Dáil debates

Thursday, 22 April 2021

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

 

11:55 am

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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I want to raise the issue of Dolphin Trust with the Tánaiste this morning. It is a Ponzi scheme, a scam that has 1,800 Irish victims who are to lose up to €108 million in pension savings. These are not well-heeled or seasoned investors, but ordinary people, some of whom have lost all of their life savings and pensions.

This centres around a Germany company called Dolphin Trust, renamed the German Property Group, and its director, Mr. Charles Smethurst. Dolphin told investors it would use their money to buy derelict buildings across Germany, turn them into luxury flats and apartments and sell them to German buyers. They promised high-interest returns and their original capital back. Dolphin Trust has now collapsed and owes investors around the world in the region of €3 billion. In Germany, it was reported that the properties held by Dolphin Trust would only be able to recover €100 million. British and German media have reported that investors' money, the money that they invested in their pensions and savings, were used by the director and his family to pay for parties, fashion shows, luxury items and rent.

The nerve centre of this operation was in Ireland, through Dolphin International Group, based in Cork. It marketed and processed the loan notes from 2012 and distributed commissions throughout the world. In the bonanza years, brokers were earning commissions of 20% and more. For a decade the loan notes were administered by a company called Wealth Options Trustees Limited, with all marketing and distribution of the loan notes handed over by Dolphin to the associated Wealth Options company in 2018. These companies, under the Wealth Options umbrella, are based in Naas, County Kildare, co-owned and co-directed by two Irish individuals, with Charles Smethurst himself also a director of the two Irish special purpose vehicles, SPVs, which channelled theses investments. During this time the directors of Wealth Options received more than €9 million, and paid themselves more than €4 million from 2018 when the Ponzi scheme was clearly unravelling.

German authorities are now investigating this scheme as investment fraud. It involves the misuse of the pensions and savings of in excess of 1,800 Irish people and it was clearly a scam. As I said, these are ordinary people, not with hundreds of thousands of euro but €20,000, €30,000 or €40,000 to invest in pensions. It is unlikely that these people will ever see the full value of their money - for some their entire life savings - and that is heartbreaking for them.

With Ireland in many ways the nerve centre of this scheme, which has ripped off more than 20,000 people and their savings worldwide, there are questions that need to be answered. In 2016, Wealth Options was contacted by the Central Bank and asked to provide details of the products, in particular, these loan notes, it was selling. In other words, the Central Bank was aware of the risks as far back as 2016 - indeed, it was reported at that time - of these high-risk, unregulated products that were compromising peoples' pensions and savings. Why was no action taken? Why did the Central Bank not alert people in terms of a notice on its website that there was an issue here? It was even after this time that the sales of these loan notes went through the roof, with the directors of Wealth Options paying themselves more than €4 million in 2018 and 2019 when the Ponzi scheme was clearly unravelling.

At its heart this scandal is regulatory failure of a dramatic nature. Wealth Options were regulated by the Central Bank and the brokers who sold the products were regulated by the Central Bank, but the products they marketed, distributed and sold are not. This is the Wild West of the financial market with no sheriff in sight and now 1,800 Irish people may not recover their pensions or life savings.

When the Government of which the Tánaiste was a member become aware of this in 2016, what actions, if any, did it take? What actions does the Government plan to take in response to this scandal today? Finally, there are hundreds of millions of euro of pensions invested in unregulated, high-risk loan note products. What action will the Government take to bring this market into the light and these products under robust regulation?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for raising the issue of Dolphin Trust. I am afraid I am not aware of all, or even many, of the facts in relation to this issue and I am reluctant to give an answer that may be incorrect. However, I want to express my sympathy to those affected, both here in Ireland and across Europe. These were small investors who have lost money, as the Deputy said.

On the questions relating to the Central Bank, the Central Bank, as the Deputy will be aware, is a regulator independent of Government. It is not possible for me to answer questions on behalf of the Central Bank but I am sure the Central Bank will answer questions in due course.

The Deputy asked what actions the Government took when it became aware of this in 2016. I am not aware that the Government became aware of this in 2016, certainly not the Government in the sense of the Cabinet in that if there was a Cabinet memorandum on it, I would or I ought to remember it. Perhaps the Department of Finance, the Minister for Finance or somebody in the system of government became aware of it. Without knowing who, when or what that was, again, it is difficult for me to answer the question properly but I will certainly inform the Minister for Finance that this was raised here in the Dáil today and ask him to give the Deputy any answers to any questions that he can.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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I am sure those who have lost their life savings will be relieved that the Tánaiste sympathises with them but what they would rather have seen is action. In 2016, it was not a secret that the Central Bank was raising concerns regarding the high-risk loan notes and, indeed, Wealth Options. This was reported in the Irish Independentin 2016 by Mr. Charlie Weston and I am sure officials in the Department of Finance read the Irish Independent. If Mr. Weston was able to report it, I am sure the Department of Finance would be aware of it.

The problem is these are ordinary individuals. The brokers went to these individuals and told them to take their money out of pension investments that were regulated and put it into these type of products because the brokers were getting commission of more than 20%. These are unregulated products and they have lost their life savings. In some cases, they have been told that the investments are secured against properties that do not exist in Germany. In one case, a foreign individual was told that the folio number he has is in a location in Germany and when this was followed up, it is a German Army base.

Is it the Tánaiste's view that the Government will regulate these products and bring this area into light? The Tánaiste cannot say that it is nothing to do with the Government. It is Government that allows for regulation of this type of activity. Are we going to bring an end to this unregulated activity, which has sacrificed so many people's pensions up until now?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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Obviously, this is a very serious matter, not only for the people who are directly affected. People will have questions and they will want answers. They should get those answers but, unfortunately, I am not the person who can offer those answers because this is not something that I have any detailed knowledge of but I will inform the Minister for Finance that it was raised here and ask him to answer any questions that he can.

I think the Deputy mentioned that these were unregulated products. If they were unregulated, that, in itself, creates a difficulty because the regulator is responsible for regulated products and services, not those that are unregulated. Perhaps the people who made these investments were not aware of that at the time or were misled in some way. Knowing so little about this, I am loath to give any answers.

I will inform the Minister for Finance that the Deputy has raised this. The Deputy would not raise it today in this forum if he did not think it was a serious matter. We will try and get him a more detailed response as soon as we can.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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I want to raise with the Tánaiste the issue of youth unemployment. The youth unemployment rate in Ireland now stands at 59%, which means that for every five young people in Ireland, three of them have no job.

The EU average is 17%. It is considered to be extremely high in Spain at 40%, while in the UK, the rate is 14%.

I am sure the Tánaiste will agree that young people have been unfairly targeted over the course of this pandemic. They have been working incredibly hard within their own families and communities over the past year and over the past number of years they have changed Ireland for the better with their activism, engagement and campaigning. The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman said yesterday that it was the energy and activism of young people that brought the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill to the Houses of the Oireachtas this week and he is right. We saw what happened earlier this year with their activism around the leaving certificate.

Our fear in the Labour Party is that we are losing a generation again, as we did ten years ago. What we and the National Youth Council of Ireland, NYCI, are asking for is a task force on youth unemployment. The Government needs to take this issue seriously because in the economy and in the country presented to these young people before the pandemic, 40% of young people under 30 were in insecure employment and far too many were in insecure accommodation. They are looking at a return to "normal" which means insecure jobs and high rents and many of them are wondering why they should hang around. We lost a generation ten years ago; we cannot afford to lose another one. We have a youth unemployment or joblessness rate of 59%. This falls within the ministerial responsibilities of the Tánaiste. What priority is he giving to this issue? Will he listen to the NYCI and establish a task force? What is he, as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, and his Government doing to tackle the issue of youth unemployment in Ireland?

12:05 pm

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Ó Ríordáin for raising this issue, which is really important to him and really important to me too. It is true young people have suffered a lot in this pandemic. Different people and different sectors in our society have suffered in different ways. Women have suffered differently from men and older people have suffered differently from young people. Certainly, when it comes to the health impact, older people have borne the brunt of this pandemic in terms of lives lost and people hospitalised or made very sick as a result of the virus but the economic impact has fallen disproportionately on younger people in terms of jobs lost. Their lives have been interrupted, including their college experiences and their education, not to mention their inability to make friends, build relationships and do all the things younger people do. I very much agree with the Deputy's analysis and assessment in that regard and I certainly do not want us to lose another generation.

Too many times in the past we lost a generation of people to emigration due to economic mismanagement. Many people under 35 are now experiencing their second recession in their adult life, which is extraordinary. We need to make sure we do not have a repeat of the last recession, where younger people had to leave and go to other countries to seek opportunities.

We are going to respond to this in a cross-Government way. The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, is meeting NYCI this week. I intend to bring together the Ministers for Social Protection, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and Education and others to see what we can do to respond to this problem. Part of that response may involve a catch-up programme for people in education, which Deputy Ó Ríordáin has called for. That will be for people who have missed out on schooling. There will also be a response in terms of educational opportunities. It is already the case that there are more people participating in third level education than ever before in Ireland and we want to continue to expand that further. The Deputy will be aware of what the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science is doing in relation to apprenticeships and increasing opportunities in that area. We also want to make sure that once the economy reopens, younger people get their jobs back and have better terms and conditions. The Deputy will know of the work that is under way on sick pay, a living wage and auto enrolment.

Deputy Ó Ríordáin said in his opening remarks that we have 59% youth unemployment, meaning that three out of five younger people are out of work but that is not correct. We calculate youth unemployment in a particular way in Ireland and do not include people who are in education or training. When we say that 59% of young people are unemployed, that does not mean that 59% of all young people are unemployed. It means that 59% of young people who are in the workforce are unemployed, or 59% of young people who are not in education or training. Of course, a very large number of them are out of work because they would have tended to work in areas like retail, construction and hospitality, most of which will reopen, we hope, over the next couple of months. Typically, youth unemployment is double the older people rate but that is actually not what it seems because of the way it is calculated.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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I know this is not a priority for the Tánaiste because I took the time last night to go through every single one of his tweets this year. Since January 2021, the number of times he mentioned youth unemployment came to the grand total of zero while the number of times he referenced Sinn Féin came to a grand total of 12. If I was a young person in Ireland, I would come to the conclusion that the Tánaiste's obsession is not with young people, youth unemployment, getting people jobs and saving this generation but with a political game with Sinn Féin. I counted zero tweets about youth unemployment but 12 tweets about Sinn Féin since the beginning of this year.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I just think that is a very cheap shot. The Deputy once again is engaging in virtue signalling, trying to make out that not only do we disagree with each other, he is also a better person than me and he cares more. That is just cheap politics, I believe. The number of times one tweets about something is not necessarily a reflection of how important one regards it-----

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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Not once; zero-----

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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If the Deputy wants, he can go back and read a speech I gave to the Young Fine Gael conference only last Saturday. A large section of that speech specifically dealt with this issue, namely, how young people have been impacted by the pandemic and what we intend to do. It was covered in the media and the fact that it was not tweeted is irrelevant. That was just a cheap shot, unfortunately.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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We move now to the Regional Group and Deputy Matt Shanahan.

Photo of Matt ShanahanMatt Shanahan (Waterford, Independent)
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Unlike the Tánaiste, I am not medically qualified although I spent a number of years in the healthcare area working around medical devices and medicines. I am not an expert so I talk to experts to try to inform myself of what is happening on the ground. When I say experts, I mean those who are at the front line of medicine, working with cutting edge medicines and dealing with Covid patients.

On 4 April 2020 I issued a national statement calling for the use of face masks but this was not supported by NPHET until August 2020, when it mandated the use of masks in shops and indoor settings. On 23 April I asked NPHET to consider allowing senior nursing staff in residential care settings to take nasal swabs rather than sending in National Ambulance Service personnel in full PPE, which was terrorising dementia patients. I asked for that in April but it did not become policy until the end of May, again waiting for NPHET approval. In May 2020 I raised the issue of antigen testing by a world-leading pharmaceutical company with NPHET but this was dismissed out of hand, within two days. I pushed the issue with the Tánaiste's office, the Taoiseach's office and the Department of Health and asked that pilot studies be done with the Construction Industry Federation, CIF. I engaged with Professor Paddy Mallon on this and to be fair to the Tánaiste, he looked to get Professor Mark Ferguson on board because he saw the resistance to antigen testing. Now we are talking about the roll out of some pilot studies in August or September of this year but this is not acceptable. Antigen testing is being used in the US and we are using it as a Brexit mediator in the context of haulage. We are still trying to roll it out and this is retarding our Covid-19 response.

In recent weeks the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health produced a very fine report on the use and possible benefits of vitamin D supplements. There is overwhelming evidence supporting this but it has not been adopted by NPHET or even properly looked at. Vitamin D is a very benign prophylaxis that could be used and I cannot understand why we are not doing it. NPHET still refuses to take seriously the views of underlings in the healthcare service. Who is making the decisions? It is people who are earning many times the average industrial wage in this country and who are not furloughed from their jobs or businesses.

I also ask the Tánaiste to look at the issue of e-health. We do not have a patient identifier number. There is the farcical situation with healthcare where there are two systems, one in the acute hospitals and one in community health, that do not talk to each other, which leads to double booking of people coming in for vaccinations. This is not Ireland in 2021, nor should it be. We must consider what Slovakia, Denmark and Hungary are doing and send people there to find out what e-health systems they use and bring this into our Covid-19 response.

12:15 pm

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy made some very good points. However, while Denmark has had a very good response to the pandemic and is one of the few countries in Europe, or the world, with a lower mortality rate than us, we would not follow Slovakia's or Hungary's response to the pandemic because their mortality rates, sadly, are among the highest in the European Union.

Deputy Shanahan is spot on in relation to e-health. A lack of an individual health identifier is a real deficiency in our health service. We have a really good PPS system and public service card which, for many reasons, have not been extended or replicated for health. One of the outcomes or dividends from this pandemic must be universal patient registration with a health ID for everyone so that we can do vaccination programmes and screening programmes much better and identify people through disease registers and so on. What the Deputy said in relation to that was spot on and will have to be part of the legacy of and dividend from this pandemic.

Photo of Matt ShanahanMatt Shanahan (Waterford, Independent)
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I referred to Denmark's and Hungary's e-health systems rather than their mortality rates.

The Tánaiste referenced PPS numbers. We have up to 20% more PPS numbers than population, which behoves us to come up with a new identifier number to manage our systems.

As the Tánaiste is well aware, there have been issues for years in terms of hospital inpatient data, the hospital inpatient enquiry, HIPE, system. For years, University Hospital Waterford suffered from the under-reporting of cardiac activity in terms of the national HIPE system. I ask that as part of this exercise we seriously consider integrating technologies and communications systems to provide a better response in our hospitals and primary care settings and for our patients. As the Tánaiste said, we will have spent a considerable amount of money and we must have something at the end of this. I hope the Government will deliver initiatives on new health ICT systems shortly.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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The Taoiseach and I feel strongly about this, not least, because we are former health Ministers and understand the problems facing health administration. We are both keen to use a decent chunk of the European recovery fund - we have approximately €800 million to €900 million coming to us - on e-health, to do some of what Deputy Shanahan suggested.

However, much has happened in our health service in terms of e-health that has worked well. Our patient record in maternity care is good. Something is starting in pediatrics. The medical laboratory information system, MedLIS, means people do not have to take the same blood test twice. Our radiology system is good, having moved from a picture archiving and communication system, PACS, to a national integrated medical imaging system, NIMIS. I would not like the impression being created that nothing has happened in this space, but it is true not enough has happened. I concur with the Deputy's view we must up our game and invest in e-health.

While people may have been scared by the experience of personnel, payroll and related systems, PPARS, the very expensive health service system which went horribly wrong ten to 15 years ago, we should not make the mistake of not investing in e-health when we need to.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Baineann mo cheist le Gaillimh agus an fáinne fí atá ar siúl, faraor géar, le fada an lá maidir leis an roinn timpistí agus éigeandála nua agus an t-ospidéal nua atá beartaithe. Tá neart eolais ag an Tánaiste faoi Ghaillimh. Is iar-Aire Sláinte é agus bhí sé i nGaillimh cúpla uair agus labhair sé faoin ábhar.

My question relates to the hospitals in Galway. The Tánaiste is familiar with this subject. He is a former Minister for Health and has been to Galway. I used the term "fáinne fí" to describe the unreal magic going on in relation to the accident and emergency department and the lack of progress in Galway. The former Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, said it was not fit for purpose. The current Taoiseach echoed that and the former Minister, Deputy Simon Harris, said the same thing.

I looked at the questions. One would need an advanced post-doctoral degree in some type of English to understand the responses. We talk about business cases and feasibility studies being updated. The estates part of the Health Service Executive is considering it. I do not know what it is considering. However, I know an accident and emergency department is urgently needed in Galway. The Tánaiste has agreed with it but it is nowhere to be seen. There is no planning application. There is no nothing.

An options appraisal came down on the side of a new hospital in Galway as the long-term plan, in addition to short-term and medium-term solutions. A capacity review of beds has been conducted. As the Tánaiste is aware, University Hospital Galway caters for approximately 1 million people from County Donegal to County Galway. It is one of the busiest hospitals in the country.

I will read from the additional report to the options appraisal, the regional elective hospital scoping study. A study carried out on the existing infrastructure stated that "64% and 95% of the infrastructure in UHG and MPUH (respectively) is ‘not satisfactory/unacceptable’ for its current function". The study later refers to operating at capacity and lengthy waiting lists and so on.

I will try to be focused. I have a sense of utter frustration. I cannot imagine what it is like for the staff, and more importantly, the patients. I have responses going back to 2015 telling me the emergency department is going on the capital list. An options appraisal and a scoping study tells me the long-term solution - long term being in the next ten years - is for a hospital in Merlin Park. In between, the programme for Government promises an elective hospital which I have no difficulty with. I have difficulty with the confusion and two of the Tánaiste's colleagues having a public spat in County Galway in relation to who is holding back what. It is not the type of leadership we want and it is why the Health Service Executive got an options appraisal to guide the way forward. I ask the Tánaiste for a focused reply on what he knows about Galway.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for raising a question I have been asking in recent weeks because Government made the commitment many years ago to build a new emergency department in University Hospital Galway, on the existing site. It is in the Project Ireland 2040 plan and has been in all our capital plans for quite some time. My understanding - I may not be fully up to date on this - is the plan is to build a new emergency department and a new maternity and pediatric department in the same building, on the University Hospital Galway site. It has been the plan for quite some time.

I made inquiries a few weeks ago to try to understand why it was taking so long. Similar to the Deputy, I received a lengthy response which I could not fully interpret or understand. I am not happy with it either and will follow up on it with the HSE because, as the Deputy said, University Hospital Galway is not just the hospital for Galway city, it is a specialist centre for the entire west and part of the north west. Therefore, it should have as good an emergency department as exists anywhere else, such as the new department in Limerick and in Dublin hospitals. I will look into that further.

No decision has been made by Government in relation to Merlin Park and the elective hospital. An debate is under way as to how the elective hospitals in Dublin, Galway and Cork should look. Should they be day hospitals only, or, have overnight facilities as well? While options appraisals have been done on that, no decision has been put to the Government as of yet.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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If the Tánaiste has difficulties understanding the replies, as I do, then that tells us something. It is time for leadership. An elective hospital came from an options appraisal. It was never exclusive to the plan for a new hospital on the Merlin Park site. It was to be step 1 in the phase. If the accident and emergency department is better suited to the new hospital in Merlin Park, so be it, but let us stop the fáinne fí ag dul ar aghaidh agus ar aghaidh gan aon chiall. Tá daoine ag cailleadh muiníne as an gcóras. We are losing all confidence in the system.

The accident and emergency department went up four or five floors in the planner's imagination and it came back down to two floors to incorporate the maternity unit overhead, which is a good idea, but it seems that the timespan for that is almost the same as the timespan for a new hospital at Merlin Park University Hospital, if we go by the options appraisal presented to us in the audiovisual room. There has been a spat between two of the Tánaiste's colleagues, with one accusing the other of delaying it. It is unacceptable. We want a new hospital for Galway. We want a timeline. We want clarification about the emergency department. We want no more obfuscation.

12:25 pm

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I think we agree on one point, that we need a clear plan for hospital services in Galway and that we need to get on with it. I am frustrated and embarrassed too that this has taken so long. This is a project that was live when I was Minister for Health, which was five or six years ago. I will take this up with the CEO of the HSE. I appreciate that the HSE has much on its plate, especially with the pandemic, but that should not be a reason for this project not to progress to design and planning permission. I thank the Deputy for raising it. Notwithstanding their differences on some points, I assure the Deputy that both Deputy Naughton and Senator Kyne are equally keen to see the new emergency department built and health services approved in the region. I will take this up with the CEO of the HSE in the next couple of days and try to get things moving again.