Thursday, 11 July 2019
CervicalCheck Tribunal Bill 2019: Second Stage
I welcome the Bill. I wish we had extra time, especially given the extremely tight turnaround time between Second Stage and all other Stages which are due to be taken tomorrow. That barely gives the House enough time to draw breath, let alone consider amendments. However, as I would prefer to see the Bill passed in some form, rather than not, I welcome it.
The entire country was deeply affected and impressed by the bravery of all the women who came forward during the CervicalCheck scandal. They were and are warriors for women and the country. I remember, in particular, the beautiful woman that was Emma Mhic Mhathúna. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h-anam. In her last weeks she topped the bill at a comedy venue in Dublin at which she proved to be a huge success and brought the House down.We were all there when the cortège passed Leinster House and all our hearts broke watching her small children's faces creased with incomprehensible and insupportable grief. Listening to the debates on this legislation in the Dáil, it is widely acknowledged and accepted that women should not have to go to court again for the claims arising from the acts or omissions of CervicalCheck. They have been through enough. It is vitally important to continue to listen to women throughout this process. They are experts by experience, unfortunately.
The legislation sets out the limitations of the tribunal and the mechanisms for it to do its work. It has to continue to include the women affected and to be efficient and compassionate, and it has to include as many women as possible. It reminds me of the HSE steering committee on children with complex medical needs, which we discussed last year. We had to fight to get parents included in the work of that steering committee. We got this House to agree, by way of a motion, that the parents of those children were experts by experience. The same principle applies here. The women involved are the experts and, while the Minister acknowledges this, it is important to make the point again and again. They are at the epicentre of this situation and we will always need to be mindful of them and their experiences. Sinn Féin stated in the Dáil that it does not wish to delay this Bill in any way. We want it to be the best it can be and the Minister has been working with all sides as the legislation progresses. We agreed not to table amendments in the Dáil on condition that the Minister took seriously our concerns and we are willing to do the same here.
In reference to the tribunal itself, it is important that it hears and determines all issues of negligence, breaches of duty, including statutory duty, breaches of contract and any other matters that should arise. I am glad there will be an opportunity to hold hearings in public or in private. We must be prepared for the fact that some of what we will hear in public will make for uncomfortable listening. It is important for the women to say it and for us to hear it and try to understand and act on it. As this scandal came into the public arena over the last year, it made for heartbreaking listening and it was often infuriating to hear of the failures of the State to those women. With scandal upon scandal exposed, it was like the opening of a Pandora's box. I hope the passing of this Bill brings at least some relief, although we know the damage cannot be undone. It is welcome that the tribunal will have the power to compel witnesses and the production of documentation. At some stage last year, Dr. Scally found it difficult, to say the least, to get documentation in an orderly and timely fashion. It is extremely important that we have the power to compel witnesses and documentation for the sake of transparency, accountability and accessibility. I note that the tribunal can make recommendations to the Minister. In that regard, there is space for a mechanism for hearing from a broader range of opinions.
Sinn Féin raised a concern during the Dáil debates around the exclusion of those who have previously received an award from giving evidence. While I understand the rationale, I wonder if we might miss some information or evidence that should be included in the feedback from the tribunal to the Minister. This should be taken on board and consideration should be given to how those women can be included. It is important that all those affected should have the opportunity to give evidence to the tribunal. We need every woman's story and journey included in the feedback. I would be grateful if the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, could address this in her reply.
As I stated, I wish we had more time to scrutinise this important Bill. However, it is welcome that it is being addressed before the summer recess because time is precious to the women in question. The Minister made reference to the HPV vaccine. I ask those tinfoil hat Neanderthals to cease propagating fear among people who take their news mainly from social media. We deal with science and facts. We spoke with the Minister yesterday about the expansion of the heel prick test, done on newborn babies, to include 40 tests. Some 99.9% of new parents avail of this although it is not mandatory because they know its intrinsic worth. We want to get to that figure in respect of girls taking up the HPV vaccine. It is essential for the future eradication of cervical cancer. While take-up of the vaccine is increasing, I suggest we could do more in the way of advertisement. It would honour those we have lost to cervical cancer.