Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 8 May 2014
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children
EU Scrutiny Reports for 2013: Departments of Health and Children and Youth Affairs
I apologise to the witnesses and guests for the delay and thank them for their patience and co-operation. On behalf of the joint committee, I congratulate our new Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Charles Flanagan, and wish him every success. We look forward to working with him. I pay tribute to the former Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, who was the first person to occupy the full Cabinet position as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, and wish her well in her new post as Minister for Justice and Equality. She made a very positive contribution to the area of children and youth affairs and in her engagement with this committee over the past three years. I hope members will join me in offering them our congratulations. The Secretary General of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, Mr. Jim Breslin, will be busy.
Today's meeting will deal with EU scrutiny and events taking place across the Oireachtas to mark Europe week. Under the terms of the European Union (Scrutiny) Act 2002, Ministers submit reports to the Oireachtas every six months on developments at European Union level in their areas of responsibility. We will be examining the departmental six monthly EU scrutiny reports for January to June 2013 and July to December 2013 with the Secretaries General of the Departments of Health and Children and Youth Affairs. The reports summarise the key legislative and policy developments that took place during the periods in question. I thank our EU policy clerk, Ms Fiona Cashin, for her assistance in organising today's meeting.
I welcome Dr. Ambrose McLoughlin, Secretary General of the Department of Health; Mr. Jim Breslin, Secretary General of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs; and Ms Audrey Hagerty, Mr. Eugene Lennon, Ms Doreen Burke and Mr. Alan Savage from the Departments of Health and Children and Youth Affairs. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give this committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with today's proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I invite Dr. McLoughlin to make his opening remarks.
Dr. Ambrose McLoughlin:
I thank the Chairman and committee members. I am happy to be here to discuss the two reports submitted to the Oireachtas by the Department of Health on EU developments in 2013. I am joined by Mr. Eugene Lennon, who was the chief attaché prior to and during Ireland's Presidency, and Ms Audrey Hagerty, who is head of the Department's European Unit.
In 2013 the Department’s work at EU level was dominated by the Irish Presidency of the Council of the European Union. In this regard I acknowledge the Department’s significant contribution to the success of the Irish Presidency with many notable achievements in health, which I will mention later. I acknowledge the hard work and commitment of the staff in the Department of Health and its agencies in making the Presidency the success it was. This was evident at home and in Brussels, Strasbourg, Luxembourg and Geneva. The commitment of the Minister, Deputy Reilly, and that of the Ministers of State, Deputies White and Lynch, was essential to progressing the health agenda.
In 2013, our work was focussed on our Presidency of the Council of the EU. We decided to focus on progressing the legislative agenda and within this we prioritised legislation to promote public health, innovation and research. We reached a first reading agreement with the European Parliament on the regulation to protect citizens against serious cross-border health threats. This will help member states prepare and protect citizens against possible future pandemics and environmental disaster, strengthen risk preparedness and response planning, improve access to vaccines for member states and have clearer risk and crisis communication to the public and health care professionals.
We reached a general approach to the directive on tobacco products at Council in June 2013. This would not have been possible without the Minister’s strong belief in and commitment to the importance of the dossier and his personal support in working to progress it. The support of Commissioner Borg and his team was also critical to the success of the work on the directive which has been formally adopted and comes into force in two weeks time. This directive is a key tool in preventing our young people from starting to smoke. It aims to make tobacco products and smoking less attractive and thus discourage initiation among young people.
We achieved a first read-through on a proposal for a regulation on clinical trials on medicinal products. Clinical trials on medicines promote pharmaceutical innovation in the EU and innovation in clinical practice. Clinical trials are essential for the development of new medicines and to improve and refine treatments with existing medicines. Clinical trials are also a key contributor to growth and jobs. A regulatory environment which supports and nurtures clinical research will benefit patients and is also essential for the growth of the pharmaceutical industry in Ireland and the EU. An objective of the regulation is to address the decline in the numbers of clinical trials carried out in the EU. Agreement was reached on the new regulation last January.
The proposal for a regulation on general and in-vitro medical devices – in effect two complex proposals - was significantly progressed with a progress report produced at the end of the Irish Presidency. We want patients to have access to new, innovative and lifesaving medical devices but they need to be assured of their safety. We also want the EU to be a global leader in medical devices innovation.
In addition to the legislative programme, the Irish Presidency also hosted a number of health policy events, including an informal meeting of Health Ministers in March 2013 which was attended by 22 Ministers who discussed childhood obesity, the impact of the economic crisis on health systems, children with complex developmental needs, including autism, and smoke free environments. A touchstone issue is the impact of the economic crisis on health systems and two messages are clear. These are the challenge of cutting the cost of services and not the services themselves, and of articulating the dual benefit of investing in health, which are beneficial to the health and well-being of our citizens, but also the economic benefits that accrue from a healthy society. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, co-chaired the session on childhood obesity and at the informal meeting the European Commission agreed to mandate the EU high-level group on nutrition and physical activity to develop an action plan on childhood obesity. Ireland presented the EU action plan at a Greek Presidency conference earlier this year and its implementation will be included in the Council conclusions under preparation. The plan will play a central role in the development of national plans to tackle childhood obesity.
In May 2013, we hosted eHealth Week, which attracted more than 2,500 international delegates and 100 exhibitors. We achieved agreement on a declaration to prioritise the use of ICT in health among member states to contribute to a better, safer, sustainable and innovative health care system for all European citizens. In May 2013, we also marked the EU month of the brain with the "Healthy Brain: Healthy Europe - a new Horizon for brain research and healthcare" conference. This was a high-level expert conference, co-hosted with DG Research and Innovation, on the future of brain research. Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn’s support and that of her officers was critical to the conference’s success.
I acknowledge the significant engagement by the Minister of Health, Social Services, and Public Safety, Edwin Poots MLA, and his officials, at key events during the course of the Presidency, including the informal meeting of Health Ministers, the joint meeting of chief medical and chief nursing officers, and the ehealth conference.
In the second half of 2013, we had significant liaison with the health ministry of Lithuania, which assumed the EU Presidency for the first time. Its priority was modern, responsive and sustainable health systems and it developed Council conclusions on this topic which were adopted on 10 December in Brussels. These conclusions stressed the necessity to enhance the abilities of EU member states to practically apply the principle of health in all policies, encouraged confidence in best practice, and gave guidance for further development of health policy in European Union member states as well as at European Level. Agreement between Council, the Commission and the European Parliament on the tobacco products directive was finalised and agreement on the regulation on clinical trials of medicinal products was also reached. These agreements built on the significant progress made by the Minister, Deputy Reilly, on these issues during our Presidency. The Lithuanian Presidency progressed further the legislative proposals in the field of medical devices and agreement was reached on a proposal for a regulation on fees payable to the European Medicines Agency for the conduct of pharmocovigilance activities.
Four Commission proposals in the area of health were notified to the committee in the course of the six month period from July to December 2013. The transposition of three proposals was notified in the same period. I am happy to deal with any questions.
Mr. Jim Breslin:
I circulated the opening statement in advance and I will not cover all of the ground. I welcome this opportunity to update the committee on the Department's EU-related activities. In particular I thank the committee for inviting me to discuss the two reports the Department submitted on its 2013 EU activities.
The Department of Children and Youth Affairs has an important mandate for policy and service provision for children and young people. It comprises a number of interrelated strands including the direct provision of universal and targeted services and working to achieve the harmonisation of relevant policy and provision throughout Government so as to improve outcomes for children, young people and families.
Many aspects of the Department’s activities reflect purely national competencies and it is only in specific areas that there is more extensive and on-going EU involvement. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs had no EU legislative developments during 2013. The Department’s most significant engagement with the EU over the course of 2013 was in the area of youth affairs and I will give particular attention to this area in my remarks.
With regard to EU youth policy developments, the overall aim of the Irish EU Presidency from January to June 2013 was to build on what has been achieved for and with young people under recent Presidencies and result in a sustainable legacy for youth policy and youth work. To achieve these priorities, Ireland’s ambitious programme focussed on the social inclusion of young people, which was the theme of the trio Presidency with Lithuania and Greece from January 2013 to June 2014. Ireland’s particular priorities related to the contribution of quality youth work to young people’s development, well-being and social inclusion and the potential contribution of youth work to youth employment.
At the meeting chaired by the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, as part of the Education, Youth, Culture and Sport Council on 16 May 2013, Ministers were asked in the policy debate to address questions on Europe’s young people and what quality youth work can contribute to addressing current challenges. Furthermore the conclusions adopted by the May Council proposed actions which will maximise the potential of youth policy in addressing the goals of the Europe 2020 strategy. A second set of conclusions, also adopted, highlight the importance of quality youth work as a tool for engagement with, and development of, young people and as a means to their social inclusion.
These conclusions include a concrete set of measures aimed at raising the profile of youth work at EU level and mainstreaming youth work into broader EU policy responses to youth employment and social inclusion.
These include establishing a new EU expert group on quality youth work; recognition of the centrality of youth work in contributing to the Europe 2020 growth and jobs agenda and in the implementation of the youth guarantee; strengthening the working relationship between the Council of Ministers and other Council of Minister configurations to ensure a youth policy perspective informs the formulation of policies that are relevant to young people; and working towards greater co-ordination between EU youth policy and education, training and employment policies.
As a follow-up to these conclusions, in June 2013, a two day informal expert round table considered the contribution of youth work to youth employment. The then Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, chose that theme as being highly relevant to Europe and to Ireland. The outcome of the meeting, the Dublin Declaration, recognises the challenges facing young people in Europe as a result of the lack of jobs and work experience, as well as the challenges posed by the widening gap between skills being sought by certain employers and those held by young prospective employees. It recognises that youth work can play a highly relevant role in developing young people's skill sets, in particular with respect to so-called soft skills such as learning to learn, social and civic competence, leadership, communication, teamwork and entrepreneurship, all of which are highly valued and sought after by employers. The declaration in particular notes the importance of the role of quality youth work in the implementation of the youth guarantee by member states.
The EU Youth Conference hosted in Dublin on 11 and 12 March 2013 was a flagship event of Ireland’s Presidency programme. Almost 200 people from across the EU attended the conference, including 109 young people and youth representatives and 65 Ministry officials participating in workshops. The conference was organised by the Department in partnership with the National Youth Council of Ireland. It was a major opportunity to showcase the talent and innovation of Ireland’s young people and the youth sector. Almost 100 young people were involved in supporting the conference. They acted as volunteers and took on roles as guest MCs and speakers, and provided inputs through arts and drama presentations. Over the three days, some 25 information stands showcased to European colleagues the work under way in youth programmes in communities throughout the country.
The Department has a very strong record in promoting children and young people’s participation, including through Comhairle na nÓg and Dáil na nÓg and more recently through the structured dialogue process. The prominence and quality of young people’s involvement in the conference was the subject of much favourable comment and I have no doubt will influence the approach taken under subsequent EU youth presidencies.
As an associated Presidency event, the Department supported a conference on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, LGBT, youth and social inclusion which was held in Croke Park on 17 June 2013. This event, which was organised by BeLonG To Youth Service, brought together the main EU institutions and LGBT groups from Europe to discuss LGBT youth and education, employment, participation and rights, and youth services. The conference was developed following findings from a Europe-wide consultation under the Irish Presidency which identified LGBT youth as one of the most socially excluded groups in Europe.
Building on the outcomes of the Irish EU Presidency, in particular the outcomes of the expert round table on youth work’s contribution to youth employment, the Department, with the support of the Centre for Effective Services, instituted a mapping exercise to categorise and comment on the Irish youth work response to youth employment. The report, which is being finalised, shows that some 62,300 young people were engaged in youth employment or employability type initiatives in 2013 ranging from prevention and early intervention, mainstream youth work, targeted interventions to work related programmes.
The Department is following up with the youth sector to explore additional means of supporting proven youth work initiatives that increase the employability of marginalised young people in the 15 to 24 age group. The potential to access European Social Fund, ESF, funding to support such initiatives is being pursued by the Department in conjunction with other relevant Departments. That forms one component of the ongoing work of the Department with other key Departments in respect of the youth guarantee and tackling youth unemployment.
A new group was established by the European Commission in 2013 entitled the Informal Expert Group on the Rights of the Child. It held its first meeting in April 2013, its second in July and its third in October. The Department represents Ireland on the group. The group provides an opportunity to share good practice among member states. The group is chaired by Ms Margaret Tuite, the European Commission’s co-ordinator on children’s rights both within the Commission and in its dealings with external bodies and member states. The main purpose of the group is to enable the Commission to assist member states in addressing the EU agenda for the rights of the child which was approved by the European Parliament and European Council in 2013.
I reiterate my thanks to the committee for its invitation. Work is continuing on the Department’s EU related activities and I will be happy to provide further information to the committee on any of these areas.
I did not hear the Chairman's opening remarks this morning at the recommencement of our meeting but I apologise to our guests for the delay in meeting them. I hope Mr. Breslin will convey my good wishes to Deputy Fitzgerald on her appointment as Minister for Justice and Equality. While that is a very exciting challenge for her, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs will greatly miss her stewardship and her natural understanding of and passion for the issues involved, which she has demonstrated over the past three years. She has been an excellent first holder of that portfolio in Cabinet. I wish her well in her new responsibilities. I wish the new Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Charles Flanagan, well in his new position.
I do not intend to go into this review in any significant detail. I thank Dr. McLoughlin for his presentation. What is the status of the first reading agreement on protecting citizens from serious cross-border health threats, such as pandemics and other serious risks? I want to know because I live in a border area. First reading implies commencement of a process. If the information is not immediately available I will fully understand, but if possible can Dr. McLoughlin indicate where it is now? What will the timeframe be for the full implementation of the intended regulation? Perhaps it is in place but the presentation we heard does not suggest that.
Dr. McLoughlin recognised the Minister's personal commitment to the development of the general approach to the directive on tobacco products in the Council in June 2013. It is also fair to acknowledge that significant work was done by the Department's efforts and those of the Secretary General. Political voices require the shared commitment at least of officers of the respective Departments. This is an area of shared concern and intent so I say well done across the board. I would be interested to hear any further comment on this directive.
We are still addressing issues here regarding plain packaging, which is an outworking of that commitment. I would welcome further elaboration on this.
Did the March 2013 meeting of the 22 Ministers who discussed, among a number of other issues, children with complex developmental needs, including autism, produce a report, paper or conclusions? Many members of this committee are very interested in the area of developmental need in children and are anxious to have access to information that might be shared from the engagement. Is it possible to indicate if there is even an executive summary of the key areas of consideration? My colleague members of the committee and I would very much welcome it.
In May 2013, the European Commission director general for research and innovation hosted a high level expert conference on brain research and health care which marked EU month of the brain. I am particularly interested in deep brain stimulation, DBS. Was it part of the focus and address of the conference? DBS procedures are not available on the island of Ireland and we should not be surprised that several dozen people, North and South, have to leave this island annually for access to a developed DBS procedure. Has it been addressed? Is there anything the witnesses could add to it? This committee hopes to explore the prospects of opening up opportunities to access DBS on this island.
In the conclusions from the meeting chaired by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, on 16 May 2013, the second bullet point refers to the implementation of the youth guarantee. Mr. Breslin referred to it again in his address. Could he give us an update on where we are in the full implementation of the youth guarantee, a very important measure which I would like to be fully implemented?
I echo the words of our Chairman in thanking the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, for all her work in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, which she established. At the launch of the strategy, Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, I realised all that has been accomplished in the past three years. It is a testament to the Minister and all the individuals in the Department. I have no doubt that Deputy Charles Flanagan will continue this work. I had the pleasure of lobbying him several times when I was working for the Children's Rights Alliance. I also lobbied Deputy Ó Caoláin. As Deputy Charles Flanagan is a real champion for children's rights he is an excellent choice.
My specific questions relate to children-----
I have one minute. I echo what Deputy Ó Caoláin said about the youth guarantee and would like to know more about what are proven youth work initiatives, because this is a new area. I am concerned about children's rights that cross into the area of justice. Although we are supposed to receive these reports six weeks after the date, we receive them significantly later and I wonder about their usefulness. While they are interesting, they update us and we can further issues, we should consider having pre-Council scrutiny. It would make much more sense for all our time and would be much more effective. If we are serious about EU scrutiny, we should consider pre-Council scrutiny meetings.
I will not delay because the Chairman is under pressure due to the Dáil vote. I wish to add my voice to thank and recognise the work of the outgoing Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald. She has carried out Trojan work, both in opposition and in government, on children's rights and needs. I also congratulate Deputy Charles Flanagan who was spokesperson for children during Fine Gael's time in opposition and has much experience from his research then.
In light of the fact that Dr. McLoughlin has another appointment, which he had to change and is due to attend, would Deputy Ó Caoláin and Senator van Turnhout accept written replies to their queries rather than having to return after the vote?
I apologise for the delay starting the meeting. The reports have been excellent and we should meet on a regular basis. I thank Fiona Cashin for her tremendous work with us. I thank the witnesses for their co-operation and patience.