Wednesday, 1 June 2005
Seanad Eireann Debate
Ms O’Rourke: The Order of Business is No. 1, Disability Bill 2004 — Second Stage (resumed), to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business until 5 p.m., with the contributions of Senators not to exceed 20 minutes; and No. 17, motion 12, re Official Languages Act 2003, to be taken from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m. There will be a sos from 1.30 p.m. until 2.30 p.m.
Mr. B. Hayes: I propose an amendment to the Order of Business to the effect that No. 17, motion 12, in the name of my group should not be moved today, and that the two hours normally allocated for Fine Gael Private Members’ business be given to the House to allow for statements by the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children with responsibility for the elderly. Members of the House could then reply in the course of the debate. That would be more relevant today in terms of the controversy surrounding the nursing home issue.
We are all exercised by the nursing home scandal. However, there is a greater scandal, namely, the failure on the part of public administration to adequately respond to these problems when they emerge. In November 2002 the Human Rights Commission submitted a lengthy report on this issue to the Department of Health and Children setting out particular concerns that it had regarding two health board areas. Eight months later the commission received a cursory reply. In July 2001, the former Senator, now Deputy O’Dowd, referred specifically in this House to the problem at the heart of the “Prime Time” investigation shown on Monday night. If there is a greater scandal in this area, it is the failure of the Department of Health and Children to respond to these problems when they emerged three and four years ago. Not only is there a culture of denial within that Department, there is a culture of cover-up.
Ministers must take responsibility for the Departments for which they are in charge to this House and the Dáil. We already know, to our cost, of Ministers not reading reports. Neither the then Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, nor the then Minister of State with responsibility in this area read the Human Rights Commission report in 2002. No action was taken, which constitutes the greater scandal.
What action is taken when Parliament has evidence and refers to these matters? The answer is nothing. This failure on the part of our public administration to respond to these crises as they emerge is an issue we must address. It is a scandal that it takes a television programme for us to respond to issues raised in this and the other House for the past four years while the Government has simply looked the other way and blamed and ditched officials at its call. That is wrong. That is the reason we need to debate this matter tonight and the reason our party will devote the two hours available to us to such a debate tonight.
Mr. Norris: If Senator Brian Hayes wishes to achieve support, I would be happy to second this motion, following discussions with my colleagues on the Independent benches. He may prefer, however, to have it seconded by a Member within his party. If he agrees, I will second the motion.
Mr. Norris: He has signalled that he will accept that offer. My colleagues join me in supporting this motion. It is an important issue and I congratulate Deputy Brian Hayes on taking this initiative. I do not believe there is any party division on this issue. This is a moment when the Seanad can respond directly and immediately. For the Fine Gael Party to cancel its long-standing commitment to this procedure and its existing motion and substitute it with a motion that will have more relevance to people in Ireland is something Members on all sides of the House can commend.
It is right to draw the attention of the House and that of members of the public, if they become aware of this, to the fact that Seanad Éireann has pursued this matter consistently for a matter of four or five years but not much has been done. I understand complaints have been made by concerned relatives over a number of years but nothing has happened. At least eight complaints were made by relatives. Therefore, it is appropriate to deal with this matter and I second the motion.
We should have a discussion on charities in light of the very sad emergence of fraud within the Christina Noble trust. Like many other Members of the House I heard her on radio today and she was absolutely heartbroken. She is a very remarkable woman who has given her life to looking after the interests of abandoned children and people in great difficulties, particularly young people in Asia. She has been betrayed by people within her organisation. She has also been let down by us because charities are not properly regulated. This entire area needs to be examined. People can set themselves up as charities quite easily. There is very little regulation. There is also the practice where nice, decent young people are hired to go out and harass people for money. Sometimes I meet eight different collections on my way between O’Connell Street and here. There should be some degree of regulation.
I wish to inform the House that following my attempt to raise a matter on the Order of Business some weeks ago, I wrote to Senator O’Toole, who is our representative on the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, asking that we invite the McCartney sisters and Robert McCartney’s fiancée to give evidence to us.
Mr. Ryan: I support fully the proposal by the Leader of the Opposition, Senator Brian Hayes. We would be well advised to deal with this matter on which I sympathise fully with him. I want to elaborate on it in terms of this country’s incapacity to enforce the regulations it makes. The nursing homes have a peculiar history. Until 1998, all inspection reports were secret documents until the Freedom of Information Act was passed. No health board was ever prepared to make available to the public or to potential users of nursing homes any report it had on its files about the quality or otherwise of care. People had to essentially buy a pig in a poke and could not even see a record of what the health board knew at that stage.
People around the country have complained about the quality of such care. This morning RTE said a bundle of documents had been released to it under the freedom of information legislation. We have a problem which the legitimate and respectable part of the nursing home business has been asking the Government to regulate for 18 months. It appears that yet another brief went unread in the Department of Health and Children.
We heard of the revelation this morning that the Health and Safety Authority is of the view that the roadworks where the awful tragedy in County Meath occurred were in blatant breach of health and safety regulations. Do we enforce any regulations here?
Last week there was a revelation in one of the newspapers that our drivers are among the least likely to be stopped for speeding or drink driving in most of the European Union. There is a fundamental issue for this country in terms of how it does its business. We are forever passing regulations. I fear we are awash with illegal dumps. We do not seem to have the will to address these issues.
I would like the Minister responsible for the public service, the Minister for Finance, to come into the House to advise us what he proposes to do to ensure all the laws and regulations in place are enforced by proper resourcing and enforcement and that there will be no dilatory unwillingness to wait until people get around to doing it themselves. I would like the Minister to come to this House to discuss that with us.
While that Minister is here, we might talk not about the EU constitution but about the extraordinary issues arising from the results of the referendum in France. Some 82% of working class people in France voted “No”, according to the figures I read. That is an extraordinary percentage. We must be careful in this regard. The neo-liberal consensus, mostly a consensus among people who will not be affected by the negatives of neo-liberalism, is being challenged by those at the bottom of the income group most affected by the prescriptions of a form of international trade, which is essentially undermining the living standards of the bottom 25% of the whole of western society. If we continue to adhere to a consensus which ignores a quarter of the populations of the Union’s member states, we will end up with further debacles like the one we had on Sunday and the one we will have today. I say that as one who seems to have returned to the side I have always been on regarding the EU, being on the wrong side of every treaty.
Mr. Mooney: Will the Leader consider a proposal that the House would formally acknowledge in some way the 60th birthday of Aung San Suu Kyi who has been incarcerated for the past 15 years? What prompted me to raise this matter is the intention of Galway City Council to confer the freedom of the city of Galway on Aung San Suu Kyi following the example of Dublin some years ago. I understand a relative of Aung San Suu Kyi will be there to receive the conferral, which is to coincide with her birthday. My colleague, Senator Mansergh, and I have on many occasions engaged with the unofficial Burmese Government in exile on this issue over the past number of years. It is important in the context of human rights that the unacceptable incarceration of Aung San Suu Kyi should continue to be highlighted.
Mr. Mooney: This House is an ideal vehicle to do that. I would be grateful if the Leader might, in the context of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, initiate some process to acknowledge the occasion of Aung San Suu Kyi’s birthday to give maximum effect to the publicity that hopefully would surround it.
In the same vein, this House rightly condemned the imprisonment of a frontline defender who was coming to Ireland some weeks ago to receive an award. In recent days a representative of Médecins Sans Frontières was arrested by the Sudanese authorities on the basis that he refuses to disclose medical information contained in a report which was endorsed by the UN and by Kofi Annan outlining in great graphic detail the rape of several hundred Sudanese women and young girls. They have arrested this individual representing Médecins Sans Frontières on the basis that the report is false. This House having already expressed its outrage at the earlier incarceration should do so again. I would be grateful if the Leader would convey the outrage of the House at this representative’s arrest to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and if he, in turn, would convey to the Sudanese authorities that it is unacceptable to arrest a representative of this aid organisation of the highest integrity.
Mr. Finucane: This House owes a debt of gratitude not only to the “Prime Time” programme but also to the High Court judge who refused an injunction to the owners of the nursing home involved. His decision did the country a great service. There has been significant media coverage of this issue in recent days but had the injunction been granted we would probably not be discussing it today.
This House should co-operate fully if legislation to deal with this problem is expedited to pass before the summer recess. It is important that this happen because it is a shocking indictment of the system that the health board inspectors visited only 78 of the 430 private nursing homes last year. There are also 500 State-run hospitals. It is imperative to set up an independent inspectorate.
While I accept that the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Seán Power, is a sincere person, it is a bit rich for him to say that the inspection procedures were ridiculous. As Senator Brian Hayes said, the documentation reveals this situation was identified as ridiculous over many years. I hope this House will accelerate whatever legislation and action are required to deal with this issue which is a matter of concern to many people. We all empathise with the difficulties the people involved are experiencing.
It may be desirable to offer tax incentives to encourage the development of private nursing homes but is the mercenary impulse driving out the social and caring dimension in them? That may be a corollary to tax incentives. We need to be careful and watch for this trend.
Mr. Quinn: Senator Ryan struck a chord with me when he referred to compliance with legislation. We may not need to pass more legislation but to develop an attitude towards compliance. I support Senator Brian Hayes’s proposal that we debate the nursing home scandal today because we can do something about this immediately.
Our main effort, however, should be to encourage citizens to comply with the law. For example, the chairman of the National Safety Council said the number of arrests for road traffic offences had increased but the number of convictions had reduced. I am not sure of the reason for this but it seems possible to change attitudes.
I was in France and Italy recently and noticed the number of motorcyclists there who do not wear helmets. Very few motorcyclists here do not wear them. We have managed to install a system such that people recognise and comply with that law. They are beginning to comply with the law on seat belts. We may have to change that law. They do not, however, comply with the law on speeding and drink-driving offences. The National Safety Council’s report and proposals could be a worthy subject of debate.
Mr. U. Burke: I support Senator Norris’s call for regulation and legislation of charities in view of the alleged misappropriation of funds from the Christina Noble Foundation. Various reports in 1990, 1996 and 2002 indicated the urgent need for regulation and legislation for 6,500 registered charities. Allegations of such a significant misappropriation of funds indicate an urgent need for control in this area.
It is regrettable that the Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Noel Ahern, who has responsibility for this area, responded to this issue by saying it required major legislation which will not be ready till 2006 at the earliest. That is not good enough. Will the Leader request that the Minister of State reconsider that to protect the confidence of the generous public in charities?
On a related matter, it is unacceptable that in rural towns, particularly on Fridays, pensioners who go to post offices and banks are intimidated by people collecting for charity. Nobody knows whether these are legitimate registered charities or whether the people do this for personal gain. This is an urgent matter and I ask the Leader to request the Minister of State to take immediate action on this phenomenon in rural towns.
Dr. M. Hayes: I have an interest to declare in charities as chairman of the Ireland Fund, which is a charity. Together with other bodies in this field, it has pressed for some time for charitable legislation. All the major charities want legislation. The sooner it is put in place the better. None of what has happened detracts from the wonderful work done by Ms Noble. It is a great pity that any doubt should be cast on that work. People like her need the protection of regulations and control.
While I agree there is a need for clear regulations in nursing homes, I also agree with those who say there is a need for enforcement of the regulations that exist. Given that the Health Service Executive pays for many of those services and enters into contracts, there should be pressure on it to ensure that the contracts include standards of care.
Mr. Bannon: Will the Leader invite the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to the House for a debate on waste management? This has become a major issue at local and national level. There have been many initiatives to educate people about their responsibilities but there is a great deal of illegal dumping on national primary and secondary routes, and county roads, as well as other locations in urban and rural areas. The cost of waste disposal is becoming a serious issue on which we urgently need a debate.
We might include in that debate the introduction of subsidies for old age pensioners and families on low incomes for waste disposal because litter affects the local economy and environment and creates a public health hazard. It is important to debate this issue now because we have not debated it since we passed the Protection of the Environment Act almost two years ago.
Like everybody else, I was dumbfounded by the situation RTE highlighted on Monday night. The station should be congratulated on the programme. The Government should oversee these nursing homes and ensure that regulation is in place to deal with the abuse shown on the programme.
I wonder how many unfortunate elderly people were driven to an early grave by such abuse. This needs to be investigated. Everyone is sickened by the abuse shown on the programme. Ordinary decent people are infuriated by it. I support Senator Brian Hayes’s call to adjourn our motion this evening and take this important issue because it concerns us all, particularly the elderly and most vulnerable.
An Cathaoirleach: I remind the House that the Chair has already ruled that the Committee on Procedure and Privileges can extend an invitation to anybody to address the House and it is a matter for the Committee on Procedure and Privileges only. The matter should be raised directly with the committee and not on the floor of the House. It would be appreciated if Senators would respect that ruling.
Mr. Coghlan: I must give voice again to the major outrage that exists in Dingle at the attitude and action of the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Éamon Ó Cuív. How can anybody at the stroke of a pen abolish such an area as an entity, and decree that a place of such long and honoured cultural heritage no longer exists? Many feel they are being called after a place in County Offaly, An Daingean. They do not want the name of any other town robbed for them.
Mr. Coonan: I welcome the fact that we are having a debate on the scandal of nursing homes this evening. We are also debating the Disability Bill. While these two matters are exercising public opinion another scandal is unfolding in regard to the lack of services being rolled out to those in the midlands and west for cancer treatment and BreastCheck. While the Minister and the Department of Health and Children have dropped the word “Hanly” the report appears to be implemented. I suggest the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children be invited to the House to discuss the health services. County hospitals such as Nenagh are being downgraded by stealth by the removal of services from rural Ireland. There is life outside the Pale but the Minister does not appear to recognise that. We need to have a discussion on health services for the people of rural Ireland, on the functions of the Health Service Executive and what has happened to the health boards. As these scandals are being debated, another scandal is unfolding. The health services should be debated as a matter of urgency.
Mr. Moylan: I wish to raise a matter that disturbed me on Sunday last where I had hoped common sense would prevail in close proximity to Croke Park. When a number of families returned to their cars after the matches they found a large number of vehicles clamped.
Mr. Moylan: They were not interfering in any way with footpaths but some may have been close to junctions. It is wrong that those people who come to Dublin for a few hours should have their cars clamped.
Mr. Moylan: Irrespective of who is responsible, whether Dublin Corporation, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government or the Department of Transport, common sense should prevail on the day of a match in Croke Park.
Mr. Bradford: I support what has been suggested by my party leader, Senator Brian Hayes, on the need to debate the nursing homes scandal this afternoon. It is the least we can do and is what the public would demand. When this issue is fully ventilated and dealt with, I would hope that between now and the recess we could have a broader debate on the issue of care of the elderly. This has been the subject of many reports but we need to seriously contemplate this crucial issue. The demographics are changing and the population is becoming elderly. In the future the issue of care of the elderly will be the biggest political issue here. The elderly may be out of political fashion today but we have a major responsibility to put in place systems and structures to ensure they are dealt with in a fair and reasonable fashion and can retire in comfort. Issues such as the carer’s allowance, carer’s benefit, nursing home subventions and so on need to be debated and addressed. I hope, once we have dealt thoroughly and openly with the current scandal, that we will look in a broader fashion at care of the elderly and their needs and the needs of those retiring. They have built up this country to what it is and we must be seen to respond to them.
Mr. Dooley: I ask the Leader to organise a debate on the delivery of health services with particular reference to the Hanly report. It is unfortunate that the word “Hanly” has become a negative aspect of the health services given that there are so many positive elements in that document which could lead to a restructuring of the health services and put it on a solid footing. There are a couple of negative elements, for example, the proposed reduction in accident and emergency services at Nenagh and Ennis hospitals as part of a pilot programme. Clearly that is not acceptable to any of the politicians in that region. Ultimately I believe it will be changed. I would welcome the opportunity for the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children to come to the House and set the record straight. There is much public concern and, unfortunately, it is being generated by disingenuous organisations and groupings, particularly elements of the Opposition who have sought to make a political exercise out of this.
Mr. Dooley: This unfortunate scaremongering is affecting people’s health because it is creating a negative impression about these hospitals. It is a matter that needs to be addressed; hopefully a debate would resolve the position.
Mr. McHugh: I am prepared to defer the motion on placenames tonight although I know my colleagues, including Senator Ó Murchú, will have done much preparation. On the issue of the Irish language we have a set a non-political precedent in this House because both sides believe it is too important to be used as a political football. This debate is not just about placenames, it is about the Irish people’s connection with landscapes and the anglicising of placenames and how we try to bring them back. There are other issues that must be brought into the debate, be it the Dingle issue regarding the branding of the tourism product or other issues in which local people must be involved. It is a debate for another time.
A recent report has highlighted that a cost benefit analysis on a proposed cross-Border gas pipeline between Derry and Letterkenny has proved negative. Of course a cost benefit analysis would show red. That is the reason there are no cross-Border structure subventions under the peace and reconciliation fund, the International Fund for Ireland or INTERREG. Moneys are available to enable the Government provide funding to the north west.
Senator Coonan referred to BreastCheck cancer services for women in the north west. This service is based on a cost benefit analysis but it should not be. The people in the north west pay the exact same taxes as people in other parts of the country and we should not be discriminated against. The provision of a service should not be based solely on economic reports based on mathematics. People are far more important.
Mr. J. Phelan: I join my colleagues in urging the Government to support the amendment to the Order of Business proposed by Senator Brian Hayes to allow for a debate on the nursing home scandal which was revealed on television on Monday night. It would be appropriate for the House to hold it this evening.
I ask the Leader to arrange to have the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children come to the House at an early opportunity to discuss the report of the task force on staffing in hospitals known as the Hanly report. In the last few months both this House and the other House were led to believe by Fianna Fáil spokespeople, Senator Dooley included, that the report was buried but now it seems ——
Mr. J. Phelan: ——from a letter written last week by the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children to the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Killeen, who is a Fianna Fáil Deputy for Clare, that the report will be implemented. Last Friday evening I attended a public meeting in Kilkenny between consultants in St. Luke’s General Hospital and the public representatives in Carlow and Kilkenny-——
Mr. J. Phelan: They outlined for the public representatives in great detail how the Hanly report is being used as a means to ensure no development of facilities will take place over the coming years at St. Luke’s hospital, which serves counties Carlow and Kilkenny.
Ms O’Rourke: The Leader of the Opposition has raised the matter of substituting a motion on nursing home for the motion in today’s Order Paper set down for Private Members’ business. He kindly gave me notice of the matter before we came into the House. It is a matter for the Cathaoirleach to decide on that change of business.
Ms O’Rourke: The Cathaoirleach usually has a say in these matters. I am only trying to be nice to the Cathaoirleach. We made immediate arrangements and my office has spoken to the private secretary of the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power, who will attend for the debate at short notice.
Senator Brian Hayes raised the wider issue, one on which I have also been dwelling, of the tardiness of public administration in foreseeing things which can happen even when highlighted by debates in these Houses or by way of correspondence to newspapers. Account cannot be taken of everything but where significant issues emerge which are clearly damning and where abuse or neglect is the underlying cause, the general lack of response from both public administration and the political parties shows a culture of denial and inaction. Enough has happened in the past six to eight months for us to realise the enormity of the issue which should exercise the minds of those involved.
Senator Norris seconded the proposal to amend the Order of Business for which I thank him. It is accepted. He asked for a debate on charities, which I will allow if time is available in the next three weeks.
Senator Ryan said that until 1998, all inspection reports were secret documents until the Freedom of Information Act was passed. He questioned whether regulations are ever enforced and it is a question I often ask. More legislation is being passed and also more EU regulations but it is a question of enforcement.
Senator Ryan also referred to the referendum in France and the one in the Netherlands being held today. He rightly said neo-liberalism is being confronted by the 25% of the population cohort at the lower income end of western society. In this context the House discussed pensions last week. I feel a little bit of a fraud talking about pensions because I have a pension which is guaranteed.
Questions are being raised about the European Union. Senator Brian Hayes yesterday suggested we hold our fire until after the meeting of EU prime ministers in two weeks’ time. It is a depressing situation and a way of dealing with it must be found.
Senator Mooney asked the House to acknowledge in some way the birthday of Aung San Suu Kyi in the context of human rights. He asked that the House honour her by way of an all-party motion and I am confident if the Senator takes the lead in this matter, all party leaders will support it.
Senator Mooney also referred to Paul Foreman, the representative of Médecins Sans Frontières who has been criticised and arrested by the Sudanese Government. He asked that the case be brought to the attention of the Minister for Foreign Affairs.
Senator Finucane praised the High Court judge who refused an injunction to the owners of the nursing home involved in the “Prime Time” programme. The judge viewed the programme and gave his ruling that it should be screened. Senator Finucance said it is imperative that an independent inspectorate be set up. He questioned whether the tax incentives result in too much emphasis on monetary matters rather than on the social and caring role.
Senator Quinn referred to issue of compliance with legislation. He supported Senator Ryan’s point regarding the use of helmets by motor cyclists and referred also to the issues of speeding and drink driving. Much of this behaviour is a result of our history. For eight centuries we were fighting against those who made rules for our country. When we make our own rules the rebellious streak shows up.
Senator Ulick Burke called for regulation and legislation of charities. He stated there are 6,500 registered charities and there is an urgent need for legislation. Yesterday, the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Noel Ahern, who has responsibility for this area stated that a wider consultative process had been engaged in. I will convey the Senator’s concerns to the Minister of State. The Senator also referred to charity collectors outside post offices and banks on Friday mornings. I always ask to see the collector’s permit and they usually show it. If they do not have a permit to show I do not contribute. If they have personal authorisation then they are entitled to collect.
Senator Maurice Hayes declared his interest in this matter as chairman of the Ireland Fund. He said that all charities want legislation for the sector. Senator Bannon asked for a debate on waste management.
Senator Coonan asked for a debate on cancer treatment. I am sure the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children is well aware that life exists outside the Pale. She was in Athlone last weekend. However, inequality in cancer treatment exists.
Senator Moylan took up the cause of the great clampers at Croke Park. Both he and I have our noses out of joint because of the results of the Offaly and Westmeath matches. The Senator also took exception to Daingean being downgraded so to speak. Many a fine Offaly person came from there. Senator Bradford supported Senator Brian Hayes and also believed we should have a broader debate on care for the elderly. Senator Dooley spoke of delivery of health services. He said that the name “Hanly” has come to be debased. The Senator believes that the proposed reductions in the accident and emergency service in Ennis should not proceed.
Senator McHugh spoke about the Irish language and the connection between Irish people and their landscape. He also spoke about cancer treatment in Donegal. I agree with him and found it heart-rending to read the full-page report in The Irish Times last week. Some women admitted to volunteering for breast removal rather than make the bus journey for chemotherapy and radiation therapy twice or three times a week. I was very depressed for those women and I thank the Senator for raising the matter. We should try to have a debate on cancer care as soon as possible for which I know the Tánaiste would attend.
Senator John Paul Phelan called on the Tánaiste to come to the House to discuss the Hanly report. I remember Senator Feeney speaking on the matter. Those on this side of the House never said that the report was dead.
An Cathaoirleach: Senator Brian Hayes has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: “That No. 17, motion 12, should not be moved today, and that the two hours normally allocated for Fine Gael Private Members’ business be given to the House to allow for statements by the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children with responsibility for the elderly.”
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