National Drugs Strategy.

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.

I thank the Senator for his kind remarks. I will address the issues he has raised as best I can.

The strategic objective of the national drugs strategy 2009 to 2016 which, as everyone knows, was launched last year is "to continue to tackle the harm caused to individuals and society by the misuse of drugs through a concerted focus on the five pillars of supply reduction, prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and research". The strategy sets out Government policy on problem drug use and 63 actions — approximately half the number of actions which were included in the last strategy — are included for implementation in the period involved.

One of my concerns was that there was a wide and disparate range of objectives, some of which would be very difficult to achieve. The Government is fully committed to addressing the drugs problem and my appointment as Minister with direct responsibility will facilitate the implementation of the drugs strategy in a timely and co-ordinated fashion. Many have been campaigning for some time to have the Minister with responsibility for the drugs strategy a member of the Cabinet, an issue the Senator raised.

Today I met some of the groups which represent the community and voluntary sector. We discussed that issue. There will be greater coherence in the Department because the social inclusion remit of the old Department of Social and Family Affairs is being transferred to us, as is the Family Support Agency. The equality portfolio will also be transferred from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to my Department. Expertise and experience which we do not have will come in to the Department.

I look forward to an opportunity to explore how the issues of equality, inclusion and exclusion can be embedded as part of policy not just for the current Government but for future governments. The Senator will agree there has been a tendency for some issues to be treated in a silo fashion and while I agree the office of Minister for drugs was important, the unit remains. I would like to expand on what was in place. It is two years since I was in the Department but I have been struck by the depth and quality of work undertaken throughout the country, albeit with limited resources. In that context I want to establish how we can engage the broader expertise of the Department and other Departments. The Minister of State at my Department, Deputy Mary White, will work on this while, for example, the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy John Moloney, will be involved in the work of the Department in the mental health area.

I spoke at a family support network conference in Dublin Castle recently and mental health and bipolar disorder was raised in the context of the drugs issue. Rather than addressing issues in isolation, let us try to marry the available expertise. It is much better to have somebody at the Cabinet table every week fighting for resources for the Department rather than, with the best will in the world, having a Minister of State, a position I once held, coming in once or twice a year to make his or her pitch for resources. I assure the Senator I am as committed as ever to ensuring all elements of the national drugs strategy are implemented and I look forward to working with everybody over the next two years in that respect.

During my previous period as Minister for State with responsibility for this area, significant steps forward were made in the drugs area. From my experience at that time, I am familiar with the ongoing issues in terms of the drugs problem in communities and the initiatives being taken to address them. I acknowledge the excellent work done by my colleague, Deputy Curran, when he served as Minister of State, as he drove the finalisation of the National Drugs Strategy 2009-2016, the implementation of which is being pursued vigorously across a range of Departments and agencies.

A number of the actions in the strategy focus on co-ordination arrangements for its implementation, and some changes have been made to the institutional structures involved, including the establishment of an office of the Minister for drugs. These changes will streamline administration and facilitate more effective co-ordination and partnership. A drugs advisory group has been set up under the strategy, with membership from across the statutory, community and voluntary sectors. This group, which meets monthly and which I chair, advises me on operational matters relating to the national drugs strategy and oversees and supports the work of the drugs task forces.

An oversight forum on drugs, which I also chair, has also been established and meets every quarter. The primary role of the forum is the ongoing high level examination of progress across the strategy and addressing any operational difficulties and blockages that arise. The current structural arrangements in place to support the implementation of the strategy will provide the basis for more robust monitoring of progress. They will also provide a mechanism to identify blockages at an early stage, thus allowing any problems to be followed up. I am determined that progress will be made throughout the period of the strategy with all sectors working in a co-ordinated and targeted way to achieve the implementation of the agreed actions.

I was one of the main advocates of a combined approach to substance misuse, involving alcohol and illicit drugs. I very much welcomed the Government decision to prepare a national substance misuse strategy and I am committed, along with my colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, to bringing proposals for such a strategy to Government before the end of the year. I assure the Deputy of my commitment to press ahead with the implementation of the national drugs strategy and to support the timely finalisation and subsequent implementation of the national substance misuse strategy.

With regard to the vacancy to which the Senator referred, the national advisory committee on drugs, NACD, plays an important role in supporting the implementation of the national drugs strategy through the provision of advice to Government on problem drug use in regard to consequences, prevalence, prevention and treatment. It has a challenging work plan and research programme in place, including Drug Prevalence Survey: Drug Use in Ireland and Northern Ireland 2010/2011, Substance Misuse Rehabilitation Cohort Study, and research on head shops. In addition, the following projects are being finalised for publication: Risk and Protection Factors for Substance use among Young People, which is a comparative study of early school leavers and school attending students, and a drug markets study.

Delays arose in the filling of the research officer post in the NACD against the background of prevailing restrictions on recruitment. My officials have been pursuing this matter and it is intended that the post will be advertised in the coming weeks. There are two vacancies for co-ordinators of drugs task forces and it is anticipated they will be filled in due course. There is a slow roll-out of the employment of the rehabilitation co-ordinators, which was recommended in the famous drugs rehabilitation report which was published during my previous stint in the Department.

The Senator raised the issue of Fellowship House. I am aware of the good work done by that organisation and I hope in the next few months to visit the people running it, not just for the sake of visiting them but also to explore how I may be able to help them.

I thank the Minister for his reply. What is the timeframe for filling the rehabilitation co-ordinator posts? I welcome his commitment to visit Fellowship House and I hope he will expedite the grant payment and meet those involved.

With regard to the filling of the rehabilitation co-ordinator posts, I cannot give a precise date off the top of my head. Some of them are being rolled out but there will not be as many of them as recommended in the report. These will be built on over a period.