Thursday, 11 July 2019
CervicalCheck Tribunal Bill 2019: Second Stage
I do not think we will ever forget the reaction in this House, the other House and among the public at large when this scandal first emerged last year. My first reaction, and that of many of my friends, was that that could have been my wife, my sister or my friend. It turned out that many of us in these Houses have friends who have been affected and who are among those 221 women affected, and they have been dealing with very difficult sets of circumstances in the past few years.
It goes without saying that this is a very important Bill. My colleague, Deputy Kelly, has led the way in working with many of the women who were so badly affected and badly treated in terms of the cervical check situation. He has considerable experience on this issue, more than I have. As we know, he has developed very close personal relationships with many of the women who have been affected, particularly women like Vicky Phelan, who have inspired us all in the past year or more since this scandal was first brought to public attention. The women concerned have behaved so selflessly in telling their own stories and advocating, not just for themselves but for other women, for improvements to our health service and to the culture in terms of how we deal with situations like this in our country.
I do not intend to use all the time available to me to speak about the legislation necessarily but it is important to state that we need to get to a position where lessons are learned and applied by the this country's bureaucracy and the political system. When a scandal of this nature and scale emerges, we have a terrible tendency to circle the wagons and protect the system.
Looking at the legislation, it is important that we recognise some very important developments. The provision of a mechanism for what is called restoration of trust meetings is very important. That can lead to a culture change in terms of how we do things in this country. It is very important that the women affected get the opportunity to air their concerns in a supportive environment and believe that not only are they being listened to but that they are being heard as well and that their experiences can and will change how we do things in this country.
I note from the Minister's remarks on one or two Committee Stage amendments that he will be extending eligibility in circumstances where slides may be missing. That is a good idea and an important measure. I welcome also that is has been established in the legislation that a dependant of a deceased claimant may make a claim on behalf of the deceased. It is important to clarify that also, and that there is reassurance for families because we are dealing with women who in many cases are gravely ill and, in all too many difficult cases, are terminally ill.
This is an alternative to the adversarial court processes. I understand and appreciate that this is an adjudicatory process and one that seeks to establish liability and negligence. The Minister will say, with the best will in the world, that these fora are, almost by definition, adversarial, although perhaps not as adversarial as High Court proceedings and the like. In so far as we possibly can, we need to avoid damaging women going through these excessively adversarial processes. These women have been through enough and this system needs to be supportive and understand the position in which they find themselves. I hope that the tribunal staff, the Chair and others are mindful of that and the requirement to be very sensitive and supportive of the women who will be going through this process.
I have a key question for the Minister of State and I hope she is in a position to answer it. An amendment was tabled by my colleague, Deputy Kelly, in recent days which focused on the need to allow claimants to go back to the tribunal in the event of a recurrence or a relapse but the amendment was not accepted. My understanding is that it was initially ruled out of order. That is disgraceful. My understanding is that the hepatitis C tribunal provided for the opportunity for individuals to go back to the tribunal. We know only too well, in the context of cancers, that relapses sometimes occur after a period of remission. How does the Minister intend to deal with these all-too-human occurrences of relapses and recurrences of cancers? If not in this legislation, how does her senior colleague, the Minister, Deputy Harris, intend to deal with that? To quote from the RTÉ website and not directly from the Official Report of recent nights when Committee and Report Stages were taken, the Minister, Deputy Harris, appears to have stated that if cancer returns, "[t]here is nothing to stop a woman [taking] a new cause of action to the court[s]". Surely this is about avoiding the use of the courts to settle cases like this and to establish negligence if and when it occurred and establish liability. Surely the best way to do this is through the tribunal and not through the courts. I am concerned that the Minister said in the Dáil in recent days that if cancer returned there was nothing to stop a woman taking a new cause of action to the courts. The amendment tabled by my colleague, Deputy Kelly, failed in the Dáil but we, the Labour Party group, intend to reintroduce it in the Seanad and have this debate on Committee Stage, and potentially Report Stage also, if it is not accepted.