Home > Dail Eireann debate. Other questions - Drug and Alcohol Task Forces [20853/19].

[Oireachtas] Dail Eireann debate. Other questions - Drug and Alcohol Task Forces [20853/19]. (15 May 2019)

External website: https://www.oireachtas.ie/en/debates/debate/dail/2...

Maureen O'Sullivan: Question: 12.

Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Health the way in which he can address the immediate funding requirements of drug and alcohol task forces; if his attention has been drawn to the valuable contribution these task forces make particularly in areas of disadvantage; and the way in which he will continue to support them [20853/19]


Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan: My question relates to the drug and alcohol task forces and their funding requirements. The task forces are making a valuable contribution, particularly in areas of disadvantage. I wish to discuss the ways in which they can be supported, particularly in light of drastic reductions in their budgets in recent years.


Deputy Simon Harris: I thank Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan for this question, which relates to an area in which she takes a keen interest. I am answering the question on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, who is unavoidably detained.


Drug and alcohol task forces play a key role in assessing the extent and nature of the drug problem in local communities and in ensuring that a co-ordinated approach is taken across all sectors to address substance misuse based on the identified needs and priorities in their areas. The Department of Health is committed to supporting drug and alcohol task forces and provides in the region of €28 million to them annually through various channels of funding, including the HSE.


Measuring the overall effectiveness of the response to the drug problem is an important objective of Government policy. To this end, the national drugs strategy, Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery, commits to operationalising a performance measurement system for drug and alcohol task forces by 2020.


In March I announced additional funding of €1 million for the implementation of Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery. This funding, which will be provided on a recurring and multi-annual basis, will address the priorities set down in the strategy including early harm reduction responses to emerging trends in substance misuse and improving services for groups with complex needs.


Recently the Minister of State held a consultation with drug and alcohol task forces and the HSE to hear their views on how best to target additional funding. She will shortly be notifying task forces regarding the allocation of this additional funding. This will include information on the guiding principles and the application process. I will also ask the Minister of State to write to the Deputy with more information in that regard.


Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan: I thank the Minister. We can all agree that the task forces have provided, in a very challenging drug environment, crucial support to communities with complex needs. The drug scene changes several times a year. The task forces are a great partnership involving the community, the voluntary sector, the statutory authorities and public representatives. However, the cumulative reductions made in the austerity budgets from 2008 to 2014 were significant. The task force projects experienced a 20% funding reduction and local youth services were affected by a 31% reduction. That meant cuts in respect of crucial interventions and key services and support for such services. We have particular difficulties in the constituency I represent. There is blatant drug dealing on the streets and high levels of intimidation, yet so much really good work goes on. The chairs and co-ordinators provided a pre-budget submission just a couple of months ago. They sought restoration of previous funding levels in order to enable them to do the work. Returning project funding to 2008 levels would cost €5 million. The submission also sought €10 million from the emerging needs fund for the areas most affected. We will see what will happen with the Minister of State's review, but I hope those requests can be taken on board.


Deputy Simon Harris: I take what Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan says very seriously. I know from her constituency what a very positive impact the task forces can have in a community with rampant drug problems. I very much appreciate that point. I will indeed ask Minister of State, Catherine Byrne, to take the Deputy's comments on board as part of her review on additional funding. We all agree that this is an area for which we want to see more funding. The Deputy will agree that we must make sure to align additional funding with the priorities set out in our relatively new national drug and alcohol strategy. The funding model for the additional €1 million has three tiers. I may not get time to list all of them. The first tier will provide an agreed amount of resources on a priority basis across all task forces. The second tier will provide funding of up to €60,000 a year for 12 strategic initiatives which reflect all of the six guiding principles. The third tier will provide funding for a national awareness campaign on drug-related violence and intimidation and a reporting programme on those issues. Drug and alcohol task forces will receive additional funding this year. I accept this is an area in which we want to do more. We will ensure that the review takes Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan's comments on board.


Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan: Everybody welcomes additional funding, but without restoring the original funding it does not make sense. I refer to the recent report by the Health Research Board into drug-related deaths. I know these figures are from 2016 and I know why there is a two-year delay before figures can be ascertained, but it is really very significant that drug-related deaths are on the increase. Alcohol-related deaths increased by 18%. Prescription drugs were implicated in 258 deaths. Some three in four of all 354 poisoning deaths were from overdoses. Two thirds of poisoning deaths involved a cocktail of drugs and hangings had trebled among drug users. Benzodiazapines are implicated in the majority of overdose deaths. Three quarters of the 736 drug-related deaths in 2016 involved males. That is the kind of scenario with which the drugs and alcohol task forces are dealing. They have also had alcohol added to their work. Everybody agrees with that but the implications have not really been considered. We know that alcohol is very significant in drug-related deaths.


Deputy Simon Harris: I do not disagree with what the Deputy says and I take her comments about funding on board. I would also make the point that it is about more than funding. It has to be about the way we treat people with drug addiction. For a country that likes to consider itself progressive, tolerant and inclusive, the way we only treat people with drug addiction through the criminal justice system is regressive and belongs in a different era. The idea that the first point of contact of somebody who finds themselves in difficulty, and there but for the grace of God goes any of us, is the criminal justice system rather than the health system makes me quite annoyed and frustrated and somewhat embarrassed. We need to look at best international practice in this regard. We need a compassionate, health-led response to drug addiction. That is why and the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, and I set up a group to look at exactly that. That group is due to report to us very shortly. The first support the State provides to a young person in Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan's constituency or in mine who is suffering from a drug addiction should not be a knock on the door from An Garda Síochána. It should be help from an addiction service or a health-led approach. That is now Government policy under the national drug and alcohol strategy, but we may need to start changing the law in that regard. I look forward to working on that with the Deputy.

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