Wednesday, 5 July 2023
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Local Drugs Task Forces
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the Chamber. I am conscious this is my first interaction with her in her role as Minister of State with responsibility for the national drugs strategy. My question relates to the north inner city drugs and alcohol task force and I hope that when the Minister of State came into this role, this was one of the first issues brought to her attention. Over the past 26 years, successive governments have supported drug and alcohol task forces since they were established throughout the country. This is a really brilliant model in terms of understanding how we help those in addiction. It is not just about addressing the symptom of why people take drugs or what drugs they take but rather what are the supports required around it. The beauty of drug and alcohol task forces is that we have the statutory agencies, the community representatives, and those providing the services - the projects - sitting around the table.
The north inner city drugs and alcohol task force, under the chairmanship of Dr. Joe Barry, worked really well for many years in the north inner city until his retirement more than 18 months ago. Since then, there has complete stalemate. In fact, there has been a stand-off because the Department of Health, in its wisdom, decided it wants to let the north inner city drugs and alcohol task force effectively die. That is my question to the Minister of State, because there has been pleading to the Minister, to the Secretary General, to Department officials to ensure we have a functioning north inner city drugs and alcohol task force. Yet, we hear there is a report, and we have heard for many months now that there is a report coming, and yet nothing has happened. I really have to question the Department's motivation and intentions with regard to the task force. We know the officials in the Department are briefing the North East Inner City, NEIC, implementation board about drugs projects in the area, and that is fine. However, Government policy has been to support the drug and alcohol task forces where they are located, throughout the country, and yet it is failing to do so in the north inner city. It is doing so at a time where we are seeing crack cocaine, in particular, take off and replace heroin as the major source of addiction, and there is also the damage it inflicts upon individuals. On the supports that are needed, with crack cocaine, in particular, there is a much quicker deterioration in individuals . They have a much greater need for outreach because there is no parallel methadone or opiate replacement programme like we see for those who are addicted to heroin.
I am very conscious that the chairs of all the drug and alcohol task forces throughout the country are meeting at this time in Buswells Hotel across the road to talk about the increase in support they need from the Minister of State's Department, so I hope she is listening to them. In the face of all the problems I have mentioned, my appeal today is about the north inner city drugs and alcohol task force because the deprivation in communities there will only be solved if we ensure there are proper housing and health services and that we treat the underlying trauma that exists within these communities. That is what the task force is there to do, to co-ordinate services and identify where services need to go, and we do not have that in Dublin's north inner city. This has been acknowledged by many Ministers with responsibility for tackling the drugs issue, that the north inner city is probably one of the most disadvantaged and deprived parts of the country, and yet this Government is effectively letting that area down.
I thank Senator Sherlock for raising this issue and I welcome the opportunity to update the Seanad on this topic. Under the national drugs strategy, drug and alcohol task forces play an important role in co-ordinating drug and alcohol services in the community, based on an interagency partnership. I reassure the Senator that I am fully committed to the task force model. I recently addressed a conference on the role of task forces in responding to the needs of disadvantaged communities and tackling health inequalities, organised by the chairpersons’ network and hosted by the Department of Health. Last week, I published the strategic action plan for 2023-2024 under the national drugs strategy. It includes actions to address the social determinants and consequences of drug and alcohol use in disadvantaged communities. The task forces have a central role in delivering these actions.
I am also a strong supporter of the Government initiative to promote the social and economic regeneration of Dublin north east inner city. In 2022, the Department of Health allocated additional funding of €1.5 million to provide new health services for the local community. The Department of Health, through the City of Dublin Youth Services Board and the HSE, provides €2.2 million annually to community-based drug and alcohol services in conjunction with the north inner city task force. It is important there is effective and transparent governance of this funding by the task force.
The Department of Health and the HSE had been working with the task force to enhance its contribution to the NEIC initiative and to address governance issues identified in an independent review of services. In January 2021, the Department of Health and the outgoing chair agreed a process for selecting a new independent chairperson, in accordance with the task force handbook and with the assistance of a professional recruitment agency. Unfortunately, this process was not adhered to, leading to an impasse in the appointment of a new chairperson. The Department of Health sought to work with the task force leadership and membership to address governance concerns. However, it was not possible to resolve these concerns without the support of all parties. The outgoing chairperson resigned in September 2021, and in November the task force informed local services that it was no longer in a position to function.
The Department of Health has consulted members of the task force and other stakeholders on the next steps to establish effective, inclusive and transparent governance of the task force.This involved a series of meetings with public representatives, statutory and non-statutory members of the task force, front-line community and alcohol projects funded under the ambit of the task force, community and service user representatives, staff employed by the task force company, and other stakeholders. A report on the governance of the task force has been prepared, which I am now considering. I am committed to establishing effective, inclusive and transparent governance of the task force, informed by a review of developments to date and the consultation process. It is my intention to approve steps to reconstitute the task force shortly.
I thank the Minister of State. We need the report. She has been in her role for seven months. Our understanding since late last year is that the report has been prepared. It is telling that while the Government and, with respect, the Minister of State, speak about commitment to the task force they sit on a report for a period of seven months or longer. If it is not for that period, then correct me. The Minister of State has said it is her intention to take steps to reconstitute the task force shortly. Will she give us a timeline today? Will she advance this and bring some news on this situation? When I speak to the projects in the inner city, they state they face an enormous crisis with regard to recruiting staff and trying to advocate for more money. The task force did that for them but it is no longer there. It no longer functions, as the Minister of State has said. We need to hear today when she will announce the steps and when exactly she will publish the report.
I acknowledge the important contribution of the independent chairs of the task forces. They facilitate the partnership between the statutory and the community bodies at the heart of the task force model. The success of the task force model depends on the commitment of the skills and energies they bring to the role. The independent chairs are also key to the effective governance and performance of the task forces. I want to ensure the north inner city task force has an independent chairperson who has the support and confidence of all of the members of the task force and can lead it in contributing to the social and economic regeneration of the area. The officials are working on proposals to develop a governance and performance framework for task forces. This will assist task forces in complying with best practice, including the selection and appointment of an independent chairperson. They will engage with the chairs network to progress this work.