Thursday, 8 July 2010
Other Questions (Resumed)
Question 10: To ask the Minister for the Environment; Heritage and Local Government if he has conducted a review of his Department's decisions and actions during the cold snap Winter 2009/2010; will make statement on matter. [30528/10]
The role of my Department during a severe weather event is to ensure that the local authorities are prepared to respond promptly to ameliorate the worst effects regarding those aspects of an emergency for which they have direct responsibility and that they act in co-operation with the other principal response agencies – An Garda Síochána and the Health Service Executive – and the voluntary agencies and Defence Forces to limit the effects on individuals whose lives may be put at risk or who may be exposed to serious hardship. When effective emergency plans are in place, the management of the emergency response then falls to the local authorities and the other response agencies.
Up to the Christmas 2009 period, local authorities acted to ensure that the national road network remained open for public transport and access for the private sector for the delivery and receipt of goods and services. My Department monitored the emerging position and, in light of a deteriorating trend, I convened the national emergency response co-ordination committee. The committee facilitated a whole-of-Government approach and provided a forum for different Departments and agencies to exchange information, agree priorities and ensure that any matter that required a national response would be dealt with expeditiously. This complemented but did not replace the continued co-ordination and inter-agency arrangements at local level.
Having attended meetings of the national emergency response co-ordination committee, and considering the interaction of the various Departments and statutory agencies, I am satisfied there was an active and sustained response to the severe weather conditions by the local authorities and the other principal response agencies, with the support of the Defence Forces and co-operation of other statutory and voluntary bodies. At all times, the co-ordination and inter-agency arrangements set out in the framework for major emergency management were implemented at local and regional levels.
These co-ordination structures can be used regardless of whether a major emergency is declared. It is a principle of emergency management internationally that the response to emergencies builds from the basic organisational units with capability to respond. In Ireland, the principal response agencies are based locally and, where necessary, regionally.
The national steering group on the framework for major emergency management carried out a review of participation in the response to the severe weather event. It established that the arrangements set out in the framework operated satisfactorily and made some suggestions on operational matters that are under consideration by the group.
The Government task force on emergency planning considered reports from various Departments and the agencies under their aegis. The Departments and agencies will implement the reports' recommendations that fall within their remit. The interdepartmental working group on emergency planning is considering cross-departmental issues that have a legal implication, such as insurance, statutory responsibility of householders and businesses to clear footpaths and the liability of volunteers. The group will meet on 13 July to advance these matters so that action can be taken on them at an early date.
The Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has carried out a review of the management of severe weather events and taken evidence from the main response agencies. I await its report and will give consideration to any recommendations contained therein.
I have been tabling questions on this subject in the House for well over 20 years. I have heard the same reply and, whenever an emergency arises, we get the same report, namely, that a study group will review the situation. We are in July and heading towards the next winter snap. It is a disgrace that, six months after the last event, there is still no co-ordinated and properly integrated plan in place.
Unfortunate people throughout the length and breadth of this country, from Cork to Westmeath and from Kildare to Galway, were marooned for weeks. Does the Minister not recognise that the time is long past for statements on what he will do next time? What has been learned from the experience of recent years and how quickly can the Government put in place the emergency operation? Who is in control?
It is about time that the Minister moved away from the idea of people fending for themselves at local level. What is the co-ordinating authority, who is the senior person in command, who gives the instructions and who takes responsibility? The Minister took none. In fact, the Garda went searching for him to find out where he was.
I understand that the Minister contacted a number of local authorities across the country to ask them to furnish him with a report of their activities during the adverse weather conditions, namely, the cold snap and the flooding. What has happened to those reports? Has someone reviewed them and compiled the information they contain? Have they found their way into a single document containing recommendations? Listening to the Minister, it would seem like business as usual despite events last winter. As has been suggested, it would appear that no learning has been derived.
Given the Minister's comments, are we to believe that nothing has been learned in recent months? There must be something. The key concept of emergency planning is risk assessment. One must make a determined risk assessment before drafting an emergency plan. As we head into next winter, is the Minister informing the House that last year's risk assessments are the same as those currently in place?
Deputies should examine what occurred and how we responded. Our efforts compare favourably with those taken in the UK, Germany, France or anywhere that experienced a cold spell. We managed to keep our primary routes clear of snow. We also managed to ensure we had-----
There were no fatalities. The Minister of State with responsibility for housing deserves considerable credit, as not a single homeless person died during the period.
-----but it was through a co-ordinated effort by everyone involved. Not only does the Minister of State deserve credit, but the agencies worked well together. In light of how promptly the National Roads Authority, NRA, and others worked - I attended the meetings everyday - and the fact that we managed to preserve the salt-----
As far as I am concerned, we must review events and learn any necessary lessons to ensure we handle matters better every time. It is a question of progression-----
-----and enhancing those plans. Where visibility is concerned, crucial during each event, be it the flooding or the cold snap, was the fact that we managed to communicate with local communities. Local radio stations played an important role in this regard. Having served on the committee and chaired a number of the meetings, the system worked well. Of course, lessons can and should be always learned.