Thursday, 17 February 2005
Order of Business.
The Order of Business today is No 1, statements on the Mental Health Commission Annual Report 2003, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 1.30 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes and those of other Senators not to exceed ten minutes, Senators may share time and the Minister shall be called upon to reply not later than five minutes before the conclusion of statements.
I have raised on many occasions in this House an issue concerning St. Ita's Hospital in Newcastle West which caters for the elderly. I raised the issue in the context of the provision of an Alzheimer's unit, which I have raised in both Houses during the past seven years. The patients in St. Ita's are old, vulnerable people and, in many cases, they are not aware of their legal rights.
With regard to the issue that has arisen in recent days concerning the Supreme Court decision, I compliment President McAleese for referring the legislation to the Supreme Court. I listened to what the Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, said on this issue and she has tried to spread the blame by saying this was due to an administrative malfunction. She referred to the Department of Health and Children and said that this was going on since 1978. This issue has been firmly focused in people's minds in recent years.
The then Ombudsman in his reports in recent years referred to specific cases where there were entitlements. In 2002, the South Eastern Health Board gave an 80 page legal opinion and referred it to the then Minister and his Department in respect of which they stated that their legal advice was that what was happening was wrong and improper. In December 2003, it was highlighted to the then Minister, Deputy Martin, and his then Ministers of State, Deputies Tim O'Malley and Callely, that there was a difficulty in this area. Deputy Callely was responsible for the elderly and wrote to us on a regular basis about the great work he was doing for them. Following that meeting it was decided that advice would be sought from the Attorney General, but unfortunately that written document never seemed to reach the Attorney General.
Deputy Perry and the leader of our party, Deputy Kenny, highlighted this issue on an ongoing basis in the other House and eventually the Tánaiste belatedly took action on it. Legislation which was debated here on 16 December was rushed through these Houses. This happened during the Tánaiste's watch and it was an attack on the legal rights of elderly people, about some of whom I spoke earlier.
This has been an unfortunate sequence of events. There has been negligence and procrastination on this issue. In this context, the State may have to pay a bill ranging from €500 million to €2 billion depending on whether the Statute of Limitations will apply.
I would like the Tánaiste to come to this House to have a proper discussion on this issue. There is much comment on this issue in today's newspapers and it is one that concerns us. It ill-behoves any Administration to call itself a socialist caring Government when these decisions have impinged on the lives of old people who are the most vulnerable in our society. I very much regret that and the procrastination taking place on this issue.
This issue is currently occupying all our minds. This is another great opportunity to besmear and besmirch politics. This is not a political issue. Every party has been involved in this process during the past 17 years. If there is a row between the Opposition and the Government on the current issue, that will do us no credit. Mistakes were made and I would like to know where they were made.
I admire the Tánaiste for coming out and saying that she made a statement to the Dáil last month over which she will not now stand because it was incorrect. She said she discovered that health boards, officials in her Department, sections of her Department and management of particular hospitals made decisions to carry on despite their knowledge of the fact that what they are doing was legally questionable. Many of them knew it was illegal. That is the reality of the matter.
We should not have another three-week spat about what happened over the past three months on something that has gone on for the past 17 years. I do not blame any Minister over the past 17 years for not having dealt with this issue. Mistakes were made last month in the way the legislation was brought through. It is not enough to blame the current Minister for something in which every party was involved. We should be honest about this. We should ask how and why this happened and whether it can happen again. What remediation can we put in place arising from the series of issues Senator Finucane put on the record? He is correct in the sequence of events he outlined.
We will not do ourselves any favour by focusing in on a row over this issue. It is the business of the Opposition to oppose and I respect that, but in terms of taking an objective view on this issue, such an approach will not get us anywhere. I want to know what we will do about the fact that there will be a hole in the health budget to the tune of €500 million or, as Senator Finucane said, perhaps much more. I would welcome the Tánaiste coming to this House, and she also might welcome it, to outline the position, to give us the facts, take them or leave them, and then make a judgment on this issue. Every Member who contributes could make a proposal as to what we should do next.
One of the problems with politics in Ireland at present is that everybody is ready to have a go at everybody and nobody is ready to put forward a proposal. I admired the fact that Senator Norris yesterday proposed rather than opposed something. We should seek to make a proposal in this regard. We should consider how we will deal with a payment of €500 million in this respect. There are two ways of doing that; either the Government makes a decision that the payment of this money will be a priority in terms of every shilling of extra revenue that might be collected this year or, in the event of no extra revenue accruing from taxation this year, that it will have to make a tax adjustment to ensure that the Health Service Executive is not deprived of €500 million to do what we want it to do because of this decision. I want to hear from where this €500 million will come. What will we do next to deal with this issue? Those are the real issues. I would like us to have a discussion with the Tánaiste on those issues.
I wish to raise the same issue as that raised by the previous two speakers. The Supreme Court judgment was a well-deserved rebuke for the way this issue was handled all along. It raises a number of issues, not least the property rights of pensioners, a vulnerable group in society who had money taken from them illegally. We all know the advice that was available to the Government and what happened.
This is a lesson in terms of how the Oireachtas does its business and what happens when legislation is rushed, does not get the necessary time for debate and the public do not have an opportunity to make observations. As Senator O'Toole mentioned, how does the Government propose to pay back the €500 million to those who had money sequestered from them? They have been treated in a shabby manner and there is a question mark over the legal advice that was given to some of the Sir Humphreys. The Tánaiste said there was gross mismanagement at senior levels. Why did someone at a senior level in the Department refuse to pass on the legal advice to the Minister of the day? That is unforgivable and lessons must be learned from this sorry saga.
Which is scarier, the fact there are 30 kg of plutonium missing from the nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield or the fact that this is not unusual? We know the record of the British on this issue and that it is a long-standing objective of the Irish Government to close the plant. This issue is not so minor as to be referred to as an embarrassment to the British Government. It is a gross international scandal and it reopens the debate about the threat this plant poses to Irish security. I would welcome a statement from the Minister in this regard.
I join previous speakers in asking the Leader to request the Tánaiste to come to the House to debate the issue that has arisen in recent days. It is necessary and I concur with Senator O'Toole's comments that the problem is spread over 27 years.
I would welcome proposals from the Opposition on how to deal with this problem and how it will impact on the health service. When the Tánaiste comes to the House, the Opposition will have ample opportunity to put forward its proposals for dealing with this matter.
The Supreme Court upheld the current legislation and ruled against the retrospective element. When we deal with the retrospective issue, we should await the outcome of the investigation announced by the Tánaiste before Christmas which is due to report at the end of this month or early next month. I welcome this debate and I hope that for once the Opposition will have something constructive to offer.
I also take this opportunity to compliment the McCartney sisters who have acted so honourably and bravely in recent weeks. We are quick in this House to shout about issues in Northern Ireland in a critical manner. We should also acknowledge the bravery and integrity of this family and the public support they are now getting. They have forced certain elements in society to face up to their responsibilities and it would be remiss of us not to compliment them in that regard. Let us hope that the perpetrators of this crime are brought swiftly to justice and face up to their responsibility for an horrific act.
There is no doubt that the Supreme Court judgment is a serious rebuke and there was procrastination. I compliment the President on referring the matter to the court. There was a carry on regardless attitude in spite of legal advice questioning the approach and gross mismanagement resulted. I support the call for the Tánaiste to come to the House for a debate on this matter.
We heard this morning that the Minister for Transport is at last threatening to bring a report to Government on the second terminal at Dublin Airport. If that procrastination is at an end, what about the procrastination on the Great Southern Hotels group? Is there any direction or are matters falling back into line with the Taoiseach's stated view that it will remain in State ownership?
Last night we had a constructive debate on an important issue. Senator Norris spent two years preparing a Bill, with 30 years experience going into that preparation, but was given a very short time to present his case. It would have been to all our benefit if he had been able to speak for longer, to use statistics and quotations and to tell us what it is like to experience discrimination. It would have benefited the debate. The Leader of the House negotiated some extra time but the debate was still brief. When we are tackling issues with constitutional implications and implications for the family, we should perhaps have longer to discuss them. We can rush issues. I do not want to go back to the day when Senators spoke for hours on end but under the current rules Edmond Burke would never have seen the light of day.
I wish to raise the report of the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights Sub-committee on the Barron Report. I am shocked that the authorities in Northern Ireland and in Britain would not co-operate in any way with the sub-committee. I can only imagine why they would not do so.
I fully support Senator Minihan's comments about the McCartney sisters in Northern Ireland. All Members of this House should offer their moral support to them so they realise that there are people of moderate views from all parties who fully agree with what they are doing.
The Labour Party previously introduced a Bill on lobbyists in this House which was voted down in summary fashion by the Government. I have noticed in recent times there has been a proliferation of lobbyists in the Houses again, with National Toll Roads particularly noticeable in the past few days. I have no problem with lobbyists being here but I have a problem with big business having access to these Houses when there is no register of who represents whom. If this is to continue, the Government might reconsider the decision it took during the last parliamentary session and introduce a Bill to ensure we know to whom we are talking when we talk to people wandering around the House and also who they represent. There is a serious danger that big money can get big business access to Ministers. This is something we should consider very seriously. I could produce much evidence if there were a proper inquiry into this that big money gets access to Ministers for Finance, Taoisigh and other people with that sort of power.
In that regard, I ask that the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, come to the House not only to address the issue of the M3, but also to address the issue of the M50. It is not a coincidence that National Toll Roads Ireland was in here yesterday. It was preparing the ground for a meeting with the Minister today regarding the M50 and the toll plaza. Perhaps when she is considering the issue of lobbyists, the Leader could also consider whether the Minister for Transport could tell us what plans he has for the M50 and the toll plaza, and also what happened at today's meeting.
I add my voice to the calls for the Minister for Health and Children to come to the House to explain health policy in general. The simplistic blame game that is going on at present is not being played by the Opposition. I want Members to try to reconcile three statements. The first was made by the Taoiseach when he said in early December that legislation he was bringing forward would have no retrospective effect. He went on to say that it was never the case that legislation had a retrospective element, but we saw what happened a few days later. On 16 December the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children said that it was clearly beyond the Government's financial and administrative ability to repay all the charges accumulated since 1976 and gave a token €2,000, which she said would be paid before Christmas, to the many people on whom these illegal charges had been imposed. The former Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, said on the same occasion in the Dáil that the charges were accepted policy and that no one had said anything about it for 50 years.
The Taoiseach stated the legislation would not have a retrospective effect. The Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children introduced legislation that incorporated an element of retrospection, and for that reason the President referred it to the Supreme Court. Certain people want to spread the blame. The Minister said the people within her Department are to blame.
I am. However, I want to put it on the record that those who have simplistic attitudes and who want to lay the blame everywhere and nowhere must take responsibility and take the proper action as a matter of urgency to get themselves out of the mess they are in.
I have a couple of points regarding the situation pertaining in the health service and the rights of elderly people in nursing homes. It would be useful if spokespersons on all sides avoided the words "pocket money". It is rather degrading to elderly people to treat them like children — it is their money. We owe the President thanks for referring this Bill to the Supreme Court. She was correct in so doing and has done us all a service. She is a lawyer and spotted that retrospective legislation must be questioned. I am not a lawyer but even I spotted that when the legislation was going through the House and I made the point, as did other people.
What concerns me is the effect this may have on the most vulnerable people in our society. I would hate to think that money might be diverted from the elderly in order to pay the bill the State may find itself facing, in particular since I visited St. Mary's Hospital in the Phoenix Park a couple of days ago where a remarkable staff is coping in deplorable conditions in an heroic way. I intend to seek an Adjournment debate on this matter.
As somebody who has consistently opposed certain elements of American foreign policy, I am occasionally accused of being anti-American. I am not. In that manner I strongly deplore and condemn the attack in Mayo on American basketball players, two of whom were left seriously injured after anti-American slogans had been shouted at them. This is utterly deplorable and I condemn it absolutely.
Will the Leader raise with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, as a matter of urgency, a matter that came to my attention yesterday regarding an applicant for refugee status? He has an almost unpronounceable name, Mr. Nchedochukwu Obi-Igweilp. I will supply the letter. The reason it is significant is that this man was a human rights activist in Nigeria. He was told to report to the police station today on foot of a situation where he may be deported at any time from today. The refugee legal service made an appeal on his behalf, but it was a standard appeal. There was no reference to the case, the facts, the merits, and they even got his gender wrong. They referred to him consistently throughout this alleged appeal as "she".
In the circumstances we should ask that this matter be reopened before this man is deported to a situation where he may be in danger. I will be happy to pass on the correspondence to the Leader.
I want to make a couple of points regarding the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children, regarding the Health (Amendment)(No. 2) Bill, and the fact that the charges deducted from the pensions of nursing home patients were illegal. The Tánaiste likes to portray herself as an upright person and her party as a party of principle. She knew when she was putting forward the legisaltion that the money was being taken illegally and taking money illegally is otherwise known as robbery. Therefore, she knowingly tried to legalise robbery. I do not believe she would treat wealthy people in the same way. I do not believe she would retrospectively apply a wealth tax or an income tax. It is a bit like being the bully in the playground.
The most vulnerable people in our society are being treated unfairly. I do not believe the Tánaiste's party would treat the wealthy in the same way. I do not remember any law being put forward by the Tánaiste to take away money retrospectively from any other sector of society. The Progressive Democrats Party makes a virtue of the fact that it has cut income tax over the years. Those income tax cuts are of more benefit to the well off than to the less well off in our society.
I also call on the Tánaiste to come to the House. The Government is doubly rebuked. It should be remembered that the legislation was rushed and that this side of the House pointed out there were difficulties with it, but afterwards the Leader moved an earlier signature motion requesting the President to sign it into law more quickly than in the normal five-day period.
The President refused to do that and referred the Bill to the Supreme Court.
I agree with Senator Tuffy that there is an element of theft in this issue. If a person filling in a form for an agricultural grant or a person claiming social welfare makes a slight mistake, he or she is penalised immediately. However, when the Government makes a mistake, it expects to get away with it by making an ex gratia payment of €2,000, even though the amount of money owed might be far greater. The whole set-up was fundamentally flawed from the beginning and the Tánaiste has come out of it very badly. The myth Fianna Fáil and the PDs are now spinning, that this goes back to long before 2001, is wrong. The main issue was the granting of medical cards to people over 70 years of age in 2001. That is mainly where the problem arose. That was done by the former Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, and was badly thought out.
Taxpayers and the elderly will pay. It is time we had a serious debate on this issue and I hope that this time the Government will listen. It was told all this in December but did not listen. Its arrogance got it nowhere.
I welcome the decision by the GAA to discuss the opening up of Croke Park. That is an important issue. Everyone in the House is a sports fanatic. Perhaps the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism could come to the House to outline what encouragement the Government will give to the GAA to open up its facilities, at least on a temporary basis.
I join Members in congratulating the President on referring the Bill to the Supreme Court. Many mistakes have been made and moneys have been taken illegally. The Government has given tax breaks to the rich and super rich. On this occasion moneys were taken illegally from the old and vulnerable. As a politician, every day over the past two or three years I have received representations on that matter and I hope we will not have to deal with these sensitive issues again. I would welcome a debate and it should be a balanced one because the floodgates have been opened in some cases.
In the case of the FAI, it appears as if soccer matches will be played abroad. Soccer and rugby teams may have to play their matches in Cardiff, Liverpool and so on. I welcome the GAA's decision to agree to debate the opening up of Croke Park.
However, I ask the Minister to come to the House to outline what the Government can do to stop thousands of Irish citizens having to travel abroad to support the Irish football team. This is a position we should not face. It is not of the GAA's making but of the Government's making because for too long too many promises were not honoured.
Like Senator Ross I agree with Senator Minihan regarding what he said about the McCartney family and their great courage in looking for justice following the death of their brother. It is important to note they are looking for justice through the courts and not at the hands of some self-appointed executioner as seems to be suggested by some in Northern Ireland.
The Leader has kindly put the Mental Health Commission report on the Order of Business today, at my request. Will she please arrange a debate in the near future on the OECD report on third-level education in Ireland which was published before Christmas and is of great interest to all of us?
I do not wish to rehash what has been stated already about the decision of the Supreme Court yesterday. However, it is galling to listen to some Members on the Government side asking the Opposition to present constructive criticism. We did that before Christmas in this House and we were ignored.
Everybody was ignored as the legislation was pushed through this and the other House. If we are to have a discussion on this issue with the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, and I hope the Leader can arrange it as soon as possible, I hope she will come prepared to listen to what others have to say and not bulldoze through her own particular views on this sensitive subject.
I also ask the Leader to arrange for the Minister for Agriculture and Food to come to the House at the earliest opportunity to discuss the proposed changes to the disadvantaged areas scheme. Some 75% of the land is in the disadvantaged areas scheme. It appears the criteria by which areas are judged are being discussed at EU level and may be significantly changed. It could have serious implications for many farmers throughout different parts of the country if those criteria are changed. It would be appropriate to have a discussion before any decision is taken on that issue.
Senator Finucane, acting leader of the Opposition, raised the issue of the Supreme Court ruling which was given yesterday morning and led the calls for the Tánaiste to come to the House to debate the matter. We asked her office last night if she could come to the House next week, but a response is pending. On any occasion that she has been asked to come to the House she has never refused and I hope she will be able to come on this occasion.
Senator O'Toole, who apologised because he had to leave the House, said this should not become a political football. If there is an €0.5 billion hole in the health budget, I would imagine it would have to be spread over all Departments. If that amount was taken in one gulp from one Department, it would be injurious to the work of other Departments. I do not know — I am speaking on the basis of precedent in terms of what happened in other areas. I was looking around and — with apologies to Senator Tuffy — wondering who is from the legal profession in the House. I hope members of that profession do not get their mitts on it.
The Senator is very funny. I picked up that comment.
Senator McCarthy referred to the rushed legislation and asked why the advice was not passed on at senior level. That will be the conundrum in the whole matter. He referred also to the missing plutonium at Sellafield. In the report by Brian O'Connell this morning, British Nuclear Fuels said it is missing but it is not really missing. It has gone somewhere else obviously. That is a good matter for debate.
Senator Minihan asked that the Tánaiste come to the House for a debate on the Supreme Court decision. We asked her office about that last night. There is a mechanism in the Dáil for an immediate debate if something happens, through a Private Notice Question. Given that we do not have that mechanism, we are always a step behind. I expect she will come to the House. The Senator also said the Supreme Court stood over the legislation for the future. There is general agreement that if one could pay whatever amount one could manage, that should be the case. However, that is not the position now. I was impressed by what the Tánaiste said yesterday that the payments would be made as quickly as possible. I suppose the Government will have to lay out rules and regulations. This is a substantial matter that has to be looked at quickly. Nobody wants to stand over diddling anybody, but particularly the elderly, out of their money. There was no attempt to diddle anybody. We have to get to the bottom of the issue and there is no point me talking about it.
The Senator raised also the issue of the McCartney sisters who are looking for justice regarding the death of their brother and I thank him for doing so. They are the bravest women I have heard speaking for quite some time. They are not afraid to say what they think happened and in so doing they could be marking themselves out for further odium, but they have stuck to their point of view.
Senator Coghlan asked about the second terminal and the Great Southern Hotels. I will ask the Taoiseach what is the position on those matters. The Senator sought more time to discuss those two issues.
Senator Lydon said that in the debate last night the proposer of the Bill, Senator Norris, should have been given more time to lay out his case. He had much more to say. I wish we all had more time, but when more time is allowed Members do not speak. It is amazing the number of Members who do not speak, or speak very rarely, in this House. We would welcome more time if Members would come forward to fill it. There is no point providing time if everybody trails out after an hour. I have been very disappointed at the number of Members who do not speak on matters. Members are here for a purpose, which is to make legislation or contribute to statements. I am disappointed with people who do not contribute.
The House had a wonderful debate last night involving eight speakers and more to follow. I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for allowing an extra half an hour for the debate. The Minister stayed in the House for the full two and a half hours. Speakers laid out their stall which is what we on this side wanted to happen. I thank all the Senators who contributed. I will say no more but the people who made a lot of noise yesterday were not here——
The Senator certainly was here and he was not the noisiest at all. The time allocated for Private Members' business is decided by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. If the Senator wishes to have more time, the House will be delighted to give it to him.
All Members received copies today of the report on the Dublin-Monaghan bombings. I will ask the Taoiseach for permission to debate it in this House.
Senator Ross stated that he fully supports Senator Minihan on what he said about the McCartney sisters. He raised a very important issue about which I also would be very exercised, the proliferation of the appearance of lobbyists around Leinster House. I remember that Bill and I thought there was to be another Bill to replace it but this has not happened.
I think there was to have been a Government Bill. As regards National Toll Roads, its representatives came to speak to me yesterday, in case the Senator was wondering what they were doing prowling around the house. We met in the front office so we did not prowl anywhere; I saw them to the door when they left. They made their case to me which I refuted very busily. It remains to be seen whether they have more to say.
I assure Senator Ulick Burke that the Tánaiste will be coming to the House. He referred to statements by the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Martin. I commend the Senator's research facilities or perhaps he read today's newspapers. I hope there will be a full debate on the subject when the Tánaiste comes to the House.
Senator Norris objected to the use of the term "pocket money" and so do I. It has a childish connotation because that is what money given to a child is called. It seemed to me that referring to elderly people receiving pocket money was very insensitive. The Senator also referred to the two basketball players in Mayo who have been beaten up under the guise of anti-American feeling. The Senator supplied me with a document which I acknowledge.
I regret Senator Tuffy's remark that the Tánaiste would not have treated wealthy people in that fashion. From what I know of the Tánaiste I do not believe that is true.
That is a separate issue which is a Government taxation policy. To say that the Tánaiste would treat one group one way and another group in a different fashion when dealing with the same issue is certainly not correct. She has a strong sense of duty to the public. I am sure the mess she now has to deal with will require great stamina and resilience to resolve.
Sometimes one can say things which one does not really mean. For example, the word "homophobia" was used in the House last night. I will be writing to the Cathaoirleach about that incident. I have read the "blacks" of the debate. The Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Bill is very strong in its provisions. The word "homophobia" was levelled at this side of the House. I take it extremely seriously and I intend to write to the Cathaoirleach, or to the Leas-Chathaoirleach if he is still in charge, to point out that such a word cannot be used in that fashion. It was an extremely intemperate statement. The Senator who made it is not present in the House.
In answer to Senator Browne, the House cannot discuss the GAA because it is another body which regulates its own business. On the issue of the use of Croke Park for other games I understand the GAA proposal requires a two thirds majority.
Senator Feighan congratulated the President and I am in agreement with him. She referred the Bill to the Supreme Court.
Senator Henry asked for a debate on the OECD report on Irish third-level education. I would also like to have that matter debated in the House. Senator John Paul Phelan asked about the classification of disadvantaged areas and the changes this will bring about. It would be useful to have a debate on the matter.