Seanad debates

Monday, 28 June 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Thalidomide Victims Compensation

10:30 am

Photo of Barry WardBarry Ward (Fine Gael)
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The Minister of State will be aware of the situation with regard to thalidomide. I ran in Dún Laoghaire in the general election of last year and I was surprised to find that the issue of thalidomide was raised at three or four doors as I went about campaigning. I was further surprised to find, when canvassing for James Geoghegan, the Fine Gael by-election candidate, in Sandymount last week, that one whole road of people raised this issue with me as well. When I speak to colleagues, people ask whether thalidomide is still a thing. It is important to realise that it is very much still a thing.

The Minister of State will be aware that thalidomide was a drug issued by a German company which was available in Ireland in the early 1960s and late 1950s as an antidote to morning sickness for women who particularly suffered with it. In 1961, the manufacturer became aware of concerns about the effect the drug had on the unborn child. In November 1961, it made that clear and, in January 1962, warnings were sent out to pharmacies and doctors in Ireland. However, the Department of Health did not issue a public warning until June 1962. This means there was a period of approximately six months in which women continued to take thalidomide without being aware of these effects.

The effect of this is still to be seen today. It is difficult to estimate the exact number of thalidomide survivors in this country. Officially, the Department says there are 29 because there are 29 people involved in litigation. Depending on how the effect of the drug is categorised, there are either 36 or 37 people in this country who survived the effects thalidomide had on them before they were born. The associated disabilities, the effects this drug had on them, range from a missing or disabled limb to substantial incapacitation. Some of these people require 24-hour care. They are in their early 60s, they have borne these problems and disabilities throughout their lives and they and their families continue to bear them.

What is, perhaps, most striking about this whole process, based on the conversations I have had with people involved with the survivors of thalidomide, is that the mothers of those people, the women who took that drug, bore guilt notwithstanding that they were not at fault and made no mistake because they were not told. Many of those mothers are no longer with us but they bore a great burden of guilt right up to the moment of their death for what happened to their children before they were born. This is an appalling situation.The Irish Thalidomide Society and the survivors of thalidomide in Ireland are looking for three simple things. First and foremost, an apology. There is no doubt to my mind, reading the documentation and looking at media reports, that the Irish Government failed in its duty to its citizens by not issuing a warning in advance of June 1962. I am aware that there is litigation in place and that the Minister of State may be hamstrung, to a certain extent, by that. It is not about apportioning blame; it is about accepting responsibility. In modern times, one of the things that the State has actually done is to confess to its crimes and failings of the past. I have seen that in this Chamber since I have become a Senator, as well as over the last number of years. It is appropriate. The very least that these people could expect from the Department of Health is that they would get a heartfelt and sincere apology.

Second, they are looking for compensation. In the course of the litigation to which I have referred, I understand the State has asserted that the discovery process alone will cost €24 million. I do not know how that figure is arrived at. I cannot conceive of how much documentation must be involved. If we are dealing with about 30 people, €24 million cannot be far off what they would be getting in compensation anyway, if successful. We need to set aside the bureaucracy and look at a fair and equitable compensation scheme for these people.

Third, we need to look at a medical scheme for them. Yes, they have received a medical card and that is right and proper. However, we are dealing with people, some of whom have significant incapacitation,and many of whom do not know how bad their condition is going to get in the coming 20, 30 or 40 years. What is the effect going to be on them? How are they going to support their medical needs? The State needs to step in. I am looking forward to hearing the Minister of State's response.

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Ward for raising this most important issue. I would also like to assure the Senator of the Government's commitment to the ongoing support of Irish thalidomide survivors.

The Senator will appreciate that as there are a number of cases concerning thalidomide before the High Court at present, as he has stated, it is not possible to comment on matters that are sub judice. However, I am glad to take this opportunity to set out the supports currently provided by the Government to Irish thalidomide survivors.

Following an Irish Government decision in January 1975, the Government granted an ex gratia sum, equivalent to four times the German lump sum and an ex gratia monthly allowance for life, equal to the German monthly allowance, to each of the Irish children found to have thalidomide-related injuries. There are currently 29 Irish people in receipt of ex gratiamonthly payments from the Department of Health. The annual figure for the Irish monthly payments ranges from €6,175 to €13,313 for each individual. The rate of payment is related to each survivor's level of thalidomide-related injury. The German monthly payments are made by the Contergan Foundation, which is established under the foundation Act. All thalidomide survivors entitled to benefits are entitled to a lifelong monthly pension ranging from €8,928 to €100,765 annually, annual special payments since 2009 of between €460 and €3,600, and annual specific needs payments since 2017 of between €5,676 and €14,700. I am aware that I have listed a lot of figures, but the information is available in the note that has been circulated to Senators.

Both the German payments and the Irish ex gratiamonthly payments made to survivors are exempt from tax, including deposit interest retention tax, and are not reckonable, or in other words, assessable, as means for the purpose of Department of Social Protection payments. In addition, each Irish survivor is provided with health supports, including a medical card on an administrative basis, regardless of means, in addition to appliances, artificial limbs, equipment, housing adaptations and access to a full range of primary care, hospital and personal social services.

In April 2010, the Government decided to provide additional financial assistance and other supports for Irish thalidomide survivors to meet their needs into the future. The measures included an offer of an additional one-off ex gratiaindividual payment of €62,500. This offer was subsequently accepted by a number of the survivors. A senior manager in the HSE was also designated to liaise with survivors in relation to meeting their ongoing health and personal social service needs. I wish to inform the House that work is under way in the Department of Health to bring forward legislative proposals on health and personal social services for Irish survivors of thalidomide on a statutory basis.

It is important to note that the German Contergan Foundation has confirmed that since 2013, it is accepting applications from individuals for compensation for thalidomide-related injury. It is open to any Irish person to apply to the foundation for assessment of his or her disability as being attributable to thalidomide. Any Irish person who establishes that his or her injury is attributable to thalidomide will be offered appropriate supports by the Irish Government, commensurate with those currently provided to Irish thalidomide survivors.

I trust this clarifies the issues raised by the Senator.

Photo of Barry WardBarry Ward (Fine Gael)
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I understand where the Minister of State is coming from and the restrictions of the sub judicerule, but there is not very much new in the document provided by the Minister of State. It has been the subject of questions and discussions in the other House. For example, the document does not address the need for an apology. I have discussed this with Councillor Geoghegan. We cannot see why we are not settling this case. There is a real danger, as we have seen in other cases, that the Department of Health will understandably defend the taxpayers' perspective, because that is what is involved here, and fight these cases. However, it seems to me that the type of fighting that is going on is unnecessary. These people are in their early 60s. Many of their parents are now deceased. The time has surely come for us to take a step.

I want to know, first, can we give them an apology? It is the least they can expect. Second, there was a meeting arranged with the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, last January. I understand why it was postponed. God knows, the pressure on the Department of Health is huge. Can there be another meeting? It is the least these people could expect. It would be a fair thing to do.

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I would like to assure the House that the Government is committed to the continued support of the health and personal social service needs of Irish thalidomide survivors. The supports currently provided by the Government to survivors, including the monthly payment for life, the medical card and access to the full range of health and personal social services, are ongoing. I would also like to reiterate that work is under way in the Department of Health to bring forward legislative proposals on health and personal social services for Irish survivors of thalidomide on a statutory basis.

In relation to the two issues raised by the Senator, specifically the apology and the meeting with the Minister that had to be cancelled in January, I will raise both issues directly with the Minister.

Photo of Róisín GarveyRóisín Garvey (Green Party)
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I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. It is always great to see Ministers taking the time to come to the House to answer questions directly.

Sitting suspended at 11.37 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.