Thursday, 21 November 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Drug Treatment Programmes Funding
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Catherine Byrne, to the House to again discuss the serious drug addiction problem in Drogheda, County Louth. As my colleague, Deputy Smyth, who is present, is aware, today we learned of serious and significant problems being experienced by community drugs services in the areas. It is a very difficult situation, particularly for the voluntary groups which run and administer those services. There is a crisis in funding and confidence which needs to be addressed at a meeting with the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, and the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris. All Deputies and Senators who represent counties Louth, Meath, Cavan or Monaghan know this is a matter of extreme urgency. I will follow up the matter with a written request. My primary reason for tabling this Topical Issue matter is that there is a significant, serious and urgent need for further resources to tackle the prevalent drug problem in Drogheda and east Meath in light of increasing drug seizures.
In the past month alone, €5 million worth of drugs have been seized in the county by the Garda. We are thankful for its intervention. Two weeks ago, €1.3 million worth of cocaine was seized 2 miles outside my home town. Those in our community who are dependent on cocaine are seeking further supply or, alternatively, treatment and help. However, they have nowhere to go; there are no support services and that is at the heart of the problem.
I very much welcome the decision of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, supported by the Taoiseach and the Government, to significantly increase the number of gardaí in Drogheda. An additional 25 full-time permanent gardaí have been stationed there as a result of the crime and other problems caused by the drug war and problems. That step has been very relevant, important and successful. At least 14 people have been arrested and brought before the courts. They will be tried in due course.
The issue is that there has been no parallel increase in drug treatment services. Thankfully, the criminal justice system is working very well and efficiently. However, the HSE and the health board are not. The Minister of State visited the Red Door project three times and is very much aware of the problems there. A former colleague of the Acting Chairman, Deputy Broughan, and mine, Senator Nash, noted that if visits by Ministers to the Red Door project meant it was getting money, the service would have millions in funding. Unfortunately, its budget has not been increased. I acknowledge the interest and awareness of the Minister of State in the project and her concern for it, but its budget has not changed. It is unacceptable to the people of Drogheda and those running the Red Door that there has not been a determined and resourced fight to meet the needs of those who require treatment and supports. According to the family addiction support network for the north east, including County Louth, the region suffers from long waiting lists, a paucity of community treatment, insufficient counselling services, a lack of dual diagnosis in mental health services, insufficient methadone prescribing GPs and very few family support services. It further notes that participants spoke of a perceived lack of professional standards, accountability and transparency among some treatment services. There is a real crisis which needs to be addressed through proper funding from the Minister of State and her Department.
I thank Deputy O'Dowd for raising this issue. I understand that the issue of drug abuse is of great concern to him and the local community. I share many of his concerns. I have visited the north east on several occasions and met service providers there. I know they are working in partnership locally to address these serious issues.
Expenditure by the HSE on drug and alcohol services across the country increased from €94 million in 2016 to more than €100 million in 2018. The funding is used by the HSE to deliver a wide range of services, including early intervention, treatment and rehabilitation. In addition, the Department supports the drug and alcohol task forces. It provides €28 million to them each year through various channels of funding, including the HSE. This funding supports more than 280 community projects prioritised by drug task forces in local areas and communities throughout the country. The North Eastern Regional Drug and Alcohol Task Force receives almost €928,000 of this funding.
Earlier this year, I was pleased to secure additional funding of €1 million to implement key actions in the national drugs strategy. From this funding, the Department of Health provided the North Eastern Regional Drug and Alcohol Task Force with an additional €20,000 to support its work, 50% of which is recurring on an annual basis. The funding can be used to enhance services and meet operating costs. The Department is also providing an additional €190,000 over a three-year period for rehabilitation and aftercare support for users of drug and alcohol services in the midlands, Louth and Meath community healthcare area. This initiative will enhance services for people who have dual diagnoses of mental health challenges and substance abuse or who have experience of trauma.
Recent data from the Health Research Board indicates that there were 10,274 cases availing of drug treatment services in Ireland in 2018, an increase of 1,300 or 15% on 2017. The proportion of new cases presenting in 2018 was 39%, up from 37% in 2017. The increase in the number seeking treatment is encouraging from a public health perspective.
The HSE and the North Eastern Regional Drug and Alcohol Task Force support two front-line drug services in Drogheda, namely, HSE Donore Road and the Red Door project. HSE services recently relocated to the Donore Road, Drogheda, following a €425,000 capital refurbishment. This has led to an improvement in the physical environment for service users and staff located there. A community methadone programme, a substance use service for teens and a social inclusion service are currently provided from the location.
The Red Door project receives funding of €149,000 per year and aims to provide confidential assistance and services to individuals, families and communities affected by drug and alcohol use. The project provides access to a community links worker, a drop-in service, a special rehabilitative community employment scheme and a sexual health screening clinic run by HIV Ireland. It also hosts group therapy programmes and Merchants Quay Ireland utilises it to provide a needle exchange service.
The HSE also supports other services such as the family addiction support network, the ISPCC and Turas Dundalk. The HSE constantly reviews its budget. In recent weeks, it provided additional funding of almost €85,000 to projects in the area, including the Red Door project, Turas, the family addiction support network, Dundalk Simon Community, the ISPCC and Merchants Quay Ireland. It has appointed a senior counsellor to provide governance of counsellors and counselling services.
I accept that certain things have changed. Some €650,000 has been spent on the Donore Road facility. My information is that up to two weeks ago nobody was in that facility. I have since been informed that three public servants are there but that there are no new services. The Minister of State indicated that a methadone programme has commenced. I ask her to provide a follow-up on what exactly is there.
The Deputies from Louth, Meath, Cavan and Monaghan met members of the regional drugs task force this afternoon. All of them said the support they are getting is inadequate and the budget is insufficient. The Deputies from Cavan-Monaghan can speak about it, but I understand there is a very serious crisis in that area, with one of the significant community support services about to close owing to inadequate funding. I repeat that there is a real crisis. Notwithstanding the funding increases the Minister of State mentioned, the service goes nowhere near meeting the demand.
A meeting with the Minister of State and the Minister was requested in order to discuss a plan of action for support for regional drugs task forces. Those involved feel that the power and money is being taken away from them. They pointed out that when Pat Rabbitte was Minister of State with responsibility for the drugs strategy, there was a bottom-up approach. In other words, the money came locally and moved up the system. At present, the money comes through the HSE and does not get to the task forces in the amounts they are seeking.
The Minister of State spoke about the drugs problem in County Louth. In a reply to a parliamentary question, I was advised that in 2018 there were 45,000 needle exchanges in County Louth. That gives some idea of the number of people who depend on injections.
The Minister of State and the Minister need to meet these people. The Government needs to fund the service adequately. The Minister of State will have my support and that of all the Deputies for Louth, Meath, Cavan and Monaghan to ensure that the people get the services they need and demand. What is outlined in the report from the family support network is absolutely unacceptable. It basically points out that no decent services are available. It is shocking, disgraceful and shameful, and it must change now.
I have a closing statement but I will not use it; I will speak directly to Deputy O'Dowd and respond to the issues he raised and the remarks he made.
I am steadfast in my commitment to the national drugs strategy, as Minister of State and implementation lead for the strategy on the oversight committee. In recent weeks, a significant number of people have been addressing this issue, not only because of the reviews of the task forces on the ground but also in general. I acknowledge that money for the national drugs strategy has not been forthcoming for some time. When we launched the strategy two years ago, €7 million was allocated to its implementation. I want to work in partnership with the HSE and the drugs task forces. Nobody is falling down in the context of providing leadership - not my Department and certainly not the Minister. I spoke to him in recent days about the relevance of drug addiction and how important it is to get to the heart of communities in order to try to understand the issues that are arising, not only with criminal activity but also in terms of understanding what is happening in people's homes.
With my background, I am very familiar with the issues. I have seen addiction as a big destroyer of lives from an early age. I have no problem meeting anybody. I have an amount of money to give to people. With the support of the drugs task forces money was reallocated to specific projects. Thirteen drugs task forces came back with specific projects they wanted to pursue. We funded them and two of them have been in the Drogheda area.
I will relay to the Minister the message about meeting these people. It is not necessary to put it in writing; I have no problem meeting them. If we give out money to task forces or the HSE, the most important thing for me, as Minister of State, is the governance of task forces and the HSE and their accountability. In recent weeks I have received ten different letters outlining issues people have with distribution of funding among task forces on the ground. I need to deal with them as the Minister of State. I will not stand over giving money to projects if the money is not used specifically to deal with young people and all people in addiction. This money should be going into addiction services. As far as I am concerned, when money goes to a task force it needs to be focused on those people on the ground.
I will without doubt meet the people the Deputy mentioned. I will raise the possibility of doing so with the Minister. I cannot vouch for his attendance at any meeting, but I will certainly meet them.
I reiterate that I am committed to the national drugs strategy. My leadership of it is beyond doubt. As stated previously, I regret that nine former Ministers wrote a letter without coming to me to ask what is happening out there. We must work in partnership. It is not about the HSE, the partnerships or the Department of Health. We all have to work as one to resolve the issues in our communities because drugs are killing people. I get the message that Deputy O'Dowd is sending.