Wednesday, 1 February 2006
One of the darkest days this country experienced was 30 May 2005, when the "Prime Time Investigates" programme exposed the shocking conditions in Leas Cross nursing home. Following that programme, the Taoiseach on 31 May promised in the Dáil to establish an independent inspectorate for all nursing homes, the legislation for which would be published later that year. That promise was repeated by him on 1 June 2005 and reiterated by the Tánaiste on 20 July. We now see from the Government programme published by the Chief Whip that the promises by the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste have not been met. There is no date for the production of legislation on an independent inspectorate.
We should not be too surprised at this Government's failure to deliver. The health strategy published in 2001, the Sustaining Progress agreement and the programme for Government in June 2002 all promised an independent inspectorate for nursing homes. All these promises were broken. The Government has reneged upon these specific commitments, which refer to the most frail and vulnerable among our citizens. The Tánaiste was well able to bring in emergency legislation to claim back retrospective payments from money taken from people in long-stay geriatric homes. The issue of the standards in our nursing homes has not been addressed with the same sense of urgency by this Government.
Can the Taoiseach provide a reasonable explanation for why he stood up here on two occasions to promise this legislation and why the Tánaiste also made a promise if it has not been delivered? Can he tell us why he was in a position to say last May, June and July that this was a priority for legislation, given that it does not now appear in any of the Government's own programmes?
The Taoiseach should be aware — I am sure he is — that this delay has caused massive concern among the owners of nursing homes in which the standards of care and attention are as they should be. However, because of the Government's failure to implement and draft legislation for an independent inspectorate, everybody is being dragged down by those who do not even measure up to minimum standards. Can he explain why the Government has failed on this fundamental issue in respect of the elderly, the frail and, in many cases, the neglected and why it failed to deliver on this legislation?
I made the point several times last year that the HSE already has a large number of staff involved in the supervision and examination of standards in our nursing homes and we stated at the time that we would put that on a statutory basis and would enter a period of consultation on how it can best be done. That did not take from the HSE's move, immediately after the events of last summer, to examine all our nursing homes to make sure they had the requisite complement of staff on duty at all times, had drawn up individual care plans for patients, maintained a safe and supervised environment for elderly people, implemented activities programmes and had developed and implemented policies on incontinence wear. Many of these matters were highlighted in Leas Cross and recent inspections around the country have shown that these conditions are being applied and adhered to.
Deputy Kenny is correct that it is not yet on a statutory basis but he wrong in saying these issues are not being dealt with through the HSE and its various regions. The HSE has advised us that it will continue to closely monitor the conditions in nursing homes to ensure high levels of care are afforded to residents. Many of those were previously happening and happening well but, obviously, the Leas Cross breach shows that standards and numbers involved were not high enough. Leas Cross was an awakening to that and the home subsequently closed because of it. Other standards were implemented in other areas, so it was a useful exercise and a lesson learned. I am not sure of the latest date for the Department and the parliamentary draftsman to put forward legislation but the standards are being implemented.
The Leas Cross exposure was not simply important. It was a national scandal that brought shame on this country, in which the elderly, the sick and the frail were exposed to degrading and horrific treatment. I am informed by my colleague, Deputy O'Dowd, who has been pursuing this for a number of years through the Freedom of Information Act, that there are serious questions about the adequacy of the existing inspectorate regime within the Health Service Executive. I understand that an independent review of Leas Cross, which was completed in June 2005, found, in simple terms, that it should not have been registered in the manner it was or, indeed, registered at all. The report found that nine of the 11 double bedrooms in Lea's Cross were below the required standard. That means half the rooms originally used were below the required size.
To make matters worse, in August 2004, nine months before the "Prime Time Investigates" programme, the health authorities were given specific warnings about serious inadequacies in the inspection regime and were alerted to the type of activities the nation saw on that television programme. I believe worse was seen by those who inspected that facility. We can only speculate on how much suffering the elderly in that place had to endure. The novelist Mr. Anthony Powell said that "Growing old is like being increasingly penalised for a crime you haven't committed" and unfortunately, in some cases in this country, that appears to be true.
The Government has had massive resources at its disposal but has wasted obscene amounts of money in many areas. It has failed to draft legislation for an independent inspectorate. The Taoiseach opened this nursing home but he did not want those kinds of standards to pertain — I know he did not. It is his responsibility to ensure his Government introduces legislation to guarantee that standards are monitored and best practice prevails. When does the Taoiseach propose to introduce such legislation and when will the O'Neill inquiry, which is investigating 97 deaths at Leas Cross, be finalised and its report published?
This is not simply an ordinary legislative matter, it concerns the quality of life of those who built this country. In their last years, such people deserve comfort, high standards and the knowledge that the State takes an interest in their welfare.
We all agree, and that is why the Government has invested enormous resources. I do not have to go through the details, including those in the recent budget, but I do not think the Deputy is correct that we wasted any of those resources. We have invested significantly in the care of our older people, as well as looking after them in terms of welfare payments. We invested an additional €110 million in the recent budget, a sum of €150 million at full cost, for packages to help elderly people. We are committed to maintaining older people in dignity and independence in their own homes, in accordance with their wishes, for as long as possible and to providing high quality, long-term residential care for older people, where necessary.
The social inspectorate has been working on an administrative basis for the last six or seven years on protection issues but last year it highlighted that more needs to be done. Legislation is being prepared. I have already spoken about actions being taken prior to the enactment of the legislation, which will provide for the establishment of a health information and quality authority and a social services inspectorate, based on the current administrative arrangements. The social services inspectorate function will be vested in a new statutory office, to be known as the office of the chief inspector of social services, which will provide for the registration system in respect of residential services to make sure they adhere to all the standards I referred to at the outset for older people and those with disabilities. It will replace the existing registration system. We should not pretend there is no system in place, because there is, under the Health (Nursing Homes) Act.
It is intended that the function of the new office will be to monitor the standards for residential services for elderly people, those with disabilities and children in care. I do not have a date for the introduction of the Bill but the draft heads of the legislation are at an advanced stage, will be submitted to the Government and then hopefully the House will deal with it quickly. Legislation, however, is not the beginning and the end of the matter and all of these issues are being monitored closely.
I wish to return to the issue of the M50. Yesterday the Taoiseach seemed to want to distance himself and the Government from the announcement made on television on Friday night by Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, and subsequent stories by him and inspired by him, to the effect the Government plans to lift the barrier on the West Link bridge and install four new tolls along the M50. The only thing that is clear from yesterday is that the hard-pressed motorist can expect no alleviation between now and 2008. Will the Taoiseach confirm that the Government proposes to take no action between now and 2008, despite the fact that additional trucks will spew onto the bridge from the port tunnel at a daily rate equivalent to the normal net annual increase in traffic, according to the Secretary General of the Department? The upgrade works have started and will take two years, which means it is now that motorists need the barrier to be lifted.
As I said, the Taoiseach seemed to deny the Minister, Deputy Cullen's inspired statements. The Irish Independent on Saturday stated "the Irish Independent has learned that motorists will face more than three replacement State electronic tolls situated at regular intervals along the motorway".
According to The Irish Times, "The new system, which will be implemented by the National Roads Authority (NRA), will mean that the entire road will be tolled, with toll charges based on the amount of the route used".
Is the Taoiseach saying that the two journalists involved made up the story? Is he saying that it came out of nowhere and denying the veracity of the articles? I wish to quote back the sentence written by the Civil Service in the Taoiseach's note from yesterday, as distinct from his own remarks. The civil servant English reads as follows: "The NRA will invite tenders for the design, building and operation of a multi-point, free flow, barrier-free toll regime on the M50". Amid all the Taoiseach's denials of the Minister, Deputy Cullen — I can understand why the Taoiseach would want to distance himself from the Minister — he planted that sentence from the Civil Service. What does that mean? What does a multi-point, free flow, barrier-free toll regime on the M50 mean if it does not mean what the Minister's briefing staff said it meant, namely that the Government proposes to implement a number of different toll points on the M50? What will the NRA be inviting tenders for, if the Government does not propose to do that? Is it inviting tenders for the amusement of finding out how much it will cost, like so many other projects about which we know? What does the sentence, "The NRA will invite tenders for the design, building and operation of a multi-point, free flow, barrier-free toll regime on the M50" actually mean?
The sources of Deputy Rabbitte's information are two newspapers and what civil servants have said. If he gives me a minute or two, I will inform him of the Government's position.
We began this week to spend an additional €1 billion on the M50, to increase capacity by 50% over the next number of years.
The Deputies do not really want to know what I think, they want to use their sources. The Government is anxious to remove the toll plaza as soon as possible. We will not get rid of tolling, but will move to electronic, free flow tolling on the motorway.
We cannot just walk away from the contract with NTR, which runs until 2020 and not pay the company. Legally, we cannot do that. We are advised it will take about a year to go through the procurement process and then to go through all of the technical arrangements. I personally believe that is an extremely long period of time, but I am advised that is the position. It should be possible to take a system operating elsewhere and do it quicker but I am told we must go through the EU procurement process so the NRA can get NTR out of the system. That is the reason.
I clearly stated yesterday that between now and the end of the year — it stated October but from what I have heard it is likely it will run into November and up to the Christmas period — there will be an enormously detailed assessment of the traffic requirements on the entire M50, which has not been done as part of the original An Bord Pleanála decision.
At the end of or during that the Government will decide how to move on. People in the NRA have views about how we best do that, but the Government will make the decision. There are views about many things in the NRA the Government disagrees with. We went along with some of them and got ourselves into plenty of hot water in the process.
We will listen to its views, but the Government will make the decision. I cannot answer for what was stated last week or what people might have thought, I am stating the position of the Minister, my position and the position of the Government.
The Taoiseach has disowned two reputable journalists, the NRA and the Civil Service, and then he tells me the Government position. Why is this procurement process necessary if the toll plaza on the bridge is simply being reinstated? It is private property. The Government must be going through the procurement process because it is erecting these gantries along the M50 that the Minister for Transport told us about. There is no other explanation.
The Taoiseach now comes into this House, after all the years of protesting on behalf of hard-pressed motorists trying to commute to work in the morning and get home in the evening, and tells us that there must now be assessments of traffic flows and a year spent on procurement. What have all the Ministers for Transport been doing down the years? How can we have reached a stage after nine years where the Government is now monitoring traffic flows? Tell the people the truth. The Government proposes to take no action between now and 2008 despite additional traffic from the port tunnel and the disruption caused by the refurbishment of the M50. Despite that additional punishment for hard-pressed motorists, no action will be taken.
The Taoiseach has discounted the fanciful, inspired press briefings by the Minister for Transport, saying there is nothing in them, but why would he put this project out to tender through the public procurement process if he does not intend to implement a State-controlled electronic barrier-free tolling system around the M50, as has been reported by these journalists, who did not make it up, no matter what the Taoiseach says? Here we are after nine years with the situation getting worse, with the Minister saying one thing and the Taoiseach implying something else.
To make a number of points in correction of Deputy Rabbitte, who is unusually poorly informed on this issue, the reason for the demand management upgrade is that the council, on which the Labour Party has a majority, made a condition that a demand management flow study be done as part of the upgrade.
The Government wants to get rid of the present barrier plaza system and to replace it with an electronic system that will be far more efficient. More and more traffic is more efficiently using the M50, despite all its problems, all the time. Deputy Rabbitte asked what has been going on for the past nine years. I am sure he has travelled the road to see that the M50 has been going through its completion for the past few years, with the roads to Tallaght, in his constituency, to Leopardstown, the link to the Glen of the Downs and Baldoyle all under way. The tunnel on to the road has also been under way.
It would have been convenient if, when people were dealing with this 20 years ago, they could have foreseen that we would increase from a population of 3.4 million and would have the best boom this country has ever imagined under this Government, but people did not see that.
A million fewer people were working when we started the plans for this road; the population has increased by 1 million and will increase by a further million. Things change and we have been all the time upgrading, planning and moving ahead.
We are endeavouring and have started to put €1 billion into the upgrade, finish the tunnel this year, finish the Naas Road and find a new electronic way of letting traffic through quickly. If that is not good for the motorist, I do not know what is.
The Taoiseach should do his own research — An Bord Pleanála placed that condition on demand-side management. Given that we are hearing again of the Taoiseach's disagreements with the Minister for Transport on future plans for tolling on the M50, is the Taoiseach's main idea another orbital road that is not included in the Transport 21 plans?
Did the Taoiseach listen last night to his colleague and, some would say, political ally, the President of the United States of America who stated that breakthroughs in technology will help America to reach another great goal, to replace more than 75% of oil imports from the Middle East by 2025? He said that America would have to move beyond a petroleum-based economy and make its dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past. If the Taoiseach thinks that oil will be around to make his orbital route viable in years to come, he is terribly mistaken. Peak oil production has effectively arrived and while $70 a barrel is expensive, it will become much dearer with demand outstripping supply.
The Taoiseach should take note of the lack of vision, even within Sustainable Energy Ireland, which has just published its energy in Ireland report. It seems to be blind. Between 1990 and 2004, primary energy needs grew by 59%, with oil making up 55.8% of imported energy, gas 24.3% and renewables just 2.2% in 2004. Sustainable Energy Ireland can only manage to visualise in 2020 oil making up 53.4%, gas 35% and renewables just 3.3%. Given that European Union member states import on average 50% of their energy requirements, whereas Ireland imports 80% of its energy, does the Taoiseach not appreciate that he is leading us in the wrong direction? Will he agree to publish the Deloitte & Touche report on the electricity market which has been on the desk of the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, since before Christmas? Will he include the energy and environmental non-governmental organisations in the partnership talks? Will he sit down with all parties in the House to plan an energy policy to take the country up to 2050 given that such a step is needed?
I have no problem working with the Deputy to examine future energy supplies because that is what the Minister has been actively doing. He has received a range of proposals from many organisations and their input is to be welcomed by everybody.
The reason I support the orbital route is that the city boundary continues to move outwards as the population increases.
If having more people and not having emigration is bad planning, I disagree. The reason it is necessary to have an orbital route far outside the city is the growth in the greater Dublin area and counties Meath, Kildare and Wicklow.
I do not agree we have gone the wrong way. The resources available under Transport 21 are being invested in rail, the Luas, the orbital metro and all the areas which will move people off the roads and into public transport.
We proved this could be done last year with the opening of the Luas lines, even though some Deputies thought it would never happen. More than 20 million passengers have used the service. Capacity on the DART has increased by 50%. The Deputy will agree that rail, the Luas and the orbital metro route are the ways to move on.
No. Across the water political agreement has almost been reached on that issue, while France has expanded its nuclear industry. We are actively engaged in determining how we will deal with these issues in the longer term. The Deputy is correct that energy prices are increasing. The Corrib gas field and other factors will help in terms of our energy supply in the years to come and I hope we will find a few more fields.
I have heard what everybody else is doing but not what the Government proposes to do, apart from planning a road which does not even feature in the Transport 21 plan.
Did the Taoiseach hear President George Bush's State of the Union address in which he stated the following?
Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy and here we have a serious problem. America is addicted to oil which is often imported from unstable parts of the world.
The US President used the term "addicted to oil". Now that the Tánaiste has banned magic mushrooms, will the Taoiseach agree that he is an oil addict and energy obese?
This is a serious matter and the Taoiseach will pay heavily for not dealing with it. He may recall — I was not born at the time — that T. K. Whitaker set out his vision for Ireland in the late 1950s. The Taoiseach now celebrates that vision through the Celtic tiger. Does he agree that we need to move beyond petroleum and show the same vision as T. K. Whitaker if we are to benefit in the years ahead? Without such vision, our economy will not be at the races and people will suffer badly on account of the Taoiseach. With 57 amber alerts last year — these signify near blackouts — we clearly need an energy policy. Will the Taoiseach, as a first step, admit we have a problem of addiction to oil?
As I stated, energy policy is being prepared for the longer term and we need to examine new approaches. Separate consultations are taking place on various aspects of renewable energies. Public consultation has occurred on combined heat and power and bioenergy. The proportion of energy produced by wind will increase to 13.2% by the end of the decade. All these issues are important.
The Deputy asked about the NGOs.
The Deputy's party is far closer to him, having stayed up until 3 a.m. to listen to him. I am glad it is moving closer to American policy. As I stated, if the Deputy wishes to have an input, I am sure all his suggestions will be closely examined. I promise him I am not addicted to oil. It would be very bad for me.