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Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2008/2009

Date: 14 May 2009

COMMITTEE FOR HEALTH, SOCIAL SERVICES AND PUBLIC SAFETY

Inquiry into the Prevention of Suicide and Self-Harm

14 May 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mrs Michelle O’Neill (Deputy Chairperson) 
Dr Kieran Deeny 
Mr Alex Easton 
Mr Tommy Gallagher 
Mr Sam Gardiner 
Mrs Carmel Hanna 
Mrs Claire McGill 
Ms Sue Ramsey

Witnesses:

Ms Gerry Bleakney ) 
Dr Carolyn Harper ) Public Health Agency 
Dr Eddie Rooney )

The Deputy Chairperson (Mrs O’Neill):

I wish to raise an issue relating to the Committee’s inquiry into the prevention of suicide and self-harm. When we considered the Executive’s response to our recommendations at our meeting on 23 April 2009, we agreed to ask you about one in particular. The second recommendation reads:

“We have major concerns that the current structure lacks a dedicated directorate to manage and act as a central focus for the implementation of the suicide prevention strategy. We call on the Minister to establish a designated suicide prevention directorate as part of the proposed new Regional Public Health Agency.”

The Executive’s response was that the suicide strategy implementation body (SSIB) would oversee and advise on the implementation of the strategy and that, although a wide range of stakeholders is involved, the body has no executive authority and, therefore, cannot be held accountable for the progress of the strategy’s delivery. We were told that the Minister is convinced of the need for greater co-ordination in the delivery of the Protect Life strategy and that he agreed that Health Service reforms provided the opportunity for fresh thinking on the issue.

Have you established a dedicated directorate to manage the suicide strategy, or do you have any plans to do so? Have you reached that stage yet?

Dr Eddie Rooney (Public Health Agency):

The honest answer is that, as yet, we have not. We have not established any new internal directorates; we have only those that we inherited. That means that the public health side of the strategy, which is led by Dr Carolyn Harper, incorporates many of the issues in question. Having said that, we have not yet recruited our staff. We are still in the very early stages of establishing the organisation. The Department passed that recommendation on to us and asked us how we intend to take forward our responsibilities in this area. We will be factoring that in.

As chief executive of the Public Health Agency, I must be honest and say that I have to deal with many priority issues organisationally. I respect the Committee’s view that we need a dedicated person and an identified and dedicated directorate. However, I also have to take account of another challenge, which is to make sure that the public health agenda is not sectioned off into several disparate areas. We can ensure that that does not happen, but it is a balancing act. However, I must be straight with you and tell you that, when I consider organisational structures, I have to keep both dimensions in mind.

We have joined together many parts of the public health agenda that I regard as integrated, and that is our real strength. If you look at any aspect of health inequalities, each is a gateway into the same set of issues, and that ultimately brings us into the heart of communities. I am always concerned that the structures that we put on the organisation may take us in a different direction. Therefore, a balance must be struck. We have not yet done the structural work in the agency; that will be done over the next few weeks as we start to put the details of our organisation together. However, we respect the Committee’s strong views on the matter, and we will inform it as to how we intend to respond.

One way or another, I must demonstrate to you that we are capable of establishing structures that tackle the issues. I will have to persuade you of that.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Thank you for agreeing to consider that recommendation. We invited you to talk about obesity, but we also talked about swine flu and the suicide inquiry, so we recognise the work that you do and the influential role that the Public Health Agency has. I am sure that we will be in regular contact in the future.

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