Tuesday, 12 June 2018
Leaders' Questions (Resumed)
This morning, the Cabinet approved the publication of the progress and interim report of the scoping investigation being conducted by Dr. Scally into the CervicalCheck scandal. We are told that the now final report will be delayed by anything up to six weeks. We are also told in Dr. Scally's progress report that information he requested on a number of State agencies has only been provided in recent days. He also informs us that a significant proportion of these 4,000 documents were provided in a non-searchable format. Great effort was made in printing, scanning and then resending to ensure they would be non-searchable because many of the documents were electronic in their original format. Dr. Scally has said they are unable to read many of the documents.
This is of course highly regrettable, given that it has without a doubt caused the final report to be delayed, and given the time-sensitive nature of this investigation and the need for real and substantive answers for all the women affected and their families. However, even more troubling is the failure on the part of the Government to make good on its promises that the women affected at the heart of this scandal would have access to their own medical records. His comments yesterday that ensuring this is not as easy as taking out a book from the library is shocking. The comments lack empathy and miss the central point. They were described by solicitor Cian O'Carroll, rightly, as smart-alecky. Mr. O'Carroll said the Taoiseach did not address the central issue, which is the fact that records are still being kept from the victims of the CervicalCheck scandal. That is exactly what the Taoiseach did not address.
This is the reality and the Government knows it because we raised it. I raised it with the Tánaiste last month, on 17 May, when I told him of an incident in which the legal representatives of a woman affected by this scandal - and therefore a woman who did not have time on her hands - went down to Limerick on arrangement to collect her medical records and were told they would not be provided to her. The legal representation was told to leave the premises and was escorted off the premises. Nearly a month on, the same thing is happening. Women are still being denied access to their own records, and they need those records.
We all must play a role in rebuilding trust in this screening programme. I have said it before and I will say it again: it has saved lives and will continue to save lives. However, it must enjoy public support and women must have trust in it. Central to this is accountability, and central in turn to that is full disclosure of all the relevant information. The Scally investigation is just one part of this; access to the justice system is another core part. To have such access, access to basic medical information is needed, and that needs to be done with compassion and a sense of duty. I therefore ask the Taoiseach the same question I asked last month: will the Government intervene and ensure that women who are asking for medical records that are held by State agencies will be given them without undue delay? Will the Government call in the head of CervicalCheck to ensure that it gets the message clear that there will be no more stonewalling and no more putting up barriers in the face of these women who are in search of justice?
I also welcome Mayor Farrell to the Chamber. I had the opportunity to visit San Francisco last year and met his predecessor, Mayor Lee, who very kindly presented me with the keys to the city of San Francisco. As the House knows, there is a very special relationship between San Francisco and the city of Cork in particular, and I was really very sorry to hear of Mayor Lee's untimely death. The delegation has our condolences in that regard. We are really glad to welcome those in the delegation here.
There have been delays in providing information to the Dr. Scally inquiry, which was established by the Government, which he mentioned in his report published today. In some cases there have been delays in providing patient information to solicitors of patients who have requested it. I assure the Deputy that it is Government policy that there should be no undue delay in providing medical records and information to women and patients affected by any of these issues. The Government has given that policy direction to the public bodies concerned and will be reiterated. However, it is not as straightforward as going to the medical records department of a hospital and requesting a patient chart. Medical records are about much more than that. They can be in several different places, not only in paper and electronic format, and include the patient's charts and electronic records as well as X-rays, slides and other scans that may be in laboratories or radiology departments elsewhere. It should also be borne in mind that it in many cases it is reasonable to first go through the medical records to ensure they do not contain information about others which is privileged or belongs to somebody else or that cannot be released for another reason. Nevertheless, the Government's policy is that there should be no unreasonable or undue delay in providing records to patients when they request them or when their solicitors request them, and that also applies to Dr. Scally's inquiry. That policy direction has been made and will be reissued.
We have heard similar words previously. The Tánaiste said the same a month ago after I brought this to his attention. I do not know what the Government did after that. Did the Government speak to CervicalCheck and ask why, when it had been arranged for a woman's records to be in Limerick in order that a court case that needed to be taken within a short window could be taken, her legal representatives were told that they could not have access to the records and were escorted from the premises after being told to leave? Over the past four weeks, other legal representatives have faced the same barrier. As I walked from my office to the Chamber, another legal representative was speaking on "Liveline" about how they were being stonewalled by the HSE, how they were not getting access to information and how, despite the laboratory saying that it has the test, it will not provide it. Yet the Taoiseach says that the Government's policy is that there should be no undue delay. However, there is a delay. What will he do about it? The Taoiseach is not an innocent bystander; he is the leader of the Government. This is a terrible scandal that we have raised here week in, week out, yet women are still unable to access their medical records. As Dr. Scally mentioned in his report, the women's sentiment can be summed up as, "My body, my records". As he said, I could not agree more.
The Taoiseach needs to intervene, as does the Minister for Health, because this cannot go on. Compassion and urgency must be shown, and these records must be provided immediately to any of the women who request them. This should have happened weeks ago. It is not acceptable that we are still discussing this four weeks later.
The Deputy has asked the same question again and I can only give the same answer. There are reasons there may be delays in providing records but it is Government policy that records, samples and files, whether they are in electronic or paper format, along with X-rays and other radiology scans, should be provided to patients when requested. The direction has been given to the public bodies concerned and will be given again.
The Government has acted swiftly to establish a serious incident management team, which has contacted all the women affected. We established the scoping inquiry and Dr. Scally produced his first progress report in that regard earlier. He also published a report on one of the terms of reference - (d) - relating to the information provided to women. Although it will be the end of the summer before Dr. Scally concludes his report, he will provide interim reports along the way, which is welcome and valuable.
Part of the delay will also relate to the fact that he is very keen to engage with women and their families individually. I very much welcome that. We have also secured agreement with the Irish Medical Organisation to ensure that women who are concerned can have free consultations with their GPs and repeat smear tests if warranted. We have appointed a team from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the British Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology which is going to go through all of the slides again to see what anomalies were missed-----
Church and state were separated more than 200 years ago in the United States and more than 100 years ago in France. In the 19th year of the 21st century, however, church and State continue to be entwined in Ireland. We have church-controlled schools, hospitals and so on. Ireland lags behind and the Government lags behind. Where blows have been struck to this arrangement - and we saw a spectacular example recently with the vote for repeal and another in respect of the baptism barrier - the impetus for change has not come from the political establishment, rather it has come from below as a result of popular pressure.
The vote of the people to repeal the eighth amendment poses questions regarding church and State rather more sharply. The Government has announced its intention to bring forward legislation which would allow surgical abortions to protect the life of the pregnant person, to protect health and, also, to allow terminations in Irish hospitals in the event of fatal foetal abnormalities. If provided for in legislation passed by this Dáil, will these services be available in hospitals controlled by the church? Will these services be provided at the new national maternity hospital, which is due to be built on a campus controlled by a company with a board dedicated to a Catholic ethos? Is the Taoiseach aware that the St. Vincent's healthcare group annual accounts for 2017 state that the future directors of this company are obliged to uphold the "values and vision" of the founder of the Sisters of Charity, Mary Aikenhead, who is currently in the process of being made a Catholic saint? Is the Taoiseach aware that the emeritus professor of theology at Maynooth University has said that this obligation requires compliance with Catholic medical ethics?
Does he think it is satisfactory that, more than one year on from the announcement that the Sisters of Charity were due to step back at St. Vincent's, the new company due to take over ownership of the campus has yet to be incorporated? Is the Taoiseach concerned that the chair of the new company is the old chair of the St. Vincent's healthcare group, which refused a tubal ligation to Clare Malone and elective contraception procedures to many others? Finally, can the Taoiseach offer a guarantee to the Dáil and, more importantly, to the women of Ireland that abortions services, if provided for in legislation passed by this Dáil, will be fully available at the national maternity hospital?
The model we intend to follow for the abortion legislation, when we are able to publish it and bring it through the Oireachtas, is precisely the model used for the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, which the House passed in 2013. That legislation will allow individuals to opt out based on their consciences or religious convictions but will not allow institutions to do so. As is the case under the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013, hospitals such as Holles Street, which has a Catholic voluntary ethos, the Mater, St. Vincent's and others will be required and expected to carry out any procedure that is legal in the State. That is the model we will follow. Conscientious objection provisions will apply to individual doctors, nurses and midwives who do not want to participate in providing abortion services but it will not be possible for publicly-funded hospitals, no matter who their patron or owner is, to opt out of providing these necessary services, which will be legal in the State once the legislation is passed by the Dáil and the Seanad.
I am happy to give the Deputy that assurance.
While the Deputy is correct to say that, in the United States, church and state may be separated, the United States has certainly not taken the church or religion out of its politics. In fact, religion is probably more present in American politics than it is here in Ireland. When we speak about church and state and while we should always acknowledge the many wrongs done by church bodies in the past — people will know what they are — we should not forget that many religious-based charities and many religious bodies do very good and valuable work today. The Deputy mentioned health and education but I would also point to the homeless sector. Very good work is done in this city by Crosscare, for example.
It is an agency of the Dublin archdiocese and it provides services for people who are homeless and helps to operate some of the family hubs. I also include bodies such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which does such important work with disadvantaged families around the country. I hope it is not the policy of the Socialist Party or Solidarity–People Before Profit to stop Crosscare or the Society of St. Vincent de Paul from doing the work they do. The Deputy might tell us whether it is his view that they should no longer be State funded. I believe that is his view.
That is what we are going to do. I welcome the fact that the Taoiseach said there will not be an opt-out for institutions but there are ways and means of opting out. The Taoiseach is well aware of this as a previous Minister for Health. He is well aware that, at the age of 21, Claire Hogan was refused tubal ligation at St. Vincent's Hospital despite the fact that the medical case for it was strong and overpowering. He is aware of the fact that Professor John Crown has reported on his experiences of sitting across a table from an ethics committee in St. Vincent's Hospital that objected to a cancer trial that stipulated contraception. He is also aware that we have a Catholic bishop who said that people who voted Yes should go to confession. How much pressure will there be on medical professionals in St. Vincent's Hospital?
Over 100,000 people signed a petition last year demanding that the new national maternity hospital be exclusively under public ownership. More than 1.4 million voted for repeal. The women of Ireland, the people of Ireland, expect that the new national maternity hospital will provide the abortion services sanctioned by this Dáil. Failure to provide them in full, including at St. Vincent's Hospital, with the national maternity hospital, will be met with a response from the repeal movement on a really massive scale.
As I indicated when it comes to the abortion legislation, just as is the case with the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Act, the conscientious objection will apply to individuals; it will not apply to institutions. Under that legislation, enacted by this Dáil in 2013, voluntary hospitals that have a Catholic ethos are required to provide the service if it is necessary. It will be the case that the new national maternity hospital, which I hope will go to tender this year and commence construction next year, will be required, expected and funded to provide abortion services. The new national maternity hospital will be publicly owned and publicly funded and, therefore, will provide services that this Oireachtas deems necessary. That is the position the Government is taking. I am happy to reassure the Deputy on that.
I note that the Deputy declined to answer my question.
-----but I do not believe in the socialist ideology, which is to push religion out of the public space and to force people who are religious to be ashamed they have religious conviction and-----
-----to hide them in a corner and to defund bodies and take public funding away from bodies such as the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Crosscare, Trócaire and Concern.
The policy of socialists is to take away that funding because they do not just believe in the separation of church and state; they want to turn religious people into pariahs, put them in a corner and hide them and take away funding from institutions.
Tomorrow, it will be a year to the day since the setting up of the commission of investigation into the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, under Mr. Justice Cooke. The second interim report landed on the Taoiseach's desk last week, which shows that NAMA does what it likes. Mr. Justice Cooke asked NAMA for the 40,000 documents it gave to the Comptroller and Auditor General for his investigation. That was a simple request but NAMA told him it would be too difficult to replicate. He had to ask the Comptroller and Auditor General for his copies. Mr. Justice Cooke then asked NAMA to produce all relevant documentation relating to Project Eagle. NAMA initially agreed and employed a team of solicitors to help it. They said they had created a key word search system that would filter the relevant documents. NAMA sent over 34,000 documents but it quickly became clear to Mr. Justice Cooke that NAMA was leaving out key documents. To quote from his report, "it became clear to the Commission that the methodology used by NAMA and its agents was not sufficiently reliable to capture confidently, all relevant items". If this was the first time that happened we might be a little shocked, but this type of behaviour from NAMA is the norm.
The Office of the Data Protection Commissioner has similar problems with NAMA. It found in February that it was in breach of its statutory functions under data protection law yet the chairman and chief executive officer, CEO, remain untouchable. Section 14 of the National Asset Management Agency Act sets out that NAMA is answerable to the Minister for Finance but one would think it was the other way around.
In February, I asked the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, if he would instruct NAMA to stop its policy of deleting emails. I got a nice letter back from the Minister telling me how wonderful NAMA was and why he would not do it. I put in a freedom of information, FOI, request relating to my question to the Minister. To my amazement I discovered that rather than answer my question, the Minister asked NAMA to answer it. The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, sent NAMA the proposed response from the Department of Finance and got its edited version back, which was provided to me as his answer. The Minister signed the NAMA version that arrived to my office. How bad is that? Is the Minister for Finance not supposed to be holding NAMA to account? Who is running this country?
At this stage, we cannot trust NAMA to supply the Cooke commission with all the evidence surrounding Project Eagle because of its incriminating nature. Does the Taoiseach not believe it is time that he relieved the NAMA chairman and CEO of their duties and put in a public interest director instead? Given the thrust of Mr. Justice Cooke's second interim report, they certainly appear to be obstructing the work of a commission of investigation. Is the Taoiseach content to kick the NAMA issue down the road, postponing any day of reckoning for it? Does he have any appetite for the truth around the workings of NAMA?
I absolutely have an appetite for the truth. That is why the commission of inquiry was established. I look forward to it completing its work and making its findings, and I will not jump to conclusions. A commission of investigation has been established by this Oireachtas. It will carry out its inquiries and produce its findings. I ask Deputy Wallace not to jump to conclusions either. The purpose of setting up an investigation or inquiry is so that that inquiry or investigation can consider all of the facts, interview people and then come to its conclusions at the end of doing that.
The interim report of the Cooke commission, which I read only a week or two ago, does not make any findings against NAMA. It is largely a progress report on the work he is doing. He has requested an extension and that extension is being agreed. While there are certainly concerns in the report relating to the speed at which information and documents have been provided to the commission, he does not say that his work is being obstructed. That certainly was not in the document I read.
It might be worth noting for the House that Cabinet today approved the annual accounts and quarterly report of NAMA. They indicate that NAMA has done the job it was asked to do. It was asked to recover money for the taxpayer as a consequence of the property collapse and, as the Deputy knows, the property collapse cost the taxpayer a lot of money and not just people involved in that business. The report from NAMA confirms that it has now redeemed 100% of the senior bonds issued, which is in excess of €30 billion in senior bonds.
It now expects that the surplus when NAMA is wound down over the next couple of years, and it will be wound down, will exceed its initial projections. It will be closer to €3 billion, and that will be remitted to the taxpayer.
When the assets were moved to NAMA for more than €30 billion it was not expected that the agency would just get its €30 billion back. The assets were valued at over €74 billion before they went to NAMA. That was their book value in the banks. It was expected that they would reach somewhere in between, at least, which would put the figure around €60 billion. The notion that NAMA is making a profit is rubbish. I suggest that the Taoiseach read the interim report more carefully because the judge is saying that NAMA is not giving him what he needs.
On the issue of deleting emails, the Comptroller and Auditor General conducted an audit of this NAMA policy. It was never published but I got it under freedom of information. The Comptroller and Auditor General stated: "The deletion of emails, in particular board members' emails, is contrary to and may compromise the principles of good governance". He also stated: "There is a further risk to NAMA's reputation when it becomes known that emails are being deleted, which may also have consequences for information sought under of freedom of information legislation." In response to the recommendations from the Comptroller and Auditor General, NAMA paid PricewaterhouseCoopers, PwC, to do a report. PwC has been paid €10 million by the agency and, what a surprise, the PwC report is full of derogatory rubbish about how the Comptroller and Auditor General has provided no evidence to support his findings.
Does the Taoiseach not think the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, should answer the questions and not get NAMA to answer questions about it? Does the Taoiseach think it is okay for the Minister for Finance to send NAMA the questions, so it can answer the questions? One could not make it up. What is going on in this place?
A Minister's Department may have a huge number of agencies under its remit. It is only reasonable when preparing an answer to a question about an agency under one's remit that one might check with the agency and allow it to contribute to the reply. That is something every Minister does every day. Ministers have done that since the foundation of the State.
If one is asked a question about a hospital or a school, there is a good chance one will check with the hospital or the school for the answer to the question.
With regard to the NAMA surplus, I recall the debates about establishing NAMA very well. Many Members said that NAMA would end up with a large deficit. It was suggested there would be a deficit of up to €10 billion. I cannot remember what the Deputy's projection was-----
On the other questions, the House establishes commissions of inquiry and we have established a number of them at this stage. They require a great deal of work by judges, lawyers and others and they are expensive for the taxpayer. We have set up a tribunal of inquiry as well, along with other inquiries. It is high time we allowed those inquiries to do their work-----
-----Deputies raised and made allegations in the Dáil and we now know from what has emerged in Dublin Castle that those allegations were false. I have yet to hear those Deputies withdraw the allegations. They should do so.
That concludes Leaders' Questions. I wish to point out to the leaders that we are way over time. Standing Orders provide for a specific amount time to deal with Leaders' Questions and it is extremely disappointing that the leaders continually disregard the order of the House when they speak. I ask them to have regard to the orders of the House.
On a point of order, is it our position? We need to know for future reference for other Deputies, otherwise we will all come in every day and start commenting on various pieces of evidence given at tribunals.
I might ask to have a ruling from the Chair at some point. We constantly have tribunals and commissions of investigation discussed in the House when they are ongoing. A ruling on that from the Chair would be helpful.