Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 2 June 2020
Special Committee on Covid-19 Response
Business of Special Committee
Today Deputy Joe O'Brien will substitute for Deputy Ossian Smyth and Deputy Tóibín will substitute for Deputy Shanahan. Are the minutes of 19 and 26 May agreed? The minutes are agreed. A letter from Construction Industry Federation was sent under correspondence. I take it that the 36 items of correspondence are received and noted. Members will have received submissions for today's meeting.
While we are dealing with correspondence, I sent a letter on behalf of the Sinn Féin group on a matter we also raised at our procedures meeting. We feel it is important that we have a follow-on session on private nursing homes with the HSE and the Department of Health. We would like that to happen as quickly as possible, but we want that noted.
The revised work programme which was circulated includes modules on childcare. As the economy will start to reopen again in phases, it is important that we deal with childcare.
We have had some very good discussions here on private nursing homes. Nursing Homes Ireland was here and it is only fair that we bring back Mr. Paul Reid and Mr. Jim Breslin on those issues at the earliest opportunity.
I support Deputy Cullinane's first point. Many questions that I asked last Tuesday were not answered yet The Irish Timeshad the answers on Thursday. That is extremely disappointing. We must revisit that and ask why we, as a committee, cannot be given answers on a Tuesday yet they appear in The Irish Timeson a Thursday. It really undermines our role.
I completely agree. That was raised by several members. A letter will go to the witnesses who came before the committee to ask them to explain the discrepancy between the answers we received and what was put in the public domain. However, we need to give them time to answer that before we bring them in again.
In the previous two sessions we asked a number of questions; and members used their time just to ask questions. We were promised written responses to those questions. Some of the questions were relevant to this morning's session and we have not got those answers. Within what timeframe do we expect the replies to come? It is a bit unfair that we are trying to do our work here and the questions that we have already asked have not been answered and now we are going into a session this morning on private hospitals and we still have not got the answers that were asked weeks ago. I do not think it is unreasonable that we should-----
No, but part of the difficulty is that we have not had a lead-in time. We established the committee and we went straight into meetings without having the usual lead-in time for a committee. I think we cannot overburden agencies and institutions, but at the same time we do need answers within a timeframe. Ten working days was set out in the letter. For any letters that were sent after the first meeting the ten working days will only expire tomorrow.
It is not acceptable that the media would have the answers to questions that were asked here within the ten working days, yet the same person who might have released that information to the media has not made it available to us. It shows a disrespect to the House and the work of the committee.
I have no idea who released information to the media or who put what into the public domain but I agree with Deputy McGuinness on the general principle and a letter is being sent to that effect today. We are looking for an explanation. Members will be free to follow up when they come back in on any explanation given for the fact that information which we had requested was put into the public domain.
I will call Deputy Boyd Barrett and then we will move on. I am not trying to stymie debate; we can go into private session, but we have witnesses outside that I think we need to hear from.
I immediately contacted the secretariat in writing and stated that in my opinion it would be crazy for us to have a session today with the HSE and the Department of Health without having the Minister, Deputy Harris, here as well because Mr. Breslin has already made clear that he cannot answer certain questions to do with policy because they are not in his remit. It renders redundant our sessions today if the Government has already made a decision. I believe the Minister should come in here today and explain what he is doing. Otherwise, what is the point of the afternoon session? I wrote on Friday and I phoned the secretariat but I do not know if the request has been processed.
Deputy Boyd Barrett's request was conveyed to the Department of Health. It was made clear that the Minister, Deputy Harris, could come in to answer questions and that Deputy Boyd Barrett specifically believed that it was more appropriate for him to answer the questions. The Minister has not availed of that opportunity to come in. Deputy Boyd Barrett and other members may regret that but, be that as it may, I do not necessarily accept the point that the session is rendered redundant. While the private hospitals are subject to the deal, there is a question mark over exactly what procedures will be carried out in those hospitals for the entire month of June, as a backlog appears to develop in the health system and in a variety of elective and non-acute treatments.
I will not labour the point as we need to get on with business but this is closing the door after the horse has bolted. The Government has made a major announcement that it is going to change the deal and hand back much of the private capacity without us discussing the extent to which we need that private capacity, whether it is the best way, if we should be going back to the two-tier system or if, as some of us believe, we should be going forward to a national public health system. This is pre-empting all of that and our oversight becomes meaningless.
Rather than tell me, Deputy Boyd Barrett will have an opportunity during the week to tell the Minister that in the Dáil session, and also to ask him why he felt it inappropriate to come before the committee. Perhaps they are questions that can be asked but there is no point in asking me when the Deputy will have an opportunity to ask the Minister directly during the week.
On a point of clarification, notwithstanding everything Deputy Boyd Barrett has said, the Taoiseach and Minister for Health offered to come before the first meeting of the committee. The total transparency of all of their actions is reflected in their willingness to come here. It was the committee which turned down the opportunity to bring in the Taoiseach and Minister. I did not get a copy of the request that the Minister attend today. The Minister is not afraid to appear here. He offered to do so ab initio. I just wanted to make that point.
On that point, it would have been helpful to have received a briefing from the Department setting out the details of ending the deal and the arrangement in place.
On another point about today's session, which is very strange, is that we are discussing the deal with the private hospitals without representatives of the Private Hospitals Association. Special interest groups, namely, the consultants, are to appear. I cannot understand why the consultants are coming in but the association with which the deal was done is not appearing. When we deal later with the issue of travel restrictions, we will not have workers from Aer Lingus or the Dublin Airport Authority here to plead their case. An inconsistent approach is being taken.
We are limited to two-hour sessions. A normal committee meeting could last for four hours and we could bring in different witnesses and rotate them. We simply do not have that capability. As to whether we have the right or wrong witnesses, the working group at its meeting next Thursday can firm up in advance who we are bringing in to be absolutely certain that we have-----
Officials from the Department of Health will appear. I presume they will be able to answer members' questions. If we continue in this fashion, however, the witnesses who are seated outside will be unable to answer questions.
Procurement is a matter for the State. The Department officials will be hear and I hope they will be able to answer questions. At our working group next Thursday, we can decide who will appear in the two subsequent weeks and achieve as great a degree of consensus as possible. However, the time available is limited and the more time we spend discussing this matter, the less time we will have to hear from the witnesses we have invited who have taken the time to come here.
To be helpful, I propose that on Friday the Committee on Procedure consider having an additional schedule on private hospitals. As part of that, we could invite representatives of the private hospitals and the Minister for Health if members believe that is what we need to do. We should now proceed with this morning's session. If there is agreement on my proposal, the Committee on Procedure could consider allowing a session with additional witnesses in the next couple of weeks.
Time permitting because, as members will know, we hope to discuss a raft of issues, including healthcare, childcare and the reopening of the economy. Unfortunately, we are more constrained by time than committees typically are.
We have discussed the work schedule. Following the meeting of the committee’s working group last Friday, members have been circulated with a draft programme to 23 June. We will seek to have a fourth session each week on Thursday mornings starting at 9.30 a.m., which is before the Dáil sits.