Wednesday, 6 February 2008
National Waste Strategy: Statements
Tony Killeen (Minister of State, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Clare, Fianna Fail)
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I am pleased to have the opportunity of dealing with this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, who is unavoidably absent.
Since taking office the Minister, Deputy Gormley, has stressed the twin environmental priorities of dealing with climate change issues and ensuring we make the necessary quantum leap in the way we manage our waste. Just last week the scale of the challenge we face with waste was graphically illustrated in the Environmental Protection Agency's national waste report for 2006. We have made progress, particularly in regard to recycling, but we have a mountain to climb in terms of meeting our European Union obligations. This is especially so in the need to double our diversion of waste from landfill by 2010.
This is not just about meeting EU requirements, however, but about delivering a world class waste management system for our world class economy. That is why the commitments on waste in the programme for Government use EU targets as a starting and not a finishing point. In future we need a situation where Ireland is no longer playing catch-up on EU obligations but is leading the way, as we have done on the plastic bag levy and the smoking ban and as we will do on energy efficient lighting.
The programme for Government is not just about setting policy goals such as, for example, aiming to reduce our reliance on landfill to just 10% in the longer term. It also sets out how we will get there.
The next step is to carry out a fundamental review of the way we plan our management of waste. The Minister, Deputy Gormley, has approved detailed terms of reference which will ensure this review is as wide-ranging as it needs to be. It will not be about papering over cracks or developing stop-gap solutions. It will be about looking at all the technologies available to take us away from a reliance on landfill which is no longer environmentally, socially or economically credible. It will also be about ensuring we have the legal, policy and institutional tools to deliver best practice and become a world leader in sustainable waste management.
The Department is moving as quickly as possible under procurement rules to retain independent consultants to carry out this work. This is not a kick to touch. This work will be completed in months and not years. When the review is completed the Minister will bring to Government a comprehensive response to its findings, including any necessary legislative changes which may be required.
I mentioned the national waste report. I will briefly return to it because it is the backdrop to the terms of reference for the review. It shows that the quantity of biodegradable municipal waste has increased by 15% and the quantity of municipal waste has increased by 11%. While our recycling levels also continue to rise, we started from such a low base and our economy has grown at such a pace that in many ways we are running to stand still. We must make a leap forward and go beyond the type of incremental progress we have been seeing.
That is particularly so when the report shows that the quantity of municipal waste sent to landfill increased by 8% in 2006. That simply is unsustainable and demands urgent action not just to halt the trend but also to reverse it if we are to have any realistic chance of meeting the EU landfill diversion targets for 2010 set by the landfill directive. This is not just about national pride, although that too is important, but also about avoiding the financial sanctions which can result from failing to meet targets that were set not as a barrier to development but as a mechanism for ensuring our development can be sustained into the future.
In this context we must explore the full range of technical solutions as well as modifying our behaviour in support of sustainable waste management. I expect the study to identify existing and potential technologies the better to treat our waste mechanically and biologically so that we can eliminate gradually our reliance on landfill and minimise the need for incineration.
These efforts must be supported by a renewed commitment to source segregation, including the rapid roll-out of brown bin collections for our biodegradable waste. We must continue to win further public engagement in recycling and ensure facilities are available in all areas to respond to the undoubted willingness of people to do more.
We must emphasise also the development of markets in Ireland for recovered waste resources, as the national waste report states. The Department is in the process of procuring a contractor to deliver the Government's ambitious €13 million market development programme. A contractor will be in place by May of this year to drive this five-year programme which will take us on to the next level in our modernisation of the national approach to waste management.
The best way of dealing with waste is to prevent it arising in the first place. The national waste report shows that the waste prevention policies we have pursued up to now will not be sufficient in future. A national waste prevention programme, headed by the EPA, is in place and is being reviewed by the agency. It needs to drive waste prevention with renewed vigour and urgency. In addition, the waste policy review will identify international best practice in waste management, including waste prevention, that can be applied in Ireland to meet the highest international standards. We must make sure that there are adequate drivers for recovery, reuse and recycling. The EPA notes in the waste report that low landfill gate fees may be contributing to increases in the quantities of waste going to landfill rather than being recovered from landfill. This is not acceptable.
In the short term, I want to signal clearly that landfill is a solution of the past that can only have a minor and diminishing role in the future. While the present legal framework curtails what the Minister can do, it is intended to increase the landfill levy to the maximum extent possible pending the outcome of the policy review.
I anticipate that one of the legal initiatives to flow from the review will be a renewed emphasis on the use of economic instruments to promote sustainable waste solutions. It can be anticipated in this context that the landfill levy of the future will be much more burdensome than at present. This will change the economics of waste management and should encourage the sector to begin planning for investment in waste solutions that move us away from landfill.
We must also ensure that the waste sector is regulated in a manner which supports overall national waste management policies and objectives. The Department is giving consideration to the range of views which emerged when a formal public consultation on this issue was conducted. Any necessary policy or legislative changes will be brought forward in the context of the overall review.
This has been a necessarily brief overview of waste management in Ireland. One could be pessimistic and overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task ahead. That is not how I see things. This is a time of challenge and we should relish the prospect of rising to that challenge. The public has demonstrated a commendable willingness to modify behaviour, to make the very real effort to change bad habits in managing our waste and to meet the necessary costs of doing the right thing.
The Government has a duty to lead this process in a proactive way. We are determined that the review now under way will give us all the tools we need to take a 21st century approach to waste management. The House can be assured that if there are significant legal, policy and institutional changes ahead then we are determined to champion them. The aim will be to host a vibrant, innovative and creative waste management sector where public and private service providers can work to best effect in a properly regulated and resourced market.
I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for his presentation. This is an important issue for the Government and for the service providers, local authorities and all those involved in waste management but, most importantly, for the people of this country. They have a greater awareness nowadays of the implications, complications and cost of waste management and its infrastructure.
Before examining the new waste management strategy, we must draw attention to the existing plans and ask the Minister of State about their status. A number of regional plans were adopted by county managers and I believe they are now on hold. These were prepared after a major consultation process, at great cost, but this has left much confusion and frustration because the Government has taken a new direction. Perhaps it will be for the better but the confusion that exists must be clarified so that local and regional authorities can engage with proper waste management structures in the interim.
We should examine the existing infrastructure to identify deficits. The Minister of State referred to landfill and landfill capacity. I wish to see an audit of landfill capacity throughout Ireland. It is important to know our landfill capacity in the interim period before the implementation of the new strategy.
I draw attention to the legacy landfills - unlicensed landfills that are unknown to many local authorities. All parties engaged in the practice of dumping over decades and much environmental damage was done. I recently sought a list of licensed and unlicensed landfills throughout the country. Some of this information has been received from the local authorities but I am concerned about other landfills, of which I know, that are not listed anywhere. They are beside rivers and tributaries and I will undertake further investigations in this regard. We have obligations under EU regulations to compile a complete list of our landfills and how we propose to treat them. Addressing legacy landfill will be a problem for all local authorities and the Government.
While grants have been received from local authorities to address the cost of licensed landfills that have been closed, remediation costs are a major burden on local authorities. This affects the management of waste and waste management infrastructures in those local authorities. In my local authority area of Waterford, the local authority can no longer afford to employ an environment education officer because of the major remediation costs, which amounted to over €10 million. The education officer had been doing great work on environmental initiatives in the community and in schools, delivering real change on the ground. I ask the Government to examine this and provide more resources for local authorities, provide greener initiatives and provide more officers to develop and promote the initiatives. These initiatives deliver results and it is a pity that such schemes suffer due to the burden of remediation.
The Minister of State referred to recycling. We have made progress in the past ten years. My local authority was the first to introduce the three bin system - one bin for recycling, a brown bin and a grey bin. Major strides have been made in implementing this system around County Waterford. Many local authorities have followed suit. I ask the Minister of State to carry out an audit of the number of local authorities with the three-bin system in place. It is not good enough if waste streams are being mixed in areas we control. People are engaging with the management of waste and are recycling. It is important that we provide infrastructure for them to use. I include in this proper recycling initiatives, proper waste collection services and proper civic amenity sites. While there are some excellent civic amenity sites, there is room for more. We must increase access and availability in order for people to engage with them and get into the habit of visiting them on a regular basis. People can dispose of building, garden and hazardous waste, such as batteries and oil, that can be reused or recycled. People will use sites if they are put in place but a limited number is available at present. I encourage the Minister of State to provide more resources to local authorities for these sites.
Local authorities play a dual role with regard to waste collection. They are both regulators - an important role to ensure waste is collected in a proper and compliant manner - and service providers. This amounts to a conflict and local authority managers agree with this. The private collectors suggest that this inhibits fair competition.
There is much confusion with regard to private and public waste collection services. Serious difficulties exist and the Government should clarify where we stand. Local authorities accuse private collectors of cherry-picking and private collectors accuse local authorities of overregulation. There is a war over waste collection services and it is important that a national regulator for waste collection be appointed. I encourage a debate on this because a regulator could introduce fair competition. A private operator cannot cherry-pick the city and neglect rural areas. If a regulator were in place, he or she could set up a system that mixes rural and urban collection and put it out to tender. People would be then on a level playing pitch and we would have a much fairer and more efficient system of waste collection. The Minister should consider having a national regulator for waste collection services.
Local authorities are required to introduce waiver schemes in their areas. Many would argue that the Department of Social and Family Affairs should pick up that tab similar to the way in which it deals with electricity and fuel allowances. The Department of Social and Family Affairs should pick up the tab for social welfare recipients who have waivers for waste collection services. Local authorities are being asked to operate waiver schemes at a disadvantage. They are forced to bear the brunt of that cost and compete with the private operators. Much of that needs to be scrutinised so that we have an efficient, well-managed and fair waste management system in all local authority areas. There is serious competition in Dublin city and Waterford city with serious arguments between waste collectors.
I wish to acknowledge the input of Repak and its constituent corporate bodies regarding industrial and commercial waste. They are doing a good job in minimising waste. However, I note that 48% of hazardous industrial and commercial waste is being exported. I will be interested to see the proposals arising from the review for handling hazardous waste and whether the same levels will continue to be exported. I look forward to the Government's response on completion of the review, which will make for interesting debate. All parties will engage proactively at that stage because it is important to deliver proactive and sustainable waste management for the future. I hope the review will take into account our infrastructure deficits. The Minister proposes to engage some new technologies, including mechanical and biological treatment. There is considerable rhetoric regarding this technology. We need to understand how he proposes to achieve these targets and how the technology can deliver on his proposals.
The review needs to address the resources issue. We must not forget farmers and the rural economy. Farmers have issues with farm waste. While a number of pilot schemes on farm waste are operational, I would like to see them expanded giving real resources and support to farmers who want to engage in proper waste management on their farms. They are certainly interested in engaging in that process, as is the IFA.
Packaging at source needs to be reviewed seriously. In the UK there was an exciting initiative called the Courtauld commitment. They considered the introduction of initiatives for businesses to incentivise retailers to reduce packaging waste. They emphasised the corporate responsibility of retailers to reduce packaging. Many of the large supermarkets in the UK, such as Sainsburys, ASDA, Tesco, and Marks and Spencer have bought into this initiative and have set timeframes whereby packaging can be reduced by more 25% by a set timeframe. Ireland should consider a similar initiative. Packaging at source is a major problem. The amount of waste coming into a household over the Christmas period in particular is phenomenal. It is very difficult to get rid of it. It is hard packaging with marketing material. If we could address that problem in a positive way we would be doing a good deed for all consumers. People are asking us to tackle this problem.
I look forward to the review. While we have come a long way regarding waste management we have a long way to go to comply with our EU obligations. It is important to resource our local authorities adequately to ensure they can deliver locally the amenities and facilities so that people can engage with them.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, to the House and thank him for his presentation. I welcome the opportunity to make a statement on the Government's waste management strategy. I do so as a member of a political party that is a party of Government but has long been preoccupied with the need to move towards a more sustainable waste management system. As a party we are now in the very fortunate position of having a Green Party Minister at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, who can be part of bringing about the critical changes needed in coming years. Some might say that it is not so fortunate because the policy challenge of putting more sustainable waste management systems in place is considerable.
I am encouraged by the comments made by the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, today and by the Environmental Protection Agency's recent national waste report for 2006 which contained several positive findings. It showed that more than 1 million tonnes of waste was recovered in 2006. The municipal recovery rates for commercial and domestic waste exceeded national targets. Our 50% packaging waste recovery rate in 2006 exceeded our EU target. The quantity of paper and cardboard recovered in 2006 increased by 33%. Overall, the quantities of waste recycled increased significantly. For 2006 the recycling level was 36%, which is a significant increase given that a decade ago the levels of recycling were approximately 9%.
However, the report points out we have a long way to go in moving towards a truly sustainable waste management system. It clearly highlighted that the quantity of waste going to landfill has also increased. While the waste we are recycling has increased, so also has the amount we are sending to landfill because we are creating more waste. In effect we are running to stand still because in a consumer society we are consuming much more and therefore creating more waste and so the problem continues to grow.
We need to consider the area of waste prevention and waste reduction as mentioned by the Minister of State. Packaging is one of the areas in which we can do this most immediately. We need to consider the production processes used by companies and offer them incentives to move towards more clean production processes. The report pointed out that packaging levels in 2006 were the highest ever at 589,515 tonnes generated, an increase of 8% on the previous year. We need to focus on the area of packaging waste.
We also need to make further progress in the diversion of biodegradable and organic waste from landfill to meet our EU targets. We diverted approximately 34.9% of our organic and biodegradable waste in 2006. We need to double this figure by 2010 if we are to meet the commitments in the programme for Government, which is a considerable challenge. The programme calls for the introduction of segregated collections for organic waste - the brown bin system. That system is in place in certain parts of the country but it needs to be rolled out countrywide to achieve these ambitious diversion targets.
The Minister has stated his intention to increase the landfill levy to promote recycling. Unfortunately in recent years it appears that the gate fees for landfill have reduced which makes it a cheaper option for those involved in waste collection than considering the alternative of recycling. We need to do this and I know the Minister has committed to doing so.
My party colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, recently said that we need some new thinking in the area of waste management to break old habits. It is very welcome to hear the kind of fresh thinking expressed by the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, in his presentation today. For too long we have relied on the old methodologies of burning or burying our waste. We can no longer do that. We have become too environmentally aware as a society to continue to engage in these outdated practices that in the long run are not helping us to protect our environment. The fundamental change needed in the area of waste management is to begin to view waste as a resource rather than as something that needs to be disposed of and which, if used to good effect, can generate jobs, be a source of bio-energy or bio-fuels and result in new products and services.
The programme for Government has made a number of commitments in the area of sustainable waste management. The Minister of State, Deputy Tony Killeen, has referred to the fact that the Minister, Deputy John Gormley, has initiated an international review of waste management which will inform Ireland's waste policy, and which will be based on sustainability. It is important that this is an international review because we need to look beyond even the EU framework for waste management. The EU waste hierarchy is very useful and it places the different systems for dealing with waste in order of priority and preference. It gives more preferential status to incineration over landfill. This is a highly controversial ordering of waste technology.
The Green Party is of the view that incineration is no more attractive or sustainable as a waste management technology than is landfill. The party would like the waste review to examine international practice in the area of waste management. The zero waste model is increasingly being embraced in parts of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and America. This model regards waste materials as being potentially a very valuable resource which can be used and reused. It is my hope that the review will reflect some of the more progressive and state-of-the-art thinking on waste management which are applied in the international system.
The review will also examine the potential contribution of a range of technologies in the improvement of waste management practices in Ireland, thus ensuring these are operated to the highest environmental standards. The review will commence shortly and will report to the Minister within one year of the signing of the contract. It is my expectation that the review will highlight that we have over-provided for incineration capacity in a small country such as Ireland and that many other state-of-the-art technologies could be used for waste management. These include systems such as paralysis, biochar, aerobic and anaerobic digestion and many other new and ground-breaking technologies. I look forward to the review being concluded and the submission of the report to the Minister.
I note the several progressive and forward-thinking commitments on waste management in the programme for Government, which has set ambitious waste management targets for maximum prevention, reuse, recycling and modern waste treatment, to ensure that we match the best performance for recycling in the EU, with the objective that only 10% of waste or less is consigned to landfill. This is a decrease from 74% of municipal waste which was sent to landfill in 2000, making this an extremely ambitious target. It is clear we will be forced to engage with and embrace waste prevention, waste reuse, recycling and composting.
I refer to our legacy landfills to which Senator Coffey also referred and which will present a challenge in the future. Many old, unlicensed landfills are in existence from before the legislation on landfill and waste management was developed and these will need to be addressed. Given our experience in County Wicklow, I am familiar with the issue of illegal dumps as we discovered the county had a number of large illegal dumps. I call on the Minister and his Department not to give in to the pressure from certain parties who bought up sites on which illegal dumps were located and who are now attempting to have them developed into legal landfills. It would be a very dangerous development if illegal dumps were permitted to be converted into legalised landfills. I hope the Minister will not do so and will conform to the spirit of EU waste directives by insisting that all the waste in those illegal dumps is removed to legal landfill.
Other commitments in the programme for Government relate to reducing the cost of waste management charges, ensuring Ireland's waste management system is competitive, using technologies to achieve the use of waste for generating sustainable electricity, expanding the network of bottle banks, recycling centres and segregated collection and introducing household hazardous waste collections in all suitable recycling centres. The Minister has made a commitment to extend the opening hours of recycling centres or civic amenity centres. This is a welcome commitment as many members of the public find it difficult to access recycling centres within working hours.
I welcome the information provided by the Minister of State. The programme for Government makes important and progressive commitments to sustainable waste management. The Minister is committed to moving the waste management model from the old-fashioned or old-style mentality to a more forward-looking, resource management approach to handling waste which in the long term will be good for protecting our environment, for creating new job opportunities and for allowing Ireland to become a standard-bearer within the European Union, a country which other countries can imitate in its good environmental practice.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen and the Minister of State, Deputy Hoctor, who is taking his place.
I welcome these statements from the Government. I will preface my remarks by saying that I have had the good fortune and the pleasure of attending the series of lectures being organised by the Environmental Protection Agency in the related area of climate change. I attended one such lecture last night, given by Professor Wolfgang Lucht. It was very stimulating about the impact on climate change of land use and emissions. As was observed by the chairman of the meeting, Dr. John Bowman, many scientists are not just speaking out of their scientific knowledge in a sterile, objective and factual way. They are speaking from a moral perspective because their research information is allied to their sense of duty as citizens to help create a better and a more just world, a world in which people have the same opportunity to access the good things and resources of the world and the same responsibility to ensure the safe passing of these resources to future generations. I was very impressed by this strong sense of citizenship being shown by many in our community which is being led by people in the scientific community.
I was also happy to observe the very large attendance at this series of lectures organised by the EPA. It is clear that many people realise their responsibility. There was a time when in order to attract large crowds at public meetings, there had to be fears about emissions or rays and I recall, for example, the MMDS campaigns, where people perceived an immediate threat to themselves or to their families. It is clear that people are thinking globally on environmental issues, as evidenced by the large attendance at the meeting.
Climate change was the subject discussed at those meetings. However, similar issues arise in any discussion of waste management. We need to examine how we can continue to awaken that sense of responsibility throughout the community. There is much to be thankful for with regard to the awareness shown by many people of their obligations to protect the environment, to control their household waste and to ensure its proper disposal.
Ireland needs to improve its approach to waste management as per head of population we are one of the highest waste producers in Europe. A total of 91% of Ireland's waste is consigned to landfill each year and only 9% is recovered. The number of landfill sites is decreasing rapidly and soon there will be little room to dispose of the vast amount of waste we generate. Meanwhile, local politics and the configuration of the Government mean that incineration is not on the table as an alternative.
The European landfill directive places a legal obligation on us to cut the 1.9 million tonnes of biodegradable waste sent to landfill to just 450,000 tonnes by 2016. Again, there are parallels here. We hear a lot of talk, and rightly so, about the European Union, the impact of its decisions and the obligations we are accepting on greenhouse gas emissions. Likewise, we need the same level of awareness of our obligations under the European Union landfill directive. In the same way we need to continue to foster the same level of public commitment and quite apart from the coercive power of the EU, our sense of desire to do the right thing for its own sake.
If we fail to increase our capacity to deal with industrial waste there is a possibility of overseas facilities for the treatment of hazardous waste being closed off to Irish industry which gives rise to the danger that businesses might be forced to scale down their operations to minimise their waste output.
Environmentalists constantly say the solution is to educate people about waste prevention and minimisation. We can all contribute to solving the problem by reducing the amount of waste by minimising the amount we produce. The mantra of reduce, re-use and recycle applies here. We can also re-use, recycle or compost much of the waste that we cannot avoid, but what of the waste that cannot be re-used, recycled or composted? This needs to be disposed of safely.
It might be said, notwithstanding my comments about the increased level of public awareness and of public commitment to the environment, that waiting for the public to respond to our exhortations is not an option on its own. I say that deeply conscious that popular opinion is more receptive than ever to green appeal. For example, in a recent survey 85% of consumers told a global survey that they were willing to change the brands they buy or their consumption habits in order to make the world a better place. More than 70% of people told a YouGov poll carried out in the UK last year that they had become more green. The awareness is there but the same poll also showed that the commitment among people was not yet rock solid. Only 25% of respondents said they would support enforced changes to their lifestyle in order to save the planet. A UK Government study last November found that consumers do not consider environmental issues when purchasing food and drink. One quarter of all food is thrown out unused and waste volumes continue to rise.
One possible solution could be to encourage investment in the thermal treatment of waste through autoclaving. This technology uses steam to sterilise waste before it is separated into recyclables and organic waste and the latter can then be used to produce clean energy. This process is already being used in a plant in Bridgend in Wales and it has proved its worth. According to the company that runs the plant, the technology has the potential to divert 85% of domestic and commercial waste from landfill sites, to increase recycling targets to 25% and to produce 4.5 MW of renewable energy for every 100,000 tonnes of waste processed.
In providing a clean energy supply, technologies such as this may offer a clear alternative to landfill but the Government needs to introduce measures to create a viable market. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, indicated his intention to produce a waste strategy and to encourage investment in this area which is very capital intensive to provide. One of the weaknesses of the current system is that landfill operators can drop their price to attract waste that might otherwise go to a treatment plant. As there is no penalty on a local authority for using landfill, local authorities actually have an incentive to use landfill sites and surely that is a counterproductive state of affairs.
The scale of the problem is such that we cannot afford to wait for any of us to reform our wasteful ways. The Government should seek any and all innovative and creative solutions to this serious and pressing dilemma. It is necessary to strike the right balance between promoting the idealism within the community that we would all desire to do the right thing and the consequences for not doing the right thing in terms of penalties and the like.
The green bins collection service comes to my house twice as frequently as it did a few months ago. There is a feeling among people that they will happily co-operate with all measures to protect the environment, especially to minimise waste, but they need to be facilitated in that. The system needs to be made user-friendly. This is a challenge that will continue. We should probably bear in mind the scene from a certain episode of "The Simpsons" where the town ended up swelling with landfill from underneath because of the lack of a public sense of obligation to each other to ensure that, as the saying goes, we live simply so that others might simply live.
I am pleased to participate in this debate because we need an honest discussion about the Government's waste management policy, what we are doing and how we can improve the situation.
Senator Mullen referred to a sense of responsibility. I am not sure Ireland has always had a sense of responsibility in this area. I refer to our attitude to incineration. I am interested in what Senator de Búrca said about how there is an over-provision in terms of incineration. She may have a point. In view of the delicate political issues around incineration and where to locate an incinerator, which nobody wants in his or her backyard, the result is the provision of a multiplicity of smaller ones that perhaps we do not need. The trouble is who will be left with the one or two bigger incinerators.
There is a fair amount of controversy in Ringaskiddy about the commercial incinerator project there and people do not want another municipal facility in the area. What disappoints me is that people shy away from a sense of responsibility in terms of incineration and not just because of their political views. If we were honest every one of us would acknowledge incineration has to be part of a waste management strategy. Where an incinerator is to be located is another matter.
I listened to a radio report approximately six months ago that focused on waste management and waste facilities. On that same day reference was made in the news about the attempt by Indaver Ireland to expand the capacity of its site in Meath. A discussion took place on the pros and cons of that proposal. Discussion also focused on an application before Galway County Council to extend a landfill site. Most of us are familiar with landfill sites as nobody lives too far away from one. At the end of the debate I realised I knew which one I would rather live beside and it certainly was not the landfill site, which I would consider to be far more dangerous.
Much has to do with how landfill sites are treated. I accept that they are highly licensed now. Senator de Búrca referred to the dangerous situation that arose when landfill sites were pre-licensed. They did not all become safe just because we began to license them. Years upon years of waste and extremely dangerous materials have gone into landfill sites. It is highly irresponsible to present the opening of an increased number of landfill sites as being the answer. I do not think it is. I accept incineration is controversial but it would be helpful if we had a calm debate in which the facts were aired we would come around to the realisation that it is the safest and cleanest method of tackling the problem of waste.
I must visit the incinerator in Antwerp from which much of that city's heating comes because it is a thermal treatment unit. That is a positive development. Senator de Búrca spoke of waste as a resource, not exclusively a problem. That is the right attitude. That is how we need to frame our thinking from now on. We have a problem with the quantity of waste we produce and we must get rid of it in the cleanest and most energy-efficient way. We would be foolish certainly to ignore our ability to burn it and to convert that heat into energy.
We have been able to modify our behaviour. As Senator Mullen mentioned, when it is made easy for people to recycle and reduce their waste, they do. It is down to the level of education from schools. It is children who drive this recycling issue. I know this is so from my sister's family where she would be much more of a culprit than the children who go through the bin constantly and remove anything that should have been recycled. They are driving the thinking in that household.
I would prefer to have more information about composting, not that of raw food which I compost in any case but that of cooked foods about which I am confused. I would have thought that such food would biodegrade naturally anyway and this is where the problem lies. If one understands a problem, one is much more aware of the danger one causes and one can take remedial action. I would welcome a thorough education service on this from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in line with its good education programmes.
Senator Mullen mentioned how waste collection services have improved. They have improved, partly because of the competition. I speak a little more knowledgeably about services in Dublin. I do not know about services in different parts of the country but I know they are as many and varied as there are local councils. In Dublin, the four local authorities operate similar systems, which is sensible because there is one waste unit.
What concerns me is that Dublin City Council, speaking on behalf of the three other local authorities in the Dublin area, has mooted that it will take a decision to stop private operators providing household waste services. I would find that regressive. The improved services about which Senator Mullen spoke, where we in my local authority of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council now get green bins collected twice a month as opposed to once, is due directly to competition. Another operator entered the market, undercut the council's fee by 20% and provided a much better service, including the collection of plastics. Of course, the public was moving in their droves over to that service. The benefit was that it made the council improve its services and that is as it should be.
When I was a local authority member, I became tired of being told of the roll-out of a green bin service, not to mind a brown bin service, which I am not sure they have even started at this point. There was no incentive for the council to improve services. The minute a private operator entered the market, services improved dramatically because people were responding to a better service. They left the local authority service in large numbers because the private operator provided a better service. It should not really matter to us who provides the service as long as we receive a service. We also need not worry about standards because licensing is as relevant for the private sector as it is for the public sector.
I am concerned about what is happening in this regard. It is sharp practice on the part of the local authority. I am concerned and I want to caution the Department about it. The local authority should not be allowed to get away with it. Competition has served us very well and is one of the reasons recycling figures are so much higher than previously. It is down to a much better service on the part of both local authorities and private operators. I would like to see the Department not allow the Dublin City Council to take this action. I understand it is concerned with the local authorities wanting a monopoly on waste services to be provided for the incinerator at Poolbeg. That is a worrying development and I caution against it.
I welcome this opportunity to discuss the important issue of waste management which is sadly overlooked by the Government. I want to focus on the need to recycle more and how I, like many in this House, believe incineration is not the answer to Ireland's waste problems.
These days waste is generated by a large number of sources. In households alone, there are the problems of increased packaging and junk mail. In the latter case, waste is a matter not only of the paper produced but of the trees cut down, the ink used and the fuel consumed in the process of delivery to people's houses. We all recognise that the sheer quantity of junk mail is becoming an increasing problem. Were guidelines introduced on how junk mail should operate and what regulation of the distribution junk mail should be put in place? Will the Minister of State consider what can be done to regulate the junk mail industry?
Waste levels are increasing. Last week the Environmental Protection Agency recognised that the level of waste in Ireland in 2006 increased by 11%. Much of this is organic waste and I would like to see the extension of the pilot scheme for brown bins which recently has been introduced. The previous speaker referred to the need for more brown bins and composting, and it presents us with an opportunity to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill.
We are dumping a significant amount of degradable waste straight into the bin which, because of our system for getting rid of waste, ends up in landfill at tremendous cost, not only to the environment but also to the local authorities. As with recycling, we need to change our mindset when it comes to how we deal with this waste. I see biodegradable waste as an opportunity for us. It is one from which we can benefit if given some thought.
I was excited to see the considerable success of the brown bin pilot programme in Fingal County Council. It involves the collection of organic waste from the kitchens and gardens of 17,000 houses which is then brought to a commercial distribution centre outside Navan in County Meath for composting. The programme has been so successful that Fingal County Council has managed to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill by 30% in the past 18 months. We all are aware of the problems with landfill and the European Union directives governing this area, so anything that reduces the amount of waste going to landfill by 30% is good news and should be recognised as such. Therefore, I want to see this pilot programme from Fingal County Council extended to the rest of the country.
There is no central plan for how we treat and distribute organic waste and the Minister needs to spend time working out a programme to improve and increase the level of composting and learn from programmes such as the one in Fingal. People living in new developments in Louth, Meath and across the commuter areas would benefit from this bin service. There would be not only an economic benefit for the local authorities but also an environmental benefit, and we need to see this rolled out. I ask the Minister to put this at the top of the agenda when it comes to waste management.
Unlike the previous speaker, I do not believe incineration is the answer, nor is it fair to say most of us secretly want it. It is not just a case of not wanting it in our backyards. Few people want it in their backyards and previous leaders of Senator O'Malley's party argued against having it in their backyards. Incineration has not yet won over the sceptics here. Therefore, it is incumbent on us to spend our time and energy seeking solutions, other than incineration, that will work for a small island country. Incineration is the lazy, thought-free route that will solve nothing in the long run.
A proposal has been made to site an incinerator just outside Duleek, which is beside my home town of Drogheda, on top of an important aquifer. If something went wrong with the construction or operation of that plant, it could have a serious impact on the health of people living in the area through contamination of their water supply. Before we dive headlong down the incineration route, the Minister should consider other ways of dealing with our waste. The Fingal programme which uses brown bins suggests there is a way forward for degrading organic waste. That programme has led to a 30% reduction in landfill for the Fingal area. We need to consider the benefits that can be realised from a properly thought out waste management programme, one that examines ways of dealing with organic waste, lowers our dependence on landfill and leads to a healthier environment. I recommend that course of action to the Government.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute on this issue. The Minister of State's speech demonstrates that we have come a significant way with regard to waste, particularly considering the situation in the 1980s when landfill was at the summit of our waste management strategy. It was the only option available to us at the time and there was little or no talk, other than an occasional school project, about recycling. We have come a long way since then with regard to the level of recycling that takes place. However, we have a mountain to climb in terms of what we must do to meet, at the least, our EU obligations, but also to reach the position we would like as good world citizens. I am glad the Minister of State mentioned that it is not just about meeting EU targets and avoiding the financial penalties that will be imposed on us if we do not meet those targets, but that we should use those targets as a starting point rather than as a destination. This is welcome.
Recycling has been embraced by many people, but not by all of us and not to the extent it should. One of the difficulties in embracing it fully is that we do not have consistency among local authorities. Senator Hannigan mentioned that Fingal operates a good system. Perhaps that system should be spread throughout the country. Galway city also operates a good system. We need consistency in this regard. We need more brown bins and other types of recycling bins. These should be supplied free of charge by the State through the local authorities to facilitate the recycling process.
We also need to provide more litter bins. One county manager told me he would rather have no litter bins because that would help people focus more on the problem of litter. I disagree. Not only should we have more litter bins in place but we should also have recycling bins in public locations. These are the types of innovative solutions we need to consider.
Senator Hannigan also touched on the issue of junk mail. The State is the main perpetrator in terms of paper wastage. Members of the Oireachtas need only look at what they receive through their pigeon holes each day to realise the level of waste in terms of hard copy. This is a disgrace, as mentioned by many Senators over the years, and it should be tackled. We all have computers and can receive and send e-mails. When an annual report is available from a State body or Department, we should receive an e-mail to that effect and download it if necessary. If one needs a hard copy, one can print it. We must lead from the front in this regard. There is no longer any excuse for such waste. While we all have two bins in our offices, one for recycling and one for general waste, the amount of waste paper we discard every day is phenomenal. It would be impossible to read all the reports we receive. At best, one might read the executive summaries of such reports.
Members opposite may giggle, but they know this to be the case. Ideally, we would love to be able to read the volumes of material we receive, but we do not. We would make a positive contribution if we read the executive summaries electronically and downloaded a report only when we required more detail. This would be better than the blatant reckless approach we take. We must start here. With regard to junk mail, a levy should be placed on marketing companies or on those involved in direct mail marketing which should go to the coffers of local authorities or contribute to a waste management strategy fund.
While incineration is an imperfect solution and one none of us would seek to promote as an optimum way forward, it must be part of the solution. We will have to accept it in some form and we must lead the way in choosing the locations for it, although it is obviously something none of us wants. The issue is similar to that of the Traveller community. We all want to ensure Travellers are treated fairly and that facilities are available to them, but time and again local authorities and local representatives oppose their location in particular areas. We cannot continue to do that. The same is true for incineration. We must lead in regard to such issues.
Litter is a significant problem and we need to do more to encourage members of the public to take responsibility for their litter. Many of them feel it is somebody else's responsibility. Too often we hear people complain about litter, but people seldom pick up litter and place it in a bin. This is also true of myself. We need to engage in programmes that encourage volunteerism whereby people get involved in keeping their areas clean. Education through the schools could contribute to this. Graffiti is also a problem but it is not directly related to waste management.
I will return to the issue of consistency and local authorities. All local authorities are engaged in street cleaning, but not all of them do it every day. Some do it a few times a week while others do it several times a day. We need consistency in this regard. We should also issue a directive or pass legislation with regard to graffiti. When graffiti in an area is reported to a local authority, it should be removed within 24 hours because research shows that if it is left longer, more will accrue in the area. By doing this, we would improve the general appearance of areas and might also help with the litter problem.
A litter survey, entitled Irish Business Against Litter, carried out under the auspices of Mr. Tom Cavanagh the head of the organisation, had honourable objectives and goals in terms of a litter-free Ireland. However, I question the consistency of this survey and I ask the Minister of State to raise it with the Minister, Deputy Gormley. It seems strange that Ennis, for example, should have a very low rating in the Irish Business Against Litter, IBAL, survey yet win the Tidy Towns competition. I am concerned that at times the survey does not compare like with like. It also depends on consistency among local authorities. The survey could take place in an area where the local authority does not conduct street cleaning on that day, whereas in other areas it might take place every day.
The main problem is that the results of these surveys are sensationalised in the press, with Sligo deemed Ireland's dirtiest town and Dundalk deemed Ireland's cleanest town. Take the example of Sligo. A number of years ago it was the dirtiest town, then for three years it was in the top five and now it is the dirtiest again. I can say with authority that it was never the cleanest and it was never the dirtiest. These surveys are not scientific. I agree that there should be a survey but it must be scientific and stand up to scrutiny.
The head of IBAL, Dr. Tom Cavanagh, said on radio last week that the survey captures a moment in time and that an area can be unlucky. That does not stack up when one is dealing with taxpayers' money and in view of the fact that the tag of being the dirtiest town is more damaging than the homicidal crime rate in an area in terms of media exposure and the effects it can have. It is wrong, and we should be cognisant of that and more responsible. When one considers the level of taxpayers' resources being devoted to the promotion of an area for job creation, tourism and so forth it does not make sense that, because the area may have been "unlucky" in the words of Dr. Cavanagh and the streets were not cleaned by the local authority on a given day, it could be given the label of dirtiest town. That is unjust and reckless. I believe the goals of IBAL are good and honourable but, in the organisation's own words, one could be "unlucky". That is a disgrace. Yes, let us conduct a survey but let us be responsible about how the results are announced and ensure that there is engagement with and consistency within the local authorities.
Ireland most certainly has a litter problem and Sligo is no exception. We must undertake more schemes and programmes to deal with it. However, it must begin with members of the public doing our bit in addition to the local authorities having a consistent approach. I thank the Minister for coming to the House and I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss this issue. We have come a long way since the 1980s but there is still a mountain to climb. I look forward to playing a small part in the ascent of that mountain. I hope the Minister will take some of the points I made on board.
I propose to share time with Senator John Paul Phelan. I welcome the opportunity to comment on waste management and our approach to it. What happened to the regional plans made throughout the country? Great detailed debate went into where landfills and recycling centres would be located. Every aspect of waste management was dealt with in every region. However, we do not appear to be sticking with those plans. What is happening to them?
The Government is due to conduct a complete review of this issue, which I welcome, and I hope time is allocated in the House for a debate on the review and its results. On the other hand the Government is issuing a contract worth €13 million for an ambitious plan on waste management and will put a contractor in place. It appears to be indecisive on the issue of refuse and waste management. Commercial waste, for example, with the exception of electrical waste, is simply collected and most of it is sent to landfill. There is no recycling system in place for commercial businesses. That issue should be examined urgently.
There should also be an element of urgency in the review. The Canadians, over a period of five years, went from a zero rate of recycling to 95%. There is no reason that Ireland should not be the leader in Europe on the issue of waste management and recycling but there is no urgency in our approach. Systems are not being put in place. I agree with Senator O'Malley's sentiments with regard to the local authorities collecting waste. The same debacle occurred in County Mayo. Local authorities are unable to compete in the commercial sector. They do not wish to compete although they could, if they put their minds to it. The best and brightest of people in this country work in local authorities and in the Civil Service. However, too many restraints are put on them and they are not allowed to compete in the commercial sector. There will have to be changes in that regard if the local authorities are to compete.
I welcome the review taking place. The management of waste is a huge issue. The Minister should examine the issue of landfills and economies of scale in landfill provision. County Mayo is one of the few counties that has two landfills. There is a problem at present with leachate seeping from the landfills and the disposal of the leachate. The question is whether it should be pumped into the sea or if it should be transported to treatment plants. To bring the treatment of leachate and other run-off from landfills to the highest standard, economy of scale is required. The Government must consider this if the run-off is to be treated to the highest standard.
I did not realise the debate was due to resume. I thank Senator Burke for sharing time. I have changed my position a little on incineration. However, I echo the sentiments of Senator Coffey and Senator Burke on the regional waste management strategies. The proposal that emerged when these strategies were drawn up was that there would be eight or nine incinerators, one in each regional authority area. It is clear that this was unnecessary and would be self defeating.
I still believe that incineration is the last resort option for the disposal of waste. It is an end of pipe solution. If incineration is introduced without exhausting the options of reducing, recycling and re-using waste, one removes the incentive for people to reduce the amount of waste they produce in the first place. That is the biggest single argument against incineration. I am not a scientist and I do not know the medical difficulties that may or may not be associated with incineration. However, no medical difficulties have been proven to me. The main argument against incineration is that it would remove the incentive for people to reduce the amount of waste they produce.
The other issue I want to discuss is the privatisation of refuse collection, which was mentioned by Senator O'Malley. I agree it has worked in most of the parts of the country in which it has been tried. The cherry-picking of lucrative routes by private operators is a significant problem in some areas. It can be difficult for local authorities and local authority members to get a handle on private operators to ensure all routes are covered. Private operators tend to favour urban areas, such as estates with hundreds of houses. It might not be economically viable for them to serve rural roads with ten or 12 houses on them. Householders deserve a proper service, but that is not available in some parts of the country.
The other major area on which I will focus is illegal dumping, including littering. The significant problem of litter is evident when one travels on the major routes into Dublin and most towns throughout the country. Litter is one of the greatest scourges we face. I live adjacent to a couple of thousand-----
The following motion was moved by Senator Larry Butler on Wednesday, 19 December 2007:
That Seanad Éireann recognises the epidemic in our society of alcohol misuse and illegal drug use, in particular cocaine and related substances, and acknowledges the need for a co-ordinated cross-departmental approach to this problem.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Hoctor, to the House. It is good to see her present for this important debate on the issue of drugs in society. I spoke last week about alcohol and, briefly, about drug abuse. I did not have time to make a few proposals about the national drugs strategy. A number of regional drug task forces have been established under the strategy, which is running from 2001 to 2008. The task force in the north west is doing much good work in conjunction with the Health Service Executive. It is combatting drug abuse by working with community groups and organisations. It has funded an alcohol awareness initiative in my home parish and two neighbouring parishes. The initiative, which takes the form of an alcohol-free challenge, began today because it is the first day of Lent. A great deal of good work is being done.
As I said last week, the problem of drugs in society is becoming increasingly alarming as the weeks and months go by. Prior to Christmas and over the Christmas period, a number of well-known personalities admitted to using drugs. Some high-profile fatalities occurred as a result of drug use around that time. Such events focused our minds on the prevalence of drugs on every street corner in this island and not just in our major cities as was the case a number of years ago. The Departments of Education and Science and Health and Children need to take control of this situation by implementing a clear and physical drugs education programme in secondary level schools throughout the Republic.
Responsibility for the programme should not rest solely with secondary school teachers, however. Teaching is a demanding job which involves staying up to date with the various elements of the education sector, for example. We should not put an additional burden on teachers. Specifically trained guidance counsellors should go to schools to liaise with principals and teachers and drive the message home to second level pupils, from first year to sixth year. Such a programme needs to be rolled out as quickly as possible.
The Department of Education and Science has done great work in rolling out the Walk Tall programme under the social, personal and health education curriculum. The programme provides for elements of drugs awareness to be taught within the primary and secondary curricula. We need to drive the message home by having a focused and clear curriculum as part of the educational dimension of our approach to this problem. People should visit schools to show students the harmful effects of dabbling in drugs, in particular, and alcohol. I recently picked up a sample of the material being used by a college in Dublin as part of its efforts to inform its students about the dangers of drug use. It gives details of common Irish drugs and highlights the risks and harmful effects of some of them, including cocaine. We need to encourage outside people to visit schools and use material of that nature to help teachers, for example, in giving practical advice to young people and illustrating the damage drugs can do to society and individuals.
I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Hoctor, to ensure the officials in the Departments of Health and Children and Education and Science maintain the ongoing interdepartmental work aimed at tackling the scourge of drugs. As a public representative, I believe people on all sides of both Houses of the Oireachtas should work together to deal with this issue. Rather than making it a political issue, we should make it a real issue. We must work together to try to eradicate drugs. While we will probably not achieve full success in that regard, we must work on the basis that we will. We all have to work together. We should commit to making available the resources which are needed to deal with this problem.
I want to drive home the point that there needs to be an educational dimension to our approach to this problem. While work is ongoing on the two programmes I mentioned, we need to raise the bar if we are to drive it home to students that the harmful effects of drugs can be real. We learn daily when we read newspapers and watch television of the problems associated with drugs. The consequences of drug use are evident in other parts of the world and in our country. The message must be driven home at local level. That can only be done in secondary schools. I hope it occurs sooner rather than later.
The motion before the House concentrates on illegal drug use and the misuse of alcohol. It does not mention the abuse of prescription drugs to which many people in society are addicted. If we are to deal with such problems, we should consider alcohol and drugs separately. The problem of alcohol can only be solved if there is a change in Irish culture away from binge drinking. Alcohol causes a significant proportion of society's problems. Drug use affects a minority of people. An even smaller minority of people take hard drugs. Those involved in the abuse of drugs tend to get wiser as they get older. They often reduce their consumption of illegal drugs significantly as time goes by. The opposite is often the case with alcohol. People often consume more alcohol as they get older. There is a greater acceptance of alcohol abuse among people who are older. A change of culture was achieved in the case of drink driving. Young people, in particular, turned away from drink driving whereas older people continued to drink and drive to a considerable extent. They made very little change to their behaviour.
When we talk about the need for cultural changes in our attitude to alcohol or policies which work in tackling drug use, it is important to focus on young people because they comprise the sector of society most likely to change their behaviour for the rest of their lives. Attempts to change the behaviour of older people do not tend to work. I do not want to suggest young people are somehow the cause of all ills in society because they most certainly are not. I have had practical experience of this in my surgery. Drug use begins in people's teenage years, peaks in their 20s and begins to fade away in their 30s. It is a strong feature of the drug user's life to take drugs during that long period of time. Irish society is unusual in that we mix drugs and alcohol. In most other societies one abuses either alcohol or drugs but seldom both. In Ireland we tend to abuse everything together.
The task force and national drug policies in place will work up to a point. I will not undermine them because when one deals with somebody who has an addiction, small, unglamorous steps are the way forward. Many who try to deal with drug or alcohol addictions take three steps forward and two steps back. Addiction is the problem. We should not always go for these glamorous headlines on drug and alcohol abuse because the majority of those who take drugs and alcohol get on fine with their lives, including those who take cocaine and, to some degree, heroin. They can live their working lives. Some people in quite sensitive positions in Irish society abuse serious drugs such as cocaine and heroin and get on fine. Cannabis, for the majority or users, is a pretty innocent drug. When we talk about drugs and alcohol we should put matters into perspective. The problem is when people get a serious addiction that destroys their lives and the lives of those around them, and when people abuse drugs and alcohol by taking too much on an occasion.
Over use happens in Irish society, especially with alcohol at the weekends. Too many people consume too much at once. Patients come to me complaining of fatigue and lack of energy and they think there is something physically wrong with them. When I ask how much they drink, they almost straighten their backs, puff out their chests, put a big smile on their faces and say they can drink up to 16 pints on a Saturday night. Sometimes those who are not so boastful might say they consume 12 pints on a Saturday night, which is 24 units of alcohol, the maximum a man is supposed to drink in a week. However many of my patients who talk like this are women, and they are supposed to consume only 14 units in a week.
The acceptance of alcohol abuse in Irish society is unbelievable. People, not just 18 year olds but people up to their 40s, who are not alcoholics, go out on a Friday and Saturday night and consume up to 15 or 16 pints or the equivalent in alcopops or other drinks. Many managing directors say they have given up providing free drinks at Christmas parties because they have been astounded by the amount of alcohol people will consume before they collapse.
Alcohol abuse has got worse because we have become a wealthier society. There is a need for cultural change on alcohol and we have done little about it in the last number of years. We have made all sorts of excuses. We have seen the drinks industry set up its own organisations, we have patted ourselves on the back that we have done something about it but we must be honest and admit we have done nothing about it and it is out of control.
While the drugs issue gets many media headlines, we could probably take control of it better and deal with it easier if we were more genuine about it. I have read many of the contributions made in this debate and I found that people back the taskforces and feel more funding is needed. If these debates are to be worthwhile we should try to take on board something that might be more controversial when we discuss it. I do not completely support some of the controversial ideas proposed but we could debate them to see if they could work for Irish society. If we are to deal with addiction we need more places for rehabilitation, but one of the ways to reduce alcohol and drug abuse is mandatory drug testing. In my surgery, when we are looking at a separate health issue we incidentally find people are taking far too much alcohol and drugs. Drink driving and the carnage that came with it was reduced because we introduced a simple roadside test for drink driving. We have the same ability to test for drink and drugs if we are prepared to accept that we should have mandatory drug testing. Airline and transport companies such as CIE have policies on mandatory drug testing for employees but it can be convoluted and is not carried out with any great sense of purpose. People are expected to travel from other parts of the country to Dublin to have their mandatory drug testing carried out. There is a template there for mandatory drug testing and we should examine that as a means of reducing consumption.
If we introduce mandatory drug testing we must be careful not to aim only to penalise people all the time. We should aim to educate people to reduce their consumption of alcohol and drugs, if they are discovered, and we should provide proper rehabilitation facilities. It is pointless for doctors such as me and people who deal with addiction to discover that people have a problem with drugs because there is nowhere we can send them to get proper rehabilitation. The people who suffer from the addiction aspects of drugs need to be found because they are destroying themselves and the lives of their families and children. However while I might be able to identify them, I have nowhere to send them. If there is to be a carrot and stick approach we should look at it like that. We should ask whether we should debate mandatory drug testing and not see it as a daft, right-wing proposal that aims to jail everybody. Once we identify drug abuse, how we deal with it can be taken up in a different way when the rehabilitation facilities are available for it.
This is a cross-party motion. Such motions are great for talking about issues, but the people elect the Government to make decisions. The Government must take up its responsibilities. In common with most politicians, I always hear that whenever there is good news, it is attributed to a Government decision. The Celtic tiger was supposed to have been developed by this Government, but as soon as it started to go sour the global economy was blamed. I have never heard the Government give any credence to the Opposition or cross-party work. The Government must deal with this and I want to see more policies. The task force and some aspects of drug policy work well, but the enforcement of legislation and rehabilitation have been a failure. I speak from the front line.
Hardly a family in the country is unaffected by the problems attached to drug or alcohol addiction. I am thinking in particular about the new scourge of drugs. During the heroin epidemic of the 1980s it was probably in Dublin's inner city where we first noticed the worst effects of people dying from drugs. In Dublin's Brunswick Street there is a memorial called Home that contains a flame and an open door. It represents the home the families wished to tell those people affected by drugs was there for them at all times. That is part of the message we are giving here. There is support for people, we wish to do something about it and we want to help. That generation was, in many ways, lost. It would be deeply saddening if it were repeated. Many deaths have been reported from the abuse and misuse of cocaine and the adulteration of cocaine with other substances. On one occasion wet cocaine caused deaths. This is frightening and it is stark for us. There is great commitment, but the question is what we, as legislators, can do about it. We can legislate all we want, but if we build 12 ft. walls, drug dealers will get 13 ft. ladders. The issue must be addressed through our communities. Whatever is necessary, in terms of legislation, will be done by the Government. We will give the gardaí the support they need, we will listen to our communities and give them the sentencing that is required. However, an effort is required from the entire community.
I am very conscious of young people going out for the night. Like many Members, I have young children growing up and am conscious that they will be going out to discos and so forth in years to come. I would not worry about them when they are in the full of their health because I am certain they would say no to drugs. However, I would worry about them if they have had a few drinks and are at their lowest ebb. The drug dealers, who are ruthless, uncaring criminals, whose only motivation is money, destroy lives. That is what worries me. Children are being introduced to drugs when they are at their most vulnerable, both in terms of their age and their sobriety. They succumb when they have had a few drinks and pressure is put on them to take drugs.
As a community, there is great will to do something about the drug addiction problem. All of us are appalled by the number of drug-related deaths, which seem to keep happening. We must go into the schools and take an holistic approach. We must speak to pupils, teachers and parents to resolve the difficulty. The first part of our message should be about the danger in terms of having a criminal record. No young person wants to have a criminal record. That is one way to deal with the situation regarding recreational drugs, although there is no such thing as a recreational drug. Such drugs are illegal for a reason. They are illegal because they are dangerous if not taken at the prescribed time, under supervision. Having a criminal record can affect young people for the rest of their lives. If they have a criminal record, no matter what job they go for, that record will stand against them. They will not be able to obtain a visa for the United States of America, for example. Their movement will be restricted, as will their employment opportunities. That is not to mention the health problems associated with drugs. How many people have died from what are regarded as heart problems, but which may well be related to the fact that they have a massively increased heart rate because of the abuse of prescribed drugs? I am also conscious that cocaine has become a major problem within the community.
We have good addiction counsellors. In times past, it became acceptable for people to say they had been drinking but were dealing with their problem. Perhaps we should now accept that people will say that they were abusing drugs but are dealing with that problem. The way forward is through the community. I hope it is through the community that we, as legislators, will support the people of the country, on a cross-party basis. I am delighted that the motion is cross-party because we are at one on this issue. We may not agree on the methods to deal with the alcohol and drugs problem, but we are at one in our wish to deal with it.
With regard to alcohol, we now have a particular difficulty with off licences. In times past, it was not very socially acceptable to drink at home. There was an expectation that if one was going to a pub for a few drinks, drinking would be monitored. It was expected that the bar man or the person in charge would make sure that nobody had too much to drink. While I know that did not always happen, surely it was still better than the current situation whereby people are able to consume vast amounts of subsidised alcoholic drink. That is what is happening, I have been told. In the supermarkets, alcoholic products are loss leaders and pallets of cheap drink can become available to young people. It is very difficult to restrict this because alcohol can be sold to a person who is over 18, with identification, who then goes outside and gives it to younger people. That cannot happen in a pub because people must consume alcohol on the premises. We should consider significantly restricting the capacity and opening hours of off licences.
While it may be old-fashioned to say this, the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association has done wonderful work. In the 1850s, Father Theobald Matthew dedicated his life to the problems caused by the excessive use of alcohol. Ireland in the 21st century is a similar country in many ways, because we still have a drink problem. However, it is a land of contrasting fortunes. As the pastoral letter from the Irish Catholic Bishop's Conference, Alcohol: The Challenge of Moderation, notes:
We find ourselves, in a relatively short period of time, as one of the wealthiest nations in Europe. The economy has grown at a rate we never expected. There are jobs for our young people, and no longer is emigration the scourge it was for previous generations. The government finances have improved dramatically, and as a result wealth can be redistributed for the greater benefit of society. There is no doubt that our new wealth has brought enormous benefits.
Materially, the majority of us have never been better off. We are rightly proud of the success that modern Ireland has become. However, there are new stresses arising from the fact that very often both parents in a family are working outside the home and commuting, while the pressure to perform in the workplace is even greater...
We still have pioneers and others among us who, for a variety of motives, remain as total abstainers. We have others who drink in moderation and who find no difficulty in remaining moderate. We have others - perhaps a large proportion of us - with an ambivalent relationship with alcohol, struggling to keep a cap on our consumption.
As I said earlier, there is hardly a family in the country that has not been affected by alcohol. I commend the old, pioneer ways, where people made a commitment not to take alcohol. We, as legislators, have a duty to ensure that alcoholic drink is not freely available to young people and that we assist those in need of support.
Cocaine is a particularly worrying drug, not least because of the obscene amounts of money and the level of crime that appear to be involved in its trade. If only young people could see what drug dealers are prepared to do to protect their own turf. If only they could see the murder, mayhem and torture. Sadly, another murder was perpetrated abroad yesterday. According to news reports, the code is simple. Dealers order the drugs and if they do not pay for them, either they or members of their families are killed. Something must be done. We urgently need to put in place a system with Spain which will ensure the rapid extradition of drug dealers. We must deal with this problem properly. It is not acceptable that such people can live off-shore and enjoy a lifestyle which is totally at odds with the poor people who are suffering here.
I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on this important all-party motion. It is especially appropriate that we are debating the motion on Ash Wednesday, a day of religious significance for many people. With that in mind, it is amazing, disappointing and indicative of the fixation we have with alcohol that, notwithstanding the right of individuals to comply with religious obligations, there still will be an enormous number of people here who will feel unable to endure a day without alcohol. Just as we have the circus every Good Friday, when the pubs are shut, whereby thousands of people feel unable to pass the day without having a drink. It is extraordinary. It is also depressing and shows that we, as a nation, are still obsessed with alcohol. It is many years since the temperance movement was begun by Father Theobald Matthew. To the best of my knowledge, last Sunday was Temperance Sunday. However, it would appear that in 2008, our problems with alcohol and other drugs, particularly illegal drugs, are greater than ever. One must wonder why.
I agree readily with everything Senator Hanafin stated. My colleague, Senator Twomey, mentioned the need for a cultural change. While that is obvious, I do not know how to bring it about. Our obsession with drink and with having alcohol at the centre of every function, social occasion, sporting event and occurrence in rural and urban Ireland is worrying, disturbing and depressing. We seem to be unable to go beyond the links between drink and success, alcohol and sporting prowess and alcohol and social acceptability. It is a major problem and I wish I knew the answers.
I can see the problems all around me. Practically every family is affected by alcohol to some extent. Despite significant social problems, a considerable loss of earnings, enormous medical bills and grievous problems faced by tens of thousands of people, we seem unable to respond. This is my basic analysis of the alcohol side of the debate. Illegal drugs are of greater significance and pose a greater problem, but where alcohol is concerned, we must start by ensuring that young people and teenagers in particular have sporting and leisure facilities in abundance in order that they can see an alternative way of enjoying themselves at weekends and during long summer nights and know that their social experience need not centre on the local pub or night club culture.
Our sporting organisations are doing fantastic work. I commend GAA, soccer and rugby clubs and all types of sporting organisations. On the other side of the equation, however, too many of the national sporting organisations depend too much on drinks companies' sponsorship. This must be reflected on and changed. We must break the link between sport and alcohol because the former should have no connection with the latter and should not need drinks companies for sponsorship purposes. There was a similar link between sport and the tobacco industry, but various Ministers and Governments here and at European and global levels introduced bans on tobacco companies advertising at or sponsoring sporting events. We must do likewise in respect of our major national sporting organisations and drinks companies. Guinness and other groups pour significant money into sport. This is welcome at one level, but the subliminal link between alcohol and sporting organisations must be broken. The organisations will have a major debate on their hands if they are to achieve that.
From the Cathaoirleach's previous involvement in the GAA, he will recall how its former president, Dr. Mick Loftus, spoke eloquently and at length on this issue. He had first-hand knowledge of the damage caused by alcohol. He was and is a coroner in parts of the west and has experience dealing with the crisis caused by alcohol abuse. He made known his firm opinions on the sponsorship of sporting organisations, particularly the GAA, by drinks companies and we should take a message from him.
Regarding the drugs culture that seems so invasive, when the parties agreed this motion some weeks ago, presumably before Christmas, there was a great deal of national media attention on the situation, particularly in respect of the death of a well known young lady from the celebrity - if one wants to accept that ridiculous word - world. However, the majority of the many deaths due to drugs do not feature in any media outlets or on any television or radio programmes. Nearly every community and certainly every parish has suffered as a result of the drugs epidemic. Some state it is the result of our affluent society. If so, it is a sad result.
While we must reflect on the fact that, on a worldwide scale, Ireland is no different from most other so-called modern countries, our history in terms of alcohol abuse and the difficulty in breaking the link between alcohol and social, cultural and sporting events present double difficulties when it comes to drugs. Given a society that made alcohol and its abuse common or, for certain young people, mandatory and popular - drinking to excess is a stamp of approval among a young person's peers - it is understandable how we have allowed drugs to become so acceptable. While it is obviously unacceptable, it is understandable how the drugs culture became so prevalent and invasive in working class communities, where people with no jobs, incomes, hope or support of any description are easy prey for drug pushers and drug dealers. My heart goes out to all of those people because they did not walk into the drugs culture. Rather, they were led blindfolded.
On the other side of the equation, we hear and read about the so-called middle class's obsession with cocaine and other dangerous drugs. Generally speaking, these people are well educated, well-off and, in many cases, well connected. It is disappointing to read some of our so-called celebrities, people who should know better and who are leaders of society in some ways, boasting about their drug-taking exploits. They give a shocking example to our young people and the community at large. People do not boast about drink driving or breaking the law. Middle class people and so-called celebrities who write about and make known their drug-taking habits have much to answer for given their attempts to make the reprehensible concept of drug-taking acceptable.
This debate requires a great deal of attention from the Government. I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Carey, on his sincere efforts, but we have a long way to go. Whether in respect of alcohol or other drugs, the need for a cultural change must be taken seriously before society is further ruined. Considerable damage has been done, but we may have enough time to stem the tide if a significant commitment is shown by the Government and all leaders of civic society.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss this important matter on a cross-party basis. None of us knows the answer. Why is it that children, by and large, from particular addresses are more likely to be drug addicts than those from elsewhere? This question is at the heart of the issue that must be addressed. Poverty has much to do with the issue. Some children grew up in households where there was an element of despair or hopelessness. Senator Hanafin alluded to the dark days of the 1980s and 1990s when there was a serious heroin problem in Dublin. I suppose the drugs problem has become more widespread throughout the country. All urban and rural centres have a certain level of problems. It stems from the fact that if one comes from a particular address, one is very likely to succumb to an addiction, especially to drugs. In many instances, it is the dealers who force addiction on young children who do not know better. We all are keen to solve this problem which is why it is particularly pertinent that the motion asks for a co-ordinated cross-departmental approach to this problem. It takes many Departments to deal with it, not least the Department of Education and Science because there is clearly a lack of education or awareness.
We must get to the core of why people in certain areas are more prone to being introduced to drugs and becoming addicted. We must invest considerable resources in these areas. More often than not they are areas where people must deal with challenging issues, be they rearing families in one-parent households, economically challenging circumstances or poverty. Therefore, they doubly need assistance. A motto which all our public services should abide by is: "A poor person can only afford the best." This is why we should provide sterling education and health supports to vulnerable families or people dealing with addiction.
No one wants to face into a life of addiction, whatever about the excitement felt on being offered drugs initially and the rush one might get. I imagine that if he or she could talk to his or her child, any parent with an addiction would tell him or her not to succumb to the pressures in dealing with illegal drugs.
Cocaine seems to be much more socially acceptable than heretofore. We have reached that position over the past year. I take issue with the term "epidemic" because it is not an epidemic. There have been a few high profile cases where cocaine has been tampered with. I recall a case where I believe gardaí found large quantities of cocaine on a rat-infested halting site. I thought about people in a glamorous pub who supposedly look cool and wonderful being presented with cocaine that came from a rat-infested hovel. Where is the charm and glamour in that?
This is where there is a problem, particularly in respect of cocaine. People fail to make the connection between themselves and gangland crime perpetrated by ruthless thugs who place no value on human life. These thugs are essentially their suppliers. There may be intermediaries along the line but to the person receiving and consuming the cocaine at the end of the line, that is where it began and he or she is part of that chain. It needs to be drummed home to them in very forceful ways. It is easy when one is in a club not to see where the product came from and the circumstances under which it was produced or supplied. It does not cause one to think. People must think much more clearly about where they source their supply of cocaine.
I hope this debate will heighten people's awareness of the filth involved in the cocaine industry, whether they want to be part of it and where the glamour is in it. We need a hard-hitting report about it.
We have a lamentable attitude to alcohol. People talk about the convivial nature of the Irish people and the Irish pub has its charms. Do people think about what they say? One can think of the number of occasions when alcohol is referred to in a humorous but inappropriate way. I am a great believer in moderation in all things and I enjoy a drink. I recognise, however, that alcohol addiction is a major problem. When young people are introduced to alcohol, it is not done in a responsible way. This is regrettable because if younger people are taught to treat alcohol with respect, they might have a different attitude to it.
I have witnessed the difference between our attitude and that of French people. They do not go out to get drunk. If one goes down the road to Trinity College, one will discover it is no longer a question of going out to enjoy the company of one's friends but a question of going out to get drunk. Sometimes, it is not even a question of doing that. In many instances young people drink raw spirits at home before they go out. One sees and certainly hears about them turning up in accident and emergency departments in a dreadful state. What is the point in going out when one is not in any fit state to remember what happened? It is quite appalling.
I am also concerned about the long-term effects of our alcohol consumption and, in many cases, abuse. This nation probably is more prone to alcohol abuse than many others. A previous speaker alluded to the fact that in every Irish house probably, there is somebody who has a story about an alcohol-dependent individual. This has been the case in several instances in my family and I am sure it is true of many Irish people.
The sense of hope coming from the motion is important and we should not lose sight of that. Treatment is important. There is no point in lamenting the problem; we need solutions. We need a cross-departmental response which recognises the vulnerability of people dealing with drug addiction and the number of spaces and treatments available to them.
Statistics are one thing but we are dealing with human lives. We need to get away from statistics and provide the services. I am inclined to refer to the methadone programmes which are not always the best way of dealing with the problem. They hide rather than deal with the problem. I welcome the opportunity to speak about it and look forward to a cross-departmental and co-ordinated approach to dealing with these very vulnerable people in society.
I join others in welcoming the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Pat the Cope Gallagher, to the House. When I was Minister of State at the then Department of Health in 1987, I was made national chairman of the drugs action committee. It was a revelation to me, coming from a rural constituency, to see the amount of drugs being used at that time, especially in inner-city Dublin. There was not as much knowledge or concern because the problem was very much contained within the inner city. Heroin was one of the most commonly used drugs at that stage and was more connected to the AIDS epidemic than it was to the question of drugs. Drug use led to the exchange of needles, which led to the spread of HIV-AIDS. That was our issue at the time. I recall being advised on that committee by prominent, hard-working people, including clergy, and it was a matter of bringing forward the needle exchange programme, which was radical at the time but we had no choice because HIV was being spread by the exchange of dirty needles. It was radical but it was as far as we could go at the time.
I recall also that we examined ways of making young people more aware of drugs but the danger was that we would heighten the attractiveness of drugs to young people. We could highlight the dangers of the different drugs but the difficulty was in trying to explain that abusing any drug, whether it is alcohol, cocaine, cannabis or any other drug, was the slippery slope. It is appropriate that today, Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent, we would debate this motion and recognise the epidemic of alcohol and illegal drug abuse in our society.
It is my experience that this problem was very much contained at that time. It had not spread from within the deprived areas of Dublin. One might say the problem did not have the same attention in Government as it has now and we realise it has spread into every county. Most towns have access to drugs including speed, cocaine, cannabis and so on.
I compliment the Garda Síochána, the national drugs task force and the Revenue Commissioners for their excellent work in seizing one tonne of cannabis in County Kildare worth approximately €10 million. That puts in context the value and size of this trade. They were brought in to the country in 40 foot trailers, probably on the route from Morocco into Spain and through the ports. It is difficult to man this area.
I record our appreciation and admiration for the work of the Garda Síochána who detected the drugs today and who have made many seizures over the years in different locations, including the coast of Cork where a massive amount of cannabis was dumped from a ship. We have a long and difficult coastline to police. It has been shown consistently that smugglers of illegal drugs have the resources to keep up with and surpass the authorities in respect of the technology and techniques of smuggling, no matter how professionally and enthusiastically the Garda and other forces fight the importation of illegal substances. It is clear, therefore, that any strategy to combat the epidemic of drug abuse in our society must reduce and eliminate the demand for illegal drugs. If the demand is eliminated, the supply and suppliers will suffer and there will be a reduction in other crimes associated with the drugs trade. That is a significant point because there is no doubt that it is a demand-led industry.
A counter drugs strategy must do more to raise awareness of the health implications of illegal drug use and of the misuse of controlled drugs. In this respect I commend the work in recent years of the local drugs task forces, the health promotion unit, which the Minister, Deputy Gallagher, is in charge of, the community and voluntary groups and many charities.
However, we must also raise awareness of the moral repercussions of illegal drug use. We must make potential victims of the scourge of drug abuse fully aware of the human rights abuses, criminality, violence and exploitation which is a direct result of the drug trade the users' demand maintains. At every step of the delivery of drugs, from the field or factory to the user, crime is committed, rights are trodden on and lives are endangered. The spread of prostitution and other criminal activities are mostly linked to the illegal drug trade.
We read every day of the gang warfare here and elsewhere in Europe, resulting in the shooting in Spain in the past few days, which arises from the drug trade. That is only the tip of the iceberg. Awareness campaigns must inform people of the practices such as exploitation of minors in the supply chain of illegal drugs. Any awareness campaign which will turn potential users away from the so-called drug scene is a weapon in the struggle against substance abuse and will complement education about the direct dangers of drugs. I make that point in respect of all drugs. Some would advocate the use of cannabis. It is the gateway drug for users of illegal drugs. Equally, alcohol is a gateway drug.
I am aware the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has received the recommendations of a committee and he will consider the limitation of the sale of alcohol through filling stations and large multiples who sell alcohol at cut prices. This Christmas and last Christmas, alcohol was probably cheaper than it was ten years ago in many cases. There are many special offers. One only has to see the number of people carrying crates of beer from off-licences. A large number of people have house parties now as opposed to drinking in a bar or hotel where there was control by the licensee.
There are a large number of people who succumb to drug use as a result of their economic and-or social circumstances. The elimination of such circumstances is an ongoing part of the quest for a better society and such efforts must continue. When I was in the Department the methadone treatment programme was at a very early stage. I recall representations being made to me on one tour of inner Dublin for a particular individual who wanted to use the methadone method to keep him on the straight and narrow.
The problem of drugs in gaols is very difficult to control. Despite constant supervision by the Garda authorities and the prison officers it is difficult to eliminate the problem in our prisons. It is clear, therefore, that recognising the epidemic of drug use is an important statement but it is just a first step. We must continue to crack down directly on everyone involved in the drug trade but our approach could broaden to incorporate real education about the nature of the drug trade.
The National Drugs Strategy 2001-2008 established an inter-departmental group to oversee the implementation of the strategy and as that strategy draws to a close we must redouble our efforts in this area. Despite the current worrying trends, in general Ireland has a relatively good record on illegal drug use but it must be remembered that in a successful, healthy, First World country, one death from drug use is too many.
The recent high profile deaths drew this problem to the attention of the public but we should renew our efforts to eliminate the importation and distribution of drugs. The undercover Garda surveillance is vital in that regard. There is a supply chain in operation for people who are very mobile, and I will say no more than that, but it is evident to me that this is the case. I ask the Garda Síochána and the new Commissioner to take a heavy hand in this regard and try to eliminate the availability of drugs in our towns and cities and among our young people.
Human addiction of any sort is a serious affliction and while the motion deals with the misuse of alcohol and illegal drug use, I would be inclined to add to that the consumption of cigarettes which in itself is injurious and now fully accepted as a serious health hazard. Today, Ash Wednesday, is the appropriate day to talk about that because we all know people who, because of their addiction to cigarettes, make numerous attempts to give up the practice of smoking but find they are unable to do so because of their addiction to nicotine, even though they know it has an adverse effect on their health.
That is interesting because whether we are talking about drug barons, cigarette companies or whatever, they are all driven by profit. In some of the emerging democracies in eastern Europe, and in the Far East, the smoking of cigarettes is at a much higher level because the cigarette companies target economies such as those. I wonder if any analysis was done of the socio-economic groups who suffer from various cancers as a result of smoking cigarettes because until recent years advertisers were allowed sponsor various sporting organisations. We must be more in tune with the need to deal with the supply and demand issue, as identified by Senator Leyden. It must be tackled at both levels. Regarding supply, advertising and other practices of these companies should be prohibited. In the run-up to the budget, the Irish Cancer Society and other bodies call for the imposition of higher taxes on these products. I accept that price has an impact on the level of use.
Everything in moderation is acceptable, certainly in respect of alcohol. We have a serious drink culture in this country. A friend in the hotel business was reminiscing about going out for a drink in our younger days. He said that one never went out to get drunk. If one happened to have a few bob more than normal, one might have got drunk. He now sees young people coming to his premises and other establishments with the intention of getting stoned. The effects of this on their health, and on the health of others, is very serious.
I recall a project many moons ago in junior chamber, which identified alcohol as the fourth major cause of death in this country. We do not fully realise the health issue of alcoholism, apart from the adverse health effects of too much consumption. We allow these organisations to sponsor events that target the youth. We must be much stricter if we are serious about the issue. As is the case with all addictions, our education system must place greater emphasis on the dangers, risks and consequences of becoming addicted.
We respond to headlines in the newspapers. The Opposition benches would not be empty if this debate took place one month ago because a number of young people lost their lives due to the drugs situation in this country. It was topical at the time but, when that fades from the media, it is important that our intent and determination to tackle the issue is as strong as at the time of the publicity. It is sad to see so many young lives lost or blighted by the use of illegal drugs.
I do not know how we should tackle this. If we - I refer not just to the Government or Ireland but every state across the globe - continue to deal with it in this manner, Members will sit in this Chamber debating the same problems 50 years from now. We need new initiatives. I do not know enough about the topic to advocate examining the legalisation of some drugs. We cannot do that on our own but it strikes me that there is merit in the issue being examined at a European level, perhaps at the level of the Commission. This must be examined in a co-ordinated fashion.
Many young people tell me that any drug is available in any town or village within hours. Often, the public and the authorities know the players in criminal activity in the drug field. In recent days we have seen people involved in this trade fall foul of each other and murder each other. They are known to people in the media and gardaí in this city but they are free to operate. This is true of cities in Holland as well as of Dublin. It seems our criminal justice system allows this to happen. Much of this is driven by ensuring that human rights conventions and entitlements are not transgressed. From society's point of view, it seems illogical. If one was starting again, writing a code of laws, I doubt if one would allow known criminals, who bring such devastation on society - particularly on the younger generation - to be known and yet to be free. There is a contradiction in this and the whole area on the supply side must be examined.
When such major profits can be made we cannot continue to tackle it in this way. Despite the best efforts of the Garda Síochána the recent €10 million and €5 million drug hauls are the tip of the iceberg that is the multi-billion euro industry of the drugs trade. We can talk until the cows come home but we need action. We must examine this global criminal activity in a cohesive way across the globe. If we fail to do so, we will be discussing this issue many decades from now. If we combine a different approach on the supply side with tackling the demand side through greater focus on education and families, we can hope to improve on the current situation.
I pay tribute to the parties who agreed to this cross-party motion. That there is a cross-party motion is a statement of how serious is the problem of alcohol misuse and illegal drug use. I thank the Members who contributed to this important debate. As the Minister of State with responsibility for health promotion I will focus on alcohol. The Minister of State with responsibility for drugs, Deputy Pat Carey, contributed to this debate last week.
The motion raises issues of serious concern for our society. The problems associated with alcohol misuse and illegal drug use are extremely serious but I am somewhat reluctant to describe the situation as an epidemic. However, I fully appreciate the gravity of the situation facing us in Ireland today.
Let me begin by speaking on the problem of alcohol misuse. Alcohol harm is visible in every town and village, on the streets, in the courts, in the hospitals, in the workplace, in the schools and in the homes. Despite the tendency to blame under age drinkers, the vast majority of alcohol harm occurs among the adult population. It manifests itself for example in street violence, accidents, hospital admissions, drunk driving, alcohol poisoning, suicides, alcohol dependency and cancers. Some of these problems, especially the acute problems, arise where the light or moderate drinker drinks to excess on a single drinking occasion, while others result from regular heavy drinking over a longer period of time.
Our drinking patterns give cause for concern. In a study published by the European Commission in March 2007, Ireland was reported to have the highest percentage of binge drinkers of 25 European countries. This drinking pattern is adding to the burden of ill health and self-harm. Ireland is ranked as the highest among the 35 European countries in terms of the adolescents who regularly binge drink and second highest in reported regular drunkenness. The health behaviours of school aged children study, which I launched last year, shows that half of the children aged from 15 to 17 reported that they are current drinkers and more than one third reported they had been really drunk in the previous 30 days.
Alcohol consumption in the Irish population has increased by 17% in the past 11 years. This has had an impact on health whereby alcohol-related hospital admissions increased by 92% between 1995 and 2004. Alcohol related liver diseases increased by 147% between those years. In order to gain some perspective of the relationship between alcohol misuse and ill health, it is worth noting the findings of the World Health Organisation global burden of disease study, which shows that alcohol was the third most detrimental risk factor for European ill health and premature death, which was only surpassed by raised blood pressure and smoking. Alcohol was slightly more important than high cholesterol and being overweight, two and a half times more important than physical inactivity, and four times more important than illicit drugs. I have no doubt that the European risk factors have greater relevance in Ireland than they have in many other European countries. All this research evidence and information just confirms to us what is all too late and all too visible in our society. Such research should serve to strengthen our resolve to tackle alcohol problems and to seek meaningful ways to address the problem.
The motion before us is an expression of the strong desire among public representatives across all parties to do something about this problem. We all have a part to play. We need to take responsibility both collectively and individually. We need to examine our social acceptance of alcohol and the signal it is sending, particularly to our young people. Alcohol has become too closely associated with many celebratory events and in people's lives. We must ask ourselves if adults provide an appropriate, example to younger people regarding alcohol. It needs to become socially unacceptable for people to be excessively drunk our streets. This change can only occur when we stop excusing such behaviour. How many times can we remember smiling benignly at the friend, relative or family member who has had too much to drink and behaves inappropriately?
There is a developing scientific knowledge of what strategies work to reduce alcohol related harm. The World Health Organisation has stated that policies and programmes based on substantive evidence should use an appropriate combination of the following strategies: regulating the marketing of alcoholic beverages, in particular those practices that influence younger people; regulating and restricting availability of alcoholic beverages; enactment of appropriate drink-driving policies; reducing the demand for alcohol through taxation and pricing mechanisms; providing easily accessible and affordable treatment services for people with alcohol-use disorders; and implementing screening programmes and brief interventions against hazardous and harmful use of alcohol, for example in primary care and accident and emergency departments.
Implementation of many of these policy measures requires cross-departmental support. That is why a cross-departmental approach holds out the best opportunity of achieving progress. I am conscious of the need for the Government to continue to respond to the problems caused by alcohol misuse and it is my intention to continue to seek support for the introduction of evidence-based measures to tackle these problems in our society.
The motion before us acknowledges the need for a co-ordinated cross-departmental approach to the problems of alcohol misuse and illegal drug misuse. This type of cross-departmental and cross-sectoral approach is already taking place regarding alcohol misuse. In July 2005, a working group on alcohol was established to help mobilise the stakeholders through social partnership to achieve a targeted and measurable reduction in alcohol misuse. The working group operated in the context of the special initiative on alcohol and drug misuse under sustaining progress. The group comprised the social partners, relevant Departments, the Garda, the national drugs strategy team and the Health Service Executive. It examined the issues of under age drinking, drink driving and high-risk drinking. The report, published in June 2006, recommended a set of actions on issues such as community mobilisation, workplace alcohol policies, labelling, and education and awareness. An implementation group was established in November 2006 to monitor and report on progress on the implementation of the recommendations. The implementation group is expected to report early this year. It is generally agreed that the Sustaining Progress initiative has allowed a broad range of stakeholders to work together towards the common goal of reducing the harm caused by alcohol misuse
Arising from concerns about the effect that alcohol consumption is having on public order, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform established an alcohol advisory group to advise him on the measures that might be taken to address concerns regarding the sale and promotion of alcohol products. This matter was raised by a number of Senators. The alcohol advisory group is expected to report to the Minister by 31 March. An official from the Department of Health and Children and an official from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform are members of the advisory group.
Regarding cocaine, I would hesitate to use the term "epidemic".I acknowledge there has been an increase in the use of cocaine in recent years. Less than two weeks ago my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Pat Carey, launched the results of the drugs prevalence survey for 2006-07. This is a follow-up to the survey carried out in Ireland and Northern Ireland in 2002-03 and it covered the 15 to 64 age group. The survey shows that cocaine use has grown, albeit from a low base, particularly among the young adult population. A total of 5% of respondents reported having used cocaine in their lifetime. A total of 1.7% reported using it in the previous year and less than 1%, 0.5%, reported using it in the previous month. In the younger age group of 15 to 34, these figures rose to 8.2% for having used, 3.1% for use in last year and 1% for use in the previous month.
The increase in cocaine use is in line with the findings of the national advisory committee on drugs and the national drug strategy team report, completed in 2006. It concluded that, based on all secondary indicators including numbers coming forward for treatment, there was a significant increase in cocaine use, albeit from a low base.
There are existing synergies in the area of treatment for substance misuse and a potential for strengthening these. Historically the drug treatment services in Ireland, in particular in the greater Dublin area, developed primarily to deal with an opiate-using client group. However, drug use patterns have been changing, in particular towards poly-drug use, which includes alcohol, illicit drugs and legal drugs. The consequent changes in the problems which people bring to the treatment services mean that a more holistic approach is called for, based on the needs of the individual client. The national drug treatment reporting system maintained by the Health Research Board reports that one in five people receiving treatment for alcohol use in 2004 and 2005 reported problem use of at least one other drug, with more than 10% and 5% reporting problem use of two and three additional drugs, respectively. Of particular concern is the increase of 45% between 2004 and 2005 in the number receiving treatment for both cocaine and alcohol use. When cocaine is taken with alcohol it combines in the system to form the drug coca-ethylene which is more toxic than using either substance alone.
To address these changing patterns of drug use, the HSE has been re-orientating its services towards a more integrated approach to both alcohol and drugs. It is working to include its addiction services in the primary care teams and social care networks which are currently being rolled out. It is considered that this setting offers the best opportunity for providing a continuum of care to clients, including people with substance misuse problems and meeting clients' needs in a holistic way.
The 2006 joint report on cocaine by the national advisory committee on drugs and the national drugs strategy team, while recommending in the short term the need to consider the provision of cocaine-specific clinics, recommended that in the medium to longer term, there is a need to move to the provision of a comprehensive substance treatment service tailored to the individual. This is recognised by the HSE as being suitable for substance use in general. The HSE has identified that many approaches already in use work well with cocaine misusers and it intends to build on this approach and re-engineer existing services to meet emerging needs such as cocaine misuse.
I refer to the combined alcohol and drugs policy. The suggestion of a single national substance misuse strategy has been mooted. However, for many reasons it is believed it is best to treat the addictions separately. For example, with respect to education and awareness, the messages communicated about alcohol are not necessarily appropriate to illegal drugs. A zero tolerance approach is generally warranted for illegal drugs whereas with regard to alcohol it is preferable to alert people to alcohol misuse.
The mid-term review of the National Drugs Strategy 2001-2008, contained the recommendation that a working group should be established to explore the potential for better co-ordination between alcohol and drug policies, and whether a combined strategy is the appropriate way forward.
A number of meetings of this working group, which is chaired by the Department of Health and Children, have taken place. The working group is cross-departmental and cross-sectoral. Membership comprises the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the Department of Education and Science, the national drug strategy team, the Health Service Executive and the social partners, in addition to the Department of Health and Children. The membership reflects recognition of the need for a co-ordinated cross-departmental approach to the working group's terms of reference. Work is ongoing in identifying areas of synergy and in considering whether a combined strategy is the appropriate way forward. I await with interest the conclusions of the working group on how we might move forward in this difficult area.
I do not underestimate the challenges ahead when dealing with alcohol and drugs. Addressing these challenges through cross-departmental and cross-sectoral working groups is the best opportunity for making progress. The benefits of cross-departmental working have yielded dividends in the past and I have no doubt they will do so in the future.