Thursday, 8 February 2007
Seanad Eireann Debate
Ms O’Rourke: The Order of Business is No.1, the Defence (Amendment)(No. 2) Bill 2006 — Committee Stage, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business until 1 p.m.; and No. 2, the Health (Nursing Homes)(Amendment) Bill 2006 — Report and Final Stages, to be taken at 1 p.m. until 2 p.m.
Mr. Finucane: It is two years since the establishment of the Health Service Executive, which was supposed to herald a new dawn for health services. Anybody reading the papers in recent days will realise this new dawn does not appear to have materialised, because there seems to be increased turbulence in the health sector.
Yesterday we had a discussion on the National Development Plan 2007-2013 in which we were told €180 billion would be spent in the next seven years. Quality of life is very important to people at this time and no issue is more pertinent to that than health.
Some 27,000 members of a union, in all categories of the health services, yesterday threatened to ballot on industrial action in May. Nurses are very upset and Fianna Fáil backbenchers on a committee aired their own grievances over the situation.
Mr. Finucane: They appeared to call for a softening of attitude on the question of nurses’ wages. Today the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, expresses surprise at the reaction of Fianna Fáil backbenchers because all she is doing is implementing Government policy.
The Minister, Deputy Harney, promised in the programme for Government that there would be contracts for consultants. Now, with an imminent general election, there is still turbulence between consultants and the Department of Health and Children.
What has gone wrong? A photograph yesterday in a newspaper showing a CAT scanner, for which volunteers had raised funds, lying in a basement in Louth County Hospital, Dundalk, next to the dirty linen, is an indictment of the health services. Staff have not even been recruited to operate it.
Mr. Finucane: The Government says a great deal on partnership and so on, but it should get on with its business and do the job for which it was elected. From outside, the health service appears to be in anarchy.
Mr. O’Toole: The Minister for Transport has announced the name of the person to be put in charge of the Dublin transportation authority and the Railway Procurement Agency. Without casting aspersions, that person resigned from a semi-State body on the basis of issues that could have been of embarrassment to it. That the appointment is being made without reference to anyone is extraordinary.
Mr. O’Toole: During the past 20 years, Senator Ross and others on these benches have tabled the idea of an appointments procedure in respect of State boards. The Leader will recall that in the Seanad review, we proposed that the House should vet or meet anyone whose name had been put forward to sit on boards or in the chair of a semi-State body.
I do not want to reflect on the person in question, as he might be the person for the job, but there is a lack of trust and confidence. This is not the way to do business. It is an embarrassment to the Government and a bad start to the new approach to transport. We should urge the Government to establish a committee in the House to vet those put forward to sit on State boards or to chair semi-State bodies.
Will the Leader invite the appropriate Minister to address the House on An Post? Recently, a delegation from the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service returned from a trip to New Zealand where we met with the Kiwibank, which is owned by New Zealand Post and is profitable after four years in operation. It is opening branches in parts of the country where the main banks have closed and it is giving new life to local communities. A state-owned body, it provides a fantastic service and people are switching accounts to it in their droves. In terms of the future of rural Ireland and its post offices, it would be a helpful for the House to debate the matter.
Mr. Ryan: Yesterday in Dublin, there was a meeting of representatives of people working in the health services other than doctors and nurses, namely, support staff, clerical staff, etc. Their simple demand was for the people who are paid to manage the health services to do so. Their complaint, which was articulated in a dozen ways, focused on one issue, that is, no one will take a decision or responsibility. This situation obtained before and after the HSE was set up. No amount of superficial gloss or expensive publicity will distract us from the fundamental problem of the health services, namely, those who call themselves managers are not allowed or are unwilling to manage. It is not the only problem.
Will the Leader arrange a debate on the quality of the health services’ management? We should ignore the doctors, consultants and nurses for a while. Let us hear the stories of those of us who, unlike myself, served on health boards and know about the quality of management in the health services.
I met a nurse who is doing her second masters degree. She told me of the list of qualifications for her job, whereas only a good level of education was required for a managerial position that was advertised. Technical people have specific requirements, but management people only need to talk their way into jobs, which is a problem. We should discuss the process through which managers are picked.
On the nurses’ grievances, while a newspaper headline stated that the Taoiseach said the claim would cost €1 billion, he stated that it would actually cost between €500 million and €1 billion. If ever I wanted a good example of the Government’s inability to cost anything, it is the fact that the margin of error is 100%. If this is the best the Government can do, it should not manage anything.
Mr. Leyden: Yesterday, the Irish Pharmaceutical Union lobbied Oireachtas Members. The IPU represents 1,600 community pharmacists who are concerned that the HSE will not enter into meaningful discussions with them. The HSE refuses to negotiate with the IPU, which represents all pharmacists throughout the country, but is prepared to negotiate with the Irish Medical Organisation and others. The health boards were willing to negotiate with the IPU, a reputable representative body, when we were among their members.
The IPU has raised concerns about the idea of linking pharmacies to medical practices. As the buildings in which practices are housed are owned by doctors, they would get preferential treatment as far as the dispensing of medicines is concerned. They would have a vested interest in ensuring that high-cost medicine would be used instead of generic medicine, which is cheaper. They would have no reason to reduce the amount of drugs dispensed, as the dispensary owned by the medical practice would get the benefit. Serious issues must be examined and the Bill should tackle the situation.
That we are proud to be members of a Government party does not mean we can turn a blind eye to, for example, the transport of elderly persons to their medical appointments. I know of an ophthalmic case involving an 80 year old woman. Her file was examined in Castlebar rather than Roscommon to assess whether she should receive transport to meet an ophthalmic surgeon next Tuesday in Galway. Why will the surgeon not go to Roscommon to meet clients?
Mr. Leyden: As the files must be moved from Roscommon to Castlebar, it will cost more to assess and process the woman’s claim than it would to provide her with transport to Galway next Tuesday. Why will the HSE not arrange for the health professional to hold a clinic in Roscommon to avoid my client driving to Galway to meet the specialist? It would be a worthwhile debate.
Mr. Coonan: Regarding transport, I am seeking a debate on rural services. We have heard much about transport in respect of rural pubs, but services such as communication must be included in the debate. For example, An Post is pulling out of Roscrea, a large provincial town in the heart of rural Ireland. It cannot manage its business profitably and it pulls out. The same is happening with broadband, which is not freely available in rural areas. The few remaining people who have businesses in rural Ireland cannot accept payment using a card because of the inadequacy of the telephone lines. This is the situation after ten years of delivery of services by this Government — there are no pubs, shops, Garda stations or communications in many areas.
Mr. Glynn: There should be a debate on health services. Listening to the other side of the House, one would swear on a mass book that the Minister for Health and Children was responsible for the laundry.
Mr. Glynn: Senator Leyden referred to medicines. A sub-committee of the Joint Committee on Health and Children has almost completed a report on the adverse effects of pharmaceuticals which will make for an interesting debate. All Members of this House should call for legislation to curb the availability of drugs on-line. This has serious implications for public health and we should be as one to ensure this practice is stopped.
Mr. Ross: I agree with the remarks by Senator O’Toole and Senator Coonan about the appointment to the RPA. It is strange that someone is good enough for the RPA but not good enough for Aer Lingus. There is an inconsistency that I cannot understand and it should be explained to us. We are entitled to accountability on appointments of this sort and we are not getting it.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business. I share the concerns expressed on all sides of the House about the health service. Specifically, I cannot understand the reluctance to discuss the very delicate and sensitive nurses’ claim. The nurses should be conceded this claim, 10% or not, because they deserve it for good and humane reasons and because the market will demand the claim be conceded sooner or later.
It is unconvincing for people to say we cannot grant it because the nurses must be trapped within social partnership. The nurses’ claim is one of the great arguments against social partnership. They cannot be given the 10% they deserve because everyone is terrified of other groups making similar claims. That is one of the major flaws in social partnership. When people deserve a large claim like this, they will not be given it by the Government because it is frightened of breaching the silly rules it made itself.
Mr. Coghlan: When will we know if risk equalisation will continue? Legal advice is being sought and we must await it. As a result of the withdrawal by BUPA Ireland, however, and the purchase of its share of the market by the Quinn group, something to be welcomed in one respect, will a situation arise where many more insurers will be allowed to enter the health market and cherry pick? The situation must be stabilised as a matter of urgency. Those who take out health insurance must pay for it and we must show concern for the patients.
Pharmacists were mentioned this morning. The Minister for Health and Children stated that she accepted the view of the pharmacy review group that no beneficial relationship or business interest of any kind should exist between dispensing and prescribing. This arose in regard to group practices and adjacent pharmacies. Is that still the Government position? It is happening in more and more places and it could be a dangerous practice that is detrimental to the vibrancy and vitality of the hearts or many of our towns.
Mr. Norris: I second Senator Ross’s amendment. I point out to Senator O’Toole that there is indeed a nursing degree in Trinity College and an extremely good degree it is too. We should not apologise for that, it is yet another contribution the University of Dublin makes to the life of this country.
We, however, do not always make a good contribution to the debate on health. The Government side lectures us for always attacking the Minister for Health and Children. I have not done that and we should not be tarred en bloc. Yesterday I went to the briefing by the HSE in this complex and it was one of the most refreshing, honest, clear and professional briefing sessions I have ever attended. The HSE members were uniformly excellent, with Deputies from all parties and areas asking about their hospitals and patient treatment and they were given immediate, clear answers.
I disagree strongly with Senator Finucane. We do no service raising these items culled from newspapers that are ill-informed and plainly inaccurate. The question of this scanner was raised at that HSE meeting and the response given was that a sophisticated machine has been acquired, it is on target in terms of delivery and it is being stored for safety awaiting the proper technical adjustment which is required.
Mr. Norris: The HSE staff said this article demoralises people in the hospital and the person from Fine Gael accepted the answer to that question. If the Senator had been there, he could have asked a supplementary question about it.
Mr. Norris: I also agree with my colleagues on this side of the House about the appointment to the Rail Procurement Agency. We have not been well served in this instance. In appointing a national procurer, we should be entitled to a broader consideration of the available talent. Why go for the obvious financial bozos who seem to be slick in this area rather than somebody like Mr. Cormac Rabbitte, who knows what he is talking about and who developed the Dargan project? I introduced Mr. Rabbitte to the Leader while she was Minister and we also met Professor Melis from Madrid, who showed us how projects could be implemented. Senator Morrissey is another of the leading people in this area. Let us appoint somebody who knows what they are talking about rather than a fat cat from the inner circle.
Could we invite the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs before the House to explain the rapid response corps? It may be a worthy initiative but I am somewhat concerned that we are spending €5 million of taxpayers’ money on recruiting for the UN. Irish agencies such as Concern and GOAL already work in the same area and I would hate to think they are to be undercut. Let us put these concerns to the Minister of State.
Mr. Hanafin: I ask the Leader to try to arrange a debate on rural transport. Elsewhere in Europe, people in rural areas live in villages to which farmers return in the evening. Ireland, however, has a unique rural settlement pattern of scattered housing in remote areas. It would be constructive to license people to provide a rural transport service so that people can go to villages for sports and religious events, as well as to visit the pub. Such a service would be very useful for communities because Ireland has changed in recent years and the fact that people cannot take more than two drinks before driving has had a significant effect. The ban on smoking in pubs has also had an impact. Transport is necessary not only for public houses but also for other places of social interaction. In addition, major drinks companies might consider low alcohol alternatives to popular drinks such as Guinness and Heineken for people who want to drink two pints and still be able to drive home safely.
Mr. J. Phelan: I find it reprehensible in a country which is awash with money that the people of Dundalk had to collect €400,000 to purchase a CAT scanner. Unfortunately, it is not unusual for hospital voluntary groups to be forced to raise vast sums of money to purchase essential equipment——
Mr. J. Phelan: I would not be crowing about that because I was led to believe we are living in the richest country in Europe. The Government is quick to point out that we are spending four times more money on health services than we spent ten years ago, yet the people in Dundalk still have to go around with buckets to raise money for a CAT scanner.
Mr. J. Phelan: Will the Leader arrange to have the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources attend the House as soon as possible to outline the initiatives he proposes as a replacement for the rural broadband scheme he scrapped two weeks ago? In the past two years, I have repeatedly raised the lack of broadband availability in rural areas. Two weeks ago, a business person from my area contacted an official in the Department only to find the latter was not aware the scheme had been scrapped the previous day by the Minister. Small businesses face real dangers in many parts of rural Ireland if they cannot access broadband.
Problems continue to arise in local authority housing with regard to provisions for people with disabilities. That issue should be considered in the context of Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000 because, while we are providing units for social and affordable reasons, many are not fully accessible for people with disabilities. It would be useful if more units were accessible because many of those who have spent the longest time on housing waiting lists suffer from disabilities.
Mr. Quinn: Last night, we had a constructive debate on the national development plan. However, this morning the chairman of the National Competitiveness Council warned that policies on energy security are key to the longer term growth of the economy. I am unsure of the Government’s policy on biofuels but I understand people who have invested in cars which can use biofuels have great difficulties finding places to fill their tanks. In Brazil, I understand every petrol station supplies biofuels in addition to petrol because that country’s Government recognises the need for alternative energy resources. We should encourage our Government to take a similar approach by means of a debate in this House on the National Competitiveness Council.
I support Senator Ross’s call for a debate on the nurses’ claim but for different reasons. The Senator is incorrect when he claims nurses are being turned down because of fears that the partnership agreement could be damaged. A system has been established in the partnership process for benchmarking and, while the Senator may not necessarily agree with that system, we should debate the matter.
I have difficulties with Senator O’Toole’s call for the Seanad to vet future appointments to boards. It is not always easy to find the best person for such jobs and board members and directors already have enough responsibilities without having to face the scrutiny of the Seanad or any other Oireachtas committee. It is likely that we would end up with an unsuitable second best candidate rather than the best person for the job.
Ms O’Rourke: Senator Finucane spoke about the HSE, which he said was originally heralded as a new dawn, and outlined areas of turbulence within the health services. However, turbulence is the stuff of life because the idea that one can wake up every morning and know that everything is correct is nonsense. Life consists of ups and downs and the health services employ and treat a huge number of people. We never hear the many good stories which could be told about health services. People ask us to tell their stories to the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, who I do not follow around the corridors. I acknowledge the issues raised by Senator Finucane but the nurses’ issues will be addressed.  They were discussed at our parliamentary party meeting because we have free speech.
Ms O’Rourke: It got a great hearing. I speak from personal experience. When I was Minister for Public Enterprise there were times when the first five items on the agenda related to that Department. My attitude was that was life and we had to tackle those items. It is not the case that everything is rosy and that everybody is basking in contentment about the health service and its staff.
Senator O’Toole did not mention the person of whom he was speaking, but we all know of whom he was speaking. During my time as Minister, that same person was appointed to the chair of Aer Lingus and he — not Willie Walsh — saved the airline. The Senators may not like it.
Ms O’Rourke: I am coming to that point. I wish to state that while the plaudits went to Mr. Walsh, the person who guided it, thought it through and implemented it was this person. I made inquiries before coming to the House and established that he is now tax compliant. The Senator rightly pointed out that our report recommended having people scrutinised by a committee. However, that recommendation has not been implemented. The person is very admirable. The Senator also spoke about An Post and what he ascertained about Kiwibank while in New Zealand. Was it set up by the postal authority?
Ms O’Rourke: I did not know that. I understand it is a huge success. I heard a representative of An Post state it did not want any bank business and I do not know where the matter lies. Perhaps that is not the official position of An Post.
Senator Ryan spoke about the HSE support staff — as opposed to its technical staff — who have a job to do and who may have gripes. The general support staff appear to want a transparent and efficient quality of management in the health service, which is a very small request on the part of technical staff who are asked to implement decisions. The Senator stated that the Taoiseach had mentioned a figure between €500 million and €1 billion. However, there were two issues. The retrospective claim going back over four years comes to €500 million and the current claim comes to another €500 million. We discussed the matter fully at our parliamentary party meeting, which is why I know about it.
Ms O’Rourke: The Senator spoke about transport for an elderly patient. Perhaps the Senator would like to raise the case as a matter on the Adjournment, which is a very good mechanism for addressing such a specific case.
Ms O’Rourke: Senator Coonan spoke about rural services, transport, communications, An Post and broadband. Next week the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, will come to the House to deal with the Communications Regulation (Amendment) Bill, which will strengthen the powers of the regulator in dealing with the tardy response of Eircom. I hope the Senator will be here for the debate.
Ms O’Rourke: Senator Glynn called for a debate on the health service. He rightly said it is not the job of the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, to open cardboard boxes, put equipment together and clean the linen. One would think she had to cook the dinner.
Ms O’Rourke: It would be interesting to know whether that is also the view of the major party of Opposition — we shall see. He called for an amendment to the Order of Business to discuss the nurses’ claim, which was seconded by other Independent Senators.
Senator Coghlan felt his party’s acting leader was being very apt today and he wants the reply on risk equalisation. The legal position has been sought and a response is awaited. He also asked about the pharmacies. The pharmacy (No. 1) Bill will be coming to this House.
Senator Norris said that yesterday he attended an excellent briefing by the HSE, at which people got answers. The issue of the equipment in the Louth County Hospital in Dundalk was raised and a proper reply was given. The hospital is awaiting the technical know-how to assemble the equipment which needs to be professionally done. He also asked why Cormac Rabbitte was not appointed head of the Railway Procurement Agency. He is a very fine person. I wish to pay tribute to the outgoing chairman of the Railway Procurement Agency, an excellent person, who is not unknown in this Chamber. He also asked for the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs to come to the House to speak about the rapid response corps.
Senator Hanafin spoke about rural transport. If I may say so, the rural transport initiative was launched by me. It was piloted in 32 areas and is now at full scale. The Senator requested a full debate on it. He also believes there should be low-alcohol alternatives to full-alcohol drinks. Senator John Paul Phelan spoke about fund raising in Dundalk for the CT scanner. Those people decided to do that.
Ms O’Rourke: The Senator seems to be denying people free speech or free action. They want to do it. Many people like to do those kinds of things. The Senator also spoke about the rural broadband scheme. The Minister will be here next week to take the Communications Regulation (Amendment) Bill, which will represent a very useful opportunity for the Senator. I was puzzled by what he said about local authority houses not being fully accessible for people with disabilities. The building regulations, which have been in force for some time, make it mandatory for any house — local authority or private — to meet specific requirements.
Ms O’Rourke: Senator Quinn spoke about the National Competitiveness Council and our long-term energy needs. I understand the Minister has introduced biofuel subsidies. The Senator claimed that in Brazil biofuel can be purchased on the forecourt of a petrol station.
|Bradford, Paul.||Burke, Paddy.|
|Burke, Ulick.||Coghlan, Paul.|
|Coonan, Noel.||Cummins, Maurice.|
|Feighan, Frank.||Finucane, Michael.|
|Hayes, Brian.||Henry, Mary.|
|McDowell, Derek.||Norris, David.|
|O’Meara, Kathleen.||O’Toole, Joe.|
|Phelan, John.||Quinn, Feargal.|
|Ross, Shane.||Ryan, Brendan.|
|Brennan, Michael.||Cox, Margaret.|
|Dardis, John.||Dooley, Timmy.|
|Feeney, Geraldine.||Fitzgerald, Liam.|
|Glynn, Camillus.||Hanafin, John.|
|Kett, Tony.||Kitt, Michael P.|
|Leyden, Terry.||Lydon, Donal J.|
|Mansergh, Martin.||Mooney, Paschal C.|
|Morrissey, Tom.||Moylan, Pat.|
|Ó Murchú, Labhrás.||O’Brien, Francis.|
|O’Rourke, Mary.||Ormonde, Ann.|
|Phelan, Kieran.||Scanlon, Eamon.|
|Walsh, Jim.||White, Mary M.|
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