Thursday, 9 February 2017
In a week where the cruel impact of the deficiencies in our health service on ordinary people was exposed by the "RTE Investigates" programme, we learned hospital waiting lists are still getting worse. In response to Monday’s programme, we have had much empathy and eloquent words from the Minister for Health. I do not doubt his sincerity. However, we need decisive action that will make a tangible difference to the people affected.
The latest hospital waiting lists for January are staggering. Over 632,000 people are on a waiting list of some form or another, almost 13% of our population. More than one in eight people are now on a waiting list. This is indeed truly shocking, extraordinary and frightening.
Nurses and midwives have decided to engage in industrial action because they have lost faith in the ability of the Government and the Health Service Executive, HSE, to deal with the acute nursing shortages across our health service. It is clear nurses and midwives do not want to engage in industrial action. It is not what they are about. They want to be at work providing the best service they can for the patients they serve. It has been evident for quite some time that nurses and midwives are deeply frustrated with the environment in which they have to work. They say it is unsafe for themselves, for the patients they serve and for other health professionals. The kernel of this dispute lies in staffing, recruitment and retention. In truth, it has been brewing for quite some time.
I acknowledge there have been efforts by the Government and the HSE to recruit more nurses and midwives. However, it has been with little success. A shortage of nurses and midwives hurts. It is not victimless. The shortage of nurses means operations get cancelled. Last year, 37,000 operations were cancelled, up over 50% from the previous year. The shortage of nurses means that acute beds cannot be filled. Even today, over 100 acute beds in our hospital system cannot be filled while, at the same time, people are lying on hospital trolleys. The shortage of nurses means, in essence, that patients are not being served in the way they should. The goodwill of nurses and midwives has helped to keep the system chugging along. They have had enough, however, and who can blame them?
What is the Government’s plan to deal with imminent industrial action by nurses and midwives? What reassurance can the Tánaiste give patients across the country that the situation will not get worse? They are frightened by what has been revealed about the current state of our health service, especially around waiting lists, hospital trolleys and so forth. Now, they learn of this industrial action which has the potential to make matters worse. It is happening because nurses have simply had enough. We need a reassurance from the Tánaiste as to what the Government will do to prevent this industrial action, which is less than four weeks away.
I agree with Deputy Michael McGrath that the threat of industrial action is not victimless. Undoubtedly, people would suffer if we were at that point. It is certainly something the Government and every Member wants to avoid. We do not want to be in that place.
I shared the deep disappointment of both the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, and the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, when they heard the outcome of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, executive committee meeting the other night. Significant efforts were made to resolve this issue by all sides, namely, the HSE, the Department and the INMO. Unfortunately, we still have a situation where the announcement was put forward and the INMO rejected the proposals. Every effort was made to reach agreement.
The Minister, the HSE and the INMO recognise the challenge of recruiting and retaining nurses in the public health system. It is no consolation to patients and those who use the health services that this is an international problem. However, the truth is that almost every public health service in the world is having the same difficulty in attracting nurses. It is an enormous challenge but one we are determined to meet.
The initiatives put forward at the discussions included a commitment to substantially increase the nurse and midwifery force in 2017 with 1,208 additional funded posts coming on stream, offering all graduate nurses and midwives full-time contracts, a career break scheme, 130 additional undergraduate places in 2017 and improved educational opportunities and career pathways. Obviously, it was felt this was not enough.
The next step is that there is a meeting this afternoon of the Lansdowne Road agreement oversight group. I encourage everybody involved to make every effort to come to an agreement on the issues which I have outlined. It is clear people have to engage seriously on this. There is time as the threatened action is several weeks away. I encourage everyone to get involved in these talks. The HSE and the Department remain open to detailed discussion to resolve the dispute to ensure we do not arrive at a point where, as the Deputy said rightly, patients would suffer.
Will the Tánaiste give a commitment today that meaningful engagement will actually take place between the Government, the HSE and the INMO? I do not believe the Lansdowne Road agreement oversight group is going to be the forum for resolving this issue. The Tánaiste outlined what was in the document put forward by the HSE and the Government but it was rejected.
I did not say the industrial action is not victimless. I said the shortage of nurses and midwives is not victimless. That is what is at the root cause of this dispute. Until the Government recognises that, then we are not on the way to resolving this issue. The Minister said 1,200 nurses will be recruited over the course of the year.
Nobody believes that will actually be delivered and that is the problem. The nurses and midwives have heard it all before. There has been a litany of broken promises from three successive Fine Gael Ministers for Health in the past number of years on ending the scandal of people lying on trolleys, cutting hospital waiting lists and bringing in universal health insurance. We are not seeing progress on these issues and nurses are frustrated. The decision to take industrial action is borne out of that frustration. They see no other way of resolving the issue. There has to be meaningful engagement and a genuine commitment on the part of the Government now to deal with the underlying reasons for this industrial dispute.
If the Deputy is looking for reassurance that absolutely every effort will be made and that there is an absolute agreement that serious engagement will continue from the point of view of the HSE, the Department and the Minister with the INMO, the Deputy has that reassurance. Every effort will be made to come to an agreement on these important issues. When we are focusing on the problems in the health service, we tend not to really pay tribute to the extraordinary work that is done for so many patients and the extraordinary successes we have seen in the health service. It is worth making that point because huge efforts are made by doctors and nurses and people get excellent treatment. Clearly, the issue of recruiting and retaining is extremely difficult. There have been open recruitment periods and recruitment remains open and continuous. Every effort is being made to attract new staff. It is worth noting that since December 2013, numbers of staff in the area have increased by 1,657. We have had that increase. The extra €1 billion that has gone into the health service for a range of issues is having an impact but there is more work to be done. As the Minister said, it is also about changing the GP contracts so more people can get better service in the community and it is also about looking at the bed capacity review. No new hospitals have been built since 1988 and we need to change that.
This afternoon, we will debate the establishment of a commission of investigation into whistleblower allegations that go to the heart of Garda administration. I welcome that. It is long overdue. The protected disclosures that are the subject of the commission outline an alleged orchestrated campaign by some in senior Garda management positions to undermine Sergeant Maurice McCabe. Those allegations include the distribution of text messages to attack his reputation, the opening of intelligence files on him, the monitoring of his activities, the briefing of elements of the media and selected politicians alleging criminal wrongdoing by Sergeant McCabe. These are incredibly serious issues. They go to the very core of our policing and justice systems. What is alleged is a comprehensive campaign of character assassination, a calculated campaign to destroy the standing of a serving member of An Garda Síochána and a cynical campaign that sought out allies among the compliant sections of the mainstream media and politicians. This is, to borrow the phrase, a truly terrible vista. The idea of the forces of law and order turning on an officer of the law, a man who has done the State some service and a citizen prepared to step forward and speak out is an outrage. It is an outrage that begs the most fundamental questions about the fair administration of justice and the authorities entrusted with upholding the law. Sergeant McCabe's offence, it seems, was to blow the whistle on Garda malpractice in penalty points. Is this what happens when someone stands up to wrongdoing? Is this how someone is treated when they stand up and raise concerns regarding practices within the upper echelons of An Garda Síochána? It seems the actions of some in senior Garda management are perhaps summed up best by the words of the former Garda Commissioner, Martin Callinan. Their actions are disgusting.
Yesterday, an Teachta Brendan Howlin put allegations on the record of this House. I will not repeat them but they are incredibly serious. Suffice to say they allege a vile and, quite frankly, evil attempt by An Garda Síochána at the very top to ruin a man's character and standing. We in Sinn Féin have previously called for Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan to step aside, without prejudice, for the duration of the commission of investigation's work. That is a basic requirement for public confidence and vital for the battered morale of serving members of An Garda Síochána.
My questions are straightforward. Does the Tánaiste have confidence in the Garda Commissioner? Will she do the right thing and ask her to step aside from her duties, without prejudice, for the duration of the Charleton commission's investigation?
We are about to have a debate in the House on the terms of reference of the commission of investigation. When these allegations were brought to my attention, particularly through the protected disclosures, I asked Mr. Justice Iarfhlaith O'Neill to conduct an investigation into how these very serious allegations and serious protected disclosures should be dealt with. I received his report some weeks ago. I went to Government last week and followed his recommendations in their entirely in terms of pursuing a commission of investigation which the Supreme Court judge, Mr. Justice Peter Charleton, has agreed to chair. I thank both of them for the work they have done. These are very serious allegations made about An Garda Síochána, on which we all depend and which is central to our democracy. Its effective functioning is central to our democracy. Both I and the Government are fully committed to ensuring that is the situation.
I will make a number of points on what the Deputy has said about a particular person and the context. There is a general constitutional obligation to protect the good names and reputations of persons who may be the subject of untested allegations. That constitutional protection applies to everybody involved in this situation, not only the two people the Deputy mentioned but everybody - those who make the protected disclosures and those against whom the allegations are made. That is the first point. That is how we do things in this country. We follow our constitutional obligations to protect the good names and reputations of people who may be the subject of untested allegations. That applies to all individuals in the House. The Deputy will recall that in advance of the referring and publishing of Mr. Justice O'Neill's conclusions and recommendations, I refused to discuss the nature of the allegations being made because of the rules around protected disclosure. We will have the chance to debate all of this but what is at issue here is a series of allegations that have not yet been tested and which, I have to repeat again, are wholly denied by the people against whom they are made. I do not believe there is a reason for anyone to step aside in that context. If everybody against whom allegations are made was expected to step aside, we would have a very extraordinary situation. People are entitled to fair procedures, justice and the proper way of doing things. We are not dealing with circumstances where a prima faciecase of wrongdoing has been established against anyone. Mr. Justice O'Neill, the very person who had the opportunity to speak to everyone and to examine the whole situation, has said he cannot make any findings on the very allegations the Deputy speaks about. He, as a judge, having considered it, does not feel he can do it and that a commission of investigation is necessary. In the case of the Garda Commissioner, I have consistently stated there has been no finding of any wrongdoing against her. In those circumstances, she is entitled to our full support and confidence. That remains the position.
The Tánaiste's answer is astonishing on many levels, not least because nothing I have said attributes any finding or conclusion of guilt to the Commissioner. What I have said and what Mr. Justice O'Neill set out is the rationale for a commission of investigation that is largely, if not exclusively, focused on the actions and activities of the former Garda Commissioner and the current Garda Commissioner.
As a matter of good procedure in the pursuance of protecting everybody's rights, including Sergeant McCabe's and the other whistleblower, it is preferable that the person at the heart of this matter would step aside without prejudice. That is a matter of basic common sense but the Tánaiste resiles from that. That is a very great shame.
Will the Tánaiste confirm for the House, as we know of the allegations of contact between An Garda Síochána up to the very top with the media and politicians, if she is aware of contact between An Garda Síochána and any other State agency in relation to Sergeant Maurice McCabe?
Let me repeat what I have said, and the Deputy referred to common sense. What I have said is that I believe the interests of justice in this country are better served by the process that I have outlined. Of course, I would want to put on the record that if allegations of wrongdoing are found to be true, that would be likely to have very serious consequences, but I repeat that it would be completely wrong to prejudge the matter.
In relation to Maurice McCabe's contact with State agencies-----
The one I would be aware of would be contact with, for example, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, in the normal course of events, whatever would be appropriate there, but no, I am not in possession of-----
I beg your pardon. The question I want to ask has been prompted by two developments. The first is the actions and words of President Trump in regard to refugees, the ban on refugees coming from Syria and on other refugees from Muslim-majority countries, and also by the world reaction to his words. With very few exceptions, the reaction has been one of anger and condemnation because we are all very concerned with this attack on the rights of refugees to flee war and oppression. It goes against the principles of the American Declaration of Independence. It also reneges on international obligations. Ireland also protested and various Ministers were vocal in stating it was wrong to treat people on the basis of their religion or nationality and that we have to stand by refugees and asylum seekers.
We were saying all the right things but the words do not stand up when we consider the particular ways in which we are treating refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in this country. We are also part of some very questionable EU agreements. For example, the EU-Turkey agreement continues to come in for criticism, yet at the same time the EU is considering one with Libya on refugees. That goes against what the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights said, namely, that sending people back to Libya or to countries that have not signed the Geneva Convention should always be avoided.
We have low rates of acceptance of asylum seekers. It is less than half the European average. We have been slow in taking in the Syrian refugees and there are delays with family reunification. While there has been movement on direct provision, the current figure is 4,300.
I want to highlight the matter of the serious shortcomings and the issues that continue for young people who are growing up in the asylum system in Ireland. If those issues continue to be unaddressed, then our protest against President Trump's actions continues to be hypocritical.
The migrant integration strategy, which the Tánaiste has just launched, is welcome as a step in the right direction, and the Tánaiste said that this is the first step. However, our immigration system is not addressing a wide range of situations in which children and young people find themselves. There is also a need to consider the position of these young people, irrespective of their parents' status. There is also need to consider the position of those who are in State care if their status has not been resolved by the time they reach the age of 18. There is a need for clarity, consistency and for the provision of information and knowledge that is easily acceptable.
I would draw the Tánaiste's attention, if she has not seen it already, to a report from the Immigrant Council of Ireland in December 2016. It was based on case studies involving a number of these young people. It was also based on conversations and engagements with professionals who work with them. The report is very clear on the issues and on the detailed recommendations on how the system needs to be reformed. It is a piece of work that still waits to be done and I ask that this would be treated with urgency.
I thank Deputy O'Sullivan for raising those matters. Clearly, the whole international refugee crisis is one of the biggest challenges of our time, with 65 million people on the move across the world and huge numbers having arrived in Europe having crossed the Mediterranean and having used other routes, and it is one of the biggest crises that the EU has faced in terms of its response.
Regarding President Trump, I would have a huge concern about a blanket ban on refugees. I met the Syrian Support Group in Ireland yesterday and to hear the individual stories about what those families have been through and their relatives who still remain in Aleppo and other parts of Syria and who are spread around the world at this point is absolutely heart-breaking. We all have to reach out as much as we possibly can. In that regard, Ireland's commitment was a proactive one within the European Union. We were not under any obligation to take refugees, although I think everybody would agree that it was the right thing to do. We have approximately 80 Syrians arriving every few weeks in Ireland. When I meet those families, the first thing the vast majority of them ask is when their children can start school. They have the same wishes and hopes that every other family in this country would have.
We have been very fortunate in this country that we have not seen extreme views expressed and that communities are supportive of those who arrive on our shores. Approximately 95,000 people have been naturalised in recent years and we have had quite a number of asylum seekers arrive here.
Many improvements have been made in regard to direct provision but I accept that there is ongoing work to be done. We have a new International Protection Act which simplifies the procedure for those coming through. The status of those who are arriving now is dealt with within six to ten weeks and then we have to deal with the issues around housing and education and so on. There are particular issues in regard to children and my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Zappone, has been intent on ensuing any unaccompanied minors who we bring into this country get comprehensive services. I examined this issue in detail some years ago and there have been great improvements, as the Deputy will know, within the HSE in terms of the way that unaccompanied minors are now dealt with, where they live with foster families instead of in hostels. That is quite a dramatic change from the way these young children were being dealt with. I take the point that the Deputy made.
We launched the new migrant integration strategy two days ago, which was welcomed by all of the groups working in this area. That has been well received but we have to make sure it is implemented.
I certainly will examine the details of the Immigrant Council of Ireland's report in regard to young people. We want to offer these young people and newly arrived immigrants, refugees and migrants the very best services we can offer both at a national level and a local level. Much will depend on local services responding appropriately and reaching out to these families in order that they get the health and education services they need and the English language training. That is happening for these new arrivals.
I want to focus on those who are in the asylum system as we speak. Some of them have been in this country for seven, eight and more years. Many of them have no memory of their country of origin. They consider them to be Irish. A young person's immigration status will define and determine his or her life. It will determine their access to education, social services, employment and housing.
I draw the Minister's attention to the Young People at Risk, YPAR, organisation in Dublin Central. The Minister, Deputy Zappone, launched its two-day conference recently in the Gresham Hotel. Those foreign national young people were speaking of their situation as it is now. They have come through primary and secondary level but they cannot access third level. They cannot go to work. Even those of them who can access the small amount of funding that is needed for a post-leaving certificate course, on having acquired a skill on having completed that course, they cannot use it because they cannot work. These young people want to contribute to Ireland in the same way as Irish migrants throughout the years have contributed to other countries where they lived. There is need to consider introducing an amnesty here in the same way that we are seeking one for the undocumented Irish in the United States. These young people refer to themselves as "ghosts". Their plea from the conference was that they do not want pity, they want regularisation.
I want to put on the record of the House that when Judge McMahon did his report, which we launched some time ago, the big concern was the length of time people were spending in direct provision. The reality is that those numbers have dramatically decreased since the report was launched. There are very few people left in the system who have been here longer than the five-year mark, for example, except those who are taking judicial reviews. Therefore, the vast majority of these situations have been dealt with, and the new people arriving will now have their statuses dealt with in a far faster way, so we will not have the issue of people being here for long periods without their applications being processed and final decisions made. That is very important. The situation has changed. I put the figures into the public arena at a conference last week. The changes to the length of time people are spending in direct provision are very dramatic. Regarding the point the Deputy made about these young people, what is important is that they get their applications cleared quickly. Once they are refugees, of course they can work. They are not ghosts. They can be part of ordinary society. However, there are transitional points. We need to support the organisations working with these people and we are increasing the support we are giving to those organisations.
Here we are again talking about practices within An Garda Síochána. We have had the O'Higgins report and the O'Neill report and earlier this week the Tánaiste announced a new commission of investigation, all of which were essentially designed with the same remit, that is, to investigate the practices of An Garda Síochána which underpinned the appalling treatment of whistleblowers in the force. Surely, this underlines the point that there is something fundamentally wrong at the most senior level of An Garda Síochána.
The same commission was announced by the Tánaiste with zero recourse to the Dáil in advance regarding the terms of reference, and we will have a debate on the matter this afternoon. That was unfortunate. The minority Government of 59 members, underpinned by Fianna Fáil, does not represent parliamentary democracy, and the mandate of the entire Dáil must be remembered. It feels like a throwback to the majoritarianism and arrogance that developed in the last Dáil. I welcome the debate this afternoon, which comes after the fact.
There seems to have been a kind of attitude that things can be managed. This has spectacularly backfired. Two weeks ago, John Mooney had a Sunday Timespiece dealing with a report which the Tánaiste had been aware of since last year yet which had not found its way into the public domain. The report concerned serious mishandling of funds in Templemore Garda training college. In any other week, the story would have run and run, but the Tánaiste got lucky with the news cycle. The report is indicative of the malaise in the force.
The Commissioner's statement last night that she was surprised by the revelations made yesterday astonished me and, I am sure, others because these allegations had been circulating at political and media levels for some months. If the Commissioner genuinely did not know about them, there is a very serious failure in the intelligence-gathering capabilities of her office, and indeed the force, and a serious problem with internal communication. Given the tittle-tattle that the last Commissioner seemed to know about Mick Wallace's minor motoring offence, for example, it is very hard to believe that the current Commissioner is oblivious to the most serious and scurrilous allegations about her and Sergeant McCabe that were circulating. Given that it appears RTE correspondents were made privy to the intricate details of the O'Higgins report before it ever saw the light of day, the Commissioner might ask if RTE is getting more information than she is. It is very hard to believe the Commissioner's statement last night, and it begs the question what else we can believe. We in the Social Democrats see no option but for the Commissioner to step aside while the commission undertakes its work, given her central role in disciplinary procedures in the force.
Does the Tánaiste accept that the establishment of a third inquiry into the force is indicative of serious problems at the most senior level of management? Does she accept that the force is undermined? Does she find it credible that the Commissioner did not know about the allegations that were circulating? Will she publish the report about Templemore college?
Regarding Templemore college, the Deputy referenced a story which I think appeared in The Sunday Times. That was in the public arena, and questions were answered on it in the justice committee well before it was. Detailed information was put on the record about the audit and the actions that were being taken internally to deal with what had been uncovered by the audit of the college. That is the reality of the situation. However, what was put in the public arena is unacceptable in practice and governance terms, and that must be changed. My understanding at this point is that procedures have been changed. They were far too informal, but action has been taken internally to address that. I am very happy to come into the House to talk about this at some point and put all the information I have on the floor of the Dáil.
Regarding the various issues that have arisen with An Garda Síochána, I have never denied that ongoing change, modernisation and reform is necessary as far as the Garda is concerned. That is the job of management and the job of Government in so far as I and the Government can set the parameters that will help that reform and that change. That is what I have done in establishing the independent Policing Authority, which is a sea change in the way the oversight of An Garda Síochána is done in this country. It is extremely important that we now have the independent Policing Authority dealing with a whole range of issues. I did refer the question of whistleblowing and how it was dealt with in An Garda Síochána to the independent Policing Authority many months ago. I have received the report from the authority about that. It suggested a number of improvements, and they have been dealt with. I will not take up the time of the House in putting on the record the other changes that have been made within An Garda Síochána regarding whistleblowing, but it is important to say that the manner in which whistleblowing is dealt with is an area that every organisation must examine. Any time I have had discussions with An Garda Síochána, my questions have concerned the examination of how well whistleblowers were being dealt with and the procedures that were in place. I have always been looking for improvements in this regard, and that work goes on.
As far as the Commissioner's position is concerned, I make the point that regarding Judge O'Neill's inquiry, the various parties co-operated fully with the O'Neill review, and I have no doubt but that they will do the very same when it comes to the commission of investigation. This is a commission with strong powers, and everybody has said they will co-operate with it. I will not repeat what the Deputy said about the Garda Commissioner's statement, but the Garda Commissioner made a statement last night outlining her view and her response. I have no reason to believe that is not the truth of her situation. We must take the statement she made last night. I will not question it the way the Deputy has. It is a very serious charge to make against anyone that he or she would, by innuendo - this is what is being suggested - try to obstruct the work of a commission of investigation in any way. It is extremely unfair to make such a charge when there is no evidence whatsoever to support it. Let us remind ourselves that a commission of investigation has very extensive legal powers, should there be any obstruction of its work.
I do not believe I was making allegations.
A very extensive piece of secondary legislation was produced in 2007, namely, the Garda Síochána (Discipline) Regulations. The Commissioner is central to these regulations and to any disciplinary process against rank and file members of the Garda, such as Superintendent David Taylor, for example, who finds himself at the centre of the process overseen by the Commissioner. He has been suspended for almost two years. An investigation into the matter was initiated by the Commissioner and conducted by her own husband. The Commissioner is a subject to investigation in this inquiry.
It is very difficult to see how the force is not undermined by the Commissioner's staying in situin respect of the disciplinary aspect of this case while the commission of investigation is under way. I ask without prejudice how the Tánaiste can think it is appropriate to be subject to an inquiry and perform the disciplinary procedure. I encourage the Tánaiste to reconsider encouraging the Commissioner to step aside for the duration of the inquiry.
I have already made the point but it bears repeating that in my and the Government's approach to this, and on taking legal advice on it, I have had to consider our general constitutional obligations to protect the good names and reputations of persons who may be the subject of untested allegations. Allegations have been made in the recent past in this House which on detailed examination by appropriate parties were found not to be correct. That happened very recently. We owe it to people to follow the correct procedures to have the right standards, the right approach when we are dealing with an issue such as this. It is an obligation. All of us would want to have our good names and reputations protected. We would not want people rushing to judgment and by taking certain actions we could be undermining that. That is why I am making the point that these are not circumstances where there is prima facieevidence of wrongdoing. These allegations are seriously contested by those against whom they are made. The judge who has examined this for us, Mr. Justice O'Neill, has spoken to all the main players involved and examined the protected disclosures, which nobody else in this House has had the opportunity to see because they are protected. He has said that the way to deal with this is to have a full commission of inquiry. The Commissioner and indeed the other parties have made clear that they will co-operate fully. We should await the outcome of the commission of inquiry.