Wednesday, 28 March 2018
Leaders' Questions (Resumed)
I am not presuming for a second to second-guess any member of the Judiciary. This case went through the courts. The accused was found guilty. The sentence was handed down and the matter was then appealed. That all happened. Furthermore, I am not referring to mandatory sentences. I have raised this issue many times and I am simply highlighting again the fact that there is now a deep disquiet in large sections of society in terms of consistency and leniency of sentences handed down. This woman was not second-guessing anything either. She lived through this horror, not just as a witness to it but as the victim of it. She has now set out her experience in the clearest of terms and it is not unique.
The Judicial Council Bill 2017 does not, as it currently stands, allow for sentencing guidelines.
However, my colleague Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire has moved amendments that would allow that to happen. I want a commitment from the Taoiseach that those amendments will be not just considered, but adopted. We have debated this with the Taoiseach many times and this is the only way in which we can build the kind of confidence and trust that the Judiciary deserves in respect of serious crime and the sentences handed down.
I will talk about what we can do about this, because I think we are largely in agreement that we need to take action in this area to support victims and ensure the perpetrators receive sentences they should receive. We can work together as parties in two ways. First, there is the Judicial Council Bill 2017, which Deputy McDonald mentioned. It is before the Seanad currently. It proposes to establish a judicial council. Perhaps a judicial council would be the right body to draw up sentencing guidelines rather than Parliament. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Charles Flanagan, says that he would be happy to discuss that as part of the debate when that Bill enters this House, so I would encourage that this is done.
I also mentioned the Domestic Violence Bill 2017. This Bill specifically provides that where the victim of a sexual assault was in an intimate relationship with the offender, that will be treated as an aggravating factor for sentencing purposes. If this Bill passes, if somebody who has been subjected to a rape or sexual assault by someone who is known to them, by someone they have an intimate relationship with, that will be seen as an aggravated offence for sentencing purposes. As I say, that Bill has passed through the Seanad. It has passed through Committee Stage. I now appeal to Opposition parties to allow us to get that through Report Stage quickly. Let us have it enacted before the end of next month.
To paraphrase the unfortunate words of a UK special advisor on 9/11, yesterday was a good day to bury bad news. While the Government was taking the unprecedented step of expelling a Russian diplomat in solidarity with another country, the Taoiseach's Department managed to get out the bad news, publishing the reports on the Strategic Communications Unit and the Collins report on the Department of Justice and Equality. Despite the report finding no evidence of wrongdoing, the Government has decided to wind down the Unit. The defence put forward by Ministers, do not hit me with a civil servant in my arms, completely misses the point. It was a Government decision to establish the unit and politicise Government communications.
These are important matters, but pale in comparison with the report published today. The Central Statistics Office, CSO, is an independent agency of this State which gathers information on economic, social and general activities and conditions in Ireland. It plays an essential role in informing the people and policymakers. It is independent but answerable to the Department of the Taoiseach. Today, it has published crime statistics for the first time since last June, a remarkable fact in itself. Those figures show a substantial increase in homicides. They show that there has been an 18% increase in reported homicides, an additional 234 incidents between 2003 and 2016. A caveat has been added to the previous CSO data of 2015. The statistics have been published under reservation, an action that is doubly troubling to those of us who place our trust in the institutions of this State. The independent agency has made observations about the recording and classification of crime. These crimes cover infanticide, dangerous driving causing death, manslaughter and murder. As I say, the revisions go back over 15 years to 2003, with an average of 18 extra deaths now classified as homicides each year. It is a matter of serious concern and has come to light due to the work of two civilian officers in the Garda statistics unit.
That homicides figures might have been reduced surreptitiously or by poor practice is an affront to our society. The public needs to have confidence that we have accurate recordings of the most serious crimes, that they are properly investigated and that our statistics are accurately reported. The Garda Commissioner has said that he is concerned about the shortage of supervision in the force. This echoes the criticism of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors, AGSI, about the shortage of supervisors. What action will the Taoiseach take to ensure our front-line gardaí are provided with the training and supervision that they need? Moreover, in light of the revelations about homicide statistics, will there be an independent investigation into how this happened? What other areas of crime statistics are currently being reviewed?
Yesterday was a busy day for Government. As on every Tuesday when the Dáil is in session we had a Cabinet meeting. There were 31 items on the Cabinet agenda yesterday, so many items that we had to have a morning meeting and an evening meeting. The items ranged from the Collins report to the discussion on Russia to abortion legislation, so while the Opposition may be obsessed with Government communications, I can totally reassure the House that the Government is obsessed with getting its work done. After we have got it done, then we communicate and that is the way things should be done.
The crime statistics produced by the CSO were only published at 11 a.m. this morning. I have not had a chance to study them or review them at this stage, because we have had less than an hour to do so, but in the first instance I welcome the fact the CSO is once again producing crime statistics, albeit under reservation, because statistics are important. What we do not measure we cannot improve, so it is important that we have good statistics that are accurate, that are comparable and that appear frequently and periodically. Even though they are under reservation, it is welcome that those statistics are becoming available again.
In terms of resources, an additional 800 gardaí are going to be recruited this year. That is on addition to the 600 extra gardaí recruited last year. About 500 civilians will be recruited to the Garda throughout the course of this year as well. That will allow more gardaí to do front-line work while civilians can do other work on their behalf. Our aim is to have a Garda force that is 14,000 strong by the end of this year and we are confident that can be achieved. There is also additional investment, as Members will know, in Garda vehicles and IT systems, which I think will be essential in improving PULSE data and making sure that it is accurate and up to date.
I would like the Taoiseach to address the central issue here, which is that we do not have reliable crime statistics in this State. For the Taoiseach to welcome the publication of statistics that the CSO, our independent statistics office, cannot stand over is quite worrying. An officer of the CSO said on national radio this morning that they were the best available statistics, but are certainly subject to further amendment and change. How can we have what the Taoiseach says the country needs, accurate and comparable statistics? Patently we have not. What is he going to do to ensure not only that the homicide figures are accurate, but that all statistics produced about crime in this country are absolutely accurate? What measures will he take to ensure that whatever failings have occurred to deny us that accuracy will be brought to light?
In the first instance, it is worth pointing out that for the last few quarters the CSO would not publish crime statistics. It is an independent agency and it rightly upholds statistical standards. It did not publish them for several quarters because it did not feel it could do so, given the quality of those statistics. The CSO is now in a position to produce statistics under a new category called "under reservation". This is a classification that is in keeping with other jurisdictions and statistical domains. It serves to indicate to users that the quality of these statistics does not meet standards required of official statistics published by the CSO. The best thing we can do is to make sure that in future statistics are accurate. I am not sure it is possible to correct statistics that were wrong in the past. Things that were not measured in the past cannot be measured retrospectively. For us to make sure that the Garda has adequate resources, adequate training and adequate ICT, but also the adequate culture, standards, management and expectations, I think it is essential that these numbers are collected correctly in future.
Every week in the media we hear reports of overcrowding and congestion in accident and emergency departments across the country. Last year alone, 1.3 million people attended accident and emergency departments, with only 330,000 requiring admission for further treatment. The accident and emergency department in University Hospital Galway is one of the busiest in the country, with more than 60,000 people each year presenting there. Staff are overworked and trying to do their best in almost impossible conditions, working in a unit which is universally accepted as being cramped, dilapidated and not fit for purpose. Hospital management has stated that it is an ongoing challenge to manage the large numbers attending daily and it has become an extremely stressful environment for patients and staff.
Chronic parking congestion at the hospital is also a major problem, and it causes people to miss appointments frequently.
I recently visited a minor injuries unit at Roscommon hospital to see for myself how it operates. I was given a full tour of the facility by the general manager, Ms Mary Garvey, and the director of nursing, Ms Ursula Morgan, and I was very impressed by the facility. I compliment both on the excellent work they do there. They inform me it takes an average of just 55 minutes for a person to be seen, treated and discharged.
The ten other minor injuries units throughout the country can handle everything from broken bones, lacerations, strains and sprains to minor scalds and burns, and they are open seven days per week, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Last year, the unit in Roscommon treated more than 6,000 patients. The unit is staffed by a small number of competent staff and is overseen by a consultant physician and an advanced nurse practitioner.
I strongly believe the establishment of a minor injuries unit in the Merlin Park University Hospital grounds would be an immediate and cost-effective method of relieving the overcrowding and stress at the accident and emergency unit at University Hospital Galway. I acknowledge there are plans in train for a new emergency department at University Hospital Galway but this project is still at design stage. A new facility is still many years away.
The HSE target for patients to be seen by a doctor in an accident and emergency unit is six hours. We know, however, that this is never achieved. In Galway, it could be double that time, especially for a non-urgent minor injury. I know of cases where people with a minor injury waited up to 24 hours to be seen.
There are 11 minor injuries units operating very effectively across the country. Surely Galway, which is acknowledged as having one of the most congested accident and emergency departments in the country, should be considered for one. A minor injuries unit could reduce the number attending the emergency department in Galway by thousands.
Is the obvious solution not to provide a minor injuries unit at Merlin Park University Hospital in Galway city? It has acres of space, easier access from almost anywhere in Galway and ample parking? Most important, it would relieve so much of the ongoing pressure on the emergency department at University Hospital Galway.
I thank Deputy Noel Grealish for raising this important matter and for the constructive suggestion he put forward. I am advised that the Saolta University Health Care Group, which runs the hospitals in the west, is working with the HSE to examine the potential for a new day-services hospital block at Merlin Park. As the House will be aware, Project Ireland 2040 provides for ten new hospitals to be built over the next ten years, three of which are now under construction. As part of that, there are plans for a new elective medical centre for Galway. Merlin Park is being considered as one of the possible sites for that centre. It is not currently proposed to have a minor injuries unit as part of that hospital development but the argument the Deputy makes is a very strong one. Someone with a minor injury could have to wait for hours to be seen at the accident and emergency department in Galway because more serious cases are seen first. If he or she were able to get transport to Roscommon, he or she would probably be seen, treated and home in the same time as he or she would spend waiting in University Hospital Galway. That is fine if one has transport or someone to drive one but, of course, that is not possible for everyone.
There are now a number of minor injuries units around the country, in Dundalk, Monaghan, Roscommon, the old orthopaedic hospital in Cork, Smithfield in Dublin, Loughlinstown, and St. John's in Limerick. I only wish people knew more about them. There are thousands of people around the country waiting in waiting rooms in emergency departments who could be seen very quickly at these minor injuries units. There is no such unit in Galway. Galway is a county with a big and growing population. In the context of the hospital development, the plan for Merlin Park, the Deputy makes a very good suggestion to consider a minor injuries unit as part of it. I will certainly pass that on to the Minister for Health and the HSE.
I thank the Taoiseach for his response. I submitted a parliamentary question recently to the Minister for Health on the elective hospital planned for Merlin Park and he replied that this is a long-term plan and that, with a ten-year plan, many proposals, including an elective-only hospital, are at a very early stage. It could be ten, 15 or 20 years away while the minor injuries unit could be up and running by the end of the year. A small staff, including a consultant and advanced nurse, is all that is needed. It could be put in one of the units. The Taoiseach should not be going back to the proposed ten-year plan for building a hospital in Merlin Park because that is a long time down the road. The emergency department built in Galway was built in the 1950s and upgraded in the 1990s. It caters for six core counties, with a population of 800,000 people. If we could bring the people with scalds, burns, strains, lacerations and broken bones to a minor injuries unit in Merlin Park, it could reduce the number attending UHG accident and emergency department by tens of thousands. It would free up parking and take the pressure off the staff and the accident and emergency department.
I want the Taoiseach to commit that he will move this project forward. It will alleviate much of the pressure on the accident and emergency department in University Hospital Galway.
-----over the course of a ten-year period. The Deputy will be aware that the new 75-bed, state-of-the-art ward block in Galway is now open. The construction of the new acute mental health unit in Galway is now complete. That is ready to open. When it comes to radiation oncology for people suffering from cancer, enabling works, including the demolition of the old mental health unit, are due to commence in the third quarter of this year. They will be completed in 2020. When it comes to the new emergency department and ward block for University Hospital Galway, the design team has been appointed and the project should be completed by 2023. The new ambulance base is in design. There is a pipeline of investment and it is happening. I take the Deputy’s point, however, that a minor injuries unit could be put into place, perhaps not this year but relatively quickly.
There is merit in the suggestion. It does work. It works in Dublin, Limerick and Cork. Why would it not work in Galway, therefore? I will certainly appraise the proposal and discuss it with the Minister for Health and HSE.