Thursday, 12 May 2022
National Maternity Hospital: Statements
I will ask the Minister a few questions and give him time to respond at the end. This debate, sadly, relates to the issue of trust. In the week we are debating the ownership structure of the national maternity hospital, on Tuesday, during the introduction of the Birth and Information Tracing Bill to rectify the issue of illegal birth registrations, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, offered a formal apology on behalf of the State for the deep hurt and anguish experienced by people whose births were illegally registered. The Minister said "nothing in these measures can undo the past and fully right the wrongs that these people have experienced".
Herein lies the problem before us. Many people feel that any link between the new hospital and the church, albeit through a private company, is a grave insult to the many victims of the church with particular emphasis on those impacted by the Magdalen laundries and the mother and baby homes. In reality, the nuns have passed the ownership to a company established by the church. This company will have three representatives on the board of the national maternity hospital and people believe this is a very strong link between the nuns and the ownership and governance of the national maternity hospital. Members of the HSE board expressed the concern that boards can influence the culture, values and ethics.
To address this, we have a proposed golden share to be held by the Minister. The golden share allows the Minister to direct the board to allow relevant lawfully permissible services without religious ethos or other distinction. The difficulty is that the country has a very poor history with the operation and use of golden shares.
The Sugar Act 1991 provided for a golden share in Greencore. That golden share was not worth the paper it was written on when it came to the abolition of the sugar quota. The golden, class B shares that are held in Aer Lingus to protect connectivity between Ireland and Heathrow will expire in September. Why will this particular golden share be different? How will it be enforced when we have such a poor record of enforcement?
I asked the Library and Research Service to look at this issue of the golden share for me. It has provided me with a paper that states that the EU position on golden shares and foreign direct investment has changed as a result of Covid-19 and member states can, in some cases, have rights that would enable the State to block or set limits on certain types of investments in companies. The paper goes on to say that while the guidance is directed at foreign direct investment, the general principle of the right or duty of an EU member state to safeguard essential assets, such as healthcare assets, could be read far more broadly. That is the case in terms of assets, but we are not talking about assets in this case.
I asked the Library and Research Service if it could find an example anywhere in Europe where a golden share applies to the provision of healthcare services, as is being proposed here. The Library and Research Service could not find any example of that. Will the Minister give me an example of where such a legal provision around a golden share is in operation anywhere else and where it has been enforced?
The concern in much of this debate relates to the phrase "clinically appropriate". It is referenced twice in the constitution of the new company. It is also in the operating licence that will be issued. However, it is not included in the clause relating to the golden share. We might replace the phrase "clinically appropriate" with a separate phrase that is in the clause relating to the golden share to the effect that any maternity, gynaecological, obstetrical and-or neonatal service which is lawfully available shall be available in the new national maternity hospital. The use of that phrase would overcome many of the concerns we have. If "clinically appropriate" does not include that broad range of maternity services, why is it written in the clause relating to the golden share and why is there a contradiction in terms between what is provided for in the golden share and what is being provided for in the constitution of the company and in the operating licence? The Minister might address that point for me.
The reality is we need a new national maternity hospital as quickly as possible. The current facilities are completely unacceptable for women. However, we need to see a review to address the genuine concerns that have been raised. With small changes, particularly to address the issues around "clinically appropriate", we can provide the clarity and reassurance that is needed.