAMHS, where services were either closed temporarily over the summer or have refused new referrals. Also, the ACCESS homeless mental health service in Dublin is not taking any more referrals.
The Government claimed on budget day that €84 million was being added to the mental health budget, but that turned out to be only €35 million in terms of new money, which is €20 million short of the €55 million that the Government promised. More than 37,000 children are waiting for their first assessment.
How many children are waiting, after their initial assessment, to go into one of the services, whether a disability or mental health service?
The overall picture for mental health and disability assessment is very poor with 37,000 waiting for a first assessment and 78% overdue. The Taoiseach tried to distract from that earlier by pointing to the Cork and Kerry CHO as a scapegoat, stating that he did not believe it was under-resourced. This debate is about the services being under-resourced and the issues relating to staffing. The Minister of State can go back to check the record if he wishes. The service is under-resourced for assessment and CAMHS. Some 60 or so psychiatrist posts are currently vacant and 13 or so of those are in the Cork and Kerry region. There are 3,720 applications for assessment, or 33% of the overall number, in the Cork and Kerry area. Some 1,192 have been waiting in the system for more than three months. With regard to CAMHS services in community health organisation, CHO, 4, the Cork and Kerry region has half the recommended number of consultant psychiatrists. Those statistics point to the reality and are important. This issue means that young people's potential is restricted because their education is denied to them or their lives and the quality of their lives are being put at risk due to a lack of mental health supports.
I thank the Deputies for raising this important issue and I will respond accordingly. I do not doubt their sincerity about the issue. I will respond to some of the figures they presented. As is widely acknowledged, there is currently an international shortage of consultants, especially for CAMHS. The Cork-Kerry CHO has established a CAMHS medical recruitment task force to review efforts to recruit and retain medical staff, led by the head of service for human resources. Every possible option is pursued in order to recruit consultant psychiatrists. That is accepted. Acknowledging the critical impact medical vacancies have on service provision, a dedicated medical manpower office has been appointed. Local management is working with 11 national and international agencies to source suitably qualified candidates. All options are being explored, including the provision of out of hours or weekend clinics by a consultant working elsewhere, along with the potential use of telemedicine solutions.
Some 2,453 children were on CAMHS waiting lists nationally at the end of September. Some 656 of these were in CHO 4. There has been a decrease nationally in children on the waiting list for longer than 12 months from 317 in August 2018 to 313 in September 2018. This decrease is reflected in CHO 4 with 174 children waiting in excess of 12 months in September, down from 183 in August. The recent budget saw the mental health allocation increase to nearly €1 billion, a clear indication of the importance placed by the Government on the mental health of the nation. This represents an increase of more than €245 million in the HSE's mental health budget since 2012. This has helped to fund a number of initiatives aimed at reducing demand on mental health services. It has also provided an extra 130 psychiatric nurse undergraduate places each year to come on-stream in 2020 and 2021. Some 40 postgraduate posts have been funded. Together with the recent appointment by the HSE of approximately 114 assistant psychologists and 20 psychologists into primary care, and ten advanced nurse practitioners directly into CAMHS, it is anticipated that these posts will help to reduce demand on CAMHS. The issues the Deputies raise are important and we have a problem with recruitment.
I do not doubt the Minister of State's sincerity and efforts to try to address the terrible deficit in our disability services and the resources available for that. The figures we have differ from the figures the Minister of State has presented here. These come from parliamentary questions. These figures tell us that CHO 4, which is Cork and Kerry, has 1,1192 patients who have been waiting for more than three months for an assessment. The programme for Government states that people with disabilities should be supported throughout their lives to maximise their potential by removing barriers. The promises made in the programme for Government have not been realised. This absolutely unacceptable staffing shortage in CAMHS should be addressed immediately but these promises remain unfulfilled. Will the Minister of State and his Government realise the promises they have already given and make them a reality?
I thank the Minister of State for his reply but unfortunately it does not offer much solace for the people who are suffering and their family members. To add to what Deputy Ferris said, the clinical work-time equivalent in the Cork and Kerry CHO area is lacking by 75%. How can anything be done when three quarters of it is missing? More worryingly, 656 children is too many. The Government has failed people within the mental health service, including patients, family members and staff. It has been a disaster. I was disappointed in the AV room last week when the Minister and HSE indicated what they were doing for mental health services. The first thing they mentioned was 75 CAMHS teams.
It is misinformation. I think there are three fully staffed CAMHS teams.
Thank you, Deputy.
How can things work if one cannot fill the staff vacancies?
Deputy Ó Laoghaire is on borrowed time.
The Acting Chairman interrupted Deputy Buckley before his time was up. He has been interrupting all his life.
The Deputy has my sympathy.
Even accepting the number the Minister of State has outlined, it is a scandalous situation. He is talking about 2,400 being on the list nationally with 656 of those in the Cork and Kerry area. That is only one area out of nine, yet it amounts to more than one fifth of the national list. Some 174 children and their families have been waiting for in excess of 12 months to be seen. That is extraordinary, no matter what context one puts it in. We have 50% of the recommended number of consultant psychiatrists for the Cork and Kerry area and it is having an impact. It impacts on the quality of people's lives. The lack of assessment restricts people's opportunities and potential. It is very distressing and difficult. There are families and children who are in extremely serious, distressing situations. The Government response has not been good enough for seven or eight years. The implementation of A Vision for Change is far short of where it should be. It is time the Government stepped up on mental health and started delivering.
I thank colleagues for raising this important issue. I point out that the substantial increase in mental health funding in recent years has helped to fund an extra 4.79 consultant psychiatrists in CHO 4 since 2016. I accept that there is a problem. The CHO has stated that there are 7.25 vacancies at consultant level in mental health. I accept that reality. Deputy Ferris has raised the issue of resources in CHO 4 and the 656 on the CAMHS waiting list. Dramatic action has to be taken on those figures. Deputy Buckley said 656 was too high and asked how we make things work. We make things work by recruiting staff and investing what is necessary. Deputy Ó Laoghaire made an important point about the need for progress on these issues. I am listening to the Deputy's arguments. Over the next week or two, we will do the Estimates for the HSE for 2019. I have prioritised assessment of needs and this issue is in my top five requests, along with emergency places, residential places and personal assistance hours. When I am divvying up the €1.8 billion that we are spending this year on disability services, I will demand action on these issues.
Of course, I have been listening to colleagues in Cork and Kerry in recent months, and Deputy Brassil knows this as well. I am very conscious of the fact there are issues in these areas and we need action on them. I will try to do something about it.
Home Help Service
I thank the Office of the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this issue for debate. Had the HSE agreed and implemented what it said it would there would be no need for me to raise this particular issue. I have discussed it with numerous staff in Kerry, and the issue relates in particular to the Cork and Kerry region where little or no progress has been made on implementation of the agreement.
As part of the agreement, from now on home help workers will be referred to as healthcare support assistants. On 1 October, I asked the Minister for Health the status of the provision of new contracts to HSE home help staff, the timeline for completion and whether he is satisfied with the progress on it. I received a very comprehensive reply. I was told the contracts for home help staff are being rolled out, rostering arrangements will be put in place and the work will be completed by March 2019. I remind the Minister of State the agreement was put in place under the auspices of the WRC through engagement between SIPTU and the HSE. The key provisions of the arrangements are that there will be an increase in contracted hours for more than 90% of the home support staff if they choose to accept the HSE's offer, there will be a change in title from home help worker to healthcare support assistants to better reflect the nature of the service being provided, rostered arrangements will be introduced to give staff greater certainty regarding their hours of attendance, with travel time factored into these arrangements, and there will be an assignment of work bases.
Unfortunately, as of last week, little or no progress had been made, which forced the union to ballot staff members on strike action and an overwhelming majority of members voted in favour. I understand some progress was made late last week on foot of this and further commitments have been made. I understand the strike action has been put on hold subject to last Friday's agreement being implemented.
There has been some progress throughout the country but not enough. As I represent the Kerry region, and this reflects specifically the Cork and Kerry region, I ask the Minister of State to give me a commitment for once and for all that the WRC agreement will be implemented in full and the outstanding issues will be resolved, which will give healthcare support assistants the necessary terms and conditions they deserve. As the Minister of State knows, they provide an invaluable service in their communities and without them the already strained healthcare system would be further undermined.
I thank Deputy Brassil for raising this very important issue and I am happy to clarify the position. By way of background, in April 2014, following a Labour Court recommendation, the HSE implemented new contracts for its directly employed home help staff. These contracts provided each home help with a guaranteed minimum number of hours per week and a guaranteed income each week with work assignments managed in a reasonable way to meet the needs of clients over the course of 12 months. This new contract was regarded by staff unions and management as a positive development for HSE-employed home helps.
More recently, in 2017, the HSE engaged with SIPTU under a WRC conciliation to review current home help staff contracts. This review was provided for in the 2014 home help agreement. The aim was to ensure that contracted arrangements reflect the needs of the service, to maximise contracted hours for HSE directly employed staff and to take further steps towards professionalising the home support service. The agreement under the auspices of the WRC will provide for an increase in contracted hours for more than 90% of home support staff if they choose to accept the HSE offers; a change of title from home help worker to healthcare support assistant to better reflect the nature of the services being provided; the introduction of rostered arrangements to give staff greater certainty regarding their hours of attendance, with travel time factored into these arrangements; the assignment of work bases; and a requirement that all new home help staff should possess, on recruitment, the minimum qualification equivalent to a relevant QQI approved major award at level 5 or higher.
While this agreement involves home help staff who are represented by SIPTU, the agreement will also have implications for the direct line managers of home help staff, the home help co-ordinators. These co-ordinators are represented by Fórsa. In particular, I understand the co-ordinators are concerned about the impact of this new contract on their role and responsibilities. I understand the HSE has met Fórsa at national level regarding the co-ordinators' concerns about the impact of the home help contract review and the HSE has made a number of proposals to address their concerns. These include the introduction of an IT system to assist in the production of rosters and an examination of the role and function of the home help co-ordinators under the clerical and administration job evaluation scheme. A review of the structure and supports of the role was also proposed. I understand that Fórsa has agreed to these proposals. I am advised that there was a specific issue relating to CHO 4 with regard to briefing sessions for staff of the home help services getting under way. However, these have since been resolved and the HSE has informed me that these briefings are to commence this week.
The reply of the Minister of State is almost identical to the reply I received on 1 October but, unfortunately, no progress has been made. Hence the ballot for strike action took place. It is ironic that the last line of the Minister of State's reply states he has been advised there was a specific issue relating to CHO 4, which is the Cork and Kerry area, and these issues have since been resolved by the HSE. They might be resolved in the minds of the HSE but they are certainly not resolved in the minds of the healthcare support assistants. This is why I am raising the issue in a Topical Issue debate.
I will point out again the key issues that need to be resolved. No contracts have been offered to the healthcare support assistants as yet. There is no recognition of travelling time. No rostering is in place and the Organisation of Working Time Act is being continually broken. We are asking people to work under conditions that break the Organisation of Working Time Act which, in my opinion, is unsafe and unfair. There has been no evaluation of their hours. As I have stated, no break time is given and they are entitled to break time as is every worker. I plead with the Minister of State for once and for all. These people provide an invaluable service to our health system. Rather than the HSE giving the Minister of State assurances that things are in place when, in fact, they are not, will he follow this up and make sure the HSE does what it has promised to do and implement what is a WRC recommendation?
The Deputy raised five key points relating to the contracts, travel time, rostering, the Organisation of Working Time Act being breached and the evaluation of hours. Of course, I will follow up on them and find out the latest position. I accept the Deputy's point that home helps provide an invaluable service to the most vulnerable members of our community, enabling the elderly and those suffering from chronic bad illnesses to remain in their homes and feel comfortable, safe and valued. There is no difference between us in this regard.
Since 2017, the HSE has engaged with SIPTU under a WRC conciliation process to review home help staff contracts. This review was provided for under the 2014 agreement. Understandably, home help co-ordinators who are represented by Fórsa - which is part of the problem - are concerned about the impact of the new agreement on their role and responsibilities. I welcome the fact that all parties are working together to progress matters and there has been ongoing engagement with Fórsa in this regard. I believe the proposals that have been put forward by the HSE to Fórsa, which have been accepted, will assist in allaying these concerns and ensuring that new contracts can be agreed and rolled out. However, I will bring the Deputy's concerns about the contracts, travel time, rostering, breaches of the Organisation of Working Time Act and the evaluation of the hours to the attention of the Minister.
Local Authority Funding
The matter being raised my colleagues and I is the urgent need to provide adequate funding and resources to both local authorities in Galway. I will not voice my opinion but refer to the interim reports from the expert group whose recommendation on the amalgamation of the authorities the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, accepted, although he failed to examine the recommendations to increase staffing and resources, which are a prerequisite before doing anything else. The report in June 2017 refers to the local authorities being significantly under-resourced and resources being significantly reduced by between 20% and 35% from 2008 levels. The April 2018 interim report of the expert advisory group has only nine pages but attention is repeatedly called to the underfunding. It states: "We believe it is now all the more urgent..." and refers to underfunding of Galway local authorities in comparison with other local authorities. It recommends "that the existing deficiencies in respect of both the human and financial resources be expeditiously resolved as an essential prerequisite to the amalgamation process", on page 3. On page 9, the expert group highlights that based on the evidence considered by the group "the current level of human and financial resources available to both Galway City and County Councils falls short...".
There are many more such instances. The Minister of State should leave my opinion out of this and acknowledge what the expert group is saying in the review.
In the peripheral areas and municipal districts in County Galway, which Deputies Ó Cuív and Eugene Murphy represent along with me, there is a great shortage of staff. Second, there is a shortage of funding. This has a knock-on effect. I thank the Minister of State for the meeting last week but there is fear in the rural areas on the periphery. Galway borders probably six counties and there is a feeling of being left out in those areas. Galway has one twentieth of the roads in Ireland and we must ensure proper funding is provided both for Galway County Council and outside it so services can be delivered to those areas as soon as possible.
The stark nature of the funding is outlined in the report of the expert advisory group set up by the Government. It says that if the city and county councils are amalgamated the average funding will be €738 per capita as compared to €1,000 per capita currently. That means that Galway will be €300 multiplied by approximately 300,000 short every year. I will let the Minister of State do the basic mathematics.
The letter provided with the executive summary at the beginning of the report states that the amalgamation the group recommends must be preceded by addressing the deficiencies in both human and financial resources noted by it. We are asking the Minister of State to follow what is in his report and sort out the money. We will talk about the other issues again.
I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. Deputy Connolly was probably attending the Committee of Public Accounts meeting last week when the Galway Deputies, and some strays from Roscommon, attended a meeting about the Local Government Bill 2018. It particularly focused on funding but also dealt with other issues. I have held this office for a little more than a year and the funding measures relating to Galway County Council have been raised on many occasions by Members of both Houses.
The funding system that applies to local authorities is complex, as authorities derive their income from a variety of sources, including commercial rates, charges for goods and services and funding from the Government. Local authorities vary significantly in size, population, public service demands and infrastructure. It is not possible to compare absolute levels of funding received in local authority areas as to do so would not take account of the significant differences between them. Government funding of local authorities similarly presents a complex picture, with transfers coming from a wide range of Departments and offices and not solely from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. Most of the funding sourced from the Government and provided to local authorities must be used for specified purposes and services. In 2017, funding from Government sources to local authorities totalled more than €2.66 billion.
My Department has a wide agenda, including the targeted provision of a range of necessary housing supports. To deliver on this agenda, the Department allocates significant resources to local authorities and channels local property tax receipts to those authorities, the use of which is largely at the discretion of individual authorities. Funding from the Department to Galway City Council totalled €18.6 million in 2016, €25.7 million in 2017 and €22.3 million to date in 2018. In the case of Galway County Council, a total of €71.8 million was provided in 2016, €86.2 million was provided in 2017 and €87.8 million has been provided to date in 2018. This must be recognised as significant funding. I work closely with all local authorities to ensure the local government sector generally, and local authorities individually, have the financial wherewithal to meet existing and emerging challenges. In doing so, I must operate within the parameters of the national fiscal and budgetary situation and competing priorities.
Local property tax, LPT, payments replaced general purpose grants in 2015. The role of local authorities in deciding the local adjustment factor for LPT, up to 15% annually, is vital. The decision provides an important connection between local revenue raising and local expenditure. While Galway County Council increased the LPT by 10% for 2018, by not doing so for 2019 the council has forgone €2 million of additional revenue for 2019. The adoption of a balanced budget is probably the single most important duty that the elected members are called upon to carry out each year. To achieve that balance, the members must make informed and necessary choices to balance the level of service provision with the available income, prioritising as necessary. Galway City Council adopted its budget for 2019 last week and the county council is scheduled to hold its budget meeting next Friday.
A review was established to examine local authority baseline funding more generally and to develop a methodology for distributing any available additional funding to achieve a greater balance and equity of funding outcomes. This work is almost complete and I will provide further information in due course. Separately, the expert advisory group on local government arrangements in Galway, in its report in April this year, recommended that ahead of the amalgamation of Galway city and county councils existing deficiencies in respect of both human and financial resources be expeditiously resolved as an essential prerequisite to the amalgamation process. Both the city and county chief executives participated in the group and endorsed its recommendations. My Department is currently engaged with Galway County Council with regard to additional funding, which was discussed at the meeting last week, and will continue to engage constructively in that process over the coming weeks.
I welcome constructive engagement at any level but at this stage we need action. It was the Government's own expert group and it is acting on a recommendation that asked for a transition director. It did not ask for a joint CEO. The Minister of State is acting on that but he is not acting on the clear findings that both local authorities have been significantly underfunded since 2008. As public representatives, we are in receipt of constant representations on this matter.
I put it to the Minister of State that the report quite clearly says the amalgamation "must be preceded by the addressing of the existing deficiency in respect of both the human and financial resources..." as noted by the group. The chairman made it clear what he meant when he said "the relative revenue underfunding must be addressed in the first instance". The report states that we are €70 million short every year and recommends that this issue be addressed first, and then we can talk about the rest.
As other Deputies pointed out, the serious gap in funding has been acknowledged in this report. People are reasonable and, in fairness to them, every Deputy here is reasonable. This is the one thing we need and it must be worked on. We cannot put the cart before the horse. We have to make sure that we do this right. Galway deserves to be treated well. There are three counties on the bottom of the scale and Galway is one of them. With regard to the Bill, and for the benefit of trying to get agreement with everyone, the funding is the first issue that must be addressed. We need to get this sorted. The funding was the major problem for many years. The Deputies here are willing to work with the Minister of State, but that has to be done.
Deputy Connolly and other Deputies referred to staff numbers. I believe the Deputy quoted a reduction of between 20% and 30% in staff numbers in the Galway councils since 2008. There is not a local authority in the State that has not had a 20% reduction in staff members since 2008. There might be an issue in Galway about the increase in numbers since, such as in the last year or two. I do not have those figures on projected increases in staff numbers but I will try to ascertain them. The local authority sector was decimated by the downturn as funding was decreased. The recruitment embargo in the public sector also had a huge effect on local authorities across the State, not least in Galway.
The proposal to have a joint chief executive stems completely from what happened in similar merges in Tipperary, Limerick and Waterford. The first step in the process, before the merger had even begun, was to appoint a joint chief executive. We will endeavour, with the Oireachtas Members who represent Galway and with the Galway councils' management, to ensure there is a cash injection for Galway on the basis of reform. The discretionary fund that is available to anyone in my position is tiny. Despite the fact local government annual budgets amount to anywhere in the region of €4 billion, discretionary funds for the Ministers are very small and are ring-fenced for advancing reform in the local government sector.
I acknowledge that Galway's municipal district structure is weaker because the funding issue has been an overhang for years. I put it to Deputy Ó Cuív that it was an overhang when he was in government also, and it was not resolved. It did not just appear in recent years. It has been exacerbated by the downturn, which exacerbated everything with regard to funding. I acknowledge and accept that in order for a merger to happen the funding issue has to be addressed. We will address it by short-term funding in Galway and by the adjustments to the baseline. The fundamental problem in Galway is the baseline figure. The model that is used currently has 100 individual variables. Shortly we will propose a much more streamlined baseline calculation mechanism for local government funding.
Direct Provision System
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, for coming to the Chamber this evening to deal with this Topical Issue matter. We might have a difference of opinion at times but the Minister of State engages quite a lot. We also had a scenario with the centre in Ballaghadereen some time back.
This Topical Issue matter concerns a centre, which I accept is a direct provision centre, on the Leitrim side. It is not in the Roscommon-Galway constituency. Deputy Fitzmaurice and I represent the Roosky area and much of the village is in County Roscommon. I am not here with any flowery presentation for the Minister of State or to make a glossy speech. I am here to talk facts. I acknowledge we need to accept the agreements into which Ireland has entered to take in asylum seekers and to make their lives an bit better, and I fully pledge my support in that regard. However, the method by which it is being done in many parts of the State is causing grave concern. People should not be locked away in direct provision centres for seven, eight or ten years as I heard one lady say last night on the television.
Whether one is on the Leitrim or Roscommon side of Roosky, and Deputy Fitzmaurice will be aware of this, it is the veil of secrecy that surrounded this news that is really annoying the local community. This community is rebuilding its village. This community has many foreign nationals living in it who are treated like everyone else in the village. It is unacceptable to me and the other public representatives in the area to suggest bringing in 80 plus people to live in a hotel there, increasing the population by at least 15% where there is not the proper infrastructure, jobs or public transport to cater for them.
We have to change the way we deal with direct provision. The way it is being dealt with is not good enough. I am sure the Government also recognises that there will have to be improvements in the way the matter is dealt with. We need to have more consultation with local people. It is really annoying to think that there was such a lack of consultation with the local community in this case. Were the teachers in the school spoken to? Were the local doctors spoken to? Was there any talk about reopening the health centre that was closed in the last 12 or 18 months? No, there was not. That is not good enough.
I consider the communities I represent in Roosky and other places in the Roscommon-Galway constituency as mature communities and I am sure the representatives on the Sligo-Leitrim side also feel the same. These people would like to be told what might be happening in their community. I consider them to be intelligent people who certainly would not turn a blind eye to people in need. The manner in which Government is dealing with this is unacceptable.
I accept the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, is a decent individual who always picks up the phone to people when they make representations on issues. Why were the people of Roosky not informed of this? Why was there no consultation? Why was there no engagement with the schools or the doctors? I asked for a meeting last week for the public representatives from Roscommon-Galway and Sligo-Leitrim, which was granted, but it now seems to have gone off the agenda. Why were the people in the community not met, as they requested? I will give the Minister of State an opportunity to answer those questions.
I thank Deputy Eugene Murphy for raising this important topic. I also acknowledge his interest and support in Ballaghadereen previously and his sincerity in this regard. It is important to set out for the record and for public awareness the chain of events that led to this development. In January and again in September of this year, the Reception and Integration Agency of my Department published a call in the national press for expressions of interest for premises to meet the increasing demand for accommodation for persons in the protection process, known as asylum seekers. This call sought expressions of interest from parties who may be interested in providing accommodation and related services on an urgent and emergency basis. This was issued in response to the urgent and unforeseen demand for accommodation and related services from those persons arriving in the State seeking international protection.
The criteria against which the Department assessed the offers of accommodation were availability, standard of property, ability to provide communal social spaces for residents, ability to cater at mealtimes and proximity to various other services.
It should be noted that these premises were offered to the Department by individual contractors across the country. The Department did not randomly choose any one location over another location. The owners of the properties came forward and offered them.
Following on-site assessments carried out by staff of the Department, the Shannon Key West Hotel in Roosky, County Leitrim, was deemed to be a suitable premises for the needs of the Department. The premises will be available following refurbishment, is capable of providing meals to residents, has scope to provide the required communal social areas required by residents and is located close to other services. My Department has engaged with the chief executive officer of Leitrim County Council and has provided the elected members of the council with information regarding the opening of the new accommodation centre.
As with every other accommodation centre in the country, my Department works closely with the HSE, the Departments of Education and Skills and Employment Affairs and Social Protection and all other relevant Departments and agencies to co-ordinate the delivery of State services to residents.
The Shannon Key West Hotel will provide accommodation and ancillary services for approximately 80 asylum seekers for one year, pending compliance with all regulatory requirements. The indicative timeline for the opening of the centre is within the next six weeks. I understand there are other legal issues involved at the moment; that is one of the reasons our meeting did not go ahead at this time. As I have indicated, this centre is opening on an emergency and time-limited basis. To meet the accommodation needs in the longer term, the Department has recently commenced a public procurement exercise under which public tenders for the provision of accommodation and ancillary services by way of the independent living model, to persons in the protection process, will be advertised. This process is scheduled to continue throughout 2019 and is scheduled for completion in 2020. This will be delivered via a series of regional competitions to cover the entire State.
As soon as it was known that an agreement was possible, people were notified straight away. Prior to that, it could be that an agreement would not be possible. As soon as it was known, people were notified. I also wish to stress again that this is on an emergency and time-limited basis. The alternative is for people to be on the streets. We are also working hard using the McMahon report and others to improve and upgrade the standard of accommodation throughout the country; 98% of the recommendations in the McMahon report have been fulfilled. The Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children also can visit all these centres to take complaints. We are in the process at the moment in co-operation with the NGOs of putting together a series of standards to upgrade things even further. As well as that, we have decreased the amount of time people are staying in these centres quite a bit. People are offered accommodation; they are not locked away. They can come and go as they wish. It is not as described by the Deputy.
The term "locked away" might not be appropriate but if I was an asylum seeker waiting ten years for my case to be adjudicated on and I was confined to a small area in a hotel, I would certainly call it being locked away. The Minister of State knows if all our families were put together in a small space, how long we would stay sane in it. That is one part of the argument.
He has answered the second part. He has spoken about communications with the Department of Education and Skills and other Departments. My information comes from speaking to the medical and educational people. There certainly was no communication with the people. There was no communication with the community. What is wrong with the Government that it cannot come and talk to people? Does it think people are foolish? They are human beings. I have a significant issue with direct provision. I have said it before and will say again that it is legalised people trafficking.
It is not. That is terrible.
I cannot understand, when the Department was offered the Shannon Key West Hotel in Roosky, how the officials did not know about the legal situation or why they would push this on a village that does not have the infrastructure or the facilities. Nothing has been delivered in that village over many years. I ask the Minister of State again to say when Mr. Banks will meet Oireachtas Members from Roscommon-Galway and Sligo-Leitrim. When are the community leaders going to be invited to a meeting with him as was promised? I was promised both of those meetings. I know the Minister of State is a sincere man and that he delivers. I want those questions answered this evening and I want proper engagement with the community. I do not want this veil of secrecy around such announcements. It is not the way to go. I totally reject the way direct provision is being handled. Initially when it was brought in, the intention was to move people on within three to six months. That has gone out the window at this stage. Maybe the Minister of State can give me some answers.
I will do the best I can. A lot of people criticise direct provision, but we have made significant improvements in the system over the past number of years and continue to do so. That has to be acknowledged. We have shortened the time people live in the centres and we move them on as quickly as we can. Either they are told their application has not succeeded and they must leave, or they are told they can stay and we try to get accommodation for them. Some 60,000 people have benefitted from that over recent years. People can come and go as they wish. I have outlined the services that are available. I have yet to see a better alternative. If the Deputy has one, he might tell me what it is. I would be delighted to sit down with him for as long as it takes to learn about it.
To meet our obligations as set out in the EU directive, which lays down standards for the reception of persons seeking international protection, and which was transposed into Irish law as the European Communities (Reception Conditions) Regulations 2018, the State must have available sufficient accommodation to meet the demands of persons in the protection process. Due to significant demand, my Department has sought to identify additional accommodation by publishing expressions of interest in the national press, as the current accommodation portfolio will not meet the demand. In response to that expression of interest, the premises in Roosky and elsewhere were offered to the Department by the owner. As with all our accommodation centres, whether located in rural or urban areas, my Department will work closely with all relevant State agencies such as the HSE and the Department of Education and Skills to make sure the residents get what they need. All contractors are obliged to meet the reasonable transport needs of residents and so on. The contractor in each centre is also required to set up a friends of the centre group. There are 37 such centres around the country and they are all working well. I am sure Roosky will be no different. The friends of the centre groups were recommended by the McMahon report to facilitate linkages between the residents and the local community and to encourage integration and inclusion. My Department worked closely with this group to achieve these aims. That is happening all over the country and is going very well.
With respect to the other questions the Deputy asked, there is no difficulty whatsoever meeting Oireachtas Members. As he will be aware, there is a question mark over this centre at the moment and until that is resolved, it would be better for us to hold on and see what will happen. As soon as that is resolved, I have no difficulty meeting the Deputy and his colleagues at any time and place to answer any questions they may have.