Dáil debates

Tuesday, 28 June 2022

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

 

2:00 pm

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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We have three boxing champions in the Public Gallery whom I wish to welcome and acknowledge. Amy Broadhurst is the International Boxing Association, IBA, light welterweight champion of the world, Dearbhla Tinnelly is the youth light heavyweight European champion and Evelyn Igharo is the current Irish elite champion at 70 kg. They are joined by coach Jim O'Neill from the Clann Naofa boxing club in Muirhevnamore in Dundalk. These women are trailblazers. They were around the House. Members met them and we were all a bit star-struck. Well done and keep at it. I also see some of the Muslim Sisters of Éire here. They are also most welcome. I thank the Ceann Comhairle.

There are just three weeks left in this Dáil term, three weeks for the Government to see sense and introduce an emergency budget to tackle the cost-of-living crisis. If the Government does not intervene now, many households will be pushed over the edge because they are on the brink today. They simply cannot wait for October for budget 2023. The crisis is getting worse, as the Taoiseach knows. Yesterday, the Central Bank of Ireland reported that one third of families are just making ends meet. This is up from one quarter of families in January. The supermarket analyst company, Kantar, has stated that the sharp increases could add €453 to the average annual grocery bill. Again, this is a jump of €100 on the company's estimate from last month.

Workers and families, as the Taoiseach knows, are finding it increasingly difficult just to afford the basics and are struggling to put a roof over their heads, food on the table, fuel in the car and clothes on their kids' backs. Esther Pugh is the manager of the Barnardos centre in Loughlinstown. What she told the media yesterday encapsulates the situation. She said:

... we would have children coming into the service wearing their pyjamas for day clothes, and specifically bought to be day clothes... The big worry is electricity running out - families don't have money to run their washing machine and tumble dryers.

[...]

I have worked in Barnardos for a long number of years and what I am seeing now is the kind of deprivation we would have seen back in the '80s. It is bad - there is no point saying otherwise.

These are heartbreaking words, as I am sure the Taoiseach will agree, and they capture everyday life for so many families now. We are now at a point where having a full-time job is not a guaranteed protection against the sharp edge of this crisis. Some households with two incomes are really struggling, so what hope and what chance do those on low pay have? We know that international factors are at play. We accept that. We also know, however, that this cost-of-living crisis is a catastrophe for our society. I have been contacted by parents who are worried that they are raising their children now for emigration.

I have been contacted by young people who do not want to leave but have their bags packed for Canada and Australia. They say they cannot afford a life at home. That is the terrible vista again of forced emigration looming for us.

Tá teaghlaigh i ndeireadh na feide. Anocht, iarrfaidh rún Shinn Féin ar an Rialtas buiséad éigeandála a thabhairt isteach. Ní féidir le hoibrithe agus teaghlaigh fanacht ar bhuiséad 2023. Tá daoine ag streachailt. Teastaíonn tacaíocht uathu anois. Tonight, Sinn Féin will bring a motion to the Dáil that will call on the Government to introduce an emergency budget to deliver and extend cost-of-living supports for workers and families. We should not have to bring this motion but the Government has buried its head on what is a state of emergency for households. I call on every Deputy to support this motion. I want all of us to work together to ensure that people get the relief they need so badly and as a matter of urgency. The truth is the Government cannot clock off in three weeks' time and leave families fighting to stay afloat. That would be wholly wrong. We need an emergency budget and the workers and families of Ireland need it now.

2:05 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I join in welcoming and congratulating our boxing heroes, Amy, Dearbhla and Evelyn. Boxing has brought great honour to Irish sport throughout the decades and continues to do so. We pay tribute to the coaching fraternity and our boxing community. Well done to Jim O'Neill and his team. It is fantastic the degree to which young people are encouraged and nurtured through the great sport of boxing.

Like everyone in this House, we are deeply concerned about the enormous cost pressures and impact of the current inflationary cycle on people, households and workers. I make it very clear that the Government and I are absolutely determined to deal comprehensively with this. Putin has waged a war first and foremost on the people of Ukraine through ongoing murder and terror, as witnessed in yesterday's appalling and inhumane bombing of a shopping centre with 18 innocent civilians killed. In parallel with this, Putin has deliberately and premeditatedly created an energy war, an energy crisis, through withholding supplies, causing a massive increase in the price of energy across Europe and the world. Likewise, on migration, he is creating the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War through the terror of bombing towns and villages, forcing Ukrainians to flee their lands, with the internal displacement of about 7 million people. In addition, through the weaponisation of food, he is creating a famine to add to the challenges Africa is already experiencing. That is the context and background; it is a very real one. At the meeting of the Council of the European Union last week, very real concerns were raised about what the winter will bring if gas is cut off fully by Russia from the rest of Europe, particularly the major states that use Russian gas. That is now a very real prospect. That has already happened in quite a number of states.

This is not something we can chase month by month. There has to be a comprehensive response that gets us through the entirety of next winter in particular. It is a response that has to take on board pay. There have been discussions between public service unions and the Government. There have been settlements in the private sector in the past while and those will continue. In relation to that, tax has to be dealt with. The expenditure profile of every Department has to be dealt with, which is very much linked to the cost-of-living issue, in the context of issues such as childcare and health care costs and so forth. The idea of doing something in an isolated silo way is just not the correct response. It has to embrace pay, expenditure, tax and a specific cost-of-living package that would apply in this calendar year to meet the challenges people face.

It is wrong to say, as the Sinn Féin motion states, that the Government has done nothing or to condemn what the Government has done. The Government has increased the fuel allowance, for example, by 55% or €404. That is a measure we have already introduced.

About €2.4 billion in measures have been allocated to the cost-of-living issue. The Government cut taxes and increased social welfare rates in the budget last October. Since then, through measures in February and beyond, we have also reduced excise duty on petrol, diesel and green diesel, saving motorists between €9 and €12 each time they fill their tanks. We have reduced VAT on gas and electricity bills from 13.5% to 9%. We have also given a €200 energy credit to every single household across the country. We have cut the annual public service obligation, PSO, levy from €52 to minus €75. We have launched a national retrofitting scheme. We have introduced new grant rates that will cover about 80% of the typical cost of attic and wall insulation. We have put caps on school transport fees for families. We have cut public transport fares by 20%, with an additional 50% cut in fares for young people. We have lowered the threshold for the drugs payment scheme.

It is therefore just not fair or balanced to say the Government has done nothing. What we need is a comprehensive package, which we are working on and which we will deliver for people to alleviate the undoubted pressures that are on people at the moment and that will be there right throughout the winter.

2:10 pm

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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For all of what the Taoiseach has recited on his list, Esther Pugh of the Barnardos centre in Loughlinstown has told the story of what is happening on the ground and the real fear and the real stress and pressure that families are living with.

Our motion, by the way, does not state that the Government did nothing; on the contrary, we recognise the international factors. Putin is despicable and his war is despicable, but the job of this House, of the Taoiseach's Government in particular, is to protect Irish families and Irish workers in the here and now. The Taoiseach says he is concerned and determined, but there is no urgency in the response. He says the Government cannot chase this matter month to month. I am not asking it to.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy is.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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I am asking it to recognise that families have to live and to exist day to day and week to week and that they are struggling badly. For the life of me I cannot understand why the Government resists what is so obviously needed. We need a comprehensive, targeted set of measures to give people support and breathing room in the here and now. The idea that they can wait until October as the Government decides on its package is simply not fair and not acceptable. I fear that the Taoiseach is being dismissive of the real-life experience I am setting out for him. I appeal to him again to do the right thing and to deliver this comprehensive package with urgency and with an emergency in mind. We need this emergency budget.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Sinn Féin's motion does say what the Deputy says it does not say. It "condemns...the hardship, anxiety and desperation being felt by households across the country, as a direct result of the Government's refusal to introduce measures to support workers and families".

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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Yes.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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That is what Sinn Féin's motion states. Deputy McDonald knows that that is not true. People are feeling anxiety and pressure, correctly, because of Putin's war.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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Come on.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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There is no "come on" about it. The Deputy needs to call this out consistently and not, for electoral and political reasons, replace Putin with the Irish Government, because that is what the Deputy is doing. The Deputy may not want to do it, but that is what she is doing.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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No it is not.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Because the motion states that. The Deputy ignores the €2.4 billion in measures the Government has allocated already. You just ignore it.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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We cite the €5.6 billion more that the Government has in tax revenues.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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There has been a 55% increase in the fuel allowance and the €200 to every single household. The point I am making is that the Deputy has wrongly-----

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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People are not struggling. Okay.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy is interrupting again because she interrupts when she is on the back foot. The bottom line is that that is what Sinn Féin's motion states. What we want to do is something comprehensive that matters to people not just this month but right throughout the winter period. It will be a very difficult winter-----

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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Will it now?

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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It is a very difficult summer.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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-----and we need a comprehensive set of measures to help people get through that because we understand fully. It is not good enough for the Deputy to say people on this side of the House are being dismissive. We are not. We share as much of the pain and concern people out there have and we are as concerned about people out there as Sinn Féin or anybody else is.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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Ye have a funny way of showing it.

2:20 pm

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Dublin Bay South, Labour)
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Yesterday, we heard further evidence to of just how deep the cost-of-living crisis is biting households around the country. We heard it from the Free Legal Advice Centres, FLAC, which told us how calls to their helplines are up and, in particular, we heard it from Barnardos, which described to us in such shocking terms how so many families cannot afford decent clothes or shoes for their children, who are forced to buy open-toed shoes, sandals or flip-flops in the hope that those will last longer, and are simply unable to afford basic food. Everywhere we go we hear it. I heard from a constituent of mine in Dublin Bay South, an assistant manager in a restaurant, who told me he has started to pick up additional shifts in another restaurant, as well as shifts with a private home care provider, just to be able to keep on top of his rent and provide for his family. Another constituent on a good salary cannot find a place to rent and has now been invited to make bids in a bidding auction. The landlord is asking potential tenants to indicate what they are willing to pay because there are plenty of people who will pay more if they do not.

Yesterday, my colleague, Senator Sherlock in the Dublin Central constituency, and I visited Brother Kevin and his team in the Capuchin Day Centre in the north inner city where we heard that they are seeing a shocking increase in the numbers of families coming in for the free dinner service. These are people who are working on low incomes and bike couriers working for companies like Deliveroo who are delivering food to others but are unable to afford food for themselves. That is the shocking reality.

I heard the Taoiseach’s response to the earlier question and he is right about Putin’s brutal war in Ukraine, which has had a horrific knock-on effect, not only for all of the civilians who, even yesterday, have been so tragically killed in Ukraine, but also for all of us across Europe as we see the cost-of-living crisis deepen. The point, however, is that notwithstanding who caused the crisis, the response here is up to the Government. We have control of the response in this country. We are a country that is wealthy by European standards. We saw massive State intervention to deal with Covid-19. That public sector investment saw us pivot swiftly and well to deliver the pandemic unemployment payment, the wage support schemes and all the other measures that were introduced. We need to see that level of intervention now to address the cost-of-living crisis, whatever the cause, and acknowledge the very significant international causative factors. The response is within our control.

The Labour Party has called for measures to be introduced urgently and swiftly to address the real concerns so many families and households face. In just six weeks’ time, the back-to-school crunch is coming when families will have to deal with buying school books. They are paying increased fuel costs and seeing the cost of basic food items such as bread and milk rising. There is a real fear around that. Even a small set of targeted measures introduced now, before the summer recess, would make a difference to the confidence of families and households that they will be able to face into the winter, in which we all know the cost-of-living crisis is only going to deepen and the real hardship I saw yesterday in the Capuchin centre is going to get even worse for families and individuals.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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As I have said, the Government has responded. There seems to be a complete brushing aside of the fact that €2.5 billion has been allocated to cost-of-living measures. We are going to do more but we will do it in a comprehensive way, embracing pay. In the private sector, the latest Central Statistics Office, CSO, data on wages are showing that the average weekly earnings in the first quarter of 2022 were up 10% from the same period two years ago, the first quarter of 2020. The public service pay talks have adjourned but it is the wish of all to see if we can work out a resolution of that on the public service pay front. We also need to work out matters expenditure-wise Department by Department. That is the ideal way to approach. We cannot create inflation in our response. This is different from the pandemic in respect of the nature of our response. This is not an issue where we can put €10 billion on the table straightaway over a period of time because that would obviously be very inflationary. We have to introduce targeted and temporary measures. That is what the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, and others are saying. We will evaluate those reports to see what is the best way to target resources to reduce pressures on people. However, we will do this in a way that also facilitates better policy in terms of public transport, for example, and healthcare costs. We have brought healthcare costs down now. The drug payment scheme threshold is down to €80, which is beyond what was recommended in Sláintecare, and legislation is coming in today to abolish inpatient charges.

In a systemic way, can we reduce costs for people in their everyday lives, not just now but for the period right throughout the next winter and beyond into 2023?

This would dovetail with sensible policies. There will be a package at budget time that will impact in this calendar year on the pressures people face in respect of the cost of living. As the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council has said, it has to be carefully balanced in terms of how the Government responds . It acknowledges the Government faces a very delicate balancing act in protecting the economy and poorer households from higher energy and food prices while avoiding adding to inflation through second-round effects. We want to avoid second-round effects. I have been saying this consistently from the get-go. That is what happened in the 1970s. We ended up with spiralling inflation that got worse and worse every year. We need to avoid this. We need to target our measures. We must make sure those on the lowest incomes are well protected. There are also workers who are in difficult positions after tax because of this crisis.

We have to have measures that can marry. If we want to do something significant on childcare, for example, we cannot do packages in isolation month to month. We need to deal with what expenditure will be allocated to the Department with responsibility for children next year, for example, to enable us to do something significant on childcare costs for people. These are the types of evidence-based approaches we require and in social dialogue with the partners to work that out.

2:30 pm

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Dublin Bay South, Labour)
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We are very happy to work constructively with the Government to ensure targeted measures are introduced that tackle the real hardship being faced by those on the lowest of incomes. We are prepared to sit beyond and through the summer if that is what it takes to deal with the sort of targeted measures that are necessary, such as a summer social welfare bonus that could be introduced as a targeted measure to alleviate the real hardships faced by those on low incomes. We are very much prepared to do this. We very much accept that measures have been taken by the Government.

We also accept, of course, that the challenges with the cost-of-living crisis are different from those of Covid. What should be the same is the political will to deliver a strong State response and the type of creativity and ingenuity we saw in delivering the State's responses to Covid. This is the type of political will we need to see now in delivering measures that will alleviate hardship for families and households throughout the country. We support vastly increased investment in childcare. We have been calling for a Donogh O'Malley moment in childcare to ensure families will see a place guaranteed for each child in the country. This is essential. We know it will take some time. There are some targeted measures that could be introduced in the coming weeks that would help to alleviate the real hardship facing so many.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I appreciate the offer of constructive engagement with the Government in terms of coming forward with ideas or viewpoints to tackle this issue. It is something the Government would welcome and it would respond to any constructive ideas brought forward on this issue.

I come back to the fundamental point that we cannot chase inflation from month to month. The political will is there. The political will, as the Deputy correctly pointed out, was there during Covid-19 when up to €48 billion overall was spent to underpin the salaries of workers and enterprises to keep jobs. We still have a strong economy in terms of almost full employment. We want to protect this as best we can. The forecasts and predictions for the markets to which we export are that by the end of the year or into next year their growth will slow down significantly. This is bound to impact on us at some stage of the economic cycle. We want to protect the jobs we have created. We have come out of Covid very strongly economically because of the policies we have taken. The same political will exists with regard to tackling the cost-of-living pressures on people.

Caithfidh mé a rá gurbh é an príomhrud ná go mbeidh plean cuimsitheach, láidir á chur ar fáil ag an Rialtas ionas go mbeimid in ann an brú atá ar dhaoine faoi láthair a ísliú. Is é an t-am is fearr chun é sin a dhéanamh ná le linn na cáinaisnéise.

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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Over the past decade a radical active women's movement has made huge gains, forcing conservative governments here and in several Latin American countries, where historically the Catholic Church has also been dominant, finally to provide abortion rights. Now there seems to be a growing backlash against the rights women have won, with all of the misogyny around the issue following the US Supreme Court's appalling decision to reverse Roe v.Wade.

This is triggering abortion bans in many US states. Of course, we know that banning abortion does not stop abortion. It only drives it underground and hurts the poorer and most marginalised the most. I will quote the Minister of Justice as reported in the papers today:

There is just this feeling, whatever about Roe V Wade ... there is a feeling of going back a little, so it’s important to push back.

The best defence for the right of women to choose is to push forward. Rights for women, in particular, can never be taken for granted. The conservative religious right in all countries will always try to take over and take back those hard-won rights. We need the promised review of the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018, the holding of which has been committed to this year.

What will the Taoiseach's Government do to push back against the backlash against women's and trans rights so they cannot be undermined in future? Will he commit to abolishing the three-day wait which was put into the law as a sop to those types who rejoice over Roe v. Wade? Will he commit to abolishing the 12-week limit and to full decriminalisation of abortion in this country so women and pregnant people can be guaranteed the very basic right to control their own bodies? Is it not time, Taoiseach, to say "our bodies, our choice"?

I put that in the context of the recent report which showed that from 2019, the year we passed the law, over 770 women had to leave this jurisdiction again to travel to the UK for abortion. We also had the scandalous situation in Northern Ireland where the health Minister, Robin Swann, allowed for the laws that apply in Britain to apply in the North, but there is still not a single abortion provision in the northern state to this date. We face a very dangerous situation. It is hugely important that we give a lead in this. The Taoiseach's Government has to show it is willing to push back to defend the hard-won rights for which women have fought for decades in this country.

We would like to know when the review will take place, that abortion will be fully decriminalised, that there will be a review on the three-day limit and that the 12-week limit will also be lifted. These are very important issues for women and trans people across this country and we have already seen protests emerging on the streets again. This will not go away. It is very important that this Government, particularly since repeal, signals to the rest of the world that we will not tolerate a backlash against women's rights, particularly on the right to choose.

2:40 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue. It is fair to say that the decision on Roe v. Wade was quite shocking in many respects but fundamentally because it overturns 50 years of jurisprudence. In other words, what was judicial precedent over a 50-year period was overturned. However, we are different here in this society and our constitutional framework is different. The fundamental difference is twofold.

First, we have the referendum mechanism that has been built into our Constitution since 1937. We can be thankful. Very often the framers of the Constitution can be attacked, for different reasons, some of which may be legitimate. However, fundamentally, it was very unusual that in the middle of fascist Europe in 1937 that a Government brought in a Constitution that limited its own power via referendum and judicial interpretation. Referendum is a powerful mechanism. We have chosen, as a people, by referendum to lay out our framework in terms of the termination of pregnancy and the subsequent legislation was passed in 2018. The referendum mechanism is crucial.

Second, it is a salutary lesson for everyone in this House, in that we need to protect against and avoid any undermining of the separation of powers. What had clearly been afoot in the United State for many years and which is very worrying, was the degree to which one could witness the politicisation of the Supreme Court. People were appointed on the basis of their position on this issue alone. Now, as a Dáil and as an Oireachtas, we need to double down on upholding the separation of powers as well, because it is a real revelation.

The review is about the operation of the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018. Phase 1 is almost complete. I will come back to the Deputy later in a supplementary reply to go through it.

2:45 pm

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I thank the Taoiseach for his views on Roe v. Wade and jurisprudence but I am more interested in what this Government is going to do to push back against any attempt to roll back abortion. I have no doubt this will embolden anti-abortionists everywhere. Aside from them, we need to know women's rights will be strengthened and not weakened by this Government. That review is hugely important, not least because the figures I gave are quite shocking. There were 770 women who had to travel when one of the reasons for introducing the legislation was to allow a health service that took care of women's reproductive rights in this country and not abroad.

We have a shocking situation, and many women come to us about it, where fatal foetal abnormality is not being properly dealt with under our laws. That also needs to be reviewed. I am more interested in that review, when it will take place and what commitment the Government will give to follow up the comments of the Minister for Justice this morning. She said we have to push back against any attempt to undermine abortion legislation in this country. I have no doubt that will come and we have already seen evidence of it from various quarters in this Oireachtas. It will come from other forces as well.

I really want a commitment from the Taoiseach today that the abortion review will be held as soon as possible and he will commit to reviewing all the features of it, including fatal foetal abnormalities, the three-day wait, the 12-week limit and the full decriminalisation of abortion.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Again, I would not as dismissive as the Deputy on what I said about our referendum, our Constitution and the separation of powers. It goes to the very heart of what happened in the United States. Above everything else, we should avoid the politicisation of the Judiciary; that is the basic point I make because that is what led to the decision on Roe v. Wade.

Likewise, on the protection of women's rights in this country, I do not see that weakening; in fact I see it strengthening. The review is about the operation of the Act. We had a referendum about five years ago and we must be faithful to that referendum and the people's decision, certainly in the immediate aftermath. That is where we are. The first phase is almost complete and much research and work has gone into the review. The issue of fatal foetal abnormality works both ways as well and we must make sure the framework within the legislation is properly adhered to. I certainly know of a case where the wrong decision was taken and that has not got the level of attention it perhaps should have. That needs to be said too. We need rigorous and objective evaluation of the legislation. I am particularly concerned about hospitals that are not implementing the legislation.

The policy issues that the Deputy refers to are broader than the review and are matters for political parties in these Houses to raise at any particular time. If people want to put forward ideas around the liberalisation of legislation or the changing of it, it is a matter for Members.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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I am raising an issue that I have raised on numerous occasions with the Taoiseach over the past couple of years. It must be raised as often as possible so it will, at some stage, be dealt with comprehensively. The Health Service Executive, HSE, has to realise that this will not go away. It was bad when we heard about the activities of the so-called Brandon, who was failed himself by the HSE. The families were let down by the HSE at all stages and not told the truth about their loved ones. Even to this day, some of them have not heard the full story from the HSE.

A couple of weeks ago in the national papers we read about another report that is being carried out by the HSE that has identified an additional ten abusers in Ard Gréine Court and the Seán Ó Hehir unit in Ballybofey, County Donegal. This is the same place where Brandon lived and worked. One of the most shocking things about this report is that it was prepared by a trawl of files within the centre, so all the information was on file in the centre which means management knew about it all along. It is worth saying that again. The HSE management knew all about these cases at all times.

Families read about the new cases in the newspapers. Some of them have been contacted by the HSE to tell them their loved one was abused by someone else other than Brandon and some, thankfully, have been told their loved one was not abused, but very few. We must question why this happened and how, at this stage, the families are finding out like this. All the families with loved ones in Ard Gréine, whether abused or not, should be offered independent advocacy even at this late stage.

We cannot rely on the HSE at this stage to do the right thing. As if we needed confirmation, this shows it has let down residents, families and their own staff in the most horrible way.

I understand the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is drawing up a report on the Brandon case that will be published so that we can be aware of and speak freely about what has happened. When will the Minister of State's report be forthcoming?

I really think the only solution to this situation is a Muckamore Abbey-type inquiry like we have seen in the North. Will the Government report and make sure a full public inquiry will take place so we can be sure the families, residents and staff receive full information as to what went on in Ard Gréine Court and indeed all disability services within Donegal and under the HSE nationally? The HSE nationally has tried to block the discussion on this case as much as it can, but at least it cannot yet control the Dáil. We need to have this happen as quickly as possible.

2:55 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this important and very serious issue. As he says, the HSE commissioned the National Independent Review Panel, NIRP, to carry out a review into very serious incidents of concern which took place between 2003 and 2016. That resulted in the publication in December of the National Independent Review Panel - Brandon Report for Publication. Prior to the NIRP commission, a look-back review into these incidents had been conducted by an external expert. To ensure completeness, HSE community healthcare organisation, CHO, 1 separately commenced a file review period from 1991 to 2002, reflecting the time period that Brandon was in the care of disability services. The purpose of this was to screen all records for any notations referring to alleged or actual sexual conduct during this timeframe. Once this work was completed, it was then externally validated. This file review and validation report was recently made available to the Minister of State with responsibility for disability matters, Deputy Rabbitte. The Minister of State also met with the HSE in recent weeks to discuss the reports and issues raised.

The HSE is continuing to progress the recommendations from this exercise as well as those of the Brandon report. The HSE advises it is prioritising engagement with service users and families affected by the outcome of the review. Further support offers will be made in the coming weeks when residents' families will have time to consider what may be helpful to them. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, together with senior officials in the Department of Health and the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth are close to finalising terms of reference for an independent safeguarding review of disability services in Donegal. An independent expert on safeguarding will be appointed to chair the review.

The report - that is the validation report in my understanding - has been provided to An Garda Síochána. In response, on 17 June the Garda advised that it has conducted a preliminary perusal of the report and appendices. Given the historic nature of many of the issues, a considerable trawl of records will be needed, which An Garda Síochána says will require a period of time to conduct, and then the report will need to be reviewed and compared with existing information. An Garda Síochána has indicated a period of six weeks will be required to undertake this process.

The Government continues to take these issues very seriously and to take allegations of abuse particularly seriously. We appreciate people coming forward to report safeguarding concerns to the appropriate authorities and professional bodies.

In respect of the core question the Deputy has asked, in terms of an inquiry, I will discuss this further with the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, and with other members of Government in respect of what is transpiring here and the outcome of the latest validation report. Equally, we have to take on board what An Garda Síochána is saying. I am going to wait the six weeks for the trawl it is doing. We do not want to undermine any action the Garda will have to take on this either. That is something we cannot just dismiss.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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I thank the Taoiseach for the response. It raises more questions. I was not going to deal with this today but I think it has to be dealt with. The Garda was informed about Brandon and for ten years it did nothing. The Garda is not the body that is going to be responsible for dealing with this. It is sad to say we cannot rely on the Garda but that is a fact. This is a lot bigger. There have been failings right across the board, not only in the HSE, although the HSE is the main cause of it. The Garda has failed and I believe HIQA has failed. There have been serious failures. The people they have failed are the residents, families and staff members of Ard Gréine Court and wider services right across Donegal.

It has to be an independent report. I am sorry, but I would not put any store on the Garda at this stage in relation to it. It has not been dealt with and it has not been published rightly through this, but they have nothing to benefit in relation to this.

I urge the Taoiseach to talk to his Cabinet colleagues and the Minister and look at having an independent report. An independent investigation is the only way that this can be done because it has to be done in the open and fully out there. This would never have come out at all if it was left to the HSE. This would be hidden all the time. That is the reality of the situation.

3:05 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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What may have happened ten years ago may not inform what could happen today in terms of the rigour of a Garda investigation. We have been told it would be about six weeks. Given all that has happened, we are prepared, obviously, to give the Garda that six weeks. However, I am not dismissing, ultimately, what the Deputy is suggesting and will give that very careful consideration in terms of how we take this forward to give clarity and answers to the families and victims.

I am aware of what the Deputy said regarding the validation report. I only became aware of that very recently in preparation for this situation. It is very serious. Given the potential scale of it, it could very well merit an inquiry of some sort. We have to work through how best to do that.