Tuesday, 9 July 2019
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí (Atógáil) - Leaders' Questions (Resumed)
In recent days there has been considerable controversy surrounding the recent decision of the Naval Service to dock two vessels because of the continuing recruitment and retention crisis in the Defence Forces. As the Taoiseach knows, the officer in command of the Naval Service, Commodore Michael Malone, wrote in a Defence Forces newsletter on 27 June that 540 personnel had left the service in the past five years and that because of an inadequate number of personnel, he had taken the decision to place two ships in an operational reserve capacity.
In response to that information making its way into the public domain last weekend, the Minister of State with responsibility for defence, Deputy Paul Kehoe, dismissed it, as he has consistently dismissed concerns about the recruitment and retention crisis in the Defence Forces when these matters have been raised. On Saturday evening he claimed the two ships were being docked because of what he called "planned maintenance" and crews were being redeployed to other vessels. He directly contradicted the concerns of Commodore Malone. The Taoiseach yesterday accepted that the Naval Service faces significant staffing challenges and said it was "cutting its cloth to measure". He agreed with Commodore Malone and contradicted the Minister of State.
Does the Taoiseach think it appropriate for the Minister of State to withdraw his remarks given that he was wrong and his assertion was inaccurate? I believe that should happen today. The docking of two naval vessels will have consequences and a number of military sources in the press this morning spelt out precisely what will be those challenges. A source indicated that because of Ireland's massive sea area, having nine vessels is like having two Garda cars patrolling the island of Ireland, so with the vessels docked, it is like having one and a half such patrol cars. Another source said that this is like having a "neon sign for drug smugglers" because the deterrent factor is gone, with the end result being more drugs on the streets in Dublin, Portarlington, Ballina and so on.
That is the potential outworking of this issue. Fewer naval patrols in Irish waters because two vessels are docked means there will be fewer drug seizures and less of a deterrent. That cannot continue, so it is time for serious action to tackle what is a serious recruitment and retention crisis facing the Naval Service and the Defence Forces more generally. It is clear the recent recommendations of the Public Service Pay Commission are wholly inadequate. The Naval Service is operating at 88% of capacity and personnel numbers across the board have dropped below 8,500, despite a commitment to maintain numbers at 9,500. Morale is on the floor; 1,000 people left last year and 92 left in the past month alone. This is a very real crisis so what will the Taoiseach as Minister for Defence do about all of this? When will he ask the Minister of State to withdraw his inaccurate comments from the public record?
The Government, including the Minister of State, has acknowledged for quite some time that the Naval Service is short-staffed. It has a complement of 1,094 personnel but it currently has just 934 personnel. The numbers often do not tell the full story as it is particularly short-staffed when it comes to certain specialists and technical staff. There has been no denial at all from the Government in that respect and instead we have taken action. Pay is being restored through the public sector pay agreement and pay for all staff in the public service earning €70,000 or less will be fully restored by the end of next year. In addition, we signed off on a €10 million package for the Defence Forces last week that will provide additional allowances and other improvements. The process will not stop there, as there will be a review of technician pay, which is particularly relevant because people with particular technical skills, including engineers, artificers and others are especially sought after in the private sector now and they can command very good salaries. We need to review that pay as well. Those are the kinds of actions very much under way by the Government.
I am happy to clear up any confusion about the fleet. The Naval Service currently has nine vessels. There used to be eight but, because we have invested in the fleet and have a more modern fleet than ever before, there are five new vessels while only four have been decommissioned. We have more vessels than ever before but we have fewer sailors and that has obviously created a problem.
Of the nine vessels, LÉ Róisín is going through a mid-life refit and will not be available for service until the end of the year. LÉ Eithne and LÉ Orla are going through planned maintenance, as the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, said and that was confirmed by the press office of the Defence Forces last night. What is different is that their crews are now being redeployed to the other vessels to ensure they are fully crewed and staffed. That is important from a retention point of view because we want to retain our able seamen and Naval Service staff, rather than having them spread too thinly and short-staffed on a large number of ships. It is better to have a small number of ships fully staffed and I support the decision of the flag officer in that regard.
Those vessels will be out of service until the end of September and mid-October but, with current staffing levels, it is unlikely they can be brought back into service. That means that three ships will be held in operational reserve or in maintenance, with the remaining six vessels fully operational. It means some operations will be restricted. For example, the Naval Service will not be able to return to the Mediterranean because we must instead focus on our own seas, fishery protection and drug interdiction.
Why then did the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, contradict Commodore Michael Malone? There have been expressions from very senior levels within the Defence Forces describing the relationship between them and the Department of Defence as toxic, broken and dysfunctional. That is not a sustainable situation. The Minister of State then came out and openly contradicted the commodore and attempted to place inaccurate and misleading information on the record. Does the Taoiseach not agree that the Minister of State should clarify or withdraw those remarks?
It was reported in March this year that the rate of turnover in the Defence Forces was 8.1%. That figure now stands at 9%. For the purposes of comparison, the Ministry of Defence in Britain declared a retention crisis at a turnover rate of just 5%. We are clearly dealing with a real problem of scale while the Taoiseach sits on his hands. His pay increase proposals for very low-paid workers in the Defence Forces will simply not cut it. I suggest that he is making a bad situation a whole lot worse.
Will the Taoiseach ask his Minister of State to withdraw his contradictions and inaccurate claims from the public domain?
I will not be doing that. The Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, got his information from a Naval Service briefing on Friday at Naval Service headquarters in Haulbowline. The flag officer was also present at that briefing and the Defence Forces press office confirmed only last night that two vessels - LÉ Eithneand LÉ Orla- are going into planned maintenance.
Maintenance is not the sole issue, however. There is also an issue about staffing levels and the Naval Service is understaffed and, for that reason, there is going to be a change of practice. Where boats are put into maintenance or into reserve, the crews will then be redeployed to vessels that are in service. It is never the case that all nine vessels are at sea. It is often the case that vessels are in maintenance or in refit or in dock. Rather than having a situation which has been the case for the past couple of months where crews have been thinly spread across a larger number of vessels - and I have been on these vessels - there will be a smaller number of vessels which are now fully staffed. That also makes sense from a retention point of view because, where staff are stretched across a large number of vessels, it becomes much harder for them to do their jobs. This practice will help with retention.
In the meantime, we will continue to recruit and make efforts to retain the staff in the Naval Service, with a view to putting a seventh vessel back in service later in the year, if possible.
Today is a great day for the fossil fuel industry in this country. In particular, it is a great day for Providence Resources which has just had transferred into its bank account $10 million from APEC Energy Enterprise Ltd., its Chinese backer. So much for fuel security as this country is doing deals with the Chinese. We always have a problem with Putin and the Arabs but we never mention the Chinese. Now $10 million, with another $10 million to come, has gone into the bank account of Providence Resources to allow it to do research on the Barryroe prospect off the Cork coast. Today is not a good day for climate, biodiversity, the melting ice caps or, according to Naturemagazine, the future of this planet. Not only do we have to leave 80% of known fossil fuels in the ground, but Naturetells us we will now have to decommission much of the existing infrastructure for the oil and gas industry to save the planet and life on it.
We have also found out that the Taoiseach's office was lobbied by the industry. It was heavily lobbied by them last year - lobbying increased seven times - and it was lobbied by the industry this year, but the Taoiseach's office kept no record of that. The lobbyists thought it was lobbying but the Taoiseach did not think that it was sufficient to be described as lobbying. I have a serious question. When did the meeting between Mr. Feargal Purcell and Mr. John Carroll of the Taoiseach's office took place and what was discussed? The timing of that meeting is important to me, the people of Ireland, and the 15,000 students to whom he has lied. I am accusing the Taoiseach of lying and will repeatedly say so because the letter-----
I am on my feet. Deputy Smith knows full well that there are enough accusations around this House. I have heard this one. I ask the Deputy to withdraw her statement that the Taoiseach lied, otherwise the House will not continue its business.
-----that the Taoiseach's Department told the Ceann Comhairle that a money message was necessary for this Bill because this country would lose economic benefits. Let us look at what was reported in last weekend's newspapers. In the lifetime of the Corrib pipeline, from 1992 until it dies in 2030, the State will not receive a penny in tax or royalties. The Taoiseach spoke of the need to pay back the application fees to companies if my Bill was passed. On the same day I received the reasoned response from the Taoiseach's Department I also received a reply to a parliamentary question, which stated it is the Government's policy never to repay licence fees or applications. That is two lies at least.
Those were two mistruths. The third was that the Government was threatened with legal action, which is why I repeat my question. It is important that the people know when that lobbying took place. Did it take place after this House, for the second time, in a democratic fashion by an overwhelming majority, acknowledged that the Bill should proceed to Third Stage? That was the second time we did so-----
I will not accept that. I think I speak for the vast majority of Members that it is not acceptable terminology in the House. Some of us are here a long, long time. I take it for the record that Deputy Smith has withdrawn it.
The Taoiseach has three minutes.
I know I am perhaps not always the most civil person in this House myself but I hope we get to the point at some stage where it is possible for people to disagree with each other without accusing each other of being dishonest or lying. To answer some of the Deputy's questions-----
To answer the Deputy's questions, the decision on whether a money message is required is one for the Ceann Comhairle, who can listen to the case made by the sponsor and by the Government. I respect the Ceann Comhairle's ability to listen to both sides of the argument and to make a decision.
In relation to the financial transaction to which the Deputy referred, I am not familiar with it. The Government is not party to it. I really cannot comment on it. What the Government wants is sensible climate action that actually reduces greenhouse gas emissions and gives us cleaner air, warmer homes and creates the businesses and jobs of the future. What we do not want is climate action that is counter-productive and that makes us poorer, less secure or that costs people their jobs. The difficulty I have with the Bill proposed by the Deputy is that it does not reduce greenhouse gas emissions and that natural gas is a transitional fuel we will continue to need to use for the decades ahead.
Therefore, it makes sense to use our own natural gas if we have it. This is why a ban on exploration is not part of the Paris Agreement and why it is not recommended by our climate action council. Perhaps there is a third way and this is something to which I am giving some thought.
With regard to the question on lobbying, it is important to put on the record of the House that lobbying is not a nefarious activity. It is part of democracy. We are all lobbied all of the time, whether it is by-----
The reason we have a lobbying Act is so they are registered. I checked on this today. There is no record of the meeting because there was no meeting in the Department of the Taoiseach between the two people mentioned by the Deputy. What happened-----
What happened is that the lobbyist in question asked my adviser to meet him for coffee. He did not tell him the reason for the meeting. Over coffee he raised this issue and he declared it in the lobbying register.
If what the Taoiseach saying is true then what Feargal Purcell says has to be wrong or, at the very least, untrue. He says he sought the meeting to provide information on energy security, the transition to renewable energy and the value to the industry in this economy in the context of the climate emergency measures Bill. That is not a cup of coffee. He registered it on the lobbying register because he saw it as lobbying. Why did the Taoiseach's office not see it as lobbying? Even if it was over a cup of coffee, tell us how long that cup of coffee took and when it took place-----
-----because clearly somebody is saying something that is not correct because it is on the lobbying register as lobbying. The point about all this is there was a deliberate thwarting and blocking of the Bill to do the bidding of the fossil fuel industry. The evidence is in the $10 million in the bank this morning. There is the evidence. There is $10 million in the bank this morning and God knows when the next millions will go in. In the meantime, despite the fact the Taoiseach tried to deny it, there is no security on a planet where the temperatures will rise between 2° and 4°; no security whatsoever, despite the Taoiseach's passion and determination to state we need energy security in this country. There is no security on the planet and no security for the schoolchildren standing outside screaming at the Taoiseach to keep it in the ground. That is what people want. They want it kept in the ground.
One always knows when somebody does not have a case. It is when there is an attempt to try to shout down people because the Deputies concerned do not want the answers to their questions. That is because they know that-----
-----and not the person being lobbied to declare that.If that is not the case, then every Deputy must have a case to answer. No person in this House has ever made a lobbying declaration but I bet-----
It recently came to light at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Health that private facilities, with separate entrances, would be provided at the new maternity and children's hospitals. These hospitals are being built with State funding at a high cost. A key element of the Sláintecare reforms of the health service is the removal of private practice from the public health system. It seems that the provision of private facilities in these two new public hospitals flies in the face of this key element of Sláintecare, namely, the separation of private medicine from the public system.
Under the Sláintecare action plan announced late last year, a report was commissioned on the issue of separation of public and private care. The report was to be produced by a group headed by Dr. Donal de Buitléir. I understand that such a report has been with the Minister for Health and his officials for some weeks now. Will the Minister make the de Buitléir report, and any recommendations it contains, public and available for discussion in the Dáil where the Sláintecare proposals received widespread cross-party support? Will the Taoiseach give a commitment that no private medical facilities will be planned or provided at the new maternity and children's hospitals? At the very least, will he give a commitment that this House will have an opportunity to debate the issues in the report before any such facilities are provided?
As I understand it, it is not the case that there will be separate entrances. There will, however, be a private clinic as there are at present at Crumlin children's hospital and the national maternity hospital at Holles Street, not too far from here. That clinic comprises a number of rooms in the building where private patients can be seen by consultants. Even across the water, for example, the National Health Service, NHS, in Britain also has private clinics. The Great Ormond Street Hospital, the centrepiece NHS hospital, has a private clinic. That is a recognition that some patients have private health insurance and are willing to pay for a second opinion.
Those private clinics bring in additional revenue for hospitals. Approximately €700 million is brought into our public health service every year in fees paid to hospitals, and not to consultants, for private patients. The de Buitléir report will be published as soon as the Minister is ready to do so. The report refers to the implementation of the recommendation in Sláintecare to disentangle public and private medicine in our hospitals. The term "disentangle" is a very good one. This is not something that can be done quickly or overnight. It involves a fundamental change to the consultants' contracts, for a start. That will have to be negotiated and will take time. A very long period may be involved where we phase out all contracts and replace them with new ones and that will also take some time to achieve. It will also be necessary to find €700 million or €800 million to compensate our public hospitals for the loss of private income. We should never forget that. Private patients do not just pay private income to consultants; they also pay private income to public hospitals. That loss of €700 million would have to be replaced or public services would have to be cut back as a result. I do not think that anybody wants that
I asked the Taoiseach a simple question and I expected a simple answer. I only spent one and a half minutes asking my question so that the Taoiseach could not go off on a tangent. I asked a simple question. Will the Taoiseach make the de Buitléir report available to this House as soon as possible? I am referring to this week. The report has been in the hands of the Minister and the Department for the past number of weeks.
Will the Taoiseach confirm that no private facilities will be initiated or planned at the new maternity and national children's hospitals until the report is issued? We have to scrutinise it. We are talking about a national maternity hospital - a public hospital - and a national children's hospital into the future. The Government is going to allow a separate department with a waiting room, a reception area and access to facilities within the hospitals, including a public laboratory and diagnostic services. While we have not seen the review, the Sláintecare report explicitly states we want to remove private facilities from public facilities in that regard.
I ask the Leas-Cheann Comhairle to allow me to make one last point. When the review group was set up last October, the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, told the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health on 3 October that the current mixed model was not the norm and was an outlier. He said: "Let me be clear, because sometimes I hear myself described by my opponents wrongly in this regard, I am in favour of the removal of private practice from public hospitals." Yet, at this very minute, Crumlin Children's Hospital is stating it is going to give consultants access to private rooms, private reception areas and access to public laboratories and diagnostics. It is absolutely wrong. There should be a public outcry about it.
To respond to the Deputy's question about the de Buitléir report, it cannot be published this week. The Minister for Health has the report which he has to bring to the Cabinet. Once it has considered it, it can be published thereafter. I cannot give a date today, but I have read it and there are no secrets in it.
We will try to have it published as soon as we possibly can.
On the matter of private clinics in public hospitals, Crumlin Children's Hospital already has a private clinic-----
-----and NHS hospitals such as Great Ormond Street Hospital. They are private clinics that enable consultants to see private patients. It brings in extra revenue for the hospitals which they can then use to cross-subsidise public healthcare services.
The de Buitléir report sets out how we might disentangle public and private practice in public hospitals as recommended by Sláintecare. The report points out very clearly that it is not something that can be done overnight. It would involve new contracts, changing contracts and new funding models. It would take quite some time to make it happen.