I remind Members that aspects of this matter aresub judice. The case concerning this matter is due to be heard next Tuesday in the High Court and the State is one of the defendants. Under the revised and relaxed application of the sub judice rule adopted by the House on 8 April 1993, when permission to raise a matter has been granted there continues to be an onus on Members to avoid, if at all possible, comment which might in effect prejudice the outcome of proceedings. I ask Members to bear this in mind when making their contributions.
Hepatitis C Legal Action: Statements.
Limerick East): I express my sincere condolences to the family of Mrs. Bridget Ellen McCole on their tragic loss. I know it is a very difficult time for them. I will put the facts before the Dáil in a manner which will not add to their grief.
I have been asked to make a statement on the admission of liability by the BTSB in the legal case. I understand a joint statement was agreed yesterday by the solicitors for the late Mrs. McCole and the solicitors for the BTSB. I take this opportunity to put this statement on the record of the House. It is as follows:
There have been significant developments in this case over the past few days. In view of the tragic circumstances that have arisen, there will be an announcement in the High Court on 8 October 1996.
As the House will appreciate, there are three separate and distinct defendants in this case, namely, the BTSB, the NDAB and the State, each defendant having separate legal representation. The BTSB, on the advice of its legal advisers, admitted liability in this case on 20 September 1996.
On 15 May last, on the advice of its lawyers, the BTSB made a lodgment into court in accordance with Order 22 Rule (1) of the rules of the superior courts. It was open to the lawyers for the plaintiff to advise the plaintiff to accept this lodgment at that time. The lodgment was not accepted.
I understand the BTSB since April was involved in an extensive review of the facts of its cases which go back over 25 years. The various allegations made in the proceedings were put to such witnesses as were available to give evidence, bearing in mind that many potential witnesses are very elderly. On consideration of the outcome of this extensive and time consuming review and, following legal advice, the BTSB decided to admit liability in this case. I understand this admission of liability was conveyed by letter of Friday, 20 September, by the solicitors for the BTSB to the solicitors for the plaintiff. I understand also that the BTSB in that letter expressed its unreserved apology to Mrs. McCole for all she had suffered as a result of its negligence. It was also conveyed in this correspondence that full compensation would be paid and party and party costs in respect of her personal injuries, loss and damage together with the party and party costs of the other defendants, if any.
On Thursday, 26 September, I understand the solicitors for the BTSB again wrote to the solicitors for the plaintiff. This correspondence highlighted the tribunal option open to the plaintiff and indicated that the BTSB would facilitate the plaintiff in availing of this tribunal option if she wished to do so or felt that the tribunal's power to make provisional awards best met her requirements given her changing medical condition at that time. The solicitors for the BTSB further indicated they would agree to an adjournment of the court case should the plaintiff choose the tribunal option. The tribunal option and the offer to adjourn the case were rejected by the plaintiff's solicitors in a letter of Friday, 27 September.
I understand that following the sudden and serious deterioration in Mrs. McCole's health in the afternoon of Monday last, 30 September, settlement talks were initiated by Mrs. McCole's legal advisers with the legal advisers to the BTSB. These negotiations culminated in a settlement being reached in the afternoon of Tuesday last.
Because of the media comment today, some of which is not factual I feel I should give some indication of the outcome of these negotiations. The amount of the settlement quoted in the media is inaccurate. I understand that the compensation agreed for Mrs. McCole is in the mid range of awards made by the compensation tribunal and accepted by claimants to date. I understand also that the amount agreed, £175,000, is exactly the amount of the lodgment paid into court in May last which could have been accepted at that time. In addition, I understand that the plaintiff has agreed strike out proceedings against the NDAB and the State parties, namely, the Minister for Health, Ireland and the Attorney General. It has been agreed that the BTSB will be responsible for the legal costs of all parties involved. I understand also that the BTSB, on its behalf and on behalf of its staff, will make a public apology to Mrs. McCole's family for the suffering and distress caused to her through its fault.
Concern has been expressed by some of the representative groups that the compensation tribunal would cease to operate. There is no reason the tribunal should not continue its work and continue to hear cases. The tribunal has been operating smoothly, effectively and fairly and I have no reason to believe this will not continue to be the case in the future.
The tribunal scheme provides that the Minister for Health, if he considers it appropriate, may amend the scheme, but no such amendment shall operate to remove, restrict or diminish in any way rights or benefits conferred on persons entitled to claim under the scheme in its unamended form. As I have already stated in the House on numerous occasions, if I have evidence and I am convinced that the workings of the tribunal are not serving the very best interests of the claimants or if in my opinion such amendment would improve the scheme, I will use my powers under the scheme to ensure that the tribunal is at all times meeting the needs of persons infected with hepatitis C.
Apart from the compensation issue, there is also the question of health care services for victims of this tragedy. The House will be aware that I have agreed a comprehensive health care package with the various representative organisations. On 23 September 1996 the Health (Amendment) Act, 1996 came into effect. Deputies are aware of the terms of the Act and the services it will provide in respect of GP care, medicines and appliances, dental care, nursing and home help, optical and aural care and counselling.
As I informed the House last Thursday, health boards have appointed a liaison officer in each health board area to ensure the smooth operation of the delivery of services under the Act, to act as contact point for individuals and with the various interest groups whose members will avail of services under the Act. Lest there be any doubt about the matter, I confirm that whatever resources are required to implement the Act fully will be provided by the Government. These new primary care services are, of course, in addition to the special hospital in-patient and out-patient services established and developed in the past two years. A sum of £2 million was provided for these services this year.
There are two other remaining elements in the health care package to which I would like to refer. I have agreed to establish a statutory consulative council on hepatitis C. My Department has consulted with the representative organisations on the contents of a draft establishment order. A further draft of the order was sent to the representative organisations in recent weeks for their views. This new draft takes account of the earlier views of the organisations. As soon as I have received their responses to the latest draft of the establishment order I will be setting up the consultative council.
The final element of the health care package involves the establishment and funding of a special programme of research on hepatitis C under the aegis of the Health Research Board. This programme will include research projects into hepatitis C as it relates to persons infected through the use of anti-D. I have allocated £100,000 for this year in respect of suitable projects. I understand there has been a good response to the Health Research Board's public advertisement for research proposals and a decision on projects to be funded will be taken by the board in the near future.
In the light of the events of recent days, I will reflect with my colleagues in Government on all matters relating to the hepatitis C issue. If there is any action which I believe would be in the best interests of all those affected by this tragedy, I will not hesitate to act.
On my own behalf, and on behalf of my party, I express sincere condolences to the McCole family on the tremendous tragedy which has befallen them. I hope this debate does not add to their tragedy.
This is the fourteenth time in eight months we have raised this matter. We asked for four things, the truth, a statutory tribunal, an admission of liability and negligence and a public apology. The lawyers for this individual were refused an early date for hearing, an application based almost exclusively on the state of the woman's health and the prognosis. The State showed a lack of compassion and challenged her case at every turn. Her case had become virtually the only judicial inquiry into the whole mess surrounding hepatitis C. I do not believe any of us could imagine the pressure this brought to bear on Mrs. McCole.
The Government began its term with a promise to pay fair compensation to the women infected with hepatitis C through contaminated anti-D. That was laudable and honourable, but no more than one would expect given the circumstances surrounding this awful tragedy. The negligence of a State board in the manufacture of a blood product led to its becoming contaminated. This was a product designed to save lives, but because of gross contamination it has ruined the lives of victims and left them with a potentially fatal illness for which there is no effective cure. The reality for the victims is very different from those paper aspirations.
What the victims have before them is anad hoc tribunal founded firmly on a Government agenda to shut the door on the problem and to pay out money quickly in the hope that it will go away. This Government is forgetting the simple equation that the problem will not go away because hepatitis C will not go away. In December 1994 the Government used the word “fair” in the context of this issue. The word “fair” implies that people are treated with respect and dignity. It implies that one should try to address expressed needs. Fair means just treatment. However, the treatment meted out to the hepatitis C victims has been anything but fair and just. It has been marked by a callous insensitivity towards their rights and views. They are faced with a rigid Government agenda which denies them their basic rights and the truth.
It was interesting to hear the Minister state that steps were taken as far back as 1 May to settle this case. Two of the dates he mentioned have a particular significance. He stated that the solicitors for the plaintiff were notified on 20 September of the admission of liability by the BTSB and that on 26 September, an even more significant date, the solicitors wrote to the plaintiff's solicitors. On 26 September I tabled a question to the Minister in the name of my colleague, Deputy Joe Walsh, which stated:
To ask the Minister for Health if he or any of the State agencies under the aegis of his Department have made approaches to settle the hepatitis C case which is due to come before the High Court on 8 October 1996; if he intends to offer an out-of-court settlement in the case; and if he will make a statement in the matter.
The Minister's reply stated:
The High Court case in question is fixed to commence on 8 October. It would be inappropriate for me to comment on any matter relating to these proceedings.
The Minister gave that information in the full knowledge that attempts had been made as far back as May to reach an out-of-court settlement in this matter and that a letter had been sent to the plaintiff's solicitors admitting liability and negligence in the case. We all know a tribunal was established in another case on foot of incomplete information given in this House.
We have not heard the truth on this matter from the Minister — as we discovered from that parliamentary question — from the Blood Transfusion Service Board or from any of the agents or agencies acting on behalf of the people involved in this case. On RTÉ radio this afternoon the Minister stated that the BTSB admitted liability and that he is glad it has done so. When did he reach the conclusion that he would be glad if the Blood Transfusion Service Board admitted liability? What did he mean by the term "...totally illogical, if the Blood Transfusion Service Board were not to admit liability in other cases that would come to court"? Is the Minister stating that the Blood Transfusion Service Board will admit liability only if victims bring their cases before the courts and that those who have taken the route he has pushed — the route of the tribunal — will not get an admission of liability from the Blood Transfusion Service Board? Where does that leave them?
Clause 8 of the tribunal expressly provides that no compensation will be made on a basis which reflects the principle of exemplary damages. This is surely an area in which the Minister has the power to amend the tribunal and where, on reflection with his colleagues in Government, he could amend it. Does he propose to do that and when?
What was discovered by the Blood Transfusion Service Board in the last three or four months which it did not already know? Obviously, that discovery, whatever it was, indicated it had no choice but to admit liability and negligence. Who were the people in the Blood Transfusion Service Board at the time who did not speak to Miriam Hederman-O'Brien? Where are they now and what has been done to get them to speak to somebody in the meantime?
I asked the Minister in July if he would reconvene the expert group because of the fact that this new file, information and docket had come to light. He told me it would not serve any useful purpose. Now it would appear he is prepared to do so when a victim has died. There were never any resignations sought from the Blood Transfusion Service Board. Why? I suggested in the House, and I was supported by Deputy O'Donnell, that the negligence in the Blood Transfusion Service Board bordered on criminal negligence. Both Deputy O'Donnell and I suggested that the Minister refer the file and the Miriam Hederman-O'Brien report to the Director of Public Prosecutions but he was not prepared to do that. Is he now prepared to send the file to the Director of Public Prosecutions?
I do not believe that at this stage there is any victim of hepatitis C who could have further confidence in the tribunal which the Minister set up. We have consistently said that we want this matter to be dealt with fairly and equitably. We want the truth for victims. That truth, it would appear, will only be found by more and more victims taking their case before the courts. The only way we can ever get to the bottom of this matter is by having a judicial inquiry into it, which we suggested at the beginning.
Now that the Blood Transfusion Service Board has accepted liability and admitted negligence, is the State also accepting liability and admitting negligence? I ask the Minister not to repeat to me what he said on the news today, that the Department of Health is one thing and the Blood Transfusion Service Board is another. It is an agency of his Department and it is paid for by the same taxpayer who pays for the Department of Health. Will the Minister please explain if the Department of Health and the State accept liability in this case?
I would like to express my sympathy to Mrs. McCole's family and to the other victims of this scandal watching developments carefully, as is their right. I want to dwell for a moment on a curious development on the news at 1 o'clock and in the House today when the Minister started to build a distancing vehicle between the State and the BTSB. This is a masterpiece of political fiction.
Never before in this House has there been an attempt by the Minister to distance himself as a defendant or to distance the State as a defendant. All the times he responded to questions and to the many debates in the House, he said he was constantly constrained in what he could tell the House by the fact that he was a defendant in these matters. I raised the question at the time — and I do so again today — that although the Minister is a defendant in this case and still sees himself as such, who is looking after the public interest when he is so constrained in what he can say to the House?
This débâcle has highlighted the impotence of Dáil Éireann as an inquiring body and as one which holds the Executive and its State agencies to account. This House has failed from the beginning to extract the truth. It is entitled to the truth in response to questions legitimately put in the public interest. Because the State was a defendant — and it seems it is still one — this House will not extract the truth. The truth in so far as we know it, the fact that the board has admitted liability, has only come out because of a court action. It highlights yet again how this House has no role and has been denied one in extracting the truth in public affairs.
After all the debates when Dáil Éireann sought to extract information from the Department and the Minister as to the extent of State liability, there was the constant distraction and statements by the Minister that he was constrained because he was a defendant. Now that the truth is out I do not accept that the Minister is attempting to distance himself and the State from the board.
This Government which came into office on the wreckage of an Administration which fell because of a lack of openness and accountability has used the same tactics in all the debates in the House in seeking to avoid the truth. We have not had openness; it has been replaced by brazenness in the House today. We have seen the creation of this fiction in which there is a difference between the board, which has admitted liability, and the State, which it seems has not accepted liability or negligence. That is fiction and nonsense. The board is the State; it is the State which pays and establishes it. The Minister appoints the board and it is the State which will pay the compensation. There is no difference.
The truth has come out. This deathbed conversion to liability on behalf of the State came about because Mrs. McCole was dying and she had to choose between getting nothing or making a settlement. It was only in those awful personal circumstances of that case that the State was forced to admit liability. I do not want to entertain the notion that the board is separate from the State.
The admission of liability by the board to all intents and purposes is an admission by the State of its negligence not only to Mrs. Cole, but to over 1,000 women and men infected with hepatitis C through contaminated products. The Minister may try to persist with this fiction but it would be a disgrace if that was to continue. It is fiction which nobody believes. The board is appointed by the Minister and it is a statutory body run and funded by the Department of Health; it has no private status. If, in commercial terms, the board had shares, the Minister would be the major shareholder.
The Department of Health and the Minister secured the resignation of its chief medical officer and chief executive and the Minister presided over the settlement package, the golden handshake, which I understand in one case was £250,000. Compare that to the settlement which Mrs. McCole received. What justice was there in that settlement? That was not an award for compensation; it was a settlement made by a desperate woman who faced that or a small amount of money. The State, in the form of the Minister, is politically responsible for the débâcle from the beginning. The Department set up the tribunal with a £60 million package for compensation. Now that there has been an admission of negligence, we can see that the tribunal was an elaborate damage limitation exercise.
As we went through the various debates the Minister took credit for trying to sort out this matter, which was a difficult one. However, the question must be asked: at what point was the Minister aware that the game was up, and the State was liable? When did he or his Department consult with the board regarding its decision to reverse its position on liability? Was that position known to him when he answered questions on 1 May last? Detailed questions were put to him and again he gave the excuse that because he was a defendant he was constrained in what he could tell the House. The House has an absolute right to answers to those questions. It has privilege for that reason. It has an inquiring role independent of the courts. When Ministers are asked questions, they must provide the answers even if they are defendants in court cases.
Why did the Minister persist with a preference for the tribunal? I believe that route was preferred by the Government because it was a damage limitation exercise. It skirted the crucial issue of liability, it did not deal with it and it was not an inquiring body. The tribunal was a mechanism for paying out compensation to the women as a class or a group. The enormity of this scandal has not been grasped because the women were treated as a group and it is only when the tragic cases of individual women and their families come to court that the issue will be very painful politically. During each court case the individual tragedies will be disclosed to the open court. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Government preferred the tribunal. It was neat, quick and less politically embarrassing. With each tragic case, such as Mrs. McCole's, that went to court, the BTSB would be faced with the ultimate shame of being found liable for negligence and because Mrs. McCole died tragically, it had to admit liability.
From start to finish this case has been handled very badly. The admission of liability by the board must reflect back on how the golden handshakes were negotiated. It must have some implication regarding the settlements and pension packages agreed at that time because the admission of liability retrospectively colours everything that has gone before — it colours the tribunal.
During the lifetime of the Government, were the Minister or his Department officials party to the decision by the BTSB to contest liability in the hepatitis C compensation cases? Was he or any of his officials party to negotiations when the BTSB decided to reverse its position and admit liability? When did those negotiations take place and was the Minister kept informed of them?
(Limerick East): If it is agreeable, I will reply to the series of questions put and I will then answer any other questions Deputies may wish to raise.
Those questions are related.
(Limerick East): Particcularly those raised by Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn.
That is agreeable.
(Limerick East): The first question implied that Mrs. McCole was refused an early hearing date. That is not the position. The State opposed an early hearing, but the court decided in favour of Mrs. McCole and she was given an early hearing date. The precise request of her legal team was for a June date but the court, for reasons best known to itself, decided that October would be an appropriate date. In the normal course of the listing of cases, the case would not have come up for a considerable time, maybe 18 months or more but those matters are hard to predict.
Why did the State oppose an early hearing date?
(Limerick East): I am answering questions and I will answer those that may be put by the Deputy, but Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn is very well informed about these matters and I want to deal with her questions first.
The parliamentary question tabled in the name of Deputy Joe Walsh was answered by written reply because we did not reach it that day.
That makes no difference.
(Limerick East): The Deputy should let me answer her questions. The charge being indirectly laid here is that I misled the House. I did not mislead it. The answer to the question states that because the court case was coming up I could not give the information requested. I did not mislead the House in any way, but I could not give the information requested because I was legally advised that it would be improper if I revealed any information as to the negotiations that were taking place between the BTSB's legal team and the plaintiff's legal team. If the court case, the hearing for which was set two weeks after that question had been filed, had proceeded, the issue of the admission of liability would have arisen during its initial stages. It was not up to me to make that information public.
Everybody is very forthright today in talking about the accountability of the Minister, but it is not only Dáil Éireann that is involved in this. There is a constitutional principle, that of the separation of powers, and under it matters appropriate for the court are matters for the court. I was advised that if I had given the information requested, I would have crossed that line. I did not mislead the House and if Deputies read the answer to that question they would note that I said I was unable to give the information requested because the case was coming up in court. I did not mislead the House in any way at any time on this matter. Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn mentioned the number of times we debated this matter and I have been as forthcoming as possible on this and I will give all the information I can on it, but there is a separation of powers and there are issues that are proper to the courts.
Regarding the reference to today's interview when I said it would be totally illogical for the BTSB not to admit liability, what was before the courts and agreed by settlement was an individual woman's case for personal damages, which would be analogous to any personal damages case. The admission of liability is strictly in respect of Mrs. McCole's case. I was making the point that regarding other cases filed in court and at various stages of preparation, it would be totally illogical for the BTSB to admit liability in Mrs. McCole's case and not to admit it in all subsequent cases that arose from the same series of events. It is up to the BTSB to clarify the position, but I cannot see how it would refuse to admit liability in any subsequent case.
On the principle of exemplary damages, as Deputies are aware, a number of issues were before the courts. There were cases against three defendants who were separately represented in respect of whether they were negligent, including the BTSB because it runs the blood transfusion service, the Department of Health because it has a supervisory role and the National Drugs Advisory Board because it is responsible for licensing products and medicines. In their distinct ways they all had a role. I have been legally advised that the Department of Health does not have a liability because it acted properly and that is the advice I am following. The BTSB had a different role and it had to make up its mind. One issue is that three defendants were being sued for damages before the High Court. Another is that Mrs. McCole claimed exemplary and aggravated expenses as well as what I would describe as the normal damages that are claimed in a court case. Under the settlement while the BTSB accepted liability, it did not accept liability for exemplary or aggravated damages and another case may be brought to court on that basis.
There was a discovery of documents in the course of the case. At one stage I was informed that 5,000 documents were requested and the discovery process proceeded for a considerable time as it was necessary to carry out a full and thorough search to make sure that all relevant documents were available. This matter has been raised in the House before. While Dr. Miriam Hederman-O'Brien did not see new documents that came to light, she and I are of the view that they did not add to the totality of the evidence. Perhaps they did add to it but that was a matter to be tested in court. That body of documents is still the relevant core of evidence for any subsequent case which comes to court.
I was asked whether I will reconvene the expert group. I will think about it. It would be very easy for me today, in the shadow of the great tragedy which has befallen Mrs. McCole and her family, to say I will do this. I will consider it if I think there would be merit in it and it would help the other victims.
On the issue of the Director of Public Prosecutions and criminal negligence, I understand that Positive Action referred the file to the Director of Public Prosecutions and some Deputies also referred the report by Miriam Hederman-O'Brien to the Director of Public Prosecutions. I further understand they were told it was not a matter for the Director of Public Prosecutions. I do not know of any statute law which refers to criminal negligence. There is a common law offence of criminal negligence. The test of proof in such cases is "beyond reasonable doubt". If the Director of Public Prosecutions wants to examine the situation further I have no problem with that. However, the Director of Public Prosecutions decides who is prosecuted in this State rather than the Minister for Health.
The State does not admit liability because my legal advice is that the State is not liable. The roles were distinct. The Department of Health, the Attorney General and Ireland — we are talking directly about the Department of Health — has a supervisory role over the BTSB. It is not true to say, as Deputy O'Donnell maintained, that we are inventing some kind of fiction. It was quite clear every time I spoke in the House that there are different defendants all represented by different legal teams. The different defendants are being sued for negligence in exercising their different functions.
I was aware of an exchange of letters between the BTSB and the legal team of Mrs. McCole. I was told in advance that the legal advice of the BTSB, after it had reviewed its position, was to admit liability. I was not asked for my permission or to make a policy decision. Whether Deputies like it, the BTSB is a separate legal entity. It is run by a board which makes its decisions in accordance with the legal advice it receives. It would be totally improper of me to give a direction on the matter. It can be politically inconvenient for me if such boards act in a particular way but I cannot direct them, especially on matters such as this where it is crystal clear there are separate defendants before the courts.
The issue of a judicial inquiry was raised again by Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn who asked why we do not set up a judicial inquiry to get to the bottom of the matter. I sat in this House when people shouted for a judicial inquiry to get to the bottom of the beef scandal. After £35 million of legal fees, did we get to the bottom of that matter? I suggest we are much further down the road in respect of this issue.
I am not distancing myself from the BTSB. I am saying there are separate defendants with separate identities and separate responsibilities. In terms of negligence, if the Department of Health was proved to be negligent it would be in respect of its statutory role, which is, in general terms, a supervisory one. If the National Drugs Advisory Board was deemed or proved to be negligent it would be in respect of its role, which is a licensing one. The body directly involved is the BTSB which, after it reviewed the case and on legal advice, reviewed its position.
Deputy O'Donnell asked whether I was a party to the decisions by the BTSB on what course it would follow in the first instance. I was not but I was informed of what it intended to do. I was asked if I was a party to the decision to change its position, admit liability and advance an apology. I was made aware of its position but I was not a party to that decision and neither were my officials. The roles were kept separate.
There is a general implication that I should have come into the House at any time. There is an implicit accusation that when the lodgment was made last May I concealed that information from the House. The lodgment was made under Order 22, Rule (1), of the rules of the superior courts. If Members check that in the Library they will find one of the rules is that it is so confidential that it is not even to be mentioned to the judge. It is to be communicated between the legal team of the plaintiff and that of the BTSB in this instance. Anybody who mentioned it inside or outside the House would be deemed to be in contempt of court. The courts take a very rigid view of that. When there was speculation in the newspapers about a lodgment, the Chief State Solicitor wrote to the proprietors of the newspapers pointing out that fact.
I can only operate within the rules. While this House is entitled to the fullest possible information, there are matters which are proper to the courts. I can go right up to the line but I cannot cross it. I could not have announced the terms of the lodgment in the House because of the rules of the superior courts. In the same way, it would not have been proper of me, within two weeks of a High Court trial, to announce in the House that there was an exchange of letters between solicitors which would involve an admission of liability and an apology.
The theory is being canvassed by Deputy O'Donnell that the only reason there was a settlement on a particular night was because people were informed that Mrs. McCole would not survive very long. If the people involved in the negotiations were of that frame of mind, they need not have admitted liability at all or made any apology. The theory is that it was forced to the line and once poor Mrs. McCole passed away nobody would have any further liability, except for nugatory amounts — we all know that once a person dies very little money is paid. However, before the very serious deterioration in Mrs. McCole's health, the BTSB had communicated it was prepared to admit liability and apologise. It was not the coming to light of any medical information which suggested Mrs. McCole would die before the High Court case which triggered events. It might have triggered the monetary settlement at the end but it did not trigger the admission of liability made on 20 September.
I thank the Minister for confirming that when he answered the parliamentary question on 26 September last he had in his possession information which he did not give to the House. Is the Minister aware that the reason the court decided not to give the victim the early hearing date was because the Blood Transfusion Service Board said it would not be ready to defend its action until October? It is ridiculous for the Minister to say the court made the decision and nobody else suggested the date of October.
The Minister said it would be totally illogical if the Blood Transfusion Service Board was not to admit liability in other cases before the court. Is it logical for it not to admit liability in the case of all the other victims who will go before the tribunal? If it is right in one set of circumstances to admit liability, how can the Minister allow the other victims who were infected in the same way by the same State agency to go before a tribunal without the agency admitting liability? How can the Minister defend that?
In relation to the discovery of the famous file, on 1 May last the Minister indicated to the House that, despite the file having been found a number of weeks earlier, neither he nor his Minister of State actually saw the file. In the midst of a huge scandal, at a time when the Minister had to come before this House and answer parliamentary questions, he had not asked even once for the file. Has the Minister since asked for it and has he seen it?
(Limerick East): Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn refers again to the question in the name of Deputy Joe Walsh to which I replied in writing. I did not conceal any information whatsoever from the House. Because a matter was coming before the courts, I was not in a position to give information; in effect, that was the answer. It is not that I would not give information but rather that I could not give information.
On the logic of the admission of liability, if there were no tribunal and we were talking about something like the Stardust tragedy in respect of which I was instrumental with the then Attorney General, John Rogers, in establishing the tribunal, their cases had been in the courts, totally tangled up for four or five years and people could not obtain compensation. In circumstances like that, what would happen is that different plaintiffs would enter into discussions with the representatives of the BTSB and, because there was an admission of liability, the argument would be about the settlement figure, about the quantum of damages.
We have in the tribunal a ready-made scheme working very well measuring the quantum of damages. It seems it will be possible for the tribunal to continue to measure the quantum of damages and the BTSB to apply what it has done in the case of Mrs. McCole to the other plaintiffs, some of whom are going through the courts and others through the tribunal. That is a view I am giving. I have had no discussions about this matter, but it would be very peculiar if the admission of liability did not apply to other plaintiffs as well, even if they were going through the tribunal. I do not know what mechanism can be put in place to organise that.
I should like to remind the House once more that the events about which we are talking and the infection of poor Mrs. McCole occurred in 1976, 20 years ago. The other significant date in the whole saga for anybody who is familiar with it is 1991. It was the Deputies in Opposition who were in Government at that time, so they should not get into a political blame game. This has been going on for 20 years and every party in this House has been in Government over that time. Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats were in coalition in 1991.
Is the Minister suggesting that we knew about it? He knew about it but we did not.
(Limerick East): No more than myself had they any culpability.
The Minister knew about it but we did not.
(Limerick East): I would like the same rules to apply to me as I applied to Deputies opposite. They knew absolutely nothing about it, their hands are totally clean on these issues. They did not know and could not have known, but I would like them to have the decency to apply the same rules to me and not be running political agendas at me——
Did the Minister see the file since?
(Limerick East):——when we are working out as carefully as we can a strategy to deal with very difficult circumstances.
(Limerick East): What is proper for the court case is not proper for the Minister. Now that there will not be a court case in the case of Mrs. McCole, I will reflect on whether Miriam Hederman-O'Brien might be asked to revisit the subject. I have had no contact with her whatsoever.
(Limerick East): As Minister, it would not be appropriate for me to refer to the documents discovered by court order and conduct some kind of separate search through them when, in effect, all this was the corps of evidence which was being put before the court in circumstances in which I was a defendant in the matter.
(Limerick East): I have already answered that question.
When was the Minister made aware that the BTSB had been negligent? When was he informed it was going to change its defence and admit to negligence? When was he made aware of that fact?
Will the Minister confirm the total value of all compensation and severance payments made to officials of the BTSB arising out of the hepatitis C scandal, plus the pension package? By which Department were those severance payments made? Was it the Department of Health or the independent BTSB board?
(Limerick East): The effective date on the communication between the solicitors for the BTSB and those for Mrs. McCole was 20 September — I understand that was a Friday. I was made aware of the position earlier that week and informed my colleagues in Government at the first available opportunity, at the next Cabinet meeting, as any prudent Minister would do in changing circumstances.
So members of the Cabinet all agreed with the BTSB.
(Limerick East): I informed the Cabinet. It was not a question of agreeing. The BTSB was a separate defendant, had separate legal identity and got legal advice. Is the Deputy saying I should have gone to the BTSB without any statutory authority and told it not to admit liability?
The Minister and his Government in power were all party to the decision.
(Limerick East): No, we were not a party to the decision. I have explained several times that I was not a party to the decision. I am surprised, because there are many women listening to this debate who are extremely worried——
They are, and rightly so.
(Limerick East): I believe the Deputy's concern to score politically is now overcoming her desire to be helpful in the interests of those women.
A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, just one question——
I am sorry, Deputy. The order of the House must be upheld. That concludes statements on the hepatitis C legal action.