Wednesday, 24 October 2012
I welcome all our new viewers of the first Leader's Questions in the digital era. Perhaps we might get better answers now.
Yesterday in the House I asked the Taoiseach a simple question which required only a "Yes" or "No" answer. Has the Government asked any individual, apart from those involved in the Dolphin process, to assess the proposed sites for the national children's hospital or has any Cabinet Minister asked an independent person to assess them? The Taoiseach's answer was overwhelmingly in the negative that no such independent approach had been made. However, yesterday evening we learned through the RTE news programme that Mr. John Fitzgerald had been approached by the Government. This is the very person who not so long ago was sacked in his capacity as a member of the HSE board by the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly. His experience was always available for the Government to avail of, if the Minister had not got a rush of blood to the head. The bottom line is that the Taoiseach either deliberately chose to mislead the House yesterday on the question I asked, or he was not aware that Mr. Fitzgerald had been asked, or perhaps he had been misled by the Minister, just as the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, was some weeks ago. I would like a clear answer from him and would like him to correct the record of the House on the issue because it raises a range of questions. Who asked Mr. Fitzgerald to review the sites following the Dolphin report? Was it the Taoiseach, the Government, the Minister for Health or the Tánaiste who, as we learned yesterday from his aides and advisers, did not trust the Minister on the issue and that they had to do their own research. Was Mr. Fitzgerald given particular terms of reference, or were the assessment criteria given to him? Was he asked to look at all of the sites, just one, or a particular number of them? The fundamental question is: why the denial and why is there secrecy around this saga? It creates suspicion that there may be an attempt to fix this issue in some shape or form. The Taoiseach needs to provide far more transparency in this process than he has to date.
The reason the Government - Fine Gael and the Labour Party - wants to do this is there has been an urgent need for many years to build a world class facility for all children. It will be one of the major projects in the Government's term of office. I have no interest in the speculation, the rumour or innuendo in the general mix of things surrounding a major decision such as this.
The Deputy asked me two questions. He asked whether the Government had commissioned another independent report on the national children's hospital. The answer to that question is "No." He also asked whether any Minister had commissioned other independent reports on any of the proposed locations. The answer to that question is also "No." The process is as I have outlined and stated by the chairman of the group, Mr. Dolphin, who was commissioned by the Government to present a report which was presented to the Minister in June and which set out the observations of his expert group on locations for consideration as the site of the national children's hospital. Mr. Dolphin issued a statement on presentation of his report which is available on the website.
There is one process only. On receipt of the Dolphin report, the Minister for Health and the Department would have assessed it. The Minister will bring his recommendation to the Government which will make its decision. It is a Government project which is part of the programme for Government. No other independent report or reports has or have been commissioned by the Government or Ministers.
I will repeat the question I asked yesterday. Has the Government asked any other individual separate from the Dolphin process to assess the sites concerned? I did not mention the word "report" in that fundamental question. I also asked whether any Minister in the Cabinet had asked an independent person to assess the sites. I said simple "Yes" or "No" answers to those questions would be appreciated. That is what I asked the Taoiseach yesterday, but he did not respond. He said no independent report had beem commissioned.
Why did a Government spokesperson confirm to RTE last evening for the midnight news - this is not speculation - that Mr. Fitzgerald had been approached in order to avoid the debacle over the Mater hospital site? Has RTE been completely wrongly advised by someone speaking officially on behalf of the Government? I refer to a Government spokesperson rather than a Government source. We should not play semantic games about phrases such as "independent reports".
The Taoiseach was asked a straightforward question yesterday and can give a straightforward answer today. Mr. Fitzgerald's name is all over the news bulletins this morning. All the Taoiseach has to do today - all he should have done yesterday - is confirm that Mr. Fitzgerald has been approached by the Government.
When Deputies keep interrupting, they sometimes prevent the truth from being heard. The Dolphin group combined planning, managerial and clinical expertise in the preparation of its report.
When the report is published, the Deputies will see it was right and proper for the Department of Health and the Minister to ask questions about aspects of the Dolphin report. As Mr. Fitzgerald said, that was done in an informal way. Deputy Micheál Martin should not run away with the illusion that the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, any other Minister or the Government as a whole commissioned an individual or individuals to make other independent assessments of the sites and locations mentioned in the Dolphin report.
Ní cheart go mbeadh an Taoiseach buartha faoin méid a dúirt ceannaire Fhianna Fáil. Tá fadhb níos mó ná sin i gceist. Is léir arís go bhfuil an tAire Sláinte ag titim ó géarchéim go ghéarchéim eile. Is í sin an fhadhb is tábhachtaí ar an maidin seo. I have been reflecting on what the parents of sick children must be thinking as they witness the latest outbreak of squabbling within the Government over the construction of the national children's hospital.
Will Deputies, please, show respect for the person asking a question? I am serious about suspending the sitting of the House. Deputy Gerry Adams to continue, without interruption.
The fact is that Fianna Fáil mishandled the issue for five years. The Labour Party's need to brief the media about the Tánaiste's alternative report is clearly intended to appease those who expressed disquiet about the competence of the Minister for Health following the resignation of the former Minister of State, Deputy Róisín Shortall. This is no way to govern, especially on an issue as important as the health of children. The fact is that the Government has been in office for 18 months. Perhaps this is more important than the issue raised by the leader of Fianna Fáil. We have had two reports and a failed planning application, but no decision has yet been taken. Seven years have passed since the McKinsey report recommended the construction of a world-class children's hospital, with full specialist services, on one site. The existing children's hospitals have since been starved of funds and waiting lists are increasing. Parents and staff are to be commended for their fund-raising efforts. It is clear that the hospital has to be built on the best site possible. The Taoiseach told me yesterday that the decision would be taken in two weeks. Can he guarantee to families watching this debate that the decision will be taken within two weeks, that there will be no more delays and no more party politics, and that this project which is vital for the future well-being of children will go ahead?
Aontaím leis an ráiteas atá déanta ag an Teachta faoi na hargóintí a bhíonn ar siúl anseo. This is an important capital project. Even in these straitened economic times, the Government has put together a funding model which will see up to €500 million being released for the building of a national paediatric hospital. We hope it will stand the test of time for the next 50 years and beyond. It is only right and proper that the Government should consider this issue carefully, in the best interests of all children, before making a decision that can be followed through such that this becomes a reality. I commend the medical staff, the nurses and everybody else who has worked during the years in the hospitals in Crumlin and Temple Street and at other locations where children are treated. In many cases, they have done magnificent and extraordinary work to deal with the difficulties experienced by children as very young babies and through childhood. It is only right and proper for individuals of such tradition, skill and expertise to be given an opportunity to work in a world-class facility. We are approaching the final stages of the process of making a decision and an announcement on where the Government intends to provide and build the hospital. I expect we will be in a position to make that announcement inside the next two weeks.
Any outside speculation and allegation is of no interest to me. My sole interest here is having a Government decision done in the right way, for the right site, for the right reasons, and to get on with providing what is one of the major flagship projects for our country in respect of which a funding model for provision has been put in place. I hope we will be able to conclude and make our decision in the next two weeks. The Government will apply itself to making that decision, as I said, in the best interests of our country.
I welcome that very clear commitment. I am sure the Taoiseach appreciates that parents of sick children will be discommoded by the various spins in the media, not least that the Taoiseach's partners in government felt the need to brief on the alternative report and so on. There is not general confidence in the Minister for Health; in fact, this party has no confidence at all in the Minister for Health. We also have to appreciate the Dáil has yet to see the Dolphin report, we have yet to see the second report commissioned by the Minister and we may never see the Tánaiste's report.
The Taoiseach said yesterday there were some clinical matters and I would like him to elaborate on those. I reiterate my welcome for his very clear commitment to a decision within two weeks. However, can we get funding restored to those other hospitals for children which are under pressure between now and the actual building, or commissioning of the building, of the new hospital? This would alleviate the distress of the parents and the staff who, I agree with the Taoiseach entirely, are absolutely wonderful.
I can confirm to the Deputy that the number of children on waiting lists has been reduced by 800, even with the exceptional numbers who have left the health service through voluntary redundancy, retirement and so on.
There is no alternative report. Everybody who will be party to making the decision, following the recommendation of the Minister, is entitled to understand the implications, the scale and the challenge of the project that lies ahead. The Dolphin report will be published as soon as the Government makes its decision, everybody can read it and we will have an opportunity to debate these issues here.
In the meantime, clearly, the HSE and the Department of Health are conscious of the priority that has to be attached to the treatment of children and, indeed, every other patient. While times are tough and challenging economically, that is a matter the Minister and his two Ministers of State want to treat with sensitivity.
Again, Dolphin will be published as soon as the Government makes its decision. There is no alternative report. The numbers are down by more than 800 for children on waiting lists.
The Taoiseach expected and expects the people of this country to feel pleased at these comments but, apart from the warm fuzzy feeling that we might be expected to feel after Angela Merkel's kind words, can he tell the teachers who are marching to the Dáil today, particularly the young, newly qualified teachers, what their new special status will mean? So far, their experience of being special is that if they start working as teachers this year, they are so special they will be earning 25% less than people they are working beside for doing precisely the same job, and they are so special they will earn €250,000 less over their working life, which is, by the way, the price of a house-----
The young people of this country are so special they have had their class sizes increased, their SNAs cut, their language support and resource teachers cut, their capitation grants cut and registration fees increased for third level students. Can the Taoiseach tell the teachers on the streets, the young people of this country and their parents that our new special status means there will be no further cuts to education at primary, secondary or third level and that he will reverse this unfair discrimination against young, newly qualified teachers, who are special?
The Minister for Education and Skills, given the constraints on the budget and the budgetary preparation he has to go through, brought in a new system where teachers starting the profession are at a lower salary or wage than those who had been in the system before. I listened to the secretary of one of the unions this morning say that the protest today was not about wages but about the education sector in general-----
-----and the anxieties and concerns about the education process. A discretionary allocation for supervision is now available to new teachers which was not available in February of this year because allowances were all suspended. That leaves teachers starting off in the profession on a salary of €32,000 per year.
This is part of a very difficult situation for the country. Protests, as the Deputy is well aware as he is involved in most of them, are perfectly legitimate in Ireland, provided they do not get out of hand. While it is a challenging time for everybody, clearly, the Government has set a programme for recruitment of new teachers in the programme for Government and, because of the budgetary constraints set out, the starting salary for new teachers in the profession is reduced from what it was.
As a former teacher himself, does the Taoiseach think it is fair that young teachers coming into the profession this year should be working alongside people doing exactly the same job but be earning 25% less? Is that not straightforward wage apartheid? Is it not discrimination and ageism? Is it not completely unfair? Is not utterly unfair that the difference in earnings over the lifetime of those new, young teachers will be the price of a house? That is the difference. Are they to blame for the financial crash that has hit this country?
Should they pick up the tab? Is it fair that our young people, students with special needs and those entering third level education should pay the bill for the gambling of speculators, financiers and bondholders that the Taoiseach and Angela Merkel are insisting they pay?
I ask the Taoiseach to tell those teachers, so they do not have to come out in protest and can concentrate on what they want to do, that he will reverse this unfairness and that the Minister sitting beside him, Deputy Quinn, will give a commitment there will be no further education cuts hitting primary, secondary or third level in the forthcoming budget? Can he give that commitment to us and to those who will be on the streets today?
Deputy Boyd Barrett should bear in mind that one of his group up there at the back is actually taking a case in the European Court to prevent the mechanism for funding this country from being put in place. It will be an interesting decision which the court makes and I understand all 27 judges are there.
As I said, the starting salary is €32,294 for teachers, which is a starting salary of €30,702 with an optional pensionable allowance of €1,592. I am advised by the Minister for Education and Skills that there are nine applicants for every teacher place. At least the decision gives clarity to new teachers and is an improvement on the pay situation of teachers who began employment in February of this year because allowances were all suspended and frozen.
A total of 80% of the current budget of the Department of Education and Skills goes on the pay and pensions of teachers. There is little room for savings. As the Deputy is aware, teaching is one of the few areas within the public sector which does not face a moratorium on recruitment. With a growing school population, opportunities remain for employment. Since September, 355 new primary school teachers and 182 post-primary teachers have received new contracts. That is more than 530 new posts in the teaching sector, which is an important consideration that the Deputy would not mention.
The Minister for Education and Skills has also pointed out that due to the demographics of the population and the growing school population that there will be a continuing need for additional teachers to be recruited in the medium term. I am also advised that the range of salaries and allowances is in line with the Croke Park agreement. As the Deputy is aware, I met with the implementation group and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform recently. The sectoral groups of the major Departments, including Education and Skills, have been meeting since then. They are discussing what can be achieved. In future, those are all matters that can be further discussed when we have rectified our public finances and we have a rapidly growing economy which will offer greater career and income prospects.
On the comment about teachers outside, the Minister is cognisant of the importance of the education system for the future development of the economy. He will do everything he can with sensitivity within the impositions on him.