Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 2 November 2016
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs
Sustaining Viable Rural Communities: Discussion (Resumed)
We will now discuss what it takes to sustain a viable rural community with representatives of the national directorate for fire and emergency management, NDFEM, and the Office of Public Works.
From the NDFEM I welcome Mr. Seán Hogan, national director; and Mr. Conor O'Sullivan, assistant principal officer. From the Office of Public Works I welcome Mr. Vincent Campbell, acting director of engineering services; Mr. Mark Adamson, assistant chief engineer and director of the Catchment Flood Risk Assessment and Management programme; Mr. John Murphy, assistant chief engineer; and Mr. Brian Brogan, principal officer; and Mr. Liam Basquille, principal officer in the flood project management section. I thank everybody for attending.
By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give to the committee. If, however, they are directed to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. The opening statement and any other documents may be published on the committee website.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. Today's meeting, as members probably know, is part of a series of meetings that this committee is holding to consider what it takes to sustain a viable rural community. During these deliberations we are examining all aspects of the requirements of rural communities in modern Ireland, including employment, emergency services, local services, quality of life, education and transport. Today we will deal with the second stream of this, which is the provision and maintenance of adequate emergency services in rural areas, including dealing effectively with flooding and the threat of flooding.
To kick off, I ask the representative of the national directorate for fire and emergency management to address the committee.
Mr. Seán Hogan:
I am very happy to respond to the invitation to address this committee today on the topic of the providing emergency services, tackling flooding and maintaining facilities in rural areas. I am joined by my colleague, Mr. Conor O’Sullivan, assistant principal officer with the national directorate.
The national directorate was formed within the former Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in 2009 to deal with two significant areas, fire safety and emergency management. With respect to fire services, the mandate of the national directorate has been to create a model of leadership, support and oversight by central Government of local authority’s provision of consistent, effective, safe and quality fire and emergency services in Ireland. With respect to emergency management, the national directorate has been to the fore in developing arrangements for co-ordination of emergency response across government services and using its expertise to anticipate and manage risk scenarios. The national directorate has been mandated with leading national level response when required, most recently in managing the extensive and extended flooding of last winter, but also episodes of severe weather that have occurred since 2009.
In advance of appearing here today, we provided the committee with a briefing document setting out in what I hope is a comprehensive fashion, the varied work undertaken by the directorate, so I do not propose to go into detail on these issues now. I will focus on three key areas that highlight the work being undertaken to progress the provision of fire and emergency services in Ireland as set out in the reports attached to the briefing note supplied.
Fire services in Ireland are provided by the principal local authorities, with 218 fire stations, some 600 fire engines and 3,400 staff. In undertaking their various statutory roles, they are supported directly by the national directorate as described in the briefing. However, I want to highlight our work on developing national standards against which local fire services are benchmarked and our approach to overseeing the delivery of quality services by the fire authorities. In February 2013, the Keeping Communities Safe policy document was published as national policy. This builds on good practice which has emerged and is the blueprint for the direction of fire safety and fire services, aimed at delivering those consistent, effective and quality fire services in Ireland.
Keeping Communities Safe provided for the establishment of an external validation group, EVG, to assist the directorate in its mandate. As this was an important new process in the relationship between central and local government, the directorate’s management board set down a number of guiding principles to underpin the process. The board’s international expert, Mr. Brian Sweeney, former chief officer of Strathclyde Fire and Rescue, and me, in my role as national director, were mandated by the board to undertake an initial round of external validation visits to fire services, starting early in 2014. The first round of EVG visits, taking in each of the 27 fire services, was completed at the end of quarter one 2015.
The information and knowledge obtained during this round of visits resulted in the publication in April this year of a report entitled Fire Services in Ireland: Local Delivery - National Consistency, and that has been circulated to the committee. The report examines and reports conclusions on four specific areas of inquiry, one of which I want to highlight. This is the area risk categorisation process whereby fire services appraised fire risk in their communities using three years of actual fire data relating to each of their 217 fire station areas or station grounds. Each death from fire is one too many but the report highlights that Ireland is in the league of safest countries in respect of fatalities caused by fire, with a three-year average rate of 6.4 fire deaths per million of population in the years under consideration. However, although everybody will welcome the lowest fatality statistics for 40 years, which occurred in 2013, there is no room for complacency as the Carrickmines fire tragedy of 10 October 2015 brought home to us.
The report finds that local authority fire services are applying and refining internationally recognised risk management approaches to reduce the fire risk and the annual toll of life and property loss caused by fire. Local authorities are matching the assessed fire risk in the individual fire station areas with services based on either the full-time or retained fire service models as appropriate. Local authorities have built a comprehensive support infrastructure for fire services, which they have prioritised and maintained through past difficult years. As requested, individual local authorities have benchmarked their fire services against national standards and national norms published for the first time in Keeping Communities Safe, and a strong degree of consistency, linked to area risk categorisation, now exists in fire service provision. All local authorities are using, or are working towards, national norms as minimum standards.
I will highlight a few aspects of this report for the committee as it is the best way of giving an overview of where fire services are at in Ireland. The report characterises Ireland's fire services as being in transition from a self-contained, individual focus to one where collaboration with each other and partnerships with other branches of local government and other statutory and voluntary sectors are seen as key to achieving the objective of safe communities. Although services are at different stages along the road to transition, and further improvement is required in a number of identified areas, we think the public in Ireland is served well by the evolved arrangements and can retain confidence in the integrity and professionalism of those with responsibility for managing and delivering fire safety and fire services in Ireland.
I will address two further areas. Does the Chairman want me to address fire safety in Traveller accommodation?
Mr. Seán Hogan:
I referred earlier to the Carrickmines tragedy. As is appropriate in the aftermath of such an appalling tragedy, the audit and improvement of fire safety in local authority provided Traveller accommodation was a critical task undertaken by the directorate this year and the publication of the concluding report in September 2016 marked the completion of the first stage in this process. While recognising broader issues relating to Traveller accommodation, we set about working with Traveller representative groups to develop a culturally appropriate approach to the task. The review process focused on life safety and on ensuring that practical and appropriate fire safety measures, which contribute to preventing loss of life and serious injury in local authority Traveller accommodation, have been applied systematically across the country. This involved appraising fire safety in Traveller accommodation against standards set out in the working draft Guide to Fire Safety in Existing Traveller Accommodation, which was prepared to assist local authorities in conducting the review. It also involved running a series of community fire safety initiatives aimed at Traveller organisations and the wider Traveller community so that awareness of fire risk and fire safety is developed and maintained over the longer term.
The report entitled Programme to Review and Enhance Fire Safety in Local Authority Provided Traveller Accommodation was published by the directorate on 21 September 2016. We have also included the full text of this report with the briefing document for the committee. The report enumerates fire safety measures and actions implemented as well as proposing and recommending a series of further actions to sustain fire safety for the community into the longer term. Recognising that what has been done is a first stage in a process which needs to be mainstreamed into ongoing work programmes, the report makes a number of recommendations which are now being given effect to and which will embed the issue of fire safety in Traveller accommodation into future work programmes.
Moving finally to emergency management, the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government is assigned the lead Government Department role for response to severe weather events. On behalf of the Department, the national directorate is mandated to take on the task of convening and leading the national emergency co-ordination group, which brings together the entire panoply of Government when severe weather, flooding or other such events occur. Last winter, the directorate convened a national emergency co-ordination group in anticipation of the arrival of Storm Desmond. The group met on 43 occasions until the floodwaters began to recede in mid-January 2016 to provide a joined-up, whole-of-Government, response to deal with the flooding crisis. Next week, we intend bringing to Government a review report on the response to last winter’s flooding event. Although for reasons of timing we were not in a position to include this report with our briefing for the committee, I can tell it that the report describes the meteorological and hydrological characteristics of the last winter period and reviews the impact of the storms and subsequent flooding on the communities involved. The report describes the preparedness and the response of the State agencies to the severe weather events. The report also details the measures that were put in place by Government to assist those worst affected in dealing with the aftermath of the flooding.
At the local level, arrangements for the response to emergency events have developed greatly in the last decade in Ireland, learning from each previous event. The 2006 document, A Framework for Major Emergency Management, sets out arrangements whereby the three principal response agencies, An Garda Síochána, the HSE and local authorities, work together and with the Defence Forces and the voluntary and community sectors in responding to emergencies. Severe weather response protocols are in place in all of the principal response agencies. While satisfied that our current system has solid strength, a number of aspects have been identified for improvement arising out of last winter’s experience. One interesting theme is how we can further enhance arrangements for working with communities in managing such crises and, in our view, the place of the community and voluntary sector in building resilience to emergencies needs to be developed.
I welcome again this opportunity to meet the committee and present on the work of the national directorate in our efforts to develop and improve fire and emergency management policy and service delivery in the interest of the people. I assure the committee that the national directorate is committed to achieving continuous service improvement and we hope we will continue to provide the necessary balance of leadership, support and oversight required to ensure the provision of consistently effective, safe and quality fire and emergency services in Ireland. I look forward to hearing the views and issues of committee members and hope we can endeavour to answer questions they may have on our work.
Mr. Vincent Campbell:
I am very grateful to the committee for inviting representatives of the Office of Public Works to address the committee on the provision of emergency services, tackling flooding and maintaining adequate facilities in rural areas. The OPW does not have a role or responsibility for the provision of emergency services which is a matter for the principal response agencies, the Garda Síochána, the Health Service Executive and the local authorities. The maintenance of adequate facilities in rural areas is primarily a matter for local authorities. My colleagues from the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government are addressing these matters for the members this afternoon. I will confine my remarks to the matter of flooding and I and my colleagues from the OPW are glad to have the timely opportunity to bring members of the committee up to date on recent developments in the area of flood risk management.
The exceptional flood events of last winter brought home to everyone the devastating impact that flooding can have on people's lives. I assure members of the committee the OPW is working as hard as possible to address in an effective and sustainable way the most significant flood risk in the country. At the core of the OPW's work is the objective of reducing to the greatest extent possible the level of flood risk to people, property, infrastructure and the environment. In the context of its flood risk management role, the OPW delivers services through the following key areas: strategic planning to manage flood risk in future through the catchment flood risk assessment and management, CFRAM, programme, which also ensures that Ireland is in compliance with the EU floods directive. The OPW also has a strategic role to co-ordinate, for consideration by Government, cross-sectoral policies that can impact on flood risk. In carrying out its functions, the OPW works in close co-operation with other State bodies, principally the local authorities, which also have key responsibilities in the area of flood risk management in the country.
I will now talk about the CFRAM programme. The central and overarching strategy for addressing the significant flood risks nationally is the OPW's catchment flood risk assessment and management programme. In this programme, 300 areas throughout the country were identified as being at potentially significant risk of flooding. These areas are known in the programme as areas for further assessment, AFAs. In line with Government policy, the OPW is in the process of completing the CFRAM programme to give a clear and comprehensive picture of flood risk in these areas and to set out how the risk can be prioritised and managed effectively and sustainably. The CFRAM programme is being undertaken in partnership with the OPW's consultants, local authorities and other stakeholders. This is a strategic approach that recognises the need, in line with international best practice, to move to a more sustainable, planned and risk-based approach to dealing with significant flooding events and risks.
The CFRAM programme is without precedent in its scale and complexity. It is the principal vehicle for implementing national policy on flood risk management and the EU floods directive 2007. It has produced the most comprehensive set of flood risk maps ever available in this country on which there has been extensive public and stakeholder consultation. Some 40,000 maps are available as a result of this exercise. Draft flood risk management plans have been made available for public consultation. These plans will be finalised over the next number of weeks taking on board the comments received and will include a prioritised list of feasible measures, both structural and non-structural, to address flood risk in an environmentally sustainable and cost effective manner. The public consultation has been on a rolling basis throughout the summer and is due to end at the end of 2016.
On our capital investment programme, since 1995 the OPW has invested some €480 million in flood risk management measures including, in co-operation with the relevant local authorities, the construction of 37 major flood defence schemes throughout the country at a cost of €280 million. Ten major flood defence schemes are currently under construction and two more are due to commence later this year. I think they are nearly on site as we speak. A further 23 schemes are in the pipeline at design or development stage. This is unprecedented, given the number we are dealing with and the investment. In addition to the major schemes, the OPW has paid out approximately €30 million since 2009 to support local authorities in the implementation of almost 600 minor works projects in every county in the country.
This has made a significant difference in the fight against flood risk.
It is estimated that all these major schemes and minor works projects provide protection to in excess of 12,000 properties and up to €1.2 billion in benefit to the State has been derived from this investment to date in terms of flood damages and losses avoided. This is a major achievement and it is the Government's intention to continue to build on this and prioritise investment in flood defence schemes. This commitment to continue flood risk management is evident in the capital investment plan 2016 to 2021, during which the annual allocation for flood defence works will more than double from €45 million to €100 million.
On the minor works scheme carried out by the Office for Public Works in tandem with the major capital investment programme, since its introduction in 2009, the scheme has proved to be a very effective means of addressing localised flooding issues. It is of particular relevance to rural communities where a major flood defence scheme would not be feasible. Under the scheme, the OPW can provide funding to local authorities to undertake minor works up to a value of €500,000 to address localised flooding and coastal protection problems within their administrative areas. To date, funding of almost €37 million has been approved by the OPW to local authorities in respect of almost 600 local flood relief projects, resulting in flood protection for 5,000 properties.
The OPW has statutory responsibility for maintaining a total of 11,500 km of river channel that form part of the arterial drainage schemes, which also include approximately 800 km of embankments. The annual maintenance programme typically involves some clearance of vegetation and removal of silt build-up on a five-yearly cycle. The programme has resulted in the protection of approximately 650,000 acres of agricultural land.
The purpose of the arterial drainage schemes was primarily to improve the drainage of agricultural lands to enhance production. This typically involved lowering or widening river beds to facilitate the drainage and discharge of neighbouring lands and drainage channels. While not the primary purpose of the schemes, they also provided enhanced conveyance capacity where they passed through towns, villages and dispersed rural communities which, in turn, has reduced the flood risk to properties in these areas.
Last winter, the Shannon flood risk State agency co-ordination working group was established on foot of a Government decision to enhance ongoing co-operation across all of the State agencies involved with the River Shannon, including the ESB, Waterways Ireland, Bord na Móna, Inland Fisheries Ireland, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Office of Public Works and the relevant local authorities.
Unfortunately, we must suspend briefly to allow the Deputies present to take part in a division in the Dáil. We will resume as quickly as possible when Mr. Campbell will be able to complete his presentation, after which we will have questions from members. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Mr. Vincent Campbell:
Thank you, Chairman. I had just commenced talking about the Shannon flood risk State agency co-ordination working group. Given its relevance to and impact on so many rural communities in Ireland, I will say a few words on flooding on the River Shannon.
Last winter the Shannon flood risk State agency co-ordination working group was established on foot of a Government decision to enhance ongoing co-operation across all of the State agencies involved with the River Shannon, including ESB, Waterways Ireland, Bord na Móna, Inland Fisheries Ireland, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, OPW and the relevant local authorities the whole stretch of the Shannon.
The work programme of the group is published on the OPW website and highlights the current proactive and co-ordinated approach by all State agencies to flood risk management on the Shannon catchment. The working group: is building on the existing work and commitment of all the State agencies involved in flood risk; is focused on ensuring the best possible level of co-ordination between all statutory bodies involved in flood management on the Shannon; and is solutions-focused, designed to deliver the highest level of efficiencies to add value to the catchment flood risk assessment and management, CFRAM, programme.
The group held three open days on its work programme to discuss the role and work of the group with the public, and met the Irish Farmers' Association to discuss and explore the approach being adopted to address its issues of concern. The group met most recently on Tuesday, 18 October, and discussed the benefits of possible measures to managing flood risk for winter 2016-2017 on the Shannon. Arising from that meeting, a decision was taken by the group to trial the lowering of the lake levels in Lough Allen to help mitigate potential flood risk for this winter. From the analysis completed, this may have a small positive impact on the extent of certain flood events that might occur during the winter. This action can only be done in specified conditions to avoid causing or exacerbating flooding downstream and this trial will need to be carefully monitored, which it will be. While the impact of this initiative may be quite small, this demonstrates the continued commitment of the agencies to work in a co-ordinated way to explore all measures that may benefit the communities along the River Shannon.
The group has also agreed to evaluate the benefits from any short and medium-term programme of localised dredging and any future piloting to remove some pinch points along the Shannon, particularly above Meelick Weir, that may possibly impact on the Callows. The group will discuss both this evaluation and progression with the lake levels trial at its next meeting at the end of November.
There is a whole-of-Government approach to flooding also taking place. The Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works and flood relief chairs an interdepartmental flood policy co-ordination group and a progress report of the group will be brought to Government shortly. The group is developing a range of policy initiatives to underpin the overall investment by OPW in managing national flood risk. It is also considering a number of other prevention and mitigation measures for providing flood relief which may include schemes for individual property protection and voluntary home and farmyard relocation. The group has also looked at the current arrangements in the memorandum of understanding with the insurance industry on the provision of flood insurance and how these might be strengthened in the future.
As the designated lead agency for the co-ordination of overall policy on flooding, the OPW co-operation with local authorities and other State agencies is vital in developing new and innovative responses to the threat of flooding. Examples of these would include the minor works scheme, the individual property protection pilot programmes and, indeed, the development of the national flood forecasting and warning service. Similarly, OPW is co-operating with the Geological Survey of Ireland in order to tackle the challenges posed by groundwater flooding, in particular, turloughs.
One important aspect of flood risk management in the future, in addition to the OPW flood defence solutions, will be to raise the awareness of flood risk and encourage people, businesses and communities to take action to protect themselves and their properties. The Office of Emergency Planning is responsible for managing the Be Winter-Ready Government information campaign and is actively planning the launch of this year's campaign on 9 November 2016. In conjunction with the OPW, a specific Be Winter-Ready public information leaflet on flooding has been prepared, which brings together information already available from various sources, including OPW's flood preparation website, which is contained at www.flooding.ie, that provides practical advice for homes, businesses and farms in the event of flooding occurring.
I thank the committee for the opportunity to address it on this important matter and to reiterate that the OPW will continue to work tirelessly to ensure that the fullest possible range of measures to deal effectively with flooding will receive the highest priority and attention now and in the future. I and my colleagues are happy to take any questions the committee may have.
Míle buíochas as an cuir i láthair sin. I propose we take all our questions together. Each questioner has ten minutes to ask questions and ask members to ensure to leave some of that ten minutes aside for the two witness groups to answer. Tosnóimid leis an Teachta Ó Cuív.
I thank the witnesses for coming in. As for our main remit as a committee, we are obviously interested in every facet of life and I would love to discuss the Traveller issue with the witnesses but we are not here to do that. In regard to rurality and services, I note the times for the fire engine call outs. As one would expect, the further one goes from the centre, the longer it takes to get the fire engine. Presumably, when a house goes on fire, the further away it is from the fire service, the more likely it is that there will be significant property damage, not to mention personal risk. We countered that on the islands previously by giving a grant for mains powered smoke alarms for all the houses on all the islands. There is only one island with a local authority fire engine, that is, Inis Mór which has a call out service. Once we put mains powered smoke alarms in the houses, the incidence of fire on the remainder of the islands dropped dramatically. In terms of taking a take a benchmark of 30 minutes, and that beyond a 30-minute journey from the fire service there were 40,000 people, was any thought given to rolling out a programme of grant assistance to those people who are a journey of 30 minutes or more away from the fire engine so that they could put in mains powered smoke alarms of a high standard and, therefore, benefit from the public expenditure on fire services because in those cases by the time the fire engine arrives the damage will be done?
As a former Minister, I dealt with the mná tí and when there was a fire in a house which kept students, we decided to adopt an even higher standard than we had on the islands. I do not think there was a fire in any of those houses. If one was absent from the house and it went on fire, one would not only know it was on fire but where the fire started.
What would the witnesses' response be to the idea of such a programme being rolled out in the more remote areas where people are never going to be near fire engines? Would they consider co-funding it with the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs as part of the CLÁR programme because these are all CLÁR areas? The second point about fire engines is that it seems that there is no relationship between the distance and location vis-à-visfire engines, and this was traditionally so in Galway. It appears that every county has developed this in its own way. Is there a national policy to ensure an even distribution of fire engines across counties in order to provide an even level of service irrespective of the area? I accept that if one lives in an area with a very dispersed population, there would not be a fire engine at every crossroads.However, it should be a case of like with like. All things being equal, it does not seem that this was the way things were in the past. It seems to have been very uneven and relates very much to the individual local authority involved.
I will now turn to the OPW. I do not expect that the witnesses will be able to supply today the one item of information I really need, which is hugely important in the context of rural development, communities and employment. Could the OPW forward to the committee the details of all the landbanks the Department has from the decentralisation programme that are in the ownership of the OPW and that have not yet been built on? Will the OPW representatives also send details of all the office properties that the Department has throughout the country in places such as Sligo, Bundoran, Buncrana, etc., that are not being fully utilised? Could the OPW provide details of all the properties rented in the greater Dublin area that are leased, the cost of those leases and when those leases will be up? There could be an enormous saving by using the properties and landbanks we own and replacing very expensive leased properties in the city.
Do the witnesses remember all the property transactions relating to the most recent decentralisation programme? I put down a parliamentary question about this and I was told that if one took the sales and disposals versus the acquisitions, there was actually a surplus of money. In other words, that more money came in than went out. Perhaps the witnesses could forward that information to the committee as there seems to be a myth that property relating to decentralisation was expensive. My memory is that it was actually the other way around, particularly when one added in the disposal from the city during the period. Perhaps the witnesses could also obtain that figure for the committee. With regard to the €480 million spend, could this figure be broken down by city, town by size and the rest of the State, including rural areas?
Finally, would it be possible to supply to the committee a map showing which rivers are in the charge of the OPW and which are not? When we discuss flooding, not only of houses, shops and properties in towns but also homes and farms in the countryside - septic tanks are a big challenge in this regard - there seems to be an argument and a misunderstanding as to who is in charge of what river. Perhaps the OPW could give the committee a map of all the rivers that are in its charge. If it does so, then we will know which rivers are in the charge of local government. Does the OPW give money to local authorities to clean the rivers in their charge or is that the responsibility of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment? It seems that there is no river cleaning taking place and that there is a huge amount of consequential flooding. Not all of the latter is affecting houses. Some of the flooding is taking place on farm properties and involves sheds and silage and septic tanks being inundated and the remainder relates to farmland in general. This could possibly be avoided if streams and drains were kept clean.
I have a few questions I would like to put the witnesses. With regard to the fire service, can they provide any details regarding the budget in 2008, the budget for last year and the difference between the two? What are the average and maximum distances from fire stations in different areas of the State? One of the major problems with regard to fire and ambulance services is that in many counties they do not really work together and are essentially competing against each other. In Dublin they are a single service but in Meath the two services function separately and there is often a reluctance on the part of the ambulance service to call out the fire service in case there is a charge involved. This can cause difficulties, especially at roadside accidents. The also seems to have been a change in how the fire services respond to accidents. In Meath, Navan has a two-pump station whereas a rural fire station in the county would only have a single pump. Typically, they would take the nearest single-pump fire tender to the scene of an accident and then they would take one from Navan, which means that there would still be cover for the town and they would not be exhausting the cover in the rural area. There seems to have been a change - or that we are at least on the way to a change - where the authorities are now accessing the fire tenders which are closest. That could be the two tenders dispatched from the Navan station or the single-pump tenders from Nobber and Kells. This gives me strong feeling that the north Meath rural area could, if there is another fire at the same time, be left exposed. Perhaps the witnesses will talk the committee through what research was carried out into this matter and outline the feasibility studies and cost-benefit analyses that have been done. There also seems to be a form of demarcation in respect of those types of dispatches. For example, tenders are more likely to be dispatched from north Dublin into the Ashbourne area of County Meath. This is a concern because one could foresee the services located in more rural areas being run down over time as those areas become serviced by larger fire stations in the cities. What kind of operational consultation happened in the development of those plans with fire-fighters throughout the State?
I will now turn to flooding matters and the OPW. There is no doubt that this is one of the biggest issues that grips the country on an annual basis. Obviously, we have had a very long dry spell, which is great, but most people would be of the view that as we head into January, we are going to experience flooding similar to that which occurred last year. We are getting reports that there are parts of the country, particularly along the Shannon basin, that are still experiencing really high flood waters that typically would only be seen during high water mark in the middle of winter. Drainage has not occurred in some areas as would be the case normally. There were massive floods in Limerick in 2014 and there is a feeling that, to date - and in view of the funding the OPW has at its disposal - there has been more research and planning carried out than actual delivery of works in the areas to which I refer. For example, the works that were supposed to have been carried out in Limerick in 2014 have still not been carried out. That is also the case in other parts of the State. The witnesses gave a figure of €480 million over 21 years. That works out at €22 million per year on flooding works, which is ,low ,when one considers how the country was gripped by flooding in recent years. I know there is to be an acceleration of investment in the next couple of years in that regard.
I note that in this year's budget there was a cut in funding to Met Éireann. Obviously, the OPW does not have a direct responsibility for that but I imagine that the flood risk group - which it brings together and which it chairs - is dependent upon the skills and ability of Met Éireann. Last year especially, there was a feeling that anybody with even a limited knowledge of meteorology would look at long-term forecasting. Some of these weather events were seen ten days in advance and yet actions did not seem to be really taken until the four or five day forecast came into play. Perhaps the witnesses could comment on that matter.
It is a concern that the number of flood works that are actually being delivered, as opposed to those that need to be carried out, is still an extremely small percentage.
Could Mr. Campbell tell us what percentage of the projects that are needed are being actioned and delivered? He said that "ten major flood defence schemes are currently under construction". Could he give us details of some of those schemes so we can get an understanding of the size of them by comparison with those that are outstanding?
I thank the witnesses for being with us today. Many of my questions relate to flooding. Like many other parts of Ireland, my constituency of Cork South-West has had serious flooding. Places like Bandon, Skibbereen, Ballylickey, Bantry, Dunmanway, Enniskeane and Innishannon have been seriously flooded in recent years. Many homes and businesses have been practically devastated. A great deal of work has been done in Bandon in recent years. The removal of a significant quantity of gravel alleviated much of the concern in the town.
Perhaps I am wrong, but the impression I have got on the ground is that there is very little joined-up thinking in this regard on the part of the OPW, Inland Fisheries Ireland and local councils. Business people and private individuals get worried when, in the run-up to the 1 October deadline, they see high levels of gravel in rivers and little or nothing being done. I appreciate that some work was done. If it had not been for the efforts of the Minister of State, Deputy Canney, I would have found it extremely difficult to help people, especially in Bandon. I have found the same problem elsewhere. If this serious issue is to be resolved, there needs to be more joined-up thinking between the councils, the OPW and Inland Fisheries Ireland. People feel helpless because very little information is fed back to them about these serious issues.
There is a vagueness out there too. As far as I am aware, councils can draw down funding from the OPW for the clearing of rivers. In many cases, councils are saying that the OPW is responsible for such works and the OPW is saying it is an issue for councils. The people are getting caught in between. Five homes in Ballylickey and Bandon are being destroyed on a regular basis. I think the matter is being looked at in greater depth, but it is not good enough because these homes are being flooded regularly. The banks of the river need to be built up, or the gravel or other material in the river needs to be removed. It is very difficult to get everybody to talk together to ensure works that are urgently required are carried out.
As Deputy Ó Cuív said, the OPW is responsible for many properties, including Garda stations. After the Garda station in my own parish of Goleen in west Cork was closed, people in the local community went to great lengths to try to take over the building. They were refused even though this had been permitted in other locations. Many good tourism and community projects have been proposed for the building, but it is lying idle because these plans have gone nowhere. We are aware that the OPW has various properties, including car parks, throughout the country, but we do not know what exactly it has. Would it be possible for the witnesses to map out for us what exactly the OPW is in charge of? That would ensure public representatives know where to go when issues arise. I would like the questions I have asked to be addressed.
I welcome the people from the OPW and the CFRAMS engineers to today's meeting. It is good to get an opportunity to raise the flooding issues that have been inflicted on the people of County Kerry in recent years. Who is responsible for what? Who is accountable for sorting these problems out? I firmly believe the reasons our rivers are flooding can be linked to the system of cross-compliance whereby farmers and landowners are not allowed to touch their rivers. Inland Fisheries Ireland seems to have amazing power. It has threatened farmers with arrest if they clean out the rivers as they have traditionally done to keep the water flowing. Another threat associated with cross-compliance is that farmers and landowners will lose their single farm payments. This has been going on for 12 or 15 years. Our rivers have become totally clogged over that period. Who is responsible for getting them opened up? I guarantee that the water will not flow until the rivers that are completely clogged with criss-crossing bushes and trees are freed up. Heaps of gravel were always taken out and used for the betterment of farm roadways and things like that, but this has been totally stopped.
Where do we start? We know the OPW is responsible for some rivers. I would like it to deal with the river coming out of Castleisland, which is totally blocked. My understanding is that the OPW is responsible for that river. The CFRAM study that took place across County Kerry suggested that we should leave the river alone and make a flood plain out of a 12-acre field at the back of the town of Castleisland. It made no sense whatsoever to suggest that the river should be allowed to rise, the flood plain should be allowed to flood and a big wall should be built around it to hold it back. Now that has changed and another CFRAM proposal has been made. I do not know whether it will be worthwhile. It is certainly taking a long time to resolve the problems in Castleisland.
We have been told that the OPW does not have a role with regard to the River Flesk. The problem is that we do not know who is responsible for it. The riparian landowners certainly cannot go near it. They will lose their payments if they do. At the same time, the N22, which is the national primary road into Killarney, is frequently blocked. This road is used by all emergency services, including ambulances and fire brigades. I can honestly tell the committee that the road did not sink and the 22 houses that are being flooded did not sink. The river has risen and it will continue to rise. The CFRAM study was supposed to sort all of this out, but we were told three months ago that it could do nothing for Glenflesk. Now, after approximately five years of studies, we are back to square one. People have been waiting and wondering what wonderful action would take place and what would be done. Everyone knows and can see that all that needs to be done is to clear out the river.
When I spoke to the new Minister of State with responsibility for flooding, Deputy Canney, about this matter, he advised me to ask the local authority to submit an application under the minor flood mitigation works scheme. I did so on 22 July last and I thought I was flying. I went home and called a meeting to see whether the people of Glenflesk would allow access through their holdings to enable this work to be done. They were all delighted. Three or four weeks later, the director of roads in Kerry said he would not apply for the scheme because he had other worries and concerns. We will still have this problem when it rains again. We often hear about floods that happen once in 100 or 1,000 years, but when six such floods happen in the space of three or four weeks, the years come together very quickly.
I will explain the personal effect this can have on a family. The last drive that a local man, Paddy Healy - there is no problem mentioning his name - got out of his house was in a boat. This was provided by the emergency services, which had spent all day getting into him. It is not fair that the last drive he got out of his house was in a boat. I have to pass close to this place two, three or four times every day. It is only six miles from my home to the location where 22 homes are being flooded. Nothing has been done.
At least, very little has been done. The eyes of flood bridges were cleared. There are surely enough of us in this room to acknowledge what needs to be done and get it going. However, the witnesses will tell me they are not responsible to the local authority. We brought a deputation of 50 people to an area meeting of Kerry County Council in February and the local authority told us that it was not its problem. This is despite the fact that the national primary road, 22 houses and the community hall have been flooded. We must work together. I have the highest regard for fishermen, the fishing industry, etc., but people's lives and individuals having access to their homes and to the emergency services are priorities for me. I was never any good at fishing but I have been informed that fish need sunlight in the rivers. The fish are in the dark because the rivers I know are completely shaded and covered in, so the fish are not thriving either. The fishermen I know complain that there are no fish in the river. Could a lack of sunlight be the cause?
I do not want to take up the whole day, I just want to outline how I feel. Public representatives are caught in the middle. Local authorities are interested in their problems, the OPW is interested in its problem and landowners cannot go at it because Inland Fisheries Ireland will come down on top of them. Until there is some joined-up thinking and everyone sits down together, this will be a serious problem. I said in the Dáil the other day that the River Shannon has half the country flooded. It has not been cleaned out since the English did so in the 1800s. These matters must be acknowledged. As I said in the Dáil, the houses did not sink, and the road did not sink, but the rivers are rising. We need to clear them out, open them up and let the water flow.
I thank the witnesses for speaking to us. My questions are directed specifically to the OPW and relate to flooding. The representatives of the OPW mentioned turloughs, about which I have one question. I am quite aware of the issue relating to turloughs because the national flood conference, which was very informative, was held recently in Ballinasloe. I come from County Roscommon, where we face particular challenges regarding the management of turloughs. I understand that the Geological Survey of Ireland is conducting surveys and has completed some work in this area. I would like to find out the current status of that. Furthermore, do the witnesses have any specific example of an area where management of turloughs has proved positive? I know the data collection is very much in its infancy - and it seems as if turloughs need to be dealt with on an individual basis - but can the witnesses tell me of any area, whether in Ireland or elsewhere, where management of a turlough has resulted in a positive outcome? Other Deputies referred to the devastation caused. What has happened has been hugely devastating for communities right across Roscommon, from Lough Funshinagh to Castleplunket to Boyle. It is particularly difficult that it has been ongoing for quite a number of months. That is what residents in these areas have been facing in recent months. I know the witnesses are very familiar with that part of the country.
In the context of the co-ordination working group, will the witnesses provide a little more information about their meeting on 18 October regarding trialing of the lowering of the levels in Lough Allen and a little more detail on their plan to evaluate the benefits of any short and medium-term programme of localised dredging? As I said, the national flood conference was held in Ballinasloe. The latter has been one of the better success stories of flood management. A flood relief wall was built in the Derrymullan area at a cost of €1.4 million and proved very positive during the flooding last year. It is very important that we progress such flood mitigation measures as quickly as we can. Ballinasloe is a very strong example of an area where they have been successful. I would also like to point out that the minor works scheme has been important but it needs to be more extensive and we need to see works progress as quickly as possible because we are very near a potential period of more heavy rainfall.
My questions concern the co-ordination group and the actions arising from the meeting about the Shannon and turloughs.
Mr. Seán Hogan:
I will start with Deputy Ó Cuív's questions. I think his first point concerned the possibility of a grant scheme for smoke alarms. He highlighted what was done in the case of the islands and isolated communities a number of years ago. I am very much with him on that. There was a double benefit to what was done on the islands because the fire service cannot respond there. The approach over the past decade has been what we call community fire safety, that is, trying to link with people, get into the homes, get smoke alarms into the homes and educate people on the risk of fire. As well as the actual benefit, Deputy Ó Cuív mentioned the reduction in the number of fires on the islands. Creating an awareness of fire and the risks involved and so on has been one of the huge benefits. We are entirely with Deputy Ó Cuív on the issue of smoke alarms. We actually have a smoke alarm scheme at present in the national directive. In 2016 we will supply 14,000 smoke alarms to local authorities for distribution to people identified within the community as being particularly at risk from or vulnerable to fire. Fire services do not necessarily have access to people in these areas, so it is by linking with the community groups, public health nurses and various other people that the fire service can access those who are most at risk. Independent research undertaken by DCU indicates that the level of penetration of smoke alarms is very significant in the country now. Well in excess of 90% of households report having smoke alarms. What is not at all as clear is whether those smoke alarms are working.
Mr. Seán Hogan:
Yes, and there are various other issues. We asked that the people living farthest from fire stations be prioritised for smoke alarm schemes so that we would get out there. The key issue from our perspective is life safety. In turn, smoke alarms are key in that regard and not, I regret to say, proximity to a fire station. It is the fees. Obviously, it affects the level of damage.
While we have set standards which push for a relatively high level of fire safety in houses accommodating Gaeltacht students, I would highlight the risk involved in there being 15 or 20 teenagers staying in a house. What we do not want anywhere is a tragedy in such a case being reported. I regret to say I am familiar with one case in which there was a fire in a house in which 15 students were staying, but the system worked. There were other issues involved but that is the nightmare scenario. We are certainly open to considering joining our grant scheme for smoke alarms with the CLÁR programme and the various other groups and community groups and whatever else can be done. We see the future in the joining up of our schemes in such a way. Between the fire service and us, we will not be able to access the people who need to be accessed but we will have to get there.
I interpreted Deputy Ó Cuív's second question as meaning that every county would develop its own service. He makes a fair point because that was how it used to be. Fire services are provided by local authorities and, according to the way the legislation was framed, they were to develop or could pick their own standards. They could do whatever they wanted to do. That has been the case since the directorate came in. We have tried to change that focus by publishing a document called Keeping Communities Safe.
It set out for the first time national standards for fire services and introduced the idea of area risk categorisation. There is clearly a difference between the risk of fire in an area in the west and Dublin inner city and the docks; therefore, we must consider how to grade the fire risk in an area and how to match the fire service with this risk. That is what the document did. It took the existing fire services and worked from there. It was something that had been sought for 30 years and we were successful in doing it. We were able to do it because we had data. We were able to supply fire services with three years of fire data in order that they could complete an area risk categorisation. The data showed the numbers of fires in communities during the previous three years. We were able to show them by fire station throughout the country. Local authorities took the data, looked at individual fire stations and could see if the number of chimney fires was twice the national average or if the number of false alarms was three times the national average and could then decide to try to resolve some of these issues. The process enabled them to do this.
As shown on the cover of the report, each fire station area has been graded as very high, high, medium, low or very low in terms of fire risk. There were 217 fire stations when the report was produced and there are now 218, as a new station was opened in Carraroe in west Galway, probably as a result of consideration of the data available. The data are being used. Having graded an area, the type of fire service required could be considered, as could the number of fire engines needed and the timescales within which they should they arrive. The document sets out this information. Each of the 27 fire services engaged in this exercise. We met everyone, heard presentations and captured the information on actual response times.
I accept the point that as fire services are provided by local authorities, they are a type of independent republic, but now they are independent republics which must benchmark themselves against national standards, hence "local delivery national consistency" is part of the title. We believe we have cracked it after 30 years in which we were not sure how to go about it. We believe we have succeeded in achieving it. That is a significant point.
In Scotland which is comparable to Ireland there is one national fire service. There was an adviser from Strathclyde. Have the efficiency of utilisation of money and the quality of service been compared to our fragmented system? The National Ambulance Service seems to be achieving synergy across county borders. Has the Scottish system been examined and how does it compare in terms of effeciency in rural areas? I understand there are fewer chief fire officers and more fire staff than here.
Mr. Seán Hogan:
It is an interesting issue which was raised when the fire service was reviewed in 2011 and 2012 when the possibility of moving to a national service was considered in considerable depth. However, the decision was made, as conveyed in the report, to stick with the local authority service. There is synergy in having the service provided by local authorities with local decision making rather than having a national quango. Local authorities make decisions on the location of fire stations and put up the funding for them. They must now benchmark themselves against national standards, but it is not a matter of the Custom House telling them they do not need a fire station in a particular place because it would not be busy enough. Local politicians get to make this decision. The danger in having a national service is that this local decision-making is removed. I am very aware that Scotland has moved from a service provided by the local authorities to a national system and it would be fair to say the jury is still out, but it came with a price tag. The opening shot was to cut the cost of fire services by £30 million, which was a big ask because staff pay accounted for 80% of the cost of fire services and was not an overhead. In Scotland there is now a single chief fire officer, but there are the same number of structures required. There is one Garda Commissioner, but we have chief superintendents who correspond to chief fire officers. There are 200 senior fire officers who provide a huge range of services. In the past ten years the fire service has led in major emergency management in local authorities. I have no doubt that the response to the flooding last winter stemmed directly from the work done and led by the fire service on behalf of the local authorities. It has enabled them to work with the Garda, the HSE and everybody else. There are 200 senior fire officers, including 27 chief fire officers, who provide a huge range of services, including specialist services which I will be happy to list, if the committee wants me to do so. It is fashionable to attack senior fire officers, but we need a structure to manage services and we have a good structure in place. We have a lean service in that the number went from 270 to 200, but the number of fire fighters did not fall during the tough times.
Mr. Seán Hogan:
I can make a detailed statement on budgets and copy the information to the Chairman. I do not have figures for 2008, but in 2009 the budget for fire services was €286 million. This figure declined to €272 million in 2010. Between 2011 and 2014 it remained level at €267 million and increased to €269 million last year. In 2016 it is projected to be €276 million. Therefore, it is increasing again, having been level for four years. The drop was entirely attributable to the general reductions in public service pay in those years. Local authorities have clearly prioritised their fire services, which is a benefit of the system. They held spending on them level at a time when general local authority expenditure had declined by 8.6%. The number of fire fighters remained the same during the same period at a time when other services were cut. I can supply tables to show this. A benefit of the local government system was that the local authorities decided to prioritise their fire services and kept money and staff in the area.
I cannot provide details of average distances, but I can provide the response times, as set out on page 26 of the report. It shows that 40% of the population are being hit within ten minutes, that 66%, or two thirds, are being hit within 15 minutes and 83% within 20 minutes. These figures increase to 92% being hit within 25 minutes and 95% within 30 minutes. I would not have been able to provide this information five years ago, but we have been able to collect these data and these are the actual response times. Local authorities have good infrastructure, with 218 fire stations which are well distributed in towns. We receive many queries and questions, but they are not generally about the response of the fire service.
Mr. Seán Hogan:
The fire service works with the National Ambulance Service if it needs assistance. We work with it in responding to road traffic accidents and other incidents in the emergency management sphere. There is an issue in Dublin. Dublin Fire Brigade provides a very good ambulance service in the city, but it is fair to say there is a domain between the two services in which they are competing which is not good for the public. The possibility of using the retained ambulance service to supplement the response to category D and E emergency ambulance calls is under active consideration in the fire service group.
We have a structure whereby we work with staff interests to develop a proposal around what might work, indicating how it would work and what the benefits would be for communities. We are actively looking at that issue which we have flagged to the health sector, but we have not yet engaged with it on any proposal. We are actively working on how the local authority infrastructure might be used to the benefit of communities. If it can, we will be anxious to go there, assuming that we can work up an agreement.
On how we respond, there are some changes proposed. We have always supported the principle that the response should come from the nearest resource rather than being based on municipal boundaries. This principle is restated in Keeping Communities Safe. We engaged in a huge exercise which involved taking account of every address and townland in the country and working out the nearest resource to them, including the nearest 20 fire points in the event of a plane crash. It is what we call our risk-based approach project and we have a huge amount of data. In a large proportion of the country we operate on the basis that the nearest available resource will be dispatched in response to a call. There are a few pockets, however, where, for reasons of history and because of other issues, usually cross-Border issues, this does not apply. An example is a fire brigade having to travel for up to 20 minutes to respond a house fire in an area where there is a fire station located across the county boundary. From our perspective, this is not sustainable and we have asked the local authorities to review the matter. We have provided them with data that should inform their thinking on it. The cost benefit lies in the fire service getting to areas quicker. Our figures show that approximately 4.5% of the population, or 200,000 people, would benefit from this exercise when completed. We expect to increase our response times without changing anything in the service other than what we call predetermined attendance. The principle is to utilise the nearest available resource. I do not think anybody can argue against this principle, but there are delays because, as I am sure members will appreciate, people are possessive of their fire station ground. Fire service personnel are paid on a per call basis. Therefore, if one fire station was to concede some of its ground to a neighbouring station, its personnel would not earn as much as their colleagues in the station next door. These are the issues we are trying to resolve.
On changes to predetermined attendance generally and the concern that particular stations are being run-down, during the exercise mentioned we also looked at setting standards across approximately 50 categories of fire incident and considered the desired response to each of them. As stated by Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, the response one might have to a fire in Galway might be different from that in County Mayo or Dublin. For example, we took the view that in the case of a house fire, there should be two pumps with a minimum of nine people, but in the case of a skip fire, a single pump would be appropriate. We set out a table of national predetermined attendance figures. What has happened - obviously, there is some concern about this - is that the level of calls to single pump stations has decreased because in the case of a significant fire, the response has not been to send a single pump, as would have been the case in the past, but two. Therefore, the nearest tender with two pumps is dispatched in response to a significant fire. This is, in part, the reason costs have been kept together. The service is not being run down, rather it is being standardised such that the response to a house fire in County Mayo is the same as that in counties Galway and Clare and so on.
During periods of very dry weather there are many - perhaps too many - gorse fires across County Kerry which often have to be tackled by up to five fire brigades, but they are powerless because they cannot move off the road. Fire service personnel are very good, but they can only do so much. Why does the service not use excavators to open a fire belt to stop a fire from spreading? We have seen fires continue for four or five days. In many cases fire brigades run out of water and there is no supply accessible to them at such locations. Why does the service not diversify and in some instances use excavators which would be more cost effective?
Mr. Seán Hogan:
We train our personnel in how to manage gorse fires which pose a particular set of difficulties. We always have in mind the safety of our fire fighters because gorse fires can be very dangerous. We have a process and procedures in place which include the development of fire breaks as needed, but that is left to the judgment of the local station officer.
Perhaps Mr. Campbell might ensure the information is made available to the committee because it is of interest to all members. In my constituency of Enfield there is a building that is under the management of the OPW that has been idle for the past two or three years. There are many community organisations which have sought to sign a short-term contract with it for use of the building but so far they have been refused permission.
Mr. Vincent Campbell:
I will contact my colleague and we will provide the information sought.
On the breakdown of major schemes and investment in the past few years, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív is also seeking a breakdown of the spend of €480 million. It covered approximately 37 major schemes. Other workw would also have been carried out. The latest schemes on which work was completed were in Fermoy, County Cork; on the River Wad in Dublin; in Carlow, Phase B; Clonmel and Mallow and on the River Dodder. I can make the full list available to the committee. The Deputy also asked for a breakdown on a map. We will do that. We can also include arterial drainage projects. I will provide a copy of the document to which I am referring for each member of the committee following the meeting. The areas marked in red are the arterial drainage districts for which the local authorities are responsible. The areas marked in blue are the arterial drainage districts for which the OPW has responsibility. We can clarify the matter further, if required.
A question was posed as to level of works completed. There is a strong view among elected representatives - this is not necessarily the fault of the OPW; it is a budgetary issue - that in terms of the demand for action and its delivery, one is dwarfed by the other. I understand there is to be a ramping up of investment in this regard, but there is a feeling the State was caught napping in recent years in terms of the low level of investment. I also understand the national co-ordination group has not met for a number of years. It was reported in April that there had been a four-year hiatus in developing strategies for works required and so on. Will Mr. Campbell assure the committee that the disparity between the need for action and its delivery will be addressed?
Mr. Vincent Campbell:
On the size of our spend for 2016, in the year we are targeting somewhere in the order of €67 million or €68 million in total. That will be broken down with up to €52 million on major schemes, which is a significant spend in delivery. That is represented by 12 major schemes at construction stage, which is unprecedented. However, it also takes on board that there is in the order of 21 further schemes at various stages of development, with six of those due to go to construction during 2017. As I mentioned earlier, on an annual basis we spend in the order of €15 million per annum maintaining our arterial channels. We target somewhere in the order of 2,000 km for maintenance per annum, so over a five-year rolling basis we target 11,500 km of channel. It is a significant amount of ongoing work. There is certainly not a slow-down in any way of commitment or activity right across the various spheres.
In total, we are talking about just under €70 million of activity all going towards flood relief works. By 2021, we will go to €100 million when the Catchment Flood Risk Assessment and Management, CFRAM, programme comes on board. Mr. Adamson can speak about that. Basically, coming up to €100 million per annum is a significant ratcheting up of activity. With each of those schemes, a significant period is taken from identification to development to going through the various phases, whether it is planning, public exhibition or down to going through environmental impact assessments. There are different steps through the process that take considerable time. Ultimately, what is being developed and put in place by the Office of Public Works, OPW, are schemes that will meet the 100-year target. In essence, these projects are not meeting an event of five or ten years but a 100-year event. It is important to point that out. There are schemes that we have put in place that I can speak to the committee about and none has failed. It is important to point that out and with the time put in, one can see benefits of major flood risk schemes in the various communities.
Mr. Seán Hogan:
The Chairman was talking about cuts in funding in Met Éireann and difficulties, and there is also the issue of why we do not act more on forecast information. I am afraid I cannot speak for Met Éireann and the budgets. I know it is a 24-hour organisation and under the same pressures as every other section of government has had over the past number of years. I am the recipient of its forecasts and I can say how we work as the lead department in response to flooding. At this time of year we get a 30-day forecast. It is a developing science but it gives us a look-out for approximately four weeks as to where things are. Generally, one can see a pattern of where things are coming from. At approximately ten days out, the position starts to become fairly definite as to what is going to happen. With the five-day forecast, the people are pretty sure. I have developed a fairly close working relationship over the past five or six years with Mr. Gerald Fleming, and I know when the service can say it is not sure which way a storm will go. We might get down to 48 hours beforehand before it can say for sure what will happen, although we know an event is coming.
The question can then arise as to what can be done with that information. The warnings are distributed through the system, including the Office of Public Works, local authorities and everybody else. Our decision relates to when an event is significant enough to go national. For example, on 3 December last year we would have been aware that Storm Desmond was coming and the likely impact. We convened the national emergency co-ordination group two days out and it was the first severe weather event of the year, so we ensured that everybody at a national level was up to the piece. We also contacted the local authorities. That is how we use the current system. Mr. Jim Casey of the OPW would have been in and there would have been details from the European Flood Awareness System, EFAS, along with Met Éireann and the ESB. We share the information in order to get a picture; we give it to local authorities and try to use it for our basis of development.
There are plans to develop a national flood forecasting and warning service but that is flagged as a long-term project. One might need five years to calibrate the system. Each catchment, for example, would need to be calibrated before we could say we are expecting a flood in an area. There is an interim system. It is part of the job I do.
Mr. Vincent Campbell:
There are 12 schemes currently in construction, including Bray; the River Dodder in Dublin; Waterford, phases two, three and four; south Campshire in Dublin; Claregalway, which is now on-site; Bandon in Cork; Dunkellin; Foynes; Skibbereen; we have just gone on-site on Northlands in Meath; and we have signed the contract for Limerick's King's Island, which is now on-site. We will provide the committee with the list. As I stated earlier, there are 21 further schemes at various stages of development and we will provide that information to the committee as well.
With regard to channel clearance, this comes down to whether it is a drainage district or a place comes under the arterial maintenance scheme. If it is part of the 11,500 km, we fund that and we have allocated an annual €15 million to continue the clearance. The responsibility for drainage districts clearly lies with the local authorities in the first instance. I am not trying to bring a wedge between either the OPW or local authorities but it is as clear as that. If there is a doubt about a particular area, we can certainly work with the local authority and anybody involved. Outside of that, it is clearly the responsibility of landowners or riparian owners.
We accept there are issues, which have been pointed out. One of the works of the interdepartmental committee is the provision of guidance. There are so many issues involved. For example, whatever guidance is provided to riparian owners must comply with the habitats and birds directives. We must clear on what can or cannot do, who people can contact and when work can be done. There will be clear guidance coming towards the end of the year on what work can be done and where one can go for guidance on that. I accept there are issues that need to be addressed and we are doing our utmost, working with the various agencies.
It is not just an OPW issue. Other relevant departments and organisations are involved, which is critical. The interdepartmental committee will issue clear guidance on the matter.
The drawdown of funding is an issue that was raised by more than one Deputy. It is a matter for local authorities in terms of drainage districts.
The minor works scheme was introduced in 2009. It has worked well as there have been 600 applications since then, which is significant. The applications complement some of the major schemes but they are also relevant to areas that would not qualify for a major scheme in their own right. It is important that assistance is available. The OPW provides funding to local authorities to carry out the work. In some instances the OPW has assisted the local authorities in carrying out the work. In 2016 to date we have had 70 applications. All of the information on approved minor works schemes is published on our website and everybody who wishes can see what has been applied for and granted. The information is published on the OPW's website and is publicly available. In 2016 we have allocated somewhere in the order of €3 million to fund minor works schemes that were previously approved. There are many small works taking place around the country that complement major works. That shows we recognise that there are small pockets of communities that must be sorted. The scheme is a methodology that allows local authorities to come on board with costed proposals. Our engineers vet the costs and ensure they meet the cost-benefit ratio as many of the projects would not meet the 100 years defence-----
Mr. Mark Adamson:
Before I come to the initial questions I shall quickly touch on an issue raised by the Chairman, as to whether one can have confidence in what the OPW does. Prior to 2004 our focus had been on flood relief schemes and urban flood protection. A major policy review was undertaken in 2003 and 2004 that set us on a much wider programme of initiatives. A huge amount of work has been undertaken in a planned and co-ordinated way since then, including the CFRAM programme, the development of guidelines for sustainable planning, the work that led up to the announcement this year to initiate a national flood forecasting service and the work we did with our colleagues in the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government in terms of developing guidance on emergency response planning to name but a few. A huge amount of work has been ongoing.
The CFRAM programme has taken us forward in terms of considering strategic planning to address the most serious areas of flood risk around the country. Another question asked was whether more research than works is taking place. The CFRAM programme has been an unprecedented programme in terms of its scale of assessment. It is the largest assessment and planning programme for flood risk that has been undertaken. For the first time, a strategic long-term investment programme is being developed that gives us confidence that we have a clear sight line of direction. Recently a peer review of the Irish practice in flood risk management was undertaken by Dutch water experts from the Dutch Government. They came here and generally gave us a very positive report. They noted that our overall approach, particularly through CFRAM, was very much in line with international best practice.
I shall touch on some of the issues raised. It has been mentioned that water levels have been high along the River Shannon, and this is particular true for some of the turloughs. If I may, I wish to link into the comment made by Senator Hopkins that the water table that drives flooding in and around turloughs can remain high for a long period. It must be recognised that each turlough behaves in a somewhat unique way and they are all different. In order to understand how turloughs behave, we need to capture data to inform that, which then allows us to assess what potentially can be done to alleviate the problem. We are working with the Geological Survey of Ireland, GSI, at the moment. This will be a period of work that will take more than a few months. We need to carry out extensive data collection to make sure we do truly understand what is going on.
I do not have to mind positive examples of where turlough flooding issues have been solved. I understand there have been examples in Ireland. There is the difficulty that a turlough, by its very nature, creates an SAC because of the rare habitats that develop in them and it is the variation of water levels that creates a rare habitat. To interfere with the water level can be detrimental to a habitat, which then causes a problem. Works have been done to top off at the very extreme levels and to try to syphon water away. Clearly, we need to carry out such work where it is economically viable to do so.
Recently water levels have dropped due to a relatively dry period. A question was asked about Lough Allen. Last Friday the water level of Lough Allen had reached the revised minimum level that we are setting in terms of considering a pilot to draw down water levels. The water level was about 0.7 m lower than the previous normal winter level. We are finalising protocols to draw down the water level safely. Clearly, to draw the levels down we need to release water and make sure that when we do so we do not create or exacerbate flooding downstream. Trying to build up a storage by flooding people downstream would be unacceptable. We need to make sure we have clear protocols build around the process.
I shall finish by responding to the Senator's point about pinch points. We have carried out a huge amount of analysis through the Shannon CFRAM programme on what can be done to alleviate flooding along the River Shannon. Dredging, in various forms, was investigated in detail but it is an expensive option due to the sheer scale of the River Shannon. The costs very significantly outweigh the potential benefits of doing so, notwithstanding the potential environmental impacts that attach as well. The group is minded that we need to consider whether local maintenance might be taken forward at a lower cost to provide local benefits. To be honest, the impacts in terms of reducing flood levels through very localised maintenance is going to be limited but, notwithstanding that, the option will be explored.
Pinch points are another element. There is a throttle upstream from Meelick Weir. People have often considered that Meelick Weir causes flooding on the Callows. We have conducted analysis showing that even the complete removal of Meelick Weir would have very little impact because there is a throttle upstream that we have named the pinch points. There is a measure set out in the Shannon flood risk management plan to take forward further investigations of the pinch points because their removal costs much less than dredging. It also provides benefits in terms of lowering levels during certain flood conditions. We need to see if we can undertake selective work in terms of removing those pinch points to gain the maximum benefit from the works done. The works assessed so far are not cost beneficial so we need to appraise the agricultural benefits that it would generate.
Our focus typically is on benefits to properties, farm lands and so forth. Finally, we will have to undertake a detailed ecological survey because the area is a SAC so we must ensure we are fully compliant with environmental legislation.
The issue of Glenflesk was raised. Vincent Campbell has already discussed the issue of channel maintenance. Through the CFRAM we were unable to identify an economically viable measure that would provide protection to the properties in Glenflesk, unfortunately, but we were with regard to Castleisland. A scheme is being proposed in the south-west flood risk management plans that is viable and will provide protection to quite a large number of properties in that area.
I hope I have answered members' questions.
I thank both groups for attending and giving us such a detailed presentation on the areas under their responsibility. If we had more time we could go into further detail, but undoubtedly we will get an opportunity to speak to both organisations again in the term of this Dáil. The content you have given the committee will provide us with detailed information that will become part of our report, which hopefully will be published in the new year. Thank you again.
We will suspend the sitting for a few minutes to allow our guests to leave and the new witnesses to enter.
We will now discuss what it takes to sustain viable rural communities with representatives of An Garda Síochána. Go raibh maith agaibh as teacht isteach agus tá fáilte mhór romhaibh. I welcome Mr. Jack Nolan, assistant commissioner; Mr. Karl Heller, chief superintendent; Mr. Niall Featherstone, inspector, community engagement and public safety; Mr. Gurchand Singh, head of the Garda Síochána analysis service. Thank you for attending the meeting today.
By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give to the committee. However, if they are directed to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. The opening statement and any other documents witnesses submit to the committee will be published on the committee website after this meeting. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
We will now continue our consideration of stream two of our project, céard a theastaíonn a dhéanamh chun pobal tuaithe inmharthana a chaomhnú. In this session we will focus on maintaining a continuous and active Garda Síochána presence in our rural communities. Obviously, if people are to be able to continue to live in rural communities, they must feel safe in those communities. One of the keys to that is a functioning Garda Síochána service. I invite Mr. Nolan to make his presentation.
Mr. Jack Nolan:
You have introduced the team, Chairman, so I will not do so. It is an honour to be here today to represent the Garda Commissioner and to address the joint committee on the topic of a continuous and active presence in rural communities.
An Garda Síochána is somewhat unique in that we are intricately linked into the fabric of every aspect of Irish society. Our members work, live and socialise in the communities that we are honoured to police. Nowhere is this more true than in rural communities.
Everyone here has an intrinsic interest in this topic. We are all too aware of the challenges faced by rural communities and their unique requirements from a policing perspective. I hope that by the end of this session committee members will believe they have been fully updated on the various initiatives put in place by An Garda Síochána in rural communities to deliver a continuous and proactive service and that they will have an awareness of the relationships cultivated between An Garda Síochána and external community stakeholders. On our policing approach, An Garda Síochána has a long established tradition of developing and maintaining close relationships with the communities in which it works and is grateful for the invaluable assistance it has received during the years from many members of those communities.
As members will be aware, An Garda Síochána comprises six regions, 28 divisions, 96 districts and 564 Garda stations, with 12,420 sworn members, excluding members on secondment overseas and other placements. We also have 2,000 civilian support staff and 739 Garda Reserve members.
On crime, the most recent Garda analysis figures indicate that the level of property crime has reduced by 21% nationally in the year to date. The number of burglaries continues to decrease, with 34% fewer crimes committed this year. The number of crimes against the person is also down by 4%. An Garda Síochána delivers its policing service with equal efficiency, effectiveness and impartiality to all communities in Ireland. It is difficult to extrapolate and sometimes difficult to identify the distinction, from a crime statistics perspective, in the impact on urban and rural communities. However, we estimate that the statistics divide on a ratio of 70:30.
An Garda Síochána is committed to maintaining an active police presence in rural Ireland which manifests in the district and station network which ensures a Garda footprint in every community throughout the country and is supported and reinforced by several initiatives, one of which is the Garda national community policing model, in which community gardaí engage in community partnership building to enhance the delivery of the Garda service within communities. Such engagement is a joint process between An Garda Síochána and community groups working together to improve the quality of life of people living in these areas and reflect their needs and priorities. We also utilise the community alert and neighbourhood watch networks.
As members will be aware, the community alert scheme was introduced by Muintir na Tíre and An Garda Síochána in 1985 to encourage rural dwellers to reduce the opportunities to commit crimes and the level of isolation felt among vulnerable local community members. There are 1,409 community alert groups across rural Ireland, with a presence in every rural Garda district. The community alert scheme gives An Garda Síochána direct access to 387,000 rural homes through a network of community liaison gardaí. This is supplemented by additional levels and layers of contact by Garda management, particularly at district meetings. Every autumn each district superintendent arranges a public meeting with representatives of community alert and neighbourhood watch schemes. This provides an opportunity to co-produce community crime prevention plans that are devised and owned by communities and An Garda Síochána. It is further emphasised through divisional meetings held every spring at which every divisional chief superintendent showcases new crime prevention practices and ideas.
Neighbourhood watch is also a significant programme which shares the same ethos and tenets as the community alert scheme and is present in every Garda division in Ireland. Principally, the programme concentrates on encouraging property owners to protect their property and report suspicious activity in urban areas. Since its establishment in 1985, there are now 1,122 schemes in rural areas, incorporating 136,000 households, with a further 1,221 schemes in Cork, Limerick and Dublin covering 205,000 households. There are the same contact structures for the neighbourhood watch scheme, with contact by a community liaison garda at district and divisional level. There has been a very noticeable increase in the numbers of new and reactivated neighbourhood watch schemes in recent years.
Another tool used by An Garda Síochána in community engagement with partner agencies is the text alert system. Through a well established partnership approach with Muintir na Tíre, the neighbourhood watch scheme and the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, An Garda Síochána continues to roll out the very successful text alert system, a communication tool which is utilised by the community alert and neighbourhood watch programmes in every Garda division in Ireland. Devised in 2013, there are now 984 schemes with 184,000 subscribers who receive text messages from An Garda Síochána. The programme enjoys very significant support from communities. The Department of Justice and Equality recently announced a text alert rebate scheme to financially assist communities participating in the scheme. Apart from informing communities of imminent criminal threats or dangers, the text alert system is also used to promote public safety, particularly during inclement weather. A series of regional text alert seminars to inform communities and individuals will conclude this autumn. This will help to improve and expand the service. The community text alert system encourages people to report suspicious activity to An Garda Síochána which will, in turn, relay verified and appropriate crime prevention information to the public. The emphasis is on preventing crime through active partnership with communities. The service is community driven and provides a mechanism for a community or residents’ association to register a community contact with the local Garda district headquarters.
Another system for interacting with communities is the theft stop scheme. An Garda Síochána and the IFA recognised the need to assist farmers in preventing the theft of their farm equipment and machinery and as a result, the theft stop scheme was developed. The initiative was piloted initially in County Donegal and rolled out in County Tipperary in 2014 and the scheme is currently in the process of being rolled out nationally. Theft stop is a farm theft prevention initiative that provides members with unique identification codes to mark farm equipment. The marked equipment is then recorded on the theftstop.iewebsite. Marking property in this way acts as an effective crime deterrent and will help to reduce the theft of farm equipment. Theft stop members can purchase stencil kits or metal punching sets for use in applying their unique codes. The theft stop scheme provides An Garda Síochána with a comprehensive database of registered farm equipment which can be used in investigation, recovery and identification processes.
Another crime prevention scheme used by An Garda Síochána is the metal theft crime prevention and reduction plan which was launched by the Garda Commissioner in February 2013. The crime of metal theft strikes at the very heart of rural communities and has become a significant security and safety concern for An Garda Síochána, businesses and the public. The impact of metal theft prompted An Garda Síochána to develop a proactive plan to tackle the increase in this crime nationwide. To promote a multifaceted approach to preventing metal theft, An Garda Síochána established a metal theft forum to bring key stakeholders together. The most recent meeting of the forum was held last Friday, 28 October, and was the 11th such meeting since its inception. Representatives of a number of groups attend the forum and the collaborative approach has assisted in the development of a knowledge and assisted intelligence gathering process. It has resulted in raising awareness of metal theft through briefings by the key stakeholders and the National Crime Prevention and Public Safety Bureau using operational Garda personnel. The forum has also facilitated the development of external awareness-raising measures through the use of the Garda website and other media outlets, as well as through the "Crimecall" television programme.
Another mechanism for community contact and crime prevention is the use of closed circuit television, CCTV, systems. CCTV systems are part of an overall local policing strategy which encompasses joint policing committees, local authorities and community crime prevention initiatives. From a Garda perspective, a CCTV system in a public place is primarily an aid to policing. An Garda Síochána is committed to the development of innovative policies and practices aimed at enhancing the service provided for the public and improving the quality of life in rural communities. In reducing the incidence of crime, anti-social behaviour, public disorder, vandalism and the general fear of crime, An Garda Síochána supports the installation of CCTV systems. There are 91 public CCTV systems in place nationally, comprising 36 Garda schemes and 55 community schemes.
The rural crime phenomenon is an issue that has featured regularly in correspondence. An Garda Síochána has responded to this phenomenon by utilising a number of very effective operations. Operation Thor which was launched in November 2015 actively targets organised crime gangs and repeat offenders through co-ordinated crime prevention and enforcement activity, using intelligence and the latest crime trends and patterns to protect communities. It has increased Garda visibility in local communities to prevent burglaries and related crimes.
Operation Thor has also produced more high-visibility checkpoints and has increased patrolling on the motorway network, thereby denying criminals the use of the roads. It has enhanced the use of intelligence, technology and data to target prolific offenders and organised crime gangs. It has put a strong focus on working with communities to reduce opportunities for burglaries to take place. Its national awareness campaign to inform people on how to enhance the security of their homes has been highly effective.
The Garda bureau of community engagement, through the national crime prevention and public safety bureau, has produced a radio advertisement promoting the "lock-up-light-up" campaign. This provides advice to householders on home security, with particular emphasis on lighting up one's home during the darker winter months.
The national crime prevention and public safety bureau has distributed thousands of leaflets to crime prevention officers in each Garda division for dissemination to local communities. The crime prevention officers are also available to members of the public and to residents and business groups to discuss and advise on home security issues. They regularly engage with community groups to provide crime prevention advice and information.
The divisional operations under Operation Thor, such as Project Storm in the south-eastern region in the Carlow-Kilkenny Garda division, are very active. Operations to target metal theft continue on a regular basis. A network of crime prevention officers co-ordinate dedicated crime prevention action days or action weeks across the country. These operations have resulted in property crime being reduced in every Garda region in the county. There has been a 17% reduction in the Dublin region; 24% in the eastern region; 22% in the northern region; 23% in the south-eastern region; 27% in the southern region and 23% in the western region. The actual statistics are available to everybody.
The presence of An Garda Síochána in rural areas is very important. An Garda Síochána, with Government support has recruited a significant number of new trainees since 2014. A total of 200 were recruited in 2014, with an additional 450 trainees in 2015 and by the end of 2016, 650 new Garda trainees will have been recruited. In addition the Government has committed to recruiting a further 800 in 2017. The majority of these trainee gardaí have been allocated to provincial settings and An Garda Síochána proposes to continue with the effective deployment of trainee gardaí in accordance with demand and need. Approximately 330 gardaí retire on an annual basis.
There has been significant investment in the Garda fleet to support mobility, visibility and transport challenges. A total of 505 vehicles have been allocated to the Garda fleet in 2016.
Community policing in another element of the Garda engagement with communities. At present there are 874 Garda of all ranks deployed in community policing settings. This has been a challenging area due to Garda cutbacks and reduced numbers but An Garda Síochána is committed to reorganising and reinvigorating the community policing approach as set out in its modernisation and renewal programme 2016-21, which was launched by the Commissioner earlier this year.
The Garda Síochána modernisation and renewal programme, which has 13 identified goals, will address many of the challenges associated with policing in Ireland and will prepared An Garda Síochána for the many challenges in the coming years. It will renew the culture of An Garda Síochána and will put victims at the heart of the Garda service, as well as ensuring community engagement and public safety. Preventing crime and bringing crime investigation to a new level will be the priority. It will ensure there is investment in roads policing and increased capability in handling national security and organised crime investigations. It will enhance its capabilities to protect cyber-security and prevent cyber-crime. It will ensure there is proper governance and leadership of the Garda Síochána and will manage and motivate the gardaí, who are its best assets. The Garda will also engage in partnerships and collaborations with all stakeholders and all communities. The Garda will invest in technology and will communicate better on all fronts with all elements of society.
An Garda Síochána is confident that its effort to date to ensure a Garda presence in rural communities are sustainable and viable into the future. This, coupled with the considerable investment by the Government in its modernisation and renewal programme, will pay significant dividends to the people.. Rural and urban communities will benefit from continued crime reduction and enhanced community safety and personal protection processes by An Garda Síochána. These expected outcomes reflect the commitment of the Garda to delivering an effective, efficient and responsive policing service, responding to the challenges and the needs of rural communities.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an bhfinné as an gcur i láthair sin.
There is massive respect in the community for the work of the Garda Síochána. The Garda put themselves at risk day in, day out. The people have enormous respect for gardaí. It is impossible to overestimate the fear that exists in certain communities in regard to crime. Anybody who represents a constituency with large rural communities will know that fear exists in rural areas, especially among older people during the winter period. One reason this has happened is the closure of 139 Garda stations in rural areas. Obviously there has been a drop of approximately 3,500 in the number of gardaí in the past number of years. Even with the recruitment of new gardaí, because of the numbers retiring and those who are on career breaks and so on, there is still a small reduction in the number of active gardaí.
I will put a number of questions together and the witnesses might answer them at the end.
A question we are putting to all the stakeholders who appear before the committee is the performance indicator that shows how quickly a service can respond to a person in a rural area. The fire service appeared before us earlier today and they had plenty of statistics on their response times and they could say to us that 95% of the calls they receive are responded to within 30 minutes. Does the Garda Síochána have those specific key performance indicators? This is an important issue because obviously the further one is from an emergency service, an emergency being time sensitive, the more the service is reduced. Let me give a practical example. Ballivor is a rural village in County Meath. In the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, when murder rates were in the region of four or five a year, Ballivor had four gardaí. Now it has two gardaí and the town is much bigger and much more diverse. How is it practical to do more with less? If there are such cuts to Garda numbers and to stations, how can the Garda achieve the same as it would have achieved with the larger numbers? I understand that the argument is that if one puts a Garda car on the road, the garda is mobile and can still get in and out of the areas. However, while Mr. Nolan spoke at length on community engagement and all the different community engagement operations in which the Garda was involved, surely being located in a station in the community is a very important aspect of community engagement. With regard to technology, a recent report on Garda technology indicates it is about 30 years behind the time. I understand there are about 130 Garda stations that are not fully connected to the PULSE system currently, which means that some of the Garda statistics that we are hearing are not necessarily the full representation of people's experience because we have heard from the CSO that when people make a call to the Garda, there is not necessarily a process in place by which that call, that report of a crime, is recorded on PULSE. If Garda stations are not fully linked up to PULSE that will create a difficulty.
Will the witnesses talk for a couple of minutes about the morale in the force in light of the cuts and the difficulties? Gardaí who work in Border areas have told me they will not go out on their own in response to particular calls because of the dangers posed to them. Have the scandals with regard to whistleblowing and so forth had an impact on the morale and functionality of An Garda Síochána?
Is there a correlation between the impressive statistics that have been detailed and the reduction in Garda numbers? If there are fewer functioning gardaí, the capacity of the force to collect information and collate crime reports will be impeded. Will the witnesses talk to us about that?
We have been told that contingency plans involving a small group of gardaí are being put into place in advance of the industrial action that is planned for Friday. It seems that such plans will focus on city centres. At a time when there are difficulties in policing rural areas with the full complement of gardaí, what kind of contingency plans will be made for rural communities to be served by gardaí this Friday? I will bring in the rest of the members before asking the witnesses to respond.
I would like to refer to an interesting statistic that was mentioned by Mr. Nolan. He indicated that An Garda Síochána estimates that crime "statistics divide on a ratio of 70:30" between urban and rural areas. This seems to be in line with something I perceive every week, which is that the risk of my house in rural Connemara being broken into is statistically much less than the risk of the house in Dublin I stay in being broken into. Even though it might not have done my political standing much good, I have been careful over the years not to frighten people in rural Ireland too much. There has been a tendency to exaggerate the threat to people in rural Ireland, particularly in the more rural parts of rural Ireland. This has not done anything to make them safer, but it has certainly had an impact on their quality of life.
I would be interested to know whether the witnesses find that what I call "motorway crime", such as aggravated burglary by organised gangs, decreases the more one gets away from the main arteries and the more one gets to the far reaches of the State. I know this is a big question. Is there a big difference between the type, if not necessarily the volume, of crime in an area depending on whether it is an hour down the motorway from Dublin on the main road to somewhere else or is three or fours away from a major centre of population? Although fantastic schemes like text alert are getting the job done, I worry at times that we are putting fear in people's hearts - I am thinking of old people in particular - without really doing anything for them. This can have a negative impact on their quality of life.
Is there a sense within the force that rural Ireland starts at Bohernabreena and goes to Blacksod and therefore is not a very homogenous area? In my constituency, there is a big difference between Barna and Carna. It is not just a question of replacing the "B" with a "C". Do gardaí find that the type of crime changes as they move further out? My understanding is that a great deal of rural crime is not high-level crime and is quite local. Local gardaí living in communities cannot do anything against crimes carried out by big well-organised gangs that come down to suss the place out. It takes huge resources to track these dangerous gangs and to try to overcome them. There is a big debate in rural areas about how gardaí can deal with young people of 19 or 20 years of age who are going a little off the rails and prevent local issues, as opposed to the imported issues, from developing in these communities. Every community in Ireland would like a resident garda. It is not about Garda stations. I do not believe it does a heap against crime to open a station for two hours a day. It is handy to get the passport stamped, but most rural gardaí are fairly handy and they can get things stamped.
The big issue we find on the ground is the need for a resident garda presence to deal with local crime, as opposed to big organised crime. It is useless against the latter form of crime. I am talking about local issues like young people going wild with their cars. The witnesses know all about the things that local people in certain age groups tend to do. Gardaí work for 40 hours a week, but if there is a resident garda, there is a sense that he or she is always around the local area. That can have a massive impact. Resident gardaí can use their local knowledge to have a word with a young person or tap his or her parents on the shoulder, as it were. That might be sufficient to deal with the matter without the young person ever having to appear in any record or any court. As far as I am concerned, it is not about having a Garda station in the rural community. It is about having a resident garda in that community not to prevent high-level crime but to prevent the low-level stuff that happens in all vibrant local communities. What is the policy in that regard? Is An Garda Síochána incentivised to put in people who want to live in the rural communities they serve? People in most rural communities, including the place where I live, which has always been lucky enough to have a local garda, will say if they are asked that they want to have local gardaí, not to preserve them from high levels of crime but to deal with local stuff. In their reply, will the witnesses give us a sense of the extent to which high-level organised criminal activity decreases as one moves away from the cities and, as a result, gardaí are more focused on the unorganised local issues that have to be dealt with by police all over the world?
I am delighted that representatives of An Garda Síochána are with us today to discuss a few issues. I come from a rural community on a peninsula in west Cork. I attended a community alert meeting last night as the secretary of the Schull district community alert group. The witnesses mentioned that such voluntary organisations, including Muintir na Tíre, try to deliver as best they can by making aid calls to the elderly and getting people to sign up to text alerts. Those of us involved in such groups are worried about certain issues. The Garda station in Goleen, which is on the peninsula I come from, was the last Garda station in Ireland and it was one of the first to be closed. That was a huge concern for the community at the time. It continues to be a concern because the Garda station remains closed. Is there is a possibility of Garda stations reopening? There has been some talk about some Garda stations being reopened. Where are they? When is that going to happen? How is it going to happen?
Squad cars are taken off the road after they have travelled a certain number of kilometres. Has An Garda Síochána considered not taking them off the road? Some of them are not in shocking condition when they are decommissioned. They have passed the national car test, NCT, so they must be drivable. Could they be signed out to rural Garda stations and rural gardaí who are working in communities that do not have Garda cars? That needs to be looked at. If they pass the NCT and it is legal for them to be on the road, that should be enough and the mileage should not matter. They could be sent out to rural communities so that such communities do not have to do without Garda cars. Many rural gardaí have to travel to main centres to pick up squad cars. It is not workable.
People living in rural areas are totally dependent on the Garda and all communities work very closely with the force. I see a considerable number of gardaí at night, sometimes on their own at dangerous times. I often question whether a garda on his or her own at night would be safe if an incident were to occur. How would he or she attend to an incident involving a gathering of 50 or 100 people in the summer months? It is a matter of great concern that one garda would take on a challenge of that nature.
In my local community of Schull, we recently established a closed circuit television camera, CCTV, system. Many other communities have done likewise. Installing CCTV, including cameras with vehicle registration recognition, costs thousands of euro. A grant scheme should be introduced to provide funding for towns that decide to install CCTV systems. The system should be installed in one go, rather than in different steps as currently happens because of shortfalls in funding.
It is great that a significant number of new gardaí are being recruited. As we heard, more than 300 gardaí retire each year and no gardaí were recruited for a number of years. The effect of this is most visible in rural communities where gardaí who retired or were redeployed to larger urban centres were not replaced. This trend should be reversed now that more gardaí are being recruited.
Deputy Ó Cuív made the important point that gardaí no longer live in the areas to which they are deployed. This is a significant loss for rural communities in which the local garda has always been a pillar of the community who worked with young people and knew what was right and wrong. Many children were pulled aside and put right by the local garda which avoided considerable hassle. The change Deputy Ó Cuív described is a serious loss in rural areas. I have been fighting this trend in my community for many years through local divisional meetings and other meetings attended by community representatives. The issue must be addressed, for example, by giving gardaí who agree to reside in the locality when applying to be assigned to a specific area a better chance of securing the position.
On the looming strike by members of An Garda Síochána, it is incredible that the Garda and State have been drawn into this, in particular, as a result of the scandalous manner in which new gardaí are being treated. I fully support gardaí on this issue because it is terribly unfair. I attend divisional meetings with the chief superintendent throughout west Cork and issues such as the lack of gardaí and the shortage of squad cars often arise. Text alert systems were mentioned. These systems should be strengthened and the Garda should increase the level of engagement and communication with them. At a meeting I attended last night, I pointed out that we do not receive text alerts, which is not good enough when the facility is available. There are obviously incidents taking place and a text alert would keep people on their toes. I ask the witnesses to respond.
I am pleased to be given an opportunity to meet the witnesses. I thank them for attending. It is significant that all the Deputies present are from rural areas. Perhaps members from towns and cities do not have as much interest in this issue or they may not experience as many problems as members from rural areas. As Deputies Michael Collins and Ó Cuív stated, it is vital that the Garda engage with people in communities. Much of this engagement has been lost in rural parts of County Kerry. My village of Kilgarvan had a Garda station until a couple of years ago when the then Minister for Justice and Equality, Mr. Alan Shatter, blew the whole thing asunder by closing down a large number of Garda stations. In bad times, when the country did not have much, the village had four gardaí and a sergeant in the station. As the years went by, the number dwindled to two and eventually one but even with only one garda, there was still a high level of engagement with people in the parish. There are 900 people on the electoral register in the area, which does not include children., and every member of every household knew the local garda. Whether in or out of uniform, he was recognisable.
The witnesses should not misunderstand me. The gardaí who come from Kenmare and Killarney are great but people in the village cannot identify them and do not know them as well because they change and are on shifts. The garda in Kilgarvan Garda station was recognisable and people confided in him. We have a lost a wealth of knowledge through the loss of local gardaí. In many instances, they were ahead of the posse because they knew who was who, which meant they also knew who they did not have to waste time with. They were vital.
There are three peninsulas in County Kerry extending from the bay where I live to Castlemaine and Valentia Island. There are many piers and inlets along the coast and people in the county are very worried it is wide open to drug trafficking. This issue is not being adequately addressed. No one seems to know how drugs are being brought into the country. The coastline of County Kerry is long, encompassing Bearhaven, Cahirciveen, Dingle and so forth. We depend on the few gardaí we have to manage the coast, which is hard on them. More resources are required for this purpose.
I am aware from speaking to local gardaí that more CCTV cameras are needed in public places. This technology would be of assistance to local garda units in cases of serious robberies. I have been asked to press for this and I ask the witnesses to make it a priority.
We hear a great deal about Facebook. People should be advised not to place posts on Facebook indicating where they are going. In the past, people were cute and would barely tell someone else if they were going into the village. Now everyone knows via Facebook if someone or an entire family is travelling to Dublin. This makes them a sitting target. It is ridiculous that people are so open about where they are going and what they are doing. Pointing out on Facebook that one is heading off to Spain with the family on holiday creates a sitting target. People post pictures of themselves togged out on some strand, which is grand but their home could be burgled while they are away. They then wonder what happened when they come back.
To give an example of how cute people were in the past, the postmaster used to send his brother out to deliver telegrams. One day, this man met my two uncles while delivering telegrams and asked them how much further he had to go. One of my uncles said, "James, where are you going?"
He said, "Mind your own business, but will you tell me how far I have to go?" No one told people what they were doing. It seems ridiculous. I have to confess I do not use Facebook as I am not much into that. I have the kind of phone that does me. Social media are contributing to many burglaries and robberies and there should be a public awareness campaign telling people to cop on a small bit when giving out information so freely about themselves.
I have come across another issue. I have great respect for gardaí and I know the Garda has the people in the community at the forefront all the time. Members of An Garda Síochána should be allowed to retire when they want to do so; it should be their own wish. When many gardaí retire at the age of 50 or 54, they still have an awful lot to offer. They have a wealth of knowledge and many ways to deal with matters, which they have built up over their careers. At that stage of their careers, it comes very easy to them. It should be up to members to decide when they retire; it should be their own decision. At that age, they are very much at their best and have a lot more to offer.
Mr. Jack Nolan:
There were quite an array of questions covering many policing and social issues in the State. Perhaps I will start with the first matter raised by the Chairman; the fear of crime. I will call on my colleague Dr. Singh, who is the head of our analysis service, to speak about that. The fear of crime is a very pertinent issue, to which other members alluded, and that fear can be somewhat misplaced. We have begun to see this through our public attitude survey, conducted on a quarterly basis, across the State. The findings of the survey on fear of crime at local level do not seem to be manifested. I will ask Dr. Singh to address that issue in more detail, if that is okay with the committee.
Dr. Gurchand Singh:
I might take a few of the issues at the same time. I will first turn to the trends in terms of the recorded crime figures. In the public attitudes survey we asked several sets of questions, one of which was if people had been a victim of crime. Since we started this survey, in the first quarter of 2105 up to the most recent results, one of the things we have seen is a reduction in victimisation rates. This is irrespective of whether people have reported it to the Garda or not. We asked a nationally representative random sample of people if they had been a victim of crime. It was not all sets of crime, but it was large volume crimes. We have seen a reduction in victimisation rates. I will give the committee a sense of that. When we looked at rural communities within the first quarter of 2015, about 12% of people said they had been a victim of crime. That figure has been dropping steadily and in the third quarter of 2016 about 5.1% of people said they had been a victim of crime. The people we have asked are a nationally representative selection. I have confidence in the recorded crime figures also showing a downward trend, so I have confidence that the trend is correct. There are issues about the volumes but the trend is correct.
This leads us on to another interesting aspect which is if victimisation figures are going down, then how does that impact on people and their feelings? One of the things we also asked about was people's perceptions of crime in their local area. One of the things we see in rural communities is that people's perception of crime in their local communities is actually dropping. If one looks at the third quarter of 2015, 31% of people in rural communities said that crime was a very serious or serious problem. That figure has dropped to 21% in the second quarter. That can be flipped around by asking how many people say that crime is not a problem, but the perception of crime in the local communities has reduced. It is interesting that if one asks about crime in Ireland, as opposed to in the local community, the numbers flip around, with 83% of people in rural communities saying that crime levels in Ireland are very bad and are a very serious or serious problem in Ireland. We have an interesting split where people will say that crime in their local community is not a significant problem and it is actually reducing, but when one talks about Ireland as a whole people will say that actually crime is a significant problem.
In some of the figures from the report we produced for the 2015 public attitude survey as published - we are running this year's survey with additional questions - one of the things we wanted to do was have a look at the whole issue of the fear of crime. Again, we get a very nuanced picture there. When we talk about the fear of crime it is interesting. If one asks a person what is the likelihood of him or her being victimised in a property crime or a crime against the person, people within rural communities are more likely to say that they are not going to be victimised. Some 48% of people in rural areas said that they do not feel they are going to be a victim of crime, compared to 38% of people in city areas. When we asked people if they have a fear of crime, a lot of fear, medium fear or no fear we had interesting responses. People in rural areas are more likely to say they have no fear of crime. When people were asked about the impact it has on their lives or if the fear of crime cripples their quality of life, again people in rural areas are more likely to say that it does not impact on their lives. Some 62% of people in rural communities said that their fear of crime does not impact on their quality of life, compared to 52% of people in city areas. So, the picture is quite nuanced. When the Chairman made reference to a fear of crime or the concern about crime, the question is around where that concern resides? Does the concern reside in what is happening within the local community or does it reside in what the perception of what is happening in the State as a whole? We need to get a much more nuanced picture of people's perceptions around this issue.
The other matter raised was about travelling criminals and the assistant commissioner can answer a bit more on this. This also produces a bit of a nuanced picture. We did a piece of work on this when we were looking at burglary and one of the really interesting things is that in the majority of the burglaries that are detected, the suspect offender actually resides in the division where they offended. There is a travelling element, undoubtedly, but the majority of the incidents are local. We can see that from the figures. The concern about the travelling element arises where there is the notion of unknown people using the motorways etc., and that can certainly have an impact but burglary is a local phenomenon and we just have to be mindful of that.
The recording of the crimes certainly is an issue at which we are looking at. The matter was raised when the Commissioner brought together her senior management team in Westmanstown earlier this week. We are going to meet the Central Statistics Office to put together a plan of action to try to improve the recording of crime because we all realise that the better the recording of crime the better the picture we have and the more likely we are to be able to support the communities we serve.
Mr. Jack Nolan:
That gives the committee a perspective on the fear of crime. The fear of crime is particularly prevalent among the older population. Statistically the older person is least likely to suffer a crime but be greater impacted by the effects of a crime. We are very conscious of this and we attempt to address it through engagements with bodies such as Age Friendly Ireland and we have an older persons' strategy for ensuring communications, visits and calls to the older people in the community.
I probably should address the issue of the closure of Garda stations because each member of the committee has raised it. I am sure everyone present is conscious of the demands that were made on the wider public service. An Garda Síochána, being part of the wider public service, was asked to make hard choices in the difficult financial years of 2007 to 2014, inclusive. We closed 139 Garda stations throughout the country. We also amalgamated 28 Garda districts into 14 bigger, stronger districts. Each one of those closures was carefully analysed and there was a rationale to the process. Could we provide the service from an alternative accommodation. How much policing activity was happening in those stations? What would the clustering of our capabilities at a more central location provide? What was the actual distance between Garda stations? We were also faced with a significant reduction through attrition of our Garda fleet. Interestingly enough, when all of that happened, the monetary savings were pretty small. Overall, the closure of the Garda stations saved approximately €1.8 million per annum. An issue that has not got much publicity is that not having to open those Garda stations generated 64,000 man hours, which were available for Garda patrols and providing a presence in the communities. At a time when our numbers reduced by approximately 2,000 and our budget was significantly reduced, we were able to maintain the Garda presence in communities through the availability of these hours.
The result of that manifested in reductions in crime figures in the past couple of years. The reductions are pretty spectacular. The onset of the extra people, which we referred to earlier, and the increase in and stabilisation of our Garda budgets have allowed us to invest in operations such as Operation Thor, which was referred to by Mr. Singh. We took a detailed approach in those operations. Some of the issues that Deputy Ó Cuív raised as regards travelling criminals were identified. There are groups that specialise in moving around the country and targeting vulnerable persons. They have support groups that target and identify these locations in advance. We have been able to bring those pretty much to justice at this point. A 34% reduction in national burglaries is a pretty satisfying performance by the organisation.
The reopening of Garda stations was mentioned by Deputy Collins. That topic is the subject of consideration between the Policing Authority and An Garda Síochána. It is a commitment in the programme for Government. It is a work in progress. There is a commitment to reopen six Garda stations, the locations of which have not been agreed, decided or identified at this time. From my perspective, An Garda Síochána currently has 565 Garda stations, which is still a pretty sizable footprint across the country. We have 96 Garda districts as well, each of which has a superintendent, barring an ordinary retirement or a transfer to fill a vacancy.
Each Deputy here has alluded to their involvement on joint policing committees. This development came about in 2006 and is one that continues to grow and show promise. It allows community issues to be aired, it allows local authorities to air issues and it also allows Garda superintendents and chief superintendents to portray exactly what is being done about problems in local areas, whether it is a crime, traffic or public order problem. As we all know, many issues and social problems, whether criminal or otherwise, are not solely within the power of one agency such as ourselves to deal with. I regularly see the collaborative approach paying dividends. Everyone here and every guard in the country is committed to having Ireland as safe as possible. Doing it and having the plans to do it takes time, investment, money and resources and so on.
My key point is that it is much more important to have Garda uniforms visible in locations rather than an actual building, albeit the building is a symbol of the State authority and stability in communities. We do everything possible to enhance that visibility. I have outlined our community contact and community engagement approaches-----
The key point being made was that the closure of the Garda stations freed up a number of Garda hours which in itself was a major contributor to the reduction of crime. Is it that an equilibrium has been achieved in the number of necessary Garda stations and that we happen to have a happy medium due to the cuts or is there, as Mr. Nolan states, a logic to the freeing of gardaí out of Garda stations?
Mr. Jack Nolan:
My point is that, at a time when the strength of the organisation was significantly reduced, 64,000 man hours were freed up as a consequence of the closure of Garda stations. This enabled us to have a presence. Currently, we are at the opposite end of the spectrum and are increasing the number of gardaí. By the end of 2016, we will have increased the strength of the organisation by approximately 1,200 people since 2014. The net effect is less than that, due to the 300 concomitant retirements each year. It will be the summer of next year before there is a significant increase in the numbers that will take us back towards the levels we had in the 2007 to 2008 period. The Government has committed to our having 15,000 serving members of An Garda Síochána, a doubling of our civilian strength from 2,000 to 4,000 and a doubling of the Garda reserve from 1,000 to 2,000 people. That will give us a combined strength of 21,000 people. That is a significant physical presence and capability, which will be visible on our streets, in our communities and in our engagement process.
Dr. Gurchand Singh:
To deal with another issue, we have to remember that there was a whole set of rationales put together to identify what Garda stations were to be closed, one of which being crime levels in the area. We closed Garda stations where practically no incidents were recorded. When we closed them, we did a follow-up analysis to see if the closure impacted on crime levels in the area. We must remember that, where an incident occurs in one of those areas, a call is still made to the next local station. The closure of the Garda station had no impact on crime levels. There was no difference. That is not to say there were not some other impacts in terms of concerns and so forth. However, the closure of those particular stations in that round had no impact on crime.
I tabled a series of parliamentary questions approximately a year or a year and a half ago. My understanding is that, in many cases, stations are nominally there but they never open or they certainly do not open on the given hours, days or weeks. It took me a long while to establish that fact, but that is the way it is. Where I live, the issue is not about a physical building - the Garda barracks - being open for two hours from 10 a.m. to 12 noon every day and so on. The issue is that they want the guard to live in the community. When the guard is in the community, it is a totally different scene. This is not necessarily about high-level crime, but low-level crime. This concerns local matters such as local intelligence. Let us be honest about it. If the guard is at a local football match, involved in a committee or so on, there is a feeling that there is a presence there even though the guard is off duty.
My question is quite simple. Is there a policy to incentivise gardaí in rural areas to live in the communities that they are serving? If a garda is living 40 miles away, comes for eight hours and then goes, if he or she does not hear about it in those eight hours, he or she will never hear about it.
As I said, most rural communities take the view that it is a great boon when the garda is part of the community. Equally, most rural communities would like the primary school teacher to live locally because it creates what we call a community. Having come from Dublin to live in a rural community, I know that the amount of information people get as a result of living in the community is phenomenal. I knew that long before I was in politics.
I wish to put a question to Dr. Singh. I was fascinated by his statistics about crime in the country. It reminds me of the attitude towards politicians. If people are asked whether politicians are any good, 90% of people say they are no good. However, if people are asked whether their local politician, the person they know, is any good, they say he or she is different. I think Dr. Singh is getting the same syndrome. In other words people trust the person they know, but somewhere beyond, everyone is bad in some way. I think we are getting that in spades.
The question of whether there is a policy on having a resident garda was raised. That is a key issue. It is not so much about the physical building and whether it is open at fixed times every day - I understand many of them are not open anyway.
Another issue is the fear level. Dr. Singh seemed to make reassuring comments to the effect that despite all the horror stories, most people go to bed at night and do not worry too much about it, because the risk is rather low. Is that what the statistics suggest? Do they suggest people are worrying disproportionately by comparison with the risk? In other words, people are taking reasonable precautions but are not waking up in the middle of the night in terror. Is that the case?
Dr. Gurchand Singh:
I will take a step back and talk about the fear of crime in general. I think the fear of crime is interesting in the sense that the people who are least likely to be victimised are most afraid. As one grows older, one is more likely to feel a higher level fear of crime. Conversely, the people who are most likely to be victimised seem to have the lowest fear of crime. The lowest fear of crime is among young men, but young men are the group most likely to be victimised.
One of the challenges is how we manage people's perceptions of crime, including the fear of crime. We do not want people to have a crippling fear of crime. We do not want older members of the community to be crippled by a fear of crime, since we know the probability of their becoming victims of crime is very low. At the same time, we want other people to take the proper precautions to stop themselves becoming victims of crime. It is not always a logical position. Why should it be, when we are dealing with people's concerns, perceptions and feelings?
Mr. Jack Nolan:
Deputy Ó Cuív asked whether there is an incentive for people to live in local areas. I will attempt to answer that question. There is really no incentive to live in a particular area. Families and people are inclined to move towards areas where there are good schools and better opportunities for employment for their children etc. Outside the Gaeltacht allowance for service in the Gaeltacht areas, there is no living allowance, as such. A rent allowance is paid to members of An Garda Síochána to support rental and accommodation costs. As members are aware, that is another issue within the context of the industrial relations situation that was briefly referred to earlier. As such, there is no allowance to encourage a garda to reside in a particular rural area.
Mr. Karl Heller:
We have 91 CCTV schemes throughout the country. We see this as a growing area. Certainly, I agree with the comments made so far. We have seen schemes develop throughout the country in the south, the west and, in recent times, in the midlands. In 2015 we had 13 applications and in 2016 we had 14 applications.
I will set out the position briefly for Deputy Healy-Rae. The local chief superintendent is required to set up a project group. That group comprises the local garda and members of the local community. The project requires agreement from the local joint policing committee and the local authority, as well as agreement generally from local people within the community.
Invariably, we find that most in the local community are in favour of the scheme. Then, the proposal transfers to my office and to a committee I chair on behalf of the Commissioner. We consider the application. It has to comply with various criteria, such as data protection requirements and so on. We look at technical issues, including the technical specification of the cameras etc. Deputy Ó Cuív referred to locations. Along with representatives of the community, we go on site carefully with crime prevention officers throughout the country. We look for strategic locations to place cameras. It enthuses me greatly is to see how communities have reached the goal of putting in place CCTV. They have done this by funding these schemes themselves. Essentially, there has been no funding for CCTV schemes during the past seven years. We find that local authorities, Tidy Towns committees, community alert schemes and so on tend to fund CCTV schemes. They overcome technical issues such as broadband and so on as well. They go to great lengths. I am very enthused by the level of interest in CCTV. Certainly, we see it as a growing area, along with text alert, which is growing at a phenomenal rate. Over 400,000 people are in receipt of text messages on a monthly basis. Until recent weeks, this area has been primarily funded by the community. We see these two initiatives as successful.
A point was made about local issues. The CCTV and community text alert initiatives feed in to our community alert and neighbourhood watch system. Our neighbourhood watch system reaches over 500,000 people, as the assistant commissioner has said. Deputy Ó Cuív made an important point in this regard. This feeds in to local issues, including fear of crime and issues around notifying us of particular crimes that may be occurring in an area. As the Commissioner has said, our superintendents meet community alert schemes in the autumn. Then, in the spring our chiefs meet community alert and neighbourhood watch schemes in a rural context. The idea is to feed back information from the community with a view to developing policing plans locally and to respond appropriately. The chief superintendent can then examine the matter in the spring and see what has worked and what has not worked.
Since we are discussing what has and what has not worked, I note that a common theme has come from the Deputies across the table on local issues. The common theme is engagement and how we engage with people. We need to continuously pursue ways of enhancing how we engage. With that in mind, the Commissioner has given approval to a review of the current community policing model. We see engagement as one of the key pillars. As we see it, there are three pillars: crime prevention, engagement and law enforcement. I am very much in agreement with the Deputies. We must continue to find ways to enhance engagement and that is what we are trying to do. I emphasise the point that we are doing it with significant support from the community and, as someone has said already, the effort is undertaken on a voluntary basis.
Mr. Niall Featherstone:
I welcome the suggestion from Deputy Healy-Rae and his comments on the fear around people advertising on social media when they are going on holidays. This is something of which An Garda Síochána is cognisant. We ran a campaign two years ago - perhaps we should run another campaign now - to remind the public of the dangers of advertising where they are going, whether inside the country or leaving the country.
People need to be a bit cuter and cleverer and should not expose where they are when they go out of the country because we have anecdotal evidence that some criminals are looking at Facebook to find out when individuals are away from home. We have done a bit of work on that in the national crime prevention unit and we have done some work on "Crimecall", which is broadcast once a month. It has a dedicated crime prevention slot and we have raised that issue before and will consider doing that again soon because it is very tangible. While social media has dangers we can use it to our advantage to get that key message out.
The Deputy mentioned the peninsulas his constituency straddles. We are aware of the areas covered by coastal watch. There has been a coastal watch policy in An Garda Síochána in recent decades but it needs to be reinvigorated. We plan to do that through our community policing people who are in the communities in urban and rural areas. Coastal watch is a rural issue and we are cognisant of the inter-agency approach between the Irish Coast Guard and An Garda Síochána. There have been several excellent drug detections in the past couple of years by those bodies. We do not want to be overconfident. I thank the Deputy for raising that issue today because it is to the fore on our radar.
There was a question on technology and the Police Using Leading Systems Effectively, PULSE, system not being available in each Garda station. If it is not available, each crime is not necessarily recorded.
Mr. Jack Nolan:
Approximately 70% of Garda stations have full access to the networked PULSE system. The stations not networked are the minor facilities in small areas where, as Dr. Singh has pointed out, very little policing activity occurs that would require recording. That is not to say it would not be desirable to have every station networked but with the advent of mobile technology, etc., that will become a different way of working. Mobile technology is one of the areas of development under the Garda modernisation and renewal programme. I continually hear that An Garda Síochána is 30 years behind comparable police organisations internationally. That phrase has made its way into the lexicon of conversations on policing. Many other jurisdictions are similarly challenged to stay abreast of technology. An Garda Síochána has a very carefully choreographed and funded programme over the course of the next few years that should ensure we are at the forefront of using technology as an aid to policing.
Recording incidents challenges An Garda Síochána and there are reports from other jurisdictions pointing out the same gaps between calls to stations and recording of incidents. There is a variety of reasons for that. The latest Central Statistics Office, CSO, report indicated that 17% of calls were lost somewhere along the line by An Garda Síochána. We are addressing that. We have had pilot approaches to identify what was happening and where. I hope to come back to the committee and give it a different picture in that regard. It is an issue for every police force. We do not have a national call and dispatch, CAD, system. We had plans for it in 2008 but unfortunately it could not be progressed due to the economic problems at that time. We are moving towards it. I am confident that will assist in reducing the opportunities for calls for service that are lost in transaction.
Mr. Jack Nolan:
The issue of providing call and response times surfaces regularly in the Health Service Executive, HSE, for ambulance services, etc. We do not have a particular indicator on that. In the areas where the CAD system operates gardaí who attend a scene will announce that they are at scene. From that time it is possible to measure the time taken to get to the scene. Most of the CAD systems are in the large urban areas, Dublin, Cork, Waterford and Galway. They do not apply to rural Ireland but it would give us a better indicator of the amount of time to get to a call in a rural location.
Dr. Gurchand Singh:
Not having a networked PULSE machine should not stop anyone recording a crime because 90% of our crimes are recorded through our centre in Castlebar. At the incident the policy is that the garda uses a terrestrial trunked radio, TETRA, radio handset and rings into Garda information services centre, GISC, in Castlebar where it is recorded. There is a central facility that records all the incidents. To record a crime is not dependent on having a PULSE computer, otherwise numerous gardaí would be tied up entering incidents. GISC was introduced to alleviate that.
Mr. Jack Nolan:
As the Chairman will appreciate, with the industrial relations negotiations in progress the situation is very delicate. Negotiations are going on between the Garda representative associations and the Department of Justice and Equality and the Workplace Relations Commission. I would prefer not to comment on the negotiations but significant and detailed planning is and has been going on to prepare for a reduced a Garda service, albeit a significantly reduced service. I can guarantee, however, that there will be gardaí on the streets. Garda members will be working on 4 November and calls for assistance will be responded to. There may have to be a priority for some but they will be responded to.
Mr. Jack Nolan:
Those numbers are a matter for negotiation but the Chairman may be referring to the 450 students at the Garda College who would be available and there are approximately 400 probationer gardaí in the organisation who will be available for duty. There are approximately 220 senior officers, superintendents, chief superintendents and assistant commissioners also available. The staff associations have informed us that the emergency response unit and the regional response unit, which are the armed units will also be available together with capability in the technical bureau and the national surveillance unit.
I thank the witnesses for attending. They made 100% effort to answer each of our questions. We have asked many other people many other questions and they were not able to answer but that was not the way with these witnesses. I will forever thank them for being so upfront and for doing their level best to answer our questions. We know they are under pressure and we are really grateful for the great effort they put into their performance before this committee.
We resume our discussion on what it takes to sustain a viable rural community with representatives of the Health Service Executive and the Irish Medical Organisation. From the Health Service Executive I welcome Mr. John Hennessy, national director of primary care, Dr. David Hanlon, national clinical adviser and group lead primary care, Mr. John Hayes, chief officer of community health care area 1, which includes counties Cavan, Donegal, Leitrim, Monaghan, Sligo, and Mr. Pat O'Dowd, assistant national director, of the HSE national contracts office. From the Irish Medical Organisation I welcome Dr. Martin Daly, member of IMO GP committee; and Mr. Val Moran, assistant director of industrial relations.
By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give this committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. The opening statement and any other documents witnesses have submitted to the committee may be published on the committee's website after this meeting. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that Members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or any official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
We will now continue our consideration of stream 2 of our project and what makes a sustainable viable rural community. In this session we will focus on maintaining a continuous and effective medical service in rural communities, including locally based doctors and clinics. I call Mr. Hennessy on behalf of the Health Service Executive to address the committee.
Mr. John Hennessy:
I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for the kind invitation to attend the committee meeting.
I am director of primary care, and I am joined by my colleagues, Dr. David Hanlon, GP and national clinical adviser for primary care, Mr. John Hayes, chief officer of community health care area 1, Mr. Pat O’Dowd from our contracts division, and Mr. Ray Mitchell from our parliamentary affairs division.
This meeting provides an opportunity to update the committee on some of the measures the HSE is taking to ensure appropriate health and social service delivery in rural areas. The HSE is committed to ensuring patients throughout the country have access to appropriate health care, including primary care and general practitioner services, especially in rural areas, and that general practice in particular is sustainable in such areas into the future.
The development of primary care services continues with 484 primary care teams identified throughout the country covering the entire population. This means that there is a dedicated group of HSE staff assigned to each geographic area who work closely with GP colleagues to provide services for the population. The aim is to provide services in local communities in order that people can be maintained in their own homes and communities for as long as possible.
The GP and the primary care team represent the key point of service delivery to address the majority of the medical and social care needs of the population. Primary care teams comprise a range of health care professionals, including GPs, nurses, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, speech and language therapists, health care assistants, and home help staff. Primary care networks provide additional resources depending on assessed need, such as social workers, dieticians, psychologists, audiologists and community ophthalmic physicians.
The development of primary care teams is a work in progress with enhancements occurring in terms of team membership and organisational delivery over time. At present, just over 3,100 staff are directly employed in primary care teams, comprising nursing, therapy and support staff, together with approximately 2,800 contracted GPs and 2,100 practice nurses. More than 300 additional clinical posts have been added since 2013, including public health nurses, registered general nurses and therapy posts.
On the capital side, primary care centres continue to be developed in all parts of the country, with many rural areas benefiting from new primary care centres in recent years. The HSE continues to work closely with local GPs and HSE staff to develop the most appropriate facilities for such teams.
I wish to mention island services. A review of health services to island communities is under way. This is chaired by my colleague, Mr. John Hayes, chief officer, and has representation from the Department of the Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, the Department of Health, the Irish College of General Practitioners, local GPs and island community representatives.
Cross-divisional representation from the HSE is also included, namely, mental health, health and well-being, acute hospitals, social care, nursing and the National Ambulance Service. Recommendations will be made on how high-quality, accessible and safe services should be provided in the future in a more integrated, sustainable and cost-effective manner. The group is expected to report its findings in January 2017. Consideration will be given at that stage to providing more primary care services locally and improving communications. Tele-health options will be explored as part of this to enhance the provision of services such as follow-up appointments by video conference and to enable island health professionals to work more effectively with specialist services and other members of the primary care team. The development of an island nurse job specification and enhanced training for nurses on islands is also being considered as part of this.
Support for rural general practice is one of the priority agenda items under the current review of the GP contract. It is recognised that we need to strengthen and widen the supports available to GPs in remote areas. An early example of progress on this was the introduction of a new rural practice support framework in May 2016. Under this framework, some 306 GPs have benefited already; this is an increase of 139 GPs in 2016. The allowance is now worth €20,000 per annum, plus maximum practice supports for the employment of practice nurses, secretarial support, cover for annual leave and medical indemnity insurance. In total, we estimate the value of the rural practice framework to be approximately €45,000 per annum for general practice. The purpose of the new guidance, aside from expanding the number of practices covered, is to ensure consistency, transparency and fairness in decision-making regarding rural GP practices, as well as providing additional options to support GPs. It should also be noted that a dispensing GP is entitled to receive an additional payment for dispensing medicines where there is no pharmacy accessible.
A number of other contractual changes have also been introduced recently including the introduction of free GP care to children under six and adults over 70, a cycle of care for patients with diabetes, an asthma cycle of care for children under six, periodic health assessments for children and a revised schedule of special items of service for which an enhanced payment is now payable, including 24-hour blood pressure monitoring. The option of flexible contractual arrangements where GPs can share the whole-time commitment required under the GMS contract, which is effectively job-sharing, has also been introduced and the extension of the retirement age under the GMS to 72 is in place also at the discretion of the GP. Further recent developments have included a scheme to provide direct GP access to diagnostic ultrasound examinations, which is of particular benefit to the west and south of the country and the development of minor surgery capacity in general practice.
GPs have demonstrated in all of this a willingness and capacity to embrace change. I look forward to further fruitful discussions in the coming months aimed at further enhancing the range and quality of GP services, to include especially the expansion of integrated chronic disease management in primary care. The HSE is keen to ensure that its approach to future contract discussions is informed by contributions from the widest possible network of stakeholders, including members of the public and public representatives. In this regard, it will be commencing a comprehensive public consultation process in the coming weeks. This concludes my opening statement. Together with my colleagues, we will endeavour to answer any questions you may have.
Dr. Martin Daly:
I thank the committee for affording this opportunity to the Irish Medical Organisation, IMO, to set out our views on the issue of maintaining effective services and presence of GP services in rural communities. As the committee is aware, the IMO is both the representative body and the trade union for the medical profession in this country. The experiences of the medical profession in Ireland and rural GPs in particular have informed our submission to the committee. The written submission made by our organisation to this committee provides recommendations on a wide range of actions which, if implemented, could help to maintain an effective service which general practice already provides in rural areas.
In these opening remarks, I would like to focus on particular issues which have affected GP recruitment and retention in remote and rural communities in recent years. I myself am a rural GP practicing in Ballygar, County Galway. In order to understand the current problems in rural general practice, it is essential to first understand some of the background to these issues. GPs are paid on a capitation basis for the medical card patients and doctor-only visit card patients. Capitation is paid monthly and ranges from €43 per annum for a child between the ages of six and 16 , and €270 per annum for a patient aged 70 or over. For a seven-year old male GMS patient, for example, a GP is now paid €3.58 per month. This capitation fee is paid regardless of the number of visits made by the patients. The same fee is paid whether the patient visits once or twenty times a year.
In 2008, Ireland had a functioning general practice system by and large, in which GP posts became vacant through retirement or resignation from the GMS system. There were in most cases a number of suitable applicants applying for those posts. In addition, there was a greater capacity at that time and the practice could afford additional help from assistant GPs and sessional GPs to provide a greater breadth and depth of services in their practices. I am an IMO representative on the GMS interview boards in the western region and I have seen first hand the drop off in the number of suitably-qualified candidates applying for positions. In some cases, GMS lists which were advertised and had no suitable applicants have been dispersed amongst GPs in the area. This is where the patients and the retiring doctors lists are essentially divided among the remaining GPs in the region. This leads to a reduction in the number of GPs and often means that patients have to travel further to see their GP. It also increases the workload for the remaining GPs in an area, especially in the context of the provision of out-of-hours services.
In other cases, patient lists were merged. This occurs when GMS lists, which once would have attracted a number of candidates, are no longer viable as stand-alone lists. This problem has been exacerbated by additional and onerous extra-contractual obligations being surreptitiously inserted by the HSE in job descriptions, thereby making them more unattractive to new candidates. For example, where once there may have been two lists of 600 patients serviced locally by two separate GPs, such lists may now be merged to form one list of 1200 patients and serviced by one GP, resulting in less capacity and less choice for the patients in that area. In the official HSE statistics, these posts are no longer considered vacant or unfilled, as patients have been attached to a GP. Thus the official statistics on GP vacancies understate the scale of the problem.
What has gone wrong since 2008? Simply put, GMS rates have decreased significantly, while at the same time workloads have increased dramatically. There is now a real problem with capacity in general practice. In 2008, 1.4 million patients had a GMS or doctor visit card. This has increased to more than 2 million people. With an increase in free-at-the-point-of-access GP services comes an increase in patient visitation rates and workload and a diminution to provide and maintain greater breadth and depth of service in practice.
At the same time, GPs have had their fees cut by 38% in 2008. We recognise that those cuts applied to many people who were paid from the public purse. For the public service, FEMPI cuts were made to incomes. For GPs as contractors, these cuts have been made on turnover. This is a crucial point because costs have remained fixed and the effect was to have a doubling-down effect on GP incomes. It was a crude and, in our view, an unfair methodology with which to make those cuts. Where GPs have been fortunate enough to have some private practice, they have subsidised their GMS or medical card income. Unfortunately, in most rural areas, there is a reduced potential for GPs to subsidise their public service with private practice.
GPs who have been in practice for many years find they have no succession model to enable them to pass on their practices, resulting in reduced potential for investment in practices. If someone cannot know that his or her practice will be taken over, he or she has no way of realising the value of investments he or she has made in buildings, services and instrumentation. It also has a major effect in that a GP has to make redundancy payments when he or she retires if no succession arrangements have been made. Many young GPs look at practices and, having done the mathematics, see that they are unviable. They have options elsewhere, within this jurisdiction and overseas, and are emigrating in increasing numbers.
To exacerbate matters further, there is an ageing population; in Ireland 540,000 people, or 12% of the total population, are aged 65 years and over. This figure is set to rise to 1.4 million, or 22 % of the total population, by 2041. While changes for this group are striking, those projected for the group aged 80 years and over are even more dramatic. In the same 30-year period the number of people aged 80 years and over is projected to rise from 130,600 to 458,000, an increase of 250%. With increased age come increased and more complex health needs. It is essential that we build capacity in general practice to address increasing demand and provide the most appropriate and efficiently-delivered services in communities. One method to increase capacity would be the introduction of an assistant GP subsidy, similar to the current practice nurse and secretary subsidies, to fund GPs to take on assistant GPs and increase capacity to provide services in their practices while allowing for a seamless succession within the practice. This would also allow GPs who do not wish at this time to have a GMS list to remain working in the system while gaining valuable experience.
In order to attract and retain GPs in rural areas, as well as in many urban areas, it is vital that the cuts n the past eight years under the FEMPI legislation begin to be unwound and that a new GP contract, to replace the outdated GMS contract, be negotiated. GP contracts in the NHS have been renegotiated on at least four occasions since 1989 and the contract here is essentially the same as that provided for in 1972. Some progress has been made with the recent agreement between the IMO and the HSE on the new support framework for rural practice, which we acknowledge. Approximately 250 GP practices will benefit from this support, an increase of 100 on the number under the previous rural practice allowance scheme. There are many GPs who are considered to be practising in rural areas but who may still not qualify for the allowance.
Prior to 2010, a patient capitation fee was paid according to age, gender and distance from the GP's surgery; the further the distance from the surgery the higher the capitation payment, subject to an upper limit of ten miles. In 2010 distance coding was removed as a factor in making capitation payments, leading to a disproportionate effect on rural practices as, by their very nature, patient lists in rural areas tend to be more geographically dispersed. Distance coding was also removed as a factor in making payments for house calls. A GP is now paid the same amount for making an out-of-hours call - between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m. - whether the patient is 15 miles away, next door to the GP surgery or has the service provided at the surgery . The fee is €41, but for in-hours house calls there is no additional fee. Rural GPs relied on distance coding for some compensation for, and recognition of, house calls made during surgery hours. House calls are predominantly made in rural areas, but while they are based on the professional judgment of the GP, in practice they serve old people living alone in remote rural areas and nursing homes in rural areas who do not have decent access to medical services in the community. This is because of faulty planning and it has been exacerbated by the dearth of public transport services in rural areas. In emergencies they are still necessary, but public policy has now created a disincentive to make such calls, leading to increased ambulance call-outs, the cost of which is far in excess of what was saved in removing distance coding. Aside from the pressing need for a GP contract, one measure that would help to maintain GP services in rural Ireland is the unwinding of the FEMPI legislation as it applies to GPs. This process has begun for public servants and it is only right that GPs, as contractors, should be entitled to the same process aimed at a phased, targeted unwinding of the cuts which have so badly affected general practice and rural general practice, in particular.
I thank Dr. Daly. I remind members of the need to be brief and give sufficient time to delegates to reply to the questions put to them. We are here to avail of their expertise.
In my constituency of Cork West and other constituencies the home help service has delivered cheaply and efficiently for the people, but it has not been rolled out in a way of which we can be proud. I have been inundated with requests for a home help service or extra hours for people who are ill. Deputy Danny Healy-Rae reminded us that he had heard of a blind gentleman who was availing of a five-day, not a seven-day, service, but a person does not regain his or her sight at the weekend. I am informed by the Minister that extra funding was allocated a couple of months ago, but it is not happening on the ground. Many people worry that they will lose their rural clinics. Given the lack of doctors coming to rural areas, it is more difficult to keep them open. We must maintain them for the people living in these communities.
The question of employing nurses on the islands will be very important. The delegates may elaborate on how it will happen.
There are positives. In rural communities such as Goleen, from where I come, funding is available for meals on wheels services and social centres. There were 50 people in a social centre that I visited yesterday. Without funding from the HSE these things would not happen. The 50 people to whom I refer suffer from rural isolation and such centres are good for their physical and mental health and well-being. Thanks must go to the HSE for providing the funding required, but the local community does 90% of the work.
Bantry General Hospital has a massive catchment area, but a few years go it lost its emergency unit overnight, which has had a serious effect. We spoke to representatives of An Garda Síochána earlier about the fear of crime, but there is also a fear of bad health or an accident. A person living on the Beara Peninsula is over two hours from the nearest hospital. The day services available in Bantry General Hospital are second to none. I recently met a person who usually travelled to Cork, but they had gone to the hospital in Bantry for an X-ray and were out after half an hour. They could not believe it as they would have been in Cork University Hospital for six or seven hours. There is, however, an issue with services at night time and I hope the delegates can tell us that there is some light at the end of tunnel in the case of services at Bantry General Hospital.
I regret that we are meeting at this hour of the evening and under time pressure, but I hope we can come back to this issue.
If the population of rural Ireland continues to decline, it will have a vortex effect in that as the services are withdrawn, the population will decline. What we are doing here must be about revitalising and regrowing rural Ireland. As somebody who comes from Dublin 4 and who has lived in rural Ireland for years, I know it is a great place to live. If one has a job there, there is a great quality of life and it has fantastic potential that is not being realised.
I wish to address the HSE first on an issue that has not been touched on. There is the vexed issue of the means test for medical cards but I am not referring to the means test. I have no problem with it and there must be a means test for qualification for it. However, the service we get from the HSE has gone beyond ridiculous with respect to the information sought, the delays, the obfuscation and the nonsense.
I will give one or two examples. I dealt with a farmer who is in receipt of jobseeker's allowance, which is a means-tested payment. Anyone who understands the system knows there is a difference between the thoroughness of the Department of Social Protection in checking that one is not earning money elsewhere and that of the tax man. The Department of Social Protection carries out way more checks than those carried out in respect of a self-assessed taxpayer. This farmer started farming fewer ten acres of land in Carraroe in south Connemara in the area of Leitir Mealláin, and people will know how good the land is there. The Department asked for his accounts for three months. The farmer lost money because he had to buy the stock and he had not sold anything. He prepared accounts and submitted them and the Department but was told that they were not good enough and that he would need to get an accountant to prepare his accounts.
I deal with other cases perennially involving farmers who are in receipt of the farm assist payment, which is means tested. Farmers awarded this payment by the Department are given a document, the IN 93. It contains every detail of their income and expenditure and the Department of Social Protection is able to verify what they got from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, which is the big part of their income, because the State pays it. There is a little certificate that goes with it and farmers are normally asked to produce it. We have had cases where the HSE has asked a farmer to produce a tax return certificate, a P21, or an assessment of income. The farm assist payment is not taxable. It is very unlikely that a farmer in receipt of farm assist will have enough income to have a taxable income and, therefore, make a tax return to prove that they would have no tax to pay. The tax people, in most of those cases, do not insist on a tax return. When a farmer has a detailed document from the Department of Social Protection setting out the farmer's income down to the last dime, the HSE should accept it. I have tabled parliamentary questions in these cases and sometimes the HSE has backed off.
I find it extraordinary that people who are vulnerable in terms of bureaucracy have to jump through 50 hoops to prove the obvious. I am not against reasonable checks but anybody who understands the system knows that if one is in receipt of the farm assist payment or other such payments, they are thoroughly examined. I have dealt with cases where, after 28 days, if an applicant does not get a response, the process is cancelled and the applicant has to start all over again. I am sure Dr. Daly can tell me that this is happening all the time. These are vulnerable people and there might be one document they did not submit or whatever. The applicant must then complete the form again, and that is fine if he or she kept a photocopy of the original form submitted, and he or she also has to get another copy of all the documentation originally submitted. This is quite a challenging form to complete.
The first thing we need in this State is some balanced common sense and recognition of data matching. The HSE has access to a fair bit of data matching. I do not see the point in persecuting 99% of the people to catch perhaps 1%. I am not against reasonable checks but I have found that common sense has gone out of the system. I utterly support what my colleague said about the home help service and home care packages. Many people can be kept at home with support.
Access to health services is another issue that arises for my constituents who may live a distance of 60 miles from a hospital. There is no assistance, regardless of the circumstances, to get transport to and from appointments other than in a very limited number of cases where people are on dialysis. I very much welcome what my colleague said about the review of island services and I look forward to its publication in January 2017. I presume the islanders have been involved in the process and I hope its recommendations will be implemented.
We got many figures about primary care teams but the witnesses from the HSE have not told me how many comprehensive primary care teams with all these support workers are located in real rural Ireland as against peri-urban Ireland. In other words, there is urban Ireland, peri-urban Ireland and rural Ireland. As Dr. Daly would know, the population is growing rapidly in 30-mile commuter belt outside Galway city. New houses are springing up all over the place. If the authorities did not try to stop all the rural housing, we would have no problem with the population in those areas. When one travels 40 minutes from Galway city to Glenamaddy, Glinsk and south Galway, the population goes off the cliff, as it were, in that it has gone the other way and declined. That can be seen on the map before us. The same can be found in the west and, depending on the size of the town, the population in the area around it would be bigger or smaller. I would be curious to know how many comprehensive primary care teams we have in real rural Ireland. I do not want to get local about this and perhaps Galway is unique but every week we are seeing support services such as physiotherapy services and dental services being withdrawn from the real rural areas.
I would be interested to hear from both groups about the provision of minor treatment services such as routine X-rays, ultrasound and so on - it is not rocket science - in places like Clifden or Belmullet, which we have been considering. In the extended rural areas of the country in west and south-west Donegal, west Connemara and the further end of south Connemara, and the further end of east Connacht, should there be a clustering of services for carrying out minor surgeries and minor diagnostics? Technology is getting cheaper. In many cases we are centralising services but many services can be decentralised because technology has made it possible to deliver services locally. That computer in front of me is bigger than the mainframe computer of the 1960s. Rather than having one for everybody in the audience, should a cluster of services be provided in Clifden, An Cheathrú Rua, Belmullet or Mulranny which would enable many people, who would have travelled to accident and emergency departments, to be treated locally? That would ease the number of cases presenting at accident and emergency departments, reduce the travelling involved and allow those procedures to be done swiftly.
The issue with the rural practice allowance is symptomatic of the chaos in the system. I spent two years trying to elicit information from the HSE on how it decides who gets the rural practice allowance and who does not. I am sure my two colleagues, the Deputies here, will be fascinated by this. A doctor in Renvyle was refused a rural practice allowance and I submitted a freedom of information request and did everything to find out about it but all I got was obfuscation, but they should have known I would keep coming. I am surprised that people in the system did not know that Ó Cuív does not take obfuscation. I got a list of all the doctors in the country who have the allowance and I do not know how HSE could justify that it could not be given to a doctor in Renvyle which would be the equivalent of not giving it to a doctor in Waterville or in Ballyferriter in County Kerry.
It would be the equivalent in your case, Vice Chairman, of not giving the allowance to a doctor in Goleen. I will never understand how Renvyle did not qualify and a town suddenly sprang up, although the census said it did not have a town with the stipulated population. I would be very interested to know, first, whether there are now clear criteria by which the rural practice allowed is allocated and whether it is being applied equally to all doctors across the country. I understand the doctor in question had to take the HSE to court. I would have thought an error of that proportion would have been immediately rectified.
I will skip FEMPI because that is a very wide issue and I will focus on two things. The first is distance coding. Could the HSE indicate whether it is intended to restore distance coding? We had it in our policy for the election and the cost is not significant in terms of what is spent by the HSE. The second is whether the HSE will set the rural practice allowance, in particular for very rural areas where one would expect it to be especially important, at a level that would attract doctors to live, work and earn their living in such areas? We proposed an increase to €25,000. I understand that the saving made in reducing it from €20,000 to €16,000 was minimal. I also understand the saving in respect of distance coding is approximately €5 million a year. I am sorry for taking so much time but I have been working on such issues for a long time. The health service spends €14 billion a year and as it is very hard to get one’s head around €14 billion, let us forget about that figure and say €14,000. Let us presume there was €14,000 in front of me here and that €5 million is equivalent to €5 out of the €14,000. It is much easier for people to get their head around and it is the exact same computation as €5 million out of €14 billion but it is the exact same proportion. If I said, here is the budget for the year of €14,000 and asked for €5, the first response would be that it is insignificant and that I should get it. What is the policy on distance coding and is there an intention to restore it, or to increase the rural practice allowance to €25,000, or to introduce some of the other proposals Dr. Martin Daly made? I would be interested to hear Dr. Daly’s view on the matter. The generation that is there is there; they will be there until they die and they will be carried out in boxes. The real question one has to ask is whether mothers in particular will be willing to settle in communities if there are no services, namely, good schools and good medical services available locally, on-call if needed. I do not wish to be sexist about this but I have watched the pattern for a long time.
I am pleased to get this opportunity to ask a few questions and to put my point of view across. I welcome the witnesses. I am pleased they are present. I do not know any of the witnesses and I have nothing personal against any of them. I have not said it before now but I think our health service is a shambles. We are going backwards not forwards with every aspect of it that I deal with every day. I do not know who is the cause of it but massive sums of money are going into the health department. A total of €500 million more was announced in this year’s budget. I said specifically in the Chamber that I want to see improvements to the health service, especially in Kerry. Every Member will talk about his or her own patch. I want to see some return for the €500 million in this coming year, 2017. I do not want to see the money just consumed by the health service or the HSE. We need to see a return for the money.
I will start with the most vulnerable sections of the community in Kerry. The St. Mary of the Angels centre deals with mentally and physically impaired people, including children. The facility was provided free by the people, first by the farmer and his daughter who was a nun, and it was raised out of the ground by voluntary fund-raising from all parts of Kerry. We are now told that it is to be closed down and that they have not taken in any people for the past four years. We have been told different stories. I am not saying that we have been told lies but we have not been told the truth either. When the Minister was asked about it in the Dáil Chamber, Members were told that no change will be made to where the service users of St. Mary of the Angels will go, or if they are to leave the centre, until full consultation takes place with the families, the service users themselves and the staff. A few days later, we heard that in 2014 most of the people in that wonderful facility were put on the local authority housing list without consultation with any family member. Some people called the centre an institution but it is not that; the gates are wide open and the families go in and out to visit their relations and they are free to do so at all hours of the day and night. Those families had to come in and sign documentation when the residents needed to get the flu jab, yet they were not consulted when they were put on the housing list. That was wrong.
In Killarney, 27 long-enduring patients were attending Lantern Lodge. They had mild depression and they went to the centre religiously. They had access to shower facilities and got their dinner there in the middle of the day. Now they are being transferred to another facility, Leawood House, and come hell or high water, the HSE will not give them any dinner. All it needs to do is to order it and it will be brought down from the St. Columbanus home, which has a wonderful kitchen and staff working there. We are being told the problem is a local HSE one and that those people will not get dinner anymore and that shower facilities will not be provided. It is said that the facilities will be better for those people. If I was hungry or not washed, I would not be in a good state of mind either. I will not rest until whoever is making that decision reverses it because it is wrong.
We have several problems. Dr. Daly has outlined what has happened to the GP service. It is bordering on criminal to think that many rural areas will not have a GP in the future. I do not know whether it was in 2013 or 2014 when 89 out of a total of 91 medical graduates went abroad and only two stayed in this country.
They would have stayed here if the outlook was good for them in terms of getting work for which they would be properly remunerated, but that was not an option because of insurance issues, the effects of the financial emergency measures in the public interest legislation, the allowances that have been taken from general practitioners, GPs, and so on. With the exception of three or four towns, we will end up without any doctors in Kerry if that trend is allowed to continue. The question that arises is whether students in college today who wish to become general practitioners should be told that they can do so but that they will have to go abroad to find work. That is how the position looks to me.
With regard to hospitals, we have a number of hospitals in Kerry. Several wards have been closed in University Hospital Kerry since 2008 and no attempt has been made to reopen them. Over a period of five or six months, my late father was a patient in both Kerry General Hospital and the district hospital in Killarney where he got the most wonderful service, as did all the patients in the ward with him, from the very hard-working staff. We need more capacity in Kerry. Only half of the new district hospital in Kenmare is open. Only half of the new hospital in Dingle is open, with some of the accommodation being used as office space. Where is our health system going?
With regard to the home help service, every day I am inundated with calls from people looking for an extra half hour or more of home help. More than half of one of the pensions of an elderly couple I know goes towards paying for private home help because the Health Service Executive, HSE, does not have the wherewithal to provide home help for that couple. The nephew of a 95 year old man is paying the cost of most of his uncle's home help. The nephew is looking for home help for a quarter of an hour in the evening to put the man to bed but he was told the man would be better off going into a nursing home where he could stay in bed. Issues like that are driving me mad. As I have said, I have no personal gripe with anybody but these issues are affecting the most vulnerable people. That 95 year old man was born in 1921. Is the answer to his problem to put him into a nursing home where he can lie in bed and die slowly because he has no incentive to get out of bed? God Almighty, we must address these issues because the stories I have told the witnesses are true. I did not make them up.
We have a mental health facility in Killarney, which was built within a year and a half and which can cater for 40 people. Suicides are happening all around us yet that new building is closed. Will some of that €500 million funding be allocated to Kerry to allow that facility be reopened?
With regard to the ambulance service, the HSE said there would be a reconfiguration of the service in Kerry but we have had a reduction in the service. I never want to hear the word "reconfiguration" again because in Kerry it meant a reduction of the service. For example, when an ambulance is leaving Cork University Hospital the driver must press a red button to indicate that he is free for work. He could be sent on a call to Kinsale but if someone presents looking for an ambulance in Sneem or Caherdaniel, another ambulance will have to be brought from Tralee to attend that person. Ambulances are travelling over and back trying to make up the deficit but they are in danger of crashing into each other because there is no control over what is happening in the system.
We have intermediate care vehicles but we do not have drivers to drive them. We are told it will take three years to teach the staff how to care for people and use the vehicle.
The final journey of a constituent of mine, who was a very good friend of all our family, was to the district hospital in the back of a builder's Transit van because the emergency ambulance was not allowed bring him from his home to the hospital because it is not an accident-and-emergency facility. Common sense must prevail and these matters must be addressed.
Mr. John Hennessy:
We will try our best to address some of those issues, starting with the Vice Chairman's question. I will call on my colleagues as needed to support me in that regard.
The first point, which a number of Deputies raised, is the importance of the home-help service. Everybody would acknowledge that the service is critical and that it is important that it be extended. There is extra funding in place in 2016, as he is probably aware, and further plans for expansion in the home help service in 2017, and additionally under the current winter plan. The Vice Chairman will see extra hours of home help being rolled out across the country. Mr. Hayes might comment on that briefly as well. It is worth noting that it is a continuous challenge to keep up with the extra demand, changing work patterns and ageing population that drive that extra demand for home help service, but everybody acknowledges the critical importance of the service.
With regard to rural clinics and health centres, it is worth pointing out that we have had an expansion of those in the past decade, with 94 new primary care centres opened, many of them in rural areas. The Vice Chairman might be familiar with the one in his area, in Mizen, which is a good example of where primary care is heading in the future. We have 24 new primary care centres under construction, which will become operational in 2017, and a further 40 in the earlier planning phases. That will help address the issue raised about the importance of services in social centres in rural Ireland, which I readily acknowledge.
The issue of Bantry hospital, and smaller hospitals generally, is a major one that will probably be dealt with by other committees of the House. There is an element of change happening with regard to the role of hospitals. The primary care side of the health service would like to be a significant part of that in strengthening the primary care service, and the ambulance and rural transport services that will be part and parcel of enabling that significant change.
Deputy Ó Cuív's question on means testing for medical cards surprised me in that we have had significant reform of the medical card scheme in the past two years. Many Deputies will be familiar with that and the PCRS reform programme. That has taken into account the opportunities to minimise any unnecessary means testing and any potential for duplication.
I would be happy to look at the example the Deputy gave regarding the farmers' allowance but if there is an opportunity to tighten that up and avoid duplication, we would be very happy to consider that. I might ask Mr. Hayes to deal with transport for dialysis patients, which I believe Deputy Ó Cuív raised also.
Mr. John Hennessy:
I would be happy to do that.
Dr. Hanlon might deal with the diagnostics and minor surgery initiatives currently under way. If there are opportunities to cluster those in isolated areas in the west that would sustain that in a more efficient manner, we would be very pleased to examine that.
Mr. Pat O'Dowd might address the question on the rural practice allowance but there is a published rules set in regard to qualifying for a rural practice allowance so I would be surprised if anybody would be surprised by the outcome of an application for that. The new rules set put in place this year is intended to make the scheme more transparent and ensure that there is consistency throughout the country.
The issue about distance coding is interesting. I am sure issues such as that will be put on the table in the current round of contract negotiations.
My understanding is that was part of the financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, reductions in 2008. In terms of targeting rural practice, there are questions around how much targeting there should be. I understand all GPs benefited from the distance coding.
On Deputy Healy-Rae's questions, I do not accept that the health service is a shambles. In fact, the evidence shows the vast majority who encounter the health service come away with a positive experience. However, I readily acknowledge that is not everybody. We have significant pressures in emergency departments and elsewhere, and constant problems and emerging needs have to be addressed all the time.
On the St. Mary of the Angels point, there is, as the Deputy will be aware, a policy relating to decongregated settings and the expert advice is that we need to move patients out of congregated settings and into normal domestic environments. I appreciate that involves change and that is always difficult. It has to be done in a sensitive manner, with good engagement and consultation with relatives and families, and over time in order that people make the adjustment, but the advice certainly is that in the long run it is the better option for the patients. I take the Deputy's point that it has to be done carefully and sensitively.
On graduate GPs going abroad, we have always had a certain proportion of newly qualified medical staff and other health professionals going abroad to get experience in other jurisdictions which has always been regarded as a positive development. Thankfully, we see a flow back as well in that, in time, a substantial proportion of those will come back. I expect that will be the case in the future, particularly as we make it more attractive for people to come and work in the Irish health service.
The point about the wards in University Hospital Kerry could apply to any hospital around the country. Capacity issues are a pressure point there. I repeat the point that our policy and plan would be to move as much care out of the acute hospital system as is possible and provide more comprehensive routine care in the primary setting, and with the support of general practitioners.
The Deputy's point about home help expansion is acknowledged. It is a crucial need and will be for some time.
On the Deputy's last point about ambulance services, most would readily accept that the ambulance service and the transport system for inter-hospital transfers is a crucial part of the change agenda relating to the health service of the future. We are seeing a significant modernisation programme in the ambulance and transport service where emergency response is now being defined in a much different way where we have early responder programmes and support for those, especially in rural areas. Together with inter-hospital transfer, routine transport and probably the further development of the air ambulance service for real emergency cover, it will be a significant feature in the future. I will ask Mr. Hayes to answer a couple of the points raised by members, if that is okay.
Mr. John Hayes:
I cover a fairly rural area in north-west Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim, and Cavan and Monaghan where transport can be an issue. While we do not have a statutory requirement to provide non-emergency transport, we have funded a considerable amount of transport support across that area in Donegal in recent years. There is potential to expand some work here with the rural transport companies that operate whereby the HSE and rural transport companies could work more in tandem. We have been working with that model in Donegal for a number of years whereby all the non-emergency transport in the county is now organised and managed by the rural transport company with support from the HSE. That will not solve all of the issues of individual patients for individual appointments but it certainly has brought a substantial benefit whereby we have been able to maintain a good level of support and then, through the rural transport company and the National Transport Authority, to synchronise that with the free transport schemes that are available. That has extended into the areas of transport for renal dialysis as well.
Briefly, on the general policy around supporting people at home, I certainly would fully endorse the assertion that the objective is to support people to live at home for as long as possible and not encourage people to be-----
Could I say something? I would be grateful if I could just get this in. This 95 year old man was being refused a quarter of an hour's support to put him into bed but this same man could be paid for in a nursing home by the fair deal scheme. Why would some of the fair deal scheme not be diverted to keeping him at home where we wants to stay? That is what I would ask Mr. Hayes.
Mr. John Hayes:
In fairness, that is a valid question. The fair deal is a statutory entitlement and the home support schemes are not a statutory entitlement. The Minister, Deputy Harris, has alluded to this issue in the past ten days or so whereby he stated that the Government, to give people a proper choice about where they want to live and to support them at home, would have to look again at the idea of putting the home support model on a statutory basis in the same way as fair deal is on a statutory basis.
Dr. David Hanlon:
Deputy Ó Cuív spoke about the issue of making diagnostics and services available in a cluster or in an area. Over recent years, the primary care division that Mr. Hennessy and I work with has been setting out a particular project around ultrasound access. This has been deliberately targeted at the west. It is deliberately targeted to move away from and out of the hospitals. It has moved out into the community and into more areas that are further from the hospital. This has given people quick access to ultrasound, for instance, of their abdomens and thyroids. When there are questions and concerns about whether there is something going on, these patients can get access, typically, within a couple of weeks, and a report back to their GP in a short turnaround. There has been a deliberate policy to do that outside of the hospital and make some of that diagnostic capacity available to people in the community even further out from the major urban centres. That is something that would be planned to be made available progressively to a larger part of the country. Certainly those kind of initiatives have been undertaken.
I am aware that X-ray availability is provided on an outreach basis in a number of units. X-ray is a little more difficult. With ultrasound, as was said, it is a simple computer which is reasonably portable and it is something one can move and position quickly. X-ray involves lead-lined rooms and heavier equipment. It is not as easy to install and take away or move around the way one can something like ultrasound. There are some limitations around how quickly one can deploy something like that but certainly there is planned X-ray availability around a number of areas outside of the major hospitals.
The minor surgery is another piece that the primary care division has been working on developing. Traditionally, doctors in more rural areas would have managed more emergencies, would do more stitching and would do more minor surgery anyway than a doctor in an urban area who would have more ready access to a hospital setting. What has been done over the past 12 months is effectively trying to increase that capacity and put it on a better footing. With the requirements for quality and requirements around safety, infection control and other things, the standards have increased and the expectations of people have properly increased.
Doctors want to practise to a high standard. That needs to be supported and that is what has been developed. There will be a plan to make what I describe more available. It would allow people with cuts that need to be sutured and more minor conditions, such as ingrown toenails and lumps and bumps that may need to be removed or sampled, to have them addressed by general practitioners locally without necessarily having to go to hospital. This feeds into taking the pressure from acute hospitals. It makes sense to do that.
In places such as Bantry, where 24-hour emergency department services are no longer provided, initiatives such as minor injury units have been set up locally that aim to manage many of the more minor conditions, such as minor fractures, sprains and cuts. That will manage a significant volume of the less complex emergency cases. People with serious injuries will still need to be transported to a place that has full capacity and all the staff, expertise and facilities necessary to deal with them. That is a better way of dealing with people with those kinds of more complex problems.
Mr. John Hennessy:
My colleague Mr. O'Dowd will talk about the distance coding and the rural practice supports, as raised by members. It is probably no harm to mention that the policy of the HSE is very clearly to support general practice and the development of primary care, particularly in rural areas, and to maintain and sustain that service and the choice for the public in that regard. We are certainly open to creative measures that would help to support that. The GP out-of-hours service is an example of an initiative introduced in recent years that may need to be reviewed in terms of how it is supporting the agenda. Laboratory and sample collection systems are now up and running in many rural areas. They can be part of the practical supports that can be put in place to sustain general practice. In this regard, I refer also to the transport issues that Mr. Hayes mentioned.
The enabling capacity of new technology should be explored at every level in regard to maintaining and sustaining services in rural areas. Communications has a particular role to play. Our ICT programme may represent an issue that could be the subject of a further meeting with this committee at some point. I am sure our colleagues within the HSE will be very happy to facilitate that. We have also put in extra support staff for chronic illness management. In the past two to three years, in particular, we have invested some considerable money in chronic disease management and diabetes care. Perhaps Mr. O'Dowd has some points to make on the rural practice supports.
Mr. Pat O'Dowd:
On the rural practice support framework, the pre-existing scheme involved the rural practice allowance, which was replaced by the rural practice support framework in May. The allowance was based on a circular issued in 1972. The eligibility criteria were such that the population had to be less than 500 in the centre. The difficulty we had when we started examining this in 2013, in terms of preparing for contract negotiations, was that there was a lack of specificity and no definition as to what exactly the centre was. Is the centre the dot on the map or a catchment area to be serviced by the practice? It proved difficult and it was clear to us that the manner in which times had changed was such that the circular was something of an anachronism and needed to be upgraded and based on more objective and easier-to-define criteria.
There was also a restriction on the general practitioner. In order to qualify for the allowance, he or she had to be residing in the immediate area, which was probably reasonable and understandable at that point in time. With the emergence of better road transport, telecommunications services and the provision of enhanced GP out-of-hours services, we believed the restriction was actually serving as a further disincentive to attracting general practitioners to apply to be on a vacant GMS panel. We examined what we considered to be a more objective model, based on a defined geographical area. We geomapped all the practices in the country using our health intelligence capacity within the HSE and we were able to identify the populations served by each practice within a 4.8 km radius and an 11.7 km radius. We then settled on a rule set stating that if the population within a 4.8 km radius was 2,000 or less, it meant the practice would be ordinarily eligible. We also relaxed the rules around the obligation on the general practitioner to reside in the immediate area. We allowed some flexibility in that regard to make it more attractive for general practitioners to apply for positions.
The net effect was that we entered negotiations with the Irish Medical Organisation under a framework agreement, and we settled and agreed on a new rural practice support framework. As a result of that, the number of practices that are eligible and receiving rural practice support has increased. We now have 253 practice units receiving the support. Prior to the introduction of the scheme, there were 167 recipients.
In addition, the allowance element has increased from €16,000 to €20,000 per practice unit. The rural practice allowance is more than just the allowance; it brings with it other enhanced incentives. For example, a general practitioner receives subsidy support for employing nurses and secretaries. It is based on panel size. If in a non-rural practice there is a panel of 400, one gets four twelfths of the applicable subsidy. By being designated a rural practice benefiting from the rural practice support framework, one actually gets the full subsidy applicable for employing a nurse or secretary. One is also entitled to the full locum contribution allowance for annual, maternity and sick leave, etc. When these are all added together, they amount to a quite significant benefit for designated general practitioners. We estimate the value, on average, is in the order of €40,000 to €45,000 per practice. The cost of implementing the new rural practice support framework is between €5 million and €6 million approximately .
I shall now talk about the distance code, as alluded to by Mr. Hennessy. This feature was an integral feature of the GMS fee structure until 2010, and it was then removed under the FEMPI regulations, by statutory instrument. It is estimated that the full-year impact value of the removal of the distance codes is between €5 million and €6 million. I accept, however, that it would have had an increased impact on rural practices, by definition. That is almost self-evident. We have to concede that it did have an impact on rural practice, by definition, although not exclusively. By the same token, the rural practice support framework has introduced some additional funding into rural general practice. Since it was part of the fee structure and because it was amended or revoked under FEMPI, it is not within the HSE's gift to replace or introduce it. The fee structure is ultimately not a function of the HSE. We do not have any direct power or authority to alter the fee structure. It is set centrally and requires ministerial approval. It is not open to the HSE to alter it.
Dr. Martin Daly:
On behalf of the Irish Medical Organisation, we welcome the rural practice deal that was done. I recognise Mr. O'Dowd and his team, who were negotiating on the other side.
We want to understand how we got there. It was not as if the HSE or the Department led us through the door and said, "Come on, lads, we need to sort out the issue of rural general practice." It was sorted out because there was severe disenchantment among general practitioners, their patients and communities about the manner in which the HSE and the Department were dealing with it.
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív pointed very clearly to one particular issue in Renvyle, on which I was in touch with him at the time as a Deputy for the area. The lesson was that the culture had nothing to do with the enhancement or maintenance of rural general practitioner services. In fact, in our view, it was the exact opposite. It was the undermining of general practice in many places in the west of which I was aware of. How could anyone suggest a GP operating alone in Renvyle, providing the only medical service from a small Connemara village on the edge of Clifden for a community on the western seaboard, should not be supported? How could anyone with common sense within the HSE or the Department not understand that in undermining that person one would never have a doctor in the area again? Not only would there not be a doctor in it again, there would also be a knock-on effect. There are two practices in Clifden in which there were six doctors, but they are now down to four because of cutbacks. A situation has been created where the service for the whole area has been reduced. The capacity of GPs in the area to provide a greater breadth and depth of services and attract new young GPs has been reduced. That is the culture. It is not simply about money to attract people to work in Ireland in general and rural areas in particular, it is also about the culture. If there is a culture of support, one will get people to buy in. However, the culture in Renvyle, in spite of all the political representations, as well as ours, was one of a closed shop and the attitude was "We do not care if he survives or not in Renvyle."
There was the undermining of rural general practice in the case of a number of general practices in the west that fed into that disenchantment. Extra contractual obligations were inserted into job descriptions for GP services in rural towns in the west. There is a GMS contract which has been in place since 1972, as amended in 1989, but additional onerous requirements were being added for candidates in applying for these jobs. For example, it was suggested a GP coming to a rural community such as Frenchpark, County Roscommon had to make an open-ended commitment to move to a primary care centre in Ballaghaderreen at an undesignated time in the future under undesignated terms and conditions. That GP was going to come to Frenchpark and invest in a practice and at some time to be determined by the HSE and the Department be asked to move to a primary care centre in Ballaghaderreen. What was to happen to the investment in Frenchpark? In fact, what would have happened was that Frenchpark would have been left without a service. Half of it would have been provided in Castlerea and other in Ballaghaderreen. Now, there is no practice. Why would a young GP move into such a service? In addition, no one discussed with the GPs in Ballaghaderreen that another doctor was coming and whether they would move into a primary care centre in spite of the two practices in Ballaghaderreen already having invested in their own premises. That is not a culture which encourages people to move into rural areas.
The same happened in Dunmore, County Galway, where the additional onerous contractual requirement to move to a primary care centre in Glenamaddy at some undetermined time in the future was to be inserted into the job description. The GP in Glenamaddy had not been consulted. It took three years to appoint a GP to Glenamaddy because it was a rural area and there was a big list. The same happened in Williamstown, County Galway. These are real examples and to suggest that, in some sense, the Department and the HSE had a culture of leading us through the door to resolve the rural general practice issue is inaccurate. It was done under duress and forced by the difficulty in getting people to move to rural areas, the disenchantment of GPs and their disengagement from service. For example, distance coding, of which very little is made by the HSE and the Department, psychologically, is a major issue in return for very little money. GPs in rural areas made house calls. That is the reality. I still make six or seven house calls a day in a remote rural area to elderly people living on their own and nursing homes which have been placed in rural areas with little infrastructure around them. The culture of making house calls, however, has been absolutely destroyed because GPs have asked themselves: "Why would I make one? Call an ambulance." The culture has changed and cannot be bought back, yet it costs a fortune to have an ambulance, two paramedics and an advanced emergency specialist ride to the home of an old person with a chest infection who might need additional home help and could be treated at home. Psychologically, distance coding is major and our information is that the primary care reimbursement service, PRCS, did not like it because it was far too much work. That is the reason it was targeted. It had nothing to do with the benefit to rural communities.
On primary care teams, things have been overly prescriptive. The primary care strategy was published in 2001, but 15 years later we still do not have comprehensive, functioning primary care teams nationally. Any suggestion to the contrary is simply about box-ticking. It has nothing to do with the reality on the ground. It prescribed the relationship between every member of the primary care team down to where they would meet. Pulling GPs out of their surgeries while 20 patients are sitting in a waiting room to discuss another GP's patients ten miles away is not a functioning primary care team and it is not working because there are not enough staff members on the ground. It pays lip service to primary care. There are not enough allied care and nursing professionals and home helps available.
On diagnostics, I beg to differ. In fairness, it was initially the case that after the closure of the emergency unit at Roscommon County Hospital, we had access to diagnostic services, including ultrasound and CT scan facilities. This is the modern era, but patients cannot access scanning. Plain X-ray facilities are not enough. Access to ultrasound, CT scan and MRI facilities should be available to public patients. However, public patients are putting their hands in their pockets and getting money from their relatives to have an MRI scan taken of the backs of their knees. That should not be happening. We received a two-line letter from Roscommon County Hospital which stated we would no longer have access for our patients to ultrasound or CT scans. There was no explanation or consultation; it was simply stated, "You do not have it." What are the options? A doctor sends his or her patients to the casualty department in an ambulance or to an out-patient appointment which will take six or nine months to arrange, even though it involves a simple procedure. The suggestion, in spite of these initiatives, that there is access to ultrasound and CT scans is simply not true. That is my experience as a working GP on the ground.
Dr. Martin Daly:
Absolutely. If an elderly person who smokes has an X-ray and it appears there may be a lesion in his or her chest, the radiographer will suggest undergoing a CT scan. However, because he or she does not have the capacity to perform a CT scan, the patient will be sent to a chest clinic in Galway. That is the reality.
The suggestion has been made that doctors have always emigrated. That was true before 1972. GPs left Ireland because there were no opportunities in the dispensary service, but hey came back in their droves with the advent of the GMS scheme in 1972 and the new contract. They came back because it was a new service. That generation of GPs have reached retirement age and there is no one to replace them. We need a new GP contract. It is complacent, therefore, to say the modern generation of doctors leaving the country are coming back; they are not. They are being offered better structured careers with better remuneration almost everywhere else in the western world. That is the truth and they are voting with their feet. It is not true to say we are replacing doctors like with like. We are going to have a major problem with access to general practitioner services in the very near future. The overall plan is to drive people into centres of population of 3,000 to 5,000 and everything in between will be lost in the constituencies of the Deputies present.
I have one final question which gets to the nub of the dilemma. How great is the willingness within the Irish Medical Organisation to campaign for targeted extra resources to attract people into real rural areas? We need to forget about the petty urban areas, as I call them, places ten or 20 miles from a major city. That is a challenge not only for the Health Service Executive but also for most of the representative organisations. The unions, doctors' and employers' organisations tend to be urban-centric. When one targets the real rural areas, the cost of giving the little extra funding to compensate for distance factors, smaller numbers and so forth is actually small. This is particularly the case when dealing with scattered and declining populations. Does the IMO have a problem within the organisation in getting agreement that there should be targeted extra resources for real rural areas?
Dr. Martin Daly:
In our campaign to get a new agreement on rural general practice, there was support across all strata of GPs in the organisation. Our campaign to get a new deal for general practice was also backed by the other craft groups, including consultants, non-consultant hospital doctors and public health doctors. There is an opportunity, but the culture has to change to one of support.