Seanad debates

Thursday, 16 July 2015

10:30 am

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Defence to the House.

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Independent)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this matter on the commencement of Seanad Éireann today. I thank the Minister of State at the Department of Defence, Deputy Paul Kehoe, for being present to listen to my request. I do not expect a miracle solution today. I simply ask him to listen to my submission and see how we can progress this unfortunate case. I do not want to list private names on the record of the Seanad but the gentleman, whose concern is being discussed here, is seated in the Visitors Gallery. He is a former serving member of the national Army and served abroad in a peacekeeping capacity in a very admirable fashion. Alas, since 1989, which is a long time ago, he has suffered greatly as a result of the events of his discharge. To cut a long story short, my assertion to the Minister of State this morning is that the discharge of this Army Private was not conducted in an appropriate, proper and official fashion. Since that time he has suffered greatly as a result of that mishap.

The issue has been raised by numerous public representatives, myself included, down the years. The files have been examined by various Ministers, officials and the Ombudsman. I respect all of the investigations that have taken place but, unfortunately, there has been no progress in the case.

The kernel of the matter is the method of discharge of this gentlemen, which took place, I think, in March 1989. The discharge of a person from the armed forces must comply with Army regulations. In addition, the medical must be processed and proceeded with in a fashion that is provided for in the regulations. I have read the correspondence received from the Minister's predecessor in 2011. It was pointed out to me at the time that paragraph 1306 of "A" Administrative Instruction Part 12 is the relevant provision in this instance which reads: "[M]edical examination of personnel of the Permanent Defence Force should as far as possible be carried out by a Medical Officer of the Medical Corps and not by a civilian Medical Practitioner. The regulations clearly provide that situations may arise when a discharge medical is not conducted by a medical officer". A review of the files of personnel stationed at Fermoy barracks at the time shows that the gentlemen in question had the medical examination carried out by a civilian practitioner who had completed such examinations previously. What the Minister's letter did not point out, at the time, was that the medical doctor concerned had been retired for four years at the time of the medical examination. We need to reflect on the fact that the medical examination was carried out, in 1989, by a doctor who had retired in 1985.

There is an issue with the fact that all of the medical files and the medical report have "gone missing", and here I am quoting the report or inquiry by the Ombudsman into this case. The Ombudsman pointed out the following about the gentlemen who is with us today:

The claimant is correct in his assertion that an AF332A is required to be completed by the examining medical officer on completion of a pre-discharge medical. However, this document and another document, AF14, the medical examination sheet, are both missing from your file. It is clear that these documents were sent to the directorate of the Army Medical Services and is acknowledged as being received by them in July 1989. However, there is no record of how they were removed or lost. The CMF was copied on two occasions, once for the Chief State Solicitor's office, and once for Dr. Charles McCarthy in Fermoy. However checks that were made, with the recipients of these copies, have revealed that they do not have copies of the missing particulars.
All of that sounds very strange. I am not into the blame game but in many cases, not just in this case, mistakes were made. I do not want to use the phrase "cover-up" but there is an unwillingness to accept that mistakes were made and there is a hope that the problem will go away.

The person concerned was found to be perfectly fit but then was, rather surprisingly, found to be very far from fit by another State agency which was, at the time, the health board and is now, I suppose, the Department of Social Protection. He is now in receipt of a disability payment.It is difficult to accept that one Department claims a person is perfectly fit and another claims they are far from fit and that they should be in receipt of payment because of their illness.

I know that files are simply presented to the Minister of State and he is told what was said before and that it is difficult for him to say something different, but I ask him to reflect seriously on what has happened this person. His medical examination was carried out not by a defence personnel doctor or by a doctor who was in service at the time, but by a retired doctor, who is, unfortunately, deceased. As some of the correspondence acknowledged, obviously no verification or additional information can be obtained from that man. Mistakes do happen and the victim of this mistake left our armed service 26 years ago and has been suffering on a daily basis since then. He is not looking to cause consternation, difficulty, chaos, sackings, or anything else, but simply wants to have his case fully reopened, examined and hopefully brought to a just conclusion.

Yesterday in this House I was talking about the proud service of our Garda Síochána. The Minister of State at the Department of Defence knows from attending to his duties the great work being done by our soldiers at home and abroad. The least they can expect is a bit of fair play, courtesy and consideration. If a possibility occurs that a mistake has been made - mistakes occur in all walks of life and we all make mistakes - we should be willing to try to resolve those issues. It is not a question of apportioning blame or pointing fingers. I could reflect all day on being paranoid about missing files and documents posted and not received, but that is not going to solve the problem.

I ask the Minister of State to sit down with all sides involved. The gentleman is not represented by any legal person. He is pursuing this on his own bat, very thoroughly, but to no avail, after 26 years. Will the Minister of Stat see, from a humanitarian perspective, how the file can be reopened and re-examined with the objective of getting a fair and equitable solution? I thank him for attending the House to listen to my presentation. The time available to us here is not adequate because while I will not say the case is so complex, there is so much paperwork and so many documents, traversing various Departments and offices that we would need an hour and a half to go through it fully, which neither of us has. I hope I have given the Minister of State a brief summary.

The kernel of the matter is the medical examination which, through nobody's fault, was not carried out in the fashion required or by the personnel required. I would not like to have my medical history summarised in a five-minute examination by a retired doctor and I am sure if the Minister of State or the Cathaoirleach had a medical problem in the morning, he would not be happy if he went to his local surgery and was given a five-minute examination and then told the examining person had retired four or five years ago. That is where the problem begins and ends. I am asking the Minister of State to deal with the problem humanely and sympathetically.

Photo of Paul KehoePaul Kehoe (Minister of State and Government Chief Whip, Department of An Taoiseach; Minister of State, Department of Defence; Wexford, Fine Gael)
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First, I would like to acknowledge the presence of the person in question in the Visitors Gallery and his service in the Army. He was a member of the Irish Defence Forces for a period of 12 years and I acknowledge the service he gave to the State over those 12 years. He was discharged in June 1989 at his own request. Defence Forces Regulation A10 requires that, when an individual is being discharged from the Defence Forces, a medical examination should be carried out by a medical officer of the Medical Corps.

Situations arise where military medical officers are not available. Paragraph 1306 of "A" Administrative Instruction Part 12, in catering for such situations, provides that "medical examination of personnel of the Permanent Defence Force should as far as possible be carried out by a Medical Officer of the Medical Corps and not by a civilian Medical Practitioner". I am advised that due to the unavailability of a serving medical officer at the time, the former member's discharge medical examination was carried out by a civilian medical practitioner in March 1989. The fact that the discharge medical was conducted by a civilian doctor is not unique as civilian doctors may be used from time to time as circumstances dictate. Notwithstanding the fact that he was examined by a civilian medical practitioner, I am advised that his discharge at his own request remains valid and is in accordance with regulations. His discharge documents were issued to him at that time and he has not been subject to military law since then.

A record of the discharge medical examination taking place is contained in the former member's army medical book - LA30 filed on his central medical file. The medical book shows that at the time of his discharge the former member had a medical grade of A1. The medical examination report, AF332, which would have been completed by the doctor during the examination is not on file and cannot be located. This matter has been pursued by the person in question over a number of years. In this regard, a review was undertaken by the military authorities in 2012 on foot of representations received on the matter. A further search of military archives was undertaken, but the missing documentation could not be located. The civilian doctor passed away in 1994, therefore the matter cannot be clarified from that source.

I understand that the former member has suffered a hearing loss disability and contends that he is unable to obtain a disability pension due to an inadequate medical assessment prior to his discharge. In this regard, I am advised by Department officials that an application for a disability pension is not dependent on the result of a medical examination prior to discharge. Under the Army Pensions Acts, a wound, or disability, pension may be granted to a former member of the Permanent Defence Force in respect of permanent disablement due to a wound or injury attributable to military service. Noise-induced hearing loss comes within the scope of this provision. Under the Acts, application for a wound pension must be made to my Department within one year of discharge from the Permanent Defence Force. The person in question was discharged from the Permanent Defence Force in June 1989 and made his first enquiry regarding a pension in respect of disablement in February 1997. As this was outside the statutory time limit, it was not open to the Department to accept an application for a wound pension from him. All personnel on their discharge or retirement from the Permanent Defence Forces are provided with information setting out their possible entitlements under the Army Pension Acts and the statutory time limits for the making of applications.

With regard to the pre discharge medical examination findings it is also noteworthy that assessment standards have changed over the years. The military authorities have advised that in 1989, the prescribed regulatory method of assessing "keenness of hearing" was by whisper or voice test only. Audioscopy standards were not introduced until 1991 and audiometry standards until 1997.

I am advised that the former member has been compensated for his hearing loss disability. He received compensation from the Department in settlement of a civil action in respect of loss of hearing in 1999.

The Department remains satisfied that there was no breach of Defence Force regulations at the time of the former member's discharge in 1989. It is now some 26 years since the former member's discharge and a further review of the discharge procedures would not clarify matters further.

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply, but he has not said anything I have not heard before. I do not want to rehearse what I said earlier but I appeal to him, notwithstanding what he has put on the record, to take a personal interest in the case and to try to arrange a substantial meeting between some of his officials and the gentleman in question, which he may be able to attend himself. His knowledge of the Department of Defence, of military personnel and serving soldiers over the last three or four years and the active interest he takes in such matters would have to cause him to try to reach out to find a solution.

I know the active interest the Minister of State takes in such matter would cause him to try to reach out to find a solution. We are not talking about solutions that cost multi-millions, blaming anybody or rewriting history because what has happened has happened. It is very difficult for the former Army private to accept it. We have to be satisfied with the fact that files have gone missing. We have to be satisfied that his medical examination was carried out not by an Army doctor but by a retired doctor. Due to all these difficulties, I cannot accept the Minister of State's view that a further review would not clarify matters further. We might not be happy with the clarification, however, we need to give it a final thorough examination. I am not expecting it to happen today, tomorrow or next week. In fairness the next six weeks should be a time when Ministers in particular can get a break from their duties. Can the Minister of State take a personal interest in this when we come back in the autumn? I am not looking for a miracle solution. Could the Minister try to bring to the table the people who could try to chat with the former soldier and a friend or two - he will not bring barristers or senior counsel - to see if they can try to answer the remaining unanswered questions.

I appeal to the Minister of State to keep the door open on a person who, as he has said, has given 12 years of dedicated service in the line of duty to the State and the people of this country.

Photo of Paul KehoePaul Kehoe (Minister of State and Government Chief Whip, Department of An Taoiseach; Minister of State, Department of Defence; Wexford, Fine Gael)
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I very much appreciate that all members of the Irish Defence Forces put their lives on the line when they join the Defence Forces. I have no doubt the gentleman in question, who was a member of the Defence Forces for 12 years, served the country and the State extremely well.

On foot of Senator Bradford's personal representations and interest in this case, I will ask my officials to contact the Senator directly to arrange such a meeting in due course. If the gentleman in question would like to attend the meeting with Senator Bradford, I have no problem with that. I am not sure if the issue can be progressed but at least the door would not have been closed. We do not close the door on anybody's face on any occasion. We are talking about people and the life of a person with a disability, who feels he has been reneged upon.

I will ask my officials to contact the Senator to arrange that meeting. I am not sure if I will be available myself, but I will talk to my officials before that meeting and explain to them Senator Bradford's pleadings today. We will treat this case in a very sympathetic manner.

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Independent)
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I greatly appreciate that and thank the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe.

Sitting suspended at 11.25 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.