Tuesday, 10 July 2012
Today the Dáil is launching, via resolution, the constitutional convention. Before the election, both of the Government parties promised very radical political and constitutional reform within 12 months. We know the timeframe has slipped but, more seriously, the ambition has shrunk very significantly. What we are being presented with today in reality represents a sham compared to what was promised.
The issues of the voting age being reduced from 18 to 17 or the presidential term of office are not earth-shattering and do not need referral to a convention of this kind. What is perhaps more surprising is the referral of marriage equality to the convention, particularly given that the Tánaiste has described it as the civil rights issue of this generation. Some would suggest the issue was referred to the convention to buy time and perhaps to avoid having to make a decision on the issue. In referring it to the convention, the Taoiseach raised the prospect of there never being a referendum on marriage equality during the life of this Government and Dáil.
I believe in marriage equality and it is important that a referendum would take place. Last week, journalists attempted to ask a question of the Taoiseach on that basic issue. A melee developed afterwards-----
-----and the only thing that emerged subsequently was a letter from the press secretary to the management of TV3 and the political correspondent stating the collective behaviour of journalists in attendance was disgraceful. The Taoiseach can clarify in his own time who authorised what and what his attitude was to the response. If a simple answer had been given there would not have been any melee. Will the Taoiseach clarify his position for once and for all on marriage equality? Is he in favour of same-sex marriage? Will he confirm for the House that a referendum will be held on the issue during the lifetime of the Dáil?
It may well be that he was otherwise busy. The Government was elected with a particular mandate and, comprising two parties, set out its programme for Government very clearly. The programme for Government includes the establishment of a constitutional convention to review named aspects of the Constitution and aspects relevant to it. When it is functioning the convention will have an opportunity to make a case for other issues that it considers important or of sufficient priority to be given consideration with a view to action by the Government or not as the case may be.
What is important is that the constitutional convention, on which I expect to move the resolution after these questions, will consider a named list of issues and will reflect on them on behalf of the Government. It is important to note the Government, unlike its predecessors, has committed to giving an answer on each of the convention's recommendations within a four-month period. If the Government's answer is that a referendum will not be held on a particular issue then so be it. If the Government's answer is that a referendum will be held, the Government will set out a timeline for when it might be appropriate to hold such a referendum.
Deputy Martin is well aware by now that in respect of the convention we decided to examine two issues in the first instance, which are very clearly not earth shattering but are important in their own way. It will also be pretty easy to determine a "Yes" or "No" answer in respect of these issues, which are the reduction of the service period for the Presidency and the possibility of reducing the voting age. The reason for choosing these two issues is to see whether the convention works efficiently, whether it would need enhanced powers and whether its structure is appropriate as it will be comprised of politicians and citizens determined by law and selected by an appropriate polling company.
One of the other issues for the convention mentioned in the programme for Government is equality of marriage or same-sex marriage. The process set out by the Government for which I speak is that the convention will reflect on the question of same-sex marriage, give its recommendation to the Government and the Government will respond on whether a referendum will be held within a four-month period. If a referendum is to be held the Government will set out the timescale on when it would intend to hold that referendum. Deputy Martin is aware that within the past 15 months we have held four referenda, three of which were carried and one of which was not.
I do not need a random selection of citizens to tell me whether I favour marriage equality and neither does the Tánaiste. It is a matter on which the Oireachtas could decide tomorrow morning. I can understand if the Taoiseach wants to go through different electoral systems, and people have different perspectives. This is something on which every citizen has the right to decide. They will not be told or given recommendations on this issue by a random selection of citizens. This is not the type of issue that lends itself to this determination. Governments must lead on these fundamental issues. This should never have been referred to the referendum commission.
Timelines are very important. If this is the civil rights issue of a generation then referring it to the convention opens up the very real possibility, or dare I say probability, that there will never be a referendum on this issue during the lifetime of the Government because the first two issues will take the guts of the year. The issue of Seanad Éireann is not being referred, which one could argue is a complex issue-----
-----and the Taoiseach has made up his mind on this. I ask him to answer the question on whether he is in favour of same-sex marriage and if there will be a referendum on it during the lifetime of the Government.
The party I have the honour of leading was the first party to introduce a real issue about civil partnership which we are very happy to support and we will follow through in terms of taxation issues, property rights and now civil union.
Deputy Martin stated the citizens have a right to decide for themselves and this is exactly what is involved here. Deputy Martin will not pressurise me as a citizen or as Leader of the Government into a box ticking exercise-----
The Government's view and decision is to establish a constitutional convention and for this process to be followed through in respect of the issues named in the programme for Government. When the constitutional convention is up and running and decides to reflect on the issue of same-sex marriage and the other issues named in the programme for Government, it will respond to the Government with its view and the Government is committed to making a decision on each of these issues within a four-month period.
If Deputy Martin thinks he can stand up and ask my view on this, we are speaking about the Constitution and it is a matter for each individual citizen.
The process we have set in train for this Government is to take a number of these important issues, which were never dealt with by Deputy Martin's crowd, and state the constitutional convention will reflect on each of these issues, will give its view to the Government and the Government will respond.
As the head of Government and Taoiseach, it is the Government's responsibility to establish the structure by which this will happen and the Government is committed to responding to the constitutional convention when it considers this and all of the other matters.
As I stated we have held four referenda in 15 months and we will have more. Deputy Martin should not come here and say scant leadership is being shown on the issues which were left behind by Deputy Martin's Government. These are named in the programme for Government and they will be followed through in the structure we have set out, and the Government is committed to responding to each and every one of them in respect of holding a referendum or not.
This week, the Minister for Health was officially named on the debt defaulters list in Stubbs Gazette for failing to pay debts resulting from a business deal involving a private nursing home in Tipperary. Will the Taoiseach confirm the Minister for Health will come to the Dáil tomorrow to make a statement on this matter? Is fíric í go bhfuil an tAire Sláinte ag glacadh le cinneadh chun tairbhe do sheirbhísí cúraim sláinte príobháideacha. Tá a fhios ag an Taoiseach sin, agus is fíric í go bhfuil an tAire Sláinte ag druidim leabaidh san earnáil phoiblí.
The Minister, who has taken decisions to close 296 public nursing home beds from January until May, has a commercial interest in a private nursing home. In my constituency, Drogheda Cottage Hospital and St. Joseph's Hospital in Ardee are under threat. One of the critical issues for the HSE is the shortage of public nursing home beds to allow for the discharge of 600 elderly patients from public hospitals. Does the Taoiseach agree there could be a conflict of interest here and does he agree that the Minister needs to clarify his relationship with Greenhill Nursing Home? Does the Taoiseach acknowledge that the Government's policy and that of the previous Government was to encourage privatisation in the health service, provide tax breaks for private nursing homes and provide for the closure of public nursing homes? The Minister has a personal investment in private health care. Will the Taoiseach ensure he comes into the Dáil and clarifies these matters?
Deputy Adams and his party could, I am sure, speak very well on issues of debt and debt recovery and repayment. Business in this country is perfectly legitimate. This judgment has been properly registered, but that does not mean that the moneys involved are not to be paid by both recoursed and non-recoursed investors. The Minister for Health has assured me that his affairs, in so far as his business interests are concerned, are entirely in order and in compliance with the code of conduct for officeholders.
It may interest the Deputy to know that there have been some difficulties within the groups involved in respect of this matter. The Minister has already given power of attorney, in proper circumstances, to have his interest in this matter handled in an unfettered way and at arm's length. I spoke to the Minister this morning and he has no difficulty at all with regard to making a statement to the House. This matter has been in the media previously. While a person cannot be a director while a Minister, there is nothing to stop the person resuming a practice when no longer a Minister.
In so far as the Minister is concerned, this is a registered judgment, but that does not mean the amount will not be paid. The Minister has assured me it will be paid. He is a minority investor in this matter and has no control or direction over the process. Power of attorney has been given to legal personnel to deal with his interest in an unfettered, arm's length fashion. The Minister has no difficulty with regard to responding to the House. However, he will not be back until tomorrow evening to respond to the Private Members' motion.
I am not making a judgment on the Minister. I am simply asking that he come in and make a public statement to the Dáil. I thank the Taoiseach for the commitment for him to do that.
I understand that the Minister and the others owe €1.9 million as part of this deal. Furthermore, I understand this money was borrowed from the Bank of Ireland, which as we know was bailed out by-----
I must interrupt the Deputy. It is not a practice or custom to deal with private matters relating to individual Members of the House. We can deal with issues where the suitability of a person for office can be dealt with by way of a motion, but it has not been a practice allowed by my predecessors to permit the questioning of legitimate transactions by individual Members, unless there are serious grounds for doing so. The Deputy has asked for a statement and it would be wise to keep to the tradition of allowing the Minister to come in and make a statement to clarify any outstanding issues. I ask the Deputy to co-operate in that regard.
I want to make a political comment and to ask the Taoiseach a question. The Minister for Health has closed down 296 public nursing home beds and he has an investment in a private nursing home. This raises a legitimate question and the Minister can come in and explain that, if he can, tomorrow.
Another issue which should concern the Taoiseach is that one of the Minister's business partners is a former Fine Gael councillor, Anne Devitt, who was found by the Mahon tribunal to have behaved inappropriately in respect of planning matters.
Let me try again. I will abide by the Chair's ruling, but I think it is entirely appropriate for me to stand up here and ask the Taoiseach whether it is appropriate for a Minister who is closing down public nursing home beds to have an investment in a private nursing home.
The Minister for Health has taken on what is probably the most unenviable task in Irish politics, to sort out the jungle that has existed for so many years in a health system that has been dysfunctional in many areas. All of the Minister's work and commitment is focused on that so that patients get the best level of care and attention possible. This is not easy as structures have had to be changed and the Government is focused on introducing a single insurance system, with strong primary care systems backed by community care. He must also deal with the spectrum of strong vested interests that have been around for some time. The Minister is making substantial headway in a difficult situation. Meeting the challenges in the health area requires enormous commitment from everybody, as evidenced at the end of February when so many people exited the health sector, yet the hospital plans signed off by each hospital manager involved changes of rosters, people travelling long distances and showing exceptional commitment as part of clinical and medical teams. The code of conduct set out for every Minister means Ministers do not conduct a business while serving in a ministerial capacity and the Minister has assured me that all of his affairs, in so far as his many business interests are concerned, are entirely in order in respect of the code of conduct of officeholders.
I suppose Deputy Adams could tell me about the Northern Bank or something else. I do not know what he knows about those things, but I am not in a position to answer questions about individuals.
We will have a public debate on a health issue this evening and tomorrow and the Minister will deal with the Deputy and his claims in so far as nursing home beds being closed are concerned. I noticed the Deputy got a little tetchy at the mention of bank credit and status, so I would be very careful of going down that road.
I assure the Deputy that the Minister has assured me - I spoke to him this morning - that in so far as his business interests are concerned he is a minority investor in a particular nursing home in County Tipperary. There are 13 investors in all. He has complied with the requirements and has given power of attorney to legal representatives in an unfettered and arm's length way. I assure Deputy Adams that Deputy Reilly has stated that when the judgment has been registered, the amount involved will be paid by the investors, although they may have internal matters to decide themselves before that happens.
Before and after the general election, the Taoiseach and the Government parties made strong commitments to cystic fibrosis sufferers and their families that they would deliver the new 100-bed special unit at St. Vincent's Hospital, which would include 34 beds for cystic fibrosis sufferers. On 8 April of last year, the Taoiseach made a speech at the AGM of the Cystic Fibrosis Association of Ireland at which he said: "But I can tell to you that the new Unit in St. Vincent's Hospital is on track, on time, on budget and it is my intention to make sure it remains that way." He also said: "You and your families have waited far too long for this project to open. It can never be forgotten that cystic fibrosis patients are fighting for their lives... you don't have time for broken promises."
In February of this year, the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, said the unit would not open until June and in April, he said he could not commit to the 34 beds and that he was reducing it to a 20-bed minimum and a 34-bed maximum. A protocol was agreed between the HSE, consultants and the Cystic Fibrosis Association of Ireland on how to do this but, since then, the manager of St. Vincent's hospital has refused to sign off on it. Obviously, the unit remains unopened.
As someone who has been strongly associated with the issue, will the Taoiseach intervene directly in this matter to ensure the cystic fibrosis patients and their families are given a clear commitment as to when the new unit will open and that St. Vincent's hospital management signs off on the protocol so that people have access to the 34 beds? Will he also assure me that, given the reports in today's The Irish Times about the HSE being written to by the Department of Health, telling it to make savings in the face of the current budget crisis in the HSE through delaying projects or taking any opportunity to reallocate resources, the delay being faced by the cystic fibrosis unit is not as a result of budget cuts or pressure on the health service to make cutbacks or defer projects?
I thank Deputy Boyd Barrett for raising a matter of serious import, which is very sensitive to people who have to deal with it. I was proud to wear the T-shirt for cystic fibrosis in Kerry last weekend. Sometimes when the political process makes decisions that things should happen, political personnel expect to see them happen. I do not know what the problem in St. Vincent's hospital is that the protocol will not be signed off on, but I will find out for the Deputy and for everybody else. Through the political process, one expects that when money is voted for particular projects or strategies, it is followed through, timelined and delivered on time. As Deputy Boyd Barrett is aware, in a range of areas around the country, that has actually happened to great effect, in particular, in road development. I assure the Deputy that, similar to the issue to which I referred in response to Deputy Adams, the nature and scale of the change that has to be made in the health area to bring about an effective health system for every patient irrespective of his or her need must be delivered with the greatest efficiency and competency and that people get the treatment they expect.
The question of accountability through the HSE is one that concerns me greatly because for years massive budgets of taxpayers' money have been allocated by this House and where evidence of full accountability has never been evident at political level. I am not suggesting anyone ran away with it in fraudulent fashion but the diversion of money from where it was intended to go in the first instance has happened on so many occasions that it is no longer a joke. That has to, and will, change because there has to be serious accountability as to how money is spent right down through the system as distinct from what we have had in the past. I do not know the detail of why this cystic fibrosis unit at St. Vincent's hospital has been delayed but I will find out and will inform the Deputy and the House. I thank the Deputy for raising the matter.
The letter from the Secretary General, which I saw referred to in the media, speaks of a HSE response to dealing with the situation we have now that is not acceptable to the Department of Health and, in the vast majority of respects, is not acceptable to me either.
I thank the Taoiseach for his response. I appreciate his commitment to look into this matter. The cystic fibrosis sufferers, families and the association want to hear as soon as possible that there is a date for the opening of that unit and that the protocol will signed be off on. Will the Taoiseach also look into why the Minister, Deputy Reilly, has not really been engaging with the Cystic Fibrosis Association of Ireland on this issue? It has contacted his office to try to get a response from him but it is getting nothing. Similarly, it is getting no engagement whatsoever from the management of St. Vincent's hospital. It will be greatly assured if the Taoiseach can come back as soon as possible so there can be a clear announcement as to when the unit will be opened and the 34-bed maximum allocation for cystic fibrosis suffers will be available. Will he assure us that these delays are not resulting from what the media reported today as pressure from the Minister's Department on hospitals and on the HSE to make savings through schemes that are in development and are not yet in place, which can be delayed or deferred, or any opportunity to reallocate resources? That is what the Department is saying to the HSE. Is this delay in the cystic fibrosis unit possibly as a result of that pressure coming from the Minister's Department? Will the Taoiseach assure us that is not the case and that the unit will open as soon as possible?
Long before this current situation arose, the decision was made to have a cystic fibrosis unit in St. Vincent's hospital. It is very badly needed and whether it is a minimum or a maximum is an issue for medical people to make a judgment on. I spoke at the AGM of the Cystic Fibrosis Association of Ireland in Westport and said the unit was on time, on track and on budget. When moneys are voted through for these kinds of projects, one expects them to be delivered on time. I do not know the reason that has not happened to date but it is appropriate that the Minister for Health has the opportunity to respond in the Private Members' motion on health and I will see that he refers specifically to the question of the cystic fibrosis unit in St. Vincent's hospital.