Thursday, 9 March 2006
Seanad Eireann Debate
Ms O’Rourke: The Order of Business is Nos. 1 and 2. No. 1 is a motion which was referred to the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women’s Rights for consideration. The committee has completed its deliberations. The proposal relates to the accession of the European Community to the Hague Conference on Private International Law. At present, the EU enjoys observer status in the organisation and the formalisation of the relationship between the EU and the conference is seen as desirable. No. 1 will be taken without debate. No. 2 is statements on the report of the Lourdes hospital inquiry to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 2 p.m. Senators have 15 minutes each and may share time and the Minister is to be called upon to reply not later than five minutes before the conclusion of the statements.
A Chathaoirligh, I thought it appropriate that a woman from each group should commence the debate on this report. It is about wombs, which is essentially a woman’s issue, although I am sure the men will have strong contributions to make. I have consulted with the group leaders and they have agreed. Senator Feeney will lead for us.
Mr. B. Hayes: We agree with the Leader’s proposal. It is the right thing to do in the circumstances. In November 2004, the Tánaiste launched a ten-point action plan to resolve the then crisis in accident and emergency units in acute hospitals. She promised that significant results would be seen by patients and the public by autumn 2005. At the time there was a significant problem with the number of persons languishing on hospital trolleys in accident and emergency units. However, the number of people on trolleys has trebled since November 2004 and yesterday the figures given by the HSE and the Irish Nurses Organisation were between 400 and 495.
We do not need a new task force to examine this issue. What is needed is straightforward — more beds and more support for frontline doctors and nurses. A total of 3,000 beds were taken out of the health care system between 1987 and 1991 so it is no surprise that we are experiencing the current crisis. Those beds are needed. Will the Leader ensure that when the House resumes after the St. Patrick’s Day break the Tánaiste will come to the House to report on progress, or the lack of it, on the plan she published in November 2004? Perhaps she will listen to some of the suggestions that can be made on this issue rather than attack consultants, work practices and everybody else.
Mr. O’Toole: On a number of occasions over the past fortnight Senator Ormonde and I have sought a debate on the Marino Institute of Education. The Leader of the House kindly indicated that she will be prepared to organise it. It is an interesting issue and it is probably just as well we have not yet had the debate because each day brings more disclosures. Over the past week we heard that the consultants decided not to discuss anything about bullying with the former head of the college. We also heard that they had not seen the report until it was presented to them on 24 February. There were many other issues too.
The consultants have now issued a statement to point out that they were specifically directed by the Christian Brothers not to discuss the bullying issue with the former head of the college, which undermines what we heard previously. The board of management of the college has been drafting and redrafting a report that it can live with. Finally, according to today’s newspaper, the consultants are distancing themselves from the idea that they have exonerated the trustees. This is appalling. It is now timely to discuss the issue. I do not believe these people are to be trusted with the preparation of teachers or with responsibility for 30 acres of prime building land within a mile of Dublin city centre. It is time the board did the decent thing and stood down to allow the institute to work properly.
Yesterday, I spoke about gardaí. There was a classic example of what I mentioned in the past 12 hours. Late last night — between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. — a guy walked free from the courts because his period of detention had expired. Although gardaí went to court to seek an extension, the court ruled that the new detention order had not been signed on time. There have been reports on this overnight, and this morning I heard snide comments about gardaí on one radio station to the effect that this is another case of them getting it wrong. Gardaí were in the court four hours early. The problem was with the courts and the law. It is easy for reporters to make comments. The gardaí were there and the courts advised that there was nothing to rush about. However, there was something to rush about and when it went to the High Court later last night the interpretation was that the law was flawed.
This morning I have drafted a Bill amending the Offences against the State Act 1939, merely stating that the period of detention of an arrested person would be considered not to have expired until court hearings are concluded, with other appropriate language. I would like to have this printed as the First Stage of a Bill in my name and those of some of my Independent colleagues. I know that others on both sides of the House will feel the same about the matter. We need to change the legislation to allow this to happen. I cannot remember the details of the House rules — a Bill already exists in my name.
Mr. O’Toole: In that case, I would request that this be done. This House is good at this kind of consolidation. I would like to have the Bill printed and sent to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. If the Department wishes to propose an alternative, let us see it done. Let us act quickly and be seen to respond when the matter is topical in order to allow people to see we care and know what is going on.
Mr. O’Toole: I have argued for and against sections of the Offences against the State Act on various occasions since becoming a Member of the House. It is not a biased or prejudiced view, I assess each issue as I see it.
Mr. Ryan: The Senator should wait until I get really biased and prejudiced, then he would have something to talk about. While I thought I was supporting him, obviously my support was not to his satisfaction.
With every passing day it becomes increasingly urgent to have a debate about the way in which the debt incurred by Aer Rianta and officially, we were told, now incurred by the Dublin Airport Authority will now be distributed. It is of fundamental importance to the future of all our airports that this issue be resolved. The division of Aer Rianta into three companies has now manifestly been a disaster and it is more than time for a fundamental rethink. Perhaps the appropriate solution would be to revert to a single State company running the three big airports and let us move from there to improve the independence of each of the airports within that structure. We may now have three airports, none of which is financially viable and all of which are in danger of forcing their directors to retire on the grounds that they would otherwise be accused of reckless trading.
We need a debate specifically concerned, in my case, with Cork Airport where, based on back of an envelope calculations it would cost an additional €8 to €10 per passenger over a three to five year period, to pay off the debt. That is an enormous extra charge. While I am not a great fan, one of the airlines is reducing one of its services to and from Cork because charges have already increased. I call for an urgent debate on the future of our three major international airports, otherwise we will have a disaster.
I raise another issue which will inevitably produce some sort of disaster and which is mentioned in one of this morning’s newspapers. I refer to the increasing trend of major Irish companies to move from limited to unlimited liability. It was noticed because a major international software company, with a base in Dublin, has transferred some of its companies from limited to unlimited liability, allegedly to prevent prying investigators finding out what it is doing about taxation. The report presents a list of well-known Irish companies, which have abandoned limited liability. If one of these companies goes bust we will again be treated to the spectacle of being hauled back here to bail out a major Irish company. Unlimited liability means that the company and its owners are liable for all its debts and they cannot transfer them to the company. We should make it clear that if debts or other problems arise, the individuals involved would be personally liable and the State would not bail them out. If they want to hide their affairs they should take the consequences.
Mr. Ryan: It is appallingly lit, marked, signposted and unpoliced. The official speed limit on most stretches is 60 km/h. I was driving at 80 km/h as was every other car and was overtaken by trucks at speeds of at least 90 km/h if not 100 km/h on a road that barely has room for two carriageways. If anybody is unlucky a major disaster will occur on the road. We should either enforce the law or change the roads before we have a major disaster. It is a disaster waiting to happen. I appeal to the Garda to enforce the speed limits and the regulation requiring trucks to drive in the inside lane or else we will have a major road disaster.
Mr. Minihan: I join the Leader of the Opposition, Senator Brian Hayes, in calling for a debate on accident and emergency departments and health reform. The Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children has always been willing to come to the House. Some people have suggested that she should not lecture consultants, nurses, etc. People should equally be aware that reform of the health service is exactly what is needed. Over the years we have learned that continuing to pour money into the health service without reform will get us nowhere. The reform agenda exists and a debate would be informative to all Members of the House. To play on the emotions of patients is one of the lowest forms of politicising one’s case. In reality the patient must come first and the consultants, nurses, doctors and other hospital staff must embrace reform, because reform is coming. A debate on the matter would be most welcome.
Some of us may have seen last night’s television report of the Irish in America gathering to lobby on behalf of the illegal immigrants for the McCain Bill that is going through the US Senate. Calls have been made in this House for cross-party support for that Bill. I would welcome a debate on this. In doing so we should equally reflect how we as a society deal with Americans coming here.
Mr. Coghlan: I strongly support Senator Brian Hayes in his remarks about people on trolleys. Ill people who go to hospital and then must lie on trolleys represent a most vulnerable section of society. How long does it take to resolve this problem? I support Senator Minihan and other Senators who have requested a debate when we return after the break.
Mr. Coghlan: ComReg announced yesterday that it would either conduct its own survey or fund that proposed by the South West Regional Authority. Great credit is due to Deputy O’Flynn and his committee, every member of which visited the Black Valley over a month ago. It was unanimous in its view regarding this provision, and I heartily welcome it. The Minister had declined to fund it from his own Department, but yesterday there was a happy announcement, and I am delighted that it has happened. It should be warmly welcomed, and I hope it will lead to the provision of the right service for the people of the area.
Ms Ormonde: I support the points raised by Senator O’Toole regarding the Marino institute. We need an urgent debate on it, and I am glad that we have not had one hitherto, since we daily read fresh reports indicating that confidence and trust have been totally undermined in that college. I have spoken to many of the lecturers there, and if the matter is not sorted out, it will destroy the college’s whole ethos. There is unrest among students and courses are being undermined in the process. It is very important that we have that debate as soon as we return.
I have spoken on this before, and I do not often support Senator Ryan but on the question of his trip to Naas, I undertake a similar journey all the time and I dread it, since one takes one’s life in one’s hands. We must urgently do something with that road. Construction work is ongoing but the trucks are the key to the problem. They zigzag over and back, which is frightening late at night. I reiterate the importance that something be done, a message I hope the Leader will convey.
Mr. Norris: Perhaps I might ask the Leader if the debate on the Lourdes Hospital report will be open-ended. It is very appropriate that the women should lead off, and we are lucky in this House to have qualified women from all sides. I would not have agreed to that if there were a consultant here, but it would be useful if the debate were open-ended, since, from a personal perspective, I may not be able to contribute unless that is the case.
I am very happy to second the Bill of my colleague, Senator O’Toole. He spotted a gap that I also saw, but I did not think of producing a Bill. I commend him on the rapidity with which he responded. I was appalled by the comments of the judge.
Mr. Norris: The gardaí were blamed, but the judge said that he was not bothered by the clock. He certainly should have been bothered, since, as a result of his lack of punctiliousness, someone walked free from Garda custody.
I join with those others, including from the Government side, who have called for a debate on accident and emergency departments. A very calm and reasoned consultant from Galway was on the radio today making the point that we have 97% to 100% bed occupancy. International reports make it clear that the service can operate efficiently and receive patients appropriately only when the figure is 85% or less. I agree with Senator Brian Hayes that we do not need another task force. Unfortunately, particularly as we draw close to an election, the Government response to almost everything is to appoint a commission, a task force, or a think tank. There is a period of paralysis coming, and that is not good enough.
It is a question of resources. I do not mean to be harshly critical of the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney. I have supported her before, since she is a good Minister doing a very difficult job. It requires a lengthy timescale, and as Zhou Enlai said regarding the French Revolution, it is too early to judge.
Last night the House held a very good debate on rendition flights and Shannon Airport, which was very well reported by Jimmy Walsh in The Irish Times . Despite the quality of the debate, RTE completely ignored it, taking only one sentence on the issue from Senator Brian Hayes on the Order of Business. Perhaps we might continue to take an interest in the area. The Government’s response to the Marty commission is not tabled as a document on the reverse. I would like to see it tabled, and if that does not happen, I will do so personally, since the Government response is inadequate, full of evasion, and answers questions that have not been raised without answering the principal concern. It is a thoroughgoing disgrace and should not be accepted by this House. We should examine it before it is allowed to stand as a proper response to this important commission.
Mr. Kitt: I support calls for a debate on the health report, and in particular accident and emergency services. Regarding the west of Ireland, University College Hospital in Galway has the very high bed occupancy that Senator Norris raised with reference to a consultant from the city interviewed on the radio. For that hospital, as for all others, this is a very busy time of the year, with winter influenza outbreaks.
We also have a very high number of tourists coming every year, since Galway is a very popular location for tourists, and that too puts a great deal of pressure on the hospital. It is not rocket science to say that we need extra beds in that hospital, and I am glad the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, has spoken of 22 more beds and 60 staff. Those are the practical steps that must be taken. It is not all about theory at the moment, as someone said, but about action and securing beds.
Mr. Feighan: I too join with Senator Brian Hayes in requesting a debate on bed shortages in hospitals. Much more can be done, and it is a very serious issue. Perhaps the Leader might invite the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, to the House to discuss and tease out the best way forward.
I am very worried regarding the prime suspect in the murder of Donna Cleary. The profile in today’s newspaper is of a man steadily climbing up the ranks of the criminal underworld, with access to firearms, including automatic weapons. He was moving in the same circles as dangerous young armed criminals. It is very serious, and we must ask ourselves what kind of young men we are producing in this country. It is akin to the cast of a Quentin Tarantino film.
I am extremely concerned, and I support Senator O’Toole’s call for an amendment to the Offences against the State Act 1939. We cannot stand idly by when, in every housing estate of every city and large town, there are young men of this sort, fuelled and high on alcohol, cocaine and heroin. If we do not act, Quentin Tarantino might as well move here, since he will have plenty of real-life actors to portray those in his scripts. We have once again highlighted levels of cocaine abuse in the country, and if Nigerian gangs introduce crack cocaine to Dublin we will have to have armed response units in every Garda station in the city. We must act now before it is too late.
Mr. Moylan: I support the call for the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children to attend the House for a debate on accident and emergency services. I believe that she will come gladly, and I hope that all Members will stay to listen to her thoughts on developments that have taken place in such departments around the country.
I have no doubt, when people fall over drunk or drugged on the street and someone telephones 999, that in many cases an ambulance takes them to an accident and emergency department. The blocking of such services is causing major problems for them. For example, in one of yesterday’s newspapers, a patient reported a carry-on in an accident and emergency department with a drunken lout and what he did to a very elderly patient. I compliment the staff of such departments, who must receive credit for their work.
However, if the House is to debate health issues, I ask for the debate to include a report by a task force on sudden cardiac deaths which was published yesterday. The report could be tied in with the main health debate or discussed separately. As 4,000 to 5,000 people die suddenly each year, people want to take action and it is possible to do so to prevent such deaths.
Mr. Quinn: I add my voice to those supporting Senator O’Toole’s Bill. Last night, the radio media blamed the Garda for hours and I did not discover until this morning that it had given something like four hours’ notice, which was adequate, and that the fault lay elsewhere. Senator Norris stated that he had heard that the judge had claimed not to be bothered about the time, which seems outrageous.
I ask the Leader to consider having a debate on water quality. In recent weeks, there has been a major debate, particularly regarding the nitrates directive, as to who is responsible for the lack of quality in our water. Some of the figures raised suggest that the quality of our drinking water is far lower than that in Britain. It may well be that different areas of the country have different standards. Last year I noted that in France, when one pays one’s water charges, the bill includes a report on the water quality in one’s own area. It may be possible to implement this good idea here and perhaps some local authorities already do so. A debate of this kind should take place in this House as not enough is known about water quality and we should ensure that we can also compete in that regard.
Labhrás Ó Murchú: A debate on the Marino Institute of Education might be helpful, because most Members are not privy to all the details and depend on media reports. All Members will agree that many conflicting views have been put forward. For example, yesterday I listened to the Minister for Education and Science, who stated that the Department’s inspectorate was quite happy with the academic standards prevailing in the college. As Members are aware, at one time it was also suggested that misappropriation of public funds had taken place. However, the Minister stated that an investigation was carried out and no misappropriation of funds took place.
The Minister observed that an interim arrangement had been put in place to solve the interpersonal difficulties which exist in the college and noted that she believed it was working. She also made a good suggestion to the effect that a point has been reached where such matters could be put to one side and all the parties concerned could meet to try to resolve the issue. However, it does not help the college, education or anyone else to conduct a megaphone-type debate on this issue. It should be handled by the people directly involved. That said, I would like to become better informed regarding this matter through a debate in the House. Perhaps the Minister for Education and Science might come before the House to amplify her comments made on radio yesterday.
Ms Terry: I ask the Leader to request the Minister for Social and Family Affairs to come before the House to facilitate a debate on the recent Pensions Board report regarding the future provision of pensions. It was a major report which included a number of recommendations. As several Members have expressed an interest in the issue of pensions, this report would be worthy of debate.
Mr. Glynn: I support the remarks of Senator O’Toole and other Members, who did not indulge, as did some sections of the media, in a blame game in respect of the Garda, which, in many cases, does a tremendous job under extremely adverse circumstances. Senator O’Toole’s proposed Bill demonstrates the importance of the Upper House as pathfinders in this respect.
I welcome the calls for a debate on the health services and on the accident and emergency services in particular. I wish to echo the comments made by my colleague, Senator Moylan, regarding the abuse of accident and emergency units. One could include acute psychiatric units in this regard, as they are clogged up with boozers, bowsies and whipsters creating mayhem.
This debate would be an ideal opportunity to highlight all the benefits and additional services that have come on-stream in the past couple of years since the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children took over. For example, in Mullingar, a new dermatology unit will be established and a new baby care unit has recently been established. While I could continue, I am aware that the Cathaoirleach would not permit me to so do.
Dr. Henry: I support Senator Quinn’s call for a debate on water quality. While people tend to concentrate on the private schemes, the water supplies of quite large towns are shut down on a monthly basis. I think of Ennis, Mullingar and Naas in the recent past. This is a serious issue, as there has been contamination by everything from cryptosporidium to diesel oil, which does not happen in other countries. Hence, I suggest that it be taken up as an urgent issue.
Mr. Hanafin: I ask the Leader for another debate on the Middle East with specific reference to the dangerous developments taking place as Iran insists on continuing to enrich weapons grade uranium. No one wishes to see a further proliferation of nuclear weapons and there is an inevitability about the outcome and consequences that will occur if Iran continues on this road. Hence, I ask for an urgent debate as any student of the Middle East who knows its history will understand that there is only one possible conclusion.
Mr. Cummins: I support Senator Brian Hayes and other speakers in respect of their call for a debate on the accident and emergency issue. How many more people must lie on trolleys before the reforms kick in? The establishment of another task force is a typical example of government by committee. As far as this Government is concerned, the paralysis has already set in. I also support Senator O’Toole’s Bill. I want the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to act speedily with regard to this most important matter.
Mr. Browne: I agree with Senator Moylan’s call for a debate on the recent excellent report on sudden adult deaths. All Members will recall the tragic death of Cormac McAnallen, the former Tyrone football captain. The excellent news is that 30% of people who experience cardiac arrests can be saved by defibrillators. This equates to thousands of people in Ireland every year. These machines are small and may be used anywhere. The House should have an urgent debate as this matter affects all parts of the country. Defibrillators can complement the existing health services, particularly in quite remote areas far from major hospital centres.
Instead of having a debate on health per se, I ask for a debate on the progress, or lack thereof, in respect of the health service. While the Tánaiste promised to abolish the spectacle of people on trolleys, more than 400 people were on trolleys yesterday. She promised a ten-point emergency plan that would alleviate all problems overnight, which has not taken place. She also promised——
Mr. Browne: ——to move 29% of patients in nursing homes back to their homes. How many of these patients have returned home as a result of the introduction of the home care package? I imagine the figure is nothing like that which she promised. Members will have noticed the fiasco regarding the medical cards, where only 5%——
Mr. Browne: I am aware of that. However, I am trying to make the point that the Tánaiste has not been successful in the heath portfolio. While she has made many promises, she has not delivered on them.
Mr. Browne: The House will debate the Lourdes hospital report shortly. Last night however, although the Government had an opportunity to back the Whistleblowers Protection Bill in the Dáil, it failed to so do. This is another example of stating one thing and doing the opposite.
Ms O’Rourke: Senator Brian Hayes raised the matter of hospital trolleys, the increased numbers of patients using them yesterday and the establishment of a new task force. When I saw the woman who made the announcement being interviewed on television yesterday, I thought to myself, “not another task force”. The Tánaiste outlined a number of excellent ideas some months ago. They warranted great consideration and were tackled with gusto, because an enduring decrease in numbers occurred almost immediately. However, the idea of setting up another task force is silly.
Ms O’Rourke: The Tánaiste’s list of proposals should be proceeded with. Lest this House think that we are not inquiring, there is not a week goes by but we request the Tánaiste’s presence here. I understand she is extraordinarily busy but there is no point saying to me that I am to ask the Tánaiste and that one is sure she would like to come here. We ask her and she is not coming, due, we are told, to pressure of business. I would prefer that the House would know that rather than think we are not approaching her. We are approaching her office and we will do so again and again. It is as well that the House knows that. If we can get the Tánaiste here, it would be wise to debate accident and emergency and the necessary reforms.
There are abuses in accident and emergency units and there are some who cause trouble when they get there, but it is unsustainable to have that number of people hanging out in coffee docks and in all sorts of places. I do not know the ins and outs of it, but we should get a real picture of the situation. That is what we will endeavour to do.
Senator O’Toole raised the Marino Institute of Education. He and Senator Ormonde have been the ones to the fore but we all read about it. There is quite an article today in The Irish Times stating that the consultants were specifically limited in to whom they could talk, which follows the trustees stating on television the other night that the consultants were open to talk to anyone. People are getting fed up with the carry on about MIE. They know a great deal of money is going into MIE to produce primary school teachers and this suspicion and finger-pointing cannot be a restful background for teacher training. I wish we could get at the truth. It is coming out gradually but it is quite a disgrace.
Senator O’Toole raised the error he discovered in the Offences against the State Act 1939. He is producing a Bill, First Stage of which will be taken in due course. If he puts it forward for Second Stage, we would gladly take it. I agree with Senator O’Toole that blaming the Garda is just too easy an option.
Senator Ryan called for an urgent debate on the Aer Rianta debt. Such a debate is necessary and we will seek to have it. They are trying to work out some sort of compromise in the meantime but, if every passenger will be levied €8 for a number of years to pay for it, the airport will be the loser. That would be a major step to take.
He referred to the Kennedy-McCain Bill about which Senator Jim Walsh tabled a motion. I take Senator Minihan’s point about Americans coming in to this country. We strive to have our people who are illegally in the US treated correctly. We should do the same with asylum seekers here before we go out on a limb for the Kennedy-McCain Bill.
Senator Coghlan referred to people on trolleys. He welcomed the announcement on the provision for the Black Valley, for which he is the champion. He should not be giving all the praise to other people. He has raised it constantly.
Senator Norris sought an open-ended debate on the report of the Lourdes hospital inquiry. He stated that no further task force on accident and emergency was needed. I fully agree. He also asked that we take a continued interest in the rendition debate.
Senator Kitt stated that more hospital beds are necessary. I think so too and yet Professor Drumm got a riposte from the Department of Finance when he raised this matter. Senator Kitt said there was no more need for theory. I agree, particularly in the case of the lady who was pushing it last night.
Senator Feighan feels strongly about crime and about what will happen if there is not a response to this issue soon with the way young men in housing estates are fuelled with and high on alcohol, cocaine and other drugs,. There must be a personal response too. It is a matter for society. It is a family matter and an educational matter. It affects us all within the community. I do not know whether armed response units are the answer. It might be too easy to say that. An armed response could be deadly in every sense of the word and other mayhem may arise.
Senator Moylan asked for the Tánaiste to come here. He spoke of the abuse of accident and emergency and wished to debate the report on sudden cardiac death. Senator Quinn supported Senator O’Toole’s Bill and sought a debate on water quality.
Senator Ó Murchú asked that the Minister for Education and Science come to the House to debate the situation in the Marino Institute of Education. I heard her yesterday too but there is still something very wrong there.
Senator Glynn agreed with Senator O’Toole about the Garda and sought a debate on accident and emergency services. He sought a debate on the additional services which have been introduced under the Tánaiste’s, which was a good point, and I agree. The most graphic issue concerns accident and emergency services. We see the people affected and hear the stories by letter and e-mail — I received two this morning. Notwithstanding the nature of accident and emergency services, significant additional services have been provided. The cancer debate is moving forward and other issues are too. We know that and it will be useful. Senator Henry sought a debate on water quality.
Senator Hanafin sought a debate on the Middle East, particularly Iran. He stated there is an inevitable outcome to the Iran debate; with America in the middle of it, I agree that there will be only one outcome.
Senator Cummins sought a debate about accident and emergency services. Senator Browne raised the issue of defibrillators. He raised that matter of the sudden cardiac arrest report last week. Many clubs are seeking to get defibrillators as standard equipment. He also spoke of the whistleblowers’ Bill.
Ms O’Rourke: The intention was that it would conclude. I do not know how many will speak, apart from there being a woman from each party beginning the debate. The intention of the Minister was that it would conclude.
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