Dáil debates

Thursday, 7 October 2021

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Thalidomide Victims Compensation

4:15 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The third matter comes from Deputy Andrews, who also wants to deal with a very important matter, a matter which unfortunately affects an ever-declining number of people. He wishes to discuss a statutory support package for survivors of thalidomide.

Photo of Chris AndrewsChris Andrews (Dublin Bay South, Sinn Fein)
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In 2018, a Bill was introduced to this House which would have removed the statute of limitations preventing thalidomide survivors from bringing cases for compensation to the courts. This Bill has now lapsed. It was introduced by the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers. A couple of weeks ago, it was noted in the legislative programme for the 2021 autumn session that work is under way to "provide a package of health and personal social services and other supports to survivors of thalidomide on a statutory basis". Will the Minister of State outline the timeframe for the roll-out of this particular legislation?

Will he also outline why the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, has not met with the Irish Thalidomide Association? It seems extraordinary that the last two Ministers for Health and the current Minister have all failed to meet the thalidomide survivors. How can Ministers for Health not meet a group for which it is introducing legislation? The Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, introduced the Bill I mentioned earlier in 2018 to support thalidomide survivors and the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, supported it. Despite this, the Government has now turned its back on these survivors, of whom there are only 32. The Minister is on record as saying that the thalidomide survivors deserve compensation, recognition and justice. They are his words and yet he will not even meet them.

I am pretty certain that thalidomide survivors are going to hear the same speech from the Minister of State that they have heard for the last ten years. There are, as I mentioned, only 32 acknowledged survivors in Ireland. The vast majority of them turn 60 this year or next year. The Minister will hide behind solicitors and barristers and claim there cannot be a meeting for legal reasons. On that point, not all survivors are taking a legal case so why not meet them? Survivors have been in the courts with Government for the last eight years. The Government faces a bill of €24 million for its court action against survivors yet it will not engage with them. Does the Minister of State have even one sentence that will give thalidomide survivors hope? Will he show that there is some genuine commitment from this Government, because there has been no evidence of it so far?

More than 60 years after the thalidomide scandal in which morning sickness medicine for pregnant women caused malformations in their babies, survivors are still fighting for fair compensation in several European countries. I have met many survivors of thalidomide and I have been inspired by their stories, their resilience and their courage. Like all of us, thalidomide survivors are getting older and now require extra medical assistance and social care. They fear that their independence might be stripped from them. Thalidomide survivors must be respected and compensated. The British Government's £100 million compensation scheme stands in stark contrast to the unsatisfactory approach taken by our Irish Government.

It is long past time for the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, to engage realistically with thalidomide survivors. The Government needs to bring forward a package that gives due acknowledgement to the victims of one of the greatest medical scandals. This package must guarantee the healthcare and personal needs of just 32 people who have to face later life with great uncertainty. Sinn Féin will continue to support the survivors of thalidomide to ensure that they get fair support and compensation. The Government must take steps now to ensure appropriate compensation is allocated to survivors.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Sligo-Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue today. I am glad to have this opportunity, on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, to set out the supports currently provided by the Irish Government to Irish thalidomide survivors.

As the Deputy will know, following an Irish Government decision in January 1975, each Irish survivor is provided with health supports, including a medical card issued on an administrative basis regardless of means, in addition to appliances, artificial limbs, equipment, housing adaptations and access to a full range of primary care, hospital and personal social services. Work is under way in the Department of Health to bring forward legislative proposals for the provision of these health and personal social services for Irish survivors of thalidomide on a statutory basis. Unfortunately, it is not possible to provide a specific time frame for these legislative proposals.

Since 1975, the Irish Government has also provided financial assistance to each Irish thalidomide survivor including an ex gratialump sum equivalent to four times the German lump sum and an ex gratiamonthly allowance for life which is equal to the German monthly allowance. There are currently 29 Irish people in receipt of these ex gratiamonthly payments from the Department of Health. The annual figure for the Irish monthly payments ranges from €6,175 to €13,313 for each individual. The rate of payment is related to each survivor's level of thalidomide-related injury. The German monthly payments are made by the Contergan Foundation, which is established under German legislation. All thalidomide survivors entitled to benefits are entitled to a lifelong monthly pension ranging from €8,928 to €100,765 annually. Since 2009, they are also entitled to annual special payments of between €460 and €3,600 and, since 2017, annual specific needs payments of between €5,676 and €14,700. Both the German payments and the Irish ex gratia monthly payments made to survivors are exempt from tax, including deposit interest retention tax, DIRT, and are not assessable as means tor the purpose of Department of Social Protection payments.

In April 2010, the Government decided to provide additional financial assistance and other supports for Irish thalidomide survivors to meet their needs into the future. The measures included an offer of an additional once-off ex gratiaindividual payment of €62,500. This offer was subsequently accepted by a number of the survivors. A senior manager in the Health Service Executive has also been designated to liaise with survivors with a view to meeting their ongoing health and personal social service needs. This support continues.

It is important to note that the German Contergan Foundation has confirmed that, since 2013, it is accepting applications from individuals for compensation for thalidomide-related injury. It is open to any Irish person to apply to the foundation for assessment of his or her disability as being attributable to thalidomide. Any Irish person who establishes that his or her injury is attributable to thalidomide will be offered appropriate supports by the Irish Government commensurate with those currently provided to Irish thalidomide survivors. I also assure the House of the Government's commitment to the ongoing support of Irish thalidomide survivors. The Deputy asked that the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, meet with the thalidomide survivors. I will raise this within the Department. If the Deputy would like to send in an email, I will follow up with the Department.

4:25 pm

Photo of Chris AndrewsChris Andrews (Dublin Bay South, Sinn Fein)
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5 o’clock

As I predicted, I have not heard anything new. What has been said by the Minister of State is the same as what has been said for the past ten years. Survivors are fed up, angry and annoyed. There is no commitment to and no hope or empathy for a group of survivors who are ageing and concerned for their futures. How can the Minister not meet this group? This has been going on for years. As I said, in 2018 he was gung-ho in his support for them and said they needed justice. Now he is paying lip service to this group. They are a courageous group of survivors who had mountains to climb from the moment they were born. They were still able to make a valuable contribution to society.

The Government does not see fit to even meet them. It is willing to spend millions taking them to court and fighting with them instead of sitting down to meet with and acknowledge them. I do not believe that there is any barrier to meeting them. We have heard that the courts are an obstacle, but the reality is that can be overcome . The Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, wanted to introduce legislation and address certain issues. He has again turned his back on these people. I cannot understand that. It was mentioned that there are 32 people involved. That is a very small number. How can the Government not sit down and talk with a small group of people face to face, say that it got it wrong and is at fault and that it will work with the survivors to rectify matters in a just and fair manner? Meeting survivors has to be the first step.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Sligo-Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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Again, I will bring the comments of the Deputy back to the Minister. I would like to reiterate that the Government is committed to the continued support of the health and personal social services needs of Irish thalidomide survivors. There is empathy. It is very difficult. There are a number of cases concerning thalidomide before the High Court. It is not possible to comment on matters that are sub judice. Maybe that is a contributing factor in the context of why a meeting has not taken place. As the Deputy said, there are ways around that.

The current supports provided by the Government to survivors, including monthly payments for life and medical cards, are provided on an administrative basis, regardless of means. Access to the full range of health and personal services is ongoing. I assure the House that work is under way, as I said, in the Department to bring forward legislative proposals for health and personal social services for Irish survivors of thalidomide on a statutory basis.

I again thank the Deputy for raising this very difficult issue. The survivors have shown massive resilience and, as he said, courage. As a Government, we will try to do everything we can. There are probably issues that are outside my control, but I will bring the matter to the attention of the Minister.