Seanad debates

Thursday, 11 July 2019

CervicalCheck Tribunal Bill 2019: Second Stage

 

10:30 am

Photo of Alice Mary HigginsAlice Mary Higgins (Independent) | Oireachtas source

This is a very important tribunal for the women who have been affected and their families. It is also important for Ireland. Dr. Scally spoke about the lack of grace and compassion in how Ireland had engaged with the controversy. While financial remedy may be part of the solution, it does not do the job fully in terms of addressing what we need to address. Dr. Scally also spoke of a culture in which women were often disempowered or silenced within our health system. We have seen that in many other areas of the health system again and again.

While we want to pass this legislation before the summer and move forward with the tribunal, I have a couple of key questions on which I hope the Minister of State might be able to give us assurance. The point made by Senator Devine is most appropriate. The fact that somebody has received an award does not mean her experience or insight is no longer relevant. The fact that we may have given some kind of small compensation, which can never compensate for what families have experienced, does not mean that is the end of the State's job in rebuilding trust and relationships or in repairing our health system. It is foolish to place any constraint on those who have received an award being able to give evidence. The extraordinary generosity of voice of the women who have experienced this failure in our screening process, who have suffered and some of whom, as in the case of Emma Mhic Mhathúna, have lost their lives, has been remarked upon internationally. I refer also to people like Vicky Phelan who continue to be incredible advocates. In moving past their own traumas, these women have sought to talk about what Ireland should be. It has been crucial in respect of the HPV vaccine, which is crucial for preventing future cases of cervical cancer and which is often under attack in many parts of the world. I am an executive member of the European parliamentary forum on sexual and reproductive rights, where members have described the campaigns against the HPV vaccine. Those women have extraordinary generosity in championing the vaccine. They worked with schoolgirls in Kilkenny recently to produce projects about it and highlight it. Those voices are incredibly powerful and important. My only real concern about this tribunal is that we do not inadvertently silence the voices of women who have experienced this. I ask for this aspect to be reviewed.

I may put forward an amendment to section 20. We often talk about the concern for privacy in Ireland but we can sometimes be excessive. We must ask which privacy we are protecting, and if we are really seeking to avoid State embarrassment. The Bill provides that the tribunal shall conduct its hearings otherwise than in public, which I presume means in private.Section 20(2) states: "Where a claimant requests the Tribunal to hold a hearing or part of a hearing in public and the Tribunal agrees that it would be appropriate to do so ...". That is my concern. If a claimant says they wish to have their hearing, or part of their hearing, held in public, we should not be in a position where the tribunal denies them that right to have their case heard in public. I hope the Minister of State will be able to assure me that it will never be the intention of the tribunal to deny women the right to have their stories told in public because I see the legislation allows for the tribunal to deny a request from a claimant to have their story told in public. I hope this can be addressed procedurally but I may table an amendment on for tomorrow.

On the terms of the recommendations, the importance of rolling out the HIP vaccine and Ireland giving leadership on that issue internationally and, through our aid programmes, supporting access to HIP vaccine for women and girls worldwide has been touched on. The learning and the recommendations may be of global benefit but another area where I believe recommendations may be, and I hope will be, made by the tribunal is in respect of our public procurement process. I brought forward legislation on public procurement some months ago in this House and specifically on the issues of price quality versus lowest cost. We know that in respect of the cervical screening programme it was a lowest cost tender. We know the State has and should have the opportunity to insist that both price and quality, the price-quality option, are considered. That is an option within European legislation. The Bill I put forward would make it a default option in that unless a Department can justify an exception, price and quality, and a consideration of quality, would be involved in every public tender. In the areas of health that is all the more crucial. We should never be in a position whereby if there is a question mark around quality in respect of any company it is able to jump the queue because it comes in with a lower bid. That is a concern. I hope that is a learning we have collectively in terms of future screening and future health services in our country. The Minister might give an indication as to the scope and range of the recommendations the tribunal may give to the Minister and how those issue are to be addressed in the future.

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