Seanad debates

Thursday, 17 December 2009

8:00 pm

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Pat Carey, to the House. I am pleased he is present for the debate as he is a former Minister of State with responsibility for this area.

I raise this matter because the use of heroin and other drugs is on the increase. The Minister of State, Deputy Curran, is on record as saying that this week in the other House. I am concerned that a reduction in the programme funding for local drugs task forces and the national drugs strategy will have an impact on the provision of services at a time when drug use is on the increase. I will outline some figures from Cork city to illustrate the point. In 2004 there were just four seizures of heroin. In 2006 there were 77 and last year there were 159. To date this year there have been 165 heroin seizures. That is a tribute to the great work of the Garda in the Cork area. We have a heroin epidemic and a drug use problem that we have failed to get a handle on, despite the national drugs strategy and the fact that we have invested huge sums of money.

I commend the Minister of State, Deputy Carey, on the part he played when he had responsibility for that area. He did a very good job. Cuts have been made to the programme of 11% and 8%. Regional drugs task forces are being affected. That will have a profoundly negative impact on what we are all trying to do, namely, eliminate the use of drugs, avoid deaths and put the drug dealers out of business.

The national drugs strategy is predicated on a number of investment and funding pillars. Will the aims of the strategy, to which we all subscribe, be hindered by the reduction? There will be an impact on the programmes we offer and the people whom they are meant to support.

"Morning Ireland" did a good programme yesterday on the Ballyfermot youth service. Jerry McCarthy said there may be a recession in the country but there is no recession in drugs. He is dead right. Some funding for the provision of youth services has been cut altogether while in other cases it has been reduced. The number of projects has been reduced and some projects have been amalgamated. We all accept we are in a difficult time.

Having taught leaving certificate applied courses in school and been involved in community associations, I subscribe to the view that one must be at the coalface in communities. Local gardaí came to the school and that created a great buzz and excitement among the young people but it led to experimentation. I suspect the Minister of State, Deputy Carey, might agree that the best approach is for one to be immersed in the community and involved at that level. We successfully fought against the use of drugs, albeit to a limited degree. This cut is an abandonment of what the Minister of State signed up to as a Minister when he had responsibility for the drugs strategy and what we worked to achieve with him. We are now seeing an abandonment of the joined-up thinking and collaboration between the Departments of Health and Children, Education and Science, Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and Arts, Sport and Tourism.

At a time when drug use is on the increase, it is important that the impact of cuts in this area would be reduced and that we would see them reversed. I am not being political in this, but as the Minister of State is well aware, one death is too many, one person going to jail for whatever reason connected with drug use is wrong and we must do everything in our power to tackle the problem. I hope the reply will be positive.

Photo of Pat CareyPat Carey (Minister of State (Government Chief Whip), Department of An Taoiseach; Minister of State, Department of Defence; Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Buttimer for raising this issue. I am well aware of his interest and deep commitment to addressing the drug problem and other issues associated with risks to young people.

I am responding to this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy John Curran. When introducing the 2010 budget, the Minister for Finance said that over the past year we have been running to stand still in terms of spending on public services. Accordingly, in the 2010 budget, the Government decided, as part of its strategy to manage its way through the current severe economic crisis and to return the country to prosperity, to reduce spending on public services by almost €1 billion in 2010 compared with the pre-budget Estimates. The savings have been sought through efficiencies rather than through reductions in services to the greatest extent possible. In this case the gross funding of the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs of €415.4 million in 2010 is a reduction of 13% relative to the 2009 allocation of €475.7 million. Current funding is reduced by 9%, a decrease of €32.1 million, and capital funding is reduced by 21%, a decrease of €28.2 million.

In a joint statement from the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, and the Minister of State, Deputy Curran, on budget day, it was stressed that their primary concern is to make every effort to ensure the daily front-line services provided with funding from the Department are protected, especially those focused on the needs of the most socially deprived communities. Every saving that can be made from cutting down on overheads will be pursued so that the entire range of urban, rural, Gaeltacht and island communities we serve retain, to the greatest extent possible, the services that have been developed in partnership with them over the years.

In 2010, funding of €36.2 million is being made available for drugs initiatives supported through the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, which is an overall reduction of approximately 11%. While this funding will allow for a significant number of projects in local and regional drugs task forces to be maintained, it is acknowledged that the reduction may result in the scaling back of some projects. However, as I outlined, the Department will be seeking to have front-line services protected to the greatest extent possible.

In excess of €31 million has been made available to fund the activities of drugs task forces next year, of which €21.06 million is being provided for the local drugs task forces and €10 million for the regional drugs task forces. Despite the overall reduction in funding available, the Minister is confident that the work of the drugs task forces will continue to make a positive impact on the lives of those affected by drug misuse.

Senator Buttimer might wish to note that in recent months the Minster of State, Deputy Curran, has met all drugs task forces and funding for 2010 was among the issues discussed in all cases. It was emphasised at that stage that there was a need to prioritise projects with a view to ensuring the most effective use of resources and the most beneficial outcomes for service users.

Needs and priorities change over time and, consequently, drugs task forces and service providers must ensure funding is realigned to match changing circumstances. The task forces are fully engaged in this process and they have been given the scope to redirect funding within their allocations to best address the realigned priorities that they identify for their areas of operation. The Minister of State, Deputy Curran, is satisfied that this approach will help to minimise the impact from the reduction in funding in 2010.

On 10 November last, the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs wrote to each task force setting out the procedures in regard to the 2010 allocations. Given the likelihood of a reduction in moneys for drugs initiatives in 2010, task forces were asked to review all projects being funded by them to ensure they are drugs targeted and evidence-based, can show tangible outputs and outcomes, are addressing current gaps and local needs in their areas, and can demonstrate clear links with the priorities as set out in the National Drugs Strategy 2009 to 2016.

As the Senator knows, the new drugs strategy was launched in early September. Its overall strategic objective is to continue to tackle the harm caused to individuals and society through a concerted focus on the five pillars of supply reduction, prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and research which the Senator mentioned. The strategy sets out a range of actions across the five pillars to be delivered in the next eight years by Departments and agencies. It also provides for the establishment of the Office of the Minister for Drugs, the functions of which include facilitating the co-ordination of the implementation of the strategy across statutory, community and voluntary sectors.

The task forces were also asked to identify the areas to assimilate a reduction in funding in 2010. These could include negotiating rents and administration charges, lowering overheads, sharing resources, a partnership approach and merging. The Department was in touch with the task forces again on 3 December, pointing out that, as part of the approval for specific cocaine and rehabilitation projects approved in 2008, they were required to be evaluated. They were requested to complete an evaluation form for each of them. This evaluation is needed for the approval of funding for next year. Funding proposals for 2010 were due back from the task forces to the Office of the Minister for Drugs yesterday, 16 December. The Department will be in touch with the drugs task forces in the next few days to confirm the allocations.

The Senator can be assured that the Office of the Minister for Drugs is very conscious of the value of the work done by the local and regional drugs task forces. The allocations made to drugs task forces, while reduced, nevertheless continue to be financially significant in the local areas and will continue to make an important contribution to the lives of those affected by drug misuse and the communities in which they live.

I concur with the Senator that this is not the time to take the foot off the pedal in terms of effort. Undoubtedly, in times of constrained resources, greater coherence will be required. I draw the Senator's attention to what was a useful Adjournment debate in the other House last night. The matter was raised by my colleague, Deputy Noel Ahern, with his Cork colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe. The Minister emphasised the range of initiatives being delivered across Departments, including the Department of Education and Science, and the need for inter-agency co-operation, in particular. I am well aware of the problems the reduction in funding is causing for some of the front-line services in the longer established task forces, in particular. The Minister is very cognisant of this. I am also aware of the piece on "Morning Ireland". In fact, there was a similar piece on the news on television tonight.

I do not believe there has been an abandonment of the joined-up thinking approach. The Cabinet sub-committee on social inclusion is the vehicle used, apart from the Office of the Minister for Drugs, to ensure the greatest co-ordination possible on this issue at the very highest level. It is one which will not go away and it must be addressed in a coherent fashion. The national substance misuse strategy 2009-16 will address the issue, but it will only be done with the highest possible level of co-operation between all of those involved.

Without wanting to give too many plaudits to Cork, to which it is entitled, some of the very best work being done in tackling the drugs problem is being done by organisations such as ógra Corcaigh, the Garda in Cork and the local drugs task force. Initiatives probably unique to Cork have been replicated elsewhere. I commend those involved. I hope that in these difficult times they will be able to continue as best they can to keep the services at the highest possible level.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Will the Minister of State raise with his colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy John Curran, the fact that there seems to be a trend running through Government policy on social inclusion. We have seen the amalgamation of community development projects and the closure of some, which is wrong. I am genuinely worried. The Minister of State referred to the programme in Ballyfermot, "Can You Hack It?", which, as mentioned on "Morning Ireland" today, might be closed. That would be a wrong move. It is a six week programme undertaken in the community. I hope the Minister of State will come back into the House in the new year and that we will look at this matter again because it is important.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise so many Adjournment matters during the year. It is a valuable exercise.