Wednesday, 3 March 2021
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
"I am not who I am supposed to be"; "I was robbed of the chance to meet the woman who gave birth to me"; "I don't know who I am." These are the voices of people affected directly by the scandal of illegal adoption in this State. Some will feature in an "RTÉ Investigates" documentary to be broadcast tonight. The news that the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth has confirmed at least 151 illegal adoptions at the St. Patrick's Guild adoption society in Dublin is deeply upsetting. However, it has to be said it is not surprising.
Successive governments have known of these scandals for decades, yet they have failed to name them or to act, despite ample documentary evidence. Indeed, campaigners have been raising these issues with successive governments since at least 2002. Over the years, the Adoption Rights Alliance has raised specific issues of illegal adoption with successive Ministers, but it was only in 2018 that we began to see some movement. This St. Patrick's Guild audit is only the tip of the iceberg. It is widely considered that thousands of children were illegally adopted, some trafficked to America or elsewhere, and that hundreds of institutions across the State were involved in these practices. Indeed, it has been reported that the Government review has found evidence of illegal adoptions in multiple organisations.
We now need a transparent and inclusive investigation into Ireland's adoption system as a whole because this was yet another massive failure and abuse by the State in its treatment of women and children. It was deliberate and it was criminal. Children had their identities erased through the falsification of their birth certificates. Their most basic right was stolen - the right to know who one is and from where one came.
There are people who were illegally adopted but have no idea they were adopted. Many have lived for decades unaware of their identities and without access to their records. Many will want to know who their birth parents are, but now it may be too late. This was the case for Anne O'Connor, who received a letter from Tusla in 2019 requesting a meeting with her. Anne met officials from Tusla in London, where she now lives, and was told she had been illegally adopted. She was told her parents, who had passed away, were not her birth parents, her birthday is not her birthday and she was not born where she thought she was born. These revelations rocked Anne to her very core. She said there was loss everywhere. There was something about not knowing this. She is 65 years of age. She said, "It's too long. I wasn’t who I thought I was, but I don’t know who I am."
All adopted people are entitled to know who they are. The State needs to end the discrimination against all adopted people in accessing their personal records. This means introducing information and tracing legislation as soon as possible but, foremost, it means passing legislation that will give all adopted people a legal right to obtain a copy of their birth certificate. Tá an reachtaíocht seo foilsithe ag Sinn Féin. Tabharfar an Bille os comhair na Dála an tseachtain seo chugainn. Bhí comhrá cuiditheach ag mo chomhghleacaí, an Teachta Funchion, leis an Aire, an Teachta O’Gorman. An ngeallfaidh an Taoiseach chun tacú leis an reachtaíocht seo? Sinn Féin has published this legislation. We will bring the Bill before the Dáil next week. I am asking the Taoiseach to commit to supporting the legislation as a first step to right these wrongs.
First, I thank the Deputy for raising this very serious issue. I am aware an "RTÉ Investigates" programme due to air this evening will focus on the St. Patrick's Guild illegal birth registrations. The illegality of what took place is shocking, particularly for those affected. I refer to the trauma, anguish and hurt that people are now experiencing as a result of this unacceptable practice. What happened was wrong, plain and simple, and completely unacceptable. Enormous trauma has been placed on people as a result of this illegality.
As the Deputy is aware, the Government is committed to introducing information and tracing legislation as a priority. The people involved in this particular issue, who are the victims here, were approached by Tusla and essentially told they are not who they thought they were and their parents are not those who they thought they were. They do not know who they are or who their parents are and they cannot get access to the most basic information any human being should have access to. The priority has to be information and tracing legislation. The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth is working on that with the Office of the Attorney General to provide comprehensive legislation which will provide access to birth information, including the birth certificate, for individuals and for anyone who has a question about their identity and, indeed, origins.
More broadly, the Minister has also established an interdepartmental working group to identify the issues that have now arisen for many of the affected victims and individuals, and to propose solutions for them. Those solutions will then form the basis of consultation with those affected by these illegal birth registrations.
The Deputy knows that a sampling review into illegal birth registrations was commissioned in 2018 by the then Government to identify whether there were markers on files to indicate a practice of illegal birth registrations in the records of other adoption agencies and similar institutions like those that were found on the St. Patrick's Guild files. The then Minister for Children and Youth Affairs appointed an independent reviewer to oversee the process. The publication of the sampling review had to await the final report of the mother and baby homes commission as it encroached on its work. Now that the commission has published its report, it is intended to publish the sampling review shortly. The Minister will be bringing a memo to the Government about the sampling review next week. That is the intended timeline for that.
The files at St. Patrick's were unique insofar as there were markers on the files indicating that children were adopted from birth. As we know, social workers from Tusla are continuing the work of informing people that their births were illegally registered, arising from markers found in the St. Patrick's Guild files. The number of confirmed cases, as the Deputy said, has increased from 126 to 151 since the announcement in May 2018.
I understand that one of the primary issues that will be raised in the programme this evening is the lack of information for the individuals in question and the difficulties they face in accessing records. Understandable anger and frustration are clearly being felt. We are very committed, as a matter of urgency, to bringing in comprehensive legislation on information and tracing to deal with this issue once and for all.
These matters are deeply traumatising and upsetting but they are not surprising. That is the point. There has been knowledge of these deliberate and criminal practices for a considerable length of time. We now need to put things to rights. There is the scandal of illegal adoption itself. There is also the scandal of the trafficking of children to America and elsewhere. There is also the ongoing scandal, to rub salt into the wound, of the State and its agencies deliberately blocking and frustrating adopted people in their attempts to access their information. Perhaps that is the biggest scandal of all and it persists to this day. We need information and tracing legislation and it must put the rights of the adopted person first, front and centre.
In the meantime, Sinn Féin has legislation in respect of access to birth certificates that we will bring next week. I appeal to the Taoiseach to follow in the steps of the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, who has been constructive on this matter and to support this legislation as an immediate and necessary first step to put things right.
The Deputy knows that the Government is bringing in such legislation and that our legislation has been fully and comprehensively informed, from a legal perspective, by the Attorney General. I ask the Deputy to wait for the Government legislation to be published and I ask that all parties in the House, in a spirit of co-operation, would work on that legislation. It is being formulated to give access to birth information, birth certificates and very basic information in terms of identity to which every individual and human being is entitled. The previous Dáil attempted to do this but it was not in a proposition to achieve consensus on the matter when the previous Minister brought forward legislation. There is now an opportunity to deal with this matter once and for all on a cross-party basis and provide access to information. It should be done in a non-partisan way because we all want to do the right thing. All parties have articulated a similar view. The Minister has given an indicative timeline that he will have the legislation by the end of March. It is complex work, but he is determined to do it.
I want to ask about the vaccination programme because I am concerned about two aspects of it. Vaccines provide great hope for people. The vast majority of people are looking forward to getting vaccinated and are keen to know when they are likely to receive a vaccine. For that reason, I think we need to improve the data that are available.
Many of us have been looking to the Minister for Health to provide daily figures about the performance of the vaccination programme. That is important. The Taoiseach and the Minister have said that we are delivering the vaccines, getting them out and administering them as quickly as they arrive but there is no way of gauging that. While we are getting daily figures for the administration of the vaccine, the other side of that equation, that is, the number of vaccines that have arrived in this country, is not available. The only data on vaccine deliveries that are available come from the COVID-19 Resilience and Recovery 2021 - The Path Ahead document, in which a table is set out. Those are the only official figures we have for the forecasted deliveries and they indicate a substantial gap between the numbers of vaccines forecasted to be delivered and the numbers that are being administered. It is a very substantial gap. It seems that more than two thirds of the promised supply of the AstraZeneca vaccine have not been administered. Four fifths of the promised supply of the Moderna vaccine have not yet been administered. The number is smaller in the case of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine.
Can the Taoiseach provide an explanation for that big gap? What is happening to those expected vaccines that we were told would be delivered? I am talking, in particular, about the month of February because we have all of the daily figures for the vaccines administered. Can the Taoiseach explain that? If he cannot do so today, can he get a note on it? Will he commit to publishing daily figures for the numbers of doses received in this country, the numbers available for vaccination and the number of doses that have been administered? It is important to have all of that data on a daily basis if we are to be able to gauge the performance of the programme. It is important from the point of view of transparency and accountability to allow us to measure the performance of the programme. That is not possible at the moment. I would appreciate a response from the Taoiseach on that matter.
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. Without question, the vaccination programme and its roll-out are critical parts of the wider strategy to deal with the pandemic. The vast majority of people in Ireland are adhering to the guidelines and restrictions. That is having an impact in getting the hospital and intensive care unit, ICU, numbers down and reducing community transmission as the vaccination programme is being rolled out.
The national task force and the HSE are publishing data on vaccinations. The key is the ongoing issue of supply from AstraZeneca, Pfizer BioNTech and Moderna. There have, without question, been bumps along the way, most recently with the shortfall of supply last week from AstraZeneca, as the chair of the task force said last Saturday. The company believes that shortfall will be made up in the next week and will come through. There have been issues around supply and those were discussed at the European Council meeting where there was a dedicated meeting on Thursday last about European-wide vaccination. China, America and Europe are the major production centres for vaccines. Supply is the issue across the board. Europe has appointed a Commissioner to deal with removing bottlenecks affecting supply.
In the Irish context, we are administering that which we are getting in.
I will revert to the task force on the issues Deputy Shortall raised. There is no difficulty in having it go through the situation with the Deputy. We had to reconfigure following the decision by NIAC to provide the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines to the over-70s and the AstraZeneca vaccine to those under-70. That meant the roll-out had to be reconfigured through the GP network and as a result there can be a lag in data coming back into the centre. Essentially, we are administering the vaccines we get, apart from the ones that have been kept back for second doses.
The figures that are available now indicate that we are not administering the vaccines that have come in. Perhaps the Government needs to update the figures on what is coming in, but it is important it does that so that there is transparency about this. It is not a matter of giving me the figures. These are figures that should be publicly available. It is only when the Government is transparent about this that people will have confidence that the programme is running well. I again appeal to the Taoiseach to make those figures available or to update the figures that are available on the number of vaccines that have been received into this country.
The other point I would make to the Taoiseach is that we all accept there are fluctuations in supply, but the level of delivery at the moment is averaging approximately 12,000. We need to up that by nearly four times the amount if we are to be ready for the roll-out programme on a mass basis. That is the reason we need a published plan on how the Government is going to ramp up to that level-----
The current figures that have been released show we are above the EU average with 8.3 doses administered per 100 of the population. As of 27 February, 435,895 Covid-19 vaccines had been administered. Some 294,550 people have received their first dose and 141,345 people have received their second dose.
We are on target to substantially administer the first dose to 72,000 over-85s by the end of the first week of March and arrangements are being made to vaccinate homebound elderly people in conjunction with GPs and local community teams. That will be followed with the subcohort of people aged between 80 and 84. By the end of this week, approximately 1,200 GP practices will have participated in the vaccine programme.
The chairman, Brian MacCraith, and Paul Reid have said this publicly on a number of occasions. We have said as soon as we get vaccines in the aim is to use them.
I am sure like the rest of us the Taoiseach remembers Phil Hogan, who long before he went to Europe and long before "golfgate", was in charge of water services. At the time, as well as threatening the population that he would turn their water down to a trickle if they did not pay water charges, he also did a deal with all 3,200 of those who worked in the water services so that they would co-operate with the establishment of Irish Water by working to a service level agreement, SLA, that was legally binding until 2024. Now we find that service level agreement is being chivvied along by none other than Irish Water itself, which wants to move the council workers over sooner than 2024. In a reply to a question recently from Deputy Boyd Barrett, the Minister said that he was asking the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, to facilitate negotiations for the move to Irish Water.
We must be clear in this House that the workers in Irish Water who co-operated with the establishment of Irish Water, but who did not co-operate with the attempt to push meters on the population, will not be bullied or coerced into getting rid of their service level agreement. They see themselves as public sector workers with stable employment and that is the way many of them want to remain. SIPTU employees have voted by 98% to go on strike if there is any attempt to get rid of their SLA before 2024. I want the Taoiseach to answer a question this morning. Can we have a commitment in this House that the promised referendum on the guarantee in the Constitution that water will remain in public ownership will be conducted? In 2017 the committee set up in this House to get over a row at the time between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael recommended that such a referendum would go ahead. Deputy Joan Collins introduced a Bill that was signed by practically all the Opposition at the time to have such a referendum. The Government has sat on that and now it is prepared to go to war with the workers and to push them into this utility.
The Government may have made a commitment in the programme for Government that Irish Water would remain as a public service, but we have all seen the road that single utilities go down. The same happened with TEAM Aer Lingus and with other utilities in this country. The workers are not guaranteed that they will remain public sector workers in a publicly controlled utility. We need to give them that guarantee and the best way of doing it is for the Government to commit to having a referendum, as was fought for by the tens of thousands of people the length and breadth of the country who resisted water charges and who dragged Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael into changing their position on water charges because they were afraid of the movement from below and those people who stood with the workers to say they would not allow the water services to be privatised. We need that referendum and we need an answer from the Government on when we can have it.
I thank Deputy Bríd Smith for raising the issue. In the first instance, it is not the Government's intention to go to war with anybody. I acknowledge the workers have been critical to the development of water services and that through their dedication and commitment they have developed water services on which so many of us rely today. A significant number of stakeholders are involved in the delivery of water, principally the workers themselves, the local government sector, ICTU, relevant trade unions, Fórsa, SIPTU, Connect, Unite and Irish Water, the parent company, and so forth. There will be ongoing consultation on the evolution of the service and how it develops in the future. The programme for Government provides that Irish Water will be retained in public ownership as a national stand-alone regulated utility. Consistent with that commitment, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, brought forward a policy paper setting out the Government's approach on the next phase of the transformation for the water sector. It is critical that any movement forward must be in consultation with all involved.
Deputy Smith referred to the Workplace Relations Commission being engaged in the discussions on the framework for the future delivery of water services. That is something that will have to be entered into by agreement, engagement and consultation. The Government is determined that the views and concerns of key stakeholders must be considered and addressed within the process. I have outlined who the key stakeholders are.
Public ownership is critical to the programme for Government. It is something we insisted on and to which all three parties are committed to doing. We stated in the programme for Government that we would refer the environment, including water and its place in the Constitution, to a relevant Oireachtas joint committee for consideration. That is something we will work with the Oireachtas on regarding how that commitment can be brought forward. There has been some consideration and exploration of the protection of water within the Constitution and how one would progress that more fully in the context of a broader appraisal of the constitutional protection that would apply to the physical environment more generally.
I wish to respond to the Taoiseach on a number of issues. I understand there is a statement in the programme for Government to guarantee that water will remain as a public utility, but in fact a creeping privatisation is taking place by the outsourcing of functions. Irish Water declared it would begin a programme of replacing lead pipes, but it outsourced it. It declared it would undertake a programme to push up the water pressure in some areas, and it outsourced it.
The workers employed by the councils are the key people. I personally know many of them. They are friends. They understand the water system. They know where the problems are and where the solutions are. They know what happens under the ground almost like one knows the streets and roads. The problem here is that they do not believe the Government and that pushing forward now, by trying to get them to give up their service-level agreement and to go into Irish Water by the end of this year, as stated in the White Paper, is an attempt to coerce them. They have a legal guarantee about their status under that service-level agreement until 2024. The Minister and Taoiseach should back off and stop trying to back the workers into this position or they will face significant opposition.
There will be no coercion. That should not be asserted. There simply cannot be coercion. The Water Services (No. 2) Act 2013 provides that local authority staff who are subject to a service-level agreement with Irish Water would transfer to Irish Water should the agreement end. The existing terms and conditions of these staff are protected under the Act in such circumstances. In outlining its expectations about the next phase of transformation, the Government fully respects these terms and conditions, which can only be changed by collective agreement. That is the factual position and why, given the complexity and scale of what is involved here, it is deemed important that the engagement would take place with the Workplace Relations Commission to identify and agree a framework for the future delivery of water services. In some respects, this could be progression and an advance for workers once their core rights are protected. That is a key point. In the past, there have been agreements where those rights were protected as different utilities were developed.
As the Taoiseach is aware, our peacekeeping troops are rotating overseas, to Syria, Mali and Lebanon in the next few weeks. A number of them have asked me to pass on their gratitude for the Taoiseach's personal intervention last week, which ensures that they will be vaccinated prior to deploying on a six-month tour of duty. I have no problem with doing that and it is very much appreciated.
There is a long-running saga that I would like to get to the bottom of today if possible, regarding the defence budget. Our troops are fully engaged in the fight against Covid-19 as well as fully maintaining their ongoing normal operations by land, sea, air and cyberspace. The Taoiseach will also be aware that our troops are fighting their own internal crisis from an organisational perspective, as a result of poor pay, poorer conditions of service and poor infrastructure. There is very little control over the budget and visibility of how it is spent. A number of parliamentary questions have been tabled in the last couple of years, which all point to a consistent pattern whereby significant amounts of the defence budget are returned unspent, every year, to the Exchequer. The latest example is in a reply to Deputy Nash from two weeks ago. Deputy Nash quite rightly asked how much money has been returned from the defence budget to the Exchequer in the last seven years. He was told that €130 million has been returned in the last seven years.
I am sure the Taoiseach can understand how upsetting, infuriating and inflammatory that is to the defence community, who are screaming for resources and see money being handed back without being spent. Whenever I query this phenomenon on the floor of the Dáil, I am always given different figures from the Minister's briefing notes. What is the true figure? Is it what is mentioned from briefing notes on the floor of the Dáil or is it the figure in formal responses to parliamentary questions, which are based on the fully audited appropriation accounts? I emphasise that I am approaching this question with an open mind. I have been consistently constructive since I first arrived here. I am not looking to blame anyone in any shape or form. I want to establish the truth of what the true figure is and, most importantly, the rationale behind the ambiguity. What is the reason for different figures in parliamentary questions, appropriation accounts and ministerial briefings?
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I thank the Defence Forces for the essential and extraordinary role that they have played in the pandemic, especially in testing and tracing, and stepping up to assist with the quarantine system and vaccinations. Their logistical support has been consistent throughout the pandemic.
The issue that the Deputy raises has come up on a number of occasions. He referred to Deputy Nash's parliamentary question and the reply. I will try to clarify it for the Deputy and maybe make some additional comments. Defence has two Votes. The main one is Vote 36 - Defence, which includes pay. The second is Vote 35 - Army Pensions. Over the period in question, from 2013 to 2020, a total of €130 million was surrendered from Vote 36. This was the figure referred to in the parliamentary question reply from the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to Deputy Nash. This comprises a number of parts and does not necessarily mean there are underspends in the Department.
Traditionally pensions are difficult to forecast and tend to run ahead of what is provided. This requires a transfer of funds from Vote 36 to Vote 35. Vote 36 surrenders funding to the Exchequer and Vote 35 is granted a Supplementary Estimate of the same amount. Therefore, of this €130 million, €47.7 million was surrendered to increase Vote 35 by this amount. This shows up as money handed back to the Exchequer, if one looks at Vote 36 in isolation. If one looks at Vote 35 and Vote 36 together, nothing is handed back to the Exchequer. The reality is that this money is reallocated from one Vote to the other within the defence ministerial Vote group.
Of the €130 million, a further €74.5 million relates to excess appropriations-in-aid. The Department receives receipts annually, such as from the United Nations, referred to as appropriations-in-aid. When a Vote receives more revenue through appropriations-in-aid than what was provided for, this is known as surplus or excess appropriations-in-aid. In this instance, the Department's receipts were €74.5 million more over the period than it had projected. As a consequence, that €74.5 million was handed back to the Exchequer. As with all other Departments, surplus appropriations-in-aid encompassing these receipts cannot be used as additional expenditure on a Vote under public accounting procedures. If the surrendered amounts due to matching excess spending on pensions, and due to surplus compared with anticipated receipts not being factored into spending plans, are excluded from the calculation, the Department of Defence advises that the underspending over the period compared with planned spending plans is only €7.9 million from an allocation of €5.7 billion, which represents just over 0.1% over the eight-year period.
I suggest that we could seek further clarification from the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, and the Minister for Defence. I might join in on that meeting because this is a potentially an issue of forecasting too and may get into the detail of the areas where the underspending occurred. There is a genuine issue, as there has always been, with forecasting pensions, and there is a legal requirement regarding appropriations-in-aid.
I thank the Taoiseach for that helpful response. It is especially revealing about appropriations-in-aid and the United Nations portion of that. The United Nations rebate is earned by our peacekeepers overseas. What are the Taoiseach's thoughts on establishing some kind of standing arrangement or mechanism where the UN portion of appropriations-in-aid is ring-fenced and returned to the Defence Forces via a Supplementary Estimate? That would certainly go some way to assuaging some of the anger. It is an approach that is worth exploring.
Perhaps the Taoiseach's office could kindly remind the Department of Defence that there is a budget to be spent this year? If as small a portion as possible, preferably none at all, could be returned to the Exchequer, it would be important because the money is desperately needed in the Defence Forces and should be spent for its intended purpose.
I thank the Deputy for his comments. These Supplementary Estimates are discussed by the relevant select committee and approved by the Dáil in the normal way. Appropriations-in-aid cannot be used as additional expenditure on the Vote under public accounting procedures. The Deputy raises an interesting point which we can pursue to see what potential there is.
Also, as the Deputy knows, we have established an independent commission on the Defence Forces which is due to report by December this year and perhaps this issue could be considered by that commission. Upon completion of the commission's work, a permanent pay review body will be established, reflecting the unique nature of military service in the context of the public service. A scheme to the allow for the re-commissioning of former officers of the Permanent Defence Forces is in place and has had a noticeable impact in quickly restoring pilot capacity in the Air Corps while other training initiatives are in train. I appreciate the Deputy's interest in these matters and will continue to engage on them.