Tuesday, 7 June 2011
The Taoiseach will be aware of the unfolding tragedy where at least 22 people have died and approximately 2,100 people are very ill following the outbreak of new E. coli. This outbreak is being handled as badly as it possibly could be. In the first instance, we saw hasty judgments which had an extraordinarily damaging impact on Spain's food sector. Spanish farmers are paying a heavy cost for the initial confusion about the source of the E. coli outbreak. Now, countries that are significant markets are banning the importation of fresh produce from throughout the European Union.
I am sure the Taoiseach will join me in expressing sympathy with the German people for this tragedy and I am certain he will share my view of the seriousness of the threat posed by the outbreak. Before the issue goes any further, I call on the Taoiseach to give clarity on how we as a country are handling the issue. I presume that normal practice was followed and that an inter-agency taskforce was established when the scale of this problem became apparent and emerged last week. Such an approach is critical to ensure the public health, horticultural and economic threats are assessed and mitigated as soon as possible. Will the Taoiseach indicate when the task force was established and outline its work? Will the Taoiseach outline what specific measures are on the way to protect public health and to ensure Irish farmers are not vulnerable to the same fate as Spanish farmers due to hasty and ill-conceived judgments? What has been done to assure markets abroad that Irish food is safe and exempt from any further bans or controls?
I share the Deputy's sentiments in respect of the loss of life and the 22 families that have lost loved ones because of this outbreak of E. coli. It is a matter of great concern to consumers and producers throughout the European Union. The most recent indications are that approximately 2,000 have taken ill because of the outbreak of the infection. Let me assure the Deputy that the authorities here are monitoring the situation closely. There are no indications that any imported product to Ireland has been in any way affected here. No case of any illness in this country has been reported to date. This is not to be complacent about it in any way. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland remains vigilant and in constant contact with the European Commission and other food safety authorities in all member states. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland is posting regular, daily updates on the outbreak and on progress being made here on its website for consumers. One can also find advice in respect of E. coli prevention and proper and safe food handling practices.
As the Deputy is aware, this morning there was an emergency meeting of Ministers for agriculture in Luxembourg. The Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Coveney, was in attendance. The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is also liaising with the Irish retailers and suppliers to monitor the impact here on domestic trade. I expect we can have an opportunity to have statements in respect of the Minister coming back and reporting on the outcome of the meeting in Luxembourg.
The Taoiseach did not answer the question on whether an inter-agency taskforce had been established. This is the correct approach to adopt given the serious nature of the issue and given that the outbreak impacts on public health fundamentally and on economics, especially in terms of horticulture, agriculture and the general food industry. This is a serious issue in terms of public health. One need only consider the extraordinary impact it has had on the German health system, including the acute system and the public health threat that it presents. I do not get a sense from the Taoiseach's response that a national inter-agency taskforce has been established and I would find it incredible if it has not. I call on the Taoiseach to confirm whether it has and whether the Minister for Health has been involved with European health Ministers in co-ordinated meetings and emergency meetings. Such meetings are merited given the enormity and the potential for further difficulties and challenges that may arise from this outbreak and given what is taking place across the water in Great Britain and elsewhere.
The authorities here are monitoring the situation closely. The Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is in attendance at the emergency meeting. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland is in constant contact with the Commission and food safety authorities in all member states. The information on prevention of E. coli and updates in respect of this outbreak is constantly updated. No formal inter-agency taskforce has been set up. This may become necessary, depending on the outcome of the emergency meeting in Luxembourg this morning.
The Deputy is aware that Dr. Eleanor McNamara, who is the director of the HSE's public health laboratory and a senior microbiologist, stated that because all cases discovered so far related to travel to Germany, it was inevitable that some cases might eventually be seen in Ireland. The Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will have a full, up-to-date position on the latest information following his return from Luxembourg this evening. Perhaps it may be necessary to upgrade this to inter-agency taskforce status but the House should have an opportunity to hear a statement from the Minister on the outcome of the meeting today.
It may be necessary to do so. All the agencies are interlinked, they are in constant contact and they are being vigilant about this. There is no complacency in so far as Government is concerned.
I wish to raise the damning criticism of the State's failure to protect women who were detained and abused in the Magdalene laundries. This criticism is contained in the United Nations Committee Against Torture report on Ireland. As many as 30,000 women passed through these laundries in the period from 1922 to 1996. The women were held as prisoners and forced to work without pay. They were abused and many of them had their children taken from them. Some became so institutionalised that they could never leave or function outside of the institution. The State was complicit in all of this, chose to look the other way and failed these women. The UN committee recommends that the State should institute a "prompt, independent and thorough investigation". It further states that in appropriate cases prosecutions and punishment of the perpetrators should happen and that all victims should obtain redress and have an enforceable right to compensation. Given the scale of the failure of the State in respect of these women, what does the Taoiseach propose to do? When will the Taoiseach act on the recommendations of the UN? When will these women get the recognition, the apology and the compensation they deserve?
I am sure the Deputy empathises, as I do, in respect of the difficulties, the emotional trauma and the personal difficulties of many of the people involved in the Magdalene laundries and what they went through. The Deputy is also aware that this goes back to before the turn of the last century. The United Nations Committee Against Torture, UNCAT, issued its concluding observations yesterday, 6 June, following Ireland's first examination in Geneva under Article 19 of the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The committee's concluding observations covered a range of issues from prisoner conditions to the total prohibition of corporal punishment, the Magdalene laundries, the follow up to the Ryan report and the processing of applications for refugee status. In its statement the committee acknowledged this country's commitment to engage with it in a constructive manner. The committee commended Ireland on the detailed written replies supplied by the Irish delegation during the formal hearing examination and on the significant progress made by the authorities in recent years in areas such as the prevention of domestic violence and human trafficking.
The Minister for Justice and Equality has received the report. He is preparing a memorandum for Government arising from the findings of the report. A good deal of work has been done by the Minister for Justice and Equality in this regard already. The Minister for Justice and Equality is in consultation with the Office of the Attorney General. A draft submission is being prepared and will be brought to Government shortly. The Government will make its decision and report to the House.
The State's contention in respect of these women is that they were in the laundries voluntarily and that the State has no liability or responsibility on the basis that these were private institutions. The State has not acquitted itself well, whatever the recommendation from the UN. The State has failed these women. This is not a new issue; the matter of the women in the Magdalene laundries has been around for quite some time. We all know how grievously wronged these women have been. We are all aware of the grave social taboo they and their families have carried because of their incarceration in these institutions and their treatment there. The Minister for Justice and Equality may well be preparing a memorandum. However, as I understood, the Minister, Deputy Shatter, had given a commitment that this matter would be brought before the House before 7 June.
I seek a more concrete commitment from the Taoiseach. The women await an apology; the women await acknowledgment; and the women and their families await the lifting of the awful and degrading taboo they have carried with them. They also await a measure of compensation. The State excluded these women from previous redress mechanisms. Now is the moment for the apology, the acknowledgement and the compensation so richly due to these women. Is the Taoiseach prepared now to stand and acknowledge and apologise to these women?
I do not speak for UNCAT and I did not determine 6 June as the date on which it would publish its report. From the import of the Deputy's question she wanted the Minister for Justice and Equality to respond with a Government decision between yesterday and this morning. The Minister, on behalf of the Government and the House, is entitled to consider the detail of the UNCAT report and to continue the work he is already doing in conjunction with the Office of the Attorney General on this matter.
It is clear that some of the women in the Magdalene laundries were sent there on remand arising from court decisions. Some were sent there for other reasons and some who left the laundries returned voluntarily. It is not true to say these were State-run institutions in the sense Deputy McDonald implies. Taking into account the difficulties experienced by the women for a variety of circumstances, we at least owe it to them, after more than 100 years, to look at the implications of this report, at the recommendations of the Human Rights Commission and at the work being done by the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Attorney General. Deputy McDonald should let the Government make its decision in respect of these matters and come back to the House so that everyone, including the Deputy, can express their views on it.
Is the Taoiseach satisfied that with his Government only three months in office, Ministers are displaying an arrogance not normally seen until a second term? Is he in agreement, for example, with the gratuitous insult by the Minister for Education and Skills to parents whose children are forced to attend dilapidated schools starved of investment for decades? Incredibly, he blames them, saying yesterday in the Daily Mail of one such school:
What the hell is the community doing? The school is probably surrounded by wonderful houses with two or three cars parked outside every door and yet parents living in these houses are content to let their children go to a school like that.
What planet is the Minister living on? He is apparently blind to the fact that, tragically, many of those parents are probably living with crippling mortgages and negative equity and that many have lost their jobs. Not to mind the fact that parents are constantly fund-raising to make up for a lack of State funding.
Is the Taoiseach satisfied that members of his Government speak like this about hard-pressed taxpayers while the Government continues to throw tens of billions of the same taxpayers' money to bail out the rotten debts of speculators and bankers? Is he satisfied that another Minister, the Minister for Enterprise, Jobs and Innovation, who is, to boot, a gentleman farmer in Meath of the pastures-----
-----of public importance. The issue I raised is Ministers' arrogance and the policies they are stating. I am asking the Taoiseach whether what the Minister for Education and Skills has said is now Government policy and whether it is decided, as the Minister for Enterprise, Jobs and Innovation has proposed, that the Government will cut the wages of the lowest workers - in order words, that it will continue to victimise the victims of bankers' greed while bailing out the financial criminals?
It is the same old story from Joe. The record is playing relentlessly. Arrogance is not a characteristic that is either genetically endowed or politically acquired by the members of this Government in the past 100 days. In respect of school buildings, the Minister, Deputy Quinn, lives in the land of reality and has been one of the few Ministers for Education to state the facts of life in respect of the situation in which the Department of Education and Skills finds itself and the economic circumstances with which it is challenged. I recently had the privilege of opening a small two-teacher school for which funding was provided by the previous Government. All of the facilities were in place at a cost of €1 million. When one considers that we could build 3,000 such schools each year for the next ten years for the amount that has gone into promissory notes for Anglo Irish Bank, one can understand the scale of the challenge facing the Minister, Deputy Quinn.
I do not accept at all Deputy Higgins's assertion of arrogance creeping into the actions of Ministers who are faced with an almighty mess to clean up and an almighty challenge in so doing. Nor do I accept his contention of arrogance on the part of the Minister for Enterprise, Jobs and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, who is setting about implementing the programme for Government. That programme recommends the reform of the joint labour committees, as is a requirement under the IMF-EU bailout deal. It is not a function of Government to set pay rates. It is a function of the Government to reform the JLCs as set out in the programme for Government and under the conditions of the IMF-EU bailout.
I remind the Deputy - and I did not hear him comment on it - that the Government has reversed the decision to cut the minimum wage which, as the Deputy knows, affects low paid workers. That was separated from the issue of the necessity to reform JLCs. Far from the Deputy's assertion of arrogance creeping into governance by Ministers, the opposite is the case. They are dealing with reality. If Deputy Higgins wants to live in a fantasy world he can continue to do so.
For the Taoiseach's information, the real world is one in which hard-pressed parents, under enormous distress as a result of the disastrous crisis arising from disastrous policies by the establishment in this State, are insulted by a Minister of the Government who asked what the hell are they doing. Will the Taoiseach apologise on behalf of the Government to those parents? The Minister was referring to a school in Carlow but it can be applied generally to those parents who to my certain knowledge are fund-raising weekly to make up for a lack of funding. Moreover, is the Taoiseach stating that the comments made by the Minister, Deputy Bruton, on Sunday last is Government policy and that he will cut the wages going to the poorest of the poor workers in this State, while relatively speaking, the Government will not touch the multimillionaires and billionaires in our midst?
The Deputy has very selective hearing if I may say so. He must have been either driving or running when listening to the "This Week" radio programme on Sunday because that is not what the Minister, Deputy Bruton, stated. He stated that in accordance with the programme for Government, it is necessary to consider the question of reform of the JLCs and the Minister is involved in discussions with the social partners on that very issue. As the Deputy is aware, it also is a requirement and condition of the IMF-EU-ECB bailout deal that there be reform of the JLCs. It is not about setting minimum pay rates but about reform of the JLCs.
As for the Deputy's comments about the Minister, Deputy Quinn, he is dealing with the reality that for quite a number of years, huge sprawling developments took place in respect of residential houses, accommodation units, apartments and so on nationwide. In many cases, this was done with no conception that children eventually would inhabit many such houses-----
-----with a consequential requirement for school buildings and sites. In common with other Members of the Government parties, I have spent endless hours dealing with community councils, boards of management and people who are distraught because in the so-called Celtic tiger years, small patches of ground rose to exorbitant and excessive amounts or were being deemed fit for school sites and so on. There was neither vision nor foresight in the greed that permeated many sections of the country. The people to whom the Deputy refers, with whom I and every Member on this side of the House are familiar, have been obliged to deal with the consequences and the Minister, Deputy Quinn, is dealing with this reality every day of the week.