Wednesday, 22 November 2017
Last evening the Tánaiste answered questions on her knowledge of the adversarial approach of An Garda Síochána against Sergeant Maurice McCabe at the O'Higgins commission of investigation. The Tánaiste also published the email of May 2015. That email is damning. The Tánaiste was notified by email in May 2015 of this adversarial legal strategy. That email should have rung alarm bells for the Tánaiste. She would have been aware of the allegations against Maurice McCabe referred to in the email and that the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, had directed that no action be taken, and that the independent review mechanism, which she established and to which this was referred, also decided that no further action be taken. She also had met Maurice and Lorraine McCabe in October 2014 where they detailed this allegation to her and the trauma it caused them. The Tánaiste was told, however, that this very case, of which she was well aware and which had no foundation, was going to be raised by An Garda Síochána before the O'Higgins commission to undermine this man's credibility and integrity.
The O'Higgins commission was established to verify allegations in a dossier re Garda malpractice. It was never established to undermine a man's integrity, credibility or character. Furthermore, the Tánaiste had legal representation at the O'Higgins commission, which surely would have kept the Department and Minister informed of what was going on at the commission. It is simply not credible that the Tánaiste would forget about this email and its content, given the enormity of the McCabe issue up to then. Indeed the Tánaiste would have been appointed Minister for Justice and Equality because of this entire saga. It is interesting that when the adversarial nature of the O'Higgins commission became public knowledge the Tánaiste said to me, in answering questions in the House on 17 May, the hearings were not adversarial; they were inquisitorial. She was flatly denying its adversarial nature.
The Tánaiste says she forgot the content of the email but it is far worse that she did not follow up on the email. By passively acquiescing she became a bystander to a legal strategy designed to undermine a man's motivation, credibility and ultimately his integrity. This has echoes of the Tusla file revelations, an episode that nearly brought down the Government at the time. The Tánaiste stayed silent on that occasion. There was no reference to this particular email. The Taoiseach inadvertently acknowledged – misled - the House last week because of the Tánaiste's actions. The email came to her attention last Thursday. It was kept quiet for four days. God only knows whether, had "Prime Time" not asked the questions, we ever would have known about this email. Would it ever have been sent to Mr. Justice Charleton if that did not happen?
Does the Taoiseach accept that the Tánaiste failed Sergeant McCabe by not acting on this email and that by doing nothing, she allowed An Garda Síochána to seek to undermine his credibility as a person to whom she said she would offer the highest legal protection? She may not have thrown him to the wolves but she allowed them free reign and that is a fundamental failure to protect a man who, as the Taoiseach said yesterday, was wronged on several occasions by this State and again in this context.
All I can do at this stage is restate and remind the House of what I said previously, first, that the Tánaiste had no hand, act or part in the legal strategy pursued by the former Garda Commissioner. There is an attempt in some way to suggest in this House and other places that the State or State entities were acting in collusion or all acting together. That is not the case. The Garda has its own legal team and advice, as the Commissioner at the time did, and the Department has its legal team and advice. They are separate legal entities and particularly in the context of a tribunal or commission, they have to act separately and cannot interfere in one another's legal position. The Tánaiste, and we know this from the email of 15 May 2015, did not have any knowledge that such a legal strategy was being pursued until that email was sent on 15 May. That is after opening statements, after the fact, after the hearings were already under way.
The question Deputy Martin may ask is why the Tánaiste did not intervene, why she did not contact the Garda Commissioner or the Garda or do so through officials. The reason this was not done is in the email. The answer is given to Deputy Martin in the last paragraph of that email of 15 May: the Attorney General and the Minister were advised by officials that they had no function in this. As Deputy Martin knows, under the rules of a commission of investigation, it is an offence to release evidence from a commission and to try to interfere in the work of a commission or tribunal of inquiry.
I spoke to Sergeant McCabe last night. It was a relatively brief conversation. We spoke for perhaps 15 or 20 minutes. I felt, out of a courtesy to him, given that once again, through no fault of his own, he was at the centre of a major controversy, that he had a right to know what was in the email, at least before it was handed out in this House. I read the email out to him. He disputes its contents. He says these criminal allegations concerning sex abuse were not raised that day and not raised at all at the O'Higgins commission. He says the transcripts of the O'Higgins commission will show this. This leaves us all a little confused because we do not even know if the contents of the email were accurate. It was an email reporting a conversation between an official in the Department of Justice and Equality and the Attorney General's office. What was written in the email and sent to the Tánaiste was second-party or even third-party information. As Deputy Martin will know, Sergeant McCabe disputes that the issue that arose in the IRM, the criminal allegations, were ever raised at the O'Higgins commission.
Why did the Tánaiste not act? She did not act for the reasons I have given the Deputy. However, she did act in other ways: she established the Policing Authority, one of the most major reforms to have occurred in Irish policing in recent years; she asked the Policing Authority to take an interest in bringing about new procedures and guidelines as to how whistleblowers could be listened to and protected within the Garda; she brought in Transparency International, the leading organisation dealing with corruption and the protection of whistleblowers; and she did what a Minister should do, that is, not to interfere in a commission or try to influence someone else's legal strategy, but to try to change things and put the right procedures and new practices in place.
I do not accept the Taoiseach's reply. No one has ever said the Tánaiste had a part in the legal strategy. We do not know who sent the email or to whom it was sent. Was it sent to the Secretary General? It only turned up last Thursday. Why the top of it was sheared off and why references to individuals were pulled from it I do not know. It states in the last paragraph "and I agreed". Who is the "I" who sent the email? I ask this rhetorically because I will make the point that the Tánaiste does not have to accept that straight away. She can engage with that person.
What is going on here? There are all the public protestations from the Garda Commissioner and the Minister that they will offer the highest level of legal protection to this man, and here the Minister is being told that far from offering the highest legal protection, the individuals involved are going to go for him and undermine him via a case which we know the DPP is not pursuing - which no one is pursuing - and in respect of which the DPP said there was no case to answer. If this does not raise alarm bells in the Tánaiste's mind, I simply do not know what would. The Taoiseach mentioned the Attorney General and his conversation with Sergeant Maurice McCabe.
I also spoke to Maurice McCabe. I referred to that yesterday. The content of what he is saying should alarm the Taoiseach even more because what is at the heart of this is a terrible vista: that an appalling set of actions were afoot to undermine this man's credibility and character. It is simply not good enough to say a Minister in charge of a portfolio relating to the most explosive issue to have hit the Dáil in the past three years merely stands by and allows the adversarial nature of the legal strategy to continue to undermine this man's credibility yet again.
It is important to point out as a matter of fact that all parties had legal representation at the commission - not the Tánaiste individually, but the Department of Justice and Equality, An Garda Síochána and, of course, Sergeant McCabe, who had separate legal counsel, separate legal representation, dealing with the issue in accordance with the rules and laws that govern commissions of inquiry. I think the Deputy is confusing the role of legal counsel for the Garda Commissioner with that of legal counsel for the Department of Justice and Equality, which are two separate entities.
I have nothing to hide. There is no one I am trying to protect. The email was sent by an assistant secretary in the Department of Justice and Equality to a number of people in the Department of Justice and Equality, including the Tánaiste's private secretary, who then passed it on to her for information, so she was informed that-----
I have no difficulty with that being done but I will have to check whether it is possible. There is nothing here to hide and there is no one here whom I or the Government is trying to protect. All we are interested in is the truth, and the best way we can get to the truth is to allow the tribunal to do its work. I ask anyone in this House or anywhere else who has information, and whose information has not yet been put in the public domain, information that I am not yet aware of, to put that information together and transmit it through the tribunal, which is the right thing to do. I have also asked the Department of Justice and Equality through my Department to do two things. First, I have asked it to go through a trawl of the documents again to see if there is anything that it has not yet come across, that it has not yet passed on to the tribunal and second, I have asked for a report on the implementation of the Toland report. The Deputy will be aware that a number of years ago, after the Tánaiste became Minister for Justice and Equality, she commissioned Kevin Toland to do a report on the functioning of the Department of Justice and Equality in order to set out a reform programme to modernise and improve that Department. I have sought a report on the extent to which that is being implemented.
The fact that the Taoiseach says now that he has ordered a trawl of documentation and that he is revisiting the Toland report in respect of the dysfunctionality of the Department of Justice and Equality simply underscores yet again the seriousness of this matter and the fact that it is not an isolated incident. There are now serious questions over the judgment, competence and credibility of An Tánaiste, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, and I think her strategy has been precisely to protect her and her Government in this saga.
The email, which the Tánaiste claims she forgets reading, plainly sets out a deliberate and cynical strategy on the part of the former Garda Commissioner, Nóirín O'Sullivan, to undermine and attack the credibility of Maurice McCabe. It is also clear that the Tánaiste was made aware that the Garda legal team intended using serious criminal allegations against Sergeant McCabe which they knew and, more to the point, she knew had been disproved. We now all know that the Tánaiste failed to act, despite the fact that the Garda Commissioner is immediately accountable to her as Minister for Justice and Equality. The Tánaiste parroted the line that the whistleblower would be given the highest level of protection by Government while at the same time allowing the leadership of An Garda Síochána to pursue such a malicious - not an adversarial, but a malicious - legal strategy.
The Tánaiste was informed in May 2014 of the criminal complaint against McCabe. She knew that that complaint was disproved. How, then, when she opened and read the email a year later about the very same and disproved complaint, did she not grasp the importance of any plan to use this as material in the Commissioner's legal strategy, and how then did she forget ever having read it? The Taoiseach's position up to this point has been that the Tánaiste had no prior knowledge of the legal strategy before the fact. I take "before the fact" to mean before the cross-examination of Maurice McCabe by the commission. That cross-examination took place on 18 May 2015.
I understand the date on the email conveying the malicious nature of the Garda legal strategy was sent to the Tánaiste on 15 May. That is three days prior to the cross-examination. Is that not correct? Does this mean that Deputy Frances Fitzgerald sat back and allowed Maurice McCabe to go before the commission in full knowledge of the Commissioner's vicious strategy? I do not think that would be a matter of forgetfulness; that would call into question the competence, judgment and honour of the second most senior member of the Taoiseach's Government. It raises very serious questions over the Tánaiste's fitness for office. She was given the opportunity last night to clarify her position. She chose not to do that. We did not get the answers we need. How did the Taoiseach come into the Dáil and misrepresent the truth - the truth - that the Tánaiste did have prior knowledge of the legal strategy prior to Maurice McCabe's cross-examination? Why did the Taoiseach persist with the "no prior knowledge" defence? Is that still the Taoiseach's position? Does he have confidence in the Tánaiste? How can she remain on as Tánaiste?
Yes, I have confidence in the Tánaiste but, no, I am not satisfied with the fact that on a number of occasions - at least two in the past week - I have been given incomplete information from the Department of Justice and Equality. My role is to account for the Government to the House and it is not something I like to see happen. On one occasion it was with regard to the ODCE and it happened in part on another occasion when I got additional information after the fact. I am not satisfied with that. That is why I have asked for a full trawl of documents in the Department of Justice and Equality to occur. Any documents that are found should be transmitted to the tribunal. That is why I have asked for a progress report on the implementations of the Toland recommendations into the operation and modernisation of that particular Department. What I think is agreed in this House - I hope it is agreed - is that the Tánaiste had no hand, act or part in the Garda Commissioner's-----
After the fact is after it had already started and was under way, from the opening statements. We should point out the former Commissioner disputes some of this. That is also part of the tribunal. She has a story to tell, which I am sure she will tell in due course. What seems to be suggested here in the House today, certainly by Deputy McDonald and just now by Deputy Ryan, is that the Tánaiste should have had a hand, act and part in the Commissioner's legal strategy, that she should have ignored the advice of her officials and intervened in the work of a commission of investigation to tell a separate legal entity, the Garda and the Garda Commissioner, to change its legal strategy. If she had done that, we would be answering a whole different set of questions here today as to why the Tánaiste went against legal advice and the advice of her officials to interfere in somebody else's legal strategy.
-----the Dáil and it reflects the fact that the Taoiseach is either misleading the Dáil again or he is being more than disingenuous. He has defined on the floor of the House "no prior knowledge" very specifically as after the fact of the cross-examination. He is now saying the Tánaiste knew nothing about this until the commission was under way. That was not the Taoiseach's initial position. His initial position was that the Tánaiste did not know anything about this until after the cross-examination and that is simply not true. I have the record here.
The Taoiseach said it twice - last Tuesday and last Wednesday. He needs to clarify it now. I do not think he should dig an even deeper hole or deepen this controversy by continuing to mislead the Dáil. The Tánaiste knew the nature of the legal strategy. Furthermore, she knew that information prior to the cross-examination of Maurice McCabe and she chose not to do anything about it and to allow Maurice McCabe go to the commission and to face that kind of malicious legal approach.
I will have to check the record. I honestly do not recall specifically mentioning the cross-examination. If it is the case that I specifically referred to the cross-examination and said the Tánaiste did not know until after the cross-examination, then I am happy to correct the record in that regard, if that is what I said.
The information I was given by the Department of Justice and Equality was that neither the Department nor the Tánaiste were aware until after the fact. That briefing did not specify what "after the fact" meant. We now understand----
Last week was the week when the mask slipped and the honeymoon ended. We were told homelessness numbers were low, that homelessness was normal, that the homeless were to blame for being homeless. It was cold, calculated, to some extent co-ordinated, and deeply cynical. The people looked and saw the defenders of the system insulting the victims of the system and they did not like what they saw. Let us see how the Taoiseach does on the issue this week. If homelessness is a monster, this afternoon it is growling outside the doors of 23 households at the Leeside apartment complex in Cork city. The new owners of the apartments have issued them all with notices to quit. The new owner, Lugus Capital, does not attempt to hide its support for social cleansing. Its website boasts "On acquiring buildings, we completely refurbish them to a high standard, before re-letting with a focus on attracting young professional tenants." Sherry FitzGerald reckons this approach could increase rental income at Leeside apartments by €300,000 a year. Lugus Capital is the Irish manager for the Larea Fa Fund Li DAC which is ultimately owned by Bain Capital. Bain Capital, founded by former US Republican presidency candidate, Mitt Romney, mentioned more than once in the Paradise Papers, is one of the largest vulture funds on the planet. Residents who live in this apartment complex include many young families with kids going to local schools. One of them has received a notice to quit for 20 December. Another has received a notice to quit for 30 December. One of them had a notice to quit sellotaped to their front door. Threshold reports that up and down the country profiteering landlords are using substantial refurbishment as the excuse to get rid of tenants, hike rents and get new tenants in.
I have three questions for the Taoiseach. Will he ensure his Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government does not just address this loophole, but closes it in such a way that the residents of Leeside apartments and others like them are fully protected? When will this legislation be introduced? These families cannot afford to wait. Will he join with me and tell the House and the residents who are here in the Public Gallery that the actions of this vulture fund are completely and utterly unacceptable?
I appreciate the Deputy's concern about the duration of mine and the Government's honeymoon.
I do not think there has been a honeymoon at all but I appreciate the Deputy's interest and concern in that regard.
Homelessness is something the Government feels very deeply about and it is a matter we have prioritised. Since 2012 or so, the funding put into services for people who are homeless has doubled or even more than doubled. We are going to have an 18% or 20% increase in homelessness services spending next year and the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government will either today or tomorrow announce a major increase in the number of beds available for rough sleepers so there can be a surplus number of beds available for them. That is particularly important over the winter. We have also put much work into developing family hubs to ensure there are no families or children on our streets and the numbers of those in bed and breakfasts and hotels falls. It has fallen since its peak in March. From there we will look to moving people from family hubs to new housing, and approximately 80 or 100 individuals and their families are every day being provided with housing by the State through different mechanisms. These are new tenancies.
I read something about the Leeside apartments in the newspapers but I do not know all the details and I am loath to comment on something I am not fully informed about. The Minister has committed to changing or clarifying the rules around substantial refurbishment so they are not abused by landlords and they do not misuse this as a mechanism to evict people after carrying out minor refurbishments and increasing rents. The Minister intends, if not this week then next week, to clarify exactly what substantial refurbishment means.
With landlords in general, it is particularly cruel to seek to give somebody a notice to quit or an eviction notice in the run-up to Christmas. I absolutely condemn that. At the very least, if the apartment block genuinely needs refurbishment, I am sure it could be left until the new year and the people living there could be given adequate and reasonable time to find new homes.
I know how difficult it is for people to find new accommodation in the current environment. If substantial refurbishment is not genuinely required or urgent, those eviction notices should be withdrawn. The people living in that development should be given adequate time to find new accommodation if they can do so and they certainly should not be evicted before Christmas.
That is not good enough. The Taoiseach has said he does not want people being evicted because of minor refurbishment but this is not a minor refurbishment. It is a €3 million refurbishment. If the Taoiseach changes the rule to outlaw evictions arising from minor refurbishment, these people will still get evicted. The Taoiseach has stated he does not want people being evicted in the run-up to Christmas, which I welcome, but does he have a problem with people being evicted in January, February, March, April or May? It seems he does not.
Let us be clear about what is happening. This is a vulture fund that has gotten its claws into this building. They are putting 23 households, including young families, out on their ear in a market where if they look for a place, it will cost €1,000, €1,100, €1,200, €1,300 or €1,400, with queues of 50, 60 or 100 people going out the door and down the stairs. There are no homes to be had for these people. Is the Taoiseach prepared to say to his housing Minister that the loophole must be closed in such a way that the people in the Gallery and families like them around the country will not be evicted? They should protected in the case of minor refurbishment and in general from the activities from profiteering vulture funds.
It is not a loophole, it is the law. Sometimes houses, apartments and duplex buildings need refurbishment. Sometimes they are not safe as there are fire safety issues. Sometimes roofs need to be repaired. There are occasions on which houses and apartment buildings require substantial refurbishment. I do not know if it is the case in this instance and whether the substantial refurbishment is necessary and genuine. Either way, nobody should be evicted on such short notice in the run-up to Christmas. If it is the case that substantial refurbishment is not required, at the very least the people concerned should be given adequate time and many months to find alternative accommodation.
Following the "RTÉ Investigates" programme last night, it is clear to me and everyone else that the HSE is dysfunctional. Is the Taoiseach, a former Minister for Health and a doctor, not mortified and embarrassed that on the show last night, Mr. Stephen Cussen from Limerick stated, "I pray every night that God will take me"? He says this because he is in so much pain. He has been waiting for three years for an outpatient appointment for a knee replacement and he is in severe pain. Stephen is waiting for a public appointment in Croom Hospital, which has a three-year waiting list. If a person pays for private treatment, he or she would be seen in six months.
There are 2,700 consultants working in 47 acute hospitals across the country. A vast amount of doctors do great work, as the Taoiseach knows, and they would do more if the facilities were there to allow them do so. In 2008, a new consultant contract was introduced so anyone who signed up to this was limited in the amount of private work they could do. They were offered enhanced salaries to accept that contract. The aim of this contract was to control private practice in public hospitals and stop doctors going off-site to private hospitals. In this contract, a consultant was to do 80% public work and 20% private work in a public hospital to ensure private work was limited. The opposite seems to be happening in some cases and the public waiting lists are only getting longer.
Mary, who is 75 years old, was on the programme last night and she had to sell her jewellery in order to have a cataract removed because she was blind in one eye and had ailing sight in the other. If she did not sell her jewellery she would have been on a two-year waiting list to have the cataract removed. Once she had the money to go for private treatment, she was seen within two months and paid €1,800 to be seen in the same hospital where she would have had to wait for two years. In the Limerick hospital where Mary was waiting, there are 1,272 people waiting for a cataract operation, with 407 people waiting more than 12 months. It was revealed last night that consultants in Limerick had a 30% private case load, which is way over the 20% level allowed in the contracts.
In 2016, almost 24,000 private patients were seen in public hospitals in Ireland. That means in the past two years, almost 48,000 public patients have lost out to private patients in a public hospital system. There is something wrong with our health system if we are encouraging people to travel north to Belfast to have procedures carried out privately. Once they come home after the treatment with a receipt in their hands, the HSE will refund them the money. I have numerous constituents awaiting procedures, including knee, hip and cataract operations. One constituent is going blind waiting to be seen but the HSE has only said that the patient should travel to Belfast and the money will be refunded afterwards. Would any member of the Cabinet be happy for someone close to them having to sell their possessions in order to have a simple procedure like a cataract operation carried out?
I saw the programme last night and it was a very interesting piece of high quality investigative journalism, examining statistics and following individual consultants in the course of their work. I would like to say I was surprised by the outcome but there has been anecdotal evidence for a long time in the health service of a minority - perhaps not a majority - of consultants not fulfilling their contractual obligations. They are not doing the public hours they are paid for and are seeing more private patients. The practice is deeply offensive and it must change.
I remember when I was Minister for Health I asked for an audit to be carried out of accident and emergency department consultants to see how many patients they saw. This arose because of a tip-off from other department staff who were concerned that consultants were not seeing very many patients who came in the door. They were seeing patients in review clinics and private clinics relating to legal reports. They did not see the people coming in the door from ambulances in big numbers. To my knowledge, that was never done. In many ways, what we saw last night speaks to something I have raised on many occasions.
That is something this Government now has to deal with.
On the issue of waiting lists, the Deputy may not be aware that the waiting list for procedures for inpatients and day cases has now fallen for three months in a row. Part of that is down to the additional resources we are putting into our public hospitals. Much of it is down to additional funding for the National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF, and I believe we will see waiting times falling for cataract and procedures such as hips and knees falling in the year ahead. Between April and now, the overall number of people waiting for an ophthalmology procedure fell from 13,552 to 11,863, and the cataract waiting list has fallen from over 10,000 to 8,667. We are starting to see results in terms of the additional money being given to the NTPF, and also the additional funding provided for insourcing, to do more work in our public hospitals.
On the fundamental issue, the Sláintecare report and the all-party report on the reform of health, one of the recommendations was that we take private practice out of public hospitals. I agree with that; it is a good idea. The report recommends that a commission be established to examine how that would be brought about. It would be costly at approximately €700 million in a year and would involve changes to contracts. The Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, has already appointed that group, which is headed by Donal de Buitléir, to examine exactly how we can do that. It would be - if and when it happens - a game changer for our public health system. We would never allow what happens in our public hospitals to happen in our schools. Children could not come in to be taught in a private class with fewer pupils and a teacher who is paid more to teach them. We would never allow that, yet we allow it in our health service. I do not think we should. It means there are perverse incentives for hospitals to have more private patients because they can then generate additional revenues. Our public hospitals get about €700 million in additional revenues. In addition to that there is a perverse incentive for the individual consultant to make more money in that way. It has to change.
Did I hear the Taoiseach correctly when he said that the audit he sought as Minister for Health was never actually carried out? If that is a fact, surely now, in light of the information highlighted by "Prime Time", the Taoiseach will direct his Minister for Health to ensure an audit is carried out to find out what the consultants are doing to reduce the lists. Are they, in fact, working in a private capacity to the detriment of the people waiting on our public list? That is of paramount importance.
The figures the Taoiseach quoted regarding the waiting lists shrinking are explained easily. The lists are shrinking because people have no choice but to go private. People are selling their possessions to go private. I have the figures for Cork and Kerry. Some 517 patients are waiting to be seen in Cork University Hospital outpatients clinic for ophthalmology review. Some 113 patients are waiting for cataract surgery in South Infirmary Victoria University Hospital. That is 630 people from the county of Kerry who have trouble with their eyes and nothing is being done to help them. What, in light of the programme last night, is the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, going to do about this very serious situation?
The audit was not done before I became Minister for Social Protection. Perhaps it was done subsequently. I will check up on that. It is certainly something that I raised regularly in meetings with the Irish Hospital Consultants Association and the IMO. They would always deny it and say that it was a very rare practice. I do not think it can be denied any more. The Deputy will know that in this House there was huge controversy when we required TDs to clock in to ensure that we knew that they were on the premises.
There was some controversy at least. I do not think it would be a huge imposition on our hospital consultants to clock in so that we at least know they are on the premises and are not in private hospitals when they should not be.
We are doing exactly what was recommended in the Sláintecare report. We have established a group under Donal de Buitléir to examine how we can separate and take private practice out of public hospitals, what it would cost, what the implications would be and how it would be done over a period of years. That is the fundamental action in terms of long-term reform. In the interim, for people waiting for cataract operations and hip and knee operations, we are giving additional funding to the NTPF to allow those patients to go privately. The NTPF does not just fund private hospitals. It also does insourcing as well in places such as the Eye and Ear Hospital, for example, and Cappagh. The number of people waiting for inpatient and day case procedures has fallen for three months in a row because of that. I will drive that forward and make sure it continues to fall throughout next year.