Seanad debates

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

2:30 pm

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for taking this motion on behalf of the Minister for Health and Children. I raise the issue following the publication of the report on sexual assault treatment units last week. I welcome the fact there are six sexual assault units throughout the country, one of which is in Mullingar, providing equity of access to all victims of sexual crimes and welcome the publication of the report, which is important for the development of the service. Some 500 people have had the unfortunate necessity to use the service, 50 of whom were in the Mullingar area.

If people are to be able to defend themselves, they must have forensic clinical evidence, which is why these units are crucial. However, there are difficulties with the unit in the Mullingar hospital. Initially, some eight doctors and one clinical nurse specialist, CNS - sexual forensic examiner - were available for roster duty in Mullingar, but now there are only five doctors and one CNS available. Initially there were also 12 assisting nurses, but now there are only 11. The reduction in staff numbers has led to the service being inadequately staffed, a fact recorded in the report. The staff shortage has also reduced the availability and timing of appointments for people who need to return to the hospital for an appointment to check up on sexually transmitted infections. This service is now reduced to one and a half hours per week, which is inadequate. To add insult to injury, the unit is located in a temporary facility. It operates from one room which, according to the report, is not discrete within the hospital and lacks proper facilities such as a toilet or shower. This is an insult to people who are already distressed and in difficulty. A new facility has been identified within the hospital, but no date has been provided as to when it will be available for staff and patients.

I am concerned about the situation in Mullingar. In recent years there has been insidious downgrading of every facility that has gone into the Mullingar hospital. The situation is very negative. The consultants and staff have to fight tooth and nail to retain every service. I fear that what happened with post mortem facilities last month, which were transferred to Tullamore, will happen again. This downgrading is harmful, especially considering that Tullamore has no gynaecological or obstetric facilities. I ask the Minister of State to ensure the staff complement is reinstated to provide a service 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This serves the catchment area of Westmeath, Longford, Offaly and Laois. People require the service and we have as much right as any other part of the country to a full and adequate service for people in difficulty.

By the way, today ambulances were turned away from the Longford-Westmeath Regional Hospital, Mullingar and Portiuncula Hospital as they were not able to deal with the numbers of patients in those hospitals.

Photo of Conor LenihanConor Lenihan (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. As she might be aware, last week in Letterkenny the Minister for Health and Children launched the annual statistics for the year 2009 from all six sexual assault treatment units. Seeking support in the aftermath of a rape or sexual assault is a major challenge and the work of sexual assault treatment units, SATUs, play a vital role in assisting recent victims from a number of different perspectives, including the collection of forensic clinical evidence for potential future prosecutions, immediate physical and psychological care for the victim, and referral to longer-term support.

The Department of Health and Children took the lead in the national review of sexual assault treatment services launched in 2006 and I am very pleased to see that the implementation of its recommendations is essentially complete. I am aware that the care delivered in SATUs since the launch of the national review in 2006 has developed and improved and now includes the provision of services to clients who choose not to report to the Garda and the inclusion of preventative care, for example, regarding sexually transmitted infections. These improvements will soon be reflected in the new national guidelines on referral and forensic clinical examination currently under way, and the Minister looks forward to their publication.

There were 51 attendances at the SATU in the Longford-Westmeath Regional Hospital, Mullingar last year. At the first visit patients are offered a clinical or forensic examination, psychological care and post-coital emergency contraception. A screening for sexually transmitted infections is offered approximately four weeks following the initial visit. Some 44 patients had a forensic clinical examination. Six of the patients did not report the incident to the Garda and only had a clinical examination.

Five doctors, one clinical nurse specialist and 11 assisting nurses are available to cover the SATU. Since its opening in February 2009, the initial services were expanded to offer examination to post-pubescent 14 year olds, availability of services on a 24-hour a day basis to patients who do not wish to report the incident to the Garda, and availability of sexually transmitted infection screening post assault in the SATU. Support workers from the rape crisis centre in Tullamore became a part of the on-call team in June and have been a welcome addition. Finally, the SATU liaison committee was formed and held its first meeting in December 2009.

On the specific matters raised by the Senator, I regret that owing to industrial action affecting the Health Service Executive, it is not possible for the executive to supply the information requested. If this matter remains of continuing concern, I invite the Senator to raise it with the Minister again in due course. It is a matter of profound regret that the industrial action by trade unions is inhibiting the legitimate right of Parliament on behalf of the citizens to elicit information of public concern and to public benefit. That is one of the most dangerous parts of the dispute. The right of Parliament to receive timely information on issues of genuine public concern is not being satisfied, which is one of the most regrettable aspects of the ongoing industrial dispute.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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Who is running the country? The Minister for Health and Children should be able to give me the answer today. What is the Department of Health and Children doing? When will the new service open? I regret the effect of the industrial action. This is the second matter on the Adjournment on which I have received a similar reply. I agree it is regrettable. More than that, it is outrageous.

Photo of Conor LenihanConor Lenihan (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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I cannot disagree with anything the Senator has said. I believe people should reflect very carefully on the kind of action being taken at the moment, especially when it is action that affects the public in service provision in the Passport Office or elsewhere. In some local authorities some councillors are getting responses and others are not, which is utterly wrong and inimical to the nature and spirit of our democracy that has developed to date in terms of service to the citizen.

The Seanad adjourned at 9.05 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 28 April 2010.