Wednesday, 23 November 2011
It is this aspect of the proposals on which I want to focus. We need honest debate in the House about the choices facing us. The worrying element of the proposals outlined to Deputies last night was that of the pending closure of community hospitals around the country. There are more than 100 such units and they give excellent care to the elderly. Such drastic action would seem impossible if not for the fact that the Government has already confirmed the closure of two community hospitals in County Laois, one in Abbeyleix and the other in Shane. Deputy Charles Flanagan stated on the public record that these closures were being dressed up as cost savings. This comes despite the promise in the programme for Government to prioritise investment in the supply of more and better care for older people in the community and in residential settings. As the Taoiseach knows, those units look after high-dependency patients and have multidisciplinary teams that often are not available to the same extent in private nursing homes.
Many people are concerned. Society is facing demographic challenges. Thankfully, people are living longer today than they would have five or ten years ago. The programme for Government promised additional funding for older people and their care. There is a great deal of arrogance and contempt in-----
-----how the Government treats the Dáil. Will the Taoiseach confirm whether the closure of community hospitals is planned and whether the House will debate this and other matters so that every Deputy might have access to the kind of presentations that were made to the Fine Gael and Labour parliamentary parties last night?
I wrote to Deputy Martin and the other leaders recently to suggest to them that they should avail of the opportunity that has been there for many years for Opposition parties to present the cost proposals on their alternatives in preparation for the budget. I would like to provide an opportunity for Deputy Martin, his party and everybody else to reflect on the Estimates that the Government has to deal with and decide on. We will see the colour of their eyes at that stage.
For the Deputy's information, I said that I would consider the question of the material that was sent to the European Commission.
I said I would consider it. The reason that the European Commission sent that to the finance committee of the Bundestag is that it is a constitutional requirement of the German Parliament that, where it is funding countries in a bailout, this kind of information must be made available. As I pointed out to Deputy Martin before, due to the fact that the budget is so close, the German Parliament is looking for indicative material, which is now placed in the Oireachtas Library. I hope this deals with that matter. For the Deputy's information, we will continue to publish the quarterly reviews once they have been adopted and signed off on by the troika.
In respect of the community hospitals the Deputy mentioned and other issues of serious concern in the health Department, what is going on here is the normal process of pre-budget discussion with elected representatives of the two parties in government. From this point of view, I confirm to Deputy Martin again that, of the long range of all of the Departments' issues, the Government has not signed off on the details that will be put in the budget.
I understand exactly the quality and the challenge that front line staff, carers and workers in community hospitals have to face, but I am also a realist. Many of these buildings are very old and require pretty serious refurbishment and very costly maintenance and upkeep. What is involved is a review of all of that to see what is in the best interests of the homes' residents.
I confirm to Deputy Martin and the House that the Cabinet has not signed off on the list the Deputy mentioned. The discussions that took place at the internal committees of both parties in government - the Labour Party and the Fine Gael Party - are normal discussions that take place about the options open to all Ministers as they prepare for this budget, which is, as the Deputy knows, challenging, difficult and something that he refused to face for many years.
I beg your pardon, I am asking a question on the matter raised, I have a minute to do so and if I was not interrupted, I would be able to do my duty representing the people of this country.
Is it better for members of the parliamentary party to get access to the information? The Taoiseach and his Ministers are involved in a deeply cynical practice of raising all sorts of issues, frightening the living daylights out of people that certain things are going to happen and then coming up with the cynical line that the Government has signed off on nothing. Who is the Taoiseach codding?
The Taoiseach is codding no one. I wanted a straight answer. In terms of quality of care in how they look after high dependency patients, these community nursing units are superior to anything in the private sector. We need a debate on that issue in this House. I want a genuine debate about community nursing units. There should be no codology about having a normal discussion with members of the parliamentary parties of the Fine Gael Party and the Labour Party. The Taoiseach gave a commitment to the elderly in this country and it is about time we had an honest debate on it.
Deputy Martin should be ashamed of himself, and I will tell him why. I had the opportunity to open a small, two teacher school recently, which cost €1 million. Before saying a few words, I realised that we could build 3,000 of those every year for ten years with what Deputy Martin did in the middle of the night.
What Deputy Martin and his party have inflicted on those young people in the Visitors Gallery will last for the next generation. That is the biggest shame in Irish politics ever, and we are not going back to those days. We will deal with the reality of what we face now. The mandate given to this Government is to sort out the mess we inherited and that is what we will do.
I respect Deputy Martin and it ill-behoves him to cast aspersions on the understanding of anyone in this House about how they see carers looking after patients in community hospitals. It ill-behoves Deputy Martin to say that.
Deputy Martin stands up here week after week and looks for a debate on Europe, the eurozone and the euro. We have had them for weeks. Fianna Fáil will have its opportunity to present its alternative budget in the House. We will see whether the Fianna Fáil Party is in favour of more cuts or more taxes.
As far as the Minister for Finance and the Government are concerned, we will focus on reaching a target, dealing with those who are vulnerable and focusing on jobs and getting people back to work. Deputy Martin and his party will have the opportunity in this House and we will see the colour of their money.
Yesterday, the Cabinet acted promptly to establish an independent inquiry into a broadcast by RTE and that is to be commended. The patient support and advocacy organisation, Dignity4Patients, has been campaigning for decades for an independent commission of inquiry into allegations about the sexual abuse of boys and young men in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda. The Taoiseach supported this demand in Opposition, as did the Tánaiste. In July, the Minister for Health promised an inquiry and acknowledged that many people have suffered as a consequence of not having this issue aired in public. He told the Joint Committee on Health and Children that he had the agreement of the Attorney General that there would be an Oireachtas committee of inquiry following the referendum. The referendum was not passed but the need and demand for an inquiry remains.
I could also raise the issues of ministerial leaks about increases in prescription charges, the closure of nursing homes, cuts in child benefit and further attacks on what remains of our sovereignty by the bigger states in the EU. We will return to these issues. The need to hold an independent inquiry into the allegations of sexual abuse must be dealt with today with the same urgency the Taoiseach showed in dealing with RTE. How can anyone have faith in a Government that refuses to stand up for the citizens and fails to assure the public that the systemic failures in the health services have been corrected? Will the Taoiseach establish an independent commission of inquiry into these events, as promised in Opposition, and will he announce this before the Christmas recess?
I thank Deputy Adams for his question. This is a matter of serious concern and has been for quite some time. In respect of the inquiry that the Government yesterday instructed be held, arising from the grievous offence caused to Fr. Kevin Reynolds, I respect completely the independence of the Press Ombudsman, Mr. Horgan. He is carrying out an investigation and I have no question over his independence in his role. Following the initiative taken by the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, I thought it important that the Government act in the best interests of the highest standards in journalism and the rights of every person in this matter.
I had hoped the referendum would be passed in respect of giving authority to Oireachtas committees to carry out investigations in matters of public interest. That did not happen. The commitment entered into by the Minister for Health was on that basis and now we must consult the Opposition parties and take the advice of the Attorney General to see what options are available in respect of pursuing the truth and the issue raised concerning Dr. Shine. This is a matter of serious concern and I would like to discuss the options with Deputy Adams and Deputy Martin, following advice from the Attorney General. I will not make any commitment other than that until I see the best options open to us.
With respect, that is not good enough. The Cabinet has the authority to authorise such a commission of inquiry and the Minister for Health has already received advice from the Attorney General. It is very clear. I received a letter from a victim of this abuse and he implores the Taoiseach to do something about this, as promised. He included a copy of an e-mail he had sent to the Taoiseach a few years ago and the reply. In that reply, the Taoiseach told him that Fine Gael and the Labour Party had tabled a motion in support of an inquiry, which Fianna Fáil and the Green Party voted down. I have a copy of the motion, which is good. At the end of the letter, the Taoiseach said that Fianna Fáil and the Green Party were wrong to do this. If the Taoiseach also refuses to hold an independent inquiry, he will also be wrong. I want the Taoiseach to be right on this issue, not for his sake or my sake but for the sake of the victims. This will also build confidence that justice is possible and that flaws in our system can be corrected.
I ask the Taoiseach to give a commitment that he will announce a commission of inquiry before the Christmas recess and that he will consult the victims of this alleged abuse on the terms of reference. The patients' advocacy group Dignity4Patients has had its funding cut significantly. I have raised this issue before with the Minister for Health and the Taoiseach to ensure the group is provided with core funding to continue its crucial work on behalf of 200 citizens. I am asking for two things: that the Taoiseach make a commitment to announce the establishment of a commission of inquiry before the recess and ensure core funding is provided for Dignity4Patients.
On the second issue, I replied to the question about the allocation of money between now and the end of the year for the hospital mentioned by the Deputy and the patients to whom he referred, as well as about the plans and programmes to be put in place by the Minister to deal with that ongoing problem in the new year.
In respect of the inquiry, I have previously said I do not want to see a situation where toothless Oireachtas committees would meet to talk about issues of serious concern such as the Shine case. I would like to be in a position to discuss the implications and the best thing to do with Deputy Adams and representatives of the Technical Group and to obtain advice on the best option legally. I do not want to go down the road of having an endless list of tribunals and inquiries, given that some tribunals and inquiries have been running for years. It is important that we find the truth. I want to have the Minister for Health meet the people involved in order that we can have an understanding that we can arrive at a decision as to the best way to proceed.
I had hoped to do that, but we cannot argue with the decision of the people in the referendum. I would have thought Oireachtas committees with the appropriate powers would have been able to deal with this issue.
After his nomination on 9 March the Taoiseach said in the Dáil, "Honesty is not alone our best policy but our only policy." What is honest about the cynical kite flying by half of the Cabinet in the last week, in manipulating the media and the people with stories of horror cuts and charges in order that when they are a little less when they bring them in, the hope is the people might accept them? Will the Taoiseach prove he believes honesty is the only policy by answering a simple question? A week before the general election the Tánaiste and leader of the Labour Party, Deputy Gilmore, said, "The Labour Party will not agree to having child benefit cut; Fine Gael needs to drop its plans to cut it." Will the Taoiseach make an honest man of the Tánaiste this morning and, more importantly, on budget day? The programme for Government states the Government "will maintain social welfare rates". Will the Taoiseach make an honest woman of the Minister for Social Protection this morning and, more importantly, on budget day? The Labour Party manifesto states, "Labour believes the €500 increase in student service charges to €2,000 is a step too far. Labour will reverse the increase". Will the Taoiseach make an honest party of the Labour Party on budget day? Will he insist on honesty prevailing on budget day?
The Minister for Finance announced a 0.6% levy on pensions for four years to fund the so-called jobs initiative. Tara miners have exposed the truth; this translates into a savage 10% levy on their modest pensions of €10,000 each year for four years.
Will the Taoiseach restore honesty? I want a simple yes or no answer; as I am not asking for the budget, the Taoiseach should not say I am. I want to see if he will stand by his dictum that honesty is the only policy and honour the commitments made by his partners in government and his own party.
Will the Taoiseach make honest little elves of the Labour Party backbenchers who are busy mining for votes in repeating all the pledges made by their leaders? We hear from journalists that they have been hiding in the woods for the last few days. I would like a straight answer to this question.
Deputy Higgins has asked four examination questions. He reminds me a little of the return of Senator Joe McCarthy: "Did you ever, have you ever, would you ever associate with the Communist Party? Answer 'yes' or 'no'." I know the Deputy is acting as a benign parliamentary terrorist. To answer his questions, I will make an honest leader of the Tanaiste, Deputy Gilmore. The Deputy spoke about the Labour Party programme prior to the general election. It included a clear reference to the child care issue. The Tánaiste and I agreed on a programme for Government subsequently. Therefore, the Deputy is right, the Labour Party programme was clear prior to the election.
There is no denial in that regard. The Tánaiste was completely honest in his pronouncements prior to the election.
The answer to the second question is the same. Deputy Higgins quoted correctly from Labour Party policy prior to the general election. That is correct and there is no dishonesty in that regard.
The same applies in the case of the third question, while the fourth about the percentage levy on the pensions industry is complete fantasy, as the Deputy knows. The point was made that the pensions industry would be well able to absorb the vast majority of the costs involved in that temporary levy which provided workers with jobs in the Deputy's constituency, which I am sure he supports.
The Taoiseach obviously has an extraordinary concept of honesty and truth. "We will reverse rises in student fees" is clear in its meaning. Just because the Tánaiste, Deputy Gilmore, and the Taoiseach later had a chat and agreed they would not reverse the increase does not change the position. The Taoiseach is, in fact, endorsing dishonesty. The Labour Party stated it would not tolerate a reduction in child benefit, but then the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste had a chat and agreed it would be okay to do so.
That is dishonesty. On social welfare cuts, the programme for Government - not the Labour Party - indicates social welfare rates will be maintained.
On the pensions issue, it is not a fallacy. The reality is that pensioners, men and women who slaved all their lives and are now on modest pensions, are having this burden placed on their shoulders, as the Tara Mines workers outside the gates yesterday showed us in black and white. They face a €1,000 levy per year.
I did not know the Deputy was advertising for the Higgins grind school. I have referred to these matters. I met a number of the Tara miners some time ago in Navan. We were following through on a number of specific issues they raised. The cost of the temporary levy could well be absorbed by the pensions industry.
No decisions have been made on the detail of any cuts to social welfare. Clearly, there will have to be savings in social welfare. Unless there is a social welfare structure that encourages employment measures and encourages people to go and want to go to work, there will not be the kind of society about which the Deputy talks and which we all want to see. I refer to one in which people have the opportunity to have employment in their own area, if that is what they wish.
What the Deputy is talking about is speculative in the sense that the Government has not signed off on this. The programme for Government, about which the Deputy speaks, was agreed between both parties, namely, the Fine Gael Party and the Labour Party, and it was debated in this House and passed overwhelmingly by the representatives of the people who sent us here to deliver on that mandate.