Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 14 Feb 2013

Vol. 221 No. 3

Adjournment Matters

Asylum Seeker Accommodation

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Tá mé thar bheith buíoch gur tháinig sé isteach chun an cheist seo a phlé. The matter relates to the direct provision system and the accommodation provided through the Department of Justice and Equality for people seeking refugee status. Throughout the State, hotels, hostels, caravan parks and so on are used to house people in this position and that is done in most cases through private contractors who are given a contract by the Department through the Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, to provide accommodation, food, etc. The question I have relates to the ministerial orders needed because if a building has been granted planning permission as a hotel, hostel or holiday camp and refugee accommodation is provided, that represents a change of use. My understanding is ministerial orders would have been necessary to permit these buildings to be used for a different purpose, particularly housing people seeking refugee status. If the ministerial orders providing exemptions for these buildings have been given, when was the last order made? Has the Minister checked with his counterpart in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government that the facility for using a ministerial order in this way to change planning permission is still in place or have planning regulations been amended to ensure companies can use these buildings for this purpose as opposed to the purpose laid down for them? I thank the Minister of State for taking this matter.

I am responding to this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality.

The RIA, a functional unit of the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS, of the Department of Justice and Equality, is responsible for the accommodation of persons while their applications for international protection are being processed. Currently, there are 4,735 residents in 35 accommodation centres contracted to RIA throughout the State. Of the 35 centres in the State, seven are State-owned, that is, while the centres are managed by private contractors under contract to RIA, the land and buildings are owned by the State. Details of all of these centres are available on the RIA website - ria.gov.ie

The situation regarding planning permissions each of these centres is not uniform and reflects the evolution of RIA's procurement policy during the years, which I will explain later. Three system built State-owned centres which are the responsibility of the OPW are covered by ministerial orders under section 2(2) of the Local Government (Planning and Development) Act 1993, while two of the commercially-owned and operated centres, Mosney, County Meath, and Balseskin, in St. Margaret's, County Dublin, are also covered by such ministerial orders.

The remaining 30 centres comprise four State-owned centres which originally operated as hotels and hostels and 26 commercially-owned and operated centres. These operate on the basis of their own planning permissions which are subject to compliance procedures from the relevant planning authority. The commercially-owned centres are subject to a standard clause in the contracts with the RIA which states, "It shall be the responsibility of the Contractor to ensure that the premises complies and operates in accordance with all relevant statutory requirements of Local Authorities and other Agencies in relation to planning, building bye-laws".

The ministerial planning order, issued 14 June 2001, for Balseskin arose because the centre was commissioned, built and operated specifically as a reception centre for asylum seekers following a tender competition run by the OPW. The issuing of a ministerial planning order for this commissioned centre was necessary given the urgency of the situation then prevailing with the number of asylum seekers arriving in the State. Similarly, given the pressing need for bed spaces and the size of the centre being contracted - it remains the biggest centre - it was decided to issue a ministerial planning order in respect of Mosney. This issued on 30 November 2000. For a more detailed account of the procurement and planning processes in operation at the time, I commend to the Senator chapter 4 of the 2002 annual report of the Comptroller and Auditor General which is in the Oireachtas Library.

In explaining the history of the RIA's procurement policy from the start of the direct provision system, it would be wrong to ignore the salient point that, in many cases, asylum accommodation centres are not welcomed initially by local communities. Controversy and significant local opposition arose almost immediately in respect of some of these properties - both State and commercially-owned -with some local communities expressing fears about the arrival of asylum seekers in their neighbourhoods. In certain instances, local residents exercised their right to challenge the use of the properties through the courts on planning grounds. Such opposition was particularly costly in the context of the procurement of State-owned centres. The last State-owned property procured by RIA was Atlas House, a hostel in Killarney, in January 2002. RIA policy has since been to procure commercial properties such as hotels, hostels and boarding colleges from private operators through public advertisements seeking expressions of interest. As explained, this involves existing premises in the private sector where the contractor is required to operate in accordance with all relevant statutory requirements, including those relating to planning.

The Minister is of the view that the direct provision system is a necessary component of the State's immigration policy and that the ministerial planning orders are still required. Plainly, if RIA and the OPW were to consider new State-owned centres, or replacing buildings in existing State-owned centres, legal advice would be sought on whether the use of the ministerial orders referred to would remain appropriate.

It is worth noting generally the decline in the number of persons seeking accommodation in the RIA system in recent years which has necessitated the consolidation of the accommodation portfolio. At the end of 2008, RIA was accommodating 7,002 persons in 60 centres. At the end of 2012, it was accommodating 4,841 persons in 35 centres. During that four year period it had closed 25 centres and was accommodating 2,161 fewer persons. In the same period, spending on the RIA system declined from €91.5 million to €62.3 million, a reduction of 32%.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply. I also thank the Minister for Justice and Equality and ask the Minister of State to ask him to clarify for us whether a protocol is in place for the approximately 30 private centres mentioned which are subject to local planning rules under the auspices of the planning authorities, whereby the RIA checks with local authorities, or vice versa, that the various buildings and premises comply with the law. Are there checks and balances ? If the Minister of State brings this issue to the Minister of Justice and Equality, a response may be sent to me by e-mail.

This is a very good point with regard to those centres not operated by the State being in compliance with the policy of the RIA. I will seek clarification from the Minister, Deputy Alan Shatter. I assume they are inspected by the State inspector. I will express the Senator's concerns to the Minister and seek clarification for him.

Parking Regulations

I wish to raise the proposed introduction of paid parking in Howth. I am not opposed to paid parking in all circumstances as it makes sense in certain cases. In Malahide it was the businesses which sought the introduction of paid parking because they were having a problem with people parking for the entire day which made it impossible for shoppers and visitors to park for short periods during the day. It also makes sense in Dublin city centre for the same reason, as there is a shortage of spaces and one needs to free them up to give the maximum number of people an opportunity to use them. This is absolutely not the case in Howth. Apart from a few fine days during the summer, there is never a problem with parking on the harbour.

Not only is it unnecessary to introduce paid parking in Howth, it would have a major negative impact on the area and put people off travelling there to shop in marine businesses such as fishmongers, restaurants and other retail businesses in the village. It would put people off travelling out to walk the pier and Howth Head and to use the marine resources. Marine leisure is a huge draw for Howth. Howth Yacht Club is the biggest water sports club in Ireland with 1,700 members. People go scuba diving, sea kayaking and angling in Howth. It has a wide range of water sports and has become more popular in recent years. A huge amount of activity takes place there. One of the reasons it is so attractive to such a wide range of users is because of the free parking. It is a difficult enough place to reach and is somewhere people go for the day. People do not pop in and out for half an hour but make the journey to spend the day.

I have tabled this Adjournment matter to raise this issue, which came as a shock. It is contrary to the marine development plan of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine which was launched by the Taoiseach and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney, the first key objective of which was stakeholder consultation, whereby people would be asked when major decisions would be made. Local businesses were shocked to discover this was being considered without any consultation having taken place. Rumours had been circulating for months that it was being considered. It then emerged the local authority and the Garda had been asked for their views on an informal basis but local businesses had not.

There is huge opposition to the proposal. Representatives from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine met some harbour users on 7 February and the points I have made were articulated strongly by a wide range of groups. Written submissions have been made by the yacht club, the sea kayaking club and the Howth Sutton Baldoyle chamber of commerce and the Howth Sutton community council. There is a wide range of opposition to the proposals.

I have written to the Minister on this issue and I am awaiting a detailed response outlining the logic behind this proposal. Has a cost-benefit analysis of the proposal been conducted? As I have outlined, there are many reasons to be against its introduction in terms of the impact on businesses, community groups and a wide range of users. It seems the only potential logic, if there is one, is that it would make money, but no evidence has been put forward to show this is the case. We know where paid parking has been introduced in other villages and towns throughout the country that it has been a disaster and one in three schemes is losing money.

It has been reported that local authorities around the country are losing millions of euro due to pay parking. There are many reasons against it and no case has been put forward to any of the interest groups that have been in touch with the Department showing that a proper feasibility analysis and cost-benefit analysis have been carried out. Have such analyses been carried out by the Department? If so, what is the estimated income and on what charging structure, for example, hourly and daily rates, is that estimate based? What is the estimated cost of operating the system? Installing parking meters incurs a significant start-up cost and the ongoing cost of policing the system needs to be taken into account. Has an analysis of the likely loss of revenue to the State from other sources been conducted? Undoubtedly, Howth's struggling businesses will be driven out of business by extra charges. Jobs will be lost. Have these factors been taken into account? Has the experience in other areas been considered? In Dún Laoghaire, for example, the Irish Sailing Association has written to the Department highlighting the problems brought about by the introduction of pay parking.

If the Minister of State cannot tell me whether such an analysis has been done, it will be shocking. Such a significant decision should only be based on proper research and analysis. However, if an analysis has been done, will it be published in order that the stakeholders can see the rationale on which the Department has based its decision?

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. I convey the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney's regrets for being unable to be present.

In terms of the issues raised and to set the context, Howth is one of six fishery harbour centres operated by the State, each of whose primary purpose is to provide facilities and services for the fishing industry and fisheries-related activities. Howth fishery harbour is, first and foremost, a working fishery harbour. As such, commercial traffic servicing the fishing side and the various ancillary enterprises requires full access with appropriate parking arrangements. Social harbour users such as the yacht club and others also require reasonable access to parking. A large number of parking spaces in the fishery harbour are currently being taken up by commuters using the nearby DART service during the working week.

All users need to be accommodated in a safe and secure facility. It is generally acknowledged that traffic and parking management within the fishery harbour centre needs to be addressed, particularly in the light of the concerns raised about safety and emergency access by the Coast Guard, the life boat service and the Garda. The introduction of pay parking is only one of a number of measures being introduced to address these concerns.

There has been significant capital investment in the fishery harbour centres in recent years, underpinning the fisheries side and, in parallel, their expanding use for leisure and marine tourism and other maritime enterprises. Howth in particular has a long tradition in both respects. In the current economic climate, the State must be fully committed to maximising the return on its investment. Furthermore, the Minister's Department is required to ensure that the fishery harbour centres are run on a financially sound basis. It is in these contexts that he is giving consideration to the introduction of a charge for parking facilities within Howth fishery harbour centre, just as a charge is made for using any other of its facilities.

As provided under the Fishery Harbour Centres Act 1968, all income generated by the fishery harbour centres goes into a ring-fenced fishery harbour centres fund that is used exclusively for day-to-day operating, management and development costs. It is the only source of income available for this purpose. Without it, fishery harbour centres would not function and could not provide a service to their customers, namely, the harbour users and the visiting public. In the Minister's opinion, it is illogical that some harbour users would expect to continue to use such a facility free of charge while other harbour users, those who are already paying into the fund for using the harbour facilities, are effectively paying for its upkeep.

The introduction of pay parking at Howth fishery harbour centre was originally examined in detail in 2007 in the context of a proposed Howth traffic and parking management plan in conjunction with Fingal County Council. The Senator has undoubtedly seen that report. However, the plan did not proceed. There was widespread public consultation at the time and all of the various views expressed and submissions made are still on file. The Minister is well aware of the concerns as then expressed and is in receipt of new correspondence on this matter on an ongoing basis.

Departmental officials have formally and informally met officials of Fingal County Council's operations department regarding the plans to introduce pay parking, as well as other traffic management enhancements. Officials have also met the Garda about this and other related matters and Department engineers have met some of the harbour's business tenants individually about new traffic management, road markings, etc. Departmental officials also attended a recent harbour users forum where pay parking was on the agenda.

The current rates and charges order, SI 214 of 2012, provides for a charge for parking in the fishery harbour centres. No tariff has yet been fixed for Howth, but with approximately 500 parking spaces within the boundaries of the fishery harbour centre, it is clear that there is a source of revenue in the form of this State asset which was not provided and cannot be maintained for free.

A detailed scheme for pay parking is being developed by departmental officials and the Minister is determined that it will be fair to all users of the harbour, while ensuring that everyone pays a fair share. I do not doubt that the Minister has carried out due diligence in terms of a cost-benefit analysis or that the report will be on file with Fingal County Council. The new parking arrangements will include pay and display parking for harbour visitors and a permit management system for business users. Regular harbour users will have noticed that all currently available parking spaces have been identified and marked recently.

The Department has asked the planning department of Fingal County Council for guidance on the latter's requirements concerning possible environmental and visual impacts of pay and display machines and associated directional signage and will be pleased to take account of any requirement and recommendation the planning department might have.

The additional revenues to be generated from pay parking at the Howth fishery harbour centre will be reinvested in facilities and enhancements that would not otherwise have been possible, given the current financial constraints. These improvements can only be of benefit to the marine and leisure tourism sectors and local economies in general. In the long term, the Minister believes that harbour users and Howth people in general will recognise the benefits that will accrue from this previously untapped resource.

I thank the Minister of State for his attendance and reply. As I appreciate that he is providing the answer on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, I understand he is not in a position to answer some of my more detailed questions. However, the reply presents no evidence of this measure having been thought through properly. It is laden with language about the principle that users should pay, but the logic of a cost-benefit analysis is not evident. There is no evidence that the Department has considered the real cost of introducing charges.

As with previous responses from the Department on this issue, the Minister of State's reply focused on the marine aspect. While I appreciate that this is the main focus of the Department of the marine, we are supposed to have a whole-of-government approach. It is everyone's responsibility at the Cabinet table to look beyond their individual Departments to the impact of measures on local businesses, community groups and jobs. If people lose their jobs in Howth businesses, they will receive social welfare payments.

I respect the fact that the Minister of State is not in a position to answer my questions, but will he raise the issue with the Minister? This is a serious matter. People will lose jobs because others will be put off the idea of travelling to Howth. The area has a small population and is dependent on tourism. The charging measure should have been thought through properly. From the reply, I have no confidence that it was. Will the Minister of State ask the Minister to correspond with me directly with the answers to my more specific questions on a cost-benefit analysis?

The reply was comprehensive. There are 500 car parking spaces in Howth, a prosperous part of Dublin.

There was a study in 2007, with due diligence carried out then. All the information and cost-benefit analysis is with Fingal County Council. Taking into account the emergency services that use the facilities and enhancement of the region, it is an important issue. This is one of the six State-owned harbours. The matter was initiated in 2007 during the term of office of the last Administration.

It did not proceed at the time for very good reasons.

The legacy of the last Government is, unfortunately, still being felt. That was a time when the country was awash with money but no decision was made to benefit any business community. I have no doubt that the interaction involving business people will lead to collaboration that will benefit the region. I am from a business background and we cannot assume that it is good having 500 car parking spaces free of charge. I come from Sligo town, which does not have anything close to Howth Harbour's locational advantages or amenities but there is still paid parking, even in centres that are out of town. A reasonable charge would allow the State reinvest some of the money.

The Minister is open to any reasonable suggestion for a new parking regime. I assure the House that he will try to be fair to all users of the harbour while ensuring everybody would pay a fair share. The day when the country was awash with money that could be thrown at everything is gone and a cost benefit has been carried out for this proposal.

I have a brief observation.

There is no provision for further supplementary questions.

The reality of the impact is understood by local businesses which must live with the reality of other extra charges placed on them. There is a genuine fear about the issue and I am not raising it for any reason other than that they are worried business will be lost.

The business people will approve of it.

There is no provision in Standing Orders for this.

Organ Donation

This matter relates to organ donation and I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to address it. The matter was raised at the Joint Committee on Health and Children last week, with a number of groups before the committee as a result of representations made by Senator John Crown. A matter arising during the discussions was a lack of co-ordination in the promotion of organ donation.

The Irish Donor Network consists of the Irish Kidney Association, the Irish Heart and Lung Transplant Association, the Cystic Fibrosis Association, the Irish Lung Fibrosis Association, Alpha One, the liver transplant unit in St. Vincent's Hospital, the transplant co-ordinators in Beaumont Hospital and the Irish eye bank. These groups work as a network, but there is little or no support within the HSE and the Department of Health to assist them in promoting the idea of organ donation. They have sought co-ordination and a plan that would involve all interested bodies. If necessary, all the bodies should be able to sit down with personnel from the HSE and the Department. People require transplants, but there is a long waiting list because the organs are not available for donation, which is a concern.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue which I will address on behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly.

For many patients, transplantation is now the treatment of choice for end-stage organ failure. Ironically, its success has led to organ shortages and it is important for all concerned to highlight the enormous benefits to patients of organ transplantation and to create a greater awareness of the continuing need for people to become organ donors. The programme for Government envisages the introduction of an opt-out system of organ donation, with a view to improving the availability of organs for patients in need of transplantation. This will, of course, require detailed consideration and further consultation and the Minister for Health is developing proposals for Government on this matter.

In addition to consent systems, there is evidence from other countries that good co-ordination at hospital level and counselling arrangements for relatives are significant factors in achieving high organ donation rates. In conjunction with the HSE's national organ donation and transplantation office, the Minister for Health is considering what practices and organisational changes could further improve donation rates in this country. This office is developing a plan for the introduction of changes and improvements in donation and transplantation systems and practice in order that as many patients as possible benefit from a proactive and successful programme of organ donation. This includes the identification and deployment of donor co-ordinators in hospitals across the country.

The national organ donation and transplantation office is advised by a group of transplant professionals and also has regular interactions with the Irish Donor Network. The Minister is due to meet with representatives of the Irish Donor Network next Monday. Funding has been provided through the national lottery to support the organ donor awareness campaign for a number of years. I tae this opportunity to share with the House some initiatives which are under way which will serve to highlight the benefits of organ donation.

Following discussions between the Department of Health and the Road Safety Authority, the new driving licence application form contains a question asking applicants if they would like a code on their licence indicating their wish to become an organ donor. Since the introduction of a new type of driving licence on 19 January, the code that will appear on new driving licences issued to people who indicate that they wish to become an organ donor is 115. The Department is also in discussion with the Department of Social Protection with a view to including a similar code on the public services card.

The EU action plan on organ donation and transplantation aims to reinforce cooperation between member states through the identification and development of common objectives and guidelines, jointly agreed indicators and benchmarks, regular reporting and identification and sharing of best practices. Directive 2010/53/EU which was transposed into Irish law in August last year sets standards of quality and safety and will help to minimise the risks of transmission of disease and to protect the health of organ recipients.

The Minister for Health and his Department will continue to work in collaboration with the HSE, voluntary organisations and health professionals to raise awareness of organ donation and enhance donation and transplantation rates for both living and deceased donors.

I thank the Minister of State for a very comprehensive response. I am delighted the Minister is meeting representatives of the Irish Donor Network next Monday. One group that seems to be left out of the response is the HSE and I wonder if the Department will take on board the important role that it must play in the co-ordination effort. I ask that this point be taken to the Minister.

There is co-ordination within the hospital network which is encouraging and I am quite sure of the role of the HSE and autonomous hospitals being planned by the Minister. I will take the Senator's observation directly to the Minister. I assume the HSE is included, although the reply does not indicate that the executive is involved. Within the hospital structure, the HSE would be a delivery mechanism. I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. The Minister is holding a meeting on Monday and the use of the new driving licence is very good news. The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, is also considering the use of an indication of donor intent on the social welfare card, which is also positive news. People can be instantly aware if a person is prepared to be an organ donor. I have no doubt the Senator will speak to the Minister directly, but I will raise his concerns also.

Hospital Waiting Lists

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I raise this issue on foot of a news report from last week or the week before concerning a young person who had a cochlear implant inserted and had to wait four years to have a second implant. The report indicated that Beaumont Hospital had made a submission to the Department of Health for funding in order to do both ears at one time when treating a young person.

It seems highly unusual and unacceptable to me that a hospital would carry out an operation to implant one device into a child's ear yet wait four years to do the second ear. By then the child will have developed and his or her hearing will have developed in certain ways. The time between both procedures is not best practice. On making inquiries it turned out that such delays happen, but that is unacceptable. It makes sense to treat both ears at the same time. I am sure that there is a waiting list to get the first treatment done. It makes medical and economic sense to implant a device in both ears at the one time thus leading to a greater improvement in the child's hearing. This is a no-brainer. No one should have to wait years to have a second device implanted and I hope that the Minister of State will have a positive response.

Yesterday the Taoiseach comprehensively dealt with the matter in the Dáil and I thank the Senator for raising this important matter in the Seanad.

Beaumont Hospital is the centre for delivering Ireland's national cochlear implant programme with surgical provision for patients under six years of age carried out in the Children's University Hospital, Temple Street. Beaumont Hospital's annual budget for provision of the service, inclusive of implants, is €4 million. Since the programme commenced 17 years ago over 700 patients have received cochlear implants. I am advised that Beaumont Hospital carried out 90 cochlear implants in 2012; therefore, 48 adults and 42 children received implants.

In addition to providing the surgical services, the programme provides a comprehensive assessment service for potential candidates and a rehabilitative service for those actually implanted. There are three target groups that could benefit from cochlear implantation: prelingually severely or profoundly deaf children from one year to five years of age; post-lingually severely or profoundly deaf children from six to 17 years of age; and post-lingually deafened adults.

There is good evidence on the benefits of cochlear implantation and on the added benefit of bilateral implantation for children. In 2009 the United Kingdom's National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, NICE, recommended simultaneous bilateral cochlear implantation as best practice for children. The HSE undertook a national review of audiology services. The group was tasked with examining the services provided to children and adults nationwide and with formulating a national plan for the service. The report was published by the HSE in 2011. It provides the blueprint for the planning, development and delivery of HSE audiology services from newborn screening to assessment and management of adults and children with hearing problems, including cochlear implantation. Two of the main recommendations include the national roll-out of a universal newborn hearing screening programme and the establishment of a bone anchored hearing aid programme. The report included a recommendation that continued ring-fenced financial support be provided for the cochlear implant programme but at levels which allow for simultaneous bilateral implantation for children.

The HSE's audiology clinical care programme was formed since to oversee the implementation of the recommendations detailed by the report. Progress is being made on the modernisation of audiology services in Ireland, with the introduction of a universal national programme of newborn hearing screening a key priority. It will ensure all babies have their hearing screened shortly after birth.

While no dedicated programme for simultaneous or sequential implantation is being carried out here at this time, some bilateral implantation has occurred for patients, mainly very young children with certain medical conditions such as a history of meningitis or blindness. It is estimated that there are approximately 200 children in Ireland today who may be suitable for a second implant. Not all suitable patients proceed with the second implant when appraised of the all the issues involved.

The HSE is working closely with Beaumont Hospital to progress plans for both simultaneous and sequential bilateral implantation. The hospital, HSE management and the HSE's audiology clinical care programme have met recently to discuss a joint process to identify the options for developing and resourcing a programme of simultaneous and sequential cochlear implantation. An important element will be the development of clear clinical criteria to prioritise clients for assessment and follow on implantation. These plans will be progressed through the HSE 2014 Estimates process.

I thank the Minister of State.

The Seanad adjourned at 1.55 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 19 February 2013.