Seanad debates

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

2:30 pm

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this matter and I welcome the Minister of State. Drug treatment services and the national drug strategy are important, as is the allocation of grant aid to organisations and those who are serious in an attempt to help those on the road to recovery. The Minister of State is familiar with the Adjournment motion, which concerns the Fellowship House facility on the outskirts of Cork city. It is a halfway house for men in recovery from poly addiction. Since its opening in 2002, Fellowship House has been providing accommodation for men in the early stages of recovery. It provided accommodation for men when it was not popular to do so. Fellowship House has embarked on an ambitious programme to develop a new facility at Spur Hill, Togher, to provide step down facilities for men in the city and county of Cork.

An application for funding for €4 million, under the capital assistance scheme, was made to Cork County Council. The council fully supported and approved the project. In January 2008, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government received a submission from Cork County Council and in August the project went to tender. The tender reports submitted to the Department by Cork County Council on 4 February 2009 is where the deadlock lies. There is a demand for the facility because there is a 95% occupancy rate for the services Renewal Sheltered Housing and Fellowship House provide. The board has plans to increase capacity to 31 places. Are we serious about providing continuing care services to people on the road from addiction?

The report of Renewal Sheltered Housing refers to 72% of men and 63% of women between 18 and 34 years of age presenting themselves for treatment and availing of the facility. That is a staggering figure in that age group admitting to poly addiction. Planning permission has been granted and the project has been put out to tender. Tenders have been received and therein lies the crux of the matter. Renewal Sheltered Housing is waiting for the capital. Are we serious about tackling the drugs issue and are we serious and genuine in assisting those on the road to recovery?

The staff at Fellowship House do excellent work. This matter is about continuing care and the services the facility will provide in assisting people who would not ordinarily get a chance on the road to recovery from alcohol and drugs. Will we allow this asset to stand still or will we allow the people of Cork to assist people on the road to recovery? We often hear about the frontline but in this case those at the frontline are making a difference at the coal face of addiction recovery. This is a programme worthy of support. The mission statement of Renewal Sheltered Housing suggests the programme is about trying to achieve a balance between maintaining contact with the family, work, developing recreation skills and a sober support system. I pay tribute to the voluntary board of directors, the staff and management and the Sisters of Mercy and the SMA Fathers for the work they do. The programme needs capital injection. Senator Coghlan spoke about meaningful dialogue. Are we serious about that and about intervention and assistance? A 95% rate of occupancy spells out that there is a demand for services. The work and actions of the staff of Renewal Sheltered Housing at Fellowship House are about recovery. At the front of the Fellowship House brochure is a very nice statement, which is "a chance to change". Therein lies the opportunity. I look forward to the Minister of State's reply.

Photo of Michael FinneranMichael Finneran (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing and Local Services, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator for raising this as it affords me an opportunity to confirm once again the Government's commitment to working with the voluntary and co-operative housing sector to meet the housing needs of the disadvantaged and vulnerable in our society, particularly in the current challenging economic climate. I begin by reflecting on the successful relationship to date between my Department, local authorities and the voluntary and co-operative sector. Since the 1980s, together we have overseen the delivery of 22,000 homes under both the capital assistance and capital loan and subsidy schemes which, I am sure Senator Buttimer will agree, represents a considerable success story by any measure of social housing delivery.

As Senators are aware, there is increasing pressure on the public finances and it is incumbent on all of us to ensure all public investments are effective, efficient and deliver the greatest value for money while meeting a particular social need. In that context, we need to examine options for delivering social housing beyond the traditional approaches of construction and acquisition if we are to continue to meet housing need at the levels expected of us. Although I cannot predict the outcome of the Estimates process, the reality is that capital budgets for next year will come under further significant pressure. This will undoubtedly give rise to some difficult decisions. However, I am satisfied we do have real options that will help us to deliver still high levels of good quality accommodation.

I refer in particular to the new long-term leasing initiative and the rental accommodation scheme which will capitalise on the existing availability of unsold properties in the market while at the same time taking advantage of the fall in rents. These schemes provide local authorities and the voluntary and co-operative sector with an opportunity to provide greater numbers of households with good quality accommodation than would otherwise be possible from our annual investment.

My Department continues to liaise closely with the Irish Council for Social Housing and indeed approved housing bodies themselves to ensure they are well-placed to deliver housing in this new context. Already this year, a number of voluntary and co-operative bodies have received approval in principle for units under the new leasing initiative and efforts are being taken to ensure this process is further strengthened in the coming years. At the same time, the Department is placing renewed emphasis on meeting the needs of vulnerable households and will be focussing capital support on the priority area of special needs provision under the capital assistance scheme in 2010. In that context, my Department is conducting a review of all proposals for CAS projects in the system with a view to identifying the priority projects for which funding will be made available next year.

This brings me to the project raised by Senator Buttimer involving 31 sheltered housing units and community facilities at Fellowship House in Togher, County Cork. I assure the Senator this project is being considered in the context of the overall pipeline of projects designed to provide new accommodation for households with special needs in 2010. I understand the county council, as part of the review I mentioned, has indicated this project has a high priority. Regard will also have to be had to the fit between the proposed project and the overall strategic direction for the accommodation for homeless households, as set out in the Government's homelessness strategy, The Way Home.

Undoubtedly, the provision of accommodation by approved voluntary and co-operative bodies continues to play an integral part in my Department's overall response to delivering on social housing need. I take this opportunity to re-emphasise the Department's commitment to supporting the sector in that context. Obviously our capacity to do so will be subject to the level of resources available to us. However, I am satisfied the new arrangements, such as the leasing initiative I have outlined, represent significant new opportunities for voluntary bodies to meet housing need in the years ahead.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for his reply. However, it is a disappointing reply as it does not address the fundamental issue at hand, which is that we have a waiting list for entry into Fellowship House. I know the national drugs strategy does not fall under the remit of the Minister of State's Department but his reply makes a mockery of the press statement issued by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, on the new national drugs strategy and funding the expansion of the Cork drug treatment programme. It makes a complete laugh of the HSE's press release on a major initiative in the HSE South's addiction services and it tells the Minister of State, Deputy Curran, that the national drugs strategy is flawed.

I appreciate we are in stringent economic times but 96% of people admitted to Fellowship House are unemployed and homeless. This is an opportunity to take a real initiative on behalf of the most vulnerable in society and give them an opportunity to restart their lives. It is a chance to change and we have missed it again tonight. I am not hopeful about the response. I take the Minister of State's bona fides in the matter and I ask him whether he has any words of hope for the people of Cork. Is there any way to see light at the end of the tunnel? This is a very important project. If we are serious about the national drugs strategy we need to deal with the pillar of rehabilitation and we are failing to do so. With this project we can drive the strategy forward in a positive manner with positive outcomes and success stories where people are restarting and rebuilding their lives.

Photo of Michael FinneranMichael Finneran (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing and Local Services, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fianna Fail)
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My commitment to the homeless in particular is well known. It was the only area in the Department where there was an increase in the 2009 budget, of 5%. That was well-recognised by groups and by The Way Home. The homeless strategy is being implemented by the Department in consultation with local authorities. Senator Buttimer is probably aware that recently I extended the opportunity of long-term leasing to the voluntary and co-operative sector, something that had never been given to it in the history of the State. It was received in a very positive manner and I welcome that.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Will the Minister of State ask the Minister of State, Deputy Curran, and the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, who will take responsibility if a recovering addict relapses? That question was not answered this evening. It is a fundamental question on the drugs strategy. I am very passionate about this. The buck must stop somewhere.

Photo of Michael FinneranMichael Finneran (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing and Local Services, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fianna Fail)
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I am very conscious of the needs of the homeless and disadvantaged in society and my housing programme gives priority to them. With regard to the particular question on the drugs strategy, I suggest that the Senator places a further question with the House for the relevant Minister; I do not have that information available to me in this evening's response nor was it asked for in the question tabled by the Senator.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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The fundamental question still pertains. If we are serious about drug rehabilitation and intervention in the national drugs strategy, then responsibility lies somewhere. I appreciate it is not the Minister of State's specific area of responsibility but he is here as the representative of the Minister and the Government. The Government has a role to play in this. I will not be fobbed off by spin-doctors.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I have given Senator Buttimer much latitude.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I appreciate that but the buck must stop somewhere. The HSE, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, and the Minister of State, Deputy Curran, have issued press releases on the great work being done in capital spending by the Government. However, the Minister of State and the Department have told us we have no money. Where does the buck stop? Who takes responsibility?

Photo of Michael FinneranMichael Finneran (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing and Local Services, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fianna Fail)
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The question tabled was on proposals for the payment of grants to Fellowship House. There was no further question and therefore I do not have any answer.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I appreciate that but-----

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I cannot allow Senator Buttimer to contribute again.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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-----the fundamental point is that the buck does not stop anywhere with the Government. The buck stops nowhere.