Tuesday, 28 February 2012
Dáil Éireann Debate
To return to domestic matters, I know we are at the first anniversary of the Government and so forth, but last week I was in the north west and met many people there. I was struck that, a year after the general election, people were still talking about broken promises that were made in respect of that area. The Taoiseach may recall that during the election campaign the Labour Party promised that Sligo would become the ninth centre of excellence, while Fine Gael promised to return cancer services, which had been removed, to Galway. The current Minister of State, Deputy John Perry, went so far as to promise it within the first 100 days of office and said he would resign from Fine Gael if that did not happen.
In Donegal, the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, visited Lifford and — as he did in many areas across the country at that time — gave categorical assurances that the 20-bed unit would “under no circumstances be closed”. He said its proximity to the Border was one of the main reasons.
Even though HIQA’s report stated Lifford provides excellent care, the Government is announcing, one year on, that Lifford is to be closed along with approximately another 800 community nursing beds across the country. Both Fine Gael and Labour promised more home care packages with additional funding to community care. Fine Gael went further to state home care packages would be applied fairly and consistently across the country.
Deputy Micheál Martin: One year later, 1,000 people will have their home helps removed. People across the north west are angry and annoyed at the fact there has been no attempt at all to fulfil the commitments that were solemnly given by the Taoiseach’s party and his partners in Government, the Labour Party, to establish the ninth centre of excellence for cancer care in the north west. Will the Taoiseach indicate if this commitment and that made on Lifford hospital will be fulfilled?
The Taoiseach: I meet people from the north west regularly. They are consistent on a strong programme of issues that should be addressed in the north west which have been neglected for many years. Both parties in Government have particular views about several locations around the country. The programme for Government is very clear about the introduction of universal health insurance at the end of the Government’s term of office, the provision of primary care centres and teams, the development of strong community care protection and the provision of special facilities in particular locations. The Government is working on this programme.
The question of the provision of adequate health facilities in every hospital is always under consideration. The relevant medical teams which are looking at the future role of and the expansion of services in smaller local hospitals are in the process of completing their review. The future of those particular groupings of hospitals will be a matter for public consultation.
The review of the groupings of larger hospitals with smaller ones is also under way by the medical and clinical teams. When that is finalised, it will become a matter for public discussion and a decision by the Government.
Deputy Martin’s question about the long programme of issues in the north west is one with which I am intimately acquainted. One can go to many other places and hear equally strong views about issues too. Suffice it to say, the Government’s intention is to implement its programme for Government regarding health services. It is a challenging way forward in changing the structure and decision process that will lead to best care and attention for patients which should be central to every health programme.
Deputy Micheál Martin: There is not a long list. I suggest the term “intimate acquaintance” is the wrong one for the definition of the Taoiseach’s relationship with the issues in Donegal. It is getting hostile in terms of people’s sense of grievance about a breach of promise. It is specifically around cancer care and the commitments made by the Minister of State, Deputy Perry, the Tánaiste and the Fine Gael Party to establish a centre of excellence in cancer care in the north west. There was a solemn commitment given.
The Taoiseach: The Minister for Health was in the north west for the past two days. He met with a range of personnel from the medical profession from a number of centres in the region. As I said, the Government is intent in implementing its programme for Government. The programme is clear in the sectors I have already outlined for Deputy Martin.
The Government is now having the response from the clinical and medical teams with full co-operation and flexibility as it makes arrangements to deal with the transition of a significant number of persons who are leaving the health service as a result of the new pension arrangements.
Deputy Gerry Adams: Next week, the Government will be in office for a year. Before the last election, Fine Gael rightly railed against what it described as “professional advisers, accountants, lawyers [and] other consultants linked [with the] National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, the National Treasury Management Agency, NTMA, the bailed-out banks, the Central Bank and the Department of Finance”. The Taoiseach and Fine Gael correctly identified an obvious conflict of interest then. One year later, however, this network remains in place. Indeed, many of the senior figures in NAMA were also senior members of the banking, financial and property sectors which caused the crisis.
An aontaíonn an Taoiseach liom go bhfuil coimhlint leasa aige i dtaobh na rudaí seo ar fad? Cá bhfuil an trédhearcacht ar sheas sé leis chomh láidir sin i rith an tochgháin. Bhíodh sé ag tabhairt amach ansin, ach anois is léir go bhfuil an ciorcal órga fós faoi chosaint aige. Tá sé ag cosaint na saibhir in ionad na boicht.
Some 16 firms were selected by the agency to advise it on loan sales in Europe and the USA. NAMA has confirmed to me that some of its senior management have links with these 16 firms. Does the Taoiseach believe there is sufficient transparency to avoid conflicts of interest in the sale of these assets which he identified? We are talking about billions of euro worth of assets that are being sold by NAMA. The Dáil and the public deserve to know how much taxpayers’ money NAMA has paid for the properties it controls. A year ago, the Taoiseach promised transparency and that “details of all non-performing loans acquired by NAMA will be available for scrutiny on a public register, including the names of the creditors, the price paid by the taxpayer for the loans and the actions taken by NAMA to recover the loans”.
The Taoiseach: Tá a fhios agam go maith céard atá an Teachta ag rá. Tá sé fíor gur labhair mé amach faoi struchtúr NAMA le fada. Tá a fhios maith aige freisin go bhfuair an tAire Airgeadais eolas agus comhairle faoi leith ó dhuine a bhfuil eolas aige faoi na nithe seo, agus gur mian leis athraithe ar struchtúir NAMA, mar atá sé faoi láthair, a thabhairt os comhair an Rialtais.
I must point out the NAMA business of tendering is very transparent. I advise Deputy Adams that if he has a case in which there is clearly a conflict of interest with NAMA, he should report it to the authorities and bring it to public attention. He is aware of the specific legislation which set up NAMA. He is also aware of the difficulty and the problems that were experienced by some people who wished to tender for and purchase property in NAMA’s portfolio and the link established to allow public representatives to make a connection for people who wished to do that. If Deputy Adams has details of incidents which he considers, or has been informed of, conflicts of interest with NAMA, he should bring it to public attention.
Deputy Gerry Adams: It was the Taoiseach who identified the conflict of interest and I am bringing it to public attention. That is what this question is about. NAMA has told me some of its senior management have links with 16 of the firms the agency selected to advise it on loans sales. That is the question.
It is interesting that since its foundation, NAMA has spent €27.5 million on legal fees, €2.5 million on accountancy fees and projected costs for 2012 are €200 million. It is also interesting that NAMA will be advancing €568 million to construction activity outside of this island. Two thirds of its assets are in this State but 50% of its cash advances will be spent in Britain, at a time when almost 500,000 people are on the dole and there are unfinished housing estates spread across every county. NAMA employs 100 developers, some of whom earn as much as €200,000 a year. Is this a conflict of interest and does it provide value for money? More importantly, is it in keeping with the commitments the Taoiseach gave to rectify the situation by establishing a public register and including the names of the creditors and the price paid by the taxpayer for the loans, in addition to the actions taken by NAMA? The question is whether there is a public register, if the names of the creditors are on it and the amount of taxpayers’ money that is being spent.
The Taoiseach: As I said to Deputy Adams, the Minister for Finance has received some advice on the improvement in the situation in so far as NAMA is concerned. I remind him that it is important for the construction industry that there would be some movement in the property market in this country. I do not want a situation where because of a huge sense of fear on the one hand, as we had before the veneer of everlasting wealth occurred in the country, that somebody is not entitled to take a risk in respect of the purchase of property. One does not want complete stagnation because that stunts the opportunity to have a thriving construction sector, which is very important both for the economy, job opportunities and trade in general.
Deputy Adams will recall that the Anglo Irish Bank portfolio in the United States, for instance, was moved on quickly to the prime market and resulted in an extensive sale of assets of the order of €8 billion. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, has made the point that it is very difficult for him to have a group that can look objectively at the issue without being in some way connected or associated with either a property or persons related to a property that are now involved in the extensive portfolio held by NAMA. The Deputy is aware that the Minister has not been able to attend the House for personal, family reasons for some weeks. He is anxious to improve the situation because of the necessity to have a thriving, but not reckless, construction sector. I am sure when he decides to promote whatever changes he wishes, following the advice he has been given, he will bring it to the House.
It is fair to say that persons who wish to purchase property can either contact the developer or the examiner, as the case might be, or NAMA. I listened to the chairman of NAMA speak on radio some time ago when he dealt with the question of developers who are still employed by NAMA and on NAMA’s books because of their capacity to run some of those enterprises. He dealt with that in some detail both at the committee and publicly afterwards. It is an issue in terms of the way NAMA was set up. It was given a specific remit to return value to the taxpayer. How one gets the best result on that is what interests the Minister now.
Deputy Finian McGrath: I welcome the fact that we are going to have a referendum. It is a good day for democracy and the people of this country. I hope we have a fair and balanced debate in the coming weeks.
I wish to raise the important issue of cuts to people with disabilities. In recent days there has been a worsening of these cuts. Many of them are happening behind closed doors with no real knowledge of the details and, more importantly, the hardship that is suffered by people with disabilities and their families. Is the Taoiseach aware of the cuts to front line services for people with disabilities and is he supporting them behind closed doors?
There has been a cut of 3.7% to personal assistance funding for people with a physical disability which means isolation for those people. It is a major step backwards which will result in less choice and a loss of control. It has all the hallmarks of putting people back into institutions.
No residential funding is available for St. Michael’s House services at a time when 330 people, 47 of whom are in extreme difficulty, are on waiting lists for residential services. Does the Taoiseach find that acceptable? St. Michael’s House has already experienced cuts of €950,000 in the past seven months. By the end of the Croke Park agreement savings of more than €3 million will have been achieved by St. Michael’s House. It has done its bit in terms of savings but the Government wants to impose more cuts. Will the Taoiseach explain to the House why the Government is cutting the domiciliary care allowance and the carer’s allowance under the new buzzword, “review”? Does the Taoiseach accept that the Government is now putting extreme pressure and hardship on families of children with disabilities and will he reverse those silent cuts?
The Taoiseach: Deputy Finian McGrath is aware that there have been no cuts in headline rates of social welfare payments. The Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, undertook to draft the strategy on disability last November. Her report is practically complete. For the benefit of Deputy Adams, a great deal of ink has been put on reports previously and a lot of toner has been used.
The Taoiseach: In any event, the Minister is in the concluding stages of presenting the strategy on disability which will point out the pathways to the future in so far as the principle of looking after persons with disabilities is concerned. I met a number of them myself in the past two weeks. The Minister for Social Protection introduced the partial capacity benefit in recent weeks to allow persons on disability to gain employment and to be part of the general workforce, which is in the interests of everyone with a disability. I do not have the details of the individual cases raised by the Deputy but I suggest that, when the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, comes forward with the strategy on disability, we will have an opportunity to have a full and thorough debate on it in the House.
Deputy Finian McGrath: The Taoiseach said there would be no cuts. If that is the case, why are three young mothers from Carlow taking legal proceedings against the Department of Social Protection on foot of its decision to stop the domiciliary care allowance, DCA? Is the Taoiseach aware that Helen Fahy, Lorraine Ryan and Aimee Doogue, who are mothers of autistic children, had their DCA stopped in the past two months? They have lost their carer’s allowance of €58 per week. What does he say to those families in the context of there being no cuts? One of those children has severe social impairment, challenging behaviour, speech delay, is a flight risk without constant supervision, is not toilet trained and has a significant destructive sleep pattern. The Government is now cutting the child’s carer’s allowance by €58 per week following a review. Will the Government challenge those three families in the courts? How many millions of euro of taxpayers’ money will be wasted on fighting those families in the courts and attacking those people who just want a simple, decent service?
The Taoiseach: Deputy Finian McGrath will be aware that the domiciliary care allowance has been in place for some years. He is also aware that it transferred from the Department of Health to the Department of Social Protection some time ago and that when that took place, review dates were set for the allowances being paid out at the time. The domiciliary care allowance is subject to a set of conditions and they are monitored by medical assessment, not as a consequence of political policy. The recipients of the domiciliary care allowance are entitled to avail of the appeals process but the decision was based on medical assessment as distinct from any other criterion. That was signalled clearly when the domiciliary care allowance was transferred from the Department of Health to the Department of Social Protection and the review dates were set. Any reductions are due to decisions made on the basis of medical assessment, not as a consequence of political policy.
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