Wednesday, 11 July 2012
Dáil Éireann Debate
Deputy Micheál Martin: It is clear that the personal affairs of the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, are not completely in order, despite the Taoiseach’s statement yesterday, given that he has failed to honour a High Court order on the debt. What is even more alarming is the complete lack of order in the financial affairs of the Department of Health and the health service. The latest reports suggest that the deficit overrun was close to €280 million by the end of May and the figure rose by €80 million in one month. It is projected to go to €500 million.
Thanks to a freedom of information request by Mr. Martin Wall of The Irish Times, we have received insight into the incredible correspondence ongoing within the health service. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin——
Deputy Micheál Martin: ——wrote to the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, urging him to take personal charge of the financial issues within the health sector. The Secretary General of the Department of Health has responded to letters from the chief executive of the HSE, Mr. Cathal Magee. The Minister abolished the board of the HSE——
Deputy Micheál Martin: It is extraordinary as the chairman of the HSE happens to be the Secretary General of the Department. He is chairing the meeting where the chief executive is present. The health officials are now on the board as well and they cannot agree the figures.
Deputy Micheál Martin: The chief executive, who is on the board, is writing to the chairman of the board in his capacity of Secretary General of the Department of Health. The chairman is writing back indicating that he has a better way of doing things. All the officials are on the board as well.
Deputy Micheál Martin: It is farcical. There is no HSE governing board. The serious issue is that the chief executive of the HSE has indicated the assumptions underlying the health Estimate are no longer valid.
Deputy Micheál Martin: He was very polite. I have made it clear that I think the figures were essentially falsified at the beginning of the year and this Estimate never had a chance of coming to realisation.
Deputy Micheál Martin: Is there a plan to bring the deficit into order? Given that over 2,450 beds have been closed in the service, with difficulties for young people with intellectual disabilities etc——
Deputy Micheál Martin: ——and will the Taoiseach guarantee that there will not be any erosion or undermining of front-line services to people? Will a Supplementary Estimate be introduced to deal with the crisis in health at the moment?
The Taoiseach: The Deputy’s colleague in that Government set up the HSE and said there would be no redundancies after putting 13 health boards together. That Government poured hundreds of millions of euro in taxpayers’ money into the black hole of a financial system within the health service that was unable to deliver the services that our patients and people need.
The Taoiseach: The Minister, Deputy Reilly, and the Government have set our targets for spending in the health service and every other Department. There will be no supplementary budget this year as the agreements set out last year must be achieved. With the interim board of the HSE, the Minister is dealing with the matter, and we had some discussions about that last week. It seems to me that Deputy Martin is exceptionally well briefed, even without the help of the Freedom of Information Act, but that is nothing new.
Deputy Micheál Martin: It reflects very much on the Taoiseach’s commitment to transparency that we must use the Freedom of Information Act to get the real story of what is going on with the health service.
Deputy Micheál Martin: The Taoiseach chairs the Cabinet sub-committee on health. He must be aware of the letter from the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, who gave a lecture to the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly. He told the Minister for Health to take personal charge of this issue, so alarmed was he at the lack of governance——
Deputy Micheál Martin: It was the Minister, Deputy Reilly, who abolished the board with great fanfare and trumpeting. He put no alternative or substitute in place. What we are currently experiencing is farcical. There is no governance structure in place and there will not be one before the end of this year. It is absolutely disgraceful.
Deputy Micheál Martin: The Taoiseach has ruled out a Supplementary Estimate. There are people out there in hospitals at the pin of their collar trying to make ends meet. They cannot understand what is ongoing at the higher levels of governance.
Deputy Micheál Martin: ——the plan to reduce this deficit in the next four to five months. It is projected to go to €500 million. How can this be done without undermining front-line services, which are being undermined as we speak, day by day. The Taoiseach can ask the parents——
The Taoiseach: On issues where he has a clear policy, he wants them put to the convention. On issues where he has no policy, he wants them dealt with just like that. With regard to the health issue, agreements were made by the Government last year covering all Departments. These were very tough and challenging, and they included the health area. The health area has overrun, as it has done for many years, but there will be no supplementary budget.
The Taoiseach: ——in respect of achieving these cutbacks, which would essentially destroy the fabric of the health sector as we know it. This is a very challenging time and I commend the clinical and medical teams, nurses and doctors who work on the front line. They have made serious changes within the context of the Croke Park agreement to rosters, travel and giving commitments so that the patients about which the Deputy and I are concerned can have a front-line service in the best possible way. That is unlike what the Deputy’s Government left behind it, with magic cuts that left us €300 million, €400 million or €500 million just like that. It is the same old trick year on year and it will not work any longer.
The Taoiseach: There is a realism here that, irrespective of the negotiations and the outcome the Minister, Deputy Noonan, achieves in Europe. We have a problem in this country in respect of our public finances. We must sort it out ourselves and every Department is involved. What we want is that those people who need medical attention can get it as close to them as possible as quickly as possible——
The Taoiseach: ——not only through the Croke Park agreement, but through other issues, is making a difference to patients on trolleys, waiting lists, accident and emergency departments, coverage of medical cards and——
The Taoiseach: ——changing from branded drugs to generic drugs and dealing with the pharmaceutical companies. All of this is the complete focus of the Government in so far as the Department of Health is concerned.
The Taoiseach: Unlike Deputy Martin’s crowd who abdicated all responsibility, and Deputy Martin said himself that he had no responsibility for it, this Government will accept responsibility for the mandate we were given by the people to sort out our country’s problems.
An Ceann Comhairle: I remind Deputies that this is live on television. I also remind them of the notices that come to my office about the disgust at the behaviour of some Members of the House on an ongoing basis. I ask them please to show some example and stay quiet and not try to shout down the other speaker.
Deputy Gerry Adams: Yesterday, I asked whether the Minister for Health would come to the Dáil and make a statement on his involvement with a private nursing home. The Taoiseach gave this commitment and I welcome it. I will not pass judgment on the Minister until I hear what he has to say on the issue. However, there are questions for the Taoiseach. The Minister for Health has failed to honour a High Court instruction. Did the Taoiseach know this? Did the Minister tell him or his colleagues in government that this was the case? Did he tell the Taoiseach or his colleagues that he was to appear on the debtors defaulters list in Stubbs Gazette?
The reality is the Minister has a personal investment in private health care and he is pursuing the Government policy of closing public nursing home beds. Tá sé ag druidim leapacha achan lá. In the early part of this year, 296 public nursing home beds were closed. I believe 600 elderly citizens in public hospital beds cannot be moved out of them because of the Government’s policy, which is privatisation of the health service, just like Fianna Fáil before it. Does the Taoiseach acknowledge this was all part of privatisation? It is part of a tax scam for people to avoid paying tax by being given a ten year tax break for private nursing homes. The Taoiseach said he has complete confidence in the Minister, Deputy Reilly; he would probably be expected to say this. However, does the Taoiseach accept, in the interests of clarity, that there is a conflict of interest between the Minister’s investment in private health and the closing of public nursing home beds?
The Taoiseach: As Deputy Adams is well aware, the Minister sought permission from the Ceann Comhairle under Standing Order 44 to make a personal statement to the Dáil this evening and this he will do. I point out to Deputy Adams that before he ever became a Minister, Deputy Reilly declared his interest in the nursing home in Greenhills, Carrick on Suir, dealing with the care of the elderly. The public declaration in respect of his involvement in business also states interests were transferred to a blind trust as per advice from the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO.
Deputy Adams should honour what he said and wait until the Minister makes his statement to the House in respect of this. Before he was ever appointed as a Minister he declared publicly, as per the requirements of the Standards in Public Office Commission, what were and are his business interests. As Deputy Adams is aware, under the code of conduct for officeholders there is a requirement not to be involved in the direct management of business by being a director or whatever else. These are matters that apply to all officeholders. The Minister is quite happy to make a statement to the Dáil about this matter.
I understand the judgment of the High Court is perfectly valid and the question for the group of investors is how to deal with it in terms of payment of the debt. The Minister, Deputy Reilly, happens to be one of those named investors. As Deputy Adams is aware, he transferred his interest through power of attorney to a second legal person to deal with it at arm’s length. It is not for the Minister in such circumstances to ring up and state what he wants to do; it is a matter for the group of investors who have an interest in the premises not because of a tax scam, but through a tax break authorised by a previous Government in respect of the development of nursing homes and begun by the Deputy opposite when he was Minister with responsibility for health. The Minister, Deputy Reilly, will be in the House today to deal with the response to the Private Members’ motion on health and has received permission from the Ceann Comhairle to make a personal statement subsequently under Standing Order 44. This is the position.
Deputy Gerry Adams: The question I asked was for the Taoiseach. I am prepared to wait until the Minister comes in to make a statement. My question to the Taoiseach was whether he believes there is a conflict of interest and a contradiction if a Minister who has a private health investment is closing public health beds. This was my question to the Taoiseach and he avoided it. However, explicit in his answer is that he agrees there is no conflict of interest because he stated the Minister in question made it clear before he was appointed as a Minister, so the Taoiseach knew this, and therefore he thinks there is no problem whatsoever with one of the most senior Ministers, and deputy leader of his party, dealing with issues which affect every citizen in the State. We know the health services are in a mess for all sorts of reasons, some of them legacy issues visited upon us by Fianna Fáil, but there is still a core ideological position in both parties of privatisation of the health service. In his answer to my question, the Taoiseach accepted it is proper for a Minister to have a private investment element in his private wealth and also to be closing public nursing beds. This is shameful.
Deputy Gerry Adams: Will the Opposition have an opportunity to respond to what the Minister says? Will the Minister come here and make a scripted statement? Will we have an opportunity to respond to it? Will there be a special debate on it? Will the Government allow for this? Will our health spokespersons be able to scrutinise what the Minister says?
The Taoiseach: The declaration made by all Members to SIPO includes a declaration from the Minister, Deputy Reilly. Before his appointment to Cabinet, the Minister declared interest in a number of businesses in which he was involved, including a nursing home in which he is a part shareholder, as an investor, in Carrick-on-Suir. A High Court judgment was made in respect of the payment of €1.9 million and the Minister is one of the investors involved in that.
The Taoiseach: Under the relevant Standing Orders, the Minister is entitled to make a personal statement to the Dáil. That statement is not a motion or a debate. The Minister will make his personal statement on this matter. He has declared his interest in this business publicly and that declaration is there for all to see, the Deputy included.
The Taoiseach: As a Minister, he sets out the policy of Government in respect of changing the structure of the health sector. The Deputy seems to be implying that the Minister is deliberately closing public beds in order to drive people into nursing homes in which he is an investor. That is a preposterous assertion.
The Taoiseach: It is preposterous to make an assertion like that when the Minister has declared his interest in his businesses in the public interest and has divested himself through the power of attorney and legal advisers to deal with that unfettered and at arm’s length.
The Taoiseach: The Government of which he is a member makes decisions about Government policy and that policy is to change the structure and the nature of the delivery of health services in the interest of patients in an effective, efficient and cost effective manner. Clearly, a number of changes are being made to the structure of the bed situation, both in the public and private sector throughout the country.
I advise the Deputy, in the interest of everybody and of fairness, to listen to what the Minister has to say in his personal statement this evening, which has been approved by the Ceann Comhairle under Standing Orders.
Deputy Shane Ross: Before the recess, the House is looking forward to the Taoiseach or the relevant Minister announcing a bank inquiry, which presumably will include the issue of the guarantee in 2008. It is important that this inquiry has the right shape and protection. I say this because last night the Committee of Public Accounts was forced to park an inquiry into the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, DDDA. That inquiry was torpedoed through the combination of a letter from the chairman of the DDDA and a previous letter from the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government stating there was a danger of the inquiry prejudicing a court case taking place currently.
Oireachtas inquiries have a very poor record of coming to conclusions because vested interests have continuously been able to frustrate them by taking them, for one reason or another, to the Four Courts. The Abbeylara inquiry, the CTC inquiry, the Judge Curtin inquiry, the Callely inquiry and now the DDDA investigation have all been frustrated because of legal threats. I would like the Taoiseach to specify how he intends to subvert this danger with the bank inquiry when it is set up. The danger for the bank inquiry is that rich bankers with great resources and ingenuity will be down in the Four Courts on day one attempting to frustrate it. On the record of past inquiries, that is what is likely to happen. Can the Taoiseach give the House some indication of how the Government intends to make this an effective inquiry that will not be frustrated by sometimes contrived visits to the Four Courts?
The Taoiseach: This is an important matter and I agree with the Deputy that what must be done must be done correctly. We have had the experience of inquiries, such as the DIRT inquiry and the Abbeylara inquiry. We also have evidence from the Committee of Public Accounts where parties summoned to that committee to give information on particular issues refused to do so because of the lack of compellability of witnesses or personnel. We held a referendum last year on the matter of inquiries and it was rejected by the people and I must respect that decision.
The Committee of Public Accounts inquiry report produced recently is a 300 page document and is a comprehensive and substantial analysis of this matter and represents a great body of work the committee did over a long period. This issue warrants serious and detailed analysis as to what is the best thing to do. I have made it clear publicly previously that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform will review any proposals received in respect of how to get at the fundamental truth of the issues with regard to the bank inquiry. It is important to note that there is no evidence in the Department of the Taoiseach about the conversations and meetings that took place, the information in circulation or the rationale applied to it, before the Government of the day made a decision in respect of the bank guarantee. No information was available to the Commission, Mr. Regling or the Governor of the Central Bank. Banks visited Government Buildings and made their case. As we know, an incorporeal meeting was held in the early hours of the morning on this matter.
I do not want to take the wrong direction on this by having an inquiry that leads on interminably to a meaningless series of meetings that achieve nothing. The Government will reflect on this carefully. I have an open mind as to the nature and character of the Oireachtas committee that should look at this. The report of the Committee of Public Accounts and any other observations will be reviewed carefully by the Minister, Deputy Howlin and he will bring a memo to Government on the issue and the Government will make a decision. I am clear in my mind that any such inquiry should be to the point of decision of approval for the bank guarantee. As Deputy Ross is well aware, the legal profession — good luck to it — has long experience of finding ways through what appear to be limited confines on inquiries. We do not want a situation where the proposed inquiry might run for an extraordinary length of time and do not want a situation where we have writs flying all over the place because of the structure and nature of what might be involved here.
This is a serious matter. It was the biggest, single economic decision ever foisted on the backs of the Irish people and taxpayers. From my perspective, I find it quite extraordinary that if I met the Bunclody Community Council, a series of people would be taking notes about the discussions held and the decisions arrived at, but with regard to this, the most significant financial decision ever taken in respect of our people, I have no evidence in the Department of the Taoiseach about who said what or the rationale applied to what was said before an incorporeal meeting was held in respect of that decision being foisted on the people.
Deputy Shane Ross: Thank you. We all support the need for this inquiry. The point I was trying to make is this. The House probably does not know that the Committee of Public Accounts, having been frustrated in its wish to investigate the DDDA in public, decided to look at the possibility of doing it in private, but yesterday, as a result of some fairly lukewarm legal advice and another letter from the chairman of the DDDA, it decided to park even that.
Unless the Taoiseach and the Government impose extraordinarily strict criteria on potential witnesses, what hope is there of a full banking inquiry to get to the truth if they continuously rely on legal technicalities to get them out of this difficulty? It is undoubtedly true that will be tried and used as soon as this inquiry is set up. Is the Taoiseach prepared to put the maximum amount of pressure on not only the bankers, who will be reluctant to come before this inquiry, but on other people and other professions — I am talking about accountants, solicitors and others — who have received generous Government largesse to ensure that they do not frustrate an inquiry which is in the interests of the State?
The Taoiseach: That is exactly why the decision to be taken has to be the right one and why the programme for Government set out a very clear strategy in a very clear way that the Government would hold a referendum asking the people this very question in order to deal with issues like this. I respect the decision of the people. They rejected the referendum and it leaves us in a position where we cannot proceed on the basis of what was set out as part of the programme for Government. Clearly, if this matter is to be decided by way of an Oireachtas committee, legislation is required.
I will not go any further at this point except to say that the Government will reflect very carefully on this. It is in the interest of everybody that the truth is known in respect of the rationale applied to the information and the presentation made by banks to Government, for instance, and how the decision was taken. We can debate this again but it is fundamentally important that the decision taken is the right one and that it does not lead to a situation where that frustration about which the Deputy spoke can be applied. He will recall an inquiry into FÁS some time ago by the Committee of Public Accounts where people simply refused to turn up. The decision arising from the Abbeylara case obviously restricted the opportunities for Oireachtas committees to do their job. It is a matter which requires very careful consideration. If any legislation is drafted, it will have to be drafted in direct consultation with the Attorney General in respect of what it actually means.
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