Commencement Matters (Resumed)

Garda Deployment

Numbers-wise, the Drogheda area is being policed as if it were a small provincial town and not the sixth largest urban area in the country. At present, approximately 107 gardaí are situated in Drogheda Garda station with only one or two vehicles available at any given time. Units that should have 11 to 12 gardaí are down to five or six gardaí. This makes it very difficult to undertake normal policing work let alone to police, contain and manage an escalating drugs turf war that has seen dozens of violent incidents in recent weeks and at least three attempts on lives. Local gardaí, with the support of specialist national units, are working with their hands tied behind their backs.

The people of Drogheda need to be reassured that Garda numbers will drastically increase and those responsible for the mayhem being visited on areas of the town will be taken off the streets and locked up. In theory, we have very strong and robust anti-gang legislation as the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act 2009 allows for those directing organised crime to be taken off the streets, sent for trial to the non-jury Special Criminal Court and deprived of their liberty for up to 15 years. The annual report on the operation of this Act published each summer shows that last year eight arrests were made under section 8 of the Act but not a single case of those suspected of being involved in directing organised crime was sent for trial. I am told that gardaí are anxious to use these powers but it is proving very difficult to convince the Director of Public Prosecutions to fully utilise them.

Decent people in the Moneymore area of Drogheda, which is really in the eye of this storm at present and which I have proudly represented for the past 20 years, are prisoners in their own homes and are wondering aloud as to why those responsible for this mayhem on the streets of Drogheda have yet to see the full rigours of the law rain down on them via the special powers available in legislation. Why does there appear to be reluctance on the authorities' behalf to fully utilise these significant powers and give the law-abiding people of Drogheda and other towns and cities the reassurance that they can live their lives in a normal straightforward way? The small number of people responsible for visiting mayhem on the streets of Drogheda need to be locked up and the full rigours of the law need to be targeted at them and their behaviour to ensure Drogheda is safe place in which to live, do business and raise a family. At present, far too many people in certain areas of Drogheda are under a self-imposed curfew because they feel they cannot go out in the streets after dark because of the fear at large in the community.

I will take this Commencement matter on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, who unfortunately cannot be here this afternoon and sends his apology. On his behalf and on my behalf I thank Senator Nash for raising this very important issue this afternoon.

As the Minister for Justice and Equality outlined in his response to a Topical Issue debate on the matter last week in the Dáil, he is very much aware of the impact that the type of criminal activity that took place in Drogheda recently can have on a community. He understands the concerns being expressed by the people of Drogheda, and other areas of County Louth, and has asked me to assure the Senator that this type of criminal behaviour will not be tolerated.

It is important to note that the Garda Commissioner is responsible for the distribution of resources, including personnel, among the various Garda divisions and that the Minister for Justice and Equality has no direct role in the matter. However, the Minister is advised that Garda management keeps this distribution of resources under continual review in the context of crime trends and policing priorities to ensure the optimum use is made of these resources.

The Minister is advised by the Garda authorities that the strength of the Louth division on 30 September 2018 was 331 of whom 12 are community gardaí. There are also 23 Garda reserves and 32 Garda civilian staff attached to the division. When appropriate, the work of local gardaí is supported, as the Senator pointed out, by a number of Garda national units such as the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the armed support units, the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau and the Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau.

The Minister is further advised that An Garda Síochána is conducting investigations into the events that took place in Drogheda recently. As such, it would be inappropriate for me to comment while these investigations are ongoing.

The Minister is informed by An Garda Síochána that gardaí have put in place a policing operation to prevent, detect and mitigate against any further escalation of violence. In addition to cancelling all Garda leave in the Louth division for two weeks, the operation will entail high-visibility patrols supplemented by personnel from the regional armed support unit, community policing units, district detective and drug units and divisional roads policing unit. An Garda Síochána has further advised that it will continue to make every effort to disrupt the activities of any groups that may be involved in these incidents, arrest and prosecute offenders and deny access to the road networks for those involved.

On drug-related crime, An Garda Síochána remains resolute in its determination to act against those in society who pose a significant threat to the welfare and well-being of our citizens and the communities they serve. A core focus of the work carried out by An Garda Síochána is aimed at tackling drugs and organised crime. All gardaí have a responsibility in the prevention and detection of all forms of drug-related crime in this jurisdiction. The continued disruption of the supply of all illegal drugs remains a priority for An Garda Síochána and the other State agencies tasked with responsibilities in this regard. Liaison is also ongoing between An Garda Síochána and other relevant stakeholders, including the local authorities, Tusla and the HSE to name but a few.

As the Senator has raised this matter, the operation of the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, is completely independent of the Government and the Minister, as it should be. The legislation and operation of such is under continuous review.

Senator Nash may ask a brief supplementary question.

I would appreciate if I could get the view of the Minister on whether special powers need to be in improved or implemented in a different way. However, I thank the Minister of State for the response.

Many more gardaí need to be deployed to the Drogheda area to make sure that people feel safe. This is a time when members of the public should support the work of the Garda. In this context, I was surprised to hear that a local Sinn Féin Deputy took to the airwaves last week to make some serious claims. The Deputy claimed that there is a perception that local gardaí are protecting certain players in the local drugs scene because they are of value to them as informers and that is done with what might be described as a nod and a wink. Drogheda is extremely tense at the moment and these serious accusations have made the situation considerably worse for the gardaí in the area. The local chief superintendent challenged those views on local radio earlier. He said that these kinds of uncorroborated claims have "tarnished every member of An Garda Síochána", which was an unprecedented slapdown. If anyone has any evidence whatsoever that points to any form of collusion, or the unlawful use of intelligence or its improper gathering, then there is an obligation, particularly an obligation on Oireachtas Members, to bring that information to either a senior member of An Garda Síochána to have that matter investigated or to take that information to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, to have those matters investigated.

The Senator is well over time.

I thank the Senator for his contribution. I assure him that I will bring his views and comments to the notice of the Minister.

This type of criminal behaviour has no place in civilised society and will not be tolerated. An Garda Síochána has overcome similar challenges in the past and will do so again. Gardaí in Drogheda have put in place a policing operation to prevent, detect and mitigate against any further escalation of violence, which will entail a number of high visibility patrols. Every Member will wish them every success in their work.

The Government is firmly committed to supporting An Garda Síochána in ensuring that the organisation is appropriately resourced. The resources available to the Garda have reached unprecedented levels with the provision in 2018 of more than €1.6 billion, including an allocation of €96 million for overtime. Furthermore, tangible progress is being made on achieving the Government's vision of an overall Garda workforce of 21,000 personnel by 2021. Since the reopening of the Garda College in September 2014 almost 2,200 recruits have attested as members, of whom 35 have been allocated to the Drogheda district and assigned to mainstream duties. This and ongoing recruitment will clearly provide a significant amount of additional policing hours throughout the country both in terms of the increased number of new gardaí and the redeployment of gardaí to policing duties due to civilianisation. Over a period of time this is expected to alleviate pressure on the Garda overtime budget. It is also the case that the unprecedented investment being made in the ICT infrastructure of €342 million between 2016 and 2021 will enable An Garda Síochána to deliver on reform, work more efficiently and deploy the latest cutting-edge technologies in delivering professional policing and security services.

I agree with the Senator and I take this opportunity to reiterate that if anybody has any information about incidents, he or she should contact the local Garda station or ring the Garda confidential line at 1800 666 111 as soon as possible. Any information, no matter how small, could be of great assistance to the ongoing Garda inquiries. In addition, as the Senator said, GSOC is also there for certain types of information and complaints.

Hospital Equipment

I thank the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Finian McGrath, for taking this Commencement matter. I am sure he is very well aware of the issue with the thrombectomy machine because it is situated in Beaumont Hospital, which is in his constituency. I raise this matter because I have worked with stroke patients for a number of years as a healthcare professional. I am very much aware of the positive impact thrombectomy services can have on people. In many cases it is the most effective life-saving treatment for stroke patients.

Evidence clearly indicates that thrombectomy services can reduce stroke deaths by half and reduce the rate of permanent disability by a similar amount. I cite this evidence because it is from the ESCAPE trial in which Beaumont Hospital was involved with many other countries across the world to try to provide evidence of the effectiveness of this service. However, due to the poor condition of the equipment in Beaumont Hospital, patients' lives are being put at risk. I have become aware from the Irish Heart Foundation that the thrombectomy machine being used in Beaumont Hospital is not fit for purpose in a modern health service. The machine has broken down on many occasions and, worryingly, it has also broken down while patients have been in receipt of treatment.

I should outline what a thrombectomy is. It involves a tube being inserted into an artery in the groin which travels through blood vessels to the brain, monitored and guided by X-ray. It sucks up the clot from the brain and restores blood supply. It is very worrying, therefore, that this thrombectomy machine is not fit for purpose in the first place and is also breaking down when patients are receiving treatment.

I am seeking an update from the Minister of State in respect of ensuring a new machine will be installed and that there will be further expansion of this service in Beaumont Hospital. There is a similar service in Cork.

Some 248 patients benefitted from the thrombectomy services at Beaumont Hospital in 2017. I have been informed in writing by the chief executive of the hospital that it is admitted that patients have received substandard treatment. This is really not acceptable. We know this service can have a positive impact on many people. I understand it would cost approximately €1.5 million to replace this machine. This must be a priority, especially given that we will put €17 billion into our health service next year. We must ensure stroke patients get an excellent service that includes the modern and up-to-date treatment they require. We must support them in seeking to reduce the onset of disability-related limitations. We know there is strong evidence of the positive benefits of thrombectomy services. I ask the Minister of State to update the House on when we will see this new machine being put in place.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. I am aware of her work as a health professional. I have listened carefully to everything she has said. I will take on board all the points she raises during this debate.

I am pleased to have an opportunity to update the House on the thrombectomy service in Beaumont Hospital. It is estimated that every year, some 10,000 people have a stroke-related event and some 2,000 people die as a result. Thrombectomy is an emergency endovascular procedure that is provided under radiological guidance to remove clots from patients with severe strokes using specialist devices. There is strong evidence of improved outcomes for patients who undergo thrombectomy treatment, which can be life-saving and can prevent serious disability.

As Minister of State with responsibility for disability services, I take this very seriously. The provision of emergency endovascular thrombectomy is highly specialised. Mechanical thrombectomy procedures are provided by specialist neuroendovascular radiologists in Beaumont Hospital and Cork University Hospital. The number of patients undergoing this procedure has been increasing each year. There were 122 cases in 2015, 172 cases in 2016 and 280 cases in 2017. The HSE has indicated that two new biplane neuroangiographic imaging systems are required because the existing systems are at the end of their lives. This project includes the replacement of the existing biplane angiograph imaging system, the provision of a second biplane angiograph and the associated building works necessary to accommodate the second machine. The simple replacement of the existing machine would result in a discontinuation of service for a prolonged period, thereby necessitating the installation of a second device. It is estimated that the project will cost €6.688 million, with a project timeline of 24 months.

The HSE is responsible for the delivery of health infrastructure projects. All proposed projects must be submitted to the HSE's capital and property steering committee for approval and prioritisation prior to inclusion in multi-annual capital plans. A submission for the development of an expanded neurointerventional radiology service at Beaumont Hospital was received by the HSE national capital and property steering committee in February 2018. The submission for expanded services at Beaumont Hospital is supported by the HSE acute hospital directorate and is recommended for inclusion in the capital plan.

The HSE is developing its national service plan and capital plan for 2019. It is aware of the need for the development of the thrombectomy service at Beaumont Hospital. The HSE will consider this development in the context of planning for 2019 within available funding and the process in place for the agreement and prioritisation of projects in the capital plan. All projects such as the proposed thrombectomy service development must comply with national and EU spending and procurement requirements. They require a lead-in time to complete the various development stages, including appraisal, design, planning, tender, construction and commissioning.

The Government is committed to making tangible and sustainable improvements in our health services. The Department, the HSE, the RCSI hospital group and Beaumont Hospital are supportive of the project to develop thrombectomy services at the hospital, and the need for this capital development is recognised in supporting the delivery of this key service to patients. It is an absolute priority for me as well.

I thank the Minister of State. I have two questions. I refer to the response with regard to the HSE, and I am aware of this issue from asking previous questions on it. The Minister of State said that the HSE will consider this development in the context of planning for 2019 and he mentioned the prioritisation of projects in the capital plan. When will we know that funding has been allocated to ensure that we have new thrombectomy services in Beaumont Hospital, particularly as the Minister of State said that he knows the evidence is clear that thrombectomy services are critical in ensuring that we reduce the level of disability for people and reduce mortality rates?

Having worked within the stroke services, I know that some improvements have been made but it is not enough. The Minister of State said in this response that the Government is committed to making tangible and sustainable improvements in our health services. I want the Government to be committed to ensuring that it makes improvements in our stroke services. The point I am making today is that we need to see a new and expanded thrombectomy service in Beaumont Hospital to ensure we support as many stroke patients as possible.

We are way over the time limit, so I ask the Minister of State to be brief.

I thank the Senator again for raising this important issue. The 2019 service plan will be finalised in the coming weeks. I know that from my own portfolio of disabilities so the answer to the Senator's first question is that it will be in a matter of weeks.

The second point the Senator raised was a very important one. We need to make improvements in the stroke services and I will bring that point back to the Minister. This service works and we have seen it work. The Senator knows that from her previous work as a health professional and I know it from talking to staff, doctors and patients in Beaumont Hospital. The hospital is only a few hundred yards from my home, so I know exactly what the Senator is talking about. We need to expand the services and I am committed to that. The Government is committed to supporting the hospital to develop its services in the future. This commitment is recognised in the programme for Government and the partnership plan.

Beaumont Hospital has a reputation for the delivery of high quality and safe care for its patients. The development of the thrombectomy service will support the delivery of key services to patients served by Beaumont Hospital. I will make this a priority issue and report back to the Minister. I will also keep an eye on it for the HSE 2019 service plan.

Protected Disclosures

I welcome the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, to the Chamber. I ask Senator Gavan to proceed with his Commencement matter.

The Minister is very welcome. Ennis Educate Together national school was founded in 1998. In recent years there have been revelations about shocking and long-standing failures of school management. There are also serious questions for the school patron, and it gives me no pleasure to say that as I have long been a firm supporter and advocate of Educate Together. These revelations have come out largely thanks to the courage of a former deputy principal at the school, who is with us in the Gallery today.

The whole school evaluation report of 2009 for Ennis Educate Together national school highlighted that the principal had significant difficulties carrying out his role, whole school planning was poor, there was no policy on staff rotation and no child protection policy, there were literacy and numeracy deficits and no ratified policy for pupils with special needs.

In short it was an absolutely shocking situation. Seven years later a further whole-school evaluation report confirmed that no action had been taken to rectify these issues recording the management of the school as ineffective and unsatisfactory. There was still no child protection policy. The principal's performance was graded as unsatisfactory with regard to instructional leadership and school administration. A follow-up inspection report last year again highlighted the need for significant development and improvement with regard to the principal. By June of this year pupil enrolment was down to 63 students, a drop of two thirds.

The record shows that the Department of Education and Skills sat with folded hands throughout these years of failure. Worse than this, the Department allowed the only teacher with the courage to speak out about these failures to be forced into an unplanned premature retirement in 2012. This decision was taken after years of trying to address the management failures of the school and after years of raising serious concerns with the board of management and Department inspectors, concerns that went unheeded. This is in stark contrast to the principal who was allowed to continue in his role until June of this year when he chose to retire. To this day the whistleblower does not know why the Department failed to take any action. Why was the principal allowed to continue in his post without any intervention by stakeholders, the board of management, school inspectors and the Department despite their knowledge of the desperate state of affairs at the school?

In 2015 the former deputy principal made protected disclosures directly to the then Minister of State at the Department, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan. There is no doubt that the 2016 whole school evaluation report was a direct result of this unprecedented intervention. However, the Department of Education and Skills has to date failed to respond to questions raised with regard to financial concerns, specifically activities over school registers which a school inspector said could constitute fraud. Among items of concern cited was a stolen blank cheque, subsequently cashed for €10,000. Why was the school's board of management allowed to ignore an occupational health report on the whistleblower? Why did the so-called mediation process offered to her not have protocols or due process? When will the whistleblower in this case get recognition and justice from a Department that has failed not just her but pupils at the school for a decade? This is a delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, school dealing with students from disadvantaged and vulnerable backgrounds. What message is the Minister sending to whistleblowers if he fails to acknowledge and deal with the appalling way in which this lady has been treated? Will he at least commit to meeting with her to discuss her case rather than dismiss the one person with the courage to speak out about the failings at Ennis Educate Together school?

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir as an cheist agus don seans labhairt leis. I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to familiarise myself with this issue and to fill in the background which the Senator and people in the school are familiar with. I want to put on the record the position regarding Ennis Educate Together national school in respect of the protected disclosure received by my Department and school inspections carried out in recent times by the Department's inspectorate.

The Department received a protected disclosure in respect of this school on 25 October 2015. The Department treats all protected disclosures seriously and follows up on all the issues raised in disclosures. In general, this involves engagement with the patron and board of a school for the purposes of determining and resolving the issues raised. It can also involve school inspections and financial audits by the financial support services unit where necessary.

The protected disclosure and the whole-school evaluation, WSE, carried out on 11 February 2016 in respect of this school identified a number of issues concerning the general governance, management and leadership of the school. These concerns related to the absence of a board of management, non-compliance with national child protection policy, financial management concerns and the decreasing enrolment of the school over a number of years. My Department had been aware of the unsatisfactory performance of this school from ongoing inspection reports and had been working with the school to improve its overall performance for the benefit of the teaching and learning experience in the school.

A new board of management was established on 12 July 2016, which was a significant step for the school as it starts to implement the necessary reforms required. Under the Education Act, the board of management is responsible for the day-to-day running of the school. My Department has also been advised that a new parents' association has been established. The active involvement of parents in all aspects of the education of their children is important.

My Department met with representatives of the patron and members of the new board on 15 July 2016. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss with the representatives a range of issues including those mentioned in the protected disclosure and the whole-school evaluation report, which had also set out a number of recommendations for improvement. These recommendations impacted on the management and leadership of the school, the implementation of child protection policies, the formation of a board of management and parents' association, and other important matters impacting on teaching and learning. My Department was advised at the meeting that work had already begun on addressing and prioritising the specific actions outlined in the whole-school evaluation report. My Department informed the school representatives that an action plan outlining the specific actions for improvement would be required from them. My Department wrote to the school on 7 September 2016 on that basis and a school action plan was provided to the Department on 7 November 2016. A follow-through inspection report by my Department’s inspectorate in April 2017 found that good progress had been made in a number of areas with a few aspects for improvement remaining. A new school principal was appointed on 1 July 2018. This appointment was crucial in terms of improving the leadership role within the school.

My Department wrote to the discloser in August 2018 and advised of the positive changes that have occurred in the school and that the Department would continue to monitor the school’s progress in implementing the recommendations of the WSE report. However, while the school has a new principal and a new board of management, which are important positive developments, it would take the school some time to fully implement all of the changes required. The letter also expressed thanks to the discloser for their concern and for raising important issues in respect of this school in their correspondence. I want to express publicly my own similar sentiments in being grateful and thankful to the discloser.

I hope I will get an opportunity to have a chat with the Senator after this for a few minutes. If follow-up is required, I am happy to do that. I thank the Senator again for the opportunity to outline the progress in respect of this school to the House.

I thank the Minister. In fairness, it confirms the crucial role of the whistleblower and her protected disclosures in terms of exposing the wrongdoings and hopefully putting the school onto a better path. I welcome the Minister's offer to have a chat with the whistleblower and ask him to follow through on it. If we have learned anything from recent news in terms of whistleblowers in general it is that we need to listen to them. I ask the Minister to follow up with a formal meeting with the whistleblower in question. That is what she is looking for in terms of recognition of the fact that her plight has been unaddressed to date. Her career was cut short and she has suffered significantly financially in order to bring the school to a better place.

The Minister can have a word with the Senator afterwards.

Yes. I thank the Senator for raising this. I am new in the job and have to familiarise myself with all these issues but I want to put on record the important role that whistleblowers play. I agree with the Senator that one thing we have learned in the last years is the importance of listening attentively. While creating awareness, the duty of care and our own legislative responsibility are important, the most important thing we can do in politics is follow through on the action.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta as ucht an seans labhairt leis inniu.

Sitting suspended at 3.20 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.