Dáil debates

Wednesday, 11 May 2005

Priority Questions.

Proposed Legislation.

1:00 pm

Jerry Cowley (Mayo, Independent)
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Question 58: To ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children her views on the case of a person (details supplied); her further views on whether it is acceptable that she has no plans to introduce legislation to regulate alternative practitioners and to deal with the situation of this person in a comprehensive way in order to protect the public, requiring such alternative practitioners to be regulated and their activities controlled in order not to be a danger to public health and safety; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15653/05]

Photo of Mary HarneyMary Harney (Tánaiste; Minister, Department of Health and Children; Dublin Mid West, Progressive Democrats)
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I first express my sincere condolences to the wife and family of the deceased person who died in such tragic circumstances, which is the subject of Deputy Cowley's question. As I have explained to the House previously, a national working group was established by my predecessor in May 2003 to advise on future measures for strengthening the regulatory environment for complementary therapies. I have asked for the group's report to be expedited and expect to have it shortly.

The issue of the regulation of complementary therapists is especially important in light of the increasing number of people who are attending such practitioners, particularly in partnership with conventional medical-professional care. As a result, the often informal nature of how some complementary therapies are practised needs more scrutiny. Greater controls in this area are in the interests of all reputable practising therapists as the presence of any unscrupulous or incompetent practitioners undermines the sector and presents risks to those using the therapies. Ensuring they are trained and qualified to the level required to work safely within their area of competence is the personal responsibility of every individual practitioner providing health care services to the public. As the Deputy will be aware, the provision of all services to the public is also subject to the supervision of the Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs.

I intend to introduce appropriate measures to strengthen the current regulatory environment for complementary therapies as soon as I receive the national expert group's report. In the meantime, I have asked the health promotion unit, in consultation with relevant experts, to explore the possibility of running a public information campaign aimed at persons contemplating the use of complementary therapy. A key message that must be communicated is that patients with undiagnosed conditions should be actively encouraged to seek medical advice in the first instance.

Jerry Cowley (Mayo, Independent)
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I welcome the information provided by the Minister for Health and Children. Some people are practising acupuncture, reflexology and homoeopathy, which are popular, but the laws that govern doctors and medicines do not extend to these people. Persons can set themselves up as a homoeopath, natural healer, reflexologist or anything else and are not answerable to outside bodies unless they volunteer to be so.

The issue is not one of registration but regulation. I raised the matter of Ms Mineke Kamper, who has been practising for a long time, although I call it "killing". I have been raising the issue of alternative practitioners since 2002 because it worries me. In County Mayo, the local pathologists have proven beyond all reasonable doubt that Mr. Paul Howie and Ms Jacqueline Alderslade died of treatable organic diseases due to alternative practitioners diverting them from traditional medical therapy or giving them a drug that may have led to their demise. These practitioners are unlicensed, untested and bogus. When they give medication, the State Laboratory has proven several times that it is nothing but a placebo composed of starch and sugar with no active ingredients.

While the second inquest into Mr. Howie's death was being conducted, which Ms Kamper did not attend and was fined €6.35 subsequently, she was treating children and using a pendulum to decide what tablets they needed. Where is the legislation to protect the safety and health of our population from the menace of such rogue alternative practitioners? She has killed two people and more will follow. Even the welfare of the snails on a golf course are protected by our laws. What about the health and safety of our vulnerable citizens? Surely homo sapiens are as important as snails.

The Minister said there are no plans to introduce legislation to regulate alternative medical practitioners at present. I am aware of the working group and advisers she mentioned. I am sure Ms Terry Garvey is a fine broadcaster but what does she know about this issue? Two innocent people who should not have died are now dead. This is the tip of the iceberg. For how long will it continue? The Minister mentioned a lack of plans to introduce legislation but the Dáil rushed through legislation yesterday concerning the British-Irish Agreement relating to cross-Border waterways just to save the Government's skin. We did the same with the nursing home charges legislation. People are dying. We need to pass this legislation quickly. We must move beyond all the reports and advice. I agree with informing people about what is happening but we need to pass this legislation. We know what we have to do. People are dying while the Government is interested in protecting the habitat of snails.

Paul Howie had cancer on his tonsil which was visible. I am sure that man would be alive today to see his children graduate had he been given the chance, but he was not. If a law regulating this area were in place, he would have got that chance. Jackie Alderslade, an asthmatic, only needed to take the tablets she was prescribed, but she did not get them. This practitioner in question is all-pervading and so persuasive, she can convince people it is best for them to stay under her care.

What about the rights of the children? It was stated in the Irish Independent that people should know better but what about children? They do not know better because they are brought by parents to these practitioners. I do not know where it will all end. What will the Tánaiste do to ensure the bodily integrity of children is protected in the Constitution — as outlined in the Ryan case — and by the State? The Tánaiste is failing in that respect. I am not convinced by her answer to my question. She is failing to address this issue, as did the former Minister, Deputy Martin.

Photo of Mary HarneyMary Harney (Tánaiste; Minister, Department of Health and Children; Dublin Mid West, Progressive Democrats)
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I do not disagree with much of what the Deputy said. Some of the therapists in question will be regulated under the provisions of the new legislation on health care professionals. It has completed its passage through the Seanad and is due to be taken in this House shortly. That will provide a regulatory framework for many of the professionals to which the Deputy referred, but we need to go beyond that. It is not an easy area to regulate. We do not want to regulate excessively.

I met a group of people last week whose loved ones were the victims of practitioners in the mid-west, one of whom was struck off the register in the United States and another who has been subsequently struck off the register here. Those practitioners do not come from the alternative therapy school. I was astounded at the charges set by these practitioners. One couple told me they paid €30,000 and that their very ill child of 15 years of age was on 60 drugs a day, and when he died they found many of the drugs under his bed because he was not able to take them. That is scandalous.

We will strengthen substantially the Medical Practitioners Act to give the Medical Council more proactive powers to carry out investigations in this area. However, there are difficulties in dealing with the alternative therapists, and we want to await the opinion of the expert group examining this area. That group is due to report at the end of the year. We have asked it to advance that timeframe and I expect to receive its report sooner than that. When I receive it, I will publish it and set about putting in place a system of regulation. We also need to ensure that the courses pursued are accredited by FETAC or HETAC to ensure that the training programmes meet a national standard and, if people are practising in this area, members of the public are entitled to know their level of the accreditation.

We all have a responsibility to try to discourage people from believing in the myth that there are some people who can cure people with serious cancer or other conditions, which unfortunately is what happened in the case of the people I met last week. I heard many cases and it was heartbreaking. It was hard to believe but when people are seriously ill, they will try anything. Not only were they disgracefully treated, they were financially ripped off at a vulnerable time in their lives. We need to strengthen the legislation in this area to protect the public. That is why I said in my reply that we will initiate a public information campaign in the health promotion unit in my Department to inform people of the dangers and issues in this regard.

The Coroner's Act needs to be updated, and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is doing that. I received a letter from the coroner in Mayo about the case to which the Deputy referred, highlighting the deficiencies in that legislation.

Séamus Pattison (Carlow-Kilkenny, Labour)
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I call Question No. 59.

Jerry Cowley (Mayo, Independent)
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A Leas-Cheann Comhairle——

Séamus Pattison (Carlow-Kilkenny, Labour)
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We have spent more than the allocated time on this question. The Deputy must be brief.

Jerry Cowley (Mayo, Independent)
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The Medical Practitioners Act does not apply to this lady. From what I have read, the new legislation will apply only to medical practitioners who purport to be this or that. However, this lady claims to be a healer and, from my reading of the legislation, it will not apply to her. Will the Tánaiste review the legislation because what is promoted by such people is into the blue yonder, so to speak, and that is not acceptable? I know the Tánaiste is sincere in what she says but the time to act is now and the Medical Practitioners Act will not address this difficulty.

Photo of Mary HarneyMary Harney (Tánaiste; Minister, Department of Health and Children; Dublin Mid West, Progressive Democrats)
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I accept that we need separate legislation to cover alternative therapists but where medical practitioners engage in this kind of activity, which is what was happening in one instance at least, we need to give the council power to investigate proactively rather than for it simply to react.

Jerry Cowley (Mayo, Independent)
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That legislation will not cover alternative practitioners.

Photo of Mary HarneyMary Harney (Tánaiste; Minister, Department of Health and Children; Dublin Mid West, Progressive Democrats)
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I accept that we need to introduce legislation to cover both types of practitioners.

Jerry Cowley (Mayo, Independent)
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Paschal Carmody can still practise as an alternative practitioner. He has been struck off the register as I or any other doctor would be because we are subject to the law, but this woman to whom I referred is not subject to it, although she should be.

Séamus Pattison (Carlow-Kilkenny, Labour)
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We have spent four minutes more than the time allocated for dealing with this question. I ask the Tánaiste to take Question No. 59.