Thursday, 19 October 2006
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on the Mental Health Commission annual report 2005, including the report of the Inspector of Mental Health Services, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude no later than 1.30 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes, those of other Senators not to exceed ten minutes, and the Minister to be called on to reply no later than ten minutes before the conclusion of the statements; and No. 2, Sea Pollution (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2003 — Report and Final Stages, to be taken at 1.30 p.m. and to conclude no later than 2 p.m.
With the permission of the Leas-Chathaoirleach, I congratulate Senator Browne.
L-U-S-T-R-E, get away with you. It was interesting the matter was aired in the Seanad. I was at a meeting in room No. 2 when the debate took place. I also commend the Minister who was very explicit and gracious. It is good to see the Seanad used for such an occasion.
I concur with the remarks of the Leader of the House on the initiative taken by Senator Browne. I assure the House that since his pronouncements on this topic, a large number of wealthy heiresses have spoken to him. I assure the House the prospect of marrying a Senator is substantial.
On another matter, when the neglect of the elderly at Leas Cross was first exposed by "Prime Time Investigates" more than one year ago, both Houses rightly debated the matter in full, with a very good debate taking place in this House. Commitments were given by the Department of Health and Children that new legislation would be introduced to ensure regulations were put in place to protect the elderly in such homes. It is a matter of concern that months after Professor O'Neill concluded his report into the Leas Cross issue neither House of the Oireachtas has had an opportunity to see the report in full. Yesterday, the leader of my party in the other House raised the issue and put on the record some of the conclusions.
Will the Leader find out from the Government when it is intended to publish the O'Neill report? After its publication, will this House have an opportunity to debate the matter in full? Such a debate would allow us to agree that from this day forward, the legislation, guidelines and reporting mechanism are clear and that what happened in Leas Cross, or what Professor O'Neill's report implies happened, will never happen again. That is the collective response we should take. Will the Government publish the report in full as soon as possible?
The supposed level of inspection of nursing homes has been raised on a number of occasions in the past two weeks. The Department or the Health Service Executive, HSE, has appointed people to do a check but they are the wrong people. In many cases, a check might be carried out by an environmental safety officer when someone with more professional qualifications would be required. We must hear more about this.
Not only are the wrong people doing it, a mixture of people should be inspecting, and there does not seem to be any follow-up. When issues are raised after an inspection, there is no short-term follow-up to see if they have been corrected. In recent times, however, I have visited some nursing homes and have been impressed by the quality and standards of care in them.
The Standards in Public Office Commission has been seeking more power recently to deal with those in public office. It claims it does not get complaints and, if it does, it does not have the power to do anything about them. I have been a Member of this House as ethics legislation has been passed over the past ten years and for anyone to question it has been to oppose virtue. We need to get this right now. If the commission needs more authority, we should grant it. I am unhappy the commission would simply speak to the Government to explain its viewpoint. It is a much wider issue.
If I made this speech in the last week of January, people would say I was talking sense. When we fill in all these forms every year, we should ensure they fit into a plan we understand and that meets our purpose. If the Standards in Public Office Commission requires more power, we should give it to it but we should know why it is happening and be clear where it is.
Recently two Ministers of the Swedish Government resigned for paying a nanny in cash and for not having a television licence. I am not making a value judgment on that but the question arises whether the punishment fits the crime. People are looking askance but that is the issue. Until we know when to say something is unacceptable and people must resign, or the opposite, so there is no row, we must debate this, get a consultant's view and take it from there.
I compliment Senator O'Toole on the fact that Dingle's placename issue has now reached the august columns of this morning's edition of The Guardian.
The inability to publish the report into the Leas Cross mess is a direct consequence of the abdication of responsibility by the Minister for Health and Children to the HSE. If that report had been commissioned by the Minister and supplied to her, she could have placed it before an Oireachtas committee where it would have had absolute privilege. That it was not commissioned by a member of the Government and therefore not covered by privilege is the nub of the problem and that is a direct consequence of the legislation which established the HSE, which effectively, as every Member of this House knows, no longer gives out up-to-date, immediate responses to any query to do with the health services in the way possible under the old arrangement. Whatever was wrong with it, at least it was possible to find out what was going on. Now there is a corporate wrap-around which decides which information to put out and when.
The Leas Cross report has been caught up in that because it does not enjoy privilege in the way a report to the Minister would. If it were not for that, the report could be laid before the Oireachtas or supplied to the appropriate committee where it would be covered by privilege. That is the problem. In future, reports into such issues should be commissioned not by the HSE but by the Minister for Health and Children. That would solve the problem.
The soap opera of Aer Lingus is providing the nation with a level of entertainment it never expected. The two thrusting entrepreneurs are now using Aer Lingus as an issue over which to prove their machismo. Both of them have egos bigger than their fortunes and both of them made their money because of public decisions, one because of a monopoly given on the Gatwick line and the other because of a mobile telephone licence, while neither of them would allow a trade union into the house in any shape or form in any business they operate.
There is a difference, however, between them. One of them lives in Ireland, pays his taxes and is happy to stay here. The other, who loves to give the impression of benevolence and charity, left the country to avoid paying tax on the money he made in this country and he should be ashamed of himself.
We should not see him as a potential rescuer for a State company that was wrongly privatised.
The 2006 report of the National Competitiveness Council was published recently and, as usual, it gained a couple of headlines about wage rates. It contains pages upon pages of other things, however, that should worry anyone concerned about the future. The number of areas where the country's competitiveness has slipped is enormous and I will mention one in particular. The proportion of public services available on-line is among the lowest in the OECD. Our Government preaches its commitment to e-Government but we are going backwards relative to other countries. That is only one example in a country that claims to be——
I would like us to have a long debate on competitiveness centred on this very worrying report. Either the National Competitiveness Council does not know what it is talking about, which I do not believe to be the case, or we face a problem and not because of people's wage rates or increases that have been negotiated. That is how competitiveness is portrayed in this country, it is seen as related to how much people get paid. It has very little to do with that and more to do with about 100 other issues. That is why it should be properly debated.
I pay tribute to the gardaí in Waterford for their handling of a sensitive and difficult murder case which has received much national publicity. They have acted in a caring manner in most difficult circumstances and I compliment Superintendent Dave Sheahan and his team on that. We are often quick to criticise the Garda and should be as quick to praise the force when praise is due.
The report of the three wise men on salmon fishing has not been published yet. It is with the Minister. I do not know if it then goes to committee, the Dáil or this House, but I ask the Leader to set aside time to discuss the report before any final decisions are made. If a certain line is taken and all salmon fishermen are not treated equally, I will not be happy and I want to express that view before any final decision is made.
Will the Leader ascertain from the Minister of State with responsibility for housing, Deputy Noel Ahern, the current position in regard to staged payments? When the Government side voted down a Bill tabled by Senators Ryan, O'Toole and me a commitment was given, not for the first time, that the matter would be addressed by the Minister of State by the end of the summer. Has progress been made in this regard?
On the Leas Cross report, most people agree the Minister for Health and Children would not show favour or turn a blind eye were an issue of public concern to arise. Her curriculum vitae is a model of propriety and accountability for all legislators. For this reason, it is evident that her hands are tied in regard to publication of the Leas Cross report. While we all have concerns about this matter, it is more important to focus on the main issue. From the comments of Senators and many other commentators, it is clear members of the public are concerned about the terrible tragedy which occurred in Leas Cross and some other nursing homes. Senators hear on the grapevine about concerns people have about certain nursing homes, although the cases in question may not be as extreme as the Leas Cross case.
As Senator O'Toole indicated, a watertight regular inspection regime is required but I would go a step further. The families of patients also feel vulnerable and at times intimidated. They must be in a position to raise concerns in confidence in the certain knowledge they will be followed up. While most nursing homes do an excellent job, some proprietors are motivated solely by profit, with the result that corners are cut and patients are placed together in rooms where they receive no help or invigoration. Whether the agency involved is the HSE or the Department, a mechanism should be in place to allow families to communicate concerns in confidence. As a consequence of the Leas Cross case, every nursing home should be subject to a detailed audit which must include communication with the families of nursing home patients.
Having seen, as a member of the Joint Committee on Health Children, the legal advice as to the reason the report on the Leas Cross case was not published, I wonder if it will ever be published. I wish this type of advice was sought before the commissioning of reports rather than on their completion.
In a most disturbing report from Ethiopia a judge stated that a massacre took place after last year's disputed elections. Ethiopia is one of our priority countries in Africa. I have visited it several times and representatives from that country, including members of the opposition, have visited Ireland. I ask the Leader to raise this matter with the Minister for Foreign Affairs in order that he can approach the Government of Ethiopia on the issue. The judge who issued the report has been forced to flee the country and some of the parliamentarians elected last year, including Dr. Berhanu Negga who visited Ireland and spoke to many public representatives here, are in prison in Addis Ababa. Members of the Oireachtas travelled to Ethiopia as scrutineers for the election. I am sure many Senators would be grateful if the Leader were to raise the matter with the Minister.
Last evening's news featured a report about a bank which has targeted children at a school in Wexford by urging them to open current accounts offering incentives such as bars of chocolate and bags of crisps. This is a hypocritical stance given that banks are closing down small branches in many towns. The Bank of Ireland and AIB have withdrawn services in several towns, including Mountbellew in County Galway, Doneraile in County Cork, Ballagh and Crossmolina in County Mayo and Ballinamore in County Leitrim. From next week onwards, Glenamaddy in County Galway will no longer have a Bank of Ireland branch because the company is withdrawing services from the town and asking residents to use its branch in Roscommon.
While I am in favour of encouraging people, particularly young people, to save, the unscrupulous marketing under way in schools contrasts with what is taking place in smaller towns. Banks should have a marketing strategy under which instead of asking people to travel long distances to larger towns to do banking business, they invest in their local branches to make them attractive and suitable places to do business. I call for a debate on this issue.
I support Senator Kitt's call for a debate on banking. The key issue in the case in County Wexford is whether parental consent was given. The House should have a robust debate on banking because hundreds of customers are being ripped off as a result of Internet fraud. People who believe they know how to avoid being ripped off are also affected by Internet banking fraud, which affects people across the board. Perhaps we also need a debate on this issue.
While acknowledging that the House had a good debate on energy several weeks ago, I call for a series of further debates on energy issues, for example, spiralling energy prices and the proposed interconnector between Wales and County Wicklow. The interconnector project has been put on the long finger for a considerable period. Four years ago a private company was ready to commence work on this piece of infrastructure. An interconnector would have two benefits. It would allow us to import cheaper energy, thus enhancing competition, and Ireland could start to export green energy through onshore and offshore wind farms. It is incumbent on the House to have a special debate on the proposed interconnector between Wales and Wicklow.
I, too, would like Professor Des O'Neill's report on the Leas Cross nursing home to be published. While publication would be in the public interest, we must also bear in mind the legal advice the Health Service Executive has obtained in this matter. I am also a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children and, like Senator Henry, have seen the advice given to the HSE. I am led to believe the report contains the names of staff and others. If, as Senator Ryan demanded, the Minister for Health and Children were to bring the report before the joint committee using legislation enacted in 2004, we would run the risk of having named individuals pilloried by Members of both Houses. Their good names would be besmirched without having a right of reply.
I cast my mind back to events in the United Kingdom about 18 months ago when a report on Iraq that was issued in the House of Commons led to the tragic death of a scientist, Dr. David Kelly. While there are reasons for publishing the Leas Cross report, patience is required as we must act correctly to ensure no health worker has his or her good name taken.
When the House debates nursing homes we should also mention the many well run nursing homes, particularly those operated by the State. We should not lose the run of ourselves. If we begin to criticise and heavily penalise the nursing homes that do not comply, we run the risk of scaring vulnerable older people who will read only the bad news and not recognise the good work. This has been done while we politicians try to score political points. There must be a balance.
I support Senator Ryan's call for a debate on the National Competitiveness Council's report. The fact that we are so low down in so many areas is frightening. The trend is even more frightening. Like everybody, I continually meet people from other parts of the world who ask how we managed to make such a success of the Irish economy. The signs in this report are that we will not be able to hold onto that strengthened economy if we do not do something. Our position at the bottom of the league for broadband is one example, and there are many others. However, the trend worries me. The danger is that the young people of this country are becoming cocky enough to believe nothing can go wrong. The signs are here that things could go wrong. I call for an urgent debate on that.
Yesterday Senator Ryan said that a large number of those found driving without insurance could not be traced afterwards. Yesterday's newspapers reported that approximately 85% of those found could not be traced. I cannot believe that figure and it is unlikely to be correct. If we impound a car that is parked illegally or driven by somebody who is caught drink driving, why cannot we impound the car of somebody who does not have his or her driving licence when caught in any other offence? It is in our hands. If we want to conquer death on the roads that is one area we could tackle.
A plague of graffiti has hit Dublin. I do not know if it has been around for some time but I have noticed it recently. Beautiful walls have been covered in graffiti by, I think, teenagers. Yesterday I passed a lovely new library in Baldoyle and there is a huge piece of graffiti on the wall. The neighbours must have seen these people. They could not have done it in a few minutes. As citizens or parents we must stop this happening. A white wall close to my home was recently defaced and an off-duty garda caught the two young men, teenagers, who did it and went to their parents. One parent said "boys will be boys" while I am delighted to say that the other parent said "my son will clean that wall with a toothbrush".
At varying intervals in the past few months various taxi unions have tried to hold the commuters of this city to ransom. The most recent threat was before the Ryder Cup on the basis of a change of fee by the Dublin Airport Authority from 70 cent per pick-up to an annual fee of €500. I recently learned from figures supplied by the taxi unions' economist to the taxi regulator that when this €500 fee is introduced, the pick-up fee that taxis pay to the Dublin Airport Authority will be reduced from 70 cent to only 32 cent. The unions have tried to prevent this fee from being introduced.
For the past number of months the unions have been trying to cajole the Minister for Transport to prevent the Taxi Regulator from introducing many worthwhile reforms. It is time we had a debate with the Minister on the Dublin taxi service. We must ensure that the Taxi Regulator's function is not diminished by the unions' attempts to seek meetings with the Minister to try to appeal the different types of regulation the regulator is introducing. Every time a taxi picks up a passenger at Dublin Airport, the taxi driver pays the Dublin Airport Authority 70 cent. Based on the unions' estimate of six fares per day, five and a half days per week, 50 weeks per year, the annual fee of €500 works out at 32 cent per pick up. While this has been debated in recent months, the figures have never been put into the public domain. It is time we took on the taxi unions and had a frank debate on their role in providing a service in this city.
I support Senator McHugh's words on examining an interconnector with the UK. Although planning permission has been granted for many green energy initiatives such as wind farms, they cannot get onto the ESB grid. Every politician has faced this issue. Only when we have an interconnector can we explore the possibility of exporting green energy to the UK or the Continent.
I agree with the sentiments on the publication of the Leas Cross report. I wonder what kind of advice the HSE took before this report was drawn up.
We should also have a debate on the health boards. Yesterday I raised the difficulties in the former western health region where transport was being curtailed. Although I thought the health boards were amalgamated more than two years ago, we still have turf wars around the country. In my area we are told we should go to Sligo General Hospital or Roscommon County Hospital and there is no problem bringing people from different health board areas into a major general hospital. However, when I want to get somebody from Roscommon, where there is no Alzheimer's unit, into the unit in Carrick-on-Shannon, I am told that the north-western health board deals with that separately from the western health board. When somebody goes to Sligo General Hospital and wants to get out to respite care, I am still told he or she must get respite care in the north-western health board area.
What is happening within the health boards? I want the Minister to ensure this is resolved. We politicians are sick and tired of dealing with issues that should be dealt with by those who are paid vast sums of money to do so.
I endorse Senator Kitt's call for a debate on marketing techniques used by banks in various towns. I have always understood the role of education was to discuss the concept of saving, rather than a specific business coming to promote its wares. While I love the idea of guest lecturers going into schools and having a debate, I condemn the idea that a particular firm could go into a school to promote its wares. A debate on this issue is important. I would hate to think the banks were taking over the role of educating young children.
Senator O'Toole raised the issue of standards in public office. A debate on that would do no harm. In another month we will receive many forms and we always ask ourselves what is, and what is not, possible. A debate on this issue would refresh our minds on where we stand as public representatives and remind us that we have to adhere to high standards in public office. A debate on that would be welcomed by everybody.
I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on orthodontics at the earliest convenience. It is of serious concern to parents of teenagers. Over a number of years it has been recognised that there has been an effort by consultants in private practice to drive parents to use their services. They are using a dominant position to prevent the delivery of the service through the public service. That is a pity, particularly with the pressures on parents of teenage children. It is right that the State should have a proper and coherent policy on orthodontics. We are aware of the difficulties young people have at that vulnerable age; their physical appearance is most important to them. The lack of delivery of a quality orthodontic service is having a dramatic effect on the lives of young people and of their parents. Parents are obliged to pay large fees to private consultants. An Oireachtas report has been prepared on this subject and there have been various meetings on it. There should be a debate in the House to advance this case as quickly as possible.
Senator Feeney very capably made the point I wished to make, that it is most important to be balanced in the debate on nursing homes. I am aware of a number of institutions in County Clare which provide excellent service and care for the elderly. Places such as St. Joseph's Hospital in Ennis, Regina House, Cahercalla, Carrigoran and many community hospitals provide a level of standards and services that is second to none. That is fully endorsed by families and patients. We should not lose sight of that in our discussion.
Relatives should be reminded that they have some responsibilities as well. Our Lady's Hospital in Ennis, which is now closed, was the biggest psychiatric institution in Ireland. Many of the patients from that institution are now living in community institutions that have been established throughout the county. There is a necessity for relatives to pay some attention to the patients in these institutions and to work with the institutions to ensure the level of care is improved. Perhaps the Leader will raise the situation of these institutions with the Minister for Health and Children. Many of them, especially ones such as Kilrush Community Hospital, are run by charitable organisations. They are very short of funding. It is necessary to provide them with funding in order that extensions and improvements can be made. They are not run by health boards but are mainly dependent on community effort and support to keep them operating, for example, Ennistymon Community Hospital.
The Minister for Health and Children and, perhaps, the Minister for Social and Family Affairs should pay attention to these institutions as many of them are seeking to provide improvements, extensions and additional beds.
I support Senator Kitt's comments about the Bank of Ireland closing a number of branches in small towns. This drives a coach and four through the concept of rural development. It is important to have a bank in a small town, particularly for the local business and farming communities. The House should call on the banks to reconsider this policy. It is a self-centred policy that does nothing for rural areas.
As a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children, I strongly agree with the remarks about the Leas Cross Nursing Home report. There is a legal difficulty but I strongly support the view that this report should be published at some stage. I also share the view expressed by Senator Ó Murchú about the incumbent Minister. Deputy Harney is a role model for any public representative or anybody who wishes to enter public life. She is courageous and has not been found wanting with regard to any matter within her remit. Leas Cross is an exception, not the rule. There are excellent care-givers in all the institutions, public and private.
However, as I pointed out at the last meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children to both Professor Drumm and the Minister, Deputy Harney, the local visiting committees should be reintroduced. In most cases, when members of the visiting committee visited the public institutions — there is no example of a Leas Cross in the public institutions — they were invariably recognised by the residents of those institutions. The visiting committee might include a local councillor or local nurse and they also knew the residents. That had therapeutic value for the residents of the institutions. This must be given consideration.
When the report of the visiting committee was sent to the health board, it was a public report. For more than 23 years I was a member of——
I support the calls for debates on both energy and competitiveness. I accept there was a debate on energy recently but there are other issues that could be usefully debated, for example, our high dependence on oil and media reports last year which indicated that there was a possibility of electricity cutbacks in some sectors. Many matters are not being examined, including the reluctance of the ESB to take on green energy — the company has refused to take on micro generators — and the issue of excise duty on energy crops. These crops are ideal for Ireland, given the employment and import substitution they could generate.
The debate on competitiveness would be useful. It could consider the need to upskill, the situation of nations that already pay themselves highly and continue to be able to do that, how and why they can do that and how to use the tax system, within EU guidelines, to upgrade and mechanise systems.