Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 13 Feb 2013

Vol. 221 No. 2

Adjournment Matters

Hospital Services

I raise the issue of Bandon Community Hospital and acknowledge the tremendous work done by our former Seanad colleague Peter Callanan over many years in trying to resolve the issue.

Bandon Community Hospital is a single storey building dating back to 1929. It is run by the HSE and has undergone some renovations and modifications over the years. The facility and staff provide respite and palliative care for 22 elderly people of mixed dependency. The hospital serves the people of Bandon town and the wider community, covering a 12 to 15 mile radius ranging from as far as Clonakilty to Kinsale and therefore serves a community of approximately 33,000 people. A private nursing home in the area closed at the end of January last year which was a huge loss to the area. The hospital has a number of bedroom units and has only four single bed units.

For the past 25 years the issue of Bandon Community Hospital being extended to cater for an ever increasing and dependent population has been discussed and a sequence of events has followed. In 2004 the final draft of the proposal sent by the hospital was eventually agreed by the Southern Health Board and in 2005 and 2006 it was deemed a priority. In December 2006 a design for the extension was prepared and in May 2006, almost seven years ago, the allocation of the funds for the extension were granted to the HSE. In 2007-08 the design was finalised and planning permission was applied for to build the extension in June 2008. In December 2008, following a six months delay to facilitate an archaelogical dig as a condition of planning, Cork County Council granted planning permission for an extension to the hospital. In the same year the HSE was instructed that no new projects were to commence due, unfortunately, to a reduced allocation. In 2009-12 HIQA inspections continually cited to the HSE that the facility is not adequate for the service it provides. Given that HIQA inspections will not be getting any more lenient, I advise the Minister of State - I am glad has come to the House to reply this matter - that my concern is that this important community hospital for the town of Bandon will close. In other words, there is a very strong case for the upgrading and extending of this hospital. I note from figures for the area and having regard to the population served by the hospital and HIQA standards, which provide that there should be 6.4 beds for every 1,000 persons over the age of 65, that this would mean that the hospital in Bandon would need to cater for 50 people. The current facility with the capacity to cater for 22 people is not appropriate.

I was delighted that the senior Minister, Deputy James Reilly, visited west Cork last Friday. He visited Bantry hospital and Schull, where I currently live, and he saw the tremendous work that was taking place there, much of which I was involved in over the years. I am aware that these things move slowly but if the proposed extension to Bandon Community Hospital is not addressed in the short term, I am deeply concerned that it may close. The closure of a significant private nursing home in this area recently presents a serious problem in terms of the provision of services. A serious problem is emerging due to the shortage of nursing home beds in the area in which I live and probably in many other areas of the country. I am referring to the private sector where there has been a decline in provision as we moved from the boom to the bust era.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. It provides me with an opportunity to update the House on this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Kathleen Lynch. As the Senator is aware, Government policy is to support older people to live in dignity and independence in their own homes and communities for as long as possible. Where this is not feasible, the health service supports access to appropriate quality long-term residential care, including the provision of financial assistance under the nursing homes support scheme. In 2012, with a budget of almost €1 billion, financial support was provided for more than 22,000 people in nursing homes.

The Health Service Executive is responsible for the delivery of health and personal social services, including those at facilities such as Bandon Community Hospital in Cork. Bandon Community Hospital, as the Senator well knows, was built in the 1930s and has been extended and refurbished over the intervening years. There are 22 beds at the hospital providing continuing, respite and palliative care. There is a very high level of demand for the hospital's services and other similar services in the area are in short supply. With an ageing population, as the Senator has pointed out, it is envisaged that the demand for beds at the hospital will continue to grow. During the past five years approximately €300,000 capital funding has been spent on refurbishments at the hospital. An additional €74,000 was spent on fire safety measures and the hospital received a fire safety certificate of compliance in 2012. The Minister of State, Deputy Lynch, is pleased to say that the hospital has been confirmed as meeting relevant HIQA standards for three years with effect from 28 June 2012.

Current constraints on public sector staffing and recruitment, the ongoing need to meet service and safety standards, and severe financial constraints all pose challenges for community nursing units across the country. The Department of Health is working closely with the HSE to develop an overall plan which will seek to protect the viability of as many units as possible within the funding and staffing resources that are available. The future of Bandon Community Hospital will be considered in this context. All options will be considered to deliver an optimal outcome for those who need these services, and this will include service consolidation, skill mix considerations, and a review of work practices. All developments must be addressed in the light of the current economic and budgetary pressures and any decisions taken by the HSE must, unfortunately, be planned against the realities of these constraints. Every effort will be made to ensure the highest standards of care will continue to be provided for all residents in a safe and secure environment and that we meet the needs of those who need services in the very best way possible.

I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House and giving me this response. He has been frank and, unfortunately, the future of hospital is somewhat on a wing and a prayer, while accepting that HIQA has given it a three-year lease of life, so to speak. Due to the growing elderly population in the area and the ongoing deferment, due to lack of finance or otherwise, of the purported extension which has been planned for many years, I am deeply concerned that there is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the future of this important hospital for Bandon town and its hinterland. I do not expect the Minister of State to say anything further but I want to put on the record that I am deeply concerned that this hospital may be forced to close and, if it does, it will be a huge loss to the community of Bandon and its hinterland.

Further Education and Training Programmes Provision

I welcome the Minister of State back to the House. He is taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills. He will be aware of the cuts announced in the last budget in regard to teaching posts for colleges of further education. For the information of the Minister of State and to do justice to the people who sent me correspondence, I want to read into the record details of it. The first is a letter I received from Helen Finlay, the VTOS co-ordinator for the college of further education. She said that the college is facing a significant loss of teachers which will result in the removal of courses developed and provided in response to the needs of the community. She also said that the reduction of between 100 and 200 places on courses will mean the decimation of a service relied on by thousands of people in the south east, a region which already suffers from chronic unemployment and the loss of major employers in recent years.

I also received correspondence from the acting principal of the college, which states that the cuts to further education, as per 2012 December budget, will affect the 4.6 teacher allocation cut to the college, with the resulting loss of up to 120 college places to the region. Does that not make a mockery of what the Government is trying to do in terms of its jobs action plan and what the Ministers for Social Protection and Education and Skills are trying to do, in a co-ordinated way, to ensure we have proper labour activation measures, upskilling and retraining and the provision of opportunities for people to get back into the marketplace and workforce and receive the education they may need to be able to take advantage of the kinds of jobs the Government says it wants to create in terms of its jobs action plan? It is interesting that the areas and courses that will be affected most if these cuts go ahead are in the areas of tourism, business, child care, IT and beauty therapy.

If we take any one of those on its own, we can say the State has made significant tourism investment in Waterford in recent times. The Minister of State will be aware of the huge investment in the Viking Quarter in Waterford city. All that was welcomed. When courses are being provided to people to allow them to take these opportunities and for us to exploit the potential of the investment being made, it does not makes sense to cut back on these courses.

Why were these cuts announced and what is the logic behind them? How do they make sense in a region where unemployment is 25% above the national average? At a meeting with Oireachtas Members last week, the Waterford city manager confirmed that unemployment in Waterford city is over 20%. It is scary to think that is the unemployment figure in a city the size of Waterford. Why, then, are cuts like this being made to a college of further education that provides a service, not only to the people of Waterford but to the entire south east?

I am genuinely interested in the logic and rationale behind that decision and how the Minister of State and the Government feel it sits with the overall jobs action plan and the attempts the Minister of State says the Government is making to provide labour activation measures and opportunities for people to get back into the workforce.

I begin by acknowledging the hard work and dedication of the staff of Waterford VEC and of VECs across the country in delivering further education courses, including PLC courses, to learners. While this measure affects PLC provision, a range of further education and training courses are available across the sector. While it would have been preferable to avoid any changes, by bringing the PLC pupil-teacher ratio, which is the cut referred to by the Senator, into line with that in free second level schools, my Department has succeeded in protecting the class sizes in primary and free second level schools for the coming year, ensuring that our limited resources are rightly focused on the children in the education system.

As the Senator is aware, PLC courses are designed for school leavers and adults returning to education to enable people to gain specific vocational skills which enhance their prospects of employment, as well as providing a route to progress to higher education. There are 32,688 approved PLC places available nationally and this will be maintained into the next academic year. By maintaining the number of approved places, my Department has sought to mitigate the impact of the change.

The majority of PLC courses are provided by VECs, with the remainder delivered in community and comprehensive and voluntary secondary schools. My Department allocates PLC places to VECs and other schools and approves courses for delivery annually. The VECs then allocate places to schools and colleges within their remit. The reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio will reduce the number of PLC teaching posts by 200 and may lead to some reduction in subject choices for learners.

In 2012, my Department provided €160 million in funding for PLC courses. This covers staff costs and non-pay costs, as well as student support. This investment enabled a total of 36,500 people to participate in PLC courses. PLC courses are free for unemployed people and those on low incomes and two thirds of PLC participants are availing of this. There is a €200 participant contribution for other participants. This measure is expected to generate some €12 million in estimated savings in a full year and €4 million in 2013. To amend this measure would mean introducing additional budget measures in education which would impact on other front-line services.

City of Waterford VEC has approval for 790 PLC places for its two PLC centres, with 863 participants currently enrolled, the majority of whom are in Waterford College of Further Education. It is estimated that this budget measure will result in a reduction in their teacher allocation of four posts.

The further education sector has expanded in the past few decades, developing many innovative programmes for its learners, and investment in further education has been maintained at consistent levels in recent years. It is now up to CEOs of the VECs, with their school principals, to look at the resources available to them and work to ensure they can continue to deliver programmes which closely meet the needs of both learners and employers.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply and acknowledge the fact that he has conceded that four teaching posts will be lost. The figure is actually 4.6. That will have a significant impact on the ability of the college to provide its courses.

The Minister of State spoke about savings of €12 million in a full year and €4 million in 2013, which is not a huge amount of money in the general budget. It is disingenuous to say that to amend this decision would mean introducing additional budget measures in education. The Government has, of course, the ability to raise taxes on higher earners or to achieve savings elsewhere in the payroll. I could give the Minister of State any number of examples.

Given the small level of savings being made, it is neither economically sound nor right to achieve savings in this way. It will have the opposite effect of pushing people out of college. Whole classes will have to go because of this measure. It is not the right way to do things.

I compliment the Minister of State on his use of modern technology. This may be the first time an iPad was used to deliver a speech on the Adjournment. In time, Ministers' speeches will go directly into the library and to the Editor of Debates.

I know how passionately Senator Cullinane feels about this subject. The seriousness of this issue surrounds the difficult budgetary constraints in which we find ourselves. The Minister, Deputy Quinn, and I, with our colleagues in the Department of Education and Skills, had challenging and stark decisions to make in the run-up to the budget. We needed to protect those on the front line, the young children in primary and post-primary schools, for whom we hope to provide the best possible opportunity and the best quality of education with the best possible pupil-teacher ratio. Making those stark decisions obliged us to look at this option. The decision was not taken lightly.

I have every confidence in the management of the VEC structure across the country to be as innovative as possible in responding to the challenge of delivering services with the reduced pupil teacher ratio. I agree with the Senator that it is a challenge. I am confident they will be able to do that and will continue to provide the kind of courses to which the Senator refers which will empower the unemployed to get back to work as soon as possible and will provide them with the skills to do so.

The Seanad adjourned at 7.40 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 14 February 2013.