Dáil debates

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Local Drug and Alcohol Task Forces: Motion [Private Members]

 

1:15 pm

Photo of Joan CollinsJoan Collins (Dublin South Central, Independent)
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I move:

"That Dáil Éireann:

notes that:— global opium production jumped by 65 per cent from 2016 to 2017, the highest ever recorded by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and global cocaine manufacture rose by 56 per cent between 2013 and 2016, reaching its highest level ever in 2016;

— illicit drugs like opium and cocaine are booming and new drugs like fentanyl are emerging as a major drug problem;

— the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction’s Early Warning System for new drugs monitored 670 new psychoactive substances by the end of 2017, up from 300 in 2013;

— cannabis remains the world’s most commonly used drug, with 192 million people using it in 2018;

— in the European Union (EU), over 92 million people have used illicit drugs; and

— drug markets continue to be the most significant illegal market in the EU, with over 33 per cent of organised criminal groups involved in the production, trafficking and supply of illicit drugs;further notes that:— over 26 per cent (more than one in four) of the Irish population have used illicit drugs, with cannabis the most widely used;

— our communities are now coping with an increasingly complex and chaotic drug problem that includes prescription drugs, illegal drugs, new psychoactive substances, high-strength cannabis, crack cocaine, crystal meth and ketamine, and widespread availability and misuse of alcohol continues to be a core part of the polydrug problem;

— 695 people died from drug-related causes in 2015, and there has been a 61 per cent increase in drug-related deaths between 2004 and 2015 and drug-related deaths are 3.5 times higher than road deaths; and

— insidious, ongoing day-to-day related intimidation is being experienced in our communities, and in 2015 less than ten per cent of people experiencing intimidation reported it to An Garda Síochána for fear of reprisal;calls on the Taoiseach’s department to appoint a senior official to the National Drugs Strategy’s (NDS) national structures to ensure direct accountability of all agencies at national, regional and local level for their active participation in implementing the new NDS; and

calls on the Government to:— implement its own Programme for Government commitment through the immediate allocation of an emerging needs fund to the task forces to support community drug projects in the delivery of services that can respond to current and emerging service gaps in communities;

— commit to a clear timetable for prompt implementation of the Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018 without further delay;

— accelerate the work of the Garda asset profilers targeting people making significant sums of money from the drug trade living in our communities;

— ensure that the new scheme proposed in the NDS for young people is developed through a partnership approach involving youth services, schools, and community drug projects;

— conclude the work of the working group on alternative approaches to criminalisation and end the criminalisation for personal use;

— strengthen the community voice across all levels of the NDS and make immediate investment in community leadership and participation programmes;

— acknowledge the relationship between addiction and mental health and commit to greater co-operation between the relevant agencies, as considered in ‘A Vision for Change’ and the NDS; and

— cease the Health Service Executive reviews of drug and alcohol task forces, with immediate effect, as these reviews are being carried out without any discussion or consultation with the national NDS committees that are responsible for supporting and monitoring the task forces, and it is incompatible with the interagency partnership approach that underlies the NDS for one agency to carry out a review and present it as a fait accompli."

I wish to share time with Deputies Mick Wallace and Clare Daly.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Joan CollinsJoan Collins (Dublin South Central, Independent)
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I present this motion to provide the House with the opportunity to engage in an urgent and focused debate on the implementation by drug and alcohol task forces of the national drugs strategy, Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery, which was launched in July 2017. The national drugs strategy has enjoyed cross-party support over the years with Ministers in successive Governments committed to maintaining the interagency partnership approach to tackling the drugs crisis in Ireland, in particular in the cities. Is this Government going to be the first to buck that support? The strategy is two years into its three-year priority action plan and CityWide is more than concerned that the action plan will not be realised. CityWide emailed out a briefing document a couple of weeks ago, which this Private Members' motion reflects. These are the very people who were ignored in the 1990s. Politicians recognised then that they had to be brought to the table in respect of task forces and the innovative model which was then established to reflect community views and link with agencies.

The points of concern and the proposals set out in the motion are about ensuring the national drugs strategy action plan is a success. The motion sets out first the international background. Opium production increased by 65% between 2016 and 2017, which is the highest level ever recorded. Cocaine manufacturing increased by 56% between 2013 and 2016 and was at its highest level ever in the latter year. Europe's early warning system monitored 670 new psychoactive substances by the end of 2017, up from 300 in 2013. Cannabis, the most commonly used drug, was used by 192 million people globally last year. EU data show a significant increase in the potency of cannabis resin from 8.14% THC in 2006 to 17.2% in 2016. Drug markets continue to be the most important illegal markets in the EU with over 30% of organised criminal groups participating in the production, trafficking and supply of illicit drugs. There were 695 drug-related deaths in Ireland in 2015. Significantly, drug-related deaths occur at a rate three and a half times higher than the rate at which deaths occur on our roads.

There are 50 actions in the action plan for 2017 to 2020. These actions are designed to co-ordinate and implement the national drugs strategy at local and regional level. The key role of task forces is to provide a local response to local needs and the interagency partnership approach continues to be the cornerstone of the process. Community participation in decision-making to shape responses is also a key focus of task forces.

2 o’clock

The link between national and local is the role of the national oversight committee and standing sub-committee.

There are serious challenges for the strategic role of the task forces. The most important is the funding for the task forces. There were no budget increases from 2015 to 2018 and in 2014 there was a reduction from 2013. There has been a cumulative cut of 37% to the budget. There has been no restoration even though funding to the HSE is increasing significantly each year. The projects are struggling to survive and maintain the existing level of service, to pay the salaries of the people employed and to meet the new and emerging needs. They are under huge pressure. The health budget has been increasing year on year so there is no reason for the base core funding for task forces remaining the same since 2014. The workers and communities feel they have been ignored and that the work they do is not recognised. They do not get the same recognition as other groups. The 2019 HSE plan shows a figure of an additional €1.9 million for overall social inclusion activities, with addiction services one of the five areas to be covered. There is no indication of any increase for the task forces. This is the problem of the core funding not being reversed. The only new moneys mentioned in the Minister of State's amendment is €1 million. One could say that is a coincidence and more cynical people might say it is a cynical move before today's debate.

CityWide has indicated that national drugs strategy actions are not being brought to the table by statutory agencies for consideration. There must be a mandate to the task forces to develop action plans based on the national drugs strategy actions. CityWide indicates that there are huge challenges to community participation. That must be actively supported and resourced and CityWide proposes an immediate investment in community leadership and participation programmes with a view to strengthening the community voice across all levels of the national drugs strategy. The Minister of State's amendment makes reference to that, but she does not say there will be immediate investment in it. She says it should be resourced, but there is a big difference between investment and resourcing.

The national drugs strategy commits to addressing the drugs issue with an integrated approach through inter-agency partnership. Strong co-ordination and co-operation are needed in delivering the actions involving 17 Departments, agencies and sections. Some agencies are not participating. They should be identified and forced to participate as it is in their remit to participate in the structures. The motion calls for the Department of the Taoiseach to appoint a senior official to the NDS national structures to ensure the direct accountability of all agencies at national, regional and local level for their active participation in implementing the new strategy. The Minister of State's amendment says there is robust accountability, but there is not. There are problems in that regard and we must try to tease them out.

Regarding the new scheme for young people, the increase in the strength of cannabis is leading to growing concern about the impact on young people's mental health, and community youth projects are reporting a significant increase in benzodiazepine use by young people. The Lifting the Lid on Greentown study shows how young people are being recruited into criminal gangs. CityWide has called for a new scheme for young people to be developed through a partnership approach, including youth services, those involved in the young people's facilities and services fund, YPFSF, schools and community drug projects.

Drug related intimidation is a serious threat to local communities. It was the local communities who detected that this type of intimidation was taking place. There is an urgent need to bring together a high-level group that includes senior justice and Garda personnel, community representatives and relevant stakeholders to establish an action plan to address this problem. I believe this action is worth examining and developing. Expansion and acceleration of the work of the Garda asset profilers are crucial. The work of the working group on alternative approaches to criminalisation must be brought to a conclusion without further delay to end criminalisation of possession for personal use and to address these harms in a better way by referring people to health led treatment rather than into the criminal justice system.

On the drug and alcohol action in the national drugs strategy, committing to an integrated public health approach to drugs and alcohol abuse is a key priority. Again, it is not adequately funded. CityWide is calling for an engagement with the task force on a timetable for implementation and monitoring of the 2018 alcohol Act, but funding is a prerequisite for doing that.

A key point I wish to make relates to the HSE reviews and the role of the HSE. CityWide welcomes the health-led response on drugs and alcohol, but in the broader, holistic sense of a public health response with mental health programmes and so forth. Currently, however, we are seeing a deterioration in how the national bodies are working. The subgroup is supposed to check the accountability of the task forces to the national forum, but instead the HSE is carrying out reviews in this regard. The subgroup should be doing those reviews and checking accountability, not the HSE. How much do these reviews cost? There have been three already. I have a copy of the remit of the review being carried out on the Canal Communities local drugs task force, with which I am involved. It is the work plan of what it is investigating. This is not the work of the HSE. It is the work of the communities and the task force. I have been at two reviews of the task force in recent years, as I am on the task force, and it does a very good job in terms of accountability for where money is going and what proposals have been put in place for the communities.

A total 21 of the 24 co-ordinators have been selected from a panel from just the HSE. Under the national drugs strategy the situation should be that a representative from both the task force and the HSE should be on those panels, but that has been refused. Heretofore the co-ordinators would link the drugs task forces to the HSE, but now it is the other way around. The HSE is doing the reverse.

The innovative model of the task forces is being threatened. People in CityWide who were part of the initial process in the 1990s are saying this. Those voices should be heard. The motion here from CityWide should be accepted by the House. I support the amendments put forward by the other parties. The Minister of State should listen to the words from the community.

1:25 pm

Photo of Mick WallaceMick Wallace (Wexford, Independent)
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I support the motion. We could implement all the actions in the motion and matters would certainly improve for people who are suffering under a crazy system, but many of the situations that give rise to the drugs issue will persist. The criminalisation of drugs is a travesty. Above all, it is a gift to the gangs that have been handed by the State a tax-free business that is worth over €2 billion annually. The drugs they sell are not controlled by any quality checks and could have anything in them. When heroin is pushed onto the black market, it gets cut or contaminated with a long list of materials that were never meant to enter the human bloodstream, such as paracetamol, drain cleaner, sand, powdered milk, talcum powder, coffee, brick dust, cement dust and crushed bleach crystals. It could be virtually anything. When a person takes contaminated heroin, it clogs up the veins, damaging one after another around the person's body and destroying it as it travels. This is the reason heroin addicts on the streets look in ill health, more so than just the heroin itself.

One of the most important actions proposed in the motion in this respect is to end criminalisation of possession for personal use. Four years ago members of the joint committee on justice travelled to Portugal to see how its decriminalisation system is working and to talk to those involved. They were told by the Portuguese authorities that in the 15 years since decriminalisation, drug consumption had not increased, Portugal did not become a destiny for drug consumers, the number of crimes directly related to drug addiction decreased, and drug consumers were no longer looked upon or treated as criminals, not only by the authorities but also by society and their families. It put an end to thousands of criminal cases for drug consumption, which cost time and money with absolutely no gain.

It costs the State billions to police drugs. It is a colossal waste of lives, time, work, resources and talent. It does not even work. Almost one in five people in this country take illegal drugs regularly. They grow their own or buy them online, in the streets or in taxi cabs, or they get them delivered to their homes by An Post. Nobody has a clue if what they are consuming is safe. We must seriously consider decriminalisation and the possibility of directly regulating and taxing the sale of the products to the public.

We must also examine the problems behind the trends in drug consumption.

Why are hundreds of thousands of people consuming so-called legal anti-depressants in Ireland? Many people are leading stressful lives. The cost of housing is soaring, wages have stagnated and insecure, low paid, low skill, less rewarding jobs have proliferated in the years since the crash. The truth be told many people have not recovered from the austerity implemented by the Labour-Fine Gael Government. Under the right wing policies of successive Governments we have seen more people working longer for less and becoming more insecure in their jobs and homes. People are increasingly working longer in jobs that they find meaningless. In Britain, in a 2015 YouGov poll people were asked, "Does your job make a meaningful contribution to the world?", to which 37% responded it did not. I am sure if people here were asked the same question, the percentage would not be much different. Addressing these structural issues is essential to people’s sense of well-being. We cannot change the meaningfulness of jobs overnight but a massive State run enterprise to change Ireland into a dramatically greener country would provide the kind of employment people could take pride in. If people do not like their jobs, it is even worse that they spend longer at them and travelling to them and have less time for family and friends and the energy that one needs to feel good about life.

Drug consumption, whether legal or illegal substances, is massively connected to people looking out at the world and seeing a meaningful place for them in it, or not. The issue for us is whether we are shaping a society that breeds inclusion and security or inequality and insecurity. The least we should do is stop punishing those who have already been excluded and abused by the liberal economic and social policies of the last few decades.

1:35 pm

Photo of Clare DalyClare Daly (Dublin Fingal, Independent)
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When the Taoiseach launched the national drugs strategy, Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery, in 2017 he said: "The issues highlight the need to intervene effectively." I could not have put it better myself, but that is exactly what has not happened. We have the policy, but no action and no resources to realise it. In that sense, Deputy Joan Collins's motion before the House is a good one. There is a certain irony in it in that what it calls for the Government to do is intervene effectively, which is what the Taoiseach said previously, and to honour the commitment in the programme for Government in regard to the national drugs strategy which, sadly, has not been the case.

The policy intends to move towards an integrated approach to drug and alcohol abuse. While we would welcome that move, it does have consequences for local task forces working on the ground and we have to consider this. If the plan is to integrate drugs with alcohol and not to make use of all of the available resources, and provide additional resources, we may be setting this up to fail. We need to take account of the real experiences on the ground. An integrated approach should be integrating of the skills of those who have been on the front-line in our communities for decades, aligning them with available national resources.

A key part of this discussion is that we should be moving away from criminalisation towards a health approach, but we should not be going so far in that direction that we give full control over the health policies to the HSE and consequently freeze out the experience-led rich knowledge of community-led groups and local task forces. They have vast skills in this area which we need to harness. The health approach means more than medical intervention. It means medium and long term strategies to reinforce health and well-being within our communities and it means initiatives around education, training, retraining, jobs, life skills and all of the other initiatives mentioned earlier by Deputy Wallace.

There is no doubt that we need the authority and the resources of the health service to drive forward this strategy but that is not happening. We are in danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water and excluding local groups, which is one of the issues this motion attempts to address. The statistics speak for themselves. There were 16,119 drug offences in 2016 and an increase of 61% in drug related deaths over the last decade. The overwhelming majority of drug related offences relate to use and possession and not to supply. In other words, the wrong people are targeted and the process through the justice system commands huge resources but does not solve the problem.

Decriminalisation needs to be taken seriously. It is a shocking indictment of this House that a former colleague, Luke Ming Flanagan, moved a Bill to decriminalise cannabis in 2013 and we are again discussing the issue. As far as I am concerned, all drugs should be decriminalised and regulated. This is safest way to deal with the misuse of drugs and divert resources into more positive and effective measures. The European Monitoring Centre drugs report for Ireland makes it clear that drug use remains prevalent and has become more common among the adult population in Ireland in recent years. There is no point in us being naive about this. Criminalisation has failed everywhere. In Ireland, over 13% of those aged between 15 an 34 regularly use cannabis and there are almost 19,000 high-risk opioid users here. As a society we have been reliant for a long time on the voluntary community sector to provide local supports and services. It should not be forgotten that it was people at the coal-face who were responsible for highlighting many of the these problems in the 1980s in particular.

I will return to where I started. As the Taoiseach pointed out when he launched the drugs strategy, the whole of society is affected to some degree by drug use and abuse in terms of the crime and health implications that result from it. Unless we resource our communities to deal with this issue, the inter-agency approach will not work. We have failed in this regard to date. The motion calls on the Government to implement its own policy by appointing somebody in a senior role to drive this forward and within that to recognise the unique role played by local task forces. It is vital they are an integral part of the drugs strategy. I again compliment Deputy Joan Collins on bringing forth this motion.

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
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I move amendment No. 4:

To delete all words after "Dáil Éireann:" and replace with the following:

"notes that:

— the world drug problem remains a common and shared responsibility that should be addressed in a multilateral setting through effective and increased international cooperation and demands an integrated, multidisciplinary, mutually reinforcing, balanced, scientific evidence based and comprehensive approach (United Nations General Assembly);

— in the European Union (EU) over 92 million people have tried an illicit drug in their lifetime (European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction);

— 14 per cent of young Europeans (15–34 years) used cannabis in the last year;

— the EU early warning system for new drugs monitored 670 new psychoactive substances by the end of 2017, up from 300 in 2013;

— in Ireland 26 per cent of the population aged 15 years or over reported using an illegal drug in their lifetime, with cannabis the most widely used (Drug Prevalence Survey);

— there was a 75 per cent reduction in the use of new psychoactive substances by young adults between 2010/2011 and 2014/2015;

— the annual number of poisoning deaths (overdose) by alcohol and/or other drugs was 348 in 2015, a four per cent decrease from 2014, and that alcohol was implicated in a third of those deaths;

— 30 new proceeds-of-crime proceedings were brought before the High Court in 2018, up from 13 in 2016, the majority of which arise from drug trafficking;

— 184 asset profiles were submitted to the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) in 2018, a 178 per cent increase from 2016;

— €5.67 million was returned to the State under CAB activities in 2018; and

— there were 16 formal reported incidents and 76 informal reported incidents of the use of violence or the threat of violence to enforce debts nationally in 2017;

acknowledges:

— the implementation of the whole-of-Government strategy to address drug and alcohol misuse, Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery, a health-led response to drug and alcohol use in Ireland 2017-2025, and the active engagement with all stakeholders,

especially at the community level;

— the robust monitoring and accountability structures for the National Drugs Strategy (NDS), which involve the Minister of State, relevant Government departments, State agencies, drug and alcohol task forces, voluntary organisations and community representatives at national, regional and local level;

— the further reporting of progress on the strategy to Cabinet Committee B (Social Policy and Public Services) chaired by the Taoiseach and the associated senior officials group;

— the funding of almost €100 million provided annually by the Department of Health to the Health Service Executive (HSE) for the provision of addiction services; and

— the funding of €28 million provided annually by the Department of Health to the drug and alcohol task forces; and

welcomes the Government’s commitment to:

— implement and report on progress on the 50 strategic actions in the NDS on an annual basis through the national oversight structures and to develop an evaluation framework for a mid-term review of the strategy in 2020;

— provide new funding of over €1 million in 2019 (rising to over €2 million on an annual basis) for an integrated mental health and addiction programme in the HSE national service plan;

— better support people facing addiction and mental health issues in the refresh of A Vision for Change;

— prioritise the expansion of community-based healthcare services to minimise the harms from the misuse of substances and strengthen governance structures, in the HSE National Service Plan 2019;

— provide new funding of €1 million on an annual basis from 2019 for the implementation of the NDS, in conjunction with drug and alcohol task forces and the HSE;

— develop a new scheme with a fund of €250,000 on an annual basis from 2019, to provide targeted, appropriate and effective services for young people at risk of substance abuse, focused on disadvantaged communities;

— further implement the Mulvey Report on the north east inner city to address the drug related issues which are affecting the community, under the leadership of the programme implementation board;

— publish and oversee the implementation of a code of governance for task forces in line with best practice in the community, voluntary and charitable sectors;

— ensure that Ireland makes an active contribution to the forthcoming UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, in cooperation with other EU member states;

— establish Ireland’s first supervised injecting facility, in conjunction with Merchants Quay Ireland, to reduce the harms caused by injecting drugs and the prevalence of drug-related litter on our streets and communities;

— support HSE monitoring and oversight responsibilities of drug and alcohol task forces under its section 39 governance framework to ensure that service provision is meeting identified needs and there is accountability and transparency for public monies provided by the Department of Health;

— treat substance abuse and drug addiction as a public health issue, informed by the forthcoming report of the working group on alternative approaches to the possession of drugs for personal use;

— strengthen the effectiveness and the public awareness of the drug-related intimidation reporting programme developed by An Garda Síochána and the National Family Support Network;

— enhance the profile of Garda asset seizure activity in local communities, through proactive profiling and investigation of local criminals;

— continue to support, promote and resource community participation in all local, regional and national structures; and

— implement the Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018, by prohibiting, from November 2019, alcohol advertising in or on public service vehicles, at public transport stops or stations and within 200 metres of a school, early years centre or a local authority

playground, and by prohibiting alcohol advertising around films with an under-18 classification in a cinema and children’s clothing that promotes alcohol."

I welcome everybody who has come to the Chamber for this important debate on the motion presented by Deputy Joan Collins. I also welcome this opportunity to update the Dáil on progress in implementing the national drugs strategy and on our plans to provide additional funding for new initiatives to tackle drug and alcohol misuse.

It is just over 18 months since the Government published the national drugs strategy, Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery, a health-led response to addressing drug and alcohol use in Ireland 2017-2025. At its core, are the values of compassion, respect, equity, inclusion, partnership and an evidence-informed approach. The strategy represents an integrated public health response to substance misuse, with the dual aims of reducing harm and supporting recovery. The first phase of the strategy for the period up to the end of 2020 contains 50 actions across the following five goals: to promote and protect health and well-being; to minimise the harms caused by the use and misuse of substances and to promote rehabilitation and recovery; to address the harms of drug markets and reduce access to drugs for harmful use; to support participation of individuals, families and communities; and to develop sound and comprehensive evidence-informed policies and actions. As Minister of State with responsibility for the national drugs strategy, my focus and priority is the implementation of these actions. My officials recently presented the progress report on the strategy for 2018 and the planned activity for 2019 to the National Oversight Committee, NOC, which I chair. This committee comprises representatives from all relevant Departments, State agencies, drug and alcohol task forces, voluntary organisations and community representatives. Its remit is to give leadership, direction, prioritisation and mobilisation of resources to support the implementation of the strategy.

The progress report will be reviewed on an ongoing basis during 2019 by a standing sub-committee. Progress will be further reported through Cabinet Committee B, chaired by An Taoiseach and the associated senior officials group. I am happy to attend the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health to update it on the implementation of the strategy. Next year will see the launch of a mid-term evaluation of the strategy. This will allow all stakeholders the opportunity to reflect on progress on implementing the strategy and to identify what new actions may be required for period up to 2025.

The strategy commits to treating substance misuse and drug addiction as a public health issue. As a result, I established a working group to consider alternative approaches to the possession of drugs for personal use. To inform the group’s deliberations, the Department of Health undertook a public consultation, which generated more than 20,000 responses to an online questionnaire. I understand from the chair of the group, Mr. Justice Sheehan, that the group is finalising its report and will submit it to the Minister for Health, the Minister for Justice and Equality and me by the end of March.

The Government is also tackling the alcohol problem as a public health matter. The Public Health (Alcohol) Act, which was enacted on 17 October 2018, is groundbreaking legislation that aims to reduce harmful drinking by people of all ages and create an environment where children will not be exposed to alcohol products or advertising. From November 2019, the Act will prohibit alcohol advertising at public transport stops or stations and within 200 m of schools, early years centres or local authority playgrounds. As Deputies will be aware, an important action in the national drugs strategy is to establish a supervised injecting facility, SIF, the purpose of which is to reduce the harm caused by injecting drugs and address the problem of drug-related litter on our streets and communities.

I am acutely aware of the harm caused by injecting drugs to people struggling with addiction, while those who inject openly on our streets are at even greater risk. Discarded drug paraphernalia in communities also poses a risk to members of the public and the supervised injecting facility is a major step towards reducing these risks, treating addiction as an illness and reducing deaths from overdose. The supervised injecting facility is a Government policy and it is crucial that it opens as soon as possible. In 2018, following a tender process, the contract to operate the new service on a pilot basis was awarded to Merchants Quay Ireland, which submitted an application for planning permission for the facility in October 2018. I understand that the application is still under consideration by Dublin City Council and that further information on local services and the policing plan have been requested. I am firmly committed to the SIF and officials in my Department are working with various stakeholders to advance the project.

In September 2018, I announced the establishment of a community fund to support improvements in the physical and social environment in the area around Merchants Quay in the south-west inner city. The HSE national service plan for 2019 sets out the priorities and actions for improving health outcomes for those with addiction issues. Specific actions are designed to expand community-based healthcare services to minimise the harms from the misuse of substances; strengthen governance structures in treatment services; develop an integrated mental health and addiction programme for co-occurring mental health and substance misuse concerns among at-risk groups, with new funding of more than €1 million in 2019, rising to €2 million on an annual basis; implement new models of care for homeless people with complex and multiple needs, including addiction, as part of an integrated housing and health policy response in line with the Housing First national implementation plan; and improve addiction treatment and rehabilitation services in Dublin's north-east inner city, in partnership with the North East Inner City programme implementation board.

I acknowledge the important work being done in communities by the 24 drug and alcohol task forces throughout the country. They play an important role in assessing the extent and nature of the drug problem and taking the appropriate responses to ensure that there is a co-ordinated approach involving all sectors in local communities. In 2018, the Department provided €28 million to drug and alcohol task forces through various channels of funding including the HSE. Last year, I established a working group to revise and update the handbook for task forces, which was published in 2011. This work is ongoing in my Department in association with the key stakeholders and is in line to be finalised in the second quarter of 2019. From this process we will have a new code of governance for task forces, in line with best practice in the community, voluntary and charitable sectors, and my Department will support its implementation in 2019. The revision of the task force handbook is an important step in the development of a performance measurement system, and an implementation plan to operationalise such a system will be developed by 2020. The HSE has monitoring and oversight responsibilities of drug and alcohol task forces under its section 39 governance framework to ensure that service provision meets identified needs and that there is accountability and transparency for public money provided by the Department of Health.

Yesterday I was delighted to announce an additional €1 million in funding for the implementation of the national drugs strategy this year. It is not fair to say the funding has only just been announced, given that I have mentioned a number of times in the Chamber and the Seanad that new funding would become available to us, although I did not have the figures at the time. The funding, which will be provided on a recurring, multi-annual basis, will address the priorities set down in the strategy, including early harm reduction responses, emerging trends in substance misuse such as polydrug use and crack cocaine and improving services for at-risk groups. It will also complement enhancement in drug and alcohol treatment services relating to mental health and homelessness under the 2019 HSE national service plan.

Working in partnership with statutory, community and voluntary sectors is central to the response. I will consult the drug and alcohol task forces and the HSE on how best to target this new funding and I have invited the task forces to a meeting in the Department of Health at the end of March to begin this process. This year I also intend to develop two new schemes to deliver an integrated public health approach to drugs and alcohol, as set out in the national drugs strategy. The first will provide targeted, appropriate and effective services for young people at risk of substance abuse, focused on disadvantaged areas, while the second will support evidence-based approaches to mobilising community action on alcohol. Both schemes will have funding of €250,000 on a multi-annual basis.

In conclusion, I reiterate my belief in a health-led, person-centred approach to addressing the issue of drug and alcohol misuse in Ireland. My priority is the continued implementation of our national drugs strategy with the support of the drug and alcohol task forces. I am confident that, working together, we can build in future on our many achievements.

1:45 pm

Photo of John CurranJohn Curran (Dublin Mid West, Fianna Fail)
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Every day we hear stories of individuals, families and communities throughout the country that have been devastated by drugs. Drug-related harm consistently clusters in communities marked by poverty and social inequality and it is in this context that Fianna Fáil will support the motion presented by Independents 4 Change and Deputy Joan Collins. We will also move a number of amendments but they are in no way meant to detract from the substance of the motion. Rather, they arise specifically from a briefing meeting held by Deputy Joan Collins with CityWide and will be tabled in that context. I hope the proposers of the motion will accept the amendments, as they address the need to restore an annual increase in core funding to drug task forces and ensure that the debate in the Chamber is continued at the Committee on Health, which is important.

In all of my discussions, I stress that the national drugs strategy, which the Minister of State developed, leads and oversees, receives widespread public support from the community and voluntary sector and the statutory players. That is important because, as the Minister of State well knows, Governments and Ministers come and go but the strategy will span a number of Governments and it is important that there is widespread support, which there is. The purpose of the debate on the motion, however, is substantially to examine the implementation of the strategy.

The point was made earlier but I reiterate that the programme for Government, which is almost three years old, commits to expanding the projects supported by local drug task forces. There has been no increase in core funding in the past five years. While the funding partners, namely, the HSE and the Department of Health, have received significant increases to their budgets, the funding for each individual drug task force has remained static. Every other cost has risen and, therefore, in real terms and purchasing power, it has resulted a stealth cut in funding which the task forces can feel. Some Deputies are members of task forces, as the Minister of State will be aware, and they can accurately relay to her the impact on them. We must not only address the issue of emerging needs but also annually increase core funding to support existing projects to ensure the long-term viability and sustainability of the programmes.

I acknowledge that the Minister of State announced €1 million in additional funding yesterday. I questioned her in the House before and she indicated clearly that there would be additional funding. She did not say how much until now and I welcome the funding. She said there would be discussion with the task forces. A substantial amount of money must be found annually to maintain existing core services and funding to task forces before we move to additional funding. In her discussions, the Minister of State needs to set aside a proportion of that funding to support core funding to task forces. If the entire €1 million were just given to support additional funding to core task forces, there would be an increase per task force of 3.5%. It is nothing excessive and people should not get carried away. A sum of €1 million sounds like a lot but we have to look at the projects supported.

I acknowledge that there was funding for one-off projects last year. One-off projects are not the same as the long-term viability of the projects underpinned by the task forces. One element that CityWide has identified and expressed concern about is the input, commitment and support of some of the statutory players in the bodies. We often hear that they may or may not attend various task force meetings and such. I did a small exercise and asked a number of parliamentary questions about attendance. It would not be fair to pick one Department over another so I will not name the Department. One Department sat on one local and three regional task forces and attended only half the meetings. That supports the claim made by CityWide and the community sector that the statutory players often do not attend. It is important that we address this.

Some of the previous speakers raised the issue of decriminalisation. It is sad to say that, as we debate this, we know that there are approximately 700 drug related deaths per annum. More than four times as many people will die from a drug related death than will die on the roads this year. The numbers are staggering and we have the opportunity to make a difference and do things differently. Decriminalisation is not legalisation. It is not a get out of jail card. Decriminalisation will only work if the other supports are in place at that time. The focus is on diverting people from the criminal justice system to health, educational and other supports. The model we use is how they did it in Portugal, which has the population of more than double that of our country. More than 220 people died of a drug overdose in Ireland in the last year while in Portugal, with a population twice ours, the number is 27. There are significant inroads and gains to be made but decriminalisation on its own, without health and educational supports being in place, is not sufficient.

I know the Minister of State has tabled an amendment but I acknowledge that she has said she will attend the Oireachtas committee. We do not get adequate time in the House to delve into the details of the implementation of the strategy. I welcome the Minister of State's commitment to attend the committee because I believe we can tease out some of these points in further detail.

1:55 pm

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the motion. Our party spokesperson, Deputy Curran, has explained the rationale behind some of the amendments tabled. I speak not just as the Deputy for Dublin Fingal but as a chairperson for the north Dublin regional drugs and alcohol task force. For a bit of reality about the resources that we have, there are no local task forces in my area. There are many regional areas that do not have any other services. Our catchment area includes approximately 300,000 people. We have one counsellor for under-18s in the youngest area in the country, one family support worker, four case workers and a manager, and a HSE task force co-ordinator. We run the whole service, including education, family support, health promotion, youth services and the community care team, which we established ourselves, for €777,000 a year.

The Minister of State is right that the work has a real impact. I want to see the role of task forces strengthened. Part of strengthening that is resourcing them properly. My colleague, Deputy Curran, mentioned Portugal. It properly resourced the education, welfare and rehabilitation. That is not happening here. I welcome the Minister of State's announcement of the additional €1 million, but if that is broken down across the 24 task forces, it is approximately €41,000 each. It is not a whole hill of beans. Much of the funding up to now has been one-off funding, and while we appreciate it and use it well, it is much better to have multi-annual increases to core funding.

From my experience as chair of a very active task force, we have a good relationship with the Department and the HSE. There is good collaboration and much more can be done. I wanted to ask the Minister of State about her opening comment and her statement on community action on alcohol that came out of the last national drugs and alcohol strategy. The Minister of State has mentioned €250,000 for the implementation of that strategy, which we are doing in Dublin Fingal, as the Minister of State knows. Is that included in the €1 million? It is additional to it and that is welcome. From our calculation, we reckon that each regional task force would probably require approximately €40,000 to implement it properly. It does not go that far but it goes a certain distance.

I am short on time. All I want to put on record is, as everyone knows, that drugs and alcohol are the single biggest threat to young people in the country and State. If we are to do anything, we need to resource those on the ground who are equipped and qualified to do it. Many well-meaning people work in the area but I still think it is better to do it through a task force structure where people are qualified, trained and educated under the auspices of the HSE. I welcome that Independents 4 Change have tabled this motion, that the Minister of State will attend the committee, and the announcements of some additional funding. I am speaking as someone who looks after a catchment of 300,000 people for €777,000. We can do a hell of a lot more with more resources.

Photo of John LahartJohn Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the motion-----

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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Fianna Fáil will have an extra two minutes.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)
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The Leas-Cheann Comhairle tells us now. I could have used it.

Photo of John LahartJohn Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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Does Deputy O'Brien want to take it?

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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I think Deputy O'Brien overshot the runway.

Photo of John LahartJohn Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I hope I will come in to land on time. As my colleagues have said, we welcome this motion from Independents 4 Change. I welcome the funding. The Minister of State is clearly committed to this although this is three years into the term of a Government in which no major additional funding has been allocated. Since the Minister of State is familiar with this area, how would she expect a household to survive in 2018 on its 2013 budget? That is what we have asked the drugs task forces to do in recent years. The Minister of State is aware of the number of functions that a number of us serve. As Deputy O'Brien said, I am on the Tallaght drugs and alcohol task force. The range of measures or areas that they take control of or attempt to address with a minuscule budget includes crack cocaine issues, family support service, homeless services, prevention and education, and crimestopper schemes. They never received any additional funding for alcohol services. In the Tallaght area, an increase in the use of crack cocaine and cannabis has been observed, especially among young people. That alcohol issue is significant and growing. We also try to look after the needs of families as well as possible in that task force and to provide the support that they need, especially where families have a member who is in trouble with the drugs issue.

I want to reinforce the point made by my colleague, Deputy Curran. It is ironic that the Minister of State will invite submissions from the drugs task forces and invite them in to chat along with the HSE. There is an issue with statutory agencies turning up to the drugs task force in my area. I think the Minister of State needs to address that. She has the power to do it. I compliment Superintendent Ian Lackey in Tallaght Garda station, who attends most of our drugs task force meetings.

Representatives of the HSE and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection are not great attendees. There is no representative either from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs or the Department of Education and Skills. They are critical players, but they do not seem to think they have a role to play in the month to month running of these organisations, although they have a say in their oversight and where the money is to be spent.

Yesterday the Minister of State announced funding of €1 million. She will invite the groups in by the end of March, but it will be the end of April or into May before she decides on what to spend the money. That leaves five or six months left this year. Will every cent of the €1 million be drawn down in 2019? We want a commitment in that regard.

The Minister of State also intends to develop two new schemes. She says there is funding of €250,000 available for one of them. That works out at approximately €10,000 for each of the drugs task forces. It is not much, but it is welcome. She has given no figure for the "targeted, appropriate and effective services for young people at risk of substance abuse, focused on disadvantaged areas" about which she talks.

2:05 pm

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
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The figure is the same - €250,000.

Photo of John LahartJohn Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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That is also welcome, but they are small crumbs from a Government that three years in has demonstrated no commitment to communities that are under savage attack from drugs. We welcome this small contribution to help the task forces which are under enormous pressure and that are the glue that hold communities together to do their work.

Photo of James LawlessJames Lawless (Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the motion and concur with my colleagues who have spoken. I will focus on the issue of criminalisation.

Previous contributors have spoken about the numbers and the funds needed to reduce the damage drugs and alcohol can do to individuals, communities and the State in terms of the resources spent in combating their influence. There is no doubt about the damage that can be and is being caused. When we consider alcohol and tobacco and the range of other substances used and abused, there is comparatively very little difference between them. Alcohol can be easily purchased and imbibed; people can fall over, become addicted and their difficulties spill over into their families and employment and in extreme cases lead to serious illness and death. The same is true of tobacco, as has been well documented. Although public health policy is catching up, tobacco is still legal, albeit expensive. I am no Puritan. I am not condemning anyone for using these drugs or substances, as I also use them, but they are the legal. However, if we put their use in context and put them with many other substances, the argument for decriminalisation is well worth reviewing. I wonder if we were to describe alcohol and tobacco and their effects and they were to be introduced to the market in the morning under another name, would they be approved? I very much doubt that they would.

Previous contributors touched on the variety of strengths, strains and ingredients of illegal drugs and their consumption. There is no regulation, quality control or testing. There is no safety. It is often said what is measured is managed. However, there is no measurement of illegal substances. by definition, there cannot be. That, in itself, is a contributory factor. There was a report in The Irish Timesa few weeks ago that indicated that the potency of cannabis, which at one stage might have been thought to be a soft drug had massively increased in the past 20 years. That is an example of something that has happened in the background in the illegal, dark spaces of the black market that is not being measured or managed. We have to wonder what else is in the unknown?

Legal drugs, prescription drugs, are also an issue. I recently read a book entitled, The Spirit Level, about equality in society. It considers the epidemic in the USA which will spill over to Ireland before too long. We all know about the rust belt and the "flyover" states where economic decline has led to lack of employment, etc. Reported less often is the epidemic of prescription drug abuse which contributes further to the decline of communities. With obesity, this and similar issues amount to a huge public health crisis which is beginning to unfold.

If one walks in on any given day to the Criminal Courts of Justice or any criminal court one will see an all too familiar spectacle, predictable and depressing, because almost every defendant will to some degree suffer from substance abuse or addiction. They may not be there on drugs offences but on petty crime or theft offences, perhaps to support their habit. That is a huge drain on the resources of the State, including the courts, the HSE and the supporting apparatus.

Minor miracles are performed by many agencies, some of which have been mentioned. In my constituency I am familiar with Tiglin where Aubrey and Fergal McCarthy do a fantastic job in running a support centre. Individuals and groups achieve minor miracles in managing against the odds. With honourable exceptions, the approach to date is not working. It is time to think differently.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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Fianna Fáil has one minute left if anybody else wishes to speak.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)
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I would like to come in.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy cannot do so because he has already spoken.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)
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That is a shame because I had a lot more to say.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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I know and I am sure the House would want to hear what the Deputy has to say.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)
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Deputy Eugene Murphy was probably going to mention the section 39 body staff who have received no increments in the past seven years.

Photo of Dessie EllisDessie Ellis (Dublin North West, Sinn Fein)
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Sinn Féin will be tabling an amendment to the motion. I commend Independents 4 Change on tabling this Private Members' motion. For many local communities, the drugs crisis has got progressively worse. Tragically, it does not seem to have the same priority on the political agenda as it once did. From the early 1980s until 1996, the State had effectively abdicated its responsibility towards communities in tackling it. Only in 1996 did it for the first time, under pressure from local communities, recognise that the drugs crisis was not just a criminal issue and that it had to put in place measures to tackle it. The foundations were laid for the establishment of the local drug task forces and national structures and the provision of core funding to tackle the drugs crisis. Significantly, it also led to the appointment of a dedicated Minister of State with responsibility for the national drug strategy.

I pay tribute to someone who was to the fore in working-class communities in tackling the drugs crisis and recently passed away. John 'Whacker' Humphrey was a tireless and courageous worker and an inspiration for many. People like him gave communities a sense of hope at a time of hopelessness and despair. Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this sad time.

Tackling the drugs crisis is not a priority for the Government, nor was it for previous Governments and communities are paying a heavy price as a result. Drugs task forces had their funding cut every year between 2008 and 2014 since when funding has been frozen without even consideration of the rate of inflation. Additionally, drug projects have had to tackle the alcohol crisis which was added to their remit without the provision of extra funding or resources. Funding needs to be reinstated to 2008 levels, with a comparative increase in funding to reflect the addition of the alcohol crisis. A sum of €250,000 goes nowhere near what is required. Community based drugs and alcohol projects need to be given the resources and proper funding they need to meet the complex challenges they face. Those who work in the projects should also expect to receive decent pay and conditions, but staff are expected to do more work and be more accountable for less money, which leads, in turn, to the loss of experienced personnel and projects, as well as a recruitment problem. Staff should have their pay restored. Those who are entitled to increments should also have them restored.

The drugs crisis continues, mainly in working-class communities, with 695 drug-related deaths in 2015. There was a 61% increase in the number of drug related deaths between 2004 and 2015, over three times higher than the numbers who died on the roads. Parents, children and entire communities are being terrorised and intimidated by those involved in the drug trade.

Drug related intimidation is a daily challenge for many and their families. According to a recent report from the CityWide Drugs Crisis Campaign, 74% of those who suffer from intimidation do not report incidents to the Garda, but 90% report such incidents to community groups or family members. In addition, 37% have experienced physical injuries, while 67% have reported mental health problems as a result of intimidation. Another worrying trend is that children are being groomed to be used as drug couriers. No one sector or agency can deal with the drugs issue. It requires an inter-agency approach.

Sinn Féin is calling for a dedicated Minister to be given responsibility for the national drugs strategy. He or she should have a dedicated ring-fenced budget equal to the budget which was available in 2008. Additional funding should be provided for this Minister for the alcohol part of his or her remit. The emerging needs fund and the young person's facilities and services fund should both be re-established because they would allow local drugs task forces to respond quickly and effectively to new challenges. The task forces must once again be responsible for drafting and implementing local strategies to combat the drugs crisis. They must be allowed to operate independently of the HSE and its bureaucracy. They must be supported by the State and Government agencies, including the HSE, the Garda and local authorities. Representatives of the community and voluntary sectors are crucial to the development of a drugs strategy. Their voices and opinions are vital in the fight against drugs. We need to reprioritise tackling the causes and consequences of the crisis. Funding must be reinstated. The local and national structures must be strengthened and made accountable. All of this must be supported by a dedicated Minister with responsibility for the drugs strategy.

2:15 pm

Photo of Maurice QuinlivanMaurice Quinlivan (Limerick City, Sinn Fein)
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I am a member of the Mid West Regional Drug and Alcohol Forum which is based in Limerick. I would like to mention a number of groups that are funded by the forum. The community substance misuse team deals with young people with addiction problems. The Northstar Family Support Project deals with families who are affected by a family member's substance misuse. I am proud to be involved with the Limerick City Community Network, which is a voluntary group comprising people across all communities in Limerick city who come together. They receive no funding, but they are supported by the local task force. I also mention the probation and linkage in Limerick scheme, the Ana Liffey Drug Project, the Saoirse addiction treatment centre and Novas Initiatives, all of which are doing great work in Limerick. Unfortunately, I do not believe the national drugs strategy will work because the necessary funding is not being provided to tackle the problem which is conspicuous across the State, particularly in parts of my constituency of Limerick City.

The misuse of drugs in Limerick is increasing almost on a daily basis. The continued failure to resource properly those who are working on the front line against the scourge of drug addiction is simply not acceptable. It is unsustainable and for that reason the problem is getting worse. It depresses me to say the national drugs strategy will fail. If the funding for it is not increased, there is no hope it will achieve its aims. The groups in Limerick that I have mentioned are having a really positive effect on people's lives every single day, but they are starved of funding because the regional forum is not properly resourced. Limerick does not have a detox centre. Most services have lengthy waiting lists and their staff are under great pressure to deliver basic services. It is estimated that upwards of 1,000 people in Limerick are addicted to heroin alone. The Mid West Regional Drug and Alcohol Forum has taken cuts of more than 50% since 2008. During the years such cuts have had a massive impact and prevented the delivery of drug and alcohol services that are urgently needed in Limerick and across the entire mid-west. It is clear that the drugs problem in the city of Limerick is getting worse. The use of heroin, the excessive use of alcohol, problem gambling and the misuse of prescription drugs are causing significant problems across the city and wider region. The Government's failure to fund these groups properly is a clear demonstration of its indifference to the damage and devastation drugs cause to people, families and communities.

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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I commend Deputy Joan Collins and her Independents 4 Change colleagues on the introduction of thie motion which we are discussing at an opportune time. The cynic in me cannot help noticing the close proximity to this debate of yesterday's €1 million announcement, but I hope I am wrong.

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy is wrong.

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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The announcement seemed to be made at a very opportune time. I would like the Minister of State to explain what the €1 million means. Does it mean that each task force will receive €41,000? What will I say to Councillor Malachy Quinn who is our representative on the north Fingal task force? I commend the work done by the task force which serves a population of 300,000. I believe it has the youngest population in the State. We see the damage the misuse of drugs causes in communities. We also see the possibilities young people have to transform themselves if they are given a hand-up or offered an alternative. Unfortunately, if we do not have the resources or the personnel required, young people will end up going down the road of drug misuse. We need to look at the facts. The level of drug related harm and the number of drug related deaths are increasing. The number of convictions for personal drug use is also increasing. What about the drug dealers? The number of convictions for drug dealing is not keeping pace with it. This shows that the focus is not where it should be placed. If we want to talk about decriminalisation, we should do so. We are talking about decriminalisation, rather than legalisation. Decriminalisation would take away the stigma and focus on the people who need attention. The facts speak for themselves. I have seen in my community the devastating impact of drugs. I wonder how serious the Government is about tackling the scourge of drug misuse. I know that Councillor Quinn and other members of the task force, including the chairperson, are deadly serious about tackling it. They are fighting might and main and working night and day to tackle it, but they need real and meaningful support from the Government. They need multi-annual funding. They need to know how much they will receive next year as they need to be able to put plans in place. If we do not do this, we will simply keep going back to the same place and see young people's lives ruined and communities destroyed.

Photo of Willie PenroseWillie Penrose (Longford-Westmeath, Labour)
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It will come as no surprise to anyone that the Labour Party welcomes and supports the motion on the issue of drug addiction. I congratulate Deputy Joan Collins and her Independents 4 Change colleagues on the tabling of this worthy motion which at this juncture is timely. When the former leader of the Labour Party, Pat Rabbitte, was a Minister of State in the late 1990s, he commissioned the ministerial task force on measures to reduce the demand for drugs. He chaired the task force which published a report that became known locally as the Rabbitte report. It led to the establishment of the local task forces. The Government of the day provided funding to build a network of drug related support services for individuals and communities that now exist within the drugs task force structure.

I want to note a few aspects of the current situation. We all know that drugs represent a significant threat to people, especially young people, and society at large. The new national policy, Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery, has made a few valuable changes. It has identified that compassion and care are central aspects of a health-led approach to the issue of addiction. It is appropriate that such an approach, rather than a heavy-handed criminal justice approach, be taken to people who are addicted to drugs. I welcome the call made in the motion for decriminalisation. Approximately 20 years ago, former Deputy Emmet Stagg was the first to make such a call, in which I joined him at the time.

Photo of Gino KennyGino Kenny (Dublin Mid West, People Before Profit Alliance)
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It has still not been done.

Photo of Willie PenroseWillie Penrose (Longford-Westmeath, Labour)
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I remember very well that everything came down on his head at the time. Last year the Labour Party called for the decriminalisation of users of illegal drugs in the case of people who were addicted. As Deputy O'Reilly said, many people are confused because they do not understand it is proposed to decriminalise the user only. It is important to get the message out that we are not saying we should legislate to decriminalise drugs. The problem is people are confused. I know from being in the courts that a great deal of Garda time is spent in dealing with minor cases of possession of drugs. As the motion suggests, the focus should rightly be on issues such as the violent intimidation of people by drug gangs and the extreme violence we have seen in recent years perpetrated by those running such gangs. That is where the Garda should be directing its efforts and resources. and it will do so if it is permitted and directed in that way. We congratulate gardaí at all levels on their significant successes in recent years. The force needs additional resources in its fight against the drug gangs.

The new national policy includes alcohol for the first time in the same strategy. This is a recognition that addiction is primarily a psychological and medical issue. We should remember that drug addiction is also a problem for some people who are abusing prescription drugs, rather than illegal substances. Last night's "RTÉ Investigates" programme showed how the use of benzodiazepines could have an impact. Prescription drugs are very good when used properly, but they can have unfortunate side effects and people can come to depend on them. The long-term use of such drugs carries with it a risk of addiction. We have to focus on a wide area. Addictive behaviour among those who participate in gambling is one of the wider issues. Many are hooked on making bets on their mobile phones. Some people are losing a fortune because they are making impulsive bets. In some cases, such bets are made late at night when people are not fully focused, perhaps because they have been drinking.

Addiction is a serious issue that affects the person who is addicted, his or her family and the wider community. We know that addiction to drugs occurs all over the country and involves a wide range of substances. This reflects two major changes dating from the 1980s.

3 o’clock

In the 1980s, during what became known as the heroin epidemic, the problem was concentrated in urban areas with high rates of unemployment and other areas suffering from deprivation and disadvantage. At the time the focus was on heroin. The first change is that drugs are now available and abused all over the country. There is hardly a village or community in rural Ireland that has been left untouched by the scourge of drugs. The Internet has facilitated access to drugs in new ways. Drug gangs are active in more areas than before, including rural areas and small villages. It is absolutely frightening.

The second change, on which the motion rightly focuses, is what is called poly-drug use, the use of a mixture of illegal drugs, prescription drugs and alcohol. When it comes to prescription drug use, there is also the question of whether the person was personally prescribed the drugs. The Government's new plan recognises poly-drug use, but the major increases in funding have been focused on medically supervised injection rooms - only for heroin - and the provision of the anti-overdose medicine naloxone and similar medicines. There has not been enough of a focus on how the substances involved in addiction have changed greatly and the need for policy to keep pace with these changes. There is a generation of people who are active drug users who are using anything and everything, except heroin. An important aspect of the motion draws attention to the need for the Government and agencies involved to consider poly-drug use and whether enough emphasis is being placed on the new challenges associated with it. The current structure of local and regional drugs and alcohol task forces covers the entire country, which is appropriate, given that drugs are a problem everywhere.

To explain the Labour Party's amendment to the motion, our concern is that even though addiction is a national problem, it is the case that the original logic behind the establishment of the local task forces in areas suffering from social and economic disadvantage remains valid. We are concerned that resources may now be spread too thinly. In the effort to illustrate some response to addiction, there is a risk that the Government’s plan will fail to dedicate enough resources to those areas with the greatest levels of material deprivation and income inequality. The Labour Party proposes to add two sections to the motion. We propose to add that the Dáil note, “While addiction to drugs is a problem across all of the country, neighbourhoods with a concentration of social and economic disadvantage are more seriously affected by drugs than other areas and merit a more substantive response from the State to address the underlying causes of drug addiction”. We further call on the Government to “Increase the level of funding available in the most socio-economically disadvantaged areas for youth work, family supports and community development services, and for training, education and employment supports, to help address the underlying causes of drug addiction”.

To be clear, drug addiction is more prevalent in areas with high rates of unemployment. It is more prevalent in areas where people do not have a comfortable upbringing and where there are fewer opportunities. Local drugs task forces have played an extremely important role in funding what are called tier one services in the HSE’s four-tier model of care for those affected by addiction. Most of the tier one service interventions are about social care, housing support, education, probation, vocational training, employment support, job seeking skills and family support. The tier two, three and four services are largely medical, up to hospital services in tier four. The tier one services deal predominantly with social and community issues, rather than medical services. The Labour Party is concerned that these valuable services have been given less priority by the HSE, in favour of a purely individual, medical approach to addiction. We must be clear that tackling addiction is a community issue and that it is absolutely necessary to retain a social and economic focus on how we deal with the underlying causes of drug addiction.

Addiction is not just a personal problem. Any person can become addicted to drugs, but a person needs a range of family supports and community based services to help him or her to get his or her life back on track as he or she moves away from drugs. The community based service end of the equation is absolutely essential, not just in dealing with a medical addiction but also to help people to get their lives back on track. We must allocate additional resources for education services, sport and other diversionary projects. A significant increase in resources for the local community task forces would be a good start. I concur with the view that they will only work well if the statutory authorities and agencies comply in full in meeting their obligations to attend and fully participate in them. It is sad to note that their attendance is patchy, to say the least. The Minister of State should call on them to honour and meet in full their obligations and duties.

The Labour Party will be supporting the motion, but it will also be supporting the amendments tabled by Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil. I have provided the rationale for the Labour Party amendments to the motion and hope Members across the House will support them. It is incumbent on us all to put our thinking caps on to find a solution to the problem.

2:25 pm

Photo of Gino KennyGino Kenny (Dublin Mid West, People Before Profit Alliance)
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It is clear from the motion and the statistics that the consumption of drugs is increasing, both nationally and globally. The demand for and use of drugs are greater than ever before, particularly for certain drugs. It runs in parallels with the upsurge in the economy. On a personal level, I have seen what drugs can do and the devastation they can cause to individuals, families and communities. We will have to have a grown up argument about why prohibition has failed. Drugs are destroying communities, but the market for drugs has been surrendered to individuals who only care about profits and making as much money possible. This raises the question of whether we should do something completely different from what we are doing. The consumption of drugs is increasing and prohibition is simply not working.

The debate about decriminalisation in the context of the national drug strategy will continue. Decriminalisation should have happened 20 years ago and should happen today. It should be done and implemented properly because putting people through the criminal justice system just does not work. In fact, over 40% of the people incarcerated are in prison for cannabis use. Anybody listening to this debate should know that nobody should be in jail for cannabis use. That drug should be legalised immediately.

The pharmaceutical industry presents another issue. I read an incredible statistic which I had to check and re-check. Last year 32,000 people in the United States died from a Fentanyl overdose. That is one person every 20 minutes which is absolutely incredible. Some 70,000 people in the United States died of a drug overdose last year, which is astonishing. These drugs are legal. They are in a package which can be bought in a pharmacy. Pharmaceutical companies that make billions and billions in profits are allowed to continue to operate unchecked and cause the social damage we have seen.

We need to look in new ways at the catastrophe drugs cause. Decriminalisation is very important. Drugs will be with us forever. No matter what we say, people will use them and it does not matter what laws are in place. A new approach is required. We need the regulation, decriminalisation and legalisation of certain drugs. That debate has to happen and it will be a difficult one for some, but if it is about saving lives, we should look at the Portuguese model. In 15 years thousands of people have been saved from death and the criminal justice system. I note that the new strategy looks at holistic ways of dealing with drug addiction and drug use. That is good and what we should be doing. However, decriminalisation should happen today.

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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The motion is timely and the amendments tabled by Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féín have some merit. The numbers of deaths occurring as a result of poisoning and non-poisoning in the use of drugs - the figures have been provided by the CityWide Drugs Crisis Campaign - are startling. In discussing the issue we have to consider the legacy of the cuts made in funding drug initiatives in the days of austerity. Between 2008 and 2013, there was a 37% cut in funding for drug initiatives. Some might say we are past those days and that some of the funding has been restored. However, if the issue was researched properly, it would be found that during those years, because the cuts in funding for drug initiatives were made at community level, more and more people became addicted to legal and illegal drugs and alcohol.

This is an important discussion for us all.

Deputy Joan Collins, the mover of the motion, the Minister of State and I share the same constituency, which has major problems with drug and alcohol addiction. I echo what Deputy Gino Kenny said about the need for a serious discussion on the question of decriminalisation of drugs. Until we do that, we will not really get to the heart of holistically treating the question of addiction as a health issue rather than as a criminal issue. Some people get caught and get into big trouble for small amounts of drugs for personal use. This is not to argue that we should not treat people who push, sell or make personal gain from selling drugs differently. However, we need to treat addiction to drugs as a health issue and find legal ways, as well as health ways, of doing it.

I wish to make a point about prescription drugs. It is very worrying that a large number of drug deaths come from the overuse of prescription drugs. It goes to the heart of the control big pharma has over our attitude to health. When Deputy Gino Kenny introduced his Cannabis for Medicinal Use Regulation Bill, it was not to legalise cannabis but to have cannabis available for medicinal purposes. He was able to prove how it can deal with issues such as anxiety and pain. There was great resistance from the Health Products Regulatory Authority, HPRA, to that Bill. The HPRA does not seem to display the same resistance to the big pharma companies which, for example, do not over-produce Spinraza because it costs millions of euro for children who need to get their hands on it. They do not over-produce pembrolizumab because it costs millions of euro for those suffering from cancer to get their hands on it.

A lot of control is needed over big pharma. In an ideal world, as well as dealing holistically with the question of addiction and asking why people want to get off their face on drugs or alcohol in the first place from a young age up to an older age - that question will tell a lot about the society we live in - we also have to ask about the role of big pharma in pushing drugs in this country and the role of the drinks industry in pushing alcohol. To that end, the discussion needs to go beyond the scope of the motion. However, I fully endorse the motion and the amendments to it.

2:35 pm

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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I welcome Deputy Joan Collins’s motion on the national drugs strategy. It has taken a back seat under Fine Gael and certainly has not recovered since recessionary cuts were made. There have been no increases in funding since 2015 despite global opium trade increasing by 65% from 2016 to 2017, the highest estimate ever recorded. Cocaine manufacturing went up 56% during 2013 to 2016, to its highest level ever in 2016 and Europe’s early warning system monitored 670 new psychoactive substances on the market by the end of 2017, up from 300 in 2013.

It is evident that the illegal drugs industry is creatively expanding its products to expand its reach. It is exploiting the funding gap created by governments across Europe which slashed funding during the recession creating a vacuum allowing the drug trade can slip in. It can now smuggle in an entire range of synthetic drugs to add to that.

While drugs are a huge problem globally, I want to focus on something which is more of an issue than drugs in my constituency of Donegal and that is alcohol abuse. According to the north west drug and alcohol task force, alcohol remains the primary drug of choice while the secondary drug of choice is cannabis. In its 2017 annual report, some startling figures revealed the reality of alcohol addiction in Donegal. Out of 1,202 people referred for treatment, 860 were for alcohol and 258 were for drugs. A total of 749 were male and 439 were female. The numbers are steadily increasing. In 2016 a total of 593 men and 319 women were admitted, of whom 691 were admitted due to alcohol. In 2015, a total of 767 were admitted for alcohol addiction in the north west.

I am aware of the great work the north west drug and alcohol task force has been doing in Donegal in particular. It does so much and yet it has the second smallest budget in the country. Only the west has a smaller budget and the north west drug and alcohol task force has an enormous geographical area to cover. With the funding it gets, it funds an aftercare worker and aftercare groups across Donegal. Its funding is also used to strengthen a family programme for young people, children and families, and this is done through the alcohol forum. The north west drug and alcohol task force also funds a youth drug and alcohol worker through Foróige and a training and development officer through the Donegal ETB delivering drug and alcohol training and education.

The new national strategy has a strong element of family involvement and family support in the treatment of alcohol addiction. As a result the task force, working with a number of stakeholders and the Minister of State, will be hosting the launch of the community alcohol action plan for Letterkenny at the end of this month. This multidisciplinary initiative is the first of its kind in Donegal. It is a collaboration between Donegal County Council, the alcohol forum, youth groups and Letterkenny Institute of Technology. I hope that it goes far in the area of education and offering family supports. As well as needing more Government funding, the national drugs strategy needs to look more at collaborative efforts taking place across the country and should reflect the need for more of these types of initiatives. The community alcohol action plan for Letterkenny is an example. I understand a family support worker has been funded for south Donegal and north Leitrim to help bolster family supports in the area.

The north west drug and alcohol task force has done a considerable amount despite little being offered by the Government. However, more could be done, for example, if funding was provided to support the Bill W Club in Donegal town, which supports adults in recovery from alcohol addiction. I have met those running the club a number of times and have tried to help them get funding but it is hard for them to get the support because of the limited funding provided to the alcohol forum in the north west. That is the only forum and the only way that funding can be accessed by any group.

Another aspect that needs more focus is the rise of hidden harm. The experience of children living with, and affected by, parental substance misuse has become known as hidden harm because these children are often unknown to services. While task forces do their best to offer treatment to those who present themselves for help, we do not know about those who are not presenting themselves for treatment. It is very hard to monitor and will have major repercussions in the future for children's mental and physical health.

The motion will do much to address the situation facing Dublin and urban areas but less to address the situation in rural constituencies like Donegal. However, that is not to say that same thing might not happen and funding will need to increase to maintain a focus on early warning and emerging trend and monitoring mechanisms.

I commend the hard work carried out by the north west drug and alcohol task force and local community groups like the Bill W Club which do so much with so little. Their incredible work should not be taken for granted by this or any Government.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I welcome the motion and thank Deputy Joan Collins for introducing it. I welcome the positive and helpful amendments from Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin. The national drugs strategy is a very good strategy; I could not find fault with it. However, like A Vision for Change, it remains simply a strategy and the problem lies with its implementation. One could not improve on what is in it. It builds on two previous strategies, the second of which finished in 2016. This one is more health-focused and more person-centred which is welcome. With A Vision for Change, because nobody trusted any government, a separate independent monitoring mechanism was set up. It was set up for two three-year periods. It was wonderful. It gave the positive and the negative. It showed what improved and what did not. However, a previous government - I cannot remember which one - abolished it.

Similarly here, we have a wonderful strategy. That strategy is born out of pain and death, and it has come from the response of the communities that have fought on the ground and been ignored by a succession of Governments. That is where this strategy came from. The shorter-term plan had 50 actions which were to be completed by 2020. Is the Minister of State in a position to tell us how many of those 50 actions have actually been implemented? At the least I would have expected her to have outlined that in her speech today. We are responding to frustration from groups on the ground at the lack of implementation. I mentioned A Vision for Change because it is déjà vu. Of course the vision and the strategy are fite fuite le chéile. They are totally tied up with each other. We do not need any more strategies or plans; we need action and commitment. We need the Minister of State to outline how many of the 50 actions are implemented and when the remaining items will be done.

That is the sort of straight talking we need in relation to this. I agree with Deputy Gino Kenny when he says that we need an honest conversation about the decriminalisation of certain drugs.

We need a very honest conversation about alcohol. It is a major problem in Galway city. As for the level of suicide in Galway, I find it too upsetting to go into the number of deaths per week in Galway of people going into the water. It is tied up with many things. It is tied up with mental health, with the abuse of alcohol and the abuse of drugs. It is also tied up with our hypocrisy. To cite a very practical example, again in Galway, the Garda informed us that it could not prevent drinking on the street. Consequently we brought in by-laws but as there was a fault in these by-laws, a second set of by-laws was brought in. The Garda said it could not act until the councillors brought these in so we did. It is now an offence under the by-laws to drink on the street. Different interests, however, decided that people should be allowed to drink on a certain street and not on other streets. That was the first problem. The second problem is that the Garda states it does not have the staff to implement the by-laws. That level of hypocrisy is very apparent to the people who drink to excess. They see our hypocrisy. They see it in relation to our advertising and on how we promote sport through alcohol. That is something that we really need to face up to on a serious level. The Government and its Ministers will have my full support if it starts doing that on this issue.

It must start with the 50 actions and how many of them have been implemented. If they have not been, why not? There are problems, I understand, with governance on the ground. We face this every single Thursday in the Committee of Public Accounts, where governance issues repeatedly arise. We see a chairperson saying openly in the newspaper that he stayed on for a longer period of time, even though the recommended time was three years, because nobody else was there to take his job. I do not believe that is acceptable. There should be feedback mechanism when there is a shortage in respect of chairpersons or co-ordinators, because they simply cannot function on the ground without that sort of backup. Tá mo dhóthain ráite agam.

2:45 pm

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I am very pleased to have an opportunity to speak on this Private Members' motion. At the outset, I commend my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, on her work and her leadership. I heard Deputy Connolly mention straight talking and the need for it, and I do not know many people who are more straight-talking than Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, or more passionate when it comes to this area, as are many in other parties as well.

My second point is that until we as a country adopt a health-led approach to drug addiction, we will continue to fail those who suffer from drug addiction. That is why I am very proud that we launched the national drugs and alcohol strategy under the leadership of Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, with the Taoiseach last year. At its very core, that strategy talks about addressing the issues of addiction in a health-led way. Until we get real in relation to that issue, we will continue to fail people who have a drug addiction, their families, and the communities in which they live. The sort of tough talking that we often hear from conservative commentators and politicians in the United States about the "war on drugs" forgets that behind drug addiction are individual people. They are people with health needs, whose needs we need to meet. I am very pleased, hope and expect that we will be able to build cross-party support on this, just like there was previously at the Committee on Justice and Equality, on how we deal with drug use. We also have the interdepartmental group, which is due to report shortly, looking at the issue of decriminalisation.

The drugs phenomenon is an international issue that needs to be tackled in a co-ordinated way and addressed in a global context. I share the view of the United Nations General Assembly special session on drugs in 2016 that said that, "the world drug problem remains a common and shared responsibility that should be addressed in a multilateral setting through effective and increased international cooperation and demands an ... integrated, multidisciplinary, mutually reinforcing, balanced [scientific, evidence-based] and comprehensive approach."

Ireland’s drug problem is going through a particularly dynamic phase, as is indeed happening in other European countries. Analysis by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction shows that people are using a wider range of substances than in the past, and many are polydrug users which increases the risks to their health. Although the use of heroin and other opioids in Europe remains relatively rare, these are the drugs that cause the highest rates of fatal overdose in Europe. Europe has also experienced an increase in deaths and other harms from newer types of drugs. I therefore welcome the 75% reduction in the use of new psychoactive substances by young adults in Ireland between 2010 and 2015, but we need to remain vigilant.

The 62nd session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, CND, will take place in Vienna next week. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, will represent our country at the high-level ministerial segment. The Minister of State will discuss the future direction of world drug policy and participate in setting priority goals going forward, leading to the adoption of a declaration by Ministers. This debate is especially timely. I assure the House that Ireland, along with other EU colleagues, will be a strong voice for a public health approach to drugs at this event. That is really the point where we have to take a health-led approach to drug addiction. There are other issues that we need to address, but we need to get that and cop on as a country as to how we respond to this issue. I am very pleased that the strategy has this at its very core.

Building the resilience of families and communities to respond to the drug problem is a key feature of our national drugs strategy. Community participation and consultation in shaping policy responses to drugs is therefore very important. This is a key role of the drug and alcohol task forces. Equally, measures which address underlying socio-economic disadvantage and the criminality associated with illegal drugs are critical to the development of that integrated response.

I acknowledge that many people in local communities live in fear due to drug related intimidation. It is a Government priority to help communities and protect them from intimidation because of such drug use. The use of violence or the threat of violence to enforce debts related to drug use further impacts on these communities by creating an atmosphere of fear and undermining the health and well-being of families affected and the wider community. I welcome the close collaboration between An Garda Síochána and the National Family Support Network to develop a programme to strengthen the effectiveness and public awareness of the drug related intimidation reporting programme. This is a key commitment under the strategy.

There are a number of initiatives targeted at addressing drug related crime. The Criminal Assets Bureau achieves nationwide coverage in the targeting of the proceeds of crime through the operation of the divisional assets profiler programme. These asset profilers work together with local Garda management and communities toward the objective of denying and depriving criminals of assets. There is now a national network of 378 trained asset profilers compared with 279 at the end of 2017. I want to acknowledge this afternoon the important role played by An Garda Síochána in tackling the supply of drugs by supporting local communities though various preventative and detection initiatives. The Government has allocated very significant resources to policing in recent years and the budget for an Garda Síochána has been increased to €1.76 billion for this year.

I refer specifically to north east inner city initiative, NEIC, as it is an example of the Government’s multifaceted response to drugs and drug related crime. The NEIC community is one that has borne the brunt of drug related crime. It is also a socio-economically disadvantaged community. On foot of the Mulvey report on the challenges of the area, the Government established a programme implementation board to oversee the implementation of its 24 actions to reduce criminality and improve living conditions in the area. I thank Deputy Enda Kenny who, during his time as Taoiseach, took a very personal interest in this as well.

From the outset of this initiative, there has been targeted community engagement and a focus on improving supports and facilities for a wide range of projects and services. One of the major alms of the initiative is to ensure the area is safe for families, residents and the people who work there. Since the start of this year, 51 new gardaí have been assigned to the area to provide reassurance to residents. Increased patrols targeting drug dealing and antisocial behaviour blackspots have also started to make a real and noticeable difference. Ensuring employment opportunities are maximised for local people is also a priority. Another key objective is to improve the physical environment and build that sense of pride in the area.

The Department of Health, in association with the HSE, has developed an integrated package of services to address addiction and related issues in the community. It is estimated that there are 1,000 people in receipt of drug treatment services in the north east inner city. There are an estimated 1,800 homeless people with significant health needs in the inner city, a large proportion of whom are in the in the north-east inner city. The total cost of the new services is €1.8 million, with €500,000 from HSE resources and €1.3 million from the programme implementation board. This is very much welcomed.

I know that the motion also refers to our Public Health (Alcohol) Act. The passage of that Act had significant learnings for us as an Oireachtas. It shows what we can do when we work together in a bipartisan fashion and when we stand up to vested interests who endeavoured to stymie this landmark legislation. It also shows what we can do when those of us in this House work with communities, civic society and medical experts outside of this House. That partnership model delivered the Public Health (Alcohol) Act, just like predecessors in my role managed to deliver similar initiatives on smoking. The challenge for us now on drugs is building that cross-party and societal consensus as to how we deal absolutely with the criminality aspects of drugs and that we crack down on the supply of drugs.

We also remember, however, that behind addiction is a human being and his or her family. We have to support that individual. As Minister for Health, I cannot stand over anything that does not take a health-led approach to drug addiction.

We have a strategy in place - Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery - and I re-emphasise the Government's commitment to it. I look forward to the report of the interdepartmental group on the issue of decriminalisation, which is due very shortly. I hope it provides us with a way forward in this area and I know the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, is deeply committed to that. Our public health-led approach requires services to work together, not in a siloed manner, in order that people do so not fall through the cracks as they try to navigate the different services required to meet their specific needs. At the same time, the strategy recognises the need to address the harms of illegal drug markets on local communities and wider society.

I look forward to continuing to working with the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, with colleagues from across the House and with wider society as we address the many important issues highlighted in the motion put forward by Independents 4 Change and in the Government's amendment.

2:55 pm

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin Bay North, Independent)
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I commend my colleague, Deputy Joan Collins, on her tremendous work in bringing forward this motion on the local drug and alcohol task forces. The motion strongly supports the work of the task forces, which are central to the implementation of the Government strategy, Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery, of 2017. The motion calls on the Government to implement the commitment in the programme for Government to allocate an emerging needs fund; to commit to urgent implementation of the Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018; to accelerate the work of the Garda asset profilers; to ensure a partnership approach to the new youth scheme; and to conclude the HSE review, among other measures. The Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin amendments are also very welcome.

There are 14 local drug and alcohol task forces, 12 in the Dublin area, one in Bray and one in Cork city. There are also ten regional drug and alcohol task forces. I am informed that current funding has been reduced by around 37%, which is an astonishing cut, since 2008. There were a number of years with no funding restorations and in budget 2018, while the HSE received an additional €6.5 million for addiction services, none of this was distributed amongst the task forces.

Tragically, there were almost 700 drug related deaths in 2015. Drugs continue to be a scourge on our communities and families. I welcome some of the measures the Minister for Health and the Minister of State have indicated they are interested in bringing forward. Some of the strategic actions of the task forces include responding to the needs of women and older people with substance misuse issues; supporting and promoting community participation in all local, regional and national structures; and promoting the participation of service users and their families. How can the task forces be expected to deliver on such actions with inadequate funding and an erosion of morale? These issues are partly due to a HSE review, which I understand is being completed with little or no consultation with the task forces on its terms of reference. How can the HSE expect to review the remit and running of task forces when so much of the work and interaction of those bodies falls outside of the health sphere?

Constituents who work and volunteer in the sector inform me that they strongly agree with having transparent systems in place for reporting on the spending and allocation of task forces' funding. They make a convincing case that core funding to community and voluntary groups should be increased significantly. I am informed that some of the organisations cannot pay yearly increments to their experienced, professional core staff. The Minister is aware, as we all are, of the importance of community employment schemes for assisting people in addiction to come back into the workforce. However, the term limits on those schemes can make recovery very difficult. Organisations and volunteers working with people with drug or alcohol addiction issues or both mention deficiencies with the health service, the psychiatric services, dual diagnosis services and so on. One of the key organisations in my own constituency of Dublin Bay North, the Kilbarrack coast community programme, states that the increasing number of drug deaths each year is a result of front-line services not being put in place or being totally overwhelmed. I am sure the Minister of State is aware of the excellent work of that organisation. The Dales Centre in Darndale is another outstanding local service, as are the rehabilitation and support programme, RASP (Laneview Learning Centre) CLG, in Coolock; the Edenmore drug intervention team, EDIT; and indeed several other anti-drug and alcohol organisations in various parishes in the north east.

One aspect to which the Minister referred and which I would also like to address is that of drug related intimidation. The Ceann Comhairle may have noted that our parliamentary colleagues in Westminster are very agitated at the moment by the high level of homicides from knife crime. We have an outrageous level of homicides from gun crime here, and some of these issues are created out of what has been happening in the drug abuse area. This growing and worrying part of the drugs trade and addiction is terrorising communities around the country. In 2016, CityWide undertook a survey which showed that under 10% of people reported their experiences of intimidation to the Garda, and the Garda figures backed that up with just one case under investigation in 2017. Reference has been made to the Garda asset profilers. There is a real issue here about communities living in terror. I hope that is being taken on board by the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Minister for Health.

I warmly commend the work of the drug and alcohol task forces, as well as the organisations and projects funded by them. I congratulate my colleague, Deputy Joan Collins, on bringing forward the motion.

Photo of Joan CollinsJoan Collins (Dublin South Central, Independent)
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I accept the amendment from Fianna Fáil, whose Deputies were at the briefing by CityWide the other day. It is very practical and I welcome the fact that the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, has said she would attend the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health. CityWide should also come in along with the task forces and the HSE to drill down to what is happening with the implementation of the national drugs strategy. I also agree with the Sinn Féin amendment calling for funding for the task forces to be brought back to 2008 levels and for wage increases to be taken on board. We cannot have people working in austerity conditions when the Government is telling us we are into a recovery and are going to have more money in our pockets. There is a group of people who are putting in an awful lot of time and effort. It is their job to get their hands dirty in the community, work with their communities and bring in those instances to try to deal with them through the task forces.

The task forces were set up in 1996 to respond to the growing drugs crisis, particularly in our working-class communities. Families were nearly wiped out and we still have masses every year where those who died during those years are remembered. A criminal element was developing in our communities at the time and the murder took place of Veronica Guerin. Mr. Pat Rabbitte, who was then a Minister of State , said the Government had not listened to the communities and that their voices were missing as regards what was happening and what people were experiencing. The model of the task force was based on the principle that the growing crisis could not be tackled without the voices, knowledge and expertise of the communities identifying and responding to needs, and shaping and funding those responses to link in to State agencies, local authorities, the Garda, the health services and so on. There was a bottom-up and top-down integrated response to the issues. Although it was innovative, that model is now under threat. I do not know if the HSE is wiping someone's eye on this but there are serious problems.

The Minister of State, the task forces and CityWide all agree that the national drugs strategy is good. It is what should be done. However, CityWide is saying that because of the way it is being implemented, we are in great danger of moving away from the model of the task force. We all agree the strategy should be health-led but this should be done in a holistic way. We are talking about decriminalising the use of drugs and making the approach more health-centred. The original model is being stretched and torn apart.

The national oversight body, under its terms of reference, looks at the prioritisation and allocation of funding, whereby all agencies are supposed to participate and agree where moneys are to be distributed. The national oversight body was told recently that an allowance of a couple of million euro should be discussed and priorities agreed, and that it would distribute the money. However, in a reply to a parliamentary question, it was revealed that the HSE had already allocated the funding, ignoring the terms of reference of the national oversight body.

These agencies are not attending meetings of the strategic bodies, which poses a considerable danger.

The standing sub-committee met yesterday to agree actions by Customs and Excise and the Garda on the supply of drugs, and while there was an introduction, there was no discussion, engagement or outcome even though that is what the sub-committee is supposed to do. This flies in the face of its terms of reference, which are to oversee and monitor the responsibilities and accountability of the task forces, yet the HSE is initiating reviews and essentially ignoring the committee. These two national bodies cannot do their job under their terms of reference because the necessary information is not being provided to them and decisions are being made elsewhere, primarily by the HSE.

Like CityWide, I disagree that there is robust monitoring. Issues are being missed. It is important to point out that unless the Minister of State addresses this matter, problems will seep down into the task forces. Community representatives and various representative bodies fear that they are not being listened to, that the task forces will just become a talking shop and that, through these reviews, the HSE will control their funding and the direction they take. The Minister of State will have to deal with this issue.

The amendment does not address core funding, wages or the issues raised by CityWide. The voices of the 1990s are coming back and saying to us as politicians that something is wrong and it needs to be addressed.

I thank the parties that are supporting the motion. I hope that we can progress it and make it effective.

Amendment put.

3:05 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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In accordance with Standing Order 70(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time on Thursday, 28 March 2019.