Tuesday, 13 July 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
The Department of Health has suspended the activities of the north inner city drug and alcohol task force and is putting in place its own process to appoint a chairperson and broaden its membership. The Department of Health is basing this decision on an accusation of governance shortcomings in the north inner city drug and alcohol task force. I have been talking to the task force members and the task force absolutely and totally rejects this accusation. It views the actions of the Department as completely unjustified and is intent on defending the honesty, integrity and professionalism of the chairperson, directors, members and staff of the task force.
In the 25 years since the north inner city drugs and alcohol task force was established, there have been no governance shortcomings raised with the task force and the Department has made this allegation without presenting a shred of evidence. The only governance shortcoming the Department of Health refers to is a recent task force process for the appointment of a new chairperson. Contrary to what the Department is saying, the task force has complied with all the requirements set out in the drugs and alcohol task force handbook.
The task force states without reservation that the process put in place for the appointment of the chair has been collectively agreed and implemented with complete transparency by all the task force members across community, voluntary and statutory sectors. The outgoing chair has carried out his duty in this matter with honesty and integrity and through consensus. The person selected by the task force as the next chair fully complies with the requirements as outlined in the handbook, including not being connected to any of the projects funded by the task force.
Despite all of this, the Department has intervened in a process to block the task force from going ahead with the appointment of a new chair.
The Department representative intervened first as a member of the north inner city programme implementation board, then changed to an intervention directly on behalf of the Department looking for a three-person interview panel to be put in place with a Department representative, a HSE representative and a drugs and alcohol task force representative. It is unprecedented in 25 years of the drugs and alcohol task force for the Department of Health or any parent Department to intervene in this way in the selection of a chair. The task force did not agree with this proposal as it is not in compliance with the handbook or company law. The action of the Department is suspending the drugs and alcohol task force for governance shortcomings has been taken in the complete absence of any procedures based on natural justice or a right to reply. It has tainted the personal and professional reputations of the directors, members and staff of the task force by presenting them as unfit and untrustworthy to carry out the work of the north inner city drugs and alcohol task force. The Department is also proposing to remove every shred of independence from the task force by taking over the appointment of the chair and members.
I am calling on the Department to withdraw its decision to suspend the task force, reinstate it immediately and set up a forum for natural justice. If the Department feels there is a problem, its representatives should talk it out with the task force members in an open and transparent way. I appeal to the Minister of State to do that. This has been the tradition of the task forces since they were set up 25 years ago to respond to the drug issues facing communities across the country. They should be respected for that.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I welcome this opportunity to update the House on the engagement with the north inner city drugs and alcohol task force on the arrangements for the selection and appointment of an independent chairperson. As Minister of State with responsibility for the national drugs strategy, I recognise and value the important role that drug and alcohol task forces play in co-ordinating drug and alcohol projects and services assisting individuals and families to address addiction issues in the community. The Department of Health has oversight of the task forces and their annual allocation of over €29 million. A handbook on the governance and operation of task forces has been in place since 2011. Task forces are expected to conduct their affairs in accordance with the handbook.
The Department of Health provides an annual allocation of €2.2 million for drug and alcohol services under the auspices of the north inner city drug and alcohol task force. The Department has worked closely with the task force in recent years, as part of the Government's north-east inner city, NEIC, initiative. It has supported the task force to undertake a community needs analysis on drug and alcohol use and jointly hosted a seminar to present the findings in the offices of the Department of Health. Considerable additional resources have been provided to enhance drug and alcohol services in the area, both from the NEIC initiative and the Department's budget.
As I understand it, at the start of 2021, the outgoing chairperson of the task force approached the Department to discuss the appointment of a new independent chairperson. As stated in the task force handbook, the chairperson's independence must clearly be established and evident in the manner in which the business of the task force is conducted. In particular, there should be complete transparency in arrangements put in place for the selection process and appointment of the chairperson. The Department and the outgoing chairperson agreed a process whereby there would be a search for suitable candidates for the post, with third-party assistance, to identify a shortlist for interview. I understand that the agreed process for selecting and appointing an independent chairperson was not followed. The Department wrote to the task force to highlight its concerns in April, to request that the successor chairperson was not appointed, and to meet with the task force at the earliest opportunity. There is now an impasse in the appointment of a chairperson of the task force. Unfortunately, the failure of the leadership of the task force to engage with the Department on this matter has left no alternative than to put in place a process to appoint an independent chairperson and to broaden the membership of the task force to include all stakeholders, including public representatives.
I emphasise that community projects and services under the auspices of the task force will continue and there will be no disruption in services. The employment of the two task force staff members will also continue. I have advised that the meetings and other business activities of the task force should be suspended on a temporary basis during this process. When the task force is reconstituted and an independent chairperson appointed, the task force will resume the role and responsibilities for co-ordinating drug and alcohol services in the north inner city.
The Deputy has raised an important issue. She wants consultation and I look forward to that. We will be meeting with public representatives and stakeholders tomorrow. I welcome the Deputy's engagement. I hope that, working with all the stakeholders, we can sort out this impasse. We need a meeting with all the stakeholders as soon as possible and I look forward to it.
The Minister of State said he has asked Department officials to meet community representatives to explain the governance issues that the Department is alleging have arisen in the task force and also to explain the Department's proposal to put in place a transparent process for the selection and appointment of an independent chairperson. The Minister of State's statement fails to respond to the point that the Department should withdraw the suspension. It is difficult for the task force to understand how the Department could consider it acceptable to invite only some of the members of the task force to a meeting when the suspension has been applied to the full task force. Members of the task force consider that disrespectful to their colleagues and until the suspension is lifted, they do not consider it appropriate for them to meet the officials.
When considering an action as serious and unprecedented as suspension, an action that has never been taken by any Minister in 25 years across the 24 task forces, it is an absolute requirement of good governance and proper procedure to put the alleged shortcomings to the members of the task force in advance of such a decision so that there is a right to reply in line with the principles of natural justice. The very fact that community representatives are now being asked to meet Department officials after the task force has been publicly suspended shows that no attempt has been made by the Department to raise the governance shortcomings with the task force in advance of its suspension.
The Minister of State stated that the existing members of the task force will be consulted about the process of selection to appoint an independent chair and that the approval of that appointment will be a decision for the collective membership of the task force. That completely ignores the fact that the decision on the appointment of the new chair has already been taken by the collective membership of the task force in accordance with the drugs and alcohol task force handbook guidelines. I thank the Minister of State for his stated intention to meet public representatives but the key here is to talk to the task force. I welcome the meeting to which the Minister of State has referred. I will attend and look forward to it. However, the main thing is for the Department and the Minister of State to talk directly to the members of the task force about the issues.
There are a few points from the debate and media statements that I want to clarify. No accusations were made against any individual associated with the task force. I have not raised any issues about the honesty and integrity of the individuals involved, nor suggested in any way that they are unfit or untrustworthy.
The Deputy suggested that we talk to the full task force and I will take that on board because it is helpful. I hope we can come to some agreement and in the next few days will be able to discuss the matter.
The front-line drug and alcohol services under the task force umbrella continue to be funded and provided. The staff members directly employed by the task force will continue to do their work. Departmental officials have been and are available to meet with members of the task force to explain the governance issues that have arisen and to outline the Department's proposal to put in place a transparent process for the selection and appointment of an independent chairperson for the organisation. Members of the task force will be consulted about the process to select and appoint an independent chairperson. They will also confirm the appointment of the independent chairperson following the transparent selection process.
I ask for the co-operation of all stakeholders in putting in place good governance procedures. It is important that task forces are open and transparent in how they appoint their officers and do their business. Good governance will build confidence in the task force to continue its important work in co-ordinating drug and alcohol services in the north inner city and in contributing to make this area a better place to live for young people, families and the whole community.
I thank the Deputy for her helpful observations and look forward to meeting with all the stakeholder in the coming days.