Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 28 Nov 2006

Vol. 185 No. 8

Adjournment Matters.

Rural Transport Services.

I am pleased the Cathaoirleach allowed me to raise this matter on the Adjournment. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, for coming to the House to reply to it.

I have a great interest in the rural transport initiative which has helped so many people around the country through the 33 or 34 schemes involved in it. We are lucky to have two schemes in Galway, one in south east Galway and one in north Connemara. These pilot schemes are due to finish at the end of this year and they will be permanently in place from next year. I hope more funding will be put in place for 2007 and that the schemes will be expanded.

In south east Galway, for example, the service allows people to shop or carry out other business in towns like Ballinasloe, Portumna, Loughrea and even to Athlone once a month. This is a most useful service. In addition to putting the scheme on a permanent basis next year, it should be expanded to allow people to access entertainment in the evening such as visits to restaurants, cinemas, public houses and other places of entertainment. The issue has been discussed at local level in County Galway. The county engineer held meetings with groups such as those that run the current pilot schemes. There is great interest in extending the scheme for the purposes I have already outlined. Getting people to and from places safely is an important aspect of the matter at a time when drinking and driving is a big concern.

I hope the Minister of State is in a position to announce extra funding at the same time as the extension of the scheme. It is important that such a scheme would be put in place, especially during the Christmas season and that extra funding would be provided for it when the permanent scheme commences.

I thank Senator Kitt for raising the issue of the rural transport initiative, which has become so popular in the 34 pilot scheme areas located throughout all but one of the Twenty-six Counties. The Department is funding the provision of public transport in rural areas through the initiative. It has been operating since 2002 to provide funding on a pilot basis for community transport groups to address the particular transport needs of rural area through the provision of local transport services.

The RTI is operational in virtually all counties and 34 community transport groups are currently being funded under the initiative. Some 75,000 RTI transport services were provided in 2005 and more than 650,000 passenger trips were recorded on these services. These projects provide public transport services for people in rural areas who otherwise would have no access to transport for shopping and accessing basic essential services. The RTI has changed the lives of so many people in rural Ireland. It has been very satisfying for me as Minister of State with responsibility for rural transport to visit many of the areas in various parts of the country from Cork to Donegal and see at first hand the importance of providing such a service in areas where no alternative service is available.

Pobal and the individual RTI groups are solely responsible for all the operational aspects of the RTI, including the specific services to be provided and their method of provision. Neither I nor the Department have any role in these matters. This has the great advantage that local communities decide the best service that should be made available to those in rural areas. They know best where the needs are and how they should be addressed. The Department is a mere facilitator.

We are in the final year of the National Development Plan 2000-2006, which has underpinned tremendous investment in an array of transport infrastructure measures. The media spotlight has often been on large-scale infrastructure projects, such as construction of new national roads or investment in rail and bus services, metro or Luas. From the start the national development plan took account of the need to address problems of social exclusion that are related to poor or non-existent public transport in certain rural areas across the country, areas with which we are all familiar in our various constituencies. This was particularly true where low population densities meant that commercial public transport services would not be available for obvious reasons.

Many people in rural areas were isolated in their communities and had difficulties in accessing basic services, such as medical appointments, or simply getting out to do the shopping and meet their friends. This was especially the case for older people and people with disabilities, though of course it applied to others as well. The initiative was piloted with a view to identifying ways and means that might help to address this issue.

Originally designed as a two-year pilot scheme to finish at the end of 2003, the RTI was extended to the end of 2004 to provide a fuller picture of the likely scale of the benefits that it could provide, and subsequently for a further two years to the end of 2006. This was done to build up a significant body of information and experience about the advantages of rural transport and the range of ways in which it could be provided.

We have all seen the tremendous benefits the RTI has brought to communities across the country, thanks to the efforts of the 34 projects funded under the initiative, and to those of Pobal. It has made a huge difference to the lives of thousands of people who would otherwise not have access to public transport services. This initiative can and does transform life for those who benefit. It is based on the sound principle that local people know best what transport services they need. The Government's role is one of facilitator, helping local communities to address their transport needs through financial and administrative support, while communities themselves take the lead in developing transport services to fulfil these needs. It is a bottom-up approach.

As Senator Kitt has stated, the pilot phase of the initiative will conclude at the end of this year and in line with Government announcements in the matter, preparations are being made to mainstream and put on a permanent footing the provision of rural transport from 2007 onwards. This work will be influenced by the undoubted success of the pilot RTI and the outcome of a recent public consultation process in the matter, which I announced in September and allowed a number of weeks in which the RTIs and others, whether individuals or groups, could make submissions. All the submissions have been received. I shall announce details of the mainstreaming of the initiative in a matter of weeks.

I assure the House that in developing proposals for a more permanent RTI, particular consideration is being given to the views of all those involved in the pilot phase of the RTI, especially passengers, operators and managers to establish how best the scheme can work from 2007 onwards. Also, in developing proposals for the post 2006 period, attention will be paid to the transport needs of rural communities that do not have access to public transport. As requested by Senator Kitt, it would not be possible to put the RTI on a permanent footing without increased funding and we are doing that.

My Department provided €3 million for the RTI in each of the years 2002, 2003 and 2004. An amount of €4.5 million was provided for the initiative in 2005 and funding of €5.1 million has

been provided for the RTI in 2006. This has resulted in an overall funding commitment of more than €18 million to the end of 2006 which compares very favourably with the €4.4 million originally provided for the RTI in the National Development Plan 2000-2006.

In parallel with the implementation of Transport 21, the Department's ten-year transport investment programme, my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, has announced that he will double the cash funding, based on the 2005 allocation of €5.1 million, available to the RTI by 2007 and that thereafter, he will steadily increase the funding available for rural transport services; ultimately to a cash level of approximately €20 million, four times the 2005 allocation. The Government's commitment to do this is reflected in Towards 2016, the new ten-year framework social partnership agreement.

In line with these commitments, the Government is to provide €9 million for the RTI in 2007. This funding will facilitate the transition of the RTI programme from the end of its pilot phase into the beginning of the mainstreaming process. In making specific allocations to the individual RTI project groups from this funding, I am anxious that Pobal should work closely with the existing groups to maximise the impact of the funding through, among other things, increased service provision and wider area coverage as well as ensuring continued value for money. The State got value for money in the investment of €15 million in the initial period.

It should be borne in mind that the RTI groups also benefit each year from funding provided by the Department of Social and Family Affairs arising from the application of the free travel scheme to the initiative. As requested by many individuals and groups during my travels, we will liaise with the Department on the mainstreaming of the initiative. Some RTI groups are also generating additional funds from the provision of transport services to the health boards and from other sources. I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. The provision of specific transport services under the RTI is the responsibility of the RTI groups in conjunction with Pobail, which is where it should remain. Those are the people who fully appreciate the services required in their own areas. We will continue to act as facilitators and to provide the necessary funds.

I welcome the €9 million allocated for next year. When will the individual groups know what funding they will get?

The €9 million will be for the main stream of the initiative. While we can give the groups an indication at an early stage, it cannot be conclusive until we decide on the pilot schemes. From knowledge of specific areas, I know extensions will take place. I also presume some areas not yet covered by the rural transport initiative will apply and will receive funding. It is not as simple as multiplying last year's allocation by the percentage of the increase from €5.2 million to €9 million. More detail is required. However, the Senator can take it there will be a seamless transition from 31 December to 1 January for those already on a pilot scheme. The others will require a lead-in time.

Home-School Liaison Scheme.

I apologise for my late arrival. I believed the previous business was to conclude at 8 o'clock.

My motion refers to the need for the Minister for Education and Science to rescind her decision to withdraw the home-school-community liaison scheme at St. Brigid's vocational school, Loughrea, County Galway, from September 2007. St. Brigid's vocational school is one of the largest rural vocational schools not just in the scheme in County Galway, but in rural Ireland. Over the years it has built up to become one of the best schools for all the positive reasons. It has a large annual intake across all academic ranges. It has some of the high flyers in leaving certificate results in addition to having many students with difficulties owing to special needs, or other social or family reasons. The students in the school have grown accustomed to a highly professional service by the liaison teacher. The idea of its withdrawal comes as a severe shock not only to the management of the school but also to the staff, parents and students.

With the pressures on so many students from both their academic studies and in some cases owing to difficulties at home and the community difficulties that may arise, we realise the importance of retaining this service in St. Brigid's vocational school. It is unfortunate that having been a tremendous school with very high achievers who have had fantastic results in the junior and leaving certificate examinations and with great support from within the community, it is now being punished and the service is being withdrawn. I ask the Minister of State to use her influence in the Department to prevent the service from being withdrawn from September 2007.

The home-school liaison co-ordinator works mainly with marginalised families where children are at risk and are not reaching their potential. At present the co-ordinator at St. Brigid's is supporting families with issues such as marital break-up, bereavement, suicide, family dysfunction, physical and psychiatric illnesses, and learning disability. The co-ordinator also works with the Traveller community and children from non-Irish national families. With all those in the one school community, we realise how great are the problems, added to which are the anti-social problems of bullying and other difficulties arising in education in modern society.

The tragedy is compounded by the fact that two adjoining schools, one in Woodford and one in Athenry are also losing the service. It appears as a complete withdrawal from those people. I ask the Minister of State to explain how the criteria for the provision of home-school liaison service are assessed. I understand considerations such as the numbers of parents with medical cards were included. The current situation is considerably more complex and the need should be assessed on an ongoing basis in order that the real problems can be addressed. This school has a liaison committee of the partners in education, the parents, teachers, gardaí and social workers. All these people involved in the community have combined to help in addressing the difficulties of students who find themselves falling back or ultimately dropping out. The endeavours of the school to retain students from first year to the leaving certificate have been a tremendous success. For all that success, the response it gets from the Department is negative with the withdrawal of the liaison teacher. It is unacceptable and I ask the Minister of State to use her influence to ensure this service will be continued beyond 2007.

On behalf of the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, I thank the Senator for raising this matter on the Adjournment. The home-school-community liaison, HSCL, scheme is a major mainstream preventative strategy targeted at pupils at risk of not reaching their potential in the educational system because of background characteristics which tend to affect adversely pupil attainment and school retention. The scheme is concerned with establishing partnership and collaboration between parents and teachers in the interests of children's learning. The guiding principles which underpin the HSCL scheme aim to target the causes of educational underachievement by focusing on the adults whose attitudes and behaviours affect the lives of the children.

Key to the ongoing success of the HSCL scheme is the dedication of HSCL personnel. Co-ordinators act not only as liaison between the schools, teachers, parents and communities but also as advocates of partnership and collaboration as well as drivers of the range of activities that the scheme supports.

Under DEIS, the new action plan for educational inclusion, which is being implemented by the Department of Education and Science, the Department recently announced the provision of 80 new posts to add to the 370 posts already in place to extend home-school-community liaison services to any of the DEIS schools that do not currently have the service. In addition, all schools, including the school to which the Senator has referred, which currently have HSCL service but which have not been included in DEIS, will continue to receive HSCL services after 2006-07.

HSCL services will continue to be provided to some 650 schools — 282 second level and 370 primary schools. However, following a full review of HSCL clustering arrangements by the Department in the coming year, levels of service may be varied in some schools to reflect their levels of disadvantage and size and to facilitate local HSCL co-ordinators working with families of disadvantaged children across both primary and second level. The total cost of the HSCL scheme in 2006 will be in the region of €22.5 million. In line with the Department's commitment to this scheme, the full year allocation will increase to almost €28 million in 2007. This represents an increase of almost 25%.

The entire rationale behind DEIS is to ensure the most disadvantaged schools benefit from all of the available supports. Targeting resources at the most disadvantaged schools that are working to counteract educational disadvantage will continue to be a priority for the Government.

Is the Minister of State indicating the home-school liaison service at the school in question will not be renewed after September 2007?

As already stated, all schools, including that to which the Senator refers, which currently have HSCL services but which have not been included under DEIS, will continue to receive such services after the 2006-07 year. I also stated that services will continue in a number of schools and that, following a full review of HSCL clustering arrangements by the Department in the coming year, levels of service may be varied in some schools to reflect their levels of disadvantage and size and to facilitate local HSCL provision.

Accident and Emergency Services.

I wish the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, Deputy de Valera, well in her pending retirement.

That matter is not relevant.

I understand she is retiring on Friday week and may not again come before the House in the interim.

The Senator should——

On my Adjournment matter——

Does the Senator wish to proceed or does he not wish to do so?

I am dealing with it now.

The Senator should do so now and not comment on any other matters.

This matter relates to the accident and emergency unit at St. Luke's Hospital, Kilkenny. The Minister for Health and Children visited the hospital last week and spoke about it leading the way and setting an example for other hospitals throughout the country. She is quoted as informing the Cabinet with regard to the latter. Unfortunately, the hospital is not receiving the rewards it deserves in some areas.

A new stroke unit was put in place at St. Luke's and a new dexa scanner has been also provided. This was achieved as a result of major fund-raising carried out by the Friends of St. Luke's Hospital, which is a voluntary group. I am aware a new outpatient department is being put in place and that there are plans to construct a new A&E unit next year. However, I contend the latter will not happen quickly enough.

The existing A&E unit at St. Luke's Hospital was formerly a laundry room and the fire exit has been blocked by the placing of a couch in front of it. The space provided is completely inadequate. I predict that somebody will be knocked down outside the unit and will find himself or herself being admitted as a patient there. This will happen as a result of deliveries being made to the A&E unit at the same time ambulances arrive there. The situation is extremely dangerous.

The Minister of State may indicate that something will be done next year or in two years' time in conjunction with the building of the outpatient department. However, this should be fast-tracked. It should not be forgotten that St. Luke's was snubbed in July 2005 when it was not allocated any funding out of €550 million provided under the capital programme. However, the decision in this regard was reversed because the Minister happened to visit the hospital on the day following its announcement and was embarrassed into rectifying the position by providing funding for the stroke unit.

The people of Carlow-Kilkenny deserve to have a proper, state-of-the-art A&E unit. God forbid that anyone should end up in the A&E unit because there could be eight or nine people — from priests performing the last rites to consultants, doctors and nurses — attending to them. At present, there is not enough space in the area to accommodate everyone.

Does the Government have plans to cater for the needs of Carlow, which does not have a general hospital? There was some discussion to the effect that a private hospital would be located there but progress in this regard appears to have stalled. If that private hospital proceeds, I hope an A&E department could be included on its campus.

The Minster of State visited Carlow town recently and witnessed the growth that has occurred there. Carlow is one of the fastest growing towns in the country and is almost as big as Kilkenny city. Perhaps Carlow and not Kilkenny should have city status because the former has two third level colleges while the latter has none. However, that is an argument for another day.

I ask the Minister of State to fast-track plans relating to the A&E unit at St. Luke's Hospital. Will he outline what Carlow, which does not have a general hospital, can expect in the way of the provision of A&E facilities there? I appreciate that an A&E unit cannot be put in place on its own and that back-up facilities are required. There is quite a good Caredoc service in the town. Such services were first put in place in Carlow and have been replicated throughout the country. I understand there is one, Shannondoc, in the Minister of State's constituency. However, something more than the Caredoc service is required in Carlow because St. Luke's Hospital is situated 30 minutes away. A facility is required to cater for emergency cases. For example, I am aware of a person who had to be driven to Kilkenny because she was choking on a rasher. Obviously, this was a terrifying experience for her and her family. The Minister of State referred to putting in place "in-between" facilities to cater for emergencies in towns such as Carlow. I look forward to his reply.

I am taking this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney.

The Health Service Executive has advised that the planning brief for all the building requirements at St. Luke's Hospital is complete. A design team has already completed the design and tendering for the new outpatient department. The team is currently reconciling the development control plan for the hospital with the design brief to ensure the new outpatient department will be consistent with the overall development plan for the St. Luke's site and to facilitate the upgrading of the existing accident and emergency department. The HSE expects that the development control plan will be finalised by the end of 2006.

Work on the new outpatient department is scheduled to commence within the next few weeks, with an agreed programme for completion of building works of 15 months. The HSE has informed the Department of Health and Children that, following the construction of the new outpatient department, the construction of a new A&E department is the top priority for St Luke's Hospital. The existing outpatient department will be used for expansion of the A&E department. A design team has been appointed and is preparing the necessary tender documentation to enable construction to commence in 2008.

The HSE operates eight hospital networks, with a total of 35 accident and emergency departments-minor injuries units. These are supported by a 24-7 ambulance service. In addition, GP out-of-hours services are in place to support the delivery of emergency care. The latest such service to be introduced is in north Dublin. It is commencing this evening and is due to be fully operational within the coming weeks.

St. Luke's Hospital provides acute services, including accident and emergency services, to the populations of counties Carlow and Kilkenny. The HSE provides a 24-hour ambulance service in County Carlow as part of this service. Carlow town was also the location of the first comprehensive on-duty out-of-hours general practitioner co-operative in Ireland.

I reiterate that construction will not commence until 2008. That is far too long to wait. I ask the Minister of State to intervene to see if the commencement date can be brought forward. The authorities at Wexford hospital invited television crews to film at its A&E unit and its redevelopment was fast-tracked as a result. However, St. Luke's appears to have been punished for playing by the rules. I appreciate what the Minister of State said in respect of the ambulance service provided in Carlow, which could be improved further. In addition, further outpatient clinics could be provided. We should be cognisant of the fact that Carlow town is growing rapidly and that its population has major needs.

I will communicate with the Minister regarding the Senator's suggestions.

The Seanad adjourned at 8 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 29 November 2006.