I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this matter on the Adjournment. Cuirim fáilte roimh an tAire agus ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a dhéanamh leis. I thank him for being here. I also compliment the Minister of State, Deputy Curran, on the excellent work he did in the Department.
As the Minister knows following his attendance at the Joint Committee on Arts, Sport, Tourism, Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs today, the debate on the drugs problem is ongoing and has been augmented by the growth of head shops which is reaching epidemic proportions in urban and rural communities which have been hit by the impact of the use of many drugs and the increasing influence of a polydrug culture. The growth of head shops has galvanised communities to such an extent that we have seen protest marches and petitions across the country. I welcome this campaigning mode of operation. In a series of reports theIrish Examiner has highlighted the growth of the illegal drug trade.
The national drugs strategy is the vehicle used by the Government to drive its response to the problem of illegal drugs. The pillars of the strategy are predicated on a Government commitment and funding. I understand the Minister is very committed to the strategy, as he was in his previous role as Minister of State. The Minister of State, Deputy Curran, was also committed to it. There is a fear, however, given the paralysis in the Exchequer finances, that funding will be cut and that there will a reduction in the allocation of resources to such an extent that there will be major implications for the service agreements with voluntary agencies and organisations. There is also a fear that grant aid and funding to organisations will be frozen completely and that this will have an impact on the services provided and the staffing levels of local drugs task forces and outreach programmes. I hope to liaise with the Minister on this issue. I refer to Fellowship House in Cork which for many years has been promised money which seems to be held in abeyance. The Minister has visited Fellowship House and Tabor Lodge in Cork, both of which are excellent service providers. The challenge faced by the Government, the Opposition and local communities is to reduce the supply and usage of drugs in communities. This will require leadership and action on the part of the Government and everyone else.
I have a number of questions for the Minister. I do not wish to be political, but the decision of the Cabinet or the Taoiseach — I am not sure who made it and I am open to correction — not to appoint a Minister with specific responsibility for the national drugs strategy, for which the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Curran, had responsibility, sends the wrong message. The Minister's brief covers the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs. His predecessor, Deputy Ó Cuív, had dedicated responsibility for the strategy which he would have driven forward. If there is to be no Minister with dedicated responsibility for tackling the drugs problem, it sends the wrong message. As I said at the meeting of the joint committee today, I accept completely the Minister's bona fides and do not want to be political, but we need to eliminate, as much as we can, the scourge of illegal drugs.
In an article inThe Sunday Tribune on 4 April its public affairs correspondent, Ken Foxe, noted that a drugs body had been left without a researcher owing to the freeze on recruitment in the public sector. How many posts remain unfilled across the network of programmes? How many such bodies have had their funding curtailed to the point where the services they offer have been diminished or staff have not been replaced? What impact will the freeze on recruitment have on such programmes?
The Minister spoke at the meeting of the joint committee about the launch of the drugs awareness campaign by the HSE. One of the best things done by the HSE and the Minister, in his previous role as Minister of State, was to engage in "The Party's Over" campaign which help to focus people's minds. I stand with him in promoting programmes in our schools. I participated in the Walk Tall programme and found it had major benefits.
I look forward to the Minister's reply and highlight, once again, that we do not have a Minister with dedicated responsibility for tackling the drugs problem.