Home > Dail Eireann debate. Topical issue debate - Departmental functions.

[Oireachtas] Dail Eireann debate. Topical issue debate - Departmental functions. (13 Jul 2021)

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Deputy Joan Collins: The Department of Health has suspended the activities of the north inner city drug and alcohol task force and is putting in place its own process to appoint a chairperson and broaden its membership. The Department of Health is basing this decision on an accusation of governance shortcomings in the north inner city drug and alcohol task force. I have been talking to the task force members and the task force absolutely and totally rejects this accusation. It views the actions of the Department as completely unjustified and is intent on defending the honesty, integrity and professionalism of the chairperson, directors, members and staff of the task force.


In the 25 years since the north inner city drugs and alcohol task force was established, there have been no governance shortcomings raised with the task force and the Department has made this allegation without presenting a shred of evidence. The only governance shortcoming the Department of Health refers to is a recent task force process for the appointment of a new chairperson. Contrary to what the Department is saying, the task force has complied with all the requirements set out in the drugs and alcohol task force handbook.


The task force states without reservation that the process put in place for the appointment of the chair has been collectively agreed and implemented with complete transparency by all the task force members across community, voluntary and statutory sectors. The outgoing chair has carried out his duty in this matter with honesty and integrity and through consensus. The person selected by the task force as the next chair fully complies with the requirements as outlined in the handbook, including not being connected to any of the projects funded by the task force.


Despite all of this, the Department has intervened in a process to block the task force from going ahead with the appointment of a new chair.


The Department representative intervened first as a member of the north inner city programme implementation board, then changed to an intervention directly on behalf of the Department looking for a three-person interview panel to be put in place with a Department representative, a HSE representative and a drugs and alcohol task force representative. It is unprecedented in 25 years of the drugs and alcohol task force for the Department of Health or any parent Department to intervene in this way in the selection of a chair. The task force did not agree with this proposal as it is not in compliance with the handbook or company law. The action of the Department is suspending the drugs and alcohol task force for governance shortcomings has been taken in the complete absence of any procedures based on natural justice or a right to reply. It has tainted the personal and professional reputations of the directors, members and staff of the task force by presenting them as unfit and untrustworthy to carry out the work of the north inner city drugs and alcohol task force. The Department is also proposing to remove every shred of independence from the task force by taking over the appointment of the chair and members.


I am calling on the Department to withdraw its decision to suspend the task force, reinstate it immediately and set up a forum for natural justice. If the Department feels there is a problem, its representatives should talk it out with the task force members in an open and transparent way. I appeal to the Minister of State to do that. This has been the tradition of the task forces since they were set up 25 years ago to respond to the drug issues facing communities across the country. They should be respected for that.


Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Frankie Feighan)

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I welcome this opportunity to update the House on the engagement with the north inner city drugs and alcohol task force on the arrangements for the selection and appointment of an independent chairperson. As Minister of State with responsibility for the national drugs strategy, I recognise and value the important role that drug and alcohol task forces play in co-ordinating drug and alcohol projects and services assisting individuals and families to address addiction issues in the community. The Department of Health has oversight of the task forces and their annual allocation of over €29 million. A handbook on the governance and operation of task forces has been in place since 2011. Task forces are expected to conduct their affairs in accordance with the handbook.


The Department of Health provides an annual allocation of €2.2 million for drug and alcohol services under the auspices of the north inner city drug and alcohol task force. The Department has worked closely with the task force in recent years, as part of the Government's north-east inner city, NEIC, initiative. It has supported the task force to undertake a community needs analysis on drug and alcohol use and jointly hosted a seminar to present the findings in the offices of the Department of Health. Considerable additional resources have been provided to enhance drug and alcohol services in the area, both from the NEIC initiative and the Department's budget.


As I understand it, at the start of 2021, the outgoing chairperson of the task force approached the Department to discuss the appointment of a new independent chairperson. As stated in the task force handbook, the chairperson's independence must clearly be established and evident in the manner in which the business of the task force is conducted. In particular, there should be complete transparency in arrangements put in place for the selection process and appointment of the chairperson. The Department and the outgoing chairperson agreed a process whereby there would be a search for suitable candidates for the post, with third-party assistance, to identify a shortlist for interview. I understand that the agreed process for selecting and appointing an independent chairperson was not followed. The Department wrote to the task force to highlight its concerns in April, to request that the successor chairperson was not appointed, and to meet with the task force at the earliest opportunity. There is now an impasse in the appointment of a chairperson of the task force. Unfortunately, the failure of the leadership of the task force to engage with the Department on this matter has left no alternative than to put in place a process to appoint an independent chairperson and to broaden the membership of the task force to include all stakeholders, including public representatives.


I emphasise that community projects and services under the auspices of the task force will continue and there will be no disruption in services. The employment of the two task force staff members will also continue. I have advised that the meetings and other business activities of the task force should be suspended on a temporary basis during this process. When the task force is reconstituted and an independent chairperson appointed, the task force will resume the role and responsibilities for co-ordinating drug and alcohol services in the north inner city.


The Deputy has raised an important issue. She wants consultation and I look forward to that. We will be meeting with public representatives and stakeholders tomorrow. I welcome the Deputy's engagement. I hope that, working with all the stakeholders, we can sort out this impasse. We need a meeting with all the stakeholders as soon as possible and I look forward to it.

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