Dáil debates

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

 

12:00 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The Leas-Cheann Comhairle announced this morning the resignation of former Deputy Dara Murphy from Dáil Éireann, effective from 10.45 p.m. last evening, almost immediately after the vote of confidence in the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. The reality is that Dara Murphy should have resigned at the end of 2017 because since he took up office with the Fine Gael grouping in Europe, the European People's Party, EPP, his parliamentary input has been reduced to near zero, to quote Harry McGee of The Irish Times. Since then, he effectively became an absentee Teachta Dála while still drawing a full salary.

Our role as Teachtaí Dála is essentially twofold; it is representational and legislative. We represent individuals, residents, communities, cities and counties on a range of issues and seek to resolve grievances and concerns through Parliament. We also make laws and engage in public debate which helps to influence and shape such laws.

Since the end of 2017, Dara Murphy did not discharge either of these functions. He has not spoken in the Dáil since 7 December 2017. I understand he only attended the Committee on Public Petitions once during 2018 and 2019. He asked a total of five parliamentary questions in 2019 and only two in 2018. I invite people to compare that record to that of his three colleagues in Cork North-Central. That behaviour reflects total disengagement from the Dáil.

The people of the northside of Cork elected him to represent them. For the past two years he did not do that. The people of the northside of Cork were neglected by him, and that was endorsed by the Taoiseach and the Fine Gael Party. The Taoiseach defended this behaviour, saying late last week that, "His main job has been a European job in the past two years, and he's done that extremely well". His job was with the Fine Gael Party in Europe. It had nothing to do with the Dáil or the European Parliament. Does the Taoiseach understand that basic point? Does he accept that former Deputy Dara Murphy's behaviour has fundamentally breached the code of conduct for Members in that he betrayed the trust placed in him by the people of the northside of Cork and has failed to obtain public confidence and trust in his role as a Teachta Dála and Dáil Éireann as an institution?

People are angry about this. People everywhere are talking about it. The Taoiseach sanctioned and okayed this and put party interest before the public interest. Working with Fine Gael and the EPP had nothing to do with Dáil Éireann and Dara Murphy's responsibility as a Deputy. Does the Taoiseach accept that he and the Fine Gael Party were wrong to sanction this arrangement and that he should apologise to the people of the northside of Cork, in particular, for the neglect of the past two years? Does he accept the basic point that former Deputy Dara Murphy's behaviour over the past two years was not morally sustainable? Can he outline the nature of his discussion with Dara Murphy in May 2018 when he announced that he would not contest the next general election?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Martin. As he will be aware, Dara Murphy has resigned from the Dáil and is no longer a Member of the House or the Fine Gael parliamentary party. He is taking up a new role in the European Commission, a job he applied for and got. It is not a Government appointment.

In relation to his remuneration and expenses, I spoke to him last night and last weekend. Last night he confirmed that he is willing to submit to any formal investigation regarding his conduct, whether it is his remuneration, expenses or whatever, and that can be done by the ethics committee or the Standards in Public Office Commission. If it cannot be done by those bodies for some reason, he is willing to put all of the information in front of the Clerk of the Dáil who can examine whether or not he complied with the rules and regulations of this House.

His role with the EPP was as a campaign director for a period of time and ended six months ago. While he did that role he was still responsible for looking after his constituency, through his constituency office in Cork, and being here as a TD and Member of the Dáil. The record shows that he was here for 120 days last year, including for 40-something sitting days, and voted on occasions. He is not the only Member of the House to have another job and other employment. It is not permitted for Government Ministers to have other jobs or employment, but it is permitted for TDs to have other jobs or employment and some members of the Fianna Fáil Front Bench have other jobs and other employment.

On my discussions with Dara Murphy in May 2018, at that time he informed me he would not run for the Dáil again. That did not come as any surprise. I thanked him for his service in the years gone by and said we would endeavour to find a new candidate to replace him to contest the election whenever it came, and we have.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I asked the Taoiseach whether he accepted that Dara Murphy's behaviour was not morally sustainable. This is not about a person having two jobs. People are angry that he took a full salary. The Taoiseach avoided the substance of my position, which is that he effectively walked away from the Dáil at the end of 2017. He did not represent the people of Cork from the end of 2017 onwards. The record speaks for itself. I am not talking about mere physical attendance. I am talking about parliamentary representation and representing people on the ground, which was non-existent, and in Dáil Éireann, which was non-existent.

It goes to the very core of the work of a Teachta Dála to represent the people who elected him. The Taoiseach issued a fulsome statement in May 2018, when Dara Murphy announced he was not contesting the next general election. He confirmed that Dara Murphy would be continuing as director of elections for the European People's Party, EPP, which is Fine Gael's grouping in the European Parliament. The Taoiseach went on to state that “So while Dara might be leaving the Dáil, he is certainly not leaving political life or Fine Gael", and then added that, “I look forward to working with him closely during the next phase of his career.” Dara Murphy essentially left the Dáil, however. He left the people of Cork behind him and said goodbye, and that was okay with the Taoiseach. What was more important was that Dara Murphy was not leaving Fine Gael and he was working with the party in Europe full-time. That seemed to be fine.

The reason I asked the question was that situation dovetailed with Dara Murphy's announcement that he was not seeking re-election. As far as the Taoiseach was concerned, the people of Cork did not matter and whether Dara Murphy continued working as a Deputy did not matter. All that mattered was that he was going to be with Fine Gael in Europe. Will the Taoiseach accept he was guilty of a serious error of judgment in allowing such a practice and behaviour, which has angered people and eroded public confidence in our democratic institutions? Dara Murphy should have resigned at the end of 2017. His behaviour was not morally sustainable.

12:10 pm

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I am not going to prejudice the outcome of any formal or official investigation and I do not think Deputy Martin should either. He made a serious error of political judgment himself this time two years ago when he viciously condemned Frances Fitzgerald and forced her to resign as Tánaiste. A subsequent investigation found out-----

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Roscommon-Galway, Fianna Fail)
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That is different.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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-----that Deputy Martin's political judgment was flawed and that he had mistreated that woman-----

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I asked the Taoiseach about his judgment.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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-----and forced her out. I am not going to make that kind of political mistake-----

Photo of Lisa ChambersLisa Chambers (Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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This is deflection of the highest order.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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-----as Deputy Martin did in jumping to conclusions and judgment. I understand an investigation is still under way in respect of Deputies Dooley and Niall Collins, and there may even be others. I am not, therefore, going to prejudge the outcome of any investigation.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Some Deputies on the Taoiseach's benches will be investigated as well.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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That would be a failure of political judgment like Deputy Martin's two years ago when he did what he did to Frances Fitzgerald. Dara Murphy has stated that he is willing to submit to an investigation.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I am not interested in what he is saying.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Roscommon-Galway, Fianna Fail)
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That is a different story.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I know the Deputy is not interested in the investigation.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I am making my own judgment, and the public has made their judgment.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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The Taoiseach, without interruption.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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There should be a proper investigation and it should not be prejudged. Dara Murphy is willing to provide information and documents to the ethics committee or to the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO. If that cannot happen for some reason, as he is now a former Member, he is willing to submit the information to the Clerk of the Dáil and that is what should be done.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The Taoiseach has not answered my question.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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As I stated yesterday, the rules around the way this House works when it comes to expenses, remuneration and fobbing in are far too lax.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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It is not about that, Taoiseach. This is much more fundamental.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I think it is about the issues I mentioned.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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It is not. It is about upholding the trust of the people who elect us.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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As I mentioned, Members on Deputy Martin's Front Bench have other employment and may well-----

Photo of Lisa ChambersLisa Chambers (Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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That is not the same.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Roscommon-Galway, Fianna Fail)
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It is different.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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The Taoiseach, without interruption.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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-----be fobbing into this House on their way to that other employment.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The Taoiseach is dodging the question and ducking and diving

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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We need to change that fundamentally. We should not have a system where we have rules made by politicians for politicians.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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The Taoiseach is the biggest politician. He is the Taoiseach.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Roscommon-Galway, Fianna Fail)
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He is talking about this before an election.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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In the House of Commons, at Westminster, this whole area has been handed over to an independent body and that is what should be done.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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I call Deputy Ó Laoghaire.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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“She was six months pregnant when she explained the situation to her landlady. The landlady told her that she would have to leave before the baby arrived ... Her excuse was that the neighbours in the apartments 'wouldn’t like the crying'. [She] waited until late in her pregnancy to tell the landlady because she was afraid of what the reaction might be.” These words reported in The Echotoday are those of Mr. Conor Lynch of Threshold and tell of the experience of one renter in Cork. Can the Taoiseach even begin to imagine the stress that heartlessness would have had on that woman, the worry and the anxiety, and she is far from alone? Threshold states this is not an isolated case and recounts another incident of a pregnant woman living in private rented accommodation where a new baby was not wanted by the landlord. That woman ended up moving into homeless accommodation with her new-born.

Does this not illustrate the depths of the crisis facing renters under the housing policy of the Taoiseach's Government? The 10,500 people who are now homeless deserve better than what they got on the floor of the Dáil last night. That was an opportunity to start from scratch, take stock, and do the right and the wise thing of accepting the system is broken and changing course. The Taoiseach and the Government could have listened to the solutions, such as a radical plan of home building, both council and affordable, a reduction in rents through a rent freeze and tax relief, and the implementation of Deputy Pearse Doherty's No Consent, No Sale Bill to protect family homes from circling vulture funds and evictions. The Government did not do that, however. It wasted that opportunity and backed its man to the hilt, as did the Fianna Fáil Party and Deputy Micheál Martin, who have now clearly shown whose side they are on. They have not shown up to take the side of homeless children and struggling workers and families, but the side of landlords and property speculators. To add insult to injury, the Government bartered, cajoled and arm-twisted three Independent Deputies by promising requests and favours to be met in return for supporting the Government's man. The Government even bussed in the absentee Deputy for Cork North-Central - for one night only, however, as we hear this morning that he has resigned his seat merely hours after casting his vote of confidence. It was a farewell tour before he starts his solo career, though he has certainly been serving himself quite well for some time now - disgraceful behaviour that has let down the people of the northside of Cork city.

Where has all this got the Taoiseach, this desperate attempt to defend and protect his Minister? Some 10,514 people are homeless, including 4,000 children, there are record numbers all the time, including in Cork, children will wait for Santa in bed and breakfast and emergency accommodation, average rents in some places have now reached in excess of €2,000, people are years waiting on council housing waiting lists - last week, I met people 13 years and 17 years on the housing waiting lists - and a whole generation has no prospect of owning their own homes. In light of the figures released last night and the swathe of evidence in front of us, will the Taoiseach accept that his housing policies are not working and will he finally change direction?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for the question. I am very sorry to hear about that case he illustrated in his contribution. I do not want to comment on the detail without knowing all of the facts and information. It would be inappropriate to do so. What I do know is that pregnancy or having a child is not grounds for eviction - that would be illegal - and is certainly not grounds for issuing a notice to quit. That is why we have bodies such as Threshold and others that can assist people if they find themselves dealing with a landlord of that nature. We also have the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, a public body set up by the Government, to help enforce the rights of tenants. As a Government we have enhanced tenants' rights and we have given more resources to the Residential Tenancies Board to deal with matters such as that. While most landlords may well be very good people who provide much needed rental accommodation, there are bad landlords and we have laws to deal with them and we have an enforcement mechanism through the RTB to deal with them as well. I do not know how the case described by Deputy Ó Laoghaire ended, but that is how it should have been dealt with.

We disagree on some things, but there are some things we agree on, and one of those is that the core of the solution to the housing shortage is more supply. That is exactly what we are doing: building more homes, council houses and social housing for people on the housing list, more private housing, because most people want to buy their own home, and more homes for people to rent. More supply is what is required.

Where have we come from and where are we now? Before the Government launched its housing plan, Rebuilding Ireland, three and a half years ago, housing supply was on the floor. Only about 7,000 houses were built in the year before Rebuilding Ireland was launched. We are now up to 20,000 houses being built this year and probably 25,000 houses next year. When it comes to social housing, in the Deputy's own city of Cork, the council only built about one social house before Rebuilding Ireland was launched, but about 1,000 houses are now under construction or in process. This year, we will build and provide more social housing than in any year this century, through the boom and the bust. We are delivering on housing supply - homes for people to buy, because that is what most people want, but also social housing because that is what some people need.

It was never going to be possible to go from a situation where virtually no houses were being built to suddenly having 35,000 or 40,000 houses being built every year, which is where we need to go to. No Government and no party, no matter the resources or the will, can just turn housing construction on and off like a tap. We had a collapse in this country's economy ten years ago. The Government was bust and did not build any housing for a very long time. The Fine Gael-Labour Party Government would have built more housing if we could have afforded to, but we could not. The banks were bust and not in a position to lend to builders, while the construction industry was on the floor as well. It went bust and nearly 100,000 people emigrated as a result, many of them construction workers. It was never going to be the case that we could just turn back on the tap.

When one compares where we were three years ago to where we are now on supply, it has been a dramatic turnaround. We need to build on that to make sure we continue to increase the supply of housing. That is how we will get on top of this crisis.

12:20 pm

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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The landlord was fined and rightly so. There are good landlords, as the Taoiseach has said, but there are bad landlords who are behaving like this. They are brazen because they know the deck is stacked in their favour. They know the whole system is stacked in their favour and the tenant is powerless. In every debate, the Taoiseach keeps begging for time. He says that the Government needs more time. Fine Gael has been in government since 2011. The Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has been in office since 2016. The Government has had plenty of time. The Taoiseach was disappointed at the weekend. Does he understand why people are angry and frustrated? People know that there is a lot of wealth in this country, some of which is concentrated in a small number of pockets. People know what might be possible with the right approach. They can see that the Government, and the State, is failing to meet two of the most basic and fundamental human needs imaginable: the right to be cared for and healthy and the right to a secure and safe house. The mere right to have a home, to have shelter - the Government is unable to deliver on that. How can the Taoiseach expect people to be anything other than angry? The Government hangs by a thread.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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The Taoiseach to respond.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I will finish on this.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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You should have finished a minute ago.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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Maybe it is time for the Taoiseach to start listening. Why not introduce a rent freeze, a measure which would have the backing of the whole House and not just a minority?

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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The clock was not set.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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Okay. My apologies. I was being too vigilant.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I am reassured and glad to hear that the law was enforced and the landlord was fined. Deputy Ó Laoghaire omitted to mention that in his contribution.

Photo of Dessie EllisDessie Ellis (Dublin North West, Sinn Fein)
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We told the Government.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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The kind of behaviour I am talking about is favoured by the system and the structure.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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That says the law was enforced and applied and I am glad to hear that it was. Deputy Ó Laoghaire is right when he says that many people are angry. Of course they are and I meet them all the time. Many people are angry about the problems our country faces and the fact many of them remain unresolved. It is and has always been thus: people angry with the Government and angry about the problems any country faces.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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Sometimes they are right to be angry.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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It was the same in Northern Ireland when Sinn Féin was in office for ten years. It was the same when Fianna Fáil was in office as well.

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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People have every reason to be angry.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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There are many people who acknowledge the good work this country has done, taking us from a situation of mass unemployment and forced emigration to virtually full employment again-----

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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Homelessness is at record levels.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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-----where incomes are rising, where poverty is falling and where people are becoming better off. We have delivered one of the best education systems in the world. We are investing in infrastructure all over the country again. People want us to do more.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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We cannot care for and house our people.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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They want us to build on what we have done. They want us to deliver on our plans in areas like housing and healthcare. They certainly do not think that the Opposition has all the solutions and all the answers, or would necessarily do a better job. The by-elections referenced by the Deputy were only by-elections. Sinn Féin won one and Fine Gael did not win any, but we got more votes than Sinn Féin across the four by-elections.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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That is like someone saying that they got more presents than someone else for Christmas.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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Deputy Ó Laoghaire should not make the mistake of thinking that Sinn Féin received some sort of endorsement for its policies; it did not.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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The Taoiseach and his colleagues are like schoolchildren.

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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They are like kids fighting over sweets.

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary, Labour)
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Yesterday, we finally got the aggregate report from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, RCOG, on the CervicalCheck programme. We are thinking of the 159 women who had missed opportunities to get interventions. Following the publication of the report, the 221+ group will help and support those women over the coming weeks. We know that cancer screening is not diagnostic and is not perfect. We also know that the promotion of screening is critically important. This House knows that screening saves lives. Collectively, all of us are making progress on HPV screening and HPV vaccinations, on which my party has led. We are changing the quality assurance and management of our screening programmes. All of this good work represents good progress.

We know there have been a large volume of mistakes and errors in the administration of the screening programme when it comes to the HSE and the Department of Health. This has been demonstrated in the two Scally reports and the MacCraith report and has been compounded by incredibly inept communications and failures with regard to mandatory disclosure. Yesterday, the chief patient advocate who was on the RCOG review and the cervical cancer steering group, Lorraine Walsh, told us that she resigned from both roles on 31 October last. I know Lorraine Walsh very well. She is one of the most formidable people I have ever met in my life. She explained on "Prime Time" on RTÉ last night that she resigned because she simply did not have confidence in the RCOG review. For me, this is some revelation. On 22 October when I and the Taoiseach stood here and he apologised to the women of Ireland for what happened to them through the screening programme, I raised with him, in fact I pleaded with him, in relation to an intervention on the RCOG review because I had fears that the same mistakes were going to be repeated. Unfortunately, he did not listen.

Today I am asking questions on behalf of Lorraine Walsh. The minutes of the cervical review meeting on 6 October state that over 50% of all reviews carried out by RCOG and sent to the HSE had to be sent back. How were proper controls for this review not in place by then and that that amount had to be sent back to RCOG to be re-examined? It has been revealed that three women, from a total of 1,051, had their slides relabelled in error as part of this process. Two of the three women in question were Lorraine Walsh, the patient advocate, and Vicky Phelan, who revealed all of this on day one. Statistically, what are the chances of them being two of the three women, from a total of 1,051 women, who had the labels taken off their slides and moved around onto other women's slides? How could Lorraine Walsh get two reports from RCOG on 15 November and 16 November, one saying her report was concurrent and the other saying it was the total opposite? How was that possible over 24 hours? How did RCOG know that it was Lorraine Walsh's report without her confidentiality being broken? Finally, how many women whose slides were lost or unavailable have been told as part of the RCOG review that their reports were concurrent when we do not actually know and they should be categorised as unknown?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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In fairness to the Deputy, he has asked some very specific questions, one relating to the minutes of a meeting held on 6 October last. I was not present at the meeting and I have not seen the minutes so the Deputy will forgive me if I am unable to answer questions at that level of detail. It is the case that some errors were made during the process of the RCOG audit. They were flagged at the time and I am advised that they were dealt with.

I know Lorraine Walsh too. I have met her many times. I read her resignation letter when it arrived on 31 October, five weeks before this report was published. It was extraordinarily complimentary of the Minister, in particular, and of many of the people who now work in CervicalCheck. It did not mention RCOG at all. I appreciate that she is honest and truthful in what she has said since then, although that was not the reason that was given five weeks ago. I want to express my appreciation and thanks to her for the work she did as a patient advocate over many months. She certainly helped me in my work when I was putting together the apology I made in this House. She has made a difference in helping us to improve our screening programme and to restore confidence in CervicalCheck.

RCOG is the professional body for obstetricians and gynaecologists in the United Kingdom. It is well-respected. It is the world expert when it comes to gynaecology, cervical cancer and women's health. It is independent. It was asked to do this report on behalf of the Government and it did it. I think the right thing is for the college to account for it. RCOG is not a public body or a Government body. They are experts brought in from the UK because we wanted to make sure the report was totally independent. They are willing to come to the Joint Committee on Health on 18 December - I understand this date has been set - to account for all of the matters relating to their report. That is as it should be.

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary, Labour)
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I ask the Taoiseach to respond to the specific questions I asked on behalf of Lorraine Walsh. He said there was an independent report. I have to question that. If a report or review that is being conducted has to be constantly validated by the HSE, I am not sure it is fully independent. A number of people were upset by the response of the Minister, Deputy Harris, to the report yesterday. They have suggested that his response was too categoric and clinical and downplayed the findings of the report. They are not my words - they are the words of Stephen Teap and others.

Lorraine Walsh made attempts on 2 September, 2 October and 22 October to talk to the Minister and explain her concerns regarding the RCOG. He never contacted her until, literally, an hour after he discovered that she had resigned. He also tried to contact her before the report was launched yesterday but nobody will be surprised to hear that she did not answer him.

I have two questions for the Taoiseach. There is a request that in the context of the women who were part of this review, particularly those who have questions as regards what is in the report, the State would pay for an independent review of their cases, at a cost of approximately €3,000 each. I do not foresee there being a huge number of women involved and, thus, there should not be a huge cost to the State. Will the Taoiseach consider the request? Will he also ensure that Dr. Gabriel Scally fully reviews the RCOG review outcomes and the process by which it was done and report back to the Dáil in the near future?

12:30 pm

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I will certainly give consideration to the Deputy's suggestion with regard to involving Dr. Scally again. He is very much trusted by the Government and, I think, by the House and the patient advocates. I would prefer to have that discussion with him rather than make an announcement on the matter now. We can certainly give consideration to funding independent reports for women who wish to have them. The Deputy should bear in mind that these are independent reports. The RCOG is the world-leading body of experts; it is independent and based in a different country. It came in here to do this work. I am not sure if a cytologist, a pathologist or a cytotechnician selected by a solicitor is independent or if one selected by a laboratory is independent. We would have to bear that in mind as well.

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary, Labour)
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The Government can select them.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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However, the judge heading the CervicalCheck tribunal which the Government established is empowered to appoint independent experts who would not be paid by the laboratory or paid through a solicitor. They can, I think, be genuinely independent.

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary, Labour)
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They are open to any process.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Approximately 35 years ago, Planning for the Future was published. That document was an open confirmation that the existing mental health services were not fit for purpose and that the rate of admissions, including involuntary admissions to hospital, was unacceptably high. It took another 21 years, and the unnecessary suffering of a substantial number of patients and their families, for the Government of the day to acknowledge that the rate of change was abysmally slow and a new approach was required. The latter came with A Vision for Change, which was to cover the period 2006 to 2016 and which was published after a long period of consultation and on the back of the suffering of patients and their families. It was a visionary and comprehensive document, which, in minute detail, showed what was required to provide mental health services of an acceptable standard throughout the country. It also took the precaution of not trusting any Government and it recommended the establishment of an independent implementation body, which was done. That body was in place for two periods. I do not know how many times I have mentioned this, but it did its job so well that it was abolished. Since then, and particularly since the notional date of 2016 came and went, this Government, unfortunately, has utterly failed to implement A Vision for Change in any meaningful way. It has refused, as a measure of bona fides, to re-establish the independent body which was so effective and instead resorted to delays and obfuscations, a desktop review, which was completed in five weeks and left sitting on a table, and a refreshing of A Vision for Change. What is necessary is the reinstatement of the independent body and the roll-out and operation of A Vision for Change.

I mention all of this in the context of Galway, where there is a brand new facility but no staff. This new facility was supposed to bring change, where there are - I am not given to exaggeration - at least four delayed discharges and a number of clinical psychologists, occupational therapists and social worker posts cannot be filled. I am told the figure is approximately 28. The moratorium-embargo that the Taoiseach repeatedly tells us does not exist actually does exist. One would need the help of Kafka to try to understand the language coming from the Government because I do not understand it. I have a list of the vacancies but time precludes from going through it. All of the applicants attended for interview, were successful and offered jobs but no sanction has been forthcoming from Dublin. The Taoiseach tell us boldly and unacceptably that there is no moratorium. My question to him is in regard to the €12 million that supposedly cannot be spent. I want an absolute assurance that that €12 million will not go back into the coffers of the HSE and that it will be used, in the first instance, in respect of Galway such that the four delayed discharges can be immediately dealt with and other patients can be treated in the hospital and, second, to fund essential posts.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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Mental health is an issue in which I have a great interest and one that is of major concern to the Government. I do not agree with the contention that A Vision for Change has not been implemented at all but I do think it needs to be replaced by a new document. It has reached the pointed where it needs to be renewed. A lot of things have happened since A Vision for Change was first adopted. For a start, we have moved away from treating mental illness largely in hospital settings, or psychiatric institutions as they used to be called, to community settings. There use to be nearly 20,000 people in psychiatric hospitals and mental institutions throughout the country. The position has totally changed. It is now a largely community-delivered service. That brings with it new challenges but I think it is a much better situation than in the past. We have also seen the development, for example, of the National Office of Suicide Prevention and the success it has had in reducing suicide rates over the past couple of years and new programmes such as, for example, Jigsaw and the Children and Young People's Services Committees, CYPSC. We have seen the progress made in recent months in reducing the waiting lists for child and adult mental health services, CAMHS, which are down by approximately 20% or 30% in the past few months and the 24-hour helpline that I launched with the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, only last week. We have over 1,000 different mental health services, but some overlap and there are gaps. People often it difficult to find which is the right service for them at the right time. This new service helps to point individuals in the right direction.

In terms of the money the Deputy mentioned, I often hear figures like €12 million, €35 million and so on. We should acknowledge, and we should at least know in this House, that the budget for mental health for 2020 is over €1 billion. It has increased from approximately €750 million when this Government came to office to over €1 billion now. Of that, there is an increase of €39 million for next year, comprising €12 million or €13 million for new developments and €26 million to pay staff better and make improvements in the context of staffing, etc. It is an extra €39 million for mental health services next year and a budget of over €1 billion for the first time ever. This shows the level of resources that are required and being provided to our mental health services.

The spend in Galway is not a matter for me. I am sure €39 million would cover those costs many times over but it is the responsibility of the national director of mental health services to decide how it is best allocated. I am sure there are many examples of how that money could be spent all around the country but it would not be right, or possible, for me, to identify one and direct that that be done. The national director of mental health services has to look at the entire list of things that could be done and decide how best the €39 million can be spent.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I am not sure when it is going to dawn on the Taoiseach that in order to restore faith in the political process, we need language to mean something. A Vision for Change is not out of date. The desktop review did not say that it is out of date. Since the notional date of January 2016 expired, this Government has left a vacuum. The independent monitoring body, which the Taoiseach failed to mention, should be re-established.

On the €12 million, I took the precaution of raising it in the Dáil more than once. I sent a number of emails to the Minister regarding the €12 million that cannot be spent. I await replies to all of those emails. On Galway, does the Taoiseach, who is also a doctor, believe it is right that a mental health service has no psychologist, occupational therapist or social worker of the level that is required such that the treatment being provided is medication therapy as opposed to non-medication therapy? Is this in keeping with A Vision for Change? The statements on suicide we have had in the Dáil over the past four years and all of the various elements were unnecessary. What needs to be done is set out in A Vision for Change. Deputies should be calling for it to be updated and implemented and for the re-establishment of the independent monitoring body. In the context of the €12 million, will the Taoiseach tell us in plain language that it will be spent and that he does not stand over a situation where there are four delayed discharges and posts not being filled?

12:40 pm

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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When I say it is out of date, what I mean is that it is a document which was published some 15 or 20 years ago and which needs to be renewed and updated. That is what we intend to do. I will return to the Deputy on the question of the independent monitoring body. I must talk to the Minister of State with responsibility for mental health on that.

The acute adult mental health unit at University Hospital Galway was officially opened in the summer by the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly. This is a 50-bed unit designed to replace an old facility that was not fit for purpose. The bed numbers increased from 45 to 50 as a result of the old facility being closed and the new, modern unit being opened. It is a modern safe therapeutic environment which will enhance the Galway Roscommon mental health services. I will check on staffing and revert to the Deputy. I can assure her that the €12 million will be spent. However, that is for 2020 and it is not quite 2020 yet.