Tuesday, 24 November 2015
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re the Horse and Greyhound Racing Fund, back from committee, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business without debate; No. 2, Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Bill 2015 - Second Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 1 and to be adjourned no later than 6.30 p.m. with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes each and those of other Senators not to exceed five minutes each; No. 3, Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012 - Report and Final Stages, to be taken at 6.30 p.m.
We will not push this matter to a vote today but could the Deputy Leader invite the Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, to the House at some stage this week to discuss the debacle of the emergency department crisis throughout the country? This has worsened by 100% in terms of trolleys, waiting lists and so forth since 2007. For the last 15 months the numbers have increased consistently month on month. That happens to coincide with the same 15 months that Deputy Varadkar has been Minister for Health.
It is two years since the Taoiseach said he was taking personal responsibility for the health service.Since then we have had the establishment of a task force and the publication of a report. Eleven weeks after that report was put into the public domain, there still is no plan in place. The Minister continues to be the best pundit there is when it comes to the health service but, unfortunately, he has not realised he is a player. In fact, he is the captain of the team from a health perspective and the person from whom we expect leadership. Communities throughout the country require hospital emergency departments that work and are able to deal with patients, whether they are elderly people or young children, whether they are ill or have been injured in an accident.
The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, which co-chaired the task force, announced this week that having balloted its entire membership, 92% are in favour of industrial action. That action will take place on 15 December in four hospitals around the country, the identity of which will not be known for some time. It could happen in Sligo, in Waterford, in a Dublin hospital or anywhere else. What is certain is that it will not serve patients well. It is time the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, dispensed with the punditry and commentary and instead took action on this issue.
As I said, the situation has got progressively worse month on month in the course of his tenure. We saw the abandonment last week of the plan for universal health insurance, one of the components of the Government's five-point plan. There has been a doubling in recent years of the numbers on trolleys. There are ongoing problems with resources throughout the entire health service. Last evening, I spoke to a couple, one of whom is 87 years of age and the other 82, whose joint income from the contributory old age pension is less than €500 per week. They have had their medical cards taken away despite both suffering from illness. Indeed, one is facing imminent surgery of a serious nature in Galway. This, sadly, is the health service in respect of which the Minister, for all his capabilities as a pundit, has shown an almost unique talent to replicate the headless chicken approach of his predecessor, the now Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy James Reilly.
As I said, we will not put this matter to a vote today. However, we will do so later in the week unless a three-hour debate is arranged without the imposition of prohibitive five-minute slots for Members to speak. We must have a meaningful debate on what tangible measures can be implemented by the Government. We have had enough punditry and commentary. What we need now is a functioning health service that can cater for people in emergency departments throughout the country.
I welcome the announcement that the budget has met all the conditions of the Stability and Growth Pact, which is the final piece of the assessment process for this country from a European perspective. The budget has been deemed to be compliant and no changes are required. With the deficit falling well below 3% this year, Ireland will exit the corrective arm of the Stability and Growth Pact at the end of 2015 and a balanced budget is in prospect within the coming years. Reducing the deficit below 3% is an important milestone in our recovery.
The Christmas social welfare bonus was abolished in 2009 by the previous Government. One of the consequences of the improvement in our economic situation is the very welcome provision for a 75% Christmas bonus payment this year, which will directly benefit 1.2 million social welfare customers and their dependants. Those bonuses will be paid in the first week of December, the necessary regulations having been signed yesterday. We hope, given the further improvement which is in prospect, that the payment will be increased further next year.
I congratulate our colleague, Senator Barrett, on his performance on the "News at One". The outline he gave of the current status of the banking inquiry was extremely enlightening for listeners. I am glad he drew a parallel between the possible amendment of the report by the sub-committee and the very numerous amendments that are carried through by this House. He has helped the public to understand the work we do, which is very often unregarded, unnoticed and unremarked on in the media.
I was sad to hear of the bankruptcy of Sir Anthony O'Reilly, who is a remarkable man.He was a great rugby player for this country. He went on to administer the Heinz corporation in America, an enormous multinational, which made him very wealthy and very famous in the United States of America, but he did not forget Ireland. He started the Ireland Fund, which has done an enormous amount of good. He also attempted to rescue Waterford Crystal, one of the iconic industries in this country. It very sad that a major figure like this, approaching the end of his days, as I and at least one of my other colleagues are, is in this position. I am sure he will be protected to a certain extent by his wife's wealth but it is still very sad to see a public figure like this brought down by financial circumstances.
I welcome Senator Máiría Cahill to the House. I was in Montenegro last week on Council of Europe business, so I was not here to congratulate her. I wish her every success. She replaces her colleague, Senator Jimmy Harte, and I know she will bring a unique experience to this House and will be a contributor to many debates. It adds to the quality of the House and is a great boost that she has been elected directly from the North, which is a great step forward. My grandparents came from Lurgan in County Armagh, so I have a connection with the North. I wish her success on both sides of the Border, whatever political life she pursues. She is certainly entitled to it. She was elected honourably and well and it was a great choice of candidate.
I concur with Senator Norris. It is good to recognise the work of a truly great Irishman in Sir Anthony O'Reilly. People are sometimes too quick to judge. While we will not go through his career today, what Senator Norris said is very true. The Ireland Fund alone has done enormous work around the country. In fact, I applied once on behalf of a project in Castlecoote in County Roscommon and I recall getting about £10,000 for a small community centre, which developed different opportunities for the area. He should certainly be recognised and this House should wish him well, whether we do that individually or collectively. I would love to meet that man, given his experiences in Ireland, his work throughout the world for Ireland and his work in taking on difficult tasks in regard to Waterford Crystal, in which he had great faith because it was an iconic brand and he felt it was worth preserving. It is a day of congratulation, although it is not a matter of congratulation to be declared bankrupt. As far as I am concerned, he still has the highest standing in Irish life and no bankruptcy will ever affect that. The work he has done for the people of Ireland will never be forgotten.
I want to add my word in regard to Tony O'Reilly. I was at school at the same time as him and played rugby against him. I have a photograph at home, of which I am very proud, of the two of us running. We, in the Newbridge Dominicans, were playing the Jesuits. We cheated. We said a novena for bad weather - nine days prayer for bad weather - and the Lord listened to us and we got the worst day ever. O'Reilly only got the ball twice, so he only scored two tries. We did not win but it was a great record.
As Senator Leyden said, we should remember the work he has done for the Ireland Fund over the years. I got to know Sir Anthony O'Reilly very well over those years and have been to the weddings of some of his sons. He is a man we should be very proud of. Despite his recent financial difficulties, when I wrote to him recently, I got a lovely note back thanking me for my note.
I would also like to raise the issue of the crime wave we are experiencing. There are steps we can take, one of which is a copy of what is being done in other countries.We should be able to help citizens feel more connected to the Garda. A person may not be in a situation to ring 999 or whatever the number is but may want to talk to a garda about a certain issue. The 999 number is for emergencies and is only to be used when a crime is being committed or help is required immediately. We could create for citizens a telephone number that is easy to remember in order that they might share their concerns if they see something that needs to be done. According to the relevant website, "101 is the number to call when you want to contact your local police in England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland - when it's less urgent than a 999 call," that is, to report crimes and other matters in respect of which an emergency response is not needed. This number can be used if there is a minor traffic collision, if people want to give the police information about crime in their areas or if someone wants to speak to an officer in general terms. This has been done in several other countries and we should consider it here because people may want to contact the Garda but may not need to call 999 and create urgency about something that is, if fact, not quite so urgent. It would be worthwhile passing this comment on to the Minister for Justice and Equality in the hope that it might be passed on to the Garda. It would cost nothing to establish the new number and calls to it would not give rise to the same urgency as that attaching to 999 calls. People could use it in order to highlight something that requires attention.
I share Senator MacSharry’s concern about the decision by the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, to call for strike action to commence on 15 December. This will cause great stress and worry for many patients, particularly elderly people, during the winter. While I can appreciate much of the frustration of nurses regarding the continued overcrowding in hospitals and, in some instances, the limited resources available, very significant progress is being made. The emergency department task force plan is taking effect and there are 20% fewer people on trolleys today than was the case 12 months ago. A total of 197 hospital beds have been opened since October, with 44 more to open in the next two weeks. Almost 760 more nurses have been employed since this time last year and a recent overseas recruitment drive has given rise to 400 definite expressions of interest, which is good news in the context of the acute shortage of nursing personnel. I hope that between now and 15 December all parties will make use of the Workplace Relations Commission to resolve the outstanding issues. I understand that apart from those relating to overcrowding and staffing, there are other issues that need to be addressed. I hope the INMO and the Health Service Executive, HSE, management will redouble their efforts to ensure that a binding agreement that will make industrial action unnecessary will be put in place. These matters must to be sorted out around a table and the old, the sick and those who depend on hospital services do not deserve to be put under pressure and stress coming into winter. A solution must be found. I hope this proposed industrial action for 15 December will be called off.
I, too, call for a debate on health care with the Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar. Opposition Senators and some Government Senators have been calling for this for almost a year and it has not happened. It is not fair to say to nurses because they are pondering strike action as a last resort that they are putting older persons at risk or that they are responsible for what is happening. Government Senators have to take responsibility for what is happening in the health service.I invite Senator Mullins to visit University Hospital Waterford or any of the hospitals in the State that are under fierce pressure because of a lack of capacity. We do not need a debate but more beds in public hospitals, more nurses, more junior doctors, more consultants and more capacity. That is the only way we will reduce pressure in accident and emergency departments. Anybody who understands health care will say that if one has real problems in the accident and emergency department then there will be problems everywhere in the hospital because that is where all of the problems come together at that same time. This situation is a symptom of what is wrong across the health service where we have a lack of investment in primary care, community nursing units and geriatric care facilities. We still do not have many of the community nursing units that were promised. That includes a 100-bed unit that was promised for Waterford which has still not been delivered. The Government is responsible for these problems.
I welcome a debate but let us be honest. The people who are lying on hospital trolleys, despite what the Government's representatives say, do not want politicians to keep talking and going around in circles on this issue. Instead, they want delivery, results, action and more resources but the time to do all of that was in the last budget. Let us look at what this Government did. A sum of €180 million was given to the top 14% income earners yet only a fraction of that, in additional moneys, was put into the health service. That is what the Government did and its Senators should take responsibility. I would welcome a debate on the issue and believe we must hold the Minister for Health to account. The Government promised that it would bring in real reform of the HSE and all the rest. The Government has done precious little. In fact, it has abandoned its policy for universal health insurance. We need to invite the Minister in here to discuss these issues and what has really created the problems in the health service. I say to Senator Mullins that the nurses, junior doctors or consultants have not created the problems but the politicians in power who have not done what they said they would do.
I wish to talk a little about the Christmas bonus which will directly benefit 1.2 million social welfare customers and their dependants and be paid in the first week of December. As announced in the budget, the bonus paid to pensioners, people with disabilities, carers, lone parents and people who are long-term unemployed will rise by 75% this year. Let us recall that the Christmas bonus was abolished in 2009 but re-introduced by the present Government. The regulations which provide for the 75% Christmas bonus to be paid were signed yesterday and must be welcomed. Weekly social welfare payments, with which the Christmas bonus will be paid, includes the State pension, both contributory and non-contributory, the widow's and widower's pension, both contributory and non-contributory, the guardians payment both contributory and non-contributory, and those receiving invalidity pensions, blind pension, deserted wives' benefit, carer's allowance and benefit, disability allowances, farm assist long-term jobseeker's allowance and long-term supplementary welfare allowance. A pensioner couple, both in receipt of the non-contributory State pension, will receive a bonus of €328.50. A single person on disability allowance will receive a bonus payment of €141. A person in receipt of a carer's allowance with two dependant children will get a bonus of €197.70.
Recently I attended a meeting in Kerry along with a number of people from small and medium enterprises. I was surprised that they were very concerned about the cost of telephone directory inquiries but having checked out the matter I realised that they were right to be concerned. Before the meeting such costs had not occurred to me. Now I know that when one telephones directory inquiries from a landline and ask to be put through to a number of a supplier or potential customer, the chances are one will finish up paying €7 or €8. That is a lot of money for the service.Telephone bills are dear enough without paying for the privilege of ascertaining the number before one telephones.
The major telephone companies should examine this issue. I ask the acting Leader to take up the matter with the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Alex White. The sum of €8 may not appear to be a large amount but if one has recourse to direct inquiries on a regular basis - as I and I am sure other Members have been - it adds up. One is hostage to fortune because one has no choice. One cannot lug all the local directories around. One telephone directory is supplied free of charge to people in their own telephone area, of which there are 20 or 30 in the country. As one has to depend on directory inquiries, that is an issue that should be looked at.
There was a big song and dance here in the past couple of weeks when the Government announced an additional 600 teaching jobs. Many young teachers hoping to leave training colleges and young teachers who are lucky to be working as substitutes were delighted at the prospect of having jobs to apply for, yet when they read the small print they discovered they were not full-time teaching positions but part-time jobs involving hours on offer and top-up hours in certain schools. There was much disappointment about that. I seek clarification from the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, as to how many actual full-time teaching jobs had been created in a sector where jobs are badly needed, given that we have more qualified teachers than we have jobs for them.
I would welcome a debate on the health issue. I agree there are difficulties that need to be resolved but there are many positive things happening. For example, in 2014 there were more than 3.2 million outpatient appointments where day care procedures were carried out or involving outpatient attendances with medical personnel. The free GP care scheme for those under the age of six has been introduced. The next step is the introduction of free GP care for under 12s, to be followed by the third category which is the under 18s.
The message we are getting is that the entire health system is falling apart but that is not the case. There are many people working in it who are providing a very good service to a large number of people but we need to work out the difficulties. One is the need to start doing long-term planning. I attended a meeting last week at which we discussed a hospital built in 1780. No long-term planning has been done in respect of our hospitals. The maternity units of three hospitals in Dublin have to be replaced. While the children's hospital is progressing, hospitals around the country need to be replaced also and there is a need to set out a five, ten, 15, 20 year programme. There is also the question of how we employ people who can provide the services required.
I attended the Irish Kidney Association dinner on Saturday night. No progress has been made in the past 15 years in terms of the number of kidney transplants and, given that the number is way below what it should be, the issue needs to be addressed. There are more than 1,900 people on dialysis which is a huge cost. The only way to reduce that cost is through increasing the number of transplants and every effort should be made to ensure the expertise is available to carry out such transplants. Where there are living donors a great deal more works needs to be done in that area.
Tá mé ag ardú ceist inniu a bhaineann leis an gcóras dlí choiriúil agus, go háirid, an chaoi ina bhfuil an Roinn Dlí agus Cirt agus Comhionnanais ag cur i bhfeidhm na pionóis a ghearrtar ar dhaoine. We witnessed considerable media coverage of a case of a woman from Galway who had been abused. In March her abuser pleaded guilty in Galway Circuit Criminal Court and was subsequently sentenced and was to be imprisoned for five years in July. It has transpired that the person is in a wheelchair and was sent home for house arrest. I know the woman and have been in contact with her. She is outraged at the way the system is dealing with the issues around the management of the sentence.The hoo-ha in the media and the way the issue was portrayed by the media was also quite distasteful to her.
How did the information about this man being released and sent home get released to the media? Who tipped off the press? Did it come from the Garda or the Irish Prison Service? How will this man be made to serve his sentence? That is one of the issues. That he is in a wheelchair should not have an impact on the situation. The fact that it will cost the State approximately €2 million, according to some media reports, to keep him under house arrest seems absolutely outrageous as well. This is a serious issue and the Minister needs to investigate it. Will she come into this House and tell us if she will investigate how this information was released and why the victim was not made aware of the situation until she saw it in the media and was being harangued by media outlets?
The situation highlights the fact that we still have not seen the victims of crime Bill come through the Houses. We need to know when the Bill will be brought forward. When will we sit in the Seanad and have it enacted so that issues such as this one can be brought up and addressed? There is a serious need for an investigation into exactly what happened. When will the perpetrator in question be forced to fulfil his sentence, as is right?
I know colleagues wish to join with me in offering our condolences to our colleague, Senator van Turnhout, on the death of her father, Michael Hassett.
Senator MacSharry did me the courtesy of explaining that he had to leave for the banking inquiry and that he cannot be here for my response. He called for a debate with the Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, in respect of the issue of overcrowding in accident and emergency units and patients on trolleys. With its customary efficiency, the Leader's office has already been on to the Minister's office to try to schedule the debate. I am happy to try to schedule it but I am mindful that there is a heavy legislative schedule between now and Christmas, which is only three full working weeks away. We therefore may not be able to do so in that limited timeframe but we can do it in the new year.
I thank the Leader's office for the information that we have scheduled in the term of this Seanad, 41 separate debates on the health care portfolio. I think I am right in saying that it is more than any other portfolio. This is separate and distinct from the many debates we have had on health care during matters on the Adjournment and matters on the Commencement. The Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, was present a short while ago today responding to a matter raised on the Commencement by Senator Paul Bradford. The matter concerned the future of universal health insurance and the Minister set out some factual matters in terms of the Government's achievements on health care reform. The Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, is a regular visitor to the House as was the previous Minister, Deputy Reilly. We have had a whole range of health care debates but I am happy to try to facilitate colleagues who wish to have a debate on this important issue.
As colleagues will be aware, there has been investment in seeking to tackle overcrowding. There have been some positive figures, as some colleagues have pointed out, in particular Senator Burke. Some really key structural changes have been made by the Government in health care. These include establishing hospital groups, building more than 45 primary care centres, establishing the new Child and Family Agency, Tusla, and stabilising the private health insurance market.
In terms of reform, Senator Burke also pointed out that free GP care was introduced for children under six years of age and those over 70 years of age and moves are being made to introduce the same package for those under 12 years of age. We have increased numbers of staff in our health service. Since January of this year, there has been approximately 500 more nurses recruited and, since September 2011, almost 300 additional consultants recruited. There has also been a trebling of mental health funding in the past four years. There have been positive changes, reforms and structural developments made in the health service. The Minister, Deputy Varadkar, gave a full response to Senator Bradford in a matter on the Commencement in this regard.
In respect of the particular issue that has arisen today, colleagues have all expressed concerned about the vote by the INMO for industrial action, potentially, on 15 December. I know that Tony O'Brien of the HSE has already said HSE management will engage with the INMO through the Workplace Relations Commission to seek to resolve the issues concerning overcrowding and avert that industrial action. Such a resolution will be in the interests of the staff working in the health care system but, more important, in the interests of patients.We all wish for a speedy resolution to those matters in the coming weeks. I think that answers Senator MacSharry's point.
Senator Paul Coghlan welcomed the EU's approval of the budget and deficit reduction targets and noted that these targets are being met and indeed exceeded. He also welcomed the good news on the Christmas bonus. Having been abolished in 2009 by the previous Government, it is on its way to being fully restored, with a 75% restoration in the current budget. Some 1.2 million recipients of social welfare payments will benefit from this, with payments to start from next week. That development is hugely welcome. The Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, signed the regulations necessary to restore this portion of the bonus yesterday. This news was also welcomed by Senator Brennan.
Senator Norris offered congratulations to Senator Barrett on his radio interview on the banking inquiry. I did not hear the interview but others told me how good he was. I join Senator Norris in congratulating him. I gather that Senator Barrett made the point that the banking inquiry should not be allowed to fail because it is too important. I know other colleagues cannot be here for the Order of Business because they are working on the banking inquiry. We wish them well with it.
Senator Norris also spoke on the bankruptcy of Sir Anthony O'Reilly and offered his commiseration and concern at the news. He noted the achievements of Tony O'Reilly, particularly in respect of the Ireland Funds and in his attempt to rescue Waterford Glass-Waterford Wedgwood. I join Senator Norris in expressing concern. I have my own family connection to Waterford Glass, which was established by my grandfather in 1946. It was such an iconic brand. Tony O'Reilly's work in trying to rescue it by investing a huge amount money is definitely to be noted and commended.
I also offer congratulations to Senator Norris on his being honoured by Trinity College this Friday. I hope I can say that on the Order of Business without breaching any confidence.
Senator Leyden welcomed Senator Máiría Cahill and noted that she will be replacing our friend and colleague, Senator Jimmy Harte. We all offered our welcomes to Senator Cahill last week but I am happy to thank Senator Leyden for his words today. I note that, as he pointed out, Senator Cahill will bring her unique experience and her Northern perspective and will make a really significant contribution in the weeks and months ahead. Senator Leyden also referred to Sir Anthony O'Reilly and concurred with Senator Norris on that matter.
Senator Quinn concurred with Senators Norris and Leyden on Tony O'Reilly and his great work on the Ireland Funds. He also referred to crime issues and, in his customary way, put forward a constructive proposal for change. I will bring the Senator's proposal back to the justice committee. We have been holding hearings on rural crime recently. I think his suggestion of setting up a policing helpline of the sort that is in place in the UK, which citizens can ring if they do not require an emergency response but have concerns around policing matters, is very positive and constructive.
Senator Mullins expressed his concern about the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO proposal to take industrial action and pointed out the improvements that have been made. In particular, he indicated that there have been improvements in the figures for those waiting on trolleys, although there are still far too many patients who are forced to wait. Nonetheless, there has been a 20% reduction on the figure which obtained a year ago. The Senator also referred to nurses' recruitment, which I have already mentioned, and expressed his hope that the issues may be resolved in advance of 15 December so that industrial action will not be necessary.
Senator Cullinane called for the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, to come to the House. I have responded to that. The Minister was already in today on a Commencement matter and I have no doubt he will come in again in response to our request for a debate on accident and emergency departments and overcrowding.
Senator Brennan welcomed the fact that the Christmas bonus will be paid and that 1.2 million recipients will benefit from it.
Senator O'Sullivan referred to a meeting with SMEs in County Kerry and spoke on the cost of directory enquiries. I was not aware that the cost was so high. It might be something that could be raised as a Commencement matter. It is certainly of concern if people are still paying very high rates. This matter was raised some years ago in public debate. I thought it had been dealt with and that the costs had come down. Clearly, they have gone up again. Senator O'Sullivan also referred to 600 extra teaching jobs. I understood that they were full-time positions. We can certainly make enquiries as to the nature of those posts. As I recall, the announcement referred to full-time teaching posts.
Senator Colm Burke welcomed the calls for a debate on health care. We have already put in a request for the Minister to come before us. The Senator pointed out positive developments in health care, particularly the roll-out of free GP care for the two key vulnerable groups of children under six and people over 70 and the fact that we will move on to roll out free GP care to children under 12 in due course. Senator Ó Clochartaigh referred to a very particular case about which I had read in the newspapers. I agree with him that it is a matter of grave concern in terms of sentencing. Given the doctrine of separation of powers, it is not something in which we, as legislators, can intervene directly but it raises bigger questions about disclosure of information. Under the Garda Síochána Act, it is an offence for a serving Garda to disclose confidential matters concerning investigations. We do not know where the information in the public domain came from but it is a matter that clearly should be raised by the individual victim concerned. The Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Bill received pre-legislative scrutiny at the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality last month. It is being progressed, so I hope it will be brought before us in the next few weeks. The case itself raises questions about bigger issues relating to the structure of the criminal justice system. On Monday, I had the pleasure of attending an open policy forum hosted by the Department of Justice and Equality, which was attended by the Minister. Indeed, she stayed for the full morning. The forum was to look at the proposal to establish a criminal justice inspectorate. This recommendation was made by the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality last year and has also been made by a number of bodies. There is a model in Northern Ireland for a criminal justice inspectorate and the head of Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland spoke to us on Monday. This is the sort of issue that could well come within the remit of a general inspectorate.
Again, I am mindful of the separation of powers, the Judiciary setting the penalty and having sentencing power and the Minister not having the capacity to intervene at that point. I do not think the issue here was the sentence but the management of the sentence by the Prison Service. There may well be a matter for the Minister in which case, it would be better dealt with as a Commencement Matter if it can be framed as a matter for the Minister in terms of management of sentence and management of the Prison Service.