Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Defence Forces Medical Services

This is in response to one of many parliamentary questions I submitted in the last month. The question was to ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence:

the number of suicides recorded among members of the Defence Forces in the past three years, respectively; if no number is recorded, his plans to compile such information on members' health; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

The reply I got was surprising and not surprising at the same time. It reads:

I am advised by the military authorities that the Defence Forces are not in a position to provide the information requested in relation to death by suicide. All sudden deaths must be reported to the relevant Coroner's Office. It is a matter for the Coroner to decide whether a post mortem should be conducted and to determine the cause of death.

Before we go any further, I have asked members of the Defence Forces the same question and the answer seemed to be very different. For example, the answer to the above question is "Yes, they are." The Defence Forces clearly know how many people have killed themselves, especially when done in Defence Forces barracks. For example, if a soldier shoots himself or herself in a guard or duty room, this is clearly a suicide, but the Defence Forces would record the death as an "ND", which is a negligent discharge. There is some kind of cover-up here. The information I received states that there have been four suicides in the Defence Forces recently. I have also been informed in a parliamentary question that an independent strictly confidential 24-hour careline manned by trained counsellors is available to all. My witnesses said they have never heard of it.

It has been well highlighted in the last year that members of our Defence Forces have and are still being treated very badly. Wages are very poor, with some serving members actually relying on the family income supplement. Others are sleeping in cars because they cannot afford fuel for transport to get home. The Air Corps is another major issue. Its members are overworked and it is understaffed. It is also known that certain chemicals that the members have to work with are leading to major health problems. There is a higher than average number of suicides in this section. We have followed up on information received on Lariam and I have raised it with two separate Ministers here. This problem has not gone away. I have been informed that members of the Defence Forces are still receiving this. One of the first things I want is confirmation about whether this is entirely true or entirely untrue.

I am here to answer Deputy Buckley's questions on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe. I am conscious that he has asked a few more questions that were not flagged and I am afraid I will not have details of them. I will do my best to answer the questions he previously flagged would be asked.

We are not in a position to comment on the number of deaths as a result of suicide within the Defence Forces as this information is not recorded by the military authorities. All sudden deaths must be reported to the relevant coroner's office. It is then a matter for the coroner to decide whether a post mortem should be conducted and to determine the cause of death. However, I can assure the Deputy that the health and welfare of the men and women of the Defence Forces is a high priority of the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, who has responsibility for defence and his Department. Mental health supports are part of a range of medical and non-medical services provided to ensure that Defence Forces personnel are medically fit to undertake the duties assigned to them.

Medical mental health services available to personnel include access to clinical psychology and psychiatry services. The psychology service assesses, diagnoses, treats and advises on strategies to prevent mental health disorders. Psychiatry services specialise in the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. There are currently two clinical psychologists employed by the Defence Forces. Psychiatry services were until recently provided in-house by a military psychiatrist. This position is currently vacant, with interim services being provided through a combination of external public and private services. However, efforts are continuing to recruit a full-time psychiatrist to provide an in-house service. This is proving to be challenging in the context of a nationwide and indeed worldwide shortage of trained psychiatrists. It must be stressed that there is no delay in referring patients requiring immediate psychiatric care or assessment.

In addition to these clinical supports, non-medical mental health services are provided by the Defence Forces personnel support service. The Defence Forces personnel support service provides a welfare, information, psychosocial support and referral service to serving members of the Defence Forces and their families. The service is delivered through a network of military barrack personnel support service officers and civilian occupational social workers. This network of professionals is prepared to provide immediate help to service personnel and their families in a routine environment or at a time of crisis. This assistance can range from the simple provision of information to counselling or, if required, signposting and referral to specialist help and assistance. Furthermore, the assistance may include psychosocial support, including counselling, information and assistance services on a variety of issues such as relationships, general finances, addiction, retirement including pensions and gratuities, housing, taxation and PRSI and much more.

The Department of Defence funds a confidential counselling, referral and support service for serving members of the Defence Forces, civilian employees and Civil Defence volunteers. The service provides confidential counselling on a wide range of personal and work-related issues, including but not limited to health, relationships, addiction, financial, bereavement, stress, conflict, critical incident and trauma. In the case of relationship counselling, the spouse or partner may also attend the counselling sessions. A freephone confidential helpline is available 24-7, 365 days a year. The helpline is staffed by fully-trained and experienced counsellors. The helpline provides for referral to appointment-based telephone or face-to-face counselling. Deputy Pat Buckley said that number is not available. I doubt that is the case and will put this on the Dáil record. If it needs to be promoted more or advertised more, we can look at that, but I am confident, if it is written here, to say on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, that it is true.

Deputy Buckley said that he has confidential information. Maybe he might share that with the Minister of State at an appropriate time. I am sure he would be open to that. The Deputy raised a number of issues that he says have been brought to his attention but I get the impression that they have not been brought to the Minister of State's attention. If the Deputy has information of a very serious nature, there are appropriate channels to deal with it and I recommend that he brings it forward. From what I know, the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, is always open to hear all these stories and would be concerned on behalf of his forces and would act on that.

The Defence Forces are fully alert in relation to suicide awareness and prevention, issues of depression and other mental health issues among its personnel.

This is particularly important given the nature of their role and potential access to firearms and weapons. As outlined previously, the Defence Forces, through its personnel support services, PSS, and working closely with the HSE, engages in extensive suicide awareness and mental health education programmes for all members of the Defence Forces. While the Minister is satisfied that the available services offer comprehensive supports to Defence Forces members, I can assure the Deputy that they are kept under constant review.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy English, for the reply. As I said, the purpose of this Topical Issue matter is to flag what is not happening but should be happening. I will give the perfect example. A document I have to hand states that the Defence Forces, through the PSS, engage in extensive suicide awareness and education programmes for all members of the Defence Forces and that these programmes include an information guide on mental health and well-being in the Defence Forces. The response to that is posters are stuck up around the barracks but are never permanent. The programmes also include issuing Defence Forces guidelines on suicide. The response to that is that it is done rarely during initial training and members must attend but thereafter, it is not a requirement due to the stigma of mental health. As for running courses on suicide and self-harm, the response is the same as above. In respect of providing a mental health fitness programme within the Defence Forces, members are allowed to participate in training because they must train if they want to pass their mandatory annual test. On the provision of wellness recovery action plan, WRAP, training, members say they have never heard of it. As for the programmes in which skills training on risk management, STORM, and risk assessment and suicidal self-harm mitigation training for overseas units are conducted, they have been classed as a box-ticking exercise undertaken by an officer. On the provision of applied suicide intervention skills training, ASIST, in conjunction with the HSE, the response was they have never heard of it nor have they heard of the HSE coming to any barracks. The perception in this regard is that this training may be for senior rank staff only. As for conducting safeTALK training, the response from members was that this is done on recruitment and in initial training. In respect of the provision of critical incident stress management training and the issuing of a booklet entitled Defence Forces Suicide and Self-Harm Prevention, it is acknowledged that this is correct but that it is being handed out like a menu. These are the programmes the Defence Forces state they provide. I reiterate this is not an attack on the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, because a lot of people are not being informed.

I hope that I have painted a clear picture of the grave situation within our Defence Forces. Despite the claim that the Defence Forces are doing everything right, the witnesses' testimonies I have outlined make clear that they are at a disadvantage because members of the Defence Forces are afraid to use many of these services. This is because they fear they will be downgraded straight away, will never get an opportunity for promotion or participation on courses or overseas duties and may face being forced out and left feeling hopeless. This is the general feeling among many serving and former members. I tabled this matter because I believe the members of our Defence Forces should be respected for the job they do. I believe they are being victimised when it comes to speaking out and admitting they are severely stressed at times. This issue needs to be re-examined.

I again thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I regret he does not paint a clear picture. The Deputy referenced responses but I do not know who gave them. If the Deputy has information, I urge him to engage with the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, and to share it with him in order that his concerns can be addressed through the appropriate channels. As I said, I am not sure if the Deputy is referencing responses from one person or a number of people. I accept he is raising serious issues but I urge him to seek to have them addressed through the appropriate channels. The Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, is an open Minister who is concerned for Defence Forces personnel.

I accept that.

I am glad to hear that. I again urge the Deputy to engage with the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, on the issue.

As outlined previously, the Defence Forces are fully alert in respect of suicide awareness and prevention, issues of depression and other mental health issues among their personnel. As already mentioned, I am not in a position to comment on the number of deaths as a result of suicide within the Defence Forces, as this information is not recorded by the military authorities. All sudden deaths must be reported to the relevant coroner’s office. It is then a matter for the coroner to decide whether a post mortem should be conducted and to determine the cause of death.

I reiterate that a range of mental health supports is available to personnel. The Department of Defence is continuing in its efforts to secure a dedicated Defence Forces psychiatrist and has implemented a number of interim measures until such time as this process has been concluded, including authorisation for the referral of cases to local external private psychiatrists or outpatient treatment where deemed appropriate. However, it should be noted that there is a nationwide shortage of trained psychiatrists as evidenced by the number of HSE vacancies. I am informed that the NHS in Britain has similar difficulties and it has been suggested that there is a worldwide shortage of consultant psychiatrists. The difficulty with recruitment is, therefore, not unique to the Defence Forces, but it is an issue they take seriously.

While the Minister is satisfied that the range of mental health services provided to the Defence Forces, including access to psychiatry, psychology and counselling services, is comprehensive, I assure the Deputy that they are kept under constant review. I hope that in this day and age, people feel it is open to them to avail of these services and that they do not feel they cannot be seen to avail of them. I think we have moved on in that regard and thankfully we have a much more open conversation in this space, and rightly so. If there are any doubts in that regard, the Deputy should discuss it with the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, because he would not be happy if that were the case.

I will certainly take up the matter with the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe.

Road Safety

The most dangerous section of the N22, with the worst safety record, is the section between Ballincollig and Macroom, in particular in respect of people turning right on the road. There have been numerous accidents and many fatalities on this section. I ask the Minister, Deputy Ross, to follow up with Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, on what action can be taken to make the N22 safer for people joining or exiting it between Ballincollig and Macroom. There are similar issues further west but the bypass of Macroom will address them. Each day, up to 23,000 vehicles exit Macroom onto the N22, with thousands more joining it from Ballincollig. There is considerable difficulty for people who, for example, wish to turn right at Kilcondy or into Cloghduff or Castlemore because they must sit exposed in the middle of a straight section of the road on which there is very fast traffic. Action must be taken in this regard. These issues have been highlighted repeatedly by councillors, including Gobnait Moynihan and various other public representatives.

In addition, the R585 is a key access route for west Cork. It brings a lot of traffic through Cappeen and on to Crookstown before joining the N22 at Stage Cross and at Castlemore. That traffic gets stuck queuing while trying to turn right onto the road to go on towards Cork. It is very frustrating for drivers and often someone will take a chance, which is dangerous on that road. Some of that traffic, instead of going out onto the N22, will go back over the local road through Cloghduff, Aherla and Killumney, thereby putting further pressure on traffic levels going through those villages. This junction needs to be improved. As the county council owns all of the land surrounding the junction, I ask the Minister to raise with TII the possibility of having a roundabout at that junction to make it much safer. As the road surface is failing, some work must be undertaken there soon anyway.

There is another issue further east on the Ballincollig bypass at the off-ramps at Poulavone and Greenfields. Every evening, there is traffic queuing for several hundreds of metres along that road and the hard shoulder while alongside them, there is traffic heading westwards at 120 km/h. This is highly dangerous and people are concerned. The possibility of providing an extra lane at the Ballincollig bypass needs to be examined. I ask the Minister to follow up with TII how the section of the road between Ballincollig and Macroom can be made safer for people joining and exiting the N22. It is the most dangerous section of the N22. Unfortunately, there have been many accidents and fatalities at this junction and every effort must be made to make it safer.

I thank Deputy Moynihan for raising this important subject. It is a matter of life and death which makes it vital and very relevant. As Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport I have responsibility for overall policy and funding relating to the national roads programme. The planning, design and implementation of individual national road projects is a matter for Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, under the Roads Acts 1993 to 2015 in conjunction with the local authorities concerned.

Ireland has just under 100,000 km of road in its network and the maintenance and improvement of national, regional and local roads place a substantial financial burden on local authorities and on the Exchequer. Due to the national financial position, there were very large reductions in Exchequer funding available for roads expenditure after the financial crisis. The building on recovery capital plan for 2016 to 2021 and the capital plan review allocations mark a significant step forward in terms of restoring funding to the levels needed to maintain the road network in a steady state condition and to allow for investment in road improvement schemes.

Within its capital budget, the assessment and prioritisation of individual projects is a matter in the first instance for TII in accordance with section 19 of the Roads Act 1993. Minor improvement schemes were included in the road safety strategy. TII is maintaining an ongoing rolling programme of minor projects. To date, 42 minor schemes have been completed. Available funding has allowed TII to maintain delivery on a minimum of four schemes each year and to prepare additional schemes on an ongoing basis. TII advises me that the authority envisages continuing to undertake a minimum of four schemes a year.

I understand from TII that on the section of the N22 to which the Deputy refers, one accident site has been identified at Castlemore through the HD 15 process. The HD 15 process involves the recording of accident clusters and the identification of locations where accident statistics are above average. The local authority has been notified of this accident location and has been requested to prepare a feasibility report suggesting appropriate interventions to improve safety. Once prepared, it will be submitted to TII for consideration for an appropriate course of action and possible funding. On receipt of an acceptable feasibility report, funding may be provided by TII for any work required to improve safety on the national road, including this junction.

As the Deputy has referred to traffic to and from local and regional roads to the N22, the improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads in Cork is the statutory responsibility of Cork County Council, in accordance with the provisions of section 13 of the Roads Act 1993. Works on those roads are funded from the council’s resources supplemented by State road grants. The initial selection and prioritisation of works to be funded are also matters for the council. Cork County Council has the authority to provide traffic calming measures on roads in its charge.

There are many competing demands across the system but overall we are moving in the right direction. TII and local authorities will continue to maintain a focus on network safety.

I acknowledge the Minister's remarks about Castlemore Cross. It is known as one of the more dangerous sections of the road so it is good that there is a plan to progress matters there. However, many other sections of the road must be addressed. The low cost safety schemes, as the name suggests, are small-scale, but bigger solutions are required in the different areas I identified for the Minister. One example is the traffic queues on the Ballincollig bypass off-ramp. Dealing with that will require a much bigger scale job and large-scale funding. If there is to be an extra lane or if works are to be carried out the Minister needs to highlight that to TII.

Stage Cross on the western end will also be much more expensive than the small-scale works but it would offer far more safety on the road. The TII should examine that. Perhaps the Minister could raise with TII the possibility of building a roundabout there. The land is already owned by the county council. A large fleet of traffic travels through there from west Cork as it is the main access route for west Cork. It is very difficult and dangerous at that point. The Kilconly junction immediately adjacent to it has been highlighted repeatedly to TII. It could offer the opportunity of a solution. There must be an overall examination of the section of road between Ballincollig and Macroom by the TII to see the issues that could be dealt with. Perhaps TII could conduct a complete review of the road to make it safer and report back on that. I would appreciate if the Minister would raise that with TII and impress on the organisation the large number of injuries, accidents and, unfortunately, fatalities that have occurred on the road and ask it to address that.

Could the Deputy provide me with detailed statistics on where the accidents have happened on that road, particularly fatalities and collisions? I will be delighted to pass them on. Obviously, the TII already has some details because it has identified one place at Castlemore and will be acting on that. If what the Deputy said is true, it is very worrying. If he can provide some additional statistics on the road I will be happy to address that.

Elimination is impossible but the Government is committed to further dramatic reduction in the number of deaths and collisions on our roads. We will do everything we can to tackle this tragic problem. The TII is only one part of that equation and it is doing very good work in identifying black spots, which will be part of saving lives. I have introduced legislation on drunk driving which I hope has helped and I intend to introduce further legislation on speeding. Those are the two principal killers on our roads. I hope that will add to the reduction in the loss of life that occurred last year. The numbers we have for this year are down again but not down enough. They will never be down enough.

If the Deputy has identified an area which is prone to accidents for various reasons I will be happy to raise it with TII and pass on any information the Deputy gives me, not just from this debate but if he has additional information as well. That would be very helpful.

I will make that available.

Autism Support Services

The Galway Autism Partnership is in danger of closure in the new year. We attended a very emotional but factual meeting at the end of November when the partnership pointed out that it is a charity with one full-time worker and two part-time workers. It is utterly reliant on voluntary workers. It provides community support in the form of camps and clubs to over 203 families. It serves individuals, children and adults with autism. Those families cannot survive without these services. That was made crystal clear to us. It is interesting that 53% of the referrals to the service are from State-funded agencies. The HSE and Tusla are referring people to the Galway Autism Partnership while it is trying to survive on a shoestring budget, fund-raising and charity.

This simply cannot continue. We are due to have a meeting with the HSE tomorrow and I hope there will be a positive outcome. The partnership applied for funding under section 39 but was refused. To offer an example, there are millions of euro sitting dormant in various dormant accounts, including in the Department of Health. I would not raise a matter at this time on a Thursday night unless it was urgent. We need intervention on this matter so this essential service can continue in the new year.

I support my colleague regarding the Galway Autism Partnership. It is a community charity. In many cases voluntary bodies that receive State money provide very good value for that money.

They often collect money also. Given the whole ethos of volunteerism behind the partnership, it gives a very good service. When considering this particular organisation, we must understand the nature of autism and the challenges faced by parents. These are 24/7 challenges. The Galway Autism Partnership, GAP, facilitates connection and supports with the parents. We are talking about 3,545 hours of special interest clubs, camps and community events. While these supports are important for children who do not have autism, they are hugely important in the case of autistic children. The partnership also provides parent and carer support groups in several locations in Galway city and county, and it provides many other services, way too many to mention in the few minutes we have here.

A parent wrote to me:

I am a parent, carer and usually therapist for my children because my children do not get meaningful health services. The frontline staff does their best in the HSE, but they are under-resourced, doing an impossible job with a consistent lack of resources.

The reality is that the supports needed by parents and their autistic children are not being given. GAP is fulfilling a very important role in providing those services, but it needs money. As my colleague said, on the one hand they are refused section 39 finding and on the other hand, we know that €150 million of Dormant Accounts Fund money is lying dormant and unused by the Government, part of which was to be given to people with a disability. This money, which arose out of the DIRT inquiry, was to be given for the purpose of helping community groups not for funding of State services. I ask that the Minister of State would make representation to his colleagues to do something urgent about this case because if we do not do it now, we might find that after Christmas we have no service in Galway.

On behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, I thank Deputies Connolly and Ó Cuív for raising the issue of funding for Galway Autism Partnership, GAP. The Minister of State sends his apologies. He wanted to be here but with the way things went today, he could not make it so I will give the reply on his behalf.

The Galway Autism Partnership, which was established in 2011, provides a range of activities and supports for children and young adults with autism spectrum disorder in the Galway area. The organisation is actively involved in peer and family support, providing information and advocacy, creating opportunities for social engagement as well as participation in education and training. The partnership provides talks on autism and support services for siblings and parents of children and young adults with autism spectrum disorder. They certainly do great and valuable work that is endorsed by Deputies Connolly and Ó Cuív.

The HSE recognises the important support that Galway Autism Partnership provides to people with autism and to their families and loved ones. While the HSE does not provide core funding to the partnership, the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, understands that in 2017, it was awarded €5,000 in HSE national lottery funding for the facilitation of summer camps for children aged three to 18 years of age living with autism. In 2018 it received funding of €8,800, including €5,000 through the national lottery small grants scheme, which is administered through the HSE and the balance through a grant under section 39 of the Health Act 2004.

I understand that at the partnership’s request, a meeting was held recently with senior management from the HSE’s social care division to discuss the organisation’s funding requirements for next year and that a further meeting with the HSE, and including public representatives such as the Deputies, is scheduled for later this week. I believe this has been confirmed for tomorrow.

Deputies will be aware the HSE’s national service plan for 2019 has not yet been published. Pending publication of the plan, it would not be appropriate for the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, to comment on specific funding requests at this time. The Government remains committed to providing services and supports for people with disabilities, which will empower them to live independent lives, providing them with greater independence in accessing the services they choose and enhancing their ability to tailor the supports required to meet their needs and plan their lives.

Deputies may be aware that last week, my colleague, the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, published two reports on autism - a report on the prevalence of autism in Ireland carried out by the Department of Health, and a review by the HSE of the services available for people with autism. The review identities key priorities for implementation by HSE including: the establishment of a programme board tasked with implementing the recommendations in the report; the development of a programme of awareness raising; and guidance to clinicians and service development. The Minister, Deputy Harris, asked the HSE to proceed with the implementation of the recommendations in their report and this commitment will be reflected in the HSE national service plan for 2019 and will form part of an overall autism plan to be published next year.

Deputies Connolly and Ó Cuív have asked me to bring a message back to the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, which I certainly will. I will make sure he gets the information but he is well aware of the situation and of the meeting that is happening tomorrow. Hopefully, they will be able to enlighten the Deputies and GAP, with more information at that meeting.

I do not doubt the Minister of State's bona fides but I find his answer disappointing. We are going to a meeting tomorrow that came about as a result of a public meeting and serious pressure. The message from the health executives is that they have no money. We need a more positive message for a group on the ground that is saving the State money with the hours the partnership provides, which is more than 4,000. Services in Galway for people with autism are simply appalling. Only this week I dealt with a person with autism who was expelled from school. He was told to go to the child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, but it had no service for him. He was told to go to occupational therapy, but it also had no services for him. He was told to go to Athenry for services, but I have a letter that tells me there is a more than a three year waiting list there. Parallel with this situation, GAP is on the ground providing a service on a shoestring budget and saving the State money. It is simply asking for support so it can continue to help people with autism to live as independently as possible. That is all we are asking for. In the absence of the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, who should be here, I ask that the Minister of State, Deputy English, take a hands-on approach in this matter. At the very least, the partnership needs hope and practical help.

I know the Minister of State, Deputy English, is just here to pass on the message and that he has no direct responsibility, but the message follows the normal pattern. Three quarters of it explains what we know already and then we get to the meat of it, but really there is no meat there.

One of the more shocking things the Minister of State said is that the 2019 HSE national service plan has not yet been published. This is now 13 December and 2019 begins on 1 January but we have no plan yet from the HSE. We know that once we get the plan, it has to all trickle down to the bottom line. This is just bad administration. We are then told that there are studies going on. To be honest, parents do not want studies, they just want GAP to continue doing what it does with a small amount of money. I do not see anywhere in the reference to action in the Minister of State's reply that gives me hope, such as the human service provided by GAP. There is no evidence in the Minister of State's response of the very things the parents and children want, and which they have begged us to give to them, which are the supports and somebody to telephone when a child or parent is down and feeling low or challenged. I hate to have to say that.

Will the Minister of State, Deputy English, bring the message back that Galway wants this voluntary service that has been run on a shoestring? The partnership will continue to run on a shoestring but will the Department give it enough money to keep it open?

I thank Deputies Connolly and Ó Cuív for raising the issue and on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, I apologise for him not being here. I will certainly bring back the message. He acknowledges the hard work and dedication of the volunteers in the Galway Autism Partnership, who have worked diligently over the years to deliver important and vitally needed supports for people with autism and their families. There is the meeting tomorrow and I am sure there will be other meetings. The Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, would, obviously, like a positive outcome to that because we want to see that good work continue there. While the Minister of State is not in a position to comment on funding for specific organisations at this time, he wants to assure the Deputies that the Government and the HSE are committed to improving autism services and this work is well under way.

Deputy Ó Cuív referred to the HSE national service plan for 2019.

The Deputy is right that it has not been published yet. It is December. That situation is quite normal because the budget was only announced in October. While the Deputy says it has to trickle down, much of the work that features in the HSE budget plan trickles up as well. It comes with recommendations and requests from each county and local area for the funding they require for each service. That is put into that national plan as well, so it works in two ways. There is consultation in the offing. I have a meeting tomorrow which is very timely because this plan will be finalised in the very near future. An important part of the HSE's future work on this will be the implementation of the recommendations of the HSE review group, which is a report that the Minister, Deputy Harris, will have asked to be carried out and implemented over the last year. The Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, is particularly pleased that individuals with a lived experience of autism will take part in this process. Publication of the review report and the HSE's implementation of its recommendations over the coming year mark significant milestones in advancing services for people with autism in Ireland. I think we would all agree that the service is not where we would like it to be but we have to put a plan in place to get there and that is something the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, are driving. The services have not been there for a long time.

The plan is there but there is just no money.

Again, I am stating that this is what the Minister and the Minister of State want to do. Health funding has increased in the past two years. There was a significant increase in this year's budget. Each year, we are in a better position to provide services and, hopefully, to improve them, although I am conscious that there are also increased demands on those services. For a long number of years, the service was not funded properly and the desire of both Ministers is certainly to improve that situation and to fund it where they can to create a better and enhanced service. They also desire to work with the voluntary sector. The Deputies are absolutely right that voluntary organisations provide excellent work and give great value for taxpayers' money when they do get funding. That is well recognised and hopefully tomorrow's meeting will be fruitful in that regard.

Urban Development

I thank the Office of the Ceann Comhairle for affording me this further opportunity to raise the issue of the development of the town centre in Naas, County Kildare, which has been stalled for approximately ten years. Suffice it to say that many gallons of water have passed under many bridges since I first raised this issue. I was initially informed that it was about to be resolved. A great deal of work has been done with a view to bringing the issue to a conclusion. The reason it has taken up so much of our time is that it was a landmark site in the centre of the town. For many of the ten years in question, we had two cranes hanging over the town like two albatrosses waiting for something to happen. Thankfully, the cranes were removed in the past few months and at least that part of the problem - the constant reminder of what needed to be done - is gone. I know that considerable work is going on all the time and that all public representatives have tried to ensure that the matter is expedited.

The Minister with responsibility in this area is unable to be here tonight but I hope he has been able to supply his stand-in with more information for us. I am informed that there is information available locally. I have been involved in attempting to push the issue further along and to bring it to a position whereby we can say as we approach a new year that at last we have put that behind us and can welcome the new year on the grounds that we have turned a new leaf and can see rapid progress taking place. I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to reply. I would hope that the niggling outstanding issues such as rights of way, way-leaves and arbitration have been resolved. If they have not, they should be. There is no excuse for somebody attempting to tell me in six or eight months that we are still waiting for a resolution in that area and that maybe the property in question should be sold on with a flawed title. The answer to that is "No". Enough time has passed and enough interest has been expressed in the issue to facilitate a satisfactory conclusion and a hopeful turn as we await the new year.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. He has raised it repeatedly in the House over the past couple of years, and rightly so. It is very important that the Naas town centre development be progressed. Naas town centre is a vital piece of infrastructure serving the region. It is important that we have a very attractive town that functions well and can provide services to the growing population of the area. I recognise Deputy Durkan's drive and his eagerness to see this long-standing issue relating to this development being brought to a satisfactory resolution. The Deputy has been constantly pushing and raising this matter both formally in the Chamber and also in meetings with myself and other Ministers and officials. He is taking a leading role in having it resolved. I understand this is the third or fourth time we are discussing it here in a formal capacity.

As I have mentioned in previous debates on the issue, however, the management of the stalled development is a matter mainly for Kildare County Council in the first instance, although certainly my Department officials have been in a supportive role and have helped where called upon in the attempts to resolve this. Furthermore, with processes under way involving both NAMA and arbitration, it would be entirely inappropriate for either the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government or me as a Minister of State to become involved directly in this issue. It would not be appropriate for any Minister in the Department with responsibility for planning matters to make representations on this issue, as Deputy Durkan understands, because under section 30 of the Planning and Development Act, the Minister is precluded from exercising any power or control in respect of any particular case with which a planning authority or An Bord Pleanála is or may be involved, except in very specific and extreme circumstances which do not apply in this case, as Kildare County Council is trying to work through this.

The Deputy is well aware that the hearing of evidence in the High Court in regard to a land title issue on Corban’s Lane, which adjoins the proposed Town Centre, was completed earlier this year and that the relevant judgment is now awaited. Consequently, the arbitration hearing on the land involved cannot recommence until the High Court land title case is resolved. Nevertheless, I am informed that Kildare County Council continues to engage in advanced discussions with NAMA and the receivers in an attempt to ensure that a satisfactory sale of the site in question will come about In this regard, the council has confirmed that it will brief all relevant Oireachtas and municipal district members as soon as there is progress to report. Hopefully, that will be very soon.

As has been outlined to the House in previous parliamentary debates on this topic, subject to a satisfactory planning approval there is no impediment to the appropriate development of the site once the legal issues have been resolved. Kildare County Council fully acknowledges and recognises the strategic importance of the site in the heart of Naas town and continues to support and work in partnership with any stakeholders involved in the site. It is right that they take that leading role. In the past couple of years, the council has initiated and supported a number of projects with the strategic objective of ensuring that the social and economic development of Naas is protected and enhanced. This work is underpinned by the work of the Naas roads and transport steering group, the URBACT group and the Naas regeneration group.

Kildare County Council has also received approval from the National Transport Authority to prepare a traffic management study for Naas, which will form one element of a strategic social and economic plan for Naas and will be instrumental in ensuring good access to the town centre development when it is eventually progressed and completed, which I hope will be very soon.

While I know that the Deputy is utterly frustrated by the length of time it is taking to get this matter resolved arising from the various High Court and arbitration deliberations, I can assure him that the local authority is doing all it can within the parameters of its role and having regard to the difficult circumstances faced. In this connection, we must recognise the due processes that are necessary in respect of the receivership, etc., but I am very hopeful that the relevant issues will be resolved in due course to facilitate the completion of this strategic Naas town centre site.

I welcome the Minister of State's response. It gives me hope. The only thing that worries me is that one can say "Live horse and you will get grass" in many of these situations. We have done this before. A major issue was to get an anchor tenant to suit the location and a great deal of work has been done on that. It is to be hoped that has concluded satisfactorily at this stage. It should be. I am a little concerned that we still have two outstanding matters, one in respect of arbitration and the other in respect of the High Court, each of which can affect the other. It is very frustrating to find after two, three, four or five years that we are still addressing the issue that was the kernel of the problem initially. It is no harm to point out that Naas was and is a very busy and important trading town in the province of Leinster, drawing in a population from a wide catchment area.

I know the Minister of State is aware of this. It is a major blow to any town to have a derelict or semi-derelict site right in the middle of it because it gives of a bad impression. It automatically makes one wonder why something is not happening about this. I raised this question previously and I know the Minister of State is conscious that it is time to do something about it. I have raised it once again at this stage in the sincere hope that we do not have to come back to the issue any time soon and that there will be some breakthrough as a result of which we will see action so that at long last the issue that has damned the area for so long will be resolved.

I cannot understand why issues of that nature hold up a major development for so long. I believe we need legislative changes to ensure those kinds of things do not happen in the future. They do not happen anywhere else and should not happen in this country. Notwithstanding that, I am hopeful that what the Minister of State has said tonight will bear fruit in the very near future.

I fully accept the Deputy’s desire that this long-running matter, which is an unfortunate legacy of our recent economic recession and is impacting on the further development of Naas, should be progressed and completed as soon as is practicably possible so that the ever-expanding town of Naas can achieve its full potential. Under Project Ireland 2040 we have set out high ambition for Naas. I know that Kildare County Council and Deputy Durkan have ambitions for Naas and we want it to be able to achieve that. Naas is a very important urban settlement in the context of the greater Dublin area and as such has been identified as a key town in the draft regional strategy for the Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly area.

As I indicated earlier, it would be inappropriate for the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, or I to become involved or to make any further comment on the town centre development while a number of processes are ongoing. In any event, as I have already outlined, the law precludes us from becoming involved in specific planning cases. I do not have a role in the specifics of the arbitration process either.

As the Deputy will be aware, when a State authority compulsorily acquires land for public purposes and there is a dispute between the vendor and the purchaser regarding the amount of compensation which should be paid, the vendor can apply to the Land Values Reference Committee for the appointment of a property arbitrator to arbitrate on the amount to be paid. Property arbitrators are appointed under the Property Values (Arbitration and Appeals) Act 1960 by the Land Values Reference Committee and all property arbitrations are required by law to be held in public.

The appointment of property arbitrators is a matter for the Land Values Reference Committee. However, I do understand the frustration of Deputy Durkan regarding the arbitration-related delays that have been encountered with this project.

Kildare County Council continues to engage in advanced discussions with NAMA and the receiver in an attempt to secure a satisfactory sale of the site in question. I am hopeful that there will be a speedy and positive resolution of the issue in the near future once the outstanding legal issues have been finally resolved.

The Deputy is right. We certainly do not want to have prominent derelict sites like this. They do not help in trying to drive forward a town. They serve to remind us of a past - albeit quite recent - from which most people want to move on. Such derelict sites bring many other difficulties. Through Project Ireland 2040 funds have been provided to allow local authorities take a lead in tackling dereliction and vacancy. In many cases it is dereliction of commercial and retail property, but it may apply to properties that could be available for housing projects as well. We are urging local authorities to take a lead role in this. Kildare County Council has taken on board that message. There are various avenues of funding to help move that forward.

As Minister of State with responsibility for urban development, I want to tackle dereliction. We will strengthen the powers of local authorities to be able to deal with this in many cases. I urge them to continue their leading role.