Tuesday, 10 July 2018
Order of Business (Resumed)
On No. 16, the motion on the report of the Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport under Standing Order 114, my party does not have a member on the committee and the report is not online this morning in order for us to know exactly what we are doing. This is a European procedure. If a number of national parliaments agree to it, it can actually block a regulation. It is a rather important device. I ask that the reports be circulated well in advance of being tabled before the House.
The arrangements will be made.
Is the proposal for dealing with Tuesday's business agreed to? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with Wednesday's business agreed to? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with Thursday's business agreed to? Agreed.
Despite the programme for Government commitment to build further capacity in child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, the waiting lists for young people are getting longer and, more crucially, professional staff are leaving the service.
I do not know if the Taoiseach is aware of a study undertaken by researchers in Trinity College Dublin and published today which describes how young people are presenting with far more complex and acute mental health issues, including self-harm, suicidal ideation and difficulties arising from dysfunction within family relationships. The researchers interviewed groups of staff in CAMHS who outlined how frustrated they are with the stagnation of the service. They confirmed that: "A lot of brilliant people are leaving CAMHS and that there is a collective feeling of frustration among people working in our child and adolescent mental health services." There are 2,500 waiting to get access to CAMHS. The Government's approach is not working. I want the Taoiseach to outline any plans the Government has to improve its performance in the mental health area.
The programme for Government commitment is, as the Deputy said, to expand capacity in CAMHS and that is what we are doing. There are 114 new assistant psychologists recruited and almost all have been given their posts. In addition to that, 20 psychologists have been recruited. The other day the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, announced the appointment of ten additional advanced nurse practitioners in the area of children's mental health. We are expanding capacity. I appreciate more needs to be done. There is increasing demand for lots of different reasons when it comes to children's mental health but we are very much honouring the commitment to expand capacity
Page 62 of the programme for Government commits to the establishment of an independent patient advocacy service and this has not been met. Last Saturday, there were rallies throughout the State standing for women in support of the victims of the CervicalCheck scandal. Despite all of the pronouncements and announcements from the Taoiseach and others, serious issues remain for the women affected and for their families. Women are still being forced through the courts to access their medical files; they are being denied their own files. The essential review of 3,000 cervical smear slides has not begun. The final report of the scoping investigation being conducted by Dr. Gabriel Scally is delayed and women are also having terrible difficulty accessing the €2,000 payment that the Government announced. All of this signals that the Government is not serious about fully addressing this scandal or drawing lessons from it. The Taoiseach might be aware that Vicky Phelan and Stephen Teap last weekend called for an independent patient advocacy group to be established specifically for these women and their families. It strikes me as a bare minimum and a very practical idea. Will the Taoiseach make the funding and resources available so this advocacy resource can be afforded to the women and their families?
I thank the Deputy for raising this. We are directly interacting with people who have been impacted by the CervicalCheck situation. As the Deputy probably knows, we have established a steering committee within the Department of Health. It meets every Thursday. It publishes its minutes, agenda and all other documents on my Department's website. On that group we have two advocates, including some of the people the Deputy referenced. With regard to any difficulty accessing an ex gratiapayment, I would be grateful if the Deputy would forward me the details directly because it is contrary to the information I have received and to the published documentation from the minutes of the meetings. We will fund the advocacy service and we have conveyed that directly to some of the advocates involved.
Last year, the then Minister for Justice and Equality said the coroners (amendment) Bill was the absolute priority for the Government and it is on the Government priority list. The Bill will introduce mandatory reporting, post mortem examination and inquests in cases of maternal death, as Deputy Clare Daly has sought for some time in her Private Members' Bill. There have been repeated delays in bringing the Government's Bill forward. I have expressed concerns here on a number of occasions. When will we see the Bill?
As the Taoiseach and Minister have just heard, the Scally inquiry has been seriously frustrated and delayed, possibly well into the next term. There is one simple question I have repeatedly asked and which I will ask for the fifth time. Can we have a list of the laboratories from which the 209 - now 221 - misdiagnosed tests came? I have repeatedly asked this of the HSE, the Taoiseach, the Minister for Health and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, when he was sitting in for the Taoiseach, and I am asking it again.
I am informed by the Medical Laboratory Scientists Association that it is a simple question to which there is a simple answer. If the answer is not being provided to an elected Deputy, I suspect that is because it will be shown that all of the misdiagnosed tests came from the outsourcing of this service to the USA. If that is not the case, I would have had the answer sooner. May I have an answer to that question before the summer recess? I will publish it for everybody. We do not have to wait for Scally to scope matters; we can find that out very easily.
On the same issue, the purpose of the Scally scoping inquiry is to get speedy access to the facts surrounding the CervicalCheck scandal and obtain information on the relative accuracy rates of the different labs concerned and the reason for variations in those rates. Last week, we heard that Dr. Scally still has not got access to that basic data. Can the Minister for Health tell us the reason for that? My understanding is that CervicalCheck can access that data within a matter of days from the labs concerned and that the matter is covered by the contracts. What is the reason for not providing that basic data to Dr. Scally and can the Minister step in to ensure that is done without any further delay?
Section 40 of the Health Act 2007 gives me, as Minister, the ability to request any information and to make that information available to a person appointed by me to investigate or examine such a matter. I received correspondence from the HSE on 26 June seeking section 40. I responded favourably on 27 June, the next day. My understanding is, and I note public comments from Dr. Scally to this effect in recent days, that he has now been given all the information he requires to carry out his investigation. He also knows - I have said it to him face to face, on the telephone and I say it again now in the House - that if he has any difficulty obtaining any of the information, he has a direct line to me on that.
Regarding the issue of the lab data, my understanding is that some data on the labs had been shared with the Joint Committee on Health. Dr. Scally has a job of work to do. We cannot appoint somebody to examine all this information, with the expertise that they have and, frankly, we do not have, and then try to predetermine that. Dr. Scally's work is that of a scoping enquiry. It is the Government's intention to establish a commission of investigation in September. We do have to allow Dr. Scally do his work and make his determinations.
In the context of judicial reform, under the programme for Government, the poor box is being used with great ingenuity by many justices throughout the country. I understand that the Minister is going to disband this service. To name one charity, the Jack and Jill Children's Foundation receives approximately €50,000 per annum from the poor box in respect of the valuable work it does. Many citizens who are before the courts and who are requested to pay sums of money to charity do not get convictions. It is a good process that has served the State well and has been used wisely by most justices. If the Government does away with the poor box, the money will just go into central funds and the charities will lose out. In the case of the Jack and Jill Children's Foundation, it will be sick children who lose out. Is the Government doing away with the poor box in the courts and, if so, when will that happen?
I wish to restate my unhappiness regarding the manner in which the court poor box is being used in the courts. I intend to reform it. I will not have legislation ready in time for this session but it is an issue I look forward to bringing forward before the end of the year. I am not happy with the system and I intend to do away with it.
One of the biggest changes to our public transport system, BusConnects, was launched a couple of weeks ago. Having studied what is proposed in detail, I find many parts of the strategy could be referred to as "BusDisconnects". The consultation process is due to start on 16 July and run for the six-week period during which people close their doors, switch off and go on holidays. We are not engaging with bus users.
I will give one example. My bus stop, the 1937 on the Tyrconnell Road, has lost the 68, 69 and 13 buses. The 63 bus serves the area every hour. We already had a service with three buses. Deputies should be looking at their areas and demanding that this consultation process be put back until at least September when people can engage properly. It is an absolute disgrace.
-----for BusConnects as well. It regularly takes an hour to get from the western part of my constituency into the city centre and, as things stand, it is only going to get worse. We need radical improvements to our bus service.
BusConnects will reduce journey times by about half but it does involve big changes to routes and also big improvements infrastructure on street, at stops and of the vehicles themselves.
Some in this House do not agree with the Government that we should just delete the constitutional wording on women's place in the home. We should, instead, look at new wording which strengthens and provides cover for all sorts of gender neutral caring work. That, however, is not being allowed. It is going to be a simple deletion. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Charles Flanagan, said yesterday that he is going to ask the Citizens' Assembly to consider the issue of caring work. Will the Taoiseach outline the timeline for that? How will we engage in this debate on the role of caring in our society between now and October? Why is it being rushed through? This needs time and real thought. Could this referendum not be done in the next batch? I fear that by rushing it through and not allowing a proper policy review of the role of caring in our society we are missing an opportunity.
I am happy to answer that. We gave this careful consideration and took the advice of people like former Justice Catherine McGuinness in coming to the decision we did. We decided that we should ask the people whether they want to delete that article on women in the home, which we believe is sexist and anachronistic, from our Constitution. We do not think we are rushing it at all. It was the Council for the Status of Women and the all-party committee on the Constitution, chaired by Deputy Brian Lenihan before he became a Minister, that made this recommendation.
This should never have been put into the Constitution in the 1930s never mind being kept there now. We did give consideration to putting in new wording on caring or amending the definition of the family, and bear in mind that this article is in the section on the family. These are, however, bigger issues. I and the Government do not believe we should tie up a decision on deleting this sexist anachronistic language from our Constitution with a debate on caring and families. Caring and families deserves careful consideration in its own right, we will do that in 2019 and, if we can come up with wording that is agreeable, we will put that to the people as well. It is time to separate this idea that women are inherently linked with caring and family because a woman's place is where she wants it to be and that is not necessarily in the home-----
Does it include commercial carers? Does it involve changing the definition of the family? The definition of the family in Ireland is based on marriage. That is anachronistic too. The Constitution does not see one parent or lone parent families as families. These are much bigger issues and they should not be tied in with deleting this sexist and anachronistic language from the Constitution. Doing that is long overdue, so let us do that and look at the issues on the definition of the family and constitutional protections on caring, and the people they care for whom we also have to bear in mind, as separate items.
A Programme for a Partnership Government mentions the word "poverty" 19 times. We know from this year's Society of St. Vincent de Paul budget submission that more than 780,000 Irish citizens are living below the poverty line. That is 16.5% of the population. Interestingly, 105,051 of those citizens are currently in employment.
Alarmingly, the pre-budget submission from St. Vincent de Paul shows that it paid out more than €12.5 million in food vouchers to Irish citizens last year.
The Government has no anti-poverty strategy in place whatsoever. Where is the anti-poverty strategy? When will it be published?
The anti-poverty strategy is encompassed in the social inclusion policy and also the action plan for jobs. As the Deputy knows, the phrase "below the poverty line" does not mean that a person is living in poverty. It includes people who are at risk of poverty but who are not in poverty, as well as those who are in poverty. The figure provided by the Deputy of the number of people who are in employment and also at risk of poverty represents about 5% of people in employment; 95% of people in work are not in poverty. That is one of the better figures when compared against European counterparts. The best thing we can do about that is to help people to work more hours, support people with the cost of childcare, implement the action plan for jobs and reform the working family payment, as we have done already, which means that anybody with children who is working more than 19 hours a week is guaranteed not to be in poverty.
In A Programme for a Partnership Government there is a commitment to safe, timely care for patients in a location as close to home as possible. Did the Minister for Health instruct senior officials of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, RCSI, group to downgrade services at Cavan General Hospital? It is my understanding that consultants were informed that all complex medical procedures and trauma procedures are to stop there and that the hospital will essentially be turned into a day procedure hospital. All complex medical procedures are to be moved to Beaumont. Can the Taoiseach confirm that he has instructed that Cavan General Hospital be downgraded? Is he aware of that? Does he have any plans to invest in the emergency department? That will not be required if these plans are to be realised. Is the hospital being downgraded in favour of Beaumont hospital?
No such instruction was given. Cavan General Hospital is one of our best performing hospitals. I met the Deputy there when I opened a state-of-the-art CF unit. The hospital has a consistently low number of people on hospitals trollies - often it has none - and it does very well in terms of its elective waiting lists as well. I visited Monaghan hospital as well, which obviously works in tandem with Cavan General Hospital. I believe we can do an awful lot more there and that what was allowed to happen there in the past was a shame. The RCSI hospital group works as a group in terms of what services are best to deliver-----
The Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Cannon, and the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Doherty, launched a Bill concerning the minimum passing distance for cyclists in February 2017. For a number of months the Minister with responsibility in this area, Deputy Ross, failed to act. I proposed an amendment to the Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill 2017 before Christmas last year which would give legal effect to the proposals, and on the day the Committee for Transport, Tourism and Sport met, lo and behold, Minister Ross held a press briefing and said that he was immediately going to bring forward a statutory instrument to introduce a minimum passing distance. When pressed on the meaning of "immediately" he said that it would be done within weeks. That was over four months ago. Hundreds of thousands of people who are cycling on a daily basis realise the urgent need for this statutory instrument. The Minister, who has the power to act on this, does not seem to realise the urgency. Can the Taoiseach ask, or instruct, Minister Ross to honour the commitment he gave at that press conference over four months ago in the interests of the hundreds of thousands of cyclists who use our roads on a daily basis? He should sign the statutory instrument and concentrate on his own brief rather than the briefs of others.
-----to correspond with the Deputy on the progress of that statutory instrument. I know that he wants to sign it and that the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, and the Minister, Deputy Doherty, are very enthusiastic about having that done. I am aware that some concerns have been raised around enforceability and how a passing distance of 1.5 metres between a car and bike can be established after the fact. Nonetheless, I am aware that Minister Ross wants this statutory instrument in place.
We are told that the price of electricity is to rise by 9.3% and the price of gas by 12.8%.
This will affect every man, woman and child in the country. Has the Government any power to regulate these people or control them? This is going to hurt poor people, especially those in receipt of the fuel allowance. Will the Government increase the fuel allowance? Will it intervene? I am asking the Taoiseach to intervene, to stop this increase and to bring these people to book. People's incomes have not risen. Their social welfare has not risen by that much. There has been a 10% increase and not a word from the Taoiseach's Government to try to stop it.
Electricity prices are regulated. They are regulated by what used to be the Commission for Energy Regulation but is now the Commission for Regulation of Utilities. We have increased the fuel allowance. We did that already this year and we will certainly consider doing it again next year. However, it is a simple fact that electricity prices are largely linked to the cost of fossils fuels, that is, the cost of oil and gas. When that cost goes up, prices must rise as well. That just emphasises the need for us to do other things, namely, move towards a greater use of renewable energy and to continue what we are doing to incentivise people to insulate their homes and to ensure that public buildings are also insulated. In this way, we can reduce the need to use fossil fuels and electricity for heating.
That concludes questions on promised legislation. Some 12 Deputies were not reached today. I must observe that if leaders take far longer to ask their questions than is allocated-----
-----my colleagues and I have been overlooked on numerous occasions and we have not been given the opportunity to contribute on the following the next day. I propose that, at the least, what has been suggested be given serious consideration.
We will bring it to the Business Committee. If the committee wants to introduce that system, I have no problem with it. Deputies suggest extending the available time. We will bring that proposal as well.