Speech by Alex White TD Minister of State at the Department of Health with responsibility for Primary Care National Drugs Strategy Conference Dublin Castle

16th January 2014, 9.45am

Good morning Ladies and Gentleman. I am very pleased so many of you have been able to join us this morning, especially people who have travelled some distance to be here. Today’s conference is designed to offer a practical opportunity for the advancement of our common goals and objectives, and I am sure it will be of great benefit to us all.

Can I, at the outset, thank the Tánaiste, Eamon Gilmore, for his introductory remarks and for agreeing to open our conference this morning; I’m delighted he was able to join us given his busy schedule. I am extremely grateful for his commitment, and that of the Government, to the National Drugs Strategy, and I thank him for his words of encouragement as we face into our morning’s work.

Today’s conference is the culmination of an extended period of consultation and reflection. My intention is that it will afford us all the chance to reflect on how we can collaborate effectively under our new structures, and begin to plan for how best we can address new and emerging issues in drug addiction and alcohol misuse.

Reflections on my period in office

Since I was appointed to the office of Minister of State at the Department of Health, over 15 months ago, I have been privileged to see and hear at close quarters the outstanding work being conducted by dedicated people and organisations up and down the country. And I have witnessed the tremendous commitment and effort of those working hard to get their lives back on track, and away from the scourge of drugs and alcohol addiction and misuse.

Soon after taking up this role I announced the conclusions of a review of the Drugs Task Forces undertaken by the Department at the request of my predecessor in office.

That Review recommended a series of reforms to better equip the Drugs Task Forces in their response to the current pattern of substance misuse. The key changes proposed included:

While other important matters have been progressed, the implementation of these specific recommendations has been delayed until now for a number of reasons. Later this morning, our colleague Susan Scally will outline the role of the new National Co-ordinating Committee – prescribed in that report – and how we intend to proceed with the implementation of the various recommendations over the coming months. I am happy to confirm this morning that the new Co-ordinating Committee is due to hold its inaugural meeting this day week, January 23rd.

I have no doubt that while these recommendations will take some time to take hold, ultimately they will foster a much greater sense of cohesion between the national structures and the Drugs Task Forces. This increased cohesion will, I hope, facilitate a constant two-way flow of information, with policy makers, and practitioners on the ground, working together and learning from one another, providing each other with valuable insights into their work. This, as you know, was one of the main reasons for adopting an inter-agency approach in the first place. So we must strive together to ensure that this method is maintained, and improved where possible, in order more effectively to tackle emerging issues, recognise new challenges, and advance new practices.

Early in 2013, I had the opportunity to oversee the delivery of the 2012 Progress Report on the 2009-2016 National Drugs Strategy. Despite some reservations on my part, I think that Progress Report very clearly demonstrates that significant progress has been made on strategic goals across the five central pillars of the national strategy. The Progress Report also emphasised the potential of a sustained partnership approach in achieving even greater success.

However, it was clear also that there was a need for me as Minister to embark on a programme of formal meetings with all of the key contributors to the National Drugs Strategy - to take a step back from the daily challenges, and figure out how we can renew, or breath new life into this collective commitment which has been so essential to the implementation of the National Drugs Strategy.

This, I understand, was the first time since 2009 that such a comprehensive engagement with all of the parties has been undertaken. I am pleased to say that we have now completed a full programme, concluding just yesterday morning when I had a very useful and informative meeting with the Commissioner of An Garda Síochana.

The bilateral meetings presented an opportunity for the main players to reaffirm their commitment to their own respective roles. Most importantly, they offered the chance to explore where relationships across agencies and departments, offices and services, could be deepened and strengthened. In her presentation this morning my colleague Susan Scally will summarise the principal outcomes of that consultation process.

And here I would like to acknowledge the tremendous efforts of the DPU team at the Department, led by Susan Scally - not just for facilitating that process, but also for their sterling work in arranging today’s conference.

With any strategy implemented over such a long period and, as in this case, involving such frequent changes in leadership, it can be hard to maintain momentum. However, what I have found without exception, is an absolute and resolute commitment to realising the core Strategy objectives across the five pillars.

I have also encountered a genuine resolve to tackle obstacles that may stand in the way of progress. For example:

I have also heard from the community and voluntary sectors, many of whose members are coming forward with progressive ideas and innovative thinking, such as:

I am greatly encouraged in my belief that despite significant ongoing problems on funding and resources, much can, and will be achieved throughout the latter half of the Strategy’s implementation.

Alcohol

In my first year as Minister of State at the Department of Health, I worked steadfastly to deliver a package of measures to be included in the first ever Public Health (Alcohol) Bill. I was delighted when this was formally approved by Government, and I’d like to thank Dr. Tony Holohan and his dedicated team in the Department of Health for their hard work in helping make this happen.

Government recognises the severe consequences of the misuse of alcohol – including deaths, injuries, and social and financial problems – and has determined to take action to address this problem.

The package of measures to be implemented was the result of intensive discussions across Government departments and in the relevant Cabinet Committee on Social Policy. It will include provision for minimum unit pricing for alcohol products and the regulation of advertising and marketing of alcohol, as recommended in the National Substance Misuse Strategy.

The Steering Group reported that 1.5 million Irish drinkers drink in a harmful pattern. As you’re all aware, alcohol misuse remains one of our biggest challenges touching every community across the country. The statistics are stark:

The principal objective of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill will be to reduce Ireland’s excessive patterns of alcohol consumption from the 2011 average of over 11 litres of pure alcohol per year consumed per-capita, to the OECD average of 9.1 litres of alcohol by 2020. By reducing alcohol consumption we can also reduce the social, economic and health harms associated with alcohol misuse.

Recognising the significance of the Community and Voluntary sectors’ contribution to successive National Drugs Strategies, I hope that today we can begin to draw more closely on your valuable local experience and insights in order to address how we might realise this ambitious target.

Unlike problem drug use, which historically has been clustered and correlated with other social problems and issues, alcohol problems are dispersed more evenly throughout society, although their impact is most acutely felt where there are other existing social and familial problems - for example poverty, family breakdown and child neglect and abuse.

The Task Forces at this stage have a strong track record in bringing together key players in dealing with drug problems, and it now behoves us to find a way to deploy this experience more strategically in relation to alcohol, thereby building on strengths, and utilising capacities within a broader field.

At government level we have been engaged in developing an across-the-board national response. Although good progress has been made, it is clear that this is a complex process, particularly having regard to issues such as sports funding, the broader economic dimension and jobs, as well as the fundamental public health imperative, which of course is our principal concern.

In this respect, national government obviously needs to lead, and we will do so, but our efforts need to be complemented by a new commitment across society, including more localised, strategic initiatives. It seems to me that the Task Forces are in an ideal position to bring focus to this dimension.

Given what I said earlier about the less “clustered” character of the alcohol problem, it may be worth considering whether Task Forces might link together or as appropriate, with leaders from Local Councils, HSE, Gardaí, Child and Family Agency and other relevant interests to develop initiatives at regional or City levels (or large sub-city areas – for example Dublin North, Dublin South, Dublin West, Fingal, South Dublin County and Dunlaoghaire/Rathdown). This could facilitate initiatives for tackling alcohol problems as a mainstream issue in these larger areas, and in society more generally.

I’m sure many of you have ideas that can be explored and developed, and I look forward very much to listening to your observations and insights. I also look forward to the presentations later from a number of contributors including:

They will each give us a brief insight into a number of local initiatives that have already commenced. I am also looking forward to learning more about the ‘Hello Sunday Morning’ initiative, which will illustrate the potential that social media can bring to reaching new audiences and changing our attitudes and behaviours.

Your remarkable contribution stretches back to the pivotal intervention of the First Ministerial Task Force established by my colleague, Pat Rabbitte, in 1996. This was at the time of a real crisis – the heroin crisis - that so blighted our major urban communities.

At the heart of that intervention was a principle, articulated by the Combat Poverty Agency and informed by research to the effect that:–

“strategies, which consult with and actively encourage the involvement of local people are most likely to succeed”.

Today, while some of the same challenges remain, our drug and alcohol problem has evolved significantly, and has become increasingly more complex. However, our core approach to tackling these problems endures, and must endure.

So - I hope that as a result of today’s conference, you will:

Thank you for your attention.