Seanad debates

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Commencement Matters

Drug and Alcohol Task Forces

10:30 am

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy.

Photo of Maire DevineMaire Devine (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister of State and thank her for coming to the House to address the lack of a co-ordinator post within the South Inner City Local Drugs and Alcohol Task Force. I hope she has good news for me in order that the issue can be resolved today to the benefit of the community.

The staff of the task force had intended to be present for this debate, but they were unable to come because of the pressure they were under. I hope I will be passing on the good news to them immediately after the debate.

Two years ago, following the retirement of the long-serving co-ordinator of the South Inner City Local Drugs and Alcohol Task Force, the co-ordinator post was removed without notice by the HSE. It should be noted that the co-ordinator post was filled by the sole staff member of the project. This unfair and apparently deceptive action has had a detrimental effect on the needs of the local community. The continuing failure of the authorities to provide an explanation, reason or rationale for this decision makes it all the worse.

For the past 24 months, volunteers have been attempting to administer and co-ordinate the task force on a part-time basis. They have staggered and stepped. They have put in extra hours and many of their own resources, but the lack of the post has not been addressed. I applaud them for their work, in the absence of which the entire task force would have been stood down by this point. When some of the people concerned met one of the Minister of State's colleagues in September 2016, they were led to believe steps would be taken to recruit a co-ordinator within a reasonable timeframe, but that has not happened. I need the Minister of State to clarify a number of points. Why was the post removed in the first place? Who made the decision? Will the Minister of State outline the steps that have been taken since the meeting with the group in September last year to ensure the co-ordinator post will be reinstated? Will she confirm that the post will be reinstated? What timeframe can we expect for the recruitment of a co-ordinator?

Some funding was provided on a piecemeal basis for the task force to support the work it was doing. This was like putting a band aid over the gaping wound in the area. This money was stripped from other front-line services which cannot afford to lose any more money, having previously lost money which had been ring-fenced for various projects. Other task forces in the area have had extra staff supplied to them recently. I am not trying to act in a tit for tat manner when I mention that task forces which already had staff were given extra staff, while staff were removed from the South Inner City Local Drugs and Alcohol Task Force. The addition of alcohol to the ambit of the drugs task forces some years ago placed an even more significant onus on one person whose job has been taken away. I appeal to the Minister of State who is responsible for the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill to reconsider this aspect of the matter in the context of that legislation. This has become an onerous job since responsibility for alcohol issues was merged with the work of the drugs task forces.

I am concerned that there is no one to lead the promotion of health, well-being, diversion, improvement and rehabilitation from the scourge of drugs and alcohol in communities. Will the Minister of State explain why the post of co-ordinator of this service which is based in Ballyfermot was removed without notice? Will she reassure me, the staff and the clients of the service that the post will be reinstated? I would like the issue to be addressed comprehensively because it is having a direct effect on my constituency and that of the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, Dublin South-Central. I ask the Minister of State to outline her plan to resolve the matter. I am aware of her grá for the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, as I mentioned. All of this ties in for the well-being of the country, especially communities that have been devastated by alcohol and drug issues.

Photo of Marcella Corcoran KennedyMarcella Corcoran Kennedy (Offaly, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Devine for raising this issue and giving me the opportunity to update the Seanad on the current position regarding the post of co-ordinator of the south inner city drug and alcohol task force. The Minister of State with responsibility for this area, Deputy Catherine Byrne, asked me to convey her apologies as she is unavoidably detained elsewhere this morning.

I emphasise this Government's commitment and ongoing support, in line with the national drugs strategy, for initiatives to tackle the drug problem. Reflecting the Government's commitment to addressing the drugs and alcohol issue, an additional €3 million in funding has been allocated to the Health Service Executive this year for addiction services. The increased budget includes funding for a pilot supervised injection facility, more detoxification places and improved access to treatment services for those aged under 18 years.

I am very aware of the key role drug and alcohol task forces play in assessing the extent and nature of the drug problem in their areas. Task forces are also key players in co-ordinating action at local level to ensure there is a targeted response to the problem of substance misuse in local communities. Drug and alcohol task force co-ordinators are, in the main, employed by the Health Service Executive.

On the specific issues raised by the Senator, I am advised by the HSE that the co-ordinator post for the south inner city drug and alcohol task force has not been suppressed. I understand funding was made available by the HSE to fill this post on a three days per week basis from June 2016 to December 2016 and that, since January 2017, funding has been made available by the HSE for the post to be filled on a five days per week basis. I am pleased to learn that HSE addiction services has agreed to provide funding via a section 39 grant aid agreement on an ongoing basis to the south inner city drug and alcohol task force to maintain this post. This funding will be paid to a voluntary organisation in the south inner city which has a hosting arrangement with the south inner city task force. The HSE has informed me that it intends to review this arrangement on a regular basis in line with the conditions of funding. I hope this information will be welcome news to Senator Devine and others.

The Government is committed to putting in place a new national drugs strategy this year to provide leadership and a renewed response to address the drug problem. It is expected that the new strategy will build on the harm reducing approach of previous policies. The process of developing a new strategy has involved a wide-ranging national debate on our approach to the drug and alcohol problem, with more than 2,000 public submissions received on the issue.

The Senator also asked a number of specific questions which only the Health Service Executive is in a position to answer. I will ensure these are conveyed to the HSE when I return to my office and ensure it reverts to the Senator with responses. However, I expect the task force will have liaised with the HSE and will have some understanding as to the reason the decision was made. If that is not the case, I will ensure the Senator is given a response.

Photo of Maire DevineMaire Devine (Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister of State for what appears to be good news, although my naivety has been bashed out of me a little by the nuances of the responses provided by politicians. The staff of the south inner city drug and alcohol task force were not aware of the information the Minister of State has provided and believed the position in question had been suppressed or ignored. While they were reluctant to publicise the issue, they could no longer continue to struggle to cover this crucial area without staffing. I am pleased funding has been found for a full-time post, although I am not sure the task force staff are aware that funding had been provided for a three days per week position. I would like to find out which voluntary organisation in the south inner city has the hosting arrangement to which the Minister of State referred. If she is unable to provide an answer, I will find out the information.

I congratulate and support the Minister of State on her stance on the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, which I acknowledge does not have much to do with the matter I raise. Nevertheless, the Bill addresses the well-being of citizens and I assure the Minister that it has mine and Sinn Féin's full support.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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While the Senator has strayed slightly ultra vires, I will allow her compliment.